The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Muhammad Hassanein Heikal on the "new Sykes-Picot"

Heikal on JazeeraSince we began this translations from the Arabic press — thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic, the full-service translation company —  I’ve mostly highlighted stuff I liked and tended to agree with. This, week, I wanted to take a look at an influential voice in the Arab media that I virtually always disagree with: Muhammad Hassanein Heikal. Heikal was editor of al-Ahram and minister of information under Nasser and lasted a little under Sadat, before being put in prison. He never played any prominent role in the Mubarak years, but in the last decade joined the chorus of critics of the regime from his perch at al-Jazeera, which hosts his special programs from time to time, usually focusing on historical issues (Heikal often delves into his personal archive of documents for this.)

In his latest al-Jazeera appearance, Heikal reflected on the Arab uprisings and the Western reaction to them, saying the region was headed towards a new Sykes-Picot: a grand re-arrangement of its dynamics according to external interests. Much of what he says is unsubstantiated grandiloquence, but in it is a kernel of truth: how are regional and external powers adjusting to the Arab Spring and trying to get maximum advantage out of it? The history of the region warrants such caution — one just wish there would be better, more coherent strategists than Heikal to read the tea leaves.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal: “What’s happening now is not a ‘spring,’ but a new ‘Sykes-Picot’ to divide the Arabs”

Revolutions are not a deal for external forces to “hand over the keys” … and the West is recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood as a tool for fomenting sectarian strife

Nasrallah: What Yemen, Syria and the region are witnessing is part of a Zionist-American plan of fragmentation.

Writer and veteran political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal has stated that the events the Arab world is now witnessing are not a “spring” but a new “Sykes-Picot” to divide the Arab region and divvy up its resources and territories as part of three plans. The first plan is “Euro-American,” the second is Iranian, and the third is Turkish, in addition to an Israeli half-plan to stymie the Palestinian issue. He argued that revolutions are not factory-made and it’s impossible for them to succeed this way. Revolutions do not take place in the sense that control-hungry external forces “hand over the keys;” rather, they are looking out for their own interests, and no one should imagine that popular liberation comes second after [foreigners’] own interests.

He pointed to the fact that American and Western recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood did not stem from an acceptance of their rights, or out of respect or out of wisdom – but rather because they took the advice of Middle East specialists to use events to fuel strife within Islam for the benefit of others. He added that the Brotherhood’s euphoria at American and Western recognition of their legitimacy has not led them to examine the causes behind this recognition beyond the initial euphoria.

Writer and political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal made these comments in a recent interview in Al-Ahram.

Heikal pointed out that what we’re seeing is not simply an Arab Spring wafting across the region, but a regional and international political change rapidly progressing across a wide front, and producing profound and dangerous effects.

He said: “What we’re seeing now is a national project that is collapsing, and its remains are being swept away while other projects compete over the vacuum now that this project has let its time and place slip away.” He added, “I can almost see it: maps that were hung on the wall are now being taken off and folded up because the scene has changed, since the recalcitrant areas have come to heel or are coming to heel, and lost areas have been recovered or are now being recovered. All this is preparation for a chapter in a Middle East that is now being re-planned, re-arranged, and re-secured so it doesn’t slip away again, as happened when the Arabs were seduced by the dream of their national project, and for years it seemed as if this Arab national project was the shape of the future.

Heikal clarified, saying: “There are three and a half plans on the scene now. The first is a Western plan that appears determined and has effective tools and an aim that motivates its pupils; the second is a Turkish plan that seems ambitious; the third is an Iranian plan beckoning timidly from afar; and then there is an Israeli half-plan characterized by crudeness.

He pointed out that the Western plan, which is Euro-American, is advancing along two axes in a pincer movement to surround and encircle. The first axis is visible, audible and tangible and is an endeavor to drown the region in inter-Islamic conflict, specifically Sunni-Shi’a, and this plan’s march began several years ago when the imperial regime in Iran fell and was replaced by the revolutionary Islamist regime. As for the second axis of the Euro-American plan, it is an axis parallel to the one involving sectarian strife, and it is advancing with marked speed to outpace the others. This line consists of a division of the region along the lines of the “Sykes-Picot” agreement, with necessary adjustments for changed circumstances. He clarified that “the new maps aren’t divvying up the inheritance of the Ottoman caliphate, but rather the inheritance of the Arab national project that managed to expel Western colonialism in the previous stage and which tried to fill the void and failed,” and that “the Ottoman caliphal state was unable to protect its possessions, and thus lost its inheritance. The Arab project was unable to protect itself, and therefore its inheritance is now being divvied up today.”

Heikal expanded, saying: “The first ‘Sykes-Picot’ was a line on a map stretching from ‘k’ to ‘k’ – the ‘k’ in Akka and the ‘k’ in Kirkuk and it divided the north. This time there isn’t a dividing line, but scattered locations. The division the first time was a geographical division and distribution of nations, but the division this time is a division of resources and locations. Clearly what’s being divided now is first of all oil and its surpluses … the oil and surpluses of Libya after the oil and surpluses of Iraq.”

In response to a question asking him to give an example of a practical application of the new Sykes-Picot to what is now happening in Libya, Heikal replied: “We know from what we read now that concessions on Libya’s oil are being distributed, and at percentages that have been made publicly known: 30% to France (Total), 20% to Britain (British Petroleum). The British share is lower because Britain got more of Iraq’s oil. I don’t have the rest of the distribution percentages in front of me right now, but Italy is claiming a vested interest (Eni), then the American companies are insisting to be put on the list of inheritors… After the inheritance of resources, there is an allotment of locations in terms of a base for the Sixth Fleet in Tripoli for the U.S., an intelligence center in Benghazi and Tobruk for Britain; Italy protests that Libya was historically considered within its area of influence; France across the sea also has its demands. All this while the din of battle is still ringing and the tide of blood is still flowing.

Heikal related a confession made by someone closely linked to the Transitional Council in Libya, who said they imagined that, after a mere stirring in Benghazi, Gadhafi would do what Ben Ali had done in Tunisia and Mubarak had done in Egypt and leave. They hit the streets and came out into the open, but the man didn’t leave. He remained in Libya and with him a large part of the country and the people, and likewise most of the army and the tribes as well. For this reason, they were compelled to accept the assistance of “foreign military intervention.” If Gadhafi had fled and let them free, they wouldn’t have fallen into this dilemma, but he didn’t do that.

Heikal pointed out that what’s happening in Libya is no longer just a popular revolution, but it now appears to be a foreign invasion and takeover as well, which has killed 30,000 victims – Libyan men, women, and children – wounded nearly 70,000, and left installations and facilities destroyed.

Heikal expressed his belief that the resistance in Libya is ongoing and that “those resisting alongside Gadhafi are doing so out of their sense of belonging to the Libyan nation. They’re not clinging to Gadhafi; it’s because Libya has been invaded – and the same cause will lead both the cities and tribes of Libya to the brink of civil war.”

Heikal then emphasized that the elements of any revolution need to be mature for the revolution to succeed. He said: “To be completely honest, revolutions are not factory-made and it’s impossible for them to succeed in this manner. Revolutions do not take place by “handing over the keys.’ I mean there are no revolutions where the keys are handed over by external forces who are seeking control. These external forces are just looking out for their own interests, and no one should imagine that popular liberation comes second on their list after their own interests. We’ve found out from what we’ve heard and seen in the Arabian Peninsula about the construction of palaces by “turnkey” contracts, as the current expression goes. This also happens with ports and airports: everything is paid in advance in cash in return for the handover of the keys, but revolutions are something else.”

Heikal said: “Several weeks ago I read a headline in a newspaper saying that NATO paved the way for the liberation of Tripoli, but I rather doubt that NATO wants to liberate an inch of Arab land.”

He added: “The Arabs haven’t learned in the past or in the present, that there are no pacts between nations except what the logic of power requires, as they will all repudiate any pact at the first bend of the road if their interests call for it.” In the course of his conversation about Syria, Heikal said that foreign military intervention at this moment is a frightening prospect and it is hard to estimate the consequences of the alternative to foreign invasion, especially after what happened in Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and finally Libya.

He added that: “The region from Baghdad to Benghazi and from Aleppo and Aden cannot endure all the urgent and pressing events that are facilitated by foreign armies and fleets, even if that would clear things out here.”

Concerning Iranian and Turkish plans in the region, Heikal made clear that the Iranian plan is limited in its framework for several reasons related to geographical distance, history and culture, in addition to the fact that this plan is under siege and its strategy now has to be one of defense. There is also a Turkish plan that has had greater luck because its historical basis still lingers in the memory and cultural legacy of the region. Heikal called attention to the fact that Ottoman Turkey was the victim whose inheritance was divvied up among others in the first “Sykes-Picot,” and now it faces the enticing prospect of becoming a partner in the new inheritance, after being a victim in the previous one.

Heikal then warned against the Arabs’ falling into sectarian strife, seeing as this “will lead to disasters the beginnings of which we are seeing in Yemen and Bahrain.” Heikal strongly criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for not grasping what is happening, attributing this to what he called “the euphoria of recognition” of their legitimacy, which has not given them sufficient opportunity to examine the reasons behind this recognition beyond the initial euphoria, according to Heikal.

He said that American and Western recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood “did not stem from an acceptance of their rights, or from a calculation whose reasons suddenly became manifest to the recognizers, or out of respect or wisdom, but rather because they accepted – even if only partially – the advice of Orientalists, including Bernard Lewis, to employ sectarian strife to continue Iran’s isolation in the Arab and Islamic world.”

Heikal added that after Bernard Lewis’ advice was taken, American policy tried to use Arab leaders to achieve this demand, and they placed visible importance on the efforts of princes and presidents to attempt to change the principal nature of the conflict in the region from an Arab-Israeli conflict to an Arab-Persian conflict. This attempt did not enjoy the success that higher-ups in Washington and elsewhere were hoping for, so the Orientalist advice cropped up again that the most effective way to intensify the conflict would be if it went from being governments against governments to become societies against societies, and for the conflict to be between Islamic sects, as this issue already involves direct hostility and has the most profound resonance.

Heikal spoke about the adjustments in American policy with regards to expanding and fanning the conflict between Sunni and Shi’a groups, adding: “It was with this intention that the issue of recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood cropped up, and the acceptance of their legitimate participation in what they were previously banned from. The Muslim Brotherhood is an active Sunni organization and furthermore, it is useful that the people behind this request at the moment think that the Sunni Brotherhood has a role at the heart of the Arab street in the confrontation with Shi’sm.”

He went on to say: “The Brotherhood had the right to be recognized, but after the initial euphoria it was their duty to survey the motives behind the recognition, in the sense that while it is true they have this right, the use of this right to fuel strife within Islam for the benefit of others is wrong – especially in these circumstances.”

In a related context, Secretary-General of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, stated that what the Arab region is witnessing is part of a Zionist-American plan whose aim is to redraw the map of the region.

In a speech marking Ayatollah Khomeini’s birthday Tuesday evening, Nasrallah said: “What Yemen, Syria, and a number of Arab countries are witnessing is part of the Zionist-American plan of fragmentation.”

In his speech – which was broadcast by a number of satellite channels – Nasrallah warned the people he described as “those following the orbit of the American plan” against the disastrous results that may befall Palestine, Lebanon and the Arab nation.

In the same context, a number of analysts and observers have confirmed that the involvement of Italy, Britain, France, Turkey, Qatar and America in divvying up Libya’s wealth has become quite inevitable, citing the visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British PM David Cameron to Tripoli at the end of August to attend what they called a “Party to Carve Up the Libyan Oil Pie.” It was here that Chairman of the Libyan Transitional Council Mustafa Abdel Jalil mentioned that “allies and friends” will have priority in oil contracts and that “all those who helped Libya will have priority in all fields, not just the energy and oil sectors.”

Analysts have also said that Libya is currently witnessing an acceleration of the pace of oil production to ensure the new government’s revenue, and also because it is a pressing need for the countries of the West, especially as they are on the brink of winter and need quantities of gas for heating. As foreign oil companies gear up to resume their activity in Libyan oil fields, other companies from countries that participated in NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya are preparing to enjoy new concessions as a down payment on “compensation” for their countries’ support of the Libyan opposition in the process of removing the Gadhafi regime.