Submitted to the Jewish Chronicle:
Submitted to NuPolitics Magazine - Feb 2012
Spring Fever Blues
When discussing political relations in the Middle East, nothing is ever simple. As the winter after the spring before comes to an end, Egypt deals with stagnation in the aftermath of Tahrir Square, and Bashar al-Assad shows no signs of leaving office as easily as his Egyptian counterpart, continuing the bloody repression of his own populace. If the Middle East can be compared to a piece of music, then the atonal riff of the Arab Spring has provided a welcome interlude from the unchanged, and unchanging beat of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. What, though, does the continuing fallout of the Arab Spring mean for Syria’s and Egypt’s mutual neighbour? How will Israel view the recent Egyptian elections, and Assad’s not quite imminent departure? While the advent of popular democracy has undoubtable advantages, the western media has perhaps been too quick to spin the Arab uprisings of the past year as entirely positive. From the perspective of the Israelis as well as that of the long term intraregional political stability, the future is, as ever, gloomy.
Anyone can understand why the Arab Spring is called as such. In simple terms, it occurred across the Arab world, and it gathered momentum during the spring of 2011. However, to assume that the implications of the term ‘Arab Spring’ begin and end with its location in time and space, is to miss a crucial point. In the West, the origin of the title in question, the season of spring is a time of unbridled optimism; the weather warms and new life shakes off the repressive, icy winter. When metaphorically applied to another situation, the connotations of hope follow. Although I am sure that the press were aware of this at the time, to portray Arab nations’ newfound ‘self-democratisation’ as spring having sprung, is to play a very dangerous game indeed. To suggest that we have a Springtime for Hitler in our midsts is to go far too far, but the Arab Spring is certainly no My Fair Lady. The Anglo-American Press have often been criticised of ‘Disneyfication’, trivialising important world events and transforming nuanced, distant tensions into battles between absolute good and absolute evil. The West could come to regret this reductionism in future years, particularly where Egypt, one of the larger and more modern Middle Eastern countries is concerned.
Following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak a little over a year ago, Egyptian elections have been held, with the Freedom and Justice Party attaining the largest number of votes. Their international affiliation is with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is here where regional and international relations take another complex turn. As far as the principles on which the West covertly and overtly armed the various Arab struggles, the successful staging of elections can only be a positive move. However, it is at the very least disconcerting for Israel. Decades of short sighted international interventionism, spanning the Cold War and the years since, have resulted in politics and religion in the region becoming inextricably linked. After all, US or Soviet forces acting in their own interests could close down political parties, but not mosques. It is this process which leaves us with the Muslim Brotherhood.
While, officially speaking, the Brotherhood eschews violence (instead preferring democratic methods), their desire to impose the Qur’an as the sole reference point for government and social law will hardly be met with open arms by Israel – whose attitude towards its own security is neurotic to say the least. In the old Mubarak regime, Israel had peaceful relations since the Sadat-Begin treaty of 1979, and a moderator prone to sporadic attempts at brokering a peace settlement with the Palestinians. If nothing else, Mubarak provided a volatile region some semblance of stability – an old, albeit corrupt head on psychotic shoulders. The Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand, can count the militant Hamas (who pledge to destroy not just Israel, but worldwide Jewry to boot) among their descendants, and repeatedly criticised Sadat’s, and then Mubarak’s peaceful relations with Israel. One must not forget that Sadat himself was assassinated due to his dovishness. The army, for now at least, is still in charge of Egypt. Despite this, border controls in the Sinai region have slackened with an increase in incidents such as the one in August last year, when gunmen crossed over into the port town of Eilat and killed eight Israelis.
The political opportunity that this perceived need for higher security presents, has not been lost on Israeli politicians. With the the 2013 elections imminent, the array of parties which fall to the right of the Israeli political spectrum (almost all of the significant ones) will inevitably use this regional capriciousness, combined with the steady flow of settlement driven maximalist rhetoric, to increase their already heavy reliance on scare-mongering tactics. Yair Lapid, a former journalist making his first foray into centre-right politics, Binyamin Netanyahu, who recently won the Likud primaries, and the ultra-right wing Lieberman, will all employ such tactics in an attempt to garner votes in an already fragmented Israeli parliament prone to right-wing coalitions. It would be unsurprising if Netanyahu won a second successive term. It would be even less surprising if he refused to include Shelly Yachimovich, the new Labour party leader in any sort of coalition. A self-proclaimed social democrat, Yachimovich has been scapegoated in recent weeks, lambasted as an ‘ultra-left socialist’. Aside from the genuine attempts of Labour Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David and Taba at the turn of the century, right wing attitudes seem to have been almost constantly in vogue in Israel since the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The events on the other side of the Golan mountains seem to be doing little to tip the balance of power.
To say that Israel and Syria have had poor relations in recent years would be inaccurate. They have had no relations at all. Assad once referred to Hizbollah, a Lebanese terror organisation with attitudes towards Israel similar to those of Hamas’, as “holding the banner of victory”. However, Hamas’ and Hizbollah’s views on the Jewish state are where their likenesses end and their sectarian differences begin. Both Sunni Syria and Shi’ite Hamas receive funding from Shi’ite Iran (the Middle East is mostly Sunni with the other exceptions of Iraq and Bahrayn). Hamas stem from the same Muslim Brotherhood which was not only smashed by Assad’s father, but also the same Brotherhood which seem to be leading the rebellions against the current Ba’athist government. Despite Syria’s friendship with a country whose seeming desire to vaporise Tel Aviv is nothing if not well documented, Assad appears to have been reluctant to go any further than aggressive rhetoric. He has kept a leash on the terrorist organisation of Hizbollah, and seems to understand – just as Mubarak did – the doublethink nuances of the region. From Jerusalem’s point of view it will be unnerving that the single-party-state Ba’athists have fallen distinctly out of favour in the eyes of the Syrian public. Just as has happened in Egypt, if the Brotherhood manage to puncture the tyres of the Assad killing machine, and gain power through democratic elections, Netanyahu may well nostalgically daydream of the days of Assad. On the other hand, the enemy that Israel does not yet know may prove to be friendlier neighbours than the enemy they already know. What is certain, however, is that whomever succeeds Assad will not have experience of the web of contradictions which make up Middle East relations.
Democracy will hopefully prove to be a soothing influence on the Middle East, or it could add to the already discordant cacophony. Either way, change in the region has rarely been welcomed, especially when it has been as rapid as the Arab Spring.