This week's window on the Middle East - December 17, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Fixing the rules of the game

  • Fixing the rules of the game
  • Egyptian implications of an enforced constitution
  • Libya taxi talk: experiences and expectations of democracy
  • Tunisian graffiti artists targeted by law
  • Winter: is it coming to Jordan?
  • Remembering Mohamed Abdel-Salam in Medani, Sudan
  • Fixing the rules of the game

    By Nader Bakkar

    I dare say that last Saturday represented a major shift in the Egyptian political scene. But  if we want to have realistic solutions for our cascading crises we must focus on the “final product” rather than resorting to endless debates about who joined in and who didn’t.  Every time we enter this fruitless debate it ends up by incriminating the opposition front first and foremost.  It is highly unreasonable to refuse dialogue and then to sit singing the tune “the president is talking with himself!”

    One of the most important features of the final outcome is that the presidential institution benefited a lot by expanding its circle of consultations and various kinds of legal expertise from outside the conventional frame it had shrouded itself in throughout the previous period.  Add to this the notable flexibility in adopting the decision of this extensive advisory body.  All of this is to be commended and we confirm the need to continue with the same approach in the future.

    Another advance that we have taken major advantage of is the fact that the ball is now  in the peoples’ court; so it is not the opposition and it is not the ruling party who will decide the fate of this country any more.  We are now resorting to the polls for the fourth time in a row since the revolution.  It is now the people who will decide how to end this crisis through free and direct elections.  Now the roadmap is clear for both paths – the yes-path and the no-path – which was something we distinctly and clearly missed before the dialogue that took place last Saturday.

    No need to take this as intransigence or favoring one opinion over the other; it’s true that the word “compatibility” has this nice ring to it  - since it expresses the idea of satisfying everyone at large. But we can never overrule the inevitability of differences: it just matters how we handle and regularise such differences.  But does compatibility mean convincing me of your viewpoint?  If this was true, why then did they invent voting?

    I never thought the day would come when I would have to explain the meaning of “majority vote”. But some of our friends are fooling the Egyptian people by telling them that what we have is unmatched in the whole world! In fact, we are surrounded by constitutions that are either written by constituent assemblies that directly “acknowledge” a constitution, provided that it is approved by either two-thirds of its members, or by the simple majority vote (50+1), after which it is put for public referendum.  But to combine both methods is something really strange!

    One of the notable consequences of the dialogue of last Saturday was the huge inconsistency exposed in the attitude of the opposition after the noted division in the conference held by the National Salvation Front to determine their position from the results of the dialogue.  Some supported moving forward in imposing their own vision in defiance of an actually-existing legitimate status quo in the country; while others became convinced that a major part of the problem has already vanished and hence they tried to narrow the gap.   From all that was said in this conference I stopped so long in front of the words expressed by Dr. Osama Al-Ghazaly with unmatched courage and sincerity, when he argued that the issue is not about an edict or no edict, the issue is whether, “… this is a revolution to overthrow the rule of the FJP just as the first revolution overthrew the NDP!  So it all boils down to the fact that this is not any rational political opposition as much as it is related to the battle of existence or exclusion!

    This is precisely my major fear and concern!  That our differences, no matter how deep they go, can end up in division.  That political competition can end up with something like, “if you’re not with us you’re against us!”  For this particular reason I have tried to indicate repeatedly that we need to agree on some rules of the game to be shared between all the competitors in the political arena. 

    If we are talking about a democratic framework that everyone has agreed to follow starting with the parliamentary elections (with both its entities) and ending with the presidential elections, then we have to know that this framework has guidelines that govern everyone and standards to which all teams must aspire.  These standards will surely criminalize surrounding the presidential palace and besieging the Constitutional Court.  These standards will not allow burning the headquarters of political  parties and will not give to individual citizens the power to detain other citizens or interrogate them and possibly even sentence them as well!

    Egyptian implications of an enforced constitution

    By Dina El Sharnouby

    The very preliminary results of the Constitutional Referendum showed 43% voting against it and 57% for it. It is no surprise that over 50% voted against the Constitution in Cairo and Alexandria but these results have significant political implications. After much debate around what percentage of votes for the constitution would constitute an absolute majority, eventually is seems the Egyptian constitution will be passed if it secures 50% plus one vote. The strong argument that either over 65% or two thirds of the population needed to vote for the constitution for it to pass was ignored. So many Egyptians now assume that the constitution will be secured, but what implications does this outcome have on the Egyptian streets?

    Belal Fadl, a political activist and writer, stated openly in an interview on ON TV that a constitution can never be enforced on its people. This rather bold statement has a lot of resonance at the moment if you take in the political scene in Egypt. The enforcement of voting on a constitution in a process of formation hotly contested by the opposition, one which bypasses a fulsome national dialogue, and one which is frankly imposed on the population, carries much tension in its wake.

    Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the opposition to those in power have demonstrated little tolerance for elections results that prove to have involved a measure of enforcement in some form, or some obvious injustice. The Mohamed Mahmoud clashes in November 2011, for example, started with the opposition disagreeing with the rights the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces wanted to impose on the constitution in relation to securing their economic gains and maintaining secrecy about their budgets. Though a minority of the 80 million Egyptians stood on Mohamed Mahmoud, once some died, the clashes did not end until acting President Sharaf left his post and the amendments were put on hold. An active minority that is willing to die for a cause have also been successful in getting their demands included in the process of change. If my reading of the political scene is at all accurate, then the enforced passing of this constitution could be disastrous.

    In contrast to all the previous protests that have taken place in Egypt against the ruling regimes from President Mubarak to the SCAF, the opposition is no longer taking to the streets against institutions such as the SCAF or the police force. The devastating events two weeks ago surrounding the presidency have triggered escalating clashes and street fights between Islamists and the liberals who want a secular state. Each group of citizens has a passionate cause to fight for, some supporting President Morsi’s actions which others diametrically oppose. A possibility that was not present until recently, of civilians fighting each other, could lead to dramatic implications if the coming period of ideological division is not managed wisely. A ‘yes’ vote on the constitution will not automatically bring stability to the country as many believe. The exclusion of activists who could be the minority but loud on the streets and willing to die for their cause are an important sector in any society. They need to be involved in some form. What will the activists in Tahrir Square demand next, once the constitution is passed? Is it expected that they will simply get up and leave after having been at Tahrir Square for almost one month?

    A Constitution cannot be enforced. It is a guidebook that will regulate the living conditions of the population at large. The threshold for tolerance among the population at large is stretched to its limit. Many frustrated Egyptians especially from the lower middle class have already suffered under the Mubarak regime, and are fed up with the uncertainties and instability of the current situation. The opposition is truly wedded to their demands for a more inclusive process of socio-political change. They  do not look likely to compromise on that soon. Islamists on the other hand seem to have forgotten what they are calling for, other than knee-jerk support for President Morsi in opposition to the liberals. They seem quite content to enforce their powers including showing their muscle on the streets if necessary.

    The decision to pass a constitution which secures 50% of the electorate plus one vote, ignoring the demands and activism of an active opposition, could prove to be a terrible mistake in the longer term. I strongly hope that President Morsi will soon find the means for productive dialogue with the opposition which leads to some form of political inclusion. Should the government, with the help of the Islamists, as their main active supporters, simply assume that the Sanadeeq, the ballot boxes, have spoken for the people, seizing this as an opportunity for propagating their own ideologies while taking for granted the people’s support - Egypt will be consigned to a new era of suffering led by blindness and ignorance. 

    Libya taxi talk: experiences and expectations of democracy

    By Rhiannon Smith

    As someone who frequently takes taxis in Libya’s capital Tripoli, I have come to appreciate that ‘taxi talk’ functions as a valuable barometer for the current state of affairs in this country. Over the last few weeks, the three main issues which have come up time and again during my taxi journeys are the constitution, the integrity commission and of course the perennial problem of ‘zahma’ (traffic).

    Although at first glance it may seem that these are all separate issues of varying importance, I would argue that in fact they are all equally significant indicators of a broader theme within Libya’s post revolution society; that is an increasing awareness of democratic principles characterized by a growing gap between the expectations of the public and the capacity of the current authorities to deliver.

    Drafting a new Libyan constitution is a crucial phase in Libya’s transition, yet so far the Constitutional Committee tasked with writing it has yet to be formed. Debates about the constitution are raging in Congress and in various public forums, yet the topic of discussion is not what should be included in the constitution but how the drafting committee should be formed. The Constitutional Declaration of August 2011 stated that the committee should be made up of experts appointed by the GNC, however two days prior to the July 2012 elections the NTC amended this in favour of a publicly elected committee. The end result has been a stalling of the drafting process, eating into precious time which would be better utilized engaging the public on the contents of the new constitution.

    There are strong opinions on both sides of the debate, but given the current Egyptian debacle and the fact that the Libyan process is already several months behind target, there is growing pressure from media, civil society and citizens themselves for a decision to be made so that the truly critical work can begin.

    Many are questioning why the congress appear to be doing nothing, while for their part parliamentarians seem reluctant to make the necessary decisions for fear of making the wrong ones. There is an expectation from the public that, as elected politicians, congress members should have the knowledge and confidence to make such important decisions. However, while in theory this is true, a lack of experience, support and democratic institutions means this is not as straightforward as many believe it to be.

    The second issue concerns controversy regarding recent decisions by the Integrity Commission to disbar certain Ministers and state officials. The Commission is charged with investigating those seeking high office for having ties with the Gaddafi regime, yet it has drawn criticism from international organizations such as Human Rights Watch for its lack of transparency, as well as sparking several large protests across Libya both for and against its rulings.

    The commission was set up as a mechanism to try and ensure members of the previous regime, and therefore their practices, did not infiltrate new Libya. However the process by which the commission makes its decisions and the evidence it uses is shrouded in secrecy, spawning rumours that the commission is being used by foreign powers such as Qatar to influence Libyan politics. Undoubtedly this screening mechanism was set up in the interest of new Libya, but in employing the same opaque tactics as the previous regime it has engendered more suspicion than reassurance and is an example of just how difficult it is to overhaul deeply institutionalized ways of working, despite best intentions.

    The final issue of ‘zahma’ is nothing new or unusual in Tripoli, yet its dimensions have changed subtly in recent weeks and months. Pre-revolution people complained about the traffic frequently, but offered little in the way of cause or solution. Now the issue has been upgraded to something which merits serious discussion, analysis and finger-pointing, which often results in questions being asked of the government as to why they haven’t done anything to improve the mess that Gaddafi left behind. 

    On the one hand this shows the strides forward being made in Libyan society whereby people can now say what they think without fear of recrimination, yet on the other it illustrates the overwhelming pressure the authorities are under to perform despite in most cases lacking the necessary expertise, resources and institutions to do so. Of course the electorate has the right to demand better public services from their representatives, but where politicians are unable to deliver immediately there is a tendency to dismiss them as inefficient, incompetent or closet Gaddafi supporters - which is unfair given the enormity of the tasks ahead of them.

    The open discussion and debate around these three issues represents the seedling of democracy which took root in Libya’s Arab Spring and which is now starting to push its way to the surface. However while there is growing public pressure on the congress and government to act on a whole host of issues, few Libyans seem to appreciate the obstacles which their newly elected politicians face and their limited capacity to act efficiently at this early stage in Libya’s transition. That said, drafting Libya’s constitution cannot happen soon enough and those in power must show they have what it takes to lead their country forward to a new era of constitutional democracy, stability and freedom.

    Tunisian graffiti artists targeted by law

    By Sana Ajmi

    Two graffiti artists were arrested last month for drawing graffiti in Tunisia’s South East region of Gabes. The young artists face charges of breaching the state of emergency, writing on public property and publishing messages that disturbed the public order. Supporters have argued that this act puts into question the status of freedom of expression in post-revolution Tunisia.

    Chahine Berriche, 22 years old has just finished his studies at the Institute of Arts and Multimedia in Tunis and Oussama Bouagila, 25 years old, is completing his masters.

    Berriche and Bouagila were arrested November 3 for writing on the wall of a university: “the people want rights for the poor” and “the poor are the living-dead in Tunisia.” The young artists are members of the activist street-art community ‘Zwelwa’ (the poor in Tunisian dialect) known for its use of graffiti to address social problems of the marginalized people of Tunisia.

    The trial of the two students was postponed from December 5 to January 23, 2013. Attorney Bochra Belhaj Hmida said that if convicted, the two artists (who remain free) could face up to five years in prison.

    “I can’t believe this is happening in post-revolution Tunisia. If the judge finds them guilty, I believe freedoms in Tunisia will be violated,” said Hmida.

    The impoverished region of Gabes was severely marginalized during the former ruling regime. The residents of the region have suffered from a terrible economic situation and harsh living conditions, the same reasons that fueled Tunisia’s revolution two years ago. 

    The Zwewla case has quickly circulated on social networks and many people and civil society groups have expressed their support for the young people. Some civil society activists have now launched an online campaign called “Graffiti is not a crime”. The group, which has more than 3,500 fans on Facebook, expressed their support to their members. On twitter, under the hashtag “freezwewla”, a number of activists and artists have called for the charges to be dropped. During the week of the Carthage film festival, a support rally was organized to make people aware of their plight. 

    “I’m in solidarity with them,” said Radhia Nasraoui, a lawyer and head of the anti-torture association.

    In fact, the trial of the two students is not the first time that art has been attacked in Tunisia after the revolution. The display “Printemps Des Arts Fair” at the Palais Abdellia in the Tunis suburb of La Marsa, infuriated some ultra-conservative groups who accused the exhibited works of being morally offensive. The exhibition sparked riots last June resulting in the death of a 22 year old man and hundreds of other people injured.  This targeted gallery had several works of art destroyed and an overnight curfew was declared in several Tunisian cities.

    Winter: is it coming to Jordan?

    By Munir Atalla

    Not one week ago, a rare public debate was held in Amman.  The audience was made up of 550 people, among them - student activists, former and current ministers, and diplomats representing a wide range of opinions and experiences.

    The event was orchestrated by a project called the “New Arab Debates”, launched by English television journalist Tim Sebastian in 2011.  The format is as follows: a resolution is chosen.  Two speakers are brought in, one is affirming the resolution, and the other has the task of negating it.  They debate one full round, and then the discussion is moved out to the audience.  At the end of the discussion, the audience is asked to vote on the resolution.

    On December 10, a resolution that read, ‘This House believes Jordan is on the brink of serious political turmoil and unrest’, was passed by a narrow majority of 54%. Past debates have dealt with other sensitive issues, among them Islamism in Tunisia, democracy - or lack thereof - in Egypt, and peace treaties with Israel.

    Hassan Barrari, a political scientist at the University of Jordan spoke for the motion, and did not mince words.  He accused the King of changing governments, “as fast as he changes his knickers,” and said that the same official were being recycled, “like musical chairs.”  Barrari warned that Jordan is “ going to elections as a society divided on key issues and this will trigger the political crisis in Jordan."

    While Barrari was the democratic vitor, the other narrative came astoundingly close.   Argued for by former senator and Minister of Justice, Trade and Foreign Affairs, Salaheddin al-Bashir, the negative team tried to quell the fears of the audience.  "Jordan's state institutions and socio-political features are robust and we are gradually and surely responding to those challenges in a way that will get us out of the turbulence," he reassured.  But the majority of listeners didn’t buy it.

    The answer to the resolution will be discovered in a matter of weeks, as Parliamentary elections are scheduled for January.  Some parties have already hinted at a possible boycott.

    True, there is a human bias towards sensationalism.  More often than not in the past few years Jordan has seemed like a freight train tearing through the last stretch of tracks towards a gaping cliff.  But things always have a way of working themselves out.  There is always too little water, too many Palestinians, Iraqis or Syrians, and too many new governments in too short a time.  Yet, Jordan soldiers on.

    The debate was recorded at the Landmark Hotel and is just that.  Several of the attendees interviewed remarked that this sort of critical debate was usually reserved for private gatherings or, more recently, the internet.  The Jordanian public sphere has been bubbling to the surface as of late, and in such a setting, it would be nearly impossible to crackdown on it.  The debate will be televised on December 19 and accessible online in both English and Arabic shortly afterwards.

    Remembering Mohamed Abdel-Salam in Medani, Sudan

    By Reem Abbas

    On August 3, 1998, a law student at the University of Khartoum called Mohamed Abdelsalam, was detained by security forces after taking part in protests against the rise in accommodation and education fees.

    The next day, Mohamed Abdelsalam's parents were told that their son died during clashes between the police and students. An autopsy, however showed that the cause of death is, "brain haemorrhage" due to repeated beatings about the head and Abdelsalam's parents, tragically, saw their son's body covered with bruises.

    Abdelsalam was from Medani and I thought about him on the way to Medani last Friday after hearing news of two students who died in security custody shortly after they were detained. And his face with the classic glasses, a face I only saw in pictures, came to my mind a few times even after coming back from Medani. 

    Abdelsalam and two others were detained after going to the storage room of the Student Fund and distributing mattresses, lamps and used fans that the fund was not giving to poor students who have come from all parts of Sudan to study.

    He just didn't want his fellow students to sleep on the floor and not have a lamp in their rooms if they wanted to study at night. 

    In Medani, fourteen years later, two students were found dead in a pond on Friday after taking part in protests and participating in a forum against the university's decision to make Darfuri students pay fees.

    Students for Darfur have been exempted from fees since 2006 and in the 2011 Darfur peace agreement signed in Qatar, article 14 states that students whose families are in internally displaced person (IDPs) camps or are refugees are in turn exempted from fees

    Sadly, due to an administrative problem they have no hand in, the students could not prove they qualify, they did not have the right documents.

    Two students were lying in the morgue when I reached Medani and by Sunday, four students were dead. Their colleagues accuse the security force of torturing them to death as they went missing in their custody. 

    The police and the university issued a statement detailing how the students drowned in the sewage pond their bodies were found in. Their colleagues say that the pond is 1 meter deep making it impossible for them to drown.

    Yesterday in a public forum, a student activist said what will forever be remembered by the attendees," We enter the university with pens and notepads, but from now on we will enter with machetes to protect ourselves."

    The machetes are a clear reference to the security agents who attacked students in a university in Khartoum state a few days ago.

    Abdelsalam was not the first student to be killed by security agents for standing up for student rights and the four students killed last week will probably not be the last.

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