Thirsting for a vote

David Gardner
Financial Times

Few people find The Lion King politically controversial, but those who do are likely to be functionaries of the Arab world's hydra-headed intelligence services.

The Lebanese production company that dubbed the Walt Disney epic into Arabic can tell you why. To begin with, the dubbers are banned from using two words at the heart of the story, namely "Lion" and "King".

For, if the censors of the Mukhabarat, as the intelligence services are generically known, used the normal words for lion and king - Assad and Malik - it would amount to the crime of lese majesty.

Assad, of course, is the name of the present and former president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his late father, Hafez al-Assad. And, alongside this republican dynasty, there are real kings that could be affronted in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and, since February, Bahrain.

To confer their names or titles on an animal would guarantee a ban on the film, the production company says, describing its activities in terms of navigating a semantic minefield.

King Fahd, the ailing Saudi monarch, for instance, presents a double challenge because his name means "panther". That word is therefore also banned, one acceptable alternative being daba'a - which my dictionary says can mean hyena ("The Pink Hyena"?).

"We are forced to change all these names or find some sort of synonym," says one of the dubbing producers - such as "ruler of the forest" for "Lion King".

"Words frighten these people almost as much as ideas," says a prominent Arab journalist. The Disney bestiary appears full of political terrors for the lords of the Arab political jungle.

Were the local fortunes of the Lion King or the Pink Panther simply a matter of social mores, it would be colourful, but trivial. However, in the aftermath of September's attacks on New York and Washington, there is not much trivial about the way most Arab countries are governed - especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Washington's two closest Arab allies, where most of the suicide hijackers and their ostensible leader came from.

Some of these countries look like incubators of blind rage against the west - even if the west itself is in part at fault.

Close focus on the features of Arab governance reveals a disquieting picture, where the vicissitudes of animated cartoon dubbing fit into a pattern of paranoid despotism. And that despotism is a central cause of the Arab peoples slipping further behind in development, and of anger and instability that - as September 11 showed - can easily be exported to the rest of the world.

Unquestionably, the tyranny of many Arab regimes is an essential alloy in the alchemy of Islamist terror. But western indulgence of Arab despotism is an equally important element in that witches' brew.

After last month's devastating Israeli assault on the West Bank and the authority of Yassir Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, moreover, US-allied govenments such as those of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan fear that Arabs' outrage at Washington's indulgence of Israel could easily turn against their own regime.

There are three defining features of the modern Arab regime.

First, every Arab country is, to a greater or lesser degree, an autocracy - whether republican or royalist, an absolute or quasi-constitutional monarchy, whether it has elections or not, or whether it is secular or avowedly religious. There are partial, but no complete, exceptions to that rule. There have recently been faltering steps towards democracy among the monarchies of the Gulf, for example, in Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. And in the past flawed and controlled electoral exercises have taken place in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia.

Yet Freedom House, the New York-based monitor of political and civil rights, said last December in its "Freedom in the World" report, that the Islamic and Arab nations had diverged with the rest of the world on democracy.

"Since the early 1970s, when the third major historical wave of democratisation began, the Islamic world, and, in particular, its Arab core, have seen little evidence of improvements in political openness, respect for human rights, and transparency," the survey said, ranking Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria among the 10 least free countries in the world.

In those three decades, which saw the end of the cold war and dictatorships crumbling from Bucharest to Buenos Aires, "it seems that in our part of the world, West Berlin was taken over by East Berlin", remarks one Arab editor.

The second defining feature of Arab regimes is that the autocrats are kept in power by the key institution of the military, including, as the single most important political component, the intelligence services - the ubiquitous Mukhabarat.

So overarching is the military as an institution that in countries as apparently distinct as Saudi Arabia and Iraq there are two armies - a regular army and a praetorian guard for the ruling family (even if in both these cases that guard is based on tribal networks).

All Arab countries have a plethora of intelligence services, some of them purely to spy on each other. Syria has six; even without a state, and with the Palestinians' nascent institutions trashed by Israel's recent offensive, Arafat already has a dozen security and intelligence bodies.

Third, and arguably the root of it all, most Arab rulers have a problem of legitimacy. That problem has grown over the past three decades, especially since the disaster of Arab defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six Day war. This lack of legitimacy has severe consequences in the Arab world - and not only because the most usual way of changing rulers is natural death or a bullet.

The crisis of legitimacy has three main elements: ideological, political and religious.

Ideologically, a vacuum was left by the failure of creeds such as pan-Arab nationalism (under Nasser in Egypt and the Ba'ath parties in Syria and Iraq, for example) and "Arab Socialism" (state capitalism with socialist verbiage) to deliver either economic development, or Arab rights in Palestine. Initial beneficiaries were the feudal monarchies of the Gulf states.

But longer-term winners could prove to be the Islamic revivalists who stepped into this vacuum, picking up the banners of nationalism and portraying their amorphous ideology as a liberation theology.

The Islamists were helped in this by the very Arab regimes that remorselessly suppressed them. Why? Because Arab autocrats, indulged by the west, failed to build the institutions that sustain successful modern societies, thereby lending credit to the simplistic siren call of "Islam is the solution". So sweeping, moreover, was their repression of all opposition, that they left their opponents only the mosque as refuge and rallying point.

Egypt, for example, a heartland of the Arab world, successfully crushed an Islamist insurgency during the 1990s but, by the middle of that decade, there were an estimated 40,000 unlicensed mosques in the country.

The Arab autocrats also helped politico-religious extremism through opportunist alliances with the Islamists and by reliance on the clerical establishment.

In the 1970s, Anwar Sadat, assassinated by Islamists from his own army in 1981 and regarded by the west and Israel as the gold standard of Arab moderation, used the Islamists - including the embryonic Gama'a Islamiyya that launched the 1990s insurgency - to counter the left wing on Egypt's campuses.

In the 1980s, Israel itself licensed the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza to counter the Palestine Liberation Organisation (the Brotherhood would subsequently create Hamas, Israel's most implacable enemy).

This is not a new story. Jordan under the late King Hussein co-opted the Brotherhood as early as the mid-1950s, as a counter to the Nasserists. The Saudi royal family, which has ruthlessly crushed any Islamist (or other) challenge to its monopoly of power at home, has for more than 30 years financed and supported Islamist groups and causes throughout the Muslim world and the west (including the Brotherhood).

But the most damaging instance of flirting with fundamentalism was the US backing and arming, with Saudi financing and recruitment of volunteers, and Pakistani logistics and training, of the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979-89, where Washington pursued its cold war aims in the garb of the holy war zeal of the Mujahideen.

Out of that adventure came the tens of thousands of battle-hardened "Arab Afghan" volunteers - many recruited under indulgent western eyes by Osama bin Laden - and eventually now known to the world as al-Qaeda.

That, too, is not an entirely new story. When the US Central Intelligence Agency carried out its successful coup against the nationalist Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953 and installed the shah, it induced several ayatollahs from Qom to endorse its endeavour as a jihad.The rest is history.

To counter the eventual triumph of the ayatollahs in Tehran in 1979, the west and its Arab allies backed and financed Saddam Hussein - the probable target of the next phase of Washington's "war against terrorism" - in Iraq's 1980-88 war against Iran. The emboldened Saddam then went on to invade Kuwait and threaten Saudi Arabia. The path of opportunism in the Middle East has not been a fortunate one.

But equally insidious in the Arab social and political context is another form of opportunism by the region's rulers.

Bending with the wind, they are resorting to ostentatious and rarely credible displays of official piety, while relying on traditionalist clerics to outflank the Islamists - from the right. These clerics, such as the hierarchy of Cairo's millennium-old Al Azhar University - once a beacon of tolerance in the region - frequently put a more conservative spin on the Koran than the fundamentalists in their religious edicts and bans on books and films. The danger here is that, in exchange for a thin cloak of legitimacy, many Arab rulers are enlarging the constituency of the revivalists.

It is the politics, therefore, more even than the economics of the Arab world, which need to be addressed.

A torrent of commentary since September 11 has tended to argue that militant Islamism is rooted in economic despair and deprivation - an argument that until now has informed much US thinking on the phenomenon.

True, demographically, the Arab countries face a destabilising "youth bulge" - broadly, of having more than half the population under the age of 25 with little or no prospect of a meaningful or dignified job. Yet suggesting that "get the economics right and everything else will be fine" looks like crude determinism.

Organisations such as al-Qaeda, its Egyptian ally, Jihad, or the mainstream Brotherhood, are led by, and made up of middle-class, often wealthy, individuals. Many of the September 11 hijackers came from similarly privileged backgrounds. It is misleading to see the Islamists as simply the Wretched of the Earth.

But the "economics first" argument is flawed in other ways. Not only is it a good argument for avoiding political liberalisation, but there is little evidence that economic reform can succeed in states run by self-perpetuating national security establishments.

Above all, however, the argument is shaky because the high-octane fuel firing Islamist fury is political despair. Political despair about, probably, five main things: Despair at how Islam, once the pre-eminent civilisation and long a world power, has lost out to the west. Despair at Europe's colonial legacy, which left an Arab world fragmented into often artificial states (with Palestine occupied by what many Islamists tend to see as modern Crusaders). Despair at the failure of pan-Arab nationalists to match their intoxicating rhetoric with achievement and advance (it is easy now to forget how Nasser once mesmerised the Arab world). Despair at US and western support for tyrannical Arab rulers. Despair at the double standard of Washington's seemingly indiscriminate support for Israel.

If the Israel-US dimension comes last, that is not because it is least. For Arabs who watch daily the siege of Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps, the wound is very real, and the US administration appears only to pour salt on it, by demanding an end to Palestinian violence rather than the Israeli occupation that prompts it.

But the question is to what extent the other grievances would exist independently, even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were resolved. Moreover, while Israel's occupation of Arab land is clearly the spur to resistance by Islamist groups like such as Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza or Hizbollah in the Lebanon, Osama bin Laden and his kind, described by some Arab commentators as "universal Islamists", appear to have a power agenda separate to the Palestinian cause. The evidence suggests they are not whistling in the wind.

In a recent unprecedented poll of nearly almost 10,000 people in nine Islamic (five of them Arab) countries, Gallup found two out of three people to be hostile to the US. That ratio rose to more than four out of five in US-allied Saudi Arabia, where an internal poll by the interior ministry is reported to show a groundswell of sympathy for bin Laden among young Saudi men.

Arab autocracy plays its part in this. So intolerant of challenge are the autocrats that criticism and civility have been divorced, while their official newspapers spew out anti-western diatribes as decoys. The editor of Al Ahram, the main government newspaper in US-allied Egypt, accused the US, for example, of dropping genetically treated food supplies to poison Afghans this winter.

The autocrats' fear drives them to control opinion and rig polls to manufacture unbelievable majorities 94 per cent of seats for Egypt's ruling party in parliamentary elections in 1995 to 99 per cent for Saddam in a plebiscite the following year.

They have surrendered large parts of their education systems to reactionary clerics, subjecting generations to anti-western bigotry and backwardness; in Egypt the number of books published fell from an average over of more than 3,000 a year in the 1960s to just over just in excess of 300 in the 1990s, a decade when the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize.

They also control big chunks of the economy through concessions and patronage: a palace controlling car imports here, a defence ministry with the sole licence to manufacture furniture there, a party financed by port revenues elsewhere. It would be imprudent to be specific.

Last, but not least, many Arab rulers rely on the continuing conflict with Israel as an alibi. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate suits many of them, guaranteeing a system of permanent alert, ideal to justify fierce political control and a distorted economic system they and their relatives can exploit.

At a more banal level, almost anything can be attributed to Israel. Confronted in December by Greenpeace, the environment activists, with evidence that Lebanon had 143 outlets to the Mediterranean spewing forth toxic waste and raw sewage, the Lebanese environment minister, Michel Musa, asked them why they were "helping Israel".

There are, of course, differences from country to country. But are these very great? According to an invited guest to the main editorial conference at Al-Ahram, the Cairo-based newspaper, the discussion centred on where exactly on the front page to place the daily picture of President Hosni Mubarak. No laughing matter this a few years back ago Arafat jailed a Palestinian editor for putting his picture on an inside page. At about the same time Syrian censors stopped two Beirut dailies (one leftist, the other slavishly pro-Syrian) from entering the country because they carried unfavourable horoscopes for those born under the sign of Leo (that Lion again, ergo Assad). Or contrast "liberal" Jordan with "authoritarian" Syria. Both countries have recently come out with identically draconian press laws centring on anything seen as "damaging the reputation of the state" because their obsession with security is identical.

One Monday in January, for example, the Jordanian government resigned. But the previous day an editor was jailed precisely for suggesting the government would resign.

Hopes that the young King Abdullah in Jordan, and his young counterpart in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, would relax political controls have yet to materialise. Informed observers in both countries believe the intelligence services are calling the shots. In time-honoured fashion, says one commentator privately, "the Mukhabarat mediates the information flow between ruler and ruled, the better to manipulate both".

Often, the same appears true in Egypt, the country in which Arabs and westerners had placed great hope for reform.

Egypt last year jailed the courageous Egyptian-American intellectual Saadeddin Ibrahim (in February last month Cairo released him, but only for retrial). He is charged by a government in receipt of an average annual $3bn of western aid, including $1.3bn a year for the army from the US with of illegally receiving European Union money for his think-tank. His real crimes, however, were to examine the 1995 electoral fraud, draw attention to the plight of minority Coptic Christians, and suggest President Mubarak was preparing the succession for his son Gamal.

Is Egypt, therefore, ultimately very different from Syria, where two MPs are now on trial for the crime of "trying to change the constitution" (which had just been changed to accommodate Bashar, ineligible for the presidency because of his youth)? A more telling example concerns Egypt's sincere and theoretically credible attempts to attract investment in the mid to late 1990s.

As part of that effort to open up, gifted technocrats carefully crafted, over 18 months, amendments to labyrinthine corporate law, making registration of a new enterprise automatic unless the companies authority objected within 10 days, and on specified grounds. The intended effect was to reverse the burden of proof that the investor was bona fide.

But the changes were not implemented. Why? Because they challenged the discretionary power of the Mukhabarat. As one of those behind the changes remarked at the time: "With anything you try to reform, there is a hidden security element. The security obsession is not really about catching anyone, but about maintaining the power of the security people. That is the reality." Put another way, the "economics first" path of reform is a blind alley. Technocrats get put into economics ministries, in part to rid them of the Mukhabarat, and certain changes take place. The latter then raise the stakes, perhaps in an unrelated area, and soon the experiment is abandoned. Political reform is the key to it all.

America's Arab friends have managed to convince successive administrations in Washington that political liberalisation, much less democracy, is too risky. Only the Islamists would benefit and their agenda is "one man, one vote, one time". Arab leaders and officials earnestly tell you that: "This is not Germany" (in Egypt); "We are not in Norway" (in Bahrain); "This is not Switzerland" (in Syria); "We are not talking about Scandinavia" (in Saudi Arabia); and "You are not dealing with Sweden, you know" (in Egypt again).

Let us first build the middle class, they say, and then we'll have some liberals to liberalise with.

The argument is spurious. From Algiers to Cairo, the reality is that Arab rulers get endorsement for strategies of repression that lay waste to the entire political spectrum. Real liberals mostly get jailed. The middle class gets devastated or emigrates and some of its sons, as we have seen, fly airliners into buildings to immolate civilians.

Since September 11, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, et al, have been telling western leaders: that "If only you they had seen the light, and cracked down hard like a good Arab despot." Syria, for instance, believes the way it dealt with a 1982 insurgency by the Muslim Brotherhood razing the city of Hama at a cost of some about 20,000 lives is the work of pioneers in the "war against terror".

What the Arab regimes have in fact pioneered, however, is a scorched-earth strategy that has been a political gift to the fundamentalists. Blanket repression of the mainstream has given force to the violent tributaries.

After September 11, many of these regimes feel they have a blank cheque from the west to step up repression, as part of their contribution to extirpating political Islam. Egypt, for example, three years after crushing the Gama'a Islamiya, has reinstituted military tribunals. Among those taken before them are Muslim Brothers, who for over more than a decade have abjured violence to try to get into the political game.

It is indeed a measure of the political bankruptcy of these regimes that they so fear the Islamists who, after all, have no success to point to anywhere, only a string of failures from Sudan to Iran.

So little confidence in their own ideas do these rulers have that open debate with political failures is not an option. Little wonder, then, that their states, propped up by the west, can become the catalysts for what was visited on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.