This week's window on the Middle East - October 29, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Shuttle diplomacy: Qatar playing politics in Palestine

  • Shuttle diplomacy: Qatar playing politics in Palestine
  • Silent Commander-in-Chief: From Khaled Saeed to Malala Yousafzai
  • No reason to celebrate in Tunisia
  • Human rights in Tunisia: between stagnation and regression
  • Anniversaries, rumour and conflict: a week to remember in Libya
  • What’s in a jihad?
  • Shuttle diplomacy: Qatar playing politics in Palestine

    By Michael Stephens

    The visit of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani to the Gaza Strip was a fascinating piece of shuttle diplomacy. With great pomp and circumstance the Palestinians rolled out the red carpet for the first head of state to officially set foot on the territory under their control. However one looks at the situation, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that alone is a big deal. The visit essentially legitimized Hamas as the de facto controller of the Gaza Strip, recognizing that their leadership was deserving of a visit from another head of state.

    That Hamas has been in sole control of the territory since 2007 despite blockades, and a war with Israel in 2008/9 is testament to its ability to preserve its power structure. And as such it was about time that someone, somewhere recognized that ignoring and isolating Hamas, was not only based on an outdated unrealistic policy, but was just downright foolish.

    The Israelis, despite their evident frustration, don’t really have a leg to stand on, numerous Israeli security officials admit that significant back channel contacts between the two sides exist and are used constantly. The Israelis as much as they deny the fact in public know that Hamas is here to stay and that Qatar’s interaction with them are positive.

    There are two reasons for this, firstly the nature of politics in the Strip means that should Hamas one day fall from power, it would not be replaced by Fatah, the so called ‘moderate’ Palestinian faction. But by something far worse, most likely a combination of Iran supplied Palestinian Islamic Jihad, radical salafi factions and renegade offshoots of Hamas’ military wing the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades. Secondly Qatar supports Hamas not because it wants to encourage a war with Israel, but because it sees strengthening the Group’s legitimacy as the most realistic way to achieve some sense of security and improvement in the quality of life for Palestinians living in the beleaguered territory.

    Qatar has attempted to maintain relations with Israel in various different guises, and although relations are frosty, Qatar does not seek Israel’s destruction. Flustered Israeli rhetoric concerning Qatar’s support for Hamas is not based on strategic reality. The $400m investment in infrastructure, education and health facilities allows Hamas the space to secure its own presence in the Strip vis-à-vis far more radical groups, something that it has struggled to do in the past two years.

    Surely the Israelis would prefer the devil they know supported by Qatar, a state which does not seek Israel’s destruction, than an Iranian sponsored rag tag bunch of militants working day and night to annihilate the Jewish state.

    Aside from the Israel question, it is important to ask why Qatar has chosen this moment to press the Palestinian cause. The Qataris have longstanding links to the Hamas leadership, and its Chariman Khaled Meshaal frequents Doha numerous times a year as well as owning a house here. Qatar likes to work with people it possesses deep personal ties to, as it has in Libya and Syria. This is the basis of how Qatar prefers to work in the Arab world.

    The ties are strong, Qatar for better or worse has a leaning towards the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is a weak offshoot, the interests are to some extent congruent. A political Islamism across the Sunni Arab world that is pervasive but not all encompassing is certainly something that finds support in the Emiri Diwan.

    The Emir has sometimes been described as an Islamist Nasserist, as a man seeking unity across the Arab world through Ikhwan inspired movements that help to bring the disparate and fractured nations of the Arab world together as one.

    I believe this assessment to be partially true, the Emir does seek increased unity in the Arab world, and if he believes that Qatar can play a role in achieving this goal, he will seek to work toward it. The region is becoming more Islamist, so the Emir supports Islamist movements; building a wall in the way of an Islamist tidal wave such as the Emiratis have done is seen as a pointless waste of energy. It is better to ride the wave and have some control and direction over its course of travel than stop it.

    So this is why Qatar deals with Hamas, the Emir views them as a far more accurate depiction of the direction of Sunni Arab politics than the weak, tainted Fatah, meekly holding on to cantons of the West Bank. The potential for an Ikhwan inspired Levant is not out of the question; this despite the numerous differences between Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian branches of it. Qatar for its part could be at the helm of this drive and steer its direction. It is a regional aspiration, and one that if beneficial for the Palestinians is a huge boon for the Emir and his standing in the region.

    Following a rather topsy-turvy performance in Syria, Qatar is in need of some good PR. The Palestinian initiative is the perfect way to recoup some of that lost ground. And if it aids Qatar’s aspirations for a more united Arab world, so much the better.

    Silent Commander-in-Chief: From Khaled Saeed to Malala Yousafzai

    By Amro Ali

    Tunis

    While reading the horrific case of Malala Yousafzai, the 14 year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the face by the Talban for championing girls’ education, I came across a photo of a young supporter of Malala that triggered memories back to June 2010 of a similar image that has forever been engraved in my mind – an Egyptian youth protesting the tragic death of Khaled Saeed, the 28-year old Alexandrian who was beaten to death by policemen and would trigger the rapid countdown to the 2011 Egyptian revolution (See my detailed June piece Saeeds of Revolution: De-mythologizing Khaled Saeed.)

    The images provide a poignant and surreal expression of a protestor, in a repressive atmosphere, raising their hand held up high clenching a simple black and white A4 printout of their respective poster-child. It strikes deep at the heart of Arab regimes or fanatical organisations that have little appetite for dissent or any mere standing out from the crowd.

    The differences between the cases of Khaled and Malala could not be more distinct: one lived in fear of a police state, the other in fear of an extreme misogynistic organisation; one going about his business, the other actively pushing for a cause; one died, the other survived. Yet it is the potent symbol they have become to their respective audiences that is revealing.

    An icon becomes so when certain conditions, context, actors, and a clear oppressor-oppressed dichotomy are in place. Coupled with the dramatic demise or harm to the icon rendering them martyrs, living or dead. Moreover, what such figures do for the public is to humanise and personalise complex issues that in any other instance would have drifted into murky abstracts.

    When opposition movements or simmering public grievances acquisition the martyr as their silent commander-in-chief, it can aid towards various outcomes: the most extreme being the overthrow of a regime – such as Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi. Here there was a clear link between the fruit vendor’s self-immolation and the overthrow of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime. This was not so immediate for Khaled, his death added to a long list of grievances but it certainly sped up a crumbling process.

    There is, what may be called, a “post-event” martyr (I use such terms very loosely here), that hardens and swells the ranks of the opposition after the actual uprising or civil disobedience has started. We saw this with 12-year old Syrian, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb – his horrific mutilation in May 2011 made him an icon. Egyptian activist Mina Daniel’s death, followed by Sheikh Emad Effat, nine months after the toppling of the Mubarak regime solidified the growing anti-military council’s public discourse and posthumously transformed them into powerful faces of the extended Egyptian Revolution.  

    Then there is the “dormant” martyr. Iran witnessed the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009 at the height of opposition protests making her the poster-child of the disparate opposition groups, yet the Iranian regime and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are very well still intact.  It is not a case that Neda has simply fizzled out, the future has an uncanny way of resurrecting symbols following a successful opposition-backed uprising, revolution, coup, or democratic transition; the martyr is awaken from their slumber and reanimated with a vengeance – a new order, theoretically, will mythologise the role of Neda that will elevate her standing more than what she is seen as today.

    Yet where does Malala fit in all of this? She miraculously survived, but not so the remaining ounces of the Taliban’s credibility. Even the most conservative Islamist groups were taken aback. It has also revealed one of the militant group’s biggest fears, as Mohammed Khalid Alyahya noted, “Malala Yousufzai took a bullet to teach us an invaluable lesson. The biggest threat to…Al Qaeda and the Taliban is not drone warfare or military crackdowns…it is the democratic empowerment of young people… Malala Yousufzai’s pen is mightier than the drone.”

    A key Achilles Heel of the Taliban has been exposed.

    While Malala, from her London hospital bed, uttered “What country am I in?” In the terrain of the Swat Valley, segments of the Taliban would have been uttering “What state of mind are we in?” Tragedies fragment perpetrators as much as they unite the victim’s sympathisers.

    But there is no turning back now. Just as many, two years ago, were chanting “We are all Khaled Saeed”, now the world is more or less chanting “We are all Malala Yousafzai.”

    No reason to celebrate in Tunisia

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    October 23 marked the anniversary of the first democratic and transparent election in the history of Tunisia. Tunisians turned out in long lines last year to participate in the democratization of the country by electing their representatives in the Constituent Assembly and to draft the new constitution. One year later, the optimism and passion that drove Tunisians to the polls in massive numbers has faded away and the anniversary of the first post-revolution elections are just another sad day.

    Dissatisfaction over the slow pace of implementing the goals of the revolution - ‘employment, freedom and national dignity’, the political tensions, the crackdown on human rights and the increase of violence in the once moderate and now less peaceful country has soured many Tunisians from displaying any kind of festivities on Tuesday. After all, an opposition figure from the Call of Tunisia Party (Nida Tunis) was murdered just a few days earlier.

    The Constituent Assembly was supposed to hand over the new constitution by Tuesday; the troika government appointed by the Constituent Assembly was supposed to dissolve on the same day, but neither of these two bodies were willing to abide by the initial agreements, clinging to power on the pretext of preventing chaos.

    In the words of ANC President Mustapha Ben Jaafar: “If we leave, Tunisia will hit the wall.” The propaganda machine of the government did not miss the chance to rally outside the Constituent Assembly building, holding banners and placards that applauded the success of the troika government.

    Despite the government’s generous promises of reform and development programmes, the people of Tunisia and especially those who live in the interior regions, where even basic facilities such as electricity and running water are not available, protested in the hopes that the government might translate their long-delayed promises into tangible actions which will bring social justice to Tunisia. The cost of living has increased dramatically with the middle class facing a marked deterioration in economic conditions. Eid al-Adha was just another occasion for ordinary citizens to feel the unbearable rise in prices in Tunisia. Lower income families wandered the sheep markets, returning home empty handed: one sheep could cost the whole salary of an average Tunisian household.

    Political divisions have meanwhile created a climate of suffocating violence on the Tunisian political scene. The absence of dialogue between the different political factions has translated into fierce verbal and even physical clashes between the opposition and the government loyalists. The UGTT, Tunisia‘s main labour union’s initiative to bring to the table of dialogue representatives of major political parties and decision makers did not achieve effective national dialogue, since two key parties in the troika government (Ennahda and the Congress for the Republic) boycotted the event due to the presence of the recently created political party Nida Tounes, led by the former interim government Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi.  

    Human Rights Watch has accused the government of failing to protect journalists and artists from extremist groups’ intimidation and attacks. Amnesty International also warned of the reloading of dictatorship and the threat to freedom of speech posed by a government that has proven unwilling to protect journalists, artists and bloggers from the intimidation of extremist groups. "Protesters, who have continued to take to the streets in different parts of Tunisia to express their dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reform, have been met with unnecessary and excessive force," Amnesty said.

    Democracy is not just about holding fair and transparent elections. The elected leaders who came to power through the ballot box must be the government of the Tunisian people and not some of the people. The decision makers in power who were the victims of the Ben Ali era of torture and prosecution because of their political dissent must not turn out to be today's oppressors.

    The mentality of victimhood that the government is depending on to justify their failure in addressing the national issues (blaming the remnants of the old regime, accusing the opposition of malicious plans) is further complicating matters. Tunisians were manipulated by the former regime to accept stability over larger freedoms, but now that the Tunisian people have tasted the sense of what it means to be a citizen with rights and obligations, they are not going to let go of those gains easily.

    Human rights in Tunisia: between stagnation and regression

    By Kacem Jlidi

    Amnesty International’s demoralising report titled, ‘One step forward, two steps back’ is ample confirmation for Tunisians of the fluctuating situation between stagnation and regression regarding the situation of human rights.  

    The report is an overview of Tunisia’s reformist progress on the various areas of human rights since its landmark free, fair and democratic elections in October last year.

    The excessive use of force, torture, ill-treatment, the battered freedom of expression and the continuance of the death penalty are among the highlights of the country report.

    ‘The NGO is providing an unflattering portrait of the situation. Much remains to be done’, says Sana Sbouï, a journalist writing for the award-winning collective blog Nawaat.org.

    The elected National Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting a new Constitution within a year, has failed to meet their deadlines. This means that Tunisia will most likely continue to be led by an interim government that suffers under questions about it's very legitimacy.

    The report emphasised the numerous cases of ill-treatment and violence by the police against Tunisian protesters who have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction at the slow pace of post-revolution reform.

    ‘Protesters, who have continued to take to the streets in different parts of Tunisia to express their dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reform, have been met with unnecessary and excessive force', says the report. ‘Many of them who alleged they were beaten during demonstrations, during arrest or in detention centres’.

    While the death penalty remains in effect, no death sentences have been imposed and there were no executions since the revolution. According to Amnesty, Tunisia has maintained a moratorium on executions since 1991. Yet the death penalty was one of the first expected penalties to be reformed since several members of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda had been sentenced to death.

    Ultimately, the report’s findings are not surprising and the general sentiment expressed in it were reflected on October 23, when the people protested the ineffectiveness of their leaderswhile the heads of legislative and executive powers called for a celebration of Tunisia’s first free and democratic elections,

    An understandable reaction, indeed. The economy is deteriorating, living costs and food prices are rising while unemployment remains one of the most pressing social challenges.

    In addition, we should not forget the yearlong demands for judicial system reform, media reform, bringing the thieves and killers to justice and finalising a gender-sensitive constitution in line with the world’s human rights conventions.

    The questions to be asked are to what extent is the current government planning to bring real reforms and how soon, and what will be the street reaction in the coming days?

    Anniversaries, rumour and conflict: a week to remember in Libya

    By Rhiannon Smith

    A week that included the anniversary of Muammar Gaddafi’s death, the anniversary of Libya’s liberation and the start of Eid al Adha was destined to be memorable, and yet the past few days have also been significant for other reasons.

    On October 1, government-backed militias from Misrata laid siege to the hilltop town of Bani Walid demanding that those responsible for the torture and subsequent death of Omran Shaaban, one of the men credited with capturing Gaddafi a year ago, be handed over to the Libyan authorities to face trial.  Bani Walid is seen as a bastion of Gaddafi loyalists and as the stalwarts of 17th February revolution clamoured for justice for one of their fallen heroes, the Ministries of Defence and Interior also threw their support behind the demands.

    However, as events in Bani Walid escalated it became apparent that the government in Tripoli was trying unsuccessfully to catch up with events as they unfolded on the ground, and in fact, it was the military command in Misrata calling the shots. Since Gaddafi’s capture and death at the hands of Misrati forces a year ago, the city of Misrata has become a powerful city-state, styling itself as the first line of resistance against anti-revolution forces. Their assault on Bani Walid is ostensibly an attempt to catch those responsible for Omran Shaaban’s death, yet the militias have also been trying to bring this notorious town under government control for over a year.

    Shortly after the revolution ended, Misrati militias forced the entire population of the town of Tawargha out of their homes as collective punishment for participating in the assault on Misrata. These people are still barred from returning home and many fear that a similar fate may await Bani Walid. Misrata forces are using their mantle as ‘defenders of the revolution’ to settle old scores while the government tries to convince the public that these same forces are doing their bidding in the name of the revolution.

    Though Bani Walid is 140km south of Tripoli,  those living in Libya’s capital have felt the effects of the conflict there. At first there was wide-spread support for the siege; on the anniversary of Libya’s liberation it seemed apt that those responsible for the death of a revolutionary hero be brought to justice. However, as reports on the nature and scale of the assault on Bani Walid became clear, and as the water supply to Tripoli was cut for 5 days due to power lines damaged in the fighting, support has shifted to a feeling of unease. Many residents of Tripoli doubt claims that Bani Walid is a hotbed of Gaddafi supporters and they question whether the militias have grounds for a full scale attack.

    Then, on the anniversary of Gaddafi’s death, rumours rapidly spread that claimed that Khamis Gaddafi, one of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, had been captured in Bani Walid despite being reported dead back in August 2011. The Gaddafi regime spokesman Musa Ibrahim was also reported as being held in Mitiga airport in Tripoli along with 30 other senior regime figures. Many were skeptical about this information given the timing and the unlikely nature of capturing so many high profile individuals in one fell swoop, but when the government confirmed the rumours, the streets of Tripoli went into celebration mode. Cars were beeping, music was playing and guns were being fired late into the night.

    The following day, however, the government apologised and said that in fact none of their previous statements were true. Hundreds of people stormed the parliament building as it became clear that the rumours had originated from the military command centre in Misrata. Whether the government was aware that the information was unsubstantiated or not, speculation about why such blatant propaganda was used was rife. Some claim it was an attempt to distract the public from the lack of water or the high price of sheep in the run up to Eid, others speculated that it was a result of general incompetence. The most common explanation is that the forces massing outside Bani Walid sought to justify a full scale assault on the town and what better way than to confirm that the inhabitants had been harbouring wanted men for the last year.

    At the time of writing it is reported that 50 people have been killed and hundreds injured in the fighting, and relief workers estimate that 5,000 families have fled Bani Walid across open desert. Reports about who is shooting whom, and what is actually going on inside the town are conflicting and following the debacle of Khamis and Musa Ibrahim, many in Libya are unsure what to believe.

    A year on from Libya’s liberation many aspects of life have improved. Libyans now have the freedom to say what they think and to question the actions and motives of those in power. Libya is a newly democratic society where everyone is entitled to their opinion and many are exercising this right voraciously.  Whether Bani Walid is a stronghold of Gaddafi loyalists or not, support of a long dead dictator does not justify the destruction and displacement of an entire town. The Libyan public need to use their new found voice to stop the militias from hijacking their revolution, and call for peace and reconciliation instead of force and violence.

    What’s in a jihad?

    By Munir Atalla

    Last week, three jihadists fleeing the Syrian city of Daraa were caught by Jordanian authorities.  The three Jordanian nationals were fighting the Assad regime, which has been condemned by the Jordanian Government.  In arresting these men, the government of Jordan has made it clear that the difference between a noble freedom fighter and a dangerous jihadist is the Jordanian border.  Again – and this is starting to look like a theme - Jordan is conflicted.  Does it hold true to its Saudi and American allies and allow arms to be pumped into Syrian rebel groups, or does Jordan crack down on rebels who are looking to the young kingdom for a stronghold? 

    So far, flashbacks to past struggles with the PLO have meant 22 alleged jihadists arrested at the border.  In the past months, the Monarchy has doubled border security in fear of a spillover that could take a heavy toll on the small Jordanian nation.  The compromise is this: Jordan will open its doors to women and children - those who now make up the majority of the makeshift camps that now litter the north - and arrest anyone trying to cross the border with arms.  The government is making it known that arms and Islamists will only be flowing one-way across the Jordanian border: out.  Still, arming militants for momentary gains is a strategy that has not served the west well (see the mujahedeen, Afghanistan).

    As if on cue, last week a terror plot was foiled.  The planned bombings targeted a Jordanian neighborhood known for demographic diplomat density.  Eleven were jailed, and ties were confirmed between the suspects, Al-Qaeda, and smuggled arms from Syria.  Jordan needs to stay on America’s good side, but must also be careful that their western sugar daddy isn’t throwing them under the bus by fostering unhealthy sectarian violence in their backyard. 

    Foiled plots always elicit mixed reactions.  On one hand, it is a testament to the prowess of the Jordanian secret police.  On the other hand, it is a rude awakening for those Jordanians who have got used to the mantra that Jordan is the one stable safe haven in the Levant.  Either way, it is a somber lesson to the public, many of whom are only now realizing how close to home the war is that is taking place.  Meanwhile, the jihadists claim that they pose no threat to Jordan, and are looking only to liberate their Syrian brothers.  Jordan took the opportunity to get rid of some of its more hardline Islamists, but is now inevitably dealing with the repercussions.  In nearby Beirut, a car bomb assassination in the middle of Achrafiyeh - downtown Beirut - signalled the first tangible spillover of violence from Syria into a neighbouring country.  The Jordanian government is taking every precaution to make sure that they are not next.

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