2013-2014 PAPER SERIES

NO. 4
Michael Bell
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Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities
Transatlantic Academy Paper Series
June 2014
Michael Bell
Michael Bell is an Aurea Foundation Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy and is a senior fellow at the Norman Patterson
School of International Relations at Carleton University, where he teaches. He is also an adjunct professor at the University
of Windsor, where for eight years he was the Paul Martin Senior Scholar in International Diplomacy. He is co-chair of the
Jerusalem Old City Initiative, designed to develop new options for the Governance of the Old City. Bell served 16 years in
the Middle East as Canada’s ambassador to Jordan, Egypt, and Israel (twice), as representative to the Palestinians, and as
high commissioner to Cyprus. He also served as chair of the Donor Committee of the International Reconstruction Fund
Facility for Iraq and as an arms inspector for UNSCOM. He has been a senior fellow at the Weatherhead Center at Harvard
University and at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto.
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Case Studies of Ideology and Ethno-Nationalism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
The Arab World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Ethnicity and Ideology. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Syria and Beyond. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Conclusions. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities 1
attitudes remain
a hard core
reality, reinforced
by the region’s
traditions, no
matter how
uncomfortable we
may find them.
multitude of issues contribute to the
dysfunction of Arab Middle East polities,
including traditions of colonialism,
authoritarianism, the rentier state, clientalism,
corruption, and imagined history. Most
importantly Arab politics is dominated by ethno-
nationalism and ideological belief systems. There
is little tolerance for liberal pluralism. Despite
the yearning of many for a meaningful pluralistic
governance system, there is at best only modest
prospect for successful liberal reform, so much are
these traditions part of a deeply ingrown culture.
For Western policymakers, “sober realism” must
be the watch phrase. The spread of what we call
“progressive values” is important but can only
be satisfying when seen in the light of what “can
be” rather than what we think “should be” done.
To ignore this reality risks making matters worse
rather than better.
The Transatlantic Academy’s recent report Liberal
Order in a Post-Western World explored whether
a rules-based international system can be realized
in an era of rapid global change.
The report
takes as a given that, despite their relative decline,
Western democracies must protect and assert what
its proponents style as a liberal order promoting
peace, freedom, and prosperity, while recognizing
that other countries and societies not only fail to
share but often reject Western perspectives on
international norms. These liberal values include
the determinants of political legitimacy, the
circumstances warranting military intervention
and the appropriateness of promoting progressive
conceptions of political and economic rights. The
thesis holds that the Western democracies should
work with emerging states to establish common
T. Flockhart, C.A. Kupchan, C. Lin, B.E. Nowak, P.W.
Quirk, and L. Xiang, Liberal Order in a Post-Western
World, Transatlantic Academy (May 2014). http://www.
ground wherever possible, forging a consensus on
a new rules-based order. It asserts that “peacefully
managing the onset of a polycentric world will
require compromise, tolerance, and recognition of
political diversity.”
These are highly laudable, even necessary, goals,
but how realistic are they? The question of
whether the transfer of basic rights and freedoms
can be achieved on any broad scale in the long
or medium term, let alone short term, requires
examination. The record suggests that often
policymakers and analysts can be overly ambitious
in their expectations respecting the realization
of “a better world.” In particular, the experiences
of the countries of the Middle East both past and
present support such an argument. What we in
the West consider innate beliefs and attitudes can
be much at variance with those of other societies,
especially in the Arab world. Although often
unrecognized, our efforts to export these attitudes
can be labelled “cultural imperialism,”
to promote our values within what we deem less
advanced polities. This does not invalidate the
role of the West and progress can be made within
limits. However, rejectionist attitudes remain a
hard core reality, reinforced by the region’s long-
standing authoritarian traditions, no matter how
uncomfortable we may find them.
The term “cultural imperialism” emerged in the 1960s,
becoming an object of considerable research in the 1970s.
Its most recognized contemporary advocates are Noam
Chomsky, the linguist, philosopher, and activist based at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Edward Said, the
literary theorist and public intellectual who taught at Columbia
University. Said’s seminal work was Orientalism, Pantheon
Books, 1978.
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities 3
Turning accepted
logic on its head,
the division of
the Cypriot state
into two entirely
separate self-
governing entities
has permitted
relatively free
based on
Case Studies of Ideology
and Ethno-Nationalism
hese challenges are not exclusive to the Arab
Middle East; a worldwide pervasiveness
exists among divided societies. The examples
of Cyprus and the former Yugoslavia illustrate
this well. These dilemmas were resolved, to
the extent they could be, but largely through
the least satisfactory of options: violence and
ethnic displacement. Understanding these
situations, however, holds the key to the Arab
world’s dilemma. Instances where the state lacks
legitimacy in the eyes of many, if not most, of
its citizens leads to alienation and consequently
violent confrontation with the governing
authority. Autocrats in the Middle East, who
eschew accountability, allow no space for societal
transformation. Attempts to break this governance
impasse in Cyprus and the Balkans through
accommodation have failed dramatically.
The Cypriot dispute, which remains
unresolved after 40 years, is an ideal example of
“constructionist” theory.
It stands for many as a
model of “the clash of civilizations”
in a situation
where language, belief systems, and contested
narratives prove irreconcilable. Greek Cypriots
at the time of independence from Britain in 1960
constituted about 80 percent of the population,
with Turkish Cypriots the remainder. The post-
independence calamity in Cyprus brought an
already fragile government in Nicosia to collapse,
provoking a Turkish invasion, widely condemned at
the time and subsequently.
Constructivism asserts that meaning, understanding, and
significance are developed within communities rather than by
individuals. The first use of the term respecting governance
and international relations has been widely credited to Nicholas
Onuf, set out in his seminal work World of Our Making,
University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
This phrase was coined by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of
Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Simon and
Schuster, 1996. Huntington’s thinking is widely criticized, and
is indeed overstated, but at its core has merit as a workable, if
imperfect, conceptual framework.
One could today argue that, perversely, the Turkish
invasion and occupation of one-third of the
island was the dominant, if bitterly painful, factor
in creating a sustainable social and governance
environment for Greek and Turkish Cypriots
alike. This viable ecosystem is grounded on
physical separation and ethnic homogeneity.
Turkish intervention led to the creation of two
separate state entities, each housing an ethnically
vibrant community, each with their own tightly
knit narrative. Both societies, in substance if not
rhetoric, now accept the de facto status quo as
preferable to the inter-communal fragility inherent
in what would be an unstable and quite possibly
unworkable federal system.
Turning accepted logic on its head, the division of
the Cypriot state into two entirely separate self-
governing entities has permitted relatively free
environments based on exclusionary outcomes,
particularly on the Greek side. For Turkish
Cypriots, it provides security. However such
societal exclusion was at the time, and remains,
distasteful to the advocates of liberal outcomes,
and efforts continue to find a confederal solution
continue today, despite little potential for any
effective accommodation between Cypriots. Any
agreement would almost certainly be forced and
fragile, and greeted with little enduring enthusiasm
by either side, excepting those ideologically
committed to a pluralistic society within a single
state entity.
A further case of ethno-nationalism has been
the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, based
first on Serb exclusivism and thereafter on
“independentism” among its constituent parts.
Where relatively homogeneous self-governing
political organisms have been created based on
single ethnicities as in Croatia, Slovenia, and
Serbia, viable state structures have emerged. With
Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, the situation
is less clear but is evolving positively. Only Bosnia,
Transatlantic Academy 4
which remains a multi-ethnic mix beset with a
precarious identity crisis, seems beyond satisfactory
solution, a situation to be managed rather than
The present difficulties in Ukraine, initiated and
orchestrated by Russia’s autocratic president,
Vladimir Putin, are not the creation of one man
alone, no matter how satisfying it may be to
attribute blame to a single individual. President
Putin’s ambitions could not be realized were it not
for the support of ethnic Russians, including those
in the diaspora, who have embraced the narrative
and imagery of Mother Russia and its larger destiny.
Russian thinking is compounded by an inferiority
complex accentuated by Moscow’s fall from
superpower status occasioned by the breakup of the
U.S.S.R. These circumstances have led to a strong
sense of insecurity and second-rank standing;
Russia has lost both its traditional geographic
buffers and sense of honor and dignity.
Other communities and ethnic groups share at
least some of these characteristics: the northern
Irish, Scots, Basques, Catalonians, north Italians,
Walloons, and Flemish in Western Europe and
Quebecois in Canada. Many in these societies
search for self-determination because the state
structure, in their eyes, has been unable or
unwilling to meet their basic material, social,
and political requirements. They carry enduring
grievances against the state, which they see as
discriminating against and disempowering them.
In multiple cases, however, the state is able to assure
equality, pluralism, and indeed special status, as
in the instance of Quebec. Such guarantees enable
ethnic identity groups to prosper with relative
harmony, although it fails to extinguish the struggle
of those committed to an exclusionary identity.
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities 5
Significant growth
in the authority
and pervasiveness
of the state
system became
a dominant
of the post-
Arab world.
he Middle East is in most ways still more
complex than other examples, despite the best
efforts of outsiders and often courageous but
largely isolated indigenous and reformist elites.

Advocates of civil society in the Arab Middle East
are few and fragile; authoritarianism is rife, beset
by resistance to social and political modernity.
This authoritarian paternalism has a long lineage
reinforced by a rejection of the pluralist model,
which is based on long-standing tradition and the
manipulation of religion to equate diversity with
Significant growth in the authority and
pervasiveness of the state system became a
dominant characteristic of the post-independence
Arab world. This situation involved tremendous
growth in the bureaucracy, the security services,
and the armed forces. In many cases, it was the
causal factor leading to the expansion of public
enterprise and the assertion of jurisdiction over
the whole of state territory. This included the
commitment of the new ruling class to rapidly
promote a more equitable distribution of wealth
through nationalization, industrialization,
education, and social welfare. The private sector,
compounded by its pluralism, was portrayed
by those newly empowered as an exploitive
mechanism, which it often was, frequently run by
foreigners or controlled by them, contrary to the
public good of the newly liberated.
Such views parallel thinking in other parts of
the Third World, but in the Middle East they
stuck with surprising tenacity, justified by the
perceived need to maintain security in the wake of
imperial withdrawal. Egypt is the most compelling
Marwan Muasher, a former deputy prime minister and foreign
minister of Jordan, currently vice president for studies at
the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a prime
example. His most recent book, The Second Arab Awakening
and the Battle for Pluralism, Yale University Press, 2014, exactly
represents that situation.
example of many.
Those at the apex of power
accrued enormous resources. Pluralism became
suspect because it ran counter to the perceived
need to control any and all political dimensions.
Independent institutions were consequently
diminished in size, if not denuded of all substance,
as contrary to the state’s interests. However
marginally, such pluralism was perceived as a
challenge to the state, viewed by the new governing
elite as a threat to its dominance. The new class
wanted decision-making without constraint, using
force and compulsion whenever it felt such to be
necessary. Those in control were confident in their
ideology and governed not only through repression
but patronage and client networks, often bound
together by the rhetoric of ethnicity and ideology.
In applying their theories to the Middle East, many
liberal progressives maintain that the “the people’s
will” will force governments toward increased
However, these proponents neglect
the preponderance of negative factors: the lack of
broad-based agreement on the role of the state, the
role of citizens and the state, and in many cases,
the very idea of the state. Instead overly assertive
liberalism can lead to bad policy, with calamitous
results when it confronts the ingrained habits of
brittle societies.
When we look at the Middle East, we should be
focusing on what can in reality be achieved. To go
beyond this is most often an indulgence because it
legitimizes our own belief system. At a minimum,
The Suez crisis of 1956 is a prime example, wherein abortive
Anglo-French intervention, designed to prevent the secular
pan-Arabist Gamal Abdul Nasser from nationalizing the
Suez Canal, was ultimately frustrated by U.S. opposition. This
particular event gave Nasser the opportunity to project himself
as the leader of the forces of the “new Arab,” unwilling to suffer
the indignities of the colonial era.
As in discussions at a recent Ditchley Foundation conference,
“The Arab Awakening Three Years On: Were the Pessimists
Right?” June 5-7, 2014, Ditchley Park, United Kingdom.
The Arab World
Transatlantic Academy 6
We do not want
to think about
the thousands
of indigenous
inhabitants who
have been killed
and maimed
and the millions
displaced by
our efforts.
we have an obligation not to leave matters worse
than we found them through ill thought-out
interventions that leave catastrophe in their wake,
as in Iraq and Libya, while claiming a sort of
tenuous victory because reality is too painful to
our psyches. We do not want to think about the
thousands of indigenous inhabitants who have been
killed and maimed and the millions displaced by
our efforts. Nor do we want to think about the fate
of so many of our own people serving in the most
challenging of situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, there have been over 2,300 U.S.
fatalities according to U.S. Defense Department
In Iraq, in the month of May 2014 alone,
11 years after the invasion that was to have brought
peace and stability, the U.N. cites the violent death
of 603 persons and 1,108 wounded in politically
related violence.
This month’s “takeover” of Mosul
and Tikrit, for however long, by the Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant, is still more depressing.
A counter to this reality are those who choose to
emphasize progress made respecting liberal goals,
including the role of woman and the education of
children in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The question is
not whether these are worthy achievements, which
they are, but whether they are sustainable without
massive societal transformations. One has to ask
oneself repeatedly whether the radical changes
envisaged by interventionists are viable in such
hostile and often misunderstood regions. Given the
appalling nature of regimes like those of Saddam
Hussein in Iraq and the Assads in Syria, we are
faced with a Hobson’s choice governed by ethnicity
and ideology that yield overriding narratives in
their most radical form. This is a zero sum game.
The choice between the old autocracies and their
Much of the work I did in Iraq and Egypt was devoted to
precisely such projects. How much endures today is an open
successor regimes is not necessarily one to be
envied, as odious as the old dictators often were.
Discrimination against women for instance is more
pervasive today than in was in the dictators’ heyday.
Long neglected, albeit now resurrected,
constructionist theories
respecting the pull
of identity facilitate understanding of today’s
dilemmas. Interpretations of the international
order stressing relativism and the need to suspend
moral judgments were followed by the rise of
neoconservatism, stressing universalist value
systems and the self-conceived moral duty of
the United States in particular to “liberate” third
world countries, overthrowing their tyrannies and
democratizing their polities through pluralism
and the market.
The neoconservative project,
ideologically hopeful but significantly reinforced by
such self-interested “realists” as Dick Cheney and
Donald Rumsfeld, did not succeed. As it happened,
the first country of choice for neoconservatives in
targeting the export of the U.S. model was Iraq.
Following their military victory over the Saddam
Hussein regime in 2003, these U.S. universalists,
with an excess of confidence and a deficit in “on
the ground” knowledge, were surprised to find
Two key innovators of the constructivist model in the
political and social domains are Walker Connor’s tome
Ethno-nationalism: The Quest for Understanding, Princeton
University Press, 1994, and Edward Azar’s seminal
contribution The Management of Protracted Social Conflict,
Dartmouth, 1990, form a stimulating theoretical basis for
practical assessment.
Neoconservative ideology derived from Leo Strauss, who
taught political science at the University of Chicago. He was
a devoted follower of Plato’s ideal imagined state, which
he believed was largely embodied in reality through U.S.
exceptionalism. Strauss disciples, including Paul Wolfowitz,
one of the driving ideological forces of the George W. Bush
administration, proposed a world changing stereotypical
Strausian model to be exported internationally with vigor,
determination, and force. Neoconservative principles codified
by the now-defunct think tank Project for the New American
Century are clearly set out in that organization’s June 1997
“Statement of Principles.”
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities 7
The Bush
wilful blindness
to ethnic and
realities, near
and insistence on
rebuilding from
the top down led
to the destruction
of the previous
structures of
Iraqi society
without providing
any viable
complexities beyond their imagination. The Bush
administration’s wilful blindness to ethnic and
ideological realities, near constant misjudgments,
and insistence on rebuilding from the top down led
to the destruction of the previous structures of Iraqi
society without providing any viable replacement.
The Iraqi armed forces were disbanded, sending
half a million young men into the streets.
Numerous members of the Ba’ath party were
disqualified from public service, thereby excluding
whatever institutional expertise the state possessed
from participation in the new state building

Such ignorance meant that ethnic hostility, based
on the collective grievances of the Kurdish and
Shia communities and religious radicals, erupted
into civil war, which ultimately delivered Iraq
to the Shia mullahs in Tehran through a mix of
ethno-nationalism and ideology. The Shia/Sunni
split where beliefs hold the other to be heretical
permeate Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, where loyalties
to differing systems combined with systematic
oppression reinforcing the rule of one over the
other resulted in the collapse of state structures.
The former Crown Prince of Jordan, Hussein ibn
Talal, frequently characterized the situation as a
catastrophic fault line stretching from the Gulf to
the Mediterranean.
Subsequent events have more
than proved him right, although at the time many
thought him overly dramatic.
In the aftermath of the failure in Iraq,
constructionist theory acquired new relevance,
enabling us to deal synthetically with conflicts
between identity groups. Its causal factors were
unleashed, if unrecognized, first in Iran through the
Membership in the Ba’ath party under Saddam was a
requirement for those with professional aspirations, including
in the university structure.
He did so with me, and many others, in the build up to the
first Gulf War (1990-1991).
fundamentalist revolution that overthrew the Shah
in 1979, then the ayatollah’s war with Iraq from
1980-1988, thereby crossing the Shia/Sunni divide.
This was followed by the U.S. interventions in Iraq
in 1990 and 2003 and finally the aftermath of the
Arab uprisings, initially labelled the Arab Spring,
spontaneously launched in Tunisia in 2010.
These causal factors were, in fact, realities that had
lain largely neglected for decades, out of mind if
not rhetoric, by Western policymakers, barring
the atrocities of Saddam Hussein and his ilk, these
being too significant a violation of international
norms for even the most hardened to ignore. They
reflected the iron rule of Middle Eastern despots
who relied on family, tribe, nation, and ideology.
They enforced stability through the violent
suppression of dissent in virtually any form via the
apparatus of the police state, security services, and
armed forces. This governance model spawned
corruption and clientalism beyond the abuse of
human rights and freedoms. By monopolizing
power, however, the authoritarians prevented the
disintegration of the state, forcibly combining
diverse people and cultures, attempting to eradicate
ideologies other than their own by whatever means.
The dictators were to be overthrown inter alia by
outside intervention as in Iraq, by popular uprisings
in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, and by a combination
thereof in Libya. Those running the state apparatus
had proven themselves incapable of providing the
economic, social, or political benefits necessary
to sustain a necessary modicum of legitimacy.
Their ability to provide a kind of oppressive
security, which ensured an enforced stability, was
eventually outweighed by an accelerating bias in
the distribution of wealth, power, and influence,
ignoring the common need for the material and
other essentials of dignified life.
A widespread belief during the heyday of the
old Arab autocrats was that they were intent
Transatlantic Academy 8
The optimists
found it difficult
to accept
that without
checks and
balances and
broad cultural
commitment to
pluralism, these
goals would be
on perpetuating and regenerating themselves
indefinitely through the police state, which indeed
they were. Prime examples were the succession
from father to son within the Assad dynasty in
Syria, Gamal Mubarak’s effective designation as
dauphin in Egypt, and Muammar Gaddafi’s family
clique in Libya.
These tensions, and the belief among the autocrats
and their cabals that their privileged position was
somehow a matter of right, not only sparked the
outbreak of a quest for freedom and justice but
also unleashed a resurgence of ethnic nationalism
and ideology in what was initially labelled the
“Arab Spring.” Many of the facilitators of the
Arab uprisings were young middle class activists,
supported by the intelligentsia, who had the energy
and street level legitimacy to drive the despot from
power, as evidenced so vividly in Egypt. They were
the drivers of change and had widespread support
among the disenfranchised. However they lacked
both experience and the organizational depth
necessary to sustain their enterprise.
These young activists used social media, believed
by many to have become the motor force of political
change to great effect. New technologies served
to raise consciousness and enabled organizational
co-ordination with the ability to synchronize place,
timing, and tactics to maximum effect. Such ease
in the flow of information was indeed a significant
enabler but was ultimately marginalized by primal
forces that lay close beneath the surface and
dominate the region today: ethnicity and ideology.
Underlying belief systems and intra-ethnic
competition were ultimately manifest in the quest
for power and influence, which further fragmented
opposition movements, as is so sharply illustrated
in the Syrian instance.
By late 2011, the Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak
was gone, overthrown by the country’s people. For
liberal reformers and Western commentators, it
seemed that Egypt had been reborn with the Arab
Spring, ushering in a new era of personal liberty,
democratization, and pluralism. The military was
seen as the protector of both nation and state. The
optimists found it difficult to accept that without
institutional checks and balances and broad cultural
commitment to pluralism, these goals would be
frustrated. They minimized the importance of the
reality that Egypt’s tradition and habit had been
that of authoritarian dictatorship, albeit with a
sometimes progressive façade, permeating society
at all levels and reflecting deeply rooted concepts of
legitimacy and expectation.
Democracy, however, cannot exist without
democrats. Elections in the Arab world are
traditionally seen by empowered elites (militaries
and others, including the Muslim Brotherhood)
as opportunities to take and consolidate exclusive
power, ensuring “controlled democracy” with
pre-determined outcomes. President Mubarak
kept bottled up the societal movements that
were too powerful to suppress. At the center of
these were the Coptic Church and the Muslim
Brotherhood itself, which through a mixture of
self-interest and caution declined to challenge the
parameters of their president’s authority and claims
to legitimacy.
The uprising however changed the
Once it captured power in 2012, the Brotherhood’s
popularity quickly began to wane. Under President
Mohamed Morsi’s ragged direction, its own
Yosef Wali, then the administrative head of Mubarak’s
National Democratic Party (NDP), told me in the build up
to the 1995 parliamentary elections that Egyptians had a
“Pharaonic” complex that would assure an overwhelming
NDP victory. This, although obviously self-serving, may have
contained, in the minister’s mind, just a grain of truth. When
I, on instructions, more formally raised concern at the foreign
ministry about the lop-sided results after the ballot, Wali
threatened me with being declared persona non grata after
the ballot. This in fact would never have happened, given the
consequences that would have ensued.
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities 9
In the Hashemite
Kingdom of
Jordan, the habit
of rotating prime
ministers and
creates a time-
honored safety
valve for the
comportment became more and more arbitrary.
The military once again began to see itself as the
only alternative protecting the general good.

It alone, the command structure asserted, could
provide the bulwark against chaos. The many sided
opposition to Morsi, who had granted himself
unlimited powers, including that to legislate
without judicial oversight or review, seemed largely
to agree. The result was military overthrow. The
army reacted with unparalleled force to resistance
from the Brothers and other quarters, making
Hosni Mubarak look soft by comparison.
The Arab monarchies avoided the full impact of
the Arab uprisings. This included multiethnic
Bahrain, after the decisive engagement of the Saudi
security services. These entities have demonstrated
resilience largely because they are allocative and
distributive rentier states, which benefit from an
excess of indigenous and internationally valued
petroleum resources, the income from which
is distributed according to the interests of the
ruling elite in the name of social stability.
such cases, governments constitute the ultimate
employers with resources being widely distributed
through bloated bureaucracies and generous social
programs as a means of discouraging civil society
and democratization.
Its own considerable material and economic interests were
at stake, possessing as it did not only considerable power of
patronage but ownership over substantial segments of the
civilian economy.
Rentier states are defined herein as entities with an abundance
of indigenous resources, which they “rent” or sell to third
parties, the oil consumers, thereby ensuring the rentiers
are financially liquid. The term was developed by Hazem
Al Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani in a chapter entitled “The
Rentier State in the Arab World” in the volume The Arab State,
Routledge, 1990.
Five Gulf states, of which Iran is one, hold some 65 percent
of the world’s proven oil reserves according to the latest BP
This is accompanied by a heavy police state
apparatus directed against targeted dissidents,
supplemented by sectarian rhetoric stressing the
threat of the other: the classic “carrot and stick”
approach to problem solving. The monarchies
have also sustained legitimacy through a diversity
of seemingly intangible factors, chief among them
real or imagined individual and family virtues
and lineage, including claims, as in Jordan and
Morocco, of direct descent from the Prophet. For
these less wealthy monarchies, strategically placed
Jordan in particular, massive Gulf (and indeed
U.S.) subsidies are made available, thereby ensuring
resources sufficient to discourage far-reaching
In the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the habit of
rotating prime ministers and governments creates
a time-honored safety valve for the monarchy.
King Hussein and his successor Abdullah made
this an essential element of their statecraft: the
government is portrayed responsible for failure,
while the monarch styles himself as the savior of
the nation by holding those below as responsible
and consequently sacking them, whenever deemed
Under what passes in the region for
moderate rule, Jordan has been atypically successful
in maintaining relative harmony between its
majority Palestinian population and its indigenous
tribally based citizenry. There has been pressure for
pluralistic change including among elements in the
long-favored East Bank tribes. This has however
been dampened through classic state coercion,
the fear generated by the civil war in Syria, and
continuing Gulf largesse rewarding Jordan’s role as
classic buffer state. Its shared approaches to security
and governance also make it an essential partner
in preserving the old status quo and therefore
This technique was used when I served in Jordan from 1987-
90 and indeed thereafter. To my surprise, the cynicism that
underlay these tactics seldom penetrated the popular psyche.
Transatlantic Academy 10
Tunisia, the
birthplace of the
Arab uprisings,
comes closest
to being an
exception to the
tradition and is
brightest in its
prospects for the
success of the
liberal model,
despite on-going
and systemic
a natural ally of the Gulf States,
as well as the
United States and its Western allies, thirsty for a
predictable regime as an essential buffer among
jousting regional powers.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab uprisings, comes
closest to being an exception to the authoritarian
tradition and is brightest in its prospects for the
success of the liberal model, despite on-going
transitional challenges and systemic corruption.
Pre-independence Tunisian nationalists were
well-disposed toward and motivated by Western
ideas, in good part through their exposure to
France, fostered by a comparatively light colonial
administration, in sharp contrast to the repressive
model adopted in Algeria. The long rule of
Habib Bourguiba, although clearly autocratic,
lead to a secularist and progressive social regime
emphasizing many liberal values including
bilingual education, women’s rights, access to
affordable housing, and semi-independent labor
unions, thereby creating a sizeable urban middle
The country is ethnically and religiously
homogeneous: Sunni and Berber. The economy
is based on manufacturing and tourism, the latter
demanding openness. Nor did the army play a
decisive role as in Egypt, declining to intervene
when the crunch came in late 2010, forcing
Bourguiba’s corrupt successor, Zine El Abidine Ben
Ali, to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia rather than face
the consequences of his abusive rule. Tunisia had
the advantage, compared to its neighbors, of more
sustained if still flawed institutions, the courts and
labor unions for example.
An interesting and recent instance of the struggle for pluralism
in Jordan is the prominence of East Bank activist groups,
advocates of democratic change through non-violence. See
Sean L. Yom, “Tribal Politics in Contemporary Jordan: the
Case of the Hiraq Movement,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 68, #
2, pp. 229-247.
Per capita income is estimated in the most recent CIA country
profile to be just under $10,000, although the distribution of
such income is sharply uneven.
To date, the governing Islamist Ennahda movement
and its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, in particular,
are well regarded for moderation, as evidenced by
the welcoming of the recent NATO naval task force
visit with British and German ships. Ghannouchi,
known as perhaps the leading Muslim thinker
on Islam and modernity, has shown an unusual
ability to manage the system, assuring a cabinet
of technocrats and affirming his commitment
to coalition government regardless of whether
Ennahda, itself beset by ideological crosscurrents,
gains a majority in the next parliamentary
elections or not. He stresses gradualism with fellow
Islamists, although how far this extends remains
to be determined. His pronouncements to the
faithful and those to outsiders differ markedly.
Widely respected, the sincerity of Ghannouchi’s
commitments is still open to question, as are the
implications of the word “gradualism.” This term
has also been the trademark of Turkey’s Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose increasingly
authoritarian methods, and the considerable public
support behind him, have become a source of
considerable liberal concern.
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities 11
thno-nationalism and ideology constitute
the genesis, dynamic, and outcome of the
protracted social conflict we are witness to
in the region. They most often, if not invariably,
emphasize mass adherence to religious, linguistic,
and other cultural characteristics: images, customs,
language, imagined history, a shared narrative,
a myth of common descent, and the reality of a
common religion. These traits constitute identity,
the underlying reality without which events cannot
be understood. Ethno-nationalism, ideology and
the narrative they provide to communities offer
a means to cope with feelings of humiliation,
betrayal, and subordination in what they
believe to be, and often is, a fragile, potentially
hostile environment. Regional peoples find
cosmopolitanism, and hence cultural diversity,
These traits, which constitute constructivist theory,
are embodied in collective instincts to which,
inter alia, political leaders and their propagandists
can appeal. They are dramatically re-enforced
when they come into contact with “the Other,”

meaning a competitive group or groups that a
given community views as antithetical to its own
self-realization. They consequently define and
constitute the self. Fear is a critical component in
this mix when groups become preoccupied with
what they see as the threat of marginalization or
worse. They see their existence endangered by a
more powerful “Other,” most vividly demonstrated
in Syria. In such situations, group identity
provides a sense of strength and comfort against
demonization and dehumanization. It avoids the
angst of individual isolation, of facing a threatening
world alone. But it also leads to a sense of group
victimization and to a collective determination
to ensure one’s community survives by whatever
means it can. The Otherness hypothesis,
This concept was given prominence by Edward Said in his
well-known book Orientalism.
underwritten and reinforced first by contact then
struggle, becomes essential to the development
of one’s own narrative and self-definition. This
permeates the Arab Middle East.
Colonial rule, short as it may have been, aggravated
ethnic and ideological stresses because it most often
resulted in the division and dismemberment of the
sociological entities known as nations
the drawing of boundaries after World War I,
which were designed to satisfy competing imperial
requirements. Little if any heed was given to the
indigenous inhabitants of those societies, of whom
the European “peacemakers” sitting in Paris were
unaware and uncaring. This may be best illustrated
by Winston Churchill’s aphorism
that he had
created Jordan in a single day at the 1921 Cairo
Conference, sealed by the stroke of a pen. Strategic
fault lines within the remnants of the Ottoman
Empire were thus enshrined, enabling the British
and French to claim they had successfully fulfilled
their wartime promises to all the regional parties.
They had not.
Instead, they created a series of fragile state
structures, ignoring the realities of community
identity groups in both their societal and political
contexts. Communities who saw themselves as
nations were left stateless. Their entities were
organic, far different than a structurally defined
state, although nation/state equivalency became
a byword, if often a jaundiced one, in the 20

The word “nation” in this paper is used as a term to represent
a large group of people, a community, that shares common
attributes including culture, narrative, descent, and language.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock at Ditchley Foundation conference,
“The Arab Awakening Three Years On: Were the Pessimists
Right?” June 5-7, 2014, Ditchley Park, United Kingdom.
Ethnicity and Ideology
Colonial rule...
aggravated ethnic
and ideological
stresses because
it most often
resulted in the
division and
of the sociological
entities known as
nations through
the drawing of
boundaries after
World War I, which
were designed to
satisfy competing
Transatlantic Academy 12
Societal and political communities and
identity groups, as ethnic bodies, were defined
as nations
in contra-distinction to states, the
latter being legal and organizational rather than
sociological units. Hence derived the concept of
ethno-nationalism. The colonial powers maintained
their hold often by recruiting minority ethnicities
as a core element in their security apparatus.
These minorities enhanced their position through
serving the autocrats with unquestioning loyalty,
a process by which they ultimately became still
more vulnerable in the face of majoritarian social
upheaval, as was the case of Alawites in French-
governed Syria and the Turks in British-controlled
Much modern analysis adhering to “realist”
theory emphasizes the state as the dominant
framework for political action, describing it as
unitary, pursuing pure self-interest, and a rational
actor. Despite its many devotees, the concept is
inadequate because it ignores ethno-nationalist
and ideologically inspired trans-state behavior. It
ignores nation, kinship, tribe, and family. It does
not accept the elements that constitute a nation
as a people, and what differentiates them form
those they consider outsiders, those who constitute
“the Other.” This is not however an all or nothing
game. Effective ties to the state and relative societal
satisfaction can co-exist with ethnic awareness,
most often through the creation of a civil society.
What predominates is determined by the realities
and circumstances of the time. The failure of the
state to meet basic economic and social needs spurs
Within Canada, for instance, references to state, country, and
nation are taken, in the common parlance of Anglophones
at large, as equivalent in context and meaning. Among
Québécois, the distinction between the legal entity that is the
state and the sociological entity of the nation can be marked.
The nation as depicted here contrasts with civil society, whose
existence is based on shared values transcending ethnicity, as
most evident in the United States and sometimes described by
the term “civic nationalism.”
the search for ethnic or ideological alternatives,
hence the phrase “Islam is the Solution,” so
prominent in the Arab world. Alternatively,
economic well-being may at times be insufficient
in overcoming ethno-nationalism, as has been the
case in prosperous but sociologically and religiously
divided Bahrain.
Lebanon, on the other hand, enshrined
confessionalism in the so called National Pact of
1943, where state structures were organized to
accommodate strong, most often hostile, ethnic
components. This was in many ways a cover for
Christian Maronite dominance, to a degree shared
with the Sunni elite. But Otherness fostered by the
movement of the Palestine Liberation Movement
into Lebanon after its expulsion from Jordan
in 1971, the high birthrate of the traditionally
under-privileged and discriminated against Shia
population, together with Christian emigration
altered the sustainability of what had always been
a precarious situation. These shifts provoked
civil war beginning in 1975 and ending only in
1990. Since then, Lebanon has limped along as a
quasi-state, having largely abandoned sovereignty
to its constituent parts. Trans-state culturally
based loyalties have played an important role in
Lebanon’s modern history, particularly respecting
Syrian intervention, most recently in Shiite-
based Hezbollah’s involvement on the Damascus
government’s side in the current Syrian civil war.
Beliefs are essential to an understanding of political
processes in the Middle East. They explain much
in the current situation where the ethno-nationalist
model is insufficient in explicating revolutionary
discontent, as is the case with Egypt. In that
country, although there is a religious and cultural
divide between the adherents of Sunni Islam
(some 90 percent of the population) and Coptic
Christianity, Egyptians nearly universally view
themselves as one people genealogically, despite
their experience of severe and violent disruption.
Beliefs are
essential to an
understanding of
political processes
in the Middle
East. They explain
much in the
current situation
where the ethno-
nationalist model
is insufficient
in explicating
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities 13
The transcendent
effect of both
ethnicity and
ideology over an
often colonially
imposed state
system leads
to fault lines
undermining the
interstate system
because primary
identities are
sociological and
With relatively few exceptions, Egyptian’s notions
of nation and state coincide. The explanation for
societal dysfunction in such cases, inter alia, relate
to the role of dogma and creed.
Ideology can be tantamount to a political belief
system. It represents a comprehensive vision, an
ethical set of ideals, and a world view creating
expectations and inspiring goals necessitating
sometimes radical action in the mind of the
believer. It too goes to the essence of transnational
identity. Religious fundamentalism has been a
major source of disruption in the Middle East,
manifest in its current form since the 1980s after
the collapse of the post-independence ideology
of pan-Arabism, which envisioned a single
Arab nation stretching from Iraq to Morocco.
Pan-Arabism stressed political unity, socialism,
suspicion of Western intent and particularly
secularism, seeking to integrate different ethnicities
in a common cause.
But it could not deliver a
new world order and those in need of a Salvationist
credo ultimately turned to Islamism.
Islamic fundamentalism,
in its modern
manifestation, flows from the contradiction
between the collective memory of the triumph of
early Islam and the failure of the Muslim peoples
to find sustenance during the colonial and post-
colonial periods. Adherents attribute this to a loss
of faith. Fundamentalists abhor the Nasserite/
Ba’athist secular and modernist concepts of the
1950s and 1960s, as well as pluralist alternatives,
Pan-Arabism encompassed two philosophically related but
separate movements: Nasserism, in which the revolutionary
Egyptian president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, pursued his own
neo-imperialist vision; and the Ba’athism movement, whose
principle authors were the Syrian thinkers Michel Aflaq and
Salah al-Din al-Bitar.
A number of scholars, including the Arabists Bernard Lewis
of Princeton University and John Esposito of Georgetown
University, for instance, dissent from the use of the term
“Islamic fundamentalism,” preferring in the latter case the
phrase “Islamic revivalism.”
advocating instead a return to what they see as the
basic tenants of the Koran and Sunnah, bound by a
strictly literal interpretation requiring rejection of
the inherent corruption its advocates see in secular
societies. This has great appeal for those feeling
themselves disadvantaged and marginalized by
modern society The absolutism and intolerance of
fundamentalism are inherent in this belief system,
for who can ignore the will of the deity? Taken to
the extreme, violence is justified, indeed required,
in the name of the most holy.
The transcendent effect of both ethnicity and
ideology over an often colonially imposed state
system leads to fault lines undermining the
interstate system because primary identities are
sociological and ideological. In the immediate
post-independence phase, these realities were
dampened by the concept of pan-Arabism and state
nationalism. However, these ideologies failed to
satisfy community needs; the glue was not strong
enough to ensure permanence. In their ultimate
wake, the exploitation of sub-state and supra-state
loyalties appeared to, and often do, offer relief from
social alienation. This is more than manifest today.
The perceived power of the common good is seen
through specific often trans-national identity
groups, particularly in the so-called Shia Crescent
stretching from Tehran to West Beirut, hence
the persistence of belief systems, dominating the
struggle for power. A classic example is Syria, where
loyalty to differing and often highly contentious
versions of both ethnic realities and Islamic belief
transcend state boundaries. This is also the case
with Hezbollah’s support for the Alawite regime
in Syria and Iran’s broader role in the region in
support of identity-based insurgencies, sometimes
characterized as representing a Manichean struggle
between absolutist values.
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities 15
In keeping
with standard
imperial practice,
the French
colonialists relied
on a minority
community that
had everything to
lose were Syria
to come under
majority rule.
Syria and Beyond
he Syrian case best illustrates the
determinants of political action, embodying
both ethno-nationalism and ideology. It
would nevertheless be unfair to suggest that
the uprising that erupted in Syria in the latter
stages of the Arab uprisings was devoid of
hope for democratic pluralism. Many Syrians
shared aspirations with the deprived and abused
throughout the Arab world; the late arrival of the
uprisings in Syria were due to a ruthlessly efficient
security service representing the interests of the
Alawite minority, a historically underprivileged
people who rose to power through the Assad
dynasty beginning in the 1960s. Syria is a
fractured state split between starkly contrasting
communities and nations — chiefly Alawite, Shia,
Sunni, Christian, and Druze — riven by contesting
narratives and fiercely defending their own turf.
The Alawites see themselves as they were
historically a disadvantaged mountain people
arbitrarily governed by the Sunni majority spread
throughout the cities and flatlands, who with 66
percent of the population never envisaged rule
by a group other than their own. In keeping with
standard imperial practice, the French colonialists
relied, however, on a minority community that
had everything to lose were Syria to come under
majority rule. Alawites became the core of the
French security services drafted into the Troupes
Speciales du Levant, which took them out of
poverty and into privileged positions, but also
earned them the enmity of the Sunni majority
(except for members of the merchant class who
increasingly profited from this special relationship,
giving in turn free reign to corruption).
Since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, Syria
has been ruled with an iron fist, making former
President Mubarak’s autocracy in Egypt look almost
benign. Assad ruled not only with the enthusiastic
support of his own people, the Alawites, but with
the consent of the state’s other minorities, the
Christians among them, so concerned were they
by the threat of Sunni discrimination. Thus their
support today for the regime, which has constantly
stressed the values of secularism (subordinated,
at least in theory, to the ideal of Pan-Arabism).
This mitigated the dangers of majority intolerance
and forced homogeneity. Such sectarianism was
fostered, not only by the Sunni public at large
but by fundamentalists, for instance the Muslim
Brotherhood. In 1982, the elder Assad unleashed
his troops against a Brotherhood insurrection,
killing some 40,000 persons according to the
estimate of the Syrian Human Rights Committee,
mainly civilians.
Since the Alawite takeover, the greater part of
the Sunni population has lived with a sense of
grave injustice, viewing the Alawites as usurpers
of power, thereby cementing contested identities
driven by imagined history and narrative. In the
ongoing Syrian civil war, more than 160,000 people
have been killed
and millions displaced. Syria is
awash with a multitude of increasingly fratricidal
factions fighting for control, as the opposition to
the Assad regime multiplies like so many deranged
amoebas based on ethnicity and ideology, with
radical Sunni fundamentalists spawning competing
terror groups, each ready to take on the other at the
slightest provocation or deviation from their own
distinct liturgy.
However slowly, the Alawites have gained the upper
hand with substantial assistance from outside
players including Russia and Iran, cross-pollinated
by sister entities from Iraq, unleashed there by
the consequences of the U.S. intervention. The
struggle has been one in which there is no tipping
point, wherein one side reaches a decisive mass
According to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights and as of mid-May 2014. Surk, Barbara, “Death Toll In
Syria’s War Tops 160,000: Activists,” Associated Press, May 19,
Transatlantic Academy 16
and thereby brings about the disintegration of
the Other. The Damascus regime cannot and will
not be capable of digesting the substantial areas
of the Sunni hinterland. Here there is nothing
holding peoples together, rendering it impossible
to maintain a unitary state except by force of arms.
Enmity prevents any vision of common interests
except in the eyes of idealists. Every side is obsessed
with protecting its own interests. Ethnic separation
as in Cyprus is largely impossible given the mix
of ethnicities throughout the country, except for
the coastal mountain areas, viewed as the Alawite
Between the Mediterranean littoral and the
Iranian tableland, there is not one entity that can
be properly described as a nation state. Instead
there is an assemblage of sectarian and ethnic
entities, sociological nations, in a state system
where for decades chaos was circumvented by the
imposition of authoritarian rule. It has proved
impossible to legitimize the state by constructing
an identity around it, opposed as it is by sub-state
and supra-state identities. Supra-state identities,
Shi’ism for instance, configure loyalty to the
group as paramount to their sense of belonging
need and comfort, hence the fluidity of state
borders, particularly across the so-called Shia
crescent leading to trans-state conflict so vividly
illustrated by Iraq and Syria. The feeling of non-
Shia Alawite separateness corresponds neatly with
Shia alienation. This facilitates trans-national need
and loyalties, for which there seems no viable
solution given the over-riding sense of Otherness
engendered by historic Sunni dominance.
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities 17
By opting for
overly positive
assessments of
the prospects
for pluralism on
the ground one
is hard-pressed
to make the
informed decisions
necessary for
here is always a risk that interpretations
based on ethnic and ideological factors
will be characterized as overly simplistic
and too black-and-white, while a more nuanced
and hopeful approach better suits the needs
of policymakers. By opting for overly positive
assessments of the prospects for pluralism on the
ground, however, one is hard-pressed to make the
informed decisions necessary for success.
This does not, however, mean that nothing can or
should be done.
Marwan Muasher and other progressive Arab
thinkers offer both a balanced assessment of
situation and its liberal based needs. They identify
the troubled nature of Arab polities and the
challenges they must overcome. They show great
insight into the fault lines of the Arab educational
system, not only of rote learning but the value
and emphasis attached to technical degrees
at the University level, at the expense of the
social sciences, which risk, in autocratic minds,
independent thinking on political and social issues.
The search for pluralist societies permeates such
Where such views can be contested is their
emphasis on what “should be” done rather than
what “can be done,” the fault of many liberal
reformers. Muasher writes
for instance about
the need for viable electoral infrastructure, for
leaderships to encourage pluralism and for them
to abandon the concept that dissent equates to
disloyalty. He urges them to embrace inclusion and
to bring about an end to nepotism and corruption.
This widely shared thinking asserts that such
changes will take decades but leaves undefined how
Arab Human Development Report, 2005-2009: http://arab-
Muasher, “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for
they can be effected other than through the force of
popular demand and the emergence of enlightened
leadership. Past evidence however suggests this
is unrealistic. Muasher himself accepts that
opposition within the system will be substantial
and determined. The magnitude of the task can
be judged against the critical findings of the Arab
Human Development Report, written by the most
serious of Arab scholars.
Aims can be high but expectations must be
modest. Liberal values, whatever their worth, are
likely attainable only exceptionally. From those
who advocate movement, we need specific and
viable mechanisms for success. In their absence,
all we can hope for is that leaderships of whatever
variety gradually move forward, if unwillingly, to
maintain their legitimacy and ensure their survival
through societal consensus. There is one relatively
bright spot, however. If liberal values are to find a
home in the Arab world, Tunisia enjoys the best
prospects, as was the consensus at a recent Ditchley
Park conference. That country merits considerable
time and investment from liberal reformers, while
recognizing the regional impact of Tunisia will be
limited by its remoteness from the Arab heartland.
For the rest, however, the constructionist model fits
well, in a region beset with growing exceptionalism
when faced with the evolving global norm. The
challenge for policymakers is to establish realistic
goals, accepting the seemingly unending reality of
Arab states beset with autocratic leaderships and
riven societies. To articulate and channel political
ambitions and create meaningful civil societies in
this environment is no easy task.
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