By Joost Hiltermann is Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, at the International Crisis Group.
The economic challenges faced by states and societies in the Middle East and North Africa are enormous even in the best of times. But today the region is facing a crisis of unprecedented magnitude that will set back efforts to address these challenges and indeed will cause a level of destruction that, assuming a gradual return to stability, will take decades to overcome. The key questions are: how can we limit the damage and prepare the ground for reconstruction, and also make efforts to protect the states still standing?
The region has been hit by an accumulating crisis of governance, culminating in the popular uprisings of 2011. The subsequent collapse of state systems throughout the region further demonstrated the bankruptcy of the prevailing order. Attempts to maintain (Jordan, Bahrain), renew (Tunisia), or restore (Egypt) that order have been feeble, with success far from guaranteed. Local conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen have started to metastasize and intersect, drawing in regional and even global powers, while radical non-state actors – principally the Islamic State and the PKK – are exploiting the opportunity chaos provides to advance their agenda of erasing 100-year-old borders.
Western states, with the U.S. in the lead, have largely been muted bystanders except for their military response to the perceived threat posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Some claim that the de facto U.S. withdrawal from the region created a vacuum in which regional powers, uncertain of how to protect their interests, started pioneering in dangerous ways, further inflaming the situation. Others argue that U.S. intervention on behalf of its clients (for example, in Syria) would only have made matters worse, and could have brought the United States and Russia in direct confrontation. The latter scenario remains possible, regardless of how one comes down in that debate.
The way to recovery must be two-pronged, and be driven by goodwill and very hard work. First, in cases of open conflict, concerted efforts must be made to pursue political settlements, mediated by the United Nations or other credible outside actors, as the best way to reduce polarization and radicalization, and thus take the wind out of the radical groups’ sails. Once ceasefires are in place, inclusive political processes must be launched to reach settlements that may not satisfy anyone but can bring a modicum of stability and peace for the next generation. At that point, reconstruction can begin, and the deeper economic challenges addressed.
Second, where states are still standing, the focus should be on nudging governments toward structural reforms at all levels in order to better immunize them against the elements that caused breakdown elsewhere. This will be a tricky balancing act, because some of these states face such a legitimacy deficit, and are staying in power through such naked repression, that outside support – based on the perception that their survival in a chaotic region has become an overriding imperative in order to prevent worse – may further entrench them rather than encourage them to reform, and thereby accelerate rather than reverse the process leading to their demise.
In addition to this two-pronged approach, Western states, which have a stake in a return to stability, should beware of overreacting to the threat posed by radical actors, and understand them as symptoms rather than causes of instability, even if these groups are now also driving events – in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. Domestic pressures in Europe – from the arrival of unwanted refugees and migrants, and extremists’ attacks in cities – may inform resort to military responses outside a political and strategic framework. Such pressures must be resisted, and such responses avoided, if we are to have any hope of recovery at all.
About the Author
Joost Hiltermann is Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, at the International Crisis Group, an independent NGO dedicated to preventing deadly conflict. He was executive director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch (1994-2002) and database coordinator and research coordinator of the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq in Ramallah (1985-1990). He is author of A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge, 2007), and Behind the Intifada: Labor and Women’s Movements in the Occupied Territories (Princeton, 1991). He holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Cruz.