July 31, 2013

Collision of Illusions: the West and the Middle East

Geopolitics rely on a combination of factors that are not necessarily determined by geography but rather by the components and priorities of national interests.

In the case of Europe, one can ask where the South begins. Beyond the Mediterranean Basin? Or a bit higher up in the southern parts of the European continent? To which extent does it include the Near East, the Middle East and Africa? For France, the Maghreb is clearly south but it is very much linked to the Mashriq which is southeast (the Near East), with Turkey and Egypt being in a pivotal position.
On June 4, 2009, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Cairo—a sort of “father of all speeches”—in which he stated that America and Islam share common principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings. This was a big bet!
The president of the United States wanted to focus on the roots of the Muslim turmoil manipulated by Salafist propaganda and exacerbated by al-Qaida leaders. The time was ripe for democracy, justice and freedom. Although Obama did not mention corrupt dictators, the message was crystal clear. It was heard and welcomed by those who had suffered repression in the past and by many young men and women eager to bring change to their lives and the governance of their country. For this very reason, there were popular uprisings in the spring of 2010 in an area from Tunisia (West) to Yemen and Bahrain (East)—within a space which resembled very much the “Wider Middle East”.
That was indeed a sincere bet. Nonetheless it was a risky one. One can argue that such a bold initiative in a period of a major financial and economic crisis looks like an attempt at diplomacy by a sorcerer’s apprentice. Part of the bet is that a Muslim democracy can exist if its government has been democratically elected. If the majority are Islamist, it is the will of the people (as recently demonstrated in Pakistan). But in Tunisia, in Egypt and in Libya, once elected, the majority have disregarded the minority and the right for legal opposition forces to speak. The majority organise state governance in order to retain power and to eliminate the risk of political change in next elections. Despite the difficulties it has created since 2003 between Turkey, the US and Israel, the “Turkish model”—if it exists—has very much inspired Washington and several EU countries.1
Who can be considered a moderate in the Middle East?
The key problem stems from the inability of Western countries to discriminate between moderate Muslims and radical Salafists. NATO in Afghanistan has kept asking: “Is there such a thing as a ‘good’ Talib?” This line of separation can be drawn only by local leaders and the population that supports (or does not support) them.
How can the West define a “moderate” Islamic group (there is no clerical hierarchy!) and make sure that this group is able to prevail against extremists? For example, it is impossible to consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be a totally coherent entity. It has many components. They are different in each state, sometimes in each city, for example, the Salafist component is more powerful in Alexandria than in Cairo. The Brothers in Syria have called for Turkish support and intervention. Moreover, the balance of power fluctuates over time, depending on circumstances and volatile alliances.
The example of Moaz al-Khatib, the ex-president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, is illuminating. Being an opponent to the Assad regime, a scientist and a very religious man, he was well-respected and seemed to be a leader capable of uniting the many components of the Syrian opposition. But when he tried to bring together different players inside and outside Syria, he received harsh criticism from extremists and their supporters who rejected any form of compromise. In April 2013, the Salafist group Jabhat al-Nusra publicly declared allegiance to al-Qaida precisely in order to destabilise al-Khatib, even if that was not the only reason.
One of the major problems stems from the profound certainty that over time, one day or another, Israel will be wiped off the map. It does not necessarily mean that this will affect all Jews, but certainly the Jewish “Zionist” state. So, “time and God are on our side”, no matter how difficult the hurdles and how long it takes.
To escape that vision, it is the new generation that can offer the only alternative. No US, no Israeli flags were burnt in Tahrir Square. Young people using social media built loose organisations and were able to rally at the right moment. But they failed to transform that power into a structured political organisation. They sowed the seeds, but were not present at the harvest.
In November 2012, however, the Israeli military build-up against Gaza triggered a setback to the old mind-set.
The Middle East as an unstable system
It has become a commonly held view that the longstanding fear of communism and the Soviet Union has been replaced by fear of al-Qaida. It may seem sexy, yet it does not address the causes of instability, including ethnic and religious complexities; semi-artificial borders as a legacy of colonialism (creating, for instance, a serious Kurdish problem); disputes over huge oil and gas resources; the Palestinian problem; persistent and deeply rooted hostility against Israel; the failure of democracies supported by the middle class; and local military powers as a factor of economic stagnation. The list is long, as you can see.
Finally, there is also the schizophrenic approach of the West: we deal with and support “petro-monarchies” and small but gas-rich states which are themselves ambiguous. Qatar and Saudi Arabia support values which are opposed to democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and gender equality. We are faced with the collision of illusions (yet again).
The Western media looks at the so-called “Arab street” and at demonstrations. They offer images that build volatile perceptions, evoking enthusiasm and sorrow.
But these images do not reflect the real balance of power. Despite Wikileaks, the world is far from being transparent. Amazing conspiracy theories circulate all over the region. They are nurtured by non-democratic political realities which are structured around unstable interests and changing alliances between clans and tribes. Conspiracy theories reflect the fragmentation of a non-democratic political life, strife with constant plotting similar to small Italian states at the time of Niccolò Machiavelli.
Dictatorship nostalgia does not solve problems
Some people miss “good old stability.” It would be foolish to miss dictators. They justified political and social repression with the need to oppose Muslim extremists and related terrorism. They destroyed the rise of democracy. Consequently, they have nurtured Salafism as the only possible alternative. In desperation, many members of the enlightened class have eventually joined the Muslim Brotherhood and sometimes even more radical groups. Sayyid Qutb2 was an Egyptian, just like Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Others point to the risk that states whose borders were decided by former colonial powers could break up. Take, for example, Libya and Syria.
Years ago Western countries had the power to impose their views according to their occasionally conflicting interests. Now even the United States is no longer in a position to impose its views and to decide new state borders.
After the end of the Cold War it has indeed been the vision—and an illusion—for neoconservatives to restructure the “Wider Middle East” according to US values and interests.
The West: neglect and weakness
US power in the region is limited and its interest is waning. The need for energy resources is evolving. Everyone tries to boost new sources, including shale gas, more nuclear power and new “green” energies. The highly publicised rebalancing or “pivot” of the United States to Asia is sometimes considered as a historic change in American strategy which takes into account the declining significance of both Europe and the Middle East. The Europeans must take care of their own limited security problems on the continent and in their “southern” near abroad. Assuming that NATO’s European pillar can take over those missions and that it is true that the greatest opportunities and dangers are now Asia-centric, it will all take time and require many adjustments. It would be naive to think that history has ended in Europe and in the Middle East.
But the West is neither willing nor able to support and strengthen democracies in the Middle East. Western diplomacy is weakened by many structural problems.
First, as mentioned above, the EU is not in a position to deliver. Mrs Ashton is not capable of imposing anything on anyone. However, traditional diplomatic efforts pursued by individual nations have not proved more relevant because they have not been able to implement any solutions. Other formats such as the “Quartet” (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN) have never provided anything more than wise advice and compelling plans. There is no EU common policy. Therefore each country plays its own cards and cultivates its own relations with others and the US if necessary.
EU members and the EU as such can offer a helpful hand for the arrangement of small tactical details. They are far from being able to put pressure on local players and to impose their views on essential issues. An audacious German diplomatic effort initiated by Joschka Fischer (from 2000 onwards) vis-à-vis the Palestinian authorities was gently derailed by the Israeli position on settlements and East Jerusalem. Western governments remain very much under the influence of Jewish lobbyists; this applies not only in the US but also in Europe.
Yet another element of weakness—a new one—stems from the economic crisis. To put it bluntly: at the very moment when Arab societies embarked on the road of change, the West supported them in words, but not in deeds. Most NATO members, if not all, are faced with a great strain on resources but they are also morally tired of expeditionary adventures that do not yield any results, for example, in Afghanistan.
The United States does not want to engage militarily in the Middle East—no more boots on the ground. That explains why Washington was so reluctant to support France and the UK in Libya and has refused to intervene directly in Syria. However, this creates additional confusion because Washington cannot or should not talk about a “red line” with respect to the use of chemical weapons, while the president himself has declared that the United States would not intervene militarily in Syria.
In the end, does this mean that Fortress Europe and Fortress America will completely withdraw from the Middle East?
If the Middle East becomes less important, it will still remain dangerous—maybe more than ever. Even though geographic proximity matters more to European states, globalisation does not allow the US to be disconnected from that area.
The world has entered a transition period but in regions where the crisis has hit the hardest—in the Middle East and in Europe—ordinary people are asking for rapid solutions and a better life. The EU has been pouring money into Palestine without any results. Nevertheless, state budgets are shrinking. France has recently been obliged to reduce its contributions to development programmes in Africa and in the Middle East. Long-term assistance has become a luxury that can be afforded only by Qatar and other rich countries. The West is adjusting its perceptions according to reality and its capabilities according to its needs. Today’s world is undergoing total restructuring until the end of the crisis and related power adjustments among nations. “Eppur si muove”—“And yet it moves”—said Galileo.
1 In 2003, Ankara refuses US forces access to Iraq through Turkey. In 2010, the Mavi Marmara naval incident occurred: Israeli forces stormed Turkish humanitarian aid ships heading for Gaza. Today Secretary Kerry tries to fix the problems. The Europeans are pleased by the democratic transition and the reduction of the power of the military by Prime Minister Erdogan but several countries have become afraid of the rise of Islam, its practices and symbols (the “veil”).
2 One of the leading thinkers of radical Islam (born in 1906) who was accused of conspiracy against the state and was hanged in 1966.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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