This week's window on the Middle East - September 17, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Doha debate reveals gulf between locals, its elite and expatriates

  • Doha debate reveals gulf between locals, its elite and expatriates
  • Oslo twenty years later
  • Protests and prayers are more alike than they seem
  • A complicated relationship: Libya, Syria and the international press
  • Lebanese pluralism in a limbo of unknowns
  • Doha debate reveals gulf between locals, its elite and expatriates

    By Sarah El-Richani

    Recent commentaries by Qatari citizens and journalists both in the local and social media reveal a polity eager to engage critically and openly on the manner in which its ruling elite are managing the country’s immense oil and gas revenues. Concerns voiced reveal a divide between the largely conservative population and the local elite’s ambitious plans for the emirate of Qatar. 

    In addition to the ongoing call to boycott Qatar Airways for serving alcohol and monopolising the local market, other campaigns have recently taken on other state-owned institutions. Last month, Qatari columnist Faisal al-Marzoqi wrote a fiery piece accusing the largely expatriate management of the Qatar Museums’ Authority (QMA) of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement.

    The QMA responded by threatening to sue for defamation. The Chairwoman of the QMA and sister of the ruling Emir, Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad al Thani, who was dubbed by the Economist “the art world’s most powerful woman”, later announced the restructuring of the QMA into a “private entity for public good” thereby freeing it of obligations expected of government-entities.

    Ensuing discussions on Twitter (in Arabic) have also scrutinised Qatar’s usually unannounced art acquisitions, which are purported to have cost at least $1 billion. It is unclear if purchases including Mark Rothko’s White Center and Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players, are part of a private collection, will be exhibited in local museums, or are regarded as investments adding value to the ambitious cultural goals Qatar has set for itself, in part to decrease the state’s reliance on oil and gas revenues.

    Nearly a fortnight after the kerfuffle concerning the QMA, Qatar University (QU) was targeted last week by a petition condemning its library catalogue for listing books deemed offensive. The university was quick to respond, promising to filter out books which are considered to have breached “clear criteria”.

    Although some of the publications mentioned in the petition do not appear to be academic (an outdated book on wine and beer making), others, albeit on controversial topics, are anthropological and of a scholarly nature  (academic edited work by sociologists Samir Khalaf and John Gagnon on “Sexuality in the Arab World”). It remains to be seen what criteria the QU library will implement amid a call by a QU student to resist censorship.

    In addition to alleged accusations of corruption, both fiscal and moral, expatriates which greatly outnumber what is effectively a Qatari minority in Qatar have also been attacked for their lucrative salaries and for assuming higher positions than the Qatari ‘citizen aristocracy’. This is a common refrain that overlooks the limited number of Qataris – a mere 250,000.  

    The inevitable cultural angst and other concerns expressed, which are at times xenophobic and classist, also reveal a deep gulf between the local population and the expatriates – both the highly-skilled white- and the poorly-treated blue-collar workers.

    While more and more Qataris seem to be expressing their disapproval or disquiet not only in the Majalis but also in the wider public sphere, it would be naive to speak of further liberalisation of the liberalised autocracy. Despite having held four municipal elections in the past, the promised national elections for the Advisory Council were postponed yet again a day before Emir Hamad abdicated in favour of his son Emir Tamim in June of this year. Meanwhile poet Mohammed al-Ajami, who had his life-sentence cut down to 15 years, continues to languish in jail for his poem Jasmine.

    Oslo twenty years later

    By Abdalhadi Alijla

    This year marks twenty years since the Oslo accords. Yet the world has almost seemed to reshape itself this year. Wars and political differences have spun most of the Middle East into what we know and see today: countries and their dignitaries abroad scrambling to find any sort of solution that may ‘stop the bleeding’ from the bullet hole made in the flesh of the Arab people. As a young Palestinian, I can’t help but reflect on the ‘solutions’ that have passed in my lifetime.

    I was a young boy when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), signed the Accords, but old enough to remember the celebrations (despite the Israeli occupation) staged in the streets of the Gaza Strip. We were welcoming and trusting as Palestinians, eager to end the occupation. How beautiful to have our own state! Mothers free to let their children play without fear, without the worry that their husbands might not return home that night.

    As I watch the international media call for a speedy response to the use of chemical weapons, I cannot help but think that this western world has forgotten about the malaise and Nakba (catastrophe) of the Palestinians caused by Israel. This world has brought us to the cold chopping block that we lie on today. Our Arab brothers, more beholden to the power hungry giants of the world, abandoned us…sold us like property to the highest bidder. The Palestinians were left isolated and alone.

    Going back to the late 1980’s and the 1990’s, the Palestinian leadership had little room for manoeuvre to deploy in their political struggle. The Palestinians were left paralyzed after refusing many offers. I can say that personally speaking, I too would’ve refused: having lost all of Palestine, how would you feel if someone came to you to bargain with you for the land they have stolen? You would at least wonder if the word ‘negotiations’ had taken on a new meaning. Or would you perhaps ask yourself if this was just the false front Israel wanted the world to see…this pretence that our neighbours wanted a peaceful passage?

    Whatever, we thought, after being abandoned by our brothers, we were tortured, murdered and transferred from Kuwait and other Gulf countries. We were in Tunisia, conditionally, but we were explicitly forbidden to mount any military activities against Israel. We had no exit…except one, Oslo: as Edward Said said, “We had no alternative because we either lost or threw away a lot of others, leaving us only this one”.

    And today we find ourselves amidst the turmoil and chaos of the Middle East, more thwarted and further removed from any peace agreement than ever. We have exhausted all the options within the negotiations for peace, and surely this is a waste of time - a ‘Trojan horse’ with which Israel seizes ever more land from the Palestinians, especially around Jerusalem, as they kick us into the streets without any mercy for children, old people or women.  

    Twenty years after its signature, the Oslo peace agreement clearly has nothing to do with peace. It has become simply the blueprint for the dehumanization of the children of Palestine. Deep divisions through walls and carefully nurtured racism, have only separated the Arab Palestinians from their Jewish neighbours. The agreement has regulated and legitimized the economic and political abuse that is the ongoing deepening of the occupation of Palestine.

    Best known to the world media was Operation Pillar…white phosphorus rained down as civilians ran for cover in the streets. Atrocities committed by the Israelis include Gaza 2008-09, November 2012, and the continuous killing of the Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as the colonization of my people. The road blocks, water and food shortages, ban on medical and building supplies. The wrongful and unlawful siege imposed over the Gaza Strip!

    Now, as a Palestinian who lives in the Diaspora, I see things differently. I examine Oslo from the eyes of others, picking over the words and promises…but focusing on the excessive failures of the Palestinian leadership. The Oslo accord was engineered in a decisive historical time in the Middle East. With the first Gulf war under way and a troubled Palestinian leadership, it was clearly the intentions of the Israelis to shut down the first Intifada. The lies and traps became very apparent. We quickly realized to our own despair and great detriment that what had been built on a false intention was in fact false. As a young Palestinian writer and thinker in this time, I am convinced that the Oslo agreement was the second victory of the occupation. As the Palestinian leadership fell into the trap of Oslo, their position deteriorated day by day, leaving future generations of the Palestinians with no road map to their future or any true relationship with Israel. We have been failed by the ones we trusted so greatly. Many Palestinians have told me that they feel that Oslo was a foundation good enough to start a new phase of political struggle. I once thought the same. However it is clearer now, what we have lost by signing Oslo, and what the first Intifada could have given us.  We stopped short of claiming the prize.

    What makes matters worse is the great failure of the Palestinian leadership to reform the PLO and PA institutions. They failed to attract skilled Palestinians, not because they cannot, but because they prefer to be corrupt (it is worth mentioning that the EU and its institutions are funding the corruption of the PA and the occupation, simultaneously).

    Currently, the security agencies of the Palestinian Authority as well as Hamas’s security militias in the Gaza Strip are agents protecting Israel’s interests in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian leadership (since 1993) is a political prisoner of the Oslo process. The president is controlled by a small office run by a young Israeli officer who decides who can accompany Abbas. In 2008, while traveling through Jordan to Europe, I personally witnessed the PA’s presidential official, Tayeb Abdelrahim arriving at the same time. He took a taxi to cross to Jordan under the order of a 21 year old Israeli soldier. Is it really any shock that Israeli occupation forces invade any Palestinian city at any time without informing Palestinian security? Two weeks ago, Israeli forces invaded a refugee camp in the West Bank, killing three Palestinians. These are refugees, their real homes are in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Safad or Haifa…what is the real purpose of such an invasion? To break their will?

    Add to that the huge bureaucratic apparatus that the Oslo Agreement installed to hinder any democratic aspirations. Despite this, twenty years afterwards, the Palestinians are more patriotic…and cling all the more to their land, past and history. It’s all we have left. The only solution is to rethink the dead Oslo Accords and try again - with a process that eliminates the current apartheid regime and paves the way to coexistence and real peace and not a ‘process of peace.’

    In 1990, as Edward Said once argued, the Palestinians were divided into four groups. The first was the biggest, which is the silenced and hopeless: mainly the Palestinians in the diaspora. The second were loyal to Arafat and his military apparatus. The third was the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank: suspicious of what the Oslo agreement would bring but at that time, not decided. The last was the marginalized group of intellectuals, educated personalities and some Islamic factions who were opposed to the Oslo Accords.  

    Since then, we have narrowed ourselves into two groups. Those who defend Oslo and its products, its corrupt institutions, nepotism, patrimonialism and abuse of power. This group is the PA leadership, their families, faithful and those who benefit from the status quo. The second group represents the majority of the Palestinians: those opposing Oslo and all its products, including the ‘so called’ historic leadership of the Palestinians. Of course, they agree that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, but they oppose those who are in power who claim to represent them and who seem to have little or no desire to meet their demands.

    The Oslo accord has failed to address many important issues... what about the Palestinians who live in Israel? They now constitute more than 23% of Israel’s populations. Oslo ignored them and left them as second-class citizens. Laws against dating between the Palestinian and Jewish people led to kidnap and murder. They have no more rights than they did before... Irrefutably we still struggle jointly with the rest of the Palestinian people against occupation and denial of Palestinian rights to life. To exist. Two months ago, all the Palestinians in historic Palestine, especially our younger generation, stood firmly and actively against the Prawer Plan to annex the Naqv desert. It was a landmark protest and strong message to Israel and the PLO alike that what Oslo has ignored, twenty years later will not be ignored by us.

    At this time, the Palestinian people still count on the American administration as a third party. Despite all that the west has done and not done, many Palestinian leaders still believe that American money is more important than the needs of the people. It is shameful, but true. 

    I don’t know what our grandfather’s generation, or our father’s generation had in mind…but we, the current generation, have more options than any that came before. We have a one-state solution as a viable alternative, with nonviolent resistance or a third intifada as the means. We will not accept anything more than equality: Palestinians and Jewish people seen as human beings with rights. We will accept nothing less.

    “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; because none but ourselves can free our minds”  Redemption song / Bob Marley

    Protests and prayers are more alike than they seem

    By Sa'ar from Israel

    The holiest day of the Jewish calendar is without a question Yom Kippur, the day of atonement (this past Saturday). Two years ago, some 1,000 New York Jews celebrated by converging at Occupy Wall St. in Zuccotti Park for an outdoor, decidedly political Kol Nidre service, marking the commencement of the Yom Kippur fast, the holy period in which Jews reflect upon their transgressions and ask god and their fellows for forgiveness. One of the blessings traditionally read and repeated throughout the Kol Nidre service is the Al Cheit, which had been rewritten for this Occupy Kol Nidre to include:

    We have sinned

    By yielding to confusion and falling into passivity[…]

    By not standing up for ourselves

    By thinking about Jewish values only on holy days

    By tolerating global warming, global disease and global poverty

    By being cynical about repairing the world

    By not defending Israel

    By not defending Palestine

    For all our sins, may the force that makes forgiveness possible, forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.

    For not standing up to fanaticism, terrorism, rape and torture-- no matter who the perpetrators are

    For not rocking the boat

    For not being grateful for our blessings

    Including Israel in an alternative Al Cheit seems obvious enough, but I have to admit I was astounded to see some 1,000 or more Jews not only proclaim their passivity of the defense of Palestine as personal transgressions against god, themselves and their community (something notable in itself), but to do so in such a public way - shouting it on the streets of New York on the holiest day of the Jewish year. It was a reminder that sometimes religious intuitions can teach us to cross borders that seem so obvious throughout the year and indeed participants described a feeling of “levitation” during their prayer service. I was reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Hasidic rabbi who wrote of his participation in the march from Selma to Montgomery during the civil rights movement:

    "For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

    It turns out, prayer and protests aren't so different after all.

    Still, I feel compelled to address one question from the Al Cheit: what is there for a Jew to defend about Palestine? Though we know there is no simple answer, we should recognize that increasing numbers of diaspora Jews are getting involved in Israeli politics, not as advocates but as activists. And now that Israeli peace negotiations and two states between the river and the sea are on the cards again, and some semblance of peace (and justice) is on the horizon, we repent forgetting about Israelis and Palestinians. But more so, we accept our unique positions to pressure Israel to play its role in creating the peace necessary for the safety of our family in Israel and those of our not-so-distant Arab cousins.

    Still, the hopes in the Oslo Accords remain unfulfilled promises, and, twenty years on (this past Friday), laden with excuses. Too often, the story is posed as a zero-sum; what is good for Palestinians is bad for Israelis, what restricts Palestinians makes Israelis safer, or engaging in a peace process is a concession in itself. When the state claims to stand for Jews and with it Jewish morality, it is precisely because of these political privileges on religious grounds that diaspora Jews feel pushed to engage with power.

    George ("Getzel") Davis gave the sermon at Occupy Kol Nidre two years ago saying, "Service to humankind is sacred and a reflection of service of god. This is the reason why we pray the Aleinu. Aleinu means 'on us', and is our affirmation that it is our job to change the world."

    So, what are we to do, having faced the dual anniversary of a sacred tradition of repentance and a peace agreement in our name that has now gone awry? Everything in our power to make it right.

    A complicated relationship: Libya, Syria and the international press

    By Rhiannon Smith

    It's been two and a half years since NATO's military intervention in Libya and although the international media followed the events of the 17th February revolution very closely while the battles were raging, interest dropped off somewhat after the death of Col Muammar Gaddafi and subsequent declaration of 'Free Libya' back in October 2011. The summer of 2012 saw Libya hit the headlines once more though, first with feel-good stories about Libya's free and fair elections and a return to pre-conflict levels of oil production, then with the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stephens and three others during an attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012.

    Since then however, international coverage of events in Libya has been surprisingly sparse. There seems to be a trend of using Libya as a lens through which to view, understand and even judge other high profile conflicts and struggles in the region, yet little attention is paid to Libya's issues in their own right.

    When Tuareg fighters, supported by Islamist groups, occupied the north of Mali in early 2012 in their struggle to establish an independent homeland (Azawad), Libya's lawlessness, abundance of weapons and porous borders were viewed as key factors facilitating the Mali conflict. Libya's vast, sparsely populated southern region straddles the deep Sahara and is home to nomadic tribes, such as the Tuareg and Tebu, whose traditional heartland cuts across international borders and encompasses large swathes of North Africa. The challenges of managing borders and policing activity in such an environment are vast and deserve attention, yet these issues were only considered through the prism of the Mali conflict. Once Mali fell out of the headlines, the search beam of the international community moved elsewhere, leaving Libya's southern region in the dark once more.

    Likewise with the attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi, the situation in Libya was of secondary concern. While it is understandable that American media has put the onus on capturing those responsible for the attacks, as well as appropriating blame within the US administration, surprisingly little airtime was given to Libya's domestic reaction to the attacks or to the development and progress of the country post-conflict. Failure to contextualise the Benghazi attack in mainstream media reduced Libya's problems to a one-dimensional issue, allowing the country either to be dismissed out of hand or its situation used to illustrate black and white points, despite the reality being varying shades of grey.

    The latest, and perhaps most significant example of the international media's dalliance with Libya is related to potential military intervention in Syria. Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons has led to global condemnation and calls for 'something to be done' to prevent such horrific attacks from taking place again. This has reopened the debate over whether the international community has a responsibility to protect, how it can achieve this and what the possible consequences of such action might be. As a contemporary recipient of a NATO-led military intervention, the international media once more has Libya in its sights and over the last few weeks a flurry of articles, interviews and programmes have appeared about Libya and how it is faring two years after the conflict. However the predominant tone of these pieces seems to be bewilderment and despair. Bewilderment that Libya is no longer at the same stage at which the international community left it a few months ago, and despair that Libya appears to have fallen into the clutches of disorder and chaos.

    The looming Syria intervention has come at what admittedly is probably Libya's lowest point since its official liberation nearly two years ago. As I wrote last month, there is growing anger towards the state over its inability to protect oil facilities and provide basic services, increasing division along tribal, ethnic and regional lines and myriad armed groups are still calling the shots as far as security is concerned. However there are three important points to note here.

    Firstly, Libya's current situation has not materialised overnight but rather is a culmination of political, economic and security developments over the past few months. Current international coverage of Libya generally ignores the complex processes which have led to this point and focuses instead on the end results, misleadingly portraying Libya's current challenges as somehow inevitable and immutable.

    Secondly, there is a tendency to list everything which is wrong with Libya without highlighting the positive developments. For example, new coffee shops and restaurants are opening every week in Tripoli, art and cultural events are taking place regularly and recently Debenhams opened its first Libya branch. Although it may seem a depressing way to look at the situation, things in Libya are nowhere near as bad as they could be. No post-conflict country could expect to transition from war to peace, stability and democracy in just two years and Libya is no different. Libya's transition is a longterm process and cannot be judged as either a failure or a success after just two years.

    Thirdly, and I cannot stress this enough, the situation in Libya today should have absolutely no bearing on whether the international community decides to intervene militarily in Syria or not. It is a truism that all wars are different and not only are the timings, events and actors in these two conflicts completely different, but so is the potential effect of external military intervention. Stating that there was a NATO intervention in Libya two and a half years ago then listing what is wrong with the country now does not mean there is an identifiable chain of cause and effect between the two scenarios, nor does it mean that if the same tactics were applied in Syria that a similar chain of events should be expected.

    As pointed out, mass international coverage of Libya has not been sustained therefore each time the media refocuses on the country, it must try to condense what in reality are complex, non-linear developments down to a few easily digestible points. Although there are a number of dedicated national and international journalists producing excellent in depth analysis on Libya, the constraints of time and impact mean that mainstream news on Libya usually comes in the form of easily digestible, comprehensible compotes which belie the complex reality on the ground. The decision to intervene militarily in Syria should not be influenced by such non-information, nor should the success or failure of Libya's revolution (and NATO's role in it) be declared arbitrarily at this point simply because the international community is interested in Libya again.

    Lebanese pluralism in a limbo of unknowns

    By Helen Mackreath

    Lebanon breathed a collective sigh of relief amid news that negotiations between Russia, Assad and the US had led to the Syrian regime agreeing to hand over its arsenal of chemical weapons. The country has been holding its breath in the weeks of uncertainty during the will-they-won’t-they US strike debate, watching its own reality play out on a detached television screen as unalterable as if it were a finished film. We had become quite blue in the face by the time the postponement came about, with reports of large numbers having fled the country in anticipation of a violent backlash.

    A US strike is still on the cards, and the temporary reversal to normality, whatever that state implies in Lebanon, may well only prove to be the calm before the storm. But this period allows for some reflection on the placement of Lebanon in the region and how its own identity is being shaped during this period of unknowns.

    When Ernest Gellner visited Beirut during the height of the civil war in 1980, he spotted one reason for the system continuing to function. It was the fact that, “men who run their business well do it by keeping their lines open to as many sides as possible”. This plurality is both a blessing and a curse, but as long as individual diplomacy and economic output continue, it floats, sometimes unconvincingly, on a semblance of stability. Similar to a Heath Robinson machine, a widely complex contraption of jigsaw-piece mechanics, unconventional materials and quick fix repairs, the country achieves its simple objective of running along through highly improbable means.

    The nuts and bolts of this Lebanese system rest on the myriad cases of individual diplomacy which Gellner referenced, and without which the finely balanced collection of jigsaw pieces would collapse. The individual is therefore an important point of analysis from which to understand how the country is currently ‘running’. Indeed it is arguably only because the individual continues to go about his or her everyday life that the country cannot be considered run aground.

    What is the view from the ground in Lebanon today? On the one hand the individual is at the mercy of the international community, namely the US and Russia, whose actions in Syria would almost certainly have ramifications in Beirut. On the other hand he or she is confronted by multiple domestic insecurities wrought by unknown and unseen forces – private groups, working off their own agendas to wreak instability through car bombs, and by provoking sectarian unrest.

    For some individuals living in the southern suburbs, daily life is being increasingly affected by the securitization of Hezbollah, who have set up extensive checkpoint and security alerts within their territory. The stringency of this operation is pushing already fraught relations to breaking point. Last weekend one Palestinian was killed and five injured after objecting to being stopped by a Hezbollah checkpoint at the entrance to Bourj el Barajneh camp. Gunfights have erupted between private family militias and the party, provoked by questions of the legitimacy of the extent of Hezbollah’s security measures.

    Their lives have also been altered increasingly by the growing Syrian refugee population, whether directly or indirectly, creating a competition for housing, jobs, resources. This issue permeates all levels of society, not simply the poorer reaches within which bracket refugees are typically assumed to reside. This is further exacerbated by the economic stagnation currently afflicting the country, and the region.

    This mix of security fears, economic instability and increased securitization of life is not particularly new for a Lebanese populace scarred by fifteen years of civil war. However, in contrast to all previous turmoil, this outlook taps into other, broader issues. Reported whispers that some in the Christian community may be packing up to leave Lebanon poses questions of Lebanese national identity within the shifting sands of the Middle East regional system. Crucially today a large proportion of individuals within Lebanon (mainly the Christian community) feel that the instabilities playing out are neither their responsibility nor fight, in contrast to the civil war. There is no incentive to stay.

    The very hint of a rupture caused by the exodus of a certain group would be a significant development. Throughout the protracted civil war which formed the base for Gellner’s earlier analysis of business as usual, the one similarity which bound all the multiple disparities of the country together was precisely the fact that all sects, political parties, non-state actors were embroiled in the mess (the Christian agenda back then was to oppose the growing power of the PLO).

    The lack of common ground over the Syrian conflict in Lebanon therefore represents a significant break with the past. Questions of national versus sectarian identity, which have existed in a perpetual and delicate balance since the Sykes-Picot agreement imposed the current state-system, are being asked across the region, influenced by both the multiple sectarian and national agendas at stake in Syria, and the migration of vast swathes of people across its borders. But in Lebanon in particular such questions of identity strike at the heart of the nation. It is the cultural and religious plurality which is the pride of the Lebanese national identity, to which most in the country are loyal, alongside their loyalty to their own religious identity. And it is this pluralism which has created the platform for economic diversities and investment which can be credited with providing the glue for Lebanon's (relative) political stability.

    Multiple factors inform decisions to pack up and go, not all of them rational. But the forbidding, and self-perpetuating, combination of economic depression with increasing insecurity does not provide a healthy incentive to stay. Like a Heath Robinson contraption, the continued running of Lebanon will probably be guaranteed by sticky-plaster remedies and improbable mechanical fixes which will maintain some semblance of an operational, albeit dysfunctional, structure. But with many of the nuts and bolts, or individuals, facing an insecure future, crucially not of their choosing, there is no guarantee that enough of them will stay in place, at least without leading to even more unpredictable ‘fix’ solutions, with unknown repercussions for the country.