Freeing the Icebergs


‘By now it should be clear that decades of excusing and accommodating tyranny in the pursuit of stability have only lead to injustice and instability and tragedy. It should be clear that the advance of democracy leads to peace, because governments that respect the rights of their people also respect the rights of their neighbours.’

Stirring words. True words. The words you might hear from Nelson Mandela, or some great leader in the past like Jawaharlal Nehru. Right? Wrong. George Bush, President of the United States, spoke them last week. The only question that could follow a statement like that, spoken by the fundamentalist leader of the world’s most threatening fundamentalist state, would have to be, ‘Do you have the faintest idea of what you’re talking about?’

Probably not. George Bush says he doesn’t read much, so I doubt he would have heard of that old Chinese proverb, ‘Be careful what you wish for, because your wish might be granted.’ He wouldn’t understand that the Middle East, before his war in Iraq, was probably at its most stable since it was born in its modern form after the break up of the Ottoman Empire following the first world war. Or that this stability was almost entirely the creation of the United States. Or that things were so ‘stable’ because the United States for decades has had a bedrock policy of ‘excusing and accommodating tyranny in the pursuit of stability’. The largest slice of US aid to the Middle East countries, after Israel, goes to Egypt, a military dictatorship. Their protective umbrella and giant arms sales support the corrupt, feudal, absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. They are the protectors and money men for the authoritarian Kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco.

The lynchpin of this policy up until 1979 was unquestioning support of the Shah of Iran. The US depleted the Shah’s treasury by selling him the best and most expensive military equipment to be had and made him their bemedalled puppet. This mighty leader, with his mighty army, they reasoned, would be the counterbalance, the enforcer against those fractious Arab states like Syria and Iraq to his west.

It all fell apart in 1979 with the rise of Ayotollah Khomeini, and the mullah lead popular revolution which set the pattern for what will likely happen in the Middle East – or at least, what will more likely happen than ‘the advance of democracy’.

In the dictatorships and absolute monarchies of the Islamic Middle East the ideology of protest is not classic communism or any atheistic ideology, but the fervor of the Islamic religion. The Shah shut down his leftist enemies without much trouble. They tended to be academics and journalists and city workers, and his Savak secret police tortured and murdered them without a peep of protest from the World’s Greatest Democracy. But the Shah’s men couldn’t arrest the mullahs and they couldn’t shut down the mosques. So the Iranian revolution grew in the mosques and when it succeeded the mullahs took over the country and rule it to this day.

If you look at the Middle East today you find most of its major countries have three things in common. First, they are all dictatorships or absolute monarchies and have had no experience of western style democracy. Second, their rulers (including in the beginning, Saddam Hussein) are, or have been propped up by the United States. Third, their brutal behaviour to opponents has produced ruthless Islamic and violently anti-American opposition forces.

When Iran fell, the US decided Saudi Arabia was going to be its next aircraft carrier in the Islamic world. Their presence before and after the first Gulf War in that rigidly Islamic country produced the even more fanatical backlash led by Osama Bin Laden. Saudi Arabia is now a country teetering on the brink of civil war, with cells of fanatics bombing and killing locals and foreigners almost weekly. It is clear that one of the several reasons the US invaded Iraq was because it knew it had to find yet another staging post in the Muslim world because Saudi Arabia was coming apart.

Now after two years of war in Iraq, and with more than 100 000 Iraqis dead, and the country in ruins, a Shi’ite government is about to take control. It says it will be secular. I was in Iran when the Shah fell, and watched the huge crowds of Khomeini supporters marching through the streets. Women in chadors and western dress, chanting that they were free at last. A phalanx of journalists, celebrating the lifting of censorship. They had thrown off the imperialist yoke, they said. And the mullahs said they wanted an Islamic state, but they did not want power. Oh and by the way, from now on, America was ‘The great Satan’. In Iran, it still is.

Today in Iraq, who knows? The Iraqi election was a genuine triumph for Bush. A lot of anti-American commentators thought that nobody would go to the polling booths, but in fact 60 percent of the population turned out – and elected a Shi’ite government, rather like the one which took over in Iran after the Shah fell. A group of moderate technocrats for the most part, Muslims but with a secular approach to politics. As in Iran at the beginning, the mullahs said they wanted a state whose laws were based on Islamic precepts, but they didn’t want day to day political control.

So in Iraq, we will have to wait and see. Iraq may indeed be on the brink of true democracy. Or it might equally be on the verge of civil war, a war between fanatical Sunni Muslim militias who have honed their skills blowing up American soldiers and Shia civilians, soldiers and government forces who, if history teaches us anything, will get harder and more ruthless as the battle goes on.

Certainly in a region where blood feuds can last generations, the Sunnis are storing up a whole whirlwind of hatred to come. Iraq is pretty much out of the news these days, but the killing is increasing at an appalling rate. In the last week or so, forty to fifty people were killed by a suicide bomber at a funeral in Mosul, fifteen headless corpses were found in a disused army base south of Baghdad – mainly Shia militia and policemen – and nineteen were similarly shot in a village near the Syrian border. Oh and the US dead have now passed fifteen hundred – virtually all killed after George Bush declared victory – how many years ago was it?

The largest Arab country, Egypt, is a military dictatorship. But if in some fit of madness President Hosni Mubarak called truly free elections tomorrow, they would almost certainly be won by the latest incarnation of the Muslim Brotherhood, a once benign youth organisation founded in 1928. Like a lot of similar movements in this part of the world, constant banning and persecution of its members have turned it into a militant movement that tried on numerous occasions to kill one Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and succeeded spectacularly in killing another, the American backed Anwar Sadat. The Brotherhood is influential across the Middle East and was the precursor of such militant organizations as Hamas in Palestine.

So has any Muslim state tried democracy in recent times? Well sort of. The Algerian military dictatorship in 1992 called elections – then cancelled them when it became apparent the conservative religious party the Islamic Salvation Front was going to win. Denied victory, the ISF launched the Armed Islamic Group, one of the most murderous militias seen in the Islamic world, which went on a rampage of murder across the country, killing 70 000 civilians and even organising bombings in France in 1995 and 1996. The uprising is now quiescent but small numbers of armed militants still roam the countryside.

To George Bush, Lebanon and Syria must look like a simple problem. The Syrians occupy Lebanon – have done since the second year of the Lebanon civil war in 1976. So get rid of them – Syria is a terrorist country and the regime is so brutal that when America wants its foreign prisoners tortured, Syria is one of the places the unfortunates are sent. This process of outsourcing torture has been given the wonderful euphemism of ‘extraordinary rendition’ and gives the US administration the excuse that the US doesn’t torture suspects. But as the New York Times called it in an editorial this week, this is ‘Torture by Proxy’, and Australia is complicit in it. Mamdouh Habib was sent by his US captors to Egypt to be tortured and he claims, entirely believably, that his torturers demanded names and address of people listed on the mobile and sim card that Australian agents seized from his home in Sydney.

The way Australia is being dragged into oppression and torture in Iraq is a great story that Australian papers have pretty much ignored. Our press believes our government in a way you rarely see outside of a country like – well, Syria maybe.

Syria should have got out of Lebanon years ago. It didn’t, and while it was there it helped set up, finance and train the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, a widely supported militia regarded as heroes by most Lebanese because it drove the Israeli occupiers out of southern Lebanon, the only Arab force ever to defeat the Israeli army. If true democracy came to Lebanon tomorrow (it now has a strange constitution which mandates that the President be a Maronite Christian), some sort of Shi’ite government would emerge because the Shi’ites are now the largest religious grouping (although not a majority) in Lebanon. The Syrians actually have some control over Hezbollah, but if they leave completely this will be greatly diminished, and Hezbollah, which is also a political party, could easily be the major political and military power in Lebanon. And Hezbollah of course, loathes Israel and America. One of the greatest disasters in US Marine history happened in Lebanon in 1983 when Hebollah blew up a base and killed two hundred marines.

This column has become something of a laundry list, but have patience. Two other Islamic countries have had elections recently. Afghanistan, ‘liberated’ by the Americans from Taliban, re-elected Hamid Karzai as president, and his writ runs at least to the end of the lawn of his official mansion. Otherwise the country has lapsed back into warlordism and its industrious poppy farmers, suppressed by the Taliban, last year planted 321 000 acres of poppies to produce 4200 tons of opium. As Antonio Maria Costa, the director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, said after seeing these fine figures, ‘The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is becoming a reality.’

So that leaves us with Palestine, which has a new president and a new technocratic government free of Arafat cronies. It also has a sinister Israeli version of the Berlin wall running through it, and its new President Mahmoud Abbas, has about as much control over the armed militias of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aksa martyrs’ brigades as I have. Whether these men will be satisfied with Ariel Sharon’s promise to return bits of their shredded mini-state remains to be seen.

I’m not sure that George Bush has taken all this in yet. Last week, in a speech at the National Defence University in Washington, he told his supporters, ‘The chances of democratic progress in the broader Middle East have seemed frozen in place for decades. Yet at last, clearly and thoroughly, the thaw has begun.’ What this short sighted man doesn’t seem to have realised is that it is the thaw that lets the icebergs float free. So whether the President is standing on the beginning of the road to freedom, or on the bridge of the Titanic very much remains to be seen.

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