There came a moment in 2006, impossible to pinpoint even to the month (certainly it occurred well before the one, only and everlasting Shimon Peres said, "I told the Americans that there is no sense in sending a $100 million jet to chase a terrorist that will down the plane with a shoulder-held grenade launcher. One can’t force Muslims to endorse democracy"), when American democratic evangelism in the Arab world petered out. Whether you attribute it to a racist attitude that presumes an inherent incompatibility between democracy and the "Muslim mentality and culture," or reversion to a pragmatism that is indifferent to the entire moral subject, American conservatives have returned to their bases safe and sound, albeit having lost a regiment or two of neoconservatives due to the consequences of the war against Iraq in 2003, the war against Lebanon in 2006, the long and ongoing war against the Palestinians and, specifically, since the mass offensive that was launched in 2002 in the wake of the Arab peace initiative.
American democratic evangelism ended because the policy was a complete failure. It failed in Lebanon, which liberated the Arabs from the 1967 complex for the second time, because of all the drastic misjudgements over Israeli might, over the power and resolve of the resistance, and over the feasibility of driving a sectarian wedge into Arab society around a successful anti-Israeli resistance movement — your average Egyptian couldn’t have cared less what kind of turban resistance fighters were wearing or how they held their hands during prayers. The policy failed in Palestine where it had been assumed that foreign pressure would sway the minds of voters in local elections that happened to be more about family connections, corruption, the decrepitude of a movement caught in a struggle between the old guard and fresh blood, and, of course, about patriotic issues and self-determination. In Iraq, this policy along with all others proved a total and unmitigated disaster. The dissolution of the Iraqi army and the dismantlement of the state cast that country back to a Hobbesian "war of all against all," whose participants include the occupying power from overseas and the looming neighbour, and in which the primary motive for life is fear of death. In this anarchy, societal affiliations have become politicised thanks to new leaderships put into place by the occupation regardless of their lack of either a social base or a record of political accomplishment. And by tapping into an abundant source of cheap sectarian capital and feeding the occupier handpicked distorted information, these leaderships have lured the occupation into playing along with their agenda. The result is an epidemic of sectarianism where none had previously existed, an epidemic that is all the more lethal due to the lack of any effective immunity now that the conviction in an overarching Arab identity has been thrown out with the filthy bathwater of the old regime.
Pluralistic democracy is not nor has ever been the same as sectarian pluralism, even at its most harmonious.
Following the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, the Middle East was reduced to a state of chaos far from constructive, even for the Americans who found themselves dismantling the sub-regional nation states put into place by traditional colonial powers and whose foundations were already steadily being chipped away by globalisation. What emerged in the place of the nation state were sectarian affiliations, not all of which were sympathetic to the US, contrary to the belief handed down through colonialist circles since the beginning of their clash with Arab nationalism.
Perhaps the Americans would have been wise to take a primer in colonialism from retired British Colonial Office officials or from Shimon Peres, who puts far more confidence in the great tradition, witnessed from the trailblazing Roman Empire through its contemporary torchbearer Carl Schmitt, of dividing people into "moderate" allies and "extremist" enemies than in the democracy versus dictatorship game. If terrorism is global enemy number one, as is claimed, then, according to Peres, you don’t deal with it by snubbing alliances that proved very useful in fighting other global enemies, such as the third world nationalist movements and communism. Carl Schmitt had other ideas in mind than those understood by leftists who read him in university with the same fascination they did Nietzsche and Heidegger. By the "Friend/Enemy dialectic" he did not envision pushing for a democracy that would threaten the regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, elect Hamas in Palestine or accomplish more for Iran than for the Iraqis who held the elections. Nor, by any means, was he thinking of a democratic electoral law in Lebanon that would make it possible to know where the majority of citizens stand, even within each sect and denomination, regardless of what these factions proclaim in their endless news conferences.
In 2006, American conservatives have scurried home to their bases having left many neoconservatives dead and wounded by the wayside on the return trip from the mad escapade into which the latter had led them, and after having reassured themselves on the welfare of Arab regimes which had been practically begging Israel to try to put some sense into the American administration that had been twisting their arms so determinedly. Now, in the wake of the interventionist adventure, it’s back to issuing strong advice, giving subtle winks and not coming out in favour of those in Palestine and Lebanon who might support Israel because that would only work against them. Do they think everyone simply missed the point, as though 2006 was international brain-dead year and this part of the world the capital of brain-deadness?
At any rate, they’ve turned again to their old conservative Arab chums and to embracing all of Israel, and not just the Israeli ultra right, as the neocons had done. But for this even to happen it took a massive bushfire that ranged so far out of control because there were no fire extinguishers to put it out while now there is no hope of restoring the charred and scarred land to the way it once was after the blaze dies out.
The same battle is in progress in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon. To try to look at it through sectarian eyes is to find oneself sometimes with America and at other times against. There is no consistency in America’s alliance with or enmity against "the Sunnis," and Washington’s support for the Shia parties in Iraq is heavily tempered by the condition that those parties distance themselves from anti- American Shia Iran and Hizbullah. It is impossible to draw up a sectarian map for the Arab world that plots the Iraqi resistance, Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria on one side and, on the other, "moderate" Arab regimes which bask their people in happiness, especially those millions living on the economic margins in the slums of distended urban centres and in deprived rural backwaters where all this happiness is generated. Sunni "moderateness" versus Shia "extremism", or visa versa, simply does not exist in any way that makes practical or even conceptual sense.
The current "internal" strife in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon is a continuation of the clash with Washington’s neoconservative administration by other means. In Palestine, the last of the neocons are to be found in the clique surrounding the Palestinian president, which refuses so much as a domestic compromise on the basis of the 4 June 1967 borders. This is the group that insists on meeting US-Israeli conditions, that frowned at the national reconciliation document because it could not serve as a basis for entering into negotiations with Israel, that prayed that the Israeli offensive against Lebanon would teach Hizbullah and all inspired by it a lesson and then lamented the victory of the Lebanese resistance, that wants Europe and the US not to lift the blockade against the elected Palestinian government so as to help it back into power. The remnants of the neoconservatives are still to be found among the 14 March group in Lebanon, who regard the Baker-Hamilton report as a defeat for them, who fear the very thought of a dialogue between the US and Syria and Iran, who rejected a ceasefire during the war on Lebanon before they could be assured that the country could not revert to its pre-12 July conditions, as though they had been the ones to have launched the assault to begin with. The last of the neocons are to be found among the Iraqi forces that restrict even those who could from reining in the militias, who obstruct any possible dialogue with the Baath Party, who have turned national reconciliation conferences into a façade that Bush can use to support his claim that something is moving forward in Iraq, into parleys that succeed in drafting closing statements only because the intent to follow through was never there to begin with, into the type of surgery that can be followed by the pronouncement, "The operation was a success, but the patient died."
It is a pitiful sight to see a contingent of Palestinian neocons meeting with "Lebanese armed forces" and just as pitiful a sight to see Palestinians of any stripe being used to reaffirm the Arab patriotism of their hosts in Lebanon whose ostensible support for these purported representatives of the Palestinian cause is actually directed against the Palestinian people and against the resistance movement in their own country. Both these contingents and those like them and those that support them are pushing for confrontation and for an immediate resolution, because they know that this is their last chance. No power is going to risk direct military intervention on their behalf in the future. After all, how many Israeli or American soldiers will be prepared to die for their projects in the future?
But the battle is still in full swing. Or more appropriately, three battles in one: the drive to fragment the Arab and even Iraqi identity of Iraq and to subordinate the entire country to American interests; the campaign to impose US-Israeli conditions on a national unity government in Lebanon in order to bring that country, too, into the American fold; and, to tidy things up, the fight to impose US-Israeli conditions, as summed up by the Quartet and in Bush’s letter of guarantee to Sharon, on the Palestinians instead of a national unity government. Also, as suggested above, on all three fronts there are domestic parties hostile to the local resistance movements.
Only Arab nationalists have sustained their romantic prattle about unifying Arab ranks, as opposed to seizing upon democracy as an Arab rallying cry against American policy now that the Americans and their acolytes in the region have abandoned democracy in word and deed, even as an export/import commodity. Arab nationalists are still prey to the residue of the mirage of an Arab solidarity that includes the existing regimes. While these regimes might be able to work in that direction because of the leverage they have at this time — that Washington, whose Middle East policies have failed so drastically, needs them — they clearly have no intention of doing so. This is because they see themselves as a party in the battle in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine and are fighting on the side of those who are determined to resolve the battle in a non-consensual manner, which requires the cooperation of the US, Europe, the Arab regimes and Israel. In this axis we see the type of Arab solidarity in progress: Arab solidarity against Arabism, even the romantic version that believes unity of ranks yet refuses to make the connection between nationalism as a culture and the need for democracy.
Conflict, thus, is in progress in all Arab countries and is merely at its most intense in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Nor can this conflict be reduced merely to Arab solidarity versus sectarian fragmentation. Arab nationalism should be a unified framework for the pursuit of modernisation, democratic plurality and the adoption of unified positions within this framework. The Arab nationalist trend should be regarded not as the framework itself but as an advocate of one of the possible positions within that framework. The fact that the reverse has been the case has made it possible for Arab nationalism to be used variously by the enemies of the Arabs against Iran, the Lebanese resistance and other Arab resistance movements and by the Iraqi and Lebanese resistances against the occupation and the partition of Iraq and Lebanon. Arabism has no meaning without a coherent substance that can be brought to bear in the confrontation against colonialism and underdevelopment and the struggle to promote modernism and democracy.
The foregoing applies to the Arab left, which has degenerated into an array of disparate political theorists who make it their business to lend their argumentative skills to any one of the parties engaged in the current conflict. Little is more repugnant than former leftists citing leftist dogma to justify American policy. But, sadly, that’s what you get when the left is no longer an identifiable ideological wing pursuing a specific political agenda but, instead, a hodgepodge of intellectuals who have scattered themselves across the political spectrum in the service of this side of the conflict or that.
But there are some remarkable exceptions who have been courageously holding strong to a distinct and coherent position, one that opposes colonialism but from the standpoint of a culture that subscribes to democracy and social justice. How enriching would be a dialogue between these leftist and nationalist democratically minded exceptions and the resistance movements! I would also suggest that it is vital.
*Originally published in al- Ahram Weekly, Cairo, Issue N 826, 27 december 2006- 3 january 2007