Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 July 2004
Issue No. 698
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Samir Farid

Redefining Arabism

America once went by another name, as did its inhabitants. If we're not careful, says Samir Farid*, we too may lose our name

Five centuries ago, the western hemisphere was terra incognita. Yet, it was populated by people who had a name for themselves and for the land of their ancestors. All this was about to change. Once Christopher Columbus arrived, it was only a matter of time before the original name of the land disappeared, along with most of the indigenous population.

The "Middle East" is a label used to refer to the Palestinian issue, a term invented to obscure an older reality, just like those words Europe once invented for the new world: America and the Red Indians. The Greater Middle East, likewise, is another label for the Arab world. The Arab world is a tangible fact -- not so Arab unity, which is just a political idea. By lumping this world together with Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Israel, those who coined this term are hoping to dilute history. They are trying to take the leverage from Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia and hand it over politically to Iraq, economically to Israel, and militarily to Turkey.

Turkey is the only regional member of NATO. Perhaps there are people who want to see the Islamic Caliphate restored in Turkey, who want to see the Muslims having one mufti, like the pope, who prefer to lump together a variety of Arab and Asian cultures in a framework that is easier to deal with, as was the case under the Ottoman Empire.

Under the Greater Middle East scheme, the US seems keen on creating moderate Islamic governments styled after the Turkish model. But how long will these "moderates" remain moderate once in power? No one seems to care. The only thing that seems to matter is to stem the rise of Islamic extremism, which has proved a threat to the US and the West.

But who would dare challenge an authority that stems from God? This is why the Greater Middle East scheme may actually set back democracy and secularism in the region for decades, while making the region more pliant and user-friendly for outsiders.

Friends often ask me: "You have been against US policy all your life. Why don't you denounce the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq? Why don't you support martyrdom operations against the Israeli occupation of Palestine?" My answer is that I was never against US policy per se. US interests have coincided with those of the Afghan people regarding the Taliban, and with those of the Iraqi people regarding Saddam Hussein.

As for so-called martyrdom operations, I am not in a position to distinguish between martyrs and those who have simply died. These operations are a waste of both Palestinian and Jewish blood. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently said: "For me, there is nothing on the map called Israel." Such a notion is simply unrealistic. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, speaking in the same vein, says: "We have all the time in the world, even if it takes centuries."

What makes this type of thinking particularly outrageous is that it negates the realism of the Oslo accords. Politics is the art of the possible, not the impossible. The impossible can dwell in the hearts of novelists, poets, and artists, but it must not inspire politicians. Turning the conflict into a religious one would make it endless -- for neither Islam nor Judaism will go away. I am amazed that a political party would call itself Hizbullah, or the Party of God. Not even the prophets made such pretence. It is the duty of Muslims to keep God away from politics, for the latter is the domain of shifting interests.

In the course of the 20th century, the US created many monsters in order to fight communism. From Hitler to Bin Laden, from Suharto to Pinochet, from Saddam Hussein to Khomeini. Each time, the tactic backfired, because interests shift. The Greater Middle East scheme is one towards which the US has been sliding ever since the 1952 Revolution. The great writer Abbas Al-Aqqad once described the 1952 Revolution as a "counter- revolution", as compared to that of 1919, because it ended democracy. These days, we talk of reform as though it had not started in Egypt two centuries ago, and of democracy as though we have never had it.

The US supported the termination of democracy in Egypt in 1952. It turned Israel into the only democratic country in the region. Fifty years on, the US claims that democracy is the best measure against which to assess countries in the region. Israel's democracy is now the oldest and most entrenched in the region. But things could have been different. Egypt's democracy, had it not been interrupted, would have been much older. Khedive Ismail created Egypt's first parliament 150 years ago. Gamal Abdel-Nasser made a terrible error when he broke his promises on democracy.

The army led the revolution in 1952 on the pretext that it would restore democracy. This is why the people supported it. As soon as the army took power, it abolished the monarchy and announced the creation of a republic. Again, the people supported it on the grounds that a republic is theoretically more suitable for democracy. Yet, as soon as the republic took root, the army abolished plurality and declared a one-party system. This scenario may well be repeated if the US succeeds in bringing moderate Islamic governments to power. Once in power, these governments would be in a position to abolish democracy, yet again.

President Hosni Mubarak is the only Arab leader who had taken part in a war against Israel that won. He came up with an initiative to counter the Greater Middle East scheme at the Tunis summit in May, but Arab leaders were not excited about it. "Enough Egypt", most Arab leaders thought. President Mubarak has also tried to restore pragmatism to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but his initiative has not been greeted with enthusiasm. Again, we see the same "enough Egypt" syndrome.

This syndrome is key to the successful implementation of the Greater Middle East scheme. There is no way of confronting the US-designed scheme except through strengthening Egypt, fortifying the heart, and rehabilitating the fortress of Arab culture. The best way to do that is for the president of Egypt to fulfil the dream of his own people by restoring democracy. The only way to confront the Greater Middle East scheme is with Arabs rallying around Egypt, realising that its strength is theirs and so is its weakness.

Don't listen to those misguided Egyptians who think they are better than their fellow Arabs. We are all in the eye of the hurricane, buffeted by the same dubious wind of change. Unless we come together, we may soon be living in the Greater Middle East, not in the Arab world. And they will calls us Middle-Easterners, not Arabs.

* The writer is a veteran film critic.

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