Saturday, March 24, 2007

How it's Done

In the run-up to the Arab summit, Bashar has been talking tough and crowing high. But that the Arab Summit in Ryad, he will find himself sitting at the table with big boys, who are in no mood to compromise with him.

Not that Arab “moderate” regimes are necessarily appalled by Bashar’s tactics; in many aspects they can even prove nastier and more brutal. Unfortunately, the uproar after Hariri’s assassination is an exception; most of the time, the effect of political assassinations remains limited and business goes on as usual.

But the Arab leaders understand the rules of the game, they know how to assassinate, and are far more subtle in the exercise of repression. They know that, however brutal, their reign is secure as long as they mind three vital aspects;

1- Mind the Victim(s)

There will always be resentment following assassinations. For this reason, it is vital to placate a victim’s family and their supporters. At the very least, such “arrangements” could neutralise the dead leader’s powerbase.

In Egypt, Mubarak was able to co-opt the powerful interests around the assassinated Sadat, and consolidate his power. In Lebanon, Assad completely alienated Hariri’s powerbase, and by exclusively relying on Hezb, the Syrians made it clear to the Sunnis that they were in no mood to co-opt them.

In some respect, the Lebanese were pre-empting a Hama style “purge” when they rallied against the Syrians during the Cedar Revolution.

2- Mind your Country

The Hariri assassination was not in the longer term interest of Syria. True, Rafic Hariri would have endangered the exclusive hold of the Assad clan over Syria, but not their very existence.

When Mubarak took over after Sadat, he did not roll back or change the economic policies of his predecessor, nor did he change Egypt re-focus on Africa. To most Egyptians, the change in persons was never a change in regime, the “continuité de l’Etat” was never in doubt, and Sadat's Legacy endures.

His regime will only be weakened if Mubarak fails to deliver continued economic benefits.

3- Mind your Patrons’ Interests

After taking over from Egypt, Mubarak continued the peace process with Israel, and did not change his country’s realignment with the United States. Whenever Mubarak’s continued lack of democratic credentials became problematic, his neighbours helpfully stepped in to remind Americans of his usefulness.

In Lebanon, this was the case in 1990, when Syria was aligned with the United States, and its take over of the country was “allowed”. But Syria failed to “evolve”, drugged as it was by all that Lebanese money. The interests evolved, and in 2005, a continued Syrian presence was unacceptable.

The assassination of Hariri did nothing to change that reality.

Final proviso (Update March 25th, 2007)

Even in case you’re carrying out a political assassination, it helps to appear “above reproach”.

A few are amazed how Mubarak escaped; in spite of sitting next to the Pharaoh, when Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli and his men sprayed the tribune with their AK’s, he was only injured in his hand… Many suspect that Mubarak had eliminated Sadat, who “had appointed the former deputy prime minister, Dr. Abdel-Kader Hatem, as vice president in his place”. The appointment was supposedly carried on the morning of October 6, the day of the assassination…

But all this is beside the point; Even if it were true, it would not have mattered. Mubarak made sure to co-opt the interests around Sadat, ensuring the “continuité de l’Etat”, and maintaining his country’s alignment with the United States. No one had any interest in fiddling with Mubarak’s rise to power; Egypt was then facing a powerful outside enemy who was aligned with the Soviet Block.

While not valid in themselves, such speculations can be useful "mental experiments"; especially when so little verifiable information is available on closed societies such as Syria. In closed societies, access to reliable information is limited, even to the guy at the top of the pyramid; Dictators can only remain informed by relying on their ability to speculated and visualize themselves in complex situations and analyze it objectively, without falling into outright paranoia.

In this case, speculation shows how orderly transitions are possible, even in the case of repressive regimes; the key is to maintain key interests happy.

For all practical purposes, Sadat was assassinated by his “former” colleagues from the Moslem Brotherhood, and his courageous deputy took over to make sure his legacy endured. In Syria, Bashar is still struggling to strike the right balance among complex alliances, both internally and externally. In Egypt, Mubarak was able to ensure an orderly succession by making sure he addressed the needs of key interests.

Even those who think that Mubarak’s accession to power was not Kosher are hard pressed to find it Treif...


ghassan karam said...

The following is pure speculation, the truth be said that I am not personally 100% convinced of what I am about to say. But I don't think that under such conditions we can ever be convinced of a position built on pure speculation and hypothetical analysis. After all we know that there are things that we don't know and to pretend otherwise is folly. I would like to suggest one more time , as I have hinted at in previos posts on this matter, that I am not convinced that Bashar is the real power in the Syrian regime. The more objectively I way the evidence the more I side with the hypothesis that Bashar does not control the strings but is in reality a marionette himself. Why would a dictator in control of his environment and his destiny take such a gamble and jeopardize the existence of his regime over a big prize, Lebanon, but a prize by no means good enough to compensate for the possibility of being deposed? Why is the loyalty flowing from the top of the pyramid to the lower echelons rather than in the reverse? The money flowing from Lebanon was adictive but what good would it do a dictator who owns a nation? Why make a big deal about Lebanese resistance when you do not practice any resistance of your own? Why become an international paraiah by choice when your country is not in a position to sustain such isolation? These and many other similar questions lead me to conclude that Bashar is not in control of the Syrian regime? In the early term of his office/reign it was the old guard and then his own clan, including his mother and sister, have wrested control of the reins. Shawkat, Maher and the rest of the clan plotted to keep their stream of power in Lebanon and when Rafic Hariri appeared to resist they acted like any good mafiosi, they eliminated him. Since then the clan has become even more clanish and will never allow Bashar to let justice be done. No clan member will consider "sacrificing" one of their own even though these members might be proven to be guilty beyond the shadow of the doubt. And so the wheel spins and the game goes on but the end is certain. All dictatorships must come to an end and very often to a bloody end for that matter. The Assad clan will buy time through its machinations and obstructionism but will not be able to prevail.

Jeha said...


I agree, with a proviso; because of the inherent human limitations that you describe, no single person can be in control of today's complex societies. In the same vein, no group of persons can be in complete control of a country.

As to speculative aspect, I have updated the post to reflect that.

Lirun said...

interesting analisys..

thanks for stopping by my blog earlier..

what are your thoughts.. shall we war again or will my wishes be heard?


Lirun said...

ps.. fascinating video..

really makes you think about the shit that goes around while people are running peace processes..

makes it seem like soo little of it has anything to do with peace.. which cynically reminds you that perhaps so little of wars have anything to do with the absence of peace..

such puppetry..

Jeha said...


You summed it up; the unfolding of wars, civil strife, or peace, all depend on deep-seated interests. In our case, I see the following interests;

1- Alignment of sorts between some in Israel who want a settlement on the Golan, and the Syrian regime who is focused on survival.

2- There is some form of "agreement" on keeping the West Bank "hot", between many in the settler movement (who wants to stay there) and Hamas (who does not want a peace deal). Hamas, in particular, appears to bank on the Palestinian demography, a factor settler supporters disreguard or dismiss.

3- The extremes in Lebanon need each other, as they feed on the fear of the "other"... March 14 threatened to render tradional clan leaders irrelevant, so they aligned in this electoral deal which gave us this mess of a government. The side effect is that, by reinforcing Hezb, they created the dynamic that fed Sunni extremists, and Christian disaffection with their own leadership.

4- Ovelaying all this is world-wide oil interests who are not willing anymore to accept the expediency of stability. Those interests are motivated by the fear of "peak oil"; it is a little reported fact that the rise in oil prices is driven in large part by the lack of oil refineries. The Majors did little investment, fearing that the oil may not be there for their needs. The Majors now need to secure access to the cheapest oil in the world, in the Middle East. They find that a solid settlement is far less expensive; in some cases, this means propping up dictators, as long as they do not get too "demanding".

I feel that it is the last interest (4) that will drive any settlement, all depending on who's meeting their interest. Among the countries with the cheapest extraction cost, Lybia, Saudi, Kuwait, all play ball. The other countries, Iraq and Iran, did not. Among "gateway" countries, only jordan and Israel are playing ball. Syria does not seem to understand the new rules, and Lebanon cannot get its act together.

With this in mind, when a settlemtn comes, it may not necessariuly mean "peace" as we imagine it. I may only mean that a new "stability" could emerge, based on the increasingly sectarian nature of the Middle East, thus leading to the dismemberement of states that refuse to play ball (Syria), or can't get their act together (Lebanon). Israeli politicians do not seem to understand this dynamic, and appear not to think beyond the Golan, the Hasbani, and Samaria, a.k.a. the northern West Bank...

Roman Kalik said...

Mubarak... A frightningly capable man in a region of failing dictators. It seems as if he creates his own downfall, and then he uses the internal conflict to give himself yet more power and scares the secular public into thinking him to be the great anti-MB savior...

That sort of thing makes you wonder just how much of it was planned and how much a fluke. And being paranoid, I lean towards the planned. It's just too damn perfect.

He's what many dictators have aspired to become.

ghassan karam said...

Roman Kalik,
Where do you see these "failing dictatorships"? Last time I looked around I saw a President for life in Libya whose son is ready to inherit the fiefdom; a president for life in Yemen, A family that has emasculated a whole people in Syria, a family theocracy that gave its name to the country in Saudi, a bunch of authoritarian Emirs in the Arabian Gulf states, a Monarchy in Jordan...
Oh how I wish that your description was apt:-)

Roman Kalik said...

Jordan can keep its king, he's by far the sanest ruler in the entire ME. Bashar is failing, and his clan will devour whatever chances they have of survival. Saddam is gone. The Saudis' only lifeline is oil, but I think they're starting to slip. Too little change for too long.

Ghaddafi... Yes, he'll stick around sadly. He managed to bet on the winning horse after a few false tries. We can but hope that the son will be dumber than the father.

Roman Kalik said...

I know little of how Yemen is doing, sadly, and I should really interest myself more, but the Emirates are moving in the right direction.

The Emirs themselves are fairly dumb, mind, but the accelerated development will eventually allow for a generation that won't screw up democracy. Same in Jordan, though Abdullah appears to be truly actively building such a generation. Slow modernization is the key, which is why his uncle didn't inherit the title.

But I agree, I'm being overtly optimistic.

ghassan karam said...

Lets not forget that the Jordanian Monarchy's claim to legitimacy is that the Hashemites are descendents of the Prophet that your description of the imminent collapse of Saudi and Syria is wishful thinking and that very few if any leaders have given up their power willingly.Egypt is just as corrupt, authoritarian and undemocratic as any of the others. Even Lebanon borders on the authoritarianism of the traditional zuama although the Lebanese like to think that they are democratic because they have relatively free elections, Roman, I obviously share your concern about the "backwardness" and lack of "democratic" governments all over across the Arabic speaking countries but as a group they have defied the world and stopped the global march for democracy in its tracks for decades. What makes you think that this will change any time soon? No Arabic speaking country has ever at any point in its history either practiced or considered seriously democratic values. Western democratic values might be universal from a Western perspective but they sure seem to be alien to the average citizen in any of the countries in question. We might eventually evolve into a mindset where democracy will become the standard but I will not hold my breath to witness its evolution.
BTW, Israel is not that much different. It has managed to combine theocracy and apartheid in the same system!!!

Roman Kalik said...

I won't start an argument on the apartheid (though I want to, but I know better), but theocracy? Man, giving religious courts say in matters of marriage and those alone can be better described as "lip service". Visit Israel sometime. We got a secular, liberal, economically advanced and politically unstable democracy going here. And if we had less reasons to be paranoid then things would be better.

And while I agree on my wistful thinking, why does the Hashemites' claim of descent matter?

Roman Kalik said...

As I see it, no middle-eastern Arabic-speaking country has yet reached a phase in its evolution that would support a democracy. First they must improve economically and socially, and reach a point where they would actually understand what democracy means. Only then would they be able to move on. I like Abdullah because he's building a parliamentary monarchy, the only true gradual model to democracy. The Jordanian parliament will be a much better entity fifty years from now, but sadly no sooner.

Roman Kalik said...

You see, Abdullah is going for actual cultural change rather than just economic growth. Parliament can now stop laws he brings legally, and he relies on his popularity to take them forward. Which is why his law to give true punishment for honor killings failed. MP's justified this by saying "the bitches deserve it". This shows just how far Jordan has yet to go, but it also shows what it may become in our dotage. Economy, freer media, effects of globalization, all those are having their ripples in Jordan.