The balance of terror
This week, the Arab press had much to offer on the ongoing debate about change in the Middle East. Dina Ezzat read the news and assesses the views
"A new US initiative for change in the wider Middle East", was the banner headline of the London-based daily Al- Hayat on Monday. The story, an exclusive of the paper, indicated that the US administration was currently fine- tuning a plan to put American efforts to democratise the Middle East on the fast lane. According to the story the US is adopting a wider Middle East that includes, in addition to the Arab countries and Israel, both Iran and Turkey. The centrepiece of this plan, Al-Hayat suggested, is to give NATO more widespread responsibility in the Middle East to help promote and cement democracy and freedom.
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Amgad Rasmi in Asharq Al-Awsat depicts a bald Middle East as having no use for the "comb of democracy" being offered by the United States; Trying to hide his failure to make peace, Ariel Sharon wraps himself in the wall of separation. Al-Hayat's Habib Haddad
The issue of the wide and changing Middle East was given prominence by a number of newspapers on Tuesday. And just as Al-Hayat had indicated, other Arab papers reported that US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice discussed the issue recently and at length with a number of senior European officials. Judging by the reports offered on the meeting that brought Rice together with European interlocutors, in the perception of the US, the democratisation of the Middle East should not at all be hampered by talk of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rice reportedly described this as a myth propagated by Arab regimes who want to limit the chances of democracy.
Meanwhile, the Arab press seemed to be heralding signs of change in the Middle East. On Monday, the Lebanese daily An-Nahar published an opinion piece by prominent Lebanese commentator Ghassan Twini under the headline "Independence... under the balance of terror". In his article, Twini discussed one unmistakable sign of change in the Middle East: plans undertaken by -- or as some would argue imposed by the US on Damascus -- to pull out all Syrian troops that were stationed in Lebanon since 1976, to balance the Israeli threat to Lebanon and Syria. Twini pressed the right of Lebanon to regain "independence" from Syria's military presence. He, however, voiced concern that this independence might be challenged by overall "regional instability". "What we see gaining stability now is a new regional order that could be called "the balance of terror". According to Twini, this new order is currently replacing the balance of power that prevailed in the Middle East during the decades following the independence of Arab states from British and French occupation. A Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon is perceived by the Arab press as one sign of the many changes that are around the corner for the Middle East, particularly the Arab countries that have been coming under much pressure from Washington and, in some cases, from Israel.
Another sign is a new-found Syrian willingness to accommodate American plans and presence in the Middle East. On Tuesday, many Arab papers dedicated space to translate the full text or long excerpts of an interview accorded by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to The New York Times. In the interview, Al- Assad was surprisingly accommodating of US moves in the region. Al-Assad reacted to the recent Congressional vote on the Syria Accountability Act with a call for a Syrian-American dialogue. This time he went a step further, saying that he was not opposed to the "US presence in Iraq". The head of the Syrian regime, which previously denounced the "aggressive American occupation of Iraq", argued that the problem was not whether the Americans were planning to stay in Iraq for another year or another 10 years but rather whether this American presence will turn the US into a destabilising rather than a stabilising force in the Middle East.
Developments in the Palestinian-Israeli struggle offered the most interesting signs of evolution. During the week, the Arab press was busy covering the document compiled by a group of Palestinian and Israeli politicians and peace activists known as the Geneva Initiative. The much celebrated signing of the accords on Monday in Geneva monopolised front page stories on Tuesday with picture spreads of both former Palestinian Minister of Information Yasser Abed Rabbo and former Israeli Minister without Portfolio Yossi Beilin, co-authors of the accords.
Typical of all developments related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Geneva Declaration prompted a flood of opinion pieces that was for or against this non- official peace document. A detailed explanation of the accords and their intention ran on Tuesday in Al-Ittihad daily of the United Arab Emirates which published a joint article by Abed Rabbo and Beilin defending the initiative as a move in the face of anti-peace movements that have been on the rise. They declared their document as a new call for peace and proof of the true will of both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples to live together, side by side, in peace.
Meanwhile, almost every Arab paper had an opinion piece to offer to its readers. They carried criticism about the accords' abandonment of the Palestinian right of return which is stipulated in UN Security Council resolutions. Still, there was some praise over the realism offered by the document that some see as the only formula that could extract some, if not all, legitimate Palestinian rights from Israel.
One thing was found in common between most of the supporters and detractors of the Geneva Accords: they all asked about the whereabouts and future of the roadmap. "I thought there was supposed to be a roadmap that was endorsed by the US, the EU, Russia and the UN," argued Abdel-Barri Atwan in his column in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi on Tuesday. "What are these accords supposed to offer? And whatever happened to the roadmap?"
The signing of the Geneva document was not the only interesting development captured this week by the Arab press. On Sunday, on the eve of the signing ceremony of the initiative, Al-Bayan, a well-informed daily in the United Arab Emirates, reported that Jordanian authorities had begun to issue Jordanian passports to large numbers of Palestinian refugees who have been living in Jordan for decades with no legal documents proving their nationality, in anticipation of the day they will return to their towns and villages from which they were expelled by Israel.
The signs of change were not confined to countries neighbouring Israel. Papers in North Africa carried news of a planned trip by US Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region. The visit was projected by these papers as a sign of a new beginning in US relations with North African countries.
But what these papers forgot to report was the news suggesting that the US is considering establishing some bases around the area, some of which may be military. The daily Kuwaiti Al-Watan, however, carried the story. Writing from Algeria, Galal Moussa argued that these bases are the beginning of a strong American presence in a part of the Middle East that was traditionally declared within the French zone of interest. This, Moussa suggested, was a clear sign of the changes that are coming to the Middle East. "It is a sign of a 'roadmap' that is being drawn for the entire region."
Another opinion piece on Sunday by Al-Hayat advised the peoples of North Africa to start worrying about the implications of this new American interest. According to the writer, Mohamed Al- Ashehab, "The Americans do not take any haphazard decisions and it was 20 years ago that they sought bases in the Arab Gulf countries, way before the troubling events" of the past 10 years.
Signs of change were also reported from Iran where senior official Hassan Rawhani was quoted in Al-Hayat of Sunday as declaring that his country was about to build seven new nuclear reactors and that it will allow American companies to be included in the construction.
The change expected in the Middle East, some reports alluded, could be forced in some cases. Stories on the new US diplomatic offensive were not offered separately from news of the debate related to prominent Egyptian sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim who was widely quoted, yet again, for calling on the US to make its aid to Arab countries, particularly Egypt, conditional on the national adoption of democratisation measures.
Equally alarming were stories carried by the Arab press about the attempt of some Congressmen to introduce a bill, "The Saudi Arabia Accountability Act" -- following in the heels of the infamous Syrian Accountability Act passed last month -- that, they argue, should bring about much delayed reform to the Saudi kingdom. The idea was ridiculed by officials and commentators alike. On Sunday, the Saudi-financed, London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Adel Jabour, adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, as saying he does not "expect this bill to get past Congress". Jabour argued that previous attempts undertaken by the same Congressmen failed to yield any results.
On Sunday, prestigious commentator Jihad Al-Khazin dedicated his column in Al-Hayat to attacking plans to pass the bill. According to Al-Khazin, "it is the US that should come under an accountability act to be adopted by Arab countries at the summit level." "This Saudi Arabia Accountability Act reveals clear Israeli incitement," argued commentator Ahmed Al-Robei on Monday in his daily column in Asharq Al-Awsat.
According to stories carried by the Arab press, not all change will be undertaken by legal means. The use of military force, it was reported, could also be an option. On Sunday, Asharq Al-Awsat carried a story from its correspondents in Washington about a report issued by the Peace Institute on the Middle East. According to the recommendations put forward by the report, having accomplished its objectives regarding the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US should now consider taking action against Syria, Iran and the Hizbullah group.
For the Arab press this week the question was not whether the US was determined to change the Middle East but rather what would become of these changes. Pessimism was the overwhelming sentiment shared by commentators who approached the issue. Particularly cynical about the outcome of US plans for the Middle East were commentators who closely examined the situation in Iraq. In his article in An-Nahar on Friday, Samir Qusseir joined a long list of writers who argued that the way and fashion in which US President George W Bush conducted his surprise visit to Iraq was clear evidence of the miserable failure of US policy in Iraq. Mocking the US president, Qusseir recalled the famous line from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "I came, I saw and I conquered." For Bush, the head of the American Empire, things are different, Qusseir said. "Bush could easily be saying: 'I came, I did not see but I will still conquer.'"