North Africa, West Asia

This week's window on the Middle East - December 16, 2014

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Who cheered Mubarak’s acquittal on?

Arab Awakening
16 December 2014
  • Who cheered Mubarak’s acquittal on?
  • When the people wanted to bring down the Syrian regime: Hezbollah as a counter-revolutionary proxy
  • The life of an American freelancer in the Middle East
  • The refutation of the Djerejian doctrine
  • Saudi's husseiniya massacre: sectarianism coming home to roost
  • Arab League's absence reveals the reality of governance in the Arab world
  • Tabit and sexual violence in Darfur
  • Who cheered Mubarak’s acquittal on?

    By Mina Fayek

    On November 29 deposed President Hosni Mubarak, and a number of his officials, were dismissed of charges of corruption and killing protesters by an Egyptian criminal court. The verdict, which has only provided further proof of Egypt’s corrupt justice system, was met with a mixture of dismay and ridicule by the revolutionary camp. While some felt frustrated, others said it was expected given the current political situation in Egypt. The public prosecutor decided to appeal the court decision citing legal flaws in judgment.

    As soon as the verdict was announced a group of protesters gathered in Abdelmoniem Riad Square, near Tahrir Square, to express their anger chanting against Sisi, Mubarak, Tantawy and Morsi. Outside the revolutionary camp however, another group cheered the acquittal of the dictator and his cronies.

    Here’s a glimpse of the opinions held by the predominant camps:

    The "cronies"

    The cronies are those who generally benefited from the Mubarak regime, such as the corrupt businessmen and tycoons who pursued policies of economic monopoly, expanding their wealth only due to avid facilitation by the regime.

    Hussien Salem, for example, is one of the defendants in the case of “selling gas to Israel” along with Mubarak. His gas company sold gas to Israel very cheaply, causing a loss of hundreds of millions of US dollars to Egypt’s economy. There is no way a deal like this could have taken place without the government’s approval. The court ruled Salem and Mubarak not guilty, with the justification that the deal was approved and moderated by Egyptian Intelligence.

    Another example is that of Ahmed Ezz, the steel tycoon who was very close to Gamal Mubarak, the son of the former president. Ezz also financed many of the activities of the now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) which was the ruling party during Mubarak’s reign, in addition to monopolizing the steel industry, making huge fortunes. To the surprise of no-one, he was released in August and a court reduced the fine imposed on him for monopolistic practices by 90%. After the ruiling, his lawyer requested 45 million EGP ($6.3 million) in compensation from the government. The fine he had initially paid up.

    For the likes of Salem and Ezz, the regime’s fall after the January 25 revolution was a shock. Even if they were not all hauled before a court, the calls for reform and social justice were a great threat. This explains the overwhelming support of the private media outlets owned by these tycoons for Sisi’s regime, as they hoped to revive the privileges they had under Mubarak’s rule.

    The “disconnected”

    People who fall under this category mostly belong to the middle and upper-middle classes. Due to prolonged political stagnation, many Egyptians are back inside their social bubbles, completely disconnected from public affairs. This was perfectly described by Egypt’s top satirist Bassem Youssef in an interview at the University of California, Berkeley. He said: “[Before the revolution], if you are form a certain educated level you would write your statuses [on social media] in English [but] after the revolution, we all turned to writing in Arabic because now we’re talking about what’s happening in our country”.

    For some, the revolution changed their lives and made them more interested in politics. This, of course, is one of the most valuable gains of the revolution. But others understandably viewed this change as a possible threat to their lifestyles, especially with the rise of Islamists. The latter group were quick to embrace conspiracy theories touted by Mubarak’s remnants as they couldn’t see, due to their disengagement, any other reasons for revolting. For them, it’s not Mubarak who killed the protesters but rather some “foreign elements” like Hamas or Hezbollah.

    The “confused”

    There’s a group of Egyptians who felt very confused about the uprising when it erupted. While they experienced dire living conditions and daily hardships under Mubarak’s rule, they were also influenced by what Tarek Osman, the author of “Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak”, identifies as the “Fatherhood” notion. This notion, Osman notes, allows Mubarak to be viewed as someone who has a “top-down authority, sense of superior knowledge, assumption of deep wisdom, and exercising the right to educate, instruct, discipline, and punish” that makes him the perfect leader, despite the numerous flaws of his government.

    The regime used media propaganda and the education system to assert this sentiment in the mindsets of many Egyptians. In a sense, the fatherhood notion can be considered the Egyptian version of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims develop an emotionally illogical relationship with their oppressors.

    The “young”

    The bad news for Egypt’s “new-old” authorities is that the Egyptian population is young, and does not fall predominantly under any of these categories. The average age of an Egyptian is 24.5, and most of them do not rely on educational syllabuses or conventional media to analyze events or to take a position. They have witnessed the fall of a dictator and the revolution has greatly contributed to the formation of their consciousness.

    Two days after the ruling, Sisi called for a meeting with young media men and stressed that January 25 was a real revolution that “should have happened 15 years ago”. He also said that he will issue a law to criminalize defamation of the revolution in an attempt to limit the continuous smearing campaigns of the 2011 revolution by media outlets and therefore contain the anger of the revolutionaries.

    There’s no doubt that the Sisi regime stands in total contrast to what the January 25 revolution represented and such action reflects a real anxiety towards the people’s reactions. However, unless this statement is followed by an equally tangible agenda to fulfill the youth’s aspirations, the regime is likely to face turbulent times very soon.

    When the people wanted to bring down the Syrian regime: Hezbollah as a counter-revolutionary proxy

    By Ibrahim Halawi

    Hezbollah has been, since its creation in 1982, an Iranian card in Lebanese and regional politics. Yet the political events in Lebanon, mainly the Israeli occupation and Hezbollah’s resistance to it, has left this proxy role relatively distant from the political discourse of the Lebanese public for a long while.

    But Hezbollah’s blatant stance against the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from Lebanon in 2005 triggered a deep social and ideological divide. Effectively, Hezbollah became vulnerable to accusations of serving regional interests over national ones. After less than a year from a series of assassinations of anti-Assad Lebanese figures, the July War started and with it came a major announcement that redefined Hezbollah’s resistance during the war and all the events to follow. 

    The war triggered the announcement of the “new Middle East” by the United States Secretary of State at that time, Condoleezza Rice, during her visit to Lebanon. Standing next to the Lebanese Prime Minister at that time, Fouad Siniora, Rice announced the new era in the region. The context of the announcement is Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel, its unilateral decision to kidnap Israeli soldiers, and consequently its disregard for the Lebanese government in the decision to go to war. 

    Pre-Arab Spring politics

    Many Lebanese remained sympathetic to Hezbollah, insisting on perceiving it – its identity – as a resistance, and underestimating its alliance to Assad in Syria and its allegiance to the Iranian regime.

    Immediately after the July War in 2006, Bashar Al-Assad spoke in August 2006 of the need to “turn the military victory of Hezbollah into a political victory”. Assad announced support for the “Islamic resistance” – represented by Hezbollah – in the dirty politics of sectarian Lebanon. With that, Hezbollah’s victories pushed the party to demand a bigger political and economic slice from the Lebanese sectarian cake. Such demands meant that other sectarian parties and leaders had to give away some of their share, mostly the Sunnis.

    This allowed the regional contest to shape the Lebanese power balance even more directly, with Hezbollah at its forefront. The rise of geopolitical tensions between Iran and the conservative Gulf states reflected itself in a re-emerging Sunni-Shiite sectarian discourse in Lebanon. The non-sectarian legitimacy that the Lebanese Shiite party had before 2006 was gradually overshadowed by the systematic rise of sectarian discourse, mirroring the regional tensions, mainly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

    Hezbollah’s identity crisis: from a resistance to a sectarian counter-revolutionary proxy

    With the wave of revolts that reached Syria, the legitimacy of the regional geopolitical axis that Iran has established, passing through Assad’s Syria, was threatened by a more powerful legitimacy: the people. But the threat was not only directed at Assad and Iran, it  also turned on the regressive monarchies in the Arab Gulf, most notoriously Saudi Arabia.

    Therefore, all sides managed, to different degrees and through different strategies and narratives, to intensify the regional contest that was already escalating before the revolts at the expense of the sweeping mass revolts that have threatened them all. In other words, all regional powers saw in a fierce proxy war in Syria a less threatening scenario than a mass uprising. So, they all worked, without the need for immediate cooperation, to push towards a sectarian hegemony over the revolution.

    In that sense, Hezbollah was fighting a proxy war against rebels and Gulf-sponsored militias in Syria to protect the regional interests of its axis. The legitimacy of the Shiite Lebanese party’s intervention in Syria comes under a regionally-constructed rhetoric of anti-takfiris and the protection of Lebanon.

    Regardless of the motives, Hezbollah’s commitments in Syria reflect the overlap between the regional contest and the mass uprisings; an overlap in which the regional contest undermines the legitimacy of the mass uprisings.

    Hezbollah had to intervene in Syria to protect its ally, the Assad regime. Hezbollah had to ensure that the snowballing expansion of Sunni fundamentalist groups is contained before it engulfs Lebanon and becomes an existential threat to the party.

    The question is, then, not whether Hezbollah had any choice in being dragged into a sectarian battle. Instead, the question is to what extent Hezbollah’s role in Syria’s counter-revolutionary proxy war has affected its identity as a “resistance movement” over and above its Shiism.

    Resistance as an act rather than an identity

    Of course, Hezbollah’s rivals exacerbated this identity shift from its inclusive resistance status to a sectarian militia. Hezbollah’s ideology, a fundamentally religious one, is now at the core of a regional sectarian contest that feeds into a greater geopolitical rivalry. Consequently, as Hezbollah’s ideology and proxy role overshadow its history of resistance, the party seems to have lost its radical identity.

    It is important to differentiate between “resistance” as an identity and resistance as an act. Hezbollah, and other Islamic resistance factions like Hamas, have resisted Israel in several wars and are expected to do so again. Yet, the outcomes of resistance have always been disappointing. Resistance has never materialised in favour of the people. With every war with Israel, people are becoming more and more disillusioned with the Islamic resistance as their material conditions are deteriorating and their civil rights are being lost. The fruits of heroic resistance are feeding regional interests rather than the people that resisted. The proxy role of Islamic resistance is becoming a bargaining tool in regional diplomacy.

    So, the act of resistance does not necessarily grant the party behind the act an unconditional status. Resistance became a contextual status gained during the event of fighting Israel. But resistance will never be an identity again that Hezbollah can use to cover its sectarian ideology as it used to do not so long ago. 

    The life of an American freelancer in the Middle East

    By Aya Chebbi

    “What’s more appealing to me as a freelancer is having the autonomy to go and create my own stories… without losing part of my freedom, or having to uphold any editorial line" - Eric Reidy 

    I met Eric Reidy last April in San Francisco, where we both spoke at AMENDS at Stanford University. We quickly bonded through our passion for writing, photography, listening to and telling people’s stories, a combination of what he defines as the package for freelancing.

    Knowing him for a short period of time and understanding his motivation when he delivered his speech gave me the impression of him not being a typical American freelance journalist.

    In mid October, I received a message from Eric telling me that he was coming to Tunisia in two weeks time, with no plans whatsoever on where he will be staying, for how long or what will he be doing. A few days later, to my surprise, I met him there. 

    Eric’s life appears to be unplanned, as probably most freelancers’ lives are. What distinguishes him is his clear vision, once he connects with the place and the people, of the kind of story he wants to deliver to an international audience. He has an interesting approach to freelancing; he sees it as a choice, an opportunity, an excuse and a challenge. For him, journalism is “an excuse to ask people the questions that you would want to ask them anyway but don’t have a pretext to do so”.

    His journey started when he was 17 years old as a “news junky”, particularly with respect to the Middle East. “During the worst period of the Iraq War in 2006/2007, I started being exposed to more critical perspectives of what life is actually like in the region… a chasm opened up between the story that I had been presented with since I was a young adolescent, and reality”, he said. Eric was fascinated with how big a gap that was. 

    He is an adventurous freelancer who is willing to take risks to get important stories but “being a freelancer can also be an obstacle as much as an opportunity”, he adds. “Unfortunately Iraq is a bit less accessible, particularly to American freelancers. Without training in reporting in danger zones, without financial backing from a major channel, without a strong network of connections, it is pretty foolish and dangerous to go there”. As much as he believes in taking risks, he also cultivates the personal safety to be able to tell these stories.

    Eric’s first stop was Lebanon, where he went to study Arabic for two months as a fresh graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, but ended up staying for eight months. Lebanon was his first choice because of its reputation as a “cosmopolitan, relatively free cultural space in the Middle East, a region that is tightly controlled by governments and censorship”.  

    He was lucky to find a job within a couple of weeks with a Lebanese foundation called the Samir Kassir Centre for Media and Cultural Freedom (SKeyes). “I thought it would be great to have an excuse to interview artists, to sit down and talk to them about their work and their life experiences with social and cultural censorship.” He interviewed 25 artists about the role of art in public life in Beirut as part of his project. His work resulted in the publication of a book titled, “A Fractured Mirror: Beirut’s Cultural Scene and the Search for Identity”.

    The next stop was Palestine, which might seem as dangerous as Iraq to outsiders. However, Eric argues that, “to be a foreign journalist in Palestine is safer than Iraq”. He lived in Palestine for five months.

    He has been writing for Wamda, which is a platform designed to empower entrepreneurs in the MENA region by covering stories of small businesses and growth trends. Eric was the only journalist covering the Palestinian entrepreneurial scene full time. “I found entrepreneurship to be a fascinating lens into Palestinian society”. He observed that “as a consequence of the occupation, a lot of people have understandable limitations to what they think is possible. There is a real sense that there isn’t very much possible in the West Bank because everything is really tightly controlled…”

    So he looked for stories that would show Palestinians that there are those who have some agency to act on their own. “They are usually portrayed to the west as people who are either oppressed by a controlling system or people who are exercising violence”. He chose not to fall into that dichotomy but instead to open up more space to understand what he had come to see “as a much more nuanced existence”. 

    This falls into his broader vision of “using the power of personal stories to break people’s pre-existing understandings and open up a little space within people’s preconceptions about a place or people or an experience…to have them start to be self-critical and question whatever they think is true or certain”.

    Eric had to leave the Middle East in early February this year, after being deported from Israel, but he considers this as “a minor bump on the road”.

    He has now been in Tunisia for five weeks, refreshing his Arabic and studying the Tunisian dialect, while exploring new stories. “Other than transparent free elections and the transition of power, I think the story that should be coming out of Tunisia is the longer ongoing process of what is actually taking place here, on how to build a new type of society out of the society that was previously governed by an authoritarian dictatorship. To me, that’s the story of Tunisia.”

    So far, Eric has written three pieces on Tunisia claiming that “If we promote Tunisia’s model, by following its democratic transition, then we owe it to ourselves to actually understand what that means…People do not have to be dying for that to be an important story, and I hope I can convince editors of that while I’m here”.

    As a totally new context from Palestine or Lebanon, he is finding his way in Tunis while “There is a bit of nostalgia and longing for the comfort I was able to build for myself where I was last”, he confsses.

    He undoubtedly confirms the stereotypical image of the maddening life of a freelancer as “a hassle, you have to always keep coming up with story ideas, keep pitching, developing relationships with editors, with contacts, with people who can help translate things for you… Everything somehow is related to work. It’s kind of a consuming lifestyle as your livelihood basically depends on the network you develop…I always feel I should be working when I’m not, I have no sense of security”.

    He has lived in three different places covering stories for AlJazeera, Al-Monitor, and the Middle East Eye among other international media outlets, yet he says he is new in the freelance space. “Everyday I sit down to write an article or do an interview I ask myself ‘am I good enough to be doing this?’ Do I understand well enough to put the stuff that I’m creating out there for other people to use as a source of information? Still something I have to prove to myself”.

    This self-reflection is surely a mainstay of journalistic ethics and integrity and something that today’s journalists should be asking themselves as they report stories from the Middle East.

    Over the past years, I have met many freelancers in Tunisia and Egypt who moved to the region to be journalists thinking that there were “a lot of violent, bloody stories they could cover to make a name for themselves.” Eric, however, has a different approach; he wanted to “correct” the media narratives that he grew up consuming. 

    There is an urgent need to change the narrative of the region and shift focus from bloodshed, terrorism, religious, sectarian and tribal threats to more in-depth stories. How did a revolution turn into a proxy war in Syria? How are the elections shaping Tunisian’s lives? How does the Lebanese multifaceted identity manifest itself? Here's to more and better stories!

    The refutation of the Djerejian doctrine

    By Islam Abdel-Rahman

    “We are suspect of those who would use the democratic process to come to power, only to destroy that very process in order to retain power and political dominance… While we believe in the principle of 'one person, one vote, we do not support 'one person, one vote, one time."

    This was the famous Djerejian doctrine as formulated by the American diplomat Edward Djerejian in the early 1990s, a doctrine which has dominated American and western perceptions of political Islam in its different currents, ever since.

    During a forum I attended last Spring in Washington DC on post-Arab-Spring Egypt, months before the military coup in Egypt, there was much talk over whether the Muslim Brotherhood would allow future transparent elections in Egypt or not, and how keen US officials and the political elites were on representative voting. 

    However, on the very few occasions when elections have taken place, it is the the west which seems able only to accept and support such elections for one vote and one time, when the results serve its interests.

    Algeria was the first of those tests where Islamists won ballots but were prevented from governing. The one vote, one time rule was applied by Algerian secular generals, who pushed the country into a bloody civil war whose wounds have not healed till this day.

    The second of those tests was in Palestine, where the west punished Palestinians for electing Hamas. Till today, Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world, with no hope of having elections in the near future although the movement is still more popular than western-backed Fatah.

    In Egypt, the military and secular political elite succeeded in trashing the post-revolution ballot box, staging a military coup bringing down the first democratically elected president in the history of Egypt, to resurrect Mubarak’s dictatorial regime, if not even worse.

    A deeper look into the brief period of political openness between the 2011 revolution and the 2012 coup shows how the Muslim Brotherhood exercised the principle of relinquishing power if defeated in elections. While the Islamists managed to win a majority in parliament as well as the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated lists and alliances conceded defeat in other elections such as the student unions and professional syndicates, especially in urban areas. 

    Despite the decline in their popularity, and the overall dissatisfaction with their performance, the president along with his Freedom and Justice Party insisted on going ahead with the legislative elections as mandated by the Constitution. Yet, they were blocked twice. The first time by a highly politicized Constitutional Court, and a second time by the military coup, which the vast majority of the secular opposition cheered on.

    The international community also took part in crushing the Egyptian peoples’ hope for genuine democracy when the United Nations General Assembly received the coup leader General Abdel Fattah El Sisi as the president of Egypt during its last meeting, a general who had reached power after a bloody coup and after elections described as rigged by the New York Times. He was welcomed by the west as the leader of the road map for Egypt’s transition to democracy.  

    Ennahda group at the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, 2011.

    Ennahda group at the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, 2011. Wikicommons.

    Yet, the most powerful blow to the Djerejian doctrine has come from Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, where parliamentary elections took place this October.

    The elections in Tunisia offered a genuine example of how Islamists cede power and respect the popular will when they lose in the ballot box through free and fair elections.

    The historical image of the Nahda party leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, calling the winning Nidaa leader, El-Sebsi, to congratulate him provides evidence and confirmation that many western political pundits were wrong about political Islam, to the point where they have justified the suppression of Islamists and supported their exclusion from politics for fear of their monopoly over power through elections.

    However, this is not the end of the story. There are legitimate concerns that Nidaa Tounes, the secular coalition that won the elections which is composed mainly of previous Ben Ali regime figures, might begin to crack down against Islamists in an attempt to weaken their ability to compete in future elections.

    The international community, which tolerated the crackdown in Egypt, describing it as a return to democracy, must not accept a soft coup on democracy in Tunisia.

    The Djerejian doctrine has proven to be false. But allowing Tunisia to fail and return to a dictatorship will put an end to the notion that Islamists can reach power through fair and representative elections, especially in a region where those winning elections get imprisoned and executed while those replacing the ballots with swords and guns seize ground despite looming airstrikes.

    Saudi's husseiniya massacre: sectarianism coming home to roost

    By Ali Al-Jamri

    Screenshot from a video of the aftermath of the attack.

    Screenshot from a video of the aftermath of the attack.On Monday 3 November, tragedy struck in the Saudi Arabian town of Dalwa when three unidentified gunmen opened fire on a ‘group of citizens’, killing five and injuring nine. The next day, two Saudi security officers were killed in a shoot-out with a group of suspects, and two of the assailants were killed. Since then, at least fifteen people have been arrested in connection to the crime. This is an ominous development, not just in Saudi but for the whole Middle East. Only Saudi Arabia can challenge the causes.

    The Saudi Press Agency reported it in this very short statement:

    Ahsa, Muharram 11, 1436, November 04, 2014, SPA -- Police Information Spokesman in Eastern Region stated that at 11:30 p.m., on Monday evening, 10/01/1436 AH, and during the exit of a group of citizens from one of the sites in the village of Aldaloh in Ahsa Governorate, three masked men opened fire at them from machine guns and personal pistols after getting out of a car parked near the site, resulting in the death of 5 people and injuring 9 others, who were transported to the hospital to receive the necessary medical treatment. Ahsa police started the procedures of criminal investigation, and the incident is still under security follow-up.

    The curious thing about this press release is that the Agency fails to mention who the victims are, and where exactly the attack occurred. The massacred individuals were Shi’a men, killed outside of a husseiniya, a Shi’a mourning house where every year, in the first ten days of Muharram, the Shi’a remember and mourn the martyrdom of Hussein -- grandson of the Prophet Muhammad killed by the tyrant Caliph Yazid. As the Islamic lunar calendar is shorter than the Christian solar calendar, the dates shift through the seasons. This year, Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram), fell on Tuesday, November 4. For Shi’a, the story of Hussein’s martyrdom is at the core of their philosophy.

    Ahsa is one of the major centres of the Shi’a population, who are concentrated in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern province. This Shi’a minority, approximately 10% of Saudi’s population (between 2-3 million people), never fully accepted being a part of Saudi-- not that they were given the option to, and in turn have been singled out for repression, at certain times more forcefully than at others.

    In October, Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr was sentenced to death after having been found guilty of ‘foreign meddling’ and ‘disobeying’ the rulers. The cleric was a leading member of the community in 2011, when the Shi’a were at the forefront of Saudi’s own ‘Arab Spring’ protests, marching out en masse in March of that year. The police responded swiftly and quickly broke their resolve for continual protest. Widely seen as politically motivated, al-Nimr’s death sentence sends a chilling message to the Shi’a of Saudi. The revolt in the eastern province has not been limited to 2011 and Nimr al-Nimr. September 2014 had a surge of protests as well, for example, after police killed one protester that month.

    Links to Al-Qaeda

    This brings us back to the perpetrators, and who they were. The three alleged gunmen fought in Syria for Al Qaeda before they returned home to commit their attack. It’s the nightmare of every state from which volunteer jihadis have travelled to Syria and Iraq: extremists becoming militarised and returning home to commit violent attacks. The attack on the husseiniya will be seen internationally as just that. The action itself was intended to send out two clear messages:

    The first is that the Shi’a Muslim faith is wrong and extinguishing it is righteous. This thinking does not just target Shi’a Islam, it is the underlying thinking of dehumanisation that is behind all the massacres carried out in Iraq and Syria by Al-Qaeda and ISIS, whether they have targeted Shi’a, Christians, Yazidis or any other minorities.

    The second message is that religious extremism is no longer contained in war-torn Iraq and Syria. The attack on the husseiniya was small-scale and localised. Though fifteen persons have so far been arrested in connection to the attack, we can assume that the gunmen were probably not acting in connection to some larger, grander project to attack the Shi’a of Dalwa or Ahsa. That it was seemingly uncoordinated is a good thing. That it could happen again, or that such a movement might grow, is profoundly worrying.

    A less obviously disturbing factor, but one of supreme importance, is the Saudi media’s choice of what they left out. By removing the facts of who was killed, where they were killed and why they were specifically targeted, the Saudi media fails to criticise the underlying ideology that drove the killers.

    They flinched from mentioning the Shi’a faith of the murdered, and of the Shi’a religious ceremony they were participating in. The fact that seven people are dead is a tragedy, but that five of them were Shi’a, and that a religious ceremony was the site of the attack, is a clear statement by the perpetrators. What does it then say about Saudi Arabia, that their media cannot report the faith shared by all the victims of the massacre?

    That their faith is not mentioned implies that being Shi’a is something shameful or to be hidden away, that it is not acceptable. This official state discourse is perhaps the more benign form of what is, at its core, a sectarian worldview. But it is these subtle, permitted and encouraged expressions of sectarianism that ultimately allow extremism to thrive.

    In Saudi Arabia, some degree of anti-Shi’a feeling is accepted, and that has been allowed to fester into something potentially lethal. The subtle sectarianism of the Saudi regime in this capacity cannot be considered separately from the sectarianism of the extremist ideology of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, especially taking into consideration how Saudi Arabia, historically and presently, so readily produces many young militant jihadis. Another example of the malleability of this discourse is the amount to which private individuals from Saudi (and elsewhere in the Gulf) have been directly responsible for heavily financing Al Qaeda and other salafi-jihadi groups.

    A clear but under-reported showcase of the Saudi regime's conflicting reactions to the underlying ideology of the gunmen is what happened on Wednesday, November 5: King Abdulla's minister of culture, Mohieddin Khoja, quit his post soon after Khoja ordered a ban on the Wesal satellite TV channel–infamously known for its anti-Shi’a programmes and messages. Whether or not the sacking has anything to do with the relieved Khoja’s last major act as minister is unknown. The entire affair raises perplexing questions on Saudi’s position on extremism. On the one hand, the Saudi ministry of interior has described it as a ‘terror act’. On the other hand, the timing of Khoja’s sacking may well be interpreted by some as an endorsement of the sectarian messages Wesal broadcasts, much listened to and absorbed by men who might well commit to travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the jihadi groups.

    Transnational discourse

    Sectarianism crosses boundaries. When in 2011 protests erupted in Bahrain, the Saudi regime did not wait long before intervening. In mid-March, a month after protests began, a state of emergency was declared and the Peninsula Shield Force–a coalition army of all six Gulf-Cooperation Council countries, but in this case composed mainly of Saudi units–entered Bahrain to help suppress the protests. The officially accepted narrative is that this army served only in ‘protecting and securing vital locations’. But their role has never been totally clear, and some Bahrainis claim that the Saudi military participation went far beyond that.

    During the state of emergency, Bahrain’s security forces demolished 53 Shi’a mosques, husseiniyas and shrines. Shi’a were targets of intimidation. These problems remain unresolved. Like in Saudi Arabia, sectarianism is a looming threat in Bahrain. Indeed, among the Islamic State’s premier religious imams is the 29-year-old Bahraini, Turki al-Binali. Other Bahrainis have joined him. The Islamic faith, with its transnational concept of brotherhood, cannot be addressed on a country-by-country basis. Ideas and philosophical positions are international, and what happens in Saudi effects what happens in Bahrain, and vice versa.

    The terror attack in Saudi is one of the first of its kind since the outbreak of war in Syria and the extraordinary and rapid advance of ISIS. But it very well may not be the last. Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to take a leading stance against extremist ideology, this cannot be done through a security response. Primarily what is needed is an ideological one. This is obviously a major and difficult task for the kingdom's rulers since wahhabism, a cornerstone of Saudi national identity and law, is also the basis of the more extremist militant jihadism. But if conservative Saudi can shift its hegemonic discourse away from this ideology– even if only slightly – it might go a long way to combating the poisonous ideology of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

    Arab League's absence reveals the reality of governance in the Arab world

    By Namaa Al-Mahdi

    Protests in Cairo Egypt 2011

    Anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. Shutterstock/ Mohamed Elsayyed. Some Rights reserved.

    The Arab world, a group of 23 nations, bound by the Arab League is facing its most challenging time in modern history.

    The Islamic State, a group of desert pirates have taken over vast swathes of land in Iraq and Syria. They have sparked civil war in Libya and are causing turmoil in Algeria.

    Political unrest is destabilising autocratic regimes in Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Bahrain. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine has taken many lives and has triggered international outrage.

    The Arab world is spiralling out of control – the future looks bleak. The fundamental problem facing the Arab League nations is the lack of a state - a legitimate authority that has the ability to maintain peace and enforce the rule of law. 

    The Arab League  - a sea of undemocratic regimes

    The seemingly stable states in the region are plutocratic regimes, regimes founded upon tribal systems of leadership transformed into the current government. These plutocratic regimes rely on old and unproductive procedures and lack functioning governance. The Gulf Arab states and Saudi Arabia are examples of plutocratic regimes that will face serious political challenges once their supply of oil runs out. When the natural oil reserve ends, the need for actual governance will become apparent.

    Tribalism is a system whereby a group/community relies on a tribal leader and an elder to provide financial, social and economic support - in exchange for absolute loyalty and obedience. The functioning of tribalism is analogous to the role of a father figure in a family. The majority of the Arab states are governed by tribalism.

    Oil revenues allow the Gulf Arab states and Saudi Arabia to provide guardianship, public services and citizen support. However, these citizen support systems are very expensive and unsustainable.

    Other Arab nations are kleptrocratic regimes, which rule through a system of secret police, oppression and brutality. These nations are governed similarly to the Gulf Arab states and Saudi Arabia but with fewer and more limited resources. Guardianship and protection is only extended to the few loyalists of the president and king.

    Root causes of Arab League ineffectiveness

    In a crisis, the Arab League is expected to intervene. The League acts as an umbrella, for monitoring, guiding and informing policy and promoting action between members of the Arab States.

    The African Union (AU) supports the League in Africa. The AU has been directly involved in conflicts and peacekeeping initiatives throughout the continent, for instance Sudan. In Asia, there is no regional safety equivalent, no umbrella of nations or organisations that can provide guidance, support and protection. The only Asian presence is the all-encompassing United Nations (UN).

    The role of the Arab League has never been more vital, yet it remains absent.

    In 2003 the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) hosted an Arab summit in cooperation with the Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR), the Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHRS) and the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights (EIPR) to address the weaknesses of the Arab League.

    The main criticism was direted at the lack of ability on the part of the <!--td {border: 1px solid #ccc;}br {mso-data-placement:same-cell;}--> Arab League and supporting organisations to follow a systematic procedure, and the inability to effectively intervene in the time of need. The summit highlighted the lack of clear and concise plans of action.

    The only plausible solution is reform of Arab state governments. However, government reform in these countries would be a lengthy and complicated process because government opposition, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the press lack political will and information. The civil society of the Arab world is often naïve about the defects of the state and fails to see the need to reform.

    One of the popular Syrian revolution chants was “the people want to overthrow the government and the opposition”, the tribal mentality reflected in this and similar chants is the basis of political parties in the Arab world. This tribal mentality is manipulated by political parties and constitutes a fundamental part of the underlying agenda of plutocratic regimes. 

    Societies fuelled by nepotism and pay-offs

    Take the case of the Sudan. Since 2003, the UN and other international NGOs have provided a steady stream of training programmes in Sudan. These programmes aimed to address the capacity deficit facing the country, which eventually resulted in a twenty-two year civil war. Evaluations of these training programmes mainly reflected dissatisfaction with the food, praise for food provided at workshops - mostly overseas, and complaints about training that involved some level of costly travel.

    Training opportunities are predominantly perceived as an opportunity for extra income. They are frequently used by autocratic regimes as a reward for loyalty. Large per-diems are provided as well as other benefits. In the Sudan, career and in-house training is generally an opportunity for a free meal. The meal rather than the training becomes the focus. Any small-scale government-training workshop would include a full three-course breakfast, three-course lunch, three-course dinner with additional snacks and beverages distributed in between the meals.

    Job recruitment processes are not transparent. Job positions are often filled by friends, relatives or through a contact. Nepotism is not just a regrettable frequent occurrence: many consider it a duty. Anyone who seeks employment in companies or firms without help of friends or relatives is considered mean and disloyal.

    Career progress is subjective and does not follow job performance evaluation. Instead of strengthening personal and professional skills, energy is dedicated to creating interpersonal relationships with managers, directors and any other important superior. This inter-company relationship not employee skills will determine the next promotion, upgrade or salary rise. 

    Nepotism is an integral part of the tribal culture of the region - this is a catch-22 situation. The pillars of this culture, such as guardianship and nepotism cannot be discarded unless there is a functioning nation state to ensure the safety and protection of citizens. Failed public institutions built around tribalism and nepotism cannot create a viable nation state.

    Tabit and sexual violence in Darfur

    By Yosra Akasha

    In nine months, our neighborhood will be full of new born Arab infants... They came to drink Maresa and ended up using us all. They had guns; we could not say anything to stop them.

    Bitterly but sarcastically, Mariam told a women’s rights activist about what had happened to her while they were chatting over tea in Nyala. That was two years ago.

    Sexual violence and rape have now become a reality of women's lives and part of their everyday encounters in Darfur.

    Over the past few years, and after the ICC arrest warrant for Omar Albashir and other government officials, Darfur has practically been closed off to journalists, politicians and independent civil society organizations.

    Last year Sara, a 16 year-old girl from Zamzam IDP camp was hospitalized for ten days after being gang raped by two young men. One of them was an officer with the National Reserve Forces (Abu Taira). 

    She proceeded with her case and reported it to the police. However, the officer was never charged. The other rapist was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years, yet after a very quick appeal, was found not guilty and released. 

    Sara was grieving; she wanted and needed for her story to be heard and travelled long distances in order to meet with the activist who recorded her case, as the displacement camp remains inaccessible to journalists and activists from Khartoum. 

    Under the current oppressive and highly monitored situation in Darfur, Radio Dabanga, a very popular community radio with a huge network of local reporters - working with an extremely low profile - remains the only outspoken media outlet that regularly documents and reports rape cases. This has given it the reputation of being “The Rape Radio” among Sudanese activists.

    Radio Dabanga has been broadcasting in shortwave since 2008 to inform the people in Darfur of social, political as well as other events around them. It was initially broadcasting from Khartoum but, due to government interference, it is now broadcast from the Netherlands by Free Press Unlimited.

    On 5 November 2014 Darfur was in the international headlines, including the BBC, as UNAMID had issued a statement after being denied access to Tabit village to investigate rape allegations. Radio Dabanga was the first to broadcast that military forces had invaded Tabit and raped 200 women. However, four days later the UNAMID mission reported that they had been allowed access and that no evidence of rape was found.

    Hildebrand Bijleveld, the Director of Radio Dabanga and Free Press Unlimited chronicled these events in Tabit as follows: 

    On 31 October 2014, we were informed that a young lady from Tabit, engaged to a soldier, got pregnant. Her family went to the military barracks to complain and told the soldier that they would have to deal with him if he came back for their daughter. In the afternoon, her brothers were arrested and the village was surrounded by military forces because a soldier went missing. It was 4-5 pm Sudan time on Friday and we could not verify the information, thus we did not publish the same day.


    On November 2 we got information from another source that the military forces had raped a large number of women in Tabit. Alarm bells were ringing. We got hold of two rape survivors who reported their cases, but they were still in the village. So, for their own safety, another person from the village testified on their behalf.


    Early morning on Monday one of the victims disappeared. We had four recorded testimonies but were only able to release one, because we had to make sure that the survivors were safe.


    On November 4, a UNAMID convoy moved from Shigil Tobai, located to the South of Tabit, to investigate the incident. To our surprise and according to UNAMID’s statement, they were stopped by a military road blockade. (Even though they had come from the south and should have already passed Tabit before reaching the blockade).


    People reported that they had already spoken to UNAMID. This is why I think UNAMID was purposefully seeking military verification over the investigation of rape. UNAMID also mentioned that no one had arrived from Tabit to the Zamzam IDP camp even though we had sent our reporters to Zamzam to meet with some of the women who had fled Tabit. Those women were not even approached by UNAMID.


    On November 7, a popular committee was formed to document the rape cases. They had to work through the night, going from door to door. They were able to document 57 rape cases of which 8 were minors.


    On November 8, the military forces came to Tabit and threatened people who talked. The following day, UNAMID sent a delegation accompanied by the police and military to investigate rape incidents. The people were scared.


    UNAMID claimed they talked to 8-9 students; however there aren’t any secondary schools or universities in Tabit.


    UNAMID’s public statement offended the people; even the UN Security Council dismissed it.

    All they said is that there was no evidence.

     Mr. Bijleveld on Radio Dabanga’s reputation as “The Rape Radio”:

    Radio Dabanga was started by Darfurians with the mission of reporting current affairs. We cover all issues of the peace process, rule of law, sports and social events. Our team works with some of the best Sudanese journalists. Its 100% independent and committed to the highest professional standards.


    Journalists are on the front lines when violations happen. Our commitment is to report and inform the people... We are not a lobbying or advocacy organization. 

    Regarding the high prevalence of sexual violence in Sudan and mainly in Darfur, Mr. Bijleveld commented: 

    I have lived in Sudan for almost two decades, while rape is a miserable crime, society and authorities would never tolerate a rapist and he would be punished regardless of his affiliations. It was against the ethical and moral values of society. Now rape is being used as a tool to suppress and terrify the people and perpetrators are not being punished.

    The recent incidents in Tabit outraged Sudanese social media users. After UNAMID’s statement, the discussion was shifted from anger at the prevalence of sexual violence in Darfur to Radio Dabanga and their stand versus UNAMID’s credibility. 

    The latter has a reputation for covering up government violations and under-reporting incidents, as stated by Aisha Elbasiri, a former UNAMID spokesperson who resigned because her access to information was blocked. Having a discussion over whether or not Tabit 'happened' reflects a major misunderstanding of sexual violence. During the Tabit outrage, Radio Dabanga reported the rape of two women in central Darfur and the abduction and rape of another in West Darfur. The two incidents went unnoticed. No demands for investigation or for the support of the survivors were made. Questioning the occurrence, or even the blatant denial, of such heinous crimes based on the argument that the military base near Tabit is small, composed of only one hundred soldiers, is invalid. Such an argument reflects the fact that rape and sexual violence are perceived as consensual sexual acts, not the violent crimes they are in reality.

    The truth is that sexual violence is a weapon of war that has been normalized as part of everyday life in Darfur. No support is being provided to the survivors and no perpetrators are being brought to justice. The government of Sudan will continue to use its propaganda machine to deny the existence of these heinous crimes as the list of survivors and victims of sexual violence gets longer and longer.

    This is an edited version of a blog entry originally posted on 14 November 2014.

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