Retrospective on the Tumultuous Struggles that Rocked the Arab World in 2016

The Only Way is Up
By Galal Nassar

The only way is upNations and societies have always been prey to cycles in which they rise and fall, prosper and decline. History has apparently destined mankind to such cycles. They have, to a large extent, determined the shape of countries and regions around the world and Egypt and the Middle East – that strategic nexus on the global map – is no exception.

In Al-Ahram Weekly’s year-ender edition 2016 appears to be the year in which we reached the nadir of one such cycle. It is the year in which things seemed to hit rock bottom, 12 fraught months in which the domestic, regional and international stages have been littered by a series of bloody and painful events. It may seem inappropriate at such a time to voice any note of optimism but if this is indeed the nadir then surely we can raise the hope that the inexorable cycle will now move into an upswing, shifting course towards safer and more stable conditions.

Egypt and the rest of the Middle East have been buffeted by extensions of the upheavals that first began to sweep through the region six years ago during the so-called Arab Spring. The storms have been of such a magnitude that three Arab states stand on the brink of collapse. Yemen, Libya and Syria, where national armies disintegrated and central authority collapsed, are drowning in civil strife and bloodshed. Millions of people from these countries have been displaced by warfare and turned into refugees in alien and unwelcoming lands. Those that remain have faced ever harsher deprivations and dangers. Iraq stands at a crossroads. It is struggling to recapture seized territory and reassert national sovereignty over its territory and resources. And while Egypt and Tunisia have largely been spared such a fate this month’s vile bombing of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo underlines that there is no room for complacency.

The Arab region is home to five per cent of the world’s population yet possesses 25 per cent of the world’s weapons. Sixty per cent of those killed in armed conflicts during the past decade are from the region. These figures speak volumes about the nature of this phase in our history. They tell us that our region is vulnerable to every conceivable project to fragment it. Its soil provides fertile ground for the most convoluted conspiracies.

This year brought the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Signed in 1916 between France and Great Britain and witnessed by imperial Russia, the secret agreement divided the Fertile Crescent between France and Britain, demarcating what would become their areas of influence following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire which controlled the region, at least nominally, until the end of World War I.

History appears to have moved full circle with the centenary of the agreement. The region is divided and debilitated, the subject of scenarios of partition and subordination as it staggers beneath the weight of conflicts and vying regional and international ambitions. But just as 1916 marked a major turning so, in retrospect, will 2016 appear to be the beginning of major transformations.

Those who dismiss as conspiracy theories the designs that are unravelling across the region have failed to grasp the lessons of history, of the cold and hot wars that have punctuated more than seven decades and in which the Middle East was a major theatre.

Between the end of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union four-and-a-half decades later the Western and Eastern camps mustered every economic, scientific and technological, cultural and propaganda tool in their respective arsenals as they battled one another. Other countries were pressed into aligning themselves and pitting their human resources behind this or that superpower. The process generated a mammoth conflict system. Superficially an ideological conflict between socialism and capitalism, or between communism and liberalism, in reality it was a colossal battle for power and control over sources of wealth and oil.

Egypt was at the centre of events in 2016. When the Egyptian people rose up on 30 June 2013 to rectify the course of the 25 January 2011 Revolution which had been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and its figurehead in the presidential palace, they altered regional equations and threw a spanner into the fulfilment of a Western vision for the rise to power of Islamist movements across the Arab world. The West viewed the pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk as ideal candidates to serve its interests in this region. The Sunni, Shia and Jewish political right played a role in this scheme, whatever the impression of our intelligentsia who, at the time, predicted an increased possibility of warfare between them.

In Egypt 2016 saw the compounding of the costs exacted against a people who had rebelled against Muslim Brotherhood rule. An open war on tourism and remittances from abroad combined with surreptitious foreign funding of terrorist groups in Sinai and in Libya, particularly the area along Egypt’s western border. The aim was to wreak economic havoc and bring the Egyptian state to its knees, forcing it to accept the political return of the Muslim Brotherhood in spite of the hundreds of lives sacrificed by our army, police and citizens.

In the face of this economic attrition the government took a number of difficult decisions – bitter medicine is how some describe the economic measures that were introduced. For the first time in Egypt’s modern history the government grappled with radical economic reform rather than resorting to palliatives. Measures introduced included the floating of the Egyptian pound, a partial lifting of subsidies on petroleum products and the screening of lists of citizens eligible for subsidised goods. The process exposed weaknesses in the government’s ability to control inflation, market instability and shortages in strategic goods, most notably medical supplies and widely needed pharmaceutical products. As a result we moved from one crisis to another. Broad swathes of Egyptian society were caught in the tightening of the economic vice. Increasing poverty rates gnawed away at the remnants of the middle class, the backbone of political and economic progress in contemporary Egyptian history.

The situation was made worse by the inept handling of a number of issues, not least the decline in public services such as healthcare, education and transport, the regulation of the activities of civil society, corruption in the wheat procurement and supply system, illegal migration, the crisis surrounding the Tiran and Sanafir islands and its repercussions – the demonstrations and arrest of young activists and the ensuing conflict with the Journalists’ Syndicate.

Despite the above, 2016 produced signs that we might rebound from this grim nadir. The light at the end of a gruelling tunnel emanates primarily from the mega projects that are being brought on line with amazing resolve and energy. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has pledged that 1,300 major projects will be in action by the middle of 2018, ready to serve as the engine of economic growth. The government has adopted policies to improve the climate for foreign and domestic investment and an increase in the number of tourists has raised hopes for the recovery of the battered tourist industry. Giant oil and gas projects that are expected to come into operation in 2017, including the Zahr offshore oil field in the Mediterranean. Young Egyptians also received a strong dose of hope from the Sharm El-Sheikh Youth Conference and the government’s commitment to implement its recommendations.

Next year holds out a glimmer of hope that Syria will regain its unity, expel the militia groups that call themselves the armed opposition and set into motion a political process that will enable the Syrian people to choose a new president, parliament and system of government; that Yemen will be able to pull itself back from the brink of becoming a failed state and embark on the political process necessary to halt the ongoing bloodshed and destruction; that the world will stand behind Libya and its national army which is working to rid its land of armed violence parading beneath the banner of religion and that the countries of the Gulf will not allow themselves be drawn into a sectarian war with Iran, the flames of which threaten to engulf the entire region.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Networks of Terror in Egypt and Libya
Egypt: Facing Daesh on All Fronts
Libya Will Not Change for the Better Under the Rule of Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood
Salafism And The CIA: A Winning Formula To Destabilize Africa, The Middle East And Russia
Syria And Libya: The Role Of The CIA, UN and The Muslim Brotherhood In Creating “Failed States”
Al-Qaeda’s 20-Year Plan: From 9/11 to Final Victory
How Egypt is Stopping the Next “Syrian War”
History Commons Chronology of Alliances Between the Muslim Brotherhood, Western Intelligence Agencies and Al Qaeda