Looking Back at 2011, The Year of the Regional Cataclysm

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Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart;
The centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …

— William Butler Yeats

By all accounts, 2011 has been a cataclysmic year in the Middle East. What began with a government official’s harassment of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, and ended in his self-immolation on December 18,2010, sparked riots that led to what has been dubbed “The Arab Spring” but that we at EMET have more appropriately entitled “The Arab Tsunami.”. The events in Tunisia resulted in a wave of protests that has shaken up the Arab and Muslim worlds, stretching all the way from Morocco to Yemen.

As anyone who has not been asleep for the greater part of this year is aware, what transpired in the region in 2011 has been more dramatic than anything to occur in the Middle East since the days after World War I, when French diplomat Francois Georges Picot, together with British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes, carved up the region for their countries.

What has happened since last December 18 has awakened the populations throughout the region to protest their countries’ poor economic conditions and total lack of human rights, as well as corruption within the region’s leadership. That then led, among other astonishing developments, to the resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia; the end of the 33-year reign of Yemenite President Ali Abdullah Saleh;  the overthrow and death of Libyan strongman Muammmar Gaddafi and, most astonishingly, the end of the 30-year, iron-clad reign of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

As of now, more than 37,000 people have died in these protests, and the region is still awash with blood. What will be the final outcome of these cataclysmic events is difficult to predict. Sometimes, revolutions result in more freedom, as defined from the liberal, Western point of view. The French Revolution took decades and finally resulted in more freedoms. A revolution, however, might result in a more oppressive regime within an overarching system, such as occurred in the Russian Revolution of 1917, or the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

We at EMET have long seen the rising tide of radical Islamism and have expressed the fear that what began with the Facebook generation by a few young, freedom-loving activists (in the Western sense of the concept) would lead to elections ushering in Islamist regimes. That is because the people who truly have the political power and infrastructure control the mosques.

We are witnessing now, as in Germany in 1939 and in Gaza in 2006, the reality that one election does not a democracy make.

EMET has stressed throughout this year that democracy entails the chance to have second, third and fourth elections, and that the institutions that allow a person to dissent without fear of one’s very life must already be in place: a free and independent press, a free and independent judiciary, freedom of assemblage. And, as Natan Sharansky has written: the freedom to scream from the middle of the public square and criticize those in power, in the government.

So, where are we today? Just looking at this week’s headlines, I’d like to present an overview of a few hot spots in this troubled region.


More than 6,200 people have been murdered by the brutal boot of the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad within the last several months of the uprising, including hundreds of children. Hundreds, if not thousands, more have disappeared from the streets, perhaps languishing in jail, where God only knows the abuse to which they have been subjected, if they even remain alive.  The Syrian government claims that the uprising was orchestrated by “foreign terrorists.” As I write these words, residents of the besieged city of Homs cry out for the world to come and witness the endless bloodshed, which has killed more than 100 residents over the past few days. Videos posted throughout the Internet show blood-soaked streets in that city, with bodies lying about. Homs has been cut off from food and electricity, and, in a scene reminiscent of the film Schindler’s List, the regime’s soldiers take pot shots at people leaving their homes during certain hours. The brave dissidents there, despite, the level of brutality that this oppressive regime has stooped to, have not given up.

EMET has been urging strong American sanctions against Syria, as well as covert or overt help for the dissidents. Replacing the Assad government has got to be better than the current situation. Furthermore, Syria is part of the Iranian constellation, and anything that weakens Teheran’s sphere of influence is a good thing.


The results of the long-awaited second of the three rounds of parliamentary elections are finally in, and no surprises occurred. As EMET predicted, the Islamist parties received more than 75 percent of the vote. The highest percentage of votes went to Salafist parties that are even more extreme than the horrific Muslim Brotherhood. This all but paves the way for a radical Sharia state to Israel’s immediate west and the continuation of an open smuggling corridor of goods, weapons and fighters into Hamas-controlled Gaza. The eight million Coptic Christians in Egypt have long endured persecution, but since Mubarak’s overthrow, this minority has endured massacres and unspeakable abuses.

The Egyptian military that has maintained control since the ouster of Mubarak has been exceedingly brutal, particularly in abusing female protestors, who, when arrested, have endured humiliating and painful “virginity tests,” which the army claims protects the women from the charge of prostitution.  This week, millions of viewers were stunned by the YouTube video of a female demonstrator savagely beaten by the Egyptian military; her abaya (cloak) was opened, with her bare midriff and her blue bra appearing as an Egyptian officer prepared to stomp on her with his boot.

I am certain that when the Tahrir Square demonstrations began earlier this year, none of the organizers thought it would have come to this.

Israel has no assurances that there will not be a radical, Sunni Islamic state along on its border or that Egypt will — despite public pronouncements due to diplomatic and economic factors — uphold the fragile 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel. In fact, both of the major Egyptian parties have stated that the treaty has to be reexamined.

Since the Camp David Accords was signed, America has elevated the Egyptian military from a C-, Soviet-equipped force to an A+, American-equipped one. EMET has been alone on Capitol Hill in arguing, ever since the demonstrations began in Tahrir Square last winter, that America should withhold further military aid until the results of the elections are known. The results show that, as predicted, Sharia has swept through the region. EMET calls for an immediate cessation of all military funding and weapon shipments to Egypt.

Palestinian Authority-Hamas

Taking a cue from the success of its Islamist brothers in Egypt, Hamas decided this week to enter into the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria, if you will), which are due to take place in May. Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar has expressed every confidence in winning the elections.

Beyond that, last Thursday, the Palestinian Liberation Organization — which many world bodies, including the United Nations, feels has the sole legitimacy for representing the Palestinian people — held a historic meeting in Ramallah, where an accord was reached to open up its umbrella group to “activate and reconstruct” it to include organizations that do not currently belong. This paves the way for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to join the PLO.[1]

Just as the Salafists participated in the Egyptian elections not to share power, but to dominate, Hamas is now entering into a relationship with the PLO to dominate it.

I am certain we will soon hear pundits inside the Washington Beltway saying that now is the time for Israel to make dramatic concessions for peace, to buoy Fatah’s chances of winning in the upcoming elections.

Yes, you heard it right: Israel will be asked to sacrifice her own strategic depth, once again, in this tumultuous and rapidly growing Islamist region of the world, for the sake of internal Palestinian politics and to inject a transfusion into the moribund peace process.

Or, borrowing a page from Yasser Arafat’s and Abu Mazen’s playbook, it will not take long before we begin to hear the talking heads telling us that there is a “moderate faction” to talk to in Hamas.

Do not be fooled: Osama Hamdan, Hamas’s newly dubbed foreign minister, told the Al-Quds newspaper: “Anyone who thinks Hamas has changed its positions and now accepts the PLO’s defeating political position is living under an illusion. Hamas cannot make a mistake that proved to be a failed one. … By moving toward reconciliation with the PLO, we are reconstructing the organization and reconsidering its failed program.” So as not to be misunderstood, he added: “Hamas’s goal is first and foremost the liberation of our lands from the sea to the river and achieving the right of return.”[2]

Or, as Khalil Abu Leila, another Hamas official, stated, “Hamas will not join the PLO political program. Rather, a major task of the Hamas provisional leadership will be to bring the PLO back to its correct path and the goal for which it was established, mainly, the liberation of Palestine.”[3]


Against this rising tide of Sunni Islamist fundamentalism throughout the region is the Iranian quest for hegemony and for the reclamation of the triumph of Shiite Islamism.

One particularly horrifying way Iran has engaged in this quest is through its pursuit of nuclear weapons. None of us was surprised when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported last November that Iran now has the ability to create nuclear weapons, having mastered the “critical steps involved in the process.” The report further stated that a Soviet scientist tutored the Iranians about detonation reactions, and that North Korean and Pakistani nuclear scientists were also available to lend their knowledge and expertise.

This of course totally refutes the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007, which stated:

We judge with high confidence that in the fall of 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program. …We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguars Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing the international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

First lesson: Do not trust any accord signed by a despot or a dictator. One barometer of whether or not a ruler means what he says is how he treats his minorities and his dissidents. It is all directly related to an underlying premise of one’s respect for the dignity of human life and the basic rights of man.

Speaking of dissidents: There was a moment of opportunity, when the brave, young Iranian dissidents were out on the streets, en masse, and the leader of the free world, President Obama, said nothing in their support for a full two weeks, while skulls were being crushed and people were disappearing from the streets. Most people in Iran are under 30. They were born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, despise the theocracy and are feeling suffocated by its choking stranglehold.

The Iranian prisons are bursting with such protestors.  Taking a page from the Soviet Jewry movement, in which names like Natan Sharansky became household words in the West, we should all know the names of people like 26-year-old Hossein Ronaghi Malkhi, a blogger and human rights activist, who was arrested for fomenting the demonstrations in June 2009. He was sent to the notorious Evin Prison, where he has beaten and tortured and needs a kidney operation.

The Iranian nuclear program has led to a more rigorous pursuit of nuclear weaponry within such Sunni Arab states as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They, of course, have the petro dollars to buy scientists, technology and nuclear material.

All of this adds to the destabilization of an already volatile and unpredictable region, where human rights abuses are on the rise along with Sunni and Shiite Islamism.

Lessons for 2012

This has been a traumatic year for the entire region. It is a time of chaos and instability, in which we should have learned:

1) The United States has only one stable, reliable ally in the Middle East — the State of Israel, which .should be strengthened against the rising tide of radical Islamism. It is also time we learned that, whether we like it or not, radical Islamists perceive of America as the Great Satan.  As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once warned, our projection of our values onto the world simply does not work. We must understand the sociological and tribal structure of the Middle East before we enter into any further agreements with governments of the region.

2) Appeasement and groveling to despots and dictators have not enhanced America’s standing in the region, but has weakened it immensely.  America’s outstretched hand for dialogue has not prevented Iran from reaching its goal of nuclear capability and regional dominance one iota.

3) The United States appears like a sleeping giant that unconditionally dishes out our precious and rapidly dwindling resources — foreign aid — to unfriendly, unreliable parties in the region without any leverage, making us appear even more embarrassingly pathetic there. This applies to our aid to Pakistan and certainly has been the case with the Palestinians. Ever since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, we ostensibly conditioned our aid to the Palestinians on very basic principles, all of which they have continuously ignored. Rather than doing away with U.S. aid to the Palestinians, we have done away with enforcing the funds’ conditionality.

4) This is the time to finally stop our military aid and weapons shipments to Egypt, or we will be forced to confront these American-made armaments’ possibly use in attacking our one ally in the region, the State of Israel, or American soldiers and sailors on the Sixth Fleet.

5) Now, in the midst of all this regional chaos, is precisely not the time to pressure Israel to take more risks for peace. The growing radical Islamism is a time for stability, at least in one tiny sliver of the region, the State of Israel.

6) We should be helping and propping up the voices of the dissidents within Iran, and those within the Iranian constellation of power, such as the brave, besieged Syrian dissidents. Not to do so will strengthen the menacing hand of Iran and is nothing short of immoral.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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