Surprises in the Middle East

Abdel-Moneim Said
Wednesday 19 Sep 2018

The only thing that can be predicted is that the Middle East region will remain unpredictable

They say that the Middle East is so full of surprises that there is no room for more.

Yet no conference, seminar or discussion on this region can pass without someone asking what the next surprise will be. When president Gamal Abdel-Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal no one could believe he actually did it.

The most recent case of nationalisations before that was Mohamed Mosaddegh’s decision to nationalise the Iranian oil industry, for which he ended up paying with his overthrow.

In Egypt, the price was the tripartite aggression which brought the surprise of the withdrawal of the three invaders under pressure from the Arabs, international public opinion, Soviet threats and US opposition. That all these parties should agree on something was yet another surprise.

In 1967, it was not the Israeli aggression that was the surprise but the consequences of that aggression which ended with the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

It was commonly believed that the Arabs were too weak to do anything about this.

But then, the next surprise came, in 1973, with the use of the double-barrelled weapon of arms and the oil embargo. Nor would the surprises end there.

It would not be long before president Anwar Al-Sadat stunned all with his visit to Jerusalem and conclusion of a peace treaty with Israel.

There have been revolutions, coups, civil and regional wars of all sorts, but the academic community worldwide was taken by surprise by the so-called Arab Spring.

For a while, universities and political and strategic research centres conducted self-examinations and cross-examinations as they tried to figure out how all experts managed to fail to forecast that event.

There was some cheating in the process of this introspection. Political analysts and scholars rifled through their old notebooks and articles for a passage or a sentence that could be read as a prediction.

Even those who said a word or two in a play about the uneasy situation in the region cited their remarks as an early warning or a harbinger of the Arab Spring.

More surprises followed. No one had known that the Islamist movement had the ability to seize power in a number of Arab countries.

No one predicted that a branch of that movement — the Islamic State group — would found its own “Islamic Caliphate” which the world regarded aghast up to the time of its ignoble defeat.

The outbreak of lethal and destructive civil wars in several Arab countries came as a surprise. But the greater surprise was that after all that upheaval, the “Arab state” survived within its traditional borders even if the substance within those borders changed.

The state, if shaken and weary, made a comeback and political geography reasserted itself once more. It was not a kind of Sunni-Shia divide that stood between the Arabs and Persians, as was commonly argued for a while, but rather Iranian extraterritorial ambitions that are as clear as the print in ancient and contemporary histories of Iran.

The reforms that are being implemented in Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia took many international institutions and agencies by surprise, especially given that some of the measures touched on seemingly inviolable taboos.

So, what is the next surprise that the Middle East holds in store? It must be something no one had expected or predicted even though it is a consequence of the fundamental changes that have swept this region.

Some might think Disney’s return to Egypt is a surprise because it signals that Egypt is no longer regarded as a danger zone. But, in fact, it merely tells us that tourism is back. The Iranian missile strike against the Kurdish region in northern Iran is a surprise of sorts.

Yet, the Kurds there, like Kurds in Iraq and Syria, want to take advantage of current conditions in order to win a degree of autonomy — independence no longer being an option.

The question is why did Tehran use such a degree of brutal force? Was it driven by the fear of having to pay the price for its presence in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq before that? The Palestinians find it hard to surprise anyone anymore.

The reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah comes as no surprise because history is filled with reconciliations that breakdown as soon as the ink has dried. Hamas’s talks with Israel surprise no one because neither this side or that really wants a strategic armistice. To them, ceasefires, like reconciliations, are tactical moves meant to serve domestic ends.

The biggest impending surprise on everyone’s lips is war between Iran and Israel. But if everyone’s talking about it, how can it be a surprise? Meanwhile, the escalating tensions between Iran and the US and between Iran and Israel are serving domestic purposes all around.

To be sure, there are essential contradictions at work creating a lot of friction. But if the intensity of the friction between the contradictions leads to a readiness to fight, it can also open the doors to negotiations.

One cannot help but to wonder what is going on in the back channels and with all the pulse taking. What are European capitals doing, especially those that had celebrated the Iranian nuclear agreement together with Moscow and Beijing, only to find the US withdraw from the deal and, moreover, reinstate the blockade against Iran and the sanctions against anyone that has any dealings with Iran?

None of the foregoing packs any real surprise because the succession of internal changes in the US and Europe have generated a volatile climate and where there is a volatile climate there is also a likelihood of a spark to ignite the flames.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards have ignited flames in a number of Arab countries. After the destruction they wreaked in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, they have no problem destroying other places. But that type of madness also exists in large quantities in Israel.

In Syria, the conflict is about to culminate in the battle of Idlib. Will the surprise be that, rather than marking the beginning of the end of the war, Idlib turns out to protract it and give warfare a second breath?

The answer to this may not depend on the Revolutionary Guard or Syria or even Israel. Perhaps it all depends on the surprise contained in the forthcoming mid-term Congressional elections.

If the Democrats sweep the polls, as they hope, the surprise would mean that Trump might not serve a second term and globalisation can return to its “good old days”.

But what if the surprise is the reverse? What if the Republicans win or if their losses do not sufficiently alter the current balance of powers in Washington? At that point, the US media in New York, which had begun to count the days to Trump’s exit from the White House, will hit the ceiling.

Of course, the surprise could be no surprises at all. Everything would just go on as is in the Middle East, the US, Europe and the rest of the world.

Fundamentally, the world is based on natural laws, the rules of institutions and the traditions of peoples and states. However, the basis is flawed for reasons there is no space to mention here, and perhaps we should gird ourselves for the next surprise, wherever or whenever it occurs.

* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Surprises in the Middle East

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