'Arab NATO' would be a disaster for democracy

'Arab NATO' would be a disaster for democracy
Comment: An 'Arab NATO' would represent the final nail in the coffin for the region's wave of Arab revolutions, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
16 Aug, 2018
If MESA happens, it could result in a new counter-revolutionary regional bloc [Anadolu]
When the Arab spring first lit up the Middle East in 2011, the prevailing idea was that as regimes tumbled, the different revolutionary forces that gained power would form an informal 'revolutionary bloc' for the region.

At times, there were hints of this occurring, such as President Morsi's 
support for the Syrian rebellion and the decision of the revolutionary General National Congress in Libya to send weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons subsequently confiscated by the US, to the rebels fighting Assad.  

But now Morsi is in an Egyptian dungeon, while Libya's GNC no longer exists, with its composite elements fighting a civil war against counter-revolutionary forces. Revolution in the Middle East was rapidly devoured by counter-revolution, a process that, in Syria, turned a revolutionary war into a sectarian genocide, led by Assad, Iran and Russia.

It's no surprise then that the status of the region is one that is increasingly split into competing blocs of counter-revolutionary and tyrannical forces.

On one side, there is Iran - its occupation of Syria and its grip on Iraq - while on the other, there is the pro-Saudi bloc, with its monstrous intervention in Yemen, its help in crushing the nascent revolution in Bahrain, as well as its sponsoring of counter-revolution in both Egypt and Libya. Connected to this, of course, is the Kingdom's attack on Qatar.  

US president Donald Trump - a man who does his very best to undermine democrats both at home and abroad - seems to want to formalise the Saudi bloc into a coalition provisionally called the 'Middle East Strategic Alliance' (MESA), but informally known as the 'Arab NATO'.

The interests, security and stability of the peoples of the Middle East are not what MESA seeks to represent

The alliance would include all members of the GCC, as well as key Saudi and Emirati allies Jordan and Sisi's Egypt. It is set to be announced at a conference in Washington in October.

Ideologically speaking, it's the precise opposite of those utopian ideas that were almost made real by the Arab Spring - if anything, it would represent the final nail in the coffin of the first wave of the Arab revolutions.  

Indeed, one of its functions would be, one can only assume given Saudi Arabia's war against democratic forces in the region, to stop a second wave of revolutionary activity.

Read more:  An 'Arab NATO' united against Iran is easier said than done

One aspect of its proposed raison d'etre is to deal with the threat of 'non-state forces', such as al-Qaeda and IS, but as we've seen with Saudi policy over the past seven years, it has been more concerned with fighting democratic forces that pose a threat to it.  

It ploughed billions into Sisi's counter-revolution against Morsi's democratic Islamist government in Egypt, while it declared similar forces in Libya, Yemen and even Syria to be 'terrorists' and thus worthy of death and persecution.  

In Yemen, one consequence of this fear of democratic Islamism was the constant delay in the transition of that country to democracy, due to Saudi fear of the Brotherhood-oriented democratic Islamists of Al-Islah gaining power by the ballot. This of course created a vacuum that led to the Houthi-Saleh coup and years of monstrous civil war and murderous Saudi-Emirati intervention.

And, of course, this is what lies at the heart of the Saudi attack on Qatar.  

Qatar has tended to embrace democratic change in the region and sponsor the very democratic Islamist forces that Saudi Arabia seeks to eradicate. Given the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, by his own admission, had to dissuade Saudi and the UAE from 
invading Qatar militarily, and given the US envision Qatar being a member of MESA, the concept seems flawed - to put it mildly - from the outset.  

But it also seems deeply dangerous.

Not even Canada is safe from the increasingly belligerent Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who calls himself a 'reformist' while brutally persecuting those who seek actual reform in the Kingdom.

It's unlikely that, other than the odd bit of rhetoric, MESA would have any role in Syria geared towards helping the victims of Assad

And this brings us uneasily to the Iran factor. The Trump administration claims that MESA will serve as a "bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism [and] extremism". The reality however, is that it's more likely to be used by Trump, in tandem with renewed US sanctions, to get a 'better deal' than the now rescinded Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was primarily forged by Barack Obama.

Given the sheer extent of the brutality in Syria, its far-reaching, destructive ramifications, and the essential role Iran has played in it, one might hope this aspect of MESA might have some progressive consequences.  

Perhaps MESA would finally confront or force Iran out of Syria? But it's unlikely that, other than the odd bit of rhetoric, MESA would have any role in Syria geared towards helping the victims of Assad.

 Due to the role Russia plays in Syria, and the 
close relationship Russia has with several of the proposed members of MESA, including Saudi, the UAE and Egypt, as well as the support for Assad found among members such as Egypt, MESA won't play any part in aiding the very few remaining rebel forces resisting Assad and Iran.

It certainly won't be mobilising to protect Idlib, the last remaining liberated province of Syria.  

Nothing has changed in that regard - the US, or any of its regional allies won't suddenly come to the aid of Syria. There's barely a Syria left for them to save, even if they wanted to. And concerning Iran, MESA's role will primarily be symbolic and serve to deter Iran from its zone of influence, as opposed to it extending into Iran's own counter-revolutionary zone of influence.  

Trump and Putin's world is one of closer cooperation between illiberal, anti-democratic monsters

This strategy will either lead to a continuation of the brutal status quo of Saudi destroying Yemen, while Iran props up the vicious exterminationist Baathist rump, or it'll lead to a major escalation that could make regional war more likely.

Either way, the interests, security and stability of the peoples of the Middle East are not what MESA seeks to represent; instead, it's the interests, security and stability of tyranny that it seeks to uphold.

And this is the perfect illustration of the Trumpian worldview; a worldview where people are entirely subordinated to the powerful and where even the merest hints of already degraded concepts like human rights, democracy and liberty are tossed into the bonfire, as long as the tyrants that Trump gets along with so well remain in place. Trump and Putin's world is one of closer cooperation between illiberal, anti-democratic monsters.

If MESA happens at all, it'll either lead to a new counter-revolutionary bloc, competitive with the Iranian bloc but scarcely confrontational – more likely to confront grassroots political forces that threaten the region with democracy and liberty, or, like entities such as the Arab League, it'll be beset with infighting and half-heartedness that render it irrelevant.  

One thing is for sure, whatever shape or course it takes, a strategic alliance packed with ultra-rich sectarian kleptocrats, autocrats and military strongmen, in a region beset with genocide, mass murder, rampant poverty and sectarianism, won't represent anything even accidentally progressive.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.