Two things happened in Paris and Khartoum this week that portend bad times ahead for the Arab region and for relations between Arab and Muslim-majority countries, on the one hand, and American- and European-led countries, on the other hand. The more dramatic development was the massive solidarity march in Paris to uphold values like freedom of press and expression and condemn the two terror attacks in Paris by four radicalized, socially alienated French citizens who had joined militant Islamist networks like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The second, and in the longer term the more significant development, was the announcement that Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir has submitted his candidacy to be re-elected for another five-year term in elections set for April 13.
These two developments capture two of the three main reasons that have seen many parts of the Arab region become sinkholes of political violence, extremism, sectarianism and state fragmentation or collapse — most frightfully captured in the ISIS phenomenon and the threats it poses in the region and abroad. These two phenomena are the control of Arab state power structures by military establishments at the service of individuals or families, and the militarized interventions in the Middle East by predominantly Western powers (alongside parallel military or diplomatic interventions by powers like Russia, China, Iran and Turkey). The third cause of chronic stress, waste, militarism and national incoherence is the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict, which only had faint echoes in Paris.
If we were to identify a single foundational reason for the problems and instabilities of the Arab world, it must be the continuing legacy of mostly incompetent military officers who seize control of governments and remain as presidents for life. This process hollows out the indigenous governance systems of competent personnel and replaces them with mediocre friends and cousins of the great leader; redirects security systems to domestic control rather than protecting the nation; promotes corruption that ultimately translates into socio-economic stagnation and massive disparities; and creates conditions of conflict and dependence on foreign powers that ultimately create the opportunities for those powers to intervene at will in the region, including attacking and removing regimes that are identified as undesirable.
This is why the single most important priority across our region is to figure out how to make the transition from this kind of top-heavy autocratic power structure to more democratic and participatory governance systems that tap the creativity, commitment and energy of all citizens. Indirectly, the terrorism in Paris by radicalized young French Muslims includes causal factors that touch on Western armies’ actions in the Middle East (especially Iraq) and the growth of cult-like criminal groups like ISIS whose birth and growth were incubated in the repression and jails of Arab dictatorships.
So this week’s focus in Paris on fighting “Islamic terror and extremism” or other enemies with similar names with a combination of police actions and appeals to “moderate Muslims” to take more vigorous cultural-religious measures to reduce youth radicalism is likely only to intensity existing stresses and further alienate youth who are potential recruits to radical groups. This is because Western governments continue to work closely with Arab and other foreign states whose autocratic policies contributed to the birth of the radicalism now being targeted by the West, meaning the grassroots drivers of terrorism in the Middle East will remain unchanged.
Also, the excessive Western focus on religion in this equation, rather than addressing the more significant socio-economic and political forces that transform slightly directionless young men and women into hardened killers, is likely to aggravate the existing divide that plagues all concerned. This divide is also deepened by developments such as Omar Hassan Bashir’s announcement that he will perpetuate his presidency that started when he seized power in a military coup in 1989 — a quarter of a century ago.
This is only the second presidential “election” in Sudan since then, and perpetuates the farce and illusion of popular participation in choosing the government in societies across our region. The most farcical case was the recent recurring re-election of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is so ill that he never appears in public and essentially fronts for the military’s control of power in that country since the 1960s.
So this has been a bad week in the continuing saga of an Arab world in search for decency, democracy and development, which remain elusive despite the proven thirst for these things across the region. The Arab autocracies in part cement themselves by serving the Western tendency to use militarism as the main way to fight terror, which we have witnessed again this week, alongside other dictators like Bashir who ignore the West and single-handedly perpetuate their own incumbency at home by fighting and destroying any credible opposition.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global