Sunday, January 15, 2012

Creative Syria has been relaunched with a fresh new look and an emphasis on the many crises that Syria is currently facing. Whilst the presentation of the site is excellent, the politics that are behind it will cause some consternation by Syrians who support the revolution. I do not intend to argue my own position in this post, instead I wish to critically examine the latest post, “Ten Reasons Why Many Syrians Are Not Interested Yet“, and see whether his opposition to the Syrian revolution is justified or not. He enumerates these reasons first and then expands on his arguments. Naturally, I will begin by examining each point and then dissecting the rest of his argument. Like Camille, I will also backup my arguments, and examine whether the sources he cites are justified or not, and whether they support his argument.

1. The first argument is that there are no true democracies. Citing the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index, the idea that even the Arab world’s better examples are all “flawed democracies” seems to be enough of a reason that Syrians are not interested, but in what, that is not yet mentioned. Are Syrians not interested in democracy because there are no truly democratic Arab countries? Or perhaps they are not interested in the “revolution” because even those Arab countries that are said to be nominally democratic (like Iraq or Lebanon) are a mess? Regardless of what is intended by this thesis, it is clear from that same index that countries such as Lebanon (scoring 5.32) and Iraq (scoring 4.03), are still higher than Syria, which scored a paltry 1.99

This score is derived from several factors according to the Wikipedia article quoted: Whether elections are free and fair; the security of voters; the influence of foreign powers on government; the capability of civil servants to implement policies. The Democracy index then places Syria firmly in the “Authoritarian Regime” category.

It is interesting that the author of the Creative Syria piece does not see the widespread protests that have paralysed the country for almost a year as enough evidence that Syrians are in actual fact very interested regardless of the flawed examples of Arabic democracies cited. The unprecedented level of presidential “reforms” in the past year alone, concerning everything from national health insurance companies to offering additional points to students at technical colleges, is a sign that the government is very interested in the revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world. Perhaps those many Syrians that Camille is referring to should be interested in democracy regardless whether they think Iraq and Lebanon are flawed democracies.

2. Camille states that in 2010 Lebanon and Iraq were perceived to be more corrupt than Syria. That statement is simply not true. In 2010, Transparency International rated the Worldwide Corruption Perception of Syria and Lebanon as an equally atrocious 2.5 for each, whereas Iraq was rated with a marginally higher score of 1.5. You can see the scores here.

3. A problematic description of “formerly proud” Arab countries is used for countries that have underwent the drastic changes that Camille believes “many Syrians” are not interested in. I’m not quite sure how he gauges whether or not a country used to be “proud”. Iraq is described as a formerly leading Arab state, but I’m not sure how proud Iraqis felt of losing an entire generation (estimated at 300,000) in a war of aggression against Iran. Nor can we be sure how proud Libyans were before the overthrow of Gaddafi for us to snidely criticise Qatar’s assistance of the Libyan rebels and their NTC. Were they more or less proud when Gaddafi gave up his weapons programmes for inspection to the West, and agreed upon massive oil concessions to BP, whilst hugging Tony Blair during the infamous “deal in the desert” saga. Most tellingly, Camille admits that the political process in Iraq, in spite of that country’s occupation by the United States, could not proceed without consultations with Syria and Iraq. Obviously, and this is something conveniently ignored, this was because both Iran and Syria turned Iraq into their battlefield with the United States, which was the real reason for the atrocious levels of deaths amongst Iraqi civilians – apart from the American invasion and occupation. I’m not quite sure how valid an argument is when it depends on the “pride” of a nation. Especially in countries with such little transparency or scope for expressing genuine political opinion.

4. Yemen and Sudan are cited as examples of states that could be divided, and because three is a lucky number, I think Camille added Somalia – a curious and quite arbitrary addition. Yemen and Sudan, the most corrupt of Arab states, have been ruled by despots who will be judged by history to have been instrumental in dividing their states. The curious reversal of Omar Bashir’s opposition to the division of his country, and the stupidity of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had to despatch a team to Libya to ask Gaddafi how to react to a revolution (the latter told him to start shooting, and Saleh’s forces promptly began firing at the crowds after an initial period of peaceful protest). Both of these countries are staunch allies of the Syrian regime, though the Syrian regime knows how brutally corrupt Saleh’s regime is, when a team sent by Rami Makhlouf (the Syrian president’s cousin) to negotiate a confidential deal in Yemen had to be flown out in secrecy in the dead of night when they were going to be forced to sign on Saleh’s terms. But what are such little niggles between friends, eh? These countries are risking being dismantled because of the incompetence of their rulers, so citing them as an example is slightly misleading, if not wilfully inaccurate.

5. We are told that women’s rights deteriorate after changes that allow Islamists a powerful role in the new state. That’s quite an interesting play on words when you think about it. These “changes” Camille refers to are revolutions which removed despots and families that had been in power for decades. It assumes that women’s rights were better prior to the revolution, whereas it is known that sexual harassment in Egypt reached epidemic proportions during Mubarak’s reign; Gaddafi’s vulgar use of virgin women “nuns of the revolution” and his importing of Italian women for his bunga bunga parties was on a par with Gulf potentates’ excess. Why is the case of Tawakul Karman and many other women in Yemen – perceived as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism – not cited as an example? Why, when ever Egyptian on the street in Tahrir square knows the revolution there is not over until the ruling military council, which is a continuation of Mubarak’s rule, is removed? Again, a skilful omission of such nuances gives us the picture that the Islamic bogeyman will wreak havoc with women’s rights in a region which already had a dismal record of women’s rights even under the supposedly secular dictatorships which have dominated them for decades. Furthermore, no mention is made of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a staunch ally of Syria and a country not without its own thriving pro-democracy movement, yet with a dismal respect for women’s rights. To capitalise on the plight of women in the Arab world and try to score cheap political points by claiming that it is a problem exclusively caused by political Islam – which is not true – is an ugly way that deflects from the real problems that women face in Arabic society.

6. The theme of the Islamic bogey man is continued in point six, where the issues of minorities is now discussed. Could somebody please explain to me where the Jewish minorities of Syria are? Or how the security situation in Iraq was deliberately undermined by both Iran and Syria to fight the Americans there by sending Islamists across the border? Another story from 2005 shows how the Syrian regime turned a blind eye to men who went to Iraq to carry out a jihad against the occupying American forces. Ironically more Iraqis (and especially people from Iraqi minorities) died as a result of this policy than actual American soldiers. It seems that the Syrian regime was not too concerned with women’s rights when it wanted to use Islamists, though it did not hesitate in discarding them just as quickly when they were no longer useful. When we are being frightened off by the Islamic bogeyman, we are being frightened from the Islamic extremism that is itself a product of regimes like those in Syria, and it is misleading to equate such groups with the politically Islamic groups that will now be forced to answer to a people that have not hesitated to topple far more brutal dictators. Far from being a reasonable precaution, using the Islamic bogeyman appears more useful for terrifying people into accepting the status quo of a dictator.

7. We are told that these “changes” that Camille warns against have come at the cost of enormous human casualties. For some very curious reason, he thinks that the Lebanese civil war is relevant to the Arab spring (it is not) and then ignores the role of Syria and Iran in Iraq, or the incompetence of Sudan’s regime, in the grotesque orgy of violence that those countries had to endure. In Libya, Gaddafi’s men were using anti-aircraft weapons to disperse crowds that had begun their protests peacefully, and the magical figure of 50,000 dead has now been conveniently used by those who lament the fall of Gaddafi and ignore the fact that if he was in the least bit concerned about the welfare of his country, and if he had allowed effective government institutions to be formed in his forty year long rule, then he should have resigned like any self-respecting ruler who has failed in his task. Instead, we are to blame the victim because a dictator did not step down and instead led his country into civil war.

8. We are told that change without a strong central authority leads to chaos and loss of instability. If this is supposed to be an argument against change then it fails. The strongly autocratic regimes that exist in the Arab world are so by design and not coincidence. Saddam Hussein threatened to turn Iraq into dust if he was to leave power, and so did Gaddafi. In an interview with the New York Times, Rami Makhouf, Assad’s cousin, said:

“We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.” He added later, “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

If such an attitude by the very people that are supposed to care for the welfare of the country is not a good enough reason for change, then I do not know what is.

9. We are told that revolutions and civil wars will devastate the economy. That is true, but so will dictatorship and untrammelled power over half a century by powerful dictators and their corrupt families and supporters. In fact when you have decades of political and economic corruption, then a revolution or civil war will be inevitable. Just ask King Louis the XVI of France.

10. Finally, the oldest bogeyman of all is invoked – Israel. This is curious when we hear statements from Rami Makhlouf saying that:

“If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,”

This, again, is the Syrian president’s cousin and one of the richest men in Syria. Riad Seif, a Syrian member of Parliament, was arrested after he questioned the monopoly on mobile phone networks that was being cornered by Makhlouf and his family. At the start of the Syrian revolution, analysts questioned whether Makhlouf was being offered as a sacrificial goat to deflect from public anger at the political and economic corruption of the Assad regime. For the regime to distance itself from Makhlouf’s comments to the New York Times does not fit with how closely associated this man is to the regime and its interests.

At the end of these ten points we are given a chart with information that is unsourced, and appears to be compiled from information that is not verifiable. A blurb in a red box presents the erroneous assumptions listed above as fact, and proof that most Syrians believe removing Assad is a bad idea. The author then proceeds to rubbish and character assassinate the Syrian opposition figures, and selectively lists sources which do so. Conveniently ignored is the glaring problem that the reliance on such technology is precisely because the Assad regime prevents dissent, brutalises political dissidents, and attempts to crush any sign of dissent with Assad’s rule. The fact that the Assad family has been in power for forty years, and still finds freedom of information, assembly and basic communications technology as a threat to be banned and censored, shows how dismally they have failed in their responsibility to the Syrian people. It begs the question of whether they should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed time for more “reforms”.

To conclude, the piece on Creative Syria does not tell us on what basis “many” Syrians are wary of change – any more than the opposition tells us that most Syrians are against Assad’s rule. It also gives ten flimsy, and quite sophistic arguments as to why Syrians are allegedly not interested in the revolution. If Camille intended to make the case for why negotiation and peaceful discussion should be the way forward in this impasse, then, sadly, he has failed dismally.