Sunday 3 October 2021

Turmoil in the Arab World


The dislocated world of the Arab Middle East

Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1918-1970, Egyptian army officer, prime minister (1954–56), and then President (1956–70) of Egypt has a lot to answer for; the Arab – Israeli War of 1967 was his making.  Feeling emboldened having taken part in the downfall of King Farouq, the Pan-Arabism he advocated during the 1950s sought to redeem the grievances of the Palestinian people following the defeat of the Arab army during the 1948 war with Israel. The 1967 Six-day war saw the Arab army defeated yet again, the complete destruction of their air force. Entire squadrons of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.  The War was over in twenty-four hours.  The five days following, was left for the Israeli army routing the combined enemy armies. On the one hand, it was a humiliating defeat to Arab governing authorities; on the other, it was an awakening of the Arab civil societies leading to a loss of confidence in their governments' legitimacy and ability to govern. More than anything, it was the Islamic awakening.  

Islamists sensed the prevailing uncertainties reading the political weakness took advantage of the moment to show that present authorities have lost their way.  After years of incubation of radicalism, they were out in force to prove Islam was the solution.  The belief is that Islam should guide social and political as well as personal life.  But more than an Islamic awakening, revolts, dissent, and civil agitation of many colours were on the horizon.  After the fall of the Iraqi Monarchy in 1958, the other regional Monarchs became protective, fearing they would soon become endangered species.  Since then, coup d’état, revolutions and toppling of regimes had become part of the everyday lexicon in the Middle East.  All came down to power and control.

The evolution of Islamic ideology, the pressures on the Regimes 
and the consequent Civil unrest


Threats of this kind and more hostile are still perceptible throughout the Arab Middle East, as this essay will hopefully show.  That fear from mounting pressure is here, and fear of losing their grip on power and control is now.  Fear by Arab regimes is felt from the outside as it is from within.  That is a lot of anxiety to contain.  The fear is real whether king, Emir or President because their legitimacy with no exception stands on shallow grounds.  Islam and the activities of the Islamists groups represent the most severe threat of all.  

Ironically without a Caliphate for directions, Islam and independent interpretations of its ideology work to disunite the Arab Muslim world. In this case, as if to fear the United States was not enough, it is more of a question of who's Islam is any way they fear most. To negotiate this maze of thorn infested complexities for Autocrats and authoritarians while also looking behind is a mammoth task. They fear loosening the rein because they well know what partially triggered the uprising in Syria was not only the lifting of the martial law in effect since 1963 but the relaxation of political freedom.

Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its Sunni offshoots and their Shia counterpart Hizbollah, aka the Party of God, are capable of dislodging the State's authority. Allowing them conducive conditions, such as openness to electoral Democracy, for instance, the movements can gain enough popularity to lead to state efficacy that can fundamentally alter the political landscape. 

However, turmoil can also appear in many other guises, despite an overall show of popular loyalty to the regimes. Since arbitrary repressive and putative measures over the ruled can only achieve veneer thin loyalty. Often enough in the Arab world, commitment to laws and policies are without virtue, verified by their procedural features as they unfold.

Moreover, all governments and their political institutions in all Arab Middle East lack democratic legitimacy-ruling without consent. Consequently,  the countries in the region fail to be nation-states since they all fall under either the King's Will or Autocratic regimes. Lacking the Democratic Right to rule is, therefore, a given. Hence, popular rule by obligation is a weakness. 

Here the Islamists, usually structured within the framework of welfare and education, as a state within a state and culturally embedded in a radical civilisation, can take advantage and are always ready to establish an Islamist State. 

Another weakness the Authoritarian regimes have is their Constitution. Without exception, all Arab countries adhere to Islam as the State religion and have enshrined the Sharia, God's Laws within its texts. The purists' definition of which can defy modern life. This, many would argue, can lead to hypocrisy by the authorities or, at best, contradictions to the laws of Islam, especially when implementing liberal laws. 

The Laws of the lands must explicitly serve religious ends. As for morality, Islam believes its teaching delivers from an exclusive standpoint. The rights to covenants of God's moral codes. Political Pluralism, Proselytising, Minority Rights, Women's Rights, Gay Rights, social justice and of course, Democracy are all a no-no.  As a social movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, the goal was nothing less than the revival of Islam.  To reactivate the once flourishing spread of Islamic civilisation,  in this day and age against an increasing secular people, and to stem all currents that frustrate the incubation of illiberal radicalism.   These are the forces that Arab political administrations have to tackle.  

The Crime of free speech.  
Israeli made Pegasus Spyware is used to keep people in check.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and their many offshoots, Salafis (purists), Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, and those in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, all share a common thread. Anti-colonial and anti-Israel. Also, not so much the means they choose that defines them but the nature of their end. From an Islamist individual to an Islamist State. They are patient, seizing the moment when ready.  

According to one of their spokesman, "government have the clock, but we have all the time".  They all provide some degree of welfare: health, education, employment etc., mainly funded by donations from private individuals; the counter-elite. Such freely extended help gave Islamists their prominent role in civil society. And politically, a rising status can oppose pressing regimes for political change to an already fragile political structure. 

What is occurring in the Arab world can be understood as revolutionary change and evolution of Islamism. Under authoritarian rule, they take cover from repressive measures by affiliating to other parties moderate Islamists, such as the Wasat party, or even Christian parties.  Such an arrangement provides them with a layer of protection from government crackdowns or international condemnation, avoiding being labelled as a terrorist organisation by the United States. 

In Lebanon, bearing in mind the current dire situation, people suffering shortages of all kinds, there has recently been a convoy of tankers carrying hundreds and thousands of litres of Iranian fuel across its borders. Hizbollah, supported by Shia Iran, wants to show the Lebanese people and the world that Iran, not Sunni Saudi Arabia, provides such relief. They are the good guys, and Hizbollah is hardly a terrorist organisation. 

Moderate Arab regimes faced with a social movement defined as above are faced with a problem of how to practice their Constitution. First, to contain the Islamists from growing too comfortable and damping down their politicising activities. 

Trying to achieve false neutrality, to leave people living by their conviction, is a loose attempt at separating State from religion. Smok and mirrors are what it is; pretending to preside over Democracy in the hope this would minimise criticism from European and American friends.  Jordan, or where there are democrats without Democracy, for instance, they rig the system, democratic rules are twisted by the king's order, making it harder for The Islamic Action Front (IAF) to gain seats in Parliament. Aware of the fact that Parliament and Democracy are both used as a means to an end of Islamising. This is not exclusive to Jordan, but Jordan will do.  

Equally worrying for regimes implementing rules is the absence of a Califate who can otherwise adjudicate a final authority on the Sharia. The judiciary uses the 'Path' not as a source but as the source for legislation. The Koran and the Hadith covering criminal, commercial and family laws are open to different interpretations. The final authority in countries such as Egypt, for instance, lies in the power of the President. Each head of State takes it on themselves to act as guardians of Islam and its definitions as they see it. Hence it comes down to who's Islam. These different interpretations stand in the way of unity among the Arab States.  Saudi Wahabist would not support Muslim Brotherhood.  Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation supported by Qatar and Turkey on the same side, but unlike Egypt and Jordan, it supports the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.  

How to spread benign liberalisation such as open nightclubs, access to alcohol drinking, unblocking immoral television programmes, or even allowing men to work in women beauty salons yet remain faithful to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad is not an easy task.

Administering the Sharia law, the outcome will be the political will of the State and not the religious law of Islam. These hollow claims in the name of Islam by the ruling elites are not necessarily valid made only to legitimise their state control.  According to professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, "Sharia can only be freely observed by believers by its nature and purpose. Its principles lose their authority and value when enforced by the State." The scenario here, however, the Rulers are the State.  In the words of Louis XIV of France “l’etat c’est moi”.

Causes of widespread social and psychological strains and tensions


Problems for the regimes do not stop at the door of Islam. Governments in the Middle East of whatever hangtags are either Authoritarians or Autocracies. With their awareness of the quiet revolution, they acquire different values from their citizens to stay at the top above the law and unaccountable.  Either born into power or having developed political power by a coupe, but in any case, in the absence of popular consent, their legitimacy is wafer-thin. Countering their paranoia to a utopian social order includes oppression, muzzling descent, surveillance, and all manner of civil liberty restraints on the ordinary individual.  They dismiss the democratic fact that people are the ultimate seat of sovereignty. 

In contrast, the elite and tribal leaders kept at bay for support and favour within a symbiotic spiral of advantages. As a result, instead of serving the people to protect the interest of the regime and its cronies,  businessmen became wealthy by buying state assets undervalued or delivering services above value in return for kickbacks.  

However, Modernity and Democracy in an increasingly connected world coupled with rapid population growth change at their doorstep is hard to avoid. These countries that form the heart of this essay are struggling for economic advantages and civil liberties.  Unfortunately, both are not delivered. Those men and women educated with a degree need employment. Still, lack of appropriate investment and lack of innovation job scarcity prevails, and civic clampdown coming on top of all this the resulting discontent and disobedience is not far away. 

Prolonged parental dependency and unemployment are dangerous. They sow the seeds of dissent and frustration. Oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait ease the situation on themselves. These Rentier States can afford to buy obedience and unconditional loyalty. Their more outstanding capabilities enable them to employ those young people into their nationalised oil oriented industries or bring them into their already bloated civil government network. Those less well-off countries like Jordan and Egypt receive generous handouts from the United States and their richer cousins. From the former, thank you present for signing peace with Israel and the latter for containment of the Islamist movements or banning them altogether. 

Whether buying loyalty, or by a US veto, or due to some perversive state activities, or some electoral engineering, the so-called Arab Spring has failed even in Tunisia, where it all started. For now, the power of social media, the "Twitter revolution" that helped bring down Egypt's presidency, has inadvertently brought in the military, which effectively brought down a democratically elected government.  All that with the United States giving its wholehearted blessing despite its pledge to strengthen Democracy and promote peace worldwide.  

Still, there is a very tired and worn out saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; if ever there was a time to requote this passage, it is now.  Alteration of power in the Middle East does not come easy, if at all. Democratic regime change backed by fraud-free elections is out of the question. Authoritarians and autocrats hate giving up power; their leadership more often becomes ancestral. Or, in Iraq's case, it remains in the hands of the majority since Arabs in Iraq, as elsewhere where governments are weak, people tend to define their identity in the form of religion before the country.  

Inevitably political identity leads to polarisations, and some regimes create the very crisis they wish to exploit.  They fuel these perceptions to drive a wedge between Shia and Sunni.  In such scenarios, regime change can only come about by revolution or assassination or a repeat of Tunisia and Egypt by the Social Media and graffiti or Iraq in 2003 by foreign invasion.  

An image directed at the head of Supreme Council of Armed Forces [SCAF], Muhammad Hussein Tantawy, criticising him for embracing Mubarak's policies and corruption. (Photo: Reuters – Asmaa Waguih)
Extensive use of Graffiti in Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.

Regime change, if not a total reconstruction of the social order, is bound to come.  Top-down rampant corruption was the leading cause for a popular uprising or the so-called Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon.  All facing severe economic problems such as poverty and unemployment.  Despite police brutality, the masses stood firm.  Unfortunately, those fighting for democratic transformation, which would bring freedom and rights, lacked the backing of institutional structure. They also differed as to what freedom meant.  The social media they used so effectively proved insufficient to sustain a lasting political change.  In the end, they failed to cooperate and settle their internal disputes.  They agreed on ousting a regime but could not decide on the State's future identity and share power.  However, people are still pursuing what modernity offers: bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity, and equality before the law.

Powerful forces such as Islamism, accumulation of social grievances, widespread social deprivation, and calls for freedom and liberalisation are pressurising all regimes in the Arab world to change. To help people consolidate a political identity or introduce a framework of political opposition and remove the sentiments of distrust.   Stalemate is not an option but must consider changes even to the entire social order.  Illiberal democratic rule marking out inflexible Arab exceptionalism needs to be revolutionised.  The globalised world is signalling change, and modernity offers much, so the Arabs can not drag their feet too long; accountability and nation-building are wanting. Internet's role as a space where collective dissent can be articulated is not going away. The problem they have to get over is their paranoia and lust for power, both of which in the liberal world is a challenging mix. Much of what is happening in the Arab world is revolutionary, the awakening of civil society amid civil activism.  This is a rare example of a revolutionary process playing out in real-time before it happens. Still, its process remains in doubt, but one thing for certain democratic cultures is indispensable for the evolution of democratic order to take hold.  

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