Syria is a living nightmare. Egypt hovers on the brink. However, as the opening of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority shows, there are signs of hope. Though it may seem counterintuitive, the region’s turmoil is finally bringing to the surface its fundamental problems in a way that allows them to be confronted and overcome. Now is a time not for despair, but for active engagement.
No one put the chances of reviving the Israel-Palestine peace process at more than minimal. Yet it has happened. These are not talks about talks, but a full-blown revival of final-status negotiations, with an undertaking by both parties to remain in the process for at least nine months.
To those of us who have toiled, often fruitlessly, on this issue in the past, it is a huge achievement brought about by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s sheer dogged determination and the willingness of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take political risks with their domestic public opinion.
Much less noted was the visit of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to Washington. Against all the odds, Yemen is undergoing a process of political transformation, with 500 delegates from all parts of society working on plans for democracy, justice and equality.
In Iraq, after years of declining sectarian violence, the casualty figures are up again, in part owing to the war in neighboring Syria. Yet, even in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most influential Shiite cleric, recently issued a seminal statement proclaiming the need for a civil, not religious, state, with equal freedom for all to participate. Al-Sistani also expressed disagreement with those close to Iran who want Shiites to go to Syria to fight for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime alongside Hezbollah.
Similarly, at the start of Ramadan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who is also the custodian of the two holy mosques, made a powerful statement reclaiming the faith of Islam from those who would pervert it in the name of politics.
Libya and Tunisia are far from settled, as the recent assassination of Tunisia’s leading opposition politician and the presence of unrestrained militia in Libyan towns show. However, the democrats are not giving up.
Across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa, there are now huge challenges from well-armed and well-financed terrorist groups that have imported toxic Islamist ideology from the Middle East. Countries such as Nigeria, for example, have suffered horribly from terrorism based on a brand of religious extremism that is alien to their society. Again, despite it all, the country is experiencing rapid economic growth and has just implemented a major reform — widely considered impossible until recently — of the power sector.
Meanwhile, with a genuinely inclusive and objectively administered constitution, Egypt could pivot back toward democracy. Elections by early next year have been promised, and all parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, could take part. Egypt could otherwise become paralyzed, and unable to rectify its dire economic situation and restore order, without which no progress is possible.
However, Egypt’s internal divisions reveal a deeper awakening in the region that has its own significance. Lessons about government, governance and democracy that took the West centuries to learn are being taken in at extraordinary speed.