Kaplan’s Fantasies of Empire and the Myth of the Arab Strongman

By Ari Heistein | (Informed Comment) | –

Robert Kaplan explains the current conflicts in the Middle East as the inevitable results of the withdrawal of colonial powers which led to a vacuum of power filled by Arab strongmen who then fell and then left the Middle East back in its natural state– chaos and sectarianism. Yet in Egypt, for example, it is clear that strongmen did not seize power because colonial forces withdrew but because they hadn’t withdrawn. Furthermore, sectarian conflicts have not been intensified because Arab strongmen have fallen, but because the strongmen used sectarian politics to keep themselves afloat.  While Kaplan seems to have a strong knowledge of Middle Eastern history, his argument relies on evidence that mistakes causes for effects.


While one of Kaplan’s key arguments was that “Totalitarianism was the only answer to the end of Western imperialism” in reality totalitarianism was the answer to imperialism. When looking at Egypt, a country ruled by Arab strongmen for nearly six decades and one of the most influential powers in the Arab Middle East, Kaplan’s claim immediately collapses. The Free Officers deposed King Farouk in 1952, which signaled the end of Egypt’s thirty year parliamentary era and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power.  A short time after taking office, Nasser destroyed much of Egypt’s civil society and consolidated power through political violence and repression—he was the quintessential Arab strongman. Egypt’s history seems to corroborate Kaplan’s claim with only one problem: the British had up to 80,000 troops in Egypt until 1956.  


Nasser and Free Officer Corps were popular not because they filled the vacuum left by the British but because they took a strong stance against the continued British military presence in Egypt. James Jankowski’s Nasser’s Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and the United Arab Republic makes this abundantly clear.  Jankowski notes that clashes between the British colonial forces and Egyptians set the stage for the Free Officers coup that led to Nasser’s rise:


Egyptian opposition to the continuing British military presence in Egypt had been a prominent feature of the tumultuous years before 1952.  Clashes between Egyptian irregular forces assisted by the Free Officers and British troops had occurred throughout late 1951 and early 1952, in part paving the way for the military coup of July.


Moreover, Jankowski explains both that both the Free Officers’ and the Egyptian public were intensely focused on a complete British withdrawal:


The memoirs of the leaders of the Free Officers movement are consistent in emphasized the issue of the British military departure as their “main preoccupation and prime concern” upon taking power.  The insistence on complete Egyptian independence and a visceral opposition to any foreign presence that could be perceived as infringing Egyptian sovereignty was a given in both the public rhetoric and the private conversations of the leaders of the new regime in 1952 throughout 1954 [emphasis mine].


The Free Officers’ military operations and the British withdrawal that followed established their legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian public by asserting Egyptian sovereignty.  Indeed, it was not the absence of the British that legitimized the reign of Egypt’s strongman, but when placed in its historical context, it was actually the British presence…


Another fundamental point of Kaplan’s argument was that the chaos in the modern Middle East can be attributed to “totalitarianism’s collapse.” In a sense, Kaplan is correct about this assertion—but he misidentifies sectarianism as a result of the collapse of the Arab dictators not as a response that the regimes have used to hold onto their collapsing authority.  He goes on to explain that because the Arab states’ “borders did not often configure with ethnic or sectarian ones, those dictatorial regimes required secular identities in order to span communal divides. All this has been brutally swept away.”  However, while many of the Arab dictators did project images of secularism and modernity, it is hard to ignore their use of sectarian politics (even before the Arab Spring) as a means to secure loyalty without spreading the states limited resources too thin.  


It was common for “secular” Arab leaders belonging to minority sects, for example Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, to discriminate against the majority sects in their countries. A Political Economy Research Institute report notes Saddam Hussein’s sectarian policies:


Since the Sunni-dominated Ba’ath party took control of Iraq’s government in a 1968 coup, Shia political, religious, and cultural rights have been curtailed. In the late 1970s, oppression of the Shia became more violent as prominent clerics and religious students were exiled, imprisoned, and assassinated. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, thousands of Shia were deported and many were executed as potential supporters of Shia-majority Iran….They also demolished holy sites and mosques, destroying ancient Shia manuscripts.


Similarly, Professor Christopher Phillips of the London School of Economics discusses how Alawi privilege and Sunni marginalization preceded the Arab Spring and may have been instrumental in rallying support for anti-Regime activities:
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This new generation of crony capitalists were visibly excessive, and a disproportionately high number of this elite were Alawis, with Bashar making far less effort than Hafez had to balance the sect’s privileged position by promoting prominent Sunni Arab families, fuelling resentment among the formerly supportive Sunni Arab poor.


Thus, the mythology of these secularist leaders as transcending sectarianism with their broad appeal is clearly a distortion of history.  In reality, the Arab strongmen promoted sectarian tensions.


In the post-2011 Middle East, sectarianism has intensified not as a result of the collapse of the Arabs states, but as a strategy used by Arab leaders to stave off their own defeat by solidifying their bases of support. Arab regimes controlled by minority sects have spread fear about the majority’s ambitions to subvert and overrun the state. In Syria, sectarian rhetoric is a means to insure the loyalty of  religious minorities in an alliance against the Sunni majority. Vice-Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom M. Zuhdi Jasser outlines the Assad’s sectarian strategy:


The Assad regime has turned an initially peaceful political protest into an overtly sectarian conflict…The Assad regime and its most loyal supporters, predominately [sic] Alawites associated with Assad’s Ba’athist Party, portray opposition forces, predominately [sic] Sunni Muslims, as a threat not just to their power but to the very existence of Alawites in Syria. To ensure continued support for the regime, the government capitalizes on Alawite fears of Sunni rule. The regime spreads rumors of Sunni atrocities against Alawites and depicts the conflict as a fight to prevent Alawite extermination. In late December 2012, Time Magazine reported allegations that the Assad government provided up to $500 per month to individuals posing as members of the opposition and painting graffiti on buildings or chanting slogans with overtly sectarian rhetoric.


This report and others document in detail the fact that the simultaneous collapse of the regime and the emergence of sectarianism is not because the Syria’s strongman could no longer hold the country together, but because he broke it apart.


Kaplan’s primary observation, that power in the Middle East has become increasingly decentralized, is obviously and undeniably true. However, the historical chain of events he narrates misidentifies the cause as the effect. In Egypt, it was not the withdrawal of colonial forces that necessitated the Arab strongman, but the Arab strongman who was needed to push the British forces out. Likewise, sectarianism was not the result of the collapse of the secular Arab strongmen, but it was the strongmen who promoted sectarianism and conflict.  Therefore, the underlying narrative that the Arab world has returned its natural state of chaos and this is only our fault inasmuch as we chose end to colonialism has very little evidence to stand on.

Ari Heistein is a translator and researcher.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Donald Rumsfeld meets Saddam Hussein 1983

6 Responses

  1. The strongmen may have promoted sectarianism, but so did their opponents. The Islamist uprising in Syria that was crushed by the bombing of Hama in 1982 was not promoted by Hafez al Assad. And this artcle does not explain why Bashar has been unable to subdue his opponents like his father did.
    Another sectarian uprising took place in Iran in 1979. The Iranian revolution shows that sectarianism is not necessarily destabilizing. Robert Kaplan should be pleased with order that the Ayatollahs brought to Iran.

    • As to why Bashar’s strategy for counterinsurgency didn’t work, it seems like it was just a lack of enough loyal/dependable troops. An ISW report from 2013 offers a good analysis: link to understandingwar.org

      Interesting point about sectarianism– it seems to be primarily destabilizing when utilized by minority governments while governments controlled by the sect of the majority seem to use it to promote national unity and the marginalization of minorities.

  2. i remember a thought kaplan expressed, a book or two into his career …

    it was an image of all the young jobless men in the third world armed with guns .. dangerous, needing control

    to think like that seems to be his nature …

    and he is not to be taken seriously … no wisdom

  3. Idiots throw around the word “totalitarian” like confetti. A truly totalitarian state would truly have no dissent, no factions, no special interests, and no corruption, because everyone would be a true believer. It appears that some group of people in North Korea is making a lot of outside money out of the current state of affairs. That’s a special interest. Hitler’s regime was riddled with special interests.

    Totalitarianism is an aspiration, never achieved. No one is competent enough to get close. Tyranny is a more meaningful word, but it’s less useful for scaring Americans. Totalitarianism carries implications of brainwashing (from Mao’s time) that could somehow transform us against our will into Moslems, etc.

  4. A larger perspective than Kaplan’s, taken by a few, is that governance is getting more and more impossible all over the world due to everyone’s awareness of other cultures, both hostile and friendly, and the resulting breakdown of the concept of a “public” that can protect its members against the private power of wealth, which destroys communities while pandering to the lowest common appetites.

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