By Ian Black
Ramadan is again being overshadowed by violence across the Arab world. From Iraq to Libya, through Syria and Yemen, armed conflict, proxy wars, sectarian tensions, misery and suffering are rife. In a previous book on the region, Gilbert Achcar warned of the risk of a plunge into barbarism; his latest work is an update on the bleak winter that followed the Arab spring - with some ideas about the future.
Expectations of rapid change on the East European model were always exaggerated, argues the Lebanese-born academic. Arab regimes were never likely to collapse – and Libya was the only one that actually did – because their leaders, cronies, co-opted clients and ubiquitous Mukhabarat thugs had nowhere to transition to.
Eschewing Islamophobia and arguments about “Arab exceptionalism”, Achcar underlines the key fact that the only viable opposition movements in the region were Islamist – “a reactionary alternative to the reactionary order.” And he also brackets Iran, patron of militant Shia movements in Iraq and Lebanon, along with the more usual Sunni suspects - Saudi Arabia and Qatar - as a promoter of sectarianism.
In Syria, Achchar concludes, the rebels misread the lesson of Libya, believing wrongly that Bashar al-Assad would stand down rather than risk the fate of Muammar Gaddafi. But others made fatal errors too: Barack Obama’s failure to back the anti-Assad forces was born, he says, “of deep human indifference to the fate of the population of an oil-poor Arab country” - a sin of omission in his view as bad as George Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq a decade earlier.
US and western failure adequately to back the Syrian opposition created a vacuum that allowed al-Qaida to thrive and Isis to emerge. And Assad promoted extremism too, releasing jailed jihadis (who he had previously sent to fight the Americans in Iraq) and even providing them with weapons. His strategy was to frighten the West and the country’s minorities and present himself as the only alternative – anything but “risk the contagious potential of democracy,” in Achcar’s words. And Assad’s “preferred enemy” were the “preferred friends” of Turkey and the Gulf monarchies.
This independent Arab scholar of the left, who teaches at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, is no fan of American hegemony in the Middle East. But he is openly contemptuous of “knee-jerk condemnation” of the US by an anti-imperialist left, in Britain and beyond, which never objects to the far more substantial Russian and Iranian backing for Assad.
In Egypt in 2011, the small leftist opposition faced what Achcar defines unhesitatingly as two rival counter-revolutionary forces - the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Even after the fall of Hosni Mubarak the military remained “the ultimate kingmaker” and eventually overthrew the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi, the inept face of political Islam that succumbed to the temptation of power. Millions of Egyptians backed the coup by Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, who now rules the largest Arab state with a mandate to confront “terrorism” - every authoritarian’s easiest excuse.
“The inability of progressives to chart an independent course against both wings of the counter-revolution and not to help (either) get (back) in the saddle while trying to unsaddle the other, proved catastrophic,” he writes. The result has been massacres, mass trials and death sentences, with Pharaonic mega-projects taking centre stage in a frenzy of neoliberal economic policies.
Achcar, in prescriptive mode, does not rule out tactical alliances with “unlikely bedfellows” but insists that although progressives and reactionaries can “strike together” they must “march separately.” The key is “resolute independence.”
His title is borrowed from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who observed the prevalence of “morbid symptoms” in the interregnum between the dying of an old order and the birth of a new one. That’s a useful prism for viewing a grim period - though it’s worth remembering that an interregnum can last for quite a while. Gramsci also wrote famously of the “pessimism of the intellect” and the “optimism of the will” – a distinction that can boost flagging spirits and generate hope for better times.
( Cartoon by Ali Farzat)
( Cartoon by Ali Farzat)