The New Middle East?

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.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance