58th General Assembly
Atlantic Treaty Association
YOUTH ATLANTIC FORUM
The New Generation and the Future of the Broader Middle East
Rome, NATO Defense College, 4th February 2013
Middle East: Protagonists, Challenges and Risks
Dr. Amer al-Sabaileh
Political Analyst, University of Jordan
“ In a world where interdependence and conflicting interests go hand in hand, global and regional issues or players are inseparable in forging a new world order. In the region’s current phase of reshaping, this would also mean a new style for the Arab League, maybe new countries and new players. Therefore, political systems should develop the capacity to recognize the transformations for what they are in order to save a place in the coming political arena.”
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the period in which we are currently living is the dramatic increase in the rate of change, a change which has broken down all barriers, has carried people across frontiers and has left no room for restraint. Opportunities are arriving which are enabling us to build bridges of dialogue, to cross the abyss. Up until now, pompous slogans, and hopelessly impractical initiatives have failed to cross this abyss, which remains uncrossed despite the innumerable attempts which have been made by so many of us in the hope of a brighter future for the Middle East.
Arab intellectuals usually victims of the reality of a gulf between the political theory which they advocate and the application on the ground, carried out by their respective regimes and rulers. It is thus a matter of power not qualification, where the intelligent are governed by the unintelligent, progressives by the backward, indeed, the ignorant decide the fate of the wise. Arab intellectuals have struggled under the most vicious aspect of political oppression, lack of freedom, but, more deplorable, is the unhealthy, stagnant, atmosphere which resulted from the seizing of power by oppressive groups. The use of such brute power highlights the huge intellectual gulf between the ruler and the intellectual, the chasm between the theory and the application. This has also affected Arab youth, who are not taking ownership of their future. They have always been victims of the mismanagement of state resources, the lack of development strategies, employment which is relevant to their capacities and interests. Such a state of affairs has driven the Arab youth into a state in which they cannot even dream at home. This has consequently led to an individualistic society based on nepotism, and a spoiled system based on political succession.
Thus may the whole Arab world be characterized, and thus we see the explosion of desire for change amongst all Arab youth.
The people of the Middle-East face many challenges. There is only one path which can lead to the changes that are crucial for Arab youth, and this path is the confrontation of such challenges, these include the reform of the education system, provision of career opportunities, combating extremism, and the promotion of human dignity and liberty. We Arabs must start practicing what we preach, otherwise, we should prepare for the worst. Unfortunately, we cannot look to our precedents to find hope as to where such reforms might lead. Indeed, the Middle East is an exquisite fabric of interwoven social and cultural identities. This very richness, this intricate and innate heterogeneous coexistence, is the heart of our civilization and one of our greatest treasures. It must be valued - not destroyed.
The mistakes which were committed in Iraq must never be repeated. We need to learn from the catastrophic crimes carried out by the extremist militants who targeted Iraqi civilians, Christians and other sects. We cannot allow this to happen to the Syrian Christian community. It should not dwindle and Christians should not be forced to flee their land.
It is surprising and disappointing that, regardless of the clear differences, many western diplomats and politicians are busy comparing what is going on in our region now to Yugoslavia, which required a division into states at the end of the conflict, which were based on ethnicity and religion.
What are the reasons behind the strong presence of Islamists?
It is difficult to understand the current situation in the Arab world without scrutinizing the historical political character of modern Arab societies, especially with regards to the period of the 50s and its consequences. Perhaps the most prominent aspects of these societies in that period was the hostility shown by some Arab regimes towards Nasser's Arab nationalism and socialist project, considering it to be a genuine threat to their power. Such antipathy encouraged those regimes to search for an ally to face these ideologies. The progressive countries managed to find an external global ally (USSR), with whom they shared a secular identity. Moscow thus became the focal reference for these forces; but this very alignment caused the authoritarian regimes, allied to Washington, to panic, since they now had to also find an internal ally, in order to face the internal progressive democratic forces within their own countries. The only solution was to ally with an opposing ideology, which was offered by the Islamists, the enemies of Nasser in Egypt
At this stage the Muslim Brotherhood were starting to form an alliance of common interests with these political systems, on the basis that these secular forces could wreak havoc on both the authoritarian political regimes and the Islamic movements. This opportunist alliance later evolved to become a genuine political partnership. The first steps in this alliance had an immediate impact on the social and the academic scenes. Muslim Brotherhood figures occupied positions which facilitated a direct social impact, such as the Ministry of Education, where they strove to involve and employ their followers as teachers, and, later, to adapt many of the school's syllabuses to fit their ideology. New school books totally side-stepped the use of the mind, there was no longer any space for philosophy, different political ideologies or history. Meanwhile, religious education was increasingly emphasized, along with the glorification the political establishment.
The second stage of this clash was presented by the choice of the political systems to confront and oppress the political forces and progressive secular movements. This lead to the imposition of emergency laws which consequently put an end to political life. Many political activists and party members were subject to oppression and violence.
Ironically, in the midst of this oppression, the Islamic movement enjoyed the liberty of working under the official umbrella, and, meanwhile they became a key partner in the political process. Even in the popular uprisings, the Islamic movement preferred to occupy the back row, refraining from participation in any of these demonstrations, in fact, on the contrary, their political tone was notably soft comparing to the other powers.
Partners of the past, enemies of today
After the recent transitions in the Arab world, the Islamic parties have found themselves in the midst of popular protests targeting the Arab political establishment. It is important, however, to address all the factors underlying the popular revolutions in the Arab societies. Such factors include: injustice, oppression, tyranny, drastically unequal distribution of wealth, wide-spread corruption and embezzlement of public money, the lack of a social justice system, indeed of social justice in general, and the monopoly of power by small group of well-connected people. The whole scene is much closer to a "postmodern feudalism". In the light of this appalling state of affairs, the Arab revolution was inevitable. Here, the Islamists felt left behind by the popular explosions, and decided therefore, that their partnership with the political system was injurious for their image. They needed to break off the partnership of the past. The clash between these political systems and their people encouraged the Islamic movement to believe that it is their own, legitimate, opportunity to seize power. Yet, it is essential not to underestimate the ability of the Islamic movements to emerge as the most popular movement, thus guaranteeing the acquisition of power even through the democratic process.
Among the many factors which helped the Islamic movement to power are the following:
The wide-ranging social solidarity network that the movement built up, especially in the densely populated places. In this way the Islamists manage to fill the vacuum of a wide social network, by building their own social security network.
The Islamists gained advantages in the periods of political oppression while all the other political parties were deprived of their right to participate in the political life. Therefore, it is quite normal that the Islamist movement now appears to be the best organized, numerous and politically adept.
Global and regional conditions and allies, from which the Islamists benefited on both levels, political and financial.
The effective media tools utilized by the allies of Muslim Brotherhood to serve the movement’s agenda.
The strong connections which link the members of the movement to one another. Such connections have given a sense of power and confidence to all the members after political success has been achieved in certain countries.
The Islamic Movement has the apparatus to communicate with internal, domestic societies, in contrast to most established regimes which do not have any kind of credibility amongst their people. In this case, widespread mosques were able to play a more prominent in local communication. Such a localized and popular communication network helped the movement gain an edge against most regimes.
Current Challenges in the Middle-East
As the political situation in Syria remains unresolved, the possibility of the conflict spilling out across the region increases. The biggest risk is represented by the new terrorist model of Al Nusra1 Front, and its possible expansion to Syria’s neighboring countries. attacks on civilians, but real possibility of civilian-level sectarian conflict based on religious and ethnicity in the whole region, due to the mutual religious and geographical heritage that most of the people in the region share.
Many countries should be wary of this new organization. Jordan should be particularly cautious as many of its members are originally Jordanians, who have contributed to the Front’s activities in Syria, physically and morally. One of the factors which compel us to consider Al Nusra a serious threat is that it represents not only Al Qaeda, but also many other radical Islamist groups who share the same new doctrine.
Outbreaks of conflict in the region may well become inevitable, with the current conditions, which are cultivating a culture of hatred and rejection of others. It may in turn spread to other countries in the region, from Iraq to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.
The international community should keep an eye on the eastern front. Iraq is also facing the challenge of salvaging its western governorate of Al Anbar from falling into a sectarian (Sunni-Shia) conflict with the potential of the separation of the Sunni district into an independent state. The success of such a separation would potentially lead to many similar separatist attempts throughout the region.
The whole Middle East risks falling into disarray, as a result of the nurturing of sentiments of hate, and the effective failure of social coexistence. The entire region may then be divided along ethnic or religious lines, or so-called, “cantons.” This would even enrich the idea of turning Israel to " Jewish state". The risk of founding the concept of democracy along geographic-ethnic lines rather than basing it on national or ideological issues will always hold potentially grave consequences, such an arrangement is in reality just a suspended civil war. Therefore, in order to avoid such scenario, the international community must seize the opportunity to achieve the political settlement in Syria. This settlement could have been achieved on 30th of June 2012 in Geneva where the Action Group for Syria met for the first time. Since that time, some international protagonists have been playing an active role in harming the situation in Syria seriously. What these protagonists do not seem to realize is that although latest policy may lead to the toppling of Assad, it is unlikely to put an end to the violence and fighting unless it coincides with genuine will and a practical political settlement for the crisis in Syria.
1 Al-Nusra Front , also referred to as Jabhat al-Nusra (Arabic: جبهة النصرة لأهل الشام Jabhat al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Sham, meaning: "The Support Front for the People of Syria"), is a militant group operating in Syria. The group announced its creation on 23 January 2012 during the Syrian crisis.