The Arab World

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Articles on the Arab world after 2011
The legacy of the Arab dictators
The Al Jazeera revolution
The return of Turkey and Iran
Articles on the Arab world before 2011

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

  • (august 2011) The legacy of the Arab dictators. As Libya moves towards freedom, it is striking how so much of the Arab world is reluctant to endorse its revolution. The reason is simple: Libya's revolution depended significantly on help from NATO. The Arab public is still paranoid about Western colonization and Israel. There certainly a lot of truth in the fact that the Arab world was colonized by the European powers and then ruled by dictators who were often in cahoots with the Western powers; and it is certainly true that Israel has behaved ridiculously bad in recent times. However, neither truth is the reason that the Arabs got all those pathetic dictators and that their societies slipped to the bottom of the ladder. The Arab world used to be the second wealthiest region in the world at the end of World War II, when most of those countries gained independence. Eastern Europe was under communism. Latin America, Africa, India and China were starving to death. Within 50 years China and India had become world powers, Latin America was growing rapidly, Eastern Europe had become capitalist and democratic, and even Africa was getting rid of dictators and wars, whereas the Arab world was stuck with the same dictators, the same poverty and the same illiteracy... and the same religion. The real problem was neither Israel (that did absolutely nothing to install the Arab dictators and absolutely nothing to hurt the Arab economies) nor the Western powers, but a much more ubiquitous and powerful enemy: Islam. It was the historical heritage of Islam that created the mindset of accepting an absolutist dictator, of not staging a revolution against the dictator, of focusing one's energy towards the jihad (violent or non-violent) instead of focusing on the economy and human rights. Hence the only successful operation of the last few centuries has been the religious cleansing that has removed tens of millions of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews from the Islamic lands (see Religious cleansing and the decline of Islamic civilization)
    The Arab dictators, of course, were very happy to let Islam keep the minds of their people trapped, and, of course, were eager to spin the narrative that all the ills of the Arab world were due to Western interference and to Israel.
    The fact that so many commentators and people in the Arab world are still repeating the mantras invented by their old dictators is telling: it will take at least one generation before the rhetorical inventions of the old dictators are removed for good. For a while the Arab people will keep blaming everybody except themselves, like they have done for so long.
    There is no question that Western influence was important in removing these dictators: Tunisia fell thanks to a strong influence from France (where similar riots had just started) and high-tech Silicon Valley media, Egypt fell thanks to a Google employee and to the fact that the USA forced Mubarak to step down, and Libya fell thanks to NATO's high-tech strikes that helped the rebels against better armed soldiers. (Not to mention the fact that it all started in 2003 when the USA waged a high-tech war against the most powerful of all Arab dictators, Saddam Hussein). Right now the young and modern Arabs can only whisper that what the Arab world needs is precisely that: modern technology, which comes from modern education, which comes with modern governments. If you say it aloud, you are accused of being a puppet of the West and, worse, of desiring a state like Israel's.
    The truth is that, precisely because the Libyan rebels were not afraid of asking help from the West, Libya's new government will be better posed to enter the world economy and become a vibrant modern state.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (january 2011) The Al Jazeera revolution.
    The USA talked about democracy in the Arab world but another entity is making it happen, one that is ferociously opposed to the USA: Al Jazeera. It was Al Jazeera that frantically reported the events in Tunisia to shocked Arab audience that had never before witnessed anti-government protests live on television. The Arab world is used to watch anti-Israeli, anti-USA, and pro-Islamic demonstrations; not anti-government protests. They just don't happen in the Arab world, and, when they do, television channels are forbidden from broadcasting them. Al Jazeera got away with the prohibition in Tunisia, where the youth revolt had the advantage of being tolerated if not encouraged by the army. That event triggered a chain effect: seeing Tunisians riot in the streets against their government has inspired young people in Algeria, Egypt and Yemen to take to the streets with similar or bigger grievances. Al Jazeera initially withdrew from the scene (notably in Egypt) probably under pressure from its own government (Qatar). But it was too late: the protests got bigger and louder, and Al Jazeera is now reporting from all those countries.
    Everybody knows Al Jazeera's fundamental hypocrisy: in recent years they stopped criticizing the most brutal and racist dictatorship in the world, Saudi Arabia. They are openly biased against Israel, even though Israel was the only democracy in the region for several decades. They openly defended Saddam Hussein (not exactly a democrat) when the USA toppled him. They tend to side with Osama bin Laden and Iran and any Islamist movement (Islamic "fundementalists" are not exactly democratic). They rarely criticized Libya, the oldest and second most brutal dictatorship, except when it decided to make a deal with the West.
    Nonetheless, Al Jazeera became a sort of popular hero for speaking up against Israel and the USA. Israel is viewed as "the" enemy, guilty of stealing Muslim territory in defiance of a dogma of Islam (according to which land conquered by Muslims can never be returned to non-Muslims). The USA, instead, is viewed as the supporter of evil Arab dictators. Al Jazeera championed these views and blew them out of proportion. Of course, both have an element of truth: Israel did seize the land of thousands of people and recently committed obvious atrocities in both Lebanon and Gaza; and the USA does support the majority of the dictators of the Arab world.
    However, Al Jazeera obliterated the other side of the truth: for example, that Jews bought land legally from the Ottoman Empire (the Muslim state that controlled Palestine at the time) and eventually established a much better state than any Muslim state; or that there have been and there are still ferocious dictators who are not supported at all by the USA, and that, of course, the USA removed one of the worst ones (Saddam Hussein). Al Jazeera has been able to create a unified monochromatic view of the events in which Israel and the USA are the cause of all evils.
    Al Jazeera has created that narrative and now reduces every regional event to that narrative. For example, the West sees Wikileaks and the Arab uprising as two different events. Al Jazeera, however, has published its own Wikileaks-kind of top-secret documents, many of which indirectly depict the Palestinian Authority as a USA puppet willing to sell out to Israel just like the Arab tyrants. The narrative is the same: the evil USA interferes in Muslim affairs, "buys" the people in power and then causes sufferings for the Muslim masses.
    This view does not bode well for the USA. If the revolution succeeds, it will be largely viewed as a revolution against USA-supported tyrants. In this case Islam is not even an issue: it's not Muslims versus non-Muslims but simply good honest people versus evil corrupt tyrants. There is no excuse for being on the side of the tyrants, and Al Jazeera is openly presenting the USA as being on the side of the tyrants (which, unfortunately, is ultimately true in the case of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen).
    Of course, it is disheartening that the protests in Egypt and elsewhere depend so much on the mosques. Even a secular Lebanese newspaper wrote: "Today all eyes are focused on the mosques in the land of Egypt". The world cannot believe that in these lands in 2011 religion is still the driver of a revolution. But one has to put things in perspective: the mosque in the only place where people can assemble. These autocratic governments do not allow any other form of mass encounter. The mosque therefore becomes the only place from which a mass protest can originate. The friday prayer is the only moment when that can happen. The Arab dictators have made the strategic mistake of respecting Islam. Formally all of them are devout Muslims. Now that hypocrisy is coming back like a boomerang.
    Inevitably the fact that the mosque and the friday prayer are the epicenter of the protests empowers the Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It rests to be seen if modern young Arabs are as gullible as the young Iranians of 1978, who unwillingly deposed a dictator to install an even worse one.
    The Arab world has been overtaken by every region of the world. (See Some Muslims never miss an opportunity). At the end of World War II it was the second richest region after the West. Then it was overtaken by the Far East, then by India, then by Eastern Europe, then by Latin America and now even by some sub-Saharan countries. Hopefully, this is a sign that the Arab people are ready to catch up.

    It is interesting how little the Western youth cares for these events. When the Iranian revolution erupted in 1979, Europeans were glued to the television screen and there were marches all over Europe to salute the heroic revolutionaries. (That revolution did not have a happy ending, but that's not the point). It is interesting that just a few years ago millions of Westerners were marching in the street against the Iraqi war, but not many are showing any interest in a revolution that could affect 300 million people and change forever the course of world history.

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (january 2011) The return of Turkey and Iran. There is a lot of turmoil in the Middle East and this time, thankfully, it is not about sacrilegious cartoons or burning of the Quran. Hezbollah has gained enough votes to decide who will govern Lebanon, the same way that Hamas won enough votes to control Gaza (for both the bloody Israeli invasions turned out to be a political blessing). Al Sadr has returned to Iraq from his Iranian exile and has become the deciding factor in creating a new government. Popular revolts have erupted in Tunisia and spread to Algeria and especially Egypt.
    For centuries the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were ruled by the Ottoman Empire (centered in Turkey), one of the most successful empires of all times. Its most powerful neighbor was the Persian Empire (centered in Iran). The Western powers (mainly Britain and France) ended up dismantling those two empires. Britain encircled Iran that eventually became a vassal state. By the end of World War II, that the Ottoman Empire lost by siding with Hitler and Mussolini, Britain and France had inherited the old Ottoman provinces from Tunisia to Iraq (some of them formally independent under puppet governments and others explicitly occupied).
    Iran eventually revolted against Western domination with the Islamic revolution that installed a brutal religious dictatorship. That became a model for radical Islam as a force to contain and undo Western (Christian and Jewish) imperialism. Iran went on to become a major regional power. Its strategy of funding and arming proxy armies has won out: Sadr in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine have all managed first to stand up militarily to much stronger armies and then to triumph politically in democratic elections. And Syria is still safely under the control of an Iranian friend (Assad). Iran's influence now spreads through Mesopotamia to reach both the western and eastern borders of Israel. Iran's success stands in stark contrast with the retreat of the Western powers. The USA's strategy of funding and arming friendly dictators (from Egypt to Jordan, from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon itself) while removing militarily one unfriendly dictator (Saddam Hussein) and isolating economically the other unfriendly regimes (Libya, Iran, Hamas, Syria) has not worked as well (except perhaps in the case of Libya). Today the USA is viewed as the protector of Israel (an enemy for the entire MENA) and of corrupt and brutal dictators
    Meanwhile Turkey had become the first non-Islamic Islamic country. A secular revolution had removed Islam from the picture enacting a European-style constitution and banning the interference of Islam in politics. Turkey went as far as to become a NATO member, a close ally of Israel, and to apply for membership in the European Union. It took Turkey a long time, but finally in the 2000s it emerged as a vibrant economy, ironically performing much better than the very Europe that it had courted for so long. The economic emergence of Turkey was a notable exception in the general mediocre economic environment of MENA, where, at best, governments get rich by selling oil to industrialized countries. In recent years Turkey has become a major success story. Its economic growth has started translating into political power, and Turkey has progressively distanced itself from both the European Union and NATO's boss, the USA.
    Turkey's secular success has been as strong a model for the middle class as Iran's military success has been for the radical Islamic fighters. Turkey (the Ottomans) used to be the imperial power in Tunisia and Egypt. Its cultural influence has not been completely erased. The fact that its standard of living has remained higher than in other parts of the old empire has de facto legitimized what was not legitimized in the old days: that the Turks deserved to be the ruling class of that multi-ethnic empire. The Turkish revolution that turned Turkey into a secular state was very similar in nature to the various national revolutions in Europe that replaced monarchies with republics. The riots in Tunisia are "European" in nature: they are very similar to the French riots of 1968. There is an implicit trend to try the Turkish way to modernization: Tunisia has just replaced a "king" with a republic. Egyptian demonstrators want to do the same in Egypt. It could be that Islamist parties end up taking advantage of the revolutions, but the revolutions per se have nothing to do with Islam. We are finally seeing Arabs protesting in the streets not because of religious superstition but because of concerns with individual freedom.
    The influence of Iran is strong even on this secular "revolutions": student protests started in Iran in 2009 after the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They failed in Iran but they created a template that was successfully improved in Tunisia (for example, the use of digital devices to communicate).
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2010 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • Articles on the Arab world before 2009

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.