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The Middle East in the Arab Winter

BERLIN – Travel broadens the mind, goes the old saying. This is especially true for the Middle East. But travel there nowadays can be extremely disorienting; indeed, developments that were impossible to contemplate just a few months ago are becoming reality.

The youth revolt that began in Tunis and Cairo in 2010-2011 has come to an end (at least for the time being), though the region has been changed fundamentally by it. The victory of counter-revolution and power politics, as in Egypt, has only seemed to restore the old order; the current regime’s political foundations are simply too brittle.

Equally noticeable has been the permanent shift in the region’s political-strategic axis. Iran, with its nuclear and hegemonic ambitions, is the current center, while the old center – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – has been marginalized, giving rise to entirely new alliances of interests. Saudi Arabia and Israel (which have no formal diplomatic relations) are united against Iran – and against the possibility of a US-Iranian détente.

Ideologically, the central conflict between Iran and its neighbors is based on the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. The devastating Syrian civil war is already being fought along these lines; given signs of a military and political stalemate, those lines could become the basis of a permanent division of the country, as in Bosnia.