How To Discern The Arab Spring: Teheran vs. Riyadh

Henry Kissenger once remarked that the “greatest statesmen are distinguished less by their detailed knowledge than by their instinctive grasp of historical currents, by an ability to discern amidst the myriad of impressions that impinge on consciousness those most likely to shape the future.”  Walter Isaacon “Kissenger” 1992.

As we travail the region known as the ‘Near East’, we discern a populist revolt against militant autocracy that has consumed North Africa, Mesopotamia, Persia and South Asia.  The intellectual, political and cultural currents that propel the future trajectory of this popual revolution must be examined, if only to inform and discern viable policy options.

Since its inception in Tusisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ on December 18, 2010, many reports ground this revolt with the arrival of domesticated social media, however, many Near Eastern experts have detailed a more comprehensive political and social assessment of the region revealing the impact such technological advances have on insurmountable cultural institutions inimical to Islam.  One thing is for certain, acceleraton and disruption are intrinsic to western technological advance.  Ideas and institutions unassimilated to the thrust of modernity will conflict in the region.  For those with historical memory this ‘Clash of Civilizations’ has antecedents in the early modern period of western history before the discovery of the new world, as proxies favorable to the Papacy sought political and cultural gains against an ever expansionist Arabia.  With the discovery of the new world, the rivalry around that Mediterranean lake was diminished in favor of distant sea voyages that circumnavigated the eastern and western flanks of Islam.  On September 11, an old battle was joined.

The Arab Spring Surmised

Amir Taheri has detailed a review of the Arab Spring, he ranks as the most informed Persian interlocutor the west has as it engages a nuclear Iran for hegemony throughout the Persian Gulf and South America.

The spontaneous political uprisings have given the west a ‘broken crescent.’  The entire Near East can no longer be viewed through the prism that was the Nation State and the political imperatives of Westphalia, for we currently have four distinct political blocks jockeying for position.

1.  Countries that have toppled their despots and have embraced democratic reform.  Ben Ali of Tunisia and the Khalifa family of Bahrain have achieved such reform.

2.  Petro-monarchies lead by the House of Saud yet include Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait.  Ironically, the Saudis have impeded the Shia that have traditionally dominated Bahrian, they have done so peacefully yet not without political consequences, for Teheran wishes to incite and lead a Shia block throughout the region but is being thwarted by the House of Saud acting as both a bulwark standing astride the violent contortions of this popular revolt, yet inciting political and religious insurrection among its Sunni allies living under autocratic regimes friendly to Iran.

3.  A third group which consists of Libya, Syria and Yemen are despotic regimes that are waging war against their own people.  Absent political leadership from the U.N. or NATO each of these countries is ripe for al Qaeda.

4.  Only three militant despots have managed not to influence that Arab Spring:  Sudan, Eritrea and Mauritaia.  No matter how this popular revolt presses forward, these regimes don’t have much of a political future, for these militant autocracies are weak and lay prostrate before a powerful proxy:  China!

Beijing is pursuing a violent 19th style colonial imperialist policy throughout the third and developing world.  Its has decided to implement political and economic colonial policies that are traditionally home to indigenous East African Swahili.

We can expect two distinct immediate developments as a trajectory of the Arab Spring.  Bahrain serves as an example in our attempt to forecast in this region.  Highly literate with a fully developed mercantile middle class enabled it to remain open to the fiscal stimulus that Saudi Arabia poured in after an indigenous Shia insurrection began under the tutelage of Iran.

Zachary Karabell has written “Parting in the Desert” and “Superfuson”, both texts reveal that the mass movement engulfing the Near East has exposed a fatal fact that has been hiding in plain sight.  In a decade during which China has brought more people out of poverty at a faster rate than ever before in its history, in a period where economic reform has been sweeping the world from Brazil to Indochina, the vast majority of Sunnis throughout this region have missed out on economic opportunity.  Few countries are less integrated into the global economy that Sunnis.  The crony capitalism that dominates the political class of this region can no longer act as a traditional bulwark against western globalization.  In early modern times, Egypt and the cities of the Levant remained beacons of hope, today they are stagnant.

Throughout the Cold War and immediately there after, the west accepted the rationale of autocracy.  Washington continued to focus on containment that favored the status quo.  But ignoring the dialectic of the west was only temporary.  The young throughout the Arab Spring, two thirds of its population are under the age of 30, have no memory of the political triumph that was Nassar or Sadat.  They live lives of an unpromising future.  With food and housing subsidized most are living Thoreau’s dictum of ‘quiet desperation.’

The second trajectory resembles an exhausted Russia that enabled a militant Lenin to capture a polarized and politically paralyzed country.  The revolt against the Sha of Iran is another sufficient historical analogy, for most Shia throughout Persia didn’t want a theocracy.

Teheran has already concluded that continuous turmoil suits its interests far more than any successful transition to democracy.  This kind of realpolitik is inimical to the Persian mind and experience.  It can only be arrested by an informed, determined ‘Arab Street.’  Given that most, if not all of the countries enveloped by the Arab Spring have never had anything resembling democratic culture, the young proponents of this popular revolt must get their political house in order.

Amr Bargisi is the senior partner of the Egyptian Union of Liberals, he has written extensively on the ‘Bolshevik’ scenario.  “It is a grave mistake for the people of Egypt to believe that the rage of the masses will be placated by the ousting of the tyrant.”  Speaking on the violent, passionate impetus that compels revolutions to criminalize political differences creating permanent crisis allowing for the arrival of another fascist dictator can only be surmounted from within the appeal to natural law.  Bargisi continues by acknowledging that “the reactionary scenario is more likely over the long term.  Regardless of my own opinion, what is clear is that Egypt and many other countries throughout the Middle East lack a political culture that can sustain a liberal regime.  Without knowledge of the likes of Locke, Burke, Hamilton, Madison or Jefferson, my country is doomed to ether unbridled radicalism or continued repression.”

The American Response:

Dr. Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis are distinguished academics with specializations in Lebanon and the Ottoman Empire.  Both Near Eastern experts helped formulate the American response to September 11 that became Operaton Iraqi Freedom that began on March 20, 2003.  Most informed experts on the Arab Spring remain cautiously optimistic as the west refrains from encountering the region directly.

Both Nader Hashemi, author of  “The People Reloaded” and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, director of the Ibn Kaldun Development Center in Cairo, lead this foreign policy school of thought which remains the single most viable policy alternative that west has as we wade into the contortions of the Arab Spring.

For Heshemi, the West’s natural tendency is to assume that our historical experience is universal.  This poses serious obstacles toward understanding the region and discerning viable policy options, for the historical experience of Arab and Muslim societies is qualitatively different from the west.

Historically, religion for both Arabs and Muslims was not a source of conflict, but a tool to limit political tyranny by forcing sultans and caliphs to recognize limits demarcated by religious texts authored by scholars who had a virtual monopoly on legal affairs.  Rulers won political legitimacy by respecting religious authorities.  There are significant sects of the Muslim world today that believes that religion is not the natural ally of despotism but a possible agent of stability.  In most, if not every Arab society, Arabs associate secularism with postcolonial authoritarian regimes.  For a generation of Arabs secularism is linked to dictatorship, corruption and nepotism.

As a result, the turn to Islam as an alternative for political inspiration was both logical and natural.  Most Arabs and Muslims have never lived in an open society in which they could publicly contest political norms.  As such, these societies have not demarcated the lines of thought separating mosque from state.  The Arab Spring is the first opportunity in all Arab and Muslim history to begin this process.

As Ibrahim has written, the Arab Spring is dispelling the most egregious political myths that have dominated the region for decades.  The autocrats have succeeded in convincing several American administrations of the viable canard of the Israeli peace process.  Keeping this false hope alive allows militant autocracies to continue ruling without serious western or indigenous challenge.

The task confronting the Obama administration is how to construct a policy mix to safeguard our core interests without betraying our core values.  Supporting local aspirations for a more liberal political order is forefront in the mind of any American executive.

To perform this task, the Obama administration should familarize itself with Dr. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships & Double Standards” article that helped formulate the Reagan Doctrine.

The extreme difficulty of executing a foreign policy mandate is made all the more difficult if the executive has not articulated to her/himself the intellectual demarcations required for assessment of any policy options.  So far, this administration has been dealing with successive crisis’ on an ad hoc basis.  Kirkpatrick provides stunning intellectual clarity to break clean from this intellectual lethargy.

The violent contortions of the Arab Spring require that U.S. strategy differentiate between autocratic regimes that are capable of assimilating a western liberal order of governance from repressive totalitarian regimes that cannot.

U.S. foreign policy has traditionally looked with suspicion at concepts of the balance of power, the very political frameworks that guide Saudi Arabia and Iran as they confront each other over the spoils of our engagement in the lands of Arabia.  But western policy wonks ought to fortify themselves to recognize previous foreign policy achievements that can guide policy options that combine calculations of national interest with the promotion of freedom, a balance that marries our values and our interests.


About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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