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Understanding Arab-Islamic Politics: Advocating the Case of the Political Culture Approach (B)

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The deepest crisis of our world today is of leadership. What happened in the first half of the 20th century was a crisis of world democratic legislature, the inability of the parliamentary to act according to its authority and to impose restriction on the executive.

The result was the breakout of the two World Wars. Unfortunately the beginning of the 21st century witnesses the crisis of leadership, the weakness of the executive to follow a bold courageous policy. The immediate result is the power vacuum created that has led to the encroachment of Islam as the main actor of world politics.

Leadership is not ready to admit the problematic nature of its “mirror imaging”, works to avoid cognitive dissonance and at the same time is busy with appeasement. This means that it has closed its mind to any trend or development that is not acceptable to, and refuses to believe that the problems created originate from its own values and policy. From its point of view, even if the existing reality does not portend good tidings, the leaders work by the approach “minor changes to the midway point”.

That is, in the last analysis, the situation is OK, and the problems that have burst into the open are small and soluble. The main thing is to continue with the policy and not to stop. But the critical question that must be asked of citizens who look at a failing policy and at the conduct of their leaders, is: If the state were a business enterprise, whom would you appoint or choose to run it? And what would you do as chairman of the board of directors of the company, when you realize that the management has failed and is covering up? Would you allow it to continue with the disastrous policy? Now, here we are only dealing with a business. What happens when the failure might bring the state to the brink, and even more, endanger the existence of peoples?

Who is the realist leader as against the extremist? Was it Chamberlain, who promised peace, or Churchill, who promised blood and tears? Was it Clinton, who appeased North Korea, or the Prime Minister of Israel, Begin, who bombed the Iraqi atomic reactor? He who sells dictatorship of utopia and peace now, or he who shouts loudly that the enemy is here and we must fight? He who cried out in the 1930s that the Jews must eliminate the Diaspora before the Diaspora eliminates them, or those who did not believe that the holocaust could occur? Was it Huntington, who offered “the clash of civilizations”, or those who accused him of not understanding Islam?

In reaction to these critical remarks, about the “mirror image” that expresses flaws of leadership, the retort came: Don’t the leaders know this? Aren’t they aware of these phenomena? Don’t they have this information? The answer is clear. They know and see everything, and the information at their disposal is good and much more plentiful than would allow them to overlook key features. But they are politicians, and the most outstanding traits of this breed are their evasiveness and refusal to admit failure. Have you ever seen a gambler losing almost everything get up from the table? No. He will risk what is left, out of the hope that he will regain what he has lost. This picture very much fits political leadership. Politicians’ egoism, their conceptual misdoings, their distorted perceptions are deep and complex. They will not admit failure, and they will certainly not retreat from the line of policy that they have shaped.

As for Islam, Winston Churchill wrote in his two-volume work, The (Nile) River War: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries… The fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog… Insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live… Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities…but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.” Churchill concluded: “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith… the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

In 1938, Hilaire Belloc, the President of the Oxford Union and a member of the British Parliament, wrote in The Great Heresies (1938): “Mohammedism was a perversion of Christian doctrine… The success of Mohammedanism…was an extreme simplicity which pleased the unintelligent masses… Will not perhaps the temporal power of Islam return and with it the menace of an armed Mohammedan world which will shake off the domination of Europeans – still nominally Christian – and reappear again as the prime enemy of our civilization?…

The future always comes as a surprise but political wisdom consists in attempting at least some partial judgment of what that surprise may be. And for my part I cannot but believe that a main unexpected thing of the future is the return of Islam… anyone with a knowledge of history is bound to ask himself whether we shall not see in the future a revival of Mohammedan political power, and the renewal of the old pressure of Islam upon Christendom… yet over and over again they have suddenly united under a leader and accomplished the greatest things…”

Belloc concluded: “…Now it is probable enough that on these lines – unity under a leader – the return of Islam may arrive. There is no leader as yet, but enthusiasm might bring one and there are signs enough in the political heavens today of what we may have to expect from the revolt of Islam at some future date perhaps not far distant.”

The First Cultural Flaw in Thinking: The Arab Personality

Arab society is mainly tribal-nomadic, with its outstanding trait being clan loyalty and the anarchy of the desert. Most of its values were shaped in the Jahiliyah. , The important values in Arab conceptions and behavior reflect the pre-Islamic ideals. In the Jahiliyah age, it is stated that “The Arabs did not know Allah and his Messenger and the rules of the religion.”

Therefore, it is defined as “the period of ignorance”. However, since the researcher Goldziher, it has been agreed that the Jahiliyah was a period of wildness, savagery, tribal jealousy and idol worship. The tribe made up the exclusive social-cultural unit. It was in constant conflict with other tribes over sources of subsistence. The political struggle principally embodied the scarcity of resources against the many demands to obtain them. This was a society of, “His hand shall be against all men,” as God said of Ishmael.

The two most important activities of the Arab tribes were constant fights and quarrels on other tribes, embodied by raids (Ghazawat) with the aim of taking booty (Ghanaem), the utmost: kidnapping women and boys and girls. The reason was power politics. Women represent a producing babies machinery and boys as fighters. The bigger the tribe was from fighters on the battleground perspective, the stronger, victorious, and respected it became.

Under Islam, Muhammad took this situation and funneled it into a total warfare against the infidels. From now on Muslims love and cherish other Muslims while they hate and fight the infidels. This has become a religious commandment called al-Wala’ wal-Bara’. Therefore, the social-political tribal syndrome of raids-booty has become a religious fighting-call to battle the infidels wherever and whenever they are. These traits had also been showed in the scourge of Islamic slavery of more than two hundreds of millions of black and white slaves from Africa, Asia and East Europe. It was also shown by the Devshirme system employed by the Ottoman Empire, of kidnapping young boys and girls, converting them to Islam and using them as soldiers, administrators and concubines.  

The extended family-clan-tribe syndrome was as follows: the head of the tribe was the Sayid, who was elected from among by the small group of the elders, and was only first among equals in status. This reality runs all Islamic history and contemporary: the leaders are from among the military or from the respected tribes serving as Sultans or kings. The Muslim peoples have never chosen or elected their own leaders, and were never part of the decision-making processes. They have not shaped or influenced the decision-making process as tribes, before Islam, as subjects of an Islamic empire, and as a contemporary inhabitants of the state political system. One cannot find citizenship, and sovereign electing people in Arab-Islamic political system.

Among the tribes was the Haram area, a place of agreed upon neutral holiness. It was a place for clarifications and intertribal agreements. From this, the Arabs accumulated immense experience in conducting negotiations. Thus, structures developed for obtaining mediation and compromise that were institutionalized. These were called “mechanisms of Wustah or Wasat.”

Despite their desert character, the city was the Arabs’ focus of change and political activity. Mecca was a center of trade and pilgrimage, since it was on the caravan routes. This is the Islamic strategy today in the Free World territories: occupation comes from the cities, and the main activity to achieve this goal has been in the city.

Religion had secondary importance in Jahili society. Religious customs were observed out of tradition and feelings of respect for forefathers, but religion was fetishist, and values were fatalistic, out of absolute faith in the decrees of fate. Secular values took a central place, and were expressed in the concept of manliness (Muruwwah), which meant the whole set of traits of the perfect Bedouin. The most important framework was preserving tribal solidarity (‘Asabiyyah). The tribe was the foundation for personal and group existence.

The critical phenomenon in its importance to Arab-Islamic society is honor. A man’s honor is Sharaf. It is flexible, dynamic, and subject to change in accord with his deeds. A woman’s honor is ‘Ird (also meaning her pelvis). In contrast to a man’s honor, it is firm and permanent. The woman grows up with her honor, and her most important role is to preserve it. The moment that a woman’s honor is lost, it cannot be restored, and a man’s honor is severely wounded. Indeed, Muslim society is based on the virginity of its daughters. Honor is the most important supreme value in Arab life, more important than life itself. A man without honor is considered dead. Hence the saying, “It is better to die with honor than live with humiliation.”

A man’s place in the tribe, as well as the tribe’s place among the tribes, was according to the measure of his and its honor. When honor was harmed, shame was caused which originated in public exposure, overt to everyone, a phenomenon which severely humiliated a man. Indeed, the Arab individual is caught up throughout his whole life in intensive activity to avoid shame and advance his honor. The central means for this was vengeance. Honor is restored only when vengeance has been carried out in public and is known to all.

This syndrome: honor-shame-vengeance is of highest importance in Arab-Islamic life, and is the focus of all other cultural traits analyzed herewith. Everything stems from this syndrome and everything is influenced from it. Publicity is the measurement, the variable that determines the action.

Tribal tradition and clan loyalty had dominant influence in society. Likewise significant were blood ties within the extended family and the clan, which determined group loyalties and identifications. Most of these social traits exist to this day, and influence the functioning of Arab society as a primordial system in which symbolic values are more important and esteemed than concrete values and the overall, holistic system of beliefs. This is “a shame society”, in which everyone must behave according to the accepted norms and internalize his own feelings in the system of group behavior.

A significant phenomenon that typifies the Arab is a basic lack of trust, indeed, suspicion, and hostility toward the “other”, even if he is a neighbor and member of the same clan. This is a central phenomenon in social life, which goes to an extreme of course when non-Muslim foreigners are involved. All the mechanisms of receptions and the intensive activity of welcoming and hospitality are meant to create a defensive barrier, to soften the threatening interpersonal encounter. For this purpose, the political system has proven itself so very flexible and deeply adaptable. Life in such a hostile environment, and with resources so hard to get, has created a society of adaptability that comes to terms with reality. Political conformism is required as well as acceptance of rules of behavior, which define the society’s goals in religious terms.

This reality expressed too the collective’s superiority over the individual. In contrast to modern societies which promote the individual’s interests, and in which the ethos is what the individual takes and receives from the generality, in Arab society, the ethos is what the individual does for the collective. There is a communal consensus in contrast to an individual’s opinion. Islam does not encourage individualism, rather favoring organized, orderly authority. The individual does not exist by his own right, and he and his opinions are unimportant, except through his belonging to a group framework.

This is based on the Hadith attributed to Muhammad: “The opinion of the many [clan, tribe, religious community] cannot be mistaken.” There is nothing more contemptible than individualism, which is viewed as factionalism and as harming the achievement of goals. This is also the basis for the attitude towards political opposition, which is not accepted in principle. Therefore, one may analyze the Arab personality as moving along a continuum in accordance with the following criteria:

a) The syndrome of honor–shame–vengeance. When shame (‘Eb) has taken place, Arab personality urge him to act with unrestrained cruelty and violence in the pursuit of vengeance (Intiqam, Thar). Indeed, the means for preserving honor and even reinforcing it is revenge. In the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab-Muslim perspective is clear: Israel is guilty and deserves to suffer vengeance due to its very existence as a Jewish state, when there is no Jewish people; due to its location as a state in the heart of the Arab world, when it divides the Arabs, preventing them from reaching their goals; and due to its activity as a violent state, expanding to obtain additional Arab territories.

Can a solution be reached in these circumstances? The answer touches more on the balance of forces and Israel’s effective deterrence than on issues of honor, since in the last analysis, national interests are what decide. Nevertheless, the issue weighs heavily on attaining legitimacy and assent (if only resigned and reluctant) for Israel’s existence.

b) Internalized personality in contrast to externalized personality: Jews and Christians internalize the guilt. The Jews extend one cheek in the sense of, “We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have committed crimes,” while Christians extend the second cheek, in the sense of “mea culpa.” In contrast, the Arabs externalize guilt: “Do I have a problem? – You are guilty!” Among them, there is no attempt to compromise. They have no tolerance for the justice and rights of the other. From their vantage point, justice and rights are totally on their side. Among Arabs and Muslims, one will not find the phenomenon so typical of Judeo- Christian culture: doubts, a sense of guilt, the self-tormenting approach, “Maybe we were not entirely OK,” or “Maybe we need to act or react differently.”

These phenomena are totally unknown in Arab-Islamic society towards outsiders. They have no doubts about their positions or the justice of their side. They have no sense of guilt that they may have erred. They have no twinges of conscience nor any regret that they may have done wrong to anyone else. From their viewpoint, they have no problem concerning the infidels. The phenomenon of the homicide bombers, mistakenly called suicide bombers, is an indication. There is no condemnation, no regret, no problem of conscience among Arabs and Muslims, anywhere, in any social stratum, of any social position. For the most part, there is total support without reservations. And if there are doubts, they have to do with the effectiveness of the phenomenon, not with condemnation of it.

c) Factionalism vs. Unity. The Arab personality oscillates in the space between the anarchic Arab character, separatist and violent, and the need to act jointly to achieve goals. This is the syndrome of polar reversals between factionalism and unity, between competitiveness and cooperation, between the aspiration for tribal freedom, the free spirit of the desert, and accepting authority and submitting to government. This is the syndrome between the stormy, violent personality, and the demands of society and the environment for conformity and submission. This is the syndrome between clan loyalty and tribal separatism, on one hand, and accepting tyrannical, authoritarian rule submissively, without challenge, on the other.

In this anarchic and violent society, the fear of social breakdown and disorientation is paramount, and dictates passive patterns of behavior. Above all, the most important continuum for understanding the Arab personality is that between submission to and fawning over those with perceived power, at one end, and cruel, violent, anarchic, unrestrained wildness, at the other.

Hostility and suspicion are dominant characteristics in the Arab personality. This is expressed by the saying: I and my brothers against my cousins’ sons; I and my cousins’ sons against the neighbor; I and the neighbors against the other. On one hand, flattering welcomes and gestures of politeness, but at one and the same time, continuing suspicion of the other and his intentions. The custom of hospitality, which is so famous an Arab social phenomenon, can be seen in the context of obtaining honor and externalizing it towards the environment. The mechanisms of reception and the polite welcomes in Arab society are meant to soften the interpersonal encounter which is so oppressive and threatening, to create a defense barrier.

d) The Collective Culture of Stubborn Social Limits. Characterizing Arab personality are various taboos and prohibitions of social and class hierarchy, in a constant attempt to be “OK” and to protect the accepted rules, to avoid failure in a matter that is likely to embarrass or to shame your rival in public. This refers to a puritanical society of firm prohibitions, which is based on its daughters’ virginity. This is a culture of hierarchy and discipline, of stiff homogeneity, contrasting with the pluralism and competition which indicate flexible heterogeneity in Western culture.

This is a culture wherein rumors are an integral part of social activity, and they quickly become absolute truth which cannot be challenged. It has to do with exaggerations, flights of fancy, and especially, in a society that believes in conspiracies, a society wherein every date is important, that remembers everything and forgives nothing. This is a society wherein the lie is an essential component of behavior patterns, and lying is endorsed by religious sages.

The famous Muslim theologian, al-Ghazzali, claimed that the lie is not wrong in itself. If the lie is the way to achieve good results for Islam, then it is permissible. It is necessary to lie when the truth might lead to unpleasant or undesired results. This is a society in which looking someone straight in the eye is forbidden, since it constitutes a challenge. There is also the prohibition to use the left hand, “the dirty hand”. Body language, like the manner of walking and the way of sitting, is very prominent. Indeed, the Arab personality is very diffuse from the structural and stratification standpoint.

e) The language as a cultural phenomenon, which makes it possible to understand the social environment and communicate with it. Language is critical in importance in Arab culture. The Arabs are motivated by admiration for the Arabic language and wide use of witticisms, sayings, fables, and allegories, as a filter of high importance for preventing shame, and consequently, for evading frictions and conflict. These bring the Arab personality to pathos and bellicose rhetoric, and from here to exaggerating reality, to overemphasis, to overstatement.

In all forms of interpersonal communications there are several phenomena: exaggeration in describing events (Mubalaghah); personal boasting of one’s deeds (Mufakharah); and repeated stressing of words (Tawqid). The role of the word in the Arab world (the word is a decoration) is totally different from that in the West (the word is a commitment). For the Syrian poet, Qabbani, the Arabs have been subject to 1,500 years of imperialist occupation by poetry.

What happens in the cultural encounter between the overstatement approach of Arab culture and the understatement approach of Western culture? Indeed, the influence of the Arab language on the behavior of the Arab personality is astonishing. Not only are they convinced that it is the most beautiful of all languages, but also that it proves their superiority and the superiority of Arab culture.

The Arab linguist al-Tha`alibi stated: “Whoever loves the Prophet, loves the Arabs. And whoever loves the Arabs, loves the Arabic language. The Prophet Muhammad is the most excellent of all prophets; the Arabs are the best, most admirable people of the world; and the Arabic language is the most excellent of all tongues.

f) The Phenomenon of Time. This too is a cultural matter totally different from its counterpart in Western culture. Western culture sanctifies the “here and now”. It wants “to make time”, to achieve everything now, to arrive much more quickly anywhere. In contrast, in Arab culture, there is time in abundance. It can be wasted indefinitely. After all, it is not necessary to do everything here and now. This is the reason for the totally different approach to negotiations among the Arabs, for the lack of speed in agreeing to accords, and for the tendency to postpone till tomorrow dealing with complex problems. In Western culture, everything is viewed as a “window of opportunity”, in an admired and attractive expression. Meanwhile, in Arab culture, the belief is that one should not hurry, since haste is the work of Satan (al-‘Ajalah Min al-Shaitan).

An apt summary of the matter was written by the famous Egyptian journalist, Muhammad Hassanayn Haykal, former editor of the daily, al-Ahram:

Arab logic tends to retreat in the direction of the instinct. Our thoughts are dust while our emotions are fire. We were and still are tribes, raging at one moment and quiescent at another. We hold our weapons in front of one another, and later we clasp each other’s hand and embrace as if nothing had happened.

The late Fuad Ajami proves that the kind of Western modernity that the Arabs imported gave birth to a monstrous, arid world, a false image of modernity, since they have no spirit of curiosity, nor hunger to know by totally changing values, nor openness to absorb and process other matters.

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Elections in Syria: Forgetting Old Resentments?

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In the presidential elections on May 26, Bashar al-Assad won more than 95% of the votes. According to the current constitution, this term will be the last for the president. But in the next seven years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the constitution may change, and it is far from certain that this will happen as a result of the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, with UN mediation. The victory of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was accompanied by congratulations from allies and a lack of recognition of the election results by Western countries. In any event, what is the attitude towards this war-torn country and its ruling elites in the Arab world? Will Bashar al-Assad be able to rebuild the country and deliver it from chaos?

Forgetting old resentments. From balance of power to balance of interests

Through regional recognition lies the path to global recognition. It is necessary in some form for the reconstruction of Syria, the cost of which is estimated at more than $250 billion. Syria’s allies do not have such funds, and the West links the provision of funds for the country’s reconstruction with conditions for a political settlement of the conflict, which the current authorities will not agree to. In the absence of economic reconstruction, however, there is a threat of the re-activation of the defeated terrorists. In this context, the role of the rich oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf—the most promising source of money—becomes especially significant.

Syria is traditionally called the “heart” of the Arab world. This, nevertheless, did not prevent other Arab countries from responding to the unfolding violence in Syria by freezing its membership in an important regional structure, the Arab League, in 2011. Speaking about the return of Syria to the Arab League, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Arab diplomacy is very, very famous for its effectiveness, so it seems to me that here we can expect that the issue will be resolved, and, I hope, quite quickly.” However, there are a number of factors that can support this process, and constraints that can hinder it.

The conversation about the return of Syria to the Arab League has been going on for several years—since it became clear that Bashar al-Assad will be able to keep power in his hands. This became obvious to regional and global players with the defeat of terrorists and opposition, with the active support of the Syrian leadership from Iran and Russia. In addition, compared to 2011, the situation has changed in the Arab League itself. In Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world, the secular regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who has roots in the military), is now in power, and not the anti-Assad-minded Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation). A number of Arab League member states like Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon have never been against Syria, and now actively advocate its return to the organisation. The Gulf monarchies have gone through a decade of reassessing challenges and threats.

Conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have led to the strengthening of the regional rivals of the Arab states of the Gulf—Turkey and Iran. The expansion of these major regional powers is forcing the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to seek new approaches. In the context of Syria, this means the Arab rejection of the Turkish occupation of Syrian (and, therefore, Arab) land in northern Syria. At the same time, the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula are thinking about whether it is worth it to push Syria into the hands of Iran, if they can try to return it to the “Arab homeland” and balance the Iranian influence on Damascus. The UAE, Bahrain and Oman have already reopened their embassies in Damascus, but so far Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two key countries that oppose Syria in the Arab League, are in no hurry to do the same. In any event, the Saudis are increasingly inclined towards a partial return of relations. It is clear from some of their actions. For example, we are talking about the restoration of ties between Bahrain and Damascus, since the policy of Bahrain is a litmus test of Riyadh’s aspirations. In early May, there were reports about the visit of the head of the general intelligence service of Saudi Arabia, Khalid bin Ali al-Humaidan, to Damascus. In late May, for the first time in 10 years, a Syrian delegation led by Minister of Tourism Mohammad Rami Martini made an official visit to Riyadh to participate in the work of the World Tourism Organisation Committee for the Middle East.

The results of the presidential elections in Syria once again remind the Arab states that they will have to work with Bashar al-Assad and his government.

Obviously, Damascus is ready to forget old grievances. Among other things, Arab nationalist rhetoric is extremely important for the ruling Baath Party. On the eve of the elections, Assad’s adviser Busseina Shaaban said: “Efforts are being made to improve relations between Damascus and Riyadh, and in the coming days we can witness results in this matter.” If Riyadh changes its position on the return of Syria to the Arab League, there will be only one Arab country opposing this—Qatar. Qatar’s non-Arab ally in the recently weakened regional confrontation is Turkey, which will also hinder this and continues to declare the need of a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. True, this is less and less possible, although the opinion of Turkey, which has more than 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees, is something to be reckoned with.

Veni, vidi, vici?

At the global level, Russia and the United States have different positions. Russia’s foreign policy advocates sovereignty, the return of Syria to the Arab League and its early restoration. But even if Syria returns to the League, it will not solve the economic problems of the country, where corruption is rampant, the currency continues to depreciate, there is barely enough electricity and fuel for the population to survive, and 80% of citizens remain below the poverty line. In addition, the Syrian economy will not receive serious injections, even from the Gulf countries, due to the policies and sanctions of the United States, which remains the hegemon in the region. However, it is precisely the regional recognition of Damascus that is extremely useful and can be considered as a step towards further stabilisation.

Even before the elections in Syria, the Americans, together with Britain, France, Germany and Italy, issued a joint statement about their illegitimacy. The sanctions adopted by the US Congress against Syria under the name “Caesar Act” are “secondary” in nature, which means that any third country doing business with the Syrian government is included in the US sanctions list. Companies from the UAE have already faced this problem, and potentially sanctions deprive Syria of any major projects with the Gulf States in the future. This issue is unsolvable at the regional level. Much depends on how the Americans are committed to the implementation of the sanctions regime.

An excessive US appetite for sanctions may hurt the interests of its regional allies, which will displease the latter (and not always tacitly).

At the moment, however, to quote the journalists of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, we observe “the absence of American leadership”: the United States is not engaged in promoting any active campaign to counter the normalisation of relations between Syria and other members of the international community. The previous pattern with regard to Syria remains—with the illegal presence of the American military in the east of the country, support for Kurdish groups, and the illegal use of Syrian resources.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has not yet formed a new course towards Syria, since this issue is not a priority for it. In these conditions, regional and interested global players have the opportunity to correct their positions, build up links with previously inaccessible actors, and make attempts to go beyond the existing restrictions.

Bashar al-Assad sent a message to the whole world that he is ready for a new stage. The world is no longer what it was a decade ago. At the regional level, the Arabs are thinking about accepting the existing reality, but at the global level, the Syria issue is not a priority. In his victory speech, al-Assad noted that the Syrian people “returned to the true meaning of the revolution” after it was “blotted by mercenaries”. It is obvious that Damascus persistently and patiently stands on its ground. Arabs say that patience is the key to joy. The only question is whose joy it is.

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The syndrome of neglect: After years of hyperactivity, Erdogan is completely isolated

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At the NATO Summit held in Brussels on June 14, strategically important issues were discussed, such as the relations of the Alliance’s Member States with China and their attitude towards President Putin’s Russia. The Member States’ positions on these issues did not appear unambiguous and diplomats had to struggle to find the right wording to draft the final communiqué. What was evident, however, was an only apparently marginal fact: the total “physical” as well as political isolation of Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan.

After being defined by Prime Minister Draghi as a “dictator and autocrat”, the Turkish President also had to endure the harsh reprimands of the US State Department which, at the end of the “eleven-day war” between Israel and Hamas, did not hesitate to condemn – in unusually harsh language – some of his public statements made in the first days of the war when, in order to underline his thoughts towards the Israeli leadership, he called Benjamin Netanyahu “the Jewish Prime Minister”.

The derogatory use of the word “Jewish’ instead of “Israeli” triggered a reaction from President Biden’s Administration. The State Department spokesman, Ned Price, was instructed to express “the strong and unequivocal condemnation of the Turkish President’s anti-Semitic comments’, and called on him to refrain from “incendiary remarks, which could incite further violence … not least because anti-Semitism is reprehensible and should have no place on the world stage”.

After struggling for years to become a true regional power, President Erdogan’s Turkey is now on the sidelines of the political scene and the Turkish leader’s bewildered expression emerging from the photographs of the NATO Summit of June 14 – which show him physically isolated from the other Heads of State and government – appears as an iconic testimony to the irrelevance to which Turkey has been condemned, owing to the adventurism of its President, after a decade of reckless and counterproductive political and military moves.

As early as in the spring of 2010, in view of showing he was at the forefront in supporting the Palestinian cause, President Erdogan authorised the establishment of the “Freedom Flotilla”, a naval convoy capable of challenging – under the Turkish flag – the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

On May 31, 2020, Israeli commandos intercepted the Mavi Marmara ship carrying not only humanitarian aid, but also Hamas militants attempting to enter again the Gaza Strip illegally.

As soon as Israeli soldiers stepped onto the deck of the Turkish ship, they were confronted by Palestinians and crew members armed with axes, knives and iron bars. Ten Palestinians and Turkish sailors died in the ensuing clashes, but the most severe wound was inflicted on Turkish-Israeli relations.

Turkey broke off diplomatic relations with Israel – long-standing relations dating back to 1949 when Turkey was the first, and for many years the only, Muslim country to recognise the State of Israel, thus also interrupting important economic and military relations that represented for the entire Middle East the example of how it was possible to follow paths of integration and pacification between Muslims and Jews.

Since 2011, with the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Springs”, President Erdogan has tried in every way to take a leading role in a flow of events which – rather than exporting liberal democracies in the region – aimed to underline and validate the victory of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and of the most backward and fundamentalist Islam.

While thinking he could easily solve his competition with Assad’ Syria and at the same time dismiss the problem of Turkish and Syrian Kurdish irredentism, President Erdogan intervened heavily in the Syrian civil war by providing military aid and logistical support not only to the militias of the “Syria Liberation Army”, but also to the Salafist formations of Jabhat Al Nusra and even ISIS.

We all know what has happened: after a decade of civil war, Syria is in ruins but Bashar al-Assad is still in power; the rebels are now closed in small pockets of resistance and Russia, which intervened siding with Damascus, thus overturning the outcome of the conflict, is firmly established in the country while Turkey is not only excluded from the promising business of Syria’s reconstruction, but finds itself managing a massive refugee emergency.

In President Erdogan’ sometimes ill-considered quest to make his country take on the role of the leading regional power, his activism led him to intervene in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis in support of the Azerbaijani Turkmen against the Christian Armenians, with the result that, after the last crisis in the autumn of 2020, Turkey had to step aside to leave Russia the role of interposition and peacekeeping force.

In Libya, too – after sending arms and mercenaries to support al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) – after its resignation last January, the Turkish role became less influential than the Turkish leader’s aspirations.

In 2017, in a vain attempt to send a signal to NATO and US allies, President Erdogan bought S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia, worth 2.5 million dollars.

The move did not please the then US President, Donald Trump, who immediately imposed economic and military sanctions on Turkey, thus contributing to the decline of its economy and to its progressive international isolation.

It has recently been reported that, in an attempt to bring Turkey closer to the new Biden Administration, President Erdogan has decided to send back home the Russian technicians who were in charge of S-400 maintenance at the Incirlick base – which is also a NATO base – with the result of infuriating Vladimir Putin who obviously does not like the idea of seeing highly sophisticated equipment in the hands of the Americans.

The end result of all these unhinged moves is that the US sanctions remain in place while the Russians can only regret having trusted an unreliable leader.

On the domestic front, too, despite the repression that followed the failed coup d’état of 2016, things are not going well.

The deep economic crisis, resulting from excessive military spending, poor administrative capacity and rampant corruption, as well as the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, makes the situation even more difficult for the Turkish President and his party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), which have ruled the country continuously since 2002.

The recent local elections, in which the AKP was defeated, and the election polls indicate that, despite the tactical alliance between President Erdogan’s party and the ultra-nationalist National Movement, a success for the President and his party in the 2023 general and Presidential elections seems far from certain.

What makes President Erdogan’s sleep even more restless is certainly the ‘Peker scandal’ that has been hitting the headlines of all Turkish newspapers and social media over the last few days.

Sedat Peker, a businessman formerly affiliated with the extreme right-wing organisation of the “Grey Wolves” (the same one to which Ali Agca, known for the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, belonged) has long been a supporter of Tayyp Recep Erdogan and is known to have been one of the main suppliers of weapons to jihadist groups involved in the Syrian civil war.

Last April, after being accused of corruption and criminal conspiracy, he went into self-exile, first in Montenegro and then in the United Arab Emirates, from where he has been conducting a relentless campaign against President Erdogan and his party on charges of corruption and other crimes and offences.

Under the interested supervision of Mohamed Dalhan, the former Head of the Palestinian intelligence service in the Gaza strip, exiled to the Emirates after the break with Hamas, Sedat Peker daily floods social media with accusations against the Turkish President’s “magic circle”, starting with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and his ally Mehemet Agar, former Police Chief, who in Peker’s opinion are responsible not only for corruption, but also for extortion, drug trafficking and murder.

Despite government-imposed censorship, these sensational accusations dominate the political debate in Turkey.

Mohammed Dalhan, the Palestinian secret agent, helps Sedat Peker both out of a spirit of revenge against Hamas and, hence, against its Turkish supporter, and because the Abu Dhabi government, for which he now works, has not favourably viewed Turkey’s attempts to sabotage the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and moderate Arab countries and the explicit support offered by President Erdogan to Hamas during the recent “eleven-day war”. Moreover, the latter ended thanks to Egypt’s mediation – a diplomatic success for the moderate Arab front that pushes Turkey and its leader ever further to the sidelines, as they – observant Sunnis – are now forced to move closer to the heretical Shiites of Iran, the only ones who now seem to give credit to President Erdogan, who is now like a bad student relegated to a corner of the classroom, from which he will find it difficult to escape without a clear change of course towards a more moderate approach in domestic policy and a rapprochement to the West in foreign policy.

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Middle East

Iranian Election Portends Increased Human Rights Abuses, Demands Western Response

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When the Iranian regime holds its presidential election this Friday, it is likely to experience the lowest level of voter turnout in its 42-year history. This has been acknowledged by certain Iranian officials and state media outlets. There are a number of reasons for this, which include the lingering effects of three anti-regime uprisings, public resentment over authorities’ crackdowns on those uprisings, a lack of serious competition among the candidates, and the brutal legacy of the clear frontrunner.

All but the last of these factors were already apparent in February of last year, when Iranian regime held elections for various governors and members of parliament. Those elections are the ones to beat if the country is to set a new record for low turnout this week. Moreover, if persistently anti-democratic conditions aren’t enough to yield that outcome on their own, public antipathy toward Ebrahim Raisi might just be the thing that pushes the electoral boycott over the top.

For months now, Raisi has been recognized as a person favored by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the next President. But that preference specifically stems from Raisi’s unwavering loyalty to the supreme leader and his willingness to flout the security and wellbeing of ordinary Iranians in order to safeguard the future of the theocratic dictatorship. In 2019, Raisi was appointed to head the nation’s judiciary, and his penchant for political violence was put to the test by the outbreak of a nationwide uprising in November 2019 – a follow-up to similar protests in January 2018.

The regime’s response to the latter uprising constituted one of the worst singular crackdowns on dissent since the early years of the Iranian regime. As head of the judiciary, Raisi played a leading role in that crackdown, particularly the systematic torture of political prisoners that was detailed in a September 2020 report by Amnesty International. That report was closely accompanied by the emergence of new evidence supporting the tally of protest-related killings provided by the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

The MEK, which has long been recognized as the leading voice for Iranian democracy, quickly determined that security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had killed 1,500 people in mass shooting incidents over just several days coinciding with the November 2019 uprising. Over time, the MEK has also released the names of more than half of the victims, naturally starting with those who were members of the organisation or were otherwise closely connected to it.

Details of the crackdown serve to underscore the notion that it was largely an attack on the MEK, which Khamenei had acknowledged as a driving force behind the initial uprising in early 2018. The supreme leader referenced months of planning by dissidents in order to explain the popular embrace of slogans calling for “death to the dictator” and condemning both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions of mainstream politics inside the regime. This messaging was tantamount to a call for regime change – the expressed platform of the MEK and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

In recent weeks, MEK-affiliated activist collectives known as “Resistance Units” have been using precisely this platform to promote the concept of an all-encompassing electoral boycott. In April alone, those activists erected posters, painted graffiti, and held demonstrations in more than 250 localities across the Islamic Republic, urging citizens to “vote for regime change” by avoiding the polls and denying any semblance of legitimacy to the ruling system. Since then, the call to action has been echoed by various other groups, including pensioners and blue-collar workers whose frustration with the regime has greatly intensified in the midst of an economic crisis exacerbated by self-serving government policies and blatant corruption.

Protests by these and other demographics have lately come to feature slogans like, “We have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore.” The implication is that Iranians from all walks of life are not only rejecting the current election but also the entire underlying system, in favour of a platform akin to that which is being promoted by the MEK and the NCRI. The details of that platform are clarified for an international audience each year at a rally of Iranian expatriates and political supporters which invariably features eager endorsement of the “10-point plan” for a democratic Iranian republic that was authored roughly 15 years ago by NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi.

The plan calls for free and fair elections as well as secular pluralism, and it expresses a commitment to international laws and principles of human rights. By contrast, the existing regime has repeatedly rejected those laws and principles through such recurring actions as its execution of juvenile offenders, its routine usage of torture and forced confessions, and its explicit insistence upon exception from human rights standards that are deemed to conflict with the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Shiite Islam.

Despite all of these, Tehran’s contempt for human rights has arguably never been more blatant than is now, in the run-up to Raisi’s appointment as the regime’s next president. His role in the crackdowns following the November 2019 are certainly one reason for this, but the main source of Raisi’s infamy remains his participation in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Those killings arguably constitute the late 20th century’s single worst crime against humanity, and as one of four figures in Tehran’s “death commission” at the time, Raisi bears as much responsibility as anybody for the roughly 30,000 hangings that were carried out over just several months.

In commenting on the election, the NCRI has made it clear that Raisi was chosen to run a more-or-less uncontested campaign precisely because of this legacy. Specifically, the NCRI argues that Khamenei witnessed the Resistance movement gaining momentum and resolved to consolidate power in the hands of those most comfortable with political violence. But in so doing, the supreme leader gave Iranians even more incentive to protest the political process than they had had in February 2020. Thus, when Raisi takes office, he will immediately be faced with the challenge of compensating for an electoral boycott that effectively deprive the regime of any claim to political legitimacy.

The consequences of that challenge will surely depend, in part, on the role that the international community chooses to take on in the midst of forthcoming conflicts between the Iranian regime and a population that is showing ever-greater support for an organised resistance. If major world powers elect to stand on the sidelines, it could give the Raisi administration license to assume office and then immediately initiate human rights abuses rivaling those of November 2019, or possibly approaching those of summer 1988. However, if those powers recognize this danger and instead elect to intervene on the Iranian people’s behalf, then they may find they have ample opportunities to do so.

Relevant strategies will be presented by NCRI officials and the political supporters, including European and American lawmakers and academics with diverse party affiliations, when they take part in the coalition’s World Summit on a Free Iran between July 10 and 12.

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