If the peoples of the Arab World were fighting a battle of independence “for” their nacent states during the early half of the 20th century, they have certainly spent the latter half of that same century fighting a battle of independence “from” their increasingly autocratic states. Their struggles have continued into the 21st century and have culminated–exploded–in the form of the popular uprisings and civil wars.
On November 22nd, president Muhammad Morsi’s issued a decree granting himself absolute powers over the judiciary–a move which he described as “temporary” when faced with an avalanche of public resistance. There is no question that Mubarak-era judges stand against Morsi, and that they want to obstruct the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially seeing as to how they dissolving Egypt’s first ever democratically elected–albeit pungently Islamist–parliament earlier in June. After winning an election by the skin of his teeth Morsi needs to affect change in Egypt–and fast. But the past two weeks of demonstration and rioting have judged Morsi’s preemptive strike against the judiciary as an over-reaction, a dictatorial encroachment without any guaranteed date of expiration. The world has witnessed–in the words of Amr Hamzawy–‘the perils of Temporary dictatorship,’ which is never temporary (One need not look further than Hitler and his reformation of the Weimar Republic). Egyptians are not–and must not–make the mistake of surrendering their power to a dictator under the pretense (or good intention) that he will simply give it up.
This noble stance would be much easier to justify if it did not come at the cost of splitting Egypt in two. I say this because Morsi’s overreaction has managed to polarize the Egyptian people into camps of supporters and opposers–a most dangerous precedent. Although this polarization is not absolute (i.e. there are some members of the MB who oppose Morsi’s decree, etc), it risks falling along the nationalist and islamist lines that haunted Nasserist and post-Nasserist Egypt. After January 25, 2011 the Egyptian bodypolitik largely supported or tolerated the inevitability of MB (and Salafists) rule, all in the name of creating a new nation. Since Morsi’s election in June 2012 Egyptians have expressed their frustration at how little he and the MB have achieved thus far (whether it is justified to judge them for 5 months in office is another issue). The opposition–composed largely of liberal, nationalist, Christian and other minority parties–may be galvanized to balance the Islamist heavy government at the political level. On the popular level, one hopes that this polarization does not lead to–as happened in Damanhur–further riots between MB supporters and opposers, or worse yet Islamist and secular interests. I am not inadvertently playing into the hands of the Western imperialists narrative that favors such simplistic dichotomies. However, the haply edited constitution now drafted by the Constitutional Assembly (a committee plagued with drama no less than that of the president, parliament or judiciary), and concerning which the Egyptians must soon rush to vote on in a referendum (again!), may probably only fuel this polarization. Without pontificating on the loopholes of the constitutional draft, the fact that the powers that be (first the SCAF and now the president) keep hurrying the Egyptian people into voting on (i.e. accepting!) a near-status-quo constitution is curious if not tactical obstacle. Until Egypt’s leaders stop clinging to the old ways of authoritarian rule and constitutional vagaries, and until Egyptians can find employment, marry and go through their live with dignity, the ‘craze of street demonstrations’–as Murad Wahbah put it–will not let up.
Nor is the animosity between the Egyptian president and the judiciary anything new. By the early 2000’s Hosni Mubarak was imprisoning judges, and replacing them with his own puppet sympathizers, as a means to rig elections and remain in office indefinitely. For obvious reasons Morsi and the remainder of Mubarak-era judges are opposed to one another. In the process the country’s judiciary–hailed as one of the soundest government institutions in the Arab world historically –has been lost. Retrieving it will be no easy task. Should the public gather around either Morsi or opposing judges (especially on the issue of the constitution), the continued animosity between presidency and judiciary could etch away at national unity. I believe–I hope–that this is unlikely. Demonstrations have remained (largely) unarmed. There is too much at stake for ever Egyptian–Sunni, Shii, Bahai, Copt, liberal, conservative. Plus, the rest of the Arab World is watching.
The same cannot be said for Syria where foreign interests have turned the country into a bloodbath since July of 2012 (and before). The polarization of the Syrian people into supporters of the Assad regime and a (constantly failing) opposition has been fought out through civil war. The human rights abuses of the regime’ and the FSA are apparent to those who care to think rather than settle a score. What is more reticent is the fact that the regime and opposition have no desire for compromise or ceasefire. The end of November witnessed a battle over the Damascus airport, in which the FSA held and then lost it. The regime cut off internet throughout the country in order to win back the airport. And millions of Syrians huddled at home after months of warfare, unemployment and increasingly starvation, were cut off from the world.
Will Syrian expatriates soon come to terms with the military deadlock between forces massed in Aleppo and Damascus, the fact that their brothers and sisters are suffering under an indefinite siege, and that a ceasefire is the way forward? Or will the civil war in Syria play itself out for many more months to come? Either way Syria will have to reckon with the potential of sectarian retribution after the dust settles–an all too familiar nightmare in the Levant.
If one looks to Syria today in terms of a battle of independence “from” the autocracy of the Assad regime, then the current civil war appears incoherent. Whatever peaceful demonstrations against the regime (which the people around the world cheered) have all but been snuffed out. The Syrian civil war is no longer about Syria; it’s about the US, France, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Russia and some Arab states vying for increased hegemony over the Middle East. The longer Syria is at war, the deeper foreign interests will become entrenched, and the more harm this may due to the integrity of the state–a reality known all too well by the new nation called Palestine.
On November 29th the UN general assemble voted Palestine into existence as a sovereign, observer state, which makes this struggle unique before both Syria and Egypt since–after almost one century after the Balfour declaration–the Palestinian people are still fighting “for” independence. Mahmud Abbas’ popularity has soared among his people in the West Bank. Still the PLO’s power to affect change is severely limited amid the persistence of the colonial–and increasingly apartheid–impulses of Israeli policy. “Apartheid” has been a recent buzzword in this conflict which has taken on particularly significance with the scandal of segregating Arabs and Israelis on bus routes in the West Bank. Strange to think of a state in the 21st century adopting apartheid policies.
If relations between Israel and the PLO are at a new low, its relations with Hamas after the recent “8-day war” against Gaza (also in November!) remain bellicose. Whatever possibility of a Two-State Solution–which quite frankly has been obsolete for some time–will disappear if and when Israel builds further settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel and the occupied territories already constitute a virtual single state. The sooner we all start talking about a One-State Solution, the sooner a resolution to one of the oldest running conflicts can be found.