Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Longevity of Arab Regimes

Marwan kindly translated my article on the longevity of Arab regimes from Al-Akhbar:

"The Longevity of Regimes: An Examination in the Causes of the Arab Ordeal"

Arab leaders dream of immortality. They don’t spare anything in their search for potions and herbs, and they seek the help of charlatans to obtain the secret of immortality. Hassan Touhami, Anwar Sadat’s advisor (who had an ill-fated role in the early relationship with Israel), was a medium who communicated with the dead to advice Sadat for protection from evil. Some astrologers in Lebanon built palaces they paid for by providing «prophecies» for this ruler or that. One lifetime of oppressing their people is not enough; they prolong it through their descendants who render their names immortal. Some of them ruled us for decades, others for centuries.

King Fahd started early in his search for the protection from disease, assassination and conspiracies. He learned of a skilful fortune-teller. He hurried to have her brought to him. The rest of the story is well known: how she advised him that it was impossible for him to be cursed if he kept his then infant son, Abdul-Aziz, by his side. His son never left his side in his life, and the king introduced The Ministry of Ministerial Affairs so he can stay with him wherever he went. British Foreign affairs tried once to object when the king insisted to bring «Azzouz» along to his meeting with Queen Elizabeth. And we know today that Saddam was like «Himmler», mesmerized by magicians and charlatans, and how he was obsessed with personal security and the security of his two sons.

But what is the reason behind the longevity of the Arab regimes and their sustainability? Recourse to the Orientalist theories of «Oriental despotism» or Arab exceptionalism, or authoritarianism inherited from Islam does not meet the purpose of analysis, and they are invalid from a sociological perspective. The political purpose of those theories is to justify Western support for authoritarian Arab regimes, and absolve the colonizers from all responsibility. We must not attribute the prevalence of the Arab exception theories to the vulgar American-Israeli Orientalism (which does not rise to the level of classic, serious and abundant European Orientalism, regardless of its methodological and political problems) only, but there are propagandists in the Arab world who promote sweeping stereotypes about Arabs and Islam: What is the meaning of the repeatedly cited statement in Abdullah Algosaimi’s book, «Arabs are a vocal phenomenon»? And does the book include anything but thoughts and projectile generalizations which insult the Arab element as much as the racist writing insults the African element? Abdul Rahman Al Kawakibi’s book “Characteristics of Despotism” contrary to the banality of Orientalism, adopts a closer approach to modern sociology, because the author does not restrict it to one environment, one component or one people: on the contrary, he tries to follow the principles of political science of the time, despite the book’s elitist tendency that gives an utmost importance to science and knowledge as if they were to guarantee the absence of tyranny (Al-Kawakibi says that tyranny and science are «opposites» and describes the «common people» as «ignorant and stupid» ( «The Characteristics of Despotism» in «The Complete Works of Al-Kawakibi», p.459) despite the fact that tyranny in Germany prevailed in a nation that was advanced in science and knowledge.

The promoters of the exception of «Arab despotism» need to review the huge work of the adept Theodor Adorno (and colleagues) on the «Authoritarian Personality», which was based on field studies in the United States. The study included nine psychological components that render a person susceptible in terms of falling victim to authoritarian control. The analytic approach is purely psychological, applies to all societies, does not limit itself to one society and does not tend to go for cultural and religious generalizations like the book «The Arab Mind» or the writings of Arab liberals that follow in Raphael Patai’s footsteps. There was a lot of fuss in this country when Adorno’s book was published in 1950 because the American society was under the influence of political propaganda that assured the Americans they are far from falling victim to an authoritarian regime. The American sociologists would insist that tyranny is a characteristic of Germans or Russians or other non-Americans. Adorno let them down, and they sought to prove that the book contained errors.The subject must be researched from a sociological perspective in order for us to explain the continuation of the Arab rulers, suffocating their peoples, unwelcomed and uninvited. We now long for the year 1949 when three successive military coups took place in Syria alone. And coups today are non-existent except in Mauritania. The regimes found a way to be invincible to plots. We must mention in this regard, the capabilities of Arab intelligence agencies that are ineffective against the enemy, but succeed in domination and protection of the regimes against danger.

We can first classify three types of regimes in terms of longevity: The first category is legacy regime where governing families reign. And Lebanon belongs partially to this category in some sects (where the rule of the families of leaders dominates, some of which had prevailed for centuries). The second class is the class of rulers born from within a previous regime, such as Tunisia where the director of intelligence got to power through a medical coup, or Egypt where the ruler left behind another ruler he handpicked, who in turn was handpicked (Abdel Nasser’s second mistake is unforgivable) by a previous governor. The third category is the new regimes category, which are trying to build their own new strains, to which belongs the regimes in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq (before 2003). All three categories succeed in coming up with the means to stabilize the regime and pass the power along as inheritance.

The reasons of longevity are multiple, and they include:

First, the end of the Cold War. The Cold War allowed plots that facilitated coups and regime changes. The coups executors found it too easy to visit the U.S. and Soviet Embassies to request assistance with their plots. The intensity of the Cold War would increase the appetite of the two superpowers for regime changing, as long as it hurt the opponent’s interest. The Cold War encouraged or plotted to overthrow governments.

Second, the United States is fully satisfied with the prevailing regimes in the Arab world, and considers that the survival of regimes contribute to the safeguarding of American interests. For this, Walid Jumblatt discovered that even the Bush administration was not seeking to overthrow the regime in Syria. This factor may be the most important factor in explaining the reasons for the continuation of the Arab regimes that receive the most military and/or financial to ensure their continuation. The Western democratic regimes supported the authoritarian regimes whenever they’re exposed to instability and shocks (such as Saudi Arabia during the “Haram” uprising (in Mecca), Black September in Jordan, Oman during the Dhofar revolution, or Yemen against the revolution in the north and south today). The United States does not seek to change even those regimes it opposes, such as Sudan. The U.S. discovered after the Iraq war (or even before that in the U.S. State Department before the reign of Bush) that a change in the Arab regimes will bring immeasurable scourge on America's interests, even if the arrogance of the American empire prevented them from admitting it. And do not forget that the American forces (deployed in more than 130 countries around the world) are present with their weapons and their intelligence apparatus in the Arab world. (There's a huge intelligence base in Dubai, for example, which was exposed by coincidence during the deliberations of the Congress three years ago on the issue of «Dubai Ports» and the subsequent discussions about the role of Dubai in America's wars). Bahrain is the headquarters of the Navy's Fifth Fleet, and the United States has also maintained an unspecified number of «military advisers» after the formal withdrawal of its troops from Saudi Arabia. Dahlan gangs and internal security forces in Lebanon receive direct U.S. «sponsorship».

Third, this tremendous growth in the structure of oppressive military intelligence helped Arab regimes survive. And the Arab intelligence, only a few decades ago, used to rely only on informants in neighbourhoods and people-watching in a blatant manner (and they did it without the slightest guilt). Intelligence agencies became one of the most sophisticated devices of the state. When I visited the University of Mohammed the Fifth in Rabat, in the mid-nineties, I only saw two or three computers, while many computers were deployed in the passport control at the airport in Rabat. The computer entered the Arab world outside of universities in the sixties: in the Jordanian intelligence building and the Lebanese Ministry of Defense. A comrade who was arrested and tortured in the eighties in Oman was surprised by the strict regulation and classification of files: Every Palestinian organization has a special section that «takes care» of it, and takes care of torturing its activists. Arab intelligence agencies also used the help of academics. Fadel al-Barrak ran the Iraqi intelligence service after he earned some advanced degrees (I remember when Hanna Batatu visited Iraq in the eighties he ran into a friend of his who told him that he had read his book on Iraq. Batatu was surprised and asked him how he could get the banned book. He replied that he borrowed a copy from Fadel al-Barrak). Intelligence agencies have specialists now (one specializing in electric shocks, another is skilled at severe beatings, and a third at extracted finger nails) as well as medical trainees who contribute to the torture (The same way American doctors and psychologists assisted with the torture carried out by U.S. intelligence after September 11). This advancement in the intelligence community, and the establishment of intelligence services to spy on other intelligence services, have strengthened the pillars of the authority. Military coups were easy in the fifties and sixties: a few tanks were sufficient to capture the radio station and the Ministry of Defence and the presidential palace (which was not a fortified fortress like today). Saddam Hussein's palaces were huge compounds so that nobody would know his place of residence at a given moment. The regimes knew how to well use the air force to undermine any revolutionary act: we recall the terrible threat by Hafez al-Assad against Mustafa Hamdoun’s coup. The purchase of any advanced weapons on behalf of the liberation of Palestine contributed to the protection of regimes, and did not provide any help in the wars against Israel.

Fourth, family control of regimes and the trust of family members only helped in the consolidation of power. They all became a model for” “Shakhboutism”: the father holds the reins, brothers and sons take control of the different arms of the government. Only if Michel Foucault devoted a special chapter about us in his book «Discipline and Punish». The ruler only trusts the sons, in-laws and cousins. And killing family members was not prohibited: as Saddam did with a number of his relatives. What is important is to maintain power. Defections, isolation of Brothers, fratricidal conflicts and the splintering of red princes in the sixties did not prevent the continuation of the rule of Al-Saud.

Fifth, the rulers became experienced in governing and preventing coups. This is due to external support, in addition to the arrival of a number of Arab rulers to power through coups and plots. Hafez al-Assad, for example, participated in more than a coup and a plot to overthrow the government, and Saddam Hussein experienced conspiracy and assassination at an early age. Rulers gained experience and skilfulness in the affairs of coups and plots.

Sixth, the public fear of the unknown. People nowadays do not rely on promises of change: the disappointments accumulated and the dream faded. Maybe it’s the 1967 war, or perhaps it’s the failure of Nasser or the fall of ideologies ... People are accustomed to their rulers, but maybe they feared the worse: This explains how some people in Syria preferred Hafez Assad to his brother, Rifaat (today, he’s a Democratic crusader backed by the Saudis ). And regimes deliberately exploit fear and warn of calamities if the regime was to be brought down.

Seventh, the traditional doctrinal intimidation about the strife. And we must warn here from going too far in relying on the religion factor (which the proficient Maxime Rodinson warned of in his dangerous work “Europe and the Mystique of Islam” ('La Fascination de l’Islam’ ) which he called it “theologo-centrism” in reference to the intolerance in the Orientalist studies which blame all phenomena among Muslims on religion. But we can consider some of the theories of Islamic political conservatism, such as the ones contained in the writings of al-Ghazali, which are supportive of religious totalitarianism. The warning from «sedition», which occupied Al-Ghazali, helped the call for obedience to the unjust ruler for fear of chaos and civil war. And the scholars of the sultans in the Arab countries update their theories of political thought in support of the governor no matter how unjust he becomes.

Eighth, oil revenues and foreign aid reduced the need to use the «extractive capacity», of which Nazih Ayoubi spoke in his book «Veneration of the Arab State». So the Arab states made revolutions less likely through the use of oil revenues and foreign aid to alleviate the curse of the people (Wasn’t the slogan of the American Revolution «No taxation without representation»?). This helps to subsidize food (which Rafic Hariri wanted to completely “liberate”, and he was not afraid of the revolution because sectarianism and religionism protect the regime from the revolution).

Ninth, a mood of despair and fear played down the possibility of armed opposition. Arab peoples have lost a lot of their hopes and desires through decades of defeats, disappointments, conspiracies, oppression and wasted dreams. And the «Arab Dream» musical is closer to a tragedy and the melody is funeral, but expresses the popular mood of today, which is tainted with a lot of dismal Karbala mood.

Tenth, the equation of «C. Wright Mills» in his book «The Power Elite» about the recipe of «entertainment, deception and praise» to stay in power, applies to the Arab world. Mills considers that the ruling elite in America has tightened its control through the exploitation of a combination of entertainment, deception and praise (The ancient Greeks despised «commending the public» which is the origin of the word «demagoguery») to adapt and hypnotise the public. How can one explain the massive explosion in the Arab satellite channels, which is the real opium of the people, whose biggest calamity lies in the sports programs, serials, and programs along the lines of «Superstar» aimed at strengthening national enmity as leaked in a document on Iraq by the U.S. Department of Defense? But unlike the rulers of America, the Arab rulers do not praise their people. They stick to self-praising their royal and republic entity.

Eleventh, the rule of the Saudi era and the protection of pro-Saudi governments (in agreement with the U.S. and Israel). The United States tightened its control in most of the Arab world by supporting a regional political system under the leadership of Saudi Arabia (under the name of «moderate camp», whose moderation includes beheadings in public squares, stoning of lovers and flogging rape victims, which took place recently in Saudi Arabia). Arab regimes are scrambling today to defend each other: The war of the Yemeni regime against the Houthis received American-Saudi support, and the perpetual regime of Hosni Mubarak issued a quasi-military statement about the war in Yemen, even though there was no evidence of Israeli support.

Twelfth, the widespread violence and the use of massacres for intimidation and to undermine the opposition. This may be the most important factor, which is contrary to all the Orientalist allegations (ruminated today in the so-called Arab liberalism, which calls for individual freedom one hour, and then chants for the lives of oil Sheikhs the next hour, or writes a book on the Poetry of Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, as did Shaker Al-Nabulsi who recently came up with a theory which states that the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia is the action of women themselves, not the ruling family) on Oriental despotism, or the Arab inclination toward submissiveness and resignation. It can be noted that the Arab regimes in Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Oman, Yemen and Sudan committed a huge number of massacres against their own people in order to consolidate their command. Massacres are also evidence that people dot not yield. The regimes did not need these mass murders and the mass imprisonments if there was a meek and public acceptance of tyranny. One cannot underestimate the size of this repression: the Egyptian regime held 7588 people on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood last year alone (according to a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood). A regime that needs to imprison 7588 people in one year does not benefit from a climate conducive to tyranny, or from a genetic tendency to accept repression, at all.

Thirteenth, the effectiveness of the coordination of Arab suppression. The meetings of Arab interior ministers can be considered as one of the most important and uniting Arab meetings. Arab regimes oppose all efforts to unite and integrate, but they cooperate with definite effectiveness in the Arab joint suppression. Ashraf Rifi (Director of the Lebanese security forces) sits on the Governing Council of the “Arab” University of Prince Nayef for Security Sciences. We do not know if the curriculum includes lessons in the electrification of genitals, skin peeling and nail extracting.

Fourteenth, we must not overlook the factor of self-repression that Foucault warned us against (and the brilliant artist Ali Farzat): namely the search for deposits of despotism in every place outside the State, from family to religion to traditions and the tribe.

We cannot address the question of the continuance of regimes without talking about the nature of colonial domination that did not leave the Middle East for a single moment. The United States insisted after World War II on controlling the Middle East and tightening its grip on Latin America (this is why America did not forgive Cuba’s rebellion). This means that the relationship between the continuity of the regimes in relation to internal factors and direct or indirect external interference is controversial.

We can also add that the Iraqi model of change achieved the opposite of what the U.S. colonial forces promoted in supporting the domination of Arab regimes, because the change model in the popular psyche became associated with violence, civil strife, foreign domination, corruption, the rule of armed militias and rolling back historically and socially in terms of strengthening tribal ties and clergical control (with all its implications in the decline of the status of Arab women, which means that the Arab liberalism supports the Arab regimes and the wars that increase the oppression of women, but that is not the only contradiction that besets this frail movement).

This analysis should not be perceived as an invitation to further despair. On the contrary, the refutation of Orientalist theories must rely on the ability to overcome the political and economic factors that influence the Arab suppression. Therefore, the power of the weak is more important than (waiting) for the weakness of the powerful, to quote Marx. But change requires you to abandon the remote control for a while, even if it means missing a soap opera or two.

Note: This article is drawn from a lecture I gave at the University of Montana a few days ago (which is a part of the study that will be published in a book in English on the causes of the continuity of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world)."