TSG IntelBrief: The Status Quake and Crowded Friday Streets in the Middle East
November 30, 2012

As of 30 November 2012, tens of thousands of people — for a variety of reasons and with an array of methods — are converging on the crowded Friday streets of Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Gaza, and Ramallah. Both the reasons and the methods can be meaningfully viewed as trend lines of:

▪ Increased political and religious activism;

▪ Increased communication and organizing;

▪ Decreased tolerance of sclerotic and non-representative government; and

▪ Increased rejection for glacial-paced reform designed more to stave off true reform than address societal concerns.

And while each country’s trend lines are unique, they are all interconnected to a signifiant and intractable degree…and have again merged into an unstable fault line that first shifted in the opening days of the Arab Spring.

While protesters in Cairo will be demonstrating against President Morsi’s power grab and the corresponding rush to finalize a constitution; and while dissidents in Amman will be railing  against the rise in fuel prices and the sluggish pace of political reform as King Abdullah II’s government moves to lower subsidies to avoid financial ruin; and while fighters (both government and rebel) on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo seek advantage in what will likely be a pivotal December as the United States considers providing heavier weapons; and while Hamas celebrates on the rubble-strewn streets of Gaza over what it considers at least a partial victory in the latest fighting with Israel; and while Palestinians in Ramallah and elsewhere celebrate the United Nation’s vote that granted Palestine the status of “non-member observer state”, all of them will be carried along by the overarching trend line of instability. That trend line suggests the status quo is now the status quake.

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Building Policy on Shaky Ground

Policymakers simply must understand that their plans, which have long been based upon the assumption of — even desire for — stable-regime-and-bloc-based constructs, are now based on a reality that can simply no longer exist (if, in fact, it ever truly did). The aforementioned trend lines are neither inherently negative or positive from a policy standpoint but rather inexorable and true. They form the geopolitical landscape that has endured from antiquity: a mix of challenge and opportunity, of risk and reward. But just as enduring is the fact that policymakers would do well to spend more of their energies on devising plans and strategies that actually benefit from the instability while also limiting damage instead of seeking a comforting return to a lost, even ephemeral status quo.

The ability of any external actor or single political power — including the largest political powers — to control, let alone direct, the shifting realities through the “usual levers of economic or political pressure and the usual tentative diplomacy that is outdated by events even before it is formulated” is as weak as the power of the Arab governments to resist the quakes.

An honest assessment of recent attempts that sought to navigate the situation (from the failed ceasefire initiatives in Syria to the steadfastly moribund Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to the internal tensions of Jordan and Egypt) suggest a new, more flexible approach is in order, one that is humble in its tactics but also clear in its vision and bold in its goals. Builders in earthquake-prone zones start their planning effort with the assumption that the ground will shake under their construction projects; policymakers for the Middle East would be well served by adopting a similar mindset.

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