The Middle East Channel

Arab despotism's second act

Colonel Qaddafi's decision to drag Libya into the jaws of hell by unleashing merciless fire against the opposition substantiates the pessimistic view that the gradual, peaceful change achieved by the Tunisian and Egyptian people will likely be denied to other Arab lands for several reasons. While Arab despots and autocrats may live in splendid insulation and solitude reminiscent of those similar fictional characters that inhabit the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, they are not all alike, occupying a range of places in the hierarchy of despotism. Moreover, the different social, cultural, ethnic, tribal, and religious structures of these societies -- as well as their different historical experiences, varying levels of economic and political development, and differences in the way the ruling political classes, as well as the opposition, see themselves, their neighbors, and the world -- weighs heavily on how dissent is viewed and dealt with.

The creative, peaceful, and moderate tactics used by the leaders of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt -- two largely homogeneous countries enjoying a clear national identity and a relatively developed civil society -- are likely to face an insurmountable resistance in the heterogeneous societies of Algeria, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. Qaddafi's brutal suppression quickly turned an initially peaceful uprising into an armed insurrection. Qaddafi's destruction of Libya's nascent civil society and state institutions, replacing them with primitive popular committees; his exploitation of Libya's tribal structures and regional differences, partially explain Libya's current convulsion. Without external intervention, it seems very likely that the Libyan insurrection will grind into a halt and probably be reversed.

Tunisia has had a secular tradition, a more prosperous economy than its neighbors, and a tolerant polity, where women's rights are among the most advanced in the Arab world. Political violence has been rare, and the small armed forces have no history of violently suppressing dissent; the regime of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dealt very harshly with the Islamist opposition and created a republic of fear, but they did so with secret police, not the military.

Egypt has a well-established and secure national identity, a long and distinctive history, and a civil society that retained a degree of vitality despite the attempts by the four military officers who ruled Egypt since 1952 to undermine it. Egypt has most of the attributes of nationhood. There is more than a kernel of truth in the observation of the late Egyptian diplomat Tahsin Bashir that "Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world; the rest are just tribes with flags." The recent sectarian clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims do not alter the fact that both communities are very proud of their Egyptian identity.

The Egyptian armed forces are more professional than other Arab militaries, and like the Tunisian armed forces, they did not engage in violently suppressing dissent as the armed forces of Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen have done since independence. Further, given their homogeneity, there was little possibility that Tunisia and Egypt would descend into civil war. On the other hand, the specter of civil war has always haunted Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen any time politics broke down and fundamental differences emerged and could not be mediated politically given the serious domestic religious, sectarian, tribal, ethnic and regional cleavages. The situation has been worse in countries like Iraq and Syria, where Ba'athist despots ruled by the sword of their minorities (a Sunni core in Iraq and an Alawi core in Syria) and used their militaries for external aggression (in the case of Iraq against Iran and Kuwait, and in the case of Syria against Jordan and Lebanon) and as praetorian guards domestically. In countries where tribes, sects, Islamist movements or ethnic groups are armed, the components within society will rely on the force of arms to settle intractable problems, as was the case in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria and Jordan in the last few decades.

In homogeneous societies it is relatively easier for an opposition or a reform movement to articulate and agree on a set of grievances and political demands. It is more difficult to do so in heterogeneous societies, where the various groups have different pressing priorities and different visions about their society and the future. Also, it is easier for the rulers in heterogeneous countries to dilute and undermine demands for political change and reform by exploiting the various cleavages that exist in their societies. These options were not available for former presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak. In Lebanon, all politics is reduced to sectarianism. In Jordan, political and economic problems are viewed through the prism of Jordanian-Palestinian cleavages. In Yemen, where the population is heavily armed, political demands are undermined by the exploitation of tribal, sectarian and regional differences. In some Arab countries, significant religious and ethnic groups are disenfranchised; for example, the Shia in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and particularly Bahrain, where they constitute the majority; the Kurds in Syria; and the Berbers in Algeria. The legitimate grievances of these groups cannot be denied any more. In Bahrain, where the Shia majority has long complained of systematic discrimination in the political and economic spheres, calls for political and economic reforms are reduced to ‘identity' politics or worse, and are seen by the ruling Sunni royal family and its supporters as driven by sectarian interests or ‘outside powers'. Conflicts emanating from fundamental political differences in fractured heterogeneous states such as Lebanon, Yemen, and as we see in Bahrain today, lead to military intervention by more powerful neighboring states to maintain the status quo. In Iraq, Algeria and Sudan, the very notion of national identity is not settled.

If Colonel Qaddafi is allowed to prevail in his war on his people, it will only serve to embolden his comrades in despotism. The painful truth is that Qaddafi, like Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Salih, Syrian president Bashar Assad, and Sudanese president Omar Bashir, and like Saddam Hussein before them, has no peaceful retirement plans. The Shah of Iran and the top echelon of his regime opted not to fight "until the last man, until the last bullet" in 1979, in part because they had a place to go to: France, New York or Southern California. The current despotic Iranian rulers, like their Arab counterparts in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Sudan, literally have no place to go to, and that is why they are willing to drag their countries into the jaws of hell.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya news channel and correspondent for the Lebanese daily Annahar.

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The Middle East Channel

Gaza after the revolution

For the U.S. government and media, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been treated as a stepchild of sorts to the revolutionary events sweeping the Middle East. This was clarified to me recently by a prominent American journalist who confided he was unable to report on Israel/Palestine because "they're just too far from the news right now." 

Gaza certainly continues to be ignored. Yet on the evening of March 14--one day earlier than planned--2,000 Palestinian youth and numerous civil society organizations gathered in a square in the middle of Gaza City calling on Hamas and Fatah to end their divisions and restore democracy in Palestine. Yesterday, March 15, thousands of people protested on the streets of Gaza, including young Hamas supporters, small groups loyal to Fatah and other small Palestinian factions, as well as Facebook activists. In Ramallah, some 8,000 demonstrators, the majority of whom were university students and young people, marched through Al Manara Square demanding national unity. Gazans are seeing their protests move to cities in the West Bank, creating a coordinated and strengthened movement.

More importantly, given the changing political landscape in neighboring Egypt, Gaza's strategic importance may become even more vital for regional security. There are emerging indications in policy circles that the Egypt-Gaza relationship and how it may evolve are far more worrisome to the U.S. and Israel than is publicly acknowledged.

Gaza's importance was already strikingly demonstrated in a December 2007 Wikileaks cable written and classified by then US Ambassador to Egypt, Francis J. Ricciardone. Entitled "Repairing Egyptian-Israeli Communications," it reveals: "[T]he Egyptians continue to offer excuses for the problem they face: the need to ‘squeeze' Hamas, while avoiding being seen as complicit in Israel's ‘siege' of Gaza. Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Soliman told us Egypt wants Gaza to go ‘hungry' but not ‘starve.'"

Indeed, most Gazans have been impoverished and too many have known hunger, a reality (in the form of a strangulating economic siege) deliberately and principally imposed for years by Israel, the U.S., EU and Egypt on a defenseless and overwhelmingly young civilian population. Perhaps most alarming, recent indicators strongly suggest that the ability of people to feed themselves and their children has diminished even further.

In a recent report on food and water insecurity in the Gaza Strip, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI) revealed some striking statistics regarding the damage incurred. For example, levels of food insecurity--defined by the World Food Programme as a "lack of access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food, which meets dietary needs...for an active and healthy life"--rose from 40 percent in 2003 to 61 percent towards the end of 2010. This means that over 900,000 people out of a total population of 1.5 million "do not have the self-sufficient means to grow or purchase the bare minimum amount of food for themselves and their families" (while another 200,000-plus remain vulnerable to food insecurity).

Currently, at least 75 percent of Gazan families are dependent for their basic needs on some form of humanitarian assistance -- dubbed the "humanitarian minimum"-- provided by international donors, all of whom (including several Arab states) are complicit in Gaza's devastation. PHRI further argues that according to an Israeli army document, 'Food Consumption in the Gaza Strip-Red Lines', "Israel's obligation to Palestinians in Gaza only extends to ensuring bare necessities required for survival. According to this principle, personal and economic development above this [humanitarian] minimum should be actively prevented." And it has. The diminished level of personal wellbeing is revealed by the fact that without high levels of international humanitarian aid Gaza would undoubtedly suffer a widespread nutritional crisis.

Economic development was precluded long ago but Gaza's current reality is crushingly adverse, characterized by the virtual collapse of an economy that was once considered lower middle income (together with the West Bank) and an unemployment rate that reached 45 percent in 2011, among the highest in the world.

According to the UN, in August 2000 10,614 truckloads of food and materials entered Gaza. By January 2011 this plummeted to 4,123 truckloads (as desperately needed construction materials remain banned) and exports fell from 2,460 to 107 truckloads.

Although Arabs waging revolutions may not now be protesting Palestinian conditions, their subjugation shall remain at the center of the discourse despite the preferences of U.S. policymakers and journalists. Israel's occupation may seem exceptional to current events but this will not last because the struggle for democracy in the Arab world will not stop at Gaza's (or Israel's) border. 

There is no doubt that the same Arab people who are fighting for freedom in their own countries will challenge the immoral situation in Palestine, especially in Gaza, and ask: How can a predominantly young population, desperately willing and able to work, be made dependent on handouts? And there is equally no doubt that Palestinians will no longer accept their continued impoverishment and decline.

Although popular demands for reconciliation, democracy and ultimately an end to occupation will depend for their success on support from the Hamas and Fayyad governments, the role of the international community is absolutely crucial: it must facilitate an end to the crippling siege of Gaza -- citizens from all around the world will again attempt this May to break the blockade with the next Gaza freedom flotilla -- and meaningfully work toward the creation of a Palestinian unity government.

The power balance in the region is slowly but inexorably shifting in a manner that does not favor US-Israel dominance (with its acceptance and legitimizing of Israeli occupation and Palestinian dispossession). It is the Arab people -- not their regimes -- who have always supported Palestinian rights, and they may soon be in a position to insist on them. So, too, will Palestinians.

Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Her latest book, Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

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