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End Of 2016: A MENA Post-Mortem

As we rapidly approach the end of another challenging year, my mind strays once more to the Middle East North Africa (MENA) and to the atrocities visited upon much of it during the past twelve months. Yes, it was hardly six years ago that the residents of this region rose up in arms to shake off the yoke of oppression and acquire the rights associated with true citizenship. But given the levels of sheer brutality that we have witnessed over social media almost daily, it often feels that this has been going on for longer than six years.

In a nutshell, what has been happening over the past few years echoes the endemic despair in a region that was once a hub of progress, creativity and authenticity. It then shifted to periods of feudalism, coupled with political quiescence and economic tumescence, and is now in a state of unpredictable and almost inconsequential uncertainty. In some MENA countries, life continues with wary and cautious normality. In others, it is truly a question of the last straw that might break the camel's back anew. But if we sidestep Palestine that was the emotional hub of the Arab and Muslim Worlds a decade ago but is no longer so today, I would argue that Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are the four countries where polarisation and vitriol are at their highest pitch. It would take decades before some modicum of stability let alone reconciliation can take root again. And this assumes of course that those states will not end up partitioned or federated, or become the junkyard of the world where their resources are pillaged without any palpable dividends for their rightful owners.

What many politicians overlook is that force alone will not resolve the issues at hand. Force is a catharsis for feeble politicians and rogue chieftains, but it is often political dialogue that alone could import peace - and then prosperity - to a country. Just imagine, if the world community manages to eliminate Daesh (ISIS) literally from the MENA map, but does not in the process help address the problems of the Arab men, women and children who live in abject poverty and who are oppressed to their back teeth, does one really think that stability would be possible? Not only will there be another 'Arab Spring' round the corner, but the terrorists of today will come back to haunt us with different labels tomorrow. Just remember how many mutations Al-Qaeda underwent - and in how many countries - before it morphed into Daesh!

As many prominent Arab intellectuals and philosophers - not least the late Syrian scholar Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm - have written for decades, there is an urgent need to understand that reverting to heavy-handed security measures against those aspiring for their fundamental freedoms will not solve problems. Rather, they will simply mutate those problems, alter their political DNA and make them even harder to deal with once the next eruption takes place. And there is no way the world can insulate itself or firewall its borders: globalisation means that what happens in one part of the world today physically affects another part thousands of miles away tomorrow.

But understand we clearly do not! As the former UK ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, wrote (albeit in a somewhat different context) in his Naked Diplomacy, "Ironically, at a time when the world faces a more dramatic combination of change and challenge than ever before, we are overwhelmed by that change. At a time when we have the tools to react globally, we are failing to use them. We face massive global transition at a time when there is a lack of global leadership, and a growing realisation that we are leaderless. No one has a plan. We have not begun to adapt our institutions to the new realities".

It seems to me that some politicians in the MENA do not fathom that we no longer live in an era where leadership means whipping people into submission, imposing diktats upon them, claiming an authority over them that is either God-given or man-made, and depriving them of their sense of participatory mouwatana or citizenship? The Arab World contains millions of men and women who no longer accept subservience: they thirst for fairness and justice and use social media to demonstrate their refusal to be cowed by those wielding [often patriarchal] power. Remember the likes of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia or Ashraf Mohammed Shaheen in Egypt who self-immolated in protest against unbearable living conditions. Much as the pendulum in the MENA has swung away from ideas of basic liberties toward autocracy - purportedly to bring stability and safety - the whole concept of a pendulum is that the counter-motion inevitably happens again.

In January 1961, on the second anniversary of the overthrow of the Batista regime in Cuba, Fidel Castro delivered one of his prolix public addresses and said that "A revolution is a fight to death between the future and the past". The not-so-distant past in the MENA has been tantamount to recession, authoritarianism, conflict, subjugation and perfidy. Surely, the message of a new year is one of hope. So will the MENA leaders become shrewd enough to stop the growing fault lines in their societies by making a simple existential choice: the past or the future?

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