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Escaping Mumana'a and the US-Saudi Counter-Revolution: Syria, Yemen, and Visions of Democracy (Interview with Fawwaz Traboulsi)
Ahmad Shokr and Anjali Kamat (AS&AK): The Syrian people have been resisting for months now and keep coming out on the streets despite escalating repression. How would you characterize the uprising in Syria and where do you think it is heading?
Fawwaz Traboulsi (FT): People I’ve talked to in Syria tell me that spirits are very high. People are very optimistic. I think they are moved by the certainty that this regime cannot remain. Now that’s not necessarily going to happen soon, if it happens at all. And if it does, it will not necessarily be a comprehensive regime change. But people are now serious that the time has come to end the Ba‘th regime in Syria, which has been in power since 1963. This is what we’re talking about. For the Syrian people the last forty-eight years represent continuity. People don’t care about the political shifts along the way, like Hafez al-Assad coming to power in 1970, or his son taking over in 2000. For them, the period from 1963 until the present is one single era characterized by repression, military dictatorship and one-party rule.
With international pressure having reached a stage where the U.N. Security Council can intervene, there will probably be some attempt at a political interlude and renewed talk about reforms. That will be an opportunity for the opposition to push for concrete demands, like a military withdrawal from urban areas, the release of political prisoners, and a serious search for the three thousand Syrians who have gone missing in the course of the uprising. I expect they will demand that the army play no role in the security forces. But if the regime simply responds with its platform of Ba‘thist “reforms,” I don’t think it will satisfy the Syrian people in any way. And I think peaceful demonstrations will continue, whether repressed or not.
The Syrian regime’s violent crackdown on the six-month-old uprising has prompted more localities to join the protests, rather than stay away. That said, the great cities, like Damascus and Aleppo, are still relatively under government control. Army tanks encircle all the suburbs of Damascus. When you talk to people, they’ll tell you the next step will be uprisings in Aleppo and then Damascus.
Now, one thing should be said about the Syrian movement: it’s been very much a rural movement. Contrary to the Egyptian revolution, which was almost entirely urban, the Syrian uprising is not. There are a couple of reasons for this:
First, there's an explosive relationship between demographic growth and unemployment, particularly in the countryside.
Second, contrary to the rhetoric of Syria being an anti-imperialist force (mumana‘a) in the region, the Syrian economy under Bashar al-Assad has been rapidly neoliberalized and in the worst kind of way, with high levels of corruption and monopolistic control. Productive industries that usually provide work for young people have declined and the economy has been transformed into a rentier economy. Layers of the bourgeoisie have undoubtedly benefited and some wealth has trickled down to segments of the middle classes, but on the flip side there has been a steady rise in poverty and a marginalization of the countryside and the agricultural sector. That’s why the poorer regions across Syria were prepared to mobilize immediately.
AS&AK: It seems the Syrian regime has been unable to strike a balance between coercion and concession, brute force and promises of reform. How would you describe the regime’s response to the uprising?
FT: I think the Syrian regime knows this uprising is not a conspiracy and that foreign intervention is very limited. So, the regime is using the pretext that the unrest is being caused by armed groups in order to occupy towns and control the civilian population. The idea is to frighten people by shooting at them and arresting them (an estimated twenty thousand political activists are in detention) to make sure that the peaceful, civilian part of the revolution, which is the most important, is frightened. That is the Syrian regime's policy.
The regime's crackdown began with a very haughty sense of Syrian exceptionalism -- a feeling that they we’re not like the others and could successfully impose security by repression, while worrying about longer-term stability later. It was adamant about crushing any attempt at replicating the Egyptian model – Midan al-Tahrir – of protesters occupying large urban squares. One of the first things the regime did was to massacre people in the main square in Homs called Midan al-Sa‘a (the Square of the Clock), after protesters had managed to control it. But I think the Syrian people have surprised everyone. Not only did they break their fear barrier, they even got more and more militant as the repression intensified.
In terms of concessions, all of the major reforms al-Assad has offered are pitiful. The law on media freedom aims to protect journalists from being arrested, except by a legal order. So they can still arrest them. The new electoral law is still based on the antiquated law that you have in Egypt, which allocates half of the parliamentary seats to workers and peasants, while the other half is reserved for independents. Today, Syria’s richest man is Mr. Mohamed Hamsho (Maher al-Assad’s brother-in-law), an engineer and a billionaire businessman who has run in previous elections for a worker’s seat. That should tell you how it all works.
There was an attempt at a Turkish-cum-Islamist compromise. It seems Bashar al-Assad promised a lot but never delivered, despite releasing some four hundred Islamists from jail. But he never pushed it further. Then there was the dialogue with the liberals about a month and a half ago, which produced the new electoral law and law on media freedoms against the will of many liberal oppositionists.
But the majority of Syrians on the streets are totally alien to this political world. They are moved by a sense of discrimination against the majority Sunni population. They are moved by a sense of revulsion against a very repressive, bloody regime that humiliates them. And, finally, they are moved by the miserable economic conditions in which they live. As time passes, the Syrian people have become uninterested in these minor reforms introduced by the regime.
AS&AK: Given the media blackout in Syria, relatively little is known about the people who are protesting in towns across the country. How would you characterize the Syrian opposition and the protest movement?
FT: I think the Syrian opposition inside Syria is multi-layered and very dispersed. You have the leftovers of the old parties crushed by the Ba‘thist regime, which are mostly leftist parties and nationalist parties. You have the remnants of the civil society movement of the late ‘90s, composed mostly of symbolic figures who are morally influential but don’t have any real power. You have an Islamic current, which was not organized under Hafez al-Assad or Bashar. We don’t know much about their degree of organization but we know they exist and have been on the streets. You also have another wider layer of religiously minded people, people who are religious but anti-authoritarian and don’t have any particular project for society. And finally you have very localized rank-and-file young people, organized at the grassroots level into small cells and organizations which are called tansiqiyyat, or coordinating committees. They have loose forms of coordination that consist mainly of passing on information. A lot of what is happening is the product of localities and neighborhoods taking initiative. People from one neighborhood moving to the next, asking them to join the movement – that’s been one of the traditions in the major demonstrations.
There is also the opposition outside Syria, which ranges from progressive Syrians who were exiled to the pro-Saudi ex-Ba‘thists.
The decentralized nature of the uprising has been a weakness and strength at the same time. Like in Yemen and Egypt, you also have a multitude rising up, rather than masses led by a single initiative or center. I think the courage and sense of sacrifice that the Syrian people have deployed is very impressive but there is still a long period of transformation ahead.
AS&AK: As international pressure on Syria begins to mount, many sympathetic observers are divided. Some are concerned that pressure from the West and the United States in particular is counterproductive and hypocritical, serving only to feed the regime’s own propaganda about Western intervention and double standards. Others believe that this sort of international attention is the only way to make the regime feel the cost. How do you see this situation?
FT: I think that whoever talks of pressure has to be precise. I don’t feel any pressure. Even the Syrian regime has stopped talking about conspiracy and foreign intervention. Either they know there is pressure and they don’t dare declare it or there is very little actual pressure. The Syrian regime has benefited from total support of the Arab regimes until very recently. The Iraqi regime is still solidly supportive. The Gulf countries are a chorus who decided to speak for the first time after five months of revolution. Perhaps the real pressure at this point is from Turkey, which has some unnecessary Ottoman echoes. But I think the Turkish threats are much louder than any actions they are willing to take. They simply want to monopolize international mediation to solve the crisis.
In terms of international pressure, ultimately, almost all Arab regimes are based on foreign legitimacy rather than on popular legitimacy. So there is always going to be a foreign party somehow to solve the problem.
I’ve always said the Syrian regime is in dialogue with the United States about internal issues and I think the main real discussion now is with the United States. Discussion doesn’t mean acceptance. So one of the ideas is to have limited presidential elections. Of course this is utter nonsense for the Syrian people. It doesn’t mean anything. But the Syrian regime is proposing it as if it’s a great concession, saying, “The president will accept this.”
With respect to the acrobatics of the American administration’s position, if you trace a chronology of what has been said, it’s unbelievable. A few weeks ago U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the best solution for Syria is the army, and that was at the moment the army was entering the main cities of Hama, Deir al-Zour, etc. When the Syrian regime declared to Ban Ki-Moon that they have stopped military operations, President Obama issued a statement declaring Bashar al-Assad to be illegitimate. That came just two days after the U.S. administration said it was not interested in raising the issue of the legitimacy of the Syrian president.
Generally the United States still seems to be holding on to the idea that Syria is a factor of relative stability on the northern border of Israel and there is no alternative to this regime.
AS&AK: How do you see the next few months unfolding in Syria if people continue to come out on the streets and, as you suggest, reject the regime’s attempts at meager reforms?
FT: It’s very difficult to make any guesses at this junction when the Syrian government has decided to contact the Secretary General of the U.N. to inform him that military operations have ended. What kind of concessions—if any—are going to be made is the big question. My hunch is they don’t have anything more than what they have already revealed — and that is not satisfactory. People want real change, be it the resignation of the president or a new constitution. They want a real reformulation of the relationship between rulers and the ruled. Many simply think this is the end of the Ba‘thist regime and they just have to go.
I’m sure of one thing – that people have become much more demanding and radicalized and will not accept the compromises the regime has offered so far.
AS&AK: Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about Yemen, a country you’ve been closely following for many decades. How would you assess events in Yemen since this January and were you surprised by the outbreak of protests in Yemen?
FT: I think anybody who says they expected what happened anywhere in the Arab world this year would be exaggerating. I was surprised and very much interested in how a country that appeared to be breaking into parts, with the south calling for secession, the east demanding some form of autonomy, and a central government losing control, suddenly became one people, where the tribe of the president tried to assassinate the president and the president had to rely on other tribes to prove his popularity. And what I found most interesting is the predominant role of the youth in this whole movement. Were it not for the youth in Taghyir square in San‘a’ you would have a very traditional situation.
Yemen is a very large dispersed country. Yet all the Yemeni localities were a part of the movement. Both autonomous and secessionist demands receded. Compared to other countries, this has been the longest revolution with the longest presence in the streets. They don’t just come out on Fridays, they are always in the streets! And they have continuously been in the streets in all the major cities of the country—San‘a’, Aden, Ta‘iz, etc.
This is region of oil security. There has been a Gulf states initiative and you have an American counter-revolutionary program—which says replace one president by another, retain a presidential system and a primordial role for the army, initiate dialogue with a recognized opposition, but the demonstrations should end and the youth should vacate the streets. Yet, the protests continue. Now in addition to this, President Ali Abdallah Saleh has simply killed the Gulf States Initiative and says he won’t even resign.
The positive thing that has happened recently is that the Yemeni opposition has united to elect what they call a transitional national council—majlis watani intiqali. It was inspired by the initial Egyptian transitional council that never materialized, but in Yemen they actually did it. I think it has 142 people representing all the regions of Yemen. The council was declared late last month against a lot of pressure on the more traditional opposition by both the American administration and the Saudis to delay its formation as it “complicates matters.” Much could be said about the over-representation of the tribe of the President (the Hashed tribe) in this council, but at least when the forces of counter-revolution—Saudi Arabia and the United States—are trying to impose the replacement of the President by the Vice-President, the people say that those who should conduct the transitional period should be a council of people representing the majority of Yemenis. This is where we are today and this is what I found novel in the Yemeni experience.
Now the other novelty is that the Yemeni example provides one answer to the dominant idea (taken from the Egyptian experience) that the army should supervise the transitional period. In Yemen, it’s clear that people are saying, no army any more, please. This is a civilian movement.
So we see some very interesting signs about how to conduct a revolution from what people like to consider as “backward” Yemen. The youth have taken most of their program from the Egyptian and Tunisian youth but they’ve managed to implement very interesting aspects of it.
AS&AK: The revolts in the Arab world have posed an enormous challenge to the United States’ decades-long policy of investing in authoritarian stability to protect American interests in the region. What are you initial expectations of how the uprisings will impact US policy in the Middle East? What kinds of adjustments will be required to maintain American political influence?
FT: I think the two logics of American policy in the Middle East—stability and peace negotiations—have been severely shaken. They are severely shaken in Egypt, in Yemen, and on the northern frontier of Israel. So, before we even speak about the impact of the economic crisis in the U.S. on its diplomacy in the Arab world, we must recognize there is a failure in the major arenas of U.S. policy in the region.
There's no doubt that the vision of U.S. policy in the Arab world has been battered, starting with of course the Iraqi invasion, which was initially presented as a two-week vacation in which the Iraqis would shower American GI’s with flowers but which has ended instead with a catastrophic situation. The U.S. army has left Iraq destroyed. It still has fifty thousands troops there and doesn’t yet know what to do with them. Most Iraqi politicians and parties want these troops to stay because they have doubts about the unity and effectiveness of Iraqi army, which remains divided along major ethnic and sectarian lines.
Another issue is the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have a compete reversal, not only of the peace process, but, I would venture to say, the entire formula of “land for peace” that has dominated negotiations over the last decades. The Israeli state, army and the majority of Israeli public opinion have come to the conclusion that the one who delivers peace is the one who can make war. Right now, the Israeli army (backed by the United States) is the one who can make war, not the Arab states. The formal Arab political slogan—land for peace and normalization—that was the basis for the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative is now useless. It has achieved nothing. Now, we have a situation in which President Obama has repeatedly stated that the United States supports a Palestinian state. Yet, in a few weeks the United States may veto an attempt to recognize a Palestinian state (or, more precisely, a Palestinian authority) in the West Bank and Gaza.
The U.S. position towards the Arab revolts is, at best, one of defending the status quo, getting people off the streets, calling for dialogue between the official oppositions and the regimes in place, and, finally, support for soft presidential regimes with a major role for the army. The U.S. supports pluralism without democracy (if by democracy we mean the power of elected representatives over the executive authority). If that's what democracy means, then I don't see any signs of it being part of any U.S. program, irrespective of the illusions of both Islamists and liberal democrats that (for better or worse) the U.S. can impose a democratic regime from the outside.
AS&AK: Overall are you fairly hopeful about this whole revolutionary season across the Arab world?
FT: Well I think we shouldn’t call it an Arab Spring. This leaves the impression that there is something miraculous that is going to happen or should have happened in a few months. For a country that has been under thirty to forty years of those regimes, one obvious thing is we’re not going back to how we were.
The question is there are two visions of democracy. One is pluralism with heavy security restrictions and a central role for the army, under a presidential system with all kinds of media and political party pluralism. That is the best possible outcome for the U.S. administration when it comes to the populist military regimes. And this is what is at stake for Syria, Libya, and Egypt.
I don’t think we can hope for much in Yemen. And for the rest of the Gulf, it’s the preservation of the status quo. You don’t touch the oil security region, you simply repress, you send the Saudi army and you repress the rebellion in Bahrain. Full stop. You repress the beginnings of a rebellion in Oman.
The other vision of democracy is a real democratic program where it’s a civil government, based on free elections within either a parliamentary democracy or a framework of checks and balances between the executive and the parliament.
What most people don’t talk about is that this has been nearly achieved in Morocco, where mass demonstrations forced the King to make large concessions turning the semi-absolute monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy. But it still is a constitutional monarchy based on an executive. So, the opposition in Morocco has proposed a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. They are not yet republican. But perhaps you can have a better democracy in monarchies than in ex-republics, because our republics have become hereditary bloody monarchies. So in Morocco, it was not enough even to accept a constitutional monarchy and that too with very little cost. Yes there was one demonstrator killed but the effect was very interesting. The battle there has not ended. It shows you can extract concessions and use them to continue the struggle and sometimes get more from those regimes without necessarily toppling a whole regime.
AS&AK: A discussion of visions of democracy seems key in the present Arab context. Returning to Syria, why is it that some on the left, particularly here in Lebanon, seem to be hesitant about unequivocally condemning the al-Assad regime and its repression of the protests? On the one hand, many are immediately sympathetic to popular Syrian demands for freedom and dignity, especially when those demands are brutally repressed. But on the other hand, the argument that Syria serves as a regional counterweight to US imperial interests in the Middle East still seems to hold some traction. What’s your response?
FT: Well, a serious leftist would start with the economy and realize that a lot of the problems in Syria are related to Bashar al-Assad accepting to neoliberalize his economy, as I've already mentioned. There’s nothing progressive about the al-Assad regime in that regard.
In terms of foreign policy, one way to answer to this debate is to simply describe the role of Syria in the regional and international arena. Syria is usually characterized by naive leftists and nationalists using the term mumana‘a. This is a very useful term in Arabic that means you want something and you don't want it at the same time. It is used to characterize the relationship between Syria and the United States.
In May 2003, soon after the war on Iraq began, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Syria and reportedly presented a number of conditions to President Bashar al-Assad. First, breaking relations with Iran. Second, stopping the armament of Hezbollah. Third, closing the Syria offices of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. And fourth, stopping the export of jihadis to Iraq. Of the conditions presented by Powell, we know of these four at least.
Now, my argument is very simple. Most of these issues on which Syria supposedly serves as a counterweight to U.S. interests are no longer pertinent. Let’s start with Iraq. Syria no longer facilitates the export of jihadis to Iraq because the war entered a new phase last year after the withdrawal of American combat troops. The Syrian government supported the same candidate for the Prime Minister of Iraq as the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey: Iyad ‘Allawi. Actually, it was the Iranians who ultimately made a pact with the US administration and proposed a return of Nuri al-Maliki. So, Syria’s supposed role as a mumana‘a’ in Iraq ended up with the Americans and the Syrians standing on the same side to impose a new regime.
On Palestine, the recent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement and Hamas leader Khaled Mesh‘al’s announcement that he would be willing to give Israel a chance for peace means that Syria’s role in supporting an anti-Oslo alliance has ended. It was terminated when Syria officially declared last month that it recognizes a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967. So, Syria is no longer an anti-Oslo force.
On Lebanon, Syria supports Hezbollah as a bargaining chip to regain control of the Golan Heights. That's the whole story. If given a chance, the Syrian regime would most definitely take back the Golan Heights and Hezbollah, in turn, would adopt a very moderate position once Syria and Lebanon enter negotiations for peace with Israel. But Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has blown to pieces the prospects for a Syrian-Lebanese peace with Israel (just as he’s destroyed the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace). So, what purpose does it serve for Syria to use Hezbollah as a card to regain the Golan Heights when the Golan is not up for negotiation in the first place?
Finally, regarding Iran, any decent country in the world would tell the US administration that two independent states are entitled to conduct their own relations together, without interference from foreign powers.
I don’t know of any other area where Syria supposedly takes an “anti-imperialist” or “anti-Zionist” stance (or whatever you want to call it). The Syrian regime was anti-imperialist vis-a-vis the Iraq War in the beginning and, in a way, that helped it achieve its aims. Now, the American army has left and there is no longer pressure on the Syrian regime. The American adventure in Iraq was supposed to lead to the downfall of the Syrian regime. It did not, the regime survived.
AS&AK: So, are we confined to a choice between Western-backed liberal democracies versus autocrats who raise the banner of anti-imperialism? Or can the wave of popular uprisings inspire the Arab left to envision democratic possibilities that do not end with imperial subordination as well as strategies of resistance that are not anchored in authoritarian populism?
FT: The left has a long tradition of being in love with dictators—legitimized by notions like the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, etc. —and I think we have not really been cured of this. The Arab left has made alliances with repressive regimes in the past. For long, the Syrian regime was looked at as one that represented steadfastness and resistance, the only country where communist parties are tolerated (of course, under heavy restrictions). So, there is a long tradition of imagining socialism as being non-democratic. Plenty of people on the left have not overcome this history. Some don't want democracy, dismissing it as “bourgeois” and a form of U.S. control. Instead, they want something resembling Soviet democracy, but they want someone to give it to them. Others believe democracy can be achieved by foreign intervention or by simply a few constitutional changes.
As far as I know, and I happen to be a historian, people have paid a very heavy price for democracy. Democracy is a revolutionary process. You cannot export democracy; you either make it or you don’t. We see proof of this across the Arab world, where people have been paying a heavy cost for basic democratic or anti-authoritarian gains, like toppling age-long presidents and putting them on trial (assuming we manage to continue the trial of Hosni Mubarak or the in-absentia trial of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali). So people who want democracy to be delivered, or else remain supporters of authoritarian regimes, well, let them wait. Democracy is a historical process that will take years -- it might not work in some places, in others it may succeed only partly. This is how things work.
So, those on the left who either don’t want to accept that you pay collective prices in time, effort, and sacrifice to move from dictatorship to democracy, those who reject liberal democracy on the basis of its failings in western Europe and the United States, should provide us with a better formula for popular democracy. It has been tried in the Soviet Union and in other places and the result, unfortunately, was dictatorship. If I can’t reach direct democracy, I’ll settle historically for what is usually termed bourgeois democracy. Plus, it’s worth emphasizing that bourgeois democracy was the product of working-class struggle in Europe and the United States, the bourgeoisie did not create it. The bourgeoisie initially accepted limited political representation through male suffrage, a narrow conception of democracy that was then transformed by revolts, mass movements, and revolutions to produce what now is called bourgeois democracy.
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