The Siege of Qatar

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By Sener Akturk

Istanbul—The timing of a significant political development could hardly coincide with a more meaningful anniversary: June 5, 2017, the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, saw Arab autocracies, including the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Saudi Arabia and Egypt, severing diplomatic ties with Qatar due to Qatar’s continuing support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, among other reasons.

This is the fourth major political intervention aimed at suppressing the popular awakening that Middle Eastern polities have been experiencing, popularly known as the “Arab Spring.”

The previous three interventions targeted Egypt, Syria and Turkey, with various degrees of success, and of the time of writing, it was still unclear whether the effort to isolate, punish and coerce Qatar into the anti-revolutionary fold would succeed.

Throughout the global history of regime change, democratization often happened in “waves,” condensed in time and space, as the late political scientist Samuel Huntington argued in his famous book, The Third Wave [1].

This is in part because democratization in one polity inspired and triggered democratization in a neighboring polity. Unfortunately, each wave of democratization in history was also followed by a reverse wave of authoritarianism, with democratic action begetting authoritarian reaction in a somewhat predictable pattern. This is also what we have been observing since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Roles of Qatar, Turkey and U.S. during Arab Spring

The Arab Spring does seem to fit such a pattern of a regional democratic wave followed by a harsh authoritarian reaction. As such, it has been compared to the failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe, a comparison that I mostly sympathize with and discussed elsewhere (2) at greater length.

At first, the anti-authoritarian upheaval succeeded in overthrowing four authoritarian leaders in rapid succession: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen.

Removal of an authoritarian dictator is certainly necessary, although not sufficient, for democratization. In stark contrast, protests in Bahrain and Syria were crushed by the use of military force, and more specifically, through the direct intervention of Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia in Syria and Bahrain.

The United States initially seemed to encourage democratic development in the Middle East, epitomized in former President Barack Obama’s famous speech in Cairo, delivered when Mubarak was still in power. Turkey arguably provided an inspiration as the longest lasting Muslim-majority democracy in the region. Moreover, following the constitutional revolution in 1908, the Ottoman parliament in Istanbul had numerous Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, including Syrians, Lebanese, Jews, Palestinians, Greeks, and others. Nonetheless, neither Turkey nor the U.S. is an Arabic-speaking country and their influence in the greater Middle East was limited as such.

Emancipatory Role of the ‘al-Jazeera Effect’

Qatar played a critical emancipatory role, disproportionate with its small size, through its massively popular Arabic-language international television broadcast network, al-Jazeera.

Therefore, it is for a good reason that an impressive number of works have been written on the “al-Jazeera effect” in the politics and society of the Arab Middle East.

The Arabic-speaking publics of authoritarian Middle Eastern polities finally acquired a taste of popular opinion through al-Jazeera, almost certainly the most famous global brand of Qatar.

In short, Qatar through its media, Turkey as an example of a Muslim-majority democracy in the region, and the U.S. under Obama, as a global hegemon, allowing for the fall of authoritarian dictatorships, provided external motivations and support for the Arab Spring in the beginning.

World-historical significance of Egypt’s democratization

By far the most consequential and world historical proto-democratic development during the Arab Spring was the fall of the dictatorship and the transition to electoral democracy in Egypt.

What Russia is to post-Soviet Eurasia, Egypt is to the Middle East and North Africa. If Egypt becomes democratic, the other Arabic-speaking countries are much more likely to become and remain democratic. If Egypt remains a dictatorship, the prospects for democratization in the broader Middle East will be dim.

Thus, the democratization of Egypt, the international reactions to it, and the overthrow of the popularly elected government in Egypt provide the most useful lessons regarding the trajectory of the Arab Spring.

Egypt’s brief experimentation with electoral democracy witnessed the victory of the political party and the candidate affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary and presidential elections, respectively. At first, the U.S., Turkey and Qatar supported democracy in Egypt as well as the Egyptian president-elect, Mohammed Morsi.

In contrast, European great powers, such as France, Germany and Russia were more suspicious, if not hostile, to mainstream Islamic political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Qatar and Turkey as leading supporters of popular government in Egypt

Turkey has been consistently supportive of the elected government in Egypt, while advocating the same for Syria, Palestine, Tunisia and other Middle Eastern polities where there has been an active demand for electoral democracy.

It is in the same vein that Turkey supported the right of Hamas to govern Palestinian territories after Hamas won the competitive elections.

Qatar has been the only other state in the region that supported the elected government in Egypt, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas in Palestine, which is a striking similarity of political sentiments between Turkey and Qatar.

Although Qatar and Turkey were often labeled as part of the pro-Western, pro-American alliance during the Arab Spring, since both countries host critical U.S. military bases and Turkey is a long-standing member of NATO, very consequential differences emerged between the attitude of Qatar and Turkey versus the attitude of key Western actors, such as France and the U.S. vis-à-vis the prospect of majority-rule in the Arab Middle East.

France and the U.S. gradually retracted their initial support for the popular uprisings in Egypt and Syria. This is despite the fact that France was a leading proponent of military intervention against authoritarian regimes in Libya (under President Nicoals Sarkozy) and Syria (under President Francois Hollande).

The prominent role that Islamist movements assumed during the Arab Spring stoked preexisting Western suspicions toward the prospects of democracy in Muslim-majority countries. One can observe an increasingly strange suspicion of democracy in Western discourses, if the society under consideration has an unmistakable Sunni Muslim majority, such as Egypt and Syria.

Revolutionary change with democratic potential quickly triggered harsh authoritarian reactions by regional and global powers that felt existentially threatened by the prospect of popular rule. Chief among them are Iran and Saudi Arabia, both authoritarian regimes existentially threatened by democracy. Thus, Iran and Saudi Arabia preferred to divert the anti-authoritarian popular mobilizations in the direction of sectarian warfare.

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. were critical factors in the orchestration of the military coup in Egypt in July 2013. After the coup, France and other key Western powers joined Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. in supporting the military dictatorship. France sold two Mistral helicopter carriers to Egypt with price tags totaling around a billion dollars. Qatar and Turkey remained the only actors openly supporting the democratically elected Egyptian government and its president, Mohammed Morsi.

Supporting Morsi against the military coup in Egypt does not necessarily mean supporting his policies while he was the president, just as supporting Salvador Allende against the military coup in Chile in 1973 did not necessarily mean supporting his socialist policies.

This was the critical turning point, and the first significant foreign intervention aimed at suppressing what came to be known as the “Arab Spring”.

Two counterrevolutionary alliances: Russian-Iranian and Saudi-Emirati axes

The second critical turning point and foreign intervention to suppress the Arab Spring came from another geopolitical axis, with the Russian-Iranian alliance supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime, which is implicated in the mass murder of 400,000 Syrians.

In September 2015, Russia’s air force and navy heavily intervened in Syria, which would turn the tide of the civil war, and secured the survival of the Assad regime. France also backed off from its initial insistence on the removal of Assad through a direct military intervention.

Most dramatically, the U.S. also abandoned the more mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA), and instead, opted for supporting the Kurdish socialist militia, essentially a marginal ideological minority within what is already an ethnic minority in Syrian society.

To make matters worse, these Kurdish socialist militia are organically linked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which killed over 1,000 people just in 2015-2016, in numerous attacks, among them suicide bombings in major urban centers such as Istanbul, Ankara and Van in Turkey.

The PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the U.S., and yet the U.S. directly provides heavy weapons to arm the Syrian branch of this terrorist organization.

While Russia, Iran and the U.S. endorsed particular ethnic sectarian and ideological minorities in Syria, Turkey and Qatar continued to support the FSA, the mainstream opposition to the Assad regime.

The third political intervention aimed at suppressing the popular awakening of the Middle Eastern polities was the coup attempt against the elected government in Turkey in July 15, 2016.

According to a news story [3] that appeared in the Middle East Eye, the U.A.E. is suspected of “funneling money to Turkish coup plotters” and an Emirati middleman, Mohammed Dahlan, also a Palestinian exile, was allegedly in contact with Fetullah Gulen, the mastermind of the failed coup in Turkey.

Unlike the Saudi-Emirati-backed coup in Egypt and the Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria, the attempt to overthrow the elected government in Turkey failed, which was a major setback for the counterrevolutionary alliance.

Nonetheless, being the only significant regional military power genuinely supporting the FSA, Turkey sought a rapprochement with Russia in Syria before launching Operation Euphrates Shield, which succeeded in liberating Az’az, Marea, Jarablus, and Al-Bab from Daesh.

Siege of Qatar: End of Arab Spring?

In the fourth and most recent intervention to suppress the Arab Spring, three key opponents of the uprisings — the Emirati, Egyptian and Saudi regimes — suddenly severed diplomatic ties with Qatar.

These three states and their smaller allies imposed a multifaceted blockade against Qatar, hoping to encircle it. In their siege of Qatar, these Arab autocracies are also implicitly supported by Israel, and perhaps also by the U.S., following President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

However, it is widely believed that Saudi Arabia’s involvement in this affair was at least in part the result of an intra-Saudi struggle centered around royal succession [4]. If true, the Saudi state may not be internally united in this unprecedented punitive action against Qatar. As such, the U.A.E. would appear to be the mastermind of the Qatar siege.

In contrast, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan and Turkey openly resisted the pressure to isolate Qatar. Do these four countries constitute an alternative vision for the Middle East, a more moderate “third way” that is opposed to both the Russian-Iranian and the Saudi-Emirati visions? It is too early to reach such a conclusion. But it is worth noting that Turkey had to reconsider and scale down its goals in Syria after the failed coup attempt of last year.

Similarly, one may reasonably expect that Qatar’s influence and transformative role in the region may be diminished and limited in the short term as a result of this siege. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood — which Turkey and Qatar are currently being punished for considering a legitimate popular movement — is likely to play an important role in the future of Egypt and the wider Middle East.

More importantly, the political positions Turkey and Qatar have adopted are much more likely to be consistent with the mainstream public opinion in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East than those of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia or the U.A.E. The seeds of change and the revolutionary public opinion that Qatar cultivated through al-Jazeera are more likely to bear fruit in the future.

At this historical juncture, however, with Russia, Iran, France, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, the U.A.E. and the U.S. all in favor of suppressing the popular mobilizations that erupted in the course of the Arab Spring, the correlation of forces is asymmetrically in favor of a counterrevolutionary restoration in the Middle East.

Turkey, with or without the support of Qatar, is unlikely to reverse the counterrevolutionary onslaught supported by such a gargantuan array of military, economic and political forces.

Thus, Turkey and Qatar will most likely seek a modus vivendi with their detractors, settling for an acceptable solution between the extremes of a complete return to the authoritarian status quo ante and an immediate revolutionary change.

Suppressed revolutions or failed attempts at democratization, such as the Springtime of Peoples in 1848 and the Prague Spring in 1968, nonetheless transformed the young generations who participated and learned from them, paving the way for popular democratic change in the future.

[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

[2] Şener Aktürk, “Turkey’s Role in the Arab Spring and the Syrian Conflict,” Turkish Policy Quarterly, Vol.15, No.4 (2017): 87-96.

[3] “Exclusive: UAE ‘funneled money to Turkish coup plotters’.” Middle East Eye, 29 July 2016.

[4] Galip Dalay, “‘Körfez’ krizini nasıl okumalıyız?” Karar, 8 June 2017.

[Sener Akturk is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Koc University in Istanbul. He is the author of Regimes of Ethnicity and Nationhood in Germany, Russia, and Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2012).] 

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

Source: Anadolu Agency Edition:13.06.2017


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