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Gatestone Institute: Honor and Compromise in Middle East Leadership

Why couldn't Egypt's deposed President Morsi admit mistakes? Why couldn't he "compromise" with the military and stay in power? And what can one learn from Morsi's behavior about the concept of leadership in the Middle East?

In the Middle East, leaders almost never admit that they made mistakes: doing so would bring shame (in Arabic/Turkish/ and Persian - 'Ayib/Ayyip/Ayb) on them. Shame in the Middle East is about what others say about you -- not what you think of yourself. While to some extent this is true in Western culture, in general Westerners are more susceptible to feelings of guilt, rather than shame. The Western concept of compromise -- each side conceding certain points to the other side in order to come to an agreement -- does not exist in the Middle East. What is paramount is preserving one's honor (in Arabic: sharaf or karama). People will go to any lengths to avoid shame; they are prepared to go to jail, risk death, and even kill family members (usually females) to uphold what they perceive as their honor and that of their family. The consequences of dishonor are always permanent and always collective, often extending to the entire family and even the entire clan.

This battle to avoid shame at all costs indicates why Morsi, Erdoğan, Saddam, Assad, Arafat, and Abu Mazen – when they either have painted themselves into a corner -- or have been painted into one -- can never back down.

If our policy-makers could understand this cultural imperative, they might better be able to understand why we constantly fail to achieve our policy goals, and how better to achieve them.

* * *

One of the reasons that leadership in the Middle East is so different from leadership in the West, is that in Western democracies, political parties are usually based on ideas or world views; in the Middle East, however, political parties are formed around strong leaders -- usually strong men (and occasionally women), whose supporters are either extended family members or supplicants of some sort.

Westerners often succumb to "mirror-imaging" -- assuming that "all people are alike, so whatever they say resembles what we say" -- and assume that, as in the West, names of political parties in the Middle East reflect some sort of ideology. In reality, the ideologies for which parties supposedly stand are apparently mostly nothing more than words that the leader presumably hopes will enable him to justify his control over his people. Prime Minister Erdoğan and his clique, for example, belong to the AKP Party -- Turkish initials for the "Justice and Development Party," a name he my have chosen because it sounded positive, but which has little, if anything, to do with Erdoğan's subsequent actions: re-Islamizing the Turkish government and Turkish society. Egypt's deposed President Morsi's political party, the "Freedom and Justice Party," also seems to have a name chosen simply because it sounded good. How can anyone oppose "freedom" and "justice?" But millions of Egyptians, as we are now witnessing, evidently thought it insufficiently concerned with either freedom or justice.

It is the leaders who, in the Middle East, grant protection and even citizenship at will to foreigners who do them favors, and they can take away that citizenship at will. Syria's previous dictator Hafez Assad, for instance, took away Syrian citizenship from countless Syrian Kurds whom he decided opposed him. Western ideas of citizenship -- people either born in a certain country or fulfill certain legal requirements to be able to belong to it -- are mostly alien to the Middle East, and are among the reasons that, for instance, many Arabs who have lived in Kuwait for generations do not have Kuwaiti citizenship: they lack the appropriate connections with the leaders in the Kuwaiti government. Lebanese and Palestinian individuals, however, who have performed desired services for the Kuwaiti or Saudi rulers are often given citizenship as a reward. They remain, nonetheless, totally dependent on these rulers, who can and often do revoke those citizenships, if they think anyone is running afoul of them.

* * *

Morsi was actually doomed from the start. He was faced with an impossible economic situation: an Egypt totally dependent on foreign subsidies, and having to import 55% of its food and much of its fuel. The military, who have in some way been ruling Egypt for almost 5,000 years, understood that if they had they taken over, they would have been blamed for Egypt's economic and political failures during the past year and a half. Instead, they allowed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood [MB] to rule and thereby take the blame for Egypt's impossible situation. Moreover, the Egyptian people also saw for themselves that the MB's view of the world could not work. The organization's motto, "Islam is the Solution," proved wanting, to say the least -- exactly as the military assumed would happen.

The politically sophisticated military knew that Morsi and his MB could not solve Egypt's problems. So the military engineered a "two-for-one" deal: The MB, finally in power, was shamed, and the military would avoid being blamed. As Morsi must avoid shame, he cannot compromise with the military, so his political career is probably over. The same is true for the MB -- at least for now, even though its many supporters cannot be expected to accept defeat without a serious fight. The question is really how the military will react to the MB trying to stay in power? For now, it looks as if the military has the will to prevent the MB and Morsi from returning to power. Qatar, as part of its traditional anti-Saudi stance, also strongly backs the MB -- as does the current Turkish government.[1] Both Qatar and the current Turkish government are the big losers here, because the events of the past few days in Egypt demonstrate that the traditional Egyptian-Saudi (and anti-Qatar) alliance has re-emerged.

Whatever happens in Egypt, we should be careful not to see the defeat of the MB as a vote against all Islamists. Egypt's Salafists are also Islamists but at the same time are anti-MB[2], and have, until yesterday, have backed the military, because the Salafists and the military are both backed by Saudi Arabia -- most definitely not a force for democracy, freedom, and tolerance for non-Sunni Muslims - or any other non-Muslims, for that matter -- in the Middle East.

* * *

Other Middle Eastern leaders find or have found themselves in the same position as Morsi. Saddam Hussein in Iraq, for instance, faced with American orders, also could not back down either during the Kuwait war or the US liberation of Iraq. Unable, culturally, to compromise, Saddam had no choice other than to back himself into a corner and suffer defeat. An honorable defeat evidently seemed preferable to a dishonorable "success" -- one in which Saddam's honor might have appeared, to his citizens and fellow Arabs and Muslims, compromised.

Turkey: Lately, large numbers of Turkish citizens throughout the nation have been demonstrating against Erdoğan. Erdoğan, however, a classic Middle Eastern leader, cannot be seen to be compromising with the protestors, and thereby be seen as shamed. We see him and his people therefore belittling the demonstrators, and blaming others -- most notably, foreign Jews -- for his predicament. Of course it is not clear who will win this standoff; one outcome might be that his AKP party, which rules the country with an iron fist, might split into various factions, and Erdoğan fall from power. Potential rivals in his party are watching events like hawks, wondering when and how they might "move in for the kill."

The Palestinians: Both Arafat and Abu Mazen, both of whom have led the Palestinian people, cannot sign any agreement with Israel to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict and recognize Israel and a Jewish state. When, at Camp David in 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat 97% of everything said he wanted, Arafat jumped up and said that he could not sign such an agreement: he "didn't want to have tea with Sadat" – a reference to the Egyptian leader who had been assassinated at least partially for having signed an agreement with Israel. Arafat knew that had he signed, he would have been regarded as having backed down from a confrontation and therefore shamed; been considered a traitor by his people, and most likely killed.

U.S. President Clinton, in a display of how little he really understood about leadership and the values of the Middle East, looked on at Arafat's reaction in amazement. But no compromise would have been possible. Egypt, during its negotiations with Israel for the peace treaty signed in 1981, held out for 100% of what it asked for -- and got it. Had Arafat gotten 100% of what we wanted, Israel would no longer exist.

The same holds true for the Palestinian Authority's current leader, Abu Mazen, to whom, later, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert offered an even better deal than had been offered to Arafat. Condolezza Rice, like President Clinton, also look on in amazement at Mahmoud Abbas's reaction. (For more on Rice's views on Abbas, see her book No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington)

The same condition continues to hold true today. Why Secretary of State Kerry and the Obama administration believe they can persuade Abbas sign an agreement guaranteeing Israel's right to exist in any form is astonishing. These leaders can lead only so long as they are not perceived as a shamed sell-out and traitor.

It is pointless, therefore, for Western and Israeli political leaders to try to provide Middle Eastern leaders with incentives to reach compromises where, in Western eyes all sides win, but in Middle Eastern eyes -- to their fellow Arabs and Muslims -- their side loses. Sadly, in the Middle East, there are only win-lose/lose-win resolutions -- with the winner talking all and the loser losing all. One can hope there might in the future be an Islamic reformation to overturn this cultural demand, but so long as the Islamic Middle East does not truly believe it needs to change, a shift that deeply revolutionary is highly unlikely.


[1] For on the reasons the MB and Salafists loathe each other, see Harold Rhode, "The Sunni Divide". This paper also explains the Saudi-Qatari rivalry, and Turkey's place in that rivalry. [2] ibid.

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