A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rami Khouri on the Arab World Reaction to Iran

In a part of the world where shading and nuance are culturally important but too often absent from the rhetoric of the public square, Rami Khouri of Beirut's Daily Star is always a welcome exception. In this morning's Daily Star he has an op-ed on the Arab world's reaction to the events in Iran which I think captures some points often overlooked. You really should read the whole thing, but a few excerpts may help persuade you to click through:

The uncomfortable common denominator is that for both the people and the ruling power elites of the Arab world, whatever happens in Iran will largely be perceived negatively by a majority in the Middle East. This is a sad commentary on the condition of Arab political culture, which remains autocratic and rigid at the top, and passive and frustrated at the grassroots.

Most Arab regimes do not like Iran, they even fear it, because of its capacity to inspire revolutionary Islamism or at least mildly insurrectionary movements within their countries. A few Arab leaders even speak of Iran's predatory or hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf, Lebanon, Iraq and other lands. Only isolated pockets of power in the Arab world like or support the Iranian regime, including Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and some other Islamist or nationalist forces. Yet even the few isolated exceptions, like Hamas and Hizbullah, that have effectively carved out small domains of their own sovereignty are in an uncomfortable zone regarding events in Iran . . .

. . . Arab regimes and leaders have worked themselves into a lose-lose situation whereby they would be unhappy if the Iranian regime stayed in power and unhappy if it were removed through popular challenge. The same awkwardness defines the perspectives of Arab citizens. Most Arabs do not want to live in an Iranian-style political system that blends theocracy with autocracy; but many were pleased to see the pro-American shah overthrown by Koran-carrying demonstrators. They would also be unhappy to see the Iranian regime overthrown because they enjoy its defiance of the US, Israel and the UN in particular, along with its development of a nuclear capability.

At the same time, ordinary Arabs would feel jealous were the demonstrators in Iran able to topple their regime for the second time in 30 years; this would highlight the chronic passivity and powerlessness of Arab citizens who must suffer permanent subjugation in their own long-running autocratic systems without being able to do anything about it. Whether Iranian street demonstrations challenged the shah or the Islamists who toppled him, Arabs watch all this on television with a forlorn envy.

But as I say, do read it all if you have the time. Whether you agree or disagree with Rami Khouri, it is both a challenging and stimulating argument.

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