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Till Death Do Them Part? - Syria, Egypt and the MENA Region
But the Middle East is littered with a hundred Houlas, their dead children piled among the statistics, with knives and ropes as well as guns among the murder weapons...

17 June   |   2012   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... And what if Assad's soldiers let their Alawite militia do their dirty work? Didn't the Algerian FLN regime use "home guard" units to murder its opponents in the 1990s? Didn't Gaddafi have his loyalist militias last year, and Mubarak his jailbird drugged-up ex-cops, the baltagi, to bash opponents of his regime? Didn't Israel use its Lebanese Phalangist proxies to intimidate and kill its opponents in Lebanon? Wasn't this, too, "rule by murder"? And come to think of it, wasn't it Bashar al-Assad's uncle Rifaat's Special Forces who massacred the insurgents of Hama in 1982 - speak this not too loudly, for Rifaat lives now between Paris and London - and so who thinks Bashar can't get away with Houla? The Algerian parallel is a frightening one. The FLN's corrupt leadership wanted a "democracy", even held elections. But once it was clear that the Islamist opposition - the luckless Islamic Salvation Front - would win, the government declared war on the "terrorists" trying to destroy Algeria. Villages were besieged, towns were shelled - all in the name of fighting "terror" - until the opposition took to slaughtering civilians around Blida, thousands of them, babies with their throats cut, women raped. And then it turned out the Algerian army was also involved in massacres. For Houla, read Bentalha, a place we have all forgotten; as we will forget Houla.

This is an excerpt from a piece written for The Independent by the Beirut-based veteran journalist Robert Fisk on 29 May 2012. And much as it might prove sobering - awakening - reading for many of us who were propelled by the hope for serious change in the Middle East and North Africa not long ago, Fisk's suggestions are not too far off from the truth.

Mind you, it might also be true that there was a momentary anticipation in some circles that Houla could become for Syria what Srebrenica was for Bosnia. Readers might well recall that following the massacre of 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica in July 1995, a feeble international response turned far more intense. Within six months, a political accord at Dayton (Ohio) ended the conflict and included a military intervention that enforced it. In fact, I recall being asked about this analogy during a recent BBC interview and I argued then - as I still would today - that in strictly Srebrenica terms the present situation in Syria resembles more 1993 than it does 1995 when the conflict was still accelerating forward but when the violence had not yet peaked and a solution was therefore not in the offing.

Back to present times though, and to Egypt, where the hopes of many young Egyptians were centred on a revolution that would provide them with equal amounts of bread and dignity (as the slogans in Arabic proclaimed at Tahrir Square), the latest rapid-fire developments indicate a successive set of shrewd moves by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to neuter the recently-elected National Assembly, emasculate the presidency, wrest control of the constitutional process and seemingly claw back control of public institutions. Mind you, the jury is still out in terms of the success or failure of those deft tactics, but the military were ironically aided and abetted in their efforts by the Muslim Brotherhood - their erstwhile nemesis - who were never truly in full solidarity with the mass demonstrations led by a majority of Egyptians but wanted instead to pursue their own agenda of expanding their space and turning Egypt into their fiefdom. They thought that this was their moment at long last after decades of suppression during the reign of three previous presidents. However, in their hasty zeal, they miscalculated somewhat, overreached themselves, stumbled, hobbled or procrastinated, and are now perhaps being hoisted by their own petard. Their biggest mistake, apart from a cacophony of political noises, was their belief that the Egyptian electorate had voted for them on religious / ideological grounds. In fact, I would argue that such factors, and even democracy itself, have now been relegated to a second division in Egypt and been superseded in the minds of a majority of Egyptians by two words alone: jobs and security.

Moving along to the rest of the MENA region, apart from Syria and Egypt, it is equally clear that the tensions are still roiling in countries such as Tunisia (between an increasingly bold Islamist movement in the central and south-western areas and a retrenching leftist continuum), Libya (between the harried central authority and the different tribes that are controlling much of the country and holding Saif al-Islam Qaddafi in Zintan) and Bahrain where the standoff between the Sunni monarchy and a majority Shi'i populace is volatile. Even countries such as Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon are fearfully observing events with bated political breaths and the Gulf monarchies in their Sardanapalian unrealities are busily spending billions of dollars fuelling many of those uprisings, countering some others whilst also simultaneously spending equal amounts of dollars trying to keep those uprisings away from their sandy borders.

And finally there is Israel-Palestine, or even the Holy Land, once the political hub par excellence of the whole region that is now buffeted between the staid and unmotivated claims of different parties - whether from outside this patch of land or inside it - and the otiose pretensions of a defunct Quartet that has long outlasted its purpose. And to sum up the painful enigma of the moment, where occupation and colonisation have become intermingled sobriquets in many minds, I would simply refer readers to an op-ed published recently in the Jerusalem Post by the Israeli executive director of One Voice in which he argued that the real choice for Israelis is now squarely between settlements and democracy. He argued that "the greatest threat to that solution is continued settlement expansion on land earmarked for a Palestinian state in any future agreement." One Voice also conducted a poll showing that while 64% of Israelis oppose illegal settlement activity in the West Bank, only 41% believe that they present a risk to the two-state solution.

In the midst of those tectonic fluctuations and unpredictable realignments, the Christian communities (as one of the key minority communities of the region that include inter alia the Druze, Kurds, Yazidis and Mandaeans) have at times found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Christian yearning for dignity, justice and equality is ineradicable, and it would by and large empathise with the essential objectives of those uprisings. However, the fear has been growing that the eventual outcome of those protests would Islamise the whole region in the most conservative or radical manner and that Christians would then find their fundamental freedoms curtailed further. It is a tough place to be in: on the one hand, many Christians are behaving like minorities and exhibiting the innate fears of an inward-looking community whilst at the same time insisting they are an indivisible and historical component of Arab society and culture.

In fact, one short-sighted consequence of such a quandary facing Arab Christians was made manifest yet again recently when an Italian Jesuit priest, Paolo Dall'Oglio, founder of the community of the monastery of Mar Moussa in the north of Damascus and a veteran participant in Christian-Muslim dialogue, was asked by his bishop to leave Syria for good - not because he had spoken out against foreign intervention or called for an increase in UN monitors, but rather because he had stood up against the brutal acts perpetrated by an embattled Syrian regime against its own citizens and had dared question the Christian uneasy choices lurking within those unfolding political dramas.

However, it is important to highlight that the MENA region has also been prey to outside influences. Our own political leaders in the West have been complicit with the developments in the MENA region. As Fisk wrote in his piece, and just like in Algeria some two decades ago when they showed indignation and called upon both sides to exercise "restraint", our politicians were equally worried then about al-Qaeda-style insurgents taking over Algeria. In the end, some readers might recall that the US supported the Algerian military just as the Russians are supporting Syria's military today. And the FLN got away with it, after 200,000 dead - compared to the 15,000 killed so far in Syria's war. So I must admit that I am not easily swayed by the rhetoric of our leaders who condemn those present atrocities verbally whilst not acting upon them within the available bounds of legality or R2P - either because of their vested political interests and political calculations or much more bluntly due to the lack of any military wherewithal to embark upon such action.

By the same token, I also regret the deplorable Russian attitude that allows those Syrian deaths to pile up day in day out as it forfends any action by the international community and also helps oil the Syrian war machine. More deplorable is the Iranian regime that considers Syria as its [only] beachhead into the Arab World and the frontline of a Sunni-Shi'i looming divide and is therefore bolstering Syrian impunity with armaments, funds and even fighters on the ground.

In my opinion, talking to some of those directly involved in the protests against authoritarian or despotic regimes across the various countries of the MENA region, I can aver that a majority of the Arab masses are at this moment simply tired, confused, frustrated, fearful and angered by events. They are running out of steam and, like many others who thought their spring season would come quickly, they have suddenly hit the forbidding checkpoints of a far longer and bumpy road ahead. This requires a psychological recalibration in one's own mind, but it also needs some recalculation in the face of the economic woes of protestors. Are they going to continue protesting while their families go hungry?

However, herein also lies one of the many paradoxes of those uprisings. Much as the spring season has been short-lived, and despite the toll those daily protests have exacted from countless men and women, the aspirations of the Arab peoples are still very much alive and undimmed today. In my estimation, this is the most palpable achievement of those uprisings: an awakening of the Arab genie that has come out of the bottle and will not easily be compressed or bullied back into the same old bottle by force, blood and coercion - despite the hardships, brutalities, sacrifices or seductions.

The question in my mind at this juncture is somewhat guileless: have the collective vested interests - whether internal, Arab, Western or global - coerced those protestors into submission, co-opted their hopes and returned them to a status quo ante or will the ordinary men and women who fight for their irreducible sense of dignity simply refuse to lose hope or to be penned back in their neighbourhoods? Will they continue their fight for freedom and socio-economic justice? In this sense, is it perhaps an exercise between two sides "till death do them part"? Will one side land a knockout blow?

Given our own meandering experiences in the West with bloody and protracted revolutions, let alone the fortitude and sacrifices of scores of those struggling for a freer tomorrow that is neither squelched by autocracy nor squashed by theocracy, I will opt to stand alongside those free-thinking men and women who have been disappointed and duped but who refuse resolutely to lose that instinct we all proudly - and faithfully - call 'hope'.

An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind - Mahatma Gandhi

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2012   |   17 June


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