New masters of the Middle East?
I have seen the future of the Middle East and it looks a lot more like pre-1990s Latin America than the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Out with the mullahs and welcome to Days of the Generals. Although only fools and the U.S. State Department associate the terms “junta” and “human rights,” the silver lining for the Middle East is that military government is preferable to theocracy.
Readers of this blog know that many months ago I predicted what occurred on July 3: the military ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi. They also know that I have been ultra critical of what is still incongruously referred to as the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2010-11, and of Westerners cheering those events. (They also know that I view support-from-afar as an unpalatable mix of closeted anti-Semitism and magical thinking.) It’s time to fess up to the truth that Arab Spring was little more than an attempt to wrestle power from the Old Masters and put it into the hands of the New Theocrats. Neither group should be confused with men of the people or forces of peace, though the Old Masters at least had the common sense to know that anti-Israel ranting was best contained to political speeches, not actual policy. Like former Egyptian President Sadat or Jordan’s Hashemite rulers, they made loud critical remarks, and then more quietly signed side deals with Israel. For all of his bluster, it’s what Bashar al-Assad has done in Syria; the Saudis are the undisputed masters of it. The generals like this sort of thing–it justifies their budgets without sending them off to inglorious defeat on the battlefield.
Never has the time been more ripe for such policies. The dream image held by most erstwhile theocrats is a combination of Gamel Nasser and the Ayatollah Khoemeni–war against Israel abroad and secularism at home. That ship has sailed and it came home with an empty hold. Both Nasser and Khoemeni were, in their own ways, a product of the Cold War; they played off the West against the Soviet Union to stave off full-scale interventionism. They also fared badly when their ravings prompted them to send their generals off to war–Egypt was clobbered by Israel in 1948 and 1967 (and didn’t do very well in 1973, either), whereas Iran came within a whisker of defeat at the hands of infidel Saddam Hussein in the 1980s (and probably would have lost if that damned idiot Ronald Reagan hadn’t authorized shipments of weapons to Iran.) Arab Spring has been little more than an attempt to turn back the clock militarily and socially.
It won’t work. The days of veils, beards, misogyny, and hatred of Jews must end if Arab (and Turkic) states are to have a future. The Cold War is over and globalism had ushered in a new reality. One can certainly debate the (im)morality of global capitalism, but the hard truth is that the world is now a big market and if one shopping mall is unsavory, one simply goes to a different one. Egypt discovered this in a big way. What does Egypt offer the world? Not bloody much! The Suez Canal is a relic of days when goods didn’t move in airplanes and oil tankers could squeeze through it. (It will ultimately become an antique in the coming post-petroleum age.) Is the world pining for dates and palm oil? In truth, Egypt’s most saleable commodity is tourism and travelers simply stopped heading for a land controlled by men shouting “Death to infidels!” Believe the generals when they say they don’t want to rule Egypt. They’ve no plan to replenish the country’s depleted coffers, but you’ll soon see them guarding the tourist routes and in villages ferreting out Islamists. Amnesty International and Western liberals will rent their collective garments and the tours will fill.
I’m not defending violations of human rights, but haven’t we learned by now that pursuit of profit is (at best) amoral? And haven’t we also learned that religious fundamentalists of all stripes are, by nature, even more prone to acts of barbarism than global traders or generals? (Only ethnicity-based uprisings are bloodier.) Places that can’t keep their religious fanatics in check–Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Palestine, the U.S. South–are finding themselves shut out of the global market. Such back-to-the-future behavior is ultimately self-defeating.
Ask Iran. Although Islamist “Guardians” still hold the upper hand there, the writing is on the wall in a nation in which the bulk of the population was born after the 1979 evolution and have grown weary of zealotry. Like young people everywhere, modern Iranians are more interested in electronic gadgets, pop stars, and good times than turbans, beards, and veils. Although new President Hassan Rohani is a cautious man who gets along with the Guardians, his very election shocked the religious establishment and was a repudiation of the provocative madness of Ahmadinejad.
Iran is probably years away from major political turmoil, but keep your eyes on Turkey, which may well be the next Egypt. Protests are gathering against the Erdoğan government, which represents the interests of conservative religion. His policies are viewed (correctly) as antithetical to the staunch secularism embedded in the Turkish constitution since the founding of the modern Turkey by Kemal Atatürk in 1923. Turks desperately long to join the European Union and it’s simply not going to happen until Turkey gets its finances in order and its Islamists out of power. Kemalists are waiting in the wings and they have historically leaned on the military.
The bottom line is this: Change is coming to the Middle East, but it’s more likely to wear a medal festooned uniform than a robe and a beard.