New Fracture Lines on the Middle East – commentary from Sir Jeremy Greenstock

Our friends and colleagues at Gatehouse Advisory Partners do constant analysis of the changing geopolitical landscape we live in. As ex-diplomats, they’re well connected and have deep insights not only into what is happening on the surface but also some of the undercurrent forces that are shaping the realities of the world around us. We always find their insights stimulating and worth sharing.

As we come to the end of one of the most tumultuous years on record, Sir Jeremy Greenstock makes some predictions about where the “Arab Spring” will take us:

Changes of government in North Africa, the Palestinian UN bid, the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange and the sharpened threat from Israel against Iran have caught the headlines in the Middle East and globally, but what do the extraordinary events of 2011 (so far) add up to? Who might be the new winners and losers?

There is actually little indication that the logjams on the two most explosive issues in the region, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, have shifted at all. But the most important change this year is potentially bigger than either of them: that the voice of the people is now making a political impact. It is safe to assume that no government in this part of the world, and possibly beyond it, will remain unaffected by the example set by Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, because their peoples have shown that it is no longer necessary to submit to repression and kleptocracy, or even to stagnation and chronic incompetence. The sagas in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain are incomplete, mostly because the opposition movements in those countries have not found the catalytic breadth to replace what are in effect minority governments. But the momentum is there for further change.


This commentary will not attempt to predict what might happen in each of the remaining states of the region, but to suggest that new conversations are developing about what could replace the familiar autocracies of the late 20th century. There is a great deal of nervousness in the West about the Islamist organisations and their
potential to take over the political stage in North Africa and elsewhere. Yet the evidence is growing that moderate Islamists, that is those parties that are interested in the popular voice and that eschew violence, are preparing platforms and manifestos which subscribe to perfectly acceptable principles of democracy and the rule of law.

Meetings have begun to take place across the Middle East, and in Europe, between moderate Islamists and secular politicians from the Arab countries which may start to lay the basis of coalition approaches, or even national unity governments, in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brethren in Egypt or An Nahda in Tunisia, which are wary of any strong Salafist influence from the more extreme corners of Arab society, are likely, on the evidence of polls so far, to form the first new mainstreams of political development.

Yes, it is always possible that less democratic tendencies will attract support: the early showing of Nour, the Salafist-influenced party in Egypt, has surprised many observers. It is also possible that leaders will emerge from these tentative beginnings to distort new, fragile processes for the sake of enlarging their personal hold on power. The story of Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki shows signs of heading in that direction, under the noses of US troops even before they depart at the end of 2011. But the people of Iraq have grown used to choosing their representatives and leaders and will not easily tolerate a slide back towards dictatorship, especially when they see other Arab countries moving the opposite way. There have already been strong demonstrations in both North and South Iraq against corruption and incompetence and the country is not immune to the currents of the Arab Spring just because they (with some outside help) launched
change well before the others.

What is almost certain is that the path of Arab politics will now veer in a number of directions, at different times in different countries and not always free of violence. But the trend over time will be towards freer economies, a higher standard of general education, growing middle classes and more balanced societies. Some Arab countries will fall behind the reform curve, but the principle will become established that traditional autocracies of a patronising or repressive kind cannot survive the opposition of a majority of their people. Even if it takes a full generation, the prospect of an Arab consumer society 400 million strong on the borders of Europe, with oil and gas available to prime their economies for many decades to come, can be a stimulating rather than an alarming thought.

Source: Gatehouse Advisory Partners

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