This Word from Our Chair presents a short perspective on where the “Arab Spring” – a time of both upheaval and optimism – came from and, more importantly for supporters of Israel, where we are today. Research and GR staffer Noah Shack provides this very concise and, I think, timely analysis of the current situation in the Middle East.
Initially greeted with enthusiasm by many, it is now abundantly clear that the so-called “Arab Spring” has not brought liberal democratic transformation to the Middle East. Rather than an idealistic and purposeful march forward, the region is now experiencing a chaotic reckoning with its past. The highest hopes were perhaps held for Egypt where the degenerating situation has prompted the Egyptian military to threaten intervention and President Obama to stress that “democracy is about more than elections.”
To understand current regional developments, it is important to recall that, just a hundred years ago, there was no Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or Jordan. The allied victory in World War I ended 400 years of Ottoman rule, with the British and French dividing up former Ottoman territories in the Middle East, arbitrarily designating borders and organizing them into a system of states. The British and French devolved power in most Middle Eastern countries to hand-picked autocrats who were themselves often replaced by authoritarian military officers. Today, we are witnessing an historic turning point with populations rising up to tear down these imposed state structures.
The extent to which “national” identity became associated with Arab despots through their top-down rule has fomented a rebellion not only against their regimes but also against the “national” identity they represent. This has resulted in clan, tribal, ethnic and – most of all – religious and sectarian identities manifest as the dominant forces in Middle East politics today. Consequently, along with the rise of Islamist movements and governments, we see sectarian conflict throughout the region.
These developments are evident in Palestinian politics with the ruling Fatah faction’s legitimacy undermined by the rise of Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas’ top political representative in the West Bank recently announced that intervening against Assad in Syria is a higher priority than “Jihad in Palestine,” illustrating the extent to which nationalism has been subjugated to religion and the sectarian divide.
Egypt has been plagued by attacks directed against Shi’a and Coptic Christian minorities. The recent massive protests against the Muslim Brotherhood government have been marked by sexual violence against women. The political situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the Egyptian military yesterday imposed a 48-hour ultimatum threatening to intervene “to prevent sectarian strife or the collapse of state institutions.” In the face of all this turmoil, Canada just announced that it has temporarily closed its embassy in Cairo citing dangerous and destabilizing divisions within Egypt.
Syria, Iraq and Lebanon have become a battleground between competing Shi’a and Sunni sectarian forces, pitting the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda against Hezbollah, the Assad regime and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Caught in the middle of all these competing forces are the region’s Christian, Druze and Baha’i minorities who have suffered greatly since the advent of the “Arab Spring”.
The lack of legitimacy accorded to states by their populations and the seething sectarian friction this state system has attempted to contain constitute the bedrock of Middle East tensions. It is therefore unsurprising that the leaders of these states have often used Israel as a means to deflect attention from their own lack of legitimacy and stoke a unifying sense of popular, nationalist identity among the people they govern. While Israel has – thus far – been left relatively unscathed, the current situation makes a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace appear even further beyond reach.
It took thousands of years to develop a stable nation-state system in Europe, a history full of violent conflicts among different groups – religious, linguistic, ethnic, local and national – with many completely annihilated during ongoing crises of social and political identity. What is transpiring in the Middle East is a similarly brutal reorientation of political identities, though there is no indication of a trajectory toward a secular, liberal democratic outcome. As the existing state system in the Middle East continues to be challenged, it is unclear what configuration will ultimately take its place.
For further reading please see:
Thomas L. Friedman: “Syria Scorecard”
David Fromkin: A Peace To End All Peace
Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon: Israel’s Security Policy in a Changing Middle East