image of jerusalem 2013

The first anniversary of an unsure MENA region!
17 December 2010 - 17 December 2011...

17 December   |   2011   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

It is only twelve months since the 'Arab Spring' took off in the Middle East & North Africa in a spontaneous eruption of deep indignation but also of high expectation. An unknown fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi (whose statue was lately unveiled by the newly-elected Tunisian president Moncef al-Marzouki) in the unknown village of Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunis, ignited the first spark when he set himself alight in what became the iconic start of an increasingly messy struggle by the Arab masses for dignity and citizenship rights across a vast and heterogeneous landmass.

In Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, those popular struggles led to parliamentary elections in order to sweep away the old and vote in the new. However, many vested interests are still clutching to power under different guises or formats in the midst of sporadic popular protests or episodes of violence (that the Egyptian prime minister Kamal al-Ganzouri described recently as a 'counter-revolution'), and we are now dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

In Libya, a NATO-led invasion was meant to reassemble the country under the banner of Qadhafi-less freedoms, but Benghazi and the Eastern provinces of this oil-rich country are as alien to Tripoli and the Western provinces as Misrata remains from Zintan. Again, we are now dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

In Yemen, two families of the al-Hashid tribal confederacy have basically been fighting over who holds or consolidates political power. The country is drifting from misrule and corruption to anarchy and the fear of terrorism. In nearby Bahrain too, a weakened monarch is refusing to relinquish his key constitutional powers and is adamantly resisting the struggle for dignity and fundamental freedoms by the majority Shi'i population of this tiny kingdom. Once more, like many other countries of the region, we are now dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

In Israel, the ruling political establishment is feeding into its own overstated paranoia and hunkering down against what it perceives as an ever-increasing hostile region by ramping up its own oppression of Palestinians as well as fomenting apocalyptic scenarios about the dangers of a nuclear Iran or about its new-old enemies in the neighbourhood. The Palestinians on the other hand remain divided over the future of a parcel of land they call Palestine that is being dotted with more settlements. After all, launching the odd - and frankly futile - missile from Gaza will not in itself liberate their occupied lands, and hoisting the Palestinian flag at the UNESCO HQ in Paris is not tantamount to acquiring statehood either. Once more, we are dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

Iraq is also witnessing the final phase of withdrawal of American troops after an eight-year invasion that wrought havoc to the country, exacerbated its sectarian tensions, resulted in many Iraqi and American deaths and frittered away almost one trillion US$ that might have otherwise helped Americans with their ailing economy, education or health system.

But despite its oil wealth, Iraq is a broken state that is rife with sectarian tensions. Only half of the 100,000 members of the Sunni Awakening movement - insurgents whose decision to switch sides helped contain the civil war - have found any employment and the other half could well reconsider its loyalties and might even switch sides again. Moreover, Iraqi leaders have still not reached an agreement over who will control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government. There is also turmoil in the two mainly Sunni provinces of Salahuddin and Diyala, which want to declare their autonomy. There is also a widespread conviction that with the Americans gone, there will be an augmentation of Iranian influence. So it bemused me when President Obama recently declared at Fort Bragg in North Carolina that the USA was leaving behind "a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq". Alas, we are once more dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

Finally, Syria is in turmoil with a regime hell-bent on staying in power and muzzling the liberty-driven instincts of many of its people through force and the sheer determination not to yield power. Despite the tentative efforts of the League of Arab States (LAS) that approved a raft of sanctions on 27th November (but is getting cold feet again), as well as the damning reports of the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pallay and Human Rights Watch that have catalogued the excesses of the regime and qualified them as crimes against humanity referable to the ICC in The Hague, Russia and the BRIC-S Group still resist any attempt to take Syria to the UN Security Council. This opposition is occurring despite the fact that the Russian Federation is now fielding its own UNSC draft resolution. As Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote recently in Now Lebanon, the West is still pussyfooting, and we are clearly dealing with uncertain outcomes that hold both promise and despair.

17 December 2010 - 17 December 2011: in short, is this an epitaph that holds promise or despair?

Is it possible to claim that the lost generations of the MENA region have suddenly found their long-lost voices? To repeat a hackneyed comparison, could it be that those who grew up being told they were the heirs to Francis Fukuyama's end of history and who were convinced of the certain victory of a liberal capitalist society that divides the haves from the have-nots, are now re-writing history and charting a new course for the MENA region?

One year hence, I frankly cannot predict where this whole region will go next! In fact, I have yet to come across one person - politician, pundit, demonstrator or political scientist - who might interpret the rune-like developments of this unsure region with sure conviction. However, what remains clear for me is that we have entered new territory where the old imposed truths are no longer the only tradable commodity and where the rules of the game have changed drastically. Yet, what makes the events so unpredictable also makes them frightening since the ball could end up in any court and we might witness excesses, violence and instability becoming part of the intifada-like movements of a whole region.

However, despite the pessimism exhibited by some who only see regional deconstruction and political meltdown as a consequence of those popular revolts, I still wish to believe in the goodness of the peoples in the MENA and to wager on their determination to win their challenge against those who wish to usurp those uprisings or else drag the region to the same authoritarianism of old albeit one bearing new addresses or newer faces. Perhaps this is not a finite spring season but a much longer stretch that will go through many cycles and tumbles before the real popular awakening takes root.

Nonetheless, I would also argue that the changes in the Arab world over this past year cannot be overstated despite the setbacks. A region synonymous with stagnant authoritarian regimes has risen up and exhibited its accumulated frustrations - for better or for worse. Once this happened, the whole dynamics of the region shifted irretrievably despite the final outcome or time it would take for the MENA region to implement any real reforms.

Dignity - al-karama - has become the metaphor for a new generation, and Bouazizi spoke for a whole region when he got so fed up with the humiliation heaped upon him by a policewoman, a municipal officer or a whole system that he chose death. That fire killed a poor fruit vendor, but it could well become the trigger for something much bigger than him and a catalyst that cleanses the region from bigotry, oppression, discrimination, misogyny, intolerance and radicalism.

According to Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, "People of the Middle East and North Africa are in no mood to give up their search for justice and dignity". Put differently, I would suggest that Bouazizi's self-immolation was a momentary event, but its ramifications - no matter what they turn out to be - are still unfolding one year on.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2011   |   17 December


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