Arab musical chairs

The breathless succession of events in Malta last week should not make us forget what is happening to the south of us. There over the past week, important news has broken that is of great consequence for southern Europe, as well as the Arab world.

Were the tyrants right, after all, when they wagered that if they were toppled, the deluge would follow?
- Ranier Fsadni

The Vice-President of Syria was reported as saying that he did not think President Bashar Al-Assad could win the war; but neither could the rebels beat the regime. It was a stalemate and he urged negotiations. Then, on Sunday, the Syrian regime, which has long posed as a stalwart defender of Palestinian rights, attacked the largest refugee camp on its own territory, bombing a mosque and a school.

The 25 people believed to have been killed are a small number compared with the toll of the Syrian civil war. But the attack has also meant that hundreds of Palestinians fled to Lebanon over the next couple of days. Quite possibly the majority of the 500,000 Palestinians resident in Syria may follow, if they feel unsafe.

If the fall of the regime is near, so may the last vestiges of stability in Syria and neighbours, should Al-Assad decide beat a path to a safe retreat under the cover of regional confusion.

The news from Syria suggests that, even as Al-Assad is losing support, so are the rebels. Reports from Aleppo, the country’s manufacturing hub, comparing the situation now with how it was a few months ago, are telling.

Around nine months ago, the city could still pride itself on not having been touched by the conflict. The rebels concentrated their efforts on it because of its symbolic importance. They were in fact making inroads, not just militarily but also in terms of gaining support. Recently, however, rebel forces have been blamed (even by some of their own supporters) for attacks on historic manufacturing districts and private houses, destroying jobs and thereby throwing large parts of the city on savings and existing stock.

The rebels have also been accused of terrorising and arresting ordinary civilians. Some have almost wished for the return of the regime’s dreaded security forces.

Despite last week’s international Friends of Syria meeting, and the earlier much heralded new, solid coalition of rebels, all is still not well on the rebel front either. It did not take long for two groups, including Islamists, to break away from that coalition, once the fanfare had subsided.

The Syrian case needs to be considered against the wider background of the Arab Spring. This is the month where we remember the second anniversary of the riots that began in Tunisia, brought down the police state of Zein Al Abidine Ben Ali in a matter of weeks, and spread across the Arab world, bringing down Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and left no country unchanged.

However, is what we are seeing develop in Syria a sign of a continuing Arab revolution? Or of its failure? The crowds are out again in Tahrir Square. Are they completing the revolution of 2011 or are they expressing their failing grip?

Were the tyrants right, after all, when they wagered that if they were toppled, the deluge would follow? After all, are not the branches of the Muslim Brotherhood now dominant in Tunisia and Egypt? Are they not powerful influences within government in Libya, Lebanon and Palestine?

Of all these questions, the only one that can be answered simply is that about the tyrants’ value. None was a bulwark against extremism and chaos. Each was rather its architect, creating problems to which they then presented themselves as the solution.

As for the other questions, however, the volatility is such that each question is open-ended. The future is not yet written and could develop in more than one direction.

Take the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. Its various branches are indeed dominant in several countries. However, the capture of power has brought responsibility with it. Hizbollah, in Lebanon, has finally stopped being a party of opposition; and has found itself perhaps less popular than it has ever been in its 30-year history.

Hamas, in Palestine, is finding that governing in Gaza has seen it cede more of its guerrilla role to Islamic Jihad. In Egypt and Tunisia, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood is being outflanked by the Salafists, while the onus of government and the steep economic challenges are losing the grip these parties once had on certain constituencies. In Egypt, Mohamed Morsi’s claim of powers that placed him above the law attracted most attention abroad. Back home, however, equal attention was paid to the taxes he imposed (and then withdrew) in order to secure an IMF loan.

It is far from clear, therefore, whether the Islamist victories at the polls are the harbinger of a new political dispensation. Or whether they, too, are transient.

Lest anyone be tempted to think that the fluidity and uncertainty is purely internal, the international situation alliances shaping the region are no less entangled. The US is Iraq’s ally, which is Iran’s, which is Syria’s. The US is Qatar’s ally, which aids Hamas...

The uncertainty could be a sign of a real break with the past. But it could also be a sign of musical chairs: same system but different actors occupying familiar roles. Which is it? That may depend on what we all do next.

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