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This week's window on the Middle East - August 27, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Traffic, trash and training: building Libya’s future

Arab Awakening
26 August 2012
  • Traffic, trash and training: building Libya’s future
  • Antioch: a new Tripoli?
  • Kidnappings, burning tyre road blocks, and gun battles - just another week in Lebanon?
  • Is it possible to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood?
  • In the Tunisian elite we don’t trust
  • Traffic, trash and training: building Libya’s future

    By Rhiannon Smith 

    Ramadan is over, Eid el-Fitr has been and gone, and the newly elected General National Congress must now begin in earnest their unenviable task of writing a Libyan constitution. The new government will not only have to deal with pressing security concerns, but they will also have to address potentially controversial socio-political issues in order to produce a constitution which most Libyans will be happy with. National dialogue is essential, but as with any issues concerning identity, tradition and religion, conclusive answers will be hard to come by and progress is likely to be frustratingly slow.

    However, there are issues that could be actively addressed with minimal controversy and relatively little effort which would not only improve living standards across the country, but also lay the groundwork for the psychological transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

    There are three priority issues. The first is traffic, which in Libya’s main cities is dire. Roads are poorly maintained, there is barely any public transport, petrol is cheap (mineral water is cheaper by the litre than petrol) and drivers are reckless, rarely heeding traffic rules. While improving infrastructure and creating alternative transport will take time, a hike in petrol prices and strict enforcement of traffic laws would have an immediate effect on the level of congestion. Libyans drive everywhere because they can afford to, and they flaunt the rules of the road, despite the dangers, because that is what everyone else does and there is nothing stopping them. If drivers are forced to drive only when they need to and within the remit of the law, then the traffic choking Libya’s biggest cities could be significantly reduced. In addition, traffic law enforcement will make people realise that the authorities are taking notice and taking action. This could be the first step towards re-establishing rule of law in post-Gaddafi Libya.

    The second issue is Libya’s chronic litter problem. It stems from the lack of organised, well funded rubbish collection services and the national penchant for throwing litter directly on to the street. The national waste disposal system needs a massive overhaul in all areas, but short term benefits could be reaped through funding a bigger workforce and modern vehicles to dispose of rubbish, along with strict rules about where rubbish can be dumped. Not only would the environment be cleaner and healthier, removing the litter could help kindle Libya’s fledgling tourism industry. Perhaps more importantly, cleaning the streets will show that the government is doing its job and might encourage people to consider the consequences of throwing their rubbish on the streets.

    The final issue for consideration is teacher training. The most challenging issue of the three, improvement in this area is of utmost importance for Libya’s future. School curriculums have already been overhauled to omit the worst of Gaddafi’s legacy, yet it is the style of teaching which is in most desperate need of reform. By the time they leave education, students generally do not have the transferable skills the labour market is so desperate for. In Libya learning is by rote and independent thinking, problem solving and analytical approaches are nonexistent. Teachers are given little training, support or development and as a result the style of teaching hasn’t changed in decades. For real progress to be made in Libya, attitudes and approaches must change. It doesn’t matter how much debate goes on at the surface, if teachers are not trained to provide students with the skills and mind-set that Libya needs moving forward, then history is likely to repeat itself. Training will take time and money, but the sooner it starts, the sooner results will be seen.

    Libyans fought for freedom, and for the most part that is what they now have: the freedom to choose their leaders, determine their future and forge their own national identity. However freedom does not mean doing whatever you want without facing the consequences. With rights come responsibilities, both for those in power and those who put them there. This is perhaps one of the tougher realities of moving away from a corrupt, authoritarian society towards a transparent model where accountability reigns supreme. For all the political and ideological debate currently raging in Libya, society has not yet been able to move away from the authoritarian prism through which it has been conditioned to see the world over the last four decades. If the National Congress are seen to be making a positive impact in areas where Gaddafi failed, then not only will it prove that the elected members are up to the job, but it will also provide a new foundation on which to rebuild Libya.

    Antioch: a new Tripoli?

    By Ali Gokpinar 

    Antioch is experiencing one of the warmest summers ever, the Sun making everyday life unbearable.  But Antiochian people are more concerned about a possible spill-over of Syrian civil war into the city. While the number of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey rose to 78,000  this week, the traditional market of Antioch was almost empty since there is a remarkable drop in the number of  local and  international tourists and many shops have already gone bankrupt. How do all these factors taken together influence the psychology of the local people and how do they react to the increasing number and visibility of the refugees?

    Social tensions in Antioch, regular and relatively peaceful host to Alawites and Sunnis, have risen since the eruption of the Syrian conflict, reaching an unprecedented level since early July, when the fighting intensified. The visibility of Syrian refugees has created discontent among the local people but especially the Alawites, not only because of Al-Qaeda’s role in diminishing the legitimacy of the Syrian opposition and the reminder of bearded Libyan fighters in Antioch, but also for fear of an Islamist takeover of power in Syria. Further, some political parties in Turkey took to protesting at the Syrian refugees last month, to delegitimize the AKP government’s Syria policy and politicize Alawite discontent.

    Spending 15 days in Antioch, whoever I talked to told me another rumour about the Syrian refugees and the growing tension between sectarian groups. The overall tendency of the rumours was to assert that these Syrian refugees will threaten the very existence of the Alawites. They either have arms or are trying to find some, given the uncertain future of the Syrian conflict. In turn, some say, many local people including Sunnis who oppose the fall of Assad have started to buy  arms to protect themselves. Such problems surfaced also in some public hospitals in Antioch as refugees claimed Turkish doctors mistreated them or did not tend to Sunni or bearded refugees or rebels. Despite Turkish officials denial of such reports, a local correspondent of a daily newspaper told me in conversation that certain Turkish officials had asked the press not to report “sectarian incidents” in Antioch, in order not to intensify the tension.

    Some local notables have urged people to calm down. But this may not be enough to prevent sectarian incidents since it would only take one major sectarian incident increasing fears and revisiting past traumas to kindle conflict among Sunnis, Alawites and refugees. This fact also reflects a deeper and covert divide in Turkish society in terms of Sunni-Alawite relations. A famous professor of religious studies, Hayreddin Karaman, recently published some articles on Syrian Alawites, criticizing them from the dominant Sunni Orthodox perspective. Although these articles were not aimed at Turkish Alawites,  such writings  cannot help. Hayreddin Karaman is quite popular, especially among the conservative AKP supporters.  Such Sunni Orthodox perspectives will only further undermine the social cohesion of Turkish society that is already divided along  ethnic and sectarian lines.

    Unlike Tripoli, where heavy fighting has broken out between the Sunnis and the Alawites, thankfully, Antioch has escaped this so far. But given the sensitive make-up of the Antiochian population, we should not be surprised if  journalists report violent sectarian incidents from Antioch.

    Kidnappings, burning tyre road blocks, and gun battles - just another week in Lebanon?

    By Christopher Sisserian

    Kidnappings often take place in Lebanon, either for ransom or political purposes, especially with regard to inter-tribal disagreements. In the last few months blocking roads by burning tyres has become increasingly common as a form of protest at the governments ineffectiveness in dealing with various issues, particularly the fate of 11 Lebanese nationals who have been kidnapped in Syria.

    Finally as a legacy of the country’s 15 year civil war, there is a high rate of private weapon ownership which means that sporadic gunfights often erupt over disagreements. By these counts Lebanon is a failed state, especially since the Lebanese army is often unable and at times unwilling to intervene to restore order, as other actors in many cases out-gun it.

    However in spite of the relative ‘normality’ of such occurrences, recent events provide greater cause for concern than usual. The spate of kidnapping by the powerful al-Mekdad clan in retaliation for the kidnapping of one of their own in Syria, prompted the blocking of various roads including the highway leading to the airport which resulted in several days of confusion and prompted an exodus of foreign nationals from the country. The heavily armed clan which numbers close to 20,000, still holding 20 Syrians and a Turk hostage, is frequently accused of belonging to Hezbollah, though it denies this and claims it is acting independently.

    Hezbollah, which leads the government, has remained relatively quiet amidst the chaos, in what has been praised by some as an effort not to ignite tensions further. However the pro-Syrian regime Hezbollah has also remained quiet over a plot involving former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha and the head of the Syrian national security bureau, General Ali Mamlouk, in detonating bombs throughout Lebanon to provoke sectarian tensions and draw Lebanon into the Syrian conflict. As Hezbollah is widely accepted as the most powerful military force in Lebanon (including the state army), its actions are of crucial importance. This would have a decisive impact on any conflict.

    Lebanon has often served as an arena for proxy wars, and some believe that the Assad regime is doing its utmost to draw Lebanon into the Syrian conflict. Recent clashes in Lebanon’s second city Tripoli, between the pro-Assad Alawite Jabal Mohsen and the anti-Assad Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhoods have left 12 dead and over 70 wounded. The Lebanese army has been deployed to try and maintain a ceasefire. Although it initially lacked the authorisation to intervene to bring an end to the conflict, it has now been given the green light to do so, signalling that the government is becoming increasingly concerned about the intensity of the fighting. The minister of defence warns that should it continue, the rest of Lebanon may be drawn in. Senior UN officials are amongst many who view these clashes as a clear sign that this is already the case.

    Lebanon has long been affected by events across the border in Syria, which only withdrew its armed forces from the country in 2005, and there are many ties between the two states at both the state and societal level. Politics remains divided between the pro-Syrian Hezbollah led government and the anti-Syrian opposition, which is a divide reflected across many communities, currently being demonstrated by the fighting in Tripoli. As a result it seems the official policy of the Lebanese government to disassociate itself from the conflict in Syria may be difficult to maintain as the combination of chaotic events over the past week have raised serious fears of a return to conflict in Lebanon.

    Though the potential for conflict is often described as being a spill over from Syria, sectarian conflict has defined Lebanon throughout its modern history, and many points of tension remain unresolved.  The country’s complex web of sectarian, political and tribal alliances and feuds mean that various actors could become rapidly involved in a conflict that would quickly gather its own momentum, rather than simply being a subsidiary theatre to the Syrian issue. As the Syrian conflict evolves and takes on an increasingly sectarian nature it appears as though Lebanese sectarianism has spilt over into Syria. Syria’s conflict may then reciprocate, overflowing into Lebanon.

    Is it possible to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood?

    By Dina El Sharnouby 

    Whether or not August 24 reflected the demands of many people, the call to “dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood” and seize power from the ruling Freedom and Justice Party has an important message to give us about one section of Egyptian opinion: according to EuroNews, some 3000 Egyptians took to the streets on the August 24.

    But what would it mean to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood? It is a very ambiguous demand that I personally find hard to understand. Egypt has undergone many difficult moments and endured many stifling years under the cosh, resulting in revolution against an old and corrupt system. And one major dysfunction of the old system was precisely suppression of political opinions and directions. The Muslim Brotherhood was the most popular of these organizations and detaining its members became part of their expectations in life. Though you might quarrel with the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm the FJP, how will dissolving them “protect” the “rest” of the population from what some fear will be radical moves to take power of both the presidency and the upper and lower councils?

    Instead one of the great successes of the revolution is the ‘outing’ of all the underground movements and organizations. The last parliamentary elections left many Egyptians confused over the amount of Salafi people who seem to us to have appeared out of nowhere. It came as a surprise to many that they both existed in such numbers and are as organized as they were, enabling them to make such gains in the last parliamentary elections. But finally they are playing a role in public life. And at least now being aware of the power of the Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood makes the political sphere more predictable and hence manageable. Dealing with any movement or organized group is now a possibility within the framework of institutions and the rule of law.

    Even though these must still develop so that they function properly, the drive needs to be to bring to the surface all kind of ideas and organizations to be able to deal with them, and let them find their place within the political context, alongside the other political parties who believe they are serving the country as a whole. Though revolutions play out through conflict, not least conflict over powers, let us not forget about this key success in bringing all different opinions and political strategies into one place for negotiation. Holding all political parties and movements accountable for their actions, statements, and strategies should now be the way forward, until a common ground of political ideals and power relations are found to serve the country in all its diverse interests.

    In the Tunisian elite we don’t trust

    By Meriem Dhaouadi 

    One element of the Tunisian uprising that brought an abrupt end to Ben Ali’s 23-year rule was the puncturing of the Tunisian elite ‘s ‘prestige’, as initiated most remarkably by members of the  impoverished masses who began fighting for their rights in 2008 in Tunisia's phosphate-rich Gafsa region. Traditionally, the very few somehow well connected to the people in power had been admired and acceptable to Tunisian society, their interests consequently promoted. But “The people want the fall of the regime” became one the most prominent slogans, chanted at the peak of the Tunisian uprising.

    Panic started to creep into their luxurious and somehow immunised lifestyles when they learned that they were losing the popular vote. After all these people are not used to failure. Instead of reevaluating their  strategies and ideologies, reconnecting with the people, breaking the ice between them and reaching out to the oppressed, they reacted by making the gap even wider. In short, they abandoned their responsibilities towards their fellow citizens and failed the people once again.

    Offended by the people‘s choice in the recent elections, they have now literally declared war on the people and their political rivals. They don’t miss a chance in a TV appearance to shift the blame to the general populace to cover up for their own mistakes. They bombard you in the national and international media outlets with boring lectures as to what they deem “uneducated”, “naïve” and “irresponsible” about the commoners who were manipulated by Islamists into voting for them.

    But isn’t it high time to point out to them that this blame is just dead wrong?

    The fact is that the narrow elite have monopolized education, culture, economics and every vital institution of Tunisian society. Thus, the Tunisian public‘s way of thinking, their preferences are deeply influenced by the choices already made by the self-appointed wise men and women acting like puppets for the ruling Family Mafia.

    Admittedly, many of these well-bred elitists do face a certain linguistic barrier in crossing the communication divide, since their mother tongue is ‘French’. Surprisingly, in a radio show or a television appearance they tend to opt for the language of the former colonizer to convey their messages of a bright, prosperous and fairer future. But what about the illiterate Tunisian listener? Will a French discourse, or a hybrid one ( a mix of Arabic and French), appeal to the uneducated who still make up a large proportion of the Tunisian public?

    The elite are the ones who mainly get to inform the western media about the situation in Tunisia because they are fluent in foreign languages, can easily get in touch with foreign journalists and consequently are readily classified as the mouthpieces of the Tunisian people.

    Because of their privileged status of going to the most prestigious schools abroad, they manage to secure the same path for their children and because of their strong networks, they limit the opportunities of the European and American scholarships and training courses to the their narrow circles, thus preventing those who come from a modest background from climbing the social ladder and securing well-paid jobs in multinational companies.

    The latest celebration of the Women‘s Day in Tunisia was another occasion for this arrogant faction to launch their complaints. Those ‘affronted’ elites chose to spam the crowds with banners that read “I am a Tunisian woman and the harizet of the Constituent assembly does not represent me” (the hariza in Tunisian dialect refers to the lady you might hire for a body massage in a Turkish bath-type massage parlour.) This sneering attitude towards the lower classes is another reason for the disenchantment of the Tunisian people with their elites.

    The larger community in Tunisia are now much more aware than ever before that the exploitation and the contempt of some portions of the Tunisian elite is likely to be one of the chief hindrances to the development of Tunisia and its transition towards authentic democracy.

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