Can the Arab East get out of the mess it finds itself in? | James J. Zogby

I have been on vacation for two weeks. Unlike previous years, this time I cut myself off from work. Over the past few days, I’ve caught up, reading two weeks of news about depressing and familiar developments unfolding (or not) in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine/Israel, and Iraq.

Lebanon, still on the brink of collapse, cannot form a fully functioning government because sectarian elites seem determined to suck the last bit of marrow from the country’s dying bones. The sectarian stalemate, reinforced by threats from Hezbollah, prevents responsibility for past crimes and resulted in shortages of basic services, fuel, food and cash. Even if the Lebanese succeed in taking control of the gas fields in the Mediterranean, they have legitimate fears of a power grab by sectarian elites who will divert the profits to serve their own interests rather than those of the country.

Syria is still at war with itself, with Russian, Iranian, Turkish and American interests colliding and sometimes colluding in different combinations over the future of the tragic mess they (and the brutal Assad regime ) all helped create. As this game of nations continues to play out, millions of Syrians remain destitute, either as internally displaced persons or as refugees fearful of returning to their homes.

Iraq is paralyzed, due to the “genius” of the Americans whose “gift” to the Iraqi people was to emulate the sectarian system of governance created by France and which proved so disastrous for Lebanon. Although polls in Iraq (as in Lebanon) clearly show that most want a unified country that is non-sectarian and independent of any foreign power, the elites (backed by their militias, many of whom are backed by Iran) do not want to give up. Control. Paralysis and the threat of another civil war may be killing Iraq, but Iran and its underlings do not want to move towards non-sectarian governance.

Speaking of ‘freebies’, the one that continues to trouble the region is Lord Balfour’s arrogant decision to plant the Zionist movement in Palestine to serve British interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. This act and seven decades of political protection and massive US military and economic aid brought the region to the reality of today; an Israeli state that operates with impunity, flouting international law and violating Palestinian rights.

Now gearing up for its fifth election in four years, Israel’s politics, following US darlings, have shifted so far to the right that there is a unique form of gridlock in the country. The question is not peace with the Palestinians, but whether the next right-wing government will be led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

The dysfunctions suffered by the Palestinians are the result of decades of cruel occupation during which Israel has used overwhelming force to crush their resistance, de-develop their economy and sabotage their political and social foundations. The Palestinians also suffer from a lack of leadership capable of developing a strategic vision and the tactics to achieve that vision. What the Palestinians are left with are repressive patronage systems in Gaza and the West Bank that have been reduced to repressive dependencies, relying on Israel and international donors for support.

On reflection, threads link these dysfunctions together. One is the evil of sectarian and ethnic divisions, encouraged and exploited by outside powers. It is tempting to wonder how different the region would be today if the British and French had submitted to the will of the peoples of the Arab East and if the Americans had not played this same imperial game, updating it to serve their interests?

This doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Several years ago, a Syrian resistance leader, as he was leaving my office after a meeting, turned to the door and asked poignantly, “Where will the region be in ten, 20 or 50 coming years ? I urged him to come back and we talked for another hour about the region’s need for visionary thinking that would ask precisely that question.

The Arab East cannot continue to blame its failures on the machinations of others. Arabs must take their destiny into their own hands and develop a vision that unites and inspires citizens to free themselves from the chains of bigotry, corruption, extremism and defeatism. Otherwise, after next year’s holidays and those after, I will read the same articles on the same problems.

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