For years, we have been desensitised to the question of refugees. The Palestinians were there, all around us, but they were almost an invisible anomaly, a historical aberration attributed to high international intrigue. Their fate was not going to be joined by others, or that’s what we thought — until now.
From Syria to Iraq, and let’s not forget Sudan, people are being driven from their homes in droves. City people have been driven from their urban surroundings, country people from their rural milieu, and border town inhabitants were hemmed in, erratically pushed in either direction.
What is happening to us?
The easy answer is war. Throughout history, war and famine were the main instigators of mass human displacement.
But in our case, there is something else.
Our history of tyranny, I believe, is responsible for the current explosion of the refugee problem.
The despots of our recent past followed racist and sectarian policies that favoured some minorities over others, and turned some against the majority — as was the case in Syria and Iraq.
Once the dictatorships were overthrown, or seriously challenged, a Pandora’s Box of horror was unleashed upon us, with retribution inviting retaliation, and injustices morphing into bloodshed.
The Arab revolutions brought much of this upon us.
Despite their lofty ideas and their declared commitment to equality among all citizens, when the revolutions misfired — as was the case in Syria — the consequences for the population were unspeakable.
In the past two years, nearly two million Syrians, many rendered penniless overnight, had to flee into neighbouring countries. Of those who stayed behind, nearly 100,000 were killed and just as many perhaps went missing.
The Syrian crisis is now approaching the volume of the Palestinian crisis, with the added advantage of being fully home-grown.
Egypt and Tunisia were spared the worst, but only just — and only so far.
The root of trouble in the Arab world is despotism.
In Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and other countries, dictators were in power — some more brutal than others.
In Egypt, the dictatorship of the state was alleviated by the power of state institutions and the rule of the law. The regime may have been heavy-handed at times, but it wasn’t an inherently sectarian one.
In Sudan, sectarianism was paramount, and the institutions of central government were much weaker. Khartoum was clearly incapable of addressing the problems in the distant areas of Darfur and southern Sudan, and when challenged it resorted to bloodshed.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein largely ignored the demands of various ethnicities and sects, but his police state created a tradition of brutality that came in handy when the country started falling apart.
The new cohort of leaders in Baghdad doesn’t seem capable of rising above the web of sectarianism that has grown unchecked over the past few years, to the detriment of the authority of the central government.
In Syria, the police state of the Baath Party, handed from father to son, lurked uncomfortably under the surface, and then broke loose into an orgy of violence once Bashar Al-Assad’s hold on power was challenged.
The Arab world may have overthrown the old cohort of dictators, but it hasn’t rid itself of their legacy.
In one country after another, a new batch of rulers is making the same mistakes that brought the downfall of its predecessors.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, once it reached the top rung in the ladder of power, proceeded to reconfigure all state institutions to suit its own purposes, not those of the nation, its final aim being to install a minority of Islamists in power and make them the new overlords.
In Syria, Al-Assad took refuge in his Alawite clan, arming them against the rest of the population.
Such behaviour is not only essentially biased, but it poses a terrible threat to the entire country. For example, had the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in turning the army around, thousands of years of tradition would have come asunder, and the very concept of a nation state would have been demolished.
Egypt is still struggling to find its footing. The 30 June Revolution is but another attempt to re-establish the concept of one country for all, without discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds.
We are still fighting. But instead of fighting against the tyranny of old-style regimes, we are fighting for freedom and equality under any current or future regime.