Middle East — 25 July 2006

The current crisis in Lebanon is something of a watershed moment for the Arab regimes and their relationship with their publics. The statements of a number of these regimes have reflected what many in the region have suspected for many years: namely, when it comes to the crunch, these rulers are more interested in protecting Israel and the US from the Arabs and Muslims rather than protecting Arabs from Israel and the US.

The Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian governments were vocal in their criticism of Hizbullah in the first few days of the crisis, characterising the capture of the Israeli soldiers as reckless. They made such statements even as Israeli jets were striking Lebanon’s infrastructure, killing and wounding its civilians. The Arab world has become accustomed to inaction from the Arab regimes during times of crisis. People also expect announcements of emergency summits, or meetings of foreign ministers which end (if they actually take place at all) with mere slogans and no concrete actions. In this case however, the regimes are not just being blamed for their usual apathy. More than that, they seem to have given Israel valuable political cover to continue its indiscriminate campaign against Lebanon, since the whole crisis in their eyes is all the fault of Hizbullah.

For these regimes, it is very dangerous to play this game. Undoubtedly, they will have earned brownie points from the Bush administration for being even more subdued in their criticism of Israel than Jacques Chirac. In the “international” (Western) community, it is usual to criticise armed militias, as they operate beyond the acceptable boundaries of political life. In this light, the stance of the regimes mentioned could be seen as responsible and statesmanlike.

However one of the reasons that the armed groups of Palestine and Lebanon command so much respect in the “Arab street” is that they persist in defying the Israeli behemoth, regardless of the obvious material advantage enjoyed by the latter. The regimes, and their pliant media, respond by saying that when such a disparity exists, pragmatism calls for a measured approach. For the millions who watch frustrated as civilians are killed on the streets of Beirut, Tyre, Sidon and Gaza, the reason for this disparity is the parasitical regimes. Instead of building strong advanced economies that could be the basis for truly independent policies, these regimes have squandered billions, and in some cases trillions on their own interests.

Many commentators claim that the audacious stance that these regimes have taken is part of a backroom deal with Washington: lay off the democracy promotion and we’ll be more publicly supportive of your policies. According to this line of reasoning, these ruling factions will stave off the threat to their seats posed by Washington’s talk of democracy through acts of obeisance. The problem with this logic is that in order to get more support from Washington, the regimes will have to pursue more of the antics that infuriate their people.

No doubt, the regimes will have to yield, one day, to the demands of the millions. The only question is, how soon will that day come? Evidently, these regimes have relied for decades on external support for survival, and they calculate that as long as they sustain that support, their thrones are safe. However, in these days when hostility to the West and America in particular is at an all-time high, such support will not be enough. There are many ways to cope with adversity; drawing attention to your complete impotence in the face of your greatest regional adversary is not one of them.

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