Arab world caught between democracy and lawlessness

By Abraham Rabinovich

Not since colonial powers retreated from the Middle East after World War II has the region experienced radical change on the scale of the past year.

As if awakening from a deep slumber, the Arab world began to throw off ossified regimes that held sway for decades. However, the golden glow that accompanied the onset of the Arab Spring gave way by year's end to mist that seemed to cloak peril as much as promise.

Egypt, the mainstay of the Arab world with 85 million residents, is at the centre of the regional ferment.

The impressive, almost bloodless, rising which led to the downfall in February of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power has teetered ever since between democratic process and chaos.

While attention is on tensions between the interim military regime and those who fear its ambitions, a more pressing issue is the economy. Tourism, a major income earner, has plummeted and so have foreign investments, while rich Egyptians are moving their money abroad. Foreign currency reserves of US$36 billion ($46.5 billion) at the beginning of the year are expected to be down to US$15 billion next month.

Most of Egypt's wheat is imported and shortages of subsidised bread, an Egyptian staple, are predicted within a few months.

This in a country where 44 per cent of the population is categorised as poor or near poor and which has known massive bread riots in the past. On top of this, the unassailable lead of Islamist parties in the first rounds of parliamentary voting is of grave concern to the West, to Israel and to Egypt's liberals.

In Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was toppled after four decades, the situation is even less stable. In the absence of democratic tradition, the various tribal militias and Islamist groupings have not yet surrendered their weapons or their allegiance to a central authority. On the positive side, the huge income anticipated when Libya's oil resources come back on stream could provide the basis for sound state-building if chaos has not overtaken the country first.

In Syria, courageous protesters found themselves up against a ruthless regime that had prepared for decades for just such a worst case contingency. Although three-quarters of Syria's population is Sunni, power lies with the small Alawi sect, to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, even though it constitutes only 7 per cent of the population.

Most conscript soldiers are Sunnis, but 70 per cent of the 200,000 career soldiers are Alawite, as are 80 per cent of officers. Some crack units are entirely Alawite. If Assad falls, an even greater bloodbath could follow if Sunnis turn on Alawites.

Iraq may prove the most dispiriting case of all if, after all the blood and treasure that has been expended during the past few years, it slides back into sectarian warfare, as it threatens to do.

Turkey reaffirmed its status as a major regional player with a booming economy, a stable Islamist regime and an aggressive foreign policy. But its assertiveness created widespread uneasiness not only in Israel, which has come to view it as a virtually hostile state. Turkey's dispatch of gunboats to try to stop Cyprus exploring for offshore gas caused Cyprus' foreign minister to call Ankara a "regional bully".

In Europe and Washington too, diplomats urged Turkey to tone down its militant declarations. Some economists see Turkey heading for economic shoals that will give pause to its neo-Ottoman ambitions.

The Israel-Palestinian dispute, which dominated the Middle East agenda for decades, has been reduced to an annoying background hum with neither the Palestinians nor Israel showing any signs of wanting a peace settlement.

For Israel, a different issue dominated the agenda - the Bomb. The statement by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta that Iran would be able to assemble a nuclear device within a year made Israel's repeated calls for an attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities sound more relevant than ever, including Jerusalem's hint that it might attack alone if the US and its allies refuse to do so.

Perhaps the bleakest view of the region comes from a popular American columnist who writes under the name Spengler. "There is no centre of power, no reorientation, no neo-Ottoman empire, no Arab Spring, no coherent description of what is occurring in the Middle East. There is only catastrophic social breakdown, civil unrest, despair and violence. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, they will be used. We cannot fix the Middle East."

However, a modicum of optimism might be found in Tunisia, where it all began. The old regime that was ousted there flew off with its ill-gotten gains but the country subsequently held peaceful elections. An Islamist government was voted into power but, by all accounts, the ministers are moderate Islamists open to the world. It is still too early to tell whether the upheavals will end as revolts that overthrew governments or as revolutions that change political and social systems and enable the Arab world to enter a new phase of modernity.

- NZ Herald

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