Democratic deficits and political failures mark past year

Tue, Dec 28, 2010, 00:00

MIDDLE EAST:Events of 2010 across a turbulent region may be central to resolving multiple conflicts

THE YEAR 2010 could determine the future course of events in the volatile Middle East. It was one of political failure on several fronts, bracketed by elections that exposed acute democratic deficits in two key Arab countries – Iraq and Egypt – which are both allies of the US.

The Iraqi election campaign began with an all-out effort by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the dominant Shia religious parties to prevent the secular Sunni Iraqiya bloc from gaining an appreciable number of seats in the national assembly in the March 7th election. When polling was deemed largely fair by local and foreign monitors, Maliki refused to accept being edged out of first place by Iraqiya. It took eight months and intervention by Iran and the US to break the deadlock, caused by his drive to stay in office. Maliki succeeded, despite accusations of being a dictator, at the expense of the credibility of the political system. Violence escalated, and increasing numbers of foreign fighters infiltrated Iraq to join al-Qaeda.

Negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis were fruitless in 2010. US envoy George Mitchell attempted to reach agreement on security and on the border between a future Palestinian state and Israel through indirect talks. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas put forward his side’s positions, but Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to make concrete proposals.

US president Barack Obama’s standing in the region, high in 2009, plummeted when he was forced to drop his demand for a halt to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – areas demanded by Palestinians for their future state.

Obama fell from grace on other fronts too. Tensions rose between Tehran and Washington after the US president failed to engage Iran in serious dialogue on a range of issues, and imposed a new round of economic sanctions because of Iran’s refusal to suspend its nuclear programme.

Obama angered Syria when his administration accused Damascus of smuggling weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Although he called on Damascus to cool relations with Tehran and refrain from intervening in Lebanese affairs, it did not prevent Syria from joining Saudi Arabia in an attempt to help Lebanon face unrest in the event that Hizbullah members were indicted for the 2005 assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri.

Arabs did not welcome deepening US involvement in the military campaign against al-Qaeda in Yemen, a country torn by civil war in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, and Sunni jihadism.

The year ended with a landslide victory for Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party in a parliamentary election which opposition parties and human rights groups branded fraudulent. Commentators dubbed Egypt, ruled for 29 years by President Hosni Mubarak, a “one-party state”, depriving the vote of whatever little credibility it had after being tainted by vote-buying and rigging.

The conduct of Iraq’s election by Maliki and the heavy-handed intervention in Egypt’s poll by the Mubarak regime are likely to have negative repercussions in 2011. Maliki’s refusal to share power with secular/Sunni Iraqiya could lead to postponement of US troop withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year, while the Egyptian regime’s election engineering could make it all the more difficult to ensure a smooth transition from Mubarak, 82 and ailing, to a credible successor ahead of next autumn’s presidential poll or afterwards.

The Obama administration’s antagonistic relationship with Iran, already the dominant power in Iraq, could prompt Tehran to meddle in the Afghan-Pakistan theatre of war and tinker with Lebanon’s delicate political mechanism. Iran could provide weapons to Shia rebels in Yemen, undermining the Sunni secular regime, making the country increasingly ungovernable, and providing a safe haven for al-Qaeda.

Finally, if there is no progress by August in negotiations with Israel, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad has pledged to proclaim an independent state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

If he goes ahead, Israel could respond by reoccupying Palestinian-governed areas of the West Bank and tightening its grip on East Jerusalem. But if Fayyad does not meet his commitment, a third Intifada could erupt, destroying the Palestinian Authority and its security forces which have helped reduce attacks on Israel.

Brazil and Argentina have already recognised the Palestinian state; Uruguay has pledged recognition.

Commentators suggest that the international community is far more prepared to accept a Palestinian state today than in 1988, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation issued its declaration of independence.

The US and EU could come under pressure to follow the example of Brazil, Argentina and other states determined to see the long-promised two-state solution emerge.