For half of the last century, Arab nationalists, socialists, communists and others were locked in a battle with the Muslim Brothers for hegemony in the Arab world.ÂTariq Ali 
The Jihadists who toppled the secular nationalist Gaddafi governmentÂand not without the help of Nato bombers, dubbed Âal QaedaÂs air forceÂ  by Canadian pilots who participated in the bombing campaignÂare no longer disguised in the pages of Western newspapers as a popular movement who thirsted for, and won, democracy in Libya. Now that theyÂve overrun the US consulate in Benghazi and killed the US ambassador, theyÂve become a Âsecurity threatÂ raising fears about the countryÂs stabilityÂ Âexactly what Gaddafi called them, when Western governments were celebrating the IslamistsÂ revolt as a popular pro-democracy uprising.
GaddafiÂs description of the unrest in his own country as a violent Salafist bid to establish an Islamic state was doubtlessly accepted in Washington and other Western capitals as true, but dismissed in public as a transparent ploy to muster sympathy. This was necessary to sanitize the uprising to secure the acquiescence of Western publics for the intervention of their countriesÂ warplanes to help Islamic guerillas on the ground topple a secular nationalist leader who was practicing Âresource nationalismÂ and trying to ÂLibyanizeÂ the economyÂ the real reasons heÂd fallen into disgrace in Washington. 
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which played a major part in the rebellion to depose Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, may have plotted the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi which led to the death of US ambassador Christopher Stevens, according to US officials.
The uprising of militant Muslim radicals against a secular state was, in many respects, a replay of what had happened in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, when a Marxist-inspired government came to power with aspirations to lift the country out of backwardness, and was opposed by the Mullahs and Islamist guerillas backed by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China.
An Afghan Communist explained that,
ÂOur aim was no less than to give an example to all the backward countries of the world of how to jump from feudalism straight to a prosperous, just society Â Our choice was not between doing things democratically or not. Unless we did them, nobody else would Â [Our] very first proclamation declared that food and shelter are the basic needs and rights of a human being. Â Our program was clear: land to the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all. We knew that the mullahs in the villages would scheme against us, so we issued our decrees swiftly so that the masses could see where their real interests lay Â For the first time in AfghanistanÂs history women were to be given the right to education Â We told them that they owned their bodies, they would marry whom they liked, they shouldnÂt have to live shut up in houses like pens.Â 
ThatÂs not to say that Gaddafi was a MarxistÂfar from it. But like the reformers in Afghanistan, he sought to modernize his country, and use its land, labor and resources for the people within it. By official Western accounts, he did a good job, raising his countryÂs standard of living higher than that of all other countries in Africa.
Gaddafi claimed that the rebellion in Libya had been organized by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had vowed to overthrow him and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Sharia law. A 2009 Canadian government intelligence report bore him out. It described the anti-Gaddafi stronghold of eastern Libya, where the rebellion began, Âas an Âepicenter of Islamist extremismÂ and said Âextremist cellsÂ operated in the region.Â
Earlier, Canadian military intelligence had noted that ÂLibyan troops found a training camp in the countryÂs southern desert that had been used by an Algerian terrorist group that would later change its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.Â  Significantly, US officials now believe that the AQIM may have plotted the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. 
Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the Libyan rebellionÂs most powerful military leader, was a veteran of the U.S.-backed Jihad against the Marxist-inspired reformist government in Afghanistan, where he had fought alongside militants who would go on to form al-Qaeda. Belhaj returned to Libya in the 1990s to lead the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was linked to his al-Qaeda comrades. His aim was to topple Gaddafi, as the Communists had been toppled in Afghanistan.
The prominent role Belhaj played in the Libyan uprising should have aroused suspicions among leftists in the West that, as Western governments surely knew, the uprising was not the heroic pro-democracy affair Western mediaÂand those of reactionary Arab regimesÂwere making it out to be. Indeed, from the very first day of the revolt, anyone equipped with knowledge of Libyan history that went back further than the last Fox News broadcast, would have known that the Benghazi rebellion was more in the mold of the latest eruption of a violent anti-secular Jihad than a peaceful call for democracy. 
ÂOn Feb. 15, 2011, citizens in Benghazi organized what they called a Day of Anger march. The demonstration soon turned into a full-scale battle with police. At first, security forces used tear gas and water cannons. But as several hundred protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails attacked government buildings, the violence spiraled out of control.Â 
As they stormed government sites, the rampaging demonstrators didnÂt chant, ÂPower to the peopleÂ, ÂWe are the 99 percentÂ, or ÂNo to dictatorship.Â They chanted ÂÂNo God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of AllahÂ.Â  The Islamists touched off the rebellion and did the fighting on the ground, while U.S.-aligned Libyan exiles stepped into the power vacuum created by Salafist violence and Nato bombs to form a new U.S.-aligned government.
SyriaÂs Hafiz Asad, and other secular nationalists, from his comrade Salaf Jadid, who he overthrew and locked away, to his son, Bashar, who has followed him, have also been denounced as enemies of Allah by the same Islamist forces who violently denounced Gaddafi in Libya and the leaders of the PeopleÂs Democratic Party in Afghanistan.
The reason for their denunciation by Islamists is the same: their opposition to an Islamic state. Similarly, Islamist forces have been as strongly at the head of the movement to overthrow the secular nationalists in Syria, as they have the secular nationalists in Libya and the (secular) Marxists in the late 1970s-1980s Afghanistan.
As they stormed government sites, the rampaging demonstrators chanted ÂÂNo God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of AllahÂ.Â
The secular nationalistsÂ rise to power in Syria was a heavy blow to the countryÂs Sunni Islamic militants who resented their society being governed by secular radicals. Worse still from the perspective of the Islamists, the governing radicals were mostly members of minority communities the Sunnis regarded as heretics, and which had occupied the lower rungs of Syrian society. From the moment the secular nationalists captured the state, Islamists went underground to organize an armed resistance. ÂFrom their safe haven deep in the ancient warrens of northern cities like Aleppo and Hama, where cars could not enter, the guerrillas emerged to bomb and kill.Â 
In 1980, an attempt was made to group the Sunni opposition to the secular nationalists under an ÂIslamic FrontÂ, which promised free speech, free elections, and an independent judiciary, under the banner of Islam. When militant Islamic terrorists murdered Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a year later in Egypt, Islamists in Damascus promised then president Hafiz Asad the same fate. Then in 1982, Jihadists rose up in HamaÂÂthe citadel of traditional landed power and Sunni puratinismÂ Âin a bid to seize power in the city. The ensuing war of the Islamic radicals against the secular nationalist state, a bloody affair which costs tens of thousands of lives, convinced Asad that Âhe was wrestling not just with internal dissent, but with a large scale conspiracy to unseat him, abetted by Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the United States.Â  Patrick Seale, a veteran British journalist who has covered the Middle East for decades, described the IslamistsÂ movement against SyriaÂs secular nationalists as a Âsort of fever that (rises) and (falls) according to conditions at home and manipulation from abroad.Â 
Media accounts of SyriaÂs civil war omit mention of the decades-long hostility between Islamists and secular nationalistsÂa fierce enmity that sometimes flares into open warfare, and at other times simmers menacingly below the surfaceÂthat has defined Syria in the post-colonial period. To do so would take the sheen off the armed rising as a popular, democratic, progressive struggle, a depiction necessary to make Western intervention in the form of sanctions, diplomatic support, and other aid, against the secular nationalists, appear just and desirable.
Today, only Trotskyists besotted by fantasies that the Arab Spring is the equivalent of the March 1917 Petrograd uprising, deny that the content of the Syrian uprising is Islamist. But the question of whether the uprising was initially otherwiseÂa peaceful, progressive and popular movement aimed at opening democratic space and redressing economic grievancesÂand only later hijacked by Islamists, remains in dispute. WhatÂs clear, however, is that the ÂhijackingÂ, if indeed there was one, is not of recent vintage. In the nascent stages of the rebellion, the late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid noted that the Âmost puritanical Islamists, known by their shorthand as Salafists, have emerged as a force in Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, with suspicions that Saudi Arabia has encouraged and financed them.Â
Secular nationalists, socialists and communists in Muslim lands have struggled with the problem of Islamist opposition to their programs, to their atheism (in the case of communists) and to the secular character of the state they have sought to build. The Bolsheviks, perhaps alone among this group, were successful in overcoming opposition in the traditional Muslim territories they controlled in Central Asia, and improving the lives of women, who had been oppressed by conservative Islam. Female seclusion, polygamy, bride price, child and forced marriages, veiling (as well as circumcision of males, considered by the Bolsheviks to be child abuse) were outlawed. Women were recruited into administrative and professional positions and encouraged Â indeed obligated Â to work outside the home. This followed Friedrich EngelsÂ idea that women could only be liberated from the domination of men if they had independent incomes. 
Western governments, led by the United States, have made a practice of inflaming the IslamistsÂ hostility to secular nationalists, socialists and communists, using militant Muslim radicals as a catÂs paw to topple these governments, which have almost invariably refused to align themselves militarily with the United States or cut deals against the interests of their own people to fatten the profits of corporate America and enrich Wall Street investment bankers. But whether Washington aggravates fault lines within Muslim societies or not, the fact remains that the fault lines exist, and must be managed, but have not always been managed well.
For example, no matter how admirable their aims were, the reformers in Afghanistan had too narrow a political base to move as quickly as they did, and they rushed headlong into disaster, ignoring MoscowÂs advice to slow down and expand their support. The Carter and Reagan administrations simply took advantage of their blunders to build a committed anti-communist guerilla movement.
Salah Jadid, who Hafiz Asad overthrew and locked away. Jadid pursued an unapologetically leftist program, and boasted of practicing Âscientific socialism.Â The Soviets thought otherwise. Jadid came to power in a conspiracy and never had more than a narrow base of support.
The leftist Syrian regime of Salah Jadid, which Hafiz Asad overthrew, did much that would be admired by leftists today. Indeed, Tariq Ali, in an apology apparently intended to expiate the sin of seeming to support the current Asad government, lauds JadidÂs regime as the Âmuch more enlightened predecessor whose leaders and activistsÂ numbered in their ranks some of the finest intellectuals of the Arab world.Â 
ItÂs easy to see why Ali admired AsadÂs predecessors. Jadid, who lived an austere life, refusing to take advantage of his position to lavish himself with riches and comforts, slashed the salaries of senior ministers and top bureaucrats. He replaced their black Mercedes limousines with Volkswagens and Peugeot 404s. People connected with the old influential families were purged from government. A Communist was brought into the cabinet. Second houses were confiscated, and the ownership of more than one was prohibited. Private schools were banned. Workers, soldiers, peasants, students and women became the regimeÂs favored children. Feudalists and reactionaries were suppressed. A start was made on economic planning and major infrastructure projects were undertaken with the help of the Soviets.
And yet, despite these clearly progressive measures, JadidÂs base of popular support remained narrowÂone reason why the Soviets were lukewarm toward him, regarding him as a hothead, and contemptuous of his claim to be practicing Âscientific socialism.Â  Scientific socialism is based on mass politics, not a minority coming to power through a conspiracy (as Jadid and Asad had) which then attempts to impose its utopian vision on a majority that rejects it.
Jadid backed the Palestinian guerrillas. Asad, who was then minister of defense, was less enamored of the guerrillas, who he saw as handing Israel pretexts for war. Jadid defined the bourgeoisie as the enemy. Asad wanted to enlist their backing at home to broaden the governmentÂs base of support against the Muslim Brothers. Jadid spurned the reactionary Arab regimes. Asad was for unifying all Arab statesÂreactionary or otherwiseÂagainst Israel. 
AsadÂwho Ali says he opposedÂrecognized (a) that a program of secular nationalist socialism couldnÂt be implemented holus bolus without mass support, and (b) that the government didnÂt have it. So, after toppling Jadid in a so-called ÂcorrectiveÂ movement, he minimized class warfare in favor of broadening his governmentÂs base, trying to win over merchants, artisans, business people, and other opponents of the regimeÂs nationalizations and socialist measures.
At the same time, he retained JadidÂs commitment to a dirigiste state and continued to promote oppressed classes and minorities. This was hardly a stirring program for Marxist puristsÂin fact it looked like a betrayalÂbut the Soviets were more committed to Asad than Jadid, recognizing that his program respected the world as it was and therefore had a greater chance of success. 
In the end, however, Asad failed. Neither he nor his son Bashar managed to expand the stateÂs base of support enough to safeguard it from destabilization. The opposition hasnÂt been conjured up out of nothing by regime change specialists in Washington. To be sure, regime change specialists have played a role, but theyÂve needed material to work with, and the AsadÂs Syria has provided plenty of it.
Nor did Gaddafi in Libya finesse the problem of mixing the right amount of repression and persuasion to engineer a broad enough consent for his secular nationalist rule to survive the fever of Salafist opposition rising, as Patrick Seale writes, according to conditions at home and manipulation from abroad.
The machinations of the United States and reactionary Arab regimes to stir up and strengthen the secular nationalistsÂ opponents made the knot all the more difficult to disentangle, but outside manipulation wasnÂt the whole story in GaddafiÂs demise (though it was a significant part of it) and hasnÂt been the sole, or even a large part of the, explanation for the uprising in Syria.
The idea that the Syrian uprising is a popular, democratic movement against dictatorship and for the redress of economic grievances ignores the significant history of struggle between secularist Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brothers, mistakenly minimizes the role of Salafists in the uprisings, and turns a blind eye to WashingtonÂs longstanding practice of using radical Muslim activists as a catÂs paw against Arab nationalist regimes.
The idea that the uprisings in either country are popular, democratic movements against dictatorship and for the redress of economic grievances, (a) ignores the significant history of struggle between secularist Arab nationalists and the Muslim Brothers, (b) mistakenly minimizes the role of Salafists in the uprisings, and (c) turns a blind eye to WashingtonÂs longstanding practice of using radical Muslim activists as a catÂs paw against Arab nationalist regimes that are against sacrificing local interests to the foreign trade and investment interests of Wall Street and corporate America.
With Islamists lashing out violently against US embassies in the Middle East, their depiction by US state officials and Western media as pro-democracy fighters for freedom may very well be supplanted by the labels used by Gaddafi and Asad to describe their Islamist opponents, labels that are closer to the truth ÂÂreligious fanaticsÂ and Âterrorists.Â
Reactionary Islam may have won the battle for hegemony in the Muslim world, as Tariq Ali asserts, and with it, the United States, which has often manipulated it for its own purposes, but the battle has yet to be won in Syria, and one would hope, never will be.
ThatÂs whatÂs at stake in the country: not a fragile, popular, egalitarian, pro-democracy movement, but the last remaining secular Arab nationalist regime, resisting both the oppressions and obscurantism of the Muslim Brothers and the oppressions and plunder of imperialism.
September 15, 2012
1. Tariq Ali, ÂThe Uprising in SyriaÂ, www.counterpunch.com, September 12, 2012.
2. Stephen Gowans [A], ÂAl-QaedaÂs Air ForceÂ, whatÂs left, February 20, 2012. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/al-qaedas-air-force/
3. Patrick Martin, ÂAnti-American protests seen as tip of the Islamist icebergÂ, The Globe and Mail, September 13, 2012.
4. Gowans [A]
5. Rodric Braithwaite. Afghantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989. Profile Books. 2012. pp. 5-6.
6. Gowans [A]
7. Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous, ÂU.S. probing al-Qaeda link in LibyaÂ, The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2012.
8. Gowans [A] 9. David Pugliese, ÂThe Libya mission one year later: Into the unknownÂ, The Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2012.
11. Patrick Seale. Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. University of California Press. 1988, p.324.
12. Seale, p. 333.
13. Seale, p. 335.
14. Seale, p. 322.
15. Anthony Shadid, ÂAfter Arab revolts, reigns of uncertaintyÂ, The New York Times, August 24, 2011.
16. Stephen Gowans [B], ÂWomenÂs Rights in AfghanistanÂ, August 9, 2010. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/women%e2%80%99s-rights-in-afghanistan/