Arab Uprisings and Palestine in the Lebanese and Syrian Imaginings

Arab Uprisings and Palestine in the Lebanese and Syrian Imaginings


1.The Arab Uprisings in the Lebanese Imaginings.

When the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings erupted, they were hailed by almost all leftists and Arab/Syrian nationalists in Lebanon based on two considerations. First, they were directed against regimes that served the interests of the imperial West and “normalized” relations with Israel. Second, both were directed against internal despotism and corruption.

However, once the Syrian uprising against the Assad dynasty started, it appeared that only the first consideration was behind the Lebanese jubilation. For, despite the fact that this dynasty was no less brutal and corrupt than Mubarak’s or Ben Ali’s, most of those Lebanese condemned the Syrian uprising. They now even went as far as condemning the Tunisian and the Egyptian ones they had previously supported, treating both as mere “Western plots” aimed at replacing antiquated regimes, incapable of safeguarding American and Israeli interests, with popular “moderate Islamic” ones.[1]

For their part, Lebanese associated with the March 14 block were either silent vis-à-vis the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings or declared their open support for the brutal regimes. They warned that the uprisings could only lead to Islamic obscurantism as far as the issues of women, religious minorities, and freedom of speech were concerned.

Nevertheless, once the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, something quite ironic happened: They cheered it. They even claimed that it was their own 2005 Cedar Revolution against the Syrian presence in Lebanon that was the harbinger for the whole wave of Arab uprisings.

Commemorating the assassination of Rafik Hariri last February, their slogan read as follows: “No March without February, and no Spring without March,” meaning: there would have been no Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon had it not been for the Cedar Revolution following Hariri’s assassination, and there would have been no Arab uprisings against dictatorships had it not been for the Cedar Revolution.

The sheer irony in this slogan cannot be overlooked: The March 14 block never supported the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, in the same way its counterpart, the March 8 block, supported uprisings all over the Arab world except in Syria.

Beyond both blocks, few Lebanese writers and artists (e.g. Marcel Khalife, Elias Khoury, Suha Bisharah, Roger Assaf,…) managed last summer to issue a statement, followed by a sit-in in downtown Beirut, in solidarity with the Syrian victims of the Baathist regime. However, with the formation of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and its embrace of a hostile stance towards Hezbollah and Hamas, and its open support for arming the Syrian uprising, the nascent fragile group was unable to fly.

The most obvious concrete manifestation of the Arab uprisings in the Lebanese imagining was the formation of the “Campaign to Bring down the Sectarian Regime.” Empowered by the success of the Tunisian and the Egyptian civil revolts, 2000 seculars took to the streets of Beirut on a stormy day (Feb 27, 2011). The Umbrellas March soon gained momentum: 25,000 people took part last spring in what was considered the largest march beyond the two sectarian blocks. The Lebanese secular activists were, finally, launching their own spring. Or so they thought.

The effect of the Arab uprisings on the aforementioned campaign cannot be overemphasized. The main slogan was itself a Lebanonization of the Tunisian one: to the famous “al-sha’b yurid isqat al-nizam,” the secular Lebanese added “al-ta’ifi” (People demand the downfall of the sectarian regime). They strongly believed that if despotism was the cause of all evils in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, it was sectarianism that caused all evils in Lebanon, including wars, social injustice, and poverty.

Emboldened by the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak, they declared they were no less capable of bringing down their own regime, and that protests leading to civil disobedience was the right way to do it – not violence and not joining the parliament to change the system “from within.” To Guevara they now added the names of Nawwara Najm, Wael Ghonim, and Ahmad Maher as icons of revolutionary change. Facebook was now the primary tool for recruiting people, and drawing strategies that would lead up to the next demonstration.

Alas, the campaign faced severe internal obstacles that led to its gradual fragmentation. These may be summarized as follows:

A – The sudden “discovery” that the Lebanese regime was not, after all, a weak one. Rather, it could be viewed as the oldest and most stubborn of all Arab regimes. It was not headed by one corrupt unpopular tyrant but by at least 6 popular leaders: One among the Sunnis, two among the Shiites, two among the Maronites, and one among the Druze.[2] Three of these enjoyed wide popularity across different sects, primarily on the basis of their support for, or rejection of, armed resistance to Israel.

To make things even harder for change, all of them serve their respective communities through a complicated network of medical, educational, and economic institutions. Each is further viewed by his community as its “protector” from other communities. To the chagrin of the secular activists, bringing down the sectarian regime meant bringing down the sectarian society as well.

B – The “discovery” that it was not easy to put aside two specific issues that pitted the secular activists against each other: Hezbollah’s arms and the international tribunal formed to investigate the assassination of Hariri.

C – The particular demand for “a secular state” (dawlah ‘almaniyyah) was, and continues to be, an object of controversy within the ranks of those activists. Though all believe in secularism as the final goal, some prefer to use a different term, “a civil state” (dawlah madaniyyah), that would not antagonize potential newcomers who associate secularism to atheism.

D – The Syrian uprising was the last straw that broke the back of the secular camel. Pro-Syrian regime activists fought hard to avoid any reference to that uprising. Their opponents within the campaign insisted, on the other hand, that their uprising was part and parcel of an overall Arab quest for liberation from tyranny and corruption.

2. Palestine in the Lebanese Imaginings in Light of the Arab Uprisings.

Like Hezbollah’s arms and the international tribunal, the Palestinian problem was never part of any serious discussion within the “Campaign to Bring Down the Sectarian Regime.” Recall, incidentally, that no Arab uprising discussed any demand beyond overthrowing the local tyrant. Rather, its advocates claimed that “liberating Palestine could be achieved only after liberating Arab countries from tyranny” and that “only free Arabs could free Palestine.”

Nonetheless, the secular activists in Lebanon were keen on supporting Palestinians inside Lebanon, suffering from what Gilbert Achqar called “the Lebanese Apartheid.” Contrary to other foreign workers in Lebanon, Palestinians are prevented from taking tens of jobs in law, medicine, and engineering, among other things. They are also not allowed to own real estates or to pass them down to possible heirs.[3] These discriminatory measures were adopted as a part of a scare tactic that counters tawtin, or legally settling some 300,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. For, the argument goes, such a step would jeopardize the already fragile sectarian “balance.”

While the more “radical” anti-sectarian group mentioned them by name (the Palestinians of Lebanon), the “mother group” only alluded to them in its Declaration of Principles as part of “those residing in Lebanon” who deserve to be treated in accordance with international human laws.

The revolutionary mood generated by the Arab uprisings also encouraged thousands of Lebanese citizens to join Palestinian refugees, in mid May last year, “marching back to Palestine” from the Lebanese borders. However, the brutal attack by the Israeli soldiers, causing the tragic death of many civilian protesters, sadly diverted attention from the bloodbaths in Syria.

Conspiracy theorists may easily argue that supporters of the Syrian regime engineered this march then sabotaged it. Meanwhile, Palestinians were protesting along the Syrian borders with Palestine, and more civilians were killed or injured at the hands of the Israeli soldiers. Today, in the run up to the Nakba in May, many calls have been issued warning the Palestinians in Syria not to allow their blood to be once again used and abused to serve the narrow interests of any regime.


1. Arab Uprisings in the Syrian Imaginings

When the Tunisian and Egyptians overthrew their repressive presidents, Syrians felt their turn was next.”إجاك الدور يا دكتور” (“Bashar, you’re next!”) read a famous Syrian graffiti. Protesters, at first, demanded reforms that would improve their daily living. As the regime responded with exceptional ruthlessness, they started calling for its immediate downfall.

One accusation that regime supporters threw in their faces, however, was that overthrowing the regime constituted a fatal blow to the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance to the American and Israeli hegemony in the region – an accusation that protesters in other Arab uprisings did not have to confront since their respective regimes were closely allied with the US.

At first, such an accusation could have easily been refuted. Syrian protesters did not have any record for supporting the US or Israel. The Syrian uprising was initially viewed, by and large, as an authentic revolt against a tyranny that manipulated anti-imperial slogans to stay in power.

Nonetheless, with Iran and Hezbollah’s staunch political and media support for the Assad regime, thousands of Syrian protesters condemned Iran and Hezbollah. Rumors of possible involvement by Iran and Hezbollah in acts of sniping and torture of Syrian activists added salt to the injury.

On the other hand, supporters of the regime viewed the Arab uprisings as a clear case of conspiracy against Syria’s anti-imperial politics. After all, it was the new “moderate Islamic” Tunisian regime that was now hosting a conference for the “friends of Syria” against the “secular Syrian regime”; it was the “NATO rebels” in the new “fundamentalist Libya” who were now training the “terrorist armed gangs” to destabilize Syria; and it was the Egyptian Nabil al-Arabi, the anti-Mubarak new head of the Arab League, who was now spearheading the official Arab initiative to isolate the “anti-Israel” Assad regime.

To complicate things further, a major sector of the Syrian opposition, i.e. the Syrian National Council (SNC), increasingly associated itself with France, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the US, calling for Western direct military intervention in Syria while also vowing to suspend all military aid to Hezbollah and Hamas in the “New Syria” (Burhan Ghalyun). They are also calling for arming the largely civil uprising, and threatening to commit ethnic cleansing against the Alawis (Ma’mun al-Hims). These examples, among many others, weakened the image of the Syrian uprising in the eyes of its initial supporters.

2. Palestine in the Syrian Imaginings

It is worth repeating that the primary obsession of the 2011 Arab uprisings has been the o        verthrow of local tyranny. In Syria in particular, many considered the regime’s Palestinian allegations to be mere empty rhetoric to justify more internal oppression. They recall its history of fighting the Palestinians and dividing their ranks ever since the national Palestinian movement was created.

The word “Palestine” itself has been associated in the minds of many with the horrible “Palestine Branch” ( فرع فلسطين ) known for practicing torture against the detainees. Others acknowledge a “vital role” that the regime played in supporting the Palestinian resistance, but admit that this should never justify torturing Syrians.

They also ridicule the whole ideology of mumana’h. The regime, they assert, has not fired a single shot at the Israelis from the Golan Heights since 1973, and (like most regimes) has recently acknowledged East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine – meaning it now acknowledges West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Supporters of the Syrian regime, on the other hand, acknowledge its “flaws,” but allege that these do not erase its long history of support for the Palestinians, including those residing in Syria and treated (by and large) as Syrian citizens.

They further respond to the Syrian opposition by asserting that the SNC did not prove to be any better than the regime when it came to the question of Palestine. Thus Basma Qadamani, a leader in the SNC, declared in 2008 the “absolute” necessity of Israel. Burhan Ghalyun, head of the SNC, promised to cut all aid to Hamas. Mulhem Al-Douroubi (of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a major component of the SNC) attended a symposium last summer in Paris organized by Bernard Henri-Levi who had supported the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2008-2009. The Syrian protesters themselves rarely expressed solidarity with the Palestinians, thus not naming a single Friday after Palestine or Gaza (The Yemeni Uprising was luckier in that respect).

As the events unfolded in Syria, Palestine retreated into the background, with a few exceptions: 1) Some of the regime’s supporters are planning a new “Return March” in May. 2) Tens of Palestinian civilians were left dead in the recurrent bombardment of Syrian cities. 3) News has it that Palestinians have been involved in the Syrian events, either in support of the regime (primarily by the actions of the PFLP-General Command), or in solidarity with the uprising (thus sheltering the protesters and curing their wounds). 4) The recent Israeli atrocities in Gaza led Syrian Facebook activists to juxtapose pictures of Palestinian victims with those of Syrian ones, adding one comment: “The Blood of Homs and Gaza is one and the same.”


It is only natural that Lebanese and Syrian activists get inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian models to carry on with their own uprisings – though stumbling and fragile in Lebanon, and open to all possible scenarios in Syria. It is also only natural for activists to prioritize, thus focusing on immediate local demands.

What is not certain, however, is whether Palestine and the struggle against imperial hegemony will occupy a central place on the uprisings’ agendas after assuming power. Consider that the Islamic forces that currently dominate most Arab uprisings do not have a long history of support for the Palestinian cause (Saqr Abu Fakhr mentions that the Muslim Brotherhood in 1948, though probably reaching a million, barely sent 400 fighters to Palestine).[4]

Abd al-Mun’im Abu al-Futuh, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, recently acknowledged the existence of Israel and vowed to preserve the Camp David Agreements.[5] Rashid al-Ghannushi, head of the Islamic Nahda Party in Tunisia, denied that the Tunisian Constitution prohibits his country from having relations with Israel.[6] Mustafa Abd al-Jalil of Libya promised Bernard Henri-Levi “tight relations” between Libya and Israel in the future. The word “Palestine,” as Abu Fakhr continues, “is rarely mentioned by most leaders of these uprisings; if ever it is mentioned in a shy way, and in the context of answering journalists.”

All this makes it incumbent on Palestine supporters in the Arab world, especially Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt to keep the Palestinian demands for justice and freedom alive and vivid, lest so-called Arab “realists” and “pragmatists” adjourn Palestine for ever and ever.

This paper was presented at a conference entitled “Palestine and the Uprisings,” Palestine SOAS Society, SOAS, University of London, March 17, 2012. Samah Idriss is the editor of Al-Adab Magazine, a lexicographer, a children’s author, and an activist.

Samah Idriss,

End Notes:
[1] Samah Idriss, Al-Adab, 4-6, 2011.
[2] Nasri al-Sayigh, Al-Adab, 4-6, 2011.
[3] Sari Hanafi, Al-Hayat, March 7, 2012.
[6] Al-Safir, Dec 12, 2011.

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