This week's window on the Middle East - December 3, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week on the democratic rollback which has ignited Egypt's streets: The Saturday Mothers

  • The Saturday Mothers
  • My friends sometimes rebel
  • Enough with the mess
  • How Qatar is using Gaza to isolate Iran
  • Security situation in Tunisia remains a major issue
  • The Saturday Mothers

    By Ali Gokpinar

    Mothers will be happy if they can ever find their sons’ remains or learn what happened to them after they were taken from home by security officers. We want the truth!

    This quote belongs to the Saturday Mothers.  Inspired by the Mothers’ of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina they have been protesting disappearances in custody and (political) murders by unknown assailants in the Galatasaray Square of Istanbul since May 27, 1995. Every Saturday afternoon, they return to the square with pictures of their sons and daughters, in silence. The police plunges and beats them at some point to force them finish their protest.

    Last week, they gathered for the 400th time with the hope of learning the destiny of their children. Most of them lost their sons and daughters in 1990s when the Turkish state employed counterinsurgency programmes against the PKK and Kurdish civilians. The state had two objectives in targeting civilians; to punish those who have supported the Kurdish ethnopolitical movement and to force Kurdish people to collaborate with the state. The State of Emergency Law paved the way for extreme securitization policies and private security and intelligence forces were deployed in Diyarbakir, Mardin, Van, Hakkari and Sirnak, all dwelling-places for a majority of Kurds.  Security forces in their white Renault 12 (Beyaz Toros) put fear into the hearts and minds of the Kurds because they would visit them only to take away their family members.

    Tunis

    Nobody knows how many civilians disappeared into custody or have been murdered by the state since the late 1980s. Neither has the Turkish government wanted to investigate these disappearances nor has Turkish society paid much attention. The Prime Minister Erdogan met with the representatives of the Saturday Mothers late in 2008, but the issue has not been on his agenda since. He praised the Argentinian Mothers’ of the Plaza de Mayo because they were against the junta and changed their society, but he referred to ‘a conspiracy theory’ and asked, “who is supporting the Saturday Mothers”. Their answer was that their grievances, conscience, love, yearning and humanity are strong enough reasons to seek truth and justice. 

    For the Saturday Mothers, it seems the denial of truth about disappearances, and the Turkish state’s rejection of justice undermines the reality. Yet, the Turkish state does not want to face its own dark history. Decision-makers think it is too costly to investigate the reality and find the truth because it will challenge the foundations of the Turkish state, its nationalism and ideology. Justice will try the state itself. Although this is a deep fear of the state, truth and justice might help in healing the evils of the state so that the relationship between the Turkish state, Turkish majority and the Kurdish community can begin to be restored.

    The Saturday Mothers’ silence has the philosophical and moral power to challenge any government that denies universal values such as truth and justice. Neither the disappeared loved ones nor their mothers will fail because we will not forget! We refuse to forget!

    My friends sometimes rebel

    By Reem Abbas

    In Sudan, you don't have to be in the war zones to meet a rebel. It just so happened that the brother of a friend of a friend of mine had a friend who was friends with Mohamed Ibrahim*.

    We met in a popular cafe in Al-Fasher in North Darfur and sat on awkwardly small chairs sipping sugary tea and drinking tap water which they believe is better for your health than bottled water and talking about Sudan and its never ending problems. Ibrahim who joined the group later began telling me about his years in the battlefields with the Sudan Liberation Movement. 

    Ibrahim is soft-spoken with a charming smile and likes tucking in his shirt, but the obvious scar below his right eye looks like it is the result of a very dangerous and difficult story. 

    He spent two years wandering the deserts of Darfur, it was him, his truck and his gun. At times, he was joined by an American postgraduate student. He told me his name and asked me to find him online.  "You have to find him, he was my friend," he said. 

    I met Ibrahim a few months ago in North Darfur where I spending sometime just out of curiosity.

    The last time I was in Darfur was in 1990 when I was a year old and my father was working there. 

    This was before it became known to the world as a place of extreme war, displacement and misery. At that time, my father was a senior civil servant and our house along with four other houses had more allocated time for electricity than any other house in North Darfur. 

    I needed a change of scene, so I took a plane to Al-Fasher. The owner of the aviation company was so shocked that I was going to Darfur he told my cousin who works there that I should get a free ticket. 

    I found myself in that cafe with Ibrahim, his friends and a tall guy who coincidentally was sitting next to me on the plane and was a witness to me fainting and throwing up due to turbulence.

    The friend of a friend's brother invited me to his sister's house for breakfast. There, I met his brother who returned from fighting with the rebels as his wife was due to give birth. The young man himself was preparing to go the desert. I politely declined the invitation to join the rebel fighters as a fighter. I fight with my words (or laptop) not a gun.

    But Ibrahim is now a different man. He left the rebels and decided to join the non-violent struggle for democracy. The dilemma in spending years fighting a government or a country is, you eventually forgot your cause. You begin fighting because you don't have a way out of this or because you are used to fighting.

    This week, I briefly met the friend of my friend's brother in Darfur and asked him if he is back to the armed struggle. He said yes, the struggle is ongoing even if there is a political resolution. I cannot imagine him, a law student, holding a gun. 

    Enough with the mess

    By Dina El Sharnouby

    “When President Morsi becomes a dictator we will take the streets” is a popular response by many Egyptians to Morsi’s new constitutional amendments. After President Morsi claimed cross-the-board powers, he must be all-powerful. But does this mean he is a dictator? For many Egyptians, dictatorship depends on what he does about detentions, suppressing freedom of speech, and a police state. If that is not the case, then, well, Morsi is not a dictator. And if he becomes one, “then the Egyptians will simply take to the streets again”. So goes the logic. But have they forgotten how hard it was to organize and demonstrate on January 25, 2011? With the rather fast fall of the Mubarak regime, public discourse has been strongly focused on simply calling for demands and toppling regimes, while forgetting how much fear one had to overcome; not only fear of death, but of torture and sudden disappearance into prisons.

    Many others do not forget this and are still determined to see fulfilled their demands for, “change, freedom, and social justice”. So Tahrir Square is almost as ‘alive’ as it used to be during the 18 days of the uprising; with the difference of mainly attracting liberals, seculars, and socialists, while Islamists are neither welcomed nor do they want to join in. This is an important change, not so much because the Muslim Brothers and Islamists in general are not joining the protests, but mainly because the power dynamics and political game has changed. While the call for “change, freedom, and social justice” still prevails, the meaning has changed and in opposing the ruling actors now, also the discourse has to change.

    On Monday, November 26, 2012, a new event-sharing slogan “Kefaya A’ak” meaning “Enough with the Mess” was spread through facebook calling for a million to protest on Tuesday against the constitutional amendments that gave President Morsi all powers.

    The slogan was brilliant as it was new, simple, to the point, and with its vagueness, included the discontent many Egyptians now feel. The slogan roughly summed up the claims of freedom while opposing the idea of a “Pharaoh”, a powerful hint at Morsi’s intentions. Additionally, “Kefaya A’ak” is Egyptian slang. It carried a new message that Egyptians from different social classes, backgrounds, ages, and religions could relate to.

    Tunis

    Yet almost two years after the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egypt faces a new political dilemma between the Islamists and the liberals/seculars. At Tahrir Square on Tuesday and Friday, the chanting had nothing new about it - slogans were again dominated by the old, “Al Sha’ab youreed Isqat Al Nezam”, the people demand the fall of the regime, and “Erhal”, Leave, while the main concerns now relate to the constitutional amendments Morsi has imposed on the Egyptian population. It is, of course, remarkable how many tents have been build in Tahrir Square and the number of people gathering there with their demands; but the discourse and talk has changed little. Hearing some of the speeches of famous politicians and activists in the square, they mainly use emotional rhetoric addressed to the same bunch of old problems. Government officials, ofcourse, have nothing new to say on these problems. They stress the importance of economic stability and accuse protestors of causing instability. But the opposition is really disappointing. 

    Activists need to make different use of the opportunities and challenges that are at hand now. First, it is important for them to realize that there are important differences between the Muslim Brotherhood, who are the most important political actors and who are in power now, and the dissolved National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s ruling party. The main difference is that while Mubarak protected the ruling elite and a few people who have economic interests with the police force, the Muslim Brotherhood are the strongest group mobilizing ordinary people on the ground. Helping many of the poor and using the religious framework in their mobilization strategies, the Muslim Brotherhood have believers and not only interest-seekers among their followers as was the case with the NDP. While it is a challenge to the opposition to find new strategies for dealing with the Islamists who use similar means as the NDP of claiming power, in addition to their popular support, they also have some new opportunities they can draw on to  “revive the Revolution”, precisely with their presence at Tahrir; a mobilization privilege that was not there during the years of brutal suppression of the Mubarak regime.

    The opposition, the liberals and seculars at Tahrir need to avail themselves of the new spaces that they could use to mobilize people, through demands and slogans better suited to the historical moment in which we live and better calculated to have a broad appeal. Chanting “Erhal” or “Leave”, does not for one minute adequately reflect the complexity of the current political game. The assumption that eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood is not much more difficult than ousting the NDP, is surely a myopic miscalculation, as they remain important political actors who have a tremendous outreach to the Egyptian people.

    Protestors at Tahrir should not fantasise about removing the current ruling regime. They should be  focusing on the triple demands of “freedom, change, and social justice” and getting on with building independent institutions to guarantee that. The focus should be on “Benaa’ el Nezam” or “Building the regime”, with the main demand calling for a constitution that assures freedom and social justice to all Egyptians. Instead of trying to remove Morsi, the opposition needs to enforce an enabling context of dialogue and inclusion of all ideological and political opinions, one that will constrain Morsi and all the other leading players.

    How Qatar is using Gaza to isolate Iran

    By Mehdi Lazar

    A recent episode in the diplomatic saga of Qatar was the dramatic visit of the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani a few weeks ago to the Gaza Strip.  Through this strong political gesture, the Emir became the first head of state to visit the small Palestinian territory since Hamas took control in 2007. With this move the emirate gave credibility to Hamas and reinforced its position alongside the Palestinian government. But what Doha seeks above all is to weaken Iran. 

    The end of isolation for Hamas 

    Consistent with its ‘Sunni diplomacy’, Qatar does not hide its support for Islamic political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian Islamist group.  Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal lived in Qatar in the early 2000’s, and has lived there continuously since he left Syria in early 2012. In February of this year, Doha promised $250 million to Hamas - a sum that has now increased to $400 million. 

    However, the funds that the emirate will invest in the Gaza Strip are not the most important step in Qatar’s increasingly friendly relationships with Palestine. The goals of Sheikh Hamad appear above all to break the isolation of Hamas by explicitly recognizing their regional authority over Gaza through an official state visit, a hitherto unprecedented move amongst the world’s leaders.  Furthermore, this move could encourage Turkey to do the same; the Turks having already considered it but so far decided against.

    This strong stance on the part of Qatar provides support to Hamas not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, as the movement gains in credibility with Fatah at a time when it recently increased its political clout through the West Bank municipal elections in late October (and more recently opposed Israel militarily). 

    Domestically, since Khaled Meshal does not want to stand at the head of Hamas, the Emir’s visit may also be designed to facilitate in the choice of his successor.  Qatar could well have a preference for Ismail Haniyeh to the detriment of Abu Marzouk, who lives in Egypt. In the context of a growing rivalry between Egypt and Qatar for the position of regional leader in the Middle East, the emirate wishes to take the lead and avert any possible reconciliation between Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in the event of a victory for Abu Marzouk.

    Qatar banking on the Muslim Brotherhood to influence the region

    The emirate has become aware of the unique opportunity that the Arab Spring represents in redistributing power structures in the Middle East and North Africa.  However, Doha knows that this political climate will not last and is trying to gain as much political clout as possible in the region while it can.  This is particularly the case as the traditional regional powers are currently in weak positions: Iraq is plagued by sectarian conflicts; Egypt is in a post-revolutionary period (though perhaps not for much longer); Iran is in crisis and within the scope of economic sanctions; and Saudi Arabia is mired in its succession struggles while western powers remain cautious.

    To take action, Qatar is setting its hopes on the Muslim Brotherhood, supporting them in the Maghreb (Tunisia and Libya), the Mashreq (Egypt), and now in Palestine through Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood.  The emirate has been particularly clairvoyant in politically supporting the Muslim Brotherhood before their accession to power in some states in the region, and it continues to do so in others; in Syria, as well as probably in Mali, Qatar is supporting armed Islamist movements.

    The visit of the Emir of Qatar can also be considered in terms of the relations that Doha maintains with Israel, especially after the two countries cut their ties after Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008.  However, since 2008, following the global financial crisis and reconciliation with Saudi Arabia - and more so since 2011, the beginning of the Arab Spring - Qatari diplomacy has developed a strong taste for power in the region.

    The ‘game’ with Iran

    While discussing Hamas, it is necessary to consider the interests of Iran.  While the Palestinian Authority and Israel take a dim view towards Qatar strengthening its ties with Hamas, it is certainly Iran who has the most to lose in this episode.  The Islamic Republic still maintains that Hamas, like Hezbollah (especially since the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005), gives them the ability to act in the Lebanon – Palestine – Israel geographic triangle.

    The visit of the Emir of Qatar in Gaza should be seen through the broader prism of Qatar’s regional policies, namely to counter Iran's foreign policy and strengthen the Sunni’s powers in the Middle East. This same policy is also employed in Syria, where Qatar supports the insurgency that aims to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, a key ally of Iran (and of the Shiite axis of Iran - Syria - Hezbollah).

    Qatar saw an opening in the Gaza Strip from the moment Hamas distanced itself from Iran.  Indeed, the Islamic Republic has stopped sending money to the Palestinian movement since the latter has not publicly supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.  Hamas political leaders in exile have left Syria to settle in Doha. Qatar has seen an opportunity to distance Tehran and Gaza, while strengthening the links between the Palestinian Islamist movement and the emirate.

    Qatari diplomacy in full spate

    Why is Qatar pursuing its traditional ‘checkbook’ diplomacy with such vigour - investing in industry, sport or culture - but additionally this time in a regional geopolitical perspective? The Emirate and Iran share the world's largest deposit of non-associated gas that lies between the waters of the two countries (Iran has already proven its ability to tussle with Qatar over this).  In addition, the geographic, demographic and military power of Iran is incommensurate with that of the emirate, which suffers from the ‘syndrome of Kuwait’, fearing more than anything else invasion of its territory.  The strong relationship that Qatar maintains with the United States, including the presence of the American base at Al-Udeid in Qatar - the largest outside the United States - is an insurance that allows Qatar to exceed limits of what can usually be done with Iran. Thanks to the American umbrella and the political situation in Gaza, Qatar can continue its ‘Sunni diplomacy’ and its attempt to push Tehran into isolation.

    Security situation in Tunisia remains a major issue

    By Sana Ajmi

    Of all Arab countries that experienced a popular uprising, Tunisia seems to be the most stable. The National Constituent Assembly (NCA), the democratically elected body is in the process of  drafting the Tunisian constitution and the next presidential and parliamentary elections are due to be held on June 23, 2013. However, the security situation is still a roadblock in Tunisia as it approaches the second anniversary of the revolution triggered on December 17, 2010.

    As political instability mounts, violence escalates  in Tunisia’s north-west region of Siliana. For the fourth day in a row, thousands of people are still protesting in Siliana demanding that the local governor quits. The situation detoriorated when police started using shot gun shells against protesters and more than two hundred people have been injured so far, according to Mohamed Zaidi, director of Siliana’s regional hospital. 

    Residents of the impoverished town, 120 kilometres southwest of Tunis, are just like all other marginalized interior regions in Tunisia, desperately asking for social and economic development. Protesters said that they would not stop protesting until governor Ahmed Ezzine Mahjoubi leaves his position, police repression ends and a development plan for the region is established. What worsened the situation, is Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s announcement that governor of Siliana will not be fired. UGTT, Tunisia’s main trade union leading the protest called for a general strike in Siliana on Friday November 30, while Jebali has accused opposition parties and unions of inciting the protests.  

    According to Mohamed Amine Somrani, local journalist in the region, what triggered the protest is an act of disrespect towards a female trade unionist : « Residents of Siliana are demanding regional development and they are not happy with the government’s performance : they still feel marginalized. What sparked the protests is the disrespectful behaviour of the governor’s assistant towards a female member of UGTT. He was yelling at her and threw papers at her » stated Somrani.

    Interior Minister Ali Laarayed explained that the events in Siliana were in response to violent attacks by protesters and that the security forces had to resort to buckshot in order to defend themselves. In fact, so far, a police station and a regional delegation office were set fire to according to locals.

    Analysts believe that political stability cannot be established without a stable security system. « Violence threatens the democratization process in the country, » said Saleh Eddine Jorchi, a political analyst.

    Continuous strikes, clashes and protests are plunging the country into a political impasse. The attacks on the US embassy on September (allegedly as a response to Innocence of Muslims, a US-produced movie that mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohamed) resulted in the death of six people, more than one hundred arrested and millions of dollars of damage.

    Many have criticized the government’s way of handling the security situation in addition to rising discontent over the governement’s failure to improve living standards clear in Siliana’s protest.

    In fact, poverty and widespread unemployment were driving factors behind the uprising that inspired reform across the Arab region, having brought about Ben Ali’s fall.

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