The Daily Star, 1 April 2005

Thirteen unelected Arab rulers and representatives of another nine held a “summit” in Algeria last week. The United States, the real elector of many Arab regimes, described the meeting as a “lost opportunity” and underlined there was nothing remarkable about it. For once Washington was not alone in its assessment: the Arab media, intellectuals, and even average citizens shared this view. The remarkable thing was that not one of the officials in attendance expressed views contradicting this. They merely blamed the historic impasse in which the Arabs find themselves on “external circumstances,” or on each other.

But was Algiers just another Arab summit? This may be a superficial impression. It was not even the summit of Arab absence, as the Lebanese daily Al-Safir labeled it, or that of Arab ineffectiveness, as previous gatherings of those senile leaders (though, paradoxically, most are young) were described. No, Algiers was a summit of surrender and depression.

We’re not referring here to the depression felt by the Arab peoples at the sight of their leaders, but the one felt by the gang of colonels and generals and kings and princes, as well as a “republican” heir and a self-appointed philosopher colonel. One must pity them for no one respects them or expects them to do anything of substance, and they know this. Their peoples and world leaders despise them, and they know this.

The summit was also exemplified by surrender to fate, which happens these days to have another name: the United States of America. America is the specter that haunts the Arab world, as Riad Turk, a prominent Syrian opposition figure, described it two years ago. The specter presses for “democracy” and “human rights,” and the wise men of the Arab world think they know what the meaning of that rhetoric is, or used to be: just give Washington whatever it thinks belongs to it; everything. Why does it seem, then, that this policy is not working any more? Has Washington unilaterally changed the meaning of democracy and human rights?

Not really. The distance between an American-sponsored “spectral democracy” applied to the Middle East and the one present, for example, in the U.S. itself is equal to that between “popular democracy,” in whose luxurious shadow we are still living in Syria, and bourgeois democracy, in whose scanty shadow the peoples of the West toil away!

But something has indeed changed. The power that formerly “stabilized” the Middle East is now the owner and author of a project that seeks to transform the Greater Middle East. And the passage from the former to the latter seems to require no less than a miracle: namely taming and applying to the region “creative destabilization” or “creative chaos,” to use expressions imported to Middle Eastern politics by Washington neoconservatives. The older meaning of “stability” was Israeli supremacy and support for supposedly moderate Arab regimes. But then moderation is a standard word for accepting whatever the U.S. decides – Washington being moderation incarnated.

Democracy, the U.S. argues, is the desired outcome of this creative chaos of which occupied Iraq is an illustrious example. It is left to the Arabs to watch how democracy will spring forth from such chaos, as the Greek goddess Athena sprang forth from the head of Zeus.

But the improbability of that miracle is the only good news for the Arab regimes. The bad news is that change has become an American imperative. We may have to wait for democracy, but chaos is guaranteed by the most powerful country on this planet. So, while the patriarchs in Algiers might have felt easy about the limited prospects for democracy, this does not mean that all is business as usual, since Washington has greater ambitions of order in the Middle East. How ironic that it was the Iraqi gods in antiquity that imposed order on chaos.

The Greater Middle East project is the U.S. “road map” for the “war against terror.” It is the focal point of American strategy in the region, stretching from Casablanca to Jakarta. The builders of this new empire know well that they cannot build their spacious new palace using old building stones, the remnants of the now-obsolete cold war order that they once propped up in the region.

Nothing can alleviate the sorrows of Arab regimes. Their elector is not happy with them. They sacrificed everything for the sake of the occupant of the White House, and now, lo and behold, he speaks irresponsibly about democracy and seems completely unaware of the consequences of his behavior. This is the ordeal of Arab dictatorships: they do not feel secure anymore. They are afraid of their former protector and elector, and they cannot ask their own peoples for political refuge. Who elects them now?

The situation is not one where the Middle Eastern regimes are about to be changed at Washington’s will; it is that these regimes have lost the will to live.  The summit was not the death of the Arabs, as a Syrian commentator put it, it was death of the Arab dictatorships, which have killed more Arabs than any other force or power could ever dream of killing. Will the Algiers summit be the last meeting of Arab dictators? That is a possibility, especially if the U.S. completely withdraws its support for these regimes.

No one will shed a tear in their farewell to our “great leaders,” whether in the West or in the Arab world. But blood may be shed. The past will not disappear without a price. Just look at what’s happening today in Lebanon. However, a feeling of finality is hovering over the Middle East, where the cold war has just come to an end.