Friday, 4 January 2013

Grim Prospects for the Middle East in 2013

The coming year is unlikely to be a happy one for the tormented Middle East. Although some dictators have fallen and many Arabs are now demanding their rights, there is no escaping the fact that the balance sheet of the past two years remains profoundly negative. In no country of the Arab Spring is there as yet any convincing sign of peace and reconciliation, of good governance, of a better standard of living for ordinary people, of an enhanced sense of citizenship, let alone of genuine democracy.

Some countries have suffered more than others. In Syria, the cries and tears of the martyred population -- the tens of thousands killed, the hundreds of thousands wounded, maimed, starving and displaced -- weigh heavily on the conscience of the world. Yet there is no end to the agony. To quote UN envoy Lakhdar al-Brahimi, Syria is in danger of descending into hell, if it is not there already.

Individual Arab countries are not the only casualties. The Arab political order has been dealt massive blows, and remains in great disarray. What does this mean? It means that the ability of Arab states to work effectively together has been greatly reduced. They find it difficult to affirm their independence from predatory foreign powers or defend Arab causes in the international arena. The Arab voice today carries little weight.

Some Arab countries have acquired great wealth, but it is no exaggeration to say that the Arabs as a whole -- seen as a block of like-minded people sharing a language, a history and a system of beliefs -- are not in much better shape than they were more than sixty years ago when Arab Palestine was lost to the Zionists in 1947-48, and when the Arab world was comprehensively defeated by Israel in 1967.

Why do I hold these pessimistic views? Look at the evidence.

• Two major Arab countries, Syria and Iraq -- each of whom once had a critical role in defending Arab interests -- today face fragmentation and dismemberment, even the possible loss of their national identity. We are witnessing nothing less than the redrawing of the map which created these states out of Ottoman provinces after the First World War.

• Another curse from which the Arabs are suffering is the flare up of hate between Sunnis and Shi’is. These brothers in Islam -- worshiping the same God and honouring the same Prophet -- behave today like irreconcilable opponents. Nothing has weakened the Arabs more than this fraternal feud, and nothing has brought greater joy to their enemies.

When, in 2003, the United States disbanded the Iraqi army and outlawed the Ba‘th party -- the two key institutions of the Iraqi state -- it brought down the state itself, triggering a Sunni-Shi’i civil war in which hundreds of thousands died and millions were displaced. Two results of the conflict were particularly disastrous: First, the poison of sectarian conflict spread throughout the Arab region. Secondly, Iraq, under Shi’a leadership, lost its traditional role of serving as a counterweight to Iran. The resulting upset in the balance of power aroused fears among some Gulf Arabs of Iranian domination. More

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