Friday: the day that toppled the tyrants

Written by Moazzam Begg Thursday, 03 March 2011
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Worshippers at the Friday prayer in Cairo's Tahrir Square Worshippers at the Friday prayer in Cairo's Tahrir Square

Since the beginning of the revolutions in the Arab world the most disconcerting day of the week for rulers has been Friday - yaum al-Jum'ah, the Day of Gathering. 

Simultaneous ‘days of rage’ organised on this holiest of Muslim days of the week, when crowds have gathered with unprecedented courage in their millions to listen to Islamic sermons inciting the faithful to revolt against the decades-old yoke of tyranny, have been the single most potent force in helping to topple the Middle Eastern despots from their self-appointed and Western-backed thrones.

The chants of ‘Allahu akbar’ have rent the air from Manama to Sana; from Cairo to Benghazi to Baghdad while the faithful raise their hands, bow and prostrate their heads in the face of rocks, water cannon, tear gas, bullets and bombs. No matter what their political orientation or religious school of thought, the thousands killed are referred to by the people as shuhadaa - paradise bound martyr-witnesses 

In the West, fear of Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia or an incredulous Gaddafi allegation that a former Guantanamo prisoner has founded an Islamic emirate in Libya, followed by delusional Bush-like allegations that Usama and Al-Qaeda are behind it all, versus the need to be seen to be supporting the revolutions explains the dithering demenour of the leaders.

It is true that these are clearly not theocratic Islamic revolutions calling for the implementation of the Shariah and that both religious and non-religious people have come together in a show of admirable solidarity. Christians have even defended Muslims in pitched battles with Government forces, and vice versa. However, the people are clearly not fighting for Western-style democracies where faith plays no role whatsoever either. They have been and still are very visibly Islamic. And, their experience over the tortuous years has shown them how the West has been more than willing to back ruthless dictators who had, until a few weeks ago, mastered the arts of suppressing their own populations.

Leaders in Britain, France and Italy are running for cover – in utter confusion. Now friends of the despots, now ‘friends of the people’. Their hypocrisy knows no bounds but the people they claim to befriend can see right through it – they have done for a long time. There might be UN sanctions, international arrest warrants, asset-freezing and removal of diplomatic immunity against the Ben Ali’s, Mubaraks and Gaddafis now – especially after the latter has manifested the barbarity Libyan dissidents in Europe having been claiming he’s guilty of for decades. But, all of this grandstanding cannot simply erase the collusion in the misery of the Arab people in the past.

One of the ‘justifications’ for invading Iraq was because of the crimes Saddam Hussain had committed against his people. However, with his timely execution he took with him the truth of just how much support he’d received from the West in using chemical weapons against the Iranians. But just like those who supported Saddam while he was carrying out proxy extermination, those who supplied him with money and weapons will escape the dock once again.

Western refusal to recognise any Islamic legitimacy in the Muslim world has led to compounded catastrophe in how it is perceived. One example was in 1992, just before democratic elections in Algeria in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win but the Bouteflika government cancelled them and suspended the constitution. Predictably the West remained deafeningly silent, except in support of the government. What followed was one of the most brutal civil wars in recent times that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Its repurcussions were also felt in France. This is one of the reasons why Algeria has been slow to respond to the revolution. The ostracision by the West of Hamas in Palestine is another example. 

In Libya, although numerous people fleeing Gaddafi’s regime were granted asylum in the UK when it was regarded as an international pariah, things began to change after it jumped on the the ‘war on terror’ bandwagon. By 2005 Gaddafi’s privileges were fully reinstated and he was being touted as a born-again Western ally and his son, Saif ul-Islam, an ambassador for peace and reconciliation. The same year, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) whose raison d’être was the removal of Gaddafi - and who strongly deny any links to al-Qaeda, do not have a history of striking civilian targets and have no record of fighting outside Libya - was proscribed as a terrorist organisation.

The cumulative effect of all this, in a post 9/11 world, was that numerous Arab dissidents belonging to Islamic groups who had been seeking reform in their own lands now became expendable. It is no coincidence that the first men to be detained under emergency measures in the UK were North African and Middle Eastern men. The reality of the ‘threat’ they posed to the UK is telling in the fact that none of them were charged, tried or even interrogated.

Regardless, these men underwent the whole gamete of illegal counter-terror measures including detention without trial, stifling control orders and were facing deportation to Algeria and Libya – countries known to practice torture and summary execution. In 2007 the UK government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Gaddafi regime which was seeking the extradition of all the people it accused of being members of the LIFG. Although the latter eventually won their fight against deportation and control orders even now, when Gaddafi is no longer flavour-of-the-month, several of these men are incredibly under UN financial sanctions solely due to their opposition the Gadaffi's barbaric regime.

Additionally Italy, France and Spain regularly deported dissidents back to countries like Tunisia without batting an eyelid.

Such unholy alliances of course, overt or covert, were nothing new. Former and current Libyan captives in Guantanamo have all given testimony about how Libyan intelligence agents visited them in on more than one occasion. The same is true regarding Egyptian interrogators employed by the US in Bagram. The case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi however, a Libyan Al-Qaeda suspect whose confession under torture was used by the US to justify the war in Iraq, is perhaps the most significant case in point.

After his initial detention by US forces in Bagram and the USS Bataan, al-Libi was sent to Egypt where, under the authority of intelligence head Omar Suleiman, dubbed the ‘CIA’s man in Cairo’ and ‘Egypt’s Torturer-in-Chief’, al-Libi ‘confessed’  to working with Saddam on obtaining WMD. This lie was perpetuated by the US to invade Iraq. Shortly after the Iraq war got under way, al-Libi recanted his story. But it was too late – for Iraq and for al-Libi.

Unlike other supposedly senior Al-Qaeda catches, such Abu Zubayda or Noor Uthman Mohammed (who recently accepted a guilty plea-bargain in Guantanamo) who were allegedly directly under his command al-Libi was conveniently not sent to Guantanamo to face trial. His final destination was Libya.

Washington’s man in Egypt, Suleiman, is reported to have been embarrassed by the erroneous information given by al-Libi. In May 2009 he travelled to Tripoli for the first time. By the time he left Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi had officially committed suicide in the notorious prison, Abu Salim, where thousands of Libyan have been tortured and murdered.

These are the friends the West has nurtured in the Middle East and North Africa. Now, with all the talk of military intervention in Libya and the presence of the US Navy and Marines in the Mediterranean the West may once again unwittingly – or intentionally – end up creating more hostility in the region and even succeed in uniting the Arab world against it.

The US is no stranger when it comes to attacking Libya. In 1986 President Regan ordered airstrikes on Libyan targets in Benghazi and Tripoli – hitting several civilian sites in the process – in retaliation to a bombing of US soldiers in Berlin allegedly carried out by Libyan agents. Equally, the US marine anthem, which refers to the Tripolitan War (1801 – 1805) between the US and North African Muslim (Barbary) states: “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli; we fight our country's battles, in the air, on land, and sea,” shows how US belligerence in the region is over two centuries old.

Rebels fighting against Libyan Government forces were asked how they felt about the idea of Western military intervention. They clearly do not want it. Some even said they’d fight both Gaddafi and the Americans if it came to that.

The armies and people of the new Tunisia and Egypt - and surrounding nations - should help but Libyans do not want their hour of freedom or victory tarnished by countires that have nothing but blood on their hands in the Arab and Muslim world. They (Libyans) also have an anthem that reminds them of their identity and the plots of their enemies too: “Allah is great! Allah is great! Allah is above the attackers tricks. And Allah is the Helper of the oppressed.”

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