This week's window on the Middle East - November 19, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: A non-violent 24-year-old gets Sudanese intelligence mobilising

  • A non-violent 24-year old gets Sudanese intelligence mobilising
  • Unwanted: a failed crossing from Damascus to Gaza
  • Smile, your injustice has just been visualized
  • Commodifying Islam in Egypt
  • Sudan: a state In debt, a people in debt
  • On the subject of pornography: what the politicians are up to
  • A non-violent 24-year old gets Sudanese intelligence mobilising

    By Maha Elsanosi

    As a member of the non-violent resistance movement in Sudan, “Girifna” (We Are Fed Up), S.O. is considered a vital and effective activist, who was responsible for the mobilization of many students during anti-government protests which broke out in mid-June. Being a student at the University of Khartoum and an amateur musician, S.O. had a wide network of connections and friends from the activist community. 

    When the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) launched a heavy-handed campaign arresting protesters from the streets and from their homes, S.O. was at the top of their hit list.

    “On the 1st of July, a squad of around 20 NISS officers raided my house in Ab Roaf, Omdurman while I was at the grocery shop, just a few steps from my house. I managed to enter the house while they were arresting my brother W., whom they had mistaken for me,” S.O. narrated. “They also arrested two of my uncles along with him. They then came back looking for me but I had managed to escape through climbing walls to my neighbors’ houses and finally getting into my friend’s car.” 

    As S.O. and his friend fled the scene, they noticed a dozen police cars surrounding the neighbourhood. After a short pursuit by the NISS police, they were able to escape to somewhere safe.

    For the next 52 days, NISS was still looking for S.O. He moved between 15 houses, 3 of which were raided shortly after he left. He later on found out that he was being tracked through his internet IP address. “I stopped accessing the internet,” he said.

    S.O.’s house was raided more than once, his personal belongings were confiscated, such as college textbooks, old travel tickets, souvenirs, birthday gifts and items that belonged to the “Girifna” movement.

    They pressured his father into revealing his whereabouts, warning that otherwise they would also arrest his younger brother M., who was preparing for his final exams at the university. NISS added that they would not release his brother W. unless S.O. turns himself in. “My brother W. does not engage in any political activity. The NISS officers told my father that I am the president of Girifna and that I am the ringleader of all the protests. My father challenged them by saying that he will not turn me in and that they could arrest whomever they want from our family,” remarked S.O. 

    Both the activist’s uncles were released within 2 days, however his brother W. remaining in custody for 45 days as a hostage to the state. “They only released him after they had given up all hope that I would turn myself in,” he commented.

    “Many of my friends were arrested and coerced into providing information about my whereabouts, and many who visited my home while I was in hiding got arrested as well.

    “I made various attempts to leave Sudan temporarily until things calm down, but I learned from an undisclosed source that my name was blacklisted at the airport. I had to resort to really odd means to flee the country.

    “I am now out of the country, but my family tells me that our house is still being monitored and the NISS is still pursuing me. They even visit my parents posing as friends of mine, but fortunately my parents are familiar with all my friends. Some of my friends have been receiving threatening phone calls from NISS who are still inquiring about my whereabouts until this day.

    I missed my third year final exams at the University of Khartoum. As of this moment, my future is still uncertain.”

    Unwanted: a failed crossing from Damascus to Gaza

    By Rita from Syria

    There were three more kilometers for Abo Khalil and his family to reach the Jordanian border. Members of an FSA battalion dropped them off as close as possible to the border post by car. The family continued the journey on foot. Jordanian border forces welcomed the new arrivals into a reception room where they had to sign some papers. As they waited, UN staff started to hand out water and juice as well as sweets for the children. Although the family destination was the Al-Za'tri camp of ill repute, it seemed to them that they were finally safe and sound.   

    Following the botched assassination attempt on King Hussein in 1970, many Palestinians had become persona non-grata in Jordan. Abu Khalil, like many other Palestinians was forced to leave. He came to Damascus where he lived stateless, given that his Jordanian nationality was withdrawn. However, political negotiations resulted in a Palestinian passport being procured for him in 2007.

    For the third time in their lives, this family, originally from Jerusalem, was displaced. This time it was the heavy shelling and continuous raids by the Syrian regime that drove them from their home in Zamalka - a suburb of Damascus. They fled to Misraba -another suburb to the east of the capital - where they stayed with some relatives. It was not long before Misraba and the surrounding areas also came under attack by the regime and they were all forced to flee once more.

    No sooner had the UN team called it a night at the border post and left the refugees, but the Jordanian border force performed a volte-face, ordering the families to go back to wherever they came from. For Abu Khalil it felt like a crude joke given that just a short while previously details of the refugees was being taken and recorded. The officer in charge was adamant; shouting at them to empty the place and leave. Bewildered displaced Syrians and Palestinians, numbering around 50 in total, were forced to turn back and make their way through the wild scrub and land-mine-potted desert at around midnight.

    The officers didn't bother justifying their decision to the 70 year old diabetic Abu Khalil. They didn't allow themselves to be moved either by his elderly wife or by the frightened young children who were with them. The closest inhabited village was 15km away but the families supported one another and followed the glimmering green glow of the promise held out by that village's minaret. In stark contrast to the reaction of the Jordanian officers, residents of al-Mita'ia village opened their homes to the exhausted families, assuring them of a hospitable refuge.

    Jamil Al-Hamda, a combatant in Al-Na'ima martyrs FSA battalion in Dar'a explained the real situation at the borders:"Jordanian border officers deal with a smuggling gang headed by someone who goes by the name of Abo Mosa, for a sum of two thousands to three thousands JD a day. The smugglers divide the desert smuggling routes between them, and they have been earning huge sums of money at the expense of refugees. It is not unusual for them to ask for more than twenty five thousands SL (350-450$)  in order to accompany fleeing families into Jordan. We (the FSA ) get nothing for what we do, because it's our duty to help people. Therefore, the Jordanian officer, named Abo Abdullah, prevented the refugees from entering. He wants people to ask for refuge through the smugglers, as he earns a good kickback from this.

    Smuggling networks have always been at work along the Syrian-Jordanian borders. However, the growing crisis in the region has turned some into human smuggling gangs turning the miserable situation of displaced people into cash. There are unconfirmed reports that Syrian border officials are also involved in these networks. Stories abound of the inhumane conditions under which refugees are smuggled across into Jordan, including being locked inside air-tight containers.

    While I was interviewing the FSA for this piece, I overheard a telephone call from Abu Musa in which he tried to cut a deal with Jamil's group of fighters. He offered to pay 20,000 Syrian Pounds for each day they refused to help smuggle refugees across the border. The offer was declined. But I started to ask: why doesn't the FSA confront these networks and prevent them from exploiting vulnerable people? A civilian combatant from al-Naima battalion speaking under anonymity told me that to do so would open up a new front against smugglers - which the FSA could ill-afford - and would ultimately hinder people from reaching refuge in Jordan.

    So far, the Syrian refugee crisis hasn't been dealt with as a humanitarian issue but rather has been played out as a commercial and political joker in a pack of cards. International relief organisations have been unable to meet the needs of increasing numbers of Syrian refugees. The issue of refuge in Jordan looks ever more precarious given that the Arab Spring winds of change have begun to blow across the Hashemite Kingdom in the past week.

    While Palestinians in Syria find themselves at the receiving end of the regime's heavy artillery, more than one and half million Palestinians are passing day and night under the threat of Israeli fighter jets and rocket attacks. However, for Abu Khalil, at least Gazans have the honour of being terrorized on their own land. For this reason, a man who has tasted the bitter fruit of multiple displacements before, Abu Khalil has decided to return to his home of the last 42 years in rural Damascus, whatever the consequences. As he told me: "Life under bombardment is easier to handle than the humiliation at border posts".

    Smile, your injustice has just been visualized

    By Tamara Ben-Halim

    What happens when it is widely acknowledged that a people are being marginalised, a community’s human rights abused, a race or nationality discriminated against, and nothing shifts? What happens when a country or government is in clear violation of international codes of justice and does not take the necessary steps towards change?  

    History tells us that it is through the actions of a small and creative minority that change comes about. Change, real tangible change in a situation of discrimination and oppression has rarely come about as a result of an unprovoked change in government policy. Rather it has happened as a result of the hard work of organised, dedicated minorities that have risen up and put pressure on their governments to force positive change for their communities.

    In 2011, the Arab world erupted, rising up against decades of oppressive regimes that took away people’s right to self-determination and dignity. And the battle continues to rage in 2012, a year that marks the sixty-fourth anniversary of one of the world’s longest standing conflicts. The Palestinian struggle for self-determination has faced many challenges. What began in the early twentieth century as a struggle against Zionist politicians and their attempts to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine has evolved into an on-going struggle against Israeli occupation; one that has passed through revolutionary movements, uprisings, non- violent action, civil disobedience, mass community and civil society efforts, and countless attempted peace processes brokered by the US, Egypt, and Jordan. And now this flawed peace process has fallen apart once more, with both the Israeli and Palestinian sides failing to put in a genuine effort to reach an agreement adb a fresh round of attacks in Gaza. The future of Palestinians everywhere, and their hopes for self-determination, are in muddy waters.

    While the rest of the world waits for something to happen, perhaps for a fresh leadership to emerge on both sides or a new “Palestinian Mandela” to rise out of the ashes, or waits for Obama to breathe life back into the peace process, groups of Palestinians, Arabs and people dedicated to the cause continue to mobilise and organise themselves. The Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement has grown to a worldwide campaign that has had countless victories in encouraging companies, academic bodies, and international artists to hold Israel accountable for its illegal occupation of the West Bank, and its refusal to recognise the rights of Palestinians including refugees. Youth initiatives like Palestinians for Dignity, Gaza Youth Breaks Out, and the international Palestinian Youth Movement are advocating for the rights of Palestinians, initiating grassroots community-based organisation, working to strengthen consciousness and awareness of the Palestinian struggle, and running campaigns of non-violent resistance that aim to bring Palestinians together and unify the political, economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel.

    Out of this environment of community movement has emerged Visualizing Palestine, a collective of professionals committed to empowering civil society efforts that work for the self-determination of Palestinians. Visualizing Palestine produces visual media that tell stories around social justice in Palestine and Israel. It capitalises on the opportunity provided by the digital age to tell a story in a single visual hit. VP aims to shift the dominant narrative around the conflict to one that is more representative of the situation on the ground. The idea began when Ramzi Jaber, a young Palestinian from the diaspora, went back to live in Ramallah in 2009 to curate TEDxRamallah, the first event of its kind in Palestine. By being on the inside of daily Palestinian reality, Jaber began to realise that, although there has been a positive shift in the past decade on media reporting on Palestine, so much of what was happening under occupation was still being misrepresented by mainstream media. It became clear to him how difficult it was for people living outside the region to access these stories, despite the huge swathes of data, statistics, and reports available from international humanitarian organisations documenting the impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinians. The challenge was to take this data and harness the power of visual media to produce content that reached Palestinians, Arabs, and the international community alike. This visual media would effectively take dry information and reshape it into accessible fact-based stories, serving as a tool for existing Palestinian civil society efforts and at the same time forcing journalists and the media to see the Palestinian struggle under a new light.

    Over the past 12 months Visualizing Palestine has evolved from an idea into a solid team of designers, researchers, tech experts, communications specialists and strategists spread across Beirut, Amman, Ramallah, Paris, London and San Francisco. VP has produced 15 infographics, 7 of which have been released and published or featured in Aljazeera English, Mondoweiss, Electronic Intifada, The Daily Beast, and Jadaliyya. Its visuals have been translated into Arabic, French, and Korean, and are being used by universities, advocacy groups, and organisations spanning from Brazil to the US, Germany and Palestine.

    At a time when the seemingly intractable situation in Israel and Palestine causes people to despair, despite a great desire amongst many to create a lasting, positive impact, initiatives like Visualizing Palestine hope to provide people who care about social justice with a new avenue to contribute their skillset and energy to shifting mainstream perceptions about Palestine and Israel and strengthening civil society movements in the region.

    It does not stop at Palestine. VP operates under the umbrella of Visualizing Justice, an independent, apolitical knowledge-sharing platform that is responsible for the process and methodology behind VP’s work, and that visualizes stories of social injustice beyond Palestine alone. Visualizing Justice and Visualizing Palestine operate within a framework grounded in equality and human rights. What drives them and the people behind them is a basic conviction that every person has a basic right to equality, freedom and dignity.

    Commodifying Islam in Egypt

    By Dina El Sharnouby

    Tahrir Square has recently been taken over by the Salafists to demand Islamic rule in the constitution and hence in Egyptian society at large. The major fear of Salafists that the Quran and the Sharia will not be “properly” implemented is echoed on the liberal side by their fear of having their freedoms constrained. Both being fearful, immediate reactions taken from both sides are extreme. While the socialists and liberals still try to develop their political parties and their public outreach, the Salafis are taking to the streets to assure their presence and demands in Egyptian society through Tahrir Sqaure.

    Tunis

    Friday, November 9, Tahrir Square was full of bearded men and almost no women. But walking around Tahrir Square as an unveiled woman is still a very pleasant thing to do. No one stares. Many signs were being held up by the Salafis.

    Some signs were as uninformative as this one, simply stating that the Quran should be the constitution. Talking to some of these Salafis it soon becomes clear that they understand that Islam cannot be radically implemented and that they are not asking for the implementation of the hedoud, the Islamic rule on dealing with public cases of stealing, sexual intercourse, and the like on the spot. However, they are after while changing Article 2 in the constitution which says that the rule of Islam should provide the main guidelines for all other laws and regulations.

    Tunis

    Yet mobilization in the square is far more important for them than any demands for constitutional change.

    What they are most keen on is building support for Islamic ideology. Hence all the campaigning around different forms of control. The square has become an important place in which to sell Islam to your fellow-Egyptians. And the simplest message to get across is the one that governs everyday behaviour – above all, the control of one major sector of society, women. So instead of focusing on the constitution and raising awareness about their demands, the main flyer being handed out on my walk is the one encouraging women to wear the Niqab, covering their hair and face. In bullet points the flyer guides women on how to wear the niqab – so that it is long and loose, not transparent. They should not wear trousers like men, and most important of all, they must not focus on the design of the dress and on their personal beauty.

    Tunis

    Instead of raising awareness and distributing flyers on the most important issues in the constitution for Egyptians - the high unemployment rate in Egypt, the bad urban planning, disastrous public transport, or the weak educational system, the focus is on veiling women. It is indeed much easier to talk about how women should be controlled, giving them simple guidelines on how to behave, than dealing with any of these real challenges.

    Additionally, it makes it easy to commodify Islam and reduce it to a simple list of straightforward dos and don’ts. Showing religiosity and piety in this way has been taken up by the street sellers. Different commodities from T-shirts, flags, and tags that can be worn around one’s neck carry Islamic slogans. Commodities that carried Egyptian slogans were widely sold during the days of the uprising. But now it is  Islam that is being commodified, to build up a religious identity. Some foodsellers plaster Islamic slogans over their food stands, to assure us that they are observant Islamic foodsellers.

    Tunis

    This reached new heights when President Mohamed Morsi suddenly decide to back a new law that is going through the legislation process, which proposes to close all shops by 10pm. After the Friday prayers on November 9, 2012, President Morsi stated that it was better for people to retire early to be able to wake up early for morning prayers; instead of wandering around on the streets and in the cafes so late at night. Exactly the same debates about feckless young people who are lazy good-for-nothings that prevailed under the Mubarak regime are now being deployed by President Morsi, except now they are given a  religious twist. So, while the really big problems are left unaddressed, religion  - specifically Islam – is being used to silence the general public.

    Sudan: a state In debt, a people in debt

    By Reem Abbas

    I have noticed that many people in Sudan from taxi-drivers to teachers know that Sudan's external debt is over $40 billion. It seems that the country's debt worries them: it is an amount they their children and grandchildren will still be paying off for years to come, an amount supposedly deducted from their health care and education expenditure.

    To be exact, Sudan's debt will reach $43.7 billion this year.

    But the population has other things to worry about: their own personal debts. A few years ago, my uncle who is an English teacher was assigned to a school in Al-Rahad in Northern Kordofan state. In Al-Rahad, he didn't get paid for 6 months at a time and along with friends, they bought food items from the grocery shop and borrowed money from him promising to pay back when "things got better".

    When they received their very late salaries, or at least part of it, they were so indebted, almost all of their pay went to the owner of the grocery shop. This continued until he decided to leave Sudan and teach abroad.

    Last month at a Sudanese organization I'm working at, a colleague bought skirts, jeans and tops to market them to the young fashion-crazed girls at the office.I was examining one of the skirts when I was told, "you take it now, you pay the first installment after pay-day at the beginning of the month and the rest mid-month or next month."

    This seemed like a good deal, but I'm too scared of installments. Everything has an interest rate and if you don't pay on time, as the Sudanese state and most of the population have discovered, the price goes up.

    Sudan's debt is expected to go up to $45.6 billion in 2013, making 83% of its 2011 GDP. 

    ُIn the 1970s, Sudan's former military dictatorship, led by Gaafer Nimeri bought buses from Brazil that came to be known in Sudan as Abu-Rejela, the money was never completely paid and it rose up to a $40 million debt  this year.

    Early this month, Sudan's foreign minister said that the Brazilian parliament has banned the government or even Brazilian companies from investing in Sudan or giving us any grants because of Sudan's debt to Brazil. It’s scary, but the Brazilian debt dates back to the 1970s and this too keeps haunting Sudan.

    On a monthly basis, Sudan pays $300 million in debt repayments. But the debt just keep on piling up.

    Debt in Sudanese society is a vicious cycle. Its the most normal thing for someone to tell you that they have borrowed money for rent or to pay their debt to the grocery shop. Debt becomes doubled or tripled as you borrow money to pay the money you borrowed and you become indebted once again.

    The government, if it acted seriously to end conflicts and human rights violations in Sudan, could maybe get debt relief. Meanwhile, normal citizens have no choice but to try and pay back their mounting debts.

    On the subject of pornography: what the politicians are up to

    By Refaat Mohamed

    In most of western countries pornography is legal, or legal with some restrictions, which means that it is regarded as a legitimate business. However  this does not necessarily mean that it is a lovable activity, or something to be looked on with respect.

    A great proportion of  the world’s population uses it, and yet we look down on those who work in the industry, and even the most liberal of us think deep down in our minds and hearts, “ I never want to see anyone close to me doing this”. But the point is, it gets easier and easier to watch pornographic material by the day, even in countries where pornography is not legal. 

    Some countries have decided to put in the time,  the effort, and the BIG money, to take effective action actually banning porn, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Dubai, Iran ….etc. and lately our General Prosecutor Mr. Abd Elmaguid Mahmoud decided Egypt should be among those nations.

    After the revolutions and the rise of the Islamist movements in Egypt, the talk about banning pornography and many other things, has taken place mostly among Salafis, and taken rather lightly by everyone else. That is why it was shocking when it was taken up from the opposing side, Abd Elmaguid Mahmoud, representing the “remnants of Mubarak’s regime”, a big sector of the judiciary system, which is allegedly fighting against the invasion, currently under weay, of the Muslim Brotherhood into all the different sectors of government. What is he up to?

    Mahmoud was just fresh out of a clash with President Morsi, in which he emerged victorious, as Morsi tried unsuccessfully to throw him out of his job. Removing these Mubarak men from key positions has been a legitimate key demand for the revolution since day 1, but Morsi set about this in such a foolish way that he failed, failed to get the sympathy and the support of even the revolutionary movement and a cross section of political powers. What was worse -  Mahmoud came out of this as a hero, who is fighting against the tyranny of the Muslim Brotherhood, and for the independence of the judiciary system. So you have to ask yourself, why is he adopting a clampdown that his opponents would themselves highly recommend? In what way will this speed things up and get the public at large alienated faster from the current leadership?

    Drugs, alcohol, pornography, and other things that conservative Islamists want to ban, are harmful things. But people should have the freedom, and the space to decide what to do about them. For instance, take the latest quarrel about a law for closing shops and restaurants, by 10 o’clock at night. Maybe this is generally a good thing! But the way to do it is not by enforcing it, and in turn forcing people to retire for the night early. Don’t they realize that once they start prosecuting people for breaching these rules, this is just the beginning of a vicious downward cycle? And that there is a lot depending on such decisions? But perhaps they do realize this?

    You have a very high unemployment rate. Youth spend money, effort, and years of work, to graduate,. But there are no jobs. We have armies of law students, who have graduated only to be waiters. Those waiters may lose their lousy jobs that they hate, for the little wage they take, if you eliminate the night shift they work in. Even if they slog their guts out in this way, they can’t get married, because their wages are too little, and the marriage costs are way too high.  So they get frustrated. Then you get sexual harassment and rape, and then – well I am not sure that taking away their porn is a very wise idea. But nor is the alternative.

    Offer the youth job opportunities, and the whole country will sleep at 10 o’clock, and the shops will close up early because they won’t have customers. When the youth work, in a decent economy where they earn a decent amount of money, that bears some relation to their expenses, they will get married and stop watching porn, and we will have a good economy, and will consume less, and produce more. And we will be able to have more political influence, and maybe some day we would be able to actually help with the violations on the Palestinian people.  Save Gaza – that’s what I want to say!

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