You must know by now everything about that man, Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander killed by the Americans. Never anybody else in recent history has received such a large media coverage worldwide at the beginning of a new year! Even Australian newspapers report daily about his killing and its consequences among their first headlines – despite the tremendously tragic events of unending bushfires destroying millions of hectares of Australian soil and temperatures having reached 45°C in some areas, while its leading politicians keep describing climate change as a fake news.
So, since a few days we are obsessively scrutinizing any declarations, news or rumors which could anticipate a new war. All our expectations for a better year than the previous one have suddenly faded away like snow under implacably hot sunrays. Media are covering the last developments as if we were preparing for an imminent World War, maybe also because – right after the New Year’s Eve celebrations and right before the Christian festival of Epiphany – there is not much else to report about. The noise and the alarm are so loud that any decent politician feels obliged to take a stand and make declarations, inviting some to reason and containment, others to retaliation and revenge. You can find a profile of Mr. Soleimani here. It is amazing how a character basically unknown by the most has suddenly become a worldwide star within a few hours. That raises many questions on how information works, and what we really know about happenings and leaders around us.
So, reason and containment. In a neighbourhood devastated by regional wars and conflicts, calling for reason and containment looks rather stupid and puerile. Thank you very much. Where were “we” (Europeans and Democrats…) until the day before Friday, January 3, to call now for keeping the nerves firm? The war is already there, and Soleimani has been directing it for years on behalf of his country, with proxies or regular forces. He has been actively supporting and fighting side by side for the Syrian dictator Al-Assad in a war against his people, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties. He bolstered the Hezbollah party and militias in Lebanon as well as the Iraqi Shia’s militias; and he sustained Yemen’s Houthi militia in power: goals pursued through policies of unrestricted brutality. The New York Times properly describes his reach as follows: “He was an evil man who died as he had killed so many others.” What have we offered besides calling for restraint? Almost nothing. Together with its Russian counterparts, Soleimani represented the most powerful strategist devoted to crush down post-Arab Spring people’s aspirations for freedom, self-determination and accountability in the region, much more effective than the Gulf’s monarchies, caught up in the never-ending Yemeni conflict, or the Chinese apparatus, unable to bring order among the ranks of the Hong-Kong’s youth.
While drinking a tea with mint and almonds, last night I read an enlightening analysis in the newspaper Al-Arab. If the retaliation options of targeting military US bases will turn out being difficult to plan and carry out, the Iranian regime might go for civilian targets belonging to the “democratic camp” – what in the Iranian vocabulary are depicted as “America’s agents” : journalists, writers, activists, demonstrators, and politicians questioning Iranian influence, especially in Iraq. Let us not forget that since the beginning of social protests in Iraq against corruption, unemployment and inefficient public services (October 2019), governmental forces and Iran-backed militias have arrested or assassinated dozens of protesters, activists or journalists. Considering that social unrest is still going on in Iraq and Lebanon, and acts of war are waged in Yemen or Syria, the risk of having civilians and social forces targeted is high.
So, the year 2020 begins with a confrontation, which may result into further civilian casualties and disruption of social movements who call for more liberal values and practices. And all what we can offer, besides the unpredictable, erratic and contradictory steps taken by the White House, is a call for restraint.
In the meantime, those who wish to crush any attempt of opening new spaces of an at least incipient democracy are moving forward: civil facilities are bombed in Northwestern Syria with the aim to bow people’s will and force them to accept Damascus’ authoritarian restauration, while the International Community keeps silent, showing its surrendering inability to act; General Haftar’s military campaign against Libya’s Government of National Accord is sowing destruction – with the support of Riyadh, Cairo, Dubai and Moscow – and when Turkey threatens to interfere militarily to prevent Haftar’s ruthless advance, we are only able to cry “scandal”…
I wish to dedicate the year 2020 to the conservation of our democratic values and practices, both against internal corruption and external anti-democratic forces. Yes, I am a conservative, if you like to qualify such a stand so. Hoping in the goodwill of authoritarian regimes is just wishful thinking.
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Gospel of Matthiew, 10, 16). There is not anything more appropriate than this verse to describe what is at stake. The question is: What should be done to prevent 2020 to become more terrifying and disturbing than last year?
While we personally cannot do much to prevent Iranian or American or Russian or Saudi administrations to perpetrate new crimes, or to carry out strategic acts which would jeopardize democracy and freedom, we can do a lot to protect our civil society spaces from any perversion or implosion. To honour such a responsibility, call for restraint won’t be enough for us regular citizens either. Only a “citizenship-in the making”, an insurgent citizenship, being solidly anchored to the many values and practices, knowledge and heritage we share as people of a region that is homogeneous in its complex and intrinsically pluralistic nature – and was born out of the anti-fascist, anti-colonialist and anti-mafia struggles – will prevent us from passively undergo new currents legitimizing authoritarianism and social discrimination.
My wish to all of us is that – next time we see someone pushing out a lady from a public bus because she is Arab or veiled – we take the defence of her; or next time we see someone offending a black migrant on the street and hitting him – we interfere with our physical body.
Will we be ready to do that? Should not we, then we won’t be better than our political class or our institutions. We won’t be entitled to complain about them any longer.
This very beginning of 2020 experienced an acceleration portrayed with meticulous details by the media. Let us take it as an alert. War is already around us, and this war is basically about the rescue or the collapse of the democratic idea and its fundamental values of social justice, rights for all and freedom. If we do not fight for it in our own communities, do not please be surprised if social unrest, violence and repression will reach our home doors. It will be too late, even for media, to report about that turning point.
Cheer up! 2020 has just started!
Sidi Bou Said, 5 January 2020.
 « Khiyārāt mahdouda amām Iran lil-radd ʿalā maqtal Qāsem Soleimani » (Limited options for Iran in responding to the killing of Qassim Soleimani), Al-Arab, 4 January 2020.