Predicting the Middle East’s political future has always been more of a gamble than an exact science. The region’s prevailing political precariousness is what makes it so impossible to sensibly forecast future developments. However, despite all the instability -- or perhaps in spite of all the instability it is safe to make the following call: more violence can be predicted in the coming 12 months. Additionally, it is safe to say that there will also be more changes in the coming year. And that can be a cause of conflict.
Change, as a rule, frightens most people, and today there are good reasons to be fearful considering the situation in the Levant – in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Gaza. It could hardly get any worse. Could it? Oh yes, it can. Just keep your eye on the new – or not so new – growing divergence between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Sunni Muslims have traditionally been the predominant force but have somewhat fallen into a sort of political slumber since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. The rising power of Shiism that came about with the success of the Iranian Revolution suddenly gave the Shia unprecedented political clout, something that started to worry the traditional Sunni base and the leadership in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. It also did not take long to revive the age-old Sunni-Shia schism and to widen it.
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Besides the battle for the hearts and minds of each other’s power base – the faithful – you can also throw in the Middle East’s two largest and richest oil fields, those in Saudi Arabia and those in Iran. The Shiia remain the disfavored of the two main branches of Islam, the Sunnis being the overwhelming majority. But should either side manage to control all the oil then they would also be in a position to control the political arena and who says political in the Muslim world automatically says religion too.
The stagnation that was the order of the day in most Arab countries made it difficult to predict any impending changes, until now, when the Arab Spring introduced a new world order – or is it a disorder -- with countries that were firmly counted as being pro-US, like Egypt for example, falling into the Islamist camp.
Is the coming to power of the Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries reason to worry? Yes it is, but it is not the end of the world, as some had predicted. It simply means that some countries need to rethink their foreign policy strategy accordingly.
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“We have to take into account the rise of Islam,” Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community told OilPrice.com.
Indeed, along with the coming changes one may also foresee more violence. The continuing civil war Syria could spread into neighbouring Lebanon. And of course now the latest fighting in Gaza, where Israel’s bombing campaign has crystalized the Arab world, parts of which now are under new management with Islamist leadership, as rarely before.
As Egyptian president Ahmad Morsi told a crowd of supporter in Cairo last week, “Egypt will not stand idly by and watch the people in Gaza being killed. Today’s Egypt is not the same as the Egypt of yesterday.”
The fighting in Gaza is also raising fears of a new ground offensive by Israel, where retaliating to rockets fired by Hamas, Israel launched a major operation dropping bombs on hundreds of targets. Of course what most media outlets fail to mention when they talk about terrorist acts by Hamas is that there would be no reason for these terrorist acts if Israel did not continue its occupation of Palestinian lands and its siege of Gaza.
By. Claude Salhani
Claude Salhani, a specialist in conflict resolution, is an independent journalist, political analyst and author of several books on the region. His latest book, 'Islam Without a Veil,' is published by Potomac Books. He tweets @claudesalhani.