by Emile Nakhleh
In a little over five years since the outbreak of protests in Tunisia at the end of 2010, most of the Arab world has descended into mayhem and tyranny. Many Arab leaders are repressing the opposition with more dictatorial measures. People’s suffering is more ghastly, and the cycle of violence ever more vicious. Major countries both inside and outside the region have callously watched the threatening abyss, often aggravating the crises. It could be argued this process in fact started one hundred years ago in the Levant right after the United Kingdom and France established the Sykes-Picot political architecture.
Syria is torn by war and devastation, Iraq is falling apart, and Jordan and Lebanon are teetering. Palestine and Israel remain in the throes of conflict, occupation, and resistance. And Yemen and Libya are imploding because of terrorism, tribalism, and war. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates are moving further and further from the rule of law. They are all involved in proxy wars ostensibly in the defense of their brand of sectarianism, which they have cynically used to kill thousands of their fellow Muslims.
Russia, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom have either looked the other way, bombed certain countries and terrorist groups, or maintained their robust arms sales to some of these countries without any moral qualms. Despite their atrocious human rights records, Egypt and Bahrain, for example, regularly receive arms from the United States, England, and other European countries. Regimes in these states have built more jails to incarcerate political prisoners and dissidents and are denying their people legitimate involvement in the governing process.
Sadly, there are more political prisoners illegally held today in the prisons of these Arab autocratic regimes than there are soldiers in the entire “jihadist” army of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).
The huge drop in oil prices and the ensuing economic downturn have forced the oil-exporting countries to cut back on government subsidies and traditional perks. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has imposed a freeze on government hiring and on outlays for public projects, which has exacerbated the rate of youth unemployment. It can no longer use its wealth to buy off dissent as it did in 2011. Nor can Saudi Arabia fund other countries and groups to further its regional interests. Concurrently, regimes have curtailed their peoples’ freedoms of thought, assembly, and organization. The media, except in rare cases, have been muzzled and can operate only as a mouthpiece of the regime.
A Foreign Transplant Gone Awry
The modern Arab nation-state emerged over the past 100 years mostly at the prompting of colonial powers. Unfortunately, they imposed Europe’s post-Westphalian model on a region that lacked the basic prerequisites of statehood, including tolerance, political participation and compromise, fair and free elections, and government accountability and transparency.
More importantly, the European model was grounded in the principle that sovereignty resides in the people, which underpins the leader’s legitimacy to rule. In the Arab nation-state system, by contrast, sovereignty resides in the leader. Freedoms and rights are granted to the people through the leader’s benevolence. Many of these leaders have drawn on symbols from Islam, tribalism, and ideology to justify their total control of the political system, using the ever-deepening security or mukhabarat state to bolster their power.
This century-old imported system failed to take into account the social, tribal, religious, ethnic, and sectarian realities on the ground and the rulers’ ability to manipulate these realities for their cynical and selfish interests. In the post-World War I territories, the colonial powers melded diverse groups together under the banner of one state and placed a dictator on top to keep the peace and serve the interests of foreign powers. Egypt became nominally independent under a monarchy beholden to the British, also around the same time.
The British Empire extended protection over the Arab sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf as part of its “East of Suez” strategy to protect British routes to and interests in India. The French and other European powers spread their colonial control over North Africa. As colonialism weakened, especially in the post-World War II era, all those mandates, colonies, and protectorates gained independence. Some became independent through violence and revolutions, others through political maneuverings concocted by foreign powers directly or by proxy. Independence, however, did not trickle down to the people. Monarchies, tribal family potentates, and single-party leaders held a monopoly on power and kept their peoples at bay through demagoguery, threats, and co-optation.
During this time, the European nation-state became creative and uplifting, while the Arab counterpart remained stifling and depressing.
Arab Autocracy In the Saddle
Autocratic regimes exploited Arab nationalism, Islam, and other populist ideologies—including Baathism and socialism—to hold their societies together. Other than Egypt, most of the other countries, especially in the Levant and the Gulf, were essentially artificial structures forced to function by omnipotent autocrats—kings, presidents, and family potentates.
Regimes used their power to serve the interests of the ruling elites in a well-greased system of kleptocrocy. They used their new gained power to expand their police and security apparatus, buttress autocracy, silence critics, eviscerate the opposition, and avoid accountability. The system gave rise to rampant corruption, nepotism, repression, and plutocracy.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser’s promised that downtrodden Arabs would enjoy a bright future under the banner of Arab nationalism. Yet, what emerged was nothing more than a police state that either incarcerated, killed, or exiled dissidents.. Such was the case in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. The downtrodden in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco didn’t fare any better.
In the past five years, autocracy in several Arab countries has become more entrenched and more harmful to the long-term interests of those countries—and arguably to the interests of the United States. Egypt’s strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has marginalized Egypt’s regional influence, stifled its traditionally rich cultural vibrancy, and destroyed all chances for innovation and creativity. His penchant for building more prisons to house the ever-growing numbers of political prisoners and for bankrolling the military, especially the officer class, has made the country more dependent on financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
The previous three “modern pharaohs,” regardless of their poor human rights record, expanded Egypt’s regional prominence and stature. Despite el-Sisi’s pretentious aspirations to emulate them, he has failed to uphold Egypt’s prominence. Under him, Egypt has been reduced to a second-rate regional power. Indeed, Saudi Arabia under the influence of its brash deputy crown prince and minister of defense is vying to replace Egypt as the leader of the Arab world.
Bahrain is another example of the harmful effects of autocracy. Right after independence in 1971, Bahrain was known as the “pearl” of the Gulf. It was culturally and religiously tolerant, business-friendly, educationally vibrant, and religiously and socially pluralistic. It boasted several newspapers and magazines, and freedom of expression was relatively tolerated. The Sunni ruling minority and the Shia majority worked together in relative harmony.
Since the Arab Spring, however, the Al Khalifa rule turned to the dark side. It used sectarianism to dispossess the Shia majority and to destroy whatever freedoms of thought, expression, and assembly the people enjoyed under the former ruler. Sheikh Khalifa, Bahrain’s longest ruling, unelected, and notoriously corrupt prime minister, has transformed the tiny island kingdom from a haven of tolerance to a security state protected and paid for by Saudi Arabia. In Bahrain, the Arab Spring has become silent, masking seething anger and dissatisfaction with the Al Khalifa tribal repressive dictatorship.
The Way Forward
Dictators and illiberal autocrats are not predestined to rule the Arab peoples. Rather, Arab autocracy is a man-made calamity.
Dictators have touted Arab “exceptionalism” to Western policymakers in order to suggest that Arabs are not ready for democracy and that tyrants are reliable guarantors of stability, and by extension of Western interests. This is how el-Sisi justified his coup against the freely elected former president Muhammad Morsi. This is also why the “butcher of Damascus” continues his relentless assault on his people, and why Al Khalifa maintains its draconian rule over the beleaguered Shia majority in Bahrain.
“Autocracy equals stability” is a false argument that does not serve the peoples of the region or the long-term interests of Western powers, including the United States. The century-old Arab “normalcy,” artificially imposed by the colonial powers, is a chimera. It’s the height of naïveté to believe that Arab autocrats—in Damascus, Cairo, Riyadh, Manama, and elsewhere—are ever ready to participate in an international peace parley to negotiate the end of their rule or to voluntarily share power with their peoples. The aftermath of the Arab Spring sadly underscores this point. If Western policymakers are seriously interested in breaking the cycle of mayhem and tyranny, they must pursue a specific and tangible strategy grounded in the following assumptions.
First, regional conflicts are deeper than the Sunni-Shia divide. They are more about the struggle for power and less about religious doctrine. Understanding Saudi Arabia, Iran, IS, and the rest of the Arab world requires an awareness of the complexity of the region’s cultures, religions, and societies. Western intelligence analysts and decision makers must nurture deep expertise in the language, history, and varied religious narratives of Arab Muslim societies.
Second, the deepening American military involvement in fighting IS and the growing numbers of refugees fleeing Syria are creating unintended consequences for Europe. The Syrian conflict clearly shows that both the Syrian dictator and the Islamic State are opposed to real peace in that country. If the recently announced American-Russian ceasefire only targets one of the two combatants, it will fail. Unfortunately, no lessons have been learned from last month’s failed ceasefire plan, which Moscow and Washington championed.
Finally, a post-Sykes-Picot political arrangement for the Arab world can no longer take people for granted or accept tyrants’ claims that they are the source of stability. To avoid a perfect storm, the West must take a more honest, realistic, and informed look at the region.
Photo: Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi