Not all is right in Middle East

Updated: 2011-12-22 08:40

By Liu Yueqin (China Daily)

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The political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa this year during which four Arab regimes collapsed were difficult to imagine at the beginning of 2011. No wonder, the geopolitical implications of the radical changes have drawn global attention.

The "Arab Spring" was sparked by the protests in Tunisia, which started on Dec 17, 2010, and forced the then Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to flee to Saudi Arabia in mid-January. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak resigned on Feb 11 after 18 days of massive protests, ending his 30-year presidency. Later, with strong intervention of NATO forces, the opposition overthrew the Muammar Gadhafi government in Libya - Gadhafi was killed on Oct 20. And Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh eventually signed the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered plan on Nov 23, setting the stage for transfer of power in the country.

Encouraged and excited by their success in Libya, Western powers turned to Syria, tightened sanctions against the country and demanded that President Bashar al-Assad step down. Assad could be the fifth Middle East leader to fall.

The uprisings reflect the sharp domestic strife and increasing foreign pressure the Arab states face. And years of social contradictions have resulted in mass outbreak of violence.

The greatest casualty of the "Arab Spring" has been the marginalization of peace talks between Palestine and Israel, by far the most important question in the Middle East. Though recognized as a state by the United Nations and 130-plus countries, Palestine is still in transition from a legal state to a real one. Now, it seems, Syria and Iran will be the factors that decide the future of the Middle East.

The Syrian crisis will be in the headlines next year, too. The United States, Russia and European countries, especially France, are competing to gain the upper hand in Syria as the crisis there deepens. The Arab League has been exerting pressure on the country and has imposed unprecedented trade sanctions against Damascus.

Though Assad still has some trump cards up his sleeve, his government does not seem to have a promising future if the Arab League, especially if the US and the European Union continue their pressure on him. Besides, the international support for the Syrian opposition is increasing. Given the situation, Assad's days in power are not expected to be long.

The real fallout of the Syrian crisis, however, is the possibility that such protests could spread to neighboring countries. Once Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran or Israel get involved, the whole Middle East will descend into chaos.

To avoid the Syrian crisis from spreading to neighboring countries, the US and Russia are trying to use the "Yemeni model" - in which Ali Abdullah Saleh ceded power in exchange for immunity - in Syria. In fact, the Russian Foreign Ministry is possibly trying to persuade Assad to hand over power in exchange for refuge in Moscow.

The tension over Iran is intensifying, too. Iran is busy preparing to deal with a possible US military strike. Despite the US, the United Kingdom and Israel indicating that they could attack Iran anytime, but a war is not likely to break out in the near future.

Moreover, apart from Syria and Iran, Iraq too is likely to play an important role in the future of the region. With US troops pulling out of Iraq, the political, social and economic chaos in the country is likely to continue, though the US could manage to find other ways to control the situation in the war-torn country.

But one thing is clear: The social transformation in the region, given the intense political turmoil, will be a long and painful process, during which the Arab states have to pay a huge price. Facing unprecedented political upheavals, the political landscape in the Arab world is undergoing a change, with some previously hard-line Arab authorities falling one after another, and some states in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, gaining strength.

The Arab states facing political upheavals will enter a long period of political instability leading to political integration, while countries not facing serious unrest are adopting measures to carry out political reforms to offset the impact of the "Arab Spring".

After the collapse of the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, a variety of domestic political forces with different political aspirations will compete against each other. Domestic political instability and conflicts among Middle East states are likely to make the turbulent period last longer. Islamic political forces are a powerful influence in Arab society, and the fall of some ruling parties in some Middle East countries has created a new opening for them to gain more strength, even through the ballot box.

In fact, Islamic political parties in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt have assumed power through elections. Islamic political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for example, are rising in the political arena of Arab states. That will be a message of caution for the countries, especially in the West, which expected democracy to reign supreme in the Middle East after the "Arab Spring".

The author is a researcher at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily 12/22/2011 page9)