The tides are turning, the sun is setting, the sands are shifting – whatever expression describes it best, the reality is that the Middle East as a geopolitical and sociological theatre of action is undergoing its most profound transformations in generations. These transformations are distinguishable because of their universalizing features, crossing what were previously rigidly demarcated national boundaries and blending peoples, communities and societies together in a web of increasing complexity and fluidity. While the nature of these fundamental alterations to the Middle Eastern system of politics can be debated and expanded upon much further, a few brief examples will suffice to clarify the point being made here.
International politics is by its very nature characterized by shifting alliances, offensive military posturing, and secretive diplomatic intrigue. Generally speaking, international relations theories differ on this point: realists recognize this state of affairs while liberals work to pacify it and constructivists build critiques of it, not to mention the whole slew of scholarship opposed to the dominant positivist epistemology. In the Middle East however, most would agree that political realism best sums up the region’s geopolitical relationships.
Prior to 2010, it was possible to speak of rival blocs polarized by America’s role in the Middle East. The pro-American bloc consisted of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey, Egypt and other regional players, while the anti-US bloc comprised Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The composition of these blocs suddenly began to unravel in the summer of 2010 when Turkey engaged Iran (with Brazil’s help) on a nuclear fuel-swap deal and shortly thereafter broke off relations with Israel over the now-infamous flotilla incident. Then, in quick succession, the Arab Spring of 2011-2012 deposed pro-US leader Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and installed an Islamist government under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that has been traditionally critical of US policies. The ‘new’ Egypt has flirted with the idea of improving its relations with Iran and Hamas. At the same time, Syria has been severely weakened by a 19-month (and counting) insurrection that has drawn its allies Iran and Hezbollah in, while worsening its ties with Hamas. The battle lines in Syria are being drawn between pro and anti-Assad factions, which do not run parallel to pro and anti-US ones. Potential wildcards to watch in the future are a weak Lebanon, a destabilized Iraq, and Iran, following its 2013 presidential elections.
Acceptable forms of governance are also rapidly changing in the region. Dictatorships are the bane of the Middle East’s existence. Tyrannical regimes for long were able to paint their repression with ideological brush-strokes legitimizing the savagery of their rule with Arab nationalist or Islamic fundamentalist images, language, and symbolism. Nationalist dictatorships have already fallen in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. What they will be replaced with is another question entirely, but similarly oppressive regimes are on the defensive in Syria and Iran. As democratization becomes the modus operandi of governments in this part of the world, a more inclusive system of governance and more progressive governance mechanisms will begin to emerge and change the Middle East’s geopolitical relations from the inside-out. In today’s age of mass mobilization, citizen participation, and popular representation, dictatorships are no longer justifiable governance structures.
The power of protest has made itself manifestly clear in the past two years as the relationship between people and power, the governed and their governments, is forced to adapt to the changing times as well. Civil society has been distorted for decades and the strength of the majority of the population has long simmered under the surface of dictatorial policies and structures. Now that people have begun to act on their demands, governments must react appropriately or be swept aside by the tide of the masses. It was the protesting throngs of disaffected Arabs that toppled Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh, in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, respectively. Ousting Gadhafi in Libya necessitated NATO intervention and the arming of the country’s rebel forces, similar to what is taking place today in Syria, minus NATO’s involvement (for the time being). In 2009, Iran witnessed its biggest protesters since the ouster of the Shah and the rise of Khomeini’s followers, and the very same political revolution could certainly happen there during and after next year’s elections. Even minorities can express themselves more effectively today than ever before, with Coptic Christians in Egypt standing up for their rights under an Islamist-dominated regime, while secularists and liberals likewise demand a say in the drafting of the future Egyptian constitution. When people organize and mobilize, governments must respond appropriately.
Finally, the advent of new and improved technologies and the relentless onslaught of globalization mean that people are increasingly empowered, while governments can either repress further or democratize further than they have before. Individuals armed with smartphones can now broadcast to the entire world what is happening before their very eyes, whether it be human rights atrocities or artistic and cultural exhibits. Satellite television networks, global news media outlets, and broadband Internet connections have all allowed for virtually instantaneous communications between communities, continents and societies. Communications equipment was vital to the effort to oust Qaddafi, with rebels establishing their own telephone networks to counter state-sponsored propaganda. In the midst of the Egyptian Revolution, Mubarak’s officials briefly disabled the country’s Internet but were forced to relent after massive opposition. While a similar struggle is underway in Syria and Iran against government-enforced censorship and control of information and communication, technology and globalization can either work for or against an entrenched power structure such as an authoritarian regime. The power of the people might be enough to overthrow this edifice, but what replaces it is a much more complicated story.