Dictators do not usually die in bed. Successful retirement is always a problem for them, and not all solve it. It is a problem for everybody else when they leave. What’s to be done afterward? The popular uprising that overturned the dictatorial Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in mid-January sent a thrill of hope through Arab populations. Aside from the exceptional and complex case of Lebanon, Arab nations have since the demise of the Ottoman Empire mostly suffered from European quasi empire, their own exploitative military and party dictatorships, and recently, hereditary family dictatorships, a reversion to absolute monarchy in secular guise. The dream of a united independent Arab nation to replace the Ottomans was destroyed by World War I peace settlements, which left the major Arab peoples in European empires as mandated states under the League of Nations. Following World War II and the Suez fiasco, in the cold war setting of the American alliance with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel, the region found itself dominated by Israeli arms and American support for existing regimes. The rise and subsequent failure of Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Arab Socialism in Egypt and Yemen did not interrupt most of the region’s political passivity, and Egypt itself, after the Camp David accords in 1978, became an American client state. This calm was disturbed only by the Iranian popular overthrow of the Shah, communal turbulence in Lebanon, and then the Gulf War and American invasion of Iraq.
more from William Pfaff at the NYRB here.