Terra Incognita: Not your father’s Middle East

Arab nationalism/monarchism, Islamism, scapegoating of the West are the pillars upon which the next era in the Middle East will be built.

anti-Assad protest in Deir al-Zor 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
anti-Assad protest in Deir al-Zor 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The collapse of the regime in Tunisia, the rebellion in Libya (which looks to be all but over), and the military takeover of Egypt represent profound historical events, but not a “spring.”
All the countries whose foundations were laid by Arab nationalism are entering a new stage. In some ways, this began with the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Cold War. The Cold War pitted Arab nationalism against the monarchic regimes supported by the West. The first nationalist regime to fall was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, followed by the victory of Hamas in Palestinian elections and the rise of Hezbollah to kingmaker in Lebanon’s parliament. Later, the destruction of the secular regime in Tunisia, rebellion in Libya and Yemen and the vanquishing of Hosni Mubarak moved the ball further along.
The rebellion in Syria actually brings things full circle. Ba’athism, as articulated by Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian Arab, began in Syria in the 1940s, and it will die in Syria. Arab socialism, nationalism, pan-Arabism; all of these secular ideologies that once looked so strong are dying. Meanwhile, the monarchies in the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco remain stable.
This is the long-term effect of the insertion of Western ideas and values into the Middle East prior to the Cold War. Arab nationalists embraced modern European concepts of nationhood. Many were Christians who used nationalism as a means to transcend religion, much as Jews embraced communism in Russia to improve their social status. For a decade it seemed as if these Arab nationalists were quite powerful. Gamal Abdel Nasser invaded Yemen and bombed Saudi Arabia, while exporting his ideas to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Libya.
But nationalism brought stagnation, and in almost every nationalist country it was the children of the dictator – Bashar Assad, Gamal Mubarak, Saif Gaddafi – who were groomed to rule following their fathers. Because the nationalists were unwilling to murder large numbers of people, because their ideology had ossified, and because their militaries were not beholden, they withered on the vine. Monarchy and Islamism have proved more resolute.
Another change that the Middle East has undergone is realignment in its relations with the US. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the US imposed its will on the region, since the countries had nowhere to turn for support. Those who were not friends of America, like Syria, Iran and Iraq, became outcasts. However, after 9/11, American experts realized that the US-Saudi relationship – a lynchpin in the American strategy – suffered from multiple-personality disorder. The Saudis were close to the Americans, and at the same time supported, directly or by proxy, Islamic terrorism against the West. A Saudi established al-Qaida, and most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
To wean itself off Saudi oil and a poisoned marriage with its rulers, the US launched a war in Iraq, one of whose corollaries was to democratize Iraq and create a new, preferably secular American friend in the Middle East. But the war ended up costing billions, and has resulted in a weak and chaotic Iraq.
Iran stepped into the breach, emboldened by chastised American power. In just a few short years, the Iranian octopus spread its tentacles through Syria to Hezbollah, engineered proxy wars with Israel, and undermined the Gulf regimes.
The Arab spring was merely a small afterthought in this process, a final reckoning between the weakened Arab regimes and their slumbering masses.
To excuse internal weakness, many Arab commentators view the Arab world as a trampled and humiliated victim. This is particularly the case when it comes to the effects of colonialism. Intellectuals speak often of the supposed setbacks their countries suffered under colonialism, without acknowledging that for the most part, Western countries colonized the Middle East for just over 20 years, compared to 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule.
Western scholars accept this characterization under the guise of Orientalism. The West blames the US for weak Arab regimes, and excuses nasty dictatorships because of Israel. But the reality is that the Arab regimes had great agency over the past 70 years, agency they spent in acquiring weapons, building palaces, undermining one another and spreading Islamism.
If Syria falls, it will be the last nail in the coffin of secular Arab nationalism. The media likes to focus on the tiny group of intellectual Arab elites who supported the uprisings this spring, but everyone is beginning to realize that it is the Islamic parties that will be the big winners if there are elections. What few have foreseen is the degree to which the post- 2011 era in the Middle East will be dominated by non-leaders. After all, who are the leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Iraq? Even in a democracy, one needs, from time to time, a leader whose name rings out. We are entering the era of boredom in the Middle East, boredom backed by chaos and nonstate actors like Hamas and Hezbollah, that desire to worm their way around state lines without taking responsibility for the state itself.
Arab nationalism/monarchism, Islamism, the rise of Iran, the weakening of American influence and scapegoating of the West for internal malfeasance are the five ruined pillars upon which the next era in the Middle East will be built.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.