This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 10/05/2011
Predictions and speculation are the nightmare of scholars and analysts alike. The case is doubly horrifying when events are in motion and nothing seems to stand still for a snapshot. The Middle East is currently going through such dynamics and there is no indication that the situation will stabilize any time soon.
Revolutions in the region either have already toppled regimes while still defining what they want, or they are still in the process of struggle and bloody confrontation with a regime. Whether the revolution is over as in Tunisia and Egypt, under way as in Yemen, Syria or Libya, still budding as in Algeria, Morocco or Bahrain, or even yet to commence, uncertainty remains high. The only obvious conclusions are that the Arab Middle East will never be the same again. The regional environment has changed once and for all, and with it the regional balance and modes of state behavior.
The future of the state systems in the Middle East depends largely on the direction the revolutions take: Islamic or democratic. There may of course be variations: Islamic political parties and movements will have a considerable voice in a democratic country, while democratic practices cannot be avoided in a country powered by Islamic law.
Whatever the direction taken, the politics of the Middle East will be much more complicated than before. Not only will the actors increase in number and orientation and media be even more extensive than their current wild character; we shall also see changes in the definition of major issues like war, peace, development, intra-Arab relations, relations with neighboring countries like Turkey and Iran, and above all Arab-Israel interactions. Relationships with the rest of the world are bound to be different from those prevailing now, particularly with the West and especially with the United States.
The biggest loser will be Israel. In many ways Israel, which missed its greatest opportunity for peace in recent years, will only find the next opportunity in the much more distant future, if at all. What has been achieved in peace treaties will be respected. After all, the countries that signed them understand the price of war, and democracies are usually busy with internal affairs. But peace will be colder than ever before, indeed freezing. Conflict will take new and different shapes. Democracies, Islamic or not, are capable of innovating and improvising on how to make Israeli occupation costly and miserable.
The recent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah offers a clue as to the future. Palestinian unity could not have happened without the revolutions in Egypt, which made the deal, and in Syria, which could not prevent it. The deal and everything surrounding it set the stage for the coming United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, when Arab delegations will seek international recognition for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. After that, all Israeli settlements within those borders will be null and void.
None of this will be accepted by Israel. But the international system and its moral values will be put to the test. The new democratic Arab regimes will seek to deprive Israel of its exclusive status as the only democracy in the region. Although this was already brought into question by the Turkish presence in regional politics, it will now be compromised further by Arab countries that are democratic.
On the ground, the “liberation of Palestine” can take on a different meaning than it has had in the last six decades of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. Although intifada has been practiced before as a form of resistance, peaceful or violent, this time it will ignite new forms of pressure on the Israeli government and probably on Israeli politics in general.
While all the changes in Arab countries are welcomed in Turkey, where a model of Islam and democracy has developed, Iran faces a difficult dilemma in attaching itself to the revolutions while at the same time fearing their democratic possibilities. For all actors, there will be risks to encounter and opportunities to take. The United States, the European Union, and other Western countries have their work cut out for them in evaluating the authenticity of democracy in Arab countries while wondering what to do if one democracy – Israel – is occupying the land of other democratic countries.
For the first time in the Arab-Israel saga, the conflict will be judged on the basis of democratic principles.
Abdel Monem Said Aly is a political analyst in Cairo. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.