Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1228, (8 - 14 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Syria and the rediscovery of nationhood

What saved Egypt from the cruel fate of Syria is that amid revolution the people rediscovered the ultimate value of the nation state, writes Azmi Ashour

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the streets of Cairo, Beirut, Amman and Istanbul you can appreciate the value of having a homeland when you look into the eyes of the Syrian children and mothers begging alms from passersby.

“Cruel and miserable life,” they tell you. “We once lived among family and friends, with a secure source of livelihood, food in our mouths, a roof over our heads and a country to protect us. All that vanished.

“We then faced two choices: either to die beneath the ruins of our homes and belongings or to flee with only the air we breathe as our source of comfort, as this was the only thing that we could take without anyone asking us for something in return. But our suffering did not end there.

“We were forced to embark on another ordeal in which the risks and dangers were as great as those we would have encountered by staying at home in the rubble. Encouraged by the hope that life was possible elsewhere, far away from this nation that had become hell, we left all that we had belonged and joined others on the road to refugee camps across the borders.

“As for those of us who managed to escape to the big cities, find sympathy among some of the inhabitants and obtain the money to feed ourselves for that day (which does not always happen), life became more difficult. We had no roof over our heads and the police would round up our children who should have been with other children, in school, but instead had become street children begging for money.

“Many of them have lost their families. Whereas once they lived happy, comfortable lives, going to school every day, and were brought up normally and healthily, they are now wandering the streets of strange cities in their tattered clothes, unfamiliar with the language, crying and shivering in the bitter, merciless cold.

“What crime did they commit that caused them to lose everything from their past and future, leaving them only the air they breathe and the present moment in which they survive solely on hand-outs from some sympathetic souls?”

According to UN estimates, there are around six million Syrian refugees. These millions have been reduced to misery for the sin of having lived under a dictatorial regime that tailored the concept of the nation to suit the demands of its family, clan and sect, all others be damned.

At the same time, there was a regional and international order that found this convenient and ignored the Syrian people and anything related to them so that these powers could augment their interests. How wise the former Egyptian president was, even though he is now in prison and facing trial, for having bowed to popular pressure to step down.

As he saw it, it was better for him and his children to go to jail than for Egypt to experience the plague that has afflicted Syria.

When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power they brought with them a different mindset. Theirs was as blinkered and self-serving as that of Al-Assad, for they, too, sought to tailor the concept of the nation to the purposes of their own group and to open the doors to foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs.

The Egyptian people once again proved true to their historic greatness and ended the Brotherhood rule within a single year after having realised that it was leading Egypt down the path of the Syrian disaster. The Egyptian military establishment reflected this will and demonstrated its awareness of the true concept of nationhood as it fought to restore this concept and safeguard it from groups that were bent on igniting civil war in Egypt.

There was a price that was paid for this, whether by those who lost sight of the real picture or by the members of the army and police who were killed in terrorist attacks. It was their blood that kept Egypt from descending into civil war, which would have drawn regional and international meddlers like flies and driven millions of Egyptians to seek refuge in whatever neighbouring countries remained safe.

It was their sacrifices that safeguarded the Egyptian character that has survived for 5,000 years in spite of all the challenges and dangers that threatened to undermine it.

The revolution has helped us rediscover the meaning of the nation as a collection of institutions that should never be destroyed for the sake of a religious or utopian ideology. Among the crises that led to the collapse of Syrian — as well as Libyan — society was the absence of strong government institutions and justice and the rule of law. This is the lesson we must remember.

Yes, we must work to fight off dictatorship because it is the indirect path to the collapse of the state at some point in the future. We must therefore work to give root to democracy and all modern humanitarian values. But these aims can only be realised in the framework of the nation state and its institutions.

If these are destroyed, we will join the long queues of refugees, from the Palestinians and Iraqis and more recently the Syrians, whose plight rends our hearts, as the humanitarian tragedy they are enduring is even greater than the calamity that befell the Palestinians.

Contrary to a commonly held perception, revolution could be an occasion to rediscover existing truths that are not easily noticeable under normal circumstances. With regard to Egypt, the revolution threw into relief the meaning and value of the state.

The state is not an entity to be cut and trimmed to suit the whims and welfare of a particular individual, clan or group. It is the property of all who live beneath its skies and breathe its air.

 

The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.

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