Cloak-and-dagger-style assassination attempts, urban car chases, midnight releases from jail, rumours of detainee swaps, and on-again,off-again diplomatic negotiations dominate the news headlines in the Middle East these days – but don’t be fooled, for the real contours of our region’s history are to be found elsewhere.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has become almost marginal to most Middle Easterners by any measure of accounting, and appears to be inching towards a clumsy compromise that promises to fully satisfy no single party.
It is possible that the sort of Arab-Israeli peace being negotiated these days will be a replay of two other flawed peace accords in recent memory – the U.S.-Vietnamese peace treaty of 1973, and the May 1993 Lebanon-Israel accord. Both unravelled or were never implemented, because they did not achieve a balanced and fair compromise; rather, they institutionalized the prevailing power imbalances and chronic humiliations that plagued one of the key parties. The Arab-Israeli peace process may follow a similar route, though I personally hope that things will not prove so gloomy.
The more interesting trend these days throughout the Middle East, especially in the Levant area, is how so many people from all walks of life appear to have put the Arab-Israeli conflict aside or even behind them, in terms of their day-to-day preoccupations. This is not because they feel it has been resolved – rather, they feel it is unlikely to be resolved fairly, and so more and more people in the region focus their energies on equally pressing but more attainable issues.
Consequently, and broadly speaking, Arab passions are steadily subsiding over traditionally hot and often humiliating issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict and the encounter with Western imperial and colonial powers. The main issues that drive ordinary people’s concerns and mobilise them politically are domestic, often very local – issues about social and legal equity, economic well-being, family security, personal respect and freedoms, and a wide sense of human dignity. The pressing power relationship on the minds of most ordinary Arabs, I would suggest, is not vis-a-vis Israel or Western powers, but rather vis-a-vis our own central governments and domestic political powers.
Three Arab countries are particularly worth watching in this respect – Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. They may offer a glimpse into whether domestic political attitudes are likely to promote future political stability or turbulence in this region. All three countries have opened up sufficient political space for the free expression of ideas, ideologies and identities, and what we witness in these lands is instructive.
In Lebanon, the former leader of the Hizbollah organisation, Sheikh Subhi Tufaili, has launched a civil disobedience drive that he calls “the revolt of the hungry.” His mass movement, centred on the economically depressed Bekaa Valley and Hermel regions, aims to check the deterioration in many Lebanese people’s living standards and basic education, health and employment conditions. Even the rightist Phalangist leader Karim Pakradouni has warned that the Lebanese government’s focus on laissez-faire economics and its lack of attention to rising poverty threaten to spark massive social and political unrest. He has warned that the continuing shrinkage of the Lebanese middle class and the advent of 30 per cent of the population living in poverty are promoting anger and disillusionment that are not confined to the Shi’a poor, but also plague other Lebanese Muslims and Christians. An estimated 200,000 people are impacted by the economic recession in the Baalbek-Hermel areas in Lebanon.
In Egypt, a potential mass movement against the government has been sparked by the implementation of a new law that lifts long-standing rent controls on agricultural land. The law allows landowners to renew their leases with tenant farmers on terms much more favourable to the land owners, or to terminate the leases (with compensation) and throw the peasant farmers off lands that they have worked for decades. Violent and peaceful protests against the new land law have already resulted in deaths, injuries and imprisonment. Up to five million Egyptians may feel the consequences of the new land law.
In Jordan, a combination of stringent economic adjustment policies, the still controversial peace accord with Israel, and increasingly vocal concerns about the quality of political liberalisation has sparked a potentially powerful but still slightly diffused opposition coalition comprising leftists, pan-Arab nationalists, Islamists and Transjordanian nationalists. About 20 per cent of Jordanians are thought to live at or below the poverty line. Not surprisingly, the expressions of discontent and fear by ordinary Lebanese, Jordanians and Egyptians have generated economic and political resistance that is being tapped by a new breed of political activists in all three countries. Coincidentally, also in all three states the International Monetary Fund and World Bank continue to issue upbeat reports on the potential benefits of impressive macro-economic adjustment. Expressing the common dilemma that their central governments can routinely call on built-in majorities in their national parliaments, opposition forces in all three states are attempting to mobilise new constituencies comprising alliances of the economically poor, the socially marginalised and the politically discontented.
At stake here is not only the immediate material well-being of citizens and their families, but also the fate of law-based political cultures based on foundations of respect, trust, dialogue, and consensus-building. Even though all three states enjoy open, democratising political systems that permit public expression of opposition to state policies, the three systems have also repeatedly failed to achieve workable compromises on important domestic socio-economic issues such as food subsidies, employment, education, medical care, low-cost housing, and other such basic needs issues.
The slow shift in people’s concerns at the grassroots level from Israel and imperialism to bread and jobs looms now as the single greatest test of these and other Arab states’ political capacity to respond to their citizens’ mounting concerns in an effective, peaceful and sustained manner. The worst-case scenario danger is that continued tension and stalemate in addressing real-life socio-economic needs may result in corrosion in political trust, discrediting of democratic pluralism, widening disparities in living standards and political power, and polarisation of society into bitter and violent camps of haves and have-nots. The corresponding opportunity is to accept the expressions of discontent as genuine manifestations of real, indigenous concerns by loyal citizens, and to respond to them through a strengthening of democratic consensus-building and the political culture of reasonable compromise and power-sharing.
Algeria, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and other fractured Arab states stand as frightening reminders of what can happen when the opportunity is missed and the danger is activated – when power elites and political systems ignore or only pay lip service to the early warning signs of genuine domestic discontent rooted in socio-economic disparity. The real historic events taking place in the Middle East these days are only marginally related to the Arab-Israeli peace-making process that dominates the headlines; they are more centrally anchored in contentious political, social and economic contests and trends within individual countries.