Sunday, January 01, 2006

A mixed year for a valiant Arab people

By Rami G. Khouri

A look back at eventful 2005 in the Middle East shows three broad and significant developments in historical terms, related to the citizen, the state and the foreign powers that intervened in the region. Important changes are underway at all three of these levels of identity discernable today, though we need not predict where they will lead.

The most positive development has seen the citizen in many Arab countries start to rebel against the many indignities and inequities that he or she has endured in silence for decades - mostly variations of abuse of power by unelected, unaccountable elites from their own country or abroad. In Lebanon and Palestine, large-scale popular resistance and opposition were expressed, respectively, to Syrian domination and Israeli occupation.The citizenry's rebellion in other Arab lands primarily took the form of small vanguard groups of democratic activists who openly but peacefully challenged the state's monopoly on power (in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and Morocco), or mainstream Islamist parties that challenged the ruling elite through democratic elections to Parliament or to local councils (in Palestine, Egypt, or Lebanon).

Changes at the level of states were largely negative this year, the most troubling one being the continued fragmentation of 20th-century sovereign Arab states into much more brittle collections of ethnic, religious and tribal groups. The most common new trend I encountered throughout the 12 different Arab countries I visited this year - without exception - was the tendency to analyze each country in tribal rather than national terms. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and most other Arab lands are now routinely seen through the prism of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Alawites, Druze, Palestinians, Darfurians, Turkmen, and assorted Christian groups such as Maronites, Copts or Greek Orthodox.

The Arab state is in the midst of being fractured, retribalized and redefined into much smaller configurations. Three principal causes of this process would seem to be: the largely incompetent, often brutal rule practiced by the reining Sunni Arab-dominated power elites during the past half century, a clear Israeli penchant for weakening Arab states and promoting the emergence of smaller, weaker minorities with whom it can engage to its advantage (as it has done for years with Kurds in Iraq and some right-wing groups in Lebanon), and, the current American formalization of ethnic politics in Iraq as a possible model for the entire region.

This leads to the third important trend that has defined the Middle East this year, but without clear indications of whether the end results will be positive or negative for the people of the region. This is the stepped up international direct engagement in the internal affairs of countries, including Arab states, Iran and Turkey. (Sorry, a small but necessary aside: peculiarly, and running against the dominant trend, foreign intervention tends to vanish when it comes to intervening in the policies and conduct of the Israeli government, even when Israeli actions are explicitly and repeatedly condemned by the international community through respectable institutions such as the World Court and the United Nations Security Council. A thought for the cold months of early 2006: if freedom and democracy are universal values, and should be spread around the world by diplomatic muscle and occasional force, if necessary, does the same apply to the rule of law, and the state of Israel?).

The enduring exception of Israel aside, the international community's intervention inside the Middle East this year has been striking for its audacity, but imprecise in its legitimacy and consequences. I would identify four dominant patterns of such intervention.

The first was the essentially unilateral American brute use of force, with window-dressing hangers-on, as happened in Iraq. We will need more time to discover if this epic intervention proves to be valiant or catastrophic for the people of Iraq and the region. The second was the multilateral, diplomatic, patient, focused, consensus-driven UN Security Council-based approach used in Lebanon to pressure Syria after the murder of Rafik Hariri last February. A variation on this deliberate approach is also being used to engage Iran on its nuclear plans.

The third form of foreign intervention was the painstaking, step-by-step prodding of domestic institutional and legal reforms of Arab societies championed by the European Union since 1995, and more recently in a slightly more inept form by the U.S.-dominated G-8 group of industrial nations. Gains have been thin to date. The fourth, and most intriguing, intervention technique, also dominated by the U.S., was the pressure exerted on individual countries over specific issues, using a combination of public statements by American senior officials and private warnings and cajoling. The best examples of this were the quests to push forward electoral reform and expanded voting in Egypt and Kuwait. Activists in both countries say privately that Washington's pressure played an important role in pushing these two Arab systems to evolve somewhat.

The cumulative lesson from this year's three political trends, it seems, is that under certain conditions there is indeed a middle ground where Arabs and Westerners can meet and work together for common political goals. Indigenous Arab

activists and those behind external diplomatic efforts can fortify each other if they jointly define a common set of goals that respond to reasonable demands on both sides; and if they anchor the entire process of change in legal and political legitimacy, whether in the UN, in international law, or in negotiated accords.

My hunch is that the good trends of the past year, including citizen activism and small steps to democracy, tend to result from sensible cooperation between Arabs and Westerners; conversely, the bad news from Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and aspects of the Lebanese situation usually reflects the consequences of unilateralism, gangsterism, and militarism. Why Israel consistently gets a free ride from all this remains more than intriguing; it often also drives some of the resentment that translates into extremism and violence throughout this region. Some grad student in Belgium should look into this for us this year.

Happy New Year to all, especially to my fellow average Arab citizens, whose stoicism, heroism and impregnable humanity remain the defining characteristic of these troubled but valiant lands.

This aticle appeared in the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is reprinted with permission. Rami Khouri's work is distributed by Agence Global.