"Assad cannot win anymore"

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The Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara gave one of his rare interviews to profil in his exile in Doha.

Azmi Bishara came a long way. He is a Christian Palestinian who was born in Nazareth, an Arab city which is part of Israel since 1948. Today he is considered one of the most influential political intellectuals in the Middle East – and he resides in the Muslim Emirat of Qatar because he is considered persona non grata in his homeland.

When he was born in 1956, Nazareth had just become part of the young state of the Jews. Bishara studied at the universities of Haifa and Jerusalem, wrote his Phd in philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin and returned to teach philosophy at the Palestinian university of Birzeit in the Westbank which Israel occupied in 1967.

Bishara was always politically active since leading the Arab Student Union at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but his political career started seriously only when he co-founded the left leaing party Balad together with like minded Arab Israeli intellectuals in 1995. From 1996 to 2007 he was a member of the Knesset, the parliament of Israel.

With his uncompromising call for equality for the Arab minority in Israel he made many enemies. But it was his trips to the neighbouring regimes in Syria and in Lebanon which sealed his fate. After the war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006 he was called a traitor for passing on sensitive information to the Islamist Hizbollah in Lebanon. He denied all this vehemently, but was interrogated repeatedly and faced trial and prison – which he escaped by leaving the country and resigning his Knesset mandate in the Israeli consulate in Cairo in April 2007.

He found some sort of new home in Qatar, which has become a refuge for exiled Middle Eastern intellectuals and political leaders of all sorts. Bishara is an advisor to father and son Emir and he is the director oft he „Arab center for Research & Policy Studies“ in Doha, which analyses the developments of the Post-Arab-Spring era in the region

profil: Syria is drowning in a civil war, Egypt suffers the backlash oft renewed military rule, peace talks between Israel and Palestinians are stuck although the US tried to kickstart them. The situation in the Middle East looks bleak. Are you sorry you ever welcomed the Arab Spring?

Bishara: 2011 was for us like a dream that was in a way too good to be true. The young generation declared their presence, their aspiration for freedom and social justice and they went against the corruption of the Arab regimes. Until these forces win, a lot of time will pass. Now it is the backlash of the powerful forces of the old regimes. The problem with the reform movement of the Arab spring is that it was a spontanous movement - they did not have an organized leadership, no structures they could rely on. This is why the Islamist forces stole the Arab spring and won the elections - they had established structures of opposition. This is also why it was so easy for the military in Egypt in the end to stage a coup and take power back. The real reform movement got squeezed between these two old forces: the moslem brotherhood and the military. But I believe that these unleashed force of the young will never disappear again completely. They will come back.

profil: Did the Islamists govern so desastrously that the army had no other choice than to take power back or would the generals have staged a coup in any case?

Bishara: I blame mostly the Islamist forces under Mohammed Morsi who did not reach out to all the opposition and bring them in to form a coalition of democratic forces together. The army had an easier time to regain power because the Moslem Brotherhood had antagonized the democratic movement. Instead of uniting behind the principles of democracy in times of crisis, the Islamist leadership did not build a coalition but cracked down on the democratic froces.

profil: But would a democratic government been possible at all in Egypt? Can the Moslem Brothers govern democratically? Is the example of Tunisia, where a new constitution was adopted last week, a valid example for a more or less democratic Islamist government?

Bishara: I think so, Tunisia is the only hope we have. In Tunisia the Islamist movement Ennahda behaved better. And so did the army. The army in Tunisia is not as strong as in Egypt. And it does not have the same history of power - in Egypt they were running the regime for decades, in Tunis they were never an independently operating political factor. There were a few moments in the last two years in Tunis, when the political forces were so polarized that it got very worrying. If the army at that point would have been an army used to running the country, it would have been difficult to avoid an Egyptian situation with a counter coup. But the lack of political power of the tunisian army and the strengh of the secular middle class and the civil society kept the country on track of a democratic transition. Nothing will settle down in Egypt. The army needs a constant feeling of threat from so called "terrorists" in order to keep the country under emergency laws against terrorists. They went into a vicious circle. The need a crisis to survive in power. But as long as the country is in total crisis, they cannot revive the economy.

profil: Was there ever a chance for a democratic Islamist government in Egypt?

Bishara: The question should be different. Can a democratic government be run by Islamists? And the answer is: Yes. Look at Turkey. Erdogon rules with his Islamist party, but he acknowledges the democratic character of the state. Of course these structures were already in place when the Islamists came to power. It is a lot more difficult to ask Islamists to build a democratic state from scratch. The Islamists are no democrats. And in Egypt they were not helped to build a democracy. The army did not help them. The democratic opposition did not help them either. The military on the other hand was clearly not interested either in cooperation in establishing democracy. The coup in July was a coup against the democratic track. It was not only security and not only anti-islamist. It was for the strong man, a conservative conception of society. That is why I call it a counter revolution of the 25th of January 2011. Many of those, who demonstrated against the Muslim Brotherhood regime on the 30th of June for good reasons - to return to democracy - find themselves in jail now. The coup was not just against the Islamists. It was against democracy. Many of the young leaders of the democratic opposition were arrested. Ahmad Maher for example or Alaa Abdel Fattah.

profil: Directly affected from the change in Egypt is Hamas in Gaza. It is cut off on all sides now. Will this radicalize Hamas or bring the idea of a national unity government with Fatah closer? You had a conference here with Hamas and Fatah last month - did you see a change?

Bishara: At our conference we asked: Is there a Palestinian national strategy? It was an academic conference we had here at the Center, we invited both leaderships and it was a good debate.

profil: I am scared to ask, if you found an answer. Did you?

Bishara: Of course. The answer is: no. There is no real national strategy. We brought together Palestinians from all over the world. For the opening speeches we brought the leaders of Hamas and Fatah and everyone thought we were negotiating, but we were not really. Hamas is suffering now a lot, this is a real siege from all sides.

profil: Will they become more extreme?

Bishara: We need Hamas for a solution, no question. But this would not lead to a change in position of Egypt towards Hamas.The siege is brutal. Even a kind of understanding between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza will not change anything for Gaza as a whole. The army regime in Egypt is very hostile to Gaza now. It doesnt matter what just or unjust solution we get in Palestine and Israel - the siege will make the people in Gaza more radical. It is always like this. Under pressure people think the world is against them, nobody helps them. Someone has to put back some sanity in the decision makers in Egypt. They need to open the borders again. But this will take time. Israel also doesn't want the gazastrip.

profil: John Kerry voiced his frustration at the security conference in Munich, when he called on  Israel saying that the country gambles away its democratic future. Although nobody expected much from these talks...

Bishara: Nobody but him expected anything from these peace talks! I think Kerry is taking it personally now that they are breaking down. He thinks that every side should make big concessions to reach an agreement, but the reality is that he, the US secretary of state, can not get the smallest concession out of Israel. Not even a settlement freeze. The Americans are instead fighting hard against any attempts to boycott settlement products. They say because they want the Israelis to understand themselves that it is wrong. I am afraid we will wait for a long time for this. Meanwhile Kerry is asking the Palestinians to practically give up on Jerusalem and this is something no Palestinian leader can agree to.

profil: Kerry knows under what pressure Netanyahu is with all the settler champions in his coalition.... Do we have to fear a Third Intifada?

Bishara: I remember the First and Second Intifada, which broke out in 1987 and 2000. Each time we were in a similar situation: Frustration was high because there was no negotiation track. So yes, your question is understandable. But I think the difference today is that the Palestinian Authority is much stronger than it was then. There is a security apparatus, which is well trained and settled and connected with Israel. Despite all the crisis they have weekly meetings between the Palestinian and Israeli security staff. The police force really has a grip on the population. They don't want to loose what they have got. And people know very well that an intifada now would mean a Palestinian civil war. Plus: There is so much instability in the Region now - nobody wants more of it.

profil: But president Mahmoud Abbas is tired and so is the leadership group around him.

Bishara: Yes, of course he is tired. But the West invested in one thing properly in the Palestinian Authority: in the police. They knew what they were doing. A revolt of the Palestinian street today would mean either the Palestinian Authority knows about it and is behind it or it is against it and it leads to civil war. That's why nobody will start a new intifada. The palestinian bureaucracy has an interest to keep things how they are. President Abu Mazen reminds people all the time how much better they have it now than during the second intifada. And the Israelis feel safe meanwhile.

profil: The situation plays into the hands of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bishara: Of course. But it's not that he knows that he has it good. He feels the pressure from the settlers and their representatives all the time They have a different agenda than Netanyahu. He wants to keep the status quo. But they want to build more houses in the Palestinian land, they want to annex the Westbank, and they will never stop.

profil: Would it be a difference, if there was a left Israeli government?

Bishara: We had all this for years and years. The outcome is always the same. They make a coalition with political parties who push for more settlements. And each and every single Israeli government has always had mainly one concern in the negostiations with the Palestinians: to get the Palestinians to agree to concessions to make the Israeli government look good in the eyes of their voters.

profil: Do you miss your homeland?

Bishara: I miss it a lot, really. Of course I do. I don't miss, however, the Knesset. At all. It was never a place, where I felt at home. I always felt that they did not want us Arabs there. They always made it clear that Israel was not our place. It was a place for jewish Israelis and if we behaved nicely we would be tolerated.  I was there always despite myself. Iam really an academic and not a politician. I was there because it was important. Psychologically it was necessary to represent the Arabs, to change the discourse about our role in the society. And we did change it. Today the Arabs of Israel have a different status, so these were formative years. Many times  I stood up and said: We Arabs are a million, we are a significant part of this country and we deserve this state to be a state of and for all its citizens. It was a shock. Today it has become an accepted reality - except that the rights are still not the same for Arabs and Jews in Israel. If you are not "their" Arab and confine yourself to the role the Jewish Israel assigns to us, than Israel is a hard place for you.

profil: Lieberman's idea to swap the Arab triangle in the galilee against the settlement blocks is inherently racist because it tries to create an ethnically cleansed state for the Jews and for the Arabs. But it would have the advantage that people would not need to fight for their rights as citizens in the other's state, would it not?

Bishara: 80% of Israel are Jewish, so they have a clear majority and even racists like Lieberman do not need to cleanse more. They just raise this issue to whip the population into a nationalist mood. But look at it historically. In 1947 the partition plan gave these parts of Palestine to Israel which today is predominantly Jewish. There, where you have the strong Arab population center in the galilee and the triangle is the land that according to the partiion plan would have been palestine. So if Lieberman wants to give the Palestinians this Arab land with its inhabitants back, than ok, but give not only the triangle, but the whole galilee as the partition plan has foreseen it.

profil: This is not going to happen.

Bishara: Of course not. It's just a plot to keep all the settlements. And this is the other unbelievable thing: The Israeli government negotiators always deal with the Arabs of Israel on the same level as the Israeli settlers in the Westbank. This is not acceptable. The Arabs in Israel are citizens. The settlers in the occupied territories are illegal subjects according to international law. What they do with us, the Israeli Arabs was always to put a question mark to our citizenship.

profil: Let's talk about Syria. Nothing came out of the latest Geneva talks - the humanitarian aid was barely allowed into Homs.

Bishara: The West wanted the Geneva talks because they don't have anything else to do. They want to keep Geneva going because they cannot declare a complete breakdown - otherwise there is nothing any more to discuss. Assad can not stay in power, he can not win. Only those revolutions are successful, if the army stands with them. The Russian revolution, the French revolution in in 2011 briefly the Egyptian revolution. If the army is with the regime, they cannot win.  And this is the case in Syria. The army is with him. Assad has personal relations with each security apparatus in the country. But these security services do not have personal relationships with each other. He still keeps the strings in his hands. They compete with each other who is closer to him. They report to him directly. And the army is loyal. It was built by his father Hafes and Bashar inherited it.

profil: I find it amazing how he gives interviews and looks completely unphazed while he bombs his own people.

Bishara: I dont think he believes that this is his people. His people is his regime. The cities of Homs or Aleppo can be destroyed, but not the people loyal to him. This is the tragic situation: I have never seen a conflict in the region where the population was completely left alone like this. We usually critize the Syrian opposition, especially the armed participants. But historically we have not seen anything like this: The regime is bombarding their own cities. Can we really blame the armed rebel groups for fighting against these airplanes, bombs and tanks with there bare hands and their often inhuman methods?

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz