Experts discuss uncertain future of a changing Middle East

Israel Council on Foreign Relations discussion sees region radically different in ten years time.

March 24, 2011 06:22
3 minute read.
REGIONAL TURMOIL. A map of countries in upheaval

Arab Unrest Map 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The Middle East is changing so radically that in 10 years several countries could disintegrate, experts said Tuesday during a panel discussion held in memory of former Mossad chief David Kimche.

“Here we have a new situation with countries – which shouldn’t have been nations anyway because they didn’t have the glue that makes them nations – falling apart,” said Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.

“I’m not sure in 10 years’ time we’ll be talking about Saudi Arabia, but maybe we’ll be talking about the Arabian Peninsula. It’s more natural for Yemen just to disintegrate, because it’s a tribal society and some parts of Yemen are closely affiliated with parts of Saudi Arabia.”

Bar spoke during an Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) discussion entitled “Perspectives on the Current Maelstrom in the Middle East,” held on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus.

The panel also included Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University and a former Foreign Ministry director-general, and David Sultan, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Turkey.

Bar also said Syria is ripe for a split.

Northern Syria has a growing jihadist presence, and Alawites in the north are converting to Shi’ite Islam because they predict they will have to eventually align themselves with Shi’ites in Lebanon.

Recent events in the Arab world have also scuttled the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, said Bar, because Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is no longer in power, and the leaders of Jordan and Saudi Arabia are consumed by internal troubles.

“One of the major forces which brought [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] to do what he never wanted to do – move ahead in the peace process – was that Abdullah, Mubarak, and the Saudis were always pressuring him,” he said.

“So his willingness to move ahead and make compromises is less today than when he had the backing of a strong, pro-Western Arab world.”

Sultan disagrees with commentators who claim the Muslim Brotherhood is intentionally keeping a low profile in order to wait for the right opportunity to seize power. He said the organization is beset by internal differences.

“Besides,” said Sultan, “I trust the army will do its best to prevent [the Muslim Brotherhood from achieving] a sizable representation in parliament.”

With a population of 84 million and an annual birth rate of 1.5 million, half of Egypt’s population lives in poverty. This is one reason why no post-Mubarak government will scuttle the country’s peace treaty with Israel.

“Sadat’s decision was the result of a gradual realization that Egypt cannot afford to continue with cycles of war with Israel,” said Sultan. “Allocating resources needed for confrontation left very little for the needs of a growing population.”

With the Egyptian government having to create one million jobs a year, Egypt needs the billions of dollars it receives from tourism, American aid, the operation of the Suez Canal, and the oil industry in Sinai.

Furthermore, the peace treaty was not only signed by Egypt and Israel, but by the US, with which no Egyptian government would want such a major disagreement.

“The cold peace may become colder, but it will remain,” said Sultan.

Avineri said Egypt’s history shows it has the tools to become a working democracy. “Egypt has a secular tradition and had a liberal constitution in the 1920s and ’30s,” he said.

However, he cautioned that Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square do not necessarily mean Egypt is ready for democracy right away. “Democracy is an outcome of many decades of civil society and liberal development,” said Avineri. “In the French Revolution people were able to liberate Bastille, but the outcome was not democracy. France became a democracy 100 years later.”

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