ARAB WORLD: Challenges face the Muslim world
Youssef M. Ibrahim

We all knew the moment was coming. Now that the storm has begun to hit Arab shores, we stand before it in awe wondering what happens the day after.

Yasser Arafat is fighting his last battle with dire consequences for Palestinians and Israelis. Turkey is rethinking its regional role as it strives to join the European Community. American foreign policy is set to drift even further away from Arab allies and even closer to Israel after Tuesday’s presidential elections. Syria is facing an international juggernaut demanding a redefinition of its role in Lebanon. Egypt is teeming with internal pressure demanding a wide array of change and clarity over succession in power. And once more, for the fourth time in a quarter century, Iraq and Iran are readjusting the balance of power of the Gulf region.

Rarely in recent Arab history has there been such a moment when so many bells toll. The rush of events is relentless, fast, and furious.

The likelihood of Arafat fading away from the Middle East scene may prove a greater catalyst in changing the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation than his life`s work.

Ze`ev Schiff, the astute Israeli political analyst, summed up this strategy succinctly in the daily Ha`aretz of October 29, when he commented: `It is doubtful whether Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to see Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat out of the picture, and his authority delegated to another Palestinian leader.

`The demise of Arafat,` Schiff noted, `also means the demise of the Palestinian `non-partner,` the loss of the excuse for all of Israel`s main political decisions being taken unilaterally, without negotiating with the Palestinians or reaching an agreement.`

Another seismic change for the Arab world is coming from America. Years of mutual accommodation between Arabs and America is coming to an end. Arab regimes parked comfortably in a consenting relationship with American presidents over the past five decades are going to find the stairs pulled from beneath them and the winds shifting.

The people who will run the next Bush administration no longer think stability in the Middle East has any strategic value. Indeed, neoconservatives of both the Democratic and Republican parties now firmly view `instability` as desirable in the Greater Middle East. The weakest regimes cannot run from the American bull and may well be trampled by unhappy citizens. It is highly advisable that they make new friends among their people and their neighbors.

In the Gulf region calculations are also in motion. The ongoing disintegration of Iraq will anchor Iran as the dominant military power in the Gulf region, reshuffling the cards for everyone, including Israel. Among other things, it is highly likely that an increasingly bankrupt Israeli government may launch a preemptive attack on Iran`s nuclear facilities, leading the area into Armageddon.

Meanwhile, things are not well in two pivotal Arab countries, Syria and Lebanon. Syria can no longer hang on to the status quo with Lebanon. It has to redefine its role there from ‘Godfather’ to ordinary neighbor, and has to comprehend that the new international coalition assembled to demand that means business.

France, the foremost Western friend of the Arab world no less, is teaming up with the United States, as well as the powers of the United Nations Security Council to ensure that Lebanon will be free to decide its own destiny.

Egypt`s problems are the product a new and insistent internal political demography the country has not seen since the 1952 Gamal Abdel Nasser revolution.

The controversy over the succession to President Hosni Mubarak is now public issue No. 1 in the Egyptian streets, and it has to be resolved in a way that is consonant with Egypt`s status as the largest Arab country and not in a banana republic kind of way. Failing that is certain to bring about an explosion with unpredictable consequences.

Youssef M. Ibrahim is a former Middle East correspondent for The New York Times and Energy Editor of the Wall Street Journal