Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

The Time of Dialogue, Not Trenches

The Time of Dialogue, Not Trenches

Monday, 10 May, 2021 - 10:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

If a young man from the Middle East turned the pages of European history, he would find horrors. Today, Europe seems calm, mature and content with arguing among its countries over cheese, cars, hunting disputes, vaccines and emissions. European states do neither threaten with weapons nor resort to army generals.

Ballot boxes have stolen the decision-making from the powerful leaders and military barracks. They neither question international borders nor nurture militias behind enemy lines. They don’t sponsor bombings or infiltration of mercenaries. Instead, they perform a complex group dance on the rhythms of European rules and international law.

Europe, which has reached maturity or retirement, learned from its bitter experiences. Its history was exciting, tumultuous and bloody. Under the manifestations of strength and the roar of the armies, the Old Continent was afflicted with a mysterious and fatal disease called fear of the other and the desire to write it off. Fear is a strange epidemic that is costly to an individual, but exorbitant to a nation. The maps were anxious, exchanging hatred, and harboring a desire to abolish the near enemy imposed by geography, a difficult-to-digest neighbor.

Maps repeated the same mistake. Whenever they gave birth to a powerful figure, they drifted into extravagant adventures. The powerful not only destroys his country but the neighborhood altogether. The Old Continent was dripping with blood, whether the powerful ruler was Louis XIV, Napoleon Bonaparte, Bismarck, Hitler or Mussolini.

Hatred and fear always haunted the winds that blew between France, Britain and Germany. Wars were consuming generations of young people. Thus, empires were born and later evaporated. Wars broke out, ended and then others erupted.

Europe was the scene of the first spark of the two largest bloody feasts in world history. It sank in rubble, despair, blood and tears. It did not find a way out of that abyss other than by making a difficult decision to coexist and accept the right to disagree within the continent, on its outskirts and at the world level. It did not find a way out of the ethnic and sectarian conflicts over existence or interests, except through the mutual recognition of interests and the search for formulas that reduce damages.

The Middle East was not the first arena for the major wars the world witnessed in the last century. However, the history of the region is burdened with all kinds of conflicts, and the various components have been afflicted with the fear of their existence, identity or sources of wealth. Whenever the Middle East gave birth to a strong man, it witnessed a costly adventure, especially as the region’s culture encourages a transition between complete victory and total defeat without stopping at a settlement phase that limits the losses and controls the victory.

The region’s culture tends strongly to the knockout that breaks the opponent’s backbone, sweeps its features and abolishes the foundations of its existence, safety and stability.

In addition to old fears and inherited hatreds, the establishment of Israel and the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians have led to a climate of strong anxiety in the region. Under the slogan of the central cause, wars and conflicts have been waged, which are merely expressions of hatreds that have nothing to do with the cause itself.

Let us leave the ancient past and the day when the Persians fought with the Ottomans on the land of Iraq. Let us leave the Ottoman era and the scars it left behind in the spirit of more than one map. The past few decades have also been rich in hatred, whether in terms of clashes or ambushes between the components, or with regard to the attempt to seize the first position in the region.

Fear was always present in relations between Arabs and other components of the region. It was also present in the relations between the Arabs themselves. Fear dominated everything. Governments invested in radios and barracks rather than universities, factories and hospitals.

Sometimes, instead of healing fear, expired treatments further increased them. The result was the failure of “revolutions”, the loss of wealth and the decline of the Arab role, especially after the Arab land became the only theater for wars of hatreds within the territory itself or in the region as a whole.

The result is stark: Loss of resources, swelling poverty and the inability to hop on the train of the future.

It is unrealistic to think that the people of the Middle East have come close to learning what the European countries have concluded. We cannot ignore the consequences of the long period of stagnation that we lived through in the centuries when Europe was shaken by the impact of the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the philosophical sparks and the brilliance of the arts. Our experience is different, so are our cultural roots. Our castles are tougher, with few bridges and fragile keys.

However, despite the persistence of mutual fears, deep suspicions and old and new hatreds, the peoples of the region no longer possess the luxury of wasting more lives and wealth. Those who do not take advantage of the approaching train risk a long, costly wait that may even be fatal. The main question is: Can we stop the cycle of fears and dreams of domination to sit around a table, after acknowledging the need for coexistence, tolerance, the rights of states and groups, and respect for international law? Can we abandon the dictionaries of booby-trapping and forced change of features of countries and capitals, leaving the people of the maps the freedom to choose what suits them and facilitate their journey to the future?

Can we give up the policies that led to a collision between systems, peoples and doctrines and encourage governments instead to think about combating poverty, improving people’s lives and raising the level of education, health services, development and environment protection?

Can we accept the right of the other to be different without being an enemy and embark on relationships that are free of prejudice, treason and attempts at tutelage or extortion? The files are thorny and the legacy of fear is present and with it, bitterness. But fate has crammed us into this part of the world, and we must live together no matter how deep our wars and fears are rooted.

That is why one thinks that the exploratory contacts between Egypt and Turkey are worth trying despite their complexity. The same can be said of the tentative contacts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which were preceded by similar contacts between the UAE and the Persian State. The Gulf-Syrian relations also deserve exploratory attempts, as it is not possible to leave Syria to live under poverty, the agony of the displaced, the longing of refugees, and in the shadow of many flags.

The veins of the countries of the Middle East are interconnected in geography or history. It’s hard to establish a prosperous island if the volcanoes are agitated near your boundaries. Saudi Arabia has a thriving interest in Iran, and vice-versa. It is imperative to be realistic, accept the differences and move from the fronts to the dialogue tables. The same can be said about the relations between Egypt and Turkey. The structure of the Middle East does not allow for a single regional or international player. The evidence is that Putin is stationed in Syria, while Biden eyes the Chinese giant.

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