Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 February 2008
Issue No. 884
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The bigger picture

Palestinian strategist Mounir Shafiq predicted current tensions with Iran four years ago. He argues in interview with Amira Howeidy that the balance of power is not in favour of the US or Israel, if only the Arabs would listen

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"Constructive chaos" exposes the weakness, failure and defeat of the US. Why didn't Rice talk about constructive chaos when the US was launching its war on Iraq? Or when she spoke about America's national security? This theory only surfaced after failure. Even when she spoke about the war on Lebanon she called it the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East, not "constructive chaos."

"The unipolar system theory is flawed. Creating a world order based on that theory contradicts in essence the greater interests of other countries and therefore has no future. It's an illusion and is disconnected from reality."

The last time Mounir Shafiq visited Cairo everything was different: the buildings, the streets, and even the people. Palestinian intellectual, ex- Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) strategist, Christian Marxist turned Islamist, Shafiq hasn't set foot in Egypt for 30 years. He tells me the prevalence of the hijab, or headscarf, took him by surprise. So did the noticeable number of expensive A-class cars -- indication of "the rise of a privileged class", which, as in other Arab capitals, like Amman where he resides, is a reflection of a rising "globalised strata that puts emphasis on appearances".

Born to a wealthy Palestinian Christian family in West Jerusalem's Qatamoun neighbourhood in 1936, Shafiq's life of political activism, imprisonment and ideological development wasn't predictable.

Following Israel's occupation of West Jerusalem in 1948, his family moved to East Jerusalem -- which was under Jordanian administration -- where, by the age of 12, he became a political activist and joined the Jordanian Communist Party, remaining in it for 14 years. He spent most of his 20s in prison, serving 10 years for "communism, demonstrating and slandering the powers that be". During that time he shifted to Nasserism, thereafter joining the then powerful and popular and Palestinian Fatah resistance faction in 1968. In 1972 he joined the PLO's strategic centre, becoming its director in 1978 and earning a reputation for being one of the most insightful and shrewd of Palestinian strategic thinkers.

His conversion to Islam came when he felt that communism was lacking the necessary elements to realise change, liberation, the unity of the Arab nation and social justice. "I felt that Marxism suffered a sort of estrangement in addressing these vital issues," he explained.

It is his unique Islamic, pan-Arab, Marxist and Maoist background that made Shafiq's analytical and strategic take on regional and world politics exceptionally profound. He published over 40 books on the Palestinian question, Arab unity, Leninist-Marxist thought, the science of war, Islam, secularism, development and the new world order.

As we chat in downtown Cairo's Shephard Hotel café, he is reluctant, after his 30-year absence, to make critical comments about the Egypt that he loves. I push him. He remains diplomatic.

"What is happening in Cairo now on the economic level and in urban development is part of the 'political and strategic line' that began during the time of Anwar El-Sadat," he finally says. "It is a line that seeks integration with the capitalist world system. I believe in the theory that finds it necessary to create a balance between privatisation and the role of the state in monitoring capital," which is lacking in Egypt as much as elsewhere in the Arab world. "The outcome will be negative because there can't be development in the absence of social justice," he continued.

"We are still in a conflict with the Israeli enemy. And our Arab nation is still the subject of imperial aspirations and aggressions. With the advent of the George Bush administration seven years ago it was clear that a war was declared on the Arab and Islamic nation, Egypt included. This war isn't just political; it has social aspects as well. It is no secret that there are neo-con plans to change our societies to serve the Zionist project and its values. Even 'moderate' Arab regimes are targeted. The war on our nation remains declared." More attention, Shafiq says, should be given to Arab national security, self-sufficiency and internal unity.

"We should have joint Arab projects in the fields of education, health and social development, and the way I see it this kind of thinking contradicts the prevailing globalisation tendencies. This requires serious joint planning and policies that can create an Arab common market, not the suggested 'New Middle East'."

But how realistic are these aspirations?

"Unfortunately, I see contradictions between the policies of Arab governments in general and their position in the balance of power. These regimes can actually be more powerful -- it is their policies that are weak, as if there's a psychological complex that prohibits any confrontation between the US, Israel and us. This kind of thinking should be abolished."

According to Shafiq, the current balance of power is as follows: "the Israeli Ehud Olmert government is very weak. The Bush administration is also very weak. The Arabs could have taken advantage of this. And yet until now they didn't. The current balance of power isn't in favour of the US and Israel. The evidence is the fall of the 'New Middle East' project. And all the wars that were waged [on us] are now in crisis and on the path of defeat. Meanwhile our peoples have demonstrated an ability to resist to the point where the Israeli army was defeated in Lebanon."

It is of vital importance, therefore, that the Arabs get rid of the notion dominant since the early 1990s that the "US is the absolute ruler, that it shouldn't be confronted, and those who oppose it are doomed or will be thrown out of history and time."

Things and nations have changed, he insists. "Look at how Russia restored its greatness and role in the international community. Look at China's progress and its invasion of world markets. It's even signing oil agreements. Look at India. Look at Latin America and how most of its countries have revised the policies that prevailed in the 1990s that proved to be illusionary. Back then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the false notion was that the world has to succumb to the US as the only superpower and that the only remaining ideology was liberalism and Zionist-dominated Western ideology. All this proved to be wrong and weak. We live in a multi-polar world now and there is world chaos."

It's true, points out Shafiq, that in the measure of strength the US is stronger than any other state, but "it's not stronger than the world and this is the main point." And there is a counter power, he says, which consists of all the states whose interests are in one way or another in conflict with US interests. This includes Europe, Russia, China, India and Brazil, among others.

But Germany and France are in harmony with US policies. "There was always a NATO alliance, but that doesn't mean there was no conflict of interest between its parties. During 2004, the US realised it needs an alliance with Europe and no longer wanted to neglect NATO or the UN. It revived the alliance by making American concessions, not the opposite.

"Countries like Germany and France resorted to a role that the US had denied them in the past. If you remember in 2002 the Americans divided Europe into 'old' and 'new' countries and tried to snub Germany, France, the UN and NATO. Now these countries take initiatives to the detriment of the US. In Lebanon for example, the UN Interim Force [UNIFIL] is run by the Europeans, which in other circumstances wouldn't have been allowed by the US. Even during the Clinton administration, the Americans wouldn't allow the Europeans to attend the meetings between Israel, the US and the Palestinians. Now things have changed."

Is this because of the war on Iraq? "The main reason is that the unipolar system theory is flawed. Creating a world order based on that theory contradicts in essence the greater interests of other countries and therefore has no future. It's an illusion and is disconnected from reality. Nobody even talks about the unipolar system anymore. The mere fact that the US resorted to the UN is evidence of a multipolar system because both the UN and NATO countries have veto power. When the US wanted to invade Iraq, it replaced the UN with the 'coalition of the willing' because it didn't want to share decision-making with anyone. Again this has changed."

Which leads, he adds, to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's famous "constructive chaos" theory.

"A considerable number of people actually believed that the US would reshape the region, but when they saw its defeat in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and that both the Bush and Olmert governments are in a desperate shape, and they heard Rice's statement on 'constructive chaos', they understood this is America's policy; that the US adopted a strategy of creating chaos.

"Didn't they realise that a power that seeks chaos actually lacks control? If the US is in control it won't create chaos. This isn't an American policy or strategy; it's an attempt to save face. 'Constructive chaos' exposes the weakness, failure and defeat of the US. Why didn't Rice talk about constructive chaos when the US was launching its war on Iraq? Or when she spoke about America's national security? This theory only surfaced after failure. Even when she spoke about the war on Lebanon she called it the 'birth pangs' of a new Middle East."

Now that the seven-year Bush administration is about to end, will we see changes in US foreign policy?

Shafiq explains that the priority of the neo-con strategy after 11 September was "to create a new Middle East that responds to the Zionist Israeli project. Meanwhile big powers that possess competing abilities with the US were not a priority." He explains that in the past seven years the US made concessions to Russia, China and other countries in return for their support for America's policies in the Middle East.

"This greatly damaged America's strength. Russia managed to rebuild its state and purified it from Zionist and Americanised elements and placed itself on the world map as a great nation that possesses missiles and bombs. The US also allowed China to invade world markets at unprecedented speed. India and Latin American countries were also given the chance to rebel against the US. America sacrificed all this to serve its priority in changing the Middle East -- something it has failed in doing."

Shafiq concludes: "America certainly didn't choose the right priority by focussing on the impoverished and weak Arab and Muslim nation and leaving its real competitors to take giant leaps forward." Shafiq suspects that the US will shift its priorities in the coming period. Will it return to the theory of "containing" Russia and now China, he asks rhetorically.

Yet despite this upcoming change in priorities, Shafiq believes it's "inevitable" that the US will attack Iran. Says the strategist: "Decision-making in the US administration is still dominated by the influential Zionist lobby. Attacking Iran is a decision that has been made by the neo-cons and the Jewish state because Tehran is not allowed to possess the ability to enrich uranium, even for peaceful purposes and even if it meets all conditions of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is simply not allowed. Therefore if Iran doesn't hand over its nuclear programme its nuclear sites at least will be attacked, even if it suspends uranium enrichment."

A war on Iran would be the most dangerous step in the region, he adds, as Iran would retaliate and the war could rapidly expand. "If the US starts a war, it would need to use tactical, or 'precision' nuclear weapons. I would say 50- 60,000 people would get killed. If Iran tolerates this, the US will be defeated because the nuclear bomb's importance lies in its moral rather than physical impact. The entire world will turn against America."

Similarly in Gaza which Israel is threatening to attack to uproot Hamas, the situation is not entirely bleak.

Hamas, he suggests, will win in any confrontation with Israel regardless of the military outcome of the possible incursion Tel Aviv says it will wage. "If Israel does what it says it will do, even Hamas's harshest critics will have to denounce it. And if Hamas withstands the aggression and fights back it will put Israel in a tight corner."

But the Palestinians' greater challenge is not in the besieged Gaza Strip, he warns, but in the West Bank where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is proceeding in secret negotiations with Israel for a final settlement agreement. Shafiq strongly suspects it involves disarming the resistance, renouncing the Palestinian right of return and recognising Israel's Jewishness. "This is the greater danger we should be aware of and it surpasses anything else in its importance and impact on the future of the Palestinian question."

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