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THREE POSITIVE SIGNS IN A TIME OF GLOOM

The Daily Star - December 4, 2013

by Rami G. Khouri

There are so many troubling signs of dysfunctional political life in the Arab world that it is refreshing to note three developments this week that give us more hope for a stable, normal future. Perhaps we are nearing the bottom of the cycle of political incompetence, thuggery and violence that has defined much of the Middle East in recent decades. These developments touch on critical political reforms and diplomatic action and take place in three different regions where immediate advances are needed to arrest and reverse the descent into regional conflict that we were approaching just a few months ago.The three developments are the tour of several Gulf Cooperation Council countries by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; the passage of a new Egyptian draft constitution amid street demonstrations against new Egyptian laws that will curtail public protests; and the Lebanese government’s decision to place the northern city of Tripoli under military control for six months.

These three developments are significant for many reasons, but two stand out. First, they address the urgent need by Arabs, Iranians and others to forge pluralistic and peaceful relations among different sectarian groups in the region, to reverse the trend of sectarian polarization and military clashes. Second, they indicate a growing realization that military power, whether used internationally, regionally or domestically, cannot provide lasting security and citizen satisfaction, but rather that our countries must make the breakthrough to shaping their own governance systems that generate stability, opportunity and prosperity based on equal rights under the rule of law and credible constitutionalism.

The three developments reflect an attempt to repair the damage that has been done for many years by chronic problems across the Middle East, including, most notably, the lack of accountable, participatory and democratic rule; the dominance of military and security agencies with respect to civilian governments; increasing polarization along sectarian, ethnic and national lines; the slow fraying of borders of some countries, reflecting the shrinking legitimacy of governance systems run by mostly family-based ruling elites; and, growing refugee flows, internal displacement and zones of chaos, that provide the most fertile breeding ground for Al-Qaeda-linked Salafist-takfiri militants. These breeding grounds have proliferated across western Iraq, northeastern Syria, and northern Lebanon – a broad region that has emerged in the past decade as a breeding ground for Salafist-takfiri terrorists and anarchists that rivals in some respects the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas or Yemen and Somalia.

The transformation of this Iraqi-Syrian-Lebanese region into the world’s most proficient recruiter, mobilizer, trainer and exporter of Salafist-takfiri killers and bombers is one of the reasons why I feel that an Iranian-American and a subsequent Iranian-Saudi Arabian-GCC rapprochement are inevitable. That is because Iranians, Arabs, Americans and everyone else in the region – and perhaps in the world, to judge by the determination of Salafist-takfiri bombers to do their criminal deeds in far-off lands – are threatened by the Arab lawlessness that allows terrorists to control territory they need for training bases, and to create the imagined pure Islamic societies they dream about.

We may be witnessing the start of political rapprochements that are necessary in order for governments and other powerful movements such as Hezbollah or the Sadrists in Iraq to work together to close those gaps in governance and security that Salfists-takfiris exploit.

Fighting these radical militants and terrorists that now number in the tens of thousands in Iraq-Syria- Lebanon cannot be done militarily, as Americans and others have discovered. For after a decade of their global “war on terror” that has killed dozens or perhaps a few hundred core militants, the underlying Al-Qaeda group and its allies have expanded to comprise tens of thousands of recruits.

This common enemy to all can only be fought by enhancing legitimate and pluralistic governance systems, addressing basic socio-economic and political rights of citizens, and reducing sectarian cleavages and polarizations that promote clashes and ungoverned zones of chaos.

These are the outcomes that we would hope for from the moves this week by Zarif, the Lebanese government and army, and the Egyptian constitutional committee and street demonstrators opposing autocratic military rule. There is no guarantee that any of the three initiatives will succeed. It remains possible that some Arab countries will follow the path of national fragmentation and collapse that we have witnessed in recent years in Somalia and parts of Yemen, Palestine and Iraq.

I doubt this outcome, however, because the past three years have clearly indicated that the overwhelming majority of Arab, Iranian, Kurdish and Turkish citizens across the region seek civility, order, security, citizenship, prosperity, and national coherence and integrity.

We seem to have tried every possible means to avoid these attributes in recent decades, and may now have run out of imbecilic, inhumane and criminal governance options. Instead, we turn now to explore the elusive fruits of diplomacy, democracy and the fundamental human decency that, we know, resides in the hearts of all people in the Middle East, but which, until now, has never been given an opportunity to express itself in the public realm.





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