Arab Inaction: Cartoons by Ferzat and Hajaj

In this post, I present to you a selection of caricatures of Arab inaction. The caricatures are by two of my favorite caricaturists, the Syrian Ali Ferzat and the  Jordanian Emad Hajaj.

Hajaj uses a famous line from an old Arabic poem: “Today we drink, tomorrow we act”. In the cartoon, every day in the calender is “tomorrow we act”.

Another Hajaj cartoon:

Waiting fro Zero Hour

Hajaj again: “The Story of a Death Foretold”.  He drew this in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq:

The story of a death foretold

Now Ali Ferzat: The clock fell apart…

The clock fell apart

Another Ferzat: The chief of the Arab League is giving a very important speech…

The chief of the Arab League giving an important speech

Ali Ferzat: When Arabs help…

When Arabs help...

Finally, when we hold high hopes…

High hopes...

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Understanding Pro-Regime Rallies

Whenever pro-democracy activists are asked to explain massive pro-regime demonstrations, their response is uniform: Coercion. Although coercion plays an important role, it is only part of the story.

1- Against the earnest hopes of the overwhelming majority of pro-democracy protesters and activists, political positions in Syria are now drawn along sectarian lines.  The regime continues to enjoy the support of the clear majority of minorities (Alawites, Ismailis, Christians and Druze). This core of supporters seems unshakable. Even if the regime continues the killing, and the international community continues to ratchet up pressure, it will not disappear. We can therefore expect to see large pro-regime demonstrations to the very end.

2- The veneer of Arab nationalism and anti-imperialism which this regime trumpets still wins over some Sunnis, especially in Damascus and Aleppo. Some attribute this Sunni support to an elite that has benefitted from the regime, but those elites are insignificant in number.  A better theory, in my opinion, is this veneer I describe.

3- Another factor is coercion. If you have noticed, massive pro-regime rallies only occur on working days.  This is because a significant proportion of rallies is made up of employees (both public and private organizations) and students. On rally days, everybody gets a half-day off. (A cousin works for a private bank and he gets half the day-off on every rally day.)

Friends have told me how regime forces people to attend rallies. In public organizations, which are the biggest employers in Syria, employees are organized into groups and walked/transported to rallies. In some cases, their IDs are confiscated and returned once they return from the rally. This is done to ensure employees don’t simply sneak home from the rally. Even essential hospital staff attends rallies. A friend of @AnonymousSyria, a popular Syrian tweep, had his son’s operation postponed because hospital staff was at a rally.

The situation in public schools is similar. School staff groups students and escorts them to rallies. Last week in Deir Al-Zor, a 15 year-old boy was shot dead by Shabeeha for refusing to join his classmates in pro-regime rally. (In private schools, the situation does not seem to be as coercive. Another cousin of mine goes to a private in Damascus. Students were given half-day off, but they were free to go where they wanted.)

In my opinion, none of the regime tactics to force people out onto the street are fool proof. (I don’t think it is difficult for people to sneak out of rallies unnoticed.) However, Syria is still a country ruled by fear. In the early days of uprising, enthusiastic media declared that people are no longer afraid. That is not accurate. What has changed is people’s willingness to challenge this fear, but it is still there. I know of pro-democracy persons who joined pro-regime rallies to dispel suspicions that they are anti-regime.

So, yes, the regime has supporters. But many of the people you see in a pro-regime rally are not there completely of their own accord. Pro-regime protesters are ensured their safety, and receive facilitations to protest. Anti-regime protesters are shot at and imprisoned, but they still protest.

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Haitham Manna’

Haitham Manna’ is one of the most respected Arab human rights activists. In the first days of the Syrian uprising he had very inspirational words for the protesters. As the uprising progressed, however, Manna’ has become a disappointment. Here are my issues with him:

1-      Manna’ lacks imagination: He is unable to picture a future without Assad. Barely two months into the uprising, in an appearance on Al Jazeera English, he said, and I paraphrase: Let us face it; we have failed to bring out enough people onto the street. This was before the massive demonstrations in Hama, Idlib and Deir Al-Zor had begun.

2-      Manna’ continues to talk about a silent majority. In Syria, and Manna’ of all people should know this, there is no silent majority. Silent majorities occur in free societies, not in very repressive ones like Syria. Any argument built on what the “silent” majority (in Syria) thinks or does not think is fundamentally flawed.

3-      As protesters became adamant in their demands for the downfall of the regime, Manna’ has continued to talk about a nebulous “transition” to democracy in which the regime plays a part. Perhaps his long years of documenting the crimes of Arab regimes have engendered in him a strong streak of defeatism?

4-      His biggest misstep thus far, and one that demonstrates a baffling degree of political naiveté, is his belief that the now moribund Arab League agreement has any chance of succeeding.  Bashar Al-Assad did not even pretend to implement the agreement, and in the week since it was signed more than 100 Syrians have been killed, but Manna’ still believes there is a possibility it could work.

Haitham Manna’ is vocal against any international intervention in Syria. However, he is failing to see that unless there is significant international pressure on this regime that is driving Syria toward civil war, international intervention in Syria becomes more likely. Finally, Manna’ has built his reputation on documenting the crimes of Arab regimes – it is sad to see him act as a useful idiot for one.

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The Only Option

Syrians have won the right of armed self-defense against this regime, which is committing nation-wide atrocities. However, Syrians should not exercise this right, not because peaceful protest is the only legitimate form of resistance — it is not — but because it is the clever thing to do, and perhaps the only option they have.

Here is a summary of the main reasons the uprising should remain peaceful:

1-Barring overwhelming international military force, a resort to arms by the protesters is an invitation to even bigger massacres, especially in the short term. The regime now shells specific neighborhoods of besieged cities; with an armed revolt, it will shell whole cities.

The regime has spent the last few decades arming itself for the day it will have to fight its people. Various estimates put the number of Syrian tanks between 4,000-5,000. According to an estimate by Barra Sarraj, a former Syrian political prisoner, that is 300 tanks per each major city in Syria. You’ve probably seen footage of those tanks: Old Russian crap that are practically mobile coffins in any modern war. However, they are excellent repressive tools.

2-We have not yet reached the limits of soft power. On the national level, Damascus and Aleppo have not yet risen in full force. However, this does not mean that other cities should or can continue to suffer as they wait for other quiet cities to make their voices heard. On the other hand, should Aleppo remain undecided, for example, a resort to arms by other cities might cause it to align itself with the regime.

Internationally, pressure on the regime has not yet reached the requisite levels. We are still waiting for an unequivocal UNSC condemnation or a clear Arab stance on the regime’s legitimacy, for example.

3- An armed revolt will jeopardize international sympathy for the protesters. Today’s media headlines speak of regime brutality against unarmed protesters. It’s clear who the bad guys are. In an armed revolt, the media output will become complicated. Additionally, media audiences have short memories. They will soon forget that the Syrian uprising was peaceful in the first six months and that regime brutality compelled it to become armed. (However, should NATO intervene on the behalf of Syrians, there won’t be any risk of negative media portrayal of Syrian revolutionaries. NATO interventions are always military and media aid.)

Finally, it is worth mentioning something about Syrian protesters. They have maintained their peacefulness in the face of countless provocations, and they have stayed on message with regard to their fundamental demands. However, they have shown little regard for geopolitical calculations. They didn’t care that the regime had many friends in the region, or that the international community is nervous about any change in Syria, or that the regime will be the hardest to unseat from among all the repressive Arab regimes; they have just continued to demand their rights regardless of how those demands will be met in the end.  Up to this point, this attitude has borne fruit. I’m not sure if this attitude would be wise with regard to the question of arms.


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Our Neighbours

One of the of the vagaries of the Syrian regime is its tendency to locate security (Mukhabarat) branches in residential neighborhoods. My family home is quite close to one such branch, one of the most notorious in Syria.

These branches do not have any signs, but everyone knows what they are and no one makes the mistake of (openly) seeking information about them. Three years ago, three curious Jordanian tourists inquired about a nameless building they were staying close to in Damascus. They disappeared for three weeks. The then prime minister of Jordan, Nader Al-Dahabi, had to personally ask for their release.

According to former detainees, all Mukhabarat branches have underground cells and, of course, torture chambers. You don’t have to be imaginative to conjure this picture: People going about their lives, housewives setting lunch, students studying for an exam, children playing soccer, and only a few meters away, in dark underground cells,  detainees withering away at the inhumanity of their captors. And here is the ugly part: Not only do people know what these nameless buildings are, most know what occurs inside of them.

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Ma Fi Khof, Ma Fi Khof

Syria has the most repressive regime in the Middle East (and that is saying something!). Not even Saudi Arabia, with its public beheadings and ban on female drivers, is as repressive. (There are many human rights reports on Syria. Check Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. But the best resource, in my opinion, is the Syrian Human Rights Committee website.)

The extent of the regime’s repression is mind boggling, but not as mind boggling as the extraordinary bravery of Syrians who now demand freedom. In my opinion, the Guardian had one of the most famous quotes from a protester in Tahrir square: “I came here to fight the fear inside me.” In Syria, the spontaneous chant of hundreds of thousands is “Ma fi khof, ma fi khof” (No fear, no fear). There is no demand in this chant. It is a refusal of fear, which truly is the only impediment protesters grapple with, not sympathy for the regime’s foreign policy, nor love for Bashar, nor belief in the regime’s promises. Our protests are usually small because people are afraid, not because protesters represent a minority.

Fear is a curious thing in Syria (and the Arab world overall). Arabs are not known for their docility. Yet, the word “mukhabarat” alone is spoken sotto voce. Of course, the Syrian regime has had to go to extremes of brutality to instill fear in a proud population.  But the questions remain: How come fear has come to dominate our lives? At what point did we begin to keep quiet at government violations?






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