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Hichem Karoui: Kings without kingdoms
October 01, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The problem of changing regimes, necessarily linked to “appropriate” behaviour towards opposition groups (assumed to be in this perspective leading the change), has always occupied the heart of US Middle East foreign policy. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the prerogative of the neoconservatives.

The latter used and overused the concept under Bush Junior, but they did not create it. Anyway, the concept has created over time a very bad reaction that has settled permanently among the elites of the Arab-Muslim world to the point of reversing the tide: if despotism is the problem, regime change has become part of the problem, not of the solution.

Regime change (sometimes with military intervention) has been a game practised by various US administrations, Republican and Democrat. In the context of interaction with the Muslim world, several factors come into consideration. Washington cannot — for example — decide to actively support the leaders of the opposition in any country, without considering the eventual consequences of such a support and the possible reactions against it (especially when weaponry is involved) in the Muslim world.

Besides, US support for the opposition assumed to lead the change is rarely accepted as the “correct” position, particularly when it involves funding and high-level coordination between US officials and local leaders. This is so because of the historical legacy of the colonisation and the mindset it has created among the Arab elites. The charge of US or Western “dummy” is so easy to come to the lips. Some members of the Arab elites are still unable to hold a debate clear of such innuendos in their interventions in the media or even in political meetings. This is an explanation for many of the current impasses of Arab politics, in the times of revolution.

Take the Syrians: many of the opposition leaders have made it clear they do not wish any US-led intervention in their country, even to protect the population crushed every day by the blind repression. Why did the Libyans accept what seems unacceptable to the Syrians? Did the Nato intervention in Libya undermine the future of the country? Did it form such an enormous obstacle to democracy?

These questions deserve to be honestly answered by the Arab elites in the countries where the population is being slaughtered.

Indeed, to raise the issue this way does not entail any assumption about the intentions of foreign powers. Any state has its own interests in view even when it declares acting on behalf of moral values. Yet, it is not necessary to address each powerful state namely in order to get humanistic assistance.

The United Nations Organisation has been precisely created with such a design, and it is correct to assume that it is still the institution authorised to give help during crises like the Libyan, the Syrian, the Yemeni, as it has done in the past, from Congo to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, etc. Nonetheless, the international community that any party addresses a complaint to or a call for help, is a community of states. The UN has no armed forces to compel any despot, any “rogue state,” any criminal party to give up. Hence, the necessity to enforce the UN resolutions by means and institutions that are essentially those of the states.

That is also the dilemma some Arab elites are unwilling to solve or incapable to face, while their fellow-citizens endure the harshest punishment in the country.

Whereas the elites hesitate, loiter, and indulge into infinite palaver about the way out, the despotic governments can gain time and turn the disarray of the opposition to their benefit.

It is indeed easy for any government facing a mounting popular pressure, with the declared support of the USA and the Western world (as it just happened), to deflect political issues — like democracy and power sharing — to the “religious” stance, the sectarian divide, and the irrational. Such was the case with the Baathist secular regime of Saddam, after 1992, which under international pressure, turned to Islam, not to seek spiritual solace, but to mobilise the masses against a “new crusade,” while the Shiites in the South and the Kurds in the North were rebelling. Such was also the case with Iran in the wake of the 2009-2010 electoral protests. And we saw almost the same pattern recurring with the embattled Qadhafi.

In Syria, the Assad regime did not use the same discourse, with an emphasis on Islam, maybe because nobody would accord it any credibility. Still, it is apparent that for the government, the USA, Israel, and the West are those who want regime change, not the people of Syria.

In Yemen, Ali Abdallah Saleh coming back from his forced short exile in Saudi Arabia, clearly intends to break the will of the population, which continues to shout against him in the streets. Contrary to Assad, Saddam, and Qadhafi, Saleh did not engage in an anti-US rhetoric as a way out of his crisis, because he did not build his own political discourse and popular influence on such a basis. Nor were Saddam, Bashar and Qadhafi the leaders of any resistance against the US imperial hegemony. Several recently unveiled documents revealed to the world how much every one of them was ready to sell his soul off to the “devil” they had damned if the “devil” was willing to buy it. But it did not happen.

Wishful thinking made Saddam, Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qadhafi figure out they have become absolutely “necessary” to the Western interests: Saddam for fighting his own war against Iran on behalf of the Arabs (who did not ask him), the West, and the “civilization;” Ben Ali, for making France and the USA “confident” he was their “friend” and the protector of “their” interests in Tunisia; Mubarak, for keeping Israel’s relations with Egypt “safe” and “out of trouble”; and Qadhafi for selling off his network of mercenaries, terrorists, and international pariahs to MI6 and the CIA, and dismantling his WMD programme.

All of them imagined they were striking a deal with the West that would grant their offspring and families to be kings without kingdoms in their exhausted republics.

When they discovered that their dreams were pipedreams, it was too late.
The author, an expert in US-Middle East relations
at the Arab Center for Research and Policy
Studies (Doha Institute)

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