The death throes of Arab thuggery

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab civilisation has not collapsed but the thuggish political, economic and religious mafias dominating the region are dying violently.

Prompted by social media, pro

Prompted by social media, pro

Friday 17 October 2014

In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilisation.

“Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”

Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: from the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.

“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.

But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilisation, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: they all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords are local masters.

In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.

When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: that of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.

Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, domestically, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or eliminating moderates.

Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.

This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation in America for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist. For example, Nasserist Egypt not only banned the liberal nationalist al-Wafd party in 1953 but also carried out a harsh crackdown against leftists and communist critics. This was partly out of distrust of Moscow and partly to maintain their claim as the sole representatives of progressive values.

In Iraq, the communist party was, for decades, one of the most influential opposition currents, yet was not tolerated neither by the “liberal” royalists nor the “progressive” Free Officers and Ba’athists which came later. The most brutal anti-communist crackdowns were probably those carried out by pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in the late 1940s and in the 1960s following a failed anti-Ba’ath coup attempt. Saddam Hussein also dealt ruthlessly with the party, both as head of security and intelligence in the late 1960s and on the eve of becoming president in the late 1970s.

Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of the ranks of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.

This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernisation became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.

This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.

To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.

For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.

Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: the Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the US-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.

The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.

But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.

What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilisation which has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.

Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilisation kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order.

This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of the a-religious, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.

Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2014.

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Foreign hegemony or repressive self-rule?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Arab world may debate the merits of external occupation versus repressive self-rule, but neither are acceptable.

24 February 2010

The al-Jazeera debate programme, al-Itijah al-Mua’kes (Opposite Direction), is well-known across the Arab world for tackling thorny, controversial and offbeat issues. Earlier this week, the show got stuck into the taboo question of whether Arabs, after decades of self-rule, were better off under the oppression of their current regimes or whether the yoke of the former imperial powers was preferable.

At one point, the programme’s moderator Faisal al-Qassem described the modus operandi of Arab leaders as a form of internal imperialism and said that some were of the view that home-grown colonialism, which consumes the body from within, was tougher to combat than foreign occupation, which behaves more like an external parasite.

As is the format of al-Itijah el-Mua’kes, the two guest panellists had opposing views on the topic. One, a member of an Arab parliament, was of the opinion that no matter how bad local rulers were, they were preferable by far to a foreign occupier whose sole concern is the pillaging of a society’s resources and the subjugation of its people. In contrast, local leaders ultimately have the interests of their society – or at least parts of it – at heart and, with reform, self-rule can be made to work.

 The other, a lawyer with the International Criminal Court, argued that the European powers brought the Middle East into the modern age and set it on the road to progress. In some cases, he opined, there had not been much progress since. As an example, he referred to the railways in Sudan, which were built by the British but have not been improved by the Sudanese.

 Despite the eccentricity of these views, they seem to have a certain resonance with ordinary Arabs. Surprisingly, some two-thirds of respondents to an online poll conducted by al-Jazeera were of the view that their countries had been better off under colonial rule.

 Of course, polls of this kind are unscientific, the make-up and demographic spread of the respondents are unknown and the sample size was too small (6,808). Nevertheless, the result is an interesting one, and it speaks volumes of the frustration felt by ordinary Arabs, caught as they are between the rock of repressive rule and the hard place of foreign hegemony. 

Long gone, it would seem, are the days of heady, post-independence optimism in which Arabs believed that, after shaking off the shackles of centuries of European and Ottoman rule, a new golden age was about to be born. 

So, which is better? Well, as with most things, the issue is neither black nor white because the track records of both imperialism and self-rule have been patchy. In addition, the diversity of imperial and post-independence experiences are enormous. Moreover, even within a single empire, performance changed dramatically over time and the colonial experience in each country was marked by key differences. 

In the Arab world, the early centuries of Ottoman rule, for example, were relatively benign, tolerant and prosperous, but the latter period was increasingly repressive and stagnant. In their favour, the European powers brought in ideas of modern science and the Enlightenment, helped abolish slavery and sparked Arab interest in modern technology.

 On the negative side, they often stripped countries of their resources, put in place repressive colonial power structures which were perpetuated by local rulers, and, intentionally or unintentionally, planted many of the seeds of the internal and cross-border conflicts that plague the region to this day.

 Algeria, for example, is still staggering from the wounds of having once been annexed by France, with the mass displacement of the peasantry and the marginalisation of the urban professional classes that this involved. In addition, the roots of the bloody north-south conflict in Sudan, and the massacres in Darfur, can be traced back to the destructive period of Anglo-Egyptian rule.

 The record of self-rule is also difficult to assess and compare, partly because the Arab world of today is so very different from that of colonial times. On the plus side, self-rule has led to massive improvements in such areas as education and healthcare. In addition, a number of post-independence regimes embarked on huge and ambitious programmes to industrialise, with mixed results.

 On the negative side, most domestic regimes have been as oppressive in their handling of the population as the former colonial powers, and human rights abuses in many countries are rife. An extreme example of this would be Saddam Hussein and his murderous rule. But, then again, those who dream of a return to colonial rule would do well to examine the case study of contemporary Iraq, where the US-led occupation is giving the country’s former dictator a serious run for his money in terms of destructiveness and malignancy.

 In fact, the question posed by al-Jazeera is perhaps the wrong one, since, in many ways, colonial rule has not ended. Although direct rule stopped more than half a century ago, with the exception of Iraq since 2003, indirect rule never ceased. In broad terms, the region’s regimes fall into two general categories: those who have accepted the role of client states and those who have opposed it and been punished and “contained” for stepping out of line. Then, there’s the privatisation and franchising of imperialism to multinationals.

 So, in reality, today’s Arabs are living under the crushing burden of domestic and foreign imperialism. To my mind, the issue is not which one is better but how to bring both to an end.

 This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 February 2010. Read the related discussion.

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