Same old story in the new Middle East

The Arab world has a tendency to waste resources in a fight against “plots and plans” that don’t exist. In this respect, the new Middle East is shaping up to look just like the old one

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A woman stands in front of a Peace and Justice Party poster in Egypt
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Petra Marquardt-Bigman
On 1 December 2011 12:37

There is a growing chorus of voices acknowledging that it’s time to give up waxing lyrically about the “Arab Spring” and to contemplate instead the gloomy prospects of a “long Arab Winter.”

To be sure, the Middle East will be green, but it will be the green that many Islamist groups display in their flags and symbols. While the media is working hard to convince everyone that it is generally the “moderate” variety of Islamists that will take power wherever authoritarian Arab regimes are toppled, it is hard to overlook that even the supposedly model-moderate Turkish Islamists are becoming ever more authoritarian at home and increasingly reckless abroad.

In view of Turkey’s “democratic dusk,” there is little reason to expect that Arab Islamists will make much headway when it comes to tackling the severe “deficits” in “freedom, knowledge and womanpower” that have persisted since the UN’s first “Arab Human Development Report”identified them almost a decade ago as the main obstacles to development in the Arab world.

While this year’s uprisings in the Arab world ostensibly justify a focus on what is changing in the region, it is perhaps equally important to realize that some of the emerging features of the “new” Middle East look depressingly familiar.

Consider, for example, that opinion polls have repeatedly shown that Arabs are ready to admire political figures who are being perceived as “standing up” to the West or Israel – that’s why, in 2008, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were ranked as the three most popular leaders.

It was therefore not as preposterous as it may now seem when Assad asserted during an interview with the Wall Street Journal in late January of this year that “Syria is stable” because its regime was “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” Assad knew very well what he was talking about when he pointed out that “people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas. Unless you understand the ideological aspect of the region, you cannot understand what is happening.”

Assad’s problem is that even though “the beliefs of the people” haven’t changed all that much, he is no longer regarded as a standard bearer of these “beliefs” – quite the contrary: as Jeffrey Goldberg noted, “the Syrian opposition finds it beneficial to spread the lie that Assad is a Jewish agent.” Obviously enough, this lie starkly illustrates that the “beliefs” haven’t changed.

Goldberg provides a depressingly long list of additional examples and concludes: “Once dictators used anti-Semitism to divert their citizens’ attention away from their own problems. Now expressions of the most ridiculous conspiracy theories seem to rise up organically.”

So when it comes to anti-Western and “anti-Zionist” sentiments, the new rulers of the Middle East will be at least as eager as their predecessors to put them to demagogic use.

Unsurprisingly, the recently published Election Program of Egypt’s “Freedom and Justice Party” highlights the Muslim Brotherhood’s view “that Egypt’s national security will only be achieved by carrying out its role in the Arab and Islamic region, in response to the Zionist and American plots and plans,” and Tunisia’s new government is reportedly in favor of a new constitution that includes clauses opposing Zionism and any normalization of ties with Israel.

Indeed, the platform of Tunisia’s victorious Ennahda party emphasizes “the need to challenge the Zionist colonial attack” and describes Israel as an “alien entity planted in the heart of the homeland, which constitutes an obstacle to unity and reflects the image of the conflict between our civilization and its enemies.”

The Arab world faces plenty of long-festering domestic problems, among them the self-destructive tendency to waste material and mental resources in a fight against “plots and plans” that don’t exist in reality. In this respect, the new Middle East is unfortunately shaping up to look just like the old Middle East.

If there is any difference, it will only be for the worse: while a secular despot like Assad would cynically view “the beliefs of the people” as a means to cement his grip on power, the region’s newly empowered Islamist rulers may turn out to be “true believers” in the vile conspiracy theories that have long been popular in the Arab world.

Petra Marquardt-Bigman is an Israel-based freelance writer and researcher with a Ph.D. in contemporary history. She has written for the Jerusalem Post and she blogs at The Warped Mirror

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