Arabia’s Temple of Dreams and the World’s Horrifying Nightmares.
“Hey, you, the unfair tyrants… You the lovers of the darkness… You the enemies of life…
You’ve made fun of innocent people’s wounds,
and your palm covered with their blood.
You kept walking while you were deforming the charm of existence,
and growing seeds of sadness in their land.
Wait, don’t let the spring, the clearness of the sky, and the shine of the morning light fool you… Because the darkness, the thunder rumble, and the blowing of the wind are coming toward you from the horizon.
Beware because there is a fire underneath the ash Who grows thorns will reap wounds
You’ve taken off heads of people and the flowers of hope,
and watered the cure of the sand with blood and tears until it was drunk.
The blood’s river will sweep you away and you will be burned by the fiery storm”
Abu al-Qassem al-Shabbi (1909 - 1934)
I wish I could tell al-Shabbi how many times I have read his poem in the preceding decade, how inspiring his words were at the turn of every major event in the Arab homeland he wished to see free from tyranny. I wish I could tell him how right he was and how wrong he turned out to be. The era he wrote his poems is worthy of our attention. An era when Arabs, for the first time, looked courageously in the mirror and realized they are a nation deserving of respect and sovereignty. A nation with legitimate claims to a greater Arab homeland free from Ottoman and European domination. Would he have thought, that nearly a decade later, Arab tyranny would welcome invaders from all edges of the universe with open arms? That it will be easier for millions of Arabs to leave their lands than for tyrants to leave their thrones? The blood’s river caused a flooding of biblical proportions, but tyrants and imperialists somehow crept into Noah’s ark; it was far easier for us Arabs to leave for Europe, Turkey, or even heaven than to make them leave.
Why has our civilization failed in achieving democracy? I am still battling with this question today, and throughout the preceding decade I pointed my index (and middle) finger to imperialists, dictators, Islamists, and even at moments of desperation and sorrow, I deemed Arab and/or Islamic societies as simply incompatible with democracy. For how often Arabs told me “we Arabs are undeserving, we can only live under a Saddam” in a magnificent display of defeatism and self-orientalizing narrative. Observers should understand that the Arab spring, far from being a simple demand for democracy, strikes the heart of this civilization’s confidence and esteem, a civilization that has become so accustomed to losses and failures. After a long decade of thinking and studying, I owe the martyrs, displaced, raped, and brutalized a fair explanation of why we failed. This is the subject of the article where I will try to brush-off tears and blood from my words for the sake of justice to those same tears and blood.
Today, a great deal of political and historical changes affects the lack of democracy in the region. But perhaps the most impactful development is the shift from prioritizing ideologies to geopolitics in the decision-making of leaders. Far from advocating a post-ideological world, I believe the rise of one ideology to world dominance and the marginalization of others has given many observers that false impression and some even thought that history has ended. But the fact is, finally, the whole world kneeled before the greater Satan of neo-liberal capitalism when the cold war was over, so it wastime to change humanity’s reasons to fight wars. Contemporary wars in the neo-liberal paradigm, I argue, reflect strategic and geopolitical -rather than ideological- motives.
It has become very disturbing for Arabs to see ideologues (liberals, conservatives, feminists, socialists) pulling the bed sheet to their side to comfort their one-size-fits-all world views which claim that the “Arab spring is about liberty” - simply change the last word of that statement in accordance with your ideology. But where is ideology today? Ants have louder voices than the advocates of ideologies, political Islam has experienced its biggest defeat they thought would never happen, secular Arab nationalists embrace Iran’s Islamic Republic and many Arab monarchs who always bothered everyone with their strict and conservative Islam rushed to make peace with Israel. Which world view is arrogant enough to claim to have a model that explains those odd and ideologically inconsistent shifts? Neither accounts of ideologies that see the world after their own image, which prevail in the public consciousness with regards to the Arab Spring, nor the good old unitary explanation for anything that happens in that region advocated by the intellectually challenged, oil. To subjugate the failure of establishing democracies in the Arab world to ideologies or oil is to reduce the reasons of WWII to the rise of the Nazis and Hitler’s hatred of the Jews. Nay, this article argues that geopolitics -not only ideology and oil- offers the most promising insight to explain why Arab democracy failed to crystalize.
Ever since they were founded, Arab states were divided between republics backed by Soviets and monarchs backed by the West. When the socialist bloc collapsed republics moved to reconcile their relationship with the West and refusal meant isolation or even gallows – as with Saddam. This was a single moment when republican dictators began expressing concerns over legitimizing their rule in the eyes of their people. Formerly, ideological motives served that purpose (Arab nationalism, the struggle against Israel, and anti-imperialism). Arabs tolerated economic misery and lack of political liberty so long as ideological promises were upheld. When ideology crumbled, Arab dictators were faced with two bitter alternatives of creating economic prosperity and loosening the grip on political liberty. This proved disastrous as the social contract vanished in thin air.
Arabs asked themselves why should we tolerate tyrants who won’t fight Israel anymore, won’t achieve economic prosperity, and won’t permit political liberties? Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power in the year 2000 is a great example of attempting to reconcile with the West culminating in Chirac’s offer to Bashar, during his father’s funeral, to be the mentor of the young leader in order to start a new page in history between Syria and the West and ignore former hostilities. What followed was a wave of economic liberalization throughout the region which was regarded as the cure of economic ills, but the reality proved otherwise. With deteriorating economies came an increased level of authoritarianism as fear grew among dictators prompting Qaddafi to proclaim after Saddam’s execution that “tomorrow it’s our turn”. My conclusion is that since growing discontent among Arabs was the elephant in the room the Arab spring surprised no tyrant, Islamist or imperialist. While Arab masses could not have been prepared well for the future, pretty much all states understood that this day was coming.
What was the strategy of all other parties? Regionally, Arab dictators worked on improving the relationship with their allies in the Arab world and ending old hostilities. Globally, Arab dictators worked on finding a position for themselves in the structures of power that would offer them protection against their own people. The strategy did not work for everyone (Qaddafi, Mubarak, Bin Ali) but the geopolitical promises they made outlived them. A post-Mubarak Egypt, for example, did little to alter Cairo’s importance for the West and Gulf countries as a friend of Israel and as an ally against Iranian expansionism. It is the geopolitical interests of this sort that nurtured the counterrevolution of military juntas under Sisi to overthrow the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi in Egypt. The Saudis who screamed the loudest in favour of the Arab spring orchestrated the counterrevolution when the outcome damaged their geopolitical interests. Israel, who cautiously observed the Spring, hoped to harvest peace deals from new Arab governments. To the shock of all states, Arabs who supported the Spring stood firmly behind the Palestinian cause and perhaps more firmly than ever before. The pro-Palestine stance was reflected in the words of Morsi condemning the Israeli aggression on Gaza: “Egypt today is not the Egypt of the past, Arabs today are not the Arabs of the past, Muslims today are not the Muslims of the past” despite the countless shortcomings of the Muslim Brotherhood. A new Egypt, Arab homeland, and Muslim nation became threatening to the level of inciting the Saudis and Israelis to recreate the past and restore the glory of military dictatorships whom they can make deals with on degrading and unequal grounds.
Nowhere did shifting geopolitical priorities of regional and global actors seem more apparent than everyone’s favourite war on terror, which often satisfy Western fantasies. During the peak of the Arab Spring, new governments called for Arab and Islamic cooperation to rid the region of remaining tyrants. The most likely candidate was the butcher of Damascus, whose government impressed the West with their security service and interrogation techniques used to hunt down Islamic terrorists. Syria’s prisons were packed with Jihadi veterans of the Afghan and Iraqi war with the US. Bashar’s generous reforms implemented to deal with the crisis entailed releasing political prisoners, which effectively magnified the power of Jihadists to form Daesh. This magic trick, which worked on everyone, is not unusual for Arab regimes who dare tell the whole world “You want me out? Here is a nicer alternative”. The noble world that took an ideological stance to support democracy in the region swiftly changed its priorities to fighting terrorism. With a memory shorter than that of a mosquito, the international community forgot that Arab governments killed and terrorized far more than any other militant group - Islamist or not. This has enhanced the legitimacy of dictators, who became everyone’s beloved anti-terrorist heroes in the eyes of states, at the cost of Arabs. Counterrevolutionary governments, of which Sisi’s is the godfather of them all, began talking about Syria, Iraq, and Libya with the language of the war on terror barely ever mentioning the role of their corrupt governments. Surely, to the expectations of my readers, the rise of Trump in the US only reinforced this narrative claiming Sisi to be his “favourite dictator”.
The power of geopolitics seems further evident when we consider Iran’s position from the Arab Spring. Initially, to the surprise of many readers perhaps, Iran stood behind the Arab Spring hoping to undermine their Saudi, Egyptian and Israeli rivals. When the fire of the Arab Spring and its inherent uncertainty reached the gates of Damascus, Iran toned-down its Islamist ideology and its support for the Arab spring and began championing their secular ally Bashar with weapons, militias, and resources. Iran’s geopolitical approach reminds me of the basic Syrian saying, “if the breeze coming from the window gets too cold, close the window”. Iran was enjoying the breeze of the Arab spring so long as it did not get too cold for Bashar in Damascus. I wonder what would have happened if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt offered a favourable geopolitical strategy to the Saudis and Israelis?
In countries where geopolitical configurations are not settled chaos reigns until this very day. This is where the Tripolis of Libya and Lebanon seem even more similar. Every involved party with geopolitical stakes in the conflict is willing to further escalate than surrender to the other camp. That’s why the war in Libya is still waging. That’s why the seculars of Lebanon ran to the not-at-all-secular Saudis and the Shia Islamists of Lebanon gave their blessings to the archenemy of Islamism in Syria, Bashar.
In the middle of this chaos, the daring and adventurous policies of stable Arab states became less risky. The Emirati-Bahraini move to make peace with Israel was simply unfathomable a decade ago. The fact that citizens of those states are convinced that “Revolution? Nah, we don’t want to end up like Syria” constitutes a political orgasm to rulers, allowingthem greater freedom of political action at a lesser risk. The desire to counter Iran, the most hated of foe, brought a new geopolitical formation of the Saudi-Egyptian-Israeli camp with little Arab states like Emirates and Bahrain playing crucial roles in finance and mediation. Saudis adopted an aggressive foreign policy as the powers that one day challenged Iran, such as Saddam, are now history. What is going on in Yemen is a fine example of this new Saudi approach to politics. Seeking to counter Iran, the Saudi Iranian cold war turned Yemen’s Spring into a bloody Vietnam, but it is yet uncertain whose Vietnam Yemen will be although thus far the Saudis seem to be losing. America’s miserable roll back from the region fed into the Saudis’ frustration. Not to say that the rollback is not favourable for Arabs, but America’s position in the region is rather like a stab wound when the knife goes in it hurts and when the knife comes out it hurts.
Here the difference between the American and the Russian approach to the Middle East makes all the difference. Constantly swinging between Republicans and Democrats, American idealism is so detested in the region that America’s embrace of any movement or revolution amounts to a kiss of death. When American idealism pushed for the overthrow of Qaddafi at the hands of NATO, contrary to what has been agreed upon with the Russians, the US rendered itself further unpopularity forcing itself into an isolated corner outside of the Middle East. For the Russians however, losing Qaddafi an ally on the Mediterranean has made them more uncompromising, more suspicious, and more willing to back Assad because Syria is the last port they have where they can access warm Mediterranean water. Already in the 50s, Syria’s warm water was vital for the USSR’s military manoeuvres vis-à-vis the US which is why the USSR regarded Syria as their most important ally in the Arab world. Therefore, along with its importance for trade, Syria’s port in the city of Tartous remained of vital strategic interest to Russia reflecting a degree of consistency in their foreign policy. Consequently, Russia’s loss of Egypt to the West in Camp David during the late 70s and recently of Libya after Qaddafireinforced the strategic importance of Syria and made the gamble for Tartous worth everything. NATO’s approach to Libya, therefore, is as responsible for prolonging the Syrian civil war as Russia vetoing a military action against Assad at the security council meeting.
So what is really the conclusion from such developments? Arab people have not enjoyed any democracy because it is simply too costly geopolitically for Arab and non-Arab powers to allow it. Therefore, it is no longer a question of ideologies with their different brands but rather the geopolitical restructuring of the Arab world, a world that everyone wants to grab, shape, and control. This also explains why nationals in Arab spring countries have the least to say today about the destiny of their own homeland. If under Qaddafi Libyans better stay silent, today Libyans better leave the country altogether, so the irony that breaks the back of Arab civilization isn’t lost on me. Palestinians were displaced and Israel triumphed, the militaries that Arabs built turned their cannons on Arabs, what was one day a popular pan-Arab cause produced tyrants that kill Arabs, and today millions of Arabs suffer the reality Palestinians call everyday life. It seems the irony is, that in trying to make up for the loss of Palestine and the failure of pan-Arabism the entire Arab homeland became one big Palestine ruled by everyone but Arabs! When Arabs feel like strangers in their countries, foreign imperialists feel at home, leaving is often really the last option.
Not to forget the second wave of the Arab Spring, which restored hope to the hearts of millions of Arabs, when the spark came from Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan, and Iraq. The interesting thing that happened is that as state powers learned from the first wave and sought to accommodate the new wave by, for instance, securing a peace deal between Israel and Sudan, Arab masses also learned and chanted, as in the Lebanese revolution, “everyone means everyone!”. Arabs today realize how important their region is geopolitically and so long as there are military or civilian actors willing to sell off their country, any talk of democracy remains trivial.
In the middle of this chaos, nostalgia becomes a very natural outcome of such a miserable reality. Just as Iraqis forgot about Saddam’s sarin gas attacks when the US invaded, many Arabs idealize pre-Arab-spring times when their countries had nothing else but sovereignty at the very least. They tend to forget the wisdom of their grandfather, the Arab scholar of the 14th century Ibn Khaldun, who accurately proclaimed that “tyrants bring invaders”. The interesting anecdote is that Ibn Khaldun was Tunisian, born in the county where the flame of the Arab Spring sparked.
I have thought a lot about trying to end this article on a hopeful note and so far, it’s very challenging given the objectivity and honesty I owe our people and the readers. To be fair, historical changes of great magnitude cannot be determined or settled in ten years. What I have argued is that the Arab spring is not just about democracy but rather about the esteem of Arabs, about their place in the world among other nations, about the ushering of a new historical epoch that will be taught for centuries to come. In that sense, I understand the Arab Spring to be an ongoing process with unforeseen ramifications.The Arab spring is no less a significant historical reference point than the French Revolution, but we are still at a relatively early stage. After all, a decade after the French revolution, I am confident French revolutionaries and the world at large had no idea what this development will lead to in the coming centuries.
If I was an ideologue, I would have left you on a note urging the working class to unite, liberty lovers to join forces, Muslims to restore their glory etcetera. But I am not an ideologue, I am an Arab Spring veteran who belongs to that generation and who wishes to see his nation as first among equals in the world. So instead of empty rhetorics, I wish to recite a line from al-Shabbi’s absolutely stunning The Will To Live.
“If the people one day will to live,
Destiny will take their side.
The night will fade away,
And the chains will be broken.
Those who never were hugged by the passion of life,
Will evaporate in its air and disappear.
Those who don’t dare climb the mountains,
Are doomed to live forever in the holes.
Earth told me when I asked “oh mum do you hate humans?”;
I bless those with ambitions and dreams,
And curse those who don’t live in their times,
Those who insist on living cowardly in holes.
The sacred call of life is echoing loud,
In the holy temple of dreams,
Declaring in the entirety of the universe,
That ambition is the flame of life and the path to glory.
So if the souls one day will to live,
Destiny must take their side”