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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - May 10, 2011

by Gideon Rachman

If you spend time talking to western officials about the uprisings in the Arab world, you are likely to hear two contradictory views advanced – sometimes by the same person. The first view is that the “Arab spring” is, as one European diplomat puts it, “the best thing that has ever happened in my lifetime in the Arab world”. The second is that this is the most dangerous moment in the Arab world in decades.

The same people can believe both things simultaneously because this is a clash between long-term and short-term views. Look at the great sweep of history, and the maintenance of the status quo in the Arab world was neither possible nor desirable. This was a region mired in dictatorship and poverty. It was the only part of the world that has seen no significant advance for democracy over the past 30 years. It has spawned backward-looking and violent ideologies. Who could want to preserve that? And yet the collapse of the old Arab order threatens, in the here and now, to produce wars, the break-up of states and new opportunities for militant Islamists.

This is not a case of that famous glass that can be regarded as half full or half empty. It is more like looking at two glasses side-by-side. The first contains a fine wine that promises to be marvellous to drink in 20 years’ time – but that is not yet ready to consume. The second glass has to be consumed now – its contents look murky and could even prove to be poisonous.

The mood in Washington has been lifted by the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. But, as they look across the Middle East, western policymakers can see reason for alarm on issue after issue.

It seems absurd that Americans and Europeans are worrying about instability in Syria. The Assad government is a brutal dictatorship that has worked closely with Iran and played a malign role in Lebanon. Good riddance, surely? But outsiders are keenly aware that Syria is an ethnically-divided and fragile state, whose break-up could be violent. One European foreign minister calls it “a small Yugoslavia in the Levant”. The Turkish government, which has worked hard on building a close relationship with President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, is particularly alarmed by the prospect of chaos, bloodshed and refugee flows in a neighbouring country.

The Libyan conflict, meanwhile, threatens to degenerate into stalemate. There are those who argue that this is an acceptable outcome – certainly better than the risk of a massacre in Benghazi. But you can already hear a kind of “buyer’s remorse” setting in among western officials, as they realise that Libya is turning into a long slog with unpredictable consequences. As one American puts it: “I don’t think it’s a great idea for us to be involved in yet another war, in yet another Muslim country. We have no significant strategic interests at stake in Libya. And we risk creating a new zone of anarchy, full of loose cash and weapons that could be a safe haven for terrorists.” He pauses, before adding in a deadpan voice: “But I fully support our policy.”

There are also worries that political change in Egypt is opening new possibilities for violent militancy. In the aftermath of the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, many former terrorists were released from jail – and other ex-jihadists have returned to the country. The Egyptian state security service is in disarray.

Meanwhile, Egyptian foreign policy is already changing in ways that the west finds uncomfortable. Egypt’s relations with Iran have warmed up. The Muslim Brotherhood, which will probably be the largest party in the new Egyptian parliament, says it wants to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel. Meanwhile, the interim Egyptian government has just surprised the US by negotiating a deal between the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

Some of the calmer western officials regard this as a positive development, since there can be no Middle East peace deal without a united Palestinian leadership. But, in the short term, it is a big headache. The deal has sent the Israeli government into a panic, making it even less likely to consent to meaningful peace negotiations. Hamas’s refusal to accept the state of Israel also makes the organisation radioactive on Capitol Hill. As one western official put it: “There can be no peace deal without Hamas. But there can be no peace deal with Hamas.”

Saudi Arabia, which remains at the centre of American security and energy policy in the Middle East, is also a growing concern. The Saudi-American relationship has deteriorated sharply since the Egyptian revolution. The Saudis accuse the Americans of betraying Mr Mubarak – and now regard the US as a potential threat to their own regime. They have taken to warning the Americans that they might seek to cultivate a new “special relationship” with China, which is already a much bigger customer for Saudi oil than the US. Most western officials regard this as bluster. But they are still worried by the stability of Saudi Arabia, as well as by the wider role that some Saudis are playing in funding militant ideologies in a newly-destabilised Middle East.

In the long run, most western governments are genuinely convinced that the Arab spring is a historic and positive development. The trouble is that, as Keynes put it: “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

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