Middle East: Beware the ides of '11

The outlook for the New Year does not bode well for the Arab world as political turmoil grips many states in the region.

    The entirety of the Arab world risks being a long-term fixture of a forgotten periphery if they continue to be divided [Getty] 

    In 2010, Sudan was in the throes of pregnancy, and over the next year, the world will bear witness to the birth of a new nation. Once this occurs, it could start a catalyst that might cascade into other revolutionary ambitions gaining inspiration enough to seek their own autonomy in the Arab world.

    The dialectics of reform and decay, 'north and south', Sunni-Shiite, Muslim-Christian, and Arab-Israeli will be testing the Arab elites' political skills, public stamina, and also the Western powers' diplomatic theatrics whilst being crippled with drying financial resources.

    Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Kurdistan, Lebanon, the occupied territories, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all hotspots facing one or a combination of the ills of separation, succession, disunity or festering conflicts.

    It is a sad state of events when the only really fortuitous thing the Arab world saw last year was Qatar winning the bid to host the World Cup in 2022.

    Other positives include the absence of war in Lebanon, Gaza and Iran; more wealth in the Arab Gulf; the explosion of civic power in Tunisia and elsewhere; and Hezbollah having more or less-pre-empted the expected indictment by the Special Court for Lebanon, discarding the frightful scenario of another civil or Sunni-Shiite war. However, notice how many of these positives were, in fact, a lack of negative developments.

    So then, what can we expect for 2011?

    Unrest and revolution

    Last year closed with a haunting image - of Tunisian president Ben Ali staring at the fully-bandaged, burnt body of a citizen whose suicide attempt ignited an uprising in Sidi Bouzid.

    It look as if Ben Ali was living a petrifying premonition, looking at his own, dying body politic; as if the one dying was not the patient in intensive care, but rather Ben Ali's decaying rule.

    Bouazizi - the civil dissident, the symbol of protest in Tunisia, the victim - passed away shortly thereafter.

    But Bouazizi's sacrifice led to the Sidi Bouzid uprising, which has breathed new civic life into a suffocating Tunisia. There is no more fear of the regime, and now Tunisia becomes the place to watch for a possible political grassroots call for change looking towards the 2014 elections.

    Hereditary succession is now out of the question. Neither Ben Ali's wife, Leila, or his son-in-law can dream of succeeding him. Tunisians will not allow it anymore. After the Sidi Bouzid uprising, Tunisia has a different political atmosphere.

    The budding seeds of revolution have been planted in Tunisia, but in Sudan it is already happening. After the current referendum that will most assuredly see Sudan split in two, other secessionist movements will be inspired and guided by the Sudanese experience.

    The Arab and African neighbourhood has accepted what looks like a fait accompli, awaiting pending confirmation of the referendum currently underway.

    Omar al-Bashir, too, seems resigned to this happening, but not to his failure or his failed state. But his problems have just begun, even ignoring the fact that the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for his arrest. The trial he will not escape though is his people's judgment, and the challenges by potential secessionists from Darfur and beyond.

    Another country that may split in two is just across the sea - Yemen today is a failed state almost on par with Sudan. Its last presidential elections in 2006 were listed as only "partly free", and was marred by violence and allegations of fraud. President Ali Abdullah Saleh not only won the 2006 election but all the previous ones of a united Yemen since 1990.

    Previously, he was president of Northern Yemen since 1978. In other words, he's been president of Yemen since Jimmy Carter took office. This rubber-stamping of what seems to be presidency-for-life will make it look more like an 'Imamate' than a republic.

    And like Sudan, the south is unhappy.

    What once was known by the Romans as 'Arabia Felix' now is as embattled as Sudan. Attrition is impoverishing the country and burdening it with massive human rights violations for conducting, with US involvement, an unwinnable war against the Shiite Houthis. Without any dialogue or mediation, this year could look much like last year.

    Sectarians and successions

    The dying days of 2010 did not inspire confidence about religious and sectarian harmony, that is for sure.

    Maybe this is the time when men of piety need to do more for the sake of tolerance and coexistence. States can do the same in facilitating not only dialogue, but doing more through education, reformed laws and non-discrimination to improve the state of mutuality and equality.

    Because the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, the sectarian killing fields of Iraq (which is now engulfing Christians), the tension that could boil out into Sunni-Shiite fighting in Lebanon, Yemen, and even Saudi Arabia do not bode well for 2011.

    Hatred motivated by religious affiliation and sectarian identity threatens to continue their bloody conflicts in 2011 and for the foreseeable future - and let's not forget the increasing strife of ethnic tensions that is beginning to rear its ugly head.

    To quote Herman Hesse, "If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us."

    While the Gulf and the Levant are embroiled in their sectarian toils, talks of succession are being whispered in the two most powerful Arab states - Saudia Arabia and Egypt - that enter 2011 with ailing, octogenarian leadership.

    Rejuvenation of the rulers and of their systems is in the offing, but there is a difference - Arab monarchism has the means of smooth succession and transition.

    The human resource pool from which to recruit kings is far more clear and predictable than in Arab republics. Only a handful of names are qualified enough to succeed King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

    In Egypt, though, the picture is more opaque. The only thing that we can currently expect is something unexpected - will the presidency switch to hereditary rule, with Mubarak's son replacing him? Will Mubarak continue on in his tenure then simply bow out later? Or will a totally new ruler from Egypt's top brass succeed him?

    It is still too early to reasonably predict what will happen in Egypt - or, for that matter, what will happen succession-wise in Libya and Yemen, though 'shadow' or de facto rule will probably continue to dominate their political futures.

    An Arab menagerie of impotence

    When one considers the Arab League, it most appropriately brings to mind the word 'beleaguered' (pun intended).

    Its incapacity to weather Arab turbulence is noted in its increasing absence. Arab differences should energise it, not tear it apart. With differences comes the need for dialogue, consultation, and constructive engagement.

    As Franklin D Roosevelt wrote, "Great power involves great responsibility." Unfortunately, the Arab League doesn't seem to be taking its powers or its responsibility very seriously.

    Amr Moussa's stature perhaps keeps it alive, but it will need more than his skills for the League to outlive him. To cringe from confidence-building and diplomatic engagement is a huge let-down.

    The timing couldn't be worse - it comes at a time when Egypt-Syria relations are cold, Gulf-Gulf relations are not at their peak, Palestinian-Palestinian divisions run deep, Egypt-Hamas rapport is on hold, and calls for mediation from Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen go unheard.

    To simply fade into obscurity is failing 300 million Arabs and millions of square kilometres already coming under the knife.

    Sudan is the first turkey under the carving knife in the existing pan-Arab geographical map, and it will not be the last unless the Arab League rises to the occasion.

    It needs to regroup, revise, reform and re-forge common visions and priorities. Or is it perhaps time to determine whether there is even an Arab world worth speaking of, much less defending against international marginalisation, never mind competing with foreign ambitions and hegemony?

    How the Arab League ploughs through 2011 will decide not only its fate, but also the destiny of others, including Palestine.

    And speaking of Palestine, its political slate for 2011 looks just as grim: a continuous siege of Gaza, the Gaza-West Bank split, the Abbas-Dahlan or Fatah-Fatah dispute, the Fatah-Hamas schism, cold relations between the Quartet and Hamas, and at times irreconcilable differences between Hamas and Egypt.

    These polarities weigh down the Palestinian polity.

    Should the Abbas-Dahlan challenge for authority worsen in 2011, it will absorb political energy that must be spared further division if the quest for a free Palestinian state is to be taken seriously.

    A Hamas-Fatah-Fatah menagerie in 2011 and beyond will most certainly defeat this objective.

    Reshuffling the Palestinian house of cards in 2011 must be a priority. Fatah, Hamas, Abbas, Dahlan or Meshaal must not be turned into ends in themselves.

    An independent Palestine must be the only end, and neither Obama, King Abdullah or the Arab League can do this for the Palestinians.

    The West wing

    If one goes by WikiLeaks, there are many signs that portend ill for the region. But WikiLeaks aside, the US looks more oriented towards disengagement rather than engagement.

    Although the 'Obama factor', whatever that is these days, is not yet to be written off, the retreats on the Palestinian front are worrisome.

    If the US cannot exert pressure enough to freeze settlements for three measly months, how can secretary of state Hillary Clinton or US special envoy George Mitchell ever hope to convince their Israeli counterparts to freeze occupation permanently?

    Geographically nestled between the US and the Arab world, the European Union is in no mood to flex its catatonic muscles. Its finances, so far the only tangible manifestation of visibility in the Middle East, will dampen its international leadership ambitions. Plus, the EU itself is no longer sure of its own unity - the Euro crisis led to questioning of the whole ideal.

    In practice, the policy of the EU simply paying for the construction of buildings and infrastructure bombed by Israel in the occupied territories no longer fools anyone. The EU looks unconvincing, disunited and increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic.

    On Palestine, its policy has been a total failure. It takes sides in internal differences between Hamas and Fatah, knowingly supporting a corrupt and authoritarian establishment in the West Bank, and has no policy of its own vis-à-vis Palestine.

    It regurgitates hollow rhetoric, and generally still lends money and credence to delegitimized regimes all over the Middle East, including Israel - an occupying power.

    Baroness Ashton is the only breath of fresh air in a world intent on choking the Middle East into a marginalised proxy region of tinpot lackeys - which, coincidentally, it already is.


    Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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