The latest round of sectarian strife in Egypt has brought the issue of Christians in the predominantly Muslim Middle East back to the fore. I do not believe that what we have witnessed in Egypt is a sectarian confrontation. It is ignorance.
If one is interested in a game of one-upmanship then there are many resources available for proving or disproving why one religion is superior to the other, more righteous, correct, genuine, true etc. If comparing and contrasting one might as well extend the argument to the differences and subsequent advantages/disadvantages, between social classes, races, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
None of that interests me. I, for one, am grateful for the blessing of having Christians in the Middle East. It makes for a more diverse, culturally rich existence that, in my view, promotes understanding. There will always be an undercurrent of rivalry and, sadly, flashes of violent confrontation as witnessed in Egypt over the past decades.
It is important to note that Christians in the Arab world have not, in general, spent the better part of the past 14-plus centuries getting slaughtered by Muslims. I strongly recommend Zachary Karabell's People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West for an in-depth study of the subject.
When states across the centuries have been prosperous, successful and secure minorities have not had major problems. And the reverse is true. Think of the global financial crisis of the past few years and the accompanying rise of the anti-immigrant politics, sentiment, and attacks in Europe and the United States.
Thus the Armenians, for example, lived their lives for several hundred years under the Ottomans as other religious minorities did; not in line with 21st Century standards but in generally quite acceptable conditions for that time and age. It was the decay and eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire and rise of Turkish nationalism (Young Turks) that led to the terrible genocide perpetrated against the Armenians between 1915 and 1917.
It is worth recalling here the words of French philosopher Jean Bodin describing the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman in the Six Books of the Republic (1576): “The great emperor of the Turks doth with as great devotion as any prince in the world honor and observe the religion by him received from his ancestors; and yet detests he not the strange religions of others; but to the contrary permits every man to live according to his conscience... and suffers four diverse religions: that of the Jews, that of the Christians, that of the Grecians, and that of the Mahometans.”
Incidentally, while the West has almost always described Suleiman as the Magnificent, in Turkish he was kanuni Sultan Sulayman, ie Suleiman the Lawgiver. He is one of only 23 famous lawmakers whose likenesses adorn the walls of the US House of Representatives.
With the Spanish reconquest of Iberia the Jews of Spain sought and were given shelter by the Ottomans. And it was in Muslim Spain that the world witnessed the grandeur of a society that brought together Jew, Christian and Muslim.
Today the Christians in the Arab world face a stark reality. The Arabs have lived under occupation, colonization, mandate or in defeat for the better part of the past few centuries. That the Ottomans, fellow Muslims, ruled for a few hundred years large tracts of Arab lands and peoples tempers the fact but does not entirely remove the sting for they are guilty of their own transgressions. A nascent Arab nationalist movement (end of 19th-early 20th Centuries) strongly influenced by Arab Christians came to naught. At the end of World War I and with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire Western powers carved the region with scant regard for its native inhabitants. With a newly born Israel in the background, the advent of Gamal Abdul Nasser and his Free Officers movement in 1952 prompted the Arab masses to believe that salvation was at hand. Instead Nasser eventually oversaw the loss of what remained of Palestine and set the stage for copycat coups branded as “revolutions” in Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Libya.
Still Arab Christians remained influential. Michel Aflaq established, with Salah al-Bitar, the Arab Baath (Renaissance) Party. The Arab defeat in the 1967 war dealt a severe blow to Nasser but empowered the Palestinian guerrilla movement. Among its most influential characters was George Habash, a Christian. A secular current still permeated the Arab world. It all came to an end in the mid-to-late 1970s with the gradual disengagement of Egypt from the Arab world and the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975.
While the right-wing Lebanese Christians sought, and received, Israeli and then Syrian assistance, left-wing Christians fought on the other side of the conflict alongside their Muslim brethren and the PLO. And while Christian east Beirut was essentially cleansed of its Muslims inhabitants, thousands of Christians, Lebanese and Palestinian (including George Habash), continued to live and thrive in Muslim west Beirut. At the beginning of the conflict innocent civilians were murdered because of the sect indicated on their ID cards-hence “ID killings”. A couple of decades later while researching my War of Lebanon documentary I was told a joke which was presented as a true story: a fighter incensed at the slaughter of Muslims declared, “I want to slaughter a Christian,” to which his companion replied, “I have an excellent Christian for you to murder.” “Really, who?” “George Habash.” Silence...
Today, resistance in the 1980s to Israel's occupation of Lebanon is wrongly attributed to Hezbollah. In fact it was the secular parties that established the Lebanese National Resistance Front in 1982 and these parties were either led by or included Christians in their ranks. One of underground resistance commanders was Elias Atallah, a Maronite Christian.
I point this out because today Christians in the Arab world are described by either errant, extremist or fundamentalist Muslims as outsiders or even kuffar, non-believers. However, the Quran clearly establishes that Christians and Jews are people of the book with whom Muslims can freely interact and even marry.
The bankruptcy of the Arab nationalist movement gave rise in the 1970s to Islamism. The momentous assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 heralded the birth of the reputation of modern-era Muslim militants as fearless and fearsome. The stage had already been set by battle for the representation of Islam. It pitted on one side a still-shaken puritanical Wahabi Saudi Arabia, fresh out of the earth-shattering occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 by Juhayman al-Otaibi and his band of followers, and on the other by Ayatollah Khomeini's Shiite Iran, flush with the success of a popular revolution which the mullahs claimed as their own and set about trying to “export the revolution”.
In the face of Tehran's zeal the world (ie the West) chose the Saudis who expanded their operations, philanthropic, educational, charitable, etc throughout the world, unhindered. Nay, they were encouraged.
That influence became evident in the Afghan war (1979-1989) when thousands upon thousands of young Arabs poured into Afghanistan to join the jihad against the “Godless” Soviets. Enter Usama bin Laden.
To defeat its archrival the USSR, the United States had created the foe with which it would do battle into the 21st Century!
The rise of political Islam meant, by necessity, the eclipse of secular currents in Arab societies. While the late (and devout) Yasser Arafat surrounded himself with Palestinian Christians and never tired of repeating “our Christian and Islamic holy sites [in Palestine]” his words were lost amid the din created by Islamist Hamas which viewed things through a singularly Muslim kaleidoscope. To be labeled secular was equal to an accusation of heresy.
Inevitably that meant the Christians also suffered. Grasping at straws, Islamists saw in “resistance” the only path to victory. In Hamas-ruled Gaza Christians became a target, Hosni Mubarak's age of mediocrity in Egypt witnessed further sectarian strife, Iraqi Christians suffered terrible attacks in the post-Saddam era and French monks were gruesomely murdered in Algeria. At the same time the Muslim populations were languishing under the some of the most brutal regimes in the world.
It is hardly surprising that the end product was increasingly insular, almost xenophobic societies that clung and cling to what they perceive as their only salvation: religion.
The suffering of minorities is not restricted to Christians. The Kurds have endured great injustices and violations in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Unfortunately the current turmoil in the Arab world as a new chapter of history is being written means little time is given to address the issue of religious and ethnic minorities in the Arab world.
But it will be a shame if the exodus of Christians from the Arab world continues. We will all be the poorer for it. They are an intrinsic part of the fabric of our societies in the orient and have made great contributions. Were would we be today without the Taklas who established the Egyptian daily al-Ahram? And Gibran Khalil Gibran's sublime literature? Or the wondrous voice of Fairuz, the Lebanese diva?
What kind of an Arab world would it be without Christians to visit and celebrate with on Christmas and Easter, and to receive in Muslim homes during Eid?
For me it means emptiness and a profound sense of sorrow.
It is not Islam that should be blamed for what we are witnessing. Nor Christianity. It is ignorance, nurtured and preserved by decadent and bankrupt regimes and movements and overseen by a world more interested in a constant supply of oil and the mirage of regional stability in an area that has witnessed since 1948, on average, a war every 8 years.
This is a crucial period in the history of the Middle East. It is either a new era or a false dawn. The desire for liberty is genuine, the hope for a bright future real. Somewhere in the plans being initiated for reformed systems of government must be a place, a cornerstone, for tolerance and understanding. Religion is faith, it is belief, not a sword brandished nor a diktat imposed. The religious and the men of religion, of which I'm not, need to speak to their followers, to preach the message of peace, because that's what religion is all about. Or so I believe.
I began this analysis on February 18. It has finally been updated! A download link for a pdf version is at the end of this post.
"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are [the ones] who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters... Power concedes nothing without a demand... The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.." Frederick Douglass, 1857
The pattern of political upheaval has continued unabated in the Arab world with the current turmoil on the sands of Libya seemingly at odds with the achievements to-date of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.
Events continue to unfold in Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, with limited protests in Jordan and, surprisingly, a flaring in Oman .
In an earlier post I touched upon the theme of a potential redrawing of the map of the Middle East. It is important to note that the last redrawing of the borders of the region took place just under a hundred years ago at the end of World War I. It was then that states like Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon were born and colonial spheres of influence were agreed by the victors at the expense of the defeated Ottoman Empire.
Today 4 months separate us from the demarcation of the borders of Sudan and birth of a new nation, South Sudan. Yemen is in serious danger of breaking up once again. Libya has been effectively divided into opposing spheres of influence between Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi and his opponents in the east of the country.
Jordan can never effectively put to rest the fears that it will become an alternative homeland for the Palestinians. The demonstrations in the country unfortunately always hold the risk of degenerating into a Hashemite-Jordanian/Palestinian-Jordanian clash, something that can't be too far away from King Abdullah II's mind. That football matches descend into Jordanian vs Palestinian riots is indicative of the simmering tension in the country. The demonstrators' chant, “The people want to reform the regime” may be slightly reassuring as it omits the word “depose”, that is until one finds out that they are calling for a constitutional monarchy, something which will, no doubt, not appeal to the king.
In the Gulf the situation in the small Kingdom of Bahrain set alarm bells ringing, prompting a quick coming-together of the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is significant that Saudi Arabia reiterated yesterday that Bahrain's security is one and the same as Saudi Arabia's. In a display of regional unity Bahrain's Crown Prince visited Doha on Wednesday despite the two countries not always seeing eye-to-eye in the past.
The Saudi King, Abdullah, was also quick to telephone Sultan Qaboos of Oman to offer his support to the Gulf's longest-serving ruler. The Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad has put all his tremendous diplomatic experience into closing ranks in the crucial Gulf region and has stepped in to mediate in the dispute between Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Yesterday he flew into Muscat and brought together Sultan Qaboos and Abu Dhabi's influential Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nhayyan and the UAE's Vice-President Muhammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum to clear the air between the two countries after a spat that began last January when Muscat said it had broken up a UAE-backed spy ring.
Events in the Gulf must also be viewed through the prism of Iran which has never had truly amicable relations with the Gulf states. During the Shah's era Iran was the “policeman” of the region even disputing the sovereignty of Bahrain and occupying 3 islands claimed by the UAE. After Ayatollah Khomeini established the Islamic Republic in 1979 relations deteriorated even further with Tehran embarking on a campaign to Export the Revolution. Clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security In Islam's holiest city, Mecca, during the Hajj.
The face-off in Yemen has the potential hallmarks of a civil war in-the-making. The nature of Yemeni society, divided along tribal and patriarchal lines, makes this country the most susceptible to civil strife pitting countryman against another. Perhaps more than any other Arab country witnessing such turmoil, the supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh are genuine and truly fervent. Saleh's tribal supporters would fear that toppling their representative in the power structure would seriously endanger their standing and privileges and are therefore likely to fight tooth and nail to preserve Saleh's position at the head of the state. This does not preclude the possibility of them privately pressuring Saleh for reforms and more power-sharing.
The security apparatus of the state has come down on the side of the pro-regime demonstrators with the result being an uneven showdown in which the anti-Saleh protesters have been mauled.
Unfortunately for the president, his tribal defensive perimeter does not extend to all parts of the country, and especially not to the secessionist south whose bid for independence was forcibly crushed in a bloody war in 1994. Southern secessionists are once again agitating against the north's hegemony. A mass uprising in the south would cause a truly dangerous situation for Ali Abdullah Saleh, especially if it coincides with a resurgence of the clash with the Houthists.
Any change in Yemen must take into account Saudi Arabia's interests, a long-time player on the scene. However, the Saudis proved incapable of ensuring a dignified exit for Hosni Mubarak. Whether they can guarantee a more agreeable outcome in Yemen remains to be seen. Yemen's strategic location is of vast importance on the world stage. Hence Washington's support for Saleh and the decade-long Soviet backing of South Yemen when the country existed.
The bottom line is that President Ali Saleh has failed in his decades in power (12 years president of North Yemen, 21 years president of unified Yemen, 33 years total).
Yemen continues to languish at the bottom of the world table in almost every respect; poverty, illiteracy, corruption, unemployment, development, etc. Unfortunately where Yemen rises to the top of the league is in the consumption of that terrible curse to Yemeni society: Qat.
In summation, Ali Abdullah Saleh is in not guaranteed perpetual popular support, even from his own kinsmen. If an arrangement acceptable to most parties can be arrived at by the tribes, then Saleh could well find his president title adorned with the now-terrifying “ex” prefix all Arab leaders dread.
Whatever his fate, the implications of Yemen's breakup are huge and could very well be earth-shattering. It will not only affect the country but also its powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia as well as Oman. Factor in al-Qaeda and that the country overlooks the turbulent Horn of Africa and you get an idea of the potential mess a destabilized Yemen will put the whole world in. The country will sooner or later forge ahead without Ali Abdullah Saleh who, sensing the winds of change in the region, quickly pledged not seek another term or bequeath the presidency to his son. An agreement on the future of the country in which opposing tribal power centers are consulted is the wisest outcome. As for the south, it has to be accorded the special recognition and development it warrants and its share of say in the affairs of the state. Either that, or autonomy or even independence. In real terms the south's instruments of state were disassembled over 2 decades ago and its leaders no longer a force to be reckoned with. In the long term, tribal incursions into the minutiae of the state have to be gradually severed and the building blocks of education, development and the eradication of qat, ie of a modern state, need to be laid. Failing that Yemen will continue to be anchored to that dark, bottomless pit in which it has wallowed for decades.
While Libyan society is also divided along tribal lines, President Muammar al-Gaddafi has concentrated virtually all powers in the hands of his tribal minority and effectively disassembled everything that a country should be.
Gaddafi came to power in a coup that toppled the Senoussi monarchy in 1969. In 1977 he turned the Libyan republic into the world's only super- or ultra-republic, a Jamahiriyya, or a state of the masses where all power is supposedly held by the people. According to the regime, it is the first jamahiriyya in the history of the world. It will soon enough also become the first and last.
What Gaddafi basically did was eradicate all the intrinsic instruments and institutions of a state, take Libya out of the modern world and therefore consolidate all powers in his hands while promoting the charade of a popular democracy.
The Libyan leader has always kept the military at arm's length and sowed its higher ranks with his supporters. Gaddafi will seek to crush this uprising using internal security forces and revolutionary committees. There are reports that mercenaries have been involved in the efforts to suppress the uprising although no significant proof of that has materialized. That the evidence is lacking does not mean that mercenaries are not helping the Libyan leader wage his final battle.
Gaddafi has now lost virtually the whole of eastern Libya. So far his attempts to strike back at the rebellious east have been to send what seem to be ill-prepared raiding parties that have been repulsed with relative ease by the eastern rebels. The Libyan air force has been utilized on bombing runs aimed at taking out ammunition depots. According to a BBC report I was watching a couple of days ago one such dump was repeatedly attacked over several days which goes a long way towards showcasing the incompetence of Gaddafi's pilots who have never acquitted themselves well in their air missions. During the ill-fated involvement in Chad they would not engage in effective bombing runs for fear of anti-aircraft defenses, and would resort instead to ineffective high-altitude bombing. If the Libyan air force is hitting its targets now then it may well be due to the reports that Ukranian pilots are now flying the Libyan jets.
I stand by my earlier assessment that Colonel Gaddafi will keep the bulk of his forces for the defense of Tripoli, i.e. his own survival, and I believe this has been borne out by the fact that there has been no concerted military campaign to retake the rebellious eastern regions through a combined effort of Libyan armor, infantry and air power.
It is worth remembering here the raid by 3 Iraqi armored divisions, with no air cover, into Saudi Arabia and the ensuing Battle of Khafji, in Saudi Arabia, between January 29 and February 1, 1991. It took the efforts of Saudi and Qatari forces backed by US Marines and Rangers as well as American air power to defeat the Iraqis. While Saddam knew he had no hope of holding Khafji after initially capturing it this action did rattle the coalition. Gaddafi has done nothing of the sort although he is supposedly fighting to regain control of his country.
It is a country blessed with great wealth, a small population and large tracts of land, some very fertile. Libyan oil is among the very best in the world, it is “light” crude and is more valuable and sought after than the Saudi “heavy” crude, for example.
In Libya time is up for Colonel Gaddafi. The Brother Leader of the Revolution is now a dead man walking. The West which rehabilitated him in exchange for petro-dollars and -euros despite his transgressions of the 1980s has now disowned him, and even the Arab League, in an unprecedented move, has suspended Gaddafi's Libya.
He is so out of touch with reality that in his 3-hour speech two days ago he dismissed the basic rights of Libyans and claimed that they are more interested in getting a house or buying a car than in democracy or a free press. He continues to blame popular uprisings on a combination of hallucinogenic tablets (The Gaddafi regime says it has intercepted millions of Tramadol tablets which is a habit forming painkiller) and al-Qaeda. His is now a 2-prong strategy: 1. buying allegiances and popular subservience with massive infusions of cash and benefits and 2. employing the repressive security apparatus that he has carefully cultivated for decades to put down dissenting voices.
Gaddafi, like Ben Ali and Mubarak before him, is for all intents and purposes finished. Unfortunately for the Libyan people he can inflict much damage before he departs the scene. And unlike Egypt and Tunisia, there is no Libyan Army to speak of that can halt the regime's instruments of suppression and repression and preserve the stability of the country.
The traditional Libyan opposition in-exile, much like the Iraqi opposition before the fall of Saddam Hussein, has never been taken seriously and has always been viewed as fractious and ineffective, to say the least.
So far no real leadership has emerged. I find it disturbing that in the liberated areas of eastern Libya where the international media has deployed in great numbers, there are still no signs and no pictures of an organized fighting force despite the reported defections of many military units to the cause of the rebels. What I am mainly observing are civilian Toyota pickup trucks serving as paramilitary vehicles and the occasional shoulder-held or ground-based antiquated anti-air weaponry.
Political direction is also lacking among the opposition and what see are armed fighters discharging their weapons in chaotic fashion into the air. That is never a good sign.
Bahrain, Oman and the Gulf:
The situation in Bahrain pits the traditional Sunni ruling family against the country's Shia majority population. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) quickly rallied in support of member-state Bahrain and the subsequent emergency meeting of the foreign ministers in Manama did not mince words. It backed the monarchy in unequivocal terms and warned against any foreign (read Iranian) intervention in the internal affair of Bahrain. This is a potentially regionally explosive situation. Bahrain is the regional headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet and right across the Gulf from Iran who has always considered Bahrain Persian territory and only grudgingly acknowledged its independence.
The initial reaction, the stunning dawn crackdown on the protesters in Pearl Roundabout and subsequent deployment of the Bahraini military, was a clear indication that the al-Khalifa leadership would brook no dissension in this matter. However subsequent events have shown that the government in Manama realized that shedding its citizens' blood was counterproductive, to say the least.
Saudi Arabia will also be carefully watching the developments in the tiny island to which it is linked by the King Fahd Causeway. The fact that the Causeway is only 25 km long highlights how vital the situation in Manama is to Riyadh. The issue at heart is, of course, Saudi Arabia's own Shia population who have agitated frequently in the past.
Unfortunately for the mourners in Manama, the centuries-old Shia cry of “Hussein!” gives their protest, rightly or wrongly, a sectarian tone and will not win them many sympathizers in the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab world.
In Bahrain, the star in the crescent of the GCC, international realpolitik will take precedence over protesters' deaths, demands and grievances for as long as is sanely possible. This, in my estimation, is not unrelated to Iran, which has sagaciously remained generally quiet about the upheaval in Manama. Not that it would be prescient for it to agitate in the face of its own disgruntled opposition, people in glass houses should not throw stones.
Notwithstanding the death of protesters, the authorities have successfully opened a window of opportunity to bring the situation to an end and begin a process of national dialogue as the crown prince promised. But the situation is precariously in the balance. The Shia leadership in Bahrain are now faced with the choice of going for all-out rebellion or reading the tea leaves of international politics and trying to arrive at an accommodation with the ruling al-Khalifas. The government, in turn, knows that it is time to offer more substantial concessions.
The outcome will be watched closely; Bahrain's Shia have the opportunity to show the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab world that their opposition is an internal Bahraini matter that has the country's interests at heart and not one with sectarian overtones in which Iran is the protesters' benefactor and possibly instigator. Indeed, this is a golden opportunity to begin defusing some of the Shia-Sunni tensions that have plagued this region for hundreds of years. If the Bahraini model is successful it will have important consequences for Lebanon where the Shia form a unified front against the Sunnis of the country, with virtually not a single Shia personality of any political weight exhibiting any dissension within the ranks, something that cannot be said of the Sunni Muslims or Christians.
So far the Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa has acquitted himself well. He has been thrust into the fray and has shown himself to be more than capable in dealing with a very explosive situation. Unlike the disastrous threats of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi to his people.
The situation in Egypt, until yesterday, seemed to be heading towards a survival of President Hosni Mubarak's regime, minus the president. However, the threat of popular action to remove Mubarak's appointee Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and his cabinet seems to have convinced the Higher Council of the Armed Forces to move quickly. It is an indication that the revolution in Egypt is alive and well and continues to bear fruit. I continue to hold high hopes for Egypt to regain its leading position in the Arab world, the one which it relinquished during the era of mediocrity ushered in by Hosni Mubarak.
There is a view that Iran is watching with glee the unfolding events in the Arab world. I believe the opposite; that Iran is seriously worried about the empowerment of the Arab people. Much like the West, Iran was always happy to deal with a single autocratic leader who exercised total control and domination over his people. In the face of its own internal dissent Tehran is treading a fine line, paying lip service to the Arab people's revolts and claiming they fall in line with Iran's revolutionary credo while, in my humble opinion, it is seriously worried about a rejuvenated Arab world that is seeking to right the wrongs of decades past and forge ahead in a new direction of openness and Arab-style democracy. Those expecting an uprising in Iran similar to what the Arab world is witnessing are sadly mistaken. Student demonstrators alone will not bring down the regime although they will allow it to show its ugly face to the world. It is well worth remembering that the revolution that toppled the Shah 32 years ago was a grassroots revolt that encompassed all sections of Iranian society. As a matter of fact it was not an Islamic revolution to begin with. But the key factor was the revolt of the clergy, the mullas of Iran, that gave sanction to the rebellion.
Any successful challenge to the government of the Islamic Republic must have amongst its ranks reformist elements of the clergy and regime (a la Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Houssein Moussavi) as well as the peasants and bazaar merchants.
It took an unknown street vendor's act of self-immolation in one of the Middle East's less significant and least populated countries to stoke the fires of liberty in the Arab world.
Tunisia has always been on the fringes of the region in terms of political clout. And yet it was this progressive society that started the New Arab Revolution. It is my belief that we have to thank a man who was always ahead of his time for the courage and vision of the Tunisians. It was Habib Bourguiba who set Tunisia on a path of social reform that stressed the importance of progress, education and equality.
What we are witnessing now is the end of the so-called Arab republics born in the 1950s and 1960s in military coups posing as revolutions. Real revolutions are happening now and they have taken the whole world by surprise. No country or entity saw them coming. The barrier of fear has been broken and people have been emboldened to break through the chains of submission thrust upon them by the republics of fear. “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
The leaders of the Arab republics rode in on the backs of tanks, abandoned their military uniforms, donned suits and set about establishing autocratic regimes. They held sham presidential elections every few years and garnered ridiculous figures of 99.5% or so of the popular vote. After decades in power they developed the audacity to herald the dawn of the hereditary republic. The first such succession took place in 2000 upon the death of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, whose son Bashar replaced him.
As the saying goes, great minds think alike. Soon enough Hosni Mubarak decided to promote his son, Gamal, from within the ranks, obviously grooming him for the highest post in the land. There was talk of Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh handing over the reins of power to his son Ahmed. The jamahiriyya has been swept for years with more than talk of Muammar Gaddafi keeping the post of president in the family. It was widely assumed before he was deposed in the American invasion of 2003 that, upon his eventual demise, Saddam Hussein would land one of his sons, probably Qusay but maybe even the psychopath Uday, in the driver's seat.
The hereditary republic is now dead. Gaddafi's last stand may last a while but the real question is what will follow. I believe that just like in 1969 when a 27-year-old Gaddafi along with equally inexperienced army officers toppled the monarchy and turned to President Nasser for guidance, the New Egypt can have a positive influence on the post-Gaddafi Libya. To what extent depends on how bloody the denouement of the current situation is. I sincerely hope that some frantic behind-the-scenes politicking is taking place now to present a unified Libya in Gaddafi's aftermath. The alternative is a Libya divided and open to various forms of influence and intervention.
The Gulf countries are virtually the only shining spot in a world economy that is still trying to rise onto its wobbly legs after the spectacular Crash of 2008. World powers will do their utmost to preserve stability in this most vital of the globe's regions. However, they will, no doubt, in the aftermath of the end-result push for real reforms. The aging rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman need to establish clear lines of succession and tackle their own internal problems. A few days ago at the annual book fair in Riyadh religious hardliners stormed the event, harassed patrons and harangued the minister!
The leaders of Sudan, stripped of its southern half, will doubtless become more insular. That there is an international arrest warrant for its president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a long-time ally of Gaddafi, does not bode well for the Sudanese President.
The examples of Tunisia and Egypt are, so far, showcases for civilized, peaceful change in the region. But this may not hold true for wherever the tidal waves of change crash next. Libya is an anomaly, a country removed by its bizarre and ruthless leader (described as a “wolf in sheep's clothing” by someone who met him once) from the order of human civilization. But other regimes have well-established credentials in repression and brutality too and should not be expected to self-reform or become suddenly benevolent entities. As the popular proverb goes, you cannot straighten a dog's tail.
Ultimately the dreams and aspirations of the Arabs are no different from those of people from Tokyo to Tallahassee, Manila to Manchester.
Several countries are missing from this analysis; Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to name a few.
Lebanon is the beach ball of the Middle East. It is lightweight, colorful and entertaining. It is also extremely susceptible to the neighboring winds and where it lands depends on the surrounding currents and waves.
As for the others, this is not a waiting game. The time is over for reactionary measures. The Arab people are no longer the beasts that the regimes have always perceived them to be, easily corralled with cattle prods. Fair warning.
This is an opportunity to start with a clean slate. The traditional forces will not be uprooted without a fight. But it is important to concede that there are forces of extremism and intolerance within our Arab societies that are also in opposition to these republics of fear. It would be inexcusable if these forces ultimately manage to co-opt the will of the people and start a new decades-long reign of repression complete with their own fiery slogans, maybe even holy ones at that.
That the Tunisian and Egyptian people are still successfully guardians of their revolution is a sign of hope.
I have now had the opportunity to watch two performances by Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. The first was his stunning speech 2 days ago, the ferocious ranting and raving 75-minute spectacle that ended with the chilling threat to launch a sacred march, with the millions he leads in Africa, Latin America and even Europe, against the rebellious Libyans! He threatened to to cleanse Libya “house to house”, “individual by individual”!
Earlier today I was thinking about that threat and decided he did not have the force to do it. Whatever forces Gaddafi has left under his command will stay put in Tripoli to defend his otherworldly home/headquarters, the Bab al-Aziziyya barracks, and smash whatever civilian unrest that materializes in the Libyan capital. He will seek to destabilize the regions that have shaken off his grip, even terrorize them. But he will not win. He has already lost.
Going back to the speech 2 days ago, I was reminded of Bruno Ganz' portrayal of Hitler in Downfall, the powerful story of the German dictator's last hours. Then today I watched/listened to Gaddafi's bizarre phone call to Libyan TV, almost pleading with the residents of Zawya, beseeching them to get their kids off the streets, to stop the rebellion. Once again he said that if the men are afraid to go out and get the young men off the streets then the “women and girls” should go and do it! Apparently everyone in opposition to the colonel's will is on “hallucinogenic pills”. He did go on to tell us a couple of days ago that these pills are “bad for the heart”. I never cease to find these nuggets of wisdom funny.
I pity the Libyan TV presenter who had to sit poker-face and almost motionless on camera throughout Gaddafi's ramble today. I am certain that presenter would have wet himself right there if the call of nature was overwhelming.
Sadly, Muammar's show is not funny, it's not a black comedy. It is a tragic manifestation of how unchecked power unleashes the terrors of madness. This was brought home when I saw the footage of about 19 bodies, hands tied behind their backs and shot execution-style. I could tell they had been executed from the pooling of blood around the heads. It must take some very brave men to commit such a cowardly act.
What an unfortunate episode in the history of the Arab world these past decades have been. These are criminal regimes, in every sense of the word.
So Muammar al-Gaddafi, who has spent the better part of these decades hunting down “stray dogs”, shooting dead his opponents across the globe, kidnapping, torturing and murdering and making Libya a bizarre spectacle is now a concerned guardian appealing to those in his custody. And that's where Libya and the Libyans have been all this time: in his custody.
Problem is Gaddafi actually believes what he said. Unlike Mubarak he was not pressured or manipulated by his son Gamal and the closed circle surrounding him. Nor does he resemble Tunisia's Ben Ali whose wife Laila apparently wielded tremendous influence over him.
Gaddafi has lived in a bubble for the past 41 and a half years, closing his country to the rest of the world, banning the teaching and learning of foreign languages and placing Libya in virtual time warp. He changed the names of months to suit his whims and interpretations, made his country's flag into a plain piece of green cloth, went against the traditions of the whole Islamic world and scrapped the traditional Islamic calendar and dictated that it should mark the death of the Prophet Muhammad, not his flight from Mecca to Medina, Hijra. It's called the Hijri calendar for a reason!
Like Mubarak before him, threatening chaos if the leader departs is both an insult and indictment. It's an insult to the millions of citizens to say they would be lost without the dear leader. And it's an indictment of these leaders because it's tantamount to an admission that no state institutions were built over all these years.
In 1990 American journalist Charles Glass published his book Tribes with Flags in which he described the majority of Arab countries as being just that, groups of tribes that raised a national flag. I regret to admit that he was correct in his assumption back then and that title holds true today. So many countries are basically a fiefdom, the citizens no more than serfs with a powerful overlord presiding over the whole miserable lot.
I suppose this is best illustrated by the pro-Gaddafi rabble I watch on Libyan TV these days, chanting Allah, Muammar, Libya wa bass (Only God, Muammar and Libya).
It is what I call the Colonel's Unholy Trinity, where the Brother Leader of the Revolution is second only to God and comes before the country.
It is a sordid chapter in the history of the Arabs whose end I sincerely hope is being written by the unfolding events across the region.
I cannot say I am confident that what follows today's news will be a better, brighter future. But if it affords us the opportunity to confront the transgressions of this shameful period, with all its brutality, hypocrisy and lies then I gladly accept it.
I do not have family members who are engaged in a selfless and brave struggle to win back their freedom and that of their societies. I bow with the utmost respect to those out in the streets facing overwhelming odds, to those who have paid the ultimate price. But I will not preach and call on the people of Libya, or whichever Arab society is next in its bid for dignity, to shed the blood of sacrifice. I think we have enough analysts and members of the opposition in exile who are doing this now. Some, I am certain, are pure and well-intentioned, while others are obviously jockeying for political position in the post-Gaddafi period.
The people know what they have to do and they're doing it. But no one, no leader or group, has the right to fight by proxy and shed the people's blood while living in grandeur and safety and the people wallow in misery.
What I hope we can get out of this juncture in our history is a sense of real belonging to our countries, creating a sense of civic duty and responsibility, building the institutions that are sorely lacking in all Arab societies, not the soulless shells equipped with computers, or 19th Century ledgers in some cases, that we still contend with.
It is time to tell the truth; to say it to ourselves, our families and our societies.
The cult of the leader has brought woes upon us. Awaiting the savior, the hero, the latter-day Saladin (a Kurd) who will liberate Jerusalem and regain for the Arabs their long-lost dignity, this false promise, this unrealizable fantasy must come to an end.
Our dreams must be firmly rooted in reality, our plans concrete, our societies unafraid to express opposition to whatever it is they deem unjust. But this justice cannot be a one-way street. It has to encompass everyone in our societies, all the minorities no matter what their religion, sex, race, creed or orientation.
This is not achievable overnight, but we need to start and I'm hoping that the process has already begun.
It never ceases to amaze me how rigid and compartmentalized Washington's view of the world is. The shameless dilly-dallying surrounding the popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak yet again underlines the fact that the United States is impervious to anything except what it perceives as its interests. Even with a long‐standing ally like Egypt Washington expects us to believe that it has never drawn up a scenario where the people topple the government.
From the initial calls by Obama interpreted as Mubarak must leave "now", the position has been transformed into a Mubarak must stay to oversee the successions and reforms.
Which reminds me of Ronald Reagan's grand vision for Lebanon in the post 1982 Israeli invasion period. The plan went something along these lines:
Well, I have news for Washington, because no matter how many times it is faced with a similar situation, it always approaches the situation in a state of complete and utter confusion, ignorance and blindness that beggars belief.
Mr Obama, Mrs Clinton and the other policy makers should understand that the lists they draw up over there mean very little over here.
Our priorities are different. Sometimes we think 7 comes before 3 in terms of importance. Maybe not to Washington. But to us it matters because this is our neighborhood, our backyard, these are our kids, it's our life. And we do know what's good for us. Don't tell us that chaos would ensue if Mubarak leaves. Don't tell us that he needs to oversee reform. That's like allowing an arsonist to rebuild the a home he set alight.
I realize that Israel and even some Arab regimes, maybe many Arab regimes, are urging that Mubarak doesn't fall. Well that's another reason why he should go. It's time for a cleaner neighborhood.
America would do well to respect the will of the people whom it has helped oppress by turning a blind eye in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world because its interests dictated as much.
Show some faith, America. What the world is witnessing is an exercise in popular power unparalleled in recent times. The demonstrators have shown a degree of maturity and organization that is to be respected, not undermined. And most importantly they embody the T, F and O words that Washington nags us about all the time: Tolerance, Freedom, Open minds. Stop playing scaremonger with Muslim Brotherhood nightmare scenarios. This isn't about the MB and you know it.
Please show some respect to these people who have sacrificed their lives, shed their blood, endured regime brutality, battled a 21st Century cavalry of camels and horses and defied the harsh elements to exercise what you, America, always prod us to do but effectively deny us time and time again.
Have faith because that's where your and the world's interests lie. With the people.
There's a segment of people among the Arabs who are hoping that Hosni Mubarak survives, to spite the protesters demanding his removal from office. Yes, to spite them.
These are the same people who up to 2 weeks ago in fits of pseudo-nationalism labeled the Egyptian president an "American and Israeli stooge". They are now, like the Israeli government, hoping that Mubarak will survive.
These people are citizens of Arab countries whose totalitarian regimes have been in power for 3,4 or 5 decades, whose gross human rights violations have been meticulously documented, and who have generally failed in every aspect of state and society building. This includes infrastructure, education and healthcare.
Where the regime has succeeded is in intimidating the people to the extent that they have become brainwashed, convincing themselves that by defending these dictatorships they are displaying patriotism. Nazi Germany springs to mind.
I guess they missed the lesson I was giving 2 weeks ago to a couple of 9-year-olds: "You can hate your government but you always love your country."
I recall having a conversation with a someone following the death of his long-serving president. "How did this guy die? He doesn't die," he said. And someone else who at one point got teary eyed added, "From the day we opened our eyes to the world he was there."
Which makes me wonder to what extent some Arabs have been domesticated, trained to be almost entirely dependent on a pervasive figure and obsequiously accept what seems to have become a terminal case of I-love-u-leaderitis.
There are too many Arab countries that have been almost mummified, frozen in time and hang in a state of suspended animation... These countries are easy to spot: The leader is on the front page of every newspaper, in every book, butcher and coffee shop. He is viciously defended in political arguments and debates and highly complimented on his patronage of science, sports, the environment, education, you name it, and, of course, his political acumen and prowess. They are the face looking down from statues and giant portraits and billboards. They are the leader on the balcony saluting the throngs driven to salute him; standing there with his palms clasped together in the classic solidarity gesture that to me reads, “I will crush you.”
A recent post on Facebook of one such pro-regime person goes something like this: "A convoy of 60 cars is driving around demonstrating in support of the leader." (Maybe they can't march, in too much of a hurry, gotta finish this demo and go home for dinner. That's dedication to a cause for you! But what can you say; it's a case of a spontaneous outpouring of I-love-u-leaderitis)
And here's another gem:
"To be a (fill in the nationality) means:
You're a lion on land
An eagle in the air
And a shark at sea"
Have you noticed that these are all predatory creatures? There's a power- and superiority-complex hanging heavily over these people, but I'll leave it to trained psychologists and sociologists to analyze. If it weren't so sad it would be funny.
The problem is that these same people in rare moments of candor will tell you how brutal their regimes have been, how hellish their countrymen's lives are, they will talk about the torture, corruption, cronyism, resorting to buying (smuggled) black-market medicines for their children and the scholarships that will only go to the ruling party's offspring rather than the truly bright and deserving. The list goes on and on.
They are like the abused wife who, in a torrent of tears, displays the bruises and spills the beans to her family and girlfriends about the brutal beatings her husband subjects her to and how intolerable her life has become and how she can't stand it anymore.
But when someone tries to intervene or urges her to rectify things she springs to the abuser's defense. Isn't it he who provides the food and security, isn't he the father and leader of this house?
That's the case of the domesticated Arabs suffering from the abused wife syndrome.
They like to pretend, or maybe they are truly convinced, that they enjoy the beatings and abuse because it makes them tougher and creates a strong and united household. Perhaps deep inside them they resent the injustice, don't accept the censorship on the internet, know that innocent and genuine patriots are imprisoned for expressing opposition to an unjust regime.
Patriotism is one thing but subjugation entirely another. Freedom is precious and it doesn't come cheap.
I am convinced that there are many millions more Arabs who have a sincere wish for liberty, progress, dignity and positive change than those clinging to the hollow words, inflexible positions and empty slogans of nationalism while continuing to take a beating at home.
This is an indictment of those Arabs who close their eyes to the intimidation and injustice and pretend all is well. It is how we have regressed so far and relinquished our right to contribute positively to the growth of our societies and, subsequently, the progress of the world. It is about the respect we crave but have yet to earn.
And this is a salute to those who have risen to shoulder the heavy burden of the ultimate quest, the long walk to freedom. Just ask Mandela.
The events in Egypt have drawn attention from equally important developments in the Arab world.
In Jordan King Abdullah II has appointed a new cabinet with instruction to begin political and economic reforms. Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh has announced he will not seek a new term, will leave office in 2013 and will not hand over power to his son. Syria's Bashar al-Assad has also acknowledged the "disease" afflicting the region. Incidentally, today marks the 29th anniversary of the start of the crushing in 1982 of the Hama rebellion, (Hama massacre) by the president's late father Hafez al-Assad. The revolt was led by the Syrian branch of the Muslim brotherhood.
These developments highlight the explicit and implicit recognition by Arab leaders of the gravity of the situation and the sentiments and resentments of the people.
Also, sensing the seriousness of the situation in the region, the Emir of Qatar has postponed a state visit to Ecuador scheduled for February 15th. This does not imply that Qatar is at any risk of political upheaval. Rather it means that leaders with little to worry about at home recognize the need to keep close tabs on the situation in these critical times.
After being called a donkey, pig, traitor and whatnot by protesters for days the wily Egyptian president has rallied his forces and unleashed so-called pro-Mubarak demonstrators against his opposition in Tahrir Square.
The army's call earlier in the day for the anti-Mubarak protesters to vacate the Square and resume normal life now makes sense. It must have known what was coming, and standing back and allowing these clashes to happen may be the military's way of seeing how to hedge its bets..
And Mubarak can now deviously tell the west: My security forces are no longer attacking the opposition. This is a settling of scores between pro- and anti-government groups.
Fact for the uninitiated: In the Arab world there are no pro-government demonstrations. The government orchestrates events and buses in people to show the world how loved the dear leader is.
*Update: President Hosni Mubarak has just announced that he intends to serve out his term, and that he will ask parliament to scrap the same articles of legislation that allowed him to rule unopposed for over 29 years. He also added that it was never his intention to seek another term in the coming elections.
I don't believe him. But more on the speech and its implications in a separate post.*
The "Million March" or "March of Millions", the label is irrelevant, has sealed the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And although his newly-appointed Finance Minister yesterday described the president as a "fighter", the fact of the matter is that he is just a stubborn old man.
The gathering in central Cairo (the numbers vary from a conservative 200,000 according to the BBC and 2 million as reported by Al Jazeera) came off spectacularly. The problem with it is that demonstrators are located in one place, shouting and chanting, not marching. I think it's something Mubarak can deal with in the interim.
People are focusing on when he will leave. Instead the real issue is what arrangements are being made for the post-Mubarak period.
But what we have just witnessed, starting in Tunisia and now in Egypt, could signal the birth of the new Arab generation. It may not be the equivalent of the West's 1960s generation of student activists, hippies and peace movements, with the flowers, sex, drugs and rock n roll, but Arab youth In their place are utilizing the power of modern communications, technology and devices to make their voices heard in an unprecedented manner.
The tweet of the day comes from CNN's Ben Wedeman: Taken unaware by #Egypt uprising, clueless "experts" think talking about Islamic role in Egypt they actually make sense. They don't #Jan25
The argument that Egypt may go the way of Iran is erroneous. The world should be prepared for a different Egypt which will no longer easily acquiesce in doing the bidding of the US in the Middle East in return for massive amounts of aid and a blind eye to what's going on in the country.
Events Tunisia and Egypt have exposed the ineffectiveness of the decades-old opposition to established regimes in the region. Obviously the main opposition movements are by-and-large Islamist. They appealed to frustrated and disgruntled generations who had no recourse to anything in the end except religion. The problem was that religion can be interpreted in many ways, not all of them benign or benevolent, for example the Islamic Jihad whose most famous personality is one Ayman Zawahiri.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt can and will gain a significant number of votes in any free and fair election. But we are now looking at a scene where there is an impressive force of opposition that has achieved what the MB failed to do for decades. There is, of course, a view that the MB did not want to topple the regime due to various political considerations of local (Egyptian) and international implications.
Nevertheless, the quick and organized mobilization of the new generation supported by all segments of society in these two Arab countries that straddle the top of Africa has transformed the Arab world and represents a potential turning point in the region's modern history.
Dynamic forces are being shaped as we speak and after the pessimism and despondency of decades past I cannot help but think that what we are witnessing is a beginning of sorts.
Make no mistake, this is not the collapse of the Soviet empire and its eastern European satellites. The regimes in the Arab world still have plenty of fight in them. But they recognize the threat, understand that they have been put on notice and are now attempting to take steps to thwart a repetition of another Tunisia or Egypt.
I don't believe in happy endings. But I sincerely hope that this process of rejuvenation will begin to lay the foundations of meritocracy, open-mindedness and creativity as the standards of tomorrow's society and overturn the strangling grip of the current establishments, in all their forms, built on corruption, cronyism and favoritism. The Achilles heel of that statement is that politics will still come into play.
A man on a long journey through a perpetual desert.
The opinions expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. They do not represent the views of any of my employers, past, present or future.