A bleak outlook for the Middle East peace process?

By Emma Brooks

After the recent turmoil in the Middle East, could it be that the peace process between Arabs and Israelis is now going to sit even further on the back seat and not be resolved in the face of more pressing issues of democracy? Or could it be that peace in the region is now threatened, with the rise of political instability and new governments potentially coming in?

Since early January, the Middle East has been going through a period of turmoil, starting with the resignation of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, after many protests against him and his government in his country.

Spurred on by the success of their neighbours in toppling their government, the desire for revolution has spread to nearby countries including Jordan, Yemen and most notoriously Egypt. Since January 25th, thousands of people have gathered all over Egypt, eventually persuading President Mubarak to resign, having drawn hope and inspiration from like-minded Tunisians.

It is only natural to compare the current feeling of revolution in the Middle East, to the colour revolutions that took place in Eastern Europe in the early 2000s. Emboldened by previous revolutions in nearby countries, and fed up with having the same leaders, several countries including Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine used methods of non-violent resistance and protest to bring down the regimes in place and bring about a fresh start for democracy.

Sound familiar? Evidently it sounds familiar to the populations of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen (amongst others) who have decided that non-violent protests are the way to get rid of the leaders they have had enough of seeing in power. The Middle East is currently undergoing similar transformations, only a few years after the Eastern European countries.

For years, more established democracies have been hoping and asking for democracy in the Middle East, sometimes even imposing it at their own will. It is not surprising therefore that these countries should now finally be undergoing their own transformations, which eventually will lead them to as stable democracies as we have in Europe, or so it is hoped.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that these transformations seem to be necessary, many states are worried, including Israel and the United States. What will these changes mean, not only for the peace process, but also for peace and stability in the region? Is there a risk of an escalation of violence or another war?

It is only natural for people to be asking themselves these questions, particularly since the current revolution concerns Egypt, the first Arab country to have recognized Israel and an important ally of the US in the region.

Could it be that with a new government, the 1979 peace treaty will be ignored and the cold peace brought to an end? It is common knowledge that the peace treaty was never popular amongst Egyptians or the Arab states, and it is also know that the peace that currently exists is a cold one, not really fostering good relations between both countries. Could it be that without a serious ally in the region, both for the US and Israel, the stability of the region would be greatly compromised?

Indeed, it could be. There is a possibility that a new government would decide to scrap the peace treaty. It could also happen that a worried Israel decides to be cautious of Egypt, close down its ties and increase its defense expenditures, a sure sign of belligerence to its neighbour. Furthermore, with the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood being involved in a new Egyptian government, prospects for peace with Israel look bleak as the Muslim Brotherhood supports Hamas.

However, this sort of behaviour would be a mistake on the part of both sides. Israelis, Egyptians and Western countries alike need to embrace this new wave of change, and decide to ride it rather drown under it, perpetuating the eternal state of uncertainty in the region.

A new Egyptian government means a new dawn for negotiations in the region. This could be an ideal time for Israel to renew its relationship with Egypt: end the cold peace by committing again to peaceful relations and building a strong and mutual relationship of trust. This would allow an opening for negotiations, perhaps even allowing for a compromise to be finally reached on the Palestinian territories and on Sinai.

A new Egyptian government could help to promote peace and good relationships between Israel and other neighbouring Arab countries, following its lead and that of Jordan as well. The populations of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank might find themselves allies in the new Egyptian government, allowing them better bargaining power in any future negotiations with Israel. However, Egypt should be clear that even if it supports their claims, it is not anti-Israel.

Similarly, the US should embrace this wave of change in Egypt and the Middle East. A renewed strategic partnership with Egypt could allow not only for continued peace in the region, but also to promote change and democracy. Rather than imposing democracy by force as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US should realize the opportunity that is presented by these revolutions lead by the people.

Democracy is reaching the Middle East and by encouraging Egypt to set up a new government and hold elections, the US could the send a message of encouraging change and supporting the development of these nations. Ultimately, this could lead to it having more allies in the region, creating greater stability and improving prospects for an overall peace.

As this option exists, it is of paramount importance that leaders keep it in mind and be aware of what opportunities it presents for the future. If they succeed in doing so, they may well be able to bring about greater change than they had originally expected.

However there also exists the possibility of the outbreak of a new war and larger turmoil in the region than what it is currently experiencing. Though this is the dawn of a new era, Israel and the US are wise not to throw all their hopes into the latest developments, and to remain cautious in case of a backlash. Any next steps should be wisely thought through before being undertaken.

But there is a middle ground to be reached in which Israel is neither seen as being too cautious – which could be interpreted as a sign of distrust and unwillingness to cooperate – nor should it blindly put all its faith in renewed peace. It is clear that this time of change allows for fresh hope, but only time will be able to tell whether or not it will result in success for peace in the Middle East.

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