March 18, 2011

A New Arab Cold War?

With so much going on today in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen, it's worth taking a step back and asking some preliminary questions about what it all means in terms of the bigger picture. One of our interns, John Dana Stuster, who has the misfortune of working with me but has spent a little time in the Arabic-speaking world, used Malcom Kerr's seminal The Arab Cold War: Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 as a departure point for wondering where we are headed in terms of regional power dynamics. What follows was written by Dana.


The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing popular
upheaval in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain will affect the Middle East, but how
remains to be seen. Indeed, there is little to indicate what the new
governments of Tunisia and Egypt will look like, or if the governments in these
countries at the end of this year will look at all like the governments in
these countries at the end of two years. The door is open for more overthrows
as these neo-revolutionary states find their new political footing.

is an important distinction. The Middle East has other revolutionary states,
vestiges and reminders of the last period of revolution in the region. In
trying to understand the implications of the past three months, there may be
some relevance in looking to previous spates of revolution in the Middle East.

The Nasirist Arab revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s,
typified by the Free Officers coup in Egypt but which also included revolutions
in Syria, Iraq and to a certain extent North Yemen, factionalized the Middle
East. The Arab states coalesced into two opposing groups: conservative
monarchies intent on the continuity of their governance, the foremost being
Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and new regimes like Egypt, Syria and Iraq eager to
spread their revolutions across the Arab world. Malcolm Kerr described this as
the Arab Cold War, and like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the Arab Cold War saw
moments of kinetic warfare in proxy battlefields. In the Jordanian Black
September civil war, Syria sent a tank division (with hastily painted PLO
insignia) in support of the Palestinians against the Jordanian monarchy, and
Egypt and Saudi Arabia fought through proxies in North Yemen in that country’s
civil war from 1962 to 1970.

The Middle East is not what it was fifty years ago. Saudi
Arabia still retains some influence but is not the powerhouse it once was, and
Egypt’s primacy has long passed; indeed, the centers of political gravity in
the Middle East – Iran and Turkey – are not Arab states at all, nor have they
polarized the region as was the case in the Arab Cold War. Iran, who came late
to the Middle East’s revolutionary vanguard, remains divisive and a rival of
Saudi Arabia, but these states have not engaged in the proxy wars that marked
the regional tension of the 1960s. In stark contrast, Turkey has pursued one of
the most cordial foreign policies in the world, trying to be friends with
Europe, the Arab states, and Iran, while maintaining its relationship with
Israel – this has had mixed results, but the effort is there. Some alignment
remains. Iran has Syria and, increasingly, Lebanon in its orbit, and Saudi
Arabia is still wary of Tehran’s role in the region. The Saudis, for their
part, have stayed fairly close to the Hashemite monarchy and still retain a
fair amount of influence throughout the Gulf, but it is far from the unity of
the 1960s when the monarchists banded together against an existential threat.

Perhaps the greatest difference, and maybe the reason the
Middle East is no longer so starkly polarized, is the absence of an ideological
bloc. In the Arab Cold War, the revolutionary regimes united under the banner
of Gamal abd’ al-Nasir’s brand of pan-Arab socialism, but pan-Arabism, which
peaked with the formation of the United Arab Republic in 1958, collapsed amid
the Arab infighting after the 1967 war with Israel. There is no equivalent to
pan-Arabism in contemporary Arab politics, or if there is, it hasn’t emerged
yet. It may be that in a year’s time the neo-revolutionary states will have an
ideology of their own – even if they do, it seems unlikely that they would have
enough clout in the region to promote an international ideology.

The relevance of the Arab Cold War to the discussion of the recent
Arab revolutions is this: when the Arab revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s
occurred, it realigned the Middle East and created rifts between the old
regimes and the new. The emergence of neo-revolutionary regimes, regardless of
what form they take, is threatening not just to the old monarchies but those
vestigial revolutionary states as well. The popular movement that will be the
foundation of what follows in Tunisia, Egypt and potential others is inimical
to the systems of governance in these other states. It seems reasonable that
both the Iranian and Saudi factions will have concerns about their association
with states whose recent revolutions threaten their own regimes. Though there
is nothing to suggest that the neo-revolutionary states will align with each
other, it seems likely that they will be isolated within the internal politics
of the Middle East. Although Tunisia, Libya and even Egypt were not exactly
aligned with any bloc before, the revolutions of 2011 could affect the dynamics
of the region’s politics by creating non-aligned states that are isolated from,
or even adversarial with, the Iranian and Saudi blocs. The point, in sum:
expect intra-Middle Eastern tensions to rise to a quiet simmer.

The way this might manifest isn’t readily apparent absent a
political faultline like pan-Arab socialism during the Arab Cold War. The model
outlined above lends itself to a division based on systems of government – the
monarchists who don’t like the old revolutionaries (plus Lebanon), who both
don’t like the neo-revolutionaries. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain
and Iran, however, seem intent on framing the divisions in the region as
sectarian – which would work well for them, marginalizing the popular successes
in Tunisia and Egypt and drawing the focus to the distinct aspect of fighting
the Other in Bahrain, be they Shi’a or Sunni. To rewrite the narrative as a
matter of sectarian conflict is, as Marc Lynch has observed, a dangerous fabrication,
but if it takes hold, it could exacerbate the Saudi-Iranian tension into something

Or the Middle East may fracture along some other faultline
entirely. There is so little indication of the direction the neo-revolutionary
states will take. It will be years, probably decades before the implications of
the past couple months are apparent (Kerr published the first edition of “The
Arab Cold War” in 1965, thirteen years after the Free Officers coup in Egypt.
He then revised it twice over the next six years). There’s a possibly
apocryphal story that Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai, an amateur historian, was
asked what he thought was the effect of the French Revolution on Western
civilization. It’s said that he paused and considered his answer carefully
before saying, “It’s too soon to tell.” It is
too soon to tell, but it’s worth noting the possibility.