Rami G Khouri writes: Observing the Middle East from the United States, where I have spent the last month, has been fascinating, because historic changes are occurring in some relationships between these two regions. This includes evolving American ties with the five key strategic players in the region: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. The most important changes are taking place in the triangular relationship among the United Sates and each of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Three simultaneous things are occurring here that are intriguing, but their permanent implications remain unclear because events are in their early days.
The first is the United States’ resumption of direct and serious talks with Iran in a more positive atmosphere that seeks to end the dispute over Iran’s nuclear capabilities while also addressing Iranian concerns about American policy toward Iran. Should the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers succeed, as I expect, this could mark a revolutionary new era when Iran would slowly resume normal ties with global powers and reshape its relations within the Middle East. This in turn could have major implications for Saudi Arabian and Gulf Cooperation Council policies, as well as conditions in Syria and Iraq, and the status of Hezbollah and Lebanon.
Washington’s evolving perceptions of Iran reflect the second change, which is a rare case of the U.S. pursuing policies in the Middle East that are not fully in line with Israeli fears or wishes. Israel and its influential American mouthpieces in Washington have lobbied overtime in recent months to prevent a U.S.-Iranian dialogue or serious negotiations that could lead to a rapprochement. They have failed to date in this. Washington has tried to placate Israeli concerns with the rhetoric that Israel expects to hear from its friends in the U.S., but President Barack Obama has ignored Israeli exhortations and moved ahead sharply to negotiate with Iran. We can expect major consequences from a U.S. foreign policy that is shaped by U.S. national interests, rather than by Israeli dictates, fears and manipulations. [Continue reading...]
Rami G Khouri writes: I have been going back and forth between the United States and Arab countries for my entire life, and every time I visit the United States I am shocked by the mainstream public sphere’s distorted and incomplete view of what is taking place in our region. This is happening again now, as the American media and public sphere in general write off most of the Arab world as a lost cause, having shed their initial interest and even some awe and respect for millions of ordinary Arab men and women (most of them Muslims) who fought for freedom, dignity and perhaps even democracy. In the past week that I have been in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, the only mentions of the Arab uprisings (the “Arab Spring,” as it is commonly called here) that I have heard have almost always been negative, and in the past tense, with special concerns voiced about the rise of Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Syria. Iraq, with its daily killings of 50 or 100 people, is hardly mentioned. The point of such comments is that Arabs tried earnestly to remove dictators and establish democratic systems, but they failed, leaving the region in a state of deep turmoil, uncertainty and danger.
This superficial, incomplete and largely unfair assessment of what is actually happening in different Arab countries is contrasted by those pockets of sobriety and a more nuanced understanding that some hope actually exists in an Arab landscape of political turbulence and violence.
This is especially true for the two countries – Tunisia and Egypt – where the Arab uprisings began, and where citizens continue doggedly to grapple with the complexities of transforming autocracies into democracies in a relatively short period of time. Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, on the other hand, remain mired in some degree of violence, turbulence or stalemate that will need years to be resolved.
It seems to me unfair and inaccurate to write off the possibility that some Arab countries can successfully achieve a democratic transition, especially given the short period of time since the uprisings began. I suspect the real problem is in the inability of most Americans to acknowledge those ongoing dynamics and real achievements that have been recorded, especially in Tunisia, rather than the actual inability of Arabs to democratize. [Continue reading...]
Tunisia is still a long way from political stability. Yet once again, the nation that started the Arab Spring is showing the rest of the region how it’s supposed to be done. Reasonable people facing deep disagreements are negotiating and power-sharing their way to the Holy Grail of legitimate constitutional democracy.
Start with the deal. Ennahda, the Islamic democratic party that formed a government after Tunisia’s free elections in 2011, didn’t agree to step down for nothing. In exchange for agreeing to resign in favor of a caretaker government of nonpartisan technocrats, Ennahda got the opposition to agree to ratify a draft constitution that has been painstakingly drafted and debated over the last year and a half.
Under the rules of the road, adopted after the old regime fell in January 2011, the constituent assembly can approve the constitution if two-thirds of its members vote in favor. That structure put a premium on consensus, the political value most valued by Tunisian political culture. It also put Ennahda in a tough position during the drafting process: Its slight coalition majority in the assembly gave it almost no leverage, because it needed lots of opposition votes to get to two-thirds. The only alternative was to go to the public, which might have approved the constitution by a bare majority. But that would have violated the goal of consensus, and Ennahda consistently refused to treat it as an option. [Continue reading...]
Rami G Khouri writes: Hold on to your seats, for the four most powerful and influential Arab countries – Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – are all experiencing significant, sometimes violent, internal changes that touch on the most basic elements of identity, power and national authority. What happens in those countries in the years ahead will shape the Middle East for generations perhaps, creating new patterns of stable statehood on the way. Saudi Arabia is not experiencing the upheavals of Iraq, Syria and Egypt, but its new internal dynamics portend historic changes underway in that country and throughout the Gulf – because some citizens no longer accept blindly to follow the rules of the foundational tenets of Saudi-Wahhabi doctrine.
The worsening carnage in Syria, the sharp increase in bombings and ethnic cleansing in Iraq in the past few months, and the confrontation between the armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are stark reminders of where the modern Arab world stands today on its road to modern statehood. Syria, Iraq and Egypt embody the leading political challenges the Arab world faces: how to shape a stable and equitable pluralistic society; how to achieve an acceptable balance of authority among military and civilian forces; and how to assert religious values in daily and public life without falling into the trap of theocratic autocracy or artificially imposed secularism from above.
That these three historical Arab powerhouses all are experiencing deep conflict or uncertainty is the inevitable consequence of our recent history since the 1950s. We are today dealing with the national wreckages, social carcasses and political diseases of several generations of security-based state-building that provided a thin veneer of stability, but never buttressed this with the durable substance of genuine citizen-anchored nationhood. [Continue reading...]
Rami G. Khouri writes: Egypt continues to mesmerize, and it seems for many people around the world, to mystify as well, at least to judge by the wild and definitive assertions we hear daily about the consequences of developments in Egypt: Islamism is dead in the Arab world. Pluralism is dead. Democracy has failed in Egypt. Qatar is fading. Saudi Arabia rules the region. The Turkish and Iranian leaderships have lost. Egypt will suffer either civil war or a democratic resurgence. Arab Christians have no future in the region. And many other such statements that are asserted with the illusory confidence of absolute fact. This is comical for revealing the ignorance of most analysts who make such statements, and insulting for revealing a subtle new form of Orientalist thinking that manifests itself in two ways: One assumes that Arabs and their political cultures can only be black or white – democracy or military rule, and nothing in between; and another assumes that the future of 350 million Arabs will be definitively set for decades by developments this week, or the next month at most, disregarding both the force of human agency and the powerful corrective measures that come with time.
The most offensive aspect of so much of the international, especially American, commentary on Egypt is its absolutist nature that assumes three things that I believe are wrong assumptions: That current events in a short span of time will define Egypt for many years; that the people of Egypt essentially only face two choices, namely the Muslim Brotherhood or the armed forces; and that loyalists of both parties will clash and one of them will win, with no space in between for subtleties or nuances or groups of citizens engaging each other to craft a new political culture that is neither absolutist nor autocratic.
Much of the analysis about Egypt these days misses how life, ideology, identity and politics actually operate across the Middle East, which is basically through a process of constant negotiations of identities and authorities by a wide range of citizens who often are not formalized in clear organizations, and for the most part do not have websites, or Twitter and Facebook accounts. If Egypt teaches us anything for now it is that dozens of different groups of citizens will continue to engage each other in political battle until they agree on the outlines of a national governance system that they can all accept as legitimate and appropriate for their country. [Continue reading...]
Rami G. Khouri writes: Every once in a while the Middle East region experiences a series of major and simultaneous developments in several different arenas, indicating that something important is taking place. We are passing through just such a moment this week, with quite dramatic developments in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine-Israel, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and several Arabian Peninsula states, without any sign of what is truly historic and new and what is a passing phenomenon.
Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed to learn that nobody is in charge, as they had long imagined, or is pulling strings to achieve predetermined objectives, like the break-up of large Arab countries into a series of ethnic principalities, or the control of Arab countries by Islamist groups beholden to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States. Local dynamics primarily drive each set of major changes across the region, with cross-border linkages following as a corollary in most cases.
Iraq is pursuing its own post-war domestic conflicts and stresses and trying to figure out the balance among its Arab and Kurdish components, its Iraqi and Iranian interests, and the frail communalism among Iraqi Arab Shiites and Sunnis. The United States is pushing hard to revive a Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiation by focusing on three tactics that have repeatedly failed and probably will fail again: tripartite meetings with Jordan; talks between Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, who would not recognize a credible peace process if they found it in their soup; and, a proposed $4 billion development initiative for occupied Palestinian territories that focuses on economic development rather than liberation as the antidote to the depressed condition in Arab Palestine. [Continue reading...]
The National: The battle of Al Qusair, which has been raging for weeks in Syria between Hizbollah militants and Syrian opposition forces, evokes images of Mohamed Bouazizi’s torched body in Tunisia, which was the first spark of the Arab revolutions, observed columnist Mamoun Fandi in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat.
“Al Qusair mirrors the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, in that it signals the start of a new conflict in the Arab region in light of the new strategic direction that Hassan Nasrallah has dictated clearly in his last speech,” the columnist said.
The chief of Hizbollah, the Shiite militant group in Lebanon, gave a televised address on Saturday vowing to fight alongside Syrian president Bashar Al Assad until the bitter end, and promising victory over the rebels.
The strategic implications of his attitude may be the most substantial in the last two years in the changing Arab world, according to the writer.
“Despite his persistent denials of allegations of sectarian alignment, Mr Nasrallah’s speech outlines the nature of the next conflict in the region: a Sunni-Shiite conflict par excellence, and its first combat skirmishes on the ground have begun in Al Qusair,” the writer said.
It is a new manifestation of the Arab Spring where the usual protagonists – autocratic regimes versus pro-democracy oppositions – have taken on a sectarian aspect with the Sunni-Shiite conflicts.
“The Arab region would fall hostage to a religious ideological clash that pits the Shiite camp sponsored by Iran against a Sunni axis of power that is taking shape between Turkey and influential Gulf states,” the writer suggested.
But Hizbollah’s deep involvement in the Syrian war isn’t rooted in ideology alone. It is a real involvement with serious military and operational aspects.
The two-year fight has revealed some real gaps in the Syrian army’s capabilities. It isn’t the fine-tuned combat machine that Iran and Hizbollah thought they could depend on for support.
Hizbollah and Iran’s direct interference in the war is aimed at bridging the gaps of the regular army and reorganising it while also testing the compatibility and the potential for interoperability in their alliance.
Such an advanced level of coordination between the three military forces – Syria, Iran and Hizbollah – creates the exemplary Shiite army that would be tasked with implementing and protecting the new strategic map for the region, the columnist remarked. [Continue reading...]
Rami G Khouri writes: The sudden escalation of fighting in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli is troubling on two fronts and noteworthy on a third. The troubling dimensions are the chronic nature of urban warfare in Lebanon’s streets and the direct linkages between the Tripoli battles and the fighting in the Syrian town of Qusair. The noteworthy element is the growing role of Salafists in the Tripoli fighting, which is part of a remarkable expansion of Salafist groups’ public action in political and military spheres across the Middle East in recent years. Credible reports from Tripoli repeatedly chronicle the increased military role of Salafists in the city, directly reflecting the heightened clashes mirroring the fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian government forces in Syria. Tripoli has long had its own localized confrontation between the Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh quarter and the majority Alawite and mostly pro-Bashar Assad quarter of Jabal Mohsen.
Several new elements have transformed this chronic local tension spot into something much more ominous: the direct linkages between the clashes in Syria and in Tripoli, the movement of growing numbers of Salafist fighters into north Lebanon and other parts of the country in recent years, the movement of fighters from north Lebanon into Syria to support anti-Assad rebels, and the Lebanese Salafists’ self-imposed role of countering the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon and in the fighting in Syria – especially in Qusair this month.
This is not a sudden or unexpected development. Salafists have operated in small numbers in isolated parts of urban or rural Lebanon for some years, often expanding in direct proportion to adjacent conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Pockets of militants battled the Lebanese Army and security forces in the north a few years ago, mainly in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp. More recently, Lebanese security officials have been quoted in the press as expressing concern about the growing numbers of Salafists moving into Lebanon, anchoring themselves in Salafist-dominated urban neighborhoods such as Bab al-Tabbaneh or in some Palestinian refugee camps outside the control of the Lebanese state, such as Ain al-Hilweh in the south.
The militant nature of the Salafists adds a significant dimension to the nonviolent ways of the majority of Arab Salafists who tend to focus on recreating the “pure” Islamic lifestyles and societies from the earliest decades of the Islamic era, during and immediately after the days of the Prophet Mohammad. Most Salafists across the Arab world in recent years have operated quietly at the neighborhood level, seeking primarily to promote basic Islamic values (faith, modesty, charity, mercy) in the personal and communal behavior of individual men and women. Active political participation in public life was left to the Muslim Brotherhood or its various derivatives, who sought power at a national level, or to jihadists who waged their own battles across their imagined global battlefield.
So today we can witness two important developments occurring simultaneously across parts of the Arab region. Some Salafists have emerged from the shadows to participate in public politics and contest parliamentary and executive power, such as in Egypt and Tunisia most dramatically; and, a few Salafist groups have turned to military means to defend their local, regional or global causes, as we see in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq most clearly.
This means that we now have at least three distinct and identifiable kinds of Islamist movements in the Arab world that are engaged in public political, social or military action: Hezbollah- and Hamas-like resistance groups that are heavily anchored in individual nationalisms; parties like Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Morocco and Jordan that operate within the available channels of political participation and contestation; and, Salafist militants that use violence and intimidation to impose their strict ways on society. [Continue reading...]
Marc Lynch writes: A video of a rebel commander eating the lung of an enemy fighter and the horrific scenes of children massacred by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are only a few of Syria’s ever-growing catalog of atrocities. This stuff of nightmares has raised fears that Syria’s civil war is spreading Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict across the Middle East — fears galvanized by the escalating body count in Iraq, the dismal standoff in Bahrain, and the seemingly uncontainable tensions in Lebanon.
Many now see this sectarianism as the new master narrative rewriting regional politics, with Syria the frontline of a sectarian cold war permeating every corner of public life. The Sunni-Shiite divide, argues Brookings Institution fellow Geneive Abdo in a report released last month, “is well on its way to displacing the broader conflict between Muslims and the West … and likely to supplant the Palestinian occupation as the central mobilizing factor for Arab political life.”
Perhaps. But think about how little deep Arab sympathy for the Palestinian cause has actually produced effective or unified Arab official action in its support. Will Sunni solidarity be any more effective?
The sectarian master narrative obscures rather than reveals the most important lines of conflict in the emerging Middle East. [Continue reading...]
Rami G Khouri writes: An important but unclear aspect of the ongoing Arab uprisings has been how more democratic and legitimate Arab governments would impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Several incidents in Egypt indicate how government and popular street sentiment are likely to behave differently on Israel-Palestine than did the previous Mubarak regime. Now Jordan vividly captures the complexities and nuances of the consequences of more representative Arab governance systems.
The newly elected lower house of the Jordanian parliament last week asked the government to expel Israeli Ambassador Daniel Nevo, and to recall Jordan’s ambassador to Israel, Walid Obeidat. Neither of those things is going to happen, but the political dynamics of the process are intriguing, and highlight an issue that other Arabs must also address in due course: What do Arab governments do when they prefer to maintain peaceful relations with Israel and satisfy American government dictates, but their citizens are angry with Israeli policies and want to take political-diplomatic action to express their discontent?
The Jordanian parliament’s vote was non-binding, and will not result in any changes because its decisions must be ratified by a majority of the upper house of parliament, which is appointed by the king. This vote was especially intriguing because the lower house that was elected last November, in a vote boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, was thought to be dominated by pro-government tribal interests, and thus would be little more than a rubber stamp body.
Well, that may be true for most issues, but I guess we are learning now the important political science principle that rubber stamps and human hearts do not always coincide – for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and especially the Islamic holy places in occupied East Jerusalem, clearly touches the hearts of all Jordanians, Arabs and Muslims. [Continue reading...]
Issandr El Amrani writes: Free Arabs, a new Web site run by a group of Arabs — some in the Middle East, others in the West — is causing a stir. Gathered under the slogan “Democracy, Secularism, Fun,” it laments the fact that “millions of Arabs have internalized the notion that secularism is tantamount to faithlessness, and is all about demonizing Islam and promoting a dissolute way of life.
Not only can secularism coexist with religion, Free Arabs argues, but it protects the free exercise of religion and can help promote other civil liberties, like gay rights.
The group is defending a no-compromise version of secularism — one that may be too much to ask of many Arab politicians, particularly those in the fledging new liberal parties that have emerged since the Arab uprisings.
Some don’t want to be dragged into culture wars, a favorite ground for Islamists who bank on the fact that many Arab societies are still socially conservative. Others are just plain conservative themselves, even on issues far more basic than gay rights — like whether gender equality should be applied to inheritance and other questions traditionally governed by Islamic law.
Still, the controversy triggered by Free Arabs is just the kind of debate Islamists and secularists in the Arab world should be having, if only because they couldn’t have had it under the old regimes. Also, there’s plenty of room for debate: In this part of the world, the term “secular” means very different things to different people. [Continue reading...]
Rami G Khouri writes: We will find out in coming months whether the second term of the Obama administration will herald any significant changes in United States policies in the Middle East. Four main issues should be monitored for any signs of change: the Palestine-Israel and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts; tensions with Iran; the Arab uprisings, revolutions, and constitutional transformations; and socio-economic conditions across the region.
Each of these issues is important in itself. However, viewed from Washington they often get conflated and confused, so American government responses to the various Arab uprisings, for example, often are shaped by officials’ concerns about Iran and Israel.
On a short visit to Washington this week where I had discussions with specialists on the Middle East, my sense is that little has changed in the U.S. capital in the past two years. While the ordinary men and women of the Arab world have launched the most dramatic and consequential change ever in the political configuration of their region, officials and experts in Washington appear to be living in the past, intellectually and politically immobilized, pursuing more or less the same policies of the past several decades. [Continue reading...]
Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui writes: The Arab Spring is not an outcome, it is a process. For those countries at the forefront of regional transformation, the fundamental question is can democracy become institutionalised? Though progress has been uneven and the outcomes of many state-society struggles have yet to be resolved, the answer is a cautious yes. In at least a few countries, we are witnessing the onset of democratic institutionalisation: whether the process of reform and transformation spreads to other parts of the Middle East depends on many factors — religious tensions, political mobilisation, regime adaptations, geopolitics. Meanwhile North Africa provides the most promising preview of the future.
Democratic institutionalisation means the healthy convergence of politics around three arenas of competition: elections, parliaments and constitutions. When these institutions are robust and durable, then the democratic governments they engender are relatively safe from radical groups, reactionary forces and authoritarian backsliding (due to alternation: democracies that uphold the rule of law and hold regular elections require that power alternates between competing parties).
In Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, this process is unfolding, if at an unsteady pace. All three have had founding legislative elections that were far more competitive and pluralistic than those held in their authoritarian past. In Tunisia, the project to re-craft the national constitution nears completion by the Constituent Assembly, which itself was the product of electoral competition. The crisis there has two dimensions: the new government’s passivity in response to Salafist violence (which came to an end after the attack on the US embassy in Tunis) and the delay in getting economic reform under way, especially in the poorest regions. In spite of often acute tensions and conflicts between different political interest groups, all but the tiniest minority have accepted that democracy is now the name of the game. [Continue reading...]