Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Response to Creative Syria's Author

Creative Syria has been relaunched with a fresh new look and an emphasis on the many crises that Syria is currently facing. Whilst the presentation of the site is excellent, the politics that are behind it will cause some consternation by Syrians who support the revolution. I do not intend to argue my own position in this post, instead I wish to critically examine the latest post, "Ten Reasons Why Many Syrians Are Not Interested Yet", and see whether his opposition to the Syrian revolution is justified or not. He enumerates these reasons first and then expands on his arguments. Naturally, I will begin by examining each point and then dissecting the rest of his argument. Like Camille, I will also backup my arguments, and examine whether the sources he cites are justified or not, and whether they support his argument.

1. The first argument is that there are no true democracies. Citing the Economist Intelligence Unit's democracy index, the idea that even the Arab world's better examples are all "flawed democracies" seems to be enough of a reason that Syrians are not interested, but in what, that is not yet mentioned. Are Syrians not interested in democracy because there are no truly democratic Arab countries? Or perhaps they are not interested in the "revolution" because even those Arab countries that are said to be nominally democratic (like Iraq or Lebanon) are a mess? Regardless of what is intended by this thesis, it is clear from that same index that countries such as Lebanon (scoring 5.32) and Iraq (scoring 4.03), are still higher than Syria, which scored a paltry 1.99

This score is derived from several factors according to the Wikipedia article quoted: Whether elections are free and fair; the security of voters; the influence of foreign powers on government; the capability of civil servants to implement policies. The Democracy index then places Syria firmly in the "Authoritarian Regime" category.

It is interesting that the author of the Creative Syria piece does not see the widespread protests that have paralysed the country for almost a year as enough evidence that Syrians are in actual fact very interested regardless of the flawed examples of Arabic democracies cited. The unprecedented level of presidential "reforms" in the past year alone, concerning everything from national health insurance companies to offering additional points to students at technical colleges, is a sign that the government is very interested in the revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world. Perhaps those many Syrians that Camille is referring to should be interested in democracy regardless whether they think Iraq and Lebanon are flawed democracies.

2. Camille states that in 2010 Lebanon and Iraq were perceived to be more corrupt than Syria. That statement is simply not true. In 2010, Transparency International rated the Worldwide Corruption Perception of Syria and Lebanon as an equally atrocious 2.5 for each, whereas Iraq was rated with a marginally higher score of 1.5. You can see the scores here.

3. A problematic description of "formerly proud" Arab countries is used for countries that have underwent the drastic changes that Camille believes "many Syrians" are not interested in. I'm not quite sure how he gauges whether or not a country used to be "proud". Iraq is described as a formerly leading Arab state, but I'm not sure how proud Iraqis felt of losing an entire generation (estimated at 300,000) in a war of aggression against Iran. Nor can we be sure how proud Libyans were before the overthrow of Gaddafi for us to snidely criticise Qatar's assistance of the Libyan rebels and their NTC. Were they more or less proud when Gaddafi gave up his weapons programmes for inspection to the West, and agreed upon massive oil concessions to BP, whilst hugging Tony Blair during the infamous "deal in the desert" saga. Most tellingly, Camille admits that the political process in Iraq, in spite of that country's occupation by the United States, could not proceed without consultations with Syria and Iraq. Obviously, and this is something conveniently ignored, this was because both Iran and Syria turned Iraq into their battlefield with the United States, which was the real reason for the atrocious levels of deaths amongst Iraqi civilians - apart from the American invasion and occupation. I'm not quite sure how valid an argument is when it depends on the "pride" of a nation. Especially in countries with such little transparency or scope for expressing genuine political opinion.

4. Yemen and Sudan are cited as examples of states that could be divided, and because three is a lucky number, I think Camille added Somalia - a curious and quite arbitrary addition. Yemen and Sudan, the most corrupt of Arab states, have been ruled by despots who will be judged by history to have been instrumental in dividing their states. The curious reversal of Omar Bashir's opposition to the division of his country, and the stupidity of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had to despatch a team to Libya to ask Gaddafi how to react to a revolution (the latter told him to start shooting, and Saleh's forces promptly began firing at the crowds after an initial period of peaceful protest). Both of these countries are staunch allies of the Syrian regime, though the Syrian regime knows how brutally corrupt Saleh's regime is, when a team sent by Rami Makhlouf (the Syrian president's cousin) to negotiate a confidential deal in Yemen had to be flown out in secrecy in the dead of night when they were going to be forced to sign on Saleh's terms. But what are such little niggles between friends, eh? These countries are risking being dismantled because of the incompetence of their rulers, so citing them as an example is slightly misleading, if not wilfully inaccurate.

5. We are told that women's rights deteriorate after changes that allow Islamists a powerful role in the new state. That's quite an interesting play on words when you think about it. These "changes" Camille refers to are revolutions which removed despots and families that had been in power for decades. It assumes that women's rights were better prior to the revolution, whereas it is known that sexual harassment in Egypt reached epidemic proportions during Mubarak's reign; Gaddafi's vulgar use of virgin women "nuns of the revolution" and his importing of Italian women for his bunga bunga parties was on a par with Gulf potentates' excess. Why is the case of Tawakul Karman and many other women in Yemen - perceived as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism - not cited as an example? Why, when ever Egyptian on the street in Tahrir square knows the revolution there is not over until the ruling military council, which is a continuation of Mubarak's rule, is removed? Again, a skilful omission of such nuances gives us the picture that the Islamic bogeyman will wreak havoc with women's rights in a region which already had a dismal record of women's rights even under the supposedly secular dictatorships which have dominated them for decades. Furthermore, no mention is made of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a staunch ally of Syria and a country not without its own thriving pro-democracy movement, yet with a dismal respect for women's rights. To capitalise on the plight of women in the Arab world and try to score cheap political points by claiming that it is a problem exclusively caused by political Islam - which is not true - is an ugly way that deflects from the real problems that women face in Arabic society.

6. The theme of the Islamic bogey man is continued in point six, where the issues of minorities is now discussed. Could somebody please explain to me where the Jewish minorities of Syria are? Or how the security situation in Iraq was deliberately undermined by both Iran and Syria to fight the Americans there by sending Islamists across the border? Another story from 2005 shows how the Syrian regime turned a blind eye to men who went to Iraq to carry out a jihad against the occupying American forces. Ironically more Iraqis (and especially people from Iraqi minorities) died as a result of this policy than actual American soldiers. It seems that the Syrian regime was not too concerned with women's rights when it wanted to use Islamists, though it did not hesitate in discarding them just as quickly when they were no longer useful. When we are being frightened off by the Islamic bogeyman, we are being frightened from the Islamic extremism that is itself a product of regimes like those in Syria, and it is misleading to equate such groups with the politically Islamic groups that will now be forced to answer to a people that have not hesitated to topple far more brutal dictators. Far from being a reasonable precaution, using the Islamic bogeyman appears more useful for terrifying people into accepting the status quo of a dictator.

7. We are told that these "changes" that Camille warns against have come at the cost of enormous human casualties. For some very curious reason, he thinks that the Lebanese civil war is relevant to the Arab spring (it is not) and then ignores the role of Syria and Iran in Iraq, or the incompetence of Sudan's regime, in the grotesque orgy of violence that those countries had to endure. In Libya, Gaddafi's men were using anti-aircraft weapons to disperse crowds that had begun their protests peacefully, and the magical figure of 50,000 dead has now been conveniently used by those who lament the fall of Gaddafi and ignore the fact that if he was in the least bit concerned about the welfare of his country, and if he had allowed effective government institutions to be formed in his forty year long rule, then he should have resigned like any self-respecting ruler who has failed in his task. Instead, we are to blame the victim because a dictator did not step down and instead led his country into civil war.

8. We are told that change without a strong central authority leads to chaos and loss of instability. If this is supposed to be an argument against change then it fails. The strongly autocratic regimes that exist in the Arab world are so by design and not coincidence. Saddam Hussein threatened to turn Iraq into dust if he was to leave power, and so did Gaddafi. In an interview with the New York Times, Rami Makhouf, Assad's cousin, said:

“We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.” He added later, “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”
If such an attitude by the very people that are supposed to care for the welfare of the country is not a good enough reason for change, then I do not know what is.

9. We are told that revolutions and civil wars will devastate the economy. That is true, but so will dictatorship and untrammelled power over half a century by powerful dictators and their corrupt families and supporters. In fact when you have decades of political and economic corruption, then a revolution or civil war will be inevitable. Just ask King Louis the XVI of France.

10. Finally, the oldest bogeyman of all is invoked - Israel. This is curious when we hear statements from Rami Makhlouf saying that:
“If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,”  
This, again, is the Syrian president's cousin and one of the richest men in Syria. Riad Seif, a Syrian member of Parliament, was arrested after he questioned the monopoly on mobile phone networks that was being cornered by Makhlouf and his family. At the start of the Syrian revolution, analysts questioned whether Makhlouf was being offered as a sacrificial goat to deflect from public anger at the political and economic corruption of the Assad regime. For the regime to distance itself from Makhlouf's comments to the New York Times does not fit with how closely associated this man is to the regime and its interests.

At the end of these ten points we are given a chart with information that is unsourced, and appears to be compiled from information that is not verifiable. A blurb in a red box presents the erroneous assumptions listed above as fact, and proof that most Syrians believe removing Assad is a bad idea. The author then proceeds to rubbish and character assassinate the Syrian opposition figures, and selectively lists sources which do so. Conveniently ignored is the glaring problem that the reliance on such technology is precisely because the Assad regime prevents dissent, brutalises political dissidents, and attempts to crush any sign of dissent with Assad's rule. The fact that the Assad family has been in power for forty years, and still finds freedom of information, assembly and basic communications technology as a threat to be banned and censored, shows how dismally they have failed in their responsibility to the Syrian people. It begs the question of whether they should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed time for more "reforms".

To conclude, the piece on Creative Syria does not tell us on what basis "many" Syrians are wary of change - any more than the opposition tells us that most Syrians are against Assad's rule. It also gives ten flimsy, and quite sophistic arguments as to why Syrians are allegedly not interested in the revolution. If Camille intended to make the case for why negotiation and peaceful discussion should be the way forward in this impasse, then, sadly, he has failed dismally.


Aboud said...

Terrific article Maysaloon. I'm always puzzled by commentators who claim that the revolution doesn't enjoy widespread support in Syria, considering the sheer number of villages, towns and cities that come out in demonstrations every night and week.

While, alas, the much impoverished regime can only muster the occasional bused in demonstrations in the main cities.

OFF THE WALL said...

Masterful. Excellent article.

Rime said...

I am in awe of your determination Maysaloon, not to mention your excellent writing. I hadn't read the original piece to which you are responding, nor am I even willing to read anything by someone who hasn't set foot inside Syria for over 3 decades, but who still talks about it as if he were a regular, by getting any information - often completely wrong - he can from numerous sources.

I stopped reading any of his comments the day he said to Elias Muhanna (in fact I stopped watching the interview when he said that) that people go to demonstrations because it's fun. For someone who enjoys getting shot at demos, it's amazing he doesn't go there to experience the fun firsthand.

Amana said...

Maysaloon, great work.

I sometimes wonder about syrian expats in western countries writing so bad about democracy. The least should be an acknowledgement of the freedom one is having here, knowing the fact that still nothing is perfect here.

I dont know what is this revival of baathism, to me this is an ideology which has been abandoned by the regime long time ago, but somehow it is showing up again now as an argument for the regime, like we are the only arabs left.
The regime is smarter than we all may thought, they seem to have used the experiences of Ben Ali and Mubarak, and the islamistíc propaganda is falling on fertile grounds as it addresses the biggest fears of the minorities. I am not Syrian, but all of the Syrians i know are against the regime. We all know that Syrians have always had two opinions, one public and one private one.

The rise of islamism is a temporary one, the fear of the west for islam is mixing here with the clear agenda of an sinking regime. As i know Syrians and their country, i do not see that islamists will play any bigger role, even though this regime persecuted so many politicalized islamists and yet nutured an conservative islam with all its form throughout the country.

Maysaloon said...

Glad you found the piece interesting guys.

Camille has not - and I suspect will not - respond to this, though I mentioned it on the comments section. He is quite snuggly confident now that the conspiracy story has given the "resistance-brigade" a comfortable myth behind which they can hide. You should see how excited they all are when a Western reporter writes something that supports that myth - see the latest piece by Patrick Cockburn.

Thanks for your comment. I think that the Islamist bogeyman that secular dictatorships have threatened their people and the West with in order to strengthen their own position is indeed temporary. Let's say the Muslim Brotherhood do try to govern Egypt, or Libya. Recent experience shows that no dictatorship lasts forever, and they, like all future Arab governments, will have to play the game and use the ballot box to gain power. If they fail then they are out, a simple equation. Of course the fearmongers would have us terrified with horrific stories of the barbaric Muslims who will turn the clock back on the Middle East, as if the existing dictatorships have not done a good enough job of returning us back to the Middle Ages.

Anonymous said...

Ya Maysaloon, I will respond to you because you took the time to slowly read what I wrote.

I will respond under the original article, because people over there are a bit more humble and approachable than the Gods here.

By the way, the name of the young man in Amana's picture is Bedros Apelian. He was a Syrian from Kassab studying in Iowa in 1880.


Wassim Al-Adel said...

Thank you Camille, I look forward to your response.

Rime said...

I know Maysaloon, it's one thing for menhebakjis to hang on desperately to the conspiracy and reform lies, to justify their support for this criminal hero of theirs who tortures and kills at leisure, but it's quite another when non-Syrian journos fall for such pathetic lines. Maybe, like Fisk, they do it just to be contrarian, but they're pushing themselves into a very dirty, immoral corner.

samer said...

Good work Maysaloun in challenging Camille on all his supposedly "objective" points. Indeed he is wasting his big talent on a rotten cause.

On the other hand it is true that Iraq and Lybia examples are not compelling for many Syrians. That is the only legitimate "concern" from people like Camille, which we have to address.

Anonymous said...

Instead of pontificating from cozy Canada about the people of Syria why not ask the Syrians what they want? Let there be a free and fair and monitored referendum about what the people want. The caravan travels and the dogs bark.

Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) said...


Excellent, measured response to Camille's points.

Ameen said...

Barakallahu Feeki

Amir said...

اردت الكتابة بالعربي لانها قضية سورية وكل من يهتم بها يفترض ان يفهم ما اكتب

كل السوريون يريدون التغيير وتحسين واقعهم
كل السوريون يتوقون لم يد من الحريات
كل السوريون يريدون مزية أحزاب وديموقراطية

لكن معظم السوريين يعلمون ان الإرث الثقافي هو العائق الفعلي وليس الحكومة
لأن الحكومة وأفرادها ليست من الفراغ هي من الشعب تحمل نفس ثقافته وأمراضه

الثقافات لا تتغير بقرار إنتها تحتاج لوقت وجهد
والخوف الأكبر الأن هو من هذه الثقافة

إذا تخلخل النظام العام في سوريا سيربح التعصب والفوضى
القوى الفعلية القادر. على استقطاب الناس في حال سقط النظام
هي القوى الاسلامية الظلامية
بقية القوى ستكون هامشية رغم أنها تتقدم الواجهة الأن بغباء

مهما قلنا وكيفما ألقينا التهم فليس المهم من هو المسؤول
المهم المرور بسلام من الأزمة
المهم مصلحة سوريا والسوريين

لذلك لا حل بدون حوار ومن خلال لعبة ديموقراطية
صناديق الانتخاب هي الحكم
وليس الاستقواء بالتدخل الخارجي وغيره
لأن لكل مصالحه

للتوضيح: الحد الأدنى للأجور بعد زيادتها اليوم في لبنان هي حوالي ٣٠٠٠٠ ل س
الحد الأدنى للأجور في سوريا حوالي ١٢٠٠٠ ل س
وبحكم الأسعار والخدمات المجانية فإن القوة الشرائية للدخل الأدنى في سوريا أفضل
والبرهان : جميع المناطق الحدودية اللبنانية تعيش على الخدمات السورية المجانية (مدارس ومشرفين ووقود وخبز وغيره)

توخي. الدقة والمصداقية والتجرد عن المصالح الذاتية هو ما يفيدنا الأن
استغلال الظرف والأزمة لمصالح أو بعواطف يزيدها عمقا

تمنياتي للجميع بسوريا للجميع دائماً

Wassim Al-Adel said...

سيد أمري شكراً لك على التعليق و اشاركك الرأي في كثير من الأمور, فغباء النظام و اطراف من المعارضة متساوي و ينبع من نفس الثقافة المتدنية و المتخلفة, و لكن اسألك بالله, هل من المعقول أنه بعد اربعون عاماً من حكم آل الأسد, و خمسون عاماً من حكم حزب البعث, انه لم يستطيع احد تغيير ثقافة التعذيب و القمع و الحكم الفردي؟ يعني و ماذا عن الفساد الذي زاد و لم ينقص في العقود الاربع الماضية؟

كل هذه الامور تجعلني أتسائل عن حقيقة الضع السوري, و اننا لسنا كمن ينطبق عليه المثل, اضربه و قول نصيبه.

قال لي عم ان النظام مننا و فينا, وانه كما انتم يولى عليكم. قلت له عظيم يا عم, و انتم اخذتم واليكم, فاتركونا نختار والينا.

انا معك ان الحوار هو الحل الوحيد, ولكن لا يمكن الحوار و الدبابة في وسط المدينة العسكر يعتقل و يعذب من يشاء من غير عقاب و حساب. هذه الأزمة كان المفترض تفاديها لو كانت الحكومة واعية و تهتم بمصالح الوطن و ليس بمصلحة آل الأسد.للأسف فات الاوان على هذا الكلام و انت متشآئم جداً لمستقبل بلدنا

William Scott Scherk said...

You are a smashing, compelling writer, Maysaloon. This is a very very good piece.

I wish sometimes that Camille was not so happy to disparage his interlocutors (viz the Gods note above) and play up the peevishness and small-mindedness that attends Authority To Speak. The pettiness is not at all appealing, but probably habitual and so we will accept it as part of his otherwise talented persona. Thank goodness we get to keep Camille in Canada, for I believe he is a firm Liberal here (if a Baathi-hold-yer-nose voter in Syrian Referenda).

Still, it is disturbing that he says essentially nothing at all about oppression. I get the feeling that it is meaningless to him next to The Great Game (of being Resistant). No word of compassion and understanding for the hurt and humiliated of Dera'a. No word to soothe a Syrian damaged by prison. No real sweet and empathetic understanding of the Other. This would temper his chauvinistic broadsides and churlish, passive-aggressive sniping. As it is, sadly, he is written off by some as Not Ready For the Voyage. Sigh.

That said, a fruitful exchange between you. May we have more, more, more. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

I treasure your voice and your integrity, Maysaloon. Syria be proud of such wisdom and force of expression!