In the eye of the storm: the Middle East and North Africa in 2013

In the eye of the storm: the Middle East and North Africa in 2013

By Harry Hagopian
2 Jan 2013

Another year is behind us as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings continue their relentless surge in different parts of the region.

While Egypt and Syria have grabbed global attention in the past few weeks, it is quite clear that much is also happening elsewhere. From Tunisia and Libya to Morocco and Yemen, from Jordan and Lebanon all the way to Bahrain and Kuwait, the tensions are manifesting themselves in different ways - some more subtle than others, some bloodier than others.

One needs only to review material across different social media platforms to sense the brittle moods of the different parties as they snipe at each other and lash out at anything that does not sit comfortably with their own reading of political history today.

* Egypt is a telling microcosm of a region today where there are dangerous levels of animosity creeping amongst the different ‘political’ camps. The Islamist parties - whether the Freedom & Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood or the more overtly Salafist groupings such as Al-Nour or the recent Al-Watan - are intent on enforcing austere albeit dissimilar forms of religious diktats upon Egyptian society that reflect their particularly conservative and exclusivist forms of religiosity. For them, there is hardly any real distinction between personal or public space in religious practice. Conversely, the National Salvation Front that features Al-Baradei, Sabbahi and Amr Moussa as three of its high-profile politicians, is trying to decouple Islam from politics by striving to apply a more secular - read anthropogenic - rule of law that is inclusive and non-discriminatory against women or Copts but - far more crucially - that also perceives the constitution not as another mere document micromanaging a country but rather one that legally underlines the key principles of governance, from a separation of powers to the fundamental freedoms that value each human being through a lens that is not necessarily religious, theocratic and as such parvanimous in its nature. In fact, the presidency and governmental institutions in Egypt (and elsewhere) today are featuring the rise of a political Islam that is shaped by its history as much as by its struggle. And whilst such ascendancy started off with democratic high hopes and authentic-sounding proclamations, it has ended up lacking adequate representation and consultation, let alone consensus, amongst many Egyptians or even an understanding that an Executive which is inclusive of all citizens, as much as a robust and judicious opposition to government, are vital tools of healthy societies. In effect, while the old ideologies that had sustained Egypt and much of the MENA region are now slowly being eroded (through varying degrees of violence), they are also being substituted by different autocratic tendencies where compulsion and lack of overall representation of Egyptians is becoming the norm.

* In Syria, one need only read Rania Abouzeid’s In Syria, What's Left Behind? on war, people, ideas or innocence to note that there is a morbid stalemate where the military behemoth of the regular army is fighting the rebels in all corners of the country. But the sacrifices are almost invariably being made by the Syrian people and their country in terms of over 45,000 deaths to date as well as the wanton destruction of a history-rich country. As the ICG reported recently, fighting has reached new levels of intensity in Damascus, including the southern suburbs where regime airstrikes and clashes between regime and opposition forces in Palestinian-dominated Yarmouk left scores dead as well as refugees. Violence also increased in Hama province, in the Deir Baalbeh district of the city of Homs and elsewhere amidst allegations of massacres. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria ominously warned that the conflict was escalating and becoming increasingly sectarian. But the political shenanigans of the regional as well as global powers - whether those residing in Russia, Tehran, Riyadh, Paris, Ankara or Washington DC - mean that the Syrians themselves are almost being compelled to resolve the standoff with one side either destroying the other militarily or else all parties somehow agreeing to implement the Geneva Plan cobbled together with Kofi Anan in June 2012. As Lakhdar Brahimi stated recently, “There is a proposal for a political solution based on the Geneva declaration foreseeing a ceasefire, forming a government with complete prerogatives and a plan for parliamentary and presidential elections.” However, in my opinion, even this latest trial balloon remains abstruse for Syria: beyond the diplomatic hall of mirrors lies the problem that the US Administration, with its desired endgame, remains eye-wateringly obscure. The only discernible constant has been its resolute rejection of any form of intervention in Syria and an assumption - not entirely accurate - that Russia is wholly responsible for the inertia. However, such are the levels of polarisation between the two sides that it is virtually impossible to hope that the twain shall meet at this stage. After all, when the forces of the regime kill people by using warplanes, white phosphorus, vacuum and cluster bombs, artillery, mortar fire and missiles, it would seem that the military solution would continue somehow until one side blinks first.

* Neighbouring countries are also watching with concern the outcome of the tugs-of-war in both Egypt and Syria since they too feel quite vulnerable to the spread of discontent in their own backyards. Iraq is in a parlous state of institutional paralysis, with mounting tensions over both the disputed areas and oil contracts or revenues let alone between the Shi’i, Sunni and Kurdish main communities. The gulf between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds in Irbil is widening and the country might well get sucked into another spiral of violence at a time when President Jalal Talabani is absent from the political scene due to illness. In fact, such tensions - and at times violations or discriminatory practices - are less plainly visible in Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan let alone Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia too where those in authority simply refuse to relinquish power and instead hold onto its reins as if it were a divine gift. Moreover, there has been a sense of increasing activism in some Gulf States that have been attempting to neutralise any dramatic violence on their own turf by appearing to support different strands within those synergistic revolutions or by inoculating themselves against internal destabilisation or threats through their financial blandishments.

* Such ructions bring us back to the key question: what next, and will the MENA region acquire any democracy as we would understand it in the West today? In fact, should the outcome necessarily be anything like a Western democracy in the first place? There is simply no answer to those questions as the uprisings could start up and subside anywhere without prior warning. Besides, we are nowhere near enough - after two painfully short years - to pass any judgment on whether we will end up with better systems of governance or whether we will simply drift from one dictatorship labelled ‘autocracy’ to another tagged ‘theocracy’ with their attendant oppressive and long-term failures. Or else we might well end up with a better result once the dust of those uprisings settles down and the institutions manage to become functional in those countries. However, given the mediocre and rather vulnerable state of affairs at the moment, when coupled with a lack of proper leadership in many MENA countries, this is a goalpost that will occur later rather than sooner.

* In today’s socio-political situation, as one author surmised, we might perhaps remember that a distinctive feature of all waves of democratisation in the last century was that they were followed by an undertow, accompanied by widespread questioning of the viability or even desirability of democratic governance. As soon as political progress stalls, a conservative reaction sets in with the critics lamenting publicly the turbulence of the new era and looking back almost wistfully to the supposed stability and security of authoritarian predecessors. This is already happening in parts of the MENA region today as in Iraq and Egypt.

* Another key feature of the uprisings has been the worrisome rise of Sunni-Shia sectarian antagonism in the whole region. Egypt, Qatar and Turkey have emerged as the foci of an emerging and powerful Sunni axis of influence that is in opposition - not to add at loggerheads - to an increasingly isolated Iran, whose own attempts to build its influence in the region, not least through its alliances with Hezbollah and Assad's battered Syria, now appear at risk. Such axes could undermine the region, let alone internally, within countries such as Iraq and Lebanon where the fault-lines between Shi’i and Sunni communities overlap not only exogenously but also endogenously. No wonder that the Iraqi prime minister, his undemocratic leanings notwithstanding, feels caught up in a pincer movement between the Mahdi Army on the one hand and Al-Iraqiyya on the other. No wonder also that the Turkish policy of ‘zero problems’ as propagated by First Minsiter Ahmet Davutoglu is facing severe challenges when Turkish regional relations with Iran, Syria and Iraq have taken serious tumbles.

* Another issue, perhaps the least discernible to date, is how the changes might have an impact on an Israel which appears in full reverse on the peace process and increasingly nervous about its neighbours. Israel might well feel more vulnerable because of the growing insecurity in the Sinai Peninsula, alongside the fallout of the Syrian debacle upon Lebanon and even the political unrest in Jordan. However, its instinctive reaction to draw back from any irenic efforts with regard to Palestinians, and the deliberate policies of the Netanyahu government to disable any just and long-overdue resolution to the conflict, means that the concomitant deadlock would lead to yet more retrenchment and ever more distant prospects for a two-state solution. With the policy of vilification pursued by some members of the Netanyahu outgoing cabinet against Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the unrelenting increase in settlement-building on occupied Palestinian territories and the punitive measures undertaken against Palestinians with American political bonhomie, means that the current Israeli political thinking not only wishes to establish new facts on the ground but also render those facts the new sinister realities of this conflict. Hardly anyone is still envisaging a viable and contiguous two-state solution these days, and Israel should realise that its short-term tactical gains from obstructionist policies would inevitably lead it toward long-term strategic - in the sense of territorial and demographic - losses.

* But what of the realities in the smaller MENA communities as they oscillate between fear, hope and uncertainty? It is true that many of those smaller communities in various countries are fearful that their rights will be squelched further under the emerging ‘Islamist’ regimes. In fact, they might well be right in the sense that some of those more conservative brands of Islam are so ferociously exclusive of the ‘other’ that they simply cannot be expected to govern equally let alone equably. Yet, there are those who believe that all the smaller communities should support the uprisings since they carry with them the fresh winds of democracy, dignity and fundamental freedoms. But such a reading of the uprisings is not entirely true either: some of what is being practised against those communities - namely in Iraq, but also in Syria, Egypt or elsewhere - leads one to be prudent if not downright anxious. However, I believe those communities - including Christians - should accept that the MENA region is in the throes of change and they too should adapt to those changes. Irrespective of whether they face persecution, harassment or inaction, they should forgo their proclivity toward dhimmitude (a neologism first found in French denoting initially an attitude of concession, surrender and appeasement towards Islamic demands) and struggle to be full citizens in their own countries. I know this is quite hard to attain in the MENA region, and some might even consider my suggestions as pie in the sky, but I do feel concerned when members of minority communities that suffered the demerits of dhimmitude under Ottoman rule and then again in different forms under totalitarian and autocratic regimes would continue to do so today - whether by trying to ingratiate themselves with the old-new rulers in those MENA countries or else by asking for succour, protection and refuge from the West. Have they not learnt by now after many calamitous experiences that the West as a political entity is not truly interested in their fate and alas, considers them no better than cannon fodder at times?

So how could one possibly conclude with the so-called Arab Spring at this early stage? After all, some pessoptimists (to use a term based on a novel by Emile Habiby) are already referring to the fact that the Arab ‘spring’ has yielded to the exordium of an Arab ‘winter’ - an expression perhaps as redundant as the original spring label itself. However, I would argue that such scepticism might be somewhat anachronistic. Pundits, politicians or journalists cannot at this stage claim what the future holds for the region, just as they cannot say whether Syria after Assad, with its own social and sectarian tensions, will resemble Libya post-Gaddafi or Iraq post-Saddam. All conflicts and all post-conflict situations are unhappy, or unstable, in their own particular ways.

The eminent Tunisian constitutional expert Iyadh Ben Achour recently reflected the sentiments of several hundred million Arabs of this huge and turbulent region when he suggested that, “Our revolution was civil, liberal, and pluralistic, and so should be the constitution.” This is also my hope, but I am also aware of the counterintuitive and well-nigh counter-cultural tendencies of many rulers who would spurn ‘democracy’ for the sake of maintaining their hold on power. After all, was it not Edmund Burke, an 18th century Irish statesman, political theorist and philosopher, who said that no elite willingly submits to democracy, the “most shameless thing in the world”?

In view of these sparse reflections on the uprisings over the past two years, and the mammoth efforts of a disenfranchised citizenry at pursuing their sense of due dignity and free destiny, I cannot predict where we may end up tomorrow as we embark upon a fresh year. But I can suggest where we are now: in the midst of a grand reshaping of all the regional assumptions that have stood for almost a generation.

For no matter where we go with those uprisings, we can no longer claim that the region will revert to where it was on 16 December 2010 when an anonymous Tunisian man upset the regional applecart and provoked the biggest change in the MENA region ever since the 1950’s.

Democracy might not succeed as an exercise, as an ideal or even as a concept and one colour of dictators could well be replaced by another. But something has made the pulse of this region race faster, and that cannot be undone. Now, we are seeking the calm in eye of the storm, and we will possibly do so for some time to come.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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