Thursday, September 15, 2011

We’re Screwed! So Say Hussein Agha and Robert Malley

Done with the first draft of my post (Let’s Talk Turkey!) a few nights ago, I came upon the New York Review of Books’ tweet on Hussein Agha and Robert Malley’s The Arab Counterrevolution. Theirs has been the very useful habit of dispersing the hot air on which every once in a while floats a new Palestinian-Israeli solution. So I thought, plenty of hot air around now, might as well read on for added insight from two judicious men before I send off my post.

Well, it must be the times, because I don’t recall I have come across such a confused perspective about the Arab uprisings written with such self-assured clarity, and by such normally fastidious analysts. It’s not Malley and Agha’s insistence on debunking the moment and its potential that’s bewildering—evidence abounds about a counterrevolution at work—but the sense the reader gets that even the flimsiest signs of trouble over the horizon would have been more than enough for them to doom the Arab revolts to failure. In fact, as far as the two authors are concerned, the “Arab Revolution” ended on February 11, barely five weeks after it had started. Alas, that’s when pristine turned to murky, and innocence—apparently, for Agha and Malley, a most essential prerequisite for a successful revolution--lost out to the Middle East’s usual medley of local hatreds and external plots.

There are many hints in the exposé about the duo’s dyed-in-the-wool skepticism about 2011 as a year with deep positive reach, but it’s this sentence that really clinched it for me: “The popular uprisings were broadly welcomed, but they do not neatly fit the social and political makeup of traditional communities often organized along tribal and kinship ties, where religion has a central part and foreign meddling is the norm.”  In blunter words, none of this was supposed to happen, but since it did, clearly it will come to nothing. Or blunter still: since we didn’t predict any of this, better second-guess it than second-guess ourselves. 

So, on the one hand, we have a revolution that somehow has managed to topple two entrenched dictators and unleash a “complex brew” that threatens to overturn a decades-old regional order. On the other, this is actually nothing more than a spontaneous if genuine “public rebuke” by various amorphous groups, which is destined to sputter out and die in societies that are too traditional, too tribal, too sectarian and too religious to allow for the possibility of a new era that is in any way an improvement over the old one. Add to this mix, foreign busybodies, organized parties with hostile agendas and militaries averse to change as a matter of temperament, and you’ve got yourself a dud.

As for the conundrum as to how these groups, composed largely of “young demonstrators,” succeeded in overcoming such seemingly insurmountable odds and pushing history in a direction that these societies, by their sheer makeup, and these regimes, by their sheer repressive nature, and these foreign meddlers, by their sheer meddling, should not have allowed in the first place, Agha and Malley opt for the very original “revolutions devour their children,” at the end of eleven pages that expend much energy explaining why this isn’t a revolution. Besides, what’s to devour if you’re already dead?

Extraordinarily, Agha and Malley resort to historical precedence to demonstrate why nothing good will (not could, not may) come out of this fury, and identify none other than Gamal Abd al Nasser and the uproarious, ideologies-driven 1950s and ‘60s, to prove the point.

That this time around the Gamals are conspicuously absent, the army is not in “the vanguard” of change, the ideologies of old are in tatters and counterrevolution itself is walking around practically naked for all to see is acknowledged by the authors but certainly none of the lessons of the past. It’s never made clear why these differences don’t count for much, but Agha and Malley offer this at least by way of an answer: “Although the military was the vanguard then, the rebellions of 2011 arose from similar emotions and are inspired by similar aspirations.” See! Keep wishing for the same damned thing and you’re condemned to never achieving it.

It’s as if the two experts are saying we’ve been here before, but it doesn’t make a difference either way, because this is where we’re going to end up anyway. Why? Well, because we’ve been here before.  It’s sort of like being in the Amazonian jungles, this Arab world: it really matters where you’ve been, but then again, what does it matter where you’ve been if where your heading pretty much looks the same, even if it is an entirely different place?

As for what compelled the two to devote so much ink to making a truckload of insights that are so patently obvious, it is simply to make sure that we know what we already know: “Things are not as they seem.” Which is kind of funny because their article argues exactly that: things are bad, and they are just as they seem.

Now, if you wanted to have a bit of fun with this, here’s an additional small sample of wisdoms, with some comments in italics to guide you through the nuance:

·      It started out so nice but then it turned ugly. I guess that counts for a bad omen, because, for Agha and Malley, in order for revolutions to be good they have to be “peaceful, homegrown, spontaneous, and seemingly unified,” or they’re not—good revolutions, that is.

·      Old regime elements are resilient and will hang on. That was the biggest surprise in the piece.

·      There are “two relatively untarnished” groups--the army and the Islamists—which are poised to sweep the deck should they choose (or have) to, even if at times and in many places they act positively senile or stupid, because, for God’s sake, look at the rest of the lot.  

·      The Islamists, for one, stand to gain the most from this Arab Spring, but, come to think about it, the season may prove a little too nippy for them: infighting within the Muslim Brotherhood, and/or competition with Salafists, and/or tensions between hostility to and close relations with the West, and/or people’s suspicion and/or support…

·      Islamists are “the only significant political force with a vision and program unsullied, because untested, by the exercise of, or complicity in, power.” But wait, they know “the alarm they inspire at and home and abroad,” and they are on a mission to reassure.” Well, I mean, if they are untarnished, unsullied and untested, why in God’s name are they bending over backward to reassure, I wonder?

·      Oh, no, this is not happening in a vacuum--“interlopers are legion.” La?...Bala! (No, really?”), was all I could muster for that one.

·      This could be good or bad for each or a combination of the following: Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, America, you name it… Which, thankfully, narrows it down a bit.

For the record, I am not pissed because Agha and Malley have argued an Arab counterrevolution; I am pissed because they’ve argued it so badly. They should stick to woe-is-me Palestine, because—this is just a gut feeling, mind you—it “neatly fits [their] social and political” outlook.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Let's Talk Turkey

Just in case some of us are still skeptical about the sheer audacity of these times, give this a try: rummage in your mind’s attic for the year 1956 and a picture of Gamal Abd al Nasser, dust both off, and then tack them on that busy clipboard of history next to 2011 and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

(Aside: this is not a partial response to Robert Malley and Hussein Agha’s The Arab Counterrevolution in NRB; although we do touch on some similar themes, this post was written before I read the two gentlemen. In any case, my view on the piece will come in two days.)

Actually, I am going out on a limb here on regional winners and losers in this Arab Spring, however reminiscent of the past the future threatens to become.

Now tick them sixty years and their collapsing vistas off: the bygone days of military coups that could prance around as do revolutions; the general-cum-father-cum-savior; the roar of an Arab Umma on the rise; ideologies in their Sunday suits with the rhetoric to match; Islamism, present, certainly, but lurking much like that quiet, awkward kid in the corner of the class…Palestine! Real and graspable.

Turkey, Iran and Israel, three cubs nursing on the sidelines…The Soviet Union and the United States, two giants with plenty of zest and way early in the fight.

It’s hardly necessary to keep revisiting the harsh elements that reduced an interesting prospect into a figment of a people’s overactive imagination. Besides, there is no better tonic for the heart’s pain than fast-forward.  

So, a new century, a new Arab moment, a new painting in the making. It’s fascinating to watch the 21st century opting to pick up where it left off in the early years of the last and rejigging the old chosen path.  There was a hint of an Arab Awakening then rising in the shadows of warring empires—the Ottoman one dying to stay alive, the European one literally sharpening the knife.

And here we are, almost one hundred years after the fact, with a few of us seemingly resurgent again, battered and arguably all the more sober because of it--and with such uncanny if unplanned timing--helping Turkey to recapture some of that glorious past. But, frankly, even before the Tunisians first rose, Turkey in the three way regional race against Iran and Israel, was looking more and more like a stud: a country oozing with testosterone, while Israel acts like an overwrought menopausal has-been and Iran runs around grabbing its crotch.

Or think of it this way: Sunni in a sea of Sunnis; a “respectable” (as in we don’t do murder and beards) Islamist model in a world desperate for one; an economic powerhouse; a government with electorally validated popular appeal versus a seriously dysfunctional Jewish democracy and a seriously dysfunctional Shiite theocracy; a solid member of NATO; a strong ally of an overburdened US willing to cede some of the chores of empire; strategic location; all the right rhetoric on Palestine, muscle flexing with Israel like no Iranian or Arab can.

Or think of it this way: Erdogan is about to make a visit to Egypt and (last I heard) speak in Tahrir Square. Can you imagine any Arab or Iranian leader daring even to propose that outing without bringing down the house? Can you think of any power, say, China and Russia, trying to reach a deal with Syria’s Bashar in the absence of Erdogan? And, conceivably, if it ever musters the strength, a so-called Palestinian solution without Turkey as part of the plan?

There are, as with everything in life, the downsides: a far too confident Turkish leadership overreaching, an EU yet to put out the welcome mat; Iran and Israel outdone, joining hands here and there to overturn the cart; the Kurdish problem reasserting itself through Syria, Iraq and Iran… But all things are relative, and in this regional competition for influence, the era is certainly Turkey’s for the taking.