Sunday, February 4, 2007

Arabs and Democrats

Syria, writes Azmi Bishara, is currently the victim of a version of identity politics that betrays history as much as it does identity

If I were a political cartoonist I would be in the midst of an existential crisis. But while it seems impossible to condense the whys and wherefores of politicians and recent developments in anything less than a full scale portrait it might perhaps be possible in a comic strip. It would look something like this.

Frame one: Israeli spokesman follows the latest Israeli assault with a bubble over his head saying, "We hold Yasser Arafat responsible for the Tel Aviv bombing. Our intelligence information confirms that he wants to undermine the work of the new Palestinian government." To which are added a number of denouncements and threats.

Frame two: a vertical perspective of a random array of journalists and politicians who are obviously Arabs because of the kufiyas interspersed here and there. The bubble over their heads expresses their surprise and dismay. "But Arafat is dead!"

Frame three: the Israeli spokesman responds as though his mistake was to have offended the Arab sense of decorum. "I am so sorry. I mean the late Arafat," reads the bubble. He continues: "We hold the late Arafat fully responsible. We will take all necessary measures to stop him, including eliminating him if necessary."

The comic strip would at least illustrate just how readily Israel resorts to casting groundless blame in order to evade any accountability for its actions. When Arafat was alive Israel held him responsible for all Palestinian resistance operations, on which basis it claimed it had no "Palestinian partner" with which to negotiate. That was sufficient reason for it to send tanks rumbling through Palestinian territories at will. Today it proclaims that it "will not allow terrorists to sabotage peace efforts" and that it is "eagerly awaiting the return of the Palestinian leadership from London to resume negotiations".

From where did this sudden reserve come? What put the breaks on the bulldozers that only yesterday were knocking down the walls of Arafat's compound and levelling hundreds of homes elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza? What has muffled the threats to kill Arafat, and many others along with him, that Israel would routinely issue in the wake of every terrorist operation? Self interest of course. Israel now sees that it is in its own interests to negotiate with the Palestinians and Arabs -- in accordance, of course, with the form and logic it sets for negotiations on everything from normalisation to subjugation. Israel tailors its positions, like its propaganda, to suit its interests.

Israel, at the moment, sees it in its interest to blame Syria for the recent Tel Aviv bombing. Current international circumstances require that Syria be kept on the defensive, which entails adding another brushstroke or two to the caricature of a wild and unruly Syria under an unfettered president. Any journalist will tell you that adventurism is not in Syria's interest at the moment, but that is precisely the point of the painters of this image. The problem with Syria, they claim, resides not so much in the absence of "constitutional forms" as it does in its repeated acts that are against its own interests. Syria has no head for pragmatism; it kills even when killing is against its interests. In addition, Syria is a habitual liar. It harbours insidious designs in spite of its declared support for current Palestinian peace efforts. Oh, and of course, it supports terrorism in Iraq.

Israel and the US have little difficulty finding Arabs willing to assert such claims, not least because, rather than common interests, the Arabs have a plethora of conflicting ones. The refusal to recognise the existence of conflicting interests epitomises the way we lie to ourselves and others, which makes writing about current events a Sisyphean labour. This is a moral crisis, not a problem of lack of information or intelligence. Your rival on the nationalist and patriotic podium may well be someone who is selling out to the US and Israel behind the scenes in exchange for a leadership position or the promise of celebrity status on the new Middle East map. He may well know what Israel and the US have in mind and lie anyway, and he may now be an ardent advocate of democracy in spite of a long record of hostility to the idea.

Do not be surprised when the very party that has assured Syria that it will put its case to the Americans and Israelis turns round and vilifies Syria. It is as if the Arabs have entered a mediating contest the aim of which is to convince Syria to do anything -- relinquish its support for the resistance, enter into negotiations with Israel without conditions, accept Israel's refusal to negotiate with it unconditionally or otherwise -- anything at all in order to prove themselves useful in Washington. Even the Americans say friendly, or at least courteous, things to the Syrians in closed sessions, only to appear before the cameras with reports that they had to be tough with Syria and give it a stern warning.

For their part, the Syrians are still prey to the belief that it is what is said behind closed doors that counts and subsequent declarations to the public are for media consumption. They have yet to catch on to the fact that patterns of media consumption have changed and that words spoken in public carry weight. Statements to the press are now the key in determining true intentions. If Washington harboured a grain of positive feeling towards Syria, the seemingly endless train of American delegations would not be so reluctant to say a single positive word about Syria.

Nothing is hidden. Even the phases of the Palestinian-Israeli track have been set out loud and clear by Israel and the US. They have told us that to get the ball rolling they expect the Palestinians not only to restore calm but also to "eliminate the infrastructure of terrorism" and that the only possible solution is to create a Palestinian state on a patch of territory as a long term interim solution. As for the principles covering final status issues in any permanent settlement, these have all been spelled out and publicised in Bush's letter of guarantees to Sharon. And Washington has been just as explicit to Syria. Damascus has been told that it may neutralise Hizbullah but this will not be enough. Nor will it be enough for Damascus to fulfil the next set of demands. They have accused Syria of supporting the resistance loudly enough, even if they made a point of lightening their tone by affirming the Taif Accord. Everything is super clear. But, it is also clear that the party that is the object of all this clarity cannot see what has been made as plain as daylight because it is still reading the shadows and looking for reassurance in the inconsequential confidences whispered to it by individuals and states.

Who would believe that the Syrians did not know in advance that Omar Karami would resign? But then such hidden details, as we have said, are no longer important, which is why those who are inclined to believe it do not want to. Some have suggested recently that as long as Syria stands accused of meddling in every little detail of what goes on in Lebanon, why does it not meddle in big things? Then, they argue, at least there would be some "maestro" to orchestrate the actions of a Lebanese government mired in the chaos of knee-jerk reactions.

Even in the most established democracies there is something precarious when an executive that is presumed to have unified positions (as opposed to the legislature) cannot coordinate its reactions to events.

But while it is clear that Syria refuses to intervene in certain matters in Lebanon, this is now a minor detail. What is important is that when something bad happens in Lebanon Damascus must have masterminded it and when something positive occurs then it somehow slipped through in spite of Syria. This is the declared position of those who have decided they have it in for Syria, either because of the mistakes it committed in Lebanon or for the purpose of solidifying identity in Lebanon and/or reshaping the balance of power in Beirut to suit changes in the regional balance of power.

This is the current reality in Lebanon and it is pointless to deny it. And, as long as this is the case Syria has only two alternatives. Either it can stop making concessions, declare its intention to retain the positions it holds, bolster the current role of the government by organising it and promoting the opposition to the opposition. Or it can overhaul its entire strategy by altering its relationship with Lebanon through dialogue with both the Lebanese government and public. In my opinion the latter would support the trend to reform in Syria as well.

Any reform of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship requires that the Lebanese people agree to the kind of relationship they want with Syria. This clearly has to take priority and Damascus would be wise to take rapid and practical steps to promote a national consensus in Lebanon so that the question of the relationship between Syria does not disintegrate into power ploys between Lebanon's rival political camps. Lebanese society must agree on what is meant by brotherly relations with Syria after the implementation of the Taif Accord and it must agree on guarantees and conditions before entering into negotiations with Syria over the implementation of the provisions of Taif and the future of the Syrian- Lebanese relationship. Otherwise Lebanon will remain torn between several camps of opinion. One -- in effect many parties that have come together over a single common denominator -- calls for immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon with no assurances given to Syria other than its withdrawal being portrayed as ignominiously as possible. A second camp insists on an entirely different interpretation of Taif while a third supports Taif but prefers to remain neutral. Between these three camps there is plenty of room for international manoeuvrability.

Naturally, the US has its oar in the manoeuvring that is going on in Lebanon. In fact, for a moment one might have thought that Washington had lost its senses in its drive to neutralise Hizbullah. Suddenly, omnipotent America was showing the utmost flexibility in its desire to attune its agenda to that of the Lebanese opposition. Washington does not consider the disarming of Hizbullah a priority at present, White House officials have declared. Its current objective is Syria. Even the codicils "at present" and "current objective" are explicitly stated, assuring us that all is above board.

Syrians are completely baffled by the scale of the campaign against them. They know that the Americans are not so much concerned over Syria's presence in Lebanon as they are by Syria's political positions. Unfortunately for Damascus others have converged on the need to turn the heat up on Syria after Iraq and to hell with ideology, principles and the like.

In all events, as things stand perhaps it is better not to dwell too much on details that will only drive those with some remnant of feeling left into a deeper depression. Maybe we should take political commentary to a deeper layer, removing it from the current contradictions that prevent us from responding to and analysing positions with even a modicum of objectivity.

Over the past few days I have been honing the definition of a new term: anti-Levantinism. Now there is a concept for you. The phenomenon is certainly visible, and more pernicious than anti-Semitism, at least in the Fertile Crescent that stretches along the eastern board of the Mediterranean. Anti- Levantinism is not a form of racism, since it cannot be based on distinct ethnicities or races in the region. Nor is it a form of classism or an expression of a sectarian antagonism that arose from disputes over the interpretation of religious scripture. Nor does it have anything to do with policy in Damascus, since opinions vary considerably on that matter. Anti-Levantism is, in brief, hostility to an identity.

The antagonism of Israeli identity towards a Levantine or Arab identity is patent. Israel can live with any number of sectarian identities, but it cannot live with an Arab identity. A cursory glance at the Syrian-Lebanese-Jordanian-Palestinian borders is sufficient to realise how deep the wound is and how ridiculous national fanaticisms in this region are. Entire families are spread across the borders of the countries that once formed Greater Syria, to the extent that first degree cousins and even siblings, if they are still alive, have different nationalities. It was the Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up the Levant into what Arab nationalist rhetoric termed regional state entities, as distinct from the Pan- Arab state espoused by that ideology. But having come into existence, each of these regional state entities went about the business of forming its distinct identity, writing its separate history, creating its symbols and formative myths, establishing its national holidays and patriotic codes, one element of which nevertheless aspires to the Pan-Arab state.

Even if there were no political conflict with Syria, which also struggled to live with its new, narrower regional state identity, the shaping of local identities in neighbouring countries would inevitably trigger an internal conflict with its greater Levantine Arab identity. We are speaking about societies that, at the beginning of the last century, boasted of their Syrian identity or of being a part of Greater Syria, and that flaunted this identity in the face of the colonial powers as they defended the unity of their lands and expressed their aspirations for a Pan-Arab and, perhaps even democratic, nation.

At no stage in its formation did Syrian identity, which defined itself as Pan-Arab even though it reconciled itself to its borders under Hafez Al-Assad, harbour an animosity towards the nascent Jordanian, Palestinian and Lebanese identities. However, the shaping (or reshaping in the case of Lebanon) of the other identities entailed no small measure of conflict with their former Greater Syrian identity. This would account for the rise of antipathies towards Syria among intellectuals who were developing local patriotic codes and weakening the sense of brotherhood with Syria the more their national entities became established.

It is noteworthy that Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian intellectuals were more sympathetic towards Baghdad than Damascus, despite the fact the Iraqi regime was immeasurably more bloodthirsty and less democratic than the regime in Syria. True, not everything can be explained in terms of an historical equation that reduces the shaping of local identities and national and supranational allegiances to the straight- edge plied by a couple of French and British officers during WWI. However, it does shed light on a deep, obscure and, perhaps unconscious hostility at the level of identity.

The antipathy towards Syria cannot be chalked up to the receding nationalist tide that left Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein stranded. Nor can it be attributed to the ability of some to purchase intellectuals and media outlets, an ability that the Syrian regime simply does not have. An even weaker explanation is to be found in Syria's so called faults, as these are certainly no more grave, are probably less so, than those of most other regimes in the region. That is, if we can possibly agree on some criteria for assessing the gravity of faults to begin with. The problem has to be deeper and I would suggest it is to be found at the level of identity.

The Arabs of the Levant, or former Greater Syria, in all their diverse sectarian and regional identities, cannot make the transition to modernism, whether democratic or not, until they shed their petty chauvinisms. The death of the Levant will come when diversity turns to identity politics. If Arabism is to reconcile itself with the principles of freedom and democracy, it must first be reconciled to itself. Only then will it be possible to say that we are Arabs and democrats, in deed and not only in word, especially if that word is used in banners we brandish in the face of an adversary.