The New Arab Oz

We’re not in Kansas anymore, and there is no yellow brick road to guide us to salvation.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Dorothy had it right. We're not in Kansas anymore. In little more than a year, a powerful tsunami of rebellion and revolt has washed away much of what was familiar to America in a region it thought it had finally come to understand.

Dorothy had it right. We’re not in Kansas anymore. In little more than a year, a powerful tsunami of rebellion and revolt has washed away much of what was familiar to America in a region it thought it had finally come to understand.

But for the United States, life in this new Middle Eastern Oz differs from Dorothy’s tale in one fundamental respect: It’s bereft of wizards and witches.

Many of the big and not-so-big men who held America in thrall and their own people hostage are now gone or going. Indeed, none of the larger-than-life leaders who dominated Arab politics for nearly half a century still strut the Arab stage.

Their passing carries enormous consequences for Arabs — and for Americans, too. The real danger is not that the United States will confront Arab strongmen, but that it will confront regimes without truly democratic institutions or strong, responsible leaders.

Once upon a time, two kinds of Arab leaders held sway. The first type were the acquiescent authoritarians, those presidents and kings on whom America depended to help protect its interests. They were constant, if not always agreeable, companions. Egypt’s Mubarak, Jordan’s King Hussein, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Yemen’s Ali Saleh, Morocco’s King Hassan II, Saudi Arabia’s kings Fahd and Abdullah. The PLO’s Yasir Arafat rounded out the group photo.

America’s arrangements with the acquiescents (and their sons, relatives, and successors) weren’t pretty, but they were clear: In exchange for their cooperation in matters of war, peace, oil, and security, the United States supported them and looked past their prodigal ways, human rights abuses, authoritarian behavior, and faux reforms.

Then there were the adversarial authoritarians. Here, a smaller group photo featured Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Assads (father and son), and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi. America sought to check and constrain their power, even removing one through invasion. But at times, the United States found common ground with them too. (See: cooperation with Saddam against the Iranian mullahs, and dancing with Assad on the peace process.) As pure and unadulterated dictators, however, they were incorrigible, beyond reform and redemption.

From Washington’s vantage point, the Arab world wasn’t so much divided into countries as it was broken down into personalities. Each of Americas’ authoritarians had a role to play and a dramatic persona to accompany it. There was the good King Hussein, the wily but indispensable Arafat, the enigmatic yet much-courted Assad, the cruel Saddam, the crazy (like a fox) Qaddafi, and the plodding but reliable Mubarak.

The United States built its policies on these men and their regimes without much regard to broader political and social forces within their societies. At best, parliaments, parties, trade unions, and public opinion were of interest to regional specialists, academics, and human rights advocates, but not terribly relevant to presidents and secretaries of state. We did pay attention to the Islamists, but only because we feared them.

If you had a problem you wanted fixed, you went to the top. I can’t tell you how many times I either heard or said myself: "Get the chairman, call the president, contact the king." What was brewing at the bottom was not deemed to matter all that much given how dependent we had become on the top.

Much of this world is now gone. The rest may yet be redefined and changed too. The Arab kings have fared considerably better than the presidents of the phony republics. Oil wealth in some cases, Islamic legitimacy and more enlightened policies in others, have spared the royals for now and given them more time to figure out how to adjust and survive.

Still, the proverbial bell may yet toll for them too. Challenges abound. The Saudi rulers are sclerotic and aging. King Abdullah is 89; Crown Prince Nayef is 79 and ill; and even Minister of Defense Prince Salman is no spring chicken at 76. The Saudi youth bulge is underemployed and increasingly unhappy.

Next door, egged on by the Saudis, the Bahraini royal family represses rather than reforms; and without the sure hand of his father, Jordan’s King Abdullah is facing an increasingly unhappy East Bank constituency angry about corruption and their own dwindling perks. Only in Iraq, untouched by the Arab Spring, does the strongman of yesteryear in the person of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seem to live on, though in a much more constrained form.

So what are the consequences of an Arab world bereft of powerful authoritarians? Four stand out in particular.

1. Not enough 411.

In the new Middle Eastern Oz, we don’t know much. The advantage of dealing primarily with one guy was that you didn’t have to know much; alternatively, with only one real wizard, you thought you knew more than you did. One strongman was good enough, particularly if he was seen to be working for you. We became pretty chummy with all these guys. Traveling with secretaries of state, we always went to Cairo first to consult with our good friend Hosni. Successive CIA station chiefs had very close personal relationships with the king of Jordan. There was little need to delve deeper, and it was a risk to do so. Indeed, in Egypt, we were actively discouraged from cultivating contacts among the Islamists and other opposition figures.

Now, reliable information on who’s up and who’s down in Egypt is much harder to find. Who’s really in charge? And who are the prospective comers among the military and the Islamists? Whether there’s a charismatic and ambitious younger military officer with a broad base of support or ties with the Islamists waiting to emerge is both a fascinating and worrisome question. And we really know very little about the decision making of the secretive and highly disciplined Muslim Brotherhood, and even less about the Salafis.

In other places, like Syria and Libya, acronyms (SNC, Syrian National Council; FSA, Free Syrian Army; TNC, Transitional National Council) have replaced the big men. That wouldn’t be so bad if these groups were cohesive and well-organized. But in the case of the external Syrian leadership they’re not. The United States Institute of Peace’s Steven Heydemann, who follows these matters closely, talks of the SNC as an umbrella organization with an executive committee of about 10, a general secretariat of 35, and a General Assembly of maybe 300, plus an additional 11 bureaus whose membership isn’t well known. Inside Syria, the situation is even more confusing and opaque. Insurgencies are by definition loosely organized. But the relationship between those armed elements doing the fighting and the Free Syrian Army, nominally headquartered in Turkey, is not at all clear when it comes to chain of command or formal affiliation. And we know very little about foreign fighters or al Qaeda’s presence. Joseph Holiday, whose report "Syria’s Armed Opposition" is about the best study on the subject, admits that his research was based largely on reports on YouTube and other opposition media outlets.

2. The king is dead, long live the ???

Not even the Arabs themselves know how to complete that sentence. In some revolutions, leaders appear early or emerge from committees or juntas. Modern Arab history offers precedents of fathers handing over power to sons and relatives, and colonels and generals replacing one another.

In the new Arab Oz, the recent rebellions were strangely leaderless. So far, no single individual or leader has emerged to command a mass, popular following that could be converted into real staying power. In Egypt, the young Googlers and liberals who played such a key role early on have been marginalized by better organized and more disciplined forces, namely the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, while the death of the Coptic pope last month leaves the country’s 8 million Copts leaderless at a critical moment. In Yemen, Saleh’s successor, a weak interim president (dubbed Mrs. Saleh by some) presides over a precarious transition. If there are strong leaders waiting to emerge, they’re not yet even in the wings.

Perhaps the absence of big men (women continue to be increasingly marginalized and excluded in the new Arab politics at senior levels) is not such a bad thing. The arc of change in the Arab world will be a long one. The last thing we need now is a charismatic new messiah either in uniform or wearing a turban who will hijack these movements to create a new brand of authoritarianism around another personality cult. After all, what’s important now is the development of institutions that are credible, accountable, and inclusive. Democratization and political pluralism must be built from the bottom up if it’s to endure.

It all makes so much sense — assuming the institutions of governance aren’t hijacked and subverted again. This time the danger isn’t so much from the Arab version of the caudillo, but from the corporatists. And I don’t mean Hewlett-Packard. What is happening in Egypt is much less a revolution or a fundamental transformation of power than a more transactional rivalry where corporate groups, in this case the military and the Islamists, compete for advantage to protect their interests or impose their vision.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Competition is the essence of politics in a democratic polity, as long as it’s nonviolent and played out according to accepted and legitimate rules of the game.

In the Egyptian case, however, the rules are being skewed by these two groups before the game really gets going. Liberals and independents secured roughly 25 percent of the new parliament, and they have been weakened and marginalized both by their own deficits and by the superior organizational prowess and discipline of the Islamists. After all, Egypt is a very traditional society. In a country of 85 million, you have to wonder how much of it the Facebook kids, the secularists, and the liberals of Tahrir Square actually represented. The future of the 100-member constituent assembly charged with drafting the all-important constitution is now uncertain, but one thing is clear: The dominant forces in Egyptian politics will continue to be the military and the Islamists.

3. Don’t look for strong, national leaders anytime soon.

So how do you make the transition from authoritarian rule to democratic governance? How do you produce credible leaders who are accountable to accepted and legitimate institutions and empowered to take big decisions for the good of the country as a whole?

In the Arab world, the answer is very, very slowly. For the past half century, the Middle East has lacked truly competitive democratic politics, let alone established and broadly accepted channels that might produce such leaders.

But leaders will be necessary all the same. You can’t run a society with a Facebook page.

Getting leaders who can see beyond the narrow corporatist or party interests will be a real challenge. In May, Egypt will have a first round of presidential elections. Candidates representing the Islamists, the left, and the old order will run. The fact that former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman came forward as a candidate and was disqualified reflects Egypt’s love/hate relationship with strongmen; it also reveals the challenge of creating credible institutions, including a legitimate electoral process.

The risk is that Egypt gets neither strong leaders nor credible institutions. No matter who wins, the new president will be sandwiched between a strong, Islamist-dominated parliament and a military determined to protect its economic stake and its influence over national security policy. A popularly elected president will start off with some legitimacy. But how he’ll gain the real legitimacy of modern politics — producing and delivering what people want and need — is another matter. It may be just as well that Egypt now has group politics rather than individual leaders. The economy is a mess; security is deteriorating. Governing the country is next to impossible. Who would want the responsibility?

Egypt has always found a way to muddle through without imploding. Tunisia, smaller and more Western-oriented, represents a bright spot in the region, but even there, tensions between Islamists and secularists guarantee a bumpy road ahead. In places like Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where repression, sectarian violence, tribal and provincial tensions, and lack of real institutions now prevail, it’s still a mystery how credible, enlightened leaders will emerge. There’s a real danger that the hopes and aspirations of the Arab Spring — already hijacked — will get lost and swallowed up in an Arab version of the Bermuda Triangle. Middle Eastern leaders are masters of acquiring power; they’re not so good at sharing it. And yet share it they must if they are to improve the fortunes of the vast majority of their peoples.

4. America’s bind: Where are its partners?

America’s traditional friends are either gone, trying to get by, or increasingly unhappy with Washington’s policies.

The oil-for-security bargain that cemented the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been weakened, and the Saudis are still upset over America’s reform agenda in Bahrain and have long been unhappy over its policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. A weak Yemeni president can’t be a reliable partner on counterterrorism, and the recent brouhaha over the NGOs and military aid to Egypt heralds troubled days ahead. America is reaching out to the Islamists, but the Brotherhood’s vision for Egypt, let alone the Salafist one, is one that America won’t easily abide. The Palestinians, who have no strategy themselves to gain a state, have all but given up on the possibility that Barack Obama has one.

The Arabs still want America’s security assistance and military hardware. And the Iranian bogeyman guarantees that the Gulf states still want and need American protection. There remain dim hopes among Arabs that Washington will at some point come to its senses and stick it to the Israelis. But it won’t be easy for the United States to make new friends easily, particularly now that public opinion will play a greater role in the debate.

In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly quipped about the Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza that he may be a son of bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch. Those days are over for America in the Middle East. SOBs may still emerge, but they won’t be ours. That may prove to be very good thing. But for now, America is in for a very rough patch in the new Middle Eastern Oz. And unfortunately, unlike Dorothy, we can’t just click our heels and go back to Kansas.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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