Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Celebrations and commiserations

Al-Ahram Weekly

The pundits pulled their punches, speaking the truth to the powers that be and admonishing the ruling parties for trampling over the powerless. Egypt featured prominently with the case of the man kicked to death by the police in Beni Sweif, south of Cairo, attracting much attention. The Syria impasse once again prevailed in the press, preoccupying many pundits.

Editor-in-Chief of the pan-Arab London-based daily Al-Hayat Ghassan Charbel penned a most profound piece entitled ‘Damascus more dangerous than Baghdad’. Charbel stressed the critical importance of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria to Iran’s strategic and geo-political interests. “The relationship with Al-Assad’s Syria is the largest and longest standing Iranian investment in the region, and indeed the costliest. Serving the Syrian limb from the edifice extending from Tehran to Beirut through Baghdad would mean that Iran has lost the battle for the role of key regional player. And this is more important than the nuclear bomb, which can protect the role but which may be impossible to produce,” Charbel points out. He stressed the regional ramifications in his article.

Lebanon, in particular, has been negatively impacted by the ongoing civil war in Syria. “Hizbullah cannot backtrack either. The fall of the Syrian regime will relegate its standing to one of a local player, having once been a major regional one,” Charbel extrapolates.

“Meanwhile, any entrenchment by Al-Qaeda on Syrian territory will be dangerous in the extreme. All scenarios therefore confirm that Damascus is more dangerous than Baghdad,” Charbel sums up in Al-Hayat. There are signs, the writer noted, that Western powers are weary of supporting the Syrian opposition precisely because they believe that militant Islamists are the predominant force fighting Al-Assad’s Baathist regime.

Also in Al-Hayat, and in much the same vein, George Semaan asks “What regime do America and Russia want in Damascus?”, a question that has perplexed Arab pundits for the past two years. “For around a year and a half, the big players were busy with their elections, battles and domestic oppositions, from [United States] President Barack Obama to [Russian] President Vladimir Putin and his [French] counterpart François Hollande. They thus distanced themselves and were rendered absent. And, once they settled down in their chairs, they turned towards the results of the change introduced by the Arab Spring. Now, they are undoubtedly reconsidering their positions towards this Spring, which is why their serious involvement to seek a solution to the Syrian crisis has been delayed,” Semaan elucidates.

So what are the chances of lasting peace in Syria? Slim, it seems. “For the symbols of the Syrian opposition who are part of the National Coalition to reiterate that the door leading towards a political solution will not be opened until after the changing of the balances of power on the ground, is a blatant recognition of the inability to get the regime to accept any political initiative regulating its departure,” Semaan observes. “And, for them to insist on the departure of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the circle managing the confrontation as a condition or the subject of any dialogue, means they are refusing to sit around the table for several known reasons, the most important of which is probably the rejection of any such step by the fighters on the ground,” he notes.

“Clearly, what would change the balance would be the provision of the fighting groups by Syria’s friends with the necessary equipment to tilt the balance in their favour and truly threaten the [Baathist] regime,” Semaan concludes in Al-Hayat.

Bahrain, too, hit the headlines on the second anniversary of its uprising. The daily Al-Bayan of the United Arab Emirates headlined a grant given by the Emirates to Bahrain — presumably to ease the financial strains on the tiny Arab Gulf kingdom that lacks the oil reserves of its neighbours and had hitherto relied on service industries and in particular banking.

It is against this backdrop that the Bahraini daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej also headlined this particular topic, stressing the close and fraternal relationship between Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. But the most contentious article in the paper was an open letter by Editor-in-Chief Anwar Abdel-Rahman to the British ambassador to Bahrain. Britain, a traditional ally of Bahrain, came under fire. “I strongly protest the attitude of the BBC which is characterised by hostility to the kingdom of Bahrain and its government and an obvious bias towards the opposition. The BBC policy is unacceptable and unprofessional. It is neither neutral nor objective,” wrote Abdel-Rahman.

Nevertheless, other Arab papers were sympathetic to the cause of the protesters in Bahrain. The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, reputedly a Shia paper loyal to Iran was partial to the Shia protesters in Bahrain, supporting their uprising against the Sunni-dominated kingdom. Indeed, the Sunni-Shia divide dominated the debate in the Arab press as far as the Arab Spring is concerned.

A daring article by Shahira Saloum in Al-Akhbar entitled ‘The Arab Spring and Lese-Majeste’ had: “Despite its failings and opportunism, the Arab Spring has emboldened subjects against rulers and brought down all that was sacred. In efforts to protect their realms, Gulf rulers are prepared to mete out punishment to any who dares commit the crime of crimes: “defaming the majesty of the emir, sultan or king”. Saloum proceeded to decry the gross violations of the principle and right of freedom of expression. The writer cited the Kuwaiti experience. “Today, when speaking about offending the majesty of the emir, attention turns towards Kuwait, where dozens have been charged with the offense, including several former MPs,” Saloum explicated in Al-Akhbar.

In a scathing critique of Iran, Tarek Al-Homayed, former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat wrote an article entitled ‘If we lose Syria we lose Tehran’. The royal “we”, of course is Iran. “The best description of Iran’s relationship with Syria, and the magnitude of Tehran’s loss if the tyrant of Damascus were to fall, was summed up by an Iranian cleric, Mehdi Taeb, a man tasked with combating the soft war currently being waged against Iran. He said, “If we lose Syria we cannot maintain Tehran... But if we lose the province of Khuzestan [to the Al-Ahwaz Arabs] we could regain it as long as we keep Syria,” Al-Homayed quoted Taeb in Asharq Al-Awsat.

“Taeb not only said this, but also that ‘Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us [Iranians]. If we were to attack an enemy in order to keep Syria or Khuzestan, the priority would be to keep Syria’. In light of these statements, how can it be argued that what is happening in Syria is a sectarian war by proxy, or that the Syrian revolution is being orchestrated by extremists? The truth is that it is a revolution of the people who want to be free and to rid themselves of the clutches of Iranian occupation, which has been a feature throughout the Al-Assad era,” Al-Homayed concluded. Likewise, Huda Al-Husseini writing in Asharq Al-Awsat penned a piece entitled ‘Hizbullah’s asylum offer’ in which she derides the role played by Iran in unnecessarily prolonging the presidency of Syrian President Al-Assad.

“With Syria’s accelerating and inevitable collapse, Iran’s growing role becomes more and more prominent as it tries to win on all the fronts and draw attention away from its internal problems. Conflicts within Iran are growing as the date of the presidential elections nears. The radical conservatives are divided,” Al-Husseini noted.

The writer proceeded to draw attention to a secret deal between Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Syria’s Alawi officers, closely affiliated to Al-Assad’s regime. “These moves are led from behind the scenes by one of the aides of Hizbullah’s secretary-general... Last month, Hizbullah’s secretary-general asked his security assistant to inform party elements working with and coordinating with Syrian officers and offer them a ‘package deal’ from which the two sides would gain on the day that Al-Assad falls,” Al-Husseini wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat.

Back to Bahrain. Jihad Al-Khazen, writing in his column in Al-Hayat entitled Ayoon wa Azan (Eyes and Ears), “We hope to encounter the very best”. The veteran writer attempted to be optimistic, but at times his sarcasm got the better of him. “I think that the American administration — which is quite keen on preserving stability in Bahrain since its Fifth Fleet in based there — has recently decided that the opposition is lying, and that it is working on staging a coup and establishing a regime that is affiliated to the faqih rule just like Iran. Thus, the American administration halted its support for the demands of the Bahraini opposition,” Al-Khazen explained tongue-in-cheek.

“Once again, the opposition does have some rightful demands. I heard the crown prince [of Bahrain] as well as King Hamad Ben Issa stressing that the government is planning on meeting the opposition half way. I hope the opposition has learned its lesson over the past two years; that it has realised by now that it cannot ask for the impossible. And, that it is really aspiring for a solution in favour of its supporters and the entire Bahraini population,” concluded Jihad Al-Khazen in Al-Hayat.

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