Arab Politics and 1989
Of a Stone That Arrived in the Mail
I don’t know how many people in the Arab world have received a souvenir stone from the Berlin Wall in the mail. But I did. At the time, it seemed that this prize was my reward for a slip of the tongue rather than for any knowledge of what the future held.
During the spring of 1989, in the transit hall of Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport, I met a German law student from the University of Hamburg. We were all waiting for a plane that was seven hours late, and as is the wont of travellers everywhere we passed the time talking about a variety of things, among them politics. And as always happens with me, the Middle East was front and centre in this discussion.
Be that as it may, the little piece of the Wall reached me in the mail as a result of a short exchange about the regime in what was then known as the German Democratic Republic. I did not know that much about it, but I expressed reservations about the Soviet regime, recounting my disappointment following several visits to Moscow. I concluded by saying that I did not expect such regimes to survive for very long.
It seems that my thoughts on the matter found an echo in the young law student from the University of Hamburg, who expressed similar reservations about totalitarian regimes and criticised East Germany with vehemence and passion; I could not tell whether that was due to deeply-held political convictions or in reaction to some painful personal experience of her own or her family’s.
And now as I recall this encounter twenty years on, I am overcome by the same feeling that I had back then in the transit lounge – when talk of an imminent end to the so-called Socialist Bloc seemed like hyperbole, a flight of fancy, something inconceivable even in our wildest dreams. But the end came, and before the year was out. More important, here, is the fact that neither our wild imaginings nor any verbal slip was able to ‘lighten’ the bombshell of the event when it happened. To events of historical moment there is an earth-shattering quality, like the shock of an earthquake.
While Europe at the end of the 1980s was the epicentre of this ‘earthquake’, the shock waves were felt in every corner of the globe, whether in the Arab world or elsewhere, in a tumult of reverberating and intertwined echoes. From one day to the next, allies of the United States in the Arab world found themselves in the ranks of the victor – albeit in the backbenches, given their relatively small stakes in the Cold War and their similarly meagre gains when compared with the major players; while on the other hand, the allies of the Soviet Union and the Socialist Bloc found themselves stripped bare at the forefront of the ranks of the losers.
Here it should be noted that the calculus of strategic interests foisted on the Arabs at the beginning of the 1950s, whether by co-optation or coercion, was not sufficiently persuasive to induce them to espouse the values and preponderant political traditions of the respective blocs they lined up behind. Thus, the Arab regimes allied with the West were in no way representative, with some going so far as to characterise democracy as a Western product unsuited to local traditions; while, for their part, the allies of the Soviet Union were not socialists in the Soviet mould, with the exception of the Marxist regime in Aden.
This is of particular importance in understanding how the shock waves of the aforementioned ‘earthquake’ played out in the Arab world. Among ruling Arab elites aligned with the West, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies was not seen as a victory for the values and political traditions of the Western Bloc and, conversely, the ruling elites aligned with the Soviet Union did not perceive its collapse as a failure of the totalitarian model and one-party rule.
As for the Communist parties and other New Left organisations in the Arab world, the ‘earthquake’ left them with what can only be compared to paralysis from a stroke – able neither to defend the supremacy of the Socialist model convincingly, nor to cast doubt any more persuasively on the beneficial nature of Western values and political traditions in government and politics.
So in that sense, the Cold War had little substance for ruling Arab elites beyond fleeting opportunism, regardless of whether they were in power or in opposition. It was devoid of deep or lasting ideological or cultural significance, and its role was strictly limited to the arena of the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While the Berlin Wall may have been present in the discourse of these elites, it was completely absent in the larger human sense that it constituted the point of confrontation between two worlds embodying and defending conflicting values and political traditions.
Large cities with old pedigrees are like living organic beings: their vital functions shut down when they are torn apart. I write this now from my current location in Berlin where I am able to cross the imaginary distance over the remains of what was the Berlin Wall in a matter of seconds; the Wall which, under the shadow of surveillance towers and gun-muzzles, was a shield from the absurdity that marks the dismemberment of a living city; this Wall which obscured the high price paid by the city’s inhabitants because they chanced to live in a place that was a confrontation point. In any case, this imaginary distance arouses conflicting feelings in me, foremost among them a deeply sceptical faith in human intelligence, and secondly the feeling that freedom, albeit delayed, will ultimately prevail.
It is possible that such too were the feelings of innumerable Arab citizens, able as they were to witness the failure of the Wall to dam the human flood-waves, under the very eyes and ears of soldiers who had lost the reins of control and become unemployed patrolmen of the regime propped up by the Wall, even before they got home and took off their uniforms. This was captured both in pictures and sound at a time when television had become inexpensive and widespread, within reach of almost anyone following world events.
The German phenomenon did not fail to stir the imagination of viewers across the Arab world, especially after similar human flood-waves came crashing against similar walls, both figurative and literal, and undermined the foundations of the totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. What was taking place in sound and pictures was a new People’s Spring – regardless of social class or political position (whether in power or in opposition), it was not difficult to conclude, that, in sum, freedom was spreading like a contagion, and that the People’s Spring could also be an Arab one.
The dream of an imminent People’s Spring was short-lived as the very core of the Arab world was struck less than nine months after the fall of the Wall by another, somewhat different earthquake, the shock-waves of which continue to be felt two decades on. By this I mean the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a blatant attempt to modify the contours and geography of the region that the United States countered with its own design to reconfigure the world in accordance with the ambitions and ideological delusions of the neo-Conservatives.
Soon after it happened, at least one Arab intellectual discerned historic moment in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and while there may be other ways to read an event of this magnitude, it does not seem excessive to regard it as an erroneous and hasty ‘translation’ of Europe’s own shake-up.
The historic juncture marked by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and all the subsequent wars, both direct and indirect, which persist to this day, not only scuttled the possibility of a People’s Spring in the Arab world, it has also created new realities: namely, the rise of identity politics and ethnic nationalism on an unprecedented scale in the modern Arab world.
As a result, it is now possible for ruling Arab elites to side-step internal reform under the pretext of protecting their regimes from internal and external threats, while the so-called ‘street’ is gripped by extremist fundamentalist ideologies which are antagonistic to the West and to what is regarded as the Westernising tendencies of contemporary Arab nation-states in their pursuit of both modernity and modernisation.
The first thing of note in this regard is that Arab elites allied with the West – ostensibly among the ranks of the victors at the end of the Cold War – are conservative traditionalists, who have invested their new political capital, as well as their huge financial resources, in the exacerbation of identity politics and a quasi-pathological obsession with ethnic nationalism. As these forces are manipulated to deepen the chasm between the ‘street’ and their Western allies, the ruling elites are thus able to enhance their own ideological appeal with their Western sponsors – and thus is history ‘tricked’.
Secondly, the proponents of identity politics and ethnic nationalism are fundamentalist movements and parties which are not opposed to the idea of totalitarianism at its core, but only insofar as it is the expression of a Western model of government. Hence, basic notions such as citizenship, equality, and reliance on the ballot box are portrayed as marginal, imported values essentially incompatible with local culture and traditions.
The Iraqi phenomenon, or the ‘forcing’ of the movement of history, was the result of a faulty reading of global power relations after the end of the Cold War. And it has had disastrous consequences for the Palestinians who had to accommodate themselves to a newly-emerging world after they were left in the foremost ranks of the losers with the collapse of the Socialist Bloc. This became all too clear in subsequent direct negotiations with Israel, during a renewed attempt to search for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While renewed negotiations can be considered one of the positive repercussions from the fall of the Berlin Wall, that process has lost most of its momentum and viability in the face of a new wall being erected with reinforced concrete, barbed wire, watch towers and gun muzzles.
If one were to distill just one truth from the whole experience that was the appearance and demolition of the Berlin Wall, it is the following: that its fall became possible because the inhabitants on either side of it rejected its existence, and they collaborated in bringing it down in ways that are difficult to enumerate. In light of this truth, one is left with the consolation and hope that Palestinians and Israelis will continue to wager on the necessity, and indeed the possibility, of arriving at a solution on the basis of negotiations.
A truly historical shift in the Palestinian sphere would inevitably have hastened the long-awaited People’s Spring. And despite its worthiness, such a shift was scuttled by a newly-emerging world order, characterised by chaos and global power imbalances, rendered variously as ‘The End of History’ or in dark prophecies on ‘The Clash of Civilisations.’
In this connection, the most serious challenge facing the Palestinians currently – besides the literal obstruction of the wall on the ground – is the fact that the political initiative has been seized by extremist and transnational groups, founded in fundamentalist ideologies, be they religious or otherwise, in yet another variant of the identity politics and ethnic nationalisms earlier described. Were this power grab to succeed, it would raise other, metaphorical walls that would further obstruct and delay the Palestinians’ historical moment.
From time to time in the Arab world, something resembling a People’s Spring flickers on the horizon but it quickly vanishes, dashing all hopes. However, a little stone did come in the mail one day, from a wall that fell in a distant place – testimony, if ever there was one, of the basic human drive to be agents of our history and the ability of the ‘real world’ to deliver true surprises. Who could believe that the wall built to last a century would, within thirty years, fall unmourned? And that some of its debris would scatter to different parts of the world by way of a mail delivery?
is a Palestinian writer living in Berlin.
Translated by Maia Tabet
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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