The current dilemma experienced by the Arab-Muslim world has been described as an ‘Oedipal drama’ by the anthropologist and psychoanalyst Malik Chebel: It is, in fact, a double tragedy of sorts. Like Oedipus who was forced by circumstances not entirely of his own choosing to kill his father the King and to wed his own mother, the governments of the Arab states are likewise forced into a similar impasse over the thorny question of Iraq.

The leaders of the Arab world know full well that there are no real choices before them. Should they submit to the will of the United States and help the Americans in the campaign against Baghdad, they will face the wrath of their own people and end up contributing to the downfall of another Arab government. But should they fail to obey the dictates of the hawks of Washington, they are doomed to suffer the retribution that is bound to follow; and may well end up being deposed themselves by the Americans in the long run.

What is more, it should be clear to everyone by now that the support given by the Arab states to the US-led war effort is surrendered with great reluctance. For a start, the Arab countries themselves are less than happy to know that the US wants to bring about a ‘regime change’ (a polite euphemism these days for foreign-backed coup) that aims not only to topple Saddam Hussein but also to install a pro-Western (and more importantly,
pro-American) government that will emulate American values and principles and make them the norm for social life in the Arab world. Such changes are not likely to be accepted with open arms by the leaders of many Arab states, who have been happy to rule according to a decidedly un-democratic culture for decades.

What, then, is there to do? Caught between a rock and a hard place the Arab states and their leaders are in a dilemma. Trapped as they are within the vices of realpolitik, they are forced to navigate the choppy waters of international diplomacy where room for manoeuvre grows ever smaller by the day. Even their collective strength has proven to be wanting, as was made clear by the total neglect of the recommendations offered by the OIC recently. Without voice and muscle, the Arab countries have little to be proud of these days.

The fault, however, is partly that of the Arab leaders themselves. As Malik Chebel argues, if the Arab states today are so weak and disunited, it is largely because of the lack of internal reform and slow speed of social change within Arab societies themselves. For decades the rulers of the Arab states – with American backing, mind you – rode roughshod over their own people and made every effort to forestall the democratisation process in their own countries. They trampled on the rights of their citizens with such
impunity as to make the political systems of their respective countries lose what little credibility they had; which in turn meant that none of the rulers of the Arab states could really be said to be truly representative of the Arab masses. Till today, when one looks for the voices of the ‘Arab street’, one has to look elsewhere: It is not to be found in the gilded towers and corridors of power, but rather in the slums and alleyways of the
middle-east, amidst coffee shops and mosques.

This culture of repression, which retarded the process of social and political education among the people, laid the foundations for societies that in turn were susceptible to radicalism, communalism and populist politics. The rise of radical Islamist groups in the Arab world would not have been possible without the help of the repressive elites themselves, who added fuel to the fire of public discontent.

Coupled with that is the continued economic, intellectual and political dependency of the Arab states on their patron-host the United States and its economic-military interests. For decades we have been witnesses to the shameful spectacle of Arab leaders running to the door of the White House whenever there is a dispute between the Arab countries themselves. Arab states and elites squandered the wealth gained from the days of the oil crisis to enrich themselves and to embark on ultimately costly and useless arms races against each other. As each state built bigger and bigger armies, their dependency on Western arms-producing states grew, while human resource development and the creation of civil society floundered.

Today, the Arab countries are paying the price for decades of political dependency on the West and their own failure to unite and work together. Conscious of the fact that the voices from the ‘Arab street’ are getting louder and that the people are more restless than ever, they are fearful that their own downfall will come soon after Saddam’s graceless exit from the stage of politics. But the same Arab leaders cannot afford to go against the will of the West, and Washington in particular, for fear of losing the support and patronage of their strongest patron and benefactor.

What then, can be done? Here lies the crux of the Oedipal drama: Damned either way, the Arab states have no easy choices to make – even though they ought to know by now which is the morally correct choice that lies before them. Should the leaders of the Arab world stand up to the might of Washington, they will undoubtedly be made to pay the price in the long-run (as Yemen was forced to do during the first Gulf War). But unless they want to witness the painful birth of a million Osamas in their midst, the leaders of the Arab countries had better decide on which side they stand.

The loss of American military, political and economic support may throw the entire Middle-East into confusion and turmoil for several decades after, but this moment of radical dislocation also has a productive side to it: For in the turmoil and chaos that follows, Arab societies will at least have the opportunity to reinvent their outdated feudal political culture and open the way for a more inclusive and representative form of politics that will, in the end, give at least a figleaf of credibility to Arab governments while today they have none.