- The “Shia crescent” and Arab State Legitimacy
For all of the discussion of radical political movements and looming crises threatening to upset their region, most leaders of the Arab world have enjoyed remarkably long tenures. Hosni Mubarak’s 28 years in power in Egypt are dwarfed by Muammar Qadhafi’s forty in Libya and the Saud dynasty has ruled the better part of the Arabian peninsula for 82 years. Indeed, it appears that these regimes have either become extremely effective at parrying challenges to their authority or the threats to their rule are not as menacing as they are often portrayed. While the existence of vast, overlapping security apparatuses in each of these countries points to the veracity of the first explanation for regime longevity, there is also an element of truth to the idea that some threats to these regimes are manufactured. The ‘Shia crescent’ bogeyman—introduced in 2004 by King Abdullah of Jordan, one of the Sunni leaders ostensibly most threatened by it—is one such embellishment of dangers to Sunni Arab regimes. This accusation, echoed in muted terms by Saudi officials, was explicitly reiterated by Hosni Mubarak in 2006 when he claimed that Shia are loyal to Iran wherever they live.
The notion of a ‘Shia crescent’ fails as an explanation of the role and intentions of Shia leaders in Arab politics. Reidar Visser demonstrates in the preceding article that the Iraqi Shia clergy is, in fact, a willing participant in the existing state system because the status quo fulfills the clergy’s goals better than direct intervention in political affairs or collusion with Iran. However, that the threat of a Shia uprising does not correspond with political reality does not deprive the allegation of its utility as a political tool. The aforementioned Sunni leaders warn of Shia intentions to strengthen their hold on political power vis-à-vis both their citizens and the international community. An enemy whose members share a deeply rooted, hostile ideology and span state borders is a compelling reason to prefer the existing power structure to the regime change desired by some average citizens and more outspoken advocates of the Bush ‘Freedom Agenda’.
Ironically, Sunni leaders offer the ‘Shia crescent’ accusation for the same reason that the Iraqi Shia clergy does not attempt to directly insert itself into politics—the stability of the region’s existing state system is in the interest of both parties. However, this convergence of tactical preference does not equate to a goal shared by Sunni political leaders and Shia clerics. Whereas Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issues carefully worded statements [End Page 21] supporting the existing system to maintain his influence as a supranational, pan-Shia leader, the political leaders of the Sunni Arab world make oblique references to a Shia threat to give relevance and legitimacy to their rule. Sunni Arab leaders’ need to shore up their respective images is acute: garnering popular legitimacy—especially in an age where notions of democracy and capitalist economic development raise the expectations of citizens of the developing world—is no easy task for bloated, autocratic regimes. This work is especially difficult when one’s notion of economic liberalization primarily entails awarding monopolies to relatives and clients, as is often the case in the Arab world.
Arab nationalism as professed by heads of state—beginning with Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser and continuing in some form until the present—has been a remarkably effective tool for deferring the Arab masses’ expectations of greater material well being and democratic reform. In spite of the 1960 breakup of the United Arab Republic, the crushing Israeli defeat of a combined Arab force in 1967, and Saddam Hussein’s assault on a fellow Sunni Arab state in 1991, championing Arab nationalism was one of the primary methods of publicly justifying the rule of several of the Arab autocracies. In fact, the second article of the Egyptian constitution still lists unification of all Arab polities as an explicit goal of the Egyptian state. But a key ingredient in the Arab nationalist veneer is the claim of participation in the resistance against foreign influences, in general, and the Zionist one, in particular. When the leaders of...