The continuous battle against sexual harassment in Egypt
A protester holds pictures of a victim that was stripped by army forces in 2011. Demotix/Halim Elshaarani. Alll rights reserved.
The last few months rendered me mute for a while. Trying to take in all that has been happening in Egypt – the attacks, the killings, the arrests, the abuse of justice on every possible level – and doing what little I could to work against it has somehow crippled my mind and tied my tongue. Thoughts and ideas only hit against walls and bounced back to lie flat at the bottom of my brain. It all felt unsettlingly familiar.
But here I am again, writing about the fight against sexual harassment in Egypt. There was a moment, around this time last year, when I thought we could be on the cusp of something great: I was hoping, dreaming, of a war. For months, independent volunteer groups had been battling mob assaults against women at protests in Tahrir – there had been blood, trauma, camaraderie, media and propaganda campaigns, drills, recruitment. What I wanted and thought possible was to take that ethos and expand it into something larger, that could ripple through society in various configurations, from the artistic to the militant, but always acting upon the same core idea: zero tolerance.
Zero, because years of being a woman have taught me that even though this might not be the primary way in which I define and see myself in any given situation, it is how most people around me will see me. And that the surrounding presumptions mean that I have to watch how I sit, dress, smell, talk, laugh, make eye contact, eat, pay, walk, smile and frown in an energy-zapping way that most men cannot imagine.
That there is a spectrum between manly/bossy and provocative/loose on which women are constantly sliding. That it is easier to play by their rules than to try and shatter this way of seeing things, in which women are constantly spinning on an axis of male perceptions, needs, desires. That ignoring this ubiquitous lens will in no way protect you from it. That it is this way of seeing things which allows violence, and means that men in positions of authority such as Cairo University President Gaber Nassar will blame the target of a sexual assault for her clothing, whatever that dress may have happened to be.
I’m often told that things really are not so bad, that women should just get on with it. That at least now women can drive and work and travel and ask for divorce. A friend of mine broke her teeth when she was younger and she passed out on the street, literally fainted from a white rage after spending too long dodging and fighting a man driving a car who was masturbating and harassing her as she waited for a bus. I have been filled with shame after running into friends near my house downtown, where I was walking with my head to the floor like some downtrodden wretch, trying to tune out rather than shout or argue with a group of lewd men. A close childhood friend confided in me about incest. Another friend confided female genital mutilation (FGM). So many confided rape. Things are not so bad.
My hopes for a feminist uprising to lurch Egypt forward in a messy, imperfect, but ultimately positive way now seem part of a different time, before the great recalibration of possibilities, plans, and tactics that last summer brought about. But more than any other fight or cause this is still the one that sits, unbudging, in my heart and mind. This is in part because it is deeply personal – but beyond this, it is tied up with every other battle for social justice that we will ever have to face. Military dominance, political corruption, and the ills of the justice system and capitalism are all inherently patriarchal.
Things are bad. Admitting that and allowing ourselves to see it clearly is the first step to finding change.
This blog was first published on Cairo, again on 18 March 2014.
The slow pace of female empowerment in the Gulf
Beware, Iceland. The Gulf Arab states seem eager to catch up to the nation ranked as the most egalitarian in the world. Earlier this year, Bahrain signed a UN convention recognising equal rights for women under law. The UAE announced a military service law allowing women to join the Emirate armed forces. Even the Saudi regime is spearheading a campaign to empower women in political bodies and business arenas. Women all over the region are starting their own businesses, speaking out against controversial legislation affecting their rights, and traveling abroad to receive advanced education.
But these new shifts are hardly tectonic. And most of the new, well-funded government initiatives - to encourage women’s education or bolster their rights - are unlikely to foment significant change. While state-led initiatives have succeeded in boosting female educational attainment - female adult literacy rates are higher than ever (84 percent on average) and female university graduates now outnumber male university graduates in all six GCC states - they have failed to empower women economically or politically. Indeed, Gulf Arab women remain economically marginalised, barred from entering key occupational fields, and seriously underrepresented in legislative and decision-making bodies. The picture is discouraging: a new generation of women with atrophying expertise and impressive degrees.
How did this happen? For years the development world has stressed that education is the key to female empowerment -- and today, the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait have prioritised education in long-term development plans. But this has not always been the case in the Gulf. Before those ambitious education strategies, discriminatory legislation enacted by traditionally conservative governments diminished the status of women. Legal barriers, like those that prohibit men and women from occupying the same public space or that prevent women from accessing various forms of transportation, can still heavily restrict female political and economic participation if not repealed. As a result, the space in which women can advocate for change is extremely limited. In the Gulf, women’s status in political, economic, and social spheres have simply not evolved concurrently.
The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap report, which ranks 136 countries on their ability to close gender gaps within four spheres (political, economic, educational, and health), highlights this striking disparity. According to the report, while the Gulf Arab states have narrowed the gender gap on educational attainment on a par with the world’s most developed countries, they rank among the worst in the world on female economic and political inclusion measurements.
Here are a few numbers to consider: the UAE, ranked 109 overall out of 136 countries, ranks first (tied) in terms of female educational attainment, but grades a dismal 122 on economic participation and opportunity and 81 on political empowerment. This means that while the UAE has almost completely closed the gender gap on educational attainment, women remain largely excluded from economic and political activity. We see the same phenomenon in other GCC countries.
Part of the problem is that women are not receiving the proper education and skills-training to meet the demands of the local job market. In-demand jobs in these oil-driven economies desire candidates with backgrounds in science, technology, and engineering. The problem is that these job-generating disciplines have been perceived as culturally unacceptable for women. Even without these pervasive socio-cultural stigmas, the difficulty of attracting women to the STEM (science, education, technology, and mathematics) fields is a global phenomenon.
The prevalence of segregated schooling systems, often with discriminatory matriculation policies, and limited career guidance creates added barriers. Many women have been forced to settle on traditionally “female careers,” such as those in the humanities and business services. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women occupy 95 percent of the public sector, and 85 percent of those women are in the field of education. Policies and norms that constrict women’s employment opportunities result in female unemployment rates that are double or even triple that of males. In 2008, the International Labour Organisation reported that GCC women faced 21.8 percent unemployment, compared to 7.9 percent for men.
Beyond the classroom, state institutions and companies continue to promote policies that deter women from entering the workforce. Time restrictions enacted in countries like Kuwait and Oman prevent women from working in the evening to early morning hours, while limitations on transportation and driving have made even getting to work an obstacle. The average GCC workplace lacks family-friendly policies, and many companies do not provide benefits allowing flexible working hours, parental leave, maternity leave, and child care programmes for women expected to fulfil duties as mothers and wives. Facilities to accommodate cultural and religious demands, such as cloak rooms and female-only prayer rooms, are often inadequate or simply unavailable. Typically, women are hired in non-strategic positions, with limited decision-making authority or job autonomy. Together, these conditions only accentuate the hardships confronting working women in the GCC.
And then there is the political realm. In countries with genuinely participatory political institutions, women policymakers could seek to change some of those constricting laws to make work environments more female-friendly. But alas, Gulf women are also marginalised politically, where they remain grossly underrepresented in elected institutions and ministerial positions. The ratio of male-to-female parliamentarians in the GCC states is, on average, about ten-to-one. Although women are eligible to vote and run for office in all countries except for Saudi Arabia, the absence of gender-based quotas in legislative bodies keeps female political participation low. But would gender quotas actually impact beneficially on the situation for women, or just increase female bodies in the legislative chambers?
First, a peculiar scenario from Saudi Arabia: the Kingdom is the only GCC state where women are represented in political bodies but lack the right to vote. In 2011, Saudi Arabia introduced a 20 percent quota for female representation in the Shura Council - an advisory body whose members are appointed by the king. Saudi King Abdullah coupled this reform with promises to grant women the right to vote and run for municipal elections by 2015. But far from heralding progress in female empowerment and inclusion, these reforms have instead underscored women’s subordinate status. The Shura Council’s political authority is limited to advising the king and key ministers, and the chamber is strictly gender-segregated. Powerless institutions that enforce the separation of genders can hardly pioneer female political engagement.
Gender quotas could potentially empower women in Kuwait, which boasts a vibrant parliament with real legislative authority and leverage vis-à-vis the executive. But most GCC states will probably construct the same misleading veneer of empowerment as Saudi Arabia. Participatory institutions in Bahrain and the UAE, for example, lack legislative authority against the male-dominated ruling families. The UAE’s Federal National Council exists as the country’s sole legislative institution, but its 40 members are appointed by the king and unable to pass or propose legislation. Likewise, Bahrain’s elected body, the 40-member Chamber of Deputies, lacks the ability to propose new legislation and can be dissolved by the king.
Participatory decision-making across the GCC is mostly a charade; legislative bodies remain mostly consultative and politically impotent. Expanding female representation in these arenas does little to effectively empower women, in the same way that they fail to empower citizens generally. This is not to say that quotas and other institutional efforts to increase women’s representation in political bodies are pointless. Institutional reforms or quotas can contribute to female empowerment - but they have yet to advance the political and socio-economic rights for GCC women.
That poses a far-reaching problem, because it means that everyone in these countries - not just women - will suffer. Economically empowering women is about fostering sustainable economic development - especially critical for countries reliant on non-renewable sources of energy to fuel growth and spending. Tapping into one-half of a country’s potential talent base creates significant opportunities for economic growth. And, since the GCC has remained immune to much of the regional turbulence, they occupy the ideal position to take the lead in improving female economic inclusion.
Even these oil-rich countries cannot sustain long-term growth and prosperity if half the population remains marginalised and excluded from the workforce. The GCC states should begin to invest in and reform public and private sector institutions in favour of female-friendly policies. This can begin at the ground-level, by encouraging school curriculum reform; challenging companies to hire women in positions with more responsibility; or creating conditions that allow women greater opportunities for home-work and entrepreneurship.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression but conditions apply
12 March marked the World Day against online censorship. Reporters Without Borders remained faithful to their habits and announced this year's 'Enemies of the Internet'. Repressive governments in the Middle East also remained faithful to their habits and continued to crack down on free speech, both online and offline.
The Algerian government for instance marked this day in a special way, by taking Jordanian Noorsat satellite TV channel Al-Atlas completely off air. Addressing each and every event of suppressed free speech is impossible; I believe however that the few examples below will suffice to highlight the unconditional disrespect for freedom of expression citizens encounter every day across the MENA region.
Egypt jails journalists by the dozen
One might remember the joint statement calling for “openness, inclusiveness, accountability, effectiveness, coherence and respect for applicable laws” issued late May 2013, when the then-Communications and Information Technology Minister, Atef Helmy, met Europe’s Digital Agenda Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, to discuss internet governance. After Mohamed Morsi's ouster, the army gloriously debuted a new era of governing Egypt by shutting down several Islamist outlets.
Different human rights organisations have issued a statement in response demanding that the authorities “must respect principles of media freedom as stipulated by international law”. Ever since, the army has continued to be innovative and has updated national legislation on terrorism in order to criminalise certain online activity as a “terrorist offence”. The draft law was leaked for the first time in November 2013 and it presented a very limited mention of the internet. Yet it was crystal clear that this law, if passed, would be just a trojan horse inscribing more and more arbitrary repression into Egypt’s legislation.
On 30 January 2014, Egyptian daily newspaper Shourouk reported on the draft law, explaining that “for the first time [anti-terrorism legislation] includes new laws which guarantee control over ‘terrorism’ crimes in a comprehensive manner, starting with the monitoring of Facebook and the Internet, in order for them not to be used for terrorism purposes”. As for what terrorism is, the term includes “use of threat, violence, or intimidation to breach public order, to violate security, to endanger people” and can be also defined “as acts of violence, threat, intimidation that obstruct public authorities or government, as well as the implementation of the constitution”. This second leak confirmed that the law was just intended to broaden legally justified repression.
But the military-backed government did not wait for more repressive laws to be passed to clamp down on dissent. The case, widely covered by the media, of journalists facing terrorism charges, is particularly telling. It is the first time journalists in Egypt face trial for 'terrorism'. The rationale, I should explain, is that some of the journalists work for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network, which has been deemed sympathetic to deposed president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (declared a 'terrorist organisation' in Egypt back in December 2013).
The crackdown intensifies and takes increasingly tragic turns; photojournalist Abdullah Elshamy completes two months of hunger strike in protest over a seven-month-long detention without charge, and another journalist was sentenced to one year in jail for “disturbing the peace”.
The Gulf quashes free speech
Egypt is yet to reach the brute-force crackdown level of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Egyptian army's new best friend. The Emirates have enforced specific legislation, referred to as the ‘Cybercrime Decree’ which outlaws the use of technology to criticise the government. Passed in 2012, the Decree has been instrumental in silencing various forms of dissent and the UAE have become specialised in jailing people for a tweet. Commenting on torture allegations on Twitter: three years jail sentence and a heavy fine. “Insulting state security” on Twitter: a five year jail sentence and a heavy fine. As Rory Donaghy, Director of the Emirates Centre for Human Rights, frames it: “The logic of the authorities is truly Orwellian – the only offence of the 'criminals' was thought crime”.
Saudi Arabia has also decided to honour politically incorrect tweeps: last week, a court sentenced two men to ten and eight years imprisonment, respectively. The former was charged with sending “invitations via Twitter to participate in protests and gatherings against the Kingdom”. The second man was jailed and slapped with a lengthly travel ban (to be applied after the jail sentence), for “inciting relatives of Saudis, arrested for security reasons, to protest their imprisonment by tweeting and by posting videos on sites like YouTube”. Both of these have been detained before for similar “outrageous” use of social networks and for the promotion of “deviant ideologies”. These two dangerous dissenters should however be grateful to avoid the 600 lashes given to another blogger (in addition to seven years imprisonment) back in July 2013, for starting a blog seeking to spark religious dialogue within the Kingdom.
Such generous sentences are thanks to a Saudi Arabian Cybercrime law which criminalises any mode of questioning religion in the Kingdom. In December 2013, the already repressive and vague definition was widened and transformed into an even more catch-all document. The new Cyberterrorism law is now defined as criminal offences which disturb public order or defame the reputation of the Kingdom. Women who demand the right to drive today may be charged and jailed under this refurbished legislation. The new Cyberterrorism law supposedly complies with international human rights standards: after all, since November 2013, Saudi Arabia was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The situation is no better elsewhere in the Gulf, as outlined by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights most recent annual report:
“Indeed, in almost every country reported on, authoritarian regimes are severely restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association in an effort to silence dissent. For example, governments are restricting freedom of expression on the Internet through new laws that criminalise criticism online. Governments are meeting peaceful protesters with violence. Would-be reformers have been imprisoned. Defenders who seek to cooperate with international human rights bodies have faced reprisals both at home and abroad. Human rights defenders have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, ill-treatment at times amounting to torture, unfair trials and disproportionate prison sentences.”
Open to surveillance
The dream of repressive governments every where is to know everything we say, do, think and fear. There are increasing numbers of applications. Some of the most prominent companies producing surveillance gear in the world are BlueCoat, Bull/Amesys, Hacking Team and Vupen. All of those are based in western countries; the latter organise 'surveillance dealerships' where repressive regimes from around the globe meet surveillance gear suppliers. Contracts flourish: watching over citizens' activities is a great way to bring the population to heel and thus preserve “national security” and “the country's unity” in one fell swoop; two favourite tunes played in the MENA region. Surveillance gear may consequently be considered as defence-related material in which case information about procurement is nearly impossible to find.
Security experts from Citizen Lab have put a great effort into researching which governments could be using what types of surveillance technology. In a report released in January 2013, Citizen Lab uncovered 61 appliances capable of filtering, censorship and surveillance. Developed by BlueCoat, the software instances were deployed “on public or government networks in countries with a history of concerns over human rights, surveillance, and censorship”, state the researchers. Nearly all MENA countries were found to have at least one such device operating.
Citizen Lab released another report in February 2014 focusing on Italian company Hacking Team. The latter describes its lawful interception products as “offensive technology” and came under scrutiny in 2012 after its faithful services to Morocco and the UAE were uncovered. More specifically, Hacking Team proudly sells a remote control system (RCS) named DaVinci and able, according to its creators, to break encryption on emails, files and VoIP protocols (simply put, the technology at the root of internet telephony).
Citizen Lab highlights that Hacking Team sells its “offensive technology” exclusively to governments listing the twenty-one identified as current or former users of RCS. Among them, we find Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the UAE. The report thoroughly explains how the sophisticated spyware has been introduced to citizens computers showcasing how "inventive" surveillance aficionados can grow: “We identified an RCS sample uploaded to VirusTotal from Oman that contained a bait document about Omani poetry, purportedly authored by Dr. Mohammed Mahrooqi at the University of Nizwa in Oman."
One does not need a crystal ball to see that repressive states in the MENA region will continue to suppress dissent. One seems, however, to need a magic wand for the situation to improve.
By Amit Singh
Jawhar Nasser Jawhar, 19, and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya, 17, might never be able to walk again, whilst their dreams of playing more football have now been completely shattered. The two young Palestinian footballers were both shot in the feet after attempting to return home from training. Jawhar was shot eleven times in his feet, Adam was shot once in either foot. The Israeli border forces have claimed that the two boys were shot because they were carrying a bomb. But this narrative does not really stand up to scrutiny given that both boys had their feet specifically targeted, which would be an odd target for such highly trained and well-armed Israeli troops.
What this appears to be is a direct attack by the Israeli troops against Palestinians and yet a further example of how the Israeli state acts with impunity to target Palestinian sports as a means of exerting its dominance and reinforcing its occupation of Palestine. How this incident didn’t receive more widespread attention is typical of how Israeli crimes against Palestinians go not only unpunished but regularly ignored and repackaged as defensive strategies employed to defend Israel against aggressive Palestinian terrorists.
Dave Zirin hit the nail on the head in his report for The Nation:
''Just imagine if members of Spain’s top-flight World Cup team had been jailed, shot or killed by another country and imagine the international media outrage that would ensue. Imagine if prospective youth players for Brazil were shot in the feet by the military of another nation. But, tragically, these events along the checkpoints have received little attention on the sports page or beyond.''
The Chairman of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril al-Rajoub, recognized the strategy involved as he condemned the shooting and said that "Israeli brutality against them [the two players] emphasizes the occupation's insistence on destroying Palestinian sport." He did go so far as to demand the expulsion of Israel from FIFA, which in turn would lead to greater international scrutiny of Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people. What is clear, as al-Rajoub also notes, is that this is a direct attempt to stop Palestine from engaging in cultural activities such as playing sport and as such a continued attempt to undermine Palestinian nation-hood.
Israel's continued oppression of Palestinian sport
This is not the first incident that has targeted Palestinian sport, nor can we expect it to be the last. Such incidents led to widespread pressure on UEFA to move last year’s u21 European Championships from Israel. This did not happen and the tournament continued despite Israel's record on racism and human rights abuses and pressure from groups to move the tournament. The awarding of the tournament to Israel flies in the face of the work UEFA and FIFA claim to have done to eradicate racism from the game and again demonstrates how the international community have been turning a blind eye.
England’s under 21 team even played Israel in the Teddy Stadium, the home of Beitar Jerusalem, a controversial, yet very popular Israeli side. The club made headlines in 2013 when, following the arrival of two Chechen Muslim players to the club, supporters set fire to the club’s administrative building. The signing of the two players resulted in many Jewish Israeli fans boycotting the club, leading to a slump in ticket sales. Many fans boo when either player touches the ball and one commentator declared, 'Betair is dead.' The fact that this wasn't highlighted as a bigger issue in Europe is reflective of a double standard. When fans of Zenit St Petersburg fans wrote a letter to the club asking their side not to field black or gay players there was rightly an outcry amongst football's global community. Such an outcry was not there to defend these players in Israel.
In a further attempt to disrupt Palestinian sport the Israeli state regularly detains Palestinian footballers without charge and without trial. The most high profile example of this was the case of Muhmoud Al-Sarsak, a Palestinian national footballer who himself was jailed for three years without charge or trial having only just been released at the end of a 92-day hunger strike. Palestinian footballers such as Palestinian Olympic squad goalkeeper Omar Abu Rois and Ramallah player Muhammed Nimr, are routinely targeted, without much comment or scrutiny.
As well as Palestinian footballers, the Palestinian football infrastructure is also a favourite target as was the case November 10, 2012 when the Israeli army bombed a sports stadium in Gaza, killing four young people who were playing football.
The aerial bombardment of November 2012 prompted over fifty professional footballers to sign a petition headed by Frederic Kanuote declaring that hosting the tournament in Israel would be seen ‘as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values.’ Yet these calls were ignored and the tournament went ahead.
This racism isn’t an isolated series of events. Israeli Arabs, at best, are condemned to the status of second-class citizens. In the occupied territories it is even worse. Checkpoints prevent free movement (something that is a major roadblock to the development of Palestinian sport), while new settlements erode the little remaining Palestinian land. In the West Bank it was announced that there would be separate services for Palestinians and Israelis after Israeli security complaints. The situation is so bad that the UN have described Israel's actions and treatment of Palestinians as being tantamount to ‘apartheid.'
Where next for FIFA?
The evidence appears to be stacking up and it is becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that Israel is not systematically targeting Palestinian footballers and athletes more generally. Sepp Blatter appears to be taking it more seriously than most. The much derided FIFA President has chaired a committee with the hopes of easing the situation at Israeli checkpoints for Palestinian athletes, which he recognizes limits the potential for Palestinian football. FIFA can act and have a history of doing so. The footballing community famously took a strong stance against apartheid South Africa, suspending South Africa from FIFA in 1963, so in line with that, shouldn't it take a strong line against apartheid Israel?
Al-Rajoub appears confident that expelling Israel could be a reality. The Palestinian football chief claims to have the support of Jordan, Qatar, Iran, Oman, Algiers and Tunisia and expressed the hope that he could galvanize more support at a regional meeting of Arab states that took place on March 14. He has also pledged to make the resolution formal when all the member nations of FIFA meet in Brazil. A petition is also gaining support in a bid to put pressure on FIFA to take action. Something must be done to stop the relentless targeting of Palestinian footballers as part of the wider oppression that is meted out by the Israeli government in an attempt to crush the spirit of the Palestinian people.
Here is a petition you could sign to put pressure on FIFA to remove Israel.
An excursion to Wadi Ara
Once again I am indebted to my wife who drags me off to various attractions around the country, otherwise I would probably spend all of my free time debating various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict over the internet. These excursions usually include trips to various museums and art galleries for special exhibits. Every now and then we go on an adventure in nature to see some particular wild flower in bloom or a migrating species of bird that is passing through. Usually I greet my wife's announcement of some new trip with a requisite amount of grumbling but more often than not I enjoy myself and come away with just a bit more knowledge about the world than I had before.
A couple of weeks ago I was recruited for another foray. In truth, this one sounded particularly uninviting as it was to the area of Wadi Ara. This is the site of highway #65 which is a main traffic conduit through the Iron Hills and Manasseh Heights. It begins at the edge of the coastal plain at its southern end and at its northern end silently sits biblical Megiddo, the supposed site of the future battle of Armageddon. I had passed through the area on highway #65 numerous times. Along the highway are located several Arab towns and villages including Kfar Kara, Ararah, Ara, and the largest of all, Umm al-Fahm. They boast some fine restaurants located on the highway and along with many Israelis I have often stopped in Wadi Ara to enjoy some very good Middle Eastern food. But again, like most Israelis, I have never had cause to enter the Arab towns. The whole area of Wadi Ara was ceded to Israel during the 1949 armistice negotiations in exchange for land that Israel held south of Hebron. It is the area that Avigdor Lieberman has proposed to be ceded to a Palestinian state in exchange for settlement blocks on the West bank.
So at 7:00 AM on a bright and sunny day my wife and I boarded a bus along with four men and about 40 older women, looking very much like a retired English teachers convention, and off we went on our adventure. Our first stop was in Umm al-Fahm. This is now a recognized city of 50,000 people and has the largest population in the Wadi Ara area. It is a city of contradictions. The Northern Islamic Movement, the more radical of the Israel's two Islamic movements has a large following in the city and has elected several mayors. Sheikh Raed Salah was elected mayor three times and has also served time in Israeli prison for various offenses. At the same time a survey carried out in Umm al-Fahm in the year 2000, showed that 83% of the respondents opposed transferring the city from Israeli to Palestinian jurisdiction.
After traveling in and around the town we ended up on the peak of the highest hill in Umm al-Fahm for an overlook of the town itself and a good part of the surrounding countryside. At the top is the tomb of some notable person whose real identity has been lost in time. Adjacent to the tomb is a small mosque and nearby is a Sufi Mosque. In the center of town are four large mosques, one for each of the four hamulot (extended families) which make up the town's population. Several years ago I met a fellow from Umm al-Fahm. He told me that tradition has it that the town was founded by four brothers who had gotten into some sort of trouble and fled to the densely wooded hilly area, now occupied by the town. Taking advantage of the presence of the forests, they began producing charcoal for sale to the surrounding villages. This gave us the name of the Umm al-Fahm, which translates as the Mother of Charcoal.
The 1949 armistice line (the green line) runs along the southeastern municipal boundary of the town as does the Israeli defensive barrier ("the Wall") which in this area mostly follows the armistice line with a short detour here and there to encompass some small Israeli settlements nearby. In another seeming contradiction, the residents of Umm al-Fahm are quite pleased with the presence of the barrier. Prior to its construction, thousands of Palestinians would cross into Israel passing through the town. Often, because they were willing to work for lower wages, they took jobs in the town and in the nearby Israeli cities that had traditionally been held by locals. In addition every now and then a terrorist would come through which didn't bode well for the town's reputation in the eyes of the Israeli public or as a safe place for tourists. The barrier ended these problems and you won't hear complaints about it from the residents of the town.
Near Umm al-Fahm is the small Israeli Jewish village of Mei Ami, which can be translated from the Hebrew as The Waters of My People. I thought that this might have something to do with some biblical spring or other historical water source nearby. It turns out that the Jewish Community of Miami, Florida contributed a large sum of money for the village's infrastructure and in return the village was given a Hebrew name that sounds like Miami. This explanation reminded me of the old story about the time Willy Brandt was being shown around Tel Aviv when he passed the Mann Auditorium. He remarked to his host how wonderful it was that Israel would name its largest concert hall after Thomas Mann, the famous German author. However he was quickly informed that the building was named after Frederic Mann. Brandt asked with some agitation, "Well, what did he write?" and he was answered, "A cheque." Recently it was announced that the Mann Auditorium's name is being changed to the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in honour of another author of significant cheques.
Our tour finally took us to Kfar Kara, located at the southwestern end of Wadi Ara. This town is distinguished for several reasons; one is that its population contains what may be the highest percentage of college graduates in the country. Another is that one of four Jewish-Arab schools in the country is located there and it is the only one located in an Arab town. Each class is staffed by an Arabic speaking teacher and a Hebrew speaking teacher and the children learn in both languages. The object of the education is not to transform Jews into Arabs or Arabs into Jews but allow for the maintenance of separate national identities while making "the other" familiar. The project has had its ups and downs. At the moment it seems to be in an up phase. As an English teacher in a Bedouin school I was interested in the technical question of how the school managed to keep open the proper number of days even though each segment of the student body celebrates its own holidays at different times. The answer was flexibility.
While in Kfar Kara we visited the home of Amneh, a local personality. Dressed in traditional clothes she is an observant Muslim woman who is an activist for women's rights. She told us about her life, including not being married until the age of 28 – or as she put it, at an age when it was thought that she had not only missed the train but had forgotten where the station was. Her life story was quite an inspiring tale. However, what seemed most significant to me is that she has organized 900 Arab women in Wadi Ara, who engage in all sorts of activities advancing the status of women in society.
I came away from this trip with a lot of food for thought. One thing for sure, the situation of the Israeli Arab community in Wadi Ara is much more complex than I had imagined and simplistic solutions to finding a realistic basis for their status in the State of Israel or elsewhere will simply not do.
Lebanese media retaliates against politicians' crackdown
By Bilal Hamade
A video of a Lebanese political daily show went viral recently when the host and the interviewee cut the interview short in protest against the increasingly reduced spaces for freedom of expression facing the press in Lebanon. Dima Sadek, a rising media figure, kept interrupting Imad Bazzi, a Lebanese blogger, warning him not to talk about contentious issues in Lebanon, cutting the programme time to approximately eight minutes after enumerating the taboo subjects that they cannot talk about. The show ended with a black closing credits screen that read: "This is the image of television as "they like it"- this was crossed in red and replaced by "as we refuse it".
The coordinated effort of Sadek and her guest came after the Islamic Shia Supreme Council asked the programme producer and host to apologise for an episode aired a day earlier, claiming that both the host and the interviewee "insulted" Islam. The council also threatened them with legal action. This attack comes in a series of crackdowns on the media by politicians initiated by Michel Suleiman, the President of the republic himself, who got offended at some tweets from political activists a year or so ago. The Twitteratis were sentenced to two months in jail for tweets "demeaning the president."
The most recent attack on the press, however, came in the form of law suits by the public prosecutor against the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar who uncovered corruption in the justice system against a judge giving reduced sentences to drug dealers. While the judge was punished and the evidence provided by Al-Akhbar was deemed valid, the journalist and the newspaper were still charged and had to pay a hefty fine. The other attack on Al-Akhbar involved Suleiman again. The leftist newspaper accused Suleiman and the minister of justice of forging French passports before taking office. Moreover, it accused him of engaging in opportunistic and destructive efforts to keep his political office for another term.
Asad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese-American professor, criticized the actions of Sadek and Bazzi on his Facebook page, describing what happened as "mere morning entertainment", referring to the name of the morning show "N'harkome Saeed" (Good day to you). He said that the problem is that Lebanese media outlets rarely show solidarity with one another. He continues to maintain that the programme itself never criticises the ruling class or corruption, and that their message revolves around attacking Hezbollah and its military wing, which Sadek and Bazzi said they could only talk about with "self censorship." AbuKhalil continues to say: "what is easier in the Lebanese media: criticising Hezbollah's arms or discussing the corruption under the rule of late prime minister of Rafiq Hariri?" - the latter being a topic rarely covered in Lebanese media.
While AbuKhalil offers a valid criticism of the programme and Lebanese media in general, he overlooks the highly significant step that Sadek took in protesting against the crackdown on the press. On the other hand, Sadek and her guest, while trying to be objective and balanced, did fall into a contradiction when they referred to Hezbollah's arms as a taboo subject in Lebanon when in fact it is an ever-present topic on her show and on most Lebanese shows.
Putting the controversy - and the advertisement - achieved by this programme to one side, Sadek's protest has undoubtedly succeeded in raising awareness regarding a danger confornting freedom of expression in Lebanon; one of the very few positives the country can boast nowadays. Moreover, this should send a warning signal to Lebanese media outlets signalling a stand in solidarity against the crackdown of the politicians that they should put aside their differences, mainly revolving around sectarian and political considerations, considerations that plague the country.
In Nasser's shadow
Demotix/Shawkan. All rights reserved.
Out of all the recent historical figures, Egypt has been living in the shadow of one man, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Ever since he came to power through a military coup in 1952, he has proved to be an enduring and at the same time divisive figure. All the regimes that followed tried either to appropriate parts of his legacy, or to distance themselves from it. Nasser was always the benchmark, whether good or bad, for evaluation.
From Sadat, who drastically attempted to realign Egyptian policy, coining the policy of “Egypt First”, to Mubarak who always reasserted his commitment to the betterment of the downtrodden masses - a rhetoric that he repeated until the last days of his reign - all clearly carried a Nasserist undertone. The same applies to Morsi. The current regime in Cairo is no different; El Sisi seems to be selectively trying to revive certain aspects of Nasserism as an ideological platform for the reinvigorated military regime.
But Nasserism is based on two main pillars: Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. Both at the time of their creation were considered to be progressive, anti-imperialist ideologies aimed at ridding the Arab world of its backwardness. Although heavily influenced by ideas from the west, both were considered to be purely indigenous paths to development.
It is important to understand those ideologies and their longterm impacts on the Egyptian polity in order to better understand the current situation in Egypt. Arab nationalism was the main ideology acting as the backbone of Egyptian foreign policy, until it was abandoned by Sadat in the 1970s, to be replaced by his “Egypt First” policy. The essence of this policy was that the Arab world was essentially one nation, with shared interests, history and culture. Egypt, as the leading state, therefore had the obligation to support other “nationalist” and “progressive” forces in the region. This policy divided the Arab World into “progressive” and “regressive” countries, and initiated what Malcolm Kier called the “Arab Cold War”, that reached its apex with the Egyptian involvement in Yemen.
This ideology involved a deep commitment to the Palestinian issue, as the premier cause in the Middle East, and fervent anti-Zionism. As a policy, this had the dual effect of acting as an ideological justification for Egyptian hegemony, and providing domestic legitimacy for the Nasser regime. This policy also involved close cooperation with the USSR, especially after the 1967 Arab/Israeli war and subsequent defeat, when Egypt lost its ability to maneuver. This alliance was cemented in the collective psyches of Egyptians in the form of an anti-imperialist alliance.
The second pillar of Nasserism is Arab socialism, allegedly a socialism much influenced by Titoism. This ideological pillar has a strong commitment to social justice, the nationalization of economic assets, and rapid rates of industrialization. The attendant policies led to the creation of a bureaucratic middle class employed in the public sector, which acted as the social support base of the regime.
Some observers argue that it was a form of state capitalism, as the profit incentive was always present. It also led to a widespread redistribution of wealth, especially in the Egyptian countryside, to a land reform that ended the power of the landed class while increasing the power of the state, and to increased support for the regime in the countryside. This policy left a lasting impact on Egyptian expectations from their government, and in particular their regard for the paternal role, with its responsibility for providing basic services and other goods. The Nasserist legacy has left a lasting impact in that regard.
But there is another side of Nasserism, the side that is the more prominent candidate for revival by El Sisi and co. Nasser was notorious for his repression of political opponents, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist movement. He tried to frame the Muslim Brotherhood as an extremist terrorist group, and embarked on a repression campaign that led to the radicalization of some members of the Brotherhood who formed their own jihadist groups.
This was also coupled with an outright contempt for parliamentary democracy, as a destructive and inefficient political system that served only to propagate societal tensions and conflict. The best way to handle dissent in this era was repression, rather than dialogue. Nasser also propagated military dominance over the state, especially over the public sector, guaranteeing the military both political and economic control of the country.
This involved a certain type of cronyism, based on a classification of “people of trust vs. people of expertise”, which effectively created a class of people who might not be knowledgeable, but however were of proven political loyalty.These were teh poeple who were able to procure leadership positions within the state. The defeat in 1967 initiated a process of readjustment where most of the Nasserist ideologies were abandoned, while some morphed and their impact can still be felt as an undercurrent in Egyptian political life.
Currently El Sisi is attempting to recreate certain aspects of Nasserism as an ideological base for the neo-military regime in Egypt, as follows. First, El Sisi is attempting to create a sense of personal legitimacy around his own identity as a “national hero”, this image being propagated and pushed by both private and public media on a daily basis, and entailing a claim of similarity to the “Great Man”, Nasser.
There is also an emphasis on the support given to El Sisi by a number of prominent societal figures and intellectuals who have had close links to Nasserism, namely, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, one of most important figures of the Nasser regime, and Nasser’s son Abdel Hakim Abdel Nasser, who stated that only El Sisi can compete with his father for the title of “loved by millions”. Both men have argued for the need to save the nation from the diabolical plans of the Muslim Brotherhood, and both men have justified the extremely repressive tactics employed against the Brotherhood, on the basis that this represents an existential threat to the nation.
On the foreign policy front El Sisi is attempting to portray himself as an anti-imperialist, anti-American hero; again attempting to appropriate the legacy of Nasser. On one hand, there is a vicious media campaign to defame the revolution, claiming that it was an American-funded plot to destroy Egypt and the last Arab fighting force, and that this plot was orchestrated with the cooperation of the Muslim Brotherhood. A ludicrous claim, since the Egyptian military is a staunch American ally, and receives billions in aid from the United States. In this respect Syria is used as an example of the American plan for Egypt, where the United States is accused of supporting Islamist extremists and igniting the civil war in Syria, formerly their plan in Egypt, using the Muslim Brotherhood as their pawn.
On the other hand, El Sisi has been flirting with Russia, with local media reports continually highlighting the importance of this increased cooperation, hinting that it would change Egypt’s relationship to the United States, breaking Egyptian dependence, at least on the military front. However, this deal is yet to materialize. The increased media praise for Russia and Putin, as a bulwark against American imperialism is one result, ignoring, of course, Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict. This cleverly manipulates an Egyptian psyche that links Russia to the Nasserist legacy of anti-imperialism and resistance. However, as I have argued elsewhere, this does not indicate a change in Egyptian foreign policy, or a break with the United States.
On the domestic front, El Sisi seems to be reviving the repressive and antidemocratic aspect of Nasserism, ignoring its emphasis on social justice, and progressive social policy. El Sisi is attempting to create an image for himself as a demi-god, an almost mythical figure that will save Egypt from the powers of darkness. Both men are declared to have fought “enemies of the people” and “American agents”, a repetition of the Nasserist rhetoric, whereby dissent becomes equivalent to treason, and opposition to the regime becomes a crime. In short, El Sisi becomes a symbol of the nation, just as Nasser did before him.
The military has also attempted to revive the notion of its achievements, an attempt to recreate the image of the military as a force for progress. Due to the lack of any real evidence for this, the dark comedy of General Kofta began, whereby the military announced the invention of a device that not only detected AIDS and hepatitis C, but also cured them. This magical device will be made available on June 30, on the first anniversary of the mass protests that led to the toppling of Morsi.
The revival of the Nasserist legacy has been selective at best, aimed at reinforcing a “false consciousness” haze in the minds of many Egyptians. Aspects of Nasserism related to social justice, the role of the state in society, and genuine anti-imperialism seem to be totally absent. But as I have argued before, the ability of the regime to impose this fog is limited by material factors that have placed the military on a collision course with the middle classes. In the end, propaganda will only serve to strengthen an attack on the ideological base of the current regime, leaving its repression exposed. It seems that what is happening in Egypt is a comical repetition of history, following the Marxist dictum that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
Status quo in Bahrain
In February 2011 the Shia majority in Bahrain marched on Pearl Roundabout, Manama, in the hope of change. They were violently crushed by both security forces, employed by the Sunni minority to which the ruling family, Al-Khalifa, belong, and by an influx of Saudi forces. The Al-Khalifas 'import' their security from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other neighbours. Indeed the “naturalization” process there is the highest in the world as the regime seeks to “adjust” demographics.
In the last three years alone, approximately 2250 if not more political prisoners have been incarcerated, many of whom are photographers, journalists and doctors. The security forces use poisonous teargas, which causes lung disease, brain damage, and miscarriages to name a few of the consequences. They also shoot to kill, beat up men with their truncheons and boots, and assault women. Night raids have become the norm, accompanied by kidnappings and the sexual harassment of women. Arrests are rarely followed by charges and torture is rife in detention. Furthermore, medical treatment has been politicized; protesters who are taken to hospitals are regularly arrested and many doctors have left the hospitals.
On this third anniversary there has been dialogue between Al-Khalifa and Al-Wefaq, the main opposition group in Bahrain, as well as smaller oppositional groups. As always, the ruling family has put a gloss over their version and refrain from conveying the truth to NGO's such as Amnesty International or the UN. The US, with a naval base in Bahrain, has remained silent as it is in their interests to ignore the human rights abuses. Indeed, the Fifth Fleet will be there for years to come as America withdraws from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The United Kingdom, of which Bahrain was formerly a protectorate, remains unmoved and silent on all human rights abuses. In fact, the UK has exports over £4 million in arms to Bahrain. The arms trade is regularly used by nations to profit at the expense of ordinary people's basic human rights, let alone, their lives.
Sadly, there is a small minority among the protesters who throw Molotov cocktails, burn tyres and throw stones. This does nothing to help their cause and only labels the protestors 'terrorists', as Al-Khalifa likes to refer to them, as well as ex-pats and most Sunnis. However, a common misconception is that this movement is sectarian, which it is not. The goal is for every Bahraini to be part of a democratic process, where laws are implemented fairly and civil liberties are respected.
How this revolution goes forward depends very much on how both sides proceed. There are westerners who follow closely on twitter, PhD scholars who are studying the process, NGO's who are almost helpless and the people who care about human rights. The latter are not united in their efforts - some retweet whatever seems interesting to them without thinking critically; some are abusive to Al-Khalifa, which is also not helpful; others try to win arguments in 140 characters, while others just seem to rant at the press. NGOs and politicians are equally hampered and few try diplomacy with the Bahraini government whilst simultaneously exposing their abuse.
The United Kingdom needs to stop organizing the Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition; inviting Bahrain and similar states to arms fairs and state occasions. Thiscan only be perceived as approval for despotic behaviour and it is an abuse of UK taxpayers' money.
So what will you do? You can ignore it or you can stand up and be counted. Many of you already do and I thank you.
Palestinian Christians address Christian Zionism
By Quinn Coffey
Hundreds of participants are gathering in Bethlehem this week for the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which will address the ongoing and detrimental role of Christian Zionism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This conference, which has been labelled ‘anti-Semitic’ and an ‘Evangelical Intifada’ by the Israeli right and American Christian Zionists, is the second of its kind since 2010, and seeks to ‘Challenge [global] evangelicals to take responsibility to help resolve the conflicts in Israel-Palestine by engaging with the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God’.
As President of the Bethlehem Bible College, Dr. Jack Sara explained, ‘A lot of the Christian world does not know of the existence of Palestinian Christians who live in Palestine and Israel and who are suffering because of the conflict.’ Not only is there a lack of awareness of the Palestinian Christians themselves, but the community also faces the uphill battle of trying to combat a Christian Zionist ideology which, according to Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, ‘attempts to make us [Palestinian Christians] invisible, to turn us into the negated antithesis of God’s ‘chosen people’.
The Christian Zionist perspective also has widespread acceptance among American evangelicals – who are amongst Israel’s staunchest supporters - with roughly 82% of the American evangelical community supporting the view that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews (nearly twice the percentage of American Jews who supported the same statement).
There is an obvious incentive for Israel to protect the Christian Zionist perspective; not only does the state benefit from its ties to the American leadership, but it also wants to protect its multibillion tourism industry – a large portion of which is supported by Christian pilgrims. However, the perspectives of the indigenous Arab Christian community, who are directly affected by Israeli policy, are largely ignored by both the State of Israel and Christian Zionist community.
Paradoxically, however, the Israeli and American right often use Arab Christian persecution in the Middle East as ‘proof’ of the region’s sectarian undercurrents, often claiming that the State of Israel is a shelter for Arab Christians. In this way the conversation is misdirected away from Israeli encroachments in the West Bank, like the ‘security wall’, in all its grave impact on the local economy and freedom of movement in Palestinian Christian villages. However, Palestinian Christians have continued to voice their opposition to what they see as an oppressive occupation, supported by a discriminatory interpretation of the Bible on the part of the Christian Zionists.
Christian Zionism and the Palestinian Christians
Many in the Palestinian Christian leadership first became aware of the Christian Zionist perspective in the late 1960s in the bible colleges of Europe and the United States. They were often confronted with animosity when they described the dire situation of their Palestinian community to their American and European peers. The 1967 War and subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip emboldened Christian Zionists, who viewed the war as proof that God stood with Israel and was fulfilling biblical prophecies to speed up the return of Jesus.
This prophetic belief is based on the perspective of dispensationalism, which views history as a series of distinct periods, with the second coming of Christ occurring only when the Jews have returned to the Holy Land and converted to Christianity. After the 1967 War, and partly due to the popularity of conservative evangelical preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the Christian Zionist perspective grew in popularity amongst American evangelicals. The Palestinian evangelical community, disheartened by this perspective, responded by re-examining the fundamentals of their views on the New Testament. As Rev. Ateek writes, Palestinian evangelical leaders wanted to know exactly how western Christians were able to ‘justify the conquest of our land’ based upon the same Biblical sources that they were reading.
In 1990 the Palestinian Christian leadership organised the First International Symposium on Palestinian Liberation Theology in which they expressed their desire to create a theology that counters that of the Christian Zionists – one that contains a ‘redemptive message for us and for all people’, says Rev. Ateek.
Outreach and activism
After three decades of activism on the part of Palestine’s Christian community through the preaching of non-violence at home and outreach towards the global Christian community abroad, the struggle with Christian Zionism and demographic decline continues. In recent years, there have been a growing number of documentaries, news stories and conferences focusing on the plight of the Palestinian Christians. However, they have also faced considerable opposition from the State of Israel.
In 2010, the popular American news programme 60 Minutes travelled to the West Bank and Israel to film a documentary about the Palestinian Christians – focusing mainly on the issue of demographic decline in the community. The documentary was unique in that it gave voice to the Palestinian clergy and laity on a scale previously unseen in the American media landscape. However, days before the piece was set to air, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, contacted the head of the CBS network urging him shut the piece down. CBS declined Ambassador Oren’s request and decided instead to show both the documentary, and an inflammatory interview that 60 Minutes’ anchor Bob Simon had with Ambassador Oren in which Oren called the documentary an ‘outrageous hatchet job’.
The 2013 documentary The Stones Cry Out, which also focuses on the Palestinian Christian community, has been similarly vilified by the Israeli right as a ‘misrepresentation of the plight of Palestinian Christians’. Incidentally, there has been no condemnation of either documentary from the Palestinian Christian community itself and the ongoing outreach through conferences like Christ at the Checkpoint shows that this is a community not easily deterred by propaganda.
Hope for the future?
The relative success of the Liberation Theology movement is reflected in the growing unease and defensiveness of the Israeli right. The Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs reported that the younger generation of American evangelicals are becoming increasingly sympathetic to what it describes as ‘anti-Israeli narratives’. Whilst many on the right have suggested that this is because the current generation are not as aware of the Holocaust narrative as their predecessors, the organisers of Christ at the Checkpoint, suggest that it is simply because American evangelicals are, for the first time, actually hearing the Palestinian Christian narrative.
The Bethlehem Bible College, who are hosting the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, was recently visited by the American Special Advisor to the US Secretary of State for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, who discussed the importance of such events for the promotion of peace. To which a JPost blogger responded, ‘Give us a break…Christ at the Checkpoint is pure anti-Israel, anti-Zionist…dangerous and invidious’. To me this reflects the ongoing pressures that the Israeli right are feeling in the wake of a growing BDS movement and declining power of AIPAC. They are beginning to lose the public relations battle and they know it.
There is nothing remotely anti-Semitic about a group of Christians getting together to speak about their lives and their faith. In fact, according to its organiser, Christ at the Checkpoint will not ‘be adopting a victimization mentality’ but will rather focus on the fact that the Palestinian Christians are ‘a living, hopeful culture that is looking forward despite all of the challenges’ it faces. In other words, they simply want to be heard.
A final, and particularly striking comment was made by Rev. Ateek’s in his 2010 address to the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, ‘Jesus was a Palestinian who was born under occupation. Jesus lived under occupation. Everything he taught, everything he said was done under occupation, exactly the way we live today.’
Get our weekly email
CommentsWe encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.