Much happens in a region of 300 million over twelve months. But in an era of American introspection, only four major Middle East stories reached the United States in 1995: the challenge of fundamentalist Islam, the potential of a New Middle East, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and the assassination in November of Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Despite the shock of the last event, the first three had far more importance for the region's prospects to evolve toward freedom and democracy.
The Fundamentalist Threat
Fundamentalist Islam, or more exactly, the political ideology of Islamism, represents a very serious threat to the existing order. The Middle East has reached a fork in the road, posed between two paths, one marked "business as usual," the other "fundamentalist Islam." Business-as-usual means the continued rule of non-fundamentalists heading tired and corrupt regimes. Fundamentalist Islam represents an intellectually alive and politically dynamic movement. The former rules almost everywhere could fall; the latter controls just a few countries, notably Iran and the Sudan. Will fundamentalists expand from their current bases to take over regimes throughout region or will existing leaders beat them back? Might their battle permit yet others come to power?
This issue overrides the region's many other problems-including the Arab-Israeli conflict and the threat posed by Saddam Husayn in Iraq-because it has such wide consequences. Non-fundamentalist politicians in the Middle East understand the threat facing them, for they are personally targeted. In the words of Israel's Prime Minister Shimon Peres, "There is currently a clash not only between Jews and Arabs, as was previously the case, but between peace and those who want to murder it."
The battle for the future of the Middle East is taking place in virtually every country, but four have particular importance. Egypt serves as pivot of the Arabic-speaking countries and its fate will greatly affect the whole region, as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1995, Husni Mubarak changed policy, no longer tolerating ostensibly peaceful fundamentalists (such as the Muslim Brethren) who profess to work within the political system. Instead, he cracked down on all fundamentalists in an effort to save his weakened regime.
Turkey is the only Muslim state of the Middle East with an avowedly secular constitution; the collapse of Kemal Atatürk's legacy would spell a defeat for the great experiment to show the compatibility of Islam and modernity. Also, Turkey would be the one country where fundamentalists could attain power through democratic means, much boosting their legitimacy and perhaps their influence.
In contrast, the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Iran would be a major setback for fundamentalists throughout the Muslim world. A myriad of signs suggest that the population (and the youth especially) feels disaffected from the ruling ideology. So widespread is this alienation that many of the country's religious leaders have disassociated themselves from the regime in the hope of thereby retaining their status. In certain ways, the situation in Iran resembles that of Poland during the 1980s: just as the rise of Solidarity indicated that workers had rejected the Worker's State, so in Iran are the mullahs turning away from the Islamic Republic.
The most intense, violent, and important battle of all is being waged in Algeria, where already tens of thousands have lost their lives. The viciousness of this battle, fought without mercy on both sides, makes the Iranian revolution look like a tea party: "the most blinkered Iranian pasdaran [revolutionary guard] would seem moderate beside these obtuse militants" observes a well-traveled Iranian. Similarly, if the shah of Iran went out of his way not to hurt his enemies (on finally deciding to form a military government, he gave instructions, "Begin applying the martial law tomorrow, but I do not want anybody's nose to bleed!"), Algeria's rulers use all means at their disposal to repress.
Iran, in other words, does not help in understanding the second battle of Algiers. But Cambodia does. Just as the Khmer Rouge sought to purify their country by exterminating a quarter of the population, especially those with an education, so too in Algeria does an arch-fanatical group seek to rid the country of its Western-oriented citizens. If things go seriously wrong, Algeria could be the site of the last great human tragedy of the twentieth century. Fortunately, the prospects in Algeria are better than conventional wisdom in Washington-which has virtually given up on the regime-would have it. The regime is ready to fight for its survival; it has resources (especially the hydrocarbon fields in the remote Sahara); and it seems to be gaining in popular support as the full extent to fundamentalist barbarism becomes more evident. Algerians themselves expect the regime will survive, as an early 1995 Louis Harris survey of Algerians living in France revealed: 80 percent think the crisis will be settled through talks; 11 percent the military will win; and a mere 1 percent expect a fundamentalist victory.
Indeed, the prospect of a fundamentalist takeover receded in November 1995, as the regime gained legitimacy in the Arab world's first-ever pluralistic presidential election. In it, Liamine Zeroual won 61 percent of the vote, to some 25 percent for a fundamentalist candidate. As the army pressed its offensive, hundreds of fundamentalist fighters turned themselves in. The presidential vote was widely interpreted as a powerful statement calling for peace and democracy, one that the government apparently understood as such, and Zeroual promised legislative elections in 1996.
A New Middle East?
The visionary notion of a "New Middle East" has become a centerpiece of hopes for the region. While many leaders subscribe to this notion, Israel's Peres originated it and most articulately explains it.
The "New Middle East" is premised on the belief that if the Middle East prospers economically, political passions will wither away. Decent wages, a good house, and a car will temper the flames of irredentism and defang terrorism. This transformation inspires Peres. "Markets are more important than borders," he declares; his "great dream" is "the computerization of the Middle East." Those skeptical of this vision he dismisses as out of touch and out of date. "It's a changed world and . . . you are thinking in the past."
He sees Israel, the region's great economic success story, having a major role in the Middle East's turn to economics. If Israel could grow by 5 percent a year since 1985, the fastest rate in the industrial world, why not the Arabs too? Peres has grand ambitions for his country: "Our real aim is to change the Middle East" by convincing the Arabs that economic growth is possible. To help accomplish this, he looks forward to Israel cooperating with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority on economic issues in a "Benelux-style arrangement."
For confirmation that the New Middle East is materializing, Peres looks at the bright side of things. In Gaza, seen by most as the region's worst slum, he finds that a "dynamic reconstruction has started." How so? By grasping at whatever wisps come to hand. "Women are throwing away their veils and are going swimming in the sea," he says, while "Coffee houses are opening."
Peres's has won wide support internationally, for it exactly fits the common assumption of international financial institutions that prosperity solves political problems; the World Bank's Caio Koch-Weser states that "If the peace process has any hope of success, the Palestinians need to see improvements in their living conditions very quickly." The Western European and Japanese concur too, of course, in this belief, as do such figures as President Clinton, King Husayn, and Husni Mubarak.
Interestingly, this message resonates far less well among the Israeli and Arab populations. Israelis are deeply torn by this vision, some uplifted by its strength and optimism, others wary that it lacks realism. Further, Peres has abandoned the long-standing Israeli position on the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which stresses the need for the Arabs to recognize Israel's borders and accept the Jewish state politically. Instead, he advocates working to increase Arab wealth, on the assumption that this inevitably will lead to normalization.
Arabs (and Muslims more generally) also divide on this vision, between those willing to switch emphasis to getting wealthy and those who see it as a new form of Israeli imperialism. The former camp includes leading politicians and a fair number of businessmen-elements aware of how their peoples are falling behind and eager to get ahead. But those who still see Israel as an enemy remain more numerous, and they now twist the benign vision of a New Middle East into a fearsome specter of Israeli economic dominion. An Egyptian newspaper explains this fear: "What it [Israel] has failed to achieve by war it will achieve by peace. A Zionist empire will spring up between the Nile and the Euphrates, one in which the mighty Zionists will be masters and the inept, misguided, and dysfunctional Arabs the underdogs." More alarming yet, an Arabic translation of Peres's book, The New Middle East contains an introduction claiming his text provides "irrefutable proof" confirming The Protocols of the Elders of Zion-a century-old Russian forgery claiming that Jews seek to take control of the world; the introduction claims that Peres's plan confirms that they plan to start the process by dominating the Middle East.
Attractive as it is, Peres's approach has other problems. To begin with, deep religious and nationalist issues predominate in the Middle East, perhaps more than in any other region, and prosperity is unlikely to cause them to subside. Indeed, readiness for peace appears to have little to do with standard of living. Survey research shows that Hamas is more popular in the (richer) villages of the West Bank than in (poorer) refugee camps of Gaza. On a larger scale, the richer countries of Iran, Iraq, and Libya have compiled a far more anti-Israel record than have the poorer countries of Oman, Yemen, and Tunisia.
Further, with the exception of Saddam Husayn's imperialistic venture into Kuwait, the Middle East's internal conflicts have had little to do with economics. Rather, they concern religion, ethnicity, and ideology. This applies to the civil wars in Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, and Algeria, as well as the Iraq-Iran war. It also applies to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a hundred-year's war that has never primarily concerned material issues. Zionists did not move from northern Europe to the wastes of Palestine in search of economic gain. Affluent Palestinians in Amman today dream of Palestine not for material reasons. Rather, the conflict on both sides is intensely political. For two millennia, Jews longed for "next year in Jerusalem," and Palestinians now evince a similar longing for the "return." Speaking as a Palestinian, Fawaz Turki observes: "We plunge headlong into politics. There is no respite from this when you're with Palestinians. That's all they do." It is hard to see a computerized, Benelux-style solution overcoming such intense feelings. Yet Peres openly admits that he wishes to ignore those feelings: "In recent years, I have become totally tired of history, because I feel history is a long misunderstanding. The problem with the experts is there is a status quo on their mind. Well, the world is changing." Changing for sure, but to the point that history is rendered irrelevant?
Developments. To explain Arab diplomatic failures vis-à-vis Israel, Abba Eban famously quipped in 1967 that "our Arab neighbors never lost a chance of missing an opportunity." True then, perhaps, but no longer. The Egyptian government signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the Jordanian followed suit in 1994, and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed a series of interim agreements in 1993-95. These latter are much the most complex. The PLO won a Palestinian Authority that exercises autonomous control (not sovereignty) over Gaza and by the end of 1995, nearly all the Arab towns on the West Bank; in return, Yasir Arafat accepted co-existence with Israel, an obligation he has only reluctantly fulfilled. The PLO finds itself in a shaky position between Israeli demands and the still fervent anti-Zionism of so many Palestinians. Faysal al-Husayni, one of Arafat's leading supporters, acknowledged this weakness in 1994, referring to the accords with Israel: "After a 27-year pregnancy, we have given birth to a premature son, in weak health and who may not survive."
Israelis gained little on the ground from their several agreements with the Palestinians; the killing of citizens continued and even accelerated. Rather, the peace process brought gains to Israel in the international sphere. Thirty previously reluctant states established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in the year after the first Palestinian agreement had been signed, increasing their number from 116 to 146. This led to so many dignitaries seeking to visit Jerusalem, the Foreign Ministry began to discourage all but the highest-ranking guests. Israel's enhanced position could be seen in other ways too. The prime minister, foreign minister, and defense minister of Russia (population: 150 million) all pleaded in September 1995 with the prime minister of Israel (population: 5 million), "Do not underestimate us; Russia is still a superpower," implying that Israel's opinion was critical to its superpower status. The Russian prime minister then several times asked his Israel counterpart: "Why do you not call me? Why do you not keep in touch? Why should we not speak on the phone at least once a month?" Israel finally shed its pariah status and gained not only new popularity but real influence.
Borders or existence? Beyond the many intricacies of the peace process, Arab intentions toward Israel remain yet unclear. Have Muslim peoples truly accepted the Jewish state, or do they still hope to eliminate it? Much evidence exists on both sides.
Optimists argue that the Arab-Israeli conflict has become a conventional diplomatic problem. As Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University wrote already in 1978, it "is no longer about Israel's existence, but about its boundaries." The State Department's "peace team" operates on this assumption; Aaron David Miller, one of its key members, wrote in 1988 that "for most Arabs the debate has ceased to focus on the patronizing and pointless question of whether Israel should exist; it turns instead on the more practical and promising matter of boundaries." These days, this body of opinion holds, as David Lamb of The Los Angeles Times writes, that "the Arab world has crossed a psychological barrier and come to accept what few Arabs would have dared say 10 years ago: Peace with Israel is inevitable." Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times goes so far as to claim that Israel's "war with the Arabs is over." A myriad of non-bellicose relations with Israel, from Muslims sitting in Israel's parliament to Qatar signing energy pacts, would seem to bear out this view.
To which the pessimists reply that the Arabs are biding their time in an era of weakness, but have not given up the dream of destroying Israel. The "Arab-Israeli conflict is no more about borders," argues Douglas Feith, a former White House official dealing with the Middle East, "than the U.S.-Soviet conflict was about missiles." In this view, Arabs recognize that their choices are limited: with the Soviet Union gone, Arab unity diminished, and the oil bonanza over, they accept an end to open military belligerency with Israel, but only temporarily, and will renew the hot war when circumstances favor them again.
Treaties without normalization. These days, many Arabs appear to accept treaties and other agreements as a bitter necessity, without experiencing a change of heart. It appears that while Arabs have resigned themselves to formal agreements with Israel, they remain personally deeply reluctant to interact with Israelis. Strong antagonism toward Israelis remains in place, even as peace negotiations and treaties take place.
In two polls, Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut found that Levantine Arabs acknowledge the need to come to terms with Israel even as they refuse to accept it for the long term. Similarly, the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, an independent Palestinian research center located in Nablus, on the West Bank, discovered that 39 percent of Palestinians still wish to eliminate Israel. Hizbullah's leading intellectual, Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, makes this same distinction when he states there is no "peace between Israel and the Arab and Muslim peoples. It is only a peace between Israel and these unelected Arab and Muslim regimes that do not represent their people." So long as a majority of Arabs are unwilling to legitimize their leaders' actions and accept the implications and potential rewards of peace with Israel, the warm peace that Israelis so desperately crave will remain beyond their grasp.
Two models of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. From the Israeli viewpoint, two distinct models of Arab peacemaking have emerged, one sincere and the other duplicitous. Egypt's Anwar as-Sadat of Egypt and Jordan's King Husayn embody the first, Syria's Hafiz al-Asad and the PLO's Yasir Arafat the second.
Sadat and Husayn came to the table with Israel with poor records. Sadat's anti-Semitism included writing an admiring eulogy of Hitler ("You many be proud of having become the immortal leader of Germany"). King Husayn went to war with Israel in 1967 and sided with Saddam Husayn's barbaric conquest of Kuwait in 1990-91. But they put these unpleasantries aside when making peace with Israel. At treaty signing ceremonies with Israel, for example, both men showed happiness to be making peace and they subsequently kept their word with sincerity and consistency. At the same time, both agreements had their limits. Israelis expected peace with Egypt and got an enhanced form of non-belligerency. King Husayn tried to enthuse the Jordanian body politic for the peace treaty but failed. The two treaties' fragility has renewed Israeli wariness.
Some observers profess to find the same sincerity in Asad and Arafat. Two writers for The New York Times exemplify this thinking: Serge Schmemann writes of Asad that "the question is not whether Syria will make peace with Israel, but when and how," while Thomas Friedman tells of "the change of heart" he has seen "come over" Arafat. Stephen P. Cohen of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation flatly states that both Asad and Arafat "have decided to make peace." But this is hard to believe, for the two leaders engage in persistent pattern of double games, by which they say or do one thing today and quite the contrary tomorrow. Arafat sometimes calls for jihad, praises those Palestinians who killed Jews, and promises unending bloodshed ("The Palestinian people is willing to sacrifice its last boy and girl so that the Palestinian flag will fly over the churches and mosques of Jerusalem"). At other times he declares his readiness to "achieve coexistence" with Israel and says "we are neighbors, we can coordinate, cooperate, in all fields by all means for the sake of our new children."
Asad has not signed an agreement with Israel but since agreeing to negotiate with Israel in July 1991, he has taken a flurry of contradictory steps, moving both toward and away from Israel. As Yitzhak Rabin put it, "One [Syrian] hand is as if extended in peace. The other hand opens fire on you." For example, Syrian media coverage of Israel no longer exudes hostility. The regime has taken modest but real steps to prepare Syrians for accord with Israel: "peace" and its synonyms replaced "steadfastness" and "confrontation" as the leitmotifs of public discourse about Israel. At the same time, Syrian officials and media continue to bristle with hostility on the subject of Israel, using such terms as "the enemy," "the Zionist enemy," "occupied Palestine," "occupied Jerusalem," and "the Zionist entity."
This pattern of contradictions causes many Israelis to lose faith in the peace process. Back in July 1991, when Asad agreed to enter negotiations with Israel, it was possible to hope that the long-time Syrian dictator had decided on a basic change in policy. Likewise, in September 1993, when Rabin shook hands with Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn, one could hope that Arafat had shed his ways of old. At the end of 1995, these hopes had become difficult to sustain.
Human Rights Improving?
In an era when democracy, the rule of law, and private property have become globally powerful forces, the Middle East (and with most of Africa) severely lags behind.
Take democracy: the region has only two fully democratic states, Israel and Turkey. The rest are all, to one degree or other, autocracies. Nor is there much sign of change; with the possible exception of Kuwait, Arabs and Iranians indicate few strong impulses for self-rule. Rulers and peoples alike seem to have other priorities and so agree, implicitly, on its unimportance. This is particularly clear among the Palestinians. A 1993 study of Palestinian public opinion asked for "the main attribute you would like to see in a future Palestinian state." Fully 60 percent choose Islam, 10 percent Arabism, and just 20 percent opted for democracy. Confirming this conclusion, Saïd K. Aburish reports from extensive discussions on the West Bank a few years back that "Not one interviewee had any attachment to the idea of freedom: they all thought freedom through democratic systems wasn't possible."
Middle Eastern leaders either have no idea what democracy is or pretend they don't. Jonathan Raban explains that the Arab political world remains "a domain of totalitarian metaphor in which satanic evil and godly heroism clash in an unending orgy of blood and guts." If these are the terms, what do civil society and the ballot box have to offer? Reflecting on his years of reporting from the Middle East, Thomas Friedman observes: "When push comes to shove, when the modern veneer of nation-statehood is stripped away, it all still comes down to Hama Rules: Rule or die. One man triumphs, the others weep. The rest is just commentary."
Many "elections" degenerate into exercises in adulation. In Syria, voting takes place under the watchful eyes of policemen and ballots contain just one name: Hafiz al-Asad. In the last such referendum, the ayes carried, 6,726,843 to 396, giving Asad a 99.994 percent approval. Not content with this landslide, a government spokesman hailed the results as proof of "the establishment of a solid democratic system" in Syria. For his part, Saddam Husayn won a mere 99.96 percent of the vote in an October 1995 referendum. Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi, a deeper thinker than his colleagues in Damascus and Baghdad, claims that democracy has already been instituted in Libya and explains what this means:
When authority becomes the people's, it will not be attacked or seen as an enemy. Only the enemies of the people will then conspire against that authority. They should be annihilated without any discussion . . . crushed under the feet of the masses even without trial.
In short, as other parts of the world democratize, the authoritarian nature of Middle Eastern politics is becoming ever more conspicuous.
This said, there are some glimmerings of progress having to do with democracy are slowly reaching the Middle East. The presidential elections in Algeria may have broken a taboo. And while nearly all governments remain in the hands of tyrants, decades of dictatorship have made at least some elements aware of the costs. As a result, human rights groups are gaining in strength, advocates of the rule of law and economic freedom are speaking up, the market and private property are making advances. Real change, however, probably lies many years in the future.