They’ve been referred to as “moderates” and even the “Axis of Reason”. Now, America’s friends in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are in talks to form a joint military force to intervene throughout the Middle East and “deal with extremists in the region.”
In addition to appropriating America’s post-9/11 rhetoric of anti-terrorism to justify their own foreign policies, these countries also happen to be following a very straightforward pattern of reactionary behavior in the face of popular upheaval. This motley alliance of monarchies and military dictatorships is in many ways replicating the same repressive actions taken by European states in the 19th century when they were confronted with populist movements seeking to upend the existing order. And just as then, the results are likely be both destructive and, ultimately, futile. In the wake of the violent upheavals of the French Revolution, European monarchies came together in 1791 at the Pillnitz Conference to declare their support for the embattled Louis XVI and warn the burgeoning revolutionaries of the dangers of toppling a fellow monarch. Far from stifling the ambitions of the insurgents however, this declaration was widely seen as a provocation which helped kick off the devastating French Revolutionary Wars, in which the new French Republic battled a number of neighboring monarchies.
In their aftermath, and after the defeat of Napoleon’s imperial ambitions on the continent, the empires of Austria, Prussia and Russia came together to form the “Holy Alliance” – an effort to maintain the political status quo and to stifle the spread of popular republican ideas among subjects.
Signatories to the alliance affirmed that, “the three contracting Monarchs will remain united by the bonds of a true and indissoluble fraternity, and consider each other as fellow countrymen,” and pledged to, “lend each other aid and assistance; and, regard themselves towards their subjects and armies as fathers of families.”
This happens to be very similar to the patriarchal and fraternal language that Arab autocrats use when discussing their relations with one another. And just like their contemporary Arab counterparts, European monarchs characterized themselves as champions of religious orthodoxy in an effort to shore up popular support.
For decades the Alliance served as a hugely counterrevolutionary force throughout Europe. It intervened to help snuff out the democratic revolutions of 1848 and reinforce exploitative, monarchical structures of government wherever they had been challenged. In “dealing with the extremists” of their own time, the monarchies also succeeded primarily by exploiting tensions between liberals and their more radical revolutionary counterparts.
While these efforts succeeded in causing much bloodshed in Europe and entrenching repressive, authoritarian governments for generations, they ultimately failed in holding back popular democratic movements. Despite the best efforts of reactionary monarchs, the old order eventually perished, worn down by decades of misrule, popular agitation, and intermittent local conflicts.
Similarly, despite their military alliances and massive cash outlays, it is doubtful that the Middle East’s modern Holy Alliance will be strong enough to indefinitely stifle the democratic desires that were so dramatically put on display during the events of the Arab Spring. A combination of demographic and economic pressures will likely constrain their ability to keep decisive control over regional events, and perhaps their own domestic politics as well.
For its purposes, the United States is today closely aligned with the reactionaries of our time. In the face of free and fair electoral victories by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the U.S. has tended to rationalize their decision to side with the ancien régime as being in defense of liberal values. Needless to say, this is particularly risible claim given America’s longstanding alliance with decidedly illiberal countries like Saudi Arabia, and the fact that there’s simply nothing “liberal” about draconian police states that annul elections and then torture and kill unarmed protestors.
Contrary to the most dire of predictions, Islamists have shown themselves to be more than willing to play by the rules of democracy when they have not been subjected to state repression. Tunisia, the one great success story of the Arab uprisings, recently held democratic elections in which the ruling Muslim Brotherhood-linked Ennahda Party was defeated by its secular rivals in Nidaa Tounes. Power was transferred peacefully and amicably, helping to entrench democratic practices in a country which had before known only authoritarian rule.
The contrast with Egypt, where a Gulf-backed military coup violently removed a democratic government, couldn’t be starker. Unfortunately, in the latter case the U.S. ended up siding with the military regime even as it proceeded to launch a brutal crackdown on the former Tahrir Square revolutionaries.
Now, having succeeded in fracturing, marginalizing and in some cases radicalizing their opposition, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are attempting to launch military operations to confront them throughout the region. But just like the European empires that preceded them, Middle Eastern autocracies will likely prove too brittle to maintain their integrity in the face of diffuse and popular democratic movements.
History rarely repeats itself exactly, but it’s clear that many of the same patterns which played out in 19th century Europe are repeating themselves in the Middle East today. Rather than relying upon an old order which is both brutal, corrupt, and unlikely to survive in the long term, the United States should take the farsighted and principled position of committing itself to democracy in the region – even if it doesn’t always like who wins.