Saturday, January 22, 2011

Between Tunisia’s Uprising And Lebanon’s Tribunal

By Raghida Dergham from New York
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 21/01/2011
There is a precedent in common between the events of Tunisia and the events of Lebanon at the beginning of 2011: it is the precedent of accountability and of insistence on non-impunity. There is the precedent of a popular uprising of a new kind for the Arab World, taking in the Jasmine Revolution the form of toppling the tyrant and insisting on taking to court those who were essentially responsible for oppressing the Tunisian people. There is also the precedent set by the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, for which paid the price those who were the victims of political assassinations following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and his 22 companions six years ago: the precedent of the first UN tribunal launched this week from The Hague to hold accountable those responsible for political assassinations in an Arab country. Those achievements are not just Tunisian or Lebanese… they are a gift to the Arab World as a whole, where has always been assumed the inability to hold anyone accountable and to end impunity. And in spite of the tremendous difference between the beautiful secular Jasmine uprising in Tunisia and the hideous sectarian plague that threatens Lebanon today, one must remember how one million Lebanese headed to Beirut during the Cedar Revolution, setting aside their religious affiliation in demonstrations of a rare nature in the Arab World, devoid of weapons or blood. The UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is the reward for the million-man uprising during the Cedar Revolution, no matter how much those who oppose it seek to paint it as “an Israeli instrument”. If only they turn out to be right, those who believe that it was Israel that carried out the Hariri assassination! If only that were true, and justice comes to vindicate those who are convinced that Israel is responsible for this crime! For the sake of assertion, Israel’s crimes in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and even Dubai are political assassinations and certainly crimes against humanity and terrorist crimes alike. Israel’s tribunal is coming, no matter the extent to which it temporarily succeeds to bury Judge Richard Goldstone’s report within the folds of political skillfulness. Indeed, that report would represent the start of the future tribunal if Arab diplomacy successfully revives it at the international level. This is the phase of impunity and it is a valuable opportunity that can be made use of, if only Hezbollah would cease libeling international justice and considering it to be “a conspiracy against the Resistance”. Indeed, the international scene today is not one of political trade-offs, as has become the custom. That is because the justice system has found its way to the heart of politics, not the other way around. And that is something new which all players should take into consideration. What is also new is the transformation in the stances taken by some countries and in their policies, as well as the conclusion reached by the leaders of certain countries, which has led them to reconsider their foreign policies for domestic reasons and aspirations. US President Barack Obama is at the forefront of such a trend, a matter which deserves careful examination and sound analysis.

To begin with Tunisia, Barack Obama had no part to play in what took place there, nor did French President Nicolas Sarkozy have anything to do with that crucial historical event. The popular uprising in Tunisia is the ideal response to those who do not believe in the possibility of change from within. Is the matter in our hands or in those of others? That is the debate that has been going on for years between those who seek positive change in the Arab region. The events in Tunisia have brought an unprecedented response in the Arab region: change is in our hands.

In Iraq, such an opportunity was not available, although it would have been possible. We will never know because history and the events have outrun assumptions. Most Iraqis and Arabs believe that, had it not been for US military intervention, it would not have been possible to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In Iraq then change was in the hands of others, with some contribution from within.

Not so in Tunisia. The events of Tunisia remain the resounding bell that alerts the Arab people to what they hold in their hands. As long as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi remains within his borders and does not attempt any adventures in the Tunisian interior, and as long as the Jihadists and the masters of Islamic extremism are unable to breach the Jasmine Revolution, the events in Tunisia will develop into a guidebook for activating Arab resolve, trust and insistence on change being in our hands, and not necessarily in the hands of others.

Egypt will not be a second Tunisia. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government could return today to the policy-drafting table in order to take itself the initiative of change, in partnership with the people’s wishes, not on the basis of partnership with religious fanaticism in order to contain it. Perhaps the time has come for President Hosni Mubarak to appoint a Vice President and to clarify the features of what would come after him on the bases of a lucid democracy that respects people.

Jordan is not likely to witness change from within as has Tunisia, because this would flow directly in the interest of Israel, which has never made it a secret that what it really wants is for Jordan to be the “alternative homeland” of the Palestinians. Talk of the fever of the events in Tunisia spreading to every Arab country is thus superficial, irresponsible and emotional. Accountability, yes, but haphazard change is a very dangerous matter.

In Syria too, change should be in our hands, not in those of others. Any change taking place through Israeli military intervention meets with stern refusal, and would only be in the service of Israel, not of the Syrian people. Taking the initiative in Syria is also in the hands of the government, if it wishes to make things right. Economic openness will not alone be sufficient, regardless of the success of the media campaign in the language of “modernity”. The events in Tunisia have surprised everyone, and that is the lesson that must be learned.

Change has begun in Arab republics where the confrontation was taking place between the military institution and the institutions of Islamic extremism. The Arabian Gulf region has its own particular considerations, circumstances, challenges and threats, if it does not make things right and take radical measures of reform. Indeed, Iran launched the Khomeini Revolution in 1979 and dragged the Gulf countries with it into the darkness of terror and submission to religious extremism. The response from the Gulf region came in the form of a mixture between submission to religious extremism and unparalleled military entrenchment. But that is a different issue to be discussed later.

Today, the events in Tunisia bring to mind the events of the Khomeini Revolution, with one major difference. They bring it to mind in terms of the element of surprise and the ability for change from within. The difference is that the Tunisian movement is secular and aspires to integrate with the rest of the world, while that of Iran was religious and characterized by isolation from the world.

When college students in Iran succeeded in igniting the revolution and taking part in it, the Mullahs came immediately to take control of the revolution and to exclude the students and even repress them. There remained only revolutionaries the likes of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The revolution was contained at the hands of new tyrants.

So far, Tunisia does not seem to be headed in such a direction. What poses the greatest threat to it today is the development of democratic chaos, or chaotic democracy, to the extent of making people yearn for tyrants. Former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was a tyrant, but he was also the man who protected Tunisia from Jihadists and from Islamic extremism, as well as from Al-Qaeda and its derivates. This is why the events in Tunisia today do not represent an Islamic coup d’état against the regime, but rather a popular coup d’état against a tyrant. That is an important distinction that must be carefully considered.

Accountability in Sudan has taken a completely different turn. Southern Sudan has held Omar Al-Bashir’s government accountable both from within and from without. Indeed, had it not been for “the hands of others”, embodied in the activity of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), as well as in the United States entering as a direct party, the Southerners would probably have not been able to obtain secession by way of the referendum, no matter how hard they might have tried. Sudan is perhaps an example of change from within and without, by way of a strategy that took into account the roles played by NGOs. And what contributed to forcing Bashir to submit to the secession of Sudan was international justice. Indeed, had not the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched the process of non-impunity for the massacres perpetrated in Darfur and later issued arrest warrants for the Sudanese President, the latter would not have submitted to change, which is so far taking shape in the secession of the South from the North.

Sudan today is a success story for Barack Obama, despite the fact that he did not start or formulate the process, but in fact inherited it from the George W. Bush Administration. China has always been a quiet party in the issue of Sudan. It ensured its massive oil interests in Sudan, and agreed to change. When the language of oil and strategic interests met with domestic politics, the event took place in Sudan.

Barack Obama’s most likely success story is Palestine, but it is a complicated issue likely to meet with obstacles, and this is a man who has begun to make his calculations differently ever since he received a major blow during the midterm elections. This is a man who wants to remain in power, and has begun to reconsider his foreign policy, most prominently with regard to Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

For Iran, this is the year of accountability. Barack Obama’s policy, relying on shared responsibility with China and Russia over the Iranian issue and on partnership with the likes of India in strengthening sanctions, is a skillful one. Indeed, as long as Iran continues to be defiant and to take matters too far, it is providing all the ammunition needed for future measures to be taken, measures that may not exclude on the long term internationally sanctioned military operations. Barack Obama has decided to give his reelection priority, and laxity with Iran and Syria without anything in return has become a fundamental obstacle.

Lebanon today has become a success in the making for Barack Obama, through the UN Security Council and partnership with Russia and China, because Lebanon, with the STL now activated, has become an international and regional work in progress. Indeed, the Security Council today holds both the problem and the solution, and it will not be able to ignore the threats and menaces made by Hezbollah, with Iran behind it, nor the atte mpts by Syria to leap over justice by threatening with instability.

The space within which the Security Council tolerates political maneuvers has become reduced now that the STL has begun its judicial work. The Security Council today finds itself forced to act with shared responsibility, having adopted the resolution of stripping militias of their weapons and of establishing the rule of the state alone over the country, and being responsible for defending these resolutions in the face of challenges.

As for Barack Obama, Lebanon has for him become a success story in the making, or a story of failure in the making. And the main reason for this is: that the tribunal has begun.

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