Chaos: The new 'status quo'
by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
February 17, 2012http://www.meforum.org/3174/chaos-status-quoOne year after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt, what conclusions can we draw regarding the ongoing wave of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa?
Around this time last year at the Herzliya Conference, the Israeli historian Prof. Martin Kramer lambasted the Obama administration for taking the view that the "status quo" in the region was no longer sustainable, and even went so far as to accuse the U.S. government of "throwing Mubarak under the bus."
Yet Kramer's critique was off the mark even then, for the fact is that the "status quo" - that is, the apparently stable order imposed by strongmen that prevailed in the Middle East and North Africa prior to the outbreak of the so-called "Arab Spring" - was never sustainable. The unrest that has come upon and now characterizes the region can be compared to a tidal wave: It is simply unstoppable.
As Oskar Svadkovsky pointed out to me, the United States could no more have saved Mubarak than President Nicolas Sarkozy could have saved the former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, whom the French government was eager to see retain power even as mass protests erupted in Tunisia. By promulgating the notion that the Obama administration threw Mubarak "under the bus," Kramer was inadvertently echoing the thoughts and intellectual legacy of a scholar whom he rightly took to task in his book "Ivory Towers on Sand": Edward Said.
The writings of Said - especially his best-known book, "Orientalism" - have unfortunately disseminated a patronizing view that in the Arab world, responsibility both for what goes wrong and for setting things right rests on the shoulders of Western powers.
What led to Mubarak's resignation in Egypt was not that the U.S. government had somehow abandoned him, but rather that the military, feeling the heat of mass protests, carried out a de facto coup. The same is true of Ben Ali in Tunisia, although there the military has now chosen to withdraw from politics.
In any case, a widespread problem with analysis of current developments in the Arab world is a tendency to impose false dichotomies. For instance, on the subject of Egypt's future, too much ink has been wasted on asking whether that country will emerge as a full-blown Islamist state or a healthy democracy. In fact, it is time to appreciate that a new norm will be dominating the region: chaos. Too often, commentators overlook demography, economy, tribal affiliations and climate change in their assessments of current and likely future trends.
For example, in Egypt, the ongoing protests in Tahrir Square have brought the economy to a grinding halt. Besides considerable decreases in tourism revenue and deleterious labor strikes, Bedouin tribes are stirring up trouble in Sinai, having taken over the Aqua Sun holiday resort - once a favorite destination for Israelis - at the end of last month with demands for a ransom of $660,000.
More generally, with a rapidly growing population of over 80 million, huddled around the Nile in an area that is only some 2.5 times the size of Israel, and with sharp divisions among political parties regarding how to solve the economic crisis facing the nation - Egyptians will continue to be quick to anger, having realized that the overthrow of Mubarak has led to no real improvement in quality of life, triggering a vicious cycle of further unrest. Likewise, few have noticed that Syria looks set to face a Malthusian-style collapse in the event of the fall of Bashar Assad's regime. The Sunni heartland is likely to succumb to the demographic and environmental pressures that helped trigger the uprising in the first place.
A traditionally pro-natalist policy on the part of the government has meant that the tribally dominated peripheries of Syria in particular have witnessed rapid population growth, especially among the armed tribes of Deir ez Zor, which contains most of Syria's dwindling oil reserves.
With Assad gone, these tribes will surely demand their fair share of oil revenues, potentially triggering another "periphery versus center" conflict like those that have characterized much of this country's uprising so far, or leaving the rest of Syria with less to spend on itself - above all as regards net importation of petroleum and oil products.
In addition, the suburban slums of Syria's major cities are teeming with hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants, owing to climate change and severe water shortages, with 500,000 people displaced from areas inhabited by the Inezi tribe in eastern Syria because of drought caused by shifts in rainfall patterns.
In 2007-8, 160 villages in northern Syria were abandoned for the same reasons. All this significantly increases the possibility that the country will fall apart once Assad goes, especially when one factors in sectarian tensions that have plagued cities like Homs.
For Israel, chaos is ultimately a good thing. It means that the Islamists and other hostile forces will be too distracted by infighting to focus any attention on fighting Israel. As for policy, Israel need only adopt a strong deterrence strategy. That is, to issue a stern warning that any foreign aggression will be met with severe retaliation, and act on such a warning should such aggression arise. Deterrence, however, must be consistent, as Grayson Levy once pointed out to me, because what Daniel Pipes terms mere "episodic shows of force" create the impression that Israel is in a state of panic.
In the meantime, we must accept that chaos will be the main trend in the region for quite some time, rather than constantly fret over false "liberal democracy vs. Islamist theocracy" dichotomies.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct Fellow at the Middle East Forum.