The Brotherhood and the Shiite Question Israel Elad-Altman

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is a transnational movement that shares a common Ikhwani doctrine of Islamic reform and revival that was originally formulated by the movement’s founder, Shaykh Hasan al-Banna. Despite this common doctrine, the Brotherhood’s assorted local organizations and affiliated offshoots have interacted with the specific socio-political conditions of their respective arenas. As a consequence of this, the Brotherhood’s branches have pursued a range of strategies for acquiring power and establishing an Islamic state that has, over time and from place to place, helped create a considerable diversity of political agendas and perspectives within the movement as a whole.

One area in which this intra-Ikwhani diversity is clearly visible today is in the different Brotherhood perspectives of and positions toward what might be broadly called the “Shiite question.” That question has been at the forefront of Sunni Arab religious and political ideology and debate, and especially in recent years due to the growing power and prestige of the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout the region. This, in turn, has led to Shiism’s increasing influence throughout the Middle East in general, and it has also intensified the ongoing clash between some streams of Sunnism and Shiism. The Sunni world has been deeply divided over how to react to these new regional dynamics caused by Iran’s and Shiism’s political and religious resurgence. Likewise, the Brotherhood movement is internally divided over the Shiite question, with some of them supporting and championing Shiism’s new religious and political influence, and other elements of the movement wary of and even hostile to Shiite power.

The Shiite question hasn’t always been an issue for the Brotherhood. At its core, the Brotherhood’s basic ideological doctrine is pan-Islamic and religiously inclusive. Since the movement’s creation in 1928, Brotherhood leaders have emphasized the political importance of Islamic unity and have sought to downplay the religious differences among various Islamic legal schools, including between Sunnism and Shiism. Hassan al-Banna considered all of Islam’s many sects—except for the Bahais and Qadianis—as belonging to the worldwide Muslim Nation (umma). In this spirit, Banna additionally took part in 1948 in the establishment of the “Association for Rapprochement between the Islamic Legal Schools” (Jamiyyat al-Taqrib bayna al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah). This organization was designed to bridge the religious divides between Sunnis and Shiites, and due to this organization’s leadership and influence, Shaykh al-Azhar Mahmud Shaltut declared Twelver Shia worship to be valid and recognized it as a legal tradition to be taught in al-Azhar. As such, Banna and the organization he created originally adhered to an ideological outlook for which the “Shiite question” did not exist.

Given this ecumenical background, the Brotherhood was initially enthusiastic about the Islamic revolution that took place in Iran in 1979. The revolution was inspiring to the Brotherhood as a model of a popular Islamic movement that had arisen to topple a pro-Western secular regime and had successfully set up an Islamic state. Moreover, the Brotherhood came to see Iran’s Islamic regime as an admirable alternative to secular Arab regimes: Unlike the latter, revolutionary Iran enjoyed both Islamic and popular political legitimacy; also unlike the Arab regimes, Iran was able to defend herself without having to rely on foreign support.

The Brotherhood also shares deep affinity with the Khomeinist political ideology that defined the Iranian revolution and that has been championed by Iran ever since. In traditional Islamic political thought, it is the community which cradles the sharia. Therefore, through its consensus (ijma) the community is the basis of legitimacy and the source of authority, and can thus empower one of its members, through shura (consultation) and bayah (pledge of allegiance), to become the ruler. By contrast, both the Brotherhood’s concept of God’s sovereignty (hakimiyyah) and the Khomeinist doctrine of the “Rule of the Jurist” (velayat-e-faqih) are rooted in the view that it is the sharia, not the community, which is the true source of legitimacy and authority. For example, in Brotherhood ideology, the concept of hakimiyyah signifies Allah’s rule through the implementation of the sharia, and what legitimizes the ruler is his implementation of the sharia, not the will of the people expressed when they elect a ruler. Similarly, the legitimacy of the ruling jurist in Khomeinist doctrine stems from his implementing the sharia on behalf of the Hidden Imam.1

Because of this ideological kinship, the connections between the Brotherhood and Shiite Islamists have been well-established. Indeed, the two revivalist streams were already exchanging ideas in the early 1950s (if not earlier), through the contacts established between the Egyptian Brotherhood and Navab Safavi, the leader of the “Fadaian-e Islam” organization that carried out a series of assassinations in Iran in the early 1950s in an effort to “purify Islam.” Safavi once was quoted as saying, “Whoever wants to be a real Jafari [Shiite] should join the Muslim Brotherhood.”2

In the 1970s Brotherhood representatives were in close contact with exiled Iranian activists in Europe and the US who were agitating for the overthrow of the Shah’s regime. Moreover, senior Brotherhood figures were the second foreign group to arrive in Tehran right after Khomeini’s triumphal comeback (preceded only by PLO leader Yasser Arafat). After the revolution, the Brotherhood helped the Iranian state bypass the American sanctions that had been imposed on it following the takeover of the US embassy by providing badly needed essential products.3

The Brotherhood’s initial enthusiasm and support for the Iranian revolution was soon dampened, however, when the revolution did not turn out to be what its Sunni Islamist admirers had expected it to be. By the mid 1980s, Brotherhood relations with Iran had soured significantly as the nature of revolution was increasingly perceived not in universal and pan-Islamic terms, but as a Persian nationalist and distinctly Shiite revolution. These perceptions became widespread in Sunni Arab societies, especially as Iran attempted to export its revolution to Gulf Arab states, and also as Iran formed an alliance with the Syrian regime, which was engaged in an open clash with the Brotherhoods’ Syrian branch. The Iraq-Iran War only further inflamed Sunni Islamist animosity across the region against the revolutionary Iranian state. The Brotherhood was initially critical of Iraq for launching the war against Iran, but then turned against Tehran when it extended the war in the hopes of toppling the Iraqi regime and occupying Iraqi territories. For many in the Brotherhood, Iran appeared increasingly to be a nationalist and sectarian power, and hardly the champion of Islamic cause that it had hoped and expected from the self-proclaimed Islamic Republic.

Events of the 1980s thus infused a new acrimony into the Brotherhood’s relations with Iran. Ayatollah Khalkhali, the chief of Iran’s revolutionary courts, reportedly referred to the Brotherhood then as “the devil’s brethren.”4 In 1987, Shaykh Said al-Hawa, the prominent Syrian Muslim Brotherhood scholar and leader, published his book Khomeinism: Deviation in Faith and Deviation in Positions. Most recently, relations between the Brotherhood and Iran have become further strained since the Second Gulf War, when the Brotherhood took Iran to task for not coming to Iraq’s aid against the West, and then for supporting the Iraqi Shia uprising against Saddam.5

Nowadays, the Shiite question remains a deeply controversial and divisive issue within the Brotherhood, especially as a consequence of recent developments related to Iran’s growing power. These developments include Iran’s quest for regional hegemony at the expense of the traditional regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Egypt; Iran’s efforts to spread its influence into Arab societies; and Iran’s re-emergence as a major player, through her proxies, in key regional trouble spots—including most notably Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. The Brotherhood is torn as a whole over the Shiite question between, on the one hand, its identity as a pan-Islamic movement that desires unity with Iran to advance its agenda, and on the other, its identity as a distinctly Sunni and Arab movement that not only operates within unique socio-political contexts, but that has reason to be suspicious and even hostile to Shiite power. The outcome of this intra-Brotherhood debate, which has both a political and a religious dimension, will have an important impact both on the Brotherhood’s future as well as Iran’s own prospects in the region.

The Brotherhood and Iranian Power

In recent years, while seeking to expand its power and influence in the Middle East, Iran has sought to portray and position itself as the leader of a unified Islamic resistance bloc against what’s widely regarded in the region as the “American-Zionist project.” The Egyptian Brotherhood, for its part, has played an important role in helping facilitate Iran’s political and religious expansion in the region.

For example, Iran’s strategy to spread its influence in Sunni-Arab societies might have been seriously hampered if regional politics were framed (as Wahhabi scholars are prone to do) along Shia-Sunni lines, or along Persian-Arab lines. But the Egyptian Brotherhood’s vocal support for Iran has tended to lend credence to the pan-Islamist argument that the real fault line in the region isn’t between Muslims (i.e., between Sunni and Shia), or for that matter, between ethnic groups (i.e., between Arabs and Persians). Rather, the defining regional political issue is the struggle between Islam and the West, or as it is more commonly put in Brotherhood rhetoric, between those who support “the American-Zionist project for the region” and those who resist it, including Iran and her allies in the “Resistance” bloc.

In the view of the Egyptian Brotherhood—the “mother” movement of the Brotherhood, which poses a serious domestic challenge to the future of the Egyptian regime, and whose leadership still exercises considerable influence over other regional Brotherhood branches—Iran is generally seen as the leader of the regional Islamic struggle against the U.S. and Israel. Iran has sought to win support in the Arab world through its support of the Palestinian cause and of Hamas. More broadly, however, Iran is seen by elements of the Brotherhood as a partner in the long-term struggle to dismantle the regional order of secular Arab states, as well as in the Islamic struggle for Egypt itself. For its part, Iran has been interested in weakening the Arab states in order to advance her regional dominance, whereas the Brotherhood has always sought to weaken the Arab state to improve its chances to acquire influence and set up a sharia state.

The Egyptian Brotherhood’s support for Iran in recent years has also been partly a function of the movement’s own domestic difficulties. Since its successes in the parliamentary elections in late 2005, the organization has come under relentless pressure from the Mubarak regime, which has imprisoned senior Ikwhani leaders, cracked down on its financial and charitable networks, and implemented legislation that further restricts its access to electoral processes. Iran has helped the Brotherhood by seeking to delegitimize and embarrass the Mubarak regime. For example, during the Gaza War (December 2008-January 2009), Iran first sought to instigate the war—against Egyptian state interests—and then launched propaganda attacks against the Egyptian regime over its policies during the war, which were portrayed as being against Islamic interests and accommodating toward Israel. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, continued this line of attack when he urged the Egyptian people and the commanders of its armed forces to disobey their government regarding Gaza.6

In response to this, the Brotherhood’s General Guide Muhammad Mahdi Akif took the course of championing Iran and Hezbollah during the Gaza War. He further rejected the charge leveled by some in the Arab world that Iran was merely using the Palestinian cause and Hamas to achieve regional objectives, including its goal of currying regional goodwill and support for its nuclear ambitions. There are two political agendas at play in the region, Akif said. One agenda calls for capitulation to the West and to Israel, and this agenda is followed not only by the Egyptian regime but by other Arabs who unwittingly support Israel by worrying instead about Iran’s regional ambitions. The other agenda is that of “the Resistance axis,” which calls for resistance and jihad to drive away the Jewish state and the West. The Brotherhood, Akif said, is avowedly a part of this second agenda, as is its leading advocate, Iran. Who is wrong in the crisis of Gaza, asked Akif, Iran or the Arabs? “It is Iran who is noble, manly and humane and helps miserable people who are besieged by the Arabs,”7 he said.

The Egyptian Brotherhood’s position on Iran soon became more muddled in early 2009, when a Hezbollah cell was discovered in Egypt. In the Egyptian national debate that ensued over Iran’s growing presence, the Brotherhood’s position on Iranian power within Egypt became more ambiguous. The Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau initially dismissed the whole issue and supported Nasrallah. General Guide Akif repeated his argument about the “two agendas” in the region—that of Islamic resistance, and that of capitulation. Yet for other Brotherhood officials, the Hezbollah cell presented an infringement on Egypt’s sovereignty. They criticized Hezbollah for failing to coordinate its efforts in Gaza with the Egyptian government in the first place, and Brotherhood parliament deputies declared that Egypt’s national security constitutes a “red line” that should never be violated, because “Egypt comes first.”8 The Brotherhood’s leadership issued a communiqué that lauded Hezbollah for its assistance to “the resistance” in Palestine. It stressed, however, that there was no contradiction between that support and the organization’s commitment to Egypt’s national security.9

This back and forth reflected the inherent tension that exists within the Brotherhood between, on the one hand, its identity as a pan-Islamic movement that adheres to an ideology that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of nation states, and, on the other hand, its Sunni Arab identity and claim to be an Egyptian political party with a national agenda. Meanwhile, the regional political contest between Sunnis and Shiites will likely keep this internal division over the movement’s identity at the forefront of intra-Brotherhood debates. Most recently, as Saudi Arabia has been drawn into the Yemeni Zeidi al-Huthi insurgency, which is widely believed to be supported by Iran, the Brotherhood has come out in support of the Huthis; it has called upon the Saudi King to immediately halt the Saudi military offensive launched to push the Huthis back across the border.10

Meanwhile, in Syria, where the Brotherhood is officially illegal and membership in the movement is punishable by death, the Brotherhood’s response to Iran has been much more straightforward. The Syrian Brothers view Iran as the closest ally of the Assad regime, and hence, as complicit in their subjugation. As such, they have fiercely criticized Iran’s Shiite missionary activities in Syria and have accused the Syrian regime of allowing the country to be turned into an Iranian province.11 The Syrian Brotherhood has also been critical of Iran’s nuclear project,12 and has denounced Iran’s stated territorial ambitions in Bahrain.13

In early 2009, when it became clear that the Obama administration was seeking engagement with Damascus rather than regime change there, the Brotherhood, which operates in exile, sought a détente with the regime in the hope that it would be allowed to return to Syria. It announced that, in view of the Gaza War, it had suspended its opposition activities, and then walked out of the main Syrian opposition grouping, the National Salvation Front. Yet in November 2009 the Syrian Brotherhood announced that its “truce” with the regime and the suspension of its opposition activities were over. And unlike the Egyptian Brotherhood, it came out fiercely against the al-Huthi insurgency in southern Arabia, depicting it as part of a wider project to invade and destabilize the Arab states.14

In Lebanon, the Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Group (al-Jamaah Islamiyyah), which is led by the prominent scholar Shaykh Faisal Mawlawi, has been allied with the Sunni establishment associated with the Hariri family. It formed part of Saad Hariri’s anti-Syrian “March 14 Alliance,” and has been openly critical of both Hezbollah and Iran. In late 2006, when Hezbollah launched its campaign to topple the “March 14” government, Shaykh Mawlawi condemned Hezbollah, claiming that Iran had started to implement its grand plan of expanding its influence in the region, and that Hezbollah had proven to be a part of this plan.15 Moreover, following Hezbollah’s military humiliation of the Sunnis and Druze of the March 14 Alliance in May 2008, Shaykh Mawlawi stated that the “Islamic Resistance” was now in the service of sectarian and political projects.16

By contrast, Hezbollah was vocally supported by Shaykh Fathi Yakan, a well known Brotherhood thinker and preacher and former leader of the Egyptian movement al-Jamaah al-Islamiyyah. In 2005, Yakan formed and led a rival to al-Jamaah al-Islamiyyah called the “Islamic Action Front,” a coalition of Sunni groups whose power base was in Tripoli, in the stronghold of Sunni opponents of the Hariri family. Shaykh Yakan stated that he was proud of being an ally “of all the free and noble people in the world,” including Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, and (after it voiced its support for Hamas in the 2008-2009 Gaza war) Turkey.17 He also denied charges that Shiite leadership of the “resistance movement” to Western hegemony in the Middle East was having the effect of turning Sunnis into Shias.18 On December 8, 2006, Yakan led, as the Imam, the Friday prayer of the Shiites who were laying siege to the offices of the “March 14” Prime Minister Siniora.19 (Yakan died on June 13, 2009.)

The attitude of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood toward Iran in recent years has reflected the fact that Jordan is flanked by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to its West and the sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq to its East. The organization has traditionally promoted the view of Iran as an allied Islamist force that has been unjustly targeted by the West. Because of the Jordanian Brotherhood’s deep connections to Hamas, it has highly valued and praised Iran’s support for the Palestinians,20 and it has also supported Iran’s nuclear aspirations. During the 2006 war in Lebanon, the Jordanian Brothers organized mass demonstrations in support of Hezbollah, and after the war it supported the Lebanese opposition camp against the “March 14” government.

At the same time, the Jordanian Brotherhood supported Saddam Hussein’s regime, deplored its collapse, and accused Iran of facilitating the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the plight of Iraqi Sunnis.21 It was totally opposed to the Shia-led Iraqi government, and supported the Sunni insurgency and rebellion against the ascendant Shiite majority in Iraq. Recently it denounced Iran’s claims for Bahrain,22 and a newspaper affiliated with Jordan’s Brotherhood bitterly criticized Iran’s treatment of its Sunni population.23

The views of the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as the “Islamic Party,” have been largely critical of Iranian involvement in their country and of the country’s new Shiite majority. At the same time, they have participated in the post-Saddam political process and urged their supporters early on to join the new Iraqi army and police. Their leader—Tariq al-Hashimi—has served as Vice President of Iraq. The argument behind the Islamic Party’s decision to participate fully in Iraqi political life, in spite of the Shiite dominance and the state of occupation, was that Iraq was caught between two occupations—one led by America, and the other by Iran and the Shia. The Iranian-Shiite occupation was considered so dangerous to the Sunni Islamic Party that they argued it was necessary for Sunnis to integrate as fully as possible in state institutions in order to reduce Shia domination. So far, this policy has held, even though some Islamists see it as legitimating the American occupation.24

Finally, the Brotherhood offshoot Hamas’s alliance with Iran has been rooted in Iran’s need for a powerful Palestinian asset giving her a major say in the Palestine issue and, by extension, in Arab affairs. Hamas has taken advantage of this Iranian need. But Hamas has gone beyond being an Iranian ally. Khalid Mashaal, Hamas’s top leader, has made gestures signifying that Hamas is effectively under Iran’s command. Mashaal, for example, told the Iranian Parliament that he had presented a report on the Gaza War to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, “the ruler of the Muslims” (waliy amr al-muslimin).25 In this and other statements, Mashaal lent credence to the claim made by Iran that Hamas was not only an Iranian asset or ally, but an Iranian creation. For example, Muhammad Akhtari, who was for years Iran’s man in Syria and Lebanon, claimed that Hamas (and also the Palestinian Islamic Jihad) was formed and inspired by Imam Khomeini and by the regional Islamic resistance movement that he established. Based on this logic, the Palestinian resistance, just like Hezbollah, is the legal son of the Islamic Republic.26

Yet on the Shiite question, it is clear that Hamas, like the Brotherhood as a whole, remains divided. Mashaal’s expressions of loyalty to Iran raised concerns inside Hamas that he was alienating the organization’s Sunni-Arab supporters. As a consequence, senior Hamas figures in Gaza asserted that Hamas did not recognize Khamenei as the ruler of the Muslims.27 They further claimed that there is a strong pro-Arab trend inside Hamas, which is interested in strengthening the movement’s Sunni character and its existing ties with countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.28

The Shia Conversion Controversy

The growth of Iranian power in recent years has helped to inflame the historically-rooted political and ideological rivalry between some streams of Sunnism and Shiism. This has been further fueled by popular fears among sectors of the Arab Sunni populations that Iran is trying to convert Sunnis to Shiism as a way of furthering its political agenda of regional domination. These fears have generated a great deal of controversy within the Brotherhood movement and the Sunni world in general.

In some ways, the Egyptian Brotherhood’s efforts to downplay Sunni-Shia religious differences in the spirit of Islamist unity and resistance have helped make this religious controversy within the Sunni world possible. For instance, by dismissing as secondary the religious differences between Shiites and Sunnis, and by arguing that Twelver Shia are Muslims and that Twelver Shiism is the fifth school of jurisprudence, elements of the Egyptian Brotherhood have effectively supplied an ideological counterbalance to the Wahhabi-Salafi campaign to vilify the Shia and Iran. Over time, this proactive Islamist ecumenicism has helped make it seem acceptable for Sunnis not only to identify politically with Iran, but also to be open to Shia dawa (proselytization).

In the debate among the Sunnis over Iran and the phenomenon of Sunni conversions to Shiism, neither Iran’s supporters nor its detractors have seriously denied that “Shiitization” (tashyi) or conversions to Shiism among Sunni populations is taking place. They’ve also not denied the doctrinal divergences between Sunnism and Shiism. Iran’s detractors in the Sunni world have warned that Iran’s efforts to spread Shiism pose a clear and present threat to Arab-Sunni societies, and have sought to stress the fundamental nature of Sunni-Shiite doctrinal differences. But Iran’s Sunni advocates have dismissed the importance of Iran’s efforts to spread Shiism, and have described doctrinal divergences between Sunni and Shia as insignificant.

The attack on Iran’s conversion campaign has been led to a large extent by Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. A former senior member of the Egyptian Brotherhood and one of the movement’s leading ideologues, Qaradawi is often described as the “spiritual guide” of the Brotherhood. He claims to have declined past offers to assume the position of the General Guide29 because he considers himself as “the Guide of the Muslim Nation” as a whole (murshid al-ummah).30 In this way, he often competes directly with the Brotherhood’s Egyptian leaders for influence within the movement. This intra-Brotherhood rivalry has clearly been a contributing factor to the divided opinions within the movement regarding the Shiism question and the controversy surrounding Shia conversion.

Qaradawi has traditionally adhered to an ecumenical approach toward the Shiite question. He has advocated for rapprochement (taqrib) between the Sunni and Shiite revivalist movements, and has argued that while differences between Sunni and Shia do in fact exist, they pertain to matters of jurisprudence that are of secondary importance to the principles of faith.31 During the 2006 Lebanon war, Qaradawi was a vocal defender of Hezbollah—a position he took against fatwas issued by Saudi Wahhabi scholars that forbade supporting the Shiite militia movement. Qaradawi has also championed Iran’s right to acquire peaceful nuclear technology and has claimed that Iran’s nuclear capability would not pose a threat to the security and interests of Gulf Arab states.32

Despite this ecumenical track record, however, Qaradawi became a fierce critic of Iran and the Shia in the summer of 2006, in the aftermath of the war between Israel and Hezbollah. At the time, Qaradawi launched a vicious attack on the Shia, accusing them of trying to penetrate Egypt and other predominantly Sunni societies and to convert their people to Shiism. The motives behind Qaradawi’s reversal subsequently became clearer when he denounced the Shia for trying to exploit what was perceived region-wide as a Hezbollah victory over Israel and to use this to their political advantage.33 Moreover, for the first time, Qaradawi also denounced the Shiites for their religious beliefs and practices, claiming that most Shiites believe that the Koran is imperfect (tahrif al Quran) and seek to curry favor with Allah by cursing the Prophet’s Companions (sabb al-Sahabah). At a conference to promote Sunni-Shia reconciliation in Iraq that was held in Doha on January 20-22, 2007, he subsequently reiterated his attack on Iran’s efforts to spread Shiism in the region.34 He made a similar attack in an interview to the official Arabic website of the Egyptian MB in July 2008.35

Qaradawi’s string of anti-Shia pronouncements from 2006-2008 met with little controversy in Egypt and elsewhere. It is therefore unclear why remarks Qaradawi made in an interview in the Egyptian daily al-Masri al-Yaum in September 2008,36 where he once again criticized Iran’s proselytizing efforts, generated the heated controversy that it did.37 In that interview, Qaradawi first criticized Wahhabi preachers for their fanaticism, and then he took aim at the Shia. He claimed that the latter may be considered Muslims, but that they are mubtadiun—or, those who introduce unauthorized innovations to Islam. He argued further that Shiites are endangering Sunni societies by trying to infiltrate them, and he called on Sunnis to defend their societies against the Shiite “invasion” (ghazu). Qaradawi moreover enumerated the points of difference in the religious doctrines of Sunnism and Shiism.

This time, there was a fierce Iranian reaction to Qaradawi’s interview, which only led the Sunni shaykh to ramp-up his invectives against Iran. This, in turn, set off a much larger dispute among religious scholars in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Many Sunni scholars spoke out in support of Qaradawi and denounced what they saw as Iran’s campaign to convert Sunnis to Shiism. But other Sunni scholars criticized him for raising the issue in the first place.

Internally, the Muslim Brotherhood movement throughout the region was sharply divided on whether to come to Qaradawi’s side in this dispute or not. Several Brotherhood organizations and scholars have been critical of Iranian influence in their societies, and they naturally rallied behind Qaradawi. For example, the Controller General of the Syrian Brotherhood, Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, complained that Iran seeks to spread Shiism everywhere in the Muslim world, adding that Syria has been singled out for Shiite proselytizing because of Iran’s political alliance with the Syrian regime. Iran’s project of spreading Shiism, Bayanuni said, and Iran’s influence in Syria pose a clear danger not only for Sunni Syrian society but for all the states in the region.38

The Muslim Brotherhood affiliate based in Iran itself, “The Group of the Call to Islam and of Reform” (Jamaat al-Dawah wal-Islah), reportedly supported Qaradawi and criticized both Iranian Shia conversion attempts and the Egyptian Brotherhood for its support of Iran and for its failure to condemn Iran’s treatment of her own Sunnis.39 The Controller General of the Jordanian Brotherhood, Shaykh Humam Said, criticized the Shia for some of their beliefs and practices, like the Imams’ infallibility and the cursing of the Companions. He denounced what he saw as Shia expansionism and predicted that a rapprochement between Sunnis and Shias would never materialize.40 Rashid al-Ghannushi, the prominent Islamic scholar and ideological leader of the Brotherhood-affiliated Tunisian al-Nahda movement fully supported Qaradawi’s positions.41

Other Brothers, however, have defended Iran and the Shia. The Egyptian Brotherhood’s leadership has consistently sought to avoid entanglement in the Sunni-Shia controversy and have downplayed Shia efforts to convert Sunnis as marginal.42 They have further claimed that Sunni-Shia strife has been instigated by the U.S. as a way of dividing Muslims; Sunnis and Shias, they argue, comprise one Muslim Nation that must unite in order to confront “the American Zionist project that seeks to eradicate Islam.”43 During the 2006 Lebanon War, General Guide Akif declared that Hezbollah has successfully led the resistance against Israel and therefore the Brotherhood should recognize Hezbollah’s leadership in that struggle. The arguments between Sunnis and Shias, he stressed, must be suspended until after the battle with the common Zionist enemy ends with the Arabs regaining all their rights, because that battle must take precedence over any other issue.44 Akif has also said that he supports Iran’s President Ahmadinejad because of his steadfast efforts to resist American hegemony in the Middle East.45

After Qardawi’s 2008 al-Masri al-Yaum interview, Akif stiffly rebuked Qaradawi, saying that whoever speaks of an Iranian agenda to penetrate and dominate the region speaks in the language of the Muslim Nation’s enemies.46 He declared also that he had no objection to Shiite expansionism, because compared to the 56 Sunni states, there is only a single Shia state, Iran, and there is nothing to fear about it.47 Akif’s first deputy, Dr. Muhammad Habib, also reacted to Qaradawi’s statements by stating: “Which is more worthy of warning from, the Shia expansion and Iranian danger, or the Zionist danger? There are priorities, Dr. Qaradawi.”48

Nothing perhaps could serve Iran better than the fact that the defense of the Shia, and the appeal to stop the Sunni-Shia debate and to close Muslim ranks, have been made by Qaradawi’s own former comrades and disciples. When Muhammad Habib, the First Deputy to the General Guide, said sarcastically, “There are priorities, Dr. Qaradawi,” he was referring to a central theme in Qaradawi’s own scholarly work, “The Jurisprudence of Priorities” (fiqh al-awlawiyyat). Qaradawi’s critics have clearly set an order of political priorities in direct opposition to his own. Unlike him, they give priority to the struggle with “the American-Zionist project” over whatever differences they may have with Iran and the Shiites.

This dilemma regarding which conflict takes priority—the conflict with Israel or the one with the Shia—is not unique to the Brotherhood. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Saudi Salafi shaykhs were divided over whether Muslims should support Hezbollah against the Israelis. The well-known Sahwah (“Awakening”) leader, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, supported Hezbollah and rejected the anti-Hezbollah fatwa of Sheikh Jabrin. It can be argued that Sheikh Awdah’s position reflects the Ikhwani influence on his generation of Saudi Salafi thinkers.

As for the question of religious doctrinal divergences between Sunnis and Shias, the standard Muslim Brotherhood position has been that the Shia are Muslims for all intents and purposes, and that the differences between Sunnis and Shiites pertain to matters of jurisprudence which are of secondary importance, not to principles of faith.49 But this general formula, which was once Qaradawi’s position also, became insufficient in view of the Shia conversion debate and Qaradawi’s attacks on Shia beliefs and practices. An internal debate has emerged, reflecting a deep division within the organization on this matter.

One side of the debate was presented in an article50 posted on the Egyptian Brotherhood’s official Arabic website and signed by Yusuf Nada, a senior Brotherhood official. Nada originally set up the Brotherhood’s relations with the Iranian revolutionary regime in 1979 and has maintained close contacts within Iran ever since. In his article, Nada minimized the differences between Sunnis and Shias and refuted many of the criticisms leveled by Sunnis against the Shias. The Brotherhood’s position, Nada wrote, is that Twelver Shiism is recognized as the fifth school of Islamic jurisprudence. Twelver Shiism differs from the four Sunni schools not in matters of faith, which are fundamental to Islam and required of all true believers, but in matters of jurisprudence. These matters are of secondary importance and are a source of disagreement among the four Sunni schools as well. Noticeably, Nada made no mention of Iran’s proselytizing efforts in the region.

A rebuttal of Nada’s article was offered by Mahmud Ghuzlan, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, which is the highest executive body under the General Guide.51 Ghuzlan accused Nada of absolving the Shia of the various faults that have been attributed to them by the consensus of Sunni scholars. He also accused Nada of misrepresenting the Brotherhood’s position on the Shia. The high esteem Iran has gained throughout the region because of its leadership in resisting the West, Ghuzlan wrote, has encouraged Iran to attempt to further penetrate the states in the region by spreading Shiite ideology. The aim of this Shiite proselytizing is to turn the people’s political solidarity with Iran into a deeper loyalty and religious affiliation. This is what prompted Shaykh Qaradawi to launch his attacks on the Shia. “We,” Ghuzlan wrote, “agree with the essence of Qaradawi’s critique of the Shia. The Brotherhood prefers not to enter into religious polemics in order to preserve the unity of the Muslim Nation, but Iran should respect that approach too and not take advantage of it by acting to spread Shiism.”

Following this exchange between Nada and Ghuzlan, General Guide Akif weighed in on the intra-Brotherhood dispute, claiming that Nada’s article represented only his personal views and not those of the movement. Yet in fact, Nada’s views reflected the views of many within the Brotherhood’s leadership, and it was reported that Akif was actually behind the publication of Nada’s article, against opposition from members of the Guidance Bureau.52 As this debate went on, and Nada accused Ghuzlan of embracing a takfiri approach toward the Shia,53 Ghuzlan argued that all the members of the Guidance Bureau had rejected Nada’s position.54 Akif subsequently chimed in again, declaring that both Nada and Ghuzlan were expressing their own personal views and that neither one expressed the view of the Guidance Bureau.55 Quite obviously, the Bureau itself was divided on this issue.

The Brotherhood and the Crisis of the Iranian Regime

As this intra-Brotherhood debate over Iran’s proselytizing in Sunni-Arab states has continued to fester, the government-led crackdown within Iran following the disputed presidential elections in June 2009 generated a further disagreement within the Brotherhood that posed yet another dilemma for the Brotherhood’s leadership. In the interests of Islamic solidarity, the leadership probably would have preferred not to have to criticize the Iranian regime. But remaining silent while the Iranian government was criticized everywhere else in the region for its harsh suppression of internal dissent made silence for the Brotherhood increasingly difficult. Moreover, had the Brotherhood’s leadership remained silent, it would have been taken as a sign affirming the arguments of the Brotherhood’s critics—that the movement, despite claiming to have reformed itself, is not really committed to fair elections and democracy.

In any case, there is a divergence of views within the Brotherhood about how to respond to Iran’s crackdown. At the heart of this was a disagreement within the Brotherhood over the nature of the Islamic regime in Iran. Iran’s constitution and its state structure, argued Dr. Issam al-Aryan, who represents the reformist trend in the Egyptian Brotherhood, must undergo a fundamental reform. This sweeping reform will require a redistribution of powers among Iran’s presidency, the parliament, the military and the people, who are to be represented by political parties. Furthermore, the Khomeinist doctrine of the Guardianship of the Jurist (velayat-e faqih) needs to be thoroughly re-assessed, while the theocratic institutions that have been built around this principle should be treated merely as symbolic and limited in their authority. At the same time the powers of the Revolutionary Guard Corps should be subject to a review. Aryan also urged Iran’s leaders to shed the Shia and Persian-nationalist character of the Iranian state.56

The turmoil within Iran has also forced a reappraisal of what most have seen as Iran’s growing power and influence in recent years. One commentator argued on the official Arabic language website of the Egyptian Brotherhood57 that Iran’s bid to dominate the region has been thwarted. The Shia minorities in the Gulf states have failed to expand their power; Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq has been successfully reined in; the activities of the Revolutionary Guard’s al-Qods force from Iraq to Oman and Yemen have been undercut; Hezbollah was roundly defeated in the recent Lebanese elections; and Hamas is still besieged in Gaza.

Despite these calls for reform within Iran, other Brotherhood members defended the regime and pleaded with Sunni Arabs to support it. One article that appeared on the Egyptian Brotherhood’s website five days after the Iranian elections claimed that the country should be proud of its honest elections and the ordered transfer of power within the regime.58 Iran is a strong Islamic state, which is not ruled by corruption and electoral rigging, and it is a power respected around the world, claimed the author of the article. Moreover, the Arabs who criticize Iran, and who ignite controversy and conflict between Sunni and Shia, do so in order to divert attention from their own political failures and incapacity to stage an Islamist struggle. Had the Arabs supported the Islamic resistance in Iraq, Iran would not have intervened there; had they formed a strong Sunni Islamist resistance in Lebanon, Hezbollah would not have been the only armed resistance there; and had they embraced Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iran would have had no foothold in Gaza and the West Bank.

As this controversy came to a boil, the movement’s leadership eventually decided to announce its own position.59 They stated that “events in Iran are a purely internal matter and concern only the Iranians.” They further rejected “any foreign intervention in Iran’s affairs, especially by the US, Western Europe and the Zionists”—a statement obviously intended as an endorsement of the Iranian regime’s contention that its internal dissent was being fomented by outsiders. The Brotherhood leadership further affirmed “the right of peoples to elect their representatives and rulers in complete freedom and to choose the regimes and constitutions which rule them without anyone’s interference.”

This affirmation might be regarded as somewhat of a concession to the reform-minded critics of the Iranian regime within the movement’s ranks. But the Brotherhood leadership did not criticize the regime explicitly. Instead, it effectively endorsed the regime’s justification for cracking down on internal dissent by insisting that it is either solely an internal affair to the Islamic Republic, or that the dissent is being fomented by non-Muslim outsiders.

Conclusion

As the Islamic Republic of Iran attempts to spread its influence throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political and ideological support of the Shiite state has proven to be an important Iranian asset. When leaders of the Egyptian Brotherhood downplay the religious differences between Shias and Sunnis, and argue that Twelver Shiism should be recognized as an acceptably orthodox school of Islamic jurisprudence, they effectively serve as counterbalance to the Wahhabi/Salafi-led campaign to vilify Shiism, as well as nationalist Arab efforts to contest Iran’s growing political power. In this way, the Brotherhood’s ecumenical approach has helped make it acceptable for Sunni Arabs to align themselves politically with Iran, and it appears that it has also made Sunni societies increasingly more open to Shiite religious proselytizing.

In the future, how far might the Egyptian Brotherhood go in supporting Iranian interests? During the Gaza War, the Brotherhood was careful not to cross the regime’s “red lines” in its protests and demonstrations. It pursued its strategy according to which, as long as the movement has not reached the stage when it can seize power, it should avoid taking steps that could put its very survival at risk. These, then, are the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s priorities: The joint struggle with Iran against “the American-Zionist project” takes precedence over religious or ethnic divergences with her. However, the survival of the organization is the highest priority.

It is within this context that the intra-Brotherhood political and religious debate surrounding the Shiite question should be considered. The pro-Iranian element within the Brotherhood will, in all likelihood, continue to support Iran as long as the reason for that support exists—namely, for as long as Iran continues to play the same regional role she has in recent years, as a champion of Islamic interests and as the leader of the regional “resistance.” The Brotherhood’s underlying motivation to support Iran will likely diminish, however, if Iran abandons this leadership role and shifts from confrontation with the US to accommodation with it. To be sure, Iran’s territorial claims regarding Arab states and growing concerns over Shia conversion efforts, reflected in the divided internal debate in the Egyptian Brotherhood on that issue, will make the Brotherhood’s alliance with Iran uneasy and, at times, strained. But the Brotherhood-Iran relationship will not end so long as the latter’s regional role does not change.

Advertisements

Routed in Syria, the US Should Admit Its Crime, Face Punishment

The Western alliance of aggressors should not think they can just skulk away with their weapons, like their Da’esh proxies did from Raqqa. They must admit guilt, and face appropriate punishment for this crime of the century.

By David Macilwain

November 26, 2017 “Information Clearing House” – Now the day of reckoning has arrived, marked by the meeting of Presidents Bashar al Assad and Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Their conference was also a meeting of militaries, whose cooperation and success on the battlefield against Western-backed terrorists has brought us to this point. So we need to be clear about what happened, and what did not happen.

Syria has been under siege for six and a half years – longer than the siege of France in WW2 – to which the siege of Syria bears some superficial similarities. Such analogies can be misleading – France was under “collaborative occupation” by Germany, while Syria’s situation more resembles that of France in World War One – the similarities are rather in the question of guilt.

In both World Wars, there was little debate or doubt over who was the aggressor; France was not invaded because of preceding provocations or attacks on Germany, or seizure of its territory. Western powers who came to France’s aid in both wars did so to defeat German forces and restore French sovereignty over its own territory.

Such is the case with Syria, and this crucial point is now emphasised by the successful defeat of the invading and occupying forces. Syria played no part in starting the war in March 2011, either by provocations against its neighbours or in abuse of its own population that might justify “humanitarian intervention” (though noting that such infringement of another state’s sovereignty may in any case not be authorised under international law).

Both militarily and politically, the conflict was not a “civil war” in the sense that it arose from internal disputes between different ethnicities, religions or even political and economic conflict. Supporters of the government and the Syrian Arab Army or opponents of the Opposition could be found amongst all of these different groups, though the converse was not the case. Defying their claims to represent “the Syrian People” and “democracy”, the armed opposition and its support base within Syria were almost exclusively Sunni and hostile to everyone else, an extremism defined by the slogan “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the grave”.

Although in some sense the war developed into a civil war, as sectarian tension was stoked by the increasingly jihadist nature of the insurgency, this may be seen as the cornerstone of the “Syrian conspiracy”. As happened in Bosnia twenty-five years earlier, mixed ethnic communities who had peacefully coexisted for centuries were turned against one another by foreign actors in a fundamentally malicious plan to “divide and rule”.

It is frankly astonishing, and barely comprehensible, that today we can still see the very same actors – the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and their supporters – continuing to pursue the same illegitimate agenda practically unchanged, even as the victors of the Resistance define the terms of a settlement in Sochi and Moscow.

Those terms, as the culmination of the series of meetings in Astana and their work on deconfliction zones and ceasefire agreements, have shut the US and its Gulf partners out of the settlement. After years of pointless “negotiations” in Geneva achieved nothing because of US duplicity, the Astana meetings have been a remarkable success, such that cooperation and reconciliation between nearly all Syrian groups on the ground is now moving ahead very rapidly.

Appropriately enough, the only remaining groups who continue to fight the Syrian Army and launch attacks on civilians around Damascus and Idlib are also the only ones supported by the malignant “Friends of Syria” and their “Syrian National Opposition” club, now holding their own “me too” gathering in Riyadh. This club of losers is a sorry sight, even as it is displayed to the world through the Western media, and given legitimacy by the presence of the UN’s Stephan de Mistura.

Never Miss Another Story

Get Our Free Daily Newsletter
No Advertising – No Government Grants – This Is Independent Media
The pronouncements from “The 2nd Expanded Syrian Opposition Meeting” in Riyadh, made by its Saudi spokesperson and apparent mastermind Adel al Jubair, now have no relevance or authenticity, though they retain an air of menace, backed by six years of lies and unstinting support for takfiri mercenaries in Syria. The calls from these “anti-Syrians” for a “political transition” excluding Assad has become a parody, while the true leaders in the defence of Syria stand proudly in front of their people, in Damascus, Moscow, Tehran and Beirut.

It reminds one of a small town council meeting, where amongst the motions on car parking spaces and plastic waste collection there is a resolution to support a mission to Mars.

But this is not such a meeting, and the continuing support of the UN both for the members of the SNC – some of whom are directly linked to terrorist groups still killing people in Syria – and for the illegitimate and corrupt agenda of this fake “Syrian Opposition” group, is highly disturbing. Even Turkey, whose partnership with Saudi Arabia in supporting the “Army of Conquest” accompanied its long support for the SNC, has changed sides to join Russia and Iran in Sochi. That the UN could still put its weight behind the conspirators responsible for the war on Syria, when the true depths of their collusion and cooperation with terrorist groups including Islamic State has now been exposed, is a credit to the stranglehold the Western propaganda narrative has over its subject populations, including the UN.

This narrative can no longer be sustained, particularly following the most recent exposure of collaboration between the US and IS in the “liberation” of Raqqa by the BBC, that most influential voice of the UK establishment.

However, those in the centres of Western power who pretend they can just retreat from the virtual battlefront under the protection of the Geneva conventions afforded to surrendering forces, are deceiving us yet again. Unlike Germany’s forces in World War Two, who were forced to accept the terms of trial and punishment, followed by decades of penance and reparations, the aggressor nations neither accept nor even recognise their responsibility for the Syrian catastrophe.

But this grand deception – a well-planned and ruthlessly executed scheme to push the interests and agenda of the US and its local allies at any cost, simply cannot go unrecognised and unpunished. It is not enough for them simply to retreat, and keep their powder – and that of their terrorist proxies – dry till the next “opportunity” arises or is created.

Syria’s President is not a vengeful man, and the current straightened circumstances in Syria don’t allow such a luxury; his government’s recent demand that US coalition forces immediately leave Syrian territory may have to suffice so long as it is enforced. That coalition includes Australia, and while the Australian government refuses to confirm its role in assisting Islamic State in Eastern Syria as part of the US coalition operations, “enforcement” must mean its forces will be targeted without warning if they are on or over Syrian territory. The strong support Australia is already giving to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also amounts to proxy aggression against Syria in this context.

While it may be a hollow threat to “make the aggressor nations pay” for what they have done to Syria while a state of delusion and denial is entrenched across the Western cultural and political hemisphere, it cannot simply be forgotten or overlooked. Even though Syrians have already shown themselves capable of forgiving their own brethren for being swept up by the fake revolution and even for committing terrible atrocities against each other, they must not be expected to be so generous to those foreign criminals who knowingly and intentionally inflicted so much pain and destruction on them.

As “intermediaries” in this war, it is now up to us to relentlessly pursue our own governments on behalf of Syrians until our leaders’ guilt in planning or colluding in this terrible crime is proven and admitted and some sort of penance imposed. At the very least our efforts through alternative media platforms such as this one must prevent such a monstrous and murderous conspiracy from being hatched ever again.

If that seems almost impossible, then we must go further – confronting our leaders directly, publicly demanding that they reject the Saudi-backed “Syrian Opposition” as illegitimate, and support Russia’s forthcoming Syria conference and settlement plans unambiguously.

الصراع على سورية

via الصراع على سورية

Egypt Under Empire, Part 1: Working Class Resistance and European Imperial Ambitions Andrew Gavin Marshall I Geopolitics I Analysis I July 11th, 2013

Egypt is one of the most important countries in the world, geopolitically speaking. With a history spanning some 7,000 years, it is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, sitting at the point at which Africa meets the Middle East, across the Mediterranean from Europe. Once home to its own empire, it became a prized possession in the imperial designs of other civilizations, including the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantine to the Islamic and Ottoman Empires, and subsequently the French, British and Americans. For any and every empire that has sought to exert control over the Middle East, Asia or Africa, control over Egypt has been a pre-requisite. Its strategic location has only become more important with each subsequent empire.

For the British to control India – their prized imperial possession – dominance over Egypt was a necessity. With the construction of the Suez Canal, Europe became increasingly dependent upon Egypt as a transport route for trade, energy and warfare, making Europe’s domination of the world increasingly dependent upon their domination of Egypt, particularly for the French and British. For the modern American Empire, which designates all of planet Earth as being under its hegemony, Egypt remains one of the most important countries over which to exert influence: with its strategic location to some of the world’s most prized energy resources, to the maintenance of the Canal route for the benefit of transport and trade – not least of all for America’s European allies – and due to Egypt’s ability to exert influence across Africa, the Middle East, the Arab/Muslim world as a whole, and indeed, across the so-called ‘Third World’ as a whole.

In the past two and half years, Egypt has been experiencing an unprecedented revolutionary struggle. Egypt’s Revolution represents a popular uprising against a domestic dictatorship, the denial of liberties and freedoms, the repression of workers and dissidents, against a global socio-political and economic system (which we commonly refer to as ‘neoliberalism’), and against the American Empire and its many institutional manifestations. Any revolution within Egypt is inevitably a revolution against the American Empire. An uprising – not only against a long-time dictator and his authoritarian imitators who followed – but against the most powerful empire the world has ever known is a powerful symbol to the rest of the world, most of which has known the terror of living under domestic tyranny, and the reality of living under America’s global hegemony.

A good example can go a long way.

This series examines some of Egypt’s recent history as it relates to Empire, and as it has built up to Egypt’s unfinished Revolution.

Egypt and the State-Capitalist Imperial Order

The development of the Egyptian working class, labour activism and nationalism was intimately tied to the expansion of Western imperial expansion and domination over Egypt and much of the rest of the world. In the early 19th century, Egypt was increasingly an autonomous state under the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Muhammad Ali who initiated a process of state-sponsored industrialization. In 1819, his regime constructed European-style factories for military production, agricultural processing and textiles. By the early 1830s, there were 30 cotton mills on operation, employing roughly 30,000 labourers, who were largely recruited from among the landless peasants.[1]

Egypt’s attempt to industrialize followed the examples set by Britain and other European powers – as well as the United States – by imposing protective measures, tariffs on foreign goods and other subsidies for domestic industry in order to allow the country to compete against the heavily protected industries of the European and American economies. Egypt was not the only major country to pursue such a strategy, as India and Paraguay also attempted major state-led industrialization programs. In 1800, Egypt’s GNP was around that of France, higher than both Eastern Europe and Japan, and Paraguay also had comparable economic weight. They were attempting to industrialize, wrote Jean Batou, “in order to avoid dependency and underdevelopment.”[2]

Resistance to these industrialization projects was strong on the part of Britain and other industrial Western powers, which wanted these countries to be in subservient positions to their own. The Europeans – and especially Britain – pressured these countries to “open up” their economies to “free trade” competition with the heavily-protected industrial goods of the West. The result, of course, was that they could not compete on an even basis, and European industrial goods gained the major advantage, forcing these countries to focus on raw goods for export to the rich nations.

In Egypt, a great deal of resistance was also expressed by the new working class, and in the 1830s, the state-led industrialization programs began to decline. Following the death of Muhammad Ali in 1849, few of his industrial programs remained, “and Egypt was well on its way to full integration into a European-dominated world market as supplier of a single raw material, cotton.” If Egypt had succeeded in its industrialization programs, some have suggested, “it might have shared with Japan [or the United States] the distinction of achieving autonomous capitalist development and preserving its independence.”[3]

In the latter half of the 19th century, Egypt made an attempt at increasing its industrial potential, though this time relying primarily upon foreign capital from European powers. The most important example of this was with the foreign financing that led to the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, which “resulted in the development of the export sector of the economy and its necessary infrastructure,” and in turn, the development of a permanent working class.[4]

Great Britain was the first major power to undergo an industrial revolution, with other European empires and the United States soon to follow. Countries that underwent industrialization did so with heavy state involvement in the form of subsidies and protective tariffs and trade measures, allowing domestic industries and goods to gain a competitive advantage over those of other nations around the world. The global trading system – as an outgrowth of the development of the modern state-capitalist system – became a central facet in the construction and expansion of empire.

The imperial powers – predominantly in the North Atlantic region, the United States and Western Europe, with the later addition of Japan – had to maintain their own influence over the world by ensuring that the rest of the world did not follow their examples of industrialization, and thus, be able to compete with them for regional and global influence. Thus, industrialization – or ‘development’ – in the ‘core’ countries necessarily required de -industrialization – or underdevelopment – in the rest of the world, the global imperial ‘periphery.’

The period between 1770 and 1870 marked “the first phase of the underdevelopment process” for many countries and regions in the world. In 1770, “the present Third World probably had a real income and an industrial product per capita comparable to those of the rest of the world.” Multiple countries attempted state-led and protected industrialization processes in the early nineteenth century – notably Egypt and Paraguay, though lesser efforts at state-led industrialization were made in what are modern-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia and Brazil, with more isolated and less state-involved efforts in Mexico and Colombia. By 1870, however, the gap had widened significantly between the industrial powers (Western Europe, North America and Japan), which exported manufactured goods, and the rest of the world, which largely focused on exporting commodities needed for industry.[5]

The “specialization” of economies in the Global South – the ‘Third World’ – made them dependent upon the export of raw materials to the rich, powerful countries, and thus, kept them in a subservient position within the global order. This has been referred to as the “Great Divergence” between the powerful countries and the rest of the world, where the powerful countries industrialized themselves and de-industrialized others.[6] In short, the powerful countries became – and remained – powerful by virtue of their ability to undermine and disempower the rest of the world, pushing them away from independence and autonomy into a position of dependence on the ‘core’ economies.

In 1870, roughly 70% of Egypt’s exports were cotton, and by 1910-14, this had risen to 93%. In 1882, the British occupied Egypt, at which point the country was essentially ruled over by Lord Cromer, “a devout believer” in the ‘free market’ (for every country except Britain). Cromer’s rule of Egypt (1883-1907) coincided with many of the “formative” years for the Egyptian working class, as labour became increasingly exploited in sectors dominated by European capital.[7] Out of a total population of 11 million, Egypt had approximately 350,000 male workers in the 1907 census, with 100,000 in transport and 150,000 in commerce. Thus, by the early 20th century, “Egypt had a modern working class concentrated in its two largest cities and ready to make itself heard.”[8]

Anarchism and a Radical Working Class in Egypt

Added to the increased domestic formation of a working class, a large presence of foreign workers was brought into Egypt to provide the necessary skills for building the country’s infrastructure. Waves of immigrant workers came from Europe, notably Italy and Greece. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many of these migrant workers brought with them to Egypt the emerging ideologies and philosophies of resistance and revolution which were spreading among the European working classes, notably socialism and anarchism. Italian workers began forming anarchist groups within Egypt, and others soon followed. Egypt’s anarchists quickly established close connections with anarchists in Greece and Turkey, and were developing connections with groups in Tunis, Palestine and Lebanon.[9]

From the 1880s onward, anarchist groups within Egypt – still primarily European in membership – were forming educational groups and starting publications around the country. As the domestic Egyptian labour movement grew, so too did the influence of anarchists, notably anarcho-syndicalists. While still largely Italian in makeup, the anarchist community in Egypt became increasingly multi-ethnic, with the increased presence of Greeks, Jews, Germans, and several Eastern European nationalities. Arab Egyptians became increasingly involved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, specifically within the working class, and notably among the cigarette workers, printers and service employees.[10]

The first major strike in Egypt took place in 1899 among the Cairo cigarette rollers. More strike activity took place in the following years, incorporating both foreign and domestic workers within the country. The primary issues for workers were the long hours, low wages, minimal benefits and oppressive management. Since almost all of Egypt’s large employers were foreign, and the country was under foreign (British) occupation since 1882 (to 1922), “the struggle of Egyptian workers for economic gains converged with the nationalist movement seeking to end British rule.”[11] Thus, resistance to domestic tyranny within Egypt inevitably required resistance to imperial hegemony over Egypt by outside powers.

Anarchists in Egypt created the Free Popular University (UPL) in Alexandria in 1901, “with the aim of providing free evening education to the popular classes… and drew widespread support from across the full range of Alexandrian society.” Classes were given on subjects from the humanities to the sciences, to discussing workers’ associations and women in society, with discussions given in a number of different languages, including Italian, French, and Arabic. As anarcho-syndicalists began building ties with the indigenous Egyptian workers, international (or ‘mixed’) unions were formed between domestic and foreign migrant workers in Egypt, which helped contribute to the 1899 cigarette rollers strike, among other actions.[12]

During World War I, Britain decided that Egypt was now a ‘protectorate,’ and over the course of the war (1914-18), the British “oversaw a policy of clamping down on all political activities, interning nationalists, surveilling or deporting foreign anarchists and closing down newspapers.”[13] In 1919, there was a popular uprising against the British – called the 1919 Revolution – in which nationalists called for the British to leave Egypt and for independence. Workers participated in the form of strikes, demonstrations and clashes with police. Anarcho-syndicalists also played a part in supporting the protests and strikes of the 1919 Revolution.[14]

Ultimately, the British agreed to grant Egypt ‘formal’ independence by 1922, but in the decade and a half that followed World War I, the major political issues revolved around the negotiation of a treaty with Britain and the establishment of a parliamentary regime. The Wafd party, founded in 1918, would quickly become the “embodiment of the Egyptian national movement,” holding a great deal of popular support, winning all of the elections until 1952, but it was largely used as a party through which to co-opt the more radical labour and anti-imperialist elements within Egyptian society. The Wafd encouraged union organization, but only under its umbrella, not independently. When a treaty with Britain was reached in 1936, the Wafd began to lose some of its influence as new political organizations formed, such as the precursor to the Muslim Brotherhood. Labour struggled for more rights, seeking to pass legislation that would, among other things, allow for independent unions. World War II, however, came with the imposition of martial law, but also with increased industrial development within Egypt, and thus, a growing working class.[15]

Between the end of the war and 1952, Egypt “saw the appearance of an active left inside and outside the workers’ movement, a new political scene characterized by new mass organizations and issues, and renewed nationalist struggle including guerrilla action against British forces.” In 1952, Gamal Abdul Nasser and the ‘Free Officers’ orchestrated a bloodless coup, abolished the monarchy and the parliament and installed a nationalist military government under the leadership of Nasser. The coup quickly resulted in the repression of the militant labour movement, bringing workers under the control of the government.[16]

The development and evolution of Egypt’s working class has been intimately tied to the development and evolution of Egypt’s relations with the Western imperial powers and their imposition of a global state-capitalist order. The struggle of workers continued over the following decades, providing a major impetus behind the conditions that led to the start of Egypt’s unfinished Revolution in 2011, where the conditions of workers remain tied to the imperial imposition of a state-capitalist order.

In the next part of this series, I examine the relationship between Arab Nationalism – as propagated by Nasser – and the American Empire’s efforts to exert its influence over the Middle East and much of the rest of the world.

Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, head of the Geopolitics Division of the Hampton Institute, the research director of Occupy.com’s Global Power Project, and has a weekly podcast with BoilingFrogsPost.

Notes

[1] Zachary Lockman, “Noted on Egyptian Workers’ History,” International Labor and Working Class History (No. 18, Fall 1980), pages 1-2;

Joel Benin, “Formation of the Egyptian Working Class,” MERIP Reports (No. 94, February 1981), page 14.

[2] Jean Batou, “Nineteenth-Century Attempted Escapes from the Periphery: The Cases of Egypt and Paraguay,” Review – Fernand Braudel Center (Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer 1993), pages 279-280, 291-292, 294-295.

[3] Zachary Lockman, “Notes on Egyptian Workers’ History,” International Labor and Working Class History (No. 18, Fall 1980), page 2.

[4] Joel Benin, “Formation of the Egyptian Working Class,” MERIP Reports (No. 94, February 1981), page 15.

[5] Jean Batou, op cit., pages 282-283.

[6] Jeffrey G. Williamson, “Globalization and the Great Divergence: terms of trade booms, volatility and the poor periphery, 1782-1913,” European Review of Economic History (Vol. 12, 2008), pages 357, 379.

[7] Joel Benin, op. cit., page 15.

[8] Zachary Lockman, op. cit., page 2.

[9] Anthony Gorman, “Diverse in Race, Religion and Nationality… But United in Aspirations of Civil Progress: The Anarchist Movement in Egypt 1860-1940,” in Steve Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt (eds), Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940: The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism and Social Revolution (Boston, Brill, 2010), pages 3-6.

[10] Ibid, pages 8-10.

[11] Zachary Lockman, op cit., page 3.

[12] Anthony Gorman, op. cit., pages 18-23.

[13] Ibid, page 26.

[14] Zachary Lockman, op. cit., page 4; Anthony Gorman, op. cit., page 26.

[15] Zachary Lockman, op. cit., pages 4-6.

[16] Ibid, pages 6-7.

Egypt Under Empire, Part 2: The “Threat” of Arab Nationalism

In 1945, the British agreed to renegotiate the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, with the British seeking to protect their large military presence with their base at the Suez Canal. The negotiations had become frustrated with the Egyptians demanding the unconditional removal of all British troops, a prospect that was reviled by both the British and Americans, who were first and foremost interested in maintaining their imperial hegemony over the region.[1] One of the major threats to Western imperial domination of the Middle East and North Africa (and thus, of Asia and Africa more generally) was the “rising tide” of Arab Nationalism.

Arab Nationalism was considered a threat for a number of reasons: it presented the possibility of small countries being able to unite as a common force, chart their own paths and determine their own sovereignty, remain ‘neutral’ in the Cold War, and threaten the West’s control of the region’s oil resources and transport routes long considered vital to energy, trade, and military expansionism. In short, Arab Nationalism was a threat precisely because it presented an ‘alternative’ for the poor nations and peoples of the world to follow, an independent form of nationalism not tied to or dependent upon the imperial powers, instead seeking to unite the ‘Third World’ – with its vast natural resource wealth and strategic locations – and thus, could potentially bring the downfall of Western imperial domination of the world.

As early as 1943, in light of the massive oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8926 which declared that, “the defense of Saudi Arabia [is] vital to the defense of the United States.”[2] In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a memo to the American Director of Economic Operations in the Middle East in which he made clear, “The Middle East is an area in which the United States has a vital interest.” That interest, of course, was oil. Roosevelt made clear that Middle Eastern oil belonged to the Western imperialist nations and not the Middle East itself, as he wrote that “the objective of the United States” in the Middle East “is to make certain that all nations are accorded equality of opportunity,” and that “special privileges… should not be afforded to any country or its nationals.” This was, of course, indirectly referring to France and especially Great Britain, the imperial hegemons of the Middle East at the time. The “equality of opportunity” to exploit the resources of the Middle East was simply referring to the expansion of America’s “vital interest” in the region.[3]

American interest in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more broadly did not die with Roosevelt. His successor, Harry Truman, was just as eager to “open the door” to the Middle East. A 1945 memorandum to President Truman written by the Chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs in the U.S. State Department, Gordon Merriam, stated: “In Saudi Arabia, where the oil resources constitute a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history, a concession covering this oil is nominally in American control.”[4] Adolf A. Berle, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s closest advisers, particularly in relation to the construction of the post-War world, years later remarked that controlling the oil reserves of the Middle East would mean obtaining “substantial control of the world.”[5]

After the British left India in 1947 and Palestine in 1948, their largest military base outside Great Britain was on Egypt at the Suez Canal Zone. Yet, in 1947, the Labour government was determined to maintain “a firm hold in the Middle East.” Bilateral talks were held between the British and the Pentagon in 1947 in which they discussed the region, some twenty countries, in which the two powers recognized the region as “vital” to their security interests and agreed to “parallel policies.” This was agreed to by the newly-formed National Security Council (NSC), though the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) were hesitant, fearful that American forces would be drawn into the Middle East at a time when the size of the forces were being decreased while the demands of the emerging empire were increasing. Thus, the JCS stipulated that the “British should continue to maintain primary responsibility for the defense of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.”[6] In 1947, even the U.S. State Department agreed that while “the security of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East… is vital to the security of the United States,” America’s security in the region depended upon the “strong strategic, political, and economic position” of Britain in the region.[7]

As the British Empire continued its decline in influence, and the Soviet Union continued its increase in influence, the Americans became especially concerned with an expanded Soviet presence in the Middle East. In the early 1950s, Secretary of State Dean Acheson sought to exert control over the region “through the coordination of American, British, and indigenous [local Arab dictator] efforts under a concept of the defense of the Middle East as a whole.” Top State Department officials presented the plan to the Pentagon, who agreed, but were hesitant to commit troops to the region, instead favouring the building up of local allies (i.e., to establish strong regional proxies), and recommended the U.S. invite Turkey into NATO in an effort to move the strategic objectives forward. President Truman promptly invited Turkey into NATO in 1951.[8]

In 1951, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State George McGhee stated, “We wish to keep the area on our side where it is clearly cooperating with us, or to bring it firmly onto our side where it is wavering.”[9] That same year, the Egyptian parliament – frustrated with the British – abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in the face of widespread popular demands within the country, frustrating plans for a joint American and British military command of the region, which they wanted to establish within Egypt.[10]

As tensions rose, fighting broke out between British and Egyptian forces, with mass protests and unrest in the streets across the country. It was at this point that the Egyptian army’s ‘Free Officers’ intervened and orchestrated the bloodless coup in 1952.[11] The Americans were warned beforehand about the possibility of a coup, and expressed support for Nasser and the coup officers, feeling that they were “pro-Western,” though the U.S. Ambassador in Egypt added that they were “woefully ignorant of matters economic, financial, political, and international.”[12]

As the Americans sought closer ties to Egypt, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles went to meet with Nasser, who explained that any alliance with the West – built upon the concept of the Cold War’s ‘struggle’ against Communism – would require the British to leave Egypt entirely. Nasser explained that for Egyptians, the main enemy was imperialism, not communism. He told Dulles, “I would become the laughingstock of my people if I told them they now had an entirely new enemy, many thousands of miles away, and that they must forget about the British enemy occupying their territory. Nobody would take me seriously if I forgot about the British.”[13]

The United States continued to attempt to gain the favour of Nasser and the regime in Egypt, noting its strategic importance to the domination of the entire region. The CIA established ties with Nasser’s government in 1953, passing money to the regime, which Nasser (correctly) interpreted as a bribe. Nasser accepted the American approaches to his regime, hoping to keep the U.S. comfortable, though he articulated a ‘non-aligned’ position for Egypt, choosing neither the side of the Soviet Union or the U.S. in the Cold War. The Americans had to accept this position, as they were bluntly told by Nasser’s closest adviser: “You will never be able to get the oil of the Middle East if its people do not side with you… Either you win us forever, or you lose us forever.” The U.S. attempted to ‘win’ favour, by providing funding through the World Bank for the construction of the Aswan Dam.[14]

Nasser’s suspicions grew, however, when World Bank funding came with ‘conditions’ which would allow for concessions to the British and Americans, specifically regarding the Suez Canal. Nasser felt the World Bank was cooperating with “the imperialist nations,” who were getting in the way of his attempted project to build a modern society for Egypt: to achieve a social revolution. Nasser then announced an arms deal with the Soviet Bloc in 1955, prompting the US and UK to cancel their funding of the Aswan Dam.[15]

By 1956, the State Department acknowledged – in internal documents – that, “there seems little likelihood the US will be able to work with Nasser in the foreseeable future.” British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had even stated that he wanted to “destroy” Nasser. A State Department official noted in July of 1956 that, “Nasser is pursuing policies in the Near East opposed to reasonable U.S. objectives.”[16] As the U.S. ended funding for the Aswan Dam, Nasser announced that Egypt would fund the project by nationalizing the Suez Canal. The British and French were furious, with Anthony Eden cabling President Eisenhower that they had to “be ready… to use force to bring Nasser to his senses.” The French compared the nationalization of the Suez Canal to Hitler’s seizure of the Rhineland, but the Americans remained hesitant to resort to military action, fearing that undertaking such a response would ‘compromise’ their position in the region. The British and French told the Americans that “military action is necessary and inevitable,” and hoped for U.S. support.[17]

A special national intelligence estimate shared with the National Security Council in the United States noted that Nasser’s decision had “greatly strengthened his position, not only as leader of Egypt, but also as the spokesman and symbol of Arab nationalism throughout the Middle East.” The decision to nationalize the Suez Canal “has won wild acclaim from the Egyptian population, warm support from the greater part of the Arab world, and approval from the USSR.” The intelligence estimate noted: “Nasser’s action has strengthened anti-Western, anticolonial, and nationalist trends throughout the area, and if successful, will encourage future moves toward early nationalization or other action against foreign-owned oil pipelines and petroleum facilities.”[18]

Referring to Nasser’s nationalization as a “dramatic act of defiance,” the intelligence document explained that this will “have an intoxicating effect on Arab nationalist sentiment,” and subsequently, “certain Arab states may be encouraged, both by example and persuasion, to take similar anti-Western actions.” All of these threats and possible actions “would be increased in the event of intervention by Western military forces or a substantial increase in Western arms shipments to Israel.”[19]

A State Department policy paper from early August 1956 referred to Nasser as “an international political adventurer of considerable skill with clearly defined objectives that seriously threaten the Western world.” The State Department concluded: “Nasser intends to make full use of the resources of the Arab world, notably the Suez Canal and the oil, the resources and turmoil of the entire African continent, and the support of Muslims in Indonesia, China, Malaya, Siam, Burma and elsewhere” in order “to wield a power without limit.” Thus, the State Department noted, “it must be concluded that Nasser is not a leader with whom it will be possible to enter into friendly arrangements of cooperation or with whom it will be possible to make any feasible accommodations.” Nasser did not seek to become “a stooge of the Kremlin,” but rather, to take “a more ambitious” role as a “third force,” which would ultimately “be as inimical to the interests of the West as those of the Kremlin.”[20]

The State Department paper went on to acknowledge that the regional resentment of populations against the West was legitimate in the historical context of Western colonialism and empire, but that it would be necessary to prevent the region coming together, to ‘divide and conquer.’ In the policy paper’s own words, the State Department acknowledged that “the hatreds, frustrations and resentments of the people of the Middle East and Africa certainly exist and there is no easy way of dealing with the problems which they create.” Tellingly, the report continued: “it is to the interest of the West that they be dealt with as nearly separately as possible and that no leader… be permitted to merge the emotions and resources of the entire Middle East and Africa into a single onslaught against Western civilization.” Thus, the West would have to implement “policies designed to reduce… Nasser as a force in the Middle East and Africa.” The memo bluntly concluded: “it is in U.S. interests to take action to reduce Nasser’s power.”[21]

Still, however, fear of the popular reaction in the Arab, Muslim and African world prevented the United States from supporting military intervention in Egypt, as “anticolonial and anti-Western tendencies would be greatly reinforced and resentment of the continued presence of Western power elements in the Middle East would be intensified,” according to a National Intelligence Estimate.[22]

In late October of 1956, the Israelis, British and French began their attack and invasion of Egypt. In a meeting with his National Security Council, Eisenhower declared, “How could we possibly support Britain and France if in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”[23] The United States and the USSR both publicly and internationally condemned the European-Israeli invasion of Egypt, demanded a ceasefire and a withdrawal of troops. The event was considered a victory first and foremost for Nasser’s Egypt, then for the Soviets and Americans, and a major defeat for the waning influence of the French and British in the region (and not to mention, increased hostility toward Israel, largely viewed as a Western imperial proxy in the region).

Nasser’s influence was especially increased following the Suez Crisis. Nasser’s support for nationalist movements in North Africa, particularly Algeria, increasingly became cause for concern. Pro-Western governments in the Middle East stood on unstable ground, threatened by the ever-expanding wave of Pan-Arab nationalism and indeed, Pan-African nationalism spreading from North Africa downward.

The United States, however, noting the power vacuum created by the defeat of Britain and France in the conflict, as well as the increasing support from the Soviet Union for nationalist movements in the region as elsewhere, had to decide upon a more direct strategy for maintaining dominance in the region. As President Eisenhower stated in December of 1956, as the Suez Crisis was coming to a final close, “We have no intention of standing idly by… to see the southern flank of NATO completely collapse through Communist penetration and success in the Mid East.” Secretary Dulles stated in turn, that, “we intend to make our presence more strongly felt in the Middle East.” Thus, the Eisenhower Doctrine was approved in early 1957, calling for the dispersal of “$200 million in economic and military aid and to commit armed forces to defend any country seeking assistance against international communism,” explaining that, “the existing vacuum… must be filled by the United States before it is filled by Russia.”[24]

Support for the Eisenhower doctrine in 1957 came from the pro-Western governments [aka: dictatorships] of Libya, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, while opposition was strongest amongst Syria and Egypt. Nasser suggested that the Eisenhower Doctrine was “a device to re-establish imperial control by non-military means,” and he would thus “have nothing to do with it and felt it was directed at Egypt as much as at any communist threat.”[25]

Indeed, Nasser was correct, as internal State Department policy planning papers reflected. While a great deal of the rhetoric from internal documents and public statements was directed at dealing with the threat of ‘communism’ and the Soviet Union’s influence in the region, Nasser and Egypt figured prominently in the internal discussion among U.S. policy-makers, noting the threat of a ‘Third Force.’ Thus, as the State Department noted, “efforts to counter Soviet penetration” of the region “must include measures to… circumscribe Nasser’s power and influence.” The U.S. was adamant that it must avoid “suspicion that our aim is to dominate or control any of the countries or to reimpose British domination in a different form,” and thus, “our actions will be largely self-defeating if they create a general impression that our objective is to directly overthrow Nasser.”[26] It may be worth noting that the document said that while they wanted Nasser gone, the issue was simply that they did not want to give the “impression” (appearance) that they wanted him gone. Thus, the guise of stemming the spread of ‘communism’ became increasingly useful in a strategic context.

A National Security Council Operations Coordinating Board report from 1957 acknowledged that there had “been increasing manifestations of an awakened nationalism” in the Arab world, largely emerging in response to “a desire to end both real and imagined vestiges of the mandate and colonial periods.” Since the historic colonial powers of the region “were from Western Europe, this nationalism has assumed generally an anti-Western form” which has “created opportunities for Soviet exploitation” which has “placed the United States in a difficult position.” The “sympathy” that the United States has towards those who want to overthrow the oppressive structures of empire and domination – which is to say, the rhetoric of the American system as being supportive of democracy and liberation – often runs “into sharp conflict with actions required to maintain the strength of the Western alliance and to support our closest allies,”[27] who happen to be ruthless tyrants.

While Britain and France viewed this nationalism “as a threat to their entire position in the area,” the United States felt that while such nationalism “represents a threat to the West,” it viewed it “as an inevitable development which should be channeled, not opposed.” While acknowledging that Nasser would “remain the leader of Egypt” for some time, the objective of the United States would be to determine “the degree to which it will actively seek to curb Nasser’s influence and Egyptian activities in the Near East and Africa.”[28]

A 1958 National Security Council report on the ‘Long-Range U.S. Policy Toward the Near East’ noted that the region was “of great strategic, political, and economic importance to the Free World,” by which they meant, the Western imperial powers. This was especially true because the region “contains the greatest petroleum resources in the world and essential facilities for the transit of military forces and Free World commerce,” such as the Suez Canal. Thus, the report noted, “it is in the security interest of the United States to make every effort to insure that these resources will be available and will be used for the strengthening of the Free World,” with the added benefit of the fact that the “geographical position of the Near East makes the area a stepping-stone toward the strategic resources of Africa.”[29]

The NSC document noted that, “In the eyes of the majority of Arabs the United States appears to be opposed to the realization of the goals of Arab nationalism,” believing “that the United States is seeking to protect its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress.” The status quo, of course, was to support ruthless dictators who impoverished their populations and gave their nation’s resources over to Western imperial powers. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, has a much better reputation within the Arab world, supporting the cause of Arab nationalism without demanding the same allegiance in the Cold War struggle that the U.S. was demanding of its autocratic allies in the region. Thus, “the prestige of the United States and of the West has declined in the Near East while Soviet influence has greatly increased.” The U.S. and Soviet Union were largely divided on issues related to Israel-Palestine, Arab nationalism and self-determination, U.S. support for its “colonial” allies in Western Europe, and the “widespread belief that the United States desires to keep the Arab world disunited and is committed to work with ‘reactionary’ [i.e., authoritarian] elements to that end.”[30]

These beliefs, the report went on to note, were essentially true. The United States “supports the continued existence of Israel” and “our economic and cultural interests in the area have led not unnaturally to close U.S. relations with elements in the Arab world whose primary interest lies in the maintenance of relations with the West and the status quo in their countries,” identifying the rulers of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan as obvious examples. The report even acknowledged that the “police-state methods” employed by communist governments “seem no worse than similar methods employed by Near East regimes, including some of those supported by the United States.”[31]

Acknowledging that the region had “extremes of wealth and poverty,” the Arab people largely blamed “external factors” such as “colonialism,” and “a desire on the part of the West to keep the Arab world relatively undeveloped so that it may ultimately become a source of raw materials.” The NSC also acknowledged that because of the U.S. alliance with the Western European colonial powers through NATO, “it is impossible for us to avoid some identification” with colonialism. However, the NSC noted, “we cannot exclude the possibility of having to use force in an attempt to maintain our position in the area,” though such force may only preserve Western interests “with great difficulty.”[32]

Instead of “attempting merely to preserve the status quo,” the NSC document suggested, the United States should “seek to guide the revolutionary and nationalistic pressures throughout the area into orderly channels which will not be antagonistic to the West and which will contribute to solving the internal social, political and economic problems of the area.” However, this still required the United States to “provide military aid to friendly countries to enhance their internal security and governmental stability,” or in other words, to preserve the status quo. However, when a “pro-Western orientation is unattainable,” the document recommended to “accept neutralist policies of states in the area” and that the U.S. should “provide assistance… to such states.”[33]

In terms of the ‘threat’ posed by Pan-Arab nationalism, the NSC report recommended that the U.S. publicly proclaim “support for the ideal of Arab unity,” but to quietly “encourage a strengthening of the ties among Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq” in order to “counterbalance Egypt’s preponderant position of leadership in the Arab world” to support the political and economic power of “more moderate” states such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Sudan and Iraq. The United States still had to “be prepared” to use force, however, in order “to reconcile vital Free World interests in the area’s petroleum resources with the rising tide of nationalism in the area.”[34]

The National Security Council Planning Board produced a report in July of 1958 which noted a difference of views within planning circles, one of which was that the U.S. “must face up to the fact that Arab nationalism is the dominant force in the Arab world, and that it has assumed a radical form symbolized by Nasser.” Further, because “we back regimes which seem out of step with it, or otherwise seek to retard its impact, we are going to appear to oppose it.” Thus, the NSC put forward one suggestion that, “we must adapt to Arab nationalism and seek to utilize it, if we are to retain more than a steadily declining influence in the Arab world.”[35]

Another view of the matter, the NSC paper articulated, was that, “because of the many disparities between our interests and the demands of radical Arab nationalism, the United States cannot afford to accommodate it,” as Nasser’s brand of Pan-Arab nationalism “may be virtually insatiable; it mat not stop its march until it has taken over large parts of Africa,” and thus, accommodation “may only bring a still more rapid loss of Western influence.” Ultimately, the NSC document noted, “if we choose to combat radical Arab nationalism and to hold Persian Gulf oil by force if necessary, a logical corollary would be to support Israel as the only strong pro-West power left in the Near East.”[36] In other words, the United States would support Israel as a buffer against the spread of Arab nationalism.

Two days after the NSC document was issued, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stated – during a meeting of the National Security Council – that, “Arab nationalism was like an overflowing stream – you cannot stand in front of it and oppose it frontally, but you must try to keep it in bounds. We must try to prevent lasting damage to our interests in the Near East until events deflate the great Nasser hero myth,” and that “we must try to deflate that myth.” President Eisenhower chimed in during the meeting, suggesting, “we could support self-determination by the Arabs as far as the internal governments of the various countries were concerned. Since we are about to get thrown out of the area, we might as well believe in Arab nationalism.”[37]

The following month, in August of 1958, a Special National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) noted that many pro-West dictatorships in the region were experiencing major crises, such as Lebanon and Jordan (both of which the U.S. sent troops to that year), or having been overthrown (such as Iraq), or forced to make accommodations to Nasser (such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), and thus, noted the NIE: “the Western-supported conservative governments of the Middle East have seen their influence and authority slip away.” Arab nationalism, the NIE noted, “is a movement of long standing, with great emotional appeal, aimed at a renaissance of the Arab peoples and the restoration of their sovereignty, unity, power, and prestige.” Thus, while pro-West governments publicly spoke out against Western imperialism, they continued to maintain ties to the imperial powers “because they needed Western support in order to stay in power.”[38]

The radical nationalist governments, on the other hand, “were far more distrustful of the West, more determined to eradicate the remaining Western controls over Arab political and economic life, and far more serious about achieving (rather than simply praising) the goal of Arab unity.” Further, these radical regimes “added a doctrine of social revolution and reform to the older tenets of Arab nationalism, and thus came into conflict with the traditional upper classes and social and economic systems of the Arab world on which the conservatives’ power rested.” Ultimately, the NIE noted, “it is necessary to think of Nasser and the mass of Arab nationalists as inseparable” and that “no rival is likely to challenge him unless he suffers a series of defeats.”[39]

An NSC planning board paper from late August suggested that the United States should “seek to contain radical pan-Arab nationalism from spilling out beyond the Near East and undermining other pro-Western regimes.”[40]

Indeed, few things are more frightening to imperial powers than the possibility of a good example. If a comparably small and poor country like Egypt could successfully defy the United States, France, Britain, Israel and the Soviet Union – to not become a proxy of any major power – and to chart its own path in international affairs and attempt a ‘social revolution’ at home, the rest of the world – the majority of the world being poor and living in Africa, Asia and Latin America – are paying attention. If Egypt could do it, so could they. What’s more, if the Arab countries could unite, then the African countries could unite, defying the fallacious borders carved up by European empires and creating powerful regional forces of their own.

In short, it amounts to a type of domino theory which was articulated by the Pentagon and other imperial planning bodies in the United States to justify their massive wars in Indochina and beyond, except instead of fearing the spread of Communism – with countries caving one by one (like dominos) to the appeal of the Soviet Union – the reality of the threat was much greater: a successful attempt of independent nationalism would encourage more to follow.

This is no less true today than it was when Nasser was in power. Perhaps the most important quote regarding the spread of Arab Nationalism in the 1950s – from the perspective of American imperial strategists – was when the NSC declared in 1958 that the United States should “seek to guide the revolutionary and nationalistic pressures throughout the area into orderly channels which will not be antagonistic to the West and which will contribute to solving the internal social, political and economic problems of the area.” Indeed, one could imagine such a statement appearing almost verbatim in the internal documents of the Obama administration related to Egypt’s ongoing revolution.

Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, head of the Geopolitics Division of the Hampton Institute, Research Director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project and hosts a weekly podcast show at BoilingFrogsPost.

Notes

[1] Peter L. Hahn, “Containment and Egyptian Nationalism: The Unsuccessful Effort to Establish the Middle East Command, 1950-53,” Diplomatic History (Vol. 11, No. 1, January 1987), pages 25-26.

[2] Maurice Jr. Labelle, “‘The Only Thorn’: Early Saudi-American Relations and the Question of Palestine, 1945-1949,” Diplomatic History (Vol. 35, No. 2, April 2011), pages 259-260.

[3] Letter from President Roosevelt to James M. Landis, American Director of Economic Operations in the Middle East, Concerning the Vital Interest of the United States in the Middle East, Foreign Relations of the United States, The Near East, South Asia, and Africa, 6 March 1944.

[4] Report by the Coordinating Committee of the Department of State, “Draft Memorandum to President Truman,” Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers, The Near East and Africa, Vol. 8, 1945, page 45.

[5] Lloyd C. Gardner, Three Kings: The Rise of an American Empire in the Middle East After World War II (The New Press, 2009), page 96; Noam Chomsky, “Is the World Too Big to Fail?” Salon, 21 April 2011: http://www.salon.com/2011/04/21/global_empire_united_states_iraq_noam_chomsky/

[6] Toru Onozawa, “Formation of American Regional Policy for the Middle East, 1950-1952: The Middle East Command Concept and Its Legacy,” Diplomatic History (Vol. 29, No. 1, January 2005), pages 120-121.

[7] Peter L. Hahn, op. cit., page 24.

[8] Ibid, pages 28-29.

[9] Toru Onozawa, op. cit., pages 125-127.

[10] Peter L. Hahn, op. cit., pages 34-35.

[11] Ibid, pages 36-39.

[12] H.W. Brands, “The Cairo-Tehran Connection in Anglo-American Rivalry in the Middle East, 1951-1953,” The International History Review (Vol. 11, No. 3, August 1989), pages 446-447.

[13] Ibid, pages 451-452.

[14] Barry Rubin, “America and the Egyptian Revolution, 1950-1957,” Political Science Quarterly (Vol. 97, No. 1, Spring 1982), pages 76-80.

[15] Amy L. S. Staples, “Seeing Diplomacy Through Bankers’ Eyes: The World Bank, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Crisis, and the Aswan High Dam,” Diplomatic History (Vol. 26, No. 3, Summer 2002), pages 410-414.

[16] Geoffrey Warner, “The United States and the Suez Crisis,” International Affairs (Vol. 67, No. 2, April 1991), pages 304-308.

[17] Ibid, pages 308-309.

[18] Document 40, “Special National Intelligence Estimate,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 16, Suez Crisis, 31 July 1956.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Document 62, “Paper by the Secretary of State’s Special Assistant (Russell),” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 16, Suez Crisis, 4 August 1956.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Document 175, “Special National Intelligence Estimate,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 16, Suez Crisis, 5 September 1956.

[23] Document 455, “Memorandum of Discussion at the 302d Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, November 1, 1956, 9 a.m.,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 16, Suez Crisis, 1 November 1956.

[24] Peter L. Hahn, “Securing the Middle East: The Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, (Vol. 36, No. 1, March 2006), pages 39-40.

[25] Ibid, page 41.

[26] Document 161, “Paper Prepared in the Bureau of Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs and the Policy Planning Staff,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 12, Near East Region; Iran; Iraq, 5 December 1956.

[27] Document 178, “Operations Coordinating Board Report,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Vol. 12, Near East Region; Iran; Iraq, 22 December 1956.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Document 5, “National Security Council Report,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Vol. 12, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula, 24 January 1958.

[30 – 34] Ibid.

[35] Document 35, “Paper Prepared by the National Security Council Planning Board,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Vol. 12, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula, 29 July 1958.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Document 36, “Memorandum of Discussion at the 374th Meeting of the National Security Council,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Vol. 12, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula, 31 July 1958.

[38] Document 40, “Special National Intelligence Estimate,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Vol. 12, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula, 12 August 1958.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Document 42, “Paper Prepared by the National Security Council Planning Board,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Vol. 12, Near East Region; Iraq; Iran; Arabian Peninsula, 19 August 1958.

Islamic State Defeat Instigates Saudi-Iran Confrontation

With Islamic State routed everywhere, the threat of plunging the Middle East into a large-scale war has not diminished, but, on the contrary, it has grown. There are signs that a Saudi-Iran conflict, threatening to activate new fronts in the region, is imminent. The struggle between these countries for political and religious influence has geopolitical implications that extend far beyond the waters of the Persian Gulf and encompass nearly every major conflict zone in the region. With tensions running high, a spark is enough to start a big fire at any moment.

Eleven of Saudi Arabia’s richest and most influential businessmen and politicians were detained in a corruption probe by the Crown Prince’s Mohammed bin Salman’s anti-corruption committee over the weekend. Separately, the minister of the Saudi National Guard, who controlled the branches of the military that weren’t yet under the crown prince’s control, was replaced by King Salman. “Nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of Saudi Arabia, giving the sense the kingdom is entering into unchartered waters with unknown consequences,” David Ottaway, Middle East Fellow at the Wilson Center, said in a statement. He added the actions “could well threaten the House of Saud’s stability for years to come.”

The views on what happened in Saudi Arabia may differ but one thing is certain – the power in the kingdom is being consolidated against the background of possible conflict with Iran. The consolidation is taking place as Riyadh becomes increasingly determined to adopt a more assertive foreign policy and pursue a more aggressive approach toward what it sees as an Iranian threat.

A ballistic missile – a Burkan 2-H Scud-type missile with a range of more than 800 km – fired from Yemen towards Riyadh was intercepted on November 4. It was seen by the Saudi-led military coalition as a “dangerous escalation” by the Iran-allied Houthi militia in Yemen. All air, land and sea ports to Yemen were temporarily closed to stem the flow of arms to Houthi rebels from Iran.

On November 6, Saudi Arabia made a statement, citing evidence that Tehran was behind the strike and labelling it a potential “act of war.” According to it, an examination of the debris confirmed the role of Iran’s regime in manufacturing ballistic missiles and smuggling them to the Houthi militias in Yemen for the purpose of attacking the kingdom. The document accused Iran of violating United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, which prohibits states from supplying weapons to Yemeni armed groups.

On November 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his snap resignation from government, triggering a crescendo of war drums. The resignation was unprecedented as it was announced in a televised address from an undisclosed location in Riyadh. It came in the context of Saudi’s renewed push to confront Iran.

Hariri, a pro-Saudi politician and the leader of Lebanon’s Sunni bloc, accused Tehran of sowing “disorder and destruction” in Lebanon. He also said: “Iran has a wild desire to destroy the Arab world,” and vowed that “Iran’s hands in the region will be cut off.” The PM also accused Hezbollah, a Lebanese pro-Iran political and armed movement, for building “a state within a state”. Hariri said his life was in danger.

Lebanon is split along sectarian and political lines with parts of the country closer to Riyadh and others closer to Tehran. The PM’s resignation is likely to plunge it into a political quagmire, as the country’s fragile coalition government suffers a severe blow and general elections set for May appear uncertain. The move is seen as the demonstration of Riyadh’s will to confront Iran in Lebanon. According to Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah, the unprecedented resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister was imposed by Saudi Arabia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the resignation was “a wakeup call to the international community to take action against the Iranian aggression that is trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon”. Bahrain ordered on November 5 its citizens in Lebanon to “leave immediately”, amid mounting tension between the regional rivals.

The Syrian military and its allies have converged on holdout Islamic State (IS) group fighters in the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, the militants’ very last urban bastion, following a string of losses. Iraqi Shia pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries crossed the border to approach the IS stronghold.

Pro-US Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are also making fresh gains in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province in an attempt to seize Albu Kamal ahead of Syria and Iraqi Shia forces. The rival forces may be heading for a fight. Kurds and their SDF Arab allies are Sunni Muslims, a clash with Syria’s Shia allies would be seen as a Sunni vs. Shia conflict. Neither Iran nor the Saudi Arabia-led coalition will stand idly by.

The US has taken the side of Saudi Arabia to exclude its involvement in any potential mediation effort. It is overtly hostile to Iran. Besides, if a conflict sparks, US oil exporting frackers will gain.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran on November 1 to address the problems of Middle East security. The Russian president and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran and Moscow are “strategic partners”. Saudi King Salman visited Russia in early October. If mediation to prevent the worst is possible, nobody else is better placed to assume a mediating role in the supercharged atmosphere than Moscow. Meanwhile, the Middle East’s longest-running cold war is about to turn hot.
PETER KORZUN
STRATEGIC CULTURE FOUNDATION

“Explosive” Leaked Secret Israeli Cable Confirms Israeli-Saudi Coordination To Provoke War

Early this morning, Israeli Channel 10 news published a leaked diplomatic cable which had been sent to all Israeli ambassadors throughout the world concerning the chaotic events that unfolded over the weekend in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, which began with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s unexpected resignation after he was summoned to Riyadh by his Saudi-backers, and led to the Saudis announcing that Lebanon had “declared war” against the kingdom.

The classified embassy cable, written in Hebrew, constitutes the first formal evidence proving that the Saudis and Israelis are deliberately coordinating to escalate the situation in the Middle East.

The explosive classified Israeli cable reveals the following:

On Sunday, just after Lebanese PM Hariri’s shocking resignation, Israel sent a cable to all of its embassies with the request that its diplomats do everything possible to ramp up diplomatic pressure against Hezbollah and Iran.
The cable urged support for Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
The cable stressed that Iran was engaged in “regional subversion”.
Israeli diplomats were urged to appeal to the “highest officials” within their host countries to attempt to expel Hezbollah from Lebanese government and politics.
As is already well-known, the Saudi and Israeli common cause against perceived Iranian influence and expansion in places like Syria, Lebanon and Iraq of late has led the historic bitter enemies down a pragmatic path of unspoken cooperation as both seem to have placed the break up of the so-called “Shia crescent” as their primary policy goal in the region. For Israel, Hezbollah has long been its greatest foe, which Israeli leaders see as an extension of Iran’s territorial presence right up against the Jewish state’s northern border.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
The Israeli reporter who obtained the document is Barak Ravid, senior diplomatic correspondent for Channel 10 News. Ravid announced the following through Twitter yesterday:

I published on channel 10 a cable sent to Israeli diplomats asking to lobby for Saudis/Harir and against Hezbollah. The cable sent from the MFA in Jerusalem [Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs] to all Israeli embassies toes the Saudi line regarding the Hariri resignation.
The Israeli diplomats were instructed to demarch their host governments over the domestic political situation in Lebanon – a very rare move.
The cable said: “You need to stress that the Hariri resignation shows how dangerous Iran and Hezbollah are for Lebanon’s security.”
“Hariri’s resignation proves wrong the argument that Hezbollah participation in the government stabilizes Lebanon,” the cable added.
The cable instructed Israeli diplomats to support Saudi Arabia over its war with the Houthis in Yemen. The cable also stressed: “The missile launch by the Houthis towards Riyadh calls for applying more pressure on Iran & Hezbollah.”

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
Watch today’s Hebrew broadcast Channel 10 News report which features the Israeli diplomatic cable – the text of which is featured in Channel 10’s screenshot (below) – here.

“To the Director-General: you are requested to urgently contact the Foreign Ministry and other relevant government officials [of your host country] and emphasize that the resignation of Al-Hariri and his comments on the reasons that led him to resign illustrate once again the destructive nature of Iran and Hezbollah and their danger to the stability of Lebanon and the countries of the region.

Al-Hariri’s resignation proves that the international argument that Hezbollah’s inclusion in the government is a recipe for stability is basically wrong. This artificial unity creates paralysis and the inability of local sovereign powers to make decisions that serve their national interest. It effectively turns them into hostages under physical threat and are forced to promote the interests of a foreign power – Iran – even if this may endanger the security of their country.

The events in Lebanon and the launching of a ballistic missile by the signatories to the Riyadh agreement require increased pressure on Iran and Hezbollah on a range of issues from the production of ballistic missiles to regional subversion.”

Below is a rough translation of the classified Israeli embassy cable using Google Translate as released by Israel’s Channel 10 News:
Thus, as things increasingly heat up in the Middle East, it appears the anti-Iran and anti-Shia alliance of convenience between the Saudis and Israelis appears to have placed Lebanon in the cross hairs of yet another looming Israeli-Hezbollah war. And the war in Yemen will also continue to escalate – perhaps now with increasingly overt Israeli political support. According to Channel 10’s commentary (translation), “In the cable, Israeli ambassadors were also asked to convey an unusual message of support for Saudi Arabia in light of the war in which it is involved in Yemen against the Iranian-backed rebels.”

All of this this comes, perhaps not coincidentally, at the very moment ISIS is on the verge of complete annihilation (partly at the hands of Hezbollah), and as both Israel and Saudi Arabia have of late increasingly declared “red lines” concerning perceived Iranian influence across the region as well as broad Hezbollah acceptance and popularity within Lebanon.

What has both Israel and the Saudis worried is the fact that the Syrian war has strengthened Hezbollah, not weakened it. And now we have smoking gun internal evidence that Israel is quietly formalizing its unusual alliance with Saudi Arabia and its power-hungry and hawkish crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
by Tyler Durden
Nov 7, 2017 10:52 PM
zerohedge.com

Previous Older Entries