Robert Fisk: 'The Arab awakening began not in Tunisia this year, but in Lebanon in 2005'

Revolutions don't start with a single dramatic event, such as the destruction of a church or a man's self-immolation.

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:03

Legal Note: Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has responded to the allegations concerning him contained in this article and we have published a clarification, which incorporates his comments." See also 4 August 2011 article.

First, to reports from the revolutionary front lines in Syria, in the same imperfect, but brave, English in which they were written less than 24 hours ago...

"Yesterday morning I went to the square to demonstrate, I arranged it with guys on Facebook, I don't know them, but we share the same ambition of freedom, that night I was awake until 6am watching the news, it was horrible what's happening in Syria, the security forces slaughter people as if aniamals !!!...

"I wore my clothes and went to (the) sq. there was about 150 security service in civilian cloths in street calling for Assad's life [ie praising Assad] and one taxi car the driver was driving against the cars to stop them moving in street, I am not sure if he was revolutionizing or just empty the street for security service!, it was crazy, I was angry that they are calling for the dictator's life and want keep him running Syria like he doing.

"They were looking around at every man in street if he doesn't call for president's life they beat him and arrest him, of course I didn't call for his life and I took my phone and started taking video to show the world who's calling for this dictator, his gang! 2 guys were running infront of the demonstration – they are revoluter but they had to run with this gang until freedom seekers arrive from ommayad mosque, those 2 guys told me not to take video and hide my phone.

"I hid it in my pocket but suddenly about 40 men from secutiry came to me, they started shoulting 'he is taking video, he is taking video!!' 5 guys hold me (like when they arrest someone) and started beating me...another 7 attacked me, they took my phone, my ID and my money and other 7 guys attack me, they said why are you taking video bastard??

"'We will kill you all enemies of assad, Syria belongs to assad not to you bastard people!!' Immediately I said: 'I am with you guys!! We all follow president assad even to death!' they said then why are you taking video?'

"I said 'because I am happy there is demonstration calling for the greatest leader assad...'"

"There was one man (looks like officer) caught me and slapped me and he was the last one in this fake demonstration which calls for assad life..."

The second report:

"Assad is lying I assure you! There is more than 6000 political prisoner in Syria so what does let 260 free mean?!!...they said the emergency law to be lifted BUT they will create new law against terrorism, which will be worse than emergency law we are sure!

"They said they will fight the corruption, do you think that Assad will arrest his cousin Rami Makhlouf, his brother Maher Assad, his uncle zo al himma shaleesh, will Assad arrest all his family, take their money and give it back to us??...the gang in Lattakia are Alawiyeen gang belong to Assad family we all know them in Syria they are called shapeeha, the people in Lattakia were demonstrating against the government and afterwards the secret service, police and army brought these shapeeha to scare people and kill them.

"In Syria we are not demonstrating for food or money, we want to change the whole system and hang all Assad family..."

This is raw stuff, the voice of popular – and young – fury that will not be quenched by torture rooms and the cosh. Both Syrian men escaped arrest – though one has now had to flee his country – but their accounts tell a grindingly familiar story from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya... The fake pro-government demonstration, the promiscuous use of secret police violence, the popular knowledge of corruption and the production of plain-clothes regime thugs – "baltagi" in Cairo, where Mubarak used them, which literally means "thugs" – and the sectarianisation of suppression (the "Alawiyeen" in Lattakia are Alawi (Shia) gangs from the sect to which the Assad family belongs.

And now the regime in Damascus is claiming that Lebanon is one of the outside powers sewing discord in the "Um al-Arabia Wahida", the mother of the Arab nation, specifically the Lebanese March 14 Alliance of the outgoing Lebanese Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri, whose principal opponents are the Lebanese Shia Muslim Hezbollah party and their allies.

See how easy it is to create a "sectarian" war in Syria and then infect your neighbour with the virus?

These are not idle words. Revolutions don't start with dramatic incidents – the self-immolation of an unemployed Tunisian, the destruction of a Coptic church – however dramatic these tragedies may be.

In reality, the "Arab awakening" began not in Tunisia this year, but in Lebanon in 2005 when, appalled by the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri (Saad's father), hundreds of thousands of Lebanese of all faiths gathered in central Beirut to demand the withdrawal of Syria's 20,000 soldiers in the country.

Bachar made a pitiful speech in Damascus, abusing the demonstrators, suggesting that live television cameras were using "zooms" to exaggerate the number of the crowds.

But the UN passed a resolution – a no-soldier zone, rather than a no-fly zone, I suppose – which forced the Syrian military to leave.

This was the first "ousting" of a dictator, albeit from someone else's country, by the popular Arab "masses" which had hitherto been an institution in the hands of the dictators.

Yet I recall at the time that none of us – including myself, who had lived in Lebanon for decades – realised how deeply the Syrian claws had dug into the red soil of Lebanon over the previous 29 years. Syria's Lebanese stooges remained in place. Their "mukhabarat" security police simply re-emerged in transmogrified form.

Their political murders continued at whirlwind speed. I spent days chasing from the scene of one car bomb or hit-job to another. This is what terrifies the demonstrators of all the nations struggling to throw off their brutal – and often American-supported – masters. Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the Egyptian army, for example, is now running Egypt. Yet he is not only a close friend of America but a childhood and lifelong friend of Mubarak, who was allowed to whinge the usual ex-dictator's self-congratulatory excuses on al-Arabia television ("my reputation, my integrity and my military and political record") prior to his own questioning – and inevitable emergency entry into hospital. When the latest Tahrir Square crowds also called for Tantawi's resignation, the field marshal's mask slipped. He sent in his troops to "cleanse" the square.

When the Iranians, in their millions, demonstrated against Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's dodgy presidential election results in June of 2009, many members of the "green" movement in Tehran asked me about the 2005 Lebanese revolution against Syria – dubbed the "Cedar Revolution" by the US State Department, a cliché that never really caught on among the Lebanese themselves – and while there was no direct political connection, there was undoubtedly an inspirational junction; two sets of tracks of the same gauge which reinforced the idea that the youth of Tehran and Beirut belonged to the same transport system of humanity and freedom.

Of course, there were many in the Middle East Muslim world who hoped the security forces could be won over to their side. In Cairo, individual soldiers did join the revolution – on a large scale, in Yemen – but wolves do not turn into pussycats. And – despite one obvious historical example in the region – it is unrealistic to expect anyone to save the world by walking towards their own crucifixion. Police chiefs, however personally devout, will do as they are told – even when their orders involve mass murder.

The odd thing about all these revolutions, of course, is that the dictators – be they the Ben Alis, the Mubaraks, the Salehs, the Assads – spend more time spying on foreigners and amassing documentation of their people's transgressions than in trying to understand what their own indigenous populations actually want. Eric Rouleau, a Le Monde correspondent in Iran, who subsequently became French ambassador to Tunisia, has recounted how "General" Ben Ali, Tunisian minister of interior between 1985 and 1986, wished to acquire the very latest French communications equipment from Paris. The "pitiless 'superflic'", as Rouleau cruelly called him, trained by American intelligence in the US, had files on "everyone".

At one meeting with Rouleau, Ben Ali outlined the greatest threats to the Tunisian regime: social "unrest", tensions with a certain Colonel Gaddafi of Libya (here, one must admit a certain sympathy for Ben Ali) and – most serious of all – "the Islamist threat", whatever that may be. Rouleau remembered how "in a theatrical gesture, he (Ben Ali) pushed the button of a machine, which in an instant unrolled an unending list of names whom he said were under permanent surveillance. An information engineer, obsessed with technology, Mr Ben Ali did not cease to use this science of information gathering". Rouleau, who was sending back to Paris less than flattering accounts of the regime and its interior minister, was puzzled that his relations with Ben Ali declined steadily – until the day he ended his mission. "On the day of my final departure from Tunisia, when I went to pay my courtesy visit to him," Rouleau was to recall, "he asked me, in a state of white-hot anger, why I regarded him as a CIA agent possessed of unstoppable ambition. And he started quoting from his files, almost word for word, my own confidential telegrams to the Quai d'Orsay... The ambassador had not escaped from the intricate workings of his spy centre."

Ben Ali could penetrate the French embassy, but as president he simply failed to learn about his own people. There is an unforgettable photograph of the soon-to-be-deposed president as he rather tardily visits the young suicider-by-fire, Mohamed Bouazizi, as he lies dying in his hospital bed.

Ben Ali is doing his best to look concerned. The boy clearly unable to communicate. But the doctors and paramedics are watching the president rather than their patient and doing so with a tired impatience, which the president obviously does not comprehend. From small kindlings do great fires grow.

Take the first uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Deraa – home to the old steam train station, by the way, in which TE Lawrence was supposedly assaulted by an Ottoman officer in the First World War – where no amount of sophisticated intelligence could have forewarned the regime of what was to come. A place of historical rebellion, some youths had painted anti-Assad graffiti on a wall. The Syrian security police followed their normal practice of dragging the young men to the cop shop, beating and torturing them. But then their mothers arrived to demand their release. They were verbally abused by the police.

Then – much more seriously – a group of tribal elders went to see the Deraa governor to demand an explanation for the behaviour of the police.

Each placed his turban on the governor's desk, a traditional gesture of negotiation; they would only replace their turbans when the matter had been resolved. But the governor, a crusty old Baathist and regime-loyalist, took the turban of the most prestigious sheikh, threw it on the floor of his office and stamped on it.

The people of Deraa came out in their thousands to protest; the shooting started; Bashar hastily dismissed his governor and replaced him. Too late. The fire had been lit. In Tunisia, an unemployed young man who set himself alight. In Syria, a turban.

These episodes, of course, are not without their foundation of history. Just as the Hauran district, in which Deraa is situated, has always been a place of rebellion, Egypt was always the land of Gamel Abdul Nasser.

And oddly – although Nasser was the originator of the military dictatorships which were to cripple Egypt – his name was spoken of with respect by thousands of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square who successfully demanded Mubarak's overthrow.

This was not because they forgot his legacy but because, after decades of monarchy and British colonial rule, they regarded Nasser as the first leader who gave Egypt self-respect.

Nasser's daughter Hoda was undoubtedly right in February, when she said that "the parallel with the people's power, the spontaneous uprising that brought my father to power, especially heartens me... People thought that the youth of today are apolitical, but they proved their detractors wrong.

"My father would have been ecstatic. He would have been proud of the people who demonstrated in Tahrir Square, chanting slogans urging radical political reform and social change. Nasser remains at the core of revolutionary mythology in Egypt and the Arab world at large. That is why you saw the portraits of Nasser hoisted high in Tahrir Square." Against all this, the Libyan "revolution" is beginning to stale; its blood congealing along with the words once used about it.

The tribes we once acknowledged as a democratic opposition – namely the Senussis of the old Idriss family – are now called "rebels" by our press and television colleagues, the uprising is now a "civil war", an unpleasant way of reminding ourselves why we must not put "boots on the ground".

Our Tory masters – especially our odious defence minister of the time – invented the Bosnian "civil war" to delay our intervention in the Balkan ethnic cleansing.

Most Arab nations would be happy to see the end of Gaddafi, but he sits uneasily amid the pantheon of "revolution". Wasn't he supposed to be the original revolutionary against the corruption of King Idriss and later scourge of the West and Zionism?

Oddly, there are parallels with Syria which we – and Assad – may not like. For it is Syria's refusal to bend to the United States' "peace process", its unwavering support for the Hezbollah "resistance" in Lebanon which broke the Israeli army in 2006, which allows the Assad family – caliphs, I suppose, by definition – to claim that their independence and their refusal to bow down to US-Israeli demands constitute a long-running revolution in Syria of infinitely more importance than the street fighting gangs of Deraa, Lattakia, Banias and Douma.

Hamas maintains its head political office in Damascus. Syria remains the lung through which Iran can breathe in the Middle East; through which Iran's own president can enter Lebanon and proclaim – to the horror of the Lebanese whom Bachar Assad now blames for his own country's violence – that southern Lebanon is now Iran's front line against Israel.

And now let's go a little further. On 31 March, the Israelis – who have steadfastly opposed the overthrow of the Middle East's dictators – published a series of photo-reconnaissance pictures of southern Lebanon, supposedly marking the exact locations of 550 Hezbollah bunkers, 300 "monitoring sites" and 100 weapons storage facilities run by Syria's Lebanese Shia militia allies in the country. They had been built, the Israelis claimed, next to hospitals, schools and public utilities. The documentation was fake. Visits to locations marked on the map uncovered no such bunkers. Indeed, the real Hezbollah bunkers known to the Lebanese are not marked on the map. The Hezbollah quickly understood the meaning.

"They are setting us up for the next war," a veteran Hezbollah ruffian from the village of Jibchit told me. If Israel had really discovered our positions, the last thing they would have done is inform us they knew the locations – because we'd immediately move them!"

But last week, the Turkish air force forced down an Iranian transport aircraft supposedly flying over Diyarbakir en route to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo with "auto spare parts". On board the Ilyushin-76, the Turks found 60 Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, 14 BKC machine guns, 8,000 rounds of ammunition, 560 60-mm mortar shells and 1,288 120-mm mortar shells.

Forget Facebook. These were not part of any Arab "reawakening" or "uprising", but further supplies for the Hezbollah to use in their next conflict with Israel. All of which raises a question. Is there a better way of taking your people's minds off revolution than a new war against an enemy which has resolutely opposed the democratisation of the Arab world?

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