The Arab regional environment has changed greatly over the past few years. The Levant and the Gulf, in particular, face two major challenges requiring open minds and constructive coordination between governments, opposition forces and intellectual elites in the region.

The first is to study ways of overcoming the resistance versus moderate polarities that are currently dominating the political scene. The tragic repercussions of events in Iraq, the constant tensions in Lebanon since the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri, Hamas's victory in Palestinian legislative elections, not to mention the growing regional influence of Iran along with the resurgence of radical rhetoric with the rise of Ahmadinejad as president, have combined to pit two distinct camps of opinion against each other. One champions resistance to what it describes as the American-Israeli project for hegemony over the Middle East, the other prefers, instead, to seek negotiated solutions to crises that it fears will jettison the last remaining chances for Arabs to realise stability and social and economic development.

The attempts of Syrian and Iranian rulers to commandeer the resistance narrative aside, the "resisters," who have arrayed themselves in the contexts of grassroots movements of a strongly doctrinaire religious cast yet whose identities sometimes converge with ethnic and sectarian affiliations, have found in the American quagmire in Iraq a golden opportunity to confront the US on home ground as an avenue towards regaining usurped Arab rights. However, because of their misgivings, on principle, over the legitimacy of the sub-regional nation state, they are strategically ill-equipped to formulate an alternative entity and to objectively conceptualise its intrinsic corollaries, from the boundaries of convergence and difference between the Arabs to the relationship between this entity and outside forces whose vital interests in this region are impossible to ignore. More ominous is the tendency of these movements to seek monopoly power and the overbearing way in which they exercise a monopoly on truth, demonise domestic opposition and neglect the crucial task of creating the democratic instruments necessary for reaching a broad social consensus over the aims and means of the resistance.

The moderates -- governments and movements that revolve in the orbits of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and individuals who subscribe to a liberal ideology -- hover in that grey area between submission to American hegemony over the Middle East, as though it were an inevitable fate, and the active quest to minimise the negative effects of American dominance on Arab interests by deploying through various negotiating processes whatever strategic cards they have at their disposal. The major dilemma of this camp is that the practices of the Bush administration over the past few years have so eroded their ability to act as to largely marginalise their influence. In addition, Washington's refusal to pit its weight as a superpower behind a fair and viable settlement to the Middle East conflict and the fallout from its Iraqi adventure have severely debilitated the role and credibility of the Arabs who espouse peaceful positions. As a result, the moderate camp, especially at those moments when moderate governments' conciliatory strategies towards external powers and issues starkly conflict with the spirit and practices of authoritarian, exclusionist and uncompromising government at home, appears alienated from the public and unable to legitimise itself on the basis of any significant accomplishments on the primary issues that concern the Arab world.

Looking at it another way, resisters and their religious entourage are wrong to market, especially in the alarmingly absolutist way they do, the notion that their actions, instruments and anticipated results represent the only acceptable and unquestionable approach. Simultaneously, the failure of moderate governments and liberals resides, initially, in their failure to generate a broad consensus in favour of prioritising negotiated compromise solutions and, then, in contending proactively and courageously with a new regional environment in which playing the role of the American ally has become more detrimental to Arab interests than many other potential threats. Caught as they are between these sharp, seemingly irreconcilable poles, Arab societies are unable to identify and define collectively agreed upon national principles and collective aims. Instead, there has surfaced an increasingly ugly political climate characterised by mudslinging and the vilification of political adversaries and by excuses for eliminating these adversaries in the name of a redemptive religious vision or on the grounds of protecting public order. The upshot of this climate is that the Arabs are declining at an unprecedented pace to the condition of passive agents, acted upon with increasing relentlessness and brutality by international and regional forces that are accustomed to prevail or that are readying themselves to prevail.

The gravity of the second major challenge and the seriousness of the threat it poses to the foundations of Arab civil society is driven home by developments in Iraq and Lebanon, all the more so when one isolates the deeper factors these developments have in common from the specifics of their local contexts. The catastrophic frailty of institutionalised government, the absence of the rule of law and the inability to instil fair rules to the political process are delivering a very succinct message, and ruling officials, opposition forces and the intelligentsia should engage their sharpest and most objective critical faculties in the task of analysing the underlying causes and most effective remedies to this phenomenon. Arab societies, which apart from rare exceptions are quite heterogeneous, have failed remarkably to establish structural and legislative foundations for civil citizenship and pluralistic democratic government, solid and durable enough to prevent both the dictatorship of the majority and the despotism of the minority and to create a public sphere that transcends the boundaries of narrow religious and ethnic affiliations within a given society.

Authoritarian governments in the region have failed to produce a voluntary social contract between them and their citizenry, capable of safeguarding human rights and guaranteeing minimal conditions for a dignified life. The behaviour of the opposition, whether as established within the framework of the nation state or as a transnational movement bound by a universalist and, most frequently today, religious ideological framework, has similarly failed to inspire confidence in the possibility of realising equal citizenship in word and deed. We must come to terms with the reality that the explosion of violence in Iraq and the current situation in Lebanon, in spite of the presence of an occupying power in the former and outside meddling in the latter, are ultimately the product of our own failures over past decades and have the potential of reoccurring in other Arab countries unless political forces, government and opposition alike, relinquish their exclusionist approach to plurality and diversity and, instead, bring themselves and their modes of behaviour closer to the logic of democratic integration with guarantees for equal citizenship and fair pluralistic participation in public life.

The Arabs have increasingly less time and fewer opportunities to deal constructively with prevalent changes in their strategic environment and the challenges these pose to their societies. To my mind, the only way forward is to overcome the restrictive and pernicious resistance-moderation polarity and to work together towards a realistic and flexible conception of our collective interests and of the means to safeguard them, whether through cooperation or confrontation with effective forces in the Middle East, and towards discovering ever broader realms for democratic interaction within our countries, for this is the only way to humanise politics, preserve social cohesion and revive the confidence and hope of our citizens.

* The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.