Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Curing the sick man of our time

Democracy in all aspects of life is the only pathway to transforming the Arab world amid grave threats and runaway dangers, writes Ibrahim Nawar

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Middle East is by all means the most unsettled, violent and unpredictable area in the world. It is so because of its ailing regimes, decaying regional system and corrupt public life. The area has proved stubborn and resistant to peaceful transformation from within. Civil forces are still too weak to lead real change. The Arab Spring revolutions failed in achieving their goals: change, freedom and social justice. In Tunisia and Egypt, old political faces have come back to the fore while the power of the so-called revolutionary forces is diminishing. The region seems to be fated to experience turmoil for years to come. Terrorism, civil and regional wars, violence and poverty are the product of the sick man of the Middle East, the Arab regional disorder.

There are many symptoms of the Arab regional disorder. One can easily point to failed and falling states, starting from Somalia to the Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Other symptoms include regional wars, failed revolutions, civil wars, terrorism, poverty, inequality, discrimination and the absence of law and order. State disintegration and border disputes are also threats that can see the whole region become a ball of fire.

Non-Arab Middle East countries are in full gear to make use of the sick Arab regional order. Turkey, Iran, Israel and Ethiopia are engaged in wide ranging activity to exploit the situation in their favour. Israel is tightly holding Palestine in captivity, expanding settlements, confiscating Palestinian land and militarily besieging the Gaza Strip. Israeli policies have put the dream of a two-state solution beyond reach. Meanwhile, Arab regimes are busy fighting wars for their own survival.

RE-THINKING ISRAEL: Funnily enough, we may see at any time a dramatic twist of events where an old foe can become a friend. Look around and you will see events moving in that direction for Arab regimes and Israel. Iran is now a common enemy to both. In Riyadh and in Tel Aviv alike, rulers and politicians see eye to eye and are at one in regard with their view of Iran’s nuclear programme. Arab regimes, unlike the Israelis, have taken the step to engage in a war against Iran. The Israelis are just threatening. Terrorism is another common enemy to both. The security of the Red Sea is another shared interest. What else?

Meanwhile, Israel is now smoothing over tensions in Gaza and the West Bank in order to sweeten its settlement policy. In the last few weeks it allowed West Bank farmers to sell and export their products in and through Israel. It also released taxes owed to the Palestinian Authority. Israel also supplied Palestinian power stations with much needed fuel and allowed thousands of tons of cement, steel and other building materials to enter the Gaza Strip. Israel is trying new ways to convince Palestinians that it is their friend — one they can turn to in case of difficulty, and not an occupier!

Forget the two-state solution! Forget the liberation of Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea! Hamas and its sister organisations are busy fighting wars on other fronts: one is against secular Arab regimes and the other is against Shia devils led by Iran. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, originating in Gaza and harboured by Hamas, is now loyal to Daesh (the Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq. Daesh is being portrayed as the pure symbol of Sunni Muslim extremism. Hamas declared its support for Saudi Arabia against Iran and is probably willing to join the fight in Yemen.

Forget about Israel, now is the time for “jihad” against Shiism and the Persians in Iran!

In short, the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict will come under review. New realities emerging every day support a dramatic twist in Arab-Israeli relations. No one can easily predict the course of the coming events in the East of the Mediterranean, the Arab Gulf area and the Red Sea.

But make no mistake, the start of any sort turnaround in Arab-Israeli relations will bring with it political havoc. Arab masses may rise and revolt. This is a very sensitive issue.

IRAN’S EXPANSION: Iran is seen by the people of the Arab Gulf States — Oman aside — as their primary enemy. Iranian policies of exporting revolution, threatening the social fabric of neighbouring states, promoting Shia sectarian ideology based on absolute loyalty to the “Imam” in Tehran are reasons to make ruling families and non-Shia community leaders feel scared.

This fear of Iran is not a mere reaction to words or threats; it is a result of number of actions taken by Iranian leaders that left no doubt about their hostile policy. The occupation of three UAE islands, Abu Moussa and the two Tanab’s (the Small and the Great), the mobilisation of Shia community leaders in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain, direct military intervention in Iraq, and support for Bashar Al-Assad against the people of Syria, along with many other actions, are seen as clear examples illustrating the ambition of Tehran’s mullahs to become a dominant power in the region at the expense of their Arab neighbours. Arabs, on the other hand, failed to produce a common strategy to deal with Iranian ambitions.

SAUDI ARABIA’S NEW REGIME RESPONDS: Recently, Saudi Arabia felt the danger of Iranian regional expansion as a direct threat to its national security. For the Saudis, Yemen is a “red line” that shall not be crossed by any hostile power. Once the Yemeni rebel Abdul-Malek Al-Houthi, with the help of Iran, managed to control the Yemeni capital Sanaa, in September last year, and then started to move south to Aden early this year, the Saudi royal family decided to take the Arab lead in a confrontation against Iran and the Houthis in Yemen.

There is no doubt that the new leadership in Riyadh, mainly the two strongmen Mohamed Bin Nayef and Mohamed Bin Salman, agreed to differ with the old Saudi policy of wait-and-see, or “Let the Americans do it.” Both men decided to take action into their own hands. The war in Yemen will prove how strong this alliance between Bin Nayef and Bin Salman is, and it will also show how correct this policy of engagement is. This war is truly the first serious test of the new leadership in Saudi Arabia after the death of the late King Abdullah.

However, this new Saudi policy contains many dangerous elements. The most dangerous one is the ideological nature being promoted about the war, as a war between two Islamic camps, The Sunnis against the Shias. If, during the course of the conflict in Yemen, the promotion of such an ideological outlook gained ground it may create a no-going-back situation for years. Such a scenario is frightening and very dangerous, and therefore should be avoided.

Meanwhile, there are beneficiaries of such a scenario. Salafi groups in Saudi Arabia and around the Middle East are actively promoting a sectarian aspect to the conflict in Yemen. They see sectarian conflict against Shias in the region as a life-support machine pumping blood into their organs. All Muslims of different sects have been living together in peace for centuries. What needs to be promoted is a continuation of peaceful coexistence, not a bloody war.

THE RUSSIA-IRAN ALLIANCE: The Middle East is passing through a very dangerous and sensitive crossroads. “Disorder” is the dominant feature of the region. To add oil to the fire, this is unfolding at a time when political polarisation in the world is at its utmost. Russia is trying to regain a foothold in areas from Ukraine to the Red Sea and from East Asia to the Atlantic. Russia’s most valuable ally now is Iran. The two countries are playing the game together, and they want to win. Iran can only agree to sign a nuclear deal with international powers (the P5+1) if backed by Russian support and perhaps secret guarantees.

The deal that could be finally signed in June allows Iran to continue its nuclear programme just short of the point of making a nuclear weapon. Therefore, Tehran’s leaders will have the choice of producing such a weapon pending a political decision. The Middle East would then embark on a dangerous and exhausting nuclear arms race.

NO CURE FOR THE SICK MAN:  The state of “regional disorder” will always produce troubles, extremism, violence and wars. These will never provide cure for the sick man the region has become. On the contrary, they will produce more deterioration and instability. The cure, in one word, is “democracy”. To build it, the people of the region will have to go for the real fight, not the false one. Democracy is not just ballot boxes, or demonstrations. Democracy is a set of values cementing all aspects of life. Democracy is the right to choose without fear.

Keep an eye on politics in some leading Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. People will not settle for less.

Also, keep an eye on internal politics in the Gulf area. The war in Yemen will bring “politics” to countries that, for a long time, succeeded in excluding “political participation” from the dictionary of everyday life. People will learn to talk and discuss events. They will learn to agree and to differ with policymakers. They will feel equal and qualified to participate. Watch the region in turmoil.

The people of the region deserve more, but not more of the same old politics. The people of the region deserve real change. The question is: Can they do it? The answer is: Yes, they can. They have been trying for some time, and they may fail in the short run. But in the end they will succeed. The change is coming.

The writer is chairman of the Arab Organisation for Freedom of the Press.

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