Friday, January 7, 2011

The Options Available When Faced With The Failure Of Arab Governments

By Raghida Dergham, New York
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 07/01/2011

The time has come to discuss the options available when faced with the failure of governments and opposition movements to place state and country ahead of the seat of power and to launch a serious brainstorming workshop to look into “what do we do?” What do we do about the fact that the political battlefield has shrunk into a power struggle between security forces loyal to governments and militias that reject governments and claim to be the better alternative? The majority of Arabs, despite their charged feelings and fleeting emotions, will not choose the rule of religious extremism in place of the military rule prevalent as a de facto situation in most Arab countries, no matter how upset and angry they might become at governments that frustrate their peoples on a daily basis. The Arab elite is scattered and divided, some of them employed, others facing difficulties, and some implementing the programs of the government or the opposition, because they in turn seek power. The gravest and most terrible insult lies in the claims made by such elites of solidarity with the people – especially those elites that seek government change through bloody, religious, sectarian or extremist opposition, or through an opposition that brings together all of those attributes. The time has come to expose such “elites” and to unleash the voices that believe in building, not in destroying. And this requires courage – the courage of elites that seek to play a constructive role, but are either afraid, or concerned about their personal interests, or too short-sighted, being content with watching the battle unfold between governments and oppositions movements, causing the collapse of states, the division of countries, secession or even the fragmentation of nations. This is certainly not exclusively a mere foreign plan or conspiracy against the Arabs, no matter how much foreign forces contribute to it. Indeed, those who are implementing this are Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern, and the responsibility they bear is no less than that of foreign forces. The Arab region has grown accustomed to waiting for the leader who will cause change. And it is perhaps time for a brainstorming workshop into the multiplicity of leadership, in the sense of ceasing to wait for a single individual and working on building the state. Of course, building state institutions represents the most prominent basis for state-building, yet today there is a dire need for an urgent diagnosis of what is happening in Arab countries, in terms of division, secession and fragmentation, in order to quickly set down “what to do?” scenarios. There is a dire need to diagnose what is happening to Christians in Arab countries, in light of the massacres in Alexandria and Iraq, and in light of Hezbollah’s successful assimilation of a Christian leadership in Lebanon called Michel Aoun. The government of former President Anwar Sadat and that of current President Hosni Mubarak have adopted the method of containing the Muslim Brotherhood by “outbidding” it in terms of religiosity and social extremism. The result of this has been the opposite and has taught them a difficult lesson. Sudan is on the verge of division, when its Christian South secedes from its North, which President Omar Al-Bashir wants purely Islamic and governed on the basis of Sharia law. And in the name of the seat of power, Yemen now threatens to return to secession, and perhaps in fact fragmentation, as long as the state and the opposition, of multiple identities, do not start to place the state ahead of power. As for Palestine, it is the victim of battles over the seat of power even before the state is created. What to do, then?

Leaders of the private sector in the Arab World have grown weary of politics, yet they acknowledge that their business would not run smoothly without good relations with the governments in the countries they work in. The same applies to the relations of some businessmen with the opposition in these countries, including extremist opposition movements at the religious or sectarian level, or opposition movements that have resorted to forming armed militias.

If referendums were held in Arab countries today, they would prove that the peoples of these countries want better governments but do not want authoritarian, blood-thirsty and extremist opposition movements, nor want to be governed by radical Islamists.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is for the Arabs a mere “outlet for venting” only when it comes to Israel. But when it comes to the quality of life in the said country, the majority of Arabs do not want Tehran’s model, but would prefer the models of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Istanbul and Beirut.

What happened in Alexandria and in Cairo is painful, because it has brought to the two cities Tehran’s social obscurantism, after Khomeini’s revolution caused the greatest setback for modernity in the Middle East and launched the competition of religious radicalism there. Alexandria now competes against Tehran in the field of hijab (Islamic veil) and niqab (face-veil), and the ancient city, famed for its openness and as a pioneer of culture and modernity, has turned into one that is on the path to decay, had it not been for the revival of that wonderful library – the Library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina) – under the leadership of an enlightened and visionary man, Doctor Ismail Serageldin. This library has come as a burst of light amidst this darkness, but it alone could not prevent the social drift towards disastrous sectarianism, which took shape in the church massacre a few days ago and which portends much worse if stern measures are not taken.

The Egyptian government did not distribute niqabs and hijabs among the women of Egypt, but it did not think deeply enough of the meaning of this phenomenon and of how to resolve it, so that it may not turn into religious extremism and sectarianism. It focused on taking security measures against extremism and terrorism, and forgot that the most important ally it had in this battle was moderation within the ranks of the people and of the elite, leading them both to distance themselves from moderation.

The government did not work on fostering and cultivating people’s spontaneous reluctance to accept extremism, so as for this to serve its interests and those of the state. It paid no heed to people’s fears of Islamists in power, and thus lost an important popular base which could have been – and could still be – its ally if the government were to repair what it has spoiled. The first thing it must acknowledge is that the people are no longer spontaneously on its side and that some of the elites have become far away from moderation, yet adding a “however”. Yet this part of the population does not want the alternative being offered by the Islamists, and wishes for an unusual surprise that would return the focus to country and state first.

The secession of Southern Sudan, expected after the referendum, coincides with the events in Egypt by chance, unless the massacre of Alexandria was a calculated response to the secession, which in turn represents a blow for Egypt. Indeed, Sudan, from Egypt’s point of view, has always been one of its zones of influence, and its division could be taken as yet another step on the path of dwarfing Egypt’s regional roles. This process of dwarfing began when Egypt eliminated itself from the strategic military equation with Israel through the Camp David Accords. Syria destroyed what remained of such an equation when it entered as a direct party and ally to the first Gulf War, which struck Iraq out of the strategic equation with Israel, placing the regime’s considerations ahead of what it had originally adopted as a pillar of the state and of its policy.

The battlefields of regional roles today lie primarily in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. Lebanon is currently at the forefront of such battles, including the battle of excluding Egypt and reducing its regional role. At the same time, the sovereignty of the state is truncated in Lebanon in the first place by a regional decision led by Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, in the language of weapons and under the slogan of “opposition” to the government. Yet the government too is responsible for having the powers of the state truncated, because it does not behave with the dignity and authority of the state, but rather positions itself in order to remain in power.

In Palestine, division, infighting and separation is taking place not for the sake of the “state”, which has yet to see the light of day, but for the sake of the seat of power. Hamas wants that seat, but the Palestinian people do not want an Islamist emirate and do not want to be the victims of the “resistance” of words rather than deeds, which uses them and offers them in sacrifice through decisions taken by Palestinian factions based in Syria and in Lebanon that implement Iranian goals at the expense of the Palestinian people.

Divisions in Israel, unlike Arab divisions, always remain within the framework of containment in the name of the state first, whatever happens. Thus, between competition and role distribution, the seat of power takes the backseat to the priority of the state.

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would have been able to save Iraq from war had he not placed the regime above and ahead of Iraq. Iraq today still sways to the winds of sectarianism and bloodlust, because of that malignant disease that is making men in the Arab region addicted to the seat of power even if it costs them country and state.

Sudan’s ever-repeated tragedy may bring it another kind of infighting after the secession – that of tribes in the South amongst themselves, as well as infighting deep in the North as well, clinging to power and money.

What to do, then?

The governments are the ones that can save country and state, if they truly awaken from their nightmare of clinging jealously to power and take as their allies the peoples and the elites, who long for reform, not for coup d’├ętats.

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