Friday, March 09, 2012

marwan bishara presents his new book 'the invisible arab' at london's frontline club

The Nazareth-born Palestinian political sociologist Marwan Bishara has come to international attention in recent years as senior political analyst of the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera English (AJE) and as editor and host of its flagship show Empire. Bishara, who lives in Paris, Washington DC and Doha, was at the Frontline Club in London on Tuesday night to discuss his new book The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution (Nation Books, New York) in front of a packed-out audience. He discussed the book with BBC presenter and special correspondent Lyse Doucet, who has reported from several of the hotspots of Arab revolution over the past year. The discussion was followed by a Q & A session with the audience and a book signing.

Bishara has been a lecturer in International Relations at the American University of Paris and a fellow at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He has written for numerous publications including the Guardian, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Le Monde and The Nation.

The event was sparky and punctuated by frequent laughter. But then humour has been a hallmark of the Arab revolutions. As Bishara writes in his book: “If, as one keen observer noted, every joke is a tiny revolution, the Arabs, and most notably the Egyptians, are revolutionaries par excellence.”

When asked by Doucet about the “Invisible Arab” of the title of his book Bishara explained there were two ways of looking at this, from the inside and the outside. “Within the Arab world those people who struggled over the last several decades for freedom and justice in their region, in their societies and their states, were made invisible in the rest of the society by dictators who wanted to make sure that those who had something to say did not say it. So the many thousands upon thousands of unionists, community organisers, human rights activists, and so on who struggled were imprisoned, tortured, censored and kept away from media – and there was nothing but state media anyway – or were sent to exile or to their deaths. So from within the Arab societies dictatorships made sure that those who had something to say were made invisible as much as possible.

“For the outside world, those very same people were also made invisible by an approach that saw the region through three prisms: energy security – the Arabs being those with their hands on the spigot so to speak - Israel’s security, and third and last the Arabs were seen as a threat to Western national security – hence terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and so on.” The Arabs, and especially the activists, were seen as unfriendly and as the enemy. “In so many ways because the region was seen from those three angles of national security, Israel security and energy security, the Arabs as human beings, as activists, as democrats, as human rights militants and so on were completely and utterly marginalised by Western leaders.”

But the West did like what he calls the "good Arabs" - young guys like Saif al-Islam Gaddafi who might for example use words like "awesome" and "cool". Bishara recalled an earlier event at the Frontline Club, a panel on the Arab uprisings held on 2 March 2011. Bishara's three fellow panellists on that occasion each gave Saif al-Islam the benefit of the doubt, and saw him as having been genuinely reform-minded. Bishara was the only panel member who strongly spoke out against Saif, saying he was neither good nor liberal but a “thug”, son of a dictator and, on the basis of his behaviour over the years, “like father like son”.

Recalling this earlier Fronline event he said Saif al-Islam might have spoken English, looked cool and been flamboyant, but he was nevertheless a “macho asshole”. But in the view of some in the West, the dictators generally were old fashioned "but the young dictators were wonderful – they were flamboyant, travelled round the world using their people’s fortunes – wasting them basically on parties and on paying call girls and so forth – and selling or giving out good contracts to Western companies by simply being invited to this and that.” They were routinely described as Western-educated "but mostly they stole the certificate or somehow got around it." The Gamal Mubaraks, the Saif al-Islams, and other young dictators or dictators-in-waiting were encouraged by the West and were seen as reformers. "There is nothing reforming about it at all except that they are more willing than their elders to speak of liberal, neo-liberal, politics with an American accent."

Bishara refers in his book to the young revolutionary Arabs as the "miracle generation" contrasting them with the "liberation generation" of the 1950s, the "defeated generation" of the 1970s and 1980s and the "lost generation" of the 1990s.

Marwan Bishara

The Invisible Arab is an essay, "a voyage in time and space" on the roots of many of the components of the Arab Spring. It is a reflection, its author writes, on "Arab defiance and hope against all odds; on how a new generation of Arabs overcame decades of fear, oppression, defiance and outright slaughter at the hands of some of the cruelest and bloodiest dictatorships of the twentieth century; on how the revolution exposed Western clich├ęs about Arabs as neo-colonial farce, some of which were internalized by many of the West's 'good Arabs' over the decades."

He says that the revolution will ultimately be judged on how it scores with freedom and justice and on whether it can "pave the way for accommodating the various ideological, religious, political, and civic trends, as well as reconciling nationalism and Islam with democracy as the indispensable trinity of stability and progress in the Arab world." He observes that since the new Arab awakening started, the Egyptian and Tunisian “honeymoons” have given way to difficult and bloody confrontations in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. “It soon became clear that the swift beginnings of peaceful transition in Tunisia and Egypt were exceptions to the rule...” He acknowledges that the situation at the end of 2011 when his book went to press was fluid, and that future political storms could flood the Arab world with chaos. "However, I sincerely believe that the peoples of the region have made a decisive break with the past."

He writes that the Arab revolutions are motivated by an inclusive, pluralistic nationalism. The book assesses how the demographic "time bomb" has "proved to be the carrier of progress, unity, and freedom, how social networks of people have demanded social justice, and how new and satellite media intertwined to reconnect Arabs across borders, ethnicity, and religion."

Many concerns have been expressed about the course of the Arab revolutions more than one year after they erupted. Bishara used the example of an in-flight questionnaire, asking for passengers’ assessment of point of departure, point of arrival, service, stopovers, delays, convenience, and so on. "Revolutions cannot be judged that way," he said. There is no specific point of arrival, and it is not known how many bumpy rides there may be during the flight. To those who are dismayed that democracy still has not arrived he says "I am at least optimistic about the fact that we are breaking with the past and that there is a new generation that is promising, there are perils ahead, there are pitfalls on board, but it’s going to be up to this generation that made the revolutions possible to move their societies on the right track and in that way I’m optimistic."

There was considerable discussion on whether the uprisings in the Arab world could actually be called a revolution. Bishara said that at AJE there had been long discussions on what to call the phenomenon. “It’s not revolution in any historic context that we know and certainly not in an Arab Muslim context. So we are in a place where we have to have ijtihad – we have to interpret." What is revolutionary is that “there is a break with the past, there is a break with fear, there is a break with dictatorship but because this is not a totalitarian revolution they were not about to impose a new regime the morning after...What's incredible about the miracle generation is that actually they buy into this whole idea of pluralism, they take it seriously, they buy into this whole idea of opinion, and the other opinion, and freedom of expression and letting the people decide."

Asked about the apparent setbacks experienced by some women in the revolutions, for example in Egypt, he responded: “I don’t think Egyptian women or any other women in the Arab world today are less than what they were in 2010. I think they are far more than what they were. In principle, there was a far bigger role for the women in the revolution than there is generally speaking in society or in politics. Women played an indispensable role in the revolution; I think this will not go away. But this will not translate into equality and women being a forceful player in politics the morning after... And that’s where there’s a disappointment. In that sense I think women are more than in their rightful position to say, This is not fair."

He added: "I don’t think it’s the end of the road, i think women today are far more important because of the revolution and I think as time goes by they will prove to be, even within the Muslim Brotherhood, more powerful. The young women in the Muslim Brotherhood, I call them the Young Sisters of the Muslim Brotherhood, have become so vocal that even the older more cynical generation need to meet some of the stuff that they are saying because they are actually more in touch with the people than the old cynics... In a sense the unfairness is there, it is not as dramatic as it’s reported and I think it’s just fair but also practical for women to be playing a far greater role in the future of the Arab world".

On the question of the Palestinians and the Arab Spring Bishara said: “I think Palestine will suffer in the short term because Arabs are going to be preoccupied with themselves and they have a lot to be preoccupied by. But in the long term there will be fewer clients in the region, and more leaders representing people, and hence Israel will have more to reckon with.”

Some in the audience expressed worries about the possibility of an attack on Iran by Israel or the US or both. Bishara saw the scenario of possible war on Iran as an example of the regional old order and as “certainly in no way conducive to, or encouraging of, democratic peaceful changes in the Arab region." He was concerned that the question of Iran “will end up translating a lot of the good changes in the region to perhaps sectarian polarisation, and that is certainly the worst thing that could happen.”
Susannah Tarbush

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