Political Transitions in the Middle East

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on December 7, 1999.

As always, it’s a pleasure to appear at the Council on Foreign Relations, with which the Dayan Center has a long history of cooperation. Fifteen years ago, we had our first joint conference with the Council here in New York, and at the time, it was a rather unusual event. The Council later published the proceedings; the forward by Cyrus Vance opened in this way:

Over the years, many of us have been puzzled by a relative scarcity of formal interchange between the scholarly communities of Israel and the United States, particularly in contrast to the numerous conferences and exchanges which American academic and research centers maintain with many countries in Europe, Japan and even the Soviet Union.

To read these words now is to realize the vast distance that has been covered in fifteen years. There is now an abundance of exchange between the scholarly communities of Israel and the United States, a cornucopia of conferences and visiting professorships and joint projects and publications. In this transformation, the Council can rightly claim a pride of place, and so it really is with a sense of pleasure and collective accomplishment that I always return to this building, which first offered us a prominent American podium.

The conference fifteen years ago was entitled “Prospects for Peace in the Middle East.” Three years ago, the Dayan Center and the Council repeated the exercise, and the mood was gloomier: the conference was entitled “The Middle East in Crisis, Again.” Now we’ve gravitated back to a more optimistic title, “The Middle East towards the 21st Century,” in which the word “transition” figures in the headings of two of the panels. I take it this reflects a general optimism prompted by our fin-de-millennium, combined with a specific optimism resulting from the Israeli elections.

Now it is always possible to say that we are experiencing a “transition”—a passage from one state to another—but “transition” over the last decade or so has become a loaded word. In current usage, it means elevation to a higher state, as in “transition to democracy,” and “transition to a market economy.” So to say that the Middle East is in a “political transition” is to say that it is moving in these directions—that it is undergoing changes similar to those experienced by Eastern Europe and Latin America. Is the Middle East in “transition”?

For a very long time now, the Middle East experts in this country have been assuring us that it is. The assurances began in the late 1980s, when the dramatic changes began to unfold in Eastern Europe. The Middle East is next—this was the conclusion of a bevy of experts, mostly political scientists. Yes, the Middle East was still ruled by kings, amirs, and presidents-for-life, who had held power for as long as most people could remember. But beneath the surface, the experts assured us, “civil society” was growing ever stronger. This “civil society” would demand participation and pluralism and even democracy.

This sort of chipper optimism played extremely well in America. Certainly the big New York foundations were persuaded to place their bets. In 1987, the Social Science Research Council launched a big project on “Retreating States and Expanding Societies” in the Middle East. In 1992, the Ford Foundation funded a program on “Civil Society in the Middle East.” Middle Eastern studies in this country became choked with “civil society” projects of one sort or another, all promising the millennium.

Well, here we are, entering the year 2000, and I think it can be said with confidence that the experts and the foundations lost their bets. In the royal and presidential palaces across the Middle East, we see most of the same faces we saw fifteen years ago when we first met here. Mubarak of Egypt and Arafat of Palestine, Asad of Syria and Saddam of Iraq, Fahd of Arabia and Qadhdhafi of Libya, were all at the top then. They are at the top now. Since then, a few of rulers have gone senile or died—Bourguiba of Tunisia, Husayn of Jordan, Hasan of Morocco—but their demise has brought no “political transition,” only personnel change.

The basic features of politics in the Middle East, especially in its Arab core, remain these: power once acquired is never surrendered; power, held over time, becomes consolidated; and power, once consolidated, is transferable by fiat. All this is conducted over the head of society, civil or otherwise. The Middle East is still a place where rulers can do what they cannot do anywhere else in the world anymore: they can organize plebiscites that return majorities of 99.9 percent in favor their continued rule, and they can do so without fear of contradiction.

And increasingly, it looks like they can name their successors without fear of contradiction either. This is of course true of monarchies—so true, that a monarch can even change his mind about the line of his succession on his deathbed, and know his decision will be upheld, as happened in Jordan. But it may well be true of the so-called “republican” regimes in Syria and Iraq, which may well turn into de facto monarchies.

In short, there has been no “political transition” in the Middle East. Now it may well be that society, even “civil society,” has expanded over the last fifteen years. I’m sure the numerous grantees of the SSRC and Ford Foundations would insist that they did discover something at all those conferences in Bellagio, and that the something they discovered was that more NGOs and human rights groups exist now than existed fifteen years ago. I wouldn’t dispute that. What I would argue is that the state has expanded even faster.

And it is this expansion of the state that the foundation officers and the political scientists completely missed. The SSRC project of the late 1980s was entitled “Retreating States and Expanding Societies.” I see an echo in the title offered by Lisa Anderson of Columbia, for a lecture she’ll deliver tomorrow at the Moshe Dayan Center: “Shrinking States and Rising Classes.” Let me be unequivocal about this: the Middle Eastern state is neither retreating nor shrinking.

To the contrary, the Middle Eastern state continues to expand. At home, it builds and reinforces supportive constituencies. It amasses and monopolizes symbols of legitimacy. It introduces innovations in the control of information and people. It undermines, coopts, or marginalizes all form of domestic opposition. Internationally, it adapts itself to every kind of economic pressure, from IMF-imposed restraints to UN-imposed sanctions. And it generates ingenious strategies for survival in the new unipolar environment, absorbing in stride everything from U.S. peace diplomacy to U.S. cruise missiles.

The most notable triumph of the state over the past fifteen years has been its victory over Islamism or Islamic fundamentalism. I don’t know how many times over the past fifteen years I’ve read about the imminent triumph of an Islamic opposition movement in a major Arab state. Excuse me for saying so, but the journal Foreign Affairs was particularly susceptible to indulging this kind of prediction. In 1992, one could read on its pages that the military coup in Algeria which checked the Islamists was “in many ways like the abortive Moscow putsch in 1991; although the process may take longer, it will fail for similar reasons.”

Eight years later, of course, it is the Islamists who have failed, the regime remains in place. In 1993, one could read this sentence in Foreign Affairs: “For the United States it is impossible not to compare with current situation in Egypt with the one that led to the disastrous fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979.” Seven years later, it is clear who has suffered the disastrous fall, and it is the Islamists; Mubarak is more than ever the pharaoh of Egypt.

Of course, Foreign Affairs and this Council were not alone by any means—they were herding behind the consensus, according to which the status quo simply couldn’t last. If it wasn’t Egypt and Algeria, it would be Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Elsewhere I’m preparing a devilish piece which goes back and excavates the absurd and foolish things which were put in print on this subject over the past fifteen years. Suffice it to say that the prophets did prophesy falsely. The Islamist moment is over, and it is over because the state did not retreat or shrink in the face of it. The state mobilized and acted, and it won the battle.

So as yet there has been no meaningful “political transition.” But of course hope springs eternal, and in the absence of any identifiable force for change, the experts are now falling back upon two determinisms—biological and technological.

The biological argument is fairly simple. The old guard is old, they’re going to die over the next decade, even if they die in bed in their palaces. This means there will be new faces, and with new faces are bound to come new ways. Some of the new breed is already here, in Jordan and Morocco; others are apprenticing in various capacities, as in Syria and Iraq. Some of these sons have been made by the media into the Arab world’s internet generation: educated in the West, raised outside any ideology, these people, we are told, may cede some of the power they have inherited, to bring their nations in line with the political norms of the West.

It will be very interesting to see whether this thesis has any foundation. My own suspicion is that these sons are not going to cede anything to anybody, that the lessons taught to them by their fathers are going to override any nonsense they picked up from their professors in America, England, or France. On the surface, it will look kindlier and gentler, but beneath the surface, the powerful will continue to hoard their power, not share it.

The technological argument is also fairly simple. The new technologies—the xerox machine, the fax, cellular telephones, satellite television, e-mail, the web—have made it impossible for the state to monopolize the flow of information. Different voices can gain access to wide publics in the Middle East, and the new technologies will force open politics. “Gone are the days when the government controlled the news,” gushes one American professor, who tells us that modern communications technology “inherently undermines vertical structures of control.” It will not be an Islamist revolution that brings down the status quo; it will be the digital revolution.

Again, it will be most interesting to see whether this thesis has any foundation. My own suspicion is that the state is far better positioned than society to take advantage of the new digital technologies, and that behind the scenes, the digital technologies are being applied in ways that dramatically increase the ability of the state to monitor and manipulate constituencies and oppositions. People hungry for information or entertainment put up satellite dishes—but states put up the satellites, and jam them with programming. People buy computers to link up to global networks—but states block access and monitor e-mail at will.

The most efficient and sophisticated communications systems in the Middle East are the ones imported by states for purposes of security and surveillance. The technologies are tools, and whether we get an Orwellian or a Jeffersonian outcome depends not on the technologies, but on the political and moral context into which they’re introduced.

That context hasn’t changed, and if people in the Middle East are simply going to use new technologies to amplify the stale old arguments for authoritarian rule or Islamist dominion, they aren’t going to mean much. Marconi, the pioneer of the wireless, was told by his associates that he could now “talk to Florida.” To which he replied: “And do we have anything to say to Florida?” The fact that Middle Easterners can now buy computer chips, electromagnetic tape, video equipment, lasers, fiber optics, satellites, and low-frequency transmitters does not mean they have anything new to say to one another—anything that might alter the status quo, by changing the moral and intellectual context in which politics are now conducted.

In order for the passage of the old guard, or the advent of new technologies to have any political meaning, there has to be a fundamental reconceptualization of the polity. Is anyone doing this work? The Economist, in its special issue on The World in 2000, runs this headline: “Islam’s coming Reformation.” The assumption that some basic reformulation is underway is not new, and back in 1992, one could already read this on the pages of Foreign Affairs: “Islam is now at a pivotal and profound moment of evolution, a juncture increasingly equated with the Protestant Reformation.” Just last year, you could read an article in the Wilson Quarterly entitled “Inside the Islamic Reformation,” and there learn that “we will look back on the latter half of the twentieth century as a time of change as profound for the Muslim world as the Protestant Reformation was for Christendom.”

The problem with this is that no one has yet identified the thinkers who are doing the thinking. For a decade now, everyone has been looking for the Muslim Luther who would nail his theses to the mosque door. I will spare you the revolving list of candidates. For a while, the favorite candidate here in America was the Tehran University philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, a disillusioned son of Iran’s revolution. Soroush was an American academic’s dream, mixing Quranic verses with quotes from Hume and Kant, Kuhn and Popper. “He has the West paying attention, too,” Time magazine confided to us. “The Council on Foreign Relations in New York recently issued a 56-page study devoted to Soroush’s political thought.”

Well, I am sure Soroush’s thought deserved all 56 pages, and that it was money well spent. The other would-be Luthers are also deserving of academic study. But the truth is that secularization is already a de facto reality in large parts of the Middle East. This owes nothing to those Muslim Luthers paraded on American lecture tours. It owes everything to the Arab state. The secularizing mission of the Arab state has been more subtle than the mission of the Turkish state, but it’s been absolutely decisive in establishing the secular norms which do govern most of the Arab world. It is state-generated and state-sanctioned secularization which blocked the ascent of Islamism, and which is now expanding the scope for social change, in everything from birth control to banking. This is not political change. But without these kinds of transformations, a “political transition” is all too likely to come as a shift from one form of authoritarianism to another.

In conclusion, I believe the time has come to put the state back at the center of our understanding of Middle Eastern politics. As intellectuals, we are bound to be fascinated by NGOs and human rights groups and Muslim Luthers. You are part of “civil society” in America, not part of the apparatus of the state, and you admire your reflection in the Middle East. But let’s not delude ourselves into underestimating the power of the state. Like it or not, the state is still stronger than society in the Middle East. Bear this in mind—in peacemaking, in policy formulation, in alliance building—and you cannot go too far wrong.