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Arab elites rue passing of US security alliance

Arab elites exploited the US’s ascendant role in the Middle East in the 1990s, publically pursuing detente with Israel to justify domestic oppression and wealth generation. Now the spring has sprung, Arab dictators are eyeing a comeback

The Desert Storm Operation had just ended in 1991 when Ahmad Matar, an Iraqi poet in exile, published his poem, Satan’s Last Supper. In the introductory lines, Matar warned Satan that - in the Arab world as it stood then - he had no place. This was because Satan would be both outnumbered and outperformed by the 20 devils who were already working on the ground.  He was referring to the Arab leaders, exploiting throughout the poem the effect of the acoustic similarity between al-shaytan (the devil) and al-sultan (the ruler).

In the months that followed the first Gulf war, the Arab world appeared divided. There were those who supported and those who opposed Saddam Hussein. Despite that clear rift, Matar saw collusion, not division:

They have all lied;

They have acted out [their play];

And they all have betrayed [their nation].

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An Arab reading the poem in early 1990s might have suspected that it had grossly exaggerated the extent of the collusion of Arab rulers. But an Arab reading the same poem in the mid-1990s would have more likely felt that the poem had predicted the world in which he or she lived. With the exception of the isolated government of Iraq and the late demented ruler of Libya, the Arab leaders - who had hitherto only agreed to disagree - appeared to have finally united.

From Riyadh to Nouakchott, there was much cooperation and little feud. The progressives and revolutionaries had forsaken their campaigns against the conservatives and the quietists. And many of the countries that had traditionally boasted revolutionary credentials began to tolerate quietist understanding of religion and life.

The decade of 1992-2002 ushered in a period of ideological desiccation.  Whatever ideological currents the official Arab world had embraced or given a lip service to in the past were discarded.

In lieu of ideologies, a form of “governmentality” would reign. This was not a mentality to govern effectively by elevating people from poverty (although the Arab leaders wouldn’t have been particularly upset if that happened by some accident of the market), or by improving the quality of education, or by diversifying the economy, or by increasing the representative nature of the aging bureaucratic structures in these countries. 

This was a mentality to perpetuate corruption and to turn - where monarchies didn’t exist - bequeathing power from a ruler to a son as a matter of norm.

A new world order

This new mentality was to some extent dictated by the changes on the global stage, but mostly by both the ability and the willingness of the Arab elites to accept and exploit the dictates of these changes for their own ends.

This was a critical period in the world’s history. The Soviet Union had recently collapsed and the West had triumphed. Western technical success was matched by an ideational victory. Western intellectuals and policy-makers felt that the “End of History” had finally come; the dominance of Western values was surely irreversible.

The “Roots of Muslim Rage” or those of others - even if portending a “Clash of Civilizations” - were nothing but an assurance of self-righteousness.

Within the politico-cultural mix we call the West, America has since World War II continued to be the leader. Emerging as the sole superpower in a world where everything else (Third Worldism, communism and nationalism) seemed discredited, America was the country to which the rest of the world turned.

Some around the world turned to America out of fear and some perhaps out of respect or even love. Still others harbored an amalgam of contradictory feelings for the first country in the history of mankind capable of losing almost all of its wars and continuing despite that to prosper.

As the world looked up to America, America looked down on it, not out of malice - one must say - but that was what the atmosphere warranted. This was not the time when alliances were sought to counter the godless communism and some cajoling was needed to bring allies to one’s side. This was a time of victory and solicitors flocked to DC to congratulate.

Anyone who wanted to join the victor’s camp - and not surprisingly that category included all those who wished to remain in power - had to follow a tight script. It was not that America didn’t care for others’ interests. Indeed, it was out of a sense of commitment to protect them that it was then acting. However, these interests were defined in DC, not wherever the concerned maybe located.

Arab rulers join the winners’ club

If Western elites were in a celebratory mood, elites in the rest of the world weren’t. The non-Western world was under enormous pressure to readjust its political thinking and diplomatic modus operandi. An earlier wave of pressure from the mid-1980s onward had forced most of the “rest” to implement drastic deregulation and readjustment policies - policies which had the accumulative effect of widening the gap between those with power and those without it.

Like other governments in the Third World, the Arab rulers turned their eyes to America for guidance. But the Arab world was slightly different from the rest. Western intelligentsia had deemed the Arab world to be the area more likely to mount a cultural resistance to the Western ideational triumph. The Arab world was a place where a majority still believed that Western victory was a product of material power, not of moral superiority. The resistance, which this notion legitimated, had to be softened and gradually eradicated.

Not lacking clarity of objective, Arab rulers quickly realized - one by one - what their survival in the new environment entailed, and with devilish astuteness and incisive precision singled out some shared grounds and interests with the masters of the new world order.

Beyond the humiliating collective penance rituals they would be asked to perform, the agenda of the new world order didn’t seem as frightening as it first appeared. In fact, it seemed - from the perspective of these autocrats - to be quite promising.

Pressure and price

To be accepted by the new world masters, Arab rulers knew they had first to ease tension with the state of Israel and embark on a course toward normalization of relations. This had to be a public course.  It was no longer enough to cooperate with the Israelis privately and curse them publically. Although that approach had been of great pragmatic value for both the Israelis and Arab rulers, the strategic goal was then to wear off the apprehension of the Arab public to any kind of ties with the occupiers of Palestine.

The plan to manage Arab minds - now delegated to Arab leaders - was based on a simple philosophy of psychology. Ordinary Arabs, who had known Israel as the Zionist enemy or the Zionist entity, would now frequently hear their media report meetings between their leaders and their Israeli counterparts. The usual story of Palestinian kids martyred while resisting the armed forces of Zionist occupiers would now be replaced by one where these kids have died during clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli police. The hope was that this kind of reportage would alter perception over time.

To be sure, the new change of tactic was not because the earlier approach didn’t work. The earlier approach had helped the Israelis maintain the status quo, boast of victory over many enemies and - all the better - expand their territorial possessions. Similarly, the picture was not so bad from the perspective of Arab rulers. Although they had appeared weak in the eyes of their citizens - as they couldn’t stop the Israeli expansion - Arab rulers’ ability to verbally castigate the Zionists allowed them to keep some semblance of defiance and hence some sympathy.

Although there was no all-out conflict, there was no peace. Arab streets were seething with resentment, creating a potentially combustible situation. This went against the victors’ plan to engineer mass compliance. Having ensured the tameness of the Arab elite and scored a victory over the Soviet Union (which had in the past enabled some Arab ‘gamblers’), the Western world decided that the Arab elite’s next role was the gradual pacification - by soft and not so soft means - of the anti-colonial fervor amongst their population.

Even though equitable peace was not only possible but also much cheaper, the West - led by America - didn’t vigorously pursue it. It appeared that arriving at an equitable peace would have vindicated the very culture of resistance, which they believed should be completely muffled.  

Neither rapprochement with Israel nor taming rebellious Arab minds appeared particularly at odds with the main objective of Arab autocrats, which was to remain in power. A policy of muting dissent was simply proceeding with business as usual. What needed to change was simply the rhetorical framework in which it was wrapped.

Exploiting the globalization rhetoric          

The new cooperation with the West was supposed to take place in parallel with a policy of economic liberalization, which the Americans and Europeans thought was bound to create a docile middle class placing a greater value on further interconnectedness with the West and its markets over all other moral, political and religious considerations.

But that part was the least interesting aspect of the whole project to Arab rulers. After all, they weren’t working out of conviction so that American liberal ideals conquer yet new frontiers, but rather so that - under their aegis - they would continue to rule. Instead of a middle class randomly rising to affluence, the rulers’ key institutions doubled in trade and corruption, thereby creating another power belt to further fasten their grip on power. 

Around this time, the word “globalization” had become the buzzword. Although the term was contentious, Arab rulers found in the word a powerful rhetoric device to build a narrative, which justified the controversial steps they were taking.

Soon Arab media replaced its bombastic editorials about Arab national interests and global conspiracies against them with an edifice of verbal images of a world converging toward common interests and shared human ideals. This was to be the antithesis of the polarized world of ideologies, which they had hitherto known. The world was turning into a village (a qarya), and their countries must enter the new village free of all their troubled past.

The meetings in Madrid in the autumn of 1991 and the Oslo Accord of 1993 provided a further excuse to claim that much of that past could now be jettisoned. The question of Palestine, which was presumably the Arabs’ first and foremost concern, appeared to be heading for resolution.

With the campaign of globalization proceeding in earnest and the news of the “peace process” filling up the front pages of local press, Arab rulers seemed justified in their pilgrimage to Tel Aviv. Egypt, the bigger sister whose president had made his pilgrimage in 1977, was to play a pivotal role in the initiation process of new sister countries hoping to join the queue forming outside Tel Aviv.  In the new world order, Cairo didn’t only seem vindicated in pursuing the “peace” with Israel early on, but it also regained its position as the host of the Arab League.

Indeed, Egypt was central to the Western project to crash “radical” forces in the Arab world, and Western governments and think tanks touted its role as a “stabilizing force”. In early 2000s, a press release appraising the US-Egyptian relationship by the Council on Foreign Relations appreciatively noted how “Egypt conducted a hard fought campaign to root out Islamic militants.”

The same press release highlighted how US-Egyptian cooperation was “producing an Egyptian military leadership comfortable with American approach and doctrine”, adding that Egypt had also “worked quietly and consistently for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and for an expansion of the Arab world's acceptance of Israel”. The emphasis here is mine.

While the conversion of Egypt’s military to the American vision proved useful to the Americans (especially in the recent period when the mass unrest which began with the 25 January revolution shook the status quo), what made it particularly critical at this stage was its contribution to the general effort to change the Egyptians’ perception - and by extension that of the other Arabs - of the state of Israel. The reference to Egypt’s diligent work in the press release to foster an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians also falls within the same track.

For the Egyptian establishment and other Arab governments, the question of Palestine was rapidly shrinking to a simple dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Egypt and other sister states were eager to see any kind of deal - fair or otherwise - signed to wash their hands off the Palestinian issue and silence the moral outcry it stirs amongst their populations. Palestinian negotiators complained on a regular basis of an Arab lassitude in backing the Palestinian position.

The current Egyptian candidate, Abd al-Fatahi Sisi, who was seasoned in the Egyptian statecraft during the heady days of that triangular security alliance, expressed recently the clearest statement of the same doctrine. In a taped interview, the marshal said that he believed that there is a chance for peace if the Israelis give the Palestinians something. The Egyptian word he used was haga (something). This is the most powerful illustration of that culture which was promoted during the decade from 1992 onward. The goal of Arab elites was to stop the noise; that is, to end the Palestinian issue in whatever form in complete conformity with the essential US policy. 

Egypt’s hard work for “an expansion of the Arab world's acceptance of Israel,” wasn’t fruitless, although not the sole factor behind other Arab states’ desire to court Israel. Between 1994 and 1996, eight Arab countries, established different levels of ties with Israel. Jordan led this by signing a peace treaty in 1994, concluding several years of public rapprochement and decades of secret dealings.  In the western part of the Arab world, Mauritania agreed to a gradual rapprochement, starting in 1995 and culminating in full diplomatic relations in 1999. Although remained publically reserved, Mauritania’s neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia, opened offices for cooperation with Israel in 1996. To the east, UAE, Oman and Qatar would also open trade offices in the same year.

Although reports of considerable trade between the Zionist state and Arab countries would surface during this decade, the crux of the Arab-Israeli rapprochement was on security cooperation. Where trade was significant in the triangular (US-Arab-Israeli) relationship was in the procurement of arms, and that was mostly in trade with the US. For example, Saudi Arabia alone spent during the 1990s approximately $70 bn on procurements of arms, mostly from the US.

More important than trade, Arab regimes wanted to make use of the Israeli expertise in suppressing the Palestinian groups to crash local opponents. They hoped at the same time to exploit its lobbying credit in Western capitals to first expunge their past human right violations, and then have the chance to practice more violations with impunity.  

Publically and secretly, the interior ministries of these countries cooperated with the Israelis on a range of issues including intelligence sharing and agents training.

Although much of this was done secretly and on a bilateral basis, a number of public platforms, such as Mediterranean Dialogue (a platform established by NATO), created a public nexus for these countries. Mediterranean Dialogue had as members - in addition to the NATO members- Israel, Mauritania, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan. Algeria would join somewhat tardy in 1999.

The Spring of Arab Rulers

With their backs to a military giant, Arab rulers had little to fear of domestic insurrections. Soon, these rulers realized that real or contrived torrents of unrest in their countries could be a quite useful way to prove worth and dedication before the masters of the new world.  One could target potential opponents, push them to commit violence or do so on their behalf, declare them terrorists, proceed to ruthlessly crash them, and still expect notes of appreciations from DC and its European satellites.

That was precisely what happened during this period. As Western, Israeli and Arab diplomats flocked to Sharm el-sheikh resorts and mixed business with pleasure, employees of Arab ministries of interiors across the Arab world were busy raiding university dormitories, mosques, cultural centers and political parties’ headquarters to apprehend dissidents. The work of ministries of men like Hasan al-Alfi and Habib al-Adly of Egypt, Idriss al-Basri of Morocco, Mohamed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub of the Palestinian Preventative Security Force, and host of other figures in the Arab world led to a rise in these countries’ already expansive torture skills’ profiel. Their European and American friends didn’t see this as a cause for concern. To the contrary, they were quite impressed. Whenever they needed the services of Arab torturers, they contacted them.

This is not to suggest that these regimes were particularly clement in the previous decades, or that these violations of human rights were ordered specifically by the West. That would be a distortion of the truth. In Nasser’s Egypt, for example, thousands were tortured and hundreds killed as a result. The literature of that period from 1954 to 1970 is awash with gruesome accounts of detainees starved, sleep-deprived, raped, beaten to death or otherwise electrocuted. The same was indeed true of prisons in Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, and - worst of all - Syria.

What made the decade of 1990s different was the comfort that the Arab rulers felt in the new world order and the inter-Arab-Israeli cooperation on the suppression of opposition movements across the Arab world. In the previous decade, the inter-Arab rivalries left some room for dissidents from one country to seek refuge in another.

The West - now armed with the most advanced guns and loudest rhetoric on human rights - was indeed pleased that these rulers were crashing the last vestiges of cultural resistance.  It was happier than any time before to provide the political support and technical means to ensure that a cathartic penalty was exacted on all the "fundamentalists", which meant anyone identified by local rulers as such, be they leftists, delinquent teenagers, Islamist anarchists, or Islamist moderates.

For the first time in Arab history, the Americans were providing technical advice, material assistance and political benedictions to the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Mauritanians, Tunisians and Palestinians, all at once. Later in the decade, and precisely after 9/11, the security cooperation and the outsourcing of torture would receive greater attention in Western press. However, the origin of this practice goes back to this decade. The 1990s was the period when not only the infrastructure was created, but also when outsourcing torture itself began. CIA acknowledged at least 70 cases during this period.

The consequences of this alliance were disastrous. At the turn of the century, the Arab world appeared to have gained neither economic progress, nor a sense of self-respect.  What was for the Arab dictators and their Israeli and Western allies a honeymoon was a nightmare for the vast majority of Arabs. Although pockets of the economy saw small improvement, and a façade of democratization was carefully erected in most Arab capitals, for the masses there was a general deterioration in almost all spheres of life. Unemployment continued to rise, political horizons shrank and abuses of human rights became rampant. The ordinary Arabs’ share of the world village (which their media trumpeted ceaselessly) was personal destitution and collective humiliation.

What made matters even worse was that ordinary Arabs were no longer able to differentiate the agendas of their leaders from those of Israel or those of the US (One occupied Palestine, parts of Lebanon and Syria, and the other subsidized the colonial project of the former). As thousands of Iraqi children perished as a result of Western sanctions, and the Palestinian land continued to be sequestered by settlers, the men in power in Arab capitals seemed unperturbed. That was not lost on their citizens.

The agendas seemed mixed in part because the triangular (US-Arabs-Israeli) security alliance had caused permanent deformations in Arab states’ structures. Arab ministries of foreign affairs became subdivisions of their ministries of interiors. The general focus of the policies of Mubarak, or the Tunisian president, or the Jordanian king or the late Yassir Arafat (at least until late1990s) lacked discernable foreign policy components and all appeared to address security concerns. The same was true of the Gulf States whose spending spree on armaments didn’t seem to be justified by a danger of foreign threats. These security arrangements created a new form of state configuration. One could call it the states of the ‘Ministries of Interior.’  The victims of these states’ policies were all Arabs and almost exclusively Muslims. These policies, which were designed to please foreign interlocutors, didn’t appear to serve national interests.

By the end of this decade, the picture had become far grimmer. The Israelis were besieging Arafat’s compound and the Bush Administration was beating the war drums to invade Iraq. Although the “peace process”’ (which was the raison d'être of Arab rulers’ new policies) crumbled and although these leaders’ suspicions of America’s post-Iraq invasion plan had distanced them from America, the distance which separated them from their population was expanding as well.

The leadership change in countries such as Jordan, Syria and Morocco didn’t only bring men from the same families, but also with the same vision. Although a report by BBC World Service in late 1990s praised the new breed of Arab rulers who were graduates of Western institutions, ordinary Arabs understood that whatever Western training these rulers had made them only far removed from their hopes and aspirations.

It would take another decade for those feelings of betrayal to build up to an all-out uprising, but the seeds of that revolution were already sown by this time. There was no alternative. The masses recognized that change wouldn’t come from the establishment. Senior politicians as well as high-ranking military officers had all became businessmen and hence gain more by maintaining the status quo. The change must come from below.

In the period from 2002 and through the Arab Spring, the security alliance continued in various form. But several cracks had appeared since 2002. These include the death of the ‘peace process,’ and Arab rulers’ fear of America in the post-Iraq invasion.

However, the former Egyptian dictator had confided to his advisors that one should never completely trust America. These incidents, especially the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime and America’s rhetoric about forced democratization, brought some turbulence to the security alliance and a lull in the Arab regime’s continued campaign against dissidents. This would have the inadvertent impact of allowing these opposition forces to breath and unite. This respite made the Arab Spring organizationally viable.   

In the current stage of the Arab Spring, where some of the governing elite have regained some of their influence and revolutionaries have retreated, these elite can hardly hide their nostalgia for that security alliance of 1992-2002. Syria, who left that alliance amicably in 2000 when its negotiations with Israel didn’t promise a return of the Golan Heights, was quick to present itself as guarantor of Western interests.

The Egyptians did the same, invoking openly their security cooperation with Israel as a legitimating ground for the recent coup. Sensing the greater challenge that the Arab Spring poses to the regimes, the Egyptians - with some backing from their allies (the Saudis, the Emiratis and the Bahrainis) - have pushed this to the extreme.

Not only are they willing praise the Israelis publically, but also they do so in parallel with a demonization campaign of the Palestinians, especially the resistance. Of course, the Israelis are happy to reciprocate, earnestly working in Western capitals pleading with governments to help revive that security alliance in a far more explicit fashion. The cooperation during the period (1992-2002) has nurtured an Arab class (in the media and government circles) who has no qualm showering the Israelis with lavish praise.

Ahmed Meiloud is a PhD student at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. His research interests include studying the various movements of political Islam across the Arab World, with special focus on the works of the thinkers, jurists and public intellectuals who shape the moderate strands of Islamism. He contributed this article to  

Photo credit: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (L) shakes hands with US President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washignton on August 18, 2009. (AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON)

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