Friday, September 30, 2016

State Sovereignty and the Military in the Middle East: the Case of Iraq’s PMUs

What threat do militias and armed forces which are not under state control pose for its sovereignty?  In Iraq, we have seen the establishment of a large number of militias after the Da’ish (the so-called Islamic State) seized Mosul in June 2014.  What are the ramifications of the formation of military units beyond the control of the central state? 

Max Weber’s well-known definition of the state as the institution which enjoys a monopoly on the use of force within a given territory is increasingly meaningless in the MENA region.  Surveying the states of the region, we find that in many either the state is challenged by oppositional military forces or are unable to  reign in militias which combat with the national army.

Moving from west to east, we find the Algerian military challenged by an al-Qa’ida affiliate – al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM).  In neighboring Libya, there is only a nominal  national army with real power residing in a myriad of militias which are largely tribally and/or regionally based.  

Tunisia also faces a threat from a militia which has sworn allegiance to Da’ish in the northwest of the country whole Egypt likewise faces a challenge to national authority in the Sinai Peninsula from the so-called Wilayat Sina (the Sinai Provicnce) which considers itself part of the Da’ish.

In Lebanon, the national army has always been weak in relations tom the militias run by the power brokers (al-zu’ama) of the countries various ethnosectarian groups, whether it be Hizb Allah, the Lebanese Forces, the Druz Militia and many others.  In Syria, of course, there is a beleaguered national army which most likely would have collapse in the face of multiple militias throughout the country were it not for Russian intervention on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Although Turkey boasts the most powerful  military in teh MNENA region after Israel, it faces a serious threat from a guerrilla movement, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which it has fought from 30 years.  Just when it appeared that the conflict might be nearing resolution, the regime of President Rajeb Tayyib Erdogan decided to forsake negotiations for a reintroduction of military forces to bring the PKK and its supporters to heal. ow is this problem mpalying itsdelf in Iraq/HH

Yemen is largely a failed state and all the more so after discriminate bombing by Saudi Arabia.  In other words, very few states in the MENA region have control over their territories from a military point of view.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Spread of Terrorism

The New York Times published a lengthy article, “Both Arsonists and Firefighters: Saudis Promote Jihadist Ideology but also Fight Terrorism,” on August 26, 2017 ( What was striking about this article was the delay in its publication. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has been in the forefront of spreading its puritanical and deviant form of Islam, Wahhabism, for decades.  The question arises: why are we just now seeing exposes of the KSA and its relationship to the spread of terrorism? 

The key variable neglected in the New York Times article is the lack of a historical and political economic context.  It also fails to address whether the United States, and its Western allies in the EU, will try to pressure the KSA to reduce its support for radicalism around the world, which is amply documented in the article.

KSA influence has been directly correlated with the collapse of the state system in the Middle East.  This collapse is not recent but has been a long time in the making and was evident by the abject defeat of Arab states by Israel in the June 5-10, 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War The June War began the decline of one party authoritarian states, such as Jamal cAbd al-Nasir’s (Nasser) Egypt and Ba’thist Syria and Iraq, which lost legitimacy given their inability to keep their promise to bring victory to the Palestinian people in their struggle with Israel.  Once the residents of Egypt’s Suez Canal cities were forced to move westward following the war, many to Cairo, and other Delta towns, and the Canal was shut down with the consequent loss of transit revenues, the Nasir regime found itself facing severe economic hardship.

Egypt’s economic dependency on the KSA The KSA’s used its extensive oil wealth to weaken the Nasir regime - which it saw as its main adversary in the Arab Middle East – by creating an economic dependency in which a tacit agreement was forged, leading Nasser to tone down his anti-Saudi and anti-monarchical rhetoric in exchange for financial aid.

KSA political and ideological penetration of Egypt However, the critical post-1967 war legacy was the ability of the Saudis to use their new found influence in Egypt to support the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist political forces.  The US tacitly supported this effort because the Nasir regime was seen as a Soviet ally in the Middle East.  

US support for Islamism The same mistake of supporting intolerant Islamism following the 1967 War presaged the mistake the US made again when it trained and militarily supported Islamist forces (so-called al-mujahideen) in ousting Soviet forces from Afghanistan during the late 1980s.  In both cases, the US felt that the KSA could be used to promote its Cold War agenda, namely reducing Soviet influence in the oil-rich Middle East.  In both instances, the US learned the meaning all too well of the admonition “play with fire and you'll get burned."

Wahhabism as a ploy for Western economic and military ties Among its shortcomings, the New York Times article fails to mention a key reason why Wahhabism is viewed in instrumental and not just ideological  terms by the Saudi royal family.  Anyone who has visited the KSA knows that the social-cultural reality of the public sphere differs dramatically from the behavior of the political elite behind closed doors in private palaces and mansions. (Johnny Walker Red was the alcohol du jour when I visited the KSA). 

By empowering an austere and repressive clergy to control behavior in the public sphere, and enforce strict codes of gender relations (, the royal family can manipulate Wahhabism, an ersatz caricature of Islam (better referred to as al-inhiraf), to offset criticism of the close economic and military ties which the KSA maintains with the West, especially the United States.  Using the public veneer of what the KSA calls “Islam” – Wahhabism – Saudi royals make the argument to the KSA’s citizenry, and Muslims elsewhere, that the kingdom’s public persona makes it the most “authentic” (asil) Muslim state on the planet.
Domestic, regional and global Wahhabism As the New York Times article correctly notes, the KSA’s alliance with Wahhabism serves an important  legitimating function.  However, the relationship cannot be comprehended only by referencing the ties of the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn cAbd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), with the Al Sacud tribe in the al-Najd region of the Arabian Peninsula.  To fully understand the significance of this relationship requires situating it in the contemporary politics of the Middle East.

As noted, Wahhabism serves a domestic function by allowing the KSA to suppress internal dissent, e.g., directed against the regime’s authoritarianism, corruption, and dependency on the West, through arguing that the kingdom embodies the “true form” of Islam.
Saudi blogger Raif Badawi - flogged for seeking free expression
At the regional level, Wahhabism has been used to combat republicanism in the form of Arab nationalism and socialism, e.g., in Algeria and in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.  It is not true that the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 represented the key stimulus for the KSA to promote Wahhabism regionally.  Let’s not forget that Egypt and the KSA were fighting a proxy war in Yemen just prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War after a clique of army officers, led by Abdallah al-Sallal, who were sympathetic to Nasir, overthrew the monarchy of Imam Muhammad al-Badr in 1962.

In the current political situation in the Middle East, Wahhabism has assumed a virulent anti-Shi'a tone.  The anti-Shi'a rhetoric is directed against the KSA's current nemesis, the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran.  This policy only feeds into the brutal policies developed by the so-called Islamic State which made killing Shi'a one of its signature acts of violence.

At the global level, Wahhabism represents a strategy for offsetting a mono-culture economy, namely one built on oil wealth, a relatively small population, and, apart from the Hijaz, a weak entrepreneurial sector of the overall economy.  By exporting Wahhabism to the nation-states of the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and countries and regions farther away, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Central Asia and North America, the KSA has created not only a global network of ideological ties but a parallel network of political, economic and cultural ties as well. 

To give examples of Saudi behavior, during the UN sanctions regime of the 1990, the kingdom paid money to Iraqi Sunnis who agreed to pray 5 times a day and to Iraqi Sunni women who wore the hijab .  When a Saudi delegation arrived in the Kurdish region of Iraq, after the 3 majority Kurdish provinces broke away from Saddam Husayn's regime after the 1991 Gulf War, they informed the Kurds that they have arrived with funds to help them build their new autonomous political entity.

The Kurds, in turn, informed the Saudis that they welcomed the visit because they needed funds for schools, hospitals roads and municipal services.  When the Saudis replied that the funds they had brought were only for building mosques, the Kurds immediately realized the hidden Wahhabi agenda and sent the Saudi delegation packing.

The “chickens come home to roost” The title of the New York Times article conflates two phenomena, spreading radical Islamism and fighting terrorism.  The KSA only began to take terrorism seriously after al-Qacida was established and set up shop in Yemen, and attacks against the kingdom were initiated by the so-called Islamic State (Dacish).  In other words, if we review KSA policies extending back to the 19670s and afterwards, there were no efforts to fight terrorism in the MENA region.

It is true that the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by Saudi religious radicals in 1979 constituted a serious attack against the Saudi monarchy (an uprising which some analysts claim was actually suppressed by Israeli troops in unmarked uniforms after Saudi forces were unsuccessful in recapturing the mosque). 

Only after the 1991 Gulf War, when Usama bin Ladin used the presence of US military forces on Saudi soil to establish al-Qacida, did fighting terrorism become part of the KSA political agenda. Thus the title, “Both Arsonists and Firefighters” is misleading, because the KSA is a late-comer to fighting terrorism, and only once it threatened the Saudi homeland.

Will the US change its policy towards the KSA? Don’t expect any meaningful change of US policy towards the KSA, whether during the remainder of the Obama administration or under what will probably be a Clinton presidency.  Because the KSA feels highly threatened by the P5+1 deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons development program, the US and its allies do not want to alienate the KSA and other Sunni allies such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, by exerting pressure on the KSA to stop its global promotion of Wahhabism and, with it, Saudi political influence.

Further, there is a tacit alliance between the KSA and Israel who have been cooperating for years in intelligence sharing (  This unstated alliance includes Egypt, Jordan and the Arab Gulf states, and is considered essential to the United States in its struggle against the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist organizations operating in the  Middle East.  Thus the US is reluctant to put too much pressure on the KSA to force it to curtail its financial support of radical Islamist organizations, including so-called "charities" and "religious schools" (al-madrasa; pl. al-madaris).

The role of the “oil curse” The only variable which may lead the Saudi monarchy to play down it reliance on Wahhabism is the collapse of oil prices in the world market.  While highly conservative, the current KSA leadership realizes that, unless the regime changes its economic development model, the Saudi state could experience some rough sledding in the coming decades. 

The political economic contradictions of Wahhabism If the Saudi state does not remove Wahhabi clerics from positions of power within the kingdom, women will not be able to be fully integrated into the Saudi economy.  Saudi males will not be able to be taught the types of business and entrepreneurial skills which would allow the economy to move from its overarching dependence on oil to one characterized by economic diversity.

Saudi youth and future of the KSA Perhaps most important is the simmering discontent of large segments of Saudi society, especially the large youth demographic which chafes at the social and cultural restrictions, which many consider Medieval, and the lack of any meaningful political participation for those outside the royal family in the political system.  Unless Saudi youth can be motivated to support the monarchy, and that can only happen through greater political participation and personal freedoms - at this point a contradiction in terms - the KSA faces yet another enormous impediment to implementing reformist change.

The role of Iran Given the large Shica population in the KSA’s 2 oil-rich provinces of al-Hasa and al-Qatif in the northeast of the country and the growth of Shica populations in the Arab Gulf, the future behavior of Iran will strongly influence any moves towards reform by the Saudi monarchy.  If the current radical elite of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Guardian Council and the Revolutionary Guards continue to spew vitriol against the KSA and the Arab Gulf states as lackeys of “the Great Satan,” then those within the monarchy who seek to curtail Wahhabi influence will face a difficult time.

In the KSA, Islam explains everything and Islam explains nothing Islam – or more precisely Wahhabism, a deviant form of Islamism – is ubiquitous in the KSA.  As I have argued, the manipulation of Wahhabism has little to do with orthodox Islamic doctrine and everything to do with protecting and expanding the domestic, regional and global power and influence of the Saudi royal family and political elite.

Journalists and analysts who write for The New York Times and other forms of mass media in the West do their readers no service by constantly viewing the contemporary Middle East through the prism of something they call “Islam,” to the detriment of other forms of explanation, especially historical context, and the political economy of inter-elite and inter-state conflict, and the efforts of states such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to cast a global political and economic reach.

Friday, August 26, 2016

al-Jareeza MIN WASHINGTON - “Donald Trump and the World: a Return to Unorganized Chaos?"

I recently had the pleasure of appearing on al-Jazeera Arabic’s program, Min Washington (From Washington).  The program was broadcast on August 16-18.  The host was Mr. Muhammad al-Alami and the guests were Dr. Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director of the Washington, DC Arab Center, and myself. (
The topic of the program was Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s foreign policy.  Does Trump have a coherent foreign policy?  Does he have an effective strategy for addressing the major security threats which currently face the United States?  If so, what exactly does he propose?
Trump woos Arab clients while arguing that Muslims must be barred from US
Understandably, there is great interest in Donald Trump outside the United States.  This is especially true in the Arab world and the larger Middle East where most countries have Muslim majority populations.  In light of comments he has made about American Muslims, and Muslim beyond the borders of the United States,  Trump’s use of terms which many Muslims find objectionable, e.g., “radical Islam” and the need to subject Muslim immigrants to the United States to “serious vetting,” have created serious concerns.
Trump and Husayn Sajwani, DAMAC Group CEO, Dubai
A problem the Min Washington producers encountered was that there are few Muslims in the United States who support Trump and who would appear on the show to defend his policies.  That fact indicates a serious problem facing Trump should he win the presidency.  Muslims, both in the United States and in the Arab world, hold very negative views of him.  Few in the Middle East trust Trump and thus he would start his presidency with a substantial deficit in the eyes of most Middle East governments and politically active citizens.

Dr. Jahshan and I noted the absurdity of Trump’s statement that President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were the founders of the so-called Islamic State (Dacish).  Apart from the patently false nature of the claim, what exactly did Trump mean when he made it?  How in fact did Obama and Clinton establish the IS?  

Dr. Jahshan pointed to the fact that 50 former top American security officials, all Republican, signed a document disavowing Trump who they consider unqualified to hold the office Commander-in-Chief, precisely because he makes absurd and contradictory statements about both domestic and foreign policy.  

The question hovering over our discussion was how could someone with absolutely no foreign policy experience become a candidate for the most powerful political position in the world?  I offered two arguments to address this issue.  

First, Trump has been very clever in exploiting the anger and fear of a large segment of white middle aged male voters who are losing their jobs to US corporate off-shoring and technological change.  The need for higher levels of education and robots are making many blue collar jobs redundant.

Second, the Republican Party is no longer unified.  In fact, it is divided into three different trends.  First, there is the traditional free trade and security hawk Republicans.  Good examples are Paul Ryan and William Kristol.  A second trend with the GOP is the Tea Party.  While the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, didn’t win the nomination, he did demonstrate the strength of this wing of the party during the Republican primary season this year by beating Trump in several of the contests.

A third and powerful wing of the party is what formerly was referred to as the “Reagan Democrats,” namely white working class voters who are socially conservative and favor a strong defense.  However, since the 1980s, this group has been transformed into what we may call “resentment voters.”  The promises of the Reagan era that cuts in government spending would improve their standard of living haven’t materialized.  Indeed, the opposite has occurred, as members of this demographic have seen a secular decline in their wages.

What I emphasized was the isolationist tendency of resentment voters, the core of Trump supporters.  Despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, manufacturing is at an all-time high in the United States, having increased over 45% during the last 25 years.  The problem is not the lack of manufacturing but the increasingly high skill levels required of workers and the continued replacement of workers by robots.

If the next president doesn’t address this issue, the anger and frustration of resentment voters will only increase.  If the Republican dominated US Congress continues to refuse to allocate funds for stimulating economic growth, particularly infrastructure development, then new construction jobs will not materialize and the economic conditions faced by high school educated white voters could lead them  to support extremist politicians and groups, even farther beyond the political mainstream than Trump.

Isolationism is the last thing the United States needs in an era of spreading global terrorism, reckless regimes such as Iran and North Korea, and the aggressive behavior of a Russia which, under Vladimir Putin seeks to project a much greater level of power and influence on the world stage.

In the end, Trump is only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg.  He symbolizes the degradation of American politics where hope in the future is replaced by fear, anxiety and decreasing trust in democratic institutions. 
The beginning of the 21st century cries out for statesmen, not short-sighted, self-centered and narcissistic politicians.  It calls for political leaders who can offer new policies with which to tackle the complex and dangerous problems which face the global arena. 

That Donald Trump is only an election away from becoming leader of the most powerful country in the world - the country which remains in the forefront of providing international leadership - is disconcerting.  That Trump evokes only the dark and mean-spirited side of American politics, and knows nothing about the problems he would face were he to be elected president, represents a disturbing sign of the times.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

After the Turkish Coup - Democracy, Development and the Struggle against the "Islamic State"

It has been 2 weeks since the attempted military coup in Turkey was aborted.  What will be its long term impact?  Clearly, the coup and its aftermath have degraded the quality of the once vaunted Turkish military, after Israel, the second most powerful in the Middle East.  The US coalition’s ability to defeat Da’ish has also been undermined.  However, the consequences of the coup go far beyond its military implications.

Much analysis of the failed coup has focused on the culpability of the Gulenist Movement, led by the exiled Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen.  Once an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gulenists have come to be viewed, over the past several years, as the AKP’s mortal enemy.
US General J.F. Campbell, Ret.,who AKP magazine, Yeni Safak, accused of supporting coup
What has been particularly galling to Erdogan and the AKP is that Gulen lives in exile in Pennsylvania.  Not an insignificant number of Turkish politicians, and military and intelligence personnel, have (irresponsibly) implied that the US was sympathetic, if not involved, in the coup. Academics sympathetic to the Erdogan government have described the coup attempt as part of an ”international imperialist Zionist plot.”  In short, much rhetoric and hot air have been expended in an effort to explain the coup, but relatively little serious analysis.

The United States, the international community and even Fethullah Gulen have condemned the coup attempt for its effort to overthrow a democratically elected government.  Nevertheless, the international community has expressed its serious concern at the manner in which President Erdogan has used the coup to eliminate large numbers of Turks, whose loyalty he suspects, removing them from their positions in the military, intelligence services, state bureaucracy and secondary school system.
Turkish soldiers who purportedly participated in failed coup being beaten by civilians
What has been especially disturbing has been the arrest of large numbers of Turks immediately after the coup was suppressed.  To analysts of Turkish politics and society, this indicated that lists of suspected dissidents had been compiled long before the coup attempt, which provided a perfect pretext for mass arrests and dismissals of Turks from their government positions who the Erdogan regime suspected of disloyalty.

Since the coup, over 15000 Turks have been arrested and more than 60,000 Turks fired or suspended.  The purge of government positions has gone far beyond the military and intelligence services.  It includes large numbers of secondary school teachers, judges, and bureaucrats.  Further, Erdogan has labeled all newspapers and television stations, which do not tow his line on interpreting the coup, as part a Gulenist and foreign plot anti-Turkish and has suspended their licenses.
Turkish officers arrested after failed coup attempt-center former Air Force Commander Akin Ozturk
The following is a list of those suspended or detained after the coup (  The list is striking in the breadth of those who have been implicated in some manner in the failed coup attempt, even though, by the Erdogan government’s own indication, only 1.5% of the military joined the coup attempt:

·       42,767 people in the Ministry of Education including 21,738 suspended government workers and 21,029 public staff education members
·       8,777 Ministry of Interior personnel
·       2,745 judges and prosecutors have been listed for detention
·       1,700 soldiers -- including 87 generals
·       1,577 university deans have been asked to resign
·       1,389 military personnel from the Turkish Armed Forces
·       1,112 officials removed in the Presidency of Religious Affairs
·       673 staff members at the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Stockbreeding
·       599 officials from the Family and Social Policies Ministry
·       560 Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology personnel
·       529 Ministry of Transportation officials
·       500 officials at the Ministry of Finance
·       300 Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources staff
·       300 TRT employees
·       257 officials removed from duty in the Prime Minister's Office
·       265 Ministry of Youth and Sports workers
·       262 military judges and prosecutors
·       221 officials Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs
·       211 Turkish Airlines contracts have been terminated
·       184 Ministry of Customs and Commerce officials
·       180 Ministry of Labor and Social Security personnel
·       167 staff members at the Ministry of Environment and Urbanisation
·       110 Ministry of Culture and Tourism employees
·       100 Turkish intelligence service personnel
·       86 people removed at the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency
·       86 staff dismissed at Ministry of Foreign Affairs including removal of Central Ambassadors Gurcan Balik and Tuncay Babali
·       82 Development Ministry workers
·       51 people at the Istanbul Stock Exchange while 36 have been terminated at the Capital Market Council
·       36 Energy Market Regulatory employees
·       29 Radio and Television Supreme Council workers
·       22 employees at the Housing Development Administration of Turkey
·       21 Turkish Statistical Institute workers
·       15 Ministry of Economy staff members
·       2 general directors, 1 deputy director general, and 5 department heads at Treasury

While the suppression of the coup has allowed Erdogan and the AKP to extend their control over Turkey as never before, the short-term benefits in increased political power will be far outweighed by long term losses.  What will these losses look like? 

First, the secondary school and higher education systems will be denuded of critical thought, already undermined by the "Islamization" of the Turkish education system.  Students will receive an education which, while perhaps continuing to be strong in STEM, will suffer in the social sciences arts and humanities.  This will alienate many urban, secular Turks and will foster emigration of many to Europe, the United States and other more liberal countries.  Creativity in all aspects of Turkish life will be a casuality.

The dumbing down of the quality of Turkey's school system and prestigious universities will be exacerbated by a muzzled press and mass media.  Only newspapers, television channels and official social media which support the AKP political line will be allowed to function.  The access of ordinary Turks to alternative perspectives on important political, social, economic and cultural issues will be severely curtailed.  Because freedom of expression represents a core component of democracy, Turkey will continue the process of becoming a thoroughly authoritarian state.  Already in 2013, at least two people were sentenced in to prison on “blasphemy” charges.

Turks who disagree with the AKP government of President Erdogan will have few avenues of redress because judges who disagree with the AKP regime have been or are in the process of being dismissed.  This effort to politicize the judicial system will not only undermine the rule of law – already severely comprised by policies enacted by Erdogan prior to the coup attempt – but discourage peaceful efforts to resolve political conflicts in Turkey, espocially the 30 year old war with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).  

In other words, the state takeover of the judiciary will make it easier for those advocating violence to silence those calling for peaceful change and resolution of conflicts confronting Turkey.  This effort will strengthen radical elements involved in the conflict between Turkey’s large and growing Kurdish minority.  Indeed, we can predict that the events following the coup will play into the hands of those who advocate violence rather than negotiation in addressing the Kurd's discontent resulting from their treatment by the central government in Ankara.

From the US perspective, the most ominous development following in the coup is the possibility that Turkey will reduce its commitment to NATO.  With the arrest of the former Turkish commander of the Incirlik Airbase, a vital facility for US airstrikes on Da’ish targets in Syria and Iraq, the US was temporarily suspended from flying sorties from the base.

Erdogan has never been an enthusiastic supporter in the fight against Da’ish – the so-called "Islamic State."  A bitter enemy of the regime of Bashar al-Asad, and sympathetic to Islamist sentiments, Erdogan has had to been cajoled by the US and its allies to fight the terrorist Da’ish and then only after Da'ish attacks on Turkey.

Over the past several years, thousands of Da’ish fighters have crossed the Turkish border to join the terrorist organization in Syria and large amounts of crude oil has been smuggled across the Syrian-Turkish border providing Da’ish with a large amount of monthly revenues.

The US can expect less cooperation from the Turkish military in the future. The Turkish military no longer enjoys the capacity as a highly effective fighting force which it enjoyed before the Erdogan government began purges of its ranks, beginning in 2011.  Indeed, the Turkish president is trying to convince opposition parties to support a constitutional amendment which would have the military and security forces to report directly to him (

Erdogan is also organizing his security forces in such a manner that they will exercise tight oversight of the Turkish armed forces.  Indications are that he will use the Iranian Revolutionary Guard model whereby "commissars" loyal to him will attempt to "coup-proof" the AKP regime ( .

The undermining of the quality of the military can be sees in structural efforts to organize the branches of the military in such a way as to encourage competition between them.  By dividing the reporting structure of the chief of staff  (to Erdogan), the army, air force, and navy (to the minister of defense) and the gendarmerie, police and coast guard (to the minister of the interior),  the organization of the security sector promotes inter-service rivalry, while placing security forces under more direct AKP control.  Indeed, following the coup attempt, generals sympathetic to NATO and "Atlanticistrs" have been fired, and those with Islamist and "Eurasian " proclivities have been promoted.

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in 2002, expectations that it would try to put Turkey on a road to an authoritarian form of Islamist rule did not occur.  After initial optimistic projections that AKP Islamism would try and resolve the 30 year conflict with Turkey’s Kurdish population, led by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the situation changed.   

Once the left-leaning Democratic People’s Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi), founded in 2012, attracted support, especially through creating a coalition between secular Turks and Kurds, Erdogan viewed this development with great trepidation and threat to continued AKP rule. If Turks and Kurds could find common ground, and outside AKP Islamism, which sought to bridge the Turkish-Kurdish divide, Erdogan might be outmaneuvered (

Compounding the problem were the elections of 2015 which demonstrated the power of the new coalition when it won a significant number of seats in national parliamentary elections. Even though the Democratic People's Party's support declined once violence between the central government and the PKK erupted once again, Erdogan always distrusted the negotiations which took place between 2013 and 2015 designed to find a peaceful solution to the violence.  

What most observers have failed to note is the role state corruption played in the efforts to find a solution to the 30 year old war with the PKK. The investigation, which began in 2013 into alleged corrupt practices of AKP officials in the Erdogan government, particularly when it implicated the Turkish leader’s son, Bilal, and the weakening of the Turkish economy, exacerbated Erdogan's anxieties, making him much less amenable to making concessions to Turkey's Kurdish community which would end the conflict.

The Turkish economy's decline in 2009 undercut Erdogan’s image as a leader who was bringing prosperity to Turkey.  Much of the economic development fostered by the AKP was concentrated in real estate and was speculative in nature, namely not built on a strong foundation. The corruption scandal of 2013 cast aspersions on the “Islamic” character of the AKP.  How could a party of devout Muslims be stealing from the public purse?
Highways pass towers under construction in Istanbul's Zincirlikuyu district  
Another outcome of the coup and Erdogan's response to it will be to create further impediments to Turkish economic growth.  Foreign investors will be much more cautious about investing in an unstable political environment and Erdogan's post-coup rhetoric and behavior has further dampened economic ties between Turkey and the European Union.

Recently, Erdogan apologized to Russia for Turkey's downing of a Russian air force jet near the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015.  But will Turkey be able to reestablish the trade relations with Russia - the main supporter of Bashar al-Asad's Ba'thist regime - and will Russian tourists return en masse to Turkey?  Because Iran is likewise a strong support of al-Asad, it is not easy to see how Erdogan can turn to Turkey's historical geopolitical rival in the Middle East for economic support.
In a subsequent post, I will analyze the broader issues suggested by the current political crisis in Turkey.  The core questions relate to how the citizens of Turkey, and many other countries around the world, define their sense of political identity and community.  Unless secularists and Islamists, Turks and Kurds, and Sunnis and Alevis, just to name some of the cleavages confronting Turkey, can be addressed in a non-confrontational manner, we can predict increased political and social instability in a country which was, just a few years ago, seen as on the road to a transition to democratic governance and the MENA region's emerging superpower.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Twilight of the Dictators: the End of Authoritarianism as We Know It in the Contemporary Middle East أفول عصر الطغاة.. نهاية الاستبداد كما نعرفه في الشرق الاوسط المعاصر

A funny thing happened on the way to the Arab Spring.  Arab citizens gained their first taste of freedom.  More importantly, they learned what it means to break down the “barrier of fear.”  It was an exhilarating moment, but one which did not produce the democratic reforms which the protesters had sought.   But was the Arab Spring, as many analysts have concluded, really a failure?  More to the point, what is its legacy for authoritarian rule in the Middle East?

One of the Arab Spring‘s lasting impacts is to have brought about the end of authoritarianism as we have known it since the 1950s.  We have entered a new era - the “Twilight of the Dictators” - because none of them is secure in their rule.  No authoritarian ruler, whether Egypt’s 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Syria’s Bashar al-Asad, Sudan’s 'Umar al-Bashir, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, or Iran’s Ayatollah Khamane’i, is self-confident and able to offer  a vision of the future. 

Instead, these rulers increasingly rely on brute force and repression, as lashings, torture, executions, imprisonment  and cyber surveillance spread.  These regimes are bereft of ideology.  Neither the secular authoritarianism of the pre-Arab Spring, nor the vacuous and increasingly hollow Islamism – whether Sunni Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism, or Shi’i Iran’s State of the Supreme Jurisprudent – hold any promise for the future.

The impact and legacy of the Arab Spring by no means suggests that democracy is anywhere close to coming to fruition in the Arab world or the broader Middle East.  But its legacy does suggest that the continued ability of dictators throughout the Middle East to rule in a way that assures the outcomes they seek has come to an end.  Further, it suggests that the Arab world and larger Middle East can expect significantly more turmoil and political instability in the decades to come.
Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings
What has caused the Twilight of the Dictators?  I offer 5 arguments to explain why traditional forms of authoritarian rule are no longer tenable.  These 5 clusters of variables do not constitute discrete causal factors, but are interdependent.  Thus they need to be combined and integrated as part of a holistic explanation. 

The first variable is the ideological fragmentation which has beset the Arab world and the broader Middle East.  Authoritarian regimes are no longer able to offer a coherent legitimation of their rule. They increasingly appear for what they are – predatory, corrupt and repressive regimes which serve nepotistic and narrowly defined elite interests.  

The second factor is the lack of political institutions which fail to offer participation, accountability, transparency or the rule of law.  Instead, Middle East regimes are highly personalistic.  In no way do they function in the manner designated by the nation-state’s ostensible constitution.  Likewise state institutions fail to provide social services, education, or physical security. 

A third factor is the lack of economic growth.  This set of variables combines three elements.  First, the Arab Spring adversely affected FDI by undermining investor confidence in large parts of the MENA region. (   In 2011, 666 projects were announced at a total of 27 billion Euros, the lowest level since 2004.  In 2012, the rate increased to 37 billion Euros but this only matched the FDI rate of 2005.   

Second, corruption has increased throughout the MENA region since the Arab Spring. Third, most regimes in MENA region have sought to “liberalize” their economies.  This does not at all indicate the spread of free markets, but rather the reduction of state subsides of food and energy to attract foreign investors.  

The fourth factor undermining authoritarian rule is the end of the monopoly of information controlled by the state.  The spread of new forms of media, from channels such as al-Jazeera, which covered political and social topics heretofore considered taboo, and the spread of satellite television, to the proliferation of social media, has flooded the citizenry of MENA states with opportunities to obtain information formerly forbidden and unavailable. 
Libyan protestors during the Arab Spring
Finally, the development of a “youth bulge” in most countries of the Middle East, where large numbers of youth have been unable to find employment, has created a large, disaffected demographic.  With 70% of the population under the age of 30 in many MENA states, the inability of youth to obtain a quality education, find appropriate employment and express themselves politically provides a “perfect storm” for recruitment to criminal and extremist organizations, hence enhancing the region’s instability.

Exacerbating all these regional challenges facing the dictators of the Middle East is the recent contraction of the world market followed by the international collapse of oil and commodity prices.
Authoritarian regimes can no longer count on the implicit social contract which they were able to establish when they first seized power.  While citizens, especially the educated middle classes, were not pleased to lose their personal freedoms, especially the freedom of expression, the promise of economic security, and law and order offset this concern.  However, once economic development stalled, and state corruption and nepotism became obvious, authoritarian states found it more difficult to force citizens to behave in ways that conformed to their desires.  

Secular regimes, often populated by former army officers, who promoted a corporatism which denied social difference and subsumed the entire populace under an all-encompassing “revolutionary” ideology, have successively undermined their ideological message.  By the 1980s, the revolutionary narrative of Arab nationalism, and variants such as Algerian “socialism,” had run its course, having failed to fulfill the promise of “unity, freedom and socialism.”   Nationalized industries became a drag on the national economy and top-heavy and inefficient Soviet-inspired heavy industry failed to bring about economic growth.

Following the defeat of Arab armies in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, one response of secular dictatorships was to invoke religious tropes to augment their declining legitimacy.   This process began with Anwar Sadat’s efforts to break with the leftist tilt of Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir’s (Nasser) regime as he dispensed with the United Arab Republic, which once again became Egypt, and called for a state built on “science and faith” (al-cilm wa-l-iman).  This trend continued with Saddam Husayn’s shift to “religion” after the onset of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 when it became clear that the lightening victory over Iran he had expected failed to materialize.

To understand the development of an ideological vacuum which began during the 1970s, and accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, requires an examination not only of the rise of Islamism, whether in the form of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical variants of Islam, but a focus political economy as well.  

The Middle East has known three forms of ideology and political organization since 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.  The first ideological modality, the “ersatz” liberalism imposed on the region by British and French colonialism after WWI, was not as bad as subsequent authoritarian regimes claimed it to be.

Under monarchical rule in Egypt and Iraq, for example, there was a modicum of civility which included extensive associational life, including a rich urban culture of coffeehouses and salons, a press and literary production which saw relatively limited control by the state, and a cultural and religious diversity which saw different sects and ethnic groups live together in relative harmony.  While elections were manipulated to bring about the desired ends of rapacious elites, there were urban electoral districts where they were largely free and fair.

The authoritarian regimes which gradually took over the Middle East following WWII were largely the response to the unwillingness of pre-War political and economic elites to address the rising social problems of the region.  Large scale rural-urban migration during the first half of the 20th century, lack of jobs, and increased political participation of the lower middle and lower classes, spreading unrest in urban areas (think of the burning of Cairo in 1952), spelled the end of colonially constituted “liberal” regimes.  

The new post-WW II dictatorships, such as those which seized power under the aegis of the Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi Yemeni, and Libyan military, along with the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria, offered their citizenry a new social contract which exchanged personal freedoms for security and material well-being.  

 Education would now be free, government jobs would be guaranteed to those with university degrees, food subsidies would protect the poor and Western imperialism would end through the nationalization of foreign assets.  The laissez-faire monarchies, which offered considerable personal freedoms to the small middle and upper classes persisted in Jordan and Morocco, but elsewhere became a thing of the past.

The corporatist ideology of military-based dictatorships emphasized binary thinking.  Only two types of sociopolitical groups were recognized, “reactionaries” and “revolutionaries.”  Except in Lebanon, a state built on confessionalism, diversity in the Arab world was subsumed under the category “Arab” or “revolutionary.”  Political pluralism went by the wayside, as did the respect for multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural tolerance which had characterized the “liberal” regimes of the inter-war era.

The problem with the ideological rhetoric of the second or post-1945 phase of rule in the Middle East was its inability to deliver on its promises of material well-being.  The public sector which emerged from the nationalization of foreign enterprise was inefficient.  It provided fertile ground for nepotism and corruption.  In short, it was unable to sustain meaningful economic growth in face of population increases, especially among the young, for whom the promised economic future – stable jobs and income - was not to be.

By the 1970s, economic constraints led the Egyptian regime of Anwar al-Sadat to proclaim the so-called Economic Opening (al-Infitah).  Other authoritarian regimes approached the problem of economic stagnation in less dramatic fashion.  Nevertheless, both the Syrian Bacthist and Saddam Husayn’s regimes likewise began a process of “liberalization” of the economy.   Only Algeria remained true to the failed Soviet model of development, resulting in large scale migration of its citizenry abroad, especially to France, due to lack of jobs. 

What this development meant was a backing away from the economic promises of the Social Contract.  In Egypt in 1977, this led to food riots in Egypt when the state reduced subsidies for basic goods in an effort to obtain an IMF loan. These riots foreshadowed the peaceful protests of Tunisians, Egyptians, and Syrians which later would initiate the Arab Spring.

Arab Socialist Ba'th Party emblem
During the 1970s, Syria began its own “Open Door.”  Efforts were made to give the economy greater dynamism, including efforts by the Alawite dominated Bacthist regime to create ties to powerful Sunni Muslim merchant families in Damascus and Aleppo.  In Iraq, the 8th Congress of the Arab Socialist Bacth Party in 1974 turned away from its anti-imperialist rhetoric and put the economy on a much more traditional basis, albeit still dominated by the state.  Collective farms were dispensed with and foreign capital, e.g., the American Bechtel and the French Creusot-Loire corporations, was invited into the country to assist in the process of translating oil wealth into industrialization.

Of course, ideology in the MENA region was not the sole property of secular corporatist nationalist regimes. Islamism had always been waiting in the wings to pick up the political pieces should secular nationalism fail.  Islamism had many similarities with corporatist nationalism in its reliance on unitary and binary thinking.  In reducing all problems to the oft repeated formula: “Islam is the solution” (Islam al-hall), and dividing the world into “believers” and “non-believers,” or even worse, “apostates,” Islamism offers no better path to solving the pressing problems facing MENA nation-states.

In the Islamist state par excellence , the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran (whose constitution Olivier Roy has demonstrated in, The Failure of Political Islam, is derived largely from the French constitutional model, not from al-Sharcia), simple slogans such as “Death to the Great Satan” (Marg bar Shaytân-e Bozorg) have done little to improve the standards of living of most Iranians.  Instead, the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite has produced massive corruption, repression, especially of youth and intellectuals, and, until recently, led to Iran’s isolation as a pariah state.

Political Institutions
The political institutions imposed by the colonial powers after WWI never sprouted deep routes. As in many former colonial states, the constitutions which structured the form of these institutions bore little relationship to the country’s history or traditions.  The political elites privileged by colonial rule undermined what little support had existed for parliamentary rule and Western style judiciaries by rigging elections and excluding the bulk of the populace from political participation.

The close alliance of post-WWI political elites with the colonial powers, especially Great Britain and France, further delegitimized the political systems established by colonial rule following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.  Democracy came to be associated with corruption, lack of caring about the interests of the populace at large, and a willingness to subordinate national interests to those of Great Britain and France and, after WWII, the United States.

The establishment of one-party states by “revolutionary” regimes, whether dominated by the Bacth Party and/or the military, reduced opportunities for political participation still further.  National elections became farcical spectacles of dictators who invariably received 98% or more the popular vote.  The degradation of politics meant that youth had no education in, or understanding of, how democratic political institutions function.

The lack of economic growth
The first decade of authoritarian rule produced a distribution of income through generous state-sponsored subsidies of basic necessities, such as bread, cooking oil, sugar and propane gas.  The nationalization of foreign industry provide a windfall for the state in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran as did the seizure of domestically owned agricultural land, banks and businesses.

Two factors quickly undermined this “economic development model.”  First, there was a no ability or incentive for public sector managers to innovate or employ entrepreneurial strategies.  Instead, these managers used their position to enrich themselves, their families and their clients.

Second, the authoritarian states which had national foreign and domestic holdings lacked the capacity to make the enterprises and land which they had seized profitable.  Their ability to technologically innovate to modernize and make them more efficient was severely limited.  Egypt, the most economically pressed of the authoritarian regimes, given its rapid population growth and limited resources, realized that, without foreign capital and the technology such investment would bring, the economy would continue to stagnate.

However, the opening up of economies dominated by the state public sectors only strengthened this form of economic organization.  “Liberalization” was not synonymous to promoting market forces, as quite the opposite was true.  As the state public sector gained access to additional foreign capital, its managers had even less incentive to open up the economy to entrepreneurs who were outside the political elite.

The downside of “liberalization” has been the state’s efforts to cut subsidies on which large segments of the less well off in the populace depend upon.  To attract FDI, authoritarian states need to convince investors that the economies in which they are investing are being run according the desired financial discipline.  With economies in the MENA region facing serious declines in growth rates – even former power houses like Saudi Arabia (which has an estimated poverty rate of 25%) – the reduction in subsidies had only further undermined regime legitimacy.

The end of the monopoly of information
One of the key factors in the success of the Arab Spring was the role of social media.  Not only did social media play a key factor within the countries which were involved in the Arab Spring but among all countries of the MENA region.  Not only did social media allow organizers of the Arab Spring to efficiently mobilize and situate demonstrators for maximum impact in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, but information disseminated through the MENA region was critical in encouraging demonstrators to persist in their efforts, seeing the success of demonstrators in other countries.

While the impact of social media in the Arab Spring has been exaggerated, there is no doubt that opposition elements gained a sense of power in their ability to use it to mobilize against authoritarian regimes. What has become clear is the inability of authoritarian regimes to control social media, despite Egypt having literally shut down the Internet during late January 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings.  Other Arab Spring states tried to block Facebook and other social media platforms.

While in Iraq during the recent peaceful demonstrations at Iraq’s Green Zone in Baghdad in mid-March 2016, I saw live feeds as police and local security forces facilitated demonstrators’ ability to approach the Green Zone and pitch tents there.  Eventually the demonstrations forced the resignation of the entire cabinet of 22 ministers from Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi’s government. Clearly Iraq has come a long way from Saddam Husayn’s regime when owning a typewriter without a state license was a capital offense.

In light of the increasing sophistication of youth in the MENA region to use social media, authoritarian regime are finding it difficult if not impossible to prevent their populaces from gaining access to information which they regimes consider sensitive and a threat to their rule.

The “youth bulge”
In most countries of the MENA region, 60-70% of the populace is under the age of 30.  What demographers have referred to as a “youth bulge” need not constitute a negative phenomenon.  In East Asia, in many of the so-called “Asian Tigers,” a youth bulge was beneficial to economic growth as young people provided labor and often professional technological skills.

However, in the MENA region, for reasons described above, local economies have not generated jobs, and those which have been created are frequently reserved for the youth of families connected to the ruling political elite.  As the number of youth throughout the region without hope of stable employment increases, the ability of criminal syndicates and terrorist organizations to find recruits increases.

The Twilight of the Dictators is the tip of the “perfect storm” which is about to hit Middle East.  Ruling political elites are devoid of ideological legitimation.   To paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, authoritarian regimes in the MENA region lack a hegemonic political culture through which to generalize their interests to those of the public at large,   They lack credible “organic intellectuals”- those in the media, the religious community, and the higher education system  who promote the idea that the masses and the ruling elites share the same political social and economic interests.

With the lack of functioning political institutions, the personalistic rule of authoritarian rulers becomes all the more apparent.  Corruption and nepotism become more glaring in economies which cannot meet even the basic needs of their citizens.  Violence is spreading.  Indeed, in Syria, civil strife has resulted in the displacement of half the country’s population.

Youth are becoming ever more restless.  Frustrated, many are turning to extremism.  With the global downturn in commodity prices, and stagnant t economies in the EU and Japan, FDI in the MENA region is declining.  This trend has become a self-fueling downward spiral. Less economic growth leads to more unrest and violence.  Greater instability, in turn, hampers foreign investment and local economic growth.

What is the projected outcome of the Twilight of the Dictators?  The most likely scenario is not a turn to radical Islamism or more repressive military dictatorships, but rather an increase in the number of failed states. Already, we can count Libya, Yemen and Syria as members of this category.

In the category of semi-failed states, we can count Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon, because large parts of these countries are engrossed in civil strife and not under the control of the central government. The outcome in both cases - failed and semi-failed states - is not only domestic instability in the states in question, but the "spillover" effect on neighboring states, e.g., to Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia. 

Unfortunately, more failed states seem in the offing in the decades to come.  Egypt and Jordan could fall into this category.  What is needed is a comprehensive international strategy to address the crisis of political stability in the MENA region.  Will the US take on the role of bringing the key stakeholders together to seek a solution to the crisis, or will it continue to view Middle East politics as a "spectator sport"?