Saturday, July 29, 2006

Power Politics

In Tyre (Soure) today, 31 victims killed by Israeli bombs over the past week were buried en masse. The youngest victim is one-day old Sawsan Tajeldin (left), killed along with her mother, when the car they were fleeing from the nearby village of Bazouriyeh was hit by an Israeli warplane missile.

The war on Lebanon has eclipsed the unremitting Israeli offensive in Gaza, obscenely codenamed "Samson's Pillars." Late last week, Palestinians buried Anas Zoumlot, 12 (above), Asmaa Okal, 33, and her two daughters Maria, 5, and Shahd, 8 months, all of the Jabaliyya refugee camp.Dr. Mona El Farra writes from Gaza, “Our news isn’t covered, people are feeling disappointed, devastated and abandoned with the world’s reaction, especially the governments.”

On Wednesday alone, 23 Palestinians were killed, the same day that world “leaders” and regional rulers convened in Rome to do whatever it is they do, which did not include agreeing to an immediate cease-fire and compelling Israel to abide by it. Instead, Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon declared, “We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world ... to continue the operation, this war, until Hezbollah won’t be located in Lebanon and until it is disarmed.” He continued, “What we need to activate in south Lebanon is tremendous firepower before ground forces enter. Our great advantage against Hezbollah is firepower, not hand-to-hand combat.” Carry on, then.

The Past

Israel’s latest futile war to extinguish Hamas and Hizballah, enthusiastically abetted by the American government, predictably calls to mind earlier “great power” ploys to crush nationalist forces. It’s a very old story, but let’s start 50 years ago, when Israel, France and Britain pooled their efforts to bomb Port Said after Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez on 26 July 1956 (above). Three summers earlier, in August 1953, the Anglo-American “Operation Ajax” unseated Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and forcibly restored the skittish Mohammed Reza Shah. The cause was the same effort to exert national self-determination.

Two years earlier, in March 1951, the Iranian Majlis electrified the world by nationalising Iran’s oil industry and appointing the honourable Mossadeq as prime minister. Such boldness was not acceptable to foreign businesses and governments, so they immediately started plotting. American and British oilmen boycotted Iranian oil, while their governments hatched a secret plan to overthrow the intractable Mossadeq and reinstall the hapless shah. And so it came to pass. In August 1953, royalist military forces captured Mossadeq, and he was tried by a military tribunal (below) and sentenced to three years’ solitary confinement. The nationalist politician who had attempted to democratise Iran spent the rest of his life under house arrest until his death in 1967. As for the Pahlavi Shah, he was kindly assisted by American and Israeli advisers in the creation of his internal security organ, SAVAK, the organisation responsible for the comprehensive surveillance and torture of political dissidents during the shah’s uninterrupted reign from 1953 to 1979.

Now, it’s very tempting to draw parallels between foreign powers’ machinations in the 1950s and today’s war. There’s much to be said about the American, British, and Israeli governments’ constant fear and loathing of any attempts at national self-determination (and the French government’s too when it comes to the Maghreb). In fact, the American government’s pathetic claims about democracy promotion and the Israeli government’s transparent propaganda about “fighting terror” are mediocre carbon copies of colonial Britain and France’s claims to educate the natives about self-government and purge them of “bolshevism” (what attempts at self-determination were branded back then).

Indeed, Israeli Minister Haim Ramon’s lust for firepower to quell the Lebanese natives echoes Mandatory Britain’s bombing campaigns of recalcitrant Iraqi tribes in the 1930s and Mandatory France’s massive bombardment of Damascus in 1945. So let’s not waste time debating the “democracy promotion” and “fighting terror” rubbish. The United States and Israel want pliant Arab (and Iranian) populations and recumbent regional regimes, end of story. No amount of U.S. “public diplomacy” or Israeli deployment of victimhood will dispel this stubborn fact.

The Present

But there's a key difference between the 1950s and now. Today’s nationalists are far more formidable foes for the hell bent powers. Hamas and Hizballah are immeasurably more significant than Nasser and even Mossadeq. Why? Because unlike Nasser, their legitimacy rests on a firm electoral base and decades of dogged constituency service. As Nasserists are the first to admit, Abdel Nasser did things for the people, not by them. His legitimacy was real, his popularity was palpable, but his undoing was swift. He did not put in the effort to build the links that would tide him over in rough times. And so when his system came under attack in 1967, it was unable to withstand the shock. The massive popular protests that erupted on 9 June 1967 to rally around the diminished president soon turned into destabilising popular protests in February 1968 demanding real accountability and meaningful political opening, while the judicial sector staged its first intrepid bid for both autonomy from and oversight over a rotten regime.

And though Mossadeq was a far more credentialed democrat than Nasser, with real links to those he represented, his National Front was a tenuous agglomeration of diverse interests that began to fragment when the international vise around Iran tightened. That was when the communist Tudeh party emerged as a real alternative to the imploding National Front. By contrast, both Hamas and Hizballah are disciplined, internally coherent political organisations. They have been remarkably adept at maintaining organisational resilience in the face of overwhelming centrifugal pressures.

What’s more, they have few to no competitors on the Arab political scene in terms of the clarity of their political message, the performance of their deputies, and the independence of their leadership. Leftists are unable to build durable links to the public, much less gain more than a handful of seats in any election. “Liberals” are unable to set down credible roots untainted by American sponsorship. As the ever-insightful Diaa’ Rashwan wondered recently, we know what they’re against, but what on earth are they for? And as for the ruling regimes, well, that’s a cruelly unfair comparison now, isn’t it? Please observe the unmistakeable mystique of the dignified, unbowed Islamists compared to the bloated, servile, imbecilic Arab incumbents, with their unfailingly awkward gestures and those moronic grins plastered on their faces all the time.

This placard at a Cairo protest on 26 July sums it up best: Hasan Nasrallah is a master, the trio of jokers on the left are nothing but slaves.

In a word, Hamas and Hizballah are underwritten by the gold standard of democratic legitimacy in a region replete with fakes and knock-offs. For obvious reasons, fragile revolutionary legitimacy à la Nasser no longer captures the public’s imagination. Tradition-based legitimacy is wearing thin in the monarchies, its rickety founding myths increasingly scrutinised and challenged. No one believes in economic performance-based legitimacy anymore, since nearly all the region’s governments long ago stopped delivering or enabling any sort of economic performance to the majority of the governed.

Democratic legitimacy is the criterion now, on the full understanding that those who don’t deliver are to be voted out. The real significance of the January elections in Palestine is that they offered an opportunity to demystify Hamas, to subject it to the unforgiving test of governance. Instead, the U.S. and Israel were gripped by an insane frenzy, orchestrating an international boycott of the Hamas-led government while bleating inanities about not dealing with “terrorists.” Of course, the boycott did nothing but intensify Hamas’ popularity and reinforce its aura of purity, while life for Gazans reached crisis levels.

The Future

Discipline, organisation, and hard work at the grassroots give today’s nationalists a formidable foundation for resistance. Hizballlah’s robust advocacy on behalf of the Shia untouchables of Lebanese society and Hamas’ credible representation of the Palestinian quest for dignity and justice are assets that are unlikely to erode as easily as Nasser and Mossadeq’s resources were diminished. It’s not a matter of social movements versus government officials, either, since both Hamas and Hizballah now boast plenty of government officials. It’s the nature of the linkage between leadership and the rank-and-file, and between the organisation and the public. Charisma alone is no longer sufficient. Democratic accountability and constituent service are now indispensable. A small but moving gesture: When Palestinian premier Ismail Haniyeh along with other government officials received half his salary earlier this month, he donated 7,600 shekels (US$ 1,700) to the family of Hadeel Ghabn (above), an eight-year-old girl killed by an Israeli shell back in April.

It is a delectable irony to me that Ms Condoleezza Rice’s much-maligned remark about the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” is actually accurate, but not in the manner she and her glib wordsmiths intended. The new Middle East that the US and Israel must now confront is a fundamentally different animal from the one their predecessors faced in the 1950s. Neutralising nationalist regimes was a cakewalk compared to the current task of attempting to pacify robust popular movements. This is the paradigm shift transpiring in the Middle East for the past quarter-century. As the US, Israel and fellow travellers reaped spectacular success in taming erstwhile intractable regimes (just look at the laughingstock Hosni Mubarak), they spawned a new class of modern socio-political movements that have held out the promise of inclusion and emancipation to millions of ordinary people, on a scale unseen since the dawn of mass politics in the late 19th century.

(Choueifat, southern Beirut, 18 July 2006).

These movements don’t just offer monetary loans, cleaned streets, affordable schools, and functioning hospitals. They offer the dignity and honour that comes from resistance, the same dignity and honour that motivated the anti-fascist resistance, the same dignity and honour that bolstered the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. I want to know, does the Israeli government and its American enabler think they can extinguish this quest for human dignity with cluster-bombing, the destruction of infrastructure, and the killing of infants and toddlers?

*AP Photos