During a visit to Beirut in the aftermath of the 16-year civil war, I suggested to my Lebanese friends and colleagues that they should preserve some of the ruins along what they called the “green line” as a reminder for future generations of that devastating conflict. But the Lebanese on both sides of the line were eager to remove the remnants of warfare and return to normalcy.
In this way they inherited one situation they had grown used to, namely the confessional quota system of government, and another situation they were not yet familiar with, namely the state within the state consisting of Hizbullah and its allies. The latter has its own army and its own foreign relations, and takes its cues from Iran on matters of war and peace and obstructing government. Such were the recipes for uncalculated wars and involvement in other people’s civil wars. Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, followed by a grassroots uprising demanding the establishment of a non-sectarian state. On top of these came the explosion in the Port of Beirut and the demands for accountability which could not be pursued through judicial channels because of Hizbullah’s determination to use its blocking power to hijack the courts. The upshot is that Lebanon finds itself on the verge of yet another civil war, as well as on the brink of an economic crisis of drastic proportions.
All this, moreover, is unfolding against a volatile regional backdrop, not just in the Levant. Not far away, the situation has flared up again in Sudan, which has its own considerable experience with civil war, to the extent that the country was partitioned into two. While the confessional quota concept would not apply to a government system in Sudan, the country’s regions and various ethnic groups frequently complained of an insufficient share in power and the determination of their own fate.
There, too, an intifada erupted. It concluded with a historic power sharing agreement between the military and civilians, giving the former sovereignty and the latter governmental power. Two years later, the new status quo is being challenged. This development is consistent with the Sudanese cycle whereby civilians fail to satisfy the people because of their lack of means and resources, so much so that the military steps in to save the state, and some years later, civilians rebel again. This time, the process is being led by a pro-military group that wants to be rid of the civilians in power and by another group that wants to complete the revolution and be rid of the military in power. Much has changed in Sudan during the past two years. More regions, from Darfur to other states in the east and the south, are ready to secede while relations between Sudan, as a whole, and Ethiopia are very fraught. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is preoccupied with other concerns, so events in Sudan and Lebanon do not take up much media space.
Perhaps Tunisia and Libya draw greater attention, if only because they are portals to the Mediterranean and therefore closer to the European sphere. In Tunisia, the tensions are kept under control thanks to a popular will, a sense of national identity and a president who has so far succeeded in striking a balance in the political management of the crisis. The Libyan situation is governed by an international and regional consensus on the need to hold presidential and legislative elections before the end of the year, which is not so far away. This does not mean that there are no hidden explosives in Tunisia in the form of the Islamist Ennahda Party which has been prodding the labour syndicates to mobilise in defence of a democracy that was unable to bring Covid-19 under control, to make the economy work or to keep terrorism at bay.
In like manner, the consensus over holding elections in Libya does not mean that the mercenaries and militias no longer present a danger or even that Libyan politicians themselves are fully committed to holding elections. Everyone smells gunpowder everywhere.
Iraq looks more positive. The national concord seems to have repelled the spectre of violence and the results of the recent elections have restored some balance that could pave the way to the emergence of a civil state. However, Iran still lurks next door and the pro-Iranian counterparts of the Hizbullah alliance in Lebanon want to retain similar veto powers in Baghdad.
The foregoing manifestations of tension and anxiety are in contrast to the climate emanating from the Al-Ula Declaration adopted by the last Gulf Cooperation Council, leading to the resumption of relations between Qatar on the one hand, and Egypt and the UAE on the other, and the rapprochement between the latter two countries and Turkey. As diplomacy melted the ice, embassies reopened, direct flights resumed and economic relations eased.
In addition, a decade after Syria’s membership in the Arab League was suspended, there are signs it will soon be welcomed back. The Egyptian foreign minister met his Syrian counterpart on the fringe of the UN General Assembly inaugural meeting in September and pledged to help restore Syria to its place in the Arab world. On Sunday, the UAE announced that it would strengthen economic cooperation with Syria. These steps appear to have received considerable international encouragement, especially from the US. In 2019, Congress passed the Caesar Act requiring the US government to punish Syrian officials and entities responsible for human rights atrocities.
Yet the Biden administration does not seem so keen on enforcing it. After a single set of sanctions, it looked the other way when Abu Dhabi announced that the UAE was Syria’s largest trading partner. Washington also supported the agreement Egypt recently entered into in order to supply Lebanon with natural gas even though the supply line passes through Syria. The State Department spokesperson said that the Caesar Act was an important tool, but that its use must be weighed against humanitarian concerns.
The most salient Arab initiative brought together Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Their trilateral mechanism has progressed steadily primarily in two areas of activity. One has engaged Egyptian-Jordanian coordination in the management of the Palestinian question and the question of peace with Israel. The second involves multilateral coordination aimed at leading Iraq back to Arab ranks.
As we approach the second year of the third decade of this century, international think tanks see this region moving towards a reduction in violence, alleviation of tensions and a general trend towards reconciliation. The question, of course, is whether this is temporary or a more durable phenomenon indicative of a radical shift in the region as a whole.
Still, the states of tension in Lebanon, Sudan and Tunisia, the uncertainty surrounding Iraq, the perpetual powder keg of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not to mention ongoing civil wars in Yemen and Syria all tell us to be cautious in our optimism. They suggest that the historical dialectic in this region is building up to a climax that could lead the region in one of two directions. The first is to further progress in favour of the profound reform processes in progress in several Arab countries striving to promote prerequisite regional stability. The other is backwards to spiralling tensions, reignited conflicts, the flying sparks and spreading flames that cannot be contained by borders or reconciliations. Without a doubt, extra vigilance, political acumen and wisdom will be of the essence.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly