This past Tuesday I attended a lecture by the Swiss Muslim public intellectual Tariq Ramadan on the future of Political Islam in the Arab World. In reflection on the revolutions taking place in the Arab world, Ramadan said that we should neither be naive to think that what is happening is an entirely innocent and domestic cry for freedom, nor be blinded by conspiracy theories that blame the West for all mishaps of the Muslim world.
As he tried to situate himself in the “middle,” Ramadan appeared to fall, possibly unconsciously, into the same pit he was trying to avoid, namely, the extreme. He dedicated most of his speech to the Western influence on the Muslim uprisings, pointing to the participation of Arab youth in U.S.-funded training programs on online public mobilization, blogging and citizen journalism. He also mentioned Google’s role in making available several creative tools people in Egypt could use to get around the shutdown of communications by Hosni Mubarak’s government.
Ramadan added that the Western interference to bring about change in the Middle East is part of a strategic struggle for domination over the Middle East between the West on one side and China on the other. He said the West is encouraging uprisings in the Middle East because in part dictators there were moving closer and closer to China and Russia, which, unlike the West, do not ask for democratic reforms as preconditions for economic partnerships
This argument appears rather simplistic, because in varying degrees neither China and Russia, nor the United States, France, and Britain, take democratic reforms much into account when signing economic deals with other nations. In fact, Western countries have notorious track records of cooperating with the most brutal dictators on the planet. In democratic capitalist countries, foreign policy double standards are the norm, with the latest example being Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.
Documents found in the Libyan regime’s intelligence ministry after the fall of Tripoli revealed a meeting between two Qaddafi officials and David Welsh, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, who brokered the normalization of ties between the Qaddafi regime and the George W. Bush administration. Welsh was reportedly providing public relations services to the Qaddafi regime three weeks before rebels overran Tripoli with the help of NATO.
Other documents exposed security and business cooperation between Western governments and Qaddafi’s regime. All three deposed dictators – Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt and Qaddafi – enjoyed in varying degrees comfortable ties with the West before the uprisings that ousted them. If Western powers were interested in changing dictators in the Middle East as Ramadan argues, it would have made sense for them to go after Syria or Iran first rather than allies in Tunisia and Egypt.
The fact the West is backing revolutions in the Arab world does not necessarily mean that they contributed to their rise. It could simply mean being on the right side of history. They did not want to commit the same mistake France did when it stood with Ben Ali of Tunisia. Western powers now watch the revolts, and when the winner becomes clear enough, they jump on his side. Noam Chomsky explains this by saying that the “playbook” of American foreign policy concerning dictators reads thusly: “Whenever a favored dictator is in trouble, try to sustain him, hold on; if at some point it becomes impossible, switch sides.”
(Mustapha Ajbaili is an Al Arabiya journalist and can be reached at Mustapha.Ajbaili@mbc.net)