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The Lawless Middle East

Written by Daniel Greenfield

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While a great deal of attention has been paid to the motives and methods of the Middle Eastern protesters, the question of why so many governments have collapsed in the face of the protests has gone mainly unaddressed. The Middle East's governments are governments of men, not of laws. There are plenty of laws, but none of them actually matter as the ultimate authority in any situation is that of men, not of laws. Their institutions, from the military to the bureaucracy, depend not on laws, but on personal fealty.

Middle_East_on_FireLaws are covenants. And covenants must derive their authority from some unifying principle. An idea that the entire society can agree on. National exceptionalism can then base itself on that covenant, depicting its national history as the expression of that ideal. The laws then become the guardians of that national ideal. For example, subtract individualism from America and the Constitution ceases to make sense, its hallowed principles become gibberish and the legal system derived from them implodes on itself. (This is arguably what is taking place today, and why we no longer have governments of laws, but of men only.)

For all the flags being waved in the air, the Arab nations have tribal identities, not national identities. There is no such thing as Egyptian or Tunisian exceptionalism. And no national principles of law and government. The Arab world has plenty of legal traditions, but they are not married to any institutions. The nations of the Arab world are orphans of colonialism. Fictional entities trumped up to fill a void. Arabs will passionately champion them the way they do soccer teams, but it is a collective identification with a thing that has no identity. There are peculiar national jokes and antipathy toward citizens of Arab nations, but this is only tribal identity. And tribal governments are personal, not lawful.

In a government of men, day to day decisions may be made by following the rules, which provides a veneer of lawfulness, but any larger conflict is resolved through personal allegiance. Whether the police will take action, does not depend on the laws, but on the parties involved. The power of the complainant or the defendant is what determines police action. A foreigner against a native leads to a complex balancing act, calculating the loss of tourist revenue and foreign displeasure, over loyalty to one's own. The law never enters into it, except as justification after the fact. Map the micro onto the macro, and you can see that what happened in Egypt had nothing to do with democracy or law.

Within the United States a protest will be treated as a law enforcement matter. The police will act within the limits of the law to enforce public order, regardless of whether they are sympathetic to the protesters or not. (Deviations from this norm are aberrant and usually occur under the influence of political authorities, e.g. the Crown Heights Pogrom.) Within the Middle East however, a protest is a test of political allegiances between supporters and opponents of the government. The police are dispatched as supporters of the governments, not as law enforcement officers. Because there is no 'law' to enforce. In a government of men, law derives from the will of the authorities. There is no law, but that which the authorities make, and spoken commands trump legal codexes. The protests were a test of will between two sides, regime opponents and regime supporters, which got thrown into the bailiwick of a third party with a monopoly on armed force, the military, serving as arbitrators of the conflict. 

Middle Eastern regimes operate by (1) controlling limited resources, e.g. food, oil, money and (2) the use of force. Systems based on personal authority invariably corrupt resource distribution, by skimming from the top and manipulating prices, causing perennial dissatisfaction which necessitates the use of force. Resources are used to buy the loyalty of the enforcers. This happens more subtly in Egypt, where the officer class holds a privileged position in the economy, or more blatantly in Bahrain, with its foreign mercenaries.

The essential problem of power in the Middle East is how to leverage force, without putting the military in power. Most of the Kings and Sheiks that the British and French colonial authorities put into power were quickly overthrown by their own armies. The more Arab leaders depend on the military, the faster they are overthrown by it. The Egyptian officers who overthrow Egypt's royal family got their idea for it when King Farouk sent them off to try and destroy Israel in 1948. When the Jan 25 protests grew too furious, Mubarak's need for the army put it in the driver's seat. Mubarak left office, but the military remained in charge. Similarly the Iranian protests may have put the Revolutionary Guard in charge there.

Many Arab rulers closely identify themselves with the military, giving themselves military ranks (e.g. Colonel Khadafi, Field Marshall Saddam Hussein, General Bashar Assad) to artificially place themselves within the military's hierarchy of command. Some rule through a minority elite, such as the Sunnis of Iraq or the Alawites of Syria, who live better off, dominate the upper ranks of the military and are loyal because they  know that any change in power will throw them on the mercy of the larger populace which hates and despises them. Secret police forces are used to threaten those at the top and maintain authority over the population through terror. All these approaches have obvious and easily apparent weaknesses.

The problem of power has a long history in the Middle East. Rulers once relied on slave armies such as the Janissaries and the Mamluks, but these armies invariably turned on the rulers. The Mamluks did so successfully, and the Jannisaries unsuccessfully (the reason for the difference is that the Mamluks were culturally integrated with the population, and the Jannisaries were not.)

The slave armies were an attempt to use a minority elite, that was individually powerless and collectively powerful. Such a formula was inherently unstable. Political eunuchism, or the use of eunuchs in government, was a more explicit attempt at reining in the dynastic excesses of tribalism. A eunuch might hold power, but he could not pass that power on to his son. His loyalty had to be personal, as it could not be dynastic. Both slave armies and eunuchs depended on tearing men out of the tribal system, through slavery or castration, to compensate for the essential instability of any system of governance in the region.

egypt-riot-2011Dynastic power is still commonplace in the region. Royal families rule in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Saddam Hussein, Assad and Mubarak were secular leaders who overthrew royal families, but still attempted to pass on power to their sons. Even when the rulers change, the powerful families usually remain the same. The institutions may wear a Western patina with modern titles and systems, but underneath all that, the powerful sons of powerful fathers go on giving jobs to their cousins and nephews, consolidating dynastic power for the clan. Getting anything done means dealing with members of the clan and their political machine  tied together by blood. 

A dynastic power structure is only as stable as the next link in its chain. Mubarak's loss of support was closely tied to his son's reformist agenda. Syria's Assad Jr has become a pawn of Iran. Jordan's new king is at odds with his people. The Saudi royal family is much less secure than it looks. A false step and the entire lot of them will come tumbling down the tightrope.

There is of course one unifying element which has gone unmentioned. Islam. But for all the golden caliphate dreams, the reality is dung and sour ash. An Islamic republic is just another oligarchy, with clerics as the rulers, and the Islamic institution as the incubator of tyrants. Despite its Velayat-e Fiqh trappings (the theory of the guardianship of Islamic jurists) it inevitably also becomes dynastic, as in the case of Iran where powerful families quarrel with each other over control of the resources.

The case of Mohammed is instructive. The first Muslims were members of his own family. His first outside non-family was Abu Bakr, a bargain sealed with the sexual abuse of Aisha, Bakr's six year old daughter given in marriage to Mohammed. And Abu Bakr became the first Caliph after Mohammed. Like most dynastic systems, Islam proved unstable. The Sunni-Shiite split happened over a debate of succession between Mohammed's extended family. What most take for a religious split, was actually a political civil war. Sunni and Shiite Muslims are split by the question of whether Abu Bakr or Imam Ali was Mohammed's chosen successor. A theological split that hinges on whether Mohammed should have been succeeded by his father-in-law or his son-in-law is not a theological debate, but of dynastic politics.

The Islamists promise an Allah sanctioned regime that will be fair, honest and ethical. But even their prophet couldn't manage a stable transition-- within his own family. His failure split Islam to the present day. Do they really imagine that they can do any better?

Mohammed's wars were really tribal conflicts cloaked in thinly patched together borrowed religions set to Bedouin poetry. Like most fanatical revolutions, modern Islamists begin by beheading everyone in sight and then eventually settle down to dividing the wealth and setting up their own power structures. And those power structures inevitably become dynastic. For all that Muslim clerics pride themselves on being jurists, they follow no law but their own. Convoluted interpretations of Islam legalized "temporary marriages" in Iran, relabeling everything from premarital sex to prostitution as marital relations so long as the fee gets paid. For all that Islam inveighs against the Bedouin love of wine, women and song-- they always come sneaking in through the back door anyway. And an Islamic republic which flogs women for showing their hair-- has brought back the concubine under the sanction of its own clerics.

egypt-fireIslam is no solution to the problem of power in the Middle East. It is only a perpetuation of the existing problems. Islam cannot create modern Arab states. It cannot provide those states with a meaningful identity. It can only spread more misery, terror and death.

Nor will the so-called democratic elections do any better. The cult of democracy can be as bad as that of Islam. The adherents of both confuse their ideals with a change in culture. But that will not work, no more than it did in Russia. Democracy in the hands of a culture which is not individualistic, is no more than another tribal referendum leading to factional chaos and eventually another oligarchy or tyranny by the strongest and the best organized. There is a long tradition of that sort of thing in Egypt, from the Mamluks to the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. And either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood are the likeliest beneficiaries.

The essential problem is that of law. The clerics speak of it, the activists invoke it and the reformers promise it-- but their law is still that of the government of men. Their authority is still derived from violent mobs, the military and militias. And the law of force is their true law. It is the true law of the entire region, ruled over by the orphans of colonialism, tribesmen who call themselves presidents and military coup leaders who call themselves prime ministers. Referendums will not civilize it and the Koran will not moralize it. A man abides by his own laws. A nation abides by the laws that give it meaning. The Arab world has not found those laws yet. And until it finds them, then lawless it will remain.

From NY to Jerusalem , Daniel Greenfield Covers the Stories Behind the News. Daniel Greenfield is a blogger, author and columnists covering international affairs, the rising threat of terrorism and the growing problems of socialism. His daily blog can be viewed at Sultan Knish.

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