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Arabs without capitals

The fragility of Arab capital cities reflects the lack of legitimacy among their rulers and the wider popular antagonism they provoke. 

Hazem Saghieh
2 October 2014

In 1982, Beirut was the first Arab capital to be occupied by Israel. In later years, even the slightest allusion to this fact became immensely hurtful to the Arabs, yet the feeling did not lead towards any tangible response. But 1982 also marked the last Israeli occupation of an Arab city. In turn this historic turning-point came about not because of Israel’s lack of military capacity or desire to subjugate, but for other reasons. The latter are related both to how Arab capitals themselves evolved after that date, and to the conditions of the peoples and communities of these cities.

To see this, consider the fate of some major Arab cities in recent years. Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, is currently facing the prospect of being subdued by ISIS. Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, is in turn confronting a similar attempt led by Ansar Allah, or the Houthis, who have recently succeeded in entering and taking control of it. Tripoli, the capital of Libya, has seen its airport burn down during fighting among its rival militias; such incidents intensify the profound doubts in eastern Libya about whether Tripoli deserves to be the capital city at all. In turn, the Palestinian project is now split between the West Bank and Gaza, and has not yet settled on a unified capital, even if a temporary one awaits sorting out Jerusalem’s fate.

These crises over the security, integrity and status of Arab cities is at the heart of a multifaceted transformation in the Arab world.

Even before 1982, many contentious issues began to crystallise in the region, in such a manner that the quest for a “central Arab cause” in confronting Israel became the political equivalent of the gold rush in the 19th-century American west. This deduction is reinforced by the fact that the current advance on Baghdad, and the siege of Sana’a, began in conjunction with the war on Gaza - a war in which the rest of the Arabs, amid their many preoccupations and direct concerns, found no room to show solidarity.

Furthermore, it is no longer Israel that raids and occupies capitals, because these cities - in the sense of being symbols of national unity and sovereignty - are no longer in a true sense capitals. Those who now do the job are angry residents and disgruntled members of religious and ethnic communities marginalised by oppressive central governments. They have often previously raided across and ignited national borders (bearing in mind that borders too are an important symbol of supposed national unity and sovereignty). In almost all cases, regional powers exist that are linked to segments of the relevant population by bonds of sympathy, and this creates the foundation for alliances that spread across borders and help to undermine capital cities still further. 

In the Arabic language, the root of the word "capital" - al-‘Asim - signifies the protector and barrier. In some European languages, the term "capital" came to describe both capital cities and wealth or assets. But Arab capitals have been disabused of such lofty meanings. These absences carry further implications in terms of capitals' lack of significance as national focal points, or of joint interests and wishes that would be managed by a polity agreed upon by the citizenry. Now these cities have become merely “strategic locations”: that is, a few square meters that are available for communal factions, and behind them their regional allies and sponsors, seize, invade, and usurp.

Any historian could record the inhabitants' longstanding aversion to their capitals, as seats of power, bureaucracy, and of political and military decisions. This aversion has come in several stages. The first one saw movement in the position of Iraqi Kurds vis-à-vis Baghdad and the South Sudanese vis-à-vis Khartoum, when both groups came to feel that their capitals ignored and marginalised them, and wanted to end these capitals' ability to dictate their lives. The second stage can be seen during the inter-Lebanese war fought over the Beirut souks area, the heart of the capital, in 1975. At the time, the common wisdom among the belligerents was that the only alternative to their rivals' control should be full annihilation, including the annihilation of everything that was once common and shared among the people of the “same nation.”

Now this aversion, with its multiple forms and manifestations, has reached a third stage -  again, sparing Israel the need to invade any Arab capital. Today, for instance, Damascus - “the beating heart of Arabism” as it was once called - is in practice the capital of one Syrian side that sends death and destruction to the rest of the Syrian parties. Meanwhile, the enemies of the regime there will not hesitate, if they ever have the chance, to invade Damascus, and indeed, they are already bombarding it relentlessly each day. Something similar could be said of most other Arab capitals, which rose once along with national borders, flags, and anthems, and today, are all falling together.

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