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The Middle East Revolutions: What Do They Mean? – Analysis

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Asma al-Assad’s glowing write up in Vogue was met by outrage in all the usual places. Max Fisher and Jeffrey Goldberg, big supporters of Israel, castigated Vogue for its profile of Syria’s first lady.  They express horror at seeing a positive write up of Syria.  Doubtlessly, they would be gratified to see a positive report of Israel’s first lady even though Israel has killed, wounded, and imprisoned without trial many more of its subjects in the last 10 years than Syria has. The fact is that Asma al-Assad is doing good things in Syria. Reporting on them is correct. If Israel’s first lady is doing something constructive for her country, the homeless, orphans, or the undeserved, she should get credit for it, regardless of how badly the Israeli government treats its subjects in the Occupied Territories.

The battle over interpreting the Great Arab Revolt of 2011 is raging. I quote three interpretations below. Buthaina Shabaan argues that it is a revolt against the American  and Israeli imposed order in the Middle East. Fuad Ajami claims that the Arab people have finally shaken off their own psychological chains in order to embrace freedom.

Leon Hadar, who I admire, argues that this is the end of Pan-Arabism in his Burying Pan-Arabism | The National Interest. He writes:

Egypt and the Arab world may be entering a post-Pan-Arabist stage in which new national identities and sub-regional groupings (that includes non-Arab entities like the Kurds, the southern Sudanese, and the Berbers of North Africa) will project their growing power…..

Greg Gause takes issue with Hadar’s statement that Arabism is dead, which echos Ajami’s famous statement following the 1967 War. Greg writes:

Burying something that has been dead for decades is not very interesting. What is interesting is the contagion effect in the Arab world, which demonstrates that things still do travel across borders in the Arab world in a way that is different from other groupings. Did Arabs take to the streets during the protests in Iran in 2009? When AKP won the last two elections in Turkey? Intellectuals noticed those things, but when Tunisians went to the streets successfully, Egyptians followed, then Yemenis, Bahrainis, Jordanians, Algerians…That has to mean something, even if it does not mean that Abd al-Nasir is coming back.

Like Greg, I am skeptical of pronouncements of the death of Arabism. Arabs feel an affinity for each other, they share a history and language; it is hard to believe that their sense of commonness will die. Most Syrians cling to their Arab identity; many claim it is more important than their Syrian identity and argue that they are Arabs first and Syrians second.
All the same, in the last few decades the rise of local nationalism has been powerful and is reshaping the way people think. If I had a piaster for every time I have heard young Syrians disparage Arab nationalism and claim that Arabs don’t help each other, are selfish, divided, and ghaddaariin – deceitful, treacherous – I would be rich. But such anger at fellow Arabs and the selfish politics of the Arab leaders is symptomatic of the disillusionment felt by a spurned lover.  Political ideas still spread from one end of the Arab World to the other with tremendous speed and force.

In analyzing the forces behind the revolutions, American analysts take solace in the fact that al-Qaida and Islamism is largely absent from the front lines of protest. They argue that the call for democracy and individual rights is pro-Western, not pro-Islamist. All the same, few doubt that parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood will play a greater role in places such as Egypt and Tunisia.

The new Day of Rage being called for by the Facebook website “The Syria Revolution of 2011″  is generating interest from journalists who want to know who created it, who has signed it, and whether it will spark protests. In the past, Syrian youth have been largely apolitical and apathetic. The reasons for this are many:  they have been too preoccupied with material pursuits, fed up with Syria’s traditional opposition parties, too divided, or too frightened of Syria’s uncompromising security forces. The present agitation for revolution is waking many young Syrians out of their slumber and causing them to see that mass action can make a difference, even against the most determined state. Still, there is little history of group action or unity in Syria. Most organized opposition leaders live in exile. Over twenty of my facebook friends have signed on to the protest – all live outside Syria. Some have created moving YouTube testimonials to encourage revolt among Syrians. It will take time, however, for Syrians to change, but they will.

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis maintains Syria Comment and teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis regularly travels to Washington DC to consult with the State Department and other government agencies. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio.

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