Arabs are facing a situation fraught with great uncertainties. When will
they stand up and be counted?
Omayma Abdel-Latif asks Arab intellectuals.
on earth is it with the Arabs?" asked Robert Fisk, veteran British
journalist, in an article published recently in the London- based Independent
newspaper. To many, the question is not a surprising one; it has
been hanging over the region for quite some time, and Fisk was probably
not the first to pose it. However, the question acquired an air of
urgency last week when millions of anti-war marchers in various European
cities took to the streets to protest against the impending
Anglo-American military onslaught on Iraq while Arab cities, in
comparison, looked like ghost towns. This "deafening silence"
as Edward Said once described it, promoted some Western press reports to
paint a picture of the Arabs as a group of hapless victims without hope
or dignity who are incapable of any political action. One Canadian
writer spoke about an Arab world "quailing in fear before President
George Bush's evangelical crusade against Iraq", while another
compared the Arabs with "mice" and a third warned that,
"once again, the superiority of the Western armies will have been
established to the humiliation...of the Arabs."
questions routinely asked of Arab intellectuals in the region are as
follows: why is it that the Arabs are sitting back passively watching
the travesty unfold? Why this tragic silence when so much is at stake?
If the Arabs are not motivated by the idea that a Western army will soon
march into an Arab capital with the declared intention of occupying it,
and employing the horror and systematic killing used daily on the
Palestinians, what then motivates them? The answers, however, are
Arab intellectuals interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly earlier this
week acknowledge that the situation is beyond comprehension. These are
uneasy and tense times for Arabs who, they argue, are caught between a
rock and a hard place. "They -- the Arabs -- are torn between
despotic regimes which lack the political power to express their
national will positively, and a superpower which wants to impose its
imperial designs on the region," Talal Salman, prominent Lebanese
writer and editor-in-chief of Assafir newspaper told the Weekly.
Last week's anti-war demonstrations, according to Salman, laid bare the
sorry state of the Arab world. "It is a sad and shameful reality
that people around the world were able to express their views on the
Iraq crisis while all of us took refuge in silence," Salman added.
beg to differ with Salman's viewpoint and Western press reports. They
say that, although the number of Arab protestors against the war is low,
there are in fact many other forms of protest in the region, albeit not
on the same scale as seen in Western capitals. "Popular opposition
to the war need not manifest itself in overt acts such as street
protests," says Muyasar Al-Shumari, Saudi head of the Al-Hayat
newspaper office in Riyadh. "If all Arabs are against the war
anyway, why should demonstrations be the only yardstick with which to
measure popular anger and resentment," he told the Weekly.
Shehada, head of the Centre for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University,
took the argument a step further by questioning the whole notion of the
"Arab street". "Too much has been expected from the man
on the 'Arab street' both during and since the war in Afghanistan,"
he said. "The media provides an outlet for a lot of frustration.
Instead of letting it come to a head on the street, they watch Al-Jazeera
[satellite channel]." The people in the street, Shehada pointed
out, are probably "more cynical and just want to get on with normal
life rather than pursue high ideals and become revolted and
believe it is precisely this "cynicism" which lies at the
heart of the crisis today. Almost all intellectuals interviewed by the Weekly
agreed that "the heavy hand of an oppressive state" has been
historically responsible for the apathy which currently engulfs the Arab
world. Equally to blame, however, is the sorry state of Arab societal
organisations. "Political parties in some Arab states are barely
functioning," says Ibrahim Al-Daqaaq of the University of Bir Zeit.
"Syndicates and other civic organisations which could have
mobilised the grass roots are simply in tatters. Civil society leaders
have failed miserably to generate a dynamic [atmosphere] through which
the masses could channel dissent," said Al-Daqaaq, who runs a
Palestinian non-governmental organisation.
analysts argue, however, that authoritarian regimes are responsible for
neutralising all forms of public dissatisfaction with state policies.
Salman believes that the issues at stake are more than just the
manifestation of popular anger, the most important issue being the fate
of the Arab political system in its current form. The current crisis has
exposed what Salman describes as "an abyss of irreversible mutual
distrust between the people and the ruling regimes". At stake is
the ability of these regimes to survive. "[The ruling regimes]
believe that they can buy their survival from the United States by
discreetly agreeing to American plans, while publicly denouncing the US
and suppressing all forms of public resentment," according to
Salman. "They [of all people] should know that by remaining
complacent and digging Saddam's grave, the likelihood of the US
interfering in their own regimes if they go against American plans for
the region is increased." Shehada agrees that at times of crisis,
survival is the primary instinct. He points out that to ensure its
survival, a despotic regime must appear indispensable, and propagate the
notion that chaos would follow in the wake of its downfall. "We
have seen this in many instances... in the Arab world. [Changes] have
been preceded by doomsday scenarios which never materialised. Think of
Syria, Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain."
another way, change is coming and many believe that the region will
embrace a new period with new rules. Both Khaled Al- Dakheel, a Saudi
sociologist, and Abdel-Salam Al-Sheddadi, a Moroccan history professor,
agree that the coming period will mark the end of a regional order that
has been in place for the past 50 years. "The fact that the system
has reached this level of ineffectiveness means that it has exhausted
its raison d'être; radical changes vis-à-vis inter-Arab relations, as
well as changes within organisations such as the Arab League, are
expected to materialise," Al-Dakheel told the Weekly from
pointed out that while the showdown in 1990 was between Iraq and the
United States, this time the confrontation pits the Arabs against the
US. "We have reached a point where the US and Arabs fail to agree
on a single key Arab issue, be it the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq,
democracy, or the education curriculum. This was not the case during the
Cold War, where both parties agreed on some key issues," said Al-Dakheel,
who admitted that the mood in the Gulf was one of heightened
apprehension and nervousness due to the "fallout" of the Iraq
will include not just the structures but also some of the ideas which
held sway in the Arab world for the past half century. Despite the
disaster facing the Arabs, many analysts were reluctant to announce the
death of ideals such as pan-Arabism and Ba'thism. "The version of
pan--Arabism which was adopted by the ruling regimes during the past 50
years will no doubt disappear," insisted Salman, "however,
there is a fundamental problem with nationalists' thought. I believe
[they] will have to reformulate Arab nationalism along new lines to take
into account the significance of religion to the people of the region,
as well as the new ideas and ways of thinking around the world."
Salman laments the fact that the Ba'th Party, "a great political
movement", has been hijacked by Saddam Hussein's regime. However,
he does not believe the movement will die if the Americans take over
Baghdad. "It will appear in different forms," he insisted.
on the other hand, is not as optimistic. He believes that the region is
not moving towards another form of Ba'thism or pan-Arabism but rather
towards "fundamentalism". Al-Dakheel agrees. "No matter
what the consequences of the war on Iraq might be, throughout the Arab
world it will always be seen as an exercise in American power and
hegemony. It will be a living example and reminder of an act of
humiliation, just as Palestine is today."
are some, however, who still believe that American intervention in the
region will have a positive outcome. Both Salman and Al-Shumari believe
that American presence will act as a much-needed catalyst to initiate
change. "It will be the challenge, the agent provocateur which will
give ammunition to the popular movements across the Arab world,"
says Salman. "Politics will be radicalised even further and
anti-American sentiments will grow stronger. With all its military
might, America will be seen as an occupying force which betrays the very
ideals it claims to espouse. The only response then will be to fight
back, as is the case in the occupied territories."