Déjà vu dreams of peace in the Arab world

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

The unprecedented civil strife in the Arab World deserves an abrupt and clear response, it has to stop.

Foreign military campaigns have already resulted in a high death toll among Arab civilians. The Iraq Body Count project has documented more than 120,000 “civilian deaths from violence” since 2003. The toll could be in fact as high as 174,000. More than 30,000 Libyans were also killed since 2011 and thousands displaced, according to the IISS Armed Conflict Database.

But even without foreign boots on the ground, the bloodshed continues. Just last Wednesday, no less than 65 people were killed and scores injured in a wave of bombings during rush-hour traffic in Baghdad. The attacks illustrated an incredibly lethal trend; the soaring cost of civil strife in the Arab world as the lives of too many people continue to be suddenly interrupted.

Nowhere is this cost more tragic than in Syria where more than 100,000 people have already been killed since the start of the armed conflict between loyalist forces and the opposition. About 1.7 million Syrians, mostly women and children, are now refugees outside their country. More than four million are displaced inside Syria itself.

Across the map

Internecine conflicts of various levels of intensity are shaking many other Arab countries. In Lebanon, bombings recently killed at least 45 people and injured hundreds outside mosques in the northern city of Tripoli. No less than 24 people had died earlier after equally murderous attacks in south Beirut.

Common people in the Arab World have diminished expectations. They just yearn for peace and security

Oussama Romdhani

In Iraq, more than 1,000 civilians were killed and 2,326 wounded, in July alone. In Libya, the assassination of former security officials have developed into a Friday ritual in Benghazi; and tribal clashes have caused scores of deaths in Kufra and Zlitan since last July. The war between al-Qaeda and Yemeni authorities goes on unabated. As Suicide bombs and assassinations continue to fell soldiers and security officials, the Sanaa government is now requesting drones from the United States. In Egypt, as political strife turned into bloodshed, hundreds were killed during the last few weeks. In Tunisia, security forces are battling armed jihadists in the Chambi Mountains. The blowback from the war in Mali continues to affect the whole Maghreb. Things might get even more complicated. “Combatants presently fighting on far fronts, such as Syria, may well return - whether victorious or defeated - to boost the morale and numbers of the Saharan radical groups confronted by French troops,” warns Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, former U.N. envoy for Somalia and West Africa.

The IISS Armed Conflict Database (ACD) notes a five-fold increase in internal conflict victims between 2008 and 2013 (from 37,269 deaths in 2008 to 178,287 deaths this year), with casualties in the Arab world, especially in Libya and Syria, contributing a great deal to the toll increase.

Does civil strife matter?

Unfortunately, international public opinion can eventually grow numb to foreign wars. For decades, the Middle East has come to rhyme with violence. “All you need to do is read the headlines coming out of the Middle East and feel like, “I’ve seen this movie before,” says Jonah Goldberg, author of The Tyranny of Clichés. The latter does not see reason for concern about oil supplies. “Thanks to fracking and other technological boons, the fact that we’re becoming less and less reliant on Middle Eastern oil only serves to undermine arguments that we need regional stability at any cost.”
In these neo-isolationist days, the threat of terrorism is presented more like a local problem than a global scourge. Even well-respected intellectual Robert Kaplan argues that, “transnational jihadists currently establishing themselves throughout the Middle East are primarily a threat to their host governments, such as they still exist.” But in view of France’s intervention in Mali and the ongoing U.S. anti-terrorism efforts across the globe, it is difficult to buy the argument than “transnational jihadism” is suddenly a threat to the Arab governments alone. Other analysts are making the morally questionable and absolutely short-sighted argument that bloody conflicts of the Arab world as just “tolerable chaos.” But when hundreds of thousands of young people are killed anywhere, and millions are displaced or deprived of normal lives, fallout on the rest of the world are inevitable.

Civil strife also comes with a huge cost to Arab societies themselves. Beside the human and social toll, the economic cost is very high. Syria is a striking case in point. Citing U.N. and government officials, U.S. analyst Doug Mataconis notes that “two years of war have quintupled unemployment, reduced the Syrian currency to one-sixth of its prewar value, cost the public sector $15 billion in losses and damages to public buildings, slashed personal savings, and shrunk the economy 35 percent.” In most other Arab countries shaken by insecurity and violence, it is very difficult to improve development growth ratios or attract the foreign investments needed to create new jobs. Poverty, disease and malnutrition only worsen.

Burden of elites

Arab elites seem at times to be too consumed by their own polarizing demons to notice the heavy toll on people around them. Ideological, partisan, regionalist, tribal and sectarian cleavages have turned into ever-lasting booby traps. Tinkering with such cleavages is bound to be explosive. Andrew Gawthorpe of the UK Defense Academy said once, “putting the lid back on Pandora's box is not always as easy as some might hope.”

Elites are tempted to react to violence in their midst with conspiratorial determinism, pinning the blame on “outside forces.” It is true that North Africa and the Middle East have been magnets for foreign interventions. Western military campaigns in Iraq and Libya, for instance, have caused huge war casualties without restoring peace and stability. Recourse to “hard power” can has never been a substitute for a better understanding of the dynamics of Arab societies.

It remains that the onus for building a culture of peaceful settlement of civil strife falls mostly on the shoulders of Arab political elites themselves. Without such a culture, democratic transitions are likely to be very turbulent. Countries will also become more vulnerable to terrorism. Arab elites must decrypt the conditions that make suicidal/ homicidal actions, of the kamikaze bombers and the self-immolators, appealing to young people. The recurrence of such destructive acts shows how deep the tragic currents of despair and alienation have come to run in Arab societies. Many average families are today afraid of the fateful phone call that will tell them that their missing son had just been “martyred” in some “jihad” front or the other.

Even when relieved of authoritarian regimes, the common man of the Arab Street is frustrated with political and media elites inability to recognize peace and stability as the utmost priority. In truth, circumstances have not been good to common Arab folks lately. Just ask the Syrian civilians who are subjected everyday to lethal bombs at home and to daily humiliation in refugee camps abroad. Ask the small artisans in the tourism sites of Tunisia and Egypt, who are afraid that tourists will stop coming because of real or perceived insecurity. Ask the Libyans who yearn for some for some form of normalcy, any normalcy. Ask the Iraqis who are tired of collecting the body parts of their relatives.

Common people in the Arab World have diminished expectations. They just yearn for peace and security. Most of them do not want to be presidents or militia chiefs. They have no interest in winning parliamentary seats or becoming famous. They want out of bloodshed and insecurity. They want civil peace, now!


Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian Minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

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