It has not happened in centuries that the three once great cities of Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo have simultaneously become capitals of pain, griped by unspeakable political and sectarian violence; at the mercy of rapacious regimes and extremist Islamists who are hurtling them rapidly, and at times gleefully into chaos and disintegration.
Today the inhabitants of these urban centers, where once knowledge and culture were created and enjoyed, are reduced to lamenting a tragic present while anticipating future disasters. Other Arab capitals like Beirut, Tripoli and Sanaa are not faring much better and are teetering at the edge of the precipice. Tunis, maybe the only capital that managed to bend with the storm that unleashed the season of Arab uprisings and like a sturdy palm tree is still standing, yet exhausted, and vulnerable to the same rapacious men and its long term health is not guaranteed. The uprisings and the shifting dynamics that they have created have exposed the glaring vulnerabilities of Arab civil societies (pulverized and intimidated by decades of autocracy) and the abject failure (with few admirable exceptions) of the Arab intelligentsia, which played a very limited role in leading and/or inspiring the spontaneous uprisings.
Political and human wreckage
Bad times have visited the Arabs before, but not on such scale. Reviewing the political and human wreckage of the last three years one has to conclude – at this moment in history, and that is the only thing we could do now- that the results amount to an inheritance of desolation.
Today, the Arab political landscape is so tragic, so grim and so nihilistic to the point that renders any attempt at rational analysis a useless exerciseHisham Melhem
What has the season of uprisings wrought? Three long years of upheavals, of mass popular peaceful uprisings that were met by Arab despots everywhere with brute force, and after assassinations and mass killings of demonstrators in the streets, armed opposition groups emerged, the most dangerous of which are atavistic even primitive Islamists still combatting, mainly in Syria but also to a lesser extent in Egypt and Iraq, equally brutal and cruel entrenched regimes. This has coincided with the spread of an extremely deadly strain of sectarian cancer that has spawned unprecedented Sunni-Shiite bloodletting on a long front extending from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon.
Today, the Arab political landscape is so tragic, so grim and so nihilistic to the point that renders any attempt at rational analysis or thoughtful contemplation almost a useless exercise. A great deal of what is written by Arab commentators, scholars and historians sounds like variations on the same grand lamentation of the current horrific Arab condition.
In their long struggle beginning in the 19th century to revive their culture and language, to reform and modernize their societies and polities, the Arabs of Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq fought backwardness and the forces of political and religious reaction, their own real and imagined divisions, Ottoman domination, Western colonialism and the Zionist drive to build a homeland for the Jews in Arab Palestine, and at times paid a very heavy price in lives and treasures. However, the pain of those bygone days, pale in comparison with the unfathomable pain and agony of today’s Syria. The casualties of the Syrian conflict are more than all the Arabs killed during the struggle for independence from France and Britain in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon combined. The numbers of Syrians killed in the last three years is larger than all the Arabs who fell in all the Arab-Israeli wars combined. The Syrian war has created a nation of refugees in the neighborhood of three million people and the numbers are mounting with each passing day, (in addition to five million internally displaced persons) the likes of which we have not seen in the Eastern Mediterranean in a century. The number of Syrian refugees dwarfs the number of Palestinian refugees that resulted from all the Arab-Israeli wars combined. During the recent historic snow storm Alexa that swept the Middle East, the destroyed neighborhoods of Homs, Hama, and Aleppo that were visited by the marauding Syrian army, looked eerily like the destroyed cities of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that were pulverized by the Nazi hordes in the Second World War.
Arabs in agony
Is it possible to say anything meaningful about the Syrian tragedy that has not been said before? Is there anything crueler than the impossible choice some are trying to force on the Syrian people; either Bashar Assad’s bullets or the sharp knives of the Jihadists? Most of those countries wringing their hands and shaking their heads in impotence over the agony of Syria, including the United States and the neighboring countries, are in part responsible for the slow death of a country because of their dithering and their reluctance to intervene early on, to stop or topple Assad, particularly when his regime used massive violence to crush the peaceful uprising, and when Assad diabolically used sectarianism to mobilize his narrow base and hasten the emergence of his enemy of choice; the radical Islamists.
Iraq, after a slow and partial recovery from its civil war in the last decade, finds itself today sliding gradually back to civil war and possible partition, in part because of the Syrian civil war, and the widening regional Sunni-Shia conflict. Libya is simply ungovernable. A brittle government in Tripoli capable only, of claiming nominal suzerainty over the vast country and its bickering political forces, regions, militias and tribes. The mounting violence, continuing political stalemate and deepening regional fissures, threaten the very unity of Libya. Yemen hobbles from one wave of violence to another with no end in sight. A perfect storm is gathering over the poorest Arab country; political atrophy, weak government in Sanaa, a secessionist movement in the south, a revived Houthi rebellion in the north, the frightening disappearance of the country’s water resources and a still deadly Al Qaeda branch active in a large area. Only Tunisia still maintains a political life that gives it, theoretically at least, the chance to go through a tough political transition that is still stained by the violence of assassinations and the mounting threats of the Salafists.
My generation of Arabs grew up in a political culture that vilified, in the name of Arab Nationalism, the inheritance of colonialism in the Arab East, particularly the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 between France and Britain which created, or sanctioned the new nation-states of Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine (under British mandate) and Syria and Lebanon (under French mandate). The borders drawn by this colonial construct ignored (in general) the sectarian, religious and ethnic demarcation lines within Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and left behind earlier schemes to carve up Alawite, Druze and Maronite statelets. A century later, this colonial legacy - which is apparently too progressive, for the pathetically parochial grandchildren of the generation that gained formal independence- and that is why they are tearing it apart to its primordial sectarian, ethnic and tribal components.
What of Egypt? In three years the Egyptians brought down Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule, lived and chafed under the harsh reign of Field Marshal Tantawi’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and then they elected Mohammad Mursi and experienced his annus horribilis. Later, many Egyptians rose up against Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood, before he was overthrown in a coup, led by another Field Marshal named Sisi that completed the circle of the return of the military to dominate Egypt. Yes, many were fooled again. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on Dec. 19, 2013.
Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem
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