It was natural that the end of the Cold War would see many shifts in the political maps associated with the parties of that war. The process was particular evident in Eastern Europe where the collapse of the Berlin Wall was one of the most salient landmarks.
Many had expected the developments in Eastern Europe to extend to the Middle East and North Africa. In a sense, something of the sort happened in a major North African country (Algeria) but with totally different consequences. While the precursors were similar (dictatorship, poverty, corruption) the results were not only different but also extremely bloody. Some 200,000 people were killed in the course of the conflict. The Algerian experience delivered an explicit warning that any attempt to speak in practical terms about democracy, civil liberties and the peaceful rotation of power would end in extremely fierce violence, bloodshed and chaos. Two sides made their roles very clear during that Middle Eastern experience. One was domestic: the military establishment. The other was foreign: Western Europe and particularly France, which is connected to that area by old and painful relations.
One of the conclusions drawn by the Helsinki Conference of 1975 was that the security of Europe was contingent to a considerable extent on the security of the Middle East. This assessment is not only accurate, it has historical depth of profound importance in understanding any issue in this region. After the end of World War I in 1918 and World War II in 1945, this region (the Middle East and North Africa) entered into diverse arrangements, the most important of which involved drawing the geographical boundaries between its constituent countries following the breakup of the Ottoman entity.
It has been said that no country in this region has been spared a border conflict with a neighbour (the border drawing arrangement began in theory in 1916 with the deliberations between the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and Francois Picot). Perhaps the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was a border war. This was certainly the case with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (which was the product of an old border dispute as well as the preceding eight-year long war) that eventually led to the US invasion of Iraq, the destruction of that state and sectarian arrangements that defied the concept of citizenship. All of the foregoing combined form a crystal clear model of the role that border disputes play in immersing the region into endless waves of war and conflict.
Connected with this is the manipulation of ethnic and sectarian components of society in a manner that renders them permanently volatile and recurrently ignitable. The most salient examples are the historic Shia-Sunni divide and the Kurdish question, which has been spread in an inhumane way over four countries (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran).
Nor should we omit mention of the increasing role played by “Arab armies” in the postcolonial period and by the tendency of military rule or quasi-military rule to “abolish” politics and to handle the question of authority and government outside of the framework of democracy and participatory politics. The closure of the horizons of plurality and diversity to all but a small elite clique that alternated power between its vested interest circles played no small part in heightening ethnic and sectarian tensions as we have seen in quite a few Arab countries.
To the foregoing we should add the Palestinian question created by the expulsion of the Palestinians from their native land following its occupation and settlement by Jewish groups. The repercussions of this question added more complex dimensions to the general state of the region, whether as the result of the four Arab-Israeli wars and their complicated fallout at all levels or due to the humanitarian and moral implications of the presence of a displaced people who have been spread across the entire region.
In spite of the many problems that have arisen in the Arab region, the question of the Palestinian people who have been deprived of a homeland and a state will remain the problem from which all others derive. Some Western officials, among others, have held that the recent upheaval in the region points in the opposite direction. The assessment is incorrect and based on a fallacy. As the philosophers say, one should not compare two things that do not bear comparison. In this case, temporary and incidental domestic and even regional problems on the one hand, and the problem of a displaced people without a homeland and a state, on the other. The latter is neither incidental nor temporary; it is authentic, long-lasting and at the heart of all other problems.
In light of the foregoing I would like to register the following observations:
— The Syrian problem still has a unique nature, distinguished as it is by the control of a family/sect over government since the late 1960s and by the systematic repression and exclusion of the majority. This is what made the regime rush to a violent militarised response at the very outset of the demonstrations for freedom and dignity that had begun in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Precipitating what appears to be an armed conflict without end, this response gave rise to the grimmest scenarios, especially as the battle theatre spread into Lebanon. Conversely, the fall of the regime would have caused the armed revolution to recede, altered the domestic balances of power and pre-empted the critical rise of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). In addition, success in Syria would have created a firm basis for joint efforts elsewhere in the region, including Iraq.
Although the processes of social reconciliation and national reconstruction on a proper power-sharing basis will be extremely difficult, slow and painful, it is unlikely that the conflict and Syria will end in (official) partition of the country. Experts point out the obvious paradox that while the Sunnis of Mosul always feel bound to the Sunnis of Aleppo in Syria and to the people of southeast Turkey (also Sunnis), by long and historic economic, cultural and social relations, the people of Aleppo see themselves only within the framework of a unified Syrian state.
— The sectarianism that the US occupation entrenched in Iraq and that is rushing headlong toward the destruction of the state (contrary to what occurred during the US occupation of Japan, which kept the empire and state apparatus intact) combined with pernicious regional trade-offs and the broadening scope of action and influence of the “Islamic State”, which moves with remarkable facility in a complex region, begs numerous questions in regard to the nature of what is happening.
I imagine that the internal boundaries between regions and sectarian groups might be being redrawn, but that this cannot apply to external boundaries because any political arrangements that ignore social and economic realities on the ground will inevitably fail.
— In Libya, the detonating factors had been present for decades due to the absence of an institutionalised state and national army throughout the period of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule, while military force was assigned to tribal militias, and people’s committees provided a farcical substitute for central government and popular political participation. The Gaddafi regime had been clearly determined to sustain old tribal modalities and to arm them in accordance with diverse bonds of allegiance with the regime.
Simultaneously, Islamist political movements were not only prohibited from all avenues of political representation and participation but were also systematically repressed which, in turn, created a huge opening for the influx of extremist thought and violence. Libya is now on the verge of civil war and faces the spectre of partition.
— The Yemeni problem presents a complete model as it contains all the ingredients, from sectarianism and tribalism to despotism and corruption and outside meddling and extremism. The former regime had been keen to keep all those elements present on the “table of the future” so as to ensure that the ideas of the institutionalised state, citizenship, political plurality and peaceful rotation of authority remained forever distant, hazy and unattainable.
— Egypt may not face the spectre of civil war or partition, but it is treading the path towards social disaster. Egypt’s fundamental economic problems and its profound political malaise portend a massive social implosion that, if it occurs, will be extremely costly and perhaps uncontainable. The only alternative is to promote rapprochements with all political currents, most notably the Islamist ones, for the persistence in repression and the “planned” killing of demonstrators, as one organisation put it, combine with the mounting problems of poverty, deterioration in public services, poor administration and the broadening sphere of angry youth to presage worse spectres whose range and environment are difficult to predict.
— The massive killing and destruction that Israel inflicted on civilians in Gaza during its last assault and its determination to fully capitalise on the current regional circumstances as it presses ahead with measures to affirm the “Jewishness” of the state speak of the lack of any real desire or will to realise peace on a solid foundation, whether that foundation takes the form of a single “secular” state for all its people or of two sovereign states. This region of the world will never see lasting strategic stability until the problem of the Palestinian people is solved.
The modern state in the Arab region is now very different from what it had been during the first years of its formation. It is now armed with huge and very fierce bureaucratic and security agencies with many years of experience in surveilling and repressing its people and in protecting itself and, indeed, regenerating its component parts. The “modern state” today is less vulnerable to pressures in favour of radical political change and less prepared (and able) to introduce the reforms that permit for the necessary improvements at the social, economic and educational levels. The gap between rich and poor has never been as wide as it today. Without extensive constructive and reformist interplay that gives rise to viable and effective social organisations, these states will remain vulnerable to profound structural crises that threaten social cohesion within them and shake the foundations even of their firmer components.
Conditions will be further aggravated by the lack of the effective provision of essential public services such as healthcare, education, transport and other forms of social care that provide much needed safety nets, and by the persistence in distorted, and indeed corrupt, forms of economic “liberalisation” (sadly unaccompanied by a process of political liberalisation that might help produce solutions). It should be cause for a sobering pause for thought that the rampant privatisation processes that took place during the decade that preceded the Arab Spring generated unprecedented levels of class disparities to the extent that some 20 to 40 per cent of the inhabitants in many Arab countries are now at or below the poverty level.
writes: Dr Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh
presidential candidate in the 2012 elections.
Issue No.1219, 30 October, 2014