All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
Darkness descends upon the Arab world. Waste, death, and destruction attend a fight for a better life. Outsiders compete for influence and settle accounts. The peaceful demonstrations with which this began, the lofty values that inspired them, become distant memories. Elections are festive occasions where political visions are an afterthought. The only consistent program is religious and is stirred by the past. A scramble for power is unleashed, without clear rules, values, or endpoint. It will not stop with regime change or survival. History does not move forward. It slips sideways.
Games occur within games: battles against autocratic regimes, a Sunni–Shiite confessional clash, a regional power struggle, a newly minted cold war. Nations divide, minorities awaken, sensing a chance to step out of the state’s confining restrictions. The picture is blurred. These are but fleeting fragments of a landscape still coming into its own, with only scrappy hints of an ultimate destination. The changes that are now believed to be essential are liable to be disregarded as mere anecdotes on an extended journey.
New or newly invigorated actors rush to the fore: the ill-defined “street,” prompt to mobilize, just as quick to disband; young protesters, central activists during the uprising, roadkill in its wake. The Muslim Brothers yesterday dismissed by the West as dangerous extremists are now embraced and feted as sensible, businesslike pragmatists. The more traditionalist Salafis, once allergic to all forms of politics, are now eager to compete in elections. There are shadowy armed groups and militias of dubious allegiance and unknown benefactors as well as gangs, criminals, highwaymen, and kidnappers.
Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.
In record time, Turkey evolved from having zero problems with its neighbors to nothing but problems with them. It has alienated Iran, angered Iraq, and had a row with Israel. It virtually is at war with Syria. Iraqi Kurds are now Ankara’s allies, even as it wages war against its own Kurds and even as its policies in Iraq and Syria embolden secessionist tendencies in Turkey itself.
For years, Iran opposed Arab regimes, cultivating ties with Islamists with whose religious outlook it felt it could make common cause. As soon as they take power, the Islamists seek to reassure their former Saudi and Western foes and distance themselves from Tehran despite Iran’s courting. The Iranian regime will feel obliged to diversify its alliances, reach out to non-Islamists who feel abandoned by the nascent order and appalled by the budding partnership between Islamists and the US. Iran has experience in such matters: for the past three decades, it has allied itself with secular Syria even as Damascus suppressed its Islamists.
When goals converge, motivations differ. The US cooperated with Gulf Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms in deposing Qaddafi yesterday and in opposing Assad today. It says it must be on the right side of history. Yet those regimes do not respect at home the rights they piously pursue abroad. Their purpose is neither democracy nor open societies. They are engaged in a struggle for regional domination. What, other than treasure, can proponents of a self-styled democratic uprising find in countries whose own system of governance is anathema to the democratic project they allegedly promote?
The new system of alliances hinges on too many false assumptions and masks too many deep incongruities. It is not healthy because it cannot be real. Something is wrong. Something is unnatural. It cannot end well.
A media war that started in Egypt reaches its zenith in Syria. Each side shows only its own, amplifies the numbers, disregards the rest. In Bahrain, the opposite is true. No matter how many opponents of the regime turn up, few take notice. It does not register on the attention scale. Not long ago, footage from Libya glorified motley fighters with colorful bandanas and triumphant spiel. The real battles, bloody and often from the skies, raged elsewhere. Casualties were invisible.
Throngs gather in Tahrir Square. The camera zooms in on protesters. What about the unseen millions who stayed at home? Did they rejoice at Mubarak’s overthrow or quietly lament his departure? How do Egyptians feel about the current disorder, unrest, economic collapse, and political uncertainty? In the elections that ensued, 50 percent did not vote. Of those who did, half voted for the representative of the old order. Who will look after those who lie on the other side of the right side of history?
Most Syrians fight neither to defend the regime nor to support the opposition. They are at the receiving end of this vicious confrontation, their wishes unnoticed, their voices unheard, their fates forgotten. The camera becomes an integral part of the unrest, a tool of mobilization, propaganda, and incitement. The military imbalance favors the old regimes but is often more than compensated for by the media imbalance that favors the new forces. The former Libyan regime had Qaddafi’s bizarre rhetoric; Assad’s Syria relies on its discredited state-run media. It’s hardly a contest. In the battle for public sympathy, in the age of news-laundering, the old orders never stood a chance.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, no unifying figure of stature has emerged with the capacity to shape a new path. There is scant leadership. Where there is leadership, it tends to be by committee. Where there are committees, they emerge mysteriously to assume authority no one has granted them. More often than not, legitimacy is bestowed from abroad: the West provides respectability and exposure; Gulf Arab states supply resources and support; international organizations offer validity and succor.
Those in charge often lack the strength that comes from a clear and loyal domestic constituency; they need foreign approval and so they must be cautious, adjust their positions to what outsiders accept. Past revolutionary leaders were not driven by such considerations. For better or for worse, they were stubbornly independent and took pride in rebuffing foreign interference.
Not unlike the rulers they helped depose, Islamists placate the West. Not unlike those they replaced, who used the Islamists as scarecrows to keep the West by their side, the Muslim Brotherhood waves the specter of what might come next should it fail now: the Salafis who, for their part and not unlike the Brothers of yore, are torn between fealty to their traditions and the taste of power.
It’s a game of musical chairs. In Egypt, Salafis play the part once played by the Muslim Brotherhood; the Brotherhood plays the part once played by the Mubarak regime. In Palestine, Islamic Jihad is the new Hamas, firing rockets to embarrass Gaza’s rulers; Hamas, the new Fatah, claiming to be a resistance movement while clamping down on those who dare resist; Fatah, a version of the old Arab autocracies it once lambasted. How far off is the day when Salafis present themselves to the world as the preferable alternative to jihadists?
Egyptian politics are wedged between the triumphant mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, more hard-line Salafis, anxious non-Islamists, and remnants of the old order. As the victorious Brotherhood tries to reach an arrangement with the rest, the political future is a blur. The speed and elegance with which the new president, Mohamed Morsi, retired or sidelined the old military leaders and the quiet with which this daring move was greeted suggest that the Islamists’ confidence has grown, that they are willing to move at a faster pace.
Tunisia is a mixed tale. The transition has been largely peaceful; the an-Nahda party, which won the elections last October, offers a pragmatic, moderate face of Islamism. But its efforts to consolidate power are a source of nervousness. Mistrust between secularists and Islamists is growing; socioeconomic protests at times become violent. Salafis lurk in the wings, assailing symbols of modern society, free speech, and gender equality.
In Yemen, former president Saleh is out of power but not offstage. One war brews in the north, another in the south. Jihadists flex their muscles. The young revolutionaries who dreamed of a complete change can only watch as different factions of the same old elite rearrange the deck. Saudis, Iranians, and Qataris sponsor their own factions. Minor clashes could escalate into major confrontations. Meanwhile, US drones eliminate al-Qaeda operatives and whoever happens to be in their vicinity.
Day by day, the civil war in Syria takes on an uglier, more sectarian hue. The country has become an arena for a regional proxy war. The opposition is an eclectic assortment of Muslim Brothers, Salafis, peaceful protesters, armed militants, Kurds, soldiers who have defected, tribal elements, and foreign fighters. There is little that either the regime or the opposition won’t contemplate in their desperation to triumph. The state, society, and an ancient culture collapse. The conflict engulfs the region.
The battle in Syria also is a battle for Iraq. Sunni Arab states have not accepted the loss of Baghdad to Shiites and, in their eyes, to Safavid Iranians. A Sunni takeover in Syria will revive their colleagues’ fortunes in Iraq. Militant Iraqi Sunnis are emboldened and al-Qaeda is revitalized. A war for Iraq’s reconquest will be joined by its neighbors. The region cares about Syria. It obsesses about Iraq.
Islamists in the region await the outcome in Syria. They do not wish to bite off more than they can chew. If patience is the Islamist first principle, consolidation of gains is the second. Should Syria fall, Jordan could be next. Its peculiar demography—a Palestinian majority ruled over by a trans-Jordanian minority—has been a boon to the regime: the two communities bear deep grievances against the Hashemite rulers yet distrust each other more. That could change in the face of the unifying power of Islam for which ethnicity, in theory at least, is of little consequence.
Weaker entities may follow. In northern Lebanon, Islamist and Salafi groups actively support the Syrian opposition, with whom they may have more in common than with Lebanese Shiites and Christians. From the outset a fragile contraption, Lebanon is pulled in competing directions: some would look to a new Sunni-dominated Syria with envy, perhaps a yearning to join. Others would look to it with fright and despair.
In Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy intent on retaining power and privilege violently suppresses the majority Shiites. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states come to their ally’s rescue. The West, so loud elsewhere, is mute. When Libya holds elections, Islamists do not fare well; their opponents believe they finally achieved their one victory in a country that has no tradition of political openness, lacks a state, and is sated with armed militias that regularly engage in deadly clashes. An octogenarian leadership in Saudi Arabia struggles with a looming transition, lives in fear of Iran and its own population, doles out cash to fend off dissatisfaction. How long can all this last?