Ghassan SALAMEH – The age of storms

Ghassan Salameh

 The age of storms

Almost five years have marked the beginning of a new era in the history of this region: the era of transformations. Those transformations are accompanied with diversified reasons, a complicated process, a geographically moving nature like an infectious disease and tragic human losses. Many publications on the subject and multiple theories trying to make sense of it have been produced. Given the time that I have, I will surely not be able to touch upon them so I will settle for a contribution, that I have to reckon is partial, on their current development and end result.

The first question is: Is the Arab region the victim of a conspiracy, as I have read and heard? And if so, who is this conspiracy against and for what purpose? I am convinced that what is happening cannot be reduced to a conspiracy theory. However, it is not completely ruled out as a possibility. The region’s social, political, economic and ideological components, simmering for some years now but not entirely exclusive to this part of the world, are imploding. However, its unique position as to international politics was bound to urge a number of regional as well as international actors to seek some benefit, whether to defend their own interests or to see to the execution of their projects. Therefore, it is necessary to avoid a reverse causal connection by looking at how the main actors are attempting to cope with the region’s transformations, protect themselves or benefit from their repercussions whenever it is possible, as if they were the ones who were originally behind them.

One of the triggers of the current events rippling through the Arab world is, first and foremost, that authoritarian regimes have become vulnerable, rather exhausted. Our region stayed immune to what is known as “the third wave of democracy” that begun in the south of Europe in the mid 70’s, moving to Latin America, then to Central and Eastern Europe and to a number of different countries in other contents. This wave produced an unprecedented situation in the global history: most countries of the world moved from being governed by several types of authoritarian regimes to a mixture of political diversity and a free market economy driven by multiple factors including globalization, the end of the cold war and the accompanied bipolar system and the massive telecommunication revolution. As a result, by the end of the last century, 120 states out of the 193 were considered, to some extent, democratic states. However, the Arab world was excluded from this transformation, to the point that many authors published works on what they labeled as “the Arab exception” to explain why our societies were excluded from the worldwide democracy movement. Therefore, one can consider what has been called the “Arab Spring”, as if to insinuate the late coming of the season, a delayed ripple effect of that wave leading our region to stage a faltering attempt to catch-up to this anti-authoritarian movement. Ironically, this Arab protest movement is catching up with the global wave at a time when this wave is slowing down, rather moving backwards, with the return of various forms of authoritarianism to countries that seemed to be moving forward towards political plurality. Furthermore, what is striking, especially in Egypt, Yemen and Libya, is that protests against authoritarianism were shy for decades and only erupted when people became aware that the ruler is bound to inherit the state to one of his sons, as if it were his own property. At that moment a wide portion of the elite that used to support him, namely the army, separated itself from him and left him to fend for himself in the face the angry mobs of protesters.


The second reason is that a number of Arab regimes trying to benefit from economic openness had bet on globalization to promote trade, investments and tourism, without realizing that its involvement in the global market is bound to influence its political situation. For instance, as a result it can gradually lose control over its national economy, or the fact that it has to respect rules in privatization, or the normal popular resentment of policies lifting subsidies over consumables, or the dangers that those in power monopolize the economy, or the effects of accepting the rules set out by the IMF and WTO, as well as other credit institutions on national sovereignty. In this sense, this current movement is a protest against the poor distribution of this newly acquired wealth as much as it is a protest against absolute rule. In this logic, we have heard people crying out the following slogan during demonstrations: “Either state or trade”, meaning that they refuse to transform these positions into a means to enrich the rules, his relatives and supporters.


The third reason is this technology revolution that was launched around three decades ago and hasn’t stopped yet. In one generation, its political and social effects were more powerful and wider-spread than what the industrial revolution was able to accomplish in one century. This fast telecommunications revolution renders popular mobilization easier and spread of information faster and cheaper. In other terms, a popular demonstration can start with one single tweet and a scandal can spread like wildfire in one or two sentences posted on Facebook. Furthermore, everyone now, not just the elite, can state their opinion. This has led to an increasingly large number of outspoken opinions and calls that go unmonitored and, more often than not, their authors do not even think about the repercussions of their positions. This revolution has also led to trans-boundary communication, interaction and solidarity between individuals and groups sharing the same religion, sect or intellectual current at the expense of the state’s previous monopoly of intellectual and cultural domains that they control as they please. The disease of defying this status quo spread with the transformation of communication into a kind of sameness: meaning borrowing the same slogans, chants and mechanisms used in another country. The technology revolution opened the door to political Islam whose once-silenced voices became loud and clear for everyone to hear, gaining grounds fast in the Arab ideology and politics producing market.


The environment has also a significant role to play in the uprising of what has become known as the “Arab spring”, especially in breaking the balance previously established between demographic growth and available resources. Striking examples can be found in Egypt where population growth led to suffocating livelihood and housing crises. The same goes for Syria where demographic growth reached unprecedented highs during the past four decades. The local quarrels and disputes were due to the water scarcity in the area of Upper Mesopotamia, which displaced over 3 million Syrians in the years leading up to the crisis. Whereas, in a country like Yemen, natural factors reached their peak. In fact, there, the inadequacy between the population explosion and available natural resources, namely water, reached sky highs. Therefore, it would be logical to assume that these main facts will not change, should a stable political solution be reached in either of these two countries.


Oil had also a major role to play. In fact, the increase in oil and gas prices during the first decade of the 21st century led to great surpluses that, in turn, multiplied the ability of oil producing countries to influence the course of history in other countries, while causing oil importing Arab countries to lose their financial abilities. This intensified the contradiction between the abilities of oil producing countries and their neighbors, allowing them to have great influence in the political realm as well as in the decision-making process of the Arab League. The current collapse in oil prices might play a new and reverse role. In fact, it might weaken the position of oil producing countries by depriving them of the main tool that has been granting them internal and regional clout, which will ignite the demonstration spark.


Therefore, they are transformations infiltrating the very fabric of Arab societies and cannot be interpreted in a way that will reduce them to mere conspiracy theories. Truth be told, a controversial relationship has been established between internal instabilities and external interference by virtue of which instabilities require interference and interference fuel these instabilities. This makes it harder to conceive that a decision was taken somewhere in the world to detonate the region. Finally, and most importantly, it is hard for us to believe that political solutions for the current crises will be sufficient to find a settlement for their deeply rooted causes, no matter how necessary it is to seek such solutions to decrease violence and help these societies regain civil peace. This is why, this sense that the current situation is precarious prevails, not only in the countries that are still struggling with instabilities, such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, but also in those that seem as if they have regained some sense of stability, like Tunisia and Egypt, and in other countries able until now to distance themselves from these instabilities.

All these factors have conspired to induce real popular movements. However, the sensitive regional situation was bound to push several external powers to influence their course. If I had to summarize what is going on in this regard, I would have to say that it is some sort of security harmonization, accompanied by economic globalization. The regional economies have become part of the world market, but their security has become more vulnerable to their neighboring countries.

In my opinion, what distinguished the current era is that super power are not as influential as they used to be, while regional countries have gained more and more influence. I hear a lot of criticism against president Obama for floundering with issues that concern us, but I consider that the opposite is true. His methodology is pretty clear: he wants to distance the USA, as much as possible, from any interference, especially a military one, in the affairs of the region. He also thinks that his country does not need the region’s oil, that the destiny of Russia, yesterday’s enemy, is out of its control, Israel has blackmailed the US enough and that his country’s traditional allies should manage on their own without the US’ involvement, which is a departure from the past. But most importantly, he considers that his country has been through expensive and futile wars, if not ones bearing negative effects, during his predecessor’s mandate, namely in Afghanistan and Iraq, whereas history will remember that he only interfered in Libya, backed by the Europeans, and for a very short while, and that he never interfered in neither Syria nor Iraq before ISIS got out of hand, and at the same time, he was able to avoid a renewed war with Iran through the agreement carried out on its nuclear program. Finally, he thinks that his country’s national interests are threatened in Asia more than in our region, and this is why he wants to move towards the Far East. All these considerations have been announced and reiterated, and should be considered a credo, although Obama’s opponents in the USA refused and are unable to believe them and Washington’s allies in the region are dissatisfied with them. The question remains: After Obama leaves the oval office, will the USA close this abstaining chapter or will it pursue it? My feeling is that abstaining from the world’s hot wars in general is widely popular among the American public opinion, despite the deep cuts that were left by the expansion of ISIS and Russia’s direct interference in Syria. In fact, this increased the pressures on Obama for further direct interference in both Syria and Iraq, despite the fact that he has categorically excluded this possibility for the past five years.


The Americans’ unwillingness is coupled with the erosion of the capacities of other Western countries. The international order gradually established by the West for the past five centuries is eroding today right before our eyes without being replaced by a real agreement between emerging countries on the shape and form of a new alternative order. The sun is setting on the West and with it on all its institutions, values and norms that it has disseminated in the four corners of the world, without seeing the dawn of a new day. In fact, China is busy solidifying its position in its surrounding. Russia is already acting like a regional power in Ukraine, the Caucasus as well as in our region given that it has close ties and interests there and feels that there are risks on its national security. Other countries, like India, Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia and Iran, are trying really hard and making some mistakes along the way to build the required elements to form new poles. By this token, one can sense the demise of the international equation that the West had orchestrated, while the features of this new equation are yet to be clear.


It is only normal to take stock of Russia, especially following its direct involvement in the war in Syria. Russia is certainly, on the one hand, seeking to regain some of what it lost during the past quarter of a century due to the sharp decline of its capacities, but at the same time, it is realistic enough to conceive that there’s no turning back to the bipolarity that had been established pre-1989. One can also say that China is trying to foster its hegemony in its surroundings as a necessary precursor to transform into a global superpower, while Russia is trying to enhance its position in its direct surrounding to make for losing a previous international position, one that it is not deluded over the possibility of recovering. Moscow looks at us as part of this surrounding, meaning that, for Russia, our region is both a source of threats and opportunities, similarly to other European countries, and unlike the USA and Chine both of which are not in close contact with our region. Hence, Moscow’s eager quest to fortify its position in Syria and open wide the doors of collaboration with different countries of the region, such as Egypt, Iraq and even GCC countries. Ironically and unlike the prevailing situation during the cold war, Moscow considers itself the protector of those regimes and accuses the USA of playing a direct role in fueling these demonstrations and destabilizing the regimes. This rhetoric is echoed in numerous capitals in the region. Ironically, as well, Moscow portrays their roles as the protectors of minorities in our region, while blaming France and other Western countries of giving up on this role and prevailing their commercial interests over any other consideration. This prompts Russia to humor with Sunnis in their respective countries.

International organizations are an important part of the legacy of the past’s global politics. It would have been conceivable to fathom the UN successfully keeping up with this transition from one international order to another. However, the dreams of the post-cold war era dissipated and the UN is unable to play the role of the incubator to replace one world order with another. Firstly, the UN has a hard time dealing with civil conflicts raging on here and there, although its raison d’etre is to find peaceful settlements for wars between and not in countries. It is also facing difficulties to secure the needed funds for peace operations as well as to fund the activities of relief agencies affiliated to it or established by virtue of international treaties. Other developments occurred and exacerbated its impotence, like the fact that Russia’s relations with the West are once again tensed, which impacted greatly the work of the UNSC and hampered the execution of the resolutions on Libya, amid different interpretations for these resolutions. The UNSC was completely paralyzed when it came to Syria, let alone a United Nations’ leadership that is neither revered nor esteemed to the extent that the Vienna Conference on Syria was almost convened in the absence of any UN representative up until the last minute.

All of this led to a sort of contradicting situation, accompanied by the integration of the region in financial and economic globalization mechanisms, and the growing political and security role of the region’s countries. Iran was a pioneer in this context. In reality, there is more than one Iran: there is Iran, the nation-state, heir to an empire that traditionally leaned, and still does, towards expansion in its own environment; there is Iran, the Shiite state that seeks to benefit from this denomination’s bonds to mobilize supporters all over the Shi’a map; there is Iran, country of the Islamic revolution, which seeks to control the path followed by political Islam, regardless of denominations; there is Iran, the entity ambitious to gain an international role and contribute to formulating the post-West era. At the dawn of this period, this country has pulled illusions around itself, up to its highest levels, believing that all that is happening today benefits it in all aspects; its supreme guide even described this period as an “Islamic spring”, supporting it, or rather encouraging people to it. However, the contagious spread across Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen confused it. Iran then slipped towards a more narrow interpretation, in which imposing considerations overwhelmed this passing enthusiasm towards that spring, which carries more risks than promises.

Turkish leaders, on the other hand, entered a similar illusion very early on, which cost us much, and is costing them much. Davutoglu’s strategic theories fused with Erdogan’s personal ambitions and the efforts of the Turkish economy towards exportation, thus creating an active neo-Ottomanism that entered the region first economically, before trying to recreate the Arab political and ideological disposition with a clear confessional and sectarian content, especially in terms of its cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the regional winds blew against the sails of the Turkish ships: the Muslim Brotherhood was banned from power in Egypt, the plan to overthrow the regimes in Syria and Iraq failed, the situation in Libya blew up, and classism once again found its way into Turkey, which is more complicated than we might think when it comes to ethnicities and denominations. Turkey had to mirror Iran and reformulate its project, so that the denominational aspect would overtake the political one, which they did not shy away from doing.

Israel was singing off-key, as usual. It is normal for the Israeli elite to feel comforted by the collapse of so many Arab countries’ powers, and by some other Arab countries stepping closer to Israel, as well as the dramatic drop in Arab interest in the Palestinian cause. However, to say that Israel is the only country to benefit from these transformations reveals the naive illusion that these Arab countries stood united in solidarity to liberate Palestine before these events started happening. However, this does not mean that Israel would not be happy to see its neighboring countries exhausted, but the danger to Israel did not emanate from these countries; on the contrary, the exhaustion of these countries, especially those with which it has signed peace agreements, does not necessarily serve its interests. Furthermore, Israel’s attempts to build bridges with Gulf countries to prevent the ratification of the Iranian nuclear agreement failed. Therefore, to the extent to which we can understand the development of ideas within the Israeli decision-making elite, the transformations occurring in the region are generating mixed, contradictory emotions, and are even increasing the paranoia of the danger to its existence, instead of calming those fears.

Some of the Arab countries that were not affected by this contagious wave of protests considered that direct or indirect intervention in the affairs of the countries that were affected would be beneficial for them, be it through financing, armament, or the use of their diplomatic and media capacities. We did see a concrete involvement of Gulf countries on more than one inflamed scene. However, these interventions were far from decisive, and failed. The reasons behind that failure are numerous, and include the fact that money is not enough to change the course of events; one needs a diplomatic and political executive to use this money positively. Furthermore, it is increasingly harder to find money, due to the drop in oil prices on one hand, and the increase in the number of troubled scenes on the other. Additionally, the relations between Gulf countries themselves are characterized by competitiveness, disagreements, and even clashes, much more than by agreement and solidarity. This, for example, hindered the policy of a certain Gulf country, which was opposed to that of another, such as in the case of Egypt and Libya. Most importantly, Gulf countries cannot agree on the identity of political Islam. In reality, religion plays various roles in the public domain: it can be a doctrine than believes in active metaphysics in which several debates are constantly running about interpretation and jurisprudence; it is a set of institutions working together to protect this doctrine; it is a mobilization language that many resort to when political words are not enough; it is a competitive market between religions, denominations, and currents. All these uses of religion entered the court during this period, and the religious paths chosen by different countries were quite numerous. Some tried to use one of its currents for their own interests, some decided to adopt a competitor current, and others decided that their priorities were to slip political Islam back into its bottle. On the other hand, certain Islamic movements decided to keep their political strategies independent from the countries that supported them, and tried to include these countries as much as they could in their plans to reach power, something that seamed easy to them. Today, the Islamic State is the best example of this intertwinement between various uses of religion and the purely political projects of fighter groups, and the policies of states that are seeking tools to reach their goals. Personally, I find that this religious boom, which started about half a century ago, specifically on the morrow of the 1967 defeat, suffers today from a measure of a decrease in speed; on the other hand, this feverish or doctrinal boom, a process that is quite different from the religious phenomenon, which only worsened after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has yet to reach its peak.

If my quick assessment of this profoundly troubled era that we are living today is correct, its first result would be that we are not anywhere near it coming to a close, or even the declaration of its impending end. We will have to be patient for years, not weeks or months, before this region becomes stable once more. Furthermore, the structural factors that are exploding today also mean that this patch of instability could widen or shrink. Essentially, this means that political and diplomatic solutions might be urgent, but remain less pressing than the existential challenges that the peoples of the region are facing today.

Faced with these existential challenges, we unknowingly slip towards a complementary question: whose existence? Who are we to demand a truth about our survival from anyone? We slip again towards questions about the fates of those countries whose borders were traced for us about a quarter of a century for us, countries that seem to be threatened by the shears that are tearing into the map of our region, cutting and gluing pieces at their will. Did we not warn against the burial of the Sykes-Picot agreements? Are we not witnessing the emergence of a Kurdish entity, or rather entities? Can we not understand the goal of the ethnic, religious, and denominational cleansing that is happening before our very eyes? I hear whispers about reunification on one side, about division on the other, while we seek refuge with God from His terrible horrors near and far. Personally, I think that recent countries are a human creation, despite all attempts to enshrine them, and like all human creations, they are capable of growing, of being divided, of being reunified, and being integrated into others –I daresay that not doing so would lead to their extinction. Therefore, we must pull ourselves out of this chronic theology and consider what is visible to our eyes so we can ask relevant questions: did Pakistan truly benefit from its separation from India? Did North Cyprus benefit from its separation from South Cyprus, South Sudan from North Sudan? Particularly since, in the case of the latter, the country is drowning in a stifling civil war that is far worse than its previous war with Khartoum.

We must also ask ourselves if we are truly benefiting from our rejection of federalization, especially since it is a relevant tool to reunite that which was divided, not to push apart that which stands united. Before these bloody developments that are tearing the social fabric apart in about ten countries of the region, it is no longer appropriate to humor the imaginary feelings of division within our hearts, or to remain attached to a single type of constitutional structure that we consider sacred and untouchable. On the contrary, we must seek solutions adapted to each situation, which would be accepted by conflicting parties, and would offer civilians a safe haven from the horrors storming on around them.

If my diagnosis proves to be correct, it would be of great significance to Lebanon, our country. First, it would mean that the widening of this instability patch has eroded the level of international attention granted to our affairs. This decrease entails positive solutions, seeing as there are fewer chances for us to fall prey to foreign interventions, and that our narrow national scene, on which international and regional powers have competed for our territories at the expense of our security and stability, has become rather marginal compared to the greater, more important Arab scenes that are currently sailing in rough waters. However, this lack of international attention also has negative consequences, weakening international readiness to help Lebanon on diplomatic, financial, and security levels. These consequences imply new responsibilities for Lebanon: we have to solve our own problems by ourselves. Contrary to popular opinion, the Lebanese are quite capable today of solving their own issues themselves, much more so than they were in the past, and much more than they think, whatever they may be –the election of a president, the reactivation of the paralyzed constitutional institutions, even garbage collection!

On that note, one major question remains unanswered: are there still any Lebanese in Lebanon? All of our institutions have transformed into confessional councils in which we entertain ourselves by proving our decision-making capacities to be superior to those of others, without actually taking any decision, urgent or vital as it may be. A part of the Taef agreement led to the collapse of the concept of the capable state that transcends the interest of certain classes, especially because of the clumsy paths taken in its implementation. This classist system once fueled our pre-war politics, but with the end of the war, took center stage in our public administrations, and left its clawing footprints not only on our old administrative institutions, but also on our more recent ones, the ones created after the Taef agreement.

The more widespread image is that of those who meddle about with our country’s affairs, those who are incapable of agreeing on even the simplest issue, those who have distanced us from our own causes, so much that we no longer have to intervene in our own affairs because we are too taken with stopping the construction of a state that transcends the internal tantrums of our denomination, a state that is independent from the will of other countries. I can already imagine the smiles on your faces when I tell you that there are dangers threatening our countries from everywhere, and that the first mission that we must take on is to revive our constitutional institutions for the presidency, the parliament, and the cabinet. I fear that these smiles will turn into booming laughter when I add that we can truly do that. You may call me a naive Orientalist when I tell you that the only true obstacle preventing the revival of our institutions is our selfishness, and how we have failed to protect our country, not a foreign conspiracy.

However, there are some that prioritize changing the rules of the game over ending this almost total institutional paralysis. I speak to them when I say that there is nobody better placed to perceive the errors in the Taef agreement, especially its implementation inconveniences, than those who humbly participated in conceiving it, and wrote it without malice. I am one such person, and I say that we are the only ones allowed to highlight the poor excerpts of the text or its implementation, and to bring forth better alternatives. It seems to me that paralyzing these institutions as a means of modifying the political formulation is an uncalculated risk that reveals acute classism, and a share of irresponsibility.

There is not a shadow of doubt in mind that the interest of the country is tied to wishing for the nearest end of the Syrian tragedy, and for a political, legal, and administrative regime that would satisfy the people and put an end to this calamity. From the very first day I said that the Syrian crisis would have no military solution, but would rather require a political solution that could be based on the Geneva Convention and the nine Vienna principles. The day the canons fall silent in Syria, we must be ready to take on the noblest of missions that the Lebanese could dream of: contributing to rebuilding the country closest to us, in all aspects of the word. We have been told over and again that Lebanon was a message as much as it was a country, but this country is falling to pieces, so much that is nearly impossible to burden it with whatever message it may be. In my opinion, to promote the stability of our country, or to carry this message that was attributed to us as the equivalence of our country, there could be no nobler mission than the quest to reinstate civil peace in our closest neighbor, and exerting efforts side by side with our brothers to build it back up.


Finally, how could I conclude this speech without expressing the bleeding sadness that has taken up residence in our hearts, so much that is has become a part of who we are? How could I do that in the face of this mindless violence that indiscriminately takes people out in their homes, the streets of their neighborhoods, from their cities and their suburbs, this violence that pours its flames upon their heads and chases them out onto the streets, which pushes them onto the paths of exodus and humiliation? How could I do so at a time in which we are exporting a flow of violence and counter-violence into the streets of Paris, we who are so used to this, that we consider it to be a normal occurrence? This isn’t normal, and we will only be aware of that when we admit that staying speechless, or simply professing our grief towards such events, while calling upon foreign powers to solve the problem, breaks the very rules of humanity and reveal how we shoulder no responsibility. The regimes that tyrannize us come from the womb of our societies, and the obscurantism movements that spread death along their path emanate from the core of our culture. The world will not forgive our mental laziness, or our attempts to escape our responsibilities towards what we are doing to one another and to ourselves. The world is right to demand that we shoulder the responsibility for the civil wars that are tearing us to shreds, for the authoritarian regimes that are attempting to control us, and for that extreme violence we practice on ourselves and the world. Personally, I think that the world no longer shares the vision we have of ourselves, where we are mere victims of these bloody transformations. It is even starting to consider us accomplices, through our words, our actions, or rather our inaction, of all regimes and groups that adopt or implement this barbarism. Let us not be surprised at the weakness with which it condemns the violence affecting us, or by the fact that it grants us a share of accountability in what is affecting it. And truly, can we blame it?

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