How far will Arab Revolutions go?

Muhamed SacirbeyMost in peril are those regimes of discredited revolutions that similarly swept through during the post-colonial period more than a half-century earlier. The banner of Arab nationalism and influenced by European and Soviet socialism booted old Arab monarchies as well as old colonial fiefdoms.

Mubarak Egypt & Saddam Hussein’s Baath as the Model for Old Discredited Regimes

Egypt was perceived as the model – royal family kicked out by charismatic, nationalist military leadership. The Baathists executed similar serial revolutions in Iraq, the pretext being the overthrow of another monarchy too friendly to old colonial rulers.  Syria and by some degree Lebanon, pursued a similar ideological path even if histories and colonial masters and models left behind were different. Arab Christians played a critical, even defining role in shaping the then new ideology while Islamic influence was marginal (Only a quarter century earlier, Israel also covertly nurtured “Islamist” alternatives to the secular oriented PLO – and even its more radical off shoots which were largely molded by Christian born or left molded leaderships – presumably of the view that Arab nationalism was a greater threat than its Islamic manifestation).

New Ruling Elite Replacing old?

The wave of left leaning Arab nationalism appeared unstoppable, until it corrupted and rotted from within.  Most of these new Arab leaderships in reality gave birth to new ruling dynasties having co-opted and then betrayed republicanism almost as quickly as they excluded themselves, family and cronies from socialist lifestyles. These are the regimes that are most in danger today, and some have already been swept away. 

A Monolithic Arab Nation – Only if You’re Seeking Stereotype Confirmations

Generalizations are especially dangerous when the view from Washington and Europe is already overcrowded with stereotypes. Each country has its own history and identity. The term “Arab” is significantly broader in ethnic or national identity than that in the United States. The Arab language has many dialects, and conversation can be difficult between two individuals speaking Arabic but coming from Libya and Iraq. (Classical Arabic is the common threat in communication more in the written form and spoken by the more educated in formal context.)

For example, Algeria’s current ruling elite also came to power through nationalist-leftist revolution leftist. While ideology may have become stale, the memory of blood spilled in Algeria to expel French colonialism is still fresh in the historical memory allowing the regime to continue rolling along if only on the fumes of national liberation. Perhaps this is a fundamental difference between Algeria and Tunisia despite many similarities. 

Gaddafi’s Faux Revolution

Gaddafi’s purported revolution in 1969 was already behind the times, and he tried to play symbolic catch up with even more radical, even goofy mutations of Arab or Islamic nationalism. In the end, it was evident that Gaddafi carried the least revolutionary legitimacy, and his overthrow of the old gentlemanly king was more about rebellion to install his own personality cult regime. 

Arab Monarchies – A Lineage to Legitimacy to Offset “Islamist”

The current Arab monarchies no longer face threats from a far left nationalist brand. Rather, as in most other Arab states it is more a blend of stifled agendas, more or less depending the country: labor, students pursuing more openness as well as jobs, the poor more concerned about eating rather than consuming ideology and a broad genre labeled as “Islamists.” The current monarchies have at least two advantages over the discredited Arab nationalist revolutions that have now run out of gas as well as legitimacy after more than a 50-60 years behind the steering wheel:

·      The Arab monarchies may have undelivered in most instances as well, but they also did not over-promise as much.

·      The so labeled Islamist element of the new wave clamoring for change is entangled in its own ideological web – enjoining blind obedience in theological doctrine is difficult to make consistent with overthrow of royal bloodlines, especially with respect to monarchies that claim direct lineage to the Prophet Mohamed.

Avoiding Pitfall of “Nationalists”: Over-promise/Under-deliver

The latter point is the most critical difference, perhaps even decisive in comparing half century earlier sources of revolution to today. Significant petro wealth and small populations have allowed many of these monarchies to evolve into a welfare state or perhaps as some may prefer to define patronage based economies. Regardless, much of the indigenous population has a vested economic interest in the status quo (as compared to the poor masses of Egypt). 

This does not mean that the Arab monarchies are all safe from revolution. (Petro wealth did not stop revolution in Libya). Further, where the Shia/Sunni delineation exists, religion along establishment lines can become a danger rather than ally of the status quo. Whatever the faults of Bahrain’s  rulers, religion has played a critical role, and it is not certain to what extent Iran has or will play a role in supporting Shia populations against Sunni ruling families. Regardless, of the true causes and factors that have Bahrain roiling, the other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states are conscious of the multiple factors. As the Ambassador to the United Nations of a GCC member told me: “We will never allow Bahrain to fall (into Shia control); although they (Bahrain rulers) really must change – for too long they have been slow.” 

Each State Viewed on its Own Merits

Iraq is a special case, both due to its internal delineations and recent battleground for the wider conflicts embroiling the globe. The US invasion has brought about regime change, but the extent of true transformation is not clear. It is almost as if watching the cocoon while metamorphosis is either mystically underway or perhaps it has already become moribund.

Sudan may have been ripe for substantive change, but the secession of the South has played into the hands of the ruling regime to continue to promote its hold on to power by employing the old strategy of “us versus them” and victimization. In some ways, the psychology of today’s Sudan is somewhat similar to SE Europe and particularly Serbia a century earlier, (and some would argue even today). The separation of the largely Christian South Sudan has been translated by the Khartoum authorities as a free hand to do whatever with other Muslim majority areas, as Darfur.

Mauritania and Somalia are also technically members of the League of Arab Nations. The former is hardly ever spoken of even as it has already undergone tumultuous rebellion. Somalia has been the chaotic basket case for more than the last two decades. They are now in their own cycles.

Yemen represents to amalgamation of almost all of the considerations present in some form in most other Arab states. It is a country held together by the status quo as much as being torn apart by it. A new national agenda though will need to be formulated to overcome decades of stalled development and progress in reformulating a national identity. A splintering of Yemen is not out of the question, as it has in the recent past already experienced civil war and division. Of course, this recent trauma may provide impetus for experience to be a teacher rather than merry-go-round. 

Arab Revolutions or Mere Rebellions?

The series of Arab rebellions is most likely to manifest itself in different ways through the region and the speed of change will vary substantially. Perhaps it may become the new Arab Revolution or part of an extended evolution. From my discussions with almost all Arab diplomats at the United Nations, in a matter of weeks they have gone from skeptics to absolutely convinced that change will come and broadly. 

Revolutionary Euphoria Cannot Substitute for Substantive Change

I’m not yet fully convinced though how far and how substantive the change. I’m not certain that we have yet witnessed a true transformation even in Egypt and Tunisia, which are still in transition. Is it just one big oval again bringing people back to the starting point in their aspirations a generation or two into the future from today? I’m not that pessimistic but neither do I think that mere revolutionary euphoria can be a substitute for real change. I am of the view that change is truly underway. Some may be swimming against the tide, and perhaps even with some confidence that they can remain afloat. However, the old shore is gone and the new shore is only a haze in the horizon.

“Closet Whore” or Worthy Significant Other?

It is easier to offer advice where these states should steer rather than to predict where the tide will take them. Rather than opting to trail US political agendas, (which position them into the unenviable situation of being publicly censured for tyrannical behavior while doing much of Washington’s nasty work of black sites and torture), they should emulate America for its relatively open and democratic society. The double-life is up and as some have suggested in explicit terms: “better to be a worthy partner to America’s people than whore to Washington’s closet tendencies.”

Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey


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