North Africa, West Asia

This week's window on the Middle East - October 25, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Egypt's most powerful man tries to tame the media.

Arab Awakening
25 October 2013
  • Egypt's most powerful man tries to tame the media
  • Algeria: Bouteflika strikes back
  • The root of the Syrian-Iraqi question
  • The two ends of Turkish democracy: opening up and covering up
  • Towards the Iraqization of Lebanon?
  • Women and the Arab Spring: tough choices to make
  • Egypt's most powerful man tries to tame the media

    By Ahmed Magdy Youssef

    Many Egyptian media outlets portray him as a "national saviour" who succeeded in deposing the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and casting out his Muslim Brotherhood group from the political scene, thence saving the most heavily populated Arab country from slipping into an imminent civil war. On the flip side, some other Egyptian media platforms excoriated, yet depicted him as a "murderer" for the various deadly crackdowns against Morsi's supporters, notably in shooting down more than fifty pro-Morsi protesters by the armed forces in front of Cairo's Presidential Guards Club in early June, and the brutal raids launched by the government on two pro-Morsi protest encampments in mid August. To reconcile these two different media perspectives of him, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, commander of the armed forces, has resorted to attempting to control Egypt's media himself.

    On October 2, some activists released a leaked video footage, published afterwards on the Al-Jazeera website, showing military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi addressing senior officers of the army in the months before Mohamed Morsi's ouster. In this recording, Al-Sisi was discussing best tactics to influence key media figures either by "neutralizing" or "terrorizing" them, in order subsequently to tighten control nationally. One of the senior officers suggests  re-establishing red lines for the media, eager to find new ways to frighten journalists off from criticizing the army. Al-Sisi reassures his officers, saying that:  “It takes a long time to be able to control the media. We are working on this and we are achieving better results, but we haven't yet achieved everything we could wish for."

    It's patently obvious that Al-Sisi has paid careful heed to the impact of the media in shaping public opinion. His propensity for control first manifested itself in the arrest of dozens of journalists and the closure of numerous Islamist-run television stations in Egypt, including Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr, the Egyptian arm of the Qatari-funded network, by the military-led government since the overthrow of president Morsi on July 3. And it worked. Buttressed by monotone coverage dominating Egypt's mainstream media and accentuating a so-called "terrorist" threat from the Muslim Brotherhood, the commander of the armed forces has enjoyed growing popularity on Egypt’s streets.

    In a rare recent interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm Egyptian newspaper, Al-Sisi replied to someone asking whether he was going to run for presidency or not, given the pro-Sisi campaign that claims to have gathered four million signatures of support, by saying it was not the right time to discuss that issue. Still, Al-Sisi's answer promptly fuelled more speculation about the matter, since it seems many Egyptians will not take no as an answer.

    The same interview, which was reprinted in over seven whole pages accompanied by 30 photographs of the armed forces chief, clearly displayed how Al-Sisi was trying to disavow the bloodshed stemmed from the previous clashes between the armed forces and pro-Morsi protesters, by laying the blame at the feet of media outlets which are just good at faking news. "Some are trying to promote the idea that the authority is the real enemy, through some media outlets which are working 24 hours to carry fake news and manipulate people's minds in the way they want," Al-Sisi insisted.

    Soon after Al-Masry Al-Youm's exclusive interview, another leaked recording of Egypt’s armed forces chief went viral on social networking sites. This recording was published first on Cairo's Rassd News Network (RNN), an alternative pro-Islamist media network, and is apparently the raw recorded material for the aforementioned Al-Masry Al-Youm's interview. In the leaked recording, the defence minister was urging his interviewer, the editor Yasser Rizk, to launch a campaign on his behalf to secure his position constitutionally. "You should run a campaign with the intellectuals that there should be an article in the constitution that protects General Sisi and protects my position as minister of defence and allows him [Sisi] to return to the position if he doesn’t get into the presidency,” Al-Sisi's voice was quite clearly to be heard.

    Though Al-Masry Al-Youm hasn't denied the authenticity of the recording, it has announced that it filed a report against Rassd News Network (RNN) for EGP 50 million ($7.2 million) over publishing a fabricated clip, selectively editing the recordings and tarnishing the reputation of the armed forces.

    The importance of this recording is not confined to exposing the "suspicious" relationship between the armed forces chief and local media outlets, since the latter became heavily pro-military after the "popular" ouster of president Morsi on July 3, but it also sheds light on the stance of the so-called "elites" and public figures in Egyptian society. Khaled Youssef, a well-known director and a member of Egypt's 50-member constitution committee, maintained that the recording had been selectively re-edited placing various audio clips in a new arrangement! As proof, he adduced: "All Egyptians know well that if he (Sisi) runs for presidency, he will overwhelmingly win. So, it is not logical to say he wants to return to his position as a defence minister if he loses the elections."

    Similarly, Hassan Shahin, a member of the Tamarod movement, wrote a post on his Facebook page, labelling Rassd's leaked recording as "fabricated", but went even further to accuse the news network of adopting the "Muslim Brotherhood's Zionist and American agendas"!

    On the whole, it is likely that the majority of Egyptians will shrug off and disregard the leaked recordings, manipulated or re-edited or not, as there is a huge wave of popular support for General Al-Sisi among Egyptians. But, what remains most important is the attitude of the most powerful man in Egypt toward the media. The 1950's and 1960's tactics of terrorizing the media and intimidating journalists, not to mention shutting down outlets and television channels which are not adopting the regime viewpoints, could prove rather futile in the current digital age of wireless networking, tablet PCs and smartphones.      

    Algeria: Bouteflika strikes back

    By Hicham Yezza

    While the Middle East and North Africa continue to feel the reverberations and distant after-shocks of the ‘Arab Spring’, anyone seeking a sense of where the region is heading would do well to keep a close eye on news emanating from Algiers over the next few months. As the country gears up for next year’s presidential elections, scheduled to take place in April 2014, the magnitude of the political and geostrategic issues hanging in the balance, both nationally and regionally, is immense.

    Since the turn of the year, the question of whether Abdelaziz Bouteflika - in power since 1999 and already the country’s longest-serving president - would run for a fourth consecutive term has been the central preoccupation of the political class. As the weeks went by, signs that the President’s grip on power was open to challenges seemed to proliferate. A corruption scandal involving the country’s State Oil company, Sonatrach, featured as its chief villain Chekib Khelil, a former energy minister and close Bouteflika ally. For weeks, the nation was gripped by sordid tales of greed and incompetence. The extensive coverage, as well as the judicial case itself, was seen by many as part of a campaign to weaken the president and his camp by rivals within the country’s power system.

    Serious health issues seemed to make the president’s position even more precarious. On April 27, Bouteflika suffered what official reports confirmed was a mini stroke, and was immediately flown to receive treatment at the Val-de-Grace hospital in Paris. For the following eight weeks, speculation over the extent and seriousness of his condition, further intensified by the quasi-silence from official media, dominated conversations, both off and online. On June 11, in a clear attempt to stem the debilitating tide of rumour and counter-rumour, footage was released of him receiving a visit from the Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, and the army chief, Ahmed Gaid Saleh. These images were generally considered far from reassuring, but a month later, on July 16, official state media announced the president’s return to Algiers. Many predicted an imminent curtain call, declaring the president a spent force and dismissing prospects of a fourth term as an impossibility.

    Instead, the three months since his comeback have witnessed a spectacular turn of events. In the past few weeks, Bouteflika has overseen a series of unprecedented changes at the heart of the country’s ruling apparatus, whose scale and unceremonious brutality took the most seasoned of observers by surprise.

    Most notably, the country’s powerful security services agency, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) - widely considered a principal rival pole of power alongside the military and presidential institutions – had three key units amputated, thus considerably reducing its political influence and reach, including its ability to support a viable alternative candidate at next year’s elections. This move was further accompanied by changes at the top of the military hierarchy, with a number of potential adversaries sent into retirement.

    Meanwhile, a protracted months-long battle within the ranks of the FLN, the country’s biggest political force, finally reached its dénouement at the end of August with the ascent of Amar Saidani, a Bouteflika loyalist, to the leadership, effectively securing the party’s all-important allegiance at next year’s elections. Finally, on Sep 11, a government reshuffle saw ten ministers moved, with key portfolios - such as the Justice, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Defence posts – all assigned to presidential loyalists, while most of Bouteflika’s political opponents (or those deemed insufficiently loyal, such as FLN ministers who had opposed Saidani’s leadership,) lost their briefs. Both Gaid Saleh and Sellal emerged as winners, consolidating their positions and underlining their roles as instrumental players in the push for a fourth term.

    What happens now remains unclear. Six months before the elections, no serious rival candidates have come forward, with the sole exception of Ahmed Benbitour, a reformist former Prime Minister. Most seem to be waiting for the presidential camp to make its anticipated move of pushing through a constitutional revision plan that introduces the post of Vice President. Once this happens, many believe, the ruling system will have secured its key - arguably sole – objective: its own survival and the preservation of the enormous network of interests it represents and protects.

    Amidst these transformative changes, the political class has been dependably inert and ineffectual. Though the country boasts more than fifty registered political parties, the vast bulk of these formations are no more than empty shells, devoid of any popular anchorage and usually confined to the role of supplying plausible electoral scenery. Meanwhile, the more established opposition is not only fragmented and riddled with internecine fault lines, a number of the larger parties - such as the secular RCD (Rassemblement pour la culture et la démocratie) and the country’s biggest Islamist party, the MSP (Mouvement de la Société de Paix) – have seen their oppositional credentials fatally compromised by their participation in a number of successive governments during the Bouteflika era. Their hurried attempts to distance themselves from the ruling system have, so far, proved underwhelming.

    Meanwhile, the country’s socio-economic realities for millions of Algerians - of endemic unemployment, a spiralling cost of living and deepening inequality – present a recipe for disaster in the absence of a clear and coherent strategy for national development. The current political model, based on a rentier elite purchasing social peace with the proceeds of oil wealth, patently unsustainable and utterly dependent on the capricious fortunes of oil prices, is a disaster in waiting. Indeed, social unrest continues to grow: no day seems to go by without a demonstration, or a strike, or a sit-in, or a road-blockade taking place somewhere in the country in an attempt to highlight some grievance or other. On the civil liberties front, some worrying developments have been noted signalling a tightening of the media-political space. On Sunday, Abdelghani Aloui, a youth arrested four weeks ago for posting cartoons mocking the president was again denied bail. His case has raised the alarm among many in the Algerian press (as well as among a number of NGOs such as Amnesty and HRW) about what this presages for press and political freedoms in the country in the weeks and months ahead.

    As next year’s presidential elections loom larger on the national horizon, the country seems to be heading towards a political non-event. While the population at large continues to show deep indifference towards the political shenanigans of the elites, there seems to be little enthusiasm among the political class for any change worthy of the challenges facing the country. Sadly, for most Algerians, 2013 will have been a strange year: so much has happened and yet, in the final analysis, so little is set to change.

    The root of the Syrian-Iraqi question

    By Mohammad Sakhnini

    Once it was called the Silk route. In this route, travellers, pilgrims, conquerors, soldiers, spices, horses, camels, caravans, commodities and ideas circulated between east and west. From China, India, Persia, Iraq into Greater Syria, the caravan route was a festival of interaction between different peoples, religions and cultures. This happened up till the end of the nineteenth century. The opening of the Suez Canal as well as the European invention of the nation state in Iraq and Syria weakened the economic vitality of this route. For once the Suez Canal was opened, routes to the East Indies and China through Syria and Iraq were no longer holding the same vital strategic and commercial weight for the global circulation of commodities between imperial Europe and an imperialised Middle East.

    But before these developments, an amazing period in history occurred which, had it continued until our days, would I Imagine have ensured that Syria and Iraq would never have experienced the tensions and conflicts which we are seeing in these days: sectarianism, bloodshed, suicide bombings, dictatorship, and, most importantly, poverty and lack of hope among the younger generations. For if we go back two or three hundred years ago, this was not the case.

    Between Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra there were many interactions, encounters and hopes. The modern Arab living in Syria and Iraq would be quite surprised if someone like me happened to tell her that two hundred years ago the lands in which you are now living were not Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, Jewish or Christians. Religion did not define these lands. I am not saying that religion was something which did not exist in these lands. Rather the people living in these lands did not define themselves in terms of their religious, local or national identities. Rather they described themselves according to the extent to which they could make profits by interacting with different people from different religions and backgrounds. Rivalries and alliances existed between those who set out to enrich themselves rather than spreading their religious beliefs or imposing them on other people.

    Many European travellers who crossed these routes during the eighteenth century recorded their observations. They noted the extent to which the commercial caravan was one of the linkages between Syria and Mesopotamia. As they mentioned in their diaries, the caravan would leave Aleppo loaded with European and Syrian commodities. The leader was an Arab Sheikh from a powerful tribe in the Syrian deserts. The merchants in the caravans were Ottoman Turks, Syrian Arabs, Christians, Jews, Europeans, and Armenians. In Basra, the caravan would set out to Aleppo loaded with Persian carpets, East India spices, and Chinese porcelains. Before the invention of an imperial commodity— one called oil—this area was open for a level of cross-cultural interaction and religious openness which we will never see in these days of the Iraq of Sunni-Shia death camps and the Syria of sectarian, regional and tribal feuds, massacres and chemical adventures.

    France and Britain brought into Greater Syria and Iraq the Sykes-Picot agreement which later invented the nation state system in these lands. Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Iraqis have always reacted against this system. The wave of nationalism in the Arab World which the charismatic and honey words of Gamal Abdel Nasser ushered in were brought to a halt with the increasing consolidation of Israeli colonial projects in Palestine. The Arabs now reacted against Sykes-Picot in a different way. Rather than imagining themselves a homogenous community living within one nation state, they began to develop religious dreams. They saw themselves living in an Islamic Umma. This Umma was sectarian: one for the Shi'a and one for the Sunnis. Christian Arabs remained on the margins, and most of them looked to the west as a refuge.

    Nevertheless, before we reached this stage, Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad’s projects of Arabic unity were a second step forwards in the run-up to what we have in Syria and Iraq today: sectarian illness. Since Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad established themselves as the leaders of the Baathist dream of unifying the Arab World, there has grown an awareness within Syria and Iraq that both would maintain their separate nation states instead of joining in 'one Arabic Umma', as the Baathist slogan would have it. Assad has his own Arabism. Hussein had his own Arabism. The result was not only the parochialism and repression of the nation state which both these leaders demonstrated in their political projects which nursed empty dreams within the Arab mind, heart and soul in Syria and Iraq. The dire consequence of separating these two lands from each other was one of economic regression in both countries. Of course, Iraq was a rich country under Saddam since it has unstoppable reserves of oil. Nevertheless, the Iraqis never got the chance to enjoy the blessings of possessing such commodities simply because of the fantastic level of corruption in that country as well as the on and off western embargo on buying Iraqi oil. One might also say that Syria was not a poor country under Assad. Since this country, thanks to a certain mount of Soviet pride, was not seeking to depend on the west for buying its commodities; rather it sought to manage with what the country could produce for itself in the sectors of food, agriculture and clothing. This is not to say that the important luxury commodities which the rich officials as well as wealthy aristocratic families could not live without were being brought to the country via the little brother, a previous Syrian territory now called Lebanon.

    What I am arguing here is that if these two leaders had worked towards unlearning the new reality which Sykes-Picot aimed to create in the Arab World, the current deadlock in the Syrian-Iraqi situation would never have happened. Two hundred years ago, there was a caravan crossing these routes. Since then, we have not seen any real projects for connecting the economies of Syria and Iraq via these routes. In 2003, these routes delivered refugees, instead of commodities, from Iraq to Syria. In 2013, these routes are nursing fighters, Jihadists, bullets, and exclusionary ideas and beliefs, rather than the rich commercial and cultural scenes of interaction with which I began my article. If any hope needs to be mobilised for both countries, we should remember one thing. In the period before European colonialism and parochial Arab nationalism and sectarianism, it was daily practice across the commercial caravan routes between Syria and Iraq to cut across religious, cultural and sectarian identities and polarities.

    The two ends of Turkish democracy: opening up and covering up

    By Oguz Alyanak

    On 2 May 1999, the opening day of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) where the elected representatives were invited to take the oath and become members of the Parliament, one female member, Merve Kavakçı, entered the grand assembly wearing her headscarf.

    turkeygodze.jpg

    Merve Kavakci wearing her headscarf in the TBMM, 2 May 1999. (Image taken from Richard Peres’ personal blog)

    The piece of cloth covering her hair was seen as an act of transgression. She was simply different; an outcast. The act was to cost her the seat in the Parliament. In a country where laïcité constitutes an immutable article of the Constitution and counts as one of the three founding principles of the Republic, the headscarf, occupying the very space in which the Constitution was penned, was sacrilegious. The events that followed[i], now regarded as a historic moment in Turkish political history, found their utterance in the words of Bulent Ecevit, the leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the then Prime Minister of Turkey (1999-2002):

    “No one can interfere with the dress code or the headscarf or the private life of a woman; however, this [the TBMM] is not a private abode. It is the highest institution of the state. [Cheers and claps interrupt the speech] Those who work here have to abide by the laws and customs of the state. This is not a place to challenge the state. Please put this woman in her place.”[ii]

    It was this act of opening up - of freeing the female body of its garments - that defined the parameters of Turkish democracy in 1999. The idea of women participating in public life without the headscarf served a central role in the reconstruction of a secular social imaginary. And Kavakci’s headscarved presence challenged the very logic behind this reconstructive process and confronted the very values embedded in the Turkish secular repertoire.

    Fast-forward almost 15 years, approximately 13 of which were spent under the leadership of one political party (the Justice and Development Party-AKP) and more or less one political leader (Recep Tayyip Erdogan), and today, we speak of a “different” Turkey. Unlike the 1990s, which were spent in a tug of war between secularism (laïcité) and Islamism, and resulted in a “post-modern” coup d’état, the 2000s have provided a calmer milieu in which Islam could prudently bloom out of the cracks in the secular cement. This was also the period where notions such as multiculturalism and interfaith dialogue became popular. A growing interest in Sufism and Islam defined the global trend. Every time trouble was caused in the name of Islam (be it 9/11, the 2004 Madrid train bombing or the 2005 French riots and London underground bombings) the interest in Islam grew. The very repugnance of such brutal acts made the international community search harder to find a glimpse of hope in the Muslim world, and that they found at their doorstep, in Turkey.

    The AKP benefited greatly from this global climate, and used it to its advantage at home. Unlike its predecessors - conservative politicians/parties that would confront the secular repertoire and who would eventually get banned by the Constitutional Court for their pains - the AKP formulated a strategy that played the game by its secular rules. Many of its members and ministers, moreover, were the products of a secular Turkey’s institutions. Many others were the products of prestigious institutions of higher education in Turkey and abroad. In many ways, the AKP did not fit into the “Islamist” image that has for long served to fulfil the criteria of the “other” in Turkey.

    Hence emerges the profile of a different Turkey. Turkey has changed, from a country riddled with discussions over the incompatibility of laïcité and Islam, to discussions of their peaceful coexistence. However, as many national and international organizations repeatedly declared, and continue to do so, this ostensible harmony is less the result of democratic measures and more of authoritarian and restrictive ones. And the instances we’ve all witnessed this summer are outright manifestations of the albeit muted nature of a growing criticism in Turkey. The changes undertaken do more than provide a certain group of people with benefits. Instead, change also takes away the rights for many other groups who fall outside the government’s framework. From this perspective, the resentments towards the steps undertaken by the AKP government, the most recent being Turkey’s “democratization package” start to make sense. 

    It is the existing rights that may potentially be taken away that worry some in Turkey. When Prime Minister Erdogan spoke against the Gezi protestors in late August, and declared his dream to raise, “a youth that does not vandalize and barbarize, but rather makes morality its nourishment in following its martyred ancestors”[iii], he drew the line between good and bad. But this was not a place where the two would coexist. Instead, the bad example had to be rehabilitated, incarcerated or eliminated. The Prime Minister’s aim of “raising a religious youth” as the authors of the FreeSpeechDebate blog rightfully argue[iv] comes at the expense of those who would like to locate themselves outside of this religiously-defined sphere. The fear of the rest of us is less of the investment in religious youth and more of the accompanying disinvestment in those who lie outside the definition.

    This fear which, as the government’s response to the Gezi protests show, has some credibility forces us to question the emerging Turkey. No matter how “revolutionary” Turkey’s democratization package is, we think twice when we are told by the Prime Minister that “Turkey is progressing irreversibly toward democracy [and] this package is a fundamental and historic phase of this progress”[v].

    Turkey’s Cleavage

     

    GodzeKanzu.png

    Gozde Kansu in her game-show costume, 6 October 2013. (photo by Facebook/GozdeKANSU)

    What is also worrisome is that despite the change of actors and agendas, the debates continue to revolve around the same old theme: what is permissible in private and what is not permissible in public. And the woman’s body continues to act as the playground for these discussions. In 1999, it was the headscarf. Today, it is cleavage. 

    Earlier this month, the much too fermented debate over laïcité and Islam was resurrected, once again, this time over a TV-show host’s cleavage, following comments made by the AKP Deputy chairman, Huseyin Celik: “Can a woman be accepted if she goes to a place with an extreme décolleté dress? There was a game show yesterday on one of the channels in the mainstream media. I looked at it; the presenter had such a dress that it’s not acceptable. There needs to be a sensitivity in choosing dresses for TV broadcasting.”

    After locating a victim, then came the justification: “We don’t intervene in anyone’s clothing. However, can you be a presenter on one of the most watched TV channels with an extreme evening gown? Could this be accepted? This can’t receive positive feedback anywhere in the world. Even if you go too far in Hollywood, they will tell you that you have gone too far.” [vi]

    The next day, the result of not intervening in anyone’s clothing became apparent. Gozde Kansu, the woman whose bosom fell under Celik’s gaze, received the news that her contract was suspended. So was the contract of Merve Kavakçı in 1999, after she was booed out of the Turkish Parliament, and had her citizenship revoked (a fate that may have been more to do with Kavakçı holding an undeclared American passport). 

    In 1999, Turkey’s democracy was tested by a female wearing the headscarf. Then, Turkey failed that test. As of early this month, the Turkish Prime Minister introduced a democratic package which, among other things, lifts the ban on headscarf in public offices, and punishes persons who discriminate against those donning headscarves for religious purposes.[vii] Without a doubt, this is a step forward. Now that obstacles to access are lifted, many women choosing Islamic lifestyles will have greater opportunities to excel in life. Unlike Merve Kavakçı, who was a graduate of an American university, they will be able to get higher education in Turkey, while wearing the scarf. But could it be that this forward progress is coming at someone else’s expense?

    About ten days after the package, Turkey’s democracy was tested, this time by a woman with décolletage. Turkey failed that test too. The actors may be different, and so may their approaches to Islamic and secular lifestyles, however, the debates remain tethered around pretty much the same issues, and this needs a much closer look.


    [i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2-Z3USO1kM

    [ii] http://www.todayszaman.com/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?newsId=291093

    [iii] http://www.radikal.com.tr/politika/erdogan_sizi_gidi_geziciler_gezseniz_iyi_hep_yatiyorsunuz-1148543

    [iv] http://freespeechdebate.com/en/case/raising-religious-youth-in-turkey/

    [v] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/government-takes-steps-on-headscarf-kurds-electoral-system.aspx?PageID=238&NID=55393&NewsCatID=338

    [vi] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/gozde-kansu-fired-outfit-turkey.html

    [vii] http://www.todayszaman.com/news-327738-pm-introduces-landmark-reforms-but-admits-more-needs-to-be-done.html

    Towards the Iraqization of Lebanon?

    By Domhnall O'Sullivan

    Speaking in late August in the wake of a deadly bomb attack in southern Beirut, veteran Lebanese politician Nabih Berri warned that the ‘Iraqization’ of Lebanon would be a disastrous eventuality for the increasingly fractured nation. The gravity and prescience of his comments were confirmed just two days later, when twin car bombs in the northern city of Tripoli killed 42 people outside a Sunni mosque. Although attacks on such a scale have not been repeated since, tensions have remained high.

    From Baghdad to Beirut

    Comparisons with Iraq can be drawn from several worrying trends. Firstly, the overtly sectarian nature of much of the violence in Lebanon, which mirrors a growing Sunni-Shia rift spreading throughout much of the Middle East, also reflects the violence which has plagued Iraq since the 2003 US invasion. Two separate car-bombings in Beirut in August specifically targeted Shia Hezbollah, while the subsequent attack in Tripoli - itself a constant flashpoint of sectarian strife - took place outside a Sunni mosque. Fuelling and fuelled by the tension, disparate sectarian groups - including Al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra - have proliferated.

    Secondly, the scale and nature of the attacks has raised concern. The recent incidents - the most bloody since Lebanon’s civil war - have provoked fears that the previous uneasy stability has definitively evaporated. Especially worrying is the modus operandi of car-bombings. This draws comparisons once again with the situation in Iraq, where such methods are a recurring feature of the almost daily attacks. Materially difficult to police and prevent, this raises the spectre of dangerous terrorism and has instilled fear amongst certain sections of the Lebanese population.

    The third trend provoking comparison and consternation is the level of outside interference. The country has always been a pawn on the Levantine chessboard, moved around by the strategic whims of its more powerful neighbours. Since the Syrian conflict, however, rival powers from the Gulf and Iran have stepped up the proxy war in a bid to safeguard regional interests. Backing from Saudi Arabia is said to be funding not only parts of the Syrian opposition but also Sunni groups in Lebanon, while Iran continues to play the card of its proxy in Beirut, Hezbollah. This echoes the Iraqi scenario, where hidden hands instrumentalise local groups on another substitute battleground for regional hegemony.

    The Lebanese exceptionality

    But Lebanon is not Iraq. Internal political and security dynamics are vastly different. Iraq has emerged from the devastation of the past decade unable to provide for its own security and harbouring sizeable minority groups which are embittered and radical. It often appears at the business end of indexes of failed states. Lebanon, despite the destruction of its civil war and the 2006 conflict with Israel, has persistently managed to recover and has maintained the shell of a functioning state. Although weak and liable to interference, the Lebanese security forces continue to enforce day-to-day order. Politicians in Beirut, despite current dithering, have avoided alienating any significant portion of the diverse population.

    The pervading presence of Hezbollah also differentiates the Lebanese case. Operating what essentially amounts to a state within a state, such is the military clout of the Shia group that it is difficult to see how the security situation could develop in either direction without its tacit consent. At this point in time, embroiled in what it may view as an existential battle in Syria, it is not in Hezbollah’s interests to see any significant breakdown of security in Lebanon.

    Ultimately, ‘Iraqization’ fears are a perhaps exaggerated response to the current ‘Syrianization’ of Lebanon. Although it has deep-rooted institutional issues that must be addressed in order to strengthen the state and definitively avoid any descent into Iraqi-style chaos, current problems are a direct consequence of the violence next door. The major political cleavage in Lebanon still revolves around pro- and anti-Assad affections, while the refugee situation is increasingly untenable; numbers are set to hit the million mark by the end of this year.

    Keep the aid flowing

    In the short-term, efforts to help Lebanon cope with the consequences of the Syrian crisis should thus continue to be prioritized. More funding from the international community to help with the staggering refugee situation - which itself presents a profound social and security threat - is necessary. The inaugural meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon, which convened in the margins of the recent UN General Assembly, may galvanise more support in this respect.

    Political pressure for solidarity and cooperation in the face of security threats is equally important. This is notably the case as regards Hezbollah, without whose cooperation national stability is almost impossible. Repeated international statements urging all groups to respect the Baabda declaration - which outlines the official policy of Lebanese disassociation from the Syrian conflict - have fallen on deaf ears. But the recent cooperation between the Shia group and the Lebanese security forces in policing the southern suburbs of Beirut (previously controlled almost exclusively by Hezbollah) is a tentative signal that it could be somewhat committed to tackling internal issues in a less unilateral manner.

    Longer-term, such cooperation in tackling Syrian spillover could be subsequently used as a springboard for efforts to reform the political and security apparatus in Lebanon. The National Dialogue initiative, which sits all political groups around the table, is a useful forum for starters. President Michel Sleiman’s National Defence Strategy, which maps out a way to simultaneously strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces while working towards the disarmament of Hezbollah, could also be prioritized as a win-win situation in tackling Lebanon’s security and defence issues. 

    Women and the Arab Spring: tough choices to make

    By Reem Mohamed

    When women joined men on the streets of Egypt on January 25 2011, they did not organize for a gender revolution; they joined the crowds to chant ‘bread, freedom and social justice.’ This was a big mistake.

    Led by males, uprisings of the Arab Spring did not prioritize ‘equality’, a crucial concern for women. In 1991, when South Africa was redefining its national identity after four decades of apartheid rule, McClintock wrote: “women who are not empowered to organize during the struggle will not be empowered to organize after the struggle. If nationalism is not deeply informed, and transformed, by an analysis of gender power, the nation-state will remain a repository of male hopes, male aspirations, and male privilege.” The Arab Spring witnessed women falling into this trap: unconditionally supporting a national movement, hoping that gender equality would be a byproduct of toppling oppressive regimes. This causality is flawed; when formerly oppressed men rise to power, they are ever reluctant to share this power, especially with women. In fact, they may well seek to curb the rights and freedoms that women already enjoy so as to eliminate any possibility of empowerment.

    The recent political developments in Egypt suggest the return of an autocratic regime. Women’s position towards any rising power at this point is influenced by the political developments in the last three years. Women were excluded from the transitional process and remain at risk of losing the limited rights they enjoy, not only in Egypt, but also in Tunisia and Libya – countries that successfully overthrew an oppressive leader and entered into a transitional process. This leaves women with a tough choice: supporting pseudo-democratic regimes that grant them some legal rights, or supporting the ‘revolutionary’ movements that eliminate any empowerment prospect for women.

    Global trends

    The participation of women in collective movements is not only welcomed, but can be strongly encouraged. The visibility of women in such movements may be important for a variety of reasons: first, femininity reflects fertility and symbolizes the continuity of the nation; second, women are mothers, wives and daughters supporting ‘their’ patriotic men and complementing their work; and third, the visibility of women strengthens the legitimacy of the movement’s international image and recognition. As long as women’s participation and aspirations are contained in a masculine framework, women are urged to revolt. In this way, women’s efforts are employed for a patriarchal project. 

    Gender equality is considered peripheral to the national struggle, based on the assumption that women’s emancipation will sequentially follow national liberation. Accordingly, gender inequalities are never linked to patriarchy, but rather blamed on various political and economic ideologies including colonialism, dictatorships and capitalism, among others. In 1931 India, Nehru urged women to participate in the national movement and abandon the gender struggle when he stated that ‘in a national war, there is no question of either sex or community. Whoever is born in this country ought to be a soldier’ because of which he advised women to dedicate their efforts to the national struggle so as to rid themselves from all kinds of oppressions; imperialism and gender inequalities alike. Throughout the apartheid era, the South African women’s movement dared not speak about gender inequalities for fear of shifting focus away from the concern perceived as the most pressing: racial discrimination.

    Disillusioned women of the Arab Spring

    During the uprisings of the Arab Spring, women were directed away from gender issues, and towards the mainstream demands of ‘bread and freedom’. Because of their remarkable contribution to these movements, women expected that they would play a pivotal role in the newly-founded democracies; however, they were utterly disappointed.

    A few days into the transitional period, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt delegated Judge Tariq el Bishry to head a committee for drafting the constitutional amendments that regulated the forthcoming elections. El Bishry appointed experts in law and politics including members of minority groups such as a Coptic Christian and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he did not appoint a single woman. Women did not lead any political parties and were generally absent from negotiations over the transitional process with the SCAF. The opposition is similarly biased; gender issues are restricted to the women’s committees of political parties as they are not considered public issues. The first ministerial cabinet following the ousting of Mubarak included three women and the one appointed after the 2012 presidential elections included two women. Out of 100 members in the Constitutional Committee of 2012, seven were women; and five women are among the 50 members of the committee assigned to draft the 2013 Constitution.

    Ideologically, women were perceived as a financial burden; as sexual objects; and as ‘homemakers’ who are expected to prioritize their family life over their personal interests. Despite the economic and political turmoil in Egypt, the first post-Mubarak elected parliament deemed it more urgent to curb women’s rights, seeking to annul the meagre legal and political gains they had made during Mubarak’s era. Parliamentarians discussed regressive legal amendments suggesting the repeal of unilateral divorce, the restriction on women’s movements, and the legalization of female genital mutilation (that was outlawed in 2008). The parliament also discussed removing restrictions on a marital age for girls and the return of Beit-El-Ta’a (a man’s legal right to force women to live in the marital home).

    The 2012 Constitution reaffirmed gender stereotypes as it was generous with women’s welfare rights and stingy with gender equality and women’s empowerment. Article 10 stated that ‘the State shall provide special care and protection to female breadwinners, divorced women and widows’. In other words, the state must overtake the role of deceased and absent men to ‘protect’ women; otherwise, women will be protected by their husbands. The article also enjoins the state to ‘enable the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.’ These provisions were hailed as protective measures, when in fact they emphasized the gendered division of labour, restricting women’s identities to mothers, daughters and wives. With these constitutional indications, the new Egypt has carefully drawn the boundaries for women in public and private life.

    The obsession with curbing women’s rights is trending across the region. In the midst of the Libyan national reconciliation process, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, Chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) vowed to loosen all restrictions imposed by Gaddafi on the practice of polygamy. Similar to their Egyptian neighbours, the NTC considered polygamy to be a more urgent matter than serious political challenges that threatened Libya’s peace and reconciliation prospects. Abdul-Jalil’s promise was realized when the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court in Libya abolished all restrictions on the practice of polygamy in February 2013.

    The thinning of the line between religion and politics following the Arab Spring has diminished the already limited prospects of women’s participation in the region. Jumping on the bandwagon, religious figures made numerous sexist statements seeking to restrict women’s rights. After Gaddafi’s fall Libyan Grand Mufti Sheikh Sadeq Al-Ghariani called for a separation of sexes in law and society, and in March 2013, he urged the government to restrict women’s freedom of marriage. Tunisian women are not enjoying a ‘spring’ either. Before they held office in 2011 Ennahda party had promised to recognize and honour women’s rights. Once in power, the party sang a different tune; party members called for the recognition of women as ‘complementary to men’ in the draft Constitution of 2012. In the latest row of sexist politics, in September 2013, Tunisian women were reportedly used as sex Jihadists to be gifted to the warriors of the Free Syrian Army.

    In March 2013 the UN Commission on the Status of Women sought to ratify a declaration to end violence against women. The draft document enraged political and religious leaders (with overlapping roles) in both Egypt and Libya. The Libyan Grand Mufti issued a fatwa calling upon all Muslim women to protest against the declaration as it jeopardized the rules of Islam. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement against the declaration, pinpointing ten main criticisms and shamelessly published it on the group’s English website. The Brotherhood contested women’s freedom to travel and work. The group also condemned the interference of state-law in marriage particularly regarding intimate violence. The statement also urged women’s organizations to ‘commit to their religion and morals of their communities and the foundations of good social life and not be deceived with misleading calls to decadent modernization and paths of subversive immorality.’ 

    Making a safe bet

    While considered ‘oppressive’, pseudo-democratic states do not have a problem with women’s rights, albeit not out of their commitment to gender equality. Promoting women’s rights is a safe bet; women’s rights neither question the legitimacy nor threaten the longevity of such regimes. In fact, reflecting the image of ‘supporters of gender equality’ earns the state international praise with little emphasis on either implementation or budgetary allocation. The former Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak headed the National Council for Women that successfully advocated for various rights and freedoms including the right to unilateral divorce and the criminalization of FGM, along with NGOs. Seeking international approval as far back as 1957, Bourguiba introduced some rights to Tunisian women that were rarely enjoyed in the Arab world: women had the right to divorce, polygamy was banned and marital age was set at 17. His successor Ben Ali maintained the stance towards women’s rights. However, both leaders had no regard to civil and political liberties. In Gaddafi’s era, female education significantly increased (including college level), women enjoyed the right to divorce and to equal pay for equal work, and polygamy was restricted. 

    So what? A question presenting itself at this point: overthrowing an oppressive regime is necessary regardless of the collateral damage. In fact, women do have a choice. Referring to Gaddafi’s regime, a prominent Libyan human rights lawyer, Hana el-Gallal, stated: “In the old regime we didn’t have any voice in the economic and political sector. Now, in these two sectors we don’t have any presence”. Women may decide to play it safe and support the least of two evils; at least with pseudo-democracies women can work within the system without seeing their rights eradicated. 

    So, should women’s movements support a national revolution based on patriarchal principles? Such a decision has to be a matter of choice informed by the political environments in each country; however, the developments in three of the countries that are ‘transitioning’ to democracy give quite a stark indication of women’s chances in a nationalist movement. 

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

    Comments

    We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
    Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram