(Hisham Melhem = Bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC.)

What is to be done about Arab Pathologies?

“What is to be done?” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx

Over the last year I tried in this space and elsewhere to analyze, explore and understand the complex reasons and conditions that led to the historic upheavals that swept a number of majority Arab countries, and drove some to civil wars, others to unprecedented political polarization, causing enormous human agony, economic dislocations, ethnic and religious cleansing, the fraying of national institutions, and exposing already fragile states to the depredations and machinations of ‘friendly’ neighbors and regional and international powers. Unless politically motivated violence is contained then stopped, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are threatened with dissolution as unitary states. Other states, particularly those that experienced wrenching civil wars in recent decades such as Algeria, Lebanon and Sudan are on the brink or moving there. Even in Egypt, the oldest political entity in the world, the most ‘centralized’ modern Arab state we see that state institutions and civil society are fraying under the weight of political polarization, tension over the identity, ethos and the direction of the country, and a nascent and nasty growing campaign of violence waged by Islamist terrorist groups, that could lead to further domestic suppression of even peaceful dissent.

I have struggled like others, Arabs and non-Arabs to go beyond describing the ills afflicting the various Arab body politics, and to deconstruct the causes of the political and cultural pathologies of the region, convinced all along that they cannot be reduced to one over-arching cause. Like others, I pointed out to systemic oppression, denial of free political and cultural space, massive violations of human rights everywhere but in varying degrees (even in despotism, there is a hierarchy) economic dislocation , and an entrenched culture of corruption, and denial of human agency which gave rise to uncritical beliefs in conspiracy theories. While Arabs are in the main responsible for their current predicaments, outsiders at times made bad conditions much worse, such as the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Theory and Praxis

A recurring theme in Philosophy (and Literature) has been the dichotomy of theory and action ( for the ancient Greeks Praxis denotes the activities engaged in by citizens –free men- in realizing concepts, theories and turning them into practicing ideas). Philosophers from Aristotle, to St. Augustine, and all the way to Marx and Hannah Arendt grappled with this dichotomy. Some of the best characters in classical novels exemplified the tensions between those who see the world through a contemplative mind and those who seek to shake it, embrace it or change it through action. In Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund we see the tension between the contemplative Narcissus who leads a spiritual life in the monastery and the Passionate Goldmund who leads a life of adventure and free wandering. In Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek the tension is between the shy bookish ‘Boss’, and Alexis Zorba a passionate sensuous adventurer, fighter and dancer. Of course, an ideal life should fuse contemplation and Praxis.

Marx, Lenin and Gilbert Becaud

Regardless of the causes of the ills afflicting the Arab body politics, (for some scholars and analysts, they range from the Sykes-Picot Agreement, to the theory of rentier state, autocracy and all the way to climate change), it is clear now that as Lenin said in 1901 the “burning question” confronting us is ‘What is to be done?’ to prevent these societies from literally burning themselves while sliding into a Hobbesian ‘State of Nature’, culminating in a ‘war of all against all’. Now, that the analysts, commentators (do we have serious philosophers?) have interpreted the problems of the Arab world, the point as Marx said ‘is to change it.’ A friend of mine, an insightful analyst of the Arab world who happens to know from the inside the trepidations and reluctance that animate the Obama administration’s dealing with Arab crisis put Lenin’s question and Marx’s observation simply and very effectively to me in the title of a song. After listening to my critique of President Obama’s Syria policy posted here last week, he smiled and said; fine, we have diagnosed the problem, but as that old song asked ‘What Now, My Love?’

For those too young to remember, ‘What Now, My Love?’ is the English translation of Gilbert Becaud’s French classic Et maintenant. The song was covered by who’s who in America’s pantheon of singers including Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Elvis Presley among others.

Self-evident truths?

Two weeks ago I have written that ‘The essence of the current Arab predicament is that the West cannot save the Arabs from themselves, and the Arabs are unable or unwilling to exorcize their demons on their own.’

But to save Syria from ISIS, we have to save Syria from the Assad regime, the very magnet that attracted ISIS

We have to start with certain self-evident truths. To leave these countries to their own devices, and to the not-so-tender mercies of some of their neighbors, is to leave them on a long tragic trajectory. And with the recent terror in Europe, the world, should know that what happens say in Syria or Iraq or Yemen will not stay in these borderless entities. The world is already involved albeit in a reluctant way in a limited war in Iraq and Syria against the dark and nihilistic forces, of the so-called “Islamic State’ (ISIS) and was involved in the early phase of Libya’s (continuing) civil wars. The peoples of these states, Arabs and non-Arabs who are still interested in reconstituting these brittle states as unitary nation-states, and not allow themselves to descent into their parochial primordial loyalties and identities as Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Zaydis, Kurds, Turkmens, Druze and others, should seek the conditional help of outside powers and international organizations as well as the support of those neighboring states interested in ending the chaos. It will be extremely difficult, and maybe impossible to restore these broken societies, but at least those who believe in enlightened self-interest should give it a genuine try.

America’s burden

Another self-evident truth, is that only the United States can and should (in the name of enlightened self-interest) and as the world’s sole superpower, organize an International and regional coalition to take the military battle to ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Washington may have modest goals in Iraq (containing ISIS, prevent the fall of Baghdad and major Kurdish cities and help liberate Mosul, but not to destroy ISIS) but the White House, as senior military officers know does NOT have a strategy for Syria. It is ludicrous, to insist on an ‘Iraq first’ strategy, that does not make any military sense, when the enemy treat Syria and Iraq as ONE front. Another self-evident truth is that to save Iraq from ISIS, we have to save Syria from ISIS.

But to save Syria from ISIS, we have to save Syria from the Assad regime, the very magnet that attracted ISIS and the other devils rejects to Syria. For the U.S. and its allies to continue to attack ISIS targets, and spare the military of the Assad regime, while delaying the implementation of its declared plans to train and equip moderate Syrian fighters opposed to Assad, and cutting off financial aid to some brigades in the North, (a sure recipe for driving them to the well-financed Nusra Front) is to condemns Syria to a long stalemate and possible actual partition, along with the creation of a permanent Syrian diaspora nation. As it is, the U.S. has lost the trust of many Syrian ‘moderates’ the kind it needs to defeat the Jihadi fanatics, because of its undeclared understanding with Assad and the Iranians; we don’t bomb your positions, and you don’t fire at our bombers, we won’t destroy your air force to prevent your helicopters from throwing barrel bombs against civilians, and you (Iranians) will spare our personnel in Iraq, military and civilians from Improvised explosive devices (IEDs). True it is difficult now, after almost 4 years of bloody conflict and steady fragmentation to build a unified Syrian military opposition, but the U.S. should help those non-Islamist nationalist groups who want to rebuild a civil state. The U.S. should expedite its training program; resume financial support and military supplies to groups that have proven that they can fight both the regime and ISIS. The U.S. should ignore those Islamist groups that are not affiliated with ISIS and Nusra and are willing to fight them and fight the regime at the same time. Most importantly, the U.S. should restate categorically, that it will work with Syrians and their neighbors to make sure that Syria’s future will be free of Assad and his henchmen, and ISIS and Nusra.

Other policy prescriptions

The U.S., the European Union, the United Nations, the international non-governmental organizations, and possibly some regional states should adopt certain political principles and prescriptions that can be used in dealing with these crisis, knowing full well that there is no one solution that fits all. These states may be part of what is loosely called the Arab world, but we don’t call it world for nothing. Even the Arabs in this world are not alike, not to mention the myriad of ancient non-Arab and non-Muslim communities that have lived in that world for centuries or millennia. The Egyptians and the Yemenis for instance are even separated by Arabic dialects, not to mention social and cultural differences and habits. And yet to ignore the cultural similarities and historical legacies that on one level or another bind these societies will be to ignore the obvious.

One crucial self-evident truth that is badly needed as a concept and a political tool in states like Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Syria is federalism. To allow these states to disintegrate to their primordial component is to condemn them to perpetual violence. It will be nearly impossible to restore these states without stitching them together through federal structures. The concept is not alien to the region as some would allege. Libya is one state that was born in 1951 as a federal state, combining the three historical regions of Libya; Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the East and Fezzan in the south. A new federal system would have to allow for the demographic changes that occurred in the last 63n years, the urbanizations and the new facts on the ground created by the continuing strife.

A federal system would devolve certain responsibilities and authorities from the central government to local and regional bodies and communities, providing them with as much autonomy as possible along with their share of the national budget (dependent on population, and the size of the autonomous region) to spend on education, health service and other local affairs . This system will respect and honor the cultural, linguistic and ethnic characteristics of the components of the unified nation. In this system the central government will be responsible for foreign affairs and will have monopoly on the means of coercion (one component of national sovereignty) to defend the state against foreign aggression. Federalism and administrative decentralization will go a long way to assure the religious and ethnic minorities whose existential fears have been heightened because of the violence that led to mass killings and expulsion of communities because of their ethnic or religious backgrounds, particularly in Syria, and Iraq, but also in Yemen and Libya.

Exclude the exclusionists

One of the disastrous decisions adopted by the Libyan government in 2013 was the passage of the controversial and vindictive Political Isolation Law (PIL) which was similar to the infamous de-Baathification policy in Iraq (itself derived from denazification in Germany after WWII) that is to exclude from the new government those who served the Ancien Régime. The (PIL) in Libya, like de-Baathification in Iraq was abused for political purposes by some leaders, and was used to violate human rights, delay reconciliation and depriving the new government and administration of competent and experienced leaders and technocrats. Those former regime members, with no blood on their hands and whose government service did not involve violations of human rights should be given another chance to serve their countries. This principle should be applied everywhere. The U.N. and specialized NGO’s should be heavily involved in any elections taking place during the transitions.

After the invasion of Iraq, it should be clear that the U.S. should not seek the chimera of establishing democracies overnight in societies that were tortured for decades by brutal regimes. Even in America, democracy required multiple struggles to end the disenfranchisement of women (the right to vote exercised for the first time in 1920) and African-Americans (Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965). But the U.S. should apply certain basic principles in dealing with Arab states, those undergoing rough transitions (Egypt) and those suffering from civil strife; Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, as well as its other Arab and non-Arab allies in the region. The U.S. and the EU should support and defend basic human rights; they should not accept arbitrary arrests, and not tolerate imprisoning peaceful political dissidents, call for due process and a vibrant media, push for reforming the local police, and gradually push for professionalizing the militaries, and literally raise hell against torture.

Finally, the U.S. and the EU and the international financial institutions, and NGOs along with neighboring states, should adopt a regional economic plan (a Middle Eastern version of the Marshall Plan) for the reconstruction of the devastated states. The aid should be conditioned on enacting legal and bureaucratic reforms to lessen the chances of corruption and briberies. There should be particular focus on the private sector, to help small businesses and entrepreneurs in wealth-creation and to particularly help the poor financially and technically, to make the transition from the ‘shadow’ economy, where they are forced to operate, to a sunny economic cycle. This is a tall order, but these historic challenges require comparable historic responses. I hope I answered my friend’s query ‘What Now, My Love?’


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Last Update: Saturday, 31 January 2015 KSA 11:31 – GMT 08:31