Sunday, December 9, 2012

Don't Peep at Egypt Through the Keyhole

This is what Professor Mona al Ghobashy had to say back in August about the revolutionary push and pull in Egypt:

Until the people attain a reliable voice within the state, the logic of popular politics will continue to disturb the designs of elites. The uprising was the booming opening salvo in this engagement, putting paid to Mubarak’s hereditary succession scheme. The next casualty was the Brothers’ short-lived plan to share the presidency with the SCAF, undone by the conflicting interests of the principals and the rise of maverick outsiders like Sabbahi and Abu al-Fotouh who captured the people’s imagination and a considerable share of their votes. Future presidential elections will be similarly charged episodes of real competition, with insiders seeking to regain their hold on executive power, outsiders rattling at the gates and Egyptian voters as the arbiters.

Last week, Egyptian protestors stormed Cairo’s presidential palace, literally “outsiders rattling at the gate.”  What has been extraordinary about Al Ghobashy throughout the Egyptian crisis is her real feel, as a scholar with astonishing rigor, for what is at stake in this fight for Egypt. While most presumably seasoned observers have been busying themselves with Islamist versus liberal collisions, a contrived slice up of Egypt that distracts as much as it misleads, Al Ghobashy has put pen to wound: the unremitting struggle to force open the hitherto shuttered political arena and break the elite’s tight hold over the country’s unfolding participatory politics.

Reducing the current crisis to little more than a tug of war between an organized Islamism with an electoral mandate and a contingent of disparate liberal groups with some revolutionary credentials is akin to peeping at Egypt’s agony through a keyhole. And to argue, in the name of an even keel, that each side has its legitimate grievances, misunderstood motives and lamentable shortcomings is to miss the entire point of the uprising and to misdiagnose the reasons that are refusing for it to quiet down—not in spite of but precisely because of the army and the Muslim Brotherhood’s best efforts to wrap things up.  

In this vein, unanimous non-Islamist rejection of the exclusionary methods which underwrote the draft constitution and outrage against Mursi’s decree impregnating the presidency against judicial oversight were expressions of real and perfectly justifiable fears that the proverbial gate was shutting down again. And when the Muslim Brothers failed to bend non-Islamist will, compelling the group to resort to militia-like behavior—lethal threats, batons and shotguns galore---which was of a piece with other incidents of naked bullying, cynical opportunism and overreach, suspicions hardened into convictions.

Why mince words? In this defining struggle, there is no room for hedging about the principle of the matter and conjecturing about stark clear actions that have no need of interpreters. The moment is not politics as usual, and the disagreement is not about garbage collection. Jason Brownlee’s take--astoundingly in MERIP of all publications—that "Mursi and the Brothers are overseeing an autocratic transition due to their structural position, not because they are inherently more autocratic than any other group,” betrays breathtaking ignorance at all levels of Egypt’s quandary. It flies in the face of historical precedence and assumes that the MB’s deftness in exploiting the mechanics of democracy somehow cancels out its utter contempt for the fundamentals of it. If Islamism, whatever its shape and where ever it reigns in the Middle East, has proven adept at anything it is in riding on the shoulders of democracy towards autocratic governance.  

To be sure, dissent is growing within Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood included. These audible rumblings reflect, in fact, the very success of political Islam in Islamizing societies across the region and exposing itself in the process to the hard tests of life. For a while now, everywhere in the region, discourse has been taking shape around the place of civic rights and pluralism in the politics of Islam. But such pursuits do not yet attest to the MB’s recognition of the mood of our times and its decision to play catch up.  So far, in fact, these post-Islamist trends have by turns embarrassed and angered the group rather than persuaded it to embrace aspirations larger than its own.  That is why every open MB dissenter is actually an ex-member.

And that is why the Brotherhood’s latest battle cries for “the rise of Islam and the rule of the Quran,” and against secularists and heretics, atheists and degenerates, feloul (remnants of Mubarak) and autocrats, have been at once offensive and purifying: in one go, the organization has managed to vilify a faith-filled opposition and many pious Egyptians beside, while offering in blunt punch lines the essence of its plan.  Suddenly, the distance between the Brothers’ rhetoric and actions is all but wiped out.

The chants from the other side --“Egypt is not Iran. Egypt is not Ikhwan…I am not a heretic and I am not an atheist”—are in their own way, eloquent ripostes to the Brotherhood’s unyielding dogmas and a nod to history’s toll. Don’t discount the language of the streets as mere venting in a furious climate; it is almost always the one through which the real story is told.  To buy into the fiction that Egypt’s is a conflict between liberals and Islamists is to sleep through the real faceoffs: that between “outsiders” pressing to get in and “insiders” trying to keep them out; equally, that between Islamism and its post-Islamist progeny. And many are the threads that bind both.

If it were just the so-called liberals wreaking this havoc, the game would have been over a long time ago and President Mursi would not have had to scurry from his palace’s backdoors, let alone rescind his constitutional decree. Had the MB held a solid majority of the electorate, then the argument against illiberal majoritarian democracy would have been compelling enough (see Michael Wahid Hanna’s piece in Foreign Policy). But the helplessly convoluted and flawed electoral process that inflated parliamentary representations and Mursi’s razor thin 51% leap into the presidency are themselves cautionary tales against sloppy interpretations of popular mandates.

This sloppiness most likely stands behind the MB’s latest miscalculations and explains its rage against grassroots resistance. The sloppiness that continues to diminish the quality of many an analysis which take election outcomes at face value, neglecting to scrutinize the electoral rules that are designed to distort actual electoral heft and probe the deeper meanings of the tally. Had Mursi and his party undertook such an exercise, they would not have pounced upon the presumed openings that their electoral victories appeared to give them. Then again, maybe they did precisely that, saw what Al Ghobashy sees, and, as is their wont as practiced opportunists, moved to grab as much as they could in the race for Egypt.

In trying to sink deep their anchor in the country’s post-revolutionary politics and join the ruling elite, it has been paramount for the Brothers, who neither provoked nor lead Egypt’s revolution, to ride the good will or acquiescence of constituencies much bigger and more diverse than theirs. Today, they have the parliamentary system on their side, the presidency in the bag, a deal with the military, a draft constitution peppered by key clauses, the very vagueness, even seeming innocence, of which is intended to ease the ascendance of Islamist interpretations. Not bad!

But these trophies have come at a huge cost for the Islamist movement, none more damaging than having to spell out its intentions, show its true colors and bare its teeth way too early in a game that has just started. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

No Need to Speculate Anymore about Tunisia's Ennahda and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

We are all very grateful to Tunisia and Egypt's Islamists for swiftly--and with astonishing rigor--settling a decades' long debate about Islamism in the Middle East.

You would have thought, with a map long dotted by Islamist regimes of every breed, that there wouldn't be much to disagree about by now.  At a minimum, the Iranian (1978--), Sudanese (1989-), Afghani (1996), Turkish (2002) and Gazan (2006-) examples--not to mention the 80-year-old Saudi kingdom--have been extremely helpful guideposts to the intentions and methods of Islamism, however diverse the orientation of the parties that thrive in this rich ecosystem.

Indeed, the most instructive lesson of these patterns in Islamist-governance--be they monarchical, militaristic, clerical, Talbani, Sunni, Shiite, brotherly, parliamentary--stems from the one essential feature that unites them:  in every single case, with the exception of Turkey, they were unhindered by pluralistic political traditions and unchecked by countervailing state institutions; and in every single case  they dug deep an extremely oppressive mode of rule. That's not a matter for conjecture, that's a matter of fact. Notably, when, by 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had finally managed to defang Turkey's once fearsome secularist military and judiciary, his authoritarian inclinations asserted themselves, appreciably degrading the country's democratic credentials. In a candid moment, during a recent private meeting with regional and international businessmen, Erdogan likened Islamism's commitment to democracy to “catching a train. When you get to your station, you get off.”

And yet as heavily as the balance sheet weighs against political Islam, debate was still raging as Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood moved to assert their dominance in their two countries. There is a good reason for this--a no-brainer, actually.  Ideologies always come under stress when they descend from high theory into mundane practice. Trust life to mock the absolute certainties of the zealous. And trust  our religiously zealous ideologies to make a mess of things, trivializing the divine by shoving it everywhere in the muck of humanity and its factional politics where it most assuredly was never meant to belong.

Hence the advent of post-Islamism! Well before the Arab eruptions, discussion had been increasingly focused on post-Islamist trends, those necessarily emanating from the success of fundamentalist movements in ensconcing themselves in the state and/or society almost everywhere in the Middle East. The friction between the purity of dogma and the complexities of human problems had tested Islamism's promise, exposed its shortcomings and tarnished its appeal. Inexorably, it brought into serious doubt the wisdom of forcing religion to legislate politics.

Dissent within the camp--most potent from the once most ardent--began to challenge Islamism's knack for reactionary explanations of the word of God and his prophet and looked to long violated civic and human rights to redress the dangerous lopsidedness in the message. By way of a case study, there is none more telling than the Iranian one, but retreats register everywhere fundamentalism holds the levers of power.      

For a while now, Islamist intellectuals no less than rights activists have been pushing for more dynamic interpretations of Quranic texts and a more discreet role for religion in public life, one that recognizes and respects the presence of the Other and the vitality of pluralism to the health of, first and foremost, Islam itself.  The call, then, has been for a serious reform of Islamism, lest the people finally boot it out  entirely. As Akbar Ganji, an early follower of  Khomeini and subsequently one of Iran's most celebrated human rights defenders put it, "Ideologizing religion opens the way for a totalitarian system, and by its tendency toward violence, war-mongering, and restricting freedoms, it inevitably encourages secularism and apostasy..."

And so, when, in 2011, the Arab revolts rocked Tunisia and Egypt, the chatter naturally centered on the degree to which their Islamist parties had absorbed the lessons of their own history and those of their Middle Eastern cousins. More importantly, since the uprisings had energized long smothered polities, the main question became, Will Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood respect, even embrace, pluralism and citizenship as the basic precepts of the two emerging  democracies?

Well, we can stop the incessant speculation now. Let's not beat around the bush, throwing about the ifs, buts and maybes that are designed to make of  hope a compelling argument. The bottom line is this: precedence counts, actions count. Words don't, unless they are juxtaposed against actual deeds for authenticity.

So far, Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood's tenures indicate that they are loyal bona fide members of the old club.  While the Ennahda government struggles to solve people's severe economic problems with recipes as hard to digest as Ben Ali's, Rachid Ghannoushi is caught on camera privately counseling Salafis to be patient, for their day in the sun will come. Meanwhile, NGO reports are methodically highlighting policies or omissions that are eroding various canons of democracy.

As for Egypt's MB, its performance on questions that are central to the health of the democratic process--from ill-disguised flouting of non-Islamist propositions in the assembly charged with drafting the new constitution to President Mohammad Mursi's latest bid for extraordinary powers--has been at once clumsy and blunt, giving ample ammunition to its detractors while leaving its apologists looking like chumps. In this vein, the input (or rather output) of former senior MB members, such as Shawkat al Kherbawi, about the group's tactics, power struggles and ultimate aims has been especially educational. What's more, it does not look like the Brothers will be able to point to any quick economic wins anytime soon to quiet raging hearts.

That neither Ennahda nor the MB have yet routed Tunisia and Egypt's democratic forces should not be put down to lack of intent. There's plenty that the two players could have done to reassure society at large of their genuine commitment to diversity and civic values, especially since neither party walked away from the polls with sweeping mandates. Issandar el Amrani's commentary in the National on President Mursi's latest move nails it:

Were Mr Morsi a beloved national leader of the stature of a Nelson Mandela, he might have pulled it off. But he is the backup candidate of an organisation - the Muslim Brotherhood - mistrusted by many of his countrymen. He was elected (narrowly) by a coalition brought together by the fact that his opponent was worse.

Perhaps the most illuminating finding since the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings is not how well Islamist organizations have evolved but how visibly intolerant civil society has become of their antics. This is not to underestimate their tenacity or skills. They may well be succeeding in weakening institutional resistance to them--in this area, they have always been at their most talented. However, it remains to be seen if post-Islamist realities have taken deep enough root, as advocates claim, and if the countercurrents are strong enough to temper Ennahda and the MB's ambitions and significantly clip their wings.

Judging by the push back we are witnessing as I write, Tunisians and Egyptians are signaling that no one--least of the Islamists--has the benefit of their doubt. And how right they are!          

Thursday, November 22, 2012

On Obama and the Middle East

The Ever So Inspiring Vexing Obama

How many times did we hear it said around the world, in 2008, that Barak Hussein Obama is the new president of the new America?

It isn’t just the fresh African-American heritage and its mix of Christian and Muslim blood that had the crowds rhapsodizing in ecstasy. It’s that he harks from the old colonies and yet inhabits Rome so comfortably; the education, the worldliness, the sophistication, the very sharpness of him and—here comes the whopper—that he’s so self-satisfied and superior. Unnerving as that made Obama to many Americans, it actually added that extra halo over him among his foreign admirers.

Once sold on the résumé, it was very easy for his partisans to make the leap from profile to policy. For them, the compelling logic went, Obama’s style of leadership and conduct were bound to be as transformational as his person.

It was thought, who better than this American president to refashion the purpose and use of power in a world that seems to be walking briskly towards a radically different era. It isn’t just that emerging centers of influence—all non-western—have been giving the old club a run for its ideas and money. Technology’s innovations also have been chipping away at the deep-set walls between center and periphery. Civil societies have been bypassing their governments, forging transnational links and making robust common cause. Even capitalism itself, already sullied by the IMF and its neoliberal agenda in the league of developing nations, was taking a battering in much of the West by 2008. To boot, the US was finally showing the serious strains of its military and financial excess.

It helped, of course, that, in the endless battles between imperium and its foreign dominions, indigenous grit, facing overwhelming military might, stood its ground and occasionally won. In this movie, Vietnam ran like a preview of things to come.  

And so came Obama on the heels, we must never forget, of a frighteningly insular man called Bush, with a frighteningly adventurous troop. Thus the hope, the clamor and the Nobel Prize. The expectations of many Americans (and otherwise) were that the change would be dramatic, loud enough for us to hear the crusts of international politics shift.

Truth be told, plenty were the skeptics, none more than President Obama himself, enumerating the constancies that belied the fast-moving trends. His very own Oslo speech, upon receiving the Nobel peace prize, waxed eloquent about the seductiveness of lofty ideals once tempered by the irresistible logic of power politics.

Amongst us Middle Easterners there’s always been fury—as there should be—at an atrocious US track record that could stretch as far back as President Woodrow Wilson’s failure to offer more than lip service to the constructs of democracy and self-determination that graced his famous 14 points. President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to England, France and Israel to withdraw from the Sinai in 1956 is a very lonely moment when American interests coincided with Arab ones.

And yet, however deep our outrage, it’s not every day that we get to hear a politically savvy thinker, like Hamid Dabashi, bemoaning an American president thus: “Oh, how deeply did he betray that hope! He coulda been a contender!" We are very much in the habit of taking offense at American violations of our national integrity or disregard for our political yearnings, or, worst of all, its collusions that tear at the very fabric of our lives. Rarely do we criticize an American president for disappointing our hope in him, since we were conditioned a long time ago not to entertain such silly sentiments.

It took an Obama to rekindle the poetry. So, going back to Dabashi: Obama “coulda been a contender” for what exactly? 

Although he doesn’t quite say it, I suspect Dabashi was hoping that this American presidency might usher in an age of imperial enlightenment of a sort, watershed achievements like a juridical withdrawal from Afghanistan, a palatable peace treaty in Palestine, a more balanced policy towards Iran… Overall, a concerted effort to shorten the distance between the US’s high minded Jeffersonian principles and its hard-edged interests.

Just to be clear, as mindful as I am of the absurdity of pairing imperialism with enlightenment, my tongue was nowhere near my cheek when I was writing the above paragraph. The proposition that a retrenching US must reimagine itself in the region—to show more suppleness and farsightedness in pursuing its interests--is one that has been made by policy makers and critics alike. Leaving the very fundamental but elusive matter of justice aside, the rationale is that, notwithstanding blunders like Iraq, it might seem like the US has not done too badly over the past century, standing as it does now alone, with all its previous rivals nearly vanquished or snapping at its coattails. But the cumulative effect of its connivance with and/or indulgence of the Middle East’s most reactionary and predatory countries (Israel included) has been ruinous to the prospects for stability that the US needs most today as it retreats and pivots towards more pressing spheres.

Judging by the hyperbole in Dabashi’s lamentations, Obama’s record so far—at least for his betrayed fans--is more than disappointing. The kill lists, the soaring number of drone-strikes and other such like loathsome prerogatives of empire shock, while “servility” to Israel infuriates. Needless to say, the US’s reliance on multiple yardsticks in navigating the current Arab uprisings—quick uptake in Tunisia and Egypt, firepower in Libya, silence on Bahrain, studied reluctance on Syria…—have invited the usual cries of foul play.

But the truth is that Obama’s tactics point to tentative departures from old policies and new frictions with longstanding allies that have translated into openings for those of us playing on the opposite side of this perennially dirty game of geopolitics. He predictably gave way on Yemen and Bahrain, but rebuffed Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Egypt’s Husni Mubarak, moved swiftly on Tunisia and is still derailing Qatari and Saudi efforts to arm Syrian insurgents, quite a few of whom are extremely unattractive Islamists.

He has yielded to Israel, as any American president would, on Palestine, but he has stubbornly and effectively resisted it on Iran. One could argue that Israel’s unusually audacious efforts to manipulate great power interests on an issue much bigger than its size—even if it is such a “special” friend--were bound to fail. But the art of Obama’s diplomacy, which publically mined Israeli dissent as much as it capitalized on the US’s sheer heft is not lost on Netanyahu and his camp—it certainly shouldn’t be lost on the rest of us. And double standards do pervade the cocktail of sanctions against Iran, but I’d be interested to hear a serious counterargument on the better path of war from other than those whom history has already proven insane.

Clearly, Obama is not thinking of the good people of the Middle East when he insists on flexibility in this very uncertain climate. And he might well be embracing alliances with forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which might be as averse to a freer, more democratic politics as the old regimes. But precisely because of the fluidity of the times and the US’s dimming star, Obama has had to listen harder and watch carefully the swing of the pendulum. We should all remember that one of his more intriguing qualities is how well he manages to unsettle his supposed friends.

And since Dabashi himself describes the man as a mere opportunist, the hint for our opinion leaders to quit the outrage, take the opportunity, catch up with the grassroots and help make irreversible and resounding our newfound vibrancy.

In one of the more lucid takes on the “bewilderingly diverse and ferocious energies” recently unleashed in the Arab region, Pankaj Mishra, one of the more robust public intellectuals seguing between East and West, posits that the revolts are but the latest manifestations of a century-long struggle by the people of Asia to wrestle themselves free of Western domination. The US, no less than the colonial powers of old, has long resisted, at a huge cost in resources and lives, this trajectory. Even now

Republicans calling for President Obama to ‘grow’ a ‘big stick’ seem to think they live in the world of Teddy Roosevelt. Liberal internationalists arguing for even deeper American engagement with the Middle East inhabit a similar time warp; and both have an exaggerated idea of America’s financial clout after the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s.

 If the main question before us is whether the final push towards a “post-Western era…will be as protracted and violent as Europe’s mid-20th century retreat from a newly assertive Asia and Africa,” it is certainly arguable that an opportunist at the White House is all we need to manage the transition with the least damage possible. When we breathed a sigh of relief at the reelection of Obama, did we not phew with that in mind?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When Will Bach Come to Mecca?

In very private company, a venerable Arab commentator is in the habit of repeating every so often an old maxim of his: "I will know that we [the Arab world] have made it when I rhapsodize to Bach in Mecca.”

At first impact, the man’s pining hits almost every sensitive chord in the politics of our identity. His is a strike out in a bowling alley, hitting Islam and Arabhood with all the pride and honor and pieties and colonial insults and indigenous humiliations and Western arrogance and nativist chauvinisms that are packed into them.

Were he to sigh this way in public, death would be his wish. And herein lies the heart of the problem: much more than the actual yearning itself, audacious though it may be, it is this mindless intolerance towards any perceived provocation that speaks most poignantly about one of our more confounding regional realities.  

In truth, this Arab Muslim’s vision is anything but an affront: a people who are confident enough of who and what we are that we think nothing of welcoming the best of the West—and what could be more sublime than Bach’s cantatas?—to the most sacred place in Islam.

Why not, for that matter, Umm Kulthum, the better to press home the source of the pain and the urgency of, first, an intra-cultural dialogue? Because this attitude that deems diversity--the very essence of humanity—anywhere between a grave offense and blasphemy considers homespun colors even more menacing than the imported variety. In fact, for those who hold dear their grievances and phobias, the West and its modernities are the easiest targets to caricature and slander. But what do you do with the enemy within?

Insist, especially in these times, on sealing yourself clean of the world around you, from the best of its challenges to the worst of its cheap shots, and yours is a life of insupportable hypocrisy and contradictions, not to mention every imaginable infraction.

Ours, of course, is not a unique mistrust of (or even rage against) the Other. Wherever there is life, there is injury, bigotry, hate, along with a lurking mob eagerly waiting to feed off of them. All cultures suffer demagogues. But ours have been climates in which supposedly fringe groups have had a remarkably successful track record in barging into the center, enfeebling serious discourse and dictating agendas. As crowds, egged on by high-ups acting as lowlifes, grow apoplectic about the merest slight to Islam, most of us have a tendency to recoil, as if retreating into our eternal dystopia, ceding precious ground for others to monopolize.

How unbelievable is it that the hilariously dumb Innocence of Muslims and its maker Nakoula Bassely Nakoula—what the hell kind of name is that anyway?--a moronic, meth-cooking, two-bit crook could manage this kind of havoc in our midst? Even if we were sure that the idiot is a sinister conspiracy dressed as a clown, could we not offer a reaction—if any were required at all—that is more befitting of the man and his movie, perhaps a snigger and a yawn?

They say that this mayhem started out as Islamist fury and very quickly morphed into a free for all. But the multiplicity of reasons does not obscure the fundamental fact that this Islamism of ours can’t seem to rise above, let alone outsmart, even the stupidest of taunts. Worse still, that’s the last thing it wants. But since Islamists have long been insisting that theirs is the only answer to an all out Western assault on our identity, surely they can muster a more convincing one than just frothing at the mouth.

True, among the countless provocateurs that get mobs riled up, religion is king. There’s nothing quite like a mob drunk on sanctimony as it storms the streets avenging its victimhood or flaunting its self-righteousness. In that, we are no different from other offenders. But frankly, this pious fury that is always agitating on the surface of our collective existence is but that massive boil that keeps erupting in a body politic that appears utterly lacking in resilience. More than that, a body politic that visibly relishes its sickness, thinking it the proper antidote to all contaminants, homegrown no less than foreign.

If the trashy Innocence of Muslims is the price Liberty pays for its insistence on the vital tenet of freedom of speech, so it goes that the mad frenzy of the last week is the price Islamism is happy to pay for its insistence on the fundamental absence of that same freedom of speech.

This illiberalism does not a citizenship make. When sticking to their guns, as it were, it behooves Islamists (of all strains) to think hard about the lessons of the Arab uprisings. More importantly, it behooves the rest of us to do the same. For a while now, we, in the Middle East, have been witness to conversations on the compatibilities between democracy and Islam. It’s time to jack up the volume.

And should--for some bizarre reason--the West, and specifically the United States, be feeling the need to revisit its policy in the region, the first places to land in and the first friends to talk to are those who have long given sustenance and comfort to the most troubled among Islam’s devout children. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Did It Have To Be This Way For the Assads and Hezbollah?

When the situation began to palpably deteriorate for the Assads of Syria, one question kept circulating with more frenzy than all others: Did it have to be this way for the family?

It seemed like Bashar had an assortment of options at his disposal that could have helped him avoid the unenviable fate that is now staring him in the face. He could have delivered swift justice for the children of Dara’, for starters. He could have reined in his shabiha, depended less on military solutions, opted for more dramatic reform politics… He had the state, the security apparatus, the army, the commercial classes, the Christians and Alawites, Aleppo and Damascus, and, for a while there, even Obama.

Bashar, the story went, could have played it differently and come out the victor. In fact, as Bassem Haddad penned it in MERIP, Bashar could have played it differently way before the uprising.

But then, that’s not how the Assads came to rule Syria. Its not that they were lulled into a false sense of infallibility after 42 years of reign, although the cards certainly appeared well stacked on their side of the deck. It’s that, for them, to lose even a bit of grip on power meant to lose grip over all of it. The nature of this family’s sway is not just the nature of Hafez Assad and his kin, it is the stuff of centuries’ long Alawite wretchedness under Sunni rule. However successful this community has been in joining mainstream life, however eager the Assads have been to subsume their identity in a larger Arab nationalist one, the dichotomies that had long crisscrossed Syrian society were not erased so much as they were papered over by a thick veneer of Ba’athism, cooptation of the Sunni sect and pseudo-secular policies. That’s why Assad, very soon after the uprising, decided to turn the fight into a sectarian conflict: he knew Syrian earth was fertile ground for his strategy.

A few months ago, I heard it said by sources close to the palace that when Bashar early on pondered the possibilities of give and take with some opposition figures, his maternal uncle Mohammad Makhlouf, the grand patriarch after Hafez, made it clear that the President had it all mixed up in his head: it was the family that presided over the country, and the family forbade any such discussions.

And when the regime finally gave way on the presence of foreign observers on Syrian soil and on reforms, cosmetic though they were, it was largely due to Russian insistence. As usual, no amount of internal pressures impels the Assads to deal; only foreign ones push their buttons that way. 

One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, we shall learn much about what really went on in the Assad household. But, hard as it is to believe in the midst of this turmoil, friends of the family tell of exit negotiations running round the clock for weeks now. Whichever way it goes for the Assads—a retreat to their Alawite enclave and/or an engineered exit through a pre-arranged handover to old-time allies like Mnaf Tlass, or even an overplayed hand that ends in tragedy for them, much like the tragedies visited upon many Syrians since the revolt…-- their era is all but rubble.

Not surprisingly, the doomsday scenarios for both Syria and the Levant abound. Veteran journalist Helena Cobban can see a breakup of postcolonial systems through missteps and miscalculations if not outright intent. Others predict, at the least, chaos for Syria for years to come.

When considering the future, it might be useful to note that, so far, not a single regional or international power has shown a stomach for a complete retooling of the postcolonial setup. In the current tumult, there are no signs of grand designs, just makeshift strategies and tactics made on the run. We forget that the effective cover given to Bashar over the past year and a half did not come only courtesy of Russia. Had the West resolved to dislodge him outright or wreak havoc on the country and the area beyond, it would have long ago abandoned the United Nations as the primary conduit of policy. Instead, a gradual tightening of the noose was deemed safer in the long run, while an enfeebled Syria had already begun to twist regional adversaries Hezbollah and Iran in knots.

To cite the Lebanese precedent by way of a preview of Syria’s own civil strife is to misunderstand it. Lebanon lit up for 17 years not because it was so precious, but because it was not. The neighbors and a medley of other encroachers were happy to fight their little wars over it for so long because they could afford to without much consequence to them, and because, well, the Lebanese themselves did not quite mind it so much.

You might, right about now, want to shoot Iraq my way. But you’d be too quick to the trigger. The mosaic of unnerved sects aside, there is not much in that country’s recent experience that is comparable to Syria’s. The US invaded Iraq--perhaps the most inept imperial venture of modern times—resulting in a catastrophic loss to the region’s Sunni dominions. While Iran wanted to ensure US failure, Arab Sunni monarchies wanted to undercut Shiite ascendance in this vital environ. Syria itself wanted in, if only to keep the disturbingly combative Bush administration at bay. The makings of a civil war were all there. And yet, as battered and dysfunctional as Iraq is today, it is still holding on to its collective self for dear life, ten years after the American invasion.

Moreover, the Middle East has become palpably more unpredictable since the Arab revolts. In this explosive environment, Syria is a coveted prize; in bits it’s a powder keg. Those competing for it, therefore, would like to keep it intact, not break it into warring pieces precisely because its dismantlement may well mean the collapse of the Fertile Crescent as the West conceived it after World War I.

True, we could be witnessing the inevitable withering of that imposed arrangement, the final chapter in a crisis of legitimacy (or is it illegitimacy?) that has characterized nearly a century of artificial political geographies. One by one, they might fall: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, shards hitting Turkey, Eastern Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Territories, Israel, Bahrain, Kuwait… Certainly, the sheer velocity of collisions inside Syria might prove too overwhelming for a society forced to battle so many of its own sectarian demons. However, because conflicting interests are, by a collapsing Syria, similarly threatened, the bet is that the combined effort will be towards saving it.

The Assads, some insist, would like the end of them to be the end of Syria itself. Perhaps, but they don’t necessarily have the critical mass to make of this nightmare a reality. Iran might lend a hand, but why would it, with such high stakes, at a minimum, in precarious Iraq?

There is, of course, Israel. But, again, Israel, pre-Arab revolts, may have judged that it would thrive best in the midst of a strife-riven Levant, but one of its own making, where it acts as puppeteer, not a dangerously uncontrollable one of which it might yet become a casualty. Besides, why light up the area when a weakened Syria, much like a weakened Iraq, will very likely spend years trying to sort itself out. And, dare we suggest that a domesticated Sunni-dominated polity might offer up borders just as quiet as the Assads have kept them since 1973.

Which brings us to Hezbollah. It is undeniable that without the breathing space, the logistical routes and the underground support long extended by Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah would be left perilously exposed in any future faceoff with Israel. Equally, however, a turbulent Syria that is home to all manner of Salafi radicalism and free for all conspiracies would sap the energies of a Shiite force coerced into navigating in a sea of hostile Sunnis. While, ironically, it would no longer have to defend its armed status in either scenario, its critical positioning as a resistance movement would be dealt a crippling blow under both.

In truth, Hezbollah’s discomforts did not start with those of the Assads.  In a way, the organization has been too successful for its own good. For the Shiites of Lebanon, it has provided first and foremost protection and relevance. But more critically, for Iran and Syria, this powerhouse’s unique talent for multitasking has been a boon on too many fronts to count. And it goes without saying that, in that thick portfolio of achievements, 2000 and 2006 stand out. To kick an occupying Israeli army out of Arab land and years later deny it its standard devastating military victory was the stuff of fiction before the arrival of this party of God. These feats were more than enough to stretch the movement’s appeal beyond sect and country. More than that, they helped it hold on to its many potentially combustible identities.

But Hezbollah’s juggling act, ever since Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, and Syria’s retreat from Lebanon itself in 2005, has grown progressively trickier. Its burgeoning reach, which took it to the pinnacle of Lebanon’s sectarian politics and from there to the center of a notoriously prickly Arab playing field, made the challenge all the more herculean and consequential for the party’s standing.

Back in early 2010, right after Hezbollah issued a new manifesto, which was designed to reconcile its evolving commitments, I wrote:

From occupation to liberation, from the wretched earth of downtrodden Shiism to the heights of sectarian power, from the womb of Khomeini’s revolutionary Iran to the warm bosom of warring Lebanon; from resistance, pure and simple, to the infinitely trickier threesome of resistance, deterrence and governance: this has been the journey of Hezbollah over the past two decades. It’s a movement that’s been there, done that, and the manifesto is meant to reflect the wisdom it has acquired along the way.

…It would like to believe that there is no friction between the demands of armed resistance and the imperatives of political governance. And so long as the threat of Israel and the frailty of Lebanon continue to offer the pretext and Syria and Iran continue to give cover, this marriage, peaceful or not, will last.

And, lately, it has not been that peaceful for Hezbollah. Corruption scandals, rampant drug dealing and protection rackets in Beirut’s Southern Suburbs, intelligence breakdowns in its previously impenetrable ranks and high pitched confessional bickering have taken their toll on the party.  

To boot, Syria’s Assad, remarkably, is falling, further pressing this feisty member of the Syrian-Iranian rejectionist axis to contend with its quarrelsome identities.

Criticism of the organization picked up very soon after Syria itself went up in arms. It was attacked, even by some longtime admirers, for its unwavering support for the Assads, as if it had any choice, or more bluntly still, as if it had any other preference. Hypocrisy was the charge. After all, they asked, what made the revolt against Mubarak or the khalifas of Bahrain so easy to condone and against Assad so easy to condemn? 

On its face, the question seems unbearably rhetorical and too stupid to ask.  But that’s largely a reflection of the mess the revolts have caused for the old Arab politics. So long as the Arab people, wherever they resided, stayed quiet, the many faces of liberation could lurk just as quietly under deep garb. In pursuit of human dignity and justice, the struggle for Palestine would suffice. And if the people revolted solely against unfriendly despots, all the better—and all the more proof of the singularity of the Palestinian cause. But once Syrians erupted in the name of deliverance, realpolitik was sure to trump principle--as it always has and always will, when core interests are at risk.

In the final analysis, in all fairness to it, Hezbollah has never been about democracy, or pluralism, or whatever other flavor-of-the-day ideal… The plain fact is that this liberation movement was born single-issue and single-sect, and now both are under serious threat.

Sure, Hezbollah and the Assads could have played everything differently, but only if they were different themselves.

In the end, then, it had to be this way for them.