International Politics Redux
The Shifting Sands of the Middle East

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.

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 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.

Prying Eye: Putin’s Return to the Presidency

“Most of the violations we see happen at the local level.”  Liliya Shibanova, director of the independent election-observer group Golos (Voice), led the charge within Russia condemning the parliamentary elections of December 4, 2011 as anything but free and fair.

In the days and weeks following the vote, mass protests the likes of which Russia has not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union materialized in no fewer than 60 cities across the country, from Vladivostok in the East to St. Petersburg in the West.

At least 50,000 police and riot troops were deployed in Moscow alone ahead of one “For Fair Elections” rally on December 10, of which several such rallies – some bigger, some smaller – followed.

Turnout for this particular rally ranged from a government-sanctioned figure of 25,000 (meaning 2 riot police for every 1 protestor) to what protest organizers have pegged as high as 150,000.  These events are organized by a coalition of opposition parties and activists to protest ballot stuffing and vote rigging in Russia.

Popular dissatisfaction with what many perceive to be a growing tendency towards autocratic rule and endemic corruption in Russia – combined with the parliamentary election’s actual results – could boil over after presidential elections scheduled for March 4, 2012.

These elections saw the dominant United Russia party’s percentage of the popular vote fall from 64% to 50%.  Numbers like these would still be grossly inflated when considering the rampant reports of voter fraud by independent elections monitors both within and outside of Russia, but the numbers would still grant Vladimir Putin a solid majority in parliament with 238 seats in the 450-member legislative body, or 53% of them.

Gennady Zyukanov’s Communist party is the second-largest,and is clearly Putin’s favoured political partner among the parties, jumping from 12% to 19% in support since the 2007 parliamentary elections and carrying 92 seats in all.

Ever since assuming power in 2000, Putin has engineered his way to ever-increasing power over the domestic political environment and control of key officials at all levels of government, military and security services, media networks and propaganda, state-owned enterprises, and so on.

After handing the reins of the presidency in 2008 to his self-appointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and orchestrating the machinations of political life in Russia behind the scenes as prime minister (a post created by Putin and for Putin to circumvent constitutional limits on consecutive presidential terms), the former KGB officer announced his intention to run for a third term as president on September 24, 2011.

Although plotting a ‘constitutional’ return to power since 2008, this September pronouncement marked the official beginning of Putin’s return to the presidency and a decade of increasingly authoritarian rule.

Perhaps even more scandalous than Putin’s inevitable transition from prime minister to president is the manner in which the electoral process itself is already skewed in his favour.

News coverage routinely parades Putin’s accomplishments over the past 12 years and fosters a personality cult around him while simultaneously slandering his presidential opponents in the process, all of whom have struggled to top 10% in recent opinion polls (as opposed to Putin, who comfortably maintains 50–60% approval ratings).

Added to that is the pervasive anti-American tone and Cold War-style rhetoric at the heart of Putin’s campaign, where opposition candidates are portrayed as nothing more than lackeys of the United States and Russia’s societal ills are blamed on the American desire to “weaken Russia and push it back into the chaos that followed the Soviet collapse.”

Putin has even used foreign policy issues as political leverage for the domestic elections by insinuating that the U.S.-led ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe is an attempt to make vassals, not partners, out of the Russians.

The foreign policy card, in fact, is being played by Putin in many ways to signal his unabashed certainty in victory at the polls on March 4.  Apart from the ballistic missile row with the United States, Russia has been flexing its foreign policy muscles in Europe, Asia and the Middle East in a way that is almost never seen in countries unsure of their next governing party – in other words, in multiparty democracies with competitive, free and fair elections.

Cold spells in Eastern Europe and sanctions on Iranian energy exports to Europe have increased demand (and consequently, price) for Russian oil and gas to Europe, a reality readily exploited by Russia as their pipeline networks stand poised to transport these supplies from their vast reserves to the European states that need them most.

Russia continues to jockey for power with China in the Central Asian republics while ramping up operations on the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline, a conduit that increases Russia’s leverage with energy-hungry East Asian states as state-run corporations manipulate the flow of oil in an easterly or westerly direction to maximize raw profits.

And in the Middle East, Russia stymies Western progress on nuclear negotiations with Iran and vetoes any prospect of Arab League-United Nations intervention in a brutal Syrian crackdown.

These foreign policy adventures are undertaken with a bravado that reinforces the impression that Putin will easily win the presidency and carry the policies of the past 12 years forward into the next 12.  It is precisely this air of smugness on the part of Putin and the United Russia party that betrays any sense of democratic governance in Russia.

Dissent manifests itself in many ways, with online activism rising in intensity as activist bloggers and social media sites express their frustration with the current system.

Already, some of the 200,000 cameras installed in 90,000 polling stations across the country to monitor the March 4 elections have been hacked in distributed denial of service attacks.

If this is any indication of the population’s growing discontent with Putin’s authoritarian style, expect this election to be the catalyst for an ever-more broad-based, ever-more technologically-savvy opposition politics in Russia.

Aid, Trade and Votes: Canadian Policies in the Middle East

While acknowledging NATO’s engagement in Libya that facilitated the Libyan people’s overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, I look beyond the immediate events and examine the impact that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may have on the events that are taking place in other areas of the Middle East and North Africa and how Canada may or may not exert an influence on those events.  I note the conflicting political objectives that exist among stakeholders - not just Arab or Palestinians versus Israelis, but between contending Arab states, rival Palestinian factions, competing Israeli political parties, and clashing great power interests.

This article was originally published in On Track, the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) Institute’s quarterly journal which, in affiliation with the Department of National Defence (DND), publishes material relating to the Canadian Forces (CF), Canadian military and defence policy, and international military affairs.  To see the full article, check out pages 18-20 here:

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.

Toward Palestinian Reconciliation in 2012

What is Palestinian reconciliation and why is it important?  This domestic Palestinian political issue, like many things Palestinian, has far-reaching ramifications for the Arab World and the larger Middle East.  The Palestinian national movement has been divided for decades between left-wing secular nationalists like Fatah (now led by Mahmoud Abbas but previously led by the iconic Yasser Arafat) and right-wing Islamic militants like Hamas (led by Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and by Khaled Meshaal in exile).  Although Hamas was always excluded from the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for its failure to sign onto the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the two publicly broke ranks after elections in 2006 and Hamas’ seizure of the Gaza Strip in 2007.  With Hamas governing the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) administering the West Bank’s 2.5 million, these two mini-states have failed to reconcile their ideologically opposed worldviews, political positions and approaches toward Israel despite repeated attempts over the past 5 years.  As Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations ebb and flow, the Arab Spring overturns entrenched regimes in the surrounding Middle East and the PA pushes for statehood in the United Nations (UN), the need for Palestinian unity, solidarity and reconciliation has never seemed more urgent.

Because of their dominant positions in the Palestinian Territories, Hamas and Fatah naturally overshadow the many other Palestinian factions jockeying for political representation within the national movement.  Last Thursday, December 22, Hamas agreed in principle to join the PLO after fresh elections are held in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – with participation from refugees all over the world – in order to restore unity and improve representation in the Palestinian leadership.  Along with Hamas’ recently declared intention to shift from violent attacks on Israel to renewed dialogue with the PA, this latest round of Egyptian-brokered talks could actually be more successful than previous ones.  Both Hamas and Fatah seem to have realized that in the wake of the uprisings sweeping across neighbouring Arab states, the benefits of cooperation may finally outweigh the costs of compromise.  The sheer barbarity of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown and imminent demise of his minority regime has forced Hamas to begin the process of relocating their headquarters-in-exile, and the Fatah-led PA has failed to achieve any tangible results in peace talks with Israel or lobbying in the UN for statehood, so the two parties have engaged once again.  Nevertheless, serious obstacles remain in their way.

To begin with, Hamas remains classified as a terrorist organization, has never renounced violence and refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, facts which are all diametrically opposed to Fatah’s PLO and the internationally recognized PA.  Hamas also continues to collaborate with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran in rejecting any negotiations with the ‘Zionist entity’ that is Israel – although the unrest on the Arab street in the past year has begun to change this reality.  This fact means that international donors will refuse to continue to fund the PA and Israel will reject any dialogue with the Palestinians if Hamas joins the PLO without agreeing to abide by its past agreements with Israel, amending its charter, denouncing terror, and so on.  But there are other problems: Gaza and the West Bank remain geographically separated, bad blood still lingers from the near-civil war of 2007, millions of refugees live beyond Palestinian borders, corruption continues to run rampant through the bureaucracy, and Hamas’ Islamist political ideology clashes in a fundamental way with Fatah’s secular state-building project.

No country is an island, of course, and foreign interference is inevitable in a case like Palestine’s.  Israel and Hamas remain at loggerheads over issues like recognition, negotiations and nonaggression, so any reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO will be greeted with extreme caution by Israel.  Syrian and Iranian influence over Hamas has also waned as Hamas gradually redeploys its resources outside of Damascus and shifts away from Tehran’s orbit.  The military regime in Egypt has warmed to Hamas as well and has always been congenial to Palestinians in general, hosting reconciliation talks and providing ideological support to Palestinian independence as the Muslim Brotherhood looks poised to dominate Egypt’s postelection political landscape.  As other regional powers aim to influence Palestinian destiny, like the revolution-supporting Turkey and the revolution-suppressing Saudi Arabia, the very identity of the Palestinian political body also remains fluid and malleable.  

Palestinian reconciliation itself remains a distant possibility with major opportunities and several potential pitfalls for the time being.  Much more significant is the electoral process, which will be judged by its legitimacy, fairness and equality for the voting population.  Without meeting several benchmarks for democratic participation and representation, the whole project of Palestinian reconciliation is in doubt.  The dysfunctional nature of Palestinian politics for the past few years has failed to produce long-term results for the Palestinian residents of the Territories and refugees alike, modest improvements in the West Bank’s economic infrastructure notwithstanding.  What is required is a vision for Palestinian unity, a roadmap for sovereign statehood, and a viable basis for its peaceful international relations.  As long as this is lacking from the present Palestinian picture, doubts will remain regarding its future.

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.

Are Palestinians and Israelis Still Fighting?

While much of the international media’s limited attention span has focused almost exclusively on the popular uprisings in the Middle East and the pro-democracy protests on the Arab street, another longstanding problem in the region has been overshadowed and overlooked.  With roots going arguably as far back as the First World War, the nearly century-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has typically dominated the discourse on security and stability in the Middle East.  Recent developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front have made it increasingly likely that a fresh wave of conflict is likely to erupt in the near future, an eventuality that needs to be considered seriously and addressed responsibly if needless bloodshed is to be spared and a long-sought peace is to be achieved.

What follows is a brief analysis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, along with its main actors and central issues.   The purpose of this exposition is to inform and educate, not to persuade or proselytize.  Naturally, a piece of this length will neglect some salient aspects of the conflict, but a brief introduction to the topic is necessarily truncated.  While recognizing that human beings are fallible creatures whose written works are naturally hampered by their uniquely subjective perspectives, this article still strives to be as objective, unbiased and neutral as possible.  With those caveats in mind, the problem of peace between Palestinians and Israelis can be explored and the possibilities for progress between these two intransigent protagonists can be examined.

Perhaps it is best to begin in the present day and with the main actors on the Palestinian side.  As it stands, the Palestinians are largely divided between two opposing camps: Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank.  While dozens of peripheral players are involved, these two are paramount.  Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories in 2006, but international donors withdrew funding for the Palestinian Authority (the government) because of Hamas’ refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.  In a bloody 5-day civil war the following year, Hamas seized Gaza and expelled Fatah forces to the West Bank where they remain today.  Hamas and other Islamic radical movements in Gaza adhere to a religious fundamentalist worldview while Fatah and other secular nationalist groups in the West Bank have adopted a more Western-friendly policy orientation.  Since 2007, Fatah has regained control of the Palestinian Authority and wavered between engaging in peace talks with Israel and reconciliation talks with Hamas but to no avail on either front.

Divisions in Israeli society are no less pronounced than with the Palestinians.  While Israel is a thriving democracy, the most recent configuration in its steady stream of coalition governments can explain much of its recent behaviour.  In 2009, the Likud Party returned to power after a decade in the opposition by courting right-wing political parties.  With its hawkish, messianic and jingoistic worldview, the settler movement has found ample support on the ideological right of the Israeli political spectrum.  When the Israeli government is dependent on courting favour from pro-settler political parties for its survival, peace overtures to the Palestinians become increasingly complex and convoluted.  Israel has been forced to choose either domestic political stability or progress in peace talks with Palestinians.  Palestinians, for their part, have elevated the issue of settlements to one of primary importance in setting preconditions for further talks, an equally detrimental move towards peace which neglects other critical issues like borders, refugees, Jerusalem, water rights, economic arrangements, and so on.

In addition, the role of external actors cannot realistically be ignored.  The United States, the principal benefactor for both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, exercises influence for better or worse disproportionate to its direct involvement in the conflict.  Other great powers like Great Britain, France and Russia, and international organizations like the United Nations, the European Union and the Quartet on the Middle East, have also weighed in on the conflict’s dynamics with pomp and circumstance unheard of in any other ongoing conflict anywhere else in the world.  Even regional powers have begun to play bigger and more relevant roles, with Egypt being central ever since it signed the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, Turkey maintaining elite-level military and diplomatic ties, and Iran cultivating ever more strategic relationships with fellow rejectionists Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian state.  While these actors fall outside the scope of this brief overview, they are nevertheless extremely important since any sustainable peace process needs their involvement.

With President Obama coming to office in January 2009, renewed emphasis was placed on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  Although the Palestinian Authority and Israel began talks shortly thereafter aimed at establishing a viable Palestinian state living in peaceful coexistence beside a secure Israel, both sides made excruciatingly little progress.  The Israeli government remains unable to compromise on the conflicting demands of Palestinian negotiators and Jewish settlers, and Hamas continues to use violence against Israeli civilians and delay reconciliation with Fatah, both of which remain inimical to the faltering peace process.  Problems internal to the political processes of both actors are unavoidable issues that will only increase in difficulty and complexity as time goes on, whether it be among Palestinians living under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip, or even among Israelis living within the state’s June 1967 borders or in East Jerusalem and the settlements in the West Bank.  The sooner this problem is resolved, the better.

Recent events have only served to heighten tension and mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis.  A Palestinian terrorist’s cold-blooded murder of a Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, increased rocket and mortar salvos from Gaza landing in southern Israeli cities accompanied by retaliatory missile strikes by the Israeli Air Force, and an explosive device detonated at a busy bus stop in Jerusalem that killed at least one person and injured dozens more.  These localized events have only added more intensity to the increasingly globalized diplomatic contest that Palestinians have been waging for international recognition.  With several Latin American countries recognizing Palestinian statehood in the past few months, and President Obama expressing his hopes to the United Nations in September of 2010 that an independent Palestine would emerge in a year’s time, the political pressure is building for concerted diplomatic action.  By September of 2011, political and economic institutions gradually assembled by the Palestinian Authority over the past few years with the help of international donors will be complete, and an opportunity for international legitimacy of the Palestinian cause will present itself.  Unfortunately, peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis show no signs of resuming.  If Palestinians achieve international recognition without a simultaneous reconciliation with Hamas and resolution of the conflict with Israel, the consequences may not be self-determination and statehood, but a resumption of conflict with a high probability of violence, bloodshed, and possibly all-out war.