The system’s challengers

The system’s challengers

Representations of the Middle East as changeless, frozen-in-time and regressive have crowded mainstream Western media for years owing to the region”s high frequency of despotism and religious fundamentalism. But the despondent narrative of a region doomed to medievalism obscures new developments and forces pushing for democracy and decency.


In her new book, Robin Wright, a senior journalist for the Washington Post, pries open a window to the Middle East”s lesser-known strain of citizen activism against both dictatorship and Islamist terrorism. Having lived and traveled in the region for three decades, she focuses on the courage and sacrifice of

individuals and groups aspiring for freedom.


The book”s prologue draws attention to “pyjamahedeen” – emerging young players campaigning for human rights and democracy using laptops and cell phones. These activists are inexperienced and under-resourced compared to entrenched tyrants and violent Islamists. With the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, the region has enough flashpoints for extremism. A demographically fuelled revolution in expectations can therefore be easily channeled into the throes of armed jihad rather than constructive change. Wright terms these contradictory prospects the “crises of change” through which “not all new actors will succeed”. (pg 18)

In the Palestinian territories, the death of the patriarch Yasser Arafat was a catalyst for change. The 2006 parliamentary election that followed was the first instance in Arab history when people peacefully and democratically turned incumbents out of power. Hamas” sweep ended half a century of monopoly over power by Fatah, but both parties then proceeded to violate the norms of democratic conduct by engaging in devastating factional fighting. Washington fanned the Palestinian deadlock by arming Fatah to the teeth, thereby extinguishing the “euphoria of the Arabs” most democratic election ever”. (pg 63) The Palestinian saga, says Wright, demonstrates the volatility of change in an institutionally weak Middle East.


Egypt”s 2005 presidential election was typically fixed in favor of the absolutist ruler, Hosni Mubarak, but it propelled civil society watchdogs to try to hold his government to account. Their exemplary actions inspired similar movements in Jordan and Lebanon. Yet, the most energetic political opposition in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood rather than secular democratic networks like Kefaya. The Brotherhood presently advocates peaceful transformation but insists on the primacy of Islamic Sharia in lawmaking. Its ultimate aims of recreating the caliphate and “mastering the world with Islam” hardly inspire the country”s 10% Christian population. With the US on his side as ally and the opposition scattered, Mubarak looks set to prolong his police state by spawning a dynasty.


Lebanon is relatively democratic but plagued by sectarian divisions. Institutionalized confessionalism hobbles national unity in this most diverse country. The assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri in 2005 spurred a new generation of activists with a national vision. They assembled the largest mass protests ever in a modern Arab country and succeeded in ending Syria”s 29-year occupation of the country. But sectarian quota systems in government remain along with warlords and clans, which still tower over fledgling civil society groups.


The Shi”ite guerrilla outfit, Hezbollah, is the most powerful political actor in Lebanon. Backed by Iran and an impressive social service and Israel-resistance record, Hezbollah is a state within the state. Wright describes meeting its supremo, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who said “the real democratic process in our countries will often produce governments that will be Islamist”. (pg 196) The author adds that Hezbollah”s war against Israel in 2006 hastened “a shift from Arabism to Islamism among both major Muslim sects” in the region. (pg 210)


Since 1963, Syria has been in an open-ended state of emergency under the thumb of the Ba”ath Party. Neo-Marxists have taken the biggest risks and served the longest prison stints for relentlessly opposing the Assad dynasty”s oppression. Wright focuses especially on the tribulations of the long-imprisoned leftist dissident, Riad al Turk. Syrian progressives have willingly walked to the gallows with the pride that they at least “participated in saving the dignity of our people”. (pg 239) Wright also profiles a Syrian lawyer who sold his personal affects to defend dissidents even though his clients had no chance of acquittal.


As in Egypt, the more consistent challenge to the Assad autocracy comes from the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood. It is now open to collaborating with other opposition forces, including the leftists. With “a strong Islamic wind blowing through the region” (pg 248), says Wright, secular dissidents too are keen on bringing the Brotherhood back into the political field. But regime change looks like a long haul in this heavily militarized country.


Moving to Iran”s revolution-gone-sour, Wright features the views of philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush and his student, Akbar Ganji. After falling out with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Soroush began propounding that “freedom always precedes religion” and that the reversed sequence “inevitably leads to totalitarianism”. (pg 275) Ganji quit the Ministry of Culture upon realizing that “the revolution (had) started swallowing its own children”. (pg 277) He chronicled the corruption and impunity of Iran”s clergy and intelligence agencies and braved jail sentences to describe the Islamic republic as an “iron cage” that can only be broken through mass civil disobedience.


Wright writes affectionately about the “irrepressible irreverence” and “desperate defiance” of Iranian youth. She also follows the fates of rebel clerics like Ali Montazeri, Mohsen Kadivar and Hosein Boroujerdi who exposed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei”s empire of abuses and paid heavy personal prices for it. Moderate insiders like former president Mohammad Khatami and former prime minister Mir Hossein Moussavi also try to humanize and liberalize the system from within, but get stopped in their tracks by Khamenei”s hardliners. The most recent re-anointment of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad through a fraudulent presidential election spells greater travails ahead for democracy in Iran.


Wright”s chapter on Morocco, a country reeling under monarchy for the last 1200 years, highlights women as “an imaginative force for change in the Middle East.” (p.352) Iconoclastic Moroccan feminists like Fatima Mernissi and Latifa Jbabdi faced state bullying and harassment from the mosque but persisted in launching collective campaigns for gender equality. Their 20-year-long struggle yielded far-reaching democratic changes in family law in 2004. But the Moroccan royalty”s failure to share power or enact political reform has kept open avenues for extremist organisations like the Islamist Combatant Group.


Wright reserves the final chapter to the trauma of Iraq. Before the US invasion in 2003, she recalls the apprehensions of top Iraqi Kurdish leaders that “removing a dictatorship does not mean democracy will work”. (pg 383) Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, occupying American administrators and elected Iraqi politicians have not managed to calm ethnic divisions or reduce alienation from the central government. Elections rewarded Islamist parties and failed to prevent sectarian militias (often protected by the state) from going on the rampage. Wright critiques the US neo-conservative experiment in Iraq by asserting that, “whatever its shortcomings, change is always better home-grown”. (pg 409)


The US attack on Iraq stranded new democracy activists throughout the Middle East and handed the initiative to violent actors. But the indefatigable spirits among the human rights groups, Wright assures us, will “keep trying”. (pg 419) One need go no further than this book for a realistic appraisal of the promise and limitations of moderate agents of change in a politically pent-up region.


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