“Beirut kills one of us everyday, and everyday looks for a new victim. Beirut is narrowing around us…”
— Nizar Qabbani, Balqis – A Poem
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of September 11, 2014 close to 9.5 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes since the uprising began in March of 2011. Of those who were forced to move, 6.5 million are internally displaced; the remaining three million left the country as refugees.
Forty percent of those who left Syria (1.2 million people) headed into neighbouring Lebanon. In Lebanon they were met with endemic racism manifesting itself through chauvinistic rhetoric, discrimination, curfews, evacuation notices, and increasingly frequent racial attacks against their person and their livelihood. The Lebanese laud themselves for their sense of hospitality and exceptional generosity, but these claims are now being tested by what has been described as the ‘worst refugee crisis in recent history’, and Lebanon has been failing miserably.
Violence against refugees has been steadily becoming more common and more gruesome, most notably after the conflagration in Arsal. ‘Revenge’ attacks for the actions of groups like the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, or for isolated crimes by Syrian individuals, that target refugees, their homes, and their property are becoming increasingly frequent. It is worth noting that the Islamic State militant responsible for the beheadings of two Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers, an act that spurred a large part of these ‘revenge attacks’ was Lebanese, not Syrian. Reports of refugee camps being set alight, drive-by shootings, and attacks against refugees by racist mobs are now a daily feature of Lebanese news broadcasts, and some have begun to (accurately) describe these events as ‘pogroms’.
In addition to these so-called revenge attacks against refugees, some aggressions seem to be carried out for sport. The dehumanisation of the Syrian refugee in the minds of most Lebanese has resulted in acts of immeasurable cruelty. Two particular incidents made headlines after videos taken by the perpetrators spread on social media. The first video showed Lebanese parents prodding their toddler to beat a cowering Syrian child with a wooden stick. The second video shows a knife-wielding Lebanese man threatening to behead three sobbing Syrian children, while accusing them of belonging to the Islamic State.
Drawing upon these two incidents one can conceptualise the nature of the disease that ails Lebanese society, of which these are only two of many symptoms. In addition to that, a depressing study carried out by Dr. Charles Harb and Dr. Reem Saab of the American University of Beirut showed high levels of explicit support for violence against Syrian refugees among the local Lebanese populations in Akkar and the Bekaa valley.
In addition to collective punishment, misdirected rage, and dehumanisation, these attacks are also motivated by the widely held belief that Syrian refugees are largely responsible for most of Lebanon’s ailments. The Lebanese have traditionally been masters at projecting and diverting blame onto others. Syrian refugees are being scapegoated for a plethora of issues including, but not limited to, electricity and water shortages, the uptick in crime, traffic jams and accidents, inflation, and terrorist attacks.
A few days ago the owner of a bakery by my house in Beirut lectured me on how splendid life in Lebanon was before Syrian refugees. “We were all living in plenty, no one was unhappy. Do you remember those days?” Not only does this amnesiac rhetoric blame Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s current predicaments, it also creates and invokes a fictional (not-so-distant) past that isn’t even remotely rooted in reality. Living conditions in Lebanon have been terrible for decades. As would be expected, Lebanon’s nefarious politicians and government officials are taking advantage of the situation by blaming their shortcomings (and the effects of their corruption) on Syrian refugees.
What’s most worrying about this upsurge in violence against Syrian nationals is how it is being normalised. Racially motivated attacks receive almost no condemnation from government officials or the public. Instead, many will explicitly express their approval. A number of Lebanese politicians and government officials have made thinly veiled racist statements regarding Syrian refugees. Member of parliament for the Kataeb Party Samy Gemayel told parliament that “the Lebanese Army is capable of closing down and controlling our borders, all the army needs is 10-20 drones”. He continued to say, “Lebanon is bleeding, the refugees are bleeding, Lebanon is getting destroyed, its [sectarian and national] identity is changing, as is its nature”. He concluded his remarks on Syrian refugees by saying, “Syrian refugees are responsible for 50% of all crimes committed on Lebanese soil”.
Then Minister of Energy (now Minister of Foreign Affairs) and MP for the Free Patriotic Movement Gibran Bassil, made a similar point in 2013 when he said of the influx of Syrian refugees, "what is happening is organised crime carried out by Lebanese and foreign officials to change the country's demography". This fixation on sectarian and demographic balance and on national identity has been a feature of right-wing rhetoric since before the Lebanese Civil War, when it was directed against Palestinian, rather than Syrian refugees.
Racism against Syrian nationals in Lebanon cannot be understood outside of its historic and economic context. The proliferation of anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanese society already was a cause for concern and condemnation well before the beginning of the Syrian uprising and the subsequent influx of refugees. For decades, the demonym ‘Syrian’ has been employed to insult, denoting vulgarity, low social and economic status, bad taste, poor hygiene, etc… Racially motivated attacks against Syrian nationals aren’t without precedent either. In 2005, Syrian workers in Lebanon were the victims of (often fatal) attacks motivated by the suspected culpability of the Syrian government in former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri’s assassination.
It is imperative to expound the underlying class dynamics of Lebanese racism against Syrian refugees as this racism is fundamentally and typically classist. Syrian migrant workers have dominated construction and other labour-intensive sectors of the Lebanese economy since colonial times. Syrian workers can be credited with building Lebanon, before and after the Lebanese Civil War.
Before the Syrian uprising began in 2011, an estimated 300,000 Syrian migrants worked in Lebanon. ‘Syrian’ came to signify an unskilled, uneducated labourer in the Lebanese psyche, as the vast majority of Syrians with which the Lebanese regularly interacted were of the working class (an excellent read on this topic here). The massive influx of refugees into Lebanon with the start of the Syrian uprising simultaneously challenged, but to a greater extent reinforced, this bigoted and classist notion of the Syrian people. Not all those who fled Syria for Lebanon are impoverished, but many are, and they are considerably more visible than those who are not (on the streets, in refugee camps) and their presence helped solidify previously mentioned notions of race and class held by the Lebanese.
On the other hand, affluent Syrians who fled the war back home into Lebanon have been frequenting the country’s top restaurants, clubs, and other social venues. Their interactions with similarly wealthy Lebanese have led some to abandon their preconceived notions, but not entirely. Well-off and wealthy Syrians are perceived as entirely distinct from lower middle class and working class Syrians, as if the two hail from different parts of the planet. Rather than perceive well-off Syrians as Syrian and abandoning their generalisations in the process, the Lebanese bourgeoisie, vindicating Marx, resorted to sundering the Syrian people into two distinct and oppositional groups along economic lines. Upper class and upper middle class Syrians constantly hear statements (and I myself have been privy to these conversations dozens of times) of the “but you’re not Syrian Syrian”, or “I know you’re Syrian but you’re different” variety. Needless to say, the vast majority (if not all) racially motivated attacks against Syrian nationals in Lebanon have targeted lower middle class or working class Syrian refugees.
Of course not all racism against Syrian nationals and Syrian refugees is rooted in class. A tiny part stems from archaic notions of Lebanese exceptionalism, rooted in different forms of (sometimes violent) Lebanese nationalism that is antithetical to pan-Arabism or even the Arab label. Lebanese nationalism has historically been exclusionary - as are all nationalisms - and isolationist, in that it accentuates differences between the Lebanese and other Levantines or other Arabs while downplaying shared attributes and characteristics, and it is an unfortunate fact of our time that basic human empathy and solidarity is strongly dependent upon notions of shared identity.
Resistance to this widespread racism and racial violence on the part of Lebanese activists has been weak and mostly confined to symbolic gestures and social media. The Lebanese State is at worst complicit and at best uninterested in putting an end to these attacks and transgressions. Further exacerbation of the situation will inevitably lead to resistance on the part of the refugees themselves, which in the absence of an impartial state is justified in all its forms
By Samah Jabr
Flying out of our cages
"I used to fly, but you broke my wings and locked me back in my cage.”
This was the reproach of a patient who had just recovered from a manic episode during which he jumped from the top of the four-metre high Israeli separation wall and broke both legs. His mania had been a temporary release from the social inhibitions, economic frustrations and political obstructions symbolised by the wall itself. The pills I had given him ended his colourful euphoric experience and thrust him back into a gloomy reality. No wonder he was dissatisfied with my interventions.
In a two-week period in May, seven murders were committed in Palestine. The victims were women, children and a mentally disabled youth. In my capacity as a psychiatrist, I have interviewed some of the accused perpetrators. To my surprise, they do not resemble the antisocial psychopaths who typically commit such ugly crimes.
Most of those I interviewed suffer from enduring humiliation and an injured sense of manhood. They live in conditions of mounting stress, experiencing the pressure of poverty in a society increasingly obsessed with material possessions and wealth. Such men lose their sense of honour and respect when they are unable to provide for their families; they struggle to regain the illusion of control through misogyny and acts of domestic violence as expressions of their manhood.
Humiliation, poverty and low social status have made some people in Palestine feel like losers and failures at life. They often attempt to medicate their frustration and anger with alcohol and drugs. And, just as many seek an altered state of mind through these routes, some try to soothe their injured dignity by projecting and externalising their sense of powerlessness onto members of their families. Such people become abusive and some commit violent crimes. The structural violence, economic inequalities, and pervasive injustice that characterise Palestinian society under occupation have created a fertile psychological environment for sociopathy to grow.
We don’t yet have organised crime and gangs, but there has been a dramatic upsurge in violations of the law and in domestic violence. But policing Palestine more intensively and expanding security forces are not the answer to a phenomenon brought about mainly by a crisis of the spirit.
The establishment of a ruling class, binding social structures, and oppressive institutions exclude many people from sharing the fruits of nationhood. These exclusions establish criteria—at once widely recognised and covertly concealed—that determine who is heard and who is silenced, who is favoured and who deprived.
One example is membership in the right political party. If you belong to the proper political party and begin work in the proper type of job, your years of party loyalty will be counted as years of “professional experience.” This illegitimate arithmetic automatically conveys an advantage in employment and in promotions compared to those who actually have better credentials and work harder. The same system that greases loyal wheels will put sticks in the wheels of anyone who expresses opposition to or protests such a system.
Strange voices are liable to be heard in support of direct violence and structural violence, attempting to legitimise it and render it socially acceptable. We are informed, for example, that a murdered woman was disloyal to her husband; lawyers might say, “Of course, you are right—but you don’t want to get in trouble with the political elite.”
Our context is everything, of course: we experience strong emotions to our occupation by Israel. The national humiliation and the personal grievances suffered by the Palestinian people through our political and economic misery filter down into the conflicts in our daily lives.
Our political parties have provided some people with a sense of belonging, and thus achieved an unprecedented psychological significance. Intense loyalty and highly emotionally charged participation in a polarised society seems to result in an atmosphere of destructive competition, unfair comparisons, hunger for power, and hatred. These strong emotions eventually have undercut our capacity for logical reasoning and ethical judgment.
The murder of the Palestinian soul is taking place, an annihilation of our spirit, expressed in a hunger to dominate the weak and to inflict our aggression on those who are smaller. We pass down our humiliation to a dumping ground of those who are unable to defend themselves, inducing in them our own sense of shame.
Our inner life is becoming empty. Our dreams are destroyed by structural violence or melted into a collective trance. Everywhere apathy and distrust is growing. Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate the triumph of Mohammed Assaf as the celebrated Arab Idol, but when we saw the reconciliation agreement sealed with embraces once again we were not impressed. There were no celebrations in the street.
We are born free
New research in psychology and neuroimaging has revealed that human beings demonstrate an innate aversive reaction to inequality and unfairness. In the “ultimatum game,” where responders are given a choice to approve or to block a particular division of a quantity of money, it was discovered that people—regardless of age, gender or race—found unequal divisions to be aversive. It was also found that people are more sensitive to unfair proposals when these are made by those of the same race.
But long before this psychological research, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”—Umar Ibn Al Khattab, an influential caliph who earned the title Al-Faruq for his fairness and ability to distinguish between right and wrong, rebelled against the social structure of his time by asking: “Since when have you taken people for slaves and they were born free?”
French philosoper Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” He also stated, “man’s natural sentiment of self-esteem is coupled with pity, the dislike of seeing fellow creatures in pain.” The mildest Qur’anic teaching on the duty to oppose injustice is: “And incline not toward those who do unfairness” (Hud 113).
Thus, apathy toward injustice, crime and human pain is incompatible with our innate feelings. Apathy deviates from our natural humanitarian instincts, and is the result of a distorted process of education and conditioning. The outcome of programmed selfishness and egoism, it eliminates our capacity for spiritual growth, instead promoting compliance with injustice and submission to rigid authoritarian systems of domination.
Searching for spaciousness inside
What can we do to escape the bars of our reality? I have no wings and will not fly out—not even with a first class ticket. I remain here on the ground, searching for a human connection with equals who aim to nurture relationships of mutual respect and to co-create new forms of living together. I seek companionship in my long journey to decondition and deconstruct the forms of oppressions and injustice around me.
I will find myself sometimes at a loss and in despair, but I understand that there can be a revival of hope even while recognising disappointment; there can be fulfilment in surviving the heat of tyranny, a fulfilment that makes a person more willing to dedicate oneself to those who are marginalised and degraded in society.
The spirituality of Palestinian society has been one of the most important factors in our resilience and steadfastness. Spirituality can transform one’s sense of worth from unequal to equal, dismissing the social stratifications where ‘higher’ beings exercise control over ‘lesser’ beings. The current promotion of materialism and individualism within Palestine, however, is increasingly limiting the inner spaciousness that has helped us survive despite the cages imposed on us from without.
We are in the midst of a process of losing our traditional serenity and enlightenment, through our participation in this on-going spiritual decline. For so long, we found meaning and nourishment in song, poetry, stories and prayers. Today, however, there is a deeper impoverishment lying beneath the surface poverty—an impoverishment for which materialistic answers do not suffice.
Our souls and our spirits are being injured and damaged. People assess their self-worth using the yardsticks of money, education and social status. We are imprisoned in our socioeconomic status, forced into repetition and boredom of the finite and the familiar, not realising the great love, outstanding courage and lucid awareness that can endure in the minds and hearts of simple people.
Love for ourselves, compassion for others, the liberation of our personal sense of agency, and the freedom to choose and develop sophisticated modalities of survival will restore our sense of independence and value – in spite of the external cage.
By Maha Bali
As an educator, I notice that sometimes people talk about educational curricula as though they consisted mainly of content that we aim to relay to students. Occasionally, people talk about skills that will benefit students in the long term. It is much more rare, and yet much more important, I think, to talk about the process of education and the values which education promotes in learners.
Education can promote values in the overt curriculum, that which is expressed clearly in curriculum documents, written in textbooks, spoken by teachers in classrooms, and assessed in exams. But education also promotes values indirectly via the hidden curriculum of schooling.
Depending on your perspective, the hidden curriculum can be seen in a positive light, as a way of socializing children into the ways of the world. For example, the kinds of discipline imparted by school, and the competitiveness of most schooling, can be considered methods of indirectly teaching about the ways of the world. However, from another perspective, the way schools impose authority and control on learners can be viewed as a hegemonic tool to promote obedience in future citizens.
I am always concerned about overt discussions of the ways in which schools will promote things like character education, patriotism, or citizenship education. Such endeavors often appear noble, even necessary, but should also always be questioned and analysed more deeply.
When Edward Said was invited to re-design curricula in Palestine, they rejected his recommendations. They wanted a nationalistic curriculum, whereas he wanted to design a curriculum that maintained a healthy criticism within it. Shor and Freire talk about the importance of raising the consciousness of the oppressed, such that they study both the culture of the dominant groups in society (they need to, in order to survive economically), as well as their own culture - and to be able to critique both. Postcolonial societies need to know there is knowledge beyond what has been imparted by the colonizer, to value local culture(s), and yet maintain a healthy scepticism and criticism of both.
And so when I read about attempts at educating children or adolescents about character, patriotism, or citizenship (such as has recently been discussed in Egypt), I ask myself the following questions:
How are the key terms (character, patriotism, citizenship) defined to learners? If they are defined in one particular way, then I am sceptical. The role of education, in my view, should not be to prescribe a particular understanding of what it means to be a good patriot or citizen. While love of country should be a good thing, and seems uncontroversial to encourage, how one expresses that love can and should vary. Encouraging patriotism can vary widely: from blind obedience to a particular leader, to unquestioning support for war efforts, to jumping to voting booths, to participation in civil society, to resisting oppression, to violence against enemies.
How are the key values taught to learners? Nobody learns attitudes and values by being told, we learn values by living them. Whenever someone says that Egypt is/was not ready for democracy, I question how on earth Egyptians would become ready for democracy, without actually living through it. We learn to be moral people not by being told what is right and wrong, but by being placed in situations, controversial ones, where we need to make difficult decisions, and by doing so, discovering our own moral compass, and building our values.
Is there a contradiction between what is said and what is done? This is where a hidden curriculum can come into play. Do we say that we want to teach critical thinking? How are we teaching it? If we teach critical thinking by listing a set of rules of informal logic and a list of fallacies to watch out for, that’s memorizing, that’s not critical thinking. Do we teach critical thinking in the classroom, and then silence students who try to question the authority of the teacher? Then we are not teaching critical thinking. Do we allow criticism in the classroom, but discourage students from resisting practices they object to in the school? Then we are being hypocrites. Does our government say it encourages teaching of critical thinking in schools, but oppress individuals who critique it openly? The contradiction is not really hidden, in that case.
Does the curriculum privilege particular groups over others? This is a really big issue with moral education, for example. Although the most fundamental values of all the world’s major religions are similar, if the government’s curriculum focuses on one religion’s doctrines (in whatever subject is being taught) over others, then it privileges one group of citizens over others. It automatically implies that one culture has inherently more value than others.
I was once having a discussion with a group of student-teachers about this topic, about how parents feel about a school directly teaching morality to their kids. And one teacher went so far as to say, “is it even a parent’s right to teach morality to her kids?”. My first reaction to that question was shock. It was clear to me why I would not want a school to indoctrinate my child into thinking in a particular way, but surely I, as benevolent parent, who knows what’s best for my child, had the right to? But in hindsight, and thinking about children as they grow older (not the very young), sometimes parents try to direct their children’s thinking too much.
If a teacher or parent raises a child to believe that they derive their moral compass from them, the child learns that morality is something they derive from an authority figure. This makes it easier for future authority figures to brainwash them. However, if both parents and teachers promote a critical approach to morality in children, these children will grow into adolescents and adults who are capable of critically assessing their options and making informed decisions about their morality in future.
Surely this is what we would rather see in our future citizens? We should not aim to define morality for our youth, but equip them to think about morality and develop it; we should not teach them about values, but embody and model our own values, and create safe (and later, as they grow older, even risky) spaces for youth to experience situations to build values for themselves. Otherwise, if we are not careful, we will end up with a society of mostly indoctrinated citizens.
Some may develop the agency to resist the dominant mind-set, but they would be few, and the majority would likely silence them as rebels or even traitors. Others may be open to other views, but would accept them uncritically, possibly leading to violent resistance. But most dangerous of all, is a society of individuals who all think the same way, do not accept other ways of thinking, and therefore cannot critique the status quo, cope with change, nor initiate change when it is needed.
While writing this article, I remembered a funny story that happened to me. After the last elections in Egypt, I rode with a taxi driver who told me that in his household, one person voted for Sisi, one for Hamdeen, one nullified their vote, and one abstained. I thought that was exactly as it should be if freedom of speech existed in their household.
At the heart of Operation Protective Edge is a top-down marketing plan, implemented by Israeli ‘Chief Executive’ Benjamin Netanyahu, which seeks to disguise Israeli crimes, whilst profiting financially from the bankruptcy of Gaza.
Building the tribe
Successful marketing campaigns succeed because they are able to capture the imagination of large or important audiences. To do this, they need a narrative and a slogan that people believe in; but Israel’s real narrative - to crush Palestine’s newly-formed unity government - would be impossible to promote after both the US and the EU expressed a willingness to engage with the new government. Only ten days after the unity government was formed, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in Hebron and Israel suddenly found its slogan - #BringBackOurBoys.
With a marketable narrative in place, Israel began building a tribal following of citizens and world leaders sympathetic to its cause. To cultivate the tribe, Netanyahu led us to believe for 18 days that the missing teens were still alive, even though he knew of their death three hours after their disappearance. Israel then marketed the ensuing ‘rescue mission’ by blitzing social media with the #BringBackOurBoys hashtag which went viral due to celebrity support from Sara Netanyahu, Bar Rafaeli, and ‘Wonder Woman’ Gal Gadot. By the time Netanyahu announced on Twitter that the bodies of the missing boys had been found, Israel’s militarised population were already in a frenzy in full support of their CEO.
Showcasing the Iron Dome
As the bombardment of Gaza began, Israel told the world that the bombing was necessary to deter the firing of rockets into Israel by Islamic terrorists. Why did Israel choose this message? Because it would divert media attention towards its Iron Dome defence system which Israel developed principally for foreign export due to the system being too costly for internal use (hence Obama’s $225M loan towards the system). As noted by journalist Samer Jaber, Israel’s marketing message is clear - ‘the Dome is an effective and highly desirable product, made in Israel and employed on the front line against Islamic terror’. Repeated coverage of the Dome’s success by CNN, BBC, and Sky News, further reinforces Israel’s message.
Testing and marketing weapons during conflict is crucial to Israel, as it is a colonial state whose economic and political system is highly influenced by powerful arms manufacturers who are interested in euros and dollars. These corporations, such as RAFAEL which manufactures the Iron Dome, generated $7.5 billion in arms sales last year, making Israel the 6th largest arms exporter - ahead of China. Following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Israel experienced its biggest surge in the arms trade; time will tell whether the latest conflict will produce similar results - I suspect it will.
A key feature of the conflict has been the proficiency of Israel’s journalists and spokesmen to cover up any wrongdoing. This is because they are effectively robots of Israel’s military-run propaganda machine which pre-approves all news stories regarding military activities. Israeli journalism has even censored itself, turning propagandist on its own accord. In every interview, article, or tweet, Israel’s journalists and spokesmen will predictably quote half-truths straight from Israel’s ‘PR handbook’; their favourites being ‘Hamas is to blame for civilian deaths’ and ‘Israel is the most righteous military in the world’.
Israel’s control and influence of its media is no different to the control that McDonald’s exercise over their front-line employees. McDonald’s recognise that the actions of those employees closest to the public have the most control over public perception, and one errant minimum-wage cog in the machine could cripple the entire brand. Israel’s instinct has been to tightly control those journalists and spokesmen at the forefront of Israel’s propaganda machine.
Yet, the straitjacket Israel has thrown over its media is a self-defeating precaution, because by eliminating humanity, compassion, and trust from their interactions with the public, Israel’s brand and the messages they convey, appear too plastic and dare I say - too corporate.
Rise of the citizen journalist
Israel’s strategy of coating its ‘marketing’ messages with a pro-Israel gloss is no longer viable in a 21st century conflict increasingly viewed through social media. Israel’s ‘manufactured’ messages have been exposed by journalists in Gaza who have embraced the organic, public, and viral nature of social media to enlighten the world with the truth. What Israel has found is that its biggest threat may not come from Hamas, but from the citizen journalist who through a tweet, a picture, or a video, can instantly unweave Israel’s web of lies.
To grasp the differences in strategy, just compare the tweets of IDF Spokesman Peter Lerner, and Palestinian journalist Linah Alsaafin. Following the first Israeli attack after the 72 hour ceasefire expired, Peter Lerner tweeted that Israel attacked ‘terrorist infrastructure’ following ‘repeated terrorist aggression’. A short while later, Linah Alsaafin tweeted that in fact, the Israeli attack was an air strike on a mosque which killed 10 year old Ibrahim Dawawsa, which was later confirmed by international media.
In the corporate world, no matter how compelling your marketing may be, it can never mask a poor product. The same is true in war; in a conflict observed through social media, deceptive marketing and propaganda can’t hide images of Israeli bombs killing innocent women and children. It should be no surprise then that the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has been used in more than 4 million Twitter posts, compared to the nearly 200,000 for #IsraelUnderFire.
The airstrikes on the Misrata militia during the battle over Tripoli International Airport, by what US officials claim were Emirati and Egyptian fighter jets, did not get much media coverage. This is understandable considering the more dramatic events unfolding in the Arab World, such as the rise of ISIS and the war on Gaza.
However, these airstrikes, which failed to reverse the battle for the airport - assuming this was their aim - have significant political importance. They demonstrate new fault lines in the Arab World, marking the struggle between Arab conservative regimes on the one hand and their Islamist foes on the other, with democratic secular forces finding themselves caught in between. So why did Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launch these airstrikes? What does this signify for the wider region? And what does it mean for the future of the Arab revolts?
The Egyptian Armed Forces supposedly allowed the Emirati air force to use its bases to launch the attack, but the Egyptian government was quick to deny involvement, sensing a possible domestic backlash. It has built its legitimacy on a narrative of “fighting terrorism”, and due to the link established between political Islam and terrorism, the “go to” answer is that the current regime is intolerant to Islamists making gains on the ground in Tripoli, and thus felt the urge to intervene. However, this argument ignores that there are no significant signs of Egyptian interference in Libya. For example, there is no evidence of support from General Haftar, the leader of the main force combating the Islamists in Libya.
So what is at play? After the coup that ousted President Morsi, the Egyptian military regime received large amounts of aid and financial support from conservative Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This is not only limited to financial aid. The UAE has also become an important business partner of the Egyptian military, as it has, for example, replaced Qatar as an investor in the new Suez canal project, which the Egyptian military is using to shore up its domestic legitimacy by marketing it internally as a transformational national project, similar to the high dam project during the days of Abdel Nasser. Furthermore, the UAE has also partnered with the Egyptian military in a mega construction project worth 40 billion US dollars.
This pattern has major political significance, as the current military regime in Egypt is facing a major internal economic crisis. The Egyptian state is on the verge of bankruptcy and the only remedy for the current situation is a change in the political economy of the country. A solution to this crisis would be for the vast military economic empire to be subjected to taxation and transferred to civilian oversight and control, which of course is not taking place. Thus, in essence, the financial support from conservative Gulf monarchies allows the current structure of the Egyptian state, as a rentier state, to continue unabated. In return, what does Egypt have to offer? In essence, it 'rents out' its strategic and political weight to the Gulf States, and in certain cases, offers services for the protection of the regimes of these states, as the largest Arab army.
The airstrikes in Tripoli are the latest example of this, where Egypt has permitted the use of its air bases in an attack that did not affect it directly, in essence, ignoring Egyptian national security needs. This has led to the further erosion of Egyptian soft power with regards to its ability to influence events on the ground in Libya, which is strikingly similar to the policy currently being adopted towards Gaza. Egyptian national interests are subservient to the interests of other regional and international powers, who are acting as patrons of the current regime.
The UAE, on the other hand, recently seems to be pursuing a relatively aggressive foreign policy by engaging in military action outside its own borders. The question again is, why? The first reason is the general paranoia that the Gulf monarchies have of Islamism, as a possible alternative to the rule of their Arab Sheiks. After the air strike, the Emirati regime apprehended a number ofLibyans accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who will most likely will face a lengthy prison sentence. This follows the pattern of events after the removal of Morsi, when a number of Egyptians and Emiratis were accused of forming a branch of the Brotherhood in the UAE. The fear of the Arab revolt reaching the UAE and other Gulf states in an Islamised form is very potent and real, making the suppression of such movements a priority in these countries.
The other reason, which is less obvious, is Qatar. Qatar has aggravated its neighbours because of its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an attempt to raise its own regional profile and prestige. The UAE has been an adamant opponent of Qatar, and has led the hardline camp against the Qataris. As such, the airstrikes on Libya were a warning to Qatar, especially as talks were due to take place in Qatar with Saudi officials, to end the rift between Qatar and the Gulf States. The message was clear, end your support for the Muslim Brotherhood or else.
What does this mean for the progressive forces in the Arab World? It seems to me that the current dynamic will only serve to sideline those demanding genuine change. The security narrative of the conservative regimes is overpowering the demand for greater freedoms as the call for democracy is becoming smothered under the need to “combat terrorism”. There is also deliberate mixing of moderate and radical forms of Islamism. In other words, in the minds of many Arabs the Muslim Brotherhood has become synonymous with ISIS, and the opposition to the current regimes has become equivalent to the support of terrorism. This naturally feeds into the hands of Islamists, who are becoming radicalised due to severe repression.
But as living conditions deteriorate and the level of suppression increases, radicalism is becoming more attractive to the millions of disenfranchised Arab youth, leading to a cycle of suppression and radicalism that seems to have no end in sight. It seems that this cycle can only come to an end in the long term, when the failures of both parties leave space for a well-organised, ideologically motivated revolutionary movement capable of exploiting both forces, namely Islamism and conservatism.
When I woke up at 5:15 AM, I didn’t know that the war would be over that evening. I began my day with a cup of coffee, a quick check of my emails and then prepared a salad for my wife to take to work. As dawn broke a little after six, I went out to my farm and set the irrigation valves for the first of three sections that would be watered that day, and by 7:30 AM I was back home to see my wife off to work. Today she decided to drive our small car into work, rather than take the bus, because she wanted to attend a Yoga class on the way home.
Aside from our little bright yellow car, I also own a pick-up truck which I mostly use for hauling fertilizer and equipment around the farm. It was overdue for its annual test and I planned to take it in later that morning. The testing facility is in Sderot, about 40 kilometers to the north of my village, and I had promised my wife that I would not take the direct route, which passed by several of the border villages that had come under heavy Hamas mortar and Kassam attacks. Instead I would take the indirect route further inland, which is twenty kilometers longer but out of the direct line of fire. I called the testing facility to confirm that it was operating and set off for Sderot accompanied by a neighbor who wanted to get out for the day.
I really hate taking my vehicles in for their yearly test. The facility, though not large, is quite noisy and I am never sure what the tester is telling me to do. This time my neighbor stood next to my truck and relayed the tester’s instructions; turn on headlamps, high beams, left turn signal, apply brakes, and numerous other commands which I had to follow in order to determine whether my truck was road worthy. The result was that my vehicle needed a small adjustment to the front wheels in order to pass the test. So off we went to find a repair shop that re-aligns wheels.
Normally I have my truck and car serviced at Kibbutz Alumim. This is a border village, subject to a good deal of rocket and mortar fire along the route, which I had promised my wife I wouldn’t take. However, not finding a suitable repair shop in Sderot, out of desperation I drove down to Alumim, ten minutes away, not knowing whether to be more frightened of the Hamas mortar bombs or the consequences of my wife finding out. We arrived safely and the alignment was quickly completed. With the suitable paperwork in hand we started back to Sderot.
During this war, when driving, it is always a good idea to keep the car radio on because when colour red alerts are broadcast, the drill is to stop the vehicle, get out and lay down as flat as you can. It may seem less than dignified but quite a few lives have been saved doing this. About a minute after passing Kibbutz Saad the color red alert was sounded for that village along with Nahal Oz and Alumim. Since we were already about a kilometer away we kept driving. Suddenly we heard three strange knocks on the roof of the truck. As my neighbor and I exchanged questions about the noise, I looked up into the sky and saw the three puffs of smoke from Iron Dome missiles that had exploded about 600 meters almost directly above us. The knocks were caused by the shock waves from the exploding missiles.
We made it back to Sderot, without further incident, handed in the paperwork and certified the truck. Once home, I had lunch and completed a few more tasks on the farm then prepared for an afternoon/evening patrol with the volunteer Border Police unit in which I serve. While driving to the police station I heard reports that there was talk of a ceasefire being implemented. There was no official confirmation from Israeli government sources but Abu Mazen was going to make a big announcement. Later I called my wife who was on her way home and suggested that she skip yoga and come home via the back route to our village. She was already too far along and decided to head to her Yoga class. The next day she told me that she was very nervous about the rockets but was determined to attend the Yoga class, which she did, along with the instructor and two other Yoga enthusiasts.
At 5:00 PM I arrived at the police station and joined the two other volunteers with whom I would patrol. We received our equipment, a vehicle and were briefed on the situation. Our job was to patrol the area, which is about four to ten kilometers from the border with Gaza. We were to keep an eye out for anyone who might be engaged in agricultural theft (our usual job) and to assist where needed in the event of a Hamas rocket or mortar bomb falling on any of the villages in our patrol area. We were on patrol by about 5:30 PM, just in time for a major barrage of rockets and mortars from across the border. Very soon after we received an order to put on our ceramic bullet proof vests, something that I had done only once before in my 15 years as a volunteer. It is not very comfortable to wear but given the increasing number of rockets and mortars being fired at our area, we all saw the wisdom of enduring the discomfort.
We continued on our patrol and even though some rockets did fall into villages in our patrol area we were not called in to assist. The most serious incident was when a mortar bomb exploded near a group carrying out repair work on an electric line and one person was killed and six more were wounded. At 7:00 PM the IDF ceased firing. At 7:13 PM the last Hamas rockets were fired at Israel. They fell at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom (The Vineyard of Peace) and then all shooting ceased.
We carried on with our patrol for a few more hours. During that time we talked about the war. Part of the conversation was about the one confirmed death from Kibbutz Nirim. We all knew him and so the feeling of personal loss was quite heavy. At 11:00 PM the patrol ended and as I started driving home there were news reports that another casualty from Kibbutz Nirim had died in surgery that evening. This was the last Israeli civilian killed in this outbreak of fighting.
On the drive home the radio reported that the Gazans were celebrating the great military victory they had just achieved over the Israelis. The radio also reported that at least two more Gazans were killed during the celebrations by shots fired in the air by celebrants. For some reason my thoughts turned to the dead Israeli civilian. Hamas had fired thousands of rockets at Israeli cities, towns and villages and the results were one civilian killed while giving out gifts to the troops, one Thai worker killed while working in a hot house, one Bedouin killed in his home, one four year old child killed at a border kibbutz and two men killed repairing an electric line in the last hour of hostilities. It occurred to me that Hamas had killed more Palestinian civilians than Israeli civilians during this conflict. About 20 Gazans had been shot down during a demonstration against the war; two dozen more had been executed for treason and those are the ones we know about. I suppose that there are important lessons that will be drawn and extensively analyzed, but the only thought that I had at that moment was a profound sense of waste.
By Nikita Malik
Outside the Catholic Church in Marj el Hamam, Jordan, two teenage boys diligently put together a set of shelves. They pass time as they wait for the line outside the shared bathroom to clear. The serpentine queue is filled with female friends and companions getting ready for this evening’s Mass. It is difficult to imagine that a mere ten days have passed since their families escaped the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul.
Father George, the head of the church, is responsible for overseeing the well being of his new guests. The refugees live in a building a short walk from the main church. Father George, or Abouna George as he is known in Arabic, prompts a group of women to lead me there. Inside the building is a modest room, its walls lined with stacks of identical mattresses. The area is separated into equal sections, partitioned off by plastic dividers. Each family has one section. Some lie on the mattresses and nap, while others use hand mirrors to comb their hair and apply makeup. I ask about the etched ن (the Arabic letter for “N”) drawn on each partition.
“The children did that,” one lady informs us shyly in Arabic. “When the IS came for us, they would mark our property with a spray-painted ن. The kids got used to it, so when we came here they drew it on the walls too.”
Christians in the city of Mosul were subject to grave and unreasonable threats following the city’s usurpation by the IS. Marked with a spray-painted ن, properties belonging to Christians were to be seized by IS militants. ن, or “N”, is the first letter of the Arabic word for Christian: Nasrani or Nazarene. Currently, the total number of Christian refuge seekers from Iraq who have secured entry into Jordan stands at 200 families, or 1,000 people. Many face difficult health conditions, and there are a number of people in hospital.
“They gave us three days to choose between conversion, death, or payment of a tax,” a lady informs me from inside her partition. “They took everything of mine: my gold, my wedding ring, my earrings. They set my house on fire as we were leaving. They use the loudspeakers in the mosque after the 7 o’clock prayers to warn us that they are coming,” her voice trembles as she continues her story. “This is now our home,” she says, gesturing to her surroundings. “Do you like it?” her friend jokes nearby, chipping in. It is August in Amman, and despite a small fan, it is so hot inside the room that sweat makes our clothes stick to our bodies.
At the moment, Marj el Hamam’s Catholic church holds 71 people, made up of roughly 20 families. The families that share the room know each other, but more refugees are expected to join them soon. For most, this is not a final destination. Instead, Jordan serves as a crucial buffer till they are sent somewhere new. Many are still waiting for the help of the United Nations. Their passports were seized by the IS as they tried to escape, and they are currently in limbo until new ones are issued to them from Iraq.
When asked where they would like to go, the women inside the building reply that they would be happy anywhere that God wishes to take them. The one place they can never imagine going back to, however, is Iraq. “There is no one left to know there, and nothing we want to go back to”. Their expressions harden as they answer this question.
Father George informs us that organizations, coupled with the funding of ‘kind’ donors, provide the families with food. The support the refugees need, it seems, is for other supplies. Crucial is money for beds, so that people do not have to continue sleeping on the floor. There is also demand for daily supplies such as tissues, books, and towels. This will suffice while the refugees wait to move somewhere else, somewhere where they can settle and rebuild their lives.
Outside, Kamal Qastomi tells me that his family, and many of the families inside, fled through Qarqosh, a city to the north of Iraq. They then reached Kurdistan before flying to Amman with Royal Jordanian. Though Jordan’s King Abdullah has allowed 1,000 Iraqi Christians to stay in Jordan, only 20 families from their neighborhood made it to Amman. Several were left behind because they could not afford the trip.
“We lost literally everything. They took our gold, money, and even my belt. I have one relative who is suffering with one kidney. He had to stay there [in Mosul] because he can’t afford traveling, and taking care of himself. We had to flee.”
Kamal is not afraid of death. What he is scared of, however, is the threat made by the IS to exploit Christian women. “They [the IS] threatened our women. They told us that if we died, or they killed us, they would take our women, our wives and our daughters as slaves”. Faced with this pressure, he chose to escape and leave the only life he knew behind. “They asked us to convert to Islam through an announcement they made at mosques around Mosul city, or face death. They gave us three days as a deadline. The priests of churches didn't want to cut a deal of any kind with the IS. That’s why the IS dismissed them as well as the Yazidis.”
Kamal’s story, and many others, makes it clear that the seizure of Mosul by the IS has manifested into a threat on human rights. This includes the right to practice whichever religion one chooses, should one choose to practice religion. Now, many hope that the new regime in Iraq will follow a path of statesmanship and pluralism, and not mindless sectarianism. As the number of disaffected Sunnis who have affiliated themselves with the IS increases, however, this could be a long wait. Until then, the Christians of Mosul continue to search for a place to call home.
If you would like to make a donation to help provide Care Packages to the Iraqi refugees in Jordan, please follow this link.
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