The Arab leaders and the myth of exceptionalismby Ahmed E. Souaiaia* To preserve their rule, Arab leaders have relied on two arguments: they are needed to keep Islamism under control and ... (originally published on SOUAIAIA)... their rule must be extended to preserve stability and prevent anarchy. The first was intended to secure the support of world leaders, especially the West. The second was meant to blackmail their own peoples. By relying on these two excuses for their protracted rule, they asserted a tired claim to exceptionalism: they are aptitudinally different from the people they govern; they are uniquely reasonable and their people are not; they are exceptionally enlightened in a sea of people still living the dark ages; they are decidedly the saviors of the people from the people.
In order to preserve international support and legitimacy, Arab leaders have highlighted and exaggerated what they dubbed the threat of Islamic extremism. Interested in short-term solutions, the West accepted this hypothesis and offered stanch support for authoritarians in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, and Oman. Even in the case of Syria, where the Assad family did not have as cozy of a relationship with the West, many foreign governments still grudgingly supported it fearing the alternatives.
Domestically, the Arab leaders overplayed the Arabic cultural norm that shunned anarchy and chaos. They portrayed their continuous rule as the single most important gift that preserves stability and prevents anarchy and civil war. In Arab countries where ethnic and religious minorities have lived, the rulers presented themselves as their protectors. For instance, in Iraq, Saddam portrayed his regime as the protector of Sunni and Christian minorities against the tyranny of a Shi`i majority. So did the Assad regime, which has convinced the Alawite, Druze, Assyrian, and Christian minorities to link their fate to the Baath party, which is dominated by the Alawites.
Mubarak had done the same in Egypt: he exaggerated the Muslim Brethren’s threat to Cops and secular Egyptians and acted as though he was the sole voice of reason in a country populated by fanatics. As a signatory to the Camp David Accord, the West’s support was unwavering.
With every falling dictator however, fear and blackmail were overcome. After the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisians did not kill each other. In fact, it was the remnants of the regime that resorted to violence and intimidation to make their master’s prediction come true. But it did not. Egyptian Muslims did not kill Cops and the Muslim Brethren did not take over the country with guns blazing. In Libya, the fall of the dictator did not bring in a wave of revenge. Rather, it is Qadhafi who incited violence when he called on tribes to fight other tribes to preserve his legacy.
Syria’s Assad needs to learn quickly: he is not the savior of Syria from Syrians and no single Syrian life should be lost to keep him in office. He is not better than any other Syrian. He is not the only one keeper of peace. And he is not the guarantor of stability. He has days, if not hours, to act. The only way to prevent further anarchy and civil war is for him to announce a specific timetable that leads to free and transparent elections. Such elections should produce an elected body vested with the power to do four things. First, it should appoint a transition government. Second, it should draft a new constitution. Third, it should fix a timetable for a referendum on the new constitution. Lastly, it should oversee parliamentarian and presidential elections according to the new constitution.
The two reasons that preserved the Arab rulers in the past are now outdated. The Islamist bogyman does not scare Westerners as it used to do in the past and anarchy is already underway in Syria. It may be the case that some extremists with sectarian agenda are doing harm; but millions of ordinary Syrians yearn for a government that represents them and respects their dignity. In the name of these and every hardworking Syrian, in the name of every Syrian with dreams, Assad can start the real change by appointing a new coalition government led by representatives of the real opposition and the current government to enable a smooth transition.
Assad can no longer reform a system that has been seen as the symbol of oppression and authoritarianism. He already admitted that reform was needed and oven overdue. He can now act on this reality and transfer power peacefully and become the first Arab ruler to do so. If not, he will face the same fate—the fate of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qadhafi. After all, his so-called virtuous stances in support of Arab and Islamic causes do not absolve him of the more dangerous pathology from which all Arab leaders, including him, have suffered: the delusion of grandeur and exceptionalism.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.