The Continuing Protests in Arab Countries -- The Case of Syria

04/15/2011 02:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2011

About 1915, as it was becoming clear that the Ottoman Empire would not survive World War I, the British and French targeted the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The book "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by the British archaeologist and secret agent T.E. Lawrence, famously known as Lawrence of Arabia, explains in detail the entire history of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans that began in 1916 with the support of the colonial powers.

According to Lawrence's intelligence memo of January 1916, the revolt would be

beneficial to us, because it matches with our immediate aims, the breakup of the Islamic bloc and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the states [that] would [be] set up to succeed the Turks would be harmless to ourselves. The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled, they would remain a political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of political cohesion.

According to this plan, the British were dividing the Ottoman-Arab provinces without informing the Arabs. Under a secret agreement between the British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot, London and Paris divided up the expected spoils in such a way that the regions surrounding Beirut, Damascus and Mosul were to go to France, while the British would control the southern part of Persian Gulf, Palestine and Iraq. In another document, signed by Arthur James Balfour, the British government guaranteed the Zionist Federation "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, signed in 1916 and 1917 respectively, in effect, drew the map of the modern Middle East. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, as well as the eternal non-state of Palestine, were born from this agreement. The existence of these states has remained a source of division and unrest to this very day. In the eyes of many Arabs, the borders they created, and the dynasties the British and French installed within these borders, have always lacked legitimacy. Even after the collapse of the colonial order, the boundaries were drawn by the secret Anglo-French agreement known such as Sykes-Pico.

Further, after independence, the role of major Western powers - initially Britain and France and later on the United States - has been instrumental in the history of the Arab countries. A policy generally based on support of local elites subservient to their needs.

This fact has led to the following conditions:

1.The Arabs have turned a blind eye to the balance of geopolitics. This has transformed the concept of imperialism into a myth, hence anti-imperialism almost into a political religion. The Arabs did not take into account that the West is not a monolithic block. Yes, there is "imperialism" and "imperialist policy," which has impoverished Arab masses; however, this has only been possible with the help of absolutist monarchies and presidents-for-life who have combined corruption with repression, squelching development of civil society and the Arab middle class. In another words: It was impossible for "imperialist" powers to do what they have done without the active collaboration of corrupt elites within these countries and in a specific cultural soil.

Middle Eastern and North African populations are surging: Egypt is up from 20 million in 1950 to 80 million today. Two-thirds of all Arabs are under age 25. Some 80 million net new jobs are required over the next 15 years just to keep pace with the population explosion. It's estimated that one-third of all Egyptians in paid employment work for the state. State-led economies are stagnating economies. In 1960, GDP per capita in Syria was higher than in South Korea; Algeria's was very nearly the equal of Portugal's. As recently as 1980, Egyptian GDP per capita was 250% of China's; today China's is 75% higher than Egypt's.

All the Arab states together, with their combined population of 350 million, produce less in economic terms than Italy's 60 million people. Only three percent of the Libyan population works in the oil sector, which, until recently, accounted for more than 60 percent of the gross domestic product. What exactly did the rest of the population do? Official youth unemployment is at 26 percent in a rich oil-producing country like Saudi Arabia, while the unofficial rate in the countries of North Africa's Maghreb region lies at 70 percent. One third of the people of Mauritania and Yemen, and one fifth of Egyptians, live on less than $2 a day.

2. Harsh Western policies have led to the radicalization of many Arabs. Within such a brutal context we can see why an Islamic Gandhi or Martin Luther King would be unlikely to emerge, or, if one did, it would not become popular. As violence begets violence, and so we have seen the gradual radicalization of political players in Arab countries. Still, it is misleading to blame the west for anything which has gone wrong in these countries. One should recognize that the cultural conditions for such radicalization had already existed. This is the first time, however, we see Arab citizens distancing themselves from radicalism and moving towards an embrace of democracy. This should be praised and supported.

Before the current democratic revolutions in the Arab world, the weakness of liberal and leftist political groups left the task of opposing external domination to the nationalists and Islamists.

The ideas of early and enlightened Islamic reformists such as Seyed Jamal Asad Abadi/Afghani (see his letter to Ernest Renan) soon degenerated into fundamentalism, while the tradition of military style Arab nationalism, founded by Nasser and "Free Officers," degenerated into repressive regimes like those of Saddam in Iraq, Omar Bashir in Sudan, Saleh in Yemen and Hafez al Assad in Syria. The so-called National Socialist thought inspired by Michelle Aflaq has only increased the intensity of repressive regimes such as Syria. The Syrian regime, born out of a coup, has, in the name of resistance to Israel, transformed into a repressive regime resembling a National Socialist society, where advancement is closed to all but the elite few.

Arabs today, unlike in the past, have come to understand that the violence of war and terrorism neither leads to heaven nor to the golden age of the past. So this time the Arabs have taken to the streets without burning flags, but with extraordinary passion and generosity, and while employing peaceful means are demanding freedom and the recognition of their dignity. They know well that with freedom, comes bread. Hence they demand the removal of the autocrats, who have usurped their rights.

Bashar al-Asad and the nomenklatura of the Ba'ath Party do not want to understand this. In Syria, with all its ethnic and religious diversity (Sunnis represent some 74 percent of the population and Alawites represent roughly 8 to 12 percent), people are pouring to the streets not for sectarian reasons, but for the recognition of their freedom and common human rights.

In a rare interview, President Bashar Assad in January explained to The Wall Street Journal why he was unlikely to face a popular uprising similar to the ones in Tunisia and Egypt. Bashar said he will push for more political reforms in his country. This was a sign of how the Egyptian revolution has forced such leaders to rethink their approaches.

Assad remarked that change inside Syria was shaped by "the people's feelings and dignity, [it is] about the people participating in the decisions of their country." While Syria faced circumstances more difficult than those in most Arab countries, the country remained stable. "Why?" the President Asad asked. "Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."

Despite Assad's assertions, Syrians took to the streets en masse, demanding rights and democracy. And what we see now is that the security structures of the regime have completely ignored "the people's feelings and dignity" and instead repressed the demonstrations.

To make matters worse, Damascus has blamed Israeli provocateurs, rebel forces, and shady foreign agents for the bloodshed -- anyone but its own forces.

Mr. Assad told The Wall Street Journal that "the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen are ushering in a "new era" in the Middle East, and that Arab rulers will need to do more to accommodate their people's rising political and economic aspirations." Yet it seems that he himself was the first to betray his own words. In fact, in the speech Asad addressed to the nation before Parliament, which largely disappointed the hopes of reformers, he declined to end the state of emergency or to acknowledge and respect the human rights demanded by the Syrian demonstrators. He just talked about the necessity for some vague 'reform.' His speech defined the protests as a 'conspiracy' provoked by 'instigators' from outside (some distant, some nearby). The de facto meaning of his speech: The Arab Spring stops on the road to Damascus.

To be absolutely fair: There are certainly external pressures and there could also be marginal plots instigated and supplied from outside, and there is also pressure by the fundamentalists; but the protests in Syria -- as in other Arab countries -- are primarily a genuine movement of the people to claim democratic rights and social justice. In Syria for the last 48 years, the law has been enforced by and through the military and intelligence services. The regime controls all the levers of power. Now, Syrian citizens are calling for the end of the regime and the one party state that has denied them their human rights.

Reading Asad's speech to the nation, one is amazed at his lack of understanding of the "New Era" of which he himself has already spoken. Lamis K. Andoni, the profound connoisseur of the Arab countries and well known AlJazeera analyst, wrote: "The rhetoric of resistance no longer conceals the repressive policies of the Syrian regime."