Three historical moments

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 15 Oct 2020

It is rare in history for three historical moments to occur at once. But this is what is happening now, and to which Arab leaderships must respond

A historical moment is a turning point between two different eras. The world finds itself between different outlooks and trends, a world that has passed and one that yet to come. It is a time when numerous variables interweave to create the “perfect storm” that precipitates sweeping change.

As dialecticians put it, it is the point where all quantitative variables come together in a qualitative moment of departure from one period to the next. Three such qualitative moments are unfolding at levels of the world, the Middle East and each individual Arab country. My attempt to explain them here will be brief due to reasons of space and out of confidence in my readers’ sophistication and discernment. 

At the global level, the crucial moment arrives 3 November when the US electorate goes to the polls to determine the fate of the world. Unfortunately, such as the way the world works, the rest of the planet’s inhabitants will not have a say in that process, but they will follow it and determine their positions accordingly.

Regardless of the outcome, this process of self-determination will be the test of the most important reversal in the course of modern US history since World War II. It will answer questions related to Washington’s renunciation of world leadership and consequent geopolitical changes, such as who is best poised to fill the void at the helm should one arise.

As this year’s elections coincide with the Covid-19 crisis and its economic, social and technological impacts, they are a gauge of whether the world moves closer to unity or whether it fractures into a multiplicity of separate and disparate worlds split by national, factional, ethnic and religious affiliations.

If the former, then developments during the past four years will have been a blip, and we can look forward to the resumption of the fight against global warming, the enthusiasm for multilateral international organisations and the collective search for global responses to contagious diseases. If the latter, each separate group will have only itself to count on when it comes to the major concerns of life, and the world will become an exceeding small place. 

For the origin of the historical moment in the Middle East and the Arab world we have to look back a decade ago to the so-called Arab Spring. The past 10 years have brought the consequences of moments that were described as “revolutionary”.

The most salient result was the rise of assorted forms of religious fundamentalism. At the base of this phenomenon stood the Muslim Brotherhood which served as incubator, mobiliser, funder and international organiser. It fostered various other organisations, one of which was the Islamic State group that established a self-acclaimed caliphate that lasted three years. The others also practised what all these fundamentalist movements do: terrorism.

The strategic weaknesses caused by these developments triggered three types of Arab responses: capitulation to the storm and the collapse or severe debilitation of the state (Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq), betrayal (Qatar) or the institution of profound and extensive domestic reforms (the other Arab states). As for the response of other powers in the Middle East, namely Iran, Turkey, Israel and Ethiopia, it was to seize the opportunity to occupy territory, expand influence and/or make a grab for natural resources to which they have no right. 

In the case of this region, the historical moment will come, on the one hand, when an equilibrium is struck between these responses and their painful effects and, on the other hand, the thrust to keep pace with the modern age, seize the technological opportunities available and press forward with national reforms as well as regional reform. It was no coincidence that, as civil strife and interventionist wars persisted, there was a surge in movements towards cooperation and peace.

These have crystallised in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, the UAE and Bahraini peace initiatives with Israel (which also has an oil, gas and technological components), and Lebanese-Israeli maritime border demarcation negotiations. This moment is also a test between two other trends: the irredentist movements that seek to revive ancient empires and their faded glories versus movements that aspire to bring their countries into harmony with others in this region, in a spirit of peace, cooperation and collective development. 

The third historical moment is taking place within each of the Arab states that experienced all the pain and bitterness of the past phase and that watched the rest of the world progress by leaps and bounds towards new horizons while they remained mired in bygone traditions that paraded beneath revolutionary banners or clung to placards of cultural specificity.

In the Arab countries that chose the path of sweeping reform, we saw a renovation in the national infrastructure, a variety of mega projects aimed at taking advantage of the country’s full geographic potential, demographic/human resources reforms with focuses on education, training and productivity, a renovation in religious thought to give prevalence to such deeper spiritual values as tolerance and harmony with the age, and a renovation of lay thought to render it more in tune with science, logic and technological progress.

In tandem, these countries reached out to other likeminded ones in a spirit of regional cooperation, the promotion of mutual welfare, the end of warfare and the establishment of peace and justice. This reformist vision faces major challenges. Some come from outside, whether from the abovementioned regional powers or from the rapid pace of scientific and technological progress and the intensity of competition in the world today.

Others come from within, as is the case with the persistent acts of terror, betrayal or conspiracy on the part of reactionary and fundamentalist forces determined to force the clock to run backwards. The current historical moment in each Arab country is characterised by contradiction, friction and clashes. The resolution will be determined by those who are astute, prudent and farsighted. 

It is rare in history for three such historical moments to occur at once. In previous cases of such concurrence, the result was world war, major revolutions, the rise of new religions or the rise or fall of empires. In the aftermath would come a tide that, in the distant past, could last for centuries. As the world moved towards the modern era, this period shortened to decades and then to only a few years.

The keys to either impasse or breakthrough in such difficult times resided in the hands of political elites. In the past these elites had plenty of time at their disposal, sometimes up to a thousand years. In this modern age, they no longer have this luxury. The agricultural revolution, which superseded thousands of years of pastoralism, lasted over a thousand years. The first three industrial revolutions unfolded during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The fourth and fifth technological revolutions that followed have been cramped into the space of the last three decades. Today’s political elites shoulder a heavy burden, and not only because time has shrunk to a split second in which moving forward or backwards lies in the balance. The variables have multiplied and diversified and the challenges have increased at unprecedented rates. Never before in history have Arab leaders been responsible for 350 million people or had to compete with a world that is changing at the speeds of sound and light. But the moment has arrived.

The choices are tough, but they are not out of reach. They are not sealed shut in mountain-top caves guarded by genies and demons. When you think, you awake; it is then that you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

*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 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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