In response to the threat made to him by the Turkish foreign minister that he is about to face the same fate of Saddam Hussein or Qaddafi, Syria’s President promised to put a quick end to the violence perpetrated by his security and army forces against his own people. Bashar Assad also promised to announce a package of essential constitutional reforms “soon”. With his credibility at its lowest ever level, the people of Syria do not take such promises seriously. Internationally, he is not viewed as being capable of reforming his regime.
After the violence of recent weeks, especially the massacre in the first week of Ramadan, the people of Syria will not be content with anything less than the complete overthrow of the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Assad hopes to buy more time, with confusion in the international community and hesitation by Turkey and the Arab states, enabling him to defeat the popular movement for reform and return to the pre-March status quo.
What the Syrian President does not realize is that his country, along with the rest of the Arab region, is undergoing a huge shift in the course of Arab history, the pain of which goes back to the end of the First World War, at least. That is where the roots of the present regimes lie, as does the negative image of the Arab world. Massacres in Syria will only delay reform, not stop it, no matter how brutal they are. With or without international pressure; with or without support from Turkey and the Arab states, Syria will change because the people demand it and are willing to pay the price no matter what.
No people have been exposed, for close to a hundred years, to anything like that of the Arabs. From pre-Ottoman collapse, imperialist forces have preyed on the Arab world, to divide the spoils of the Ottomans; to secure European empires; to obtain raw materials for Europe’s industries; to colonise land; and exercise spurious historical-religious “rights”.
The modern Middle East map was created by European planners carving up the old Ottoman Empire and given legitimacy with the creation of the League of Nations and subsequent imperialist-run “mandates”. Newly-created nationalist identities took precedence over older loyalties, exacerbating the Turkish-Arab division exploited so adeptly by the imperialist powers.
Instead of the Arabs having the opportunity to build an inclusive political framework to replace the Ottoman rulers, the Empire’s Arab provinces were divided into states and other entities. It was almost inevitable for these weak Arab entities, which were usually linked to foreign forces and led by short-sighted regimes, to end up in near-permanent conflict with each other.
Abandoning dreams of independence has never been less painful or a reason for inertia. There is no single Arab state which defeated foreign occupation armies and achieved independence without major sacrifices exceeding the million martyrs of Algeria. There is no single Arab national independence movement which did not involve the whole spectrum of the population, from the richest to the poorest, men and women. Right across the Arab world, from mountain villages to major cities, an entire generation of Arabs paid a high price in the struggle for freedom and independence, for what they thought would be a better life. But the years since independence have been just as bad as the years of occupation. Groups struggling for justice and freedom have not been able to achieve anything post-independence in modern Arab states.
In the light of the desperate oppression and economic and education decline affecting the Arab countries following the June 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel, there is an epidemic of nostalgia in the memories of national leaders and personalities; this has dominated the spirit of the Arabs for several decades. Perhaps there is something to justify such nostalgia and it is unreasonable to compare personal commitment and integrity of leaders then and now. The fact remains, however, that the roots of the disease affecting the Arab world go back to the early years after independence.
Rich sons of the former Ottomans ruled Arab countries as if they were inherited estates passed down within their families. They were liberals and democrats in the sense of the liberality and democracy of the class into which they were born. Their sense of responsibility was founded on parental vision also inherited for relations with the wider population. As leaders of the Arab political ideology and its guardians they were supposed to go through a bitter struggle in order to rebuild the Arab political field and break the walls built by imperialism. But they lost the plot of the Arab project along the axes of rival clans, once the Hashemite and Saudi camps, and then the Egyptians and Iraqis. As the pioneers of modern socio-political institutions in the Arab world, they were supposed to work on shifting country paradigms educationally, industrially, culturally and politically towards those of modern states. Instead, they did not hesitate to build on tribal and sectarian alliances in order to defeat adversaries and achieve personal gains in power and authority. Coming from traditionally conservative families, they should have sought and established a value system capable of re-building public consensus and preserving the unity and stability of their respective societies. However, almost without exception, they fell prey to the temptations of Western capitals and the decadent lifestyles of London, Naples and Paris. Thus, when they faced the first national challenge in the form of the Zionist project in occupied Palestine, they could not even come out with an honourable defeat.
Over the two decades following the establishment of the Zionist state, the cornerstones of the legitimacy of the noble sons of ancient Arab cities started to fall, one after the other, to be replaced by new rulers; officers in the military or graduates of universities and modern professions, from hamlets and remote villages, members of marginalized communities and rural households from the highest elevations or the edge of the desert. This new generation were indebted neither to those who went before them nor to their Arab identity; not to their traditions, nor to their liberality and tolerance.
Some of the new leaders came to power on currents of closed ideologies, and some on a wave of unrealistic ideals and ambitions; others had a blatantly malicious desire to have power, as long as power was available to all willing to take risks and seize it. This was the era of Egypt’s Liberal officers, Abdul Karim Qasim, Saddam Hussein, Houari Boumedienne and others who followed; Amin al-Hafez, Salah Jadid and the Asad family, Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the second generation of ministers and heads of ministries.
Just like their predecessors among the men of Union and Progress, the rulers of the second wave Arab state system did not have tolerance, knowledge or original wisdom for state affairs, or the Western powers they fought against or had alliances with. Neither did their modest social backgrounds help maintain their purity. And because a sense of prophecy, divine inspiration and infallibility dominated the majority, their main aspirations in most cases led to the systematic destruction of themselves and the capabilities of the country. Each thought that he deserved to rule all of the Arabs and lead them to salvation, hence the increase in Arab divisions and wasted fortunes on buying foreign alliances to protect the regime and its rulers. In the meantime, the ordinary Arab people became even poorer, less well-educated and more dependent on others.
Direct Western intervention in the affairs of Arab governments is now much less than before. However, there is actually nothing that requires such intervention because the ruling regimes are willing partners in serving the exclusive interests of the past imperial entities. The people of the region can sink no lower after a few decades which have seen unparalleled destruction.
Here lie the roots of the Arab Revolutions today and this is what must be understood by rulers such as Bashar Assad, Saleh and Qaddafi; and, importantly, the military junta in Egypt. But the inability of them to see the revolutionary movement with its role in modern Arab history does not mean that these revolutions can be hijacked or aborted or fail. The mass movement has grown in awareness and steadfastness which makes the reform of the Arab historical context as strong as historic action itself: to stand against it equals suicide.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.