American-Russian relations in the next year, in both form and substance, will no doubt impact the transitional period in the Arab region and the Middle East as a whole, but it will not be the only engine for its development as was the case during the Cold War between the two superpowers - the United States and the former Soviet Union. To be sure, local actors seem to have awoken from the slumber that followed from their assumption that their fate is dictated by the major powers or the major regional nations. The elite is no longer alone when it comes to leading or controlling change, and today, populism is competing with elitism over decision-making. For one thing, social media networks have injected confidence into the young generation, especially in relation to determining their fate and taking part in drafting agendas and policies in their countries. Furthermore, women have managed to overcome the barriers imposed on them though abasement and marginalization. All this is new and advantageous for the future of the Arab region, albeit the latter is still undergoing a difficult and dangerous labor. Indeed, Egypt is testing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, who are both challenging Egypt and her traditional identity in the battle over its constitution. Meanwhile, Tunisia has yet to finish with the fateful battles over her identity and its future. Yemen continues to slowly crawl towards change, amid a combination of tribalism and religious orientation, and is suffering at its very core.
Libya continues to be in intensive care, while in Syria, contradictions and bargains are converging over the body parts of innocents. Iraq is regressing back to the fronts of danger, and Jordan is resisting tumbling. Lebanon is walking a tightrope between suicide and salvation. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are watching and taking part in the battle over Syria, which is also being fought by Iran, where the regime is tightening the life jacket around itself while taking on a posture of pride. Turkey is jumping to regional leadership, albeit with the burdens of internal opposition and the hesitation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of which it is a member. Israel is lost and afraid, and is teetering between arrogance and condescension, while continuing to rely on the United States, although it is deeply aware that it is no longer above being held to account with American impunity under all circumstances.
It will be a new day for Palestine in 2013, if it manages to overcome intra-Palestinian strife and if the Palestinians make good use of the rare opportunity they have at present. Nevertheless, it will be a difficult year for the Middle East if the U.S. administration is reluctant to pursue qualitatively new and necessary policies; or if Russia shows intransigence and continues with its suicidal policies that are also deadly to others. 2013 may also be a disappointing year if the resolve of the youth - both men and women - falters, or the generation supporting the youths backs down. To be sure, the battle over shaping the national fate remains in its beginnings, and this is not a time for weakness and second-guessing.
For many decades, there was estrangement among the generations in the Arab region. Successful men addressed youths condescendingly with the presumption that younger generations were ignorant as a result of their youth. Yet successful youths addressed older women with the assumption that the latter did not understand the language of politics, business and achievements either. Some even went further and took to belittling the participation of women in uprisings against regimes, for example. That era is over, no matter how strongly the men of religious extremism believe that the "stick" that they shake and use to beat young women to discipline them, because they dress provocatively, as they purport, would subjugate Arab women and take them back to ignorance and subservience. This is what happened in Iran, for example, when the revolution erupted and then all throughout the tenure of the Islamic Republic there. They became alert when they glimpsed a skirt that revealed a woman's ankle. They shook the stick and they used it. Iranian women remained patient and silent, thinking that this would be a transitional and fleeting period. This was 33 years ago, and things are much the same today.
Women in Iran paid the price for the authoritarianism of religious rule - and women in Egypt are still in danger of meeting the same fate, especially if the opposition should falter or yield to the desires of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. What these Islamists ultimately want is religious authoritarianism and the passing of the constitution, which includes Article 219. This article states that "The principles of Sharia shall include general evidence and foundations, rules and jurisprudence as well as sources accepted by doctrines of Sunni Islam," which would render the interpretation of Sharia ever more stringent. This was revealed by the vice president of the Salafi Dawah group, Sheikh Yasser Borhamy, in a video posted online, in which he ostensibly speaks about successfully managing to "Islamize" the Egyptian draft constitution that was subsequently put to a referendum.
Egypt will remain caught between a rock and a hard place, as long as the Islamists - Muslim Brotherhood of Salafis - are determined to monopolize the constitution and power in the country, and take Egypt hostage for the sake of their ideologies. But half of the Egyptians do not, and will not, consent. To be sure, elections and referendums are not all that democracy entails, and the monopoly of power, overlooking others' rights, and assaulting freedoms are in complete contradiction with the principles of democracy. Doing away with diversity in Egypt will not be an easy task, no matter how strongly the Islamist factions coalesce to eliminate diversity, modernity, and secularism in the country.
In other words, Egypt needs to combat the monopoly of the new rulers, so as not to become another Iran. Here, the next major battle will be the parliamentary elections. The battle over the controversial constitution has divided Egypt, and highlighted the insistence of a large segment of Egyptians to oppose the coalition of the Islamists, and combat it to avert imposing the "Islamization" of the constitution on everyone. The result of the referendum which was imposed by President Mohamed Morsi saw a turnover of 32.9 percent, with 63.8 percent voting yes amid complaints about violations which observers and opposition sources said would "invalidate" the referendum. Be that as it may, Egypt will remain caught up in its predicament for a long time - if it did not slide first into chaos, bloody battles and a civil war similar to the one that once struck in Lebanon and the one now looming in the horizon for Iraq.
In Syria, meanwhile, what is happening is today more violent, more cruel and more dangerous, regardless of whether one can classify it as a civil war or not. The multitude of often competing initiatives demonstrates that anxiety has made its way to the sponsors of the regime in Damascus, and that there is an opening or a window that this anxiety has opened, towards looking for a "political solution rather than a ''military option''. Iran has an initiative, China has its four points, and Russia has its proposal in a new light, which is all remarkable, not only in terms of their initiative-taking qualities, but also in terms of the substance of each one of them. The bottom line of them all is the acknowledgement that it is not possible to continue to cling on to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, China did not mention him in its program. Russia has recognized the inevitability of a transition process towards a new regime, but wants Assad to be part of that process. And Iran, for its part, wants Assad to be part of the process and to remain in power until elections are held in 2014, which may result in removing him from power. The common denominator, then, is that no one is clinging on to the survival of the Assad regime.
UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi ostensibly appears like a messenger of American-Russian agreement. But he is also a man who holds all the strings of the various initiatives, including those of China and Iran. From the beginning, Brahimi has taken up one position, namely that there is no escape from a political solution, and that the only way to achieve one would be through the equivalent of a Geneva communiqué 2, that is, a transitional process towards a new regime in Syria that would avoid falling into the so-called "Assad obstacle." Brahimi felt that he will sooner or later have an encounter with a "political solution," after the warring sides become exhausted and ask for or accept salvation efforts. He also felt that any political process requires the agreement of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, led by the United States and Russia. As soon as he sensed a change in the U.S. and Russian positions, he went to Damascus, this week, to meet with the senior leaders in the regime and the opposition, in search for a political solution.
Interestingly, the Arab countries - particularly in the Gulf - seem to be out of sync with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Iran, at least in terms of pushing for a political solution at this juncture instead of a military solution. The Arab League must no doubt be up to speed with what is happening, since Brahimi after all represents it. But the GCC summit seemed absent from what Brahimi is doing - either by its decision or by his decision, but also possibly in coordination between the two. What matters ultimately is for the prospects for a political solution to be serious and real. Otherwise, Brahimi's mission and his efforts will come to an end. For one thing, some believe that continuing to talk about a political situation is the equivalent of buying time and prolonging the costly conflict, no matter what the purpose of this may be and how good intentions are. Yet others believe - and even insist - that what is happening in Syria is premeditated, and resembles what he former U.S. President George W. Bush did when he invited various kinds of jihadists, from al-Qaeda and its sisters, to Iraq. And they came, and he defeated them to keep them away from American cities.
The proponents of this view say that both the U.S. and Russia want to defeat the jihadists decisively, and that this is why they are now in Syria. They add that Bashar al-Assad is the choice of both sides, and will remain in power because he is the only one able to defeat al-Qaeda and its sisters in Syria. Thus the U.S. and Russian leaderships have agreed on Assad staying in power. At any case, this is what many theories in the Arab region purport - with some firmly speculating in this direction, and others absolutely insisting on other assessments. Yet the U.S. is always present in all the theories, speculations and assumptions, not only in relation to the process of change in the Arab region, but also, naturally, in relation to Israel and its position in the Middle East, and the U.S. adoption of it, like a child who is always pampered in any and all circumstances. Yet 2013 will not be an ordinary year for Israel, having now become subject to accountability and the reach of an international tribunal, as soon as the Palestinian Authority decides to head to the International Criminal Court to request trying Israel for war crimes, and for building settlements that are illegal under international law.
The Palestinian Authority did not hasten to ratify the Rome Statute as soon as it obtained recognition as a non-member State of the United Nations. It is waiting and retaining this precious card to use it well, as part of a massive international process if Israel continues to build settlements. And it will not be able to wait for very long. This is understood by everyone, with the Europeans in the forefront. For this reason, they are studying the possibility of taking actions that would awaken the Israeli government before it drives Israel to suicide. American public opinion leaders also have begun to talk openly about the need to stop the United States from turning a blind eye to what Israel is doing, with complete disregard to U.S. interests. For instance, Thomas Friedman wrote in defense of nominating Chuck Hagel for the post of U.S. Secretary of Defense, in response to the campaign against him which claims that he is hostile to Israel simply because he dared to criticize it. He wrote, "The only thing standing between Israel and national suicide any more is America and its willingness to tell Israel the truth." If the Israeli elections, as expected, result in a victory for the extreme right, which wants to annex the West Bank and the ethnically cleanse the Jewish state from non-Jews, then that would be truly a national suicide for Israel in the view of some, but the only solution to the demographic crisis in the view of others [in Israel].
At any rate, Europe needs to stop hiding behind the United States on this issue. Europe possesses the means to influence Israel directly, either to save it from suicide or to prevent it from committing war crimes for which it will be held accountable, not only before the International Criminal Court, but also in front of the world's conscience. The time has come for Europe to assume its responsibilities, as it is no longer enough for it to consider economic aid to the Palestinians the equivalent of a waiver for Europe to shirk its duties.
Next year is the year for stopping to bury one's head in the sand. Everyone is under scrutiny. The time for exemption from accountability is over.