Middle East and North Africa: politics by trial and error

By Harry Hagopian
28 Apr 2011

Let us be honest. Who with the exception perhaps of some self-styled prophets will have thought that the protests sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010 will have ousted Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali twenty-eight days later and started an Arab Spring, or a veritable typhoon of awakenings, in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and across other parts of the Middle East and North Africa?

Only one short year ago, this will have been unthinkable - even incalculable - as the regimes in most of those countries will have simply swatted those popular uprisings away and imposed an iron-fisted rule against their own hapless citizens for simply daring to speak out. Yet today, some countries are grudgingly labouring to come to terms with those new demands exacted by their people, others are using every trick in the book and every arsenal in their possession to quell or re-direct the will of their people, whilst many others are watching with trepidation and perhaps even befuddlement, in case this typhoon is co-opted by their countries’ peoples too.

We know all this since we watch the unending stream of ‘breaking news’ on our television screens as they unfold hour in, hour out. We are mesmerised by the analyses of various ‘experts’, impressed by the names of towns that we had never heard before in our whole lives, bewildered by new terms such as baltajié or shabbiha (unidentified thugs) and unnerved by the uncertain unpredictability and yet overwhelming breadth of this spreading groundswell.

As we look for instance at Libya, Yemen and Syria as three key outposts, we witness the misshaped pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattering in different directions. Yet, in the midst of such political entropy, a few realities about state-building are painstakingly emerging and they simply cannot be overlooked too facilely.

• One such reality is that the autocrats and dictators in the region are rapidly learning from the tumbledown of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents and are battening down the hatches as they fight tooth and nail for their own political - and also in some cases physical - survival. Some are opting for sheer brutal force in order to impose their will upon a down-trodden population in the hope of cowing them into submission, others are adopting carefully-chosen and often abstract reforms simply to appease their peoples’ ire and retain their hold on absolute power, whilst others are even hoping they will be spared such upheavals and that they can win their citizenry over or at least bribe them into quiescence. Within this constellation, the three countries that grip my primary interest today are Libya, Yemen and Syria, and with that interest come also many unanswered or unfathomable questions about current cause-and effect strategies.

• In Libya, for instance, an unhinged but manipulative dictator is in the process of pitting tribe-against-tribe, manipulating his foes and allies alike and fracturing his country for the sake of staying in power. Colonel Gaddafi has always been viewed as eccentric at best and as blood-hungry at worst who will ally himself with anyone willing and able to pump him up. No wonder the country is divided into two uneven halves, with almost half a million refugees having fled Libya already. But I still wait to be convinced by our political leaders about the judiciousness of their choices. Why Libya exactly? Are the NATO attempts at striking down pro-Gaddafi forces a precursor for mission creep and for boots on the ground? When the Libyan foreign minister implies that Qadhafi’s departure is not a taboo subject, do we merely dismiss it and ask for regime change irrespective of UNSC 1973? Is this wise when Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggests that the conflict in Libya is heading towards a “stalemate”? Are we grooming new dictators to replace old ones?

• In Yemen, despite four months of massive demonstrations and many deaths, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the USA are both trying without much success yet to broker an exit strategy for President Ali Abdullah Saleh that is honourable enough for him but that helps introduce change and forestall the country from being cherry-picked by the al-Qa’eda affiliates with all their destructive and hateful tendencies. Succinctly put, it requires the Yemeni president to hand over power immediately and step down in thirty days. But the president continues to emit mixed messages as he bargains for time and therefore for his future. So is he a better leader than Gaddafi? After all, Tripoli in the evenings is once again filling up with people, something that cannot be said of Yemen, so why are we more tolerant of one autocrat and less so of another? Should we not compel both men to leave their powerbases without more foot-dragging and blood-letting?

• Unlike Libya and Yemen, Syria remains one of the historical bastions and nostalgic spots of the Arab World - known as Umm el Ourouba. This amalgam of popular feelings - and therefore of political ambivalence - that Syria generates is partly due to its time-honoured and staunch resistance against encroaching western hegemonic influences in the region. It is also due to its opposition to Israeli occupation and its support to resistance movements such as Hizbullah (Lebanon) and Hamas (Gaza). But this country is also viewed by some pundits as a pontoon bridge for a future sustainable Arab-Israeli settlement and a causeway toward both Iran and Turkey. As such, both the uprising of the Syrian people and the concomitant violent oppression caught many people off-guard. Yet this seemingly unstoppable catharsis raises a valid domestic question: is President Bashar el Assad effectively in charge of the country or are others pulling the strings and causing such mayhem? However, irrespective of how we define it, the leadership remains inflexible whereby Article 8 of its Constitution qualifies the Ba’ath Party as the sole political party and whose draconian curtailment of basic fundamental freedoms (including that of expression) disembowels its citizenship rights and quashes them under a heavy yoke of oppression.
Even the lifting of the infamous emergency law of 1963 cannot provide much of a breather if it is simply replaced by a raft of other laws that still handcuff ordinary citizens, muzzle them, and end up being even more stringent and therefore by definition less open or ‘democratic’. However, one main reason for the recalcitrance of the West to become more robust in its demands - many zealous editorials in the Arab media are already labelling this pick-and-choose Western policy as ‘double standards’ - is that it decided to qualify the protests in Libya as a plea for freedom and view it from a humanitarian lens - whereby the R2P principle for intervention became legitimate - whilst Syria had remained for the West - and paradoxically for Israel too - an abstract political issue with a dry calculus of political interests. But I opine that events today lost Syria its right to be so very different, especially when a protester (Abu Mohamed) from Azra, a southern town in Syria that witnessed a high death tool, was reported in the New York Times to say, “We want revenge, and we want blood.”

• In this context, no wonder then that both Tehran and Ankara are keenly following the developments in Syria and also proactively competing to influence them. After all, not only does Turkey share a 700-kilometre physical border with Syria that affects its own tenuous Kurdish problem, it is also concerned about any hiccoughs to its mounting trade with the region. Iran, on the other hand, benefits from Syria to extend its own influence in the region - Lebanon being perhaps a plausible example - and carve out a role for itself in the regional dynamics.

• The West - whether defined broadly in this context as meaning America alongside parts of Europe, or as NATO, or even as a coalition of forces - is also struggling to come to terms with the events enveloping the whole MENA region. It too is on a steep learning curve, but still remains pretty much clueless about the events overtaking it: from Tunisia to Syria, via Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya or other countries, the USA and its allies have been groping in the dark with piecemeal policies and disjointed tactics that simply reek of a sorry lack of political sophistication and do not bring with them a gut understanding of this hot zone. Where are the Arabists and mandarins of yesteryears? After all, the West too was taken aback as much by those wholesale uprisings as they were by the fact that intimidation and fear have lost their dual grip on the Arab population in many countries. So they are now interpreting UNSC 1973 in different and almost creative ways that would enable them to justify their actions whilst fulfilling their interests. Hence the radical differences and deepening involvement of the West over those uprisings are creating more confusion, uncertainty and dissension.

• Moreover, it is becoming clearer - Misrata in Libya is an obvious albeit not exclusive case for the whole region - that the military option alone simply cannot glue back together what has already been broken or bomb the genie back into a shattered bottle. The solution has to be political too - hence read negotiations and diplomacy. Simply put, the West cannot afford mission creep nor can it stoke the hopes of the peoples of this region only to checkmate them later when it fails to meet its own goals. Conversely, the autocrats of those countries should also be disallowed from getting away anymore in depriving their citizens of life, right, freedom and hope.

• Bahrain, a Gulf statelet that houses the US Fifth Navy Fleet, might be out of the limelight these days but the situation there remains quite tense and unpredictable. The Pearl Roundabout symbolic sit-in has become a distant memory already as the authorities strive to regain full control of the country with the help of their allies from the Gulf Cooperation Council with whom they are linked by a mutual defence pact. But stability does not exclude oppression: a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights has stated that doctors are being targeted by the authorities so they do not speak out about the cases of torture they witness upon admission into various hospitals. With the tensions between a Sunni ruling monarchy and a majority Shi’i population that is much poorer and supported by Iranian chicaneries, concern cannot but remain rife about the future of this state too.

• In the midst of all the dust generated by those uprisings, the eye of the world is slowly deflecting once more from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is disturbing since no matter what else happens in the world, the Israeli-Palestinian intractable conflict remains in my opinion the central hub for any regional solution. Yet, it seems to me that Israel is using this period of uncertainty to pursue its military aggressiveness and beef up its expansionist and colonial policy of settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Moreover, the fresh comments made by the Head of the UN Fact Finding Mission Justice Richard Goldstone about his report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 29 September 2009 has also raised many eyebrows - not least since his other three fellow commissioners - Hina Jilani, Christine Chinkin and Desmond Travers - issued a statement last week affirming that they stood by the original report.. Whilst the initial document had called for an investigation of war crimes in Gaza, Goldstone is now is curiously and questionably re-visiting his own conclusions. Why? Moreover, just as the Palestinian Authority is lobbying to gain recognition of statehood from the September UN General Assembly through a ‘Uniting for Peace’ Resolution, the US Congress invited PM Benyamin Netanyahu to deliver a speech on the Hill that would in all likelihood make President Barack Obama’s tentative attempts at Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution even less successful. No wonder than that Turkish president Abdullah Gül wrote a sharp op-ed in the New York Times on 21st April admonishing Israel that “a dignified and viable Palestine, living side by side with Israel, will not diminish the security of Israel, but fortify it”.
• Lebanon too has slipped even further off our radars. The caretaker prime minister Sa’ad Hariri, who was removed from office rather unceremoniously three months ago, tries to tailor a new political role for himself without much success yet. He is now focusing on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and has locked horns with Hizbullah over Iran and over those arms in the hands of Hizbullah militias that remain outside the remit of the ‘state’. Conversely, the prime minister designate Najib Miqati is also held hostage to many obstructionist and intransigent positions that he almost needs to find his own genie in order to form a functional government. But it is clear that the formation of a Lebanese government is largely tied into the regional developments - especially in Syria - and the leverage that the various outside countries or Lebanese parties could bring by proxy onto the negotiating table. One fear I have for Lebanon is that we might well witness a recrudescence of violent attacks that will strive to divert attention from Syria or else cow the Lebanese into submission to one political will at the expense of another. But the psychological threshold of fear has been overstepped in so many Arab countries that all the Lebanese might be savvier and avoid falling into this trap again. I suggest this is one way to read the attempts by the newly-elected Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros at Ra'i in inviting the four Christian key leaders to Bkerke last Tuesday for a series of ‘conversations’. This was intimated by him today when the patriarch stated that “Reconciliations, agreement and dialogue are among the manifestations of the resurrection.”

• Islam is also assuming a role in those political tractions. However, it is important to distinguish Islam as a heavenly religion from one that is a sectarian or political ism and to realise that it is not defined solely by the prism of the Muslim Brotherhood - as we have witnessed in Egypt and Jordan for instance. After all, the Brotherhood has developed over the years since Hassan al-Banna founded it in March 1928. It has somewhat been co-opted into the political process and now represents one vital sector of Arab grassroots constituencies. Instead of scaremongering everyone about their governance, they should be integrated into the democratic process. Rather, what worries me personally are the radical Salafi jihadists who are a peril to both Muslims and Christians. Yet, they brandish their arms everywhere, and the murder of the Italian pro-Palestinian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza, the deadly attacks against Christians in Iraq or the skirmishes in Zarqa (Jordan) are three examples of this looming danger that could swell and strain further many polar interests across the region.

• Finally, let me add that journalists and armchair experts end up at times stoking the fires of any conflict by subtly steering the news coverage in one direction or another and depriving their listeners or viewers of clear-cut and objective analyses. This is not exclusively Jazeera-bashing, mind you, as I am one of their regular viewers too, but I am referring to a whole stable of anchors or analysts who speak from both sides of their mouths and adapt their editorials remarkably deftly to the constant changes on the ground. Enthusiasm or sensationalism are not synonymous with professionalism, and it astonishes me when prominent names have been hoisted by their own petards as they have revised their assessments of regional events with subtle and not-so-subtle U-turns!

My realities are admittedly not earth-shattering revelations and might even appear self-evident for many veterans or diplomats who look at, say, the roles that Qatar and Egypt are assuming today and view those aggregate events as an intricate agenda for a new MENA order in the making. But my question today - five months into this novel experience - is whether we will manage to ride this experience out safely? Will the uprisings succeed in achieving democracy even in its most nascent form with more openness, better governance, better services and more representative parliaments? Will the republics become more rights-based and the monarchies more constitutional? Will the instincts of Arab intellectuals who have often spoken out about nahda, hadatha and tanweer finally come true? Or will a justifiable humanitarian intervention with moral overtones collapse simply into unjust wars that will suck huge amounts of money away from our stretched public services and pump them into the arms trade? Worse still, will the fighting drag on and everyone ends up weary, jaundiced and disappointed and so we simply end up replacing one set of injustices by another?

History though, teaches us that revolutions are slow processes that do not simply happen overnight but take a long while to take root and then bear fruit. In his Animal Farm, George Orwell even suggested that all revolutions are doomed to failure! But perhaps we need to be more pragmatic and less impatient: after all, a century of oppression and paucity cannot be undone easily in five months whereby the voiceless suddenly re-acquire their vocal chords.

Subjugation, oppression, marginalisation, imprisonment, brutalisation, torture, rendition and even murder: it will be a tough call - as much as a rough ride - as the MENA peoples struggle to change the lexicon of their erstwhile realities with a series of trial and error policies. But whether the uprisings go the bumpy way of the 1848 European revolutions, emulate the South African path of truth and reconciliation, follow the East European fast lane of 1989, or entrench the violence we witness in the MENA region today, surely, but surely, freedom cannot be snuffed out forever?

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris, and he is a regular Ekklesia contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly, he was Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches. He is consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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