Apocalypse Not Quite Yet

Girl in bedroom with pigeons, Egypt, 2011.
A child inside a bedroom in a private Egyptian home during the Arab Spring, 2011. Bieke Depoorter / Magnum Photos

Notwithstanding sundry doomsday predictions—from the Mayans to Nostradamus and the ever-impending threat of Armageddon—we can now say with some assurance that the world did not end in 2012. The Middle East, however, continues to fl irt with the apocalypse.

The revolutions, conflagrations, and confrontations now underway from the Sahara to the Hindu Kush are weakening national governments and calling into question borders that have lingered since European powers carved up the region after World War I. What is holding the map together now has more to do with fear than it does with hope, and if the old order fails, many in the Middle East suspect there may be no order left at all.

“The region has had a very strange respect for territorial lines and borders,” says Aaron David Miller at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. But those lines signified a “perverse stability,” Miller says. What kept people in line was tyranny. Some dictators may have been “acquiescent” in the eyes of the West, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, or “adversarial” like the Assads. But they “are going the way of the dodo,” says Miller. “I am not saying the region is headed for a catastrophic meltdown, but we are at one of those hinges of history when profound changes are taking place that we are singularly ill-equipped to understand.”

The epicenter of the most urgent crisis is Damascus. Former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice recently warned that “the civil war in Syria may well be the last act in the story of the disintegration of the Middle East as we know it.” But the greater concern is that it will be the first. The mosaic of faiths and peoples inside Syria already has been shattered by the fighting. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq are being sucked into the conflict as refugees flood across their borders and combatants exploit their territories.

The regional powers and the great powers, meanwhile, are treating the fight as a proxy war, scoring points against each other over the corpses of Syrian children. On the side of the rebels are the Turks, the Saudis, and the Qataris, who are uncomfortable allies at best, along with the United States, Britain, France, and other Europeans. The Assad regime gets its outside support from Iran, from its Hizbullah allies in Lebanon, and from Russia. Israel is doing its best to sit out this confl ict, but its northern outposts already have found themselves in the line of fire.

The wild card in the midst of the fighting is the role of foreign jihadists sympathetic to al Qaeda. They support the loosely organized rebels in combat, but undermine the revolutionaries’ credibility abroad and make it harder for them to get the weapons they badly need. When a convention of exiles cobbled together a new Syrian opposition coalition in Qatar in November, one of its architects declared the creation of the new group “a miracle.” But unless the coalition becomes a reliable conduit for weaponry, it will get little respect and have no authority among those who’ve stayed in Syria to fight the regime.

Looming like an enormous cloud—perhaps a mushroom cloud—in the background of the Syrian civil war is the danger that Israel will launch a preemptive strike against Iran to stop the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons. The United States has worked hard to find other means to stop the Iranians. Covert action and cyberattacks may have slowed Tehran’s progress, and a concerted diplomatic effort has led to sanctions, which have hit the Iranian economy hard.

But the atomic clock just keeps ticking, and politicians on all sides just keep on politicking. The Obama administration has taken a tough public stand, saying it will not let Iran acquire nuclear weapons  under any circumstances. Facing reelection, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to balance the kind of bellicose rhetoric he loves against the possibility that defying Washington and pressing ahead with war could forever damage Israel’s strategic partnership with the U.S. Meanwhile, Tehran’s fractious internal politics are more treacherous than ever. This is an election year in Iran, too, and the widening divide between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could affect the regime’s judgments, or misjudgments, about how far the Islamic Republic can push its confrontation with the West.

In A Peace to End All Peace, the classic account of the way Europe carved up the Middle East in the early 20th century, historian David Fromkin wrote that “the characteristic feature of the region’s politics” is that “there is no sense of legitimacy—no agreement on rules of the game—and no belief universally shared in the region that, within whatever boundaries, the entities that call themselves countries or the men who claim to be rulers are entitled to recognition as such.”

The 21st century’s revolutions and wars demonstrate the lack of legitimacy even beyond the Middle East. Conflicts explode, or simmer, but do not go away. Most will grow worse. And as states continue to fracture or fail they become havens of chaos for the monsters of jihad.

Last year Mali split in two. The legendary city of Timbuktu is now being ruled by radical jihadists. Gen. Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. Africa Command, warned in December that: “As each day goes by, al Qaeda and other organizations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali.” Despite talk of an African-led international intervention, it’s more likely that other rebel factions, with foreign backing, will try to take back the vast desert territory they call Azawad. What’s not probable, or really even plausible, is the ostensible goal of the international community: a reunited Malian nation.

In Sudan, splitting the country into northern and southern enclaves was supposed to settle the issue of borders in a place long sundered by a savage civil war. But fighting there continues, despite a peace agreement, a referendum, and the independence of South Sudan. Somalia fractured and failed decades ago, and is only now, very slowly and in very limited areas, regaining some semblance of order. In Libya, the old rival cities of Benghazi and Tripoli still vie with each other for power at the expense of a very weak central government.

Palestine, its statehood now recognized by an overwhelming majority at the United Nations, is at best a conceptual country. Much of the territory it claims is still occupied by Israel. Its two governments are at odds, and remain unable and unwilling to coordinate a strategy for peace. The Hashemite royals in Jordan, next door, live in fear that Israel will shove the Palestinian West Bank or its people back into their laps, very likely provoking a new Jordanian civil war like the savage one that erupted in 1970. Jordan might be called “the Palestinian state” after that, but it is far from clear who would rule it, or how.

A year after the Americans ended their long, bloody military occupation of Iraq, that country is just barely holding together. Troops from the Shiite- dominated government in Baghdad are locked in a tense standoff with Peshmerga fighters from the autonomous Kurdish region around the contested city of Kirkuk. The Iraqi Kurds are growing richer and more powerful, thanks to oil revenue from deals they cut in defi ance of Baghdad. And the stronger they get, the more they inspire unrest among Kurds in Syria, Iran, and Turkey.

Iraq’s Sunni Muslim population, meanwhile, is paying close attention to the war in neighboring Syria. If the Assad regime there is brought down by a predominantly Sunni force with jihadist elements in it, then the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, already underway, could gain momentum very quickly. As it is, terrorist bombings often kill dozens of Iraqis a week.

The oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula have been able to buy internal peace for the moment, but even they are showing signs of strain. Protests recently broke out in Kuwait. Saudi Arabia sent troops across the causeway into Bahrain to help crush a largely peaceful uprising in 2011, but Shiite-led resistance there continues sporadically.

The people of Yemen managed to overthrow their dictator of many decades, but several of his cronies remain in government. The country is facing one insurgency in the north, another in the south, and has become an operational base for al Qaeda. The CIA is waging a relentless covert campaign against the terrorists on Yemeni soil, but it’s unlikely they can be wiped out unless a strong central government takes over. And that just doesn’t look possible.

If there is a bright spot in this firmament of darkness, it’s Egypt. There are, to be sure, enormous problems there. President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood showed soon after their triumph in the 2012 elections that they believe the winner takes all—and keeps it. This was a bold position for a candidate who won only half the ballots cast in a contest where half the electorate did not vote at all. But Morsi has showed a surprising ability to maneuver the corridors of power.

In a master stroke, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader managed to fire the top generals who had presented themselves as guardians of stability, and the Egyptian military appeared to have been neutralized as a political force. When new fighting erupted between Israelis and Palestinians, and it looked like Israeli forces would stage another bloody invasion of Gaza to stop rockets from being fired, Morsi might have backed Hamas, which is an off shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead he offered to fill the role of mediator that Mubarak had adopted so many times. He thus won American gratitude and grudging recognition by the Israelis.

But when Morsi attacked the judiciary and arrogated extraordinary powers to himself pending approval of a new Egyptian constitution at the end of the year, the move helped unify this political opposition. Once again, Tahrir Square in central Cairo filled with tens of thousands of protesters calling for the fall of the regime: not Mubarak this time, but Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The bloody confrontations in Egypt’s streets that followed Morsi’s power grab raised questions about whether the military would reemerge as a frontline player in the country’s politics. But the young secular activists who led the fight to topple the old dictator in 2011, when there really was no mechanism for change, are now putting much more faith in the electoral process. They aim to roll back the Brotherhood’s gains if or when new parliamentary elections are held in February.

Egyptian women, in particular, have come out in force. After the revolution in Tahrir in 2011, they faced frequent, brutal attacks. Their co-revolutionaries tended to dismiss their contribution to the original uprising. Their political enemies targeted their dignity: police forced several who were arrested to take “virginity tests.” Even demurely veiled women found themselves groped, stripped, and sexually assaulted by mobs of anonymous men. But the prospect of unchecked Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt brought women back onto the streets en masse. They now see themselves as “the watchdogs of the revolution,” says well-known blogger and activist Dalia Ziada.

The importance of all this change resides in the sense of legitimacy a political process—however stormy—can confer upon a country’s leaders. Egypt, with some 85 million people, is by far the most populous nation in the Arab world. And while others had their borders drawn on the backs of envelopes by the colonial powers, the Egyptians’ identity has been rooted on the banks of the Nile for thousands of years. (Tahsin Basheer, a prominent Egyptian diplomat in the 1980s, often derided the rest of the countries in the Arab world as “tribes with flags.”)

Egypt alone has the possibility—some see it as a duty—to lead the Arab world toward a democratic future in which governments will come and go, but the legitimacy of the nation, the state, and its elected rulers will no longer be in question. Only then will perverse stability be replaced by real stability; and only then will the apocalypse, truly, be behind us.

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