Wednesday, February 16, 2011

If Turns into When…

Listening to the effusive statements of support for the people of Egypt and the “unfolding” Islamic revolution in the land of the Nile by virtually the entire leadership of Iran, I was reminded of that wonderful Persian adage: “You say something; I believe it. You insist; I begin to wonder. You swear on it; I know you’re lying.”

The dear gentlemen could well be autocrats at their most clueless, but the look and feel is that of a clumsy brood scrambling to own a narrative that has disowned them even in their very own country. As if to make sure that the lie was not lost on any of us, their chest pounding was taking place in full view of renewed house arrests, imprisonments and clampdowns on opposition websites and news outlets.

The twin tools of oppression and appeasement, not to mention talk of foreign conspiracies, are, of course, almost identical to Mubarak’s and those of every other maestro still standing.  Different from each other as all these despots are, when push comes to shove they all become brothers in arms: same tactics, same rhetoric, same textbook, really, and a frightening (or reassuring, as the case maybe) paucity of imagination.

Perhaps Iran’s strongmen are under the firm impression that their time-tested methods will prevent a repeat of upheaval on their own streets, those that in fact were the first in the area to agitate against power in 2009. Perhaps they feel that they have already weathered past unrest and are now home free, ready to reap the windfall of a collapsing Arab order. Perhaps, like Bashar Assad, they think that Palestine and populism have placed them on the right side of history.

We soon shall see. But of the many messages that are hanging everywhere on Ben Ali and Mubarak’s exits, like post-it-notes on the clipboard of history, one reads like a thrilling dispatch from the trenches:

If has finally turned into When…All bets are off…For everybody…   

Each and every locale, however unique its features and many its complexities, deserves to be in our sight. But already, the lines that had defined the old geopolitical map don’t count. Israel, only three months ago, looked across the entire Arab landscape and, except for a bump or two, saw flatlands all the way to Turkey and Iran. In good time, it could well be the Arabs (and Palestinians) who will turn more challenging and Iran more bland.

But gone as well are the challenges of the old, familiar kind. If, indeed, dignity is the lead aspiration and grievance in Tunisia and Egypt, it is because of so much more than Palestine. Citizenship, it might help Bashar and AhmadiNejad to know, is the cause for which Tunisians and Egyptians marched. That old one-two of brute force and breadcrumbs--that’s the rule of thumb that the Tunisian and Egyptian people have just retired.

Gone, finally, is the smug certainty that the Arab person just does not have it in them; that the security state can guarantee continuity in the absence of leadership; that fear is a good enough substitute for performance; that inhuman treatment and indecency can be camouflaged by lofty rhetoric, even if the name of God himself is invoked as fan and sponsor.

If arrogance and contempt for the Arab person did Ben Ali and Mubarak in, so they shall Israel and, yes, all those lined up with or against it in the region.
Conjecture has become all of a sudden fun. But of all the newfound realities competing for our attention, two have grabbed for themselves seats in the front: the imperative of open dissent and the beauty of nonviolence. The rest--and there are many making their entrance--need patience and more time still.

To be sure, that decades-long debate among clean, serious and well intentioned people on the feasibility of working within repressive systems to improve them has finally been settled: the proposition is not only silly, it is downright dangerous.

So, for those who have long hoped that discreet prodding is more than enough to persuade stern men to become more gentle; or for those who have long believed that islands of excellence can swim in a sea of muck; or for those who have long compared regimes and thanked their stars that they live under this ugly one and not that merciless one; or for those who have long kept silent about unbearable humiliation because Palestine comes first, Tunisia and Egypt have rendered a clear answer.

Whispers by these good people will have to turn into open reservations, private demands into public declarations. They will have to lobby and put conditions in the glare of light, make their voice part of the conversation. There is no case anymore for acquiescence, but there is a very compelling one for change and hope, and they have to be its most passionate advocates.

Nonviolence is a thing of beauty that Tunisia and Egypt have made live again. If Palestine was becoming increasingly unlikely because of the scandalous duplicity of Abbas and the astonishing idiocy of Hamas, the nonviolence of the Tunisian and Egyptian resistance has just recast it as doable.

Now is the time for the Palestinians to commit wholesale to peaceful resistance for Palestine, as some of them have been doing in the villages and by the Wall. The task is daunting and the facts on the ground are extremely unfriendly; however, the Palestinians have the pedigree, the experience and a strong network of alliances that reaches into the heart of Israel and the West. They have a stumped, stark naked enemy in the Israeli occupation. They have the cause and the world’s attention if they want it—but only for the briefest of moments.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Lesson Over…”

From an Egyptian banner, “Lesson over, stupid.” (Intaha al darss ya ghabi).

In the last post, sent out barely a few days before Egypt raged, I offered a closing insight that perhaps many felt—especially those always on the look out at for their favorite scarecrow, the Islamists--was a little too hopeful:

“So far, the 21st century has proved anything but dull. Perhaps one of the more interesting recent developments of the past five years is the way energized civil societies have been surprising the powers that be, fundamentalists included. In these testy times, neither pseudo-secular states nor Islamism need feel entirely too comfortable should the time for change finally come.”

Well, Egypt’s civil society has risen to the occasion, and I suspect that its Islamic fundamentalists were no less surprised than Mubarak himself. For in turning out in the streets, Egyptians finally needed neither the prodding nor the guidance of the former, and feared neither the ire nor the retribution of the latter.

In figuring out the next phase in Egypt’s tumult, this fact should be reverberating in every observer’s reasoning. 

Now we have to see how the army plays along. I am betting that it will soon decide that it has very little choice but to uproot Mubarak and the top brass of his regime, if only to preserve its discretionary powers as ultimate arbiter in Egypt. To forfeit its extraordinary standing and aura within Egyptian society for the sake of a totally discredited, exposed, openly reviled and doddering ruling elite would be unfathomable even if its interests do not really clash with theirs.  

In any case, we won’t have to wait too long—days or hours--for the answer.


But as entrancing as it is to watch Tunisians and Egyptians drawing, in the midst of the fog and storms, the face of their future, I would like to obsess about those features of years past that made these two peoples convulse with such unanticipated relentlessness.

I will not waste time on an anatomy of chronic frustration and disappointment, because as telling as it would be, it won’t explain what made quiet anguish turn into loud fury.  

Suffice it to say that everywhere your gaze turned as of late, it looked like a pile up of pain colliding head on from every direction. Endemic poverty, appallingly bad governance, crony capitalism that embarrassed even IMF’s most ardent diehards, unvarnished repression… And since Arab youth are the stars of the moment, dire predictions about their loitering anger has long been at the heart of practically every worthy read on this region’s predicament.  

And yet, in glaring view of this mess, only the most sensitive of eyes detected restless lives. It’s as if Arab authoritarianism had unlocked the secret to permanent rule, however atrocious it gets. The joke that ran around like a fact, until Bouazizi burned himself alive and brought Tunisia to its feet, was that the more the world changes, the more Arabs want to stay the same.

So, what made a presumed deaf mute scream?  

Of all the reasons racing to the finish line, one might just make it ahead of the rest once havoc settles down: in the end, Ben Ali and Mubarak had simply gone too far. Hold the “no shit, Sherlock!”  because this rationale is not as plain and straightforward at it sounds.

Having neutered (murdered, exiled, jailed, tortured, spied on, infiltrated, scared the wits out of…) all organized political opposition, rendering it either too feeble (the left) or demonizing it out of contention (political Islam), Ben Ali and Mubarak assumed the system had become impregnable against rupture. 

Once in that frame of mind, a certain kind of cannibalism became the way of once clever, ears-to-the-ground men. They started mindlessly eating into every sector and strata of society—middle classes, intelligentsia, labor, professional associations, etc—whose tacit support or acquiescence, at a minimum, is vital for continuity.  

Contempt took over with deafening effect. Whatever stirrings the regimes registered, they deemed as the usual blather of spineless disaffection. And in fact, Egypt, for one, has been rumbling for quite some time, but the system, thinking its powers limitless, judged the movements little more than trouble whining from the far edges of the garden.


It is hardly surprising, then, that revolt, when it came to Tunisia and Egypt, different as they are, was anything but organized. I mean, is it not extraordinary that in both countries pervasive intelligence services failed in predicting, let alone preempting the uproar?

The truth is that while Ben Ali, Mubarak and their men kept thinking in the box, the people upped and decided to walk wholesale out of it.

As an Egyptian friend of mine just told me, “So many things came into place and the timing, unbeknownst to all of us, was right.”

Khaled Said, the blogger who was beaten to death in 2010 by the police, the years of labor action to no avail, the church bombing that warned of a community cajoled into falling apart, the rigged parliamentary elections that reaped 97% of the vote for the official party with such impunity…

And then Twitter and facebook that could not be silenced no matter how hard the bad boys tried.

These were clear signs that this rule had just gone too far.

Once Ben Ali fell, Egyptians could only ask themselves, Why not Mubarak as well?

A pollster told me recently, “fear works.”

It does, but only for a while.

There are lessons for us as we forecast who’s next.

The question is: Are the rulers still standing actually listening?