The New Arab Oz / We’re not in Kansas anymore, and there is no yellow brick road to guide us to salvation (FP) FOREIGN POLICY) BY AARON DAVID MILLER 04/18/12)
FP} Foreign Policy
FP} Foreign Policy Articles-Index-Top
Dorothy had it right. We´re not in Kansas anymore. In little more
than a year, a powerful tsunami of rebellion and revolt has washed
away much of what was familiar to America in a region it thought it
had finally come to understand.
But for the United States, life in this new Middle Eastern Oz differs
from Dorothy´s tale in one fundamental respect: It´s bereft of
wizards and witches.
Many of the big and not-so-big men who held America in thrall and
their own people hostage are now gone or going. Indeed, none of the
larger-than-life leaders who dominated Arab politics for nearly half
a century still strut the Arab stage.
Their passing carries enormous consequences for Arabs -- and for
Americans, too. The real danger is not that the United States will
confront Arab strongmen, but that it will confront regimes without
truly democratic institutions or strong, responsible leaders.
Once upon a time, two kinds of Arab leaders held sway. The first type
were the acquiescent authoritarians, those presidents and kings on
whom America depended to help protect its interests. They were
constant, if not always agreeable, companions. Egypt´s Mubarak,
Jordan´s King Hussein, Tunisia´s Ben Ali, Yemen´s Ali Saleh,
Morocco´s King Hassan II, Saudi Arabia´s kings Fahd and Abdullah. The
PLO´s Yasir Arafat rounded out the group photo.
America´s arrangements with the acquiescents (and their sons,
relatives, and successors) weren´t pretty, but they were clear: In
exchange for their cooperation in matters of war, peace, oil, and
security, the United States supported them and looked past their
prodigal ways, human rights abuses, authoritarian behavior, and faux
Then there were the adversarial authoritarians. Here, a smaller group
photo featured Iraq´s Saddam Hussein, Syria´s Assads (father and
son), and Libya´s Muammar al-Qaddafi. America sought to check and
constrain their power, even removing one through invasion. But at
times, the United States found common ground with them too. (See:
cooperation with Saddam against the Iranian mullahs, and dancing with
Assad on the peace process.) As pure and unadulterated dictators,
however, they were incorrigible, beyond reform and redemption.
From Washington´s vantage point, the Arab world wasn´t so much
divided into countries as it was broken down into personalities. Each
of Americas´ authoritarians had a role to play and a dramatic persona
to accompany it. There was the good King Hussein, the wily but
indispensable Arafat, the enigmatic yet much-courted Assad, the cruel
Saddam, the crazy (like a fox) Qaddafi, and the plodding but reliable
The United States built its policies on these men and their regimes
without much regard to broader political and social forces within
their societies. At best, parliaments, parties, trade unions, and
public opinion were of interest to regional specialists, academics,
and human rights advocates, but not terribly relevant to presidents
and secretaries of state. We did pay attention to the Islamists, but
only because we feared them.
If you had a problem you wanted fixed, you went to the top. I can´t
tell you how many times I either heard or said myself: "Get the
chairman, call the president, contact the king." What was brewing at
the bottom was not deemed to matter all that much given how dependent
we had become on the top.
Much of this world is now gone. The rest may yet be redefined and
changed too. The Arab kings have fared considerably better than the
presidents of the phony republics. Oil wealth in some cases, Islamic
legitimacy and more enlightened policies in others, have spared the
royals for now and given them more time to figure out how to adjust
Still, the proverbial bell may yet toll for them too. Challenges
abound. The Saudi rulers are sclerotic and aging. King Abdullah is
89; Crown Prince Nayef is 79 and ill; and even Minister of Defense
Prince Salman is no spring chicken at 76. The Saudi youth bulge is
underemployed and increasingly unhappy.
Next door, egged on by the Saudis, the Bahraini royal family
represses rather than reforms; and without the sure hand of his
father, Jordan´s King Abdullah is facing an increasingly unhappy East
Bank constituency angry about corruption and their own dwindling
perks. Only in Iraq, untouched by the Arab Spring, does the strongman
of yesteryear in the person of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seem to
live on, though in a much more constrained form.
So what are the consequences of an Arab world bereft of powerful
authoritarians? Four stand out in particular.
1. Not enough 411.
In the new Middle Eastern Oz, we don´t know much. The advantage of
dealing primarily with one guy was that you didn´t have to know much;
alternatively, with only one real wizard, you thought you knew more
than you did. One strongman was good enough, particularly if he was
seen to be working for you. We became pretty chummy with all these
guys. Traveling with secretaries of state, we always went to Cairo
first to consult with our good friend Hosni. Successive CIA station
chiefs had very close personal relationships with the king of Jordan.
There was little need to delve deeper, and it was a risk to do so.
Indeed, in Egypt, we were actively discouraged from cultivating
contacts among the Islamists and other opposition figures.
Now, reliable information on who´s up and who´s down in Egypt is much
harder to find. Who´s really in charge? And who are the prospective
comers among the military and the Islamists? Whether there´s a
charismatic and ambitious younger military officer with a broad base
of support or ties with the Islamists waiting to emerge is both a
fascinating and worrisome question. And we really know very little
about the decision making of the secretive and highly disciplined
Muslim Brotherhood, and even less about the Salafis.
In other places, like Syria and Libya, acronyms (SNC, Syrian National
Council; FSA, Free Syrian Army; TNC, Transitional National Council)
have replaced the big men. That wouldn´t be so bad if these groups
were cohesive and well-organized. But in the case of the external
Syrian leadership they´re not. The United States Institute of Peace´s
Steven Heydemann, who follows these matters closely, talks of the SNC
as an umbrella organization with an executive committee of about 10,
a general secretariat of 35, and a General Assembly of maybe 300,
plus an additional 11 bureaus whose membership isn´t well known.
Inside Syria, the situation is even more confusing and opaque.
Insurgencies are by definition loosely organized. But the
relationship between those armed elements doing the fighting and the
Free Syrian Army, nominally headquartered in Turkey, is not at all
clear when it comes to chain of command or formal affiliation. And we
know very little about foreign fighters or al Qaeda´s presence.
Joseph Holiday, whose report "Syria´s Armed Opposition" is about the
best study on the subject, admits that his research was based largely
on reports on YouTube and other opposition media outlets.
2. The king is dead, long live the ???
Not even the Arabs themselves know how to complete that sentence. In
some revolutions, leaders appear early or emerge from committees or
juntas. Modern Arab history offers precedents of fathers handing over
power to sons and relatives, and colonels and generals replacing one
In the new Arab Oz, the recent rebellions were strangely leaderless.
So far, no single individual or leader has emerged to command a mass,
popular following that could be converted into real staying power. In
Egypt, the young Googlers and liberals who played such a key role
early on have been marginalized by better organized and more
disciplined forces, namely the military and the Muslim Brotherhood,
while the death of the Coptic pope last month leaves the country´s 8
million Copts leaderless at a critical moment. In Yemen, Saleh´s
successor, a weak interim president (dubbed Mrs. Saleh by some)
presides over a precarious transition. If there are strong leaders
waiting to emerge, they´re not yet even in the wings.
Perhaps the absence of big men (women continue to be increasingly
marginalized and excluded in the new Arab politics at senior levels)
is not such a bad thing. The arc of change in the Arab world will be
a long one. The last thing we need now is a charismatic new messiah
either in uniform or wearing a turban who will hijack these movements
to create a new brand of authoritarianism around another personality
cult. After all, what´s important now is the development of
institutions that are credible, accountable, and inclusive.
Democratization and political pluralism must be built from the bottom
up if it´s to endure.
It all makes so much sense -- assuming the institutions of governance
aren´t hijacked and subverted again. This time the danger isn´t so
much from the Arab version of the caudillo, but from the
corporatists. And I don´t mean Hewlett-Packard. What is happening in
Egypt is much less a revolution or a fundamental transformation of
power than a more transactional rivalry where corporate groups, in
this case the military and the Islamists, compete for advantage to
protect their interests or impose their vision.
There´s nothing wrong with that. Competition is the essence of
politics in a democratic polity, as long as it´s nonviolent and
played out according to accepted and legitimate rules of the game.
In the Egyptian case, however, the rules are being skewed by these
two groups before the game really gets going. Liberals and
independents secured roughly 25 percent of the new parliament, and
they have been weakened and marginalized both by their own deficits
and by the superior organizational prowess and discipline of the
Islamists. After all, Egypt is a very traditional society. In a
country of 85 million, you have to wonder how much of it the Facebook
kids, the secularists, and the liberals of Tahrir Square actually
represented. The future of the 100-member constituent assembly
charged with drafting the all-important constitution is now
uncertain, but one thing is clear: The dominant forces in Egyptian
politics will continue to be the military and the Islamists.
3. Don´t look for strong, national leaders anytime soon.
So how do you make the transition from authoritarian rule to
democratic governance? How do you produce credible leaders who are
accountable to accepted and legitimate institutions and empowered to
take big decisions for the good of the country as a whole?
In the Arab world, the answer is very, very slowly. For the past half
century, the Middle East has lacked truly competitive democratic
politics, let alone established and broadly accepted channels that
might produce such leaders.
But leaders will be necessary all the same. You can´t run a society
with a Facebook page.
Getting leaders who can see beyond the narrow corporatist or party
interests will be a real challenge. In May, Egypt will have a first
round of presidential elections. Candidates representing the
Islamists, the left, and the old order will run. The fact that former
intelligence chief Omar Suleiman came forward as a candidate and was
disqualified reflects Egypt´s love/hate relationship with strongmen;
it also reveals the challenge of creating credible institutions,
including a legitimate electoral process.
The risk is that Egypt gets neither strong leaders nor credible
institutions. No matter who wins, the new president will be
sandwiched between a strong, Islamist-dominated parliament and a
military determined to protect its economic stake and its influence
over national security policy. A popularly elected president will
start off with some legitimacy. But how he´ll gain the real
legitimacy of modern politics -- producing and delivering what people
want and need -- is another matter. It may be just as well that Egypt
now has group politics rather than individual leaders. The economy is
a mess; security is deteriorating. Governing the country is next to
impossible. Who would want the responsibility?
Egypt has always found a way to muddle through without imploding.
Tunisia, smaller and more Western-oriented, represents a bright spot
in the region, but even there, tensions between Islamists and
secularists guarantee a bumpy road ahead. In places like Bahrain,
Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where repression, sectarian violence, tribal
and provincial tensions, and lack of real institutions now prevail,
it´s still a mystery how credible, enlightened leaders will emerge.
There´s a real danger that the hopes and aspirations of the Arab
Spring -- already hijacked -- will get lost and swallowed up in an
Arab version of the Bermuda Triangle. Middle Eastern leaders are
masters of acquiring power; they´re not so good at sharing it. And
yet share it they must if they are to improve the fortunes of the
vast majority of their peoples.
4. America´s bind: Where are its partners?
America´s traditional friends are either gone, trying to get by, or
increasingly unhappy with Washington´s policies.
The oil-for-security bargain that cemented the U.S.-Saudi
relationship has been weakened, and the Saudis are still upset over
America´s reform agenda in Bahrain and have long been unhappy over
its policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. A weak Yemeni
president can´t be a reliable partner on counterterrorism, and the
recent brouhaha over the NGOs and military aid to Egypt heralds
troubled days ahead. America is reaching out to the Islamists, but
the Brotherhood´s vision for Egypt, let alone the Salafist one, is
one that America won´t easily abide. The Palestinians, who have no
strategy themselves to gain a state, have all but given up on the
possibility that Barack Obama has one.
The Arabs still want America´s security assistance and military
hardware. And the Iranian bogeyman guarantees that the Gulf states
still want and need American protection. There remain dim hopes among
Arabs that Washington will at some point come to its senses and stick
it to the Israelis. But it won´t be easy for the United States to
make new friends easily, particularly now that public opinion will
play a greater role in the debate.
In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly quipped about the Nicaraguan
strongman Anastasio Somoza that he may be a son of bitch, but he´s
our son of a bitch. Those days are over for America in the Middle
East. SOBs may still emerge, but they won´t be ours. That may prove
to be very good thing. But for now, America is in for a very rough
patch in the new Middle Eastern Oz. And unfortunately, unlike
Dorothy, we can´t just click our heels and go back to Kansas.
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY