By Oguz Alyanak
“Suriye” [Syria]. The word spills out the lips of a kid of no more than ten. He pushes a pack of tissues towards me. He has dark hair and a darker complexion. The scene is by no means unfamiliar to me. The kid has many names in common parlance: gypsy kid, Kurdish kid, street kid… Yet as I am to learn throughout my stay, first in my hometown, Bursa, and then in Istanbul, today he goes by a name that is new to my ears: “Suriyeli” [Syrian]. “Suriye”, he repeats, while my glance focuses on his big, dark brown eyes. The word attracts my attention. I tuck a lira in his palm and ask: “Neredensin?” [Where from?] He gives a blank look and responds in the exact same tone as earlier: “Suriye”. Is he actually from Syria? Did he understand my question at all?
That day, I speak with a friend from Istanbul. “They are everywhere in Istanbul too”, she asserts: “Some even wear their Syrian passports around their necks to prove that they are Syrians.” A week later, in Istanbul, once the escalator brings me out to Taksim Square, I see for myself children (some of them accompanied by adults) walking around with a cardboard sign that reads: “I AM FROM SYRIA. FOR GOD’S SAKE, COULD YOU HELP ME. I DO NOT SPEAK TURKISH.” In addition, many of them walk around with their passports in their hands. The cardboard sign and the passport can be seen as tools that legitimize the act of begging by transforming a beggar who is looked down upon, and negative signifiers in Turkey such as “the gypsy” or “the Kurd”, into “the Syrian”. However, there are also limits to sympathy. The Syrian refugees, now more tangible and audible than ever, gradually risk becoming a meta-category for fear and distaste. The Syrian, once an image on the TV screen, is now a bitter reality on our streets.
Searching for Syrians in Bursa
Since my return home, I have been inundated with stories. In Bursa—a town that has historically served as the centre of international and internal migration in Turkey—the Syrians, I was told, can be found everywhere. At first, when I roamed the streets downtown, the distinction between a Syrian and a Turk seemed simply imperceptible. Bursa—like Istanbul—is a city that attracts many tourists from Arab countries. Even if I could—and I do not think I can—distinguish a Turkish citizen from an Arab visitor, I still would not be able to tell whether the person who is taking a walk on the street is a Syrian refugee—which he very well could be. So I went back to the people who were telling me stories about the ubiquitous Syrian, starting with family members and extending my inquiry to people with whom I have spoken with in bazaars and coffee shops. While “they are everywhere” seemed to be the common response, names of a few districts were also thrown around. One of these places was Demirtas. Located en route to Istanbul, this little (now) industrial part of the town is known for its conservative community and proximity to farmlands and more significantly, the Demirtas Organized Industrial Zone.
Get off the bus at Demirtas and you are greeted by the central mosque. I ordered tea in a teahouse attached to the mosque, and asked the waiter whether he had seen Syrians in that locality. His response was the one I had come to expect: “of course, they are everywhere.” I asked him to point one out. He was surprised by this follow up question. So was an older man who had for some time been eavesdropping on my exchange with the waiter: “What do you need them for?” he asked. I explained how pretty much everyone I spoke with was telling me that Syrians were everywhere, yet I had yet to encounter one. My answer did not satisfy him: “You cannot just go around asking for Syrians, hoping to find one. Of course they are around. At that corner in a shop, one of them works. A friend rents his house to a Syrian family.”
By then, the circle around me was gathering. Another jumped into the conversation: “Look, brother, they are right over there, that group of men. Come after the evening prayer and the mosque’s courtyard will be full of them.” The group he was pointing to consisted of five adults. They were speaking a language other than Turkish. Arabic, perhaps, or Kurdish even? It was not perceptible to anyone around me. However, the strangeness of the language was enough to make them all take it for granted that the group of people consisted of Syrians.
Syrian refugees, they assured me, would work during the day and come to the mosque at night. I was told that many Syrian families have been renting and sharing apartments together. A number of news pieces on Syrian refugees reported that their presence in the urban landscape had caused a fluctuating housing market and inflated the rent. Men worked in the construction sector while women were in the garment industry. “Visit the street parallel to this one and you’ll see them,” asserted a man in the group. The street parallel was full of filament workshops, one after the other, whose open doors revealed machines buzzing loudly as they produced the yarn—one of Bursa’s main exports. I was informed that among them, there were many Syrian refugees working there and that many others worked as seasonal workers in the farms around Bursa and neighboring towns to collect fruits and vegetables. No one knew whether they received social security benefits, or even had work permits. However, the common claim was that many worked for lower prices and held multiple jobs.
The minibus driver, a local of Bursa and inhabitant of a district adjacent to Demirtas, confirmed that Syrians could also be found everywhere in his neighborhood. Pointing to the industrial complex, he said, “the region hosts many Syrians. Some even came with their own cars. You can see cars with Syrian license plates driving around.” He continued: “There are also kids running in the streets, waiting at the red lights, asking for money from the cars in exchange for a hasty wipe of the windshield”. A passenger interrupted his words. He said that he had seen those Syrian kids too, and that they risked their lives by wandering around busy roads and jumping in front of cars to ask for money. He was not happy that the government kept on welcoming more refugees within Turkish borders. As we approached the city center, the driver pointed out a seemingly abandoned warehouse: “There are many Syrian families living in tents there,” he said. There were indeed some tents in that run-down and neglected place.
On rumours and vulnerability
At a time when the public in Turkey as well as in many European countries continues to ossify negative assumptions about their refugee populations, my search for Syrians in Bursa, a city where “the Syrians can be encountered at every footstep”, left me with more questions than encounters.
What you cannot miss is all the stories in the media testifying to the fact that the Syrian has become a troubling part of the everyday life in Turkey. One favourite theme is that Syrians are here in Turkey to stay. As the war in Syria enters its fourth year and tensions in the region continue to escalate, interviews conducted by journalist show fading hopes of return by Syrians both in Turkey and elsewhere. Academics, such as Brookings Institute fellow Kemal Kirisci, speak of “extending citizenship and the right to vote to the Syrian refugees” as a probable scenario and advise the Turkish government to take steps in this direction—which feeds into another fear, that the Syrians are used strategically by the Justice and Development Party government to extend the party’s voter base and secure future election for its Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This thesis was not only prevalent before the municipal elections in March (and vocalized by the deputy chairman of Turkey’s opposition party, the Republican People’s Party), but has continued to spread. Following municipal elections, people shared anecdotal stories of Syrians coming out of the voting booths. A local in Bursa with whom I talked about this situation added: “Syrians voted with fake IDs in the municipal elections in March. That is how the Justice and Development Party won.”
Stories of peaceful coexistence are rare, given the length of the war in Syria. Turkey has had an open door policy with Syria since October 2011. While the problem at first was one of international politics—the settlement of Syrian refugees in camps, their registration, and providing them with humanitarian assistance—which was commended by the international media, the issue has gradually become a social one. Although camps in Turkey were depicted in rosy terms, they also had their shortcomings. As National Geographic Emerging Explorer Aziz Abu Sarah succinctly argues: “camps offer no work possibilities, and just like in prison, you receive your daily portion of food and water and are asked to wait, hopelessly, passively.” The prison metaphor finds its echo in the narratives of Syrian refugees: “You have to be ruled by them if you go to the camps. It’s like a prison.”
The refugee camp no longer provides a suitable environment for Syrian refugees. Consequently, this triggers a movement away from the camp to a non-camp/urban environment. “Turkey’s Syria Refugee Crisis”, as one journalist put it, is now to be found outside the refugee camps and in cities such as Turkey’s capital, Ankara, or cities even farther away from the Syrian border, such as Istanbul and Bursa. The narrative of the crisis has transformed in such a way that what was once considered to be encapsulated within the boundaries of a refugee camp now spills over into Turkey’s urban landscape. When ‘the Syrian other’ is contained within the boundaries of a refugee camp the population seems manageable, but the increasing visibility of Syrians in these cities challenges traditional narratives of the Syrian refugee, and forces reporters to reassess the nature of Turkey’s Syrian crisis.
Whereas in the earlier stages of the war in Syria, refugees existed somewhere far away in public imaginary, today, they exist everywhere. Syrian refugees cease to be a figure that Turks can watch on their television sets. They now participate in the same social space as Turkish citizens living in western metropolitan cities. And this increasing tangibility adds to their vulnerability.
But the presence of Syrians in Turkish cities is never only about the presence of a refugee, as Asli Ikizoglu Erensu’s recent article explained. Syrian refugees transform into a vulnerable subjects as they gain representation within the eyes of the others—such as the locals, media or the Turkish state. The ongoing turmoil in the region adds further to the negative signifiers ascribed to Syrian refugees. Sectarian violence and its brutal forms of demonstration by ISIS, such as holding hostage over eighty Turkish citizens in the city of Mosul, as well as killing Turkmens in Northern Iraq agitate the Turkish public. In such an environment, Syrian refugees take on responsibility for a dysfunctional state, and similar to the role of Muslims in the United States after 9/11, take the blame for events happening beyond their control—such as the 2013 bombings of Reyhanli, which took the lives of 52. The bombings in Reyhanli placed a huge burden on the tolerance of the Turkish public in 2013. The fear is that a year later, the same public, which is now more weary of an unending war may react in a very different manner. Unfortunately, the Turkish Prime Minister’s comments following the Reyhanli attacks served to further exacerbate the sectarian rift that underlines the bulk of problems in the region today.
In Bursa, those I spoke with were aware of the impact of war and violence. However, they were at least as wary of the increasing presence of refugees in their neighbourhoods. Local narratives are full of this ambivalence. Each story started with empathy: “Zavallı insanlar” [Poor souls]. “Allah yardımcıları olsun” [May God help them]. That they left Syria due to a war which has thus far taken the lives of over 160,000 softens many hearts. Nevertheless, Syrians are strangers whose prolonged stay in Turkey’s urban landscape is now becoming problematic for the locals who share the same space as them. The Syrians in the city who rent apartments, find employment, go to the mosque, visit the shopping mall, or simply ask for sadaka by selling tissues and cleaning car windows in traffic light are too close by to ignore.
By Mina Fayek
Mina Fayek. All Rights Reserved.
On 21 June 2014 a group of Egyptian activists and movements organized a protest to demand the release of political detainees and to revoke a protest law that was set in place last November. This was all part of an International Day of Solidarity with Egyptian Detainees. According to the independent statistical database Wiki Thawra, from July 2013 till now there are more than 41,000 arrests.
The route of yesterday's march was planned from the Ahram metro station in Heliopolis (Cairo) to the Egyptian presidential palace (Ittihadiya) in the same district. After gathering we noticed that the Central Security Forces' (CSF) trucks were stationed on the road to the palace, so the organizers of the protest – in an attempt to avoid confrontation – decided to change the route and head towards the heart of Heliopolis rather than the palace. This apparently confused the police because the roads the protest was moving in were relatively narrow and crowded, which slowed their large trucks down.
After reaching El Gamea Square, which is very close to the Heliopolis police station, a group of thugs suddenly appeared from behind the protest and started throwing glass bottles and stones at the protestors. I managed to take shelter inside a nearby building with some people I didn’t know and miraculously avoided confrontation with the thugs.
After some to-ing and fro-ing between thugs and protesters, we managed to get out of the nook we were hiding in and to our surprise, the thugs had disappeared and were replaced instantaneously by police forces who started firing teargas canisters and sound bombs.
The police went on a frenzy to a degree that when we reached the next square, Ismailia Square, they started to aim teargas at the protesters, however, it actually landed on cars that happened to be in the square and nothing to do with the protest.
We then reached Safir Square where the same problem presented itself – the streets were so crowded with cars that the police forces couldn’t keep up with the march. But in every such instance thugs would appear and I actually saw a police officer giving them instructions. Their task was to basically stall protestors till state security cars could make their way in.
A moment of dark irony in all this was when the thugs attacked a public bus on the basis that one of the protestors had jumped in. They stopped the bus, attacked it, and tried to pull him out. They beat him up badly, and his fiancée was also hurt. After a short while, a police car arrived but instead of stopping the thugs, the police were busy trying to disperse the protest as a whole, and ignored them as they beat up the man to within an inch of his life. Of course it turned out that the man had nothing to do with the protest, but this has become the norm in Egypt. Human lives are of very little value.
Mina Fayek. All Rights Reserved.
I saw one protester being severely beaten up by both the thugs and police before he was rounded up and put inside a police car. The thugs continued to beat him with sticks, some even using knives, as he was put inside the car. It was so chaotic that I actually thought they were attacking the police car.
Some are arguing that the locals and members of the neighbourhood who are fed up with protests, decided to violently disperse it themselves. This is not true for many reasons I personally witnessed: firstly, people from the neighborhood and shop owners saw us from the start of the protest and never intervened before the thugs appeared. Secondly, the thugs cursed shop owners when they tried to save the badly beaten or gave refuge to protesters who sought a refuge with them. Finally, I spoke to several shop owners and they told me that they knew the thugs and that they were associated with the Heliopolis police station.
Dozens of peaceful protesters were arrested, few of them were acquitted while those still in detention have been served with trumped up charges. They have been accused of protesting in violation of the protest-law, disrupting national security, attacking public and private properties, and last but not least, being heavily armed. Ironically, the protest which was peaceful and demanded freedom for political detainees ended with more of them locked up, including human rights activists.
The regime supporters and propagandists claim that the protest law would impose “law and order” which is certainly a dire need, yet the police themselves never follow the procedures of dispersing an “unauthorized” protest as stipulated in this law. Furthermore, after reading the law multiple times, I couldn’t find the part where it states that thugs can be hired to confront opponents.
The state simply doesn’t abide by its own draconian laws. In short, to claim that the current state is a “state of law” is factually incorrect and absurd.
Alia Mossallam contributed to the translation of parts of this testimony.
By Aya Chebbi
Over the past few years, more than 2.8 million Syrians have been forced to leave their country. The vast majority remains in neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. They are often living in dire conditions because countries like Lebanon and Jordan are already under extreme economic and political strain. Others may seek refuge in Europe. But Europe has only granted asylum to 89,000 people. Although Europe is failing refugees from Syria, Sweden has been one of the few countries to offer permanent residence to the Syrians that make it to their borders.
Salim Salamah found refuge in Sweden after fleeing from Syria to Lebanon. I met Salim a few weeks ago in Malmö, the most densely populated area in Scandinavia. But he wasn’t a mere Syrian refugee. While he was introducing himself, he was not sure whether he should introduce himself as a "Syrian-Palestinian", a "Palestinian from Syria", a "refugee in Sweden", someone "becoming Swedish", or even just as a human being. As I was confidently introducing myself as a Tunisian African and explaining more about my Africanism, he smiled and replied: "I like that you clearly know who you are, because I am still in search for my identity".
His complex identity dates back to his family’s displacement in 1948 following the Nakba that expelled Palestinians from their homes. He was born in 1989 and raised in the Yarmouk refugee camp, a historical Palestinian neighborhood established in Damascus during the 1950s. At the age of 24, Salim found himself a refugee "again" and as he says, "the journey continues…"
Images and dates have been engraved in his memory because of their atrocities: "On 28 October 2013 I left Syria. Taking that decision was not easy, because there will be no return to Damascus soon". Falling into a deep depression during his last few weeks in Syria, he was afraid of losing himself by "not doing any good" for himself or his country. "From March to September, the movement was pacifist. But then the security became so tight that we couldn’t move around anymore. People had to fire back and when that happened, there was no place for me there, because I didn’t want to die or kill anyone," he says.
Life in Damascus had become a nightmare for him: "Day after day, moving within and outside Yarmouk had become difficult. When you move between two checkpoints, you never know who will stop you and when you will be arrested! It was just like jumping into fire."
The regime operated an organized process to get rid of activists like Salim, by arresting, torturing or constantly threatening them. "It was the slow death of civil resistance and a peaceful social movement. I was at much risk as everybody else was!" Besides demonstrating, campaigning, and being part of political gatherings, Salim’s particular crime was blogging and telling jokes about the Syrian army. In his poem "A day in Damascus", he writes: "Passing by the checkpoint, I spit on it to return some of my dignity". He was accused by the Syrian authorities of undermining the "prestige of the state".
Once he moved to Beirut for almost four months, Salim tried to recover from the trauma of the war by writing poetry. Despite dealing with his own healing process, Salim was managing a project with the Al Ghawth organization in Syria. He explains: "Unfortunately the project ended after a few months because we didn’t get the funding needed. International donors and NGOs were not interested in finding partners to respond to the urgent needs of Syrian communities and kids in war zones. They were more interested in enslaving organizations for their own agendas".
Travelling outside Lebanon and Syria for the first time in his life, he finally arrived in Sweden in February 2012: "When I arrived, I was surprised with the snow and the short dark days". It took some time for him to adapt to the weather, language, space, currency and lifestyle, as well as understanding his "strange situation".
Despite the terrible developments in Syria, there is an ongoing debate about the legitimacy of the activists’ choices to flee the country and to seek refuge in the United States and Scandinavia. Salim has clearly made this choice out of the need for "individual salvation". "I claimed political asylum because I can’t go anywhere as a Palestinian from Syria, and I made it to Sweden only because I was lucky!"
It is indeed a special case for the Palestinians from Syria. When the United Nations adopted the Refugee Convention and established the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it excluded those falling within the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) from being included in the UNHCR's mandate. "Outside the UNRWA's mandate-area, which is Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, we are without protection", says Salim.
A concrete example of Salim’s frustration is the recent case of four Palestinian-Syrian activists who were detained in Sri Lanka just a few weeks ago. "UNHCR Sri Lanka refused to give a statement on the issue," he says. "Husam, Muhammad, Ali and Baha are now at Buddha military prison where they have been maltreated both psychologically and physically".
Recently, Palestinians fleeing Syria are denied help even in Lebanon. Sadly, the tragic cases of Palestinian-Syrian refugees continue, not only in the global north, but even in the Arab region and especially in countries that sparked the revolutions in the region, such as Tunisia and Egypt. "In Damascus we were celebrating the day Ben Ali fled Tunisia. Today, when Syrian Palestinians arrive at Tunis, they remain stuck in Carthage airport with no support."
As the spokesman for the Palestinian League for Human Rights, Salim closely follows these cases and releases statements to support Syrian Palestinians without national or international protection. Having the advantage of understanding the situation from personal experience, Salim has found himself working with refugees, although he hopes to work more with youth in the future. In addition to joining the executive board of the Palestinian League for Human Rights earlier this year, he helps a Swedish organization with incoming refugees, especially with communication in both Arabic and French.
Partially recovered from the trauma of war, Salim has regained his life, strength and energy, and that is what keeps him moving forward to empower himself and others.
I recently contacted Salim again to ask him what the World Refugee Day meant to him as a refugee. He immediately replied: "You know… once you are a refugee, you are a refugee forever. At least that’s how I feel". He then took a moment's silence and recalled the writings of his friend Homi Bhabha: "The globe shrinks for those who own it; for the displaced or dispossessed, the migrant or refugee, no distance is more awesome than the few feet across borders or frontiers". "Today I have achieved my few feet," Salim continued, “and if I can make one more human being achieve those few feet, I will!”
Having his family in Sweden for six months now, Salim now feels safer, something he has not experienced for a while. But it is still hard for him to be disconnected "twice" from where he belongs, and now having to belong to somewhere else. "I don’t identify myself as a citizen of any place," he concludes.
By Amr Kotb
My mother and I have been arguing over the past ten months.
Since August of last summer, she – an ardent supporter of the January 25 revolution – has been telling me that the government’s violations of human rights and civil liberties are necessary for Egypt to “get back on its feet” and that while Abdel Fattah El Sisi may not be Egypt’s best option, he is the only option, so we have to put our faith in him.
Since last summer I have periodically combated her position with mournful reminders of imprisoned journalists and activists, dead students and their weeping mothers, and a uniform media narrative. Over the past ten months, I have lived with a comfortable disquiet alongside her position. Both of us choosing to avoid the topic until the most recent imprisonment, death, or verdict pushed us into a short but heated discussion that would inevitably die down after a few minutes depending on who was more concerned about preserving our relationship at the given moment.
But on Monday 24 June, I had enough. Detained since last summer, Al Jazeera journalists had finally received their sentence: seven years in prison. This was on the heels of the verdict which had just sent revolutionary activist, Alaa Abdel Fattah, to serve a 15 year prison sentence on charges of illegal protest and attacking a police officer.
My mother, who currently resides in the US, and I traded barbs over google chat until 4:30 in the morning. This time I was not backing down; I had to get to the bottom of why - after all of this- she still supported Egypt’s former army chief.
“Amr, I of course am greatly saddened by the mass arrests of students, academics, journalists and activists, and I do not support what is happening to them.”
“Okay mom, so if that is the case, why support the de-facto ruler that has supervised their detention and even death in some instances? What if I had been born and raised in Egypt and I was a student at Al Azhar who had been shot dead during a demonstration? Or what if I was a member of the April 6 movement? Or what if I was just a journalist imprisoned for covering an event? Wouldn’t you, as my mother, feel a little differently about this government?”
“Well yes, of course I would. However, demonstrators need to rethink their actions, they have to realize that this is not the time for protest, it is the time to organize a party, get into politics, and participate in community service activities as a means to bring about change.”
“Yes mom, in the current environment that is a more effective means, but that does not mean that their supposedly poor decision-making legitimates the government’s response. I feel like you are putting the blame on the protesters the same way others put the blame of sexual harassment on what a woman is wearing and I know you dsagree with that.”
“I am totally against jailing or killing those who hold different opinions.”
“So why are you supporting Sisi while saying its protester’s job to change their approach? The least I can do is not support him.”
“So what will you do, Amr? How would you change things?
“If it was me I would focus on exactly what you said. I would avoid protesting and regroup to focus on community service and building a political party. However, at the same time, I would not support someone who responds brutally to demonstrators or deprives them of their basic rights. Wise or unwise, it is still their right. I would support any kind of legitimate opposition’s activities.”
We have to sacrifice
“Amr, we have to forgo these rights at this point in time if Sisi’s government is going to clean the streets, make them safe again, and allow the country to advance.” She went on to argue that Egypt does not have to be a free country, drawing upon examples such as Iran, “it just has to be an advanced country with a strong economy.”
I pressed her on this: “Mom, you know that it is not one or the other. Fine, Iran is more advanced and cleaner and Saudi and Kuwait are the same, but why should Egyptians be barred from dreaming for both? Or believing that they are not mutually exclusive? Is that not what the January 25 revolution that you so strongly supported was all about? There is still plenty of turmoil in supposed advanced authoritarian states, there are protests in Kuwait all the time and you know what happened in Iran in 2009.”
We went back and forth on this for nearly half an hour. I asked my mother why she felt she had to forgo civil liberties for national advancement. I recalled that Egyptian leadership - whether at the time of the 1919 revolution and Hoda Shaarawi’s quest for women’s rights or now with its justification for the demonstration law and military trials for civilians – has a history of asking citizens to put aside their fight for human rights as a way to ‘sacrifice for the well-being of the nation.’ Where is this long-promised well-being? Where are the fruits of almost 100 years of sacrifice? Why can’t we pursue the basic rights all human beings are entitled to as part of the nation’s agenda to be great? “
I knew we had reached the essence of this issue because her response shocked me: “The government will never change; no human rights, no freedom to Egyptians or non-Egyptians. They control television and movies. They have to have authority to change the situation and for people to follow them. This current leadership is the only option we have for Egypt to advance as a nation.”
Thus in my mother’s eyes, maybe it was not a sacrifice, maybe personal freedoms and civil liberties were a lost cause to her and for lack of another option it was better to throw support behind the only authority available that had the power to make the country better, and to her that was the former general.
The only option?
“But mom, Sisi’s government only has you thinking they are the only option because they used their deeply entrenched authority to present themselves this way” I pleaded. I added that even if I disagreed with Sisi’s deposal of Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, it is a separate issue from the fact that there actually was a multi-party coalition willing to cooperate with him at the time of Morsi’s ouster. Little by little members of this coalition who held a different vision for the country were sidelined through imprisonment or their own resignation. This is how Sisi was able to present himself to Egypt as “the only option.” There was nothing that made it mandatory for the former army chief to disregard formal, civilized, and peaceful opposition, in fact he could have accomplished his stated goals and carried out the roadmap with much greater ease and less internal strife had he worked with the coalition instead of co-opting, alienating, and sidelining its membership.
I felt that maybe I had reached her with this, finishing my rant with a final question “If he really loved Egypt and wanted it to progress why would he push all forms of perceived opposition – even a satirical television programme – out and supervise his transformation from Morsi’s ouster into Egypt’s president? Do you feel like “answering the will of the people” is really why he did this?
She paused for a long time.
“I will give him one year.”
By Nikita Malik
With plans to build a 550 kilometre wall on its border with Jordan under way, Israel’s security decision is well timed. As the Iraqi cities of Kirkuk, Mosul, and Tikrit fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-influenced jihadists, it is Jordan, nestled between Israel’s eastern side and Iraq’s western area, that will serve as a crucial buffer from the terrorist movements that threaten to spill over into Israel.
The arrangement between Israel and Jordan follows exhortations from former Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to extend ISIS control beyond pockets of Syria and Iraq. Al-Baghdadi recently revealed his desire to invade Jordan, which shares a long boundary with Syria and Iraq, and to extend his control to Israel and Egypt. Currently, ISIS holds three border posts between Syria and Turkey, and several more on Syria’s border with Iraq. With ISIS troops encroaching on Baghdad, the threat of political instability further afield is becoming a disturbing possibility.
As a result of al-Baghdadi’s assertions, the relationship between Israel and Jordan is likely to change. In the past, ISIS and its rival faction, Al Nusra, used Jordanian territory to recruit and send militants into battle. Currently, 2,200 Jordanians are fighting under the banner of Al Nusra and ISIS, a number that is growing at a rate of 50 new Jordanian fighters per week. For many of them, joining jihadist ranks is seen as a "religious duty".
The responsibility of monitoring and combating this jihadist threat puts tremendous pressure on an already stressed Jordan. Israel’s fears, that Jordan will fail to protect its boundaries against the prospect of infiltration, have been compounded by the situation in Iraq. Following ISIS’ recent attack, the Hashemite Kingdom will be expected to shelter more Iraqi refugees, on top of the further 600,000 Syrian refugees it already hosts. Coupled with extreme economic strain, is the potential for sectarianism and radicalism amongst refugees in Jordan, a phenomenon notoriously difficult to track. For Jordan, the resulting situation of political instability is a worrying one. For Israel, this means that the need for a physical demarcation is seen as a necessary precaution.
In the past, Jordan’s Minister of Interior Hussein Al-Majali stated that Jordan "is doing the work of two countries" in manning its border with Syria. The Jordanian Armed Forces regularly clashes with infiltrators. The exchange of fire between border guards and drivers that try to illegally enter the Hashemite Kingdom is a common occurrence. And approximately 30 fighters return to Jordan from Syria each week, making it difficult for Jordan to oversee their movements. Now Israel is worried that Jordan will have trouble monitoring its border with Iraq, as well as with Syria. But Jordan has promised to take "various measures" to preserve the security and the safety of its country, its borders, and its citizens. To achieve this, it may need Israel’s help.
Because of this, it is very likely that Jordan and Israel’s relationship will strengthen in the future. Roughly 6,000 US troops took part in this year’s "Eager Lion" military exercise in Jordan, and the United States, Jordan, and Israel already share military intelligence. Obama’s recent decision to create a counter-terrorism partnership fund of $5 billion will certainly benefit Jordan. Obama, stating that today’s security threat comes from "decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists", armed with agendas focused in the countries where they operate, intends to use the money for new strategies to diffuse terrorist threats, without sending ground forces or stirring up "local resentments".
The counter-terrorism partnership fund will allow the United States to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the frontlines. If implemented successfully, the security training would greatly benefit Jordan in combating ISIS and Al Nusra jihadist fighters who are trying to make a base in Jordan.
On a local level, Jordan’s lower house of parliament recently passed amendments to its 2006 anti-terror bill, providing the state the power to detain and try citizens suspected of affiliation with terrorist groups. This law aims to target suspected members of Syrian militias likely to settle in Jordan. It is hoped that the new bill will aid the work of Jordanian military and intelligence agencies. These efforts would also aid in promoting regional stability.
Others, however, are worried that the support from the United States is not enough. After all, Iraq’s million-strong army was trained by the United States, at a cost of more than $20 million. Despite these costs, the Iraqi army is fraught with low morale and corruption. Iran’s President Rouhani recently went so far as to denounce the western and Arab governments for backing rebels fighting Syrian president Assad, an ally of Iran, and stating that the jihadist surge in Iraq is a spillover from that endorsement.
Until the United States makes a decision on utilizing air strikes operations to quell the jihadist threat in Iraq, Israel’s focus will be on a high security alert for protecting its own borders. In the long term, both Jordan and Israel will structure their partnership to be one that is devoid of any possible moral hazard.
In the meantime, however, Israel will continue to put more bricks in its wall to deter the spread of a potential ISIS threat.
The Arab world is quite literally in shambles.
In Egypt, a military dictatorship is reasserting itself with the usual plethora of oppressive tactics, ranging from mass arbitrary arrests to torture and verdicts of mass executions.
In Syria, the civil war rages on with no end in sight. Bashar El Assad has carried on the Arab dictator’s obsession with elections and staged and won yet another sham election, sending a clear signal that he is there to stay, destroying any chances of a negotiated solution.
In Libya, the state is unable to control armed militias or “monopolize” the use of violence, which has resulted in a state of anarchy.
In Iraq, ISIS militants have been successful in taking over large swathes of territory, as the Iraqi army has collapsed. An outstanding success that was only possible due to the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government and their violent repression of peaceful, predominantly Sunni, protests.
All these situations raise a number of questions about the current nature of political order in the Arab world, and the impact the Arab revolts have had on this order.
Antonio Gramsci, an innovative Marxist thinker, argued that any political order is based on two pillars: coercion and consent. He argued that a hegemonic political order contains higher ingredients of consent, while a non-hegemonic order relies mainly on coercion. A political order becomes hegemonic when the ruling class behave in a manner that promotes the interests of the other classes, as well as their own, of course. Hegemony is also based on the ability of the ruling class to create an ideology that seeps into society, thus becoming the ideology accepted by the masses as the “correct” way of life; imposing what Engels called a “false consciousness” in order to convey his argument that the masses participate in their own repression.
Based on the above, one can argue that the current political order is a non-hegemonic order, which relies on heavy doses of coercion. The current ideological base of Arab regimes is “fighting terrorism”, “stability”, and in certain cases “protecting minorities”.
In Egypt, Field Marshal El Sisi came to power on the back of mass hysteria and fear of – the now outlawed – Muslim Brotherhood. He promised an end to the “chaos of protests” and “terrorism”. Surprisingly, he did not promise improvements in the living standards of average Egyptians. On the contrary, he alluded to increased austerity, greater cuts in social spending, as well as increased military power.
In Syria, President Assad remains in power, with large support from minorities as well as the urban Sunni middle classes, also under the same ideological framework of “fighting extremism”.
These two examples illustrate the rejectionist nature of the ideological base of the current Arab political order. In other words, the Arab regimes are relying on people’s fear of “extremism” to remain in power. Unable to offer a coherent ideological alternative, the current political order is based on fear of the real or, in some cases, imaginary “boogieman”. The ideas of the ruling classes have not seeped into society, simply because these ideas no longer exist.
Years of totalitarian rule have produced a level of ideological and intellectual poverty in the Arab world which has afflicted both oppositional forces and the ruling elites. It seems near to impossible for any social group to produce a coherent ideological platform that has the potential to create a sense of unity and identity within Arab polity. Under these conditions, much older identities appear and take center stage, as a last resort. For example, tribal or sectarian identities take the forefront as the basis of political loyalty, even in relatively homogenous populations. We can therefore observe the rise of sectarianism in Syria, Iraq, Libya and even Egypt.
Even Islamist forces, which have long been considered the most credible threat and most ideologically potent enemies, have failed to appeal to potential allies and spread their hegemony. On the contrary, they have turned away from possible allies and become more sectarian, turning inwards. The clearest example is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who allied themselves with the military against the revolutionary movement, later to be betrayed by the military. During this process, the Muslim Brotherhood moved sharply to the right, failing to spread their hegemony over other parts of the Egyptian social spectrum.
In terms of behaving in a manner that transcends their narrow corporate interests, the current ruling elites seem to have no desire for compromise, even in the narrowest of terms. Examples of this abound. In Iraq, El-Maliki has publicly declared his unwillingness to create a national unity government in the face of a possible partition of Iraq, where the Sunnis, like the Kurds, might possibly develop their own autonomous region. Making matters worse, is the apparent use of Shia militias, who could further deepen the sectarian divide.
In Egypt, the current military regime is introducing more austerity and repression, further concentrating power in their own hands. In Syria, the elites have not been willing to compromise Assad’s fate, refusing the notion that he should exit the political scene in exchange for an end to the civil war. This, in addition to ideological poverty, makes reliance on force a necessity for the current elites to remain in power.
Finally, the Arab revolts have blown away the last figleaf of current regimes, which has resulted in them beginning to reveal their true colours to their own populace.
In Egypt, for example, the masses are now aware of the nature of their regime: a military regime that is severely repressive. Support for this repression is justified under the guise of the need for “stability“ and fighting “terrorism”. Thus, the Arab revolt can be seen as the final step of a process of hegemonic decay that has been in progress for several decades, rather than an abrupt break with the past.
The biggest challenge facing the Arab revolutionaries is the need to replace the current political order with a new hegemonic order that is based on consent. This is only possible through the development of an ideological base through consistent intellectual efforts that are organically connected to these movements.
I believe this can only occur by conquering the realm of civil society and de-constructing the bases of the current regimes, which are not going to be easy tasks in even more repressive political environments. Considering the current situation, it should not be a frontal assault on the state, rather a meticulous deconstruction of terms like “stability”. Such terms should be replaced with more potent revolutionary ideologies, as a unifying mechanism for the revolutionary movement and its possible class allies.
As Gramsci argued, the use of coercion increases exponentially when a current political system is in its final stages of decay, or when a new order is establishing itself. In the Arab World, the current political order is going through its final stages of decay, caused by its own internal contradictions and ideological inconsistencies. However, this process of decay is not accompanied by the birth of a new political order, due to another set of structural and ideological weaknesses. In order to overcome its weakness, the revolutionary movement, as vague as the term sounds, has to develop a unitary and structured character with a clear ideological programme.