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The MENA & Gulf Regions: A Political Pea Soup?
Like good wine, I suppose it matures with age. And like a good vintage, it might often come when someone has achieved a certain level of professional or even financial stability so that s/he is no longer fussed by what others say and is free to opine the facts as s/he sees it without prevarication or subterfuge or even any IOU indebtedness.

2 November   |   2019   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

What am I on about today as the UK deals with the double-whammy of Brexit and a General Election? Well, my thoughts today have precious little to do with what has been happening - or not happening - in our British Isles and far more with events occurring in the far-off lands of the Middle East, North Africa and the Arabian Gulf.

From Jordan to France and the UK via Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, I suppose I have been fortunate enough to claim that I grew up in diverse cosmopolitan societies which defended a set of liberal values and highlighted issues of citizenry, justice, dignity, fair treatment and ecumenical community. But over the past decade or so, and certainly since the Arab uprisings of 2010/11 that were followed by sinister and moneyed counter-revolutions, I have noticed that the pendulum has swung in an awkward skew where populism and brashness, let alone individualism, oppression and large-scale violations of human rights have become the norm in some countries. This does not mean that things were different before, but the compass has willy-nilly shifted now.

And this alarming shift has also been taking place noticeably across parts of the Arab World. Mind you, the leaders of most Arab countries were already disrespectful of their citizens’ rights but the sheer impunity of it these days, aided and abetted by allies or outside powers, distresses me. One man who best sums up my growing fears is Rami Khouri, and if you have not discovered him, you are truly missing out on a lot. Here is a Jordanian-Palestinian-American who calls a spade a spade and explains how the Arab World is caught up in a whirligig of corruption, nepotism, poverty, unemployment (for the youth) and a squashing of citizens’ rights - root causes for the constant and seething uncertainties that boil over every now and then.

Do you really wish me to spell it out for you? Just follow the news of the violent protests in Iraq, an oil-rich country that is drowning in corruption, nepotism and political stasis. Or the way that the regime in Syria has over the years dealt with its own protesters by applying its policies of divide and rule, or of killing, maiming and gaoling its opponents. Or the authorities in Egypt that brook no dissent, consider themselves as demigods and imprison let alone torture anyone - be they journalists, academics, activists or politicians - who speaks out against the practices of the regime. Or Algeria where a political gerontocracy is striving to rig the presidential elections. Or the UAE, where the maxim of ‘my way or the highway’ is the rule in a state where there is abundant glitz but where nobody dares to speak out, tweet or take a breath that is dissonant with the diktats of the ruling elite.

Do I need to go on and on? Do I need to remind readers that four Arab countries - three GCC ones and Egypt - have been embargoing another GCC neighbour because it does not wish to play by their rules? Or a Lebanon where decomposing politicians are hell-bent on holding the reins of power in their sectarian milieu so they can also enrich themselves without accountability or responsibility - for anything from electricity to the Internet or landfills for waste disposal? Or Morocco where rural areas such as the northern Rif region are neglected and left to exist in deep-seated penury and unnerving discontent. Or else the way that Israel, protected by its friends and allies, tramples upon the rights of Palestinians, robs their lands, confiscates their rights and Identity cards and treats them almost like a sub-human species. Muzzled and handcuffed Arab ‘citizens’ persist in vassal countries intent upon self-enrichment.

Is this the sorry state in which the MENA and Gulf regions find themselves today? Alas, yes, and those who defend one corrupt system or another are also benefiting from such unchanging realities. Ordinary men and women cannot free themselves from the shackles of oppression and manumission because the rulers think they know best lest they lose their leverage or benefits or control. We are witnessing a region where the dignity of its men and women is further being eroded day-in-day-out. A lethal and cyclical combination of political disempowerment, rights-based marginalisation and economic destitution has taken hold, and this explains why we see so many desperate protestors in the streets across the MENA region today.

A clash of wills? Where does the region go when those in power do not wish to relinquish their privileges and will resort to all sorts of bullying tactics instead? What about the Arab masses who have broken the barrier of fear and will no longer surrender their legitimate rights? Arab thinkers and intellectuals, men and women across the region, constantly underline the causes of such troubles but does anyone really hear them? Journalists speak out and are then reviled or worse gaoled let alone declared personae-non-grata. NGO’s establish projects but are then starved of money to shut them up. And our religious institutions see-saw between highfaluting morality and craven expediency.

The result? Ordinary men and women go out into the streets and risk their lives for the sake of a better future. This moment constitutes for me the pea-soup. This is not only a dense yellowish fog that has descended upon the region. It is a fog that usurps rights, gobbles up hopes, stunts societies and could pave the road to further nightmares.

But is there nonetheless a discernible change since the last uprisings almost a decade ago? To claim that things will improve soon is far too optimistic when the Arab masses have been downtrodden for so long. One cannot undo the variegated excesses of countless rulers with one or two uprisings. However, there are some factors that help introduce signs of hope for the men and women of this vast region. Here briefly are some of them:

  • Some of the younger generations are far more educated than their parents and grandparents, and they have a better appreciation of good governance and less tolerance for corrupt and nepotistic societies.
  • Unlike past instances, I have the impression that protestors are applying a more cohesive approach. In other words, each group does not come out with their own claims that affect their own tribe alone. Rather, all walks of society - men and women of all ages - work together in a more concerted manner. This makes it harder for vested interests to divide and conquer those groups and turn them against each other.
  • A realisation by protestors that the real problem is not the party in power or the opposition, but rather the whole governance system. So the previous approach by protestors in the early noughties of choosing this or that party (whether in power or in the opposition) no longer impresses them. The whole system of governance, introduced into the region by the colonial powers, and then fortified by the local despots or autocrats, is flawed and the new generations should be given an opportunity to reform the system.
  • Religious hierarchs, be they Muslim or Christian, along with their loyal constituencies, no longer can claim that they hold the answers. Nor can they play the game of minorities. Lebanon and Syria are good examples when there is a perceptible shift to overcome those characteristics and aim for the rights of citizenship.
  • Interestingly enough, women have been playing a key role in the protests. This was the case in the earlier uprisings too, particularly in Egypt, but if one looks at Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan or Algeria, the conclusion is that the skewed gender differences are also disappearing to some extent. This too is a harbinger for hope.
  • The Arab masses have begun to challenge the hegemony and meddlesome policies exercised by outside powers and their allies. They are far more streetwise now, and they want to deal with the flaws. No longer can foreign ideologies brainwash their ambitions. This is a critical breakthrough but also a sensitive one.

So my suggestion to readers today as they watch events unfurl in the MENA and Gulf regions is not to forfeit hope. Things are changing, but ossified structures and decades-long ideologies take time for reform. This is why I believe that any change can only be incremental and gradual in order to alter eventually the topography of a region far too immersed in self-interest, corruption, nepotism and a criminal disregard of the the biblical neighbour.

Almost a decade ago, I claimed that the genie had come out of the bottle and that things can never go back to the status quo ante in the MENA region. But when the pushback came with unrelenting ferocity and oodles of money, a few colleagues teased me that my genie had seemingly scarpered into oblivion. But no, my genie is not spineless and seems to have no intention of being pushed back into its enclosure! However, my genie has also learnt over the years that freedom is not a gift that can be bestowed, but rather one that must be achieved, and this is why it understands that the road is long but the prize - liberation from the yoke of oppression - is well worth the struggle.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2019   |   2 November


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