Friday, January 28, 2011

The story so far...

So the funny thing is, I started writing about the new developments in the Middle East last week, and since that time things have gone from bananas to apesh*t.

First of all, all bets are off in Israeli and Palestinian politics right now. Al Jazeera, perhaps inspired by the Wikileaks dump, released decades of private negotiation conversations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Crazy stuff. I don’t know where to begin, actually. Suffice to say, Mahmoud Abbas, the semi-official leader of the Palestinian Authority (at least the parts that aren’t in Gaza) has at various times offered Israel far more than what anybody might imagine in exchange for some semblance of dignity and independence. (Although, given the near total capitulation evidenced in his overtures, he may have given up on dignity a long time ago)

Israel, still reeling from a variety of corruption investigations, and Ehud Barak’s sudden breakaway from the relatively strong (and quite conservative) Labor Party, has settled into their favorite pastime, arguing with each other about politics. In the meantime, the Palestinians (having learned something from the Israelis over the past several decades) have taken up doing the exact same thing. In this case, Palestinians in Gaza are loudly denouncing Mahmoud Abbas for his duplicitous actions that were ostensibly on behalf of the Palestinian peoples (but conducted without their knowledge or consent). In the West Bank, however, Palestinians have identified the true criminal in this situation: Al Jazeera – some have gone so far as to accuse them of forging the documents entirely, or at the very least, releasing them to undermine Abbas’ authority (who knew such a thing existed?)

Most surprising for Israelis in this situation is the fact that, for once, the finger of blame isn’t pointed at them. (at this point, responsibility for the actual leaking of the documents is being ascribed to an American employee of Al Jazeera, but further revelations are still forthcoming.)

At the same time, there’s been a groundswell of support for an end-run around the stalled peace process through direct declaration of Palestinian statehood. Russia and several South American countries have already made it clear that they will recognize an independent Palestinian state. Ireland upgraded the Palestinian mission in Dublin to full Embassy status, and the Palestinian mission in DC started to fly the Palestinian flag last Wednesday.


But, a Middle East that contains only Israel and Palestine is, frankly, not a very interesting Middle East at all. Well…interesting perhaps, but not nearly as interesting as the Middle East with all the other stuff. So - riots in Tunisia, riots in Egypt. Additionally, there are also been reports of riots in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, and Libya.

Thanks to the beauty of Google, a map of all of these places can easily be found with a click of the mouse.

Rather than expecting you, my stalwart reader, to extensively research all these places I’ll give you a very quick overview just so you know what’s at stake (but further reading is always encouraged).

Algeria: Tenuous stability has been the norm for the past decade. In 1991 conservative Islamists won big at the polls during an election year, scaring the pants off of several people. The military (with some western backing) stopped the elections and took over to prevent a Muslim rise to power. The result: a decade of vicious civil war that only ended post 9/11 when the US started pouring money into the war on terror (which included the Algerian government’s anti-Islamist military actions). The government was ranked 105 out of 178 on the 2010 corruption index, which isn’t too bad (but it isn’t that great). They have substantial natural gas reserves keeping their economy afloat, but they have serious unemployment issues and a ballooning under-thirty population.

Yemen: For a goodly party of the 20th century Yemen was two countries – North Yemen and South Arabia. In 1990 they unified as the Republic of Yemen, and in 1999 they held something that vaguely approximated free elections (the winner just happen to be the guy who had been the military dictator for the previous nine years). Ranked 131 out of 179 countries on the 2010 corruption index Yemen has just enough oil revenue to keep the government functioning. They face 65% unemployment, a ballooning under-30 population, and 70% of their citizenry are addicted to a leafy chewable narcotic called qat. Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses – In Yemen, narcotics are the opiate of the masses. Yemen could get very ugly very quickly – people don’t have much respect for the government and there’s already a low level civil war going on up north.

Jordan: The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is run by a smart royal family, has a good human rights record, and is only 50 of 179 on the 2010 corruption index – way better than most of its neighbors (Qatar, Bahrain, Israel, and the UAE are the only nearby countries with a better record). The economy isn’t great, but it’s stable - local protests probably won’t do much here.

Libya: Very quiet from the outside. Some protests, but it’s a big country with a small population, and a robust military/police junta. Qaddafi is the longest serving African dictator, and he didn’t get there by being sloppy. You can call him crazy, but don’t call him stupid. Barring a military coup and/or Qaddafi’s death nothing will change unless he decides The times they are a-changing. He may even figure out a way to turn this to his advantage.

Egypt: Could be very ugly. Best case scenario - Mubarak flees (rumor has it that his son has already left), elections are held, elBaradei becomes president and everyone is happy. Worst case scenario – Mubarak gets overly possessive about his presidency, police action becomes military action, clubs and teargas become bullets and tanks, and Cairo ends up like Baghdad in 2004/2005. We’ll have a better idea of what’s happening after Friday evening prayers.

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