BENTLEY [American journalist]: “You gonna be a democracy in this country? You gonna have a parliament?”
BENTLEY: Ha! Ha!…
ALI: Did I answer well?
BENTLEY: You answered without saying anything. That’s politics. You learn quickly.”
–”Lawrence of Arabia”
By Barry Rubin
In discussing recent developments in the Middle East the framework seems to be: this is the era of uprisings so now every Arab regime will be overthrown. There were indeed revolutions (though they were equally coups) in Egypt and Tunisia; a likely change of government in Yemen; and a civil war in Libya.
At the same time, it is important to analyze the nature of the specific events. Every country is different and the only two revolutions that succeeded–in Egypt and Tunisia–did so because the armies supported them. So a key factor (perhaps the key factor) is that if the armed forces don’t support the existing regime it will fall, but if the army backs the government there won’t be a revolution.
In Libya, if not for Western intervention dictator Muammar Qadhafi would have won by now. Yemen, where the military does not seem to be behind the government, is the most likely country to change regimes. In Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere, political power is ultimately growing out of the barrel of a gun. None of this is a moral judgment or saying what’s good or bad but merely an analysis of the situation.
Ali Ahmad, a Saudi dissident who directs the Gulf Institute in Washington DC, has a useful summary of how the Saudi monarchy handled demonstrations there, called the Day of Rage:
“1. The ministry of the interior and armed forces went on the highest alert and deployed the largest number of police and Special Forces in around the country. This was the largest deployment in the country’s history.”
So governments that can depend on their armies will use them, kill people if they deem that to be necessary, and survive. Naturally, the more ruthless the regime, the more likely it is to win. And while the Saudi government is way up there in ruthlessness, in general terms the radical, anti-Western states are the most ruthless of all, as is now being proven in Libya.
2. “A large number of Salafi clerics lead by the mufti issued statements and fatwas barring protest….”
The regimes–including, of course, Iran and Syria, have their own pro-government, clerics to counter the oppositions and especially the Islamists. These clerics are not necessarily moderate, as we will see in a moment, but ironically if they’re more radical that can also make them more effective. The Palestinian Authority’s imams, for example, are just as bloodthirsty against Israel as those of Hamas but they support the existing regime.
“…Saad AlBuraik who is a pro government cleric and is famous for calling for taking Jewish women as sex slaves, held a program aired on 28 channels simultaneously to stand against the “Safavid plan” to destabilize Sunni land. The government threw all its effort in making this a sectarian issue, which was an effective tool.”
What is the “Safavid plan?” This is the kind of thing no Western journalist or policymaker understands and yet must be understood to comprehend what’s happening in the Middle East today. The Safavids were a powerful Iranian dynasty–Shia Muslim of course–that took power in the sixteenth century and extended its power into the Arabic-speaking world to challenge the Sunni rulers there.
So the Saudi line is that this is an attempt by the non-Sunni Shia Muslims–who Saudi Wahhabi Muslims hate–to destroy “proper” Islam. It is not democracy versus the Saudi monarchy, they say, but Shia versus Sunni, Persians versus Arabs.
This is an alternative version of the usual argument that everything is all the fault of Israel, America, and the West. Ahmad–who I greatly respect–like the dissidents in Bahrain (Sunni/Shia solidarity) and Egypt (Muslim/Coptic Christian solidarity) believes that the “people will see through it in few weeks.”
I don’t agree. Appeals to religion and national identity are very powerful in the Middle East. Thousands of people have died in Iraq as a result, though the problem is mitigated there by the fact that Kurdish identity and the fact that everyone is a Sunni trumps Islam in the north, while in the rest of the country people have an Arab identity in common to balance somewhat Sunni-Shia rivalries.
A specific problem in Saudi Arabia is the fact that the Shia Muslims, who mostly live in the Eastern Province where much of the oil is located and are about 10 percent of the population, are particularly discontented. They are be unhappy with the existing regime. This doesn’t mean that anti-government protests are a “Shia” thing. But the government can succeed in making them seem that way to most Saudis.
In Bahrain, the other Gulf monarchies including Saudi Arabia, have sent forces to help their fellow Sunni government survive there. The regimes, then, are not helpless. Indeed, they weren’t helpless in Tunisia and Egypt. What happened was that a large part of the regime backed the toppling of the individual who was dictator there.
Leaving aside Libya (an exception generally), where the outcome is not yet decided, and Yemen, where everyone always seems to be fighting everyone else, this is not going to happen elsewhere.
The radical regimes–Iran, Syria, Gaza (Hamas), and Lebanon (Hizballah)–have three advantages over the relatively moderate regimes. First, they have Islamism on their side and hence don’t worry about a challenge to their Islamic legitimacy. Second, they are the most ruthless. Third, they have client Islamist forces subverting all the other regimes but the West is not engaged in trying to subvert or overthrow them.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The GLORIA Center’s webside is: http://www.gloria-center.org/. His blog is on PajamasMedia: http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/