Sunday, April 13, 2014

Business As Usual in the Middle East?

We have an age-old Arab ritual come spring. Carpets dangle for dear life from balconies as women folk flog the dust before packing them off to the attic. A cleansing of a sort that announces the summer’s sun.

That’s what many thought Arabs were doing back in 2011. “Spring!” The status quo hanging on for dear life, a bit of a good whipping, a cleansing of a sort. Therein the biggest delusion began: that a hard beating would be more than enough to dust off an epoch of abuse and failure. Worse! That it would all be done to the euphoric crescendo of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Now we mourn, lamenting the sameness of it all, because, we are told, it’s that damned stubborn status quo. “Told you so!” This has become the mantra of the strangest of bedfellows. For Bashar Assad? “Told you so.” Against him? “Told you so.” Sissi, yes? “Told you so.” Sissi, no? Ditto that.

Judging by the surface collisions erupting across the region, the complaint is not entirely wrong. The battle today as before seems to be between the same old foes: the postcolonial state and Islamism. To each country its own circumstance and flavor, of course, but the standard line is that as much weakened systems gave way, the organized Islamists moved to share the chair if not altogether usurp it, while the so-called liberals, played by this side and that, aided and abetted, and now are content to revert to their time-honored habit of looking on.

The point being: a historical opportunity has been missed and here we are in the throes of a counter-revolution with regional and international forces taking up position as the status quo in one guise or another reimposes itself.

The very seasoned Patrick Cockburn goes further in a recent piece in The Independent. He argues that perhaps the single most instructive lesson from the Libyan experience is that “demands for civil, political and economic rights – which were at the centre of the Arab Spring uprisings – mean nothing without a nation state to guarantee them; otherwise national loyalties are submerged by sectarian, regional and ethnic hatreds.” Pretty much the case now in five different archetypes of collapse: Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, the last three courtesy of the recent upheavals.

But if, indeed, this has been the grievous error of Arab oppositions, the tragic reality is that it is but a continuum of the regimes’ own original sin. Dare we forget how much cruelty they inflicted in the nation state’s name and how many worthy causes were subverted under its banner? Or the success with which they made themselves synonymous with the nation state as they went about reducing entire national entities into family fiefdoms? In the end, this collapse of which Cockburn speaks is as much the precursor as it is the epilogue to the revolts.

And still, at least in the case of Syria, you could not help but marvel, during the very early stages of the unrest, at how resilient civil society proved in the face of Assad’s efforts to splinter a heaving nation along sectarian identities, swiftly deploying violence to fracture civic solidarities. Just as you could not but flinch as the Middle East’s most reactionary powers very quickly mimicked the worst of Assad’s bloodletting.

It’s a grotesque irony that, for both Assad and his external enemies, popular “demands for civil, political and economic rights” have been equally unnerving, and for both, counter-revolution has been the actual rallying cry. No less hideous is the fact that even the most radical early calls for change by Syria’s first wave of rebels did not envision, let alone plan, a regime change this bloody and this devastating to the very meaning of Syria.

How, then, the status quo might triumphantly hold forth against this blatantly infernal backdrop is one of those questions very few of us are interested in poking lest it interfere with the understandably simpler line of: “Told you so! Bashar is staying.”
So it goes for Egypt. You can almost hear history desperately dialing back in many people’s wishful thinking at the mere mention of Sissi. But how can it? Not only because too much has been broken to be put back together as it once was. But because neither the state nor the Islamists have the skills, let alone the will and the imagination, to tackle the profuse crises that finally unleashed the uprising. Regimes tumbled, in the final analysis, because the states over which they presided had long been slowly crumbling under them.

This is a region that is literally limping every which way in the face of wholesale failure of staggering proportions. By every quantifiable measure the state has been progressively recusing itself and the people simply can no longer make do with band-aids and bread crumbs. Every assumption has been turned on its head and every problem begs for an urgent and serious solution, from the disastrous effects of climate change on food security; to the technological disruptions that are undecipherable to our governments; to the growing chasm between countryside and city; to the ruling elites that simply cannot fathom the insistence of the times on more open polities; to the grinding poverty and unemployment that lock themselves tight, much like tree vines, around our political economies. Add to these the deep ruptures that portend, where ever they have occurred, the end of imperious centralized authority.

But this status quo has entered the 21st century with all the battered tools and used up tricks of the old one, and the dire consequences are literarily too painful to bear.

A vacuum is not a state of affairs that calls for celebration, but it is one that demands much more than the bowing of the head, arms up resignation offered by many an analyst, as if what we are witness to is little more than a cynical power grab. Indeed, even in Syria, from such melancholic conditions there may yet emerge an opening. In a sober take, Yazid Sayigh wisely sees in a much-diminished Assad clique hanging on for dear life a possibility.

Ironically, that survival may be the only thing capable of paving the way for serious dissent to openly emerge from the regime’s own social constituencies and institutional base. 

To date, the National Coalition has failed signally to generate a critical political opening of this kind. And it becomes more unlikely with each passing day that the coalition will be able to seize the opportunity presented by such an opening should it arise and draw a critical mass of rebel groups behind it. But in that vacuum, a more effective kind of Syrian opposition may just arise. 

There is a nexus of vacuums everywhere you tread in the area. Small mercies, I call them, borne out of the old order’s very inability to hold itself together against overwhelming trends and pressures. Underwriting these is a remarkably dynamic geopolitical map that is not likely to settle anytime soon. Neither Turkey and its Erdogan, nor Iran and its Khameini, nor the US and its allies and adversaries, nor Israel and its colonized Palestinians, nor Jordan and its Hashemites, nor the Gulf and its fractious sheikdoms are today what they were but three years back—inside and out.

Pray tell, where does “told you so! It’s that damn stubborn status quo” belong in this picture?