In Translation: Fahmi Howeidy on Iran, Syria and Bahrain

We bring you another commentary piece from the Arab media in translation, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a  full-service translation company founded by two longtime Arabist readers, which specializes in English-Arabic-French technical, legal, and engineering translation management services.

Fahmi HoweidyThis week I selected an article by Fahmi Howeidy, a conservative Egyptian columnist who is widely believed to be the most influential pundit in the Arab world. Howeidy is well-connected and writes for multiple audiences (he is syndicated in Egyptian papers and several Gulf-owned ones). He has long championed a kind of elitist Islamo-populism which I personally abhor, but does have some resonance in the region. At his best, Howeidy is (was?) incredibly cutting of (some of) the regimes in place; at his worst he defends silly conspiracy theories and makes crude, unsupported attacks against his ideological enemies — including at times rather nasty personal attacks.

In recent years, Howeidy had been a defender of Iran in its standoff with Israel and the United States. As the author of several books about Iran with excellent access in Tehran, he consistently defended the Islamic Republic and its foreign policy. Even when the Hizbullah and the Iranian Republican Guards were said (plausibly) by the Mubarak regime to have operated an espionage network with links to Hamas in Gaza, Howeidy slammed the Egyptian regime. This shocked many at the time, since after all covert operations had been uncovered and public opinion tended to be critical of any foreign meddling. In other words, there was a time when, for Howeidy, Iran could do no wrong.

In the column below, Howeidy reports from a conference in Tehran and slams the Iranian stance on Syria, going as far as arguing that the Islamic Republic “has lost its moral compass.” He comes out strongly against the Assad regime and makes a compelling argument that what he had admired about Assad — his commitment to the “Resistance Front” against Israel and the United States’ imperial policies in the last decade — cannot take precedence over the regimes’ murdering of its own population, and that it further risks souring that population on supporting the Resistance Front. I recommend reading alongside Rami Khouri’s latest column, on the fall of Iran’s star in the Arab world this year. Howeidy’s take may be the surest sign of this trend. Finally, his equivocating on Bahrain in the latter part of the piece is also interesting — Howeidy is not quite ready to abandon the Bahraini royals, and their Gulf allies…

Syria, the muted truth

By Fahmi Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 1 October 2011.

Strong participant solidarity with the oppressed people of Bahrain was a major feature of the “Revival” (Sahwa) conference, held recently in Tehran. Surprisingly, however, there was no similar concern for the fate of the equally oppressed people of Syria.

Instead, any allusion during the discussions, to the current plight of the Syrians would open the door for a debate in which supporters of the Damascus regime loudly defended their government as the leading protector of the so-called Resistance Front, and the target of arrogant powers aligned with Zionism.

Indeed, when I stood up and declared my sympathy with the oppressed in both of these two countries, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad and company were not happy. I constantly heard strong reservations and objections from Iranian enthusiasts, and others from amongst the Bahraini youth who fled their country and took refuge in Iran from which they use as a base to defend their cause by various means.

What worries me most about the Iranian stance on Syria is that it gives preference to its political interests and considerations instead of opting for the principled position it is known for. It is no secret that there is a strategic alliance between Tehran and Damascus, and that it has played a major role in support of the Lebanese Resistance, represented by Hezbollah and its allies. It has also been critical in anchoring the Syrian’s regime’s position in the face of multiple crises. At the same time, the positive impact of the alliance on Iran was two-faceted: first, it helped it break out of the isolation imposed upon it by the United States and its allies; second it allowed Iran to play an influential role in the political scene in the Arab world.

More important than this particular Syria-Iran alliance is the fact that the Islamic Revolution was fundamentally based on a firm stance against injustice, in favour of the oppressed and vulnerable, and from the first moments of the Revolution’s triumph, for its vigorous defense of the Palestinian cause, all of this stemming from a system based on ethics and principles. Thus, considering that moral foundation, it is incomprehensible to see the Iranian Revolution remain silent in the face of the brutal atrocities the Syrian regime is committing against its opponents. Not just for humanitarian and ethical reasons, but because these people are Muslims and people of God. The Syrian regime’s security services and “gangsters” are repressing the Syrian people worse than the Israelis repress the Palestinians!

I’m confident that Iranian officials are aware of what is happening on the ground and I’m surprised to see them informed and yet ignoring the happenings and keeping their silence. I’m also increasingly surprised to know that they have been misled to the extent that they believe that such happenings are part of a premeditated imperialist and Zionist conspiracy. 

While looking at this state of the facts, it is clear that Iran’s priority is for safekeeping certain interests and not the principles, which regrettably leads me to state that the Islamic Republic has lost its moral compass, and drifted from the ethical values which were such a defining feature of its Islamic orientation.

I can’t deny that Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s statement that the Syrian regime must be responsive to the wishes of its people has eased the situation to some extent in recent weeks. Still, this declaration is like one small bright spot in a bigger painting covered in blood. The bright spot is there but it doesn’t change the overall unpleasantness of the picture.

I spoke with some Iranians and I told them that I agree in full with what they say about the Syrian regime’s stance on the Palestinian cause and the Lebanon resistance, and its legitimate credentials as a member of the Resistance Front. This is absolutely appreciated; no doubt about that, and that’s the good side of the picture.

However, when one looks at Syria’s domestic policy, based on a brutal and inhumane repression, it becomes obvious that this is something that cannot be condoned under any circumstance. One cannot remain silent in the face of murdering, lynching and dismembering of opponents under a pretext of defiance and national interests; one cannot believe that the system can be honourable in its foreign relations while murdering its people at home.

The persistence of this logic would make the Syrians reject the so-called Resistance Front and other national slogans if they perceived such slogans were being used as a pretext to justify their humiliation and killings on a daily basis. If it weren’t for the authenticity of the Syrian people and the sincerity of their patriotism, there would be no doubt that these demonstrators would have rejected them since the start of their uprising, six months ago. As far as I know, the masses disagree with all these slogans with the same energy they use to defend their freedom, dignity and pride.

I told the Bahraini youth, who admonished me for not writing about the suffering of their people, that I stand with their fight against oppression, and that in my opinion they should not stop demanding an end to their mistreatment and for the organization of free elections. However, I disagree with some of them who call for the toppling of the regime in Bahrain because such a claim far exceeds what the Gulf region can actually tolerate. I encouraged them to copy the Kuwaiti experience, which followed Bahrain in its passage to democracy. This is because the Kuwaiti opposition is active from within the regime, might clash with it or challenge it, but has never raised the idea of permanently changing it or toppling it. I haven’t had the chance to hear their reaction to what I said, but I could say that I behaved in line with my conscience; I made my point and I moved on…