Wartime reform

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 20 Feb 2024

Abdel-Moneim Said revisits a favourite concept


The concept of “reform” falls somewhere between conservatism, which is often condemned as reactionary and averse to change, sometimes to the point of rigidity and fascist tendencies, and revolution, which is always associated with radicalness and the impulse to anarchy that unleashes uncontainable collective instincts that could lead to a failed state. Nevertheless, ‘reform’ remains a pivotal idea which combines change without extremism and incrementality without forfeiting opportunities.  

As I have discussed previously in this space, many Arab countries have chosen the reform path to escape the cycle of anarchy that leads to civil war and the religious extremism that leads to terrorism. The countries include, so far, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. Algeria, Iraq, and Tunisia are still sitting on the fence. 

The crucial question now is how these countries are to deal with the current warfare in the region, starting with the conflicts that began in the Arab “Spring” and not ending with the fifth Gaza war which has spread to the Israeli borders with Lebanon and Syria, and the West Bank.  There are also hostilities combining the regional and international levels, such as the US’ various engagements with Iran whether over the latter’s nuclear weapons programme or its campaign to exploit Arab sympathy for the Palestinians in different ways, such as using the Houthis to disrupt international navigation and trade through the Red Sea or using the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces to strike US bases in Syria, Iraq, and northern Jordan. 

The Arab reform countries set off on their journey in the middle of the last decade. They were full of resolve, so after a few intense run-ins with Iran, they shifted to a calmer mode of foreign relations management by the beginning of this decade. The AlUla Declaration adopted by the GCC summit in January 2023 ushered in a new and comprehensive foreign policy approach aimed at settling regional disputes and tensions no matter how challenging, complex, and seemingly intractable. The outcomes have been positive. Rapprochement and reconciliation processes took place between several Arab powers and Qatar, and between them and Turkey. The Chinese brokered a landmark reconciliation and restoration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Subsequently, relations were revived between Tehran and both Abu Dhabi and Cairo. Such steps were taken out of the realisation of the need for rational problem solving, de-escalation, cooling hotspots, and defusing regional flashpoints in order to bring regional calm and stability. The Palestinian cause and the conflict with Israel were seen in this framework, giving rise to the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. This mode of peace differed from that which characterised the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli relations which have always fluctuated between hot and cold depending on the temperature in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians. Then, the latest round of warfare began, with its episodes in Gaza and Lebanon and with Iranian missiles appearing in the battlefield, missiles not unlike those that the Houthis would subsequently use in the Arabian Peninsula. 

Until that point on 7 October 2023, it appeared that the regional de-escalation process was working. The potentials for economic and political cooperation offered promise to a region that was looking forward to turning the page on needless friction, disputes, and intrigues, and moving forward to unexplored horizons for security, stability, and prosperity. One of the opportunities was the possibility of a Saudi-Israeli normalisation as part of implementing the Arab Peace Initiative which seeks an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on the two-state solution. This process would have also deepened Saudi-US relations at a time when the Biden administration, after having failed to revive the Iranian nuclear agreement, was trying to achieve a breakthrough towards the realisation of peace and security in the Middle East by solving a problem that has plagued generations in this region and the world for decades. 

Then 7 October turned the region upside down. We may only see the tip of the iceberg, but it appears that Hamas, in collaboration with Iran and others, was determined to sabotage the reformist path in foreign relations, setting the region once again on the knife-edge of the Palestinian cause. Israel fell into the Iranian trap, giving rein to the Jewish fundamentalist and extremist trends which have exploited the situation to unleash a massive, barbaric assault against the Palestinian people in Gaza. In addition to the heinous war crimes that are unfolding, Egypt is facing a threat due to Israel’s threat to forcibly expel the Palestinians to the Sinai. Meanwhile, international navigation and trade in the Red Sea and Suez Canal are in peril, and the spectre looms closer of a regional war that could engulf Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.

A multi-crisis now jeopardises what the Arab reform policies had been trying to achieve up to the point of the war on Gaza. It is important to bear in mind that the foreign policy dimension had stemmed from the reformist strategies that have already begun to radically change the political, economic, and cultural landscapes in these Arab countries. So, what they are facing is not just a challenge to foreign policy positions, but also to their reformist approach to managing change and steering their countries to progress. The confrontation is thus deeper than another clash between the “resistance and rejection” camp against Israeli and the West. It goes straight to the heart of the ideological and practical confrontation between the forces of construction, development and intellectual and technological advancement versus the forces who want to keep our countries trapped in the same gruelling cycle they have been revolving in for decades.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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