This week's window on the Middle East - March 4, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Syrian colours: the greys

  • Syrian colours: the greys
  • Why do we have doubts about the IMF loan?
  • Does Qatar have a stake in the nuclear debate?
  • The last camel
  • Dancing in Muqattam
  • The Harlem Shake controversy in Tunisia
  • Syrian colours: the greys

    By Rita from Syria

    In a town market in Douma – a Damascus suburb under the control of the FSA – some local shopkeepers are seemingly reluctant to take sides in a conflict which has wracked the country for the past two years. Abu Abdo, an elderly shoemaker in his seventies told me his mind when I asked him his opinion: "I just want to live and work so I can feed my family. I don't care who rules because [whoever comes in] will always be a corrupt hypocrite. Both sides – the regime and the opposition aren't worth supporting as they both steal and kill. Death, homelessness and destruction is all that we've got from them".

    Abu Hosam, a sixty year old grocer in the same market shared his assessment: "some of my nephews joined the FSA while others are still doing their military service in the official army, they may end up killing each other one day because of this conflict. The conflict has nothing to do with us. Syria will never progress at this rate and we don't deserve freedom". He added while drawing a puff on his cigarette – his voice quivering and full of grief.

    Two years have passed since the out-break of the Syrian revolution and the jagged graph of violence keeps rising steadily – the regime’s violence reaching ever-greater peaks. The most recent extremity has seen scud missiles launched by the regime against civilian populations in Aleppo and Raqqa. Yet, lots of Syrians continue to cling to their position of not taking sides. Known here in Syria as "the third current" or "the greys", this section of Syrian society are perhaps the most representative but also constitute an ineffective block – a silent majority. Opposition supporters routinely accuse the third current of backing the regime. On the other hand, the regime classifies them as opposition sympathisers.

    Simply put, the apathy of the “the greys” reveals the severe trust-deficit that exists between many Syrians and politicians inside and outside the country. Many people in Syria retain deep doubts about the intentions of political players. Their pessimistic outlook regarding the escalating violence stems from catastrophic political failures inflicted by both the regime and opposition formations alike. Together with the widespread corruption that nestles in political institutions and personalities, it is perhaps unsurprising that apathy is a feature of political life in Syria.

    However, it was believed that the uprising in Syria had torn away the veil of indifference. And yet, despite the carnage, the striking reality in Syria is that the third current has shown little appetite or any willingness to act or to change what they criticize. They have no political or organizational plans, and they surrender to whatever the future brings. They even fail to bring themselves to condemn the continuing barbarity of the killing machine.   

    There are generational differences also in the whys and wherefores of adopting a ‘grey’ position. On the one hand, most young people indicate no real interest in what is happening in the rest of Syria – some of them carry on with their lives as they had done before the conflict started; partying, hanging out at cafes and lounging by swimming pools as a distraction from the misery only a few kilometers away from them. Rami, a student in Damascus University originally from the city of Sweida, south Syria, says: "The situation is out of control, and nobody can stop the bloodshed. Arms dealers have decided that now is the time to get rich quick from what's going on in Syria. I am helpless like everyone else. I just want to live as normal a life as possible". 

    On the other hand, those from an older generation – particularly the intellectuals among them – demonstrate an intense pessimism and grief; it is as though they have lost confidence in their people and country. We often hear them say things like: "our people don't understand what freedom means" and " this country will never ever get any better", reflecting how they see Syria. 

    Part of this pessimism has a historical origin which wasn't born of the recent conflict.

    Our fathers' generation was defeated twice: once in wars and the other in the battle with the self. Catastrophic defeats, especially the ones against Israel in 1948 and 1967 left deep scars in the psyche of Syrians – known to be the standard-bearer of Arab resistance – and instead stole every hope they ever had of being bearers of change from them. Moreover, Syrian authorities over the decades have been adept in the art of rhetoric; changing the defeat into a simple setback in 1948 and into a glorious victory in 2006. I would like here to mention an old article by the Syrian writer Ghada Alsamman. In I carry my shame to London, which she wrote right after the 1967 defeat, she articulated the anaesthetizing effect of replacing the term “defeat” with "Naksa and Nakba" – setback and calamity. The ploy of name-changing has done little to reverse the facts which we all knew. 

    The uprising has been reduced to a bloody conflict which dominates all the other aspects of the revolution. Its peaceful beginning didn't last long enough to revive the hopes of our parents' generation. Jihadi and Islamic currents have played a significant role in pushing neutrals away through their unwise propaganda. At the same time, the regime's crimes and its violent suppression of the opposition has led them to distance themselves from it. 

    Abu Abdo and Abu Hosam are just two out of millions of Syrians who don't see themselves supporting any side of the conflict. They are waiting for nothing and see no light at the end of the dark tunnel we are in now. The revolution failed to revive them, and the regime failed to be fair with them.

    I respect an individual's personal freedom to adopt the position she wants, I really do. But, I find it impossible to defend the political neutrality of the Greys when it has been accompanied with a complete absence of moral response. Whilst we can justify and understand political neutrality, distancing ones' self from the systematic destruction and daily massacres without a single reaction or condemnation is in fact a moral failure

    Ghada Alsamman wrote the following words in The Body is a Suitcase more than forty years ago, yet I can find no better way of summarizing the crisis of the ‘third current’, while inviting them to act, instead of living a forever frustrated existence, doomed to disappointment:

    “We want organization, work and action..

    We want the frenzied demonstrations to be considered as more than manifestations of the mob. Yes, it is a scandal as the ‘intellectuals’ called it. But it reveals an even greater scandal. The scandal of an authority which ignores its people's true desires [...] and doesn't organize their powers into positive actions; so in the end they explode in its face just like this – a destructive tornado.”

    A thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece

    Why do we have doubts about the IMF loan?

    By Nader Bakkar

    At a critical stage such as this, during which Egypt is rearranging and resetting its priorities and strategies, it is of great importance to remember that the foundations of proper economic and political management require an integrated vision. This vision must precede both micro-level steps and an outline for the main strategic goals of a country, before starting tactical projects. This specifically is the main problem intensifying Egypt’s hesitancy in accepting (or rejecting) the IMF’s credit facility.  The step of taking a loan might be viable, however I am more concerned about avoiding moving forward with a flawed vision or with a complete lack of vision.

    In fact, it is this strategic uncertainty that throws into stark relief the lack of necessary information, or transparency, regarding the conditionality of the loan and its economic and political consequences. This is compounded by the fact that the government has not yet disclosed the country's economic situation fully and accurately, including the volume of its foreign reserves, the budget deficit, etc.

    In my opinion, transparency about the reasons for accepting the loan and its conditionality are the two main prerequisites for formulating an initial proposal, particularly when looking at the Malaysian example, where a severe related crisis in the late nineties almost ravaged the country.

    At that time, in an unprecedented move, Malaysia rejected an IMF loan. It is not necessary to go into the reasons the IMF loan was rejected, as that has been done by many before me. However, what caught my attention was the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed’s decision to establish a national council, comprised of investors, businessmen and economists with different ideologies. The council held long daily session for two years until they were able to emerge from the crisis. This highlights the fact that critical decisions affecting the future of a country, politically and economically, cannot be monopolized by one person's point of view, regardless of his/her proficiency.

    My suggestion, which is quite similar to this idea, is to launch workshops in which Egypt’s economic experts from all schools of thought, be it Islamic, capitalist or socialist, both at home and abroad, can participate. Through these workshops, they can collect all the varied yet valuable ideas they can get their hands on, creating a pool of innovative solutions that break away from a pattern of a narrow formulaic vision for solving the liquidity and financing crises that we face. At the very least, this process will help to form an integrated vision that helps policy makers in the decision making process, rather than insisting that there is no other alternative for this or that step.

    Talk about change in IMF policies after the disastrous international financial crisis in 2008 cannot be guaranteed, since the main rule that cannot be changed is the burden of the loans, either in the form of financial commitment or in the form of restricting political decision-making, the latter being by far the more serious knock-on effect. Additionally, our current situation does not allow us to bet on the goodwill of others.

    The approval of the World Bank loan will have a positive impact on raising Egypt’s credit rating, which will result in more international confidence in the economy and hence attract more investments. However, why is this the only approach being considered? This is an another example of stereotypical thinking which could be guarded against, with Egyptian diplomacy adopting a distinguished role in the coming period, by opening new doors and adopting new strategies in building foreign relations.

    For instance, Middle East Rating and Investors Service chairman, Amr Hassanein told Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, after President's Morsi visit to China: "International credit rating agencies monitor the movements of the presidents and what they do in terms of signing agreements that attract real investments, and President Morsi’s visit to China sends a strong message to the world that the new Egyptian regime is trying to enhance its relations with global economic powers, away from any ideologies."

    Does Qatar have a stake in the nuclear debate?

    By Michael Stephens

    Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khalid al Attiyah threw his hat into the nuclear arena in Geneva last week reaffirming his nation’s commitment to a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

    ‘So what?’ I hear you all say. Of course it doesn’t take a deep knowledge of foreign affairs or Gulf geography to realise that Qatar will never become a nuclear weapons state. The only likely possibilities for regional nuclearisation are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, of which Saudi Arabia with its vast geographical size and strategic depth affording it the potential for dispersed delivery sites and ‘second strike’ capability is a serious option.

    So what is Qatar doing adding its name to the club of voices involved in the nuclear debate seeing as it has seemingly little role to play in any future proliferation scenario? Well the answer is worth exploring. The installation of the X-band radar system in Qatar in July 2012 ties Qatar intimately into the ever improving Ballistic Missile Defence capacity of the Gulf states, which by extension links Qatar into the regional security debate on proliferation and nuclearisation.

    The upgrading of BMD capacity serves a dual purpose of defending the Gulf states from conventional and nuclear attack by missiles, whilst simultaneously negating their need to nuclearize in response to perceived threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran. As such, the system serves to buy the region a little more space to think about what to do whilst Iran plays games with the P5+1 concerning its enrichment programme.

    Should the Iranians decide to go for a nuclear weapon (a decision which they will surely put off until the last possible moment before negotiations with the P5+1 stall and when they have as much latent nuclear capability as possible), then the ballistic missile defence shield becomes a vital component for buying extra time in preventing the region from quickly descending into mass panic. Getting a bomb is one thing, but finding a way to deliver it, and accurately is quite another.

    Currently Iran lacks terminal guidance capability on its missiles, and is not estimated to reach such levels of accuracy for another ten years. Given that Iran (should it decide to weaponise) could only place a small crude device onto an inaccurate missile in the near future, it does not threaten world peace in quite the way some would make out. Furthermore the development of advanced BMD technology from the Gulf states (with American backing) would severely lessen this already weak offensive potential.

    What does threaten world peace is the transition to accurate delivery systems that would allow Iran the ability to strike strategically sensitive targets, such as Saudi’s Ras Tanura oil export facility, or regional Gulf population centres. The timing of the transition is important here. If we assume that Iran cannot reach this stage for another ten years, then we can better see the role that the Gulf states play in buying the world some time to deal with this issue, given of course that they still require American assistance for the operation and support of their main deterrence capacity.

    The really important role for Qatar in this whole game is its relationship to Saudi Arabia. Specifically how it can provide a role in restraining Riyadh from taking any rash decisions should the Iranians surprise us all and end up with a bomb, notwithstanding a potential Israeli or US strike. Qatar has many options it can explore in this regard, offering its territory as a site for offensive conventional missiles which it could no doubt purchase with its ample wealth from any supplier it so wished, may be perhaps the most useful.

    Qatar would of course make itself a target for Iranian ire by doing this, but it is already a target by virtue of the American military base situated just to the south-west of Doha. The location of offensive missiles targeted at sensitive Iranian military sites would allow the Qataris a bargaining chip with Riyadh to say, ‘hold off on any plans to go nuclear, we can handle this conventionally’. Thus what initially seems a highly destabilising Qatari move could potentially prevent a regional catastrophe.

    Furthermore Qatar refuses to allow its American airbase to be used as a launching pad for a strike against Iran should Israel or the US decide to go in. This causes the US some headaches with regard to scenario planning and logistics, which certainly adds to the restrain factor that is so badly needed at this point in time. The higher and more difficult the cost of the US deciding to join Israel in an attack, the less likely it is to happen. This can only be a good thing.

    So Qatar has a number of ways in which it plays in the regional nuclear debate, and should it feel necessary, a number of options to attempt to mitigate the threat of cascading regional destabilisation should Iran decide to attain the ultimate weapon. Ultimately the Qatari strategic position may be overruled by the whims of greater powers, but when Qatar says it wants a region free of nuclear weapons, do not scoff: it plays a more nuanced and complex role than many think.

    The last camel

    By Munir Atalla

    The swell in Syrian refugees in Jordan has many news networks worried.  “What effect will the refugees have on Jordan?” they ask.  True, Jordan scarcely has enough resources for its own population, but has proven to be a generous host in the true sense of the word.  The Bedouins tell the parable of a stranger in the desert who stumbled upon the tent of a lone Bedouin.  The stranger was starving, but noticed that the man was frail and malnourished.  Still, the Bedouin insistently went out back and slayed his last camel in order to feed his guest.  With water resources scarce, and neighbors in the Gulf and allies in the UK falling through on their promises of aid to Syria, Jordan is eyeing its last camel. 

    Still, most channels have been singing one note, leaving several others untouched, including the experience of the Syrian refugees .  With access to the camps being strictly limited by Jordanian officialdom, the stories of individual refugees are a rare glimpse into life in a refugee camp.  The British think tank Chatham House recently released the story of Ahmed, a farmer from the Deraa countryside:

    “They killed my son, he wasn’t involved in any demonstrations, just working the fields, when a sniper shot him in the head. Even then, though, I didn’t want to leave. But then we heard stories of Assad’s men, the shabbiha, raping women in Deraa, systematically using sexual violence as a weapon. I was scared for my daughters so we fled. We hid in the forests for three months, preparing to cross; we managed to avoid any Syrian troops, and climbed over the border at night. Then we were stopped by a Jordanian soldier and I was scared he might send us back as we had no papers. He just said ‘alf ahla’ [a thousand welcomes]. I wept.

    This heartbreaking story tells us first that the situation in Syria has descended into a state of near anarchy and second that Jordanian soldiers have received orders to take in Syrian refugees, although there have been clashes.  That which separates a refugee from an immigrant is the longing and intention to return. Many Syrian refugees have every intention of going home.  Meanwhile, others don’t have homes to return to; their families have been all but obliterated.  In 2006, half a million Iraqis sought refuge in Jordan.  Before that, there were Lebanese and before them Palestinians.    Since then, Palestinian refugees have only multiplied.  Many Iraqis have settled down.  For Syrians, return is still an option.  But many will be asked to move on.  Will they be able to?

    What is never properly quantified as the collateral damage of war is the number of psyches damaged and hearts broken.  Many refugees have fled, leaving their dead behind, unburied.  Many have no idea where their loved ones are to this day.  Each of us knows know to tell our own story, but for refugees, this means being able to open the floodgates of horrific memories. 

    One of the ways memory is interpreted is through micro communities; as Syrians gather around in Za’atari camp in Jordan and elsewhere, they will start creating their narratives and healing their wounds.

    Dancing in Muqattam

    By Refaat Mohamed

    An old person peeks through the window of a building in the district of Muqattam. The building belongs to a group who used to be religious, but have always had political aspirations. They fought hard for their goals using a variety of methods that inexorably failed, until this old man came along. This old man goes by the initials MB just like his group.  KS, his right hand man, and second in command was as much as a decade younger than him, but they suited each other, the latter’s pragmatic, Machiavellian ways serving the aspirations and schemes of MB for a long time.

    Then there turns up the third in command, MM, who was a nobody one year ago, but who is now the most powerful person in the country, despite ranking third in command in his group. Although there are a lot of people who rank lower than him, they usually outshine him, most probably due to his bad communication skills. He comes over as a vulgar, indecent man, and the way he speaks always leaves you with a feeling of mild distaste, as if you were in the presence of someone not quite honest. Despite the simplicity of his speech, and the rusticity of his gestures and vocabulary, he never could give a straight honest answer, even  if you asked him the simplest question.  He would always answer with an endless, meaningless speech.

    When the old man MB took a peek from the window, he saw two young men holding cameras, directed at a small group of teenagers, young men aged 15-27. Then he saw the police car with three poor, skinny policemen sitting inside. He shut the drapes and paced the room in obvious disquiet.  Then he picked up the phone and called the police station. Knowing MB, the police officer responded as if he was talking to his superior.

    Officer: Is everything ok Sir? I just checked with the officers in front of your building, and they said everything was quiet.

    M.B: Yes, yes, it’s all quiet for now, but people are starting to gather in front of the building, and I am getting worried.

    Officer: Yes, but I cannot bring any more forces to protect your building, especially since our forces are stretched out all over the country with all the protests everywhere, and civil disobedience in several cities.

    MB doesn’t want to hear about the protests as he doesn’t believe that these are anything more than thugs who are trying to bring his victory into disrepute. So he ends the call abruptly, and calls KS.

    MB: Did you see facebook and twitter ?

    KS: No, not yet I have people especially hired for that, and I read the reports at the end of the day, why?

    MB: It’s that stupid thing that was supposed to happen today: it looks like it really is happening. A lot of people are gathering now as we speak.

    KS: Did you call the police?

    MB: It’s no use, they won’t send more forces.

    K.S: Mmmm, did you try to call MM, maybe he can call the Ministry of Interior or something.

    MB, angrily: MM is a puppet, I will call him when I need to warm my hands

    KS: Yes, yes, I know. Plus he is a pushover: they wont listen to him

    MB: Wait, wait, I hear noises, and music.

    He opens the drapes and peeks out again to find the number of kids increasing to a couple of hundred, and more press and cameras joining the crowd.

    MB: Damn the press with their cameras.

    KS: Just stay calm, and describe the situation to me, because if there are a dangerous number we can always mobilize our troops to beat the crap out of those kids. We don’t have to explain ourselves to no one, they are the ones who came to our headquarters.

    MB: I don’t know, they are not doing anything - it’s just a lot of kids, wearing strange clothes. A lot of them are bare-chested. One kid is standing in the middle, doing some sort of strange dance.

    K.S: What sort of dance?

    M.B: You know, a dance

    K.S: Just a dance?

    M.B: Alright alright, he is air humping, he is pointing his crotch towards the building. I don’t get it. Is that it ?

    DO THE HARLEM SHAKE!!!!!!!

    Several witnesses said that they heard cries coming out of the building, that drowned out the sound of the music.

    The Harlem Shake controversy in Tunisia

    By Sana Ajmi

    Controversy erupted in Tunisia after education minister Abdeltif Abid demanded investigation into the video staging of a "Harlem Shake" show by pupils from Menzah 6 district in a school compound. Abid called it an insult to education.  The incident occurred while the country is plunged into a deep political crisis after the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, and before a new government has been formed.

    Following the viral epidemic of the Harlem Shake video footage which shows participants dancing wildly and simulating sexual acts, students at several Tunisian high schools and universities have choreographed their own versions of the dance trend. The version filmed at the Imam Moslem high school, also known as Père Blanc, angered the education minister who said there could be possible expulsions of students or sacking of staff  behind the staging of the dance: 

    “This event was staged without permission from the regional director or ministry. An investigation will be launched and measures taken against any whiff of violations,” said Abid, a member of the centre-left party Ettakatol, an ally of the Islamist ruling Ennahdha party. In response, students protested outside the school and refused to attend classes. The ministry's website was also temporarily hacked and a call went out on social media for the staging of a "mega Harlem Shake" in front of the ministry on Friday.

    At another school in the coastal city of Sousse, students reacted angrily after their principal prevented them from staging the “Harlem Shake”. They "gathered outside the school, near a hospital, and began igniting smoke bombs, security forces responded with tear gas" said Khaled Tarouch, spokesperson for the  Ministry of the Interior.

    At the Bourguiba Language Institute, a number of ultra-conservative Muslim youths tried to ban a performance of students who shouted "Get out, get out" at them. One of the Salafists, said "Our brothers in Palestine are being killed by Israelis, and you are dancing." Another version of the dance trend was performed outside the national constituent assembly where participants were holding a sign that says, “Where is our constitution?”

    One of the participants argued that the minister should have reacted against the Salafist meetings organized at several Tunisian schools. “This is a normal form of freedom of expression. Where was the minister when the Tunisian flag was replaced by a Salafi flag?” said one of the participants. Souad Abedrahim, a member of the national constituent assembly from the Ennhadha party announced that her son participated in the dance at the Imam Moslem high school. A dance she described as a “form of expression and creativity. I believe that dancing is a form of self-expression, but I denounce some of the violations that happened in the dance,” explained Abedrahim.

    The Harlem Shake incident comes hotfoot in the wake of Tunisia’s political crisis. Following the assassination of Belaid, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned after failure to reach agreement on forming a new government of ‘apolitical technocrats’. On the other hand, Ministry of the Interior, Ali Laaryedh who was appointed as the new prime minister, announced that four people suspected of killing Belaid have been arrested. According to Laarayedh, the suspects were ultra-conservative Islamists.