John Sjoholm examines the West’s historic support of dictatorships in the Middle East, and asks whether the region is ready for true democracy.
“We got rid of a terrible dictator. We gave the Iraqi people an opportunity for a new life under a representative form of government.”
― Colin Powell
The new US administration, under the leadership of President Donald Trump, is currently evaluating its foreign policy stratagem. In particular, its strategy regarding the Middle East and Africa – i.e. the bulk of the developing world. It is of vital importance that the choices made at this crucial juncture in history are ones of pragmatism and realism. The regional situation in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, proves nearly conclusively that the absence of the American soft power influence inside local hard power strongmen regimes spells turmoil, suffering, and instability.
“You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.”
― Jon Stewart
I spent many years in the Middle East, 2005-2012, largely working as a freelance intelligence operator across the region for a variety of interests. Bouncing between war zones, conflict zones, and havens of commerce, it was largely impossible to not make some informed and uninformed observations. My job was, and is, to observe; to analyze, not advocate, unless otherwise ordered.
I was a servant of the Prince. A professional tourist. I made Machiavelli proud.
It was in that role that I operated in the middle of the maelstrom that is the so-called Arab Spring. Many claim that the Arab Spring movement proved once and for all that the Eisenhower-administration era policy legacy, vis-à-vis supporting autocrats across the world, was precipitously wrong. Many argue that the policy brought neither stability, nor progress and that it absolutely did not bring peace.
A younger, more progressive, more emotional American crowd even goes so far as to suggest that America needs to apologize for the strategy that brought it the most success through the Cold War years. However, the fact that the policy stood, and was instrumental in creating the de facto American Empire, proves its detractors wrong.
Divide and Conquer
America realized early that the methods of its predecessors, using overt control and colonization, was flawed. The methods so brazenly used by the predecessors of the American Empire, the British and Ottoman empires, were undesirable. It was quite obvious for the minds of the time that controlling unified, mono-ethnic states was nearly impossible without deploying means that were severe, active, and cost inefficient.
In the wake of America’s political emergence during World War I, Americans choose to approach the world, and its place in it, using pragmatic realpolitik teachings, building on the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the Balfour declaration. This approach would quickly prove to be successful to further the creation of the American de facto empire. The Sykes-Picot agreement created by dwindling, old-world empires acknowledged the still objective truth that governing over unruly and mono-ethnic states was difficult at best.
As the developing world, with the Middle East being of particular interest due to available natural resources, continues to play a pivotal role in global strategy, the legacies of the empires long since fallen become increasingly obvious. By standing on the shoulders of the legacies of old-world empires, America found itself standing on the shoulders of giants. And it quickly found a way to use this position to its advantage, while building its covert foreign policy. From the heightened position from which America perused its new empire, it became obvious that sudden bursts of instantaneous pro-democratic developments ran directly contrary to the need for stability.
History shows that the turbulent regions of the developing world, long since divided by ethnicities and religions, are ill equipped to vote objectively for a party that represents a moderate and non-monoethnic or non-monoreligious movement. It would take years before suitable social reforms and education could overcome this gap in the developing world. For the majority of the developing world, the US remains the best option to help enable these developments in a suitable and moderate manner.
For the US, what are the actual options? Forcibly redraw the maps of the Middle East yet again? Break with a perceived American identity overtly and in its entirety?
“When goods cannot cross borders, armies will”
— Frédéric Bastiat
The brightest diplomatic minds of the formative and modern Western diplomacy corps, John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and James Baker, laid the path to a pragmatic and realistic approach that was guided by history and national aspirations. It created and catapulted the American empire onto the world stage after World War II. Under such guidance the groundwork for solid relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and even Lebanon, was laid. The US would do business with anyone, in a grand display of laissez-faire capitalism, opening diplomatic relations as well as supportive ties to ensure a steady stream of goods and services.
The cold, hard fact is that for any nation to conduct foreign policy with any success, it simply has to dance with the devil. And dance America did, subjective and selfish intents vividly on display for all to behold. Certainly many dance partners did not adhere to fundamental American values, but neither did the US on many counts. One prevailing quality of America’s most enduring and profitable dance partners, is that of autocracy.
As the Cold War reigned, and as it culminated, autocrats were the bread and butter of Middle Eastern partners. Our best weapon against the vile wills of anti-Americanism and communism alike was our ability to strike deals with the devil, deals that sated both angel and devil alike.
Then came social media. And with social media the will of the uninformed and unengaged masses became louder than the will and tact of the informed and pragmatically engaged.
Late January, 2011: Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt
The demonstrators’ blind vilification of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a given. It is hard for the average man on the street to see the big picture, to see beyond his nose.
The condemnation of Mubarak by the international media was another matter entirely. The media, with its “bark-on-command commentator” coverage of the affair was less than honorable. It focused entirely on stoking the fire. Commentators and pundits touting extensive backgrounds and experience in the Middle East, spewed countless humanitarian clichés, all the while ignoring the need for stability craved by all.
“Is the Middle East ready for true democracy?” I wondered, as I walked the outer epicenter of the so-called January 25th Revolution of Egypt, a dirty pavement under my feet.
I had worked many times in Egypt, and had frequented the square and museum just yards away. My employer had sent me to Egypt to get an on the ground assessment of what was at hand. I had spent the previous night at my hotel, drinking the local interpretation of gin, a concept that eludes Egyptian distilleries. I deliberated over the documentation that the local agent had put together. Several gigabytes of pdf files, notations, sound bites, and videos.
Included in my package was something called “The Bassem Youssef Show”, or B+ as it was actually titled. I eagerly watched three episodes that evening, relishing in the sardonic and self-deprecating humor of rising star Bassem Youssef, soon to be known as Egypt’s answer to the American comedian and commentator Jon Stewart.
In order to regain your footing as you bounce between sites, to be able to feel the way of the land, you have to understand the humor of it. You have to peruse large quantities of both factual, fictional, and wishful writing. The local agent had done a sublime job at furnishing me with all that was required to gain a grasp of the anger, the bitterness, and the joy, that the people felt. He had equally done a marvelous job at furnishing me with the asinine mentality, the hopelessness, and the resounding ignorance, of the people.
It was hardly the first time I had witnessed this. It would certainly not be the last time.
Most analysts of the region and Arabists alike agreed that Mubarak ruled on borrowed time. No matter the outcome of the actions of the young and the foolish, they equally agreed that the stability of Egypt was of vital importance to the region at large. Egypt has long played the role of the proverbial canary in a coal mine of the region. As such, observing and interacting on both the strategic and tactical level of Egypt is essential in order to gain the perspective necessary to understand the region, and what is to come.
“I thought not only am I going to die here, but it’s going to be just a torturous death that’s going to go on forever and ever and ever.”
― Lara Logan, “60 Minutes” interview about her ordeal in Egypt
What was originally perceived as a Middle Eastern variation of the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution of 1989 turned predictably, bitterly violent – as violent as any group consisting of over a million angry and ignorant people could. During the surge of the protests, from the coordinated efforts of naïve academics and the cynical bastards of professional operators inside the Muslim Brotherhood, rapes, pillaging and looting, would be reported.
Western reporters such as Natasha Smith, Lara Logan and Mona el Tahawy were sexually assaulted while covering the events. I had little to concern myself with in the way of sexual assault but I would soon fare just as well as CNN’s Anderson Cooper. For a few days after my initial survey of the sites, men in black coats –often leather– officially unaffiliated with the Mubarak security apparatus, would appear around the protests. At times, initiating violence on behalf of the protesters, and at times bringing violence against the protestors.
During a late afternoon, mid February, as I was venturing back from the square to my hotel on foot, I was struck from behind by one of these men. As I reoriented myself, my camera that I carried on the inside of my jacket was taken from me and smashed against the pavement. A swift, but not altogether forceful, kick against my face broke my glasses. The assault ended there, with them wandering away cheerfully while I cared for a bleeding nose and a headache.
“Never was anything great achieved without danger.”
― Niccolò Machiavelli
No message was delivered to me, no words given. Only the act of the unrequited violence brought upon those that observe and those that walk the streets when wannabe revolutionaries are stirred up.
A local dentist stitched the back of my head up, while remarking that I should avoid sleeping for a day or so – and how remarkable it is that I was not utterly brain dead, considering how many times he had had to stitch me up by now.
“No, they are not ready for democracy. They need an evolution, not a revolution.” I thought to myself as I drifted to sleep, after having imbibed a couple of gin and tonics in the hotel bar, that evening, despite orders from the doctor.
Jordan, a Friend in the Middle of the Maelstrom
The present stability of the Jordanian Kingdom is due in no small part to the former King, King Hussein of Jordan. King Hussein reigned from August 1952 until his demise in February 1999. During his lifetime he introduced necessary reform policies, and continued the strong cult of personality necessary to rule in the Middle East. His reform policies, and the approaches thereof, were strongly influenced by his key advisor, Mr. Jack O’Connell. O’Connell sat on many chairs in Jordan. In addition to being the King’s personal friend, and key advisor, he was also an American intelligence official, lawyer, and diplomat of merit.
O’Connell had made his mark with the King of Jordan as the chief of the CIA station in Jordan from 1963 to 1971. During this period, he spearheaded a joint operation between the CIA and the Jordanian Intelligence Directorate (GID) serving to unearth a coup d’état in the making by high ranking Jordanian military personnel against the King. O’Connell’s efforts during this operation did not go unnoticed, and he quickly became a close confidant of King Hussein.
Once O’Connell retired from Agency employment he became Hussein’s attorney and diplomatic counselor in Washington for three decades. O’Connell was instrumental in guiding the King through the winds of change in the post-Cold War Washington landscape, helping draft a suitably apparent pro-democratic reform program for Jordan. The program included the introduction of electoral district boundaries – helping redrawing the political landscape throughout the country.
To further solidify and appease the new mindset of Washington, O’Connell advised King Hussein, and Jordan, to recognize Israel. In 1994 King Hussein became the second Arab Head of State to recognize the State of Israel. Further on, after a thirty-year prohibition Jordan re-legalized seemingly independent political parties. As part of those reforms, the Muslim Brotherhood – which was widely despised, feared, and often nearly hunted as vermin throughout the region’s neighboring countries, were able to set up a legitimate political party in Jordan. The party became known as the Islamic Action Front (IAF). The guiding rule from the royal house to the emerging political parties was that the political parties existed under the dictum of Freedom under responsibility.
Is the Middle East
ready for true democracy?
Working closely to the King of Jordan, Jack O’Connell’s counsel ensured that the country saw the surge of seemingly independent news outlets. The King used the notion of the pro-democratic reform programs to appease the tribes and clans that make up the traditional and very real power blocs in Jordan, skillfully using these blocs to prevent any actual power shifts. By ensuring that the heads of the clans and tribes would continue to be more powerful than the political parties, he was able to ensure their allegiance and control of any developments.
When the first election in Jordan was held, in 1989, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly gained a noticeable foothold inside the new political landscape – only to find the King introducing additional reforms in 1993. The 1993 reforms came just months after the country held its second general election. In part, these reforms solidified the favorable treatment and power blocs of the rural and tribal-based parts of the country, by redrawing the electoral districts in the kingdom.
The rural and tribal-ruled areas of the country were strongly in favor of King Hussein, and the rule of his family, as part of an understanding that had been in effect for decades. The moves taken ensured that the kingdom was deemed by the casual and non-cynical professional observer to be moving towards a pro-democracy approach in an expedited manner.
When King Abdullah II inherited power from his father in 1999 a question many asked was if the Kingdom would continue its overt pro-democratic experiment, or fall back towards more familiar terrain. King Abdullah II knew well what the terms and actualities were, having heavy ties with the Western power blocs and being well educated in the Western mentality. He quickly advanced the kingdom’s overt hybrid-democracy stance, and reinforced the military and intelligence community to help undermine unwanted influences from religious, as well as political and militant players.
King Abdullah knows very well that as long as he controls the vote of the tribes and clans, he controls the pro-democracy movement as he sees fit. And as long as the royal Hashemite family of Jordan continues to exert this pragmatic sense of Machiavellian control, the pro-democracy movement matters very little in actual terms.
In 2011 Jordan saw widespread protests on the streets. The ostensible reason for these were pro-democratic, but the reality was predictably different. The demonstrations originated from the typical, for the region, source. The need for bread, water, gas, and jobs. The so-called “troubadour of the [Egyptian] revolution” Ramy Essam said it best with his “Bread Freedom” protest song from the 2011 Arab Spring Tahrir Square movement.
The Egyptian people, much like the Jordanian people, were not anxious for a revolution that would lead to immediate and actual democracy. With the exception of a small clique of self-serving and, often times, idealistically inclined academics, as well as religious individuals, they were seeking to ensure the continuation of government subsidies. They wanted the continuation of government subsidization of important consumer goods, such as bread, gas, and water, goods that the average family is dependent on. The average protestor was protesting to prevent the heating gas prices from going up. The average Egyptian wanted Mubarak’s dictatorship to keep providing them with the goods they needed to survive.
Unlike Jordan, the Egyptian government responded poorly, neither appeasing nor controlling the people’s rage. This resulted in the demonstrators taking matters too far. The Jordanian regime responded instead with the slow and measured release of freedoms, and continued subsidization— a continuation of the freedom under responsibility approach. This approach is dependent on the support and careful touch of American agents. It is an approach that has remained respectably useful throughout the years, and stands as the best possible path forward in the developing world.
February 11th – 2017, al Arish, Sinai, Egypt
Saleh Hamed, 55-years of age, was gunned down in cold blood as he attempted to protect his 23-year old son, Hamed Saleh Hamed, from being abducted by agents of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula.
Agents of the Islamic State broke into the family apartment of Hamed Saleh Hamed on the evening of February 11th in the central suburb of al Saha al Shabia in al Arish, the capital of the Sinai province. Once inside the apartment they grabbed Hamed and dragged him out to the curb where he was beaten, in front of onlookers. Hamed’s father, who lived on the bottom floor of the house, heard the commotion. And saw through the window that strangers were beating his son. As the father rushed out of the family home to stop the beating, the Islamic State agents threw his son into the back of a pickup truck. As the father rushed towards them to grab his son he was shot four times in the upper torso with what is believed to have been a Hungarian made 9mm Tokarev pistol.
The militants sped off, reportedly in a silver metal ISUZU pickup truck, late 90s model. Nearby Security Forces arrived within 8 minutes of the shots having been fired, but they were unable to save the life of the critically wounded father. Saleh Hamed was declared dead on the scene and his body was transferred to the central al Arish hospital. The gunmen remain on the loose, and security forces are on high alert throughout Sinai.
— Jasim (@JasimSyria) January 11, 2017
The son was found on the morning of February 21st, by the roadside of one of the main roads from al Arish. He had been tortured, and burnt alive. A day later the body of Medhat Hana, 45-years old, was found under similar circumstances. His 65-year old father, Saad Hana, had also died attempting to prevent the Islamic State agents from abducting his son, and been shot down. None of the families were obvious targets for assassination.
Their violent deaths only serve one purpose – to cement the foundation of terror by the Islamic State and its operatives.
What is Egypt facing?
Northern Sinai has in the years following the so-called “Arab Spring” in Egypt seen an increasing number of insurgencies. Since the 2011 uprising against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the turbulent undercurrents of instability in the Sinai Peninsula have emerged. In addition to the 2011 post-Arab Spring breakdown of the Libyan government, which drastically increased the quantity and quality of weapons smuggled into the Peninsula, the situation provided the Bedouins with a power vacuum in which they could declare their aversion towards the central government and their anti-Bedouin policies. This situation invited the inception and institutionalization of the existing, and emerging, movements that would create the new generation of terrorism in the country.
“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”
― James Bovard
What started as a Sinai-Bedouin movement against the Cairo government soon transitioned into an expression of Salafist Jihadism, with extreme violence following in its wake. The hardline militants in the region use Sinai as a safe haven and as a launching point to facilitate attacks against the Egyptian state, as well as Israel. What had traditionally been minor attacks by Bedouins against important infrastructure through the Peninsula to show displeasure and to gain political attention, turned into large scale attacks with the goal of utterly destroying the infrastructure. The Salafist movements emerging put a great deal of emphasis on disrupting, or destroying, the gas pipelines in Sinai.
The Sinai insurgency stems from a variety of sources. More traditional Islamist militant movements have been forced to give way to significantly more aggressive Salafist Jihadist movements. Such movements as the local variant of the ever flexible al Qaeda in Sinai Peninsula (AQSP) has lost significant ground as a result of the emergence of the even more radical Salafist Jihadist movements.
One such example is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) whose local chapter is referred to as “Sinai Province” (Wilayat Sinai). Wilayat Sinai was previously known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, or Ansar Jerusalem (Supporters of Jerusalem), and focused their activities primarily on attacking Israeli positions bordering Sinai. By 2014 the group declared its affiliation with and representation of the Islamic State, as defined and led by al Baghdadi from al Raqqa in Syria, and launched a series of attacks against Army and Police checkpoints throughout the Sinai Peninsula. Reports indicate that the group stands at just under 2,000 men strong at the time of writing.
The group also has a militant and political arm inside the Gaza strip operating under the name of Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade, or al Dawla al-Islamia. Wilayat Sinai have accused the Egyptian state of being supporters of the “Zionists” in the United States and Israel. The group seeks to legitimize its actions against the Egyptian state and fellow Muslims thereof by that declaration.
As a result of these groups, and the power vacuum caused by the absence of the Mubarak instituted security infrastructure that kept them at bay to some extent, the Egyptian military has had a difficult time maintaining stability throughout the peninsula. This has had a detrimental effect on the essential tourism industry throughout the nation. The security situation has, in turn, spread inwards, throughout the country.
This has caused the Egyptian security apparatus to go on a wide counter offensive against particular groups operating in Sinai, which has since 2015 resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. The groups themselves have retaliated by carrying out high profile attacks on ranking members of the Egyptian Military as well as increasing their attacks on infrastructure targets.
The insurgency began, largely, through grassroots movements inside the Sinai Bedouin tribes. This, in turn, destabilized the security situation in the peninsula to the point where other organizations, with wildly different mindsets and goals, could establish themselves. As a direct aftermath of the so-called circumstances that are largely referred to as the “Arab Spring,” the Cairo government security apparatus was to some extent withdrawn and forced to operate in a less aggressive manner. This, along with reform acts by the populist Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo at the time, caused further disruption in the security arrangements in the region and resulted in an intensifying insurgency throughout the region.
“If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”
― Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer in the Middle East.
Since 2013, state security forces, represented by both the army and the police, have been engaged in violent clashes with insurgents in the Peninsula, primarily with the Islamic State adhering “Sinai Province” group. In the past two years, the Egyptian counterinsurgency offensives included actions such as shelling villages under Islamist control, and mass arrests. Suspects are often detained indefinitely while extrajudicial punishment and “enhanced interrogation” methods are utilized.
The majority of fighting has been in the areas of militant staging points, particularly in the areas of the cities of Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah, and al Arish. These are also the cities where the civilian population has been affected the most. It has become a nearly daily occurrence for residents to be kidnapped, or even killed, by militants because of suspicions that these civilians are affiliated with the military or security agencies. And while the Egyptian state response to the increased violence from the insurgents is to meet the insurgents with violence – there are no indicators that it is making a difference in its war.
This is the state that Egypt finds itself in today. It is one of many in the region with severe insurgency and destabilization concerns.
Evolution, not Revolution
“If your plan is for one-year plant rice. If your plan is for ten years plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years educate children.”
The plain truth is that dictatorships, as controlled and supported by a benevolent superpower such as the US, are the necessary stopgap measure in the emerging world. A world that is not yet ready, neither socially nor educationally, for true democracy. This is a world that needs a slow evolution towards being readied for such freedoms, and not revolutions where freedom is a mere battle cry and the outcome is nothing short of chaos. The greatest enemy of evil and terror is education. From the stability that properly controlled monocratic regimes create comes the possibility of educating and training the general population over generations to better ensure a positive democratically inclined society.
If the US does not support these evolving authoritarian regimes using Western values – other powers will gladly step in to fill the void. Those powers, such as China and Russia, will not prioritize a pro-democratic evolution nor a humanitarian valuation in the countries within which they wield power.
None of the places that were swept up in the Arab Spring had the foundation, not then – and not now, for democracy. The US would have done well to have served its own interests as well as the interests of the people in these countries by having supported the dictatorships instead, with the intent of mellowing and educating the people over a century. Freedom under responsibility has remained the only viable option in the Middle East, and in much of the developing world.
One such example, where the US exertion of soft power is well aligned, is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Under the leadership of the royal Jordanian family, and help of Western advisers, the monocratic country has slowly been evolving towards an increasingly progressive and open society. Much of the success of Jordan can be viewed as originating from the Islamic belief of slowly advancing and granting freedom with harmony, rather than a chaotic revolution of violent freedom.
If US support continues, Jordan stands a good chance of succeeding in its evolution towards an open and modernized society. If US support fails, Jordan is likely to look upon a revolution, not an evolution.
As part of President Trump’s pursuit to formulate a new Middle East approach, he has met with leaders from across the region. It is obvious that the Middle East is a topic that the President is putting a great deal of interest in. As such, he has throughout the months since he became President met with the lion’s share of the Western friendly leaders of the region, such as Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan. The Jordanian King appears to have been especially well adept at charming the President as they have met on a handful of occasions since, and the President has vowed to increase the support to the Jordanian kingdom by a sizeable margin. Egyptian President Sisi indicated after the meeting that the US is seeking a strong, positive, interest and engagement in Egyptian developments.
“It is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved? It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both: but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
― Niccolò Machiavelli
[LISTEN TO THE MENA REPORT PODCAST FOR MORE ABOUT THIS STORY]
John Sjoholm, Middle East Bureau Chief, Lima Charlie News
John Sjoholm is Lima Charlie’s Middle East Bureau Chief, and founder of the consulting organization Erudite Group. He is a seasoned Middle East connoisseur, with a past in the Swedish Army’s Special Forces branch and the Security Contracting industry. He studied religion and languages in Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt. He lived and operated extensively in the Middle East between 2005-2012 as part of regional stabilizing projects, and currently resides in Jordan. Follow John on Twitter @JohnSjoholmLC
Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.
For up-to-date news, please follow us on twitter at @LimaCharlieNews