The Muslim Middle East has three types of governments: Military, Tribal and Ideological. A military government is formed when senior officers take power. A tribal government is based around a group of prominent families. An ideological government is based around a party, whether secular or Islamist. All these governments are tyrannies; though they may occasionally hold elections, they never open up the system. The elections serve as a means for passing from one tyranny to the next.
Military and ideological governments will become tribal as a few officers, leaders or Ayatollahs use their control of the economy to enrich themselves and their families. That is what happened in Egypt and in Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood differs from Mubarak in any number of political ways, but, on a personal level, its leaders share his goal of enriching their families.
Whether a new government starts out as Islamist, Fascist or Socialist; these facades inevitably revert to the tribal. That is the fate of all governments in the Muslim Middle East, which do not evolve, but devolve.
Every Muslim leader, beginning with Mohammed, borrowed ideas brought in from outside to form a new system that became identical with the old. Mohammed borrowed from Judaism and Christianity to create the religious structure for yet another tribal government controlled by his father-in-law. In the 20th Century the Muslim Middle East borrowed from the British Empire, France, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, the USSR and the United States, to create hybrid systems that were either overthrown or which devolved into tribalism with an ideological facade. Like Mohammed, the bright new ideology ends up with a bunch of relatives in charge of the loot.
Muslim countries are forever at war with themselves. Military governments fear popular protests organized by ideological movements to seize power. And the ideological governments fear military coups. Tribal governments fear everyone and cripple their own military and bribe their own people to avoid being overthrown by officers or ideologues.
Every government is only a few bad months away from losing power, and so every government fears being overthrown by its enemies and implements a
regime of secret police and prisons. No sooner do the revolutionaries
step out of prison to usher in a new era than the same thugs are rehired to torture enemies of the new regime.
The victors of the Arab Spring know that another few bad months could toss them out of power as easily as the bad months put them into power. Like every other regime in the Muslim Middle East, their main priority is staying in power by making it impossible for others to do to them what they did to their predecessors.That leads to a cycle of repression, broken by temporary liberalization as alliances with the opposition are explored and then abandoned, because the opposition cannot be trusted not to seize power for themselves.
Everyone in the region is playing rock-paper-scissors all the time, which
leads to total regional paranoia and conspiracy theories. Everyone
distrusts everyone else by necessity and keeps trying to guess how many
fingers their rivals will put out while defending against their own
weaknesses by preemptively attacking everyone else.
Military governments persecute ideologues. Ideologues imprison top officers. Tribals seek out military protectors-- and then undermine them by backing their ideological enemies so as to stay in control of the relationship.
That is what happened to us and the Saudis, who, along with the other Gulfies, depend on our protection, but undermine us by supporting terrorism and Islamization to gain the upper hand. Paradoxically, the more that the Saudis need us, the more they undermine us, much as any feral population that is dependent on the charitable welfare of the majority lashes out against that majority to the exact degree that it is dependent on it.
The borders of Muslim nations are artificial and fluid. Their nationalism has no depth no matter how often Socialist ideologues borrow from European nationalism to proclaim the glories of the nation. The Muslim Middle East is not purely nomadic, but it is nomadic enough that large families stretch out across different nations and their tribal allegiances stretch with them. Ethnic groups like the Kurds cross national borders, carrying with them the dream of an ethnostate carved out of the Sunni states that dot the desert.
The Palestinians are a fraud, but so are the Jordanians, and, to a lesser degree, the Egyptians and the Syrians. Every nation is an artificial entity ruled over by powerful families or old soldiers who are keeping the whole thing together with guns and bribes, not to mention imported bread and circuses.
At some point we forgot that the Saudis, the King of Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and most of our so-called allies,are just powerful families with territorial claims based on that power. And even slightly more civilized countries such as Egypt; aren't really any better, the invaders who overran them just absorbed more culture and civilization from their conquests and their proximity to more civilized parts of the world.
Mostly they're feudal states with skyscrapers planned by foreign architects and built by foreign labor. If you can imagine Dark Ages Europe striking oil and selling it to industrial Incan mercantile democracies, with the barons plotting to settle and invade the new land, in between cutting each other's throats over rights of succession, then you have a good picture of the Muslim Middle East.
No sudden Arab Spring will transform the Muslim Middle East. Uprisings can change governments, but they cannot bring civilization. The Muslim world has access to Western learning, just as it had access to Indian, Roman and Greek learning. It made use of some of those ideas in a slapdash fashion, just as it made use of Judaism, Christianity, Socialism and Democracy in a similar fashion.
A primitive society confronted with an advanced civilization does not become civilized, it adopts some of the habits and facades of civilization in cargo cult fashion, it uses some of its tools, and hybridizes some of its ideas, but all this is done in pursuit of its existing goals. Everything that the Muslim Middle East has taken in from the civilized world has been used to pursue the same goals that it was pursuing a thousand years ago.
Imagine savages buying advanced steel knives, designed with space-age technology, manufactured to never rust or grow dull, then shipped by jet plane to their island, where they are used to perform ritual human sacrifices so that the crops may grow. That in a nutshell is the relationship between the civilized world and the Muslim Middle East-- except that the savages are not content to stay on their island and perform their human sacrifices only on their own tribe.
The Muslim leader of today may call himself a president or prime
minister; more honestly he may call himself king, but whatever he calls
himself, he is much the same figure that he was a thousand years ago.
The only place that the Muslim Middle East ever goes is backward. The great achievement of the Arab Spring was to hand over power in Egypt to Mohammed Morsi, a man who not only carries the same name as a 7th Century warlord, but whose party is based on restoring Egypt to the values of that 7th Century warlord as a cure for the damaging modernism of civilization. And those values are tribal power, ownership of women, repression of outsiders, and Muslim power under a Caliph-god whose fondest wish is that Muslims will one day get around to conquering the world in his name.
The true Allah of course is Mohammed Morsi, as it was once Mohammed, as it was Saddam, the Ayatollah Khomeini and a thousand other clerics, warlords, presidents, prime ministers, imams and great men of endless titles. Allah is whoever is at the top. Whoever tells the clerics what to say. Until he is toppled by the soldiers, clerics, merchants, terrorists, socialists, dissidents, old guardists, or some combination of all of them-- and then there will be a new Caliph-god. A new Allah.
Since all Middle Eastern Muslim power structures devolve to the tribal, personal power is the only power that matters. And personal power is a zero-sum game. No one can trust anyone else, because the only rule that counts is that the one with the most toys wins. That instability has led to a great deal of tyranny and misery, but it has also made it difficult for Islamic power to extend itself all that far.
Personal power is limited to a single tyrant and his feudal underlings. A highly effective conqueror can push his borders outward, but the whole thing inevitably collapses into broken emirates and then into backwardness and decay. The conquest may impose Islam on a population, but that just dooms the people under the yoke of the Koran to be less competent, less innovative and more backward than their neighbors.
Feral populations invariably do more harm to each other than to their enemies. This is small comfort to those who fall prey to them, but it is a reminder of the innate limitations of human evil. Evil can wield a great deal of power temporarily, but the exercise of that power also devolves and destroys it. Islam is a sharp sword, but the hand that wields it is weak, and the sword turns and cut its bearer. A feral population can topple great cities and civilizations, but it cannot replicate their achievements until it leaves behind its barbarism and becomes civilized.
In the desert, nothing really changes. One day turns into another. The footprints of the past are buried by the next sandstorm, and tomorrow's traveler arrives to marvel that his feet were the first to mark a path that lies buried just beneath his feet.
(Spanish translation available at Reflexiones Sobres Media Oriente Y El Mundo)