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Five ways this week marked a ‘new Middle East’


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Five ways this week marked a ‘new Middle East’

This could be a new era of alliances and groupings of countries rooted in these peace deals. L to R: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed wave and gesture from the White House balcony after a…

This could be a new era of alliances and groupings of countries rooted in these peace deals.

L to R: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed wave and gesture from the White House balcony after a signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords. Septembe (photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)

L to R: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed wave and gesture from the White House balcony after a signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords. Septembe

(photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)

The historic signing of the Abraham Accord in Washington this week represented a turning point in Israeli relations with the Gulf states and potentially could be a major shift in how Israel relates to many other states in the region. If the optimists are right and this is a major shift, then the Middle East will be entering a new era.

The region has a habit of swallowing up optimists and ruining their plans, however. Past assumptions about the Middle East entering a new era have sometimes proven incorrect. What follows are several examples of eras when the Middle East appeared to be entering a new era, which mixed results.

This week could mark a new Middle East as Israel, the UAE and Bahrain begin a new alliance system that is also linked to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Greece and other states that share common interests. This could be a new era of alliances and groupings of countries rooted in these peace deals. It is worth looking back at other eras that began a new trend in the Middle East to understand how we got here and how this week is also a “new Middle East.”

The Arab Spring 2011

The Arab Spring began in the last days of 2010 with mass protests and resulted in Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali leaving power on January 14, 2011. He was the first to fall in what became a massive upheaval across the Middle East. Ben Ali was one of many nationalist dictators in the region who ran countries that had generally not changed leaders much since the end of colonialism in the 1960s. He, for instance, had been in power since 1987.  

Next to leave office was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who was pushed out on February 11, 2011. He had been in power since 1981. In general, the Arab spring stopped there. Then began the era of violence and civil war that the upheaval of 2011 helped fuel. For instance Muammar Al-Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator in power since 1969, was killed by Libyan rebels on October 20, 2011.  

Elsewhere, military intervention stopped the protests from succeeding. In Bahrain, the Gulf Cooperation Council intervened in March 2011 and stopped protesters who appeared to be challenging the monarchy. In Syria, protesters were met with rifle fire by the Assad regime’s forces. In Dara’a, where the protests had proven successful, they began to be suppressed in April. A brutal civil war followed. Hezbollah and Iran sent forces to support the regime.

By 2012 the protesters were also armed but by 2013, extremists from ISIS and other groups had begun to co-opt the Syrian rebellion. By 2014 ISIS was running part of Syria and a US-backed Kurdish force in eastern Syria was forming. By 2015 Russia had intervened and the Syrian regime would re-conquer much of the country. Turkish intervention in 2018 sealed the fate of northern Syria. The regime largely escaped punishment for poison gas attacks on civilians and rebel forces.  

The Arab spring did erode the power of ossifying Arab nationalist regimes. By the time it was over, most of these leaders were gone. A second mini-Arab spring helped push for change in Algeria and Sudan. Also, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ran unified Yemen from 1990 to 2012, was murdered in 2017, closing a chapter of Yemen’s history.

This means that the Arab spring indeed represented a new Middle East because it ushered in new leaders. It brought in younger leaders as well. However, it also led to civil conflict in many places and unleashed or fueled extremism. The bookend of the Arab Spring was the return of authoritarian regimes and the victory of states over rebellions and reduction of the brief freedom of 2011.

Even in Iraq, whose leader Saddam Hussein had been pushed from power in 2003, protesters have not been able to secure their demands. In Lebanon, protesters have been frustrated. The Palestinian Authority still has an ossifying leadership. Jordan and the rest of the monarchies have generally kept protests at a minimum. Iran and Turkey have suppressed all dissent, with thousands in Turkey jailed for tweets critical of the AK Party, and thousands murdered by the regime in Iran.

The Gulf War 1991

The Gulf war, where the US sent forces to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, is now thirty years old. This was a fundamental game changer in the region because it ended the Cold War that had overshadowed the Middle East and brought together a coalition of Arab states under US leadership to put a stop to Saddam’s aggression.  

This war was important because it resulted in large US bases in the Middle East and a Pax Americana during the 1990s. With Saddam gone from Kuwait and his country weakened, the era of powerful Soviet-armed Arab regimes was over. Now, any country that wanted to be particularly strong would be buy F-16s instead of MiGs.

This set in motion an attempt by the US to also push for democracy in the region and push some reforms. It also entrenched the various monarchies that came under a US defense umbrella, which now includes the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, the Al-Dhafra base in the UAE and Udaid in Qatar. It likely brought the US into more contact with Iran, with the result being the Iran Deal and current tensions with the Islamic Republic.

The Gulf War was a major revolution in military technology, often called Revolution in Military Affairs. But this was a false hope of a new way of war, because very soon it became clear that the terror armies were embodied by groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. The military revolution was an illusion as the Iraqi insurgency after 2003 would challenge the US – and ISIS would also defeat the Iraqi army in 2014. An insurgency in Sinai that began in the early 2000s has continued. Yemen would sink into chaos.

Thus the end of the Gulf War appeared to show off American hegemony, but it lasted only a few years. What appeared to be strength actually eroded countries in the region and they fell into chaos and instability, unleashing global terrorism. Osama Bin Laden’s objection to US troops being based in Saudi Arabia fueled his declaration of war on America.

The US decision in 1991 not to remove Saddam Hussein also set in motion a decade of indecisive US conflicts. These were first called the “Powell Doctrine” designed to keep the US out of endless wars, but they graduated to “humanitarian intervention” and then counter-insurgency or COIN. The result was largely US policy zig-zagging until the Washington decided to largely withdraw from the region in 2020.  

 

The Iranian Revolution 1979

The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought to power a theocratic Islamist regime. It was the most well-known example of a political Islamic party fully capturing power in a state in the Middle East. This was in contrast to the Wahhabi leadership of Saudi Arabia because it was rooted in a kind of “third way” modern political religious party. It was not a monarchy, but rather viewed itself as revolutionary.

This revolution brought about an awakening among Shi’ites in the region and fueled their long march to power in Iraq and Lebanon. It also led to tension in Saudi Arabia and led Iran to support the Assad regime. Overall, the increasingly religious outlook of various regimes in the region led to more Islamic parties challenging the nationalist and monarchist regimes.

The “Islam is the answer” political concept that grew after 1979 had a long-term effect on the Middle East. It led to uprisings in Egypt and the murder of Anwar Sadat, it fueled the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and it led to the rise of Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood.

This religious political outlook planted seeds throughout the Middle East of miniature versions of Iran’s regime, such as Hezbollah, the Houthis, Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and others. Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Sunni, replicated itself rapidly. Although the Brotherhood had roots going back to the 1920s, it finally captured power in Gaza in 2005 and also came to power in Turkey. It also challenges politics in Jordan and other countries.  

In the long term, this religious outlook has produced civil strife and sectarian conflict. However the more extreme outlooks of Al Qaeda and ISIS have generally been defeated. Much of the citizenry in the Middle East no longer believe that these Islamist groups offer much hope. Once in power, they have ossified and become murderous and corrupt.  



The Algerian Revolution 1954

The Algerian Revolution, which removed the French from Algeria, appeared to indicate that the new politics of the Middle East could lead to insurgencies that would be a beacon to the world. The rebels in Algeria had been successful against a powerful European state. Movies were made about the experience and the country became a magnet for other intellectuals and revolutionaries.

However, the lessons of Algeria were generally lost on others who thought their cause could be replicated elsewhere. The Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian groups thought, falsely, that if they just launched a “revolution” and “armed struggle,” Israel would somehow be defeated. However, Israel was not defeated. Nevertheless the Palestinians enjoyed inspiration from the Algerian experience; Algeria was the first country to recognize Palestine in 1988.  

The belief that Western powers would somehow be ejected from the region and that a new revolutionary zeal could sweep the Middle East based on experiences like Algeria was largely dashed within two decades. Most of the regimes that claimed to be revolutionary ossified and became dictatorships.

Eventually, Algeria also fell into civil war in the 1990s. This conflict, which pitted religious extremists against the ostensibly secular nationalist government, would embody the kinds of religious conflicts and rise of Islamist groups that would develop throughout the region in the 1990s.  

The Nasserist coup 1952

The 1952 officers’ coup in Egypt was an important turning point in the region. Gamal Abdel Nasser helped unleash a wave of similar attempts by young officers to remove their regimes. There was an uprising in Mosul in 1959. The Ba’athists came to power in Iraq and Syria, for instance. Nasser fueled a crisis in Jordan in 1958 that saw the British intervene. There was also a crisis in Lebanon where the US intervened.

Nasser’s revolution ostensibly sought to remove old political classes under a concept of Arab socialism and nationalism. Egypt under Nasser even created a union with Syria from 1958 to 1961. It continued until 1971 with pretensions that some kind of unified Arab state could be created.  

Overall, the Nasser revolution was important for removing the old order in the region, sweeping aside colonial-era classes and also leading to attacks on minorities. In other places, the brutality of these coups led to the killing of the royal family of Iraq. It also brought to power the brutal Assad regime.

Far from being revolutionary, these regimes simply promised rule by secular militarists. Many of these regimes used anti-Zionism as an excuse to entrench themselves. This brought Israel and Egypt into conflict in 1956, 1967 and 1973. It also meant that Soviet arms flooded the region as the Middle East was plunged into a Cold War.  

Since the region quickly became hijacked by Cold War and anti-Israel wars, the overall idea that these revolutions would bring social change and any freedom was washed away. On the other hand, however, they did bring rapid industrialization and Iraq became an economic model. Universities were built and whole swaths of countries were cleared of nomads and tribes as people were forced into various collective villages. Minorities were deeply affected with regimes like the Assads and Saddam Hussein harming Kurds and other groups.

What began with the suppression of the Arab nationalist regimes ended with the brutal sectarianism of the Islamist upswing in the 1980s and 1990s, and many minorities in the region were driven from their ancestral areas. This fueled civil conflict in Lebanon as well, which led to the bloody clashes which didn’t end until 1989. 





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