This week's window on the Middle East - February 18, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: The maddening betrayal of potato-seller, Omar Salah

Arab Awakening
18 February 2013
  • The maddening betrayal of potato-seller, Omar Salah
  • When I can’t die
  • Everything boils down to… education
  • What’s next for Tunisia? Can democracy be saved?
  • Mr. Prime Minister, please submit your resignation!
  • Denial runs through Tunisia: you say we absorbed the shock?
  • Qatar’s embassy handover: masterstroke or gamble?
  • The maddening betrayal of potato-seller, Omar Salah

    By Amro Ali

    An Egyptian army conscript walks up to 12 year old Omar Salah Omran, a sweet potato seller - outside the front gates of Cairo’s US Embassy close to Tahrir Square - and requests two potatoes from the young street vendor. Omar answers, “I’ll do so after I go to the bathroom”. The allegedly untrained soldier retorts with a mix of cockiness and jest that he will shoot Omar if he doesn’t comply immediately. On Omar’s reply, “you can’t shoot me” - the conscript, on the alleged presumption that his weapon was not loaded, aimed two bullets piercing through Omar’s heart. He died instantly. (Based on Omar’s father’s television interview with host Mahmoud Saad) 


    The entire incident was over in ten seconds. The fallout continues.

    Many Egyptians were humbled and awoken to another Egypt with the release of a gripping video of Omar speaking to a Life Makers charity member in which he says “I am tired of this job”: he says he wants to learn to read and write.

    There is an inherently troubling dimension in Omar’s demise that goes beyond the “accidental” nature of it. It is the callous disregard by the state that instigated and attempted to cover up the crime, and a society that no longer gives a second look to the plight of child labour. 

    It took the bravery of activists such as Nazly Hussein, Rasha Azab, May Saad, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, Ahmad Korashi, and others from the No to Military Trials movement to go beyond the call of duty (they were basically doing other people’s jobs) to unearth the details of a broader if clumsy criminal cover-up from Omar’s death to his final resting place, and the state suffocation of the young boy’s memory – an all too familiar process in how Egypt’s designated martyrs are midwifed.

    When doctors noted Omar was dead upon arrival, the accompanying police officers in the ambulance were “under orders” to ensure he was not registered with the Mounira Hospital if it was confirmed that he had died. The ambulance paramedics were complicit in this by insisting that the corpse be taken straight to the morgue, against the doctor’s orders for an investigation to take place and to file an “accident” report with the courts. The result was Omar Salah’s case was not registered in hospital records, therefore no age, no location, no forensic report and he was simply named the “unknown corpse.” Once at the Zeinhom morgue, the army personal “assisted” the family in undertaking “silent” burial procedures, and made the illiterate father waive his rights to seek redress by accepting that the incident was “unintentional.” 

    The case of Omar becomes more bizarre when you consider the information vacuum on the corpse: it was a chance accident that brought his case to the attention of the activists.

    As Hussein noted in the same interview panel with Saad: “We arrived to find Omar’s corpse by chance, his photo by chance, Omar’s father’s story of his son by chance. When we found Mohammed El-Gindi [prominent activist tortured to death] by chance, we found Omar in the bed next to him. When we were looking for Mohamed El-Shafie [a missing activist], we came across Omar’s story…Nobody told us about any of them.” As Omar’s corpse had no medical report, age, etc. Hussein asks if this lamentable omission has become the standard procedure to resolve every matter mired in confusion, so that people can operate only by relying on probability, suspicions and hunches. The lack of transparency and information makes her wonder what else is happening out there.

    What utterly baffles observers is the interior ministry’s (believe it or not) confession of responsibility for a crime it did not commit when it is prone to routinely deny the actual killings it does commit. Two weeks later, the military offered a rare apology and accepted responsibility for the killing of Omar when it could not bring itself to acknowledge its very evident role in the Maspero massacre of 28 protestors in October 2011. Currently, the soldier has been detained for 15 days pending further investigations. Which translates as, “our ruse is exposed, so we will get a bit serious on this case”. As for the other cases out there, we have yet to know.

    In short, these are the accomplices in Omar’s death and cover-up: ambulance services, ministry of health, ministry of interior, and military. All feeling threatened by the corpse of a poor 12 year old street vendor. The ill-conceived cover-up, in an Egypt that no longer fears to question authority, has exposed everything wrong from the lack of (or sinister) cross-ministerial cooperation to accountability procedures.

    On the other hand, it is to be hoped that Omar’s demise will trigger higher social awareness of children’s rights and the relationship of street vendors to the public space.

    On a chilly Tahrir night, I often have to get my hands on a hot sweet potato that I would purchase from one of the half a dozen carts in the square. A casual observation of conversations between customers and street vendor shows a banal, at times condescending, tone of: “Give me the big batata (sweet potato) over there.” That’s it. We don’t think twice about why is a 12 year old boy doing this job, can he read and write, what his survival strategies are – as Omar once sadly told his father, “whenever I’m asked if I have a father, I say you died, so it can elicit sympathy and reduce [the chances of] me being robbed.”

    Omar comes out staggeringly alive in his death. A spectrum of colours is added to his socially-perceived black and white life. We now know Omar worked his cart for two years, has five sisters and one brother, was adored by those in the district where he worked, had a loving honourable father grounded in his Sa’idi roots from Sohag (Upper Egypt). The father in the interview narrates a story of his daughter being taken critically ill and Omar sensing his father did not have money for her treatment went out to borrow five pounds to buy tissue packets to sell. His father and uncles went out searching for him, only for Omar to come back at 2 am that night with 60 pounds which he handed to his father saying, “I know you didn’t have any money. So this is why I did this.” A selfless child that always put his family first, with only two pounds in his pocket, would go and get a little food and force his father to eat: “No father, I am insistent on this. Please eat. You are so worn out. I swear to God I am not leaving until you finish eating.”

    We are teleported into another world of how the other (majority) Egypt lives, the grinding poverty, the non-existent rest and play, the denial of childhood, the language and signals between street vendors, and their self-consciousness.

    Omar’s persona shattered (if at least severely dented) socially-induced harsh perceptions of Tahrir’s (if not Egypt’s) street vendors as roaming two-dimensional, opportunistic characters, with no concern for tomorrow’s Egypt (as if they can see the end of their today’s Egypt), and who merely form part of the Tahrir “furniture”, inheriting a fate that is geared to feed the public and appear accidently in the background of photographs. Yet it is ironic that street vendors have spent more time in the square than any protestor ever has and have witnessed many of the historical-changing events of the past two years.

    Omar’s tragedy highlights, once again, the catastrophic extent to which Egypt’s poor are put up on the frontlines as canon fodder to bear the worst of Egypt’s unforgiving socio-economic terrain and lawlessness – a phenomenon that materialises itself in fatal train crashes, building collapses and “accidental shootings.”

    Egypt’s organic civil society groups have shown that their vital work punches above their own weight. It took a group of activists, mostly female, to demonstrate a competency and self-sacrificing level that greatly surpassed the combined organs of the state, the fractured rule of law and the murky process of accountability.

    The father sounds a warning to President Mohammed Morsi: “Omar is with you…It was Sohag that helped you win the presidency... So are a poor person’s rights dead? Well we have God on our side. I’m a Sa’idy [a culture associated with honour], and I will get my sons’ rights back.”

    How Morsi makes peace with Egypt’s growing army of martyrs will depend if he can make the ghost of Omar its last. I’m not optimistic in that regard, but I am hopeful in the knowledge that the revolution is not an event, but a process, one that is now decentralising and spreading as far as the Brotherhood’s rural fortresses. Never underestimate a young street vendor: in life and death.

    When I can’t die

    By Refaat Mohamed

    Muslims, and Egyptians especially are highly concerned about death. We think about it all day everyday. I don’t know exactly the reason behind this: it could be because of the doctrines we were brought up with, or engraved in our genetic structure, but it shows, and it is clear. I grew up in a family that has been fanatical about death, although they claim the contrary. They took being concerned about death to a whole, other, unhealthy level. The first thing that jumps into my grandmother’s mind when you tell her a story is that someone must have died. This may be because my grandfather’s favourite story to tell people was how Gamal Abd El Nasser died, what happened when he died and what they did with the body before burying it.

    Despite my fierce, and ongoing struggleto avoid being obsessed with death like my family, I couldn’t help but think about it from a very young age. I cannot count the number of times as a child I have fantasized about my death, my premature death as an infant, and I kept wondering, about how people surrounding me would feel, who would feel bad, and who would feel guilty.

    I grew up to be a teenager with the same thoughts, but only then did I begin to add some purpose to the equation. I don’t want to die in vain. At the time that purpose was a very silly, dreamy, naïve, teenager purpose most probably. I guess it would have been something in between saving my girlfriend from a falling helicopter, and fighting with the Palestinians against the Israeli occupation.

    Thinking about it some more I suppose I wanted a glorified death, a martyr’s death, and I wanted to die a martyr for a very significant, and important reason. I want my death to benefit a lot of people. I want people to remember my death, and what I died for, and to remember that I died an honorable death for a good cause.

    But I can’t. That’s the conclusion I have now reached. I cannot die the kind of death that I wanted to have, for what sacrifice could I give that is more heroic than the little kids, teenagers, and women are giving every day to their country, who have died for their country, died for a better future for us all? One would think that they died heroes, and in my eyes they did. But if you go and ask the state, or the president, or even a pedestrian on the street who supports the Muslim Brotherhood, the answer would be something like this, “ they were thugs, they were foreign agents, they deserve to die, they are criminals who are threatening the stability and prosperity of our country”

    When you come to think about the stability and prosperity of Egypt that our president is fighting for, you will find that this Egypt still does offer us a variety of ways to get killed - a shameful, insignificant death, with a guarantee that nobody would care - but nevertheless. To the usual causes on our list the last ten years have allowed us to add things like swine flu, bird flu, and shark attacks. And if you are old fashioned, you can always die due to negligence and carelessness in our hospitals, following a car crash, or a traffic accident. The Egyptian state offers more than 7000 opportunities to die in a traffic accident every year with an 8% increase every year, meaning that 20 citizens could die in a car accident every day, so don’t give up on those numbers.

    They might not be heroes in the eyes of the president, and his people, but they are my heroes. And meanwhile, think about the mentality of a generation of kids that cannot even die the kind of death they want….

    Everything boils down to… education

    By Munir Atalla

    Having no significant natural resources like our neighbours in the Gulf, and no coastline like Mediterranean countries, Jordan has always seemed intentionally delineated to be void of natural wealth.  At times, this has been more of a blessing than a curse.  Either way, in 2002 King Abdullah II realized that unless a petroleum reserve was to be discovered under Petra, his country needed an economic plan.  He shortly announced his intention to transition Jordan’s work force into a “knowledge economy”, to keep up with the changing demands of a changing world, and partnered with US AID to do so.  The program was called Education Reform for Knowledge Economy, “ERfKE”.

    Dalal Salameh, an ex-teacher writing for the blog 7iber, states that, “theoretically, these plans sought to change the traditional teaching methods based on memorizing and indoctrination, and apply new methods to enhance skills like analysis and creativity, making the student a partner in learning rather than a passive recipient.” Prospects were bright, and there was a push to reform all levels of education quality.  ERfKE sought to introduce a kindergarten year to compulsory education, engage parents, and improve material school conditions comprehensively with a special focus on low-income areas.

    On paper, the initiative was a triumph.  Last year the Jordan Times announced “Jordan slashes illiteracy rate tenfold over 50 years”.  The statistics put Jordan close to the top of Middle Eastern nations in terms of enrolment rates and literacy rates- for women as well as for men.  But in practice, things have proven to be very different.

    Public schools are run in two shifts, and teachers report classrooms overflowing with pupils, few supplies, and outdated materials for both.  Curricula are old and outdated.  Educators are not held accountable for corporeal punishment and have not been taught how to instruct in this new style.  When ERfKE started a top-down implementation of a more inductive approach to learning, grades plummeted and people quickly grew suspicious of the foreign money.  In the field, teachers tell tales of students up to the middle school years who are illiterate or show negligibly poor reading and writing skills.  ERfKE’s $315 million investment into Jordan’s education sector yielded some results, but has not been the modernizing metamorphosis it set out to be.

    So where is the disparity between the statistics and the classroom?  Industry professionals say that literacy has been conflated with enrolment.  Quantity has been prioritized over quality.  The further from the capital one moves, the worse teaching conditions get. 

    “Tawjihi”, my direction, is the Jordanian equivalent of the International Baccalaureate (IB).  It takes up the last two years of high school and allows students to choose between a scientific, literary, and vocational specialization track.  Tawjihi started in the mid twentieth century, and has hardly undergone serious reform since.  At the beginning of Abdullah II’s reign, there was talk of scrapping Tawjihi altogether, but it was met with hard pushback from university deans who couldn’t imagine having to reform their admissions process.  Tawjihi focuses on rote memorization and is a standardized government exam that is given twice a year.  It also acts as an admissions process wherein students can only study specific majors based on their Tawjihi scores.  At the University of Jordan, the golden standard of Jordanian higher education (but hardly even a contender for a spot on the list of the World’s Best 1000 Universities) the priorities are as follows:  doctors, engineers, and pharmacists are at the top of the heap with almost perfect scores.  Towards the bottom one finds theology, land, water, and environmental management, and literature. 

    Even if one disregards the fact that this rigid system completely ignores students’ own desires and areas of interest, it is engraining a clear hierarchy of what skills are valued and which ones are not.  This hierarchy permeates class divides and its cultural and economic ramifications can be felt in every aspect of society; Jordanians lack even one truly great author or thinker of their own.  Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the entire world.  The people with the lowest scores are the ones put in positions of tremendous privilege as Imams or Sheikhs of Mosques whom people turn to for guidance on extremely sensitive personal issues like sexuality, faith, and ethics.  

    The job market is crippled and the economy limps on with astoundingly high unemployment amongst youth (about 25-30% for men and close to 50% for women).  Outside of Amman, the most coveted jobs are in the military and the government due to job permanence, short hours, and an early retirement with a sense of entitlement as the cherry on top.  Menial labour is considered beneath a Jordanian to do and falls mostly on the backs of Egyptians, Filipinas, and Sri Lankans who often send the money home and out of the economy.

    There is a bright side.  Queen Rania’s initiative “Madrasati”, my school, has helped many struggling schools with infrastructure and cosmetic improvements.  Columbia University has sponsored a teachers’ college, the results of which need time to be assessed.  Women are among the top-scorers in Tawjihi and the top-graduates, but societal pressures and expectations lead them away from the job market and towards domestic duties.

    Political reform is necessary, but at the end of the day everything boils down to education.  The King should prioritize this above all, and everything else will inevitably follow.  There is, however, a more sinister side to this equation.  Many of the economic elite question whether the government and its allies truly want a country full of critical thinking, educated youths.  Some believe that analysis leads to anger and then action.  Has US AID prioritized stability over education?  For now, after-hours education-based NGO’s like Quest-scope must fill in the gaps where the government is unable to, and youths must use education as the liberating instrument it is; either the pen or the sword.

    What’s next for Tunisia? Can democracy be saved?

    By Sana Ajmi

    In the aftermath of an assassination and violent protests, a fundamental ideological divide in Tunisia is now clearer than ever. Polarization between Tunisia’s secular and Islamist political groups comes as the country is struggling to maintain stability and revive its economy.

    The assassination of Chokri Belaid, the prominent opposition figure sparked mass protests across the country facing Tunisia with a political impasse. While many blamed the ruling Ennahdha party and called for the government to resign, many others are defending the legitimacy of an elected government. The Islamist Ennahda party won 42 percent of seats in the first post-Arab Awakening elections in October 2011 and has been ruling the country in a coalition with two secular parties, Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol.

    Belaid who is well known for his sharp criticism of Ennahdha and Islamists in general was shot four times as he was leaving his home in Tunis February 6. The 48 years old secular activist died of his wounds the same day. Belaid was the leader of the leftist Democratic Patriots Party (Watad), which joined the Front Popular, a coalition of opposition groups. Neither the motives for the assassination nor the attacker’s identity have so far been revealed.

    Upon hearing the news of his death, mass protests took place in Tunis. The local offices of Ennahdha were vandalized in many areas across the country and a police officer died. Two days later, a general strike was announced and more than one million Tunisians joined Belaid’s funeral, according to Tunisian media. Mourners demanded a second revolution and called for the government to quit. Outside the cemetery, some perpetrators set fire to a number of cars. Security forces fired tear gas and clashed with mourners.

    The next day and as a response, pro Ennahdha demonstrated in Tunis the capital defending the party and its legitimacy. The demonstrators shouted “France Degage” (or leave) as they accused France of the killing.

    Following the assassination, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced that Tunisia is to form a non-partisan government of technocrats to run the country until elections can be held as soon as possible.

    "After the failure of negotiations between parties on a cabinet reshuffle, I decided to form a small technocrat government," Jebali said in a televised address to the nation.

    He further explained that the new ministers would have no ‘political affiliation” and would not run for office in the upcoming elections.

    This decision was immediately rejected by both Ennadha party and CPR and backed by Ettakatol and other opposition parties.  Jebali who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his political affiliation with Ennahdha during the former regime, replied that if the proposed technocrat’s government was rejected by the national constituent assembly, he would resign.

    Many have argued that the assassination has only shown the depth of division between Islamists and secular groups in Tunisia. Each group has its own vision for the future, the role of religion and what Tunisia should look like. However this political debate should not overshadow the economic issues that gave rise to the revolution in the first place.

    Mr. Prime Minister, please submit your resignation!

    By Nader Bakkar

    Speaking at a meeting with Egyptian journalists broadcast on state television last week, the Egyptian Prime Minister faced a storm of accusation to the effect that he is out of touch with the country's crisis, after his comments were televised in which he blamed rural infant sickness on mothers not washing themselves properly.

    "In my work, I've gone around the countryside," he said. "There are villages in Egypt, in the twenty first century, where children get diaorrhea ... because the mothers who nurse them, out of ignorance, do not maintain the hygiene of their breasts."

    Recalling a visit to the Beni Suef, a governorate south of Cairo in 2004, he described the hard conditions of life. "There's no water, there's no sewerage," he said. "The men go to the mosque ... the women go down to the fields and get raped."

    I couldn’t help remembering this old Arabic proverb that jumped into my head while I was listening to these words and watching this video clip of the prime minister.

    The proverb says, “Talk so I can get to know you!”  I hesitated a lot before I allowed myself to pick this particular proverb as a basis for judging the man.  But when I watched the clip more than once I dared, after much hesitation and trepidation, to conclude that this small clip can in fact be taken to represent a true sample of the thinking capacity of the second man in Egypt.

    I would never let myself fall into rebuking someone for a defect like a stutter or a slip of a tongue, because making fun of people for defects they may have is not a manly thing to do.  If this famous clip that is circulated in which the Prime Minister speaks displayed that kind of defect or anything close I would have overlooked it right away.  But the problem is in the fact that behaviour here reflects the thought and the personality of Dr. Kandil – and one has to face the fact that what it shows is remarkably trivial thinking.

    Honesty knows no flattery and I have previously used my articles and these columns as well a lot for sending advice and encouragement to the Prime Minister.  I spoke about management by objectives, I spoke about mapping crises and about many other issues with the purpose of nothing else but that we should come to see our way to reform even if partially, so we could all survive this critical juncture till the formation of an elected government – together.   But it would be naive to use painkillers for stopping the constant and accelerating loss of blood which is our human and material losses at this stage in the process of change.

    Dear Sir, just how can I trust you to take the right decision in something so crucially important - whose impact will last for years to come - if you don’t manage to wrap it up successfully - like the loan of the World Bank? If your bird’s eye view can’t grasp the disconnect between “personal hygiene”, “diaorrhea in children” and something that happened to you personally on a visit to an extremely limited and a-typical geographical area, and the economic policies which you and your government are to be held accountable for?


    Let me put it to you as clearly as I can!  You wanted to speak about problems that are deeply rooted in Egyptian society like ignorance in general – particularly “hygienic ignorance”, together with the dilapidation of the infrastructure and the deterioration of health care.  But you expressed all this in the worst possible words and you failed to articulate any kind of link that can make a good impression, reassure us that you have a real vision for the future, something we might be convinced we could count on in the way of reform.

    Sir, just hand in your resignation, because this is the least you can do for the sake of preserving the trust of the people!  If trust is given to the undeserving this is a sign that we are approaching the end of days!  So hand in your resignation and do something that the President himself has been avoiding for so long without any apparent justification.

    Claiming that the time is not right is an invalid argument!  The reshuffle that took place eight months ago included ten ministers, all in one go, and most of them were in charge of the most potentially detrimental, sensitive positions in the state and no one (at that time) argued with you about how suitable the time was.

    As for the approaching Parliament no one need take that as an excuse!  If the new government turned out to be promising, I am quite sure that this would instantaneously begin to restore the trust Parliament placed in it – and everyone would happily concur.

    Denial runs through Tunisia: you say we absorbed the shock?

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    Nothing could be so outrageous and sickening than the attempts to return to normalcy following the murder of Chokri Belaid, the leftist opposition leader. Eliminating a political rival through such a barbaric act in the birthplace of the Arab spring should at least terminate faith in the status quo.

    Almost two years after the uprising of January 14 2011, a new wave of violence threatens even the right to life in itself.  The first political assassination in the last five decades signals an imminent threat to the moderate nature of the small North African country, and a major threat to the democratization process. The Tunisian president‘s announcement on Thursday to the effect that the country has weathered the assassination shocked me.   Only the truth could alleviate the pain and grief I share with many Tunisians yearning to see the perpetrators of the murder behind bars. As long as the judicial system and administration remain in the hands of the majority party, there will be no absorbing the shock. As long as the government turns a blind eye to hate speech and incitement to murder, people must not simply move on.

    In the immediate panic of the assassination, the prime minister Jebali announced the forming of a government of technocrats, the police suppressed the protests of the angry people that poured to the streets to denounce violence, the Ennahda party and the CPR  (the party of the president Marzouki) refused the formation of a non-partisan government, the perpetrators are still free, the government is still intact, Ennahda calls its supporters to protest in favour of its legitimacy.  Meanwhile death threats to journalists and political leaders continue to go unpunished. The mosques are infiltrated by advocates of hate and division. One of the widely circulated videos in the Tunisian blogosphere featured an imam claiming that the victim of this murder should not be buried in a Muslim cemetery because he is not a Muslim and a kefir, such a sickening fatwa delivered during a Friday sermon is unfortunately propagated to a wide audience and intensifies the tensions and polarizations inside Tunisian society.

    Ansar Al Sharia Partisans of Islamic Law and the Leagues of the Protection of the revolution stepped in to ‘fill the security vacuum’ in recent days, by offering patrols in several suburbs in Tunisia -  these are the very same groups that staged the September 14 riots, besieged the American embassy in Tunis, the same people that intimidate journalists, activists, politicians and ordinary citizens, disrupt opposition parties meetings, attack art galleries and prevent theatre performances they deem profane. These self-appointed guardians of the public and private mores are likely to be welcomed in the densely populated and underprivileged neighbourhoods where people praise the volunteers for protecting the neighborhoods from looting, unaware that as citizens of the republic of Tunisia they should be protected by the law and security forces.

    Two years ago I saw people spontaneously forming a sea of peaceful protesters; I saw national unity, a leaderless revolution. Today, the one thing that devastated me the most is how quickly the president who is supposed to be a human rights defender, not just any president, stepped in to persuade us to get used to the spilling of blood. I am worried that violence becomes a way of life. How will I explain to my children in the future how we failed the revolution?

    We speak about a government that is complacent through silence. People rely on violence to solve disputes because government institutions are weak and partisan. The government’s hesitation to take any decisions stems mainly from their greed for power. Combatting violence should be a priority, it is escalating, it is becoming omnipresent. The legitimacy of the government does not stem only from the electoral process but it is also built upon the respect of the government for the basic rights of citizens. And chief among them is the right to life.

    Qatar’s embassy handover: masterstroke or gamble?

    By Michael Stephens

    Qatar’s decision to hand the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic to the National Syrian Coalition was a sudden but interesting move in the two-year Syrian crisis.

    As with all things in Qatar we can only surmise why the decision was taken at this very moment and why. But there are some patterns that fit consistently with Qatar’s behaviour throughout the entire Syria crisis. Qatar has often acted schizophrenically, on the one hand imploring multilateral frameworks such as the Arab League, the UN, and the Friends of Syria to do more, whilst at the same time pursuing its own hard-headed realist policy often undermining the efficacy of those very frameworks it seeks more from.

    The result is that we see a curious pattern in which Qatar breaks ranks forcing other states to follow, then sits back and admires its handy work allowing bigger states to push the Syrian issue forward down the path Qatar has paved. This has occurred for example in the removal of Qatar’s Embassy staff in July 2011 one month before other GCC states, its call for the Arab League monitoring mission to end, its call to arm the Syrian rebel forces, (and by extension its actions to arm and supply them), and finally its recognition of the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

    So far only one of its leading initiatives has fallen flat, which was the call for an Arab intervention force by the Emir in September 2012.

    Handing the Embassy over to ‘Ambassador’ Nizar al-Haraki is therefore in step with most other things Qatar has sought to achieve in Syria, namely drag the rest of the world into recognising the facts that it has established and thereby bending global Syria policy round to a more Qatari framework. But unlike some of Qatar’s previous actions there are risks with this step that could make Qatar look a little foolish if it doesn’t end up getting its way.

    Qatar’s decision to handover sovereign Syrian territory to the National Coalition is tantamount to saying, ‘Bashar you have lost’. The problem is that although the Assad regime is creaking and besieged on many different fronts, Bashar hasn’t lost, and sensible military analysis would suggest he will not lose for some time yet. Secondly it suggests that there will be a complete house cleaning of the regime from power once a transition occurs. This is not going to be the case, the vast majority of countries involved on the Syria question acknowledge a transition to a new Syrian polity will include former regime loyalists; the unknown factor merely concerns what number of loyalists will be necessary.

    To take such a step when the future of Syria is still as yet undefined is potentially very damaging for Qatar. Other states may well hedge their bets to wait and see what the outcome of a regime transition will be first. It is by no means set in stone that the National Coalition will rule Syria in the coming months and years, its relationships to Free Syrian Army Groups, hardline Islamists like Ahrar al Sham, are still patchy and not developed and it is the stated enemy of Jabhat al Nusra. There is nothing to suggest that various brigades and battalions will not turn on the National Coalition in future, or that the Coalition will be able to prevent a hostile take over of Syria from more radical forces.

    In such a future, Qatar would have handed off an embassy to an ineffective body that does not represent the reality in Syria. As I see it there are three potential outcomes, 1) Qatar gets its wish of a coalition-run Syria 2) Syria transitions to a hybrid government of Baathists and rebels 3) Syria becomes an arena for continued political competition and infighting. Only in scenario one does Qatar really gain anything and it is also the least likely scenario to come true.

    Analysis through this particular lens shows us that Qatar is taking a huge gamble, and one that is very unlikely to pay off. It remains to be seen if other states will rally behind it to support the Qatari move by handing their own Embassies over to the NC. Stating that Qatar has isolated itself would be premature. However the risk is certainly there, and Qatar is not a powerful enough country to stand out by itself for long.

    Leading from the front was always Qatar’s modus operandi in Syria, but the conflict is considerably more complex and bloody than it was this time last year, fraught with uncertainty, and in a sense the diplomatic measures really make no difference to the situation on the ground.

    In this reality Qatar’s gamble is either a diplomatic masterstroke of unrivalled prescience or a foolhardy gamble which has the potential to alienate Qatar and decrease its regional standing. Only time can provide us with the answer to this conundrum.

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


    We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
    Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData