Arab revolts – past and present


Arabs have historically revolted every decade against rulers and the west has counter-revolted most attempts
Joseph Massad

Arafats Road to Olslo began in the 1970s with the large scale funding pouring in from the Gulf countries [EPA]

New York, New York – The current popular challenges to the Western-sponsored Arab dictatorships are hardly a new occurrence in modern Arab history. We have seen such uprisings against European colonialism in the region since its advent in Algeria in 1830 and in Egypt in 1882. Revolts in Syria in the 1920s against French rule and especially in Palestine from 1936 to 1939 against British colonial rule and Zionist settler-colonialism were massive by global standards. Indeed the Palestinian Revolt would inspire others in the colonised world and would remain an inspiration to Arabs for the rest of the century and beyond. Anti-colonial resistance which also opposed the colonially-installed Arab regimes continued in Jordan, in Egypt, in Bahrain, Iraq, North and South Yemen, Oman, Morocco, and Sudan. The massive anti-colonial revolt in Algeria would finally bring about independence in 1962 from French settler colonialism. The liberation of Algeria meant that one of the two European settler-colonies in the Arab world was down, and only one remained: Palestine. On the territorial colonial front, much of the Arabian Gulf remained occupied by the British until the 1960s and early 1970s, and awaited liberation.
After the 1967 War

Amidst the dominant melancholia that struck the Arab world following the 1967 defeat by Israel’s simultaneous invasions of three Arab countries and the occupation of their territories and the entirety of Palestine, the Palestinian revolutionary guerrillas’ challenge to Israel’s colonial power at the Battle of Karamah in March 1968 brought renewed hope to tens of millions of Arabs and renewed concern for the Arab neo-colonial dictatorships (Arafat’s much exaggerated role of his exploits during the battle notwithstanding). The Palestinian revolution was inspirational to many but it also coincided with revolutionary efforts not only around the Third World generally but also in Arab countries as well, which in turn, had inspired the Palestinians.

The best revolutionary anti-colonial news in the Arab world after the June 1967 defeat would come from the Arabian Peninsula. It was in November 1967 that the South Yemeni revolutionaries delivered an ignominious defeat to the British and liberated their country from the yoke of colonial Britain, which had ruled Aden since 1838. The South Yemenis would soon found the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which would last for 22 years before its ultimate dissolution by North Yemen and its Saudi allies.

In neighbouring Oman, the on-going struggle to liberate the country entered a new stage of guerrilla warfare under the leadership of the People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG), which came together in September 1968 as a result of the unification of a number of Omani guerrilla groups fighting the British-supported Sultan Said bin Taymur. The PFLOAG had liberated territory in Dhofar from which it continued to launch its attacks to liberate the rest of the country. Indeed national liberation movements were active across the Gulf, and not least in Bahrain where an on-going national liberation struggle, a workers’ movement, students and women’s activism, all coalesced against British colonial rule and their local servants.


But the US-British-Saudi-Israeli alliance was determined to crush all the revolutionary groups that it could defeat and co-opt those that it could not crush. The effort started in the Gulf. Bahrain, which had been the hotbed of workers and anti-colonial unrest for decades, continued its struggle against British domination and the Bahraini ruling family allied with British colonialism. But as the British were forced out of South Yemen and the threat to their Omani client continued afoot, they transferred their military command to Bahrain, a step that was followed  by massive British capital investment in the country (as well as in Dubai). These developments expectedly brought more repression against the Bahraini people and their national liberation movement. Indeed, it was in this context that the Shah of Iran laid territorial claims to Bahrain and threatened to annex it to Iran as its “fourteenth province.” His territorial ambitions would only be tempered by his Western allies and the United Nations in 1970, after which the Shah would give up on his claims in return for massive Iranian capital investment in the emerging small Arab states of the Gulf, including the United Arab Emirates. The West thanked the Shah for his magnanimity and continued to reward him diplomatically and politically.

On the Jordanian front, King Hussein’s army would reverse the Palestinian guerrillas’ triumphs and defeat them in a massive onslaught in September 1970. The PLO guerrillas would finally be expelled from the country completely in July 1971. However, the PLO guerrillas continued to have a strong base in Lebanon from which they continued to operate against Israel and the Arab dictatorships.

In Sudan, the communist party continued to get stronger in the late 1960s, until the 1969 coup by Ja’far al-Numeiri, who initially could not fully marginalise the communists and waited until he strengthened his regime in 1971 to do so. An attempted coup against his authoritarian rule failed. In its wake, he rounded up thousands of communists and executed all the party’s major leaders, destroying the largest communist party in the Arab world. The Numeiri dictatorship would continue until 1985 and soon the democratic struggle against him would fail bringing in the Saudi-supported candidate Omar al-Bashir who seized power in 1989 continuing in Numeiri’s footsteps.

Only the PFLOAG kept advancing in the early seventies, which required a massive effort on the part of the US-British-Saudi-Israeli alliance to defeat it. The Shah of Iran and the Jordanian King were subcontracted for the effort. They dispatched military contingents to Oman, and, abetted by British advisors, were finally able to defeat the guerrillas and safeguard the throne for Sultan Qabus, the son of Sultan Said, who overthrew his father in a palace coup in 1970 organised by the British.  With the final defeat of the Omani revolutionaries in 1976, the PLO remained the only revolutionary group that survived the onslaught alongside a poor and weak South Yemen, which would finally be swallowed up by the Saudi-supported North Yemen in 1990.


Saudi and other Gulf money poured into the coffers of the PLO to make sure that Palestinian revolutionism, which was partially crushed in Jordan, would never turn its guns against another Arab regime again. Indeed, Gulf money would transform the PLO into a liberation group that was funded by the most reactionary regimes in the Third World. Arafat’s road to Oslo began after the 1973 war and the massive funding he would begin to receive from all oil-rich Arab dictatorships, from Gaddafi to Saddam Hussein and all the Gulf monarchies. It was this domestication of the PLO that impelled Arab regimes to recognise it in 1974 as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the main reason why they supported its recognition by the UN that same year. Indeed, Arafat’s reactionary alliance with Arab dictators was such that some PLO intelligence apparatuses began to share intelligence on Arab dissidents with Arab dictators, including the PLO intelligence apparatus led by Abu Za’im who surrendered Saudi dissident Nasir Sa’id in December 1979 to Saudi intelligence based on the request of the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon. Said was never heard from again and is believed to have been killed by the Saudi authorities. On the diplomatic and solidarity front, while the Polisario front declared the independence of the Western Sahara in 1976, Arafat refused to recognise the state out of respect for his alliance with King Hassan II.

The New Uprisings

As the Palestinian revolutionary groups were the only ones not fully domesticated, as far as the US and other imperial powers were concerned, though they had become sufficiently domesticated from the perspective of the Arab regimes, the new challenge would come from the Palestinian people themselves who revolted in 1987 against their Israeli occupiers. It was this second Palestinian major revolt in half a century, which many now see as inspirational to the present uprisings across the Arab world, which had to be crushed. The Israelis tried their best to crush it but failed. The PLO took it over quickly lest a new Palestinian leadership supplant the PLO’s own authority to represent the Palestinians. As the PLO took over the intifada, efforts were made by the Israelis and the Americans to finally co-opt the PLO and neutralise its potential as a spoiler of US and Israeli policy in the region. It was in this context that Oslo was signed and the PLO was fully transformed from a threat to Arab dictatorships, their US imperial sponsor, and the Israeli occupation, into an agent of all three, under the guise of the Palestinian Authority, which would help enforce the Israeli occupation in an unholy alliance with Gulf dictators and the United States. From then on, PLO/PA guns will only target the Palestinian people.

The US-British-Saudi-Israeli alliance in the region today is following the same strategies they followed in late 1960s and early 1970s and continuing the strategy they followed with the PLO in the early 1990s. They are crushing those uprisings they can crush and are co-opting those they cannot. The efforts to fully co-opt the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have made great strides over the last few months, though they have not been successful in silencing or demobilising the populations. On the other side, Bahrain’s uprising was the first to be crushed with the efforts to crush the Yemenis continuing afoot without respite. It was in Libya and in Syria where the axis fully hijacked the revolts and took them over completely. While Syrians, like Libyans before them, continue their valiant uprising against their brutal regime demanding democracy and social justice, their quest is already doomed unless they are able to dislodge the US-British-Saudi-Qatari axis that has fully taken over their struggle – which is very unlikely.

The Palestinians

This brings us to the Palestinian scene. The Palestinian uprising or intifada of 1987 was the first unarmed massive civilian revolt to take place in decades. It was in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the first US invasion of the Gulf that the United States decided to co-opt the Palestinian uprising by giving political and financial benefits to a PLO class of bureaucrats who would proceed to sell out the Palestinian struggle. Thus Arafat neutralised the uprising at Oslo in 1993 and went on to wine and dine with Israel’s and America’s leaders while his people remained under occupation.

But If the Palestinians were a source of concern to the Arab regimes after 1968 lest they help other Arabs revolt against their dictatorships, today, it is the Palestinian Authority (PA) that is worried that the Arab uprisings may influence West Bank Palestinians to revolt against the PA, which continues its intensive security collaboration with the Israeli occupation and its US sponsor. Indeed, while the Israelis failed in the late 1970s in their effort to create a political body of Palestinian collaborators through their infamous Village Leagues, the PA became, not the new “Urban Leagues” that many Palestinians dubbed it, but a veritable National League of collaborators serving the Israeli occupation. The PA’s recent bid for statehood and recognition at the UN and at UNESCO is an attempt to resolve the current stasis of its non-existent “peace process” and the dogged negotiations with the Israelis before the Palestinians revolt against it, especially given the dwindling dividends to the beneficiaries of the Oslo arrangement.

The PA indeed has two routes before it in the face of the collapse of the so-called “peace process”: dissolve itself and cease to play the role of enforcer of the occupation; or continue to collaborate by entrenching itself further through recognition by international institutions to preserve its power and the benefits to its members. It has chosen the second option under the guise of supporting Palestinian national independence. How successful it is going to be in its entrenchment bid remains to be seen, though its success or failure will be calamitous for the Palestinian people who will not get any independence from Israeli settler colonialism as long as the PA is at the helm.

As I have argued before, the Israeli-PA-US disagreement is about the terms and territorial size of the disconnected Bantustans that the PA will be given and the nature and amount of repressive power and weapons its police force would have to use against the Palestinian people, while ascertaining that such weapons would never have a chance of being used against Israel.  If Israel shows some flexibility on those, then the disconnected Bantustans will be quickly recognised as a “sovereign Palestinian state” and not a single illegal Jewish colonial settler will have to give up the stolen lands of the Palestinians and return to Brooklyn, to name a common place of origin for many Jewish colonial settlers. It is this arrangement that the PA is trying to sell to Israel and the US. Without it, the PA is threatening that West Bankers may very well revolt against it, which would be bad for Israel and the US. So far, neither the US nor Israel is buying it.

The Struggle Continues

As for the larger Arab context, those who call what has unfolded in the last year in the Arab World as an Arab “awakening” are not only ignorant of the history of the last century, but also deploy Orientalist arguments in their depiction of Arabs as a quiescent people who put up with dictatorship for decades and are finally waking up from their torpor. Across the Arab world, Arabs have revolted against colonial and local tyranny every decade since World War I. It has been the European colonial powers and their American heir who have stood in their way every step of the way and allied themselves with local dictators and their families (and in many cases handpicking such dictators and putting them on the throne).

The US-European sponsorship of the on-going counterrevolutions across the Arab world today is a continuation of a time-honoured imperial tradition, but so is continued Arab resistance to imperialism and domestic tyranny. The uprisings that started in Tunisia in December 2010 continue afoot despite major setbacks to all of them. This is not to say that things have not changed and are not changing significantly, it is to say, however, that many of the changes are reversible and that the counterrevolution has already reversed a significant amount and is working hard to reverse more. Vigilance is mandatory on the part of those struggling for democratic change and social justice, especially in these times of upheaval and massive imperial mobilisation. Some of the battles may have been lost but the Arab peoples’ war against imperialism and for democracy and social justice continues across the Arab world.

Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. He is author of several books including: The Persistence of the Palestinian Question (Routledge, 2006) and Desiring Arabs (Chicago University Press, 2007), and Colonial Effects (Colomibia University Press, 2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Related Articles

La soberanía a debate


Pasadas la manifestación de la Diada, las elecciones del 25 de noviembre y la Declaración de Soberanía, Catalunya se encuentra

NATO steps up Libya airstrikes


Explosions rock Tripoli with reports of civilians killed, as Obama says Gaddafi’s fall from power is “inevitable” Libyan officials said three

Lawyer Ebru Timtik dies on day 238 of death fast


Lawyer Ebru Timtik has passed away after a heart failure on day 238 of her death fast demanding fair trial

No comments

Write a comment
No Comments Yet! You can be first to comment this post!

Write a Comment