Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
If the October 1973 War represented the zenith of pan-Arab solidarity, the Sinai Accord, concluded in September of 1975, must surely represent its ebb and disintegration. With the outbreak of the October War and the deployment of the oil weapon, the dreams that had for some time tantalized the minds of politically conscious Arabs appeared to be coming true. A traditionally divided Arab world was acting in unison and Arab armies were finally getting a chance to redeem their honor in a sharp break with a humiliating record of defeats. And the superior and resented West was finally being humbled and made to pay for the psychological scars and political and cultural dislocations that its dominance had inflicted upon the Arab world.
To the faithful among the Arabs it seemed as though wrongs were beginning to be righted, that the Arab world had managed to find its place in the sun. For a culture that had always viewed the world with a large measure of fatalism and that had sustained itself through a long stretch of frustrations and setbacks by dreams of sudden resurrection, it all seemed to make sense and to conform to a cyclical vision of history which sees individual careers and whole social orders rise and fall in a somewhat mysterious manner that is often seen as a way of humbling the mighty and redressing the grievances of the weak. The achievements in October of 1973 seemed to lend credence to what the most ambitious advocates of pan-Arabism and Arab solidarity had claimed for their vision: a united Arab world capable of getting over the problem of impotence and international neglect.
Two years later the euphoria had dissipated, and traditional Arab rivalries and differences, papered over and perhaps forgotten during the October War, had reemerged. The Sinai Accord brought them out into the open and confirmed the deep division in Arab ranks. Arab politics, like politics elsewhere, has its ironies, and the irony of the Sinai Accord and the polemics and passions it stirred lay in Egypt's relation to Arab solidarity. Throughout the Nasser era it was in Cairo that the banner of Arabism was hoisted and to it that non-Egyptian Arabs turned for material and moral support. Cairo's friends were the believers in Arab unity and solidarity, its enemies the stooges of imperialism, lackeys of the West and secessionists who failed to abide by the imperatives of Arab unity. Today, Arabism is the rallying cry of Cairo's adversaries, principally the Syrians and the Palestinians. Sadat is denounced as an instrument of imperialism, a plotter who obtained a settlement in defiance of the collective Arab will.
While the bitterness of the response to Sadat's policies can be explained by what his adversaries see as his betrayal of the overall Arab cause, it is also, in part, an expression of the anguish and the frustration that many Arabs now feel about the anticlimactic results of the October War. Throughout 1974, the mood was one of jubilation and enthusiasm. The eyes of the world seemed to be focused on the Arab world and there were, from the Arab perspective, many important breakthroughs: diplomatic triumphs culminating in Arafat's appearance at the United Nations in November of 1974; the forging of a Third World coalition in that organization in which the Arabs played a leading role; and, of course, the drastic increase in Arab wealth due to massive oil revenues and what these were thought to entail for the redistribution of world wealth and power. The sky became the limit and what remained was for the objective world to approximate this vision and to reflect it.
But vision and reality do not often converge in this world, and the events and steps that ensued were destined to create disillusionment and to lead to the characteristically human search for scapegoats and explanations. Sadat's seeming defection was the most obvious and convenient scapegoat, hence the furious response to the Sinai Accord. But his adversaries, while narrowly focusing on that particular issue, are expressing the anguish of having to wake up from the dreams of October 1973 to the full glare of a set of harsher realities. There is in the air the oppressive burden of a new stalemate, and a growing feeling that a new way out of it has to be found. Sadat and the Sinai Accord may be the immediate targets, but the sources of the malaise are deeper and more encompassing.
Four such sources suggest themselves: lessons learned about U.S.-Israeli relations; reemergent and new frictions between Arab states and groups; resentment that the costs and benefits of the October War were inequitably shared within and among Arab countries; and, finally, a general concern about the thrust of a "de-Nasserized" Egypt. After dealing with these concerns, this essay will explore what the politics of stalemate are likely to mean for competing political choices and rival leaders in the Arab world.
From the onset of the October War to the conclusion of the Sinai Accord, the tangled diplomacy in which the American role was paramount emphasized, among other things, that Israel, though dependent on American goodwill and support, was capable of resisting American pressure if that pressure was seen to be at odds with Israel's reading of its own interests. Arab imagery of Israel as a "bridgehead of imperialism" had fostered a belief in the Arab world that once America really commanded, Israel was bound to obey, and so had the precedent set by Eisenhower in 1956 when he did obtain Israel's withdrawal from Sinai. But the post-October 1973 developments delivered a different message: Israel could stall and refuse to make the concessions to which the major powers, the United States included, had publicly committed themselves in order to meet the demands of the Arab oil-producers. Israel's response was that the oil needs of the Western world were one thing but its own security was quite another; the Western world should do what was needed in order to reduce its dependence on Arab oil and its vulnerability to Arab demands.
There was another lesson about the nature of the American political system itself, paralyzed for a while under the burden of Watergate and severely weakened by the presence in the White House first of a man under a vast cloud of suspicion and later of a weak unelected president. In such an atmosphere, Israel's American constituency held fairly strong cards and to pressure Israel to make any concessions that it saw to be antithetical to its own interest would have been difficult. When the Kissinger shuttle collapsed in March of 1975, an effort was made under the label of "reassessment" to bring Israel's policies in line with America's wishes, but it should by now be blatantly obvious that "reassessment" remained a slogan, a pause before the two parties, Egypt and Israel, were to meet again under American auspices. If the purpose of reassessment was to generate U.S. domestic consensus behind pressuring Israel to make more and quicker concessions, then surely it must stand as one of Mr. Kissinger's less glorious chapters.
This notwithstanding, Sadat for one persists in clinging to the belief that Israel is vulnerable to American pressure; in his own words America is seen as holding 99 percent of the cards. What matters, so Sadat seems to be saying, is sufficient pressure at an appropriate time, and the chance will supposedly come after the 1976 elections. In all fairness, it must be pointed out that he is hardly original or alone on this point. Until very recently this was a fairly standard assumption in the Arab world. The realities of 1974 and 1975 have now wiped it out and left confusion and pessimism on the Arab side about the way the outstanding territorial and political issues with Israel can be settled, if at all.
For seeing Israel as a tool of American policies, a small state unable ultimately to defy America's will, held the promise of a somewhat easy solution-a solution that conceivably would avoid both another military confrontation and direct Arab-Israeli negotiations-which Arab rulers were for a long time unable to come to terms with and which, given the depth of the antagonism and the complexity of the issues, tended to promise nothing but stalemate and indecision. With that relatively easy solution-pressuring America through an oil embargo to pressure Israel-qualified and challenged by recent events, the stark alternatives that stand out-either accepting the status quo or digging in for a long war-are decidedly more taxing and gloomy.
Second, what Sadat's rivals see as Egypt's defection comes at a time when the Arab political landscape is once again checkered with conflicts and rivalries. Some are of long standing and not directly connected with the conflict with Israel: between Egypt and Libya over everything under the sun; between Algeria and Morocco over the Sahara; between Iraq and Kuwait over disputed territorial claims; between Iraq and the Emirates over the Oman revolt.
It is, however, Syria that is most of all the center of a network of rivalries, as it is also the center of opposition to Sadat. Part of the Syrian quarrel with Iraq is of long standing, over ideology and the sharing of the waters of the Euphrates. But the reconciliation between Iraq and Iran has given it a new twist today: the Syrians accuse the Iraqi of retreating from the tenets of Baath socialism and even of tacit support for Sadat's designs for the region, while the Iraqi accuse the Syrians of playing the American game, abandoning their commitment to war against Israel and manipulating the Palestinians toward a compromise solution. That both sets of charges are rife with inconsistency simply emphasizes the depth of the hostility they reflect.
Similarly, whereas Assad has achieved a dramatic reconciliation with Hussein in Jordan, his unremitting effort to create an effective Arab coalition against Sadat runs at once into another fissure: the irreconcilable split between the Palestinians and Jordan. Syria is poised right in the middle between two parties who harbor deep-seated resentments of one another and whose visions as to the future of the West Bank are diametrically opposed and impossible to reconcile. In this triangular relationship Syria's balancing act is always delicate and precarious: it needs to assure King Hussein, learn to coexist with him, and secure his firm opposition to Egypt, but without giving the impression of associating Syria with his anti-Palestinian posture and commitments. The task is likely to grow more difficult and sensitive if Hussein attempts-as recent signals such as the reconvening of the Jordanian parliament with West Bank representation indicate that he may be doing-to supersede the Rabat resolutions of the Arab summit in 1974 that gave pan-Arab blessing to the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
In September 1975, one would have put Lebanon near the top of any list of sources of conflict in the Arab world. The situation there reflects not only the historic cleavage between Muslim and Christian within the country, but also the wider problems of class antagonism and warfare between rich and poor throughout the Arab world, and finally the relationship of the Palestinians to the Arab countries which are their uneasy hosts. Essentially the Maronites took to arms last year (quite possibly with some support from conservative Arab elements outside Lebanon) to reaffirm the threatened position of the Christians and their politico-economic dominance and to bring the growing Palestinian presence under lasting control; against these aims were joined (with strong material support from Libya) the Left, the poor, the Muslims except for those most tied into the Establishment, and-in sympathy and eventually in decisive support-the Palestinians.
The events of this January appear to have decided these issues, at least temporarily. In the face of Christian offensives that escalated the fighting almost completely out of control, Syria intervened through the use of a Palestinian brigade and decisively shaped a "negotiated" outcome. The pattern of the fighting had clearly revealed that the Phalangists on the Right, realizing that they could not restore the old Lebanon in which the Christians traditionally prevailed, had decided to go for a second-best solution: the partition of Lebanon. Syria's intervention has, at least for now, frustrated that scheme and given the country a badly needed breathing spell and an opportunity to see whether the Lebanese talent for Phoenician bargaining and compromise can assert itself once again and come up with a formula that gives the contending elements a vested interest in a new order.
Lebanon has always been a theater for the ambitions of more powerful Arab states and interests; all of them have been, in one way or another, involved in its recent crisis either as backers of certain movements or as anxious intermediaries trying to patch up the system and keep it together. With Lebanon finally facing the prospect of dismemberment and ruin, Syria took the initiative and in so doing lent substance to its claim and vision of itself as the new standard-bearer for militant pan-Arabism. For President Assad, the intervention in Lebanon was a clear personal and political victory; he brought the fighting under control and, moreover, did so without providing Israel with a pretext for the intervention that would surely have been the response to any direct Syrian incursion into Lebanon.
Regionally, Assad's victory was obviously Sadat's defeat. Little less than two decades ago, when Lebanon was in the throes of another war, it was Egypt that held sway in Lebanese politics and to Nasser that the Muslims, the pan-Arabists and the Left turned for support and guidance. In a telling contrast with the past, Sadat remained helpless and marginal throughout this entire crisis, reduced to making pleas for reason and compromise to Pierre Gemayyel, the leader of the Phalangists, and to accusing the Syrians of meddling in Lebanese politics. In retrospect, both Sadat's appeals and charges turned out to be futile and irrelevant. Before other Arabs, Assad stands as the man who arrested Lebanon's drift toward partition, and who cared enough to step in and attempt to put an end to the terrifying spectacle of violence and destruction. From Syria's vantage point, this success was another reminder that the politics of compromise does not pay, that the center of gravity in the Arab world may have shifted away from Cairo, that Nasser's mantle has been picked up and claimed by Assad.
Third, the events since 1973 have kindled another kind of sharp division within the Arab world. As its roots were expressed last summer by an Egyptian intellectual:
The Arab effort in October was not properly and equitably shared, and nor were the results. While some willingly sacrificed their blood, and the blood of the best of their youth, others simply accumulated large fortunes due to the gold that flooded their coffers. The rich got richer, whereas those who initially spilled their blood had to turn around and spill their dignity asking for a little of the material wealth that others had acquired because of the sacrifices made by the poor.1
The grievance is clear and profound enough: under the cover provided by the October War, oil prices were drastically raised, but the massive wealth thus generated served only to aggrandize the fortunate few at the expense of the majority that had shouldered the burden of war. The resentment thus bred has tended to color the relations among rich and poor Arab states, as well as the relations between rich and poor in the internal politics of most Arab states.
Altogether this has led to a very subtle, gradual and, in my judgment, important reassessment of the October War and its meaning. Two years ago the war was a glorious chapter in Arab history whose fruits, at least on a psychological level, belonged to practically every Arab. Today, there is a growing feeling that the whole thing has played into the hands of privileged Arab states and groups. Those who reaped the benefits of the October War are now seen as all too willing to forget the Palestinians-and as having launched the war and deployed the oil weapon in order to outflank the Arab radicals who were getting powerful before October of 1973 and to attract the attention of the West to their needs and demands.
Having done so in October, so this reasoning goes, they are now willing to be accommodated by the West into the "restructured" international system that Mr. Kissinger is fond of talking about. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are seen as disinterested in conflict and war; the first because it is poor but led by a consumption-oriented elite; the second because it is so wealthy and has so much to lose. The rights of the Palestinians and the Syrians are secondary: the moderate actors simply want stability and order so that the greedy poor can get wealthier and the wealthy can be left alone to enjoy their wealth, to invest their money, and to play the role of nouveaux riches in the international system that they had coveted for so long. Thus, the October War has gone sour: even Qaddafi's label for it as a comic-opera war is becoming more popular.
As for the new oil wealth, now that the initial desire for revenge against the West has been fulfilled, there is the realization by the poor, and to a certain extent even by elements among the middle class, that the wealth is not really theirs, that it has come to fuel inflation and to marginalize them, to drive up the price of property and goods-as it clearly did in Lebanon-much to their own detriment. Poor Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians and Palestinians may try hard to share in the vision of the Arab world becoming-according to Sadat-the sixth power in the world, but that vision only serves to highlight and aggravate their sense of frustration and insignificance.
Prosperity for a segment of Arab society-and this is really the salience of the rich-poor split in the Arab world for international politics and for the Arab-Israeli conflict-is now linked and identified with the pursuit of peace, by those who stand to benefit economically from a stable and peaceful Middle East. The interests of those left out of this "peace and prosperity" package are then in war and in destroying the stability that Sadat and those who support him seem to be committed to. What this means is an intrusion of class politics and class conflicts into the Arab-Israeli confrontation, which can only add to the intractability and explosiveness of questions that hardly need further complications. That the international problems of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be insulated from what should, on the surface of things, look like strictly domestic ones for Arabs to settle among themselves is nothing but wishful thinking in an age when the boundaries, everywhere, between domestic and international politics are increasingly blurred.
Finally, Sadat's critics fear that Sadat and his entourage are not only pushing Egypt steadily to the right, but are also engaged in a thorough retreat from the regional commitments of Nasserism. According to those who believe in this line of interpretation (and they range all the way from Qaddafi-type Arabists to Egyptian Marxists and certain groups of students), the twin pillars of Nasserism-socialism at home and pan-Arabism in foreign policy-have been pushed aside in a deliberate and steady effort, augmented by a violent campaign in the press against Nasser and his memory and achievements. The fear is that under the label of de-Nasserization, old elements are busy dismantling what was achieved over the course of two decades-in order to recreate a more conservative society committed to middle-class economics at home and to pro-Western politics in the international system. Such a society would then ignore the Egyptian poor and compromise on the demands of the Palestinians and the Syrians in an attempt to get closer to the West and to open the country to Western investments and influence.
Thus, a de-Nasserized Egypt would not only be a state committed to stability and disinterested in war, but also a state in which the "Egypt-firsters" would prevail over the pan-Arabists and minimize the claims of Arabism in favor of strictly Egyptian national interests. Sadat's critics may not phrase it this way-and there is some understandable psychological reluctance to do so-but they are deeply worried that Egypt's commitment to Arabism may have been, for the most part, a strictly Nasserist commitment and that Egypt is turning inward to focus on its own problems and needs. The current Egyptian elite, it is felt, could perhaps convince a poor population that Egypt's entanglement in the politics of the Arab world over the course of the last two decades was, for the most part, a disastrous and costly enterprise, and that abandoning that involvement-and the high anti-Israeli profile that goes with it-is essential if prosperity is to be realized.
For obvious diplomatic reasons, Mr. Kissinger too may not publicly state it this way. But a similar vision is, no doubt, the cornerstone of his policy. Barring any overall settlement-which seems as elusive and unlikely as ever-he has obviously come to hope for and to rely on precisely the same scenario that troubles Sadat's critics: a more "reasonable" and moderate Egypt that subordinates war to the quest for economic viability, that seeks its own interests independent of the more intractable demands of the Syrians and the Palestinians, and that pursues them sheltered from the passion, noise, and seeming totalism of Arab politics.
Several years ago, in discussing the Vietnam negotiations, Mr. Kissinger gave a piece of general advice that he has obviously failed to apply in the Middle East: "Paradoxical as it may seem, the best way to make progress where distrust is so deep and the issues so interrelated may be to seek agreement on ultimate goals first and work back to the details to implement them."2 Political realities and divisions in Israel, confusion in America, and perhaps Mr. Kissinger's way of conducting diplomacy coalesced in the period since the October War to avoid coming to terms with the "ultimate goals" of a peace settlement in the Middle East. Instead, step-by-step diplomacy sought to get around these goals by seeking to "disaggregate" the Arab case and by relying on an "Egyptian solution" of sorts.
If Egypt was, as Sadat has frequently described it, the center of gravity in the Arab world without whose leadership "there can be no war and no peace in the Middle East," then it made sense, in the absence of a general peace settlement, to render the military option for the Arab world less credible and likely by removing Egypt from the military confrontation. In the process great emphasis was placed on Egypt's moderation, its immunity to Arab frustrations and currents, and its insularity from the larger Arab world. The American media anxiously and uncritically picked up the new theme; suddenly the Egyptians became a moderate and war-weary people-indeed with a "national character" that makes them unfit for war and disinterested in it-with irresistible Western preferences and tendencies that were repressed under Nasser and were now experiencing a renaissance under Sadat. Sadat's visit to the United States in late 1975 fitted nicely into this scheme of things; it gave Kissinger the chance to rehabilitate his guest in America's eyes and to show the American public a prototype of the Arab moderate: a statesman anxious for America's friendship, investments and technology to help him forego war and transform a stagnant economy faced with overwhelming problems.
The trouble with this vision of things is that it is too easy and simplistic. The war-weariness theme has been overplayed with strange naïveté. War is not a hobby that absorbs a nation for a while, to be discarded at a later time, either out of boredom or fatigue or the lure of a new hobby. For Egypt as for other states, military confrontations are taxing, bloody, and serious matters that leaders weigh against other values and concerns, that they forego at times and opt for at others. And opt for it they do even when the military odds are against them, for in Egypt and elsewhere a military defeat is not necessarily the worst thing that can befall a governing regime.
Equally easy and hollow is the Egyptian insularity theme. It makes it seem that the Egyptians of yesterday were fanatic, devoted, pan-Arabists who blindly sacrificed Egyptian interests and squandered domestic resources in pan-Arab wars and adventures, and that the Egyptians of today, realizing the error of previous ways, have decided to "come home" and free themselves from the pan-Arab quagmire. This perspective is based on too superficial an understanding of recent Egyptian history. Contrary to the stereotype of Nasser's Egypt implied in this perspective, Nasser was just as bound by and committed to Egypt's national interests as other rulers were to those of their own nations. Pan-Arabism was one of several forces that operated on him and that he, in turn, used and weighed against other forces and interests. He was not a helpless captive of pan-Arabism. Quite the contrary, throughout his life, the blend between Egyptian interests and pan-Arabism shows the predictable dominance of the former, lending credence to the arguments advanced by both pan-Arab ideologues and careful analysts that pan-Arabism under Nasser was, for the most part, an instrument of Egyptian foreign policy.
Indeed, that is what Sadat has been trying to say to those who charge him with betraying Nasserism. In addition to asserting that he is his own man who will reach his own blend between Egyptian interests and pan-Arab ones, he has also been counseling better and more realistic understanding of his predecessor. The lesson here is that just as the Egyptians of yesterday were not and could not be fanatic pan-Arabists who set aside Egyptian interests in pursuit of the pan-Arab dream, those of today are not and cannot be fanatic Egyptian nationalists who seek a separate destiny and a separate future from the surrounding Arab world to which they are bound by emotional and historical links as well as sheer economic interest. In the real world, the pendulum rarely swings that far.
With such contradictions and shaky foundations, the "Egyptian solution" was, nonetheless, adopted and hailed for a while. Given the history of warfare in the Middle East and the intractability of the issues, it seemed like a reasonable alternative. Time, everyone was told, was badly needed in the Middle East, and the solution was buying precious time in which passions would subside and the adversaries would come to realize their common interest in peace.
But buying time explains a minor portion of the appeal of the Egyptian solution. The major one lies in the fact that the solution postponed the moment of reckoning and the agony of defining the "ultimate goals" of a peace settlement. It is obvious that defining these goals would have had to include an honest coming to terms with the Palestinian issue-no longer a humanitarian one that addresses the needs of downtrodden refugees but a political one with a bid for creating a new state in the region. And on that question Israeli politics and, to a lesser extent, the views of Israel's constituency in America, except for a few voices to the contrary every now and then, remain unbending and unwilling to change.
It is as though there is psychic and moral space for only one historical claim and legacy in Palestine and that recognizing the legitimacy of Palestinian nationhood compromises Israel's own version of history and calls into question Israel's own moral legitimacy. This must explain why Mr. Rabin's stance seems even to get harder as the cause of the Palestinians gains greater momentum and worldwide acceptance. His response to the mounting pressure on him to be more forthcoming on the Palestinian question was the authorization of more settlements on the Golan Heights and a warning that if pushed harder Israel may resort to military force sooner than suspected. His stand, unless tough words are intended to cover a retreat from the old policies, suggests that the "historic compromise" between Israel and Palestine is as elusive as ever, that the area is at a new stalemate, and has not yet seen its last major military conflict.
As the patience with the current stalemate begins to wear thin and as Sadat's path loses legitimacy and adherents, what men and ideological persuasions will point the way out for the Arab world? It is difficult to say with certainty because different Arab states and groups within states will march to different drums. But there are some tentative lines of development from which one can speculate as to the overall mood and hence as to the character of the ideologies and persuasions that might carry the day.
At the outset it can be stated that the next phase is destined to be extremely anti-American in its orientation. As the post-October period gets reconstructed, Kissinger's diplomacy in particular and America's role in general will come to be viewed with great bitterness and a sense of betrayal. If the October War was a spectacular (though admittedly intangible) victory, then someone was responsible for its disappointing harvests, for cheating the Arabs, so to speak, of the fruits of their victory, and for dissipating the momentum of that exhilarating period that followed the war. In such a vision America's role will be interpreted, indeed has already been, as a deliberate effort to buy badly needed time for Israel at a critical juncture of history when Arab unity was at its height, when Third World solidarity as a whole was most effective, and when the Western-based international order seemed most vulnerable. If America is identified as the culprit, the demand for revenge and retribution against her will also imply a turning against her local collaborators and against those who were duped by her and who compromised October 1973 Arab unity and got it bogged down in the harsh and frustrating, and from the perspective of that mood, irrelevant terrain of domestic American politics. The new mood will thus hardly turn out to be a liberal Western mood. It can be expected to enhance the role of puritan, austere, fundamentalist, and uncompromising leaders: men who are ready to take on the West again, to spare their audience frustrating discussions of the details of American politics, and of what is possible and what is not in a reasonable and rational world.
Whatever variety it comes in, the fundamentalism spawned in the Arab world is obviously anti-Western, with deep, historically derived antagonism toward the West, its solutions and ways as well as its local adherents. Indeed in the Arab world as elsewhere, the local converts to foreign ideologies and influences are more deeply resented and despised; they are seen as the fifth column that surrenders to more powerful outsiders, that is seduced by the lure of foreign preference and ways. This goes a long way toward explaining the inability of liberalism to take hold in the Arab world. A quarter-century ago it was decisively routed by a more collectivist, more domestically based generation, with its influence surviving in a small country like Lebanon, an obviously unique case. Quite recently Sadat gave Western-style liberalism a new lease on life in Egypt, and with such an important base, it surfaced again on the Arab marketplace of political ideas and choices. But violence, not liberal reason, has won the day in Lebanon. And the prospects for liberalism in Egypt are destined to grow dimmer given the level of deprivation in that country and the crushing burden of the gap between those who matter and those who don't-as well as the inability of the liberal path to deliver more than a limited withdrawal on the confrontation with Israel.
If the moderate liberal option and the affinity with, and reliance upon, America can be expected to continue to decline as frustration with the political stalemate grows deeper and more acute, what lines of development can be discerned? What more can be said by way of speculation, besides the expectation that committed anti-Western leaders will thrive at the expense of those who are closer to Western interests and political style?
Three broad lines of development suggest themselves as "ideal type" responses in the Arab world to Arab-Israeli stalemate and to the distributive questions explored in this analysis. The first would be a scenario of disintegration and fragmentation; the second a revolutionary "Chinese solution" to the crises that plague the Arab world; and the third would essentially be a repetition of the same cycle of events that led to the October War, i.e., what can be labeled a "radicalization of the center." Let me briefly elaborate on each of the three and state why the third is the most likely.
The first of these, fragmentation and disarray, is the usually implicit, sometime explicit, assumption behind Israel's policy and the one held by some of Israel's supporters in America. October 1973 was a single-shot affair, a stroke of luck that cannot be repeated. What Israel needs to do is "tough it out" for the present, give the Western world a chance to grow less dependent on Arab oil, and wait for the familiar rot to set in again in the Arab world: division in Arab ranks, frustration and ineffectiveness. According to this interpretation, Egypt would be poor and pacified, Saudi Arabia rich and distracted, the Palestinians hopelessly ineffective, Jordan as marginal as before, and Syria would stew in its juices deeply resenting the status quo but unable to do much about it. The Arabs would then simply bicker and fight among themselves; they would grow increasingly demoralized and their politics would succumb to patterns of coups, conspiracy, communal and ethnic battles, and divisive and purposeless rebellions. Plagued with their own problems-or, for the rich among them, distracted by their wealth and gadgets-the Arabs would forget about Israel, except for the occasional rhetoric against it, and in time, perhaps capitulate and accept "political facts."
The second scenario takes the same bricks-stalemate, frustration, class antagonism-but builds with them a different structure: a radical Arab society which, like North Vietnam and China, would both fight external enemies and construct a more equitable and revolutionary society: one that sweeps away the decadence of the past, transcends petty squabbling, and restructures social relationships. Arab wealth would be collectively owned, basic human needs would be fulfilled, and the problems inherited from a feudal tradition-oligarchy, authoritarianism, corruption, disregard for the public interest-would be replaced by revolutionary discipline and dedication. This is the dream of groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, of radical leftists in Lebanon, and of other radical and Marxist groups throughout the Arab world. That vision assigns a central role to the current stalemate and the frustration it engenders: out of the stalemate and the chaos that it is destined to create would emerge a highly polarized situation that would discredit moderates and create the appropriate context for revolutionary and ideological politics.
In my opinion, neither line of development is likely to materialize, at least in the near or even the medium-term future. The first is for the most part based on sheer fantasy and wishful thinking, because it fails to consider the post-October 1973 changes in both the global context as a whole and in the Arab world in particular. Globally (to summarize what has by now become a standard commentary on the "new" international order), we do live in a somewhat different world: a more egalitarian one in which new centers of power and wealth have proliferated, in which the West is less omnipotent, and in which both the weaponry and ideology needed for people to take matters into their own hands are more widely distributed. In the Arab world itself, there is infinitely greater wealth than ever before and new capabilities. October 1973 may have failed to pay off in as grand a manner as was thought likely for a while, but it is there, a part of the political memory, and it did prove that Israel was not invincible, that the gap between Israel and a determined Arab world is steadily closing. Current problems aside, the situation for the Arab world is far from hopeless; appropriate leaders and ideologies can pick up the pieces and start over again.
But I doubt if these appropriate leaders and ideologies would come close to a North Vietnamese or a Chinese way. There is neither a Ho Chi Minh nor a Mao on the Arab horizon, and it is premature and a bit romantic to speak of a Chinese-type transformation for Arab society. The frustration and the grievances are profound and deep indeed, but the cultural and psychological obstacles against revolutionary transformation throughout the Arab world are deeper still.
In the aftermath of the 1967 defeat the same noise about revolutionary transformation was made at a time when established Arab regimes were much weaker, politically and morally, than they are at the present; despite that, the revolutionary potential aborted. Analysts and activists alike filled the air with talk about revolutionary change; for example, one astute observer of the Arab scene suggested in Foreign Affairs before the outbreak of the October War that the Arab society to emerge out of that context "might well resemble present-day China more than any society now known to us."3 But as we all know with the benefit of hindsight, history took a different turn and the Arab center was able to contain and outflank the radicals.
Revolutionary noise notwithstanding, the Arab world has yet to provide a fertile soil for genuinely revolutionary politics. Arab culture is an altogether conservative and rigid one and the radicals remain almost as unable to transcend the constraints and the weight of an inherited tradition as their adversaries. This has led many prominent radical thinkers to grudgingly concede that old habits, modes of thought, and orientations toward the world carry over, unconsciously and with remarkable ease, into self-proclaimed radical movements. This, in part, is a function of the inability of radicals to understand that revolutionary political change is predicated upon overall cultural change, and here the radicals remain extremely uncreative, viewing politics as though it occurs in a social and cultural vacuum. Sadek el Azm, one of the most articulate and perceptive young Arab intellectuals, has gone as far as to argue that underneath the veneer of much of Arab radicalism lies the old "tribalist" mentality: lack of discipline and perseverance, inability to organize on a large scale and to put the interest of the nation as a whole above parochial and clannish concerns. While rejecting some of what he says, many on the Left tend to concede the overall validity of his argument, and there is a growing recognition that radicalism is doomed to futility unless it tackles the cultural underpinnings of politics that have remained remarkably stagnant and unchanging.
In their own way, the radicals share with their liberal adversaries an important tendency which has historically functioned to the detriment of both. Very much like the liberals, the radicals too draw their inspiration from the outside; they approach politics with an imported framework-only from different sources such as China, Cuba, North Vietnam, Marxist theory-into which their society stubbornly refuses to fit. And we have yet to see the historic process whereby radical blueprints undergo the needed "translation" and begin to acquire a distinctly Arab cast: one that proceeds from local needs and problems and that subjects models that worked elsewhere to the acid test of Arab reality; one that changes the way men act in politics, their priorities, and the way they relate to one another. It is safe to say that in the absence of such a process, radicalism is likely to remain more a force that pushes others in the center toward more extreme positions than a force that claims and acquires power in its own right.
Thus, what I have called the radicalization of the center seems most likely. Frustration, unrest, diplomatic stalemate, and the pressure and passion of the radicals would push the centrist Arab actors leftward and force them to adopt tougher policies and tactics toward Israel and its supporters in the West than the ones they have pursued since the end of the October War. If the initiative in the aftermath of the war lay with Sadat, it now appears to be shifting to Assad. The latter, only yesterday an enigmatic and stern military officer from the minority Alawi community, now stands as a widely respected leader who has held firm since the end of the war and refused, as the Syrians put it, to shatter the Arab consensus in return for a "few meters of desert land." From a hitherto ungovernable country in which leaders rose and fell with unparalleled swiftness, he has managed to transform Syria into a credible, orderly and disciplined society.
Assad's prestige vis-à-vis his rival in Cairo, and this is a point of particular salience, is only in lesser part a function of Syria's accomplishments in matters related to foreign policy, such as the intervention in Lebanon and the success in securing PLO participation in the U.N. Security Council's recent discussion of the Middle East. More basically, it rests on the kinds of social order that both men seem to have committed themselves to in their respective societies since the end of the October War. In comparison with Assad's Syria-an egalitarian and austere country that remains on a war footing-Sadat's Egypt strikes most Arabs as a lax, undisciplined and inegalitarian society; one in which old elements are back again in the saddle, more committed to their own pursuit of wealth than to any transcending interests and goals. In contradistinction to the austerity of Syria stands Egypt's "Economic New Look" that Sadat and the liberals around him have espoused since the end of the war; a policy that has culminated in the rise of several hundred millionaires at the expense of the poor and in the return to Egypt of the old class distinctions so prominent throughout its history. As a result there is greater overall Arab faith in Damascus than in Cairo; the latter and its leaders are seen as too indulgent to make the kind of commitments that the current stalemate and problems facing the Arab world call for.
Syria's position as the linchpin of a more radical consensus is buttressed by its close ties with the Palestinians and, quite likely in the near future, by a Lebanon more radicalized in both domestic and foreign policies. This much can be asserted: the benign liberalism of Lebanon is clearly a thing of the past. The end of Christian domination, in anything like its old forms and extent, has critical implications for the country's attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. The new Lebanon is sure to reflect more than it ever did before the interests of the Muslims, the leftists-the fit between these two elements is considerable but not quite as complete as some of the conventional and prevalent accounts would have us believe-and the Palestinians.
But the Syrian role-as a more radical alternative to the current Egyptian path and potentially as the formulator of a reaffirmed consensus-is not without its problems and pitfalls both for Syria and for the Palestinians and assorted radical groups who have come to pin their hopes on Damascus and its leaders. For Syria, the radical path obviously reduces its freedom to maneuver and to accept a partial diplomatic settlement without raising the specter of domestic disappointment and rebellion. States and leaders can become captives of constituencies more radical and "pure" than they are; once created, certain images and expectations have a way of making concessions, that are reasonable by the standards of diplomacy, seem like an unacceptable retreat from lofty goals and visions. That is why the role assigned to Damascus as "the Arab Hanoi"-the tough holdout-is as great a burden as it is an honor; henceforth, those who believe in its rejection of the politics of compromise, both Syrians and other Arabs, will be applying to what Syria does on the confrontation with Israel a set of exacting criteria under which diplomatic initiatives and bargains, by their very nature, may be seen as unworthy and hence trigger a wave of unrest and disorder.
If the cleavage between Cairo and Damascus adds a dimension of turbulence and tension to today's inter-Arab politics, it may also add a relative degree of stability and moderation, at least for a time. The new Syrian status leaves the Palestinians and others in the Arab world some hope in established politics and some pride in the will of one major Arab actor. It reassures them that the determination to do something for the Palestinians and to see an historical dispute to some kind of honorable conclusion is not yet a spent force in organized and legitimate Arab politics. All this, however, comes at a price that the Palestinians, the radicals, and other "rejectionists" have to pay: together with Syrian sponsorship go the discipline and strict limitations that Syria will impose on their politics and activities. Both the Lebanese Left and the Palestinians have already learned this much from watching the way Syria has been going about restoring order to Lebanon: Syria's version of the new Lebanon-more disciplined and organized and less transformed than the Left expected-is somewhat different from the one favored and sought by the Palestinians and their radical allies.
Other Arab states are neither blind nor immune to these developments. A more radical center led by Damascus can in time enlist the support and secure the blessing of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the smaller oil states. It is difficult to see the oil states with their vast revenues and wealth choosing to sit it out-or being allowed to sit it out by their own populations as well as wider Arab pressure-to prosper and thrive in the midst of political turmoil and radicalization. Indeed the Islamic fundamentalist fervor in Saudi Arabia and the impact of the Palestinians upon Kuwaiti politics could bring on the same cycle of events that led to the October War, with the oil states throwing caution to the winds in order to claim a place for themselves in the center of Arab politics, and to contain the appeal and the pressure of the radicals. For King Khalid in particular there is the legacy of King Faisal and the lure of following in his footsteps: assuming the role of the ascetic monarch who is an arbitrator of Arab disputes and who is reasonable and cautious enough to avoid reckless politics, but self-denying enough to pursue the broader interests of the Arab world and to make the needed sacrifices. What the Saudis fear and abhor most in regional politics is radicalism and despair. Their position as a broker between Assad and Sadat can tilt toward the former if they begin to see the politics of stalemate engendering further radicalization and unrest.
What would be the cumulative impact of a more radicalized center upon the Sadat regime? One extreme line of reasoning would have it that such a shift could force a change in personnel at the very helm of political power with Sadat stepping aside in favor of, say, a pan-Arabist and hard-liner on the Arab-Israeli conflict such as Mohammed Heikal, Nasser's old friend and in the eyes of many Egyptians the true heir to Nasser's legacy. But a more likely outcome would be for Egypt to return to the fold, with Sadat still in power. If his predecessor was forgiven a staggering military and political defeat in 1967, then Sadat can surely be forgiven a mistaken judgment. But what would more likely change in Egypt would be the position of some of the liberals and old conservatives, at present a substantial portion of Sadat's entourage. These would provide sacrificial lambs to appease people like Boumédienne, Assad and Qaddafi. Sadat would survive, but the liberal wing of the regime, the Egypt-firsters, would be sacrificed at the altar of a reaffirmed Arab consensus.
All in all, the politics of continued stalemate suggest that among the Arabs the pessimists on the conflict with Israel are likely to carry the day at the expense of their more optimistic counterparts. And in the Middle East it may be the pessimists who are better readers of history, politics and the future.
1 Rifaat Al Sai'd, "The Arabs: United by War, Will They Now Be Divided by Peace?" Al Tali'a (Cairo), August 1975.
2 Henry A. Kissinger, "The Viet Nam Negotiations," Foreign Affairs, January 1969, p. 229.
3 Arnold Hottinger, "The Depth of Arab Radicalism," Foreign Affairs, April 1973, p. 504.
The Myth of Authoritarian Stability