The End of Arab Police States?
The revolutions that are sweeping across the Arab world this spring have many different causes and each will have its own outcome, but they all have one thing in common: Arabs are demanding the end of the police-state system that has misruled them for over a half century. They want freedom and accountability. The U.S. was a big stakeholder in the police-state system, known in Arabia as the mukhabarat states (for the Arabic word for secret police), but it now needs to help build legitimate accountable governments.
The Jasmine Revolutions that began in Tunis and then exploded in Tahrir Square this winter have many causes. Demography is a major factor. The Arab world faces an enormous youth bulge, 60 percent of Arabs are under 30 and the median age is 26. There are simply too few jobs for these young people, especially educated young men, and without jobs they can not marry and have families. Anger at sclerotic regimes was inevitable.
But a more fundamental problem was the Arab political system itself. Every Arab state from Morocco to Oman has been a police state for the last several decades. In all of them the secret police were and still are a state within the state. The mukhabarat could arrest anyone anytime and imprison, torture, and kill them with impunity. The mukhabarat was accountable only to one man, the president or king or sultan that ruled the country. This boss, or rais, could do as he pleased. All are men of course. Some have been notoriously cruel like Saddam or Gaddafi, others have been benign autocrats who genuinely tried to be humane. The Jordanian monarchs, for example, routinely let political prisoners free in general amnesty programs. That is how al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, got free in 1999 when King Hussein died.
The first mukhabarat state was created in Egypt in the early 1950s after Egypt's first revolution. Gamal Abdel Nasser used his secret police to eliminate his rivals at home, starting with the Muslim Brotherhood, and to topple his enemies abroad, helping to spark coups in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. At first the CIA was his ally, then his enemy. Defeat in wars with Israel in 1948, 1956, and 1967 accelerated the spread of police states as regimes desperately tried to hold on to power across the region. Inter-Arab politics and the Cold War added impetus to the process.
The police states became enormous over time. In Syria, a half-dozen separate secret-police agencies suppress all dissent and spy on each other. In Egypt, the ministry of the interior has 1.5 million full-time employees guarding everything and spying on everyone. In Saudi Arabia, there are MOI secret police, National Guard spies, and the religious police all spying on the nation and searching for dissidents and terror.
Twitter not terror succeeded in Tahrir.
After the 9/11 attacks, the police states got even larger and even more rogue. The U.S. encouraged them to search for al Qaeda and its allies ruthlessly. Even formerly hostile secret-police states like Syria and Libya were enlisted in the battle. Old allies like Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate were critical in tracking down murderers like Zarqawi. Ironically, just at the mukhabarat states reached their peak, President George W. Bush began talking out publicly in favor of freedom and democracy in the Arab world. The Arabs saw this as rank hypocrisy.
The police-state system expanded beyond the Arabs to Iran and Pakistan and other Muslim states. In the shah's Iran, the SAVAK was America's trusted ally in keeping order, until it was replaced by the ayatollah's Revolutionary Guards. In Pakistan, both dictators like Zia ul Huq and elected autocrats like Zulifakar Bhutto built up the secret police, especially the army's Inter Services Intelligence directorate, to spy on the nation and to build proxies like Lashkar e Tayyiba to fight India.
Now Egypt is again leading the way to the future after a long siesta under Hosni Mubarak. The new revolutionary state is dismantling the police state, arresting its leaders, burning its headquarters, and emptying its prisons. Several Islamists held for 30 years for involvement in the plot to kill Anwar Sadat have been freed, even the brother of al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri. The army, which is nominally in charge during the transition to freely elected leaders this fall, is nervous about the dismantlement project but has reluctantly gone along. Mubarak's spy master, Omar Sulayman, is being questioned already by the prosecutors. Gaddafi's spy master, Musa Kusa, fled to England to avoid his fate at home.
The winter of Arab discontent shattered the climate of fear that the mukhabarat states thrived on. Even in Syria, where the police state killed 20,000 protesters in 1982 in Hamah, the structure is no longer intimidating the people. Friday's massacres will lead to more funerals, which will lead to more protests and more blood. Political compromise in this environment is all but impossible. Once the issue of accountability is put on the table, then the regime loses its legitimacy.
The Saudis have recognized the danger of reform in Bahrain. The Khalifa dynasty was opening the door to the rule of law on the island and bargaining with the Shia majority about sharing power. Saudi Arabia instead invoked a 21st-century version of the old Soviet Breshnev doctrine, ruling out revolution in the kingdom's sphere of influence just like the Russians tried to outlaw freedom in Eastern Europe. It may work for the near future but it is unlikely to last indefinitely. It is already beyond repair in Yemen, the Achilles heel of Arabia where the police state has fractured and fallen apart. Parts of the country, like Aden, have already become outside Sana'a's effective control.
In the near term, the weakening of the mukhabarat system benefits al Qaeda and its jihadist allies. Omar Sulayman and Musa Kusa were relentless enemies. Al Qaeda's New Mexico-born spokesman in Yemen, Anwar Awlaki, has openly welcomed their demise and announced his "great expectations" for al Qaeda's room to maneuver in their absence. This week, Zawahiri welcomed the freedom of Sadat's killers in Cairo. No question the counterterrorism challenge is going to be much harder ahead.
But the demise of the police state is also a challenge to al Qaeda and other extremists. If the Arabs can show that they can now build more open societies that tolerate real dissent and hold elections that pass muster, the attraction of terrorism and extremism will be undermined. Twitter not terror succeeded in Tahrir Square and that is a profound change and a profound challenge to al Qaeda.
It won't be easy to dismantle the mukhabarat system. Its ethos is deeply dug into the security services, judicial systems, and armies of the region. It has spread its roots very deeply. Pakistan had a genuine revolution against its military dictator four years ago, led by lawyers who demanded the rule of law and accountability for political prisoners. The dictator was toppled and more or less free elections followed but the secret police still are beyond the law. They enjoy the army's support, exploit the press and frighten the politicians.
For America, the end of an era when we were in bed with the secret police from Rabat to Muscat will be uneasy. The police states helped us fight communism and al Qaeda. Some like Egypt made peace with Israel even when it was very unpopular at home. Now some will be toppled but others will survive and we need to have working, if not close, relations with both the revolutionaries in Egypt and the counter-revolutionaries in Saudi Arabia. In short we will need to play both sides of history while it moves at different speeds in different places. But we should not have any doubts as to where our values and interests ultimately come out. The end of the mukhabarat era is a good thing.
Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.