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A Dream of Spring

Lee Smith

Half a year after the fall of Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, it’s time for a partial reckoning of the Arab Spring. Verdict: Uncertain.

Last week’s demonstrations on the Golan Heights commemorating the 44th anniversary of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war are evidence that the regional ground is in some ways shifting, dangerously. At least ten Palestinians were killed on the Golan last week. Syrian authorities claim Israeli troops were responsible, while the Israelis explained that the fatalities were caused by landmines on the Syrian side of the border. A dozen more people were killed when relatives of the dead called to account the armed Palestinian faction that sent their loved ones on a suicide mission. The gunmen answered by opening fire.

American and Israeli authorities understand that the more desperate Bashar al-Assad becomes to save his regime, the more likely he is to launch missiles against Tel Aviv to draw Israel into a war. And even if Assad were to lose his war as badly as Gamal Abdel Nasser lost in ’67, he must believe his war with the Zionists would unite the Arabs as surely as the Egyptian demagogue’s did. The protest on the Golan was a warning.

What’s most disturbing is that Assad’s theory of the case may be right. The Syrian opposition now braving the bullets of Damascus’s security apparatus might indeed be swamped in a tide of agitation against Israel. Advocates of the “peace process” would argue that this is why we need a comprehensive deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Opponents say the conflict is unsolvable because it is not about land; it is an existential conflict because the Arabs reject Israel’s right to exist. But in a way Israel is merely a placeholder for a much larger struggle that has little to do with the Jewish state: the Arabs’ own existential crisis. All of this is about the Arab civil wars.

More than half of the Arabic-speaking Middle East is under the age of 25, meaning that those likeliest to fight any future war with Israel have no memory of the 1967 debacle. Since for many Arabs the war is only a sorry totem from the past, there is something almost comforting about conflict with Israel. What a Syrian Sunni may be tempted to say about the Alawite sect that rules his country is taboo and potentially dangerous to his health. Cursing the Zionists, however, is a habit. Relatively speaking, it is a more “normal” hatred than the passions that animate intra-Arab conflict. The Arab civil wars are too dark to bear, even for the Arabs themselves, while the war against the Zionists means a truce between the Arabs.

The Arab Spring, the rebellions and uprisings fueled by hope, anger, frustration, and material deprivation, both unified and divided the Arab house. And if the fall of Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush’s freedom agenda merit some credit for inspiring the Arab Spring, then the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, which saw Sunnis and Shiites at each other’s throats, presaged today’s violence.

The Arab Spring is Bahraini Shiites demanding equal rights as full citizens, but it’s also Bahraini security forces putting two bullets in the head of 51-year-old Bahia al-Arady when she went to fill her car with gas. The Arab Spring is Egypt’s young middle-class activists taking responsibility for their political lives, but it is also their demand for the blood of the Mubarak family. The Arab Spring is members of the Syrian opposition going to the streets week after week even if they know exactly what the ruthless Assad regime has in store for them. But it is also the fear that must have coursed through the blood of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb as he was being tortured to death, and the ghastly human being that broke the child’s neck and mutilated him.

All of these events are part of the Arab Spring because the Spring itself is the outgrowth of the Arab civil wars, with sects pitted against each other as well as tribes, clans, and families, and with states squared off against their own people. Toppling regimes like Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s has shown the problem is not merely the regimes. The problem is the character of the societies that gives rise to these regimes.

To rebuild or merely stay solvent in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, many of the Arab states (excepting, of course, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms) need money. This will call on the resourcefulness and patience of the democracies. What the Arabs need most, though, is their own peace process, reconciliation and confidence-building among themselves. And that will call on a White House that has understood the last six months in the Middle East in all its dimensions, and comprehends the bounding hope as well as the keening despair of the Arab Spring.

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