The Middle East Uprising: An Interim Balance Sheet

Popular protests and violence are spreading through the Middle East, leaving all Arab regimes in danger of severe destabilization.  In the current situation, understanding the protesters' motives and methods has perhaps become secondary to addressing why so many Middle-Eastern governments now teeter on the edge of collapse.

One possible answer is because Arab leadership is patrimonial, being highly personalistic without much assistance from government institutions or the law, and the regimes are authoritarian, being highly dependent on the military and its goodwill.  This situation is well-exhibited throughout Islamic history.  The patrimonial leader is responsible for everything in all walks of life.  All the decision-making processes and the political, economic, and social roles fall to a narrow elite, and the masses are barred from any political influence.  That is why historically, as long as the military supported the ruler and the regime, reforms of any kind remained out of the people's reach.  Nowadays, the people are no longer afraid of the regime -- in fact, the reverse is true.

To really grasp the current situation in the ME, one has to address four important conflicts that constitute the basics of ME diplomacy: state versus tribe and clan, personalistic ruler versus sociopolitical institutions, military versus other political groupings, and authoritarian rule versus democratic regime.

a) State versus tribe and the clan.  An important and oft-revealed fact of Arab politics is that the state is a weak social-political institution as compared to the tribe and the clan.  Therefore, in times of crisis, the people retreat from counting on the state in favor of a more reliable group.  Primordialism, which characterizes Arab politics, knows no national patriotic identity.  Institutionalized, legitimized, and durable political institutions do not exist; the tribal identity is still the source of all values and attitudes.  This is why in times of crisis both the leadership and the people turn to the only source they can depend on -- their tribal loyalties.

b) Personalistic ruler versus institutions.  While in democracies, the socio-political institutions are the most important -- and their institutionalization, effective strength, and durability are at the center -- in the Middle East, the ultimate authority is the patrimonial ruler.  Middle-Eastern regimes operate by the use of force -- subordinating the people by intimidation, corrupt resource distribution, clientelistic policy, and nepotism.  As long as the institutions are weak, the rulers continue to be the sole authority.

c) Military versus other groupings.  In both contemporary and historical ME politics, the military is the most important political instrument.  It appears in two configurations: as a direct military regime (like Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Algeria) or as the guardian and center of gravity of the monarchical regime (like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco).  The important role of the military in the existence of the political regime is proven by the example of Iran in 1979.  It was only when the military declared its neutrality that the regime collapsed in 48 hours.  On the other hand, there is the example of Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991, when the Iraqi military fully supported Saddam Hussein and he confidently stayed in power -- notwithstanding the military defeat and despite President Bush's oft-made declarations that he "expect[ed] the Iraqi people to topple Saddam regime down."

In Tunisia, it was the military chief of staff's request to President Bin Ali to abdicate that triggered the "revolutionary" spirit in the Middle East.  In Egypt, it was the coup d'état performed when Tantawi removed Mubarak from the presidency.  To those acquainted with the ME military-regime situation, the declaration of the Egyptian military spokesperson on the third day of the uprising -- that the military fully supported the demonstrators promised not to act against them -- meant the end of Mubarak's rule.  In Libya, there is a civil war, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt.  The reason is exactly the split within the military and the high instances of desertion to support the rebels.

One can say almost as an axiom that as long as the military supports the personalistic leader, the latter's rule is safe, be it Saddam, Mubarak, Qadhdhafi or Kings Abdullah of Saudi-Arabia and Jordan.  That is why the crucial question one should ask is the attitude of the military vis-à-vis any Middle-Eastern regime. 

d) Authoritarian rule versus democratic regime.  Again and again, one should take into account that the uprisings demonstrated in the ME may well lead not to democracy, but instead to stricter military rule or an Islamic regime.  Democracy constitutes not only legal-institutional ingredients, but also the participation and involvement of all socioeconomic strata -- which includes a large layer of middle class, or at least 40 percent of the entire population.  Democracy also requires a multidimensional process, as does a baby one raises, cultivates, and educates.  Europe reached democracy after five centuries of authoritarianism and oppressive monarchical rule.  The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, but can we say that there is a democracy in Russia?  In the ME, it might take even a longer period of time, depending on the orientation of the tribes and the religious establishment.

Western leadership perhaps has trouble staying focused on this issue.  Two months ago, Mubarak and Qaddhafi were considered legitimate, respectable rulers.  A few days later, they became abhorred, corrupt, tyrannical leaders, and Qaddhafi became a war criminal.  However, when Western leaders claim that they support the opposition, do they know who the opposition actually is?  Concerning Libya, perhaps it is not an organized opposition, but instead a bunch of anarchists with nothing in common except of opposing Qaddhafi.  Are these revolutionaries from the military?  Are they Islamists?  Are they educated liberals and youths?  Does Western leadership really ask what will happen in Libya after Qaddhafi's rule and who will run the country?  The democratic world is amazed by the sights of violence, of how Qadhhafi fights his own people -- but this is exactly the tribal construction.  If Qaddhafi loses, his tribal federation will be slaughtered by his opponents.  Indeed, the stakes in Middle Eastern politics are so high that you either butcher or are butchered.

Moreover, perhaps it has slipped Western leaders' minds, but what is happening now in Libya occurs on a daily basis all over the ME.  Saddam Hussein butchered at least a million of his own people, including thousands Kurds via chemical weapons.  The 'Allawi regime in Syria massacred twenty thousand people in Hama in March 1982 and continues to oppress its own people.  In Sudan, there has been genocide and ethnic cleansing for half a century, in which millions of blacks and Animists are butchered.  Saudi Arabia is a model of religious oppression and coercive political repression.  However, the Wahhabi regime is all but immune to any Western criticism, perhaps because of the petrodollar.  Rumors of the next uprising are now centered on Saudi Arabia, considering Iranian incitements of the Shiite minority and al-Qaeda's support of any existing opposition to the current regime.  Yet all signs show that the Saudi regime will enjoy Western leaders' enthusiastic support, including even military and political backing.

These are only few examples of the situation in the ME and the policies of the authoritarian Arab regimes there.  However, Western leaders have proven consistently blind -- or perhaps their eyes are wide shut.  Western foreign policy hypocritically focuses only on the so-called Palestinian issue -- as if this issue is solvable, and as if its solution will accomplish anything in the contemporary ME.  No wonder Western leadership and foreign policy experts continue to get the Middle East wrong.

It does not matter what the Western disconnect comes from -- ignorance, folly, political correctness, whatever.  But any and all of these shortcomings are permeating Western perceptions of the Middle East, as revealed in a Jerusalem Post article by Miguel De Corral, a research assistant among the Middle East faculty of the NATO Defense College in Rome (March 1, 2011: "Don't Ignore the Muslim Brotherhood").  For decades, De Corral declares, Western leaders have allied themselves with authoritarian regimes for the sake of stability while the people demand fundamental reforms.  Regarding those reforms, De Corral continues, the implementation of Shari'ah in Egypt may alarm Western leaders, but this doesn't necessarily mean that said Shari'ah regime will be anti-Western.  The West cannot simply ignore the Muslim Brotherhood and cast it as another radical group that wants global jihad.  The Egyptian people have demanded democracy, and they will not accept another autocratic regime.  We must take the risk of choosing democracy over stability.

Contrary to this opinion -- best defined as naïveté, but also including many cultural misconceptions -- the question is not stability versus democracy, and not ancient autocratic regimes versus reformists and democrats, but instead autocratic military regimes versus Islamic, autocratic, anti-democratic "world jihad" movements.  This is the reality -- one cannot fly to a land of wishful thinking while the world flounders in chaos.  Perhaps we should not "ignore the Muslim Brotherhood," but we should see it for what it is.  At the end of the day, Islamism is the ardent enemy of democracy and freedom...and in the tumultuous Middle East, al-Qaeda waits around the corner.
Popular protests and violence are spreading through the Middle East, leaving all Arab regimes in danger of severe destabilization.  In the current situation, understanding the protesters' motives and methods has perhaps become secondary to addressing why so many Middle-Eastern governments now teeter on the edge of collapse.

One possible answer is because Arab leadership is patrimonial, being highly personalistic without much assistance from government institutions or the law, and the regimes are authoritarian, being highly dependent on the military and its goodwill.  This situation is well-exhibited throughout Islamic history.  The patrimonial leader is responsible for everything in all walks of life.  All the decision-making processes and the political, economic, and social roles fall to a narrow elite, and the masses are barred from any political influence.  That is why historically, as long as the military supported the ruler and the regime, reforms of any kind remained out of the people's reach.  Nowadays, the people are no longer afraid of the regime -- in fact, the reverse is true.

To really grasp the current situation in the ME, one has to address four important conflicts that constitute the basics of ME diplomacy: state versus tribe and clan, personalistic ruler versus sociopolitical institutions, military versus other political groupings, and authoritarian rule versus democratic regime.

a) State versus tribe and the clan.  An important and oft-revealed fact of Arab politics is that the state is a weak social-political institution as compared to the tribe and the clan.  Therefore, in times of crisis, the people retreat from counting on the state in favor of a more reliable group.  Primordialism, which characterizes Arab politics, knows no national patriotic identity.  Institutionalized, legitimized, and durable political institutions do not exist; the tribal identity is still the source of all values and attitudes.  This is why in times of crisis both the leadership and the people turn to the only source they can depend on -- their tribal loyalties.

b) Personalistic ruler versus institutions.  While in democracies, the socio-political institutions are the most important -- and their institutionalization, effective strength, and durability are at the center -- in the Middle East, the ultimate authority is the patrimonial ruler.  Middle-Eastern regimes operate by the use of force -- subordinating the people by intimidation, corrupt resource distribution, clientelistic policy, and nepotism.  As long as the institutions are weak, the rulers continue to be the sole authority.

c) Military versus other groupings.  In both contemporary and historical ME politics, the military is the most important political instrument.  It appears in two configurations: as a direct military regime (like Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Algeria) or as the guardian and center of gravity of the monarchical regime (like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco).  The important role of the military in the existence of the political regime is proven by the example of Iran in 1979.  It was only when the military declared its neutrality that the regime collapsed in 48 hours.  On the other hand, there is the example of Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991, when the Iraqi military fully supported Saddam Hussein and he confidently stayed in power -- notwithstanding the military defeat and despite President Bush's oft-made declarations that he "expect[ed] the Iraqi people to topple Saddam regime down."

In Tunisia, it was the military chief of staff's request to President Bin Ali to abdicate that triggered the "revolutionary" spirit in the Middle East.  In Egypt, it was the coup d'état performed when Tantawi removed Mubarak from the presidency.  To those acquainted with the ME military-regime situation, the declaration of the Egyptian military spokesperson on the third day of the uprising -- that the military fully supported the demonstrators promised not to act against them -- meant the end of Mubarak's rule.  In Libya, there is a civil war, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt.  The reason is exactly the split within the military and the high instances of desertion to support the rebels.

One can say almost as an axiom that as long as the military supports the personalistic leader, the latter's rule is safe, be it Saddam, Mubarak, Qadhdhafi or Kings Abdullah of Saudi-Arabia and Jordan.  That is why the crucial question one should ask is the attitude of the military vis-à-vis any Middle-Eastern regime. 

d) Authoritarian rule versus democratic regime.  Again and again, one should take into account that the uprisings demonstrated in the ME may well lead not to democracy, but instead to stricter military rule or an Islamic regime.  Democracy constitutes not only legal-institutional ingredients, but also the participation and involvement of all socioeconomic strata -- which includes a large layer of middle class, or at least 40 percent of the entire population.  Democracy also requires a multidimensional process, as does a baby one raises, cultivates, and educates.  Europe reached democracy after five centuries of authoritarianism and oppressive monarchical rule.  The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, but can we say that there is a democracy in Russia?  In the ME, it might take even a longer period of time, depending on the orientation of the tribes and the religious establishment.

Western leadership perhaps has trouble staying focused on this issue.  Two months ago, Mubarak and Qaddhafi were considered legitimate, respectable rulers.  A few days later, they became abhorred, corrupt, tyrannical leaders, and Qaddhafi became a war criminal.  However, when Western leaders claim that they support the opposition, do they know who the opposition actually is?  Concerning Libya, perhaps it is not an organized opposition, but instead a bunch of anarchists with nothing in common except of opposing Qaddhafi.  Are these revolutionaries from the military?  Are they Islamists?  Are they educated liberals and youths?  Does Western leadership really ask what will happen in Libya after Qaddhafi's rule and who will run the country?  The democratic world is amazed by the sights of violence, of how Qadhhafi fights his own people -- but this is exactly the tribal construction.  If Qaddhafi loses, his tribal federation will be slaughtered by his opponents.  Indeed, the stakes in Middle Eastern politics are so high that you either butcher or are butchered.

Moreover, perhaps it has slipped Western leaders' minds, but what is happening now in Libya occurs on a daily basis all over the ME.  Saddam Hussein butchered at least a million of his own people, including thousands Kurds via chemical weapons.  The 'Allawi regime in Syria massacred twenty thousand people in Hama in March 1982 and continues to oppress its own people.  In Sudan, there has been genocide and ethnic cleansing for half a century, in which millions of blacks and Animists are butchered.  Saudi Arabia is a model of religious oppression and coercive political repression.  However, the Wahhabi regime is all but immune to any Western criticism, perhaps because of the petrodollar.  Rumors of the next uprising are now centered on Saudi Arabia, considering Iranian incitements of the Shiite minority and al-Qaeda's support of any existing opposition to the current regime.  Yet all signs show that the Saudi regime will enjoy Western leaders' enthusiastic support, including even military and political backing.

These are only few examples of the situation in the ME and the policies of the authoritarian Arab regimes there.  However, Western leaders have proven consistently blind -- or perhaps their eyes are wide shut.  Western foreign policy hypocritically focuses only on the so-called Palestinian issue -- as if this issue is solvable, and as if its solution will accomplish anything in the contemporary ME.  No wonder Western leadership and foreign policy experts continue to get the Middle East wrong.

It does not matter what the Western disconnect comes from -- ignorance, folly, political correctness, whatever.  But any and all of these shortcomings are permeating Western perceptions of the Middle East, as revealed in a Jerusalem Post article by Miguel De Corral, a research assistant among the Middle East faculty of the NATO Defense College in Rome (March 1, 2011: "Don't Ignore the Muslim Brotherhood").  For decades, De Corral declares, Western leaders have allied themselves with authoritarian regimes for the sake of stability while the people demand fundamental reforms.  Regarding those reforms, De Corral continues, the implementation of Shari'ah in Egypt may alarm Western leaders, but this doesn't necessarily mean that said Shari'ah regime will be anti-Western.  The West cannot simply ignore the Muslim Brotherhood and cast it as another radical group that wants global jihad.  The Egyptian people have demanded democracy, and they will not accept another autocratic regime.  We must take the risk of choosing democracy over stability.

Contrary to this opinion -- best defined as naïveté, but also including many cultural misconceptions -- the question is not stability versus democracy, and not ancient autocratic regimes versus reformists and democrats, but instead autocratic military regimes versus Islamic, autocratic, anti-democratic "world jihad" movements.  This is the reality -- one cannot fly to a land of wishful thinking while the world flounders in chaos.  Perhaps we should not "ignore the Muslim Brotherhood," but we should see it for what it is.  At the end of the day, Islamism is the ardent enemy of democracy and freedom...and in the tumultuous Middle East, al-Qaeda waits around the corner.

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