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Nader Hashemi: Brutal repression in Bahrain, Libya,Yemen and Iran; Hundreds of thousands in Cairo as struggle continues

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Across the Middle East on Friday, mass protest and struggle against entrenched regimes continued. In Bahrain, at least five people were killed on Thursday, and another four people on Friday. In Libya, reports claim up to 50 people have been killed in antigovernment protest in the east of the country. In Yemen, two people died on Friday in what was called a Day of Rage. In Jordan, eight protesters were injured in the first reported violence in weeks of demonstrations in the country. And in Egypt, what had been declared a day of victory saw perhaps one million people gather in Tahrir Square demanding that the military government keep its promises won by weeks of mass demonstrations by the Egyptian people. Also on Friday, the top UN rights official condemned the violence used by security forces in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen against antigovernment protesters. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said security forces responded in an illegal and excessively heavy-handed manner against peaceful demonstrators. In a statement issued by her office Friday, she condemned the use of live ammunition against protesters in Libya, the use of electric Tasers and batons in Yemen, and the use of military-grade shotguns in Bahrain. Now joining us from his office in Denver, Colorado, to discuss the uprisings across the Middle East is Nader Hashemi. Nader is the assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the University of Denver. He’s the author of the book The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So, first of all, give us kind of an overview of what happened on Friday.

HASHEMI: Well, as you sort of described in your introduction, there’s been this ripple effect coming out of events in Egypt, where demonstrations and protests are starting to break out throughout the Arab world, effectively calling for what the Egyptians and the Tunisians before them have been calling for: greater democracy, greater political accountability, greater social and political and economic justice.

JAY: Now, the situation in Bahrain’s been getting particular attention. It’s been getting very violent, as we heard from the UN human rights commissioner, military grade shotguns being used. So Bahrain is primarily a group of islands off the coast of Saudi Arabia, has a population just over 1 million people, but it’s of strategic importance.

HASHEMI: It matters a lot because Bahrain is one of the major US allies in the region. I mean, the home of the US Naval Fifth Fleet is located in Bahrain. It’s a major source of the projection of US power and influence in the Persian Gulf. And it’s also a country that is very close to Saudi Arabia. It’s part of the, you know, Gulf Cooperation Council. And the fear is is that if there’s a change of regime, a democratic transition in Bahrain, it will affect all of the neighboring countries that are close US allies, where most of the world’s oil flows. So those are the main reasons that Bahrain has caught everyone’s attention.

JAY: Now, as most of the protests across the Arab world so far have been mostly based on domestic issues, economic demands, demands for democracy, and not so much, at least overtly, the issue of Arab countries and their reaction to US policy or Israel, if this democratization campaign in Bahrain is successful–and they’re calling for the downfall of the king, as I understand it–does that jeopardize the US military base in Bahrain, and might they ask them to leave?

HASHEMI: Well, not in the short term. But, I mean, broadly speaking, there is, I think, an agreement among scholars of the Middle East that greater democratization in the region is not conducive to US foreign and geostrategic policies as they’re currently construed in the Middle East. So, yes, I mean, there is this concern that if there is a democratization process and the people of Bahrain are allowed to determine their foreign policy, then possibly they may call for a withdrawal of that naval base. And that’s sort of something that’s not unique to Bahrain. We’ve sort of since seen this in the subtext of a lot of the debates in Egypt. The fear is that if Egypt democratizes, then the Camp David agreement and the Egyptian support that it gives Israel for maintaining the siege on Gaza, all of this will start to unravel if there is a democratization process in place.

JAY: Now, in Bahrain, if I understand correctly, the royal family has been in power since the mid-1800s or so. It’s been–was a British protectorate for quite some time, I think became independent in the early 1970s. But essentially it’s a monarchy, and the monarchy appoints the prime minister. So what have been the demands of the protesters? How far do they go?

HASHEMI: Well, the demands at the beginning of the week were really for democratic reform, greater accountability. One of the things that the protesters wanted was to have a direct say in electing the prime minister, not having him appointed. The big issue in Bahrain is the sectarian cleavage that exists. Bahrain is a majority Shia, about 70 percent, but the ruling elites are Sunni. And so the big sort of political and social sort of question that sort of dominates Bahraini politics is this sense of discrimination that the majority of the population feels–and the demands for greater democratization to address those feelings of discrimination.

JAY: So the US is trying to walk a wire on all of these issues in these countries. For decades, certainly post-World War II, and even before World War II, US policy has been to ally with monarchs, keep them in power, sell them lots of arms, and make them their reliable enforcer in the region to defend the oil supplies and such. Now we’re hearing, you know, demands of these regimes should respect popular democracy. What do you make of US policy in all of this?

HASHEMI: Well, US policy is starting to unravel. I mean, as you correctly stated, the fundamental assumptions and premises that US regional security toward the Middle East was based on was the assumption that the United States, as you said, would ally itself with the ruling elites and the dictatorships of the region, and that would be an arrangement in alliance with Israel and other friendly countries that would stay in place and guarantee American economic and political interests. And what was missing from that old equation was the voice of the people. There was an assumption that they were either too apathetic, that they didn’t matter; political repression and torture would keep them in place. But as we’ve seen over the last two months, really starting in Tunisia and then spreading to Egypt and then throughout the Arab world, now the people are demanding a voice in the governing of their affairs. And so it has interjected this new variable into the debate on the region that the United States’ foreign policy can no longer ignore, and it has huge consequences, huge implications for how the United States is going to have to relate to the region in the coming years. And you can sort of see the–sort of the attempt by the Obama administration, trying to both respond to this historic moment, this, you know, rise of people power, just really genuine democratic sort of calls for democracy, while at the same time trying to balance their alliances with long-standing dictators and despots.

JAY: Yeah, given that the US has shown no indication of changing what is one of their fundamental strategic objectives in the globe, which is dominance in the Middle East. Now, let’s go to what happened in Cairo on Friday. Perhaps a million people came out to Tahrir Square again, demanding that the military regime keep its promises. It looks like the momentum is not going away here. And, you know, if US policy was hoping for Mubarak without Mubarak, that may not be what they end up with here.

HASHEMI: You’re correct. I mean, there’s a general sense right now in Egypt among the pro-democracy movement that they need to keep the public pressure on the military, or else there will be no guarantee that a democratic transition will take place. It’s a big question mark as to whether the current military council is committed to democracy and to a genuine transformation of society.

JAY: Well, if they were committed to that, that would have been–that’d be like a heart transplant to what–to who the military is.

HASHEMI: Exactly. I mean, let’s not forget that all of the generals in power right now are appointees, handpicked appointees by Mubarak himself. In the WikiLeaks documents, the head of the military council, General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is described as, quote, Mubarak’s poodle, and he’s known to have been particularly opposed to greater political and intellectual freedom in Egypt. So to think that he is going to, you know, lead Egypt toward a democratic transition is wishful thinking, and there’s a sense that, you know, there’s been no clear road map, there’s big, big sort of concerns here. And so these protests are effectively meant to send a message, a very clear message to the military, that the people are not going away until their basic demands are met.

JAY: It’s a very consciousness, it seems, sophisticated protest in Egypt, even though the leadership seems quite diverse. They’re staying on message: this is about a military regime, not just about Mubarak.

HASHEMI: Correct. Yeah. I mean, that’s the message that they’re sending. The question is: will the military get the message? And, of course, the complicating factor here is that it’s reported, it’s well known, that about 30 percent of the Egyptian economy is influenced or controlled by elements in the military, particularly the senior military echelons. And so there’s a realization, I think, among the generals that are in power right now that any significant regime change or transformation will have huge consequences for their own economic livelihood, their own investments. And so, you know, there’s obvious reluctance here to have the type of whole-scale transformation that the people on the streets of Cairo and other cities really want.

JAY: So now the ripple effect of Tunisia, Egypt, was also felt in Iran over the course of this–earlier in the week. Tell us what happened.

HASHEMI: Well, responding to the popular protests in Egypt, the opposition Green Movement called for a demonstration on February 14, this past Monday, in solidarity with Egypt and Tunisia. Of course, the real aim was to sort of revive and call for democratization at home. The regime officially banned those demonstrations. It arrested many of the opposition leaders and activists in the lead-up to the demonstration. And what was really amazing is that there was a very respectable turnout. You know, hundreds of thousands of people in various cities showed up to protest, to show both solidarity with Egypt and calling for greater democratization at home. And what was really amazing is that these demonstrations even took place, because since the beginning of the year about two people have been executed in Iran on a daily basis. The level of repression is very high, but also the hunger for democracy. And so there was a protest, and then there was a clampdown and a big ensuing debate about, you know, where does Iran go next.

JAY: Do we have any idea–I heard the number last month, 62 people arrested in one month. I’m not sure if that’s accurate or not. Do we know how many of these executions are directly political and not what would be called normal criminal executions in Iran?

HASHEMI: Yeah, most of the executions that have taken place, you know, as they’re approaching sort of 100 now, most of them have been related to drug offenses. But there have been several high-profile cases of people who have been opposition activists. The point is is that–.

JAY: Let me interrupt for a second. And do people accept that they were in fact drug offenses and not trumped-up drug offenses against political people?

HASHEMI: Yeah. I mean, since most of them have been people who have not been politically active and they have been involved in drug trafficking or drug-related activity, there’s a general sense that those individuals have been, you know, executed for that offense.

JAY: ‘Cause I think that’s an important point, ’cause in the American media it’s being played as if these are all part of political repression, and it seems it’s not.

HASHEMI: It’s not. No, that’s not fair, I think. But there have been–but the point is that when executions take place, whether it’s for drug offenses or not, the regime, I think, sends a message deliberately that, look, we are in power, we can execute people. And the one most famous case was a Dutch-Iranian citizen who was executed about two weeks ago. And she was involved in the pro-democracy protests. She also had, unfortunately, a criminal record back in Holland with respect to the use of drugs and the trafficking of drugs, so it was actually a convenient case for the regime both to execute her under the claim that they were prosecuting a drug offender. But at the same time this was also a pro-democracy activist. And so, you know, the human rights situation on top of that, I mean, beyond the executions, the level of repression, surveillance, arrests, you know, the conditions in the prisons, are really, I think, at the worst point that we’ve seen them in a long time. And after Monday’s demonstrations, there’s been about 1,500 people, according to opposition websites, that have been rounded up and harassed. And so the human rights situation is very dire as of today.

JAY: Now, I guess a lot of people were ready to give President Ahmadinejad the hypocrisy of the month or year award for his support for the protesters in Egypt while they’re repressing them at home. What is the internal logic of this? How does that make sense to Ahmadinejad’s supporters?

HASHEMI: Well, the internal logic is that the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia are welcomed, because they are interpreted as anti-American demonstrations. In other words, pro-American dictators are falling from power, and Ahmadinejad and the regime have been interpreting events in North Africa through the lens of 1979. But the opposition is saying, wait a second, the proper analogy is not 1979 but 2009, the emergence of a grassroots sort of youth-driven, nonviolent-oriented green movement calling for democratization. So that’s essentially what is taking place in Iran, the battle of narratives between the regime and the opposition.

JAY: I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why there’s relatively more success in Egypt than there has been for the opposition movement in Iran. But is one of those reasons that Iranian society is actually more divided? What I mean by that is in Egypt it really seemed that perhaps 80, 85 percent of Egyptians–and this is me pulling up a number based on just some reading–but a vast majority of Egyptians seemed ready for Mubarak to go, perhaps even the military. But in Iran is there not more a divided society about what people want?

HASHEMI: No, you’re correct. I mean, the regime in Iran does have a base of support that is loyal to it for ideological or personal reasons. In other words, their economic livelihood and careers are tied to the maintenance of the current order. Also, you know, Iran, unlike Egypt, from the time of the revolution has had a populist sort of quasi-democratic underpinning to it in terms of having elections and some free debate. It’s varied at different times. It’s been more open during the late ’90s, up until Ahmadinejad came to power. Then things closed down. And up until 2009, I think it’s fair to say that elections in Iran have never been completely free, but they’ve been fair in the sense that the ballots that are reported reflect what’s taking place at the voting booth. But–you know, so I would put the regime’s support at about 15 to 20 percent at most. And the reason why the regime also has, I think, a substantial base of support is that it can rely on two themes that Mubarak and Ben Ali could not rely upon to garner that support. And that’s, number one, the theme of Islamic authenticity, the claim, in other words, that the regime embodies sort of Islamic normative values, and if you don’t support the regime, you’re not a pious and practicing Muslim. And that affects, I think, segments of the poor and more religious segments of Iranian society. And also the theme of anti-imperialism. Iran, the regime, portrays itself as the vanguard of opposing Western imperialism in the region. And given the troubled past that not only Iran has had with the United States and the West, but also the entire region has had with Western encroachment, that idea and that theme garner some support for the regime. And that’s a theme also that Mubarak and Ben Ali could not use, because they were in the American camp. So I think for those two reasons you see the regime in Iran, unlike in Egypt and unlike in other pro-American regimes, can count on a certain segment of support, because it successfully, cynically manipulates those two themes to garner some support and immunize itself from criticism from the broader population.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Nader.

HASHEMI: Happy to be here.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the donate buttons, ’cause if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.

End of Transcript

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Nader Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies" and co-editor of "The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Democracy in Iran" and most recently "The Syria Dilemma".