'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

William Dalrymple in Syria, mid-1990s

I was reading recently William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1997). The account of his passage through Syria I found extremely interesting vis a vis the current unrest. Dalrymple has always been interested more in the East meets West clashes and the interface between Islam and Christianity placed within a historical trajectory, but on Syria he observes:

"After Syria's independence [from Christian France] in 1946, this inevitably led to a backlash [concerning the influx of Christian refugees and the preferential treatment they had been given by their colonial masters]. Although Michel Aflaq, one of the founders of the Ba'ath Party, was a Christian, as was Faris al-Khuri, a leading figure in the Syrian Nationalist movement who later became Prime Minister, anti-Christian feeling was widespread (and, in the post-colonial circumstances, understandable). There were attempts to make Islam the official religion of the country, and at one stage the imam of the Great Mosque in Damascus declared that as far as he was concerned, an Indonesian Muslim was closer to him than al-Khuri, his own (Christian) Prime Minister. The increasingly Islamic tone of the Syrian establishment led to perhaps a quarter of a million Christians leaving Syria throughout the 1960s; from Aleppo alone as many as 125,000 Armenians emigrated to Soviet Armenia. These refugees included the current Armenian President, Levon Ter Petroysan.

The period of uncertainty for Syria's Christians came to an end with Asad's coup d'etat in 1970. Asad was an Alawite, a member of a Muslim minority regarded by orthodox Sunni Muslims as heretical and disparagingly referred to as Nusayris (or Little Christians). Asad kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria's many religious minorities - Shias, Druze, Yezidis, Christians and Alawites - through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority. In Asad's Syria Christians have always done well: at the moment, apparently,  five of Asad's seven closest advisers are Christians, including his principal speechwriter, as are two of the sixteen cabinet ministers. Christians and Alawites together hold all the key positions in the armed forces and mukhabarat [...]
The only problem with all of this, as far as the Christians are concerned, is the creeping realisation that they are likely to expect another, perhaps far more savage, backlash when Asad dies or when his regime eventually crumbles. The Christians of Syria have watched with concern the Islamic movements which are gaining strength all over the Middle East [...] 'Fundamentalism is building up among the Muslims.' said a pessimistic Armenian businessman...After Asad's death or resignation no one knows what will happen. As long as the bottle is closed with a firm cork all is well. But eventually the cork will come out. And then no one knows what will happen to us."

pp.153-5 (Flamingo, 1998)

As has been noted on this blog before, it is easy to protest against something but difficult to stand for something. In Egypt, with Mubharak expelled from power, the masses have not coalesced around any particular identity. Religious battles have also broken out - the Coptic Christians (the largest minority in Egypt, representing  about 10% of the eight million population) have been subjected to multiple, possibly systematic acts of violence.

The London Times reported that, 'The democratic gains of the Arab Spring are at risk from sectarian strife, struggling economies and counter-revolutions, William Hague has warned. Fledgling democracies produced by the wave of people power might prove too weak to deal with the deep rooted problems that they faced, the Foreign secretary told The Times. There would be a "a lot of problems and even convulsions" to come in the region. Mr Hague sounded particular alarm over Egypt, urging European leaders to help to ensure that the power struggle in Cairo did not allow the Arab Spring's pivotal country to slip backwards. "The next few months could be quite turbulent and difficult in Egypt," he said. He also warned of bloodshed across the Middle East and Maghreb as religious groups turned against each other. "One of the risks in the Arab Spring is the unleashing of sectarian divisions.""

('Chill winds threaten the Arab Spring', says Hague, Times, July 28, 2011, Watson, Coates, Fletcher, p.1)

When the cork comes off, knowing what will come out is the most important thing. Constructions of identity in the wake of the toppling of dictatorships is paramount - because their is no new national identity that allows the nation to coalesce around a single vision, looking outwards, the population are forced to look inward, to define themselves against others within the same society. 

KABOfest picks up on this, in an article on how Saudi Arabia killed the Arab Spring it argues that, "Arab despots have excelled at applying Machiavelli’s teachings; in many cases, they were successful at labeling their population as not one, often a sectarian split, political or ethnic in other: In Iraq and parts of the gulf, it’s Shias vs. Sunnis, in Syria, Sunnis vs. Aleweits, in Lebanon, one sect vs. your pick of the other ten, in Jordan, it’s Palestinians vs. Jordanians, in Palestine, it’s Fatah vs. Hamas, Egypt, Muslims vs. Copts, in Morocco and Algeria it’s Arabs vs. Berber. In any of these countries, should the “prince” to play up the Machiavelli reference, successfully label a revolution as the product of one sect, he immediately pits the other sect against it, and peaceful uprising turn more resembling of civil wars. The splits that were planted decades ago by despots and their western overlords are reaping reward in the first real challenge to the old ways of tyrant rule.
A successful revolution will come to fruition when the people reject these divisions, and see the despots as a common enemy."
But that's only half right and consequently half wrong. The despot may be the enemy but when he's gone, old divisions surface because their is no despotic dictator to define yourself against. It was easy to be "Us" against "Mubharak" but when Mubharak goes, who are "Us?" we define ourselves within smaller groups within the "Us". The "Us" becomes Islamists, progressives, Muslims, Christians, civil servants, private workers, employed, unemployed, Cairenes, Villagers.
The U.N resolution that Britain and the United States seek on Syria (a conflict which has cost an estimated 1700 lives) is opposed by Russia and China, ostensibly because the last U.N resolution on internal repression, 1973, on Libya, morphed into a document that appeared to legitimise regime change. But also, as analysts have noted, Russia and China have interests in the country and would be loathe to see the Asad regime crumble, and anarchy take its place. There are a number of powerful competing entities in Syria and neighbours that would emply proxies to ensure their own geostrategic interests are not threatened by developments. 

The Sunnis are the majority dissenters, being the largest group, they are excluded in the country. In Hama, the Muslim Brotherhood sees the violence as directed against the Sunnis there. "Syria is witnessing a war of sectarian cleansing," it said. "The regime has linked its open annihilation with the crescent of Ramadan. It is a war on the identity and beliefs of the Syrian nation … on Arab Muslim Syria." But the opposition is divided and fatigued, in the words of one supporter, by "constant initiatives and coalitions and gatherings that don't achieve much".
The regime's message was clear, he suggested: "We've the military power to crush dissent, even in a city where the entire population protested and which was visited by the US ambassador and was cited by the Turkish prime minister as being a red line.
"The international community is powerless to save you, if and when we decide to carry out the next massacre. We can escalate the conflict and turn it into a civil war if we want. If that happens, you [the opposition] will have no control over the situation, because radical Sunni elements will take charge and you will become totally irrelevant. Strike a deal with me now and you can share power with me, and moreover, you will have saved the country from a disastrous civil war."

Identity. Nascent steps towards democracy in countries such as Egypt will only generate new Us and Them identities as different groups push for power. You will identify with different groups and there will be many of them. 

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