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March 25, 2013

The Arab Spring seen by Fisk

Reuel S. Amdur

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There will never be a Palestinian state. That was the opinion expressed by the distinguished international journalist Robert Fisk at a packed lecture hall at Carleton University on January 22. The session was sponsored by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East and by a pro-Palestinian University of Ottawa student group.

He explained his conclusion by pointing to the large number of Jewish settlements (he called them colonies) and the Apartheid infrastructure—restricted roads, parks, etc.  Fisk poured scorn on the political sophistry tossed around about the Palestinian-Israeli situation, for example “peace process.”  “There is no peace process,” he said.  Hence, it cannot “get back on track”, nor is there any meaningful “road map.”

His presentation ranged widely over the Arab and Muslim world.  He told the audience that, contrary to what the popular narrative says, the civil war in Mali has already been going on for three years.  He cast doubt on the notion that the military régime in Mali are the good guys and the rebels the bad guys, suggesting instead that the situation is far more complicated.  The Tourags and Arabs in the northern part of the country do not want to be part of the black African country of Mali.  He noted that the Malian army, in retaking territories from the rebels, engaged in—and here he quoted from the Globe and Mail—“revenge killings.” 

While France foresees a short campaign to drive out the invaders from the north of the country, he notes that it was supposed to take a couple months to defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and several weeks to settle the situation in Iraq.  In World War I, the French were assured by their leaders that they would be in Berlin in a couple weeks. 

Turning to the recent al-Qaida-affiliated attack on the Algerian gas fields, he noted (from his time in Algeria during its civil war fought between the military and the Islamists), “The Algerian army kills everyone in its way,” which explains the high body count.  He added that in the West we talk about civilians killed by drone attacks as “collateral damage,” while those killed in the Algerian tragedy were “hostages.”  The difference?  “The hostages have blue eyes.” Fisk describes the al-Qaida strategy as being to get the West into war.  “They won in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and they will win in Mali.”

In discussing the role of technology in the Arab Spring, he opined that its role has been exaggerated.  There are other factors that are important.  For example, over the years more Egyptians have been seeing the outside world through international travel.  As well, in the past the quality of post-secondary education in Egypt was abysmal, but it improved rapidly, “even under Mubarak.”

The Arab Spring did not, he argued, begin with the self-immolation in Tunisia.  Rather, its real beginning was in Mahalla, Egypt, in 2006.  That is when a trade union in the textile industry went on strike for better pay, working conditions, and the demission of Mubarak. After several weeks management gave in, though of course not on removing Mubarak.  The strike was led by a woman.  And as a postscript it must be noted that workers from Mahalla travelled to Tahir Square to take part in the uprising.  Fisk noted that, both in Tunisia and Egypt, there were relatively independent, secular trade unions, and in both cases there was minimal loss of life during the uprisings.

Another early example of the Arab Spring was the revolution in Lebanon.  The Lebanese drove Syrian forces out of the country after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.  This revolution was also with minimal loss of life.

Fisk then turned to Western perceptions of the Middle East and of media bias.  He noted the hypocrisy of official Western attitudes toward Islamism.  The opposition to Syria is fed by Islamist Saudis and Qatar.  The Islamist régime of Bahrain is a Western ally, even while it crushes the Shiite majority of the country.  The battle against the Malian incursion from the north is a battle against Islamism. 

The West is very fickle about foreign leaders.  Gadaffi was a good guy when he overthrew King Idris.  Then a bad guy, a good guy, and again a bad guy.  Arafat was at first a terrorist, then a moderate, etc.  Sadam was a fine fellow in waging war against Iran.  He was so likeable that the CIA gave him a document listing the members of the Iraqi Communist Party, and he promptly followed up by arresting them and killing them all.

The Western media buy all this characterization, and they exercise a cozy relationship with their government.  In foreign countries, many Western reporters write from their hotel rooms, not from where the action is.  Often they write from their offices in the home country, quoting from government feeds as if they were giving genuine information.  As an example, he cited a report in the Boston Globe --“US intelligence said . . . Senior intelligence said. . .Official sources reiterated,” etc.

A major challenge for the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and possibly Syria, he held, is the promote the status of women.  He recalled the fact that a woman was the leader in Mahalla, and in Tahir Square women wearing niqabs were breaking bricks for the men to throw at Mubarak’s agents.  So far, now their position in society is not advancing and may even be in retreat.

Fisk is very pessimistic about the future in the Middle East, even though he supports the uprisings.  As for the long-term outcome, “We will all be dead before the end.”  Yet, he noted that Arabs are refusing to be dictated to. 

How should the West react to developments in the Arab and Muslim world?  Send agronomists and such, when requested, but not troops.  It is not for the West to impose.

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