Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Scoundrel times indeed

By Edward Said

Edward Said No one knows yet what the Syrian-Israeli talks will lead to exactly, but my presentiment is that after a long delay interrupted by acrimonious disputes, an agreement between the two sides will in fact emerge. After all, negotiations between Israel and the Arab kings, presidents or chairmen are not as they are routinely portrayed by the media, that is, a prolonged contest between relatively equal sides, but something very different indeed. The close strategic alliance between Israel and the United States (plus smaller but significant details that include the fact that all the main American officials responsible for Middle East policy are tied directly to Israel by their former employment, e.g. Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, with the Israeli lobby) guarantees Israel the last word on negotiating agendas and results. Together, the two countries control the overwhelming preponderance of power, leaving Arabs unenviably without much hope of substantial gain except for face-saving formulas and cries of success. If you pose no credible military threat, and you have no unity in your ranks, and if, as is the case, your societies are immobilised by the absence of democracy and civil institutions, your only card is a pure and simple negative: you will not sign. But how likely is that?

Syria has in effect indicated that it is ready to sign. "We brought them here to demonstrate their willingness to sign," said Joe Lockhart, the White House press secretary. He was speaking of the recently concluded Washington meeting between Ehud Barak and Farouk Al-Sharaa. Note first of all the brazenly imperial tone of Lockhart's remarks. It is as if a great ruler had summoned two warring (not to say junior) vassals to display his power over them, and at the same time to enhance his own somewhat tarnished image. It is always good for an American president to look presidential, especially this one, whose incredible antics have all but stripped him of any entitlement to the role of world leader. Nothing, in a sense, could be easier than to induce Syria to send a high-ranking emissary like the foreign minister to Washington for some preliminary discussion with Barak, and, good politician that he is, Clinton seized the opportunity to do so.

What he and his national security staff know all too well is that, in their present state of internal dissension and serious social dissolution, the Arabs have no alternative politically, economically and militarily, but to flock to the Americans, not only because no other way exists for them, but also because it is a way of guaranteeing the all-too-precarious duration of their regimes. And having held out for so many years, Hafez Al-Assad believes he has solidified his image as a man of Arab nationalist principle enough to go forward on the inevitable route to Washington. What the details of his bargaining and final positions are I do not know, but I do sense that they present no serious obstacle to Israeli-American strategy.

That being said, we should next ask what this likely agreement actually portends for the future. So far as Syria and Lebanon are concerned, if one were to believe that indefatigable apostle of American economic imperialism Thomas Friedman, it will mean opening the economy of both countries -- now stagnating terribly -- to the advantages of investment, debt reduction, tourism, and the like. These are the rewards. The not-so-brilliant negatives are, I think, far more impressive. It is unlikely that a Syrian-Israeli peace will produce any more "warmth" in relations between the two countries (and Lebanon as well) than the Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian instances have. Normalised globalisation, to coin a phrase, has benefited only a tiny fraction of the populations involved, since the destruction of the public sector, the rapacity of transnational finance capital, and the complicity of the tiny group of managers and tycoons that have emerged wherever globalisation has entered a poor local market, have created housing crises, large unemployment, and extraordinary dislocations in education, the environment, and the popular culture. In such a framework, economic sustainability is always a function of what local economies manage to get from outside the country, and therefore cannot be assumed to sustain growth and development on their own. Who will profit in Syria or Lebanon? Precisely those classes who may have chafed against the regime's strictures but who have remained compliant just the same. And that is it. Traders, entrepreneurs, local middle-men, adventurers, well-connected professionals. But teachers will hurt, as will their students; universities and schools will not benefit from large-scale investment; the environment will almost certainly be further degraded; urban and country dwellers who live on limited salaries will be driven to greater competition and fewer accrued results in the way of spending money or guaranteeing their children's future; emigration will increase, as will the brain drain.

The main problem is that years of one-party, one-man rule have sapped the country's energies almost totally. A remarkable new book on Assad's Syria by Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria, details the way in which political language and rituals praising Assad's eternal rule, his amazing brilliance, his longevity and so forth, are part of an elaborate system of domination that demands compliance, usually gets it, and posits terrible retribution if it is not followed obediently.

Yet, Wedeen argues, Syrians are not fooled by the encomia or the rhetoric of flattery; Assad is still feared and disliked enough so that beneath the surface a simmering contest between ruler and ruled exists which has to be fought on a daily basis between the regime and the party on the one hand, and most of civil society on the other. No one knows how long the Baath dictatorship can continue to operate or how genuinely a successor regime's (Bashar's) chances can remain hopeful.

Clearly it would seem that Assad's mind is finally made up and that he has to go through the motions of a peace process, get what he can from the Americans (he must calculate that since Israel is going to ask for about $18 billion to dismantle the Golan settlements, he will get a handsome price for a peace treaty also), and receive accepted hegemony in Lebanon. But as with the others who have gone the distance with Israel, there is no guarantee that the peace bonus can in fact be reaped; on the contrary, a strong possibility exists that the popular discontent in Syria described by Wedeen will be stirred up more strongly, given that the pattern in post-peace-agreement societies has been so unrewarding for the vast majority of their citizens.

Israel's behavior, which is logically derived from its military supremacy and the cultural arrogance of its rulers, will be no different than it has been elsewhere and, despite Shimon Peres's utopian sketches of a New Middle East Economic Order, will produce more of the same results -- a sullen popular Arab mood, resistance to normalisation, and a faltering local regime poised on the edge of overthrow and/or economic failure.

In other words, more of the same, despite the rousing hymns to the new era of peace and prosperity. If the Palestinian route teaches us anything, it is that little new can come out of old and fundamentally damaged goods, which happen to be despotism and undemocratic rule from top to bottom. The Palestinian Authority's outrages against its own citizens are, I think, the real index of what peace with Israel really means, the real contents inside the American package circulating blithely around the world's media.

Some days ago, Abdel-Jawad Saleh, a courageous activist, former PLO Executive Committee member, Fatah senior official, and elected member of the Legislative Council, was beaten up by thugs patently sent to do the job by Palestinian security agents. Their boss? It doesn't need to be spelled out, it is so disgracefully obvious. Abdel-Jawad's Saleh's crime? That he dared to speak out against the corruption and abuse that has hijacked the Palestinian cause and brought about its unnatural end. These are scoundrel times indeed, scoundrel right down to the roots of the systems in which our unfortunate peoples live, so that not even the nobility of sentiments about peace pronounced from on high can cover up the seething, discouraging mess underneath.

I think we must continue to believe that the American-Israeli peace will not save the current state of affairs in the long run, and that popular discontent and a dawning sense that Arabs and Israelis have much more to gain from genuine equality and genuine co-existence than the flimsy arrangements now being set in place under Bill Clinton's dubious stewardship. In the meantime, it's a pity that we have to go through the silly exercises that pass for a "peace process". So long as the basic injustices are not addressed, "peace" is a confection hastily put together between a group of discredited leaders, and little more.

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