Aside from a few tourist oases for kebab lovers, the place is basically a shithole, and there is a perverse logic that the religions of dust were all born there. Ever heard of a self-flagellating monotheism from a tropical island? No, didn’t think so.
It is the pure serendipity of the cosmic lottery that the Middle East has somehow ended up with the bulk of the planet’s petroleum resources1, and with this lever, they have succeeded in making the whole planet miserable for the best part of a century. Spare a thought for the much maligned western diplomat – how would you like to be in their shoes and be forced to be polite to a bunch of pedophile, woman murdering, slave owning, totalitarianist crackpots in order to simply have enough energy to drive the entire western economy? What would you do better? If you’ve bitched about it, you must have some ideas surely? It’s a digression that can, and has filled libraries. The place is a nightmare without waking. It will make your head explode if you think about it too much.
But there is a rumble going down. Things are changing.
Tunisia was a minnow, the revolution there may have caused some ripples of unease to the despot-cranks that rule the Middle East, but to the West it was largely ho-hum, “just another third world toilet turning itself inside out. What’s on page 3 dear?”
It took Egypt to start capturing our attention properly. I would hazard a guess that most folks thought the uprising would last a few days and be crushed, the prisons jammed full with the ring leaders, all waiting their turns to be tortured, and to be completely forgotten about by everyone except those annoying bleeding hearts at Amnesty and HRW.
But it didn’t last a few days, instead it gained momentum. Yet even a week into the protests, the US was still lamely sitting on a fence, burbling about “freedom” and “democracy” on the one hand while hedging its bets with the other in case Mubarek pulled through. This indecisive weeniedom has cost them a lot of what precious little credibility they had left (as usual). The protestors, many whom were ambivalent (if not pro-US) now have a very sour taste in their mouths. And, unfortunately, they won. Of course the Mandarins in the US State Department are all feverishly busy writing up official reports justifying their “reasoning” and why it had no relation to reality. They are very good at that. It’s what they are paid for.
The real game changer however is Libya. Of the regimes in the area that are considered bullet-proof to popular revolt or liberalisation, it stands alongside Iran and Saudi Arabia. And it’s teetering on the brink. As Gaddafi’s closest ministers resign, foreign embassies divorce themselves from being his representatives, and even his airforce defects, Gaddafi has broadcast an hour long tirade that can only be accurately described as “batshit insane” where he rants –
- “I am a fighter, a revolutionary from tents … I will die as a martyr at the end”
- “I have not yet ordered the use of force, not yet ordered one bullet to be fired … when I do, everything will burn.”
- for the people to “cleanse Libya house by house” and put the traitors to death
- that Libya “will give al-Qaeda a base”
- and that the country’s youth was drugged and did not know anything.
By the time I finish editing this and posting, Gaddafi may well be gone. And if he isn’t, the likelihood of a bloody civil conflict are huge – Libya is still the most tribal of the north African states, and the major tribes too have withdrawn from supporting Gaddafi. Whatever the outcome, it will not be “business as usual”, and Gaddafi will either die, flee or eat enough humble pie that he will effectively vanish from the world stage (snowflakes and hell spring to mind). And regardless of the outcome, Iran must be feeling very, very nervous right now. Libya was an unshakable regime, much like their’s. But that was then, this is now.
The entire landscape of the Middle East is changing as we watch. Already there are a number of other states where similar protests have arisen. Not all are as stubborn as Egypt or homicidal as Libya. Some, like Bahrain, are now responding in very un-Middle Eastern ways and engaging in dialogue and murmuring of voluntary reforms – surprisingly showing that at least some states are capable of analysing and interpreting the events of the last few weeks and realising traditional brutality is a risky solution with no guarantee of success and incredibly high prices for failure. There will be more states falling, the smell is in the air.
Present day Iran, it may surprise folks to know, is an occupied state to begin with. It is a quick and easy trick you can play on Teabagger cretins – Iranians aren’t Arabs, they are Persians (look at the URL and look at the page. It is not a mistake) who were invaded and occupied by Arabs. There is more than a 1000 years of seething resentment below the superficial Islamic Revolutionary state that most in the west perceive. Their social and political confusion is far bigger and deeper than just modern day Middle Eastern politics, beyond the capacity for any westerner to understand. It is a bomb waiting to go off, just waiting for the right spark. And seeing the success in neighbouring states, especially Libya whose regime’s brutality matches Iran’s, may just be the required spark. If Libya can do it, then so can Iran…
May you live in interesting times as the old Chinese curse goes. We are living in those times.
Where to next though? What is going to replace these regimes as they fall? There has not been a lot of thought put into this as of yet. None of these states have any history of democracy, indeed to many the very idea is haraam. For the law of man to take precedence over the law of god is tantamount to blasphemy. But, conversely, there has not been much talk of theocracy either (aside from the regular fringe maniacs).
So far, there have been no signs of Islamists attempting to force themselves in by default anywhere, and should any attempt to try, resistance is an unknown quantity. The Egyptian uprising was visibly secular and egalitarian, same as Tunisia. The Muslim Brotherhood, though present everywhere, have been noticeably timid, even concessionary. But there has been no real direction as yet and the future is very murky.
What is presenting itself though for the Middle East, as a whole, is a golden opportunity to step up and say to the world –
“Hey, look, we’re not all maniacs here you know? We want to be part of the world too. We have been ruled by assholes for as long as anyone can remember, but hey, that’s not the real us. We’re just people. We’re like you. We just got rid of the assholes.”
Too much to hope for? Perhaps. Some thoughts from my limited understanding (and I welcome correction and disagreement) –
They key is to keep the foreign manipulators at bay, those with vested interests and uncontrollable urges to meddle. If there are any regional statesmen left, now is their time to step up to the plate. The modern Middle East is what it is because of western interference. These folks need some breathing space to decide what to do, for once to be able to decide themselves. Those that cannot see the region beyond its potential for commercial exploitation need to be muzzled and leashed – and sternly reminded that repeating the dirty tricks of the past would just as likely implode the region and birth a new batch of dictatorships, much less friendly, as yield any short term profit. In fact, foreign interests do risk losing everything – and America, already bankrupted and bleeding from other conflicts they can’t extricate themselves from, are unlikely to come to the rescue2.
Israel itself is behaving wisely for now and keeping its mouth firmly shut. There is nothing they could say or do now anyway that would not be seized upon, catastrophised and used against them in return, so silence is the only smart option. What the rebirthed states can do in return is offer a pragmatic detente. Now is not the time to pick at old scabs.
As for the greater west – we really need to shut the fuck up about democracy. This is not something you can either rush or force. The world is littered with failed “democratic” states – “illiberal democracies”, a term coined by Fareed Zakaria a decade ago in Foreign Affairs. Copies of the full essay can still be found if you look hard enough, but the synopsis says it all –
Summary: Around the world, democratically elected regimes are routinely ignoring limits on their power and depriving citizens of basic freedoms. From Peru to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon: illiberal democracy. It has been difficult to recognize because for the last century in the West, democracy — free and fair elections – – has gone hand in hand with constitutional liberalism — the rule of law and basic human rights. But in the rest of the world, these two concepts are coming apart. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is producing centralized regimes, the erosion of liberty, ethnic competition, conflict, and war. The international community and the United States must end their obsession with balloting and promote the gradual liberalization of societies.
What we must realise is that democracy without a foundation of constitutional liberalism is merely a battle of lynch mobs. Even if the short term solution is some form of benevolent dictatorship to allow the constitutional foundations to be formed, so be it. Not for us to decide. This idiotic chant of democracy now on its own, with no other consideration, is not sufficient and can do more harm than good. Look at places like Uganda or Zimbabwe. The Middle East, to put it bluntly, may roughly know what democracy is, but they have no idea what it means. It means they will have to get used to the concept of civilised disagreement – something they have very little experience with.
Interesting times, oh yes3.
1 – Except for Israel. Hitchens especially extracts endless mirth from this conundrum, most recently in Hitch-22: “god having apparently ordered Moses to lead the Jews to one of the very few parts of the region with absolutely no oil at all”. Yup. All powerful and omniprescient, god can also add “gallows humourist” to the resume.
2 – Consider, a state seizes all of the assets of the foreign oil interests. They guarantee to not disrupt supply to existing customers, and as good will, offer a 10% discount. Is anybody really going to start another war?
3 – Apologies for this unscheduled bout of optimism. You will be returned to your regular greyness shortly.