Grounds for optimism

Israeli socialist Moshé Machover talks to Mark Fischer about the implications of the uprising in Egypt for the whole region

First, I would like to compliment the Weekly Worker on its article on Egypt in its current issue ('Stirrings of an Arab revolution', January 27). It was absolutely the right political stance to take - for the Arab revolution. However, the justifications that were given for this stance in the Weekly Worker miss out one important point. It not just a common cultural affinity that the masses feel subjectively that makes unity a necessity - this was explained very well in the article in terms of history, language, etc. But there is also a material basis for Arab unification, which is its economic necessity.

Resources in the Arab world are very unevenly spread. You have fuel resources concentrated in one place; material resources of various kinds - like minerals, land or water - somewhere else. For the genuine development of the Arab world, it needs unity.

For example, let's take Egypt, as the eyes of the world are currently upon it. It seems to be a huge country - one million square kilometres, or four times the size of the UK. But it is actually a very small country, because the inhabited strip is only along the Nile. So you have 80-plus million people, concentrated in that narrow area. The amount of land actually available is very limited.

A country like Syria is very large and very fertile - it is part of the fertile crescent - but with a relatively small population. Then, oil is concentrated in some desert countries. So, when you come to look at this region of the world, it is like a jigsaw that requires economic unification for the whole to function properly.

History is developing in a very strange way. About two years ago I published an article in the Weekly Worker about the Palestinian problem ('Breaking the chains of Zionist oppression', February 19 2009). I concluded by saying that the solution could not be within the 'box' of Palestine and what was required was an Arab revolution and global changes - so don't hold your breath, I rather pessimistically concluded! This was not something that was going to happening in the short or medium term, I opined. OK, although we might not now be seeing the thing itself - the Arab revolution I was envisaging - but it's a hell of a good preview, or dress rehearsal.

What speaks of the future is the fact that the dynamics of revolt are spilling over from one country to another - it underlines the organic links between these peoples.

And there is a genuine potential for revolution in this region. The masses are striving for change and a fundamental overturning of what existed before. No matter how it ends this time round, that is a hugely important lesson.

So what is missing?

Well you can topple a regime, but in order to actually replace it you need a more organised alternative. I don't need to tell you comrades! You need a mass, working class party. Of course, there are workers' organisations, but the left in the region suffers from the same problems as the left in the rest of the world. They have called for a general strike, for example. But still, things are too fragmented and dominated by the past.

So the current conflict can end in all sorts of ways. A temporary military dictatorship, perhaps. A sort of 'soft' Islamic regime - but nothing like Iran is on the cards, in my opinion. An unstable coalition of various bourgeois democratic forces is a possibility. It is very difficult - and foolish - to prophesy . But what is clear is that this is a turning point in world history and so I think I should now turn to what I see as the global implications of what is happening in the Middle East.

What we witnessing is a defining moment in the process of the unravelling of United States hegemony over the post-World War II world. The fact that the US could not even predict this unfolding revolution - let alone control it - shows that things are slipping from its hands. The first reaction of Hillary Clinton was - 'Egypt is stable'! This was a blandly stated assertion of supposed fact. What this means is that they did not have the slightest clue about what was actually happening in that society.

Which is strange, isn't it? Comrades of ours talk anecdotally of being in Egypt and sensing this was a society on the brink, ripe with mass revolt …

Yes, but the point is that the US was aware of the sentiment of the masses, but they had faith that the regime would be capable of containing it. That is their blindness, not the fact that mass discontent exists - they were well aware of that. They are not stupid - as Wikileaks has taught us. Their ability to process all that data and how they assess the ability of repressive regimes to contain the masses is serious flawed - after all, by definition they don't understand history.

No matter how this episode in Egypt ends, it confirms that the US is losing control of the world. And, more specifically, Egypt is a key country in the Middle East, and the Middle East is the most strategically important region of the world because of oil. When we were arranging this interview, I was planning to predict that the price of oil would rocket. But the news this morning, revealing it has broken through the $100 a barrel level for the first time in two years, has taken the wind out of my sails!

So, if US hegemony over this strategically important region actually is unravelling, what are the implications - not simply for that area, but the world as a whole?

OK, first the short-term implications. As we have seen, the price of oil will rise, which will exacerbate the global economic recession and slow down any recovery. At the same time, it will also make big money for the oil companies. Capitalism is not a monolithic system in that sense: it has divided sectors; it is an organic bundle of contradictions.

The long-term effects are momentous. The leader of the so-called international community - in other words, the United States and its camp followers - is in profound decline. Regimes all over the world are going to look at this and have second thoughts about their allegiances and how they position themselves in the world in relation to stronger powers. What the implications of that will be … well, your guess is as good as mine.

The short term is more problematic and unpredictable. Two very different reactions are possible. The neo-con instinct would be to attempt to reverse the decline and reassert US hegemony, if necessary through wars and interventions …

But the specific influence of the neo-cons has been very much on the wane since the disaster of Iraq …

But can you safely predict who will be the next American president or what his or her programme will be? US politics is very unstable, given internal contradictions and conflicts within that society and its ruling elite. It may happen that a version of the neo-cons - the 'neo-neo-cons' - could take control and launch a huge effort to reverse the decline …

But by definition that would require a massive deployment in the region, not simply in this or that state …

Yes, that is a possibility, I think. It is another way that the 'Vietnam syndrome' plays out. A defeat costs them prestige. So how do you react? You can retrench, lick your wounds and adjust to the new world equilibrium between the contending powers. That would be a sane way to manage your decline. But you can hardly rely on a system in decline - and the people who are its political personifications - to act sanely.

I think people have spoken quite correctly of a tectonic shift over this period. I think when we look back in a few years' time 2011 will be noted as a turning point. Not only in the history of the region, but in the history of the world. It is not on the same scale as the Russian Revolution, which was the defining event of the early 20th century, but it certainly bears comparison at the very least to something like the Vietnam war.

Clearly these developments do potentially pose an important shift in the power balance in that whole region, primarily expressed in a loss of US influence and hegemonic status. Then there is Israel which - in addition to acting as the US's proxy - has its own distinct interests.

Of course. I think it is going to have contradictory effects as far as Israel is concerned. We have to look at it dialectically. The Israeli regime is very worried. Initially, it kept very quiet in an attempt not to exacerbate the situation, but that was unsustainable.

The Israeli press is now describing the events in Egypt as a huge strategic loss. For Israel as a subcontractor of American hegemony in the region - as the local 'franchise', if you like - it relied on alliances with other US client states in the region. In the past, it had three local allies - Iran under the shah, Turkey and Ethiopia. Well, despite continued relations with Israel, Ethiopia is not now a major player; Iran was lost in 1979 and Turkey is now playing a far more independent role and has shifted from being orientated towards the west to looking east.

This new orientation of Turkey is in itself actually indicative of the US's decline. The regime has concluded that it no longer needs to be obedient to America, especially because of the stalling of the negotiations with the European Union. The first indication of the regime's new-found independence came during the invasion of Iraq, when the Turkish parliament decided not to allow the US to use the country as one of the invasion routes. This was an early sign of change.

Turkey had already truly ruined its relationship with Israel because of the Mavi Marmara incident and now, given the developments across the region, they are going to feel vindicated. By the way, the head of the Islamist movement in Tunisia, Annahdah, has returned to the country and has met with some popular support undoubtedly, but he said his model is not Iran. It is Turkey. That indicates a real shift - and not simply amongst progressive, radical forces. It also finds reflection in the Erdogan regime in Turkey or the new government that will come to power in Tunisia and, inevitably, in other states around the world which will feel instinctively that they are able to play a more independent game.

Israel specifically is very worried because, after losing Iran and Turkey as regional allies, it is basically left with three 'friends' - Egypt, Jordan and the subservient Palestinian authority. And this authority is simply a proxy for the Israeli occupation anyway, as was confirmed by the Palestine leaks. Egypt was by far the most important - it is the lynchpin of the modern Arab world. Even if this current upsurge does not result in Israel losing Egypt completely as an ally, what is becoming manifest is that it is not stable. And Israel is the guardian in that part of the world of 'stability' - that is, the stability of the repressive regimes in the area and the stability of American hegemony.

Whatever happens in Egypt, even if 'order' could be re-imposed, this equilibrium has now gone. Yet in the short term this will actually strengthen Israel's positions vis-à-vis the United States. It can now present itself as the only safe, stable asset for the US in the entire region. So there is no chance that the United States will downgrade its relations with Israel in the short term.

In the longer term, Israel's relationship with the US has been radically undermined. What's the point of an expensive guard dog (Israel is by far the largest recipient of so-called American aid … and Egypt is the second) when you have nothing left to guard? Israel is going to look less and less cost-effective.

Strategic thinkers in Israel itself must have considered the same possibility? What responses are being mooted?

Reading the Israeli press, I think it is right to say that just like the Americans they were caught totally unaware by these developments in Egypt. Of course, they have talked up the danger of a 'new Iran' - but you would expect them to do that and the scenario is not a very likely one in my view. As I have said, it would probably look more like Turkey than Iran, if we can talk in those terms and accept those political paradigms for the moment.

It does not look to me as if the Israeli strategic planners made any plan B at all. As we speak, I suspect they are sitting down and trying to catch up with developments. In the short term, it could be very dangerous. One possibility is an overt military strike against Iran - they have been conducting low-level military, terrorist-style, strikes in Iran for some time, of course.

On the other hand, they could simply keep a watching brief so as not to exacerbate the situation. Perhaps they have instinctively internalised an historical lesson about regimes or social forms in decline - if they attempt to assert their power in response to that decline, they end up further degrading it. It is a law of history that they may have learned. Perhaps not. The short term remains dangerous, most probably, and we could see irrational military adventures that could have a huge cost in terms of human life.

Now, the political turmoil in Egypt poses a particular sensitive problem for Israel. Egypt is crucial in the siege of the Gaza strip. That siege cannot continue without Egyptian complicity - it is an Israeli-Egyptian siege. Egypt has also colluded with Israel to keep the political forces of the Palestinians divided. It needed to isolate the Palestinian authority from Hamas in the Gaza strip, all the better to use the Palestinian authority as a Vichy-type regime, a government of collaborators. We know from the various leaks that the Egyptians have consciously sabotaged tentative moves at some form of rapprochement between the PA and Hamas.

In Egypt, the eventual outcome of the current upsurge will be - at the very least - a more democratic, popular-influenced regime. I am not making any wild predictions, but we can say that at the very least. Such a regime simply will not be able to maintain the blockade of Gaza in the face of popular anger. For Israel, this will be a very big strategic loss.

You made the point that there is no solution to the ongoing hell within the 'box' of Palestine itself. An Arab revolution is posed.

That's right. This is the instinctive response of the people, and it has real roots in history. We should also be very clear: an Arab revolution is counterposed to Islamism. The whole idea of the Arabs being a nation in the modern sense of the word is a 19th century concept that arose in conflict with pan-Islamism. The literature, the language, the culture obviously predate the 19th century, but that is when the notion of 'Arab' as a nationality gained currency. This is an antidote to Islamism, not the form Islamism takes in this part of the world.

Take some incidents in Egypt over this past period. At one point on one of the bridges of the Nile, it was prayer time for the Muslims. As they knelt together, Christian demonstrators were actually surrounding them and guarding them from any attack by the state forces.

Now this is a country where a few weeks ago there were inter-confessional riots, in which Muslims were killing Christians - an ancient but minority community in Egypt. Now, the Muslim Brotherhood has organised a demo in a Christian - or Coptic - area of Cairo. It was not the sort of provocation we see in Northern Ireland, as organised by the loyalist reactionaries. It was an act of solidarity! 'We are with you!' they were telling the local people.

This is a very optimistic sign. For the world revolution, this is a fantastic moment. Not only do we have this question of regional revolutionary change in general terms: we have the chance to watch a full dress rehearsal, as it were.