(This post is in response to a recent comment)
One of the failures of the Arab republican regimes has been their inability to create stable societies. The fear in Syria of the outbreak of sectarian hostilities is a possibility that cannot be discounted.
But I think that to say the regime is the guarantor of civil peace in the country is incorrect. I believe that the threat of sectarian strife is actually an indictment of these so-called strong, secure and stable regimes. Saddam's Iraq, Mubarak's Egypt and Assad's Syria are all examples of regimes that have been in place for decades yet at the first sign of trouble the foundations quake and the social fabric begins to bust at the seams.
I do not envy the Christians in the Arab world today. They predate the Muslims, and the Jews predate both. But to pose a question to the question: what if Syria were somehow to be threatened with Western intervention, would the minority regime in power continue to see the Syrian Christians as an ally or would they be viewed with suspicion, a fifth column?
There is no doubt in my mind that we are witnessing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Arab world. Indeed, the calls for revisionism or modernism in Islam cannot be effected by outsiders, or prompted by liberal Muslims or secular Arabs.
If such a transformation were to take place it must be brought about by those with Islamic credentials. I believe that today in the Arab world we are on the cusp of a resurgence of the MB and eclipse of the jihadist current that shook the world with its extremism. However, having said that, I do not believe that the future belongs to the MB or Islamist groups. They are part of the transition. Rather, it is the youth of today who will determine the future of this region. And even within the Brotherhood there have been dissenting voices from within the ranks, emanating from its youth who perceive it as out of touch with modern times.
Along to shepherd this process is Turkey, led by an Islamist government that adheres, so far, to the tenets of democracy and benefits of modernity and global association, cooperation and exposure.
The Americans' tracking Usama bin Laden down to a residential area in Pakistan and not a cave in Afghanistan – indicative in itself of his not being the guerrilla leader he was widely perceived to be by his followers a la Che Guevara – seals the bin Laden chapter. So who is there to address the problem of Islamic extremism of which he was the predominant phenomenon over the past 2 decades? Answer? See above.
Bin Laden was portrayed by his supporters, and there are millions of them, make no mistake, as the standard bearer of a resurgent and defiant Islamic nation. To them he was the courageous fighter, in the face of overwhelming odds, against an unjust world filled with domineering powers where the poor got poorer and the oppressed where crushed even more. He was a prophet of victory in an era of adversity.
But Usama bin Laden was a false prophet. The Arabs are a defeated nation desperately seeking a victory. They have been tremendously let down by their leaders in the age of independence. They have suffered defeat upon defeat in military showdowns, their standards of education have plummeted. The people therefore flocked to the fake, and sometimes extremist, leadership that presented itself as an alternative to the corrupt, failed regimes.
I find it interesting that one of the most prominent Egyptian MB leaders, Abdul Munim abu al-Fotouh, has recently said that he does not oppose the candidacy of Christians or women for the post of president. Abu al-Fotouh has declared that he's running for president and that he will appoint a Coptic Christian or a women as his vice-president, so whether his declaration is out of conviction or merely a campaign statement is open to question. But, nevertheless, it is a very important position.
Which is why I was critical of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya lamenting the passing of bin Laden: "We condemn any killing of a holy warrior or of a Muslim and Arab person, and we ask God to bestow his mercy upon him." Several days later Hamas announced that Haniya's statement did not reflect the position of the Palestinian movement, but the damage had been done.
Back to Syria. I cannot declare with any certainty that the Syrian leadership's choice to employ brute force against the protesters will lead to bloody sectarianism in the country. But it is certainly creating the conditions for it. Occupying mosques on Fridays and denying access to them is very short-sighted. Coming from a minority-led regime it doesn't take a genius to figure out what the protesters, who are mainly from the ruled majority sect, think about it.
I do not necessarily want to see the regime toppled in Syria, nor do I not want to see it ejected from power. That is a matter for the Syrian people to decide. But the fact of the matter is that Syria lags far behind in terms of development and progress.
I both recognize and appreciate the importance of Syria's position at the heart of the Arab world. Many times I played the devil's advocate and defended Bashar al-Assad in heated arguments, hoping against hope that the promise would be fulfilled.
Unfortunately he let me down. And I believe he let down his people and country.
I think the regime in Damascus has lost legitimacy and has been grievously wounded. It is one thing to want it to survive, especially if the survival is deemed to be crucial to the survival of other minorities, but completely another thing to recognize it as the leading force for a better society. Will it continue to be regarded as a guarantor of regional stability, the way it was before the outbreak of dissent on March 15? That is the question being asked and issue being considered by regional and international powers. And when the President's cousin comes out and states that Syria's stability leads to Israel's stability (and vice versa) I view it as pretty desperate.
To deploy tanks and armor in one's restive cities will not gain you the sympathy of the population there. I am waiting for the stories to come out from Deraa once the siege is lifted. I promise you they won't be pretty. For a city to be cut off for so long tells me that something is not right at all.
It is only secure and prosperous states that can guarantee the well-being and voluntary acquiescence of their people. Tito was Yugoslavia's strongman for 27 years. The breakup of the country and the vicious war that tore apart its ethnic and religious fabric began 11 years after his passing. And Tito was viewed as far more benevolent than Hafez al-Assad.
In the Arab world I see dictatorships of ignorance. What they will be replaced with will come from within, the natural by-product of societies that have been repressed and oppressed for decades. But change there will be.
We are now on the cusp of a new era. Muslims will always be the majority in this region. They have ample examples of glorious Muslim empires of ages past. That grandeur was partly the result of the Muslims embracing other cultures and nurturing ethnic and religious minorities. In other words, open minds. According to today's standards it would be called human rights and Muslims need to fight for and defend those rights, not just when it comes to them but also to make sure they employ them for the well-being for all who come under their care.
In Syria, the regime may be able to hang on... for a while. The tanks do help. You may call for a dialogue and maybe some political activists cannot resist the diesel fumes of heavy armor? But what has erupted cannot be extinguished. Not by force. Not anymore. Protesters still demonstrating, week in , week out, attest to that. The longer the use of force continues the greater the animosity, even hatred. And hate is a very difficult emotion to shed.
The regime in Damascus has fallen into a trap of its own making: it has taken the relative silence of the international community and the media's lack of prominence given to the Syrian issue as tacit approval for its military campaign to suppress popular dissent.
President Bashar al-Assad has received several messages over the past few weeks, and they have all gently prodded him in the direction of reform and excluded his person from any criticism. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called him a “reformer”, which he's not. Turkey lent him its support, France announced that the situation in Syria is incomparable to the one in Libya while Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim announced his country's opposition to sanctions against Syria. Most recently Bahrain's Foreign Minister arrived in Damascus with a message of support for Syria's stability, security and reform under the leadership of President Assad. That message is quite significant for 2 reasons: it can be considered a message of support for Assad from the GCC as a whole and not just Bahrain, and it comes from a country that is at loggerheads with Syria's most important backer and ally, Iran. Thus the message contains a message in itself.
Among the sanctions proposed by the Europeans none include the president's person while one is an arms embargo. Ouch! That's bound to hurt Damascus whose only source of weaponry is Russia! The message is clear: we are giving you a grace period to save your skin and your regime.
Unfortunately, President Bashar al-Assad is unable to fulfill the promise. The regime has so far killed an estimated 800 Syrians and arrested 7000. It is obvious that after a 10-day siege and subjugation of Deraa that the regime's strategy is to identify the trouble-spots and subjugate them by force. It is collective punishment at its worst. Analysts have described the use of tanks and armored fighting vehicles against Syrian civilians as “shock and awe”. Actually there's another term for it: terrorism. It is a strategy intended to terrorize the civilian population and prevent it from protesting. As does the treatment meted out to those who are arrested, as described in this report by the Independent:
Soon, an enormous man in a white T-shirt and pyjama bottoms emerged from behind the curtain. He seized a young teenager and took him behind the barrier. "He was there for around three minutes," said Mohammad. "All I could hear was his screams. When he was brought back out his head was covered in blood. They had tried to slice half of his face off."
The person most widely accused of heading the repression is Maher al-Assad, the President's brother. It should be hardly surprising that he would resort to such brutality against the Syrian people considering that, as a result of a family dispute, he shot his brother-in-law in the middle of the presidential palace in 2000.
Unfortunately for Syria, Bashar al-Assad has sown the seeds of sectarian strife into this internal upheaval that was and remains largely peaceful and non-denominational. It is something an increasingly exasperated Turkey recognizes and fears.
The regime's tactics are bound to fail, even with the mounting allegations of Iranian advice and support for the Assads.
The Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian armed forces, President Assad on Friday, May 6, marked Martyrs Day while his troops were busy cracking down on protesters. Strangely, after the one demonstration in support of the regime following his disastrous speech in parliament, there have been no further such rallies.
The regime is emboldened by the international complicity in the flagrant violation of human rights.
That Syria's mostly-Sunni middle class has not joined the protest en masse is no cause for celebration because a wedge is being driven, firmly, slowly and surely between the sects of the country.
The regional and international powers are ignoring one important factor: the dynamics of a popular rebellion have a momentum of their own. Some respected Syria experts believe Bashar al-Assad still has a slim chance of rescuing the situation, but even they think that it's quickly slipping away.
Politicians are advised to head to their nearest mall and seek out the kids amusement area. There they will inevitably find a Whac-a-Mole gaming machine, and no matter how many times and how hard you whack the moles, they always pop back up. The world's leaders are well-advised to urgently confiscate the mallets and stock up on tents, fire blankets and extinguishers.
The oft-repeated logic is that by propping up the regime in Damascus and helping it regain the upper hand, at whatever cost, the world is avoiding a firestorm. But rather than dampening the flickers of freedom the powers-that-be are assisting the rise of a much bloodier and violent conflict.
Now what was that about giving someone some rope to hang himself with...
I will take a break from blogging about politics and vent my fury at the cowardly and not-uncommon habit of abusing maids in the Arab world.
Syrian actor Samer al-Masri and his retired actress wife are accused of torturing their Filipina maid and inflicting horrific injuries on her.
For those who don't know who al-Masri is (I didn't before I came across this story of human evil), he's an actor in a popular Syrian historical drama that I know of but never watched, Bab al-Hara.
Al-Masri denies torturing the maid and claims that with her contract about to end she sought a large end-of-contract payoff, threw herself out of a window and suffered the horrific injuries you see in the video as well as older injuries including a fractured arm that healed with the bone obviously not set properly. She says she hasn't received her salary in three years.
You watch the video and decide if this girl jumped through a window.
My view: this young woman, thousands of miles away from her home and loved ones, has endured terrible and inhuman abuse. It makes my blood boil.
Whoever did this to her must face the consequences of their brutal actions.
The Arabs are perfectly entitled to dignity and human rights. But they must also ensure that they treat migrant workers as they wish to be treated.
I sincerely hope that once Gaddafi departs the scene there will be a serious effort to uncover the fate of 4 people for whose disappearance, and presumed murder, he is responsible.
The first is is that of Imam Musa Sadr, the Lebanese cleric and political figure who disappeared, along with his two Lebanese companions, after arriving in Libya in August 1978.
In 1993 Libyan dissident Mansour al-Kikhia vanished from Cairo without a trace while attending, ironically, a human rights conference. You can read about Kikhia's case here and here. Hosni Mubarak's state security apparatus are believed to have colluded in the kidnapping of Kikhia and Cairo needs to come clean.
For decades Muammar al-Gaddafi has acted with impunity, killing at will his opponents at home and abroad.
It is time for human rights in the Arab world to take precedence. The crimes of the regimes, Gaddafi's and others', must be exposed, documented and enshrined in the collective memory of the Arabs.
What a shameful period in our history.
Colonel Gaddafi has unleashed his air force against the Libyan people! As if using anti-aircraft weapons against the protesters wasn't enough. What a cowardly act.
He has severed all communications with his country to enforce a complete blackout as he sets about decimating a population seeking freedom and dignity. He is using his African mercenaries to murder Libyans. It seems the revolutionary colonel who has spent countless hundreds of millions of dollars fomenting revolutions across the globe thinks he has a monopoly on revolution in Libya.
You would expect the countries that form the Arab League and its secretary general Amr Moussa to act forcefully against the mass murder Gaddafi is perpetrating. That they are not speaks volumes about the character and nature of these regimes.
I sincerely hope that there is a tank commander in the Libyan army here and there that will mutiny. It is up to the lower ranking officers in the Libyan armed forces to rebel against this deplorable act of mass murder.
Gaddafi will not go the way of Ben Ali and Mubarak. Like I said in my previous post, he will seek to destroy the country with a vengeance unparalleled since the Syrian regime perpetrated the Hama massacre in 1982.
This person called Muammar al-Gaddafi, long viewed as an eccentric and unbalanced character, rehabilitated and forgiven his many crimes by the West in exchange for oil and dollars, has finally exposed himself as a homicidal maniac. He does not deserve the luxury of escaping on a plane to another country or beach resort.
My heart says I want him to fall into the hands of the people he's massacring. The mind says he needs to be brought on trial for crimes against humanity.
You Arabs: Dignity.. Courage.. Human rights, you Arabs!
"We win or we die."
Libya's President, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, has unleashed a murderous response to the the calls for reform launched by unarmed protesters in the east of the country. His recipe for regime longevity is to kill those who say No!
So far over a hundred Libyans have been killed and hundreds more wounded in clashes with Gaddafi's security apparatus. In the face of near silence from the world (Mr Obama, Hello!) we have to thank the often-maligned Human Rights Watch NGO for informing us of the extent of this lethal crackdown.
In 1969 Gaddafi overthrew the Senoussi monarchy and fashioned the Libyan Arab Republic on Nasser's Egyptian model.
In a stroke of genius he set up in 1977 the world's only super- or ultra-republic, the so-called jamahiriyya. Theoretically it is a state where power and wealth are in the hands of the people. Also theoretically, Gaddafi is not a president but merely the Leader of the Revolution, or more officially Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution. Realistically, he's recognized the world over as head of state and treated as such and certainly holds the reins of power in Libya.
He is now seeking to crush the rising tide of popular anger against his rule. Colonel Gaddafi would do well to remember that eastern Libya was the birthplace of Omar al-Mukhtar, the legendary leader of Libyan resistance to the brutal Italian occupation of the country. Captured by the Italian fascists in 1931 and condemned to death, the 69-year-old was executed shortly thereafter. He is reported to have defiantly told his Italian captors:
We do not surrender.. We win or we die.. This is not the end.. You will have to fight the next generation and the the generations that follow.. As for me.. I will outlast my executioners.
Omar al-Mukhtar was hanged at a concentration camp in Solluch, about 48 km from Benghazi, the eye of the storm now consuming Gaddafi's regime.
Gaddafi has taken Libya on a torturous, tortuous 40-year-long road of Arab unity, revolutionary zeal, isolationism and sanctions, military forays into African states and finally pan-African unity. Today he is the King of Kings of Africa, or something like that.
He will seek to crush the rising tide of popular anger against his rule. But being a nomadic son of the desert he should know better than anyone else that the desert sands are always shifting and if one remains in one place for long virtually everything moves along even if the encampment remains in place.
No, I am not maintaining silence on what's happening in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.
I watch the unfolding events intently and am working on a long piece analyzing these events and their implications.
Police, security and armed forces are being deployed to suppress the popular protests with overwhelming force. Dozens are being killed and hundreds wounded.
Egypt was different; it's a much more open society than Libya where the most violent suppression is taking place. According to Human Rights Watch 84 people have been killed so far in Libya.
Bahrain's confessional divisions make the face-off much more sensitive.
Add Yemen's tribal society in addition to the secessionist south and we get a clear idea now that the change in the rest of the Arab world is facing more complex challenges in its bid for reform.
Let us see who in the world is going to stand up for basic human rights of in the absence of a guarantor of continuity like the Egyptian army.
There will come a time when the Egyptian scene settles down and the revolution of the people takes stock of what it managed to achieve and where to go from there.
What the people of Tunisia and Egypt proved to their Arab brethren is that change is possible and fear is overcome by courage and determination. Which is the reason why Arab leaders have been scrambling to take steps that appear conciliatory. They are now watching anxiously to see where this stops and how much of the status quo they can preserve.
But it needs to be pointed out that inevitably disagreements over ideology and direction will emerge among those who stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of oppression and injustice.
I hope that the obvious organization of the protesters, the delegation of responsibilities among them and the open-minded activism on display can be used to lay the foundations of a more promising future for these and the coming generations.
Much of the talk over the past several weeks has been about revolution. It is now incumbent upon the people to revolutionize their lives and thought processes. They can decide where they want their societies to go. I am a firm believer that we need to be open to the world, to be receptive to the exchange of ideas. There is talk of a flow of ideas which I think is not conducive to engaging and mutually beneficial progress. It is the exchange that benefits all.
Inevitably political reality will hit. This is not a revolution along the French, Cuban or Iranian lines. It lacks a unifying leader and I hope it will not devour its own along the lines of Sadeq Qotbzadeh.
The civilized face of this revolution needs to be retained with no part of it imposing its will upon the other. This is a real revolution, unlike the revolutions of the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s which were, in reality, coups d'etat by military officers who excluded the people in whose name the toppling of regimes and shedding of blood were committed. Then they set about trampling the people.
Just over a year ago I interviewed several men a for a documentary on torture. "They used to bring in a doctor who would tell them when to stop torturing me," one victim said. The henchmen were not worried about his health, nor was the doctor; they wanted him to survive the torture session so that he could be tortured again, and again, and again... He wished he were a dog, he said. He thought animal rights activists would care more for him than anyone did for him as a man.
We need to set the ground for genuine respect of human rights. Human rights are rights of human beings, not just a cliched phrase. These must be enshrined in the constitutions and ably defended by laws. They encompass everything that pertains to our lives: Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, education, healthcare, gender... The list goes on and on.
This means that what we wish for ourselves we must ensure for our minorities, migrant workers and the less advantaged.
The world is not a utopia; there will always be inequality and injustice. But to continue to stand aside, acquiesce and blame our inaction on helplessness makes us accessories. Accessories as in decorative items that allow regimes to say "Here are our people and all is well" and accessories to whatever crimes are committed while we stand idly by which we then complain about in whispers.
This extends much farther than politics; it goes to the core of our societies, to our private and public institutions, work places, businesses, universities and institutions. We have many shiny structures with glossy brochures extolling their grandeur. But like fast food restaurants with a clean exterior and pretty menus kitchen life vastly different. These places are soul-less hulls. The reality is that a pretense of professionalism is propagated while incompetence, cronyism and a serious lick of quality and professionalism are the bedrock of these often-lauded establishments. They are treated as fiefdoms by the men in charge (they are inevitably always men) who distribute largesses and favors according to personal whims and preferences.
It is not an entirely dark picture; there are exceptions but they are few and far between and cannot on their own lift our societies from the dark depths they find themselves in.
Well into the 21st Century, we are still prisoners of the middle of the 20th Century.
There is a path ahead potentially strewn with roses; not roses in the romantic sense, but roses whose thorns need to be negotiated to get to the delicate, fragrant, sensuous petals. And no matter how nurtured and cared for, roses eventually die so we need to stay on track and negotiate more roses. It is a very slow and gradual process but one that offers hope unlike anything we've experienced in modern times. And there's the alternative. There's the beaten track which we've trod for decades, if not centuries. It is the desolate, haunted, silent and hopeless road that we have traversed aimlessly all this time.
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.