Sushi vs. Tribes with Flags: The New Arab World

Date: March 2011

I Love Libya The Middle East continues to sizzle. Sunni and Shia Bahraini hybrid couples put a new twist on “sushi,” (SUnni + SHIa) their nickname in Bahrain. The intransigent Qaddafi hangs on. Tom Friedman in his column a few days ago goes to the heart of the Arab revolutions by asking this question: “Is the battle for Libya the clash of a brutal dictatorship against a democratic opposition or is it fundamentally a tribal civil war?” Friedman identifies four countries – Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Iran – which have long histories and strong national identities. He contrasts this quartet from countries he calls “tribes with flags” sculpted by colonial powers which consist of myriad tribes and sects but lack a common, or national, identity. Included in this list: Libya, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Friedman’s article asks: Are the revolutions about democracy or tribal supremacy? He hits a nerve with this piece.

Another key question dominating the Arab revolutions is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are suspect or distrusted by many people I know in the San Francisco Bay Area. My young friends on the ground in Cairo assure me that the Muslim Brotherhood is politically irrelevant and “out of touch.” But many of my friends here in the Bay Area are anxious because they believe the Muslim Brotherhood has a “take over” agenda. Ironically, the new alliance consists of old enemies — the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian National Democratic Party. They have coalesced and supported the package of amendments designed to lead to democracy in an election where 40 million people were elated to vote. The protestors were thrilled to participate in their first “un-rigged,” democratic election and opposed the package – which passed. They wanted short-term military rule with a civilian presidential council. The battle lines are clear: old guard – reactionaries and Islamists vs. new guard, an alliance that embraces democracy and is backed by youth, women, men and technology. And while these developments are exciting, the future of the Middle East is unclear. It is a wait and see.

Mohja KahfI was fortunate to connect with Mohja Kahf, author of “Emails from Scheherazad,” a professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. Born in Damascus, she came to the US as a child, in 1971.

We talked on the phone over the past few weeks. I asked for her insights on Syria and she said: “There is a slow gradual awakening from numbness which we’ve had for several decades. Anything expressing political dissent in Syria is equated with being a traitor, working for Israeli interests in the Golan Heights.” Politically and intellectually savvy, Mohja speaks to the triggers of change in Syria: “Seeing the pattern of revolution repeat itself in Tunisia, in Egypt and moving rapidly through the Arab world is triggering Syrians to rise.” Candidly she continues, “I never thought I would see the Arab world without dictators in my lifetime. I thought change would come in tiny steps, a little freedom here and there…..I never had even the remotest hope of living in a time like this. A hairline crack is now visible in Syria.” In the few weeks since our initial conversation, that breach has widened, she adds in a recent email, “to a crack the whole regime might just fall through.”

Syria is now inflamed; the government is engaged in a brutal crackdown…..20 killed in Sanamayn and in Damascus at the historic Umayyad Mosque, anti government protestors counter pro government supporters with “God, Syria and freedom only.” Once again, Syria engages in double speak – offering carrots (as they did earlier) and bringing down the rod by firing at protestors.

A woman with “I love Libya” written in Arabic on her hands joins a rally supporting allied air campaigns in Benghazi (Anja Niedringhaus)
The final outcomes of the multiple Arab revolutions are unclear. Many Libyans and displaced foreign workers are suffering from Qaddafi’s lunacy and megalomania, but at many levels, there is hope -for change – on the Arab Street.

There is also hope in our backyard as shown by the press clip below from the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish weekly, the J, which covered a lively event for the Muslim Women’s Fund (MWF) co-hosted by donors, Jeanine and Guy Saperstein and Susan and Moses Libitizky and attended by a healthy intergenerational and interfaith mix of guests committed to peace at home and in the world.

The opinions mentioned in this blog reflect the personal perspective of Shahnaz Taplin Chinoy, Chair, Invest in Muslim Women

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