A New Middle East
The Middle East of the near future promises to be as turbulent and tense as that of the recent past, writes Ayman El-Amir*
THE ROAD TO HERE: There have been momentous events of course that sometimes forced a measure of change. These included the 1952 Free Officers' military coup in Egypt, the failure of the 1956 Suez campaign against it, the defeat of Egypt in the 1967 war with Israel and the drastic changes it instilled on the geostrategic situation, the restoration of the military balance in the October 1973 War, the emergence of the global power of oil, the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, the Iranian revolution of the same year, the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat in 1981, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, among others.
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'British satirist and playwright George Bernard Shaw once described England and America as "Two countries divided by a common language". Nothing could be truer of the Arab Middle East today'
This conflicting train of events did not help the transition of the region to a more progressive and stable order. If anything, it encouraged foreign interference, inter-state conflict and political polarisation. The national revolution that rolled out promises of transformation failed to build democracy, deliver economic prosperity, establish social justice or protect national security. National leaders turned into authoritarian dictators who ruled not by the mandate of the ballot box but by the secret police and torture chambers. They linked the destiny of the countries they ruled to their own survival in power. It may have been that they were visionaries who believed they could single-handedly convert their countries to oases of prosperity, even when their policies led to dismal failure. But their claimed visions masked a naked thirst for power and personal ambitions.
On the political front, suppression of the opposition and curtailment of fundamental human rights became the tools of government. From an economic perspective, experimentation with state capitalism, socialism and later with free market economy failed to raise the standards of living, provide quality healthcare, establish a modern education system or offer basic services. Surprisingly, regional monarchies that the revolutionary regime of Nasser branded as decadent and reactionary agents of neo- colonialism fared much better with the advent of the oil bonanza and national acknowledgement of the hereditary rotation of power.
The downfall of the former Soviet Union released all countries of Eastern Europe from the Soviet grip, ended the Cold War and weakened Soviet influence in the Middle East. As this influence had already declined after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel a decade earlier, and the Soviet Union failed the litmus test in Afghanistan, it gave the US a free hand in shaping the world order in its own interests. The Middle East, in which the US already had solid alliances, lay wide open for US intrusion. This was demonstrated twice after the end of the Cold War, first in 1991 when the US led an international coalition under authority of the UN Security Council to drive the invading forces of Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and, secondly, when it invaded Iraq in 2003 under the pretext of seizing Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. As much as the Anglo-American invasion betrayed Russia's weakness in the post-Soviet era it signalled to Arab countries, particularly those in the Gulf region, that the US was willing to use raw military force to back up its interests.
TERRORISM AS PRETEXT: Ruling dictators of the region shuddered when in 2004 the Bush administration unfurled its "Greater Middle East Initiative" against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq. It pledged to transform the countries of the Middle East into working democracies as the most effective antidote to terrorism. Agents of target regimes blared out misleading slogans of "reform from within", organised conferences and produced documents whose only purpose was to blunt the half-hearted US drive for democratic change. They eventually succeeded in persuading the Bush administration that the facilities they offered to support the US invasion of Iraq, including military bases, air, sea and land transit routes, were more important for US interests than democratic change and respect for human rights. To boost its presence, the US dotted the Gulf region with an array of military bases to control oil resources and contain the rising influence of Iran. With the invasion of Iraq the US, for the first time in decades, had unchallenged control of the region and the policies of its ruling regimes.
The rise of terrorism, which was starkly highlighted by the unwarranted bombing of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001, posed a dilemma for both the US and its Middle Eastern allies. The distinction between national liberation struggle, which had led more than half the member-states of the United Nations to independence in the 1950s and 1960s, and sheer acts of terrorism, was nixed. Israel manipulated US reaction to the 9/11 events and its declaration of "war on terrorism" to confuse agendas and to classify Palestinian resistance against its military occupation and the countries supporting this resistance as agents of terrorism. Hamas, Hizbullah, the Islamic Jihad and other armed resistance organisations were lumped together with Al-Qaeda as terrorist organisations while their supporters, mainly Syria and Iran, were listed as state sponsors of terrorism.
Arab countries that were warned by President Bush's edict "You are either with us or against us" faced a similar dilemma. Domestic opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, was regarded as a threat to national security and was treated as such by harsh measures of emergency or anti- terrorism laws. Arab regimes found themselves entangled in a mixed agenda: armed resistance against military occupation in Iraq and Palestine and political opposition at home that sometimes resorted to violence. Since 9/11, no Arab summit conference or leader publicly supported armed struggle against Israeli occupation at a time while Israel adopted a policy of targeted assassinations, kidnapping and incarceration against the Palestinians. Instead, Arab countries promoted the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that Israel spurned. This added another ingredient to domestic indignation, as reactions in most Arab capitals to the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza demonstrated.
Indiscriminate acts of international terrorism subverted legitimate armed struggle. On the home front, the ruling elite's resistance against genuine democratic change, as opposed to cosmetic measures, remains a destabilising factor in the Arab Middle East that creates a casus belli for militant political organisations. Terrorism mushroomed into a global phenomenon. Despite setbacks for armed separatist movements in Chechnya, Sri Lanka, and shaky peace agreements in southern Sudan and Darfur, the mixed phenomenon of armed struggle and terrorism will continue to grow until a clear distinction is established between liberation struggle against illegal military occupation and other senseless acts of terrorism. The assassination of President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981 and the terrorist acts in New York two decades later created an extremist security mentality in most Arab countries and in the US, whether in the form of emergency laws, the US Patriot Acts or the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
FACTORS FUELLING RADICALISM: For 40 years, Israeli policy of military occupation, territorial expansion and crushing of the Palestinian people has been a destabilising factor in the Middle East. As moderate Arab regimes offered more concessions and pressured the Palestinians to do the same, Israel grew more arrogant and stubborn. The Bush administration's unconditional support of Israeli policies and actions for the past eight years fuelled more radicalism, undermined the US position, weakened Arab allies, triggered confrontation between Arab moderates and so-called radicals and retarded the achievement of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East -- a cherished objective of the US policy at one time. More recently, as the Israeli army, air force and navy mercilessly pounded the civilian population of Gaza for three weeks both senior Bush administration officials and the US Congress issued unconscionable statements and resolutions supporting "Israel's right to defend itself". Israeli actions, more than anything else, divided the Arabs, bolstered Palestinian and Lebanese resistance and gave Iran a more active role in the region.
Iran is no stranger to the Middle East equation. It was a pivotal player at the time of the region's great transition from the old colonial order of the British Empire to the new US sphere of influence era. It became the key ally in the US grand design of containing the former Soviet Union, dominating the region's oil resources and controlling inter-continental energy routes. On New Year's Eve in 1978 former US president Jimmy Carter was in Tehran toasting Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. He lauded Iran as "an island of stability in a turbulent sea". Eleven months later, in February 1979, Iran burst open in a massive uprising that changed the region forever and gave it a more influential role. In reality, Iran did not step on the Arab Middle East scene but was forced onto it by the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War that Saddam Hussein launched as an act of muscle flexing to intimidate his Gulf Arab neighbours. Saddam also wanted to fill what he believed to be a vacuum that was created by Egypt's isolation in the Arab world as a consequence of its peace treaty with Israel. In the mentality of Arab dictators of the time, he believed he should win some kind of war that would make him the uncontested hero of the Arabs. And what better target could there be than conquering unstable revolutionary Iran and achieving control of the Arab/Persian Gulf. He failed on both counts and the war left one million combatants killed or wounded on both sides. As a result, the incipient Iranian revolution felt more confident but also more aware of the security challenges it faced in the neighbourhood -- a feeling that was sharpened by the huge military bases the US planted in the small Gulf emirates.
IRAN ASCENDANT: For Iran, the 2003 Anglo- American invasion of Iraq came as a mixed blessing. On the one hand it removed the threat of archenemy Saddam Hussein and freed the oppressed Shia majority from the dictatorial grasp of the Baathist secular state. Under a new political regime, the Shia was assured of a controlling majority in representative councils and in the government. On the other hand, long-term US presence represented a lasting menace for Iran's geopolitical ambition and a destabilising factor in the region. Furthermore, it was bound to unleash sectarian rivalries and associated violence. Iran felt more than ever that it had vital security interests in the Gulf region. Moreover, unabated Israeli military aggression against the Palestinians in the occupied territories and Lebanon extended Iran's security interests farther afield.
Iran's expanding involvement in regional affairs, from Iraq to Lebanon, presented a political dilemma for traditional Arab regimes as well as for Western powers led by the US. Its strong moral and material support to countries and groups combating Israeli aggression upstaged the leadership role claimed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It also raised Israeli and Western concerns about its growing power, particularly as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled Iran's nuclear research programme and simultaneously lashed out at Israeli military aggression. Israel exercised its best tradition of subterfuge to portray Iran as a lethal challenge to its existence and repeatedly urged US military action. No one in the US or in Western governments had the moral courage to question Israel's arsenal of nuclear weapons.
As Iran asserted strategic and national security interests after the invasion of Iraq, a contrived Shia expansionist threat to the predominantly Sunni countries of the region suddenly took centre stage in Arab-Iranian relations. Championed by Saudi Arabia as the defender of the Sunni faith, this seeming confrontation intensified after the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. King Abdullah II of Jordan also warned against the threat of the rising "Shia crescent" in the Middle East. The Bush administration spared no effort to persuade loyal Arab countries that it was Iranian and not Israeli expansionism that was the threat to the stability of Arab regimes. It echoed the John Foster Dulles effort to enlist Nasser's Egypt on the grounds that communist expansion and not Israeli aggression was the immediate threat to the Arab world. In reality, it was Iran's anti-American, anti-Israeli revolutionary rhetoric, and the popularity it scored among the impoverished masses in the Arab world, that pro-Western conservative Arab regimes feared most. From the religious perspective, little mention was made of the fact that for almost nine centuries, since the Muslim Arab conquest of Persia in 651 AD, the country was solid Sunni territory until the Safavid Empire (1501-1722) adopted Shia Islam as the state religion. So, painting Iran as the image of a Shia scarecrow was not free of ulterior motives. Iran's growing political involvement in the Middle East has become an integral part of the dynamics of the region, not just a temporary reflection of a revolutionary mood or of the firebrand rhetoric of a president.
Then, in the ancient tradition of Greek tragedy, Turkey landed on the complex Middle East scene like a modern Deus ex machina. Having served for 50 years as the southern flank of NATO's Western strategy of containment of the former Soviet Union, it actively sought membership in the European Union whose Western member countries are its major trading and military partners. Turkey's quest was held in abeyance pending its fulfilment of certain preconditions. Last year, during its presidency of the EU, France nearly cast a veto against Turkey's accession. Without abandoning its quest, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looked southward to Iran and Syria to forge new alliances, to diversify its political and economic relations and to widen its strategic depth. Turkey already had highly developed strategic, military, intelligence and economic ties with Israel since the time of former prime minister Mesut Yilmaz, whose government had resigned in a corruption scandal in 1998. Ever since, the powerful Turkish military elite maintained the relationship. Thus, Turkey found itself in the unique position of a trusted mediator between Israel, a strategic partner, and Syria with which it had vital interests in shared water resources, particularly those of the Aasi River. Turkish mediation between "hardline" Syria and Israel over the occupied Golan Heights almost succeeded in preparing the ground for direct negotiations between the two adversaries when Israel scuttled the process by its brutal military invasion of Gaza, which provoked strong Turkish reaction. From another perspective, the Kurdish problem continues to engage Turkey's interest in Iraq. Like Iran, Turkey is inexorably gravitating towards the core of the Middle East geopolitical situation of which the confrontation with Israel is a fundamental factor.
THE MIDDLE EAST MAZE: For many observers, the Middle East landscape appears as a maze of paradoxical interests, incompatible players and old powers trying to hold off the pressure of change. Israel's military occupation, continued aggression and implacable drive for domination of the region are the central concerns. Other players close and distant are approaching common issues with different agendas: some, like Iran, Syria and the Palestinian resistance movement, are promoting defiant armed struggle against Israeli occupation. Others like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and most Gulf Arab countries are pursuing pacification and betting on US goodwill. It is not that they are impervious to the suffering of the Palestinians, but they do not want confrontation with Israel at any price. As a result, Israel does not feel any pressure from immediate neighbours and has little, if any, political or moral consideration for their views or concerns, as the recent war on Gaza demonstrated. This has polarised the countries of the region into hardliners and pacifists and thrust the two sides into confrontation over a shared agenda. In addition, the Bush administration's categorical support of Israeli atrocities in the face of its regional allies and at the United Nations gave Israel a free hand in the region. Again, this was rubbed in when the Israeli air force repeatedly bombed the border corridor between Egyptian Rafah and Gaza and as the US stonewalled the proposed ceasefire resolution at the Security Council. In another light, it is how the proponents of armed resistance against the 40- year-long Israeli occupation of Arab territories came to be classified either as terrorists or state sponsors of terrorism.
British satirist and playwright George Bernard Shaw once described England and America as "Two countries divided by a common language". Nothing could be truer of the Arab Middle East today -- a motley coalition of countries divided by common culture, history and political purpose. Not only is the region more fragmented than ever before, but also the old role of central leadership that managed crises has devolved to the fringes. Qatar, with a population of 820,000 and an erudite leadership, has taken bold initiatives that successfully reconciled Lebanese political rivals in May 2008 and ended 18 months of conflict, convened an Arab summit conference in the midst of the Israeli military campaign against the Palestinians in Gaza and is mediating between the Sudanese government and rebel factions in Darfur, with a measure of success. Turkey took a mediation role between Syria and Israel that was frustrated by Israeli aggression. In the meantime, Iran has thrown its weight around in support of Arab causes in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. Egypt continues to struggle with Israeli intransigence over an extended ceasefire with Hamas. Some major Arab countries have played along with the Bush administration's classification of Arab and Islamic countries as moderates pitted against radicals, with Israel assigning the definition labels.
The present political map of the Middle East shows divisive competitions, mixed new alliances, conversion of Arab and Islamic agendas and boiling domestic situations. The fight against terrorism is also a confused central issue. Partners against Terrorism, Inc, chaired by the US, include all moderate Arab states and Israel. Turkey is wary of domestic Kurdish terrorism-cum-liberation struggle. Secular Baathist Syria is key supporter of Shia Hizbullah and its coalition of Lebanese forces, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Hamas. But it also has problems with its domestic Muslim Brotherhood and pro-democracy forces at home. Egypt makes sure that it keeps its powerful Muslim Brotherhood organisation constantly off balance by continuous arrests and trials, even when they organise demonstrations in support of Gaza. The legitimate-resistance-cum-terrorism designation has never been more confused, with Israel sharing the same attitude as the moderates.
Looking through the political prism confirms that moderate Arab states are hostile to the loosely knit alliance of militant Syria and Iran that supports Hizbullah and Hamas. They unwittingly divide Palestinian ranks by propping up the declining Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, who has been dressed up in presidential trappings, against "rebellious" Hamas that is bearing the brunt of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. Small players on the outer edge like Qatar and Yemen are riling up conventional leaders by promoting their own initiatives to address inter- Arab or Palestinian crises. (Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit proudly announced recently that Egypt had foiled the Qatar-sponsored Arab summit conference on Gaza).
LOOKING AHEAD: The domestic situation in major Arab countries is bordering on the explosive as sitting rulers continue to hold onto power by suppressing any serious opposition, resisting democratic change, quietly seeking hereditary extension of their rule and cultivating a new culture of monarchic republicanism. In September, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi will have logged 40 years in power, while for 25 years Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could not find a single Egyptian who would be suitable enough to serve as vice-president. This makes the pursuit of orderly democratic succession virtually impossible, and it remains the most serious obstacle to the peaceful transition of the Arab Middle East. Autocratic rulers unused to opposition or to the rotation of power will soon face the double challenge of a restive civil society that could destabilise the countries they rule and mounting foreign disenchantment.
External pressure for democratic change will gradually take priority over the service of short- term Western interests, particularly now that US heavy military presence in Iraq will begin to diminish. In the case of Iran, the new Obama administration is leaning towards substituting confrontation with dialogue. Gulf Arab states, or most of them, will soon find that a modicum of coexistence with Iran is more rewarding than confrontation. In due course, they may give more serious consideration to concluding bilateral or multilateral non-aggression pacts with Iran to defuse potential future crises. Such arrangement may not sit well with Israel or with conservative Arab regimes that fear the rise of the "Shia crescent" or, in reality, the Iranian revolutionary drive. However, Gulf community interests override destabilising confrontation or assurances of US protection. Iran, on the other hand, will not have to worry about the rise of another Saddam Hussein in Iraq who would want to engage in another decade- long war to become an Arab hero.
It will be left to the new Obama administration to show its strategic hand in managing the boiling Middle East cauldron. Cascading US congressional visits to Syria and conciliatory statements towards Iran are new overtures to engage both in productive dialogue that may work. Dealing with Israel as it drifts to the right will be a major challenge for the US and for Middle East peace. The Obama administration may do well to separate the wheat from the chafe and clear the agendas that Israel has confused in order to stall the attainment of a just and lasting Middle East settlement. The Arab and Islamic Middle East will find it inevitable to develop a loose confederacy based on a community of interests with no central command or foreign allegiance. Regrettably, Israel is not ready to be part of such alliance.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.
The Middle East of the near future promises to be as turbulent and tense as that of the recent past, writes Ayman El-Amir
'The old role of central leadership that managed crises has devolved to the fringes'