Radical change in Arab world

Nearly all Arab-world political systems have become completely ossified over recent decades. The last time there was a major, region-wide series of shifts was around 1970. That was the year, for example, that Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel-Naser died and– within days of that occurrence– the relatively conservative “corrective movement” wing of the Syrian Baath Party headed by Hafez al-Asad took over from the much more populist and radical wing of the party that had preceded it.
The PLO guerrillas got chased out of Jordan that year, too. Altogether, the shifts of 1970 were toward much more cautious, status-quo-preserving powers taking over. Saddam Hussein, who was consolidating his grip on power in Iraq at that time, was part of that trend.
Anwar as-Sadat, who came in that year, was assassinated in 1981 and was succeeded by his Vice-President Hosni Mubarak, who has made a point of not naming his own VP since then. (I wonder why not?)
Hafez al-Asad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar, a.k.a. at the time, “the default option”. Nothing very new there. Of course, the western media which often tends to go gaga over youthfulness, thought that Bashar’s youth itself was sufficient to qualify him for being a visionary innovator. How wrong can you be? (As I noted at the time.)
Arafat, wily old survivor that he was, succumbed to some physical cause last year. In that case, my theory that youthfulness often signifies only increased caution was amply rewarded, since the notably un-youthful Abu Mazen has been considerably bolder and more sure-footed politically than the (other) “Old Man”.
Oops, I forgot Saddam. He got toppled almost two years ago, and has been replaced by…. Who knows what?
Well anyway, a major emerging trope in the so-called “coverage” of the western new media has become that the “implantation of democracy” in Iraq has led to a gathering cascade of democratization throughout the region… Starting with elections in Palestine (everyone conveniently forgetting or downplaying the successful elections there in 1996, which led politically to a resounding success for Arafat and diplomatically to a total dead end. RIP.)… Carrying on with the much-lionized “red and white revolution” in Beirut (western media people conveniently neglecting the extremely large, yellow-flagged Hizbullah demonstrations in Beirut of ten days ago)… And now, there’s even Hosni Mubarak saying (gulp!) he’ll allow competitive elections in Egypt at the end of the year!!!!
How much substance– and what substance, exactly– is there in all this?
Well, it sure is interesting to live in a time when history, the march of which has been stayed by US-backed stasis and conservatism for the past 35 years, suddenly starts galloping into fast-forward.
One thing I really don’t understand, though, is the shallowness and wishful thinking of all the commentators here in the States who look at what’s happening and say something very simplistic like, “Oh, people power! Great! That’s bound to come out in a pro-US way because the people there will all see how much the US has done for them!”
One first thing to note is that, for all the western swooning over the “success” of Iraq’s election on January 30, the winners in that election have thus far not been allowed by the occupation forces to come to power at all!
(And meanwhile, Allawi’s puppet government has been passing decrees to clamp down on civil society, etc. What possible “legitimacy” can such steps have at this point, I wonder?)
As a US citizen, I see my main task as being to continue pushing hard for the ending of the illegitimate US diktat over Iraq, and the implementation there of the Iraqi people’s will. Right now. No excuses.
But I’m also happy to look at the other countries in the region where the US is active….

Here’s something totally bald-faced and amazing: On Monday, the State department issued its annual Human Rights report to Congress. In the report, the Bush administration got to sound off about human rights abuses in many countries around the world, including Middle eastern countries.
For example, this, about Egypt:

    there were numerous, credible reports that security forces tortured and mistreated detainees. Human rights groups reported that the State Security Investigations Service (SSIS), police, and other government entities continued to employ torture to extract information, coerce opposition figures to cease their political activities, and to deter others from similar activities….
    Principal methods of torture reportedly employed by the police and the SSIS included stripping and blindfolding victims; suspending victims from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beating victims with fists, whips, metal rods, or other objects; using electrical shocks; and dousing victims with cold water. Victims frequently reported being subjected to threats and forced to sign blank papers for use against themselves or their families should they in the future complain about the torture. Some victims, including male and female detainees and children, reported sexual assaults or threats of rape against themselves or family members. While the law requires security authorities to keep written records of detentions, human rights groups reported that the lack of such records often effectively blocked investigation of complaints.

I expect just about everything in that litany is true. More’s the terrible, terrible pity.
But here are my questions:

    (1) When will any US administration actually take steps–using the many means of leverage at its disposal– to stop such behavior by the Egyptian security forces?
    (2) When will the US stop completely the practice of “rendering” to Egypt and other “friendly” rights-abusing governments persons whose torture it wants to have happen, but that it wants to out-source? And most important of all…
    (3) When will the US itself cease and desist from engaging in these and other similarly abusive practices?

Frankly, I find it totally mind-boggling that anyone at all, anywhere in the world, gives the US “Human Rights Report” any credence at all at a time less than a year after the revelations of the massively systematized abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib… And at a time when the US administration is still trying to argue that, “no law prevents the Central Intelligence Agency from engaging in inhumane treatment of detainees abroad.”
Ah, you may ask, but what has all this to do with the great march of democracy? A lot, dear friends, a lot.
First of all, it’s impossible for any institution to claim that it supports “democracy” around the world if it is actually itself a major abuser of people’s most basic rights and dignity. Secondly, I submit, the Bush administration’s two-faced “record” on human rights– that is, claiming it opposes rights abuses elsewhere while it actually massively not only condones them but is also complicit in their commission– is very likely indeed to be paralleled by a similarly two-faced record on democratization… That is, it might well claim it wants to see the spread of democratization throughout the Middle east; but if the “popular will” were actually to get enacted in almost any Middle eastern country, just see how fast the Bushies would revert to supporting the men with the tanks….
So I see all these intriguing things that are now happening throughou the region as significant test-cases:
Will the people’s will actually be allowed to prevail in Iraq?
How about in Lebanon— where Hizbullah is still far and away the best-organized political party (indeed, many Lebanese say, the only true political party at all), and where, if the electoral system is made more truly democratic than it currently is, Hizbullah will probably increase its standing at the polls next May?
How about in Palestine— where Hamas is still poised to do very well in the upcoming parliamentary and municipal races?
Or Egypt… Or Syria… Or Saudi Arabia… Or Jordan… Or just about anywhere in the Arab world?
I’m not in favor of fitna and regional instability and upheavals. I’m not anti-American. I just think it’s time that every one of God’s children in that part of the world got an equal chance at determining her or his future, and his or her place in this interesting world of ours, to the chance that other people get.
Is that too much to ask?
[Note for those of you who wonder why I gave up on my “no blogging” pledge so fast: (1) I did great work on my Africa book today, and (2) This topic cried out to me to blog it!]

16 thoughts on “Radical change in Arab world”

  1. Not to worry, since State Dept. reports are incapable of dealing with U.S. human rights abuses, the Government of China has happily volunteered! The People’s Daily Online discusses a new document entitled “The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2004”. (http://english.people.com.cn/200503/02/eng20050302_175185.html)
    According to the article, the report is “based on plenty of facts, is divided into six parts, uncovering the bad records of the United States concerning the invasions into other countries and the mistreatment of foreign inmates, as well as the bad records in the aspects of life, freedom and personal security of the US citizens, their political rights and freedom, economic, social and cultural rights, racial discrimination, conditions of women and children.”
    Oh well, those who live in glass houses …

  2. …That’s bound to come out in a pro-US way because the people there will all see how much the US has done for them!”
    Actually, I can’t remember any pundits saying that. The closest is that a few of them opined that democracies are more peaceful and interested in prosperity than than in Jihad. Is that what you mean by “Pro-US” and “How much the US has done for us”?
    Todays New York Times has a wide-ranging assessment that is far more realistic than the red herring (or is it a straw man) put up by Helena Cobban.
    I am not claiming that the media are not “Shallow”, just that the print media are not as shallow as Helen imagines. See also this article.
    So much for the idea that Helena’s blog is “Reality-based”.

  3. WarenW, what are you hear for? Do you just not like this blog or are you some kind of self-appointed thought-policeman?
    Either way, why don’t you give it a rest or otherwise go and chase your straw herrings elswhere.

  4. Either way, why don’t you give it a rest or otherwise go and chase your straw herrings elswhere.
    Dominic, that’s not so courteous or helpful yourself. Why don’t you take your misspellings and mixed metaphors elsewhere? Your sanctimonious braying and bossiness disfigures this board.

  5. I like to think of Warren and his ilk as the internet manifesting our subconscious’ worst contents. There are a couple of fellows who visit my blog to rant at me in similar fashion. One wonders if they have nothing better to do, or if they think they’re converting anybody, or if they drink too much? Instead of calling ex-wives to spout abuse at three a.m., they go find women they don’t agree with on the internet to insult.
    But really – the internet is a filter for fear. If you look at it from a Jungian point of view, these other voices (Warren and friends) are like the shadow, or Doris Lessing’s “Censor”, bubbling up. Best thing to do, according to Robert Bly, is to turn and laugh at them.
    Warren, we know you want us to shut up for good. Do you think you scare us? We know who you really are.
    And would you like a scone with your tea? The Dove is serving berries and cream, but they’re wildcrafted, so be careful what you eat! There are no guarantees when you sit down at the harpies’ table. Hemlock? Wild currants? I don’t know, just take a chance.
    Go bact to the underworld Warren, it’s full of stalactites and stalagmites and light-starved rivers just perfect for trollish bathing.
    (end magical realist rant)

  6. Instead of calling ex-wives to spout abuse at three a.m., they go find women they don’t agree with on the internet to insult.
    Oh good grief. Helena’s own blog-motto is an insult to anyone who disagrees with her idiotic conclusions: “reality-based” indeed! To say nothing of her catspaws (Dominic, Leila etc) who routinely dish out discourteous, stale, unhelpful and highly insulting attacks toward those few off-message orientalist-colonialist-imperialist types who dare to disrupt the knitting circle.

  7. ending of the illegitimate US diktat over Iraq
    If I’m not mistaken, even Juan Cole has acknowledged the legality of the US occupation.

  8. SM– thanks so much for that link. In case it doesn’t work for the rest of you (or for any of the rest of us after a certain amount of time, I fear), it’s about the “branding” of the anti-Syrian movement. Viz., that most Lebanese participants in the movement, following Jumblatt, have called it a “peaceful intifada”, while US Asst Sec of State Paula Dobriansky (the same one released the US’s recent “Human Rights Report”…) has started referring to it as the “Cedar Revolution.”
    “Intifada” has obvious resonance in Middle eastern, and now also global, discourse. “Cedar” is not only as that WaPo author Jefferson Morley pointed out, a Biblical (Hebrew Bible) reference and also the symbol in the middle of the Lebanese flag– but what JM may well not have known about is the use of “cedar” symbolism by extremist Maronitist crazies like “Abu Arz”, the “Father of the Cedars”, a notorious anti-Palestinian genocidaire in 1970s Lebanon.
    There are other “branding possibilities” out there. I was recently invited to a seminar in DC on the “Red rose revolution” in Lebanon. I’ve also seen it referred to as the “red and white” revolution– for the rest of the Lebanese flag, except for the cedar-y symbol.
    In case anyone’s interested, Hizbullah’s signature color is bright yellow.
    Tinea, btw, what’s your problem? (Never mind, you don’t need to answer, To do so might be to hog the discourse.) But seriously, if you have something to say or to ask related to the actual subject of the post, say it– courteously. If you don’t, say nothing. Simple as that.

  9. Tinea, btw, what’s your problem?
    My problem is with self-styled ‘pacifists’ like yourself who routinely plead the cause of violent insurgencies and Islamist radicals. As far as decorum goes, I presume you find Dominic’s remarks courteous, fresh and helpful?

  10. I am not a pacifist. I am a Communist.
    I respect the Quakers and I respect good journalism. I respect knowledge gained in many years of experience.
    I don’t like stalkers. I consider WarrenW to be a stalker. He loaths everything that Helena writes but insists on coming here ad nauseam to tell us the same.
    WarrenW’s crass remark about Helena’s blog not being “Reality Based” was a provocation, especially following on the tour de force that is the current article, above.
    Tinea, you love WarrenW’s ad hominem and hate the rejection of it. Your’s is just more sophism, I’m afraid.

  11. Dominic, each epithet directed at Warren or tinea is a waste of bandwidth and contributes to the further pollution of the discourse. If you dislike thought policemen so much please stop playing one yourself. It’s easy enough to ignore posts with which you disagree, no need to waste Helena’s bandwidth engaging in petty bickering.

  12. Thanks for an interesting homepage.
    I’m interested in your source for the claim about the large Hizballah demonstration in Beirut.

  13. Goran, it was Lebanese press reports of the Hizbullah demonstration held Feb 19 or 20. The event was mainly to mark Ashoura (Shiite day of mourning). But what interested me– as I wrote in my CSM column of the following Thursday– was that they hoisted huge pictures of Hariri alongside (and same size as) pictures of favored ayatollahs. In other words, definitely identifying themselves with the nationwide grief over his death if not necessarily with the accusations against Syria.
    The press reports I saw did not give the size of the Hizbullah demonstrations but the pics made it look certainly as large as the “red&white” demonstrations which have been all that the mainstream Western press written about. I imagine if you go to the website of Al-Intiqad you can find Hizbullah’s own descriptions and pictures of the event. It’s an interesting website.

Comments are closed.