Optimism versus pessimism in the Middle East

by CLAUDE SALHANI


For many people, the celebration of the new year is a time for opti­mism; a rebirth and a chance of renewal amid high hopes for positive change. World leaders and the Ro­man Catholic pope often use this time to call for a better tomorrow.

In the Middle East, however, given conditions in many coun­tries, the mood tends to be more pessimistic than optimistic.

Iranians ushered in the new year with anti-government protests, the largest since the major uprising in 2009. The demonstrations, many which turned violent, took the govern­ment by surprise.

The protests started over high rates of unemployment and rising cost of living but quickly expanded to include many other grievances the people have with the autocratic theocracy. These include demands for greater political freedom and less interference by the government in individual rights. One act of defiance to the regime in these latest protests saw young women defy the strict dress code imposed on their sex and removed their headscarves.

This may not sound like much to a Western audience but in a conservative society ruled by the clergy punishment for such actions can be severe, especially if the government wants to set an example and frighten others from following suit.

Security forces responded with a heavy hand, with at least 21 deaths among the protesters. Authorities warned there would be “serious consequences” if the protests continued and dozens of people were arrested. US Presi­dent Donald Trump tweeted: “The world is watching.”

So is Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who blamed the protests on “Iran’s enemies.” The Iranian leader did not name those “enemies” but it is largely assumed he meant the United States (the Great Satan) and Israel (the Lesser Satan). In a follow-up tweet, Trump said the Iranian regime was “brutal and corrupt.” Trump added: “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal Iranian regime.”

Iran is not the only country where the Iranian regime is facing potential trouble. The mullahs are involved in Iraq and in Syria, fighting in support of the regime of Bashar Assad. They are involved in Lebanon through their ties with Hezbollah and they are involved in Yemen, supporting an anti-Saudi militia in the country’s civil war.

Iraq is reeling from the years of strife since the US invasion and subsequent occupation. Here, too, Iran is deeply involved in backing the Shias and interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

Moving across the region, the situation in the Palestinian territories regressed in 2017 with Trump declaring that the United States would consider Jerusalem the capital of Israel, ordering the transfer of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and igniting a few fires along the way as Palestinian youths took to the streets in protest.

Trump ignored the counsel of numerous world leaders, all of whom have far greater experience and knowledge of the issue. All cautioned that such a decision should only be made in the context of negotiations for an overall settlement of the Israeli- Palestinian dispute.

Lebanon is once again caught up in a political storm with Hezbollah representing Iranian interests on one side and Prime Minister Saad Hariri standing up for Saudi Arabia’s position.

In Egypt, the once serene Sinai is a place of strife where the Islamic State (ISIS) has found enough recruits to turn the area into an outpost of violence. The targeting of police officers and Egyptian military by ISIS follow­ers has become a common occurrence.

The fighting in Yemen seems to have taken a turn for the worst with the pro-Iranian militia deploying missiles against Saudi Arabia.

Even the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where life seemed sheltered, life is changing with the imposition of a value added tax on most goods. A reality check for everybody.

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