Dera’a, Syria: Tribalism unleashed?!

Monday, 4. April 2011

as published in http://blog.goethe.de/transit/archives/60-Deraa,-Syria-Tribalism-unleashed!.html

As if to prove how revolution spreads, Dera’a has suddenly become the heart of the supposed Syrian revolt against president Assad and his family. Until recently Dera’a was just a small city mainly occupied with hiding its main occupation, the smuggle of cigarettes and other products over the nearby Syrian-Jordanian border. It is a case in point for the true nature of revolution, one markedly messier than the clean break from a dirty past that it likes to present itself as. In fact, it is a nature in which the civil plight for greater freedom and ultimate happiness mixes with the long denied, and suppressed, reality of tribalism in Syria, and with a Syrian and local economy that is mainly present underground.
During a trip from Damascus to Amman when I lived in Damascus until about a year ago, I got to talk with a good friend, and the subject soon turned to Dera’a. He told me how the Jordanian border guards were having a hard time stopping the smuggling, mainly cigarettes. And how sometimes they had to strip bare whole cars to find the cigarettes smuggled under a false bottom. As one of the Dutch students, who was taking a summer course at the institute I worked for, found out to her distress after taking a cheap ride from Damascus to Amman, the main business of her chauffeur was not so much taxi-ing her, but rather using her as a cover to smuggle all kinds of products.It is indicative for the integral role smuggling plays for the clans around the Syrian-Jordanian border, that the normally lively market of Ramtha, on the Jordanian side of the border, ruled by the Al Zoubi tribe, has been empty since the protests broke out in Dera’a.
Another friend told me how Dera’a is basically a no-go area, where the Syrian government has no de-facto control, and things are governed by local tribes, of which most are deeply entangled in smuggling business. Generally, the border guards, at least the Syrian ones, are deeply in on the smuggle and are dependent on it to supplement their meager salary.With these stories in mind, the clear-cut heart and start of an upcoming Syrian Revolt, which Dera’a is presented as, appears a lot more dimensional than just embodying a break with the dictatorial past. A genuine and justified plight for greater freedom mixes conspicuously with a tribalism still very much alive and with a local economy fully dependant on the smuggle of goods. It is this complicated, hidden reality of socio-political relations that is so easily and happily overlooked by revolutionaries all over the Middle East, and by the media covering the ‘revolts’. It is a tribalism in which the rule of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, is much more important than the call for revolution, as the media make of it.

What is happening now in Dera’a is first of all a protest against the regime, demanding more freedom and prosperity. Moreover it is also very much a revolt of one group of tribes, namely those from Dera’a, against the government itself, which in turn is dominated by the Alawi tribes (a split-off of the shi’ite denomination of Islam). When protests spiraled, the government moved in as it is used to and has done earlier in Dera’a, as well as in other places, according to stories I heard while living in Syria, about the Damascus suburb of Jeramana and an area close to ancient Palmyra. With increasing tensions in the region, the government in Syria is on high alert – and clearly they reacted even stronger than they normally would, to quell discontent.

Naturally, there is a lot of civil discontent in a thoroughly suppressive state like Syria, and after living there for one and a half year I cannot but agree that the current state of corruption, suppression and lack of liberty is highly frustrating, the more so for Syrians who do not have a choice. Forcing a choice out of this state of inertia is therefore a justified reaction in Syria, as it is anywhere in the Middle East. Nonetheless there remains the danger that, with freedom from the government gained, another beast is unleashed. A beast formed by decades of suppressed and denied social-political feelings, and decades of essentially different forms and expressions of factionalism and tribalism, that run much deeper than the notorious Syrian secret service can reach.

Ruben Elsinga took his MSc. in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He has lived in Damascus, Syria for one and a half years, where he worked at the Netherlands Institute of Academic Studies.

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Beyond the Oriental Revolt

21. March, 2011

With the Arabic revolt, the sleepy eyes of the western spectator are opened to the Middle East again. After removing some desert sand from the western eye, an Orient emerges beyond the Israel-Palestine conflict and the 1001 nights of Muslim terror. In a rush, journalists have to create new images of the Middle East. The caricatural mask suddenly has come alive, and from under the mask a pale face appears. A face so pale that the West hurriedly puts a new mask on it. Now, it is less that of an area prone to Muslim terrorism, but rather of one destined for revolutions against despotic dictators.
To focus solely on “the Oriental revolt” as an explanation of what is currently happening in the Middle East does injustice to the obvious truth. A truth that nonetheless is completely overlooked. This truth is not about a wave of revolutions, nor of a domino effect, but it is about a multi-variety of revolutions, demonstrations, civil wars and simple civil discontent that fills the squares, roundabouts and streets of the Middle East. The new revolutionary blanket that is hastily spread over the Middle East moreover serves to keep the shifting power relations that are taking place in the Middle East out of sight.
These shifts are part of a development in which the particular preferential and perverted role the West has played in the Middle East for so long is renegotiated, without the West being present at the table.Illustrative of the decline of western power in the region is how the West is losing its power to define the Middle East in the international media. Institutions like CNN and the BCC have grown dependent on locals and on their regional competitors Al Jazeera and Al Arabia, for footage. With this development in media it is literally no longer the West that ‘creates the image’ of the Oriental Revolt, but rather the people of the Middle East themselves. In this respect, the revolt is detaching the region further from its special relationship with the West. Moreover, western media coverage on the Oriental Revolt, from Yemen to Syria and Iran to Morocco, shows a disconnect between the sudden need to cover the events springing up everywhere, and a necessary understanding of the situation on the ground in the different Middle Eastern localities.

It is important to realize that the coverage of the current Oriental Revolt only shows very little of the ‘real’ Middle Eastern reality and that it particularly neglects the differences between the societies that make up this region. Although the disgruntlement of today’s protesters and revolutionaries seems completely justified, one cannot assume, as western media tends to, that all protests are “good” or that the public uprisings are all similar in kind. The politics behind the current developments in the Middle East is far too complicated to generalize events into an ‘Arab’ or ‘Oriental’ Revolt. An understanding of the social structures and subtle particularities of the different societies is necessary to make a good judgment. It is exactly this balanced understanding that is lost in western coverage of the recent developments in the Middle East.

The idea of an ‘Oriental Revolt’ therefore stems not only from the changing political equilibrium of the localities that form ‘the Middle East’, but more from the misconception that these belong to a modern age in which thought, identity and action are supposedly aligned according to strict western dogma. After communism collapsed with the Berlin Wall in 1989 and capitalism stopped working as smoothly as it should have during the recent global economic crisis, the western orientalist image of the Middle East now finds its Waterloo at Tahrir Square in Cairo, the souq of Tunis, the desert of Libya, on a roundabout in Bahrain and all those other places where Arabs live their lives away from the spotlight.

The explosions on the surface of the Middle East are merely warning signs of the new power equilibriums that are yet to be formed in times to come. In terms of wellbeing, freedom and prosperity these are difficult times to predict anything, anywhere. Therefore the dream of a bright future that is fuelling the revolts of today is far from a reality for the majority of the Middle Easterners of tomorrow. Nonetheless, it seems likely that these revolts have started a new period of independence, maybe more from the West, than from the leaders the people are fighting to topple.

Ruben Elsinga took his MSc. in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He has lived in Damascus, Syria for one and a half years, where he worked at the Netherlands Institute of Academic Studies.

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