The MENA Saga and Lady Gaga
Same dilemma from the MENA
Both are fully devoted, supported and promoted by the social media. Highly polarizing, both are fracturing any consensus. What Lady Gaga with her gay/gender gigs (or any similar sort of stage-acting à la Pussy Riot) is for the human rights, are the so-called Islamists for the Muslim world– strategic obstructers, assertively trivializing important larger contents that are essential for any human advancement. Does the placement on a proper Facebook page automatically mean being on the right side of history? Is our emphatic and socio-political interaction (increasingly irrelevant as it becomes trivial) reduced to a lame datafied, and monetizable cyber commodity?
Let’s get Sy(i)ria-ous: Where is the counter-narrative?
The MENA theatre is situated in one of the most fascinating locations of the world. It actually represents, along with the Balkans-Caucasus, the only existing land corridor that connects three continents. It also holds over a half of the world’s proven oil-gas reserves (56% – oil, 48% – gas). Further on, the Gulf OPEC states and Libya have –by far– the lowest costs of oil extraction, thanks to the high crude ‘purity’ (measured by overall properties such as the state of aggregation, excavation gravity, viscosity, weight, sulfuric content and other contaminants) which simplifies and cheapens the refinement process. These petrol-exporters also enjoy the close proximity to open warm seas for the fast and low-cost, convenient overseas shipments. Hence, the costs per barrel of crude for Libya and the Persian Gulf states are under 5USD, for other OPEC members below 10USD. This is in a sharp contrast to countries such as the US, Russia, Norway, Canada and many others that bear production costs of several tens of USD per barrel – according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Therefore, it is an absolute imperative for the external/peripheral powers to dominate such a pivotal geo-economic and geopolitical theater by simply keeping its center soft (e.g. by pre-empting, preventing or hindering the emancipation that might come through any indigenous socio-political modernization and economic diversification). This is the very same imperative that has remained a dominant rational of inner European and Asian machtpolitik for centuries.
No wonder that the competition in the MENA theatre, which has a lasting history of external domination or interference (and largely the Versailles, Anglo-French drawn borders), is harsh, multiple, unpredictable. The region is predominantly populated by the Sunni (Arab) Muslims. With its high population density and a demographic growth far outpacing the economic one, this very young median population (on average 23–27 years old) – that is frequently lacking any (universal) access to education, health and housing – is dominated by juvenile, mainly unemployed or underemployed, but socially mobilized and often angry males.
An exceptional fact that the Middle East is a cradle of all four monotheistic religions is thus turned into its own paradox: Fueled by severe socio-economic exclusions and exacerbated by exploitation of the Shia–Sunni and of Muslim–Jewish–Christian antagonism, political radica-lization is surely one of the most convenient instruments of tacit control aimed at preserving local governing authorities predatory-alienated, unauthentic and weak, if not incapacitated. It should not be of any surprise that each and every one of the predominantly Sunni-Muslim Balkans-MENA countries of the secular republican type, where the external powers have brokered the political settlement – often by compromising the very sovereignty and territorial integrity, is enveloped in perpetuated instabilities, remaining thus paralyzed. So far, not a single absolutistic monarchy has been significantly affected. Starting in Bosnia – nearly 20 years ago – followed by Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as well as in the post-Spring Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, all the way to ‘ungoverned’ Mali, South Sudan and Algeria’s south, and up to the post-assassination revolt-torn Tunis or anti-Avanti Mursi‘ Cairo, a purposely dysfunctional and indecisive central government seems to have been put in place.
Policy of Timing or No Spring on a single string
Conclusively, most observers would agree that while the so-called Arab Spring had a cross-Arab impact, this was still far from a pan-Arab ripple effect: It was more of a spontaneous social revolt; a series of isolated events (related to each other more by Al-Jazeera-connecting-pots potting and fanning), rather than a directional process. To channel something so unexpectedly inflammatory and cross-Arab, while studiously avoiding pan-Arabism let alone any hint of real structural socio-economic reform and political emancipation – that could have only been achieved by lighting the torch of Islamism. Lacking any enlightenment, this torch far too often and far too easily brought about the extremist blindness of Islamo-fascism.
No Spring on a single string, right?! How could any social cohesion indispensible for the MENA democratization possibly work where primary loyalties are (returned) to sect, tribe or ethnicity? This dilemma relates not only to democracy, but also to the very quest of secularism – for the one presupposes the other – ever since the French Revolution. In this or any other part of the (developing) world, institutionalization of democracy without secularization of state inevitably leads to a dysfunctional, destabilizing and (self-)debilitating government: divinization of the post and personalization of power. The current state of the MENA republics affected by the Arab Spring as well as that of the GCC monarchies provides the best proof of this.
For one thing, as it now seems, the euphorically tam-tamed ‘Facebook revolutions’ across MENA were rather a strategic distractions ‘innocently’ dressed up in the diverting banality of social media networks. The very same role those networks well played elsewhere too. (Hence, is it of any surprise that the broad and universal right of self-determination has been sadly reduced to the right of internet-freedom? Contrary to the established apotheosis, many fundamental human rights are currently compressed like a zip-file, emailed and entrusted to just a pair of omnipotent, self-centered and self-interested non-state and semi-state actors of unilateral globalism/egoism: private IT corporations and shadowy intelligence agencies. )
Presently, the announced reduction of the American physical presence in Afghanistan, the limitations it faces in the nearly failed (nuclear bomb holding) Pakistan, and the massive overextensions suffered all over the southwestern flank of the Euro-Asian continent including the recent US Army pullout from Iraq, is felt within the GCC (and in France, UK, Israel and Turkey too) as dangerous exposure to a neighboring (increasingly anticipated as assertive) Iran as well as to Russia and China behind it. Right now, Syria pays a proxy-war price for that: This multi-religious country of subtle ancient cultural layers may end up entirely combusted, thereby creating a dangerous security vacuum in the heart of MENA. Or to use the words of frustration of the senior French diplomat who recently told me in Brussels: “we have to demonize and quickly delegitimize the legitimate Syrian government, and topple al-Assad in order to convince Israel not to bomb Iran…”
“Western national interests will no longer determine the moral and political impulses of today’s global community… Whatsoever the outcome, Syria’s agony has underscored a further irreversible weakening of the West’s dominant global role…” claims India’s former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. Perhaps so; the West has indeed become too weak to architecture, but it certainly remains strong enough to destabilize its conceived political peripheries:
As recently, the ‘Group of Friends of Syria’- induced recognition of the so-called Syrian opposition means also that Turkey is now practically at war with Syria. At this point, let me be both instructive and predictive: The fall of al-Assad will most certainly trigger the dissolution of Syria. It will also lead to a formalized federalization of Iraq, in a desperate move to prevent its total decomposition as well as to a serious crisis of Lebanese and Jordanian statehood – in both cases probably beyond reparation. The winners in such a scenario would then seem to be Israel (a country that remains enveloped in its traumatic European holocaust past and detached from its present neighborhood) along with the GCC monarchies – at least in the short run. However, over the long term the ‘winners’ would be the Kurds and Shias – even though the northern portions of Syria have already been occupied by the Turkish army for quite some time.
Consequently, with any proclamation of a Kurdish state (inevitably being of a Black Sea –Eastern Mediterranean stretch, a dream line of all Russian tsars in past), the Erdoğan government (as well as Iraq) would not be able to survive – as it has already created enough enemies at home and in its near abroad. Ergo, besides the dispersed, rarified and terrified MENA Christians, the moderate (Arab) Sunnis are definitely the long-term losers.
Possible, yet not probable epilogue
However, while the cacophony of European contradictions works towards a self-elimination of the EU from the region, Turkey tries to reinsert itself. The so-called neo-Ottomanism of the current (Anatolian, eastern rural power-base) government is steering the country right into the centre of grand bargaining for both Russia and for the US. To this emerging triangular constellation, ambitious and bold PM Erdoğan wishes to beat his own drum.
Past the Arab Spring, neither will Russia effectively sustain its presence in the Middle East on a strict pan-Arabic secular, republican and anti-Islamic idea, nor will the US manage to politically and morally justify its continuous backing off of the absolutistic monarchies that are so energized by the backward, dismissive and oppressive Wahhabism. Ankara tries its best to sublimate both in an effective manner: blending a mix of secular republican modernity and leavened with a traditional, tolerant and emancipating Islam, and to advertise this as an attractive future model across the Middle East. Simply enough, Bosporus wakes up to itself as the empiric proof that Islam and modernity work together. In fact, it is the last European nation that still has both demographic and economic growth.
Moreover, Ataturk’s Republic is by large and by far the world’s most successful Muslim state: It was never resting its development on oil or other primary-commodity exports, but on a vibrant socio-economic sector and solid democratic institutions. This is heavily contesting, not only for Russia, but primarily for the insecure regime of the House of Saud (and the other GCC autocracies), which rules by direct royal decree over a country of recent past, oil-export dependent and fizzing present and improbable future. No wonder that on the ideological battlefield these two belligerent parties will be dominating the Middle East, which is currently in a self-questioning, past yet another round of calamities. The outcome will be felt significantly beyond the Arab region and will reverberate all across the Sunni Muslim world.
Ankara is attempting to justify that the Saudi-promoted Islam is actually a toxic, separatist/ sectarian Wahhabist ideology that self-constrains Muslims, and keeps them on a wrong side of history by hindering their socio-economic and political development. It does so by entrenching Muslims on a permanent collision course with the rest of the world, while Turkey-promoted Islam would not be a weaponized ideology, but a Modus Vivendi, one which would permit progress and be acceptable to all (including non-Muslims), with a centuries-long history of success.
Anis H. Bajrektarevic, Geopolitics of Energy Editorial Member Chairperson for Intl. Law & Global Pol. Studies
Author of the forthcoming book: ‘Is There Life After Facebook – Geopolitics of Technology and other Foreign Policy Essays’ (Addleton Academic Publishers, NY)