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This week's window on the Middle East - August 20, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Syria, two sides of the same coin?

Arab Awakening
19 August 2012
  • Two sides of the same coin?
  • Eating the democratic crumbs from the Arab ruler’s table
  • Syria’s silent war in the Gulf
  • Another Revolution in Tunisia is inevitable
  • Egypt: a civilian, democratically elected president at last
  • Assange and the hidden influence of the US
  • Two sides of the same coin?

    By Rita from Syria 

    The Syrian street has grown accustomed to mocking the outcomes of meetings between representatives of Arab countries at any level. Our “so-called” representatives have often been found wanting in their ability to find consensus. On such occasions daily news headlines may well be prefaced with, "The Arabs have agreed to disagree". This has deprived the people in the region of having any meaningful platform which carries weight in international forums. This paralysis can be attributed to the fact that all Arab dictatorships are subservient to external parties, making them unable to take any decision in the national interest.

    But now it seems that this curse has spread to the Syrian people as well - agreeing not to agree at a time when we desperately need to unite our ranks. This divergence of views throws up a couple of interesting questions: is this proclivity to squabble symptomatic of multiple international actors intervening in the Syrian conflict or is it, as some political commentators would have it, attributable to Syrians actually not being intellectually ready for democracy and pluralism?

    The Syrian Revolution has gathered under its wing a wide cross-section of Syrian society, all opposed to the system of authoritarian rule. However, the divisions amongst this broad array of actors have continued to be the true master of the situation. Since the start of the revolution, the Syrian opposition abroad has witnessed sharp divisions and has been hitherto unable to demonstrate complete unity in its ranks to the extent that even the wording of press releases are not agreed upon. Personal differences are prevalent, creating a climate of frustration among the opposition at home. Despair at the in-fighting and rivalries amongst opposition elements has completely overwhelmed people at home. A more recent and disturbing development has been the re-emergence on the ground of a rivalry between Islamists and secularists in Syria. Evidence of the extent of this cleavage can be found on a number of social networking pages.

    Islamists, who make up the vast majority of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), point an accusatory finger at secularists for not taking up arms. Islamists  - and here I mean the Sunni community – consider themselves to have been the ones who have borne the heaviest burden and suffered the largest losses in the revolution to date. Thus, you can find among the Sunni community a general feeling that they are the vanguard and have the right to lead the many different groups and sects which make up the Syrian street.

    On the other hand, there are a lot of young people belonging to other minority sects who have tried to join the ranks of the FSA only to be refused on the basis of their belonging to a minority sect. Saleh, an Alawi activist who had been detained by the regime’s security services in prison for a month, told me: "I tried repeatedly through a contact to volunteer with the FSA, but they kept deferring without giving me any reason. It wasn't until someone told me that my request had been completely rejected because I wasn't Sunni, that I understood."

    Jamal belongs to the Ismaili sect. His anti-regime credentials are as good as any - he had been arrested twice for a period exceeding six months for his role in documenting and participating in peaceful protests. Despite this, Jamal felt it necessary to pretend to be Sunni to gain acceptance into the FSA: "I've started practicing Sunni rituals even though I still consider myself Ismaili. I had to, so that I could engage in combat and be a part of the FSA." He told me.

    Given that membership of the FSA is seemingly out of bounds for members of minority sects, it is perhaps unsurprising that those who oppose the regime gravitate towards secularist opposition groups. Sunnis on the other hand are overly represented in the FSA while those who favour non-violence can be found in secularist opposition groups. Increasingly, secularists are becoming more vociferous in their condemnation of some FSA actions which are seen as sectarian and of the FSA's uncoordinated and unbalanced military policies. Secularists in Syria are beginning to feel the imminent danger of being marginalised in the face of the growing power of Islamists who have taken up arms. A large percentage still believe in peaceful means as the best path towards a more democratic and liberal society. Meanwhile, the Islamists, who have borne the brunt of the regime's brutal violence, look on disdainfully - referring to secularists as “rich kids playing at being revolutionaries.” 

    Recent developments provide us with a stark reminder of this struggle between Secularists and Islamists for the soul of the revolution.  Approximately one month ago elements of the FSA cut off the water supply to Selemiyeh and its surrounding villages, because the predominantly Ismaili population refused to carry arms and continued to adhere to the principle of peaceful protest. This collective punishment on the part of the FSA seemed all the more shocking given that that Selemiyeh has provided refuge to more than 80,000 people, mostly from the Sunni community, who have been forcibly displaced from the nearby war-ravaged cities of Hama and Homs.

    How do we proceed with the revolution - peaceably or by means of an armed struggle? The question here is why do Islamists and secularists feel they are in opposing camps? When I asked a few young fighters from the Ali bin Abi Talib battalion of the FSA what they understood by the term secular, they gave a terse reply: "Secularism is contempt for our faith and it means we cannot practice our religion freely." Of course this is not how secularists in Syria, like myself, understand the term. For me, the separation of state from religion follows the popular slogan "religion is for God and the homeland is for all." It means that the freedom of religion, like other freedoms is sacred. At the same time, it also means that religion cannot control the policies of the state and should not define its national identity. It is a recognition that the homeland we call Syria is made up of numerous faith communities and a celebration of plurality which is not at the expense of any one group.

    When I asked a gathering of young secular Syrians on a Facebook forum why there was so much fear concerning Islamists, the response drew striking parallels with how similarly aged members of the FSA had viewed secularists. "The Islamists want to impose Islamic law on us and prevent us from exercising our personal freedoms." Islamic law, of course, does not mean this. Justice, ethics and religious freedom are the cornerstones of Islamic Law. This is neatly encapsulated in the well-known quote from the Qur'an: "There is no compulsion in religion". The Noble Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet - on which Islamic Law is based - gave people the complete right to follow whichever faith they want. When the law imposes a system of Islam on minorities, this does not mean that it is an Islamic regime but an autocratic dictatorship. For the FSA to follow this path would be a betrayal of the revolution it originally set out to defend and protect. We would only be substituting one despotic regime for another.

    It is the absence of communication between Islamists and Secularists that will certainly widen the gap between the two camps and strengthen the preconceived and misguided ideas they have of one another. It is thus that sectarian identities become ossified. From the conversations I have had with both secularists and Islamists, I really do not see much distinction in their principles and ideas - the only difference lies in how best to reach the goals of the revolution. Everyone is afraid of being marginalized and made irrelevant by the other.  Both parties have long suffered under the shadow of autocratic rule. What is required now is the strength and courage to actively integrate and mix so that we can be rid of the corrosive prejudices which threaten what this revolution stands for.

    Eating the democratic crumbs from the Arab ruler’s table

    By Amro Ali 

    Saudi Arabia’s revered King Faisal once remarked in 1960: “If anyone feels wrongly treated, he has only himself to blame for not telling me. What higher democracy can there be?”

    This line of thinking has permeated the thinking of Arab rulers in which somehow they are the personification of a popular mandate and that democratisation is misunderstood by the wider population.

    Yet it’s one thing when Arab rulers say it, it’s another when the Arab public quotes and endorses it.

    One of the ideational stumbling blocks to the Arab uprisings and democratic transitions is a public adept at citing a handful of tales to justify the current or past hegemonic orders and repressive figures.

    One Egyptian I spoke to had longed for former president Anwar Sadat based on this (I have yet to verify it) account: an owner leased out her Cairo apartment to the Portuguese ambassador in the 1970s. She fell into dispute with the tenant who was apparently not paying the rent and behaving badly towards the Egyptian owner. The owner went to Sadat to complain, at which the president picked up the phone and scolded the ambassador: “If you are treating an Egyptian like this in her own country, then how are you treating Egyptians in your country?” The ambassador was forced to pack his bags and return to Lisbon.

    The lesson one can only presume is that Sadat cared about Egyptian dignity first and foremost (unlike his successor Mubarak).

    Whether this story is true or apocryphal is not the point. It has been quoted enough times, along with countless others, to be perceived as true.

    What is of concern here is the problematic infatuation with Arab leader’s words and anecdotes that bear no relevance to the day to day lives of millions of Arabs.

    In this case, the unrealistic scenario that someone in Jeddah can pick up (a yet to be implemented) telephone and contact the royal quarters in Riyadh, or that the monarch will simply drop his busy schedule to hear out his subjects grievances from all over the country (even if through third parties) defies belief. A wealthy owner of an apartment, most likely in the upscale area of Zamalek, would have had some high level contacts to get to Sadat – a connection that would be unavailable to millions of Egyptians.

    Contemporary leaders also receive, although much less than before, the same benefit of the doubt.

    Such circulated tales and anecdotes, the positive version of conspiracy theories, underpin the ideological tapestry of a public’s acceptance of authoritarian rule. It is also not unusual to come across Syrians, Jordanians, Emiratis, Moroccans, Tunisians, Libyans and others who will exhibit similar sentiments, no matter how educated they are.

    It can also determine voter behaviour in a nascent democracy. When the late Omar Suleiman launched his bid for the Egyptian presidency, one of his supporters, after telling me another anecdote, averred that he would bring order to the streets. When I pointed out Suleiman’s bloody track record, he responded “Only the respectable citizen will not be harmed”. Rule of law need not apply. Order welcome.

    Last month, in a move unlike that of his predecessor, President Morsi opened the presidential palace doors to hear complaints by Egyptians. A great gesture no doubt that will let off some steam. But the Morsi-Mubarak contrast will eventually wear thin as people demand their human security. All 83 million of them.

    There is a need to increase transparency by strengthening the separation of powers and institutions that will mutually reinforce each, and by building civic groups that will provide the informal political education to society. Personalities, policies, and procedures go hand in hand.

    No amount of story-telling will make up for the hard work of building a real democracy. In the satellite TV and social media era, it’s going to be tougher for would-be leaders to get away with unwarranted legend-building. They are best to leave that to successive generations who will determine the practical legacy they left for their people, not what they said at the dinner table or over the phone.

    Syria’s silent war in the Gulf

    By Michael Stephens 

    We are all by now more than accustomed to seeing pictures of Syria’s conflict assaulting our senses in a myriad of different ways. The war is becoming as much one of visuals and images, as it is about bombs, bullets and shells. Perhaps we may turn around in future times and say that this conflict was the 21st century’s most macabre experiment in human emotional management and control.

    The Syrian war is currently being waged on two levels: the military and the ideational. Which are increasingly intertwined in terms of their effect upon one another, yet also ever more distant. The military conflict becomes more domestic and parochial, while the war of ideas spreads further afield and takes root in countries far outside Syria’s borders.

    This ideational war is the ‘Silent war’.  It is rarely seen, and rarely talked about, yet it influences everyone who talks about Syria in a very direct way. The silent war is intensifying to the extent where it now defines the conflict, because controlling the flow of information, and striking back at those who seek to harm you is paramount to determining the course of the war.

    Living in Doha, one experiences this silent war in a myriad of ways. The first and most obvious is the interference in communications and telecoms that frequently serves as an annoyance to those dealing with Syria. Al Jazeera constantly changes satellite feeds to stay ahead of interference; the twitter feeds of journalists and activists and academics are regularly hacked and altered; and for the most part it is generally a pain to talk or communicate electronically when dealing with Syria.

    The rise of the Syrian troll is also an interesting development. Websites, news sites and YouTube clips are regularly flooded with pro-Assad propaganda, and the vitriol has surpassed even that of Bahrain as the most grotesque example of online behaviour which is aggressive and targeted.

    But the Syrians have not stopped at just being mild irritants in telecommunications, serious attempts to breach security in Qatar have been made in recent months against sensitive infrastructure projects.  These plans were all foiled, but serve as a reminder to all that there are real issues to do with meddling in a conflict in which the Syrian state apparatus still maintains a relatively effective ability to strike. Across the Gulf, similar issues are prevalent, and cause the security community no end of headaches and frustrations. Not to mention the myriad of journalists and broadcasters in the region who are the subject of revenge attacks sniping away at them.

    So what is to be done? In short there is no quick solution to this rather infuriating development short of actually breaking the Assad regime’s electronic warfare capabilities, which of course means breaking the Assad regime. Until such time nefarious activities will continue on apace and even increase. All those suspected of being involved in the Syrian question in the Gulf will face increasing levels of hacking, snooping and low level sabotage aimed at preventing their dissemination of anti-Assad messaging.

    Although it is doubtful that the Syrians possess highly developed cyber warfare capacity, as the stakes rise and the regime feels itself pushed into a corner, lower level disruption activities will spike, particularly in Doha and those in Media City in Dubai. For now at least it is best simply to buy a good anti-virus and hope for the best. Facebook, twitter, youtube, and PC’s are weapons in Syria’s silent war, and no more keenly is this being felt than in the Gulf.

    Another Revolution in Tunisia is inevitable

    By Meriem Dhaouadi 

    The time has come to rebel against religious fanaticism in Tunisia. Hardline Islamism has become more visible and threatening in recent weeks starting from targeting the two Tunisian Olympic medalists Habiba Ghribi and Oussama Mellouli on social media networks for inappropriate clothing and anti-Islam behaviour.

     A group affiliated with the Salafi current managed on Wednesday to cancel a stand-up comedy performance by the Tunisian humourist Lotfi Abdelli in the northern town of Menzel Bourguiba. Another cultural event was disrupted on Thursday when a group of radical Islamists blocked an Iranian group from performing at a Sufi festival in Kairouan  (Tunisia's holiest city).  On Thursday, a cultural night dedicated for Palestine in Bizerte, also north of Tunisia, turned into a bloody rout when a bunch of Salafists attacked the audience and smashed up the equipment of La Maison Des Jeunes (the House of Youth) where the event took place.

    Tunisia‘s hardcore Salafists emerged only after the popular uprising that resulted in toppling the dictator Ben Ali. This culture of Salafism was nurtured in Tunisia by a great influx of Wahhabi preachers welcome to Tunisia with the blessings and welcome of the Tunisian government.  Early this month Abdel Fattah Mourou, a founding member of the ruling party Ennahda was attacked and injured in a conference on religion and tolerance. Apparently the Association of Religion and Tolerance offended the sensitivities of the ultra-conservative Muslims whose ears have recently become accustomed to an intolerant discourse imported from the Gulf and orchestrated in order to generate hatred and violence in Tunisia.

    The real problem in Tunisia for the ordinary people is to provide for a living especially in this time of economic stagnation. But those basic demands are overlooked in the midst of the turmoil triggered by religious fanatics who aspire to impose their vision of the Tunisian society through propagating their ideas in mosques and conferences, even through violence.

    ‘The religious police” in Menzel Bourguiba decided that Lotfi Abdelli’s show to be ‘not halal enough’ to be given the green light. The Tunisian authorities and the Tunisian Ministry of Culture appeared helpless to defend freedom of expression and art was once again the victim of governmental indifference coupled with orthodox intolerance.

    An insult to what is sacred seems to be the same rationale that motivates those Salafists who interpreted the performance of Iranian singers in Kairouan as offensive to Islam. In the absence of the rule of law they managed to prevent the performance from taking place. The rhetoric of Sunni versus Shiite which has been introduced into Tunisian society very recently seems to threaten the tolerant fabric of our society where religious differences have always been accepted and been a part of the Tunisian history of intercultural and interreligious coexistence.

    Tunisians have always been characterized by a moderate and tolerant attachment to religion as can be seen in their celebration of the New Year although the majority of the population is Muslim. They go to the mosque to pray and you find the same people queuing to attend the performances of international artists in the International Festival of Carthage.  Religious affiliations in Tunisia should not lose this liberal mood.

    Egypt: a civilian, democratically elected president at last

    By Refaat Mohamed 

    Last week the newly-appointed president Mr. Mohamed Morsi, forced the head of the SCAF and the Minister of Defense Mohamed Tantawi, and Chief of Staff Sami Annan to submit their resignation in an abrupt fashion, which caused quite a stir in the political scene nationally, and internationally and in the Egyptian street as well.

    This move came as a surprise to all the observers of the political rollercoaster going on in Egypt for the past two years, as Mohamed Morsi was regarded as an easygoing, peaceful, character who could be easily pushed around, especially since he was not the first choice for the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Freedom and Justice Party. But this action proved him to be tougher and more courageous than anybody had suspected. This action did not just change the way people thought of Morsi, but it also changed the way people regarded the Brotherhood and their political party, who had been accused of having secret deals with the former regime and their remnants as represented by Tantawi and Annan. They were accused of just thinking of the benefit of the Brotherhood, and neglecting the demands of the revolution that broke out 19 months ago. They were even compared to traitors at times. But for the time being at least, this is no longer the case.

    Some people are having a hard time believing that something good actually happened on Monday 13. One reason for this is that since the beginning of the revolution we have suffered more disappointments than we expected, especially from the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamists, and the political spectrum in general. Another reason is because of the challenging, and competitive nature of the political scene between the Islamist parties on one side, and the liberal, communist, socialist parties, and the former regime on the other. As a matter of fact seeing any parties other than the Islamists siding with the former regime is a something I would never have imagined. It’s a shame. I blame the majority of the political parties and their leaders. But I blame mostly the Freedom and Justice Party, as they are the major player on the political scene since the revolution, and they didn’t make enough effort to assure all the other constituencies in society, that they would act in their interests also. They should have looked for cooperation, some kind of coalition with other less organized and powerful revolutionary forces.

    The whole situation is like if you have a girlfriend that you want to dump and she gets you the new iphone5 so now you can’t dump her! Many people cannot comprehend the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood whose intentions they have been so skeptical about, and not very shy about showing them, actually did something that they like and that they would have done themselves given half a chance.

    Despite the fact that the people of Egypt deserve to be happy, I always try not to get over-excited until I have assessed the whole situation. So now for the first time we in Egypt have a civilian, democratically-elected president, who has managed to overthrow the military rule in Egypt by a very cunning soft coup.

    Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Freedom and Justice Party now hold all the cards, and powers that any dictator wouldn’t dream of in his wildest dreams. It’s their responsibility to reassure the Egyptian people that they will not return the country into dictatorship or oligarchy. Plus now Morsi and this administration have no one to blame but themselves, for all the shortcomings to follow. I hope they prove me wrong and that we start the new era of which we have been dreaming. 

    Assange and the hidden influence of the US

    By Kacem Jlidi 

    Computer programmer and journalist Julian Assange has become in the past couple of years a worldwide icon and a face for truth and democracy as some of the posters hanging outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London indicate, a venue where he has been seeking refuge for two months so far.

    On June 19, Assange walked into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London seeking refuge to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning over rape and sexual assault of two female ex-Wikileaks volunteers while he was in Stockholm to give a lecture in 2010.

    Though Assange claims the sex was consensual and the allegations are politically motivated, a European Arrest Warrant was issued in this regard.

    In May this year, Assange had lost his Supreme Court appeal in England to avoid extradition to Sweden and was not able to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg; this gave Assange only ten days to be extradited, which prompted his request for asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, on the grounds that he is persecuted. Political asylum was granted on August 16.  

    Assange is known for being the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, an international online organization, publishing classified and anonymous news leaks by whistleblowers and US State department diplomatic cables.    

    Assange says he fears that if extradited to Sweden, he will then be handed on to the American authorities: a declaration Ecuador finds credible while Sweden finds it rather insulting to its judicial system.

    Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President, announced that the sheer possibility that Assange could face capital punishment in the US, based on possible charges of leaking confidential Government information, is enough reason for his Government to grant asylum to the activist.

    Though the asylum has been granted, the situation heats up over the logistical difficulties in getting Assange to the South American country; it seems that police in London would be within their rights to arrest him as soon as he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy’s premises.

    The British Government seemingly ever more determined to extradite the international activist to Sweden, has now threatened to raid the embassy if they don’t hand him over.

    In a statement released on August 15, the UK Foreign office stated,

    ‘We have consistently made our position clear in our discussions with the Government of Ecuador… The UK has a legal obligation to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual offences and we remain determined to fulfill this obligation’.

    British Foreign Secretary William Hague says Assange will not be granted safe passage to Ecuador.

    The UK’s Foreign Office statement reminds the Ecuadorian Government that they could revoke the Consular Status of the premises at a week’s notice under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, allowing them to raid it to carry out the 41 year old Australian national activist’s extradition.

    Ecuador reacted to this threat saying that any such action would be considered a violation of its sovereignty and a ‘hostile and intolerable act’. 

    Ricardo Patino, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister declared in a press conference, ‘Today we have received a clear written threat from the UK that they will raid our Embassy in London if Ecuador doesn’t hand over Julian Assange.

    We want to be absolutely clear that we are not a British colony, the days of the British colonies are over’.

    WikiLeaks posted on the same day a statement with regard to the overall situation stating:

    ‘By midnight, two hours prior to the time of this announcement, the embassy had been surrounded by police, in a menacing show of force. Any transgression against the sanctity of the embassy is a unilateral and shameful act, and a violation of the Vienna Convention, which protects embassies worldwide. This threat is designed to preempt Ecuador’s imminent decision on whether it will grant Julian Assange political asylum, and to bully Ecuador into a decision that is agreeable to the United Kingdom and its allies. WikiLeaks condemns in the strongest possible terms the UK’s resort to intimidation. A threat of this nature is a hostile and extreme act, which is not proportionate to the circumstances and an unprecedented assault on the rights of asylum seekers worldwide. We draw attention to the fact that the United Nations General Assembly has unanimously declared in Resolution 2312 (1967) that "the grant of asylum… is a peaceful and humanitarian act and that, as such, it cannot be regarded as unfriendly by any other State." Pursuant to this resolution, a decision to grant asylum cannot be construed by another State as an unfriendly act. Neither can there be diplomatic consequences for granting asylum. We remind the public that these extraordinary actions are being taken to detain a man who has not been charged with any crime in any country. WikiLeaks joins the Government of Ecuador in urging the UK to resolve this situation according to peaceful norms of conduct.’

    The public support to Julian Assange is overwhelming; there are various reactions on the ground, people gathered to protest in front of the British embassy in Ecuador and in London.

    Online, twitter is crowded with hash tagged #Assange tweets. #tnAssange is the hash tag used in Tunisia.  In response to the UK’s threat to raid the embassy, Nawaat, Tunisian leading collective blog tweeted:

    ‘If the UK storm Ecuador embassy we will storm UK embassy in #Tunisia for violating Vienna convention @wikileaks #assange #tnassenge

    Ecuador’s involvement in Assange’s case puts additional pressure on his situation. This is a case to be followed with interest involving each of Ecuador, Sweden and the UK where their diplomacies are manipulated by the hidden influence of the US.

    To stay up to date with our columnists, bookmark our You Tell Us page and follow the columnists on twitter.

    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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