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Paschal Political Prisms? - The Middle East Today
I find it quite helpful every now and then to link the dots in the overall political jigsaw puzzle that the Middle East incarnates in its broader prisms...

21 March   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... And I suppose Easter is one opportune moment for such an exercise - especially since this holy occasion represents for me the triumph of life over death and of hope over despair. But have life and hope vanquished death and despair in the Middle East - in Israel / Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq or even Turkey? My article today will not analyse those conflicts per se as much as just pick out relevant indicators that define the pulse of this volatile region.

Israeli/Palestine: as I have rued time and again over the past three months, the Annapolis process has for all intents and purposes failed to kick-start the defunct peace process and will in all likelihood also join other preceding initiatives in the political trash bin. A shame really when one recalls the optimistic choreography that launched it in November 2007.

Yet, the gloomy political climate in the Palestinian territories, when added to the abysmal failure in lifting up the rights of Palestinians as a result of continuing Israeli colonialism buttressed up by American acquiescence, have together steered the process in the very direction that Annapolis was trying to avoid at all costs. Indeed, with no forward momentum, but rather with a backward slide given the new spate of settlements and checkpoints, the PNA and Hamas leaderships are now once more warily tip-toeing again round each other in the hope of closing again the fissure between those two parties that together represent the majority of Palestinians. I refer of course to the manifestly fragile and already contentious Sana’a agreement that was reached last weekend through Yemeni facilitation. This initiative - following previous attempts by Saudi Arabia (with the Mecca Agreement) and Egypt (following the cross-border chapter) - is an indication that Palestinians will in the end have to make peace with each other. But it also means that Israeli policy-makers cannot perpetuate a process that remains inherently non-peaceful since it excludes painful concessions that are necessary in order to end the occupation.

Having helped create Hamas, and then having turned into its arch-foe, Israel is now ironically strengthening this Islamist movement again at the expense of its so-called PNA peace partner. No wonder then that the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov indicated in Jerusalem that any move forward must include a rapprochement between the PNA and Hamas.

Lebanon: this country is also at a critical crossroads - with sixteen aborted attempts already by its Parliament to elect a new consensual president. Yet, the stalemate continues and both sides of the deep political divide are so apart in their political standpoints that it would take an almost seismic set of forces to knock those forces together and produce a result that is beneficial to all the people of the country rather than to its political leadership, wheelers and dealers or establishment elite.

So degraded is the situation in Lebanon that the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, speaking of the occasion of Good Friday, expressed his pessimism over growing divisions amongst the Lebanese. He likened Lebanon to the Palestinian territories and urged the Lebanese to “overcome disagreements and return to their conscience.” The patriarch further lamented the deteriorating economic situation and added that foreign businessmen were withdrawing their investments in the country.

Here again, the political parties should put the interest of the whole country ahead of their own gains and learn to desist from peddling the agendas of other powers - be they Syria and Iran on the one hand or the USA on the other. The forthcoming Arab Summit in Damascus on 29-30 March 2008 might either lubricate the wheels of diplomacy and produce a genuine consensus or strengthen the dogged intransigence of the parties and lead to further deterioration in the country.

But let me inject a note of caution. In dealing with Lebanon, and therefore with Syria, it might help peacemakers to ask why the French initiative of 2007 failed quite dramatically. This is largely because the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, possibly unlike his late father, is adopting a more belligerent discourse. France thought that Syria would jump at the opportunity of ‘talking’ with the West in return for softening its position toward Lebanon. However, as an ICG report affirms also, Syria today resists mounting pressures by referring almost obsessively to its dignity and sovereignty. The question is to decide whether to continue promising Syria with “dialogue” in the hope that it might accept the Western carrot, or engage it in tough negotiations aimed at a package deal. Either Syria accepts such a deal that would include the return of the Golan Heights, or a showdown would become inevitable - possibly over Lebanon - and the stick would then replace the carrot. 

Iraq: this oil-rich country is also mired down in a sad mess despite the so-called surge and the relative quietness in Baghdad (but not in Mosul, Diwaniya or some other areas). In fact, the human drama in Iraq is a disaster that is waiting to implode - and therefore explode - despite glib reassurances by local and international politicians. A detailed UNHCR report indicated earlier this week that the number of formal asylum-seekers from Iraq more than doubled to 45,200 in 2007, making up the largest slice of the 338,000 applications received by 43 industrialised states around the globe. Moreover, some 2.4 million Iraqis have now sought refuge in neighbouring Jordan and Syria. Another estimated 2.7 million have been internally displaced and it will be hard for them to return to their own homes due to demographic and sectarian shifts in the country.

In fact, when talking about refugees and internally-displaced or homeless persons, one does not realise the level of poverty and squalor that are associated with them. As Marie Colvin wrote in Ticking bomb of Iraq’s forgotten refugee children in the Sunday Times on 16th March, the Qawala camp (which is two miles outside the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish north of the country) is one vibrant example of how things can go so wrong in a country that is potentially so oil-rich. Qawala is home to 3,000 men, women and children, and although refugees in the camp are safe from the internecine violence, it is also a place where human beings live with the stench of sewage overwhelming its residents and the dogs scavenging for food.

To date, only 36,000 Iraqi refugees have returned to the country. This week, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, humanitarian organisations are highlighting the disjuncture. According to a statement from the International Organisation for Migration, nearly one in five of the population before the US-led invasion remain displaced in Iraq. Another report from Refugees International drills down further into the detail of the refugees’ plight and those trying to help them. Indeed, more than 75% of the Iraqi Internally Displaced Persons have no access to government food rations, 20% lack supplies of clean water, 33% could not get the medicine they needed while only 20% had any assistance from humanitarian agencies. While western politicians and the military struggle with the consequences of decisions taken five years ago, relief agencies are grappling with new complexities - and partly failing the refugees they aim to help as a result.

Turkey: another critical lawsuit was filed by one of Turkey’s top prosecutors last week, asking the country’s Constitutional Court to shut down the Justice and Development AKP Party for ‘anti-secular activities’. The suit also petitions the court to ban seventy-one of the party members - including Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul - from politics for a quinquennium. Although the prosecution claims to be defending the forward-looking values of Mustapha Kamal Ataturk, the modern-day founder of Turkey, it in fact degrades them since intolerance, chauvinism and contempt for democracy have increasingly characterised the way Turkey’s old-guard political establishment has responded to the rise of a modern, western-oriented and democratic political party rooted in the country’s majority-Muslim faith.

This lawsuit is dangerous to the institutions of the country as much as it is an insult to them. The Constitutional Court should quash it and the Turkish Parliament should the  proceed to repeal both the undemocratic law under which those charges were docked as well as the ideological and asinine laws that allow selective prosecutions in the name of broadly defined abstractions like ‘secularism’ and ‘Turkishness’ now used against leading Turkish writers and intellectuals.

So where does all this leave the region today?

At a wide-ranging round-table with journalists in New York to honour him with the first MacArthur Award for International Justice from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan commented on the region by describing Lebanon’s ongoing political crisis as “very worrying” and the Middle East as “a very dangerous region”. He added that “many conflicts have converged and are feeding off each other, and the international community has to handle that situation very carefully because any miscalculation can lead to very serious explosions.” Kofi Annan also cited the dangers if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Sunni-Shi’i growing divide in Iraq, the Gulf and other Middle Eastern countries, admonishing that any military action against Iran over the nuclear fuel stand-off would be “a real disaster” too.

For many peoples in the Middle East today, it is the bare physical survival that has become the daily challenge. The ever-increasing brutality of all forms of aggression and the ever-present threat of violent death have engulfed Middle Easterners in a desperate resignation from staying alive, or even from feeling entitled to life. So tough have conditions become that I know many people who feel guilty for ‘being’ there at all. Upholding one’s right to life, and the very belief in the possibility of life, require these days a leap of faith that has become so hard to make amidst so much pain, mourning, carnage and fear. Can the Paschal affirmation of life offer the strength of such a leap for the region today? In the darkest days of the Lebanese civil war, I recall HE Georges Khodr, Greek Orthodox Antiochian Metropolitan of Mount Lebanon, publishing Al Raja’ fi Zaman al Harb [Hope in the Time of War] as his powerful prayer for the grace to enable oneself to make such a leap.

My political vignettes of the Middle East share one common thread. It is not one of peace and reconciliation, or even of optimism, in a riven region where the indicators are those of despondency, hostility and non-peace. Rather, it is manifestly about the lack of wisdom by many decision-makers who do not realise that the way for life over death and hope over despair lies in keeping hope alive and accepting the other in our lives. Can our paschal experience teach us such a hard lesson?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   21 March


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