In light of the brutal torture and mutilation of 13 year old Hamza al-Khatib in Syria, is it time to admit that the Arab Spring will never lead to an Arab Summer of Love?
Barack Obama’s optimistic vision for the Middle East – as outlined in his speech “A Moment of Opportunity” that he delivered at the State department on May 19 - rests on two gargantuan pillars of optimism and naivety. Firstly, the assumption that the Arab Spring will herald in a new dawn of democracy and the rule of law. Secondly, that the Israel-Palestine conflict can be resolved by a return to the 1967 borders.
Both these assumptions can be summed up as the beginning of an Arab Summer of Love.
The western world’s Summer of Love began on June 1st, 1967 with the release of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Switching on their radios from Los Angeles to London, millions of excited fans were seduced by the mesmerizing harmonies of the fab four proclaiming: “With our love, with our love we can save the world.”
June 1st 1967 also saw millions of Arabs from Bagdad to Beiruit switching on their radios to hear the mesmerizing incantations of Iraqi president Abdel Rahman Aref proclaiming: “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity… to wipe Israel off the map."
Aref wasn’t alone. With a little help from his friends in Egypt, Syria and Jordan he looked forward to seeing his particular dream about to become a reality. As troops massed along the Israeli borders, and mobilized for war, the hatred and rhetoric intensified. Ahmed Shukairy, chairman of the PLO didn't mince his words when asked in a news interview what might happen to the Israelis if there were to be a war: “Those who survive will remain in Palestine. I estimate that none of them will survive."
Barack Obama celebrated the Arab Spring by calling for Israel to return to her 1967 borders – the borders of the Summer of Love. Obama’s career has flourished due to bouts of unsupported and unrealized idealism. “Yes we can.” Like a good child of the sixties, he was quick to equate the tragedy of the self-immolating Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi with the actions of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks. Obama, more than any President since Kennedy, knows how to hit the right emotional buttons. A master orator, his words and verbal flourishes inspire a fervent belief that change is possible if only you want it badly enough.
Prime Minister ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu is a pragmatist who saw his own brother killed in a hostage rescue. He rejected Obama’s idea outright. “No we can’t.” He, more than any Israeli Prime Minister since Menachem Begin, does not trust words, only actions.
Ironically, the year 1967 is the perfect metaphor for both the most naive political aspirations of the West, which are now being repeated with our optimistic belief that a new Arab world is dawning, as well as the most lethal political realities of the Middle East, where one side seeks the outright obliteration of another.
The Summer of Love saw the flowering of a Western political mindset that led to a retreat from an unpopular war in Vietnam, an entente with communism, and a refusal to interfere in the invasion and occupation of Eastern Europe. The philosophy of All You Need Is Love spread its tentacles throughout the universities of Europe, America and Australia, where a new generation of political aspirants were learning their craft in campus political societies. Peace was a state of mind. Peace was a way of life. Peace was a song and a slogan. It was two fingers in the air, rather than something you had to fight and possibly die for.
Lying in a bed with his Japanese girlfriend by his side, a guitar and a bag of acorns, John Lennon redefined a new political strategy. Give Peace a Chance. The belief that pacifism of and by itself could prevent war.
During the lead up to the Six Day War in June ‘67, the stated goal of numerous Arab nations was the destruction of Israel and the annihilation of the Jewish race. To this day, echoes of that intent remain, lurking in Hamas's charter and much of the propaganda foisted by their rulers onto impressionable young Arab minds. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, putting the finishing touches to his nuclear arsenal, often repeats his desire for Israel to be engulfed in a sea of flames.
We preach love and peace in the West, as much today as we did in the sixties. And sometimes our glasses are even more rose-tinted than they were back then. Barack Obama’s faith in the Arab Spring and starry-eyed vision for peace in the region will probably remain as elusive a fantasy as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Parts of Obama’s speech, praising the recent events in the Middle East, read like lyrics from the hit parade of 1967:
“A new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.
In Cairo we heard the voice of the young mother who said, "It's like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time."
In Sanaa we heard the students who chanted, "The night must come to an end."
In Benghazi we heard the engineer who said, "Our words are free now. It's a feeling you can't explain."
In Damascus we heard the young man who said, "After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity."
Bob Dylan couldn’t have made it sound more poetic, but Syrian schoolboy Hamza al-Khatib would probably beg to differ. If the 13 year old were still alive. Reports suggest that because he dared attend a protest against the Syrian regime, the teenager had his genitals cut off before (or hopefully after) being shot to death. Even younger, an11-year-old girl, Malak Munir al-Qaddah, was also reportedly killed in the southern town of Hirak.
Human rights groups report that more than 10,000 Syrian dissidents are under arrest and estimate over 1,000 civilians have been killed by Assad’s thugs. Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, claimed: "The regime commits two types of torture, the systematic, which we see accompanying mass arrests, and the particularly gruesome to spread fear on an even larger scale.”
Meanwhile, the Egyptian army who now run the country in the absence of Mubarak still torture dissidents and stand idly by while Muslim mobs murder Coptic Christians. Women protesters in Egypt are subject to “virginity tests”, on the baffling premise that only prostitutes and drug addicts would still be protesting. Libya is at war – and NATO planes are busy bombing it to pieces. The Saudis are ruling with fear and oppression, and their troops are doing the same in Bahrain.
This is hardly the dawning of a Middle Eastern Age of Aquarius.
The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is neatly encapsulated in the mental, as well as physical, boundaries of 1967. The West still believes that peace is something that you can talk about, and negotiate with words and contracts. With legal niceties and lines drawn on a map.
In the Middle East, peace is no such thing. Peace – and just as importantly peace of mind – can never exist when you are afraid that somebody intends to destroy you. Security, not peace, is what Israelis hope for, pray for, and sometimes have to die for.
Only when Israel can escape the ever-present fear and threat of imminent annihilation, with the mental security that gives her the confidence to cede the appropriate territory, will the option of two peaceful states co-existing side by side be feasible.
Can the Arab spring usher in an Arabic Summer of Love? If the uprisings were to bring forth new leaders, proper democracies and administrations not addicted to the hatred and poison of racist propaganda, then there would be the chance that Obama’s starry-eyed vision could come to fruition.
But as the torture and oppression get worse, the signs are not hopeful.
Another great band grew out of 1967. Blood Sweat and Tears. Which unfortunately is what the Arab Spring will most likely be remembered for.