Just when we think that things can’t get any worse, they just might. I wonder how many of us who wished our friends a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year infused that message with any real confidence. The reality is that most of the world is in a mess; sadly, created by mankind’s greed, egoism, xenophobia and will to power. Instead of humanity evolving, coming together as citizens of one world, as seemed to be the promise at the end of the Cold War, reason has been replaced by religious and political extremism and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged with every man for himself.

The peoples of the Mena region are apprehensive about tomorrow and are right to be so. With the exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring, heartily celebrated just a year ago, has left a foggy landscape in its wake choking the nascent freedom. Dictators have been made to fall but the teething process towards democracy is likely to be long and painful especially in Egypt where there is no shared vision and when the voices of the idealistic youth who triggered the country’s metamorphosis have been drowned-out by the military rulers and Islamist parties. The jury’s still out on the new Libya, whose government is having a hard time stripping militant groups of their weapons and reconciling former anti-Gaddafi and pro-Gaddafi tribes and townsfolk.  There is a far greater question mark over Syria as the Bashar Al Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia, brutally clings to power and another question over conflict-ridden Yemen battling Islamist insurgents in the south and pro-Iranian Houthis in the north.

The picture is further muddied by a dramatic rise in sectarian tensions in Iraq since the departure of the last US combat soldiers with some majority Sunni provinces seeking autonomy within a federalist system — a tense situation exacerbated by the issuance of an arrest warrant for the Sunni Vice-President Tarek Al Hashemi and the boycotting of Parliament by the largest Sunni-backed political bloc. With the question of whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk should be controlled by Arabs or Kurds still unresolved, some pundits are predicting Iraq’s ultimate three-way split.

The unpalatable truth is that the Arab world has never been as vulnerable to internal conflict and civil unrest as it is now. Compounding the prevailing uncertainty is Iran that has recently launched war games in the Strait of Hormuz which it has threatened to close to shipping should Washington sanction its oil exports. The White House is clearly undeterred. On Saturday, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law sanctioning financial institutions that deal with Iran’s Central Bank. Such open hostility between Iran and US-led western powers could turn-on-dime making the region a tinderbox.

Israel hasn’t emerged unscathed from 2011 either. In the autumn, the Jewish state was beset by massive street protests fuelled by increasingly unaffordable housing and the rising cost of living.

And like several Arab countries, Israel is getting to grips with its own religious extremists, the ultra-orthodox Haredim, who are treating females like an unclean subspecies that should be dominated and segregated. They terrorise neighbourhoods by throwing stones at passing vehicles on the Sabbath; they are pressurising advertisers not to use females in ads, they insist on segregated buses and caused outrage among secular Israelis when they physically attacked an eight-year-old girl for “immodest attire”.

Locomotive for

unrest

If the moderates in Israel and the Arab world fail to win the argument the Middle East will be even more polarised and volatile than it is today leaving hopes of reviving a peace process dead and liable to being buried for a long time to come, in the event a Republican other than pro-Palestinian Ron Paul, wrests the Oval Office from its incumbent as most are itching to approve Israel’s annexation of West Bank colonies and to accept Occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Elsewhere, the main locomotive for unrest is poverty which since the 2008 global economic downturn has been stretching its tentacles into the world’s wealthiest nations where the gap between rich and poor has widened to unacceptable levels. The US and Europe are being strangled by fiscal debt accrued when the good times looked like they would never stop rolling and now it’s the lowest-paid that are being asked to pay the piper. Hunger and homelessness are on the rise in US cities; the Census Bureau recently announced that half the country’s population is poor or low-income.  Greek parents unable to feed their children are being forced to abandon them to social services and UK cuts are causing joblessness, affecting patient care and leaving some families struggling to maintain a roof over their heads. The Occupy movements in the US and Britain are a predictable symptom of the disparity between rich and poor. If the euro fails to survive, the situation will only get worse as its collapse would take a toll on just about every economy. This New Year may be fraught with imponderables but fate often intervenes in mysterious ways dragging us back from the brink at the nth minute. Aware of the danger-strewn path, it may be that the human spirit at its highest will, in the end, prevail.

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs.

           – Gulf News