Syria Speeding Up

Three weeks ago I wrote that Syria was not about to experience a popular revolution. Although I’m no longer sure of anything after the events in Tunisia and Egypt (and Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain) – and although it’s made me unpopular in certain quarters – I’m sticking to my original judgement. No revolution in Syria just yet.

Until a month ago, I would have have agreed with Joshua Landis (quoted here) that many, perhaps a comfortable majority of Syrians were not particularly interested in ‘democracy.’ Before either I or Landis is accused of orientalism, let me say that human and civil rights are not identical with democracy. Any Syrian who knows he’s alive wants his (or her) human and civil rights respected, but many fear that ‘democracy’ would lead to sectarian fragmentation. This is an entirely logical fear: the ‘democracies’ to the west and east of Syria – Lebanon and Iraq – are strife-torn sectarian democracies. Sectarian identification remains a problem in Syria. A freedom-loving Alawi friend of mine was put off the failed ‘day of rage’ facebook group because he found so many anti-Alawi comments posted there. Other Syrians were put off when they realised that many of the posts came from Hariri groups in Lebanon.

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Horror and Hope

Egyptian police break a Copt's leg. Photo by Nasser Nouri

It currently seems there is a real danger of the Middle East losing its millenia-old diversity. Iraq’s post-invasion civil war separated the country’s Shia and Sunni communities, driving millions into exile. Pro-Western Arab regimes continue to spew vicious anti-Shia propaganda, which is heard by important sections of society. Now Wahhabi-nihilists have declared open season on Iraq’s ancient Christian community. Palestine was cleansed of its natives in 1947/48 and transformed into a Jewish ethno-state. Zionism and a new Muslim chauvinism have reduced the Christian proportion of the West Bank from 15% in 1950 to 2% today. And the New Year brought news of an appalling attack on Egyptian Copts, an increasingly oppressed and alienated community.

Informed observers will know that there is nothing essential or ‘ages-old’ about the emerging sectarian chaos. Sectarianism had receded almost to irrelevance amongst the generations of Arabs that believed they were on their way to true independence. Foreign partitions and occupations did a large part to crush that dream. Totalitarianism and economic and educational failures (often the policies of foreign-backed regimes) did the rest. In Egypt’s case, the Mubarak regime has dealt with its Islamist challenge in two ways: politically, it has rigged elections ever more blatantly and persecuted its visible opponents; socially, it has given way to the most retrograde desires of Islamism (forbidding the construction of churches, banning books) and done its best to whip up petty chauvinism over the most ridiculous of pretexes (for instance the mutual football hooliganism of Egyptian and Algerian fans).

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Beware of Small States

The chaos of Lebanon has thrown up an Arab horror paralleled only in post-invasion Iraq. It has also produced the Arab world’s most urgent intellectual life, and its first victory against Israel. Lebanon is the most contradictory of countries, “a more open, liberal and democratic society than any of its Arab neighbours” precisely because of “its vulnerability to domestic dissension.” So, with its seventeen sects and constantly shifting allegiances, who would dare to explain Lebanon?

No better candidate than David Hirst, whose 1977 book “The Gun and the Olive Branch” was one of the very first to sympathetically present the Palestinian plight in English. Hirst’s latest work “Beware of Small States” is a panoramic study of Lebanon’s difficult history which strikes exactly the right balance between close detail and broad interpretative sweep. The writing is precise, penetrative and elegant. For sober, logical analysis, “Beware of Small States” outstrips even Robert Fisk’s magisterial “Pity the Nation.”

Hirst explains Lebanon, and especially the fifteen-year maelstrom of the civil war, its pogroms, set battles, kidnappings and car bombs, by delineating patterns of cause and effect. The civil war is interpreted as “the intertwining of the socio-economic, the sectarian and the Palestinian, those three characteristics of the whole, ever more noxious brew.”

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Entering Palestine

I love it when Arab Christians have names like Omar. It shows, on their fathers’ part, a rejection of the sectarianism which cripples us. I know of a Christian family in Beirut which named its eldest son Jihad, and Muslim families with sons called Fidel and Guevara. Omar is not merely a specifically Muslim name; it’s more particularly a Sunni name, disliked by some Shia for theological-historical reasons. Omar is not a good name to have written on your ID card while driving through a Shia-militia-controlled area of Baghdad. But I know an Iraqi Shia woman whose brother is called Omar, because her father rejected the whole sorry sectarian business.

By and large, the Palestinians have avoided the curse. It’s still the case that if you ask a Palestinian whether he’s Muslim or Christian he responds, “Palestinian!” I mention this because our guide from Amman to the Allenby Bridge was a Palestinian Christian called Omar, and because the Palestinians, unlike their enemies, are proud of their diversity and pluralism.

Swaying in the bus aisle, Omar explained that Jordanian officers would check our passports but would not stamp them. “The Jordanian government has recognised Israel, but not Israeli control over the West Bank. Why are there Israeli police on the border and not Palestinians? Jordan recognises this as a crossing, but not a border.”

Surely Omar was pleased that, since the peace agreement, he could visit his family in Bethlehem? Not really: “Jordan allows every Israeli to come here. They get visas automatically when they come in. But we have to apply at the Israeli embassy, where they treat us badly, and 95% of applications are refused. I tried to go in for my uncle’s funeral, but they wouldn’t let me. This is the balanced peace we have with our neighbours.”

The Jordanian side of the crossing takes less than ten minutes. Omar collects our passports to flash at an officer while we drink water in the shade. Then back onto the bus, without Omar, and over the bridge.

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After the Fall

The excellent Nir Rosen reports from Iraq. Where the complicit media finds an increasingly stable democracy, Rosen sees more clearly, and finds a torture state in which sect and political allegiance count for more than mere citizenship.

 Six years to the day since the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad, the war that has dominated American politics for half a decade and upturned an entire regional order is being not-so-gently forced from centre stage. Iraq specialists at the National Security Council in Washington have hung signs on their office doors declaring that theirs is now “the good war”; the Obama administration is eager to declare victory in Iraq and shift its attention to the long-neglected conflict in Afghanistan.

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