Wednesday, 4 May 2011

'All Change' In the Middle East

The relatively muted response in the Middle East to the death of Osama Bin Laden illustrates clearly just how much conditions in region have changed and how outdated the tactics of terrorism have become. Of course the fanatics will rant and rave at the passing of the poster child of Islamic terrorism. They will swear eternal vengeance on the ‘heretics,’ ‘hypocrites’ and ‘blasphemers’ – especially those in Washington – but the words are beginning to ring hollow.

Make no mistake, the terrorists have had – and may well continue to have - their tactical successes. But they have failed miserably in their larger efforts to drag the world back into their medieval paradise. Methods of prevention and detection of terrorist threats have sharply improved, but more than that, the goal of rolling the clock back several hundred years has far less appeal than the thoroughly modern aspirations like democracy, justice, equal opportunity, or improved living standards.

If the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has shown anything it is that millions of people across the region are willing to risk a great deal to attain these basic standards that we in the developed world tend to take for granted. The demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the fighters in Benghazi, or the brave protestors in Syria are not struggling to impose a medieval religious life style or a new Islamic caliphate. They are trying something new. Rather than simply blame outsiders (Europe, America and Israel) for their problems, the new wave of Arab activism is looking inward and seeking long-overdue changes to the region’s stagnant political and economic structure.

In many ways groups like Al Qaeda and the old Arab regimes played off each other. Al Qaeda and the jihadis would threaten the old regimes who in turn would use this threat as a tool to deflect external calls for change and to extort billions of dollars from the West, all in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’. Now, thanks to the efforts of millions of ordinary, brave people this cynical game is ending. No one knows how these events will play out, but governments already have to begin re-calibrating their relationships with the new, emerging forces in several key Arab countries. What will the attitude of the new players be toward those countries that for too long helped to prop up oppressive regimes throughout the Middle East? Will there be serious calls for real Arab unity – something that has evaded them for centuries? Exactly how will they deal with the staggering social and economic problems that continue to plague the region? Can countries like Syria and Lebanon avoid sinking into the quagmire of sectarian violence?

Perhaps no country has to do more re-calibrating than Israel. Israeli leaders had gotten comfortable with the old regimes. They knew exactly where they stood with Egypt, Jordan, and even Syria. Israel could do pretty much what it wanted with the Palestinians, and none of its neighbours would make more than a pro forma protest. The Egyptians, for example, were perfectly happy for Israel to clamp down hard on Hamas and, in the process, remove a problem for Egypt. Successive Israeli leaders became very adept at playing off the inherent Arab divisions to the seeming benefit of Israel’s own security.

Having built its relationships with the heavy handed Arab regimes, Israel was now faced with the unsettling prospect of dealing with more democratic regimes that reflect the desires and aspirations of ordinary people. The risk for Israel is that the ordinary people in most Arab countries were much less enthusiastic about relations with Israel in general, and much more enthusiastic about the rights of the Palestinians than the old, autocratic regimes ever had been. Egypt, for one, has been quick to re-orient its foreign policy more favourably toward Hamas and even Iran. It has also opened the border with Gaza.

Israel also is now faced with the improbable alliance of the two main Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas, that have fought each other viciously over the past few years and have diametrically opposed views toward Israel. Fatah has recognized the reality of Israel and has worked closely with the West to negotiate a two-state solution. While Hamas pledges non-violence it continues to reject recognition of Israel. Fatah leaders also praised the death of Osama Bin Laden, whereas one Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, condemned what he called the ‘assassination and killing of an Arab holy warrior.’ The issue is further complicated because Hamas is recognized as a terrorist group by the United States and many European countries. The agreement was signed this week in Egypt, but it remains to be seen just how long these two opposites can co-exist.

Hamas as well is forced to do a bit of recalibration in Syria where it has long been supported by the Assad regime. It has to decide whether to support the murderous regime or lend its voice to the people protesting. After all their support the Syrian authorities are demanding payback and insist that Hamas speak out forcefully in favour of the regime and against the pro-democracy insurgents. The Hamas leadership disingenuously maintains that the organization is a ‘guest’ in Syria and must remain neutral.

Whatever the final outcome, this agreement between Fatah and Hamas has presented Israel with a brand new situation. Divided Palestinians were much easier to deal with than united Palestinians. Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted in his usual Pavlovian, hard-line fashion and immediately called on Fatah to break the deal. He also moved to block the transfer of $90 million to the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli foreign ministry, however, favours a more nuanced, cautious approach. In an internal document the foreign ministry says a united Fatah/Hamas unity government would offer Israel a strategic opportunity.

“The Palestinian move is not only a security threat, but also a strategic opportunity to create a genuine change in the Palestinian context. . . Such a change may serve the long-term interests of Israel.” One can only hope that the Israeli political leadership listens to the professionals in the foreign ministry.

We can expect many similar confusing, contradictory statements from governments around the world as leaders struggle to learn just how the ‘Arab Spring’ will evolve into summer and fall.

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