The Beirut Book Fair resembles the Istanbul Book Fair. It is located in a huge hall with an endless number of publishers, long lines of people waiting to have their books signed, lectures, debates, etc.
During the 15 years of civil war, the area of Bab Idris — known for its Ottoman era buildings — was off limits. It was a combat zone. But this is the not the Beirut I fell in love with 41 years ago. Now under every building you have fancy shops, from Hermes to Porsche. The capital that flowed to Beirut from the Gulf apparently intended to turn Beirut into a shopping center for rich Gulf citizens. When we say Gulf, you have to add Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Beirut owed its pre-war glittering days — when it was called the “Paris of the Middle East” — to Saudi and Gulf money. That hasn’t changed.
But the book fair is a different Beirut, where the pulse of the intellectual Arab world still beats. The moment I walked in I encountered many old friends and acquaintances. There was Trad Hamadi, who once served as a Hezbollah minister in the cabinet. Hailing from a large and influential Shiite tribe, he is recognized as a thinker instead of a political activist. We embraced and he gave me his book, "Islamic Awakening and Arab Revolutions," and said, “You must read it. It is important.”
You don’t hear the label "Arab Spring" often here. For most, it is the “Arab Revolution.” Turkey’s unprecedented prestige in the Arab world and its rising to prominence can be attributed to AKP’s foreign policy and to its opening up to the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as to the Arab revolution.
Hamadi, like others I met in Beirut who seriously question and criticize Turkey’s Syria policy, said: “You are a Turk, you should know. What is happening in Syria?”
I replied: “You should know better. Aren’t you from Hermel, only a stone's throw from Syria? You tell me what is going on there. From Turkey we don’t see beyond northern Syria. Why don’t you come to Turkey? In one day, you can make a return trip to Idlib and Aleppo from Antakya.”
There was none of this bitter criticism of Turkey last year. There was great sympathy to Turkey’s attitude towards Syria and that sympathy had translated into expectations for a buffer zone to protect the Syrian people from massacres.
Not anymore, though. Now I hear Turkey has “lost altitude” with its policies. Renown Palestinian thinker Mounir Shafik was another old friend I met at the book fair. He was a senior PLO official before becoming an intellectual and writer widely read by Islamist circles. He told me how the Turkish prime minister and foreign minister act without really understanding the Arab world and thus repeatedly make mistakes.
He based his criticism on the idea that “to have an opinion and to make an assessment based on that opinion are not the same.” He said that while your opinion could be correct, you can still err in your assessment. He then listed Turkey’s assessment mistakes.
So what do you see happening in Syria, looking at it from Beirut? The regime is done with. It is depleted. Now the topic of the day is the transition and what will happen after Assad. Nobody is sure how it is going to turn out but all are convinced it will be chaotic.
Anyway, nowadays in Beirut the issue of the day is not Syria but Egypt. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood experience in Egypt is already a foregone conclusion. If these assessments are on the mark, not only Syria’s future, but the future of the entire region will be extremely complex with many unknowns. In Beirut, there is an endless debate about the new historical era. Turkey has a significant place in this debate. I will come back to these debates.