No safe harbours in turbulent Middle East

Friday 01/01/2016
Jon Alterman

WASHINGTON - The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) chose a fitting title for its report taking stock of the events of the fifth year of turmoil in the Middle East. Rocky Harbors documents the uncertainty and volatility that have plagued the region’s political seas since the storm that hit in 2011 but it does not yet see any harbours that are safe and predictable for the region.

Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Programme at CSIS and editor of the report, told The Arab Weekly, “There are harbours but they are perilous and you don’t know where danger lies.”

The CSIS report tackles the variables and challenges in the region, including the state and its legitimacy, the rise of political Islam, the threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS) and the power rivalries in the region. It also discusses specific issues and countries, such as Iran, the Maghreb, Egypt and the Arab-Israeli conflict. If there is a word that sums up what all of these have in common, it is “uncertainty”. Alterman says there is no new balance and the extent of instability and uncertainty “is unclear”.

In his introductory chapter — Seeking Harbor in the Storm — Alterman takes issue with the names given to the events of the past few years that have taken place in the Arab world. He said that calling the uprisings “revolutions” and the regional phenomena the “Arab spring” is “naive”. He said the belief that “Arab politics were opening up in a fundamental way was premature and some might even argue misguided”.

“Revolutionaries cannot be confident that the revolution brings freedom,” Alterman said. For him, the problem is “larger than getting rid of the current system. The revolution got rid of the system but could not replace it with something better.”

Unlike Eastern European countries, which succeeded in changing the system and moving to democracy, in the Arab world “there was no serious opposition”, Alterman said.

The unpredictability of the course taken in Tunisia and in Egypt is offset by the fact that those two cases are “bright spots” compared to the rest of the countries in the region. Alterman said that the liberals in the Arab world failed in their attempts to make peace with the Islamists, revealing that many people in the region prefer the flawed dictatorial regimes to the puritanical politics of the Islamists. Alterman said today’s liberals “are in hiding”.

What is the direction that Arab society and Arab politics are taking? Alterman identifies five variables that will determine the answer: “The growth of information technology, new ways in which isolated actions have outsized consequences, the price of energy; geopolitics, especially the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran; and the outcome of the political experiments unfolding throughout the Arab world.”

Alterman senses “renewed resolve” among Arab governments after “some despair in early 2011” but he says they are “far from feeling secure”. The “much larger problem for them is the threat they feel from their domestic political opposition”. In many ways, this is a continuation of the past. In 1962, Jordan’s King Hussein wrote a book entitled Uneasy Lies the Head. “Unease” still describes the anxiety that many Arab leaders must feel about the state of their countries and the region.

Alterman predicts that it will take many years for the dust to settle in a region whose new environment nobody fully understands.

Roger Owen, the prominent Middle East scholar who is professor emeritus at Harvard, contributed a chapter to the CSIS report titled: The Future of Arab State Power. He foresees a weakened state system in the Middle East that started with the 2011 uprisings, and warns that this situation “poses a challenge to the whole postcolonial order in the Arab Middle East”.

Owen reaches two conclusions: First, there will be no “shrinkage of the state itself in size, ferocity of its security forces or in the central role played in the management of the lives of most Arab populations”. Second, “most Arab regimes will engage in new ways of managing their societies, although, in most instances, they will stop a long way short of the type of democratic participation characteristic of the majority of their European neighbours”.