Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Towards a New Narrative

A mob of ifs, buts and maybes has been let loose in the region.

The Middle East hasn’t been this prickly since that grab fest at the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire gasped its last and the Arabs were about to breathe their first. It wasn’t in the stars then, alas: new overlords, new states, nations, borders, flags, anthems…The 1950s, however exciting, don’t even compare. Tested as the colonial map was, it more or less held firm; only ruling heads swayed or fell.

But it’s not only dictators that are tumbling now. Entire landscapes, once tamed and mastered, want to rewrite the future as planned. The people, who had been pretty much deleted out of every power’s playbook, are making a dash for it with a long list of demands, and, frankly, neither they nor the systems they want brought down are familiar with this kind of tumult.

The furious tempo and nature of the turmoil have made a mess of things for forces that had long lined up across this area’s countless divides. Colliding interests are suddenly mixing it up and deeply held beliefs are having to contend with very inconvenient facts.

The reference here is not to the obvious. It’s always been hilarious but never extraordinary to catch feuding countries in one-night stands or even elicit tangles of the more passionate and lasting kind. Not that Hezbollah and Iran stumbling over Syria much like the US over Yemen and Bahrain is not worth a pause. But what deserves more than a passing thought is the way this upheaval has forced out into the glare of light the unvarnished pragmatism that has long held court among the Arab world’s supposedly die-hard camps. We are used to vilifying the US--and rightly—for putting narrow interest before lofty ideals, but it’s not everyday that we get to witness the most “principled”, not to mention righteous, of us Arabs owning up to and questioning their own handshakes with unsavory regimes.   

So far, this serious blow to the decades-old understanding between (let’s call it) the traditional resistance front and “rejectionist” states is one of the Arab uprising’s more interesting if underreported achievements. “‘Resistance’ against Israel [and the US] was for the longest time a pass for savagery against one’s own people, now it has become the very argument against it,” I wrote in an April post. What was deemed, for many in this influential front, a matter of priorities for 60 years has become a blatant contradiction in a mere five months.

Perhaps no intellectual symbolizes this break better than Azmi Bishara, the more thought-full among Arab nationalists and a former Knesset member, who was good enough to dwell on this hardnosed quid pro quo, at long last according the Syrian people precedence over all other considerations. Even journalists and pundits, like the staunchly populist Ibrahim Amin of the Lebanese Akhbar, who remain hopeful (and confident) that Bashar Assad will in fact champion change and lead it in Syria, have had to narrow the gap between their convictions and their politics, emphasizing the imperatives of reform while engaging in the usual conversation about conspiracy.

It is hard to overstress the extent to which “rejectionist” countries, and movements allied with them, relied on these sources of external legitimacy in covering for domestic cruelty and delegitimizing internal dissent. Now the logic no longer holds for those who helped such states make this case to the Arab masses.

Already the question of legitimacy is demanding answers beyond that of Palestine, casting an eye towards those of governance and citizenship. And soon, the discourse on resistance is sure to ponder a more meaningful definition than the longtime favorites of loud posturing and cynical belligerence, neither one of which was ever remotely credible in confronting the daunting challenge of Israel.  

Marrying the quest for freedom from occupation to that of freedom from oppression finally has become both urgent and feasible. To the Arab revolt goes the credit for bringing together two pursuits that should have never been apart.  

Extraordinarily, this momentous shift is taking place at a critical juncture in the Arab-Israeli impasse. Never has Israel suffered from such an utter lack of imagination, and never has it been so utterly wrong about its many existential quandaries. Never have the Palestinians’ grasp of the utility of nonviolent resistance been sharper and more sensitized to its pull. Never have the Arabs been more keenly aware of the power of their reach and the possibilities of a more dignified life.

But, remarkably, if the Arab Spring and the evolving Palestinian story are threatening to render moot Israel’s strategies of confrontation, they certainly have done the same to Iran and Hezbollah’s. It’s not only the Islamist movement and the Republic’s strategic depth that is endangered by the changing Syrian circumstance; their brand of rejectionism is quickly becoming less convincing as they pick their way through the Arab uprisings.

Hamid Dabashi said it in his piece on “The Dilemma of the Islamic Republic”: “This is the season of exposing hypocrisies, overcoming public secrets, opening the democratic veins of young and robust societies, exposing the clogged arteries of decrepit rulers bereft by their own moral senility.”

Which paradoxically takes us back to that essential matter of pragmatism in the way that we, as a coveted, embattled and now erupting East, deal with powerful forces, local and foreign, whose foothold and interests here are real, deep and pervasive.

Western analysts, Professor Michael Hudson argues, have to revisit their false conceptions of an Arab people who have defied stereotype and expectation. The pressure as well is on their Arab counterparts to move beyond the old paradigms that have placed foreign connivance and hostile encirclement as immovable screens in our interaction with those who mean and have the capacity to influence our region.

Talk of counterrevolution and conspiracy is rampant today, no doubt for good reasons, but we Arabs have just snatched opportunity from the jaws of history, and against such odds. Had we been doomed to a marionette-life, the last five months wouldn’t have been so damned riveting to live and inspiring to watch. One of the more instructive lessons of these revolutionary times is that we are capable of leading and forcing others to cede the initiative.

But practically nothing in the recent literature comes close to a reasonable proposition on how to take Arab aspirations forward in the context of an international arena that simply won’t take no for an answer. Beyond ideology, beyond the narrative of empire, which is as matter of fact as life itself, however dearly we wish it were otherwise, how do we engage with a world that is unavoidably intrusive? To this paramount question, we as Arabs need some serious thoughts that are as rich with nuance and skepticism as they are free of paranoid sloganeering.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Trouble with Syria

No country quite like Syria embodies the complexities and contradictions that run through the Arab world the way threads bind a garment of screaming patchworks. But forget for a minute that this is a republic with a crown on its head. Forget that this bastion of resistance never could see the irony in championing Palestinian rights while withholding those of its own people. Forget even that this is a Syria that prides itself on being the beating heart of an Arabhood that never quite came to life and that pines for Lebanon much like an amputee yearns for a severed leg.

As interesting as all this is, it’s not what makes Syria so special. Love it or hate it, Syria matters because for the past 40 years, ever since Hafez Assad seized power, the country has turned from patsy to regional player. War by other means, sabotage as a preamble to diplomacy, or dreaded afterwards should it fail, playing footsy with the forces that inhabit our underworld while shaking hands with the beau monde above: this has been the stuff of Syria’s success in a very tough neighborhood, where the tightest of alliances are drawn in quicksand and the enemy is just as often friend as adversary. It has helped, of course, that Syria itself is the jewel of the Levant, home to the most thorny problem in the area: the Arab-Israeli dilemma. What the geography lacks in resources and wealth, it more than compensates for in trouble.

But Hafez Assad would not have been able to play the outside so confidently, had he not controlled everything and everyone on the inside so well. How else could he have bequeathed it all to his son Bashar, and without so much as a feather daring to ruffle?

Rumor has had it that Bashar is not Hafez. True. The glaring mistakes early in his tenure are proof enough. And yet, for all of his shortcomings, by the time Bashar reached his tenth year in office, Syria had become at once a strategic portal for Turkey, Iran and Israel. In Lebanon, it has proved practically impossible to sidestep or dislodge, even in the worst days of 2005, when its army was ushered out. In Iraq, it has refined the role of spoiler-cum-fixer into a high art. In Palestine, it has given Hamas backbone, denying Mubarak control over that crucial card. With Israel, it has maintained the quietest border on the front and conveniently consolidated all the push buttons of the resistance in Damascus. For Hezbollah and Iran, it has acted like a gaping hole in an Arab Sunni wall. 

No, not Jekyll and Hyde, more like Batman this side up, the Joker that side down.

Barely a month ago, President Assad was so sure of his exceptionalism, he boldly declared, “If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform. This is first. Second, if you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail.”

He didn’t know it then, but he was actually the first to call it right before Syria actually flared up.

Like all the other masters of this Arab house, Assad thought he knew his people better than anyone else. He turned out to be dangerously misguided. But surely the Syrians must know one or two things about him and the Family. They are no pushovers. They won’t fade into the sunset or retire to Qardaha, from whence they hark. More to the point, they are convinced that, for them and their sect, after defeat comes certain death. Hafez Assad once famously quipped, “Min al qassr ila al qabr,” from the palace to the grave. That’s because, for the Alawites, life only recently has been pretty much exactly the reverse: from the grave to the palace. Call this sect’s centuries-long destitution what you like, but its tormented history is key to understanding its psyche, however different Syria’s present circumstance is.

By way of a peek into a distressingly murky future, most commentators are guessing regime collapse and/or civil strife. But the Assads have more than enough firepower and grit to last for a long time, and in order for civil war to become full-fledged, the opposition will have to be very well armed and financed. So far, and all conspiracy talk aside, neither Saudi Arabia, nor Israel and the US, the oft-cited culprits, are keen on wreaking this kind of havoc or on seeing the back of Assad. Not because they love him so much, but because they cannot imagine Syria and the Levant without him—literally. There’s just too much mayhem in the pipeline, too big of a forest fire to put out (to paraphrase from Nessim Taleb and Mark Blyth’s Black Swan of Cairo) and too many frightening regional eventualities should Syria totally breakdown.

However, this threesome is certainly eager to downsize the country, but getting Assad to compromise over the hot files doesn’t appear achievable now; he’s in combat mode and once more a pariah.  So, if there is malicious intent of a sort, it is to sap him, bog him down, deny him that which gave his family’s reign so much strength for the larger part of the past four decades--a very tight grip on Syria itself. Neither killing the regime nor civil war will do the job. But a tired, wobbly and constantly worried Bashar: now that’s something they can live with until he’s finally ready to bargain away his trophies. 

As for the Assads, the primary objective is, of course, to stay at the helm. From there, analysts have to walk backwards and see how much they and their faction are willing to give up in order for them to retain the levers of power. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is plenty of incentive for them to negotiate their way out of this impasse. Time, though, is running out, and so are their options. The more they wait, the more creative they will have to be with a people fast running out of fear or good will.

Before you waste your time searching the past for clues, precedents, in this case, don’t count for much. This is the first time in 40 years that Syria faces this kind of popular discontent.  Back in 1982, it was a very aggressive generation of Muslim Brothers that stirred the pot. They could be cornered, isolated and then snuffed out. This time around, it is the people who first rose up in arms. This time around, the leadership knows there really are no foreign conspiracies, just internal heartbreak. The remedies for it may be very costly, but they are as obvious as they are unavoidable.