This week's window on the Middle East - January 28, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: It’s not me, it’s you: a bad Egyptian break-up

  • It’s not me, it’s you: a bad Egyptian break-up
  • Israel: the whirlwind and the butterfly wings
  • After In Amenas: an Algerian perspective
  • A Somali perspective on Mali
  • Don't hate the revolution, hate the power-play
  • Silver lining of the Jordanian elections
  • Turkish-Kurdish lasting peace, in sight?
  • It’s not me, it’s you: a bad Egyptian break-up

    By Ahmed Kadry

    Do you start throwing things at the TV every time Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi or his government makes an announcement? Do you constantly feel tired and fatigued? Do your friends and family try to ask you what’s wrong to which you repeatedly respond with a sigh of frustration: “You just don’t understand.” If you answered yes to all of the above, then you are probably suffering from “post-revolutionary nothing else in my life matters until this revolution is exactly the way I pictured it syndrome.” Granted, that is not exactly a technical term, but it highlights a very important and personal nuance about the Egyptian Revolution as it crossed over the two year mark last week: who “owns” the revolution?

    I was having a conversation on Twitter at the time with an Egyptian activist who was arguing for mass protests to continue beyond January 25 2013 in an attempt to disrupt and perhaps even force President Morsi to resign, which I disagreed with despite my own misgivings regarding Morsi’s presidential reign thus far. But then our conversation took on a different twist. No longer was Morsi the subject of her enmity, but rather it was I. Despite living and participating in the eighteen day uprising and living in Egypt for the eighteen months that followed, my status as an Egyptian expat now rendered me out of touch and not qualified - no, not “permitted” to comment on what path Egypt should tread next. Needless to say, that conversation ended quite quickly.

    Placing the personal accusations to one side, unfortunately this was not a one-off rant from a frustrated activist but something I have seen repeated in conversations, comment sections in articles, and the blogosphere, where revolutionaries/political activists go beyond debating Egypt’s current socio-political climate (which is a great source of encouragement and wards off dreaded political apathy) but begin laying claim to a sense of ownership or a deeply personal understanding of the revolution that other Egyptians “simply don’t understand.” Just as Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been continuously accused of hijacking and jumping on the coattails of the revolution, now the finger is being pointed by activists towards other activists who disagree on what the next course of action should be.

    In Egypt’s current fragile political and economical state, and particularly for Egypt’s secular/liberal opposition who need unbreakable unity in order to start eating away at the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is paramount that political debate does not become a forum for personal accusations based on subjective opinions such as “You’re not as committed as I am,” or perhaps my favourite, “this revolution is my life, for you it’s a hobby.”  I admire the commitment and the cause, but this isn’t a relationship, it’s a revolution, and it has become so personalized in the minds and hearts of so many activists that much-needed analysis, planning, and collective accord is being missed.

    No two activists will always have the same perspective or shared idea of what should happen next in Egypt beyond a vague landscape that can be summarized in a political slogan. And if political debate doesn’t flourish now among the masses in Egypt following thirty years of political impotency, then it never will. Yet, every Egyptian activist, living in Egypt or an expatriate, would do well to remember that Egypt’s Revolution was celebrated for its emphasis on the collective and wholesale demographic representation. Two years later, it continues, and you and I do not own it. If you suffer from “post-revolutionary nothing else in my life matters until this revolution is exactly the way I pictured it syndrome,” you are at the very least not alone – some of us are just displaying different symptoms and taking a different medicine.

    Israel: the whirlwind and the butterfly wings

    By Omer Harari

    It wasn't supposed to be like this. Poll after poll was saying the same thing: Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-Beytenu was to win a landslide victory, with the Labor party as runners-up. But really, Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), the new-dimpled face of the Israeli Right was supposed to be the true, if understated champions of the Israeli elections this year. It was supposed to be a new mandate for the right wing. January 22 came (and what a nice day out it was), and the rumours began early in the afternoon that there would be some kind of upset, something about the earlier polls had been left unsaid. Netanyahu's camp was pushing supporters to get out to vote, and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid began murmuring celebration.

    Something else seemed to be going on: polls and pre-election statistics hadn't quite captured the undercurrents. Maybe someone forgot about the politically charged summertimes Israel is slowly getting used to. In 2011, the call for social justice came in the form of tents occupying Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv's Wall Street. The demands, under the blanket of, “the nation demands social justice”, were oriented around housing costs, tax reforms, expanding public education and public transit - in other words, these were demands for social provision. Perhaps someone forgot that Rothschild blvd used to be Rehov Ha'Am: The People's Street, before it was renamed after the tycoon, an irony that seemed to come full circle in that humid summer.

    Netanyahu's Knesset formed a committee, tossed the issues aside when the tents came down and forgot about activists, and the story was supposed to be that the activists forgot about the government, too. Many of the polls assumed dismal turnouts of younger voters, whether from apathy or boycotts. But with the final tally, it seems quite obvious that the voices of these movements were, and continue to be, alive and well. Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich, whose parties emerged with 19 and 15 seats respectively (second and third only to Likud-Beitenu) are journalists-turned-politicians born from the consciousness of these very movements. Maybe political participation begins at the ballot box, but it ends in the streets. Yachimovich and Lapid put the issues of the protests from the summer squarely onto their agendas: the economic reforms demanded in 2011 and the inclusion of orthodox Jews in the military, prominent in last year's protests.

    Israelis will find that taking care of the domestic social justice questions will only go so far without an intense deliberation on their relationships to Palestinians. The summer protesters stood not 45 km away from Ariel, one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank (and one answer to the questions regarding housing costs). With Israeli consensus on the issue of Palestinian negotiations (namely, a two-state solution, a divided Jerusalem) at 67%, any sense of urgency is however hard to find in the mainstream.

    There's another sound beginning to rumble though. It started in December as a group called Real Democracy. Hundreds of Israelis who chose to donate their votes to Palestinians throughout the West Bank (those who didn't hold Israeli citizenship but whose lives are shaped by Israel). It's a project that began on facebook, and, perhaps so long as peace processes stall, is just one of a growing number of tactics that call into question these surprises that appear like whirlwinds formed from what not so long ago was the flutter of butterfly's wings.

    After In Amenas: an Algerian perspective

    By Hicham Yezza

    As the In Amenas hostage crisis unfolded over the past week, one particular element was acutely and mysteriously scarce in the reams of western TV and press coverage: the local view. And yet, anyone interested in the future of the region would do well to pay attention to the still-burgeoning national conversation engendered by the crisis. Indeed, the In Amenas base might be a thousand miles from where nine tenths of the Algerian population reside, but it is, economically and culturally, at the heart of the national story, an apt metaphor for half a century of post-independence underachievement and malaise.

    Over the past week or so, three major themes shaping the Algerian conversation over In Amenas can be discerned. First, the episode has brought into sharp focus, once again, the complex, multi-layered topography of the Algerian power structure. As soon as the potentially catastrophic proportions – diplomatic, economic, political - of the crisis became obvious, the decision-making sphere receded away from formal civilian structures and back into the hands of the tight core at the centre. As many in the Algerian media noted, Ministers, diplomats and officials were kept informed, sometimes even consulted, but not always and not adequately, leading to an official communication strategy - truncated, haphazard, and contradictory – that was widely criticised, both within and beyond the country’s borders.

    Secondly, the crisis has brought back into the national consciousness the question of Algeria’s oil and gas wealth and - as tends to happen when the subject is broached - this was another opportunity for Algerians to take stock of the perennial and inescapable reality of the past fifty years: a litany of post-revolutionary aspirations betrayed, enormous national wealth dissipated, corruption on a gargantuan scale, and crushing social inequality deepening by the day even as the national surplus balloons.

    Finally, and most relevantly for the west, the In Amenas crisis has been an excellent occasion for Algerians to glimpse regional and international perceptions of their nation. Unsurprisingly, few were impressed by most of the output served up by supposedly professional western outlets, which was often replete with neo-orientalist diagnoses invoking a nation irretrievably-disfigured by a “savage” history, frequently seasoned with the de rigueur tales of bumbling, inscrutable, secretive foreigners. (To give just one prominent instance, take the story of Cobra officials gasping “Oh My God! What Are They Doing?!” upon hearing that Algerian special forces had stormed the complex, a bit of gossip that was gleefully relayed and amplified ad-nauseam by the likes of the BBC’s Nick Robinson and others).

    Now that the immediate crisis has come to an end, many Algerians are wearily observing how western discourse has already moved on, solidifying around the take-home message of a new War on Terror about to replace the old one. Terrorism is again on the rise, apparently, with the Maghreb-Sahel its new frontline.  When I conveyed David Cameron’s ludicrous remarks - describing Islamist groups in northern Mali as a “generational” and “existential” threat to the UK – to an Algerian analyst friend, he burst out laughing in incredulity. Yet these remarks have so far met with solemn acquiescence by most in the UK media-political class.

    Of course, Cameron and his French and US allies have their own distinct, sometimes conflicting, reasons for floating the spectre of regional terrorism so forcefully and so suddenly, and it would be a mistake to reach for a ready-made one-dimensional framing to articulate them. However, the notion that the In Amenas episode heralds a real shift in Maghreb-western dynamics is increasingly hard to dismiss, evoking, for many of us, Benjamin Franklin's arch and still-resonant phrase from two centuries ago "If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.”

    A Somali perspective on Mali

    By Amal Ahmed

    Not long ago, NATO bombed Libya from the air and armed Libyan rebels or any group fighting against Gadaffi’s regime with weapons, without taking the consequences of a war in a tribal country ruled by a dictator for 40 years fully into account. NATO gave us the Libya we see today: in need of rebuilding, unstable and party to the ethnic cleansing of the Tuareg people.

    Syrian resistance fighters are receiving similar support from the west and the neighbouring Arab countries, who are allowing fighters including the Mujahedeen to enter Syria to fight the Syrian regime, although the revolution started peacefully enough. There are similarities with the way that the uprising in Jordan was dealt with and in Afghanistan, when the Taliban were fighting the Soviet Union in the eighties.

    Mali, a country rich with natural resources also has its own unique culture emanating from African and Arab tribes who live in north and west Mali. The French who are opposing the terrorists in Mali may predict that this war will be over soon, but there is nothing to prevent the rebels from using guerilla tactics to defend themselves. No-one can guarantee that the chaos and disruption arising from this war will not eventually lead Mali and neighbouring countries into civil wars lasting for decades.

    We can see the damage caused by ‘the war on terror’, yet they are still willing to go for more of the same kind of war in Africa in the name, of course, of saving the Malian people and the Malian culture from the terrorists. Why? Maybe not only for Mali’s rare natural resources, or recapturing control of previous colonies. Maybe they wish to be there to oust by force the Chinese investment in Africa which has grown rapidly over recent years.

    So the point I am trying to make as we find ourselves on the eve of yet another destructive conflict, is that maybe we are deluded if we think that those involved in this initiative want to solve the problem. Maybe the forces involved would rather continue an on-going battle against those whose beliefs cannot be supressed by violence. In my opinion, because of its strategic geographical placing at the heart of the world, there will always be a power struggle in and around the Middle East and Africa while countries grow and establish themselves by colonising other countries. This will always lead to war.

    Birthday with a Bang: celebrating Mawlid in Libya

    By Rhiannon Smith

    This year, the anniversary of the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed (Mawlid Al-Nabi) fell on January 24, and as I have done on this day in previous years in Libya, I made sure that by the time the Muezzin sang the Maghreb prayer, I was safely inside my house with all of the doors and windows firmly shut. I was not hiding from lawless militias nor securing my house against hardened North African terrorists, rather I was taking sensible precautions to ensure I didn’t end the night in A&E with third degree burns.

    This may seem slightly dramatic, but it is a genuine concern given that Libyans traditionally celebrate Mawlid with fireworks. In other countries ‘fireworks’ generally implies a firework display, where the audience watches equipped with blankets and lawn chairs, ready to launch into a chorus of ‘ooos’ and ‘aaahhs’ at the first bloom of colour in the sky. The Libyan approach however is rather more hands-on. The entertainment value does not come from watching the sky light up with colour, but from the adrenaline of lighting a big fat rocket then throwing it into the street to watch it explode, or holding a firework above your head as it shoots coloured sparks into the air. Young men also seem to take particular delight in lighting fireworks and throwing them from their car windows at unsuspecting passersby.

    However much fun for the perpetrators, such exploding volleys pose a number of problems for those in the immediate vicinity. The first is the noise; if a firework explodes a few feet away from you then the bang is very big indeed and even if you are inside, the sound can be enough to make you drop whatever you might be holding at the time. Setting off hundreds of fireworks all in one place over a short amount of time leaves the air thick with smoke and ash, forming a heavy fog which irritates the lungs and eyes. And inevitably someone is going to get burnt. Fireworks go bang because they are packed with explosives, yet parents and shopkeepers alike seem to have no qualms about letting children ‘play’ with them.

    Recently a friend and I walked past a group of young boys throwing fire crackers on the pavement in Martyrs’ Square. They were not throwing them maliciously but unfortunately we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the fire crackers got lodged in the hood of my friend’s coat which subsequently set on fire. Passersby helped put out the flame and luckily no real damage was done, but it might so easily have been a different story.

    On the evening of 23 January (most fireworks are set off the evening before Mawlid) medical staff and ambulance crew volunteered their services in anticipation of an influx of people injured by fireworks. Sure enough, according to the Libya Herald, by 11pm that evening more than 120 people, mainly children, had been admitted to Tripoli hospitals for firework-related injuries. Most were minor but some had suffered serious burns to various parts of the body, with reports that in a number of cases amputations had been necessary.

    So why do young Libyans (plus some older Libyans who should know better) throw fireworks to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday? It is a tradition which has been going on for some years in Libya, and is akin to firework displays to celebrate New Year in Europe. Mawlid is a public holiday in Libya, as in many other Arab countries, and the availability and inexpensiveness of fireworks in Libya means setting off fireworks is a fun, exciting way to celebrate. However with little restrictions over who can buy fireworks, few health and safety regulations about how they should be used and no large-scale official displays for people to attend, a frenzied firework free-for-all has become the norm in the run-up to Mawlid.

    The Chief Mufti of Libya, Sheikh Sadeq Al-Ghariani argues that Libyans should not be celebrating Mawlid at all, saying in a recent statement that, “none of the first Caliphs — Abu Bakr, Umar nor Uthman and Ali — nor any of the Companions of the Prophet had celebrated it. Nor did any of the founders of the four schools of Islam condone it.”

    While calling for Libyans to abandon Mawlid completely is unrealistic given its longstanding tradition in the country, the government and/or civil society should attempt to raise awareness of the dangers of fireworks so that they are used more responsibly and under strict adult supervision. There should be controls on who can sell fireworks and to whom, and parents must take responsibility for the safety of their children by ensuring they cannot buy or use fireworks without supervision. Enough young people were wounded during the revolution; there is no excuse for allowing irresponsible celebrations to injure even more.

    Silver lining of the Jordanian elections

    By Munir Atalla

    Jordanian parliamentary elections, held two days ago, yielded predictable results.  The usual suspects, Jordanian tribal families, each took their handful of seats.  Although the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the elections, there was a good turnout of 56%, up 3% from 2010 elections.  While the slow pace of change might make some foreign observers sigh and shake their heads, it is an important first step in rebuilding trust between the government and the citizenry that has been eroded by years of broken promises.  For the most part the parliament remains unchanged, but for the first time in a long time, elections have been declared free and fair by international monitors.  The King has stated that the new parliament will help him in the appointment of a Prime Minister, a first, and people are buying it.

    Historically, allegations of vote buying and nepotism have gone ignored or unchecked.  People also live with the assumption that the secret police plays a hand in the turnouts.  While these allegations are not baseless, they are often over played. The secret police might shift around a few seats, but those elected are usually a fair  reflection of the people showing up at the polls.  Elections have carried on in this way for a while now.  The Muslim Brotherhood assumes that they will be marginalized by the elections and asks their supporters to boycott.  Candidates who would receive votes and challenge many of the ruling narratives within the parliament opt out of running rather than risk being slighted.  But this year, there are signs of a new electoral process being formed, and it is worth celebrating.  The parliament that has been elected is not what is exciting, what is exciting is the prospect of future elections being run in the same fashion, and therefore being representative of a larger portion of the Jordanian people.

    Amongst all the election hubbub, there are a few other silver linings.  The quota for women representatives in the election was raised from 12 to 15, but even then two women did well enough to be elected outside of the quota.  Along with two who won seats on national lists, the number of female representatives is now 19.   There were even arrests made for allegations of vote-buying.  While much is left to be seen in terms of whether or not the monarch will carry through on his promises, a small victory has been won.  Are deeper reforms of the electoral process necessary?  Certainly, and soon.  Islamists are making alliances with tribal leaders, a partnership that could spell disaster for the regime, as it would mean their fiercest advocates being partnered with what has historically been their staunchest opposition.  But in a country as slow to change course as Jordan, every victory is worth celebrating.

    Turkish-Kurdish lasting peace, in sight?

    By Ali Gokpinar

    The Turkish government started peace negotiations with the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan in late December, 2012. Inflated debate amongst the Turkish public focused on whether the PKK could be disarmed and demobilized; whether Ocalan would be released and what would be the status of the PKK militants? While nationalist parties and journalists criticized the AKP government for its initiative, the silence of civil society overall together with the major political forces testified to people wanting peace. Yet, what promises are held out by the Imrali process and what problems might still prevent a lasting peace?

    The Imrali process promises to resolve not only an identity-based conflict but also the Kurdish insurgency. The crux of the matter is how Kurdish identity will be acknowledged by the Turkish state, how this will be reflected in Turkey’s Constitution and what guarantees will be given to the Kurdish people in terms of governance, cultural and language rights. And how is this going to be done?  The main problem here is that many people including top Kurdish and Turkish politicians see the negotiations as a bargaining opportunity rather than a process. However, both Abdullah Ocalan’s and well-informed AKP members’ statements demonstrate that both parties have taken their lessons to heart after the failed Oslo negotiations in 2011.  It is important to view the negotiations as a process because lasting peace requires well-grounded agreements alongside the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process. Given the fact that both Turks and Kurds invoke South African and Northern Ireland peace processes as examples for Turkey, I will argue that the negotiations are not an end in itself: rather, the beginning of a broader peace process that might take years to establish. As recent clashes in Northern Ireland and South Africa show, legal and political frameworks might not be enough. A meta-approach including political, legal, social and economic variables might ultimately be needed to achieve a just and sustainable peace.

    So what are the immediate obstacles to be overcome? First, communication problems among Kurdish stakeholders. The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party members rarely talk to Ocalan since nobody can visit him without the permission of the Ministry of Justice. There are also the Qandil and European wings of the PKK. Without coordinated communication between these players and their consent, the peace process could be derailed. Second, parties did not announce a ceasefire. Taking the advantage of an implicit ceasefire due to the weather conditions might not be as productive as parties calculate. Two months later, both the PKK and the Turkish security forces will resume their operations as the snow melts. Recall the Silvan attacks of the PKK in which 13 Turkish soldiers were killed. It divided the Turkish nation and brought an end to the Oslo negotiations.  For now, let’s hope negotiations lead to an initial ceasefire so that we do not make the same mistakes. Third, nationalist statements from both the Prime Minister Erdogan and Kurdish leaders might harm the process. Prime Minister Erdogan rejects Kurdish nationalism and continues security operations against the Kurdish insurgency including PKK’s urban structure, the KCK. Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the Peace and Democracy Party meanwhile employs an intermittently hostile stance. While these quarrels might be considered as tactics for the negotiation process, it actually means that neither the Turkish government nor some Kurdish elites have moved from their nationalist positions.  Fourth, civil society is neither included in the negotiation process nor properly informed about its developments. Further, the government has not initiated a bottom-up process to promote societal peace. Projects that bring together community and religious leaders as well as ordinary people might help them to understand each other and what peace means for Turkey. It is no secret that there is a wide divide between young Turkish and Kurdish people. Projects and programmes targeting the wider populace will be essential in building trust, understanding and support for the peace process.

    Despite all these problems, it seems there has been some progress. The late Kurdish politician Serafettin Elci once said that this generation is the last Kurdish generation that has a chance to achieve peace. Let’s hope peace prevails this time and both Kurdish and Turkish people enjoy freedom, democracy, justice and prosperity together. 

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