I am sure many readers of this Blog will be familiar with the 1993 comedy movie "Groundhog Day". If not, and you're up for some light entertainment, do watch it. But Groundhog Day is defined as "a situation in which a series of unwelcome or tedious events appear to be recurring in exactly the same way". I don't know about you, but certain parts of the Middle East are beginning to look to me more and more like a Groundhog Day scenario.
Mind you, I don't remember anyone with true knowledge of the Middle East saying that the aftermath of the Arab Spring was going to be easy. The region is a conundrum and a kaleidoscope. And never forget the interpretation of the now famous Nostradamus prediction that the starting point of World War III will be the Middle East!
The current nervousness all started with Arab Spring. The hopeful new shoots of a revolution that would turn the Middle East into a democratic paradise by deposing despotic dictators, or overturning at least decades if not centuries of feudal rule. The bands struck up a jolly tune to herald the new order, but although the band plays on, the music has turned funereal. And suddenly we are displaying shock, horror and dismay. Alright, it wasn't meant to happen this way but neither should we be as surprised as we apparently are nor should we have expectations of a rapid solution.
I have to say that I still get amazed by the number of people who, as with China, look at the Middle East as if it is one largely homogeneous region and that everyone inside behaves roughly the same way, has the same aspirations, and that they all want to be like the West! How wrong can they be? (Statement, not a question!).
But trying to explain the differences would take a book, not a Blog, so I just want to look quickly at two existing situations in the Middle East that are currently in the news.
Egypt, one of the most significant players in the Arab Spring movement, experienced a popular uprising (the media never seems to find an "unpopular" uprising, do they?) in 2011. I have to say it seems longer ago than that! But the origins of that uprising were bedded in a desire to get rid of Hosni Mubarak's extended and corrupt leadership rather than a deliberate attempt to enter into a democratic process. It was a move welcomed particularly by Western interests who were overjoyed at the prospect of another democracy being established but I was publicly wary, concerned that the country was not really ready for democracy. There were too many "factions" involved with differing interests that were more concerned about self-preservation than the good of the country. And by the way, I must quote a phrase I heard yesterday at a Conference I am attending, which went along the lines of "just because you have a vote, doesn't mean you live in a democracy"! Quite!
But back to Egypt.
The election of President Morsi was an indication that a country that had generally accepted, but didn't always truly practice secularity, (ask the Coptic Christians for a start) was electing someone who though outwardly moderate was nevertheless more fundamentalist than many people would have preferred. I suggested in a Blog at the time that perhaps the new President was nevertheless deserving of a chance - and he was at least more open than Mubarak. But three months into his Presidency, Morsi was beginning to look more and more like Mubarak. He wanted to create a cocoon round himself and his cronies that could have put him in perpetual power. Oh dear! And not surprisingly, it was unacceptable to many of the people who put him in power, although this point seems to have been lost on the West.
After a period of self-restraint, and I do not condone military intervention in national domestic disputes - most of the time - the army intervened and with promises of early elections, some form of stability was restored. But we should remain cautious of the "what next" scenarios. Fresh elections are likely to be fought on largely religious lines as opposed to economic, social and political concerns, and the outcome as well as the future will continue to be uncertain. In other words, don't expect real democracy in the short to medium term because I fear you will be disappointed.
The other issue is, of course, Syria.
I was, and remain, disgusted by the Assad dynastic dictatorship and wished for nothing more than a swift resolution by the Arab League. This is not a Western dispute. We all hoped for the overthrow of that regime with a return of power to the Syrian people - despite the fact that once again we are unlikely to see a true democratic process. That said, it may be more manageable in Syria than for Egypt, where the population is four times greater than that of Syria. But I fear it is too late.
If Western forces attack Syria, what would they hope to achieve? And for many reasons I applaud the British Parliament's decision not to support Cameron's initiative at this time. And if America wants to sulk about that decision, it's up to them. Lest we forget, it was based on lies and flawed information that both countries attacked Iraq - right outcome of course, but undertaken for the wrong justification - and how has Iraq benefitted from that action?
If Western, or any, forces attack Syria today and oust Assad what will be left behind? A bunch of factions, mostly hostile to the West, and no longer representative of the Syrian people. It's not a great solution for the future.
And as for the rationale now for an attack - was gas used in Syria? Certainly - but are we absolutely certain who used it? I make no excuses for either side in the use of gas, whoever used it, but unlike what happened in Iraq - if an attack is to be made on Syria, or more specifically on the dreadful Assad regime, we must be sure we have it right this time, and given the delays so far is another week really going to make a dramatic difference?
Is there any possible good news out there? Watch Iran very carefully!