Wonderful news from the Middle East these days. At long last the populations are not prepared to put up with their corrupt and incompetent rulers. It became a tradition in the Arab Middle East; including north Africa, that a leader once he attains power would proceed to treat the country as his personal fiefdom. Oil and all other sources of wealth are treated as personal possessions to be disposed of as the leader sees fit. Needless to say the top man and his cronies retain most of the wealth while the rest of the population are expected to be content with what little is handed down.
The picture below illustrates the differences between a mature democracy and the hereditary republics in the Middle East. Interestingly, in their support of these non-democratic regimes, the USA and other Western powers have never seen the irony, and more importantly the pitfalls, of the ‘Middle Eastern model’.
What happens when the leader is too old or too infirm to continue? The mantle is passed on to his son of course. Arab countries where so-called revolutions deposed monarchies turned overnight into hereditary republics. So far, two features distinguished Arab leaders whether they were monarchies or republics: the leaders knew no shame and their greed knew no limits. I believe that they genuinely were unaware they were doing anything wrong. Theories have been put forward about where this odd attitude comes from; the favoured theory is that it reflects tribal desert traditions but even that is hard to credit.
How did, and do, they get away with such outrageous ideas? The obvious answer is pure brute force. But where does that force come from? The answer again is simple enough: neo-colonial powers; in recent history the United States. US foreign policies to date have been based on a straightforward assumption: stability provided by brutal and hated regimes is the best model to serve US (and Israeli) interests. The regimes are kept in power at great cost in all ways but a number of key questions were never asked. Are the benefits worth the costs? How sustainable is such an arrangement? Are there hidden costs; such as the growth of religious fundamentalism, fully accounted understood? And, what happens when the USA could not afford the costs? This is what makes the recent events in the Middle East most interesting.
The outcome of the current turmoil is not yet clear or certain. Traditionally, the current leader in a particular country would rejoin his vast wealth already deposited in Western banks, companies and properties. A new leader then emerges with much promise, and the essential support of the army, only to transpire that he is an exact replica of the recently departed corrupt tyrant.
However, there is an added element in the equation these days. As described in articles on this website, Western powers have been and are on a long term trajectory of decline. They are not the financial and manufacturing giants they were and in consequence they are not the military forces they were only a few decades ago. See for instance America’s Suez (published in November 2006), USA in Decline (published in January 2008), and West’s Chronic Crisis (published in March 2009). The decline has been in evidence for quite a few years but such events in the political economy unfold over decades not years.
Events in Tunisia and in Egypt show a new aspect of life in the Middle East but they tell us more about the state of US power in the global hierarchy than anything new about attitudes of the Arab masses. These nations have always been unhappy with their lot and they have longed for freedom, dignity, and democracy for many decades. They have not been asleep and they have not been compliant with their repulsive leaders. What makes these feelings visible now is the decreasing ability of the USA to impose its will over developments. This is the new, healthy, and promising feature in the Middle East.
It is a most promising turn of events for a reason that seems to have escaped the attention of commentators. In recent years Arab masses were able to articulate their dissatisfaction, albeit to a limited extent, through religious channels. Islam was the only outlet that the leaders could not confront head on. There were attempts to limit its extent but theses did not kill off the protests completely. In effect the USA and the West, intentionally or otherwise, turned Islam into a political avenue for change. It has to be said this suited Israel’s intentions admirably: it framed the demands for justice for Palestinians into a religious conflict. The protesters in Tunisia and Egypt torpedoed this notion. They came from religious as well as secular backgrounds and affiliations. This is not only promising for a balanced approach to change in the Middle East but it is also a development that would not fit well into Israel’s propaganda for the region.
Seen in the context of declining power and influence of the USA and demands for change in the Middle East on a wide front that embrace religious and secular forces gives much hope that this time round ‘revolutions’ might actually lead to real and sustainable progress. The positive impact on Western interests, including those of Israel, could be substantial but shakers and movers in Israel and in Western countries need a massive injection of clear vision to see that hopeful trait.