This week's window on the Middle East - February 25, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, an update after Libya's three-day anniversary celebrations: 'Good news' doesn't sell

Arab Awakening
25 February 2013
  • 'Good news' doesn't sell
  • Time for Egypt to man up: recognising its women
  • Spectre of the Syrian spillover haunts Lebanon
  • Moving facades
  • The limitations of Turkish foreign policy
  • Leave Nile Street alone
  • Gdeim Izik: the first, forgotten spark of the Arab uprisings
  • 'Good news' doesn't sell

    By Rhiannon Smith

    Libya was brought to life, filled with colour and injected with fresh optimism by the three-day long celebrations which took place last week to mark the anniversary of the 17th February revolution. Despite rumours of a 'second revolution' fuelled by anti-government protests planned for 15th February, Libya was a veritable sea of calm over the long weekend of festivities insofar as security was concerned.

    Foreign companies and embassies warned their employees to stay away from crowded areas or to leave the country completely, while most international airlines cancelled their flights over the weekend citing 'security concerns'. There was much hype about Libya's deteriorating security situation, with phrases such as 'downward spiral', ‘edge of an abyss' and 'descent into anarchy' appearing all too frequently in articles about the country and its future. However anyone who experienced the celebrations in Libya this year would have been hard placed to match these descriptions to the reality.

    In the capital Tripoli, the streets were completely full of people of all ages and backgrounds, crawling around in cars covered in flags and ribbons with revolutionary music blasting from the speakers. The streets were hung with red, black and green bunting, young men lined the way setting off fireworks, sprinkling rose water and burning incense, and on many street corners there were huge barbeques and groups of men dancing and singing. There were also many checkpoints and there were very few reports of disturbances. Martyrs' Square itself was incredible. There were men, women and children celebrating until late into the evening and everyone was smiling at everyone. The children ate popcorn and candyfloss, and most people lit Chinese lanterns so that when night fell, the sky above Tripoli was filled with thousands of flickering candles, a symbol of the revolution.

    Given the success of the celebrations, I would have expected a wealth of articles praising how smoothly the anniversary passed by, describing the incredible party atmosphere in Libya's main cities, the excellent security precautions and the general lack of anything even remotely threatening. Yet in the days following Libya's celebrations, there was a striking absence of information about any of the above in mainstream international media. I am well aware that 'good news' doesn't sell, but by ignoring or writing off the truly positive moments in Libya's most recent history, there is a real danger that foreign organisations and the international media are sealing a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and gloom for this North African state.

    This year, as with the first anniversary last year, foreign companies erred on the side of caution and left Libya during the celebrations. While it is of course entirely their free choice to do so, if they are going to insist on doing this during every anniversary or every time there is something which might bring Libyans out onto the streets, then what hope does Libya have of regaining stability? Every time there is an exodus of this kind, contracts are suspended, trade missions are delayed and at least a month of business and progress is lost. Foreign investors want Libya to be more stable before they commit to projects, yet by being overly cautious they are the ones helping to propagate this vicious circle of instability.

    Understandably the Libyan authorities are not happy about this. Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines, which had suspended flights over the anniversary, have so far been refused permission to resume flights into Tripoli, with authorities taking the view that since the two airlines had stopped flights to Libya over security concerns, “they had best stay away for another week because the security was no different.” I have to say, I couldn't agree more.

    To add to that, by leaving Libya during these celebrations, foreigners are truly missing the best of the country. Libya is not always an easy place to live, but it is moments like last weekend's festivities that make you realise how much potential there is for a bright future, how far the Libyan people have come since overthrowing Gaddafi and how determined they are to make good on their revolution. While there is political turmoil in Tunisia, physical and sexual violence in Egypt's Tahrir Square, and an ever worsening conflict in Syria, the Libyan people managed to organise their own nationwide party with no violence, harassment or serious security concerns.

    Celebrations like these do not lessen the myriad problems that Libya still faces, but they show that Libyans do have the will and the determination to make their revolution succeed. Many have been  disappointed and frustrated by the apparent lack of progress in recent months, but the incredible show of solidarity and camaraderie shown over the past few days has given many a new sense of hope, purpose and optimism about the future.

    These celebrations flew in the face of all the naysayers and pessimists, yet if the outside world doesn't hear about achievements like this then perceptions of Libya will not change. The international community will continue to back away and leave Libya to fall into an 'abyss' perpetuated and sustained by blinkered foreign organisations and one-sided media reporting.

    Time for Egypt to man up: recognising its women

    By Ahmed Kadry


    My mother gave me a long hug and a kiss at Heathrow’s terminal three – it had been nine months since I had move backed to London and I hadn’t seen her since. Putting her bags onto a trolley and heading towards my car, we barely reached the parking levels in the lift before I asked the question I always ask every time I speak to someone who has just come from Umm el Donia (mother of the world): “Has anything changed?” emphasising that the word “change” was open to interpretation. She was not to know, as neither did the countless other Egyptians I have asked that question, but I was less interested in the “main events” that currently dominate Egypt’s headlines than whether anything had changed “on the ground” since I had left. The traffic situation, new buildings, and small but not necessarily minor incidents that would never see the flashing lights of television cameras or the black and white of print were what I was interested in. My mother duly delivered.

    “Wallahy ya Ahmed” (honestly, Ahmed), she began, “I never thought I would have fewer rights in my own country at the age of sixty than I did when I was twenty.” I nodded as I drove off from the busy airport car park and waited for her to elaborate.

    “Last week your sister and I went to visit your aunt in hospital. We were waiting in the Reception area for the lift – one lift wasn’t working and so there were many of us waiting for the only functioning lift. It finally arrived and your sister and I were edging closer to the lift doors as it began to fill up rapidly, and then before we knew it a man came around the side of the queue, pushed in front of us and took the last bit of remaining space. Your sister didn’t say anything but I shouted at the man for his indecency. He waved me off like I was a fly and no one else in the lift said a word. Your sister reacted to his indifference towards me and told him he should apologise, to which he replied, ‘Don’t talk to me until you cover your hair.’ The lift doors closed. We were still standing in Reception, and he was gone.”

    Needless to say as a son and a brother I was indignant. I was appalled as a Muslim who was taught by Muslim teachers and Islamic doctrine that a woman’s decision to veil is her choice and hers alone. To veil or not to veil should not bring about any advantage or disadvantage in a woman’s standing in society. But as I thought about my mother’s anecdote later that evening, I realised I was also appalled on a fourth level: as a man.

    The anecdote is not about the veil – it is much deeper than that. It underscored a very tangible and terrible reality of the underlying chauvinistic, misogynistic complex that exists in the psyche of so many Egyptian men across every social class. If you even vaguely follow events in Egypt you will know that sexual harassment appears to be reaching epidemic proportions and it seems that a day does not go by without reading of a horrifying new account of a poor girl or woman being sexually assaulted as they go about their daily business.

    And women’s rights in Egypt are not confined to freedom from sexual harassment. My sister was not sexually assaulted – she was rebuked for speaking to the man for the mere fact she was a woman who did not adhere to what he believed to be the  “proper” image of a woman. That’s right; I’ll say it again – the “proper” image of a woman.

    As I let the story of my mother and sister at the hospital marinate, I started to think about Egypt’s history in the twentieth century and the key figures who dominated that period started to press forward for my attention: Saad Zaghloul, King Farook II, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sayyid Qutb, Naguib Mahfouz, and a host of others. I thought about my teachers who told me of their achievements, or the history books that dedicated thousands of pages to them. And these men all had one thing in common – whether considered heroes or villains to Egypt’s socio-political demographic, they were also representative of Egypt’s male- dominated arena. Where were the women?

    Ask yourself, just as I have asked myself, how many Egyptian men would be able to tell you who Hoda Sha’rawi, Nabiywah Musa, Doria Shafiq and Zainab al Ghazali were? I’m not even going to give you a caveat that I am only referring to some and not all Egyptian men – but in actual fact I’m going to do the opposite: last week I asked twenty Egyptian men, all in their mid to late twenties, from a range of lower to upper class backgrounds about the women listed above and three out of twenty knew who they were and loosely listed their achievements or aims, while fourteen answered honestly that they had no idea who they were, with three declaring that they had “heard of al Ghazali.” To make sure I wasn’t limiting their scope, I also told them to write down the names of famous Egyptian women in the twentieth century. I got the same name from every single one – Suzanna Mubarak – while four also offered Jehan Sadat – both women, of course, being famous first and foremost as the wives of men rather than in their own right. I then jokingly asked all of them if they had heard of Saad Zaghloul and King Farook II, and they were able to reel off a list of facts or stories about both men.

    You might think my small experiment was unfair. You might argue that the Egyptian men I listed earlier made their contribution not to the advancement of a single gender, but for the entire country, and so hardly comparable with women who were “only feminists” or women’s rights activists. But you would be wrong. Sha’rawi offers a concise example: She played an instrumental part in mobilising women across Egypt in the country’s fight for independence from British Imperialism, working side by side with Saad Zaghloul and setting up the Wafd Women’s Central Committee. In essence, she, along with her peers, were tasked with rallying half of the population, and dare I say, without women’s support, the quest for independence would at the very least been delayed. Yes, Sha’rawi is famous for her work in women’s rights, but that should not exclude her from also being a national hero in a national cause.

    And that brings me to perhaps my most important point: In many homes across the country women may be subservient, and indeed the man in that lift put pre-conditions on my sister before she could even speak to him, and so it is a public space problem as well, but women are not a minority, and while subservience is wrong in all its forms, it makes even less sense when the subservient group in question is just as prominent and populaced in the country as the dominant group. I concede that the answers I received from the twenty Egyptian men far from qualifies as empirical data, but I do defy anyone to argue that women in Egypt, past and present, are treated the same way as men are treated. They’re not.

    For all the arguing about constitutional clauses protecting women’s rights and all the media exposure on the countless incidents of sexual harassment we read and hear about daily, we are perhaps further away than ever from both understanding and preventing the continuation of Egypt being a “male dominated” society. My mother’s sentence echoes in my mind: “I never thought I would have fewer rights in my own country at the age of sixty than I did when I was twenty.”

    I leave you with the brilliant academic, teacher, and twentieth century women’s right activist, Nabiywah Musa, exemplifying the bravery, wit, and tenacity of so many Egyptian women, past and present, in responding to a male reporter at the Al Ahram newspaper who challenged her decision not to wear the veil: “Sir, you claim that men are wiser and more rational than women. If women are not seduced by your faces, and some of you indeed are handsome, how could you men who are more rational be seduced by women’s faces? You should be veiled and women should be unveiled.”

    Spectre of the Syrian spillover haunts Lebanon

    By Sarah El-Richani

    As Syria’s “sectarian... radicalised and militarised” conflict rages on, Lebanon’s chances at dodging both the literal and figurative bullets continue to dwindle. 

    In addition to the recurring and sometimes-deadly scuffles in Tripoli between the largely Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mehsen, ironically divided by Syria street, the FSA ultimatum last week threatening to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon if they don’t cease their “invasion” is a harbinger of darker days to come.

    Hezbollah has denied claims it has offered Syria more than its rhetorical support despite reticently announcing the deaths of its members beginning in the summer of 2012.

    However, it was only a matter of time before Hezbollah would also join in the fight out of loyalty to a regime dubbed by David Hirst its “midwife”, as well as in an effort to protect its supply routes.

    In light of the porous and in some areas non-existent borders, as well as the interconnectedness of both populations, elites and regimes, the intervention of all the factions in Syria was inevitable, despite the weak state’s “disassociation policy”.

    The Lebanese Sunni “intervention”, backed by Gulf states, has long been providing the FSA with weapons, aid, refuge as well as fighters.  In addition to leaked audio tapes of a Future Movement MP allegedly taking weapons’ orders from militants in Syria, which he vociferously denied, claiming the tapes had been tampered with, there was the ambush in Tal Kalakh, Syria, which left a group of 21 young Salafist men from northern Lebanon dead.

    Yet another incident reflecting the primarily Sunni/Shiite festering divide vis–à–vis the Syrian conflict was the ambush targeting a Lebanese army unit in ‘Arsal in early February.  The residents of the border town north east of Lebanon are said to have ambushed the army unit as it attempted to arrest a fugitive on terrorist charges, alleging links to the al-Nusra Front, which is fighting in Syria. Two soldiers and the suspect were left for dead and other injured servicemen were beaten. The mayor of ‘Arsal initially claimed that they had assumed it was a Hezbollah set-up as the servicemen were in civilian vehicles and clothing. This was later refuted with the broadcast of graphic videos showing uniformed soldiers transported to the municipality. Hezbollah also denied any involvement.

    Meanwhile, a Lebanese military judge last week argued for the death penalty for former Minister Michel Samaha, who was arrested in August 2012 for allegedly plotting attacks in Lebanon on arms smugglers, FSA fighters as well as any Lebanese MPs or Sheikhs who may happen to be present. Wissam al-Hassan, a former Hariri aide and senior security official , who was later assassinated,  was credited with arresting Samaha.  

    The sheer entanglement here also has a humanitarian side to it, with the 10 Shiite sexagenarian pilgrims still held in Syria, and the pouring of refugees, estimated by the UNHCR to have reached 300,897, into an ill-prepared and sometimes-xenophobic Lebanon.

    While the series of inevitable spillover incidents that have befallen the small nation have thus far been relatively contained, it remains to be seen how much longer this apparition of fitna remains intact.

    Moving facades

    By Omer Harari

    The most fascinating thing to me about examining the politics here in Israel is the extent to which it all seems at one and the same time so animated yet so becalmed. The campaign ads for Tzipi Livni's Ha Tnuah party, some of which are still posted on billboards around here in Haifa, proclaim in bold lettering: "Bibi and Lieberman, international boycott; Tzipi Livni, Diplomatic solution." And yet, this past week came the announcement that none other than Tzipi Livni was the first to officially sign an agreement to join Prime Minister Benjamin (the "Bibi" above) Netanyahu's coalition. She will reportedly serve as a member of the security-diplomatic inner cabinet, as Justice Minister and most importantly, as head of the negotiations team. This is of course, better than Bibi collaborating with the PA directly, but that's really not saying much. Livni has never been shy about putting the need for continuing negotiations with Palestinians front and centre on her agenda, and has a few years of (failed) talks to her name. Then, as seems likely now, peace talks stalled because of the conditions under which negotiations took place: namely, the threat of expiring settlement freezes.

    Still, we should give credit where it's due: the boulder standing before substantial changes is a hard one to move. But at least Bibi is stepping out of the way. Or is he? It all appears to be in slow motion somehow, he seems to be waving the Palestinians in, and of course with this there is some hope. But very few inside Israel seem to bat an eye. What passes for cynicism anywhere else is often called "being realistic" here. If there's anything worse than this cyncism, it's stubborn cynicism.

    Too many stalled peace negotiations, too many expired settlement freezes, too little pressure on the governments (both of them, while we're doling out blame), make for these self-fulfilling prophecies. It's not so different from those arguments in a Tel Aviv coffee shop: at the end of the day, everyone goes back home tired of talking but still buzzing with caffeinated irritation.

    There should be more pressure now on Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni to champion 1967's borders (with land swaps), and the creation of a viable State of Palestine according to studies and polls, showing 67% consensus among Israelis and even higher (82%) among Palestinians. As +972's Noam Sheizaf points out, "Even the settlers don’t oppose peace talks, as Naftali Bennet has publicly stated, since they assume they will result in nothing." This impotence in some strange way, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    For a lot of people outside of politics, it seems that because these past peace negotiations have been like typical coffee shop arguments (ending in everyone going home a little more agitated than when they came and no problem beyond semantics being solved), there lies the most dangerous plot we implicitly chart: the expectations that future attempts will end the same way. It seems to me an uncomfortable truth both governments will have to confront: if they are to play their role in undoing a conflict as politically, economically, socially and spatially mangled as this, it will involve a lot more than just a new (or even an old) face at the table.

    To put it another way, Benjamin Netanyahu's government should not be involved in a polarized coalition against itself, a possibility that seems all too likely. It is precisely because Tzipi Livni's involvement comes as a surprise, that a lot of people hold little hope of it. By most accounts, Netanyahu is expected to compose the rest of his coalition with some of the more right-of-center parties, like Jewish Home or the ultra-religious Shas and United Torah Judaism. These parties, taken together with the center-right Kadima, more or less comprise the coalition he was expected to form before the election-day surprise of Lapid's Yesh Atid. What's worse, none of those parties (except the weak Kadima) would be what you might call 'partners for peace' (to put it mildly).

    Only the future will tell if the coming peace negotiations will come, and further, if they will be more meaningful than a fabled day of caffeine-fueled shouting. Will settlement freezes (if they happen) be allowed to expire before any starting point is reached, or will there be another stalemate with the illusion of change? Will the PA even agree to come to the table in light of the rest of the new coalition, or how will social movements step in and demand political movement towards reconciliation? I'll admit that my own hopes lie with the people engaged in the arguments at coffee shops, if only they would get up and walk into the streets, so that the people who need to hear them might listen. It'd be a shame if 67% of Israelis let them get away with another stalemate.

    The limitations of Turkish foreign policy

    By Ali Gokpinar

    As the Syrian crisis deepens, criticisms against the AKP’s foreign policy from opposition parties and the international community have significantly increased. In parallel to axis shift and neo-Ottomanism discussions,  there is criticism of Prime Minister Erdogan’s provocative Shanghai threat to the EU, the failure of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy and Foreign Affairs Minister Davutoglu’s one man show style. So, after ten years in power, how do we assess the AKP’s foreign policy?

    Ten years ago, the AKP redefined Turkish foreign policy.  To achieve both national and international goals, it undertook to frame a multi-dimensional, constructive, proactive, realistic and responsible foreign policy. Turkey did not shift its axis. Rather, Turkey diversified its foreign policies and employed a portfolio of tools ranging from public diplomacy initiatives to humanitarian aid and scholarships for students coming from fragile states. 

    The EU-Turkey accession negotiations slowed down not because Turkey was not interested but because Turkey demanded fair play in the negotiations. Merkel’s Germany and Sarkozy’s France created more problems than it solved in encouraging Turkey’s EU membership. The EU’s longterm mistaken stance over Cyprus was another disincentive that led the AKP government to question its EU policies in an era of internal democratization efforts.

    In this regard, Turkey managed to play a two-level diplomatic game by implementing desired democratic reforms, desecuritizing Turkish foreign policy and integrating the Turkish economy into the Middle East and Central Asia region, with an emphasis on the strong state. Projects for peace and humanitarian aid followed while Turkish businessmen were encouraged to invest in every corner of the world. From the economic perspective, Turkey successfully maintains its investments in the Middle East, Eurasia and Africa, despite a decreasing level of exports and imports in certain countries in the Middle East.

    The Arab uprisings required Turkey to adjust its policies more realistically. Even before the Arab uprisings, Arab diplomats made clear their reluctance to see Turkey as a powerful regional partner, let alone as a model or source of inspiration. This is why FM Davutoglu’s rhetoric should be tuned down to correspond better to Turkey’s actual power and used in a humbler way to reduce negative perceptions about Turkey. The current mockery summed up in, “zero problems, hundred troubles” is nevertheless an exaggeration of Turkey’s failure in the broader Middle East. Turkey was constrained by the conflicting geostrategic interests of the major powers and the inability of the international order in its attempts to find an alternative solution.

    Skeptics might argue that Turkish relations with Israel and Iraq are evidence of failure. Yet, despite supposed souring relations with the Shi’ite PM Maliki, Turkey has achieved important business deals in Central Iraq and an energy pipeline partnership with the KRG. As for Israel, the Turkish government’s unrealistic but just demands will inevitably limit the level of cooperation, although the two countries get along well enough when it comes to the military industry. To sum up, Turkey mainly needs some adjustment to its discourse when it comes to its policies in the Middle East. 

    Finally, Turkish investments in Africa seem to be successful, with a volume of $8.4 billion dollars as of November 2012. Traditional British, French and ever-growing Chinese interests might clash with these developments at some point. Apart from economics, in a recent historical visit, the Turkish Prime Minister did not hesitate to slam colonial powers for their centuries of wrongdoing. Although African countries might welcome such comments, the continuation of such a discourse might harm Turkey in the long run.  

    In fact, it remains rather unclear to what extent important regional and major powers will cohabit to pursue their economic and political interests.  Utilizing foreign aid, Turkish schools and Turkish Airlines to link countries to each other are effective soft power tools in Africa as elsewhere. Yet, this is the point where Turkey’s limitations become evident, because Turkey needs a more creative portfolio of policies to be a smart and leading power and to push an agenda, whatever that agenda might be. It is still the constraints in the international order, however, that are most are likely to prevent Turkey from achieving its grandiose goals.

    Leave Nile Street alone

    By Reem Abbas

    The Council of Islamic Scholars in Sudan have asked the governor of Khartoum to ban the venues they describe as "haphazard cafes" on Nile Street. 

    The Secretary-General of the CIS told the press that the cafes have become places for drug-dealing, debauchery and are a black spot in Khartoum: he added that they do not exist in neighbouring countries.

    The CIS is basically talking about the place most frequented by families and youth. Every day, thousands of people, especially youngsters, leave their house to sit on Nile Street, by the beautiful Nile river and drink tea, coffee and enjoy ready snacks at the open-air cafes catered for and run by tea ladies.

    The tea ladies, women who sell ginger coffee and cinnamon-flavoured tea, line the space around them with plastic chairs and tables to attract clients, although the smell of coffee is sufficient to attract most clients.

    Nile Street has become an icon for many in Sudan. It is a place to make money as it’s now a business place for hundreds of tea ladies and men who make a living selling gum, cotton candy, soft drinks and phone credit among other things. It is also a place for entertainment, where people don't have to pay an entry fee and spend a hefty amount on a meal, especially in this tough economic situation. 

    It is a place for youth to hold cultural events in the open-air spaces and a place for young lovers to get to know each other. 

    Weeks ago, rumours started surfacing in Khartoum that the government is pushing for a Nile Street for families only, in other words, the hordes of young men going there after work will be segregated out into specific areas.

    Then, yesterday, the CIS, the largest body of Muslim scholars makes this statement and raises more fear of a crackdown on the only affordable and the favorite venue for entertainment us all.

    The harassment has already started in my opinion, if you were willing to read the signs. Recently a lawyer and her daughters were picked up by the public order police for "indecent" clothing during a quiet family evening on Nile Street. 

    A little over a month ago, two friends of mine, a boy and a girl had their evening ruined by a security officer who wanted a bribe for not arresting them. They were sitting facing the river on Nile Street in Omdurman and talking when the officer appeared. 

    If the government decides to restrict the cafes and activities on Nile Street, this will not be met with total apathy. People will not allow the silence in the early 1990s when cinemas and cultural institutes were closed down to be repeated. People need space to breath and it will surely be difficult to take this away from them.

    I know a young man who lost his job three years ago and never succeeded in finding a job in the same field, engineering. He was stuck doing menial jobs and was thoroughly depressed and miserable because he was not able to support his wife. Every day, he would leave his house after 7pm to go to Nile Street and enjoy an evening with his friends. When his wife complained, he told her it was his therapy, the only place to escape the disappointments he is facing, the only place.

    Taking away Nile Street from us will be beyond a disappointment: it will be inhumane.

    Gdeim Izik: the first, forgotten spark of the Arab uprisings

    By Hicham Yezza

    It has been an unfortunate turn of fate - though hardly a surprising one - that the established narrative of the 'Arab Spring' seems to have completely occluded what could arguably be viewed as its first spark.

    In October 2010 - a few weeks before that fateful December encounter in Sidi Bouzid between Mohamed Bouazizi and a municipal official - thousands of Sahrawi men, women and children set up Gdeim Izik, a camp a few miles East of Layyoune, the capital of occupied Western Sahara, in an act of mass protest against their continuing marginalisation under the decades-long Moroccan occupation of their land, as well as an effort to alert an indifferent international community to their plight. 

    Since Spanish withdrawal in 1975, and for most of the past quarter century, Western Sahara seemed stoically resigned to its status as Africa's last, forgotten colony. Moroccan occupation, despite being one of the world's longest, remained one of its least reported and decried. As such, Gdeim Izik proved a pivotal moment, exposing the official Moroccan line - that Sahrawis were both happy with their lot and incapable of doing anything to change it anyway - and garnering widespread admiration as the first such act of mass protest in the region for years. 

    This perhaps explains the ruthlessness of the Moroccan response: on Nov 8, Moroccan security forces moved into the camp and, within a day, Gdeim Izik was gone, its tents torched and its residents forcibly moved away. There were dozens of casualties (including 11 Moroccan security officers) and hundreds of arrests. Twenty four human rights activists - most of whom were prominent civil society figures involved in setting up the camp - were detained and charged with a range of offences including "forming criminal gangs", "violence against the security forces leading to deaths" and "the mutilation of corpses".

    In the two years since, and against the protestations of local and international human rights campaigners and organisations, the 24 defendants have been kept in harsh detention conditions, reportedly tortured and forced to sign false confessions. To add insult to their injuries, their trial, which took place earlier this month after a number of delays, was held in a military rather than civilian court, reinforcing the conclusions of most observers that this was no more than a textbook show trial intended to deliver a lesson to any Sahrawis daring to challenge Moroccan occupation.  

    Last week, on Saturday, 16 February, the Military Court of Rabat delivered its verdict, handing down nine life sentences and giving 14 defendants prison terms ranging between 20 and 30 years. (Two defendants were released after receiving 2-year sentences, which they had already served in detention). Amnesty International declared the trial "flawed at the outset"; its Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Ann Harrison, found it "disturbing" that the authorities had "ignored the Sahrawi defendants’ allegations of torture and coerced confessions."

    Meanwhile, international media indifference to the case has been striking. In the UK, the only reference in the British mainstream press since the verdict has been a letter, published in the Guardian, from a number of prominent international campaigners and politicians - including film director Ken Loach and British Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn - calling the case "a travesty of justice" and "a politically motivated show trial". The letter echoed Amnesty's call for Moroccan authorities to order fair retrials in civilian courts for all defendants and to "fully investigate their allegations of torture". Although the defendants are expected to launch an appeal, the likelihood of a fairer outcome remains negligible in the absence of international political pressure.

    Of course, behind Morocco's cynical and opportunistic policies in the Western Sahara, including its conduct over Gdeim Izik, lies the west's enabling role in perpetuating and sustaining them. Yet this remains largely an unknown story: to look at the dearth of media coverage, the 'average' citizen could be forgiven for concluding that Western Sahara, its people and their decades-long struggle, were a fanciful figment of an NGO worker's imagination. 

    Such silences do not go unnoticed in the region, though: many commentators, notably in Algeria, have drily noted the familiar dissonance between the west's florid paeans to Arab freedoms and emancipation (not to mention its enthusiasm for "humanitarian intervention" in Libya and Mali,) and its continuing indifference to the plight of Sahrawis next door, whose struggle for self-determination seems to generate no more than an impatient, embarrassed shuffling of the feet.

    In any case, one certainty remains: for most Sahrawis, Gdeim Izik might have been torched out of existence, but its legacy will continue to burn bright for a long time to come.

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