Still waiting for that new Middle East

Arab World: Saudi Arabia remains an island of stability, while Iran is stirring up most of the trouble.

Saudi troops Bahrain 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi troops Bahrain 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The so-called Arab Spring has yet to bring democracy to the Arab world. The situation so far: Egypt and Tunisia, the most moderate and pro-Western countries in the region, have seen their governments toppled. In Libya and in Yemen, there is a bloody civil war. In Syria, Bashar Assad is killing civilians by the hundreds in vain efforts to stifle protests – but the international community remains on the sidelines, not wanting to repeat its (so far unsuccessful) intervention in Libya. Saudi Arabia, the country with perhaps the most oppressive regime, remains an island of stability.
Iran is making the most of the trouble and deepening its penetration efforts in the region. Its agents continue to incite the Shi’ite in Bahrain and Kuwait against the ruling Sunni families, ratcheting up the tension in the Gulf area and making the Saudis uneasy.
Last week saw a highly embarrassing incident in which a prisoner, an Iranian diplomat accused of spying, was freed and expelled to his native country, making a mockery of Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi’s policy to turn over a new leaf with Iran and renew relations.
So far the turmoil has succeeded in bringing the economies of most of the countries concerned to their knees. Tourism, a staple for Tunisia and Egypt, is at an all-time low. Foreign investors have flown. In Egypt, workers are going on strike to demand higher wages, bringing exports and imports to a standstill and ushering in a shortage of basic goods.
Throughout the region, the hopeful throngs who took to the streets to better their living conditions and to be free of dictatorial regimes are now facing an economic crisis far worse than anything they knew before. This is sure to lead to more instability, more violence and a worsening situation.
So what, if anything, is new? Once more, the Arab world rallies round its traditional position against the peace process. In Egypt, there are calls for reneging on the peace treaty and stopping the sale of Egyptian natural gas to Israel, even though maintaining peace and deepening trade relations with the Israelis is in Egyptian interests. Yet as things stand, with no leadership and no clear goals after the fall of the old regimes, nothing is easier than turning once again against Israel.
Islamic indoctrination, from schools to mosques, is stronger than any rational thought. When demonstrations started in Tunisia and in Egypt, much was made of the so-called new generation fighting for its rights, having shed the old clichés making Israel responsible for all the ills of the Middle East. It turned out to have been premature. Even Asmaa Mahfouz, one of the founders of the Egyptian April 6 Movement bloggers, whose celebrated appeal on YouTube is credited with launching the demonstrations, recently said on television that cutting ties with Israel was one of the most important tasks to accomplish.
What about the Palestinians? Here, too, more extreme attitudes regarding Israel have developed. Many are convinced that it will be possible to duplicate the massive demonstrations seen in Arab countries to put pressure on Israel and garner international support for the Palestinian position. Though Fatah and Hamas have apparently reconciled their differences and the Rafah Crossing is open, these are nothing more than nationalistic and anti-Israel moves that do not change the political reality.
Hamas has not moved an inch, and its leaders still declare daily that they want to destroy Israel – openly mocking the Quartet, which asks them to recognize Israel and the agreements signed with that country, as well as renouncing terror. The organization flatly refuses to dismantle its security forces and put them at the disposal of the Palestinian Authority president. Far from it; Hamas is still trying to take over that authority by all means fair or foul.
Bizarrely Fatah has agreed to let Hamas join the PLO and play a role in the negotiations with Israel. Obviously the PA made “peace” with Hamas with no concessions on the part of that organization, for the sole purpose of presenting a socalled united front to the United Nations in advance of the proposed bid for international recognition in September. The PA is busy arranging mass demonstrations at Israel’s borders and in Arab and Western capitals to sway international public opinion while making up a link between Arab revolutions and the alleged plight of the Palestinians.
Opening the Rafah crossing is also an unnatural offshoot of the revolution. Revolutionary Egypt wants to flaunt its independence vis à vis the United States and Israel while fulfilling the wishes of anti- Israeli forces strengthened by the new situation. However, a scant few days after the much-touted opening, it was made clear that this was not what Hamas wanted; the organization was vocal in its condemnation of the rules and limitations imposed on those wanting to use the crossing. The fact is that the strategic balance has not changed, and Egypt understands well enough the damage that an unchecked flow of weapons into Sinai and the waiting arms of the turbulent Beduin tribes can do, as well as the potential for renewed terror attacks. Hence its dual policy: opening the crossing on the one hand, closely monitoring the situation on the other.
Are the Arab revolutions going anywhere? The daily Asharq Alawsat published a lengthy op-ed from a leading Arab commentator on June 1: “History teaches us that the model of a revolution attempting to topple a stable regime in order to introduce reforms gradually – such as in Bahrain or Egypt – leads to a more extreme regime less inclined to protect civil rights. The revolutions of the Arab world are not like the 1848 revolutions in Western Europe or the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. They are nothing more than popular unrest in a region where extreme religious ideologies and exacerbated nationalism are at work.”
The writer goes on: “The whole region is undoubtedly undergoing a difficult historical test, but many commentators do not see that this test will not necessarily be over in a year or two, but probably in many years, and that it will not necessarily bring about better results as far as democracy is concerned, that is, a fair regime and above all economic welfare.”
He adds: “The best evidence of the state of anarchy prevailing at this stage is that better economic conditions, which were the basis of the outbreak of manifestations, is no longer on the demonstrators’ agenda. All that is left is the demand for revenge and the spirit of revolution enshrining lofty ideals but demanding the blood and the property of people for reasons not always fair and in order to purge the previous regime.”
A harsh judgment indeed, and one the West is reluctant to accept, preferring to wax lyrical on the Arab spring, in the naïve belief that liberal forces will emerge to take over and lead the Arab world to a Western type of democracy based on tolerance and acceptance of the other, freedom of speech, equality for women and human rights.
Reality is different. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad are still very much there and won’t give up without a bloody fight. The fate of a wounded Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen is still unclear. If they fall, Islamic organizations are ready to take over. In these three countries, the Muslim Brothers and Salafist groups are the central political force able to “harvest” the revolution. It should not be forgotten that in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is making an all-out effort to bring about an Islamic bloc, together with other extreme Islamic formations, in order to win the next parliamentary elections. In Jordan, the Brothers, represented by the Front for Islamic Action, are also at the forefront and pushing for demonstrations.
On the one hand, Iranian subversive activities are on the rise; on the other, the Muslim Brothers are doing their best to take over some of the countries of the Middle East. This does not look as if it will take the region much further on the road of democracy, let alone promoting tolerance and even less the recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt, Romania and Sweden, and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.