Arab autocrats incredulous as people revolt

By David Gardner in London

Published: April 3 2011 18:18 | Last updated: April 3 2011 18:18

Bashar al-Assad’s much-trailed presidential address to Syria last week was supposed to be about reform. Instead, he repeatedly conflated the protesters who have convulsed the nation with shadowy conspirators plotting to sow sectarian strife. It was a classic of the Arab strongman genre.

As waves of revolt rip through the Arab autocracies, every ruler under threat has reached for ever more preposterous explanations. Incredulous before real people demanding real change, the Arab autocrat either sees or claims to see – it is not always clear which – a disembodied conspiracy. This pathology is not quite as odd as it seems.

For despots who have come to power through military coups and wars, and bribed, plotted and killed to stay there, how could politics not be a conspiracy theory when its leading practitioners compulsively conspire?

Muammer Gaddafi set the bar high. Having backed over the years a melange of “liberation movements”, even simultaneously supporting rival factions in countries across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, it is no huge imaginative leap for him to say Libya’s rebels are run by al-Qaeda jihadis who have been spiking their coffee with hallucinogenic drugs.

Yet even the sober and plodding Hosni Mubarak, the fallen president of Egypt, said the civic insurgency that brought him down was the work of Zionists and Hamas, those inseparable allies.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen who looks destined to follow the Egyptian leader, said the revolt he faced was being directed from “an operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilising the Arab world” and “run by the White House”.

The fact that Mr Mubarak had been in de facto alliance for 30 years with an Israel that audibly fears what will follow his departure, or that the US has been Mr Saleh’s principal ally, because it fears Yemen will become an al-Qaeda base in the region if he is deposed, struck neither man as contradicting these claims.

So pervasive is this discourse that one might think there is something in the local water. It was an Egyptian official who, after deadly attacks at Red Sea resorts, hypothesised that Mossad, Israeli’s external intelligence agency, had planted killer sharks.

Egypt has received $1.3bn a year in US military aid since it made peace with Israel in 1979. Yet state newspapers and television stations spew out anti-western bile, as do some mosques, in many places the mass media that reach furthest. The idea is both to infantilise politics and license the letting off of steam.

It has been remarked that the question of Palestine has hardly come up during the Arab Spring, leading some pundits to conclude that Arab youth do not care about Israel and the Palestinians. Opinion polls comprehensively refute that but capture less well how the most dynamic sectors of Arab society are sick of the issue being manipulated by their rulers.

At stake in these revolutions is not just freedom and democracy but whether the traditional cleavages in Arab society – not just over Israel-Palestine but between Muslim and Christian, Sunni and Shia – still work for rulers who instinctively divide and rule.

Muslims and Coptic Christians were united in Tahrir Square, as were Sunni activists with Bahrain’s majority Shia in Pearl Square. Yet sectarian riots ensued, and it is not too much of a conspiracy theory to suspect state security provocateurs were involved in both cases.

In Syria, where minority Alawites, with support from Christians and the Sunni elites, rule over a Sunni majority, people who have witnessed sectarian savagery in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq fear a new Balkans-in-the-sands. Yet the Syrian regime has fomented sectarian fissures among its neighbours – fearful, like all Arab regimes, of the national and democratic movements now emerging.

The more these movements push, the more they will open cracks inside the regimes that decades of despotic rule have papered over. Saudi Arabia, for example, may see an Iranian conspiracy among the Shia of Bahrain and in the oil-rich east of the kingdom. The real cleavage is between the House of Saud’s simultaneous alliance with the US and the profoundly reactionary Wahhabi clerical establishment. Now that is a contradiction.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011. You may share using our article tools. Please don’t cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.


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