Last week’s article Knowing What We Know Now, What about President Bush & Iraq? generated intense comments. Two comments raised relevant points that are important for a broader discussion. The first was from a veteran journalist who asked:
- “But why does US NOT take action against Saudi Arabia? Your piece is totally silent on this question. … Your justification of eliminating Saddam and Gaddafi will become objective if you deal with the whole Arab issue and Middle East politics with Saudi Arabia and Israel, both taken into account. Of course, one can “admire” the diplomacy of the US state department, which has kept the Zionists and Islamic fundamentalists, both under the Eagle’s wings, while contributing to the destructive and anarchic killing fields in that area. Forget oil and gas diplomacy, it is the blood and inhumanity that matters.”
The second comment is posted at the end of the article. The question posed this reader was:
- “This article is either naive, like many well meaning US initiatives. Or it is consciously manipulative and mischievous. … It talks about the Arab Spring as a Sunni rebellion and conveniently eliminates Tunisia and Egypt from the equation. The Arab Spring epidemic started off in Tunisia and gathered momentum in Egypt. It had nothing remotely to do with Sunni angst per se. … It speculates about Saddam’s response to a Sunni rebellion against him ! And pray why would there have been a Sunni rebellion against him? This article has the answer ….because the Arab Spring was driven by Sunni angst against all and sundry!”
Both comments are valid in that our article did not touch on the events in Egypt or on the “royal” kingdoms of the Middle East. Our purpose in last week’s article was specific and not about the broader Middle East. We discuss the broader middle east today partly in response to the above two comments.
1. “Royal” designation as a popular mandate
People generally have a natural respect for “royal” rulers. Even Europe, rich, liberal, socially conscious Europe, cannot jettison its titular royal personages in this modern 21st century. Americans will not tolerate a “royal” ruler in America but they retain a vestigial affection for Britain’s “royalty”. Historically, Rulers & the Ruled have always been two separate classes and they remain so today in many regions of the world.
That is especially true of the Middle East where the “King” designation has conferred a sense of loyalty & respect. Unlike the titular versions of Europe, these Middle Eastern “kings” are actual rulers who set & implement policies and control their militaries. They understand the tenuous nature of their rule and they have assiduously built relationships with other powerful institutions in their lands, especially the religious ones.
It is undeniable that these “royals”, sultans/emirs/sheikhs, enjoy support of their people. That is why their kingdoms escaped the tumult of the Arab Spring. (Bahrain did see protests from its Shia majority but Saudi Arabia intervened to crush that). It may well be that these “kingdoms” are very wealthy and that the support of their people for their “kings” could be due to benefits lavished on the people by these “kings”. But that goes to demonstrate the “smarts” of their “kings” who know how to keep the support of their people. On the other hand, Jordan doesn’t have oil revenues and is not rich. But King Hussein of Jordan does enjoy popular support of its people as his father did. And there was no uprising against King Hussein in Jordan.
This is why these “kingdoms” or emirates are not really relevant to the central discussion of turbulence that swept through the Middle East post-2011. And Israel is even less relevant. Ironically, Israel is more “liked” by these Arab “kingdoms” today than at any point in the past 68 years and they have begun to look to Israel as their ally in their holy war against Iran.
2. “Institutional” rule
The best example of this class is the regime that calls itself the land of the spiritually pure or Pak-i-Stan. The people are poor, the government is cash-starved and the land is increasingly beset with terrorist driven violence. That state has more ethnic & religious fissures than any Arab country. That state has seen large protests on several occasions, the last against Musharraf. Despite all that, the stability of that state or the regime has never been in question.
That is because, the leader at the top has never been more important than the institution he headed, whether that leader was a General or a civilian. The civilian leaders were toppled when they became deeply unpopular and so were the Generals in command. Look at the steady procession of Generals that were deposed – Ayub Khan in 1960s, Yahya Khan in 1970s, Musharraf in 2000s. Zia-ul-Haq was assassinated in 1980s. In each case, the man at the top was replaced by another man from the same Institutional complex – the Military, still the most respected institution in that land.
That is what Egypt is and that is why Egypt has remained immune to the Sunni whirlwind that is sweeping the Middle East. The Egyptian Military is the most respected institution in that country and it clearly enjoys broad support among the people. They managed the past few years just as well. They allowed elections, allowed the elected leadership to govern for a bit and then, when protests hit that leadership, stepped in and established military rule. When the first military guy Tantawi couldn’t manage it, the next General el-Sisi took the reigns.
Look at Egypt today and see if you can find any real difference between Egypt of Mubarak or Egypt of el-Sisi. Just as there has been no difference between the NonPakistan of Musharraf, Kayani or Sharif. Just as General Zia hanged Prime Minister Bhutto in NonPak, just as Musharraf tried to hang Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in NonPak, Prime Minister Morsi of Egypt has been sentenced to death in el-Sisi’s Egypt.
And Egypt, poor Sunni Egypt, remains stable and immune to the Sunni uprising.
3. Gaddafi-Assad-Saddam – cult of the “man”
Libya is a neighbor of Egypt. It is totally different from Egypt. Gaddafi was the “man” in Libya for decades, neither as a “king” with a “royal” mandate nor as the head of a national institution. His was the power of a personality cult centered only on him. His power was not institutionally shared with a professional army or with a professional religious hierarchy.
Assad is similar in that his is also a single man rule without any “royal” or Institutional mandate. But he is different in that his rule is regarded today as the only defense, an existential defense, for his Alawite community and for other minorities in Sunni-majority Syria. But even that support is slowly withering away as his army withers away and his generals leave the fight to save his person. His luck is that he has found institutional support from Hezbollah from Lebanon and material support from Iran. But he has lost about 2/3rds of Syria which is now partitioned for good between his narrow corridor around Damascus and the Sunni Syria which is now controlled by ISIS and other anti-ISIS Sunni fighters.
Saddam was the big brother of Gaddafi & Assad. His was a single man rule without any institutional mandate of any kind. That is why, like Gaddafi, he built a cult around his personality. Even his sons were just like Gaddafi’s sons, thugs that were feared but reviled. (Contrast them to the young princes of Saudi Arabia).
Gaddafi, Assad & Saddam were all non-religious and crushed all religious movements in their lands to ensure their personality cult based rule. Their militaries were subservient to them personally and were systematically purged of any rising stars who could build their own powerbase.
This single-personality rule made these three different from other regimes in the middle east – very different from the royal kingdoms and very different from the institutional rule of Egypt (Tunisia was just too small & too peripheral to matter) .
This is why the Arab uprising that began in Egypt was extinguished in Egypt but spread to neighboring Libya where it was supported and made victorious by Europe & America. The success of Libya spread the Sunni uprising to Syria, where it was backed by monies from Saudi Arabia & GCC kingdoms and backed diplomatically by US & Europe.
Remember, Saddam was reviled by Saudi Arabia & GCC kingdoms just as Gaddafi was. Saddam was hated by the Sunni religious establishment just as Assad was because both were committed secular Baathists. And Saddam was hated by both the liberal & conservative wings of the American establishment.
The uprisings in Libya & Syria were enthusiastically backed under the “humanitarian” banner of the NeoLibs in America & Europe. The cry under this banner was & remains to go to war for “our values”. This is supposed to be far more noble than selfishly going to war for strategic interests. This is the predominant doctrine of the current environment in America & Europe and it has driven the policy of the Obama Administration.
Because, the Gaddafi-Assad-Saddam trip was a unique unsupported class of rulers, they became uniquely vulnerable to a violent Sunni uprising. Gaddafi faced such an uprising and was killed. Assad has faced & is facing such a bigger uprising today and is desperately fighting for his life along with lives of his minority community.
Their big brother Saddam, in our opinion, would have faced the biggest uprising of the three with enthusiastic backing by the Arab kingdoms, religious establishment, Iraqi Shias & Kurds, and America-Europe. Saddam would have had no choice but to respond with brutal suppression. In response, the Obama Administration, would have come under intense pressure from both the “humanitarian” and the conservative wings to intervene militarily to remove him. Perhaps, in anticipation of such an intervention, the wily Saddam might have invaded Iran to get support of Saudi Arabia & GCC as well as support of the conservative wing in America. Both of these would have been disastrous for the Middle East & the World, so you can take your pick.
That is why, knowing what we know now, we are happy that Saddam is not around in today’s Middle East and why that has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia or Egypt.
Editor’s PS: There is more to what happened in Egypt than meets the eye. Mubarak was the Air Marshal of Egypt’s air force and then Vice President under Sadat. He took over in 1981 and ruled until 2011. He reportedly wanted his son Gamal to be the ruler after him. That does not work in an institutional military rule framework. And Gamal was not a high ranking military officer. Gamal was also trying to establish an Egyptian Federal Reserve that might have reduced the budgetary & expense control of the Egyptian Military. Gamal was not acceptable and so Mubarak had to go. The Arab Spring protests proved very convenient. Remember the people protesting in Tahrir Square in Cairo were promised safety. Who could promise such safety? The Egyptian Military. The removal of Mubarak was convenient to them as well as to President Obama & Europe. Human Rights were preserved & Mubarak was ousted & put in jail. Then, after the Muslim Brotherhood made major mistakes, protests resurfaced and Morsi was put in jail. The Military took over and, like NonPakistan, the Institutional rule of the Military was reaffirmed. None of this could have happened in Libya, Syria & Saddam’s Iraq with their single leader above all model.
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