Recently I’ve become pretty disappointed with the New York Times, and this has all to do with their response to the Bin Laden killing. Their reporting was jingoistic, even nationalistic, up to the point of being an uncritical cheering of actions of a president clearly violating international and domestic law. When such things happen, one’s reminded that the NYT is basically nothing but an establishment newspaper that will never really be a truly critical government watchdog (and think about their refusal to call the Bush torture methods what they are: torture).
That aside, however, sometimes they have articles that remind why despite of that the NYT, in terms of the technical craft of journalism, is still undisputedly the best newspaper in the world. Maybe not the most critical, but at least the one with the ability to write huge pieces full of insight and a broad scope, sometimes even being almost literary in style.
The piece below, about the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions, is such an article. It covers the countries that have recently witnessed revolutions or failed attempts at making them, and how the legacy of that is now threatened by internal disputes based on old ethnic and religious divisions. It’s a very sad story actually, about the promise of a new national identity and citizenship versus ancient hatreds, and one can only hope that the great civic protests of 2011 will not have been in vain.
The revolutions and revolts in the Arab world, playing out over just a few months across two continents, have proved so inspirational to so many because they offer a new sense of national identity built on the idea of citizenship.
But in the past weeks, the specter of divisions — religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya — has threatened uprisings that once seemed to promise to resolve questions that have vexed the Arab world since the colonialism era.
From the fetid alleys of Imbaba, the Cairo neighborhood where Muslims and Christians have fought street battles, to the Syrian countryside, where a particularly deadly crackdown has raised fears of sectarian score-settling, the question of identity may help determine whether the Arab Spring flowers or withers. Can the revolts forge alternative ways to cope with the Arab world’s variety of clans, sects, ethnicities and religions?
The old examples have been largely of failure: the rule of strongmen in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen; a fragile equilibrium of fractious communities in Lebanon and Iraq; the repressive paternalism of the Persian Gulf, where oil revenues are used to buy loyalty.
“I think the revolutions in a way, in a distant way, are hoping to retrieve” this sense of national identity, said Sadiq al-Azm, a prominent Syrian intellectual living in Beirut.
“The costs otherwise would be disintegration, strife and civil war,” Mr. Azm said. “And this was very clear in Iraq.”
In an arc of revolts and revolution, that idea of a broader citizenship is being tested as the enforced silence of repression gives way to the cacophony of diversity. Security and stability were the justification that strongmen in the Arab world offered for repression, often with the sanction of the United States; the essence of the protests in the Arab Spring is that people can imagine an alternative.
But even activists admit that the region so far has no model that enshrines diversity and tolerance without breaking down along more divisive identities.
In Tunisia, a relatively homogenous country with a well-educated population, fault lines have emerged between the secular-minded coasts and the more religious and traditional inland.
The tensions shook the nascent revolution there this month when a former interim interior minister, Farhat Rajhi, suggested in an online interview that the coastal elite, long dominant in the government, would never accept an electoral victory by Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, which draws most of its support inland.
“Politics was in the hands of the people of the coast since the start of Tunisia,” Mr. Rajhi said. “If the situation is reversed now, they are not ready to give up ruling.” He warned that Tunisian officials from the old government were preparing a military coup if the Islamists won elections in July. “If Ennahda rules, there will be a military regime.”
In response, protesters poured back out into the streets of Tunis for four days of demonstrations calling for a new revolution. The police beat them back with batons and tear gas, arrested more than 200 protesters and imposed a curfew on the city.
In Cairo, the sense of national identity that surged at the moment of revolution — when hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths celebrated in Tahrir Square with chants of “Hold your head high, you are an Egyptian”— has given way to a week of religious violence pitting the Coptic Christian minority against their Muslim neighbors, reflecting long-smoldering tensions that an authoritarian state may have muted, or let fester.
At a rally this month in Tahrir Square to call for unity, Coptic Christians were conspicuously absent, thousands of them gathering nearby for a rally of their own. And even among some Muslims at the unity rally, suspicions were pronounced.
“As Muslims, our sheiks are always telling us to be good to Christians, but we don’t think that is happening on the other side,” said Ibrahim Sakr, 56, a chemistry professor, who asserted that Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the population, still consider themselves “the original” Egyptians because their presence predates Islam.
In Libya, supporters of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi acknowledge that his government banks on fears of clan rivalries and possible partition to stay in power in a country with deep regional differences.
Officials say that the large extended clans of the west that contribute most of the soldiers to Colonel Qaddafi’s forces will never accept any revolution arising from the east, no matter what promises the rebels make about universal citizenship in a democratic Libya with its capital still in the western city of Tripoli.
The rebels say the revolution can forge a new identity.
“Qaddafi looks at Libya as west and east and north and south,” said Jadella Shalwee, a Libyan from Tobruk who visited Tahrir Square last weekend in a pilgrimage of sorts. “But this revolt has canceled all that. This is about a new beginning,” he said, contending that Colonel Qaddafi’s only supporters were “his cousins and his family.”
“Fear” is what Gamal Abdel Gawad, the director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, called it — the way that autocrats win support because people “are even more scared of their fellow citizens.”
Nowhere is that perhaps truer than in Syria, with a sweeping revolt against four decades of rule by one family and a worsening of tensions among a Sunni Muslim majority and minorities of Christians and heterodox Muslims, the Alawites.
Mohsen, a young Alawite in Syria, recounted a slogan that he believes, rightly or not, was chanted at some of the protests there: “Christians to Beirut and the Alawites to the coffin.”
“Every week that passes,” he lamented, speaking by telephone from Damascus, the Syrian capital, “the worse the sectarian feelings get.”
The example of Iraq comes up often in conversations in Damascus, as does the civil war in Lebanon. The departure of Jews, who once formed a vibrant community in Syria, remains part of the collective memory, illustrating the tenuousness of diversity. Syria’s ostensibly secular government, having always relied on Alawite strength, denounces the prospect of sectarian differences while, its critics say, fanning the flames. The oft-voiced formula is, by now, familiar: after us, the deluge.
“My Alawite friends want me to support the regime, and they feel if it’s gone, our community will be finished,” said Mohsen, the young Alawite in Damascus, who asked that only his first name be used because he feared reprisal. “My Sunni friends want me to be against the regime, but I feel conflicted. We want freedom, but freedom with stability and security.”
That he used the mantra of years of Arab authoritarianism suggested that people still, in the words of one human rights activist, remain “hostage to the lack of possibilities” in states that, with few exceptions, have failed to come up with a sense of self that transcends the many divides.
“This started becoming a self-fulfilling myth,” said Mr. Azm, the Syrian intellectual.
“It was either our martial law or the martial law of the Islamists,” he added. “The third option was to divide the country into ethnicities, sects and so on.”
Despite a wave of repression, crackdown and civil war, hope and optimism still pervade the region, even in places like Syria, the setting of one of the most withering waves of violence. There, residents often speak of a wall of fear crumbling. Across the Arab world, there is a renewed sense of a collective destiny that echoes the headiest days of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and ’60s and perhaps even transcends it.
President Obama, in his speech on Thursday about the changes in the Arab world, spoke directly to that feeling. “Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else. But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore.”
But no less pronounced are the old fears of zero-sum power, where one side wins and the other inevitably loses. From a Coptic Christian in Cairo to an Alawite farmer in Syria, discussions about the future are posed in terms of survival. Differences in Lebanon, a country that celebrates and laments the diversity of its 18 religious communities, are so pronounced that even soccer teams have a sectarian affiliation.
In Beirut, wrecked by a war over the country’s identity and so far sheltered from the gusts of change, activists have staged a small sit-in for two months to call for something different, in a plea that resonates across the Arab world.
The Square of Change, the protesters there have nicknamed it, and their demand is blunt: Citizenship that unites, not divides.
“We are not ‘we’ yet,” complained Tony Daoud, one of the activists. “What do we mean when we say ‘we’? ‘We’ as what? As a religion, as a sect, as human beings?”