Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Brutality and transformation in the Middle East

Internal factors and external influences continue to drive instability in the Middle East. But settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could go a long way towards sowing the seeds of a better future, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

'An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind'

– Mahatma Gandhi

The Middle East has been ravaged and destabilised by violence, terrorism and wars for over half a century, and no one can predict, at present, when a state of normalcy will exist. By normalcy, I mean the capacity of states and non-state actors to solve their contradictions and satisfy their just demands through peaceful and democratic means. On the other hand, the question that has been uppermost on many minds has centred on the necessary conditions to put an end to the cycles of violence and counter-violence in the region, and whether these conditions will be obtainable in the foreseeable future.
Historically, we can trace the origins of modern-day violence in the region to three cataclysmic events that have led collectively and individually, and to varying degrees, to the destabilisation of the Middle East and the widespread resort to violence, either to settle disputes or to redress grievances. Before developing my arguments, I would like first to define the geographical confines of the Middle East I am dealing with in this article. It extends from Egypt in the West to the Gulf region in the East, including the lands of Mesopotamia, and from Turkish-Syrian borders in the North to the Straits of Bab Al-Mandab to the South. This geographic delineation does not mean a historic discontinuity with the adjacent lands to the east and west of the Middle East. This vast expanse of land mass has been interconnected throughout history by migration, trade, religions and many conflicts and border disputes.
The three events I referred to above will span 100 years come August 2014. Ninety-nine years ago, World War I erupted and the Middle East was one of its battlefields. When the war ended, the Ottoman Empire was divided between the great powers of the day. And before it had come to an end, the British Empire promised the Jews and the Zionist Movement a national homeland in Palestine, in what is known as the Balfour Declaration. The fall of the Ottoman Empire enabled Britain and France to carve out states that contained within their borders the seeds of future conflicts.
The inter-war period saw the migration of ever-increasing numbers of Jews to Palestine and the eruption of great resistance on the part of Palestinians to this influx of strangers from all over the world to share their homeland. On the other hand, national liberation movements began to take shape. When World War II broke out in 1939, the Middle East was in the midst of national, revolutionary and religious ferment. The end of the war changed the balance between the old imperial powers and gave rise to the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The Middle East became a major theatre of rivalry between the two superpowers. One of the direct consequences of World War II, as far as the Middle East was concerned, was the creation of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world by the name of Israel in 1948. The establishment of Israel would be a one of the major causes for violence in the years to follow, and until the present day. The national and religious grievances engendered by this act pit states against states and religious communities against religious communities. To make matters worse, the new state adopted an aggressive strategy against its neighbours and denied the original inhabitants of Palestine their national rights of return. This strategy has been based on the use of force whenever there is need to push the would-be borders of Israel further. So far, it is the only member of the United Nations that has no recognised international borders.
The creation of Israel on a religious basis exacerbated religious and national tensions in the Middle East, and that in turn led to an increase of violence in the region. Similarly, the negation of the national rights of the Palestinian people. The number of people killed from the 1930s until today is simply staggering.
One major complicating factor in the post-war history of the Middle East has been outright American support for Israel in its confrontation with the Arab world. With the exception of the Suez War of 1956, Washington has always sided with Israel. This led to a growing rift between the United States and the Arabs who have accused the Americans of adopting double standards in dealing with Middle East problems. The United States tried to defend itself by claiming the role of an honest broker.
America’s influence and role in the post-war Middle East faced three major challenges, and Washington decided to deal with them either by the direct use of force, as in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, or indirectly, through proxies, as in fighting Soviet forces who occupied Afghanistan in December 1979. The third challenge was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. For 34 years, the two countries had been at loggerheads and engaged in confrontation via proxies. (The Geneva interim agreement of 24 November on the Iranian nuclear programme could change this situation, provided this agreement paves the way for a permanent accord in a year’s time).
The United States decided to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan by enlisting young Arab and Muslim men who would travel there as mujahideen against the “infidels”. The Central Intelligence Agency supervised the programme, and the likes of Osama bin Laden went to Afghanistan to fight under an American umbrella. When the war ended, those fighters believed that they were able to bring down the former Soviet Union and reached the fallacious conclusion that they could wage “jihad” against the United States with the strange certainty that they would win. Hence, the September attacks of 2001. The American reaction to these attacks, whether by toppling the Taliban in October 2001 or by invading Iraq in March 2003, changed the role of the United States not only in the Middle East but also across the Arab and Muslim world. Now Muslims and Arabs saw the Americans as invaders. From their perspective, the only way to challenge the American army — whether in Iraq or in Afghanistan — was to take up arms, not only against the Americans, but also against whoever fought or cooperated with the Americans. In Iraq, we witnessed the Sunni insurgency led by Al-Qaeda against the government in Baghdad and against the Shia community. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the same trends took place, but with an added ethnic factor.
The spill-over to other states along sectarian and ethnic lines was not long in coming. From Lebanon to Syria and to Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Sunnis and Shias have been fighting each other. The unity of the Muslim faith has been shattered. This sad development is in its own right a recipe for further violence across the Middle East. A rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could contribute in containing the dangerous sectarian divide in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia communities. The election of Hassan Rouhani as the president of Iran this year could facilitate such a move. Moreover, a successful conclusion of the Geneva II conference on Syria, if it is convened 22 January, will go a long way towards helping Middle Eastern countries in dealing with the bloody rifts tearing Sunni and Shia communities apart.
In the last three months, Middle Eastern diplomacy has been transformed by the Geneva interim agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, the decision to hold the Geneva II conference on Syria in January, and the American-Russian accord to dismantle the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons. These major developments could converge to change the Middle East from a theatre of confrontation to a region on the path to security, stability and progress. This will largely depend on how Moscow and Washington will play their cards, as well as the new balance of power that is taking shape in a Middle East transformed compared to 10 years ago.
Needless to say, this regional transformation is dependent on the success or failure of present negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, with a firm American commitment to conclude an agreement before President Barack Obama leaves office three years from now. If the Israeli government scuttles this opportunity it would be difficult to defeat the forces of destruction causing havoc across the Middle East. I believe the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestine will help us redress a historic grievance and injustice that has been the root cause of violence in the Middle East from 1948 onwards. The United States, the main benefactor of Israel, has a moral and a political responsibility to uphold and support the implementation of United Nations resolutions pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict and to the Palestinian question. It would be greatly helpful if Washington would share the Arab conviction that security in the Middle East is indivisible. In other words, Israeli security cannot be achieved at the expense of Arab and Palestinian security. In this context, the time has come for Israel to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese its permanent borders. The United States should be committed to this goal.
I dealt above with the external causes of violence in the Middle East. Undoubtedly, they are not the only causes. There are internal ones that have been responsible as well for the rise of violence in the Middle East. The growing disparity between the haves and the haves-not and the lack of a democratic culture are reasons enough to drive the disaffected to resort to acts of violence. Also the absence of opportunities for young men and women in the region is another reason why extremist organisations have no difficulty in recruiting suicide bombers and fighters willing to take up arms against their own people and governments, for the latter have become the enemy of the former. Also, the unfettered and unregulated liberalisation of Middle Eastern economies in the last 10 years has made matters worse. Rising unemployment among those under 30 is a highly destabilising factor in the Middle East. A Marshall Plan-like programme is badly needed in the Middle East. It goes without saying that such a programme cannot be negotiated and implemented without finding long-term solutions to regional problems and crises. I have no doubt that with leadership and vision the Middle East will succeed in defeating extremism and terrorism.
I wonder if the Egypt of tomorrow will provide such leadership and vision. Let us hope that Egypt will become once again a leading force for change and progress in the Arab world and the Middle East. History beckons.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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