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Israeli normalisation: Quashing the Arab dream of liberation

The biggest threat to the Arab world's authoritarians and occupiers is popular demands for democracy and freedom. The Abraham Accords aim to eliminate this threat forever
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed wave from the White House on 15 September (AFP)

They’ve been described as historic “peace deals” that will not only help bring an end to a decades-old conflict that is the root cause of instability in the Middle East, but also form an alliance to counter Iran, widely considered by western governments and their proxies as the region’s top antagonist. 

Shortly after it was announced that the UAE would normalise relations with Israel, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted: “The UAE and Israel both recognise Iran as this great threat, so they have now found a way to build out... a coalition to ultimately make sure that this threat never reaches American shores or harms anyone in the Middle East.”

If one Arab people gained freedom and democracy, it would be only a matter of time before all Arab peoples demanded the same

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also repeated the claim that the alliance between Israel and two Gulf monarchies is designed to counter Iranian influence. And while there may be an element of truth in that, it is not actually Iran that poses the biggest threat to Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and other regimes in the region; it is democratic rule and freedom.

I was on the ground in Egypt during the 2011 uprising and reported from Suez, where the first two anti-government protesters were killed. I was in Tahrir Square when thugs loyal to then-president Hosni Mubarak rode in on horseback and attacked unarmed revolutionaries with machetes, and I was in Alexandria the day the Egyptian despot was finally toppled. 

In the streets and squares of all of these cities, I witnessed the Palestinian flag being raised alongside the red, white and black of Egypt’s. I heard Egyptians chanting against security forces: “Why deploy soldiers [against us]? We’re not the Zionist enemy.” I listened to countless speakers take the stage and proclaim the uprising to be the first step towards liberating Jerusalem.

In Libya’s Benghazi, the Palestinian flag was also prominent in the main square, as it was in Yemen’s Sanaa. Yes, the unquestionable force behind the millions who took to the streets was their unquenchable desire for freedom from decades of oppression at the hands of authoritarian regimes - but the throngs of protesters were very much aware that their freedom was intrinsically connected with that of their Palestinian brethren, who continue to suffer under Israel’s illegal occupation.

Planning the counter-revolution

The 2011 protests paved the way for Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament and president. The process allowed Egyptians to scrap, albeit momentarily, policies that they viewed to be against their interests, and it provided an opportunity for a realignment of fault lines in the region. 

Consequently, you had a president who, unlike his predecessor, refused to help Israel in its siege of Gaza; instead, Egypt started allowing aid and goods to flow across the border into the strip. You had an administration that mobilised several other Arab governments to intervene and quickly put an end to Israel’s 2012 assault on Gaza.

The slowly emerging new alliance of Egypt, Turkey and Qatar threatened to challenge Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Sunni Muslim world. 

While these changes were being played out in bilateral meetings, press conferences and summits, other moves were taking place behind the scenes. The counter-revolution was being planned and executed by the UAE and its allies, who saw in the Arab Spring an existential threat. 

Tahrir Square became the rallying point for Egyptian protesters during the 2011 uprising (AFP)
Tahrir Square became the rallying point for Egyptian protesters during the 2011 uprising (AFP)

If one Arab people gained freedom and democracy, it would be only a matter of time before all Arab peoples demanded the same. Mass protests had already reached Bahrain, and calls for reform in the UAE and Saudi Arabia had been getting louder and louder over the years. 

In 2012, during a meeting with the then-US ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed described his vision for the Middle East’s future, telling the senior US diplomat, according to sources at the Egyptian presidency then, that “the future lies with the generals” and that she should forget about the idea of democracy in the Arab world.

Shifting fault lines

When the Egyptian military ousted Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 coup, and after the army’s massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Rabaa Square, the UAE and Israel lobbied Washington and other western governments hard to secure their support for the junta in Cairo. The coup brought about “the most pro-Israeli Egyptian leader ever,” General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. 

Accordingly, fault lines moved once again. Sisi’s Egypt quickly became the antithesis of what it was under Morsi: no longer a regional leader, it followed the UAE’s directives, and took its place among an alliance with similarly authoritarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - all of which were moving in sync with Israel. 

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It is true that these governments often express anti-Iran rhetoric, but words are cheap and often only for domestic political consumption. Their actions in the region have been much more concerted on quashing democracy and reform movements, from Tunisia to Yemen.

These states support warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and have argued that in Syria it would be better to maintain the Assad regime than to see a free and democratic country. 

On the eve of the Abraham Accords’ signing, the UAE’s foreign minister penned an article in the Wall Street Journal in which he attacked Turkey, another country that backed the 2011 uprisings and is mutually disliked by the Israel-Gulf alliance. 

If Iran was the real enemy, as is claimed, why does the annual trade volume between Tehran and Abu Dhabi stand at $13.4bn, and why did both Bahrain and the UAE reopen their embassies in Syria? This is not to deny that elements of Iran’s foreign policy are problematic, but the most apparent threat to the Arab world’s authoritarians and occupiers made itself known in Tahrir Square in January 2011. 

The Abraham Accords aim to ensure that this threat never manifests itself again - because if these Arab armies weren’t so busy suppressing their own people, they might start thinking about liberating Arab lands.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Jamal Elshayyal
Jamal Elshayyal is an international award winning senior correspondent for Al Jazeera English, he joined the channel in 2006 as part of its launch team and served as its first Middle East Editor. He covered a number of major stories including the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Some of his exclusive reports include uncovering secret documents from inside Gaddafi's intelligence HQ and uncovering torture and human rights abuses inside Egyptian prisons. Jamal was Al Jazeera's main reporter during the 2013 coup in Egypt, the 2014 coup in Yemen and the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey. He has interviewed several world leaders and has extensive access to major power players in the GCC and the MENA region.