Is The Middle East on the Brink of Collapse?
While my initial academic training was in physics (ok, theoretical physics), my Ph.D. is in political science. Both color how I view the world.
Often the rigor of one has provided some perspective to the questions of the other. However, sometimes they collide–and that leads to some frustration.
The events of the past several weeks make a good case in point.
Well before the latest uprisings in Egypt, the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region was showing signs of another bout of political instability.
Of course, since the global energy sector is smack in the middle of it this is hardly an academic exercise for us.
But these days it is the recognition of how these two ways of thinking- one driven by event and belief, the other supposedly by supply and demand – interact that will make for some profitable investment moves.
Now there are still some pundits who see geopolitical uncertainty as an extraneous element. They admit it happens and, when it does, the result can be disquieting for natural gas and oil prices.
But they have yet to recognize it has become a recurring series of events. The truth is the geopolitical is not an exception to the “normal;” rather, it is an endemic part of it.
Theoretical markets may operate on equilibrium, perfect/open information and predictable results. But real markets are messy and emotional, especially in rapidly unfolding events.
Much like the streets of Cairo this morning…
Trying to Make Sense of the Turmoil
There remains the inevitable attempt to derive meaning and predictability from such events. As I often tell students, understanding is not a function of nature, but of the human mind’s desire to put the outside world into a particular sequence of space and time.
Much of what passes for commentary on the latest Egyptian crisis, what some are calling “Arab Spring, the Sequel,” takes this approach. Somehow if we put each major event in its own box, we can put into perspective…that is, we can somehow come to control it by limiting its impact.
Of course, we really don’t. Perspective is accomplished only after the dust settles and some time has passed. It doesn’t happen while the events themselves are in motion.
Yet gradually the way in which those events are perceived begins to change.
We are in the midst of such a revision, surrounding one of the most hallowed of Western institutions. Throughout North America, much of South America and across Europe, democratic elections have been the hallmark of the modern age.
However, genuine elections have been late in arriving for most MENA countries and are precariously juxtaposed against religious and cultural traditions not generally supportive of popular choice being the yardstick of limiting rulers.
The lessons are hard for many, and fatal to some. Elections resolve little when the fundamental disagreements run so much deeper.
In this region, voting cannot be about who gets to make decisions when the more fundamental issue of whether such matters are even subject to the ballot box remains unresolved.
Here, those most vital parts of human life have not been viewed politically. Rather, they belong to a much more encompassing belief system.
Within this dynamic, the most difficult accomplishment is to develop a secular Islamic state. Turkey had been the model, but is now under stress. Azerbaijan has been another. But there the onset of what could develop into a genuinely competitive presidential election may test a Shiite tolerance for both Sunnis and Christians.
It was naïve to believe that a device for selecting political leadership (and that is what democracy is) could succeed without unrest where the Western underpinnings of that approach are only recently in view.
These include middle class values, a sense of the individual, market economics, a separation of church and state, the right to make a profit and generate wealth, and a broad consensus on the primary of human rights.
All of these in their own ways limit government, while fostering openness to education and opportunity serve to level the playing field. Most of us were not born into privilege; we had to work at it.
But we did so within a system that encourages taking a chance, which rewards success.
The New Arab Spring is Far More Dangerous
That is not the picture today in the MENA region.
The initial Arab Spring of 2011 was misunderstood. It may well have had crowds in the street clamoring for change. But it was overly simplistic to translate that into elections as the solution.
This new version of the unrest is less visionary and for that reason far more dangerous.
This morning for the first time some of my contacts in the region are expressing concern over the collapse of order and the threat of protracted civil war. Make no mistake. If this begins in earnest, it will not recognize any borders – sovereign, geographic, or cultural.
It is not simply the body count that is escalating. So also are the genuine prospects of protracted conflict. This is the new reality our expectations must confront in the Middle East.
The scientist in me seeks the solution of the puzzle. Yet that part also recognizes the very act of observation changes what we think we see. The political scientist assumes the human ability to choose is fraught with conflicting pressures. Reason pulls us one way, emotion often another.
Seems my own internal tug of war has something in common with the situation unfolding on the banks of the Nile.
Both are going to be in flux for some time to come.