21 April 2012
It was my old Jordanian-Palestinian chum Rami Khouri who first spotted what is going on in the Middle East right now: it's the counter-revolution. Bahrain is crushing dissent. Syria is crushing dissent. Mubarak's former head of intelligence, the sinister Omar Suleiman, is standing for president in Egypt -- the cancellation of his candidacy last week by a dodgy "electoral committee" may well be overturned. Libya is at war with itself. Yemen has got its former dictator's sidekick back. Sixty-one dead in a battle between soldiers and al-Qa'ida last week -- in a single day. All in all, a pretty mess.
But let me quote Khouri. "In Washington-speak, a 'crisis' is like love: you can define it any way you want, but you know when it happens to you. So a popular revolt in Bahrain for full civil rights is a crisis that must be crushed by force. But a revolt in Syria is a blessed event that deserves support. Similarly, this peculiar mindset warns against Iranian support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, while accepting as perfectly logical and legitimate for the US and its allies to send arms and money to their favourite rebel groups around the region -- not to mention attacking entire countries..."
And there you have it. As Khouri notes, there's now a new group called the "Security Cooperation Forum" linking the US with the Gulf Cooperation Council. La Clinton turned up to assure the oil states of Washington's "rock solid and unwavering commitment" to the GCC. Now where have we heard that before? Why, isn't that what Obama is always saying to the Israelis? And weren't Bibi Netanyahu of Israel and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia the two guys who called Obama to ask him to save Mubarak?
And in Syria -- where the Qataris and the Saudis are all too keen to send weapons for the rebels -- things are not going very well for the revolution. After claiming for weeks a year ago that "armed bands" were attacking government forces, the bands now exist and are well and truly attacking Assad's legions. For many tens of thousands who were prepared to demonstrate peacefully -- albeit at the cost of their lives -- this has become a disaster. Syrian friends of mine call it a "tragedy". They blame the Gulf states for encouraging the armed uprising. "Our revolution was pure and clean and now it's a war," one of them said to me last week. I believe them.
And the violence is creeping ever closer to Lebanon. Last week's killing of TV cameraman Ali Shabaan has shocked the normally unflappable Lebanese, with even the pro-Syrian Hezbollah condemning his death -- like the Hezbollah, of course, Shabaan was a Shia -- and citizens of Lebanon have noted that while Syrian troops were on their border, Lebanese troops, at the time of the shooting, were nowhere to be seen. Pro-Syrian MPs in the Lebanese parliament have even blamed their own security authorities for Shabaan's death.
I suppose it's a rueful observation to make, but some of the early revolutions in the Arab world did not exactly go according to plan. A few days ago, the Algerians celebrated the 50th anniversary of their victory over the French. French television showed major documentaries on the fearful struggle which cost the lives of at least half a million people, films which could be seen in Algeria. But what have the Arabs got for their titanic battles? A pseudo-dictator and a corrupt elite, a shameful unemployment figure and enough oil to make Algeria rival Saudi Arabia -- if the revolution had worked, that is.
Nasser's revolution wasn't exactly a roaring success -- maybe Nasser was in personal terms, but he and his successors were awful, running Egypt as if it was their personal property, taking Egypt into two bloody wars against Israel. Now there are signs that Iraq may be helping Syrian rebels -- just as it did under Saddam's rule, when he and President Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez loathed each other. And now Sunni militants inside Iraq have declared war on Iran -- now that there are no more Americans to attack.
If this seems a pessimistic horizon, then so be it. I suspect that the Arab Awakening will still be going on after we've all died of old age. But eventually, I think, there will be real freedoms in the Middle East, yes, and dignity for all its peoples, and an astonishment among the next generation that their fathers and grandfathers tolerated dictators for so long. And they will ask what happened to missing fathers and grandfathers.
I say this because a brave group of women gather every day in Beirut to remember their loved ones -- all men, Lebanese and Palestinian -- who were taken from their homes or from the street during the long years of Syrian rule in Lebanon. Many who made the dismal journey to Damascus were offered false hope by middlemen wanting bribes but have kept their faith intact. The Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour carries a weekly column on each missing man.
Samia Abdullah is waiting for her brother Imad, a 20-year-old Fatah fighter who disappeared in 1984. Fatme Zayat wants her sons back; they have been missing for 27 years. Afife Abdullah is looking for seven members of her family. Adele Said el-Hajj waits for her son, Ali, who was arrested by the Syrians in 1989. That's 23 years. The Lebanese civil war ended in 1990. Thousands are still missing. Last month marked the 37th anniversary of its beginning. Some Lebanese at the time even claimed it was a revolution.