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'Instability looms" was the title of last week's column, relating to the general outlook for the global economy. But last week was a long time ago, especially in this neighborhood.
In the Middle East, instability has arrived, big time; Ariel Sharon's exit from the Israeli political scene serves to highlight what is now a much more widespread phenomenon.
The starting-point of this analysis is to debunk, nay dismiss entirely, one of the cliches about the Middle East most beloved in the Western media - this is that the Middle East suffers from chronic political instability.
The truth is exactly the opposite.
For several decades, the Middle East was the most stable part of the world: The same people, or at least the same regimes, ran the various countries for decade after decade. Saudi Arabia is perhaps the best example, with the Ibn Saud dynasty entrenched via its phalanx of princes, amongst whom one branch (i.e. the offspring of Ibn Saud's favorite wife) has sat on the throne since the old man died in 1953.
Periodically, one of these brothers kicks the bucket and is replaced, but the clan is still there, albeit only just.
Libya, ruled by the "maverick" and hence inherently "unstable" Muammar Gaddafi, for the last 36-plus years, is the champion of stability, at least for a single ruler.
His neighbor and sometime-enemy, Egypt, has been under the benign gaze of Hosni Mubarak for nigh-on 25 years and before that, the Sadat regime was of the same ilk.
In many respects, as any Muslim Brother will tell you, it's been the same secular/modern story in Egypt since Nasser rose to the top in the early 50s.
And Syria, under the iron fist of Hafez al-Assad, became a paragon of stability, and reliability, as the lack of activity along the Israel-Syrian border since 1974 demonstrates. Even Iraq had a period of governmental stability, at least by its own appalling standards, under the rule of Saddam Hussein.
As for the Gulf States, under the umbrella of first British and then American patronage, the various sheikhs and emirs have reigned undisturbed for eons (True, there was the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but that aberration was soon put to rights, with almost all the Arab nations supporting the Americans, in the interest of territorial integrity and governmental stability).
Much the least stable country in the region for the last generation was Israel, where the average lifespan of governing coalitions became progressively shorter through the 1980s, 1990s and into the new century. However, beneath this facade of "revolving-door government," the underlying policies of Israeli governments of all stripes became increasingly similar.
But what used to be a misnomer has now become a true and accurate description of the region. The great irony is that the direct cause of this instability was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, with the accompanying ideology of regime change followed by the introduction of democracy. Whether and how the Americans should have done what they did is now moot. The reality of the new Middle East is that instability is the norm, as the strong leaders of the past fade or are removed.
Saddam was removed (although not entirely), Arafat faded out and Assad finally expired. In each case, the result has been a descent into chaos.
Lebanon, freed of Syrian tyranny, has reverted to its inherent feudal patchwork. In Egypt, any move toward democracy is destabilizing, even more so in Saudi, so there is very little movement.
Israel, always going against the trend, moved in the other direction under Sharon. For the first time in a decade, the country had a government that actually governed.
Indeed, on an overall assessment, Sharon's second government was the most successful the country has seen since the Yom Kippur War, perhaps ever, given the enormity of the challenges confronting it and the degree of progress made in dealing with them.
But with Sharon out, Israel is leaderless and likely to remain so, irrespective of who "wins" the next election. Being leaderless is undesirable, and will surely throw Israeli politics back into "instability mode."
However, because Israel actually functions as a democracy (despite all the moaning on that subject), so that the civil service, judiciary, armed forces, and the economic system operate autonomously and are not tied to the political system - it can survive political instability without rapidly slipping into anarchy.
That, it should be noted, remains the key dividing line between us and the rest of the region.
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