Democratic rights will strengthen the Arab revolution
From Anti-imperialist Camp
Syria remains the only Arab regime which maintains some anti-imperialist traits: its support to Hezbollah and the political space it offers to the Palestinian resistance movement – to name only the two most important ones. However, cementing its absolute, even dynastic powers, Bashar al-Assad is not helping the anti-imperialist cause. On the contrary, the people need fresh air to breathe, to mobilise, to prepare for the overall Arab liberation struggle against western neo-colonialism ahead.
As revolutionaries we need to think big. If we do not want to invest politically, if we shy away from necessary risks, we are doomed to lose. Right now we are witnesses to the crumbling of the imperialist architecture of the Arab world, one of the most neuralgic points of the global order. In general and especially now we need to be definitely more audacious than the imperialist elites, not less, not just clinging to hollow gains of the past. In this context we cannot bind the faith of the revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle to figures like Assad let alone Qaddhafi who only defends his own interest.
The Egyptian people have brought down the most important western puppet dictator of the region. Certainly his regime remains in place, but it is at least shaken and definitely cannot do business as usual. The popular masses just started to move. So the next period will be marked by struggles, including struggles of class character.
One setback for the Arab popular democratic movement is Libya, where the leadership consented to being hijacked by imperialism, inviting neo-colonialism to one of its notorious “humanitarian” military interventions.
Trough its Libyan operation, the west tries to inverse the general paradigm of their decades of support for the regional tyrants. They want to be seen as supporters of democracy. However, they seem to understand that they should not overstretch it to Iraq, where their “export of democracy” backfired badly. Beside the very fact that for the time being there is no harvest for imperialism in sight in Libya, that Maghreb country is a small particular in the overall Arab general where the imperialist design is questioned.
It is enough to take a glimpse at the popular fermentation in the Gulf where the Bahraini revolt is only the tip of the iceberg. There are also massive protests in Oman, in the Yemen and within the head of the serpent, the Saudi kingdom. All of these dictators are heavily protected by their imperialist creators and masters, including connivance for the bloody repression as seen in Bahrain, which is both the base of the US navy as well as the most articulated leftist movement in the Gulf.
It is in this broader context of a popular movement attacking the imperialist setup of the region that we should not fear a popular mobilisation in Syria. To put it clearly: only democratic freedom and popular mobilisation will in the long run be able to defeat imperialism—not bureaucratic, ossified, autocratic anti-imperialism, which too often sold out faster than one could realise. The Arab people will be forced to lead a prolonged and combined popular uprising and resistance war, for which none of the remnants of past elite leadership is qualified. We can put it as follows: the future is Hezbollah, not Assad.
It is obvious that in reality this polarity does not appear so clearly. It is Assad who supports Hezbollah, who embodies some anti-imperialist momentum of the past. And we definitely need to defend that. But we should not close our eyes before the very fact that his regime has become hollow and is lacking popular support. Assad has carried out a whole series of liberalist economic reforms, including privatisations and cutting welfare, which have increased the social gap. Unemployment and poverty are widespread. The people need democratic rights and social justice also for the anti-imperialist struggle. They are right to take to the streets for these demands and even to turn violent. Assad is wrong to play games, to promise the end of the state of emergency but not to commit to a date. Will he eventually come out with some concessions when the masses have demobilised? This is exactly what Assad wants. For the Ba‘ath elite, the popular masses are a danger, even a greater danger than imperialism.
Let’s have a brief look into history. There is not only the paradigmatic betrayal of Pan-Arabism by Anwar as-Sadat after the death of Gamal Abd an-Nasser, based on the defeat inflicted by Israel on Nasser in 1967. What was defeated was hollow, rhetoric anti-imperialism of an elite that was unwilling and unable to mobilise the popular masses and build upon them. The Assad dynasty has been virtuously playing this game ever since, as the Golan Heights have not been returned to them. They display their steadfastness against Israel as their credentials to the Arab people.
But we should not forget the Syrian military intervention in the Lebanese civil war in the 70’s, against the left and against the Palestinians, as the Syrian regime feared their victory the most. And we can never condone their support for the western aggression on Iraq in 1991, which won them the United States’ tacit OK for their continued military presence in Lebanon.
It is not by accident that faced with the first outburst of public protests, which was met with fierce repression, Assad could secure the soft support of the imperialist hierarchy. While the neo-cons linked to Israel were renewing their calls for regime change, US foreign secretary Hillary Clinton called Assad a “reformer”. King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia also gave him backing, despite the fact that Assad is allied to their arch enemy—Iran! The reason is simple: they fear a popular uprising in one of the main Arab states more than they are afraid of Assad. It would tremendously fuel the Arab revolution, which they have great difficulties to contain.
As in Egypt one can assume that the main opposition force in Syria is the Muslim Brotherhood. They still have an account to settle for the Hama massacre in 1982, when tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered by Assad senior. Besides that it is fully legitimate to hold the Assads accountable for the massacre, what is to be expected of the Muslim Brotherhood?
One can see the opportunist role they play in Egypt. They jumped on the band-wagon of the movement against Mubarak only after is seemed unstoppable. And they are longing for a compromise with the military in which they get the role of the political administration of the former system. In this sense they supported the constitutional referendum which should stabilise the military regime while granting elections in return – which the Muslim Brotherhood might gain. A new government with the Brotherhood’s involvement will need both to keep more distance to imperialism and respect the democratic aspirations of the masses. In any respect such a setup will definitely be better than Mubarak. The Brotherhood cannot go against the masses. On the contrary, there will be and there is already a massive democratic contagion. The vast majority of the poor and middle classes are both democratic and Islamic. While a full-blown counterrevolution under the current conditions is unlikely, as the west cannot politically afford it, its main forces are the army and the remnants of the old regime linked to it, and not the Muslim Brotherhood, which is strongly connected to the people.
The Egyptian left and the global anti-imperialist movement need to push them ahead on this track and contain the conservative elements which were dominant within the Brotherhood. A western-type secularist approach would mean on one hand the death of the weak left, and on the other hand the strengthening of the conservative and reactionary grip on the popular masses. The left, however, can play the role of the thorn inside the movement, pushing it ahead and also enforcing class struggle, which the Brotherhood wants to avoid. Here the left got a possible power base the Brotherhood’s leadership cannot easily silence and control.
Back to Syria: The conditions there are different in the sense that the Assad regime seems to continue to enjoy the support of significant parts of the Alawi and Christian sects. It did mobilise demonstrations by hundreds of thousands which Mubarak and Ben Ali could not even dream of. (Mubarak had largely lost the Coptic support he once had wielded.) The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood on the other side has a strongly sectarian record. So in Syria there is indeed the danger of a sectarian conflict, which must be avoided by the anti-imperialist forces at all cost.
Despite the past of the Syrian Brotherhood, which was marked by close co-operation with the Saudi political bloc drivin Sunni confessionalism, the Brotherhood cannot frontally go against the popular aspirations which will be very much in line with the overall Arab stream.
Given these specificities and in difference to the states of the region guarded by western puppet regimes, the immediate demand right now should not be to bring down the regime altogether. The centre of gravity must be that full democratic rights are granted and social justice implemented. Assad cannot remain deaf if he wants to survive.