Resources of hope
The two major catastrophes currently facing the Arab world, the US-led war against Iraq and the Israeli war against the Palestinians, dominate political debate. At a roundtable organised by Al-Ahram Weekly this week, Edward Said and a number of political analysts debated the challenges the Arabs face today. Amina Elbendary attended
The roundtable hosting Edward Said and a number of Egyptian political analysts and Al-Ahram Weekly staff took place as the American bombing of Iraq was casting heavy shadows over discussions on the future of the Arab world.
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"I don't think the planning for the post-Saddam, post-war period in Iraq is very sophisticated, and there's very little of it. Grossman and Feith testified in Congress about a month ago and seemed to have no figures and no ideas what structures they were going to deploy"
"It's a very fateful moment in a way because of this deeply unpopular and reckless war that a small group within the American administration has decided to wage against Iraq, and, in a way, against the whole Arab world. My strong opinion, though I don't have any proof in the classical sense of the word, is that they want to change the entire Middle East and the Arab world, perhaps terminate some countries, destroy the so-called terrorist groups they dislike and install regimes friendly to the United States. I think this is a dream that has very little basis in reality. The knowledge they have of the Middle East, to judge from the people who advise them, is to say the least out of date and widely speculative," argued Said.
The question of who advises the current American administration on its Middle East policy was one recurring throughout the discussion. "The two greatest outside influences on the administration's Middle East policy," Said pointed out, "are Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. Bernard Lewis hasn't set foot in the Middle East, in the Arab world, for at least 40 years. He knows something about Turkey, I'm told, but he knows nothing about the Arab world."
Lewis has developed a theory of "concentric circles" which seems to be influential in Washington, but which Said and other critics take issue with.
"This is the notion that the Middle East is divided into three circles: an outer circle of deeply antipathetic regimes and anti-American people, a second circle of pro-American people and anti- American regimes, and a third inner circle of pro- American regimes and pro-American people -- that would be the Gulf. The others are Egypt, Jordan and Morocco for the second, and Syria and Libya probably for the outer circle. In other words, there's a non-homogenous Arab world, and it's the role of American policy to change that so that it all becomes pro-American regimes and pro-American people."
"Ajami has said many times that there will be flower-throwing on the streets of Basra and Baghdad when the Americans are welcomed as liberators. That's the world we're in. There's a deep contempt for other ideas, certainly tremendous hostility to Europe, and to the large number of American people and institutions, about which I wrote in the last issue of Al-Ahram Weekly, which oppose the war and oppose such policies. And, as far as I can tell, they're impervious because there's a fortress mentality which is historically characteristic of cabals and putschist regimes."
Scenarios for a post-war, most probably a post- Saddam, Iraq were also part of the debate, as was the effect the war would have on the Arab region.
Said: "I don't think the planning for the post- Saddam, post-war period in Iraq is very sophisticated, and there's very little of it. [US Undersecretary of State Marc] Grossman and [US Undersecretary of Defense Douglas] Feith testified in Congress about a month ago and seemed to have no figures and no ideas what structures they were going to deploy; they had no idea about the use of institutions that exist, although they want to de-Ba'thise the higher echelons and keep the rest."
"The same is true about their views of the army. They certainly have no use for the Iraqi opposition that they've been spending many millions of dollars on. And to the best of my ability to judge, they are going to improvise. Of course the model is Afghanistan. I think they hope that the UN will come in and do something, but given the recent French and Russian positions I doubt that that will happen with such simplicity."
Iraqi scholar, Sinan Antoon, then pointed to reports that the cost of the current war in Iraq, including humanitarian assistance, was estimated to be 150 billion dollars, which would be paid from Iraqi oil revenues and from frozen Iraqi assets. The opposition figures that the Americans have lined up to take power have all agreed to that, meeting with oil executives and agreeing to the privatisation of Iraqi oil.
Said doubted that things would be so simple, saying that it would take years before Iraqi oil revenues begin coming in. "We're not talking about three or four years, we're talking about now," he said. "There's a major economic crisis. We went in a matter of a year and a half from a budget surplus to a major budget deficit in the US, which is going to increase exponentially over the next two years. There is no money. I think the war is a desperate attempt to try to recover some confidence in the economy and in the country. We're not talking about 150 billion dollars from Iraqi oil, we're talking about a trillion dollars . The calculations of the ten-year cost of the war go up to trillions."
Mursi Saad El-Din then asked Said whether the participation of the British in the invasion, given their role in establishing the Hashemite dynasty in 1917 and the original role played by Gertrude Bell in drawing up the map of the region, would allow them to play a role in the rehabilitation of Iraq.
"I have no information," Said responded, "but my opinion is that the Americans want to do the whole thing. I don't think they want the British or the UN. I think the idea is to do everything themselves and maybe make use of British experts, but the serious work is going to be done by the Americans -- the appointments to the ministries, running the post-war government, etc. And the British [would] have a very small role."
Senior Al-Ahram political analyst Salama Ahmed Salama asked Said for his views regarding the conservatism of the current American administration, and how he judged it. Was it just a passing phase?
"It's the worst administration I've seen since I went there in 1951. The whole [conservative] trend is a very artificial one made up essentially of three main currents. One is the Christian current, which is isolated from the rest of the country. [But] it's a lot of people, 70-80 million. This is George Bush's main constituency. Second, the neo-conservative movement, which has been developing over the period since the end of the 1960s, as a reaction to the 1960s. But it is now narrower and narrower and more focused. That's why you have people like [Richard] Perle and [Paul] Wolfowitz in positions of power, because they've made an alliance with the isolationist right wing within America. And these people are toughened, especially after 9/11. They are right-wing, anti-immigration, anti- diversity on the campuses and elsewhere, and they have a very narrow constituency of fear and contempt."
"And the third group that feeds into this is the Washington establishment, these think tanks in Washington which have taken the intellectual class and turned them into policy salesmen who have no peer review. I can now name maybe ten magazines that publish stuff which nobody referees. They have become an entirely local group that feeds off the government. And I think this is an extremely dangerous but in the end dead-ended [group]."
"The opposition to the war is, I think, an opposition to all of that. It's an opposition to the fundamentalists, who stand, for example, against the theory of evolution. And these are the people pushing for the war. And that's why I think the movement against the war, despite the fact that it is flagging a bit because of loyalty to the boys and girls abroad, as some of the Democrats are saying now, will grow. I think that Bush will not have a second presidency. In fact, I and many others are convinced that Bush will try to negate the 2004 elections: we're dealing with a putschist, conspiratorial, paranoid deviation that's very anti- democratic."
"This is why finally I think candidates in the Democratic primaries next year will include people like Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, [maybe even] Ralph Nader. I think those are very important things for us, especially now given the war and what I'm sure will be its complications. I think that's the role of the intellectual, to provide resources for hope. They cannot be found in the conventional alleys of power."
"And don't forget, we have a very dramatic economic recession. With lots of people out of jobs there's a wide perception that the social security system is about to be privatised, and this war then becomes a kind of folly. Bush is already spending something like two billion dollars a day. Who's going to pay for this? I think that's why the French and the Germans and the others' reactions are so important. [They] don't want to be part of [the] so- called reconstruction effort. And look what they did in Afghanistan. They didn't do anything. They bombed the place and they haven't helped at all. So I think it's a very important moment for this."
Aziza Sami pointed to a growing perception that the Arab regimes have reached the "end of their history" in some sense, no one knowing what will happen next in the Arab world. For many, the only option seems to be a kind of people's movement, a reaction coming from the non-state sector. In this sense she asked Said whether the formal Arab political systems have really reached the end of their lives and whether there is a way the Arab masses can begin to find new directions.
"I don't think anybody really knows the answer to that," responded Said. "Regimes have a way of staying on, particularly in imperial moments such as this."
However, Said drew attention to what he called a "very lamentable emerging current in America and England" of neo-imperialism, the thought that there is an acceptable and benign form of imperialism, as carried out by the US. This, he explained, has even lead to revisions in the history of the former British empire by historians such as Nial Ferguson and David Armitage, who argue that the empire wasn't that bad, since it brought order and certain countries benefited from it.
Said: "The advent of this new imperialism, with the cabalist or putschist mentality that I believe exists in Washington, and with the highly dubious results of the elections of 2000 in which Bush lost the popular vote but got the presidency, has suggested to many people the complete failure of American democracy. More and more people are thinking in terms of direct democracy, such as on the streets, and in terms of various alternative ways of looking at governance in this new world with a single global power that has the ability to project military power all over the world and carry on two, three wars at the same time. For that's what the Rumsfeld vision is: not only preemptive but also simultaneous war. In such a position, we're all in the same boat, those of us who don't believe in that, whether American or not American."
"And I would think the same thing applies here to the best of my knowledge and ability to judge. That is to say, there's a failure of rule. The powers that be in the Arab countries seem to be at best able to keep down demonstrations, and so on and so forth."
"But I think there are enough movements from below, whether human-rights movements, ecological movements, women's movements, ethnic movements, that favour, in America, the disuniting of America, which is very important. And maybe the same is true here. In other words, I think the Westphalian system, which ordered the state system of the world, has failed. And I think it's failed internally. There's been a desire on the part of the right wing in the United States, since the Clinton administration, to attack very heavily independent thought and anything that appears to challenge the prevailing order, and of course this increased after 9/11."
Political analyst Mohamed Sid-Ahmed pointed out that after 9/11, it first appeared that the main confrontation was between imperial America and terrorism. But something new has developed since then, reversing the game. Mass movements that began with Seattle, the anti-globalisation movement that has acquired global dimensions ever since, and Porto Allegre, and the more recent demonstrations worldwide against the war in Iraq, are changing the balance, putting the Bush administration on the defensive. This is a phenomenon, he argued, that has widespread implications, including the extent to which the image of Islam as "terrorist" and "extremist" is being replaced by regimes claiming to follow a moderate Islam.
Said concurred but added that the problem for outsiders was that what meets the eye are the official regimes. "The rest of the world identifies the Arabs with their regimes. There doesn't seem to be anything else. And we haven't in the Arab world, I don't think, developed a way of addressing these counter-currents in an organised or at least in a significant way. After 9/11 there were the attempts of groups, let's say of Egyptian intellectuals, who wanted to respond and write letters and show that we're not all Osama Bin Laden. But that's not quite the same thing. The problem is the regimes themselves, which after all claim to represent their people. There's a crisis of representation, which I think is difficult to overcome."
"What's very interesting also is the perception, and this is a footnote to what Mohamed Sid-Ahmed said, that the opposition to the US in the Arab world and Europe and elsewhere is not an Islamic opposition. It's on a much wider basis, which is very important. I myself believe very strongly that it's important for those of us who are not part of this state system to be able to address what I call the 'other America', because there are vast possibilities of mutual benefit, and Porto Allegre is a terrific model for that."
The Palestinian predicament and events in occupied Palestine naturally found their way into the discussion, eventually dominating the roundtable. Mohamed El-Sayed Said raised several issues relating to Palestinian nationalism, referring to the chaos that has characterised the Palestinian Intifada since its inception, which "reflects the increasing gulf between both the intelligentsia and the political elite on the one hand and the new generations on the other, particularly in the refugee camps in Gaza but also in the West Bank. I believe this is an issue of grave concern given the immense sacrifice paid without, at least until this moment, any real political gains."
He was also alarmed by how the Palestinian middle-ranking leadership had lost its direction in the course of the Intifada: "You're having an Intifada without a real head, and there is a question of how to restore minds and reason in such a great act of resistance. Even the general slogan of 'Intifada for Liberation', was exaggerated to the point of suicide...Since you're actually asking Palestinians on their own to complete the cycle and push forward to the end destination, you're actually asking them to do something that they couldn't possibly do, even in terms of numbers. Such chaos is disastrous when it comes to a struggle," he insisted.
Finally El-Sayed Said raised the problem of finance. "Arab funding and Arab money was a part of [Palestinian] corruption since the very beginning. Now we know that the Palestinians need economic assistance and help, so how can we possibly track or streamline economic and financial assistance for the strengthening of the body politic of the Palestinian community, the Palestinian national movement?"
Said was similarly uneasy about the militarisation of the Intifada, but "one of the main elements in the creation of the mubadara [the democratic initiative] of Mustafa Barghouti and Haydar Abdel-Shafi and others, is precisely the issue of leadership of the Intifada and [its] militarisation."
He conceded, however, that it was a sensitive issue for the Palestinians since no one wanted to be seen to be capitulating to the Israeli occupation, especially as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon kept making statements like "we want to break them." No one wants to just give up, he explained. "The funny part of it is that there is no instrument for giving way, for surrendering; we don't have even that capacity. I mean Arafat has in effect surrendered, and nobody seems to be interested. Which is why everybody is now looking for other ways."
"I think the question of money and new contacts has emerged from this mubadara as well. There has been a great deal of European interest in the mubadara precisely because it's led and represented by several hundred people all of whom have reputations for transparency and who are dedicated to their organisations, whether they're medical organisations or relief organisations. That's very impressive."
"As for the gaps [referred to] between the camps and intelligentsia, there are two other groups which are [also] extremely important: the Palestinians who are Israeli, a million of them, and the shatat, the diaspora Palestinians. Now, wherever you go there are people who say we really have to organise ourselves and are beginning to do that. In places like Britain there is a very strong solidarity movement. I think, being basically anarchistic, it's working through other groups, like divestment campaigns, anti-war campaigns, human-rights groups. Because we can't deal with Israel and the US head on, they're just too powerful, we don't have the means to deal with them. To me the answer is in the emergence of an unconventional mentality that is willing to break with all the old slogans."
Finally, the participants reverted to scenarios for post-war Iraq, conceding that the picture was blurred. "I don't think anybody has any idea," concluded Said. "All the available scenarios for the Middle East that I've seen are full of suppositions. One writer whom I recommend to your attention is Thomas Powers. He's the best writer on the situation now. He's written an article entitled "The Man who would be President of Iraq" for the New York Times and he thinks there's no doubt that once [the American administration is] through with Iraq they're going into Iran. If that's the case, if there's an attempt on Iran, who's going to stop them from thinking the same thing about Syria? There are all kinds of scenarios going around involving Israel. [The American administration] wants a new friendly axis: Turkey, Israel and India. That's the new strategic thinking. What is this going to do to the Arab world with that kind of regime in Iraq? Those are the things that are being discussed -- non-Arab dominance [in the Middle East]. A lot of Iraqis, like Kanan Makiya, have been speaking about the 'de-Arabisation' of the Arab world, not just of Iraq. I don't really know what to say because everything could go wrong. I don't know what the war is going to be like."
But will the Iraqi people remain submissive, Aziza Sami questioned. "I don't know. I think they [the American administration] think so. Take my words very literally: the [American] government has very few advisers on the Middle East. The old Middle East people at the State Department, [the Arabists] of whom maybe the last person is [Robert] Burns, have been emasculated. They don't exist anymore, and they have no influence at all. And the new people, like Thomas Friedman, don't know Arabic, travel around the Arab world and are received in rooms like this and give [the administration] advice about what the Arabs are saying and the Arab street, and so on and so forth."
"As against that our voices are never heard. Al- Ahram Weekly is one of the few things that people read, and it is having an effect, slowly. So cowed and so frightened has the US press become that even when Robert C Byrd gave his great Senate speech a month ago it wasn't reported. You couldn't find it in the NYT. It's unbelievable, there's such an atmosphere of fear, so the only thing left are the alternative radio stations, alternative publications, and if you follow them, and establish some kind of relationship, I think that's where the action is. And that's why the Weekly is a fantastic resource. Many Americans read it. They read your columnists as alternatives to what they get in America."