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Edition 15 Volume 10 - April 26, 2012

The Arab revolutions: strategic assessment II

The Syrian will to live  - Rime Allaf
Powers that could have made a difference simply uttered vague declarations.

Changing our analytical paradigms  - Joseph Bahout
For more than a decade to come, chaos will remain a structural feature.

A Turkish view  - Ersin Kalaycioglu
They all seem to be cajoling Turkey to do the dirty work in Syria.

Young Palestinian activists seek traction  - Omar Rahman
The youth activists of March 15 have not disappeared.

The Syrian will to live
 Rime Allaf

When Tahrir Square resonated with the roar of Egyptians chanting for the fall of the regime, certain in their anticipation that Hosni Mubarak like Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before him would be ousted imminently, many Syrians watched with admiration and solidarity, but with little illusion that such exhilarating scenes could magically resurface in Damascus.

There seemed to be little appetite yet--at least in the open--for protests after decades of silent acquiescence to the regime's petty and ruthless authority. There also was no doubt in anyone's mind that should the people rise up, the regime would not hesitate to silence dissent in any way it could.

Fifteen school children's jailing and torturing later, these hesitations were swept aside as the Syrian uprising's spark spread like wildfire through the country. As expected, it was met with the Assad regime's full brutality, a repression that will go down in history as one of the most horrific against a population braving live fire with bare chests and daring slogans.

As the revolution gained traction, Syrians seemed convinced that everyone was on their side; not only were they just as worthy of dignity and freedom as their fellow Arabs, but most of the world's powers could not stand the Syrian regime, having spent years threatening and isolating it. If ever there was a popular revolution the free world was sure to embrace and applaud, it would be this one.

Not Israel, though, which for years had enjoyed secure borders through a de facto understanding with the Assad regime. Highlighting this fact, President Bashar Assad sent a clear message through the New York Times: Rami Makhlouf, the Assads' financial portfolio manager, guaranteed Israel's safety as long as Assad was in power, but warned there would be massive chaos should he fall.

For the rest of the world, predictably, Syrian media concocted a tale of Zionist, imperialist, Gulf, Ottoman, neocon conspiracy with a narrative of self-defense against armed terrorist gangs. To the regime's delight, many Syrian loyalists were only too happy to believe this and to openly support the regime's violent repression on a massive scale.

Caught by surprise (like everyone else) by the speed and magnitude of these events, the United States not only refrained from criticizing the regime but even maintained silence for a few weeks before declaring, to the dismay of most Syrians, that Bashar Assad, lo and behold, was a "reformer". It took months for the assessment to escalate slightly in tone, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deeming that Assad was "not indispensable" and had "lost legitimacy." By then, the Syrian revolutionaries had lost their innocence, and the Syrian regime had lost its reticence. Full scale military repression was unleashed, and the ghosts of Hama were awakened.

For months on end, powers that could have made a difference simply uttered vague declarations and issued ineffective sanctions on the regime. Turkey warned, repeatedly but emptily, of dire consequences should Assad not stop the killing. Unheeding, the Syrian regime continued to pound the population, convinced that only brute force and a real war of terror would subdue the revolt and bring the country back under its control.

It gradually became clear to many Syrians that the world's powers also secretly wished for just that, and were using the opposition's disunity as a pretext to do nothing as they waited for the uprising to die down. While a toothless Arab League proposed a solution involving an increasingly organized, albeit not united Syrian opposition, Russia shone in the leading rogue role of regime supporter, conveniently vetoing any reluctant attempt to condemn Assad or to protect the population.

For now, Syria has become to Russia what Israel has been to the US: the protege that can do no wrong as long as it protects the interests of its sponsor, which is bullying the neighbors should they even think of intervening.

As it openly helps the Syrian regime survive, Russia is also allowing the US to pretend outrage as it monitors events, patiently waiting for the uprising and the sanctions to weaken the state, a la Iraq pre-2003. This is the exact opposite of every Syrian revolutionary and opposition group's wishes, which strive to save the state while discarding its violent regime.

Syrians always expected theirs to be the hardest of all liberation struggles, knowing the barbaric treatment that awaited them from the regime's thugs, but they still tried to keep their protests peaceful even as the death toll mounted. It took months for an armed resistance to form, and it took even longer for Syrians to start requesting, reluctantly, foreign intervention. But it took a whole year for them to realize that nobody was likely to come to their aid, that their right to self-defense was to be dismissed in a cavalier manner, and that they would be fighting alone.

As they adjust to this new reality and revise their expectations, Syrians are watching the latest half-hearted attempt to end the violence and engage the regime diplomatically. Indeed, the six-point plan devised by United Nations Special Envoy Kofi Annan begins with a ceasefire that the regime has completely ignored, shelling and killing with impunity while a handful of blue helmets parade around the country. What should have been an urgent action to protect civilians has become an ugly, violent version of the Emperor's New Clothes, with everyone pretending to be concerned about the "fragile ceasefire" that never was in the first place.

Syrians may take symbolic comfort in the exposure of Assad's pretense of being a benign, reluctant dictator who would modernize the country and state system, but they take real strength from the certitude that poet Abou Kassem Al Shabi bequeathed the Arab people: If the people summon the will to live, destiny is bound to answer their call.-Published 26/4/2012 bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.

Changing our analytical paradigms
 Joseph Bahout

The Arab revolutions represent, from a macro-historical point of view, one of the most tremendous changes in Middle East structures since the region's contemporary inception. So far, the transformations have touched three levels at least: that of society and social forces; that of state and political forces; and that of the regional system, its place in the international one and its implications for the latter.

In societies hitherto perceived as crippled by political passivity, a sudden and unexpected fever has seized the "street" and seemingly will not waiver. What some would call "Tahrirocracy"--rule through the squares--is a phenomenon that all new governments will have to reckon with from now on. In parallel to a growing lack of absolute power and control by state and security apparatuses, individuals and spontaneous social movements have acquired increased initiative and bigger leverage and have invented original and surprising mobilization tactics and techniques.

To that end, the full spectrum of possibilities offered by the new tools of social media has been used and mastered. By relying on what cyberspace has to offer, headless and leaderless protest movements have introduced the multiplying factor of networks. Positioned somewhere between aging oligarchies of rulers clinging to power and tightly-knit Islamist organizations, it was this recipe that allowed a forgotten social segment of liberal youth to emerge and reassert its presence on the political scene.

If the old Arab state model is now in agony, the shape of the new ones claiming to replace it is still to be drawn. What is so far undeniable in the Middle East is the gradual demise of an entire mode of legitimacy, one born in the 1950s and 60s--a legitimacy that relied on the ancient discourse of radical and exclusive Arab nationalism, on verbal steadfastness and struggle against imperialism and western pro-Israelism, on a blend of centralized socialism, corporatism, and crony-capitalism, and on a power structure captured and monopolized by putschist militaries and their epigones.

If the alternative contours of the new Arab state are still vague, the death of this legitimacy already partially explains why it was regimes like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and potentially Syria that were brought down first and most violently, while monarchies in their diverse forms are still relatively (but for how long?) spared by the wave.

Contenders for post-revolutionary power are yet to be located and defined, both in ideological terms and with regard to political practice. Political Islam will no doubt be a major source of inspiration. But here again, contradictions are already in place: classical Muslim Brotherhood-type forces will plead for a blend of economic liberalism, social ultraconservatism and political pragmatism, but they will be challenged from the right by their Salafi competitors and from the left by their liberal-progressive contradictors.

What is quite certain in the meantime is that post-revolutionary states and societies will be, for a while at least, much more inward-looking and more attentive to domestic issues than to broader external problems. In this respect it was interesting to try to listen, beneath the past year's roar of the Arab street, to what was said in terms of posture towards the world, and towards the West more specifically. If one can find a single common denominator among the differentiated revolts and upheavals storming the region from the Maghreb to the Arab Gulf, one word subsumes it all: "Dignity".

Though simplistically spelled out, the "Karama" slogan chanted in the Arab street had to do with a range of themes, stemming from individual rights to peoples' demand to master their collective fate and to reclaim their role and relevance in the international system. If Arab revolutions reversed one long-established concept, it was the absolute influence and potency of external powers' will on the region's dynamics. While it may be a bit premature to confirm, it was no meaningless coincidence that the Arab revolutionary sequence inaugurated, among other dynamics, a shift in the international system's equilibrium and laid the premise of a return to some sort of cold war climate.

Let no one be fooled: what is now labeled "Arab revolution" will be a long-term sequence of protracted changes and transformations, most of which are still unpredictable today. Before the dust settles throughout the region, and for more than a decade to come, chaos will remain a structural feature. Far from being a linear process, this will be a bumpy and sinuous road where progress is often matched by regression. This is why, for analysts and observers of the region, what has happened so far should be taken as more than a simple cold shower. Rather, it is a historical event that must induce a deep revision of our conceptual paradigms and the invention of new analytical tools.-Published 26/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Joseph Bahout teaches Middle East politics at Science-Po Paris, and is a senior researcher at Academie Diplomatique Internationale.

A Turkish view
 Ersin Kalaycioglu

When the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid led to an avalanche of protests in Tunisia in January 2011, nearly the entire Arab world began to rock with popular uprisings. Unforeseen protests by Arab youth seemed to catch diplomats, politicians, and students of Middle East politics unprepared. The initial reaction of the pundits was that a long awaited wave of democratization appeared to have arrived.

Then, the initial euphoria began to subside as the events in Yemen and Libya turned into tribal warfare and in Syria into sectarian civil war. Since we have no evidence in human history that tribalism leads to democracy, pundits began to wonder whether Arab revolt was ushering in democracy, tribalism, or yet another form of authoritarianism such as theocracy.

Indeed, Yemen had been experiencing anti-government protests before 2011. But with the revolt in Tunisia, the Yemeni uprisings gained greater relevance, followed by Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco experienced minor stirrings, which were met with some reforms and, in Saudi Arabia, washed away with petrodollars. Bahraini revolts were crushed by force with the military aid and intervention of Saudi Arabia. Formerly effervescent Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi, and Algerian politics seemed not to have changed into anything further tumultuous.

Eventually, Yemen experienced just a change of leader as the main political actors preserved their positions. Egypt also experienced the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, his family and close entourage, where the military took over the reigns of government and began to manage the transition to popular or populist rule. Libya, with the onslaught of NATO forces on the side of the rebels, slid into a tribal civil war, which led to the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. Syria also moved from peaceful popular protests to armed conflict between Muslim Brotherhood-led Sunni communities and the Alawite/Nusayri/Shiite-led government.

Interestingly, different interlocutors took part in influencing events from Tunisia to Yemen to Syria. It looks as if the two Wahabi political regimes of the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been playing a major role in all of the theaters of conflict as soft powers with enormously deep pockets. Curiously enough, these two major Wahabi states are the staunchest enemies of democracy and individual liberties, especially for women, yet they seem to be pressuring the Assad regime in Syria to democratize.

The United States, European powers, and Turkey appear to have collaborated with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in locking horns with Iran and its Shiite allies. In contrast, Wahabi support for the Salafist al-Nour party in Egypt seems to precipitate serious concern for democracy in Egypt in the eyes of US and European politicians. Israel continues to be concerned about Iran's nuclear power while enjoying the emergence of neighboring challengers of Iran, with a Wahabi-Israeli-US-European-Turkish alliance emerging by default in the Middle East in which Turkey and Israel are at odds with each other as well. The potential severing of the ties linking Iran, Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine seems to be the goal of this alliance. Russia and China appear to be holding to a more status-quo path as they try to keep the Atlantic alliance from moving into Syria in a repeat of the Libya affair.

Syria does not seem as easy a target as Libya. Apparently, the European powers show no eagerness to get involved in a Syrian civil war. The United States also has no taste for another Middle East affair as presidential elections approach. Instead, they all seem to be cajoling Turkey to do the dirty work in Syria.

But the Turkish government perceives in Syria the danger of intensifying conflict with Iran and feels the weight of history as a major disadvantage in trying to re-design the Syria affair. While the conservative government of Turkey harks back to Ottoman times as a golden era, the Arabs remember it as their dark age. A Turkish intervention in Syria would intensify anti-Turkish feelings not only with Syria but probably with the rest of the Arab world--attitudes the former zero-problem and open-borders policies of the government were trying to ameliorate.

While Syria, Libya, and Iraq are grappling with tribal and sectarian civil war-like strife, Tunisia seems to enjoy calm and to have the highest chance of developing some form of democracy in the foreseeable future. Egypt appears to be following a path somewhere in-between these two extremes. Evidently Syria, the new Middle East theater of conflict pitting Sunni-Wahabi against Shiite political forces, is robustly moving to replace Lebanon in that function. It should come as no surprise if we observe a protracted struggle there of the main sectarian Muslim forces before any major change occurs in the Middle East.-Published 26/4/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ersin Kalaycioglu is full professor of political science at Sabanci University, Istanbul, specializing in comparative politics with special emphasis on Middle Eastern and Turkish politics.

Young Palestinian activists seek traction
 Omar Rahman

It is one of the great ironies of the "Arab spring" that, as revolution has swept through the entire Middle East, laying waste to 40-year old regimes and pressuring others into differing levels of accommodation, the region's model of instability, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has remained relatively calm. Although undergoing their own rumbles of civil unrest inspired by regional developments, Israelis and Palestinians have experienced nothing that might shake the foundations of their governments or the interminable status quo of Israeli occupation.

In Palestine, youth inspired by events elsewhere in the region organized demonstrations against the political divisions that have paralyzed their own political system, but failed in their efforts to galvanize a mass movement. A closer inspection into this attempt reveals much about the state of Palestinian society today and what can be expected in the future.

The youth-led protests in Palestine, otherwise known as the March 15 movement--in sync with the chronological labeling given to counterparts in the region--addressed two of the most problematic domestic issues facing Palestinian politics: factional division and reform of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Using social media as a trigger and an organizing tool, these activists attempted to galvanize the Palestinian population into action, a tactic that ultimately failed.

Unlike the revolution in Egypt, which was years in the making, the March 15 movement was planned only a couple of months in advance and lacked inroads into the Palestinian community as a whole. In Palestinian society, such organizing is traditionally done through political factions that have deep roots, which the young, independent youth organizers lacked. Moreover, when the demonstrations and other activities collected a little steam, the traditional political parties attempted to co-opt the nascent movement for their own aims. Moreover, the youth maintained a horizontal leadership that pulled apart under the strain of the various external forces and internal decision-making pressures.

From the outset, March 15 faced a severe challenge in trying to mobilize Palestinian society. Although the sentiments that motivated the young activists into action are extremely popular among Palestinians generally, at the moment the community is not fertile ground for large-scale political protest. Having paid the heavy cost of two intifadas in the past 25 years without seeing any gains, Palestinians are weary and not eager to launch another uprising of any kind.

Since the end of the second intifada in the mid-2000s, Palestinians have generally focused on trying to create semi-normal lives within what can only be described as an abnormal situation. Although the Oslo accords with Israel have calcified and the Palestinian Authority is only a semi-autonomous transitional government, it is also the largest employer in the occupied territories and few seem interested in its endangerment. The Palestinian Authority has also built a significant security apparatus that it has been willing to use against its own people, among them political dissidents.

If the March 15 movement accomplished anything, however, it was to demonstrate to the Palestinian Authority leadership that it is not immune from civil unrest and that widespread dissatisfaction with its decisions can spill into the streets if not addressed. After the initial protest brought thousands into the streets of Ramallah and Gaza, the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas--which have been divided since 2007--quickly set in motion a renewed process of reconciliation.

This step taken by leaders two months into the protest was able to bring the demonstrations to a quick end by satisfying--albeit superficially--the principle aim of the protesters, whose movement had yet failed to gather significant momentum.

Despite being unsuccessful in their first attempt, the youth activists of March 15 have not disappeared. They still play a major role in other processes taking place on the ground. Many of the activists that were part of March 15 filtered back into the "popular struggle" launched by individual villages being encroached on by Jewish settlements and the separation barrier. Others have joined the anti-apartheid Boycott Divestment and Sanctions struggle. Armed with a new appreciation for social media, they have since used it to magnify the protests' visibility and reach a wide global audience. The village of Nabi Saleh, which has become a symbol of the popular struggle movement, is a direct example of where these activists have brought the local protest of a village of 500 on to a global stage.

Moreover, in the March 15 demonstrations and still today, these activists are acquiring valuable experience, as well as organizational and communication skills that could serve them well if the situation on the ground once again becomes ripe for collective action, a possibility that does not seem too far in the distance.-Published 26/4/2012 bitterlemons-international.org

Omar Rahman is a freelance journalist in Ramallah whose work can be viewed at www.orahman.com.

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