Middle Eastern governments have valid reasons to fear foreign conspiracies but deflecting blame on foreign hands instead of addressing citizens’ grievances only weakens their own position.
Since October, sustained anti-government protests have emerged in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. While in all three states, violence has been used to disrupt the protests, these governments do not rely on coercion alone to survive. All states rely on a communication strategy that attributes all domestic problems to foreign interference. Some may say these excuses are elaborate conspiracy theories meant to blame everyone but the government themselves.
What appear as “conspiracy theories” should not be dismissed for their content outright, but seen as a broader strategy of survival. They are articulated as rhetorical campaigns to cement loyalty between the regime and their loyalists while undermining the narrative of those who take to the streets.
Conspiracy theory versus regime survival tactic: While besieged regimes defend their positions of power with armed force, they have also fallen back on systems of what detractors call “conspiracy theories.” Since 2011, leaders threatened by domestic uprisings from Benghazi to Damascus played upon a victimhood psychosis. Close to a decade later, this strategy continues. Defensive statements made during the 2019 protests reveal how government leaders view themselves, and the “struggles” that they are uniquely qualified to fight. If they were to fall, so would their struggles against Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Daesh.
Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon derived legitimacy from a “resistance” discourse. Supported by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah’s proto-state are on the frontlines with Israel. From this perspective, the 2011 protests in Syria that evolved into a civil war and the domestic uprising in Lebanon that began in October can be blamed on Israel as a means to undermine their axis of resistance.
While opponents of these states might characterise the regime’s statements as delusional conspiracy theories, for those who stay home during the protests, one person’s conspiracy theory is another person’s truth. Rather than dismissing conspiracy theories outright, the excuses uttered by besieged governments are essentially elite “interpretative schemata,” and offer frameworks to understand the regimes’ worldview better.
The historical legacy: One of the legacies of European imperialism is a legacy of British, French, and Russian machinations, operating behind the scenes to manipulate the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, the subject of a popular book in Iran, My Uncle Napoleon, published in the seventies, deals with foreign intrigues in Tehran during World War II. During the ensuing Cold War, the US, the Soviet Union, and Israel emerged as the source of these “conspiracies,” theories of which abounded among Middle East publics.
From the Iranian perspective, the memory of how a CIA agent, Kermit Roosevelt, with a bag full of money could bring protesters on the street in 1953 to overthrow the government in a coup remains seared in the memory of the leaders of the Islamic Republic. In 2016, Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to the Kingdom’s execution of the cleric Nimr al Nimr.
When Iraqi protesters set fire to the Iranian consulate in Najaf last week it would be logical for the Islamic Republic to see this as a Saudi plot to avenge what happened in 2016. The fact that protests are emerging within the Islamic Republic, as well as in Iraq and Lebanon, two states whose governments are aligned with Iran, also gives credence to the mindset of Iranian political elites that the wave of recent protests can be explained away by hidden Saudi-Israeli-American hands – all states that would benefit from the collapse of this axis. Regardless, there are truths experienced by the protesters, ranging from unemployment, lack of services to rising prices of daily necessities, that each state has failed to address.
The roots of the current protests: As a new decade began in the Middle East, protests emerged, and as of yet the issues motivating the protesters throughout the region have not been addressed. From Tunisia in January 2011 to Lebanon in 2019, one rallying cry has been the control of politics and economy by a clique of corrupted elites.
Since the 20th century, ruling elites in the Middle East have sought to consolidate their powers by showering the largesse of the state on a narrow segment of society, whether it be loyal military officers, a privileged tribe, or family relatives. Granting monopolies or state tenders to favoured in-groups led to entrenched systems of patronage that have become one of the crucial pillars of regime survival in the region.
In 2011, protesters started to challenge this system for the corruption that ensued and the unemployment that emerged as a result. In January, the revolt in Tunisia was not only directed at heads of state but also the kleptocraticTrabelsi clan (the in-laws of ousted President Zein al Abidin).
In Libya and Egypt respectively, people resented Qaddafi’s sons and their extravagant lifestyles, or how Hosni Mubarak’s son was groomed to be president while amassing a vast fortune. A target of Syrian protestors in the southern town of Deraa was the cell phone monopolies operated by Rami Makhluf, a cousin of Bashar al Asaad. By 2019, similar grievances were articulated against similar cliques in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran.
Elite corruption and patronage among those who have captured the state, while deploying a heavy-handed approach to protesters, have emerged as the truth in a number of these nations. There may or may not be a hidden hand behind these protests. What these states need to do, however, is address what is in their power to alleviate the daily hardships in all these societies, depriving any foreign government a means to exacerbate grievances. Reforming governance, in and of itself, is a laudable goal that would ensure regime durability. Addressing those truths would have given these governments more legitimacy than the jaded strategy of deflecting local problems on foreign enemies.