Arab dictators can no longer monopolize resistance
“Last night’s Israeli attack against an Assad regime research facility in Damascus has brought out of the woodwork all sorts of individuals who, silent in the face of the massacre in the coastal city of Banyas for the past three days, have suddenly found their voices. The pictures we saw coming out of Banyas these past few days were truly horrific, and were reminiscent of the images we saw emerge from the Sabra and Chatilla massacres during the Lebanese civil war.
“Yet these self-styled anti-imperialists did not retweet and angrily condemn these murders. Instead they chose silence and wilful ignorance.” (Maysaloon, a pro-revolution Syrian activist)
It was all rather simpler in the Arab world a few years ago. For huge swathes of the Egyptian public, not unlike many other Arab populations, Hassan Nasrallah was a ‘hero’. In the aftermath of the beginning of the Syrian revolution, he’s a pariah – and following the Israeli strikes on Syria last week, we’re likely to see many more interesting recalibrations.
A few years ago, Hezbollah was the magnificent ‘Arab resistance movement’ that had managed to give Israel so much of a bloody nose, it opted to leave southern Lebanon. You could find Hezbollah flags being sold on the streets of Cairo, and even pictures of Hassan Nasrallah all over the country. The fact that Egyptian Muslims are generally Sunni, and Nasrallah represents a Shiite political Islamist movement, meant very little. If there was any concern about his Islamism or Shiite leanings, it was subsumed under the rubric of ‘resistance’.
Hezbollah’s support and betrayal
When the Egyptian revolution began, Hezbollah, like much of the world, supported the uprising. The impetuous, and inaccurate, claim by the Iranian regime that this was inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979 might have had something to do with it – but in all likelihood, they shared in the global excitement at a movement that had proven that there was a great deal of life left in the Egyptian soul. The irony of it all was that the January 25 protest movement was far more inclined to the Green Movement of Iran that opposed the Iranian regime, but let’s leave that to the side for the time being.
As the Egyptian revolution unfolded, however, and other uprisings and revolutions began in other parts of the Arab world, the honeymoon with Hezbollah quickly ended. The Syrian people engaged in their own peaceful uprising against a regime that was far more brutal than Hosni Mubarak’s – and Bashar al-Assad’s regime responded with overwhelming force. If Hezbollah was truly a ‘resistance’ movement for the autonomy of Arabs, Muslims and oppressed peoples everywhere, it would have supported the Syrian uprising.
It didn’t. A few figures in Hezbollah did come out in support of the Syrian people, but by and large, and certainly on the leadership level, it rejected the Syrian revolution from its incubation, and threw its weight squarely and completely behind al-Assad’s regime. Resistance, it seems, is justifiable when it is against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories – but not when thousands upon thousands of civilians are slaughtered by the Assad regime. The irony of it is clear: in a few months, the Assad regime has killed more Arab civilians than Israel has in its entire history.
In Egypt, the betrayal of Hezbollah vis-à-vis Syria did not go unnoticed. Egyptian media has reported (and it is now confirmed) that Hezbollah members have travelled to Syria to fight on the side of the Syrian regime against the uprising. While opinion might be mixed in Egypt vis-à-vis the wisdom of the Syrian uprising, particularly when one considers the human cost, support for Assad’s regime itself is practically non-existent. That Hezbollah members would be fighting on Assad’s side is not particularly popular, to say the least.
Discourse of resistance
Of course, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime, have not failed to cast their struggle against the revolution in a populist manner, where the supporters of Israel and the United States are on the sides of the rebels, and the partisans of the resistance stand side by side with Assad. Few, if any, Egyptians have found that kind of argument credible and sustainable. The discourse of resistance, with strong undertones of Arab autonomy in a 21st century world where Arab countries are still, despite the uprisings, relatively weak in geopolitical terms, may find sympathy in some quarters. Yet, it can no longer be used to excuse, ignore, or otherwise pardon the shortcomings of any regime in the Arab world – indeed, that same discourse of resistance incorporates within it, or perhaps even prioritises, resistance against a non-representative, dictatorial regime.
How that will develop is bound to be interesting in the weeks and months to come – because Israel has now decisively intervened in the Syrian quagmire. Last week, it militarily attacked targets on the outskirts of the capital city, Damascus. Unsurprisingly, the partisans of Bashar al-Assad, including Hezbollah, attempted to use the strike as a sign that they were on the right – and that those who opposed them were on the side of imperialism and injustice against the Palestinians. That discourse might have held water among Arab populations once – but no longer. Many from within the Syrian resistance itself condemned the strikes – but rejected that such attacks demanded they now back the regime, which has killed far more than those strikes. On the very same day that the strikes took place, massacres on Syrian territory against Syrian civilians by the regime occurred.
There should not be any assumption that such attacks will suddenly turn pro-revolution Syrians and Arabs into allies of Israel against al-Assad – that would be a fallacy. Yet, what is abundantly clear is that however the situation develops in the months ahead, it will no longer be as simplistic as the populist ‘whoever says they oppose Israel is my friend’: Syrians are far savvier than that. One way or another, this is going to get more complicated – but it may also become a lot more honest.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer is an ISPU Fellow, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs who previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University.
This article was published on Al Arabiya on May 12, 2013. Read it here.