The Middle East Channel

Arab despotism’s second act

Arab despotism’s second act

Colonel Qaddafi’s decision to drag Libya into the jaws of hell by unleashing merciless fire against the opposition substantiates the pessimistic view that the gradual, peaceful change achieved by the Tunisian and Egyptian people will likely be denied to other Arab lands for several reasons. While Arab despots and autocrats may live in splendid insulation and solitude reminiscent of those similar fictional characters that inhabit the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, they are not all alike, occupying a range of places in the hierarchy of despotism. Moreover, the different social, cultural, ethnic, tribal, and religious structures of these societies — as well as their different historical experiences, varying levels of economic and political development, and differences in the way the ruling political classes, as well as the opposition, see themselves, their neighbors, and the world — weighs heavily on how dissent is viewed and dealt with.

The creative, peaceful, and moderate tactics used by the leaders of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — two largely homogeneous countries enjoying a clear national identity and a relatively developed civil society — are likely to face an insurmountable resistance in the heterogeneous societies of Algeria, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. Qaddafi’s brutal suppression quickly turned an initially peaceful uprising into an armed insurrection. Qaddafi’s destruction of Libya’s nascent civil society and state institutions, replacing them with primitive popular committees; his exploitation of Libya’s tribal structures and regional differences, partially explain Libya’s current convulsion. Without external intervention, it seems very likely that the Libyan insurrection will grind into a halt and probably be reversed.

Tunisia has had a secular tradition, a more prosperous economy than its neighbors, and a tolerant polity, where women’s rights are among the most advanced in the Arab world. Political violence has been rare, and the small armed forces have no history of violently suppressing dissent; the regime of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dealt very harshly with the Islamist opposition and created a republic of fear, but they did so with secret police, not the military.

Egypt has a well-established and secure national identity, a long and distinctive history, and a civil society that retained a degree of vitality despite the attempts by the four military officers who ruled Egypt since 1952 to undermine it. Egypt has most of the attributes of nationhood. There is more than a kernel of truth in the observation of the late Egyptian diplomat Tahsin Bashir that "Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world; the rest are just tribes with flags." The recent sectarian clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims do not alter the fact that both communities are very proud of their Egyptian identity.

The Egyptian armed forces are more professional than other Arab militaries, and like the Tunisian armed forces, they did not engage in violently suppressing dissent as the armed forces of Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen have done since independence. Further, given their homogeneity, there was little possibility that Tunisia and Egypt would descend into civil war. On the other hand, the specter of civil war has always haunted Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen any time politics broke down and fundamental differences emerged and could not be mediated politically given the serious domestic religious, sectarian, tribal, ethnic and regional cleavages. The situation has been worse in countries like Iraq and Syria, where Ba’athist despots ruled by the sword of their minorities (a Sunni core in Iraq and an Alawi core in Syria) and used their militaries for external aggression (in the case of Iraq against Iran and Kuwait, and in the case of Syria against Jordan and Lebanon) and as praetorian guards domestically. In countries where tribes, sects, Islamist movements or ethnic groups are armed, the components within society will rely on the force of arms to settle intractable problems, as was the case in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria and Jordan in the last few decades.

In homogeneous societies it is relatively easier for an opposition or a reform movement to articulate and agree on a set of grievances and political demands. It is more difficult to do so in heterogeneous societies, where the various groups have different pressing priorities and different visions about their society and the future. Also, it is easier for the rulers in heterogeneous countries to dilute and undermine demands for political change and reform by exploiting the various cleavages that exist in their societies. These options were not available for former presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak. In Lebanon, all politics is reduced to sectarianism. In Jordan, political and economic problems are viewed through the prism of Jordanian-Palestinian cleavages. In Yemen, where the population is heavily armed, political demands are undermined by the exploitation of tribal, sectarian and regional differences. In some Arab countries, significant religious and ethnic groups are disenfranchised; for example, the Shia in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and particularly Bahrain, where they constitute the majority; the Kurds in Syria; and the Berbers in Algeria. The legitimate grievances of these groups cannot be denied any more. In Bahrain, where the Shia majority has long complained of systematic discrimination in the political and economic spheres, calls for political and economic reforms are reduced to ‘identity’ politics or worse, and are seen by the ruling Sunni royal family and its supporters as driven by sectarian interests or ‘outside powers’. Conflicts emanating from fundamental political differences in fractured heterogeneous states such as Lebanon, Yemen, and as we see in Bahrain today, lead to military intervention by more powerful neighboring states to maintain the status quo. In Iraq, Algeria and Sudan, the very notion of national identity is not settled.

If Colonel Qaddafi is allowed to prevail in his war on his people, it will only serve to embolden his comrades in despotism. The painful truth is that Qaddafi, like Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Salih, Syrian president Bashar Assad, and Sudanese president Omar Bashir, and like Saddam Hussein before them, has no peaceful retirement plans. The Shah of Iran and the top echelon of his regime opted not to fight "until the last man, until the last bullet" in 1979, in part because they had a place to go to: France, New York or Southern California. The current despotic Iranian rulers, like their Arab counterparts in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Sudan, literally have no place to go to, and that is why they are willing to drag their countries into the jaws of hell.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya news channel and correspondent for the Lebanese daily Annahar.