Arab Order and flying Shoes

21/12/2008

US President George W. Bush’s visit to Iraq this week reflected the mixed legacy of his presidency. The Iraq invasion is likely to be remembered as the defining issue of the Bush era and recent events show real progress in the country.

At the same time, the flying shoes that greeted the president at his joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday, and the instant canonization of the shoe thrower as the latest poster child for Arab “defiance” show the extent to which the prevailing regional political culture that the invasion was supposed to help end remains alive and kicking – in Iraq as elsewhere.

Iraq appears on the way to uneasy stability. There has been an estimated drop of 80 percent in attacks by insurgents since March. Last month, Iraqi civilian deaths were the lowest since the US invasion, 290. These figures reflect the relative success of the US troop surge. No less important a contributor has been the sahwa (awakening) movement in the provinces of Sunni Arab central Iraq.

The new US-Iraqi security pact marks the start of the final act of the US occupation. The pact calls for all American troops to be withdrawn by the end of 2011. The first stage is set for next year, with the withdrawal of US forces from Baghdad and other major cities.

As the US begins to draw down its forces in Iraq, the emergent political order in the country is one of Shi’ite domination and inter ethnic tension. Yet the tensions are being played out – for the moment – within the framework of a working political system based on democratic elections. If this system can hold during and after the US withdrawal, it will represent a significant achievement. It will mean that for the first time since decolonization, one of the main countries of the Arab world will be under democratic rule. Thus far the credit side of the ledger.

As the US president’s reception in Iraq indicates, however, deep problems remain. Muntadar al-Zeidi’s flying shoes are the latest semi-comic emblem of a particular, familiar political culture with deep roots in the Arab world. This outlook sees all events through the prism of a wounded sense of nationalism, and a furious resentment against the West and Israel. This outlook currently finds its active political expression mainly through movements of Islamic revival, but it is not confined to them or solely produced by them. Indeed, to a great extent the rise of Islamism is a product of this political-cultural ambience, rather than the other way around.

This political culture sanctifies anti-Western fury, and continues, half a century after decolonization, to see the Arabs as hapless victims of the West. As a result, it gives its greatest honor and respect to those who are able to articulate a sense of furious resentment. If this can be accompanied by the successful application of political violence, then popular deification is assured.

The tremendous popularity of Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah, and even the non-Arab Mahmoud Ahmedinejad among broad masses of Arabs is a product of this political culture. Zeidi and his shoes will henceforth form a very tiny presence in its pantheon.

It is this political culture that is capable of producing the curious spectacle of the furious demonstrations against Bush by members of the Iraqi Shi’ite community in the past days. Much may be legitimately criticized about the conception and execution of the invasion of Iraq. But it is an empirically undeniable fact that the individual more responsible than any other for the enfranchisement and elevation to power of the Shi’ites of Iraq is George W. Bush. That is to say that the man who has established a situation in which the Iraqi Shi’ite Zeidi is able to work freely as a journalist, worship freely as a Shi’ite and vote freely as a citizen was the same one whom Zeidi chose to hurl his shoes at.

The probable lesson the US and its allies will take from the Iraq invasion is that ambitious projects for the reform and reshaping of the Arab world are not worth undertaking. Regional order, or something approaching it, will once more be maintained through “off shore balancing” in the form of relations with existing, imperfect but stable regimes in the region, such as the National Democratic Party regime in Egypt and the Saudi monarchy.

A Shi’ite regime of one kind or another is likely to emerge in Iraq in the coming years, and the key issue will be whether it allies with the US-dominated existing Arab order, or with Iran.

But the combination of post-9/11 rage and genuine desire for reform that powered the US invasion of Iraq of 2003 is, for better or for worse, gone. The strange spectacle of an Iraq now closer to democracy than any other Arab state, into which the chief architect of its liberty must steal like a thief in the night, and in which he is subjected to insults by a member of the very community he brought to power, is its problematic legacy. It is also the latest evidence of the astonishing hardiness and longevity of that peculiar political culture of self-righteous fury that bestrides the Arabic-speaking world, and that constitutes perhaps the single largest barrier to its rational and mature development.

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