My op-ed for Syria Deeply: Talking About My Generation

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Published: 18 Fمحمود_الجوابرةebruary 2013

It is said that the Arab revolutions are the revolutions of the young. Statistically at least, this is true.

The first martyr in Syria, Mahmud Qteish al-Jawabra [left], was a teenager, and the symbol of the revolution, Hamza al-Khatib, was a 13-year old tortured to death. According to this database, 70 percent of the revolution’s martyrs are under the age of 30.

Whether it be citizen journalism phenomena, or tansiqiyat protest-organizing committees, or massive online campaigns, these were all made by young people.

What al-Jawabra and al-Khatib stand for is not only the revolution itself, but also for the demographic that made it happen. So why is it that when it comes to political leadership of the revolution, it is left to middle-aged men in bad suits?

The median age of a member of the SNC executive committee is 56, more than quarter of a century shy of the median age of the fighters and activists who are carrying out the revolution on the ground.

While the term “Arab Spring” denotes something new and fresh, revolutionary leadership in Syria has seen the return of many of the old faces: Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, assorted Salafists and ex-Communists and a sprinkling of balding generals.

Perhaps this is to be expected in a paternalistic society where young people are expected to remain reverential, and where matters of importance are decided by a family’s older members.

Given the level of physical and moral sacrifice made by the young, however, this is no time to submit to tradition.

Revolution is about challenging hierarchies of power, wealth and authority. It’s not just about writing slogans and posting YouTube videos. Setting up a human rights abuse documentation center or helping out in the relief effort does not equate to a political program.

Too often, Syria’s youth have mistaken day-to-day activism for revolutionary politics. This has led to an atomized movement that lacks clear intellectual direction.

In order for Syria’s youth to take back ownership of the “their” revolution, they need to change the way they view themselves.

More energy should be focused on promoting “demographic consciousness,” an understanding of Syrian politics that regards the 18-35 age bracket as a distinct political constituency that is above sect, ethnicity and class.

While the politicians are busy jockeying for position, there is now an opportunity for the youth to formulate an agenda of their own – one that puts their interests above all others.

Young martyrs have talked about the pent-up frustrations that led so many of Syria’s young people to take a stand against the existing regime.

Why then are the sources of these frustrations not being addressed? Where is the guaranteed funding pledge for education? Where is the commitment to investment in the IT and new media industries, at which younger Syrians excel?

Why are there no demands for a minimum wage for young workers face exploitation? Why has no one addressed the problem of military conscription? And why is there no talk of a guaranteed quota for young people in a future parliament?

The lack of young political leaders to give voice is worrying.

The focus should be on the future, and what it will look like depends much on the youth who will set to inherit political power in the decades to come.

They will have an opportunity to shape their country in their own image rather than that of their parents, but for that to happen they should begin to entertain collective political ambition.

Categories: Uncategorized

Blogging for the Majalla on Jordan: The King is Listening

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Jordanian elections

Published: 29 January 2013

The recent elections in Jordan, held amidst a boycott by the main opposition parties, have fuelled talk of a missed opportunity. The argument goes that a toothless parliament, composed mostly of loyalists elected by an unfair electoral system, will be unlikely to provide a legal and democratic channel for dissent, leaving the opposition no option but to resort to the street.

Indeed, recent protests over price hikes have led some observers to speculate that Jordanians have grown wary of the king and are, like their neighbors to the north, ready for an uprising. Others concede that a full-blown uprising is unlikely, but that sweeping political reforms are urgently needed to avoid serious instability in the future. The side that advocates reform has, by and large, dominated the debate on Jordan.

But does King Abdullah II really need to reform so quickly and so deeply? A little-publicized incident from the northern town of Ramtha suggests that he can afford to take his time. In November 2011, twenty-year-old taxi driver Najm Al-Azayza was arrested by Jordanian military police on suspicion of smuggling arms across the nearby border with Syria. After four days in custody, the family of the young man were informed that he had “hung himself,” and were instructed to collect his body from the local mortuary. What followed was a riot that saw the Amman–Damascus highway closed and a police station and municipality building burned to the ground. The clan to which the young man belonged demanded justice, accusing the authorities of torturing their son to death.

What followed could so easily have been a re-run of events in Dera’a, Syria. Eight months earlier, similar circumstances in that city involving police brutality resulted in a nationwide uprising that continues to this day. Instead, Awn Al-Khasawna, then prime minister of Jordan, intervened and ordered an immediate investigation by the country’s chief coroner. When that failed to pacify the townsmen, it fell to King Abdullah II to settle the matter in person. The officer accused of the torture was arrested, compensation was promised and calm restored to the town.

While acts of royal magnanimity alone may not be enough to stave off future internal instability, they do underscore a number of key lessons that Jordan watchers will be wise to take on board. The first is that whatever mistakes agents of the state commit in their dealings with ordinary people, in Jordan the king is still seen as the ultimate guarantor of justice. That, in a clan-based society, is hugely important in affirming his legitimacy to rule over the kingdom.

The second is that the government has grown accustomed to handling outbursts of popular anger. Because Jordan is not a repressive state, and because the security forces there tend to tread lightly when compared to their neighboring counterparts, demonstrations and calls for reform are nothing new. At times, disturbances have resulted in real and immediate reforms, such as during the April 1989 food riots that led to the resumption of parliamentary politics. Most of the time, protests do not end in fatalities and local grievances are settled within the community through civil society networks. The moderation of the Jordanian political system helps to prevent sparks turning into fires.

Jordanian monarchs are not stubbornly resistant to change, but they are resistant to change where significant challenges to their authority exist. Given the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and growing instability in Iraq, it would seem uncharacteristically enterprising for the Jordanian monarch to embark on a program of deep political reform at this time.

King Abdullah II can take heart from the fact that the demands of recent protests have been mainly economic, and that the Islamist-dominated opposition remains weak and splintered. Despite high fuel prices, the Jordanian middle class does not object to subsidy reform as long as it is offset by greater inward investment. There is still some ground to cover in the war against high-level corruption, but with the conviction last year of the former head of the intelligence directorate, it appears that a serious start has been made. The impression in Amman is that the king will deliver reform at a pace congruous with wider developments in the region, but at least he is listening.

Categories: Arabs & Democracy

Latest for The Majalla: Mr. Öcalan’s Philosophy

January 8, 2013 1 comment

Mr. Öcalan’s Philosophy

Syria’s Kurds learn lessons from the architect of Kurdish self-determination

One of the few winners of the Syrian uprising are the country’s Kurds. For the first time Syrian Kurds are running their own affairs independently of Damascus under the tutelage of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

8th January 2013

Across a narrow belt of land along Syria’s northern border, Kurds are staking a claim to self-determination. Where the overstretched Syrian army withdrew voluntarily in July last year, People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters have moved in, setting up checkpoints and raising the yellow, red, and green flag of Western Kurdistan.

In towns such as Kobai, Amuda, Efrin, Al-Malikiyah, Ra’s Al-’Ayn, Al-Darbasiyah, and Al-Ma’bada, it is the Kurdish Supreme Committee that provides local government. The body was formed in July 2012 when the two main Kurdish factions in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), agreed to run Syrian Kurdistan together. Today, popular committees are effectively responsible for providing everything from security to meeting residents’ food and energy needs. Local elections have been held, Kurdish language schools have opened, and loud political rallies have passed off without incident where once they would have ended in almost-certain arrest.

Qamishli and Hasake remain the only cities in the Kurdish-majority area where regime security forces maintain a presence—but even in those, alongside pictures and statues of the Assads that remain intact, Kurds now enjoy levels of political and cultural freedoms unparalleled by those they had during fifty years of Ba’ath Party rule. Uniquely for Kurdish peoples in the region, these freedoms have been won at relatively little cost to Kurdish life and property. It is a remarkable turnaround for a people whose own rebellion in March 2004 was brutally suppressed, and many of whose members were denied Syrian citizenship as recently as last year.

The decision to reverse the findings of the 1962 census and offer nationality rights to an estimated three hundred thousand Kurds, made by Bashar Al-Assad soon after the outbreak of the uprising, was dismissed by the Arab opposition as a bribe. It may well have been. Syria’s Kurds do not endorse Assad’s brutal crackdown, but neither have they offered wholehearted support to the Arab opposition. Instead, they appear to have steered a cautious middle course, guided by Kurdish national interests.

How those interests are defined is the primary concern of the Syrian franchise of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), the separatist militant organization that has waged war against Turkey’s military since 1978. It has set up the PYD in Syria, and this affiliate is at the center of the Kurdish quest to capitalize on the growing weakness of central government control, more than any other party. Its strategy is informed by the PKK’s experiences in Turkey, where concessions have been won through a combination of military pressure and—more importantly—political organization.

The PYD aims not to establish its own nation-state (a near impossibility in the circumstances) but to implement a form of Kurdish autonomy that can co-exist with whomever happens to rule from Damascus. It is a new path towards Kurdish autonomy—quite possibly independence in all but name—and it may just work in a fractured and war-torn Syria just as it has done in Iraq.

Democratic confederalism

“In fifty years, the Kurdish parties could not offer anything to Kurdish politics or to the Kurdish people of Western Kurdistan,” said PYD leader Salih Muslim. “We established the PYD, which is different from the classical parties in Syria. We have the philosophy of [PKK leader Abdullah] Öcalan, and his ideas are adapted to the conditions and situation of Western Kurdistan.”

Öcalan’s philosophy has undergone notable changes since his capture by Turkish agents in 1999. Most notably, he has disavowed the demand for independent Kurdish statehood, and instead calls for the adoption of a “non-state social paradigm.” In an eponymous pamphlet, loosely inspired by the European Charter of Local Self-Government, he calls his big idea democratic confederalism. “Democratic confederalism in Kurdistan aims at realizing the self-defense of the peoples by the advancement of democracy in all parts of Kurdistan without questioning the existing political borders,” he wrote from his prison cell. “The movement intends to establish federal structures in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq that are open for all Kurds and at the same time form an umbrella confederation for all four parts of Kurdistan.”

Democratic confederalism may well be Kurdish independence through the back door. Replacing the problematic aim of cessation with a less threatening and more long-term stratagem based on demanding local political and cultural rights makes sense, but in effect it entails stripping powers away from central government and handing them over to local bodies on the periphery, run by organizations that have little or no loyalty to the nation-state. This could prove problematic for a country like Turkey.

Unperturbed, the Justice and Development Party (JDP) government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to capitalize on what it saw as increasing pragmatism on the part of the Kurds. The rise of organizations such as the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), both of which take their cue from guiding principles of Abdullah Öcalan, have given the Kurdish struggle a more political and civic flavor.

In a sign of this changing position on Kurdish issues, prayers in Kurdish were allowed to be held for the first time in Turkey’s mosques, names of cities were changed from Turkish to their original in Kurdish and language classes were taught in schools. The JDP government even set up a state-run Kurdish language TV channel, TRT 6, and launched an initiative, the GAP Action Plan, to channel assistance and investment to the economically deprived southeast. The aim, at least as far as can be ascertained, was to build confidence in order to pave the way for a negotiated settlement with the PKK.

Seasoned observers agree that the so-called Kurdish opening, launched early in 2009, has now floundered. Despite Erdoğan’s bribes, the PKK remains active; despite peace overtures, Turkish soldiers in the southeast of the country continue to die.

If Erdoğan did not reap much reward for his efforts, the same cannot be said of the Kurds. They have come away with a renewed sense of purpose, and are now more self-assertive than ever, having expanded their nonviolent activities and built up their political capacity alongside their military one. In the June 2011 general election, the BDP increased its seats in the Turkish Parliament from 16 to 36, ensuring that the calls for autonomy are heard loud and clear in Ankara.

Young Kurds are now encouraged to work within civil society groups and umbrella organizations that dominate the Kurdish political scene, rather than just join the PKK in the mountains. By offering Kurds a route to get involved without having to risk their lives in armed struggle, the PKK has gained new adherents and respect. “The PKK has become part of the people. You can’t separate them anymore, which means if you want to solve this problem, you need to take the PKK into account,” said Zübeyde Zümrüt, co-chair of the BDP in Diyarbakir province.

New prospects in Syria

As news reports this week indicate, the Turkish government still believes in negotiating with the PKK. That, however, may well be more to do with tempering the growing power of the PKK’s sister organization in Syria, the PYD, than in any genuine desire to offer tangible concessions. Öcalan’s philosophy may still prove to be effective in wearing down the Turkish state in the long run, especially if the JDP proceeds with attempts to transform Turkey into a multi-ethnic state. In the short to medium term, however, Turkey remains too strong and too centralized to buckle under the pressure of Kurdish agitation.

Syria offers a more realistic prospect for the implementation of democratic confederalism. For a start, it is much weaker than Turkey, and contains a Kurdish minority large enough to sustain calls for autonomy. Then there is the geopolitics: as Assad gets progressively weaker, powers as divergent as Iran and the US will be courting the Kurds as a counterweight to the Sunni Islamists. Its neighbors in Iraqi Kurdistan provide a working model to emulate because the Iraqi region runs its own affairs independently of Baghdad rather well, having avoided the sectarian bloodletting that engulfed the rest of the country. There is also an energy interest, with the YPG already providing security for the smooth running of oil installations in Al-Hasakah Governorate. The fact that Syria is an artificial state whose borders were drawn by Britain and France with little attention paid to ethnic and tribal continuity is a further, historical, reason why democratic confederalism may succeed there but fail in Turkey.

But there is a simpler, more practical logic to Öcalan’s philosophy. Put simply, his adherents have delivered modestly in Turkey and spectacularly in Syria. Their organization and political acumen has enabled them to trade armed opposition for de facto autonomy, in the process sparing Kurdish towns and populations the fate of cities like of Homs and Aleppo. They have also rightly identified that to apply pressure on Ankara, a solid foothold in Syria was essential. Regardless of the outcome of the revolution, it will be unlikely that Western Kurdistan will lose self-administration rights anytime soon.

In contrast, the Arab opposition has brought death and destruction upon its towns and populations, with no guarantee of a favorable outcome or of having the necessary capacity to administer areas under its control effectively. Once the regime in Damascus collapses, it is doubtful whether the sacrifices of (predominantly) Sunni Arabs will compare favorably with the rewards that they will reap. The Kurds of Syria have taken the cash in hand and waived the rest.

Categories: Syrian uprising

My latest for The Majalla: The Monarchical Exception

The Monarchical Exception

While republican dictators fell, Arab monarchies remain stable

Some reflections on the very different fates of Arab Nasserite-type republics and Arab monarchies

Kampala, Uganda:  President of Uganda Idi Amin Dada (2nd-L) poses with some of the Organization of African Unity (OUA, from left) Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Lybian leader Muammar Kadhafi in juin 1972 in Kampala during an OUA summit.  AFP/Getty Images.

If there is one thing that can be said for certain about the Arab Spring, it is that monarchies have fared a lot better than republics. Opinions differ over why that is. Cultural legitimacy and institutional statecraft do make monarchies more stable than republican dictatorships. More cynical observers have cited oil security and geopolitical stability as more tangible explanations for why uprisings have not erupted in Riyadh or Rabat.

Amid this debate, there is a less perceptible factor that has been largely overlooked, and it has much to do with the way states manage popular expectations. What regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria all had in common was that they emerged at a time of high optimism, when Arab nationalist republicanism was at the forefront of progressive politics.

At the time, Arabs believed that self-determination could only be realised by sweeping away regressive internal forces through top-down revolution and by keeping out malign foreign interference. Those were the heady days of Nasserism.

The Nasserite republic in Egypt offered countries in the region a model to be emulated. In return for surrendering certain freedoms, including the freedom to elect one’s government, a military elite guaranteed the people stability and security, as well as universal education and healthcare, cheap food and jobs for all. What was also promised was dignity. The Nasserite-type republic swore to restore Arab pride by nothing less than victory on the battlefield.

Stretching the laws of sociology and economics to breaking point, the Nasserite-type republics promised so much but delivered little. As decades dragged on, people became disillusioned with what they saw as a case of diminishing returns.

The death knell for the Nasserite-type republic came on 9th April 2003 when US forces invaded Iraq and, in swift and humiliating fashion, unseated Saddam Hussein, the ruler who more than any other took the Nasserite model to its most brutal and absurd conclusions.

But by then, similar regimes had already begun reverting to a system of government reminiscent of the ancien regimes that they had overthrown in the 1950s and 60s. Whether it be hereditary leadership or adoption of free-market capitalism, the republics began to take on the political and economic characteristics of Arab monarchies. In seeking to emulate the monarchies, however, the republics failed to adjust their people’s level of expectation.

The monarchies did not promise their people a welfare state nor to liberate Palestine nor to confront the West. The monarchies cultivated positive relations with the West, which secured foreign investment but also contributed to a partial settlement of the Palestine issue through negotiations. Even in those monarchies that didn’t have oil, standards of living were generally higher than republics with similar economies.

In many ways, the kings and emirs were more honest with their peoples inasmuch as they didn’t attempt to sell them a pipe-dream; their policies suited the social, economic and geo-political circumstances of the countries they ruled, and not much more. The cautious and conservative policies adopted by the monarchies, based on gradual and organic change, would appear to be better suited to the conditions of societies newly emergent into modernity.

The republics on the other hand maintained the rhetoric of the all-powerful, progressive state, and with it the apparatus of state repression, but they were neither able to deliver on the economic pledges that were part-and-parcel of the grand bargain, nor the military victories promised.

The republics became accustomed to raising people’s levels of expectation, and by way of their construction, could not afford to lower those expectations lest people demanded political rights. They were, in essence, trapped by a rigid and deceitful rhetoric that was wearing thin.

According to this interpretation, the monarchies did not really survive the Arab Spring since they were never in real danger of falling in the first place. Their peoples’ expectations were never that high to begin with, and so they were not judged according to a particularly harsh criterion.

When seeking to explain why republican regimes fell and monarchies didn’t, the notion that uprisings swept across the Arab World is unhelpful. The facts are that uprisings only swept across Nasserite-type republics, and it is in the failures of these types of regimes that the roots of the Arab Spring lie.

Categories: Arabs & Democracy

My latest article for The Majalla: So Long, Renaissance

November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Morsi plays a zero-sum game

Egypt’s President Morsi is going head to head with the country’s judiciary after issuing a decree severely limiting their powers to rein in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt pic

On Thursday, 22 November, Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi went to war with the judiciary. He issued a seven-point decree that included the sacking of the country’s prosecutor-general and announced that all his decisions were immune to appeal “by any way or by any entity.”

Critics have called the move a brazen power grab; admirers call it a “revolutionary decision.” Both sides will agree, however, that the announcement will only further polarize an Egyptian society struggling to reach a consensus on how to proceed after Mubarak’s fall.

The main cleavage is one of Islamists versus non-Islamists. The Egyptian president belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the largest Islamist group, which claims that it has a popular mandate to implement the much-vaunted “renaissance project.” Ranged against him are liberals, leftists, and former regime elements entrenched in state institutions.

The Brotherhood may have won nearly half of all parliamentary seats in the November 2011 election, but the margin of Morsi’s presidential victory over his secular rival was a far more modest 51.7 percent against 48.3 percent.

Such a slim majority might not have been considered problematic had Morsi adopted a consensual style of leadership. But Morsi has favored a more aggressive, winner-takes-all approach that not only risks plunging Egypt into further turmoil, but also marks him out as a distinctly unoriginal Islamist.

Take his handling of the Constituent Assembly, the body tasked with drafting a new constitution. Having already stuffed it with his own supporters to ensure a favorable outcome—a presidential system with limited role for the legislature—it risked falling apart after prominent secular and Coptic members walked out earlier this month.
The controversy-prone body was already beset by questions over its legitimacy after the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) deemed the Islamist-majority upper and lower houses of Parliament (on whose basis the Constituent Assembly was formed) unconstitutional, albeit on a technicality.

In April 2012, the SCC again played the role of spoiler by ruling that the first Constituent Assembly was unconstitutional on the grounds of its non-inclusiveness, and was expected to pass a similar judgment on the current constituent assembly at the end of the month.

This threatened to derail the ratification of the Islamist-friendly constitution that the MB and their Salafist allies have been busy drafting; hence the fourth article of Morsi’s decree: “No judicial body can dissolve the Shura Council [upper house of Parliament] or the Constituent Assembly.”

In an address to his supporters, the Egyptian president said that his decision was meant to stop “weevils” from the former regime from blocking progress. It is true that judges at the SCC have been overly active in recent months, frustrating the drafting of a new constitution—which will pave the way for new parliamentary elections that observers expect would be won by the Islamists. That a small and unelected clique at the top of the judiciary should be disrupting Egypt’s democratic transition—and with it the MB’s consolidation of power—is a source of deep frustration for Morsi.

Egypt’s judiciary has come under criticism too from grass-roots activists, who accuse it of not doing enough to convict security personnel accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. In the past three months, three trials have found policemen and thugs accused of killing protesters not guilty, much to the anger of the victims’ families. The latest trial verdict was announced on 22 November, the day of Morsi’s decree. It proved to be a convenient excuse to make a move against the judges.

Had the Egyptian president stopped at replacing the Mubarak-era prosecutor-general, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, he might have come away with his reputation intact. The decree he issued, however, emasculated the judiciary by exempting both Morsi and bodies controlled by the MB from any judicial review for the next three months at the very least. This will give him ample time to steamroll through vital decisions on the country’s future unchecked by the judiciary.

The audacity and breadth of Morsi’s decree sit ill at ease with the limited nature of his stated goals, and his three percentage point margin of victory. It is little wonder, then, that the division-wracked secular opposition united for the first time to challenge what it describes as “Egypt’s new pharaoh.”

The protest held in Tahrir Square on 27 November against the decree drew a respectable quarter of a million people, and the secularists promised further actions in a political escalation seemingly coordinated with the country’s top judges. Egypt’s appeal courts have already gone on strike in protest at the decree, a move unlikely to promote conciliation in an unfolding constitutional civil war.

Blanket measures

Morsi’s battle with the judiciary follows a number of successful campaigns to curb the power of other bodies that threaten the MB’s rise. In recent months, editors of independent newspapers and high-ranking members of the press syndicate have decried attempts by Information Minister Salah Abdel-Maqsoud to limit their criticisms of the government.

More recently, trade unions have complained that another MB appointee, the Manpower Minister Ahmed Hassan El-Borai, was attempting to “Brotherhoodize” the unions through a presidential decree that allows the government to appoint board members of unions.
The Egyptian Brotherhood’s tendency to want to dominate and control state institutions is not out of character for the organization. Next door in Gaza, the MB faction Hamas was unable to share power with Fatah after its triumph at the ballot box in 2007. Today, Hamas is more entrenched in its antagonism to its secular rival than ever before, a fact underscored by a recent statement by Mahmud Al-Zahar, Hamas’s chief in Gaza, who said that if Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas was to visit the territory, “he would be arrested.”

Time and time again, Muslim Brotherhood organizations across the Arab word have missed opportunities to build a durable and broad-based consensus for change and reform. Whether by inexperience or design, their policies tended to deepen division and make differences more irreconcilable. Where they have bucked this trend it has been under duress, as is the case in Morocco. Critics say that this raises serious doubts over the MB’s commitment to an inclusive democratic process in which compromise and consensus are essential pre-requisites.

But the bottom line for MB leaders like Morsi is that they feel no moral duty to make concessions to those that have been part-and-parcel of a system that has victimized the group and denied them their rightful place in Egyptian politics. The fact that a former foreign minister under Mubarak, Amr Mousa, should now emerge as the MB’s most vocal critic merely serves to delegitimize the opposition in MB eyes, and renders its calls for greater inclusiveness all the more hypocritical.

Amidst these claims and counter-claims, in Egypt what appears to matter is not so much changing the rules of power than the affiliations of those who have it—and who therefore enjoys its spoils. It is a zero-sum game where enemies must be crushed and power sought and accumulated for its own sake.

Prominent MB member Ali Abdel-Fattah did not recognize the irony when he brushed aside criticisms of Morsi by citing Gamal Abdel-Nasser as an example of a president who resorted to extraordinary decrees under the pretext of defending a revolution. “As long as [Morsi] is democratically elected,” he said, “he has all the right to issue such a declaration.” Before it was secularists side-lining Islamists, now it will be the other way around.

Egypt will not go the way of Zimbabwe by having ‘one man, one vote, one time.’ Nor will it go the way of Syria, thanks to a military that has preferred to remain above the fray. But there will be more protests, more disorder and more economic loss. A badly needed USD4.8 billion loan from the IMF has already been delayed because of the most recent instability, and the Cairo stock market plummeted for a second time in a single week.

That has not put off the combatants. The Supreme Constitutional Court announced that it was going ahead with plans to rule on 2 December on whether to dissolve the MB-dominated Constituent Assembly that has drafted the new constitution. That same assembly has since approved the draft constitution, which paved the way for a referendum. The battle for Egypt’s future goes on.

Categories: Arabs & Democracy

My latest article for Foreign Policy: Zombie Versus Frankenstein

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Published: 15th November

Last week, the leaders of the fractured Syrian opposition movement met in the Qatari capital, vowing to put aside petty squabbling and create a more inclusive body that would better represent the country’s democratic aspirations. The new organization, the brainchild of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and liberal opposition politician Riad Seif, was rather awkwardly dubbed “the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces” — or “National Coalition” (NC) for short. Its purpose is to attract the sort of international recognition and support that has eluded the now discredited Syrian National Council (SNC) — and thus to boost the opposition’s chances of ousting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

On the surface, there are grounds for optimism. In stark contrast to the SNC, which was dominated by exile politicians, the new group has reserved a majority of seats for Syrians closely linked with the rebel movement — including delegates from the revolutionary councils formed in liberated parts of the country. This week President François Hollande of France held an impromptu press conference to announce his country’s recognition of the NC as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This followed a collective decision taken by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sheikhdoms to extend a similar level of recognition, coupled with promises of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the opposition.

The NC’s leadership too appears to be a step away from the old politics, with moderate Muslim cleric Muaz Al-Kahattib as president along with Riad Seif and female activist Suheir Al-Attasi as his deputies. All three of them left Syria recently and are largely untainted by the infighting that appears to have sunk the SNC, or any overt association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) that will alarm Washington. “The ball now is in the international community’s court,” Attasi said in Doha. “There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how efficient this new body is. They used to put the opposition to the test. Now we put them to the test.”

So it must have been a terrible disappointment when U.S. President Barack Obama declined to oblige. “We are not yet prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile, but we do think that it is a broad-based representative group,” he said of the new coalition soon after his reelection last week. “One of the questions that we are going to continue to press is making sure that that opposition is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria.” In other words, the NC has yet to prove itself before seeing any tangible rewards.

Obama was not alone in his cautiousness. Arab League ministers meeting in Cairo on Sunday urged regional and international organizations to recognize the new body as “a legitimate representative for the aspirations of the Syrian people” but stopped well short of a full recognition. This may in part be due to Saudi reservations about the NC, which it views with suspicion given the prominent role played by Qatar and Turkey in its creation, and what it perceives to be the exclusion of pro-Saudi opposition figures from the unity talks. While Al-Jazeera provided wall-to-wall coverage of proceedings in Doha, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya looked distinctly uninterested. The Russians too are not happy; not only were their Syrian opposition friends in the National Coordination Body (NCB) not invited to Doha, but the NC’s blank refusal to negotiate with Assad cuts against the grain of Russian thinking on how to resolve the conflict. The picture is a mixed one at best.

But there’s another problem that’s been largely overlooked in the news reports, and it’s one that could threaten to hobble the opposition movement in the critical months ahead. The much-criticized SNC has been sidelined by the establishment of the National Coalition — but it continues to exist. Just two days prior to the start of the unity talks between the SNC and other opposition representatives that effectively created the National Coalition, the SNC held a low-key “restructuring” conference, also in the Qatari capital, under the watchful guise of the country’s foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani. The purported aim was to elect a new leadership. Why the SNC, widely believed to be defunct, should bother with holding an election when a new opposition coalition was due to be created just days later, is no mystery. The reason has a great deal to do with the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The SNC leadership election resulted in defeat for the leading figures of the group’s liberal wing — people like Washington-based politician Radwan Ziadeh. Ex-SNC President Burhan Ghalioun did not bother to contest the election, while another liberal figurehead, Basma Kodmani, resigned from the SNC in August. Needless to say, no woman and no Alawite made it to the general secretariat. The Muslim Brotherhood marshaled their votes and did what their opponents expected least: it booted them out of the SNC by democratic means.

In the end, the Brotherhood was left controlling some 75 percent of the members of the general secretariat. The picture is even more stark in the Executive Committee, the highest body in the organization: seven out of eleven members elected are either Brotherhood members or affiliates. Having failed to win a seat in the general secretariat, the leftist Christian, George Sabra, was chosen by the Brotherhood to head the SNC as a figurehead, but only after he accepted MB hardliner Faruk Tayfur as his deputy.

But why go to all the trouble when the same effort could have been focused on building up the NC, the supposedly new-and-improved formula for opposition unity? “The NC was the idea of Riad Seif and Ambassador Robert Ford,” says long-time SNC member Abdulrahman Al-Haj. “The SNC came under tremendous pressure from the U.S. to accept their plan, but we could not simply abandon the SNC without knowing that the NC is going to work.” That the SNC, refurbished under Muslim Brotherhood guidance, should still be regarded as a useful contingency by a significant swath of Syria’s opposition suggests that they lack commitment to making the NC work.

As a result, there are now two opposition coalitions, the NC and the SNC, that are meant to do the same job. In theory, members of the SNC have been given 40 percent of the seats in the new organization, but the group is allowed to maintain its independent structure and policy-making. What’s more, the SNC is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemns the NC plan as a U.S.-inspired plot to force the opposition to the negotiating table. And yet, the MB’s top brass sit at the head of the table in the NC. This was not the result that Ambassador Ford was hoping for, and may well explain why President Obama appeared so far unconvinced by the new body.

Meanwhile, the SNC is still alive and kicking, and thanks to its recent re-structuring, it has swelled its ranks so that even those wishing to by-pass it will struggle to find the manpower to create a credible alternative. With the Muslim Brotherhood at its helm and Qatar continuing to bankroll its operations, it will survive where many “credible alternatives” will fall at the wayside. Whether any of this helps the Syrian revolution defeat Bashar al-Assad is highly unlikely.

None of this is what the NC leaders were hoping for almost a week after they had signed the draft agreement on Saturday to great fanfare. A tone of desperation was clearly discernible in a statement issued by the new NC president Muaz Al-Khattib earlier this week, when he urged Syrians inside the country to hold up placards reassuring the U.S. president of their support for the new group. Khattib’s move may have been naïve, but it shows that he understands one thing quite well: If the NC does not pick up momentum early on, including that vital recognition from the U.S., it may go the way of the SNC. Or worse.

Categories: Syrian uprising

My latest for Open Democracy: Syria, the activists grow up

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Published: 14th November 2012
The course of Syria’s revolution since its idealistic early days has been a painful learning experience for many young activists, says Malik al-Abdeh.

The early days of Syria’s uprising in spring 2011 saw young activists across the country rising to demand an end to the authoritarian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Many were idealistic students or recent graduates now working in modern professions, who were inspired by the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Their aspirations for a new Syria began with free and fair elections, constitutional reform, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and a farewell to the brutal police state.

Samir, a 31-year-old IT professional and protest organiser from Zabadani, forty-five kilometres northwest of Damascus, is typical of many from this emergent activist community. He helped coordinate the first demonstration in his hometown on 25 March 2011, and co-established there the first tansiqiya(protest coordination committee). Before this, Samir had been unaffiliated to any political party but had kept himself informed by watching satellite news channels and browsing the internet.

What tipped him into action? Samir had admired figures such as a local doctor and pro-democracy activist, Kamal Labwani, then held in jail on trumped-up charges. He was also buoyed by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But it was the vigils, boycotts and demonstrations that had occurred in Damascus in previous weeks – even before the eruption in the town of Der’aa – that gave him the boldness to act. Samir and other activists say that Syria’s revolution began on 15 March 2011 when a courageous band of young people staged the first protest in the capital’s historic Hamidiya market. Their chants were “peaceful, peaceful”, “the Syrian people are one,” and “God, Syria and Freedom.” This nascent model of protest would later be replicated in towns and cities across Syria.

The intellectual point of departure for Samir and activists like him was a belief in the innate goodness of Syria’s people and the decency of Syria’s society. They believed that Syria, once freed from the malign grip of Assad and his cronies, would return to a liberal default setting – with a multi-party system and a free press – that resembled the model of the 1950s. If Syrians were left to their own devices, they would reject sectarianism and violence, coalesce around a freedom agenda, and create the conditions for a new society to emerge: de-Ba’athified, demilitarised, and democratic. What’s more, all this could be done without foreign military intervention.

Against the odds

The heady heights of the early phase of protests made such idealism almost forgivable. Now, twenty months and later – after thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of reguees, and massive destruction of infrastructure, with no end in sight – it is clear that this Jeffersonian vision of Syria’s refoundation from a “state of nature” was nothing more than wishful thinking. The country’s steady descent into sectarian civil war and chaos makes the initial hopes of a non-violent people’s revolution look naive. This hard experience has taught many activists who began by jumping headlong into a struggle for peace, freedom and democracy a hard lesson. Between the Syria of their dreams, and the land beneath their feet, a huge chasm has widened even further.

The turning-point for Samir came in September 2012, when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in his hometown gave him a video recording to pass on to the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network. It was of local fighters, inside a holiday villa belonging to a wealthy Damascene, going through the owner’s library and removing Shi’a theological books. The FSA wanted to show the world that the presence of such books was evidence that Shi’a Iran was aiding the Syrian regime in a proselytising plot against Sunni Islam.

What really upset Samir was how little he still shared with his revolutionary comrades in the way of political vision. He had joined the uprising out of patriotism, believing that by getting rid of dictatorship and campaigning for progressive values, Syria would be on the road to joining the ranks of successful nations. “The incident reflected how much our priorities have changed”, he laments, “it was a real wake-up call.”

But it was not only the rising sectarianism that put him off. He accuses jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood of stealing a revolution started by everyday citizens and skewing its aims for their own ends. “People came out to demonstrate for four main reasons: the Arab spring, corruption, religiosity, sectarianism – in that order.” Now he explains, the order has been reversed. “A lot of people stopped participating in demonstrations when the radical Islamists began controlling them.”

Emma Suleiman, a 31-year-old media activist, goes further. She visited the northwest town of Idlib in June 2011 to record a documentary about the uprising, and returned to the governorate in August 2012. “The change was huge”, she says, “it was like Afghanistan.” What alarmed her was not just the growth of Islamist power, but the general chaos. “There was no cooperation between the different groups, no strategy, no political programme, and everyone was working for themselves.” She cites a recent French initiative to fund the running of administrative councils in rebel-held areas of Idlib, which collapsed because local commanders couldn’t agree. She wanted to advise, “but no one was prepared to listen.”

Even more difficult for many of the initial activists to accept was how many opportunists and fake revolutionaries there were. These are the “climbers” who saw in the collapse of law and order and the availability of guns an occasion to profit. Edward Dark (not his real name) is a 35-year old protester from Aleppo turned relief worker, and one of few activists to have publicly criticised the FSA. “When I saw at first hand the crimes of some of the rebel militia done in the name of the revolution, my attitude changed”, he says. “There was open sectarianism and sectarian killing, kidnappings for ransom, killing of prisoners, looting and theft were rampant, as well as extortion of businessmen and landowners, the things which had always been whitewashed by mainstream media and prominent opposition figures.”

Behind closed doors, these activists admit that they have lost ownership of the revolution. That the majority remain largely muted suggests their disillusion is mixed with a degree of bet-hedging and (even more) saving face. Inter-opposition wrangling and recrimination play into the hands of the regime, which has already won much propaganda mileage out of a few activist defections. The opposition’s ranks, albeit mostly in rhetoric, remain united against Assad.

In fact, though, the activists’ fortunes have already been declining for some time. The rise of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA in the latter months of 2011 helped relegate the young, university-educated idealists, armed with nothing more than their laptops and their conscience, to the bottom of the revolutionary pecking order. The latter had tried to set up their own organisations but these were either too narrowly focused on human-rights work to the detriment of playing a more active political role (as in the case of the Local Coordination Committees [LCCs], run by human-rights lawyer Razan Zaytuna), or unable to create a single representative body (as in the case of the Syrian Revolution General Commission [SRGC], which effectively collapsed).

The sad reality is that the odds were stacked against the activists from the start. They were mostly urban, middle-class and educated, a minority within a largely rural and working-class revolution. The regime’s uncompromising totalitarianism meant that they were neither able to act as interlocutors by extracting real concessions, nor commit wholeheartedly to the armed struggle. Amid the shelling, their initiatives to encourage nonviolent civil disobedience and civil-society empowerment began to appear indulgent, even luxurious. No wonder then, that when the unarmed protests lost centrality in the uprising, many of the more ambitious activists – from sincere conviction, or attracted by by the limelight and the facilities – gravitated towards the opposition’s political or military wings.

Between dream and reality

This tale of shattered dreams is not unique to Syria. The youth that created Tahrir Square were not able to capitalise on their victory, and have seen their march stolen by Islamists and former regime associates. In Tunisia, the young unemployed are beginning to turn against their democratically-elected masters. In Yemen, the game of musical chairs continues to alienate and disgruntle, a Nobel peace-prize notwithstanding. Perhaps, it was all too much to expect from a new and untested generation.

The activists themselves may also be criticised for failing to learn from history. Violent social upheavals do not always bring about lasting and positive change; quite often, they result in power shifting sideways to new elites and new paradigms of governance that are not very different from the old ones. The Russian revolution led to the gulag and the cold war, the Iranian revolution to the rise of an expansionist sectarian theocracy.

Syria’s own history, the 1950s precedent notwithstanding, provides little in the way of optimism. “Syria” and “Syrians” were, in Albert Hourani’s view – referring to the creation of a state by Britain and France after 1918 – “ancient entities but very modern notions.” The societies that inhabited a provincial hinterland of a backward and crumbling empire proved unable to keep pace with the rapid demands of newly-bestowed nation-statehood. The outward appearance of modernity belies a society still wrestling with a host of subnational and supranational loyalties and injustices that are the Ottomans’ legacy to today’s Levantines. A candid look at Syria today reveals a picture of tribal selfishness masquerading as populist nationalism; little wonder that scheming politicians, local toughs and extremists of every kind have prospered, and why violence, vulgarity and bravado have become the order of the day.

Peoples and systems entrenched in power don’t go down without a fight. More than ever Bashar al-Assad deserves to go, but both his regime and the opposition will stop at nothing in their desperation to triumph. Outside observers have been shocked by the levels of wanton cruelty perpetrated on each side, to the extent that they wonder what Syrians now still have in common. The divide is accentuated by propaganda campaigns that focus on rallying core constituencies at the cost of promoting a middle-ground consensus. Events on the ground suggest that Syrians face a grim choice: a regime victory or the destruction of the state.

This presents an acute dilemma for the activists, because in their idealised conception of regime change there is still a firm requirement for, if not a strong dosage of civic awareness, then at the very least a modicum of state cohesion. This dilemma was never felt in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, where government changed hands but society remained relatively cohesive and consequently the state remained standing. By misjudging the nature of their own society, the activists became actors in a struggle that was stubbornly refusing to play to the rules they had imagined for it.

The day after

Despite all this, it’s not curtains just yet. Almost two years and thousands of videos on, the activists still carry the unique currency of hope. That may seem less powerful than the violence of the FSA rebel warriors, it still matters. For revolutions are in the end judged primarily by what they aspire to and build, not what they destroy.

The uprising may have been lit by events elsewhere, but its fuel is homegrown: rural poverty and (mainly) Sunni discontent. In the end all combatants grow tired of fighting, and a new political order will almost certainly emerge that will address, in one shape or another, the delicate question of how to redistribute political power and national wealth more equitably. This is not a task that angry men with kalashnikovs can do. Wherever it may lead and however long it takes, in the struggle for Syria there will always be a place on the political stage for the champions of rationalism and pragmatism, moderation and compromise. When the guns fall silent, the liberal vision held by the activists is the only one that makes sense for multi-religious, multi-ethnic Syria.

In the race to rescue meaning from the nihilism of civil war, much will depend on whether Syrian activists can turn from disillusioned idealists to aspiring realists. In the process, they may achieve something that has so far eluded the youth of the Arab spring: the creation of a real leadership that advocates inclusive change.

To such an end, forty-five activists launched The Day After project in August 2012. This is an initiative designed to foster a shared vision of Syria’s democratic future, define the goals and principles of a transition, and prepare a detailed yet flexible transition planning document.” It’s a start, though many challenges remain: to frame the conflict within its real real historical and socio-economic roots, and set out out specific policies to address them, thereby laying the foundations for an enlightened settlement. In this regard, the younger generation of activists face a long road, and the moral qualities that motivated them in the early days of the Syrian uprising – as well as the tougher political ones picked up along the way – will be needed if they are to become agents of what Montesquieu called “a deeper immanent tendency of their society in motion.”

In truth, Samir and his colleagues may not see the fruits of their labour until they are well into middle age. But if the Syrian revolution is to grow up, it will still need the young men and women who once claimed it as their own.

Categories: Syrian uprising
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