Read Arabs Online

Authors: Eugene Rogan

Tags: #History, #Middle East, #General, #World

Arabs

BOOK: Arabs
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Table of Contents
 
 
 
This book is dedicated to
Richard Huia Woods Rogan
Introduction
O
n February 14—Valentine’s Day—2005, a massive car bomb killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in central Beirut. Returning home from a session of Parliament, Hariri had followed a predictable route and was surrounded by a bustling motorcade that made him stand out in the city’s notorious traffic. The one-ton bomb left an enormous crater where the waterfront road had been and sheared the façades off neighboring buildings. Twenty-one people died with Hariri—politicians, bodyguards, and drivers, along with innocent bystanders. Even by Beiruti standards, this was a spectacular assassination.
Hariri was the richest, most powerful man in Lebanon. He built his fortune as a contractor in Saudi Arabia and returned home at the end of his country’s fifteen-year civil war (1975–1990) to become the architect of Lebanon’s postwar reconstruction. He entered politics and was named prime minister in 1992. He served ten of his remaining thirteen years at the head of Lebanon’s government.
Hariri’s landmark project as prime minister was the reconstruction scheme for downtown Beirut. The revitalized central business district, he argued, would drive the economic regeneration of this once-thriving commercial center. The plan was controversial, and Hariri’s blithe indifference to conflicts of interest between his role as contractor in chief and head of government gave rise to well-founded accusations of corruption. Yet many Lebanese saw Hariri as their country’s only hope. He bankrolled much of the Lebanese government’s expenses from his personal wealth. He gave foreign investors—particularly wealthy Lebanese expatriates and Saudi royals—confidence to place their money in the shaky Lebanese economy. And from the rubble of civil war Beirut, an elegant city with modern infrastructure was beginning to emerge.
In October 2004, Hariri tendered his resignation as prime minister to protest Syria’s interference in Lebanon’s politics. It was a dangerous move for a man who had made his political career in partnership with Damascus. The Syrians had first entered Lebanon
in 1976 as part of an Arab League force to intervene in the Lebanese Civil War—and had exercised a stranglehold on Lebanese politics ever since. Though the Syrian government claimed to be upholding political stability in its fragile neighboring state, many Lebanese chafed under what they saw as a Syrian occupation. The turning point for Hariri was when the Syrian government forced the Lebanese Parliament to grant an unconstitutional three-year extension to President Emile Lahoud’s term. The Lebanese constitution allows for a single presidential term of six years. Everyone knew that Lahoud was Syria’s man. Syrian president Bashar al-Asad allegedly threatened Hariri, saying: “Lahoud is me. If you want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.”
1
Hariri knew the risks but decided to stand up to the Syrian pressures on this issue. He paid for that decision with his life.
When Hariri was killed, his supporters took to the streets and pinned the blame squarely on the Syrians. The demonstrations grew larger and more assertive in the weeks following the assassination, culminating in a mass rally held in central Beirut one month after Hariri’s assassination, on March 14. One million Lebanese—one quarter of the country’s total population—converged on central Beirut to demand their independence from Syria.
The protests and demonstrations developed into a popular movement that came to be known in Lebanon as the Independence Intifada and was dubbed the Cedar Revolution by the international media. It also gave rise to a political coalition united against Syria’s presence in Lebanon that came to be known as the March 14 Alliance. Domestic and international opposition grew so intense in the aftermath of Hariri’s assassination that Syria was forced to withdraw its 14,000 soldiers and all intelligence officers from Lebanese soil. The last Syrian troops left Lebanon on April 26, 2005. The Lebanese believed themselves on the threshold of a new age of independence and national cohesion.
Even after its last troops had withdrawn, Syria continued to cast a long shadow over Lebanon. A number of Syria’s most outspoken critics from the March 14 movement were silenced by violent assassinations that were clearly intended to intimidate surviving members. Over the next two years, eight anti-Syrian figures, including four members of the Lebanese Parliament, were murdered in car bombings and gun attacks. For many, the callous assassinations of respected cultural and political figures brought to light the powerlessness of the Lebanese to protect themselves from outside forces. They raged against their impotence and demanded justice.
 
One of the first to be killed was the journalist and author Samir Kassir, who died in his booby-trapped Alfa Romeo as he drove to work on the morning of June 2, 2005. Writing in the Lebanese daily
An-Nahar
, Kassir was one of the leading voices of the anti-Syrian March 14 movement. Kassir saw Lebanon’s problems as a microcosm of the ills of the Arab world as a whole. Shortly before his death, Kassir had published a remarkable
essay exploring what he termed the “Arab malaise” of the twenty-first century. It reflected the disenchantment of Arab citizens with their corrupt and authoritarian governments. “It’s not pleasant being Arab these days,” he observed. “Feelings of persecution for some, self-hatred for others; a deep disquiet pervades the Arab world.”
“Yet the Arab world hasn’t always suffered such a ‘malaise,’” he continued. He contrasted the twenty-first-century malaise with two historic periods in which the Arabs had attained, or aspired to attain, greatness.
The first five centuries after the emergence of Islam, spanning the seventh to the twelfth centuries of the current era, was the age of the great Islamic empires that dominated world affairs. Arabs had an international presence stretching from Iraq and Arabia to Spain and Sicily. The era of early Islam is a source of pride to all Arabs as a bygone age when the Arabs were the dominant power in the world, but resonates in particular with Islamists, who argue that the Arabs were greatest when they adhered most closely to their Muslim faith.
Kassir argued that the second era of Arab greatness, or at least of great expectations, began in the nineteenth century. “The cultural renaissance of the nineteenth century,” he wrote, “the famous
nahda
, illuminated many Arab societies.” The nahda shaped a distinctly secular modern culture in the Arab world in the twentieth century. “Egypt founded the world’s third-oldest film industry, while from Cairo to Baghdad and from Beirut to Casablanca painters, poets, musicians, playwrights and novelists shaped a new, living Arab culture.” Society began to change, education began to spread, and women emerged from behind the veil.
The culture of the nahda also shaped Arab politics in the twentieth century, and as Arabs emerged from colonialism to independence they came to play a prominent role in world affairs. Kassir listed a number of noteworthy examples: “Nasser’s Egypt, for instance, one of the pillars of Afro-Asianism and the subsequent Non-Alignment movement; independent Algeria, the driving force of the entire African continent; or the Palestinian resistance which was called on to further the cause of democratic rights without succumbing to the ideology of victimhood now so prevalent.”
Kassir, himself a secular nationalist, held the modernizing reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to be more relevant to the present day than the golden age of the first five centuries of Islam, and he described the nahda as an era “when Arabs could look to the future with optimism.” This is clearly no longer the case. The Arab world views the future with growing pessimism, and the secular vision no longer inspires the majority of the population. In any free and fair election in the Arab world today, I believe the Islamists would win hands down.
Kassir then asked the hard questions: “How did we become so stagnant? How has a living culture become discredited and its members united in a cult of misery and death?”
2
He posed questions that have troubled Arab intellectuals and Western policymakers alike in the post-9/11 age. Many in the West see the greatest threat to
their security and way of life coming from the Arab and Islamic worlds, in what is now known as jihadi terror. They don’t understand that many in the Arab and Islamic worlds see the greatest threat to
their
security and way of life coming from the West. What should be apparent to both sides is that there is a real connection between Arab stagnation and frustration, on the one hand, and the terror threat that so preoccupies Western democracies, on the other.
Western policymakers and intellectuals need to pay far more attention to history if they hope to remedy the ills that afflict the Arab world today. All too often in the West, we discount the current value of history. As political commentator George Will has written, “When Americans say of something, ‘That’s history,’ they mean it is irrelevant.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Westerners need to pay far more attention to the way that history has been experienced and understood by the Arabs themselves. This could spare them not from repeating history so much as from repeating historic mistakes.
To take but one example, over the centuries Western leaders have tried to present their invasions of the Arab world as liberations. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he issued a proclamation to the Egyptian people to assure them of his good intentions before invading their land. “People of Egypt,” he asserted, “you will be told that I have come to destroy your religion; do not believe it! Reply that I have come to restore your rights, to punish the usurpers, and that I respect God, his Prophet, and the Qur’an.” So Napoleon would have the people of Egypt believe he was invading their country to liberate them and to promote Islam, rather than to advance French geostrategic interests over their British rivals.
The people of Egypt were not so naïve. Cairo’s leading intellectual at the time was a man named al-Jabarti, who left a remarkable account of the French invasion. Al-Jabarti was derisive of Napoleon’s proclamation: “Saying ‘I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors’ is the first lie he uttered and a falsehood which he invented.” Al-Jabarti dismissed Napoleon’s profession of respect for Islam, its Prophet, and scripture as “a derangement of his mind, and an excess of foolishness.”
3
The hollow echo of Napoleon’s reassurances can be heard in the proclamation of Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude when he entered Baghdad in March 1917 at the head of a British invasion force at the height of the First World War. Maude claimed his army had entered Mesopotamia to drive the Ottoman enemy from Arab lands. “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. Since the days of Hulagu [the Mongol leader who sacked Baghdad in 1258] your citizens have been subject to the tyranny of strangers . . . and your fathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage.” Maude went on to promise British assistance to the people of Iraq to achieve self-rule and prosperity so that “the people of Baghdad shall flourish.”
4
There was no more substance to the British liberation of Baghdad in 1917 than there had been to the Napoleonic liberation of Egypt in 1798. Britain had already agreed to the partition of the Arab world with its wartime ally France in 1916. Maude was conquering lands Britain had every intention of adding to its empire. By 1920, frustration with Britain’s failure to deliver the promised self-rule gave rise to a nationwide insurgency. A lawyer in the town of Najaf published a short-lived newspaper called
al-Istiqlal
(“independence”). In October 1920, he reflected on Maude’s false promises: “We kept waiting for what we had been promised, only to see the [British] army officers strip us of our rights and eliminate our independence. So we resolved to demand our legitimate natural rights, and to remind the government to fulfill its promises in a legal and correct manner. The [British] officers responded with great repression, to undermine our efforts to secure our legitimate rights.”
5
The Iraqi Revolt of 1920 was suppressed by the British with great violence. Iraq then was placed under direct British imperial rule for the next twelve years, and under informal British control until the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958.
BOOK: Arabs
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