Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Between two years

While great challenges lie ahead in 2016, 2015 has established that the Arab region is on the path to stability away from chaos and ruin, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

History is not like geography even if it reflects the interaction with time. The difference is that there are no dividing lines such as those that exist between states, or between land and sea or heaven and earth. In a sense, the transition from one year to the next has no real meaning and there is no justification for celebrating the occasion. But, the dividing lines of time are, all the same, a reality. They are celebrated on birthdays and national occasions, for example. Sometimes they are useful in order to facilitate the study and understanding of different eras and epochs, as well as to identify trends that may stay with us for a while or that may come to an end. Such is the case today at that dividing line between 2015 and 2016. The toll of the clock at midnight may not mean much, but it does beg the question as to what remains from one year that will carry over into the next, and the even more difficult question as to what the next year will bring.

In older times matters involving conflict and competition, or even cooperation and unity, had a beginning and an end. The great strategic question therefore concerned the “day after” which was generally not a day but a stage or, perhaps, an oblivion if the destruction is so overwhelming as to obscure all light of day. The Middle East or, to be more precise, the Levant, is on the brink of such a phase. There is no “day after” in sight for the region’s proliferating, spreading and intensifying conflicts. Instead of focussing on sustainable development, the region is staring at sustained instability or permanent conflict. Some situations in the region seem incapable of moving on to a next phase. Somalia and Afghanistan are cases of this sort. So is Iraq in its current condition in light of the constitutional circumstances that arose in the wake of the US occupation and that render it unable to emerge from that vicious cycle of instability and violence that refuels itself from one year to the next and even from one decade to the next.

But pessimism is not in the order of New Year celebrations. Moreover, 2015 has, in fact, brought some positive developments that may find support and prospects for greater success in 2016. Perhaps reflecting my own personal bias, I will start with my own country. With the recent parliamentary elections, in particular, Egypt can be said to have emerged from the era of revolutions and embarked on an era of stability. True, the security threat persists, the economy is certainly still fragile and the national temperature is still higher than it was a decade ago. However, it is equally true that there is a vast difference between 2015 and 2014 and 2013 before that, which in turn gives cause for optimism in 2016. When a quarter of the Arab world’s population is on the road to recovery this marks a turning point away from the misery that has afflicted this entire region.

But even in the larger framework of this calamity-plagued region, in spite of the aggravated conditions in the Arab failed states, the growing power of terrorism there, the grip of Islamic State/Daesh on Raqqa and Mosul, and the flood of displaced persons throughout the Fertile Crescent, 2015 did not pass without some encouraging developments. Now, for the first time, there is a framework for settling the region’s major crises in Syria, Yemen and Libya. This framework was formulated and adopted by the UN and the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Also, the realisation that the world is waging a third world war, against terrorism this time, has become a political and military actuality. In spite of the shortcomings of the Russian intervention in Syria, it has given a global nature to the conflict and prevented a Russian “veto” in the Security Council. As intense as the rivalry is between the parties concerned, it is matched by a new spirit of cooperation. In this context, we should not omit mention of the fact that Arab countries, Saudi Arabia above all, have come to play an effective role in the management of the region’s intractable crises, not just politically and diplomatically, but also militarily. In fact, sometimes Riyadh bears the lion’s share of the burden, as is the case in Yemen.

These developments, all of which took place in 2015, have a reasonable chance of being built on in 2016. In other words, they show a prospect for realising successes, if only partial ones, and for alleviating the human toll from these conflicts. As risky as it is to make predictions, the coming year could bring the end of the Daesh state even if it does not bring an end to the Daesh phenomenon, which is likely to remain with us for many more years to come. It may not be possible to deliver the ultimate death blow to Daesh and terrorist organisations like it. But it should be possible to sap their capacities, their propaganda power and their pride, whether in the so-called “caliphate” or in Sinai or in Nigeria. In fact, this is currently taking place, which signifies that in the broader strategic framework the phenomenon in Africa and the Levant has begun to recede. The process of building anew out of the rubble bequeathed by Daesh could last until 2017, or even the end of this decade, but the phenomenon has begun to decline. The darkness has an end.

The coming year will be the year of “maturity” with regard to both the Egyptian experience and resolution to the state of conflict in the region as a whole. But it will also be the year of the great test. If 2015 brought the sharp decline in oil prices, 2016 might be the year in which prices collapse. Observers of oil trends, including this author, had predicted that the average price would stabilise at around $63 per barrel. But this commodity, which has proven to defy prediction in view of the many variables, plummeted to $36 per barrel. As a result, current estimates envision a further decline to somewhere in the $20s. There are optimists and pessimists on this subject, but wherever one stands, the decline in prices will compound pressures on oil producing countries. At the same time they will alleviate pressures on Arab oil importing companies and they will make Arab aid to Egypt, notably from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, less costly.

More importantly is the additional lesson that this should teach Arab states. If all oil consuming countries did all they could to become less dependant on Arab oil, perhaps now is the time for Arab oil producers to also phase out that dependency. In any case, when the clock strikes midnight tonight, heralding the end of one year and the beginning of the next, perhaps this will serve as a reminder that time does not work in the favour of people or countries, but rather in favour of those who know how to use time and to seize the opportunities it offers.

With my best wishes for a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year to you all.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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