Sunday, February 20, 2011

Egypt's Revolt, Lebanon, and Iraq

Last week, Lebanon Daily Star editor Michael Young published an essay in The National that analyzed the impact of Mubarak's overthrow in Lebanon.  He noted especially that Mubarak's fall was celebrated there by Hezbollah, the Shii religious/political party currently in the ascendant against the Sunni bloc led by Saad Hariri.  And, of course, Iran's leaders celebrated Mubarak's fall as well, as a defeat for US and Israeli interests.  But Young also finds reason for the now-minority Sunni of Lebanon to take heart as well:
If Egyptians could overcome their fear of the superior firepower of security forces; if they could impose justice on an unjust leader; and if all this could send shockwaves of pride throughout the Middle East, because Egypt once again was a vanguard for Sunni Arabs, then there is no reason these messages cannot echo in Beirut. Hizbollah and Syria's guns can be overcome, justice in the Hariri assassination can triumph, and Sunnis in general can be the stronger for it.
Lebanon currently struggles to form a new government, which will be led by a Sunni, Najib Muqati, who has Hezbollah's support.  Young here seems to exhort Lebanon's Sunni to stand fast and persevere against the rise of Hezbollah, against whom (and Syria) Young has frequently displayed his own deeply held hostility.  In the process though, he seems to set up a functional equivalence between Mubarak (a secular autocrat who was often content to do the US's bidding) and Hezbollah (a religious party that despises the US) - and that, to me, undercuts his argument to some extent.  Nonetheless . . .

Over the last few days, hundreds of Iraqis, obviously inspired by the events in Egypt and Tunisia, have flocked to city streets to protest the ongoing lack of electricity and economic opportunity.  But, let's note, Iraq too, like Lebanon, is a volatile nation with a newly ascendant Shii majority that now dominates the government, much to the expense of previously dominant, though minority, Sunni population.  A number of commentators have referred post-2003 to the "Lebanonization" of Iraqi politics and society (even if Lebanon's sectarian checkerboard is much more complex).

As yet, I've read nothing that signals that the current Iraqi demonstrations have been motivated that much by Sunni anger against Shii domination, but it's a no-brainer to assume that, especially in the wake of how badly the Sunni-supported Iraqiya party was dissed after last March's elections, that anger is there, and still simmers.  It may be prudent to be very alert for such signals.

And, it may also be prudent to be alert for other indications of what some (like Nir Rosen,  Anthony Shadid and Rami Khouri) have hinted at: a rejuvenated sense of pan-Arabism in the Middle East, rooted now mostly in the electronically expanded connectivity and shared experience among young, techno-savvy Arabs who are fed up with autocrats and with the political and socio-economic limitations they represent.  In Iraq, pan-Arabism - especially under Saddam, but even earlier - came to be identified both with Sunni political domination and with Iraqi Sunnis' desire to associate their aspirations with those of fellow Arabs across what was a Sunni-dominated Middle East.  But in the beginning, pan-Arabism was a movement meant to cut across Sunni-Shia sectarian lines, in favor of a shared "Arabness" based on history, custom, and (especially) language.

In a recent essay by Franck Salameh in The National Interest, the entire idea that we might be seeing a renaissance of pan-Arabism was well and thoroughly trashed. Still, I wonder to what extent Iraq's Sunnis might seek empowerment through identifying with fellow Sunnis in Syria in their resistance to Hezbollah's rise - or with fellow Sunni youth across the Middle East - in Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, even Morocco now.

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