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Hichem Karoui:Cynicism and Passion

Hichem Karoui | 31.05.2002 11:06

The longstanding notion many Arabs were contemplating that if the USA wanted something done, at any time in any part of the world, it would simply get it done, has apparently resisted the September 11’s events. This vision while being to some degree emphasized by the “victory” of the USA in the cold war and extensively in the contest with the ex-USSR since the collapse of the latter, as well as by the henceforth prevailing role of the US in the search for peace in the Middle East during the last decade, has also its roots anchored in the Arab mind.


9.35 pt




Why the Arabs
expect everything from the USA!



By: Hichem Karoui (in Paris)

 DATE \@ "MMMM d, yyyy" May 29, 2002




 The longstanding notion many Arabs were
contemplating that if the USA wanted something done, at any time in any part of
the world, it would simply get it done, has apparently resisted the September
11’s events. This vision while being to some degree emphasized by the “victory”
of the USA in the cold war and extensively in the contest with the ex-USSR
since the collapse of the latter, as well as by the henceforth prevailing role
of the US in the search for peace in the Middle East during the last decade,
has also its roots anchored in the Arab mind. Habituated to what the French
political thought traditionally calls clientélisme d’état – which
we may possibly translate as: State’s customary or State’s reliance-, the Arabs
expect everything from the USA, in the same measure that they are relying on
their own states for almost all the necessities of their life. The fact that
theses states have a thousand times failed to meet their expectations or to
fulfill their promises does not matter. The point is that the Arabs project
their own feelings vis-à-vis their rulers upon the US government, considering
that it is up to the Superpower to take on the responsibility for some
insoluble problems in the world. A task that no US government has rejected
anyway since the end of the cold war, and more precisely since the collapse of
the Soviet Union. For if the world’s leadership has a signification, it is well
in this frame that it ought to be sought. The moral responsibility is not
something that has been forced on the USA, either. Even before the fall down of
the communism in Europe all the US governments have been claiming the leadership
of the free world. Now that the wind of freedom has swept off many rotten
communist dictatorships in Europe and elsewhere, the USA cannot back away from
holding responsibility. That is why it is perhaps not too excessive to say that
without that psychical predisposition of the Arab mind, espousing – it is true-
an international configuration, Madrid Peace Conference (1991) would have never
been possible.

Naturally, it is in the wake of that
Conference that the Palestinian-Israeli secret negotiations have been conducted
in Oslo. The important events that followed up- i.e. the Oslo accords, and the
Jordan-Israeli peace, etc- would not be accurately explained out of this
general framework.

Arab rulers were not dissatisfied with the direction the wind was taking. Many
of them relied on the USA for their own survival and, like their peoples though
for different reasons, they were expecting and demanding a strong American
commitment at the side of the Palestinian people, if not to bring justice to that
region, at least to persuade about 250 million Arabs that their governments
were right in maintaining a strong relationship with the USA, the main
supporter of Israel.

Arab rulers know to what extent their peoples may feel compassion towards the
Palestinians, even despite the long distances that could separate them. The
Western observers who thought that such empathy could only be explained by the
religious bond are mistaken. Why the Muslims of the ex-Soviet Union, or of
China, or of any Asian or African dictatorship did not benefit of such concern
although their plight as minority or as community might have been quite
appealing to the Arab people? The only exclusion concerns Afghanistan under the
yoke of the Soviets. But is it superfluous to recall that the Americans then
played on the religious bond (the solidarity between Muslims) and most of all
on the Jihad concept, to mobilize an Islamic militia from the
four parts of the world to fight the Soviet army? Many years later, the
Americans would feign to be surprised while discovering that the international
Islamic militia they had helped in recruiting, arming and training, would
boomerang not only at its first masters (the Americans) but also at what is
believed to be their antennas in the Arab world (i.e. the governments!) So,
though the Islamic solidarity exists, to be sure, it does not explain
everything concerning the overwhelming compassion towards the Palestinians.
Another factor is behind this phenomenon, and it is also as characteristic of
the Arab mind as the religious bond. This factor finds its source at the roots
of the social system, which means that it is some kind of psychological trait.
We can sum it up in the following figure:

Me against my brother.

Me and my brother against our

Me, my brother and my cousin
against the tribe.

Me, my brother, my cousin and our
tribe against the other tribes.

Me, my brother, my cousin, our
tribe and its allies against the rest of the world…


Anyway, during
the ante-Islamic period, this phenomenon was called ‘Asabiyya Qabaliyya,
according to the famous Ibn Khaldun (: tribal fanaticism). Later on, though
Islam has softened it while emphasizing that there is no difference between the
races and the nations for God, safe for the belief in His unity, whence the
universality of the Islamic message, it survived taking several aspects.

The third factor
explaining the strong feelings vis-à-vis the Palestinians is to be found in the
natural bond between all those who suffer from injustice. In their own
countries, the Arab peoples are neither happy nor satisfied with their
political systems based on the obedience to the ruler and the exclusion of the
opposition. If the majority of the populations have not directly suffered from
police harassment, prisons, torture, etc, that does not mean they do not know
about it. In some parts of the Arab world, it is not the ruler who run the
country, but fear. However, I hasten to add that nobody fears the ruler, but
rather the neighbor, or the colleague, or the friend, or even the cousin, and
maybe also the brother!

to the modern world, this notion of ‘Asabiyya long and deeply
analyzed by Ibn Khaldun since about five centuries, may find its way through
the complexity of the political alliances and the common interests. We can
discern its track in the internal struggle for power inside each Arab country
as well as on the regional scale. For example, the Arab world has never been
considered as a single entity despite the fact that from the shores of the
Atlantic westward to the coast of the Gulf eastward, the populations not only
speak and write the same language, but also enjoy the same culture (films,
plays, books, music, etc…) Inside this map we can still discern varied blocks
of interests: On the west, there is the Maghreb Union (a dead-born myth
initially triggered by the French to separate North Africa from the rest of the
Arab world, and today consecrated by regimes as different and even
contradictory as the kingdom of Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania, and
Algeria! Not only such pretended union is quite impossible to detecting safe in
the schizophrenic official speeches, but it actually functions as a cover for
wide and deep divergences and even hostilities between the leaders and the
parties in power.) More to the east, Egypt and Sudan stand for what is called
the Nile valley. The economic interests are here focused mainly on the common
exploitation of the Nile for agriculture and industry. It has always been
claimed that Egypt has some kind of upper influence on the Sudanese society,
whence a lot of sensitive zones of friction and sometimes confrontation. Yet it
is also true that Egypt is present in the rest of the Arab countries through
its unmatchable cultural production. Yemen and Djibouti enter in the Egyptian
influence zone through the Red Sea, albeit Yemen would insistently look
eastward towards the rich Gulf Cooperation Council, which it has never ceased
to ask to join, vainly. This is also the case of Iraq prior to the invasion of
Kuwait. But the six oil states led by the Saudi Arabia Kingdom (Bahrain,
Kuwait, Qatar, Emirates, Oman) have always refused to acknowledge that Iraq is
also a Gulf State! And if they rejected the Yemeni candidature, because
obviously this state does not match their own pattern of development based
mainly on the oil economy, the secular and socialist ideology of the Iraqi
Baath party was judged either too restraining or too aggressive to comply with.
Traditionally- it is true- Iraq has been rather tied to Syria, while the latter
has always considered Lebanon as its own extension. But maybe nothing could be
more expressive of the Arab contradictions – and precisely of that famous ‘Asabiyya
– than the case of Iraq and Syria. Here, we find two countries tied by almost
everything (geography, history, culture, and ideology), where a unique party
(the Baath) founded by Michel Aflak (a Syrian born secular Christian, who died
in Iraq), until recently unable not only to coexist but also even to talk to
each other! Both countries were propagating the same ideology, and supported by
the ex-Soviet Union. Yet, unlike the communists, the Baath party which was
standing for socialism and unity of the whole Arab world, has never been able
to put order at home: either in Syria or in Iraq, the baathists were merely enemies.
They were preaching unity, but the borders between them were shut during years.
If an Arab traveler would need a visa to visit Iraq from, say a country in
North Africa (the visa itself is neither the sign of unity nor even of trust
between the Arab countries), he would get the permission to visit the Pope in
the Vatican more easily than a permission to enter Iraq from Syria, or Syria
from Iraq, some years ago. As to Jordan, maybe is it too little to say that it
is tied to Palestine: the majority of the Jordanian people is said to be

what is Jordanian and what is Palestinian or Iraqi or Syrian? Ask T.E.Lawrence
– or Lawrence of Arabia, as he is known! Without the Sykes-Picot accords,
without the intervention of the British and French imperialism in this region
of the world, what would have been the Arab world today? Would unviable,
little, undemocratic states ever have existed? Where was Tunisia or Mauritania
before the French colonization? They have never existed. The same thing could
be said about the modern Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf States, etc.

 These “nations” are fictitious. Their rulers
had been vassals to the High Gate (: the Ottoman Empire). They have been made
out of nothing in such a hurry that it is a miracle that they did not explode
with all the contradictions that undermine them many years ago. If they
succeeded to pass the thirty years old cap, it is thanks to their
communist-like regimes, though some of them were advocating wild liberalism.
Now we see plainly the results of the Franco-British unharmonious cut up.
Everywhere in their ancient colonies, people are not only suffering from the
backward, unfaithful, short viewed policies of their autocratic rulers, but  they are also afflicted with their endless
rivalry. Rivalry for influence and power, rivalry for leadership, rivalry for
financial interests, rivalry even for courtship with the USA and the other
Western powers. How can any economic or political progress be achieved in such
conditions of internal and external continual struggle? And it is not always a
mute struggle. How can we forget that prior to the Kuwait invasion, Iraq
despite eight years long war with Iran, was one of the most powerful countries
of the region?

visited Iraq no less than six times in that period, and I toured the country
several times from the south to the north. Indeed, it was not a European State.
I am not talking of the political regime, but rather of the level of
socio-economical achievement. Compared to many other countries, either in Asia
or in Africa or even in Southern America, Iraq was not then the backward,
barren, distressed country it has become after the Desert Storm and the
embargo. It was usually likened to some east-European states, although the
Western observers meant the political side in the comparison, while their Arab
peers were taking pride in comparing Iraq to Czechoslovakia or even to the
Tito’s Yugoslavia for its opposition to the East and West (what was called
Tito’s positive neutrality- a notion also applied to Nasser’s Egypt).

me nor dozens of journalists and writers who visited Iraq in those years, and
who almost regularly met in the bars and the coffee-shops of the Meridian, the
Melia-Mansur, or the Rasheed hotels in Baghdad, could imagine even in the dream
that the Iraqi army was preparing to invade Kuwait. When I heard of the
invasion, I was thousands of miles away, in the Mechtel Hotel in Tunis. An
Iraqi friend (a writer) announced the event to me. I was so surprised that I
could not even imagine the extent of the catastrophe!

I was shocked. I could not see the wisdom of invading an Arab neighbor,
although Kuwait was certainly not a model of political commonsense. But who
was? And who made of the Iraqi government the judge of what is good and right
and what is not? Furthermore, if we believe that all those little Arab states,
with their stupid policies and their out-of-time national pride, are quite
superfluous as a legacy of the colonization period, that does not mean
necessarily that the bigger among them must swallow up the smaller. Otherwise,
I could see neither George Washington nor Garibaldi in Saddam. It was obvious
that his step, far from trying to unify the Arab world, could only divide it.
And that was exactly what happened.

example of the Iraqi-Kuwait conflict contains in itself almost the exact sum of
what is being muted in and between the other Arab countries. It contains also
the pattern of some ideas widely anchored in the Arab world concerning the USA.
For since the Americans were able to intervene on behalf of the Kuwaiti, why
shouldn’t they do the same for the Palestinians? Whether true or false, this
kind of ideas generated expectations on economical and political levels.
Henceforth, the USA would be endowed with almost magical power. Whence, in the
absence of an American commitment, the feelings of distress, rejection,
unfulfilment, and even despair based on the ambiguous relationship thus
psychically settled between those who wait and those who are waited for.

relationship is a passionate one. Let’s not omit it. To borrow the title of a
French philosopher (André Glucksman), I would depict it as: passionate and
cynical!  Yet, precisely because of that
emotive weight it has been loaded with, the relationship is not a model of
rationality, which in itself contains the preamble – maybe even – the seeds of
some tragic consequences. Thus, what happened on September 11 could also be
interpreted in this light.




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