Deepak Tripathi is a British historian, journalist and researcher who specializes in South and West Asia affairs, terrorism and the United States foreign policy. Deepak Tripathi worked with BBC for almost 23 years. During these years, he served as a South Asia specialist and correspondent, Afghanistan correspondent and Syria, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka reporter. Tripathi is a Member of the Political Studies Association and the Commonwealth Journalists Association. His articles and commentaries on the international issues have appeared on Counterpunch, Foreign Policy Journal, Al-Ahram Weekly, Z Magazine and History News Network. Deepak has authored several books including “Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism”, “Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan” and “Dialectics of the Afghanistan Conflict: How the country became a terrorist haven.”
This is my in-depth interview with Deepak Tripathi on the recent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, the war in Libya and the popular uprising in Bahrain.
Kourosh Ziabari: Do you consider the chained, continuous revolutions in the Arab world a result of pan-Arabist, nationalistic sentiments of the peoples of region who rose up? Was all of this indeed ignited by Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia?
Deepak Tripathi: You have raised an important question. The answer is somewhat complex. Of course, from Libya to Bahrain there are similarities on the surface: repressive regimes, closed societies, ruling cliques imposing their will on the masses. Then there is the Orientalist syndrome in the West that Edward Said depicted so brilliantly in his book “Orientalism.” It is the tendency to lump all Muslims and other people in the East into one basket, and seeing them as exotic, but inferior, people who must be educated in western ways, and exploited. This is where lies the basic mistake, and it has proved disastrous.
The recent uprisings across the Arab world display two different currents. The bigger picture is that of people rising against pro-United States dictators, in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain. On the other hand, we see Libya and Syria, which are not pro-US. Many in the populations of these countries are fed up and can take no more. They want to breath fresh air. Now, in an ideal world the people of each country should be allowed to choose their own destiny without outside interference, but that is not the case in the real world. Western interference is a major cause of resentment in many countries in the region.
Having said this, I believe each popular uprising has its roots in local conditions and causes. In Egypt, it was a people’s revolution, of men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian. They succeeded in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak and his party, but the future is by no means certain; the United States, with allies, continues its interference. America has considerable power because of the huge aid it gives to the Egyptian military every year. So we will have to see what transpires in Egypt. Tunisia, which started all this, is the same – how do long-oppressed people ensure that the system changes to their liking, not just a few faces? In other places, too, things are far from certain. In Bahrain, where the pro-US Sunni ruling family, representing one-third of the population at most, is engaged in the brutal suppression of Shi‘a majority – nearly two-thirds of the population. In Bahrain, it is oil that drives Western policy of support for the ruling family; in Libya, too, oil drives policy, but there Britain, France and Italy, and to lesser extent the Obama administration in the United States, are supporting the anti-Gaddafi forces, because Gaddafi is too independent, too unpredictable. In Syria, oil is not a factor – perhaps one of the reasons why the Western response has so far been limited to condemnations and warnings. And the Yemeni president is America’s surrogate; Yemen is vital for the security of Saudi Arabia, America’s strongest ally after Israel and the most reliable oil supplier.
The last part of your question concerns the Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, street vendor who set himself on fire after being harassed by corrupt police. Bouazizi certainly touched million and millions of people right across the region, because they could easily identify with his harassment and humiliation.
KZ: Bahrain has one of the blackest human rights records in the Persian Gulf region. Its longstanding tradition of suppressing the Shiites, persecuting the bloggers and journalists, incarcerating and torturing the political activists attest to the fact that despite being a close ally of the United States, Bahrain is not a democratic country based on American-championed values. Why does the United States support such a repressive regime?
DT: Countering Iran is certainly the major factor behind US support for Bahrain, and explains the muted references from Washington to the brutality of Bahraini security forces – and let’s not forget many are foreign soldiers – and more recently Saudi forces who have entered the Emirate. The tactics used against peaceful demonstrators in Bahrain in recent weeks and months are some of the worst kind. How many countries are there in which hospitals are raided by security police and doctors treating wounded people are threatened?
As you know, Bahrain is a member of the Gulf cooperation Council, dominated by Saudi Arabia, and is there to prevent Iranian and Shiite influence spreading in the region. Bahrain is also the base of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is so important for America’s strategy in the Gulf and the Middle East at large.
KZ: Do you agree with a military intervention in Libya? Is a NATO-led military expedition necessary to preclude the killing of civilians?
DT: The Gaddafi regime, no doubt, has been repressive over the last forty years, and I am very critical of its human rights record. It is Britain, France, Italy and the United States that have been swinging like a large pendulum: vehemently opposed to Gaddafi for decades, then friends with Gaddafi, and now enemies again.
I have several misgivings about the NATO military operation in Libya. My first and most serious objection is that NATO has gone far beyond the remit approved in the UN Security Council 1973, which authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, excluding foreign occupation forces on any part of the territory of Libya. Legal scholars have pointed out that “all necessary measures” means starting with peaceful means to resolve what seems to be a tribal civil war between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces. In this respect, Libya is quite different from Egypt, where tens of millions of people from all sections of society rebelled against the Mubarak regime. Second, NATO military planes are now hitting government targets far from opposition-controlled areas. Tripoli and Gaddafi’s own compound have been bombed. This was not envisaged in the Security Council Resolution 1973. Regime change was not part of it. I think these are serious violations of the UN authorization. Third, NATO aircraft are now operating as if they were the air force of the anti-Gaddafi forces; British, French and Italian ‘military advisers’ have been deployed in Libya; and there is talk of sending troops. This is taking sides, and goes beyond protecting civilians. Worst of all, we now have confirmed reports that NATO planes are bombing and killing people on their own side, the anti-Gaddafi side; collateral damage in Western euphemism. Fourth, and this is very serious, the West is being highly selective in picking on an oil-rich country for military action, while its friends, Bahrain and Yemen, willfully repress their populations. I fear we will see a long war in Libya.
KZ: Many political commentators believe that whoever assumes power in Egypt following the establishment of new constitution and formation of new government will be less friendly to Israel than the regime of Hosni Mubarak was. Do you agree with them?
DT: The climate in the Middle East has undergone a dramatic change following the Egyptian Revolution. Its effects go far beyond Egypt’s borders, and these effects will be long term. The people of Egypt and beyond yearn for democracy, human rights and dignity, but they are not going to be blind supporters of American policy. There will be all kinds of pressures, warnings, threats against the Egyptian military from the West that would like to indirectly control the peoples of the region. I hope that the military does not give in to these American-Israeli tactics. I believe that the ‘new Egypt’ – if it is allowed to choose its future path – will lead to a new climate that will mean better relations with Iran, Palestinians, and will be a force for good overall.
KZ: Answering to a question regarding the recent air-strikes on Libya, the White House spokesman Jay Carney said that it is not a U.S. policy to bring about regime change in Libya. Why don’t the United States and its allies want to take action to change the regime of Gaddafi while they did the same with regards to Iraq and Afghanistan?
DT: I have elaborated on the lack of consistency in Western policy, and the real factors behind Western and allied actions showing blatant disregard for universal human rights. Their actions amount to double standards wherever it suits them. They are not about democracy and human rights at all. Look at the reign of terror and torture under the ‘war on terror’ that President George W Bush waged, and that President Obama continues in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.
KZ: Will the United States, as the most strategic partner of Saudi Arabia, allow the implementation of sociopolitical reforms in the structure the Saudi government? Will the sporadic movements of the Saudi people bear fruit?
DT: Saudi Arabia is a closed society, in many ways that the Soviet Union was before 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. It took just six years for the Soviet state to collapse after the USSR began to open up. Communication and free movement are very difficult, if not impossible for the ordinary citizen, in such societies; and news of unrest does not readily reach the world. We know that Saudi citizens nevertheless do find ways to express their opposition, but they are crushed with brute force. Remember, Saudi Arabia’s security forces are among the best equipped in the Middle East, supplied by the Americans. They use these means to coerce their population. Despite all this, social discontent simmers under the surface. Failure to open up Saudi society and give the people their basic rights could have serious consequences.
KZ: Do you agree with the idea that the Middle East revolutions, specially the popular uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt, will be of Iran’s interests? Does the destabilization of U.S.-backed Arab regimes in the region empower Iran politically, strategically?
DT: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to which I subscribe, a revolution in the political context is “forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” Uprising is an “act of resistance or rebellion” to achieve that end. It is important not to confuse the meaning of the two terms. In the late twentieth century, what happened in 1979 in Iran was a revolution; and between 1989 and 1991 there were revolutions in what was then the Soviet bloc. In the new century in recent months, Egypt has had a revolution, in the sense that a dictator and his ruling party that had a monopoly over power, have fallen. What replaces it is not certain yet. We will have to see until after the elections at least.
Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, perhaps Libya, are all experiencing rebellions of one kind or another. How it all ends in each case – we will have to wait and see. As of now, the ruling structures in these countries are shaking; they may be collapsing; but they are still there. Equally important, what impact does it all have on the Palestinian struggle will have to be seen.
In the wider geopolitical context, these events do indicate that the United States is losing its grip over the region. In fact, America had been losing its grip for some years. It is just that the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and America’s militaristic foreign policy may have given the opposite appearance to those who fail to look beyond the immediate.
If the people of each country can decide how their country should be run, it would be a good thing. I find the idea that a big power far and away can dictate to others anywhere most objectionable. And I don’t see the events in West Asia as a victory for one country or another. The tide of history is going in its own inevitable direction; popular movements are making huge waves and contributing to that tide of history. The final outcome is not yet certain, so the struggle will need to go on.
KZ: What will be the implications of the Middle East revolutions for the Israeli regime? Will Israel suffer from the change of government in Egypt and the fundamental political reforms which are going to happen in Jordan?
DT: I have alluded to these matters in my previous replies. I will summarize my answer here. What is happening in the Middle East at present is going to limit Israel’s scope for arbitrary conduct. The overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt has been a huge setback to Israel, because frankly Mubarak was acting like an American and Israeli surrogate to continue the occupation of Palestinian territories, and in the broader interests of Western policy in the Middle East. In Jordan, as elsewhere, change looks inevitable, though I hesitate to predict what form it will take. I think it is never a good idea to underestimate the big players’ capacity for manipulation and deceit. In a sense, the West learned the lesson very quickly in Egypt, where it was slow to act during the anti-Mubarak protests. Eventually it dumped Mubarak when it realized he was a too big liability to carry, and then picked Libya and Syria to reestablish its pro-democracy credentials. The West, in the guise of NATO, has switched to a pro-democracy posture by siding with the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya and with the opposition to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But that makes Western policy in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen even more inconsistent, if not hypocritical.