Radio Tahrir (Part I): Tariq Ali On the Arab Awakening

This is a transcript of one of the two main interviews during Radio Tahrir, a marathon looking back on the Arab awakening, the Indignados and the Occupy movement, live recorded at the Kaaitheather, Brussels, 11th of March 2012, conceived and moderated by Lieven de Cauter. An edited version (by Werner Trio) of the debate was broadcast as “Radio Tahrir” on Radio Klara, a week later. The first skype interview is with Tariq Ali, who shares his view on the developments in the Middle East, the second with Michael Hardt who is being queried on the Occupy and Indignado movement and the political ramifications for Western democracies. Members of the panel in the Kaaitheater are Rudi Vranckx, Sami Zemni, Yassine Channouf, Eva Brems, Christophe Callewaert, Linus van Hellemont, Eric Coryn and Thomas Decreus. Or listen to the program in English and Dutch.

(Transcript by Odette Dijt)

Lieven De Cauter: Good afternoon, Mr. Ali, do you read me? Yes. Welcome Tariq Ali!… [applause] Very early on – I think it was even when Mubarak was still in power – you write ,in an article you say: “If Tunisia was a tremor, the Egypt uprising has become an earthquake, that is spreading throughout the region”… Now, my first, of course still a bit introductory question is: Why 2011? Why this constellation? How is your, sort of vision on this constellation?

Tariq Ali: I think that what happened in the Arab world in 2011, had been cooking for many years before. And in 2011, the boiling point was reached, and so the lid flew of the cauldron. And the reason for that is very clear: that the imposition on the Arab world of a set of tyrants and dictators, in most cases backed by the United States and the European vassal states of the United States, essentially meant that they were not interested in democracy and human rights. They kept these dictators as long as the dictators supported the neo-liberal economic system, which, of course, all of them did, because they benefitted from it: their families made money, they became corrupt, they didn’t care about the poor. So, when the economic crisis of the Wall Street system began to slowly have its impact on the Arab world, all the grievances that had been building up – political, social, economic – exploded. And no one could have predicted the exact time, but the trigger was the Tunisians, and after the Tunisian dictator – who the French government tried to protect – fled to Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian masses said: this can’t be the case, that the Tunisians have been the first, we have to do something now! And they did it! And they got rid of Mubarak … and once that happened, then the example spread throughout the Arab world. And in my first analytical essay, I described what was happening in the Arab world as an Arab 1848. It was very similar, in many ways, to the European upheavals, which spread from one country to the other, in 1848. And that is what is still going on, it is not over, all we have now is a set of extreme double standards, that where the West doesn’t like a particular dictator, like Assad in Syria, or Gaddafi in Libya, they move to try and remove him, with sometimes, as we have seen in Libya, with disastrous results. But dictators, they lie, like the king of Saudi Arabia, or the king of Morocco, the rulers in Bahrain, they will not do anything and they tolerate massacre. So, it’s this double standard that pervades the Western media and Western politics today.

LDC: Just a little, tiny question on this first big theme … how do the rising food prices fit in this picture? Is that an important factor for you?

TA: It’s a very important factor, because, you know, if you live in the Arab world, you have such a huge gulf between the rich, the rulers, and the people at the bottom, who are quite large. And when it’s not simply the people at the bottom, but also the people above them, who begin to get affected, then you have an explosive situation … And the thing you have to understand is that most of these Arab elites, whatever the country, are venal, corrupt, blinded by their own wealth, and they don’t even look at the conditions of people who live in their countries – their own people! It’s not just the Arab world. The same is true in Pakistan, India, many other countries… but in the Arab world the rebellions that started have become a big, big motor, watched closely by everyone, actually inspiring the Occupation movements. Even though we have not yet had a satisfactory solution to any of these uprisings so far, in my opinion. Because the lack of serious social alternatives, socio-economical alternatives, meant that even though you have a new government in power, in terms of the economy, no changes happen. And this is very dangerous for the new governments in Tunisia and Egypt, if they carry on like before. And the model which some of the moderates like – the so-called moderate Islamists – is the Turkish model. But the Turkish model is effectively a neo-liberal model, which is why the Turkish regime, is NATO’s favourite form of Islamism. Because they do everything that they are told to do on the level of the economy.

LDC: My second question is very short, but very big: multitude or soft-power? Maybe I have to explain a bit, also for the audience, the concept multitude being of course, the crucial term of Negri and Hard which will sort of leitmotiv in our discussions, because this afternoon is about not only the Arab spring but also about the Occupy and Indignado movements – so multitude, I think, is an interesting term, this sort of networked, horizontal, rhizomatic if you want, inter-connected, creative producers linked by the new social media – etcetera. Sort of a new phenomenon. That’s the one vision on Tahrir Square, the other vision, on the whole movement, is soft power. Instead of the neo-con strategy of invading countries and bombing them back to the(ir) Stone Age. Just let these countries disintegrate, and you have the same effect, in a sense. Destroyed fields, ended states, whatever you would call it. As is happening in Libya, as is maybe happening in Syria, et cetera. Of course, it’s a very stark contrast, but I think you can do something with it. That I am sure.

TA: Look, the real question is this: What comes after? Mass uprisings are fine, mass mobilizations are fine, new forms of communication are fine, but one question which sometimes is avoided, is: the question of politics. Not just economics, but also politics. Or, if I can use this old phrase, political economy. What is going to happen to these countries, after these upheavals are over? Is it going to be a new government, a new and even elected government, but which does exactly the same thing? And here two questions arise: one is the argument sometimes put by some of the Negri-people: that effectively if you mobilize and create these networks, that in itself is a victory. They don’t come up with any political programme – nothing at all. And that, I think, is very dangerous. Because, it’s fine, we can all support these movements, but if these movements don’t come up with even a minimum political-economic programme to take people forward, and, if necessary, to implement, then ultimately people say: this is going to end nowhere and the mobilizations and the people become demobilized. I’ll give you a classic example of this, the Zapatistas, in Mexico. Wonderful people, I have many friends there, excellent what they did in their own province. But they decided they could not intervene in national party politics, they had no program, instead, they organized a march from their strongholds to Mexico-City. Impressive. But! After the march nothing happened. What did they think would happen? That just their marching, the strength of this example, would create a new social-economic structure? Doesn’t happen like that!

And thirdly, the point which, I think, Europeans understand today, even better than the people in the Arab world, or elsewhere, is that the neo-liberal capitalist system is actually hollowing out democracy itself! What is democracy today? I have been arguing that what we have in the current phase of “democracy” (so-called) is an extreme centre. Not an extreme Left, you have an extreme Right, but it’s not in par, the extreme Left is very weak; what is strong is an extreme centre. And this extreme centre encompasses both centre Left and centre Right – and it doesn’t matter which group is in power. It matters only to the people who make money, and businessmen, cronies, but, in terms of the people it doesn’t matter which group from the centre is in power, because they do exactly the same business. In which case: what is the point of democracy? This is a question many young Europeans are asking today. Especially, as they say Greece, and the conditions in which Greek people are being forced to live, and they say “Greece is run by a banker”, and they say “Italy is run by a banker” and both these guys were involved in processes, which – in some cases actually working for Goldmann Sachs – which directly led to the Wall Street Crash of 2008 and these are the people, chosen now, to run countries, by the German elite and the European Bank, I mean, it is grotesque! So, in that case, why can’t the Arabs, or other countries elsewhere just do the same: appoint bankers to run their countries. They would love to do that. Forget democracy, appoint a banker to run your country.

LDC: I agree [audible expression of general amusement], I couldn’t more agree. Very impressive analysis, thank you very much. Last question before we move to the panel … a bit obvious question, after the revolution: a fundamentalist restoration?

TA: No! I think we have two processes going on. One, that Islam is not fundamentalist. You know, as anyone will tell you: the fundamentalists constitute a minority within Islam. They’re more active, they can create more havoc, they have more nuisance value, if you like. But, in terms of the Islamists currents, the largest Islamist currents are what we would call the equivalent of Christian Democratic parties in Europe. The Brotherhood in Egypt, which is very strong, it’s a socially conservative, moderate party. It is no longer radical, it should be regarded as middle of the road. Not so different from the Turks. And they’re now doing something: they’re having a big influence on Hamas, which is moving in exactly a similar direction in occupied Palestine. And you have a similar government in power in Tunisia. And hereto we have to ask: what will these governments do? In my opinion these governments will love to do deals with the United States and the European Union and just carry on being in power, like governments in Europa in power, or like Obama is. Fine, no problems. And that could then open up space for something much, much more radical. But what is important to understand is that the reason these parties have become powerful is because of the vacuum that was created at the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Left – of communism, official communism, but not only official communism: social democracy collapsed, and the Left collapsed, that was a huge, huge victory. But it left a vacuum. And in this vacuum most of the groups, that were politically radical, disappeared. Or collapsed, like what happened to the Italian communist party in Italy. Or to many individual intellectuals all over Europe who, after the fall of the Berlin wall, fell themselves on their own swords, and decided to shift to the right, to accept the new capitalist order. And in this vacuum, like in parts of Europe, we see far-Right currents developing, we see an ugly mood of Islamophobia – especially in your city of Antwerp – which can be quite frightening. The equivalent of that in the Islamic world has been minorities like the fundamentalists becoming stronger, but also people turning to the moderate Islamist groups, who have, in most cases, been fighting the corrupt secular dictatorships. That has created this mood. But I think it will not last long if new organizations, new social movements arise. So it’s a big, big transition period in the Arab world which could last ten years or so.

LDC: Thank you very much. Now the panel, we have a world famous – at least locally – war journalist, Rudi Vrankx, we have a professor of Arabic Studies, Sami Zemni, and we have a young activist intellectual, Yassine Channouf, so they will now fire questions to you, or make remarks or even contradict you, or, whatever. Gentlemen, the floor is yours…

Rudi Vrankx: Can you see me? Yeah… Mr. Ali… hallo! I have a question for you. You made a comparison with 1848, as a European I understand it fully. Do you feel that what is happening now in the Arab world, is after the revolutionary phase, the contra-revolution is going ahead now, with what we see in a different way, in Bahrain by the Saudis, in Syria by the Assad regime, or even in Morocco by the king who makes it with a smooth hand? Is it now the contra-evolution going on?

TA: Well, yes. I mean, the whole point of using the analogy of 1848 was, that there were uprisings, but there were no big victories. The importance of 1848 in Europe, was that it created a new mood, and a new atmosphere and some of the victories and triumphs came many, many years later. So, I think what we are witnessing in the Arab world, is a two-pronged thing. One: as you rightly said, the traditional rulers are strengthening themselves, and where they are being defeated, they’re being defeated – as in Libya – by NATO, rather than the local insurrection, which completely changes the character of these countries, as we know full well. And whether they will do the same in Syria remains to be seen. And in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia the counter-revolution is fully entrenched and Egypt, and this is the second part of the thing, has US hegemony. Because this is the big Empire, like the Austro-Hungarians were in 1848. Is US hegemony being dented, anywhere in the Arab world, as a result of the uprisings? In my opinion the answer is: very little. So far. Very little indeed. And American diplomats and ambassadors and intelligence people are busy negotiating behind the scenes with all the Muslim parties to see what agreements they can reach as they are in Afghanistan, incidentally. So they will try and find a new deal. You cannot dent American hegemony simply by toppling a local dictator, you have to have an alternative programme.

Rudi Vrankx: I agree that change in the Arab world is going to take a long time. It’s a long process. And we have seen that Arab Islamism has actually eclipsed the progressive powers, the local powers in the Arab world who started these revolutions. But how do you see – in the near future, I mean – the symbiosis between these two powers? Will we go for a compromise,, as we have seen inTunisia, where a Leftist Arab nationalist party agrees with a moderate Islamist party or will we see a confrontation, as we see in Egypt?

TA: I think there is no pan-Arab group at the moment. So you can say, this will act in a similar way. It will vary from country to country. In Egypt you have groups of the Left, you have a strong tradition of trade unions, in the factories, which were corporatized, incorporated by the regime, but never completely destroyed. And the fact that the structures of these trade unions existed in Egypt’s factories, all the big industries, is a good sign, because now the old bureaucrats are being removed and young workers are now taking over these unions. And that is all positive. But when these young groups and the new groups in Egypt will be able to challenge the hegemony of the Islamists in Egypt, is a difficult question to answer. I think they will do it within ten years. Because, unless the social conditions improve, these people will become discredited. But, obviously we cannot compare Egypt to, say, Saudi Arabia.

What will be the form of the struggle? Against the most favourite regime of the United States and its Western allies in the Arab world, apart from Israel, it is Saudi Arabia. And the Saudi monarchy will be defended by the West till the very end. And so the struggle in that country will probably be sectarianized by the West. They will say it’s the Shias who are making this farce. Like they are saying in Bahrain already. And so it will take different forms which are unpredictable and cannot be foreseen. We do not know, because these conditions in which people will have to fight, are fairly unique. In Syria we can say with certainty, that if Assad, or when the Assad regime goes, the moderate Islamists will take over. By the way in my opinion the Ba’ath are the most stupid and brutal party in the Middle East. It’s their stupidity which is astonishing! You see a mass uprising against you, the obvious thing is to negotiate. If they had negotiated with the internal opposition when the uprising began, the opposition would have been prepared to make compromises and to agree to many things. They didn’t do it! And now they are paying the price. But if you now have an election in Syria, the moderate Islamists will win a big, big majority, and then a lot of the minorities in that country are very fearful. There are reports coming out of Syria, in some areas already Christian minorities are being targeted by the Islamists. We don’t know whether these are true. But certainly they are coming out. And that is the tragedy of the moment of the Arab world.

Sami Zemni: One movement, we have not discussed until now, is the Salafis. They are the biggest surprise, let’s say, since the revolutions broke out, in the sense that, we knew that they were present in several Arab countries, but they were always very far from the direct political stage. And now, actually, they are entering politics, winning a lot of votes, and they are also very much pushing and trying to gain, let’s say the public space. And they’re infesting it. They’re much more radical than those moderate political Islamists, the Muslim brotherhood type of organizations… And secondly, the question is a consequence of it, aren’t we in the Egyptian case, instead of the Turkish model, much closer to the Pakistani model? Because in Turkey the army is a guarantee for secularism, and is, you know, some sort of making a balance with the Islamist government. But in Pakistan we have a completely other … well, you know Pakistan much better than I do, of course…. But that model, perhaps, is getting much closer to the Egyptian case, or not?

TA: Don’t forget that: the key force in Egyptian politics today, despite the elections, is the army! This can come in whenever it wants, it works very closely with the United States, over the last twenty years, and with the Israelis. It has been a reactionary force on most levels, but it is not a religious army. The Egyptian army is more like the Turkish army, it is a secular army, at the moment. Whereas in Pakistan the army was made into a religious army when the United States decided to fight a Jihad against the Soviet Union, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was a decision by Washington to use Islam and to use religion to fight against the Russians. And that is when the Pakistan army, which never used to be an Islamist army, was actually made an Islamist army from the top. Then they attempted to change it. So, all these things vary.

But I think the Egyptian army is still different and if the Salafis were to decide to do something completely crazy, they would probably be resisted, not simply by civil society, also by the moderate Islamists, possibly, and certainly by the army. Whereas in Pakistan, even as we speak, the Pakistani military intelligence is trying to organize all the religious parties into a strike force, called “Defend Pakistan”, to contest the new elections which will happen next year. So these situations are quite varied. We shouldn’t take the fact that the Salafis have come out into the open – in a strange way, that is not such a bad thing, because it is better to see them … It is better to have their representatives in parliament, it is better to argue with them in public, than to ignore them completely, or make them go underground, or ban, or outlaw them, which then will make them decide to drop bombs here, there and everywhere. So it is better that they are out into the open, and they should be taken on. And as you know, sometimes they unite with moderate Islamists in measures that discriminate against women in particular. All this is one key feature. Throughout the Middle East and in countries like Pakistan and India, this is the one thing that unites all the religious groups, because they have no concrete social and economic program. So they go on a cultural offensive, against women, against this, against that. To show they’re doing something, which means nothing for the material conditions of the people. But you know, now, at least we have a situation where these things can be pointed out, and they can be fought and argued against.

LDC: Thank you very much, Tariq Ali. Let’s give him a hand…[applause].

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011) . He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.