|Toronto Star July 20, 2004
Why tyrants rule Arabs
For 60 years, the West has propped up Arab despots, creating poverty and
illiteracy where education once thrived
By Gwynne Dyer
It was just a random statistic, but a telling one: Only 300 books were
translated into Arabic last year. That is about one foreign title per
million Arabs. For comparison's sake, Greece translated 1,500
foreign-language books, or about 150 titles per million Greeks. Why is the
Arab world so far behind, not only in this but in practically all the arts
The first-order answer is poverty and lack of education: Almost half of
Arabic-speaking women are illiterate.
But the Arab world used to be the most literate part of the planet; what
went wrong? Tyranny and economic failure, obviously. But why is tyranny such
a problem in the Arab world? That brings us to the nub of the matter.
In a speech in November, 2003, President George W. Bush revisited his
familiar refrain about how the West has to remake the Arab world in its own
image in order to stop the terrorism: "Sixty years of Western nations
excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did
nothing to make us safe ... because in the long run, stability cannot be
purchased at the expense of liberty" - as if the Arab world had wilfully
chosen to be ruled by these corrupt and incompetent tyrannies.
But the West didn't just "excuse and accommodate" these regimes. It created
them, in order to protect its own interests - and it spent the latter half
of the 20th century keeping them in power for the same reason.
It was Britain that carved the kingdom of Jordan out of the old Ottoman
province of Syria after World War I and put the Hashemite ruling family on
the throne that it still occupies.
France similarly carved Lebanon out of Syria in order to create a loyal
Christian-majority state that controlled most of the Syrian coastline - and
when time and a higher Muslim birth rate eventually led to a revolt against
the Maronite Christian stranglehold on power in Lebanon in 1958, U.S. troops
were sent in to restore it. The Lebanese civil war of 1975-'90, tangled
though it was, was basically a continuation of that struggle.
Britain also imposed a Hashemite monarchy on Iraq after 1918, and
deliberately perpetuated the political monopoly of the Sunni minority that
it had inherited from Turkish rule.
When the Iraqi monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958 and the Baath party
won the struggle that followed, the CIA gave the Iraqi Baathists the names
of all the senior members of the Iraqi Communist party (then the main
political vehicle of the Shias) so they could be liquidated.
It was Britain that turned the traditional sheikhdoms in the Gulf into
separate little sovereign states and absolute monarchies, carving Kuwait out
of Iraq in the process. Saudi Arabia, however, was a joint Anglo-U.S.
The British Foreign Office welcomed the Egyptian generals' overthrow of King
Farouk and the destruction of the country's old nationalist political
parties, failing to foresee that Gamal Abdul Nasser would eventually take
over the Suez Canal. When he did, the foreign office conspired with France
and Israel to attack Egypt in a failed attempt to overthrow him.
Once Nasser died and was succeeded by generals more willing to play along
with the West - Anwar Sadat, and now Hosni Mubarak - Egypt became
Washington's favourite Arab state. To help these thinly disguised dictators
to hang on to power, Egypt has ranked among the top three recipients of U.S.
foreign aid almost every year for the past quarter-century. And so it goes.
Britain welcomed the coup by Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 1969,
mistakenly seeing him as a malleable young man who could serve the West's
The United States and France both supported the old dictator Habib Bourguiba
in Tunisia, and still back his successor Ben Ali today. They always backed
the Moroccan monarchy no matter how repressive it became, and they both gave
unquestioning support to the Algerian generals who cancelled the elections
of 1991. They did not ever waver in their support through the savage
insurgency unleashed by the suppression of the elections that killed an
estimated 120,000 Algerians over the next 10 years.
"Excuse and accommodate"? The West created the modern Middle East, from its
rotten regimes down to its ridiculous borders, and it did so with
contemptuous disregard for the wishes of the local people.
It is indeed a problem that most Arab governments are corrupt autocracies
that breed hatred and despair in their own people, which then fuels
terrorism against the West, but it was the West that created the problem -
and invading Iraq won't solve it.
If the U.S. really wants to foster Arab democracy, it might try making all
that aid to Egypt conditional on prompt democratic reforms. But I wouldn't
hold my breath.
Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian journalist based in London.