Middle East watershed
In the post-US war era in the region, despotic Arab regimes will be ripe to fall, writes Ayman El-Amir*
Of all the challenges the Middle East now faces, the peaceful transition to democratic rule is the most urgent. It is not that it is the best guarantee for national and regional stability, but because tensions are rising among people of the region who are increasingly being squeezed between bitter choices. Autocratic regimes, whether republican or royal, continue to block the evolution to democratic governance, albeit under sham democratic banners and fraudulent elections. The regimes have been adept at perpetuating themselves in power, contriving all means to pass their dominance to their offspring, much to the rising resentment of the people they govern. If a hereditary system is acceptable in tribal communities that traditionally place absolute power in the hands of a king or emir, it is begrudgingly tolerated under the heavy hand of pseudo- democratic regimes that govern by emergency laws and the torture chamber. They claim a false legitimacy that was never mandated to them by free and fair elections and mislead their people and the outside world by contrived words and gestures.
The need for democratic change is universal in all Arab countries, particularly those that are not oil-rich. Decades of the monopoly of power by ruthless dictators have landed sizable segments of the population in extreme poverty, with poor education systems, high rates of unemployment, negligible healthcare services, rampant corruption, unaffordable housing, crumbling public services, sectarian discrimination and economic policies that favour the rich at the expense of the poor. In one not far-fetched example, the tribal monopoly of power, sectarian preference and poor policies have led to civil war in Yemen. In other cases, both republican and royal regimes have created their own version of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, where regime opponents are incarcerated without charge or trial. Human rights violations are a state policy and, with few exceptions, rigged elections assure sitting tyrants of loyal legislators that give them fabricated legitimacy. Constitutional amendments guarantee them endless terms of office and their paramilitary state security forces are permanently deployed to crush any undesired protest.
What all these regimes have in common is a subservient alliance with the United States. However, the repressive political contract they force on their peoples is a major factor in the escalating problem of terrorism -- a source of considerable concern for Western and other countries in the world. When the Bush administration developed the concept of the relationship between terrorism and autocracy and introduced its Middle East Partnership Initiative to promote democratic rule as an antidote to terrorism, candidate Arab regimes cringed. They rushed their surrogates to devise insidious programmes and convene conferences on "Reform from within" to ward off any serious democratic change backed by the US. The Bush initiative was undermined by the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, which was vehemently opposed by Arab people at all levels, except perhaps the ruling elite. They also made the Bush administration an offer it could not refuse -- staging grounds as well as air, land and sea passage for resupplying and upgrading the invasion force, particularly in Iraq. They also wholeheartedly embraced the global fight against terrorism to gain US approval and to benefit from the exchange of intelligence that could help them suppress opposition elements at home that would pose a threat to their regimes. Some of them that were notorious for their torture methods willingly accepted candidates who were captured by the US in Afghanistan and elsewhere and subjected them to their master techniques of torture to force confessions from them, which would be illegal under US laws. For the Bush administration these and other services were more valuable than to force democratic reforms down the throat of reluctant Arab regimes. It abandoned the initiative long before the Obama administration took office and turned its back on everything that smacks of Bushism.
While autocratic regimes are frozen in time and place, the Middle East scene is fast changing in immeasurable ways. The US combat troop draw down in Iraq is due to be completed by the end of the month as scheduled. Despite strong US urgings and high-level visits, the sectarian divisions created by the 2003 invasion are persistent in forestalling the formation of a government. Car bomb explosions and improvised explosive devices are destabilising security in a country that has been ripped apart by more than seven years of occupation and violence. Collaboration of Arab regimes in besieging and isolating Iran in the interest of the US and Israel has not been rewarded with any effective US mediation effort in the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The Obama administration has failed to curb Israeli expansion of settlement activities or to offer conditions for meaningful negotiations.
In Afghanistan, US-led coalition forces seem to be faring no better than the Soviet Army three decades ago. The number of casualties is rising, the cost of the war is staggering, Afghan victims of aerial bombing is fuelling anti-US sentiment, differences with the Karzai government are widening, Taliban fighters are showing more resilience and improved weapon capability and the US and most other ISAF participants have set deadlines for withdrawal. The Vietnam War scenario of 40 years ago is being replayed in Afghanistan: declare victory and scamper off to safety, leaving behind a tattered country and aggrieved people. Two costly US military misadventures in a decade are leaving the Middle East scene worse off than it was. And the war against terrorism is outliving the patience and best efforts of all involved.
When the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan is concluded and withdrawal is complete it will be evident to all -- particularly anti-Western forces -- that America has failed again. That does not augur well for loyal US allies in the region. For one thing, it will not be the first time the US has abandoned a spent ally. It did so with Hungarian pro-democracy demonstrators when they started their rebellion in 1956. Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, crushed the movement and executed its leader, Imre Nadj. The administration of then President Dwight Eisenhower decided it did not want another confrontation with its Cold War rival, the former Soviet Union. The US equally failed the Shia in southern Iraq after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was reversed in 1991. They were encouraged to rebel on the promise of US support and intervention but were eventually left to the mercy of Saddam Hussein. When US military intervention is perceived as having been defeated, the Middle East will be a scene of protracted chaos.
Volunteer guerrilla fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan will come home to roost. Other comrades-in-arms from Iraq and Afghanistan will join in. Al-Qaeda will redeploy its franchises and activate its sleeping cells in the Arab world and elsewhere. Domestic opposition forces will be emboldened and radical forces, aided by Iran, will see a chance to confront their old tormentors. With all their sham laws and legitimacy, and the US- trained and supplied security forces, everlasting dictators will have a hard time holding on to power or passing it on to their heirs. True, the US will not risk losing the oil bonanza resources it guards with a string of military bases, particularly in the Gulf region. However, by time it will become clear it cannot have its cake and eat it too -- securing its oil and strategic interests and protecting the loyal dictators that hitherto served its interests in war and peace. It will have to jettison them.
The festering Israeli-Palestinian problem will continue to destabilise the region. Since his speech at Cairo University in June 2009, President Barack Obama has failed his role as an honest broker, which Arab rulers and people had expected him to play. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has outmanoeuvred everyone, maintaining the pretext of wanting peace while at the same time accelerating the settlement of Palestinian land and property in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Arab leaders respond with what they do best: convening endless meetings, summit conferences and futile consultations. In the post-US war era, radical elements will gain the upper hand, both in addressing domestic problems and the Palestinian issue. The implications for sitting Arab regimes will be deep and far reaching. And this will probably be the only way the proverbial Arab camel will be pushed through the needle's eye.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington DC.