From revolution to counterreformation

Messiahs of modernization in the Arab world have never been as 'modern' as they claimed to be.

Assad Ahmadinejad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Assad Ahmadinejad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The rising phenomenon of "non-monarchical family succession" in the Arab world, affecting countries like Syria, Libya and Egypt where official ideology would be expected to preclude such a possibility, continues to baffle analysts. But what can you really do if you are an Arab dictator who rose to power through a coup d'etat organized by a group of army officers who didn't just belong to the same ideological movement but also, for the most part, to the same social class, and more importantly the same geographical location in the country, perhaps even the same religious sect and/or tribe or clan? What can you really do if you have spent decades in power already, and have personally supervised the expansion of the patronage system that you use to maintain your hold on power while shrinking the circle of your trusted advisors to include, for the most part, immediate family members and friends? What can you really do when your victory was so complete that you have become the undisputed ruler of your country, having killed, exiled and/or caused the disappearance of all real and potential rivals around you, and having found yourself surrounded only by yes-men who would gladly accept your authority, but would never accept any of their number as more than equal? After all, in your attempt to preempt any potential coup, you have managed to sow enough discord among them to create this situation. What can you do when you feel the final hour fast approaching, and all those around you expect you, and only you, to decide on the right way for ensuring the survival of the house you have built? What can you do when you have managed to devastate civil society in your country so utterly that public opinion no longer matters? At best, the streets will be quiet as the succession proceeds (as happened in Syria and will likely happen in Libya), while at worst some localized riots might take place but without ever posing serious problems to the stability of the order you created (as is expected in Egypt). Indeed, what does the whole issue of succession eventually boil down to when you take all these observations into account? What choice is such an Arab dictator left with at the end of the day? NOT THAT the idea of anointing one's eldest son as one's would-be successor is so abhorrent to the dictator involved. After all, if the last few decades have proven anything, it is that the self-appointed messiahs of modernization in the Arab world have never been as "modern" as they had once thought and claimed to be. Indeed, their greed and lust for power have long combined with the enduring appeal of patriarchy to ensure their fast transmogrification into antichrists of counterreformation and re-feudalization. As such, the rise of non-monarchical family succession in the Arab world is simply the logical end of the era that witnessed social, political and economic failure and betrayal at every level of governance. Meanwhile, the powers-that-be in the world as a whole are too invested in manipulating this situation so as to maximize their advantages in their various games of alignment and realignment - from the great game to the cold war to the haphazard push for a new world order and, more recently, to the global war on terror - to worry about the potential long-term ramifications of their activities for the peoples of the region. Still, the situation may not be as bleak as it might seem at this stage. For by setting the clock so far back in time, the Arab regimes involved have shed all their fig-leaves and masks and have inadvertently recreated the same revolutionary potential that existed of yore, and which they themselves had tapped at one point to propel themselves to power. They have thus paved the way for the emergence of new prophets of change, some of whom might yet prove genuine and capable. The region's new prophets, however, have only three choices available to them: • Join the ranks of the various regimes and be content with small, meaningless "reforms" that will never be enough to appease a real kicking conscience, but which can nonetheless assure some measure of safety and perhaps fame; • Join a terrorist cell and get that quick adrenalin fix that involvement in such endeavors does, unfortunately, provide; or • Plan to lead a real popular revolution and not merely a coup, seeing how often coups have failed us in the past. As an Arab dissident and democracy activist I long ago made my choice. That is why it seems appropriate somehow to conclude by saying, "welcome to the revolution." The writer is a Syrian dissident and democracy activist, currently exiled in the United States. He is the founder and director of the Tharwa Foundation, a non-governmental organization dedicated to facilitating democratic processes and improving inter-communal relations across the broader Middle East and North Africa region.