The shockwaves of popular rebellion reverberating across the Arab world since the start of 2011 have put to the test the West’s dominion over the region; a rule that has long aimed at securing access to the Middle East’s oil and gas, while supporting Israel’s ongoing colonization of Palestine. The means by which imperial control is exercised were vividly exposed to public view, as Western officials scrambled to ‘stabilize’ the states that had long served as their clients in the region. In Egypt, a favoured destination for cia rendition flights, the annual subsidy of $1.3bn in us military aid since 1979 has famously bought the Pentagon a direct line to the Army high command, giving Washington a control panel from which to manage the handling of the mass protests. The us Defense Secretary Robert Gates was on the phone to Cairo ‘every few hours’. Daily exhortations from the Obama Administration urged, first, ‘an orderly transition’ with Mubarak stepping down in September; then, as mass pressure grew, ‘an orderly transition now’, to the spymaster, Omar Suleiman; finally, a seizure of power by the Supreme Military Council (smc), an outcome announced to Congress by Leon Panetta, then head of the cia, on February 10, the day before it happened. All pointed to the urgency of American actions in stabilizing the 80-million-strong centre of gravity of Arab discontent, through the mechanisms of the post-colonial state.

On March 19 the smc, under the leadership of Mubarak’s long-standing Defence Minister Tantawi, rushed through a referendum on constitutional amendments judged to favour the essentially conservative forces of the Muslim Brotherhood and the still-powerful ndp in the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held later in the year. Further advances since Mubarak’s ouster—the sacking of his Cabinet and dissolution of the State Security Investigations Service, the political police, in March 2011; detention of Mubarak and other officials, and confiscation of the ndp’s assets, in April—have only been wrung from an unwilling smc by continued contestation from below. Western stabilization has been equally apparent in Egypt’s post-Mubarak foreign policy. The first act of the smc was to pledge fealty to the 1979 Treaty with Israel, abrogating Egyptian sovereignty even within its own territory. Initial moves to open the border with Gaza were swiftly reversed.

In Tunisia, responsibility for controlling the rebellion fell to the eu powers—above all the country’s former colonial master, France. Again, it was the levers of the post-colonial state that were put to use, even as this was contested from below. The first move of Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was an offer to dispatch French riot police, battle-hardened in the banlieue, to aid their Tunisian counterparts in crushing the mass movement. As the regime cracked, and former President Ben Ali and his family fled to Riyadh on January 14, the Army secured the streets and government buildings, but strove to keep the existing administration in place—with backing from British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who arrived with promises of aid. A stream of eu officials followed, bearing blueprints for acceptable reforms. It was left to the mass movement to maintain the momentum—fighting on to oust Ben Ali’s Cabinet, on March 4, and push through the dismantling of the State Security apparatus, the dissolution of the old-regime partocracy and expropriation of its assets. Constituent assembly elections are currently scheduled for October 2011.

Stabilization, then, entails keeping the pro-Western dictatorship’s state apparatus in place while removing the figurehead-turned-liability. A variant of the same policy can be seen in the bombing campaign against Gaddafi; British and American spokesmen have made clear that they are not aiming to destroy the Libyan state administration as such, ‘simply’—and illegally—to take out the Gaddafis. Urged on by France and Britain, instigators of the 1956 Suez intervention, and by the most bellicose advisors of the Obama Administration (Samantha Powers, Susan Rice), nato’s aerial onslaught was launched on March 19 and continues, with mounting civilian casualties, at the time of writing. One result has been to stop any independent protest movement in Tripoli in its tracks, while subordinating the Benghazi leadership to Western diktat. The ultimate outcome remains uncertain, but the intent is obvious: by unleashing its firepower with apparent impunity, the West is out to demonstrate who holds the reins in the Middle East.

Elsewhere—Bahrain, Syria, Jordan, Morocco—Washington and its allies have largely restricted themselves to pious calls for ‘dialogue’ with the protest movements. In Yemen, us attempts to shore up a dictator whom the Obama Administration has been arming to the teeth have brought the country to the brink of civil war. Other rulers on the Arab peninsula are judged ‘safe’, for the moment. Washington’s calculation seems to be that the kings and emirs may escape the fate of the region’s untitled rulers and need only be encouraged to relax their hold. Cameron’s February 2011 trip to the Gulf with a delegation of uk arms manufacturers, hoping to upgrade the arsenals by which Arab monarchs ensure their longer-term survival, followed by a stop-off in Cairo for a photo-opportunity with demonstrators, gives the lie to any sincere concern for the wellbeing of the Arab peoples—a cynicism only underlined by his agitation for unleashing imperial air power against Libya. The ‘fight against the brutal dictator’, whose stubble recently rubbed the cheek of another British Prime Minister, gives the aesthetics of politics a new twist.

The post-colonial state itself thus provides a key ‘remote control’ mechanism by means of which the West can determine the direction of countries nominally emancipated from its tutelage. In general, American strategy has been to entrust a client governing class with the keys of the state, on condition that it leave the door open. Within this framework, the West will permit various gradations of popular political expression. The range runs from zero, under a dictatorship, through a middling set of pro-capital authoritarian regimes, to parliamentary representation, in which elections can replace one fraction of the governing class with another, but otherwise leave the social order unchanged. There the gradations stop. This is not to say that popular contestation plays no role: it is pressure from below that usually necessitates the transition from one category to another. In a revolutionary situation, however, this controlled, step-by-step relaxation of repression becomes unstable; at that point, other forms of imperial intervention may be necessary to ensure that democratic aspirations do not exceed the bounds set by the ‘lock and key’ arrangement with the client governing class—by ‘military action when necessary’.footnote1

Schematically, we can represent the process by which the West has exercised its dominion over client nation-states as a ‘gearbox’ for managing popular demands. In conjunction with the appropriate fractions of the local governing classes, the gearbox is capable of shifting between different gradations of coercion and consent. The ‘gearbox of imperial control’ allows the West to adjust the compromise with the client governing class in response to actual popular pressure, in the way the Obama Administration ‘switched gear’ from Mubarak’s autocracy to (the call for) ‘open and transparent elections’. Of course this presupposes that the transmission mechanism connecting the gearbox to the nation-state container remains intact; in the case of Libya today, an often-heard complaint in the West is that such a mechanism had never truly been in place, and that intervention is therefore required in order to create an ‘open door’ state in the first place—regardless of the disastrous results of similar attempts in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.