The revolutionary

'Pro-Arab' UK politician George Galloway on the Middle East's new world order
The revolutionary
By Damian Reilly
Sun 06 Mar 2011 09:21 AM

In he ambles, straight off the beach, a little dishevelled, a lot unshaven. This isn’t how he presented himself to the American Senate in 2005. He’s in Dubai on holiday with his family, and he seems relaxed. He talks with the skill of a 35-year career politician – the diction is immaculate, the voice beautifully modulated and clear. In fact, for a scourge of the British establishment, he is thoroughly charming and likeable. And then suddenly, in conversation, you realise he has made a series of twinkly-eyed allegations about very, very important British people being on the payroll of Muammar Gaddafi — allegations that will shortly make our lawyers tremble and blush — and the reputation of George Galloway, 56, becomes a little more easy to understand. That said, over coffee for an hour, discussing what the Arab revolutions mean, you’d be hard pushed for better company.

Galloway joined Britain’s Labour Party at 13, but has always been a political maverick (he describes ex prime minister Tony Blair and current prime minister David Cameron as “two cheeks of the same backside”). He took up the cause of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1975 after a chance conversation with a young Palestinian in the Scottish city of Dundee – it was a time, he says, when “you could have fit all the supporters of the PLO in a small room” — and has since devoted his career to promoting Arab issues in the West.

He recalls: “I had never met an Arab, never met a Muslim… I was working alone in the Labour Party office in the Scottish city of Dundee, which was 99.9 percent white at that time, the summer of 1975. There were virtually no Muslims there at all. And a young man came to the door of the party office and said he was from the General Union of Palestinian students, and he wanted to talk to the leaders of the party about the Palestinian situation. I was 20 years old. I said: ‘there are no leaders here, but you can talk to me, and I will tell them.’ So in he came, and for two hours he talked in mesmerising detail about the Palestinian cause, and at the end of those two hours, I was in the revolution.”

Two years later, Galloway travelled to Beirut and met Yasser Arafat. He stayed eleven months, living, he says, with Arafat and other leaders in the Fakhani district of Beirut.

“By the end of those eleven months, it [the Palestinian cause] had entered my bloodstream and shaped my life,” he says.

Galloway is loved and loathed in Britain. Over the years, he has had all manner of accusations thrown at him, but none that has ever managed to stick meaningfully. He was expelled from the Labour party for supposedly encouraging Iraqis to attack British troops – something he vehemently denies ever having said — and in 2003 several British newspapers alleged he had been taking large amounts of money from Saddam Hussein on the strength of documents supposedly found in the bombed out Iraqi Foreign Ministry. Galloway sued them and won, and then defended his name in the Senate with a bravura display of public speaking.

Laughing about it now, in the plush lobby of the One and Only Royal Mirage, he says: “Saddam Hussein never gave me a brass farthing, but the newspapers which alleged that he did had to give me £2.6m, so I can sit in this lovely hotel courtesy of the Daily Telegraph, and others”.

He describes his Senate performance — which was broadcast live around the world and has since been watched by millions of people on YouTube, making him a star in America — as “my greatest day.”

“The allegations against me in the Senate were easily rebutted. One session and I never heard from them again. And they wished they hadn’t invited me to that session. I did take it personally, yes… Because they named me in their report without ever contacting me. I didn’t even know there was such an enquiry, let alone have a chance to contribute to it, until I received media calls. Which is why I insisted on flying out there.”

It goes without saying that Galloway, whose wife is Syrian and whose son is named after the footballer Zinedine Zidane, is fascinated by what is happening in the Arab world today. At the start of the interview he quotes Vladimir Lenin: “there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen,” and professes to not being surprised at all by the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya and the rest.

He says: “I am not at all shocked, because this should have happened a very long time ago. The Arabs have been quiescent under dictatorship of one form or another for a very long time. They have been subject to occupation and dismemberment for the best part of a century. I always used to say: every day I walked past the room in which Sykes and Picot divided up the Arab world, by the Thames, in the Parliament, in London. A French civil servant and an English civil servant, a big map with no lines on it, and their pencils and their rulers. And they invented all sorts of things. And that was almost, but for six years, a century ago.

“They could never have imagined that their handiwork would still exist, more or less intact, 94 years later. It is one of the most successful imperialist operations in history because it has kept the Arabs divided and therefore weak and therefore underachieving.”

Galloway describes himself as “pro-Arab,” and is happy to expound his belief that the Arab-world should be a “super-power”. With 350m people, and the oil reserves, and vast amounts of land, and one religion, he says it has everything it should need to be one.

He says: “I believe that this intifada which is now going on is long overdue, I am not shocked by it, nor surprised by it… I expected it to start in Egypt, because I felt that the Egyptian dictatorship was the weakest, and was attempting to perform a maneuver, very difficult to carry off, even in the best of circumstances, namely the handing of power in a republic from the father to the son.

“Half of all Egyptians — that is 40m, therefore — are living on less than $2 a day, they don’t know even if they will eat tomorrow or if the roof over their head will be secure next week. There is the humiliation of the great Egypt, once the leader, the heart of the Arab world, reduced to effectively to a cat’s paw of American and Israeli foreign policy in the region, used as a jailor of the Palestinians unfortunate to be living in the Gaza strip under siege. The humiliation, the lack of freedom, and the fact that there’s no bread, I expected would lead to a revolution in Egypt, and soon, because I knew that the father, as all men, must pass. I thought it would happen when he died, or when he attempted to pass power on to Gamal.”

While Galloway says he is not surprised by what is happening in Egypt, he will profess to a degree of anxiety about what will follow the revolutions. He says the worst possible outcome would be for a lurch to occur from pro-Western dictatorships to “anti-Western fanatic governments.” But he adds the only place where this might transpire, realistically, is Libya.

“In Libya, the inchoate nature of this rebellion leads me to be slightly anxious that very Islamist fundamentalist elements will be at least in with a shout of filling this vacuum. And the more brutal the transition, the more likely that outcome is. Gaddafi’s quixotic, ultimately maniacal disposition has helped to produce a coarse, brutalised polity in Libya, and out of that maelstrom anything could come. The one thing that will not come is any sort of ready-made, tailored, Western sympathetic political class. There is no political class in Libya that fits that description,” he says.

Galloway makes it clear that he has never met Hosni Mubarak, nor his son Gamal, and he also hasn’t met Gaddafi, nor any of his sons. He is happy, however to draw comparison between Gaddafi and a man that he did meet, twice.

“Gaddafi is a madman, and Saddam Hussein was not. Gaddafi has no achievements, Saddam had many. Both have destroyed their regimes by their mistakes. But Saddam at least had achievements to his name, which Gaddafi can’t begin to match."

And then, warming to the theme:

“Every Libyan should be a multimillionaire. They have had more than 40 years with a tiny population, 6.5m people, and literally trillions of dollars of earnings. And anyone who has ever been in Libya, as I have, goes around asking themselves, where did all this money go? It didn’t go to the individual Libyan, it didn’t go to the public realm. If you go off the public road in Libya you will find streets with no lighting, potholes like caves. This money has been at best wasted, and at worst, stolen. I think it is a mixture of waste and theft.

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“But Saddam nationalised the Iraqi oil. He spent so much money educating Iraqis that at one time they had more PhDs than all the other Arab countries put together. The public realm in Iraq showed signs of the country’s wealth, and the personal wealth of Iraqis in the seventies was extraordinarily high.”

There are many who see Galloway as an apologist for Saddam in the West. Talking to him now, that seems an unfair summation. He is as happy to condemn, witheringly, the dictator’s faults as he is to point out his achievements. He describes him, ultimately, as a “disastrous failure,” although avers on the question of whether he was a psychopath.

“Saddam’s disastrous invasion of Iran, the equally disastrous invasion and occupation of Kuwait, the even more disastrous failure to withdraw from Kuwait to avoid the catastrophe, and the conduct of the Saddam regime, through the long period that led up to its demise, all were reasons why Saddam in the end was a disastrous failure. I am not qualified to say whether he was a psychopath… What I would say is he made mistakes so gigantic, that any good that he did is lost in the tide of blood caused by those mistakes. But he is in a different league to Gaddafi, a different league altogether.”

Galloway’s great hope is that the Arab revolutions will soon lead to the elections of governments across the Arab world that resemble in nature and outlook that of Turkey’s, which he says he admires hugely.

“I think the best outcome for the Arab world would be to follow the path blazed by [Reccip] Erdogan in Turkey. I think that the government of Erdogan is the best government in the Muslim world. I have never met any of them, I have no business or any other interest in saying so, it is my genuine belief. If this wave of revolutions leaves a series of Erdogan-type governments in the Arab world, I think we will have come a gigantic step forward. It is Islamic in character, modern in outlook, moderate in disposition and self-respecting and therefore demanding of respect,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, given his record of criticising the West’s involvement in Arab affairs — “the best way to bring about regime change is to stop propping up dictatorships. If you stop propping them up, their own people will bring them down" — Galloway is very critical in his assessment of Western governments’ denunciations of Arab dictators. He says they have been muted, to put it mildly.

“They are in bed with them. Either in the case of Mubarak and the dictatorship in Egypt, as the financiers, or in the case of Libya, as the beneficiaries. And if you are financing a dictatorship, or benefitting massively from a dictatorship, you are definitely not going to speak up about their grotesque human rights record and their lack of political freedom. And the problem for us is…, in the end, by propping up these dictators, we ensure the enmity of the people who rule those countries after the dictatorship falls, and we assist in the radicalisation of what comes after the dictator.”

George Galloway is totally committed to the Arab causes he believes in. He says at the start of the interview that being so hasn’t made his life easy, and no one would argue with that. He was one of the principle organisers of an anti-war with Iraq march in London which brought two million people out onto the streets, the biggest protest ever to take place in Britain, and he has long been vocal in his criticism of the policies of Western governments in the Middle East.

For years, he has been sidelined and ostracised by the political classes in Britain — for whom a dislike of Galloway is now fashionable. But with everything changing so quickly in the Middle East — revolution in the air — it is hard not to wonder if history might not record he was on the right side all along.

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Galloway's views

On Syria

Syria is the shoe which didn’t drop. And I have a theory for that. The Syrian regime is authoritarian, no doubt, freedoms personal and political, are, of course, scant, it is a one party state, and the father in this case successfully handed over power to the son. So on one level it is a candidate [for an uprising]. And yet it has not. And what is the reason for that? Well, here is my theory: the government of Syria for a long time has pursued a policy of Arab-ness. Of Arab nationalism, of Arab dignity, of support for the Palestinian cause, material support, material support for the resistance, rejection for the foreign occupation of Iraq. And a refusal to bow before the foreign powers. This is the perception, and it is largely the reality, though the perception is greater than the reality. And I think that has somehow inoculated the Bashar Al Assad regime from the kind of events we are seeing elsewhere. Of course Syria is not the richest place, and there are extreme divisions between the very rich and very poor, but most people support the government because of its stand on Arab issues and the West. They think that Bashar is heir to a tradition of which they are quite proud. These may be famous last words, but that is my take on it.

On Tunisia

I didn’t expect it to happen in Tunisia, but in retrospect, this is [Habib] Bourguiba’s revenge. He was the President from independence until Ben Ali overthrew him. Why? Because the most significant thing about the Tunisian population is that they are the best educated population in the Arab world, they are most sophisticated technically. Therefore their mastery, as a relatively large population of internet users, of Twitter, texting and modern means of communication [helped them organise an uprising], and they have an extremely high ownership of satellite television dishes.

On Iran

I think the Iranian opposition, the Green movement, is big, but it is limited. It is limited by class, and by geography. The further from Tehran you go, and the further from the university campus that you go, the less the Green movement’s flag flies.

The Islamic republic, for all its faults, and they are manifold, can count upon the support of the majority of Iranians.

Most Iranians support the Islamic system, which is not to invalidate the case of the Green movement, nor is it to allege, as Ahmadinejad foolishly alleges, that it is all got up by foreigners, a CIA/BBC confection. I don’t believe that that is true. Eventually the authorities in Iran are going to have to come to terms with the demands of their young people for greater freedom.

I am not at all [worried that Iran might be developing a nuclear weapon]. They say that they are not seeking a nuclear weapon. Khomeini himself insisted that nuclear weapons were haram, not permitted.

The IAEA say there is “no evidence” that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear weapon. But I have said many times — I present two weekly television programs on Press TV, which is the Iranian English language station — if I was them, I would build a nuclear weapon. I would share it with the Arabs, here in this region. I don’t see any argument other than racism that says that Israel can have hundreds of nuclear weapons, but Iran cannot have one.

What I do think is the Arabs in this region should try to have good relations with Iran.

Iran has not attacked any other country in 350 years. I wish I could say that about my own country. Iran must be one of the few countries in the world that can say that. And I don’t think they have any intention of causing difficulties for people who don’t cause difficulties for them.

On Jordan

Jordan is a very precarious place, not just because of its lack of democracy, but because of its ethnic mix, or more appropriately, its national mix. The presence of such a large number of Palestinians, the presence of 2m Iraqis, and the traditional Bedouin Jordanian population. Its location, strategically, with Israel as one neighbour and Syria as another, means that Jordan is obviously on anyone’s shortlist for disorder.

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