A new year — any new year — is full of things that have never been and a few that could be. So it is with 2017, just a few days old and bursting with projections about what is to come.
What can we expect for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in 2017, keeping in mind the distinction between hope and expectation?
We can hope that peace will break out wholesale in the region but the expectation would be a gradual end to hot wars — Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya — and a subsequently bumpy and prolonged process of peace building.
We can hope that radical extremism will be given no quarter but the expectation would be a graduated hobbling of terrorist groups — the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, disparate jihadist entities in Syria — and of their ability to strike in the region and beyond.
We can hope that the momentum gained by Iraqi forces in their 11-week battle to take Mosul from ISIS will mean the end of that brutal extremist entity but the more realistic expectation must be that it will be a long battle to evict ISIS from Iraq and Syria. And it is a mighty struggle for the hearts and minds of the region’s youth.
We can hope that defence spending will be curtailed in the region and that there will be a commensurate rise in development funding but, considering all the challenges — real and perceived — the expectation must be that key MENA countries will continue to devote large budgets to their security needs. Nonetheless, it is time MENA states established viable economic strategies, focused on their overwhelmingly young populations.
The new year began with a new UN leadership. It is hoped that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a bridge-building political veteran with an aptitude for initiating and moderating difficult conversations on the world stage, will rise to the unique challenges of this moment in history.
The United Nations is needed more than ever to articulate a vision around which an increasingly fractious world can unite. The UN secretary-general’s compassionate vision and creative determination are needed to end conflict, especially in the MENA region.
A lot will depend on the countries in the region and their ability to look beyond chronic divisions and short-term calculations. On that front, there is reason to believe that hope and expectation can unite. Developments in the MENA region in recent months indicate a new sense of pragmatism and a can-do spirit.
Donald Trump’s impending inauguration as president of the United States and the continuing surge in prominence of right-wing forces in Europe place a new and serious responsibility on the Arab and Muslim worlds. They must hold the line, knuckle down and work towards a convincing narrative that dispels fear and embraces mutually assured co-development and peace.
There is nothing that binds this region to continuously re-enact the past. The Middle East and North Africa are not destined to be the way they are, riven by conflict and plagued by the expectation of instability.
In itself, that is abundant reason for hope in 2017.