The Arab world in turmoil (1)

This week, my evening class in International Relations was intensely topical. Our lecturer Dr Dale Mineshima-Lowe had devised the course schedule weeks ago but this week the topic was Africa with particularly reference to three countries.

First, Somalia. We discussed the efforts of the Transitional Federal Government created in 2004 to establish order and governance and noted that the national elections are supposed to take place this year. Meanwhile the problem of piracy off the Somali coast remains acute; whereas originally overfishing by European vessels  and dumping of toxic materials in Somali waters might have partially explained such piracy, it is clear now that the general lack of governance in Somalia and the difficulty of convicting perpetrators are the key elements.

Second, Sudan. The largest country in Africa is now set to split as a result of the referendum in the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region earlier this month. Three-quarters of Sudan’s oil reserves are likely to end up in the new southern state, but the pipeline and the refineries are in north Sudan, so both parts will have to agree an acceptable share of oil revenues. Also the precise border has to be settled with the region of Abyei particularly problematic.

Third, Tunisia. As this term started three weeks ago, we did not know that, when we reached this section of the syllabus, Tunisia would have had a Jasmine Revolution with the collapse of the repressive Ben Ali regime. Until then, many outsiders had seen the country as quite stable, but unemployment of 14% overall and of 30% among those aged 15-29 has been the spark that lit the flames.

The success of people power in Tunisia has sent shock waves throughout the Arab world as those – especially the young and unemployed –  in other despotic regimes consider if they can replicate the overthrow of unpopular and unsuccessful leaders.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Egypt which I visited in 1999 [my account here]. Unprecedentedly large demonstrations in many cities have already forced President Hosni Mubarak to dismiss his government but this may well not be enough to still the tide of anger. Democrats everywhere will wish the Egyptians well in seeking a totally new system of governance, but the American government is clearly worried that here – as elsewhere in the Arab world – the overthrow of a dictator who has been favourable to the West could result in either a military dictatorship or an Islamist government.

Yemen is another country in turmoil. Tens of thousands of Yemenis have demonstrated in the capital Sanaa, calling on Ali Abdullah Saleh, president for 30 years, to step down. There are fears that Yemen is becoming a leading al-Qaeda haven, with the high numbers of unemployed youths seen as potential recruits for Islamist militant groups.

The Middle East is always a political tinder box and events in Tunisia have had ripples there too.

In Jordan which I visited in 2005 [account here], we have just has seen the largest anti-government demonstrations for 20 years. If the Egyptian regime falls, we may seen a domino effect in the Arab world as we did in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Meanwhile in Lebanon (which I shall be visiting in a few weeks), the moderate government of Saad Hariri has lost its majority in the parliament and it now looks as of an Hezbollah-led government will take power with fears of a new civil war.

As if all this was not enough, we hardly needed the destabilising effect of the leak by al-Jazeera of  records revealing the negotiating positions of  the Palestinian Authority in their talks with Israel. There are many ways of interpreting the meaning and impact of so-called PaliLeaks.

My fear is that what these revelations reveal – and the reason why most Israelis are treating them with a yawn – is that Israel is not that interested in a peace settlement and has no intention of seriously compromising to secure one. It thinks it’s doing fine without a settlement and is under no pressure internally or externally to find one.

My greatest fear is that, in forcing the Palestinian Authority into humiliating and embarrassing concessions, Israel will effectively prevent a deal with the PLO and eventually have to negotiate a tougher deal with Hamas – but only after more violence and possibly another war with Hezbollah.

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