The MENA region is undergoing so many hectic fluctuations that it is well nigh impossible to keep pace with them all. Many analysts – some of them fly-by-night adventurers whilst others seasoned veterans – often seem to grope in the dark as they make predictions, draw scenarios or suggest options. However, the way people in the region itself read facts is not always identical to the way those on the outside would interpret them. After all, it is one thing to oppose the use of barrel or napalm bombs in Syria and another to feel them falling over your head.
So is it really the beginning of the endgame for the Assad regime or is it another one of those mirages that people create on the basis of sparse facts? Are the Houthis on the run in Yemen and have they broken away from the former president, or is this just another impression that we have created in our fertile minds? Is it true that PM Haidar Al-Abadi is getting tough with the runaway corruption and nepotism in the country or is this merely a déjà-vu phenomenon that will simply go nowhere? Is Libya at long last coming out of its nightmare, or is this another wasted effort to reassemble the fractious tribes and militias and remind them of their potential if only they put down their arms, adhere to the rule of law and invest in their resources? And is a refreshed and reinvigorated Iran up to its old political tricks again – and what are those tricks exactly anyway – or are we witnessing a radical change in attitudes by the Supreme Guide and his coterie in Tehran or by his proxies? And how are the GCC countries reacting to those challenges in their neighbourhood let alone globally?
Existentially, what happens to the 4 million refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan as well as the 9 million internally displaced Syrians? What does the future hold for the smaller communities across the MENA who are willy-nilly caught between a rock and a hard place and who scurry from one safe haven to another in an attempt to preserve their lives and their heritage? In fact, how will ISIL be broken and will the international community help Syria rise from its ashes?
I suppose there are those who might know – or think they know – the answers to those questions. I however am neither a prophet, nor am I connected well enough with the uppermost echelons of politics to hazard a viable forecast. But what I do know is that the MENA region has for the past five years been no less than a series of plangent stories that have sucked dry the hope for dignity, freedom and bread for the ordinary non-citizens of those repressive regimes. Syria and Iraq are both a whisker away from partition. Egypt is an emasculated force in the Arab World as it quashes every right or freedom for the sake of security – as if freedom is the antithesis of security. Lebanon has no president yet, a dysfunctional parliament and internecine squabbles alongside the mounting piles of garbage in the streets. Jordan is holding on to dear life as it bravely faces the challenges facing it – from its dire economic woes to its brittle demographic recalculations. And Palestine – well, it is still the political eunuch of the region that nonetheless holds the skeleton key for many of the ills in the region. And did I mention Israel that always remains a potent factor in the overall popular psyche?
I might well be wrong and we might all be surprised with a breakthrough – or successive breakthroughs even – that some pundits are predicting as a result of the Iran nuclear deal. But I am at best a ‘pessoptimist’ along the lines of the satirist Emile Habibi. Yet the best way I can depict the variegated realities of the MENA region today is that it is a palimpsest where there are layers upon layers of new developments evoking the older versions whilst also overlaying them with new ones.
In the final analysis, despite many sordid facts, I still doggedly maintain the hope for a better future. This is neither because I am a naïve freshman of regional politics nor is it because I am religious and therefore feel duty-bound to be pietistic. Nor for that matter is it because I trust politicians and rulers to do the right thing when I know that this is at best an oxymoron. Rather, I believe in the free spirit and common decency of the majority of MENA men and women who spurn blood-sucking dictators or autocrats as much as they do blood-curdling extremists or radicals. Theirs is the future, not tomorrow or the day after, but once they get fed up of the different isms as excuses for the stunting inertia – culturalism, exceptionalism, colonialism, Zionism, Islamism, irredentism – and grab their destiny with their own hands.
Today, some powers and principalities are trying to lure the MENA genie back into its bottle – with brutal force, lavish financial inducements or political shenanigans. But this genie is cunning: it has tasted freedom outside the bottle and sees its own world with different lenses. Its instincts cannot easily be tamed back into the bottle!
This article first appeared in the Huffington Post on 13 August 2015.