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February 12, 2009 Edition 6

Between radicals and authoritarians
Anouar Boukhars

I have just returned from Morocco where I witnessed first-hand the massive emotional reaction to Israel's brutal destruction of Gaza. Wherever I went, I could not help but notice the pervasive sense of popular anger and despair, powerlessness and humiliation, guilt and shamefulness. The country was a pot of boiling emotions and ardent indignation at both Israel's indiscriminate killing of innocent children and women and the stunning collusion of a number of Arab regimes in Israel's deadly assault on Gaza.

Articles in this edition
Israeli-Egyptian relations - Gamal A. G. Soltan
Jordan braces for the worst - Saad Hattar
A people not dwelling alone - Elie Podeh
Between radicals and authoritarians - Anouar Boukhars
With few exceptions, no Arab leader has ever dared to openly legitimize and endorse a devastating Israeli war on fellow Arabs. But Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other so-called moderates showed no qualms about going to this length to tilt the regional balance of power from their "radical" rivals, rather than setting aside their personal feuds, tribal mentalities and mutual antagonism for the sake of the battered people of Gaza.

The crippling divisions and political posturing of all Arab authoritarian regimes were painful to watch. In a typical authoritarian posture, the eccentric Muammar Qadhafi blasted the "cowardly and defeatist" reactions of Arab leaders while his son and probable successor, Seif al-Islam Qadhafi, criticized Arabs for not holding their leaders accountable for their inaction during the Israeli offensive. Not to be outdone, the Algerian parliament passed a resolution that criminalizes any diplomatic or commercial relations with Israel. The Moroccan monarch for his part declared that he would not stoop to the level of self-ridicule by taking part in any Arab summit marred by discord and a fatal inability to respond effectively to the continuing suffering of the people of Gaza.

In the face of this organized hypocrisy, the average Moroccan, Algerian, Libyan or Egyptian citizen is stuck with two unpalatable choices: support or join forces with radical liberation or transnational revolutionary movements whose lack of a coherent strategic vision has brought chaos and destabilization to large swaths of Arab land, or continue to bow down to a power structure dominated by corrupt and dependent authoritarian regimes. The causes of these dangerously conflicting and at times polarizing sentiments of the masses about their predicament have existed for generations, though the hardening of the rift between the two extremes has never been revealed with such stark acuity.

In this context, the "Arab street" remains mired in agony over its leaders' disregard for its will and its frustration with the militant resistance movements' incapacity or unwillingness to transform themselves into credible middle ground political forces. So far, all attempts to straddle the fault line between these conflicting and unviable approaches have failed, leaving a whole region alienated and dangerously vulnerable to extreme radicalization. This environment of despair is a perfect breeding ground for terrorism and recruitment by anti-systemic movements. As militant organizations, Hamas, Hizballah, Muqtada Sadr's movement in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its international affiliates emerged as a direct result of both foreign occupation of Arab land and the passivity and incompetence of Arab leaders. Other powerful and more radical non-state actors may emerge to challenge the status-quo.

The post-Gaza political battle already resembles that of other past conflicts where squabbling Arab leaders were left seeking self-preservation and longing to score political propaganda points against each other. As is often the case, Arab unity is held hostage to a game of regional rivalries where the so-called forces of moderation, backed by the United States and now Israel, try to roll back those of radicalism. In the midst of this crippling cold war between countries that are hostile to militant resistance movements like Hamas and Hizballah, and those that support them, ordinary Arabs are left seething with anger and frustration with the persistently stubborn fractiousness of Arab politics and the exploitation of sectarian and ideological fault lines for personal gain.- Published 12/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College in Maryland.

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