The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Some worrying developments in the Middle East

It is difficult to assess whether the situation in the Middle East is getting worse or whether it is stable and all current developments are just a smoke screen. Here are some news that combined could lead to a new situation in the region:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak went to Germany to get a surgery. He is 81 years, so the question of succession becomes interesting. So far, no successor has been designated. A future president has to meet certain criteria, such as loyalty towards the US, collaboration with Israel, willingness to suppress brutally the population. The most prominent contender for the post is Muhammad Al Baradei, the former head of the IAEA.

Judging upon his performance in his previous job, Al Baradei is unlikely to continue the Mubarak's policy of suppression and compliance. And this would render him an opponent of the US and Israel, who were already not happy with him at the IAEA. It is likely that they will do everything to take him out of the campaign.

However, it seems that the West will loose with Mubarak also its grip on Egypt. The Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmend Aboul Gheit was quoted of calling Israel an 'enemy state'. Although he said that he was misunderstood, this small incident could be a first sign of Egypt moving away from Western domination.

Another problem of Egypt is the Western value of democracy or rather the necessity of dictatorship. So far, the problem doesn't exist because there is no democracy whatsoever. If the West would ask for democratic elections the outcome would very probably be a landslide victory of the Muslim Brotherhood. That would be a problem for Israel, because they could not count on the complicity of Egypt in their fight against the Palestinians. But it would surely also pose problems to the West as a whole, bearing in mind the crucial position that Egypt holds as the most important country of the Muslim world, the Suez Canal, adjacency to the Gaza strip etc.

One positive effect of sticking to Western values and demanding free elections would be that an Egyptian government lead by the Muslim Brotherhood would ease tensions with Al Qaeda and affiliates. Ayman Al Zawahiri, the second in command and chief ideologue, is Egyptian himself. He was very active in the resistance against the Egyptian dictatorship before endorsing the violent international struggle against the "far enemy" that was soon to become the ideology of Al Qaeda.

Israel alleged that Syria supplied Hezbollah with Scud missiles. No other government support Israel in this claim, but it was stated by US and other officials that Hezbollah has an improved arsenal of missiles. Israel and the US said that Scuds for Hezbollah could "turn or disrupt the very delicate balance in Lebanon", as Ehud Barack expressed it. Of course, with "delicate balance" Barack means the overwhelming military superiority of Israel. The US even threatened Syria with its "full range of tools" available to halt any smuggling of Scuds.

May there be Scuds or not, fact is that Hezbollah acquired an organisational structure and military capabilities that bother Israel. So far, Israel regularly violates Lebanese airspace in defiance of UN resolution 1701, but also Hezbollah violates this resolution by acquiring sophisticated weapons. Both sides seem to prepare for the inevitable showdown.

In case of a showdown between Hebollah and Israel, the Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri stated that an attack on Hezbollah would be regarded as an attack on Lebanon. End of February 2010, Hezbollah General Secretary Nasrallah met Syrian President Assad and Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Damascus.

It looks like the coordinated resistance against Israel and its Western supporters is forming. Statements, such as "the next military conflict should solve the Israel question once and for all" or "the next war will be a regional war", indicate that Israel's enemies are confident that they can prevail in a war. The predominant feeling towards Israel used to be the feeling of inferiority - if that changed to a feeling of equality, it could change the tides in the Middle East.

A lot has been written on the rift between Israel and the US. Recently, also France made headlines when President Sarkozy criticised Netanyahu for foot-dragging on the peace process. Although it is unlikely that the Western criticism of Israel will change its attitude towards Israel, it could empower the militant forces in the Middle East.

I think that the situation for many participants is good as long as the conflict is boiling on a small flame. But the accumulation of developments could set fire to the fuse. The EU should start talking about what to do when the situation is going belly up.

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