Hazem Saghieh

The Resounding Foundational Tragedy Shrouded in Neglect

Tragedy has hit one country of the Arab Levant after another, and yet a foundational tragedy has been deliberately neglected, despite the fact that many of the others were either linked to it or caused by it.

The prominent position that Arab nationalists and socialists have occupied in Arab political culture promoted this neglect to the rank of "progressive" and "revolutionary" tools used in the fight against colonialism and the effort to hold it solely responsible for all of our disappointments and flaws. If colonialism remains a factor that must be accounted for in Palestine, applying this "analysis" to other cases, both within and without the Arab world, combines gratuitous obfuscation with malicious deliberate neglect.

The foundational tragedy in question is the series of military coups that, in a sense, hollowed out and laid waste to Levantine patriotism. In fact, we could perhaps say that, in many respects, the ordeal of patriotism in the Levant began when the notables lost power (1952 in Egypt, 1958 in Iraq, and in intermittent stages in Syria). Influenced by a blend of fascism and Soviet communism, nations came to be divided, in ideologies that became state doctrine, into two camps: patriots and traitors.

That was an early recipe for more than just the rise of populist leaders, but also for splitting society and priming it for civil war. We cannot present a full account of today’s scene, with its proliferation of militias and rulers killing their people, without a genealogy that traces it back to its great grandfather, the theory of “friends of the people” and “their enemies.”

Indeed, because putschists and their putschist regimes were tinged with Arab nationalism, especially after 1956, the conflict over this new identity became another element of dividing national associations. In Egypt, large patriotic communities kept quiet about their opposition to dragging their country toward pan-Arabism. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the dispute between Abdul Karim Qasim and Abdul Salam Arif very clearly reflected this struggle reinforced by sectarian loyalties. Syria was fragmented along geopolitical lines that fed into the Egyptian-Iraqi polarization, which was paralleled by the polarization of Damascus and Aleppo.

The repercussions of junta rule were also felt in Lebanon, which had been relatively stable when notables held power in neighboring Arab states. The officers’ hold on power accompanied with the presence of Palestinian revolution on its soil, which lit the fuse of its sectarian contradictions and made their containment nearly impossible. The worst thing the nationalist-leftist alliance (that was brimming with competition) did was develop a notion of patriotism that rendered it synonymous with “fighting imperialism,” instead of being a concept built around a vision of some kind of connection to one’s homeland and its tangible interests.

The hollowing out and laying to waste of patriotism took other forms as well. After modest institutions and political traditions began to be developed or those inherited from the colonial era were adopted- albeit in a flawed and uneven manner - following independence, the putschist Arab regime took on the task of destroying all of these traditions and institutions, using a shortcoming here and corruption or injustice there as pretexts. The truth is that while conservative thought may be excessively beholden to tradition and its role, abolishing traditions is nonetheless extremely dangerous, especially in incohesive and fragmented countries with weak social fabrics like ours.

Since their alliance with the Soviets was organic to these police states run by officers, they became increasingly reliant on security services and arbitrary rule. The floodgates were opened to the influence of ideas that substituted addressing the population’s real concerns with theoretical abstraction, while the “patriotic and progressive” regimes banned any serious empirical study of the societies they ruled over. Meanwhile, parties, unions, the press, cultural life, and civil society were suspended or seized and nationalized.

Moreover, the population's relationship to modernity and contemporaneity was soiled by these regimes’ imposition of modernization from above. They championed an enlightenment divorced from people’s rights and interests, to say nothing about their promotion of a liberation that was, in practice if not in theory, antithetical to freedom.

The conflict with Israel and the slogan of liberating Palestine offered these regimes an ideal way out of confronting reality, reinforcing their militarization and tyranny. With the exception of the last two years of Nasser’s life, these police states put hurdles in the way of any settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a matter of policy, turning it into a problem with no solution.

If there have been countless episodes that speak to this since the 1960s, none do so more eloquently than those of the 1980s. The Syrian regime brought down the Jordanian-Palestinian peace project, through violence and assassination, after having overturned the May 17 Lebanese-Israeli agreement concluded earlier in the decade. And with their left hand, the police states of the Levant sponsored the translation and dissemination of European anti-Semitic literature, before Khomeinist Iran and its arms in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen inherited it from them.

Although this political system was not totalitarian in the strict sense, it is no different from the “onion” Hannah Arendt uses as a metaphor for how Nazi power is structured and organized. The leader is in the center, exercising power and repressing opposition from within, not from above. That sets him apart from his comrades in the circles around him, creating a bulwark protecting him from external shocks and challenges, and allowing him to toy with others by bringing them closer and pushing them further away.

Once this system begins to rot, be it for internal or external reasons, its degeneration is manifested in two forms, both inherent in the putschist regime itself: militias, and the ruler killing his people and destroying his country, like a cruel foreign occupier. Thus, after patriotism is debased, the country is itself sacrificed. Today, nowhere can we see this criminal theory in action more clearly than in Syria.