image of jerusalem 2016

End of 2016: a MENA Post-Mortem?
As we rapidly approach the end of another challenging year, my mind strays once more to the Middle East North Africa (MENA) and to the atrocities visited upon much of it during the past twelve months.

13 December   |   2016   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Yes, it was hardly six years ago that the residents of this region rose up in arms to shake off the yoke of oppression and acquire the rights associated with true citizenship. But given the levels of sheer brutality that we have witnessed over social media almost daily, it often feels that this has been going on for longer than six years.

Starting off with North Africa, and despite the many uncertainties and pitfalls to date, Tunisia and Morocco are two post-Arab-Spring countries that are managing to ‘hold it together’ in some consensual form. True, it feels touch-and-go at times but here is an example of how cooperation rather than confrontation could make things go right in the region. The reverse has to be said of Libya where tribalism, militias galore and different politicians purporting to exercise different spheres of power are competing to turn this state into a failed one. Oil and instability are a lethal combination.

There are also discernible levels of uncertainty within a majority of the Gulf countries that have been weakened by the drop in oil prices, and therefore by the noticeable impact upon their economies. To add also the forgotten war in Yemen that is draining the coffers of a number of those Gulf states just as it is straining the goodwill of the international community. I suppose that the oil prices could be massaged via the OPEC cartel as well as by outside exporters, and the war in Yemen could ostensibly find a solution too despite its reverse polarities. But the real issue here is the genuine concern of Arab Gulf countries - perhaps minus the Sultanate of Oman - of the resurgent hegemony of Iran. This is not in my opinion a contrived political crisis but one that truly alarms the rulers of those countries - exacerbated not least by the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the G5+1 under the Obama Administration – in addition to the Iranian successful incursions in Iraq and Syria let alone in Lebanon.

Then we have Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Egypt is on the brink of economic collapse and is managing to survive hand-to-mouth through lavish Western and Arab grants. It has also regressed to a top-down and army-driven governance that is increasingly muzzling all freedoms. The memories of 25 January 2011 are receding fast as the classical institutions are locking their positions anew. Lebanon, on the other hand, has just ‘enthroned’ its new president and is being saved from the same fate of other Arab neighbouring countries - especially given the 1 million Syrian refugees on its soil - by the fact that it is the only country in the MENA that is ruled via confessional alliances and not centrally. Political parties check and balance each other and in so doing draw down the levels of dictatorship albeit by augmenting those of corruption. Yet, there is a theory in Arab political corridors that this system is the saving grace of this country of vanishing cedars. Mind you, the Lebanese have become self-governing in the sense that the country almost trudges along despite - because - of a lack of any central authority. And Jordan continues to teeter on the edge as it tries to cope with its own share of refugees through the remarkable balancing acts of the King who has so far managed to keep the country together despite the many centrifugal political and ethnic forces.

Palestine suffers from an acute crisis of leadership despite the recent seventh congress of Fatah that introduced new faces into the political arena. This virtual state is cleaved into two cantons - Gaza and the West Bank - and the Israeli government is gobbling up Palestinian lands with unaccountable impunity. The West is busy with Iraq and Syria, let alone with its own mounting problems of political governance, and so Palestine has slipped dramatically on their list of priorities and the impetus for self-determination that used to animate many supporters is no longer valid today. The Arab World orates impressive statements but does not follow the florid talks with any sustainable walks. At this rate, the two-state solution will vanish and the one-state solution (in name only) will become another example of apartheid-like discrimination by Israel against Palestinians.

But the three countries that are well and truly in the eye of the needle are Iraq, Yemen and Syria. In Iraq, there is every hope that Mosul will eventually be liberated from Daesh (ISIL). Mind you, the pace has slackened considerably due to Sunni-Shii-Kurdish rivalries (enmities would be an equally apposite term) and their backers that are rendering the efforts of the coalition forces much harder. But the social fabric in Iraq is divided and those three main communities are competing to seize control of chunks of the country. Yemen is effectively divided between Sanaa and Aden, with unprecedented levels of hunger and suffering. Besides, the country has become lawless again and its geographical maritime position makes it vulnerable to terrorist infiltrations too.

Syria is by far the clearest example of a systematic deconstruction of a country and the destruction of its peoples and infrastructures. In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, "Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world”. With almost half a million dead, 11 million internally-displaced and 4 million refugees, let alone the dual cruelty of a merciless regime as well as savage terrorists and countless militias or mercenaries, this country is burning away. I am sorry for Syrians who have been catapulted into the darker ages and are bereft of hope today. They deserve better. And we in the West - and particularly the US Administration - have facilitated the systematic ruin of a country that epitomised both an early civilisation and Arab Enlightenment. It is a grim example of power-hungry corruption, cronyism and proxy wars.

In a nutshell, what has been happening over the past few years echoes the endemic despair in a region that was once a hub of progress, creativity and authenticity. It then shifted to periods of feudalism, coupled with political quiescence and economic tumescence, and is now in a state of unpredictable and almost inconsequential uncertainty. In some MENA countries, life continues with wary and cautious normality. In others, it is truly a question of the last straw that might break the camel’s back anew. But if we sidestep Palestine that was the emotional hub of the Arab and Muslim Worlds a decade ago but is no longer so today, I would argue that Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are the four countries where polarisation and vitriol are at their highest pitch. It would take decades before some modicum of stability let alone reconciliation can take root again. And this assumes of course that those states will not end up partitioned or federated, or become the junkyard of the world where their resources are pillaged without any palpable dividends for their rightful owners.

What many politicians overlook is that force alone will not resolve the issues at hand. Force is a catharsis for feeble politicians and rogue chieftains, but it is often political dialogue that alone could import peace - and then prosperity - to a country. Just imagine, if the world community manages to eliminate Daesh (ISIL) literally from the MENA map, but does not in the process help address the problems of the Arab men, women and children who live in abject poverty and who are oppressed to their back teeth, does one really think that stability would be possible? Not only will there be another ‘Arab Spring’ round the corner, but the terrorists of today will come back to haunt us with different labels tomorrow. Just remember how many mutations Al-Qaeda underwent - and in how many countries - before it morphed into Daesh!

As many prominent Arab intellectuals and philosophers - not least the late Syrian scholar Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm - have written for decades, there is an urgent need to understand that reverting to heavy-handed security measures against those aspiring for their fundamental freedoms will not solve problems. Rather, they will simply mutate those problems, alter their political DNA and make them even harder to deal with once the next eruption takes place. And there is no way the world can insulate itself or firewall its borders: globalisation means that what happens in one part of the world today physically affects another part thousands of miles away tomorrow.

But understand we clearly do not! As the former UK ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, wrote (albeit in a somewhat different context) in his Naked Diplomacy, “Ironically, at a time when the world faces a more dramatic combination of change and challenge than ever before, we are overwhelmed by that change. At a time when we have the tools to react globally, we are failing to use them. We face massive global transition at a time when there is a lack of global leadership, and a growing realisation that we are leaderless. No one has a plan. We have not begun to adapt our institutions to the new realities”.

It seems to me that some politicians in the MENA do not fathom that we no longer live in an era where leadership means whipping people into submission, imposing diktats upon them, claiming an authority over them that is either God-given or man-made, and depriving them of their sense of participatory mouwatana or citizenship? The Arab World contains millions of men and women who no longer accept subservience: they thirst for fairness and justice and use social media to demonstrate their refusal to be cowed by those wielding [often patriarchal] power. Remember the likes of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia or Ashraf Mohammed Shaheen in Egypt who self-immolated in protest against unbearable living conditions. Much as the pendulum in the MENA has swung away from ideas of basic liberties toward autocracy - purportedly to bring stability and safety - the whole concept of a pendulum is that the counter-motion inevitably happens again.

In January 1961, on the second anniversary of the overthrow of the Batista regime in Cuba, Fidel Castro delivered one of his prolix public addresses and said that “A revolution is a fight to death between the future and the past”. The not-so-distant past in the MENA has been tantamount to recession, authoritarianism, conflict, subjugation and perfidy. Surely, the message of a new year is one of hope. So will the MENA leaders become shrewd let alone bold enough to stop the growing fault lines in their societies and apply themselves to a simple existential choice: the past or the future?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2016   |   13 December


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