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The Middle East: History threatens to repeat itself

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If the notion that history repeats itself is accurate, it is nowhere truer than in the Middle East where the international community, caught by surprise by the 2011 popular Arab revolts, has reverted to opting for political stability as opposed to sustainability, ignoring the undercurrents of change wracking the Middle East. Major powers do so at their peril.

The failure of the United States, Europe, China and Russia to recognize key drivers of fundamental societal change and revisit the underpinnings of their policies towards the Middle East and beyond threatens to nullify professed aims of wanting to end bloodshed, curb extremism, stabilize the region and protect their interests.

In a just published study, Jose Antonio Sabadell, a former Spanish and European Union diplomat, argues that the narrow focus of the West, and by extension of China and Russia, on countering extremism, stemming the flood of refugees, and securing economic interests, blinds major powers from recognizing tectonic social and political shifts that are likely to reshape a region embroiled in volatile, often violent transition.

Without saying so explicitly, Mr. Sabadell harks back more than a decade to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when Western leaders, including then US President George. W. Bush recognized that Western support for Middle Eastern autocracy that failed to address widespread popular grievances and perceptions of Western policy had created the feeding ground for jihadist groups focused on striking at Western targets.

That recognition produced an expectation that the Arab street would assert itself, neutralize breeding grounds of extremism, and counter radicalism by pushing for political and economic change.

When the Arab street did not immediately revolt, government officials, analysts and journalists wrote it off. The widespread discontent continued to simmer at the surface. It was palpable if one put one’s ear to the ground and finally exploded a decade later in 2011.

That pattern hasn’t changed despite a brutal counterrevolution that reversed the achievements of the revolt in Egypt and produced civil and covert wars and/or overt military interventions in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Just how little has changed is evident in the continued validity of Egyptian-born political scientist Nazih Ayubi’s assertion 22 years ago that the Arab world is populated by hard rather than strong states whose power is rooted in bureaucracies, militaries and security forces.

Mr. Ayubi noted that these states were “lamentably feeble when it comes to collecting taxes, winning wars or forging a really ‘hegemonic’ power bloc or an ideology that can carry the state beyond the coercive and ‘corporate’ level and into the moral and intellectual sphere.”

Recent protests, often innovative in their manifestations, in Morocco, Egypt and Iran prove the point.

“The Arab world is in the middle of a process of deep social and political change… The emergence of Arab peoples as key political actors, in combination with widespread, profound and mounting popular frustration, is a game changer. What Arab populations think and crucially how they feel, will determine the future evolution of their countries,” Mr. Sabadell predicted.

Historical record backs up his assertion that fundamental change is a process rather than an event. The era of the 2011 revolts and their counterrevolutionary aftermath may be reminiscent of the 1789 French revolutionary wave that was countered by powerful conservative forces that ultimately failed to avert the 1848 revolution.

A renewed failure to recognize the social psychological, emotional, social, economic and political underpinnings of simmering discontent suggests that the international community’s focus on migration and extremism could boomerang by further antagonizing significant sectors of societies in a swath of land that stretches from Africa to China.

It is likely to impact stability in a region that borders on Europe, constitutes Russia’s backyard and soft underbelly and stretches into China’s strategic north-western province of Xinjiang. It also risks fuelling rather than countering extremism that feeds on its understanding and exploitation of the emotions, social psychology and identity politics of deep-seated grievances.

“We are at a crossroads… Vital interests are at stake…. These developments will define…interaction with 400 million people living in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, and shape relations with the wider Middle East and North Africa region… This can have profound geopolitical implications, influence the global scenario for the foreseeable future and maybe change the nature of international politics,” Mr. Sabadell said.

Demonization of Islam in the West and major Asian nations as well as political Islam that is encouraged by autocrats in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite the fact that religion is often the only permissible language in public discourse, and Islamophobia, magnify the risk and exacerbate the problem.

The centrality of Islam in Middle Eastern identity coupled with widespread anti-Western sentiment that is reinforced by the Trump administration’s immigration policy and anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe strengthens a belief that the West, and eventually China with its repressive policy in Xinjiang, is hostile to Islam. It’s a belief that hands opportunity to extremists on a silver platter.

It is also a belief that intrinsically links social and economic grievances with perceived threats to collective national, regional and religious identities, a pillar of populism on both sides of the Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean in what Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra dubbed “the flourishing international economy of disaffection.”

The key popular demand for dignity that characterized the 2011 revolts as well subsequent protests related as much to calls for clean, non-corrupt governance and efficient delivery of public goods and services as it did for acknowledgement of a proper place for Arab and Muslim states in the international system.

A key issue that world powers turn a blind eye to is the fact that even if religion constitutes the bedrock of autocratic legitimacy and frames public discourse, religiosity is in flux with youth increasingly embracing the notion that faith is a private affair rather than a ritualistic adherence to laws and a set of ironclad beliefs.

Closely related is the failure to realize that the gap between the Middle East and the West and potentially with China and Russia is not one that is rooted in values but in policies.

As a result, anti-immigrant sentiment coupled with Islamophobia, reducing the Middle East to concerns of migration and extremism, support for autocratic regimes, indifference towards the worsening plights of huge population groups, and the lack of even-handed policies towards key conflicts like Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute threatens to turn the fictional value gap into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is a prophecy that is exploited by extremists who unlike world powers understand the power of and beneficial focus on emotions.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is underwritten by decades of failed policy in which military interventions, debilitating attempts at regime change, misconceived notions of nation building and misconstrued calls for reform of Islam have fuelled mayhem and crisis.

“What the Arab world may need is not a religious leader but rather a social leader; not someone who wants to reform religion, but who wants to reform society…one who uses the popular legitimacy and the authority of religion to promote social and political change. Islam may need a Martin Luther King Jr. more than a Martin Luther,” Mr. Sabadell said.

Stopping failed policies from cementing false perceptions in a self-fulfilling prophecy will take more than counter narratives, political messaging and promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam. It will require fundamentally revisiting the notion that support for self-serving autocrats whose policies contribute to the threat of the prophecy is part of the solution.

The crisis in the Middle East offers the West a historic opportunity in the far larger struggle with China and Russia for a future international order. It is where the West has a strategic advantage that it can exploit if it is capable of dropping its horse claps that allow it to see primarily only the threats of migration and extremism.

Said Mr. Sabadell: “The way the West handles its relations with the region can and should make a significant difference. What it does and says will be the key; what it does not do and does not say will be equally important. How it acts, or not, and speaks up or remains silent will define its position and determine its effectiveness.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Iraq and the ‘Blind Gordian Knot’

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After its occupation by the United States in 2003, Iraq fell into the double trap of the United States and Iran and became an insoluble problem. Similar to the legendary ‘Gordian’ knot, which Gordias, the king of Phrygia, tied so tightly that it was said that no one could untie it; Until ‘Alexander the Great’ came and cut it in half with one stroke of the sword and the knot was opened.

The trap that America set for Iraq was the constitution that it drafted for this country after the occupation. In this constitution, America removed Iraq’s Arab identity and imposed a two-thirds majority to elect the president, paving the way for the use of a ‘suspended one-third’.

At the same time, he set the conditions for amending this article and all the articles of the first chapter of the constitution so difficult that it was practically impossible to amend it. This constitution divided the power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, as a result of which, the Iraqi society was subject to chaos and fragmentation, and the army that was created based on it collapsed in front of ISIS in Mosul. Now let’s skip the destructive role that Nouri al-Maliki had as the prime minister in this story.

But the trap that the Islamic Republic of Iran set for Iraq was that it formed armed groups affiliated with the Quds Force and gave them legitimacy under the umbrella of ‘The Popular Mobilization Forces, which resulted in the monopoly of power in the hands of the Shiites.

So far, all efforts to free Iraq from this double trap have failed. The popular revolution of 2019 in Baghdad, Karbala, and other southern cities did not reach anywhere with its anti-Iranian slogans, nor did the government of Mustafa al-Kazemi solve the problem with its patriotic government project, nor did the recent efforts of the Sadr movement under the leadership of prominent cleric Moqtada Sadr bear fruit.

The Sadr movement, which won the majority in the elections, tried to form a national majority government in an agreement with the coalition of the Sunni ruling party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the coordination framework was dependent on Iran, using the one-third weapon, defeated the efforts of the Sadr movement.

In Iraq, there is no ‘Alexander the Great’ who will rise up and open the blind Gordian knot with one stroke of the sword and save Iraq from the crisis. No random event occurs. Now, the land between the two rivers is caught in deep-rooted and growing corruption and has lost its way among various Arab, Iranian, Eastern, and Western trends. Even Moqtada’s plan for the formation of a national government, which was put forward recently with the slogan ‘Neither East, nor West”, is also facing many difficulties and obstacles.

Of course, expecting the formation of a democratic system with the management of armed sectarian parties that advance politics based on religious fatwas and the force of destructive war missiles and drones is a futile thing, and talking about a national government in which power is in the hands of religious parties affiliated with the neighboring religious government is gossip and superstition.

Apart from that, according to the current laws of Iraq, the main power is in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, and the powers of the President are limited and few, as a result, Shiite parties and organizations, especially their larger organizations, get more privileges, and the main power is exclusive to the Shiite community.

In addition, the organization that will be called the largest and the majority based on the political Ijtihad of the Supreme Court of Iraq will actually be the same organization that the Islamic Republic of Iran creates within the Iraqi parliament, not the organization that will receive the most votes in the elections. As we saw in the last parliamentary elections, the Sadr movement won the majority of votes and tried to form a majority government in an agreement with the Sunni ruling coalition and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the groups affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran stood against it under the name of the coordination framework. And they made his efforts fruitless.

It is for this reason that it has been almost a year since the Iraqi parliamentary elections were held, but the parliament has so far been unable to form a government and elect a new president.

Of course, this is the nature of totalitarian systems. Although the Iraqi system is a democratic system according to the constitution, in reality, the ruling system in Iraq is a totalitarian system. Just like the ruling systems in the Soviet Union and China, where power rotates among the leaders of the Communist Party; Both the rulers were members of the Communist Party, and the political opponents were imprisoned or executed. Because in Iraq, all the pillars of political power are in the hands of the Shiites; Both the factions that are actually in power are the Shiites, and the factions that lead political struggles and protests as opponents are Shia parties. Even the revolution of 2019 was actually a revolution of the new generation of Shiites who had risen against the influence of Iran and America and their supporters.

The fact is that with this situation, Iraq will never be able to free itself from the American-Iranian double trap and untie the blind Gordian knot. Rather, it can only do so when all the Iraqi national and patriotic parties and groups come together under the umbrella of a democratic, national, independent, non-sectarian coalition that is not dependent on foreign countries, and form a strong national government that, while being independent, is in touch with the outside world and establish good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Arab countries, and Eastern and Western countries.

The bottom line is, when the minds that have produced destructive thoughts cannot produce liberating thoughts, Iraq needs those thinkers and new political figures who will establish a correct, solid, and independent political system in Iraq. The current situation is rooted in the incorrect political structure, the foundation of which was laid in 2003. But it is a pity that only a clear understanding of the crisis is not enough to solve it.

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The end of political Islam in Iran

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Nothing in Iran will be the same again. The uprising of the majority of big and small cities in Iran after the killing of Mahsa Amini by the “Morality Police” of the Islamic Republic of Iran has a new social structure. Because in the contemporary history of Iran, we have not witnessed such social forces that have been strongly influenced by the women’s movement.

The social structure of the uprising

During the era of Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were allowed to study in law and medical schools, or during the era of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were organized to implement the White Revolution ideology as soldiers. This means that at that time, women were “allowed” and “organized”, but all these freedoms were given to women based on men’s power, state power, and non-democratic methods, and the women’s movement did not play an active role in these actions. For this reason, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi said in one of his interviews: Women are schemes and evil, women have not even had first-class scientists throughout history, women may be equal to men before the law but they have not had the same abilities as men. They are not, women have not even produced a Michelangelo, Johann Sebastian Bach, or a good cook. It was not only Mohammad Reza Shah who had a misogynist view, but Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, was against giving women the right to vote and considered the entry of women into the National Assembly, municipality, and administrations as a cause of paralysis in the affairs of the country and government. In a letter to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he requested the abolition of women’s right to vote.

It can be said that the Iranian revolution (1979) was one of the biggest revolutionary movements that was completely “made“ by a mass social movement in the history of the 20th century, and women played a very active and prominent role in it. But the women in that revolutionary movement not only for themselves and the issues of women’s rights but under the framework of Islamic and communist parties and groups such as the Tudeh Party of Iran, Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and Muslim People’s Republic Party tried to solve the problems of Iranian women. That is, in that mass revolutionary movement, various communist, Islamic and guerilla ideologies were higher, more important, and more preferable than the women themselves, and women tried to find their answers with the help of these revolutionary ideologies to solve the general problems of the country and women’s issues.

But in recent developments, women have not been “allowed” through the reforms of the Pahlavi government, nor have they been “organized” through the ideologies of the revolutionary parties before and after the victory of the Iranian revolution. Rather, in the strict sense of the word, they have become the locomotive of the revolutionary upsurge of contemporary Iran and have given “allowed” and “organization” to other social and ethnic forces in the geography of Iran. From now on, women in Iran are the creators of social and revolutionary changes based on the women’s movement.

Discourse analysis of the uprising

After the June 2009 presidential election and the protest against election fraud, large protests started in other cities, especially in Tehran. In that rebellion, we witnessed the loss of the unity of the elites, the crisis of legitimacy, and the crisis of the efficiency of the Islamic Republic regime. After those protests, the Shiite Islamist ideology of the Islamic Republic faced illegitimacy and the unity of the elites of the ruling class was lost. On the other hand, the government faced a crisis of inefficiency after those incidents and could not meet the crisis economic, cultural, political, and civil liberties, and women’s demands. Therefore, in the demonstrations of 2018, tens of thousands of people rose up against economic policies, high prices, and unemployment, and with the spread of these protests, the ideological foundations and legitimacy of the regime were protested by the demonstrators. With a 50% increase in the price of gasoline in 2019 and a 35% inflation, unemployment and an increase in the price of basic goods and food, a new wave of protests in many cities of Iran faced the government of Hassan Rouhani with a major social and economic crisis. In those protests, women played an active role and chanted against the mandatory hijab.

Contrary to all these widespread protests and social riots in Iran’s contemporary history, in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cause of the uprising is the murder of Mahsa Amini, the defense of women’s rights, and opposition to the mandatory hijab. The overwhelming majority of Iranian women have declared their separation with the slogan of “women, life, freedom” from the movement of reformers, monarchists of the Pahlavi regime, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, fundamentalists of the Islamic Republic, utopias and communist, Islamist, totalitarian, anti-woman, and false ideologies.

It is very important in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cooperation of Turks men and women in the cities of Iran with the protests. Because the Turk social-political movement did not declare solidarity with the protesters of other cities of Iran due to the neglect of the right to education in the mother tongue, the right to self-determination, and the realization of economic, political, cultural, and environmental rights in the uprisings of 2009, 2018 and 2019. The slogan of “freedom, justice, and national government” of the Turks of different cities of Iran, also shows the existence of different and yet common demands of the majority of ethnic groups living in Iran.

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Public opinion surveys challenge the image Arab leaders like to project

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Several recent public opinion surveys send a mixed message to autocratic reformers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which hosts this year’s World Cup in less than two months.

The surveys reveal contradictory attitudes among Arab youth towards religion as well as widespread rejection of notions of a moderate Islam and formal diplomatic ties with Israel.

One survey, published this week by Dubai-based public relations agency ASDA’A BCW, revealed that 41 per cent of 3,400 young Arabs in 17 Arab countries aged 18 to 24 said religion was the most important element of their identity, with nationality, family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagging far behind. That is 7 per cent more than those surveyed in the agency’s 2021 poll.

More than half of those surveyed, 56 per cent, said their country’s legal system should be based on the Shariah or Islamic law.

Seventy per cent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture. Sixty-five per cent argued that preserving their religious and cultural identity was more important than creating a globalized society.

Yet, paradoxically, 73 per cent felt that religion plays too big a role in the Middle East, while 77 per cent believed that Arab religious institutions should be reformed.

Autocratic Arab reformers will take heart from the discomfort with the role of religion and skepticism towards religious authority that stroked with earlier surveys by ASDA’A BCW, which has conducted the poll annually for the past 14 years.

Even so, the greater emphasis on religion as the core pillar of identity, concern about traditional values and culture, and the call for Islamic law cast a shadow over social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and President Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE.

Moreover, the poll results were published as Qatar debates how to deal with potential conduct by World Cup fans that violates Qatari law and mores, such as public intoxication and expressions of affection, pre-marital sex, and sexual diversity.

Qatar has suggested that World Cup fans caught committing minor offences such as public drunkenness would escape prosecution under plans under development by authorities.

While Saudi Arabia’s rupture with religious ultra-conservatism that long was the kingdom’s hallmark was stunning, reforms in the UAE were the most radical in their break with Islamic law that constitutionally constitutes the principal source of the country’s legislation.

Mr. Bin Salman’s reforms severely restricted the authority of the religious police, lifted the kingdom’s ban on women’s driving, enhanced women’s rights and opportunities, loosened gender segregation, and introduced western-style entertainment – all measures that are essentially not controversial in much of the Muslim world but went against the grain of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative segment of the population and clergy.

That could not be said for Mr. Bin Zayed’s equally far-reaching changes that decriminalized sexual relations out of marriage and alcohol consumption for UAE nationals and foreigners and lifted the prohibition on living together for unmarried couples.

Mr. Bin Zayed’s reforms are expected to persuade some fans to base themselves in the UAE during the World Cup and travel for matches to Qatar, which is socially more restrictive.

Even so, the ASDA’A BCW survey suggests that the reforms in the kingdom and the Emirates may not have been embraced as enthusiastically by a significant segment of the youth as the two countries would like public opinion to believe.

Separate surveys by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that 59 per cent of those polled in the UAE, 58 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 74 per cent in Egypt, disagreed with the notion that “we should listen to those among us who are trying to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, and modern way.”

The youth’s quest for religion and traditionalism strokes with youth attitudes toward democracy and diplomatic relations with Israel.

Autocratic leaders will likely be encouraged by the fact that a whopping 82 per cent of those surveyed by ASDA’s BCW said stability was more important than democracy. At the same time, two-thirds believed democracy would never work in the Middle East.

Three quarters saw China, followed by Turkey and Russia as their allies, as opposed to only 63 per cent pointing to the United States and 12 per cent to Israel. Even so, they viewed the US as having the most influence in the Middle East, but a majority favoured US disengagement.

Yet, the United States and Europe continued to constitute preferred destinations among 45 per cent of those polled seeking to emigrate.

However, despite widespread skepticism towards democracy, leaders will also have noted that 60 per cent expressed concern about the increased role of government in their lives.

The establishment two years ago of diplomatic relations with Israel by four countries included in the ASDA’A BCW survey — the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, — and the fact that Saudi Arabia has become more public about its relations with the Jewish state and its desire to establish diplomatic ties once a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found is likely to have shaped responses in the surveys.

Aware of public hesitancy, Saudi Arabia, together with the Arab League and the European Union, this week convened a meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to explore ways of dusting off the 1982 Saudi-inspired Arab peace plan.

The plan offered Israel recognition and diplomatic relations in exchange for creating a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

For his part, Yair Lapid expressed support for a two-state solution in his address to the assembly. It was the first time Mr. Lapid backed two states since he became prime minister and the first time since 2017 that an Israeli prime minister spoke in favour of Palestinian statehood.

Nevertheless, only 14% of the Egyptians polled in the Washington Institute surveys viewed their country’s 43-year-old peace treaty with Israel and the more recent establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state by the UAE and others as positive.

In contrast to the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, where Israeli business people, tourists, and residents have been welcomed, only 11 per cent of Egyptians surveyed favoured the normalisation of people-to-people relations.

Similarly, 57 per cent of Saudis surveyed by the institute opposed the normalization of the kingdom’s relations with Israel. Still, a higher percentage in the kingdom and the UAE than in Egypt, 42 per cent, agreed that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so.”

To sum it all up, the message is that autocratic reformers appear to be far ahead of significant segments of their populations even if public attitudes may be contradictory.

For now, keeping the lid on freedom of expression and dissent helps them maintain their grip but casts a shadow and a doubt over the image they work so hard to project.

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