ON IHT : " BEIRUT — The start of a new year is always a timely moment to look back and ahead. That exercise in the current state of the Arab world is a painful one.
I would point out five mostly troubling trends from 2010 that will probably define and plague the Middle East for the year ahead.
• The brutal attacks against Christians in Iraq and Egypt reflect the work of a small minority of fanatical criminals, and do not represent the views of the Muslim majority in the Arab world. Yet they are part of a trend of depluralization, and steady polarization and compartmentalization, of Arab society, whether the populations in question are Christians, Kurds, Palestinians, Assyrians, Shiites, Sunnis or other distinct groups that increasingly live among their own rather than co-exist in mixed communities.
This major failure of the modern Arab world reflects the weaknesses of both the state-building endeavor of the past three generations as well as the inability of majorities among all communities to stop the ravages committed by a small minority of militants among them.
• The referendum in southern Sudan this weekend is expected to result in a strong majority vote for the south seceding from Sudan and creating a new independent state. This will mark a historic moment in the history of the modern Arab world that at once continues the depluralization mentioned above, and also represents a rare instance of redefining the state frontiers that were left behind by the retreating European colonial powers in the last century.
This occurs in the wake of decades of warfare that have resulted in four to five million displaced Sudanese and as many as two million dead, alongside the president’s indictment for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
• The Sudan move should be seen as a positive development if it turns out to be a peaceful exercise in self-determination by the southern Sudanese. It is also significant for what it may portend for other parts of the Arab world, where statehood often continues to be brittle.
It is evident from places like Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Yemen that the Arab world faces some serious challenges in holding together individual countries under a single national leadership that commands universal respect, legitimacy and allegiance.
Other Arab countries that do not face such internal strains usually do so because of the strong security measures of a highly centralized state, which largely drains the concept of citizenship of much if its freedoms, rights and vitality.
The choice between a fractured state and a police state is not a very pleasant one for the ordinary Arab citizen, but it looms increasingly as the unfortunate reality for most Arabs.
• The transformation of the formerly localized Arab-Israeli conflict into the fulcrum of a much wider regional confrontation with strong religious overtones bodes ill for the region in the years ahead.
The Arab-Israeli conflict now anchors a much more violent and complex stand-off that sees some Arab states (notably Syria), Iran and powerful Arab Islamist resistance movements like Hamas and Hezbollah working together to repel not only Israeli territorial aggression, but what they see as wider American-Israeli hegemonic ambitions in the Arab-Islamic Middle East.
The narrow competing claims of Palestinians and Israelis in a small corner of the region have now transformed into a regional and quasi-global existential battle among powerful actors who seem prepared to fight to the finish.
Large regional and global conflicts will now more easily find local proxies to wage the battle, while local feuds will often escalate quickly into more fierce and intractable conflicts because of the association with foreign actors.
• The continuing lack of credible, democratic and pluralistic domestic political life in the entire Arab world is a chronic and probably growing source of the core societal and state-level weaknesses that result in the four problematic trends mentioned above.
Domestic governance systems in the Arab world seem peculiarly impervious to evolution and advancement. Several elections that were held in recent months in some countries — notably Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain — confirm that electoral politics is not a serious arena for policy changes or power-sharing in the Arab world. Civil society and electoral, parliamentary politics provide limited means for gauging the citizenry’s sentiments, grievances and aspirations, but not for translating these phenomena into government policies.
Moves like Yemen’s parliamentary vote last week to allow the president to remain in office for life only accentuate the shallow, hollow state of domestic political governance systems.
These unfortunate realities will be difficult to change quickly, but they are also impossible to endure endlessly. This year is likely to see them all persist, until some group of Arab citizens reaches its breaking point and decides to change this troubling script.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut."