The Middle East Operational Codes: Five Keys to Understanding

Understanding the ME, as tumultuous, anarchist, and violent as it is, does not require complicated pundit analyses and convoluted explanations.  Rather, in light of last month's uprisings, simplicity is the key, with five variables serving as instrumental in understanding the ME operational code.

The first key to understanding is that the Middle Eastern state, with its political institutions being a Western import, is weak and ineffective compared to the indigenous Middle Eastern social institutions: the clan, the tribe, and the religious community.  The Arab states have emerged under European imperialistic rule, and their borders have been delineated without political, territorial, or functional logic.  All Arab states comprise violent, hostile tribes and rival religious communities that stick together only by coercion from an oppressive authoritarian regime.  In the absence of institutional legitimacy and participatory systems, order and stability are overturned by political decay and antagonistic politics.  This means that operationally, when there is a crisis and the authority of the patrimonial leader weakens, the tendency is to revert to the secure, well-established frameworks of the tribe, the clan, or the religious community, releasing ancient rivalries that lead to chaotic violence.

The second key to understanding is that Middle Eastern leaders are not secure in their offices.  Threatened by rivals from the political military elite and by Islamist movements (which are the only organized opposition groups), the leaders of authoritarian regimes cannot rule unless they are strong, violent, and patrimonial.  This also means that democracy, as a consensual system with developmental stages, cannot emerge or exist.  Therefore, when the authority of a ME regime disintegrates, the outcome is not democracy, but rather anarchy as the most likely replacement.

The third key to understanding, and perhaps the most important one, is the central role of the army, being the regime's principal power and political supporter.  One can safely adopt the rule: "You tell me what the attitude of the army is vis-à-vis the regime, and I will tell you the longevity and survivability of the regime in power."  This is exactly what is happening in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.  This is exactly what will determine the fate of other regimes.  Indeed, the Arab military in politics holds the highest importance in the ME.

The fourth key to understanding is that the inhabitants -- the masses -- have never been a sovereign electing people; historically, they have been without influence in the political realm and the decision-making processes.  In the Arab world, there is no social contract based on trust and cooperation, as the foundation of Arab life is suspicion of the other and hatred of the foreigner.  The only thing that binds the population together is fear of and intimidation by the authoritarian ruler.  That is why the role of the ruler is so crucially important; one can say that it is almost demanded of him to conduct a reign of terror and intimidation on the population.  Otherwise, chaos and anarchy prevail.  Thus, when the barrier of fear is broken, as is happening now, the authority of the regime disintegrates.  The central state system is weakened, and the political process turns to the street.

The fifth key to understanding is that the alternative to the current regimes in power are other leaders coming from the same political elite or Islamic groups coming from the opposition.  Both are patrimonial, oppressive, and undemocratic.  It must be clearly stated that aside from anarchy, one of the most likely alternatives to the ME regimes is not democracy, but Islamism.  The Islamic phenomenon is not defensive and passive; it is an aggressive onslaught against modernism and secularism led by urban, educated, secular middle-class groups.  Western permissiveness and materialism are the forces leading to these groups' return to Islam and motivating them to bring the Islamic religion back to a hegemony (al-Islam Huwa al-Hall al-Waheed).

Examining these keys through a macro-level analysis enables us to understand the ME operational codes.  Thomas Friedman has praised the Arab revolution and accused Israel of being detached from the new realities (NYT, February, 2, 8, and 14, 2011).  In his delusions, Friedman has envisioned a revolution of the Facebook generation that leads to democracy and the denial of Islamism.  Likewise, other sources in Western media and many experts have celebrated the "emergence of the New ME," while in fact the opposite situation is the reality.  Now these same sources are lamenting that the democratic revolution went wrong and that all that remains is a violent power struggle.

We are witnessing the same old chaotic, anarchic ME, and the Arab people's uprisings will not lead to democracies and consensual regimes.  In fact, there is a high probability that the outcome of the uprisings will be either more oppressive authoritarian regimes and patrimonial leadership from the military or the emergence of Islamist groups under the Shari'ah.  The latter outcome would ultimately lead to the victory of either Iran and the Shiite version of Islam or al-Qaeda and the Salafi-Sunni version of Islam.

Regarding the ME, the next decade is more likely to witness the emergence of the Sunni Caliphate or the Shiite Imamate struggling for hegemony.  Both outcomes signal an imminent threat to the security of the West.  However, instead of concentrating on understanding the operational code of the ME, and instead of trying to maintain the status quo, Western leaders prefer to operate through delusional wishful-thinking policies.  This pattern is evidenced by Westerners' unwavering focus on the well-used scapegoat, the perhaps unsolvable "Palestinian question."  It is as if regional and international leaders are desperately trying to find comfort in this one easily characterized issue.

There are more than twenty-five current civil wars going on around the world; there are a billion poor, miserable and hungry people who earn a dollar a day; there are deep food crises and water shortages; there are huge unresolved political issues and hosts of nations without the opportunity to form an independent state (James Minahan, Nations without States, Westport, CT, 1996).  But the international community prefers to concentrate on the Palestinian issue.  Indeed, we can draw a direct line between the world's desperation to solve real problems and its eagerness to deliberately concentrate on the Palestine situation.

One can only marvel at how blessed the Palestinians are to have everybody dealing with their issue, as if they are the only orphans of the world.  One can only wonder how much political and financial support they receive at the expense of all those really in need.  One can only be amazed at the stupidity of the false belief that all other regional issues will disappear, will be gone with the wind, if only the Palestinian issue is solved.

The hard truth is that rather than heralding the dawn of democracy and prosperity, this misguided belief and the misunderstanding of the ME operational code are more likely the harbinger of the dark winter of Islam -- a catastrophic set of circumstances that may well lead to the demise of U.S. influence, the destruction of Israel, and general regional chaos besides.

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