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khouri - Middle East

New Players in the Arab Sands and Urban Shadows

by Rami G. KhouriReleased: 20 Aug 2008

BEIRUT -- The memorandum of understanding for easing sectarian tensions signed in Beirut Monday between Hizbullah and an obscure Lebanese Salafist (Sunni fundamentalist) Islamist movement isn't likely to have a major impact on anything.

But it is highly symbolic in revealing the constantly evolving line-up of major political actors throughout the Arab world. Key forces in the Arab world are very different from what they were a generation ago, and new actors keep emerging, representing different constituencies, and embracing new tactics and strategies.

Dealing with this new line-up of players in the region by applying old rules -- from the Cold War or the Arab-Israeli conflict of the 1970s to 90s -- only generates failure and frustration. There is indeed a "new Middle East" being born, as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predicted in mid-2006, but its contours and protagonists are very different from what she had in mind.
These days, any attempt to address the many issues that define the Middle East and its often tense relations with the West will get nowhere unless it comes to grips with changing political sentiments, activism, legitimacy, and representation throughout the region. This is especially relevant for those who experience persistent failure, or stalemate, or just befuddlement in their dealing with the Arab world. And that would include Israel and the United States -- but increasingly, Europe.

Lebanon provides perhaps the region's most clear example of this evolution, as symbolized by this agreement between the leading Shiite group, Hizbullah, and the Belief and Justice Movement (BJM) -- a rather obscure Sunni Islamist Salafist movement, headed by a cousin of a much more renowned Lebanese Salafist leader (who quickly criticized the agreement as meaningless).

The accord signed between Sunni and Shiite Muslims acknowledges that this fracture is the most dangerous in Lebanon and the wider Arab region right now. In the past half-century, recurring fault-lines in Lebanon appeared variously between Christians and Muslims, Palestinians and Lebanese, Syrians and Lebanese, Israelis and Lebanese, or Arab Nationalists/leftists and pro-Western conservatives. Today, aggravated by the Iraq war, but also anchored in older local trends, Sunni-Shiite tensions are the most immediately troubling domestic tension in the region.

The Hizbullah-BJM document banned and denounced all forms of sectarian incitement and "any aggression by a Muslim faction on another Muslim faction," and also called for confronting the "American agenda." Its particulars are less important than its symbolic affirmation that Shiite empowerment and Sunni Salafist self-assertion are among the most popular movements spreading throughout the Middle East. It also dramatizes the reality that four other trends or groups that had dominated this region for much of life since the 1920s -- secular and leftist-nationalist political parties, government-centered parties, Western-oriented elites, and military regimes -- have lost their glamour, impact and credibility.

These four groupings have been vacated in the realms of legitimacy, services, and allegiance, and have been replaced to a large extent by Shiite and Sunni Islamists, some dominant tribal forces, and the private sector. Where Sunni or Shiite Islamists come into contact with foreign armies -- Iraqi and Palestinian mainly, but also Lebanese in the 1980s -- they also don the mantle of resistance or liberation movements.

Sunni Salafist Islamist movements are most diverse in their ideologies and tactics. They range from criminal terror groups like Al-Qaeda, and smaller cousins like Fateh el-Islam, to community-based peaceful movements that focus on education, charity, and other faith-based service activities that are as popular among American presidential candidates in the United States as they are among Islamists in the Arab world.

What does this mean in everyday life? If you are a stranger walking around South Beirut or South Lebanon with a camera today, you will have to clear your movements with Hizbullah. If you do the same in parts of Tripoli, you will need to do the same with an assortment of Sunni Salafist movements. If you try this in the Jordanian provinces, tribal groups will enquire about you. In central Damascus or other Syrian towns, the security services will check you out. In Dubai, Bahrain or Doha, you will likely encounter a person offering you a cell phone deal or a 30-year low-cost mortgage on a new apartment overlooking a replica of Windsor Castle.

This triumph of Arab sectarianism, security services, and commercialism coexists in a constantly evolving equilibrium of political power, service delivery, military power, and social representation in the Arab world.

Today, assorted Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon make a little deal, mirroring big tensions among them around the Middle East. Tomorrow, the deal might be between labor unions and security services in Egypt; or the American army and tribal leaders in western Iraq; or between the Israelis and Hamas; or militants and the education minister in Yemen -- or other new players who will keep emerging from the sands and the urban shadows.

Such will be the case as long as Arab statehood is thin, citizenship is undefined, security is erratic, and basic human services are weak.


Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2008 Rami G. Khouri – distributed by Agence Global

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Released: 20 August 2008
Word Count: 824

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