Reform is perhaps the most noble, and trying, process that one can engage in— reforming one’s self, or perhaps aspiring to reform one’s country or even the world. Is reform possible, however, in the Arab world? And can this be done in the absence of a proactive reform process in the “West”? Since the Crusaders, this part of the world, the so-called “Orient” or the “East”, has shared an interactive relationship with the so-called “West”, one rooted in a common hierarchal ideology and similar patterns of thought. It’s a case of the Bedouin dealing with the mercantilist, and vice versa. Although mercantilism, or economic nationalism, is said to have ended with the advent of Adam Smith in the 18th century, it was only formalized with the GATT Agreement in 1947.

The game is a zero-sum game. The gain of one country is invariably the loss of another. Therefore all efforts must be taken to ensure that the “other” side (in this case, ‘us’) remains weak and even helpless. One could look back at the Sykes-Picot Agreement dividing the region into modern ‘nation-states’, even though they lacked the depth of a nation and the socio-economic and political structure of a state. Promises made by ‘them’ to encourage rebellion against the Ottomans were broken and the Balfour Declaration paved the way for a Jewish state. Attempts at reform since Mohammad Ali and the Arab renaissance thinkers have been crushed, along with the principles of the Magna Carta, the French Revolution and the United States Constitution, as if each side brings out the worst in the ‘other’. The other side (‘us’) has been dealing with this situation as the bedouin do—each tribe, or even each sheikh, for himself. Both sides, now seeing eye to eye, are being driven by greed and power at the expense of the general good, ‘here’ and ‘there’. To quote Amin Maalouf from his Crusades Through Arab Eyes, “Patriotic sentiments were thus held in abeyance and the local potentates arrived, with faced smiles, to present their gifts and to pay homage. Kiss any arm you cannot break, a local proverb runs, and pray to God to break it.”

Margaret McGilvary, the secretary of the Beirut chapter of the Red Cross during World War I, states in her book, The Dawn of a New Era in Syria, that “Syria* is one of the many small nations that has staked her future on America’s good faith... and so great is Syria’s confidence in America’s loyalty to Wilson’s principles that she is willing to entrust her national existence into our keeping [keeping Syria undivided].” She goes on to say that “if Syria’s right to self-determination is disregarded, and the nation is forced under an administration that is growingly unpopular, it is a foregone conclusion that the most desirable types of Syrian citizens will emigrate... then indeed Syria is doomed.” The United States, seen by many here as a beacon of light, slowly but surely showed the same face as Britain and France at the time. Since then, the Bedouin and the Mercantilist have been ruling both worlds, which is what has brought us to where we are today. The Mercantilist world is at times enlarged to represent a wider interest group and sometimes a nation-state, while the Bedouin world shrinks to represent the smallest unit in the tribe and, most of the time, the ‘ruler’ alone. McGilvary also pointed out in her book that “the present crying need is a complete reorganization of the administration, and the removal from office of those local officials allowed by the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA) to remain in office. They are almost without exception “grafters and “crooks”. Syria needs a political house-cleaning... and not the worst type of political boss.”

Thus the contract was forged—mediocre local tyrants lacking legality, yet supported by a greedy Mercantilist West. Now a new deal is being formulated between an imperialist West, that lacks moral authority and mediocre “reformists” that lack both roots and legitimacy, and are behaving as the Bedouins of Lawrence did. This, however, does not answer the fundamental question of why we have not been able to evolve, reform or do our own “house-cleaning.” To answer that, we need to first explore what is wrong with ‘us’...

* Syria at the time included Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan

See the next issue of Ii Monthly for Part II of this editorial series

Jawad Adra