Tuesday, February 26, 2013
I'm delighted that The Arabist has thought it worth commenting on one of my recent posts, "Secularist reasons for supporting Morsi". He objects to my claim that the NSF is misguided to choose the army over the Muslim Brotherhood - not because the Brotherhood is a palatable choice, but because (1) real change cannot come with the army in power, (2) effective opposition to Brotherhood policies is possible even with the army out of the political picture. He says:
"You fail to make the argument as to why 1) secularists should consider the return of the old order a worse outcome that the triumph of Islamists (the reality simply is that many do not) and 2) why secularists should consider their own reliance on the military more distasteful than the alliance with the military made by the Muslim Brotherhood, which granted it unprecedented autonomy (in term of the history of Egypt's constitutional safeguards for the armed forces) in the constitution they backed.
"While the dominant narrative in the West may have been of a revolution for democracy, the key impetus on which there was wide agreement was a revolution against Hosni Mubarak, his inner circle, and the prospect of his son succeeding him. On everything else, the unity of the revolutionary moment unravels. "
I'd like to take these criticisms as an opportunity to plead my case, but first I'll protest that I don't subscribe to the 'Western' narrative about democracy. (If it's Western, it may have been adopted by much of the secularist opposition. The NSF regularly cites allegedly undemocratic procedures as a betrayal of the revolution.) I have specifically rejected the idea that the revolution was for democracy. I've maintained that the 'unravelling' originated between those who did want democracy - the Islamists who could expect to triumph in elections - and those who wanted freedom, the very sort of liberties they were likely to lose under an Islamist government. Though I do believe the Islamists either have or can acquire democratic legitimacy, I do not worship democracy and don't think democratic legitimacy can justify the repression of secularist aspirations. I am under no illusion that democracy must favour freedom or that it will do so in Egypt. I fear that much of the NSF, however, falls victim to that illusion - at least if they sincerely expect free and fair elections to block an Islamist agenda. I fear even more that much of the NSF is *not* under any such illusion, and therefore has decided to angle for military intervention.
Despite all this I wouldn't claim that the NSF's "reliance on the military" is more or less distasteful than "the alliance with the military made by the Muslim Brotherhood." I don't presume to make that sort of judgement. However I do feel that the 'alliances' are quite different.
The Muslim Brotherhood can hardly be thought to have embraced the military because they longed for the old-fashioned military rule that lurked behind Mubarak's civilian facade! The Brotherhood made, it seems, a very tenuous alliance because it was the only way they could ward off a full-fledged military takeover - the extent of their concessions was probably a testimony to the weakness of their position. (Why would they cede more power than they had to?) The subsequent ventures of the military into politics, their menacing promise to keep public order and their relations with the NSF, are strong evidence that the alliance with the Brotherhood was anything but solid or sincere. Elements of the NSF, on the other hand, seek a real and sincere alliance with the military - so says The Arabist himself. And they do so, not to preserve or establish a new order, but to return to the old.
I mean no offense when I ask: can this really be the will of a people who fought to bravely and endured so much to overthrow the old régime? Yes, it is rhetoric to speak 'the people' here, but surely there was a moment when the rhetoric was at least close to accurate, and it was considered a glorious triumph. Never has 'be careful what you wish for' seemed more appropriate.
The Arabist says that the revolutionaries found unanimity in their desire to overthrow Mubarak. Surely that didn't mean they wanted someone who'd deliver more of the same in some other guise. They must have wanted change. The army does not. If the NSF overthrows Morsi with army help, SCAF will say nice things about keeping out of politics and step right back in whenever it pleases - whenever its behind-the-scenes dictatorship is challenged. There will be no change. If Morsi successfully implores the army to suppress anti-government activity - an unlikely prospect - he will become their stooge. Only an alliance of convenience between the NSF and the Moslem Brotherhood can achieve anything more than a de facto military dictatorship draped with empty judicial niceties. Indeed only such an alliance can produce a government with enough acceptance and administrative control to address the country's problems.
With the army put firmly in its proper place, the secularists can oppose the Brotherhood as fiercely as they like - and they will have a real government, not a crippled administration, to oppose. In or out of power, they must come to terms with the Islamists, who certainly won't take their ejection from government lying down. No doubt the chances of such an alliance prevailing are slim, but to renounce such an alliance is to ensure that those who died, died for nothing at all.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, has proposed negotiations with Assad. The régime offers shifting counter-proposals. Though it's hard to assess the whole situation, what's known suggests that negotiations are a non-starter.
For one thing, Assad has a virtually unbroken record of violating whatever he's agreed to.
For another, this time, he will have very plausible excuses for not fulfilling his commitments - plausible at least to the 'international community' which wants, above all, to do nothing.
He can always say, truthfully, that Khatib doesn't really have the means or authority to see that agreements are respected: there are 'armed groups' who will not accept what he's agreed on. Since so many nations are so scared of 'extremists', this should work very well.
Should a prisoner release be proposed or even conceded, he can always profess to have 'learned' that among the prisoners are numerous yet-unidentified Al Qaeda operatives, so that the release would endanger public safety. The supposed identification process could be dragged out indefinitely.
He can always demand a large UN force prior to any withdrawal or resignation to 'protect minority rights'. He can be confident that deploying such a force will take roughly until the 12th of Never.
He can always divide (if not conquer) by insisting that no agreement is credible without a firm commitment from Khatib to expel any 'Al Qaeda elements' like Jabhat al Nusra, not only from Syria's future, but from all 'sensitive areas', to 'prevent sectarian slaughter'. This has a decent chance of creating serious armed conflict within the opposition, and it would probably go down well with Obama. Of course Khatib could not honour any such commitment even if he were foolish enough to make it.
Indeed the negotiation process could easily pit elements of the opposition against one another without any effort on Assad's part. It's certain that some are bitterly opposed to negotiations; perhaps they would even fight those in favor if too much seemed to be conceded.
Assad would also probably try to improve his strategic position by calling for truces that would benefit him and not his opponents. The opposition would be under considerable pressure to agree.
Following the failure of any 'peace initiative', Assad will be at least as strong as before, and the opposition much weaker on the international stage.
Finally, given how many have motive, means and potentially opportunity to kill him, Assad has no reason to believe in any safe exit proposal. He could justly suppose that his own unilateral arrangements would be far safer, because less well known in advance.
So it's hard to see how negotiations have any prospect of ending the bloodshed.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
Calm reflection forces a conclusion: “Two years of meta-narratives: how not to cover Syria”, by Audrey Ann Lavallée-Bélanger and Ella Wind, is utterly harmless. They're just havin’ fun with a Mean Girls take on people who write about Syria. No one will suffer because of their piece. But actual pro-Assad propaganda aside, they have produced what may just be the most distasteful article on Syria yet.
They have cute things to say about the missteps of amateurs, the posturing of experts, the Syrian-Americans overplaying their tenuous connections to their supposed homeland, the pretentious Beltway Analysts, the over-the-top FSA apologists, the grumpy anti-imperialists. What really matters to the authors, the important common factor uniting all these types, is that they’re all such losers. It's embarrassing!
What I want to know is: why Syria? No one cracked jokes about reporting from Stalingrad, or the concentration camps, or today, from the Congo, or yesterday, from the Tamil enclave. No one got witty about reporting on 9-11, or the Iraq war. People do make jokes about individual journalists like Tom Friedman or Robert Fisk, but they do not indulge in sweeping hilarity about reporting a whole conflict. Why would Syria be an exception?
No reason. The deep nastiness of the article doesn’t come merely from its connection with a panoply of horrors. Syrians joke constantly, and brilliantly, about their situation. And it's not about who has the right to joke - a joke is funny or not, whoever makes it. It’s rather that the authors are utterly oblivious to the need to take sides - so much so that they are unaware of the side they have taken.
Their position emerges from the snark of their send-ups. The Amateur Journalist is a dummy because he believes the Idlib warlord’s bullshit about an inclusive future - which will however exclude “women, young people, and Alawites” . The Seasoned Journalist, who holds that Assad and his “regime are bad but so is the opposition” is, incomprehensibly, a cynical “advocate for a Free Syria”. The Syrian-American FSA Revolutionary is a poser, utterly deserving of ridicule - only his maternal great-grandmother "was born in Damascus and immigrated to the US in her childhood.". The Activist is a wannabe media star, whose ridiculous idea is: “ get rid of Assad first, by whatever means, and talk about other problems later (critiquing abuses from the opposition will only be counter-productive).”No doubt these parodies are meant to be balanced by The Beltway Analyst and the Fumigating [sic] Anti-Imperialist, but, tellingly, these people are nowhere near the Middle East and have no involvement on either side. In other words, everyone seriously pro-FSA is a bit of an asshole. To top this off we get a concluding paragraph and more sarcasm: "there is no doubt that their ideas are meant to move forward a peaceful resolution of the conflict."
So there are two messages here. One is that what matters is whether people are of good character, that is, whether they are unpretentious, self-effacing, prudent, and above all, free of any association with clichés. The other this that the right position on Syria is the detached position: indeed these women are as distant as The Beltway Analyst, with the same air of mature superiority. Here's how we're told to think: we should be sceptical of reports from both sides; we should worry about Women and Kurds and Alawites. We should acknowledge that Assad is bad, that the FSA isn't that great. Beyond that, somebody should maybe try to do something to "move forward a peaceful resolution of the conflict." That's the word as of 5 February 2013.
These sophisticated thinkers have, in other words, adopted approximately the position of Obama and the feckless Europeans. Like Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and other disgraceful platitude-machines, they want a 'peaceful resolution of the conflict'. They kind of maybe like the opposition a little bit, apparently because it's included some well-groomed brave young people, not just oldsters like the FSA leader in Idlib with the 'long scruffy beard'. But what we absolutely mustn't do is - to repeat - "get rid of Assad first, by whatever means, and talk about other problems later."
Well, that's pretty much exactly what we should do. We should not, that is, stand stylishly at a distance and snipe at both sides, justifying our pot-shots with the very serious underlying message that Assad is bad but others are worrisome and there ought to be a peaceful resolution of the 'conflict'- such a nice antiseptic word. And the refusal to offer whole-hearted support for the FSA is nothing but a gift to Assad, a moral failure far more serious than the pretensions of activists or the credulity of amateur journalists. Better to be a poser who's on the right side than someone who titters from Olympian heights about a slaughter.
Doubtless the authors would insist they were only making light of reporting about a slaughter. True, that's what they offer, buttressed by a sub-text - since we're talking not just narratives but meta-narratives - that we should watch the show from somewhere and wish for peace, good writing and objectivity. You can't get much colder.