Watching Tripoli: Arab Spring Dominos Falling?

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and author of books including The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement, took some questions on the latest Libya and Syria, and other developments.

KJL: Is there any question Qaddafi is going to leave Libya? How could that change things?

RUBIN: The latest trends in the fighting are against him. More than at any other time, the rebel advance threatens his survival. And as we saw recently with the British, the NATO allies are intervening more to help the rebels in, far beyond protecting civilians.

Again, and this is not in any way to sympathize with Qaddafi, the NATO countries and the United States are doing nothing to protect civilians from the rebels. There is a lot of looting, wanton destruction, and human-rights abuses when they take over. No action or public protest comes from Europe or the Obama administration.

Another interesting development is the clear tribal divisions among the rebels and the emergence of a Berber movement that might seek some separatist authority if Qaddafi is defeated. But that war is a long way from being over.


KJL: What are you most worried about in Tripoli?

RUBIN: Nobody knows what’s going to happen there. There are many conflicts: regional (eastern versus western Libya); ethnic (Berbers and Arabs); ideological; factional; personal; and recent defectors from Qaddafi’s regime versus rebels.  The rebels have looted, burned, and killed civilians, with a special animus toward black Africans, a group identified with Qaddafi’s regime by the rebels. Thus, the prospects for violence and disorder are tremendous. A new regime might maintain stability, reduce repression, and spend some of the oil income for the benefit of its people. But it is unlikely to be either a democratic or a pro-Western regime.


KJL: Is this new U.S. pressure on Assad going to make a difference?

RUBIN: No, the Syrian rulers view themselves as engaged in a life-and-death struggle. If they lose they will be killed or will have to flee. There is a possibility that their families and Alawites in general (who make up much of the elite) will be massacred in communal violence. And the Sunni Muslims in the regime can hope for little mercy. I’m not sympathizing with them, I’m explaining that these people aren’t going to care about sanctions that have little effect on the situation. Then there’s the opposition. Will they cheer that the West — and especially America — is on their side? Well, no. It is too little, too late. Of course, this was the right thing to do by the U.S. government. But as I point out in a detailed analysis of the announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the administration revealed all of the weaknesses in its own worldview by the way it declared Bashar al-Assad should go.


KJL: How goes the “Arab Spring?” What would you call this summer?#more#

RUBIN: First, let’s remember that only in two countries has there been a change of regime due to a popular revolt — Tunisia and Egypt — and in both cases the army was the key factor in the change. Both countries will be waiting several months more for elections that will give us a sense of their direction. Clearly, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest single party and will get 30 to 40 percent of the seats. A combination of three supposedly centrist reform parties will get about the same amount together. About 10 percent each, it seems, will go to supporters of the old regime and to the far left. Of course, this could change by election day. In Tunisia, the Islamists will be a small party, between 10 and 15 percent. Elsewhere, the bloodshed goes on in Syria and Libya; upheavals have been squashed in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf Arab monarchies; and Yemen is a mess of factions, Islamists, and tribes. That does not amount to a fundamental transformation 


KJL: How would you rate U.S. leadership on all of this?

RUBIN: Terrible! For a number of reasons: mishandling Egypt; empowering the Muslim Brotherhood; failing to support democratic oppositions in Turkey and Lebanon, and waiting too long to call for the downfall of the Syrian government; failing to consult with moderate Arab allies and totally dissing Saudi Arabia; not giving Israel strong support at a time when its security situation is worsening; ignoring the increasing Islamization and repression in Turkey; actually acting to help the survival of Hamas in the Gaza Strip by forcing reduced sanctions and supplying funds indirectly; and being far too slow and weak to respond to the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral independence bid.

It is really amazing how badly they’ve done. And the above paragraph is not at all a partisan critique. Each of these factors is very obvious and visible even if they aren’t being covered in the MSM very much. It can be summed up as failing to recognize the revolutionary Islamist threat; failing to support allies; being too soft on enemies; and not showing American leadership.

Obviously, the jobs and the economy will be the number-one issue in the 2012 elections. But if crises in the Middle East blow up — as I think they will — and make Obama’s foreign policy look like a disaster, might that be the number-two issue?