Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 July 2003
Issue No. 646
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Falling at every hurdle

Just what is it that makes the Arab world so accomplished in the courting of disaster, asks Abdel-Moneim Said*

Abdel-Moneim Said If people still have doubts about the reality of the Arab temperament perhaps they should look at Time magazine of 2 June. There they can discover for themselves how the rule of whim and caprice transformed Baghdad into a criminal government ruled by perverts and sadists of the likes of Qusayy and Udayy Saddam Hussein. However, perhaps the "mother of all disasters" is not only that a band of psychopaths who alter history, calendars and geography as their moods dictate could come to power in Iraq, but also that they had an extraordinary talent for propelling their country, and along with it the rest of the Arab world, from one catastrophe to another. Such disaster-bound leadership developed into a full fledged art form, with its own rules, its own standards of excellence and, more amazingly yet, its own crowds of connoisseurs who found volatility and madness a perfectly acceptable mode of government, so long as it takes place within the framework of "fixed Arab principles".

Oddly, the monopolists of the preservation of fixed Arab principles failed to observe how such principles deteriorated under the rule of their cartel in every country in which it had risen to power. As a general rule these cliques manage to prolong their rule for decades on end until some stunning disaster which results in the erosion of national sovereignty, foreign occupation and general misery for the people. Then, after some wringing of hands from the UN, the US-dominated international organisation suddenly becomes the shrine of legitimacy again and bathos reaches new heights with the bartering of children in the market of global pity. We are living in a complex world in which nations and political movements interact in intricate ways to formulate policy and handle conflict. Yet contemporary Arab history reveals that the dominant constant in this part of the world is that the vanguards of Arabism not only have an enormous capacity to ignore developments and the distribution of forces in the rest of the world, but also to land their countries in situations far worse than where they had stood at the beginning of the crisis.

Several years ago an article of mine appeared in Al-Ahram commenting on Security Council resolutions to impose sanctions on Sudan for refusing to hand over the suspects accused of attempting to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, and in which I attempted to explain how it is that the Arabs end up with economic boycotts imposed on them. Perhaps now is the time not only to look at that article again but to update it in terms of the Arab propensity to court disaster, an art developed in tandem with Arab nationalist and religious movements and the characteristics they have come to share over the past few years.

The only accomplishment of these movements claiming to uphold our cherished principles is that they lost Palestine once in 1948, a second time in 1967 and a third time in 2002; they ushered in various periods of territorial occupation in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq; and imperilled the independence and national cohesion of Libya, Sudan and Algeria. One is dumbfounded that the proponents of these movements have not only failed to notice this miserable record, but also that their inevitable first reaction, whenever disaster hits, is to cast the blame on treachery, which obviously must have been the cause, or on colonialism and imperialism, which they knew existed even before they acted, or on the weakness and cowardice of those who did not hold true to fixed national and religious principles.

Iraq is a prime example of the Arab art of courting disaster. It used the demonic machinery of dogmatic bombast totally devoid of the political acumen necessary to evaluate the state of play and to set one's goals in terms of one's resources. The ideology proclaimed by this peculiar art is either pan-Arab nationalist or Islamist or a noxious and tragic brew of both. It may have a certain coherence and logic when being discussed in the framework of an Islamic-Nationalist Congress in Beirut, but when it filters into the types of regimes we actually have it inevitably succumbs to the customary bureaucratic red tape and intellectual cretinism of the state propaganda apparatus and then, in its much reduced and platitudinous form, is taken up by Arab opinion pundits who feel they must defend it because the regimes, after all, stand on the front line in the grand confrontation between the Arabs and imperialism.

Then the wheels of the demonic machinery of state dogma begin to role, and out of the other end emerge the disaster-laden results. The first is the enormous discrepancy between the regime's capacities and its objectives. At one point the regime in Iraq -- which is really no more than a Third World nation -- declared that it would unite the Arab world, burn half of Israel, rein in the Islamic revolution in Iran, take back Kuwait and kick out the imperialist military presence in the Gulf. At the same time another Arab nationalist regime styled itself as the leader of the entire Third World revolution, while not far away a third regime, ruling a country mired in famine and civil war, proclaimed itself leader of Islamic nations.

The second result is that the enormous gap between capacities and aims is filled by false claims. The regimes imagine that they have the support of the overwhelming majority of their people. Since they have excluded any form of democratic practice, outlets for free expression and all other means to gauge public opinion, they rely on mass rallies with microphones blaring out the state's ideological slogans and adulation for the leader. Even though it is the regimes themselves that stage these demonstrations, they readily succumb to the delusion they fabricated, as do some of the better intentioned supporters of the ideology. In the case of Iraq these well-intentioned souls imagined that the Iraqi people would stand behind their regime because it was against occupation. The Iraqi people may well have been against the US occupation, but that didn't stop the Americans from carrying out their special mission to topple the regime. Indeed, many Iraqis were infuriated at the Arab "freedom fighters" who came to thwart this historical mission.

The big lie generates other illusions, with the consequent inability to read the signs of impending disaster. When vast numbers of the nation's intellectual elite and, sometimes, its entire middle class flee the country, this is chalked down to the treachery of a deviant few. And when this deviant few exceeds four million, as was the case in Iraq, no one seems to find this disturbing. The Arab nationalist and religious movements do not catch on that something is dreadfully wrong in their sister Arab nation.

More worrying in Iraq was the gradual erosion of its sovereignty over its territories in the north and south. Some of the international resolutions that brought this about were legitimate, others were not, but the outcome was the same: the loss of national autonomy and territorial integrity. A similar process took place in Palestine. Even as liberated territories were reoccupied and PA authorities in the West Bank and Gaza crumbled, Arab nationalist and religious movements clamoured about "steadfastness" and "the challenge". They then filled in the gap between aims and very limited means with banners, with claims of universal popular support and skilfully painted portraits of the inevitable coming of a new international order that would turn night into day and cast light in the darkness. This chimera of the coming of a new order is fundamental to the Arabs' eternal law of courting disaster. It proclaims a seething Arab street that will rise up against injustice. It sees an emerging European power, which together with rising poles, alternatively in Russia, China and sometimes Japan, will put the US in place. Indeed, during the Iraqi crisis some spoke of a new international pole: global public opinion. This was the pole that took to the streets in February and when the war broke out in March sat back and watched it unfold on CNN.

These illusions all need to be analysed more closely. But what concerns us here is that they have been constant to the Arab condition. We should not forget how the Soviet chimera led the Egyptian and Syrian regimes to the miscalculations that ended in the disaster of June 1967. Nor was this the first or last time that the Arabs clung to that chimera during the Cold War. The Arabs failed to learn the lesson, even after the Cold War ended and the Western capitalist order took over the globe. Instead, they hark back to that period as a golden era of Arabism, in spite of the fact that that was the exact time they lost Palestine and portions of four Arab countries. They then go on to invent emerging global poles out of thin air.

It takes no great knowledge to realise that the Arab's demonic ability to court disaster has moved beyond despotic whim to the realm of complete and utter fancy. Even a cursory glance at Arab crises, from Palestine to Iraq, passing through Lockerbie, Sudan, the massacres in Algeria and the terrorism that has spread from Riyadh to Casablanca, tells us that Arab regimes and political groupings are living in an imaginary world of their own creation, a world with its own rules of thought and conduct, a world for which they are ever prepared to go to war and lose.

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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