The Biggest Losers (Middle Eastern edition).

The wave of unrest that has shaken the political foundations of the Middle East is a watershed moment in the region’s history. Although it is still too early to determine if the much hoped-for changes raised by the collective challenge to autocratic rule actually result in tangible improvements in the material and social conditions of the majority of Middle Eastern citizens, it is possible to ascertain who the losers are. Some are obvious, but others are not.

Among the obvious losers the biggest is Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose regime will topple regardless of whether he hangs onto control in Tripoli for an extended period of time (which is unlikely, since he faces not only internal opposition bolstered by defections from the military and government and does not have control over the oil fields that once made him someone to be reckoned with, but also UN-led international sanctions and a host of asset freezes on the part of individual states. Worst yet, his Ukrainian blond nurse has upped stakes and left for home!). Desposed presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt are also obvious losers, as are their cronies and sycophants, although the regimes they led have weathered the worst of the crises and they have managed to exit office with their lives (something Gaddafi is unlikely to do). Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is also a loser, since he has been forced by public unrest to announce that he will step down from power in 2013, a timeline that may accelerate as a result of defections from within his government and among influential tribal leaders that used to support him.

The al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain is another loser, as it will have to agree to significant political concessions to the Shiia majority opposition in order to quell unrest. The same is true for Algeria, Jordan, Oman and Syria, which have moved to pre-emptively announce political reforms that may or may not be cosmetic but which indicate increased regime preoccupation with public accountability and governmental performance. In seemingly stable Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, royal families are also working quickly to stave off potential unrest via the institution of preventative reform packages which, however minor in nature, are nevertheless acknowledgement that their rule is not as impregnable as they used to think. In all of the oil oligarchies there is a realisation that they must cede some power in order to stay in power, which opens the door for more substantive change down the road.

Beyond these obvious losers are others that are not immediately apparent. These include energy and weapons firms that struck deals with Gaddafi, who may find the terms and conditions of said contracts voided or renegotiated on different terms by his successors (this includes BP, which is widely believed to be behind the release of the Libyan Pan Am 103 bomber in exchange for Libyan concession rights as well as Chinese investors). They include a number of Italian businesses as well as the government of embattled president Silvio Berlusconi, who enjoyed warm relations with Gaddafi that now may turn into liabilities once he is gone. They include the Iranian regime, which has seen its crushed opposition resurface to claim the same rights their Sunni Arab brethern are calling for, thereby giving the lie to the official claim that the Ahmadinnejad-fronted theocratic regime enjoys universal support. They include the US government, which reacted slowly, clumsily and viscerally to the wave of protests, engaged in a series of quick policy shifts and contradictory pronouncements, and which has been shown to have a limited ability to predict, respond or influence events on the ground in that strategically important region even as it pontificates about its newly discovered commitment to democracy and human rights in it (it should be noted that other great powers such as China and Russia did not engage in public diplomacy about the unrest, which may be more due to their own authoritarian records rather than a respect for national sovereignty and preference for private diplomacy but which in any event does not leave them looking like hypocrites on the matter). They include Hamas and Hizbollah, whose hopes for region-wide intifadas never materialised. They might include Israel, should the post-Mubarak Egyptian regime take a less cooperative stance towards the Jewish state in response to public pressure in a more open and competitive domestic political environment (should that materialise). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should provide food for thought about others who may have benefitted from their support for Middle Eastern autocracies who may now find that their fortunes have changed for the worse as a result of the regional crisis.

But the biggest loser by far in this historic moment is the one actor that only gets mentioned by fear-mongerers: al-Qaeda and the international jihadist movement. In spite of repeated calls for the Muslim masses to join them in their struggle, after years of sacrifice of blood and treasure, international jihadists have seen few echoes of their views in the Middle Eastern uprisings. Rather than call for the establishment of a regional caliphate or even Sharia governance in individual nations, or embrace jihad against infidels at home and abroad, the vast majority of the protests in every single country where they have occurred are about bread and butter issues (mainly jobs, food and public services) and demands for increased political voice, representation, government accountability and official transparency. As it turns out, these purportedly Western and anti-Islamic notions resonate more on the Arab Street than do appeals to martyrdom. Thus, the standard canard that democracy is inapplicable to the Middle East due to cultural preferences rings as hollow for al-Qaeda as it does for the autocrats who parade it as an excuse for their rule.

The picture is clear. Fevered warnings of fear-mongers aside (who now believe that Libya will fall into jihadist’s hands should civil war ensue), after years of fighting and preaching, the ideological appeal of Islamic fundamentalism has gained little traction with the Arab majority, who instead have voiced their preference for forms of governance that take their inspiration from the infidel West, not Usama bin Laden. Not only is al-Qaeda and its allies being militarilly degraded bit by bit all over the world, in a process that may be long but where the outcome is inevitable. More importantly (and which contributes to their inevitable military defeat as a global armed actor capable of challenging for power in all but the most miserably failed states), they have been utterly defeated in the battle of ideas in the very region from whence they originated.

That makes jihadists the biggest losers of all.

UPDATE: I spent a week on holiday out of IT reach thinking about this issue, and a day after I get back and post about it the NYT decides to follow suit.

23 thoughts on “The Biggest Losers (Middle Eastern edition).

  1. I heard a comment today on the radio by John Dybvig (of all people) with Graeme Hill on Radio live.

    It was something along the lines of that this outbreak of “democracy” in the Middle East makes George Bush’s reign at the top look not too bad. Perhaps there was method to the madness.

    Food for thought. Can’t see it myself but then perhaps we are so wrapped up in liberalism at the moment to see the wood for the trees.

    Thoughts, anyone?

  2. The main problem with that line of reasoning, to my mind, is the utter lack of an outbreak of any sort of democracy in the MIddle East. In fact, Pablo has written at least half a dozen posts on this very topic over the past month.


  3. Lew – The direction is certainly towards democracy and the actions of Bush and the neocons were to move strategy towards arab democracy.

    Pablo is quite correct that there has been no tactical move towards democracy. But the democratic forces have been unleashed. Gaddafi is the real turning point, there is genuine revolution (even using Pablo’s definition) in Libya and breathless news reports tell of people forming their own committees to bring order.

    It is certainly easy to see how the subtlety of the Egyptian military has diverted violence and instability.

    Pablo – I don’t fully share your view that the jihadists are the biggest losers. The only acceptable form of organisation now will come from the mosque.

    There are a small number of would be democrats that have taken extreme risks and overthrown autocrats. But they will find when they deliver a democratic vote that the people will follow their local religious leaders and vote for a steadily more religious vs democratic leadership.

    perhaps the Jihadists have missed this round but they are certainly not out of the game. I keep going back to the Pew research on how conservative Egyptians are.

    Certainly the opportunity for revolutionary theocracy in the Iran mold has passed but in the longer term we will have to wait and see.

    For the people of the Arab world a leadership, whether democratic, theocratic or autocratic has been put on notice to pay more attention to the needs of the people. If their economies open up that can only be a good thing.

  4. Phil

    Do you really think the concept of democracy was totally unknown in the Middle East before Bush started preaching it?

  5. Phil, I’d love for you to provide any evidence to support that assertion about the democratisation of the middle east, but since you’ve generally failed to do so in response to Pablo’s prior posts I won’t hold my breath.

    And to say it’s a long bow to link that trend — should it be demonstrated to exist — to the policies of GW Bush seems to me a colossal understandment.


  6. Phil:

    Repeating the false line about Bush advancing democracy will not make it true. As for jihadists, they may be able to launch sporadic (and perhaps even another spectacular) attacks, but they are by and large a spent force, Not only have they had to shift their tactics to smaller-scale and indvidualised operations under relentless pressure from international security services, but as the post argues, their ideological appeal in the Muslim Arab world has clearly been shown by recent events to be negligible (and they are not supported by the majority in places like Indonesia or Malaysia either).

    In fact, I would go so far as to argue that outside of Pakistan, radical Islamicism is stronger in Europe because Muslims in that disapora have realised that there is a huge rhetorical and performance gap between the purported benefits of democracy and what is actually delivered in practice. Dashed expectations of a better can life can do that to people.

    Your comment about political organising in mosques is interesting. I have just returned from a week in Malaysian Borneo and it struck me, as I counted the mosques on every third block, big and small, humble and opulent, that they may be in fact a form of Muslim polyarchy. Each is its own community-based power centre, with independent services and sources of funding and with mostly autonomous leadership hierarchies. This mitigates against centralisation of ideological control and authority in any one locale and forces power-brokers to wade through a network of decentralised entities in order to have policy enacted (this assuming that the national government does in fact go Sharia at some point, which is debatable). Thus the “mosque as power centre” phenomenon is not necessarily conducive to centralised theocratic control, particularly in Sunni-dominant countries where specific interpretations of faith are variable and cults of personality around specific Imams is less visible. After all, a call to prayer does not always have to be a call to arms.

  7. Pablo. I sincerely hope you are right. But even polyarchic power brokers will support some form of central government to provide the services they themselves cannot.
    Lew. Iraq. Failure of theocracy in Iran. Elections in Afghanistan.

  8. Hugh. Not at all. But bush and America started a ball rolling with the use of force to bring democracy in Iraq. Autocrats are weakened and fewer. Popular rule is stronger and more widespread.
    And lew. Bush approved an election in gaza even though they knew the likely result was Hamas.

  9. … and was then among those who moved to prevent Hamas from exercising any of their democratic mandate.

    Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.


  10. Phil, if Bush was really willing to accept Hamas’ election why didn’t the USA have any plan to deal with the result of their winning power? I’m not arguing that Bush did do some modest leaning on friendly Arab regimes to move in the direction of democracy but the election of Hamas seemed to basically scupper it, since it soon became clear that there was a major ceiling on the amount of democratisation that could occur without compromising US operations in Iraq or Israeli operations in Palestine. So when faced with a choice between democracy and boots-on-the-ground, Bush chose the second.

    But there is a better case for the idea that Bush’s modest prodding of Arab regimes towards slight democratisation led to the upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya than there is that the invasion of Iraq contribued. I’m really curious to see your argument that Iraq led to the Egyptian uprising. I don’t need “evidence” but I can’t even see a plausible scenario.

  11. Lew – Your problem is that you are taking a very narrow view. After “the changes” in Eastern Europe from 1989 through 1991 there was a similar feeling of peace and democracy being spread through the media. If only people would help themselves everyone would get democracy or whatever form of government they chose. That is not the evidence of history.

    Saddam was spanked in Kuwait but the Americans chose not to overthrow his regime. That was followed by a Shia uprising that was verbally supported by the West but brutally repressed. That bears a brutal similarity to popular uprisings that toppled governments in Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968 and elsewhere that were subsequently repressed by the intervention of armed forces.

    The lesson learned by the Egyptian military is that they can follow a Pakistani/Turkish route to democracy with dignity and popular support for the army or they can end up like the Iraqi army. The fact that the Iraqi army contained Sunni minority leadership whereas Egypt is composed of the people it is sworn to protect makes the comparison easier.

    Pablo made the point that American service personnel emails to people they knew in Egypt officer corp made a difference.

    The change that Bush wrought is to provide the template for the change of an autocratic regime to democracy through its willingness to use force against autocrats and the military they are supported by. If democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan fails it will not be for want of American effort.

    Pablo – With the changes that are happening in Libya this is beginning to take on the appearance of the Arab “Enlightenment”. The Jihadists are big losers as you suggest, they will find it harder to catch up, but if they had taken the lead in protests against the regime I am certain they would have simply been repressed, with the tacit acceptance of the White House incumbent. For that reason their secular flavour has assisted their success.

  12. Phil:

    Let me offer you a counter-factual. Since I live in a “soft” authoritarian state that allows for limited opposition and expression of dissent, and which is very concerned about providing the material bases of consent to its population via extensive public welfare, housing and health provision to citizens, mandatory cheap public transport and the promotion of a consumerist culture (to say nothing of the exploitation of cheap foreign labour excluded from said benefits), my question is this:

    If the Arab autocrats did the same, would not the majority of those currently protesting for “freedom” accept ongoing, albeit more benign authoritarianism in exchange for an improvement in their living conditions? Factor into the equation the amount of illiteracy, poverty and lack of independent access to the Western media (as a representation of democracy), and the answer is obvious.

    Among everything else I have said on this issue, that is why these revolts will not necessarily result in democracy.

    As for the purported Bush Doctrine that Sarah Palin never heard of, you and I have argued this subject to death, so I shall henceforth desist from addressing it.

  13. I really don’t see how Iraq provides a “template”. Almost every single circumstance between Iraq and Egypt is different.

  14. Pablo – I know you would have voted Labour but to describe John Key’s New Zealand as “soft” authoritarian is surely going to far. ;-)

  15. Phil–good one. And FYI I am not a reflexive Labour voter, especially given the Zaoui affair.

  16. Pablo – Sorry I could not resist.

    As for your counterfactual, you mean in the same way as Musharraf had the backing of people in Pakistan because the military were seen as honest agents, whilst the democratically elected politicians are all corrupt? Or in China?

    Yes, you are quite correct. The pressure for democratic change would be substantially reduced. But that was not the point of your post.

    Hugh – I can see the US military intervening on behalf of the rebels/democrats to secure oil fields in Libya and to prevent Libyan military using aircraft against its own people.

    To summarise my various points above and come back to the point of the post.

    The actions of Bush and the American administration in using force to impose democracy have provided a strategic basis for Arab peoples to see what an Arab democracy would look like and for autocrats and military to understand the limits of their power.

    The jihadists have not been at the forefront of this change but they retain enormous strategic advantages over unorganised young democrats. The mosques provide organisation and conservative muslim culture will influence the direction towards a secular or theocratic democracy.

    We are arguing in the midst of history being made. The strategic direction will only be clear after years of change.

  17. Phil, the last line of your last comment is what gets me. This is true; I believe it, and I’m pretty sure from our previous discussions that you believe it as well. So why are you trying so hard to tie some possible future outcome resulting from these current changes to some dubious bit of partisan dogma from a decade ago? It’s not necessary.


  18. Just to be clear. Al Qaeda attacked the US on 911 knowing it would bring retribution. It’s strategy was that the ensuing instability would offer the opportunity for its to implement its jihadist objectives. As the example of Gaza shows it is far too early to believe that a democratic election will result in a secular democracy and happiness ever after. The Jihadists may well use the ballot box to take control of these newly democratic countries, but they need not stay secular.

  19. Lew – Good question. I am still a neocon. I would use force to remove the autocrats that use force against their own people.

    Appeasement has been shown time and again not to work. In 1936 and when the US kept backing off until 2001.(Think Lebanon, Somalia, Aden, WTC 93)

    The argument matters now because the strategy is right even if you have cause to doubt the sincerity with which it was advanced at the time.

  20. Phil, I doubt that the people of Libya or Egypt felt the US was willing to put troops on the ground in their countries to overthrow their dictators, particularly since both were on relatively good terms with the USA. So I don’t think that that would have encouraged them.

    Similarly, you seem to feel that prior to Iraq being invaded there was no precedent for an Arab democracy. This is not the case. Many Arab countries were democratic immediately prior to decolonisation, but their leaders gradually disposed of democracy. I think this is the model that the rebels are aspiring to.

    But even if this wasn’t true, the idea that Arabs were incapable of democracy is not something that’s ever had much credence among Arabs themselves. Arabs have been calling for democracy since long before the invasion of Iraq.

  21. Hugh. I dont know where you get the idea I have any belief in the inanity put about by appeasers that Arabs don’t do democracy. It is implicit to the whole argument about forciblyremoving autocrats so people can govern themselves

    The fact al Qaeda fought back hard in Iraq and afghan and America made mistakes in implementation are both tragic but to nothing to undermine the logic of using force against repressive autocrats

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