The butterfly effect

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 18 Oct 2022

They say that if a butterfly flutters its wings in Japan, the effect will be felt as far away as Mexico. In theory this is true. The impact of butterfly wing’s flap may be very faint in its immediate environment, but repetitive flaps create a cumulative and far-reaching effect.


We know this from something much smaller than a butterfly. The tiny Covid-19 virus spread in such an exponentially cumulative way that it threw the entire world out of whack. Today we are watching other changes whose effects may appear of limited scope at first, but may yet snowball with lethal consequences. For us in the Arab region, we must remain observant, continually analyse and summon the ability to minimise risks and optimise opportunities. 

Look at what happened in Iran when a hijab slipped down the head of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, for which the moral police arrested, tortured and killed her. The incident precipitated a wave of protests that began with women cutting their hair and burning their veils, then built up to nationwide demonstrations in which men have joined in the call for change, starting at the top with the Supreme Leader. As of writing, the demonstrations persist despite the state’s attempts to repress them. They also spread to Iraq, where relations with Iran have become so intertwined. There was a huge outpouring of sympathy for Mahsa Amini and her distraught family, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. When political Shia circles began to fret over the turmoil in neighbouring Iran, Tehran fired missiles into northern Iraq, which is to say into a neighbouring sovereign independent state. Iranian communities around the world staged demonstrations to protest such behaviour, gathering broader universal sympathy among those opposed to discrimination and maltreatment of women everywhere. 

Sadly, the major events in the world today are not about the murder of an individual woman but about killing en masse, in Ukraine. That ongoing war entered new levels of escalation when Ukraine struck the Kerch Bridge connecting the Russian mainland with Crimea and Russia retaliated by targeting Ukrainian cities with indiscriminate missile fire. The political discourse has grown so heated as to bring us to a nuclear threshold unprecedented since the Cuban missile crisis when John Kennedy warned there was a one-out-of-three chance of a worldwide nuclear conflagration. So far, no one has called the odds. But the Russian threat became more explicit when the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said the Russian command should use tactical nuclear weapons. Statements to that effect have followed, eliciting US responses, such as Washington’s announcement that they had communicated to Moscow what would happen in the event of the Russians using such missiles. 

Of course, the Russian-Ukrainian war was never just about these two sides. Western economic sanctions against Russia eventually led Moscow to weaponise gas against the West and Europe, in particular. The confrontation was immediately felt worldwide as existing supply chain holdups intensified and inflation rates spiked further. Talk of an approaching stagnation has become as common as talk of the harsh winter to come. 

Countries around the world have been seized by an intense pessimism. No one can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Rising prices have fuelled angry demonstrations in Berlin, Vienna, Prague and other European capitals of a scale unseen for a long time. At the same time, the war has sidelined crucial global problems such as climate change and greenhouse gas emissions which might have brought mankind together at a time when the world was dangerously divided. 

The war has also generated a general state of hypersensitivity. In normal times, OPEC and even OPEC+ decisions would not have left the economy pages. They would have been understood as attempts to maintain the balance between supply and demand, producers and consumers. True, the Arabs used oil as a weapon to attain strategic ends during the October 1973 War just as Russia is using gas as a means to pressure Europe today. However, it is equally true that the above-mentioned organisations know that oil has an economic cycle that swings between highs of over $100 per barrel and lows of under $30 per barrel. It makes economic and political sense for them to aim for price levels that are just for all, so they increase production when the price becomes too high and reduce it when the price becomes too low. OPEC+ took the decision to cut production by 2 million barrels a day in order to keep prices from falling below their current level of $80 per barrel. But the US, which constantly preaches respect for the laws and principles of the free market, objected and even threatened a harsh response. It thereby created yet another crisis to add to the many we already have to deal with. 

It is difficult to find a connection between the OPEC+ decision and the Lebanese-Israeli maritime border agreement. According to their agreement, the Karish gas field lies entirely in Israeli waters while Lebanon controls the Qana field. But as the latter extends beyond the agreed-on border, Lebanon will be obliged to give Israel 18 per cent of its revenues from this field. The two sides managed to reach this agreement despite obstacles of a nature that not only hamper bilateral economic cooperation but also stand in the way of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Israel is still politically fragmented and in the run-up to the fifth round of Knesset elections in three years. Yet the agreement was signed even though it came under attack in the course of election campaigns and despite the fact that there is no peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel. Hizbullah, for its part, cast the agreement as a victory for the steadfast Lebanese resistance and took credit for compelling Israel to make painful concessions. The Israeli government also painted the agreement in ways intended to serve its political ends.

Qana and Karish will not add much to the global supply of natural gas and energy. But the agreement opens horizons to a maritime border agreement between Egypt and Palestine and another between Palestine and Israel. This, in turn, could make it possible to solve the gruelling economic crises in Lebanon and Palestine and contribute to the development of innovative peaceful solutions to the Palestinian question which has defied countless political and diplomatic efforts.

There are many butterflies fluttering their wings here and there in the world, setting off varying sizes of winds to the east and west. Perhaps they are searching for forms of equilibrium which are missing in an international sphere that seems bent on teetering so dangerously as to raise the spectres of a third world war and a nuclear catastrophe. Hopefully, other butterfly wings will counter the winds of recklessness and folly, and generate opportunities that those wise enough will know how to seize in order to make the world a better place.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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