Mar 15 2005

In search of an Arab ‘Gandhi’

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

For the past few weeks, Los Angles-based Palestinian director Hanna Elias has been very busy in Ramallah. He has been casting, auditioning and rehearsing with actors who will take part in an important movie. He needs to find some 120 voices in order to dub into Arabic the world-class movie Gandhi.
While actors were streaming in and out of the studios of Al Quds Educational Television in Ramallah, something important was happening a few hundred kilometres to the north. Massive popular rallies, with hundreds of thousands of people, first against, then for Syria were conducted in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Unlike in previous conflicts, and despite the fact that they involved a number of previously (and currently) armed groups, these demonstrations were completely non-violent. Palestinians, along with the Arab world as a whole, have been watching their television screens with awe as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, at times meters away from each other, were able to conduct their protests without violence.

Despite conventional thinking, non-violence is not a new philosophy in the Middle East. Palestinians still speak about their first intifada as being largely non-violent. They still remember how the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir deported Jerusalem-born American Palestinian non-violence advocate Mubarak Awad for his calls for non-violent protests. The people of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, still proudly remember the 40-day siege by the Israelis following their refusal to pay taxes under the slogan “no taxation without representation.”

Palestinian and Arab democracy activists would also like to think that their struggle for freedom, independence and equality started long before the D word became part of the daily rhetoric of the White House.

For one thing, Palestinians believe that the recent elections, in which more than one serious contender fought for the popular vote, were at least in part a key milestone in the democratic fever that seems to have been gripping a number of Arab countries.

But before American neo-conservatives start patting themselves on the back, they must take a closer look at the content of what is taking place.

Democracy might be the rule of the people by the people, but once people take up this right there is no telling what they will decide. It is true that anti-US forces (like those of Hassan Nasrallah) are temporarily (at least in Beirut) putting their guns aside and taking up democratic tools, but they have not changed their opposition toward the US or Israel.

Pro-democracy groups in Lebanon are also not automatically embracing the US but instead publicly supporting the anti-Israeli forces. In the run-up to the March 9 rally and during it, Nasrallah’s actions and words were clearly in favor of what he calls “silm al ahli” (community peace), in which he insists on the need to discuss and debate issues.

Speaking to the media following the fall of the pro-Syrian Karami government, Walid Jumblatt insisted that seeking independence from Syria was not to be understood as moving any closer to peace with Israel or rejecting pan-Arabism. However, he insisted, the Arab patriotism that he was speaking about was not the same as the classical pan-Arabism (often reflected in Ba’ath and other ideological movements).

The importance in these statements lies in the fact that for the first time in modern Arab nationalism, Arab patriots have succeeded in presenting an alternative and genuinely democratic form of Arab nationalism.

Until recently most calls for reform and democracy in the Arab world were easily shrugged off as unacceptable because they were a response to American or, even worse, Israeli demands and dictates. For a respected Arab leader to state opposition to call for the withdrawal of troops of a fellow Arab country and still sound supportive of relations with that particular country seem very odd to the ears of most Arabs.

While what is happening in Lebanon is unique in many ways, it has sent shock waves throughout the Arab world, where the populations of the 23 Arab countries had all but given up on the possibility of a peaceful democratic movement that was also patriotic.

For the most part, these same Arab democrats believed that fellow Arabs in Palestine deserved the same democratic independence from the Israeli occupation that they were seeking from their autocratic regimes. When President Bush publicly embraced the democratic calls without backing down from his relentless support for the hard-line Israeli occupiers in Palestine, many Arab intellectuals chose silence. They were afraid that support for President George W. Bush’s calls could be interpreted as endorsing American tolerance for Israeli occupation, house demolitions, assassinations and other human rights abuses.

The recent successful elections in Palestine, followed by the dramatic elections in Iraq, certainly provided much of the backdrop for the successful turn of events in Lebanon. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, to hear pro-democracy playwrights like the Cairo-based Ali Salem declare on CNN: We Egyptians are jealous of what the Lebanese have done.

Among the 120 voices that director Hanna Elias was screening, he was looking for someone to fill the role of the Indian non-violence hero, Mahatma Gandhi.

Jerusalem actor Hussam Abu Esha was given the role, speaking the words of Gandhi in the Arabic version of the film. But in real life, to date, there doesn’t appear to be any single clear candidate to fill the role

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