Mohamed Mursi’s presidential election victory announced on June 24 split Egypt raising tensions inside the country against the backdrop of US decision taken at the end of March to resume the $1.3bn annual military aid to it despite doubts concerning the transition to democracy. In July 2012 the United Nations will meet in New York to negotiate an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The new treaty would establish international standards to regulate the legal trade in small and major conventional arms. A lot of people express doubts the negotiations will produce a meaningful and effective document. But what would be more important – will the volatile Middle East be affected by the Treaty in anyway? It’s absolutely out of logic and sound sense if the issue will not top the agenda. For instance the fiscal year 2012 is record breaking for the US military sales. The figure has surpassed $50 billion in sales that represents a 70 percent increase over government-to-government sales by the United States in 2011, itself a record-setting year at just over $30 billion. Obviously the sale to Saudi Arabia was the most significant. It’s a $29.4 billion deal including 84 Boeing-made F-15SA fighter jets and upgrades to its existing fleet of 70 F-15s. The deal also includes 150 Javelin anti-tank guided missiles and three different types of helicopters. The United States has resumed military sales to Bahrain despite human rights concerns after more than a year of protests against kingdom’s rulers. On June 17 the world media broke news Saudi Arabia wants to buy 600 to 800 Leopard battle tanks from Germany. My modest 25 year military service record tells me the tanks cannot be separated from other weapons systems Saudi Arabia will inevitably add to the shopping list. Boosting armor might means upgrading the whole army strike capability with all the components involved. Oil is poured on the flames in the region that has become the most volatile place in the world where one single spark can give birth to huge unstoppable fire.
Like the Soviet Union’s dismemberment, the Arab crisis had never been predicted. The leading think tanks and political science in general had failed to give a warning about the Middle East events. Not so long ago the region was a confusing entanglement of specific factors and contradictions divided along the Cold War borders. The bipolar world vanished the countries of the region stepped on the bumpy road of adaptation to new dynamic reality. The changing Arab world is becoming a factor of global influence.
The general tendencies
There are two major inside tendencies: the rise of political Islam, including the radical pattern, and relative liberalization leading to more democratic state structures. Islamism is supported by those who find the religion and historic heritage indispensible for further progress. The Sunni self identification is picking up strength, especially in the Persian Gulf monarchies. They see the “pure” faith as a driving force that would lead to the renaissance of Arab nation uniting it in the shape of federal or confederate entity. Like a middle ages caliphate it would be able to counter the outside political and cultural expansion. On the other hand secular political forces certainly realize the need to build civil society. The absence of adequate social and economic institutions, the specifics of regional political development make it impossible to follow the established Western pattern. It failed everywhere, it’s failing in Iraq, it’s shaky in Lebanon, it’s iffy in any Arab or “Greater Middle East country” even if it has a multiparty political system more or less resembling a Western model at first cursory glance. A republic or a monarchy, the state’s role in the Arab world is always much stronger in comparison with the European type state structures. No Arab (or Middle East) state is homogeneous. All states are divided along religious and ethnic lines, making parts of society easy to manipulate. The power of those who long ago established their rule is becoming unstable. There is a new business class, there are people coming from periphery, there are clans and groups rising up the traditional rulers don’t belong to. They are vigorously opposed by the powers that be. And there is no charismatic leader able to unite the Arabs (no matter what slogans are used). No second Gamal Abdel Nasser or Ahmed Ben Bella is in sight at present.
The Islamist political forces are well-organized making it a strong force while the secular leaders display no ability to make masses follow them. They hardly can become an opposing factor to reckon with. There is no opposition to the Islamists, at least that’s what it appears to be like in the near future. On the other hand the Islamist forces enjoying public support are not mature enough to become full fledged political parties. They can address the social problems (not solve them) to have sympathy of grassroots, they are able speakers and mass mobilizers, but is it enough in the long run?
An Arab state traditionally has a key role to play in economy that runs contrary to the economic patterns based on competition. Inevitably they couldn’t avoid dependence on the world market, local financial elites becoming integrated with the West. Especially in the case of oil and gas exporters. The global economic crisis negatively affects the situation in the region exacerbating social problems. The newly discovered hydrocarbons deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean will give rise to competition between local and outer regional actors, including transnational corporations. The other burning problem is growing water deficit dividing the countries and endangering the region. Will the radicals be able to tackle it all?
The causes of aggravation
The region is plunged into a real deep and unprecedented crisis since 2010-2011. Some of the causes go back to history. In Libya the contradictions between Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan as well as between the tribes make it a very much divided country. The South and North of Yemen appear to be divided by irreconcilable differences, tribal and clans divisions make stability to be an unachievable dream. Off and on the Shiites protests against ruling Sunni regime in Bahrain is hot news on the radar screen. The Sunni Muslims express their discontent with the way the Alawites rule Syria. No solution of Kurds problem is in sight and their strive for an independent state is irreconciable, the conflict between the Tuaregs and Arabs is flaring in North Africa, a latent for many years stand off between inter-Arab between the Whites (north-eastern) and The Blacks (southern) Arabs is coming into open. Formally united by religion and language they are split along different civilization and cultural lines dividing the South-Europe-Mediterranean and Africa-Arabian Peninsula. Political unity appears to be a far fetched idea, but there are things in common for all Arab nations. Pan-Arab nationalism gives place to new ideas. The new media like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia outlets change the world view of Arab young people – the driving force of regional changes. It’s them who start the call for reforms joined afterwards by more radical masses mainly influenced not by networks but rather mosque preachers. The new Arab generation needs no strong leaders, no fathers of nations deciding each and anything for them. They strive for better living standards, they strongly condemn deep rooted and overwhelming corruption of the long ago established ruling circles, they see themselves as fighters against injustice, they are ready to pursue these goals under any slogans: nationalist, radical Islamists or social. The agitated grassroots have no trust in whatever the ruling circles say or promise, their discontent with the egregious social injustice is too deep, eloquence serves no purpose anymore, this people want deeds not words. The global economic and financial crisis prompted protests in the comparatively well to do Arab states like Tunisia and Egypt. The IMF recommendations put into practice led to mass impoverishment. At the beginning of the century the states couldn’t subsidize the basic foodstuffs. The food prices hikes in 2010 prompted street protests. The sequence of events developed along the following order: the global financial crisis - money pumping - financial flows influencing exchange activities-foodstuffs prices hikes - mass discontent and protests. The situation was also influenced by outside interference. The 9/11 gave an impetus to the long ago hatched plans. The Bush administration saw Iraq as the first stage of bringing the Greater Middle East concept into life. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) was launched to support “reform efforts” in the Middle East and North Africa. A wide range of projects was launched through NGOs, educational institutions, local governments and private businesses. The concept was put forward at the G8 summit in 2004 as a proposal for sweeping change in the Middle East. Besides the Arab world the Greater Middle East englobed various countries, pertaining to the Muslim world, especially Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Various Central Asian countries are sometimes also included in the concept. US political speakers used the term to denote areas with significant Muslim majorities, but this usage is not universal. The plan was accompanied by calls to make regional financial institutions part of the IMF and World Bank, actually making them dependent on the West. The next step was to make new entities subject to US control. Outright military interventions too costly, the way to achieve the goal is sparking the destabilization process.
Prospects for future
The changes we witness are long-term. The prospects for liberal-democratic regimes coming to power are bleak to put it mildly. The Islamists are on the rise (just look at Egypt). It will inevitably lead to Sharia laws, dissemination of “Islamic values”, manhunt on religious or minority grounds etc. The new radical leaders have no proper education or experience, as time goes by they’ll fail and prompt a new wave of wide scale discontent and protests. The radicals taking reins will lead to tension and deterioration of relations with the Western world. The West believes the trend may not be universal; a belief is strong that “moderate Sunni” rulers coming to power in Syria, for instance, will be influenced by the Persian Gulf monarchies, that in turn will make them pro-Western. The Persian Gulf monarchies have a good chance to calm the protests down by introducing formal steps aimed at liberalization, the masses faithful to Sunni branch of Islam and Sunni leadership.
The Israel-Arab stand off is going to be frozen. The Palestinians are unable to tackle the issue being divided, while the overall situation in the Arab world is unclear. The US administration not in the position to tackle any significant issues till the outcome of the November 2012 elections is not known. It’s not Arab-Israel conflict but the events in Syria that are going dominate the news in the coming months.
The Iranian efforts to lead the Shiite segment of the Muslim world, focusing on Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen and supporting its main Arab world ally-Syria will be countered by the Arab monarchies aided by the West (the 800 tanks deal is a bright example). The pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian HAMAS will lose their clout due to changes in Syria (be it liberalization or downfall). Taking into consideration the growing influence of the Persian Gulf monarchies in the League of Arab states, the Arab world will switch its focus over from Israel to countering the Persian expansion.
In case a strike against Iran is delivered by the USA or Israel, or both, the situation is going to be seriously destabilized. No matter the Iranian regime is hardly in favor, the Arab countries will willy-nilly have to come out in its support: condemning the action, artificially raising the hydrocarbon prices, declaring a selective oil embargo or even striking the Israeli territory from South Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula or the Golan heights. Subversive actions against Israel or the US (NATO) regional military facilities are to be expected.
In general the Arab world is far from recognizing Turkey as a regional superpower, the historic antagonism still going strong, the Turkey-West ties too close. Still they view favorably the Turkish initiatives aimed at boosting the global clout of the world of Islam, support of oppressed true Muslims (like in the case of the Sunni in Syria) and local revolutions and deterrence of Israel.
The Libyan precedent of UN sanctioned intervention under the guise of responsibility to protect unties the hands of regional and outer regional forces willing to topple out-of-favor governments on the one hand. On the other hand it evokes inevitable apprehensions among the ruling elites hardly wishing to be the next.
The Libyan example is just another demonstration how the implementation of the Greater Middle East concept leads to fragmentation of sovereign states, or even creation of new entities on the world map. The division of Sudan is another example of the reconstruction in question. Lebanon, Libya, Iraq among others are hardly immune from the threat of disintegration creating pretexts for outside interventions.
It would be too naïve to think the experience gained will remain limited by the Middles East itself and not spread on other regions, the post-Soviet space, for instance.
The Arab states face the options of further political development: the preservation of authoritarian regimes, a Turkish model of moderate and secular Muslim democracy, Iran type theocratic regime, Arab Islamist regimes. Traditional authoritative monarchies may exist along with Arab brand democratic Western type governments that may not necessarily be West friendly. Then secularism and clericalism will play a tug of war game. The Islamic influence is on the rise in the Arab world, it will inevitably influence Muslims in Asia and Africa, the countries south to Sahel in particular. But there is also the recent example of Algiers’ governing party strengthened its rule in parliamentary elections in May, dampening hopes that the vote might bolster the standing of opposition voices. An alliance of moderate Islamist parties did poorly in the voting, a result sharply at odds both with analysts’ predictions and the experience of Algeria’s neighbors in the wake of last year’s Arab Spring.
The Middle East turmoil will almost certainly spark refugee flows exacerbating the situation in the European Union, a factor making the organization an active player defending its vital interests.
Actually Arab spring has become a buzz word the term no longer corresponds to reality. The Arab spring gave place to Islamist summer that may jolly well last into post Islamist autumn.
No way the situation development can be predicted with precision, but some things are clear or inevitable. Instability is to last for a long time. Perhaps a few years. New countries will be involved in the transformation process. Radical or moderate Islamists will be omnipresent either coming to power or becoming part of ruling coalitions, or a leading opposition force. Coming to power means tackling social-economic issues, religious populism is of little help here. It’s not words but rather deeds that will determine their political success. Their failures will become secular forces or more radical elements gains. Moderate and radical Islamists, secular liberals and secular autocracy advocates may join in a coat of many colors coalitions on a temporary basis. The coalition of the sort are never stable, so it’s still uncertainty and instability that lies ahead.
The outside world cannot stand aside. For instance the situation makes Russia and the USA policy coordination a natural thing to do according to common logic. The Greater Middle East concept envisages further aggravation and spread of destabilization to other countries even outside the Middle East and the Arab world with unpredictable results. Leaving the concept aside to give way to multinational (and urgent under the circumstances) cooperation on equal footing can make it a success. The way the events turn there is no time to lose.