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.