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Friday, August 1, 2014

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Media miss the big picture: the Mideast’s a mess

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Almost everywhere one looks today in the broader Middle East, things appear to be going from bad to worse. Instability, uncertainty and growing radicalism are the disorder of the day.

Egypt, the most populous and important Arab country, is being wracked by bitter divisions between the dominant Islamic forces of the Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme Salafists on the one hand and the minority secular liberal elements on the other. Very few speak any longer about the country’s “Arab Spring.” President Mohammed Morsi, who usurped state powers in order to rush through the adoption of a constitution favouring the views of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members mainly wrote it, is turning out to be far less the pragmatic “moderate” that many in the West assumed he might be.

At a deeper level, as Michael Bell noted in a Globe and Mail opinion piece (Dec. 12), what has impaired the move to democracy in Egypt is that “the art of political compromise remains rudimentary, if not alien, to the majority.” Bell’s observation applies to Libya, Tunisia and indeed throughout the Arab world.

Syria remains in the grips of a devastating civil war with no end in sight. More than 45,000 people have been killed, with thousands more, including children, arrested and tortured by President Bashar Assad’s regime as it fights, with Iranian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah support, to stave off defeat. Opposition forces, many guilty of their own brutality, contain foreign jihadists and an Iraq-related Al Qaeda group whose last interest is in seeing a liberal order replace Assad’s secular dictatorship. No wonder the United States, which has recently recognized the opposition coalition as the official representatives of the Syrian people, still refuses to supply the coalition with arms. In the meantime, speculation grows that the long-repressed Muslim Brotherhood could eventually dominate the country.

The spillover effect from war in Syria is causing increasing instability in Lebanon, as tensions mount between Sunni and Shia factions. Instability is also a serious concern in Jordan, which must bear the burden of absorbing thousands of Syrian refugees. In addition, Amman has been the scene of several Muslim Brotherhood-led demonstrations challenging Hashemite rule. While the kingdom’s fall is far from imminent, the difficulties it faces, including rising energy and food costs, are mounting. To its east, the Iranian-influenced Iraqi government led by Nouri Maliki represents a country that’s disintegrating, with only the northern Kurdish autonomous region maintaining any semblance of political and economic order. In the meantime, to the west, Turkey has been badly disrupted by the chaos and violence in Syria and the requirements of looking after the needs of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Despite several rounds of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and others (including the United States and Canada) against Iran for its defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Islamic republic is pressing ahead with a nuclear weapons program that endangers its immediate Gulf neighbours, in addition to the country Iran has repeatedly threatened to “wipe off the map” – Israel.

Iran is also busy trying to maintain its influence in the Middle East by supplying weapons, especially rockets, to its proxies and clients – Hezbollah in Lebanon, jihadis in the Sinai Peninsula, Islamic Jihad and, still to a considerable degree, Hamas in Gaza. Iran has also established its weapons supply line to the Sinai and Gaza by building factories and depots in Sudan. According to the latest reports, Iran is now building military bases there.

In his Dec. 12 New York Times column, Thomas Friedman reflected on trends in the region and wrote that the Arab nation state system is itself “cracking up.”

Many journalists have done a good job covering discrete parts of a region in turmoil. But very few have stood back to look at the picture as a whole or even deal with some of the deeper systemic social and economic factors feeding the chronic discord. In effect, only the surface has been scratched.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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