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Disunity and Factionalism

What lies behind the Pavlovian regularity with which Arabs try to hurt and impede each other rather than uniting behind a common purpose, asks Edward Said

Underlying most of the findings in the much cited 2002 UNDP Arab Human Development Report is the extraordinary lack of coordination between Arab countries. There is considerable irony in the fact that the Arabs are discussed and referred to both in this report and elsewhere as a group even though they seem rarely to function as one, except negatively. Thus the report correctly says that there is no Arab democracy, Arab women are uniformly an oppressed majority, and in science and technology every Arab state is behind the rest of the world. Certainly there is little strategic cooperation between them and virtually none in the economic sphere. As for more specific issues like policy towards Israel, the US and the Palestinians, and despite a common front of embarrassed hand-wringing and disgraceful powerlessness, one senses a frightened determination first of all not to offend the US, not to engage in war or in a real peace with Israel, not ever to think of a common Arab front even on matters that affect an over-all Arab future or security. Yet when it comes to the perpetuation of each regime, the Arab ruling classes are united in purpose and survival skills.

This shambles of inertia and impotence is, I am convinced, an affront to every Arab. This is why so many Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Moroccans and others have taken to the streets in support of the Palestinian people undergoing the nightmare of Israeli occupation, with the Arab leadership looking on and basically doing nothing. Street demonstrations are demonstrations not only of support for Palestine, but also protests at the immobilising effects of Arab disunity. An even more eloquent sign of the common disenchantment is the frequent, wrenchingly sad television scene of a Palestinian woman surveying the ruins of her house demolished by Israeli bulldozers, wailing to the world at large “ya Arab, ya Arab” (“oh you Arabs, you Arabs”). There is no more eloquent testimony to the betrayal of the Arab people by their (mostly unelected) leaders than that indictment, which is to say: “why don’t you Arabs ever do anything to help us?” Despite money and oil aplenty, there is only the stony silence of an unmoved spectator.

Even on an individual level, alas, disunity and factionalism have crippled one national effort after the other. Take the saddest of all instances, the case of the Palestinian people. I recall wondering during the Amman and Beirut days why it was necessary for somewhere between eight to 12 Palestinian factions to exist, each fighting over uselessly academic issues of ideology and organisation while Israel and the local militias bled us dry. Looking back over the Lebanese days that came to a terrible end in Sabra and Shatilla, whose purpose did it serve to have the Popular Front, Fatah, and the Democratic Front — to mention only three factions — fighting among each other, to have leaders within Fatah proclaiming needlessly provocative slogans like “the road to Tel Aviv goes through Jounieh” even as Israel allied itself with the right-wing Lebanese militias to destroy the Palestinian presence for Israel’s purposes? And what cause has been served by Yasser Arafat’s tactics of creating factions, subgroups and security forces to war against each other during the Oslo process and leave his people unprotected and unprepared for the Israeli destruction of the infrastructure and re- occupation of Area A?

It’s always the same thing, factionalism, disunity, the absence of a common purpose for which in the end ordinary people pay the price in suffering, blood and endless destruction. Even on the level of social structure, it is almost a commonplace that Arabs as a group fight among themselves more than they do for a common purpose. We are individualists, it is said by way of justification, ignoring the fact that such disunity and internal disorganisation in the end damages our very existence as a people. Nothing can be more disheartening than the disputes that corrode Arab expatriate organisations, especially in places like the US and Europe, where relatively small Arab communities are surrounded by hostile environments and militant opponents who will stop at nothing to discredit the Arab struggle. Still, instead of trying to unite and work together, these communities get torn apart by totally unnecessary ideological and factional struggles that have no immediate relevance, no necessity at all so far as the surrounding field is concerned.

A few days ago, I was startled by a discussion programme on Al-Jazeera television in which the two participants and a needlessly provocative moderator vehemently discussed Arab-American activism during the present crisis. One man, a certain Mr Dalbah, identified vaguely as a “political analyst” in Washington (without apparent affiliation or institutional connection) spent all of his time discrediting the one serious national Arab-American group, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which he accused of ineffectiveness and its leaders of egoism, opportunism and personal corruption. The other gentleman, whose name I didn’t catch, admitted that he has only been in the US for a very few years and didn’t seem to know much about what was going on, except of course to argue that he had better ideas than all the other community leaders. Although I only watched the first and last parts of the programme, I was thoroughly disillusioned and even disgraced by the discussion. What was the point, I asked myself? In what way is it useful to tear down an organisation that has been doing by far the best work in a country where Arabs are outnumbered and out-organised not only by all the many, much larger and extremely well- financed Zionist organisations, but also where the society itself and its media are so hostile to Arabs, Islam, and their causes in general? None at all, of course. Yet there remains this pernicious factionalism by which, with almost Pavlovian regularity, Arabs try to hurt and impede each other rather than uniting behind a common purpose. If there is little justification for such behavior in the Arab lands themselves, surely there is less reason for it abroad, where Arab individuals and communities are targeted and threatened as undesirable aliens and terrorists.

The Al-Jazeera programme was more offensive by its gratuitous inaccuracy and the needless personal harm it did to the late Hala Salam Maksoud, who literally gave her life to the cause of ADC, and to its current president Dr Ziad Asli, a public-spirited physician who voluntarily gave up his medical practice to run the organisation on a pro bono basis. Dalbah kept insinuating that both these activists were motivated by reasons of personal monetary gain, and that whatever ADC did it did badly. Aside from the scandalous untruth of such allegations, Dalbah’s idle and malicious gossip — it was no more than that — harmed the collective Arab cause, leaving anger and more factionalism in its wake. Moreover, it should be noted that given the extremely inhospitable American political setting to the Arab cause, ADC has been very successful in Washington and nationally as an organisation rebutting charges against Arabs in the media, protecting individuals from government persecution after 9/11, and keeping Arab-Americans involved and participating in the national debate. Because of this success under Asli, factionalism has infected the organisation’s employees who suddenly embarked on a campaign of personal vilification masked as ideological argument. Of course everyone has the right to criticise but why in the face of such threats as those we face in the US should we splinter and weaken ourselves like this, when it is clear that the only beneficiary is the pro-Israel lobby? Organisations like ADC are first of all American organisations and cannot function as partisans in struggles of the kind that recall those of Fakahani in the mid-seventies.

Perhaps the main reason for Arab factionalism at every level of our societies, at home and abroad, is the marked absence of ideals and role models. Since Abdel-Nasser’s death, whatever one may have thought of some of his more ruinous policies, no figure has captured the Arab imagination or had a role in setting a popular liberation struggle. Look at the disaster of the PLO, which has been reduced from the days of its glory to an old unshaven man, sitting at a broken-down table, in half a house in Ramallah, trying to survive at any cost, whether or not he sells out, whether or not he says foolish things, whether what he says means anything or not. (A couple of weeks ago, he was quoted as saying that he now accepts the 2000 Clinton plan, though the only problem is that it is now 2002 and Clinton is no longer president.) It has been years since Arafat represented his people, their sufferings and cause, and like his other Arab counterparts, he hangs on like a much-too-ripe fruit without real purpose or position. There is thus no strong moral centre in the Arab world today. Cogent analysis and rational discussion have given way to fanatical ranting, concerted action on behalf of liberation has been reduced to suicidal attacks, and the idea if not the practice of integrity and honesty as a model to be followed has simply disappeared. So corrupting has the atmosphere exuded from the Arab world become that one scarcely knows why some people are successful while others are thrown in jail.

As a terribly shocking instance, consider the Egyptian sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim’s fate. Released by a civil court a few months ago, he has now been tried, found guilty and sentenced to a cruelly unjustified sentence by the state security court for exactly those “crimes” for which he was earlier released. Where is the moral justification for such toying with a person’s life, career and reputation? A matter of months ago, he was a trusted adviser to the government and on the boards of several Arab institutes and projects. Now he is considered to be a condemned criminal. Whose interests, whether by virtue of national unity, or coherent strategy, or moral imperative, does his gratuitous punishment in this way serve? More factionalism, more disintegration, more sense of drift and fear and a pervading sense of frustrated justice.

Arabs have for so long been deprived of a sense of participation and citizenship by their rulers that most of us have lost even the capacity of understanding what personal commitment to a cause bigger than ourselves might mean. The Palestinian struggle — that a people should endure such unremitting cruelty from Israel and still not give up, is a collective miracle — but why can’t the lessons of living (as opposed to suicidal, nihilistic) resistance be made clearer, and more possible to follow? This is the real problem, the absence all over the Arab world and abroad of a leadership that communicates with its people, not via communiques that express an impersonal, almost disdainful disregard of them as citizens, but through the actual practice of concerted dedication and personal example. Unable to move the US from its illegal support of Israel’s crimes, Arab leaders simply throw out one “peace” proposal (the same one) after another, each of which is dismissed derisively by both Israel and the US. Bush and his psychopathic henchman Rumsfeld keep leaking news of their impending invasion for “regime change” in Iraq, and the Arabs have still not communicated a unified deterrent position against this new American insanity. When individuals and organisations like ADC try to do something on behalf of a cause they are gunned down by troublemakers who have little else to do but destroy and disturb.

Surely the time has come to start thinking of ourselves as a people with a common history and goals, and not as a collection of cowardly delinquents. But that is up to each one, and it’s no good sitting back blaming “the Arabs” since, after all, we are the Arabs.

Edward Said writes a weekly column for the Cairo-based al-Ahram. New Print Edition of CounterPunch Available Exclusively to Subscribers:

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