Mass gassing, massacres in the streets, mosque bombings. It’s as if no Middle Eastern state can any longer enjoy the blessings of peace.
I was driving to Cairo airport on Friday, wondering if it was really wise to leave when the Muslim Brotherhood were calling for more marches – and thus more martyrs – and my doubts increased as I passed the columns of armoured vehicles on the city’s outskirts, the Egyptian soldiers sitting behind machine guns. Then, when I was scarcely a mile from Cairo airport, my travel agent called from Beirut to tell me that massive bombs had just exploded outside two Sunni Salafist-led mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli; this only a week after an equally huge explosion in the Shia suburbs of Beirut killed 22 people. Tripoli’s death toll was 45.
And when I drove away from Beirut airport, there were columns of Lebanese armoured vehicles on the road into the city, the Lebanese soldiers sitting behind machine guns. I have cheerily being telling friends that there will be no civil war in Lebanon – because the Lebanese do not want another civil war – but there are clearly those in Lebanon who are doing their best to start one. These were the most serious sectarian massacres since Lebanon’s conflict – with its 150,000 dead – ended in 1990. I called our stringer in Cairo to tell him that this was like being back in Cairo. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” he glumly remarked.
While normally staid and well-educated and secular Egyptians are calling their fellow Muslims “terrorists” – and the Brotherhood does include millions of supporters – the fratricidal war in Syria has at last struck Lebanon with burning intensity. It has driven the millionth Syrian refugee child across the border, most of them to Lebanon. One in four people in Lebanon are now Syrians. The gassing of hundreds in the outskirts of Damascus has now taken Syria across another of the West’s famous ‘red lines’ – and yet again, only words come from Washington and London. No wonder the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, quoting Hannah Arendt and holding the Assad regime responsible last week, referred to the “banality of evil”. The West’s whittering and twittering – over Cairo just as much as Damascus – is a form of ‘banalising’ violence. What is so profoundly disturbing just now is the state of Arab society so soon after the Arab revolutions – themselves ‘banalised’ in America as the ‘Arab Spring’ – have become frighteningly distorted. It is as if the whole Arab awakening – that massive struggle for dignity and justice – is suddenly sprouting poisonous mushrooms as foul-smelling as a mortuary. Everyone in the Middle East has now become a student of human folly. Having caught the plague from George W Bush’s hollow language, everyone is the region is now supposed to be fighting ‘terror’; government ‘terror’, army ‘terror’, Muslim Brotherhood ‘terror’, al-Qa’ida ‘terror’, police ‘terror’, Salafist ‘terror’, Hezbollah ‘terror’.
One might be forgiven for believing that the Arab world is in the process of changing its personality without hope of improvement. This was best summed up for me in the story of the young Egyptian man picked up by the Cairo cops for wearing a beard. Released and sent home, his parents persuaded him to shave off his beard. But he ran into trouble again next day when the police noticed that his clean-shaven face no longer matched his identity card – because his ID photograph shows him with a beard.
I suspect there are different reasons for the awful tragedies that have overwhelmed different Middle East countries. In Syria, the very purpose of the Baath party was its own survival – way in front of its duty to care for the people – and thus the idea that it would crumble if confronted with peaceful protest and then with armed insurrection was a fallacy. In Egypt, there may be a more intriguing reason for the ‘dictatorship’ of the Brotherhood and the subsequent military coup although it is one that runs in common with all the other revolts.
My favourite Israeli philosopher Uri Avnery put it most succinctly last week. “These are the faults of a generation brought up on the ‘social media’, the immediacy of the internet, the effortlessness of instant mass communication,” Avnery wrote.
“These fostered a sense of empowerment without effort, of the ability to change things without the arduous process of mass-organisation, political power-building, of ideology, of leadership, of parties.” So when Egyptians suddenly enjoyed fair elections, “this whole amorphous mass of young people were faced with a force that had all they themselves lacked: organisation, discipline, ideology, leadership, experience, cohesion – the Muslim Brotherhood”.
And when the killer cops of Cairo arrived in the streets to destroy the Brotherhood protests, what did I find printed on newly-painted Egyptian flags on the police trucks? ‘shirte sha’ab’ – ‘People’s police’. The cops are once more on the side of ‘the people’, because they and the army are the only organisations capable of destroying the Brotherhood’s organisation. But they won’t ultimately be able to do this. The Brotherhood will go underground and then, some Egyptians deeply fear, we shall have acts of violence in Cairo – against Christians, against fellow Muslims, the innocent – which ‘the people’ will blame on the Brotherhood and the Brotherhood will blame on the security services.
And this already comprises the angularity of the other Arab conflicts. Who blew up the car in Beirut’s suburbs where Hezbollah have their offices? The Salafists proliferating in Tripoli? They deny it. Who blew up the two mosques? Hezbollah? They deny it. Who released the chemical agents in Syria? The government? They deny it. Or rebels? They deny it. In Iraq, where suicide bombings are now heartbeats, everyone denies them. The slightest outbreak of violence in Bahrain, and the King blames Iran. Iran denies it. Assassinations of Tunisian politicians? Surely the Salafists. They deny it. Not only do the people of the Middle East lack the blessing of peace, they live – and die – without knowing who is killing them.
And while we’re on the subject of knowledge, let’s enjoy the verbal bloodbaths in which our own statesmen are wading over the Middle East. They froth away with total impotence on the subject of Syria. William Hague, our modern-day Gladstone, regularly denounces Bashar al-Assad. His French opposite number, Laurent Fabius, said last year that Assad “did not deserve to live on this earth”. Now he compares the gassing of hundreds of Syrians with Saddam Hussein’s gas-slaughter of the Kurds of Halabja in 1988. Perhaps 160 people have died in the Damascus suburb massacre. Five thousand were killed in Halabja. But now listen to the US State Department spokeswoman Jan Peski as she tries to squirm out of Obama’s promise last year of a ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. “I’m not talking about red lines,” she said. “I’m not having a debate or conversation about red lines…I’m not setting red lines.”
But when Egyptians are mown down in their hundreds after the Egyptian military coup, Obama won’t even call it a coup and our very own Palmerstone goes into contortions to avoid holding Egyptian generals to account. With well over 1,000 dead, Hague weirdly referred to this as “turbulence” and “very bleak”. As writer Michael Glackin has pointed out, Hague said even more bizarrely that while the UK does not approve of “military interventions (sic) in democratic processes”, the Egyptian army’s ousting of the elected president was a ‘grey area” rather than illegal.
And just to top it all, of course, Bashar al-Assad has praised the Egyptian military takeover. So Bashar is on our side over Egypt while we are on the side of the rebels trying to destroy Bashar – some of whom the French have been trying to kill in Mali. As the wonderful long-dead Sunday Express columnist John Gordon used to say, it makes you sit up a bit, doesn’t it?