Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Middle East wonders

The main problem in the Middle East is that there is no overarching strategy for positive revival. It is urgent that the region’s finest minds be tasked with formulating one, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

When you try to get your head around everything that is happening in the Middle East, you’ll begin to feel dizzy because you will find it hard to know where the Middle East begins and where it ends. When a terrorist attack occurs in Nice, Paris or Brussels, do you call that a European event? Or do the large Arab quarters there, producing untold numbers of terrorists in the heart of Europe, make them an extension of the Middle East? Or are they the product of European treatment of foreigners and Arabs in particular?

Was the coup bid in Turkey a Middle East event or did Turkey’s NATO connection and the fact that NATO closed its bases immediately after the first coup declaration make it a world event with crucial bearings on international power balances and the global war against terrorism?

Naturally there are a dozen more examples we could cite that make the Middle East a centre of the world and a focus of international concern and bewilderment. Take, for example, the Republican and Democratic conventions in the US. These events, which rivet the attention of all politicians and television networks, have certain well-known rites and rituals, from the hoopla surrounding the choice of the nominee for vice president (although the post is not very important, unless a president dies) to the selected candidates’ acceptance speeches and the beginning of the countdown to November. But all that receded into the background. Normally, Trump benefits from incidents of violence and terrorism because they confirm the image of Arabs and Muslims that he likes to paint. Now, however, they steal the lights and cameras, which he loves to bask in, away from him at precisely the time he is lashing out against Hillary. Clinton, for her part, seizes upon terrorist attacks as opportunities to point to a world in turmoil and the need for a firm and experienced hand (such as hers) to deal with it, as opposed to a certain reckless man who cannot grasp the complexity of today’s world. In all events, the Middle East has moved to centre stage in an overwhelming world.

Haziness and confusion are hardly new. What is new, perhaps, is the media that disseminates all that hullabaloo that makes it so exhausting to follow events.

In previous columns on Daesh (the Islamic State group) and what I call “Daeshism”, I held that Daesh can be defeated and that its defeat is probably inevitable due the logic of the balances of powers. At the same time, I argued that “Daeshism” can continue as long as the idea has been planted in the minds of young anxious Muslims, whether those who live among their families in Islamic countries or those who live abroad on the margins of countries that have begun to hate Muslims, and who feel increasingly alienated and unable to remain there and yet are unable to return to their original homelands. In both cases — at home and abroad — the battlefield is growing and, to my knowledge, the Arabs and Muslims have no strategy on how to deal with it.

It is possible to eliminate Daesh on the ground within the borders of the so-called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, or in Sinai, or even in Libya. But eliminating “Daeshism” will be difficult and exhausting. The only solution is to convene an international conference on the fight against terrorism and how to combat terrorist thought. The idea is not new. Former president Hosni Mubarak proposed it repeatedly before the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in overthrowing him. In all events, the idea is worthy in and of itself. Perhaps the best way forward would be for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation or the Arab League to begin to muster not armies, but ideas. What is required towards this end is not governments and heads-of-state, but rather intellectual organisations and institutions with the ability to take on the challenge, the courage to think freely and the capacities to deal with a different age in which the rising generations are gripped by anxiety and longing for salvation.

The coup attempt in Turkey shook the world. If its beginning came as an enormous shock, the end was very much a pathetic farce. The events, as they happened, are pretty well known now while the causes of those events are still being examined. What is absolutely certain, however, is that a new ordeal has rocked a region already reeling under the effects of numerous quakes and storms. Erdogan is the title of a painful tragedy that is unfolding in Turkey. In spite of his ability to steer a powerful political party that has just demonstrated the power of its organisational machinery and its ability to mobilise crowds against tanks in the streets and that succeeded in rallying opposition parties around it in support of democracy and legitimacy of a sort, the subsequent jubilation was darkened by other developments. The rush to hand power to a single individual with a programme for ushering in a dictatorship has once again reared its ugly face. Talk of reintroducing the death penalty as a massive wave of purges has been unleashed against political adversaries in the army, the judiciary and other government agencies and institutions has sent chills through the international community. The guillotines that have been rolled out in the aftermath of the coup attempt have eroded confidence in Turkey at a time when there is a strong need for a cohesive state. Ultimately we are staring at yet another wonder. Turkey has emerged from a coup only to plunge into another kind of coup. Perhaps it is more psychological in nature, a kind of mood swing in Turkey that has suddenly become something else.

The road for the Middle East has become tortuously crooked. Essentially, it started out as a path toward the elimination of terrorism, epitomised by the battle to destroy Daesh. In tandem, it was characterised by a drive to revive the state in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq through political and diplomatic processes but also through the use of military force where it was necessary to fight fire with fire. It looked as though the time was at hand to forge a new regional cohesion centering on a single concept: the reestablishment of stability after the many years of tumult that followed the so-called Arab Spring and after revolutions that subsided into failed states. However, soon new features emerged along the way. Sometimes they were “Daeshist” in form; at other times they took the form of a debilitating shock to one of the major states in the region, setting into motion again that familiar game of musical chairs to see who would fill the void.

The central problem is that there is no strategy. There are development projects and other projects to overcome the effects of violence. But there is no plan or vision for regional security consisting not only of what is needed to mend wounds, but also of components that will inspire hope for a better future.

Will one of regional powers that has weathered the storms take the initiative to bring together a collection of our finest minds in order to draw up a strategy that will enable our region to emerge from the train of historical failures and set it on the course of a reverse process, one that is founded on principles capable of forging a Middle East if not like Europe, North America or even South America, then like the tigers of ASEAN after long years of warfare in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and beyond? Or will we sit and wait for others to draw up that strategy? If so, do not whine over another Sykes-Picot.


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

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