Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
One by one, the giants have gone. The men who that made the modern middle east. Sometimes men of violence, often later men of peace. The men we could do business with and the men we couldn’t. David Ben-Gurion and Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat. King Hussein and now Ariel Sharon. Hafez Assad, and of course the two crazed tyrants, mafia bosses with-state-attached, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddaffi.
In a more lyrical age, the wars they fought, the states they built (or failed to build), the murders the committed and the reconciliations they performed would have grown a matchless crop of epic poets. Of the heroes and villains, only Shimon Peres, who will retire this year, is left.
Their battles made twenty or so states but only two countries — Israel and Palestine, of which Palestine is famous as a nation without a state, but one day might have two if Hamas stay on top in Gaza. The other Arab states still struggle to connect their peoples to their governments. Except maybe for Tunisia, they have decades of riots, car-bombings, secret police raids, and war ahead until they find new leaders, for once more interested their people than in themselves, or at least, tired enough of war to share power.
Yesterday Israel buried Ariel Sharon, unexpectedly transformed by his stroke into a symbol of hope for an arrangement involving an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank. He was so metamorphose through his unfulfilled intent, to ‘disengage’ Israeli forces from what even he had come to refer to as their ‘occupation’ there, where they had returned, following the collapse of the Oslo process in their successful campaign against the second Palestinian intifada. Sharon apparently kept a copy of Alistair Horne’s history of the Algerian war The Savage Wars of Peace by his bedside. When Mr Horne asked if the Israeli General had learned anything, Sharon is said to have replied that he had and that “I would have won.” He was probably right.
The Algerian war made France so unstable that a military coup was attempted against de Gaulle on behalf of the pieds noirs, the French settlers in Algeria. A coup in Israel can be ruled out, but political violence by extremist settlers (remember that Yitzak Rabin was assassinated) cannot. Just last week some of the most fanatical (who had gone to the Palestinian village of Qusra to provoke trouble) were saved from being lynched by some extremely brave and clear-headed Palestinians who understood how important it was to stop events spiralling out of control.
That clear-headedness is absent on on the other side of the Suez Canal where Egypt’s Army busies itself administering the finishing touches to its counter revolution. Today and tomorrow, Egyptians will line up to vote ‘yes’ in a constitutional referendum devised project legitimacy onto the summer’s military coup. The referendum sets up presidential elections, in which, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Army chief, has now admitted the obvious: that he’s likely to ‘contest,’ for which read ‘win,’ them.
Egypt’s army has spent the last six months crushing the Muslim Brotherhood, and expanded its crackdown to its secular opponents, journalists and human rights activists who cheered the Brotherhood’s ouster. Opposition to it has become more violent: angry demonstrations and terrorist attacks occur almost daily.
Sisi, it seems, fancies himself as the first of a new generation of big men: picked by Morsi as the pious, and unassuming military professional; after deposing his one-time boss, he has become smitten by the personality cult allowed to grow up around him. Figures of stature, villains as much as heroes, aren’t made so much as forged. Sisi has thrust himself into combat against an incipient insurgency that promises to make his first years in power bloody. The struggle will make, or destroy, his reputation.