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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nasser's lies and Arab honor

Today is the 40th anniversary of the start of the Six Day War.

One of the most interesting aspects of that war was the role of lies. Nasser lied about Egypt's readiness for war, he lied to his citizens about early victories, he lied to Jordan's King Hussein about how he was shooting down hundreds of Israeli planes, he lied to the Russians and others saying that America had joined Israel in the fighting.

Almost all of these lies were a direct result of the Arab sense of "honor." This has been a pattern of Arab leadership throughout the past century.

By any measure, Nasser was a popular leader. He was charismatic and macho, swaggering with his inciteful rhetoric. Lying is an integral part of Arab politics because the desire for honor, and the desire to avoid dishonor, is ingrained in the Arab psyche. Admitting problems is perceived as a sign of weakness and the Arab masses emphatically do not want technocratic, practical leaders - they want Saladin, someone to sweep the Arab nation into pre-eminence again.

It has been noted that Moshe Dayan's 1967 Sinai campaign was virtually identical to the 1956 Sinai campaign. The reason that the Egyptians didn't anticipate this was because they managed to get Israel out of the Sinai in 1956 politically, so to Nasser's mind it was a victory and no lessons needed to be learned.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the Arab masses who thirst for a powerful leader and the leaders who thirst for power. Exaggerations and lies are eagerly consumed by the people and their adulation is lapped up by the leaders. Inevitably, fantasy replaces reality as the idea of admitting mistakes becomes more remote. The leader becomes imprisoned by his lies and his public image.

A proud Arab warrior cuts off the heads of hundreds of infidels on his way to glory - he doesn't appoint Commissions of Inquiry into mistakes he's made.

The Arab leaders surround themselves with people who won't dare point out the truth, and get rid of those who might sent the entire edifice of false honor crashing down. Lying becomes habitual until the leader himself cannot distinguish between truth and lies anymore. We've seen this with Nasser, with Arafat, with Saddam Hussein, with Hafez al-Assad - almost every Arab leader who did not inherit his position relies on his lies for popular support and tries to convince the rest of the world to believe his lies as well.

Because casual lying is so much a part of Arab culture, the people are willing to forgive the lies after they become obvious, or go along with them in the name of pan-Arab honor. Faced with irrefutable proof of their lies, the leaders will exchange them for more palatable lies - "Israel didn't defeat Egypt, they had help from the US. " They will do anything to minimize the disgrace that comes from admitting mistakes. To the Arab mind, lying is not nearly as disgraceful as defeat.

Of course, the inability to admit mistakes means that these Arabs will never learn from those mistakes. Even on today's anniversary, the Arabic newspapers are filled with articles that justify their defeat in 1967 by making up fantasies about Israel and the US, and very few look upon it as a learning opportunity.

There can be no solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict without the ability for Arabs to admit the truth to themselves. As long as they can fantasize about being able to destroy Israel they will not accept Israel. As long as Palestinian Arabs keep fooling themselves that their problems are more from Israel than from their Arab "brethren" they will never be able to improve their lives. The exoskeleton of lies that holds up the Arab world is a jail cell that keeps them from progressing and becoming productive members of the world community.

Arab culture needs to start seeing deceit as being more disgraceful than defeat.