The Dictators of the Middle East

The dictators of the Middle East have a morbid love affair with power; they are prepared to do any harm to maintain power; they do not easily relinquish power; and, they, arising from the core of the Muslim world, disgrace the religion of Islam, forcing non-Muslims to conclude that it must be Islam that prompts rulers to forcibly establish sole proprietorships. In the eighteenth century, Montesquieu branded the Muslim Middle East as an incorrigible land of despots. The most recent arrogation of dictatorial powers is underway in Egypt where President Muhammad Morsi, holding unimpeachable Islamic credentials, has allegedly assumed Pharaoh's powers, frustrating judges, intellectuals, and the ordinary people who sacrificed liberty and life in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak, a secular self-seeker, who ruled Egypt with an iron fist for nearly 30 years.

It is not only Egypt that produces despots. It is the entire Arab region stretching from Morocco to Bahrain. In Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the son of a poverty-stricken Bedouin, seized power in a military coup in 1969. Forgetting his humble roots, Gaddafi established a self-glorifying dictatorship that lasted for over 40 years. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein used every means necessary, including chemical weapons against the Kurds, to retain power. In Tunisia and Yemen, the people endured lengthy dictatorships. In Syria, Bashar Assad, a physician by profession, has brought untold suffering to his people but shows little remorse and no intention of leaving the reign of power. The Gulf States have established hereditary fiefdoms, equipped and willing to crush opposition with merciless machinery. Whether the ruler is Shia or Sunni, Bedouin or physician, military or civilian, secular or religious, whoever assumes power in the Arab region turns into a ghastly and irremovable dictator.

It Is Not Islam

It is wrong to blame the religion of Islam as a source of Arab despotism. Islam is compatible with various forms of government but under no circumstances does Islam allow the absolute reign of a single individual, single family, single race, or single sect. In fact, it is inaccurate to associate Islam with Arabs. Islam, though it originated in Mecca and Medina, has never been confined to the Arab region. The Arabic-speaking Muslims constitute only one-sixth of the world Muslim population. Furthermore, not all Arabs are Muslims. Even the definition of who is an Arab is controversial because the Egyptians, for example, though they speak Arabic, are not Arabs. The Arab region is actually an Arabic-speaking region. The Arab League, an international organization of 22 Arab states, indeed a congregation of despots and hereditary rulers, who often dislike each other, fantasize Arab unity rather than Muslim unity in the world.

While the Arab region tramples over the will of the people, prominent states in the rest of the Muslim world are emerging as democracies. Turkey and Iran, the most prominent countries in the Middle East, are experimenting with democracy at the opposite ends of Islamic ethos. Turkey, a secular state, after successfully suppressing military interventions, has broadened the democratic base to allow Islamic parties to participate in general elections. Iran, a theocratic democracy, screens candidates who can run for office, thus maintaining the hold of the Shia clergy. And yet, the Iranian constitution allows no single person, not even the Leader, a religious office reserved for the Chief Ayatollah, to exercise unlimited powers. The Iranian presidency is limited to two terms.

Further away from the Arab region, the Muslim world has little forbearance for dictators. Pakistan, a country made in the name of Islam, offers the most extensive political liberty, allowing all political parties, ranging from religious fundamentalists to communists, to organize and contest federal and provincial elections. Periodically, military generals interrupt the democratic process but no military ruler has been able to survive more than ten years in office. Malaysia, a state highly innovative in Islamic financing, and Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, are fusing democracy with the teachings of Islam. By contrast, the Arab region, despite the struggle and sacrifice of poets, intellectuals, and the people, cannot shake off the unrepresentative forms of government.

Anti-Heroism

There are numerous reasons why the Arab region produces irremovable and ugly despots, many prepared to kill their own citizens. In this section, I will argue that the Arab region should abandon hero-worship, an element deeply entrenched in the Arab culture, as it has been in the Italian culture, a comparison that Thomas Carlyle made with admiration but failed to realize that heroism leads to fascism. To combat despotism, the people of the Arab region need to deliberatively cultivate anti-heroism, a new cultural belief that considers all rulers as potentially abusive and secretively evil. This political cynicism, though it might not always be accurate, is critical for warding off despots. As a general principle, a nation must be anti-hero if it wants to establish enduring democracy. Unfortunately, a nation that looks for great heroes ends up with ugly dictators.

The most practical way of legislating anti-heroism is not to permit any ruler to stay in power for more than ten years, preferably less. "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice" are the priceless words of the 22nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Those who loved Ronald Reagan as a hero wished to repeal the 22nd amendment so that Reagan could run for a third term. Thankfully, several attempts to repeal the 22nd amendment have failed.

In addition to law, an anti-hero culture preempts dictatorships. It is no surprise that India and the United States are the most successful democracies in the world. This is so because their people rarely see present and future rulers as infallible heroes; they see rulers as necessary evil for running state affairs; and, they have little doubt that politicians are mostly self-seekers, persons in search of power and personal glory. With rare exceptions, almost every leader's soul is fouled as soon as the leader becomes the ruler. In 1887, British historian John Acton put it well: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad man." This conviction lies at the heart of anti-hero cultures.

The Arab culture, which has greatly contributed to the world civilization, may continue to adore leaders but it must reconsider hero-worship. The people must compel rulers, under law, to leave office after an appointed term. When rulers know that they must become ordinary citizens again, their abuse of power is limited. When rulers are ordinary persons, ordinary persons can aspire to become rulers. This wisdom defines the authenticity of universal democracy. George Bernard Shaw put it aptly that "the pursuit of the superhuman" leads to "indiscriminate contempt for the human." Even more strongly, the Quran warns the peoples of the world, not just Muslims, to reject rulers who extol themselves as mighty saviors. "And Pharaoh issued a call to his people, saying, "O my people! Does not the dominion over Egypt belong to me, as all these rivers flow under my feet? Can you not see (that I am your mighty savior)? (43:51)." Pharaoh and his followers drowned in the Red Sea.

President Morsi is no Pharaoh. Nor is he an Assad or a Mubarak. Morsi is the first genuinely elected president of Egypt, a great nation that leads the Arab region in myriad ways. The remnants of the old regime will do everything to fail Morsi, democracy, and the rule of law. Morsi, as the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political party, carries a special religious burden to refrain from turning himself into a despot-hero. An anti-hero Egypt will also prevent despotism and strengthen democracy.