Arab dictatorships in crisis

The Middle East's militia mentality

A militia mentality has gripped many Arab states. Today it seems that the regionʹs authoritarian regimes are resorting to methods more commonly associated with gangs and armed clans, says Kuwaiti analyst Shafeeq Ghabra.

These days regimes in the Arab world are increasingly engaging in militia-style operations, which is most evident in the way they eliminate their opponents. They send operatives out to storm their homes, abduct them and hold them captive in unknown locations without any legal basis.

Having secretly seen to the removal of opponents, security forces repeatedly allege that these people were armed and dangerous. But in many cases this does not correspond with the facts. Meanwhile, media and state-controlled trolls and bots on the social networks attack said opponents, critics and intellectuals in a vile, tasteless and racist way.

The defamation of political opponents and dissidents has become part of the official discourse of Arab regimes. They can only remain in power in their present form through repression and manipulation – and by spreading fear.

As a result of this behaviour, many of them have lost every last shred of credibility. This state of affairs is one of the main reasons for the emergence of the "militia mentality" that has eroded government structures in these countries to such an extent that they bear merely a faint resemblance to an actual state.

No state for all citizens

hese days regimes in the Arab world are increasingly engaging in militia-style operations, which is most evident in the way they eliminate their opponents. They send operatives out to storm their homes, abduct them and hold them captive in unknown locations without any legal basis. Having secretly seen to the removal of opponents, security forces repeatedly allege that these people were armed and dangerous. But in many cases this does not correspond with the facts. Meanwhile, media and state-controlled trolls and bots on the social networks attack said opponents, critics and intellectuals in a vile, tasteless and racist way. The defamation of political opponents and dissidents has become part of the official discourse of Arab regimes. They can only remain in power in their present form through repression and manipulation – and by spreading fear. As a result of this behaviour, many of them have lost every last shred of credibility. This state of affairs is one of the main reasons for th
Shift in the Lebanese balance of power favours Hezbollah: the rise of the Shia Islamist organisation is closely linked to the turmoil of the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli occupation. Hezbollah also has a powerful ally in Iran, which shares the same political interests and ideologies

To name just a few examples: the repression in Syria under the Assad regime and the brutal crushing of the revolution are why the revolutionaries began defending themselves with armed force, leading to the formation of various militias.

A look at Iraq shows that the former regime of Saddam Hussein acted in ideological and practical terms like a militia towards all confessions and ethnic groups. This led to the formation of militias among the regime's opponents, later with support from Iran.

The new power elites in Iraq in the post-Saddam era have in turn pursued policies since 2003 that have largely excluded the Sunnis from any political power in the country. This contributed significantly to the emergence of the "IS militia", whose rise and fall brought war and destruction to the region. At the same time, however, armed groups loyal to the regime were also formed, because a state that acts like a militia will encourage imitators not only in the opposition, but also in its own ranks.

Hezbollah as well – itself a tightly organised militia – came into being in a comparable context. The policies of the Lebanese state at first disadvantaged all Shia members of the population in principle, and later the country's Sunni inhabitants.The Six-Day War of 1967, ending in the defeat of the Arab states and the establishment of the Palestinian resistance movement, further aggravated the situation. The Palestinian resistance, a direct result of the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land by Israel, formed alliances with important parts of the Lebanese political landscape, in particular the Muslim population in the south. This changed the balance of power in the country and tensions between the various factions gradually escalated until Lebanon finally slipped into civil war in 1975.

Israel, for its part, exploited the turmoil of the Lebanese civil war and the deep rifts between the various factions to attack the PLO on Lebanese soil in 1982. The expulsion of the PLO from the capital city of Beirut and the south of the country left a vacuum in the political fabric that a wide variety of groups then tried to fill.

Yemenʹs president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi during a visit to Riyadh (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Fighting a losing battle: exiled Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi is currently supported by a military alliance around Saudi Arabia fighting against the Shia Houthi rebels. Now in its third year, the conflict has seen large swathes of Yemen fall under rebel control

In the end, Hezbollah was the group that stepped into the breach and its rise is therefore closely linked to the Israeli occupation. It owes its support by Iran to common political interests and ideologies, because Iran, punished after the 1979 revolution with economic sanctions, felt cornered by the United States and then came under even greater pressure through the eight-year Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.

Tribal state in Yemen

In the case of Yemen, too, it seems justifiable to say that the tribal structure of the state, its wars against political dissidents and the government repression, witnessed in particular under Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime, have been instrumental in the emergence of the Houthi militia.

The absence of democratic structures in which all citizens are treated equally within the framework of the rule of law has resulted in armed and state-like opposition groups such as Abdul-Malik al-Houthi's troops.The same can be observed in Egypt. As long as the Egyptian military regime persists in politically, socially and economically marginalising large sections of Egyptian society, the war on the Sinai Peninsula will drag on and the dissolution of society will continue. And all the while, at least one in three members of that society will be seeking revenge – for everything that has happened since 2013. In this connection, we must realistically acknowledge the extent of the anger and hatred seething under the surface among the Egyptian population, concealed by repression and violence.

Developments in the Arab world over the past decade show that Arab regimes are engaged in a never-ending battle against their own citizens. Indeed, they may even consider them their worst enemies! Arab citizens want freedom and a good education; they want to lead a good life in a just political system in which their political leadership really represents them and their views.

In a permanent state of war with their own citizens

And yet, the ineptitude of authoritarian regimes and their lack of political and social responsibility towards their people put them in a permanent state of war with their own citizens. This is what has led to the emergence and spread of the "militia mentality" in the Arab states, i.e., a strategy of rule that questions citizens' loyalty and tries to degrade them to the status of subjects without any rights to co-determination.

Kuwaiti analyst Shafeeq Ghabra (photo: private)
A publicist and renowned political analyst, Shafeeq Ghabra is currently professor of political science at Kuwait University

Part of this war is about keeping the population small and trying to mould it into an uncritical mass. But another element is depriving citizens of clean water, an intact environment, sensible education and general rights.

After half a century of development programmes and educational initiatives, the Arab world is realising that, with a few exceptions, it has reached the edge of the abyss. The people have no rights, the countries have no constitutions and no one protects the citizens from the arbitrariness of the security apparatus and the power of the militia state.

The very fact that regime-loyal elites reproach their own fellow-citizens for being too uneducated and not yet ready for democracy and freedom reflects the regimes' ignorance of the requirements of our times and the need for modern and targeted education.

The regimes have squeezed what they can out of their people and deprived them collectively and individually of the feeling that they have made any progress. They have done everything they can to hinder democratic development and to prevent people from learning democracy. Instead, the states use conflicts between confessions and tribes as a pretence to protect corrupt structures and maintain their power.

"Violence is the solution"

The Arab states have furthermore entered into foreign policy alliances that are to the detriment of their own people. They then rely on arms purchases as a means of safeguarding their sovereignty. But their citizens, for whose benefit they should actually be working on the development of their countries, they treat as opponents or even enemies. And because they do not have a majority of the people behind them as a result, they are ultimately too weak to stand up against foreign adversaries.

The Arab regimes' belief in solving all problems through violence, repression and militia-like actions is turning more and more people against them. Those who can, try to flee or emigrate. The regimes eliminate the civilian opposition only to be confronted with the rise of the Islamists. Having crushed them, too, they are shocked to discover that the problems in their countries have intensified, corruption is ubiquitous and society is in the process of falling apart.

In order to stop the progressive decline, the Arab states would have to thoroughly rethink and realign their political course towards their opponents and their own citizens.

So far, however, the tasks of establishing political systems based on the principle of the rule of law and guaranteeing equal rights for all citizens have not really been tackled. Instead, decades have been wasted on repressive systems of rule and militia states that have absolutely nothing to do with building governmental structures and vibrant civil societies.

Unfortunately, there remains no prospect – as yet – for avoiding the yawning abyss.

Shafeeq Ghabra

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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Comments for this article: The Middle East's militia mentality

"In order to stop the progressive decline, the Arab states would have to thoroughly rethink and realign their political course towards their opponents and their own citizens." So, you are appealing to the very same dicctatorial states to be saints, instead of referring to the potentiality of the Arab uprisings: what went wrong, what were their limiattions, and what could be done to overthrow the regimes rather than reforming them, as you suggest. Honestly, you are not helping to find real change. You are speaking like a western liberal journalist or a western government official who doesn't want real change, but just some cosmetic reforms that don't upset global capital.

Nadeem19.07.2018 | 14:54 Uhr