What does the New Year have in store for the Middle East?
So the New Year will dawn on another US veto at the UN security council - although, to its credit, not a French one. This ritual has become a fitting symbol of Washington's loosening grip over the Middle East. It reveals a power strong enough to interdict, but too weak to build anything durable in its place; a country which spurns the very Arab countries - over Israel - that it needs for its coalition against the Islamic State; and diplomacy which has made itself irrelevant. This is a spat between allies who believe in a two state solution. Most Palestinians have long since passed that point.
The UN motion on Palestinian statehood had been toughened to include East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian State, prisoner releases, halting settlements, and setting a 12 month deadline for talks. But it was not tough enough for Hamas, which refused to accept a divided Jerusalem or wording which equivocates on the right of return.
And it was off the scale for the US State Department, which persists in peering exclusively through the prism of Israel’s “ legitimate security needs”. This is a moveable feast which now includes the settlements around Jerusalem, a permanent presence on the Jordan Valley, and a rejection of even a token right of return.
This array of irreconcilable positions tells you all you need to know about the Alice in Wonderland world of trying to keep talking about a two state solution. Like the Cheshire Cat, it disappears on whim, leaving only its smile behind. But there again, can something that does not have a body ever be beheaded? Barack Obama must have read his Lewis Carroll.
If the status quo on the Palestinian conflict is a logjam of spent policies, no one on the cusp of 2015 should be fool enough to confuse rigidity with stability. The currents flowing underneath are powerful and fast. Leaderless Jerusalem, over which the Palestinian Authority holds no sway, could ignite at any moment. As could the West Bank, over which it nominally does. Witness the voices at the funeral Tuesday of 17-year-old Imam Jamil Dweikat.
The same could be said of the region as a whole. The year 2014 has already been declared the nadir of the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular revolutionary forces which toppled dictators like ninepins four years ago. If this is what a defeat looks like, where exactly is the victory? Four countries could rightfully be declared failed states - Iraq, Syria,Yemen and Libya.
Consider for a moment how 2015 must look through the eyes of the assumed victor of this struggle, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. What does the New Year have in store for him?
In whichever direction the king looks, Saudi Arabia is a frailer state than the one he inherited. To the north the black flags of the Islamic State flutter. To the south, in Yemen, al Qaeda is advancing its claim as the protector of the Sunnis. Iran now boasts, without too much hyperbole, of having four Arab capitals in its pocket.
Neither is the military coalition against IS in the best of health. It took the capture of only one of its pilots for Jordan to waver. Its leaders have come under intense domestic pressure to secure the pilot’s release with eight MPs signing a parliamentary request demanding that the government withdraw from the coalition.
Inside the Saudi kingdom, warning lights go off regularly, both within and outside the royal household. The health of his Crown Prince has deteriorated and the succession is plagued by the claims of rival camps. The scenes on Sunday in a village called Awamiyah were alarming enough. Some 15,000 men, women and children took to the streets for the funeral of four killed by the security forces. The Ministry of the Interior said that four “terrorists” were killed in an operation sparked by the gunning down of a policeman. The funeral goers shouted :” Down, down, al-Saud”. They were not demanding justice. They were demanding revenge.
Can any state security service tell their king with confidence that these flashpoints are any less powerful mobilisers of popular wrath than than the self immolation of the street seller in Tunisia, or the arrest of the children who scrawled :”The people want the regime to fall” on a wall in Dara’a? The same forces which unleashed a pan arabic revolt four years ago are present today.
Abdullah’s “victory” will have been to bequeath the Arab world with a binary choice between two forms of despotism - the corruption, cronyism and inequality of absolute monarchy, or the despotism of the Islamic State.
The view from the Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s office can not look much brighter. We know from recent leaks of telephone conversations what Egypt’s all powerful leaders are arguing about: How to disguise the fact that the deposed president Mohamed Morsi was held by the army, not by the ministry of interior; how to sway judges hearing the case of four police offices sentenced to 10 years for “negligence” over the deaths of 37 prisoners in a police van; how to lift the travel ban imposed on the son of the pro Sisi veteran politician and former al-Ahram editor Mohammed Hassanein Haykal.
True, the forces that filled Tahrir Square remain bitterly divided and their division must remain Sisi’s strongest source of comfort. If the secular revolutionary groups can not forgive the Brotherhood for abandoning them in the Mohamed Mahmoud street battles in 2011, neither do the Brotherhood find it easy to reach out to those who supported the June 30 ouster of Mohammed Morsi. Not a day passes, when the secular liberals are not reminded of their folly in supporting Morsi’s violent ouster, but in reality both wings of Tahrir Square made astonishing misjudgments about the role of the army and the true nature of Sisi himself.
But neither opposition camp will remain a fixed quantity. Old leaders are being sidelined, as new ones emerge. About 70%, according to one informed source, of the Brotherhood’s leadership in Egypt has been replaced, and the youth who are taking up these positions are unlikely to be as naive as the previous generation was about what it will take to make the next revolution succeed.
Despite Abdullah’s best efforts, millions of Saudis continue to regard democracy as the way out. Even in Egypt, the stock of the Muslim Brotherhood has actually risen, according to successive Zogby polls.
The latest evidence is a poll which found that equal numbers of Egyptians (43% /44%) gave positive and negative answers to the Brotherhood’s impact on developments in Egypt. This does not necessarily equate to the Brotherhood’s popularity, but it does testify to the level of public unease about where Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is taking the country.
However you look at it, the flame lit four years ago will not be easily or rapidly extinguished. The time span of this revolution may indeed be longer than anyone thought four years ago. But look at other bourgeois revolutions. Within a year, the European worker revolts of 1848 had been crushed by a Bonapartist dictatorship , and the liberals who joined the revolts had been co-opted to reinstall new forms of dictatorship. Just as they have been doing in Egypt.
The ideas themselves of 1848 lived to see another day. The same will happen throughout the Arab world. Unless of course we are to accept democracy as a stable form of government for everywhere bar the Arab world. This is what the those who cast their veto in the UN currently argue. Like the status quo, that too is untenable.
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian, from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Demonstrators in the United States rally in support of Palestine (AFP)