Monday, March 28, 2011
Opportunity in Chaos
Events of a monumental nature are currently taking place in the Middle East. Authoritarian regimes have been overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt. We don't yet know what will replace these regimes. In Libya, Colonel Gadaffi's despotic regime is fighting for its life amid rebel advances and NATO air strikes. And there is violent unrest in several other Arab nations. I want to look at some of these cases and try to analyse what the general picture might be in region when its all over.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled Yemen as a united country since 1990. He previously ruled North Yemen from 1978 to 1990. His dictatorial regime is coming apart as we speak. On Friday 18th March government forces opened fire on demonstrators in the capital Saana killing 46 people. I believe that Yemen, of all the countries currently facing unrest, is the nation most likely to be replaced by an extremist element in the event of regime change. I say this even though I must confess it is the country in the Middle East I understand least. It is clear however that it is the poorest country in the region whose complex tribal and religious fault lines are heavily influenced by fundamentalist Islam.
I was shocked when the UAE and Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to help supress the unrest. However it was clear that this as done to send a signal to Iran, stop stirring trouble among the Shiites in Bahrain. Incidentally, I am sure that UAE participation in such an action could never have taken place prior to the Abu Dhabi bail out of Dubai, something I blogged about here and here. The sectarian nature of the Bahraini state obviously makes this case different that the others and whatever happens in Bahrain it will be played out in the context of the wider Sunni Shia power struggle over which sect dominates the Gulf.
Bashar Al Assad has ruled Syria since 2000 when he assumed the Presidency upon his fathers (Hafez) death, who himself had ruled Syria for thirty years. Bashar is a young man. It is clear he intends to rule Syria for many more decades. But Syria's masses of disaffected young have made it very clear that they do not intend to stand idly by and allow Bashar and his inner circle of army generals and corrupt regime officials to rule the nation indefinitely. Syria is going to end one of two ways as far as I see it. Either the Assad dictatorship will be forced to go or the regime will succeed in crushing the uprising, just as Assad senior did in the town of Hama in 1982. If the latter happens it will result in the isolation of Syria internationally to such an extent that Assad will probably be forced to step down anyway. Make no mistake, Syria is at such a cross roads. At least 55 people have been killed by the security forces last week in the town of Deraa. There is no doubt, it will soon spread to Damascus.
The western democratic world has been presented with a truly amazing opportunity. Look, I know many people, particularly on the right, are sceptical that any real democratic transition will occur in the Arab world. But this is an opportunity that simply cannot be ignored or dismissed in cynicism. The world has been plagued by the knock on effects of instability and dictatorship in the Middle East for generations. An opportunity has fallen on the lap of President Obama in particular to encourage and influence change that is so fundamental, we could ultimately be looking at a Middle East that is democratic and at peace with Israel. To put it simply, the options cannot just be between an iron man or and Islamist government. There must be a third way. A way that accommodates the cultural and religious characteristics of an Arab state making them compatible with democracy. President Obama, has to, absolutely must nourish a third way by engaging with the opposition movements at political and religious levels to help them formulate an Arab model that is more representative of the people and less troublesome for the world. The day of the hard man, the cartoon character or the monarch ruling for decades is coming to an end. It must be replaced by by an Islamic form of democracy. I hope Obama has a plan.