April 10, 2012, Tuesday

Lost [in the] Middle East

“In the Middle East, the first lesson is the meaning of silence,” wrote Anthony Shadid in his book “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East.” The two-time Pulitzer-winning journalist, a New York Times correspondent, died while reporting in Syria this past February.

In Eastern culture, silence has a deeper, more philosophical significance, while in the West, it often reflects a mood characterized by a lack of words. It gets complicated when one tries to understand the meaning of silence in the Middle East in light of the recent developments there. In Shadid's personal account, the region is portrayed as the “lost Middle East,” but the current view paints a very different picture. Some countries -- namely Russia and China -- are still trying to push a diplomatic strategy to salvage a portion of their Middle Eastern policy. It is distressing to have to articulate the “lost legitimacy” of the Assad regime, a struggle that is more than a year old now. In this context, such silence -- the lack of engagement, despite the continuing deaths in Syria -- spawns a new term in international relations. To the notion of “responsibility to protect” we can add the notion of interest: the “responsibility to protect interests,” the interests of foreign countries that do not want to lose in the Middle East.

One can argue that this is the unfortunate price of “normalization,” which the Middle East must pay, but can those who support this argument truly empathize with people who are suffering under such grim conditions? Looking at today's situation, no one can deny the relevance of Shadid's statement, “Some suffering cannot be covered in words.” In an interview with Caucasus International last year, he also emphasized, “If it comes to a civil war there, and you can see that playing out, [we will see] potentially a very dangerous conflict in Syria.” Now we see it. This dangerous conflict is now a reality for the Syrian people, and the Assad regime has lost its legitimacy; we have watched live coverage of the killing of innocent people. Yet the international community is still waiting to act due to some countries' strategic interests that have been elevated over the population's right to life. This has become the strategic  “meaning of silence” in today's Middle East.

Syria also faces the risk of a sectarian war triggered by the current unrest. Tunisia and Egypt are still torn between traditionalism and democratization -- no one is denying the impact of the Arab Spring. Its success is that the Middle Eastern people who began these revolutions have moved beyond the traditional Cold War mentality; this has led to new security and policy requirements on the part of the international community.  Governments and people are jockeying for the best position in the rebuilding of the Middle East.

The pressing question is: Why did revolution suddenly happen after two decades of Cold War? One answer is that there was a general transition taking place in the Middle East where most of the countries had not been able to “normalize” their history: This option was simply not open to them due to the Cold War mentality, which affected perceptions among external and domestic actors alike. Twenty years on, however, history normalized the Middle East through the Arab Spring of 2011. The people of the Arab world had begun to ask questions: If Tunisians can take down a detested regime, why can't we? The change was not an illusion. If we look at Syria, what provoked the uprisings was the question of basic rights, which many Syrians were being denied. The problem is that “silence” is getting costly; the cost is human life, and as Shadid said, “Words can't quite recreate the smell of war.” We grieve for the losses in Syria, Iraq, Libya or elsewhere in the world; the difficulty is how to sustain hope for a brighter future.  If the people of the Middle East are not confident about their future, the theoretical challenge they face is whether to agree to allow accounts to be rendered in the name of the future or whether they believe that the accounts should be closed at the end of each day. In this sense, British historian Tony Judt's observation in “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is highly pertinent:

“There are at least two ways of reasoning from the present to the future. One is start from an image of the future and then working one's way back to the present, and then saying that one knows what the stages must be. Another is to start with the present and then to say, wouldn't it be just a bit better if the near future were something like the present but improved in a certain definable respect.”

This is true even if people cannot imagine having made their choice, and even though they know perfectly well that 10 years later others may either regret their choice or reinterpret it in a favorable light. The revolutions in the Arab world revealed the political vacuum that is created by transition. We must understand the distinction between memory and history and that allowing memory to replace history is dangerous.

Thus, the choice that most of the countries in Middle East now face is clear: The transition to democracy will be made easier by the establishment of stability. The enduring problem, however, is that old mentalities die hard -- we see in Egypt, for example, the living notion of “the king is dead; long live the new king.” Mubarek may be gone, but his army remains in power.

The people themselves must make the decision regarding which path is best. It is time for them to take responsibility, time to move on from the euphoria of revolution and to respond to Judt's question: “Wouldn't it be just a bit better if the near future were something like the present but improved in a certain definable respect?”

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