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Monthly Archives: June 2012

On June 24th, the Muslim Broterhood’s candidate, Mohamed Mursi, won the Presidential election in Egypt, defeating Ahmad Shafiq, a candidate who was largely seen as representative of the old regime. Mursi’s win was celebrated by many pro-revolutionaries in Egypt, secular and religious alike, because it was seen as a milestone victory in safeguarding the revolution that began on January 25, 2011 and culminated in the ouster of the US-backed dictator of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. Mursi’s victory was hailed as a step forward in the revolution, whereas a victory for Ahmad Shafiq would have certainly been seen as a step back from the revolutionaries’ perspective.

However, many have been quick to caution against celebrating too quickly. Although the pro-revolutionary candidate did win the election, power is still largely concentrated in the hands of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. In fact, a few days before the election, SCAF issued a highly controversial Constitutional Declaration, which is largely seen as an attempt by SCAF to consolidate what was supposed to be its temporary powers for the long-term. Among these powers, the Constitutional Declaration gives total power over military affairs to SCAF, rather than the President, and also declares that the President can only declare war with the approval of SCAF. In addition to that, it is the head of SCAF, and not the President, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. SCAF also granted itself a very large role in the Constitution-writing process, including the ability to form and dismiss the Constituent Assembly responsible for writing the constitution.

With all these expanded powers SCAF accorded to itself on the eve of the election, it is to be expected that many are pessimistic. It appears that with this assault by SCAF, as well as the dismissal of the democratically elected parliament by Egypt’s judiciary a few weeks ago, the President has little power left over for himself, and Egypt is beginning to look more and more like a military dictatorship. However, this situation calls for what Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci would call, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” While it may very well be true that institutionally, the President is quite powerless, there are many other sources of power that President Mursi can tap into if he wishes to wrestle power away from SCAF.

“Power” is not only what is accorded to people by institutional documents, such as a constitution. Power is a measure of what people are capable of achieving. Although institutionally, SCAF has all the power, there are other, less conventional sources of power that Morsy can use to challenge SCAF rule, despite him having very little powers according to the Constitutional Declaration. The first source of power he has is the legitimacy of having won an election by the masses. SCAF leaders are unelected military leaders unaccountable to anyone. The fact that Morsy was chosen by a “mandate of the people” gives him more power and legitimacy in whatever he chooses to do, which will be especially important should he decide to challenge SCAF rule. Another source of power is the power from the street, or, to put it bluntly, the ‘power of the people’. Even after Morsi’s win, revolutionaries are still camping out in Tahrir Square because they know that despite Morsi’s win, the work is not over, and the revolution continues as long as SCAF is still around. Morsi can certainly use this pressure from the street to his advantage and openly side with them against SCAF. After all, it was this pressure from the street that resulted in Mubarak’s ouster. Thus, despite not having much power institutionally and officially, Morsi can combine the power he gets from an election win with the power of the people on the street who refuse to go home until the revolution is complete, and challenge SCAF’s power-grab.

But will Morsi even decide to challenge SCAF, or has that ship sailed, and has he already betrayed the revolution and cut a compromise in the form of a power-sharing deal with SCAF? That remains to be seen. For the time being it seems Morsy is focusing on quelling seculars’ fears that his agenda is to impose Islamic law on Egypt (for example, he recently announced his vice president will be a female Coptic Christian, because, despite being the revolutionary candidate, he is still the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate). In any case, there is certainly a reason for pessimism when it comes to SCAF control over Egypt, but there should also be optimism on the revolutionary possibilities that Egyptians can achieve, if the people will it. Morsi has already hinted that he may tap into this source of power, stating, “The people are the source of all powers. They suffered marginalization, poverty and injustice. It’s time to retrieve their will and freedom, decent living and justice.” Whether this is typical flowery presidential rhetoric, or a foreshadowing of Morsi’s future strategy to confront SCAF, will be revealed as his presidency unfolds.

It’s horrible that it’s come to this. I never want to delve into stupid sectarian politics. But alas, the pro-Assad right-wing forces have made the sect of the Houla victims part of their propaganda campaign to exonerate government forces with regards to the Houla Massacre. So it has come to this.

Directly after the Houla Massacre happened, many directly began claiming that the victims were Shia or Alawite. The reasoning for this is because if the victims were Shia or Alawite, then it can automatically be assumed that the perpetrators of the massacre were extremist Sunni militants allied with the opposition in Syria, because Shias and Alawites, according to conventional wisdom, are assumed to be government supporters(although this claim itself is patently false as there are many members of the Alawite minority in Syria who are supportive of the opposition as well as many members of the Alawite minority who have been thrown in jail for voicing their opposition to the regime). This rumor spread, and many pro-Assads accepted this is as fact.

The claim was granted even more legitimacy after a report by the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. This report was picked up by the conservative American magazine The National Review, which stated:

“But according to a new report in Germany’s leading daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the Houla massacre was in fact committed by anti-Assad Sunni militants, and the bulk of the victims were member of the Alawi and Shia minorities, which have been largely supportive of Assad.”

A brief look at the names of some of the victims, however, shows that this claim is most probably false. The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies has an excel sheet (in Arabic) that documents the names of the victims that were killed and the method of killing. Many of the names of the victims are names that are culturally understood to be names of Sunnis. For example, victim number 27 on the list’s name is Umar Mahmoud Al-Kurdi. Umar is generally a name given by Sunni families to their children, due to its association with Umar ibn-Al Khattab. Without delving too much into Islamic history, Umar ibn-Al Khattab is generally an Islamic figure who is regarded positively in Sunni theology, but is regarded negatively in Shia theology. Because of this, it’s very culturally rare that a Shia or Alawite family would name their child “Umar”. Thus, it is unlikely that the Al-Kurdi family, one of the three main families that was massacred in Houla, was indeed of Shia or Alawite origin.

The second family who was targeted in the Houla Massacre was the Al-Sayyid family. A look at some of the names of their family members also shows a trend for naming names that are traditionally associated with Sunnism. Victim number 90’s name is Ahmad Muawiya Al-Sayyid, and victim number 91’s name is Muawiya al-Sayyid. The name ‘Muawiya’ is a name also associated with a figure in Islamic history that Shias regard negatively. Muawiya is not a common name in the Arab world as a whole, but is common among Syrian Sunnis as Muawiyah was at one point the governor of Syria. It is very unlikely that a Shia or Alawite family would name their child “Muawiyah”, as Muawiyah is a reviled figure in Shia theology.

The third family who saw lots of members massacred in Houla was the al-Razzaq family. Victim number 59 on the list’s name is Aysha Abd al-Khaleq Abd al-Razzaq. “Aysha” was the name of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. She is also generally regarded positively by Sunnis and negatively by Shias for historical reasons.

In each of the three main families that was targeted in the Houla Massacre, there are names of children that are names that are culturally Sunni. It is highly unlikely (although certainly not impossible) that Shia or Alawite families would casually name their children after figures that are reviled according to their own theology. This is certainly not any kind of conclusive evidence, but it certainly throws the claim reported by FAZ and pro-Assad propagandists into extreme doubt. One anomaly may be possible, but  in each of the three families that are reported to be Shia or Alawite, there are names that are normally associated with Sunni theology.

Today, a graphic video was released showing Assad’s soldiers having fun after a massacre in the countryside of Idleb. It is a very revealing video. The soldiers seem to feel no remorse for the action they just committed. They call the corpses names, swear at them, throw them around, laugh at them, and undress them. This video is an important video to watch for all those who doubt that Assad’s soldiers are ‘capable’ of committing the massacres that have been occurring.

However, what is even more interesting is the rhetoric the soldiers use. Other than using swear words, one soldier in the beginning of the video shouts out, “Arour, ya akho sharmoota! (Arour, you motherfucker!)”. This gives us some insight into how the soldiers justify what they were doing to themselves. People are not simply born monsters with the capacity to massacre. A good deal of brainwashing is required before someone is able to take so many innocent people’s lives in such a brutal manner. Nazis dehumanized their victims with propaganda that convinced them that non-Aryans are subhuman or an inferior race. Israelis justify their killings by convincing themselves that the Palestinians they are killing are terrorists. People simply cannot massacre others while still believing that those people are human in the same sense that everyone else is, and thus, they tell themselves a story or a narrative that convinces them that the people that they are about to massacre are not fully human, which makes it easier for one to commit such horrid acts.

This was what was revealed when the soldier shouted “Arour, you motherfucker!”. Arour is a racist, sectarian extreme Sunni televangelist on TV who pretends to support the Syrian revolution, albeit, for all the wrong reasons. Ironically, as exhibited in the video, convincing people that Syrian revolutionaries are just Salafi, fanatic, extremist Arour followers who want to exterminate Alawites is exactly what has facilitated the massacring of Syrian families by Assad’s soldiers and shabiha. But the process of convincing people that this is who Syrian revolutionaries are was not done by the regime’s propaganda machine alone. Many intellectuals, columnists, bloggers, tweeters, journalists, and academics partook in this dehumanization process as well. They wrote off the Syrian people in their righteous struggle protesting against a fascist regime as just “Sunni extremists who want to kill Alawites”. Therefore, although it is Assad’s soldiers and shabiha who are committing the massacres, many others are guilty of enabling the dehumanization of Syrians by lending credence to the argument that Syrians protesting against Assad are just a bunch of sectarian, Salafi, Arour followers, as without this logic, it would be much harder for Assad’s soldiers or shabiha to commit such heinous acts, as they would not be able to justify them to themselves.

The involvement of Israel vis-a-vis Syria has been a contentious topic since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. Pro-regimers claim that overthrowing Assad is in Israel’s interest, Zionists are supporting the revolutionaries, and some have even gone so far as to claim that there are Zionists operating in Syria today. Basically, they contend that the entire Syrian Revolution is a Zionist plot to overthrow the bastion of resistance that is Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria. Pro-revolutionaries’ response to these arguments is that overthrowing Assad is actually not in Israel’s interest, because although Assad talks tough, he has in effect guaranteed Israel stability by refraining from challenging Israel’s occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. The Israeli-Syrian “border”, they point out, has been Israel’s quietest border, and therefore, Israel has an interest in maintaining the status quo in Syria. In addition to this, there are many instances in history whereby Syria has taken a position against the Palestinian cause, including during the Lebanese Civil War(where the Hafez al-Assad sided with the reactionary Lebanese Phalangist forces against the PLO and the Lebanese leftist forces), the Tel Al-Zaatar Massacre, and the War of the Camps in Beirut.

However, these arguments are simply rhetorical. Those who claim Zionists are working with the Free Syrian Army in Syria to overthrow Assad and those who claim that Israel has an interest in the status quo are basing their arguments on historical political evidence rather than recent rhetoric and actions of the various parties. And the various ‘reports’ we have been getting from the media on the relation between the Syrian revolution and Israel have not been helpful either. For example this article in Israel National News claims that a “Syrian rebel leader” stated that in a post-Assad Syria, “Israel will remain an enemy.” At the same time, this article in Haaretz implies the opposite, whereby an interview with another “Syrian rebel leader” reassures Israel concerning their stability in a post-Assad Syria.

What follows is an examination of Israeli-Syrian relations that hopefully sheds some light on the relation between Israel, the Assad regime, and the Syrian revolution.

First of all, despite the collective amnesia of some pro-regimers, the Assad regime did engage in peace talks with Israel as recently as 2008. So, its portrayal by some as an unrelenting, committed member of the Axis of Resistance and Rejectionist bloc is insincere. Unlike Iran and Hezbollah, who will probably never engage with Israel, Israel knows from past experience that the Assad regime is at least open to the idea. The Assad regime’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah is not out of sheer principle, but political calculation. Furthermore, normalizing relations with Israel requires a dictator, as only an unelected, unaccountable dictator(like Sadat) can push through such an unpopular position without fear of repercussions from the people. Therefore, it is likely that normalizing relations between Israel and Syria could only have happened with a figure like Bashar al-Assad being president and forcing it through despite objections.

However, this was all before the revolution. Since the revolution the Assad regime’s attitude has not been so clear. It has tried to blame the crisis on foreign agents, chief among them, Israel. But at the same time, Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, told the New York Times in an interview that, “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.” Quite a frank admission on the part of someone so high up in the regime. In addition to that, in July 2011, four months into the uprising, the Assad regime announced that it would recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is hardly a radical position, in fact, it is a position that de facto gives up the claim to Jerusalem and recognizes Israel. Recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders implicitly recognizes the state of Israel in the territory it captured in 1948. This implicit recognition of Israel is certainly not a position characteristic of a state that is considered a member of the “Rejectionist Bloc”, especially considering the fact that Mahmoud Abbas himself ‘welcomed Syrian recognition of a Palestinian state.’

What about Israel’s attitude? Israel has not said much about the Syrian revolution since it began. However, the few times it has said something are revealing. For one, Israelis openly admit that “at the top of Israel’s list of concerns is the possibility that Syria’s chemical weapons will fall into rogue hands, possibly al-Qaida or even Hezbollah.”

But what is even more revealing is Netanyahu’s response to the Houla Massacre. Now obviously, it was a no-brainer for Netanyahu to condemn it, as almost every other state was doing. So, according to this article in JTA, “Netanyahu expressed his ‘revulsion over the ongoing massacre being perpetrated by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad against innocent civilians, which continued over the weekend in Houla and included dozens of innocent children.'” According to the article, this was “the first time that Netanyahu has addressed atrocities in Syria since the uprising in the country began more than a year ago.” Things get interesting, however, when, after the condemnation of the Houla Massacre, Netanyahu states, “Iran and Hezbollah are an inseparable part of the Syrian atrocities and the world needs to act against them.”

Is it not telling that the first time Netanyahu ever addresses the atrocities happening in Syria, he feels the need to throw in Iran and Hezbollah? Iran and Hezbollah had nothing to do with the massacre that was perpetrated. What Netanyahu reveals, however, is that any criticism of the Assad regime must include some criticism of what he thinks are his real enemies. He doesn’t care that the Houla Massacre made the Assad regime look bad. Someone interested in overthrowing the Assad regime in and of itself would go on and on about how this massacre was perpetrated by an illegitimate regime that is killing its own people and must be overthrown immediately. But, no, not Netanyahu. Netanyahu gives us a token statement of condemnation of the massacre, then proceeds to attack Iran and Hezbollah. Why? Because he doesn’t think the Assad regime is really all that worth attacking. Because the only way he is trying to capitalize on the Syrian revolution isn’t by trying to get rid of Assad and supporting the revolution, but by somehow tying the atrocities that Assad is committing with the people that he really has a problem with.

Anyone who claims that Israel is supporting the revolution in Syria, or any other conspiracy theory about Zionist influence on the revolution, simply hasn’t been following the relations between the two governments. Random anonymous reports by people who claim to be Syrian rebels who support Israel mean nothing. What matters is what states actually do, not unconfirmed news or conjecture. And what the Syrian state controlled by Assad has done is showed an enormous amount of willingness to accommodate Israel’s interests and even warn Israel of what would happen in a post-Assad Syria. And what the state of Israel has done is shown a reluctance to condemn Assad harshly and call for his removal. Thus, Israel’s attitude towards the Syrian revolution is one of skepticism and fear of uncertainty, and not one of enthusiastic support. To those claiming that Israel is involved in the Syrian revolution, please, look at what the state of Israel and the Assad regime are actually doing and saying before jumping to conclusions based on conjecture in an effort to slander the Syrian revolution.