Hazem Saghieh

Are We Living in a Region that Is Losing its Habitability?

Will the Arab Levant, stretching from Iraq in the East to Egypt in the West, remain an inhabitable region?

This alarmist title is not intended to incite alarm. The goal, on the contrary, is to attempt to understand the dark, intractable times our region is going through. But we can’t deny the fact that what we are undergoing should leave us feeling anxious in the existential sense of the word.

Today, at least nine factors, some of them are causes and the rest are symptoms, indicate that this is the case:

Firstly, the dominance of sectarian and ethnic identities has reached absurd lengths. We are mere Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians… We have almost no other titles to introduce ourselves with.

These identities, which are opposed to other identities by their very nature, are rushing to embrace the most backward, regressive, and fundamentalist ideas. They go further in this direction on an almost daily basis.

Secondly, economic considerations and shared interests have demonstrated their failure to remedy the situation time after time.

Iraq’s oil wealth is a reason for a seasonal tug of war between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurds in the North.

Even more scandalous is that Lebanon’s oil wealth, which the Lebanese need with an urgency that is difficult to describe, could potentially become the reason for a new war with Israel.

Other nations’ attempts to turn their wealth into a pillar of national unity, or maybe into a basis for a rapprochement between two sides in dispute, were not replicated in our part of the world. Here, extended kinship solidarities and their indoctrinations are chasing away economic interests and paving broad paths toward self-destruction.

Third, all attempts at changing this dreadful situation in this region, indeed across the entirety of the Arab world, have failed.

All the revolutions were defeated (around ten of them broke out over the first and second waves). It is no longer convincing to hit back at proponents of the idea of “Arab exceptionalism” by calling them “racist” and continuing along our way.

We now need, while continuing to oppose this concept, to think more and to come up with richer, less cliche and repetitive ideas.

It is not only an issue of bloodthirsty regimes backed by the Iranians and Russians, like Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria, that the region failed to change.

The Lebanese failed to change their Central Bank Governor after he oversaw the biggest disaster in their country’s history. Three former energy ministers, whose responsibility for the wretched state that the country’s national electricity company is in is beyond doubt, were all successful in their electoral races. Two former ministers who have been summoned for questioning regarding the explosion of almost nuclear proportions at the Port of Beirut were also elected.

All of that was allowed to happen thanks to inflated sectarian and kinship loyalties.

It seems that civil wars are the only potential change to the situation in our region.

Fourth, the Arab Levant has become the world’s undisputed leading source of asylum seekers, displaced persons, and migrants.

Ukraine, of course, is currently leading the pack because of its war, but this phenomenon began earlier here, and it is more robust and has gone on for longer, while those who leave are also less likely to return to their countries of origin.

There is no room for interpretation here: our region is uninhabitable.

For a growing segment of the population, leaving the region is a requisite for survival, to say nothing about building a future. Skilled workers and the educated, as well as entrepreneurs who create job opportunities, are among those who have left and are continuing to leave.

Fifth, if Syria’s death meant the death of the material link tying the ends of the Arab Levant together, Lebanon’s death means the death of a model without the impact of which we would rot and find ourselves secluded from the world. Lebanon’s death announces the death of a country with relatively robust freedoms by the Arab region’s standards.

Sixth, we have become something of a war zone between Iran and Israel. Iran is expanding at the expense of the Arabs of the Levant and their countries, and Israel, in its fight against Iranian expansion, will not hesitate to turn our countries into scorched earth.

Seventh, in the new world inaugurated by the Russian war on Ukraine, human rights will continue to recede and atrophy further. That will exacerbate the rot that the Levant is in as it languishes under tyranny and sectarian disputes. The state of war and geopolitical and economic factors will, until further notice, continue to have the upper hand.

Eighth, there is nothing wrong with countries and homelands collapsing, provided that alternative countries and homelands are proposed and envisioned. This is out of the question in our parts, especially since foreign powers’ lack of interest in our region reduces the likelihood of an emergency international conference being held to this end.

Pilling further misery is the fact that the political culture dominant in the Arab world still treats reexamining the national unity of crumbling national units like an exercise akin to treason.

Ninth, no country in the Levant is stronger than the other, nor is any faction more capable of providing assistance than the other.

A country like Iraq, strong and rich in principle, seems to be suffering from a total failure to take off politically. This ordeal is plaguing an entire region, a transnational ordeal likely to be trans-generational as well.

This is an assessment of the Arab Levant that had been the first in the Arab world to open up to modernity, building schools and universities, developing the arts, and forming elites…

All we can hope for is that we will not, once more, accuse modernity, schools, universities, and the arts for what has befallen us.