The new Middle East?

(cross-posted from Core)

Though the Assad regime is still brutalising the Syrian population in a desperate attempt to hold onto power, the post-Spring contours of the Middle East are becoming visible. It is now clear that the Assad regime cannot hold on (see the betting market predictions that give it 76% chance that he is gone before the end of next year), and the victory of the strongly Islamist Sunni majority there completes the cycle of political change started with the US restructuring of Iraq and the Arab Spring rebellions.

To start with north Africa: as I predicted just before the overthrow of Gaddafi, Libya indeed has held democratic elections, but is now a fractured country without much government, with the many armed factions mainly squabbling over the oil revenues. It will be under the Resource Curse for decades to come, essentially fighting over whom can force the foreign oil companies to pay them off (there was and is a way out, but pride prevents it).

In Egypt, there has been a bit of a power-struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, with the army at the moment sitting back and seeing what the Brotherhood will do with power. It will be a dull place for decades to come as the Islamists enact their vision, but still the situation is slightly better than I thought it would be a year ago when the military seemed hell-bent to keep all the real power in its own hands. For now, the military is leaning back and content to let its repression apparatus be a threat. The democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood has been allowed to share power, and it has reportedly managed to do so by co-opting junior officers in the army and without an open conflict with the top-brass, which in turn is only conceivable if there was an understanding about the economic interests of the military.

The Grand Bargain between the old elite and the mainstream Islamists that I predicted when the first demonstrations were held in Egypt has thus been made, so watch out for the economic activities of the kids of the Prime Ministers and senior ministers for it is them that will become the new Egyptian economic parasites: no doubt, the Muslim Brotherhood leaders will tell themselves they will not be corrupted, but 1000 years of Middle East politics shows they will be corrupted and their own great historian Ibn Kaldhun tells them why and how.

Apart from this economic game at the top, Egypt has now completely divided into sectarian lines, with particular political parties catering for particular communities (Copts, Sufis, Salafists, etc.) in a quite feudal fashion (votes for sale by regional power brokers). This too is entirely logical and in line with expectations.

As to sectarian politics in the wider region, Syria and Iraq have swapped places in terms of which group dominates: before the US take-over, Iraq had a Shiite dominated population ruled by a small Sunni elite. Now it has a Shiite elite on top of a mainly Shiite population. In Syria, there was a Sunni dominated population ruled by an Alawite elite, soon to be replaced by a Sunni elite. In a sense, this makes both countries more stable and simply means a re-arranging of friendships between nations: Iran’s new best friend is its former enemy Iraq (thanks to the US) whilst its old best friend Syria will soon be its new best enemy, thanks to radical Islamists in that whole region whose support for the Syrian Sunni uprising is being allowed by the West. Saudi Arabia’s new best friend will be Syria whilst its old friend Iraq is now its enemy. Not much change though in the overall balance of sectarian power, just a shuffling of seats.

There are many ironies to observe in what has happened, and the US involvement is perhaps the most glaring one: after its own democratic ideals forced the US to accept the victory of the Shiites in Iraq, the unwanted result of that victory (a new friend for Iran) forced the US to support the Syrian uprising, even if that meant looking the other way when the enemy it has been fighting for ten years (the radical Salafists) was the main outside group doing the arming and the dying alongside that opposition. This will strengthen the radicals, is not what the US wants, and the Americans will thus undoubted be trying hard at this very moment to influence the composition of the winning coalition in Syria, for instance by encouraging the Turks to do some of the arming and by financing Syrians in exile.

Has anything substantial then been gained in the last 10 years? Well, yes. For one, there is now greater regional autonomy for various smaller groups, particularly the Kurds. The Kurds, a peoples of close to 25 million mainly divided over 3 countries (Iraq, Syria, Turkey), already have the Northern part of Iraq and look set to get the Northern part of Syria too, which is of course a good thing and reduces the internal tensions in the region. No-one was fighting for their benefit, but it has nevertheless been a great 10 years for them.

The idea of democracy is also an undoubted winner in all of this. It is true that the democracies in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and the new Syria do not belong to the Anglo-Saxon ideal of a political system dominated by competing economic interest groups, mediated by a nationalistic civil society and central bureaucracy. Rather, it looks much more like the political systems that long operated in the Netherlands and Venice: societies divided along sectarian lines with high degrees of internal autonomy for those groups, with the centre politically run by the business elite of the majority sectarian group. It will feel much like the old dictatorships for the first few decades but there have been subtle changes in that the power of the elite is no longer absolute. Large and stifling, yes, but no longer impregnable. And that matters for it means the elites have to be a little nicer.

In the Netherlands too, dominance by a business elite in the 1580-1940s period involved power sharing and peaceful conflict resolution along sectarian lines. So too in Venice for about 400 years (1400-1800) and other trade Republics with very mixed populations. They were patchworks of smaller factions divided amongst religious and ethnic lines, but ruled by a business elite that had an interest in keeping the place together. And over time, such places become more centralised, nationalistic, and thus closer to the ‘normal’ European model of a nationalist-lead centralised democracy. Venice eventually got absorbed by Italy and the Netherlands managed to invent itself and become a country.

The analogy is not perfect, but pretty close: loyalties in the Middle East do not run on nationalistic lines, but much more on family and sectarian lines. This still reflects the reality of agriculture-dominated societies whereby the inheritance of land (the crucial production input) goes along those lines. For a while, this then also dictates how things go in industry and services, where jobs and inheritances also go along those lines. This was exactly so in the trading Republics, where the business elites were but a small part of the population and the majority was still involved in sectarian-organised agriculture.

Until the majority of the population is well and truly urbanised and used to the economic realities of urban life, sectarian patronage systems win the democratic game. The fact that this is less visible in the history of Anglo-Saxon countries reflects the limited degree to which they were actually democratic: don’t forget that in the Anglo-Saxon system, the masses only got to vote after more than a century of rich-men-only elections, i.e. only after those masses were much more urbanised.

For the next couple of decades then, sectarian politics will still be the name of the game in the Middle East. A fairly corrupt elite will be appropriating much of the wealth of each country on behalf of its leading families and sectarian supporters, though general education and health will improve further as the need for elites to be nice has slightly increased, increasingly held to account by a very slowly growing tech-savvy nationalist middle class. Normal economic pressures will continue the trend towards greater urbanisation, all contributing to the long-term trend towards normality. During that transition path though, which should take maybe 40 years or so, the more radical Islamists will continue to find fertile ground as the continued economic repression by a corrupt elite breeds a fanatical search for purity.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The new Middle East?

  1. Q says:

    Golly Ken writes a column about the NT electionand neglects to mention how badly he got it wrong and now Paul can only say that Egypt is slightly better than he thought.

    A whole lot more different than you thought would be more accurate.

  2. Paul Frijters says:


    I beg to differ! Did you actually read my two previous analyses of where Egypt was heading, linked to in the post, or did you (like last time) just shoot off the hip? Of the second, I said the military would hang onto power and torture the opposition from the streets. The torture chambers indeed have been busy; the liberal urban elements indeed have been marginalised; there indeed has been no coalition between the reformers and the main islamist parties; the military indeed tried to single-handedly re-write the constitution; etc.

    The question of how much the military is still in power is actually quite open, but my current reading of the situation is that the Brotherhood is having more of a look-in than I thought in my second blog (though pretty much the level of my first one). The military’s economic interests are unthreatened, there is still no parliament having dissolved the first one, etc. And they do have their control apparatus firmly in place to defend their interests should the Brotherhood get too confident. On a 10-point scale of military power versus civilians, I would say last time I thought it would be an 8-2 in favour of the military and have now revised to a 7-3. If you believe the military has ‘lost’ or is now under firm democratic control, think again.

  3. Tel says:

    Syrian “freedom fighters” continue showing their true colors as they destroy churches and kill Christians, which has resulted in the mass migration of tens of thousands of Christians, including practically the entire populations of Homs and Qusayr. Surrounding nations that once might have offered refuge—Iraq, Turkey, even now Lebanon—are also increasingly inhospitable to Christians. One Christian girl who escaped said: “They sermonized on Fridays in the mosques that it was a sacred duty to drive us [Christians] away…. Christians had to pay bribes to the jihadists repeatedly in order to avoid getting killed.” After making the sign of the cross, her grandmother added: “Anyone who believes in this cross suffers.”

    They must sure be glad not being brutalised by Assad any more. You know what they say, a change is a good as a holiday. :-)

    My personal theory is that the USA & Nato are giving guns to the Suni rebels partly for the reason of deliberately rebalancing the situation after Iraq got handed to the Shiites but also because they are planning ahead for the next “War on Freedom” where they will need a new bad guy (who just happens to be a cousin of the old bad guy, hopefully no one notices the obvious). That’s why the small atrocities against Christians don’t get reported — the propagandists are waiting for the right time, allowing big atrocities to build up.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Paul, Great to get these updates.

  5. Jim Rose says:

    Reports on Egypt vindicate Tullock’s view of revolutions. Revolutions are products of inter-elite rivalry, in this case, in the context of autocratic succession.

    The street violence was a catalytic event that threatens to incite police and army mutinies and desertions. Previous alliances were thrown into doubt.

    It should be always remembered that Qadaffi’s got his main chance to take over when he was a mere Colonel leading a small group of junior officers. Colonels control strategic components of the military but they are not as well paid as those within the autocrat’s inner circle.

    Enough military coups are lead by more junior officers seizing their main chance to make their generals nervous enough about their own survival in a colonels’ coup to strike first to displace the current autocrat before they are the next to be arrested and share his fate. There is then a post-coup realignment of patronage to buy-off the junior officers.

    Members of the Egyptian elite must decide who is most likely to retain aremy security forces loyalty and army discipline. This is why everyone agrees that the attitude of the military is pivotal in Egypt. The military will be the handmaidens of any revolution.

    The street protests in Iran failed because the military and security forces stayed loyal. The military switched their loyalty to the Prime Minister in Tunisia.

    There have been no revolutions in China, Cuba and N. Korea because all have, to paraphrase Tullock, moderately efficient secret police willing to torture and kill.

  6. Paul Frijters says:


    yes, the plight of the Christians and other minorities in that whole area is really bad. I dont think there is a conspiracy of silence on this (you should read Ayaan Hirshi Ali on this!) but I do think the West realises it is with Syria on the same side as the people they have been fighting for 10 years, which is why they now are investing so much in the more moderate elements via Turke and ex-pats. As a friend of mine said recently, with hindsight we might have prefered to keep supporting Assad, but with hindsight he probably would have prefered a democratic transition.


    Egypt and Syria too had very loyal secret police and a military willing to torture and kill to support the regime, so I disagree that this is the reason you do not see revolutions in China and Korea. The Chinese leadership for instance does not rule by fear to the same degree, nor is it seen as somehow outside Chinese society but much more an integral part of it. The situation is thus completely incomparable. Indeed, in general I think Tullock lacks the theoretical apparatus to understand idealism and the relation between economic understructure and political strife. Having said that, I agree completely that the internal dynamics in the army are very important. One of the main things that happened in Egypt after the first street protests was huge bonusses for the lower officers precisely to keep them loyal! And, like in many struggles, the pressure to stay true to the cause is nowhere greater than the marginal elements inside the security apparatus (and, on the other side, on the fringes of the opposition).

  7. Q says:

    Paul you are having a lend of yourself.

    The Brotherhood are acting like a political party wanting to gain votes not Islamic radicals.
    the Current President is well aware of what he needs to do to stay in office at the next election and it is directly contradicting your original and wrong hypothesis!

    • Q, JB Cairns, JL, or whatever other rock you hide other,
      :-) nice of you to visit Troppo on your rounds. Next time, please put in some more effort!

    • Tel says:

      I agree with the statement, “the Brotherhood are acting like a political party wanting to gain votes” but unfortunately they are using the well understood method of victimizing a minority group in order to score points with the majority. Sad, but effective — the ugly side of Democracy. I feel a need for a quote here and the one with the wolves and the lamb has been overworked:

      The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.

      Lord Acton

      Hopefully copyright will expire on his books soon. Hmmm, wasn’t some earlier Troppo article asking for practical examples of this at work? I forget when and who, but FWIW I guess we found another example.

  8. Mike Pepperday says:

    I join Nicholas in expressing my appreciation: Paul, your post makes sense to me.

    And thanks also to Jim Rose for mentioning Tullock. I had never heard of him which I will excuse by blaming impermeable disciplinary boundaries. After a half-hour’s googling I am now full bottle.

    Despite Tullock’s impressive publication record, Paul’s criticism that he lacks the theoretical apparatus to understand idealism rings true. I realise he distinguished revolution from coup d’état and maybe I’ll get around to reading him one day but it seems to me that by definition the difference between them is that revolution is popular (the cry is Equality!) whereas a coup d’état is elite competition (the cry is Order!) and to perceive revolutions mainly as elite competition is to confuse things.

    To cry Equality! is indeed an ideological position whereas to cry Order! is more or less ideology-free.

    I also approve of the disappearance from the top of the Troppo page of that weird, irritating, cycling advertisement of recent posts.

  9. Jim Rose says:

    Thanks for the responses. I too would like idealism to be centre-stage in revolutions.

    Watching (albeit on TV) Berliners tare down the Berlin wall with their bare hands was one of the most romantic moments of 20th century politics.

    Yeltsin on the tank in Moscow with a loud hailer was great too, but remember he was calling for the army and security forces to switch sides or stay neutral.

    Tullock expects revolutions to be non-existent as long as the dictator retains the loyalty of the military and does not hesitate to use force.

    Wintrobe has written on the Dictator’s Dilemma -the problem facing any ruler of knowing how much support he has among the general population, as well as among smaller groups with the power to depose him. Leads to a taxonomy of tinpots
    (low repression and loyalty), tyrants (high repression, low loyalty), totalitarians (high levels of both), and timocrats (low repression, high loyalty).

    For Tullock, the puzzle is not that revolutions are so rare, but that they happen at all. Individuals obey because if they don’t, they are highly unlikely to make a difference and quite likely to get killed.

    p.s. in political science, there is Huntington’s second turnover test. The first turnover is when the autocratic falls, or holds an election so he can retire and get to the airport alive.

    The second turnover is where a nation transitions from an emergent democracy to a stable democracy. It must undergo two democratic and peaceful turnovers of ruling parties. Not an easy task if there is a trail of corruption.

    Taiwan passed that second turnover test recently. The Philippines had trouble with those second turnovers. Thailand has trouble with second turnovers too.

    Egypt will face a second turnover test from Islamists to a secular a few years time.


  10. Mike Pepperday says:

    Second turnover – two elections where the ruling parties change. It mostly seems to hold but there are exceptions.

    Botswana has had no change of party in power since independence in 1966. It appears to be reasonably democratic. Well, Botswana hardly disproves the thesis. But Switzerland does. It never changes the ruling parties (and it has no coalitions). Switzerland is far and away the world’s most democratic country – and has been since the late 19th century.

    While Huntington’s thesis may have some plausibility, it is a pragmatic, even cynical, criterion and the example of Switzerland indicates that “democracy” must really mean something quite different from periodically swapping the band of urgers in charge.

  11. Mike Pepperday says:

    Tel, Acton is wrong (as he half admits in that quote): the demonisation of a minority is a tyranny of whoever has power and it has nothing to do with whether they got there by some democratic process. Actually, the problem of wolves and lambs occurs much less in democracies than in other forms of government. In Switzerland it doesn’t occur at all.

Comments are closed.