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Hichem Karoui: Changes that did not occur
January 21, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The ongoing crisis in the Gulf continues to spill a lot of ink. Let us hope that it remains with ink and nothing else. Some speak of a “nuclear” Iran as if it were expected to change the face of the world. They forget that, by all accounts, Iran is a small developing country. The noise they are making around its nuclear programme has so far failed to hide the truth, which is: Israel, not Iran, has surely the deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons; and Israel, not Iran, occupies Arab territories by force, and is again threatening its neighbourhood of war.

Indeed, nearly three decades ago, Iran became the centre of an important phenomenon, called: political agitation. Yet, it changed nothing in the Arab world. The autocracies continued to live as they have always lived. They survived the Iranian seism ... until the Arab Spring. Today, something is changing in the Middle East, but it is hardly connected to Iran.

The Iranian revolution was certainly one of the most sweeping events of the last century. It has been compared to the 1917’s Bolshevik revolution mostly for the shockwaves both events unleashed. Yet, the Iranian influence could not change regimes, although it inspired movements across the Arab world in the 1980s:

In Egypt, on Oct.7, 1981, a splinter from the Muslim Brotherhood called Islamic Jihad assassinated president Sadat. The group was subsequently found to have hatched the assassination plot with Al Gamaa Al Islamiyya, a Brotherhood offshoot that would, in the mid-1990s, develop ties with Al Qaeda and be chiefly responsible for the 1997 terrorist attack in Luxor on Nov.17, 1997. Oddly enough, the Muslim Brotherhood (with its Islamist allies) is today the winner of the first Egyptian elections after the revolution. Is this phenomenon less important than Iran’s nuclear file? I doubt it.

In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood initiated a rebellion against the regime of Hafiz Al Assad. Today, it is the entire people of Syria in revolt against the same regime. This has nothing to do with Iran.

In Lebanon, the Hizbollah, considering Israel and the USA as two sides of the same coin, sought to deal both a massive defeat in the country. Iran nurtured Hizbollah and Hizbollah served Iran’s Islamic Revolution. However, both fear the collapse of Assad’s Syria, and are helpless about it.

In Afghanistan, Jihad was directed against both internal and external enemies, i.e. the communist government and the Soviet invaders. Today, it is still directed against two “enemies”: the ex-ally (USA) and its local “protected.” The “enemies” have changed, not jihad; and Iran has nothing to do with it.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Islamists called for a long armed struggle to liberate Palestine and establish an Islamic state. Today, it is still the same discourse, and better: Hamas and the Islamic Jihad intend to build an alliance. Who is responsible for the political impasse? Iran? No. Israel.

And in all MENA countries, in the eighties, Islamists seemed rising as a force ready to topple governments and take over. In Afghanistan and Lebanon, they surely succeeded in driving foreign troops outside, but that victory did not lead to the ideal Islamic states that their ideologues had hoped for. Both countries remained mired in civil wars long after foreign troops retreated.

However, Islamist organisations were drawing adherents across the region and their code of behaviour was shaping societies and making Islamic symbols more visible in the public space. Was this due to the influence of the Iranian revolution in the region? Only partly, because many Islamist organisations in the Arab world have preceded the Iranian activism not followed it. And today, with the Arab Spring, they reached their goal: they are in power. Who is responsible? Iran? No. The stupidity of those who supported dictators for so many years.

True, a number of Islamic movements in the 1980s, taking their inspiration from the success of the Iranian revolution, have launched armed struggles and attempted to topple secular rulers or to repel foreign invaders. This is what we call an “ideological preponderance,” which is a sociological phenomenon also noticeable in the wake of many revolutions, from the 1848’s European wave, to the 1917’s Bolshevism, through to the 1989 East European uprisings, and up to the 2011 Arab uprisings.

But what is at stake today is more than Iran upgrading its nuclear programme. This cannot be of any real influence upon the societies of the Middle East. The real challenge comes from inside these societies themselves, as we cannot predict yet how Egypt, or Tunisia, or Libya would evolve with the Islamists at the top. How are they going to handle the internal and external issues? Do they really understand the “realities” of a complicated international game? And above all, how the revolution in Syria and Yemen would develop, whereas we have the impression that these countries are on the eve of implosion, because of the type of social order that so far has prevailed.

Although socially diversified, the Middle East is not yet a pluralistic society in which a subordinate group does not have to forsake its lifestyle and traditions. Pluralism is based on mutual respect between various groups in a society for one another’s cultures. It allows a minority group to express its own culture and still to participate without prejudice in the larger society. Unfortunately, violence and even civil wars have destroyed the civil peace in several countries of the region because of the intolerance and the manipulation of social groups against each other. On such a large scale, this may be hardly the consequence of the only Iranian meddling in internal conflicts.

In Lebanon, the 15-year civil war started well before the Iranian revolution. In Algeria and Morocco, there was a Berber problem since the independence. In Egypt, Copts and Muslims did not wait for the Iranian revolution to clash. In Sudan, the civil war between southern Christians and northern Sunnite Muslims lasted for most of the second half of the last century, made thousands of victims, and ended up in partition.

In Yemen, the tribes and ethnic groups were just incapable of living together. In Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnites, and other ethnic and religious groups are at the throats of each other since so many years that it is ridiculous to say the Iranian revolution pushed them. In Iran itself, the Arabs of the Khuzestan (called Arabistan), the Sunnites, the Kurds, and other social groups — women included — face the same problem, which might have been aggravated since the revolution.

The author, an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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