By Khaled Diab
As the Middle East stumbles perilously close to its own “world war”, seeds of change are already sprouting hopes of a better century ahead.
Tuesday 10 November 2015
The fate of the Middle East was sealed in the blood-drenched trenches of World War I. Out of the smouldering ashes of the Ottoman empire arose dreams of national freedom which were dashed by European imperialism, post-colonial despotism and neo-colonialism.
A century on, nothing has changed and everything has changed. As these hundred years of dreams and nightmares, of illusion and disillusion, with a few measures of delusion, reach their dissolution point, what does the next century hold in store for the region?
Trying to forecast something as complex, unfathomable and random as the future is reckless at best, and a fool's errand in these highly volatile and tumultuous times. But my intention here is not to gaze into a crystal ball. Rather, like gardeners or farmers, it is essential that we locate the blight and the weeds suffocating our societies, and identify the seeds and shoots of a better tomorrow so that we can nurture them.
In 2011, with great courage, determination and vision, millions of Arabs decided to shake their societies from their apathetic nightmarish slumber to walk the dream of equality, socioeconomic justice and dignity. Now for tens of millions that dream has become a nightmare, the gates to paradise had a hidden trapdoor down into hell.
Early talk of an “Arab Spring” has given way to gloomy reflections about the Arab winter. With all the heavy clouds hanging over our region, it looks like we're in for seriously stormy times ahead. Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya have already plunged into the abyss, while numerous other countries, including my native Egypt, are wobbling on the edge of the precipice, at risk of falling off the cliff at any time.
Despite their role in destabilising the region by proxy, the Gulf states, with the exception of Bahrain, have not yet witnessed any major upheavals. However, they are far more vulnerable than they appear at first sight.
This is especially the case as the reserves of petro-dollars available to placate the population hurtle downwards with the huge drop in global oil prices, and the war in Yemen looks set to turn into a long-drawn out Vietnamesque catastrophe.
With three UN Security Council members involved militarily in Syria, even major global powers find themselves at risk of being sucked into the Middle Eastern black hole, at risk of coming to direct blows. But they feel the risk is worth it as they scramble to stake their claims in the new Middle East, as the century-old post-Ottoman regional order collapses.
Add to this the Saudi-Iran tussle, as well as the short-lived and ever-changing alliances and animosities of the other regional powers, and it is clear that the Middle East stands perilously close to being completely engulfed by its own “world war”.
Amid this gloom and doom, are there any signs of hope on the horizon?
In many parts of the Middle East, winter is actually a fertile period when water-starved, sun-drenched vegetation finally receive the sustenance they need to grow. And the region's social and political soil is showing signs of this kind of winter growth.
Many misread the situation as a sign either of the invincible strength of authoritarian despotism or the tyrannical terror of religious fundamentalism.
But rather than revival, the extreme violence we are witnessing is a sign of the bloody, long-drawn death throes of three forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.
Whether these deaths will result in the birth of a better Middle East will depend on whether the seeds of change currently showing early shoots will be nurtured into full blossom.
The one thing Arab regimes and Islamists alike fear the most is free thought and its expression because they can be deployed as weapons of mass disobedience. But even brutal oppression and murder have done little to arrest the proliferation of this particular WMD. Ultimately, no amount of thuggery from regimes or Islamists will force Arabs to abandon their thirst for knowledge and their hunger to speak their minds.
Despite appearances to the contrary, another area where the ground has shifted majorly is religion. The failed “Islamism is the solution” formula, as well as the bullying of fundamentalists, has convinced millions of Arabs that the relationship between religion and politics must be changed.
The rise of ISIS and the political abuse of religion by many regimes, particularly the absolutist monarchies, has driven home to many the urgent need for secularisation. If religion does not move to its rightful spheres – the private and spiritual – in the near future, then hell will have no fury like the region's fanatics scorned.
Gender is another area where a largely unseen, sometimes underground, revolution is taking place. In numerous countries, women have had enough of being told to wait for their rights and are trying to seize them – and they have plenty of male allies too.
But for these shoots to truly blossom and bloom may require the oil era, which has been more of a curse than a blessing, to come to an end. Only then perhaps will the people of the Middle East have enough breathing space to overcome the combined yoke of domestic dictatorship and foreign hegemony and to build a borderless region of prosperity and justice.
This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 2 November 2015.