MIDDLE EAST: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
How the West misreads Middle East dictatorships
, November 12, 2011
Middle Eastern dictators are toppled only by direct Western military intervention or when they lose the backing of their armed forces chiefs, according to Barry Rubin, deputy director of the Tel Aviv-based Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
When neither factor enters the political mix, Muslims in the Middle East have been unable to remove longstanding dictatorships.
Rubin says that the lesson from Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s assassination is that he, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, became vulnerable to losing power once Western forces intervened. And the only reason Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s President Ben Ali fell was because their respective military establishments opted to oust them.
According to Rubin, revolutions fail when these two factors are lacking. By way of example, he lists the failed uprisings in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.
He explains: “That shows that it is not popular revolt that changes things in the region. Dictators must fight or die and concessions don’t help.
“The Western view is that revolutions are prevented by moderation and compromise, steps that please the masses and thus discourage them from revolting. This is so deeply ingrained that Western observers simply cannot conceive that approach as anything but a natural law.
“In contrast, in the Middle East, the political philosophy has been based on the idea that force and intimidation prevail.
“With one notable exception, where brilliant manoeuvring and concessions (albeit often illusory ones), worked — Morocco — the Middle East has shown that its approach works locally. Even in Turkey, where democratic norms are observed, once in power the Islamist regime has gained ground through toughness and not through concessions. The prisons are full of its opponents.”
Rubin says that the event in Eastern Europe that most impressed Arab leaders was the assassination on Christmas Day, 1989, of Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. “They [the Arab leaders] knew that this could happen to them.”
He continues: “When combined with the lesson from the USSR — how Mikhail Gorbachev’s engagement in reforms brought him down — these events played a central role in destroying the 1990s era of toying with possible moderation.”
Middle Eastern leaders thus concluded that only toughness and repression ensured their regimes could survive.
Rubin says that this is best demonstrated in Syria where dictator Bashar al-Assad’s family has been prepared to use roof-top snipers and special assassination units to kill those suspected of conspiring against the government.
Over 3,000 Syrians are believed to have been shot during demonstrations, or else clandestinely murdered, since unrest broke out across Syria early this year.
Rubin says that the West is deluded in thinking that al-Assad can be persuaded to pursue the path of concessions and reform. There has never been the slightest chance of his softening his iron rule.
Arab leaders have also long realised that the West cannot be relied upon to support them. Only by being tough in defending themselves can they ensure they will hang on to power.
The major lesson learned across the region concerning the fall of Gaddafi is that Westerners only ever do one of two things — they either help topple a country’s leader or else urge restraint and moderation which leads to a domestically-inspired coup.
Because Gaddafi was frightened by America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, believing he could be next on the Pentagon’s list, he was suddenly keen to make friendly overtures to the West.
“So he cooperated, gave up his nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs, and reduced his foreign subversive efforts,” Rubin says.
“That did not save him from being overthrown by the United States, just as it did not save a genuine American ally, President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. On this point, I’m not advocating anything about what the United States should have done in Libya but just observing how it will be received in the region….
“Thus, the region will note that when Gaddafi was a leading sponsor of terrorism, subversion and anti-Americanism, he got away with it. When he was on ‘good terms’ with the United States, he lost power. That might not be fair, but it seems to make sense in terms of Middle Eastern political philosophy.”
Rubin adds that Middle Eastern leaders can afford to indulge in “bashing the West” at little cost to themselves.
He contrasts how the West’s allies in the region, such as Bahrain, Mubarak’s Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the moderate opposition movements in Iran, Lebanon and Turkey, far from being helped by the West, are sometimes “even punished by the West”, and especially by the US Government.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based writer and historian.
Barry Rubin, “What Gaddafi’s death teaches the Middle East… and should teach the West”, Pajamas Media, October 20, 2011.