This week's window on the Middle East - November 12, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: The Revolution will not be eroticised

  • The Revolution will not be eroticised
  • Changing perception and building trust: why Libya is losing patience with its politicians
  • The Tunisian people come second!
  • The Tunisian government, grandfather of the salafis?
  • Syrians in the Sheraton; a lesson in time wasting
  • Rula Quawas – Jordanian pioneer
  • The Revolution will not be eroticised

    By Amro Ali

    Whoever would have imagined that one of the challenges of the post-Egyptian revolution period would be the elevation of pornographic websites into a political issue? Yet Egypt’s Islamists have an uncanny way of not only surprising the public, but shifting the goalposts and reframing the debate – so that you find yourself swept up in matters far-removed from the country’s more pressing problems.

    Egypt’s ultra-conservative Salafis have called for a ban on pornographic websites based on a 2009 court order. The timing is suspect given the drafting of the constitution, and the wrangling over the word ‘Sharia’, which comes across as an attempt to make anti-censorship advocates (largely the civil society camp) look like pro-pornography pro-decadents, which is far from the case.

    This popular image that has been circulated around the social media shows an Egyptian bound by the ball and chain of poverty, lack of education, slums, haphazard electricity, Sinai insecurity, gas and fuel shortages, unemployment, rising food prices, etc and despite all that, he yells “Anything but sex [websites]!” Last winter, the very same anti-Islamist cartoon was circulating with similar problems on the chain and ball except the man was yelling about the red-herring of that moment, “Anything but the bikini!” This political “striptease” neatly sums up one element in the whole process.

    This is not to downplay the social anxiety surrounding pornography. It has long been a concern of women groups, education boards, families, Muslim and Coptic groups. A Los Angeles Times report in March indicated the scale of the problem, “According to Google trends, Egypt ranked fifth in the world in searching for the term ‘sex’ in 2011. It was also reported that at least six pornographic websites rank among the top 100 sites in Egypt.”

    Even many liberal Egyptians would not be opposed to a ban on pornographic sites if it just came down to that. Yet the concern must be that when Islamists take it up, the wheels of censorship are set in motion. Vaguely-worded legislation targeting porn sites risks enveloping the websites of activists, opposition groups, civil groups, independent news, and others as “violating Egyptian customs and values.”

    UAE journalist and analyst, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, recently remarked: “Egypt's online porn ban is a first step to banning other ‘disagreeable’ content. We in the Gulf know how it works, we’ve seen this movie before.” And we have. I once attempted to access an internet telephony website to make an overseas call while in Abu Dhabi. A message popped up saying that this site was blocked for offending the cultural values of the UAE. The only values it offended was the monopoly of the telecommunications giant Etisalat. This extends to political and cultural websites as well.

    Pure Net

    The Salafis have launched a campaign called “Pure Net”, and according to an Al-Arabiya report, Salafist MP Mamdouh Ismail stated: “These pornographic websites stem from a Western culture…they promote a criminal culture, one which leads to unproductivity, drugs and theft.”

    There you have it from an “expert” – so Egypt’s criminal culture, from car-jackings to buildings caving in,  idleness at coffeehouses, drug abuse, theft, (just add in any vice you like here) do not stem from rampant corruption, high unemployment, feeble law enforcement, a dysfunctional education system and the absence of political will to redress any of them. Rather, it is a buxom blonde named Candy from a rundown Californian studio that is the biggest threat to Egypt’s fabric – one download at a time.

    Emboldened by the Morsi Mojo, Islamists have frequently deployed identity politics to appeal to domestic bases. Mamdouh Ismail established his grandstanding credentials when he rose up to announce the call to prayer earlier this year in parliament. Last April, charges were brought against veteran actor Adel Imam by an Islamist lawyer on charges of insulting Islam. Apart from its absurdity, a stronger case would have demanded that you don’t target the actor, but the director, producer and script writer. But this is not about real social change.

    Despite Egypt’s problematic tinderbox, a number of these rookie politicians and lawyers lack the foresight to propose long-term solutions to pressing economic problems. Technology experts have put a hefty $16.5 million price tag on such a ban. What is Ismail’s response? That, “It’s worth the price. No matter how much it costs, the moral value of this will be much more significant.” This is surely a profoundly disturbing case of screwed-up priorities in a country where internet access barely hits the quarter mark and 40 per cent live under the poverty line.

    Now the National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NRTA) has come out stating that it would be impossible to block all the sites and that ISP’s provide family filters for anyone interested (Egyptian blogger Zeinobia has provided a summary). The NRTA visited the Gulf states to check out their experiences on this matter and, not surprisingly, found they too failed to block porn websites despite the millions spent. Amusingly, the NTRA advised Egyptians to raise their sons properly instead of demanding that websites be blocked.

    Even before Islamists made their mark, the state oversaw how people thought, felt and behaved. This guiding philosophy of the Mubarak regime has been inherited by the Islamists – it is an insult to millions of Egyptians that detest the state for treating them as children.

    The Islamists should take a lesson from Mubarak’s final days. Shutting down the internet did not prevent the ex-autocrat from being toppled. The cries of the revolution were “bread, freedom and dignity”: if nothing has been done to deliver these by the time Egyptians next walk up to the ballot box, then a “We banned porn websites” will not provide an adequate, winning campaign slogan.

    Changing perception and building trust: why Libya is losing patience with its politicians

    By Rhiannon Smith

    Over the past couple of weeks Libya’s capital Tripoli has been the site of various scenes ranging from the significant to the mundane, the positive to the negative and the symbolic to the downright farcical.

    Last Sunday a large area of the city centre was closed down due to a raging gun battle between rogue militias while the outgoing government of Abdurrahman Al-Kib chose that time to announce that Libya would become the second country in North Africa (after Morocco) to implement daylight saving time as of Saturday November 10. The same day also saw big queues forming at Tripoli petrol stations due to a blockade by revolutionaries of the oil refinery in Zawia, while simultaneously the General National Congress (GNC) was voting on whether to relocate the parliament to Bayda, a town in the east of Libya, for security reasons.

    Just a few days prior to this, the GNC were forced to postpone their vote by the 32 members of Libya’s Prime Minister-designate, Ali Zeidan, when angry revolutionaries stormed the parliament building demanding the removal of certain ministers on the list. Zeidan’s government was eventually approved but even as praise and support flooded in from foreign governments and heads of state, the GNC building remained for all practical purposes under siege and worryingly vulnerable to frequent armed incursions by irate revolutionaries.

    Bani Walid all over again

    Only two weeks ago I wrote about the government-sanctioned siege and subsequent bombardment of Bani Walid, a town to the south of Tripoli.  In this case the government applauded the brigades who participated in the assault, portraying them as defenders of new Libya in an attempt to convince the public they had a handle on the situation.  Who do they think they fooled? Covering up a problem doesn’t make it go away. Now revolutionaries of the same ilk as those who attacked Bani Walid are attacking the parliament building and no one is stopping them. How can Libya’s rulers expect the public to trust them when they can’t even muster enough security to protect their own building?

    As I have stated many times in this column there is a lot of positive progress taking place in Libya at the moment, but unfortunately it is being undermined in the eyes of many Libyans by both the real and perceived weakness of the state. In short, patience is running thin. The same issues keep repeating themselves time and again yet politicians seem unable to act or provide solutions. Those in power are inexperienced and facing an extremely challenging situation but this should not be used as an excuse. Politicians must start doing their jobs and show Libyans that their hard earned votes were not wasted.

    Fleeing the problem

    Libya is a country where rumour, reputation and perception rule supreme and in order to gain some much needed trust and respect from the Libyan public the GNC and government need to start taking definitive action. The GNC proposed moving to Bayda in order to avoid the deteriorating security situation in Tripoli when they should have been showing their strength and determination by trying to solve the root of the problem, notably the militias. Needless to say their apparent attempt to flee the problem rather than face up to it is not something that will instil confidence in those hoping for a strong, effective government.

    The recent misinformation, cover ups and displays of political detachment are spectres of the previous regime and the Libyan public will not be happy at the reminder. No one expects the Libyan mentality, attitude or way of doing things to change overnight but people are at least expecting a show of effort. Passing irrelevant legislature and discussing redundant proposals whilst Libya’s militias are using the country as their playground shows that those in power have no grasp of politics or leadership. The GNC, along with those soon to be inaugurated as Libya’s new government, need to start making the effort to tackle some of Libya’s more serious problems and to appear in control. If they do not, they may find they have to move to Bayda after all.

    The Tunisian people come second!

    By Kacem Jlidi

    Strikes, dissatisfaction and frustration characterise the general situation in Tunisia. Political and religious polarisation is overwhelming the economic needs of the everyday Tunisian.

    Thala, west-central Tunisia, was one of the first towns to rebel against the former president Ben Ali’s regime, paying for freedom and change with the blood of its young people’s lives. Today, Thala’s patience is running out as they await some relief for the reigning poverty around the marble mines.

    Similar to the phosphate mines in neighbouring Governorate Gafsa, the marble industry, once exploited by Ben Ali’s relatives, could create enough jobs for some 14,000 inhabitants of the town as an immediate solution to combating unemployment. The millions of dinars this would bring  would replenish a fallen economy.  

    But the current Government led by the Islamist Ennhada party hasn’t yet taken a final decision about how best to exploit these mines. In theory no licences have been issued either for local or foreign investors to exploit these rich resources.

    The rise of civil disobedience, strikes and protests even during the activation of the emergency laws has been the result.  It is no surprise against the background of endless announcements by Governmental officials proclaiming the high priority and attention given to the development and investment in Tunisia’s internal regions to ensure fair and equal distribution of wealth and riches.  These unmet promises have sparked several protests that have been met with brutal violence, according to human rights observers.

    ‘We are the walking-dead, we live in a vacuum, we have nothing. We have nothing. All it (the Government) can do for us is put us in jail,’ shouted a protester during a recent protest action – reported by the AFP.

    ‘The socio-economic situation in Thala is worse than under the old regime and no governmental promises have yet been kept,’ protested Adel, a teacher in the city.

    Faced with rising anger and dissatisfaction, the Government seem to have no other solutions but to increase the security measures, trying to buy more time by highlighting the need for dialogue and making further promises of development plans in the rebelling regions.

    Promises for special inter-ministerial commissions to be placed in charge of the area’s prospects and reopening the marble plants employing a minimum of 200 people sound like the Government’s best offer to date. But for the region’s locals, such promises are far from convincing: more protests and more violence is expected.

    What grows more palpable by the day like never before is the desperate need for a fresh, straightforward and serious rescue attempt to be made to save what’s left of the country’s economy. More debt and aid-based solutions are insufficient; a multi-sectoral, job-generating approach focused on the available human resources as well the natural resources, is essential.

    Driving the public into political and religious polarisation, manifested best in Tunisia by the growing examples of religious extremism, is a clear threat to the democratic transition, our   security, and our economic growth.

    The Tunisian government, grandfather of the salafis?

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    The Ennahda-led government  has been reluctant to take a clear stand when it comes to radical groups initiating religious violence in Tunisia, the birthplace of the so called Arab Spring. Earlier this week the Tunisian government arrested Bilel Chaouachi for allegedly being involved in the September 14 attacks on the US embassy in Tunis.

    Hardline groups harass artists, hampering them from performing on stage as was the case of the Iranian concert at a Sufi festival south of Tunis. Ultraconservative mobs last June targeted an art gallery in Tunis for artworks insulting Islam as the attackers claimed. The last working hotel bar in Sidi Bouzid was closed down by a group of a hundred Muslims on a quest to ban alcohol. The Government’s tolerance of those troublemakers has generated some criticism among Tunisians people who think these people act as if they are above the law. Some critics go so far to consider the Salafis the military wing of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.  

    Indeed, the Salafis in Tunisia are not a homogenous group. They are part of the social fabric of Tunisian society but have become much more visible following the toppling of the former president of Tunisia. One of the key features that unites Salafis in Tunisia is the belief in the application of sharia and the restoration of the caliphate. Their loyalty to their doctrine seems to exceed their loyalty to Tunisia. The Tunisian Salafis differ from their counterparts say in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt in the fact that they survive despite a secularized society. The totalitarian regime in Tunisia insisted on a secular society, taught little religious education  in school, banned the wearing of the veil or beards for men, intimidated Islamists, controlled mosques and persecuted any youth regularly attending the mosques.  

    Hizb al-Tahrir, once banned under the Ben Ali iron fist, was granted a licence to practise under the leadership of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party in July 2012. A leaked video of Rachid Ghannouchi the leader of Ennahda party showed him apparently reassuring two Salafist leaders that they would over time make headway with their vision through consolidating Islamist power and adopting a strategy of gradual but bold change. You could argue that excluding Salafists from the game of democracy would take the country backwards to one-party rule. On the other hand, the government seems to be less democratic and tolerant towards other popular political parties that may threaten their monopoly on votes in the next elections – parties like Nida Tounes, constantly criticized by the Ennahda party leaders for belonging to the remants of the old regime.

    This favouritism on the part of the Ennahda party has likewise been detected in their appointment of loyalists of the movement to senior positions in the media, ministries and other sensitive posts. However, the lack of security and the rise of religious violence in Tunisian society and the failure of the government to tackle those issues has led to the deteriorating image of the party among those who once supported the Ennahda party and voted for them en masse. The party seems today changing tack, adopting a more severe application of law especially when foreign interests began to be targeted: namely the attack on the American embassy.

    The Ennahda-led government seems to be torn between a paternalist attitude towards Salafists who they consider as their “children” or a more extremist version of themselves, and a more pragmatic attitude that will grant them the respect of the west when cracking down on the religious extremists as did their predecessor Ben Ali. This opportunistic approach will probably generate more violence and more divisions in Tunisian society. They are unwilling to go back to detaining and torturing “the Salafis” to win the satisfaction of the western hemisphere, but on the other hand, Tunisians are refusing to be returned to the middle ages.

    Syrians in the Sheraton; a lesson in time wasting

    By Michael Stephens

    Two days last week, I put my journalism hat on and stalked out the Sheraton Hotel in Doha. The Syrian National Council were flitting between there and the Ritz Hotel in an attempt to come up with a deal which would cement the world’s good will (read the United States and Qatar) and forge a new pathway for unified opposition which would lead the political fight against Bashar al Assad. It was a depressing experience.

    The life of a journalist is not altogether glorious; much time is spent waiting around, exchanging rumours and gossip, hunched over laptops in uncomfortable seats waiting for someone important to come out and say something. Trouble was, I got the distinct impression that half the people we waited around for weren’t actually that important.

    The SNC are a drab bunch, consisting of middle-aged men of various shapes and sizes - former politicians, spiritual leaders and community heads from the various different regions around Syria. Some wear the independence flag of Syria on their lapels, while one gentleman particularly keen to talk to the press sported a rather fetching sash to show off his nationalist credentials. Leadership material? The vast collection of tatty suits looked like they hadn’t seen an ironing board in the past thirty years. Love or hate Assad, at least he could do his tie up straight.

    The SNC came to Doha apparently unable to reach an agreement on both the composition of their party and their engagement with the plan of Mr Riad Seif and his Syrian National Initiative (SNI) which drew up a comprehensive alternative council composed of a wider coalition of 60 seats of which the SNC would be granted 40%. Not surprisingly the SNC came under huge pressure from the Qataris to reach an agreement, but they kept stalling for time, and so we waited, and we waited, and we waited.

    Every so often one of the aforementioned drab individuals would emerge to tell us all was well and that progress had been made. It became a rather familiar ritual, and well before the end of each day journalists filed their stories and diplomats went home because there was simply nothing to report.

    Finally on Sunday, November 11, an agreement was reached and the 60 seat Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces was formed, which will then form a ten member transitional government. Quite how this body differs from the SNI is anyone’s guess, but this is a supposedly unified organisation that will work for the good of the country. If we give them money, and of course weapons.

    So what can we read from this whole saga? The short answer is that the SNC are being side-lined, and they know it, and this is why they played for time. The Riad Seif initiative was a threat to their previous hegemonic control over the Syrian opposition, and they have fought for every inch they can to maintain as much of a foothold as possible in the new plan. Backed heavily by Qatar and the USA, the SNI is the only realistic plan forward at this current point. It brings together military personnel with politicians and other exiles to try and forge a coalition that can speak for Syria’s beleaguered people.

    In truth it may already be too late for the Syrian National Coalition. The UN plan to bring elements of the FSA and politicians into direct negotiations with the Assad regime to induce a regime inclusive transition is a credible counterweight to efforts in Doha, though unlikely to work given Assad’s continued intransigence. There is also the inescapable problem of fighting on the ground bearing no relation to the politicking going on outside it. The five star luxury of the Sheraton is hardly comparable to the destroyed and broken cities and towns that are now home to Syrians unable to flee from the unending violence. I doubt those fighting street battles in Idlib really have much to say to Syrian exiles enjoying free lunches and dinners at Qatar’s expense.

    As for Seif himself, he is quietly impressive, clearly intelligent and a hard worker, and will no doubt play a positive role in a post-war Syria. But he exudes none of the characteristics of a leader, and until one can be found that everyone can unite behind, and who can show strength and gravitas there is little chance that Syria can begin to heal.

    For now the world will have to put up with more horrifying parade of death from Syria, while those of us in Doha will have to put up with more horrifying parade of cheap suits.

    Rula Quawas – Jordanian pioneer

    By Munir Atalla

    About a month ago, Rula Quawas, former Dean of the faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Jordan was removed from her post.  The announcement of her dismissal came directly after a video made by her Feminist Theory class was uploaded to Youtube.

    The fact that such a harmless video could cause such ramifications is disappointing.  Featuring women holding up signs of phrases they had heard said to them walking around campus, the video only scrapes the surface of the reality that many females endure on a daily basis in many parts of Amman.

    “Can I take you home?” reads one sign, concealing the face of a young co-ed.  The format of the video tells all—when harassed, women feel faceless.  It implies that they have been reduced to the comments so carelessly slung at them.  A sorrowful piano accompanies the images, but this is a sadness that may well turn to anger, given the range of forces women who are liberating themselves have to face in the Arab world.  However, any western observers who are waiting for a bra-burning shouldn’t hold their breath - the women’s revolution in the Middle East will not necessarily take the same form as its western counterpart.

    Recently, the University of Jordan announced its intentions to reach the list of the top 500 Universities in the world.  One cannot help but see the similarities between the University’s administrative choices and those of the country at large: on the surface, promises of glory.  In practice, the voices calling for change are moved aside.  Culture is used as a scapegoat; “don’t be so Americanized,” people are told.

    Quawas is a pioneer in that she brought women’s issues some recognition in the world of Jordanian academia.  Still, her classes were confined to English.  She helped with the founding of the women’s centre there, yet one year ago she gave a highly critical interview to the feminist magazine, Broad Recognition.  It is clear from her commentary on the University that she is not one to sugarcoat the pill.  “I do not think that we teach women’s studies or gender studies as a discipline here at UJ. The teachers are not equipped to teach it. We do not currently have a professor with a PhD in women’s studies!” she stated.  She added that the Women’s Center at the University was a cosmetic implantation designed to cater to the demands of a royal.

    Although met with top-down censorship, Quawas’ sacking has sparked heated online discussion on a variety of news sources from Jadaliyya to the New York Times.  So where are the battle lines for feminists in Jordan? Several backwards laws discriminate against females, but most have campaigns rallying citizens against them. Currently, a campaign has surfaced to make Jordanian nationality transferrable from mother to son (as it is between father and son), but as with every struggle, there is a mound of bureaucracy blocking any reform. 

    Although Quawas’ firing was a violation of academic freedom, the solidarity it sparked from students, institutions, and foreign sympathizers alike points to a new era in people’s increasing awareness. 

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