This week's window on the Middle East - February 11, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: How to be different together: Algerian lessons for the Tunisian crisis

  • How to be different together: Algerian lessons for the Tunisian crisis
  • How to deal with noisy neighbours
  • Libya 2013: A tale of two revolutions
  • What has changed in Somalia?
  • Let them eat kunafah: no democratic refund in Egypt
  • Whither identity politics?
  • Jalila Khamis: a beacon of inspiration
  • Lebanon: the right to civil marriage and the frenzied fatwa
  • Egypt needs a change, not in regime, but in cultural logic
  • Where is Syria now?
  • How to be different together: Algerian lessons for the Tunisian crisis

    By Hicham Yezza

    Most analysts have ascribed the Algerian exception to the 'Arab Spring' to the lack of popular appetite for radical political upheavals; a consequence of the deep, still-raw wounds of the post-1992 national trauma. In light of the crisis currently unfolding in Tunisia - particularly the increasingly strident and incendiary rhetoric of the main political poles - the echoes and parallels with Algeria's own democratic moment two decades ago are stark, and could yield crucial and potentially salutary lessons.

    For those unfamiliar with the context, a short synopsis should suffice. On Dec 26th, 1991, after months of bitter and virulent campaigning, results of round one of Algeria's first multi-party legislative elections had confirmed the wildest hopes, and worst fears, of millions of Algerians: the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had secured a resounding victory, trouncing the mighty dinosaurs of the, hitherto-unmovable, National Liberation Front (FLN) and securing 188 of a possible 232 parliamentary seats at the first time of asking, with plenty more expected to fall into its orbit at the second round scheduled two weeks later.

    But there would be no second round. On Jan 11, 1992, millions of Algerians watched a visibly shell-shocked President Chadli Bendjedid declare he had tendered his resignation and - invoking an obscurely worded clause of the constitution - announcing the dissolution of the very parliament that was due to come into existence that week. Three days later, a five-man unelected leadership, the Haut Comité d'État, was installed as an interim de-facto presidency of the country.

    Against accusations that this was simply a cynical coup d'état by the military leadership, the move was presented by many within the democratic and secular movement as a necessary last ditch attempt to "save the republic" from an imminent Islamist takeover. Two decades on, the debate rages on: some hold the government responsible for trampling on the popular will, others blame the Islamists for totalitarian designs that left others no other options, with many blaming both sides for forcing a zero-sum game on everyone else.

    Everyone agrees, however, that what followed was a dark decade of untold tragedy and suffering. Tens of thousands, mostly civilians, perished in the all-out war for supremacy and survival between government forces and Armed Islamists, with the bulk of the population maintaining a precarious balance in between. Hundreds of thousands were displaced or exiled, tens of thousands kidnapped or "disappeared", not to mention tens of billions of dollars of losses that brought the country to the brink of ruin.

    The January 1992 events have now seeped back with particular intensity this week into discussions of the situation in Tunisia. The Algerian press has largely responded to the killing on Wednesday of Tunisia's leading dissident politician, Chokri Belaïd, with nervous murmurings that we could be seeing echoes of the 'Algerian scenario'; warnings echoed within Tunisia itself and beyond by those alarmed at the eerily familiar polarisation of the discourse and the frenetic raising of the stakes - a situation epitomised by the Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali threatening to resign if his "government of technocrats", scheduled to be presented later this week and aimed at neutralising partisan tensions, is not approved.

    History is often cruel in its ironies. Not so long ago, and for most of the past two decades, it was Zine Dine Ben Ali - like several of his fellow potentates across the Arab world - who routinely dismissed the legitimate democratic aspirations of millions of his own people by darkly threatening them with the spectre of the 'Algerian scenario'. Algerians had wanted democracy in 1991, the spiel went, and they got a decade of nightmarish violence as their reward.

    And yet, today, it is Algerians themselves who are at the receiving end of such warnings, with Tunisians' current troubles a cautionary tale against anyone aspiring to emulate them. Watching the crisis widen and deepen across the border, there is little shaddenfreude on display, however, at this dramatic turning of the tables. Instead, the initial incredulity and admiration that greeted the Jasmine Revolution in Algeria have quietly turned into alarm and disquiet at what the next weeks and months hold for the Tunisia, Algeria and the region, especially as the repercussions of the In Amenas crisis, and France's Mali intervention, continue to unfurl.

    Of course, there are major differences between 1992's Algeria and 2013's Tunisia, and any attempts at extrapolation must be taken with a heavy dose of political and historical calibration. However, for Tunisian society, with its wide spectrum of political tendencies and flavours, the signal lesson of the Algerian scenario remains extremely apt: that the quest for political and cultural supremacy through the elimination of competing visions is a quixotic and suicidal impossibility. Algerians learned this lesson the very hard way. Let us hope this spares their next door neighbours from having to do the same.

    How to deal with noisy neighbours

    By Omer Harari

    Today there are approximately 3 million or so Palestinians living in the West Bank and 300,000 Jewish people; 500,000 if we include East Jerusalem. These 500,000 Jewish individuals live in tents, bungalows, most of them in well-built homes with well-built roads and well-built gates to keep the bad things out. Even more of them have running water and electricity, and almost all of them live their lives under military protections. They also enjoy the unique privilege of being "facts on the ground" and each one of them is a “fact on the ground” in violation of International Law.

    In the run-up to the recent elections, there was a confrontation with another type of fact on the ground laid bare: the Netanyahu government's advocacy for more Israeli settlements. The creation of more Facts in the E-1 corridor around Jerusalem, a hilly area that would not be a particularly extravagant place for a Jewish home, but has become so, it seems, by political circumstance. Jerusalem of Gold's conversion from the majesty of religious sacrality to the uncomfortable currency of political real estate means that the threat of construction in the E-1 area can be used as political leverage when the United Nations voted to associate Palestine with the word State.

    Bab Al-Shams

    The public, deliberately inflammatory initiative to create more Facts on the Ground was beaten to the punch in an old tactic taken up by Other people. It appeared in the form of tents, an atmosphere of celebration, and 250 Other Facts on the Ground calling themselves inhabitants of a new village, "Bab al Shams". The name, drawn from Elias Khoury’s novel is no coincidence: the (now only semi-) fictional Bab Al-Shams is the cave which was a home, a village, a country for two lovers, “the only liberated part of Palestine” as the character Nahilah said.

    The settlement of Bab al Shams was not the first time Palestinian activists occupied their own land (another fact on the ground is this: the land that became Bab al Shams was owned (whatever that means), by a Bedouin family who had given their blessings to the activists). Earlier Palestinian occupations took place in E-1 as early as 2007 in protest of Ma'ale Adumim's expansion, but this time the urgency seems more compelling. The spirit of Bab al Shams reappeared last week as a neighbourhood outside of Burin called al Manatir, near Jenin as Al Asra, and near Beit Iqsa as Bab Al-Karame. Occupation, strangely enough, is quickly becoming a tactic for Palestinian liberation.

    That's not to say much else has changed. A few days before al Manatir went up, another Israeli outpost has quietly been established, this one outside of the Palestinian village of Jayyous. Its two bungalows have been up since January 28, and are now receiving both water and power from the nearby settlement Zufin (source). New construction has been reported by residents of Jayyous, speculation abounds as to whether it has to do with the ever-contested path of the Separation Barrier changing yet again through the creation of new Facts, or perhaps it means roads and more houses with well-built gates to keep the bad things out. Regardless, this outpost has so far been enjoying complicity by the government, compared to the swift removal of each of the four new 'villages' raised so far by Palestinian activists. The de facto sacredness of one posed against the belligerent treatment of another is a fact on the ground that seems to go transparent when other Facts form the basis of policy and decision making.

    The Palestinians’ occupations haven't yet been successful in creating lasting facts on the ground like roads and houses with gates, or even residents for more than a few days, but their brief convergences are beginning to ignite the imaginations of the masses, sparking new villages every few days, even a council in the PA. If it takes a village to raise a ruckus, then so be it

    Post-script

    Two weeks ago, I requested a book on inter-library loan, Doreen Massey's For Space. It is a work concerning epistemologies of space, ownership, citizenship, narrative and political participation. The book arrived this past Monday from the library in Ariel, one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

    Libya 2013: A tale of two revolutions

    By Rhiannon Smith

    On February 17, 2013, Libya will be celebrating the two year anniversary of the revolution which ousted Muammar Gaddafi from power and ushered in Libya's fledgling democracy. The atmosphere in the lead up to the first anniversary was characterised by camaraderie, optimism and festivity, yet this year the same period has been marked by feelings of frustration, uncertainty and disappointment.

    February 17, 2012 saw huge parties in the streets of Tripoli, Libyan flags waving from every window and revolutionary music blaring across the city. Revolutionaries who had put down their guns months before volunteered to take up arms once again, heeding the government's call to provide extra security in case Gaddafi loyalists attempted to sabotage the celebrations. A year ago it was easy to draw a line between those who were for the revolution and those who were against it. Twelve months later and that line has been rubbed out and redrawn so many times that all that is left is a grey smudge that blurs the distinctions between enemy, ally and friend.

    Second revolution

    This year, as with last year, foreign companies are on high alert for security threats with some airlines suspending their flights over the anniversary and many expats leaving the country for the duration of the festivities. However the threat this year is not seen to be Gaddafi's fifth column, but rather what is being dubbed Libya's 'second revolution' scheduled for February 15.

    Over the past few days Libya's social media forums have been buzzing with talk of mass protests organised for that day to, “correct the course of the revolution”. Although the call for popular revolt against the current regime originated from federalists in the east of Libya, their expression of anger and disappointment seems to have struck a chord with people across the country. Libyans are becoming extremely frustrated with the slow pace of reform within the country and accuse the government and GNC of being ineffective and too weak to restore security and rule of law to Libya. 

    Whereas this time last year the 'thuwar' (revolutionaries) were still hailed as heroes and defenders of the revolution, a year later Libyans are becoming increasing hostile towards these men who tend to exercise their right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression at the point of a gun. Indeed there is a feeling that these revolutionaries-turned-militias are now a bigger obstacle to achieving the goals of the revolution than any force that could be mustered by Gaddafi loyalists.

    Those calling for demonstrations on February 15 are keen to stress that these are meant to be peaceful protests, yet although patience with the government is growing thin and most Libyans agree that the government should be doing a better job, many are wary of this 'second revolution'. Although the intentions of the organisers may be widespread, peaceful protest, it will be all too easy for this exercise in freedom of expression to be hijacked by those who want to cause serious disruption whether they are militias, Islamists or Gaddafi supporters.

    Those who are completely opposed to these mass protests argue that while the government is lacking in many aspects, it is nonetheless an elected, legitimate body and should be supported in its struggle to restore stability and prosperity to Libya. By creating disruption and chaos just two days before the anniversary of the revolution, protesters will only be making the government's bid to maintain security even more difficult.

    Grinding to a halt

    Unsurprisingly this is the view echoed by the government itself. There are plans to beef up security all across the country in the days before and after the anniversary, and although Prime Minister Ali Zeidan stressed that "the right to demonstrate is guaranteed”, he was also clear that "there are those who want to cause disruption and disorder. The security forces will not give them the opportunity to disrupt".

    Leaflets distributed around Tripoli this week urged residents to stock up on fuel and food in anticipation of the country grinding to a halt after the February 15 protests. This suggests more is planned than just shouting slogans and waving placards, but whether supporters of Libya's 'second revolution' will be successful and achieve their aims remains to be seen.

    What has changed in Somalia?

    By Amal Ahmed

    Five months ago, before the new Somali government was elected, Mogadishu was known as one of the poorest, most dangerous and lawless cities in the world and one of the most deadly places for journalists to be in. Last year Somalia had the second highest death toll in the world after Syria in killing eighteen media workers in one year. In 2011, a survey by the TrustLaw also found Somalia one of the top five worse places in world for a woman to be in as the country has a high record in maternal mortality, rape, female genital mutilation and limited access to education and healthcare. So what could have possibly changed for the world and its media to react so strongly to a rape case when rape has been common in Somalia for decades?  

    Last Tuesday, February 5, a woman was raped by a man wearing a government uniform and the freelance journalist Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim who interviewed her, in early January, were both sentenced to a year in jail. The 27 year old was accused of making false claims and insulting a government body as the medical evidence showed that she was not raped and Abdiaziz Abdinur Ibrahim was also charged with insulting state institutions. 

    To be honest the situation in Somalia hasn’t improved much since the new government came to power. Sexual violence is still a significant problem. Maryan Qasim Ahmed, back then a minister for women, said when the survey was released in 2011, that Somalia was "a living hell” for women. Women who lost their families or women who did not have the protection of a man were in high risk of rape, tragically either inside refugee camps or trying to escape form one due to the presence of militia at illegal roadblocks. 

    Meanwhile, al-Shabab are also continuing their threats aimed at the new government by regularly carrying out bomb attacks in the capital of Mogadishu: the new President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud  was lucky to escape an assassination attempt on the second day of his presidency last September. And suicide bombing is still continuing  - the last bomb blast happened on Monday 4 Feb 2013 - killing one African Union soldier.  

    So the main factor that has changed the situation in Somalia is nothing to do with its internal affairs, but is accompanying the strong international support and aid that the new government is receiving. For the first time in twenty-two years the United States of America has recognized the new government of Somalia on the 17 Jan 2013. Two weeks later the president went for his first visit to Europe to discuss the ways the EU could assist Somalia on its path to a stable political future. The president of Somalia won the support of the European Union officials on the first day of a two-day stop in Brussels.  

    In my opinion because of the support the international community and the key donors are giving to Somalia, the last thing that they want is to contribute to violence against human rights abuse and silence rape victims. This has turned the spotlight onto the rape story which is common in Somalia, forgetting that this country is still wounded form decades of war, corruption and bribery. (Some Somali journalists were victims of precisely these syndromes arising either from clan loyalties or how much money they can get in publishing a story.) 

     

    The five months’ old government is trying to stand on its own two feet without the stable foundation of real established institutions. Nor do they have a proper justice system or healthcare that they can rely on. It’s a country that is going to have to be built from scratch and it will take time for justice to come back to a country that was lawless for a decade.

    The government’s main priority at the moment is to command the loyalty of the militias who are working with government to fight al-Shabab, to stop the piracy activity and to bring peace back to the country. I’m not justifying the decision that the court made for sentencing the victim and the journalist who interviewed her nor undermining the truth in their story. I'm just highlighting the point that people forgot that this was Somalia and that they shouldn't expect much better yet from a country that has experienced years of violence. 

    Let them eat kunafah: no democratic refund in Egypt

    By Ahmed Kadry

    I don’t think Egyptians were thinking about Thomas Jefferson when the late Omar Suleiman provided the historical watershed moment announcing the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. It only took Suleiman thirty two seconds to announce that Mubarak was stepping down, but time stood still when he was finished. Mubarak was gone. What was inconceivable only three weeks prior to February 11 2011 had been achieved and the windows of opportunity were not opened - they were obliterated never to be closed again. The celebrations that night in February and the countless harmonious slogans of “the people and the army are one hand” and “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice,” seem a long, long time ago. Two years later, Egyptians may not be directly thinking about Jefferson now either, but tell them he once said, “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49,” and they would understand the irony.

    A lot has been said and written about Egypt’s democratic transition over the past two years. One narrative is that it is a step in the right direction and that revolutions take decades, not months, to see any signs of success, while others will tell you that the revolution couldn’t have stirred more off course. It is not through a lack of trying. Two constitutional referendums, parliamentary elections, and presidential elections have left Egyptians “all voted out,” and there has been a steady decline in voter turnout with each passing election or referendum.

    Throw in Mubarak’s trial - Egypt’s very own “Trial of the Century,” and a tumultuous and violent eighteen months of military rule with a military supposed to be “one hand” with the people, and you start to see why Egyptians, despite several elections, feel unrepresented, frustrated, and with no sign of an outlet except.....yes, you guessed it, more elections in April.

    But just as Jefferson alleged, nobody warned Egypt that democracy wouldn’t solve all of its problems. Instead, the country appears to be splitting in three directions: Islamist, liberal, and the fed up - the latter being those who are tired of elections and political diatribe, and continue street protests because of what they see as a failure of the democratic process to achieve the goals of the revolution - the irony of course being that the goal of the revolution was democracy itself. As a result and according to the recent voter turnout in the constitutional referendum in December 2012, Egypt’s democratic paradigm is far less about the Islamist vs. Liberal binary, but about the silent majority who have slowly checked themselves out of the democratic process, clearly unsatisfied with what elections have yielded thus far for the country.

    That leaves me asking the question: now what? Parliamentary elections in April will be the last time in four years that Egyptians will have to vote, and in that time the democratically elected Morsi and parliament will be left to govern – but if the first eight months of Morsi’s tenure is anything to go by, elections far from guarantee the support or the silence of the people who have continued to protest specifically against his presidency and the decisions he has taken within it thus far. Indeed almost every time I speak with a non-Islamist Egyptian about Morsi’s next four years in office, I am greeted with the confident reply: “Don’t worry, he’ll never serve his full term.” But that doesn’t go any further in answering my question or offering an alternative to what “democracy” has thus far provided, and the reason why Jefferson’s comment about democracy rings so true in Egypt. Forget “51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49” – it’s far worse than that.

    In his Confessions, Rousseau quipped: “I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: ‘Let them eat cake.’” With the last of a two year election-and-referendum-frenzied-period coming to an end in April, Egyptians are eating their democratic cake, disappointed that it looks nothing like the picture on the menu. 

    Whither identity politics?

    By Ali Gokpinar

    Imagine a Turkish PM who argues that the Turkish nation and its nationalism is superior to those  of the Kurdish people.  Consider a Kurdish PM in the parliament putting Caussacian and Bosniac descendant of Turkish citizens into their ‘inferior’ place. Both scenes happened in the Turkish Parliament last week. Why are the statements these Turkish nationalist and Kurdish nationalist MPs make so very similar?  What do these two scenes tell us about identity politics in Turkey and peace negotiations between the AKP government and Ocalan?

    Students of Turkish history and politics know that the founding mindset of the Turkish Republic privileged being Turkish and Sunni-Hanefi, and layered the primacy of other groups according to their ethnic and religious origins. In this case, Muslim immigrants and refugees (Bosniacs and Caucassians) coming from the Balkans and Caucaus were welcomed since they had the fundamental quality of Turkish citizenship and they were seen as receptive to the Turkish ethnie. Apart from Sunni-Hanefi Kurds, non-Hanefi Kurds were categorized as second to Bosniacs and Caucassians because they were seen as troublemakers and difficult to manage because of their salient group identities. Alevis and non-Muslim communities were in a worse situation, and thus, in the outer sphere of citizenship and belonging. This logic has been in practice since the Ottoman Empire understood that it could not keep its territories together and the famous Union and Progress Party leaders started to impose their Turkification policies in the early twentieth century.

    Not much has changed in terms of state practices of citizenship and belonging. The statements of these two MP’s reveal how identity categorization has been central to the hearts and minds of Turkish citizens. Thus, it is not a surprise that the Turkish public discusses such statements with a certain discomfort not only because of their underlying antagonism but, more importantly, because they go to the heart of Turkey’s identity problems. There is, it seems, a continuum in identity politics from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic that has frozen both Kurds and Turks into at least one homogeneous dimension: the superiority mindset.  

    Although Turkish nationalists argue that the peace negotiations and the bill granting Kurdish citizens the right to defend themselves in Kurdish in courts is provoking Turkish national sentiments, this cannot be explained only with this phenomenon, let alone justified. Nothing other than this nationalist conviction of superiority can explain the Kurdish MP’s statements as well.   

    Recognition of Kurdish identity and cultural and language rights is perceived as a threat to the primacy of Turkish nationalism and identity, and to the positioning of Turkish nationalism(s) in relation to its Kurdish twin. On the other hand, the Kurdish nationalists are also positioning themselves due to the shifting identity politics. They reassert their position by reminding other minority groups of their status.  This process will deconstruct the hegemony of Turkish nationalism, identity and culture while providing space for Kurdish people and their rights. Yet, shall we expect the twin to do same to other groups?

    This is just the beginning. The change is coming but it will bring problems as well. While cultural wars will unfold as the new democratic Turkey is constantly under negotiation, such statements will mirror Turkey’s problems. Although such statements are unacceptable and neither of the MPs gave a proper public apology - one of them made more of a mess while trying - they mirror the problems of Turkey. The good thing is that the Turkish public has an opportunity to revisit identity issues and imagine a liberal and inclusive society. Hopefully, it will not remain only a diagnosis of problems but also a process - of cure, healing and reconstruction.

    Jalila Khamis: a beacon of inspiration

    By Maha Elsanosi

    Even though it's been 10 months, it feels like just yesterday that I visited Jalila's house for the first time. I remember vividly the sad look on her husband's face as he recounted the story of her detention by the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) in March 2012. I observed him quietly as he passionately explained how helpless he felt when his wife was dragged from her bed in the middle of the night in front of her children, denied even a change of clothes.

    She was taken into the custody of armed, ruthless NISS officers in a pickup truck. Sudanese men don't cry; they are tough and resilient. Yet Mohamed Ali Ghabboush was unable to conceal his misery as he recalled the unfortunate events of that godforsaken night. His beloved wife was missing; a mother, a teacher, an activist and a member of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). Jalila Khamis Koko's tragic story spread across social media outlets and international human rights organizations throughout her 10-month imprisonment. She spent 9 months in detention without charges, and was then scheduled to be tried. Her crime was that she testified on video about the humanitarian situation of civilians in the Nuba Mountains, who were suffering from government aerial bombardment and food shortage, among other things. 

    It was good to be back in Jalila's house once again; and even better now that the mood was festive. Accompanied by two friends, I entered the living room and sat in the very same spot I sat in last year during my first visit. We were offered water, and I drank from what seemed to be the same glass I drank from last time. Everything seemed eerily familiar, yet everything was drastically different and the circumstances could not have been more contradictory. Seeing the woman who inspired me and thousands of people, be they human rights activists or law abiding citizens, was a majestic moment for me. It rejuvenated our hearts to see this strong woman in real life, smiling and greeting guests as they approached her. 

    She sat across from me and I introduced myself for the first time. I admire her strength and can't help secretly hoping one day to become half the woman she is. She addressed me and my two friends as she narrated her horrific experience while detained by the notorious Sudanese organ. She suffered through intimidation by the NISS who kept sending her false memos while she was in jail. She was threatened with the death sentence and accused of treason. She explained that she remained undeterred and refused to accept any documents from the NISS; only official memos notarized by a court judge. Eventually, the case against her was closed for lack of evidence. She is now a free woman, but she lost more than precious time with her family. She lost her job and her primary source of income.

    "Back in 2005, I went to the Nuba Mountains like I habitually do. I saw the children of the village which I hail from walk 3 kilometres a day to get to school in a nearby village, only because there was no school in my village. I fought and struggled to obtain the necessary documents to open a school in my village. I received some resistance from the village people and the mayor at first, but eventually I was successful in opening the school. I went back to Khartoum and returned with volunteer teachers and items donated for the construction of the school. Everything was made of very basic materials. The children did not need to walk 3 kilometres a day and reach school in exhaustion."

    These are the sorts of the things Jalila was targeted for. As her activities expanded and her reputation grew, she earned the respect of her community in the Nuba Mountains. However, this all came at a great cost. The NISS would monitor Jalila for years and try everything in their power to hinder her success. Today, Jalila remains a beacon of inspiration and a solid rock of will power and bravery.

    Lebanon: the right to civil marriage and the frenzied fatwa

    By Sarah El-Richani

    Amidst the fears of spillover of the Syrian conflict, the tussle over yet another electoral law for the impending elections, as well as the usual security and financial woes facing Lebanon, the debate on civil marriage in Lebanon has once again taken centre stage.

    Rather than fly to nearby Cyprus to tie the knot, Nidal Darwiche and Khouloud Sukkarieh, supported by lawyer Talal Husseini, have attempted to force through the first civil marriage carried out on Lebanese soil. The Lebanese government recognises civil marriages carried out abroad, however such unions remain barred in Lebanon despite several campaigns in recent decades. The couple however cited Decree 60 L.R, which dates back to 1936 and stipulates that citizens who do not belong to a religious sect in Lebanon, of which there are eighteen currently recognised, can resort to civil law. The couple made use of the 2008 memo promulgated by then-Minister of Interior Walid Baroud which brought attention to the right of removing one’s sect from governmental records and then signing a civil marriage contract before a notary. To avoid accusations of cohabitation, the couple received a religious blessing but have not registered the union at the relevant religious court

    Sadly, however, their attempt was rejected by the Ministry of Justice’s legislative consulting committee due to the lack of laws regulating civil personal status affairs including divorce and inheritance, thereby rendering their marriage symbolic at best. The notary, it has also emerged, has no mandate to oversee marriage contracts.

    Still, their attempt can be credited with reigniting the debate and campaign for this vital right. While President Michel Sleiman encouragingly but inadequately voiced his support for legalising optional civil marriage on Twitter in the hope that it would reinforce coexistence, the patriarchs and the sheikhs have naturally expressed their opposition to it.

    The shrillest opposition, however, came from the Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani. Rather than issue an edict addressing the ‘germs’ of corruption, a disease which he has allegedly contracted, the Mufti issued a frenzied fatwa threatening Muslim legislators and ministers with apostasy if they support “the germ of civil marriage”.  

    Prime Minister Najib Mikati also argued that there are more pressing priorities than this “futile” discussion. While this may be true, his stance seems to be a pretext used to postpone this controversial debate.  After all, the generous rise his Government gave itself and MPs is also arguably not a priority in light of their already inflated salaries and benefits and their non-Protestant work-ethic.

    Meanwhile, Saad Hariri, contrary to his late father Rafik Hariri who was a key obstacle to the 1998 draft law pushed-forth by then-President Elias Hrawi and accepted by the council of ministers, denounced the Mufti’s fatwa and surprisingly said he would support optional civil marriage, just not for himself and family.  

    As the couple and other active civil society organisations continue the struggle for the right of civil marriage in Lebanon in the hope it may eventually deal a blow to the “germ” of sectarianism, hundreds of couples will be keeping a look-out for the competitive civil marriage packages offered by Lebanese travel agencies this season. 

    Egypt needs a change, not in regime, but in cultural logic

    By Dina El Sharnouby

    Let us assume in a perfect world, in a perfect Egypt, the ruling Freedom and Justice Party with its grassroots movement the Muslim Brotherhood find a way to form a coalition with the Salafis, Liberals, and the Socialists. Let us assume for a moment enlightenment descending upon all political activists, movements, and parties to unite in common goals to build a better Egypt – one that is democratic in allowing people from different religious backgrounds, gender, and classes to live a dignified and peaceful life.

    Within the realms of the current power dynamics, it can be assumed that such a coalition will manage to embrace different ideologies, but the parliament and government would most likely be led by the members of the Muslim Brotherhood through the Freedom and Justice Party. What will come next in that best case scenario? First, the restructuring of institutions to create a more efficient bureaucracy free from corruption so that Egyptians no longer depend on the mercy of governmental officials to procure their basic needs of daily supplies and services.

    Within the past couple of weeks, I have been running around governmental institutions to register for water and electricity supplies. Entering the buildings, many Islamic sayings are pinned on the walls and many employees have the Islamic patch (Zebiba) on their forehead assumed to arise from the frequency of their prayers. In most of these places you will notice there is this one person that you have to negotiate frequently to tell you what to do next. You do not receive initial instructions about how best to prepare for this ordeal. No, instead, first off you go to this person who tells you what you need to do. After filling the many forms, signing papers, and copying your personal ID and so forth, one has usually to go back to this person to guide you through the next stage; more forms, copying IDs and making the necessary payments. Apart from the tedium, the system has some merit. This one person who one has to refer to is the golden key to getting things done slowly or efficiently. But you are at the mercy of this one, usually lower class person, who might ask you for a personal payment, to be interpreted either as a bribe or as a tip rewarding their “personal” efforts in helping you get the service done quickly.

    So one cannot assume that their Islamic affiliation renders them incorruptible. This is not simply a matter of personal choice, but rather because the system has so many flaws and the rule of one party, ruled by Mubarak over many years, has ingrained in most institutions to this day the tendency to be a one man show. So the bigger challenge of course is to change the system.

    Yet, neither the current regime nor the opposition focus on such important imperatives for change. If the logic of the rights of citizens does not change, Egypt will not be moving forward any time soon. Indeed, I strongly believe nothing is more important than this cultural change. If for example, citizens are informed ahead through the internet or other information systems of what they are to expect in entering any governmental institution, they could know what they are asking for, how many forms to fill in, how much to pay – and not be at the mercy of that one person.

    Citizens could then see “democratization” at work in their simple day-to-day services without even having to explain to a person who lives below the poverty lines that they should have human rights. The logic just needs to be shifted to the understanding of how a citizen could get their services done to be able to monitor the governmental officials and hence eliminate corruption. This is not a mere change in the system but in governance and most importantly in the logic and culture of the citizens at large.

    Where is Syria now?

    By Rita from Syria

    Between thousands of things I want to say, the many great people I would be honoured to talk about, and the lots of exceptional moments still living in my memory, this is what came to my mind first.

    About three months ago Ayham Ghazzoul, a dentist and a postgraduate student at Damascus University, was killed under brutal torture inside Medicine school. This was done in front of his fellow students and professors; and it was done by the shabbiha - some of whom had even taken the Hippocratic Oath. No one could have helped him; he was left to die without even being taken to hospital. Ayham was a peaceful activist and a former detainee, yet his killing wasn't political but borne out of grudge and power display.

    Two days later, the same group of University shabiha killed another medicine student – again under torture. And then another student was thrown from the third floor in the dormitory. And so on.

    It has been nearly two years since our uprising began.  I no longer recognize myself, nor my country. Everything has changed.

    Where is Syria now? Syria is a country where random killing has become an everyday occurrence for some of its citizens, and an interesting sideshow for others. The State's sites of torture, misery and death are no longer confined to detention centers belonging to the repressive security apparatus; even universities are now playgrounds for murderers and thugs.

    Away from politics which I don't really understand, away from your theories, debates and analysis, my people are being killed systematically and all of your well-meaning words seem helpless in all of this. The situation In Syria is no more political, it is a wholesale purposive destruction of a society. Whatever the result of this conflict will be, spilled blood will not dry; and millions of refugees will never forget the humiliation of waiting aid cars for hours under the falling snow.

    If anything has to be made, if anything has to be discussed it should be how to stop this breakdown of society and this legitimization of criminality.

    This will help us to collect our breath. Then we can tackle politics.

    Hopefully we will have real politicians at that time, instead of the chess players we have now.