From the western banks of the Indus, through the Oxus up to the Nile via the Euphrates and the Tigris, there is ferment. Most of us are more familiar about the violence and the troubles in Balochistan, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa FATA and in Karachi. We also follow what is happening in Afghanistan where the prospect of a Taliban take over creates strong misgivings about the future of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is next door and like all good Indians we keep a good inquisitive eye on what is happening even when we see this with tinted glasses.
Further afield, areas inhabited by those whose ancestors belonged to ancient civilisations like our own are engaged in battles that are ideological and sectarian. Essentially these are about dominance and reversion to a way of life pitted against those who want the systems changed.
What is happening in Syria, Iraq and Egypt is a surge by the Islamic right. This will clash with the political aspirations of the young in Egypt who were not willing to accept the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood and its democratic restrictions. The trouble with all extreme beliefs pretending to hold democratic power is that they are not inclusive and invariably end up falling on their feet.
The Muslim Brotherhood was no different. Egyptians, primarily the youth and the secular, had made it a minimum demand to oust Morsi barely a year after he assumed power. Cairo thus saw perhaps the largest number of protesters in history when 5 to 7 million came out. They succeeded in confirming that the army will continue to play a role hoping to remain popular after the sacking of Morsi. But Egypt has another problem because the trouble with coups by the army backed by crowds is that they can spin off in weird directions. The ousted Brotherhood and their more extremist sympathisers have vowed revenge. There are early signs of this beginning to happen.
The return of Arab Spring will have other ramifications for the autocratic regimes that abound in West Asia. The trouble with democratic assertions in a generally undemocratic milieu and region is that this becomes a concern for the neighbouring autocrats and takes a while to stabilise. During this interregnum, anything can happen.
Yet Syria remains in the midst of barefaced sectarian warfare aided by the West who seem to be acting along with Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda franchise on the Sunni side to overthrow Bashr Assad with the Hezbollah and Iran supporting the Shias and Assad. The Big Powers are involved as well.
Syria today is also about a continuation of rivalries that the Anglo-French had created after World War I when they carved out the Middle East. Post WWII Arab Nationalism, Iranian aspirations and the desire to control energy resources, led to rivalries between the Soviet Union and the Anglo-US partnership.
The retreat of the Soviet Union merely brought renewed violence of the 1990s, which has not ceased till today.
Iraq has been going through a vicious cycle of sectarian warfare that goes beyond the usual Shia-Sunni battles with campaigns against Arab Christians who have now become suspects. Syria remains unstable and in all this uncertainty, ironically Iran, which is considered to be the biggest threat to the West but has no western presence, appears to be the most stable and orderly. Instability in Egypt will continue.
Sunni anger against what they call indifference of the Shia government of Nuri Al Maliki in Iraq is reflected in the thousands of Sunnis, fearing marginalisation, taking to the streets. Vicious sectarian strife has accounted for hundreds of brutal deaths on both sides of the sectarian divide. This growing violence could easily escalate into a full blown sectarian war reaching out across the Iraqi frontiers.
Meanwhile, English language commentary in the Arab world is uniformly dismal, as can be made out by the titles ‘Liberating Iraqis’, ‘limb by limb’ or ‘Uncertainty continues’, ‘Iraq’s civil war in motion’, ‘Inching towards autocracy’, ‘Why Arabs must worry’, are indicative of the forlorn mood there. There is no easy way out of this mood or correcting the direction the region is taking.
In the 21st century, ideas and thoughts travel across the globe with considerable speed.
The writer is vice president, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi