Regime survival: the natural priority

The Middle East is difficult for many to understand if only because of the many intertwining complexities and undercurrents that control the various players. To gain insight into the roller coaster events of the region requires a fair understanding of the Arab nature, culture, traditions, and way of political life, as well as the links between the Arabs and the West–particularly the United States.

Furthermore, a line has to be drawn between the rhetoric and behavior of Arab rulers, on the one hand, and the feelings of Arabs on the street on the other. Most Arab regimes are heavily dependent on the US for survival, and indeed, some of them are terrified of becoming American targets if they don’t toe the US line. Therefore, most of the time, they end up being hypocrites for the sake of survival. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a classic example. While Arab regimes, like the man on the street, sympathize with the Palestinians, the regimes manage to achieve little politically to pressure the US into acknowledging and respecting the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause or to make a dent in the US-Israeli strategic partnership that renders impossible a just solution to the conflict.

The Arab masses, by and large, consider their regimes to be weaklings, unable to form a realistic, unified position to pressure the US and, through it, Israel. The perception of weakness is reinforced by the fact of massive Arab oil wealth and international dependence on the flow of Arab oil.

The masses question why the oil-rich Arab regimes have not come up with a strategy to use their wealth and clout in a manner that would force the world to listen and accept the legitimate Arab viewpoint on regional and international issues. They have the answer themselves: the Arab world is fragmented and unable to take decisive collective steps that would make a difference.

On the other hand, Arab regimes have found themselves meeting not only strong resistance whenever they have tried to pressure the US but also explicit and implicit hints that any economic or diplomatic measure against Washington could lead to serious crises for themselves. When looking from within, the scenario is clear: for Arab regimes, the natural priority is survival; pan-Arab issues come later.

Arab regimes cannot be expected to make any move that will expose their vulnerability. Therefore, their diplomatic and political options on the foreign policy level are restrained, and this is seen as the cause of Arab ineffectiveness in addressing the Palestinian problem in a manner that would protect Palestinian rights.

Because the Arab masses have realized the facts of the situation, there is growing resentment against their leaders. But they find little space to vent their frustrations, given the security clampdowns and restrictions imposed on them.

Most Arabs blame their governments for the failure to make the Arab world a strong and united force that can challenge the outside world on Arab causes. That is why Saddam Hussein became relevant. The Arab masses were willing to overlook Saddam’s brutality and oppression of his own people because of what they saw as his courage to challenge the US.

A view from the outside world would raise the question: why were the Arabs not willing to understand that their support for Saddam and their desire to see him continue in power in Iraq were at the expense of the human rights, freedom and dignity of the people of Iraq?

That is the very paradox of the Arab world. A partial explanation is that repression of dissent is a dominant feature of most Arab countries, and the Iraqis had suffered only a little more than other Arabs.

Today, the US is loathed in the Arab world. It started with the transparent American support for Israel at every level, worsened whenever Washington used its UN veto to protect Israel, and hit its peak when–brushing aside decades-old UN resolutions concerning Israel–the US used new resolutions to justify its war against Iraq.

Most Arabs believe that they can see through the various arguments of the Bush administration to justify the war against Iraq. They do not believe a single word coming out of Washington, since their experience has been one of being lied to by their own regimes. For them, the images of American soldiers abusing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison became a weapon to hit back at Washington. They would never be convinced that President George Bush or any other administration official is sincere in asserting that the images of abuse hurt them as much as anyone else.

For them, no US official has any respect or consideration for Arab and Muslim rights, particularly given the implicit American position in support for Israel’s claim to Arab East Jerusalem. They are convinced that it is only a fear of Arab and Muslim backlash that prevents Washington from endorsing the Israeli claim and recognizing united Jerusalem as the "eternal and indivisible capital" of Israel.

Indeed, US postures have kept Arab hostility towards Washington burning, but among themselves Arabs blame what they see as their ineffective political leadership for the troubles and crises they face today. And, as days go by, with Arab governments being unable to do anything about Israel’s brutal crackdown on the Palestinians or the American occupation of Iraq, the masses are growing increasingly frustrated. It is no exaggeration to call it a powder keg that packs a lot of explosive power.