Revolts: The Predicament of Arab Intellectuals

By Ali Younes

Ever since former Tunisian president Zinelabidine Bin Ali was deposed from power last January in a popular uprising in what has become known as the ‘Arab Spring’, the Arab world has been rolling with uprisings and revolts against its dictators with mixed results. While Tunis is still in a state of semi-controlled chaos and reeling from the aftershock of the collapse of the former regime; Egypt is suffering from gathering instability due to conflicting agendas of its different political groups. The uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt were largely without the mass destruction and death currently taking place in Libya and Syria.

While Arab intellectuals and writers supported and greeted the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt with overwhelming enthusiasm, the same could not be true when it comes to the uprisings in Libya and Syria.  Public intellectuals in the Arab World are visibly divided over how to view the events in Syria and Libya despite that; the public opinion is decidedly against the dictatorial republics in places like Yemen, Syria and Libya.

The involvement of NATO in the case of Libya, however, and its support for the Libyan rebels tainted the Libyan uprising in the eyes of many public Arab intellectuals. NATO and western involvement in the Arab uprisings has created in essence, a dilemma for Arab intellectuals and writers. Intellectuals who invested their entire lives and careers writing and speaking against Western intervention in the Arab World find themselves now perplexed over the material and moral support the west is lending to some of those revolts.

Abdel Bari Atwan the editor of Pan Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi wrote an editorial last month opposing the NATO air strikes on Libya arguing that in addition to its destruction of the Libyan cities it has also killed scores of Libyan civilians. Atwan does not hide his opposition to the leadership of the Libyan rebels whom he accused of being propped up by NATO and the EU. Atwan’s “suspicion” of the Libyan rebels’ leadership started when French Philosopher and journalist Bernard-Henri Levy expressed his public support for the Libyan rebels and was the French President Nicolai Sarkozy’s envoy to rebels-held Benghazi.

Levy is a vocal supporter of the Israeli policies in the region and has been quoted to have publiclly said that the Israeli army as the most “democratic army” in the world. Levy also called for a military intervention in Syria in order to depose the Syrian regime of Bashaar Al Assad. Levy’s activism on behalf of Arab revolts seems to complicate things even further. Atwan cites Levy as one of the reasons he, while not supporting Qaddafi’s regime, withholds his support for the rebels.

Atwan is not alone in his predicament which on one hand, wants to support Arab societies right to freedom, development and civil rights, while on the other, apposes western intervention in Arab affairs.

London-based writer and poet Lina Abubaker who also writes in Atwan’s paper wrote a note on her Facebook page earlier last month, warning of a “new road map” to divide the Arab World even further. Abubaker slammed the Arab revolts in a bombastic rant for removing the head of the regime while keeping the body intact.  She sees this as part of a larger conspiracy by the United States to dominate the Arab world through “American terrorism against the Arabs”, “the revolts are the new American terrorism, and can’t you learn?” She added, directing her question to the Arab public and referring to American occupation of Iraq.

There are two main arteries fueling the perceptions of revolts in the Arab world. One that sees the current revolts as indigenous national liberation movements that eventually would usher democratic governance. While the other camp sees it as a western-inspired and supported to ultimately fragment the Arab states and serve the US and the Israeli ambitions in the region.

Mohammad Dalbah, a Washington based Arab-American journalist divided the Arab intellectuals into two types when asked about why intellectuals have such polarizing views about the Arab uprisings. The first type of intellectuals he said is the “Arab patriots and nationalists” who view the events in the region from a strategic view point that considers the Arab-Israeli conflict as the prism through which they support or don’t support an uprising.

The second camp is the “Arab Liberals” who advocate toppling the dictatorships, and bringing about democracy while don’t mind the western intervention to help them achieve their goals such as the case of Libya. A third camp, it can be argued, however, that supports the removal of dictators through public struggle alone without any western intervention.

In explaining this, Dalbah, who is a longtime veteran of Arab journalism, argues that the Syrian regime for example, is not necessarily calling for the liberation of occupied Arab Palestinian territories, much less its own occupied territories of the Golan Heights. Rather,” the fact that the regime’s refusal to go along with the American plans for the region is what sets it apart from the rest of the Arab states.” The This refusal, however, is not a principled or a genuine one because what the Syrian government really wants is “to play a role in the region that It will benefit from, in exchange of  agreeing to settle the Arab Israeli conflict.” added Dalbah.

In other words the Syrian position on the Arab-Israeli conflict and on the issue of “resistance” to US and Israel is rather a tactical position not a strategic one.  In addition, those who support the Syrian regime, they do so because of its refusal to agree with the US hegemony in the region which by extension would mean a complete surrender to Israel, according to this view.

Jordanian writer and columnist Mwaffaq Mahadin whose views place him in Dalbah’s “Arab Nationalist” camp, argued in recent column in the Jordanian daily Al Arab Al Yawm against supporting the Syrian uprising. Mahadin argues that the driving force behind the Arab uprisings is a conglomerate of powerful western financial tycoons such as George Soros, and political thinkers like American political science professor Gene Sharp, who advocates nonviolent struggle against oppression.

In his latest article Mahadin argued that Israel with the help of the US intends to fragment and divide the Arab countries in order to keep it under its control. To achieve this, Israel and its western allies are resorting to “soft fragmentation” under the guise of “reform” and “democracy.”  This is not to say however, that intellectuals like Mahadin are against democracy or political reform, but the priority for them at this point, is to resist the Israeli occupation and US domination of Arab lands.

The second camp that although supports the idea of removing the current Baath regime from Syria and bringing democracy even if it required some kind foreign intervention  is represented by the signers of “ Damascus Declaration.” The Damascus Declaration is a statement signed by over 250 Syrian opposition figures in 2005 advocating the gradual reform the Syrian politics. Dalbah argues that noted figures in this group like writer Michel Kilo have inched closer to accepting and supporting the idea of Western intervention in their country to remove Assad’s regime from power.

The daily anti-Assad protests in Amman, Beirut, Kuwait, Manama and elsewhere, which are strongly calling for the toppling of Assad and his family from power, but none at this point have expressed any support for any direct Western intervention in Syria.

– Ali Younes is a writer and political analyst based in Washington DC. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out