The Middle East is in chaos. The old order of mainly secular autocracies is dissolving and a new order is emerging with Islamists in control. However, there is great concern about whether burgeoning Arab populations will experience any greater degree of freedom, equality and economic improvement — factors that motivated revolts throughout the Arab world in the first place.
The assumption of many pundits that the “Arab Spring” would usher in era of liberal democracy has been shattered by the growing dominance of illiberal Islamists led foremost by the Moslem Brotherhood and its offshoots like Hamas. They in turn are being challenged by more extreme Salafists. Small pockets of liberals are under siege and threatened with irrelevance from large segments of the populous who overwhelmingly don’t share their secular values. This is certainly true in Egypt, a country of 85 million, but is also increasingly the case even in European-influenced Tunisia, a country of 11 million. The situation in Libya is arguably more problematic as regional and tribal-based militias continue to dominate their local regions despite efforts by the Westrern-backed central government to assert its authority.
While Syria tears itself apart in a “civil” war, its former partner Turkey, which had also in the past few years grown close Syria’s principal backer Iran, has shifted strongly away from both. It is now forging closer ties with Egypt to form a strong Sunni-led bloc against the Shia axis consisting of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
The recent car-bomb assassination in Beirut of Wissam al-Hassan, the Sunni Lebanese general who was a staunch critic of the Assad regime is widely considered to be the work of Syria, even if carried out once again by Hezbollah. Al-Hassan had been a leading voice calling for justice in another car-bombing assassination case involving Hezbollah and Syria — the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. A UN special tribunal issued indictments of four Hezbollah members, though no one has been prosecuted or is likely to be.
Now there is deep concern that as Syria unravels and Hezbollah fights on both sides of the border to prop up Assad and help save Iran’s influence in the region, Lebanon itself could become destabilized.
No wonder the news media are hard pressed to keep up with all the changes.
In their Nov. 8 New York Review of Books article, “This Is Not a Revolution” Hussein Agha and Robert Malley provide an overview, rich in paradox and irony, of these dizzying developments:
“Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.”
In the meantime, on Oct. 23, the Emir of Qatar visited the Hamas leadership in Gaza pledging $400 million for housing and infrastructure development.
The Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh called his visit “a huge political and moral victory for Hamas. [It] marks the beginning of the end of years of isolation for Hamas, particularly in the international arena.”
Just a day after the Emir left Gaza, Israel was struck by nearly 80 rockets and mortars, many of the launched by Hamas: As Abu Toameh noted, “now that Hamas has the backing – and financial support – of a wealthy and influential country like Qatar, it can afford to do almost anything it wants.” It addition to being emboldened, Hamas calculated that Israel will be hesitant to retaliate with the sort of force that could further erode its already shaky relations with Egypt.
Paul Michaels is the Director of Research and Media Relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
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