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Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Fall of the Strongmen

The attempt to establish a post-colonial order of kings and strongmen to replace the British and French colonial rule over the Arab Muslim world was doomed from the start. Some of the kings were overthrown by native officers who had been trained by the British and the French to fight their wars. The officers who overthrew them became strongmen themselves.

The recently deposed Ben Ali was a Tunisian officer trained in French and American schools, who had helped push out the French and his predecessor. Egypt's Mubarak was an Air Force officer who replaced Sadat, who replaced Nasser-- all members of the Free Officers Movement which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy. Saddam Hussein took power in a coup against the coup led by army officers which had deposed the King of Iraq. Syria's Assad was an Air Force officer who took power after a long series of coups by army officers that it would take too long to list. If you're seeing a pattern here, congratulations and welcome to the Middle East.

The only Middle-Eastern Arab countries which held onto their monarchies, were either oil rich enough to spread the wealth to the important families and retain only a weak military to avoid the risk of being overthrown by their own army while relying on US protection (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE) or so small and deliberately apolitical to avoid attention (Jordan, Morocco). The rest ended up with military strongmen, some backed by the US, some backed by the Soviet Union. The Soviet backed strongmen usually unveiled some poorly thought out version of Arab Socialism. The US backed strongmen just stuck to taking a cut of everything and packing it away in foreign banks.

But there was a ticking time bomb underneath these pyramids of wealth and misery. Islam. The kings had been nothing more than British puppets. The strongmen that replaced them were the apex of a new praetorian guard. Despite whatever philosophies they brought to the table, sooner or later they tried to become kings as well. Syria's Assad passed power on to his son. Saddam was preparing his sons to oversee his own dynasty. In Egypt, Mubarak is trying to do the same thing. But they have no tradition and no history on their side. Their rule is a farce in which they call themselves presidents and prime ministers, and go through the pretense of holding elections, but function like absolute monarchs. An unbalanced situation that eventually implodes.

The strongmen depend on army backing, but the armies of the Arab world are split drastically between an elite officer corps and the soldier who is treated like sheep dung. The officers and the secret police run the country, but when a mob gathers, it's up to the soldiers to hold them back. If the soldiers choose not to, then it's time for the strongman to get on a plane and escape the country. (This is essentially what also brought down the Soviet Union.) As an alternative, the strongman will leverage support from tribal structures, appointing loyalists to top positions in the bureaucracy and the military. (This is what kicked off the initial insurgency in Iraq.) But that too is a balance. Elevating one family, alienates another family. The tribal power structure has its own enemies built in. Those maneuvers for power can cause the incredible chaos so common after the fall of a strongman.

The Arab world may hold elections, but it is a long way from accepting notions such as equality, open access or guaranteed freedoms. Its rulers will occasionally sign on to UN covenants on women's rights or religious rights, without ever taking them seriously. The idea that one man is just as good as another, regardless of his family or religion, is a completely alien one to them. A woman being just as good as a man is not even a conversation starter. The Middle East still mostly consists of peasants from feudal backgrounds lorded over by a small elite. Bring democracy and human rights to the Middle East? You might as well walk into 12th century Europe with a copy of the Constitution and expect not to be beheaded.

So what happens when a strongman is overthrown? Either he will be replaced by one of the coup leaders who will become the new strongman. If not he will also be overthrown. Or he will be replaced by an oligarchy which will eventually come to be dominated by its strongest and most ruthless member who will become the new strongman. (That is how Iraq ended up ruled by the House of Saddam.) As you can see there really isn't an alternative here. It's the strongman or nothing.

But there is a seeming alternative. A different power structure than a corrupt dictator and his thugs. One  based not on power, greed and family-- but religion. Islam.

Most of the 'reformers' are usually fighting for either a takeover by the local socialist party or the local Islamist party. The general public will join in the stone throwing and the looting, without necessarily taking sides. Often the socialists and the Islamists will actually cooperate to bring down the dictator. Then one will take power and begin killing the other. Western media rarely bother to report this, either out of ignorance or due to propaganda. They treat most of the crowd scenes as popular uprisings, which they are but not in the sense that the people will get to decide one way or another. Only that they get a chance to take part in the brief spurt of violence before being ordered to go home.

The Islamists promise a system based on Allah's law. Rule by moral clerics instead of greedy officials. Traditional values, benefits for families and teddy bears not named Mohammed for everyone. It's a scam of course. The Islamist takeover means another strongman or oligarchy. Except instead of being named General Saddam Hussein, he'll be known as the Ayatollah Khomeini. The differences are minimal. The ruling families will still sock away money in foreign banks. Loyalists will still be appointed to top positions. The bureaucracy will go on abusing and blackmailing the public. The police will still be vicious thugs. And law will be promulgated by Imams or Muftis or Mullahs, but it will still be the law that those at the top want.

Despite all that, or maybe because of it, the Islamists are still inevitable. Islam manufactures a group identity that may be paper thin, but it still more solid than recently manufactured national identities for regional Arabs who are expected to see themselves as Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians or Iraqis. Islam bridges tribal identities better than strongmen do. Its rulers will ultimately still reward their own families and favor their own tribes, but the process will take place under the guise of Islam.

When Mohammed invented Islam, he took existing beliefs and laced them up into a grand tribal identity. Islam is the meta-tribe, less a religion than a makeshift political system based on tribal alliances with the convenient sanction of a deity. Islam expands by creating a two-tier system that puts non-Muslims on the bottom, and encourages Muslims to wage constant war against them. None of this makes for a stable system, but it does make for a very volatile and expansionistic one. Arabs who will not die for Saddam or Ben Ali or Mubarak, will die for Islam.

The Islamists may not take over in Tunisia this time, but they will take over sooner or later. There and all across the Muslim world. (If it happened in militantly secularist Turkey with its army, then it really can happen anywhere.) Dictators will come and go, and eventually the local Islamists with funding from Saudi Arabia or Iran will put together a proper show and take over. And eventually the people will get tired and try to throw them out, as is happening in Iran. It's the natural political cycle of a region with no true national identities, no real principles of government, no law and no commitment to anyone outside the family.

We could slow down or even avert the process, by pushing Westernization and cutting the legs off Saudi Arabia and Iran. But we aren't about to do it. We could at least stop sending them money by the barrel, but we aren't about to do that either. And that's the real problem, not Ben Ali or Mubarak. Calling for the regimes to respect democracy and human rights just undermines whoever is in power. It does not lead to them being replaced by anything better. To do that, the entire culture would have to change. And that isn't happening.

The strongmen will fall. And the media will act like it's Romania in 1989, rather than just part of the cycle of coups in a system that cannot have anything better than tyrants of one sort or another. Eventually Islamists will come to power and wage war against us. It's up to us whether they win or not.

15 comments:

lgstarr said...

Excellent article!

Is it "grow tired" though? (Or "get tired"?)

"And eventually the people will go tired and try to throw them out, as is happening in Iran."

--Linda

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

yes you're right

Yonatan said...

Stop acting like the Palestinian contrived issue is the important thing. "Cutting the legs off Saudi Arabia and Iran" - the root truth that has been avoided like the plague since the beginning. Great analysis!

Jesterhead45 said...

Unfortunately, there is no one worthy to lead the rest of the world when it comes to defeating islam and those rulers which are trying vainly keeping a lid on things are going to fall, one way or other, the duct tape that is wrapped around the Camel’s mouth (that bites and spits) in that part of the world is going to come off sooner or later.

In spite of what the treacherous and collaborating leaders of the West would say, who believe that they can somehow tame / manipulate islam for their benefit, if they have not already joined the ummah.
There really is no way in avoiding the fact that the only way to stop those who believe that "islam is the solution!" is to take it home to the enemy, not in lands that are not originally theirs to begin with (Turkey, Syria, Egypt, non-muslim lands, etc) but in Arabia itself.

One would not even have to waste money and soldiers lives in futile humanitarian efforts and at “nation-building” projects that most of the locals are unappreciative of anyway, through that is assuming if the impotent leader of the West who first brought up that argument up was even serious about cutting costs to begin with.

Even muslims themselves say that either islam will come out on top against the rest of the world or will be destroyed in the process, it is they who believe that islam is the solution, that islam is destined to bring about a new millenial caliphate, that islam is in a life or death struggle or total war / jihad for world domination and who unlike the West who follow King Saul's ethics when it comes to being kind to the cruel, would not hesitate to give the rest of the non-muslim world no quarter.

To defeat them, it would just be a simple matter of entering the coordinates for an area or two in the Hejaz region and pressing a button in order to invalidate the entire premise of islam.

The question one should ask is that when it comes to protecting your own nation, is it better to be like say Superman / Spiderman who despite having the power to wipe out the enemy for good instead apprehends them only for the enemy to escape and cause more destruction before the former arrests the latter once more, with cycle being endlessly repeated?

Or is it more moral and ethical, to be like say The Punisher who doesn’t allow the enemy any room to escape just to give himself something to do but instead nips the enemy in the bud before the latter can cause anymore destruction?

If it is the former, how long can that sort of immoral duelistic game last? Where instead defeating evil wherever it rises, many would rather believe in the idea that good and evil should somehow be balanced and made equal to each other as an excuse to avoid confronting evil.

If it is the latter, wouldn’t targeting everything that is both material and sacred to one’s enemy ultimately be the path with the least bloodshed and thefore the most moral course of action?

Instead of through inaction eventually finding oneself in a grave situation, where you end serving the interests of the eco-mentalists regarding “overpopulation” and even perhaps rivaling good-old Temujin for the title of “Greenest Conquerer”. (link - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1350272/Genghis-Khan-killed-people-forests-grew-carbon-levels-dropped.html)

Keli Ata said...

I can't help but wonder about all the young people fighting for change in the middle east, Iran for example. Will they succeed in their desire to rid their countries of Islam, or simply replace it with Communism?



OT and really out there but... I just read that some of the rioters are ripping the heads off of mummies. It seems much more extreme than toppling the statue of Saddam. It has an almost sci-fi aspect to it. Attacking the very essence of the culture, not just the political regimes, more than a 1960 defiant burning of the American flag.

It appears deeper than mere political unrest. An act to destroy the culture of death at its very core, predating Islam.


"CAIRO -- Would-be looters broke into Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum, ripping the heads off two mummies and damaging about 10 small artifacts before being caught and detained by army soldiers, Egypt's antiquities chief said Saturday.

Zahi Hawass said the vandals did not manage to steal any of the museum's antiquities, and that the prized collection was now safe and under military guard.

With mass anti-government protests still roiling the country and unleashing chaos on the streets, fears that looters could target other ancient treasures at sites across the country prompted the military to dispatch armored personnel carriers and troops to the Pyramids of Giza, the temple city of Luxor and other key archaeological monuments"

I do agree with you. Islamists will come to power and wage war against us. Horrible as the last world war was, the prospect of another appears even darker.

Anonymous said...

Superb article, thanks again Daniel.

I think you could write a very similar piece about the current state of Western nations. Ruled by a strong elite who exploit their people. Marxism to me is just the replacement of one power-hungry criminal elite with another. I guess it is the nature of how power is exercised over the majority.

Proud Brit.

Horatio said...

For purposes of clarity, would you define "Islamist"?

Rita said...

At the risk of sounding sycophantic: You are just about the best around at present!

This exposé too is enlightening, as they all are, but also completely depressing, because the question remains: why are "they" (our politicians, the Left, the intelligentsia) playing right into the hands of those who will destroy us?

We cannot assume that "they" are simply stupid: like someone said recently "When the consequences of incompetence (ignorance,cowardice et al) become indistinguishable from the consequences of malice, it is wiser and safer to assume malice.", so what's in it for "them"????

Anonymous said...

And the best part? We're supplying countries like Eygpt, UAE, Saudi, etc. with Apaches and all sorts of high tech gear that they eventually may use against us.

Sean

Sammish said...

Thanks Dany for the excellent article.

I agree 'Islam" is the key here. Democratic institutions are incompatible with Islam. That's the point that nobody seem to get or try to avoid. Let the apologist muslims who live in the West go there and make an example of a true "peace loving religion with democratic principles. Let them erect this "political" society that they so much like to describe in their dialogues and debates with the westerm media.

People do not understand that the elites rulers of these tyranical regimes (whether republics, or monarchies or military juntas) are simply ruling their respective teritories and people in them "the islamic way" without saying it nor advocating it. That's how anyone will rule if he was given the opportunities. These rulers did not come from Mars or the West, they emerge from the same culture, the same mentality, the same rooted backwardness against citizenship and the rule of consent. The mass of people screaming for liberty of expression and democracy in the streets of Cairo or Tunis or Sana are simple naive and stupid at best. If given the opportunity as their tyranical rulers, they would institute the same if not a far worst type of government as their predecessors which is is tyranny, authoritarianism, and tribal or nepotic rule. I think they want justice and they want to see blood flowing in revenge, Yet they do not think a little of the aftermath. What kind of society would they like to see emerging from the ashes of despotic semi-secular rule? None want to talk about it because they are going toward oblivion and the dark ages.

Arabs regimes are not capable to secularize themselves (sheding the yoke of islamism), we have seen during all this time (since their independence) the work of a speudo-secularize sharia law as long as it does not destabilize the regime. And we are now told that they can be democratic? It is laughable, yet it is also scary.

mindRider said...

Beware of the results of this popular uprising in the Arab world as democracy is incompatibel with Islam no good can ever come from it. When finally the dust settles we shall have one block of primitive, hostile, aggressive jihadists under leadership of Iran's mullahs. Till now they where kept in bay by their US bribed secular despots. The only solution of the problem before they gain sufficient strength to bring the western world to its knees with their barbarian hordes and fifth column immigrant infiltrators is a pre-emptive nuclear strike that bombs them back to the stone age they already mentally live in. If we are not prepared to act this ruthless we shall have to fight an eternal conventional war or lose all we achieved in 150 years of enlightenment and freedom in the western world and suffer dismay and slavery under the heel of Islam for hundreds of years to come. Truly a catch 22 situation!

Paul said...

Islam is the enemy and as long as we place any kind of hope in anything coming out of Muslim countries, we put ourselves and the world at risk.

I've seen some bloggers blame Carter for Iran for not backing the Shah, but did Carter actually defend Khomeini? We see such overtures to the political opposition in Egypt from the Obamination. Khomeini returned to Iran from refuge in France. There is a better clue as to the western hand in the current regime in Iran.

We have to purge ourselves of economic dependence on Muslim countries. This means fuel, lubricants and plastic. Increasingly, the dependence is mostly plastics based and the public is woefully and blissfully ignorant of what plastic is and what will happen if we run out or are cut off.

Anonymous said...

I am not optimistic. There's no sand in Washington, DC or EU capitals and I doubt if any of them know how to draw a line in it.

Charles said...

The Sultan,

"Islam bridges tribal identities better than strongmen do. Its rulers will ultimately still reward their own families and favor their own tribes, but the process will take place under the guise of Islam."

It was not until the European xtian went to the Arab countries that Jews were expelled en masse. Pogroms and attacks on Jews didn't become commonplace till then, though there have been thousands killed by islamists over the centuries. I don't think Islam is the problem, secular and atheist Arabs are just as jew hating, and worst are the xtian Arabs, who have more influence. The Moslem ones, do the killing, i'd even say the xtian Arabs are more influential in Washington.

You're a bit out of touch. This is one sided propoganda by by the right wing, but it isn't fact.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Actually Mohammed began by ethnically cleansing Jews. Muslim rulers continued the practice, notably the Almohades.

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