Haj Saleh: Social distancing will harm democracy

By Javier Martín

International Desk, Apr 24 (efe-epa).- Syrian writer and political dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh is familiar with words in wide use now like confinement, crisis and tragedy.

Pursued by the Syrian regime, he spent 16 years imprisoned, went into hiding, lost friends, colleagues and family, including his wife, and is now in exile.

Saleh knows what living under surveillance with curtailed freedoms is like, and he now fears the social inequality the pandemic has generated will harm the concepts of citizenship and democracy and boost the influence of those in positions of power when fear ripples across the globe.

QUESTION: The health crisis has paralysed the world, including protests in Lebanon, Chile and Algeria. Why has it failed to stop wars in Yemen, Libya, or Syria?

ANSWER: Because the powers and authorities that govern these countries are more dangerous to us than the coronavirus. Bashar al Assad considers that he and his regime are more important than Syria, its population, its cities, its history, its culture, its beliefs, murdering half a million Syrians and expelling more than six million. The country is not as important as the potential disappearance of the dynasty. If he could, he would develop a coronavirus weapon to use against Syrians who have rebelled against him as he did with chemical weapons, explosive barrels, torture and famine. His protector, (Vladimir) Putin came a few days ago, in a display lacking sensitivity, to boast that Russian weapons have proven effective in Syria and that Russia has several pacts to sell weapons worth $15 billion.

The role of the United Arab Emirates in Yemen is equivalent to that of Russia in Syria and neither the health of Yemenis nor reaching the fairest solutions possible are among the priorities of the most retrograde government in the Middle East. This also applies to the support they provide to General Haftar in Libya.

Regarding the dramatic conflict between the right of people to protest in Lebanon, Algeria and Chile and their right to health, protesters prioritized their right to health, theirs and that of others. That is not the logic that Putin, his subordinate al Assad, or Mohammed bin Zayed follow.

Q: What will be the most important social and economic effects of the coronavirus crisis?

A: It depends on the countries. Syrians who have migrated to the north-west of the country do not appear to see their situation improving or worsening. Nor does the situation of refugees in Europe seem any different, although it does seem that intra-family violence is increasing in the contexts of refuge in Germany, according to the data we have. In Lebanon, the coronavirus crisis has reduced pressure on a corrupt and oligarchic government that has remained standing to the detriment of Lebanese savings. In Egypt, industrial project owners are uneasy about the shutdown of their factories and their profits and want the quarantine lifted. Workers’ health is not a priority for them. Broadly speaking, the weakest sectors – the poor, women and migrants – pay the highest price when the situation is bad.

What is striking about this crisis is that rich and strong countries are suffering more than weaker and poorer countries. The ease with which panic that has gripped Europe, compared to other places is also marked.

Covid-19 is not the cause of the crisis, but the element that has revealed it.

The world, especially rich and powerful countries, has proven unable to deal with a health crisis that is not the most dangerous thing it is facing. Problems related to climate and racism are much more dangerous and both stem from the economic and political structure of the richest and strongest countries, which have proven to be the most conservative and reluctant to change even though this stance results in risks to humanity and life.

Q: Do you think it represents the end of the neoliberal system as we know it? Will capitalism reform to survive?

A: I cannot predict what will happen, and I fail to find elements that lead to optimism. I am confident, and this gives me some hope, not in how states are dealing with the crisis but in the fact changes will occur in ideas, organization, action and imagination, derived from the interaction of billions of people with this crisis. The world is in a crisis of loss of direction and absence of alternatives, like a prison in a perpetual present that we in Syria have known well during half a century of the al Assad government. The jail generates jailers like (Donald) Trump, Putin, (Boris) Johnson, Xi Jinping, (Abdel Fattah) el Sisi, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed Bin Zayed.

In a wholesome world, these gentlemen should be tried behind iron bars, not leading countries where billions live. The emergence of new movements and ideas will provoke a political and ethical turning point that we need to save ourselves. Along with many observers and local people, I believe that if more than half the world has been able to force itself to take a vacation for two or three months, nothing should prevent change in organizational, labour, economic and epistemological systems. The crisis has shown that lack of alternatives is not inevitable, but that the serfs of the dogmas of economic growth, be it the Chinese or western capitalist model, prefer that option.

Q: Neither the United Nations, World Health Organization nor European Union have been able to give a joint response. Do you think we are facing the decline of multilateralism?

A: I fear that we are heading towards a less worldly world, isolationism and greater fragmentation. What we are witnessing today is the emergence of closed political entities, political units with protective walls that open and close, or what Wendy Brown called walled states. The Trump wall bordering Mexico and the Israeli apartheid wall could be the most outstanding symbols of a world with multiple walls.

These are examples of a plurality without a world and of sovereignty based on exceptions which perhaps create the exceptions to dote (systems) with legitimacy, something that we in Syria know well. This trajectory is not inevitable, but the way in which the coronavirus is being dealt with follows this sovereign nationalist model that I do not see capable of perpetuating itself. I fear that the short period between this model and the return to the natural course of things or the logic of “nothing is happening here” will be prolonged due to a lack of clearer views or viable alternatives.

The potential paralysis that would result from that is more dangerous than the current situation. This danger will be more visible as we approach the end of the coronavirus crisis and find ourselves facing the void.

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