North Africa, West Asia

This week's window on the Middle East - April 14, 2014

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Contempt and humiliation greet the Pope's visit to the Holy Land.

Arab Awakening
14 April 2014
  • Contempt and humiliation greet the Pope's visit to the Holy Land
  • Jordanians split over the war in Syria
  • The Egyptian counter revolution: the Gulf connection
  • On Lebanese sovereignty
  • A sham election will only divide Syria further
  • Foreign aid: development or 'de-development'?
  • Politics makes biased fools of us all
  • The clampdown on universities in Sudan
  • Contempt and humiliation greet the Pope's visit to the Holy Land

    By Quinn Coffey

    Just weeks before Pope Francis’ first official visit to the Holy Land a number of Christian holy sites in Israel and Palestine have been targeted in ‘price tag’ attacks by the radical Israeli settler movement. The most recent attack occurred at the Our Lady at Deir Rafat Monastery located on the site of the depopulated former Arab village of the same name, north-west of the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. The graffiti, sprayed in Hebrew on the outer walls of the Monastery, read ‘Jesus is an ape and Mary is a cow’, to which the Latin (Catholic) Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, responded, ‘I don’t believe this is a proper way to receive the Holy Father here next month.’ However, this is only the latest in what the UN High Commission reported was a 150% increase in ‘price tag’ attacks since 2008, with over 788 registered attacks from 2012-2013. 

    Although the majority of these attacks have occurred in the West Bank, Christians in Jerusalem and throughout Israeli have also come under attack. As a series of 2012 Haaretz articles pointed out, Christian clergy who dress in ‘priestly garb’ are frequently spat on as they walk through Jerusalem’s Old City; as one priest commented ‘it’s almost impossible to pass through Jaffa Gate without this happening’. In fact, these anti-Christian attacks have become so frequent that in 2012 the Catholic leadership of Palestine issued a statement entitled, Declaration of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, in which they urged the Israeli authorities to address the ‘teaching of contempt’ in Israeli schools. Suggesting that, ‘the time has come for the authorities to act and to put an end to this senseless violence and to ensure a “teaching of respect” in schools for all those who call this land home.’ 

    However, the Deir Rafat attack also highlights the contempt that the settler movement and radical right hold for the peace process.   Other areas of the Monastery at Deir Rafat were tagged with the slogans, ‘America is Nazi Germany’ and ‘the price to pay for the peace agreement’, which suggests that the settler movement in some way associates attacks on Christian sites with revenge against America or the international community. But the attack on a Catholic shrine just weeks before the visit of Pope Francis, could also be interpreted as a protest against the historically pro-Palestinian stance of the Vatican.

    Vatican diplomacy

    Since the 1960s the Vatican has been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian right to self-determination and the equal rights of all faiths in Jerusalem. Counter to the settler movement’s raison d’être, which seeks the Judaisation of Jerusalem and biblical Israel, the Vatican has continually petitioned for the equal rights of all faiths in the city; such that no race, religion or nationality should be made to feel subordinate or alienated from any other. In fact the status of Jerusalem has been central to the Vatican’s diplomatic policy towards Israel and the wider Middle East since 1948. As Pope John Paul II commented, ‘I am convinced that the failure to find an adequate solution to the question of Jerusalem, and the resigned postponement of the problem, only compromise further the longed-for peaceful and just settlement of the crisis of the whole Middle East.’

    It is expected that Pope Francis will renew efforts for the peaceful solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as he travels throughout the Middle East. However, the status of Jerusalem is perhaps farther from resolution than ever, and, with Easter celebrations set to begin in Jerusalem this weekend, Palestinian Christians, who face the continual threat and intimidation of ‘price tag attacks’, also face difficulties in travel to holy sites in Jerusalem and Nazareth.  

    Palestinian Christian pilgrimage

    For those living in the West Bank and Gaza, pilgrimage to holy sites in Israel is extremely difficult. As a Christian in the Palestinian village of Taybeh related, ‘My husband and I stopped going to Jerusalem for the holidays because it is a terrible thing to fight and argue to get into the church after you have been issued a permit that you are frequently not allowed to use.’ The permit process itself involves a lengthy application, filled out in Hebrew (a language that many Palestinians do not read or write) and frequent trips back and forth to the District Coordinating Offices, where the applications are filed.

    Permits will typically allow entry for one day or, if the applicant is lucky, several days. However these permits are frequently denied, and those that are granted quickly expire – forcing most Christians to reapply for each visit. If a permit is granted, the Christian pilgrims (and all other Palestinians) face nearly unimaginable levels of humiliation as they make their way to holy sites. As one Christian Palestinian related, ‘Trying these days to enter Jerusalem on special holy days is like being treating like animals…you go via cage-like areas with cameras and show your identification…it’s really awful’. Apart from the daily humiliations of life under occupation, the joyous and spiritual occasion of pilgrimage has become a source of stress rather than relief for the Palestinian Christians.   

    This makes the staggering demographic decline of the Palestinian Christian community understandable, if not tragic. Faced with the difficulties of pilgrimage, Palestinian Christians seek refuge in their local churches and communities. However, the now frequent ‘price tag’ attacks have made local parishes targets as well. Whilst the radical Israeli settler movement represents but a small fraction of Israeli public opinion, complacency towards these attacks, and towards the unequal treatment of Palestinians, both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, highlights the failure of the Israeli authorities to properly address a situation in which minority groups are made to feel afraid, agitated and discriminated against.  

    According to a 2013 investigation by Ynet, of the 788 reported ‘price tag’ cases from 2012-2013, only 276 arrests have been made.  Of these arrests only 154 have been brought up on charges. Perhaps the most striking aspect of these attacks is how little they are reported in the international media. However, just as racism and religious discrimination have become almost universally unacceptable in the international community, so too should the international community urge all states - rogue or not -  to prosecute its citizens for carrying out such hate crimes. States of emergency, military occupation, terrorism, existential threats, etc. are no excuse for ‘turning a blind eye’.  

    Below is an incomplete list of anti-Christian ‘price tag’ attacks from 2012-2014 and translations of the Hebrew graffiti. (There were dozens more) 


    September 2012: Cistercian (Trappist) Monastery in Latrun tagged with the words, ‘Jesus is a monkey’, and set on fire.

    October 2012: St George Romanian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem tagged with the words, ‘Jesus is a bastard’, with significant damage to the front door and rubbish placed around the entrance.

    February 2012: Narkis Street Baptist Congregation in Jerusalem tagged with the words, ‘Jesus is dead’, ‘Death to Christianity’, ‘Mary was a prostitute’.


    May 2013: Dormition Abbey on Mt Zion (tagged twice in a few months) with the words, ‘Jesus, son of a bitch, price tag’; ‘Jesus is a monkey’.

    August 2013: Beit Jamal Monastery near Beit Shemesh tagged with the words, ‘Death to Gentiles’, ‘revenge’.

    September 2013: Smashed Christian gravestones near King David’s Tomb in Jerusalem.


    March 2014: Deir Rafat Monastery tagged with the words, ‘Jesus is an ape and Mary is a cow’, ‘America is Nazi Germany’ and ‘Price to pay for the peace agreement’.

    April 2014: Attack on the Christian majority village of Jish. Cars smashed and tagged with the words, ‘Only goys [non-Jews] can be driven out of our land’.

    Jordanians split over the war in Syria

    By Nikita Malik

    In February 2014, Syrian state media accused Jordan of supporting rebels in southern Syria, aided by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Indeed, the Jordanian government has allegedly played a role in backing the insurgency in Syria.

    But painting Jordanians as rebel allies with a broad brush would be too simplistic: rather, popular opinion in the Hashemite Kingdom is divided. Many Jordanians do support the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but some oppose it and many others have grown skeptical over time, as the spillover from Syria to Jordan increases.

    “At the start of the crisis, I think that the majority of [the] population in Jordan was pro-rebel, but . . . [with] time, that majority started decreasing and in my opinion right now the Jordanian population is quite divided,” says Nafez, a youth activist and blogger based in Jordan. Nafez sees several reasons for this gradual loss of support: the economic distress caused by reduced trade and lost access to the Syrian market, the large numbers of Syrian refugees, and the extreme sectarianism and fundamentalism of the rebels. He also notes that there are clear tribal and religious differences, with northern tribes and Christian Jordanians often supporting Assad while Jordanians of Palestinian descent are divided on the issue.

    Most Jordanians are neutral

    According to a poll conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) at the University of Jordan, 60 percent of the national sample and 72 percent of the opinion leaders surveyed describe their political position toward the crisis in Syria as “neutral.” Yet 46 percent of Jordanians are very concerned that violence in Syria will spread to their own country, according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center.

    The country has no shortage of internal problems to deal with. Threats of civil disobedience are particularly prominent in the southern district of Maan, which has been the scene of tribal clashes on university campuses and where poverty and soaring unemployment have provided an opening for Salafi jihadi groups.

    Tribal opposition

    “Jordanians of tribal origins tend to oppose the rebels, as the northern tribes were negatively affected by the crisis,” says Nafez. “Southern tribes, who have more affinity and proximity to Saudi Arabia but are smaller in number than the northern tribes, tend to show more support for the opposition.”

    The influx of Syrian refugees is particularly worrisome to some tribal communities, with residents in the northern town of Mafraq erecting a mock Jordanian refugee camp to protest at escalating rents and prices.

    The refugee crisis

    The lack of enthusiasm for receiving refugees isn’t limited to certain areas or tribes only. According to the CSS survey, 71 percent of Jordanians believe the country should not take in any more Syrians, and 58 percent say that refugees in their own neighborhood have caused a decline in public services. Over half those surveyed believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction as a result of the increasing flow of refugees, the worsening fiscal deficit, and the failure to reform.

    Many now feel that Jordan must isolate itself from the Syrian crisis. According to the CSS figures, 75 percent support the idea of a buffer zone within Syria to host refugees, but few seem to favour direct Jordanian involvement. Thirty-eight percent of Jordanians argue that such a buffer zone should be under United Nations jurisdiction, while 21 percent say the Arab League should be in charge. Only 16 percent think that it should be under Jordanian control.

    A divided Palestinian community

    “In my opinion a significant number of Jordanians of Palestinian origin tend to side with the rebels,” says Nafez, the Jordanian activist. “Those are usually the religious ones, who are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, while the ones affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah tend to show less support for the rebels.”

    Palestinians make up more than half of Jordan’s population. While some are strongly opposed to Assad, the war’s terrible consequences for Palestinians in Syria can erode support for the uprising. Commenting on the catastrophic destruction in the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus, the PLO-backed West Bank government’s labor minister, Ahmed Majdalani—who was born in Damascus—has blamed “terrorists,” rather than Syrian authorities, for holding Palestinian refugees hostage.

    Christians worried by Islamism

    Jordan is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim country, but Christians make up 6 percent of the population, roughly similar to their numbers in Syria. Many Christians in both countries see Assad as a protector of minorities and fear the Islamist-led rebel movement. At a meeting in Jordan last April, Christian leaders discussed the challenges facing Arab Christians, with Jordan’s King Abdullah II urging interfaith harmony and stating that “the protection of the rights of Christians is a duty rather than a favour.” Naturally, many minorities will cling to such reassurances from their government in a time of crisis, in Syria as well as in Jordan.

    “You should see this to understand why Christians support the Syrian government,” an Armenian Christian friend from Jordan writes as he sends me a photo of the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a radical jihadi opposition group in Syria. It is what used to be the al-Shuhada Armenian Orthodox Church in Raqqa, in northern Syria, which the ISIL took over five months ago, along with the Sayida al-Bishara Catholic Church. The group is now also demanding that Christians pay a levy in gold. Raqqa was the first and only provincial capital to fall completely under rebel control, in March last year, and today it is ruled under a radical interpretation of sharia law.

    That is exactly what Jordanian Christians fear a rebel victory in Syria would lead to—and it has begun to worry an increasing number of Jordanian Muslims, too.

    This piece was originally published on Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on 17 March 2014.

    The Egyptian counter revolution: the Gulf connection

    By Maged Mandour

    Egypt, with its vast demographic, cultural, as well as military weight, plays a pivotal role in the future of the Arab World. The direction that the Egyptian revolution takes will not only affect Egypt, but will have a wider impact regionally on the dynamics of the Middle East. 

    Some might even argue that its effects may even be stronger than the 1979 Iranian eruption, due to the linguistic, cultural, religious and ethnic ties it has to its neighbours in comparison to Iran, as a Persian and Shia state. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that regional powers are constantly intervening and trying to affect and alter the course of events in Egypt in their favour. The most prominent of these regional powers are the Gulf states; namely Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

    Most analysts have focused on the role of Qatar, as a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE as backers of the Egyptian military. These views offer insights that are relevant. However, they oversimplify the complex dynamics that drive their involvement in Egyptian affairs, most importantly, from a historical context.

    The roots of Egyptian-Gulf relations can be traced back to what Malcom Kerr aptly calls “The Arab Cold War”. This term is used to describe the period of struggle between the forces of Arab nationalism, symbolised by Nasser, and other radical regimes with their “conservatives forces”, led by Saudi Arabia. This struggle reached its apex when Egypt intervened in the Yemeni civil war and Egyptian troops encroached on what was considered the strategic back door of Saudi Arabia.

    The defeat of 1967, when Israel attacked and destroyed the Egyptian army and occupied Sinai in 6 days, ended this rivalry and settled the Arab Cold War in favour of “conservative regimes”, as Professor Shibley Telhami argues in his study of the Camp David accords. The Egyptian defeat irrevocably altered the nature of political order, from a unipolar order, dominated economically and politically by Egypt, into a multi-polar order, with power shared with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. The defeat of 1967, also ushered in a period of ideological decay of Nasserism and Arab socialism, as examined by Fouad Ajami in The Arab Predicament, where Egyptian soft powers severely eroded and the ideological base of the Egyptian military regime was dismantled through attacks from both the left and the right of the political spectrum.

    The 1967 defeat also ushered in a period of Egyptian dependence on Gulf states, not only financially and economically through aid, but also socially and politically. The ability of the Gulf states to absorb large numbers of the Egyptian labour force not only provided additional sources of income through workers' remittances for an ailing economy; it also provided a safety valve, reducing social tension that might have otherwise caused largescale instability even more severe than the widespread Islamic insurgency that Mubarak faced in the late 1980s and 1990s.  

    The question that poses itself is, why was there such severe antagonism between Nasser and the Gulf states? And how could this historical antagonism help explain the current Saudi and Qatari policies towards Egypt. The secret of the antagonism between Nasser and the Gulf states lies in the struggle between nationalist progressive forces represented by Nasser at the time, and the conservative regimes that feared being swept away in the tide of Arab nationalism that was travelling across the Middle East at the time. A struggle that was played out in places like Jordan and Lebanon, where the existing regimes were almost expunged only to be saved by foreign intervention. In other words, it was a struggle between Egyptian nationalist forces, that wanted to extend their hegemony across the Arab World, and conservatives forces that were fighting against this. This antagonism goes a long way towards xplaining the current hostility towards the Egyptian Revolution in particular and the Arab Spring in general.  

    The Egyptian revolutionary forces, like the Nasser regime before, can be considered representative of Egyptian nationalist forces whose goal is to regain their hegemony not only in Egypt, but across the Arab World. This would naturally involve an intrusion into the Saudi sphere of influence, which can negatively affect the stability of the Gulf states. This would explain the rather strong anti-revolutionary stance of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

    The success of the Egyptian revolution could have ushered in a period of regional adjustment, similar to the effects of the Iranian Revolution after 1979, or the French Revolution after 1789. The fear is the internationalisation of revolution. 

    Thus, the Saudis and Emiratis backed the Egyptian military, financially and politically, in its ouster of President Morsi. As I have argued elsewhere, the Egyptian military is the heart of the ancien regime, and as such can be considered to be a conservative, anti-revolutionary force that aims to maintain the status quo. It also continues to play the role of the central pillar of American foreign policy in the region, most importantly, the guarantor of security for the Gulf regimes. A historical case when Egypt acted as a guarantor for the security of the Gulf regimes, is when it moved troops to Saudi Arabia during the second Gulf War to deter Saddam Hussein, as well as the leading role played by Egyptian ground troops during the liberation of Kuwait.   

    The above explains the support the Egyptian military receives from the Saudis and Emiratis, however, it does not explain the strong antagonism against the Muslim Brotherhood, an issue that has led to deep rifts between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 

    Can one argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is also representative of the Egyptian nationalist forces, and as such subject to Saudi animosity? As I have argued elsewhere, the Muslim Brotherhood is a conservative mass movement, with rural petty bourgeois roots mainly concerned with sharing power with the existing military caste, rather than overthrowing it. The Muslim Brotherhood seemed keen on inheriting the mantle of the National Democratic Party (NDP), as the civilian junior partner of the military. In other words, they did not pose any threat to the regional status quo, as they were rather trying to appease regional elites.

    The roots of this hostility can be traced back to the structure of domestic political order in some of the Gulf States. The main forces that can plausibly challenge the status quo in these states are the forces of political Islam, and as such the Muslim Brotherhood reaching power, even though it was nominal power, in a pivotal state like Egypt was sufficient to unsettle the rulers of different Gulf states. This, however, does not explain Qatari support for the Brotherhood in an apparent break with Saudi Arabia. This can be attributed to the ambitions of Qatar to play a major role in the affairs of the Arab World. Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, has little soft power in the Middle East, thus it aimed to create power through financial and media support for a movement that did not pose a threat to the regional status quo. Thus, in a sense Qatar is backing a different political player but is still within the same game.       

    In the end, what does this support mean in terms of the future of the Egyptian revolution? Since Egypt, as a rentier state, can ignore popular demands and rely on coercion, continuous financial support from Arab states, similar to international financial support, will only act as insulation for the regime from popular pressure. It will also allow the military’s economic empire to flourish and it will spare the regime the sort of financial crisis that is critical in revolutions, as was the case for example in the French and Chinese revolutions. In a way, every dollar of aid retards and weakens the forces of social progress in the Egyptian polity.

    On Lebanese sovereignty

    By Helen Mackreath

    The issue of sovereignty is becoming an increasingly pressing concern in Lebanon today. The borders of the country are ever more ambiguous, as increasing stretches of these areas are physically integrated into the Syrian conflict. The increasing tensions over the presence of Syrian nationals suggest a growing self-consciousness about the vulnerability of Lebanon as a national body.

    Meanwhile, as violent clashes continue in Tripoli, and sporadic incidents occur in Beirut, the strength and imperviousness of the Lebanese Army continues to be upheld as the most consistently reliable sovereign entity in the county. Nevertheless, throughout, the ways of securing Lebanese sovereignty continue to be interpreted differently by divided actors.

    The border regions of Lebanon, particularly Arsal (a Sunni border town) and Walid Khaled in the northeast, are directly targeted by Syrian warplanes. The seeping of an increasing number of rebel fighters, many Islamists, into Lebanon has paved the way for these zones to be considered legitimate targets by the Syrian regime. Last week Arsal was effectively placed under siege when their only ‘exit’ road was blocked, reportedly by Hezbollah fighters keen to prevent a flood of Syrian rebel fighters entering the rest of Lebanon. This, combined with the almost daily air raids around Arsal from Syrian warplanes, has effectively turned the border town into a physical zone of conflict.

    Meanwhile clashes in the perpetually unstable Tripoli are intensifying, with many fearing that they will be stoked even further by increasing numbers of highly-trained Syrian rebel fighters descending on the city following the Syrian regime's recapture of Yabroud town and Crac des Chevaliers in Syria. The clashes between Tripoli’s predominantly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsen have killed 29 people and wounded over 180 in the last ten days. Tensions over Syria are also becoming manifest in Beirut, with one killed and thirteen injured in clashes over the weekend when a personal dispute between a supporter of Bashar Assad’s regime and Salafists escalated.

    Throughout these localised escalations, the Lebanese Army has been called upon to restore ‘order’, confirming its status as the saving grace of Lebanese sovereignty. Long regarded as the most solid and respected national institution, their continued presence throughout the nine month political paralysis, when Lebanon was without a government, remained one of the few signs of the existence of the Lebanese state. Today they are the channel the international community is using to support the protection of Lebanon against the further encroachment of the Syrian war.

    The United Kingdom last week unveiled new funding in the form of training, land rovers and a watch tower on the Syrian border, provided to the Lebanese army; and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has recently urged a meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers to support the army financially and with equipment, in order to safeguard their own countries from any ‘terrorism’ which may spill out from Lebanon.

    While many still decry their influence (Tripoli residents claim that the army are not protecting them enough), they still remain the most potent expression of the state. And, significantly, they have the support of both March 8 and March 14 political parties – Lebanon’s Army Chief, Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi, is one of the few consensus presidential candidates, owing to the unanimous support for the army.

    But while the Lebanese Army undoubtedly remains a positive force in the country, some are wary about the extent of their influence. Nadim Houry, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East/North Africa, drew attention during an American University of Beirut panel discussion, to the “worrying” sentiment expressed by Speaker Nabih Berri in a televised cabinet debate, in which he seemed to imply that the army is above the law. In an offhand comment, Berri had described the army as being always right even if it was unjust. Prioritising the military arm over the legal arm of the state displays a particular notion of sovereignty grounded in security rather than law.

    Meanwhile, fears over the ‘encroachment’ on Lebanese sovereignty are becoming more manifest in other contexts. The sustained and increasing numbers of Syrians living across Lebanon are starting to take their toll. Tensions have always been present - three years of conflict alongside high unemployment is exacerbating frustrations - but they are now becoming embedded and increasingly framed in a ‘nationalist’ and ‘security’ light.

    In Achrafieh, the predominantly Christian neighbourhood in East Beirut, a curfew has been suggested, under threat, for any Syrian to be off the street after 8pm. While this has not yet been imposed, the message is stark. Such a curfew already exists in parts of southern Lebanon. Increasing numbers of Syrians are finding their requests for residency visas denied, their ability to rent flats constrained, and their movements more closely observed by neighbours. More concerning, indicative of a small but charged group of individuals, is the setting up of a Facebook group vilifying Syrians, entitled “Neo-Nazis Against Syrian Refugees”, which couches resentment in fiercely nationalist, and highly dangerous, terms. This rhetoric is disquieting, particularly as the influx of Syrians in the country shows no signs of abating.

    While such broad brush strokes should not be painted across the whole country – in many regions in the north, south and east, refugees are being hosted with relative equanimity, either by Lebanese family members or complete strangers - the increasing economic stagnation and duration of the situation are taking their toll. And in these areas too, despite assistance, refugees report continual feelings of resentment and a clear division between the two nationalities. (The historical context of Lebanon being effectively occupied by Syrian forces long after the ‘end’ of the civil war is important to remember here).

    No longer seen as a short term ‘emergency situation’, the Syrian population are here to stay in Lebanon for the foreseeable future. And politicians trying to win popular support and political leverage find an easy target in the scapegoating of the refugee population, thereby sending out a message that such language is legitimate. Former Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui has said that the issue of Syrian refugees is a matter of “preserving our being”, and Gebran Bassil voiced similar thoughts with the words “It is not only about social, economic, political, security or national [concerns] for Lebanon; it concerns [the country’s] existence, its entity and its components”.  

    Such rhetoric seeks to reify a concept of Lebanese sovereignty which, for many people, continues to remain transient. While Hezbollah have always been divisive in their view of how best Lebanese sovereignty should be protected (their attempts to justify intervention in support of Assad’s regime in Syria as safeguarding Lebanese interests have drawn criticism from those who claim they are paradoxically dragging Lebanon further into the war), the issue of what sovereignty means, and how it can be enforced, should not be confined to the defensive sphere alone. Increasing resentment of Syrians in the domestic sphere, and offhand statements about the army versus the law, should also be treated with caution, and provide a reminder that the exercise of sovereignty takes many guises. 

    A sham election will only divide Syria further

    By Abdullah Ali

    The new electoral law approved by the Syrian parliament on 13 March seemingly paves the way for multiple candidates to run in July’s presidential election. This will not fool many. Assad is here to stay. 

    The Syrian opposition is likely to be excluded due to section 30 of the electoral law. This stipulates that a candidate must be at least 40 years old, a permanent resident in Syria for at least the past 10 years, married to a Syrian citizen and have no criminal record. Furthermore, the poll will not be held under international observation, but rather under the control of the security apparatus, just as during the regime of Assad’s father.

    Government decisions regarding the election will severely restrict the rights of Syrians abroad to vote. For example, any person without a valid passport is prohibited from entering or leaving the country. This decision coincided with the closure of Syrian embassies in a number of countries, which means that it will no longer be possible for any Syrian abroad, of which there are millions, to return to the country and vote. The new law will turn the refugees into exiles and deportees because of their inability to obtain passports.

    Playing the minority card

    How could a real election take place when thousands of civilians are in prison? The conflict has killed over 100,000 people, including women and children. It has driven almost half the population out of their homes, leaving behind destroyed cities and – even more importantly – a growing divide within Syrian society.

    The regime seems confident that support from Syria’s minorities will play a strong role in securing an election victory for Assad. Given how they have suffered at the hands of the regime, though, it seems extraordinary that they would vote for the status quo.

    On Monday Syrian rebels released 13 Greek Orthodox nuns they had held captive for over three months. A deal was made between the government and the Nusra front, which involved Qatar and Lebanon as mediators. In return, the regime agreed to release 148 women from government prisons. But Assad has made no attempt to negotiate for the release of the many Alawite officers, soldiers, women and children who have been kidnapped by rebels. Nor has the release of dozens of others, activists and civilians of minority backgrounds, been considered.

    The deal that led to the release of Christian nuns is one example of how Assad makes cynical concessions to give the impression that the regime is serious about protecting minority groups. It also aims to mollify his western detractors.

    Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Assad has used minorities to help him stay in power. The government has presented itself as their only protector from an uncertain fate in a post-Assad, Islamist-ruled Syria. While the international community has shown concern about the fate that might face the minorities post-Assad, it must understand that focusing on minorities, at the expense of the majority Sunni community, will only complicate matters.

    The sponsorship of minorities harks back to the Ottoman era when competing international powers protected minorities, such as Druze, Alawites and Greek Orthodox to further their own interests. Such an approach, however, only increases the already existing gap between all Syrians, and not just along minority-majority lines.

    Instead of repeating old mistakes, international actors should work to decrease the ethnic and religious divides in Syrian society. They should not let themselves be tricked by the government in regard to the minority issue. Assad would sacrifice all the minorities, including the Alawites, if it were necessary to stay in power. His regime is painting itself as a protector of minorities in order to use them as a tool to further its own interests, rather than genuinely promoting minority rights or the unity of Syria.

    Assad’s re-election in July would mean the death of prospects for a political solution in Syria. Three years into the conflict, he still considers himself a good candidate for president. Syria does need a president, but it certainly does not need Assad. What it needs is a president truly devoted to the Syrian people and to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. A true president would seek to unify rather than divide, embracing all Syrians in order to rebuild a country that has been destroyed by war.

    The election is not a real choice. It is an apparent choice. In the end an illegal election held by an illegal government will result in an illegal president.

    This article was first published by Chatham House on 19 March 2014.

    Foreign aid: development or 'de-development'?

    By Hani Mahmoud

    The idea of foreign aid is rather attractive - at least theoretically. However, when examined carefully, foreign aid in its very nature entails a process of injecting large sums of money into developing countries otherwise gripped by poverty, war, and conflict. While in theory, that money should improve people's lives and alleviate poverty leading to sustainable growth and development, the stark reality is that foreign aid has often presented more challenges than opportunities.  

    While the potential benefits of aid, if carried out in an appropriate and well-managed manner, cannot be overlooked, the positive impacts have not been proportionate to the amount of money donated. For the purpose of this argument, I am going to take Palestine as a case study.

    Since the signing of the Oslo Peace Treaty and throughout its long track record, foreign aid has done little to improve the lives of Palestinians. On the contrary, it has deepened the level of dependency on the west through its generous flow of cash, whilst the colonization of the Palestinian territories has deepened.

    Just to see the extent of how dependent Palestinians are on foreign aid, according to this report Palestinians are among "the world's largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid". Anne Le More’s International Assistance to the Palestinians after Oslo demonstrates how $8 billion of post-Oslo aid made its way to the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for the purposes of 'development'; expanding the Palestinian Authority's capacity for emergency relief operations, and 'reconstruction'. Much of this, it was claimed, was needed to build the institutions necessary for a two-state peace process and to support socio-economic development.

    Regardless of how big the figure is, this huge influx of money is conditional. According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report, in order for US aid to be dispersed to Palestine it must first meet certain and specific requirements. These include: preventing Hamas and other resistance organizations from conducting 'terrorist' operations against Israel; fostering stability, prosperity, and self-governance in the West Bank; and promoting the 'two-state solution'. Interestingly, the humanitarian side of US aid was not given as much emphasis in the report. 

    Within this context, the aid industry is a key factor in Palestinian 'de-development' as Palestinians have scored zero sustainability so far. The discourse of 'aid', 'development' and 'reconstruction' is shielding Israel’s ongoing occupation and colonization of Palestinian territories. A third of the Palestinian Authority's budget is aid-subsidized. In addition to funding a distorted Palestinian political system, that is incapable of protecting itself, the aid industry is directly exempting Israel from the burden of responsibility for the destruction of Palestinian lives, livelihoods and infrastructure. By doing that, it allows Israel to focus its resources and efforts on the expansion of settlements, the expropriation of Jerusalem and the destruction of Gaza. As a result, the problem is acute, and if one looks at the figures it is not difficult to see that the many billions in foreign aid is not empowering Palestinians. 

    Is there an alternative? 

    Judging from the current situation; foreign aid is not the answer to the problem. It is true that some of the projects funded by foreign aid have helped alleviate some of the suffering and misery among Palestinians; however, this has only incapacitated Palestinians in the process and made them ever more dependent on the west. Therefore, the aid industry in Palestine must choose between either blindly subsidizing oppression or recognize what is actually taking place and cease its support. 

    Mary B. Anderson’s Do No Harm framework offers an approach that is quite substantial in correcting the course of foreign aid. In Do No Harm, the interrelations between international aid in conflict contexts and the dynamics of those conflicts are analyzed — as well as codes of ethics developed by the UN, bilateral donors and international and national nongovernmental organizations.

    Subsidizing a brutal occupation and illegitimate authority translates into the deliberate crushing of Palestinian aspirations and hence the very tools for creating lasting peace. As the world has witnessed through the “Palestine Papers,” when aid is de-politicized, donors and international organizations are able to pour billions of dollars into a colonial project under the masks of institution building and poverty reduction. Standing in stark opposition to the stated objectives of aid to Palestinians is the reality of subjugation.  

    Politics makes biased fools of us all

    By Oguz Alyanak

    “This is a dirty conspiracy”, responded the infuriated Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the day after a personal communiqué between himself and his son, Bilal, started circulating social media. On 24 February 2014, wiretapped telephone conversations were posted on YouTube and other file sharing platforms via two online accounts—Bascalan [PrimeThief, which is a word play on PrimeMinister, Basbakan] and Haramzadeler [McHaram]. The tapes were of an exchange that allegedly took place on December 17 and 18 between father and son, who discussed ways of bailing out from corruption accusations by zeroing out one billion dollars stashed in their home. Following up on his response, the Prime Minister vowed to bring to justice those who are behind this “shameless montage.”

    Many in Turkey anticipated more tapes to follow, and indeed they did. Since February 24, @BASCALAN and @HARAMZADELER333 have been uploading new tapes to social media platforms on a daily basis. With each tape, the Turkish public has heard more about corruption in Turkey, as well as the demands that the Prime Minister was making on the judiciary, business world, and media to control the narrative on this corruption case. But what if the tapes were montaged? And why would it even matter?

    Seeking proof in science

    When the tapes were leaked, the responses were mixed. For some, the existence of the tapes testified to the “truth” that the AKP was corrupt: the tapes were a dramatisation of a fact already known. For others, the tapes’ existence attested to another dirty scheme by the anti-AKP camp, which would go to any length to incriminate the AKP and its leader. 

    However, the public needed more than mere “belief” to support these opposing arguments. Hence, both the proponents and opponents of the Turkish Prime Minister appealed to scientific inquiry in their attempts to search for evidence. “Expert reasoning” and “reports” were collected from a range of actors, who introduced themselves as “scientists” and “experts” or claimed to hold “PhDs” in relevant fields such as sound engineering.

    However, in providing “proof” of the authenticity of these tapes, scientific inquiry did more harm than good. Expert opinion was contradictory. The endeavour was to prove that one camp’s proposition (i.e. that the tapes are genuine) was superior to the other’s (i.e. that the tapes are fake). But the results confirmed both camps’ theses. In short, scientific inquiry produced not one truth, but two that opposed each other. This took us back to square one.

    I wonder if the results surprised anyone. Maybe it did surprise the scientists out there, who would argue that what we witnessed was not science but its mockery at best. Here are two examples of such mockery: in response to the tapes, the Minister of Science, Industry and Technology Fikri Isik stated that he “believes the controversial tape was ‘montaged’," “When I saw these tapes, I could just feel they were a ‘montage’” was his expert opinion on the issue. The belief, according to the minister’s expert opinion, not only came prior to the proof (which would make it a hypothesis), but the proof, unsurprisingly, also served to conform to the belief. 

    On the other hand, the endeavour to prove the authenticity of the tapes brought about an assertion by a recording engineer, whose statement, like that of the Minister, made it to the news right away. He argued that he had “listened to the recording again and again. This recording is definitely authentic. As a recording engineer with a PhD, you can trust me.” Here, rather than the “proof” confirming a belief, it follows on from trust. The public was asked to trust the scientist’s expert opinion in order to buy into the proof.

    These two statements, I argue, are representative of two main lines of interpreting the current crisis in Turkish society. Both the Minister and the PhD-wielding recording engineer represent two prevalent ways of approaching the graft probe. For those who want a new Turkey sans Erdogan, the conversation, whether there is supporting or contradicting “proof” of its authenticity, is, in itself the living proof of the Erdogan family’s involvement in the graft. The expert opinion of various sound technicians, which they call for, is at best a self-fulfilling prophecy. That they end up with a “fact” that confirms their point of view (that the voice recordings are genuine) helps only to maximise the pleasure they get. 

    For Erdogan’s supporters, who remain loyal to the AKP, the narrative was constructed in a different fashion. However, the underlying motive is the same. The tapes, like the Gezi protests, were yet another challenge put forth by the “dark forces” to bring the AKP down, therefore bringing Turkey’s “success” to a halt. Hence, they are fakes. The 25 February entry on Erdogan’s Facebook wall, about his speech to his AKP group in the National Assembly, was filled with supportive messages. One commenter shared a link to a montaged tape of the leader of the opposition (Republican People’s Party/CHP’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu), pointing out how easy it is to montage one’s voice. Another confirmed his faith in Erdogan, stating that the scheme would be disrupted in the ballot box on local elections of 30 March 2014. 

    Even if the tapes are real… or fake

    In response to the tape scandal, Burhan Kuzu, a professor of Constitutional Law, who is also an AKP member, tweeted that “even if the tapes are real, no one would believe them.” This is a strong statement that says a lot about the political mess Turkey is in. What Kuzu is saying is that even if the Prime Minister is guilty of a crime which is not only forbidden under the Turkish Criminal Code but also under Islam, his electorate would continue to follow his lead. To explain why that is the case, I can only hazard an elementary answer: the AKP electorate does not have an alternative to a world sans Erdogan. They enjoy the idea of a Turkey under his helm, which feeds into their subservience to his might and policies.  

    The opposite argument, is equally bold yet true: even if the tapes were fake, no one would believe it. Even if Erdogan were exculpated, the anti-Erdogan camp would continue to believe that he is guilty of the crime. Erdogan’s previous track record in power may be what drives such dissent.

    In addition, however, I would like to stop for a moment and ask whether those who oppose Erdogan today have any tool other than the tapes to bring him down. Without the tapes, and claims to their authenticity, the only tool left for resistance against the Prime Minister’s rule are the streets, which take limbs and lives.     

    Because no other alternative exists for making sense of this political jumble, what we believe today is what we want to believe. As the discussions over the tapes show, seeking scientific evidence to approve or debunk claims of authenticity only helps to prove what we already know. Scientific expertise provides us with answers that we like to hear which, paradoxically, makes science one of the means to instil further belief. In Turkey, it looks like politics makes biased fools of us all. 

    The clampdown on universities in Sudan

    By Reem Abbas

    It has been two months and two weeks since Professor Siddiq Nurein was arrested. On the 16 January 2014, Dr Nurein, a 42 year-old associate professor at the University of West Kordofan and married father of four, was arrested from a hospital in En Nahud city, the capital of West Kordofan state. Dr Nurein was there nursing his sick son when security officers carried out the arrest. He was imprisoned in Al-Foula prison for two days then taken to El-Obeid prison in North Kordofan state. His wife said that the family had to commute to El-Obeid to visit him and deliver clothes and other items. 

    Almost three weeks prior to his arrest, police and security forces barged into campus using live ammunition and tear gas. This followed protests by students from Darfur who were objecting to the imposition of tuition fees from which they are supposedly exempt. The Darfuri student union at West Kordofan university protested in September and October and organized sit-ins when the university refused to exempt them from tuition fees which they say is their right as stipulated in the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), signed in 2011. The same problem had already occurred in other universities. In fact, in December 2012 four students at Al-Jazeera University were tortured to death after protesting against the payment of tuition fees, although they were also exempt as per the peace agreement. Not far from the University of West Kordofan, a Darfuri student group also protested at having to pay tuition and against the banning by the universioty of 30 students for two years after a sit-in the previous September, which caused a public outcry.

    Dr Nurein is an activist on campus and stood by the students when they clashed with the university's administration. Moreover, as a supervisor to the Darfur Student's Association, Dr Nurein was supposed to attend a meeting between them and the university's chancellor the same day of his arrest. Dr Nurein was arrested under the emergency law which was imposed on the state by its military governor in October 2013. In Sudan, the emergency law is imposed whenever there is conflict. In fact, his family was told that his arrest warrant came from the governor of the state in person, which doesn't come as a surprise seeing that he is also a member of the Sudanese Congress Party, an opposition party.

    The students continue to resist. After Dr Nurein's arrest, the Darfuri student union called for his releasee and said that its members will resign if he is not released. Furthermore, 450 students refused to sit their examinations in protest.

    In recent weeks, students from the University of Khartoum have protested at the deteriorating situation in Darfur. The security forces cracked down killing one student, injuring many and arresting at least a dozen others. This protest led to the closure of the University of Khartoum. A few days after that, Abdelmoniem Adam Mohamed, a human rights activist trying to provide legal aid to the arrested students was arrested from his office in downtown Khartoum.

    The authorities are very sensitive to any mobilization at universities as Sudan's two revolutions, in 1964 and in 1985, were sparked by student movements and came from the heart of Sudan's universities.

    Both sides are not backing down. Sudanese universities are growing extremely hostile towards students and the violence is only escalating. The student body is the most active politically and most of the recent protest movements in Sudan were inspired by students or centred around universities. Many university professors have kept a distance in an attempt to keep their jobs and the ones who do speak up are very likely to be arrested, as was the case in October 2013, when nine professors were arrested for meeting to discuss the deteriorating university environment for both professors and students.

    If no agreement is reached, it is very likely that the situation will continue to escalate and that there will be a lot more bloodshed. 

    Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


    We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
    Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData