North Africa, West Asia

This week's window on the Middle East - February 18, 2014

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Photojournalism in the Palestinian Territories.

Arab Awakening
18 February 2014
  • Photojournalism in the Palestinian Territories
  • It’s always the woman’s fault
  • On the Darom Adom Festival and politics
  • The inconvenient truth about child brides
  • State and revolution
  • Corruption, the common denominator in Tunisia
  • Photojournalism in the Palestinian Territories

    By Liam Brown

    Demotix/Majdi Fathi. All rights reserved.

    Demotix/Majdi Fathi. All rights reserved.

    Photographers have featured prominently in the wave of new media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Their work informs the struggle over narratives and the images and stories that underpin them. For many years the dominant narrative was that of Israelis and the Palestinians were rendered invisible. This has been changing though. A considerable deal of this change is due to the use of social media to show the outside world the reality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

    Previously, photography was far too expensive a profession for many to enter but in recent years cheap cameras, many coming to the Palestinian market second-hand from Israel, have led to an increase in the number of young people becoming involved. Many young people not affiliated with either of the two major parties in Palestine have begun documenting life under occupation. Some of them as activist-photographers and others as professional photojournalists.

    Ramallah-based photographer Haroun Abu Arrah began taking photos with an old camera when he was just 9 years old and knew even then that photography was for him. Sitting in Ramallah Café, in Ramallah’s old city, he tells me: “I always felt that I wanted to do it” he says, “I was not looking to get popular”. Haroun, a student of Juliano Mer-Khamis at the Jenin Freedom Theatre says, "social media, especially Facebook, has become the main window outside to the world” he says, “If you test the idea you have on facebook you will find people like it or they don’t like it.” 

    Abu Arrah previously lived abroad in Norway for three years and remarks that the media’s inaccurate coverage of the conflict spurred him to show the world the truth. “The things I was hearing in the news were completely fake, were completely disgusting” he says, “They were distorting the reality and destroying the truth”. This isn’t limited to the international press. Haroun extends this to the Israeli and Palestinian Authority’s media, “They’re both wrong and nobody is hearing the voice of the street, and the reality, except those people who are visiting”.

    Arrah is one of many young Palestinian photographers who document the demonstrations and political actions that take place in Palestine each week. However, Arrah stresses the importance of documenting everyday life, not just demonstrations and political events. “I want to make a film made from photos, called ‘an ordinary day’” he says, “I want to start it from when somebody is waking up, going to the bathroom, brushing his teeth, getting ready, going outside, going from Jenin to Ramallah, facing the checkpoints, getting the phone call from his family telling him his brother has been arrested, getting the phone call saying his friend has been killed. I want people to follow of all this.”

    Gaza-based 26-year-old Eman Mohammed began her career as a photojournalist at just 19. She says there is great importance in showing the everyday life of people that isn’t found in the usual headlines. Eman documented the life of the Khaderis family in Gaza over the course of two years. Theirs was a story that ‘summarized the whole Palestinian-Israeli conflict’, she says. The family’s home had been dynamited by the IDF during the 2008-9 war and instead of leaving the place where they had lived for many years the family lived amongst the rubble, raised their children there and kept a flock of birds. Eman documented their story, ‘it is a very bitter-sweet story’. 

    Like Haroun, Eman has found social media helpful for distributing her work as well. “I got my first Washington Post assignment through Facebook, which is hilarious I know”. But it can be a double-edged sword she says, because nearly anybody can claim to be a photojournalist. “When everybody with a website calls themselves a professional photojournalists people do not take you as seriously”. Still, the exposure has helped her get her work published. She is now currently in the United States preparing for a TED talk about photojournalism and war, as part of her current project entitled iWar.

    Eman has also won acclaim internationally for her work, though she had never expected that her photos would reach such a wide audience. Over the years there has been a growing interest in photojournalism from Palestine - a change that Eman says occurred around the time of the Israeli assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-9. “Before they [international news wires] were like ‘yeah, we might want to see that. That might be interesting’. But after that they became the ones who ask ‘can we see this? Can we see that? We want to know more about this!” Eman is not alone. All of the photographers I spoke with, some on the condition of anonymity, said that they had seen a growth in interest in their work in recent years.

    Barriers still remain though. In a conservative society like Gaza’s Eman has faced obstacles to her participation as a female photojournalist. “In Gaza it is considered very shameful to be a female photographer” adding “it is the opposite of anything honorable” and that “people look down on female photojournalists”. The profession is still seen by many as a male profession despite a long history of female photographers in Palestine stretching back to the Ottoman era. This is in part because of the conservative attitudes some men hold towards women working but also importantly because, as Eman explains to me, “As a profession it is known to be violent, it is known to be around wars, invasions, air strikes, and stuff like that”.

    The danger is very real for photojournalists in Gaza and activist photographers in the West Bank alike. Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike have come under fire from the military at protests. Abu Arrah says that IDF soldiers have intimidated him. “Once I went to a protest and a soldier threatened to shoot me if I didn’t leave”. Other photographers have told of the harassment they face. Their experience hasn’t gone unnoticed by press bodies such as Reporters Without Borders, who have documented and condemned the attacks.

    In April last year, 23-year old photographer Mohammad al-Azza was shot in the face with a rubber-coated steel bullet by Israeli soldiers who were entering the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he lives. The bullet passed through his cheek below his right eye and fractured his skull. He has now made a full recovery though and continues to work undeterred by the incident. 

    Al-Azza’s photography has featured prominently on social media, and at the age of just 23 he has won numerous awards for his photography. He began photography as a teenager when the Lajee Centre in Aida refugee camp distributed cameras to its children and asked them to photograph scenes from their lives. Although largely self-taught himself, he now teaches local youth how to do photography and has organized exhibitions of their work in the camp and overseas. Al-Azza’s own exhibitions overseas in countries such as France and Belgium have also been well received. He is one of the increasing number of photographers who are presenting the outside world with a exhibition display of life in their homeland.

    Al-Azza was equally disillusioned about the mainstream media coverage of the situation as Abu Arrah. “When the news media come here come to talk about the camp they come for a few minutes, film, and then go. The media come and then they leave.” The alternative was to document things himself,  “when I was doing media I wanted to film everything.”

    He is also one of the many activist photographers using Facebook as a platform to self-publish. “I use facebook because it is under your control. There are many ways to make facebook for our side. Many people saw my pictures and heard about what was going on.”

    It has also proven to be an important way of communicating with activists in other refugee camps. Some years ago youth in the Aida camp staged a protest against the wall surrounding the camp, which saw them set fire to tires in front of the wall and knock a hole through it before being dispersed by a group of soldiers. “The pictures I took of them burning the tower I put them on Facebook and one-by-one they [other local activists] started sharing. It became public. Other people started doing the same across Palestine and so we could can learn from one another what we can do.” 

    Despite being routinely targeted by the military, Al-Azza continues his work. He isn’t the only one to recognize the ability of photography to challenge military hegemony. During the Second Intifada photographers captured the spotlight and broadcast images to the world that the mainstream media neglected, and in doing so saved lives. “They [photographers] become heroes…cameras save lives”, Abu Arrah says. “If we didn’t have cameras and photographers during the second Intifada we could have lost more people.” This is because soldiers become conscious of their actions when they know they are being watched. “If you’re alone and you’re destroying a place you will destroy everything. But if somebody is watching you, you will feel guilty and stop.”

    It’s always the woman’s fault

    By Yosra Akasha

    Women, in Sudan are considered adults once they hit puberty. Men, on the other hand, can still get away with heinous behavior no matter how old they are. In Sudan, for example, even when a girl is gang raped or sexually harassed, it is always her fault. The men, fully aware that they will not be held accountable, continue to violate women on a daily basis, because it is always “the woman’s fault.”

    One of the horrific cases is of a 13-year-old Sudanese girl who was raped by a militia. She is being accused and charged with gross indecency, she tried to file for rape, but in order for the case to be processed she would have to bring four witnesses to verify her claim, which, of course, she couldn’t do. Her trial has been transferred from juvenile court to criminal court because she is considered to be an “adult woman”.

    According to the Personal Status of Muslims Act of 1991, girls (or boys) can marry at the age of 10, and crimes related to sexual violence against girls mostly get prosecuted in adult criminal courts. There are claims that she had had an affair with her rapist, however untrue, in order to have the case transferred from adultery to gross indecency. Socially she is being accused with being immoral and seducing adult men. The general opinion is that she ruined her own future; nobody cares about how she feels or what she has been through as only she can be blamed for her rape. She has been stigmatized, worth nothing but her broken hymen. Now, it doesn’t matter if she attends school or attempts suicide, she brought it upon herself that 13-year-old “woman.”

    Another daily occurrence in Sudan is of women being sexually harassed as they are going about their daily lives. If a woman is walking around in trousers, wearing a tight t-shirt and without a headscarf it can “annoy a man.” Men feel entitle to harass women and may even go so far as to file a case against a woman for wearing “indecent clothing.” On the other hand, if a woman wants to prove that she has been sexually harassed on public transportation, the police will refuse to file a case. If they do agree, then it is most likely that she has “connections”, however, she has to bring witnesses to the act, which is of course impossible, even though at times, harassers will beat a woman up if they are told to stop touching her.

    A case that has received a bit more coverage is that of a young pregnant Ethiopian lady who was gang raped, and filmed, by seven men during the Muslim feast (Eid Al Fitr). Soon after the incident, she bumped into a police officer who took her to the police station but failed to file a case. Five months later, she got arrested when the video went viral on Whatsapp.

    She is being accused of “practicing” prostitution and possessing indecent materials. While kept under police custody; the attorney general denied her the right to file the rape case as well as bail. He claimed that there is no provision in the law granting her access to the law on this; although there is no provision in the law denying her this right. Later the court refused to let her file her case because the investigation had already taken place on the basis of prostitution and possession of indecent materials. Furthermore, the prosecutor added charges of adultery and gross indecency before transferring the case to the court. Local media was relentless in blaming the Ethiopian “prostitute” who came to Sudan to spread immorality, HIV and destroy the future of Sudanese young men.

    “They are just poor kids, she shouldn’t ruin their future and they deserve another chance to be good people. She is just an Ethiopian whore,” said a tea lady selling tea near the court. She cursed her and was also angry that there was a chance the men were going to be punished along with her for committing immoral acts. However, this same tea lady couldn’t say a word to the five police officers who got tea and coffee from her for free. If she were to ask them to pay, she may be charged with disturbing public order, and may be regarded as immoral and a whore herself. However, she was quite ready to be angry at other “immoral women.”

    These stories are from the day-to-day lives of women in Sudan. Few make their way into the media. It’s easy for a man to rape a woman and get away with it, but rape survivors have no means to access justice. It’s easy for a man to drag a woman by her hand to the police station and claim that she disturbed public order but a woman has to know “important people” in order to file a case of gross indecency on public transportation against perpetrators. Not only that, in order to prove her case, she may as well ask the harasser to place his hand on her until she can find witnesses for the act. It’s always the woman’s fault.

    On the Darom Adom Festival and politics

    By Efraim Perlmutter

    On the Darom Adom Festival

    Efraim Perlmutter. All rights reserved.

    The residents of my area find themselves inundated by tens of thousands of visitors from other parts of the country. A yearly festival is taking place called "Darom Adom" which can be translated as "The Red South" or "The South is Red". This has nothing to do with the politics of the region, rather it relates to the fact that at this time of year, given enough rainfall in the winter, the area is literally covered with red anemone flowers, which the rest of the country is invited to see. The Hebrew name for these flowers is Kalaniot. Back in the days of the British mandate, the British paratroops stationed here were referred to as Kalaniot because of their red berets. Shoshana Damari, an iconic Israeli singer, sang about Kalaniot, the flowers not the paratroopers, as one of her signature songs. But most Israelis visit us simply to see the beauty of the display.

    My favourite spot for viewing the flowers is a few kilometres away just down the road past the remains of a fifth century Byzantine era Synagogue, near a sculpture garden called the "White House", which is a reference to the colour of the small building on the site rather than to the more famous structure in Washington. This particular spot is off the beaten track and unlike other places, which can attract hundreds of vehicles and crowds of people; visitors mostly ignore it. When we went there a few days ago, there were just another two cars and a couple of local families enjoying a picnic lunch. My grandchildren romped through the tall wild grasses and we were all suitably impressed with the scenic beauty. Aside from the absence of hordes of visitors, I am attracted to this particular spot because it is one of the very few places where a few white Kalaniot are scattered among the red ones. This is quite a rarity in the south where red is the massively predominant color.

    Local government in Israel, outside of city and town municipal boundaries is in the hands of "Moetzot Azoriot" or Regional Councils. I live in the Eshkol Regional Council, which is one of several regional councils located along the border of the Gaza Strip and collectively known as "Otef Azza", which can loosely be translated as the Gaza envelope. For all of these regional councils and for the towns located in the area, the Darom Adom festival is an important factor in their economies. For about a month, thousands of visitors buy meals, and local products. If they stay for an extended visit, they purchase lodging in the local bed-and-breakfast facilities. A good many local residents are directly involved in the project and we all hope for clear sunny weather and quiet from across the border. So far the weatherman has been cooperative and the Hamas leadership has been able to keep rockets and mortar fire down to one or two a week – hardly noticeable.

    On politics

    What was also hardly noticeable, by me at least, was the interview on the IDF radio station with our recently exonerated foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. For those who haven't kept up with his trials and tribulations, Lieberman has been under investigation for about a dozen years for various and sundry alleged crimes. A few months ago the whole never-ending fiasco was finally brought to a halt when, after being convicted by the press, Lieberman finally got his day in court and was acquitted of all charges. He has been the bête noire of our local liberal press and much of the international leftist intellectual community for years. Just the mention of the name Lieberman resulted in a visceral negative response from these quarters. One unfortunate consequence is that what he actually says gets very little coverage or serious analysis. All of that changed this week.

    I've been watching the man for years, beginning with when he became Minister of National Infrastructure and later Minister of Transport. What impressed me about him was that unlike most government ministers, he took his job seriously enough to learn the ropes, so to speak, and he had a big positive impact on the fields covered by his ministries. In short, he was accomplishing a lot more than he was being given credit for. I suspect that when his record is reviewed much of that will change.

    Lieberman suddenly became the man of the hour when US Secretary of State John Kerry came in for severe criticism from some Israeli right-wing politicians for comments he made in Munich about the negative consequences for Israel if negotiations with the Palestinians fail. The resulting diplomatic upset was brought to a quick conclusion when Lieberman, talking as Israel's Foreign Minister, publicly stated that Kerry's work in the negotiations were consistent with Israel's interests and that he – Lieberman – disagreed with the criticism levelled at the Secretary of State. This surprised those on the right, left and centre. In the interview I caught on IDF radio, Lieberman reiterated his positive opinion of Kerry and Kerry's efforts. He went on to say that a peace agreement and the two-state solution was most definitely in Israel's interests and he would even abandon his home in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, if that was the cost of a real peace agreement with the Palestinians.

    All in all, the interview was a grand performance of Lieberman staking out a position in the very centre of the Israeli political spectrum, where most Israeli voters just happen to be. These are not particularly new positions for Lieberman, but what is new is that the press and others are suddenly paying attention. He has also become far more acceptable on the diplomatic circuit, especially at the US State Department. Lieberman has now become a serious contender to be a future Israeli Prime Minister and in my opinion his chances of achieving success should not be under-estimated. 

    The inconvenient truth about child brides

    By Oguz Alyanak, Funda Ustek

    On 14 January 2014, a 14-year-old girl by the name of Kader (ironically, her name means “fate” in Turkish) was laid to rest in the Pervari district of Siirt, Turkey. She shared the same fate as thousands of other child brides in Turkey, getting wedded upon reaching puberty, which was soon followed by pregnancy. Marriage had found Kader at the age of 12. She had her first child, as a child herself, at the age of 13. She got pregnant again right after giving birth to her first child, but the second child was born prematurely and did not survive. One morning, Kader’s body was found lying in her bed, motionless and bearing the wounds of a rifle shot. Some called it post-partum depression, others, depression as a result of losing a child.

    For many Kaders out there, the story ends here. They make it to the newspapers upon their death and have their 30 seconds of fame. Within those 30 seconds, we, the readers, feel sorry for the fate of yet another “unfortunate” woman out there in an undeveloped, rural part of a distant village we may have never heard of or been to. “Poor girl!” This marks the extent of our sympathy. It also instils in us a sense of moral superiority. The (false) belief that examples like Kader can only be produced within a certain context that is foreign to us prepares the grounds for the illusion that “we” are not like “them”… because our laws are superior, our understanding of religion kinder and our traditions, nothing but cultural pastimes. Through feeling sorry for Kader, we feel content with who we are and where we belong. Her death takes the blame away from us.

    And then we turn the page and forget. Until we encounter another Kader.

    After all, Turkey as a ratifying member to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) outlaws child marriages. Turkish Civil Code (2001 amendment, in effect since 2002) also has a specific clause outlawing forced and/or underage marriage, by which the legal consenting age is stated to be 18 for men and women (until this amendment, it was 17 for men and 15 for women). Nevertheless, distancing the stories of child brides such as Kader and attributing their unfortunate fates to Islam, lack of education of their families or backward traditions that do not follow the 'law and order' rules in the country conceal many important truths about the social structure that produces child brides.

    One such truth is how pervasive child marriages in Turkey are. To put it into perspective, although official statistics imply that 23% of women have married through child marriages in Turkey, Hacettepe University’s Population Studies Unit in fact revealed that almost 40% of Turkish women between the ages of 15 and 49 were married by the time they turned 18.[1] That is, nearly one in every two women around each one of us. This figure ranks Turkey alongside many sub-Saharan African countries like Zambia, Ethiopia and Uganda; as well as South Asian countries of India and Pakistan. A recent study by the Diyarbakir (Eastern Anatolia) municipality initiative DIKASUM (The Centre for Investigation and Application of Women’s Issues in Diyarbakir) reveals another disturbing finding: 20% of child brides were married off before reaching puberty. Moreover, according to a 2012 UN Population Fund (UNFPA) report, every one in ten girls in Central East Anatolia/Turkey bear children. The phenomenon might be more prevalent in rural areas that lack better access to education but as confirmed by UNICEF, the stories like that of Kader’s are much more common than assumed. 

    The myriads of social pathologies that produce child brides are covered up by the widespread practice of religious marriages. Here, one could argue that it is Islam that encourages child brides. However, Islam alone is not sufficient to explain why child brides exist in such a wide geography that spans from India, Pakistan to sub-Saharan Africa or Turkey for that matter.

    For one, Islam, as a social notion, is complicated by the mores of different communities. It takes different meanings in different local contexts. In the case of Kader, religion accompanied a tradition known as berdel where a girl is sent from the host family to the receiving family in exchange for another bride. This was the tradition that brought Kader to her new home. It was also the same tradition through which Kader’s mother’s wedding was arranged.

    Then, as much as Islamic marital jurisprudence regulates the marriage contract (nikah), one could argue that it is people who participate in the practice and give (verbal or written) consent to the signing of the contract. However, a more attuned reading of the situation requires us to ask whether participation is voluntary or forced and the consent, the act of a free individual or an act of compliance. In Islam, the nikah requires consenting partners. In theory, Islam does not encourage forced marriages—it annuls them. However, in practice, the boundaries of consent are blurred. Could we argue that every “Yes” translates into consent? On the contrary, in many cases, those participating in the practice are given no other chance than to participate, which reduces their consent to mere formality. It is not a 12-year-old girl that is making the decision here. The decision is taken on behalf of her by the family, relatives or the community.

    Seeking blame in religion, or the Islamic interpretation of the marriage institution would not take us far, considering how prevalent religious marriages (imam nikahı) are in Turkey. According to this practice, a religious authority (imam), who is appointed by the state to serve a local congregation or mosque, takes over the responsibility of getting partners wedded. Despite its illegality (it is not the duty of state-appointed imams to get people wedded, a nikah is only valid when it is approved by the state’s council offices or town halls). Many people in Turkey today continue to obtain an imam’s approval, (usually) before or after being granted permission by the state for a civil marriage. The practice is so common that, according to figures obtained from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK/TURKSTAT), 93.7% of the population in Turkey took the approval of religious marriage, in addition to their civil marriage.

    For those who receive the religious approval for their marriage on top of the legal state marriage, religious marriages can be considered a “harmless” ceremony to celebrate traditional practices. But the pervasiveness of such marriages actually enables the normalization of an activity that is outlawed by the state. Religious marriages may not be primarily responsible for creating “child brides”, yet they enable underage marriages to be carried out between families by creating a sphere outside the state’s legal gaze. While in theory religious marriages are banned, in practice, the state lacks the monitoring capability (or more so, the interest) to do so.

    In such a context, the social structure which reduces marriage to an arrangement between families in the name of continuing a lineage or the parents’ attempt to make sure their children choose an 'appropriate partner’ further masks child brides. Indeed a 2011 study conducted by the Ministry of Family and Social Policies finds that 42.5% of all marriages conducted in urban settings (48.5% for rural) were arranged. The problem with arranged marriages is that women are usually the ones who lack a say in decision-making. According to figures obtained from the Turkish Statistical Institute, 9.4% of women in Turkey go through arranged marriages without having a say over the procedure. When it comes to child brides, the picture is even grimmer. DIKASUM`s study cited above reveals that 72% of the 300 child brides surveyed noted that their marriage took place against their will, and 30% of these women did not even see their husbands before marriage. 

    The inconvenient truth

    Revisiting the facts about Kader may help us to contextualize her story within a larger framework. After all, it was Kader’s story that brought to light the Janus face of the cultural practices, which the majority of population continue to practice and celebrate. But as this was happening, like many women in Turkey, Kader was muted. She was not the one telling us her story; it was the journalists, who pieced her story together for her. However, when such stories are only told in the third-person narrative, the social structure that leads to them gets blurred in the midst of denouncing the women’s family for letting “such a thing” happen in the first place. And this takes place all the while when the production of many other Kaders every day continues to escape our attention. 

    The inconvenient truth is that Kaders are out there, everywhere. That every two women (out of five) get married as a child, and four doing so against their will means that the truth is closer to us than one might realize. It is too easy to find something to blame for social ills. Religion, tradition, education, jurisdiction, patriarchy, economy… the usual suspects. It is easy for states to wash their hands clean when they ratify all the necessary conventions and take all the necessary legal steps. It is rather the very social system that produces Kaders that should be put under investigation. Perhaps this will only happen when it is finally realized that Kader was not a child bride who merely existed and died in a distant village, but she shared this same “fate” with many of the silent women in this country. 


    [1]Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies (2009), p.109

    State and revolution

    By Maged Mandour

    The title is borrowed from the great Russian revolutionary and founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. Lenin argued that in order for the revolution to succeed, revolutionaries have to take over the state and use it to reshape society. Many observers have evaluated the causes, effects, and future prospects of Arab revolutions. However, there is little analysis of the nature of the state in the Middle East as one of the main reasons behind the failures of the Arab Revolutions, and the ability of the current order to survive, in spite of facing tidal waves of popular protest and armed resistance lasting for the better part of three years. But the developing role of the state in the Middle East can go a long way towards explaining the failures of the Arab revolutions, and more widely, the seeming inability of the region to democratize.

    Charles Tilly, in his study on the development of the European state system, argues that the modern state system was developed in a bargaining process between the wielders of coercion and the wielders of capital. This occurred due to the pressure exerted by an anarchic international system. As the wielders of coercion were preparing for war they had two options; they either had to extract the means of war by force, which led to severe resistance from the governed; or through a process of bargaining with the wielders of capital, which caused the state to become more inclusive. This process of bargaining depends on the level of commercialization of the economy: the more an economy was commercialized, the easier it was to tax the economy - relying on taxation rather than outright force to extract the means of war.

    When one looks at the nature of Middle Eastern states, one can see that there are two main types of “rentier states”. The first is a state dominated by the military, which depends on strategic rents as a main source of income. In this case, the strategic rents refer to aid, loans and other external flows. A prime example is Egypt. In this type of state, the wielders of coercion do not need to bargain with the wielders of capital, as they simply rely on external sources of income to build up and maintain their means of coercion. Also, in certain cases, there is no clear distinction between the wielders of coercion and the wielders of capital, where the military dominates the economy, blurring the distinction. These conditions act as insulation; protecting the state from pressure to become more inclusive. This also creates a situation where there is no elite support for the demands for democracy, since there is no distinction between economic and coercive elites, a precondition for the success of a revolutionary push, as discussed by Theda Skcopol in States and Social Revolutions.

    The other archetype that preponderates in the Middle East is a state that depends on rents taken from the sale of commodities, namely oil. The archetype for this state is the Saudi state, which relies on the sale of oil as a main source of income, allowing it to maintain one of the most conservative and backward regimes in the world, an absolutist state. This setup allows the Saudi state to bribe the local population with the windfalls of oil revenues and outmanoeuver any pressures for reform. The wielders of coercion do not need to bargain with the wielders of capital, and in this case, as in the case of Egypt, the distinction between the wielders of coercion and capital is almost non-existent.

    The other part of the argument examines the role of international systems in shaping the nature of the state. Tilly argues that continuous threats of war exert pressure on the state to field armies and means of violence. This pressure causes a state to attempt to bargain with the wielders of capital so that it can extract sufficient funds to raise armies and navies. When one looks at the Middle East, one can argue that the intervention of great powers has directly and indirectly subsidized wars in the Middle East, by providing military aid and massive weaponry to different Arab states. This has alleviated the pressures on different Middle Eastern states to attempt to bargain with local stakeholders. Also, one can argue, that in the Middle East, the weapons of the different armies are directed inwards, rather than outwards. The threat of insurgency and rebellion is the main threat to Arab states, rather than external enemies. This, combined with foreign subsidization of the means of violence, allows Arab states to wield coercion with impunity. This lack of external pressure allows the Arab state to avoid bargaining with their citizens, and instead rely on external support to crush resistance.           

    The discipline of Fiscal Sociology also examines the relationship between taxation, the flow of capital on one hand, and the nature of the state on the other. This entails the argument that the development of the extractive capabilities of the state are necessary for the development of a genuinely democratic system, following the slogan of the American War of Independence “No Taxation without Representation”. Based on this one can safely argue that the rentier states of the Middle East did not have to develop extractive capabilities due to their reliance on strategic or commercial rents. This is another barrier towards the development of a genuinely democratic system in the Middle East. The financial independence of the state allows elites to wield coercion without any fear of reprisal.

    The international dimension plays a significant role in insulating the Arab states from pressure to become more inclusive. International involvement takes different forms. In the case of rentier states, external support props up regimes that act as pillars of support in the region, in exchange for financial as well as political support. A prime example of this is American support for the Egyptian military in spite of unprecedented repression after the coup against Morsi. Rentier states that depend on commercial rent are integrated into the international market, and the states are allowed to repress and coerce their populations with impunity. This integration within the international market is not simply limited to the sale of oil; it rather involves the investment of the oil windfall in western financial centres. In this case, international financial interests become intertwined with political interests, and those kinds of states receive almost unconditional international support, regardless of their repressive tactics. One only needs to look at the position of Saudi Arabia within the international system, and its relationship with the United States and the west at large. 

    Does this mean that there is no hope for democratization in the Arab World? I would argue that this is not the case. However, it does mean that the path for democratization and state building will differ from the path followed by European states and societies. The Arab world needs to find its own indigenous path to democracy, based on its own unique historical, and societal conditions. A solution that is organic, rather than one that is imported. One needs to keep in mind this quote by Karl Marx, “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation”.                           

    Corruption, the common denominator in Tunisia

    By Achraf Mnif

    Behind the resonating headlines coming out of Tunisia, there is a hidden beast called organised corruption; the legacy of a pyramidal hierarchy conceived and catered for by the ousted dictator, Ben Ali. During his reign (1987 – 2011), the final call was exclusively his, but now the position of the decision-maker is dispersed throughout the country among high officials, who are trying to leap forward in an attempt to cleanse themselves of their corrupt past.

    Only 20% of the 2012-2013 development budget was rightly allocated to the infrastructure of interior marginalised counties: the remaining 80% was skimmed off by a well-established mafia deeply involved in endless bureaucracy, created to legally 'milk' the budget into the pockets of these officials. If you are looking for a common denominator in Tunisia, just try to initiate a start-up, and you will soon realise how things work. A bribe will have to be paid at every step of the ladder, unless you’re happy to wait for years, maybe even a lifetime. On the other hand, if the game is played according to the rulebook of forking out money wherever a hand is extended, instant service will be acquired.

    Corruption has increased in Tunisia in the wake of its uprising, according to Transparency International. Tunisia’s rank, in the annual index of corruption perception, fell from 59 to 73. What is worse is that even three successive interim governments have completely failed to look into this matter, which leads to only one conclusion for observers of Tunisian economic and political life; the beast of corruption remains powerful, it threatens ministers, presidents, military generals and even ambassadors. The barons of this beast are manipulating everyone, directly or indirectly, through bribery, intimidation and/or threats. This is the general mood in Tunisia and these are the governing principles when it comes to dealing with one another. People are kept hungry, marginalised and uneducated, so that they will always keep begging for money and a better life; hence they will resort to the beast to save them from their misery, the perfect equation for a corrupt apparatus.

    What makes things worse is when a new minister, with good intentions, tries to gain control by auditing and re-viewing contracts. The problem here is that employees will provide false numbers, as their loyalty is not to their ministry or country, it is to the barons of corruption. At the peak of all this are the judges, who in many cases, will categorically judge in favour of the corrupt system. However, even if the court ruling is in your favour, which is rare, the execution of the court ruling will most likely not take place because the executive branch will not allow it to be implemented.

    Corruption extends to every corner of Tunisia; it can be found in every single sector from education to healthcare to the border customs agency. For instance, in 2012 bribery doubled in Rades sea port. According to Maher Kshouk, head of the Tunisian administration for transportation “bribery doubled in the sea port of Rades and in the administrative routine and bureaucracy, both of these factors are literally destroying our economy, and the crisis is getting worse, and no one cares”. Maher Kshouk, thought that the situation would get better after the revolution, however on the contrary, the situation has worsened. We contacted the transportation minister to rectify these issues at the end of 2012: he promised to investigate, but till this day nothing has changed. To vindicate this claim, you can see what the head of the businessmen's organisation of Tunisia Wided Bouchamaoui said on 5 February 2014:  “we have to increase control on our borders to decrease smuggling of goods, and parallel illegal trade. This phenomenon continues to linger within our society and if it continues at this pace it will inevitably destroy the whole economy.”

    In education, for example, when I successfully finished my MA in AR/EN translation and interpretation from Salford University in January 2012, I immediately returned to Tunisia hoping to work at the Faculty of Letters and Humanities of Sfax in the field of translation and interpretation. I contacted the university where I had acquired my BA and inquired about a position in the English department. I was told that my MA was worthless unless the Ministry of Higher Education issued the equivalence. After submitting the request to the ministry, and waiting for 12 months, I was awarded a taught MA – my degree was a research degree – I appealed and after another three months they denied me the exact degree equivalence. This has left me with no choice but to freelance while scores of new graduates, just because they know or are paying the right people, are finding themselves positions in the ministry.

    To conclude, I admit that the new constitution is a step forward, but it won’t change anything in the near future. From an ordinary citizen’s perspective, there are only two things that will give us hope that the beast can be felled. The first is seeing projects being implemented (roads, sea and air ports, train railways, universities and schools...). The second is seeing those who manipulated the system being tried, and if found guilty, jailed.

    Corruption can be found all over the world, but in Tunisia it is the norm. It has reached an alarming rate; creeping into people’s daily routines. As an observer and Tunisian citizen, I can see that corruption is becoming normalised. But let’s try to be optimistic, especially after the ratification of the new constitution, and let’s hope that things will change for the better soon.

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

    Comments

    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