Melancholic Troglodytes' pamphlet covering the history of the Syrian/Lebanese dispute from 1500-2003.
Godfathers of Levant
Syrian-Lebanese dispute and its implications for the class struggle
Bertolt Brecht (1955) once wrote, 'When the leaders speak of peace the common folk know that war is coming. When the leaders curse war, the mobilisation order is already written out'. Since in recent months a number of leading bourgeois politicians have praised 'peace' in the Levant (the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean, namely Syria, Lebanon and Israel), Melancholic Troglodytes felt it was high time we understood the region more comprehensively. Unfortunately, a proletarian analysis of the Levant is faced with a number of immediate obstacles: the current low level of class struggle in the region; the prevalence of nationalistic and religious bigotry amongst large sections of the world proletariat; lack of communication between us and autonomous proletarian elements within the region; and, finally, the unreliability of information pertaining to the Levant. By choosing to foreground the class struggle in Syria (and to a lesser extent Lebanon), we have not made our task any easier. The internal volatility of Syria and Lebanon and the real threat of military intervention by Israel or USA make prediction of future events unfeasible. We, therefore, apologise to readers for the shortcomings of the present work and hope their constructive criticisms will help us improve our understanding of the Levant.
Godfather II (you know, the one with Robert De Niro)
The Ottoman empire (Circa. 1516-1918), 'the longest continuous dynastic state in human history' (Beinin 2001: 5), has left an indelible mark on the region. This influence did not suddenly vanish at the end of World War I, when the victorious entente powers dismantled the empire.
Under the 'tutelage' of the Ottomans, Syria was a largely self-sufficient agrarian and trade-based economy (Lesch 1999: 94). 'The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as well as the continuing economic problems of the Ottoman Empire in general by the 1870s (climaxing with its bankruptcy in 1875), forced a downturn in the Syrian economy that lasted into the early twentieth century' (Lesch 1999: 94). According to Beinin (2001: 16), 'the Ottoman agrarian regime was neither an Asiatic nor a feudal mode of production', although it shared a number of characteristics with both. The Ottoman state administered the largest share of the land. Interestingly, the 'Ottoman peasants who farmed state administered lands had more rights than European feudal tenants because they could not be evicted so long as they maintained cultivation and paid taxes' (Beinin 2001: 15).
In urban areas, artisans were organised into a guild system that grew out of 'popular religious or social solidarity associations that became consolidated as craft associations between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries' (Beinin 2001: 17). Guilds turned into impressive nodes of power acting to 'restrain unfair competition, regulate entry into professions, and establish standards of quality' (Beinin 2001: 17). They worked on the assumption that every producer had the right to a certain share of the market. This approach led to the producers of Aleppo selling more goods to France than they imported by the end of the eighteenth century (Beinin 2001: 23).
When whiggish and orientalist historians decry the slow uptake of capitalist relations in the Middle East, they tend to portray the strength of artisans and peasants in maintaining their class interests as mere economic impediments or cultural backwardness. Hinnebusch (1997: 249) has shown how such a perspective can easily lead to either economic or cultural determinism. The defensive reflexes of the Levant's underbelly need to be born in mind when contemporary analysts disparage proletarian rejection of bourgeois progress, whether the promotion of progress emanates from Bashar al-Asad's technocrats, the deceased Hariri or White House ayatollahs.
In modern times, external forces began interfering with the Levant during the nineteenth century but it was the crumbling of the Ottoman empire that gave Britain and France the opportunity to move in. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 was the diplomatic culmination of this process. Accordingly, 'this envisaged a French sphere of influence in Lebanon and Syria, while Britain would control Palestine, Iraq and a new kingdom of Jordan' (Ashford 2005: 8). The French bourgeoisie gerrymandered their sphere of influence, as will the Syrian bourgeoisie many years later, to ensure the newly created Lebanese state would have a competing patchwork of 'ethnicities' and religions. The Muslims were divided into areas more or less associated with Shi'a, Sunni and Druze communities. However, it was the Maronite Christians (The Maronites took their name from the fifth century Saint Maro, a Syrian hermit who died in 435 AD. They have been the traditional allies of the French bourgeoisie) who were given a 'wafer-thin majority' in Lebanon (Ashford 2005: 8; Schwartz 2005: 2). In Syria proper, the French pursued their divide and rule policy by creating 'a semi-autonomous Alawi state in the north-west and a similar Druze state in the south' (George 2003: 65).
There were anti-colonial uprisings, peasant uprisings and strikes in what used to be called 'Greater Syria' (today's Syria, Lebanon and parts of Turkey, Jordan and Israel). 'In fact', writes Beinin (2001: 61), 'from the late eighteenth century to the Syrian revolt of 1925-27 there were over thirty Druze and Alawi peasant revolts and half a dozen or more revolts in Mount Lebanon and the coastal mountains over northern Syria'.
In 1920 'Railway and tramway workers, printers, glass and textile workers, electric company workers and artisans launched a wave of strikes demanding higher wages' (Beinin 2001: 90). When in the same year, Emir Faisal acquiesced to a French ultimatum, 'crowds took to the streets, accusing the emir of selling the nation like merchandise and denouncing him as an outsider and traitor. Government buildings, including the emir's palace and citadels in most cities, were attacked, political prisoners were freed and the arms stored in the citadels distributed' (Gelvin 1994: 39). 'Between 1925 and 1926', writes Ashford (2005: 8), 'a massive [peasant-based] revolt spread in opposition to colonial rule which the French crushed with difficulty, twice bombing the capital Damascus. Finally, in 1946 another popular rebellion forced the French to evacuate their troops'. It would be erroneous, however, to portray the resistance that took place in this period as merely part of a nationalistic revolt against colonialism. Many workers refused to succumb to the oily charms of nationalism and struggled against both native bosses and French authorities.
The 1946 struggle of women tobacco workers at the Beirut branch of the Regie (a French-Lebanese consortium which held a monopoly of Lebanese tobacco) is a case in point. It is suggested that the 'overwhelming number of female strikers may have been single and below the age of thirty' (Abisaab 2004: 69). The workers occupied the factory and the central warehouse of the Regie to prevent the loading of shipment of cigarettes. They also formed a strike committee 'and called upon male workers to follow suit' (Abisaab 2004: 56). By their actions they tied together anti-colonial and labour demands, 'casting their roles not in terms of domesticity or pre-industrial images of motherhood, but rather in terms of waged work' (Abisaab 2004: 55). The management of Regie with the help of the Lebanese government smashed the strike but not before the strike became the focus of proletarian unity throughout Lebanon. There were even solidarity strikes by Syrian workers who refused to be used by Regie as scabs. Just as significantly, 'the women exhibited little national paraphernalia during this phase and in later confrontations with the police, thus avoiding the use of nationalist symbols to claim their rights as citizens' (Abisaab 2004: 57). The contrast with recent Lebanese flag-waving demonstrations cannot be starker. When one observes that there was an abundance of nationalist paraphernalia in both the 2005 anti- and pro-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut, the radicalism of the 1946 Regie strikers becomes even more impressive.
In Syria, from the outset, there were two forms of nationalism competing for the people's affections (Tripp 2001: 200). First, there was the pan-nationalism of the ruling elite, aided by the 'men of letter' who circulated petitions demanding the right to shape the national identity in return for 'educating the masses' (Gelvin 1994: 26); and, secondly, there was the populist nationalism of all those who felt neglected and marginalised 'by economic and status revolutions and who shared a common resentment and nostalgia' (Gelvin 1994: 27). At the end of W/W I, this latter populist grouping of nationalists included 'conservative notables, lower-middle class religious dignitaries, shopkeepers, textiles and grain merchants, and local toughs' who joined together to form innovative national and local defence committees (Gelvin 1994: 26). The two nationalistic camps attempted to mobilise the masses behind reactionary demands. It is claimed that much of the urban population was indifferent to the activities of both camps (Tripp 2001: 201). When nationalists were successful in galvanising crowds, the pan-Arabist elite used demonstrations to reinforce the verticality of political relationships and induce sacrifices such as acquisition to conscription and supplementary taxes. 'In contrast, populist groups used demonstrations to represent a political community in which relationships of power were primarily horizontal and in which civil society was not only separate from the state, but was predominant' (Gelvin 1994: 6). In short, those in charge (pan-Arabist elite) emphasised political society and used civil society in order to modernise their hold on power whereas those seeking power (populist nationalists) emphasised civil society as a tool for winning power. Today these tendencies still compete with each other in both the Levant and in large swathes of the 'anti-globalisation' racket (see the conclusion for a vital distinction between 'middle class anti-globalisers' and 'anti-capitalists).
By the 1920s and 1930s, pan-Arabism had begun to get the better of local populist nationalism as 'Arabism came to be defined by language rather than by geography' (Devlin 1991: 1397). However, the gradual evolution of pan-Arabism into Baathism in Iraq and Syria was mired by inconsistencies and antagonisms. At the outset Baathism's apparent ability to transcend religious and ethnic divisions appealed to various factions within the elite. Two of its main theoreticians, the orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq and the Sunni Muslim Salah al-Din Batar, were from 'Damascene merchant families of middling status' (Devlin 1991: 1397). Their slogan 'Unity, freedom, socialism' encapsulates their politics: 'Unity' of all Arabs, 'freedom' from foreign control and 'Socialism' (meaning 'state capitalism'), as the tool for achieving their modernist goals. The founding congress of the Baath Party took place in 1947, in Damascus, with about 200 attendees (Devlin 1991: 1398). Most of the members were 'students from rural background- a reflection of the high proportion of teachers in the Party's leadership' (George 2003: 66). So the Baath Party had played no part in the rebellion that finally ousted the French a year earlier in 1946. Ashford (2005: 8) writes, 'the landowners and merchants who formed the first post-independence government soon faced workers' strikes for better pay and conditions, while peasants rebelled'.
In the 1950s, as a result of political mergers, the Baath Party had become 'a coalition of the white-collar urban class, school teachers, government employees and the like, with revolutionary [sic!] peasants' (George 2003: 67). During this time 'vigorously supported by the Baath leaders, a delegation of [nationalist] Syrian officers went to Cairo ... and asked Nasser [the foremost Arab nationalist of the era] to agree to the union of Syria and Egypt' (Devlin 1991: 1400). In time Syrian nationalists would come to rue this overture, since Nasser was a dictator who tolerated no rival and brook no power-sharing arrangement. Nasser agreed to the request after much deliberation on condition that all political parties in Syria dissolve in favour of a single, mass party. Most Syrian leaders agreed, some with misgivings. The Communist [i.e., Leninist] Party of Syria knew what was coming and decided to go underground. Aflaq and Bitar foolishly agreed to dissolve the party without consulting members, a move that stunned party members and caused much friction and alienation amongst working class members. Nasser became the de facto leader of the United Arab Republic (UAR). 'The union cabinet sat in Cairo, and decisions were made there' (Devlin 1991: 1400).
Nasser's dictatorial approach, his treatment of Syria as Egypt's Northern Province, and the economic impact of his land reforms led major units of the Syrian army to rise in rebellion in 1959. The rightist officers were ably supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Although Nasser's instincts were to fight to save the UAR, he was left with few options and in 1961 the UAR was dissolved. Apologists for Nasserism (e.g., see the latest sycophantic rants of the reactionary wanker, Tariq Ali, 2004: 33-34), should note that the infamous mukhaberat made their first appearance during Nasser's reign over Syria. Moreover, the labour code banning strikes in Syria (which are still operational today) were imported from Egypt courtesy of Don Nasser.
Syrian Baathists became even more authoritarian after their bitter experience with Nasser. Military commanders became more influential in the everyday running of the party. 'Selection ... replaced election' (Devlin 1991: 1402) and when in 1963 a coalition of Baathist and non-Baathist officers joined forces to seize the state, the Baath had only around 2,500 members (George 2003: 68). Most of the officers seem to have been from the Alawi clan, 'a historically underprivileged and oppressed rural community from a minority Shi'a sect' (Mora and Wiktorowicz 2003: 108). Their lack of a popular base made the Syrian Baathists paranoid and repressive from the outset, a custom they were unable to relinquish even in those brief periods when they enjoyed social popularity (Seale 1995: 85). The next seven years witnessed a protracted intra-classist feud within the Syrian ruling class with two poles- the state capitalist oriented wing supported by Baath party and the more 'pragmatic' military wing supported by a very shrewd and opportunistic Hafiz al-Asad. Using the 1967 defeat by Israel as a pretext to get rid of his rivals, Asad united these two factions under the auspices of the Alawi clan who have been at the apex of Syrian society ever since.
The Godfather (the original with Marlon Brando)
Hafiz al-Asad ruled Syria from 1970-2000. Numerous US presidents privately described him as 'extraordinarily intelligent and the premier strategic thinker of the Arab world' (Kessler 2000: 69), whilst U.S. interlocutors were impressed by his ability to hold his bladder during marathon negotiating sessions (Zizzer 2003: 31). During this time Syria fought and lost another war to Israel (1973), two attempts at economic 'liberalisation' met with limited success, a Muslim rebellion was crushed by the state (1982), and Syria became embroiled in Lebanon (1976-present) and the First Gulf War (1990), both at the behest of the USA. Despite these setbacks the period is perceived nostalgically by many Syrians as a golden age of stability!
One of Hafiz al-Asad's first tasks was to restructure the weakened Baath party. He needed the party, after all, to garner proletarian support for various economic and military campaigns (Perthes 1995: 154). But what he needed was a more conformist party that would do his bidding. He dramatically expanded membership figures. According to Alan George (2003: 71) 'Today, party membership is put at 1.8 million- 18 per cent of the fourteen plus age group'. He also increased the remit of various 'populist organisations' in order to enhance his grip on rural and urban workers. The largest of these organisations is the General Union of Peasants with just under one million members. Urban 'public' workers are controlled by the General Federation of Trade Unions which links 194 trade unions with a slightly smaller overall membership than the General Union of Peasants. Some of the most strategic segments of the proletariat such as petroleum and chemical workers, transport and information workers are 'mobilised' by Syrian godfathers within this body. Workers in the 'private' sector have been conservatively estimated at 400,000, around 20% of whom are unionised (terms like 'public' and 'private' are mystifying since all property in Syria, as elsewhere, is private property and the overwhelming majority of this private property belongs to the ruling classes). There are women's organisations, writers' organisations, university student organisations and various professional organisations. These latter groupings of doctors, lawyers and engineers have traditionally been less conformist and, in fact, played 'an important role in the opposition movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s when their members suffered arrests and torture' (George 2003: 75-76).
Aoude (1997: 191) writes, 'by 1970, Syria became a net importer of food stuffs, which eventually, along with industrialisation and consumer goods imports, increased the trade deficit and developed a serious foreign exchange crisis'. The ruling class decided to use this crisis to restructure Syrian capitalism. Once Asad felt secure, he launched the first attempt at liberalisation in 1973. Pretentiously referred to as 'the infitah [opening] of abundance' (1973-1981), the measure was intended to increase the rate of exploitation by restructuring both rural and urban environments. In the countryside land reform allowed middle-ranking peasants to forge a profitable alliance with wealthy farmers and agribusiness at the expense of small peasants and rural wage-slaves (Aoude 1997: 192). Since the state bourgeoisie (meaning Asad, the Baath party, high ranking military officers and the trade union hierarchy) still had the upper hand within the ruling class, they managed to draw a red line around nationalised industries such as banking, mining, oil, insurance and manufacturing of strategic goods. Entrepreneurs would have to wait many years before gradually resting these segments of the economy away from the state bourgeoisie. However, Asad was more than willing to use the 'infitah of abundance' to create a mixed economy in areas such as tourism.
A closer look at the changes instituted in tourism sheds light on the evolution of Syrian capitalism. The reasons they moved into tourism are not very different from the Corleone family seeking interests in the tourist industries of Cuba and Las Vegas. 'First', explains Gray (1997: 58), 'the potential for tourism to generate foreign currency is important, all the more so in states ... suffering balance of payment problems. Second is the fact that tourism is labour intensive, and creates employment throughout the economy; tourists spend money on hotels, transport, and meals, but also on a wide variety of goods and services. Third, is the fact that the tourism industry does not, on the whole, require expensive or complex technology or a highly skilled workforce [with the exception of the need to operate an airline]'. Syria, by all accounts, has a whole host of tourist attractions, spread across the country and easily accessible. Traditional industries in the countryside (bedrock of the Syrian ruling class) could potentially benefit. Finally, and this is very significant for a regime as paranoid as the Syrian state, 'tourists themselves pose little threat to the stability or popularity of the regime' (Gray 1997: 60).
In keeping with the historical analogy of the mafia in Las Vegas, the initial profits from the Syrian tourist industry were small. However, during the second infitah (1986-2000), substantial expatriate investment began to filter through and a 'new bourgeois class' coalesced around hotel and restaurant ownership. These new capitalists are said to be exempt from labour laws, allowing them to sack 'obstinate' workers at will (Gray 1997: 65). Vast profits have enabled them to converge with the bourgeois elite represented by the chambers of commerce and industry. Although relative late-comers to tourism and not as successful as Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco in this regard, Syria has been developing joint-tourist agreements with Lebanon and Jordan. It is hoped that tourism will become one of the three most important sources of foreign income and employment for Syria. This section of the economy, at least, could gain greatly from a 'peace-dividend' with Israel.
Contrariwise what has become known as the Syrian 'military-mercantile-complex' does not seek a lasting capitalist peace throughout the Levant (nor, incidentally, does this grouping seek a full frontal confrontation with Israel which would be suicidal given the imbalance of forces, but rather the continuation of a fake state of emergency). At the core of this 'military-merchant-complex' is an uneasy alliance between Alawi officers (state bourgeoisie) and Sunni capitalists (old private bourgeoisie). The unease and lack of trust is illustrated by the low incidence of intermarriage between the two groups (Hinnebusch 1997: 252). It has been suggested Bashar al-Asad's marriage to a young Syrian Sunni woman from London was perhaps an attempt 'to widen the family base within the country and open it to Europe' (Glass 2005: 1).
As Mora and Wiktorowicz (2003: 113) make clear, 'the regime has lavished spending on the military, though it has not been involved in major combat operations since 1973. From 1977 to 1988, military spending (including Soviet arms transfers) was estimated at 30 percent of GDR and the army (including reserves) employed 21 percent of the male labor force ... the high level of spending attracted strategic rents from regional sponsors ...'. The rent (not dissimilar to the protection money the Corleone accrue from their clients) is not to be scuffed at. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the dividend from other Arab countries was at 5 to 6 percent of GDP (Mora and Wiktorowicz 2003: 113). There is also open 'protection' work for the army, which in the continued absence of a proper and binding legal system, offers its muscle to businesses for 'protection'.
The military through its contacts in the government and the Alawi clan has over the years gained substantial interests in various sections of the economy including 'public works, construction, basic industry, farm production, and the manufacturing of batteries, bottled mineral water, and furniture' (Richards and Waterbury 1997: 431). Hanna Batatu (1999: 215-225) estimated that 61% of the inner circle of decision-makers, whose power exceeds the parliament and the party and who are only unanswerable to the President, came from the Alawi clan. In return for their loyalty, many military officers were allowed to run illicit smuggling operations from Lebanon (Mora and Wiktorowicz 2003: 113) - a perk which has recently come to an end. Drugs, tobacco and luxury cars used to be favourite commodities for the smugglers. Although the 'military-merchant-complex' may prefer to continue the pretence of hostility against Israel in order to guarantee its budgetary cut, it is also ideally placed to take advantage of further liberalisations. Access to cheap labour power and raw materials gives them the edge over rival bourgeois 'families'.
Following Marx (1852/1981: 143-249), a number of writers have described the Syrian regime as a Bonapartist state (Hinnebusch 1997). There is some truth in this, at least under the rule of Hafiz al-Asad (1970-2000). By Bonapartism Marx was referring to an exceptional situation where the working classes are too weak to affirm their own hegemony and where factions of the ruling class cancel each other out and thus cannot rule amicably through the more stable form of liberalism and the rule of law. The executive branch, usually under the 'divine' leadership of a 'charismatic' individual, then steps in as a kind of dictatorial mediator, acquiring for the moment, a certain degree of relative autonomy. This 'charismatic' individual who 'represents' the small-holding peasantry, attempts to speak for all classes in society through a populist ideology (Bottomore et al. 1988: 53).
Syrian 'Bonapartism' certainly enjoyed formidable power under Hafiz al-Asad, although it would be folly to assume emergency-Bonapartism can last for three full decades without 'normalising' tendencies reasserting themselves. Perhaps it would be more accurate to characterise the state as a kind of 'presidential monarchy, resting on huge civil and military bureaucracies, whose chain of command are reinforced by patronage and kinship' (Hinnebusch 1997: 250). This 'Bonapartist' regime, based on the passive 'support' of unionised workers, public employees and small peasants, knows itself to be a temporary measure. It must modernise its base, structure and superstructure if Syrian capitalism is to grow and yet to do so would be to attack the very constituencies it depends on for its survival.
Moreover, a strong state is needed to manage liberalisation and the synchronisation of base, structure and superstructure. 'The proper sequence of liberalisation is to expand the private sector before tackling reform of the public sector so as to have a dynamic private economy able to absorb the resultant unemployment' (Hinnebusch 1997: 255). The creation of a mixed economy in tourism and agriculture was a prerequisite of this strategy. The state contributes land and infrastructure, while the 'private' sector contributes capital and entrepreneurship. Following this first phase, carried out in the 1970s and 1980s, the welfare system (notably subsidised food, fertilisers and medicine), will be curtailed. Already this has led to murmurs of discontent amongst workers. According to Hinnebusch (1997: 261), 'the private sector, which had only accounted for about 35% of gross fixed capital formation from 1970-85, climbed to 52% of the total in 1989 and 66% in 1992'.
However, even Bonapartism is not always in complete charge of affairs. There were a number of challenges to the state under the reign of Hafiz al-Asad, admittedly not all of them emanating from a revolutionary proletarian direction. There was, for example, the persistent recalcitrance of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, with serious consequences for Syrian stability itself. An alliance between these refugees with the Lebanese left (i.e., the left wing of capital in the shape of the National Movement, an assortment of Baathists, Nasserists and Leninists) in the 1970s, threatened the pro-Western (Maronite Christian dominated) government. Syria was encouraged to intervene by both the US and Israel. After calculating the pros and cons of the situation, the ever-pragmatic Hafiz al-Asad decided to invade. The Palestinian proletariat had to be subdued.
Almost immediately the Syrian army had to get its hands bloody. One of the most notorious barbarities of the occupation occurred at the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp, in East Beirut. According to Ashford (2005: 8), 'In April 1976 Syrian troops encircled a Palestinian camp at Tel al-Zaatar while the Christian militias carried out a massacre - the Israelis would do the same at Sabra and Shatilla camps in September 1982'. Whilst Israel's invasions of Lebanon (in 1978 and then again in 1982) was posing new challenges, a prison revolt inside Syria (in the eastern desert near Tadmur) was put down at the cost of 1,000 lives (Ashford 2005: 9). Before 1980, the prisoners were mostly military personnel who violated military rules or were punished for misdemeanour. With the increasing military activities of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement, the prison regime became more brutal. The Tadmur massacre was in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt on the life of Asad in June 1980. Rumour has it that some of his own guards tried to kill him while he was coming out of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus's Old City.
A more serious threat surfaced in 1982 which culminated in a three-week uprising led by the Sunni Islamists of Muslim Brotherhood in the central city of Hama. Yassin-Kassab (2005: 1) has described how the Syrian regime's response resembles the US army's more recent destruction of Fallujah, 'Enraged by what they perceive as the Westernising, anti-Islamic policies of the authorities, militants take control of a conservative Middle Eastern city. They impose their harsh version of Shari'a law on the inhabitants and launch attacks in other cities on government forces and any civilians associated with them ... Military command is unable and perhaps unwilling to distinguish between insurgents and civilians. Besides, an example needs to be made. The city is besieged, its roads closed so nobody can escape. The historic centre and residential areas are pulverized by aerial and artillery bombardment. There is intense house to house fighting, and then clearing operations ... Thousands are killed ...'. George (2003: 16) estimated the casualties to be between 5,000-10,000, whilst Ashford (2005: 9) argues 'at least 30,000 civilians' were killed. As Yassin-Kassab has argued this is an accurate description of the Hama massacre of 1982 which could double up as a narrative of the 'liberation' of Fallujah in 2004. The fear that this brutal massacre instilled in Syrians did not just scupper the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power, it also suppressed the nascent proletarian movement that was beginning to assert itself.
The 1980s also witnessed a drop in oil prices, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (1982) and a mafia-style succession crisis (1983-84). The drop in oil prices 'not only [adversely affected] Syria's own oil export revenues, but it also reduced remittances from abroad as well as financial aid from oil-rich Arab Gulf countries' (Lesch 1999: 96). The 1982 Israeli invasion could not be met by the Syrian military directly thus exposing the regime's hollow jingoism. The succession crisis occurred after exhaustion or a mild heart attack (depending on which report you choose to believe) had temporarily incapacitated Hafiz al-Asad. According to George (2003: 18), Asad 'vested responsibility for managing state affairs in a six-man committee of trusted associates' (the Corleone would call them consiglieri). Alawi generals angered by their apparent demotion, encouraged Asad's brother, Rif'at, to oust the six-man committee. When Asad recovered, he punished his brother and seventy Alawi generals who were banished abroad. All but Rif'at were soon recalled. Rif'at became a bit player of little consequence after this episode. Ironically, before Rif'at so clumsily ruined his chances of heading the family, he was Hafiz al-Asad's first choice as successor (Ghadbian 2001: 24).
Having weathered these storms, the regime was in a better position to tackle economic stagnation in the 1990s. It was aided in its task by 'good harvests throughout the 1990s' which 'produced a tremendous grain (mostly wheat) surplus' (Lesch 1999: 93). Greater agricultural output was prevented mainly due to the migration of many small peasants and rural wage-slaves to the cities. Incremental economic progress was made when Syria 'concluded significant contracts with European partners (such as a $118 million deal with Ericsson to install telephone lines and a $400 million oil and gas deal with Elf Aquitaine and Conoco) and recently signed a framework for an association agreement with the European Union ... [known as the] Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Program' (Lesch 1999: 101). Shell and TotalFina also invested in new oil fields (Ashford 2005: 9). The multi-national, Nestle, is also an investor in the country's economy (Robinson 1998: 162). All this points to a patient strategic manoeuvre on the part of the European Union whose interests would be undermined by a US-Israeli military invasion of Syria. However, since 'Europe' was so woefully unable to prevent the loss of its investments in Iraq, it would be naÃ¯ve to assume it could be used by the region's ruling class as a counterpoint to US aggression, unless the balance of forces between Europe and USA shifts in favour of the former.
During the 1990s the number of wage slaves grew steadily. No reliable figures are available and the ones brandied about by scholars employ sociological criteria and should, therefore, be treated with extreme caution. However, to give an idea, we could quote Aoude (1997: 192), 'Many in the urban working class are of rural origins. This class is weak politically even though it comprises 35 percent of the population. In the early 1990s, the average wage in the public sector workers covered only one-third of a worker's family expenses. However, private sector workers are employed in small enterprises where the labor code does not apply fully'. Aoude also mentions another dubious sociological category, the 'semi-proletarians'. He defines this group as 'the temporarily employed and vendors, comprising 15 percent of the population' (Aoude 1997: 192). This latter group, he argues, is a greater threat to the regime since their precarious existence compels them to seek violent confrontation. Similarly, 'the self-employed middle class [about 17 percent of the population] is anti-regime and religiously conservative but poses no threat because a significant part of it has reached a modus vivendi with the regime' (Aoude 1997: 192). Given that revolutionary definitions of social class are more expansive than sociological categorisations, it is likely that many rural workers, 'semi-proletarians' and even 'self-employed middle class' individuals should be included as part of the Syrian proletariat. When one adds to this estimate, Syrian workers employed throughout Lebanon and the Gulf States, the contours of the new Syrian proletariat begin to take shape.
The Syrian proletariat found itself increasingly at odds with the regime's modernisation policies. The alienation of this vital group, forced the state bourgeoisie to forge more durable ties with other factions of the ruling class as a precaution against future social unrest. The 'private bourgeoisie' is, according to Hinnebusch (1997: 252), 'still politically weak ... it is divided between pro-regime new bourgeoisie and elements of the older bourgeoisie still unreconciled with the regime'. Although some sections of the 'private bourgeoisie' have entered into a long-term alliance with the 'state bourgeoisie', other factions have preferred to forge alliances with the urban petty bourgeoisie.
We would not like to give the impression that the new bourgeois alliances being forged are merely a knee-jerk response to proletarian intransigence- that would be wishful thinking. Sometimes the reason is far more mundane. For example, in the 1980s lack of funds prevented the state bourgeoisie '[from preventing] scrap metal to run the public iron and aluminium factories', forcing it to rely on private bourgeois financiers (Hinnebusch 1997: 253). A division of labour seems to be forming 'in which the public sector continues to meet local needs and serve the regime's constituency [i.e., public workers and peasants] while the private sector specialises in production for export' (Hinnebusch 1997: 255). The establishment of a stock market is a measure intended to further this internal accumulation of capital and catalyze the 'natural expansion of small industries into larger scale firms' (Hinnebusch 1997: 262). It is also hoped that once a transparent investment law is operational, it will attract some of the $60 billion held by Syrians abroad. At the end of Hafiz al-Asad's reign, we were therefore witnessing a recomposition of both capitalists and proletarians - a process pushed forward by a combination of internal and external tensions.
Godfather III (the one with Al Pacino and Andy Garcia)
After his father's death in 2000, Bashar al-Asad came to power with a clear agenda. As with Michael Corleone, who dreamed of legalising the family business, Bashar al-Asad's main objective was to normalise Syrian capitalism. And again just like Michael Corleone, Bashar's carefully thought-out plans soon lay in ruins due to the machinations of dark and secretive forces beyond his control.
In his inaugural speech, Bashar's buzz-words were 'modernisation' and 'technology' (George 2003: 32). By Arab bourgeois standard, his assessment was frank. His intentions were to speed up his father's reforms, starting with the 'base' and the 'structures' of Syrian capitalism and hope that the 'superstructure' will fall into concordance at a later date and with a minimum of friction. The 'superstructure', or at least that part of it characterised by marginalised middle class activists, however, had a different agenda. Long-standing intellectual dissidents, such as the filmmaker Nabil al-Maleh and the writer Michel Kilo, lost no time in inaugurating what later became known as Syria's civil society movement. Kilo was very clear that 'the only social force able to implement a political project is the middle class' (quoted in George 2003: 34). Intellectuals, lawyers, professionals and students were to be galvanised as the agent of political change. In a throw-back to previous bourgeois/petty-bourgeois reform movements, the ensuing political upheavals of 2000 became known as the 'Damascus Spring'.
The 'movement' soon won the support of 'independent' parliamentarians such as Riad Seif who, benefiting from his parliamentary immunity, organised study groups at his home. This 'dialogue' was extensively reported by Al-Jazeera satellite station resulting in a surge of 'civil society' forums across Syria. Although cognisant of ideological parallels with both western and eastern European conceptions of civil society, the movement's intellectuals prefer to emphasise its native credentials. Western liberals tend to describe civil society as an 'order in which morally and intellectually fallible citizens organize themselves to monitor an incorrigible state, seeking either to minimize state intervention in their lives or to use some state intervention to check allegedly oppressive elites outside the state' (Metzger 2001: 1). This western notion of civil society can be expressed by either 'rightists' (with the emphasis on upholding the rule of law, private property and capital mobility) or 'leftists' (with the emphasis on 'empowering' disadvantaged groups and minorities).
Middle Eastern liberals and social democrats, by contrast, prefer to find equivalents from within 'native soil'. For instance, the Syrian intellectual Sadiq Jala al-Azm believes tanzimat is a far more valid historical precedence for the Syrian civil society movement. Tanzimat was a state-sponsored project introduced around 1830 by the Ottoman Turks as a way of cementing an identity around the notion of 'citizenship' which transcended ethnic, religious, and familial allegiances (George 2003: 38). This new notion of citizenship was to act as a platform for modernisation in commerce and technology. Al-Azm makes a direct analogy with Gorbachev's perestroika. Other Syrian intellectuals prefer to link their promotion of civil society to the teachings of the Muslim scholar, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who was attempting to renew the 'social covenant' based on a new set of rights and obligations which were mediated by emerging bourgeois law and not 'divine right' claimed by dictators and emperors (George 2003: 184).
Regardless of its historical baggage- whether it is put forward by European or Middle Eastern intellectuals and again irrespective of its 'rightist' or leftist' orientation- the civil society movement does not question the essence of capitalism (Melancholic Troglodytes 2004: 40-45). Moreover, despite a predilection for reform, the notion of the state as a historically given entity remains sacrosanct. Its aim is to humanise and regulate capitalism and not to overthrow it. The humanisation of capitalism is itself promoted with a view to creating the preconditions for increased profitability. This is true of all the NGOs which uncritically take onboard the project of civil-society-building.
What we wish to underline here are the doctrinal ties of continuity between Bashar al-Asad, the Syrian 'opposition', most sections of the emergent Lebanese 'opposition', huge chunks of the 'anti-globalisation movement' and the European liberal bourgeoisie. The fact that there is also real competition between these groups for a bigger piece of the cake should not blind us to their common anti-working class agenda.
It would be an oversimplification, however, to suggest that the 'Damascus Spring' contained no proletarian element. The protests did attract fragmented proletarian elements but it is fair to say that these currents remained subservient to the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois leadership of the civil society movement. What is incontestable is that at first Bashar tried to utilise the protests in order to modernise Syrian capitalism and ease the system's internal tensions. 'Political' prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Action Party were released in batches of hundreds throughout the second half of 2000 (George 2003: 40). The notorious Mezzeh prison was closed down. Unofficial human 'rights' organisations began to re-emerge with the tacit consent of the regime. Bashar also encouraged the parties allied to the Baathists in the Progressive National Front (a collection of Leninists, state-capitalists, social democrats and nationalist hangers on) to publish their own newspapers once again. In short, Bashar's plan was to reinvigorate a manageable 'opposition' from both political and civil societies and use this dynamic to push through changes.
Predictably, the plan soon ran into a brick wall of hostility in the shape of regime 'hardliners' centred, in this instance, on the Vice President Abdul Hakim Khaddam. The brick wall was guarded by a coalition of party and trade-union bureaucrats, state-dependent writers, journalists and professors who owed their position to the system (Perthes 2004: 14). Civil right activists were denounced as corrupt foreign stooges. Students protesting against the 'neo-liberal' policies of the government were arrested. Scare stories about the possibility of Syria imploding like Algeria or Yugoslavia if the tempo of change is not slowed down were spread to divide the 'opposition'. The licenses of many civil society forums were revoked. The veteran Leninist leader, Riad at-Turk, was rearrested after he criticised the regime's corruption in an interview on Al-Jazeera. The civil society movement was put on ice to be thawed out at a more opportune moment.
It is noteworthy, however, that the endemic corruption of Syrian society has a real material basis. The mediation (in Arabic, wasta) of the so-called five-percenters (corrupt officials who for 5% of the total deal put you in touch with the right people or provide the correct paper work) is in reality 'an additional form of control by the state that fragments the bourgeoisie from the upper middle class, who might in its absence coalesce into a recognizable opposition. In addition, it spreads the wealth to certain classes, supplement the income to government officials tied into the five-percenter organisations, and co-opts more people into the idea of maintaining regime stability' (Lesch 1999: 93). What the father built, the son cannot dismantle overnight. Therefore, Bashar has consolidated his own position patiently, first within Syria and second in the wider Arab arena, as a prelude to instigating new economic reforms. The 'Damascus Spring' had turned into a chilly 'Damascus Winter'.
Perthes (2004: 9) claims that by 2002, 'three-quarters of the 60 or so top political, administrative and military office-holders had been replaced' by technocrats loyal to Bashar. Whenever Bashar feels safe, censorship becomes milder (Perthes 2004: 20). More businessmen, tribal and religious leaders are becoming parliamentarian deputies thus widening the regime's basis. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, as with Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, 'have been developing a democratic discourse, and [have been reaching] out to liberals and leftists' (Perthes 2004: 22).
In 2003 a group of French consultants were brought in to restructure and modernise a number of ministries (Perthes 2004: 24). A concerted effort has been made to teach bureaucrats new skills such as languages and computing. Bashar who is himself a keen computer user has encouraged the production of local affordable computers and Net connectivity. This is crucial if the 20% unemployment rate is to be reduced. Gradually the private sector has become more prominent so much so that by 2001, 'the entire private sector accounted for an estimated 65% of GDP and employs almost 75% of the workforce, compared to less than 70% a decade earlier' (Perthes 2004: 30). A law based on the Chinese model has created zones for foreign investment. In January 2004 the first private bank opened its doors. 'Privatisation' may have contributed to a marginal increase in GDP but income differentials have widened despite budget increases and Syrian capitalism still relies on 10% of ten to sixteen year olds working for pay (Perthes 2004: 31).
Bashar improved Syria's relationship with Iraq. Old Baathist rivalries took a back seat to economic imperatives. Iraq's need for cheap consumer goods provided Syrian industrialists with a great opportunity. The Kirkuk-Banias pipeline came on stream after two decades' closure and Syria became Iraq's main export route outside the UN-controlled oil-for-food agreement (Perthes 2004: 39). Troop numbers were reduced in Lebanon and redeployment of troops made the Syrian presence more low-key, even before the anti-Syrian movement had gained ground. On 26 April 2005, the Syrian army completed its withdrawal from Lebanese territory. Hezbollah's combat operations were also 'reduced to almost zero' although Syria 'wants to maintain the organisation as a means of putting pressure on Israel' (Perthes 2004: 43).
Relations with Europe were also cemented. After all, Europe is Syria's main trading partner. Initially Syria kept away (and made sure Lebanon did likewise) from the Euro-Mediterranean meetings but after the second Gulf War, and Syria's unavoidable 'blunder' in supporting Saddam Hussein, there was a desperate need to reorient toward Europe. 'Unavoidable' because the Syrian population demanded resistance against US-British aggression and also because the Syrian economy had a lot to gain from supporting Iraq in the short term. Co-operation between Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan resulted in the connection of electricity networks. Syria also delivered badly needed water to Jordan. Under military pressure from Turkey over its support for PKK, Syria expelled Abdullah Ã–calan, who is now languishing in a Turkish jail. Moreover, realising that the costs outweigh benefits, Syria has stopped encouraging 'jihadist tourism' through its porous border with Iraq (Perthes 2004: 51) and has even 'denied entry to escaping Iraqis' (Zizzer 2003: 34).
If we were to project into the near future, it must be concluded that the regime seems reasonably stable, at least, internally. Bashar has established himself. The Baath administration, political affiliates, the parliament and trade unions are firmly in the grip of the regime. Huge segments of the rural population and the urban petty bourgeoisie actively support the regime whilst the private bourgeoisie are making profits and, therefore, reasonably content. The petty-bourgeois intellectuals have been silenced; their forums curtailed and, so long as the US acts aggressively, this will remain the case. Bashar even felt secure enough to release some 317 Kurdish 'political prisoners' as a good-will gesture. Some 250,000 Kurds who have always been denied citizenship are having their cases reviewed. All this despite of, or perhaps because of, Jalal Talabani's (current Iraqi President and Kurdish feudal chieftain) avowed aim of mobilising Kurds in Syria to stage demonstrations against Damascus (The New Worker 2005: 1).
The major class that has felt alienated in recent years and whose living standards will fall even further once 'modernisation' is speeded up is, needless to say, the proletariat. This is as true of the urban as the rural proletariat. Whether this class will have the might to exert itself autonomously remains to be seen. Meanwhile Syria has external threats to contend with. If the disengagement from Lebanon is botched up, the failure will have dire consequences for the longevity of the regime. It is to an analysis of the Syrian-Lebanese dispute that we must now turn.
St Valentine's Day Massacre
The authorities in Lebanon began 'clearing up the scene of Rafik Hariri's assassination on St Valentine's Day before forensic evidence had been collected, although they stopped in the face of protests' (Whitaker 2005: 13). As it becomes clear below, this was not the only unusual aspect of the assassination. The assassination was claimed by a hitherto unknown and unpretentious sounding bunch of dickheads called, 'Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant'. The analysis that follows aims to clarify some of the issues triggered by the killing of Hariri.
We do not know who was really responsible for his murder nor, frankly, do we inordinately care. A number of 'families' could have potentially benefited from such a spectacular manoeuvre: 'Islamic fascists' (e.g., Hariri and Hezbollah publicly clashed twice over the latter's military operations against Israel); Hariri's Lebanese business rivals; the Syrian authorities; the Israeli ruling class (Hariri had used his prestige to prevent Hezbollah's name being added to US's list of terror organisations despite his disagreements with Hezbollah); Palestinians (e.g., Palestinians were accused of attacking Rafik Hariri's Beirut television station in 2003); or US capitalism. The point is not to indulge in idle speculation but to understand the implications of the event for the class struggle in the Levant.
Hariri was a billionaire of Lebanese-Saudi origin who attempted to ingratiate himself with Beirut's proletariat by restoring the city to its former glory after the devastations of the 1980s. He hired thousands of workers to cleanup the beaches, resurface roads and plant palm trees (Fisk 1991: 465). He used his 'philanthropy' to purchase devalued land and by the 1990s he possessed a great chunk of Beirut through his shares in Solidere, the company that owns 'buildings, roads, services, security, cafes, hotels, office blocks, pavements, parks, and even Beirut's municipality' (Ghassan 2005: 1). When occasionally another capitalist objected to his take-over, such as the St Georges Hotel west of the corniche which refused to sell up, pressure was brought to bear through dubious means (Ghassan 2005: 1). It is even claimed, although we have not been able to verify this, that 'when people refused to vacate buildings [Hariri] wanted demolished, he had the buildings collapse on them, killing 12' (Knox 2005: 2). He used his massive influence to marginalise rival capitalists. For instance AbuKhalil (2001: 1) writes, 'Before returning to the prime ministership in 2000, he halted many rebuilding projects and orchestrated a daily drumbeat of economic doom and gloom in the media to undermine the government of former prime minister Salim al-Huss. These moves basically spread the message that economic misery would not end as long as Hariri was kept out of the premier's office'.
Gradually downtown Beirut was turned into a business and entertainment centre for the Middle Eastern bourgeoisie. It is even claimed that security routinely prevents 'people wearing Palestinian headscarves' and young proletarians from entering the area (Ghassan 2005: 2). As'ad AbuKhalil (2001: 2) condemns Hariri's rebuilding ethos in these terms, 'Beirut's new Olympic stadium, expanded and modernized airport and lavish conference centre do little for the average Lebanese. The rebuilding effort also aims to recapture for Lebanon its pre-war status as the casino, playground and brothel of the region'. Hariri then moved into politics, becoming the Lebanese prime minister before resigning in protest at Syrian machinations, although he remained an advocate of investment in Syria's recently privatised industries (Ashford 2005: 9). It is ironic that his first cabinet consisted of many 'ex'-warlords and pro-Syrian collaborators, any one of whom could be responsible for conspiring to have him killed.
The real 'conspiracy', of course, relates to the fact that the assassination of Hariri and subsequent moves by the US ruling class has overshadowed the rising tide of class struggle in Lebanon. In 2004, some 200,000 Lebanese protested against the US occupation of Iraq. This was followed a week later by strikes and demonstrations for lower petrol prices. The protestors included 'public and private school teachers, bank employees, transport workers, the workers of the national electricity company ... Lebanese university staff, farmers, agricultural workers, the water authority workers ... construction workers, the workers of Trans Mediterranean Airlines and civil servants ...' (Schwartz and Weston 2004: 1). The anti-government protests were not confined to Beirut and all over Lebanon taxi services and van drivers brought the traffic to a standstill. Ironically, 'the Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, was actually travelling back from a state visit to Syria, [when he] was blocked by the protests and had to find an alternative route' (Schwartz and Weston 2004: 2). The response of the Lebanese ruling class was rather brutal. It is claimed that 'by the end of the day ... the army had killed at least five people and wounded more than 30 demonstrators .... Enraged by the killings of civilians, the protestors stormed the Labour Ministry and set it on fire' (Schwartz and Weston 2004: 2). The General Confederation of Labour and Trade Unions did its utmost to sabotage the class struggle by refusing to expand the strike but in the process only managed to expose its distance from the proletariat. Even the bourgeoisie was beginning to criticise the unions for their incompetence in recuperating the struggle.
The images of mourners crying uncontrollably at Hariri's funeral are in stark contrast to his general unpopularity following the saddling of Lebanon with a $35-40 billion debt. His economic policies as prime minister and his behind the scene dealings as the Godfather of Lebanon are directly responsible for this huge debt (Schwartz and Weston 2004: 2). Significant economic growth between 1994-1997 began to slow down and by 2000 Lebanon was once again in recession (Schwartz and Weston 2005: 4). Hariri was also unwilling (as are the rest of the warlords running Lebanon) to publish a list of the 17,000 Lebanese who disappeared during the civil war (Freeman et al. 2001: 5). We are referring here to the second Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) which severely dislocated the economy, destroying an estimated $25-30 billions, whilst 'most of the rest of the Middle east enjoyed an economic boom' (Cohen 2003: 2).
Even a lame South African 'truth and reconciliation' type of commission (which is a reactionary co-option of proletarian anger using legal and religious discourse) was considered too risky by the Hariri government. Too many skeletons still need to remain buried. His tenure as prime minister (1992-98 and 2000-2004) is, therefore, characterised by mismanagement, corruption and huge budget deficits. His attempts to down-size a bloated administration, as for instance in Lebanon's national airline, ran into entrenched proletarian and 'ethnic' interests and had to be abandoned (Freeman et al. 2001: 11). Even though his relationship with Syria went through a number of tense periods, he was by and large an ally of Syria (Freeman et al. 2001: 16).
The Syrian position on Lebanon itself has gone through a number of phases. When Hafiz al-Asad was pressurised into invading Lebanon in 1976 by Henry Kissinger and the Israeli government, it was to 'repress the PLO and the Muslims' and prevent a Christian defeat (Schwartz 2005: 3). Hafiz al-Asad was reluctant to police Lebanon but when he was told the alternative was for Israel to do the job, he succumbed. Asad sought and received 'Arab League validation for Syria's move' before embarking on his Lebanese mission (Freeman et al. 2001: 2). Ironically, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 anyway thus exposing Syria's anti-Israeli rhetoric for a sham. As Syria became entrenched in Lebanon, the occupation began to accrue certain political, economic and military advantages. The USA, in the shape of James Baker, once again granted Hafiz al-Asad the right to invade the Christian eastern half of Beirut in order to impose 'order' (Glass 2005: 1).
Politically, it maintained 'some control over potentially restive Palestinian communities in Lebanon' (Freeman et al. 2001: 3), since the Lebanese bourgeoisie proved incapable of policing Palestinian proletarians. It is noteworthy that Palestinian proletarians in Lebanon 'cannot work outside the refugee camps except in two categories of work, common labor in construction and agriculture' (Freeman et al. 2001: 8). They are not allowed to own property or passports. Their children cannot attend public schools. There are stark anti-PLO sentiments amongst Palestinians in Lebanon since they feel abandoned by the Palestinian bourgeoisie. Even NGOs have now directed their attentions to the West Bank and Gaza leaving Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps at the mercy of 'Islamic welfarism'. Incidentally, this trend in Islamification chimes with the Syrian regime's attempt 'to impose Syrian-style standards on the school curricula, including the requirement that Arabic and Islam be taught' (Pipes 2000: 22).
Economically, Syrian capitalists have become dependent on the legal and semi-legal business opportunities the more dynamic Lebanese economy has to offer. George E. Irani claims, 'out of any business deal that goes ahead in Lebanon, the biggest example being the mobile phone companies, the Syrians take a cut. The same applies for a cement factory in North Lebanon. There's a very close connection between the ruling elites in Syria and the ruling elites in Lebanon' (in Freeman et al. 2001: 8). Syrian capitalists have benefited from the more 'liberal' (i.e., profitable) Lebanese banks and financial institutions, which both launder money and invest profitably. Their opaque banking laws are also a boon to capitalists who need to keep their transactions secret. Syrian 'state-capitalists', as already mentioned, have accumulated huge sums through smuggling operations across the border with Lebanon. Despite these monetary benefits there is still a considerable disparity between the countries of the Levant. Per capita income in Syria is estimated around $1000, compared with $3000 and $17,000 for Lebanon and Israel respectively (Ghadbian 2001: 32). Finally, there is the thorny question of Syrian workers in Lebanon.
An extremely racist (though comprehensive) account of the tensions between Syrian workers and Lebanese society is provided by Gary C. Gambill (2001). We would advise readers to treat this source with particular scepticism. Gambill estimates there are some 1.4 million Syrian workers in Lebanon (this has been questioned as an exaggeration), a figure which roughly distributes as follows: construction (39%), seasonal agriculture (31%), municipal and sanitation jobs (20%), services, including street vendors and taxi drivers (8%) and industry (2%) (Gambill 2001: 2). In addition the 35,000 Syrian soldiers stationed in Lebanon (2001 figures) often work to supplement their meagre income. The Lebanese state may not receive much taxation from these workers, since 'Syrian workers are nor required to pay taxes' (Gambill 2001: 2), but Lebanese employers prefer Syrian workers to Lebanese counterparts because the transaction is off the books. According to Gambill (2001: 3), 'Syrian workers remit around $4.3 billion from Lebanon to Syria every year. The Asad regime has worked carefully to discourage Syrian workers from spending their wages in Lebanon. It is illegal, for example, for workers to send Lebanese-made consumer durables back to their families in Syria'.
Gambill (2001: 4) not only recounts instances of resentful Lebanese attacks on Syrian workers but positively cheers them from the side-line, 'In December 1996, a van carrying three Syrian workers from North Lebanon to Beirut was attacked by an armed gunman in a passing vehicle ... A number of Syrian workers were brutally assaulted by Lebanese Shi'ite youths after the Lebanese soccer team's loss to Syria in the Summer of 1997 ... In October 1998, townspeople in the Mount Lebanon village of Iklim al-Kharroub attacked and injured 54 Syrian laborers after a 17-year old girl was raped by two Syrians'. However, and admittedly we are indulging in speculation here, the spontaneous examples of resentment against Syrian workers began to give way in 2000 to a more organised, politically motivated form of hatred by a 'shadowy terrorist group calling itself Citizens for a Free and Independent Lebanon' (Gambill 2001: 4). A Syrian workers' hostel, for example, was attacked by dynamite on two consecutive nights. A parallel form of these terroristic anti-working class attacks is to be found in Michel Aoun's 'grassroot organisation' known as the Free National Current (a.k.a. Free Patriotic Movement). The organisation encourages students on summer holidays to take over the selling of produce and bread from Syrian street vendors in an orgy of nationalistic 'self-sacrifice'. One of the reasons, therefore, Syrian godfathers wished to retain a presence in Lebanon was to protect this source of wealth from hostile Lebanese godfathers.
Militarily, Syrian presence also strengthened Hezbollah, allowing the latter to engage in raids and sneak attacks on the vastly superior Israeli machine, especially in the disputed Sheba farms (area occupied by the Israeli state since the 1967 war). Admittedly, these operations have been scaled back in recent years. However, the dividend of Syrian protection is powerful enough for Hezbollah and 17 smaller pro-Syrian groups to organise 'pro-Syrian' demonstrations, the latest of which in March 2005 attracted around half a million people (Fisk 2005a: 4). It was by all accounts a very 'disciplined' march (Fisk 2005a: 5) with Hezbollah black shirts imposing bourgeois-Islamic law and order. No dissent or criticism of the party line was tolerated. Sheikh Hassan Nasrollah, the leader of Hezbollah, thanked Syria and its army and apologised to Syria for the ingratitude of the Lebanese' opposition (Schwartz and Weston 2005: 2). It is significant that many 'rank-and-file' Shi'as as well as prominent families like the Baydouns and Khalils, only gave their passive support to the demonstration while staying home (Malik 2005: 1). Presumably some of the non-participants consisted of Hezbollah families with long memories, whose loved ones were 'massacred' by the Syrians in 1987 (Fisk 2005a: 4).
The 'Shi'a group, Amal, as well as [some] Sunni politicians are [also] in favour of continued Syrian military presence in their country', and ironically until very recently 'a small but important segment of the Lebanese Christian community [had come] to accept the Syrian role in the country' (Ghadbian 2001: 23). The top military aim of the Syrian ruling class is to regain the strategic water-rich Golan Heights through negotiation and to prevent the Bekaa valley from being used as a conduit by Israel to attack Syria.
There had been anti-Syrian grumblings by various sections of the Lebanese people in the past but what distinguishes the current anti-Syrian mood is twofold: first, there seems to be a part-genuine, part-engineered reemergence of Lebanese nationalism which has encouraged Maronite Christian, Druze and even Muslim 'communities' (i.e., capitalists, clerics, intellectuals, students and some workers) to unite in opposition to Syria (Blanford 2005: 2). We say 'genuine' despite being fully cognisant that there is a well orchestrated campaign behind the anti-Syrian demonstration. As Abhinav Aima (2005: 1) asks rhetorically, '... how come thousands of Lebanese demonstrators spontaneously pulled out thousands of Lebanese flags and identical red and white sashes in the Beirut Square? The presence of large screen TVs and the complex technical infrastructure behind the demonstrations raises questions regarding who is behind Lebanon's velvet revolution'; and, secondly, alongside this partly engineered and partly genuine nationalist upsurge there is an ongoing US-Israeli strategy of discrediting Syria which is taking full advantage of the prevailing mood.
We do not object to these demonstrations on the grounds that they consist of too many middle class people (some have derisively referred to it as the 'Gucci revolution'), since we cannot ascertain the crowd compositions from afar. We merely observe its nationalistic character and the total absence of social demands. In true Stalinist fashion one member of the Democratic Left has tried to justify this, '... we are concentrating on getting [the Syrians] and their Lebanese political allies, out. Then, in the elections, we'll raise issues about poverty and education' (Knox 2005: 1).
To complicate matters, the ineptitude of the Syrian ruling class has played into the hands of Whitehouse ayatollahs. For example, (and again this is based on the dubious work of Gary C. Gambill 2001: 3), it is claimed 'in 1994, under pressure from Syria, the Lebanese regime granted citizenship to over 200,000 Syrians resident in the country. Many of these newly-naturalized citizens were registered in the electoral districts of pro-Syrian political elites, such as former Interior Minister Michel Murr, in order to consolidate Syrian authority over the Lebanese political system'. If true, this is heavy-handed gerrymandering that would have sooner or later caused a backlash amongst the Lebanese people. Furthermore, the 'constitutional amendment to extend the term of President Lahoud in the face of almost universal Lebanese opposition' made matters worse (Rabil 2005: 1).
It is also patently true that one does not have to go back to the era of the eleventh century assassins (Ridley 1988) to realise that the Syrian elite has traditionally rather enjoyed making its enemies 'sleep with the fishes'. The assassination of Kamal Jumblatt, President-elect Bashir Jumayil and the assassination attempt on an ally of Walid Jumblatt (the current Druze leader who in 2001 aligned himself with the Maronite Christians probably because with bourgeois Shi'a buying land in the Chouf mountain, the Druze are feeling vulnerable) in October 2004 were widely believed to be Syrian inspired (Rabil 2005: 1). The February 2005 Bristol Hotel opposition meeting which demanded a 'total withdrawal' of Syrian troops was endorsed by Hariri. The assembled guests ranged from the Democratic Left Movement (a splinter from Lebanese Communist Party), 'centre-left' intellectuals who supported the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Phalanges (extreme right wing Christians influenced by German Nazis, Franco's and Mussolini's black shirts), and the Druze sect (Ghassan 2005: 3). A very nice bunch of Godfathers whose relations with the Syrians had turned sour in recent years. So, to summarise, it is not inconceivable Hariri was bumped off by the Syrians for his 'treachery' - just unlikely.
Making offers people can't refuse!
When all is done and dusted, the tantrums of Levant's Godfathers fade into insignificance compared to the fury of the world's real gangsters- US capitalism. And since this fury is quite capable of creating another blazing hell, it would be instructive to review the ups and downs of US-Syrian relations over the years.
When Eisenhower replaced Harry S. Truman as president of the USA, a New Look foreign policy was hammered out to 'correct [the perceived] deficiencies in the Truman administration's approach to containing communism' (Lesch 1998: 92). 'Whereas Truman', writes Lesch (1998: 92), 'had perceived a bipolar world where zero-sum play meant any gain by the Soviets was a loss for the United States, requiring costly military preparedness to combat Soviet aggression anywhere, Eisenhower advocated a less costly asymmetric strategic deterrence, based on the threat of massive retaliation using nuclear weapons to check Soviet advances. The nuclear threat was supplemented by strategic alliances, psychological warfare, and covert operations to counter indirect and non-military communist aggression'.
Now if we were to replace George W. Bush for Eisenhower, Clinton for Truman and Islamic terrorism for the 'communist' threat in the above paragraph, a clear historical analogy presents itself. Syria's support for the First Gulf War was welcomed by the USA. Former President Bill Clinton 'praised Asad upon receiving news of the Syrian leader's death ... [and] Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's attendance at Asad's funeral' reflected a thawing of relations and tacit approval of the transition of power (Ghadbian 2001:35). She even praised Syria, 'Syria has played a constructive role as far as Lebanon is concerned. We hope they will continue to do so' (quoted in Pipes 2000: 24). Even under the auspices of the present Bush the relation was initially amicable. The US asked and received intelligence support from the Syrians regarding al-Qa'ida cells. George W. Bush even phoned Bashar al-Asad to thank him personally (Zizzer 2003: 31). A great deal has changed since those days. The 'new' unilateralism, notions of pre-emptive strike and even dark whisperings in and around the Pentagon about the deployment of localised nuclear weapons against America's enemies are the farcical repetition of a previous tragic episode. The element of farce, however, does not make its brutalising potential any less real. The Syrian ruling class is fully cognisant of this threat due to its own history with the USA.
All highly ironic of course since most Syrians throughout the 1920s expressed an overwhelming preference for a US rather than a French mandate- that is if they could not have full autonomy immediately (Lesch 1998: 93). The Suez war of 1956 and a series of attempts to overthrow anti-western regimes in the Middle East had created justifiable paranoia. The USA overthrew the Iranian nationalist Mossadeq in 1953; there was an unsuccessful British-Iraqi attempt to overthrow the Syrian regime (called Operation Straggle by the British); and the discovery of a US-engineered attempt in 1957 to do the same by Eisenhower's administration (Lesch 1998: 92). In the same year CIA had 'intervened covertly in the Lebanese elections to ensure that the constitution would be amended to allow far-right Maronite President Shamun to have a second term' (Worker Freedom 2005: 2). [The Syrian regime's recent manoeuvre to extend pro-Syrian Lahoud's presidential term is an exact repetition of the 1957 events].
At this junction the 'United States seriously contemplated direct military action against Syria' but the failure to gain Arab backing for the invasion prevented the plan. At the end the Eisenhower administration calculated that if it could not keep the USSR out of Syria, 'it might entrust the job to someone who could [i.e., Nasser who had successfully kept the USSR at arm's length in Egypt]' (Lesch 1998: 11). The US even stood by 'Jimmy' Nasser when the British attempted to restore the Muhammad Ali dynasty (Springborg 1993: 23). However, the Eisenhower Doctrine rapidly lost the US all the goodwill it had garnered by its opposition to the tripartite invasion of Egypt at Suez. This is in keeping with the extraordinary loss of sympathy for the US which it briefly enjoyed immediately after the events of 9-11. The 'axis of evil' speech by President Bush put the seal on a turbulent phase of the US-Syria relationship which will probably last a long time.
Of course there is very little direct economic pressure that the USA can bring to bear on Syria. Bush did freeze Syrian assets in America in 2003 but the amounts are not thought to have been substantial. As Orbach (2004: 1) makes clear, 'economic relations between Syria and the US are limited, diminishing the impact of sanctions. In 2002, Syria exported a mere $148 million of goods to the US and imported $274 million in American goods ... this made Syria the 93rd largest trading partner of the US ... In fact, a ban on US investments in Syria would probably have a greater negative bearing on US firms than on Syrian ones. For example, a potential victim is Occidental Petroleum, part of an international consortium preparing to negotiate a $750 million gas field development contract with the Syrian government'.
However, the US is more than capable of tightening the economic noose round Syrian neck indirectly by either vetoing World Bank and IMF loans or blackmailing other countries from trading with Syria. There also exist diplomatic and military forms of leverage that have helped to isolate Syria. The Israeli-US 'axis of bullies' works in tandem in this regard. When Israel bombed Syrian soil in October 2003, Pentagon advisor Richard Perle egged them on with undisguised glee, 'I am happy to see the message was delivered to Syria ... And I hope it is the first of many such messages' (quoted in Yassin-Kassab 2005: 2). The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed to have owned the bombed base. They also claimed it had been deserted for years (Marshall 2003: 6). Likewise, after the Hariri assassination Israel demanded the expulsion of Iranian 'Revolutionary' Guards from Lebanon, 'who in reality left Lebanon more than 15 years ago' (Fisk 2005b: 1). Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon will weaken it regionally as well as vis-Ã -vis the US-Israeli axis.
In this section we would like to analyse the chances of further Muslim gains in the Levant. Will the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood topple Asad? Will Hezbollah take over in Lebanon? What are the implications for the class struggle of a shift toward/away from Islamic doctrines?
The most prominent Islamic force in Syria is the Muslim Brotherhood (a.k.a. the Muslim Brethren). A derivative of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, 'Syrian Islamist thinking was often burdened with the legacy of that movement, particularly in its confrontation with Nasserism' (Talhami 2001: 110). For example, the Syrian Brotherhood's opposition to unification with Nasser's Egypt in 1958 was a strategic blunder of immense proportions caused by its desire to follow its Egyptian branch's advice. Furthermore, for a region where collective memory is nourished constantly, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is still perceived with suspicion by large sections of the population for its failure to be actively engaged against French colonialists (Talhami 2001: 110).
The Muslim Brotherhood is essentially an urban movement. This is in dire contrast to the Baath Party which has always found inspiration and membership from rural areas. Batatu (1988: 116-117) writes, 'The religious class with which the Muslim Brethren were and still are closely connected is not, relatively speaking, very large in Syria. It is not, in the numerical sense, anything like its Iranian counterpart ... [but there is as with the Iranian case] a substantial degree of coincidence between the class of tradesmen and the religious shaikhly class. The shops of the tradesmen-shaikhs are usually located in the neighbourhood of mosques'. Again, unlike Iran, the Syrian 'clergy' have usually 'worked' for a living and are therefore not generally regarded as 'parasites' by the proletariat. This explains, according to Batatu (1988: 119), the absence of widespread anti-clerical sentiments within Syria. It also goes some way in clarifying the reasons for the 'Communist' Party's failed anti-religious propaganda campaign in the 1920s.
Another reason which Batatu does not contemplate but is worth noting could be the atavistic version of atheism propagated by Syrian Engels-Leninists. This is an ideological atheism which attempts to dislodge theism through 'rational' arguments. In so doing, ideological atheism ignores both the 'irrational' causes of religiosity as well as the social basis of religious activities. A rejuvenated atheism must either base itself on everyday proletarian activities or it ends up functioning as yet another top-down ideological imperative.
Throughout the 1940s, 1950s and the 1960s the Brotherhood was marginalised and out of touch, since all the running was made by the Syrian National Social Party (championing the vision of regional nationalism) and the Baath Party (with its notions of Pan-Arabism) (Talhami 2001: 111). When parliamentary delegates were engaged in heated debates about land reform, the Brotherhood was courting ridicule for its call to ban youths from frequenting movie houses and females from participating in scouting parades (Talhami 2001: 119). Perhaps under the ideological influences of the times, the Brotherhood in the 1940s and 1950s initially flirted with an undefined 'Islamic socialism' which was hastily excised from their political vocabulary by 1961 (Batatu 1988: 112).
From then on, they preferred to portray themselves as the 'natural' spokesmen of the Sunni 'community' and to stoke up the 'religious' divisions of Syria by opposing the Alawi clan. As Batatu (1988: 11) wryly observes this is a long term strategy in support of the 'social interests of the upper and middle elements of their landed, mercantile and merchant classes' that may at last be bearing fruits. These groupings, however, do not feel obliged to repay the compliment. The bourgeoisie of urban and rural areas only support the Muslim Brotherhood as a form of protest when their profits are threatened, otherwise they keep their distance. For instance, during W/W II when inflation, speculation and profiteering had enriched the local bourgeoisie, they cold-shouldered the Muslim Brotherhood. This is also true of the periods of liberalisation inaugurated by Hafiz al-Asad in the 1970s and 1980s.
To demonstrate how protective of their class interests Muslim tradesmen are one need only bear in mind their unremitting hostility to agricultural co-operatives in rural districts and consumers' co-operatives in urban area. According to Batatu (1988: 120), 'Co-operative stores were the first establishments to be destroyed in a rising organised by the Muslim Brethren in 1980 in Aleppo'. From 1980 onwards the Brotherhood allied itself openly with liberalism and pluralistic democracy. This was partly because their friendly overtures to Khomeini with his more populist/fascistic interpretations of Islam were rebuffed by him and an Islamic state that had already established a firm alliance with the Syrian Alawi elite. And it is partly a nod to the persistent appeal of Syrian nationalism and the re-emerging civil society movement. It also represents a major and real difference with the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood which has traditionally rejected the notion of parliamentary life. In recent years the weakening of the Islamic world movement (see more on this below) has accentuated the Brotherhood's desire for legitimacy and recognition.
The Brotherhood's putsch of the early 1980s was, in a sense, a sign of weakness and political inexperience. It was not even supported fully within the organisation, since some could see its counter-productive futility. As Talhami (2001: 124) explains, 'the [Syrian] Baath regime ... not only crushed the Islamic Front [i.e., Muslim Brotherhood and new allies] militarily, it was able to mount a determined propaganda campaign against it'. Their training camps in Jordan were attacked. Leading journalist sympathisers of the Brotherhood, such as the Lebanese Salim al-Lawzi, were assassinated by Syrian security (Talhami 2001: 125). Immediately after the threat of an Islamic uprising had receded, the regime took great care to co-opt its Islamic critics. Official Islam was promoted through more government-financed mosques and Shari'a institutions in order to divide and weaken the Islamic opposition. Today the Brotherhood has indirectly acknowledged the success of this strategy by allying itself to the Syrian 'Communist' Party in a front against the Asad regime (Talhami 2001: 126). Worryingly for the regime there are signs that more members of the 'private bourgeoisie' are once again joining the ranks of the Islamic opposition.
Besides the Muslim Brotherhood, one should also briefly mention the influence of Sufi brotherhoods in the Levant. The Syrian Baath Party has been generally hostile to Sufism especially during the Islamic uprising that culminated in Hama in 1982, although Sufis had next to nothing to do with the uprising (Weismann 2004: 303). As a result there has been a marked decline in Sufi brotherhoods there but significantly they have managed to make inroads in other 'niche markets'.
To be more precise, the decline has been amongst urban-elitist brotherhoods which have become either existential study groups or tourist attractions, whilst 'their rural-popular counterparts have proved more capable of holding to their traditions' (Weismann 2004: 304). The 'paganistic' veneration of saintly tombs has played a vital role in preserving Sufism in rural areas- a Sufism that has 'tapped into its reformist traditions in an effort to adapt itself to the modern situation' (Weismann 2004: 307). The Naqshbandi brotherhood is the only Sufi organisation allowed freedom of action by the Syrian regime. The 'apolitical' Yashrutis are also tolerated. They have many members in Palestinian camps south of Damascus and even more near Beirut and Sidon. This latter is one of three brotherhoods with a following in Israel (Weismann 2004: 315). It is also noteworthy that the much lauded welfare and charity work carried out by these brotherhoods has its origins in not only the Ottoman-sponsored Jamiyat al-Maqasid al-Khairiyah, which emerged in 1878 in Beirut and was then exported to other Arab countries but also in the Truman Doctrine which built the first educational and medical infrastructures, later to be augmented by 'Petro-Islamic largesse' (al-Azmeh 1998: 6). Middle Eastern proletarians, whilst still accepting such 'charity' out of desperation, are beginning to notice the hypocrisy attached to it.
Hopefully the above summary has gone someway in de-mythologizing Islamic influences in the Levant. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood is re-emerging after years of internal dissention. Their disillusionment with the masses (who failed time and again to heed their call for an uprising in the 1980s) seems, thankfully, to be reciprocated by a sceptical population unwilling to go down the Iranian route. The Muslim Brotherhood's recent rapprochement with the Syrian 'Communist' Party would not have occurred if the Brotherhood believed it could take on the regime single-handedly. The Sufi brotherhoods are dispersed, isolated and mostly in decay. The ones still thriving seem 'apolitical' and 'reformist' and, therefore, not a threat to the regime. In the unlikely event Islamists gain power in Syria it will be as part of a broad 'Populist-liberal-social democratic' civil society movement. The end result will be closer to the Turkish model than the Iranian one.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah is trying hard to forge a new identity for itself. Some believe that since it was founded as a Shi'a military resistance network against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hezbollah lost part of its raison d'Ãªtre after the 2000 Israeli pull out. The skirmishes around the Sheba farms, are then viewed, as a desperate ploy to extend the emergency mood of Lebanese politics, since low-level internecine warfare are always to the advantage of warlords. This standpoint ignores that Hezbollah has always been an ideological organisation with strong personal and ideological ties of continuity with the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is an adaptable entity. In recent years, since the business oriented faction within Hezbollah prefers a stable political regime and since the Syrians have been reigning in the military faction, the balance within Hezbollah has gradually shifted toward political 'normalisation'. Hezbollah does not even recruit from the troublesome Palestinian refugees in Lebanon anymore (Freeman et al. 2001: 9). Hezbollah's clumsy overtures to both the West (witness recent high level meetings between Hezbollah officials and 'ex'-CIA and MI5 interlocutors), as well as engagement with middle class operators within the 'anti-globalisation movement' are testimony to this trend. Scum such as Walden Bello (executive director of Focus on the Global South) have quite consciously welcomed Hezbollah's sudden 'conversion' to the cause of 'anti-globalisation' (Karmon 2005: 2). But then again Bello 'does not hesitate to embrace the Republican Right in the USA as allies' either (The League for the Fifth International 2004: 42).
As for the so-called 'secular' Amal movement, they still seem to be backing Syria. Amal was established in 1975 in response to the civil war in Lebanon by Iranian born Musa al-Sadr. It fought with Arafat's PLO and Jumblatt's Druze against Syria and the Maronite Christians but opportunistically switched sides to Syria (Moubayed 2005: 1). This is a long term alliance (at least since the early 1980s) which will probably stand the recent realignments. Amal has lost a great deal of its appeal since the 1970s. Another family, Hamas, 'which was aided by Israel during its founding and has taken a life of its own' may be able to win supporters amongst Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (Freeman et al. 2001: 9). Of such unscrupulous, deceitful stuff are Godfathers and their families made of!
Melancholic Troglodytes believe what goes by the name of 'Islamic Fundamentalism' is, in general, on the wane. In societies such as Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Syria the proletariat has, by and large, seen through its faÃ§ade. In countries like Afghanistan massive military setbacks have dented its aura. In Algeria the Islamists undermined themselves by proudly opposing 'a dust workers' strike ... a civil servants' strike and a one day general strike' (Harman 1999: 32). In Sudan the regime is desperate to make deals with USA, providing the CIA with vital information regarding Al-Qaeda 'terrorists' (Goldenberg 2005: 17). Iraq is perhaps a temporary exception to this general trend, although even there people have demonstrated against hostage taking and assassination of atheists. We are not in a position to offer a balance-sheet regarding Saudi Arabia but welcome comments from readers.
The term 'Fundamentalist' is, of course, problematic since it brackets together a number of heterogeneous movements which have different class compositions, socio-political agendas and cultural imperatives. 'Political Islam' is not much better since all forms of Islam are political. 'Radical Islam' is perhaps worst of all, since it gives the mistaken impression that this is a movement capable of going to the root of contemporary problems and offering a real alternative. In Spain the term 'integristas' is preferred to fundamentalism. It implies a closed community where dissent and conflict is suppressed by foregrounding a particular form of identity. Although this may describe accurately a certain aspect of the umma (Islamic pseudo-community), it tends to overemphasise discourse and identity-formation at the expense of the material basis of Islamism.
Whatever we choose to call this wave of Islamism there are certain commonalities that bind its adherents: a political philosophy steeped in extreme conservatism which is, nonetheless, flexible enough to take on board some attributes of modernism and postmodernism; intrusive moralism as a way of disciplining the proletariat and neutralising liberal bourgeois rivals; a genuine desire to regenerate capitalist 'base', 'structures' and 'superstructure' in accordance with a belief system; reverence of the word at the expense of historical experience; and, finally, a desire to recreate a mythical 'golden age'.
Without wishing to pathologise our class enemies, it is worth pointing out that the latter attribute is sometimes referred to by social psychologists as the 'Quondam Complex'. Lipset and Raab (1071: 488) have defined it as, '... more than nostalgia; it describes a condition whereby the primary symbolic investment, the primary status investment is in the past and is related to some reference in-group whose symbolic and status significance has dwindled'. Aziz al-Azmeh (1998: 1) puts this in its Islamic context, 'Fundamentalism is an attitude toward time, which it considers of no consequence, and therefore finds no problem with the absurd proposition that the initial condition, the golden age, can be retrieved: either by going back to the texts without the mediation of traditions considered corrupt ... as with Luther and Sunni Salafism ... and the Muslim Brothers now, or by the re-formation of society according to primitivist models seen to be copies of practices in the golden age ...'. One should not make too much of this since 'pre-modern Fundamentalism' is perfectly compatible with certain aspects of both 'modernism' and 'postmodernism'. To castigate 'Fundamentalism' of rigidity would leave us dazed and confused when it morphs with the rapidity of western politicians following the latest opinion poll. 'Fundamentalism', despite its desire for a golden age, is more than capable of integrating the latest technological and scientific know-how into its matrix of discipline and punishment.
Al-Azmeh (1998: 2) is basically correct when he says, '[the ideological output of contemporary Islamic movements] is inconceivable without the universally-available equipment of right-wing, para-fascist, populist movements. It is not by accident that they emerged in the 20s and 30s of [the twentieth century], at the same time as the Indian Hindu fascist RSS, at a time when the West also was very strongly veering towards the extreme right ...'. He then goes on to discuss the organismic and Romantic politics of restoration in Islamism, 'Both Ali Shariati and Sayyid Qutb were great admirers of Alexis Carrel - a famous eugenicist of the 1920s, cultural advisor to the Marechal Petain, who railed against degeneration within, and advocated the cause of a small saviour minority which will bring health to the body of society diseased by degeneration' (al-Azmeh 1998: 4; see also Greason 2005: 126 for more Islamic thinkers enamoured of European fascism).
The gist of our argument is that this brand of Islamism, whether one wishes to refer to it as 'Islamic Fundamentalism', 'Islamic Fascism', 'Islamic Populism', 'Political Islam, or 'Islamic Integralism', is no longer capable of suppressing the class struggle as it did two or three decades ago. We agree with Sadiq al-Azm's (2003: 2) analysis, '... when Islamists become a power to be reckoned with or when they actually take power, they ultimately fail. They did not even offer a hint of a workable Islamic alternative - from Iran to Taliban. I have pointed out that the resorting to blind terrorism is an expression of the depth of the Islamist movement's crisis, and not at all an expression of its rising and ascending'.
The popularity of Islam in the West amongst a new generation of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, African and Middle Eastern youth, which is more to do with defensive identity-formation in a racist environment, should not blind us to the fact that at its heartland in the Middle East, 'Islamic Fundamentalism' is past its zenith. This does not mean it is no longer capable of massive mobilisations or toppling regimes. That would be wishful thinking. However, increasingly the arrogance of its advocates has been replaced by confusion, disappointment and in some cases where the proletariat has expressed itself in atheistic terms, with shear horror.
By way of conclusion
A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm (Perle et al. 2000) is a remarkable document. Written by a study group of top-notch opinion makers at The Institute for Advanced and Political Studies, it provides a clear strategy for the Israeli ruling class to adopt in order to strengthen its position vis-Ã -vis its neighbours and the Israeli proletariat. The project leader, Richard Perle, has today become a leading light of the Bush administration.
What is striking about this document is not its racist tone which one has come to expect from US politicians but its explicitly anti-working class stance. In fact, the 'analysis' begins with an attack on the Israeli proletariat in a rather confused opening paragraph: 'Israel has a large problem. Labor Zionism, which for 70 years has dominated the Zionist movement, has generated a stalled and shackled economy. Efforts to salvage Israel's socialist institutions- which include pursuing supranational over national sovereignty and pursuing a peace process that embraces the slogan, New Middle East -undermine the legitimacy of the nation and lead Israel into strategic paralysis and the previous government's peace process' (Perle et al. 2000: 1).
Perle and chums are clearly saying the Israeli bourgeoisie has two problems: the low rate of exploitation of the Israeli proletariat who henceforth should not be shielded by subsidies and social democratic compromises; and its previous overly generous peace offerings to the 'Arabs'. Benjamin Netanyahu should make a 'clean break' with the 'land for peace strategy' and pursue a binding agreement 'based on peace through strength' (Perle et al. 2000: 1-2). The economy has to be liberalised, taxes cut, public lands and enterprises sold off and free-processing zones established (Perle et al. 2000: 2). By working closely with Turkey and Jordan and 'upholding the right of pursuit' into Palestinian areas, Israel can employ its dominance more effectively. The US could then cut its aid to Israel thus catalysing economic reform. This is related to the class struggle 'at home'. As Cohen (2003: 4) explains, 'When recently the Israeli rulers tried to smash the Israeli workers on strike in the ports of Israel, they were calling on the help of the Egyptian and the Jordanian capitalists to use the ports in Egypt and Jordan'.
Israel should also, it is argued, strike 'Syria's drug-money and counterfeiting infrastructure in Lebanon' (the Bekaa valley is allegedly home to some of the most sophisticated forgers of US currency) and attack Syrian forces in Lebanon and, if necessary, Syrian territory itself (Perle et al. 2000: 2). The Lebanese opposition should be used 'to destabilize Syrian control of Lebanon' and any 'land for peace' deal on the Golan Heights should be rejected. The Israeli rulers dutifully obliged. For good measures they also reduced the number of Palestinian workers in Israel and imported less subversive workers from abroad as replacement (Reuveny 1999: 4). Incidentally, in 2001 the Israeli state was accused of dumping toxic waste in the Golan Heights, 'Syrian university students in the Golan demonstrated on Dec. 20 outside the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations to protest Israel's dumping of toxic waste in the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, and the distribution of poisonous paint by Israel to the Syrian citizens in the area' (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 2001: 39).
Perhaps what is most startling about this piece of opportunistic skull-duggery is not how much of it has come true under Ariel Sharon's premiership or
the explicit linkage made between the need to attack the Israeli and Arab proletarians but the close historical analogy between this proposed strategy and the US army's assault on Native Americans in the nineteenth century. Today Palestinians are pursued, killed or emasculated in reservations as numerous Indian tribes were so many years ago (This is a topic Melancholic Troglodytes hope to return to in the near future). At this stage we would like to summarise some of our conclusions regarding the Levant:
1. The assassination of the multi-billionaire Hariri has acted as a slow fuse which is burning its way toward a new powder-keg. Whether this is going to be a controlled 'neo-Liberal' detonation, yet another civil war or a massive 'disorderly' social revolution remains to be seen. The balance of class forces is not currently favourable but things are gradually shifting. Lebanon seems to be the most unstable country in the Levant. Capitalist instability and prospects for intensifying the class struggle do not always go hand in hand. However, in this case, Lebanon does seem to offer the best short and medium term prospects for revolutionary activity. This is partly due to the weakening grip of 'Islamic Fundamentalism' (Amal has for some time considered itself a 'secular' Shi'a movement whilst Hezbollah has had to adapt to changing regional and global conditions), and partly due to Lebanese trade unions' inability to recuperate the class struggle. By contrast, Israeli and Syrian trade unions appear capable of smothering proletarian dissent, at least for the time being. In Jerusalem, for example, the 50,000 strong demonstration of March 2003 was easily contained by the trade unions. Significantly though it did attract both 'Jewish' and 'Arab' workers from both the 'private' and 'public' sectors (Schwartz 2003: 1).
2. The US ruling class is encouraging a transfer of power from incumbent Islamic and Arab nationalist 'state-bourgeois' elites to 'private-bourgeois' elements. The Syrian rural bourgeoisie have always been relatively successful in mechanising agriculture and producing profits (Springborg 1993: 16). The first wave of Arab bourgeoisie was always more capable than they were given credit for. They favoured, for example, the joint stock company. By 1954 Syria had 94 joint stock companies. However, throughout the twentieth century, it was the 'sate bourgeoisie' that was given political backing by the US ruling class since they were deemed more able to maintain bourgeois order. This is now changing and the second wave of Arab 'private bourgeoisie' will curry favour in high places.
In Syria, the drop in oil revenues will hasten this trend. If successful this manoeuvre will have severe repercussions for the current Syrian rulers and to a lesser extent for the Israeli elite. The military forces of both countries will have their decision-making power as well as their semi-legal economic activities curtailed. The 'military-mercantile-complex' will be broken up in favour of new intra-classist alliances. Should the US ruling class decide to maintain a weakened Bashar al-Asad in power and urge Israel to return some parts of the Golan Heights in a comprehensive 'peace deal', the move will pave the way for a final reckoning with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
3. Both Islamism and Leninism have had to acknowledge their shrinking constituencies in the Levant by joining forces. Islamic forces in the Levant (and further afield in Egypt, Iran and Iraq) are distancing themselves from 'rogue-terrorists' and kidnappers. The Lebanese 'Communist' Party calls for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and moves closer to Sunni, Druze and even Amal forces. Whilst in Syria, an opposition front is forged by Syrian Leninists and the Muslim Brotherhood. These realignments will, they hope, provide them with a more solid foundation within the civil society movements of Lebanon and Syria and a bigger slice of the cake when it comes time to sharing the spoils.
4. Melancholic Troglodytes do not pretend to understand the Levant profoundly. This pamphlet has suffered from a shortage of radical literature on the region and our unfamiliarity with the hidden struggles currently being waged. We know there are 'hidden struggles' thanks to anecdotal information from friends and comrades but felt their inclusion would be unwarranted since we have no way of verifying them at present. This has led to an inadvertent exaggeration of the power of the bourgeoisie. Certain seminal changes within the ruling class and the state have not been related to proletarian resistance. In addition we have said little about the situation in Israel/Palestine or even Jordan. We are hoping to rectify these problems in future investigations. Despite these shortcomings we feel that the Levant and Middle Eastern scenes, in general, are becoming less cluttered. The dust is beginning to settle. We feel justified in speculating that various ideologies are losing ground, paving the way for a clearer confrontation between a number of dichotomies:
1. The 'civil society movement', in all its guises, is showing its true anti-working class spots. Proletarians are beginning to insist on autonomous social resistance against both political and civil societies. Trade union bureaucracies, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the left wing of capital are less able to sabotage the class struggle (see Federici 2001, for a good critique of aid and NGOs). Increasing numbers of proletarians are dismissing 'reasonable' NGOs (a term designating those NGOs the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund can work with) as 'heirs of the US Peace Corps' (al-Azmeh 1998: 4). And even 'unreasonable' NGOs (those that refuse to work directly with the WTO, WB and IMF) alienate proletarians by employing similar discourses, developmental philosophy and culturally-specific aid. In relation to these well-intentioned NGOs, 'the naive sentimentalism of the way in which [they] regard natives leads them generally to recreate imaginary communities under the auspices of their most regressive elements' (al-Azmeh 1998: 6).
2. 'Secularism' and the sham bourgeois slogan of the 'separation of church from state' are nearing the end of the road. The contradictions of this nonsensical demand have become overwhelming. In no country has the church/mosque been separated from the state. What can be said with certainty is that in most countries the state used to be subordinated to the church, whereas today it is usually the church that is subordinated to the state. The fact that the left wing of capital is the only element still dutifully calling for this unrealistic demand is indicative of its anachronism. 'Proletarian atheism' will emerge to oppose both theism and bourgeois 'secularism'. This will be a slow process entailing a number of setbacks.
3. All politicians are scum. All nation-states equally reactionary. We do not choose between liberalism, neo-liberalism, liberal-fascism, neo-libertarianism, social democracy, neo-Keynesianism and Leninism. This does not mean we are unaware of the different challenges and opportunities that each of these bourgeois political philosophies represent. We adapt our tactics and strategies mindful of these nuances. However, more and more proletarians are beginning to view Bush, Blair, Chirac, Khatami, Sharon, Hussein, Castro, Chavez, Lula, Asad and their ilk as Godfathers. The combined power of Godfathers is immense but it is also a power based on shaky foundations. Once fear deserts us, the aura of Godfathers will crumble.
4. We feel those proletarians in the 'West' who wish to assist our 'Middle Eastern' counterparts in escalating the social conflict can do so on a number of fronts: First, we should step up the struggle against those sections of the bourgeoisie we have an impact on (this is sometimes the bourgeoisie 'at home' and sometimes vulnerable pockets of the ruling class 'abroad' and sometimes both at the same time); Second, we should acknowledge, demarcate and foreground the qualitative class divisions within 'our movement' by articulating the distinction between middle class 'anti-globalisers' and working class anti-capitalists. Middle class 'anti-globalisers' represent a neo-libertarian trend paralleling the ideology and structures of neo-liberalism. Tourist summit-hopping and joint-activities between some sections of the 'anti-globalisation' movement and reactionary scum like Hezbollah are merely the most obvious and superficial manifestation of this symbiosis; and finally, we should establish better channels of communication with our comrades in the Middle East, learning from their experience whilst informing them of ours.
1 May 2005
Beijing, Volgograd and London
A number of comrades were good enough to read through earlier versions of this text. We found their comments extremely useful. Thanks to Ian (Manchester), Vahid (Denmark), Mohsen (London) Johnny boy (Brighton), Fabian (London) and Nick (France).
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Image - Palestinian militias demonstrating in Lebanon, 1979, Wikipedia