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Shu Arab Spring?

(Naked Punch Review Issue 16 Editorial by Vijay Prashad

Published 9/4/14)

I. Tornado.

A tornado seems to have swept through the narrow Gaza Strip. Every few years (2014, 2012, 2009, 2006….) this tornado makes its appearance. It lashes the day, lasts weeks and creates devastation that takes months and years to repair. Names are given this tornado (Cast Lead, Protective Edge), but these are only a façade. The real name of this tornado is Israel.

II. Toyota.

Hot winds scorch the old cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Men with all the arrogance of religious sanction and youthful exuberance stand beside white Toyota trucks. They are ready for their jihadi furlough. Off they go into the desert to the northern Syrian cities that bend their knees to them. US war-planes, effectively the Iraqi air force, bomb them away from Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad. Syria is at the feet of the Islamic State. The plume of dust that follows them is nothing compared to the smoke that their guns will generate. Nor the fear. The Islamic State and its cousin, Jabhat al-Nusra, threaten Damascus more than the defected troops of the Syrian Army and the self-styled rebels ever did. Nusra fighters stand guard near the Golan Heights, gateway to Israel. But they have their backs to Israel. Their real target is Damascus, where honeyed eyes watch in terror as the smoke comes closer and closer. The UN says that the death toll in the Syrian Civil War is now over 191,000.

III. Rabaa.

Brave protests take place near Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo to remember the massacre of August 14, 2013. That day saw gruesome violence: 638 dead, largely civilians, mainly supporters of deposed President Morsi. On the anniversary this year, at least four more are killed. A pall hangs over Egypt. Politics raised on a pedestal at Tahrir Square has crashed down. As if he could take it no longer, Egypt’s renowned human rights lawyer, Ahmed Seif al-Islam decided to depart from the world. Two of his children, Alaa Abd el-Fattah and Sanaa Seif, are currently in prison. They are part of the sixteen thousand political prisoners in Egypt. A wall of Saudi and US money surrounds Heliopolis Palace.

IV. Salah Badi.

Smell of the NATO bombs remains fresh in the unending conflict across what is rapidly becoming “Somalia on the Mediterranean.” A dangerous conflict in Benghazi between General Khalifa Hifter, who fashions himself as a Libyan nationalist, and Ansar al-Sharia drew airstrikes on the General’s behalf from his Gulf Arab friends. Tripoli’s airport is gutted by the ongoing war between the militias of the towns of Zintan and Misrata. These are not feuds between towns, but political clashes between groups with different views of post-Qaddafi Libya, egged on by their own geo-political backers – Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Misrata’s leader, Salah Badi, a man with terrible post-traumatic stress disorder, is in the saddle. His is banditry of self-aggrandizement. Fuel to the fire comes from Libyan jihadis, returning from the rat-line that took them to Syria.

V. Manama.

A young woman disembarks from her flight into Bahrain, small pearl in the Persian Gulf. She walks to passport control. She is arrested. Her passport is taken from her. She is not surprised. Her father, Abdul Hadi al-Khwaja, sits in a Bahraini jail. He has been there off and on since February 2011. He is on hunger strike. She has come to see him. The King throws her into jail. Her name is Maryam al-Khwaja. She is the acting president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. The title “acting” sits there only because the actual president, Nabeel Rajab had been in prison for two years. He was released in May, just in time to oversee the publication of the Centre’s annual report, in which one finds this:

“A clear example of the culture of impunity evident in Bahrain is the case of human rights defender and journalist Nazeeha Saeed, Bahrain correspondent for France 24 and Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya. According to Saeed, she was tortured at Riffa police station in 2011. She was ‘blindfolded, kicked, punched, and slapped. Her hair was pulled, she was whipped with plastic tubing, had a shoe forced into her mouth and her head dunked into a toilet.’ Saeed obtained three independent medical reports which confirmed that she was subjected to torture, two of which were issued by doctors working for the Ministry of the Interior. Despite the clear evidence of torture and the fact that she identified five of her alleged torturers, only one of them, policewoman Sarah Al-Moosa, was taken to court by the Public Prosecution Office. Al-Moosa was acquitted of all charges on 22 October 2012 and her acquittal upheld on 23 June 2013. No one has thus been held accountable for the torture of Nazeeha Saeed.”

VI. Constitutions.

Not far from where the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself and became the spark of the Arab Spring in Sidi Bouzid, is a polling booth. It is the kind of booth that welcomed Tunisians to vote into place a process that wrote them a constitution. It is the first constitution written by an Arab citizenry – where the citizens sent their representatives to an assembly, where they fought over values and produced reasonable compromises.

An hour west, in Kasserine, Mohammed Ali Nasri jumps from his home as gunmen – eager to kill him – chase him down. He survives. The gunmen, he says, are likely al-Qaeda fighters who drove down from Mount Salloum, along the Algerian border. Mohammed Ali Nasri is from the secular Nida Tounes party, whose leader Beji Caid Essebsi has been under armed guard since the assassination of Mohammed Brahmi (Nida member of the assembly), who was killed on July 25 of last year. Leftist leader Hamma Hammami is also under protection after his comrade, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated on February 6, 2013. Gunfire seeks to silence the voice of reason.

VIII. Mission Accomplished.

Neither the West nor the Gulf Arabs, and nor indeed Israel, wanted the Arab Spring to succeed. It was too dangerous. The interim government in Egypt allowed an Iranian gunship to go through the Suez Canal for the first time since the Iranian revolution of 1979. That brought palpitations in Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Washington – the axis of “order” in the region.

Their coalition went to work in Libya, whose smoke covered over the Saudi entrance into Bahrain. In the name of democracy in Libya, democratic movements in Bahrain were sent to prison. Money and personnel hastily went off to Syria to suffocate the civil resistance and turn it into a terrible civil war. Cynical moves to beat back the dynamic of Tahrir had become essential. Saudi money and intelligence played a key role, with the Obama administration in the background. Too much of the Arab Spring seemed to sit in the lap of the Muslim Brotherhood, proxy of Qatar and Turkey. When the people had been scared off in Egypt, Saudi Arabia hastily disciplined its small neighbour. The emir had to retire, and his son had to pledge more modesty. Turkey was caught in a web of its own making. Neo-Ottomanism with a Muslim Brother face had not been as appealing as it seemed to Ahmet Davuto?lu, the current Prime Minister of Turkey. The Muslim Brothers went off to prison. It was not to be their Spring.

IX. Bread and Freedom.

Liberals, congenitally without a mass base, went back to their think tanks and consultancies, to posts as advisors to the militaries and the emirs.

Leftists, beleaguered, sniff the earth for signs of new beginnings.

X. Arab Futurism.

2005 is a good year to imagine the Arab near-future. The Damascus Spring erupted as Baghdad fell into the throes of one more season of explosions. Imagine if you will a man named Hadi al-Attag, who lives in al-Bataween (Baghdad), and who spends his days collecting the body parts of those killed in these explosions. He stitches a body together, Citizen X or the-one-who-does-not-have-a-name, the new crime fighter who seeks revenge against those who killed the parts of his body. Ahmed Saadawi, who wrote this story – the novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, sees his Citizen X as the composite of Iraq’s diversity, the savior of a country in distress, and the “epitome of mass destruction.” It is all these things. This Frankenstein, said Saadawi, “is the fictional representation of the process of everyone killing everyone. This character is the visual representation of the larger crisis, rather than the solution.”

Arab futures are not myths of salvation. They are rather dystopias of survival as violence engulfs Arab societies. Hope has been smothered. It has come to mean its opposite. A young Syrian activist tells me that he wants “politics to end.” Another in Egypt says, “When will it become quiet again.” The yearning for order has its dangers. It suggests that futures are not possible, and that the unequal and brutal stability of the past has merit.

Syrian novelist Rosa Yassin Hassan’s Guardians of the Air (2009) describes how a man comes to the Canadian embassy to seek refugee status. When he sits he spots an electric heater. He snaps and rushes out. It turns out he had been tortured by such a heater in Syrian dungeons. The narrator says, “The room became narrower than a tomb, pressing down on my chest. The worlds had turned into a torture chamber…I was surrounded by degradation and death when all I yearned for was beauty.”


Vijay Prashad’s latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (New Delhi: LeftWord Books and London: Verso, 2013).

Painting: Zahid Mayo, Khalaq-e-Khuda, oil on canvas.

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