Sunday 5 August 2012

Nothing bright in Syria or the Arab world

Destruction in Homs (Photos from

Two of my favorite Arab columnists reflect today on the Syria war and the pan-Arab notion of time.
The two themes, by Samir Atallah and Imad Adeeb writing separately for Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat, are disparate but somehow in parallel.
Judge for yourself.

Samir Atallah writing:
Historians agree the Twentieth Century was humanity’s deadliest: 178 million people killed in its open and collateral wars, two World Wars and one Cold War that is still carrying on in other ways.
Historians have yet to disclose the number of fatalities in the Arab century that kicked off with the 1914 global war before going through 1948, 1967, 1973, and the scores of border, bilateral and civil wars in-between.
But the current Syria war is the most layered, both regionally and internationally, since the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and the resulting reconfiguration of the region’s map as per the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Arab activists used the names of Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot to justify their eradication of all forms of development, freedom and progress. While Arabs were inflicting oppression and humiliation on themselves, the world was during the same period making its way from slavery to dignity.
In any case, none of the previous wars had as many contradicting and overlapping factors as the Syria war with
Iran playing a key role for the first time since the Persians retreated to the boundaries of modern-day Iran
Turkey playing a crucial military, political and kismet-determining role since the closure of Turkish schools in Tripoli, Beirut and Damascus, and
Russia playing her most vital role since waking up one morning to hear an Egyptian former lieutenant (Anwar Sadat) ordering the army that won World War II to leave because “the Americans hold 99 percent of the cards.” Until this very day, no one knows exactly why (Sadat) withheld the remaining one percent.
There are political roles (in Syria) for America, Europe, Russia, China and Iran and a number of variants of a military role for each.
For the first time since World War I, there is also a confessional and sectarian flavor to the war.
For the first time since World War II, there is serious talk of partition as well.
And, for the first time since Sykes-Picot in 1916, there is a feeling that the map of Sykes and Picot could be reconfigured.
In the meantime, no one is counting casualties of the Arab century’s wars since Arabs don’t usually figure in life-and-death statistics. Remember the famous words of (one-time Syrian president) Amin al-Hafez, “Our women are fertile and give birth,” when he could have said instead, “Our schools are first-class, our laboratories are top-level and our plants are up and running.”
The war that started “in” Syria is now “on” Syria. It might not be the last of the Arab century’s wars or its high point. It has not yet reached 75,000 fatalities as in Libya or a quarter of a million as in Algeria or Lebanon. But it certainly stands out as having the greatest ramifications and implications.
The headline on Alalam New Network (broadcasting from Iran) spoke of “the Syrian army making advances in Aleppo.” It could have been a slip of the tongue at this juncture, when people forget that Aleppo is a Syrian city and the advancing army is Syrian as well.

Imad Adeeb writing:
I think we are a nation whose sense of time is weak or almost non-existent.
We don’t respect the “culture of time” either individually or as a nation. We don’t recognize that we are in a race against time to get things done and achieve our hopes, aspirations and dreams.
Palestine was partitioned and Israel declared in 1948. Jerusalem was lost in 1967. And we put forward an Arab peace initiative 23 years after the late president Anwar Sadat visited Israel.
We lost Andalusia after 800 years of Islamic rule. We remained under Ottoman tutelage more than 120 years. Britain’s occupation of Egypt lasted 70 years while France’s occupation of Algeria extended more than 100 years and cost its people in excess of one million martyrs.
We’ve been waiting for Israel’s response to the Arab peace initiative for not less than 12 years on grounds of “giving it time to think.” The Palestinian Authority accepted half of what it turned down half a century ago without getting any nearer to a genuine peace.
Arab despots stayed in office for periods beyond 40 years – ample time to ossify their regimes.
We still talk about resurrecting the Hejaz Railway project, ponder a common Arab currency, consider a Saudi-Egypt causeway and mull over inter-Arab visa requirements.
We have yet to activate the 1950 joint Arab defense pact.
It’s as if there is a “time zone difference” between world civilization and us, or as though our time clock stopped a long time ago.
Japan and Egypt were in the same economic situation after World War II. So were South Korea and Morocco in the early 1970s. While economic models succeeded in places like Turkey, Malaysia, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea and Ghana, Arab development plans fell flat.
Look how East European countries like Hungary, Slovenia, Poland and Croatia were able, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, to introduce political and economic reforms and succeed within 15-20 years in achieving impressive rates of economic growth.
The Arab psyche needs to exit the “recovery room” and realize that time is the most valuable commodity in today’s world.
We love history, but don’t appreciate the value of time.