- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

Democratic nations do not go to war with one another. They only defend themselves against totalitarian aggression Adolf Hitler's Germany and Josef Stalin's Russia. In this century most (all?) wars have been initiated by authoritarian regimes and states or by radical, ethnic, tribal, nationalist and fundamentalist (Islam) groups.

There is only one semi-democracy in the Arab Middle East: Lebanon. The regimes of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan are dominated either by radical praetorians or the clergy. A president for life runs the moderate Arab State of Egypt, and the elections are rigged so his favored party always wins. The other moderate states are active monarchies: Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The moderate regimes are benevolent dictatorships that are seriously challenged by Islamic fundamentalists. The next Arab state, Palestine, is run by a benevolent dictator that ignores his elected parliament, which is dominated by notable, old terrorists, and is now in alliance with his former rivals, the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Military dictatorships Iraq and Syria depend on a coalition of military and civilian elites that is completely dominated by the dictator. Take the strange case of Bashar Assad, who was anointed army chief of staff, having no experience whatsoever in the military, so that the Alawi dictatorship could continue as it did under his father, Hafez Assad.

Why is it that the people of Eastern Europe, and now Yugoslavia, turned against their dictators and overthrew them and the people of the Middle East do not? In the Arab Middle East, there are two forces that paralyze any anti-government movements. In the case of both Iraq and Syria, the society is composed of plurality of nationalist, ethnic, and religious groups who are at daggers with one another. This is why the military dictatorships can manipulate them. Syria, composed of Alawi, Druse, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, and Christians, is unable to present a coherent national anti-government movement. The same is true in Iraq. The Kurds, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are at each other's throats. This is why a military dictatorship has dominated Iraq throughout most of its independence since the early 1930s. The Arab rulers successfully exploit the fratricidal forces that are, therefore, not in a position to present a united front against the authorities. There is another factor of considerable importance, which helps to create conditions for military rule, dictatorships and oppression. This is the Arab masses, their intellectual and economic elites, who prefer a struggle against Zionism in Israel to fighting their own regimes. Hence, social, political and economic forces become hostage to their dictators.

The survival of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East is a consequence of all of the factors above. This is especially true with the Palestinians. It does not seem Yasser Arafat is willing to become a democratic leader of a new Arab state. He prefers to stay in power at the expense of Palestinian children. To initiate a brutal terrorist war against Israel so he and his old terrorists can stay in power, aware that the challenge from Palestinian human rights groups can be averted in the name of a war against Zionism and Israel. Therefore, peace in the Middle East is chimerical and utopian so long as military dictators, presidents for life, and corrupt terrorists continue to rule in the name of Arab or Islamic nationalism. The Arab rulers have highjacked Arab nationalism and Islam to defend their oppressive and failing regimes.

The authoritarian Arab Muslim Middle East will not move in the direction of peace, since the price of peace is the dissolution of their dictatorships. Once peace emerges, the Arab masses and elites will divert their attention against the oppressive rulers. Only when we see pictures like those of Belgrade in Baghdad, Damascus and Gaza, will we learn that the masses and elites have brought an end to totalitarianism. When tyranny is replaced by democracy, when aspirations for peace have replaced the vile calls for revenge, only then will the peace process be taken seriously. Readiness to channel anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic discontent toward the more functional need for freedom will clearly demonstrate that the Middle East is no longer in the throws of violent revenge.

Unfortunately, peace is abhorrent to all terrorists. Abu Amar (Mr. Arafat) is an old terrorist who will not surrender, in his lifetime, the petty dictatorship he established from his old terrorist bands, now known as the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian parliament is no more representative or democratic then its equals in Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran. Arab leaders and elites have failed to turn the masses away from their hatred of Israel in the direction of democracy and peace. We must hold Arab elites and intellectuals the Hanan Ashrawis of the world responsible for the continuation of the petty dictatorship in Gaza and elsewhere in the Arab Middle East.

The only so-called moderate states in the Middle East would be democracies. Unfortunately, there is not such a moderate state in the Middle East, including Egypt, whose government prefers playing pan-Arabism to defend the ruling classes of Egypt.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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