Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Mr. Naiman edits the Just Foreign Policy daily news summary and writes on U.S. foreign policy at Huffington Post. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. He is president of the board of Truthout. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East.
Mr. Naiman joined me in an exclusive interview to discuss the latest developments in the Middle East and the future of revolutions and anti-government protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. What follows is my interview with Mr. Robert Naiman, political commentator and Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy, an independent and non-partisan membership organization dedicated to reforming U.S. foreign policy by mobilizing and organizing the broad majority of Americans who want a foreign policy based on diplomacy, law and cooperation.
Kourosh Ziabari: Almost 4 decades have passed since the dictatorship of Colonel Moammar Gaddafi. What motivated the people of Libya to take arms against his government and demand his removal after this long period of time? Is the Libyan civil war a simple continuation of the 2011 Middle East and North Africa uprisings or does it emanate from other sources?
Robert Naiman: One group of Libyans took up arms. Certainly, I think the protests in Libya started as part of the Arab uprisings. But then events took a different turn; it’s the only country where people took up arms, although protesters in other countries, like Bahrain, have experience severe repression. What was the motivation of the people who made this choice? I think part of the story is that there was longstanding regional cleavage in Libyan society, the authority of the central government collapsed in the east, and this emboldened some people to think that they could easily topple the central government with an armed insurrection. I think there was also some encouragement from France, and a belief – a correct belief, as it turned out – that an armed uprising could get Western military support. Also, there was an armed Jihadi tradition in eastern Libya.
KZ: Do you agree with a military intervention in Libya in order to find an answer for the crisis which is taking place there? The United States and its NATO allies have dispatched their troops to Libya to fulfill the scopes of the UNSC resolution 1973 and enforce the no-fly zone over the African country. What are the consequences of this military expedition? Will the NATO troops succeed in protecting the Libyan civilians from the air-strikes of Gaddafi’s mercenaries?
According to Libyan health ministry, so far 114 people have been killed as a result of the NATO air strikes on different parts of Libya. What’s your prediction for the future of NATO’s military presence in Libya?
RN: No, I do not agree with the military intervention. What has taken place – and further military escalation is now being proposed – goes well beyond a “no fly zone” and also goes well beyond what the UN Security Council approved. The UN never approved a military campaign for regime change, but that is what France, Britain, and the U.S. are conducting, under the pretense of “protecting civilians.” The thing that would do the most to protect civilians would be an immediate cease-fire followed by political negotiations. But the armed rebels and the Western military powers have rejected that; in particular, they rejected a proposal from the African Union for that.
KZ: You may admit that the Arab world burst into clamor quite suddenly and unexpected. The self-immolation of an unassuming street vendor underpinned the emergence of two revolutions – in Tunisia and Egypt – which toppled the U.S.-backed governments of Ben Ali and Mubarak. In my view, the wave of protests and upheaval which is encompassing the whole Arab world is a result of the pan-Arabist sentiments of the Arab nations who believe that they should communally support each other in the time of crisis. What’s your opinion in this regard?
RN: I think that what you may call “pan-Arabist sentiments,” or simply Arab sentiments – clearly played a role. Obviously, there are different grievances in different countries, as well as some grievances which are the same: corruption, poverty, unemployment, lack of democratic elections, repression of criticism of the government, lack of free speech. But the way that the protests spread from Tunisia to Egypt, for example, clearly reflected the affinity and identification and empathy between Egyptians and Tunisians. You have a group of people who share a common language, common culture, common history; who watch some of the same media, see some of the same movies, listen to and sing some of the same songs. That helped the protests spread.
KZ: The Arab countries of the Middle East have an immensely black human rights record. For example, in Bahrain, extrajudicial incarceration of human rights activists and journalists and torturing them with inhumane methods is a conventional routine. Human rights organizations in Bahrain have reported several cases of the abuse of journalists and political activists by the mercenaries of the government. For instance, we can allude to the case of Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who was abducted from his home on March 20 by about 40 individuals who threatened him and beat him before finally releasing him several hours later. The same goes with Libya. The regime of Gaddafi has posted several bounties for the critics of the Libyan government around the world. The teaching of foreign languages is forbidden in the schools of Libya. Political activists who criticize government are usually executed and their execution is always rebroadcast on the state television. Why have the United States and its allies turned a blind eye on these abuses of human rights while exaggerating certain events and incidents in Iran and other countries which they’re opposed to?
RN: The stated concerns of the U.S. and its allies about human rights have two sources: one, their domestic populations expect them to advocate for human rights. Two, they see human rights criticisms as a stick to beat hostile governments with. So, criticizing abuses in Iran serves two functions: one, these governments can portray themselves to their populations as supporting human rights, while two, they can use the issue to put diplomatic pressure on countries like Iran. But putting pressure on Bahrain or Saudi Arabia would only fulfill one of these functions, while, it is believed, running the risk of destabilizing, undermining, or alienating governments which are U.S. allies. In the case of Bahrain, U.S. officials say they are concerned about alienating Saudi Arabia. Also, many U.S. officials see the events in Bahrain as part of the chess game with Iran; a successful democracy movement there might bring to power a government that would be less hostile to Iran and less friendly to the United States. Even Egypt, under its new government, is moving to thaw relations with Iran. Many in Washington are concerned about this.
KZ: With the transformation of the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, the United States lost two of its strategic allies in the Middle East and now awaits the future of political developments in the region. Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Libya, all of which are somewhat allies of the United States are also experiencing similar changes and witnessing developments which may destabilize the safety of the dictators in these countries. The Iranian President has recently predicted that a new Middle East will be shaped without the presence of Israel, the United States and their allies. What’s your idea about this? Do you agree with the idea of the emergence of a new Middle East?
RN: I think the likely reality will be in-between: the new government in Egypt, for example, will maintain good relations with the U.S., but will be more independent, in particular on issues related to Iran, and especially on issues related to Israel and the Palestinians. I do not think, for example, the blockade of Gaza can survive a democratically-elected government in Egypt. I think Egypt will pursue a different policy towards Hamas. I think the prospects for Palestinian reconciliation will improve, and this new opportunity for unity will help the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation.
KZ: What’s your idea about the impacts of Middle East uprisings on the security of Israel? With an Islamist government in Egypt and the abolition of pro-U.S. regimes of Bahrain, UAE, Yemen and other Arab nations of the region, Israel’s security will be jeopardized seriously. Will Israel be able survive without the support of Arab nations who bow down to the demands of the United States flatteringly?
RN: I don’t think the actual physical security of the Israeli state will be seriously challenged from outside. What will be challenged is the more expansive notion of “security” that we saw in the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the 2008 Israeli invasion of Gaza. There will be more diplomatic pressure on Israel to compromise with the Palestinians and less room politically for Israeli military aggression against its neighbors.
KZ: What’s your prediction for the prospect of Egyptian revolution? Will the freedom fighters in Cairo finally find their dream of having a democratic government realized? Does Mohammed Elbaradei have the sufficient potentials to become the symbol of Egypt’s revolutionary movement? What will be the fate of Hosni Mubarak? Does the international community have enough backbone to put Mubarak on trial for the crimes he has committed during his three decades of government?
RN: I do expect that a year from now Egypt will have a democratically-elected government that will be more responsive to public opinion than any Egyptian government in the last 30 years.
Whether Elbaradei can win the election depends on whether he can convert himself to be a popular campaigner – this is a big change for him. There are competitors, like Amr Moussa. But in any event, whoever wins the election will have to respond to Egyptian public opinion in a way that Egyptian presidents have not had to do for decades.
I don’t see any reason at this point for the “international community” to put Mubarak on trial. He should face justice in Egypt. How they want to balance demands for justice for Mubarak’s victims against other priorities is something for the Egyptian people to decide.
KZ: Several nations around the world have been inspired by the Arab world uprising of the late 2010 and early 2011. Mass media reported cases of massive protests by the angry demonstrators in Angola, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Albania, Azerbaijan and China who took to the streets in protest at the socioeconomic policies of their governments. What’s your viewpoint regarding the impact of Arab world revolutions on the international developments and global affairs? In what ways do these revolutions impact the international equations?
RN: Even in the United States, there were echoes of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt during the protests in Wisconsin against the governor there and his anti-worker laws. Still, because of the cultural ties, the primary impact will be felt in the Arab world. Other places are more likely to move more according to their own pre-existing dynamics.