The Arab Spring at nine months

Helena Cobban writes: What a whirlwind nine months it’s been for the Arab world. As I wrote at a much earlier point in this phenomenon called the ‘Arab Spring’, it is as if some tremor in the long-frozen tectonic plates of the region’s political geography had suddenly burst through all those plates, freeing up waves of long-frozen political energy that have ricocheted– and continue to ricochet– through all the region’s countries.

This is a phenomenon of an almost Biblical 40-year periodicity: After all, it was back in around 1970 that the Arab world’s political shape settled into broadly the same pattern that it then retained until January of this year.

(As it happens, I made my first visit to the region– to Beirut– in 1970. This is, I realize, neither here nor there… Mainly, it makes me feel old.)

It was in 1969 that a young colonel called Muammar Qadhafi had toppled “King” Idris in Libya… The political shifts that occurred in the Arab world the following year were more closely related to Palestine since they stemmed in good part from the tragic battles of 1970’s ‘Black September’. In those battles, Jordan’s U.S.-backed (and discreetly Israeli-backed) King Hussein reimposed an oppressive system of total control on his kingdom (and on its national population which then as now included a numerical majority of ‘West Bank’ Palestinians) by chasing out the Palestinian guerrillas who had become well established there over the preceding three years… Provocatively well established, one could say. The king’s Black September campaign was, indeed, directly precipitated by an action in which the PLO-affiliated Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four international aircraft and landed them at an airstrip in northern Jordan…

During Black September, the Cairo-based Arab League worked hard to try to negotiate a settlement between Hussein and the Palestinians. On September 27, Egypt’s iconic, strongly Arab-nationalist president Gamal Abdel-Nasser convened an emergency summit meeting of Arab leaders in Cairo in an attempt to hammer out an agreement. The next day, he suffered a heart attack and died. (Five million Egyptians flocked to the streets to witness the passing of his cortege.)

Nasser was succeeded in the presidency by his vice-president, Anwar Sadat, a man who shared Nasser’s military background but not his commitment to a broadly ‘non-aligned’ form of Arab nationalism. Throughout Sadat’s eleven years in office, his main goal was to steer Egypt into a close alliance with Washington; and he seemed more than willing to enter into the bilateral peace agreement with Israel that was the entry-fee for that alliance. The Egyptian-Israeli peace of 1979 decoupled mighty Egypt from the Palestinians’ long-running quest for national liberation. After Sadat was assassinated in 1981, his vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, succeeded him. Mubarak hewed just as closely to the pro-American path as his predecessor. His longevity and the hyper-alertness of his ever-repressive mukhabarat gave him the time in office that neither Nasser nor Sadat had, in which to build the basis of dynastic rule..

Notably, in all the time Mubarak was president, he never named a vice-president… He also increasingly evidently started to groom his son Gamal to succeed him.

Meantime, back in the Black September of 1970, the conflict in Jordan soon enough made its effects felt on Syria, as well. The ‘leftist’ wing of the Baath Party, which until then was in power in Syria, had sent tanks into northern Jordan to help the Palestinians. But when those tanks came under threat of serious attack from Hussein’s tanks, the ground forces commanders in Damascus begged for air support from Syria’s air force. The air force commander, Hafez al-Asad, turned down their request. Without any air support, the Syrian tanks retreated speedily back to Syria; and amidst the political chaos and bouts of recriminations that ensued he undertook a swift coup in Damascus that brought his much more cautious, centrist wing of the Baath Party into power…

Where it has stayed until today.

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