Last year, I was closely following doctors’ strikes in Tunisia and Egypt. I wrote the major part of the piece below back in October-November 2012. For various reasons, the piece wasn’t published at that time. I am publishing it here now because the situation hasn’t changed since then: Tunisian doctors continue to stage strikes and the Egyptian healthcare system didn’t improve under now deposed president Morsi’s rule. It is about time something was done to change the status quo.
In a considerable part of the MENA countries, a small proportion of national budgets are allocated to health [see infographic below]. Such chronic underspend naturally translates into the poor status of the country’s healthcare infrastructure. Practitioners have regularly addressed funding deficiency and pandemic mismanagement in the last years, but no adequate response has been given. As is often the case in such stalemates, protesters go on strike to draw attention.
Image by the author.
Egyptian medical practitioners began their strike on October 1, 2012. The two previous ones – in May and September 2011, respectively – elcited no success. And yet, doctors’ demands are of the usual kind: improved work conditions and patient care and better wages. “The average basic monthly salary for a young Egyptian doctor working in the public health sector ranges between 300 and 400 LE (~49-65 USD), and probably less than half for nurses”, says Mostafa Hussein Omar, an independent psychiatrist working with NGOs. Physicians thus regularly refer patients to their private practice, though many are unable to pay for the treatment.
Remaining in hospital for care can also be financially challenging: pharmacies regularly run out of medicines which compromises treatment or pushes doctors to deny treatment outright. Patients need to buy some of the consumables on their own and bring bed sheets from home. It is far from uncommon that when people are misdiagnosed, they suffer extreme pain due to nonexistent palliative care. Unnecessary deaths do occur.
Being treated in such reduced conditions can take a dramatic turn: in Cairo alone, there have been hundreds of assaults on hospitals and medical workers by patients’ families in despair. The media have portrayed this surge of violence in a reductionist way depicting people resorting to such behaviour as ‘thugs’. The situation is, however, far more complex: “there is no specific legislation regulating the relationship between doctors and patients, or defining where the responsibility lies when something goes wrong”, says Amani Massoud, the Human Rights Education and Campaigns Director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Violently taking the law into one’s own hands is thus the ultimate resort of patients’ families. “The only document regulating the health sector in that regard is the ‘Code of Ethics’ of the Medical Syndicate, which is non-legally binding, far from comprehensive and has its many shortcomings”, she adds. “In brief, since patients are not protected by a specific law against malpractice or even denial of treatment which is desperately needed, some patients would use the penal law to sue doctors (nowhere near as often as they do in some western countries, of course), and doctors are also not protected by the law”.
Neither causing anarchy in hospitals nor protests nor mass resignation campaigns have drawn the government’s attention. In an escalation of the mobilization, Egyptian doctors staged a mock funeral of the country’s healthcare system on November 8. It is unclear how the current deadlock will unfold, as the government consistently turns a blind eye to the doctors’ demands. As Amani Massoud concludes, “the question now is how far the doctors are willing to take this knowing that, unlike a factory, they can’t go step up the action because of the stakeholders involved”.
In a follow-up of previous protests, Tunisian medical practitioners are also on a 7-day strike as of 13 November 2012. The main reason behind this is a judicial imbroglio that states that physicians have to fulfill their military service as “civil service”. Medical practitioners must spend one year in a rural area, receiving a salary of 700 TND (~440 USD) per month regardless of their specific domain of expertise. The current Ministry of Health (MoH) bases this controversial regulation on a law voted in under former president Ben Ali to provide decent medical cover for so-called ‘medical deserts’.
The Tunis Doctors Syndicate (Syndicat des internes et résidents en médecine de Tunis, Sirt), one of the main organizers of the strike, tells a different side of the story. The “civil service” law is denounced as discriminatory since it targets a group of citizens solely based on their profession. Moreover, the “civil service” does not provide the same exemptions as the military: thus, every physician has to fulfil his or her duty regardless of sex and family status.
“This law is an attempt to dazzle the people”, says Skander Mzah, an intern in pediatrics in Tunis. “The Ministry presents the civil service as a means to bring high-quality healthcare to rural zones. But this is just pointless: the infrastructures in these areas are totally deficient. Yes, a highly qualified obstetrician will assist a woman giving birth, but if there is a complication, she has to be transferred to Tunis as there is no adequate place for treatment in the medical deserts”, he explains, echoing broadly shared concerns.
Another, more complex issue often raised is the rigidity of this law. “After graduating as a physician, your license to practice is temporarily suspended: you are thus prohibited from starting to work in a public hospital or founding your own private practice”, continues Skander Mzah. “You have to comply with the civil service, which pays less than the equivalent position in the public sector. Such a procedure is equivalent to forced labour. But Tunisia has ratified the Convention for the Abolition of Forced Labour…”, he concludes.
A year later, the situation hasn’t improved. A significant proportion of Tunisia’s main cities' medical practitioners are on strike but the MoH stubbornly refuses to give way. It has even engaged in punitive measures through collecting the identities of the striking doctors and threatening to withhold the respective part of their salaries and trying 174 physicians in front of military courts for having refused to comply with “civil service” law.
This piece was originally published on Rayna's blog "Into Oblivion" on 17 November, 2013.
By Ali Gokpinar
Last Saturday was another “historic” day in Diyarbakir, the de-facto capital for Turkey's Kurds. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani and Kurdish musician Şivan Perwer, who fled Turkey because of state repression, addressed the crowd in an attempt to revive Turkey's stalled negotiation process with the Kurds.
Erdoğan used the term “Kurdistan” for the first time and stated, “We will witness a new Turkey in which those in the mountains will come down and the prisons will be empty.” Is this “historic” day yet another of Erdoğan's grandiose projects? What does last Saturday tell us about the current puzzling state of Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy?
Let's be crystal clear. Erdoğan visited Diyarbakır and invited two important Kurdish figures for important symbolic and political reasons that reveal the strategic links between Turkey's negotiation process and regional and energy politics. Erdoğan's Diyarbakır visit can be interpreted as a confidence-building measure designed to overcome the obstacles that stalled the peace process.
It is obvious that the negotiating parties still cannot trust each other despite months of negotiations, particularly because the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has not fulfilled its promises and implemented concrete action. The "yes, but not enough" democratization package failed to abolish the ban on Kurdish-language education in public schools and overlooked the devolution of power to local institutions, which were two of the most important Kurdish demands.
Since then, especially due to the state repression occurring after the Gezi Park protests, many Kurds lost faith in Erdoğan, arguing that his democratization packages aimed at securing him extra time and were in fact a ploy ahead of the 2014 elections. There are many reasons why the AKP cannot deliver a satisfactory democratization package, and Erdoğan's Diyarbakır visit is important because it illustrates these failures.
Erdoğan is reaching out to Kurdish people directly, bypassing the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which reluctantly welcomed him to Diyarbakır. Although Erdoğan was well-received by the people, progress in the negotiation process will very much depend on the inclusion of the BDP and the release of imprisoned members of the Kurdistan Communities' Union (KCK). Erdoğan implied that the prisons will be emptied, but this is particularly problematic, as it implies political influence has been exerted on the part of the judiciary. The Kurds are cautious because Erdoğan wants to negotiate from a position of power and thereby exclude some key political actors.
Erdoğan's historic Diyarbakır visit also reveals Turkey's geopolitical calculations, including a potential third-party role for Barzani. The Turkey-KRG partnership is based on energy politics, as Turkey is encouraging Turkish companies to invest in the region (Turkey refrains from making official state partnerships, given its already bad relations with the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq). Genel Energy, an Anglo-Turkish oil company, had already started to export crude oil from Iraqi Kurdistan in January 2013, and with the recent pipeline agreements, Turkey has to maintain security and order in southeastern Turkey, which means it also has to resolve the Kurdish question and improve its relations with Iraq's Maliki government. The KRG-Turkey energy deal is particularly important to Turkey, whose energy needs are likely to double in the near future, and the KRG offers comparatively cheap oil and gas.
This is where Turkey's interests clash with those of Iran and Russia, since, if the pipeline and energy framework work effectively, Turkey is less likely to depend on those countries, meaning that the regional power balance might shift. It is also no secret that Kurdistan, in particular the KRG, has become another area of competition for Turkey and Iran, which is likely to become a game changer in Middle East politics. Resolving the Kurdish question peacefully will remove a strategic vulnerability and decrease Turkey's energy dependency on Russia and Iran. The puzzle is now whether Maliki will respond positively to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's visit and become a party to the energy deal between Turkey and the KRG. This might be more elusive than Turkey expects.
Turkey's miscalculated and overconfident policies caused yet another dilemma for Turkish decision-makers when the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) emerged as a key political player in Rojava, controlling the northern Syrian territories independently of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Although Barzani and Erdoğan are reluctant to accept the PYD's achievements in Syria, and accuse it of collaborating with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the PYD has already built independent structures of governance in Rojava.
Despite international pressure, Syrian Kurds' desire for independence or a semi-autonomous region is clear, and regardless of the length of the Syrian civil war, the PYD is highly likely to emerge triumphant. If history is any guide, the KRG example in Iraq shows that the rebel structures established during the civil conflict with Saddam Hussein were a precursor to statehood for Iraqi Kurds. Despite the regional strains, opportunities such as Assad's decision to pull his forces out of Rojava and the concerns of neighboring countries, including Iraq, about radical groups the PYD is fighting, might enable the Kurds to advance their statehood bid and further develop their structures of government. Indeed, Turkey's hostile position towards the PYD and its decision to construct a border wall in the Nusaybin district of Mardin province, separating the Kurds of Turkey and Syria, might be costly in the long run, both in domestic politics and foreign policy.
This is where Barzani might play a third-party role of mediation between Kurds and the AKP.
News leaks reveal that the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and the BDP want a third party to guide the negotiation process and force the AKP to take concrete political steps before Turkey enters the election season. Despite the Kurds' demand for Spanish or British mediation, the AKP is more content with Barzani's mediation, which complicates the negotiation process. Intra-Kurd rivalry might seem more beneficial to Turkey now, but its sustainability remains unknown, and ordinary Kurds are smart enough to notice how the game is being played. If the BDP and particularly Öcalan do not accept Barzani's mediation at this stage, what will the AKP government do? Will the government find itself another mediator, or blame the Kurds for the failure?
Erdoğan's Diyarbakır visit might build confidence between the AKP and its interlocutors if its spoken policies translate into concrete action. But a major question remains: Can the Turkish government successfully manage the emerging conflict within the AKP, revive its foreign policy and negotiate a new relationship with political actors who severely criticize the government for its repressive and illiberal measures? Can the AKP remain the single ruling party?
This article was first published on Today’s Zaman on 18 November 2013.
By Yosra Akasha
In July 2011 the Sudanese government with the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM) signed the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD), an attempt to create the appearance of achieved peace and security in the region. The government directed all its media channels towards celebrating this “achieved peace” in Darfur whilst ignoring the fact that the most powerful rebel groups had not signed up to the document. The world however, has turned its back on the continued massacres.
Although the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for the Sudanese president, Omar El Bashir, as well as a number of government officials for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity since 2003; they are yet to be prosecuted. In 2010 the Sudanese minister of justice assigned four special prosecutors to investigating these crimes; all of them resigned without explanation and having not made any progress in the investigations.
In January 2012 the Darfur conflict entered a new era with armed clashes between the Arab tribes themselves over ownership of land and resources in the north and south of Darfur. Although the government had supported the same Arab tribes in clashes with the non-Arab population, the magic faded quickly into undesired and uncontrollable conflicts. One of the residents testified, “It’s very hard now to stop the ongoing clashes, the tribes are armed, and whenever looting or killing happens they identify the perpetrator as an affiliate to a certain tribe rather than a criminal. The revenge goes beyond harming the perpetrator and extends to the families and tribe as a whole”.
Intertribal conflicts have always been part of life in Darfur; but the governments’ involvement is leading to endless devastating clashes. According to an activist, who prefers to stay anonymous, in August 2013 over 110 persons were killed in clashes between Rezeigat and Maalia tribes, hundreds of Maalia were displaced, their houses were looted and burnt while Abdel Hameed Kasha, the State Governor of Central Darfur supported Rezeigat in their war against Maalia, although he was publically accusing them of supporting rebel groups.
On July 31, 2012 and during the June/July 2012 protests in Sudan, 13 peaceful protestors were shot dead and over a hundred were injured by police and National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) officers in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. The majority were minors and secondary school students. The Darfur Regional Authority (DRA), the principle instrument for the implementation of the DDPD, condemned the violent incidents but only blamed the federal government for their shortcomings in providing fuel and electricity. Two weeks later, on August 13 2012, the DRA premises were attacked by gunmen who kidnapped DRA officers and the state minister of youth affairs.
In December 2012, four students of Algazira University were found dead in a stream after having participated in a peaceful protest demanding the enforcement of the exemption of Darfuri students from public university tuition fees, as stipulated in the DDPD in 2011. Three out of the four students killed were originally from Darfur and Alsadig, one of them had waited five years until his family as well as residents of the Kalma camp were able to raise enough funds for his ticket to Khartoum and for his tuition at Algazira University. The DRA managed to send condolences to the familie: however, they failed to make any mention of the DDPD let alone provide any explanation as to why their children had been assassinated.
From 3 till 5 July 2013, the streets of Nyala witnessed violent clashes between Janjaweed, the pro-government militias, and the National Intelligence and Security Services NISS. This came after “Dakroon” - a nickname for one of the Rezeigat/Janjaweed leaders - and Abutira, a commander with border patrols, were shot dead by the NISS in the suburbs of Nyala. The violent clashes continued for three days, tens of people were killed, including two aid workers, while the exact numbers of those killed and injured from the NISS and Janjaweed remains unknown.
In Nyala market on 8 July 2013 Ahmed Salih Zakaria, a man from the Salamat tribe, shot Ali Koshaib, a Janjaweed leader and commander wanted by the ICC for committing crimes against humanity and war crimes. Koshaib, protected by a bulletproof vest, only suffered an injury to his arm, but his two bodyguards were killed. Zakaria was arrested immediately but died in custody two weeks later, and pro-government newspapers claimed that he had died from a bullet injury he sustained as he was trying to kill Koshaib. Furthermore, according to HRW, Ali Koshaib was involved in the ethnic attacks against the Salamat tribe in Central Darfur, in April 2013.
On 18 September 2013, Ismael Wadi, a businessman of Zaghawa descent was shot dead in Nyala. After his funeral, mass protests erupted in the city demanding justice and condemning the state of insecurity. Again the police shot live ammunition at peaceful protestors leaving 15 dead and over 70 people severely injured. The DRA, as usual, condemned the murder of Ismael Wadi and the consequent violence, however neglecting to mention the killing of the protestors. A resident of Nyala testified to the fact that a curfew has been imposed from 7 pm onwards since these incidents took place, and that at the beginning of November this curfew was pushed to 8pm and anyone who attempted to break it was risking his or her life. If the person was lucky they would be forced to spend the night in a public park, prosecuted in the morning and punished by paying a fine or facing imprisonment. Although South Darfur appears to be the most troubled; according to Radio Dabanga on 6 November 2013, the government is insisting on evacuating the refugee camps around Nyala and forcing local International Development Professionals (IDPs) to return to their villages.
The Darfur conflict is now completing its first decade; over 300,000 civilians have been killed and over 3 million people have been displaced, of which over 450,000 fled this year alone. There are hundreds of thousands of children who’ve never had a place they could call home, apart from the displacement camps. The National Congress Party’s (NCP) peace agreements, like the DDPD, will never achieve peace as long as their signatories exclude the real actors in the conflict. Peace in Sudan will never be achieved unless all the criminals are held accountable and justice is achieved for the martyrs, the displaced and for war survivors.
The recent visit of the Russian foreign and defence ministers to Cairo has been hailed by some pundits as historic. In many respects it was reminiscent of the early years of the Cold War when the Soviet Union was the main backer of Egypt’s military regime. Some argue that this visit, and the anticipated arms deal, signal a strategic shift in Egypt’s foreign policy; a staunch American ally for over thirty years. Local media has subtly been emphasizing this point for the purposes of domestic consumption. This view, however, ignores a number of strategic and structural issues that will make any shift in Egypt’s foreign policy untenable, as the country’s dependence on the US goes beyond the supply of arms.
As argued elsewhere the Egyptian state can be considered an example of a rentier state, dependent on strategic rents for survival. The ruling elites - the military and state-dependent bourgeois - rely on the appropriation of public funds and external aid to accumulate capital. For example, the military with its vast business empire - some experts estimate it to be as much as 40% of the GDP - is exempted from taxation and civilian oversight, and the state-dependent bourgeois receive generous support from the government in the form of cheap credit and land. Indeed, in Egypt it can at times be very difficult to distinguish between the public and private sectors. External financial support, loans or aid, are a core source of revenue to the current regime, which leaves the country in an extremely vulnerable position. In that respect, Russia is no match for the US; American hegemony in the international financial system places it in a unique position, not only in terms of aids and loans that it administers directly, but also in its ability to control loans and aid from international financial institutions. Russia is in no position to offer the generous financial support that the Egyptian regime has grown accustomed to; Russia is not the Soviet Union.
One could also argue that the current military regime is reliant on the United States to provide political international cover for its repressive policies. During the Mubarak regime, the US and its allies turned a blind eye to the numerous abuses committed by the regime, effectively whitewashing it on the international stage. At the onset of the Egyptian uprising, Joe Biden went as far as to claim that Mubarak was not a dictator - a statement since retracted. This can also be seen in the relatively muted response to the massacres that took place in Cairo against Muslim Brotherhood supporters, where hundreds were killed in a span of a few days; an event that could have caused international uproar if it had taken place in a country the United States and the west did not consider an ally. One only needs to remember the position the US and the international community assumed before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Once again, the US has unique capabilities in this arena; the Russians cannot match its dominance in controlling the media and soft powers. American political cover to Egypt is as important, if not more so, than its economic or military support.
Looking at the international system, despite waning American powers, one can safely argue that the current international order is a unipolar system. In other words, international organizations are heavily influenced and shaped by American powers and interests. Friends like the US are necessary for a regime like Egypt that appears to be preparing for a massive repressive campaign. The US can use its powers to direct attention away from the repression of the Egyptian state and alleviate any possible pressure that might condemn such repression. One only needs to remember the role the US has played in manipulating and blocking the Goldstone report; and pressuring allies and international organizations not to take any action when the report came out.
Why then did Egyptians pursue what seems to be a relatively poorly planned and futile exercise? For two reasons. First, although John Kerry, on his latest visit to Cairo, stated that the partial suspension of aid is a temporary measure and that Egypt is a strategic ally to the United States, this angered Egyptian leadership and they responded by ‘playing’ the Russian card. In the upcoming presidential elections, the current head of the military, Gen. Abdel Fattah El Sisi, it is widely speculated, will run as a candidate. If he runs and wins, it will place the US in the awkward position of having supported an outright military coup; the sham of Egyptian democracy would lose its last fig leaf. So this suspension of military aid might be an attempt to rein the Egyptian military closer in to the Algerian or Turkish models of indirect rather than direct rule. However, maybe the military craves more and is using the Russians to send a message.
The second reason is the military establishment's penchant for eliciting the spirit of Nasser as a protector of the homeland. Egyptians have a deep distrust of the US and the close relationship with the Mubarak regime was detested by a large number of people. Thus, the current regime is trying to exploit anti-American sentiment to re-cast itself as a bulwark against American imperialism. It is also trying to create analogies between El Sisi and Nasser, considered a champion of anti-imperialism and an ally of the Soviet Union, and still adored by a large segment of the population. This message is being played out in local media, and not very subtly at times. The visit by Russian officials is painted as historic and unprecedented, almost opening a new era of Egyptian foreign policy and ending dependence on the United States. It is also important to note that all American gestures of disapproval are being portrayed as support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. This fuelling of anti-American sentiment, at times on the verge of hysteria, has given authorities the opportunity to exploit these feelings and brand the military as the protector of the nation.
The relationship between the US and Egypt might see ebbs and flows, however their alliance will remain strong and solid. The latest rapprochement between Cairo and Moscow can be categorized as tactical rather than strategic; designed to pressure an old ally and enhance the legitimacy of the current regime.
As 2013 draws to a close it is worth reflecting on what has been a topsy-turvy year for the Qataris. A new Emir has slowly but surely ushered the country into a new era, but it has been a very unspectacular change. Qatar has turned inward; massive road and infrastructure projects dominate daily conversations here, when once it was the hyperactivity of the country’s foreign policy. Qatar is a nation in change; taking stock of lessons learned and pushing forward to a future in which it prepares for challenges at home, while quietly seeking new horizons for expanding its interests abroad.
Qatar has struggled to grapple with a region once again in flux following the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. The policies which it had orchestrated at a time of great uncertainty and regional change ultimately failed to come to fruition. The brashness with which the Qataris inserted themselves into the region’s most difficult problems has gone. Doha is now a quiet pensive place to be, introspection and caution have taken the place of boldness and risk taking.
Since Qatar is so quiet it might help to explain where the country stands on both the Syria and Egypt issues, as these have defined their foreign policy in recent times. Syria has become a headache for Qatar: Doha never expected that as 2014 approached Bashar al Assad would be sitting safely in Damascus, and that Jihadist groups would be roaming around large areas of north and eastern Syria. Like everybody else, the Qataris know now that there is no quick fix to a war that may ultimately drag on for years. The Qataris know that the Syrian opposition is hugely divided, and that them taking a unified position long enough to negotiate with Bashar al Assad and succeed is fanciful. Despite nearly two years of work to coordinate opposition politicians with armed groups on the ground there is little qualitative improvement in the political-military connection. It is a sorry mess.
The Qataris understand one thing: the opposition fighters must not be overwhelmed, either by the regime or by the growing forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). Supporting brigades on the ground is not an optional, but necessary tool of policy to prevent Syria from falling into the hands of far worse foes. So the policy continues, Qatar will continue to dig deeper into the Syria conflict because, like every other external actor in Syria, it has gone too far to turn back. Ultimately we haven’t seen much of a change in substance, merely in style.
As for Egypt, there is little hope for Qatar’s interests to be met in a country in which so many people have turned against the Muslim Brotherhood; Qatar’s main ally. It is better to lay low for a while until the Egyptian state finds its feet under new management. It is the symbols of Qatar, such as Al Jazeera, more than Qatar itself which has become the enemy, and in time Qatar will find itself a welcome guest at the Egyptian Junta’s table.
Even Qatar’s close ally Hamas seems to be looking for new pastures; Khaled Meshaal, a long honoured guest of Doha, is rumoured to be courting the Iranians and Hezbollah with an eye to realigning the resistance groups' political axis. How Doha fares in this recalculation is unknown.
In light of Qatar’s creaky Middle East policy, the nation has set its sights on Africa, investing heavily in Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, and seeking to use its influence and connections to facilitate political agreements and try to bring together disparate tribes and political parties. In sub-Saharan Africa, Qatari companies are exploring for food, minerals and hydrocarbon resources, buying up land and looking towards long term investment. Countries from Uganda to Mozambique have all begun to welcome increased Qatari activity within their borders. The new frontier for the tiny Emirate is not the broken and divided Middle East, but the African continent, and greater diplomatic effort and activity will be directed there than ever before. There is no Saudi Arabia to worry about, no sunni-shia problem to be concerned with, the Qataris appear in Africa with a clean slate and no emotional baggage attached.
Putting foreign policy aside for a minute, it is worth mentioning that the most serious crisis Qatar has faced this year is actually a domestic issue. Since the publishing of a report by the Guardian newspaper into the treatment of foreign labourers, the country has come under intense scrutiny for its labour and employment laws and enforcement of standards. Follow up investigations by the Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI) in October, and Amnesty International in November have uncovered appalling conditions in a number of workers camps, and highlighted issues such as non-payment of workers, withholding of passports and denial of basic legal representation.
Given all that Qatar seeks to achieve in coming years by being the first Asian and Muslim nation to host the world’s biggest sporting event, this isn’t just another policy problem. It is the defining of a legacy, and constitutes the core identity of the country itself going forward for decades. It is not a foreign policy decision that can back fire causing embarrassment, but a commentary on the very fabric of the country and the kind of society it wishes to be. So whilst we may talk about Qatar’s foreign policy, its hydrocarbon wealth and mega purchases of global brands, this is just an external face. Qatar will be judged on what it does inside its borders for the next nine years in a way that is viscerally uncomfortable for a society so unused to openly discussing political and social problems.
The young Emir presides over a bustling city that grows with each passing day, it must be fed, housed and paid for. Growing pains are everywhere, and the spotlight shines fiercely on Doha and the way of life here as never before. While the Qataris might wish for a quieter period following the leadership transition, their wishes will not be honoured. For once in the spotlight it is hard to shy away from it, Qatar must understand that the world is now interested in its future, whether it wants it to be or not.
Almost two months after the eruption of Egypt's January 25, 2011 revolution, an Egyptian cardiac surgeon decided to follow in the footsteps of the Daily Show’s host Jon Stewart by criticizing, sarcastically, the hypocrisy of the nations’ mainstream media outlets in their coverage of Egypt's tectonic events. Inspired by his blood type, Bassem Youssef's “B+ Show” - broadcast first on a YouTube channel before changing its name to Al Bernameg (literally, "The Program") initially presented on ONTV then the CBC television channel - gained popularity exponentially among the different segments of Egyptian society. Two years on and despite Youssef's unprecedented success, his show was recently suspended after the airing of the first episode of its new season, as he "dared" to criticize the military-backed government and Egypt's "national saviour", General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, commander of the armed forces.
On November 1, as many were waiting to watch Al Bernameg on CBC, a TV anchor came on air and started to read a statement issued by the television channel's management, announcing the suspension of Bassem Youssef's show under the pretext that the previous week's episode had “violated an agreement” as well as CBC's “editorial policies”.
Ironically enough, despite the fact that Youssef had been far more cynical and critical of the regime during President Mohamed Morsi's rule - who was deposed on July 3 by the army's generals, and he himself was even briefly arrested earlier this year for insulting Egypt's first democratically elected president - he is having to pay the price this time for haviung the insouciancy ( some might say courage) to tease the military-led government.
In his first show back after a three-month hiatus, Youssef directed his mockery and criticism at almost everyone: the Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, the media, and the military-backed government. Though he didn't mock General Abdel Fattah El Sisi directly - he took on the cult of personalities surrounding the military chief - but, with the ever-growing wave of popular support for General El Sisi, Youssef's attitude was received by many as “unacceptable” or “an act of rudeness” to be precise.
Former Egyptian MP, Mustafa Bakry, hailed CBC's decision of suspending Youssef's show, claiming that it was "a reaction to the banality and deliberate insult of society's values and figures; notably the military and General Abdel Fattah El Sisi."
Similarly, the renowned Egyptian actress Ghada Abdel-Razek excoriated Youssef on Twitter by addressing him as a "loser" and accusing him of being jealous of El Sisi's soaring popularity seeing that he managed to "pull the rug from under (Youssef's) feet." Abdel-Razek commented on CBC's controversial decision by saying "God forbid, I'm not gloating."
On the other hand, some other liberal and political figures expressed their anger and frustration, arguing that this entails a severe curtailment of media freedom in Egypt. Taken in this light, Ahmed Maher, the founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, condemned the-then private television channel's decision by describing the atmosphere nowadays as "worse than it was during Mubarak's rule." "They can't tolerate criticism. This is media freedom under the new military regime. The military spokesman must have talked to the channel's CEO," Maher added on his Twitter account.
Similarly, the former Vice President of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed El Baradei, wrote in his official Twitter account that, "Freedom of expression is the mother of freedoms. If only limited to those we agree with, then it is a hollow slogan." "Courage is in defending it (freedom of expression), not in cracking down on it. Respect and appreciation to Bassem Youssef," ElBaradei added.
By the same token, the Tamarod Movement showed solidarity with Egypt's Jon Stewart. Mahmoud Badr, head of the movement behind the June 30 campaign, wrote in his Facebook account that, “if you banned Bassem’s show on TV, how are you going to stop him on YouTube. He can do an episode on the street, and we will watch him." "With Bassem Youssef, with free media.”
It's patently obvious that Egyptian media is heading down a perilous path after the "popular" ousting of former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on July 3. Since then, the arrest of dozens of journalists and the shutting down of many Islamist-run television stations has became a pattern in Egypt. Almost all state-run and private media outlets are adopting a "military-backed" viewpoint. Nowadays it’s hard to find any national newspaper, TV channel, radio station, or even website that avowedly criticizes the government or the military. It might be true that Egypt's top TV satirist was pulled off air because of so-called 'self-censorship', where some media institutions resorted to this tactic to avoid direct confrontation with the military-led government, but we cannot totally rule out the possibility of state interference, especially under Egypt's current military dictatorship, which is very willing to relinquish all media freedoms and freedom of expression and speech to protect its’ own "national security".
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