What matters in the Middle East is the reality on the ground. Having good ideas and some moral values – but no power – makes you a useless entity, while possessing power but no ethical values can sustain your presence for a lengthy period and enable you to gain more ground. This is Middle East realism. If you don’t like it, please move to another region. So far, working on changing this reality seems to be a waste of time.
People and nations should be driven by values. We live and die for a good cause, working to defend and promote values that we stand for. However, this is not the case in this region of extended turbulence where power is the name of the game. People are struggling to empower themselves, legally or illegally. Power will give them some status. Meanwhile, citizens who abide by a set of values lead an inferior life to people who possess power and may very well end up being criminalised or, at the very least, marginalised – depending on how far they are willing to go to defend the values they believe in.
Middle Eastern rulers do not really favour innovative ideas, nor are they bothered with the issue of values; they show no tolerance towards citizens who are indifferent to them, refrain from applying basic human rights, won’t listen to opinions that may be at odds with their beliefs, and harbour a strong desire to remain in power forever. Apparently, citizens who wish to challenge their rulers must adopt harder attitudes, presenting a tougher position than that of the rulers to their fellow citizens.
Any citizen who wants to change his country, for better or for worse, must first build a power base. Over the past decades, the entities that have managed to have some impact on the region are those who were able to create either a patriotic group, an ethnic army, or a terrorist group. While the labels attached to these groups depend on your political perception, in reality those are the main players on the scene, beginning with Hamas and Hezbollah, up to Al-Qaeda and the recently founded ISIS organisation. There isn’t a single Middle Eastern country that is not challenged by one of these, or by other, similar organisations.
The Middle East, which has been a potential firetrap for a long time, exploded a few years ago with the beginning of the Arab Spring. Rulers and the above-mentioned violence or terrorism groups benefit substantially from the turmoil. Each party goes back to its supporters, requesting the necessary backup to sustain their fights; without engaging in more violence, they will not succeed in amassing either emotional or physical support.
The Arab Spring, of which we had a glimpse for few short months, when the majority of Arab citizens were proud of the values that they stood for and their respective countries, has been completely diminished. The region has reverted to the old habits of internal political struggle and ethnic fighting. Even those countries that are facing neither political struggle nor ethnic fighting have gone back in full force to widespread human rights abuses and a far higher level of freedom of expression limitations than existed prior to the Arab Spring era.
The idea of building democratic nations in the Arab World has failed totally. Citizens are not ready and willing to stand for freedom and democracy as they watch people being killed on a daily basis in the course of various violent and terrorist activities. Living in such an environment helps to shrink Arabs’ intellectual capacity to understand that the lack of democracy is the cause of violence – not the reverse.
Autocratic rulers and extremist groups are strengthening one another; obviously in opposing directions. Autocratic rulers team up and support one another in sustaining their harsh attitudes towards extremists; they have explicit and implicit agreements to fight extremists all the way, and their harder positions serve to bolster each other. Meanwhile, surprisingly, extremists are gaining in popularity by widening the scope of their violent engagements.
Arab citizens become attached to whoever is active on the political scene. They want to be affiliated with a winning group. Thus, the majority chooses between one of the above-mentioned entities. Individuals or organisations who advocate for values, promote ideas that aim at engaging the entire society in a peaceful solution, find themselves squeezed between the rulers’ accusation that they are the weak link in an era of war or that they are espionage groups working for a foreign country.
Wealthy Arabs favour and support successful and powerful groups. They consider their financial support as a “return on investment”, and thus either backup whoever is in power, or offer their support to the extremists, betting on their ability to topple rulers from power. Rarely do we hear of a wealthy Arab offering financial support to a value-driven organisation, such as a human rights group, since this might be perceived as waste of money and effort.
By simply dealing with whoever is in power, western and advanced nations play a negative role that supports this realism. What matters to these countries are their political engagements – not how they affect the region, nor, even, the values that they purport to uphold.
The United States, who has a great interest in the region and who is continuing to use its political leverage in the area, has realised that the state of affairs described above works quite well in its favour. Internal conflict in every country, regional terrorist groups and the long lasting Arab – Israeli conflict have given the United States a strong renewed political leverage to capitalise on. In my opinion, the United States did not create any of these conflicts, but it can easily be accused of fuelling them or at least working on keeping them alive.
The rampant lack of justice has encouraged Arabs to apply equality as they perceive it from their own, very narrow, perspective, which translates into avenging themselves (an eye for an eye). Heads of states, or terrorist group leaders, have managed to persuade their followers that, rather than seeking to establish a common ground with opponents, the way to resolve any given struggle is to win it. Until Arabs agree – regardless of who is winning and who is losing – to adopt and uphold a number of common values, and until there is some genuine support for values from western nations, regional struggles will continue in the Middle East.