Monthly Archives: January 2014

Despite some flaws, Tunisia’s constitution shows promise

Here is the good news: Tunisians appear to have been able, for now at least, to thrash out the differences between Islamists and secularists over their new constitution in a relatively peaceable, if contentious and almost entirely political, manner. The bad news? The document the constituent assembly has crafted and passed, article by article, is significantly flawed.

However, the fact that the Tunisian mainstream groups are not battling it out in the streets in one form or another, but rather in a political setting, is, in and of itself, something to be praised in the current Arab environment.

Predictably, the biggest issues revolve around the role of religion and the state. Tunisians have either ended up with a grand compromise, or at least a model of compromise, for the rest of the Arab world. Or they have ended up with a terrible muddle of incoherence and self-contradiction in their basic governing document, which sets the stage for future confrontations that may not be so pleasant. Or both.

Article 1 declares Islam to be the religion of Tunisia, which, in an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country is somewhat superfluous. Article 2 then declares Tunisia to be “a civil state based on citizenship, the will of the people and the rule of law”.

Such contradictions become even more severe in the highly contentious Article 6, which both “protects sanctities” and, simultaneously, “guarantees freedom of belief and conscience”.

The guarantee of freedom of conscience can only be interpreted as allowing people not to have any religion at all and to be atheists or agnostics or follow whatever religion they please. There is a distinction to be made in the contemporary Arab world between “freedom of religion”, which is often understood as the freedom to be any sort of traditional monotheist one likes, versus a real freedom of conscience, which opens the door to a far greater range of belief systems, including skepticism, agnosticism and atheism.

In the West and elsewhere, it has already been demonstrated that religions can be protected in certain civic senses – exempt from taxation, protected from government intrusion, and so forth – without reducing people’s rights to choose between religions or not have any religion at all.

Despite strong free speech provisions, the “protecting sanctities” clause could set the stage for anti-blasphemy legislation in Tunisia that restricts freedom of speech, such as led to the 2012 sentencing of Jabeur Mejri to seven years in prison for questioning Islam.

It will be hard to reconcile “freedom of conscience” with the “protection of sanctities”. The new Tunisian constitution appears to have it both ways: freedom of thought and expression combined with protection for religious sensibilities. It’s possible, but difficult, to achieve that balance.

Article 6 was amended following a particularly histrionic moment in the frequently contentious debates. On January 5, an Islamist member of the assembly, Habib Ellouz, called a secularist colleague, Monji Rahoui, “an enemy of Islam”.

A ban was then inserted against charges of apostasy (takfir) and incitement to violence. This, too, could be seen as a serious violation of freedom of expression on the one hand, or a necessary protection against the incitement that led to the assassinations of secularists Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

The brouhaha concluded on an absurdist note with assembly member Ibrahim Kassas shouting “Allahu Akbar” at the top of his lungs until he fainted.

The confusion over religion and the state is also reflected in Article 73, which holds that anyone running for president must be a person “whose religion is Islam”. In an overwhelmingly Muslim country, this is not only insulting to small religious minorities, it’s entirely gratuitous.

Most of this constitution will provide the basis for future, more specific, legislation. And it seems to contain within it both the basis for a genuinely open, pluralistic society that protects both religious belief and freedom of expression. Or could set the stage for laws significantly repressing non-or-anti-religious opinion and expression, and the championing of one religion (Islam) by the state.

Grading on a curve, the new draft Tunisian constitution probably gets a B. But this grading has to be on a curve. It’s excellent both in substance and how it was crafted compared to, for example, the new Egyptian constitution. Many other states are not changing at all.

But the document itself has several glaring flaws and contradictions to worry about, and they reflect simmering, lingering political disputes that have not been resolved but merely postponed by these compromises.

But the gruelling passage of the document by the Assembly included a crucial grace note: the body spontaneously rose and sang the Tunisian national anthem after passing an article ensuring gender equality. This suggests that even on some contentious and unresolved issues, Tunisia has been able to preserve a sense of national unity that, so far, as has eluded several other post-dictatorship Arab states, including its immediate neighbours Libya and, especially, Egypt.

Egypt appears to have lost a common, consensus understanding of what Egypt is and what it means to be an Egyptian. For all of the contention, confusion and contradiction surrounding the new constitution – and despite the announcement by interim prime minister-designate Mehdi Jomaa that he has still been unable to form a new consensus cabinet – Tunisians appear to have, at least thus far, retained a sense of common national identity. Judging from the countries bordering it to the east and west, that is no mean feat.

Does the US seek an Arab-Iranian “equilibrium?”

American policy in the Middle East has plainly been evolving, but in what direction has been less clear. Analysts have therefore been dutifully reading between the lines of what the risk-averse Obama administration has been doing and saying to try to tease out the new American strategic vision for the region.

Both the administration and the country at large seem ready to reduce the American footprint in the Middle East in favor of other priorities. However, the extent of that drawdown and, more importantly, what is intended to replace it, have been entirely unclear.

These questions became pressing following the American disengagement with Syrian rebels and embrace of the chemical weapons elimination program. When the US led the international community into an interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, they became even more so. Yet these moves only hinted at where American strategy might be headed, and raised more questions than they answered.

President Barack Obama, in his own words, has begun to explain what his administration sees as new American strategic policy goals and postures. And they will not please everyone.

In a sweeping overview of the current state of the Obama presidency, David Remnick has provided one of the first pieces of clear explication of where US grand strategy in the region may be headed, or at least where the administration wants to go.

Remnick quotes Obama as saying, bluntly, “If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion… you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

This vision isn’t going to mollify the suspicions of those concerned about Arab Gulf security.

In December, I speculated that a “plausible, but still from an Arab point of view alarming, scenario is that the US is seeking to create a balance of power between what amount to Sunni and Shiite regional alliances. Such an equilibrium, this logic holds, would allow the US to start to draw down its own posture in the region and concentrate on the long-ballyhooed ‘pivot to Asia.’”

Some have suggested that the US is toying with a “concert of powers” to ensure Gulf security. Others have speculated that without a major American force in the Gulf region, for the meanwhile only Iran can protect vital shipping lanes and this explains the potential Washington-Tehran rapprochement.

Obama’s emphasis, however, on a regional “equilibrium” – precisely the term I employed to describe a potential formula through which the US might seek to pull back its own role while avoiding broader chaos – is highly suggestive. Obama doesn’t directly say the US is seeking such an equilibrium, but could be seen as implying it.

Moreover, Obama’s notion that the goal is to get Iran “to operate in a responsible fashion” suggests not only an end to bad behavior by Tehran, but also that Iran could then potentially be entrusted with key responsibilities.

This doesn’t mean that the United States sees Iran as a potential ally or a new partner as some have predicted. But it does seem to suggest that if Iran were to modify its behavior regarding nuclear weapons and funding terrorist organizations it could, and perhaps even should, be regarded as a legitimate regional actor with a major role to play in security based on a Sunni-Shiite “equilibrium.”

It’s hard not to extrapolate from this a vision of an Iranian foreign policy that is at ease, rather than at odds, with the regional status quo. And for that, Tehran would surely require its own tacitly-recognized sphere of influence: a so-called “Shiite crescent” beginning in southern Afghanistan and sweeping all the way through to southern Lebanon.

And, of course, the centerpiece of such an axis would be Syria, if not under precisely the present regime, at least under a general Iranian hegemony. Hence, the idea of not only a rapprochement with Iran, but also the development of a regional sectarian “equilibrium,” might also help to explain an otherwise increasingly passive and self-contradictory American approach to Syria.

Those of us who have worried that US policymakers have come to see Syria-related issues as a subset of the Iran file will be concerned by the potential implications of Obama’s comments to Remnick.

But none of this should be overstated. Obama’s comments may have been off-the-cuff or taken out of context, and are so brief and cursory as to be easily open to misinterpretation.

But since this is the first serious attempt that I am aware of by a senior administration official to explain, in public, what the emerging US vision of a new regional order in the Middle East might be, some additional clarification and reassurances would be both wise and welcome.

A US-Iran deal to secure the Middle East is a fantasy

The single most contentious, urgent and far-reaching policy debate in Washington at present is centred on where the United States is seeking or expecting to go in its reset in relations with Iran.

The largest group is taking things at face value. They accept that the Obama administration simply wants to avoid another unpopular confrontation in the Middle East and is exploring how to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions without having to resort to force. This is the received wisdom. And the burden of proof is strongly on those who suggest there is more to the US-Iranian dialogue than such limited issues.

Defenders of the conventional wisdom have several important arguments on their side.

First, the six-month interim “first step” agreement achieved by the P5+1 with Iran was quite limited. Iran did little to roll back its nuclear programme. And the sanctions relief it received in turn is also limited. Second, there is powerful opposition in both the US and Iran to even this interim agreement. Third, there are real doubts about the prospects for a broader agreement.

What was achieved so far has been relatively cost-free, and it bought both sides valuable time to consider their options and postpone any potential confrontation. Any deeper agreement will require much greater concessions by both sides and face powerful opposition in both societies. It may not be possible at all.

So those who urge caution at over-reading the significance of Washington-Tehran dialogue can make a strong case.

Nonetheless, speculation is proliferating that what could be at stake is a complete restructuring of the American strategic posture in the Middle East generally and the Gulf region in particular.

Neoconservatives Michael Doran and Max Boot recently opined that what the Obama administration is actually looking for is a “concert of powers”, including Iran, the European Union, Russia and others, to stabilise the Middle East. According to this theory, the United States is exhausted and fed up with the Middle East and is looking to share the burden with others.

But even this highly critical speculation in public is outdone by what is being whispered in private, especially among those most alarmed by what they perceive to be the administration’s intentions: a much more far-reaching transformation in the American posture in the region.

The United States, this thinking goes, is the only global power capable of projecting enough force into the Gulf region to secure the crucial shipping routes through which almost half of the maritime-delivered petroleum in the world is transported. This assumes the US wishes to draw down its regional posture but dismisses any joint global effort.

Such thinking holds that Americans face a stark choice: either maintain a major but undesired military presence in the region or face the fact that there is no international or regional balance of power to secure it. If it chooses to draw down, it must, therefore, seek a local power capable of ensuring regional stability and shipping access.

Its proponents hold that, as things stand, only Iran can provide such an assurance. And they claim that the Shia powers of Iran and Iraq, not the Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council states, now possess the greater share of the region’s oil reserves.

The nuclear issue is therefore considered secondary to both countries, although Iran will be forced to make serious nuclear concessions in a broader accommodation that allows it, instead, a wide sphere of influence in a “Shia crescent” running from Afghanistan to southern Lebanon, and even, perhaps, greater clout in the Gulf too.

This argues that Washington is not seeking an unattainable “balance” in the Gulf, but is actually preparing, in effect, to “switch sides” and enter an uncomfortable and uneasy, but mutually beneficial, accommodation with Tehran in order to draw down its military presence and begin the long-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia”.

Such theories are certainly speculative, if not conspiratorial. After all, so far the US has not even begun to seriously reconfigure its military presence in the Gulf region, the agreement with Iran is profoundly tentative and the administration scoffs at such ideas.

However, tidbits of supporting circumstantial evidence can be identified. US reticence in Syria could be read as hedging for an accommodation that confirms that country as part of Iran’s potential agreed sphere of influence. Unconfirmed reports of secret talks with Hizbollah are also suggestive.

And, if such an accommodation is to be made, it would almost certainly have to be presented to the American public as a common front against a mutual deadly threat: Al Qaeda. Indeed, a recent New York Times article that bore all the hallmarks of administration leaks made precisely the dubious case that the US and Iran “face common enemies” across the Middle East.

This is all suggestive, but also very thin.

The bottom line is that few in Washington feel confident they understand exactly what the administration is hoping to ideally achieve in its outreach to Tehran. Constituencies that either welcome or fear the prospect of a broader accommodation are growing rapidly and becoming vocal.

Only one thing seems relatively clear: anyone who believes an American-Iranian accommodation would successfully secure the Gulf region for the coming decades is likely to be deeply disappointed.

It will either prove an utter chimera that these two old and distrustful antagonists are capable of such an arrangement. Or, if it is attempted, it will almost certainly prove destabilising and provoke more instability and confrontation in the region.

Murdering Palestinians by starvation in Syria

Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk are being starved to death by the Syrian regime. Does anyone care?

A PFLP-GC fighter walks down a destroyed street in Yarmouk


There isn’t much the Palestinian people haven’t suffered. But the use of enforced starvation against them by the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad at the Yarmouk refugee camp breaks new ground in cruelty. Hundreds are said to be facing imminent death by starvation, lack of water and medical care, and the loss, for almost a year now, of all heat and electricity.

Last weekend, at least 41 Palestinian refugees were reported to have died as a result of food and medicine shortages, and all the evidence suggests this account is a low estimate. The numbers continue to grow daily.

Rights groups said that today eight more Palestinians in Syria have died from malnutrition, including an 80-year-old, Jamil al-Qurabi, a 40-year-old, Hasan Shihabi, and a 50-year-old woman called Noor. Meanwhile 10-year-old Mahmoud al-Sabbagh and two 19-year-olds, Majid Imad Awad and Ziad al-Naji, were killed while protesting the blockade of the camp. Muhammad Ibrahim Dhahi is reported to have been tortured to death by regime forces, while Hasan Younis Nofal was killed by one of Assad’s now-notorious barrel bombs.

Yesterday a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) convoy of trucks loaded with desperately-needed food and medicines were fired on by pro-Assad forces, most likely the so-called PFLP-GC, as they tried to enter the camps and were unable to deliver the urgent relief.

The PLO says it is still trying to negotiate with “Syrian officials and [pro-Assad] militants in Palestinian camps in Syria in order to reach a solution and create a safe passage for the entry of relief supplies to Yarmouk.” They are, in effect, begging for the lives of innocent Palestinians suffering a siege that, while significantly smaller in scale, is without doubt much crueler and more arbitrary than anything imposed on Gaza by either Israel or Egypt.

“All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war,” blandly observed Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, Nigeria’s then-Minister of Finance, who is widely blamed for overseeing the use of famine as a technique in the suppression of the Bifran separatist movement. And, he reportedly added, “I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.” Quite.

During the 20th century, starvation was used as a weapon in numerous conflicts around the world, but has rarely been seen in the Middle East. There was a dreadful famine, partly caused by the Ottoman Empire, both before and during the First World War, and the Sudanese government is widely accused of using this tactic in Darfur. But the Arabs, Israelis, and Iranians have no real track record of such practices. Until now.

Brutality has been commonplace in the Middle East since at least the Second World War, but deliberate starvation has been much less common than shootings, bombings, massacres, and even the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Palestinians have been driven from their lands, forced to live in squalid refugee camps, murdered en masse by various hostile forces, suffered under decades of occupation, and besieged. For a time being, they were even “placed on a diet” by Israel, which apparently actually calculated how many calories each Gaza resident would be allowed at the height of the blockade. As a people, they could well be forgiven for thinking they had seen it all, short of outright genocide.

But against all odds, the savagery of the Assad regime has managed to discover a form of suffering new to even the Palestinians: starvation as a weapon of war. I suppose for a people who had suffered almost everything else, it was only a matter of time that Palestinians would actually be starved to death.

The crucial thing is not simply that Assad and his allies – Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia – must be held fully and completely responsible for this outrage. It must also be noted that the international community and the Arab world are not doing enough to respond to it, practically or politically. They have done virtually nothing as Yarmouk’s pre-war population of 250,000 has shrunk in the past three years to 18,000 famished, cowering, and shivering souls.
The Palestinians are, predictably, among the most vulnerable of victims in a merciless conflict in which Syrians, especially their own government, have turned on each other with breathtaking viciousness. If little is being done to help the Syrians, how, then, could Palestinians hope to be spared?

More than merely apathy and indifference – or in the case of some actors, a real focus on trying to deal with both Assad and al-Qaeda but not helping the Palestinians in Yarmouk – there is a deep sickness in some Arab political discourse and in a part of the Arab soul. To be fair, most Arabs are appalled at the Syrian war and feel deeply for the suffering of the Yarmouk refugees. But not all, by any means.

Those who still worship at the altar of the false idol of “resistance” and see Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and their allies as the embodiment of the Arab cause are not simply disingenuous or delusional propagandists. Their thinking – not even, but especially, if it is sincere – is profoundly sick.

This demented attitude has been put on full display by the Lebanese shill for Hezbollah and Iran, Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of the Al-Akhbar newspaper that is wholly devoted to those two faithful paymasters. With absolutely no sense of decency or shame, Amin writes, “the unfolding events [in Yarmouk] are 100 percent a Palestinian responsibility.”

He claims that “Palestinians in Syria enjoyed advantages that their counterparts were deprived of in every corner of the world,” untrue certainly of Jordan and Western states, arguably of Israel itself. Being Lebanese, Amin may even believe this, since Palestinians in Syria have indeed historically been treated well in comparison to those who have suffered under Lebanon’s virtual apartheid policies, or in the clutches of the Israeli occupation.
Amin blames Hamas for the crisis – as there is no honor among thieves, neither is there among formerly-allied extremists – and makes an overtly sectarian argument against Sunni, but not Shiite, Islamists. Worse, he accuses the Palestinians – who except for the brutal and tiny pro-Assad factions have made every effort to stay out of the conflict, remembering the lessons of Lebanon – of “contributing to the war in Syria.” This may be the first time in a decade I have defended Hamas, but of this, they are not guilty.

Amin claims that either 27, or maybe 70, Palestinian salafis from Gaza (he cites both figures) have joined the fighting in Syria. Not Hamas members, mind you. Assuming this is true – and it would be a small number compared to the Sunnis fighters from other parts of the Arab world, and miniscule compared to the Shiite combatants that have rallied to help Assad murder his own people, especially Amin’s Hezbollah cronies – who is to blame?

According to Amin it is, believe it or not, the Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk themselves. “What are these Palestinians doing?” he thunders. “Why are they doing it? Who can stop them or convince them that their battle is elsewhere? Palestinian refugees are the ones called to conduct an overall review.”

Really? What were the dying, starving, and wretched refugees in Yarmouk supposed to do about this? Has even Israel ever come up with a more cynical argument in favor of the collective punishment of innocent Palestinians for the actions of a tiny few over whom they have no control?

Like all Arab demagogues, Amin knows just who to blame. On cue, like the broken record he is, he concludes, “The one who seeks to liberate Palestine doesn’t join a bunch of murderers who work under US command to serve one occupier and one criminal: Israel.”

If justifying murder is a sin, Amin is deeply damned. If being boring and predictable is a crime, he’s a capo di tutti capi, even if his real rank is no better than a major in Iran’s Pasdaran. According to him, if Palestinians are being starved, shot, and tortured to death by the Assad regime, they have only themselves to blame.

But the worst sickness is not Amin, who is an ideological hack and a paid stooge. His cynicism comes with a price tag.

The deeper problem is those Arabs who are willing to put up with his rationalizations for extreme cruelty. And, more deeply, it also lies with those who, in the past, were beguiled by the transparent lie – whether they have begun to doubt it yet or not – that there is an “axis of resistance” that includes the Syrian dictatorship, the Iranian theocracy, and Hezbollah; those, including Palestinians, who, either now or in the past, would drop everything to run to hear the latest ravings from “Sayyed Hassan.”

They know who they are, and there is no need to name names. But if they look back on their former attitudes whose shame, most of them show no sign of it. The same mentality continues to operate, with slight adjustments, on significant parts of the Muslim religious right and the Arab political left.

Even assuming they reject what is happening at Yarmouk, and are repulsed by Amin’s brazen exercise in blaming the victims, if the events of the past three years nonetheless haven’t prompted deep introspection and caused them to rethink their whole political worldview, they remain trapped in an ideology that led directly to the tragedy of Syria, and particularly, that of the defenseless Palestinian refugees being starved and murdered at Yarmouk. And, therefore, even if their symptoms are now presenting differently, the deeper sickness remains undiagnosed, unacknowledged, and, most importantly, untreated.

Brotherhood crisis in Egypt alters political thinking in the Middle East

The fragmenting of the Muslim Brotherhood movement throughout the Middle East was always likely to be a consequence of the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, the former Egyptian president. Given not only Mr Morsi’s removal, but also the subsequent sustained efforts to crush the Brotherhood as an organised political movement, adaptation of one form or another became almost inevitable. We are now seeing signs that different parts of the movement are, predictably, drawing radically different lessons from the Egyptian fiasco.

Most striking is the adaptation by the Brotherhood-affiliated Tunisian party Ennahda, which has made a series of recent compromises that show a determination to avoid the fate of their Egyptian colleagues.

First, they agreed to a mixed presidential and parliamentary system, as opposed to a mainly legislative one more advantageous to them.

Second, after they were at least indirectly blamed for the assassination of two leading secularist politicians, and after a series of intense political protests and negotiations, they agreed to dissolve their governing troika cabinet. On Thursday, Ali Larayedh, Ennahda’s prime minister, stepped down in favour of technocrat Mehdi Jomaa who will form a non-partisan cabinet to oversee new elections.

Even more strikingly, the Tunisian constituent assembly is moving quickly to approve an impressively conciliatory new constitution. The articles thus far agreed show how far Ennahda has been willing to go to avoid any Egyptian scenario and to create, instead, a climate of consensus contrasting that of vendetta and gridlock that gripped the country during the last, disastrous, year of their rule.

Almost half the draft constitutional articles has been approved. They have already secured Tunisia as a civil state based on citizenship and the rule of law. The official religion is Islam, but nowhere is sharia mentioned as a source, or even an inspiration, of legislation. Instead, power is specifically said to flow from the will of the people, not any divine source.

Women have been guaranteed equal rights in two key articles, both of which could have been strengthened, but are nonetheless far-reaching. Takfir – accusations of apostasy – and other incitement to violence are banned.

Not only is freedom of religion guaranteed, so, crucially, is freedom of conscience, which can only mean freedom not to have a religion at all. Freedom of thought and expression are guaranteed, and not subject to “prior censorship”.

The constitution is not completed, but as it now stands, it represents both the cutting edge of republican constitutionalism in the Arab world, and also a new willingness to compromise by an Islamist party dealing with a secular majority.

Ennahda is clearly evolving, but under duress. It was forced to resign, and made a calculated gamble that conciliation will be more productive in the long run than confrontation. Egypt is clearly the key object lesson in this calculation, and it is a wise one.

Tunisian secularists, too, are showing a greater willingness to work with each other and the country’s powerful labour movement, as well as with Ennahda, to achieve a consensus framework for the country’s political structure. What they’ve collectively come up with is hardly perfect, but in its contemporary regional context, it’s inspirational.

But the regional Brotherhood crisis is also giving rise to splinter groups. In Egypt, where the Brotherhood has been declared a “terrorist organisation” and membership punished by law, there have been a series of bombing and other attacks – some of these have been claimed by Sinai-based extremists (who may or may not be working in coordination with the Brotherhood) – and others that have not been claimed by anyone. The government blames all of them on Brotherhood elements.

Many observers anticipate the emergence of radicalised, violent groups from the Brotherhood’s disaffected and disillusioned membership. Some of these attacks in Egypt’s cities may be early precursors of this.

At the same time, several shadowy youth movements are purportedly emerging on the margins of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Some seem more belligerent, and even violent, in their attitudes. Others seem to blame their elders for rhetorical fixation on martyrdom, paranoia and confrontation, and wish to reach out to the broader public with a more optimistic message about social justice.

There are also persistent reports of dissatisfaction among Ennahda members, especially the youth, that their leadership has been too conciliatory. On the other extreme, the Brotherhood-affiliated party in Morocco has denied all links to the regional movement, and heaped praise on the King.

So what we appear to be witnessing is a scramble by Brotherhood-style Islamists to adapt to post-Morsi realities, most effectively and positively, at least for now, in Tunisia. Where Brotherhood parties are collapsing, the biggest winners appear to be the Salafists, who challenge them from their religious right, but have little hope of ever governing any Arab society.

Brotherhood leaders and members alike must now evaluate two primary models. Was the Egyptian party too inflexible? Or is the Tunisian party being too flexible, thereby requiring a more confrontational approach?

Can the Brotherhood even survive as a major ideological and political Arab player in the long run? Or will it eventually fragment into opposing camps of violent radicals, obscurantist traditionalists, and post-Islamist constitutionalists?

The emergence of these three competing trends seems the most likely scenario for what will then be remembered as a once powerful and influential, but passé, Muslim Brotherhood movement in the Arab world.

The Sharon Doctrine: The Mixed Legacy of an Israeli Unilateralist

For most Arabs, no Israeli in history is more synonymous with violence and Israeli expansionism than Ariel Sharon. His name quickly conjures the worst massacres, deepest pro-settlement fanaticism, and most extreme nationalistic provocations in the Palestinian bill of particulars against Israel. Less readily appreciated by most Arabs is the complexity of Sharon’s legacy and the important lessons, both positive and negative, his final policies suggest for peace.

For most of his life, Sharon was the epitome of what has been called “gun Zionism”: the notion that Jewish Israelis have a kill-or-be-killed relationship with the Arabs, and above all the Palestinians, surrounding them. He spent most of his professional life armed, first as a teenager in the Jewish underground under the British mandate in 1942, and then as a Haganah fighter in the so-called “Battle for Jerusalem” in the fall of 1948. Sharon quickly earned a reputation as a maverick best suited for missions that required ruthlessness — before long, he was placed in charge of Israel’s early “special operations” Unit 101.

This group eventually specialized in tit-for-tat raids with Palestinian guerrilla groups, which often resulted in civilian deaths on both sides. The most notorious of these was the Qibya massacre in 1953 when troops under Sharon’s command attacked a West Bank village and killed 69 Palestinians, two thirds of whom were women and children. Sharon later wrote that he had believed that the civilians had already fled the village when their homes were destroyed, although contemporaneous documents cast doubt on that account. Sharon told his troops the purpose of the attack was “maximal killing and damage to property,” and reports from both the Israeli military and UN observers are consistent with a deliberate effort to kill civilians as opposed to Sharon’s version.

In Israel’s conventional wars with Arab armies, Sharon was generally regarded as an effective, but unpredictable and undisciplined, commander. But the Israeli public was quick to lionize his performance in the 1973 war, during which he was credited with creative maneuvers that defeated Egypt’s Second and Third Armies on the crucial southern front. National fame led to a political career, and in 1981, Sharon became Israeli Minister of Defense.

That made Sharon Israel’s de facto commander-in-chief during the country’s invasion of Lebanon. In September 1982, Sharon’s forces facilitated and, in effect, permitted a large massacre of Palestinian civilians by Lebanese Christian militias at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps under Israeli control. Although Lebanese carried out the actual killings, the Israeli government in general, and Sharon in particular, are almost universally considered by to be responsible. As Israel’s defense minister at the time, the troops controlling the camps were under his direct command. Israel’s own Kahan Commission of official inquiry into the massacre held the Israeli military “indirectly responsible” for the massacre and found that Sharon “bears personal responsibility” for not anticipating the entirely predictable killing or taking any measures to stop it. The Commission recommended his removal from office.

The bodies piled up in Sabra and Shatila irrevocably defined Sharon’s reputation for Arabs and many others. For almost two decades, his political career languished on the margins. But, as memories faded, he clawed his way back into favor, cultivating a growing constituency on the ultra-nationalist right during the first premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu. Succeeding Netanyahu as head of the Likud party, Sharon proved that he had maintained his talent for provocation. In September 2000, Sharon, accompanied by large numbers of police officers and some Israeli extremists, marched through the Haram Al-Sharif complex, also known as the Temple Mount, and declared that the holy Muslim sites there would remain under permanent Israeli control.

In most Palestinian and Arab narratives, this is considered the beginning of the second intifada. Standard Israeli narratives, by contrast, hold that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat launched it through deliberate Palestinian violence after the failure of the Camp David summit in the previous summer. Both versions are contradicted by the definitive Mitchell Commission Report, which cites instead Israeli border police use of live fire against Palestinians at same holy site a few days after Sharon’s visit. But if Sharon was trying to provoke an incident, as the Mitchell Report strongly implies, he certainly succeeded.

The subsequent explosion of the Second Intifada propelled Sharon, at long last, into the premiership, in February 2001. His attitude towards the conflict was tough by Israeli standards (and even by Sharon’s own standards) and ensured that many more Palestinian civilians perished than Israelis. Yet as he was confronting, perhaps for the first time in his career, a conflict that clearly had no military solution, he endorsed, with some reservations, the U.S.-led Roadmap for Peace in 2003. And, in 2004, Sharon explicitly acknowledged the need for a Palestinian state. He even started referring forthrightly to the Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian lands, something most Israeli right-wingers rarely admit.

Sharon was shifting. But why? In general, Israeli leaders who have gone from being pro-occupation to supportive of Palestinian statehood have been impelled by the same factor: demographics. Sharon was no more able to answer what Israel was to do with 4.5 million occupied Palestinians — men and women whom it could neither incorporate nor peacefully dominate — than his predecessors. The only viable conflict-ending solution was a Palestinian state.

Sharon was not the Israeli leader who would make a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. But he did take a major step, the implications of which Palestinians and Israelis alike cannot underestimate: he evacuated settlements in both Gaza and the northern West Bank. Sharon did not do this in the interests of peace. He did it as an Israeli national imperative, and a way to resolve a strategic liability. Sharon’s action is sometimes erroneously described as a “withdrawal” from Gaza, but Sharon more accurately termed it a “unilateral redeployment.” In other words, Sharon’s shift was not one towards an agreement with the Palestinians, but rather towards increased Israeli unilateralism. His action was entirely pursuant to Israeli interests and conducted without any agreement on the Palestinian side.

In his unexpected action, Sharon faced and overcame substantial resistance from the settlement movement in Israel. By explaining why the evacuation was a strategic and military necessity, he ultimately mobilized the support of a large Israeli majority. Indeed, the experience led him to leave the Likud and form a new center-right party, Kadima, shortly before the stroke that incapacitated him. Several Israeli journalists have suggested that Sharon was anticipating repeating a larger withdrawal in the West Bank should he become Kadima’s first prime minister.

There are two crucial lessons to be drawn from Sharon’s last major action and final legacy, one positive, the other negative. On the positive side, Sharon demonstrated that settlements can, in fact, be evacuated. Because of his actions, it is no longer even possible to ask whether the Israeli government is capable of dismantling settlements. The questions are simply when and where they will choose to do so. And that means that none of the existing settlements and other demographic, infrastructural, topographic, or administrative changes Israel enforces in the occupied territories should be regarded as irreversible. The implications of this for the prospects of a two-state solution are profound.

On the negative side, Sharon yet again demonstrated that unilateralism between Israel and the Palestinians is a dead-end that only produces more conflict. Unilateral acts do not leave a party on the other side that has entered into a mutual agreement for its own reasons and therefore has a stake in making things work. It would have been wiser for Palestinians to have responded to the Gaza redeployment differently — in the event, they allowed Gaza to fall into the hands of Hamas rather than reflecting a well-functioning and properly-governed society. But Israel did not give them any clear incentive to see the action as an opportunity for progress. Exactly the same can be said of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, which was as unilateral as its various invasions of that country had been.

Israelis should consider this when they complain that their “withdrawals” from Lebanon and Gaza were “rewarded” with rocketfire from Hezbollah and Hamas. To conclude that Arabs are recalcitrant or that agreements with them are impossible is to badly misread the reality of such policies. What unilateralism produces is a change in the context of conflict, not an end to it. The same would almost certainly apply to any Israeli unilateral action, as reportedly contemplated by Sharon, in the West Bank.

One need only contrast the track record of unilateralism with that of mutual agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The peace treaty with Jordan is rock solid, and that with Egypt has survived the transitions from Anwar Sadat to Hosni Mubarak to military rule to Mohamed Morsi and now the new, interim Egyptian government, entirely unscathed. Even the armistice with Syria has been largely satisfactory from the Israeli point of view.

The real legacy of Israel’s most famous and notorious practitioner of “gun Zionism” was to simultaneously demonstrate that the government of the State of Israel is, despite all its doubts, capable of overriding the settler movement in the greater national interest, but also that if it does so unilaterally, it will be a dead-end. Whether Sharon himself would have come to see this by now, or would have clung to a vision of unilateralism — as so many on the Israeli right are increasingly coming to embrace — we cannot know. But, even if he never got the chance to draw the right conclusions from the unsatisfactory consequences of his final policies, the rest of us can, and must, act on their implications.

It’s wrong to abuse history to serve political narratives

Virtually every contemporary national project tries to exploit ancient history, traditions and legends to justify its own agenda and discredit opposing ones. Examples can be found the world over. But it’s hard to identify a starker instance than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its competing narratives.

When Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, referred to Jesus in his recent Christmas greeting as a “Palestinian messenger”, the Israeli government accused him of an “outrageous rewriting of Christian history”.

Numerous pro-Israel commentators insisted that “Jesus was a Jew,” and that this only underscores the ancient Jewish connection to the land versus the supposedly tenuous Arab one.

Accepting, for the sake of argument, the traditionally-inherited histories about Jesus, both sides are right and wrong, factually and, especially, politically.

Israelis and their supporters are right that Jesus was born Jewish. But unless they are converts to Christianity or Islam, they accord him no religious significance. Jewish Israelis are on very shaky ground pointing to Jesus as a proto-Israeli, or anything other than a very heretical Jew at best.

Palestinians can make the counterargument that Jesus was the founder of Christianity, and that while he was born Jewish he became the first Christian, and was later identified as a prophet of Islam. Since the Christians and Muslims of the land almost entirely identify as Palestinians, by that logic Jesus was a proto-Palestinian.

Except that this is all historical, intellectual and political rubbish from both sides. No one can deny the deep Jewish history and emotional connection to this land in general. Still less can one deny not only the deep Palestinian history and presence on the land, but even more specifically, their emotional connection to individual homes in particular villages, whether or not they were destroyed by Israel after 1948.

Many Jews yearned, and some still do, for a generalised territory called the “Land of Israel.” Palestinians yearn for that same land, and also particular houses at specific addresses, many of which do not exist anymore, but for which they still cherish the old iron keys.

But the contemporary Zionist idea is only about 100 years old, and the Palestinian national project younger still. In the 1930s, the word “Israeli” meant nothing at all. It did not exist. And the word “Palestinian” typically referred to British colonial institutions, not the Arab population of the country.

To be sure the words “Jew” and “Arab” have much longer histories. But both have been utterly transformed in their generally understood meaning over the past century, although few bother to trace the crucial transformations of these surprisingly unstable and contested identity categories.

Meanwhile, elaborate narratives have been constructed across vast sweeps of history to justify each national project and delegitimise the other.

Israelis and many other contemporary Jews see themselves as the living embodiment of those ancient histories, traditions and legends. Moreover, they dismiss Palestinians as relative latecomers.

Palestinians, by contrast, tend to see themselves as the aggregate descendants of all the peoples of the ancient and contemporary history of the land, including biblical Hebrews. And they tend to cast the Jewish Europeans who founded Israel as usurping colonists from the 20th century with probably little or no direct lineal descent from the ancient peoples of the area.

Given these narratives, it comes naturally to Palestinian Muslims and Christians to see Jesus as a key forebear, while many Jewish Israelis take umbrage.

Meanwhile, in pride of place at prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is a recently discovered 2,000-year-old Hebrew seal bearing the name “Netanyahu.” He wastes no opportunity in presenting it, and pointing out that his own name is also “Netanyahu.”

Except it’s hardly so straightforward. His grandfather, Nathan Mileikowsky, used “Netanyahu” as a pen name, and his father Benzion formally changed Mileikowsky to Mr Netanyahu when he moved to mandatory Palestine in the 1920s.

Mr Netanyahu may think he’s demonstrating some great historical continuity, but his gesture only highlights the conscious, artificial and carefully constructed appropriation of the past inherent in most contemporary ethnic national narratives. One could hardly ask for a better example of this cynical bunkum.

Except, perhaps, the ridiculous tug-of-war between Palestinian Muslims and Christians versus Jewish Israelis over Jesus. If one believes the traditions, then Jesus was born a Jew, but became the first Christian and a crucial Muslim prophet. Does that make him an emblem of Israel, or of Palestine?

The only rational answer is: neither. For nothing that took place, and no one who lived, 2,000 years ago actually has anything to do with contemporary political movements constructed in living memory to serve the present needs of modern constituencies.

All efforts to appropriate ancient history, traditions, myths and legends to serve contemporary political purposes ought to be immediately recognised for what they are: a grotesque and manipulative shell game.