This week's window on the Middle East - April 1, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Understanding Somalia

Arab Awakening
1 April 2013
  • Understanding Somalia
  • Qatar’s top diplomat tackles the rumours
  • Two Tunisians jailed over anti-police rap video
  • Jordan 2050: the constitutional monarchy with the solar panels?
  • Demystifying Ocalan’s letter
  • Understanding Somalia

    By Amal Ahmed

    The battle of Mogadishu in 1993 between the United States forces and the Somali militiamen loyal to the self-proclaimed president Mohamed Farrah Aidid, led to the killing of eighteen Americans and the downing of a US helicopter, the Black Hawk, with RPG’s (rocket-propelled grenades)  by Aidid men. This was the bloodiest battle involving US troops since the Vietnam War and remained so until the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004.

    Somalis did not believe that the Americans came to Somalia to secure a safe environment or for humanitarian operations: but they believed that they were using the humanitarian crisis as a cover for exploiting the natural resources of the country and to serve their political purposes in the region by having power where the former Soviet Union had once been influential. 

    The failure of the UNOSOM II mission certainly had a significant impact in US foreign policy; we saw what a lesson it was, as well as the profoundly negative impact of this failure on the worsening conditions in Somalia. Any triumph attached to defeating one of the most powerful countries in the world, conversely only gave the war lords a stronger reason to continue fighting, believing that they were impregnable. This in turn led the country into a series of civil wars, the invasion of Ethiopia, piracy, terrorist activities and ultimately its notoriety as a fallen state.

    In my view Somalia has been isolated for twenty years as a sort of punishment for humiliating the Americans, while they used it as a test case of a failing state, recently invoked for example in the fears expressed by some world commentators that Syria may became ‘the new Somalia’.

    Somalia was used as an experiment for every sort of corruption you could imagine: illegal fishing, dumping chemical toxic waste, fuelling and supporting terrorist groups like al Shabab and other war lords, using the country as an arms trafficking hub to serve the political and economic purposes of other countries, mainly their neighbours. Somalia was on stand-by for any dirty jobs needing to be done.

    Due to the invasion of Somalia and the neglect the country has suffered for twenty years, Somalis have lost faith, hope and trust in the international community. It was never safe for foreigners to travel around in Somalia unless if they had armed bodyguards around them for protection. The only people who used to be pleased to see foreigners were the kidnappers, so they could use them for their own advantage. Especially in Mogadishu, you didn’t expect to see foreigners walking with confidence.

    However, the scenario has changed with Turkish involvement in Somalia, in a way that prompts me to ask what it is that the Turks have done differently, to win over the hearts of the people of Somalia.

    Two years ago when famine hit East Africa, the Prime Minister of Turkey Tayyip Erdoğan was the first leader to visit Mogadishu with his family in twenty years. Mr Erdogan told the BBC that they wanted to refute the notion that the city was a no-go area. Single-handed, he thus succeeded in again bringing the attention of the international community and the media to a country torn by war and desperately in need of help.

    His visit to the country had a huge effect on the Somali community. They felt that finally they would not be allowed to suffer in silence and that this time, help wouldn’t be confined to food aid that would just prevent the Somali people from to starving to death but that perhaps it would offer more help than that for the future. His physical and emotional support has touched the hearts of many people and been seen as very genuine.

    In Somalia it is important to show that you are sincere in your dealings with others. In my country, what you see is what you get, and I believe that this is what the Turks managed to understand from the beginning. Turkey's rising role in Africa has brought good fortune to Somalia, by bringing some peace, stability and above all hope to a nation brought to its knees by civil war.

    In Mogadishu now you will see a Turkish flag fly next to the Somali flag whereever you go. Somali people genuinely love the Turkish people and want them in their country. They have become a sort of comfort.  One of my friends in Mogadishu said to me, ‘Now Turkish people are part of our daily lives, everywhere you go you will see Turkish people moving around the town without any security, building hospitals, treating casualties, and if there are any accidents you will see ambulances driven by Turkish people rushing to the rescue’. She adds, ‘they are the only foreigners who you see driving cars, swimming at the beach, playing football and building the country side by side with Somali’s. They believe in us more than we believe in ourselves. And they are determined to be part of a modern Somalia.’

    The commitment the Turkish government has given to Somalia has helped to bind the two countries together. Turkey is the only country in the world that has engaged their locals to help Somalis rebuild their country. If things continue in this way, Somalia will become a success story: a dead country brought back to life, by the Turks.

    Qatar’s top diplomat tackles the rumours

    By Michael Stephens

    Last week’s Arab Summit in Doha was a fascinating whirlwind of events. As I have argued elsewhere despite many ups and downs and moments of intrigue the summit was considered to be a rare success for an organisation famed for its inability to do just about anything.  The Syrian circus left town as fast as it had arrived, and us Doha politicos await its inevitable return in the coming months, with who knows what new developments.

    One thing really stayed in my mind and that was not the Syrian question so much as seven minutes during the final press conference when Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim (HBJ) went to town on a seemingly unsuspecting journalist who had asked a question regarding Qatar’s influence in Egypt. It was a fascinating piece of showmanship from Qatar’s top diplomat.

    The summit gave me a couple of opportunities to observe HBJ up close, and love him or hate him, there is little doubt he has a way of dealing with the media that few statesmen in the Arab world possess. Smiling, always measured and in control, his command of English is strong enough to crack jokes and to skirt around the edges of questions he doesn’t like. His points can be bitterly acerbic at times but they are phrased in such a way that it almost looks like he’s paying you a compliment.

    So when the consummate showman dedicated seven minutes of a half hour press conference about the Arab League to answering a question about Egypt, it’s time to pay attention.

    The problems stemming from the Qatari Egyptian relationship have been all too evident in recent months, and to be honest have not been that positive for the image of the Gulf Emirate. This combined with a plethora of rumours, some of which originated from very reputable media sources regarding Qatari mega-purchases of the Pyramids and the Suez Canal.

    HBJ took these accusations head on in his usual style making jokes about the ridiculousness of the charges before thrusting the poniard in to see off the allegation, “people say we were looking to rent out the pyramids for $200bn, what kind of value for money is this, maybe we’d consider it if it were $2bn” he joked, before saying “how many baseless accusations are made against us?…like the Suez Canal, we have never even considered buying the Suez Canal”.

    Rumours swirled around Qatar recently that the Royals had hired a big shot PR firm to distribute rumours about Qatari mega-purchasing, essentially to get Qatar back into the world’s good books. Rather than focus on Qatar’s assistance to rebels in Syria, and Libya, the world should focus on the one thing about Qatar it does like, namely its money. Big spending sprees on popular brands, shops and football clubs do far more for the image of Qatar than their assistance to anti-regime forces across the region.

    I often wonder how rumours start in the Gulf or in the Middle East in general, and why people are often so gullible as to believe them in the complete absence of facts or evidence. Occasionally mischievous reporting is clearly to blame, but the truth is usually far more benign, the Chinese whispers in secretive societies goes into overdrive with the tiniest fact growing and multiplying to a grossly bloated myth, with Blackberry Messenger often the vector.

    But here was HBJ trashing rumours about Qatari big spending rather than playing them up. Clearly the rumours, if true, are more limited in scope than Doha’s chattering classes might have us all believe. But the refutation was more than simply an indication that the rumours might be wrong, it was to try and set the record straight, and it is obvious that the ruling elite has had enough of the accusations and decided to fight back. The choice of timing presumably had to do with the fact that since it was the Arab League Summit, it gave HBJ the biggest possible audience with some 100 journalists and TV networks present.

    What happened last Tuesday evening was a fascinating example of Qatar moving away from its traditional mode of silence to address the problems it is facing. As ever we were treated to a big fanfare and a summit, which is something Qataris like doing. But it wasn’t all show. I doubt very much that HBJ had pre-planned the questions, at least it didn’t seem that way from the way the press conference was handled, so on a spur of the moment decision he took the bull by the horns and decided enough was enough. This was I presume with the full backing of the Emir.

    Sometimes it is easy to think that Qatar is simply interfering and expanding wherever it can, simply because it possesses the means to do so. HBJ’s performance at the press conference clearly showed that this is not the case. Qatar is becoming picky about when and where it interferes.

    Furthermore the Qatar-Egypt axis is fast becoming the critical fulcrum by which Qatar is judged. Whether Qatar is able to extricate itself from a very difficult foreign engagement that has caused it numerous headaches remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain, less PR on big spending and more offering of the facts is a good start.

    Two Tunisians jailed over anti-police rap video

    By Sana Ajmi

    Actress Sabrine Klibi and cameraman Mohamed Hedi Belgueyed were both sentenced to six months in prison on March 21 for their involvement in a controversial music rap video ‘Cops are Dogs’. The actress and the cameraman received their sentences at the Court of First Instance of Ben Arous, a southern suburb of Tunis. They were charged according to five articles of the Penal Code for slander and rebelling against officials.  

    "The rap video posted on youtube called the police dogs and contains expressions and gestures that affect morals and threaten the security of officers and magistrates," said the Ministry of Interior in a statement.

    While the actress and the cameraman were jailed, rapper Ala Yaakoubi, known as “Weld El 15” is still sought by police. Yaakoubi was sentenced to two years of imprisonment in absentia for hate speech and incitement to violence and murder.

    In a video published on facebook, Yaakoubi said that he does not regret making the film and that he is not going to turn himself in. He also asserted that the actress and the cameraman were not involved in making the video. “The song was issued as a response to the police’s physical and moral violence,” he added. He further explained that his song was inspired by his experience in prison after the 2011 revolution and treatment by police.“I was only using the language of the police. They have harassed me verbally and physically. As an artist, the only way I could answer them is through art. So I gave them a violent art,” he said.

    In response to the arrests, concerns regarding the state of freedom in Tunisia were raised. Several artists signed a statement warning against what they saw as an alarming and worrying return to old practices by the police. These are the same practices that the Tunisian people rose up against in January 14 uprising.

    Facebook users launched pages to support Klibi and Belgueyed, such as Free Sabrine Klibi, and called for a protest.

    In post-revolution Tunisia, this is not the first time artists have been arrested. In November, two graffiti artists were arrested for writing on the wall of a university: “the people want rights for the poor” and “the poor are the living-dead in Tunisia.” They have been accused of breaching the state of emergency, writing on public property and publishing messages that disturbed the public order.

    Recently a controversial video showing police dragging a female citizen in public has sparked outrage among human rights activists and on social networks. The video shows two police officers — one in plain clothes and the other wearing a police uniform — dragging a female through the street, partially stripping her in the process. The Ministry of the Interior announced that it had taken note of the video and launched an investigation into the matter. The ministry also announced that the officers responsible will be held accountable according to the law.

    Jordan 2050: the constitutional monarchy with the solar panels?

    By Munir Atalla

    A few weeks ago, a map was circulating the internet of a high-speed rail system that would connect Los Angeles to New York to Miami to Chicago to Houston. Prospective passengers were drooling and trying to figure out when this dream would become a reality.  As it turns out, the image was made as a thought experiment to test the imaginative capabilities of a nation.

    Predicting the future is a notoriously risky endeavour.  My intention here is simply to challenge people to envision one potential future for Jordan (and the entire Middle East) that maybe could come true.


    Greenpeace has released a study called Jordan’s Future Energy that states “Economic modeling results show that a target of 100% renewable energy by 2050 can be attained and can lead to total accumulated savings of approximately $80 billion (or $12 billion in present value terms), while providing 30,000 new jobs.” They seem to think that the only remaining question is, “what are we going to do with all of the excess money that we now have?”

    King Abdullah II told Jeffery Goldberg of the Atlantic recently that ““The monarchy is going to change. When my son comes of age and becomes king, the system will be stabilized and … it will be a western democracy with a constitutional monarchy.”  For Jordanians, this is great news, as thousands have been protesting for their political and human rights for years.  Not to say that in 2050 King Abdullah II won’t be a thriving 88-year-old, but by then his son will most likely have acceded to the throne of the first Middle Eastern country to run 100% on renewable energy.

    2050 will be a year of project completions for the Hashemite state.  The Abdali project, initially aiming for completion in 2013, after facing a seemingly endless set of setbacks, will finally be open to the public.  The Ammani skyline that today features a hills-meet-boxes feel will have more than three completed futuristic skyscrapers.  (By futuristic I of course mean retro.  The buildings were planned in the early 00’s after all.)

    The City of Aqaba (now known as the emirate of Marsa Zayed following the 2025 Abu Dhabi-led takeover) is now host to a plethora of mega-projects like Saraya and the Ayla Oasis.  Despite the success of these projects, the true shining star of the city is King Abdullah II’s own Star Trek Theme Park.  Although a journalist once deemed it a “decadent tribute to western cultural hegemony”, that journalist was proven wrong.  Very wrong.

    In 2030, the city of Tafeeleh surprised everyone by consistently scoring #1 in the world on the PISA world education exam, followed closely by Finland and Sweden.  Meanwhile, Petra welcomes its ten billionth visitor.  Petroleum reserves are discovered in Wadi Rum, leading millions to ask, “what on earth would we do with that stuff?”

    2050 is also a year of firsts, as the first Egyptian Prime Minister is elected in a landslide.  She comes through on her campaign promises of change and renews hope for the region.  On a strip of highway between Amman and Damascus, she puts the symbolic final peg in the trans-Arab high-speed rail system.

    Demystifying Ocalan’s letter

    By Ali Gokpinar

    This is a historic period. Despite the misunderstanding over a ‘ceasfire’ in the Turkish media and public, the PKK’s jailed leader Ocalan in fact did ask the guerillas to move out of Turkey on March 21, as Kurds celebrated the beginning of the spring, Newroz. His speech’s motto was that it is time for “politics” rather than “armed struggle”. His promising call, read both in Kurdish and Turkish, was slightly puzzling. But three overall points stand out; a call harmony, a rather selective critique of the Kemalist nation state and a request for forgiveness.

    Ocalan’s reference to the coexistence between various ethnic and religious communities in Mesopotamia, his emphasis on the brotherhood between the Euphrates and the Tigris and Sakarya and Meric, and his mention of Near Eastern cultures is the symbolic construction that paves the way for an approaching peace between Kurdish and Turkish people. These exciting pldges are flavoured with Islamic references, which seem to constitute a fundamental pillar of Ocalan’s upbeat language. Yet, they must be taken with a pinch of salt after the destruction of the last eighty years. Once an ardent secular Marxist, Ocalan does not reveal how he reconciled himself with Islam. It is true that many Kurdish people are devout and would support Islam becoming a cement for the Kurdish and Turkish people, but it remains unclear how the secular Kurds and the PKK will make their peace with Islam. If Islam is the common ground, what political moves will be taken to reconcile the relationships between ethnic identities?

    Ocalan’s critique of the Kemalist state gives some important clues as to the so-called new nation-building process. Clearly, he rejects those practices of the old state structures which encourage assimilation. It seems he is willing to reconcile himself with a democratic Turkish state that recognizes various “national identities.” The question is, however, if such an environment will actually allow Kurds, Armenians, Alevis and others to relate to their own cultures? Also, we do not really know if Ocalan’s claim to be forging a new modern democratic state means that he supports a liberal democratic state. The liberal democrat Turkish state will not come out of nowhere and it is likely to take at least a decade. Moreover, every community might have its hopes and expectations, but at the same time they have many drawbacks. This is most obvious among the Turkish people because the definition of their identity might change, leaving many Turks in agony. That’s why there is a remarkable rise of banal and campaigning Turkish nationalism. A tension between competing national identities might challenge Ocalan’s rhetoric and the new democratic state.

    Forgiveness is Ocalan’s key word when he looks at the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process. Although he attempted to encourage Kurdish and Turkish people to forgive each other, it is unlikely that such a process will work smoothly. The Turkish government has consistently rejected the idea that ex-guerillas will be given amnesty and dismissed the idea to create a legal process for it. This is the weakest point of the ongoing peace negotiations because although everybody talks about the DDR process, it seems all key actors are refraining from discussing a truth and reconciliation process and forgiveness. How will we forgive each other if our wounds are not addressed? Would the Kurdish and Turkish mothers forgive the Turkish security forces and the PKK that killed their each other’s beloved ones?

    Overall, despite some important problems in Ocalan’s letter, it is promising and opens a new historical era in the history of the Middle East. Yet, it needs to be deconstructed if we want this peace process to succeed. The peace process has been functioning on mutual and symbolic bona fides that are actually not very strong. What is missing in this process is simply the people. It is a mistake that has been made many times over the course of last ten years, and, we, the people of Turkey, should be actively involved in this peace process. We cannot remain indifferent to Newroz, to the brotherhood of people and to the Mesopotamian peace.

    P.S. I wholeheartedly support this peace process. Yet, one needs to acknowledge the weaknesses of the process and address them in order to succeed. The Turkish media’s unjustified attack on Bejan Matur, a Kurdish poet who succinctly showed how fragile the peace process is, is not a contribution to peace. Rather it is a misunderstanding of the peace process. I salute you Bejan and want you to know that I am in solidarity with you.

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


    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 WhatsApp yourData