Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Fall of the Strongmen

Daniel Greenfield

The attempt to establish a post-colonial order of kings and strongmen to replace the British and French colonial rule over the Arab Muslim world was doomed from the start. Some of the kings were overthrown by native officers who had been trained by the British and the French to fight their wars. The officers who overthrew them became strongmen themselves. The recently deposed Ben Ali was a Tunisian officer trained in French and American schools, who had helped push out the French and his predecessor. Egypt's Mubarak was an Air Force officer who replaced Sadat, who replaced Nasser-- all members of the Free Officers Movement which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. Saddam Hussein took power in a coup against the coup led by army officers which had deposed the King of Iraq. Syria's Assad was an Air Force officer who took power after a long series of coups by army officers that it would take too long to list. If you're seeing a pattern here, congratulations and welcome to the Middle East.

The only Middle-Eastern Arab countries which held onto their monarchies, were either oil rich enough to spread the wealth to the important families and retain only a weak military to avoid the risk of being overthrown by their own army while relying on US protection (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE) or so small and deliberately apolitical to avoid attention (Jordan, Morocco). The rest ended up with military strongmen, some backed by the US, some backed by the Soviet Union. The Soviet backed strongmen usually unveiled some poorly thought out version of Arab Socialism. The US backed strongmen just stuck to taking a cut of everything and packing it away in foreign banks.

But there was a ticking time bomb underneath these pyramids of wealth and misery. Islam. The kings had been nothing more than British puppets. The strongmen that replaced them were the apex of a new praetorian guard. Despite whatever philosophies they brought to the table, sooner or later they tried to become kings as well. Syria's Assad passed power on to his son. Saddam was preparing his sons to oversee his own dynasty. In Egypt, Mubarak is trying to do the same thing. But they have no tradition and no history on their side. Their rule is a farce in which they call themselves presidents and prime ministers, and go through the pretense of holding elections, but function like absolute monarchs. An unbalanced situation that eventually implodes.

The strongmen depend on army backing, but the armies of the Arab world are split drastically between an elite officer corps and the soldier who is treated like sheep dung. The officers and the secret police run the country, but when a mob gathers, it's up to the soldiers to hold them back. If the soldiers choose not to, then it's time for the strongman to get on a plane and escape the country. (This is essentially what also brought down the Soviet Union.) As an alternative, the strongman will leverage support from tribal structures, appointing loyalists to top positions in the bureaucracy and the military. (This is what kicked off the initial insurgency in Iraq.) But that too is a balance. Elevating one family, alienates another family. The tribal power structure has its own enemies built in. Those maneuvers for power can cause the incredible chaos so common after the fall of a strongman.

The Arab world may hold elections, but it is a long way from accepting notions such as equality, open access or guaranteed freedoms. Its rulers will occasionally sign on to UN covenants on women's rights or religious rights, without ever taking them seriously. The idea that one man is just as good as another, regardless of his family or religion, is a completely alien one to them. A woman being just as good as a man is not even a conversation starter. The Middle East still mostly consists of peasants from feudal backgrounds lorded over by a small elite. Bring democracy and human rights to the Middle East? You might as well walk into 12th century Europe with a copy of the Constitution and expect not to be beheaded.

So what happens when a strongman is overthrown? Either he will be replaced by one of the coup leaders who will become the new strongman. If not he will also be overthrown. Or he will be replaced by an oligarchy which will eventually come to be dominated by its strongest and most ruthless member who will become the new strongman. (That is how Iraq ended up ruled by the House of Saddam.) As you can see there really isn't an alternative here. It's the strongman or nothing.

But there is a seeming alternative. A different power structure than a corrupt dictator and his thugs. One based not on power, greed and family-- but religion. Islam.

Most of the 'reformers' are usually fighting for either a takeover by the local socialist party or the local Islamist party. The general public will join in the stone throwing and the looting, without necessarily taking sides. Often the socialists and the Islamists will actually cooperate to bring down the dictator. Then one will take power and begin killing the other. Western media rarely bother to report this, either out of ignorance or due to propaganda. They treat most of the crowd scenes as popular uprisings, which they are but not in the sense that the people will get to decide one way or another. Only that they get a chance to take part in the brief spurt of violence before being ordered to go home.

The Islamists promise a system based on Allah's law. Rule by moral clerics instead of greedy officials. Traditional values, benefits for families and teddy bears not named Mohammed for everyone. It's a scam of course. The Islamist takeover means another strongman or oligarchy. Except instead of being named General Saddam Hussein, he'll be known as the Ayatollah Khomeini. The differences are minimal. The ruling families will still sock away money in foreign banks. Loyalists will still be appointed to top positions. The bureaucracy will go on abusing and blackmailing the public. The police will still be vicious thugs. And law will be promulgated by Imams or Muftis or Mullahs, but it will still be the law that those at the top want.

Despite all that, or maybe because of it, the Islamists are still inevitable. Islam manufactures a group identity that may be paper thin, but it still more solid than recently manufactured national identities for regional Arabs who are expected to see themselves as Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians or Iraqis. Islam bridges tribal identities better than strongmen do. Its rulers will ultimately still reward their own families and favor their own tribes, but the process will take place under the guise of Islam.

When Mohammed invented Islam, he took existing beliefs and laced them up into a grand tribal identity. Islam is the meta-tribe, less a religion than a makeshift political system based on tribal alliances with the convenient sanction of a deity. Islam expands by creating a two-tier system that puts non-Muslims on the bottom, and encourages Muslims to wage constant war against them. None of this makes for a stable system, but it does make for a very volatile and expansionistic one. Arabs who will not die for Saddam or Ben Ali or Mubarak, will die for Islam.

The Islamists may not take over in Tunisia this time, but they will take over sooner or later. There and all across the Muslim world. (If it happened in militantly secularist Turkey with its army, then it really can happen anywhere.) Dictators will come and go, and eventually the local Islamists with funding from Saudi Arabia or Iran will put together a proper show and take over. And eventually the people will get tired and try to throw them out, as is happening in Iran. It's the natural political cycle of a region with no true national identities, no real principles of government, no law and no commitment to anyone outside the family.

We could slow down or even avert the process, by pushing Westernization and cutting the legs off Saudi Arabia and Iran. But we aren't about to do it. We could at least stop sending them money by the barrel, but we aren't about to do that either. And that's the real problem, not Ben Ali or Mubarak. Calling for the regimes to respect democracy and human rights just undermines whoever is in power. It does not lead to them being replaced by anything better. To do that, the entire culture would have to change. And that isn't happening.

The strongmen will fall. And the media will act like it's Romania in 1989, rather than just part of the cycle of coups in a system that cannot have anything better than tyrants of one sort or another. Eventually Islamists will come to power and wage war against us. It's up to us whether they win or not.

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