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Unrest in Iraq: Continuation of the Arab Spring or a New Political Reality?

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Mass protests broke out in Baghdad on October 1, 2019, and continued all month long. The demonstrations spanned a large part of the country and have still not fully subsided. During that time, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior reported 100 people dead and over 1000 injured». The latest information puts the number of casualties at over 260 people.

Among the reasons cited for the actions are the general discontent with mass poverty and unemployment (over 20 per cent of the working-age population), the lack of social services, and corruption. However, starting from the second day of unrest, the protesters’ slogans began to turn political, with one of the most popular being “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime,” which is hard to see in any other light than a direct reference to the sentiments of the Arab Spring.

This association with the events of 2011 is far from accidental. The developments in Iraq are taking place in the same temporal continuum as the unrest in Algeria, which has been going on for almost a year. The same goes for mass protests in Sudan that took place on the eve of a military coup that ended up changing the political regime, and the turmoil in Lebanon that bears a striking resemblance to what is going on in Iraq. The nuances in each of these countries may differ somewhat. Still, one thing is clear: the demand for profound changes in political systems continues to span the entire region, and these four countries, which had remained either relatively unscathed or untouched altogether by the 2011 wave of protests, have now, eight years later, been pulled into the general area of socio-political aftershocks.

At the same time, in the case of Iraq, we are talking about the crisis of an entirely new political system — one that is barely 15 years old. And this system came into being with a number of “birth injuries”, under the influence of external forces and with dubious, or at least controversial, borrowings. The framers of Iraq’s constitutional system intended its model of political representation to support the stability of the post-Saddam order in the country. In reality, however, it failed to support stability during the entire period of its existence. The ethnic and denominational nature of the political system, which could not be reduced to a parliamentary-presidential republic, and the electoral system and process were riddled with pitfalls that gave rise to inevitable cataclysms.

The real ethnic and denominational situation resulted in the Shiites dominating the political spectrum, which entailed severe political consequences. For the first time, the Sunnis found themselves in a position of the ethnic-denominational minority. They felt the growing inferiority of their situation, which prompted many of them to join ISIS terrorist camps. The same situation motivated the Kurds to steer a course for independence. The overall terrorist threat during the expansion of ISIS rallied the Shiites and the Kurds to fight the pseudo-caliphate together. Yet, after ISIS was defeated, the Kurds held a referendum on independence. As a result, the country, which had not yet recovered from the terrible damage done by terrorists, once again found itself on the brink of collapse.

Although Kurdistan did not secede from Iraq, the republic, while formally remaining a federation, began, in reality, to drift toward confederation. And this was happening not only along the line dividing Kurds’ autonomy from the rest of Iraq, but also along the lines of the increased geographic dissociation between predominantly Shia and Sunni districts, and the latter development entailed elements of ethnic cleansing. The continuation of the processes threatened the collapse of the country.

We should also note the military-political trends that overlapped with these developments. The military and the police have been in a state of collapse ever since the start of the American occupation in 2003, and the ubiquitous emergence of armed ethnic-denominational units has become a leading trend. Kurdistan already had the Peshmerga units that remain the backbone of its military until today. Immediately upon the entry of U.S. troops, Shia districts formed armed units, such as the Mahdi Army, etc. And the Sunni strip had al-Qaeda units and Ba’ath guerrilla units acting independently of each other, which later merged to form ISIS.

Initially, the military and the police, which Iraq needed both to develop its statehood and to fight terrorism, were being built under the auspices of the United States. The process had essentially been a failure until Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) entered Iraq and took over. The IRGC succeeded in creating the combat-ready and highly motivated Shiite al-Hashd ash-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF). It was the PMF alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga (not the regular army) that played the leading role in liberating Mosul and in other critical episodes of the fight against ISIS.

However, after the victory over terrorists, the division of armed forces on ethnic-denominational grounds could no longer be tolerated, since it was fraught with the real danger of an armed confrontation between the principal ethnic and denominational communities in the state. It is noteworthy that discontent with this situation was expressed not only by Kurds and Sunnis but also by some Shiites inclined to view the PMF as an instrument of Iran’s military and political dominance in Iraq.

The 2018 parliamentary elections were a watershed moment in Iraq’s political developments. One of the most remarkable results of the electoral campaign was the victory of the Saairun bloc led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a popular public figure. The son of an influential Shia theologian killed by the Ba’ath regime in 1999, al-Sadr led an uprising against the American occupation in 2004. From the outset, he positioned himself not only as a Shia leader but primarily as an Iraqi patriot striving to unite all of the country’s national forces regardless of their denomination or ethnic origin. Further down the road, this trend in Muqtada al-Sadr’s political conduct played a crucial role in his public activities.

Following his theological studies in Iran, Muqtada al-Sadr was accorded the rank of Grand Ayatollah and, upon his return to Iraq, he transitioned from extreme radicalism to legal, political struggle. As a result, his Sadrist Movement formed Saairun alliance, a broad electoral bloc of diverse political forces, including the Iraqi Communist Party.

The Saairun’s victory marked a new trend in the development of Iraq’s political processes, one that was aimed at uniting patriotic forces regardless of their denomination and ethnic origins. It is noteworthy that this was the only bloc to receive votes in all the country’s 19 governorates, including Sunni and Kurdish regions.

Another equally significant result of the 2018 elections was the fact that less than half of eligible voters (44 per cent) turned out. This was a red flag that was disregarded at the time, signifying the population’s disappointment in the political elite.

Another remarkable fact is that the election was held on May 12, while Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, whose resignation protesters are demanding today, was only appointed by the President on October 2, 2018. What does this mean? First, several political forces, primarily the above-mentioned Saairun bloc, claimed that the voting had been fixed and demanded a recount. A recount was held in July 2018, but only in a few governorates. The Federal Supreme Court of Iraq only approved the results of the election in August. This meant that the Parliament, which is responsible for electing a new president, was not able to assemble for a session until September. Consequently, the government continued to be led by the previous Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi until October, although his political bloc al-Nasr only came third in the election.

In accordance with the constitution, Barham Salih, who was elected President by Parliament on October 2, is responsible for appointing the new prime minister. Submitting Adil Abdul-Mahdi as a non-aligned “technical” Prime Minister meant that MPs had failed to form a government coalition. What is more, this move was preceded by unrest in Basra in September that was aimed against Iran and involved protesters breaking into the premises of a nearby oil field. Even though this was a local development, it was nevertheless a harbinger of what was to come a year later. This entire chain of events bears the hallmarks of a brewing political crisis.

This notwithstanding, the events of October 2019 were a surprise for all the political forces represented in the establishment. The explosive nature of the unrest, its initial and subsequent composition, the lack of clear political leaders, etc., bear an uncanny resemblance to the events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. The similarities also extend to the fact that the ringleaders were Baghdad students, who organized the protests via social networks, which (just like in Tunis and Cairo) made it all the more surprising for the powers-that-be, which experienced problems responding to the protest movement.

Initially, it was a social protest. Unemployment in Iraq is over 20 per cent, and youth unemployment is higher still. Accordingly, the population lives in abject poverty. This is nothing new for Iraq. The situation was the same in the years of Saddam Hussein’s military adventurism, during the country’s collapse at the start of the occupation, and during the advance of ISIS.

Today, however, Iraq has become OPEC’s second-largest producer and exporter of oil. It is starting to close the gap on the oil top three (the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia). Hence the slogan of the protesters: “If our country is so rich, why are the people so poor?” They also name the cause: “Corruption.” Indeed, Iraq is 12th in the corruption rating among developing countries.

It is here that the protest moves from the social to the political: as a rule, political status is the starting point for accumulating private wealth through corruption. Evidence relating to the corrupt activities of political figures, including MPs, has been widely publicized.

This is essentially the answer to the question of whether an outside force has provoked the Iraqi protests. The United States, Iran and several neighbouring Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, definitely have leverage over Iraq. Still, this leverage is limited to various sectors of the political elite and does not extend to average citizens mounting the protests.

From this point on, there are significant differences between the events in Iraq and the events of the Arab Spring. First, while many of the youth activists in Tunisia and Egypt had undergone preliminary training (in Serbia, for example), there is no evidence that any training took place before the events in Iraq. Second, as early as day two, people of various ages began joining the young protesters, and that included the elderly. The Communist Party reports that over 30 per cent of the protesters were women. Third, unlike the unrest of the Arab Spring of 2011, the protests in Iraq do not have an Islamic component. Moreover, the demonstrations spanned mostly the Shia part of the country, where factions of political Islam represent the largest parties, and the unrest is directed against these parties, too.

The political demands of the protesters include changing the political system, and the country’s constitution in particular. It is not yet entirely clear what specific steps for changing the constitution they propose, although the thrust against division by denomination and ethnicity is evident. Additionally, apparent demands include changing electoral legislation; these demands are supported by several political forces represented in parliament. In particular, Muqtada al-Sadr has called for holding new elections under international supervision. The President of Iraq’s statement that new elections are possible, but only after the electoral legislation has been changed, can be viewed as indirect support.

The military has acknowledged its excessive use of force, and criminal proceedings have been launched against the officers responsible. As for the resignation of the government (al-Sadr supported this demand), the Prime Minister said he would resign only if there is an alternative candidate.

Clearly, the Saairun bloc and its leaders strive to position themselves as the force closest to the protesters. There are also nuances. For instance, the Communist Party withdrew its deputies from parliament and is apparently striving for closer solidarity with the protesters as an individual political force. Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, also expressed his support for some of the demands of the protesters and called for an investigation into the actions that had resulted in people’s deaths. This can be taken to mean that the emerging rapprochement between al-Sistani and al-Sadr will play a role in the future.

It should be noted that there is an anti-Iran element to the protests. The Iranian leadership, in particular, the country’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, was restrained in its response. Noting that “enemies cannot sow discord” between Iran and Iraq, he did not express any attitude towards the protesters. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran issued a statement indicating that foreign forces may abuse the situation. This suggests that the Iranian leadership is taking a cautious stance towards a situation that is particularly inconvenient for Iran, given the increasing pressure it is under from the United States and regional powers. Iran is clearly exploring various options for changing its policies towards Iraq by making them more flexible and seeking support and compromise with those Iraqi forces that the local population does not consider to be direct protégés of Iran. We are talking specifically about the Kurds and the Saairun bloc here, especially since Muqtada al-Sadr cannot be regarded as an anti-Iranian figure, even though he has criticized that country’s actions in the past.

It is also apparent that the events in Iraq objectively weaken the positions of Iran and its claim to the role of dominant regional power. It does not, however, mean that the United States can, following these events, regain the political dominance it had in the country since 2003. Some American analysts acknowledge that the United States no longer has any serious centres for influencing the domestic situation in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional forces also have minimal means of exerting any kind of internal influence on the country.

Some analysts express concern over the fact that the military and the police mostly focus on counteracting the protests, which could help revive or even restore the positions of ISIS. This danger does exist, since the activities of both sleeper cells and some individual terrorist squads have not been suppressed, and acts of terror are committed almost daily. However, since ISIS has been crushed as a systemic entity, these activities have been mainly localized geographically and have their limits.

The only way the terrorist threat may expand is if the general protest situation cripples the authorities for good. A continuing stalemate among the Iraqi authorities is indeed fraught with such danger. We can only hope that it will not materialize.

From our partner RIAC

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC expert

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Iraq and the ‘Blind Gordian Knot’

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After its occupation by the United States in 2003, Iraq fell into the double trap of the United States and Iran and became an insoluble problem. Similar to the legendary ‘Gordian’ knot, which Gordias, the king of Phrygia, tied so tightly that it was said that no one could untie it; Until ‘Alexander the Great’ came and cut it in half with one stroke of the sword and the knot was opened.

The trap that America set for Iraq was the constitution that it drafted for this country after the occupation. In this constitution, America removed Iraq’s Arab identity and imposed a two-thirds majority to elect the president, paving the way for the use of a ‘suspended one-third’.

At the same time, he set the conditions for amending this article and all the articles of the first chapter of the constitution so difficult that it was practically impossible to amend it. This constitution divided the power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, as a result of which, the Iraqi society was subject to chaos and fragmentation, and the army that was created based on it collapsed in front of ISIS in Mosul. Now let’s skip the destructive role that Nouri al-Maliki had as the prime minister in this story.

But the trap that the Islamic Republic of Iran set for Iraq was that it formed armed groups affiliated with the Quds Force and gave them legitimacy under the umbrella of ‘The Popular Mobilization Forces, which resulted in the monopoly of power in the hands of the Shiites.

So far, all efforts to free Iraq from this double trap have failed. The popular revolution of 2019 in Baghdad, Karbala, and other southern cities did not reach anywhere with its anti-Iranian slogans, nor did the government of Mustafa al-Kazemi solve the problem with its patriotic government project, nor did the recent efforts of the Sadr movement under the leadership of prominent cleric Moqtada Sadr bear fruit.

The Sadr movement, which won the majority in the elections, tried to form a national majority government in an agreement with the coalition of the Sunni ruling party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the coordination framework was dependent on Iran, using the one-third weapon, defeated the efforts of the Sadr movement.

In Iraq, there is no ‘Alexander the Great’ who will rise up and open the blind Gordian knot with one stroke of the sword and save Iraq from the crisis. No random event occurs. Now, the land between the two rivers is caught in deep-rooted and growing corruption and has lost its way among various Arab, Iranian, Eastern, and Western trends. Even Moqtada’s plan for the formation of a national government, which was put forward recently with the slogan ‘Neither East, nor West”, is also facing many difficulties and obstacles.

Of course, expecting the formation of a democratic system with the management of armed sectarian parties that advance politics based on religious fatwas and the force of destructive war missiles and drones is a futile thing, and talking about a national government in which power is in the hands of religious parties affiliated with the neighboring religious government is gossip and superstition.

Apart from that, according to the current laws of Iraq, the main power is in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers, and the powers of the President are limited and few, as a result, Shiite parties and organizations, especially their larger organizations, get more privileges, and the main power is exclusive to the Shiite community.

In addition, the organization that will be called the largest and the majority based on the political Ijtihad of the Supreme Court of Iraq will actually be the same organization that the Islamic Republic of Iran creates within the Iraqi parliament, not the organization that will receive the most votes in the elections. As we saw in the last parliamentary elections, the Sadr movement won the majority of votes and tried to form a majority government in an agreement with the Sunni ruling coalition and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the groups affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran stood against it under the name of the coordination framework. And they made his efforts fruitless.

It is for this reason that it has been almost a year since the Iraqi parliamentary elections were held, but the parliament has so far been unable to form a government and elect a new president.

Of course, this is the nature of totalitarian systems. Although the Iraqi system is a democratic system according to the constitution, in reality, the ruling system in Iraq is a totalitarian system. Just like the ruling systems in the Soviet Union and China, where power rotates among the leaders of the Communist Party; Both the rulers were members of the Communist Party, and the political opponents were imprisoned or executed. Because in Iraq, all the pillars of political power are in the hands of the Shiites; Both the factions that are actually in power are the Shiites, and the factions that lead political struggles and protests as opponents are Shia parties. Even the revolution of 2019 was actually a revolution of the new generation of Shiites who had risen against the influence of Iran and America and their supporters.

The fact is that with this situation, Iraq will never be able to free itself from the American-Iranian double trap and untie the blind Gordian knot. Rather, it can only do so when all the Iraqi national and patriotic parties and groups come together under the umbrella of a democratic, national, independent, non-sectarian coalition that is not dependent on foreign countries, and form a strong national government that, while being independent, is in touch with the outside world and establish good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Arab countries, and Eastern and Western countries.

The bottom line is, when the minds that have produced destructive thoughts cannot produce liberating thoughts, Iraq needs those thinkers and new political figures who will establish a correct, solid, and independent political system in Iraq. The current situation is rooted in the incorrect political structure, the foundation of which was laid in 2003. But it is a pity that only a clear understanding of the crisis is not enough to solve it.

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The end of political Islam in Iran

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Nothing in Iran will be the same again. The uprising of the majority of big and small cities in Iran after the killing of Mahsa Amini by the “Morality Police” of the Islamic Republic of Iran has a new social structure. Because in the contemporary history of Iran, we have not witnessed such social forces that have been strongly influenced by the women’s movement.

The social structure of the uprising

During the era of Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were allowed to study in law and medical schools, or during the era of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, women were organized to implement the White Revolution ideology as soldiers. This means that at that time, women were “allowed” and “organized”, but all these freedoms were given to women based on men’s power, state power, and non-democratic methods, and the women’s movement did not play an active role in these actions. For this reason, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi said in one of his interviews: Women are schemes and evil, women have not even had first-class scientists throughout history, women may be equal to men before the law but they have not had the same abilities as men. They are not, women have not even produced a Michelangelo, Johann Sebastian Bach, or a good cook. It was not only Mohammad Reza Shah who had a misogynist view, but Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, was against giving women the right to vote and considered the entry of women into the National Assembly, municipality, and administrations as a cause of paralysis in the affairs of the country and government. In a letter to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he requested the abolition of women’s right to vote.

It can be said that the Iranian revolution (1979) was one of the biggest revolutionary movements that was completely “made“ by a mass social movement in the history of the 20th century, and women played a very active and prominent role in it. But the women in that revolutionary movement not only for themselves and the issues of women’s rights but under the framework of Islamic and communist parties and groups such as the Tudeh Party of Iran, Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and Muslim People’s Republic Party tried to solve the problems of Iranian women. That is, in that mass revolutionary movement, various communist, Islamic and guerilla ideologies were higher, more important, and more preferable than the women themselves, and women tried to find their answers with the help of these revolutionary ideologies to solve the general problems of the country and women’s issues.

But in recent developments, women have not been “allowed” through the reforms of the Pahlavi government, nor have they been “organized” through the ideologies of the revolutionary parties before and after the victory of the Iranian revolution. Rather, in the strict sense of the word, they have become the locomotive of the revolutionary upsurge of contemporary Iran and have given “allowed” and “organization” to other social and ethnic forces in the geography of Iran. From now on, women in Iran are the creators of social and revolutionary changes based on the women’s movement.

Discourse analysis of the uprising

After the June 2009 presidential election and the protest against election fraud, large protests started in other cities, especially in Tehran. In that rebellion, we witnessed the loss of the unity of the elites, the crisis of legitimacy, and the crisis of the efficiency of the Islamic Republic regime. After those protests, the Shiite Islamist ideology of the Islamic Republic faced illegitimacy and the unity of the elites of the ruling class was lost. On the other hand, the government faced a crisis of inefficiency after those incidents and could not meet the crisis economic, cultural, political, and civil liberties, and women’s demands. Therefore, in the demonstrations of 2018, tens of thousands of people rose up against economic policies, high prices, and unemployment, and with the spread of these protests, the ideological foundations and legitimacy of the regime were protested by the demonstrators. With a 50% increase in the price of gasoline in 2019 and a 35% inflation, unemployment and an increase in the price of basic goods and food, a new wave of protests in many cities of Iran faced the government of Hassan Rouhani with a major social and economic crisis. In those protests, women played an active role and chanted against the mandatory hijab.

Contrary to all these widespread protests and social riots in Iran’s contemporary history, in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cause of the uprising is the murder of Mahsa Amini, the defense of women’s rights, and opposition to the mandatory hijab. The overwhelming majority of Iranian women have declared their separation with the slogan of “women, life, freedom” from the movement of reformers, monarchists of the Pahlavi regime, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, fundamentalists of the Islamic Republic, utopias and communist, Islamist, totalitarian, anti-woman, and false ideologies.

It is very important in the recent revolutionary uprising, the cooperation of Turks men and women in the cities of Iran with the protests. Because the Turk social-political movement did not declare solidarity with the protesters of other cities of Iran due to the neglect of the right to education in the mother tongue, the right to self-determination, and the realization of economic, political, cultural, and environmental rights in the uprisings of 2009, 2018 and 2019. The slogan of “freedom, justice, and national government” of the Turks of different cities of Iran, also shows the existence of different and yet common demands of the majority of ethnic groups living in Iran.

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Public opinion surveys challenge the image Arab leaders like to project

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Several recent public opinion surveys send a mixed message to autocratic reformers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which hosts this year’s World Cup in less than two months.

The surveys reveal contradictory attitudes among Arab youth towards religion as well as widespread rejection of notions of a moderate Islam and formal diplomatic ties with Israel.

One survey, published this week by Dubai-based public relations agency ASDA’A BCW, revealed that 41 per cent of 3,400 young Arabs in 17 Arab countries aged 18 to 24 said religion was the most important element of their identity, with nationality, family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagging far behind. That is 7 per cent more than those surveyed in the agency’s 2021 poll.

More than half of those surveyed, 56 per cent, said their country’s legal system should be based on the Shariah or Islamic law.

Seventy per cent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture. Sixty-five per cent argued that preserving their religious and cultural identity was more important than creating a globalized society.

Yet, paradoxically, 73 per cent felt that religion plays too big a role in the Middle East, while 77 per cent believed that Arab religious institutions should be reformed.

Autocratic Arab reformers will take heart from the discomfort with the role of religion and skepticism towards religious authority that stroked with earlier surveys by ASDA’A BCW, which has conducted the poll annually for the past 14 years.

Even so, the greater emphasis on religion as the core pillar of identity, concern about traditional values and culture, and the call for Islamic law cast a shadow over social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and President Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE.

Moreover, the poll results were published as Qatar debates how to deal with potential conduct by World Cup fans that violates Qatari law and mores, such as public intoxication and expressions of affection, pre-marital sex, and sexual diversity.

Qatar has suggested that World Cup fans caught committing minor offences such as public drunkenness would escape prosecution under plans under development by authorities.

While Saudi Arabia’s rupture with religious ultra-conservatism that long was the kingdom’s hallmark was stunning, reforms in the UAE were the most radical in their break with Islamic law that constitutionally constitutes the principal source of the country’s legislation.

Mr. Bin Salman’s reforms severely restricted the authority of the religious police, lifted the kingdom’s ban on women’s driving, enhanced women’s rights and opportunities, loosened gender segregation, and introduced western-style entertainment – all measures that are essentially not controversial in much of the Muslim world but went against the grain of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative segment of the population and clergy.

That could not be said for Mr. Bin Zayed’s equally far-reaching changes that decriminalized sexual relations out of marriage and alcohol consumption for UAE nationals and foreigners and lifted the prohibition on living together for unmarried couples.

Mr. Bin Zayed’s reforms are expected to persuade some fans to base themselves in the UAE during the World Cup and travel for matches to Qatar, which is socially more restrictive.

Even so, the ASDA’A BCW survey suggests that the reforms in the kingdom and the Emirates may not have been embraced as enthusiastically by a significant segment of the youth as the two countries would like public opinion to believe.

Separate surveys by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that 59 per cent of those polled in the UAE, 58 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 74 per cent in Egypt, disagreed with the notion that “we should listen to those among us who are trying to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, and modern way.”

The youth’s quest for religion and traditionalism strokes with youth attitudes toward democracy and diplomatic relations with Israel.

Autocratic leaders will likely be encouraged by the fact that a whopping 82 per cent of those surveyed by ASDA’s BCW said stability was more important than democracy. At the same time, two-thirds believed democracy would never work in the Middle East.

Three quarters saw China, followed by Turkey and Russia as their allies, as opposed to only 63 per cent pointing to the United States and 12 per cent to Israel. Even so, they viewed the US as having the most influence in the Middle East, but a majority favoured US disengagement.

Yet, the United States and Europe continued to constitute preferred destinations among 45 per cent of those polled seeking to emigrate.

However, despite widespread skepticism towards democracy, leaders will also have noted that 60 per cent expressed concern about the increased role of government in their lives.

The establishment two years ago of diplomatic relations with Israel by four countries included in the ASDA’A BCW survey — the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, — and the fact that Saudi Arabia has become more public about its relations with the Jewish state and its desire to establish diplomatic ties once a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found is likely to have shaped responses in the surveys.

Aware of public hesitancy, Saudi Arabia, together with the Arab League and the European Union, this week convened a meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to explore ways of dusting off the 1982 Saudi-inspired Arab peace plan.

The plan offered Israel recognition and diplomatic relations in exchange for creating a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

For his part, Yair Lapid expressed support for a two-state solution in his address to the assembly. It was the first time Mr. Lapid backed two states since he became prime minister and the first time since 2017 that an Israeli prime minister spoke in favour of Palestinian statehood.

Nevertheless, only 14% of the Egyptians polled in the Washington Institute surveys viewed their country’s 43-year-old peace treaty with Israel and the more recent establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state by the UAE and others as positive.

In contrast to the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, where Israeli business people, tourists, and residents have been welcomed, only 11 per cent of Egyptians surveyed favoured the normalisation of people-to-people relations.

Similarly, 57 per cent of Saudis surveyed by the institute opposed the normalization of the kingdom’s relations with Israel. Still, a higher percentage in the kingdom and the UAE than in Egypt, 42 per cent, agreed that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so.”

To sum it all up, the message is that autocratic reformers appear to be far ahead of significant segments of their populations even if public attitudes may be contradictory.

For now, keeping the lid on freedom of expression and dissent helps them maintain their grip but casts a shadow and a doubt over the image they work so hard to project.

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