A new Berlin Wall?
Is Sharon's security fence a new Berlin Wall, asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
The Bush plan for a Greater Middle East has evoked mixed reactions in the Egyptian press. Some commentators view it as a diktat from a foreign power intent on imposing change, modernisation and reform in a wide area it sees as the main breeding ground for terrorism in the world and a source for the production and spread of weapons of mass destruction. Others believe the plan should not be rejected out of hand, arguing that it could even provide a lifeline out of the morass of problems into which the region is sinking.
The plan divides the world into two categories of states. One category, made up of Western democracies under the leadership of the United States, is responsible for and capable of reforming the world system and of standing up to the forces of evil, terrorism and widespread devastation. The other category is made up of states incapable of standing up to the forces of evil and at risk, even, of becoming tools in their hands.
In other words, some political entities are qualified to make history while others can only remain passive onlookers watching helplessly as it unfolds. That is the underlying logic behind the push for global reform led by those capable of undertaking such a monumental task, who are in turn led by the most powerful state on earth, the sole remaining superpower in the unipolar world order. It is in this spirit that Washington is offering the European Union a partnership in the war on terror that would form the nucleus of a global force capable of containing the forces of evil, attacking their strongholds and overcoming the procrastination of countries held hostage by the powerful influence exerted by these forces on their societies. That is what the Greater Middle East is all about. It is an attempt to recruit and mobilise political forces which see the abandonment of part of their sovereignty in the age of globalisation as a lesser evil than the harm they could suffer by standing up to the pressure of great powers. The concept of the Greater Middle East has been received with strong reservations by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and a number of other Arab countries, who see it as a project imposed from abroad, despite American assurances to the contrary.
The Greater Middle East is being sold as nothing more than a new geographical classification, an entity defined first and foremost by reference to considerations of geography, not politics. However, the very name makes it clear that it designates a region stretching beyond the traditional borders of the Middle East to include Pakistan in the east and Morocco in the west, and hence, that geography is not the determining factor in the new classification. By lumping together several distinct regions and dealing with them as one entity, it clearly expects that entity to perform a functional role. Actually, this is very much in keeping with the phenomenon of globalisation, which deals with large entities made up of diverse smaller entities, such as the European Union. The EU today has an interest in building bridges with the countries lying across the Mediterranean, and one of the notable steps in that direction is what has come to be known as the Barcelona process. Europe is motivated partly by its proximity to the turbulent area lying along its southern flank, while America, for its part, is separated by vast oceans. But when, as on 9/11, civilian aircraft can be used as giant bombs to bring down the Twin Towers, damage the Pentagon and very nearly hit the White House itself, it is clear that geography is no longer an obstacle in the face of a determined terrorist.
A question worth asking is why the idea of the Greater Middle East has come up at this particular juncture. Why has the Middle East suddenly emerged as a functional rather than a geographical entity? Is it because the Coalition's plans for the region have run into difficulties? The US and Britain invaded Iraq on the strength of "conclusive evidence" that Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, evidence that has since proved false. Does the decision to expand the Middle East mean that the war on Iraq was just one battle in a wider war that targeted first Afghanistan then Iraq and will continue to target others until all its objectives have been attained? Or is this argument being used to counter accusations that the war on Iraq failed to achieve its objectives, because Bush cannot conduct his election campaign from a position of failure?
The argument used by those in favour of the plan is that it is motivated by real interests -- Bush's interest in winning the elections and in downplaying the fact that the war did not confirm his prediction that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction -- and that, accordingly, the US administration's talk about civil society, human rights, democracy, etc should be taken seriously. But opponents of the plan remain sceptical of Bush's real intentions for the region. One of their main arguments is his retreat on the Palestinian issue. How can we assume his good faith, they ask, when there is hardly any mention of the Palestinian state and practically no criticism of Israel's security fence? In their view, the Greater Middle East serves only to dilute the Palestinian issue by drowning it in a wide spectrum of complex issues.
As to Sharon, his insistence on pushing ahead with construction of the security fence all around and even within the West Bank in defiance of widespread opposition attests to his determination to completely liquidate the Palestinian state. It is a policy of separation and isolation of the Other that is more in keeping with a bygone age than with the age of globalisation and the removal of barriers between peoples. Sharon's security fence is in fact an updated version of the Berlin Wall.
Sharon does not want to sink into the Gaza quagmire, one of the most densely populated spots on earth. He wants to pull out of Gaza as soon as possible, even unilaterally. From his viewpoint, pulling out is a plus, not a minus. Still, he would like to take advantage of the pullout and increase whatever benefit he could draw out of it, such as using the fence to divide the West Bank into a number of separate cantons, or retain substantial chunks of Palestinian territory in the West Bank beyond the June 1967 borders. The wall has a functional role, reminiscent of the Berlin Wall.
Where does Bush stand with respect to Sharon's plans? Bush is expected to concentrate his presidential campaign on foreign policy, because he believes his chances of re-election are closely linked to his image as a strong leader in the wake of 9/11. This strategy might work, but it needs a constructive outlook and a credible presentation. Here lies the importance of the Greater Middle East project. To make it acceptable to a wide audience of Arab elites, Bush used facts and figures from the UNDP development reports for 2002 and 2003. Written by Egyptian experts, the reports criticise various aspects of Arab policies and attribute most of the shortcomings in the Arab world to the lack of democracy. Bush's use of the reports to promote his plan makes it seem as though he stands on the same wave-length as Arab intellectuals in criticising Arab regimes. While this might apply to a number of Arab intellectuals fascinated by the American plan, it is certainly not the viewpoint of the bulk of the Arab intelligentsia. They might be critical of many issues concerning their own regimes, but are even more critical of the American stand.
In conclusion, a question worth asking is: why does the United States' determination to change the region so radically not extend to requiring changes in Israel's confrontational stance and its insistence on continuing its occupation of Arab territory? True, a solution of the Palestinian problem will not immediately solve the many problems besetting the region, but Washington should realise that its project has no chance of success as long as the Palestinian problem is not satisfactorily resolved.
The criterion by which the Greater Middle East project should be judged is, in the final analysis, its ability to resolve the central problem of the region: the Palestinian issue. The only way this can be done is through the establishment of a Palestinian state that could become an element of rapprochement and peace rather than of separation and war. Palestine is the very essence of the conflict in the region. Issues of security should be addressed with a view to satisfying the security requirements of all the concerned parties, not of some at the expense of others. In a word, we need to narrow our focus on the smaller core element in the Middle East, not expand it to include far-flung regions as the Greater Middle East project would have us to do.