Where have all the Arabs gone? This question could well be answered over the next few days when the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups meet in Istanbul and when the Arab League meets in Baghdad.
Political and media commentators remain uncertain as to how the turbulent events of last year might finally play out, but one thing is for sure they generally prefix their analysis with reference to its Arab identity. We talk about the ‘Arab Spring’, the ‘Arab Awakening’ and if we are feeling a little contraire the ‘Arab Winter’. The seasons might change but the Arabness of what we are talking about remains a comforting constant.
Are we right to do so when the immediate beneficiaries have been Islamist parties of all various shades and colours? Their electoral victory in Tunisia and then Egypt is hardly surprising when one thinks of their organisational structure and grass-roots membership. What is less noted, however, is the extent to which religious political fervour is eclipsing or at the very least remaking Arab identity.
The dominant discourse here in the West continues to portray events in Syria as a rights base struggle between Syria’s citizens and its authoritarian leader. We frame our analysis with reference to Tahrir Square. But, it is equally possible to see the conflict as part of wider proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and between different strands of Islam. We talk about the Syrian National Council as if it’s a homogenous group, when in reality it is a disparate band of opposition group with little in common other than a desire to remove President Assad.
At the moment there is little clarity as to which strand of political Islam will prevail in which areas of the Middle East, and even if the strands are the same in differing contexts. The Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia is different to that which exists in Egypt which in turn is different to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. The common denominator, however, that used to bind these countries together appears missing.
Compare for instance the first meeting of the Arab League in 1964 that the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser called “to unify the Arab position to face an Israeli war project on Arab waters” with the one that is to be held in Baghdad later this week.
It is unlikely that the kings of Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Bahrain will attend, while Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi is expected to give his apologies due to the volatile situation in Egypt. Syria will be the focus of discussion rather than a participant.
And who will represent the Palestinians – the PLO of the West Bank or the Hamas that liberated Gaza from Israeli occupation. That Hamas is now welcomed in Cairo as persona grata shows just how topsy turvy the region has become over the last few months and how are traditional points of reference need our critical re-evaluation.
None of this is to say that in our rush to understand events in the Middle East and North Africa we should ditch one framing narrative for another. Perhaps, however, its time we recognised the complexity and fluidity of the situation(s) and that for the time being we are caught between frames and that there is no one dominant narrative. If we could do that, we might be better free to understand what is actually going on across the region.
Please note this will be my last blog until after Easter.