This has certainly been one of the great weeks in the Middle East: so much is going on that it would be foolish to try to deal with all of it. But foolish I am, and that is exactly what I am about to try to do. I have spent all week reading countless articles and opinions about the current wave of goings-on, nearly all of them factually short-sighted, and I have quite frankly had enough. Here, therefore, are some truths, most of them unpleasant, all of them uncomfortable for the West. But that is, after all, what the West is here for: to be deliciously hypocritical, then squirm in anguish and outrage when its deceptions are pointed out.
The Arab Spring has taken on a new dimension this week, and it is not one which is conducive to short-term stability, although its long-term prospects seem rosier. With protests against SCAF’s attempts to re-shape itself as a sort of Egyptian derin devlet within what might one day be a democratic system reaping such rapid results, the more long-term attitude of the uprisings has become evident. It is no longer enough to push for the removal of the tyrant – the system must go too. We are now in a position to look back at those who said, all those months ago, that it was amazing that Egypt should achieve such a transformation within only 18 days, and reply “Bollocks. The kind of change they want is something that cannot come within 18 days. This just means that something superficial has been altered.” The timescale of the Libyan Civil War is far closer to what you would expect to overthrow a system of government, and in a way the Libyans were fortunate not to have the option of deposing a figurehead, leaving his system intact: Gaddafi was the system (although this situation creates its own problems). The Arabs themselves – despite what the Guardian might say – have not suddenly understood this overnight. They have been aware from the start of the dangers of allowing the State-within-a-state to continue running unimpeded. But the newly-honed focus on this is likely to be even less popular with the regional and global powers than their first set of demands, not because of its sudden willingness to fight back – Egyptian protesters yelling at others to stop chanting “silmiyya” (peaceful) and the emergence of the Free Syrian Army are just two examples of this tendency, emboldened by the apparent success of Libya’s bloodbath – but because the replacement of national political systems is a threat to the hegemony of whom it may concern (the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are the most likely culprits).
After five days of clashes in Tahrir Square, it is obvious that even if the Egyptian elections are held as planned – in their ludicrously complicated way – the legitimacy of whatever government they produce has been fatally undermined. So, too, has the reputation of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose pushmi-pullyu attitude to joining the protests for fear of upsetting the electoral process has made it evident that they just want power, even if it exists under a flawed system. This, at least, is what the liberal Egyptians, who are unlikely to have been the Brotherhood’s biggest fans anyway, are saying. I would like to know – although this is difficult – what people in Egypt who aren’t at Tahrir Square think of the Brotherhood, and of the current round of protests. How did they receive Tantawi’s speech? Given the freedom with which the Egyptian press is reporting the events at Tahrir (and, lest we forget, elsewhere in the country), it is likely that a greater segment of the population is aware of the brutality than was the case early on in the February season. This may not work exclusively in the protesters’ favour: the demonstrations back then were almost entirely peaceful, and although the extent of the violence is difficult to judge, this round of unrest seems far more bloody on both sides, which risks alienating a lot of otherwise supportive Egyptians, particularly those who might be receptive to arguments that SCAF’s promise to leave power by next July is unreasonable. The military is doing its bit by holding press conferences involving a minute’s silence for the “martyrs” (although they mean the February martyrs, not the current ones) which will antagonise the demonstrators and look like conciliation to everybody else. Nevertheless, the mood in Egypt has once against left the Americans behind to mutter about ‘both sides exercising restraint’ and ‘a peaceful solution’ to the crisis – between shouting at Bashar, of course – without really understanding that their involvement in urging Tantawi to kick Mubarak out after he failed to resign on air for the third time merely served to prolong the very military rule that they were supposedly helping to remove.
This is why the West’s attitude to Yemen is so skull-crushingly incompetent. That Saleh has finally decided to hand over power (in 30 days) to his deputy is of course good. That’s all. It is not, contrary to what you might read or hear, the most sparkling and amazing event since Gaddafi’s death (the people who will tell you it is probably would regard Gaddafi’s death as an unequivocally positive step). The Americans and the Saudis, frantic about the prospect of al-Qaeda gaining ground in Yemen and totally ignorant of any connection between their domination of that country and al-Qaeda’s presence in the first place, have finally forced Saleh into signing an agreement which offers him full immunity from prosecution (an intensely creepy thing to insist upon by anyone’s standards) and gives him 30 days to hand over power to his deputy. Even assuming that he goes after that period has elapsed, the various members of his family will still be in prominent national positions (including his son, at the head of a large part of the army), his party will still exist and hold what is most probably an illegitimate majority in parliament, and no timetable has yet been announced for holding new elections. Nevertheless, Obama, the Saudis, and a number of media outlets are claiming that Yemen has been pulled back from the brink of civil war (although Brian Whitaker’s article this morning is excellent). Given his record, I would hold off on naming Saleh the 4th casualty of the Arab Spring until he has verifiably left power. The Yemenis are not celebrating. They realise all of this and are vowing to continue protesting – a predictable reaction even without events in Egypt to remind everyone of the dangers of an unfinished revolution.
And Syria. In the past week I have read such a concentrated volume of idiocy about Syria that I doubt my brain will ever recover. Western governments and newspapers seem endlessly convinced that Bashar is about three days away from calling it quits. This is partly motivated by a hopeless misreading of the Arab League’s campaign against Assad, which I covered a few days ago, and which has given people a far more pessimistic view of the Ba’th Party’s situation. But the newest trend in political analysis is to ridicule and reject the idea that Syria could ever slide into civil war. This is partly because Syria has been stable under the Ba’th Party for so long that it’s hard to believe that before 1970, the entire country was a larger, more volatile version of Lebanon, suffering from ever-changing governments and continuous foreign interference. Since the Ba’th Party started losing its grip, ever so slightly, the situation has been deteriorating rapidly, and the emergence of institutions like the Free Syrian Army is only going to hasten the country down the road to civil war. Bashar and the Sergei Lavrov have already spoken publicly about this danger, and their warnings should not be mocked merely because they are biased. The FSA’s attack on a military intelligence base, although a daring symbolic success, was deeply irresponsible. If a civil war starts in Syria, the West will end up being dragged into it at some point. The Americans, French, British, Italians, Spanish, Israelis, and Syrians combined were unable to keep the peace in the city of Beirut for a year! What chance do they have in Syria? An internationalised Syrian Civil War would involve Lebanon, Israel, and quite possibly Iran – and let us not forget that the whole point of this exercise, from a Western point of view, is not to get Syrians democracy, although it would be nice, but to crush Iran’s influence – and it would be one of the most destructive events in global history, never mind that of the Middle East.
The Syrians, of course, have known the dangers of fixating on a figure from the start. Unlike the calls for Ben Ali and Mubarak to step down, invective against Bashar (and, incidentally, Tantawi) are a stand-in for deeper grievances with the system. This does not reduce the amount of ire felt against the individual, but his name is used to represent something greater and altogether more faceless: the Ba’th Party. Western governments naturally don’t realise this, and when Cameron or Obama address Bashar they mean him exclusively. What Abdullah Gül means when he calls for Bashar’s resignation is a little more opaque, but the Turks probably have a more nuanced understand of Syrian power relations than what is to be found in Whitehall or Washington. The idea that once Bashar has left his party apparatus will crumble could scarcely be further from the truth. As I have said before, if Bashar or the Ba’th Party could survive by ditching the other, they would. The structure of political power within the Syrian government is opaque at best, but it’s probably safe to say that for a number of months now Bashar has barely been in control of combing his own hair, let alone anything to do with the government. Since the death of Hafez (Bashar’s father) in 2000 and Bashar’s accession to power, the Ba’th Party élites, who worked under or alongside his father, have passionately resented him. His attempts at a more democratic regime were squashed by a combination of naïve trust in the Party and lack of genuine will for reform. Since then he has had little control over them – personally I am convinced that they assassinated Hariri in 2005, without Bashar’s involvement (apart from anything else, Sunni claims that Hezbollah was responsible make about as much sense as Hezbollah’s claims that Israel was responsible). The recent attack on Turkish pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia, in retribution for Erdoğan’s comments on Syria, is a likely indication that Bashar is not in control of the army, if ever he was. The Ba’th Party allows him to send officials to Deraa to apologise, to go on TV to propose reforms, and even to sack the governor of Homs. But as far as the military is concerned, Bashar is their fall guy, and Western echoes of what the Syrians are chanting continue to fundamentally miss the point.
What can we (the West) do about Syria? What we’re doing now is quite good: nothing. The EU is rightly being cautious about engaging with the Syrian opposition before they can prove that they represent a significant proportion of the people’s interests. The various Syrian opposition movements have thankfully decided, in a show of principle, not to accept donations from anyone outside the country, which saves us the spectacle of watching our governments funnel money into a group which could well be labelled a terrorist organisation. We’ve already propped up the Libyan NTC and led it to victory, for which they are desperately trying to prove their gratitude by excluding any Islamists from the new transitional government to distract us from the fact that they have already jailed a number of pro-Gaddafi Libyans to rival prison populations in Gaddafi’s era. But as with Osama and Saddam Hussein and Hamas, I will not be at all surprised if in ten years’ time the NTC’s heirs are our new worst enemies, along with the Free Syrian Army, the Iranians (still), and whichever Arab protest movement is struggling to change a political system that have insisted they should keep. Bahrain, anyone?