When historians look back on the Middle East decades from now, they might find that trends in the region after 2015 were determined by the outcome of four seminal issues and battles that are in play this month.
The most important one is the struggle within Egypt to achieve a stable governance and economic system that is at once legitimate in the eyes of its own people and sustainable for generations ahead. Egypt’s governance model will influence many other turbulent Arab lands. The last four years have witnessed a roller coaster of political experimentation and mass action. Yet since the historic January 2011 revolution, Egyptians have not yet escaped a legacy of military-managed authoritarian humiliation combined with socioeconomic mediocrity.
The latest phase in attempts to achieve political legitimacy, socioeconomic efficacy and national stability was launched this week by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi at a three-day international economic conference at Sharm el-Sheikh. It resulted in announcements of tens of billions of dollars of foreign investment in infrastructural and economic projects, and the unveiling of plans for a whole new administrative capital city east of Cairo, to emulate dramatic and architecturally impressive cities such as Dubai.
I am dubious about this process for Egypt, because it seems to have taken the neoliberal economic development model that has failed the Arab world in recent decades to a new level where Egypt will have the world’s first gated capital. This decision was made by a handful of army officers and friendly bureaucrats, and almost totally conceived, designed, financed and validated by foreign parties. Egyptian citizens were not asked for their suggestions about how to spend $45 billion to improve conditions in the existing capital. I hope dearly that Egypt succeeds, stabilizes and prospers, but signs of these goals remain thin today. Fateful decisions continue to emerge from closed circles of military men, with Egyptian citizens relegated to enjoying shopping malls as their highest right. How the ongoing struggle for stability and citizen rights in Egypt plays itself out will go a long way to defining the Arab condition in the decades ahead.
The second fateful contest underway is the battle for the Iraqi town of Tikrit, which has been occupied by ISIS for a year or so. The fight to dislodge ISIS from Tikrit and other parts of northern Iraq and Syria is just now starting seriously, using a combination of Iraqi army and civilian forces, Kurdish fighters, and Iranian, Arab and American-led international support to defeat ISIS and break up the “Islamic state” that it established last June. How this battle ends will be an important determinant of the fate of militant Islamism and the condition of existing Arab states that date from the World War I era.
The third important development this week is the parliamentary election in Israel, which will help clarify whether Israel will continue its drift to the nationalist right and perpetuate the conflict with Palestine and the Arab world, or will instead move toward a centrist government that offers new possibilities for a just and negotiated peace agreement. The Arab-Israeli conflict is the oldest source of radicalization, militarization and destabilization in the Middle East. Its equitable resolution would significantly tone down emotions and tensions in the region, and help redirect national energies and resources toward state-building and regional cooperation.
In the 2002 Arab Peace Plan the Palestinians and all other Arab states clarified their willingness to coexist in peace with Israel, but we have yet to hear a clear response from the Israelis. The outcome of this week’s election might clarify whether Zionism, as it is manifested in the Israeli state, ultimately affirms the ethos of the conquering warrior or the ethics of a sage judge who honors justice for all and above all.
The fourth fateful issue that is reaching a peak moment of decision is the relationship between Iran and the Western world, as encapsulated by the P5+1 negotiations with Iran on resolving the two related issues of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the international sanctions against it.
How this important negotiation concludes will determine for decades, maybe even generations, a critical dynamic that has long plagued us all, and remains unclear today: Whether relations between Middle Eastern powers and the West and Israel are defined by the international rule of law that is equitably applied to all states; or by a combination of Western-Israeli neocolonial and triumphalist assertions and accusations that are always countered by indigenous rejection and resistance from within our region.
The fate of this region remains in the hands of its people. How current events in Tikrit, Cairo, Tel Aviv and Tehran play themselves out will shape our fate for generations to come.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.