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The New Middle East

The World After the Arab Spring
Paul Danahar

The board on which all these new power games are being played stretches across the Middle East. The rules came from scripture and each player interprets them according to their faith. America not only does not understand the rules of the game, it can't work out what winning might look like. So it is roaming around the table looking at everyone else's hand, offering advice on which card to play, but because it has no stake in the game nobody is really listening.

Syria was where the last act of the old Middle East would be played out. The finale would drip with blood. It would hark back to the region's darkest days, to the decades when its societies were opaque, when 'the Arab street' couldn't raise its voice without getting its fingernails pulled out. Back then the world heard only the narrow view of a handful of dictators who ruled with an iron fist over hundreds of millions. Saddam Hussein, Assad, Ben Ali, Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak all lived lives of cartoonish excess. States were fash­ioned that mirrored their paranoia. Their people were surrounded by symbols of their masters' omnipotence.

That narrative of the old Middle East lasted longer than the Cold War in Europe. It lasted as long as the Arab dictators did. The West propped up these men because, so the story went, the alternative was states falling first under the influence of the communist block and later into the arms of radical Islam. In Syria President Bashar al-Assad believed he could stem the tide of history by playing by the rules created by his father's generation. He helped rekindle Cold War rival­ries between Russia and America to stymie international intervention. His army tugged at the fragile mosaic of sects and religions that made up Syria's complex society. It started a sectarian civil war that would bleed into the countries around it. I saw the regime's warning to the world scrawled across the walls of the Damascus suburbs that dared to show dissent: Assad or we'll burn the country'.

The rise of the Arab people against their tormentors took even the protesters who manned the barricades by surprise. These revo­lutions took place in societies locked down by a security apparatus that had had decades to hone its skills. Generations of men from North Africa to the Levant had been trained in the craft of suppres­sion. They had stalked their own people, snatched them from their beds, strapped them into seats and beaten them to pulp. These acts were not justified by religion or ideology. They were not necessary evils inflicted to further a cause or liberate a people. It was not done for God. It was done for a man and his regime. Now most of those men are gone. Locked up, exiled or buried in unmarked graves. They leave behind countries in transformation. The statues and posters of those dictators have been torn down and trampled underfoot. The people have been led blinking out of the dark days of oppression by their children, a generation of youngsters force-fed for their entire lives on the lie that nothing could or would ever change. Until it did.

"The Arab world was considered a stagnant pond of retardation and tyranny, inhabited by what appeared to be a complacent populace toiling fatalistically under the yoke of their dictators,' wrote the blog-ger Iyad el-Baghdadi, in the introduction to his satirical Arab Tyrant's Manual'. 'It really felt like this state of stagnation was permanent,' he told me. A lot of us thought that something has got to give at some point, but we didn't really think it was going to happen for another twenty years. We thought it was not going to be our generation but the next generation that would be doing it.'

The ingredients that sparked the uprisings existed throughout the region. Nearly every country has a massive 'youth bulge', with half its population under the age of twenty-five. That made the competition even tougher for the meagre opportunities available to young people. The aspirations of the youth across the Middle East and North Africa were the same. Everywhere I went I would hear identical demands from the young protesters on the streets. They wanted their rulers to allow them some dignity. They wanted to work. They wanted some hope for a life at least as good as their parents'. The 'youth bulge' didn't need to be a problem; it could have been an opportunity if the old Middle East had not been so dysfunctional. In East Asia I saw for myself that because the economies worked and made things people wanted, they were able to absorb and benefit from the suddenly larger workforce. In the Middle East the state knew how to turn out gradu­ates, but not how to create an economy to usefully employ them. Even worse, the graduates it did produce didn't have the right skills to fit the few opportunities there were in the market. The state had solved this problem with the parents of the revolutionaries by buying them off with 'jobs for life' in the government.

Professor Ragui Assaad studies labour markets in developing coun­tries at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He told me the old regimes eventually no longer had the resources to do the same thing for the next generation:
The only thing young people found themselves able to do was work in the informal economy, and that creates a lot of anger and frustra­tion, so in a sense it's the unravelling of that social contract, with much of that unravelling being imposed on the youth. The adults kept their government jobs, they kept their benefits, they kept their subsidised housing, but all the adjustment was imposed on the young people.
During the revolutions the West realised for the first time that Arabs were people just like us. They weren't all brooding jihadis who needed to be kept in check by a reign of terror.

'We have been here for seven thousand years, but people in Europe, you think that I have the camel in front of my house and I'm living beside the pyramid.' I met Youssef, a 42-year-old engineer, at the height of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Before the uprising, Youssef kept his thoughts and feelings to himself. Now, in slightly broken English, and just yards from where pitched battles were still taking place, he was relishing the chance to talk freely for the first time in his life without having to look over his shoulder for a secret policeman. 'We live like Third World people but we are First World people. We want to be able to show that we have all the capa­bilities to be First World people. Even the poor people here are civilised.' If Youssef can now speak openly for the first time, then this is also our first chance to listen, to find out what people like him want from the post-Arab Spring era. We can ask what kind of societies they are going to build and learn how their decisions will change our lives.

The only people of the old Middle East that the Western world thought it understood were the Israelis. The West knew much of their lore because their histories were intertwined. The Israelis were still seen as the homogeneous group of Europeans, surrounded by a sea of troubles, that built the Jewish homeland. But as the West enjoyed the celebrations of democracy emerging from the revolutions in the Arab world, it discovered that Israel did not. Why does the country that likes to boast it is the 'only democracy in the Middle East' think the Arab Spring was a catastrophe? Why has the bit of the region we thought was the most like us stopped thinking like us? The Arab world may have been going through a very noisy transition, but a quiet revolution is taking place in Israel too. It has rarely been more politically isolated than it is today. Its neighbourhood has radically changed but it has belligerently refused to adapt to that reality. 'Israel doesn't know what its best interests are,' said President Obama privately after he won his second term....