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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Arabism’ Category

Zionism’s Fear of Arab Movement

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making the middle east safe for zionism. AP photo

Tony Blair, with the blood of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine dripping from his fingers, says Egyptian dictator Husni Mubarak is “immensely courageous and a force for good.” The opinion is based on working “with him on the Middle East peace process.” Mubarak’s record on the pacification process involves helping the Palestinian Authority transform itself into a (stateless) police state apparatus, obstructing Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, and constructing, in concert with US army engineers, a metal wall underneath the Gaza border.

Under Nasser’s police state Egypt had no popular sovereignty, but it did have national independence. This was lost at Camp David in 1979, when Sadat signed peace with Israel, retrieved the occupied Sinai peninsula, and received the promise of billions of dollars of annual American aid. After Israel, Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid. American funding of the military is the reason why top officers remain loyal to the regime despite all the humiliations (for Egypt lost its Arab leadership role long ago) and committed to the peace treaty, although Israel has reneged on its Camp David undertaking to provide a just solution to the Palestinian problem.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 4, 2011 at 2:48 am

IRNA

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I was interviewed on the revolutionary events by Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency. Here’s the result in English, and in Farsi.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Arabism, Egypt

Sovereignty

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Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh/ Reuters

My past experience talking to Egyptians, in Egypt and around the world, is that 95% of them hate Husni Mubarak and the humiliation he’s brought upon their once great country. When I ask of their hopes for change, they answer with the bitter resignation common to all Arabs: “Nothing will change. His son will come after him. People are more interested in football, or their next meal.” Arabs from other countries also despair of escaping their state of stagnation. Some like to repeat the Arabic phrase al-‘arab jarab, or ‘the Arabs are scabies.’

But that was then. That was until the Tunisian revolution, which has now reached the centre of the Arab world. Egypt’s Friday of Rage was a beautiful revolutionary moment, when individuals, having witnessed the strength of their protesting compatriots over the previous days, suddenly realised they were not alone. After Friday prayers, a nation claimed sovereignty over its streets – young people, the unemployed, professionals, workers, students, families. The people who didn’t demonstrate provided food, drinks and tear gas remedies to those who did (which means that womens’ participation has been much greater than TV pictures show). On at least one occasion, Christians guarded a Muslim mass prayer under assault by police.

And in Suez, Luxor, Alexandria and Cairo they defeated the police. They torched police stations and police vehicles, as well as the headquarters of the ruling (and absurdly named) National Democratic Party. (The Israeli embassy, meanwhile, has helicoptered its entire staff out of Cairo. One slogan being chanted: ya mubarak ya ameel/ ba’at biladak l-isra’il, or ‘Mubarak you Foreign Agent, You Sold your Country to Israel.’ Tonight the only Israeli flag flying in the Arab world is in Amman.)

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 29, 2011 at 11:37 pm

A Different Kind of Dominoes

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AFP Photo

I ended my last post like this:

Perhaps in six months’ time non-Arab commentators will decide that the Tunisian revolution was a mere anomaly in an eternally stagnant Arab world. But they’ll be wrong. The revolution will exert a long-term pervasiveness throughout Arab culture, as the Iranian revolution did before it. It will change the air the Arabs breathe and the dreams the Arabs dream.

Well, it seems I was wrong on the timescale. I should have said six minutes. Today several commentators are indeed arguing that the Tunisian revolution is anomalous. Robert Fisk is pessimistic, contending that the Tunisian people are no match for the combined forces of the Tunisian elite and Western imperialism. Perhaps events will prove him right.  Steve Walt fears that those expecting immediate regime change from the Ocean to the Gulf will be rapidly disappointed.

His point is a good one. In the frontline states with Israel, foreign policy issues increase in importance because they have the potential to immediately translate into security issues. The Syrian regime, for instance, may be unpopular for its corruption, bureaucracy, and stifling of dissent, but its foreign policy is broadly in line with Syrian opinion – and in Syria this matters a great deal. The Western clients are more vulnerable to protest, not least because they’re more linked into the ‘globalised’ economy and are thus more vulnerable to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods. Yet even in Jordan legitimate fears of an Israeli intervention (perhaps an attempt to fulfill the Jordan-is-Palestine fantasy) could damp down effervescence. The public in many countries seems too split by sect, ethnicity or tribe to coordinate unified protest. And of course the regimes will now be battening down for fear of Tunisian contagion.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 18, 2011 at 12:45 am

Changing the Air

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Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali is in Abha, Saudi Arabia. France wouldn’t have him. (Despots, note the speed with which a sponsor drops a client who has outlived his usefulness.) Arab activists are calling for protests outside Saudi embassies.

In Tunisia, the extent of the people’s sacrifice over the last month is becoming clearer. Reports describe Ben Ali’s police terrorising rural areas with punitive rapes and random murders.

And the terror continues. Since Ben Ali’s fall, Tunis and other cities have been plagued by violence. Some of it, such as attacks on Ben Ali family businesses, can be classed as revolutionary. Some more of it is the natural result of taking the lid off after so long; a mix of exuberance, criminality, and what Gazmend Kapplani calls an ‘orphan complex’:

Tyrants are merciless beasts, precisely because they leave behind distorted societies worn down by oppression and above all suffering from an orphan complex. Those who give themselves over to indiscriminate looting and destruction the minute the statues come down are like orphaned children robbing the corpse of a false and terrifying father.

But the most terrifying violence appears to be organised by Ben Ali’s militiamen. Tunisians report battles between army forces on the one hand and ‘police’ and other highly-trained, well-armed gangs on the other. Some of these gangs have been driving through residential areas shooting randomly at people and buildings.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 17, 2011 at 2:24 am

Sabriya

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by Ali Farzat

It’s Damascus: bustling alleyways and courtyards crammed with silence. Sabriya is secretly in love with Adil. Her brother Sami is secretly in love with Nermin. Both loves are chaste and built on idealism, and both are doomed. Adil and Sami join the 1925-27 revolt against the French occupation. Sami is killed by the enemy. Nermine is badgered into marrying a wealthy old man, then ends up eloping with her hairdresser. Sabriya’s fiance Adil is killed, probably by Sabriya’s bullying brother Raghib who doesn’t like the idea of her marrying a baker’s son. Sabriya is left alone to care for her dying mother, then her dying father. Finally she kills herself, leaving her journal for her niece to read, and a message: “Do not let your life be in vain.”

Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet” (in Arabic, “Dimashq Ya Basmat al-Huzn”, or “Damascus, O Smile of Sadness”) was published in Syria and then transformed into a controversial and wildly popular muselsel, or television series. (If the Egyptians are famous in the Arab world for films, the Syrians do muselselat, particularly period dramas). This elegantly-written, carefully-dramatised period novel is nostalgic but also very current in its concerns.

Ulfat Idilbi explicitly links the struggles for national rights and women’s rights. When Sabriya participates (wearing niqab) in a women’s demonstration against the French, she says: “For the first time I felt I was a human being with an identity and an objective, in defence of which I was ready to die.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Arabism, book review, Culture, Syria

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The Awakening According to Antonius

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Damascus after French Bombardment, 1925

Originally published at the Muslim Institute.

I never managed to finish T.E. Lawrence’s vastly overrated “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. It’s a poorly written, narrowly partial and self-dramatising account of the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule during World War One, as poor a rendering of history as one would expect from Lawrence, with his poor Arabic, poor knowledge of the Arab nationalist movement, and his strange belief that he could pass as an Arab, despite his blond hair and stumbling speech.I got as far as his description of the Syrians as “an ape-like race.”

A far, far better book on early Arab nationalism is George Antonius’s “The Arab Awakening,” which covers the period from Muhammad Ali’s brief unification of Egypt and Syria in the 1830s to the struggle for Palestine in the 1930s.

Writing in 1938, Antonius is much too optimistic about the Saudi takeover of Asir, the Shammari lands and the holy cities in the Hejaz. “It re-established the ascendancy of Moslem ethics and Arab traditions,” he says, paying only slight attention to the massacres and cultural vandalism which attended the Sauds’ arrival. Antonius didn’t forsee the immense power that oil wealth and the client relationship with America would bring, and he incorrectly expected that Wahhabism would moderate through contact with the world.

But that’s my only quibble. He’s excellent on events in the northern Arab countries and on the linguistic and cultural origins of Arabism. He notes the interesting role of American Protestant missions in re-establishing the study of Arabic and its literature, and the key part played by Arab Christians in the burgeoning movement.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

December 22, 2010 at 3:07 pm