Over the past two centuries, Arabs asked themselves an endless stream of questions. The appropriate role of Islam in politics; the dialectic relationship between tradition and modernity; the merits or demerits of liberalism and socialism; the meaning and purpose of a true Arab or Muslim identity; the challenge of how to bring to Arab societies the light of renaissance out of the squalor of backwardness; and how to manage the relationship with the West and, after 1948, Israel were, to name a few, some of the theoretical debates that have preoccupied Arabs since the dawn of the 19th century.
Hardly any of these questions have been settled and put to rest, adding to the travails of a nation seeking to come to grips with its wretched present and future. Still raging in the Arab mind, these open questions are causing confusion, the lack of a vision and the absence of a true sense of direction. Now, additionally, the powerful winds blowing from the civil war in Syria have triggered a number of political questions that could have far-reaching ramifications on the region’s state-society relations, interstate dynamics and international affairs.
First, with the escalation of the civil war in Syria, Arabs have found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, supporting Bashar Al-Assad or jeopardizing Syria’s territorial integrity. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 had put down the roots of the modern Arab state system, carving new political entities in an area brimming with a jumbled mix of identities and peculiarities. Yet, after around 100 years of state ideology indoctrination and simmering nationalism, the artificial borders of Arab states are seen as deep-rooted, almost sacred. Even new states like Jordan (established in the 1920s) and the oil-rich Gulf states such as Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (born only in the 1970s), have forged a formidable national identity despite their late entry into the realm of nation-states. Although challenged by a number of sub-state and supra-state affiliations, the Arab state has prevailed, physically and psychologically. There is a belief in the region that Arab states are immortal, their land is sacred and their present-day borders will never change.
But then came the stalemate of the Syrian civil war, which pitted the state against a motley group of militias that aspire to change the country’s political map. The kaleidoscopic nature of the combatants, and the many claimants to Syrian land, led to a situation summarized by the famous catchphrase ‘there will be no Syria after Assad.’ In the scheme of things, indeed, the chances of maintaining Syria’s integrity are slim if the Alawite-led regime of Assad is jettisoned. For Syrians and Arabs in general, this situation poses a political and moral dilemma. Is it morally right to support a dictator as ruthless as Assad in order to maintain Syria’s geographic integrity and avoid its partition? Or isn’t opposing a regime that killed hundreds of thousands of its people, and displaced millions, a moral obligation?
Second, the war in Syria pitted against each other two nefarious parties: A tyrant regime and fanatic Islamic groups. To be sure, in the course of the war, both parties looked in many respects like they were cut from the same cloth. Both demonstrated that they are enemies of freedom, committed hideous crimes against humanity; and stirred sectarianism and exacerbated the Sunni-Shia rift. Both are the past. There is no shred of doubt that neither, in the judgement of any sensible mind, can ever lead the way to a better future.
The same dynamics are at play in various, if not most, Arab states. In power, there is usually an autocratic regime - sultanistic, dynastic, or theocratic – that has a long history of oppression and socioeconomic mismanagement. In the opposition, there is an Islamic party whose ideas are incongruent with liberal democracy and whose cadres are short on the skills of governance. Without other alternatives, Arabs are confronted with hard choices. In Syria’s current “dance of death,” the choice has been between despotism and religious fascism, Mukhabarat barons and warlords, a republic of fear and a dystopian caliphate, or, more simply, between Assad and ISIS. In such a tradeoff between hell and inferno, neither predator is entitled to “the lesser evil” status.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 had offered a rare opportunity, a clear path out of the dilemma. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Bourguiba Street in Tunis, the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, and other sites brewing with fury and hope, the pro-democracy activists raised the banner of reform. They advocated the creation of a humane and just political order that is neither autocratic nor Sharia-based. But the torch of revolution was quickly snuffed out, perhaps laid to waste by these two potent forces in Arab politics: Tyrannies defending entrenched interests, and Islamic parties, long waiting in the wing for a cunning takeover. Six years after the so-called Arab spring, Arab peoples wonder: Now what? Where is the way forward? And what kind of future lies ahead for Arab societies if the choice remains confined to these two forces of the past?
The third question raised by the war in Syria is whether resistance to tyranny by force is legitimate. Peaceful forms of dissent are unquestionably legitimate, both legally and politically. But taking up arms against a dictatorship is entirely different. Obviously, no such debate would take place in an established democracy, where peaceful dissent is tolerated, and where the system’s constitutional and legal lines are clearly demarcated. But when it comes to a regime as that of Assad - whose ruthlessness is unparalleled even by Arab world standards - a window for debate has opened.
This question is rooted in old philosophical debates about the state’s monopoly of the use of coercion, which Max Weber argued is “one of the defining characteristics of the modern state.” But Weber’s theory has many detractors. Frantz Fanon, for instance, posited that violence can have a cathartic and liberating effect; only violence pays, he said. In her cerebral book On Violence, Hannah Arendt used the perplexing argument that under certain circumstances (such as self-defense), violence “can be justifiable, but it will never be legitimate.” And wearing the hat of a public intellectual, Jean Paul Sartre went as far as advocating armed resistance against the state, using the famous line: Terrorism is the atomic bomb of the poor.
These arguments may be radical, but they could be extremely appealing to the oppressed, especially if backed by religious scriptures. In the drab landscape of Arab authoritarian regimes, whose resilience has bred vexation and despair, there are those who believe that state oppression justifies counter-violence, or jihad. Under duress, they believe, using “all” means of resistance is legitimate, or even imperative. Terrorism was clearly born from this belief. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the hopefuls who still believe that reform can originate from inside the sclerotic regimes, or through a gradual accumulation of social pressure, or perhaps through a stroke of historical luck.
Both are misguided. Neither violence nor inaction will do. Between the distress and the daydreaming, the road to a better future is lost. At any rate, the outcome of the debate on armed resistance will have serious repercussions on the future of political dynamics in the region.
The fourth question is about the appropriateness of armed foreign intervention. The presence of foreign boots on Arab soil has long been a taboo in the Arab world. This is why, for instance, the majority of Arab people opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 despite their resentment of Saddam Hussein and his ruling clique. This is also why both the regime and the opposition in Syria are in a morally difficult situation. Both dragged foreign military forces to the civil war. Assad’s regime has invited a plethora of foreign parties to the conflict (including Russia, Hezbollah and several Shia Iraqi militias), and the opposition recruited to its ranks thousands of foreign fighters from more than 80 countries.
Now in its seventh year, the longevity of the Syrian conflict seems to have set a blatant precedent for the region, introducing a practice which was hitherto loathed. This begs a number of questions: Is it now legitimate for an embattled regime to seek, or invite, outside help if its survival was at stake? In the same vein, is it legitimate for “freedom fighters” to collaborate with foreign brothers-in-arms against a native ruler? And where should the line be drawn concerning the “acceptable” nature and extent of foreign military involvement in a domestic conflict?
The last question involves Israel, the longtime foe of the Arab nation. Egypt had made peace with Israel in the 1970s, followed by Jordan and the PLO in the 1990s. But Israel remained largely ostracized by other Arab states, who maintained that relations with Israel would only be normalized after Israel withdrew from occupied Arab territory—the ‘land for peace’ formula. Most Arab people take a tougher stance, casting Israel in diabolical light and opting for a complete boycott of the Jewish state.
This hardline perception has not been consigned to memory but it seems to be changing. The horrors committed by the Assad regime and ISIS made the crimes of Israel look, in comparison, rather mild. In the game of calculation, it is apparent that the number of victims killed at the hands of any Arab state in response to social upheaval is significantly higher than those who perished as a consequence of Israel’s violence against the Palestinians. The Arab media has also softened its tone towards Israel. It was striking to note, during the heart-stirring battle for Aleppo, that several Arab dailies reported on Israel’s provision of medical assistance to Syrians injured in the fighting. Their coverage used words that, explicitly or implicitly, hinted at the gulf separating those who inflict pain and those who relieve it, the Arab/Islamist militias and Israel, respectively. This was hitherto unthinkable.
Concerning Israel, accordingly, several questions have propped up: Has Israel ceased to be the paragon of evil in the Arab world? Is the Palestinian question still the central conflict in the region, as Arab governments have claimed for the past seven decades? If not, could this lead to a historic breakthrough in Middle East peace talks?
As of today, these five questions have not been delicately nuanced in the minds of Arab thinkers and practitioners, let alone become part of a public debate. However, they will surface tomorrow as events continue to unfold with velocity in a region that has turned into an open war theatre, a ‘museum without walls.’ These bewildering questions, and the war of ideas they will probably generate, might mold and remold the region in ways never seen before. A change may be just around the corner, so we better be prepared for it.
Nael M. Shama
* This essay appeared in The New Arab (English) on April 17, 2017.