Despite what you read, this year’s Arab Spring is not the first Arab revolution of the modern era. There have been many. The first were against colonial occupation. French cannon and aircraft levelled one quarter of Damascus in 1925, inflicting more destruction than Bashar Al Assad’s current assaults on Deraa, Idlib, Homs and Hama. Britain bombed Kurds and Arabs in Iraq in 1920, and it hanged Arab rebels in Palestine from 1936 to 1939. The Arab world may have forgotten, but it has a revolutionary tradition.
Fighting the foreign occupier, admittedly, is not the same as overturning a society from within. To many, this is what makes the Arab Spring of 2011 unique. But it is not unique. It happened 40 years ago, when the Palestinian Revolution sought to radicalise the entire Arab world. Its goal was a modern, secular society with power and resources shared by all. The non-sectarian movement’s most charismatic leader was a nominal Christian, Dr George Habash. His Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine slogan was: “The road to Jerusalem lies through Amman, Damascus and Cairo.” Moshe Dayan was not afraid, but Arab generals, dictators, sheikhs and tribal chiefs were.
That Palestinian spring emerged from Israel’s humiliating defeat of the Arab states in 1967. It was a time when the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani saw redemption in the ashes: “And so we, all of a sudden, tore off our shrouds/And rose from the dead.” Arabs were imagining a future in which self-government replaced rule by elites imposed by Britain or France and sustained by the United States or Soviet Union.
With the pre-1967 Arab order discredited, Palestinian revolutionaries filled a moral void. They offered a cultural and intellectual framework for people to challenge oppression. The young began to contradict their elders, who had lost three wars to Israel. Arabs were rejecting subservience to leaders they had not chosen. The revolutionaries condemned the United States for propping up, as well as Israel, Arab regimes that kept people in a state of imbecility. (They neglected to criticise the Soviets, who were little better.)
The popularity of Leftist, revolutionary ideas led some Arab regimes to find a Palestinian alternative. They financed Fatah, which recruited more commandos from impoverished refugee camps than its rivals could afford to pay. Fatah leader Yasser Arafat embodied simple Palestinian nationalism devoid of ideology. If he could get Palestine back, he would make it as undemocratic as all other Arab regimes. Fatah came to dominate the PLO, and the Leftists split into an alphabet soup array of PFLP, DFLP, PFLP-GC, et al.
When Palestinians challenged their first Arab regime in Jordan, they found themselves in the middle of a war that had little to do with revolution or Palestine. King Hussein, supported by most of Jordan’s indigenous population who had wearied of Palestinian excesses, expelled them after Black September 1970.
The Palestinian Revolution took refuge in Lebanon, the only Arab country with a free press and an electoral system that resembled democracy. Lebanon’s weakness – including disparities of wealth and Muslim communities that felt deprived of a fair share of power – made it vulnerable. While living there from 1972 to 1976, I observed the Palestinian Revolution taking root. It occasionally spoke for workers and peasants’ rights, earning support from those who felt alienated from the communal leaders who should have protected them.
The rich were hiding expensive cars and jewellery. In East Beirut, leading Christian politicians courted Arab governments, especially Syria’s, that dreaded the example of a social revolution in the Arab world. The PLO made it easier for its enemies by forgetting Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts. Its state-within-a-state treated Lebanese with contempt, and its leaders lorded it over fellow Palestinians as the discredited masters had in Palestine. A revolution that should have swept away old forms of obedience ended up imitating them.
The revolutionary phase of Palestine’s struggle ended badly, with its loss of support from the Lebanese, its eviction from Beirut by Israel in 1982, and its second expulsion from north Lebanon by Syria a year later. It culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords, which more prescient Arab intellectuals such as Edward Said rightly saw as a surrender of both principles and objectives so that a tired band of ex-revolutionaries could wield subservient power from Ramallah. When Arafat claimed that his years ruling West Beirut qualified him to govern the West Bank and Gaza, Said reminded him that his experience boded ill for Palestine.
“Revolution is war,” Lenin wrote during the failed 1905 revolution in Russia. “Of all the wars known in history, it is the only lawful, rightful, just and truly great war.” The cause may have been just, but its execution after 1917 in Russia, as in 1976 in Beirut, was as flawed as the society from which it sprang. The desire for revolution will always exist amid injustice, but achieving it takes more than street demonstrations, Twitter and Facebook messages, and requesting Nato to fight for people who should fight for themselves. It requires thought, preparation, common goals, mutual respect and knowing the enemy. If the revolutions of 2011 are not to fail, they must learn from a Palestinian Revolution that was strangled at birth.