From one year to the other
In this issue, we look back at 2015 and ahead to 2016. The last year had its share of wars and tragedies in North Africa and the Middle East as thousands continue to die in the battlefields of Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Civil strife rages in Libya and prevents the establishment of a functioning state there. Jihadist insurgencies, at varying levels of intensity, have confronted the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tunisia.
Regional unrest and violence have created the direst humanitarian crises in history and threatened to reshape the ethnic and religious map of the region as minorities are attacked and displaced.
The political crises are in many ways reflections of moral and intellectual crises so acute they are driving many young Arabs to embrace a suicidal narrative of hate and destruction. The criminal designs of the Islamic State and similar groups could not have been inflicted upon innocent victims if there were not enough desperate people willing to be radicalised and fanatical sponsors luring and supporting them.
We also are experiencing crises of imagination. For decades, too many countries within the region and outside of it have viewed war as the best way to settle disputes and address political, sectarian and ethnic divides.
In 2015, non-Arab regional powers continued to see a stake in military involvement further fanning the flames of instability. Sectarian expansionism continues to be a dangerous factor fuelling war and preventing coexistence.
The West’s wars from the sky may have shielded Europeans and Americans from suffering too many casualties; but air campaigns have not ended or even contained the ongoing conflicts. Neither have they spared the region the millions of killed, injured and displaced as well as the billions of dollars of economic losses. They ended up provoking a Russian incursion unequalled since the Cold War.
Nevertheless, developments during the last few months of 2015 could be a harbinger of a more peaceful environment, if only because the belligerents and their proxies are maybe too exhausted to continue fighting and now find it more expedient to search for political settlements.
Beyond extinguishing the fires of violence, the Arab world needs to cure its socio-economic ills in order to become a better place to live and a region where foreign tourists and investors feel safe enough to visit and work.
The ongoing crises are crises of youth: Desperate young people are fleeing the Middle East and North Africa, when they are not joining the ranks of jihadist groups.
Educational systems have failed to generate tolerant and reason-oriented mindsets. The mismatch between educational systems and economies is such that university graduates have less of a chance to find a job than those with no university education.
The majority of young people are disinterested in public life as a result of their distrust of politicians and politics. And it is not the opportunistic manipulation of religion that can provide a meaningful and constructive agenda for young people.
Let us hope that 2016 will be the year when the Arab world starts down the path to a better future. This will require progress in resolving regional conflicts, turning the tide against jihadism and its twisted appeal, and starting to address the underlying socio-economic problems that have fuelled the region’s crises.