Arab apathy

The Arabs are facing a situation fraught with great uncertainties. When will they stand up and be counted? 
Omayma Abdel-Latif asks Arab intellectuals.

Courtesy Al-Ahram Weekly

"What 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."

The 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 entirely predictable.

The 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.

Some 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.

Nadim 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 frustrated".

Many 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.

Some 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."

Put 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 Riyad.

He 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 crisis.

Changes 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.

Shehada, 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."

There 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."

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