There's the Qatar Arab Spring, and there's the Imaginary Arab Spring

Qatar’s vision for the future of Arabs is winning so far. A realistic alternative is yet to emerge.

– Another project in Qatar –

As Qatar prepares to host the next Arab Summit, I was thinking of how far this tiny kingdom has come in spreading its DNA on the series of historic movements that some still refer to as the “Arab Spring”. It then occurred to me that up to now, Qatar is the only game in town, and the alternatives are yet to prove themselves.

Qatar’s version of Spring

The vision of Qatar’s strategists for a successful Arab Spring country is one that is stable, prosperous and has good (and slightly subservient) strategic relations with Qatar. Qatar made a bet to back the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria and all over the Arab world not because the Qatari regime has an ideological affinity with the brotherhood, but because their strategic calculations rest on the premise that the brotherhood is truly popular among the populations of those countries and can provide a stable and sustainable basis for government.

After making that bet, Qatar –as it does– went all in. From the Aljazeera bully pulpit, to the arming and strong-arming of the players on the ground, Qatar used every tool at its disposal. The latest chapter in Qatar’s hardball game was the imposition of the close Ghassan Hitto as a leader for the Syrian opposition to the disgruntlement of leaders Like Muaz el Khatib and Michel Kilo.

There are many things wrong (and immoral) with Qatar’s vision. Signs of backlash from Tunisia to Syria are beginning to show, but an alternative vision has not proven itself yet.

Jeffersonian Delusions

Many observers –who are overly represented on social media– see this Brotherhood phenomenon as a temporary phase on the road to a “real” democracy, where the law rules supreme, institutions abound, freedom thrives and minorities are as influential as the rest of the population. Mahmood Salem, an Egypt watcher wrote:

Egypt’s Islamists have waited 80 years to get into power, and now that they have, the countdown to their now-inevitable fall has begun. One day we will all live in a secular Egypt, and it will all be thanks to the Muslim Brotherhood.

This could very well happen, but that vision hasn’t proven itself yet. None of the countries in question have shown signs yet that a true liberal democracy is about to take hold. We may never see the day where Free Arabs are ruling the show.

Some of you reading this don’t like the horse that Qatar has backed. It is crippled, one-eyed and smells kinda funny. But so far it’s the only one standing in this race.

On "Free Arabs"

An ambitious website speaks for a real and legitimate group of Arabs. But it’s less consequential than it likes to believe.

It didn’t take long after Free Arabs launched for the critics to pounce: It wasn’t “authentic” enough. It is too “westernised”. It’s a plot by “zionist normalisers” and atheists. The whole nine yards of a classic Arab tradition in intellectual bullying, where leftists bash their opponents as “zionists” and islamists bash their opponents as “atheists”, denying them recognition and legitimacy.

The reality is that there are many Arabs out there who really believe in what the west calls “universal values”: Freedom of thought, freedom from oppression, freedom of religious belief, minority rights..etc. They are looking with horror at how the promise of the Arab Spring is turning into a winter of non-inclusive Islamists and close-minded demagogues. The “Free Arabs” website is the result of these people pooling their efforts together in response. Some of the people working really hard on that website are acquaintances and friends of mine.

The two faces of the West

At the heart of the criticism of projects like Free Arabs is a potent and classic deceptive trick that deliberately confounds two aspects of the “West”. The first is that of the West as a collection of old colonial powers and polities that seek to advance their economic interests today. The second is the West as a birthplace of ideas like individual rights, freedom of expression and civil rights through historical movements like the age of enlightenment, the french revolution and the American civil rights movement.

When activists in Egypt call for “freedom” and people in Lebanon demand civil marriage, their opponents immediately accuse them of bringing “western ideas” to their societies, “the same west that invaded Iraq, divided the Arab world and supported Israel”. One of the Free Arabs’ greatest challenges in the medium and long run is to decouple these two aspects of the west in people’s minds (and from their own minds)

“Westernised Elites”

Free Arabs are comfortable with the idea that they’re “westernised”. In their minds that doesn’t make them any less “Arab” because they associate the west with the collection of emancipative ideals mentioned above. They blast “hypocrites” who accuse them of being westernised while driving western cars, wearing western cloths and listening to western music. They are comfortable with writing in french and english, and they don’t mind employing western forms of communication like straight-faced satire and intimate vlogging.

What they don’t like being called however is “Elites”. That’s because they believe in their hearts that the poor and helpless benefit from their ideas more than the rich. An empowered and free individual can hold her leaders accountable for their actions, unlike those who follow religious leaders and dictators. This, in my opinion is where the shortcomings of Free Arabs begin to appear.

Talk shop

Free Arabs, with their irreverent critiques of religious figures and cavalier dismissal of social norms are still out of the mainstream in many Arab and Muslim countries. The website is more likely to end up as a place for discussion (and fun) of like-minded people than one that influences the nature of the region. Discussions and open debate are good things, but we may have to live with the reality that conservative populations will never listen to people like us.

Mona Eltahawi Brings The Anger Into Arab Feminism

I always believed that Arab women should be angrier than they actually are. Their stoicism in face of what is clearly a raw deal has always amazed me. So I was very pleased when I read this.

The author Mona El-Tahawi is something of a fringe, but her latest article in Foreign Policy is so explosive and so emotionally intense that after reading it you’ll feel like being hit by a truck.

I wouldn’t have chosen her words or her tone. I accept that her traumatic experiences are not typical of Arab women (and especially Lebanese ones), but I admire her no-holds-barrel tell-it-like-it-is style that is the rhetorical equivalent of burning her bras and throwing them at her tormentors.


A Laundry-List of What March 14 Did Wrong

A good piece by Hussain abdul Hussain (a self-described Shiaa-born March-14 supporter) on why March 14, 2005 did not turn out to be the beginning of spring in Lebanon. It’s too late to change my blog’s name but he makes some very good points on the failings of the political parties that comprised the March 14 gathering, the failing of the March 14 general secretariat and the overal disinterest by the movement to form a truly civil and democratic country.

Bonus: Nobel Laureate Shirine Abadi makes similar arguments for why we should stop calling the Arab uprisings the “Arab Spring”.. (Hat Tip: Mich)

How One Syrian Slipped Videos Past The Airport's Custom Officers

The Toronto Star:

A few hours before leaving his home in Syria to begin a new life in Canada, Mostafa picked up a kitchen knife and began cutting into his left arm near the elbow. [...] Without telling anyone his plan, Mostafa transferred the videos from his iPhone to a Nokia micro memory card that was smaller than his finger nail. He slipped the memory card under the skin of his arm, covered it with a large bandage, and drove with his parents to the airport in Damascus.

Watch the videos here..

The Anatomy of Syrian Revolution YouTube Videos

Qifa Nabki noticed what resembles a common format in those revolution Youtube Videos:

They’re typically shot on a camera phone by a young Syrian male who begins by announcing the date and place of the video. We see scenes of bullet-scarred buildings, maybe a dead body. Sometimes, the videos are filmed during a battle scene: little puffs of concrete dust drift gently to the ground from a building or mosque that is allegedly under attack by machine-gun wielding troops or rebels. The violence is usually telegraphed: its perpetrators are invisible snipers or artillery commanders, improvised explosive devices and insurgents. We see the effects, hardly ever the crimes themselves.

As Elias noticed, the door is wide open for cynicism. To me what I find most baffling is the complete lack of good quality videos (with some notable exceptions). I understand why many videos are produced using mobile phones, but you can also get really good quality videos using some point-and-shoot cameras that are on sale everywhere, cheap and as easy to hide as phones. Even bandwidth is not an excuse because many Syrians are crossing to neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. Is it possible that not a single good quality amateur video has slipped out?

Sometimes I feel that TV stations are intentionally lowering the quality of the videos to make them more “authentic” and “dramatic”.

❊ The Future Movement Needs More Than Distancing Itself from The Salafis. It Needs To Stand Up To Them

– A Threat? –

The Lebanese Salafis are feeling confident. They are emboldened by the rise of Islamists in the Arab world and by the void in Lebanese Sunni politics that Mr. Saad Hariri has left behind.

They are making a play for power. They are coming up with charismatic leaders, organizing demonstrations and are getting louder than ever. Today’s demonstration is their first in Beirut, and they are getting a sympathetic ear in March 14 media because they are expressing the people’s anger against the monstrous Syrian regime.

The good news is that they’re not about to dominate Lebanese Sunni politics any time soon. They don’t own media conglomerates and they are far from Lebanese mainstream public opinion. But they can cause great harm to the Future Movement (FM), a movement which until recently was the de-facto umbrella movement for most Sunni parties in Lebanon.

The FM likes to sell itself as the voice of Sunni moderation, an image that is diametrically opposed to that of the Salafis. And yet whenever the Salafis show up in public events, The March 8 propaganda machine manages to portray them as an extension of Hariri’s embattled political empire.

This is bad because it’s scaring Christians and other minorities who are sitting on the fence and watching how Islamists in the Arab world (and Nigeria) are massacring Christians and driving them away. And yet the FM, beholden to the Saudis who also support the Salafis, can’t pull off anything more than issuing weak statements to distance themselves from the hardliners.

In the past, the FM got away with cozying up to the Islamists, but in today’s world this is complete folly. Future TV and Almustaqbal newspaper should keep featuring moderate Muslims lambasting the medieval thinking of the Salafists, their antiquated treatment of women, their penchant for violence and their deeply intolerant beliefs. The salafis should be constantly attacked, ridiculed, made fun of until any association with them becomes an embarrassment to any average Lebanese Muslim.

Also: Lebanon’s Suspended Sunnis.

"Syrians should beware of 'friends' as much as enemies"

Brian Whitaker on the participants of the “Friends of Syria” conference:

There is something surreal about a group of “friends” promoting change in Syria that includes so many autocrats and, as one of its leading lights, the country most notorious for resisting progress: Saudi Arabia. [...] The reality, of course, is that for all countries attending, national interests (or what they perceive as their national interests) come first and the Syrian people second. In some cases a distant second, even among the “brotherly” Arabs.

Great point, but Whitaker did not mention the honorable exception: The Democratic government of Tunisia, the organizer of the conference and arguably the only country that wishes for Syria what it had itself: A transfer to a real people-powered democracy.