Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Collapse of an Arabic Dream

"We envision a great empire extending from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the East, from Turkey in the North to Zanzibar in the South, encompassing of the Mediterranean, the Arab peninsula and even Persia among other lands. Together, we will form a power-block which will change the world," said an Arab friend a few months ago, sending chills down my spine.

With the saturation of American power, owing to their reluctance to intervene and over-commit their resources, and with the rise of the Chinese, the reinvention of the erstwhile caliphate, only more powerful than before, could well expedite World War III, I thought at the time. But it was clear what this idea, preached from the towers of several masjids, meant to many residents of the Arab states - safety, strength and power.

Too many times have the forces of from all over the world taken middle east Asia and Africa for granted owing to their relatively weak status on the international front. And so, it is true that a block comprising of so many nations might finally accomplish something the GCC is still failing at - having a voice. But what such a block might actually do is a complicated question with possibly dangerous answers.

It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult, day-after-day, to realize such an ambitious dream. The flight of fancy crashes and burns even before taking-off, even as the world looks on in awe and moderate amusement. Everyone turns towards the US of A and Europe with questions, suspecting that they have played a sneaky hand in the collapse of several nations in the region, but with no tangible proof available, answers are not a guarantee.

It is rather stunning how the political scenario has changed in this region over the last two decades, with almost every country undergoing incredible change in viewpoints, government and policy. And no change has really cemented relationships and gone too far in realizing the dream of a pan-Arab block.

Everyone says that the US of A blundered as usual when they supplied the "defender of Arabia" with information, technology and weapons during his war with Iran, although they were only doing what they do best to protect themselves and their allies - to destabilize a rising enemy. They didn't gain much from the campaign, of course, which only helped create a far more dangerous enemy and reunite the Arab Peninsula with Iraq.

But what was a direct consequence of the campaign was an intensification of a then simmering hatred between the Shias and the Sunnis. This has, over the past decades, corrupted the fabric of society north of the Arabian peninsula. In fact, a few days ago, I was shocked to hear a devout muslim say, "I'm a Shia first, and then a Muslim!"

Gamal Abdel Nassar was one of the first people to dream of such a great union of states. With the union of Syria and Egypt, the idea of Arab nationalism rose powerfully in the hearts of the Egyptians, rivaling the rampant rise of Zionism in Al Misr's northern neighbour. The pan-Arab dream faced a setback when Egypt was defeated by Israel in 1967. The Egyptians who saw themselves as culturally distinct and superior to their Arab brethren grew in number and in stature.

And it stayed this way until very recently. Hosni Mubarak positioned himself as a diplomat who was willing to converse with Israel and who was even welcoming to America. By embracing a rather secular approach, he distanced himself from Islamic fundamentalism, much to the dismay of several Arab states. Egypt couldn't have been any further from Nassar's dream when Tahrir Square happened. Egyptians wanted a country with more transparency, lesser corruption and more distanced from Israel.

Two years since then, the shape that the movement has taken has rendered it farcical. Mubarak keeps getting tried every now and again, with Egyptians wishing for his blood, but the man with declining health manages to live to die another day. Meanwhile, in Cairo, power has been handed to Mohammed Morsi who, in the opposition's words, is Egypt's new pharaoh - much like his predecessor. The post-Mubarak constitution hangs ineffectually in the air, warlords continue to thrive in upper Egypt and the country is far too busy in setting itself straight to even think about a pan-Arab goal.

It was in Tunisia where everything started. Bradley Manning, charged by the United states for aiding the enemy among other 'crimes', gave proof to the peoples' latent suspicions that Ben Ali was, in fact, corrupt. Ben Ali stepped down soon, bolstering the Arab spring, and fled to Saudi Arabia. For the first time in history, Islamic parties in Tunisia would not be illegal. But what has ensued is a period of perpetual confusion and turmoil.

In stark contrast to Tunisia which voted against a corrupt but liberal 'dictator', neighbouring Libya fought for the downfall of Islamist, pan-Africanist and pan-Arabist leader Muammar Gaddafi. While he fought the opposition, much like Bashar al-Assad, his forces eventually caved and he was killed in the most morbid manner. The only thing that seems to have come out of this revolution, however, is the public display of his corpse in a Libyan marketplace for one and all to see. And referendum, of course.

Arab Peninsula
The leaders of prosperous lands of oil were under threat, albeit temporarily, by the Arab Spring which panned across several nations in Asia and Africa. The repercussions are still being felt across nations in the region, as the sheikhs are aware about the mortality of their positions in society. 'Democracy' seemed to be the buzz-word in different parts of the Gulf; although what the people, who have never experienced it, understand from the term is questionable. 'Do they really need democracy?' people asked, citing examples of Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and other prosperous Arab states.

The Arab Spring no longer exists. The revolution was nipped at the bud, but what about the idea? Does it still exist? Only time will tell.

The League of Nations, the British and the French will be in wonder as to how their policies of divisive politics still thrive in the region and continue to call the shots. The last time these states were together was during the Ottoman rule. But with the fall of the Turks, the Europeans seized their opportunity to irrevocably divide the people and confuse the region.

The only thing that holds these nations together is their culture and more significantly, their common hatred and fear of despotic Israel. The yearning for a greater Syria, which aims for the consolidation of these states and Iraq, is still alive in some believers. But that's what it will remain - a yearning.

Bashar Assad, with his reckless politics, has thrown Syria into an insane civil war which seems to have no end. If the rebels had won quickly, as in Libya, there might have been some justification for so many deaths, but now, it is a pointless war that rages on in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Qusair. By not losing the war, the Government thinks it is winning. And the rebels no longer know if they are fighting Bashar Assad or Shia Islam.

Iran further complicated the issue by supplying the government with more armaments, and the Lebanese  outfit, the Hezbollah, has joined a war which isn't its own. The Arab countries, vanguards of sunniism didn't want to be left behind as they promptly began supporting a motley collection of shooting men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army.

The Syrian war could well be the culmination of decades of festering hatred between Shias and Sunnis, and this is being proven by the fact that men from East Africa are being sent to fight the war against Bashar al-Assad!
And recently an Imam of an Arab state issued the following decree - "Women of our states must be sent to Syria to entertain and boost the morale of the dying soldiers."
Strangely enough, this was not decried as inhuman and obscene. Instead, men sent their daughters and even divorced their wives so that they could enter this newest holy war. It might be prudent to question who the bigger enemy is - Israel or the Syrian Government? Because as the war rages on, Israel is the only winner, crushing the hapless Palestines further, as the world laments gross human rights violations.

Iran, the perpetual on-the-brink-nuclear power, is a threat to itself more than it is to the world. The only reason I include them in the pan-Arab dream is because several Arabs still think that Iran can be bullied into accepting their ways. They have failed for many centuries and there is no reason they should succeed now.

It is strange how their differences range from petty squabbles (should it be called 'Persian Gulf' or 'Arabian Gulf') to major international disputes (Iran-Iraq War of Saddam Hussein). Persians are a proud people who will not give in to their western neighbours. This fact is being exploited by certain despotic leaders who say that 'suicide is a route to heaven'. But with the major chunk of fighting happening further west, in Iraq, Iran seems to have found other troubles in the region.

The narrow stretch of sea between Qatar and Iran has the largest reservoir of natural gas in the world; South Pars-North Dome holds 50 billion barrels of natural gas condensates and 51 trillion cubic metres of gas. Add to this the fact that Qatar aided and abetted Saddam in his war with the Persians.

Taksim became Tahrir a few days ago, with people reeling with a sense of deja-vu. What started as a peaceful gathering of people who wanted to save a park in Istanbul rapidly accelerated into a pan-Turk movement, aiming for the ouster of Prime Minister Erdogan.

Incidentally, Erdogan is the first PM after a series of ministers who has leaned both ways - towards Europe and towards Arabia. Although a pro-Islamist, his secular and moderate government was being viewed as a template for several Arab states. His gradual integration with the Arab people was not being viewed favourably by some, but he could have gone a lot further had he not committed political suicide by attacking a peaceful gathering.

Although religious institutions were beginning to be viewed more favourably in an increasingly European Turkey, and even though symbols like the head-scarf were being brought back slowly and steadily, his latest move seems to be a setback to years of hard labour in Turkey's Islamic and Arab integration.

             In fact we are further away from the Arab dream today than we were in any period in the past few centuries. It will soon no longer be a dream, but a distant memory.