The destiny of this pageant lies in the Kingdom of Oil

by Robert Fisk
Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Middle East earthquake of the past five weeks has been the most tumultuous, shattering, mind-numbing experience in the history of the region since the fall of the Ottoman empire. For once, “shock and awe” was the right description.

The docile, supine, unregenerative, cringing Arabs of Orientalism have transformed themselves into fighters for the freedom, liberty and dignity which we Westerners have always assumed it was our unique role to play in the world. One after another, our satraps are falling, and the people we paid them to control are making their own history – our right to meddle in their affairs (which we will, of course, continue to exercise) has been diminished for ever.

The tectonic plates continue to shift, with tragic, brave – even blackly humorous – results. Countless are the Arab potentates who always claimed they wanted democracy in the Middle East. King Bashar of Syria is to improve public servants’ pay. King Bouteflika of Algeria has suddenly abandoned the country’s state of emergency. King Hamad of Bahrain has opened the doors of his prisons. King Bashir of Sudan will not stand for president again. King Abdullah of Jordan is studying the idea of a constitutional monarchy. And al-Qa’ida are, well, rather silent.

Who would have believed that the old man in the cave would suddenly have to step outside, dazzled, blinded by the sunlight of freedom rather than the Manichean darkness to which his eyes had become accustomed. Martyrs there were aplenty across the Muslim world – but not an Islamist banner to be seen. The young men and women bringing an end to their torment of dictators were mostly Muslims, but the human spirit was greater than the desire for death. They are Believers, yes – but they got there first, toppling Mubarak while Bin Laden’s henchmen still called for his overthrow on outdated videotapes.

But now a warning. It’s not over. We are experiencing today that warm, slightly clammy feeling before the thunder and lightning break out. Gaddafi’s final horror movie has yet to end, albeit with that terrible mix of farce and blood to which we are accustomed in the Middle East. And his impending doom is, needless to say, throwing into ever-sharper perspective the vile fawning of our own potentates. Berlusconi – who in many respects is already a ghastly mockery of Gaddafi himself – and Sarkozy, and Lord Blair of Isfahan are turning out to look even shabbier than we believed. Those faith-based eyes blessed Gaddafi the murderer. I did write at the time that Blair and Straw had forgotten the “whoops” factor, the reality that this weird light bulb was absolutely bonkers and would undoubtedly perform some other terrible act to shame our masters. And sure enough, every journalist is now going to have to add “Mr Blair’s office did not return our call” to his laptop keyboard.

Everyone is now telling Egypt to follow the “Turkish model” – this seems to involve a pleasant cocktail of democracy and carefully controlled Islam. But if this is true, Egypt’s army will keep an unwanted, undemocratic eye on its people for decades to come. As lawyer Ali Ezzatyar has pointed out, “Egypt’s military leaders have spoken of threats to the “Egyptian way of life”… in a not so subtle reference to threats from the Muslim Brotherhood. This can be seen as a page taken from the Turkish playbook.” The Turkish army turned up as kingmakers four times in modern Turkish history. And who but the Egyptian army, makers of Nasser, constructors of Sadat, got rid of the ex-army general Mubarak when the game was up?

And democracy – the real, unfettered, flawed but brilliant version which we in the West have so far lovingly (and rightly) cultivated for ourselves – is not going, in the Arab world, to rest happy with Israel’s pernicious treatment of Palestinians and its land theft in the West Bank. Now no longer the “only democracy in the Middle East”, Israel argued desperately – in company with Saudi Arabia, for heaven’s sake – that it was necessary to maintain Mubarak’s tyranny. It pressed the Muslim Brotherhood button in Washington and built up the usual Israeli lobby fear quotient to push Obama and La Clinton off the rails yet again. Faced with pro-democracy protesters in the lands of oppression, they duly went on backing the oppressors until it was too late. I love “orderly transition”. The “order” bit says it all. Only Israeli journalist Gideon Levy got it right. “We should be saying ‘Mabrouk Misr!’,” he said. Congratulations, Egypt!

Yet in Bahrain, I had a depressing experience. King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman have been bowing to their 70 per cent (80 per cent?) Shia population, opening prison doors, promising constitutional reforms. So I asked a government official in Manama if this was really possible. Why not have an elected prime minister instead of a member of the Khalifa royal family? He clucked his tongue. “Impossible,” he said. “The GCC would never permit this.” For GCC – the Gulf Co-operation Council – read Saudi Arabia. And here, I am afraid, our tale grows darker.

We pay too little attention to this autocratic band of robber princes; we think they are archaic, illiterate in modern politics, wealthy (yes, “beyond the dreams of Croesus”, etc), and we laughed when King Abdullah offered to make up any fall in bailouts from Washington to the Mubarak regime, and we laugh now when the old king promises $36bn to his citizens to keep their mouths shut. But this is no laughing matter. The Arab revolt which finally threw the Ottomans out of the Arab world started in the deserts of Arabia, its tribesmen trusting Lawrence and McMahon and the rest of our gang. And from Arabia came Wahabism, the deep and inebriating potion – white foam on the top of the black stuff – whose ghastly simplicity appealed to every would-be Islamist and suicide bomber in the Sunni Muslim world. The Saudis fostered Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Let us not even mention that they provided most of the 9/11 bombers. And the Saudis will now believe they are the only Muslims still in arms against the brightening world. I have an unhappy suspicion that the destiny of this pageant of Middle East history unfolding before us will be decided in the kingdom of oil, holy places and corruption. Watch out.

But a lighter note. I’ve been hunting for the most memorable quotations from the Arab revolution. We’ve had “Come back, Mr President, we were only kidding” from an anti-Mubarak demonstrator. And we’ve had Saif el-Islam el-Gaddafi’s Goebbels-style speech: “Forget oil, forget gas – there will be civil war.” My very own favourite, selfish and personal quotation came when my old friend Tom Friedman of The New York Times joined me for breakfast in Cairo with his usual disarming smile. “Fisky,” he said, “this Egyptian came up to me in Tahrir Square yesterday, and asked me if I was Robert Fisk!” Now that’s what I call a revolution.

  1. #1 by Thor on Sunday, 27 February 2011 - 9:26 am

    Our current PM is just like Gadaffi.
    He even warned us of bloodshed if BN were to lose to the opposition in the next GE.
    How stubborn Gaddafi is, will he eventually fall and it’s just a matter of time that catches up.
    I can see from the stars that there’ll be chaos indeed after the next GE but it won’t last long.
    Before the final count is out, most of the Umno BN fellas and their famillies would have fled this country already.
    Even when Sarawak BN fall, most have made preparation for the exodus.
    Left are just only a few remaining gangsters and hardcore supporters who’ll be trying to stir some trouble just for a few days.
    As I’ve mentioned before, a new world will emerge after the 21st December 2012 and we malaysians have to be well prepared for the next age to come.

  2. #2 by monsterball on Sunday, 27 February 2011 - 10:01 am

    It looks like the Muslim world is facing a tsunami to sweep away Dictators and corrupted lot.
    Lets hope it reaches Malaysia soon.

  3. #3 by k1980 on Sunday, 27 February 2011 - 11:26 am

    //King Bashar of Syria is to improve public servants’ pay. King Bouteflika of Algeria has suddenly abandoned the country’s state of emergency. King Hamad of Bahrain has opened the doors of his prisons. King Bashir of Sudan will not stand for president again. King Abdullah of Jordan is studying the idea of a constitutional monarchy. //

    What, no mention of King Bijan of Najibistan?

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 27 February 2011 - 11:59 am

    ///Everyone is now telling Egypt to follow the “Turkish model” – this seems to involve a pleasant cocktail of democracy and carefully controlled Islam./// – Robert Fisk

    Turkey does stand out in terms of modernity and achievement.

    The model is based on drastic swing of political pendulum from one extreme to another searching for centre.

    Way a hundred years ago it was decadent collapsing Ottoman Empire. Then inspired by European military prowess in world war I Kemal Ataturk, in 1920s to 38 created a new country, swinging 100% to secular side with backing of his military. Even up till today the laws won’t wearing of veil in public school & offices. Istanbul & Ankara are like many European cities, often even better.

    But Tayyip Erdo?an – Anwar’s good friend – and now making friend with Najib as well is trying to bring it back from extreme secularism to the middle with moderate Islamic’s expression. (His wife very Islamic, wears veil, I am told). He wants to bring a once rigidly secular Turkey to the middle of a moderate Islamic democracy, a dynamic one at that as he takes on to arbiter world affairs, reaching to China & Asean for economic opportunities instead of relying on EU’s patronage where countries like France & I think, Germany/Greece too stonewall Turkey’s entry.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 27 February 2011 - 12:03 pm

    Continuing – Turkey’s internal situation is not altogether that great, as elites many from military class also corrupt defending secularism because of patronage/corruption built around this ideology rather than have it as bulwark against religious fanaticism.

    Fuel subsidies earlier withdrawn (not much money frittered in public coffers) , prices all round rocketed, Turks feel sharp pinch, now exacerbated by US$100 per barrel prices due to Middle East protests.

    It has sizable minority Kurds too feeling very marginalised. In the 1980s and 1990s, Turkish security forces killed thousands of its own citizens in a dirty war against the Kurds and the Turkish left, and subjected many more to beatings, torture etc.

    For Egypt – and protestors in other places like Iran, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan etc – they are trying to swing from rigid Islamism (around which the elites’ corruption is inter-woven and hence backed by state power) back to secularism whereas in Turkey its opposite, they have to swing from rigid secularism backed by state power and around which elites’ corruption is inter-woven, back to moderate Islamism.

    So on subject of looking for political model, Egypt tries to be more like Turkey, and Turkey more like Egypt – all searching for Middle Moderate line between two extremes.

  6. #6 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 27 February 2011 - 12:25 pm

    Robert Fisk speaks (rightly) of Saudi Arabia in dark tones – “from Arabia came Wahabism” ideology of suicide bombers ala 9/11, Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.

    Let us not forget it is that bastion of so called democracy that backs this country for Money!

    Around US$36 billion of the US$60 billion cost was paid by Saudi Arabia to America for Gulf War Cost to help finance US’s defence contractors & industrial-military complex. US makes money from arm sales to this oil Kingdom. Since 1951 US marines protect the corrupt & profligate Saudi princes. US’s interest in stable oil prices depend on this ally. Its energy traders were calmed when Saudi Arabia talks to European refiners to fill the gap caused by the disruption in Libya once oil per barrel shot up to US103 per barrel.

  7. #7 by Loh on Sunday, 27 February 2011 - 2:37 pm

    Gaddafi is planning to leave for Zimbabwe before a no-fly -zone is imposed over Libya. Soon, Gaddafi and Mugabe would be asking to be resident in Malaysia. Gaddafi would be willing to pay half his fortune just to get out and get into Malaysia. Some one should work to hire a private jet from Petronas and and a visa from the immigration department, to earn a couple of billion dollars to bring in the most expensive cargo. Well, it would be more convenient for those connected with Petronas.

  8. #8 by ShiokGuy on Sunday, 27 February 2011 - 3:06 pm

    “We believe that he should not use violence. What is important for us is to take into account the aspirations of people… The system should be legitimate, it has to be based on support of people.”

    Who said the above line? Hope he can walk the talk!


  9. #9 by good coolie on Sunday, 27 February 2011 - 11:14 pm

    The renaissance of the Arabs, at last?

  10. #10 by monsterball on Monday, 28 February 2011 - 1:59 am

    It is good against evil…or else the Islamic faith will be weakened by corrupted dictators.
    The sweeping away hypocrites will come soon to Malaysia.

  11. #11 by k1980 on Monday, 28 February 2011 - 7:52 am

    As in “The Adventurers” by Harold Robbins, any dictator overthrown will be replaced by yet another dictator.

  12. #12 by monsterball on Monday, 28 February 2011 - 9:01 am

    First replace it.
    Then replace the one being replaced if it is no better.
    Show politicians….People Power is in control..and everything can be replaced very fast.
    The only problem is many voter’s minds are being poisoned with easy money ..goodies and temptations.

  13. #13 by dagen on Monday, 28 February 2011 - 9:39 am

    I support monsterball.

    Get rid of umno first for umno has already proven itself to be an absolute failure. Letting umno continue on means allowing the rot to sink to the next level – the bottom level, the zimbabwe level. That’s what the future will be like for us. We will have even more plaza rakyats. OMG, imagine an uncompleted 100-storey tower. And PKFZs. And leaking roofs. And fungus infested hospitals. And cracked elevated highway pillars. And collapsed army camp buildings. And land slides. And floods. And lost billions (maybe by then, trillions) through corruption, abuse, wastage and mismanagement. And another 900billion siphoned out illicitly. And teo beng hocks and kugans. And snatch thefts. And robberies. The good thing then, I can phathom is this. University students will not have any written exam. They will be tested orally instead because none of them would be able to write properly.

    Oh boy.

    It is high time to put another team and CEO in the driver’s seat. I am positive. Nothing can be worse than umno. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I am prepared to vote anyone but umno and the barisan idiots. Anyone. Anytime. Anywhere.

    Hey rambutan eater, go stuff your face with more rambutans!

  14. #14 by Loh on Monday, 28 February 2011 - 10:11 am

    UMNO would not have gotten this far without the support of MCA and MIC. Trim the branches first, and UMNO will die along.

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