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Amr Mussa (front), secretary general of the Arab League, attends the opening of a meeting of Middle Eastern foreign ministers in Beirut, March 25, 2002.
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Politics: From Royalty to Democracy

Politics in the Middle East, far from being solely an issue of Islamic resurgence as is often presented by Western media, actually reflects a complex mixture of issues that include nationalism, religion, social and economic concerns, anti-colonialist sentiments, tribal loyalties, and ethnic identities.

Political regimes in the Middle East have different forms of government. There are

  • parliamentary republics in Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen, and post-Taliban Afghanistan;
  • traditional monarchies in Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia;
  • constitutional monarchies in Jordan and Morocco.

There are also several unique governing structures, including

  • Libya's jamahiriya, where local councils are supposed to govern (although Libya is in fact a military dictatorship);
  • the United Arab Emirates, where several traditionally chosen rulers collaborate in a federation;
  • the Islamic Republic of Iran, where religious scholars oversee an elected parliament and president.

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All political bodies are a compromise between an individual and a group. How that compromise is negotiated, and by whom, varies a great deal. Some institutions that reflect greater personal liberty are freedom of the press; free, fair and inclusive elections; multiple political parties; and the fair treatment of minority groups, whether ethnic or religious.

The role of religion in politics

The late King Hussein I of Jordan and Queen Noor arriving for a visit to the United States [ enlarge ]

Religion plays a role in political decision-making in virtually all Middle Eastern countries, but in very different ways. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, the government is run by religious leaders, with a subordinate elected parliament (candidates to which must be approved by the religious leadership). In Jordan and Morocco, the king bases his legitimacy on direct descent from the Prophet, but the king is not a religious leader per se.

In Lebanon, parliamentary representation is divided up according to religious affiliation, with proportions reflecting an outdated census of the population of Lebanon in 1932. Maintaining a tenuous balance of power among the 18 officially recognized religions is an important governmental concern, but the Lebanese government itself is not composed of religious leaders.

Even in strong democracies, like Turkey and Israel, the support of influential religious parties is often needed by major parties to form a coalition government. When religious parties are key members or leaders of a coalition, their political clout can push the government to mold policies in a religious direction.

Pressures for and against democracy in the Middle East

There are both internal and external pressures on Middle Eastern countries for democratic reform, which would allow free and open political systems to develop. The existing governments, however, have resisted this pressure for a number of reasons. Some governments and leaders simply want to hold on to power themselves; others fear political instability if they loosen political control too quickly.

A crowd of Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq. The Kurds are an ethnic minority in the Middle East. [ enlarge ]

Many regimes oppose the struggles of internal minorities for autonomy or independence and restrict political activity related to those efforts. Others face an internal religious critique, particularly from Islamists. Many fear that if an Islamist political party were legitimately elected, that party would refuse to relinquish power in future elections. These pressures against democratization often lead to a cycle of political repression, revolts (sometimes violent), and then further oppression.

In Egypt, as in many other countries in the Middle East, pressures for real democratization have come from internal opposition groups (both leftist and Islamist), international observers like the United States, and non-governmental organizations. To date, though, the governing party allows only a small, controlled group to function as the official political opposition.

Kurdish men, armed with portable rocket launchers [ enlarge ]

Egypt has followed an uneven policy of economic liberalization over the past 25 years or so. This policy has created a backlash, as Egyptians judge growing globalization to be damaging to local cultures, witness a growing gap between rich and poor, and decide that Western-style democracy undermines local control. Since responses to these political and economic pressures cannot be expressed freely within the political system, there are frequently popular demonstrations and the formation of radical underground opposition groups.

Both Israel and Turkey are Western-style democracies with regularly scheduled elections. But Israeli Arabs and Turkish Kurds experience political restrictions, as these groups are seen as threatening to both the security and the identity of the state.

Turkey's efforts to join an even larger political and economic body, the European Union, has motivated many domestic reforms and may lead to even more. Peer pressure from that group requires that Turkey uphold a standard of human rights that is comparable to the nations of Western Europe.

Israel is debating a looming political and demographic crisis. The birthrate of Israel's Arab population continues to outpace that of its Jewish population. Can Israel remain a Jewish state and a democracy if Arabs eventually outnumber Jews in the society? More fundamentally, how can Israel reconcile its democratic ideals with unequal treatment of Israeli Arabs?

The cult of personality

Iraqi soldiers posing by a mural of President Saddam Hussein [ enlarge ]

Some leaders and political families have been in power for so long that they have integrated themselves into the nation's identity. These leaders tend to reach their position based on a charismatic personality rather than on specific policies, and once in power, they can overwhelm any potential rivals. Examples of Middle Eastern demagoguery include Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, the late Hafez al-Asad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the late Gamal Abd al-Nasser in Egypt. All of these leaders came to power in military coups, and many used their national military to monitor and attack opposition groups.

Identifying enemies as domestic policy

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Like politicians throughout history and across the globe, political leaders in the Middle East often try to deflect public criticism of internal issues by focusing on external "enemies." This strategy can be effective for diffusing popular anger at the oppression, corruption, or bad governance of a regime.

As a prime example, many Iraqis oppose Saddam Hussein's repression of all political opposition, his economic policies, and his concentration of national resources on military expenditure. If, however, the U.S.-led bombing and U.S. policies are more of a threat to them than Saddam's internal policies, then the Iraqis will support Saddam against the outside enemy. This strategy can be particularly effective when the state controls all media sources and can give its own interpretation of events without competing explanations.

The government of post-revolutionary Iran similarly used the long war with Iraq and anger at the United States to maintain a focus on external rather than internal affairs. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War and a break with relations with the U.S., internal pressures for reform have begun to mount within Iranian society.

Effect of U.S. policies on public opinion

U.S. policies are often a source of tension for many countries in the region. Opposition groups in many Middle Eastern countries say that U.S. support of authoritarian regimes (such as in Egypt or Saudi Arabia) has prevented the development of any real democracy. They therefore find the U.S. to be hypocritical and fickle when it demands that groups like the Palestinian Authority institute democratic changes, or that Saddam Hussein, who was once a U.S. ally, be removed from power. More hypocrisy is seen in American statements about defending Kuwait on the basis of international law and the right of self-determination, while denying the same rights to the Palestinians.

U.S. and Saudi Arabian personnel on the tarmac at Prince Sultan Air Base, Al Kharj, Saudi Arabia [ enlarge ]

The strong U.S.-Israeli relationship is seen by some as continued Western colonialism in the region. Many observers in the Middle East think the U.S. seeks to control events in the Middle East. They point to the American military presence during the Gulf War, the continued presence of troops in Saudi Arabia (the birthplace of Islam), and the use by Israel of American-made weapons against the Palestinians.

The U.S. does have positive relationships with the governments of many countries in the region. Israel and Turkey (a partner in NATO) are obvious examples, but the U.S. also has strong diplomatic ties with Egypt, Jordan, and others. But growing popular opposition to the U.S. policy vis-à-vis Palestine is making it difficult for moderate regimes in the region to continue positive and mutually beneficial relationships with the U.S.

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Related sites

U.S. Strategy in the Middle East: ?PrgDate=04/01/2002&PrgID=5
Talk of the Nation asks experts what the U.S. strategy should be towards the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

The Role of Other Arab Countries: ?PrgDate=04/03/2002&PrgID=5
Talk of the Nation asks experts how the violence in the Middle East affects the political situation in other Arab countries.

King's Ransom: How Vulnerable Are the Saudi Royals?:
In this report, the New Yorker looks at the vulnerability of the Saudi royal family.

King Hussein: /jan-june99/hussein_2-5.html
As King Hussein of Jordan was near death at his palace in Amman, Jordan, after undergoing cancer treatments at the Mayo Clinic, NewsHour led a discussion about his 46-year reign. (February 1996)

The Transformation of Turkey: From Islamic Empire to Modern State:
Think Tank asks, "Can an Islamic nation be modern, democratic, secular, pro-Western -- and still be Islamic?"

Country Studies:
The research division of the Library of Congress provides extensive overviews of various nations.

The World Factbook 2001:
The Central Intelligence Agency publishes information on the geography, people, government, and economy of each Middle Eastern country.

Hunting Bin Laden: Interview with Bin Laden: shows/binladen/who/interview.html
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A Middle East History:
The World tells the history of the Middle East in an effort to understand the current conflict and tension.

Secrets of History: The CIA in Iran: /041600iran-cia-index.html
A CIA document and New York Times articles and photographs depict the clumsy yet successful 1953 overthrow of Iran's government.

Commanding Heights Web Site:
An economist's look at world history and development from 1910 to the present

Arab Human Development Report 2002:
A report on the Arab world's attempts to advance human development

Understanding History, Religion, and Politics in Jerusalem and Beyond:
Students will acquire historical knowledge of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the region, learn how to interpret a conflict from multiple perspectives, advocate for a point of view, and develop greater conflict resolution skills.

Debating the News: Iraq:
Students will debate the following questions: Does the U.S. have the right to go into a country and remove its government? Should the U.S. go to war with Iraq now or wait until Saddam does something against the U.S. directly?

Prospects for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: /lessonplans/middle_east/
Students will examine the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and analyze past and present attempts at peace.

Terror and Tehran:
Frontline asks, does America's war on terror hold democracy hostage in Iran?

Related topics

How were the modern nation-states of the Middle East created?

What have been the role and effects of U.S. foreign policies and actions in the Middle East?

What role have natural resources played in the politics and economy of the Middle East?

Jump To:

The role of religion in politics

Pressures for and against democracy in the Middle East

The cult of personality

Identifying enemies as domestic policy

Effect of U.S. policies on public opinion


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