This week's window on the Middle East - August 6, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Refused, confused or pleased to be sectarian in Syria?

Arab Awakening
6 August 2012
  • Refused, confused or pleased to be sectarian in Syria?
  • The Alexandria mafia’s new adversary: civil society
  • The UAE: a fake diamond?
  • Bahrain’s new labour scheme: one step forward, two steps back?
  • What does Qatar want in Syria?
  • Not good timing for financial compensation to political prisoners in Tunisia
  • The end of sexism in sports?
  • Ramadan and a new constitution in Tunisia
  • Refused, confused or pleased to be sectarian in Syria?

    By Rita from Syria

    Samer was always to be found in the front row of the peaceful demonstrations in the city of Damascus. He was forever at the forefront leading the demonstrators with his loud, echoing chant of "peaceful, peaceful, Muslims and Christians, Sunni, Druze and Alawi." Samer had never had the chance to go to University. Yet, he became engaged in student politics in the wake of the revolution; joining an independent grassroots youth association which was promptly banned by the regime. The continual and violent repression of peaceful demonstrations over the months of the revolution combined with mass and arbitrary arrests of civil society activists (including Samer’s brother) and the prevalent and widespread use of severe torture in detention centres seems to have made Syrian opposition activists - like Samer - lose faith in the effectiveness of the strategy of non-violence.

    “You can’t dent the barrel of a tank with a white rose.” That's what Samer told me when I asked him about the reason for his transformation from a peaceful revolutionary to a rebel fighter in the FSA. "I felt myself increasingly detached from reality. I was going on peaceful protests while people all around me were getting killed by heavy weapons," he added. Samer is one of the many young Syrians who have turned to taking up arms and who have joined the FSA.

    It did not stop there. Samer, who has long advocated against sectarian slogans and dodged the bullets of the security forces along with other Syrian activists from all communities, has himself become increasingly sectarian. On July 22, a week into the the military assault by regime forces on Damascus, batallions of the FSA had moved into the neighbourhoods where the fighting was at its fiercest.  The battalion to which Samer belongs arrested two young 'Alawi men’ passing through a checkpoint in a civilian car. Despite the fact that the two young men were civilians and seemingly had no connection with the violence and repression carried out by the Shabīha (a high proportion of whom are from the Alawi sect), Samer was one of the voices in the batallion who called for a summary roadside execution of the young men. Their only crime: they were Alawi. “The regime is the one who made us sectarian when it killed and tortured people from our community. The Alawis and all of those who have stood by the regime must bear the consequences of the injustice that has been inflicted on us”, he told me.

    Given that the FSA is not a regular army, and precisely because it has a rhizomatic structure which offers little by way of combat guidelines, the  local battalion commander is in charge. It is he who has the first and the last word on taking decisions in battle. However, in matters pertaining to ethical issues, deference is given to recognised clerics assigned to each battalion. In this case the clerics advising the battalions, based both in Damascus and abroad, ruled that there was no evidence incriminating the young men of being party to sectarian violence and as such they should be released without harm. However, during a thorough search of their vehicle a notebook was found containing defamatory remarks against the Sunni community insulting Abu Bakr as-Sadiq and Umar bin Khattab, close companions of the Prophet Muhammad and two of the greatest symbols of Sunni Islam. It was the insults attacking the honour of Prophet Muhammad's wife, Aisha, and accusing her of adultery, which provoked the greatest reaction among the battalion. Enraged, some members of the battalion took it upon themselves to overturn the decision of the clerics and shot the two young men dead.

    The young Alawi men were given a roadside burial by their executioners because in spite of everything that happens amongst the living, in spite of all the humiliations the living suffer, Samer was insistent that, “the rights of the dead must always be honoured.”

    In an earlier meeting I'd had with the commander of Samir's regiment we touched on the subject of sectarianism. He told me that the system of privilege sponsored by the regime denied those graduates from across all sects including the Alawi sect, who did not have regime connections, any viable career opportunities. Instead, they were left to eke out low-paid menial work on construction sites. This was more so in the case of graduates from the Sunni sect. For this batallion commander, the regime's actions since the uprising began have cemented the perception that the regime is openly sectarian against the Sunni sect. He told me: 

    “The regime has managed to play the sectarian card succesfully. It has led an assault on the sanctity of mosques and the Qur'an. It has targeted the Sunni community; commiting murder and torture. For me, the persecution of my brothers is easier to handle than the persecution of my faith. That is something I cannot forgive the regime for. I can't forgive a regime that made Bashar al-Assad a God and tried to force the detainees to worship his image."
    However, the regiment commander - who is studying Islamic jurisprudence -  was against the execution of the two young Alawis, because it seemed to him they were the innocent victims of a sectarian mobilization instigated by the regime. This is what we must all bear in mind. Although, events are increasingly taking a sectarian hue on the ground, the regime it must be remembered has been and continues to be an alliance between well-heeled Sunnis and Alawis.

    This incident reflects the diversity of opinion and practice in the ranks of the  opposition in the Syrian street - especially among the fighters of the FSA – regarding the sectarian dimension to the conflict. A sectarianism of varying degrees and intensities which I believe is contingent on the extent of interaction between different communities. When the discussion within members of the Sunni community veers towards sectarianism, the negative reaction often centres on the Alawi community (widely seen as allied with the Syrian regime) and the Shi'i minority (widely regarded as having allegiances to the Iranian regime) without any mention of the remaining communities and minorities in Syria. In contrast, the Isma'ili community which has taken part in the revolution since its beginnings is viewed as an ally by Sunnis, as are the Druze who have resisted regular attempts by the regime to sow discord between them and their Sunni neighbors in the neighbouring city of Der'aa.

    It seems that this so-called sectarian impulse which governs some Syrians is a direct consequence of a system of privileges maintained by the regime. This is a regime which has long indulged in sectarian politics to maintain its grip on power. Its obsession with curtailing the religious freedoms of some groups under the pretext of maintaining security in the country has only served to pent up past grievances. The sense I get from speaking to members of the FSA is that the trend towards sectarianism  springs from the failure of the regime to address legitmiate grievances rather than any inherent hostility against different communities based on ideological grounds. This is what marks it in distinction to al-Qaeda inspired groups who declare anyone holding an opinion and doctrine contary to theirs a non-believer. Instead, what we see happening in Syria is completely different. It is not the presence of Salafi-Jihadists among Syrians which has produced sectarianism, but sectarianism has emerged for political reasons, and in particular the unqualified support of large numbers of the Alawi and Shi'i communities for the regime.

    And what of the Alawis? Any mention of regime corruption or cronyism or talk of usurped civil and political rights with an Alawi supporter of the regime, and the discussion immediately veers off at a sectarian tangent with the regime supporter proclaiming: “anything is more palatable than Sunni rule”. Buried in this one sentence is an admission of regime corruption and its usurpation of the rights of ordinary Syrians as well as a defence of the status quo. For an Alawi supporter of the regime, this is a battle for survival and any potential change will likely marginalise the Alawis and hand power over to the Sunni sect. In their view, this won't lead simply to the loss of privileges and control over state institutions. Nor will it simply neutralise the influence of the Alawi sect socially and politically, but what is at stake is the threat of being exposed to a massacre or even worse on the basis of their Alawi identity.

    So the Syrian regime - which includes stakeholders from all sects - has been able to establish a bond between it and the Alawi sect, thereby creating social fractures between the many different sects which make up Syrian society. By doing so, the Allawi community has misconceived the regime's efforts at control and the setting of a sectarian agenda as being legitimate for their own protection.

    Some of the Alawi villages in the coastal mountains, which are the traditional heartland of the Alawi community, to this day live by the light of kerosene lamps without any access to electricity. This is perhaps the most striking example of regime neglect. It provides the greatest evidence of the illusion of the sectarian bond between the Alawi community and the regime and reminds us instead of its political roots.

    Sectarian tensions long simmering under the surface have boiled over. Today in Syria we find people talking about sectarianism openly in public. The tensions have been exacerbated by the fact that the sense of injustice has languished in the hearts of people for many long years. The causes of sectarianism in Syria are old rather than new; cumulative rather than sudden. What has changed now is that those inclined to do so openly admit their sectarianism without any sense of guilt. Each one looking to blame the other without seeking to bridge this widening chasm – a chasm which may end up consuming us all.

    Thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for translating this article.

    The Alexandria mafia’s new adversary: civil society

    By Amro Ali

    I recently penned an investigative article entitled, ‘The real estate pirates behind Alexandria's collapsing tenements’ that examined the spate of building collapses in the coastal city, particularly in the light of last month’s calamity in the heart of old Alexandria that resulted in 22 lives lost. Behind such events, as I noted, are a “loose network of land-lords, kahools [fall-guys], unscrupulous contractors, corrupt district engineers, crooked or apathetic police officers, and hired thugs making up what can only be described as Alexandria’s real estate mafia.”

    The mafia have not only declared a war on safety standards, but on Alexandria’s cultural heritage sites as well. Post-revolutionary Egypt was visited by the semi-break down of law and order, and an Egyptian public that became distracted with the country’s tumultuous political transition. The real estate mafia went into overdrive mode, not only building unsound structures, but destroying in the process cultural heritage sites dating from the pre-1952 monarchical era in order to build more of their dodgy high-rise apartments.

    With an impotent heritage law and a governor who was daily signing off 150-180 orders to halt illegal demolitions to little avail, the only effective response was the collective effort of a new group “Save Alex” that gathered students from the colleges of fine arts, engineering, tourism and hotels, and others, as well as Alexandrians from all walks of life including academics, activists, civil servants and even nostalgic elders.


    Protesters fight to save the Cicurel Villa; courtesy of Save Alex

    The group’s goals sought an end to the destruction of the city’s heritage sites and building code violations.

    The mafia were not used to opposition, unless it came from law enforcement agencies. There arose a cat and mouse game, where a threat to one heritage site would bring out Save Alex.

    The tools of the revolution were brought out again in full force – Facebook, Twitter, campaigns, vigils, brochure handouts. The public was a getting a taste of something novel – protests that have nothing to do with bread or bringing down a regime (or bringing down anything), but instead about preserving remnants of the past.


    Protesters fight to save the Cicurel Villa; courtesy of Save Alex

    The group has had some success, such as saving the historic Cicurel Villa – an art deco villa built in the 1920s by French architects Leon Azema, Jacques Hardy and Max Edrei. The pressure exerted by the group led the then Prime Minister Kamal El Ganzoury to step in, to protect the heritage listing in May.

    The Save Alex group is making headway in different ways. Their very presence may not have halted the destruction of heritage sites, but it has shone a spotlight on the issue. They have struck at the mafia’s most powerful tool, operating in the cover of darkness (often literally). This is a mafia that have rammed bulldozers into walls or water-flooded the foundations to destabilise the structure and therefore make them eligible for demolition. This is what Save Alex is up against. Also the successes, no matter how small, do create a momentum to keep on fighting the mafia. 

    There is a generational battle that includes a band of building owners and contractors who are the progeny of President Anwar Sadat’s 1970s Infitah era of crony-capitalism that thrived in the Mubarak years and gave the Pearl of the Mediterranean many of its soulless, colourless and hazardous buildings that were in tune with Mubarak’s persona. This gang has now to deal with a digital youth that are more mobile and have a different set of priorities than previous generations of youth have had. Heritage is now one of them.

    There is some way to go, the web of corruption in the construction industry is so convoluted and the weakness of heritage protection laws would require a national concerted effort to address the problem. However, the rise of Save Alex and other sister groups such as “We won’t let Alexandria turn into ruins” are highlighting the role of civil groups in the new Egypt, and the critical role they play in engaging the Egyptian public in issues they may have up until now overlooked.

    The mafia may be at large, yet Egypt’s growing civil society will refuse to wake up with a camel’s head next to it in bed.

    The UAE: a fake diamond?

    By Carmen from UAE

    The UAE’s reaction to recent political developments in the Arab World has been fearful and oppressive. Rather than embrace chances for change and development UAE has stymied political activism and punished severely those in its country who have presented even mild alternatives to the current power structures.

    Recently the state has adopted a far more developed and pervasive programme to alienate, punish and detain the opposition. Some fifty people have been detained in the past few months including many associated with the Islamist party, Al-Islah, though secularists and stateless residents also continue to be targeted.

    The result is that the UAE is beginning to look like a state similar to that envisaged in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where a stratified population accepts the plentiful gifts of the state in return for its silent acquiescence to authoritarian rule, while those who object to the system are exiled to faraway lands – a totalitarianism all the more pervasive for being mostly accepted, and even welcomed.

    Many of the Emirati population enjoy fantastic wealth and riches. In Dubai and the capital, Abu Dhabi, they gratefully accept the generosity of sheikhs who, following precedents set by the benevolent and free-spending Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid, have dragged their country into the modern world. Glittering buildings, modern healthcare systems and advanced infrastructures make both these cities the envy of the Arab world.

    But this is only half the story. Poorer Emirates in the northern part of the country do not enjoy such advantages, and those travelling to Ajman, Sharjah or Umm al Quwain will find much more austere conditions. Indeed, it is of no surprise that from these poorer Emirates emanates a larger body (though still limited in scope) of opposition to the power of the al-Nayhan clan in Abu Dhabi. The majority of those recently detained hail from these northern Emirates.

    But the solution to the problem is no mere reallocation of state resources to the poorer Emirates; the desire for greater political rights, even if stemming from unfair redistributions of wealth, is not a thirst that can be assuaged with money. Fundamentally it is a question of redistributing power, allowing a greater role for those on the periphery to have a say in the running of their society. Whether this is viewed through a liberal, conservative or Islamist lens, the first step is the same, a renegotiation of the balance of power between citizen and state. But this is a first step too far for the state, so that even to call for it is interpreted as calling into question one’s own right to citizenship.

    However Emiratis by and large understand that citizenship is a gift, not a right. And they, like many other Gulf Arabs, exist in a polities that are twenty-first century versions of the anthropological structures that have for so long existed in the Arab Peninsula. Membership of the tribe and its attendant benefits can be revoked at any time if loyalty to the leadership is questioned. Behaviour that crosses the boundaries of defined social norms is met with collective ostracising.

    Meanwhile, it is extremely difficult to see how notions of civic identity in the UAE can change if overarching social norms do not change first. It is unlikely then that a shift in the behaviour of the Emirati state will occur any time soon. Those who push for a redefined relationship between state and citizen may very well face harsh measures for some time to come.

    Bahrain’s new labour scheme: one step forward, two steps back?

    By Hasan Tariq Al Hasan

    On July 27, 2012 His Majesty the King of Bahrain signed the country’s new labour code that regulates employment in the private sector following its approval by the Parliament’s Shura Council. Minister of Labour Mr. Jameel Humaidan praised the new code, describing it as a, “’milestone’ for the private sector.” In effect, the code has been applauded for extending the rights and benefits to which private sector employees are entitled. These include the possibility of a compensation amounting to a year’s salary for employees sacked unfairly, an increase in the number of sick days, an extension of maternity leaves, a provision of a certain number of rights to domestic workers who were largely left unprotected under the old 1976 labour code, and finally a set of more serious punishments against employers who violate legal provisions. It also stipulates setting up a labour dispute settlement body housed within the Ministry of Labour to encourage amicable settlements as a step preceding recourse to justice.

    Importantly, the new code comes as part and parcel of a new labour market scheme jointly elaborated by the Ministry of Labour and the Labour Market Regulatory Authority that aims to reassess and eventually phase out Bahrainisation requirements in the private sector. The scheme replaces a set of labour market reforms advocated by the Crown Prince and implemented in 2006 that aimed at decreasing the cost gap in hiring nationals as opposed to expatriates by levying a BD10 (approx. $27) monthly fee off of private employers for every expatriate worker they employed. Funds raised as a result were then reinvested back into the training of the national workforce through the intermediary of the Labour Fund, Tamkeen. Opposed by the merchant class for obvious reasons, the 2006 labour market reforms were scrapped following the political victory of the Prime Minister and his business allies as a result of the breakdown of the Crown Prince’s negotiation effort with the opposition in the midst of last year’s mass protest movement.

    Critics of the new labour market scheme, such as Bahraini labour affairs journalist Mr. Khalil Bohazza (@Khalil_Bohazza) have pointed out several flaws in the new labour code. Amongst these flaws is the code’s article 8 provision stipulating that while employees have the right to go on strike, their contracts are to be suspended during the strike’s entire duration. This step follows the recent announcement of the creation of a new labour federation that has received the government’s blessing, and constitutes yet another effort in a government-backed campaign aimed at weakening and fragmenting the hitherto opposition-dominated labour movement, particularly since strikes in mid-March last year destabilized the country’s sensitive oil, gas and aluminium industries.

    Critics of the new labour code have also highlighted the removal of the article 13 provision of the old 1976 code, which stipulated that Bahrainis followed by Arabs are to have a priority in hiring within the private sector over expatriates of other nationalities, and conversely a priority in retaining their jobs in case of firm downsizing or layoffs.

    From an economic perspective, consider the major obstacles standing in the way of greater employment of Bahrainis in the private sector: the considerable cost gap between hiring Bahrainis and cheap expat labour in particular, and labour market segmentation in general (i.e. locals’ tendency to work for the public rather than the private sector). In an attempt to increase Bahraini employment in the private sector, the defunct 2006 labour market scheme placed the burden of reducing the cost gap on businesses by imposing the aforementioned BD10 (approx. $27) monthly fee on employers for each expat worker they hired. It equally attempted to mitigate the segmentation of the labour market by maintaining a certain level of Bahrainisation requirements - thereby forcing businesses once again to hire a certain percentage of nationals – as well as making Bahrainis more employable by raising their skills through the Tamkeen initiative. That said, the 2006 reforms were certainly not perfect. For example, its Bahrainisation requirement has been rightly criticised for exacerbating the counterproductive ‘ghost worker’ phenomenon, or the tendency of private employers to hire on paper stay-at-home nationals (housewives for instance) often at minimum wage, only to fulfil the legal quota.

    By contrast, the new labour market scheme transfers the cost burden of fostering Bahraini employment in the private sector from the Bahraini business owner to the Bahraini worker. By reducing the Bahrainisation requirement on businesses, omitting the hiring priority for Bahraini nationals from the new labour code and freezing the BD 10 fee on business owners, the new labour market scheme places Bahraini workers in more direct competition with cheap expatriate labour. As a result, at current employment and skills levels, Bahraini workers will have to bear the brunt of reducing their hiring cost gap relative to cheap foreign labour most likely by undergoing a fall in real wages.

    Overall, the new labour market scheme, leaving aside a marginal increase in workers’ rights, represents an economic translation of the political victory of the merchant elite and its allies within government. As it proceeds unchecked, the new scheme largely transfers the economic cost to the Bahraini worker, while it decreases the legal protection for workers who choose to strike. As more details become available, the economic repercussions of the new scheme will become clearer. For the time being though, Bahrain’s new labour market strategy does not bode well for the country’s working class.

    What does Qatar want in Syria?

    By Michael Stephens

    Even after 17 months the Syrian conflict continues to elicit shock and concern. The death toll rises with every passing day and the civil war becomes more entrenched and protracted as the rebels defend urban centres and launch desperate counter attacks against the full might of Bashar al Assad’s forces, who are attempting to crush the rebellion once and for all.

    In recent weeks more information has emerged as to who is helping the rebel forces, how they are helping and the depth of the assistance provided. Time and again the same three countries are named, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The motivations for two of these countries are clear; Turkey is a neighbouring state and as such faces critical stability and security concerns. Saudi Arabia largely views the conflict through the Iranian lens, and the larger geo-strategic game that plays out between the two purported leaders of the Muslim world.

    But what of Qatar, a tiny state in the Persian Gulf whose main strategic goal is to keep the strait of Hormuz open so that it can export its LNG across the world, bringing it untold riches? Syria plays no part in Qatar’s strategic calculations, so why is it getting so deeply entangled in a conflict into which even the great powers seem afraid to tread?

    Qatar it seems is driven in this particular endeavour by the force of the Emir and his Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani. Both men feel that Qatar has a role to play in reconstructing the Arab world after the upheavals it has experienced. Wherever and whenever it can, Qatar then will seek to have an influence on the process of events in the region around it.

    The trouble is that apart from his Prime Minister and perhaps a handful of advisors no one really knows what the Emir wants. We in Doha play a guessing game trying as best we can to interpret Qatar’s actions within a foreign policy framework. Many of my meetings are replete with shoulder shrugs and ‘don’t knows’: it is a frustrating business.

    So here is my guess. The Emir wants to secure a legacy for himself as the man who took the Arab world into a more activist phase of multilateral action. As the man who pushed a lethargic, divided region to stand up and solve Arab problems with Arab action, backed by the use of force for those who don’t seem to get the message. A certain Mr Gaddafi and Mr Assad being the primary targets who needed ‘education’. 

    For what it’s worth I do believe that Qatar sees both the Syrian and Libyan interventions in a moral light. Many Qataris are deeply angry that Syrians are being shot and shelled by their own government and don’t possess the means to defend themselves. Whilst I cannot speak for the Emir this is certainly a factor in the thinking of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim.

    There are some who think Qatar has bitten off more than it can chew, a tiny state whose entire civil service numbers less than Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of the Interior cannot surely be expected to make the correct strategic calculations in such a complex and violent conflict. But persevere it has, and now Qatar is deeply engaged on a number of fronts, supporting disparate groups comprising the FSA along with its Turkish and Saudi allies.

    It is a dangerous task, and as I have previously warned the winds of the Syrian conflict may yet blow back upon Qatar. But for Sheikh Hamad the expense is worth it in the long run, for what will emerge from all Qatar’s activism is a more decisive Arab arena, shorn of the weaknesses and divisions that have so long plagued it.

    Will the Emir’s dream become a reality? Who knows, but for now the man is putting his money where his mouth is, and opposition fighters in Syria are receiving the benefits.

    Not good timing for financial compensation to political prisoners in Tunisia

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    “How much is a kilo of political activism worth nowadays?” asked one of the protest banners of those gathering on Tuesday in front of the Constituent Assembly headquarters to contest a governmental bill introduced to offer financial compensation to political prisoners under Ben Ali ‘s rule.

    The process of transitional justice has hit a rocky stretch in Tunisia since the Government rushed to reward ex-prisoners for their ‘political activism’ while those who were directly responsible for their torture, abuse and imprisonment seem to be still immune to any sort of punishment or due legal process. When it comes to putting these people on trial, uncovering the truth is still not a priority on the Government‘s agenda.

    The Tunisian people have split into two camps over this: the first camp believes that political activism should be motivated by patriotism, one‘s dedication to human rights and firm belief in changing the status quo so that people live in dignity, not through greed and corruption. They say: “Those who are demanding compensation are mercenaries”. On the other hand, the government spokesman, Samir Dilou, has made it plain in a recent press conference, that over a billion dollars in compensation to political prisoners to heal the sufferings they underwent during Ben Ali ‘s era, “will neither jeopardize the country’s balanced budget, nor will it be implemented at the expense of Tunisia’s development projects.”

    This may not be the best timing for the Ennahda-dominated government compensation initiative, however, given an economic recession that has worsened the living conditions of all Tunisians, especially the poor, the underprivileged and its middle class. But on both sides the argument has become more shrill. Last week, Tunisia’s minister of finance, Houcien Dimassi, abruptly resigned from his post refusing to approve a bill that would cost the national budget more than a billion dollars just to curry favour with the voters, while the troika government accused those who oppose the passage of the bill of challenging the legitimacy of the government and pushing for political instability in order to overthrow the government.

    In Tunisia today the families of the martyrs of the revolution are still demanding their rights, that those responsible for the deaths of their relatives be brought to trial. Those injured in the revolution are still waiting for any helping hand to fund their hospitalization. Some of the interior regions of Tunisia where the revolution began are still denied electricity or/and running water. The youth are still unemployed and the underemployed are still putting up with low wages and low benefits. When will the myriads of problems that are evolving and developing every day in Tunisia be put at the top of the Government’s agenda?

    The end of sexism in sports?

    By Kacem Jlidi

    At 9 PM, July 27, the world has paused to watch the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.  

    I’m not writing here to further market the world’s biggest and most important sporting event, but I would like to emphasise one fact that got my attention: this is the first time in the Olympic history where every participating country has female athletes in their teams! 

    This means all 204 nations are being represented in London this year by athletes from both genders. This is an incredible achievement; not only in terms of having female athletes from all countries but also having female teams in all the Olympic disciplines.  That gender equality is perhaps as important as the Olympics themselves. We are talking about the end of sexism in sports!  

    It has been a long journey. Taking part in the Ancient Olympic Games was exclusively limited to free male athletes.  According to Top-End-Sports, a Sports Bulletin, ‘the only way women were able to take part was to enter horses in the equestrian events. There are records of several horse-owning women winners. As the owner of the horse teams, they were credited with the victory, though they were most likely not present at the events’. ( Mitt Romney’s wife seems to be keeping this tradition going… )

    But at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896, no women competed; such was Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s wish. As founder of the International Olympic Committee and father of the modern Olympic Games, he argued that the inclusion of women would be ‘impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect’.

    And now we have recently added female boxing to the Olympic disciplines, resulting in no remaining sports that do not include events for women.

    For the first time in African and Arab sports history, Tunisia will field both female and male tennis players in the global sports event. Ons Jabeur, a 17-year-old who won the French Open girls’ singles title last year, and Malek Jaziri, 28, will vie for Olympic victory, according to Tunisia Live.

    Prior to London 2012, Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia, three Islamic countries, had never sent a female athlete before. “Their participation in these Olympics has followed years of lobbying from feminist and human rights groups to end the “gender apartheid” in sport”, reported Jeremy Wilson from the Telegraph.

    Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, published the most detailed report yet on sport in Saudi Arabia earlier this year. His findings -“Saudi Arabia is unique in the world in effectively banning sports for women,” he said - especially highlighting the health consequences of girls being denied sport even at school, were greeted with considerable shock.

    So the marathon to gender equality in the Olympic Games has been achieved. In the minds, cultures and religions of the world, however, there are yet many hurdles to overcome.

    Ramadan and a new constitution in Tunisia

    By Ahmed Medien

    Ramadan has kicked off in Tunisia like the rest of the Muslim world for some 10 days now. Ramadan is beautiful in Tunisia, often stiflingly warm too. Many cultural events are organized in the various Tunisian cities. Music, arts, plays, good food, good company, good atmosphere, you name it. This has been the tradition since before Ben Ali’s times. Ramadan connects in many of our minds with more active charitable activity, good cheer and happy times for Tunisians. Yet, Ramadan this year has also been sugar-coated since its beginning, a cover for various bills that are supposed to make the lives of Tunisians better, but which are not doing so.

    Shortly after landing back in Tunis from wonderful Beirut, I rushed onto the internet, social media, etc. to check on the political and social situation in Tunisia. I thought nothing major would have happened. How wrong could I be?

    In the three weeks while I was away having a good time, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly has been discussing a first draft of the new constitution. While protesters in Sidi Bouzid were threatening to shut down the city after long months of waiting for better economic conditions, it seems to have preoccupied itself with criminalizing any ties with Israel. Sub-committees of the Assembly were meanwhile more interested in gender equality. And the Ennahda party has been arguing for a new bill to criminalize blasphemy, while spreading paranoia about anybody who dares to criticize the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly.

    It doesn’t take much knowledge of law, or much political nous, to realize that these three bills won’t change the lives of Tunisians to any significant degree. They are stupid and demagogic, and they do not reflect the imperatives behind the revolution. Tunisians now want to start up businesses and can’t find any funding. Many more can’t cope with the stagflation in Tunisia anymore, and thos whose anger helped fuel the uprisings, still might not have enough food to feed their families. Nor can Tunisia provide them with sufficient water in 40-degrees of heat.

    With some Lebanese mockery still ringing in my ears about how a youth-made revolution brought old exiled Islamists to power, I couldn’t help thinking that while it might be popular, criminalizing ties with Israel is unlikely to serve the cause of Tunisians themselves. The ‘Palestinian cause’ has long been used by Arab dictators to garner support and more legitimacy from their people, and apparently the practice isn’t about to stop soon. The preamble of the new constitution now cites the Palestinian cause as a strategic determinant in Tunisia’s foreign policy. This makes Tunisia the first country ever to mention another country in its constitution.

    Tunisia has no role in this conflict but mediating peacefully between the two sides. Criminalizing ties with Israel sounds almost idiotic since there have been no relations between the two since the Second Intifada. This article within the constitution will make some thousand Tunisian nationals with Israeli citizenship uncomfortable, while it will also limit people’s personal freedoms to choose whether or not to do business with Israelis. The state is once again interfering in commerce and people’s choice. Apparently the Tunisian revolution hasn’t taught the new MP’s anything. Or maybe it was the people who didn’t give them the right signals.

    The subcommittee for liberties and rights passed a new article that will protect women’s rights in the new constitution. They had an alternative option, which read, “the state guarantees the protection of women’s rights and gains in all domains; it is forbidden to legislate any future law that might undermine these rights in any eventuality”. Instead, the article they have chosen, which was voted in by 12 votes for versus 8 votes against (9 of these votes being Ennahda’s) cites women as men’s ‘associates’, but not equals. Again, this falls short of the revolutionary aspirations of Tunisian women who suffered from many kinds of discrimination albeit less than their sisters in the Arab world. So one again, religion seems to have taken precedence over people’s rights in Tunisia.

    To top it all, the Ennahda party intends to propose a new bill criminalizing blasphemy with up to two years in prison and something like a $1,500 fine. The criminal law will include any offence given to religious feeling in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, including, "insults, profanity, derision and the representation of Allah and Mohammed," which is forbidden in Islam.

    Islam will always be an obstacle to full equality between the genders and a freedom of expression that may want to challenge religious texts or teachings. The Ennahda party doesn’t have to take the blame for framing such laws. The secular political stance of a Ben Ali or a Bourguiba would never have aimed to abolish such laws with Islamic references, and I doubt that any secular party now would try in the future.

    But the people are going to have to make a choice again; do they want secularism and guaranteed equal rights for everybody, or do they still want religious dogma to interfere with people’s lives and impose its convictions on all those who choose to observe or not? One has got to make a choice. 

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