For Syria’s armed opposition, business has become the key to survival. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean fighting Assad.
BY MALIK AL-ABDEH | NOVEMBER 21, 2013
The rebels in Syria have put in considerable effort to toppling President Bashar al-Assad, capturing several northern towns and cities and laying claim to some of the richest provinces in the country. Now they’re in trouble. When President Obama decided to relieve Assad of his chemical weapons rather than topple him, it confirmed to the anti-government fighters what they had always suspected: that the corrupt and ineffective Syrian opposition-in-exile has failed to lobby for military intervention; that the West favors a weakened, “secular” Alawite regime over a radical Sunni one; and that the rebels have become cannon fodder in a regional power struggle over which they have little control.
To overcome their declining fortunes, the rebels have re-tooled their strategy. Their solution has been to place a priority on consolidating the territory they hold and establishing financing networks that will reduce their reliance on fickle overseas backers. The consequence of this strategic shift is what some Syria-watchers have called a “Darwinian shake-down”: small groups have coalesced around larger ones to create “families” of brigades, each with their own identity, organizational hierarchy, and sources of funding. There are now five principal rebel families: theIslamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and what remains of the Free Syrian Army. Each of these “families” is competing with the others for oil, wheat, and cross-border trade — assets that are now viewed as the key to long-term survival.
The fate of the Farouk Brigades offers a case study of the forces at work. Once a much-vauntedgroup that received generous arms deliveries from Turkey, the Farouk Brigades was, at one point, the lynchpin of the West’s effort to build a “moderate” opposition. Instead of making the necessary alliances needed to carve out their own fiefdom in resource-rich areas, Farouk’s forces embarked on a disastrous war with two powerful families: Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The war ended with Farouk’s expulsion from oil- and grain-rich Raqqa province; it also lost control over the vital border crossing at Tal Abyad that its fighters had liberated in September 2012. Confined to resource-poor and heavily contested Homs province, it failed to draw smaller groups into its orbit and grew progressively weaker, eventually splintering into bickering factions of a few hundred fighters each. The rebels call this process of decline tarahul, or “limpness,” and it often remains imperceptible to those looking in from the outside.
Two a half years into the revolt, opposition-held Syria is Mad Max meets The Sopranos. Groups of brigades now fight the regime one day, fight each other over resources the next, settle differences the day after that, and then return to fighting the regime once more, ad infinitum. In theory, the Sunni rebels who dominate the opposition want democracy and/or Islam. In practice, they are unreconstructed small capitalists who are ripping apart the old state-run economy and creating in its stead a patchwork of fiefdoms where rackets and other profitable enterprises are pursued away from the dead hand of Baathist government — or, for that matter, of any government. This doesn’t bode well for the fortunes of the armed rebellion, which is in desperate need of centralized planning and leadership.
Had American sports ever taken off in Syria, the “Euphrates Knights” would have been a pretty great name for a popular football team. In reality, it’s one of two dozen rebel outfits that operate out of Manbij, a city of 200,000 inhabitants 50 miles east of Aleppo. Shabby and polluted, the city is, like many of its type in the developing world, an experiment in modernity gone bad. But it’s as good a place as any to observe the dynamics now driving armed opposition factions as they desperately avoidtarahul and its deadly consequences.
Liberation came to Manbij in July 2012 at the hands of revolutionaries like Abu Suleiman, a welder and part-time truck driver. His rough-and-ready leadership qualities were rewarded with command of one of the Euphrates Knights’ five battalions. He should be a happy man, but he isn’t. “When we first raised arms, we had only five Kalashnikovs between us and we got around on motorbikes, but at least the people had respect for us,” he says. “Now, 70 percent of those who say they are in the Free Syrian Army haven’t even been to the front line.”
But those would-be rebels have been busy nonetheless. They may not have been fighting, but they’ve been hard at work on what Marxists might be tempted to call a “social revolution.” The rebel fighters — poor Sunnis drawn mostly from rural backgrounds — have long begrudged what they see as a systematic policy of discrimination in education and public sector jobs. They say that the ruling Alawites give preference to their own or other minorities, that the security forces were disproportionately repressive against Sunnis, and that they feel wronged by a system that denied them their fair share of the national wealth. It was this combination of factors, they say, that drove a third of all men in Manbij to search for work in places like Lebanon, usually ending up as low-paid day laborers or farm hands. But now that these same men have kicked the government out, the implications have been somewhat surprising.
About five miles east of Manbij is an oil market. In an open expanse of land, sellers from Hassake and Deir az-Zour meet buyers from Aleppo and Idlib, ascertain the quality of the crude oil, agree on a price, and exchange bills. This market didn’t exist when the regime was around, since the state-owned oil company enjoyed a monopoly over Syria’s hydrocarbons. Now the oil wells scattered across Syria’s east and northeast are the property of whoever lays claim to them — and Syria’s five rebel families have been quick to act. The Aleppo-based Tawhid Brigade, for example, holds the al-Jabbul field east of Safira. The FSA-aligned warlord Saddam al-Nu’aimi controls the wells in Bukamal near the Iraqi border. And the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra controls the giant Shadadi field in Hassake (albeit with ISIS now breathing down its neck).
The small, low-tech refiners in the rebel-controlled areas face a daunting task as they try to turncrude into gasoline and other oil products using the most primitive (and dangerous) of means (as seen in the photo above). But if they survive the process unscathed, they can at least look forward to a decent profit. With the rebels selling a barrel of oil for anything up to $ 22, refiners can make a profit of 30 cents on every liter of gasoline sold to the public. Those who make their living from road haulage and associated trades have seen their business boom; body shops, for instance, can’t keep up with the demand from truckers who need giant tanks fitted to the backs of their vehicles. Unemployed young men can now make a living selling fuel from roadside kiosks, and mechanics have plenty to do in repairing engines damaged by the low-quality fuel. The free market that the rebels have unconsciously fostered is a win-win for suppliers (the rebels themselves) and consumers (everyone else). Too bad about the environment, of course — but that seems to be the last thing on Syrians’ minds these days.
Hasan al-Ali, the Euphrates Knights’ founder and political leader, belongs to the social class that historian Hanna Batatu calls the “lesser rural notables.” A pharmacist by profession and the son of a clan elder of the Umayrat tribe, Ali was keen to cash in on the oil grab. He negotiated an alliance with Ahmad Issa al-Sheikh, the leader of powerful Idlib-based Islamist group Suqur al-Sham, who is linked to the Jaysh al-Islam “family.” Ali was partially hoping this new alliance could protect the Knights from al Qaeda. But the real motive for the move was all about business.
Supplied with heavy weaponry by Al-Sheikh, the Knights entered into a joint venture with three other rebel outfits in August to seize the al-Shaer oil field in Hama province. That they had to offer the Mawali tribe a stake in the enterprise in return for granting oil tankers safe passage through their territory was a small price to pay for “maintaining the reputation of the firm,” as Ali puts it. The field’s production capacity of at least 2,000 barrels per day (and the T-55 tank parked outside the Euphrates Knights’ headquarters) suggests that there was more than enough oil to go around. “I thank God everyday for Bashar al-Assad,” Ali proclaims triumphantly. “His stupidity has made us aware of what we are capable of. Before we were lazy, but now look at us.”
Oil is not the only way that rebels can make money. Another outfit from Manbij, the Jund al-Haramein brigade, has gone in for the grain racket. In exchange for “protection” from other groups trying to force their flour upon customers, bakeries in the city are obliged to purchase flour sourced exclusively from mills controlled by the al-Harameins. And in case ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra ever becomes unhappy about this arrangement, the al-Harameins can simply opt for protection of their own — by joining the Ahrar al-Sham family. In September, indeed, Jund al-Haramein announced that it was already affiliating itself with the larger group, a move that should suffice to deter any hostile action.
How are the rebels spending their new-found wealth? Just take a look at the burgeoning car trade. In the bad old days, the government imposed duties as high as 300 percent on imported vehicles, so only a wealthy few could afford to own cars. When the rebels who now control the Turkish border scrapped the charge, Syria’s northern provinces became awash with second-hand cars imported from Eastern Europe, which retail for as little as $4,000 (for a cheap Korean model) to $8,000 (for a proper German mid-size). “Our money is being turned into steel,” complains Ali, who insists that proceeds from his oil venture have been going exclusively to supporting the war effort. But not all of his comrades are as scrupulous. Where they had previously struggled to afford motorbikes, rebel fighters are now seen driving BMW X5s.
The downside to this explosion of entrepreneurial energy is that it comes at the price of actually defeating Assad. The Knights have had to withdraw their forces from the siege of a regime air base atKuwairis, east of Aleppo, to reinforce an attack on a troublesome army positioned in al-Shaer that was taking potshots at their oil tankers. Far more dangerous for the rebel cause as a whole is the steady erosion of morale and fighting spirit that occurs as brigades, having liberated their areas from the regime, find themselves using their military might to protect their economic assets as opposed to carrying on the fight elsewhere.
The implications of this can be seen in today’s battlefield. The regime has begun a determined pushthrough the soft underbelly of the opposition-held north, capturing Safira and threatening to cut off Aleppo from the eastern half of the country. This will prove to be a rude wake-up call to the rebel groups in the area that had grown soft on the spoils of 12 months of liberation. Only planning at the very highest levels of rebel leadership can hope to save the day, but while meetings do sometimes take place between the heads of the main families, often under pressure from regional patrons, these are as much about PR as they are about actually taking action in any concerted or strategic manner. “None of the groups think that they’re going to be part of something,” says one rebel insider. “They all think they are going to be that thing.” It will be seen whether these leaders will ever regulate their rivalry by creating a body like the notorious Commission, the ruling body of the American Mafia. As things stand now, that would be the logical next step in the evolution of the armed opposition.
Under a starry night in Manbij, the omens were not good. Abu Muslim, a battalion commander with Ahrar al-Sham, sat sipping midnight tea with counterparts from the Euphrates Knights at one of their checkpoints at the western approaches to the city, trading information about who had stolen what and who was feuding with whom. During the conversation he made his share of grand claims. His group, he said, had become completely self-sufficient, controlling hundreds of factories in Aleppo and many dozens of oil wells in the East. He boasted that it could field 40,000 fighting men, and that it had 17 tanks in the Aleppo area alone. This sort of exaggeration for the sake of good appearances is routine among Syria’s rebels. But when asked what the future holds for the rebel groups, his response was shot through with grim realism: “We’re going to enter a bloody phase, more bloodier than the present one,” he predicted. “And we’re going to wipe each other out.”
Arabs pride themselves on a language that has not changed all that much in 1400 years. It remains tethered to the Qu’ran, that linguistic point of reference which stands out as a preeminent piece of literature as well as a divinely inspired book of guidance. If asked what made the Qu’ran so special, Arabs will invariably tell you that it is balagha, which translates as “eloquence,” and which in practice means conveying an intelligible meaning in as few words as possible.
You may think that a self-appointed guardian of the Muslim faith—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood no less—would adhere to this linguistic principle out of reverence for the holy tongue if nothing else. But alas, doublespeak has an appeal even for religious zealots.
“Mursi didn’t fail,” a Muslim Brotherhood stalwart told me recently, “he was failed.” This rather silly play on the words yafshal (to fail), and ufshil (made to fail), serves the purpose of stripping the former president of all culpability for losing power and plunging the country into crisis. It may sound catchy, but as a statement it makes no sense at all.
“The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” wrote George Orwell. And that is the problem with Arabic when enlisted in the service of politics. All too often, it is used imprecisely or disingenuously, and the result is obfuscation and balderdash packaged in neat off-the-shelf sound bites.
The problem is not, of course, limited to politicians. Arabic television channels and newspapers are full of the worst type of clichés that blur reality in the name of not wanting to cause offense. Countries engaging in deadly proxy conflicts are referred to innocently as “sides,” “players” or simply “regional capitals.” In the same vein, realpolitik becomes “the balancing game,” client groups become “political cards,” and issues, often affecting the fates of millions of people, become mere “files.” A deft politician aims to confuse his opponents by “mixing the cards” before “turning the tables” on them. According to this vision, politics is a game of poker played by bureaucrats.
Other linguistic sleight of hands abound. Take, for instance, the moderation trick, where an author places the preposition “between” to contrast two or more courses of action to imply that he or she is a moderate who advocates a considered, middle-of-the-road position (Good) as opposed to a rash and extreme position (Bad.)
The Egyptian-Qatari cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is something of a trend-setter in this regard, with publications from the 1970s with titles such as “Islamic jurisprudence between authenticity and renewal”, and “Contemporary ijtihad between discipline and neglect.” Al-Jazeera’s Arabic website has taken up the style with this elegant headline from October 26: “Egypt between Brotherhood-ization, Wafd-ization and militarization.” Appearing to steer a middle course (wasatiya) is a popular theme of Arab political culture; whether it is actually so, and whether it leads you anywhere, often goes unasked. What matters is the impression.
The Arab Spring—if one could use such a term now—has not ushered in a new vocabulary befitting the new era of democratic change. The word “compromise”—an essential concept for any functioning democracy—comes from the Arabic root word “to come down” (nazala), and who would want to do that.
The problem has not been alleviated by borrowing words from other languages where Arabic has not quite kept up with the influx of new concepts. “Pragmatic,” for instance, is widely used in the Arab world in its English form to describe a politician or political party, but in this usage its meaning is closer to “opportunistic” than anything to do with common sense.
Political feuding, too, has taken its toll on the language. Take the word “civil,” which has largely lost its meaning as a result of liberals and Islamists outdoing each other in their supposed championing of a “civil state” (dawla madaniya), itself only a ploy to avoid using the S-word: “secularism,” or “secular state.”
Even a word like “freedom” has become viewed with a degree of suspicion, users often having to resort to adjectives like “real” or “responsible” to make clear what sort of freedom they are referring to. All the while, words connoting violent confrontation like “resilience” (sumud), “resistance” (muqawama), “massing” (hashd) and “escalation” (tas’id) have lost nothing of their positive luster.
If Arabic is to become an enabler in a new, more liberal political culture based on realism and honest pragmatism, Arab progressives should at least reflect that in the way that they use language. Their medieval juristic and scientific forebears have done so in the past; only slovenliness stops them from doing so in the future.
Published 17 September 2013
It used to be the case that if a Westerner aspired to gain acceptance in the Arab world, he would express views that were deeply critical of US policy. Not any more. That same Westerner may now have to have an answer not for why the US has intervened, but for why the US has not intervened enough.
This is certainly the case in Syria, where oppositionists prayed (unsuccessfully) for a US strike on Assad. It is also the case in Egypt, where both opponents and supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Mursi blasted Obama for not taking their respective sides. And across the sectarian divide, the US is blamed for supporting one side against another, with Sunnis in Iraq saying the US is propping up an authoritarian Shi’ite regime.
It would appear that one of the main outcomes of the Arab uprisings is that they have internalized politics by opening up new spaces for competition between rival elites. With the prize being nothing less than the capture of the state, it is no longer considered taboo to solicit Western support, even for Islamists. In the new power challenge dialectic, the benefits of foreign patronage far outweigh the costs of ideology.
Ultimately, it must come down to the US president to assess who to support and who not to. Proud of his record of getting his country out of wars and keen not to get sucked into new ones, Obama is understandably wary of indulging the stream of Middle Eastern petitioners at his doorstep, each employing the language of freedom to draw the US back into the region. How else could we explain the confused response to Mursi’s ouster, or the lack of coherent strategy on Syria, or the often counter-productive policy towards Iraq?
Granted, humanitarian principles do not always sit well with realistic assessments of US national security interests, but this is only one part of the story. The other is that the petitioners, Arab elites of one form or another, are almost always driven more by opportunity than principle. The idea that they should ever adhere to the same exacting standards of justice and selfless do-gooding that they expect of Western leaders is so fanciful as to induce whoops of derision. Such elites are unlikely to bring about meaningful and well-ordered change commensurate with the considerable political capital that would need to be invested by the West to support them—post-Saddam Iraq being the case in point.
If the disingenuousness is not bad enough, there is the ingratitude. USAID, the foreign aid arm of the US government, has paid over USD 1 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syria, but you wouldn’t know about it if you were following media outlets controlled by the Syrian opposition. The reluctance to admit to Western support, marked against a propensity to play up aid from Arab countries, shows that for all the blood and treasure invested in the Middle East, “thank you” remains the hardest thing to say. Fail and it is America’s fault for not supporting you enough; win and it is the people who have done it.
In many ways, the problem is that the rise of a more pragmatic view of Western power in the Arab world has not been accompanied by a set of ideas that legitimizes anything beyond a short-term exchange of interests. It is US and EU hard power that power-challengers seek to harness and, as such, dealing with the West is often portrayed as nothing more than an unpleasant chore.
Doubts like these over the worthiness of another military intervention in the Middle East must have contributed to Obama’s decision to hold back from bombing Syria. The White House has instead opted to play Putin’s game of decommissioning Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles and working towards a negotiated settlement at Geneva II. The concern in Washington is preserving Obama’s legacy and what remains of his credibility, even if it comes at the cost of keeping Assad’s regime afloat. A cynical ploy by a risk-averse president, some have said—and they are quite possibly right. But in a region where cynicism is a modus operandus, why expect any different?
In Aleppo, the overriding concern is about something altogether more pressing: salvaging a popular revolt that has gone hideously wrong. With a third of Syrians displaced, whole cities in ruins and Al-Qaeda running amok, the situation has turned into a nightmare. “Only God and America can end this,” one distraught cleric told me. He’s not far wrong, but in the name of what and for the sake of whom is far less certain.
Published: June 28, 2013
“Freedom for an Oxford don . . . is a very different thing from freedom for an Egyptian peasant,” said that most eminent of Oxford dons, Isaiah Berlin. Is he right? Does the Egyptian peasant demand a different sort of freedom than that of an English professor?
At no point has this question exercised the minds of scholars and commentators more so than at present. Ever since Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation, the matter of what Arabs want has become a central feature of the global debate. Yet there is little that is known for certain apart from a general aspiration to be in a state of freedom—hurriya in Arabic. What that means for the Arabs on the streets of Cairo, Tripoli or Sana’a is wide open to interpretation. Those of a Western disposition would tell you that it means to live in a secular democracy, while an Islamist would argue that true freedom can only be achieved by way of a state that applies the Shari’a.
What is freedom?
There is little consensus among the Arab political classes on the definition of “freedom,” in no small part because they have not yet settled that most elemental question of politics: that of political authority. As Berlin himself put it, “‘Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else?’ ‘Why should I not live as I like?’ ‘Must I obey?’ ‘If I disobey, may I be coerced?’ ‘By whom, and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?’” Convincing answers have not been forthcoming.
The result is has been a blanket of pessimism and foreboding that has descended on the Arab world as “revolutions” have given way to conflict and chaos. “When ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them,” Berlin warned in the 1950s, “they sometimes acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism.” Is this not what troubles the Arab intellectual today? The uprisings may have launched a thousand political careers, but they have not produced a unifying intellectual movement that defines the popular will in the same way as the philosophes did for the French Revolution. There is much that is indefinite, and it is in the indefinite spaces that the power-seekers of Egypt, Tunisia and so on now quarrel, clothed, as they often are, in the language of freedom.
That it is the language of “freedom” and not anything else is significant. But as Berlin argues in Two Concepts of Liberty, the term is heavily nuanced and can serve as much to emancipate as to enslave. Communism may not have survived the last century, but its underlying account of what freedom is lives on through a host of ideas that have dominated Arab political culture for decades.
Whether it be Arab nationalism or political Islam, insofar as these ideologies maintain that the freedom of the social whole—be it a nation or a body of believers—to be of a higher value than that of the individual, they can be said to espouse a vision of “positive freedom.” Communism promised the proletariat the freedom to achieve collective self-realization as a class, while Arab nationalism promised to do the same for a linguistic group, as a sovereign people in a world of sovereign states. “Freedom to” contrasts with “freedom from,” the latter of which is merely the absence of coercion or interference by others. In the West, political freedom has come to mean this “negative,” individual liberty.
However, across the Middle East, calls for the pursuit of ideals exterior to one’s self—“positive freedom”—appear to growing louder and louder. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, Islamists are on the march, promising their peoples the freedom to become great once again, despite the fact that many of the dictatorial regimes that were overthrown relied chiefly on the same type of collectivist ideas for legitimacy. The ideological soil from which Arab democrats hope to cultivate freer societies could hardly be less fertile, and yet what is expected to emerge is something resembling a Western-style liberal democracy, complete with a free press and respect for human rights.
How one intellectual tradition can give rise to a political system that emerged out of another quite distinct tradition remains one of the great paradoxes of the Arab Spring. Those who have already written off the uprisings as unmitigated disasters will say that what the “Arab street” really wants is just another dictator, only this time with a beard. But there is another explanation, which says it has something to do with an Arab propensity to hold simultaneous ideas that are not easily reconcilable. Many in the early part of the last century adopted the slogan “modernity and tradition” (al-asala wal mu’asara) as a cure-all for several centuries of slumber, while the Ba’athist call for “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” a few years later served much the same purpose.
Could it be that, given the deep confusion in the Arab public’s mind and its lack of decisive quality, what the Egyptian peasant thinks he wants is both individual and collective freedom? Quite possibly. What is more certain is that, at least with “negative” individual freedom, it is the same type everywhere, whether in Cairo or Oxford, because the objective wants and desires of all human individuals can only be one and the same. Where there is a difference it is not in kind but in quantity, and that is a question of horse-trading between civil society and the government of the land.
The republican fraud
No entity has shaped Arab attitudes to freedom more so than the state. But as Moroccan historian Abdallah Al-Arawi notes, the Arab state has never been associated, in its emergence and development, with the idea of political liberty in its Western sense. “Liberty (hurriya) in Islamic thought has a psychological/metaphysical meaning, whereas in Western thought it carries mainly a political and social meaning,” he wrote.
Indeed, the first recorded use of the word “liberty” to denote “political freedom” dates to the year 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte issued a declaration in Arabic addressing the Egyptians on behalf of the French Republic “founded on the basis of freedom and equality.” One can then speak of a tension between the concept of liberty and the concept of the state in traditional Arab–Islamic society: “The more extended the concept of the state,” Arawi argues, ”the narrower the scope for freedom.” That is why Arab nation-builders in the modern era failed to entice the Arab citizen into regarding the nationalist state, created in the European image, as a manifestation of a general will or of public ethics. Instead, Arab states are to varying degrees obsessed with power and strength, “but lack the necessary moral, ideological and educational supports.” The result, argues Arawi, is that the state remained “alien” in relation to society, feared but unloved.
This was not a happy start for Arabs who had newly emerged into modernity. It got worse for some when Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser inspired the rise of a fiercer breed of state: the radical, populist republic. Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria and Sudan all came to be ruled by regimes that mimicked Nasser in his authoritarianism, corporatism, militarism and pseudo-socialism. Invariably, power in these states revolved around three poles: the president, the army and the party. In this system, popular legitimacy was found not in procedure or achievement, but in lofty goals expressed in nationalist, religious or class terms, to which ends individual interests and desires were wholly subordinated. In such a state, writes political philosopher Anthony de Jasay, “the subject’s whole existence shall be ruled by one and the same command–obedience relation, with no separate public and private spheres, no divided loyalties, no countervailing centres of power, no sanctuaries and nowhere to go.”
Faced with criticisms over his trampling of political freedoms, in 1961 Nasser set out to explain what he understood by the word “freedom”: “There can be no political freedom in this nation without there being first social freedom,” he declared, “because social freedom is the basis on which man becomes free. Political freedom has no meaning if man is not free from feudalism, capitalism and monopolies.” Herein lies the problem.
Nasser was an angry young man who felt humiliated by Israel, European colonialism, and by a redundant upper class of indolent pashas and effendis. After capturing power, he embarked on an ambitious programme of nationalization, centralization and industrialization, waging a battle to transform the whole of society in spite of itself, to create a more modern and more assertive state that he and his fellow Arabs could be proud of. And because this rapid pace of transformation required a new social ethos, what transpired was a deliberate confusion of values—an ideological sleight of hand by Nasser—in which the limited degree of “negative” political freedom that Egyptians had previously enjoyed was replaced with Soviet-style “positive” freedom that prioritized collective national goals.
The underlying motive for leaders of Nasser’s generation was therefore not the search for political freedom at all, but a search for status by a people wishing to escape a position of perceived inferiority to which colonialism and its trappings of democracy and capitalism had consigned it. And so the term freedom (hurriya) became loosely interchangeable with national independence (istiklal), justice (‘adala), and dignity (karama), blurring their meanings together. For Nasser and his disciples (Mubarak, Saleh, Gaddafi, and so on), freedom was the freedom of the Arab to be taken seriously.
Inasmuch as the recent uprisings were a conscious rejection of the Nasserite model of government, they were also a rejection of that poorly defined freedom that came along with it. Not by chance did republican regimes collapse while monarchies did not. Several factors appear to be at play. The liberalizing influence of satellite television channels on Arab political culture from the mid-1990s onward helped to popularize “freedom,” “democracy,” “elections,” “human rights” and other words that engendered a liberal consciousness. There was also the uncomfortable adjustment to market capitalism that many of the populist republics had to endure, which resulted in a contraction of the state’s social base and a widening of the gap between rich and poor. For paternalistic regimes that prided themselves on being able to provide for their people, this proved particularly damaging.
But there is also another factor, one that shattered the foundations of the radical republican dream. The humiliating defeat of Saddam Hussein proved to be the crippling blow because he, more so than any other Arab dictator, took the Nasserite model to its logical (and rather absurd) conclusions. But far from elevating the status of Iraq in the rank of nations, he brought disaster upon it in a series of misadventures that destroyed his country’s prestige, economy and society—exactly the opposite of what the Nasserite model was meant to achieve. His demise underscored the moral bankruptcy of a system that suppressed humanity’s empirical needs and desires to a transcendent and controlling “self”—a bloated bureaucracy no less—which manipulated and crushed the individual until he had lost all agency. Saddam’s undignified end was not only the final nail in the coffin for a deeply authoritarian system of government, but also for the vision of freedom on which it was based.
Speaking at an Arab League summit in 2008, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi showed that he knew that the writing was on the wall. “A foreign power occupies an Arab country and hangs its leader while we watch and laugh,” he harangued fellow heads of state. “An entire Arab leadership is taken away to the gallows while we watch! Maybe it will all be your turn next!”
One of the great tenets of the post-Bouazizi era is that what Arabs want is democracy. In an earlier generation, similar pronouncements were made about Arabs wanting nothing more than the liberation of Palestine, or socialism, or the nationalization of oil. General assumptions such as these risks pigeon-holing Arab needs based on whatever slogan happened to be fashionable at the time. Isaiah Berlin, for one, saw no necessary connection between freedom and democratic rule. “The answer to the question ‘Who governs me?’” he wrote, “is logically distinct from the question ‘How far does government interfere with me?’” Indeed, a democracy may deprive an individual of many liberties which he might otherwise enjoy in some other form of society.
Present-day Egypt serves as a warning against confusing democracy with freedom. The country’s rulers may have been elected through a free and fair vote, but they have been unwilling to dismantle the authoritarian state against which the youths of Tahrir Square ranged themselves. “That authoritarian conception of the state remained entrenched regardless of the differing ideologies and motivations of those who ruled,” wrote commentator Jack Shenker, “from colonial officials to the post-1952 military dictatorship, from Hosni Mubarak’s kleptocrats to the army junta that managed the so-called ‘transition’ to democracy,” and now arguably to the Muslim Brotherhood. So what really has changed in the new Egypt? Activists continue to be imprisoned, NGOs hounded, voluntary associations criminalized and women victimized, while contrived identity politics dominates the political space. Without an agenda to enshrine individual liberty—that is, to redraw the boundary between public authority and private life decisively in favor of the latter—the promise of the revolution will remain unfulfilled.
The Arab Spring may have opened a Pandora’s Box of unresolved prejudices and vendettas, but it has also broken open the box containing Arab individualism, which so far has not expressed eloquently, but it is there nevertheless and cannot be put back in the box. It is the natural counter-reaction to the authoritarianism of the Nasserite republics, and it represents the latent energy that has sustained an irresistible drive for change.
This is manifesting in various ways. Political scientist Olivier Roy has written extensively about the “diversification and the individualization of the religious field,” and how this has helped bring religion back into the private sphere and exclude it from government management. In politics, too, this process is taking place, albeit with some unexpected results: a study by an Egyptian social scientist shows that voters in a village in Fayoum chose the Salafists over the Muslim Brotherhood partly because they came across as less monolithic and centralized. Arab political culture might still be dominated by collectivist and statist ideas inspired by “positive” visions of freedom, but these are increasingly being used simply to legitimize what is blatantly a free enterprise agenda aimed at creating diversity and meeting individual tastes. Thus the Salafists of Egypt will talk about an Islamic state, but what they really appear to be interested in doing is opening profit-making TV channels, segregated coffee shops and alcohol-free hotel resorts. The idea that a state—any state—can hope to solve society’s ills in the coming decades is declining in the public mind and giving way to a quasi-libertarian vision that accommodates different lifestyle choices within a politically neutral, though not necessarily fully democratic, framework.
Some states, like Syria and Yemen, may not survive this process, but the current trajectory of the uprisings points to that end. The Arab search for individual “negative” freedom is, in this respect, absolutely elemental to an understanding of the spirit of the Arab Spring
For any of that to be realized, there must first be an authority that will sustain and protect political liberty. Here, the discord-riven republics can learn something from the monarchies that have traditionally been more successful in delineating the public and private realms. The historian Bernard Lewis believes that this may have something to do with how different Arab countries came to experience Western hegemony. “In those [Arab] countries which were never entirely taken over [by colonial powers],” he writes, “the discussion of freedom was concerned primarily not with the rights of the group against other groups or of the state against other states, but rather with the rights of the individual against the group or the state.”
Consequently, the monarchies have tended to recognize society and its constitutive groups and have not sought to supplant them as the populist republics had done. Attachment to family, kin, neighborhood and community, observance of custom and tradition, an adherence to a collective faith and a general nostalgia for the past: this is the “organic” ideology on which all Arab monarchies are established. Indeed, authority in monarchical states can said to be more “social” than “political,” more cultural than coercive. This, in large part, explains why revolution has not taken place in Jordan, Morocco or Saudi Arabia. Post-Arab Spring “democracies,” take note.
Published: June 11, 2013
The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) is a peculiar creature. It can be classed neither as a revolutionary organization—it is no Palestine Liberation Organization or African National Congress—nor as a true opposition umbrella group, like the Alliance for Change that toppled Milošević. Its purpose is similarly perplexing. It claims to represent the aims and aspirations of the Syrian people, yet it has no presence on the ground and little say over what people do there. It promises international intervention—or at the very least the arming of the Free Syrian Army—yet NATO has explicitly ruled out becoming involved. And while the SNC makes a big fuss about its humanitarian work, what little money that reaches the deserving is often marked by corruption. If the SNC is not an effective leadership body, a relief organization, or a particularly good lobby group, what exactly is it?
This question did not seem to have perturbed the minds of the hundred or so oppositionists who gathered in Istanbul last month to debate widening the group’s membership. At the end of nine tortuous days of horse-trading punctuated by haranguing from foreign ambassadors, they eventually settled on a list of 114 members, up from a mere sixty. There are now more liberals, FSA officers and representatives of local councils in the internationally recognized and supported body. “The coalition has succeeded in undergoing the expansion,” declared acting president George Sabra. He is right. The coalition did succeed in Istanbul, but only in the same way as Hezbollah triumphed in Qusayr: at great cost.
But unlike Hezbollah, Syria’s oppositionists are not new to loss of prestige. They have been the butt of newsroom jokes for years, well before the popular uprising exposed their incompetence to all and sundry. The problem is that this time, their squabbling risks disturbing that last fig leaf of credibility: that they, despite their obvious faults, represent an alternative vision of politics to that of the Assad regime.
That claim is becoming increasingly harder to sustain. Take, for instance, the way that SNC members are chosen. Elections are out; in are the much-favored muhasasa (share-allocation) and tawafuk (consensus) methods, in which seats are dispensed by a committee of apparatchiks in a manner that aims to keep rival factions of (mostly exiled) oppositionists happy. When faced with criticisms over the ineffectiveness of the body, the usual answer is to expand membership to co-opt those complaining from the sidelines. The exact criteria for membership is kept conveniently elastic; that is how Ghassan Hitto, an unknown businessman who was an expatriate in Texas for thirty years and who has no experience of opposition politics, can end up as interim prime minister. Indeed, that is how Sabra himself—having failed to win a minimum number of votes in the Syrian National Council election last November—was handpicked by a shadowy inner circle to become first the head of the council (the largest bloc within the coalition), and then the coalition’s acting president.
Take also the delicate matter of “foreign interference.” Days into the Istanbul meeting, SNC figures began talking of “external pressures” being applied to accept resolutions that have been cooked up by Russia and the West. “A strong media campaign is underway against the SNC because it refused to submit to pressures,” tweeted Abdulkarim Bakkar, an SNC member. “The coalition fought for independent national decision-making and got most of what it wanted,” he added.
While all this sounds terribly heroic, the reality is that the SNC is heavily mortgaged to the Qatar–Turkey axis and is as much “independent” of the two as Assad is of the Iranians. Now, internal disputes within the SNC have to be settled by the group’s regional backers and the resolution of the conflict rests in the hands of US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. The fact is that the SNC owes its legitimacy not to the backing of ordinary Syrians, but to the willingness of the West and Arab states to do business with it. This is precisely the sort of legitimacy that Assad enjoyed before the uprising, and which the SNC oppositionists hope will propel them to power.
The SNC also suffers from a lack of achievement, a corporatist mindset, disdain for the ordinary man, aversion to institutional transparency and accountability, and a disinclination to anything resembling intellectual honesty. What is the SNC? Well, it is a collection of self-interested individuals who see themselves as intermediaries between foreign powers and local communities in a strategically important part of the Middle East. They are essentially glorified middlemen who, quite naturally, spend most of their time in luxury hotels conceiving plots, striking deals, arranging payments, and every so often appearing on TV to condemn whatever crime Assad is committing.
This “go-betweener” role, which involves a great deal of clientelism and conspiracy, has been a constant function of the Syrian political elite. In the 1950s, it was split along pro-Hashemite and pro-Saudi/Egyptian lines until Hafez Al-Assad eliminated elite infighting by imposing himself as supreme middleman. What has changed is that now there are two political elites in conflict, and the difference between them is subtler than they can comfortably admit.
The SNC cannot shape its own destiny: it is the vehicle by which others shape theirs. So is the Assad regime. It is with this growing realization on the part of ordinary Syrians that both parties now weigh the costs and benefits of negotiating in Geneva.
Published: April 30, 2013
Exactly a decade after the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, sectarian tensions are again threatening to turn back the clock in Iraq. The trigger this time was the storming of a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija by government forces that left 23 dead.
The pretext was that wanted militants were hiding among the protesters—a charge the protest leaders deny, although there is a history of militant activity in the area. Subsequent unrest killed dozens more and brought the death toll to 215 by Saturday, April 27. With Sunnis enraged, one prominent tribal leader from Anbar province, Ali Al-Hatem, vowed a full-scale armed uprising against the government, daring Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki “to finish what he started.”
Not without some justification, Sunni resentment at the perceived discriminatory policies of the Shi’a-led government has been bubbling away for some time. This led to the launch of a Tahrir Square-type sit-in movement that demanded the release of female prisoners and the repeal of the country’s anti-terror law. But as in Syria, what began as a largely peaceful protest threatens to spiral into a violent and overtly sectarian conflict. Already, the talk is of “toppling” Maliki and creating a tribal army, the so-called Army of Pride and Dignity, to protect Sunni areas.
This threatens to resurrect the insurgency that was supported by the same tribal leaders who are now challenging the Iraqi prime minister. Peaking around 2006, the insurgency did not achieve its stated goal of forcing the US out (or its less-stated goal of recapturing the Iraqi state from the Shi’as), but it did succeed in traumatizing a generation of young Iraqis and turning large swaths of central and western Iraq into the badlands that Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq calls home.
It also managed to exacerbate Sunni feelings of marginalization by precluding the emergence of an effective political leadership that could advocate for the Sunni interest in the new Iraq. The April 20 provincial elections are a case in point. Excluding the Kurdistan region, the elections were held in all of Iraq’s provinces except two: Sunni-majority Anbar and Nineveh.
During the election campaign at least fourteen candidates were assassinated and numerous car bombs exploded in what appear to have been coordinated attacks designed to disrupt the vote. Having been denied the right to elect their own representatives, the citizens of Anbar and Nineveh have little recourse but to fall back on the self-appointed tribal leaders whose lack of political judgment has embroiled them in one unwinnable war already.
The Shi’a hold on power in Iraq is now formidable, but with Iran’s proxy in Syria weakening and a shift in the regional balance of power appearing imminent, Sunni leaders sense an opportunity for another showdown with the Shi’as. But while some brag about humbling the “Safavids,” others call for more modest goals: self-governing rights not unlike those of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Under the constitution drawn up after the US-led invasion, each province or group of provinces is entitled to create a federal region if it wins enough votes in a referendum. Predominantly Sunni Salahuddin province is currently pursuing regional status. “Sunnism is our slogan and a region is our goal,” senior cleric Taha Hamed Al-Dulaimi told demonstrators in Anbar in a video on his website. “Do not scatter your demands,” he instructed.
But scatter they shall. All of the candidates assassinated in the lead up to the elections were Sunnis, a number of whom were from the Al-Iraqiya coalition headed by Iyad Allawi, the secular former prime minister. He, more than any other political figure, represents the Sunnis’ most likely prospect of winning a real stake in government. His campaign for next year’s parliamentary elections has been weakened not only by intimidation from militant factions, but by high-level defections to rival coalitions of a more sectarian hue.
For too many Sunni politicians, playing the victimization card has become the only political program they know. It may win them votes, but once in power they lack the competence and collective will to do anything about it. And while some have been chased out of the country for standing up to the prime minister, others have quietly been co-opted with ministerial portfolios and generous government stipends. Many of these individuals will seize on the current troubles not to guide their own community out of danger, but to negotiate better terms for themselves with Maliki.
Even away from the Green Zone bubble, Sunni group solidarity appears shaky. The Awakening Council’s militia—composed of anti-Al-Qaeda Sunni tribesmen in Anbar province—has sided with Maliki and has ordered its co-religionists to “do what it did in 2006.” In other words, to take on and defeat another insurgency.
Regardless of the scope of Sunni goals or the methods they employ to achieve them, the absence of a united and democratically mandated leadership limits the chances for success of a Sunni revolt against the Shi’a order in Iraq. The fear is that it will be a rerun of the 2004–2007 rebellion that ended so disastrously, and this time there will be no US military to blame or to cushion the blow. Defeat will be total and abject, and the stakes could not be any higher.
Syria, Two Years On
How the Syrian revolution turned my world upside down
Published: 18 Mach 2013.
In the pre-Arab Spring era, the conventional wisdom was that an uprising in Syria was far fetched. Articles written by learned experts proclaimed Assad’s immunity to the tide of protest sweeping through Arab republics, confidently asserting that Syria was a “sturdy house,” an exception to the rule. This was the time when the cause of regime change in Syria was deeply unfashionable.
Friday, March 18, 2011 changed all that. As I returned to my office on that day after performing prayers at a community center in south London, I caught a glimpse of the first grainy images on YouTube of a mass demonstration in Dera’a, a city in the southern Hawran region of Syria. A crowd had congregated outside the historic Omari Mosque and was chanting, “Syria’s protector [Assad] is its thief!” An hour later, more images were uploaded, this time showing riot police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Then there was shooting. One video showed several police officers dragging away the limp corpse of a young man.
My office was abuzz with these first images of revolt. At the time, I was running Barada TV, the first independent Syrian news and current affairs television channel. It was based at modest offices in London’s Vauxhall. My job was to use the channel to raise awareness of human rights issues, to empower civil society and to educate Syrian audiences on the virtues of freedom and democracy.
Being a second-generation émigré whose father had suffered at the hands of the Syrian government, I believed I had a historic duty to deliver my people from dictatorship to liberty, the sort that I had known and loved in Britain.
That was one way of looking at it. Another was that I was little more than a propagandist for the Syrian opposition, paid to make seditious broadcasts, incite rebellion and invite foreign interference.
On that Friday afternoon, it seemed that my prayers had finally been answered. Until that point, as much as I had desired regime change, I did not quite believe it would ever happen. This view was widely shared by the opposition, whose fortunes were at a low ebb after Assad survived US-imposed isolation following the Hariri assassination in 2005, and his subsequent rehabilitation at the hands of Sarkozy, Erdoğan and Qatari Prince Hamad.
Having judged which way the wind was blowing, the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest of the opposition groups—decided in 2009 to throw in the towel and suspend all anti-regime activities in the hope of negotiating its way back into Syria. By 2010, the opposition harbored no illusions about the desperate state it was in; short of direct foreign intervention (a highly unlikely prospect at the time) it had next to no chance of toppling Assad by popular revolt. When that revolt did come, I found myself a member of an opposition movement long reconciled with its political impotence.
Perhaps, then, it was a lack of confidence that made me, a normally perceptive reader of political developments, fail to see the coming tsunami in Syria. The signs were there for all to see: the mobile phone boycott of February 9, organized on Facebook to protest high charges and poor service; the spontaneous protest in Damascus’s Harika business district on February 17, after a case of police brutality; or the candlelight vigils organized by civil activists outside the Egyptian and Libyan embassies in Damascus on January 30 and February 22 respectively. These were the early tremors that pointed to a coming great eruption.
Barada TV covered all these events, perhaps the only media outlet to have done so, but my thinking at the time was clouded by calculations of a self-serving nature: since the opposition needed time to organize itself before it could hope to lead a popular revolt, the revolution must still be years away.
The Abazeid clan of Dera’a cared little for the interests of the opposition in exile. It was aggrieved at the arrest of some of its teenagers who, inspired by satellite television images of Tunisia and Egypt, scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school. Repeated attempts to negotiate their release through the intercession of local notables were rudely rebuffed by the governor and the local security chief.
My undercover reporter in Dera’a kept me fully informed of such developments. On March 9, 2011 he managed to interview a leading activist from the city, who confidently proclaimed that the revolution “had already begun.” Information came in from several villages in the southern province suggesting that isolated police stations were being vacated in expectation of looming trouble. The mood in the southern province grew darker as angry young men talked of revolt.
Despite this compelling intelligence, I was still reluctant to believe that Syrians would rise up. Sitting three thousand miles away on the banks of the Thames, it appeared overly ambitious—a near impossibility, in fact—given all that I knew and had experienced of the passivity of Syrian society, the fear it had for the mukhabarat (the military intelligence service), and the effects of brainwashing propaganda and social conditioning that discouraged collective action and promoted apathy. Besides, there were no reliable statistics on viewing figures, which meant that I was not quite sure whether my satellite broadcasts were even being watched or not. Like a ham radio operator trying to make contact with intelligent life in outer space, it sometimes felt like a hopeless task.
This was not helped by the general attitude of the expatriate Syrian community towards people like myself, which oscillated between open hostility when they did not know me and pity when they did. To be in the opposition was to be a member of a weird and dangerous émigré sub-culture that entertained outlandish notions of regime change. The thought was enough to induce sniggers of derision in so-called respectable circles.
Intellectually, I knew that Syria was ripe for revolution. My country was no different to Tunisia or Egypt; the same corruption, poverty and authoritarianism existed in Syria. And Syrians, I thought, could not be any less courageous than Libyans, nor could Assad’s henchmen be any more brutal than Gaddafi’s. Seen this way, revolution was a logical inevitability. But I still could not quite convince myself.
The reason for my lingering doubts was not really a rational and convincing counter-argument, but a series of emotionally induced responses born out of the experience of being a member of the Syrian opposition. To be a conscientious Syrian oppositionist before 2011 was to be relegated to the margins of the political mainstream, at the time still defined by the discourse of the so-called resistance axis: the alliance formed between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Working to bring down one of its key pillars resulted in a head-on collision with a powerful set of interests, not least the pro-Iranian and pro-Hamas lobbies that were well represented in important media outlets and in key political and religious organizations.
International patronage, which could have evened the odds, was hard to come by. Although sympathetic, the moderate Arab camp was loath to make any direct challenge to Assad, while the West’s obsession with regional stability meant that the opposition were politely listened to but duly ignored. No matter what persuasive arguments the opposition mustered, it was almost always trumped by the massive gap in power between the exiled handful of expats and the Ba’athist government. Social and political isolation ensued not only in Syria, but in the wider Arab mainstream too.
With no one to come to their rescue, the opposition endured years of what could be classed as emotional abuse at the hands of demagogic bullies of the resistance axis. The Syrian opposition became the perennial joke of newsrooms; they were the embarrassment of the Islamists or weak and resentful “intellectuals” whose patriotism was questioned, and whose commitment to the all-important cause of Palestine always in doubt.
The result was a list of symptoms that victims of childhood trauma would instantly recognize: low self-esteem, insecurity, lack of confidence, social isolation, destructive behavior and an inability to form partnerships. Having been vilified and mocked by one and all, the oppositionists’ frame of mind turned into an essentially defeatist one. Little wonder, then, that on the eve of revolution the last thing the opposition expected was events that would lead to a swift and spectacular turnaround in its fortunes.
The outbreak of protest was exactly that. But moments of triumph bring with them their own set of challenges. Like a rags-to-riches lottery winner, the Syrian opposition struggled in the months that followed to adjust to its newfound cause célèbrestatus. In many ways, it still has not. The opposition’s political strategy does not appear to be based on any discernible, grown-up set of rational principles, but on an overpowering emotional urge to court cheap popularity and solicit short-term funding, which has become the hallmark of the dozens of leadership bodies set up by the opposition.
The damage that this has had on the wider cause of regime change is all too obvious. But as to the question of why, from my vantage point and experience I can say this: that in letting its heart rule over its head, the opposition sought to recapture something of a stolen adolescence, a way of making up for years of carefree politicking denied to it by both circumstance and its enemies. At the historic moment of triumph, the Syrian opposition suffered a mid-life crisis.
That Friday afternoon in 2011, as I hunched over a computer screen in stunned silence watching replays of riot police, clad in all-black body armor like medieval men-at-arms, charging up the hill and into the city’s old quarter, my initial feelings of denial and disbelief made way for excitement and euphoria. Only days later did a sober realization set in: that my life would change forever.
Everything that I had worked for as a member of the opposition, from 2005 until that day, would become redundant. All the lobbying, the conferences, the demonstrations, the television appearances and hours and hours of political meetings—which were a triumph solely on the basis that they took place—would become irrelevant, nothing more than memories of note only to myself. A new era beckoned, with new rules, new battles and new enemies, but not all will find their place in it. Mahmud Qateesh Al-Jawabra of Dera’a, the first martyr of the Syrian revolution, turned my world upside down.