Imprisoning the Arab spring? - Aijaz Zaka Syed - Thursday, May 05, 2011

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‘Go back as far as you will into the vague past,’ Mark Twain writes in The Innocents Abroad, ‘there was always a Damascus. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies’.

And the latest victim of the ancient city could be the Bathist order that has ruled Syria for nearly half a century since the so-called Arab socialist revolution led by Hafez Al Assad, the late father of President Bashar Al Assad. Now the trouble with revolutions is they are not just dangerously unpredictable, they often sow the seeds of their own nemesis with their excessive zeal and violent ways.

When a minuscule minority, responding to the winds of change sweeping the region, took to the streets in Syria about a month ago, constantly looking over their shoulder, Assad had thundered: “The Arab spring stops here!”

And he has, ably assisted by the trusted, crooked comrades of his late father, tried every tested trick in the book to rein it in – from shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic that is this regime to offering to lift the hated emergency laws. When little seemed to work, he did what his kind in this part of the world do best: Send in the tanks and boots to crush the protesters.

Yet the harder the regime tries to suppress the raging inferno of protests and the anger of a long repressed and persecuted people, the angrier it becomes. Hundreds have been killed in the ferocious crackdown raging across Syria and by the time this wave of Arab spring breaks over this mystical land, it may have left behind mountains and mountains of bodies. The casual, breathtaking brutality of these so-called Arab leaders against their people would shame the famously coldblooded Israelis.

It’s the same story next door in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya. The industrial scale of the massacre in Libya has killed thousands and would have inevitably killed thousands more if the UN hadn’t woken up and intervened. And the more violent and vile the mad Colonel gets in his desperate attempts to hold on to power, the greater defiance and determination he appears to inspire in his victims.

It’s amazing how most of these men refuse to learn from the region’s most recent history to march on, drunk on power and eyes wide shut, into the minefield that has already claimed many of their fellow travellers. Both Qaddafi and Assad steadily ignore the fate that has befallen Ben Ali and Mubarak.

And it’s all the more amazing how a people long caricatured as docile and indifferent imbeciles who suffer in silence and allow themselves to be enslaved by their corrupt, ruthless despots have turned on their tormentors with a determination and quiet courage that would have made Gandhi and Mandela proud.

This is an epic battle of wits and wills, if there ever was one. And if the recent history is any indication, this is a war the Assads and Qaddafis of this world are destined to lose to the other side. Eventually. Sooner or later.

Having long been held hostage to history and conspiracy of circumstances first by colonial masters and then by their own, they have suffered enough. The ground shifting changes in the neighbourhood have set them free. Forever. They have sighted what lies beyond the high walls that imprison them. They have seen the future in a flash and it has captivated them. And nothing will persuade them to go back and withdraw themselves into the shell they have lived in all these years. This is a battle that Assad has already lost. He lost it when he sent those tanks into towns and cities across Syria to crush his people.

The western-educated physician who promised a ‘swift cure’ to an ailing nation when he took over from his father 11 years ago is little different from the prototype of potentates the Arab world has seen so many, from the Levant to Maghreb. The good doctor vows to arrest the Arab spring in Syria. But who has ever been able to imprison an idea whose time has come?

Men like Assad, Qaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh may delude themselves, and the world, for some time that all’s well and that they are here to stay and rule till kingdom come. Eventually though they will have to face the writing on the wall. They are on the wrong side of history and they know it. Only they cannot muster the courage to admit it.

This obscene, appalling display of brute force against unarmed, peaceful protesters may buy them momentary modicum of calm and respite. However, they know in their hearts that this flimsy veneer of order can be ripped apart any time by a single voice of protest. Didn’t they see what just happened on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere? Violence and heavy handed tactics by security forces that have sustained all these regimes all these years have only provoked greater popular fury and have hardened the resolve of the Arab street to cast off their tormentors, sending them where they belong – in the dustbin of history.

The facade of fear that the powers that be had carefully constructed around themselves was torn apart when the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammad Bouazizi had set himself on fire in protest in the dying moments of last year. The genie is out of the bottle and no power on earth can force it back. Change is a reality and is destined to transform the Middle East, the birthplace of all civilisation, whether anyone likes it or not. Arab elites would ignore this stark reality at their peril.

The Arab League seemed to come to terms with it when it unequivocally condemned the use of force against peaceful protesters, saying they “deserve support, not bullets.”

In an extraordinary tribute to the pulsating spirit of our times, the League reminded its members: “The people’s demands for freedom and democracy are demands that require support not bullets in the chests of demonstrators. We call on Arab regimes and governments to commit to and speed up reforms, immediately stop using force against demonstrators and spare their citizens bloodshed. These demonstrations point to a new Arab era led by youths seeking a better present and a brighter future.”

This would have been unthinkable even a couple of months ago for the Cairo-based League. Better late than never. Clearly, we are living in interesting times, as the Chinese say it. Arab elites have been presented with a rare opportunity to be on the right side of history. They face a stark choice: Go with the hopes and aspirations of their people and redeem themselves and the region stuck in a time warp for centuries despite its rich human and natural resources.

The alternative is total chaos and bloodshed everywhere, inviting the vultures waiting in the wings for an endless feast. However, for all their awesome power and nuisance value, our western and Zionist friends cannot ground this juggernaut of change. If anyone could imprison the Arab spring, it will be the Arabs themselves.

The writer is based in the Gulf.


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