A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 4, 2011

Regimes Seeking Scapegoats

There's a good piece by Najla Abdurrahman at Foreign Policy called "Getting Libya's Rebels Wrong," a riposte to the expressions of concern by some in high places (NATO's Admiral James Stavridis, most prominently), worried about possible links between the Libyan rebels and Al-Qa‘ida. The article helps set the record straight (to be honest, much of the rebel council is made up of ex-Qadhafi regime figures). In part, many legitimately fear the sort of blowback experienced in Afghanistan, when weapons provided to the mujahidin against te Soviets ended up in hostile hands. But it's also a reminder that regimes finding themselves n the ropes seek to blame scapegoats, especially if it can evoke a bete noire of the major powers. For Western consumption, the Libyan regime has emphasized blaming al-Qa‘ida, though its domestic propaganda has been more inventive, portraying an Al-Qa‘ida/US/Israeli plot, with Switzerland and Canada occasionally being included when Qadhafi is rambling. (Which often equates to when Qadhafi is speaking.) Now, Algeria also seems to be crying "Al-Qa‘ida!) (And to be fair, strange combinations have been charged elsewhere: during the Revolution some Mubarak supporters in Egypt claimed an Israeli-Iranian plot.)

One reason regimes try this kind of scapegoating is that it frequently works. During the Cold War, the US gladly backed a rogue's gallery of unsavory dictators provided they proclaimed their anti-Communism loudly. This was especially true in Latin America and Asia.

There are reports that the US is beginning to favor easing out Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, but until quite recently it has been very cautious because Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula really is present in strength there.

An area where scapegoating has worked pretty well so far is Bahrain, where the regime's crackdown (still continuing with many arrests, banned newspapers, etc.) has been defended as a response to an Iranian threat; while the US was cautiously critical of the Saudi intervention, it has largely acquiesced in it. Yet in part this stems from accepting the implicit government steretotype that Bahraini Shi‘ite=Iranian fifth column.

And of course, the US has said little about dissent in Jordan, Oman, or the nearly invisible protests in Saudi Arabia, in part because of fear of the alternatives. Urging change in Syria or Iran, of course, produces no such reticence.

Since Arab spring shows few signs of ending soon, I hope outside players will evaluate what really is happening in each country and not be distracted by regimes crying wolf. There are plenty of sinister movements who really will try to capitalize on turmoil, but autocrats who have painted tthemselves into a corner should not have a license to crush dissent just because they evoke the mantras of "Al-Qa‘ida!" or "Iran!"

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