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End of the old Arab strongman

Ruling elites and religious reactionaries haven’t yet grasped that the restless young in the Middle

As revolt spreads in the Middle East, the young people who launched the protest movement are being joined by ever-growing numbers of demonstrators. This prompts one to ask: where will it end and what will the geostrategic consequences be? It would be presumptuous to claim to have perfect answers now, but we can, never­theless, begin to explore such questions.

If, in some countries, it's all or nothing (in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi will either drown the revolt in blood or he will disappear), in others we are witnessing a damage limitation exercise, in which the current regime gives the appearance of changing while attempting to keep change to a minimum. And if, for the moment, western powers are applauding the process of democratisation, they are nonetheless obsessed by the need to maintain stability - that is to say, the strategic status quo: a cold peace between Israel and the Arab world, and the attempt to build a united front in order to isolate Iran. In a number of Arab societies, conservatives of all stripes also worry about the likely direction that the democratic movement will take and are seeking compromise.

A generational conflict cuts through oppo­sition to the various autocracies. This is especially clear in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The older generation that controls the party apparatus is still in thrall to the cult of the charismatic leader. It is socially conservative and it fears that unrest will spread. Although it accepts political pluralism, its culture is not democratic and it mistrusts freedom of expression and debate.

Could a traditionalist Muslim Brotherhood become the partner of an army looking for interlocutors that share its desire for order and its rejection of the new social movements? Across the region, in the absence of elements from the movement itself, those managing the transition come from the old regime. They have not embraced the political culture of the demonstrators. They remain locked in an authoritarian mindset, calling for a return to normality. They do not understand that announcing elections and a handful of reforms is no longer enough to get people off the streets. Increasingly, unemployment or underemployment among the young is driving protests that call for an end to the monopolisation of swaths of the economy by an elite. In all the countries affected, with the exception of Tunisia, the army is part of that elite.

It is clear that, in most cases, the old-style opposition will be tempted to seek an agreement with the entrenched elites, which, for the time being, are promising to re-establish a government that certainly will be more open, but nonetheless still authoritarian. The critical division here is generational rather than ideological. A new generation of Muslim Brothers, which was already visible in the public sphere and on the internet, is subjecting the Brotherhood's principles to the test of democracy and freedom of expression. This new generation joined the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, against the advice of the leadership. The same is true of the younger generation of Coptic Christians, who no longer want their patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, to represent them.

The problem is that the elites in power, like a section of the conventional opposition, have not grasped how new the protest movement is. That it is non-violent, that it speaks in the name of democracy and pluralism, and that it does not use ideology to disguise social divisions but rather embraces all sections of society except the ruling family, renders useless the old instruments of repression, which used a mixture of violence and bribery.

What is being rejected is a political culture that has endured for the past 60 years in the Middle East: the appearance of unity around a cause (the Arab people, Islam, or Palestine) and a leader (the zaim), a state built on the secret services (the mukhabarat) and the vilification of all opponents as traitors in the pay of foreign powers (usually the United States or Israel).

The protest movement is both democratic and nationalist and it is likely to enhance the regional and international standing of those countries in which it succeeds, because it will instal governments with greater legitimacy and consequently more freedom of manoeuvre. The rapid spread of the movement throughout the Middle East invites another question: to what extent will democratisation (whether it is successful ultimately or not) change the strategic balance of power?

What is happening in Bahrain is a good indicator of the possible geostrategic impact. The religious division there, where a Sunni minority rules a Shia majority, suggests that a victory for democracy will tip Bahrain into the orbit of Iran, altering the balance of power in the Gulf considerably, not least because Bahrain would become a beacon for Shias in Saudi Arabia. That, at least, is the preferred analysis in Riyadh, which justifies the continued and unequivocal Saudi support for Bahrain's ruling family. However, the Bahraini opposition (which, for once, is associated with a political party) presents itself not as a faith group, but as a movement that draws citizens from all denominations.

Its supporters wave the national flag - that of the Khalifa family - not the Shia standard or the colours of Iran. They have few connections with Iran's theocracy, which placed one of their spiritual leaders, Ayatollah Shirazi, under house arrest. And the dominant school of religious thought in Bahrain, Akhbarism, is not the one that predominates in Iran. In short, the Bahraini opposition, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, has taken on a national complexion.

The Bahraini monarchy is thus at a turning point: either it continues to identify itself with the Bani Utbah, the tribal minority that seized power in the 18th century, or it accepts a widened conception of citizenship that crosses the religious divide, which is precisely what the demonstrators have been calling for.

Nationalising itself in this way is what the Moroccan monarchy has succeeded in doing throughout its long history. In Morocco, the nation, for the most part, has identified with the monarchy, ensuring that it was the only truly independent Arab state during the Ottoman era and maintained its national identity under the French protectorate.

Today, Morocco's protest movement, in contrast with those of other countries in the region, is not trying to undermine the system as such. It is a matter of reform rather than revolution, and a gradual transition to a constitutional monarchy. That said, King Mohammed VI's extensive entourage fears developments that would make power more transparent and deprive it of the privileges it enjoys.

In Yemen, the government is playing on old divisions between tribal peoples and city-dwellers, and on those that separate the northern tribes, historically hostile to the urban elite, from democrats. In the background is the secessionist movement in the south, which sees itself as the main loser from reunification. President Ali Abdullah Saleh will have little difficulty in mobilising the tribes, whose intervention, if it comes, will be bloody. In Libya, too, the opposition must confront tribal loyalties, though it appears to be sufficiently dynamic to overcome them.

In Syria, where memories of the 1982 Hama massacre of members of the Muslim Brotherhood are still fresh, the Alawite minority, which holds power, undoubtedly feels threatened and, like Gaddafi, would put up a fight. Meanwhile, in Algeria, the shadow of ten years of civil war is preventing the protest movement from spreading. The regime there has planted a novel form of self-repression among the population where one never knows who is massacring whom; this allows the military to exercise power more or less serenely and discreetly.

In sum, by playing on cultural divisions, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East weaken their own states, while democratic forces are pushing those states in the direction of greater national homogenisation. One of the results of this wave of democratisation could be a strengthening of nationalism, albeit one governed by realpolitik rather than supranational ideologies of any sort.

In effect, and whatever the scope of its success, the democratic movement is unlikely to create new geostrategic formations (a clash between Shias and Sunnis, for example). On the contrary, it will probably lead to a strengthening of nationalisms on the basis of more satisfactory management of social and religious divisions. However, if it is nationalism that emerges triumphant, it will be a much less ideological nationalism.

One likely, though hitherto unexpected development is a diminution of the role played in regional politics by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, this will have the effect of isolating Israel, which will lose its much-trumpeted status as the only democracy in the Middle East. It is interesting to note how little those in the new movements have referred to Israel and Palestine, especially given that the situation there has served until now to frustrate political evolution elsewhere because of the way it has been manipulated not only by standing regimes, but also by a certain third-worldist western left, for which nothing could change in the Middle East until the question of Palestine was solved. Blindness towards Arab societies has not been the sole preserve of western governments.

If the protesters' relative indifference to Israel-Palestine has the effect of sidelining the government in Tel Aviv, it also has implications for Hezbollah in Lebanon. For Hezbollah, the movement for democracy poses two problems: first, it threatens to diminish Hezbollah's regional role by reinforcing the position of nation states at the expense of pan-Arabist and pan-Islamist ideologies; second, it replaces religious belonging with the notion of citizenship as the foundation of those states. Hezbollah, which is both a religious party and a vanguardist ideological movement, will thus lose some of the moral leadership it has built up in opposition to regimes forced to negotiate in an underhand way with Israel.

It remains to be seen how the new regimes that emerge will behave towards Israel. It is likely that they will maintain a cold peace, but one that will force Israel to face up to its contradictions and the western powers to their responsibilities. Another collateral victim of democratisation will be the front against Iran, not because Iran will become popular, but because the new rulers will have little taste for crusades abroad and will no longer need to prove their good intentions to a west that must instead acknowledge the will of the people.

Olivier Roy is professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute in Florence. His most recent book is "Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways" (C Hurst & Co, £20).

This essay, written exclusively for the New Statesman, was translated from the French by Jonathan Derbyshire

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants