Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly

Taking the bait

Despite the Arab Spring, when it comes to major geopolitical dynamics, new Arab leaders are reacting largely in the same ways as their predecessors, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nothing seems to have changed in our Arab world. It’s as though universities weren’t built, cities hadn’t flourished and the outside world hadn’t begun to interweave with ours and ours with the outside world. It’s as though we hadn’t had an Arab Spring two years ago, ushered in by the budding flowers of the Facebook generation and heralding the advent of a world we’d never known. It’s all exactly like it was in 1948, 1955, 1956, 1967, 1982, 1991, 2006, 2008 and the years in between, with their disasters, setbacks and gross miscalculations, some of which we sometimes acknowledged, though most of the time we kept our heads firmly buried in the soft sands of our expansive Arab deserts so that we wouldn’t have to face some painful truths.
In Contemporary Arab History, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal has a long chapter on “Ensnarement”, in which he discourses eloquently on the Thirty Years War and the Gulf War, which exceeded 30 years when you take into account the Iraq-Iran war, the occupation and liberation of Kuwait, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the still ongoing wars of Al-Zarkawi and the jihadists, and of Shia against Sunni. The central idea of “Ensnarement” is that our general run of Arab leaders shares the quality of being “ensnarable.” With their eyes resolutely shut to balances of power on the ground, and other realities of the world, they charge over precipices and tumble into chasms, dragging their peoples and their countries behind them. In Heikal’s Thrones and Armies, we follow the bands as they race to war in 1948 only to end up fighting each other. They’re opposed to the UN partition resolution but their military planning never went beyond the decision to go to war. By the time the fighting was over, Israel had won much more than it would have obtained under the resolution.
So the story continues. The “goose that is ripe for the plucking” plunges headlong into the jaws of folly, leading to the occupation of Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza. Saddam Hussein proclaims that he is going to “burn half of Israel,” but it is Iraq that burned, in its entirety. Hassan Nasrallah miscalculates and Southern Lebanon gets occupied by international forces. Gaza goes one better. In defiance of the simplest rules of political maths, it decides to break away before the establishment of a Palestinian state and plunge into war, after which it looks around in surprise and asks, “Where is the Arab nation?”
We have to acknowledge that the problem is not just the fault of Arab leaders. The people, too, play a part. The Palestinians are the victims of unparalleled injustice, but turning that around involves the long and arduous road towards education, technological superiority and winning over world opinion. These tasks, as Churchill put it so succinctly, require blood, sweat and tears. Yet, it was always easier to take the path when the people handed their fate to whoever sounded the call for Palestine the loudest whenever a gun or missile was fired against it, or whenever it suffered so much as a moment’s trouble, after which they let the chips fall as they may. And fall they did, in the form a train of lost opportunities, the steady road to tyranny and an ever growing lag between us and the rest of the world.
Time and again, Arab leaders would respond to the collective hysteria in one of two ways. Either they would capitalise on the situation in order to cover up for their own injustices and massive failures and/or to prolong the days of a tyrannical rule, or they would rush into a battle for which no one was prepared, for which there was no planning, and before which there were no consultations with other parties, this being something that only happens after crisis strikes at which time the appeal rings out for an emergency meeting of the Arab League.
Today the whole cycle is being repeated, to the letter. The whole Arab region, from Mali to Baghdad and from Somalia to Syria, is crawling with terrorist and jihadist groups armed to the teeth with weapons from Gaddafi’s brimming arsenals. In the Sinai, the battle to liberate the holy land started with the murder of Egyptian soldiers and policemen and attacks against economic and civilian targets, although whether this is actually meant to pave the way to the liberation of Palestine or the path away from the revolution in Syria is not entirely clear.
Meanwhile, Bashar Al-Assad leapt to the fore. Bear in mind, that the ruler of Damascus had never once fired a single shot in the direction of the Golan, which has remained the calmest of all the fronts with Israel. Even when Israeli bombers soared into Syria and destroyed the North Korean-made nuclear reactor, he remained silent, probably in the hopes that Israel would too. But Israel leaked the news, forcing him to run to the UN to complain and anyone would be hard put to recall whether or not the international body issued a statement. Be that as it may, Bashar boldly took some swipes at the demilitarised zone where there was some exchange of fire, which Israel used to demonstrate its tactical superiority while Damascus was left to rail about the revolutionaries’ “collusion” with Israel. But the jihadist groups in Gaza were not about to let Damascus steal the limelight in the region’s central cause, so they fired some missiles. It’s hard to say whether this is the first sign of liberation or whether we will soon be headed to the Security Council to ask for a resolution condemning Israel and a ceasefire, as aware as we may be of Israel’s relationship with the world and the five permanent members of the Security Council.
Egypt is a main target in this latest episode. The point is to drown the voice of its spring and its nascent democracy beneath the cry to battle in Sinai first; and so as to justify the call to battle against Israel, second. Then Egypt’s new political elite would come under enormous pressures from its supporters and their competitors in waving the Islamist banner, and from their opponents who are still at a loss over whether to back a stance that could lead to war at a time when Egypt is still in its transitional phase.
As always, the solution is demonstrations and mass protests and a campaign of one-upmanship over who will be the toughest in championing our brothers and confronting the enemy. Before the Arab Spring in Egypt and before Tahrir Square acquired its iconic revolutionary fame, one of the fears of the spectre of Muslim Brotherhood rule was that they would steer the country to another war that no one was prepared for. The Brothers always responded with reassurances that their opposition to Camp David did not mean they wanted war. After they reached power, they gave additional reassurances by affirming their commitment to the treaty and when terrorists proliferated in the Sinai the government reached an understanding with Israel to increase the numbers of our troops there beyond the quota stipulated in the security protocol. Some Muslim Brotherhood leaders even boasted that under the current government more tunnels to Gaza had been closed down than at any time under the old regime. Others added that the current regime is proving much more serious than its predecessor with regard to the construction and development of Sinai. These are splendid words, but the fact is that the wheels of ensnarement have been set into motion. The missiles were fired and Israeli responded with far greater violence and aggression. Then Ismail Haniyeh said that Egypt could not turn its back on the Palestinians and Gaza, so Egypt heeded the appeal, recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and called for a meeting of the Arab League.
Will the mechanisms of ensnarement succeed again? I have a feeling that Israel will be disappointed this time, because there is sufficient wisdom not to yield to the political opportunity. But that does not mean that some will pass by the circumstantial opportunities to mobilise and press for new conditions in Egypt, first and foremost. As for Gaza and Palestine, that will be left to another round, at which point the forces of ensnarement will be more powerful than they are now.

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