31/12/2010

2010 : a year of transition?

Back on the main facts and trends in the Arab news in 2010

The year 2009 ended a year ago with an unpromising situation on the scene of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a tense political and economic situation in Egypt, while Dubai succumbed to the financial crisis, while we were attending the rise Turkey and Syria as strategic powers and while Libya was imposing its will to the European states. The year 2010 has confirmed some trends, overturned others and has also brought us some surprises.

Israel, in total impunity

Following the attack on Gaza during the winter 2008-2009, Israel had avoided international sanctions and left its blockade of the Palestinian territory unchanged despite the appeals of the international community to an opening. The year 2010 confirmed the impunity with which Israel violates international law, whether with the Dubaïgate, the continued settlement activity in East Jerusalem, the maintaining of its nuclear power, the attack on the Freedom Flotilla and finally the resumption of settlement at the end of the moratorium.

Facing such impunity, the Palestinian Authority seems helpless. Only civil resistance appears to be able to restraint it. The great powers themselves appear to fold in face of Israel. After having offered a huge military aid to Israel for a new moratorium to be imposed on the settlement, without success, the United States want to restart direct negotiations with or without a moratorium. As for the EU, it is confined to the declaration stage. The conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Council in December 2009 and December 2010, and the position taken in August in favor of Abdullah Abu Rahma – a leader of the nonviolent movement against the wall in Bil’in, imprisoned in Israel – were promising, but ultimately never exceeded mere words. At the end of the year, several South American countries – Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, and soon, Uruguay – have also decided to recognize Palestine as an independent state within the 1967 borders, a diplomatic move that if it spreads could change the situation.

But let us leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aside to take a look at the situation in other Arab countries in 2010.

Elections

In Iraq on March 7, the second parliamentary election since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 took place. Unclear, the findings led to lengthy negotiations between the coalition of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the pluralistic coalition of Iyad Allawi – the only one to contain Sunnis. The talks lasted nine months, marked by numerous attacks and raising fears of the explosion of a civil war between Shi’ites and Sunnis. On 21 December, Parliament voted confidence in the new national government of national union led by Nouri al-Maliki but shared between the two coalitions. A year ending a bit more positively for the policy of a still devastated country.

To continue with elections, Egypt also went to the polls last November. The result of these elections is far from positive: no more official opposition – the Wafd party left the polls before the second round, and a ruling party – the National Democratic Party – more contested than ever. It is difficult to imagine how such a political configuration may end with an innovative result during the presidential election of October 2011, and this in spite of the actions of a personality like Mohammed El Baradei.

Regional powers

The year 2010 has confirmed Iran and Saudi Arabia in their roles as regional powers, the two facing each other in a game of influence often endangering the fragile equilibrium of the region. Thus Iran’s nuclear ambitions remain a major concern to its neighbor Saudi Arabia, joined in this regard by Western diplomacies. The inauguration last August of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southwestern Iran has demonstrated the determination of the Iranian regime not to yield to Western pressure. In response, Saudi Arabia has acquired American weapons in October for $ 60 billion, in what represents the biggest arms deal ever signed by the United States. The Middle East looks more than ever like a time bomb.

Unconvincing Year End

As noted by the editorial of last week, EU’s relations with Morocco are in good shape, and the example of the Kingdom of Morocco seems to motivate other regional players such as Jordan to strengthen their relations with Europe. But the picture has its downsides and progresses of Morocco sometimes lead us to forget the status quo of the Western Sahara conflict generally maintained by Rabat. Yet recent events in Laayoune saw the Moroccan forces razing a Sahrawi camp protesting against the discrimination to which they are subject compared to Moroccan citizens settled in Western Sahara. Moreover the violence occurred on the day was to set up a round of negotiations on the future of the disputed territory.

Another unconvincing actor in this end of year 2010 is the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Accused of being subjected to political agendas, it threatens the delicate balance that seems somehow to remain for over a year in Lebanon. Once again, Lebanon seems to depend on external power struggles which he is the only to pay the price for.

Surprises

But the year 2010 also brought its good surprises, including the Anna Lindh report on the dialogue of cultures. Published after a study of several months on cultural reflexes in the Mediterranean, it shows surprising similarities between cultures of societies on the southern and the northern shores of the Mare Nostrum. These findings undermine some prejudices coming from a so-called « clash of civilizations » and show the ground on which Mediterranean cooperation could be built.

Finally, more trivial but no less surprising is the choice of Qatar to host the World Cup 2022. A choice critized by many and that many are jealous of, but that demonstrates the determination of the Gulf countries to boost their region in preparation for the post-oil era.
2010’s assessment is ultimately more negative than positive for the region. If the year was marked by little open conflict, it has neither been marked by really promising developments. It could be regarded as something as a transition year between the year of crisis that had been 2009, and real change.

The Arab news in 2011 could indeed see real changes taking shape, i.e. in Egypt, where presidential elections will exacerbate political tensions, or on the Israeli-Palestinian scene where diplomacy will have to act if they do not want the current impasse to push the antagonisms to a breaking point. As for the fragile equilibrium of Iraq and Lebanon, let us hope they will manage to maintain this stability in order to allow both those countries to continue their rebuilding.

Nathalie Janne d’Othée