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This week's window on the Middle East - April 8, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Algerian activism: a new generation draws the line

Arab Awakening
11 April 2013
  • Algerian activism: a new generation draws the line
  • Throw away your textbooks: education via revolution
  • Body politics and Israeli feminism
  • Propaganda war marks the second anniversary of the Bahraini Spring
  • Thrift shops tell you something
  • Fall of Baghdad – 10 Years On
  • Algerian activism: a new generation draws the line

    By Hicham Yezza

    A common answer to the question of why there has not been an “Algerian Spring” to date, is that most Algerians - still coming to terms with the traumatic legacy of a decade of brutal infighting - had little appetite for another round of instability and a further potentially tragic leap into the unknown.

    And yet, although this answer carries conviction, one would do well to pay closer attention to the assumptions behind the question itself. Although Algeria has seen little in the way of large-scale street demonstrations or dramatic resignation announcements, there has nonetheless been a seismic shift in the national consciousness as a result of the events in Sidi Bouzid, Cairo and beyond.

    In particular, away from the traditional circles of power, a new force has been working its way up to the surface of the Algerian political landscape: that of organised youth activism. Long dismissed as an irrelevant, albeit relatively harmless nuisance by the political and media class, a new generation of young organisers, trade unionists and campaigners - galvanised by the infectious energies of their comrades across the region - have been issuing increasingly audacious challenges to the country’s complacent rulers, and they are, at last, being taken seriously. Indeed, for most Algerians the defining story of 2013 might well turn out to be not the French Mali intervention or the In Amenas terrorist attack, which both received intensive coverage in the western media, but the unprecedented wave of protests that has been taking place across the Algerian South over the past four weeks, and which have gone largely ignored beyond the country’s borders.

    The initial spark occurred on March 14, when The National Committee for the Rights of the Unemployed (Comité national pour la défense des droits des chômeurs, CNDDC) issued a call for a mass peaceful protest in the city of Ouargla, 600 kilometres south of the capital Algiers. Against expectations, thousands of protesters turned out, demanding a dignified future and a fairer sharing-out of the country’s wealth. This was a powerfully resonant call for millions of disaffected youth, especially those living in the South, the site of the country’s oil and gas wealth, where poverty and under-development are endemic.

    Soon, further protests mushroomed across other southern cities, such as Laghouat and El-Oued. The protests were a remarkable success, not just because they actually went ahead (itself an achievement in a culture where, for decades, public dissidence has been seen as a highly hazardous gambit) but because they secured unprecedently widespread, and overwhelmingly positive, coverage in the national press as well as across social media networks. Even the official public TV channels felt compelled to report them, a sure sign of the degree of alarm this nascent movement has raised among decision-makers.

    Emboldened by these early successes, further protests have been spreading northwards, a sign that this is not an ephemeral surge but a real, unmistakable shift in the collective mindset. As one activist told me last week, too many now feel they have literally nothing left to lose to care about any possible repercussions.

    For now, it seems the authorities remain paralysed with confusion over how to respond to this challenge. Last week, all of the 96 Algerian activists heading for the World Social Forum – held in Tunis from March 26 – 30  – were stopped at various border crossings and denied exit, mostly under spurious pretexts to do with having invalid travel documents, a move condemned by civil society groups at home and international human rights organisations abroad.

    For many, such a hamfisted measure might prove to be a stupendous and unnecessary own goal, and possibly a costly one too. The authorities are right to worry, of course: a new generation has become increasingly assertive in its determination to make itself heard and is losing the fear that had dependably kept earlier generations quiet. Furthermore, although strikes, sit-ins and marches have been a regular feature of Algerian public life for years, we are seeing for the first time a level of organisation and effectiveness that is impressive and which in turn has generated enthusiasm and apprehension in equal measure.

    In particular, the movement has been alert to the political and economic realities of the moment, and its sustained and dogged scrutiny of official policy and actors. Take, for instance, the new Hydrocarbons law, which came into effect on March 9, and is the first to officially authorise shale gas drilling, a highly controversial move yet one which has received very little attention in the national media, let alone been subjected to the requisite levels of public scrutiny and debate.

    Activists have since raised the alarm over the serious economic, environmental and political consequences of allowing the move to go unchallenged. In addition to producing research briefings and coordinating media campaigns, they have also aimed at widening their actions overseas. Many will be protesting in London on Monday, April 15, outside HSBC offices where Youcef Yousfi, Algeria’s energy minister, will be holding meetings. Such dogged determination to hold the government to account is tremendously encouraging.

    Unsurprisingly, this rising tide of political dissent is evolving beyond the reach of traditional party politics. And no wonder: since the early 1990s, political parties in Algeria have been largely seen as an irrelevance; toothless actors sustaining an artificial political circus utterly disconnected from the everyday concerns and voices of the population.

    With next year’s presidential elections fast approaching, creaking party machines are already clicking into gear, preparing to rehearse the same routine, and seemingly oblivious to the tectonic shifts underneath. Instead, the predictable rounds of intrigue and skulduggery among the political elites have intensified - its latest victim, Abdelaziz Belkhadem, was recently dethroned from his position as General Secretary of the ruling party, the FLN, with many more heads predicted to roll over the months ahead as factions fight to protect their share of the pie.

    For now, 2014 looms as a forbiddingly ominous deadline. While President Bouteflika’s quest for a 4th presidential term has polarised the political class, there is a growing realisation that the election will not be about the survival of a particular candidate at the helm of the system, but the survival of the system itself.

    Time is running out, fast, however, and Algeria’s youth are getting better organised, more vocal and less patient than ever. Whether the old guard can muster enough political dexterity, moral courage and margin of manoeuvre to push through a genuinely reformist agenda before it’s too late will determine whether this decade will be one of healing transition or turbulent, cataclysmic rupture.

    Throw away your textbooks: education via revolution

    By Ahmed Kadry

    Last week in Cairo saw the second of two workshops take place at Ain Shams University, entitled “Egyptian women artists and writers, and cultures of resistance.” In partnership with one another, the University of Manchester hosted the first workshop in November 2012, entitled “Women and political activism in Egypt.” While the focus of both workshops was clearly on the role of women in Egypt during and after the January 25 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the focus in November was on the political dynamics of Egyptian women and its nuances, while last week saw papers and discussions centred on art, literature, music, and other popular and less popular mediums of expression that evoked the image of Egyptian women during and after the revolution.

    For three days these students were unassuming tireless ushers who ensured us delegates never wanted for anything. Always polite and friendly, they appeared just as happy that we were at their university as we were to be there. But it was our (or at least my) mistake to forget that for all the academic and technical discussions about the future of Egypt through the lens of women and artistic expression, the answer to all our questions can sometimes be staring you in the face. The highlight of the conference came in the very last hour of the conference on the final day: the students of Ain Shams, faculty of arts, showed us exactly what effect the Egyptian Revolution has had on both the young adults of the nation and the immediate future of the nation’s artistic expression.

    After we had all been seated, students Gehad Minshawy and Mai Hassan Ali stepped up to the front of the lecture hall and in a moment they were transferred from background ushers to frontstage performers. With a brief introduction about the song they were going to sing, (Eskenderella’s version of “Yohka anna”), the two young ladies produced this performance which both captivated the audience in a deafening silence as they sang, yet produced enthusiastic applause at their final chord. No academic or writer over the three days had received anywhere near that reception, and for good reason too. It is to the credit of the organisers of the event, Dr. Dalia Mostafa from the University of Manchester, and Professor Faten Morsy from Ain Shams University, that they left the work of these remarkable and talented students until the very end – showing us in live and living colour what we had all been talking about for three days. The song itself portrays the intense national pride Egypt had during those utopian eighteen days, and Gehad and Mai sing it with equal amounts of passion and emotion.

    As we recovered from their performance, Mina Wilson was then introduced by a member of staff from Ain Shams University. As I looked around wondering who Mina Wilson was, the only person I could see standing near the podium was the young man in a suit who had tirelessly helped all us speakers for the three days with all our technological issues before we presented. He was always smiling and polite despite, I am sure, our annoying questions like “Are you sure it’s going to work?” and “Can we test the video I’m going to show one more time?” And then Mina approached the microphone on the podium and I realised, just like Gehad and Mai, it was his time to graduate from the unassuming to the no longer to be ignored. As he began trying to set up the video he had created, even affording an ironic smile and a laugh from the audience as the big screen displayed in large capital letters “ERROR,” his video started and we once again fell into a shared silence. Here is Mina’s video, which I must confess I have now watched up to a dozen times since seeing it that Wednesday afternoon. It needs no description from me, but if ever there were proof needed that Egypt’s awareness of gender relations had been raised, it is the work of a young man focusing his time, effort and talent like this to document a cause that he believes in.

    His choice of footage and accompanying soundtracks left us all once again applauding him as the video came to a close, and I was astounded at how differently I now looked at Gehad, Mai, and Mina. I did not know their names prior to their performances, nor did I ever say anything more than “please” and “thank you” in those three days except in that final hour where I once again thanked them from the bottom of my heart. Myself, and I am sure the audience of academics, now understood, more clearly than any academic paper could ever reveal, the true extent to which Egypt’s young adults have been affected by the past two turbulent years - two years of revolution, two years of uncertainty, but also two years leading to endless possibility that these three students showed in fifteen minutes.

    They were old enough to be in Tahrir or watch Tahrir on television, mature enough to now understand that they are living in extraordinary times, and from their performances and my brief talk with them afterwards, passionate enough about Egypt to drive it forward. They stole the show, which is how it should be, because the show was meant to be about them in the first place.

    Body politics and Israeli feminism

    By Omer Harari

    The last few months, the floodgates have opened. Rape culture is finally becoming something discussed and deconstructed in public. We might say the cases in Steubenville and Delhi brought attention to familiar struggles in different corners of the globe: the latter because of the complicity of the state, the former for complicity of the media. Within North Africa, March 16 saw a 19 year old Tunisian woman named Amina Tyler post photographs of herself, with "Fuck your morals" and "My body belongs to me, and is not a source of anyone’s honor" written on her torso. It isn't so much that she wrote those words, but that she did so while nude, which arguably incited such people as Almi Adel, the Salafi Islamic preacher (who is part of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Tunisia,) to call for Amina to be stoned to death - others have suggested 80-100 lashes. Now, it appears, her family has settled on keeping her in a psychiatric hospital, presumably against her will.

    I was reminded of the Egyptian woman Magda Alia al-Mahdy who posted photos of herself in the early days of post-Mubarak Egypt in October 2011, about whom Maya Mikdashi wrote

    "She is not “waiting” for the “right moment” to bring up bodily rights and sexual rights in post-Mubarak Egypt. She is not playing nice with the patriarchal power structures in Egypt. She is not waiting her turn... Her nudity is not about sex, but it aims to reinvigorate a conversation about the politics of sex and the uneven ways it is articulated across the fields of gender, capital, and control."

    In Israel, some forty women took up the idea that nudity itself be transformative in the right contexts, and took part in a solidarity demonstration just a few weeks after al-Mahdy was herself abandoned and denounced by the same people she'd marched with in Tahrir Square full of hopes for the burgeoning revolution in Egypt. Sometimes, it seems feminist solidarity can cross boundaries  that politics can't. These recent movements, not to mention the public addressing of rape culture that make visible the workings of patriarchy in general, know that the regulation of women's bodies in particular are issues of power relations everywhere.

    On Thursday, the feminist group FEMEN took to the streets in a show of nudity of their own, as part of a "Topless jihad" in defense of Amina Tyler, who was herself a founding member of FEMEN Tunisia. Thursday's demonstrations were going on in European cities - Paris, Brussels, Milan, Kiev, and Stockholm, and have drawn ire for their perhaps parochial, mostly Islamophobic undertones.

    In Tel Aviv this past Friday, some four hundred demonstrators took part in what is becoming a worldwide tradition of the SlutWalk, a convergence of women and men who intend to challenge assumptions about dressing 'provocatively' by asking the uncomfortable question, "provoking what, exactly?" The march is a show of defiance in a society that so often maintains that a victim did something to beckon a rapist, whether it's the clothes they wore, or the reputation they might have.

    SlutWalk will be taking place in Jerusalem at the end of next month, but in the mean time, it seems Jerusalem's women face an intersection of religious-based patriarchy as well: on March 14, Women of the Wall received a letter warning them that wrapping themselves in tallitot (prayer shawls), holding a minyan of women, or of reading from the Torah and reciting the Kaddish  (the mourners' prayer) out loud at the Western Wall would be grounds for their arrest. Feminism, like civil disobedience, comes in all types of designs. The practice of wearing a tallit (shawl), holding a minyan and reciting prayers (including the very  central and meaningful Kaddish), is precisely what Women of the Wall have been doing every Rosh Hodesh (marking the beginning of the Jewish month) since December 1, 1988. In fact, 10 women (two of whom were rabbis) were detained in February for wearing tallitot (shawls) at the Wall. With them were 300 others women and men, including a few of the paratroopers who recaptured the Western Wall from Jordanian control in the 1967 War.

    Male privilege at the Western Wall means that I can pray on the more spacious side of the plaza in front of the wall, out loud as I please, as part of a minyan while wearing a tallit, without being told by either other men (or for that matter any women nearby) that I am "acting out of line", or more absurdly, threatened with arrest. Before the SlutWalk march takes appears in Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall will have braved another two Rosh Hodashim, no doubt facing more intimidation, shouts, harrassments and threats, on the other hand keeping men needlessly and absurdly privileged.

    Whether or not the Women of the Wall will actually face arrest or detention on April 10 remains to be seen, but that they were threatened with it at all is alarming enough; that they have faced it in the past only to return in greater numbers is a testament to the righteous chutzpah necessary to transform the gendered discriminations at Judaism's holiest site. Whether in the criminalization of religious practice on the basis of gender (as in Women of the Wall), or gender-policing practice through religion (as in the case of Amina Tyler and Magda Alia al-Mahdy); or the willingness of the state and media to side with rapists by calling them “promising” (Steubenville), or a reluctance to respond at all (Delhi), it's clear that patriarchy, like feminism, can come in many designs—but it doesn't have to.

    Propaganda war marks the second anniversary of the Bahraini Spring

    By Raihan Ismail

    The recent second anniversary of the Bahraini ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings has been marked by renewed clashes between largely Shia protesters and government security forces, despite efforts by the regime and opposition groups to enter into peace talks. The country’s Al-Khalifa monarchy, who are Sunnis, has long ruled over the Shia-majority kingdom.  Anti‑regime Shia accuse the government of sectarian-based economic and political marginalisation.

    While the Bahraini unrest is now mostly sectarian in nature, the original 2011 revolts were not. The protesters who initially took to the streets demanding reform included a prominent Sunni activist, Ibrahim Sharif, who is now serving a five year prison sentence. Even Sunni religious clerics including the high profile Shaykh Abd al-Latif Aal Mahmud came out and urged the government to stop its crackdown on protesters and human rights activists. Sunnis and Shia came out in mass to participate in the “Gathering of National Unity” in February 2011. 

    However, the government and the state media targeted Shia protesters, accusing them of promoting a sectarian agenda. Allegations of torture and killings perpetrated by the Bahraini security forces against Shia demonstrators emerged, and Sunni voices for reform became increasingly distant. The same Sunni clerics in Bahrain who initially criticised the government began to endorse the Al-Khalifa’s sectarian rhetoric.

    Sectarian unrest in Bahrain did not begin in 2011. And sectarian rumblings in the island kingdom have long interested its paternal neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which is home to a restive Shia minority in its eastern areas. In 2007, when Bahraini Shia demonstrated against the Al-Khalifa regime, the Saudi government, under the leadership of King Abdullah, threatened to intervene but did not follow through.

    For Saudi Arabia, the circumstances of 2011 prompted a stronger response.  The speed with which long‑standing dictatorships were swept away in Tunisia and Egypt alarmed the monarchs of the Gulf.  Within a month of the region’s revolts spreading to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened, with the agreement of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and sent troops to Bahrain to back the country’s security forces.

    Although Saudi officials have denied links to the violent crackdowns on protesters initiated by Bahrain’s security forces, claiming that their presence is strictly designed to protect Bahrain’s state infrastructure, many Bahraini Shia accuse the Saudi soldiers of actively participating in the torture of Shia detainees. Saudi Shia who pledged solidarity with their brethren in Bahrain held multiple demonstrations demanding that the Saudi regime cease its intervention. The Saudi government took the threat seriously, deploying more security forces to the country’s east to contain its own growing domestic sectarian unrest.

    Since 1979, the Shia theocracy of Iran has lurked in the background of sectarianism in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  The Bahraini government has frequently accused Iran of supporting Shia demonstrations in an attempt to destabilise the kingdom. These claims have not been entirely without merit.  In the 1980s, Iran financed violent Shia organisations in Bahrain. However, the Bahraini regime has persistently sought to accuse Iran of stirring up the island’s Shia population in response to often legitimate claims by the Shia of political and economic marginalisation.  The inability, or refusal, of the Al-Khalifa family to move beyond blaming Iran and deal effectively with the grievances of the Shia has only exacerbated the problem the regime now faces. Shia activists often emphasise the government’s deliberate attempt to use Iran to marginalise them. A similar pattern has occurred in Saudi Arabia over the same period.

    When the Bahraini uprisings intensified throughout 2011, the Sunni religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with other anti‑Shia clerics in the Arab world, began to demonise the Shia of Bahrain as agents of Iran. Shaykh Muhammad al-Arifi, a high profile cleric who makes regular appearances on Arab television channels and has more than a million Twitter followers, said in a television interview in early 2011: “I see a huge difference between what is happening in Bahrain and what took place in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. These revolutions were for all citizens and received no external support. The people have been marginalised and suffered many grievances.” He singled out Tunisia, claiming that the population there “suffered religious, economic and political oppression under the rule of Zayn al-Abidin”, its deposed ruler. By contrast, he argued that the “Bahraini uprisings are sectarian oriented and devoid of demands for reforms”.

    Some Arab television channels including al-Wisal and al-Rahmah highlighted the suffering of some Sunnis in Bahrain at the hands of Shia protesters, in an appeal to all Sunnis to beware of the Shia. Pictures and videos of gruesome injuries allegedly suffered by members of the largely Sunni security forces or by members of the Sunni public are televised, inflaming sectarian fervour among Sunnis.

    This propaganda war has reached new heights thanks to the events in Syria.  The Assad regime, from the Shia Alawite sect, has tortured, killed and bombed Sunni civilians, and done so with the support of the region’s most prominent Shia political actors, Iran and Hezbollah.  These developments have worked in favour of the Bahraini ruling family on two counts.  First, the more extreme nature of the conflict in Syria has diverted the world’s attention away from Bahrain.  And second, the support of Iran for the Assad regime has strengthened the claims of the Bahraini regime and its supportive clerics in Saudi Arabia that Iran is a subversive sectarian influence throughout the region, including in Bahrain, and an influence that needs to be countered.

    Other Arab countries, including the largely Sunni but relatively tolerant Egypt, have refused to acknowledge the grievances of the Bahraini Shia. In August 2012, the Bahraini activist Maryam Khawaja was denied entry into Egypt for “security reasons”. Egypt’s Al-Azhar university which is considered as the bastion of Sunni Islam, but recognised for its acceptance of Shiism as a legitimate Islamic sect (Twelver and Zaydi sects), recently invited the outspoken and high profile Salafi cleric Muhammad Hassan to give a highly critical speech about Shiism.

    The anniversary of the Bahraini uprisings has thus given cause to reflect on the developments of the Arab Spring as a whole.  The protest movements in the region have not been monolithic.  The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were genuinely popular movements, seeking the overthrow of dictators in favour of democracies.  But Bahrain’s experience of the Arab Spring has developed into a much more ugly sectarian battle, pitting the Al-Khalifa regime, with the support of Saudi Arabia, conservative Sunni clerics and most of Bahrain’s Sunni minority on one side, and activists for the country’s Shia majority on the other.  This development has suited the regime perfectly well; painting the conflict as sectarian in nature has enabled the regime to delegitimise the popular movement against it and galvanise the support of Sunni regimes, clerics and populations abroad.

    Thrift shops tell you something

    By Refaat Mohamed

    I might not be able to find a solution to the economic crisis we are facing in Egypt, but one doesn’t need a degree in economics to realize that those in charge don’t know much either. Common sense, meanwhile, seems not to have been applied.

    I must admit that I am and have always been a big fan of hip hop, and have even had the good luck to be part of the hip hop movement burgeoning in the Middle East. Hip hop is always underrated as a social and cultural medium by the wider public, while hip hop enthusiasts, artists, and fans overstate its importance as a tool for social change. If we try to fairly evaluate hip hop, I would say,  “it is a form of art, music, and poetry, which has the capacity to deliver a message, and raise awareness about a certain subject. The content, and quality of the message, and the level of awareness it can raise is highly variable “. This is by way of a long introduction to Macklemore’s song  “thrift shop “, and how it touched me in ways that I am pretty sure he did not imagine.

    Although it is kind of too mainstream for my taste, this song really got to me. A hip hop song performed by a white man from Seattle, talking about the ways he can save by visiting the thrift shop instead of buying his clothes through conventional means, and spending much more than he can afford. For the artist, this might have just been a stunt aiming to launch his music up the charts, which he succeeded in doing, but for me it suddenly made a lot of sense.

    I have always thought that it is quite strange and disgusting, the social, and economic gaps in our societies, in Egypt, and in society generally. In Egypt we have a lot of people who are dirt poor, and a thin stratum that has lavish spending habits. They spend their money on things that are trivial and just plain inconsiderate when it comes to their fellow citizens.

    What saddens me, and makes me jump up and down angrily is that these spending habits are encouraged by previous and current regimes and state systems, and also by the diminishing middle class. The government is always encouraging foreign direct investment in projects that induce consumption, and importing goods, while offering temporary employment opportunities. Meanwhile, people pour their money into the coffers of international corporations.

    What the government should really encourage is projects that are industrial and productive, which result in exporting goods, and require a work force. Which may sound pretty easy, but in fact it is not, because as a country you need to attract such corporations to invest in your country, which we haven’t been doing for a while.

    So if ever the song you hear on the radio makes more sense than your government does, then you should know that you are in trouble.

    Fall of Baghdad – 10 Years On

    By Anas AlTikriti

    Ten years ago, before the world’s mesmerised gaze, an iconic statue of Iraq’s former dictator was pulled down amid a throng of jubilant Iraqis. None of those present or bearing witness could have envisaged the extent, scope and depth of the pain that would ensue over the next decade.

    Among those who danced in jubilation and took part in slapping the head of the statue with his slippers was a local taxi driver, Abu Ahmed Al-Mishadani. An Arab Sunni and 38-years-old at the time, he too saw this as the end of the darkest of eras and the start of a new dawn. Married to a Shi’i woman and with five children, his aspirations and hopes for the new era of freedom and dignity were unlimited. He had seen the inside of a Ba’thist prison cell and the fiery end of an electric rod too many times to allow himself a moment’s grief over the collapsing tyrant.

    Yet since then he has been arrested three times, imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, tortured, had seven of his fingernails extracted, his skull fractured, both his legs and his left arm broken and his ‘honour’ violated more times than he can remember. This last ‘confession’ usually implies rape and sexual abuse, of which he is too ashamed to speak. Each time he was picked up by a different group: militia this, army that. Each time he pleaded with his captors to tell him the reason for his arrest. Each time he got no answer. The only answer that makes any sense to him is the one he gives to whoever cares to ask: I am a Sunni; that’s why. His wife Zahra nods in agreement.

    Of course the experience of one individual cannot be used to paint a picture of an entire nation’s life across a whole decade. However, this story is repeated time and again with slight variations in the details, the injuries, the assailants and lasting wounds. There are Shi’as who tell similar horror stories, and Kurds and Turkmens and Christians and Sabians. Indeed, there are far too many stories to consider the experience of Abu Ahmed an isolated case of individual corruption and mishandling.

    Ten years on, Iraq lingers at the bottom of the global transparency index, beaten only by five other more corrupt countries. Indeed, according to the very same American politicians who hailed the ‘New Iraq’, corruption is at an unimaginable and on an endemic scale. The Mercer Index points to Baghdad as the worst city in the entire world to live in, bar none.

    More than 20 million Iraqis, or 76% of the entire population, do not have regular and constant electricity and/or clean running water. There is virtually no education and health system to speak of, the country’s infrastructure resembles something out of ancient times, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, and more than five million driven into exile either within or outside Iraq. Furthermore, sectarianism has firmly taken grip of a country that, despite its former tyrannical regimes, never managed to dictate the social or political fabric of Iraqi society as attested by Abu Ahmed and hundreds of thousands of other Iraqi families where the make-up is a mixture of all of Iraq’s intrinsic and organic strands.

    In the past few weeks, as we commemorated the tenth anniversary of the largest anti-war demonstration in British history – which I chaired – the tenth anniversary of the war and now the tenth anniversary of the occupation of Iraq, the question asked by most media commentators and presenters is: is Iraq better or worse now than under Saddam Hussein?

    The question is unfair and any answer tells us nothing new. After all, who proposed that the Iraqis had only two choices: either the dark and tyrannical days of the Ba’thist regime, or the present misery, pain and inhumanity? Why can’t Iraqis condemn both and yearn for something else, far better, far fairer and far more humane? Why should Iraqis answer such an unreasonable question in order to exonerate either a pro- or anti-war position, when it’s clearly a subjective standpoint either way?

    A decade on from one of the most controversial and divisive decisions in modern times, few can claim to have fared well. Not the occupying forces which, despite gaining a military victory, lost on so many other fronts. If reports and briefings by security advisors are anything to go by, heightened terrorism alerts in the UK and the US have much to do with Iraq and its ramifications.

    The country has never been so close to an all-out civil war, nor has it ever been closer to breaking up into three separate entities, than it has now. With neighbouring Syria in a state of meltdown and Iran aiming to widen its net influence in the region, the impact of the Iraq failure may be felt far and wide – and not only by Iraqis destined to suffer another generation of abject misery.

    Tony Blair, under whose premiership Britain went to war and subsequently occupied Iraq, may cite the disposal of Saddam Hussein and the guise of democracy in Iraq all he wants to prove that he made the right decision. The enduring legacy of that decision, however, will be that millions of Iraqis from across the country’s sectarian, religious and ethnic divides, have come to believe that they are now suffering far greater than they did under Saddam. And boy did they suffer.

    But for those who did – Abu Ahmed Al-Mishadani, his wife Zahra and thousands more like them, who celebrated the departure of the former dictator 10 years ago – are forced today to grieve over the loss of their collective humanity, dignity and their dream.

    Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


    To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

    We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

    We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

    The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

    And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

    The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

    Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

    The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


    By adding my name to this campaign, I authorise openDemocracy and Foxglove to keep me updated about their important work.

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