For all too long, the international community had understood that the model of governance in the Arab world was insufficient to create the economic opportunities necessary for a population boom of dramatic significance. The UN had depicted the problem with abundant clarity. Free economic institutions, women’s rights, judicial independence, rural development, official government neutrality, and simple fairness — all were lacking. The Arab police state, with its roots in Third-Reich fascism and Soviet-era economic mismanagement, simply failed to make the adjustment to the ecological and economic challenges of both drought and fiscal chaos. Then (just like the Third Reich) the centralized Soviet Empire folded.
But much of Arab politics was based on these two authoritarian models. In the victorious geopolitical world of neo-liberalism (and without much oil), the demands of the IMF and the effects of climate change doomed Syria. At first the subsidy regime cracked, especially for the poor rural farm population. Then came the effects of the drought. By 2011, Sunni support for the regime had been shaken by forced urbanization and poverty. Into this mix came a class-based revolt (non-violent at first) which demanded political enfranchisement. Over time, and with much Nazi-like Syrian state violence, these legitimate demands then morphed into what we see today — a regional proxy war.
The collapse of the minority-led Syrian state followed the American invasion of Iraq. The US had torn down the apparatus of the Bath dictatorship in Baghdad. In the final analysis, however, the Obama administration failed to supply the requisite security for an appropriate ethnic and sectarian reconciliation. Without the ability to advance the democratic reforms that the Bush administration initiated, the Americans under Obama simply packed their bags and left. All in all, the US experiment in Middle East democracy lacked the staying power for success. Judged by the region of the Levant today, Washington has severely botched what could have been a very promising egalitarian impulse.
Now the Middle East has become a failed region over which the oil powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, fight for supremacy. Meanwhile, it is the common people who do the suffering and dying, as they are turned from prospective voters and citizens into refugees and victims. The inequality of the region has become its greatest challenge. But little is left of the so-called Arab Spring, as the worst actors (Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, IS and al-Qaeda) have now come to the forefront. Neither the US nor anyone else can predict how or when some semblance of stability might be achieved. If there is a master plan to end the regional war, the White House and UN Security Council are not revealing it.
The US Middle East hegemony is gone. In fact Washington appears completely inept, given the magnitude of the abyss left by its Iraq exit fiasco. The vacuum left in the American wake has broken the region into ethnic and sectarian fragments. The false power of its former nation-state boundaries has evaporated like old glue on a paper cut-out map. As the post-WWI lines dissolve, the old assurances of a stable Hashemite Jordan and a reliably deterred Syria can no longer simply be taken for granted. As Israel ponders its situation with the Palestinians, the future of the East Bank (always a question mark given the preponderance of the Muslim Brotherhood) now has become more critical. The so-called two-state solution never really anticipated an Islamic Palestine from Amman to the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Washington’s mantra of a “moderate Palestine leadership” appears as naivete, while Hamas and its West Bank minions drool over the prospect of a three-front missile war of attrition.
And then there is Egypt. The prosperous future of this state is of vital national security interest to Israel. Without a mighty infusion of economic development, the shaky political past of this Arab behemoth portends disaster. The iron fist of the Egyptian army cannot rule forever. Uneasy is the head who holds the crown of Pharaoh, because economic development without political emancipation holds little promise.
Egypt appears caught in a catch-22. The harsh security state has only bred a variant of crony capitalism. Inequality is the watchword for central planning and a state-financed economy. There are only so many state jobs to go around. This model can only work with a system of vast subsidies to alleviate the poverty of those left underemployed. But the age of subsidies is over. The Egyptian state is near bankruptcy. It is being held afloat by the oil-rich Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Remember Hosni Mubarak. If ever a country needed decentralized political and economic freedom, it is Egypt. Democracy and rule of law are essential for a development model that could substitute imports with domestic production (especially food, alternative energy and basic products).
However, the most promising (though weakest) links in the Egyptian chain of politics are the democratic secularists. They have little connection to the masses of rural poor, where Islamism holds sway. Their orientation is middle class. But without rural development, a prosperous urban environment is highly unlikely. At 17 million people, Cairo is already bursting at the seams. Projections are of an increase in the capital’s population to 22 million within the next decade. With water shortages and agricultural decline, a vast population movement is causing deep alienation. Sometime in the future, an Islamist comeback appears highly likely. Unless Egypt can find the political insight to alter the investment environment and lure much needed cash into a revamped rural reconstruction (water, energy, small farming and cooperative industrial enterprises), its long term prospects seem bleak.
Throughout the last one hundred years, Islamist forces (especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, Jordan and Egypt) have vilified first the Jews, and then Israel in a Salafist campaign directed at Western modernism. Like their fascist antecedents in Germany, this recent movement within the Arab world (the last ninety years) has been a hotbed of anti-Semitism. It is rooted primarily in a depiction of all things evil as having a Jewish cause. Hamas and Fatah both maintain a strong affinity to neo-Nazi propaganda. Jews have been held responsible for all the world’s ills. The comparison of Israel with Nazi Germany is not only psychotic (given Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian state in 1937, 1948, 2000 and 2008) but now with thousands of truckloads of supplies headed for Gaza from Israel in the midst of a vicious war, the comparison is irrational and ludicrous.
But Islamism (not Islam) as a political movement (not a religion) is irrational and forbids reason. It wants to take the region backward into a simpler time with easy answers to complicated questions. Islamism, like Nazism, seeks a single scapegoat in order to find the magic key to unlock the mystery of its powerlessness. It seeks a world without variation or subtlety, a world where individual conscience means nothing. Hamas and its ilk desire a community of devotees where only rote acceptance to conformity is the standard of its blind authoritarian morality. Islamism hates the West, because the West has power. Islamism simply can’t understand itself without power. Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, IS and Iran, they are all the same. Coercion within religiosity, as a simplistic uniform utopia — that is their goal.
If only Israel could be destroyed, they contend, all problems would cease. From Tehran to Beirut, this is the formula that credulous minds believe. Like in 1930’s Europe, when the Jews were blamed for both capitalism and communism, they are now held responsible for the current Middle East mess. It is a perplexing wonder that this message continues to resonate well among both Sunnis and Shiites who find absolutely nothing wrong with strapping dynamite onto their backs and detonating themselves in a vain attempt at Divine union. At the same time, heads are chopped off and paraded on the internet like medieval trophies, and inside both Sunni and Shiite houses of prayer, bombs go off with regularity.
My message to Israel’s neighbors — whether you like it or not — is that the Jews of the Holy Land hold the key to your economic and political future. Their democracy and economy have been vibrant, even in the course of a hundred-year war, where they (and not you) have been successful. But they are small compared to you, so perhaps they can’t completely defeat you. But don’t use this as an excuse to continue the fight, for after one hundred years there can be only one conclusion drawn through a reasoned examination of the struggle: G-d wants neither side to vanquish the other. The difference between failure and success in the neighborhood is peace — which is not Hamas’s truce or Fatah’s false stages (“land for peace”) — but a plan that can be recognized by all as a genuine and novel compromise.