The end of the Arab exception?

Looking at the downfall of the dictatorship in Tunisia, and the exploding protests against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, it’s obviously hard for Western/Northern commentators, let alone Australians, to say much about what is happening now and will happen. In part that reflects the cultural and political distances involved, and in part the opaqueness of political and cultural life that is inevitably associated with dictatorship and censorship. But it seems clear that some basic premises of US policy towards the region have been rendered invalid.

Most obviously, the Mubarak regime is finished in its role as the key US ally in the Arab world. If the regime survives at all, it will be through brutal repression which makes it clear once and for all that the dictatorship is held in place solely by military force. That in turn will make the provision of substantial economic or military aid politically untenable (the Republicans were already keen to cut aid to Egypt). But without continuing aid, there is little reason for any Egyptian government to support US foreign policy in the region.

The bigger casualty is the ‘Arab exception’: the idea that the concept of democracy is not really applicable in Arab countries and that foreign policy therefore amounts to a choice of which dictator to support. [1][2]

The autonomous emergence of democratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt would fatally undermine this exception, and leave the remaining dictatorships and monarchies in the region as anomalies, for which the question about the end of the regime would be “when?” rather than “if?”. A traditional foreign policy based on the presumed continuance of the status quo would become highly problematic, with high potential costs when the crash came[3]

More generally, the whole approach of US foreign policy towards the “Middle East” rests on assumptions that will be hard to sustain when the existing dictatorships are gone. Most fundamentally, how can the idea that the US has “strategic interests” in the region be justified? In some sense, this idea rests on the assumption that the existing governments are less than legitimate, and can be dealt with in terms of traditional Great Power politics, with spheres of influence, secret deals and so on. Even weak democratic states display much more effective resistance to external interference in their domestic affairs than do typical autocratic regimes.

The point applies most obviously in relation to oil. The idea that the US can legitimately use its military power to ensure continued access to oil resources rests, in large measure, on the (not entirely unfounded) assumption that those controlling the resources are a bunch of sheikhs and military adventurers who happened to be in the right place, with guns, at the right time. Without the Arab exception, the idea of oil as a special case, not subject to the ordinary assumption that resources are the property of the people in whose country they are found, will also be hard to sustain.

Finally, of course, there is the Israel-Palestine dispute. The current crisis may well have a direct impact here. But the indirect impact of the emergence of democratic governments in the Arab world (if this happens) will be even greater. Without the special status that comes from being the only real democracy in a region full of autocracies, the idea that Israel can continue indefinitely over subject peoples and expropriate their land will be even harder to sustain, as will any attempt by the US to back that claim. On the other hand, you don’t have to believe strong versions of democratic peace to conclude that the long-term prospects for a just and sustainable peace would be enhanced by the emergence of democracy. Whether this is right or wrong, the end of the Arab exception would surely undermine the idea that the US has some special role to play in all this.

Finally, the EU is much nearer to the action than is the US, and I think it’s clear that all kinds of debates within the EU (over migration, the admission of Turkey, further integration with the Mediterranean and so on) have been colored by the Arab exception in one way or another.

Those are some strong claims, and not fully worked out, so feel free to set me straight.

fn1. There were a lot of other exceptions until recently, applying to South Americans, non-Arab Muslims, Asians in general (this one much promoted by advocates of ‘Asian values’ like Lee Kuan Yew). And before that, the exceptions were the rule, and democracy was seen as something specifically Anglo or Western European).

fn 2. There was a shadow debate on this topic under the Bush Administration, which issued a lot of pro-democracy rhetoric as part of its case for . In practice, however, the Bushies continued to rely on friendly dictatorships in the Arab world (and beyond, in Pakistan and the former Soviet Union) as leading allies in the Global War on Terror. For these allies, token gestures towards democracy were encouraged, provided there was no possibility that they would actually give rise to governments responsive to popular opinion. The reasoning behind the Iraq war embodied yet another version of the exception, namely the idea that democracy would never arise from the ‘Arab street’. Instead, democracy had to be exported by armed US missionaries, with the happy side-effect of ensuring that the grateful beneficiaries would elect a pro-US government.

fn3. Iran being the paradigm case. That said, Iran is something of an outlier. In many places where US-backed dictators have been overthrown, the subsequent level of anti-American sentiment has been surprisingly modest.Looking at the downfall of the dictatorship in Tunisia, and the exploding protests against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, it’s obviously hard for Western/Northern commentators to say much about what is happening now and will happen. In part that reflects the cultural and political distances involved, and in part the opaqueness of political and cultural life that is inevitably associated with dictatorship and censorship. But it seems clear that some basic premises of US policy towards the region have been rendered invalid.

50 thoughts on “The end of the Arab exception?

  1. @BilB

    If we are listing problems, then oil exports falling to zero last year in Egypt has to be in there as well. As oil exports drop across the middle east there will be more unrest as the relied upon revenue rapidly disappears.

  2. Limits to growth! It’s that simple. Egypt has hit its limits for sure if its oil exports have fallen to zero as iain says.

  3. Sam, 1, they are not of a separate species. If we were in their shoes we would react with absolute frustration . Our grand parents were not barbarians for defending themselves agains the Japanese and G……..y and neither are these masses of people in the Middle East keen finally end the pilfering of their resources and interference from the US and its spoilt brat, Israel. And if we dont like it, tuff tits they’d say, who are we to judge, we have proven ourselves to not be their friends, according to them.
    Why should our self-interest be their concern, anyway, what have we ever done for them?Personally I feel the best hope could rest with Al Baradei, as a sort of Mandela figure. But only if the various competing interest inside and outside somehow dont poison it.

  4. @iain

    As Iain has said.

    I think it’s not so much a cry for democracy as a cry for food and other basics. However, the bottom line is that Egypt is a terminal basket case unless perhaps it can move into solar energy big time and export it to Europe. (Lots of desert for solar.)

  5. @paul walter
    I see things very differently. I don’t see Islam as a religion of the oppressed, and I don’t think of Arabs as victims of colonialism. Instead, they are simply another failed colonial power, as brutal as any other. They just happened to lose the great imperial race long ago. I get quite sick of hearing the same group of people whine about western domination, and in the next breath indulge totalitarian fantasies of the global caliphate.

    I don’t believe western policy keeps the middle east in the dark ages, I think they do it to themselves. I think their religion and culture keeps them in a vicious cycle of repression, wars, grudges, and revolution.

  6. Islam, Arabs, al-Qa’ida. Three different groups. Not all Arabs are Muslims. Not all Muslims are Arabs. A vanishingly small number of Arabs and and a vanishingly small number of Muslims adhere to al-Qa’ida. If a people or a culture are going to be held responsible for what happened a thousand years ago, then your defence about stonings in Brisbane collapses utterly. Europeans get judged by your standards also, and much worse things than stonings were happening in Europe at that time.

    I think everyone gets sick of hearing claims of Western domination and advocacy of a global caliphate, but only a tiny minority of Arabs or Muslims talk about a global caliphate. If there is any serious threat of a global empire it is us. It is unclear whether you think a global empire is a good thing or a bad thing, so long as it is people like us who rule it.

    As it happens I think a vast amount of tripe is written about Islamic civilisation, which was never anything like the multicultural paradise that keeps getting described. But that has nothing to do with now. If the test for human rights is whether your ancestors were nice people 1000 years ago then we all face fairly grim prospects.

  7. Some tricky issues here for the US – they’d prefer to have Mubarak but want to appear to support democracy. Expect US calls for a Mubarak appointed successor as the limp ‘reforms’ continue to underwhelm Egyptians.

    The catalyst for all this, which I haven’t seen mentioned much, was the last round of elections (December 5) in which Mubarak and the NDP got over 90% of the vote. The disgust engendeed by this has been quite widespread. While the regime has targeted the MB mostly in its election rigging, this time it was against everyone, leading some wags to talk about the emergence of ‘equal-opportunity’ election fraud in Egypt (also described as ‘rigging with a hint of elections’). Only 1 MB parliamentarian (M offiically boycotted the election) was elected this time around, from what is the largest political party in Egypt. Back in early Dec, some senior MB figures were publicly talking of ‘taking to the streets’. The degree of popular anger at the lack of free elections seems to be underecognised in western perceptions of Egypt.

    Others earlier have pointed out the economic factor in the current unrest – it’s not an either/or situation. There is widespread anger at low wages, rising prices and poor job prospects, but also very widespread disgust at the regime and a desire for free elections. As is often the case with tyrants, a happy confluence of events and moods finally topples them.

    What comes next will be very interesting.

  8. @Alan
    I deliberately didn’t mention Al-Qa’ida because the attitudes of a tiny minority of extremists are irrelevant to this discussion. On the other hand, it is not true that only a tiny minority of Muslims adhere to the ideology of some kind of extremist organisation..

    I certainly don’t hold people responsible for what their ancestors did 1000 years ago; I was only pointing out the hypocrisy of people on the other side of this argument who do so. On the other hand, it is a legitimate concern if society has not advanced appreciably during that time. The above link, for instance, claims that 3/4 of the Egyptian population support stoning for adulterers, amputations for thieves, and beheading for apostates.

    It is unclear whether you think a global empire is a good thing or a bad thing, so long as it is people like us who rule it.

    I’ll bite the bullet here and say I think it is a good thing, however I’d define “like us” very broadly. I would want the empire to be non-interventionist most of the time, and to represent the global community’s interest. It would avoid military confrontations with sovereign states except when just war theory demanded otherwise. I don’t care what colour the people in Earth’s superpower are, what economic ideology they follow, or even what culture, so long as they take universal human rights seriously. It just so happens that right now that requirement excludes every major contender except the US (on it’s best day) and Europe. The global caliphate would certainly fail my test.

  9. My money is on a brutal repression not for Mubarak’s sake but pour encorauge les autre’s? through the Arabic world. I’m sure this has been suggested by the other Arabic regimes.

    And I hope I’m wrong.

    If the Egyptians can do this there is the possibility it could spread world wide.

  10. My money is on a brutal repression not for Mubarak’s sake but pour encourage les autre’s? through the Arabic world. I’m sure this has been suggested by the other Arabic regimes.

    And I hope I’m wrong.

    If the Egyptians can do this there is the possibility it could spread world wide.

  11. Egyptians are not arab,neither are Persian nor are Turkish people or Tunisians.

    if i was Egyptian i’d be considering arabs to be blow ins.

    islam couldn’t hold itself together for more than a couple of years before the sunni/shiíte split we all know and (——) came to replicate itself to the detriment of the poor old Sufi.

    i have a feeling the Scholars of Qom (whose original role was a council for the support and advice to the caliph) and the political,social and economic mess they have perpetrated on Persia are at the back of the mind of the long suffering people who are at the moment ,showing just how they feel.

    more power to them.

    in my simplistic and humble opinion.

  12. I lived through one revolution, and studied a few others. They are not predictable. But I doubt that democracy as we know it institutionally will emerge in Egypt. If what does emerge is more responsive to the broad population, it is unlikely to be as accommodating to Israel as the Mubarrak regime. It will undoubtedly have a more Islamic cast, but that can take many forms.

  13. Without reading the comments section yet, I’d have to say that it does seem a very careful thread starter, from JQ, more an IR realist reality check than a “liberal”stance in the internationalist sense. Not that am against “realism”, a fundamental plank of international affairs theorising, particularly when practiced by experts like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in the US, for example.
    At the “Public Opinion” blog, for example, Dr Gary Sauer Thompson is quite comfortable in letting Harvard professor Stephen Walt, a self-proclaimed “realist”in the comment cited by Sauer Thompson,
    do some talking for him, in his current thread starter “Goodbye Mubarak?”
    “Realism” is often conflated to centreism or (small”c”?) conservatism in populist circles, but I don’t think folk who get read Walts’ latest will find anything that cretins like Sheridan or Bolt would have written, even in a unpredicted and convulsive fit of, egalitarianism.
    Now, back to Sauer Thompson, to find out the answer, via a provided link, to a (very) long standing question as to why mid eastern affairs are not often dealt with honestly, even at many self proclaimed “independent”public affairs blogsites (then a read of the comments, back here).

  14. buggar! Got this thread mixed up with one on US decline. Never mind, Walts’article applies to both…

  15. @Marisan
    You are not wrong. Mubarak has lost control of the army so he has decided to pay thugs, give them guns and horses to ride in on the pretext of being Mubarak supporters.
    The old bastard isnt going to go quietly at all and he isnt going to go if he can possibly help it

    even though the Egyptian people want him gone. He is obvioyusly hated and detested by his people for the demonstrations to last this long.

    My thoughts are with the Egyptian people and I pray they get the change they obviously need.

  16. Alice, I am not sure that the regime has lost control of the army – and there is still the Republican Guard. To me it seems that the army has gone along with the brutal methods of the regime simply by standing back.

    The army is going to critical to the final outcome, which hopefully will be the embrace of substantive representative democracy rather than continuation of the dictatorship. I am a concerned about the exercise of American influence established over a long time over the army in brokering the resolution of the demands of the Egyptian people for social justice.

  17. @wmmbb
    I think Mubarak is playing every dirty trick to keep himself in power (and his son and family who have already amassed a 40 million fortune on the backs of the Egyptians)…that he can.

    he says he will go in three months after an orderly election (rigged by him). He says he is fixing the “constitution” (when he is ready). He says he will “talk” to the opposition (as if he has final say on who the opposition will actually be. He has put in avice president of his own choosing. The army is sitting on the fence…right now playing it careful…so how did the “pro Mubarak supporters” get hold of the horses if it wasnt for Mubarak himself paying them? You cant tell me horse owners naturally gravitate to supporting a dictator?

    These guys were paid well to ride into that crowd and someone is advising Mubarak to hold and wear down the anti Mubarak protestors if he wants to keep power.

    This is what we see over and over again. The politics of the people tampled by power mongers wbho just ignore what the people want, ignore what they are protesting about and just sit it oyut with carefully crafted speeches until they exhaust the crowd…into going home (and then the powerful get back to the business of looking after themselves).

    Frankly…I think the people will have to kill him (Mubarak) to get him to leave. That is the reality.

  18. The way I see it, if we take the figures of 20 million for the population of Cairo and 8 million for that of Alexandria, there are plenty of reinforcements for popular cause. But the government’s strategy, and control over the mass media is a instrument, will be turn the population as economic distress starts to hit home with the disruption caused by the uprising. On the other hand the population has been subject to terror for long, by subtle minds, and so they well choose empowerment over fear. I would be surprised if the Egyptian people triumph.

  19. I meant to say I expect the Egyptian people to prevail. One of the interesting things to witness is the self organizing aspects of the social movement. A lot has been accomplished, but will be lost if repression is reimposed.

    As for the wider significance, Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed ( writes:

    What is happening in Tunisia and Egypt is only a manifestation of a deeper convergence of fundamental structural crises, which are truly global in scale. The eruption of social and political unrest has followed the impact of deepening economic turbulence across the region, due to the inflationary impact of rocketing fuel and food prices. As of mid-January, even before Ben Ali had fled Tunis, riots were breaking out in Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, and Jordan. The key grievances? Rampant unemployment, unaffordable food and consumer goods, endemic poverty, lack of basic services, and political repression.

  20. Let’s hope the Egyptian people do prevail. At the moment they carry a struggle for all of us, from millions of poor not only in their own country biut across the world, even down to ordinary people in the west who want better than disenfranchisement, dumbing down and sterility of being commodified consumers wallowing in a tub of Macdonalds fat and their own consequent Hansonist hangups.

  21. @paul walter
    Yes Paul – I do hope the people of Egypt prevail. If they dont now…they surely will later. You can only push people down so far but when they cant feed their children or make a decent living…then as President Kennedy said…if you (a society) cant help the poor, then god help the rich. He was so right.

    The Egyptian people are sending strong warnings to their ruling elite that not all is right in the Egyptian society. The people should prevail. They deserve to prevail.

  22. Oh and the reason Mubaraks son Gamal is so unpopular is that
    since 2002 Gamal Mubarak (the ruling party’s top policy maker) has presided over trade liberalisation programs that saw some growth before the GFC but it came with rapidly rising inequality and high inflation that hit the middle class (in other words growth for the rich only?). Mubarak senior insists it trickled down but it seems it trickled sideways and out the door.
    Corporate tax rates were cut to 20% from 40%.

    What would you expect from a Bank of America executive?
    Odd how these pro liberalisation advocates seem to end up with the same sort of efficiently blank expression. Reminds me of the Roozendahl stare (?would I lie to you).

  23. @paul walter
    Paul – its looking good for the Egyptian people. The people did not tire and did not go home and the scenes are now quite amazing. Mubarak expected to step down within the hour and the army seems to be giving him a push…the only shame is the people (or their new government) cant get back some of the extraordinary 70 billion or so of wealth the Mubarak family has managed to extract and move out of Egypt over their 30 year rule.

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