The Middle East Turned Upside-Down


The political world has turned upside down in the Middle East since the Arab Awakening erupted. The region has been convulsed by the most radical changes since the end of imperial occupation and the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

One significant development is becoming evident: many Arab countries may be more democratic in future, but they will be weaker in terms of state power and ability to secure their independence. This enfeeblement of the state is most obvious in Iraq, is under way in Libya and is now likely to happen in Syria.

This weakness – unlikely to be reversed for many years – ensures the growing influence of foreign powers. This was evident a week ago as the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, received a rapturous reception in Cairo and David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were lauded as heroes in Tripoli and Benghazi. No visiting Arab leader would be so applauded.

In several Arab states, political, sectarian and ethnic divisions, previously suppressed, are re-emerging. These differences once prevented a united opposition. Central to the success of the Arab Awakening movements in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria is creation of anti-regime coalitions, bringing together liberals and conservatives, secular and religious, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. These alliances are fragile. Without the prospect of overthrowing hated dictators, they have little in common.

In many Arab countries, sectarian and ethnic divisions have a long history, but in the last decade they have deepened. In Iraq, Shia, Sunni and Kurd fear and suspect one another more than they do foreign patrons, be they Iranian, Turkish, American or Saudi. In Syria, hatred between Sunni and Alawite is becoming more poisonous by the day, and President Bashar al-Assad relies on the Alawites, the Shia sect that is the backbone of his regime.

In any case, the whole ethos of the Arab Awakening is against the continuation of powerful state machines which, for half a century, justified dictatorships as the price for domestic peace and national independence. This might have seemed a reasonable bargain to pay in Egypt at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956, in Syria after defeat in the 1967 war, or even in Iraq in the 1970s.

But the dictators never delivered on their promises. By about 1975 they had rendered themselves coup-proof by building multi-layered intelligence services that brutally repressed any opposition. Independent sources of power, such as the media, political parties, trade unions and, so far as it was possible, the mosque, were controlled or crushed. Military regimes turned into police states run by a quasi-monarchical ruling families which monopolised wealth.

As power was concentrated by the Mubarak, Assad or Gaddafi dynasties, they ignored or betrayed former supporters. In Syria, Egypt and Libya, regimes lost their populist base. In Syria, there was a sort of social contract whereby the state provided jobs, a minimum wage and controlled prices. But unfettered capitalism and the free market alienated this support. Uprisings gained support among those sections of the working class who once backed the regime. Workers in the cotton mills of Egypt were among the first to protest, as were the poorer and older districts of Tripoli. In Iran, by contrast, the government has made great efforts to ensure that the democratic protest movement of the Greens remained largely middle class; it has never won over the masses of south Tehran.

The Arab nationalist dictators, many of whom seized power in the years after Israel’s military victory in 1967, have fallen or are discredited. Their particular variant of nationalism has gone down with them. Military coups and popular protests in the 1950s and 1960s all had nationalist slogans, but the Arab Awakening has produced very few. In Tahrir Square there were almost no placards attacking Israel (though the few there were have been repeatedly shown on Israeli television). Liberty from domestic tyrants, not foreign influence, is at the heart of this year’s revolutions. Gaddafi beat the nationalist drum in vain, claiming that the rebels were the pawns of foreign powers wanting to steal Libya’s oil wealth. This propaganda sounded hypocritical and self-serving since Gaddafi and his sons had stolen so much of this wealth themselves.

Foreign powers will inevitably have increasing influence in an enfeebled Arab world. This has already happened in Iraq. It is likely to happen in Syria, where sectarianism and tribalism are increasing. The Assad regime may try to survive by a general massacre of protesters. The opposition is hoping to stop this by the threat of international intervention along the lines of Libya. Bashar al-Assad might briefly stabilize his regime by a general slaughter, though this will probably usher in

a civil war. As with Gaddafi, Assad is suffering from the growing belief among his former allies that he will lose.

An obvious winner is Turkey. For the moment it is seen as the coming power in the Middle East. Its assets are a strong, democratic, mildly Islamic government ruling 80 million increasingly prosperous people. Its escalating hostility to Israel and support for the Palestinians are highly attractive when the US is more than ever in lockstep with Israel.

Erdogan spared no effort last week in broadening Turkey’s appeal in the Middle East. To the surprise of many in Turkey, and to the distress of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he strongly endorsed secularism. “In a secular regime, people are free to be religious or not,” he said. “I recommend a secular constitution for Egypt. Do not fear secularism, because it does not mean being an enemy of religion.”

Israeli leaders sound perplexed about how seriously to take Turkey’s bid for leadership in the Arab world. For the first time, since the foundation of Israel, the three most powerful states in the region – Turkey, Egypt and Iran – are opposing it. Having specialised for so long in exaggerating the threat posed by minnows like Hamas, Hezbollah and the PLO, Israeli leaders have difficulty responding to a situation of real gravity when its two most powerful regional friends and allies switch sides.

Turkey’s policy of making friends everywhere without making enemies cannot last for ever. If Mr Erdogan’s tough words on Israel are followed by tough action, then Israel and the US will respond. Mr Erdogan should enjoy his political honeymoon while it lasts. He will soon find that in the Middle East it is not possible to be friends with all.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq



Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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