I normally do not write about the mechanics of my craft of column writing, but I make an exception today because of all that is happening around the Middle East and North Africa. I spent a few hours Thursday evening and Friday morning going through news reports and analyses from across this region to determine the topic of my column today, but had difficulty deciding due to the many important and dramatic developments taking place around the region.
So many things are happening at once that it is hard to know what is really important and meaningful in the long run. This contrasts with the long stretch from the 1960s to the 1990s when essentially only three major things shaped countries in the region: the Arab-Israeli conflict, state-building and socio-economic development, and the local ideological and military ramifications of the global Cold War.
This week the Middle East is a kaleidoscope of many important events. Here are the most significant, or even historic, ones: Syria’s worsening conflict and its impact on neighboring states; the French-Algerian-led military moves against Islamist militants in Mali; the resumption of large-scale political tensions and bombings in Iraq, including some troubling Arab-Kurdish clashes; the imminent resumption of Western-Iranian negotiations; next week’s Israeli elections and the expected return to power of a strengthened Benjamin Netanyahu-led, rightist coalition; low-intensity political violence in Libya as it approaches important markers on its path to defining a credible national governance system for the first time in almost half a century; high-intensity political confrontations in Tunisia and Egypt as they continue their heroic processes of constitutional re-legitimization; simmering violence and stresses in Bahrain and Yemen, where sustained citizen revolts continue to seek real changes in the exercise of power; continuing efforts by Sudan and South Sudan to avoid recurring warfare and cement the secessionist precedent; persistent street demonstrations in Kuwait; and, low-level tensions among groups of citizens in Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf countries.
So perhaps I can be forgiven for taking my time to decide on one topic to discuss today. As I pondered these and other important issues in the region (okay, here are a few more: the chronic volatility of internal politics in Lebanon, uncertainty about national political reunification in Palestine, Jordan’s intriguing elections next week, the condition of Kurds and Amazighs in several Arab states) I realized that I was engaged in the columnist’s task of trying to sort out what is merely dramatic today from what might be consequential in the longer term.
Mali is certainly dramatic, but in my view is merely a new twist on a long-running saga of Islamist militants, local governments and Western armed forces chasing each other around the world – from Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Somalia, Mali and London. Mali basically reminds us of several things: Al-Qaeda-type terrorists and militants will continue to move around the globe seeking new bases and shelters, as they have for decades. Western armies that chase and gun them down also stimulate their growth, by generating wider resentments and new militant recruits against Western militarism across much of the Asian and African world.
American and European countries sending military “advisers” to Mali would do well to go back and read the early history of the wars in Vietnam to rediscover the fallacy of such approaches. The antidote to failed states, Islamist militancy and global terrorism have always been, and remain, the hard tasks of promoting good governance and sustainable development (and if these were ignored in the last four decades, they will not be fixed quickly by sending in soldiers or American drone killing machines.
Mali is dramatic and important, but not really historic. It will not shape the region for years to come, but rather only reflects trends that have percolated around the world for decades.
So as we look at the region and the world at the start of this new year, what can we identify that may be really significant and historic in a longer time frame, besides the heroic citizens writing their constitutions across North Africa?
I would say it is the continued agitation and activism among different groups of citizens in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries who are questioning, even challenging their status quo in various ways. Small numbers of citizens in wealthy states are making big demands related to political power and citizen rights, mostly through social media outlets and occasionally through public protests.
Some of these big demands include more participation and accountability, more freedom of expression, greater equality among citizens, and less heavy-handed government manipulation of political systems. Changes for the better in these areas in some GCC countries could have an enormous long-term impact in the Gulf and across the region. This strikes me as a really significant story that will reverberate for years to come.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.