Tag Archives: Middle East

Frightful ‘Lebanese prospects’ in Syria

Published tuesday july 12th 2011, Goethe Institut Cairo blog

“Was this all it meant then, the Beirut front line, a mile-wide avenue of sepulchral ruins that stretched from the port all the way out to Galerie Semaan, even to the foothills of the Chouf Mountains? How easily we were misled.”…

“How simply we believed that this wasteland was the immediate effect of social antagonism, community tension, civil war. How little we realized that the front line was a focus, that it was important to the Lebanese, the only way to define the indefinable, the only method by which those who had suffered – which meant every Lebanese – could uniquely understand the nature of calamity that had come upon them.” …

“In truth, the Beirut front line could not be repaired, restructured, rebuilt or re-roofed because it had become necessary for the Lebanese. It was a reference point without which the tragedy could not be expressed. It represented the cruelest of all front lines, one that lay deep within the minds of all who lived in Lebanon and all who came there.” …

“For we had all been fooled, even the Lebanese themselves. We believed in the idea of national catastrophe, of national renewal, of political renaissance. We thought that an identity existed beyond the civil conflict. We were taken in by the lies which the Lebanese told about themselves; we had to believe we had not seen the blood on the stairs.”
Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation (p. 52)

Robert Fisk’s words on Lebanon sound prophetic of the situation unfolding in Syria. The violent stand-off between the people and the Syrian government is reminiscent of the first moments in the Lebanese civil war: A government dominated by a de facto minority – in Lebanon the Maronite Christians, in Syria the Alawites – is under public pressure, and blunders.

The second parallel is the recent indictment of members of the Hizbollah for the murder of Rafiq Hariri, by the Lebanon tribunal in Leidschendam, the Netherlands. Suddenly, the situation six years ago resurfaces in my mind’s eye: Syria was still an occupying force in Lebanon and, if not directly related to the murder of Rafiq Hariri, at least very closely related to the Hizbollah, the party now regarded as the powerbase behind the deadly attack on the Lebanese prime-minister. Syria has withdrawn its troops from Lebanese soil since. Five years later Syria is at war with itself.

Poster by the Arab Socialist Baath Party in Lebanon of Hafez al Assad, former president of Syria and father of current president Bashar al Assad (1987). It reads: “7. April. One Arab nation with an eternal message”.
Source: “Off the Wall; Political posters of the Lebanese Civil War” by Zeina Maasri

Reading and writing on the deteriorating situation in Syria, what continues to worry me is how inappropriate our frameworks of reference are. Just as Fisk and his contemporaries were fooled, we are being fooled today, and continue to fool ourselves. “We” being the Syrian opposition, the Syrian government and the international community.

Meanwhile a front is created. A front in almost every town, every city and every heart. It is not clear who is fighting whom, and what for. What remains are the squares, where people demonstrate before the tanks roll in and hearts are torn between fighting for one’s ‘future’, ever insecure, and for one’s life today. Like the Lebanese frontline running through Beirut, the frontline scattered across Syria is fast becoming the only focal point for the Syrian people, the Syrian government and the international community.

It is this mental and physical front, which Fisk recalls for Lebanon, that really worries me. As the frontline sharpens, the parties on either side fade. What are the Syrian government’s plans beyond quelling the opposition? How does the Syrian opposition define itself in such a dispersed and desperate situation? How does the international community choose sides or keep the different parties apart?

Peace keeps retreating as the answers dissolve. Soon, blaming the government or the opposition will become obsolete, as the country is torn apart.

The difference to the Lebanese civil war is, we are less optimistic about Syria. We no longer think this is temporary. Lebanese history has made us aware of the dangers of an unstable Syria. But the absence of the Lebanese chimera, of snow-topped mountains and the bulging sea of the ‘Paris of the Orient”, makes it easier for us to withdraw our hands, to cast down our eyes, of what is only about to unfold.

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

The Arab Spring catches up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

A relic of pre-revolutionary times, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now demands our attention again. Abbas and Netanyahu have rehashed their plights in front of the UN General Assembly. This shows how the conflict is on its way to becoming an anachronism of Western influence in the Middle East, argues Ruben Elsinga.

Since a street vendor set himself ablaze on a Tunisian square, emotions hitherto repressed have broken loose in the Middle East. Squares in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria have blossomed and burned. Meanwhile the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, prison in the mids of Arab uprising, has been carefully preserved by the US and Europe, the Arab political establishment and interests in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

As uprisings blaze through the Middle East, Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s “We are still here!” seems only an echo of forgotten times. What is the gathering of thousands in Ramallah compared to the gathering of hundreds of thousands at Tahrir square? What are the stones and graffiti’s of Palestinians and Israeli settlers compared to deadly clashes between army and opposition in Syria? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like an old man mumbling about his past.

In Israel the hopes and dreams and fighting spirit of the first generations after independence has seized to exist. The country is split between Tel Aviv’s individualist capitalism and the religious dogmatism of Jerusalem and the settlements, the majority is painfully silent. Politically, Israel has given way to the shortsighted populism of Bibi (Prime Minister Netanyahu) and the bold racism of Lieberman (Minister of Foreign Affairs).

Palestinian society is split similarly between the West Bank’s pragmatism and Gaza’s dogmatic endorsement of violent resistance. People continue with their business, some smuggle it through tunnels, others toil it through checkpoints.

The US routinely proposes a half-hearted peace-deal. Obama did win some popularity in Palestine an the Arab world through his solidarity speech for the Arab people this spring, and now loses it to win the votes of the US Jewish constituency and his domestic financial support base. Europe is trying to support Palestinian statehood, but countries like the Netherlands have obstructed a unified statement in favor or their support to the US and Israel.

While Israelis, Palestinians and their US mediators drift further apart, the world is closing in around Israel and Palestine. Turkey’s new military leadership is reconsidering its relationship with Israel: in the future battle ships will accompany humanitarian expeditions to Gaza. Egypt’s military command is undergoing a less pronounced reconsideration after the political outrage caused by Israel’s (accidental) killing of Egyptian soldiers at the Gaza border.

At another border at the Golan, early in the uprising against the Assad-regime, Syria saw a particular moment: the Golan border was overrun – and entire families marched through before the Israeli forces arrived to quell this unique penetration of their border. Suddenly the Golan problem, which had served both Israel and Syria as an excuse for stalemate, proved not to be as impenetrable after all.

The Palestinian-Israeli state of paralysis becomes increasingly paradoxical as the Middle East is shifting all around it. Whereas the Palestinian-Israeli conflict-resolution process has been planned, controlled and staled, the changes happening in the course of the Arab Spring are unpredictable and seem to be enforcing real change.

Abbas’ appeal for Palestinian statehood and even more so the responses by Netanyahu and the US seems anachronistic and out of touch with a dynamic reality pressing at its borders around. Last weekend showed us that, due to the Arab Spring, Israel and the West are now less able to control the Middle East via the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate.

Israel / Palestine will soon rejoin the Arab world while it redefines itself, and no longer be the crux by which the West defines the Middle East. This ‘redefinition’ of the Middle East does not take place in the hollow halls of the UN, but on the streets of the Middle East.

Ruben Elsinga holds an 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. To read Ruben’s personal blog visit https://rubenelsinga.wordpress.com/.

The Syrian revolt and the fate of my friend Amjad Baiazy: an impossible escape from an impossible situation

By: Ruben Elsinga

In the last months a surge for dignity, freedom and respect has unfolded in the Middle East. I remember how my friend Amjad Baiazy left on that note to his homeland Syria. He seriously thought he could make a difference in Syria for the better. Now the Syrian plight for dignity is getting stuck in an impasse that manifests itself in a battle between government and opposition. Symbolically our friend Amjad has been imprisoned for almost a month now by the Syrian secret service. Little more is known about his fate.

In the meanwhile my facebook page shows a mix of messages from friends with both the oppositional camp’s strong revolutionary rhetoric and the propagandistic messages of the pro-government camp. And so, like two ghosts rolling their muscles in mirror image of each other, the two camps are heading for collision.

Other then hope for the future, the revolutions in Syria and the rest of the Middle East have a lack of a thorough plan and lack of a concrete productive attitude  in common. When coming from the government plans have proven hollow promises and the opposition seems to lack the vision to formulate a focused perspective as well. Meanwhile the government as much as the opposition hides more and more in their deeply rooted sectarian and religious  camps.

The chance the revolts will lead from bad to worse becomes larger with the day. The call for a better future for his country of my friend Amjad of one-and-a-half month ago now dies away in the dungeons of the Syrian secret service. The call for freedom heard at Tahrir square is deteriorating into a state of anarchy in which armed gangs kill policemen, after having done the same to innocent alawites, the sect which president Bashar al-Assad originates from.

The impossibility of the flight forward seems to be as impossible as the situation Syrians were trying to escape from. The revolts seem to get stuck in two devilish dilemma’s. The first devilish dilemma manifests itself in time: Syria is stuck between a problematic recent history that did not bring any significant change for the better for most, and an insecure future, that will possibly lead to a civil war similar to the ones raging in Lebanon and Iraq in the last decades.

The second dilemma is one of choice between the two camps, between the government and the opposition. A choice that is hard to make for the generally neutral Syrian population as much as it is for the international community. The problem is in the fact that government as well as opposition are basically not to be trusted. The government is lead by deeply embedded interests of the secret and security services and the people around them, often alawite. The opposition is feared to be hijacked by armed resistance groups with unclear but likely not only good plans with Syrian minorities.

The whirlwind that is moving through Syria and the wider Middle East is in this sense an explosive expression of the negative spiral of economic stagnation, a stagnated juristic system and a society which is corrupted through and through. A situation that originates not only from a government which is authoritarian to the bone, but as much in a society that never learned to co-exist in a peaceful manner and resigns now to a primal eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth.

The same dilemma’s echo in the hollow phrases and actions of government and opposition. For the government the lack of a solution expresses itself in a desperate attempt to torture the problems away of which our friend Amjad Baiazy is most probably the victim now. President Bashar al-Assad is lost between the necessity to hold on to his power cost-what-costs, while his political life also depends on the necessity for him to make sure that the until not too long ago still neutral majority will not abandon him completely.

Some oppositional groups try to break through today’s impasse by killing anyone associated to the government they can lay hands on, may they be policemen or alawites. Other peaceful people like my friend Amjad Baiazy are now locked up in a cell of the Syrian muhabarat because they thought this was their chance to really change something in their country through peaceful means.

As president Bashar al-Assad is getting stuck in his own web of power, our friend Amjad Baiazy  got stuck in his own web of impossible hopes. This way the not long ago still proud Syrian people are falling victim to the tragedies unfolding. The international community and with them me, are left in tango, and despair for our friends.

Ruben Elsinga is holder of a 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. Also check out Ruben’s personal blog www.rubenelsinga.wordpress.com

Conferencing the Revolutions, Amsterdam, Holland

See also http://blog.goethe.de/transit/archives/97-Conferencing-the-Revolutions-Amsterdam,-Holland.html

7. May 2011, Amsterdam

Far from the heart of the Arab revolts, a group of ‘revolutionaries’ gathered in Amsterdam on April 18th 2011. Organized by the University of Amsterdam and the Dutch civil society NGOs Hivos and IKV PAX Christi as part of their Knowledge Programme on Civil Society in West Asia, the conference “Inside the Revolutions: Middle Eastern Perspectives on the Revolutions”, had invited several speakers to give an insiders’ perspective on the revolts in their countries. Our Middle East blogger from the Netherlands Ruben Elsinga was there and reports on the power of revolutionary inspiration, on revolts trying to become revolutions, and on the fears that need to be overcome.
It was a full house in the Doelen Zaal of the University of Amsterdam library. The Arab revolts in the Middle East have also been filling the headlines of the Dutch media, and a mob of Dutch activists, academicians and journalists with a particular interest in the region had gathered to hear the insights of the true revolutionaries who had been flown over from the Middle East to report. With representatives from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Morocco, most of the ‘map of revolts’ was covered.The insights varied in content, I have therefore distilled a ‘red thread’ that runs through the conference.
The red thread starts with the call for the restoration of dignity, which, supported by globalist media, leads to a new spirit of hope and opportunity for a positive future and ends by unraveling itself. It is an unraveling of revolutionary hopes faced by harsh realities as well as an abundance of fears yet to be addressed.Representing Tunisia and Egypt, Messaoud Romdhani and Esraa Abdel Fattah respectively spoke of the accommodating role of globalist social media and of how perception has shifted from a “revolt of the Arab people” to “the revolts of the people of the Arab world”. They commented on the fact that this revolt did not have a particular ideology other than the restoration of human dignity, emphasizing how the restoration of this dignity was exactly what drove the masses to revolt throughout the region.

Later Basem Fathy, who spoke from his experience on Tahrir square in Cairo, described the revolution as one without leadership, led only by a revolutionary idea, that of ‘Tahrir square’ – It is an idea of freedom and of human dignity, a feeling that had been lost but had to be restored. It is this feeling, this presence of human dignity that Yanar Mohammed, female rights activist from Iraq, voiced in her touching description of the ‘revolutionary spirit’ that rose on the Tahrir square in Bagdad in the wake of the Arab revolts. She described how in a Bagdad tormented by civil war, internal strife and heavily charged tribal and factional politics, a new spirit of togetherness arose in this square. Here, people came together again and listened to each other, regardless of affiliation, sex or religion.

But as the seminar continued, these revolutionary hopes were confronted with the fears deeply embedded in the societies of the Middle East. Rania Fazah, Lebanese by descent but currently working in Amman for IKV PAX Christi on the Levantine region, spoke of ‘societies of fear’ that have not yet disappeared. There are fears regarding security and liberty, fears of ‘the unknown’ and of change, of tribalism and of the military. Each minority, tribe and social group has its own: These are fears that come together only in the overall fear that the new private citizens’ hopes, which occupied the squares and international media platforms, will shy back from this battle against deeply rooted conformity. That the Arab world will shy back in a culture of fear, as it has done in the last decades.

The question at the core of this discussion was: Would the people of the Arab world be able to overcome these fears and enforce real change? In the words of Paul Aarts of the University of Amsterdam, “Is the Arab world able to transform the revolts of today into the social revolution of tomorrow?”. Disguised as a seemingly semantic discussion, about whether recent events should be characterized as revolts or as a revolution, lay a general insecurity as to where this will all lead to eventually.

The lack of an ideology or a clear plan, other than the strong motivation to restore dignity, that was lauded in the beginning of the conference for starting off the revolts, also turned out to be the splitting point, at which the revolutionary thread unraveled at the end of the day. The variety of perspectives presented suggests that, while some of the threads will end in intangible knots of violence, others may lead to meaningful change. Let’s hope that as many threads as possible will eventually find their way through the darkness of Arab fears, into a bright future.

Ruben Elsinga has taken an 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.

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.

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.