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This week's window on the Middle East - April 29, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli: what now for Libya?

  • Attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli: what now for Libya?
  • Final draft of Tunisia’s new constitution released
  • Middle East football scores own goal
  • No-go areas and arms deals
  • Qatar and the US have a working relationship
  • Syrians deserting the FSA: Faust wants his soul back
  • Attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli: what now for Libya?

    By Rhiannon Smith

    On April 23, a car bomb exploded at 7am outside the French Embassy in Tripoli. The powerful explosion ripped through the outer walls of the embassy, as well as neighbouring houses, causing part of the building to collapse. Two French security guards were present when the bomb went off and one was seriously injured. Fortunately however most embassy staff were yet to arrive at the time of the blast so casualties were minimal. This was little consolation however for Tripoli's residents.

    This was the first direct attack on a foreign embassy in Tripoli since Gaddafi was ousted from power and it has sent shockwaves through the capital. Although the overall security situation in Libya is far from stable especially in the eastern and southern parts of the country, life in Tripoli is relatively calm and peaceful.  Attacks on the American Consulate in Benghazi back in September 2012 shocked and saddened the nation but few thought that such an attack could take place in Libya's capital, the seat of central government. The state has already been coming under fire in recent weeks for its perceived weakness and lack of control over powerful militias and unfortunately this bombing is likely to compound concerns that the Libyan government is failing in its attempts to maintain peace and stability.

    At the date of writing, no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the attack but there is speculation that it could have been orchestrated by AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in retaliation for French involvement in Mali. Another theory is that Gaddafi loyalists were behind the attack as it was France that spearheaded the NATO intervention which ultimately helped remove the old regime from power. A joint commission between Libya and France has been set up to investigate the attack, and Libya has announced that it will do everything in its power to bring the culprits to justice. However, various sources have claimed that Libyan security forces took up to 2 hours to arrive on the scene after the explosion, once more throwing doubt on the capacity of the Libyan authorities to actively manage law and order.

    The mood in Tripoli after the attack was one of shock, depression and frustration. The French are popular across Libya for the role they played in supporting the rebels during the revolution. Libyans posting on social media were quick to condemn the attacks, expressing their condolences to those who were injured and question why Libyans would attack a nation whose support was vital to the success of the February 17 revolution. Others expressed their anger at the Libyan authorities for their apparent incapacity to rein in militias and Islamist groups.

    Many feel that this attack was a taunt to the Libyan authorities as well as perhaps a warning to the French. The bomb was set off at 7am when few people would be around, yet the implication is that had they wanted to, the attackers could have set the bomb off in the middle of the day and caused a great deal more destruction and devastation. Many are pessimistic about the chances of catching those responsible. There have been demands for the Chief of Staff Yousef Mangoush to stand down given the inefficiency of the police and army, but so far these calls appear not to have been heeded.

    For their part, the French seem determined not to let these attacks disrupt their work in Libya and both embassy staff and French companies currently operating in Libya have no plans to leave. The same applies to other foreigners living in Tripoli. Although the bombing was a shock, it is seen more as a regrettable incident rather than a sign that the overall security situation in Tripoli is deteriorating. Other embassies are upping their security but have no plans to suspend operations.

    However, this attack will undoubtedly have a negative effect on Libya's economic and political progress. Foreign companies and investors already unsure about returning to Libya will be further dissuaded by this targeting of a foreign embassy in the heart of Tripoli. Companies in Libya will probably increase their security, limiting operations and increasing the perception that Libya is a country on the edge of anarchy.

    Libyan authorities need to turn this attack to their advantage. If they can show the Libyan public and the international community that they are actively and efficiently pursuing the perpetrators and strengthening security around the city then this could be a turning point for the better for Libya. However if the government and security forces continue to display the lacklustre, ineffective approach that they have done in recent weeks and months then Libya's short term future will look a lot less secure.   

    Final draft of Tunisia’s new constitution released

    By Sana Ajmi

    After long heated debates, a final draft of Tunisia’s new constitution was released last week by the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). The draft is to be submitted to the speaker of the NCA, the Prime Minister and the President. An absolute majority 109 out of 217 assembly members must vote in favour of the constitution, article by article, before the final draft becomes law.

    The NCA have been charged since the October 23 elections with drafting Tunisia’s new constitution. Even though the governing Islamist party Ennahdha, which won 89 out of 217 seats in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly rejected the conservatives’ demand that Sharia law should provide the main source of legislation in the new constitution, they chose instead to retain the first article of the 1959 constitution, which states that, “Tunisia is a free, sovereign and independent state, whose religion is Islam and language is Arabic.” Ennahdha has been criticized on many occasions for proposing articles that could limit freedoms especially those of women.   

    Women’s rights have proved a pivotal issue in the first draft of the constitution released last August. The draft included the controversial article 28, which describes women as men’s “partners” and asserts that “their roles complement one another within the family”. Many secularists and feminists have argued that the article contradicts Tunisia’s personal status code, a landmark piece of legislation enacted in 1956 that continues to set Tunisia apart as the most progressive Arab country regarding women’s rights. The Personal Status Code banned polygamy and gave women the right to file for divorce. Civil society activists objected to the proposed article and put pressure on the NCA which led to the article being removed.

     Another proposed article in August called for the criminalization of religious offenses, stating that “The state guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice and criminalizes all attacks on that which is sacred.” Many criticized the blasphemy article and said that it may be used as a convenient vehicle for political and social repression. Such an article was not proposed in the final draft, which only stated that, “the state preserves religion and ensures the freedom of religious belief and practice”.

    There has been debate in Tunisia over the structure of the emergent political system, and whether it should a presidential, parliamentary or mixed system. While the Ennahdha party has called for a parliamentary system, many other opposition parties call for a presidential one. However, no consensus has yet been reached.  

    Unlike the constitution draft that was released on August, this final draft does not seem to hold many surprises. However, opposition politicians have accused the parliamentary committee charged with drafting the constitution of modifying articles relating to the right to strike and freedom of expression without having the authority to do so.

    Middle East football scores own goal

    By Sarah El-Richani

    Amidst the tragic devastation in Syria and the general turbulence engulfing the region, the recent football turmoil in the Middle East may seem trivial. Yet the intermingling of sports, politics and identity in the region makes it too important to be overlooked.

    As ‘the football war’ amongst the Egyptian football clubs al-Ahly, al-Masry and the police continues to simmer following another round of riots last month upon the confirmation of verdicts over the 2012 fatal stadium riot, a match-fixing scandal has emerged in Lebanon.  

    In a country where sports - at least on the national level - has temporarily united a deeply divided nation, the treachery committed by some football officials alongside those who bribed them must not go unnoticed. The anguished statements made by Lebanon’s football national coach Theo Bucker after the team literally gifted their chance to advance to the 2014 World Cup in exchange for cash gifts resonated widely. “I am really destroyed”, he said in an interview, “not only [did they] sell the game, [they sold] a country”, he added.

    FIFA last week issued an international ban against 24 players and officials in line with the sanctions imposed by the Lebanese Football Association. The key culprits, striker Mahmoud al-Ali and defender Ramez Dayoub, were handed life bans and fines. Dayoub had deliberately made several backpasses last year in a World Cup qualifier against Qatar, which gave the Gulf state a victory and spoilt Lebanon’s chances of qualifying for the first time.

    Yet while the players and one official have been penalised, those behind the match-fixing operation remain unnamed and unpunished.

    In another blow to Lebanese football, three referees are facing trial in the city-state of Singapore for allegedly accepting sexual bribes in exchange for influencing an Asian Cup game. The officials will face trial early June and have been refused bail.

    Meanwhile Qatar, which acquired French football club Paris Saint-Germain last year, has also faced allegations of corruption regarding its successful World Cup bid. Its former Asian Football Confederation president, FIFA Executive Committee member and presidential candidate Mohammed Ben Hammam has been banned for life for breaching the FIFA code of ethics pertaining to conflict of interest.

    In addition to the potential of moving the competition to winter, the most recent controversy surrounding the 2022 competition relates to Qatar’s treatment of its workforce.  The International Trade Union Confederation last week demanded that  FIFA revoke the World Cup hosting rights due to Qatar’s infamous Kafala system, the low wages and cramped living conditions it offers foreign labourers who are erecting its stadiums and infrastructure. In what seems a response to these criticisms, Qatar Foundation and the 2022 organising committee released the worker’s charter which aims to ameliorate living conditions and curb exploitation. The proof, however, is in the pudding.

    While violence, racism and corruption in sports is a rampant phenomenon as the recent Europol investigation in Europe  and the racist chants by some Beitar Jerusalem fans reveal, the state of sports in the region, its governance bodies as well as the labourers behind the scenes, should be seriously addressed. While rooting out the cheaters, racists and exploiters is a tall order, naming and shaming them, at the very least, is a necessary first step.

    No-go areas and arms deals

    By Rori Donaghy

    The President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is due to arrive in the UK on Monday for a two day state visit when he will meet with the Queen at Windsor Castle and David Cameron at No. 10. With a traditional carriage procession planned for his visit to Windsor, Sheikh Khalifa will be shown the red carpet treatment; when the President meets with David Cameron a long-mooted arms deal worth several billion pounds will be central to discussions. Yet, with a worsening human rights record that includes the alleged torture of both British and Emirati citizens, shouldn’t this visit also be a chance to raise issues of concern?

    Londoners Grant Cameron, Karl Williams and Suneet Jeerh have been in a Dubai prison since July 2012. They were arrested on suspicion of possessing a synthetic form of cannabis known as ‘spice’ and have accused Emirati authorities of torturing them. The three men have told lawyers at Reprieve, a UK-based human rights group, that they have been subjected to regular beatings, had guns held to their head and suffered electric shocks to their testicles. A report by torture expert Dr. Frank Arnold has stated that, based on the available evidence, their injuries are consistent with acts of torture.

    Authorities have also been accused of torturing defendants in the ongoing trial of 94 Emirati citizens who have been charged with setting up an organization aimed at ‘overthrowing the government’. Although foreign media and international observers have been banned from trial sessions, family members have reported that defendants have accused authorities of forced confessions, beatings and harrowing acts of torture.

    The trial of the 94 has been a landmark case in the reaction from authorities to increased calls for meaningful political form in the autocratic state. The defendants, which include high-profile human rights lawyers, judges, academics and student leaders, say that they are being persecuted due to their calls for reform that began with petitioning the President for a wholly elected parliament in March 2011. Many of those held are members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association, which is a peaceful Islamic civil society group that has been active in the education and charity sectors since its legal establishment in 1974. Leading human rights expert Geoffrey Robertson QC, who attempted to observe trial proceedings as part of an international delegation, has called on UAE authorities to ‘open this trial up to international observation so justice can be seen to be done’ in a report that describes the violations of fair trial standards thus far.

    When David Cameron sits down with Sheikh Khalifa he should be wary about the lure of lucrative arms deals for two reasons. The first is that Cameron should be cautious about further arming a country with a worsening human rights record and whose Crown Prince was exposed as having set up a private mercenary army made up of Columbian mercenaries to, among other reasons, take charge of ‘civil uprisings’. The second is that the UAE appear to be using the attraction of multi-billion pound arms deals to shield themselves from criticism: they have been in discussions with the UK, France and the USA for several years, all involving similar deals yet to materialize.

    With credible and uninvestigated claims of torture against both British and Emirati citizens David Cameron should break his silence on UAE abuses. When he visited the Emirates in November 2012 Cameron said that on human rights there are ‘no no-go areas in this relationship’. During this state visit the grave concerns of torture in the UAE must be one area that is explored in detail.

    Qatar and the US have a working relationship

    By Michael Stephens

    Qatar and the United States seem to have reaffirmed their friendship in a very chummy session held between Qatar’s Emir and President Obama in which the conversation was wide-ranging but ofcourse focused heavily on Syria.

    Certainly in front of the cameras all appeared well, and both the President and the Emir spoke with surprising frankness about the region’s problems. The Emir made his stance clear; Qatar sought the removal of Bashar from Syria and supported the ‘peace process’ between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The former a clear statement of intent, the latter more paying lip service to a moribund and discredited endeavour, no doubt done to keep the administration happy and paint Qatar in a positive light for a questioning American public.

    The relationship is multi-faceted, and currently the US possesses the widest footprint of any nation in Qatar in business and defence relationships; but it was not always so. The work of the Americans to try and bring Qatar into their orbit has been sustained and well planned. The previous US Ambassador to Doha James Le Baron was a tour de force of diplomatic endeavour and did much to cement a growing relationship between the two nations over the past five years.

    But relationships are more deeply intertwined than that, and Qatar has moved from being seen in US eyes as a recalcitrant pest to being a crucial player in the region. The Al Jazeera network and Qatar’s close ties to Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal have always presented a headache for the US, whose policy towards Hamas was largely governed by its need to align close-to-Israeli thinking on the subject. Famously former Senator, now Secretary of State John Kerry claimed in 2009 “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.” Qatar went ahead and sent the money, and the Americans remained allies.

    Strategically, the Al Udeid military base (the headquarters of US CENTCOM) and the increasing importance of Qatar as a regional actor and financial investor in just about everything, have made the relationship closer in recent years. Thus the differences concerning Israel, the occasionally troublesome Al Jazeera network, and Qatar’s hosting and funding of hard-line Islamists have been papered over in favour of larger strategic visions which ensure the interests of both parties.

    On the issue of regional security the relationship is more important for the Qataris than it is the Americans. Whilst Qatar requires external protection in order to survive in a world surrounded by much larger states, the US could likely find another partner to help host their regional bases and establish a forward post to deter Iran. However Qatar has acted in a manner since 2011 that has made it a key player in the conversation on regional security.

    Three of the region’s most unstable countries Egypt, Libya and Syria have all seen heavy Qatari interference, be it in the form of funding militant groups, direct deployment of forces or huge injections of liquidity. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al Thani recently claimed that in all three cases Qatar did not seek leadership, but sought to work within a multilateral framework. This is only partly true. Yes - Qatar was hesitant to take the lead in Libya, but has been more than happy to drag unwilling Arab states forward to action in Syria and has taken a strategic choice to prop up Egypt’s failing Muslim Brotherhood led government almost single-handed. Furthermore on the Palestine question, Qatar inserted itself into the conversation with the tool it uses best, money, $450m of it, becoming part of the Israeli Palestinian discussion, much to the chagrin of the US, Israel or the PA.

    The concomitant of Qatar taking these positions is that it has become a regional partner for the United States, whether the US wants it to or not. There is little the Americans can do in terms of telling Qatar how it should behave, but the conversation is frank and robust. Qatar’s shoddy handling and control of arms transfers to the rebels in Syria met with American ire and the Qataris understood and took note of the fact that they were causing as much harm as they were good.

    Regarding US suspicion concerning Qatar’s sponsorship of Islamists - most informed Americans I have spoken to understand that Qatar, through a mixture of naivety and poor conflict management, got itself stuck in situations that made its actions look very suspicious indeed, particularly in Syria and Libya. There is however much still to be explained regarding its support for some Islamist groups that the US is firmly against, and sees as counter to its interests. I suspect that there will never be a full rapprochement between the US and Qatar on this particular issue, and both will simply have to agree to disagree.

    The key in this relationship moving forward is for both countries to remain close, but not too close. An openly tight alliance serves the interests of neither, certainly not if regional perceptions are anything to go by. Qatar appearing an American stooge discredits its ability to work with regional actors, especially Islamists, and for the USA being too close to Qatar upsets those on the right who see Qatar’s interests as counter to democracy and threatening to the State of Israel. A quiet working relationship in which both sides have to look the other way when they annoy each other is the key.

    Syrians deserting the FSA: Faust wants his soul back

    By Rita from Syria

    In 1915 under Ottoman occupation, villages and towns across Syria suffered from one of the harshest famines in its history. Death and grief overwhelmed the country. The precarious political situation in the region: the First World War, locust invasion and drought all came together at this juncture in space and time – and it seemed things must continue to go from bad to worse.

    According to my grandmother, in one of the villages to the east of Hama city by the encroaching desert, little grew in this barren land save a poisonous plant called "loof" – a local variety of wild arum. On the brink of starvation, loof was the remaining glimmer of hope for the embattled villagers. Boiling loof for ten hours removes the toxins, and the people of that village survived to tell the story. Nowadays, loof cooked with hummus and sumac is considered a popular dish in this part of Syria, where it is prepared by households as part of a collective rite – a remembrance of how previous generations survived death and famine.

    Today, Syria is experiencing a much harsher situation than that of a century ago. Today, in Syria, the causes of death are numerous and difficult to predict.

    Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, "the black stone" neighbourhood to the south of Damascus, has been under siege for more than five months. No food or medication is allowed to enter. FSA fighters have been able to find ways to bring in supplies, but getting aid into al-Hajar al-Aswad still remains an arduous and dangerous task – taking weeks to reach the besieged. Under these difficult conditions, a group of journalists and reporters were trapped in a building in the reach of the regime’s mortars. After three days with not a morsel to put in  their mouths, it was the loof plant growing weed-like at the entrance to the building which saved them from starving, as it did so many years ago in Hama.

    An addiction to war and fear of life

    Matar was once a promising poet, but now he is a media spokesperson for the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigade in al-Hajar al-Aswad. Although he was seriously injured by mortar fragments in the midst of this siege, he refused to leave his place with the fighters for treatment:

    "I don't want to hear the pulse of normal life while we are getting killed; I don't want to feel grief for seeing markets full of all kinds of food while we eat poisonous herbs to keep alive. I don't want to get back to ‘a normal’ life, because this will just weaken [my resolve] and make me take a cowardly decision not to go back to the front line once more. It is very difficult for those of us who have lived the harsh and difficult life of an FSA soldier to make this choice – it’s not a real choice ".

    Matar is no exception. Lots of FSA members suffer from this same deep sorrow. The majority of them have lost their jobs, families and way of life, until nothing is left but a gun and a bloody battle which has no end in sight. At this point, the reader might say that this was the fighter's choice and this is the nature of wars and armed conflicts. However, I would like to highlight here the tense and delicate moment in which a fighter may decide to desert from their post with the FSA and abandon the war to come back to life.

    A prolonged conflict

    Most Syrians never expected that the conflict would last this long. Those opposing the regime have been taken aback by the regime's steadfastness and this has frustrated them – particularly the continuous support from Iran and Russia. The media-war continues to be stoked by announcements of victorious battles and the liberation of towns by both sides of the conflict.

    However, the reality is that opposition militias and the official army have reached a military stalemate – one step forward and one step back as progress on one front is checked by loss and retreat on another. While the FSA celebrated taking control of Raqqa in the North, the regime was consolidating its hold over Damascus and Homs. This tug of war reflects the battle on the international stage where America, Europe, Russia and regional players are jostling for influence in Syria, with no-one willing to find a solution to the crisis.

    A fighter's story

    Adam volunteered to fight for the FSA with the Mujahidi Harasta battalion in the east of the capital a year ago. After being seriously hit in the leg, he came to Damascus city carrying fake ID to get treatment and recover. My concern when I visited him was not his physical injury, but the extent to which he was clearly suffering from a severe depression – having spent a year in an environment wholly foreign to him:

    "I was killing people and watching others die. I couldn't make friendships and this was driving me crazy. I wasn't even able to talk about my sexual desires and I even had to pretend to pray in front of the other fighters - I’m not religious - because I didn't want to be an outsider", he told me.

    As a fighter in an Islamist brigade it is difficult – almost impossible – for young men to do what young men like doing most: thinking about girls. Propriety around gender relations means that voicing such thoughts is viewed as unbecoming for a fighter ‘in the way of the faith’.

    Adam stayed in Damascus to recuperate and decided not to go back to his battalion. He wanted to start his life once again, but picking up from where one has left off is never as simple as that. A fear of being followed, being arrested and tortured has marked his every living moment to the extent that he can’t help but look nervously around him while walking or talking in public – even when conversations are of the mundane variety.

    This feeling of dread wasn't only fear of the regime's security forces, but more of the battalion members themselves! Each battalion has an intelligence section entrusted with the mission of watching fighters and ensuring that they are not spies or collaborating with the regime. Adam told me anecdotal stories concerning incidents of some FSA members being executed because they wanted to quit. The reason cited by the militia hierarchy was that they represented a ‘security risk’ and could divulge sensitive information.

    The FSA is largely made up of civilian combatants with no military experience and a smaller number of soldiers who defected from the official army. Few of them have sufficient training to deal with being in the type of guerrilla war being waged by battalions up and down Syria, thus their complicated psychological status has pushed some of them to thinking about leaving their positions and abandoning the FSA for a new life or an attempt at piecing together what remains of their old life.

    Nour al-Din is a field commander in the Ali Bin Abi Talib battalion fighting in the southern districts of Damascus. I asked him about the phenomenon of fighters deserting the FSA:

    "a real fighter, a true believer in the revolution and Islam never leaves the battle ground. Only opportunists and chancers who joined the FSA to steal and get benefits may do this. Whoever volunteered in the FSA for the sake of a free Syria and any real Muslim will stay steadfast until the end – for the Syria he dreams of".

    In the midst of this harsh war, Syrians have found themselves at a crossroads: obliged to choose between either their personal interest and life or the country's freedom. A question occurs to me here – Is it possible for fighters who quit the FSA to go back to their old lives? It seems highly improbable, given that Syria has been ripped into so many different pieces with different authorities holding sway over particular areas – here the regime, there such and such battalion.

    The country is now a hotch-potch of hot and cool areas. Families have been displaced across the country in their millions. Most fighters are wanted by intelligence forces and they can't go back to their original villages and towns, nor can they meet their families who were forced to flee. This is how our lives – and not just that of FSA fighters – have been trapped, in the eye of a tornado that is hurtling at breakneck speed. Where and how we get off is anyone’s guess. One thing is for sure – it won’t be an emerald city.

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