About Hazem Saghieh

Hazem Saghieh is political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat

Articles by Hazem Saghieh

This week's guest editors

Military and Islamist failure: what next?

Both leading models of rule in the Arab world are bankrupt. Where is the next one to come from, asks Hazem Saghieh.

Egypt, an escape from reality

The spread of absurd conspiracy thinking reveals a hard truth about Egypt's condition, says Hazem Saghieh.

Yemen, and the Tunisian example

A political agreement in Yemen is under strain. But its very existence confirms the Arab revolutions' key breakthrough, says Hazem Saghieh.

Revolution in the revolution: a century of change

A continuing cycle of revolutions, albeit irregular and unpredictable, is a feature of the modern world. But comparing experiences across the decades reveals a transformation in the nature of revolution itself, says Hazem Saghieh.

Syria's regime and a populist left

Syria under the rule of Hafez al-Assad acquired the image of a bastion of intransigent anti-imperialism that made it attractive to a section of the western left. The process reflected changes in regional politics whose effects are felt to this day, say Hazem Saghieh & Samer Frangie.

Syria and Iraq: armies, politics, and the future

The shared experience of military repression and failure under Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the al-Assad dynasty in Syria is a challenge to the Arab world's political elites, says Hazem Saghieh.

Syria, an exceptional despotism

Many authoritarian regimes - South Africa, Chile, Poland - have ceded power to the domestic opposition through a political process. The contrast in Syria speaks volumes, says Hazem Saghieh.

The Palestine question, and the Arab answer

The Palestinians’ inability to claim their right has been reinforced by long-term failures of thinking and strategy in which the eclipse of politics by essentialism plays a major part. But the new aspirations sweeping the Arab world create potential for progress, says Hazem Saghieh.

The meaning of "revolution"

The Arab uprisings can be situated in the context of long-term global processes that periodically redefine the term "revolution". Welcome to the fourth wave, says Hazem Saghieh.

The Arab revolutions: an end to dogma

The popular uprisings in the Arab world are a great disaster for a radical camp led by Syria-Iran and long indulged by media such as al-Jazeera. A great opportunity follows, says Hazem Saghieh.

The other Arab exception

The Arab revolutions of 2011 have disproved one argument about the Arabs only to raise another, says Hazem Saghieh.

Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?

After the “October revolution” of 1917 in Russia, an angry communist militant accused Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar for education in the new order, of talking the language of the bourgeoisie. Lunacharsky replied that if a bourgeois says that the earth rotates around the sun, we should not believe the opposite in order to prove the purity of our beliefs.

The Arab future: conspiracy vs reality

The predicament of the Arab world is exposed in unexpected ways. Consider the following passage, part of a lengthy news-item in the 28 July 2009 edition of the London-based Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi:

"The judgment-enforcement services visited Dr Hoda Abdel Nasser's apartment in the new Egyptian suburbs in order to seize her assets and furniture, in execution of a court judgment in favor of Ruqaya Sadat, daughter of late president Anwar Sadat. The south Cairo court had ordered [the daughter of Sadat's predecessor as Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser] to pay a 150,000 Egyptian-pound indemnity to Ruqaya, whom she had accused of tainting her father's image after she had accused him of masterminding a plan to kill Gamal Abdel Nasser."

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:

"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

"The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

"Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)

"Lebanon's elections: reading the signs" (12 June 2009)

"Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

"Arabs and the Iranian upheaval" (9 July 2009)

"Hizbollah's ‘divine victory': three years on" (20 July 2009)

"Israeli settlement, Arab movement" (28 July 2009)
Hoda Abdel Nasser, the paper continued, had in 2008 lost a court case after describing Ruqaya Sadat as "the killer of my father" because he is "an American agent, and American newspapers have said this."

The main characters in this drama are not ordinary ones: the daughter of Nasser, who ruled Egypt for eighteen years (July 1952-June 1970), and the daughter of Sadat, who ruled it for eleven years (June 1970-October 1981) - and the link between them nothing less than a murder accusation! It is obvious that there is enough material here to produce a long and entertaining soap opera.

The plot is irresistible, and rewrites Egypt's modern history. The myth that Sadat was Nasser's loyal companion, his vice-president, speaker of parliament and heir is at last exploded. Rather, he is an anti-Nasser plotter; and since he killed him politically (by turning away from his policies) couldn't he also be his biological killer, and in the pay of the CIA?

The mix of farce and bathos here is accentuated by the story's timing: days after the commemoration of the "July 23 revolution", referring to the moment in 1952 when the young Nasser and his "free officer" colleagues seized power and changed Egypt for ever. The memory of this "revolution" is today so emptied of all meaning that the Israeli president Shimon Peres and his prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could celebrate it in the Egyptian ambassador's house in Tel Aviv. Indeed, the daughters’ dispute is all that this year has had to energise the occasion and refill its void with content. 

But this content gives no ground for celebration. For what is on display here is only an exaggerated form of the conspiracy theories that are reaching unprecedented levels in Egypt and the Arab world. The leading Palestinian politician Farouk Qaddumi has accused the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas of killing Abbas's own predecessor Yasser Arafat. It is surely time to ask: can the "natural" death of any Arab leader be taken as a fact? Is it possible for an Arab leader to die without being murdered?

The shared feature of the "murder victims", Nasser and Arafat is that these very different political figures represent a way of thinking and behaving that is now dead. Since admitting its death is hard, a resort to conspiracy theories becomes for those who seek to "keep them alive" an urgent duty and necessary outlet.

The alternative, after all, is hard. It would require the parties involved to discard conspiracies and summon the courage to face the death of the political current that prevailed between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s, known as the Arab national-liberation movement.

The evidence, from the Maghreb to the Mashreq, is plain. The Algerian revolution, the jewel of this movement, produced a regime that incubated a civil war costing around 200,000 deaths. The Yemeni revolutions of north and south were followed by military coups, mutinies, and assassinations; the dream of "unity" between the two states has for many Yemenis turned into a nightmare. The Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi marries pan-Arabism one day only to divorce it the next. Sudan has been transformed from the time of Jaafar Nimeiri (who initiated his regime by liquidating Sudan's Communist Party) into a state ruled by Islamists responsible for the Darfur genocide.

The Ba'ath party itself, crucible of the Arab nationalism mission and of the drive to unit the "eternal Arab nation", split into two groups centred on Damascus and Baghdad; each then gave birth to further rival claimants. Before and since Saddam Hussein's demise, the record of the Ba'athists in power in both capitals was characterised by voices of family betrayal, siblings at war, sons and daughters exchanging shrill accusations of violating the scared cause. The circle here loops back to the daughters of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat - the repetition of history, but "the second time as farce".

This spectacle, the death of an entire project, does not need conspiracies to grasp it. It only requires the tracing of the adventurous journey of the corpse, including Ayatollah Khomeini's attempt to inherit it in 1979 and George W Bush's very different effort to appropriate it in 2003.

Now, the decomposition is well advanced. To evade it, to prefer conspiracy to reality, is to allow the putrefaction to grow. Arabs can't keep quiet much longer. Hoda and Ruqaya are the latest to disclose our family secret.

Also in openDemocracy on the Arab world in 2009:

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Iraq's elections: winners, losers, and what's next" (10 February 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Faisal al Yafai, "What makes the Arabs a people?" (25 February 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Ginny Hill, "Yemen: the weakest link" (31 March 2009)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon at the crossroads" (5 June 2009)

Karim Kasim & Zaid Al-Ali, "The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices" (8 June 2009)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq: face of corruption, mask of politics" (2 July 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Yemen: travails of unity" (3 July 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Iran, the Arabs and Israel: the domino-effect" (27 July 2009)

 

Israeli settlement, Arab movement

Any democrat would find it difficult to defend the insistence of Binyamin Netanyahu's government in Israel to hold on to the West Bank settlements. The form of politics the Israeli prime minister here advocates is crude, arrogant, impudent and colonial. The deep sources of the ideology that lead him and others to justify the settlements are a mix of metaphysics, mythology and fanaticism. 

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

"The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

"Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)

"Lebanon's elections: reading the signs" (12 June 2009)

"Iran: dialectic of revolution" (28 June 2009)

"Arabs and the Iranian upheaval" (9 July 2009)

"Hizbollah's ‘divine victory': three years on" (20 July 2009)

The Israeli government's stance is also dangerous in practical terms. This is true in five senses.

First, the determination to preserve and even expand the settlements is likely to encourage a serious clash with the Barack Obama administration's intentions for the region. The intense diplomacy underway, reflected in the current visits of leading United States envoys to the region, faces tough challenges; but there are trends favourable to progress, from the beginning of a phased military withdrawal from Iraq to the knock-on effects of the post-election crisis in Iran.

Second, Israel's attitude ensures the end of what remains of the Palestinian authority and its replacement by either domination by Hamas or total chaos.

Third, the fact that Jerusalem lies at the heart of the dispute over settlements means that the intransigent attitude of many in Israel fuels tensions that could explode in further violence, whether religious or secular in inspiration.

Fourth, the defence of the settlements threatens Israel's chances of improving its regional and international relationships: with its neighbouring countries, and with (for example) the European Union and Russia as well as the United States.

Fifth, Binyamin Netanyahu's commitment to the settlements offers to Israel itself the prospect of its remaining forever a kind of Sparta, bound to a militarised outlook that will more and more infringe on the country's internally democratic character. The final danger to Israel of a pro-settlement policy is to its selfhood.

A peace equation

Many Israelis justify settlements by repeating a mantra with potential for multiple usage. It goes like this: "There were no settlements prior to 1967, but there was a conflict. Today, there are no settlements in Gaza, but there is a virtual state of war. When Palestinians compete with one another, one side always outbids the other by being more committed to resistance - never to peace". Some of their compatriots further invoke the Lebanese experience, in particular Hizbollah's continuation of cross-border operations after the unilateral Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Even Lebanese who disapprove of Hizbollah, they argue, present themselves as better or wiser resisters but never as peacemakers. 

The political implication of focusing on the larger conflict in this way is to diminish the importance of settlements and their role. It is in effect a pretext for evading the settlement issue, one with just enough persuasive force to distract the unwary. The feared consequence is that Israel will succeed in portraying settlement-building as a mere technical derivative of the conflict, with the latter as the essential thing that needs to be tackled.

The United States administration too is tempted to frame the issue to Israelis and Palestinians according to an equation: maintaining settlements translates into a guarantee of conflict, halting settlements becomes a route to starting the "normalisation" process. The settlements disappear as a matter of principle, in and of themselves.

Arabs, and the most immediately affected Palestinians, can't afford to ignore this equation anymore. For three reasons: the (im)balance of power; the appearance of an Israeli interest in peace, even if cloaked in blackmail (give us absolute and total peace or... we continue building settlements); and because stopping, then dismantling, settlements is a prerequisite for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

A wind of change

What then is to be done? The logic of the five dangers outlined above is plain: for the sake of all the concerned parties, including Israel, the building of settlements in the West Bank must be stopped and existing settlements (including the extensive, planned and fortified towns they have mushroomed into) must be dismantled. This process must happen in accordance with a phased plan agreed upon by the various states and interests involved.        

But if this process is essential, it will also be hard to achieve. From the Arabs' point of view, there is certainly no "radical" way it can come about: military action (an illusion since the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973), "resistance" (a piteous myth, guaranteed to end in internecine war and failure), Iranian nuclear weapons (a bad joke that would also be a nightmare for everyone).

It will not be accomplished either by expressing vocal support for the Arab peace plan of March 2002. Good intentions here do not compensate for lack of dynamism and cohesive purpose. Arabs, it is clear, need more than a plan to solve this problem: they need both a confident vision and the courageous politicians to articulate it, to inspire and lead the "masses" rather than be led by them. The present conditions make this an increasingly Arab task, as inter-Palestinian conflicts threaten to eliminate the ability of the Palestinians to decide for themselves. The current diplomatic flurry in the middle east is a moment for the Arabs both to match their rhetoric with reality and to raise their sights. If they do both, they might find that - for once - the winds of "change" are with them.  

Also in openDemocracy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009:

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (20 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Mustafa Kibaroglu, "Turkey-Israel relations after Gaza" (26 January 2009)

Sadegh Zibakalam, "Iran and the Gaza war" (26 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Hugo Slim, "NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics" (30 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (23 February 2009)

Eyal Weizman, "Lawfare in Gaza: legislative attack" (1 March 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "The state of Israel: key to peace" (19 May 2009)

Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "Israel's path: from occupation to peace" (7 July 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Iran, the Arabs and Israel: the domino-effect" (27 July 2009)

Hizbollah’s “divine victory”: three years on

In the three years since the thirty-three day war waged across the border between Lebanon and Israel in July-August 2006, the judgment of the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has remained consistent: this was for his movement a "divine victory".  

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:

"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

"The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

"Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)

"Lebanon's elections: reading the signs" (12 June 2009)

"Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

"Arabs and the Iranian upheaval" (9 July 2009)

This interpretation of the war, whose drumbeat is ever louder as the third anniversary of its end on 14 August 2009 approaches, involves a paradox. What Hizbollah's own politicians and journalists (and those close to the movement) are here doing is precisely to remind Lebanon's people of an event that they also proclaim is superhuman and thus eternal and unforgettable. Hizbollah's earthly translation of the divine will has included a scolding for those Lebanese it feels have ignored the event or dealt with it as if it had never happened.

In fact, this war happened in reality; it was neither virtual nor transcendent. It killed hundreds of civilian Lebanese and destroyed most of the infrastructure in an already bruised and indebted country. Yet there continues to be great divergence of Lebanese opinion over it. This is the true source of Hizbollah's orchestration of "forgetfulness": the base of the effort needed to turn victory (if victory there is) into a gain for a specific party, and to turn defeat into a loss for the rest of the people who do not belong to this party. This attitude reveals much about the "outsiderness" of Hizbollah, the "Party of God".   

In this sense, when Hizbollah's others "forget", they are practicing a type of tolerance, a turning away from the nearest available alternative option: namely, hatred of those responsible for the catastrophic destruction wreaked on their country. After all, a military victory is supposed to establish the foundation of higher levels of national unity and political consensus among the victorious people. What took place in Lebanon after the 2006 war is the complete opposite: the country became entirely ungovernable.

This has been made evident since then in both real and political battles. The events around 7 May 2008, when Beirut was occupied by Hizbollah and its allies, was one chapter (see Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide", 20 May 2009). The current obstacles that face the formation of a new government after the general election of 7 June 2009 is another episode of a continuing impossibility (see Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon at the crossroads", 5 June 2009).

This explains the use by the victory advocates of a strictly technical argument, whereby the issue is reduced to the number of rockets Hizbollah is now able to launch against Israel - even in the absence of any reference to the United Nations Security Council's Resolution 1701 of 11 August 2006, which brought about the ceasefire and effectively rendered future military operations from Lebanon a very difficult venture.

After the divine  

A different logic needs to be applied, one that interprets the July-August 2006 war primarily as an internal event, closely related to the sweeping developments that were triggered by the assassination of Rafiq Hariri n February 2005 and the birth of the March 14 forces. In this light, the war can be seen as part of a familiar, and notorious, Arab tradition: that of exploiting the struggle with Israel to serve local purposes. In this customary world, the Arab tyrant uses the struggle to become even more tyrannical and avoid accountability; certain communal groups seek to improve their position in the national balance of power; the small ally of a strong regional power uses it to serve that power; and so on and on....

By contrast, Israel has adopted a completely different course towards this war and its outcome. Its politicians, analysts, and writers shared the negative judgment that was confirmed by the official Winograd report into the conflict published in January 2008. Many Israelis even spoke of "defeat", on the grounds that their army was unable to achieve its expected objectives (see Thomas O'Dwyer, "Israel after Lebanon: warning siren, deaf ears", 15 February 2008).

But gradually, Israelis too began to discover that they were not defeated, but rather able - thanks to Resolution 1701 - to arrive at a new status quo that worked to their advantage. At that point, many crossed the same threshold and allowed the word "victory" to fall from their lips. On both sides, however, the defeat was not satanic nor the victory divine. This is the middle east, where wars - and solutions - are and can only be human, all too human.

Arabs and the Iranian upheaval

When eastern and central European countries turned from communism to democracy following the collapse of the Berlin wall in November 1989, Arabs found themselves facing a great predicament - one for which they were not prepared. They were not acquainted with the youthful democratic forces that were becoming the leaders of those countries now free of Soviet domination. But, more important, as allies of the former Soviet Union, the Arabs looked at the transformation and the forces behind it with doubt and suspicion.Also on the disputed election in Iran and its bitter aftermath:

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - a symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, Sanam Vakil, and Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour, "Iran's stolen election, and what comes next" (18 June 2009)

Hossein Bastani, "Iran's coming storm" (22 June 2009)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Iran" (23 June 2009)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

Reza Molavi & Jennifer Thompson, "Iran's quantum of solace: step back, look long" (25 June 2009)

Ali Reza Eshraghi, "Iran's crisis and Ali Khamenei" (29 June 2009)

Mahmood Delkhasteh, "The archaeology of Iran's regime" (2 July 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Iran: a green wave for life and liberty" (7 July 2009)

This tendency was reinforced by the fact that the "change" was welcomed by Israel, as well of course as by the west in general. In this context, there were prominent voices in the Arab world who warned against an evil "conspiracy"; and others who spoke of the suspected role of the "Jews". All this increased in turn feelings of aversion and estrangement in east-central Europe itself towards the Arabs.

There was a definite cultural dimension to this complex of attitudes. The prevailing  tendencies of Arab political thought persisted in their allegiance to despotic ways of thinking - whether nationalistic, religious, or class. They turned away from the vibrant and vital emerging ideas from the public squares of Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw that were inflaming the imagination of the rest of the world.

The tragedy culminated when the Arabs sought to justify their stance, naturally by relating everything to the Israel-Palestine issue. But the question of Palestine, with all its principles and values, proved not enough to refine or smarten the Arab bias to totalitarian regimes. Indeed, Arabs behaved and argued as if they preferred to remain in the narrow alleys instead of the wide highway. More significant, they did everything to ensure that they remained in those alleys and lengthened the distance separating them from the highway. In the end, Arabs lost the friendship of states with tens of millions of newly conscious democratic citizens who were preparing to re-enter the arena of history with plenty of enthusiasm. What we, the Arabs, lost was - equally naturally - won by Israel.

Today, something similar is taking place in Arabs' stance towards Iran and the upheaval in the country after the stolen election of 12 June 2009. It is true that Iran had long been repressed and sunk in atrophy, but what is certain is that the events surrounding the election have wrecked the regime of Ayatollah Khamenei and put "change" on the Iranian people's agenda. It has become clear that the most regressive sectors of Iranian society are losing their ability to practice hegemony over the most dynamic, young, educated and modern sectors by any means other than crude violence. 

Without falling into determinism, it is most probable that the future is going to belong to the latter groups - if not tomorrow then the day after; not least as  they will be joined by many thousands of professional and skilled Iranians in enforced or voluntarily exile. This prospect is heightened by the deepening of cracks in the Khamenei (and basiji) state's legitimacy - thus enabling the new forces to spread their impact.

There is no sane or rational person who would exchange a promising future for an obsolete past represented by the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Moreover, only the egoist who sees his cause as the motor of the entire universe - admittedly the western left as well as the Arab world contains not a few such people - would ask 80 million Iranians to meekly accept subjugation by a brute authority that seizes their freedom and appropriates their progress for the sake of upholding his tattered banner.

In any event, it is necessary to challenge the very assumption that Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in any way serve Palestinian and Arab causes or interests. But the weak response to the Iranian tumult especially amid the Arab "radical" environment poses a deeper question: is it really possible to combine the cause of democracy and progress with a system of  "national"-collective priorities  where the struggle with Israel dominates Arab minds and actions?

In fact, to tread such a path is the best gift to fanatical Iranian nationalists who traditionally consider that the Arabs have done nothing throughout history except harm Persia and its culture! Such chauvinists abound among Iranians as much as they do among Arabs. What is happening in Iran is the birth of a modern, progressive, enlightened country led by a young and fearless generation. That is what Arabs should be supporting:  as the Poles say, for your freedom and ours!

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:


"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

" Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005)

" Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

" How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

" Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

" The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

" Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)

"Lebanon's elections: reading the signs" (12 June 2009)

Iran: dialectic of revolution

The Iranian revolution is discovering that, in its thirtieth year, it has grown old. The wave of street demonstrations following the presidential election of 12 June 2009 reveal its fruits: "two peoples" who announce themselves in huge sociological differences - of appearance, affiliation, body-language, political slogans.

Lebanon's elections: reading the signs

A national election is usually an occasion for reviewing the performance of a governing party, endorsing it for another term or (in the event of a change) announcing an emergent movement endorsed by popular legitimacy. Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:
"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

"Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

"The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

"Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)
Such a turning-point is at once a judgment of past policies, an affirmation of the future, and a dissolver of myths. At its democratic best there is a sense of completion about the whole process.

Lebanon's parliamentary election of 7 June 2009 - whose result (against many expectations) confirmed the ruling "March 14" coalition in office, and  left the militant Hizbollah group in opposition - was a successful case-study of this kind. The whole experience was even more remarkable given the flawed pre-election record of the March 14 forces and the fact that Hizbollah's guns overshadowed the electoral process. For elections to take place in the shadow of illegal weapons is rare enough; for the party fighting these weapons to win is an exceptional event that deserves an honoured place in the annals of democracy and electoral processes.

The falling myths

The election was a healthy exercise too in the way that the majority of the Lebanese were able to deconstruct and move beyond many of the political myths that had grown up around them since the astonishing year of 2005 - when (on 14 February) their former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, the "cedar revolution" was born (with a huge demonstration on 14 March giving birth to the political movement of that name), Syrian troops (in March-April) withdrew from the country, and (in May-June) the general election awarded the new movement victory.  

Among the myths that arose then and can be now be discarded are these four:

* that the electoral result in 2005 was "an emotional reaction" to Rafiq Hariri's killing (allegedly by agents of Syria), without any other political and independence-related content

* that the 2005 outcome was the result of a Syria-imposed electoral law, producing a parliamentary majority "stolen" by March 14's "quadripartite alliance"

* that most Lebanese view their prime minister since July 2005, Fouad Siniora, as inadequate, stupid or through the lens of anger at his economic policies (Siniora's victory in the city of Saida is symbolic in this respect)

* that most Lebanese are content with Hizbollah and its suspension of the country's economic life.

Indeed, what the election reveals about Lebanese attitudes to Hizbollah is crucial. Most of the Lebanese do not feel comfortable with the weapons of the ‘‘resistance'', but rather fear them. They don't consider the war with Israel of  July-August 2006 a "divine victory" nor Hizbollah's military advance on 7 May 2008 "a glorious day". This lazy discourse, and the alleged consensus around the ‘‘resistance", also fell with a deafening crash in the 7 June 2009 election.

The next chapter  

The elections have also revealed about the Christians of Lebanon, whose core regions have in recent years witnessed the fiercest political battles. Two trends stand out. First, their disillusion with the emptiness of their elites had led many of them to transfer their support to General Michel Aoun as their primary leader. That this process is now in reverse is reflected in the failure of the main figures of the pro-Aoun Tayyar (Issam Abu Jamra, Jubran Bassil) and the Takattul political bloc (Elie Skaff) - as well as in the tight contests even in most of the districts where the "Aounists" eventually won. True, Michel Aoun won in areas such as Kesserwan, but his losses in Beirut I and Zahleh and the reduction of Zghorta to a northern redoubt are equally important. Since Michel Aoun played a dramatic role as a Christian who provided political "cover" for Hizbollah, the downward trend of his support reduces this current. 

Second, there is more emphasis on a sort of "traditionalist" view of Lebanon. This traditionalism is hardly congenial to anyone aiming for a democratic, plural and secular society; but it is assuredly better than turning the country into a launch-pad for small rockets and a welcome-mat for bigger rockets.

But even a peaceful and myth-breaking election leaves ambiguity in its wake. The democratic announcement by the majority of Lebanese of their opinion and convictions is one thing - the ability to take power in their own hands is another. Now, more than ever, democracy and ‘‘resistance'' seem to be at opposite ends. Most Lebanese will continue to feel that no matter what they decide, the weapons will remain pointed at them. The next chapter in their life will be dominated by how they deal with this issue and its regional complexities.

Also in openDemocracy on Lebanon's travails:

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon: the missing perspective" (20 July 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: war takes root" (3 August 2006)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Lebanon: slices of life" (31 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation" (6 August 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon at the crossroads" (5 June 2009)

Lebanon’s “14 March”: from protest to leadership

Three years ago, on 14 March 2005, Lebanon witnessed an unprecedented event: a demonstration of a million or more civilians protesting against the assassination of their former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri a month earlier and demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country. The occasion led observers to draw comparisons with Ukraine's "orange revolution" of the winter just passed, when protestors encamped on the streets of Kyiv refused to accept the results of a fraudulent presidential election and eventually - through their sheer persistent and peaceful democratic defiance - forced a re-run and in the process became citizens of a free state.

The Arab defeat

Better that we, Arabs and Muslims, should surrender than continue as we are.

Japan's experience in the aftermath of the second world war offers an example of unusual courage. In the first place, the country had two atomic bombs dropped on it, and then General MacArthur imposed a new constitution which shook Japan's traditional way of life to its very foundations. The reaction of Japanese society was to concede defeat unequivocally, recognising that as the losers they must pay the price for their loss. But the Japanese elite went one step further, arguing that Japan should actually "embrace defeat", reconciling itself to its loss and learning from the occupying power that had vanquished it. For it had to be possible to learn from the causes of America's strength, without necessarily accepting the justice of its cause. And the loser in a conflict as complex and protracted as the second world war surely had much to learn.Among openDemocracy's many articles on the politics of the Arab world:

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation"
(18 November 2004)

Tarek Osman, "Can the Arabs love their land?" (22 May 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Democractic reform in the Arab world: mirages and realities"

Patrick Seale, "What hope for Arab democracy?"
(7 June 2005)

David Govrin, "Arabs' democracy dialogue: an assessment"
(16 November 2005)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon"
(22 August 2006)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (10 October 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse" (4 June 2007)

Tony Klug, "Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out"
(5 June 2007)

The six-day war, forty years on

In June 2007 the Arab world will mark a bitter anniversary in its modern history, namely the passing of forty years since the six-day war with Israel. For the Arabs, their decisive defeat in June 1967 occupies a very special, if not unique place in their region's post-independence era. Perhaps this is because the event was laden with significance - political, cultural, economic and of course military - in a way that was unprecedented at the time. Indeed, one might go so far as to call it the first defining moment of the modern Arab world.

Sunni and Shi'a: coexistence and conflict

The deep and enduring split between Islam's two great sects cannot be healed in a climate of Muslim and Arab denial, says Hazem Saghieh.

Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat

The war between Hizbollah and Israel in Lebanon was a contest over the nation-state as the foundational unit of political action, says Hazem Saghieh.

Suez: Arab victory or Arab tragedy?

The Suez conflict of October 1956 is remembered as a moment of Arab triumph as well as British and French humiliation. The perspective of fifty years suggests a different lesson to Hazem Saghieh.
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