Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Azmi Bishara: Universal instincts

The West, served by Arab “moderates”, is attempting to take the Arab world back to the Stone Age, writes Azmi Bishara

 Al-Ahram :: 5 – 11 October 2006

Demonstrations by security forces in Gaza demanding back pay owed to them erupted into violence. On the surface this seems like a syndicate action gone sour. But beneath it lurks something more sinisterly political. Of course, civil servants want their pay, like other workers; especially now that it’s Ramadan and purchasing demands are up. And, civil servants, like other workers, are subject to the same economic blockade, which, however, was imposed for political purposes. The division, here, is not a horizontal one between civil servants and other classes of workers, but a vertical one tearing through society on the basis of political affiliations. On one side are those who are the object of the blockade, because of their collective stance against the conditions of the Quartet. On the other are those who see the blockade as an attack against their political adversaries and, therefore, a form of support for their own positions.

Click to view caption
Palestinians hold their weapons during a protest by policemen, demanding their overdue salaries from the Hamas-led government in Rafah

The Palestinians have yet to win liberation and a nation state. But they have established an identity, a national movement and a will to fight for liberation. To side with a colonialist blockade is to lend oneself to jettisoning even this small accomplishment, which was achieved through such enormous sacrifices.

The situation seemed crystal clear: there were democratic elections. The results of these displeased foreign powers, which decided to get around them in a particularly nasty way, which was to subject that electorate to an economic stranglehold. Now, one would think that any people with a minimum sense of patriotic identity would regard that action as a flagrant affront to their national will and would join forces to respond. At the very least, even those who ran against the winners in the elections would step aside and let the winners govern, regardless of their respective beliefs and attitudes. After all, no international resolution has been passed calling for sanctions against the Palestinian government so there was no reason why Arab regimes should abide by the boycott of this government and refuse to meet its representatives. Moreover, long before they decided to capitalise on the boycott, the Palestinians opposed to the government could have worked to break it, a task that would not have been very difficult, as was demonstrated by Russia, Turkey and others.

You can rub your eyes and open them again and still find it hard to believe. A part of the Palestinian people has decided to demonstrate against another part of the same people, telling them to either accede to the boycotters’ three demands or to step aside and let others rule. The demonstrators are saying, “We’re being subject to an Israel-US-European boycott. But that’s obvious, and as long as it’s obvious it’s not significant. What are significant are the conditions. These the Palestinian Authority (PA) has to agree to in order to end the boycott, because by rejecting these conditions the elected government brought on the boycott to begin with.” This is how people succumb to the logic and aims of the boycotters. It is how conditions stipulated by hostile external forces become the political agenda of a segment of internal forces. In the process, the freedom to choose and national unity are cast aside in exchange for the promise of bread for the masses. In turn, the masses become an instrument to topple the government and elect one the West approves of. When that new government comes to power its greatest accomplishment will be to bring food to the people. So ends that precipitous slide away from principle and towards more rudimentary instincts.

What we are seeing in progress is not just the reversion to the period before the coalescence of the liberation movement but also the retrogression to pre-modern politics. It is difficult enough to believe that in this day and age the West and the Arabs would have sunk so low as to use food as a weapon to reverse a democratic choice. It is harder to believe that some of the recipients of this tactic could bring themselves to play along with it when they could just as easily have thwarted it.

A similar process occurred in Lebanon, incidentally. There, too, the reasons for the Israeli aggression were supposed to be taken for granted and those who questioned these reasons were accused of having brought on the Israeli aggression to begin with. Moreover here, not only was the aggressor to be spared blame and the victim censored, when the victim came out ahead, his victory was denied, if only to keep things even.

One cannot help but to wonder why no prominent Palestinian democrats or neo-liberals have stepped forward to protest that siege by the democratic West against the results of Palestinian legislative elections that were internationally verified to be clean and fair, even though they took place under foreign occupation and even though for some of the contestants, such as Hamas, merely to participate in them was a major concession in view of their opposition to the very structures (the PA) created by the occupation. Not a single NGO cancelled their Western-funded pro-democracy conferences in protest to the boycott. Not a single democracy expert from American and European organisations for the spread of democracy was boycotted in return. Indeed, not a single democrat bothered to point out that the boycott struck long after Hamas had agreed to a truce and had halted all suicide bombing operations. Is this what Hamas was being punished for? Sometimes it looks that way. And this fact alone should give some people cause to hold their tongues and stop giving advice to Hamas.

Nor have the new left and the old left, now funded by assorted US and European democratic development funds and now robustly pro-democratic after a long history of vociferous solidarity with various totalitarian regimes and dictatorships, so long as they weren’t Arab, proclaimed their solidarity with the beleaguered elected government as any patriotic democrat would do in the West where it is second nature to set aside political differences and rally behind a democratic government under fire from abroad. Perhaps the problem is that the freedom to link democracy with patriotism is a purely Western prerogative. Because in the Arab world, at least, it appears that the Arab democrat is expected to draw a line, with the result that he lives in neither world but rather in the world of Western funded NGOs that keep him economically secure at least.

Meanwhile, the Arab ruling elites, recently renamed “moderates,” have failed in both their democracy and their patriotism exams. The former was a silly exam that they never wanted to take to begin with, but they were dragged shamefacedly to the testing hall where they proved, indeed, that they were incapable of introducing even the simplest democratic reforms that Washington was blackmailing them into making. Then, when Washington asked them to, they strengthened their ties with Israel in exchange for which Washington agreed to lay off meddling in their domestic affairs. But the boycott of the elected Palestinian government posed a tougher test, because in this case the subjects of democracy and patriotism were combined. Here the “moderate” regimes surpassed themselves for their Western masters. Their answer was that anyone who challenges the position of a colonialist or an occupation authority or others with might to throw around gets what’s coming to them and that the only rational course of behaviour is to do what Israel and the US tell you.

Which is precisely what the moderates are doing as they moved to the fore in the latest phase in the process of anticlimactic retrogression. Of course, everyone in the US, from the left to the right, knows that there’s nothing moderate in the way these regimes think or behave. Corruption, human rights abuses, nepotism and control of the machinery of government, vengeance against political adversaries and even grooming sons for succession are not things they do by halves. In fact, the only reason they are called moderate at all is because they will do anything that America says in order to stay in power, including promoting a prejudicial settlement to the Palestinian cause. And there’s nothing moderate about that.

These are the forces that see themselves in power long after the current administration in Washington has gone. They’ll be rolling out the red carpets for Bush, his former secretary of state and other elder statesmen on lecture tours at exorbitant costs. They’ll be feeling full of fresh vigour once ordinary conservatives are back in the White House as the more rational choice than the neoconservatives, at least under the new Cold War mentality since 11 September. After all that blackmail that so shook their confidence they’d do anything America said, ordinary conservatives will latch on to them as more reliable than the “horrors” that Arab democracies bring forth.

In order to countermand the results of democratic elections in Palestine they are using deprivation to manipulate the political process. In order to dismantle a state edifice in Iraq they have elevated sectarian affiliations above political plurality. In giving rein to such basic hunger and tribal instincts, they are catapulting the region to the predawn of modern politics, democratic or otherwise. They are turning the clock back to that era when there was no such thing as a distinct public sphere, which gave rise to such modern political concepts as the individual, the state, the nation and civil society. Thanks to democratic America and its ally Israel and their friends in the region we are reverting to the scramble over scraps, the law of the jungle and the organic bond as the only way the individual can secure his survival.

We are living through the dissolution of politics and the disassociation from politics. “Individual rights,” “the citizen,” “political plurality” — not to mention the “national unity” needed to make all these work — are being left to yellow on the pages of the booklets that no one read despite the fact that they were distributed free by democratisation NGOs. Now, if anyone even suggests putting these terms into action in the Arab world he’ll be treated, at best, as though he has lost touch with reality.

There was a time when research centres, the media and various organisations around the world were engrossed in deep discussions about the need to spread democracy in order to combat terrorism. Everyone proclaimed the universality of democratic principles, and anyone who said otherwise was branded a racist, since the assumption was that Islam and democracy were simply not compatible. Suddenly, however, democracy’s “permanent revolution” subsided and the voice of the neoconservatives dwindled to a whisper. A whisper of smoke, disguising the hope that none of the survivors of a booby-trapped car in Iraq, that none of those scrambling in the ruins of Dahiya in Beirut for a memory, that none of those who lost their jobs or were arrested for having the courage to demonstrate for democracy, notice that Arab allies of the West have now become “moderates.”

What have the democratic revolution and the new Middle East, which had proudly earmarked Afghanistan and Iraq as models for democratic transition, bequeathed to us? The utter collapse of democratic processes, the fragmentation of national unity and the dismantlement of the entire edifices of the state in both. If you’re an Arab, I hope you’re not an advocate of national unity because this will open you up to the charge of being an Arab nationalist. Nationalism is the preserve of the West and Israel, because nationalism is the sine qua non of building democracy there. We can’t have that here when building Perez’s “New Middle East” requires the alliance between “moderate forces” in the region and Israel against the forces of extremism.

So this is how the situation is meant to stand at present. On the one side there’s the US and Israel, joined by moderate Arab regimes, on the other there are those forces that refuse to recognise reality. As for the “moderates” in this equation, their moderation, let alone their democracy, hardly stands up to scrutiny. That is unless you define moderation as the willingness to contribute to the destruction of their societies and the dismantlement of national polities if that’s what it takes to stay in power. Meanwhile, the much-vaunted universality of democratic values has been slated for the rubbish bin in order to allow the rule of instinct to prevail. And there’s no denying the universality of natural instincts.

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