All quiet on the Middle Eastern front

Hamas may have won the Palestinian elections, but Western predictions of war and bloodshed are wide off the mark.

Nicholas Frayn

Topics Politics

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Canada went to the polls this week, but you might have missed that. After all, it only has a population of 33 million and a GDP of $1.07 trillion. By contrast, it was pretty hard to miss the elections in Palestine, whose population, in those areas covered in the election, is 3.6 million and its GDP $2.56 billion. As in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt, all Middle East elections are now treated as events of world importance and repeatedly described as ‘historic’. In the Western press, the region is seen as a timebomb, waiting to go off. The press cannot get enough of any new development that might upset that balance, and detonate an explosion.

In Edward Said’s seminal work of postmodernism, Orientalism, he described the way that scholars invert the West to produce an image of the East. For example, at the height of Victorian productivity and repressive virtue, the East was considered languid and sensual. Today, we invert the stability and order of our world into an unstable and dangerous mirror image. Furthermore, Said claimed, the negative image presented of the East becomes a justification of the West. They are despotic, we are democratic; they (in an inversion of the Victorian discourse) are sexually repressed, we are liberated. They are intolerant, we are tolerant.

This pattern has become well established of late. The belligerent tone adopted by the European Union and USA towards ‘intransigent’ or ‘radical’ regimes in Iran and Syria belies the fact that these are extremely stable, if not moribund, states that have happily dealt with the West in the past and would dearly love some rapprochement (1). In Palestine, even before the election results were announced, the battle of words had already begun about the suitability of Hamas for government (2).

As it happens, the Palestinian elections are probably not of great significance, even to the electorate. It is unclear how much difference Hamas’ victory will make. They have accepted the same parameters of politics that guided Fatah through the Oslo years. In a very useful essay on Hamas, veteran Palestine correspondent Graham Usher argues that: ‘Hamas has gone mainstream, moving from a movement of parallel or alternative political authority to the existing PA/PLO political system to one of participation and integration within it.’ (3)

Indeed, the Islamic Resistance Movement is perhaps closer to the type of reform movement that the US has tried to encourage elsewhere, than either one would care to admit. Hamas is challenging precisely the kind of entrenched and corrupt elite with which the US has engaged in a war of words. They are the Ukraine’s Orange Revolutionaries dressed in green (4).

On a recent trip to the Middle East, I was struck by how little impact the issue of Palestine is making beyond its own borders, and how slightly the situation resembles the tumultuous picture presented in the media. In Amman, the Jordanians’ gaze is directed firmly eastwards, to the promise and peril that the Iraq war represents. Business is booming, I was told, a fact that is apparent from the numerous construction projects, fancy cars and new restaurants.

But in the next breath, people speak of their anxiety that the Iraq war is spilling over the border, as witnessed by the recent suicide bombings in Jordan or the influx of Iraqi refugees. The disjuncture between Western imaginings of the region and the reality – a marked similarity between the politics of the Middle East and those of the West – becomes clearest in people’s visions for the future. The great Arab nationalist, Gamal Abd-al Nasser, has been replaced in people’s esteem by the technocratic ruler of the Gulf Emirate, Dubai. Numerous people gushed to me about the fact that Sheikh Muhammad Bin-Rashid al-Maktum runs his fiefdom as if he were the CEO of a large corporation. Politics is seen as a messy obstacle to business.

Damascus is busy with its own affairs, too. The potential for further conflict with the US hangs as a cloud over otherwise stable circumstances. Although the economic situation is dire, the old city was busy enough to rival Oxford Street on the night before the most recent Eid celebration. Families strolled through the ancient streets enjoying the spectacle, buying cheap toys for the children, and snacking on street food. The regime has loosened its draconian grip in recent years, at least informally, and people are appreciating the more relaxed atmosphere.

They would certainly like to see further changes, but not a single person, friend or enemy of the regime, failed to tell me of their opposition to outside intervention. This might always have been the case – Syria remains staunchly nationalist compared to some of its neighbours – but the example of Iraq has confirmed the principle.

Unfortunately, our obsessive focus on the Middle East is not without consequence. As Said would say, the categories through which we view the world are constitutive; that is, the way we think about the world impacts on the way we act within it. Once we begin to act as if the tumult is real, we risk making it so. A good example came in the buildup to the Palestinian elections. The Washington Post reports that the US outspent all Palestinian political parties in an attempt to shore up the Palestinian Authority against Hamas (5). This was done covertly, by setting up projects that would be attributed to the PA. Such meddling risks creating unstable and unaccountable governments. If the PA could only have won based on the backing of the US, how could it represent local interests?

As long as we continue our childish fantasies about the Middle East, we risk creating an actual nightmare for the people of the region.

Nicholas Frayn is an editor of the new blog Against the War on Terror.

(1) See, for example, Iran: An Irrational War of Words, by Brendan O’Neill, or Making Syria Sorry, by Nicholas Frayn

(2) The White House has repeatedly stated that they will not deal with Hamas. See Tense Wait for Palestinian Result, BBC News, January 26th, 2006

(3) The new Hamas, Middle East International, 23 June 2005. Sadly Middle East International, after providing excellent news coverage of the region for many years, has published its last issue. But this article is still available online.

(4) For more on this, see Iranian Elections: no throwback to ‘79, by Nicholas Frayn

(5) ‘US Funds Enter Fray in Palestinian Elections’, Washington Post, 22 January 2006

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Topics Politics


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