Observing the Arab Uprisings

The famous Naji Al-Ali’s caricature: “Revolution until Victory”

My post on openDemocracy as part of the You tell us column:

Not that I am angry with myself for not being able to express myself as perfectly honestly as I should on so sensitive a subject as the ‘Arab Spring’, but I always thought, as a Palestinian, I would not think twice before I make it clear to anyone and everyone that I am a person who unwaveringly supports all the revolutions in the Arab world from Bahrain through to Syria and all across the region to Tunisia.

It made feel good just to align myself with the people’s demands for freedom and social justice; it was such an opportunity to speak out against the despicable corruption with which our ruthless elitist establishments are rife! It answered a deep desire to join my voice to the acts of these brave people. I feel at home in the scene of massive protests mingled with beautiful chants streaming out of the mouths of the masses. In fact – and many from within the revolutions have already made the link – the Arab revolutions were in large part inspired by the Palestinians’ struggle (particularly the two intifadas) against the Israeli occupation which, until the eruption of the revolution in Tunisia, was the sole large-scale, organised or spontaneous, sustained form of resistance in the whole region in which, not only Palestinians, but Arabs in general, took pride.

The rest of region, it was said, had fallen into a deep, undisturbed slumber, and only a man burning himself to death could vehemently shake it out of an ages-old subservience.

Things are not that simple, though; and I was mistaken. In my first talk about the Syrian revolution with a friend who comes from South Lebanon and who is, as one might have expected, a huge supporter of Assad’s ‘resistance regime’, I enraged him it seems by my blunt yet futile attempts to point out the hypocrisy in what he said about the uprising in Syria. As he merely parroted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s statements – I don’t have to repeat it all here. He put an end to this by pretending to ignore what I was saying, shaking his head and mimicking the pro-Assad chants “Allah, Souriyya, Bashar w bas!”

This was a man who was incredibly warm and friendly when he first discovered that I am a Palestinian from Gaza. And was even more friendly than before, after that altercation. He soon realized that he had behaved imprudently (to say the least) and apologized to me, saying he did not really mean what he said, especially when it came to uttering those chants. For my part, I had just wanted to highlight the need to be honest and objective when we talk about these revolutions. My statements were not categorically anti-regime, and I desisted from making any awful comments about Nasrallah’s hypocrisy. In fact, I was careful to list Hezbollah’s merits before I dared to mildly criticize Nasrallah’s stance with regards to Syria. I even talked somewhat favourably of the Syrian regime saying things I myself have never been convinced of in order to make my final point that now Bashar al-Assad and his regime are nothing short of a bunch of criminals and they have all got to go.

Most importantly, I (naively probably) insisted that sectarianism should be completely left out of this calculation. I assured him that I supported the uprising in Bahrain as genuinely as I supported the one in Syria, and I explained to him that supporting al-Assad’s regime and calling the Syrian uprising an American plot is an irresponsible position, since similar accusations are already made to discredit the uprising in Bahrain and justify the crackdown on the Bahraini protesters.

But recently something happened to me which made this guy’s extremely unyielding stance more understandable. It was during a protest outside the Egyptian embassy that  I had a most revealing and disconcerting conversation about the Arab uprisings. It started when I asked a 47-year old man if I could have a picture with the new flag of the Syrian revolution fixed on the back of his car. When he found out I was a Palestinian from Gaza, he was keen on assuring me that this whole uprising is definitely going to be in the best interests of all Palestinians, and that “Palestinians might have fallen prey to the regime’s propaganda in the past, but that in fact they had no interest in supporting the Assad regime.”

We talked about the Arab uprisings, and it did not take me long to note the profoundly sectarian tone in which he was unbending in framing the revolution in Syria. This was hugely upsetting, and I had to, as politely as I could, listen to what he, as a native Syrian, had to say about the uprising in Syria, pretending to be utterly unaware of the sectarian dimension that has been on the rise for quite a while, and considerably longer than the moment when it became visible worldwide in the Houla massacre. In short, I came to the conclusion that this man is short-sighted and poses a threat to the real revolutionaries in Syria. He presented a very distorted image of what the revolution is about, its real intentions, its dynamics and proceedings. Despite being Syrian, he by no means represents the people on the ground. Although, when I asked whether the people in Syria thought the same way he did – he said yes they did. This of course could be taken for a trick question, since the Syrian opposition is deeply wracked with divisions and there are many disagreements within the Syrian political landscape even amidst the Syrian protesters, with regards to the demands which reflect different understandings of the conflict. Nevertheless, he maintained that everyone agreed with him.

He went on to speak of the “hypocrisy of the Bahraini protesters” who would protest outside the Bahraini embassy in London for hours on end, and when their protests finished and the Syrian protests started outside the Syrian embassy which is right next door to the Bahraini one, they would refuse to join the Syrian protests. My question to him was whether he would join the Bahrainis in their protests? And if not how does that make him (or us) different from the hypocritical Bahraini protesters? He did not have a reasonable answer. Instead he carried on ranting about the protests in Bahrain, and completely discredited the uprising there, saying it was not even worthy of  the name.

What I concluded was that he was actually one of these double-faced types of people to be found amongst leaders like Hassan Nasrallah and the Saudi government, who, refusing to extricate themselves from their sectarian backgrounds and dominated by their political strategic alliances, discredit whatever revolution they claim to speak for.

I decided from this that though sectarianism exists, and is on the rise, and while regional alliances continue unabatedly to shape the uprisings, I will continue to commit myself to a simplistic understanding of all the uprisings, seeing them in their own right as the people’s revolutions, wholly owned by them, for freedom and social justice, and against the age-old tyrannical rule of their dictators, and now murderers.

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