International Politics Redux
Arab-Israeli Peace in Pieces

What has become of the Arab-Israeli peace process? Recent years have seen little to no progress, though several opportunities have presented themselves.  The Annapolis Summit in 2007 formally established the two-state solution, to which both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave their informed consent.  Since then, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 – a disastrous Israeli assault on Hamas forces in Gaza – abruptly ended ongoing negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis on one track and between Syria and Israel on another.  Then came the by-now infamous flotilla incident of 2010, which further derailed any efforts to find a lasting peace.  And in 2011, the biggest leak of confidential documents detailing Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking attempts and failures, collusion and cooptation, was exposed by Al Jazeera as the Palestine Papers.  Keeping this brief chronology of a failed peace process in mind, a lasting political settlement – whether between Arabs and Israelis or Palestinians and Israelis – is plainly and simply impossible at this point in time.  Here are four simple reasons why.

Lack of US leadership

President Barack Obama is running for re-election in less than two months, and has effectively been doing so for the better part of the past two years.  There is no substitute for the invaluable role that the United States has to play in facilitating peace talks between Arab and Israeli governments.  US President Jimmy Carter hosted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for weeks at a time at his presidential retreat in Camp David, working tirelessly with these two leaders and their entourages to hone the final text of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978-79.  It was less onerous for US President Bill Clinton to convince King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel to hammer out a peace treaty of their own in 1994, but this was only possible after the Palestinians and Israelis formally recognized each other’s authority as negotiating partners in 1993.  Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries at peace with Israel, even if it is a cold peace that faces significant opposition within both countries, especially in a post-revolutionary Egypt governed by the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  Nevertheless, in both cases, the United States was the only credible interlocutor.  This remains the case today.

Palestinian disunity

It is no secret that Palestinian society is divided, polarized as never before between two camps – among other fringe elements.  This cleavage pits the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people against Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood created in the wake of the First Intifada in 1987.  Territorially, the PA governs the West Bank while Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip since 2007 after a near-civil war.  In terms of ideology, Fatah, the biggest group within the PA, is a secular nationalist organization that has been engaged in dialogue with Israel for 20 years; Hamas is an Islamist fundamentalist group opposed to compromise and dedicated to destroying the state of Israel.  Strategically speaking, Fatah and the PA are friendly to the US and welcomed warmly in world capitals from Paris and Moscow to Ankara and Riyadh.  Hamas, on the other hand, has found allies in Iran, Syria (not since President Assad’s brutal crackdown began in 2011), Hezbollah in Lebanon and Egypt (since the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to power in 2012).  The fact that these two factions are so far apart on substantive issues of policy, and that recent attempts at reconciliation have all failed to bridge these divides, spells disaster for a united Palestinian front in the ongoing peace process with Israel.

Israeli coalition politics

Israel is a pluralist society with a diverse range of actors and organized interests mobilized within political parties.  The election of 2009 delivered a Likud-led coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and allied with nationalist parties like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu and Haredi parties like Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s Shas.  Likud, Beiteinu and Shas are united in their centre-right vision of constructing and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, protecting a sovereign Israel through the use of overwhelming military force and adopting a hardline negotiating position with the Palestinians.  What this means for Netanyahu’s coalition is that the conditions of any final peace deal could be vetoed by any of his junior coalition partners if they refused to accept it.  But that’s not all.  In the process of scrapping the accord, they could pull their support from the Likud Party and join what would then become a majority opposition and force early elections, potentially depriving Netanyahu of his premiership and his party of predominance in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament).  For this reason, the current Israeli government would be in the awkward position of choosing between peace with the Palestinians or electoral survival in Israel’s domestic political scene in the event that an agreement were ever presented to him for ratification.

Arab rejectionism

This point is so critical to the inability of Palestinians and Israelis to resolve their differences that it is remarkable how little attention it is given in international forums.  The Arab countries of the Middle East have been locked in a struggle with Israel since the days of the British Mandate in Palestine, decades before Israel was even established as a sovereign state.  After the seminal war of 1967, the Arab League gathered in Khartoum and famously issued three no’s: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, negotiations with it.”  This changed only when Egypt’s Sadat boldly flew to Jerusalem in 1977, addressed the Knesset candidly and admitted that he was ready for peace, recognition and negotiation.  However, Arab society from Morocco to Iraq to Yemen remains intransigently opposed to Jewish settlement in Israel, with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda and hate speech commonly found in public discourse.  The Arab states were not bystanders in the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their ancestral homelands; they were active participants.  This is not to say that Israel must not share its portion of the burden, but until governments and societies in the Arab world begin to assume responsibility for their policies and behaviours, there will be no solution for Palestine’s woes.

Kings and Pawns - How the Arab Spring Failed to Topple Middle Eastern Monarchs

The Arab monarchies have weathered the revolutions of the Arab Spring surprisingly well for supposedly autocratic regimes.  As corrupt and parochial governments are toppled and replaced in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria (which is just a matter of time), not a single monarchy within the Arab world has been overthrown.

These countries’ governments are ostensibly republican in nature, but all this really means is that a charismatic strongman and his family’s tribal affiliations dominate the society. In all of these places, the regime in power is also backed by the military and is opposed by Islamists and fundamentalists of all stripes.  This is why the well mobilized and extremely motivated Islamist parties are shaping events in Arab monarchies in profound ways that would have been unthinkable just two or three years ago.  In Egypt for example, not only do Islamists dominate the post-authoritarian political system’s legislature, but a member of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood has even ascended to the presidency. To be fair, however, the president’s powers are still in doubt since the constitution has yet to be written and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still controls the military, retains executive power, wields significant influence over the judiciary, and receives billions of dollars per year in American foreign assistance.

So how have the kingdoms, sheikhdoms and emirates of the Arab world managed to survive?  Oil helps.  The monarchs of the Arabian Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – are all rich in energy and have been able to mollify their populations with bribes and handouts, or “subsidies”.  The Bahraini royal family even absconded by inviting Saudi and Emirati armed forces to help with the military crackdown on their own population.  But King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Mohammed VI of Morocco are not so fortunate in energy resources, yet they too have survived this long.  Perhaps they are well insulated by some manufactured legitimacy of the ruling monarchy among the country’s people that took place over the course of decades of constancy.  Cosmetic changes have been made in both these countries to their respective political systems, governing legislatures, and bureaucracies, and somehow these changes have been enough to keep protestors from ousting those regimes like they did in neighbouring North African countries and the in southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Arab Monarchies are far from invincible, though.  They have been decimated before, just not during the revolutionary turmoil that has shaken the region since late 2010.  The Arab Kingdom of Syria existed for four short months in 1920 and was abruptly terminated by the French as they assumed control of the Lebanese and Syrian territories under League of Nations mandates following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.  King Faisal of Syria was hastily installed by the British as ruler of Iraq as a consolation prize, a country which he managed to administer as a family business until the late 1950s.  The Muhammad Ali dynasty reigned over Egypt and Sudan for almost 150 years, ending in King Farouk’s demise after the Free Officers Coup of 1952.  The Mutawakkalite Kingdom of Yemen existed in some form or another in what is now Yemen for much of the early and mid-twentieth century, but finally dissolved in the struggle between North and South Yemen, a brutal civil war that lasted from the 1960s until the late 1980s.

In Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Yemen, from the 1920s through the 1960s, royalist forces were deposed in military coups and replaced by authoritarian despots.  Now many of these same staunchly secular, republican-inspired governments are facing widespread popular disenchantment with their rule.  For some reason, these countries’ governments remain permanently insecure, while the monarchies of Jordan, Morocco and the Arabian Gulf continue to build their own legitimacy and support networks, coalescing most concretely in the economic and political union that is the Gulf Cooperation Council.  The enigma with this latest round of revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East is that these kingdoms are seemingly immune to the same populist pressures afflicting nearby governments which are every bit as repressive.

Whatever the eventual fate of these countries, it is an interesting phenomenon to note that the monarchies of the Arab World have all tenaciously clung to survival amidst the unpredictability of the so-called Arab Spring.  Strategically speaking, these royal families have all fallen to some extent under the influence of the proverbial elephant in the room, the United States.  Monarchism in the Arab geopolitical context has become synonymous with Americanism, so any fall from grace among these quasi-client states’ regimes would inevitably impact America’s role in the Middle East drastically.  From global energy supplies to the War on Terror, these monarchies have cooperated with the world’s sole superpower to ensure stability and security in their part of the world.  Therefore, what happens next to the rulers of these royal realms could have unimaginable ripple effects across the region and indeed, the world.

Egypt Interrupted

Recent elections supervised by the military-dominated government have failed to deliver fundamental democratic reforms to Egypt’s political system.  The long-awaited parliamentary elections of November 2011 to January 2012 disproportionately favoured Islamist political parties at the expense of the liberal and secularist forces that packed Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution, in the early months of 2011.  Although repressed for decades under Egypt’s draconian security services, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists were unofficially tolerated because they provided social services to millions of citizens that the government was either incapable of doing or unwilling to do on its own.  As a natural albeit unintended consequence, political Islamists like the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and the hardline al-Noor Party were much better organized, mobilized and recognized at the ballot box than their opponents, be they political secularists, nationalists, leftists, liberalists, and virtually all others.

Though many may disagree with the results of these seemingly skewed elections, the fact is that they were the freest and fairest in modern Egypt’s history.  If the price to pay for a more democratic Egypt in the long run is an Islamist-dominated Legislative Assembly in the short run, then surely this is worth it?  The successful experiences of comparable parliaments in the Middle East with Islamist-party majorities would seem to support this fact: the governments of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (in power since 2002), Tunisia’s al-Ennahda Party and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (both in power since 2011) have all managed to reconcile Islamist political stewardship with democratic transitions of power.  While many may disagree with the priorities and proposed policies of Islamist politicians, democracy means trying them out until voters decide to change their minds with the next election.

But even this point is moot since on June 14-15, 2012, on the eve of a long and tumultuous race for the presidency in Egypt and in light of parliament’s failure to convene a representative panel and to draft a national constitution, SCAF unexpectedly dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament.  This is even more outrageous because after more than a year of gradually repealing Mubarak-era emergency-state laws which restricted political freedoms and civil liberties, SCAF simultaneously imposed a de facto state of martial law, granting the police and security services sweeping powers of arrest and detention – the same powers that had finally just been removed a month earlier!  And this is all taking place as Mubarak himself has been sentenced by the Supreme Court of Egypt to life in prison while his health continues to deteriorate and rumours of his health problems and untimely demise propagate unchecked.

As the sole arbiters of force in the country and the only credible mediators between rival political forces vying for Egypt’s destiny, the military deserves credit for at least maintaining stability and control where tens of millions of people are concerned, a chaotic situation threatens to engulf the region where the risk of governmental authority collapsing without them is all-too high.  Egypt’s socioeconomic situation is far from stable: poverty, unemployment, crime, hunger and corruption all remain rampant, and after over a year, the youth who instigated the revolution have virtually nothing to show for it.  While the military is far from the perfect facilitator of desperately needed democratic reform, it is a far cry better than an Egypt with no Mubarak as well as no law-enforcing, order-imposing military establishment.

So what is the significance of political developments in Egypt for the Middle East and for the rest of the world?  First of all, as the symbolic heart of the Arab World, Egypt’s revolutionary turmoil can spillover into neighbouring countries’ internal affairs and influence developments far beyond its own borders.  Secondly, Egypt’s massive population (85 million) and demographic issues (a youth bulge, urban sprawl and slum dwellings) have the potential – depending on how quickly a government is formed and which policies it chooses to prioritize – to either help or hinder human development in the Arab World.  Third, Egypt has been a critical lynchpin in the region’s Pax Americana since the 1970s, serving as an American ally in the wars against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in the 2000s and since 9/11.  Finally, Egypt is key to the broader Middle East peace process, having signed a decades-old peace treaty with Israel (though its long-term survival has been called into question by leading presidential contenders in Egypt) and having mediating several Palestinian-Israeli, even intra-Palestinian, rounds of peace, disarmament and prisoner-of-war negotiations.

Even as Mohammad Mursi wins the first democratic presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s charismatic moderate has little leeway to influence events as they unfold in Egypt since no functional constitution yet outlines his powers or the relationship his office has with other governmental bodies.  Arab revolutionaries can at least find solace in the fact that an Islamist president at the helm of the Arab World’s most populous country was patently unthinkable just one year ago.  Having recently arrogated legislative prerogatives and constitution-drafting powers unto themselves, Egypt’s SCAF will continue to call the shots for the foreseeable future and pull the president’s strings, either from behind the scenes or out in the open.  For now, there is no difference.  The government is in the hands of the military, and so the country’s institutions will likewise continue to dance to the tune of their drums.

What Next for Iran?

Iran.  The country is without a doubt one of the most geopolitically sensitive states in the international system.  It is also one of the most challenging and chimerical countries for its immediate neighbours, the region’s rising powers, the world’s great powers and the international community as a whole to fathom.  Just this past weekend (April 14, 2012), the first nuclear talks between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S. – and Germany) and Iran in 15 months took place. During the past decade, subsequent rounds of these talks have led to little or no progress.  The most recent talks in Istanbul have been hailed by the Americans, Europeans and Iranians as ‘constructive and useful’, although nothing of substance was actually achieved at these negotiations.  If the universally positive atmosphere emanating from Istanbul lasts for another month, the real negotiations on Iranian uranium enrichment and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections will begin in earnest on May 23 in Baghdad.

This tenuous breakthrough in Western-Iranian relations is as fragile as it is unexpected.  The West is understandably uneasy with Iran; as a Shiite Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, it is unique in the world and wholly alien to the Westphalian conception of secular politics and sovereign statehood.  Already at odds with traditional Western norms of international order and ideology, Iranians are also wary of foreign interference in their internal affairs after centuries of colonial adventurism and imperial domination from abroad.  The damage done to Iranian-American relations after the 444-day hostage crisis following the 1979 Islamic Revolution certainly did nothing to alter the situation.  As it exists today, Iran is naturally poised to play a role as a regional power at least on par with that of Egypt or Turkey.  All three dwarf their immediate neighbours in size, population, military might, strategic location, systems of alliances, and so on.  This enables them to effectively craft their own spheres of geopolitical influence, and Iran has done an exceptionally good job of manipulating Middle Eastern politics to its advantage.

Take the conflict with Israel as an example.  Opposition to Zionism and any peacemaking or normalization of relations with Israel has been a hallmark of the Iranian regime’s domestic national identity and coloured its foreign policy priorities since the Ayatollahs assumed power in 1979.  This policy has been championed with a renewed urgency since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the beginning of the Madrid to Oslo Palestinian-Israeli peace process, a fact which has arguably derailed Middle Eastern peace talks for nearly twenty years.  Iranian supreme leaders Khomeini and Khamenei have both prophesied Israel’s impending demise before, but fast forward to the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and the increasingly anti-Israeli genocidal rhetoric coupled with his by now infamous habit of flamboyantly denying the Holocaust and it is easy to see why Israeli security interests would be threatened.  Israel has for its part loudly beaten the drums of a preventative war with Iran if nuclear negotiations with Western countries fail to disarm its potential nuclear arsenal, but Iran has done nothing to assuage Israeli fears or alleviate international concerns about its nuclear program.

Another factor complicating American and Israeli relations with Iran is the so-called Arab Spring.  As the domino-effects of revolutionary upheavals in key Arab states permeate throughout North Africa and the Middle East, geostrategic relationships of power are shifting in similarly revolutionary ways.  Since Ben Ali fled Tunisia in a panic and Mubarak stepped down from the Egyptian leadership over a year ago, the Arab World has witnessed unprecedented institutional pressures.  Libya has inaugurated a new chapter in its history with the elimination of Qaddafi while Yemen has initiated a transitional period of governmental change without Saleh in power.  Some Arab monarchies like Morocco and Jordan have ushered in constitutional reforms and allowed for modest political democratization while oil-rich Gulf sheikhdoms spend their way to security.

But the most delicate power play of all is materializing in Syria, where the Assad government is a critical component of the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Gaza link.  The Palestinian militant resistance group Hamas has even pulled its headquarters out of Syria’s capital, evidently finding it no longer defensible given its vocal support for popular revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world.  Despite repeated rounds of sanctions and diplomacy from the Arab League and the United Nations, including Kofi Annan’s latest 6-point plan and the inbound monitors meant to stabilize a days-old and already faltering ceasefire, conflict between the Syrian opposition movement based in Turkey and the Damascus-based Assad government will persist because the fundamental issues at the core of it remain unresolved.

Clearly, Iran’s unfaltering support for Assad in this regard is rooted in its strategic interest in the Syrian government’s survival.  Aside from support among Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon – which is not representative of the majority of public opinion in either of those countries – Assad’s Syria is Iran’s only lever of influence in the Arab Middle East and represents one of its closest strategic allies in the never-ending hostility against Israel.  The irony is that while Iran originally praised the Arab masses for ousting secular autocrats and facilitating Islamist competition in Tunisian and Egyptian elections, the regime has found itself in an extremely awkward position in Syria by taking the exact opposite approach.

This pragmatic reality has pitted Iran’s interests diametrically opposed to Turkey’s in the Syrian theatre of conflict.  As Turkey shelters tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and protects the military defectors of the Free Syrian Army, Iran has found it doubly awkward to attend the latest round of talks on its nuclear program in Istanbul – the very same city that hosted the ‘Friends of Syria’ conferences attended by dozens of countries’ representatives in support of the opposition Syrian National Council and aimed at ultimately dislodging Syrian President Assad from power.  Iran almost cancelled these talks completely less than two weeks before they were set to begin because of Turkey’s outspoken role in criticizing the Syrian government’s brutality and aiding the opposition’s efforts.  All this merely indicates the unpredictable and counterintuitive nature of the Arab Spring on the Middle East’s balance of power.

One final observation: the next round of nuclear talks will take place in May in Baghdad, an interesting venue given Iraq’s relative isolation from the region for the past two decades.  The recent Arab League Summit hosted by Baghdad in late March was widely seen as a key step for Iraq along the arduous path towards renewed integration into Arab affairs and largely focused on the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Syria.  Given the long-simmering fears of Iranian influence over Iraq, especially with a Shiite-led government in a Shiite-majority country, even the locale for these talks could be explosive.  Only time will tell if the Iranian government will genuinely compromise with Western powers over its nuclear ambitions, but the P5+1 countries will need to accommodate Iran’s legitimate national interests in terms of energy and security as well.  One thing is for sure, though: the Iranian enigma continues to confound and beguile policymakers and pundit machines alike.

Predicting a 2012 War in the Middle East

Like many social phenomena, war is a tricky thing to predict.  The final decision to launch an assault on any enemy is ultimately made by an individual or small group of elite individuals with the power to do so.  This unpredictable human factor means that no mathematical equation will ever be able to model when or where war breaks out in the real world.  Having said that, telltale signs that tensions are rising or militaries are mobilizing typically emerge in the weeks and months prior to combat.  Before the June 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, for instance, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser signaled his intent to go to war by expelling the United Nations Emergency Force that had been stationed in the Sinai Desert since 1956 as a buffer between hostile Egyptian and Israeli forces.  Similarly, the United States gave the Iraqis plenty of warning and ample opportunity after invading and occupying Kuwait in 1990 to vacate the Gulf Arab country before the Americans forcefully evicted them in 1991 with Operation Desert Storm.  In the modern Middle East, four major trends are contributing to an increased risk of war.

One of the longest festering wounds in the region is the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, with the lack of progress on 20-year old peace talks only worsening the situation.  Negotiations have been on hold since late 2010, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in Washington with high hopes, together with US President Barack Obama, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II.  Shortly after those talks floundered, the Palestinians embarked on a unilateral drive for statehood in the United Nations, failing to rally either Israel or the United States to its cause – which are the only two countries whose collaboration is indispensable to the creation of a Palestinian state – and bankrupting the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the process.  As of late in January 2012, low-level Palestinian and Israeli representatives hosted by the Jordanian King in Amman have failed to reach any consensus on how to resume actual negotiations.  For additional reasons discussed below and barring any unforeseen developments, deadlock is likely to characterize Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in the near future.  Since this conflict has always been cited by terrorist groups like Palestinian Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah and al-Qaeda as rationales for their attacks, no progress means more conflict.

The second major indicator of instability is electoral fever.  In the United States, Palestine and Israel, 2012 is shaping up to be a year of contested elections and leadership changes.  The American presidential election is scheduled for November 6, although the primary process to nominate a Republican Party candidate to face off against President Obama will undoubtedly dominate US news coverage and media attention for the rest of the year.  The Palestinian situation is extremely fluid and complex: on top of the May 4 presidential and parliamentary elections for the Palestinian Authority pending successful reconciliatory efforts between the rival Fatah and Hamas national movements, the leaders of both groups – President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of Fatah along with the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal – are apparently stepping down and leaving ideological vacuums in their wake.  Israeli elections are now slated for late 2013, but the ruling Likud Party’s decision to hold their own primaries more than a year ahead of schedule in late January 2012 signals Prime Minister Netanyahu’s shrewd decision to bolster his own support before calling national elections later in the year and reorganizing the makeup of his own parliamentary coalition.  This preoccupation with domestic political machinations not only distracts these countries from their efforts to make peace but also emboldens extremists to hijack the agenda by acting opportunistically and counterproductively during times of stressful political transitions.

A third trend compounding the first two is the revolutionary dynamism toppling the old guard in North African and Middle Eastern states, the substitution of these dynastic dictatorships with Islamist political parties and the risks of civil, ethnic and international war that these processes invariably bring with them – in other words, the so-called Arab Spring turned Winter turned Spring again.  Already three Arab despots have been deposed by their people in North Africa, with the rulers of Syria and Yemen facing the same fate.  Tribal warfare was necessary in Libya, Syria and Yemen, but international war could just as easily result if border countries become involved – Egypt and Syria border Israel, for example, and could easily scapegoat Israel for their own failings as corrupt, authoritarian governments.  The governing coalitions emerging from recent elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco also portend the rise of Islamic influence in democratizing countries, where previously secular autocrats banned all official Islamist organizations from openly engaging in party politics.  Revolutionary upheavals and the spread of Islamism spell instability and raise the odds of conflict in the region.

Fourthly and finally, Iranian intransigence in the Middle East continues to ratchet up tensions between itself and the United States, its Gulf Arab neighbours and Israel.  Iran’s nuclear program has garnered much of the attention in this regard, and as a new round of nuclear talks coalesce in Turkey, this will remain the focus of major concern for the US and many European countries.  As the US applies more unilateral sanctions on the Iranian economy and the Europeans initiate steps to boycott their oil exports, Iran has responded by threatening to blockade the most vital oil shipping lane in the world, the Strait of Hormuz.  Doubtful as this prospect may seem, the effect of this insecurity on oil prices has already had an effect.  In addition, Iran still exerts enormous influence over Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian politics thanks to its support for terrorist proxies Hamas, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad while simultaneously leading the rejectionist front against any Arab-Israeli peace and inciting anti-regime activities in Shiite pockets throughout the Middle East.  All of this mischievous activity no doubt contributes to rising tensions, growing instability and increased risks of a Middle Eastern war.

The Syrian Kerfuffle

In the discourse of international politics, it is rarely warranted to label a situation a kerfuffle.  Syria is definitely one such kerfuffle.  The international community has failed to broker a solution to what has now become more than a year-long conflict in which the government of Bashar al-Assad is fighting for its very survival against an opposition movement loosely united by the desire to oust him.  Ever since February 2011 when some disenchanted young students in the southern city of Deraa spray painted anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school, were arrested, and local residents protested against those arrests, the Syrian uprising has escalated to a point beyond any previous predictions.  The international community’s interest in and involvement with Syria’s difficulties has ebbed and flowed in the past year, with very little in terms of results to show for it.

For most of the summer of 2011, the world stood by and refused to engage in any serious action because the Syrian regime looked fairly stable, notwithstanding the demise of local autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt (and soon to be Libya and Yemen).  When the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (which began in August) arrived, the Saudi king symbolically spoke out in defence of the thousands of Sunni Muslims ostensibly being killed, imprisoned and displaced by the Shiite Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, followed in turn by several other Gulf Arab states.  Turkey, which had until the fall of 2011 gently prodded the Syrian government towards reforms, began to harden its stance as well, allowing Syrian refugees and opposition dissidents to operate from its territory.  The United Nations (UN) failed to pass any resolutions in the Security Council critical of al-Assad’s Syria because of Russian and Chinese vetoes, as well as Russian political and military support, while the Arab League rallied behind the opposition, albeit hesitantly and haphazardly.  Most recently, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has travelled to Syria, Russia and China to gain support for a new peace initiative, but the bloodshed continues.

It is interesting to note some of the comparisons between Syria in 2012 and similar events in the region.  The civil unrest in Yemen began in earnest in January 2011, but President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ultimately convinced to step down as the country teetered on the brink of civil war and after repeated attempts were derailed by delaying tactics because the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United States (US) were able to negotiate the power transfer from Saleh to the Yemeni ruling class in 2012, which was not so much a revolution as it was an evolution in the political and military elite’s composition.  In Libya, where the unrest began only slightly earlier than in Syria, Muammar Qaddafi was only defeated because a broad coalition of countries was assembled and ultimately enabled by the Arab League’s authorization of military force in the form of a no-fly zone, a UN Security Council resolution allowing for humanitarian protection and the combined military strength of key countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as token Arab support from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  Finally, in Iraq in 1991, after the US-led coalition forces ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the southern Shiites and the northern Kurds rose up in revolt as a direct result of US encouragement, but the US was too afraid of the spectre of another fundamentalist Islamic regime neighbouring Iran to allow these revolts to succeed, a dynamic that is all too similar in the way the Syrian crisis is playing itself out.

The great power interests at work were alluded to earlier, but it is worth pausing for a moment and spelling them out in greater detail.  It is clear enough that US interests in the Middle East typically run parallel to those of the Western Europeans, at least in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 era, and are often seen as antithetical to those of Russia and China, the other permanent members and veto-holders of the UN Security Council.  Both Russia and China have saved Syria from condemnation in the UN and strongly defended its sovereign right to conduct its internal affairs with discretion while simultaneously denouncing Western imperialism and contradictory foreign policies.  Without Russian diplomatic cover and military support, it is seriously doubtful that the Syrian regime could have lasted this long, and as the only Mediterranean port in the Middle East friendly to Russian warships, this makes eminent sense from Russia’s geostrategic perspective.  China is also concerned about its long-term influence in the region, which is perhaps why it has thrown its weight behind Syria, but as the oil-rich countries of the Gulf and the collective countries of the Arab League condemn the atrocities in Syria, China’s position remains tenuous at best.  In addition, regional stability and the economical transport of energy supplies through the Middle East are in China’s direct national interest since they keep commodity prices low, something which cannot be said of Russia’s growing status as a petro-state and an energy superpower.

On a deeper level, the regional interests battling for supremacy in the Syrian kerfuffle are also scarcely as evident and troublesome as they are in this particular case.  Backing Syria from day one have been the Iranian government and its Revolutionary Guards Corps, the militant resistance movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which have provided military training and assistance, and tacit support from the Palestinian movement Hamas until early 2012.  Weak neighbours have also tacitly supported the Syrian regime because they have little choice; they are either directly under its sphere of influence (Lebanon), economically tied to it via imports for their own survival (Jordan) or so penetrated by cross-border clandestine activity that their own tenuous domestic stability would be threatened by a rebuke of any kind (Iraq).  Like Hamas, Turkey formerly considered Syria a strategic asset but has come to the eventual conclusion that the regime cannot be permitted to survive in its current form, even going so far as to host Syrian opposition gatherings and international conferences with the goal of supporting these anti-regime rebels and toppling the al-Assad power structure.  The Saudis and the Gulf countries have been calling recently for much more action on the part of the international community in terms of arming and financing the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, with 70 countries recognizing these groups as the official representatives of the Syrian people and pledging concrete support for them at the most recent ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Istanbul in April 2012.  Israel has managed to stay out of the fray for the most part, and other countries have treaded very carefully.

And so the bloodshed continues, more than a full year after the Arab Spring-inspired revolts first began.  The lack of a credible response to the Syrian situation is not directly attributable to any group of actors or individuals, nor can it be chalked up to a failure of the international system of states to act in the interests of the international community.  The UN Security Council was designed with vetoes in mind so as to take into account the collective interests of the world’s post-war great powers.  Regional organizations like the Arab League are also powerless to act forcefully since they are just symbolic expressions of the once-revolutionary ideals that pan-Arabism espoused nearly a half-century ago.  Since unilateral interventions would be suicidal for regional countries and downright disastrous for stronger ones like the US, a multilateral option or an internal revolution would seem to be the best solutions.  But as we have seen up until now, these have only been even more spectacular failures.

The Arab League: More than the Sum of its Parts?

Of all the intergovernmental regional groupings, the Arab League is most likely the least effective.  Since the organization was founded in 1945, the League of Arab States has skillfully steered clear of taking any decisive action on virtually every international conflict in the region.  Except for the Arab-Israeli conflict, on which popular opinion in every member-state remains extremely pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli for obvious reasons, the Arab League has sought to avoid any divisive action within the Arab community.  The League even managed to sit out the ‘Arab Cold War’ of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, an international struggle between nationalist republics and Islamist monarchies in the region that paralleled to some degree the bipolar Cold War between the world’s two superpowers.  In this sense, the Arab League’s institutional weakness was its strength: irrelevance ensured survival.

Fast forward nearly 70 years to the ongoing Arab revolutions reshaping the modern Middle East.  It is ironic that in spite of being composed almost exclusively of autocratic and dictatorial regimes, the Arab League has taken bold and courageous steps in support of mass protests and popular uprisings against unpopular leaders and their governments in the Arab World.  Even more, the Arab League may finally be playing a positive role after decades of irrelevance.  In fact, one key sign that the League is acting in the collective interest of the public rather than in the much narrower self-interest of its member-states’ ruling elites is when the state threatened by internal upheaval lashes out at the Arab League, usually for criticizing the troubled state in the first place.

In Libya Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi described the no-fly zone eventually passed by the Arab League in March 2011 as a ‘colonialist plot’ by the West – in concert with the League, of course – to steal Libya’s oil.  His son and once heir-apparent Seif al-Islam strangely dismissed both ‘Arabs’ and the Arab League, mentioning that Libya would rather rely on African and Asian migrant workers than fellow Arabs.  The League had suspended Libya’s membership earlier in February, laying the groundwork for a more robust United Nations (UN) involvement in the pariah state’s increasingly bloody crackdown and authorization of NATO intervention in the eventual ouster of Qaddafi.  Arab League action in Libya was arguably made easier by its geographical location, sandwiched between two post-revolutionary states, Tunisia and Egypt, and relatively isolated from the rest of the Arab World in the sweeping deserts of North Africa.

The situation in Syria has garnered the most headlines in recent months for President Bashar al-Assad’s handling of an even more deadly and destabilizing civil revolt now approaching a year in duration.  Here the Arab League has waffled considerably more than in Libya, which is understandable given Syria’s traditional role as the lynchpin in an intricate web of Middle Eastern alliances and a frontline state in the never-ending war against Israel.  After a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria was vetoed by Russia and China in October 2011, the Arab League in November suspended Syria’s membership and imposed sanctions on the regime, but stopped short of calling for foreign intervention.  All along, Assad had accused the League of promoting an international (Western-led, lest we forget) conspiracy against his regime, repeating that the Arab states were mere stooges and that the League was just a platform in this foreign-led, foreign-funded effort to undermine Syrian sovereignty and diminish Arab pride.

In late December, after months of diplomatic wrangling, Syria agreed to allow League monitors into the country to monitor its implementation of an Arab League peace plan to resolve the crisis, an ambitious move for the regional organization that ultimately failed and unfortunately served only to prolong the bloodshed.  The monitoring effort and peace plan fell apart in late January 2012 after several Arab Gulf states pulled out of the mission and recalled their ambassadors from Damascus.  A second UN Security Council resolution critical of Assad, this one explicitly backed by the Arab League, was also vetoed by the Russian and Chinese delegations in early February.  Meanwhile, Assad continued to lambast the League by dismissing its oil-rich Arab Gulf members as countries lacking culture, scoffing that they could “rent and import some history with their money, but money does not make nations and cultures.”  The Arab League has recently called for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission, but few are predicting its success.

More recently, the Syrian civil war has accelerated in scope and severity.  The Arab League and many of its member-states attended the Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia last February, along with representatives from dozens of Western and otherwise interested countries, in an attempt to boost the Syrian National Council’s status and effectiveness as the officially recognized opposition.  Amid Western fears of al-Qaeda infiltration into the Syrian rebel movement, the rebellion’s own inability to crystallize behind a solid front and the risks inherent in arming an unidentified group of anti-regime dissidents, no major breakthroughs occurred at the first Friends of Syria conference.  The Saudi representative made an especially public spectacle of walking out in disgust at its inaction while at the same time calling for arming the Syrian opposition.  As the second such conference approaches this March in Turkey and the man-made humanitarian disasters in Syria become more widely known to the world, one can only hope for progress in terms of uniting the opposition and ending Bashar al-Assad’s iron grip on power.

The Arab states of the Gulf have their own regional grouping, a more exclusive club known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Composed of oil-rich sheikhdoms (except for Yemen), this organization has a mixed record as a positive player in the region and has acted more in the collective interest of regional stability and Sunni Arab dominance.  For example, the GCC mediated the transfer of power in Yemen to promote stability in the Gulf from 2011–2012 as President Ali Abdullah Saleh faced overwhelming opposition in the streets, insurgencies in the North, secession in the South, and several other threats to the state’s unity.  On the other hand, several Gulf Arab states effectively invaded Shiite-majority Bahrain in March 2011 in a blatantly anti-democratic operation to clamp down on widespread protests and ensure the survival of the fellow Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy.

Though the GCC clearly has a mixed record on its own turf, its key member-states (mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are today the leading forces in the Arab League for orderly resolutions of Arab revolutions.  Tunisia and Egypt transitioned to post-dictatorial regimes with little to no external influence.  Libya and Yemen, however, necessitated prolonged intervention by the Arab League (and GCC, respectively).  As populist movements in the Middle East topple authoritarian governments like dominoes, and the Syrian crisis drags on despite Arab League efforts, this regional organization’s next challenge is imminent.  Whether the Arab League continues its proactive policies or reverts to the irrelevance of the past remains to be seen.

Arab democracy: Just a revolution away?

Much has been made in the past year about the prospects for democracy in the Arab world after the unexpected revolutions that began in Tunisia spread like wildfire throughout the rest of North Africa and the Middle East.  The US-based NGO Freedom House touted the accomplishments of the Arab Spring in its annual report, Freedom in the World 2012: “In a region that had seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of activist reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing dictators who had spent decades entrenching themselves in power.”  More than one year after it all began, does the democratic hype really live up to the revolutionary reality?

To better understand this question, consider how these revolutions have played out differently in different Arab states. In Bahrain, for instance, popular demands among the majority Shiites for representative government, constitutional democracy and respect for human rights have been stonewalled by the dominant Sunni monarchy, mainly because of external intervention on behalf of its Gulf Arab neighbours and its geopolitical alliance with the United States.  To its credit, the Bahraini government did authorize an independent commission to investigate the causes, killings and injustices of the so-called Pearl Revolution.  Released in late 2011, this report has been surprisingly candid in detailing human rights abuses committed by the regime and making public policy recommendations for the minority monarchy to reform its politically unrepresentative system.  The Bahraini case shows us how the revolutions in some countries have simply failed.

In other places, mass protests have yielded modest reforms on the part of benevolent autocrats – progress, to be sure, but nothing like a genuine revolution.  This reaction is typical of the more progressive monarchies of the region, like Morocco and Jordan, which have shrewdly managed limited reforms and maintained steady levels of popularity, thus ensuring their own survival.  The sheikhs and emirs of the Gulf, as in Kuwait and Oman, have made modest reforms too, just not the political kind.  Together with Saudi Arabia, these oil-rich countries spent at least $150 billion on their citizens in new economic grants and subsidies, effectively bribing their own people into submission – and since September 2011, that sum has only increased.  Here, evolution is a much better descriptor of the changes taking place than revolution.

Then there are the cases of ongoing revolutionary turmoil, the most prominent examples being Yemen and Syria.  After agreeing and to step down and then reneging on that commitment more times than most care to count, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to have finally ended his 33-year rule after he bid farewell to the country and headed to the US for ‘medical treatment.’  Even with national elections scheduled for later in February, Yemen needs at least $15 billion to survive the transition to democracy – an impossible feat for a country wracked by mass poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment, separatism and terrorism.  Similar forces are fueling popular outrage in Syria, with the various opposition groups coalescing around their opposition to four decades of the al-Assad family’s authoritarian rule and increasingly bloody crackdowns.  The stability and legitimacy of these regimes is extremely tenuous, and the political destinies of these countries are extremely fluid as a result at this point in time.

What about the post-revolutionary scenarios?  In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, it is now possible to discuss free and fair elections, civilian government as opposed to military control, independent judiciaries, freedom of the press, the rule of law and constitutional principles as never before.  In Tunisia the Salafi Islamist hardliners are beginning to openly challenge the ruling Ennahda Party’s moderate Islamist dedication to these principles.  The Transitional National Council in Libya faces enormous challenges preparing a country with no representative political institutions and no history of democracy for elections this summer while maintaining law and order, battling the remnants of pro-Qaddafi troops, unifying dozens of armed tribal factions, and facing fresh allegations of torture.  Although elections have been held in Egypt, they have handed Islamists with questionable commitments to democratic values over two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and glossed over the civil-military tensions between Egypt’s government and the ruling generals.

To get back to the original question, democracy as we know it in the West is far from assured in any of these revolutionary countries.  Many of them are still undergoing traumatic transitions in which the removal of the old guard has not yet given way to a stable post-authoritarian political order.  In other cases, a dictatorial figurehead has been substituted for an equally oppressive administration, dashing public hopes for democratic governance.  Only in a select few country cases does genuine transformation of the entire system of governance seem to be on the horizon, and even then a hybrid Islamic democracy (Tunisia) or a reformist democratic Islam (Morocco) might better reflect the will of the people.

Who knows if a full-fledged, representative democracy is the inevitable end-result of all these protests, uprisings and revolutions?  As many of these national leaders crackdown on dissent and adapt to survive, it is simply too early to say if entrenched authoritarianism will surrender to the forces of popular self-determination or continue fighting the losing battle for despotism.  The two new Islamist prime ministers of Morocco and Tunisia publicly defended the prospects for Arab democracy at this year’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Only time will tell if other states in the region emulate the Tunisian and Moroccan models of democracy in this second year of the Arab Spring.  Regardless, an astonishing amount of progress has already been made since that first domino fell in the fateful month of January 2011 that it is difficult in these revolutionary times not to be optimistic – at last – about the future of the Middle East.

Why the Arab Spring Actually Benefits Israel

Going strong for more than a year now, the changes wrought by the Arab Spring on the Middle East and beyond continue to reshape the region’s geopolitical landscape in wholly unpredictable ways.  Just over a year ago, nobody could have predicted that three Arab autocrats would be ousted and several more would be fighting for their very survival.  The fact that one of these deposed dictators, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, had honoured the Arab world’s first peace treaty with Israel – a treaty that led in large part to the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat – should worry supporters of peace everywhere, especially Israel.  Amidst all the chaos and commotion, however, the doubtful hypothesis that the processes unleashed by the Arab Spring are somehow inherently bad for Israel has become widely and uncritically accepted as common wisdom.  Even the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu revealed the Jewish state’s own misgivings about the Arab Spring’s sweeping revolutions, claiming that the Arab world was “moving not forward, but backward,” and labelling them “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic” in nature.  No doubt the risks and costs associated with these revolutions are real, but so are the opportunities and benefits for many of the actors involved, even for Israel. 

Let’s begin with the fact that authoritarian regimes are fundamentally unsustainable political entities, no matter how benign their leader or how beneficial their existence may seem.  From this perspective, even the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was built on a proverbial hill of sand that was bound to be washed away by a tide not unlike the wave of popular unrest that unseated President Mubarak.  To be clear, the peace remains in place today, but the fear is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will seek to abrogate it after emerging victorious in recent parliamentary elections and consolidating their domestic foothold on power.  This is unlikely to happen for many reasons that would harm both the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s own national interests, but even if it did, there is no reason to think that a country roiled by revolutionary turmoil and on the verge of bankruptcy, rife with corruption and riddled with inefficiency, struggling to transition from military stewardship to civilian rule and struggling to feed, house, educate, and employ tens of millions of people would suddenly decide that its highest priority was to wage a losing war with Israel and squander the international goodwill it has rightfully earned so far.  Therefore, there need be no contradiction between Egyptian prosperity, Israeli security and international peace.

Although many of these autocratic regimes are supported by the West thanks to their contributions to political stability, economic security and foreign policy cooperation, they remain illegitimate because they can only ensure their own survival through violence and would likely lose any free and fair elections held today.  Most Middle Eastern non-democracies are entrenched regimes with decades of experience in repressing their populations and scapegoating Israel for their problems.  Saudi Arabia and other Gulf kingdoms reportedly spent a whopping $150 billion in 2011 on pampering their citizens and avoiding any protests, and many of their foreign policies are in lock-step with Western security and energy interests.  Realistically, who believes wholeheartedly that these countries can stifle domestic dissent and abuse human rights forever just because today’s models of industrial economic growth depend on abundant reserves of oil and gas?  Even the oil-poor monarchies of Jordan and Morocco have managed to escape the fate that befell their fellow authoritarian leaders, but both have successfully leveraged patronage networks to enhance their own legitimacy and cleverly crafted political reforms without relinquishing power completely to dampen the demands of protestors.  It is useful to note that the quasi-democracies in Lebanon and Iraq have been spared the tumultuous upheavals of the Arab Spring, largely because the citizens of these countries can voice their concerns through semi-representative political channels non-existent in other Arab states.  The arc of history is bending clearly in the direction of democratization, and any overthrow of an authoritarian or dictatorial leader is a step in the right direction.

The obvious question to ask at this point is what happens if whatever comes after the dictator is worse than what came before?  Is an Islamic theocracy not worse than a secular autocracy?  This question not only misinterprets the primary causes of the Arab uprisings but also mischaracterizes its final trajectory.  Thirty years ago it was possible for a group of religious hardliners to hijack a revolution and marginalize any opposition, like the clerical establishment did in Iran under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.  Today this is not only extremely unlikely to happen, but even if it did, the same revolutionary forces of popular discontent that swept the old guard out of power would swiftly do the same to this new group.  What about Islamist political parties that gain support by winning elections, like the AK Party in Turkey, the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Morocco?  Do they not pose some threat to the fabric of any future democratic society?  Firstly, they were elected by the people, and if they fail to live up to their campaign promises, they can be voted out of office just like anywhere else.  Secondly, religion-based parties have existed in the West for centuries and democracy has survived.  Thirdly, as long as the basic institutions of democratic participation and representation are respected, Islamist parties should be welcomed as positive influences in a country’s path to democratization.  After all, do religious-affiliated political parties not exist in Israel?

Now let’s assume that democracy is the inevitable end-result of these revolutionary changes.  This is admittedly an idealistic assumption, but one that gains credibility at a time when the protestor is dubbed Time’s Person of the Year, when social media and mobile platforms empower citizens at the expense of their governments and when the mass media then broadcasts their messages to the rest of the world in real time.  Besides for being the most legitimate form of government devised until today, democracy is good as a means and as an end.  Of course it benefits Israel when neighbouring regimes can resolve their internal problems without oppressing their people or spiraling into civil war, but it also means that Israel and its neighbours would be able to resolve their own bilateral problems peacefully.  The infamous democratic peace thesis suggests that democracies do not go to war with one another, meaning that Arab-Israeli differences could be addressed through conciliation instead of confrontation.  Furthermore, as the oldest and most successful democracy in the region, Israel is well placed to guide these democratizing post-revolutionary states in their quests for legitimacy among their own peoples, which could in turn pave the path for recognition, negotiation and peace between Arabs and Israelis.

As these Arab populations look inward and seek to rebuild their own fractured political systems so that they better represent domestic constituencies, the educated leaders of these countries would be foolish to ignore a regional powerhouse’s proven track record as a Middle Eastern democracy.  Israel has in the past 60+ years managed to integrate a multiethnic and multidenominational population – with a large minority group, no less – into a vibrant democratic framework.  With civilian control of the government, partisan political pluralism, robust media competition, independence of the judiciary, and guaranteed freedoms for all of its citizens, Israeli democracy can even benefit the Arab street – if they realize it.

The Arab Revolutions Considered

2011 could be characterized as the year of the Arab.  The year has yet to end, and several Arab regimes, relics of an age quickly gone by, have been toppled by their own people.  The pattern is by now familiar: popular protest in the streets, the capital city swarmed by the disaffected masses as new flags and populist slogans make their appearances.  Then the crackdown begins, brutality and repression remind the world of how these authoritarian despots ever attained and remained in power in the first place.  Funeral processions for the martyrs follow and even bigger crowds are drawn into the streets as these mourning events coincide with Friday night prayers or religious holidays on the Islamic calendar.  This cycle repeats itself, rallies followed by repression followed by more rallies, until something gives.  Eventually, the old sovereign surrenders power to the collective force of the citizenry or is defeated in long and drawn out bloodbaths between the rebellion and the establishment.  In any case, inevitable regime change is afoot in the Middle East, and it is changing the nature of the region’s politics.

Consider what has happened up until now.  Barring Bouazizi, Ben Ali arguably began this chain reaction by refusing to militarily crush the protests in Tunisia and fleeing to Saudi Arabia instead.  This directly inspired the Egyptians to march on Cairo’s Tahrir Sqaure in Egypt and pressure Mubarak to step down, in effect ceding power to the highly regarded military establishment.  The following outbreaks of revolution were no so peaceful.  Libya descended into civil war almost as soon as protests spread from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to other coastal cities, threatening Qaddafi’s hold on the capital city of Tripoli.  Activists in Yemen and Syria publicly organized anti-regime protests for the first time in decades, prompting both Saleh and Assad to wage open warfare on their own people, deploying heavy machinery in residential areas and massacring unarmed protesters.  Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority rose up against the Khalifa ruling family, but little change resulted because fellow Sunni monarchs in the Arabian Gulf actively suppressed this uprising.  Nobody could have predicted change like this just one year ago.

As of December 2011, three Arab despots have been removed from power: Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi.  Two more are fighting for their very survival: Saleh in Yemen and Assad in Syria, with little hope for either of them in the early months of 2012.  Arab monarchies have felt the same populist pressures, but have succeeded so far in avoiding the fate of their secular autocratic neighbours.  The massive oil wealth of the Gulf Arabs prolongs their popularity and subsidizes their survival.  Others, like Jordan and Morocco, have amended their constitutions or replaced the sitting parliaments in an effort to appease the protesters, cosmetic changes which seem to have worked for the time being.  But what are the long-term implications of such rapid and massive structural changes?

Three worrying trends are immediately apparent: democracy, inequality and instability.  The rationale for intervention from Western countries in Arab revolutions (from Libya lately to Syria soon) has been twofold, humanitarianism and democratization.  First protect the civilian population from the dictator’s massacres, then remove the dictator and install democratic government.  The problem is that democracy is not automatic: in Tunisian and Moroccan elections, for example, the first and fairest of the Arab uprisings, Islamist parties have garnered the most votes and have led coalitions in both countries to form national governments.  Even the transitional governments in Egypt and Libya have encountered practical difficulties in rewriting constitutions and organizing elections, which means that democracy might not be the end result in these situations, regardless of how ideal it may be.

Unequal and unstable conditions are also unlikely to disappear any time soon.  Poor performance along basic social measures like inequality, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, malnutrition, infrastructure, and life expectancy, while improving somewhat, still threaten to derail any progress achieved by toppling dictators in the Arab world.  Dissatisfaction with one’s quality of life can just as easily be directed against newborn democracies as it was against the former dictators and despots.  Instability breeds inequality, however, since the foreign infusions of capital and investment needed to remedy this state of affairs will not materialize if potential investors lack any security.  Strategic oil and gas conduits must also remain open for the energy-hungry world to support these kinds of structural changes in this part of the world.  In addition to stabilizing national governments, this means also avoiding international wars, also an unlikely scenario in such an unpredictable region.

Another more global concern is the international community’s growing tendency to violate supposedly inviolable legal and normative precedents when it suits powerful interests to do so.  For example, the original pretext for the NATO-led intervention in Libya only secured support from the Arab League and United Nations because it aimed to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from slaughtering thousands of Libyan civilians.  It became obvious almost immediately that the unstated goal of this operation was to remove Qaddafi from power and enable regime change, as Western heads of state and foreign ministers repeatedly claimed.  This is a violation of international legal jurisdiction.  In a related case, the United Nations included an arms embargo in the push to authorize humanitarian intervention in Libya, but France overtly (in addition to the covert actions of other NATO countries) parachuted munitions into rebel strongholds in the Libyan mountain ranges.  This clearly violates arms proliferation norms.  Finally, in the case of the Syrian uprising which has only taken up arms recently, Syrian military defectors and other rebel leaders have taken refuge and received military protection across the border in Turkey.  From this base of operations, they have repeatedly launched cross-border raids and incursions into Syria, attacking military buildings and groups affiliated with the government in clear violation of the norms of national sovereignty and territorial inviolability.  As morally justifiable as these actions may seem against one of the world’s biggest violators of human rights, they cannot be defined as legal.

The wave of unrest sweeping across the Arab world is far from over.  Up until now, the long-term strategic consequences of such a momentous event have been overlooked and understudied.  As the Arab world voices its demands, a window for democratic change in the Middle East presents itself.  Whether that window is opened and democracy indeed replaces despotism remains to be seen, but it remains the civic duty and ethical obligation of every democratic society to do what it can to encourage reform and catalyze progress.  It is difficult to say how a more representative and politically engaged Middle East will differ from yesterday’s, but at the very least it will be a more hopeful one.

The Media and the Middle East

When Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the provincial Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid on December 28, 2010, to protest his inability as a fruit vendor to obtain a simple license to sell his wares at the local market from the government, nobody could have predicted the chain of events that has since led to revolutions in Tunisia and the wider Arab World.  Only ten days after Bouazizi died from his self-inflicted wounds on January 4, 2011, anti-regime protests forced the Tunisian President of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine ben-Ali, to flee the country with his family and inner circle.  By January 14, 2011, the Tunisian case had set the trend for the rest of the region, with popular pressure forcing the Egyptian President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, to hand power over to the much-respected military and retire to the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh on February 11, 2011, only 18 days after massive demonstrations began!  In both of these cases, the Tunisian and Egyptian governments and militaries refused to crack down violently on protestors, and the message that peaceful revolution was possible spread to neighbouring Arab states.  But how did these revolutions succeed in the first place, and how have they managed to inspire populist uprisings elsewhere without any central planning or organization?

Without the modern media in the form of privately-owned newspapers, satellite television stations, smartphone-enabled citizen journalism, Internet-based blogging sites, and social media networks, these modern revolutions would have been impossible.  Take, for example, the fact that Al Jazeera – the Qatari-based satellite TV network with journalists reporting on the ground in practically every Arab state undergoing some type of civil unrest – was temporarily banned from Egyptian households by Mubarak’s supporters, their government-issued accreditation was revoked by the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, and they have had reporters harassed and a cameraman even killed by pro-regime forces in Libya.  While these state-sponsored acts targeted Al Jazeera directly, they represent an attack by the region’s fundamentally unrepresentative and increasingly threatened authoritarian regimes on all democratically-motivated and transnationally-oriented revolutionary movements in the Middle East.  In other words, as the principles of democracy, transparency, accountability, empowerment, and social justice are championed locally by the international media, the traditional autocrats inimical to these modern qualities react with gradually more erratic, barbaric and unacceptable measures.

Ever since the apparent successes of Tunisia and Egypt, similar anti-government revolutionary movements have taken place in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain, each with varying degrees of effectiveness in achieving their goals.  Part of the problem is that state-owned media networks often compete directly with the private and international media to feed the public their version of reality.  When government-run media stations lose control of the dominant narrative, they cut off access to foreign news sources by blocking satellite signals, revoking licences, disconnecting service providers, censoring the Internet, shutting down offices and physically deporting journalistic staff.  Until the very last days of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, local media virtually ignored the millions of people protesting in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  Throughout Muammar Qaddafi’s struggle to militarily defeat the rebellion in Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s repressive crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria, for instance, ordinary citizens consuming local radio, newspaper and television broadcasts are bombarded by government lies, propaganda and misinformation on a daily basis.

Even more interestingly, local media networks controlled by national governments can construct diametrically-opposed realities on stories of international significance.  The regional tug-of-war pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other with Bahrain in the middle demonstrates this effect perfectly.  Bahrain is a majority-Shiite but Sunni-led Gulf state in which the Shiite opposition’s popular demands for better treatment in employment, housing and infrastructure have been received by the al-Khalifa ruling family with heavy-handed crackdowns.  Under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional security alliance, friendly Sunni monarchies responded to the King of Bahrain’s request for assistance by dispatching their militaries to the Bahraini capital of Manama and forcefully pacifying the protesters.  This is where fact and fiction collide: while the Sunni and Saudi-owned al-Arabiya satellite television station reported this event as a cooperative military intervention necessary for territorial integrity and regional stability, the Shiite and Iranian-owned al-Alam (Arabic) station decried it as an imperial military invasion that interfered in Bahrain’s sovereign affairs.  However events unfold in Bahrain, the point is that without truly independent media, governments are still able to create and control the narratives.

For the two North African Arab states which precipitated the so-called Arab Spring, it is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on why the ruling families refrained from turning their powerful security, military and paramilitary forces on their own people in the way that other Arab dictators have done.  Although Egypt and Tunisia represent more homogeneous societies than those in Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, popular discontent remains a constant feature of the region.  What these demonstrators have recognized and capitalized upon is the power of the media to mobilize the message of the revolution and deliver it to the rest of the world instantaneously.  Whereas mere decades ago the government could control the message, massacre its own population and continue on with business as usual, international public opinion pressures these regimes to substantially modify their behaviour.  Not only are these individual Arab revolutions national in nature, they collectively represent a much broader media revolution in international politics.  Power is rapidly diffusing from governments to populations, aided by transnational networks and encouraged by international awareness.  If these changes usher in more democratic and representative governments, the long-suppressed peoples of the Middle East may finally be able to determine their own destinies and participate in creating a more modern world.