Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Who is Next?

Now that the pundits have seen the writing on the wall indicating that Mubarak's days are numbered, and we've seen the hundreds of thousands of fingers doing the writing, who will be the next Arab autocrat to go?

To begin to examine that question intelligently, we must first examine the nature of the regimes in the Arab world. Broadly speaking Arab regimes can be divided into two categories--monarchies (kingdoms, emirates) and military dictatorships. The former can then be further divided into the Gulf States with their oil wealth and the monarchies that lack this--Morocco, Jordan and Oman. The military dictatorships can be divided into two groups: the hereditary republics and the ordinary dictatorships. While there is quite a bit of difference between the Gulf States on one hand and the traditional military dictatorships on the other, there is little effective difference between the non-oil monarchies and the hereditary republics. Both types are repressive and both types suffer from serious economic problems. And members of both groups are aligned with Western powers such as France and the United States.

There have been four Arab countries that fit the description of hereditary republic.(North Korea is the only non-Arab country in this category that comes to mind, which should tell everyone something about the Arab world.)  These are/were: Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya. Only in Syria has the first despot been able to transfer the imaginary crown to the head of his son and heir. This is not because Hafiz al-Assad was necessarily wiser than Kaddafi, Mubarak, and Saddam Hussein, but merely because he died first. None of the others wants to transfer power while they are still capable of ruling. Saddam Hussein and his sons are now dead. The senior dictator sentenced to death and hanged by the Shi'ites that he once persecuted; the dictators apparent, Udai and Qusay, killed by American troops that discovered their safe house. It is now too late for Hosni Mubarak to transfer power to his son Gamal. It is still possible that Muammar Kaddafi might yet transfer power to his son Saif--apparently the sole son who doesn't have a reputation as a playboy.

In the Arab world the secret to remaining in power is to buy off the potential classes that could cause problems, retain the confidence of the military, and either buy off, exile or murder any serious potential threats within the regime. The Gulf States buy off the population and especially the middle class with generous education benefits and make-work jobs. These are funded from oil revenues. The clergy is then bought off by funding Wahhabite missionary activities throughout the region and the Arab diaspora in Europe and the United States. The military dictatorships that are aligned with the U.S. use American aid to subsidize heating oil, food, and other basic staples for the lower classes. Formerly the Soviet Union also provided this function for its regional allies, but it is gone. This has forced Damascus to turn to Tehran for an alliance.

Potentially the two countries most immediately in danger are Yemen, which has already experienced political unrest following the fall of the regime in Tunis, and Syria. Syria has not experienced unrest yet and is trying to preempt it with new reforms that have been announced. Bashar al-Assad feels that unlike Mubarak he can breathe easier as he is on the right side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not having signed a peace treaty with Israel. That is why the hope of getting Assad to switch alliances in order to make peace with Israel is probably a pipe dream--he needs the conflict in order to legitimize his heretical Alawite regime (the Alawis are an offshoot of the Shia).

Jordan is also at risk as well over 60 percent of the country's population is made up of Palestinians--those who fled in 1948 and 1967 and their descendants. Jordan's King Abdullah II inherited from his father, King Hussein, the knowledge of how to periodically change prime ministers while running a show parliament and a facade of democracy. He has just put in place a "new" prime minister--who has ruled before. He, like the king, is a former major general in the army. The security of the regime rests on the army and secret police, which are both manned mostly by Jordanians of Beduin extraction from either Jordan or originally from the Red Sea coast of Arabia. The Hashemite monarchs claim legitimacy as direct descendants of Muhammad. But the king's biggest asset is a light ruling hand and good economic management over the decades that he inherited from his father.

The ruling house in Morocco could also potentially be at risk as there are tensions between the Arabs and Berbers in the country and it is rather poor. Europe is an escape valve for many poor Arabs throughout North Africa. Libya, located between Tunisia and Egypt, is also at risk. Muammar Kaddafi has been in power since 1969--41 years. He should either begin transferring power to his son or be prepared for political unrest.

Lebanon is sui generis. It is neither a monarchy nor a military dictatorship but a collection of mutually hostile sectarian groups of Christians and Muslims. It is sitting on a powder keg because of the UN investigation of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.  Hezbollah, which maintains a large private militia in defiance of an agreement by all the political parties to disarm following the fifteen-year civil war, has threatened that it will regard anyone who supports the UN tribunal as an enemy. Its enemies usually experience premature deaths. Syria and Iran both back Hezbollah--it served both as a pressure on Israel and a client militia for the former and was trained by the latter. So far Shi'ite Lebanon is the most successful example of the export of Iranian revolution. Its powder keg has a fuse that is independent of the regional unrest, but could be sped up if Syria experiences significant unrest.


  1. Interesting commentary Tom. It's amazing how these governments appear to be falling like dominoes. Just saw some of the reports about Jordan coming out today. I was always under the impression that Jordan was relatively stable...King Abdullah has been on the Daily Show after all. Do you know if the analysts saw these movements coming a long way off, or have they caught people by surprise?

  2. Tim,
    I think that at least the timing caught the analysts by surprise. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan was interviewed on BBC yesterday stating that the monarchy was not in question in Jordan nor the present monarch, only the government.