By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). The Waste Land. 1922.
Another spring is in the air in many parts of the world. April, Eliot’s “cruellest month”, is almost over and with it the last patches of snow over the hills. The rejuvenation of earth at this time of the year inevitably inspires hearts and hopes surge even when there is little on ground to support it. This is nature’s most wonderful gift: sprouts on the trees have a direct relationship with the human heart and no matter how dark the ground realities are, one cannot help feeling a bit of hope. Thus, the “new” in the title of this “Quantum Note” is as much a metaphor as it is an adjective for the process which started in December 2010 in Tunisia, and then spread to Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, where it unseated old dictators, Syrian, where it is trying to do the same, and to Bahrain, where it has been brutally crushed.
A starting date is helpful, but one cannot really pin down the working of the new forces in the Middle East to a date or locale; history is too complex, too intertwined to allow such neat commemorations. What is happening in the Middle East is a process which cannot be said to have begun on such and such a date, nor will it end with a spring or two; it is a massive and historical shift in the making, stirring and awakening people who have been asleep for at least three centuries. During these three centuries of their siesta, they have been brutally ruled by foreign and local dictators and agents of foreign powers and they have been so degraded and terrorized that had it not been for their self-esteem and personal dignity, they would have fallen below the level of humanity.
I recall the face of a young Syrian who was visited by a secret agent on the second day of my arrival in Damascus six years ago. He was questioned about who I was and why was I staying in their house. “It was nothing,” he repeated several times afterwards. “He just wanted to make sure that you were okay, you know what I mean, that we were not hosting some al-Qaeda or such. It was nothing.”
Yet, the man who visited the residential neighborhood late at night and had tea with the head of the family, had some secret power; his mere appearance was enough to send waves of terror throughout the whole household and he left with some money in his pocket, but no one wanted to talk about the fear he brought to their lives, no one wanted to acknowledge the presence of a fear which was so obvious to even a visitor like me.
Behind that fear were the memories of Hafiz al-Asad’s reign of terror, when thousands of Syrians were massacred and thousands simply disappeared. The numbers are huge: just in Hema, about 38,000 residents were slaughtered in February 1982, when the Syrian Army put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising by shelling the city. Numerous other examples exist of state terrorism, but no one was able to raise an audible voice against it.
The new Middle East is emerging from the ashes of this long, cold, and harsh winter of state terror. Its immediate goal is to remove the dictators who belong to another era, but that is just the beginning. This beginning is being made by a generation which has never seen a true spring. These people have never known what freedom is and their children were born in that dark night of fear and hopelessness which has now thrust them out in a world dominated by complex international politics, UN-brokers, regional powers, vying for influence, and most importantly, into a sectarian divide that has rocked the old power structures in the entire Middle East.
The New Middle East is a work in progress and it is too complex a work to forecast any definitive outcome and timeframe. Just a look at what is happening in Egypt is instructive to understand that it will take at least a whole generation of dedicated men and women to bring a certain degree of stability to the work which started in December 2010 in a visible manner although it had been going before that.
The old dictators are desperately trying to hang on to what is no more possible. They are unable to withstand the force young men and women, who have seen a glimpse of joy, hope, and most of all freedom, have brought to the fore. These men and women are no more content with the old suffocation. Time is on their side. Yet, in recognizing the long journey ahead, before a really new Middle East will emerge, one must remember that the per capita income of an average Middle Eastern is $1,200 per year, about one-tenth that of a European. These countries spend a staggering $60 billion every year on military equipment, with countries like Syria spending nearly 50% of their budget on arms. Economic cooperation is almost non-existent among the twenty-three Arab countries which are members of the Arab League; even the existing rail lines between Saudi Arabia and Syria have not been used for tens of year; pipe lines have also been out of use.
Thus, even to dream of a truly new Middle East is not an easy task. There are no short cuts. Even after the ruling dictators have left, there will be a long way before the new generation of men and women can hope to see the flowering of buds on the trees. Yet, no matter how long the journey is, the first step already reduces it by one foot.