Assessing Syria and Egypt


clip-baroudThe year 2013 has expectedly been terrible for several Arab nations. It has been terrible because the promise of greater freedoms and political reforms has been reversed, most violently in some instances, by taking a few countries down the path of complete chaos. Syria and Egypt are two cases in point.

Syria has been hit the hardest. For months, the United Nations has maintained that over 100,000 people have been killed in the 33 months of conflict. More recently, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights concluded that at least 125,835 people—of which more than one-third of them are civilians—have been killed. The UN’s humanitarian agency (OCHA) says that millions of Syrians living in perpetual suffering are in need of aid and this number will reach 9.3 million by the end of next year. OCHA’s numbers attempt to forecast the need for aid for 2014. However, that estimation reflects an equally ill-omened forecast as well.

There are currently 2.4 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. The number will nearly double to 4.1 million by the end of next year. Considering the growing political polarization between the Syrian parties involved in the conflict and their regional and international backers, there is little hope that the conflict will go away in the near future.

In fact, the simple narrative of a conflict between a central government and an opposition is no longer applicable, since the opposition is fragmented into many parties, some with extreme religious agendas.

The early dialog that accompanied the Syrian conflict—that of freedom, democracy, and such—is also of little relevance, considering the level of brutality and the multiple objectives declared by the various fighting forces. But for Syrians, it is a lose-lose situation.

Syrians involved in this war understand that a prolonged conflict could mean that the country faces the risk of complete breakdown and that a Somalia or an Afghanistan scenario is in the offing. Then, few would even care to remember the original reasons for why the war started in the first place, as several generations of Syrian refugees would be doomed to live the same fate as the unending Palestinian refugee experience.

Landmark Deal

However, there is a glimmer of hope. The recently signed landmark deal between Iran and six other countries—the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, and Germany—could usher in at least the possibility of resorting to dialog in resolving the crisis in Syria. True, the deal was related to Iran’s nuclear program, but since all of these countries are participants in the Syrian war, with much influence over the warring parties, their consent would be necessary for future dialog between Damascus and the opposition in order to bear fruit.

A major question, however, will continue to surface. Even if the secular Syrian opposition agrees to a future arrangement with the current Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, will that have any bearing on other extremist forces fighting their own causes? Even with the most optimistic assessments, the Syrian conflict is unlikely to be settled in 2014.

The same assessment is also relevant to Egypt. In 2013, the conflict in Egypt took on a different dimension, although most media (Arab and international) were so saturated by half-truths and/or intentional misinformation.

It has been almost impossible to reach a clear understanding of what transpired in the most populated Arab country.  One main reason behind the confusion is that reporting on the January 25, 2011 revolution was overly sentimental and simplified. In some respects, the bad vs. good scenario continues to define the Egyptian turmoil. The Egyptian media is a prime example of that. Since the well-orchestrated June 29 protest, followed by a military coup, some secular forces affiliated with the revolution have lined up in support of the very forces affiliated with the deposed Mubarak regime. Both camps united in opposition of a government affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)—itself affiliated with the revolution. It gets more convoluted still, since the Islamic Salafist al-Nour Party has no problem siding with the military in support of its newly drafted constitution, although it was al-Nour that tirelessly lobbied for a Sharia-driven constitution under the leadership of deposed President Mohammed Morsi. It was that kind of pressure that drove many secularist parties away from the committee that attempted to draft an earlier constitution, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood isolated. Al-Nour and secularist parties are now in the same political camp.

Violent Dimension

Dirty politics doesn’t even begin to describe what has happened in Egypt as the violent dimension of this politicking is unknown in the modern history of the country. Nearly 20,000 Egyptians are now sentenced or facing trials for belonging or supporting the “wrong” political camp. The military-backed government is now unleashing a legal onslaught, freeing those affiliated with the Mubarak regime and imprisoning those who are affiliated with the MB. On December 21, according to the Associated Press, toppled president Morsi faced a third criminal trial on “charges of organizing prison breaks during the 2011 uprising, spreading chaos, and abducting police officers in collaboration with foreign militants.”

Brotherhood lawyer Mohammed el-Damati described this as an attempt to defeat every single achievement of the January revolution.

While the military enjoys great influence over every facet of power, the Egyptian people are no longer passive participants. Reversing the achievements of the revolution will not necessarily affect the collective mindset that enabled the people to fight for their rights. No military diktats or legal maneuvering can erase that and 2014 is likely to be a year in which the nature of the conflict in Egypt changes from the military versus the Muslim Brotherhood to a non-elitist conflict that surpasses all of this into something else—perhaps a struggle that will recapture the spirit of the first revolution.

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Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, editor of PalestineChronicle.com, and author of My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).