Saturday, March 26, 2011

The West is Bad. Now Can We Move On?

What’s extraordinary about the constant back and forth on double standards in this region is that it is taking place at all.

Regrettably, moral high grounds are too often claimed by many and almost always owned by none. To be lectured by Nicola Sarkozy or Barack Obama about the supremacy of Arab humanity’s quest for freedom and dignity is no more asinine than listening to Ali Khameni or Hassan Nassrallah pounding the lecterns in its name. Tyrannies are constantly giving each other passes and alibis in the Gazan, Syrian, Iranian and Sudanese barracks as they do in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and every other wretched system in the Western camp.

Certainly it is tyranny that makes one of clashing regimes and betrays with such vehemence their shared love of hypocrisy. Here, on the reactionary side, is Saudi Arabia supporting the no-fly zone in Libya while issuing Wahhabist fatwas against popular discontent in the kingdom itself; and there, on the revolutionary side, is the Iranian clerical order celebrating rebellion everywhere around it but warning its own citizens that protesting price increases would be nothing short of treason.

The diehards on both sides, obviously, have their bones to pick in this fight; for the rest of us, the argument is very distracting and all the more annoying because of it. This is not to say that the damned moot point doesn’t belong anywhere in our spats. It does, right at the very beginning of the conversation, so that we can quickly get it out of the way, or at the tail end of it, so that we don’t have to sit through yet another harangue about how everyone wants a piece of us and the beauty of just saying no.

There are, it goes without saying, very grey areas of serious consequence in, say, today’s squabble over Libya, including the selectivity of blunt Western action there. Our fingers have been pointing at countless cynical motivations, from that fat, old fart, greed, to the more interesting one of fear: fear by a West that understood almost immediately after Gaddafi bared his teeth that it would not be easy to recycle him this time around, and so all too quickly declared against him. However, when the maniacal dictator appeared to regain momentum, the West had to move lest he soon enough direct his wrath against them.

Fine! Each reason has its ardent followers and an army of experts to egg them on. Along with rigorous political analysis that is paying due respect to uniqueness of location, the presence of human agency and its fallibilities and possibly employable tensions between the interests and tactics of longtime friends, we have, Oh, woe is me, it must be the oil, a one-liner that always wants to play the ode.

The basic truth is that the West is not (and has never ever been) here to do us Arabs any favors. And while, as a matter of principle and law, we have the perfect right to insist (always) on non-interference in our affairs, we also have the basic wits—and certainly the experience--to know that this right roams our earth an orphan.

We also have enough sense in us to admit that temporary marriages of convenience between the worst of friends happen all the time here. We surely have enough intelligence to appreciate that mining openings and opportunities goes both ways, and being the victim is not the only role at our disposal. Mistaking deep convictions for sound reasoning has no place in serious debates about paths forward.  Not unless we want to kick ourselves out of this round of history as well.

However cynical its long term intentions in Libya may be, this much is stark clear about the West’s current military operations in it: they did help avert a bloodbath and they did stop Gaddafi in his tracks. Because of it, Libya is still in play and change in the Middle East can still savor yet another victory. 

Some of us on the outside can afford to quibble with these facts, but the Libyans themselves, including Gaddafi, are dead sure about them.

There is much that Western intervention will not solve and much it no doubt will complicate, none more important than the shape of a Libya(s) free of Africa’s king of kings, but there is quite a bit in it for rebelling Libyans to exploit, most crucially the breather it is giving them to regroup and tip the balance in their favor.  

It’s not neat, it’s not pretty, but it’ll have to do for now.
We are a well-endowed, strategically located region forever exposed.    

No matter!

For the West, the most screaming of the past two months’ realizations is that the Arab people do have a say. Had not enough Tunisians and Egyptians made their stubborn stand, Sarkozy’s henchmen would still be tipsy at sea with Tunisia’s Trabelsis and the White House would still be all tangled up explaining why Husni, for all his blemishes, is not Ben Ali.

Here’s another realization for us Arabs to keep close by as we plow ahead: the West’s eternal love of stability can be just as much a push for change as against it. Even conspirators listen when they’re made to.

Frankly, the uprisings are haggling in high stakes, chaotic, unpredictable, dead serious times. A few years from now, we could well be looking at completely new geographies and living in totally different political climates, some imaginably sunny, others possibly still grim and damp. Crying foul is good and right, but to those who are always itching to vent, think overture and not an entire symphony, so that we can get on with the very messy business of wringing out of these changes a more promising life.

Already in Egypt, counterrevolution is in overdrive. Already malicious intent is conspiring with business as usual to pick on women, belittling the revolution and making a mockery of its nascent achievements. Mubarak is gone, but deep in the well of the system are cliques of bureaucrats, thugs and army men working hard to paint on the same old ugly legacy a fresh face.

And since we’re on the subject of foreign busybodies and rabble-rousers, watch how this neighborhood’s old hands, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, rev up their energies and deploy their resources as trouble ups its tempo in the Levant. There is plenty for them to spoil in this upheaval, at times hand-in-hand, at others at loggerheads. Looking for interesting scenarios? Watch how they all—each for their own reasons—come together for the Assads in Syria and battle it out in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.  

This is the test that is before us, and it is about to get much harder. But, as a good woman from the human rights community put it to me the other day, “Democracy is as strong as the people force it to be.” Similarly, the West is as amenable as we force it to be.

Yes, the West may be bad. Get over it! We need to move on.

Friday, March 11, 2011

So, What Gives?

On Niall Ferguson, Benjamin Barber and the Moment

Which is it, the moment or the medium, that is failing historians like Niall Ferguson and Benjamin Barber? Reading them in Newsweek and Foreign Policy or watching them on CNN, one is astonished at the chagrin with which an historic Arab jolt is first disparaged and then swiftly thereafter dispatched as so much unruly history.

To be fair, they’re two among many who seem to be suffering from acute discombobulation when speculating on the meaning and implications of the recent Arab uprisings. The unbearable pressures of the times perhaps.

Still, you would have liked to see intellectual rigor—at least in the normally feisty and audacious Ferguson--meet, as equal, this momentous turn of events. Even Christopher Hitchens, who in Vanity Fair takes a machete to hope for Egypt, bows willingly to nuance and the relevant detail of history.

So, what gives for Ferguson et al?

Is it far too many years and too much energy invested in a sure way of thinking about us Arabs, and then we upped and made a mess of it all?

It’s not the party pooping that is objectionable. Although I find myself easily agreeing with one of the comments on Ferguson’s article in Newsweek that he “seems to value the search for controversy as much as the search for truth,” playing the devil’s advocate is almost always useful, especially in heady times of euphoria.

Moreover, we all hold Ferguson’s caveats about revolutions--the deceivingly bright early hour, the ensuing vacuum into which the most organized (and hard-line) political groups jump and lay siege to, the tyranny that is almost sure to follow…—as self-evident. Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution (for one) sits just as well read and comfy on many a shelf in this region as it does on his.

But if indeed the future could become very untidy for us Arabs, it’s all the more reason for the head scratchers out West to avoid a cut and paste effort in explaining the nature and consequences of the tumult.

It’s this failure of nerve and imagination that frankly leaves the observer in full smirk mode. I don’t expect Ferguson to cheer revolting Arabs on—God forbid--but I do expect him to put up a better fight against them. His aversion to UnAmerican Revolutions is so feebly argued, the reader begins to suspect he’s desperately trying to yawn his way out of his contract with Newsweek.

He chides the two-year old presidency of Obama for cutting back on US investments in local reformists (what we call here the kiss of death) and for failing to exploit divisions within Islamism, with hardly a line about how and where, and then he offers this piercing abbreviation of George Bush’s winning strategy in the Middle East: “…Bush put an end to all that double talk by practicing as well as preaching a policy of democratization—using force to establish elected governments in both Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Surely an endorsement ringing enough to wake Karzai up from his drug induced stupor and make him run in yet another free and fair election.  As for ending the double talk, Saudi Arabia’s women are still bending over backward in thanks to the Bush Administration.

After moping from one sloppy assertion to another, Ferguson reaches this unusually prescient conclusion:

“In the absence of an American strategy, the probability of a worst-case scenario creeps up every day—a scenario of the sort that ultimately arose in revolutionary France, Russia, and China….

Yes, Americans love revolutions. But they should stick to loving their own.”

Well, that’s helpful. It kinda puts that whole strategy thing into perspective.

If you really want to distill from Ferguson’s point some kind of an essence, it can only be this: better a thousand times regime change by foreign force (costs included) than a homegrown, down-top crack at it. Why? Because, well, just because…it’s neater that way. 

So, first they shame you for not having it in you, then they want to spank you for proving them wrong.

Benjamin Barber (to Fareed Zakaria in GPS/CNN), poor man, is “ambivalent” about all these new winds blowing through the Arab world—and rightly so--but not a tad bit about his role in laundering the likes of Saif al-Islam and his father’s Libya. When pressed in Foreign Policy, the most he can muster is, I am not the only opportunist--or buffoon--around (“wrong, who got it wrong?”); the entire Western establishment was in on it, including Human Rights Watch, Blackstone, Blair, and Prince Andrew. “I mean, it's just 20/20 hindsight.”

It’s not that Barber was alone (or unique) in choosing to work within oppressive systems to try to reform them, but his choice does compel him, doesn’t it, to point to a single tangible improvement Saif can own up to after seven no doubt hard years of changing his father’s nasty habits—just one credible reform that helped make the lives of Libyans less terrified or more dignified and helped make Barber’s own involvement with the highfalutin heir apparent somewhat less embarrassing to him and his judgment.

But frankly, this is just too silly. All of it! The temptation is to laugh it away--except for that same nagging question I had upon reading Martin Amis’s Horrorism about Islamism in the English Guardian five years ago: “Why would a man with his pulsating intellect, a man who seems to know enough and know it well write as if he knows nothing at all?”

In truth, mainstream media are not ideal platforms for historians or authors at their most ponderous. But nuance and intellectual integrity don’t need much room and they don’t need a special podium.

It’s not the medium that is failing Ferguson and Barber; it’s the moment. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Small Fry

Two weeks ago, at a small dinner party, a friend of mine chided me for ignoring Lebanon in my posts. “Why the silence?”

“Small fry, it’s because we’re small fry,” was my comeback.

I am hiding the varnish in this post because I suspect that sugarcoating very embarrassing realities in the midst of swirling events would only serve to further confuse an already confusing situation.

Political earthquakes in other Arab countries have pushed us out of the limelight. But it’s the cruel contrast between entire nations finally rising to the occasion and us sinking deeper into our Lebanese morass that has exposed us for the tiny people that we are.

Watch us now squabbling over ministries, fighting over quotas and under the table deals as other people clamor for dignity and citizenship. While we twist in the wind, they’re busy unleashing it against once omnipotent systems.

If you have been wondering as of late about our civil society, the answer is literally standing there desperate for you to catch it. Legend has it—at least among those who have concocted it out of their vivid imagination—that, in 2005, Lebanon rose first and sang away Syrian domination. True, more than one third of the population did come out, some of them genuinely (if naively) on the lookout for progressive ideas, but then, as with everything Lebanese, a possibly interesting moment turned into a hoax. Quickly enough, the Sect spread its wings, lest any of its children take themselves seriously, and swept them back into the fold.

Lebanon today withers precisely because there is no civil society fighting for it. There are just civic-minded individuals, lone voices in a cold, hostile, terrible sectarian wilderness. Guess how many Lebanese heeded the call for a civil state a few days ago? 2000.

No wonder, nearly everybody is shrugging us out of the picture. Even al Akhbar, the leading local daily, has relegated us to its midsection. Siyyed Hassan Nassrallah himself huffs and puffs about occupying Galilee if—that is if--Israel dares attack, but the warning falls on Arab politics much like pennies on a carpet.

Funny thing is, right about when Tunisia happened, Lebanon itself was hit by yet another political tornado. But juxtaposed against the mighty sight of Tunisia, we looked like the spoilt crybabies of the region.

As I write, not even Lebanon’s naval gazers, including quite a few of its own occupants, can muster the strength to waste time on this one.
Still, as my friend pleaded, we are part of this neighborhood and, satisfying as ignoring us is, Lebanon does deserve a couple of lines on its predicament if only because it is the go-to place when powers want to make a point or pick an argument.

So, here are a few lines on the latest:

Last month, in quick sequence that is astounding for the oft slumberous pace of Lebanese politics, the Syrian-Saudi deal over the special tribunal for the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri collapses under US (and some Saudi) pressure, Hezbollah and its allies resign from Sa’ad Hariri’s cabinet and, when all were looking straight ahead, out from the other end emerges ex-Prime Minister and current parliamentarian Najib Mikati (by any measure neither a particular friend of Hezbollah’s nor a staunch ally of Syria’s) to get 69 out of 128 parliamentary endorsements and sets out to form a new government.

Sunni Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, son of the slain Rafic, head of the largest parliamentary bloc and the mightiest man in his sect is not only brought down but thrown out by the Shiite Party of God and Syria’s Bashar, with barely a growl from his Sunni clan, a peep from Riyadh and the briefest of wait-and-see-statements from the White House.

One of the thickest redlines that zigzag through every artery of this country is thus crossed and the only ones boohooing are Sa’ad and his March 14 chums. By way of coups, they really don’t come smoother than that.

Hezbollah and Syria’s arm-twisting was transparent and, it goes without saying, predictable.  The quick footwork was the surprise. When everybody thought the “coup” would be loud, rough, all-or-nothing, possibly even bayonet lead, and made their calculations accordingly, the Shiite movement and our Syrian neighbor went creative. 
Not that Mikati is close to forming a cabinet, mind you. After all, why would Syria help us pretend that we can run things by ourselves when we clearly can’t? To those cursing it, I say salute it instead. 
When mulling over the nonsense that goes for politics in this place, there are three conclusions you should seriously flirt with, neither one of which, by the way, signals anything remotely intriguing about its future.

Let’s start small: the Hariri House rose with Rafic and it died with him. The feather-like fall of a Sunni prime minister at the hands of a Hezbollah-led, Syrian directed coalition means that Saudi Arabia—partly because of the unnerving incompetence of Sa’ad the son—is revisiting its old Hariri-driven Lebanon policy. A 20-year tradition has thus come to an ignominious end, none more so than for the family itself. From here on, expect the Saudis to reach out to a wider circle of Sunni faces in representing its Lebanese interests.

This doesn’t in any way imply that the Hariris are retiring from politics—although one hopes they’re inching closer to that option--but it does indicate that, as of now, it is perfectly reasonable for the public to shrink this overinflated balloon back down to size.

More than this, the ease with which presumably screaming-red sectarian lines were trampled upon confirms that the ground rules of Lebanese politics are fictitious, pretty much like the country itself, and are little more than expressions of the moods and whims of foreign patrons. It sounds like I am stating the obvious, but, believe it or not, there are still many who think that the local scene and its complex web of conventions actually count. They do, until they don’t. There are no real internal guideposts for the way of things, only external ones.

And that’s only one of so many reasons why we’re such small fry.

That’s not my angry voice you’re hearing in this piece, it’s the sound of my heart breaking.