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Phyllis Bennis: The revolutions of the Middle East are far from over in spite of reversals and manipulations

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Bennis Report with Phyllis Bennis, who now joins us from Washington, D.C.

Phyllis is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, author of many books, including Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism and Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.


JAY: So 2013, what are one or two of the things you’re going to be looking for?

BENNIS: This is coming on to the second anniversary now of the Arab Spring. And I’m one of maybe only a few left that are still calling it a spring, because I think that despite the horrors that are right now facing people, especially in Syria, I think that what we’re seeing across the Middle East, throughout the Arab world, has been a just incredible rising of peoples claiming their citizenship in a way that they just have never done for the last 40 or 50 years.

And that’s still going on. It’s going to take a very long time. None of it’s going to be easy. We’re seeing, you know, five steps back for every one step forward. But still I think there’s new developments that are important.

If we start perhaps with Bahrain, which has been off the pages of major newspapers in the U.S., because Bahrain, of course, is a key U.S. ally—the Fifth Fleet is stationed there—but the conditions in Bahrain, where the uprising was smashed early on and continues to face horrific human rights violations, is now coming back.

We saw a New York Times editorial by one of the leaders of that movement, Zainab al-Khawaja, a terrific young woman. I spent some time with her a few months ago in South Africa. We toured together doing a little speaking tour, and she’s fantastic. She’s 24 years old. Her father is one of the leaders of this movement. He’s in prison for life. Her sister has just been imprisoned. She works in exile in Norway to get the issues of the human rights crisis in Bahrain out, and they’re now having success. They’re reaching people in this country. They’re reaching the pages of The New York Times. And the question of the Fifth Fleet is not preventing that. So that’s huge at the level of influencing the discourse in this country.

If we look at the conditions in Syria, of course, there’s not much good to talk about. The UN’s latest report indicates that the overall conflict in Syria has become overwhelmingly a sectarian conflict. And that means it’s going to be much harder to bring it to an end. The UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has just completed another visit to the region. He’s gone off to Moscow to talk with officials there. He’s talking again about the possibility of a transitional government.

So far, both sides are pretty opposed to that. There’s no clarity about how a ceasefire—the first thing that has to happen—would take place.

So the Syrian opposition now has come together with a new coalition that’s being recognized by the U.S., and leading European governments as well. But at the same time, the United States has said that one of the most important organizations within that coalition, the one that has the most power militarily on the ground, that’s won the most victories against the regime’s army, is in fact what the U.S. calls a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda. So it’s a very uneven level of support that the U.S. is offering.

The arms are still coming in via Turkey, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. There’s big debates about whether it’s even possible to provide arms for what the U.S. and the Europeans would like to think are the good guys in the opposition, meaning Western secular types like us, versus those who are actually getting the weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which tend to be the Islamist forces that aren’t like us.

So it’s a very messy situation in which the opposition, writ large, is winning real victories on the ground. But who is speaking for the opposition, how to take into account the needs of the original opposition movement, which was largely a secular, very democratic, open-minded kind of opposition whose voices, in their commitment to nonviolence, their commitment to not making this a civil war, as it has become, they have been largely squelched. Their voices have been silenced by the sound of the guns.

At the same time, the regime is losing credibility. It’s suffered significant losses of high-ranking officials, including military officials, including recently the major general of the Syrian army whose job it was to head up the division charged with preventing defections. He was the most recent defector.

So it’s a very uncertain question, how this is going to be resolved. The top supporter of the regime, Russia, has pulled back from its once all-sided support for Assad and is now saying, well, we’re not supporting anybody, but we don’t want to have a situation like we have in Libya.

Libya, of course, remains completely chaotic, without a viable government that’s capable of providing security for the people of Libya. The weapons that are flooding countries like Mali and elsewhere in North Africa are largely coming from Libya in the wake of this U.S.- and NATO-backed overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.

And in Syria it’s becoming more and more sectarian, with even those generals that are defecting tend to not be the Alawites’ generals that are the most closely tied to Assad’s inner circle. So this is going to be a very, very difficult and, I’m afraid, continuing very bloody scenario in Syria.

But the one thing that I think: the optimism has to come back when we look at Egypt. Even though there’s been this horrific political debate going on over the Egyptian constitution and some significant losses for the secular and democratic components of the opposition forces with the consolidation of power by President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood that backs him, I still think that what we’re seeing in Egypt is a very exciting moment that over the long and even medium term is going to transform that country into a place where people claim their rights as citizens of their country and not subjects of a U.S.-backed dictatorship, as they were for so many years.

I don’t exactly know how that’s going to play out. I think that the elections that are going to come for the lower house of Parliament are likely to once again lead to a Islamist-dominated Parliament. But I think that the secular opposition, the Christian opposition, the Muslim opposition, who just doesn’t want as big a role for religion in the government, all of those opposition forces are beginning to cohere much more than they were before. They were really very diverse and divergent before. They’re coming together. And I think they’re showing themselves to be an important player in society.

And Morsi has to recognize that despite the fact that in both days of the election or the referendum over the Constitution, despite the fact that he won, he won, his constitution won, by a fairly narrow margin. It was 52 one day and about 60 percent the next. But on both days, there was less than a third of the potential voters, less than a third of the eligible voters actually participated. So if you do the math, it ends up that only about 15 percent of eligible voters supported the Constitution. And that’s not very many.

JAY: When you look at the Palestinian-Israeli situation, there are some things happening there which are kind of new in a way—Qatar’s involvement in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt’s role in sort of managing the resolution of the Gaza war, and then the Fatah-Hamas kind of unity front (we’ll see how long that lasts). And then, apparently, just now, recently, President Abbas has said if the paralysis with Israel—negotiations continues to be so paralyzed, he’s going to disband the P.A.

BENNIS: Yeah, there’s a lot of developments there, some of which are optimistic. But, again, the situation on the ground continues to be very grim. What we saw with the most recent Isreali assault on Gaza in November-December, just like what happened four years ago during Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day Israeli war on Gaza, there’s been a real transition of political realities in the aftermath.

So it isn’t only about public awareness of the brutality of the Israeli occupation. What the assault on Gaza meant in terms of the killing of civilians, particularly the killing of children, but as well, on the political front, that’s where you saw the new reality of the post-Arab Spring governments moving towards Palestine in a way that they never did before. So even while the Israeli assault was under way, you had—I think the total was somewhere like 14 or 15 Arab foreign ministers visiting not the Israelis to make sure that the U.S. saw they were on the Israeli side, and not even going to the West Bank, where the Israeli assault was not happening, but going right to Gaza under the bombs. You had the prime minister of Egypt, you had the foreign minister of Turkey, you had the foreign ministers of half the Arab League showing up.

So this is a very important development in terms of not so much the rhetoric, because those governments all had the rhetoric of being pro-Palestinian for years, but they were never willing to do anything that would challenge the U.S. This time around, at least on the political front, they were willing to.

Now, we saw the large grant from Qatar to the Palestinian authorities in Gaza led by Hamas. We see the break of Hamas with the Syrian government. And to a large degree it’s beginning to break with Iran as well. And the result of that is that right now the key allies of Hamas in the region are not Syria and Iran, the key enemies of the United States, but they are Turkey and Qatar and Saudi Arabia, arguably among the most important allies of the U.S. in the region. So it’s a very different scenario that we’re working with.

And then you have Egypt, where the Egyptian shift means—and, again, here, in terms of relations with Hamas, Egypt’s role as well as—perhaps even more than Turkey and Qatar, becomes critical, because Egypt has emerged as the interlocutor between Israel and Hamas on the one hand—after all of Israel’s claims that we’ll never talk to Hamas, they’re talking to them through the Egyptians—as the interlocutor between Hamas and Fatah, bringing the possibility of a Palestinian unity process more likely to be something that could happen sooner. And at the end of the day, you have the possibility that with an opening of the Gaza crossing into Egypt, at least a possibility for the people of Gaza to breathe.

Overall, I think that we’re moving into a period where the Arab Spring has enormous possibilities. Syria remains a disaster, and it’s going to take a great deal of diplomacy to bring that to a halt. But elsewhere in the region I think that things are more hopeful than we’ve seen. On the ground, particularly for Palestinians, as well as Syrians, it’s a disaster. But we have to look forward, and 2013 could be a year when we see some real changes.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.

BENNIS: Thank you, Paul. Always a pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.