North Africa, West Asia

This week's window on the Middle East - November 13, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Libya's Constituent Assembly: light at the end of the tunnel?

Arab Awakening
13 November 2013
  • Libya's Constituent Assembly: light at the end of the tunnel?
  • Angels caught in a tightening noose
  • Extreme measures: invoking moral order in Turkey
  • Palestine: the lost cause?
  • France’s unfinished business in Mali
  • Observations on the identity amendments to the Egyptian constitution
  • Libya's Constituent Assembly: light at the end of the tunnel?

    By Rhiannon Smith

    As Libya's long, hot summer draws to a close, the shifting season brings with it both the promise and threat of change in a country which has spent the past few months struggling under the oppressive weight of growing insecurity, political paralysis and militia rule. Two years after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is a long way from the utopia of freedom and justice envisioned by those who risked their lives to free their country from forty two years of dictatorship during the 2011 uprising.

    The celebratory atmosphere which marked the first anniversary of Libya's official Liberation Day on October 23 was glaringly absent this year, the night passing with barely a firework to be heard in the capital Tripoli where pyrotechnics are normally a daily feature of city life. Apathy, despondency and distrust seem to have silenced Libya's streets, reducing what was once an insatiable river of revolutionary fervour to isolated puddles of disappointment, resentment and frustration.

    Nevertheless, as the welcome winter rain finally begins to fall, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Mechanisms for the national Constituent Assembly (CA) elections have finally been put in motion and over the past few weeks candidates have been registering to stand for the so-called 'Committee of Sixty', tasked with drafting Libya's new constitution. The sixty seats are equally divided between Libya's three constituent regions, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan, although the respective populations of these regions are far from equal. Ethnic minorities have been given six seats in total, two each for the Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg communities, while women have also been allocated six seats.

    The issue of representation, in terms of region, ethnicity, gender, religion and political ideology, and how it is dealt with in the constitution-drafting process is crucial to the success of Libya's transition. The ability of the legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), and its government to balance the competing demands and aspirations of different interest groups during the upcoming elections and drafting process will largely determine how the resulting constitution will be received by society upon completion. If handled badly, the CA may find itself pushed and pulled between the wills and whims of different interest groups, pressured by powerful (and most probably armed) actors to produce a document which is likely to be divisive and controversial, a constitution which may well create more problems than it solves. On the other hand, if handled with care and intuition, these upcoming elections have the potential to provide a degree of popular legitimacy and broad-based participation to the drafting of Libya's constitution, creating the conditions for constructive dialogue on Libya's identity, self-perception and vision of the future.

    Indeed, with the registration period finally under way, the phrase 'national dialogue' has become the buzzword of the moment with a huge range of actors attempting to create space where Libya's many groups can air and address their challenges, grievances and aspirations. Unfortunately, this national dialogue process appears to have fallen victim to the very same problems which made participative community discussion so vital in the first place, namely political polarisation, lack of communication and duplication of efforts by different actors with different agendas. The GNC and government have been struggling in recent months to maintain even a semblance of control over the country, with decision-making hamstrung by infighting between opposing political blocs while different arms of the state squabble among themselves over whose job it is to do what.

    It has become increasingly clear that the elected authorities are not, and probably never were, the ones calling the shots in the new Libya. Militias operating under the umbrella of various government ministries use force to ensure their agendas are followed and their interests protected, whether that means passing legislation at gunpoint and calling it 'democracy' or deploying heavy weaponry in residential areas for the sake of getting one-up on a rival group. The recent one-day kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from his hotel residence by an armed group supposedly operating under the auspices of the state highlights all too well the central government's loosening grip on power, even in the capital which has traditionally been their stronghold. Indeed, just last weekend Tripoli's waterfront became the stage for an armed battle between rival militias resorting to violence to settle their differences. Despite using heavy weapons in the centre of town, killing two and injuring many more, there was very little the government could do to prevent the fighting nor to punish those responsible for instigating it.

    In Benghazi, Libya's second city and the cradle of the February 17 Revolution, an unrelenting spate of assassinations and attacks has continued, wreaking havoc on the safety, security and wellbeing of the east and underlining the inability of the government and security forces to establish even the skeleton of a functioning state outside Tripoli. Strikes, protests and armed blockades at oil fields and terminals across the country have reduced Libya's oil outputs to a trickle as protestors attempt to pressure the government into granting them concessions. Demands, which initially included better job opportunities and wages, have taken on a more political character. Most oil terminals in the east have been shut for the past three months by protestors who refuse to move until the government grants autonomy to Cyrenaica, while oilfields in the west have recently been closed by Amazigh protestors demanding more seats in the CA. So far the central authorities have been unable to end these protests and blockades, whether through force or negotiation.

    Needless to say, trust in Libya's elected representatives is waning, and with it the enthusiasm for elections which was so pronounced only a year and a half ago. Many are increasingly sceptical of the practical benefits of elections, while others cite the inevitable partiality of elections in an environment dominated by armed men acting in their own interests rather than those of the state. Calls for the GNC to be re-elected or abolished entirely have become more vocal recently, reflected by movements such as the '9 November' movement which called for nationwide demonstrations to reflect public discontent at the GNC, government and general state of affairs. The demonstrations were not particularly large in the end, but this was not so much an indication of satisfaction with the GNC as a reflection of the apathy of the Libyan streets and the underlying suspicion felt towards political parties and their divisive role in Libyan life.

    As things currently stand, the CA electoral process and corresponding national dialogue initiatives are being greeted with wary apprehension. The drafting of the constitution has already been severely delayed, yet that time has not been used to engage actively with the public on the fundamental issues and challenges likely to arise. The key to producing a constitution which will be widely accepted by the Libyan people does not depend solely on how the CA is formed or by whom, but rather on how deeply and broadly this assembly can engage with the public and balance competing demands for representation and recognition. Given the limited success of the interim authorities so far, this will be no easy task. While the registration process for elections, and the apparent political commitment to 'dialogue', represent tentative progress, there are still substantial obstacles to be overcome before the committee is formed, let alone the constitution drafted. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it remains to be seen whether it is a gateway to a brighter future or the warning signal of an impending collision set to derail Libya's transition. 

    Angels caught in a tightening noose

    By Soraya Morayef

    On Tuesday November 5, Egypt’s Minister of Local Development, Adel Labib, announced a new law criminalizing graffiti with a maximum jail sentence of four years and a fine of 100,000LE. Interestingly, Labib categorized graffiti as a crime equal to dumping trash on the streets.

    According to the Al Masry Al Youm report [Ar], anyone caught in possession of spray cans or other graffiti material would be arrested, and neighbourhood patrols would be delegated to apprehend and arrest street artists. The wording of the law is worrying: the word ‘offensive’ is left vague, meaning the definition would be left up to the authorities, who would presumably focus on anti-regime graffiti.

    This appears to be one of the government’s latest tactics in cracking down on opposition and in superficially demonstrating its control over the country. Following the anti-protest law as well as the recent arrest of four students caught in possession of graffiti material and accused of making anti-military graffiti, Cairo’s artists should be worried.

    Whatever popular support the graffiti scene may have had in the past two years seems to have decreased considerably; at least in my own personal circle. Several artists I spoke to told me about their being verbally and physically assaulted in recent months, with many of their friends arrested and detained by police. Demoralized and depressed, they attributed this new aggression against them not only to their street art but also their expression of anti-regime sentiment, which automatically categorizes them as supporters of the deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

    While always marginalized as a street subculture, many of these graffiti artists find themselves increasingly sidelined and ostracized for their political opinions as supporters of January 25 revolution; neither with the military nor supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Increasingly, the space for them to express themselves as ‘others’ is diminishing, the noose is tightening.

    When I wrote about the new graffiti law on Twitter, many people I interact with regularly voiced their support for the law. ‘City walls have been destroyed thanks to ‘graffiti,’ one person told me. ‘Tasteful graffiti represents only 1% of graffiti in Cairo. I hope this law passes.’

    Another told me: ‘Every church I’ve been to has hate speech all over its walls. I’m happy my kid can’t read yet’, while another – rather dramatically said that opposing the anti-graffiti law was equal to supporting hate crimes against Christians, given the sectarian graffiti found on many churches across Egypt.

    While these few tweets may be miniscule in their representation of the general public, to me it’s indicative of how much we’ve changed in one year. The Egypt today is very different from the Egypt of September 2012, where then-Prime Minister Hisham Qandil had to publically condemn the defacement of the Mohamed Mahmoud mural, denying his complicity in its removal. It was a milestone in the recent history of graffiti in Egypt; the head of the government directly addressing the very subculture that the regime had attempted to criminalize.

    Today, we live in a city where repeated psychological oppression and intimidation of civilians has taken its toll on the mindset of many, where I hear daily attempts at justifying the state imposed curfew with the arrests and humiliating assaults that it entail. Many disregard the recurrent stories of prison deaths, police torture and rape because - on the other hand – the streets are empty after curfew and the walls are painted fresh; a clear indication that the state has succeeded in restoring security and defeating terrorism.

    It seems that many of my peers have chosen to overlook the death of an 18-year-old boy, who was shot by a police officer in broad daylight for being part of a pro-Morsi demonstration, as well as the death of a 12-year-old Christian girl in a drive-by shooting outside a church wedding in Warraq. Both deaths happened in Cairo in recent months, a clear indication that neither stability nor security is restored; yet many will brush these deaths off as isolated incidents compared to the nationwide stability (cough *Sinai* cough).

    How is this related to graffiti? Look at this photograph.

    Graffiti Egypt November 2013

    This mural of 18-year-old Belal Ali was painted alongside the mural of 12-year old Mariam, both made by Ammar Abo Bakr on the wall of the Armenian Church in Downtown Cairo. The fact that both were placed side by side on the church wall was inspiring and evocative, as were their angel-wings, equal in size and detail. In death, both were equally victims; and neither will be vindicated nor will their murderers be brought to justice.

    Just days after Mariam’s mural was painted, her face and that of Belal were defaced with black paint; someone had taken offense to the sight of these victims and the memory of their death.

    Ammar made something beautiful, something that mattered to the families and friends of these two martyrs. So, if I have understood this law correctly, then an artist like Ammar deserves four years in jail for offending someone with these murals, yet the victims’ murderers live freely with little chance of their being brought to justice. This isn’t fair.

    Yes, graffiti can be lewd and offensive, and in recent months it has been appropriated by different sides, many of whom have advocated messages of hate and violence. But to ostracize the already marginalized street artist community for individual acts committed by others is not right; especially since they have played such an important role in the visual representation of the January 25 revolution and its ideals.

    Supporting a law that further oppresses free expression in Egypt’s current climate is dangerous; it is equal to banning a satirical TV show, for investigating journalists reporting another angle to the same story, for censoring authors and columnists for disagreeing with the state rhetoric. It enables a society of bullies that find legal recourse in shutting down disagreeable and unpopular voices, based on taste, propriety and offensiveness.

    It isn’t right, but little in Egypt is right now. 

    Extreme measures: invoking moral order in Turkey

    By Oguz Alyanak, Funda Ustek

    What happens when unmarried individuals, in our case, young men and women attending university in Turkey, share apartments thanks to a lack of alternatives, as in affordable, single-occupancy spaces? Nothing of public concern, one could say. It happens all around the world, others would add. Unless, of course, the choices and private affairs of these individuals become a matter of public moral order and begin to be regarded as the cause of Turkey’s social ills.

    The debate over house sharing and cohabitation in Turkey is about the government’s attitude towards reordering social life - that is, it is about conservative values and Islam. However, equally, it is about a larger social reconstruction project that is under way and intended to contain the potential risks that an uncontrolled and unwanted development in a key institution, the family, may bring. 

    The paternalist state and the limits of being protected

    Housing policy constitutes an important part of policy-making for all governments, but as recent debates confirm, in Turkey, the government is more concerned with “who” lives “with whom” than the housing. Prime Minister Erdoğan has been gradually preparing the ground for the following "guarantee": that the private lives of citizens of Turkey come under the auspices of the Turkish state, and that the government has a responsibility to ensure that this is the case. On 3 November 2013, in his address to his deputies at an annual meeting closed to the public, the Turkish Prime Minister hinted at his ambition to take legal measures against unmarried male and female students sharing houses. He made the following statement:

    “Nobody knows what takes places in those houses [where male and female students live together]. All kinds of dubious things may happen [in those houses]. ... Anything can happen. Then, parents cry out, saying, ‘Where is the state?' These steps are being taken in order to show that the state is there. As a conservative, democratic government, we need to intervene.”

    Although the full extent of Erdoğan’s surveillance ambitions is yet to be defined, one thing is clear in his follow up on the issue: opposite sexes sharing housing is disapproved of. Not only does such house-sharing grate against the “conservative democrat” [muhafazakar demokrat] values of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), but it also contradicts the AKP’s strong stance on many other claims with regards to how social life needs to be ordered and governed in line with a conservative vision of public morality.

    The following conversation took place between the Prime Minister and a journalist during a press conference en route to Finland. The excerpt reveals the kinds of boundaries that the Prime Minister draws on in conceptualizing social life.

    Journalist: Sir, what power do the mayors have in supervising this [new regulation on house sharing/cohabitation]…

    PM Erdoğan: They’ll be given the necessary authority after the new regulation.

    Journalist: These are private houses right?

    PM Erdoğan: Yes.

    Journalist: People’s private houses?

    PM Erdoğan: Yes… How appropriate is it for a young man and woman to stay in one’s private home?

    Journalist: It depends on the person.

    PM Erdoğan: Would you be fine with/would you tolerate your daughter or son undertaking such an act… When you’re a Mum one day, or maybe you already are, I do not know… if you find something like this appropriate for your daughter or son, well then good for you! [hayırlı olsun]

    So the Prime Minister has assigned himself the sober task of ensuring that in these “houses”, citizens live “in accordance to” conservative (and one could argue, Islamic) values that the government holds dear. But cohabitation in Turkey is not a habitual practice. Nor is it widely accepted. And although the nature of the practice is in flux, only a small minority within Turkish society share housing. So, why all this debate, all of a sudden over the state of the living arrangements in Turkey? 

    Is cohabitation the cause of all social ills?

    Cohabitation was already a controversial issue. Cohabitation agreements do not exist in Turkey, meaning that there is no judicial or legal protection for couples living together outside of wedlock. However, the absence of cohabitation from the Family Law should not be taken as a mere tardiness in adapting to changing family dynamics in the country (and in the world), as it reflects instead both the government’s and public opposition to extra-marital relationships between men and women. Just last year, the Turkish Supreme Court ruled in a dispute over property between a cohabitating couple that cohabitation equals “prostitution”, and hence any properties shared by the couple are not legally valid, along with disputes over the dissolution of same properties. The court also emphasized that the couple was in an “immoral” relationship, as they had a child outside of wedlock. The court’s stigmatization of cohabitation is also widespread among the population. According to the 2006 Turkish Family Structure Survey, 70% of the respondents stated that they highly disapprove of couples living together outside of wedlock; a view enthusiastically shared especially by less-educated groups and the elderly. Cohabitation in Turkey is, in fact, extremely rare. Comparative OECD rates demonstrate that while on average 7% of the population in OECD countries live in cohabitation arrangements, the same rate is stated to be 0% for Turkey, or a negligible amount (Sweden, 20%, Germany, 6%, the UK, 2%, France, 11%). 

    Like cohabitation, living alone is also scarce in Turkey. As the Population and Housing Statistics collected by the Turkish Statistics Institute revealed in 2012, less than 10% of the population was living alone, and nearly half of this population was above the age of 65. The other half of the population living alone is constituted by individuals between the ages of 30 and 64, and apparently it is this group that has led to the increase in single occupancy households in the country since the last survey conducted in 2002. The increase in single occupancy rates started to worry the Prime Minister and his government earlier this year. One of the municipalities in Istanbul (the district of Pendik) reverted back some of the plans for 1-bedroom flats, finding them not suitable for families with children. Living alone is not in line with the conservative values of Turkish society, as men and women (might) engage in “inappropriate” behavior in those 1-bedroom flats. Although the municipality hastily sought to explain away their reasons for eliminating 1-bed flats from the plan on the grounds that neighbourhood relations might be damaged in housing complexes or that they wanted to provide housing for as many people as possible—hence a higher number of rooms—it was clear that the ground was being prepared to justify not only housing planning, but also arrangements about who lives with whom in those houses on behalf of Turkish citizens.

    The religious ordering of social life plays an important role in many of the AKP’s policies, as the Prime Minister makes clear. Yet it would be naïve to read the government’s attempts to “protect” its citizens in this manner only through the lens of Islam. What PM Erdoğan means by a “conservative democrat” attitude raises wider and more controiversial issues of concern in Turkey, such as the rising costs of pension and health care, high rates of unemployment, high rates of informal labour and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

    Reshaping institutions such as the family in line with “conservative democrat” values has direct consequences on who takes on the burden of “protection” against various risks, including but not limited to care for the elderly, child-care, support during long spells of unemployment or illness. To this end, it comes as no surprise that living alone is associated with old age and social isolation in Turkey, as it signals that the person has no family to turn to. In fact, according to a recent study by Buğra and Yakut-Çakar (2012), familial dependency is so engrained in this society that “women without men” face a great risk of poverty. The Prime Minister and his government’s stress on three children per woman, as well as their opposition to abortion or caesarean should be understood in this light. Cash-transfers to mothers of disabled children, or early retirement options should also be read accordingly.

    To put it briefly, it is assumed that an extended family will take the burden of care from the state’s shoulders. House-share, cohabitation and living alone strip the individual from such familial bonds, and increase the care-giving potential burden on the state. Hence, one could conclude that the “protection” that the Prime Minister is fretting over is never really about providing the individual with a safety net. It is much more likely to provide an insurance for the government against individuals who could become a liability for social security, thus threatening the legitimacy of the paternalist role of the state in our private lives.

    Conclusion

    In this brief essay, we examine the recent reframing of debates over house sharing and cohabitation and the way that certain questions are asked in Turkey while others are dismissed. Rather than ask why houses are shared, or what conditions shape such a decision, many people ask how could people of the opposite sex share the same living space to start with? How could they live together without forming a family? How would this be morally—and Islamically—acceptable?

    These questions underline how indispensable the classical “family as the building block of society” is, allow the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to locate deviations from the norm, and to reorient the changing habits of everyday life. The spectre of the paternalist state, or what the AKP makes of it, is forced into action with its extreme measures, leaving little space for public dialogue. And while our fingers are wagging at cohabitation and house sharing, and our minds are preoccupied with this imposition of a particular lifestyle, we tend to overlook a larger project of social restructuring that is under way. This essay attempts to bring this larger project back into the picture. 

    Palestine: the lost cause?

    By Maged Mandour

    At the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring”, hope for the realization of Palestinian aspirations was at an all-time high. The “apparent” successes of the Egyptian uprising offered hope for the long awaited Palestinian reconsolidation; the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, and a more active Egyptian foreign policy that might restrain Israeli aggression. Almost two and a half years after the removal of Mubarak, the situation for the Palestinian people has never been so bleak. The siege of Gaza continues and the Palestinian movement appears to be fractured beyond repair. The question that imposes itself, is how did the Palestinians reach this situation? To answer this, one needs to look at the wider dynamics of the region, as well as the realities of the Palestinian movement itself.

    The Palestinian cause and struggle has been the premier concern of Arabs since 1948, however this position is currently being challenged to the dismay of the Palestinians. The Arab uprisings in general, and the Syrian conflict in particular, have diverted the attention of the Arab street from the Palestinian struggle, effectively relegating it to the periphery. This diversion allows Israel to operate with a freer hand in the occupied territories, and to continue its plan of slowly colonizing whatever is left of the land of Palestine. This loss is not insignificant; the neutralization of Arab popular pressure is one of the major setbacks the Palestinians have suffered from over the past three years. This is compounded by a significant demonization of Hamas as it finds itself embroiled in a secularist/Islamist divide calculated to create deep cleavages throughout the region. And it is especially important in the case of Egypt, the traditional protector of the Palestinians, and the only Arab country that can theoretically curtail and influence Israeli policy and aggression.

    As argued elsewhere, Hamas has been the subject of a major smear campaign by the Egyptian military, based on fictitious links with the Muslim Brotherhood and supposed terror activities in the Sinai Peninsula. This demonization has been very successful and has allowed for the continuation of Mubarak regime policies; blockading the Gaza strip, a policy that was one of the major rallying points against the regime. In short, pressure from the Egyptian street is non-existent now, allowing the Egyptian military to play its role as a close ally to Israel in its fight against Hamas. This also means that any hopes for Palestinian reconciliation through Egyptian mediation has all but evaporated, as the current leadership has neither the interest nor ability to play the role of an honest broker between Fatah and Hamas. 

    On the other hand, the Syrian conflict has had a number of repercussions on the Palestinian dynamic. First, the Syrian civil war has replaced the Palestinian cause as the premier concern of the Arab world. Second, when Hamas distanced itself from Assad at the beginning of the uprising, a wise decision, it lost one of its main supporters, increasing its isolation and strengthening the so-called “moderates” of Fatah. Third, the Syrian civil war has caused a significant loss of a number of regional players who are considered to be radical and pro-Palestinian, namely Iran and Hezbollah. The loss of these soft powers stems from their direct support for the Assad regime, an involvement that has served to harden the Sunni-Shia fault lines, restricting their ability to influence events beyond their direct spheres. All this has weakened the position of the Palestinian movement.

    The situation within the Palestinian movement itself is not much better. The divide between Hamas and Fatah seems to be deeper than ever. The continuation of this split has not only drastically weakened the Palestinian movement; it has also allowed Israel to adopt delay tactics and to absorb as much land as it can in the meantime. This divide has also led to a continued siege of Gaza by both the Egyptians and Israelis, increasing the suffering of the Palestinians living in the Strip.

    As for the so-called moderates of Fatah, their actions have proved the detractors of the Oslo accords correct. Twenty years after Oslo, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been acting as an agent of Israeli colonialism, suppressing “radical” Palestinian movements and cooperating closely with the occupation forces in areas of security for the Israeli state rather than the security of the Palestinians under siege. The PA has effectively allowed the occupation to continue without the entailed costs or confrontations, unlike the first Intifada. This crony structure was solidified by their financial dependence on international aid - which can easily be blocked if they “disobey”- and the Israeli transfer of collected Palestinian taxes; the classical example of a rentier state. The PA is more accountable to Israel and the United States than to the Palestinians. There are no real obstacles to the colonialist project in the land of Palestine.

    Now the question is, how can the Palestinian movement overcome this rather bleak situation? To move from this point there is a paramount need for drastic societal change within Palestine. The role of the current elites in the PA needs to be changed, the Palestinian movement needs to rejuvenate itself by producing new leaders who are better able to represent the aspirations of the Palestinian people politically and intellectually; like Mahmoud Darwish and Nagi El Ali. This struggle should not only be directed towards the occupation, but also against the current Palestinian elites who benefit from this current stalemate.

    Leaders who are organically tied to the aspirations of the people could create a common Palestinian polity linking those living in the occupied territories with those in refugee camps and most importantly the Palestinians living in Israel, which may be the key for a sustainable solution to the conflict.

    Finally, the fallacy of a two state solution has to be discarded. It has been made almost impossible due to the increased settlement activity by Israelis. It is also a solution that has allowed the current corrupt PA elites to remain in power with promises of a state that will never materialize, and most importantly a solution that ignores the rights of a sizeable portion of the population that has been living in refugee camps since 1948.

    A one state solution should become the declared aim of the Palestinian struggle, where both Palestinians and Jews can live together under one flag. The Iron Wall of Jabotinsky has to be torn down, and it can only be torn down through long term civil and ideological struggles against this heritage of Zionism, with the Palestinians living inside the green line playing a crucial part. The Jewishness of the state of Israel needs to be replaced by another ideological construct, the construct of a state for all.                     

    France’s unfinished business in Mali

    By Hassan Masiky

    The tragic kidnapping and death of two French journalists in the northern Malian city of Kidal has exposed shortcomings in France’s security and political policies in Mali. French and African troops' inability to secure the vast swamp of land in northern Mali will continue to hamper international efforts to combat terrorism and banditry in the Sahel and Sahara region. Unless Touareg legitimate demands for more local autonomy are met, and an economic plan to uplift the impoverished region is fulfilled, the Azawad (Touareg ancestral land) will remain a lawless country. The senseless killings of Ghislaine Dupont, a senior correspondent for Radio France International (RFI), and Claude Verlon, a sound technician point to the limitations of France’s militarized solution to the crisis in Mali.

    While the perpetrators of this heinous crime remain unknown, the Touareg feel responsible for the deaths. The two RFI journalists were abducted after finishing an interview with a Tuareg rebel leader. This attack aims to test French resolve in Mali, and to discredit the struggle of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) which makes  Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its partners Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) seem the ‘natural’ culprits.

    The 2012 French-led military operation in Mali, dubbed Serval, was only successful in ousting Islamic extremists from northern Mali. One root cause behind the political and security upheavals in Mali was and remains the Touareg quest for self-rule. A few months after the end of hostilities, Kidal, the MNLA stronghold, remains divided along ethnic lines with no working police force. In a sign of France’s reluctance to push the central government and the MNLA to sit down and work out security arrangements for patrolling hot spots in the north, Touareg rebels and UN Peacekeepers lack a memorandum of understanding detailing the role of each force.

    The fact of the matter is that the Malian Army is incapable of pacifying the north without French military help.  France, albeit happy to keep forces in the region, must find a reasonable political solution to this crisis. AQMI and its allies view the slow moving diplomatic efforts to implement the Ouagadougou accords signed by the Touareg rebels and Bamako as a sign of political vulnerability. It is only a matter of time before terror groups take advantage of the central government's inability to extend and safeguard sovereignty over its northern territory.

    At the heart of the issue is the Touareg rebellion. Ansar Dine and MUJAO seized northern Mali only after the MNLA defeated the Malian Army and declared an independent Azawad. Thus, the solution to the crisis in the Sahel lies with the Touareg people. Without a political solution that would ensure the rights of all minorities in Mali as well as serious efforts by the Malian army to integrate Arabs and Touareg in its ranks, stability in the region will remain elusive. If French forces succeeded in chasing the myriad of Islamist groups into the desert of the Sahel, French diplomacy has failed to bring Bamako and MNAL to the negotiation table, leaving northerners’ pleas for local rules unanswered.

    The MNLA attempt to secede from Mali was a call for help. Touareg rebels recognize the difficulty of gaining a total independence, and yet they advocate for it in the hope of highlighting the corruption and nepotism that have been dogging the Malian government. In fact, both past Presidents Toure and Kanare never had control over the Touareg and Arab nomads in the north, and enjoyed little support among the “southerners" who complained for years about corruption and mismanagement. Both administrations and the Malian armed forces were beset by favoritism and mishandling of foreign aid.

    An examination of events leading to the 2012 collapse of the Malian state reveals a list of tumultuous international and domestic incidents that formed the “perfect storm.” The demise of Libya’s dictator Gaddafi hastened the return and the formation of well-armed Touareg rebels. Malian disdain for President Amadou Toumani Toure and the discontent within the army led to a coup d’état and the North’s succession. These same problems remain unaddressed despite France’s assurance to the contrary. Terrorism, extremism, and independence were, and remain, marginal nuisances nibbling on the Malian political and security scenes.

    AQIM has exploited the regional powers conflicting interests to boost its presence in the Sahel and the Algerian Sahara. The self-centred agendas of nations like Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and France have all played a role in the subsequent quagmire in northern Mali and helped extremism to flourish. AQIM’s Algerian leadership is “well versed” in the ethnic and national sensitivities of major players in the region and a master of manipulating them to advance extremist causes.

    As a result of France's political decision not to “arm-twist ” Bamako into talks with the MNLA, a large swathe of Mali is currently ungovernable making a return of Touareg extremist groups like groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO very likely. 

    Reports of Mali’s military” extrajudicial killings of soldiers who took part in a recent mutiny and Amnesty International’s accounts describing “civilian deaths, torture, and disappearances including while in detention", since the launch of the French army’s intervention in the country, have driven some Touaregs to redouble their demands for independence.

    Footage of Arab-Malian refugees living in appalling conditions on the Mauritanian borders and the proliferation of Arab militia bent on independence add to the explosive mix in the north. AQIM and its allies have been heavily recruiting among this group of displaced Malians as reports of revenge killing targeting Arabs continue to emerge.

    Paris that invested blood and treasure in Mali must “sway” the Malian authorities to sit and talk with the MNLA leadership. France should encourage Bamako to draw a plan for Azawad local rule. Since neither the Malian army nor the MNLA can secure the north on their own, a united military force is the only viable solution to stop extremists from coming back to the region while maintaining the unity of Mali.

    Observations on the identity amendments to the Egyptian constitution

    By Nader Bakkar

    The articles touching on identity in Egypt’s constitution are among the concerns that have gone ‘viral’ among the Egyptian people, especially now that the Constitutional Assembly has almost completed its task.  

    My opinion in this regard has not changed. I still insist that these identity clauses are like a mirror that must reflect the current state of society, where it is just not possible to impose upon people or fake an identity in any culturally mature society.

    The Al Nour Party is an integral part of the Constitutional Assembly, and stands for preserving a clear reference to Islamic Shari`a in the constitution, in the same way that this was spelt out in the original text of the constitution that was passed by 64% in a transparent and fair referendum. This stand is based on two factors: the first is the Islamist identity of the party which it is claimed is that of the sweeping majority of Egyptians; the second is to preserve the democratic gains of the Egyptians through the two long years after the revolution.

    As for the Islamic reference itself - we believe that this is not the exclusive preserve of any particular political faction and we have never tried to appropriate  it for ourselves. One proof of this, besides the results of the previous referendum on the constitution that included Article 219 (now a matter of bitter dispute), is that Al Azhar (the official, recognized authority on Islamic reference in Egypt) and the military institution were part of the previous constitutional assembly till the very end of its era. They even participated in the ceremony of handing over the constitution to the president so that he might call for a national referendum.  

    Moreover, there was a signed agreement between the Al Nour Party, Al Azhar and the Coptic Church with the rest of the political factions as witnesses. This agreement also included Article 219, that explains the principles of Islamic Shari`a as well as the third article that introduced, for the first time in Egyptian constitutional history, the right of Christians and Jews to go on trial according to their own religious laws. I wish to bear witness to this undertaking as an elected member of the previous constitutional assembly.  

    When the Al Nour Party took part in the road map of July 3, it asserted to the others (General Al Sisi, Dr. Al Baradei representing the secular current, Sheikh of Al Azhar and the Pope) that the Islamic identity should remain a settled matter away from the adjustments of ousting an elected president against whom people had revolted, due to the political failures of his government. The Al Nour party also maintained and maintains that it does not seek political gain so much as a way out of the political turmoil that allows Egyptians to resume their democratic path and correct the catastrophic mistakes of the Muslim Brotherhood (mistakes only consolidated when the latter party refused all the positions offered it in the interim government). Back then in July, all those in attendance agreed to that.

    Right now, we must seek to overcome this tough historic moment without burdening Egyptians with a battle of no winners at all. Surprisingly, the Islamist-liberal political conflict has little social base of any significance compared to the way it exists among political elites. With regard to political definitions, the Egyptian people are still classified as conservative and pious. Signs of religiosity still dominate all social levels, and many of the pious and conservative families also took to the streets in June 30 against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.  

    This refutes two prominent readings of our current situation; the first is the Muslim Brotherhood’s claim that June 30 was against Islam itself; and the second is the secular elite’s claim that the constitution that was passed does not represent the identity of the majority of the people, and that it must be rejected on the grounds that it would lead to fascism.  

    As for the Muslim Brotherhood, they have chosen to support a wrecking manouevre flat-out in the situation post June 30. They have sought to deflect and exhaust the energy of the interim government by continuous demonstrations and sit-ins in varied locations as a tactic aimed at scotching Egyptians’ hopes of any stability after Morsi. Al Jazeera supports them by doing everything it can to engender that hopelessness in both Egyptian and foreign audiences. On an international level, the Muslim Brotherhood is disrupting all diplomatic efforts to market the transition period, seeking instead to make this seem like a military coup.    

    The secular elite have failed over a hundred days to prove its ability to satisfy people’s aspirations. It has fallen into the Muslim Brotherhood trap so naively, while failing to offer real solutions for the economic crises for which it took Morsi’s regime to task. It has also proved unable to hide its tendency to exclude and its own lack of tolerance for everything except one ideological stance and one opinion.

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