But what to do about Syria’s uprising? Let’s start by putting it in historical context. What is happening in Syria, and across the Arab world today, is the first popular movement since the late 19th and early 20th century that has not been animated by foreign policy or anticolonialism or Israel or Britain. Instead, says Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, “it is about us and our jobs and accountable government. …It is a profound reorientation to domestic priorities and pragmatism. It is a quest for dignity,” emerging from the bottom up.
The Syrian uprising, it is crucial to remember, began as a nonviolent protest by young men over corruption in the Syrian town of Dara’a, for which they were brutally tortured. It stayed remarkably nonviolent, nonsectarian for months, under the slogan “Silmiya, Silmiya.” (Or Peaceful, Peaceful.) It was deliberately turned into a civil war by Assad. Syrian opposition activists here in Beirut make clear that Assad opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, hoping to provoke a violent backlash. Then he could argue that this was not a peaceful democratic revolt but a sectarian revolt by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, aimed at ousting Assad’s ruling Alawite/Shiite minority and its allies. To some degree, it worked: Now we have a democratic struggle intertwined with a sectarian one.
Patrick Cockburn: The attempt to topple President Assad has failed
World View: The EU travel ban serves to show how impotent the outside world is in its dealings with Syria
Syria uprising is now a battle to the death
“Unlike Libya, Syria is of strategic importance, sitting at the center of ethnic, religious and regional rivalries that give it the potential to become a whirlpool that draws in powers, great and small, in the region and beyond.”
“Underpinning the struggle for Syria, however, is a far older battle for supremacy between Iran and the West, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Persians, which appeared to have been suppressed by the popular clamor for change that erupted across the Arab world last year but which now has resurfaced as a key dynamic driving the competition for power.”
Adrian Hamilton: Arms, not diplomacy, will decide the fate of Syria
ADRIAN HAMILTON FRIDAY 10 FEBRUARY 2012
Don’t be fooled by the outraged cries coming from London, Paris, Washington and now the UN Secretary General himself over the Russian and Chinese veto of the resolution on Syria. True, it spoiled the careful build-up of diplomatic pressure organised by Western and Arab governments. But it’s also quite convenient to put all the blame for the continuing escalation of violence in Syria on these two countries, Russia in particular.
Of course, President Assad must welcome the fact that he escaped the censure of the UN. But does anyone think for a moment that, had the resolution passed, he would have instantly ceased bombarding Homs or any other centre of resistance?
The Syrian government isn’t deploying the heavy weaponry so deplored by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and President Obama just as an exercise to cow the civilian population which can be turned on or off at will. It’s using it to crush any centre of resistance or independence, the more so now that the resistance has become armed by army desertions.
If the Assad family and its Alouite [Alawite] supporters weren’t willing to stop the onslaught even when observers from the Arab League were present, they certainly wouldn’t just because of a UN vote. Given the growing armed strength of its opponents, the regime in Damascus must feel it has no alternative but to suppress with full force the revolt while it still lacks the weaponry or numbers to overthrow it. President Bashar al-Assad may make all the promises he likes to the visiting Russian Foreign Minister about stopping the violence and talking to his foes. He may even think he means it. But only once his regime has won on the ground.
Diplomacy in these circumstances, like sanctions, is essentially just a means of western politicians to sound as if they are “doing something” about a situation that anguishes their public, but about which they can do very little without direct military engagement.
Russia and China might well have been wrong to veto the resolution. It has cost them a good deal of credibility in the Middle East and elsewhere. Their diplomats, at any rate, must think it might have been better to have abstained. But that doesn’t make the Russians wrong in the basic case they have been making. However the UN resolution was worded, the intention was regime change and, like it or not, it does smack of Western-inspired intervention.
The West would argue, just as it did over Libya, that the support of the Arab League and the refusal to put troops on the ground make this something quite different from Western interventions of the past.
Libyan intervention – which Russia and China went along with – does not provide a reassuring example, however. Arab League participation was entirely down to loathing of Gaddafi. Imposition of a no-fly zone quickly led to a one-sided bombing of the regime’s forces and effective participation in a civil war. While it succeeded in unseating Colonel Gaddafi, it was at a high cost in casualties and a messy aftermath still to be resolved.
Regime change is the name of the Syrian game, now as it was then. It’s far too late to talk of negotiated settlements. Too much blood has already been spilt. The question is whether it can be achieved quickly on the ground without full-blown civil war.
The best hope is that a horror at the civilian casualties will combine with a middle-class conclusion that the Assad rule is doomed to produce a mass insurgency which sweeps away the government. The more likely development is the arming of the rebellion by the religious groups in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, eased by Turkey and very probably helped clandestinely by the US and Britain.
In either case, diplomacy is now but a side-show.
This is an intelligence indicator regarding the future of Syria
Inside Syria: the rebel call for arms and ammunition
Exclusive:With Syrian rebels desperate for arms, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad finds smugglers doing a roaring trade selling guns and bullets
The future does not look bright for the Arab Spring in Syria. Thomas Friedman hits the nail on the head. Muslim/Arab society is fractured. Disparate groups, religious and tribal, are looking for individual advantage instead of unity for the common good.
Syria descends further into open warfare with clashes on Turkish border
Syria descended further into open warfare with armed clashes in the south and on its border with Turkey, with state media additionally pointing to the involvement of Turkish armed forces.
…A widening and increasingly dangerous rift is forming between the main strategic alliances in the region. Iran and its allied militia in Lebanon, Hizbollah, are remaining loyal to Mr Assad but Hamas, another Damascus-based militant group, is making its unease clear.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s leader, made his first public appearance in three years, at a rally to mark the Shia Muslim festival of Ashura in Beirut. He said he stood by Mr Assad as a fellow struggler in the “resistance” and said that America, the Satan, was trying to overthrow him to make up for defeat in Iraq.
“A message to all those who are conspiring against the resistance and banking on change: we will never let go of our arms,” he said. “We are tens of thousands of trained fighters, who are all ready to die.”
That contains more than a hint that success in what both he and Iran see as a western-backed attempt to undermine Mr Assad could lead to retaliatory attacks, most probably against Hizbollah’s stated foe, Israel.
Syria: Bashar al-Assad tells Barbara Walters ‘I’m not in charge of the army’
Bashar al-Assad has denied he is responsible for the killing of thousands of protesters, telling Barbara Walters, the US news journalist that he is not in charge of the armed forces and the country does not “kill our people”.
Victim: 15-year-old Mohammed Mulla Eissa was killed at school for refusing to join a pro-regime demonstration
‘Shoot him again to make sure he dies’: Boy,
15, gunned down in front of his classmates
after refusing to join march in support of
Syria’s President Assad
‘Shoot him again to make sure he dies’: Boy,
Pro-Syrian regime protesters shout slogans as one holds a mock coffin with Arabic words reading: ‘The Syrian people announce to you the death of the Arab League’
Syria Calls the Arab League’s Sanctions ‘Economic War’
With Syria showing no signs of acceding to the demands of the Arab League, including that it stop using violence to suppress antigovernment protests, the regional confrontation deepened.
Syrian Economy Minister Blasts Arab League Sanctions
Syria faces crippling sanctions as it defies Arab League deadline
The killings continue as President Assad refuses demands for observers to be let into the country
CATRINA STEWART JERUSALEM SATURDAY 26 NOVEMBER 2011
Syria’s isolated Assad regime has defied an Arab League deadline to allow an observer mission into the country, opening the way for the pan-Arab body to impose crippling sanctions.
The deadline passed as erstwhile ally Turkey said that it could no longer tolerate the bloodshed in Syria, warning that it would join sanctions alongside Arab powers if President Bashar al-Assad did not end a crackdown on opponents to his rule.
“There are steps we can take in consultation with the Arab League,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters. “I want to say clearly we have no more tolerance for the bloodshed in Syria. The attitude of friendly and fraternal countries on this subject is clear.”
Since pro-democracy protests began in March, the death toll from the government crackdown has exceeded 3,500, most of them civilians. That violence continued yesterday, with at least four protesters killed by security forces.
In vowing to crush the protests, Mr Assad has painted the uprising as a foreign-backed insurgency, rather than a peaceful revolt of the type that has toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. But his response has turned a largely peaceful uprising into an increasingly potent threat to his regime as defecting soldiers joined by armed civilians turn on the security forces.
In an unusual admission, the regime confirmed yesterday that rebels had killed 10 of its personnel, including six élite military pilots. The military immediately blamed “foreign elements”, bolstering its claim that Syria is facing an armed insurrection.
The Arab League, which recently suspended Syria in a humiliating affront to Mr Assad, has demanded that the government allow an international observer mission to enter the country to monitor the implementation of a 2 November peace plan that called for an end to the bloodshed. Although Damascus agreed to the deal, it has failed to heed it and hundreds of civilians have been killed in the last month alone.
The League has taken an uncharacteristically robust stance on Syria and had given it a deadline of 1100 GMT yesterday to allow in 500 observers or face a vote on sanctions, which could include the suspension of commercial flights, the freezing of government bank accounts and deals with the central bank. Syria had agreed to allow in just 40 monitors. But sources in the 22-member bloc reportedly confirmed that the deadline had been extended until the end of the day and that in practice Syria could still avoid sanctions if it responds before the Arab League meeting scheduled for later today.
With Syria already hurting from US and European sanctions on oil exports and some state businesses, the Arab League will want to make sure that its measures target the regime, and not Syria’s population, making it more complicated to impose measures such as a curb on trade.
The International Crisis Group has warned that the Syrian uprising was entering its most deadly phase yet. “The crisis may or may not have entered its final phase, but it undoubtedly has entered its most dangerous one to date,” the NGO said in a report.
“Many in Syria and abroad are now banking on the regime’s imminent collapse and wagering that all then will be for the better. That is a luxury and optimism they cannot afford.”
Pro-reform supporters, waving Syria’s pre-Baath old national flag
Robert Fisk: Assad will only go if his own tanks turn against him
Predictions of Syrian leader’s imminent demise are hopelessly optimistic
ROBERT FISK WEDNESDAY 16 NOVEMBER 2011
In Damascus earlier this month, Syrian state television asked me for an interview on events in Syria. With much trepidation, I accepted, promising the presenter he would not like all I said, but warning – a bit of Fisk blackmail, this – that any censored words would be relayed to readers of The Independent. The interview went ahead and I said that President Bashar al-Assad was “running out of time – fast”. The Arab people, I added, could no longer be infantilised; there was clearly an armed insurgency under way in Syria to overthrow the regime – foreign correspondents must be allowed to visit Homs and other areas where a host of YouTube pictures show protesters being shot down. When I was told later that the translation had not been finished in time, I smiled with my usual cynicism.
But almost incredibly, the interview duly aired on Syrian state television – and to my utter astonishment, they ran the lot (they used near-perfect subtitling), including the remarks about Assad “running out of time – fast”.
What happened? Did this have the President’s approval? Or was the government – or some part of the dictatorship – trying to show that they were in no doubt about how serious the near-civil war had become? I don’t know. And my Middle Eastern crystal ball broke many years ago. But I’ll hazard a dangerous prediction: Assad’s time is running out, fast – but don’t believe the State Department and the Washington “tink thanks” (as I call them) and the EU or the Arab League. He ain’t going yet.
Even the words of Jordan’s King Abdullah this week were slightly bent by the press and television coverage when he supposedly told the BBC that Assad should “step down”. What he actually said was that “if I was in his [Assad's] shoes, I would step down”. Which is not quite the same thing. Far more important was that section of the interview – one of his best, by the way, and I’m not his majesty’s fan – in which he said that if Assad stepped down, only to be replaced by the same “system” (ie the Baath party), the problem would not be ended. Too true. And running alongside King Abdullah’s words, I thought, was the faint hope that perhaps Assad could still take the initiative and honour all his fine words (new constitution, political pluralism, real democracy, etc). Certainly, the West’s pompous predictions of Assad’s imminent demise – based more on YouTube than the reality on the ground – are hopelessly optimistic. True, there are deserters from the Syrian army. But you don’t win revolutions with Kalashnikov AK-47s. Only the desertion of a tank unit or two plus generals – Libya-style – could have any chance of that. And so far, there is none. Assad is not Gaddafi.
Furthermore, Russia’s military support is not going to end. Only nine days after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria, the joint director-general of the federal Russian service of military cooperation, Viatcheslav Djirkaln, said that there would be “no restrictions at all on arms deliveries to Syria”. The Russians talk, of course, of “contractual obligations”.
Nor is that surprising. The truth is that Russia was once Libya’s only arms supplier; it was selling combat jets, frigates, tanks and anti-aircraft systems to Colonel Gaddafi after the West’s 1974 arms embargo and had 3,500 advisers in the country. Its ships could refuel at the Tripoli naval base. Now it is associated with the dead and hated regime. Russia was 73rd on the list of nations to recognise the Libyan National Transitional Council.
So now the Syrian city of Tartous contains the only 24-hour port open to the Russian navy in the Mediterranean. Without Tartous, every Russian naval vessel in the sea would have to return through the Bosphorous to Odessa for every nut, screw and cigarette packet it needs. Friends, as they say, need each other.
Does the Arab League’s threat of suspension really matter? I suspect not – but clearly the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem thinks very differently. He said that the league had taken “an extremely dangerous step” in threatening Syria and that US support for the league’s decision was “incitement”. Armour had already left Syrian cities, prisoners were being released, armed insurgents were being offered an amnesty. YouTube bounced back with video of a Russian-made armoured vehicle firing thousands of rounds down a Homs street and a photograph of a half-naked murdered Syrian, hands tied behind his back, lying in a Homs street. But murdered by whom?
One thing is now clear. Quite apart from the massive civilian casualties, even opponents of the regime now admit that Assad faces an armed insurgency. This may originally have been a myth promoted by the regime, but the monster has now been born. Anti-Assad activists now openly speak of “armed insurgents”. Sixteen civilians were killed in Deraa three days ago. But 15 soldiers were killed on the same day in the same city. Who killed them? That’s what we need to know.
Syrian army defectors attack military facilities
Thursday, November 17, 2011
By Liz Sly, The Washington Post
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Soldiers who have defected from the Syrian security forces attacked military facilities in several locations around Damascus overnight in what appears to be the boldest attacks yet by the fledgling Free Syrian Army.
The strikes came as diplomatic pressure ratcheted up on Syria, which is facing growing regional and international censure for its failure to end an 8-month-old crackdown against protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.
France announced Wednesday that it was recalling its ambassador from Damascus, becoming the first European Union nation to do so.
Arab League foreign ministers were meeting Wednesday in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, to formally suspend Syria’s membership and discuss other punitive measures against Mr. Assad’s government.
Reports from Damascus cited by Arabic news channels said Assad supporters had attacked the embassies of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to protest the Arab League decision. Pro-Assad crowds also lashed out recently at the Turkish embassy in Damascus and the Turkish consulates in Lattakia and Aleppo.
The attacks on military facilities by anti-Assad forces overnight Tuesday were claimed in a Facebook posting by the Free Syrian Army, which says it is comprised of deserters from the regular army.
“The Free Syrian Army carried out special operations in all Damascus areas to foil a plan being prepared by the regime against our people and to send a message to the regime that the Free Syrian Army can hit anywhere and anytime,” the Facebook posting said.
In the biggest operation, the rebels said they attacked an Air Force Intelligence headquarters compound in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. They also engaged loyalist soldiers and militias at three other locations on the outskirts of Damascus, the statement said.
The Facebook posting said the defectors had inflicted “many casualties” on government forces, but offered no details and could not be independently confirmed. The Associated Press quoted an unnamed opposition figure as saying the attack included a three-pronged assault on the air force intelligence compound, involving automatic rifles and rocket propelled grenades.
An area resident contacted by phone said she heard the sounds of distant explosions in the middle of the night, and that friends who live closer to the compound reported a 90-minute gunbattle starting around 2 am. “It was a very major attack,” she said.
Rami Abdelrahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said he had talked to other area residents, however, who reported that the only damage to the compound appeared to be some broken glass. “They fired some rpgs [rocket-propelled grenades] at the windows, and then they ran away,” he said.
The attacks nevertheless suggested that the Free Syrian Army, which announced its existence in July via YouTube video, is starting to gain enough momentum to target detested Assad facilities. Activists say the widely feared Air Force Intelligence branch is responsible for much of the brutality meted out in the area in recent months, including the torture and killing of protesters.
Plea to the West: Syria needs Libya-style intervention
Arab diplomat’s call comes as Syrian army defectors attack military base
As violence in Syria intensifies with an attack by anti-government forces on an air defence intelligence complex near Damascus, a senior Arab diplomat in London says Middle Eastern states opposing the Syrian government need West European leadership similar to that seen in the Libyan war.
He said that what was needed was “a team captain” to co-ordinate moves to put pressure on Syria, and only the Europeans could do this. The US is preoccupied by domestic politics and “in the Middle East everybody is driven by ego. How can you have a regional policy when they [local rulers] can’t talk to each other?”
The diplomat added that a crucial turning point would come in Syria if the anti-government forces succeeded in establishing an independent enclave like Benghazi in Libya. He thought this was more likely to happen in the north on the Turkish border rather than around Deraa, north of the Jordanian frontier, where the protests began. The existence of such an enclave would raise the possibility of setting up a no-fly zone.
The crisis has reached a crucial stage inside and outside Syria. Inside the country, the Syrian opposition claim that fighting has escalated with 71 people killed on Monday, including 34 government soldiers and that army defectors using automatic rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers attacked an air force intelligence base near Damascus yesterday. The attack on the Harasta facility is the first such reported assault on a major security facility in the eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which purports to be a band of army deserters set on ending President Assad’s rule. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ammar al-Wawi, a commander in the FSA, said: “Our only goal is to liberate Syria from Bashar Assad’s regime. To put it simply, we carry out military operations against anyone who targets the peaceful protesters.”
Their claims cannot be independently verified because the government has excluded most foreign journalists.
President Assad is increasingly isolated as the 22-member Arab League yesterday confirmed the suspension of Syria from the organization and gave its government three days to halt the violence and accept an observer mission or face economic sanctions.
The protocol agreed upon yesterday calls for an observer mission of 30-50 members under the auspices of the Arab League to ensure that Syria is following the Arab plan, an end to attacks on protesters, pull tanks and armoured vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners, and allow journalists and rights groups into the country.
The extent of Syria’s isolation is underlined by the presence at the meeting of the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for a meeting on Arab-Turkish ties. He said: “We denounce the mass murder of the Syrian people. It is all of our responsibility to end the bloodshed in Syria.”
Of Syria’s neighbours, Turkey is the one best placed to move decisively against the government in Damascus. It could declare a wide buffer zone on the Turkish-Syrian frontier which would become an enclave for the opposition.
In another move last night France withdrew its ambassador. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said: “The vice is tightening” around the Syrian regime. Middle East leaders are concluding that President Assad cannot survive for, at most, more than a year or two because the loyal units in his army will be worn down by constant use in suppressing protests.
But the difficulty facing Middle East states eager to see the end of the Baathist government in Damascus is that the Syrian opposition is disunited and different groups are of uncertain strength.
Despite this, there is a growing consensus – that may prove self-fulfilling – among states in the Middle East that the regime will be overthrown. The support of Russia and China may prove to be largely rhetorical and Iranian leaders have shifted away from publicly claiming that the survival of Iran depends on the present Syrian government staying in power.
The Arab Intellectuals Who Didn’t Roar
By ROBERT F. WORTH
Published: October 29, 2011
IN mid-June, the Syrian poet known as Adonis, one of the Arab world’s most renowned literary figures, addressed an open letter to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The stage was set for one of those moments, familiar from revolutions past, in which an intellectual hero confronts an oppressive ruler and eloquently voices the grievances of a nation.
Instead, Adonis — who lives in exile in France — bitterly disappointed many Syrians. His letter offered some criticisms, but also denigrated the protest movement that had roiled the country since March, and failed even to acknowledge the brutal crackdown that had left hundreds of Syrians dead. In retrospect, the incident has come to illustrate the remarkable gulf between the Arab world’s established intellectuals — many of them, like Adonis, former radicals — and the largely anonymous young people who have led the protests of the Arab Spring.
More than 10 months after it started with the suicide of a Tunisian fruit vendor, the great wave of insurrection across the Arab world has toppled three autocrats and led last week in Tunisia to an election that many hailed as the dawn of a new era. It has not yielded any clear political or economic project, or any intellectual standard-bearers of the kind who shaped almost every modern revolution from 1776 onward. In those revolts, thinkers or ideologues — from Thomas Paine to Lenin to Mao to Vaclav Havel — helped provide a unifying vision or became symbols of a people’s aspirations.
The absence of such figures in the Arab Spring is partly a measure of the pressures Arab intellectuals have lived under in recent decades, trapped between brutal state repression on one side and stifling Islamic orthodoxy on the other. Many were co-opted by their governments (or Persian Gulf oil money) or forced into exile, where they lost touch with the lived reality of their societies. Those who remained have often applauded the revolts of the past year and even marched along with the crowds. But they have not led them, and often appeared stunned and confused by a movement they failed to predict.
The lack of such leaders may also be the hallmark of a largely post-ideological era in which far less need is felt for unifying doctrines or the grandiose figures who provide them. The role of the intellectual may be shrinking into that of the micro-blogger or street organizer. To some, that is just fine. “I don’t think there is a need for intellectuals to spearhead any revolution,” says Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-born poet and novelist who has written extensively on the Arab Spring and now teaches at New York University. “It is no longer a movement to be led by heroes.”
That belief may soon be tested. As revolts continue in Syria, their leaderless quality — so useful in deterring crackdowns by the secret police — has become a liability. Organizers in and out of the country are now struggling to shape a set of shared political goals, and intellectual coherence and leadership is increasingly seen as important in that process. “No one wants to be accused of hijacking the revolution,” says Sadik Jalal al-Azm, a Syrian philosopher and advocate of greater civic freedoms. “This excessive fear is becoming a hindrance.”
To some extent, the intellectual silence of the current uprising is a deliberate response to the hollow revolutionary rhetoric of previous generations. The Arab nationalist movement began in the 1930s and ’40s with idealistic young men who hoped to lead the region out of its colonial past, backwardness and tribalism. The Syrian political philosopher Michel Aflaq and other young writers and activists found inspiration in 19th-century German theories of nationalism, and envisioned their Baath Party as an instrument for modernization and economic justice.
But the party and its misty ideas were soon hijacked and distilled into slogans by military officers in Syria and Iraq, whose “revolutionary” leadership was really just the old tribalism and autocracy in a different guise. In Egypt too, Arab socialism soon became little more than a pretext for dictatorship and reckless policies at home and abroad. Arab nationalism reached its zenith — or its nadir — in Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who saw himself as a godlike intellectual, publishing his own fiction and imposing his delusional Third Universal Theory on Libya’s hapless people. Everything in Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya was styled “revolutionary.” When the rebels overthrew his government this year, they found it difficult to separate the names of their own revolutionary councils from the ones they were overthrowing.
The protesters who led the Arab Spring had grown tired of the stale internationalist rhetoric of their forebears, which had achieved little for the Palestinians and had deepened the divisions among Arab states rather than unifying them. They wanted to focus instead on the failures of their own societies. “Previously, everything was reduced to the exterior: are you pro- or anti-American, what is the role of Israel, and so on,” says Hazem Saghieh, the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper Al Hayat. “This revolution is entirely different.”
The shift in emphasis to civil rights and democracy at home did not come out of the blue. Some Arab intellectuals began speaking this language long ago, including Mr. Azm, the Syrian philosopher, who after the humiliation of the 1967 war with Israel published a groundbreaking book called “Self-Criticism After the Defeat.” Others followed suit gradually, and during the short-lived “Damascus Spring” a decade ago, Syrian intellectuals signed the Declaration of the 99, a call for greater civil rights and openness. Many were jailed afterward. The bravery and persistence of these intellectuals — and others like them in Egypt — may have quietly prepared the ground for the uprisings this year.
But in recent years their voices often went unheard, because their secular language had little resonance in societies where political Islam was becoming a dominant force. Nor did Islamic reformers fare much better when they tried to cast their political critique in religious terms. The Egyptian scholar Hassan Hanafi, for instance, in the 1980s began calling for the creation of an “Islamic Left,” a socialist ideology rooted in religion. He was branded a heretic and had to seek police protection after receiving death threats from jihadists. His work gained an audience in Indonesia, but not in his own country, said Carool Kersten, a lecturer at King’s College London who has written on Islamic reformers.
Not all Arab intellectuals fell into these traps. Alaa al-Aswany, the Egyptian novelist, became a fierce critic of the government of Hosni Mubarak in recent years, protected from arrest by his celebrity. He was among the first writers to speak to the protesting crowds in Tahrir Square in January, and in March, he delivered a punishing performance during a televised debate with Ahmed Shafiq, the prime minister appointed by Mr. Mubarak. The following day Egypt’s ruling military council fired Mr. Shafiq, and many credit Mr. Aswany with the achievement.
But Mr. Aswany made clear from the first that his only real goal was to serve as a bullhorn for the demands of the protesters in Tahrir Square. He offered no ideas of his own.
Inevitably, and perhaps unfairly, the current Arab tumult has been compared with the uprising against Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the last great social upheaval of comparable scale. Intellectuals played a much more prominent role in those movements. In Poland, for instance, “the unification of intellectuals and labor unions was really important,” said Anne Applebaum, a columnist and the author of an authoritative book on the Soviet gulags. “They helped shape the movement and ran its publications. They facilitated conversations between various workers’ groups. They functioned like the Facebook page of their era.”
The dissident Czech playwright Vaclav Havel wrote an essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” that became a kind of blueprint for how to survive with dignity in a totalitarian country, and later emerged as a champion of his country’s Velvet Revolution.
It may be that the connecting role these figures played is less needed today. It may also be that the ideological platforms of earlier revolutions are obsolete, given the speed of communications and the churn of new perspectives. “It is too fluid, too fast-moving, too complex,” says Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It is too difficult to come up with a paradigm. People are looking for short pieces that illuminate some aspect of what they’re going through, not grand theories.”
Still, Mr. Harling added, among Syrian intellectuals, “none of them has articulated any kind of forward-looking political platform,” and that failure has contributed to anxieties about the protest movement’s direction.
To the extent that any ideas have arisen from the Arab Spring, they relate to the “Turkish model” — the often-heard hope that Turkey’s blend of mildly Islamist ideology and democratic governance can inspire similar success in Arab lands. But this analogy is a facile one, and may well yield disappointment in the months and years to come.
Turkey’s experience is hard to replicate, in part because the country has had the kind of thoroughgoing revolution against tradition that Arab intellectuals of the 20th century only talked about. Starting in the early 1920s, Turkey’s great autocrat, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, overhauled the country’s education system, bringing over the American reformer John Dewey to advise him. He abolished the caliphate and gutted the country’s legal system, instituting a strict separation of church and state. The first elections took place in 1946, and only after decades of struggle (and several coups d’état) did Turkey start earning applause for its democratic ways.
Without that punishing preparation, the Arab world’s new revolutionaries may end up repeating history, even if they do study it. Last week, amid the euphoria over Colonel Qaddafi’s death, a few skeptical voices could be heard in the din of triumphant Internet messages in Arabic.
“Let the killing of Qaddafi be a lesson to the revolutionaries as much as to the rulers,” one Arab Twitter user wrote. “And let revolutionaries everywhere remember that Qaddafi came to power by making his own revolution 40 years ago.”
In the Arab World, It’s the Past vs. the Future
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: November 26, 2011
IN 2001, a book came out about George Mitchell’s diplomatic work in Northern Ireland that was entitled “To Hell With the Future, Let’s Get On With the Past.” One hopes that such a book will never be written about today’s Arab awakenings. But watching events unfold out there makes it impossible not to ask: Will the past bury the future in the Arab world or will the future bury the past?
I am awed by the bravery of the Syrian and Egyptian youths trying to throw off the tyranny of the Assad family and the Egyptian military. The fact that they go into the streets — knowing they face security forces who will not hesitate to gun them down — speaks of the deep longing of young Arabs to be free of the regimes that have so long choked their voices and prevented them from realizing their full potential.
But I am deeply worried that the longer the fighting continues in Syria and Egypt, the less chance that any stable, democratizing order will emerge anytime soon and the more likely that Syria could disintegrate into civil war. You can’t exaggerate how dangerous that would be. When Tunisia was convulsed by revolution, it imploded. When Egypt was convulsed by revolution, it imploded. When Libya was convulsed by revolution, it imploded. If Syria is convulsed by revolution, it will not implode. Most Arab states implode. Syria explodes.
Why? Because Syria is the keystone of the Levant. It borders and balances a variety of states, sects and ethnic groups. If civil war erupts there, every one of Syria’s neighbors will cultivate, and be cultivated by, different Syrian factions — Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Druse, Christians, pro-Iranians, pro-Hezbollahites, pro-Palestinians, pro-Saudis — in order to try to tilt Syria in their direction. Turkey, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Iraq, Iran, Hamas, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel all have vital interests in who rules in Damascus, and they will all find ways to partner with proxies inside Syria to shape events there. It will become a big Lebanon-like brawl.
Syria needs a peaceful democratic transition set in motion now. Ditto Egypt. But that is easier said than done. Events in both countries are a reminder of the multidimensional struggle for power across the Middle East — what I once described as the struggle between “The Lexus and the Olive Tree.”
On one level, you have the very modern, deeply felt and truly authentic longing by Syrians and Egyptians for freedom, for the skills to thrive in modernity and for the rights of real citizens.
Outsiders often underestimate just how much these Arab youths are determined to limit the powers of their militaries as a necessary step for achieving true democracy. What you see in Egypt today are young people from across the political spectrum and classes who are willing to join forces, break ranks with their own parties and return to Tahrir Square to press for real freedom. This is a generational rupture. It is the old versus the young. It is the insiders (the adults) versus the outsiders (the youth). It is the privileged old guard versus the disadvantaged young guard. These young Egyptians, and Syrians, who have stopped fearing their military masters, are determined to unleash a true transformation in their world. We should be on their side.
But the weight of their history is so heavy. The new Lexus-like values of “democracy,” “free elections,” “citizen rights” and “modernity” will have to compete with some very old Olive Tree ideas and passions. These include the age-old civil wars within Islam between Sunnis and Shiites, over who should dominate the faith, the heated struggle between Salafists and modernists over whether the 21st century should be embraced or rejected, as well as the ancient tribal and regional struggles playing out within each of these societies. Last, but not least, you have the struggle between the entrenched military/crony elites and the masses. These struggles from the “past” always threaten to rise up, consume any new movement for change and bury “the future.”
This is the grand drama now being played out in the Arab world — the deeply sincere youth-led quest for liberty and the deeply rooted quests for sectarian, factional, class and tribal advantage. One day it looks as though the revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia are going to be hijacked by forces and passions from the past while the next day that longing of young people to be free and modern pushes them back.
The same drama played out in Iraq, but there the process was managed, at a huge cost, by an American midwife — managed enough so that the communities were able to write a new, rudimentary social contract on how to live together and, thereby, give the future a chance to bury the past. But we still do not know how it will end in Iraq.
We know, though, that there will be no impartial outside midwife to guide the transitions in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Can they each make it without one? Only if they develop their own Nelson Mandelas — unique civic leaders or coalitions who can honor the past, and contain its volcanic urges, but not let it bury the future.