This week's window on the Middle East - July 15, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Stealing Ramadan

Arab Awakening
15 July 2013
  • Stealing Ramadan
  • “So Egypt, what exactly do you want?"
  • In Egypt's media: Two camps, one loser!
  • How did Tamarrod topple the Muslim Brotherhood?
  • On the Moroccan Tamarod movement
  • On exiles and the Holy Land
  • Stealing Ramadan

    By Rita from Syria

    Ramadan has come and Muslims across the world fast from dawn to sunset. However, there are Muslims in Syria who have been forced to fast even before Ramadan.

    Two years ago, the eastern Ghouta of Damascus was home to more than two million citizens. Nowadays, it is under a crippling siege by regime forces for having taken in fighters for the Free Syrian Army and Jubhat al-Nusra.

    The inhabitants today number less than a million. Those who remained behind were unable to flee their homes to find an alternative refuge. Aside from the lack of security, the people of the Eastern Ghouta are forced to live without the simplest daily requirements such as electricity and clean drinking water. The ongoing siege is medieval in scale; the regime's war of attrition chokes supply lines and food is prohibited from entering the Eastern Ghouta. Inhabitants and their livestock survive on what little can be grown.

    Shirin works in government offices in central Damascus but lives with her family in the Eastern Ghouta. On her way home back from work she was stopped at a checkpoint manned by regime forces who had spotted a packet of flat bread in her handbag: “you either get rid of the bread and enter or go back to where you came from!” one of them shouted at her. Strict orders from on high had been given to push the people of the Eastern Ghouta to the brink of starvation. Shirin had no choice but to hold on tight to her loaves of bread refusing to throw them away and go back to Damascus.

    Far to the north, Aleppo is torn between loyalist Assad forces and armed militias fighting the regime. Two weeks ago, the latter made some strategic gains on the front-line in the city following the receipt of quality weapons including Grad missiles. Militias took advantage of advances made in the east of the city to impose a complete blockade on West Aleppo which remains under the control of the regime and is inhabited by a quarter of Aleppo's residents. Traders in West Aleppo have shut up shop, having run out of basics like bread and water. For the residents of West Aleppo heading east to try and buy everyday groceries has become a dangerous adventure with incalculable consequences.

    The buffer zone between East and West Aleppo is a wide highway separating Bostan al-Qasr – under militia control – and al-Qasr al-Baladi – under the regime's. The siege imposed by the armed groups prevents any person and any thing from entering. Whoever tries to break it risks having to run the gauntlet of snipers perched on rooftops.

    Abo Omar father to six children lives in the Nile Street neighbourhood. He was caught by members of one of the armed militias trying to smuggle in some vegetables. They arrested him and seized his car telling him: "not a single green stalk will enter your areas until the shabiha end their siege on Homs!” The perversity of supposedly religious groups preventing people from having access to food in this sacred month will probably go unnoticed in the fund-raising appeals which dominate television schedules during Ramadan. Abo Omar is now in jail waiting to appear in front of the Shariah Committee which functions as a court in "liberated areas".

    Aleppo and the Eastern Ghouta aren't the only places where Syrians are living under conditions which can no longer be described as fit for human habitation; there is Homs in the middle of Syria which has been under siege for nine months.

    With the Syrian economy in free-fall and faced with unprecedented hyper-inflation the misery of Syrians has been magnified exponentially, particularly for those inside besieged areas. Caught in the middle of a bloody armed conflict, civilians seem to be the victims of dictatorial policies followed by both the regime and some powerful armed militias. Increasingly, as this conflict wears on, both the regime and the militias fighting it begin to resemble one another. For war-weary Syrians the only difference seems to be in the colours of their flags.

    During these times when civilians suffer from hunger and oppression, those who trade in politics – be they with the regime or against – seek more and more weapons while sitting at caviar-laden tables. As for the ordinary Syrian citizen, her dignity now amounts to a single loaf of bread or a kilo of tomatoes which she might lose her life for.

    Thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece.

    “So Egypt, what exactly do you want?"

    By Refaat Mohamed

    It is not very clear yet whether what happened recently in Egypt is a military coup or not, as it falls into a very grey area where it is so hard to figure, let alone put a label on what happened.

    Stuck between a rock and a hard place the Egyptian people have been juggling between quasi-civil rulers, and military rule since JAN 25. So once again the Egyptian people take to the streets with massive protests, and once again Egypt is the centre of attention, and all the news networks are watching closely to see what is going to happen - forgetting one major detail, which is that the Egyptian people went out on the streets to kick their president with his regime out without having a working alternative. They still don’t have the messiah that they can all gather around as a leader.

    “So Egypt, what exactly do you want?”  You said “OUT” with Mubarak and he is out; you had a transition period ruled by SCAF, during which the civil movements have fought with SCAF vigorously; the Islamists were meanwhile totally in support and even attacked the civil movements (with whom they were hand in hand against Mubarak’s regime) telling them to leave the SCAF alone because the Egyptian army is not to be messed with.

    Then you had your free democracy elections in which the most prominent players were Ahmed Shafiq, an ex-military man who is highly linked and affiliated with Mubarak and his regime. And the other player was Morsi the Islamist, who was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second candidate. The candidate who was momentarily backed by a big sector of the civil groups who decided to support him lest Shafiq wins: which worked, and Morsi became president.

    And now you start complaining about Morsi who is not the best president there is (agreed by all except for Islamist TV stations which claim that he is the best president; and who is highly preoccupied with putting his clan in power, not based on their qualities but just for being close to him, and so that he may secure himself with people he can trust.

    Which led to many major problems, plus the fact that most of the big investors and players in the Egyptian market for some reason decided not to cooperate with Morsi, making him and his administration look even worse. And that is mainly because of the fear that he will mess with the huge shares they have in the market and will give it to his circle of friends instead (not of course to the Egyptian people). In addition to the fact that the different Islamist groups were not very shy with their hate speech directed is at every group or sect ever known to man.

    So the people of Egypt were angry and furious, and said “to hell with the people who are pretending to represent Islam, while their actions have nothing to do with Islam.”

    “So you want Morsi out?” - the same man who won Egypt’s first democratic elections, although he won by a tiny margin, but still he won, and he hardly spent one year in office.

    “So how will you throw him out?” according to the greatly controversial constitution laid down mostly by people belonging to Morsi’s camp, the way to do so is to wait a couple of months for the parliamentary elections. Win the parliamentary elections (as the opposition and civil movements) with a majority and then you will have the power to appoint the ministers and to impeach the president.

    This solution was so enthusiastically advocated by the MB and the Islamist groups, who were confident of winning the elections, as this is not the first time they have gone through this, and they have become very good at it. They know they have. While the opposition and the civilian camp haven’t yet learned to keep their differences to one side, and they know they haven’t.  Instead they have chosen to stay scattered according to their ideologies and principles. Moreover they say that there is no way the next parliamentary elections can be fair, as the Islamists will abuse the facilities and utilities of the state as privileges that they can use to win the elections.

    So now the majority of the Egyptian people minus the MB and their supporters have once again resorted to the streets, which resulted in a quasi-military coup this time, and the civil groups are now sleeping with the enemy represented in the military authority and generals who interfere in politics.

    Whether this will be in favour of our revolution or not will quite simply be determined by time. But unless civil political groups organize themselves and raise themselves to meet the responsibilities bestowed upon them, we will never get out of the endless loop of religious-military rule.

    In Egypt's media: Two camps, one loser!

    By Ahmed Magdy Youssef

    Egypt's last two weeks’ incessant events not only gripped the minds and hearts of the Egyptians, but they captured the interest of the national and international media as well.

    For many Egyptians, mostly those who filled public squares across the country to demand Mr. Morsi's removal and early presidential elections, the military's intervention on July 3 was inevitable to save the most heavily populated Arab country from slipping into a civil war.

    By contrast, Egyptian Islamists and other supporters of Mr. Morsi remain steadfast in their rejection of what they call a "military coup", refusing to acknowledge the military-backed interim president Adli Mansour and his newly-appointed vice president and prime minister as legitimate. Mr. Morsi's supporters have staged a series of mass rallies in Cairo, demanding the reinstating of the ousted president.

    Between the two camps, Egypt's media outlets have chosen to take sides in the ongoing tragic split. To put it more pointedly, not only the state-owned media avowedly backed the military after Morsi's ouster, but most of the Egyptian privately-owned TV stations and newspapers as well have embraced the military's perspective.

    It's no secret to say that Egypt's media landscape has never been non-partisan. The Muslim Brotherhood's TV station - Misr 25 - and others run by their Islamist allies, in addition to newspapers like Freedom and Justice, official newspaper of the MB's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), were undoubtedly partisan. Additionally, being perpetually accused of aligning with the regime that rules, state-owned newspapers like Al-Ahram did partly side with Mr. Morsi before the 30-June demonstrations. On the flip side, most of Egypt's privately-owned networks and newspapers were whole-heartedly in the anti-Morsi camp. Their dehumanization and demonization of the Brotherhood's members and other Islamists, not to mention their disparaging of the pro-Morsi protests, has become engrained.

    It all reached a crescendo on July 3 after the "popular" ouster of Morsi by the army's generals. Under the expediency of restoring national order, the military-led authorities shut down Islamist-run TV stations, including Misr 25, and arrested their managers. Only the Freedom and Justice newspaper "survived" the media crackdown!

    With only one tone dominating Egypt's mainstream media, most of the national media outlets went berserk over what was called the "Republican Guard Massacre". Last week, more than 50 pro-Morsi protesters were shot to death by the armed forces in clashes between the two sides in front of the Presidential Guards.

    The aforementioned outlets not only have failed to acknowledge wrongdoing on the part of the military, but have directed their ire toward the victims, Mr. Morsi's supporters, as well. By adopting the military's viewpoint that revolves around accusing the pro-Morsi protesters of trying to raid the military's facility, many Egyptian media outlets vindicated or even praised the "valiant" actions of the army!

    This was further aggravated by some western media, such as The Telegraph, who published footage of an Egyptian photographer who chronicled his own death. The 26-year-old photographer from the Freedom and Justice newspaper was among the victims killed by the armed forces in the Republican Guard massacre's incident. He had managed to capture the moment in which an army soldier with a rifle on top of a yellow stone building shot him dead! However, this footage was circulated only through different social network sites like Facebook. None of Egypt's state or privately-owned television channels broadcast this footage!

    In this polarized environment, many supporters of Mr. Morsi have resorted to Al-Jazeera's Arabic-language channel, alongside western networks such as CNN , to cater to their needs of seeing unabated coverage of the pro-Morsi protests, in addition to the dismissal of the opposition rallies.

    Previously, Egypt's state-owned and independent media outlets were drifting into two distinct camps; pro- and anti- Morsi. But, from the moment Mr. Morsi was ousted from the political scene, these two different viewpoints have been steered into one sole anti-Morsi direction. This trend, most probably, will continue for a while, till the Islamist TV stations reopen again, given their popularity, wide audience base and their traditional role as primary source of information for the Islamist camp. 

    How did Tamarrod topple the Muslim Brotherhood?

    By Ahmed Zidan


    Image by the Lebanese artist, Rola Khayyat. (Twitter: @rolakhayyat). Used with permission.

    The Tamarrod cofounders are Badr, Hassan Shahin, Mohammed Aziz, Mai Wahba and Mohammed Heikal. They’re Muslims whose ages range between 22 to 30 years, and unfamiliar to the public. Badr and Shahin work for an opposition newspaper, while Aziz acts as the Youth Coordinator of Kefaya Movement, one of the earliest opposition movements against Mubarak that was established in 2004.

    The cofounders - aside from their anti-Morsi and anti-MB sentiments – share a common political background. They are Nasserite, nonpartisan, oppose the US intervention in Egypt’s affairs, and take a stand against Israel.

    Tamarrod, like many opposition groups, felt that Morsi and the MB were deviating from the revolution’s goals, and subjecting the country’s institutions to gradual brotherhoodization under the guise of renaissance, in addition to the deteriorating economy and the lack of essential services.

    The movement called for mass protests against Morsi, and started collecting signatures in Tahrir Square on May 1st, the Labor Day in Egypt. The response was so massive that the campaign was expanded by unknown volunteers outside of Cairo.

    Although Jun. 30th, 2013, the day of the protests and the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, was a business day in Egypt, rather than the Fridays of protests that the Egyptians have mastered, Tamarrod’s calls were tremendously successful. But how did that happen in such a short time span? And how can Tamarrod go from here?

    First, “Egyptians felt that Morsi’s allegiance is to the MB guidance office, and not to his country”, said Kareem Sadek, a physician who protested in 2011 and 2013.

    Second, Like any successful venture, Tamarrod identified the problem – they are a peaceful and politically-neutral grassroots movement simply representing the aspirations of millions of Egyptians.

    Third, the movement went viral, thanks to a Facebook page which has now more than half a million fans. The social network was heavily used for mobilization and sharing. “Print, copy, sign and collect” was inspired by the April 6 Youth Movement tactics in the 2008 general strike.

    Fourth, the flawless organization and planning, as the movement had an office and/or representative in almost every major Egyptian city and across selected countries worldwide. The addresses and/or cellular numbers of these representatives were publicly posted on their Facebook page.

    In some areas, like Almammar Square in Ismayilia (71 miles North East of Cairo), the volunteers used public spaces to meet and collect signatures. “The dream was so big, but the determination was even bigger”, said Ahmed Abdo, the Coordinator of Tamarrod Movement.

    Fifth, the mass mobilization of the otherwise unpoliticized citizens, who in turn outnumbered the supporters of MB, an establishment famous for its extensive ability to mobilize.

    The message was successfully propagated to teenagers and university students who enthusiastically volunteered to collect signatures. “It’s my first time to join a protest in my life” said Mahmoud Yehia, a 22-year old unemployed protester who volunteered with Tamarrod to collect signatures.

    “When Tamarrod reached out to ordinary citizens in a deeply compromised socio-economic environment, they were able to gain this unprecedented support”, said Nelly Corbel, the Civic Engagement Manager at the Gerhart Center in the American University in Cairo.

    Sixth, Tamarrod didn’t exclude any political faction from its mission, whether the armed forces, or the National Democratic Party members “who weren’t convicted of any crimes”, as long as they shared the same end-goal. This political pragmatism, or the “enemy of my enemy” approach, was very successful in mobilizing millions of stakeholders.

    Seventh, the relatively free opposition media, most notably the prime time “Albernameg” weekly show by the satirist Bassem Youssef, facilitated the protests by highlighting the mistakes of Morsi and the MB, something that barely happened under any of Egypt’s previous presidents. “There was a strong campaign building up against Morsi in the last month (Jun) in the liberal media that helped mobilize people to join the Tamarrod movement protest”, said Naila Hamdy, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.

    Members of the MB think that the success of Tamarrod was part of a big conspiracy, “the media misinformed and brainwashed the people, and the church mobilized them with the help of the remnants (folool) of Mubarak’s regime”, said an FJP member who declined to identify himself.

    But to sustain this success, Tamarrod, “needs to avoid the mistakes of the April 6 Movement who were tricked into supporting the MB (in the presidential elections)”, said Nervana Mahmoud, a British-Egyptian commentator on Egypt and the Middle East affairs.

    The future might not be entirely clear for the movement, mainly due to the lack of any ideological foundations. But their ability to stand their ground and take steps forward will be under thorough scrutiny from now on. Latest news -  “We haven’t yet  decided on the prospects of founding a political party”, reports Ahmed Abdo.

    On the Moroccan Tamarod movement

    By Jamal Elabiad

    A Moroccan version of the Egyptian Tamarod movement was created on Facebook soon after that of Egypt managed to persuade millions of Egyptians to take to the streets to protest against the fact that Mohamed Morsi had failed to make his promises to the Egyptian people true after almost one year since being elected president. One of those promises was that he would do his best to treat Egyptians on an equal footing regardless of their religion and political orientation. They seemed to be within reach of their objective, particularly when the military decided to be on the side of the anti-Morsi protesters in Tahrir Square and other places around Egypt.

    However, in Morocco, the Tamarod movement came into being with the aim of ousting the Bekirane government, which for the pro-change Tamarod activists carries full responsibility for the fact that it has made no reforms of importance since it came to power after the outbreak of the Moroccan Spring.

    For them, the Islamist-led government has conducted a number of reforms, but most of them are like water off a duck’s back when it comes to the daily life of Moroccans. For instance, how will Moroccans benefit from knowing the names of Moroccans who received transport permits? And in what way will Moroccans benefit from the government forcing 2M TV channel to broadcast the calls for prayers? These are two of the many changes the PJD government has fanfared.

    In brief, the Moroccan Tamarod movement has invited Moroccans to protest on August 17, 2013 for the sole purpose of toppling the government in which the PJD party forms a majority, and which, for the movement, has done nothing important to combat many social ills Moroccans are suffering – starting with poverty, corruption, and unemployment.

    It’s beyond doubt that Moroccans suffered from such social problems long before the coming of the PJD government. The latter, like previous governments, have failed to take bold measures to convince them of the fact there is something different about this government, particularly when it comes to fighting poverty and unemployment, the two social problems that lead to the most terrible consequences.

    Those who try to persuade Moroccans that there is a lost paradise are mostly politicians who can’t digest the fact that they were defeated by the PJD in the January 25legislative elections, and also politicians whose ideology is totally different from that of the Justice and Development Party (PJD). Some of them have expressed their strong support for the Tamarod movement soon after it came to light.

    In my view, it’s really absurd to imagine that the key to real changes in Morocco will be the collapse of the current government whose common denominator with previous governments is that it doesn’t rule. This is no doubt a fact the political activists behind the Tamarod movement in Morocco did not take fully into account while setting goals for their movement. Also, they might have forgotten the fact that almost nothing changed when the Moroccan Spring led to the fall of the Fasi government.

    The solution lies in a king that reigns, but doesn’t rule. This should be the objective of any protest movement in Morocco that really wants to bring about deep changes, not cosmetic ones. King Mohammed VI delegated several of his powers to the government immediately after the Arab Spring knocked on the monarchy’s door, but this was not enough.

    The first step in changing Morocco is a government that has all the characteristics of a real government. One is that it actually runs things. Trying to oust the PJD government for the reason that it has so far done nothing of significance will not benefit the Moroccan people. It will only serve the interests of the PJD’s opponents, including the Authenticity and Modernity Party.

    On exiles and the Holy Land

    By Omar Hariri

    The Kotel, the Western Wall, is the holiest site in Judaism. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Jews visit to pay their respects to the holiest site. At any given moment, there are anywhere from 3-10 Bar Mitzvahs happening at once, as men and women pray at the foot of the wall, inserting hand-written notes and prayers in the spaces between the rocks. Because it is so imbued with holiness, it is the direction which diaspora Jews face in prayer. Jews worldwide have considered themselves to be in exile so long as they were not at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, of which the Wall is the last remnant.

    Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem's Old City would remove their shoes and pray in the holy grounds, in the 4m (or 13 foot) alleyway in front of the Wall, bounded by what was the Morroccan Quarter until 1948, when Jordanian forces assumed control of the West Bank, and the Western Wall with it. They forbade Jews from praying at the holiest site in the Jewish religion for the 19 years they were in control, until the Six Day War in 1967, when Israeli forces took control of the Egyptian Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights and of course the West Bank.

    In the three days following the Six-Day War, the Morroccan Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, an 800 year old community, was bulldozed to make way for a plaza for Jews to pray more comfortably at the holiest site in the world. In the days following the creation of the plaza the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the reception of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai took place. The Jerusalem Post described the celebration at the new plaza in front of the Western Wall:

    "They came wearing holiday streimels [fur hats worn by Hasidic Jews], black silk kaftans [cloaks worn by Middle Eastern men] and white stockings, but also mini-skirts and a kova tembel [small caps typically worn by Israeli kibbutzniks], or a colorful, Kurdish gown. No one was too young to be carried or too old and infirm to be helped along the way."

    Until 1948, the Jewish men had been praying alongside Jewish women: the gendered segregation at the Kotel is a relatively new thing. Just weeks after the first Shavuot at the Wall, in July 1967, a mechitzah (gender separation barrier) was installed at the plaza. By the somber day of Yom Kippur in October, under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the area at the Kotel had become a de facto Orthodox synagogue.

    In exile

    The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) narrative considers Jews to be in exile, captive in a Zionist state. Its Jewish character, to them is a tragic, false facade and only with the establishment of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount (where the Haram ash-Sharif stands today), and the coming of the Messiah, do they believe there will be a truly Jewish State. Though they comprise less than 10% of the population of Israel and often live in insular communities, their rabbinate has the exclusive right to perform weddings, divorces and burials and until very recently, they enjoyed a total exemption from military conscription. Though their power is perhaps eroding nationally, they still retain considerable religious authority throughout the Jewish State.

    The Women of the Wall are a group of male and female activists (though they aren't fond of calling themselves that) who, for the last 24 years, have been conducting monthly services to mark the beginning of the Jewish Month (Rosh Hodesh). In the last few years, and in particular the last few months, their monthly practice of wrapping themselves in tallitot (prayer shawls), and holding a minyan of women who read from the Torah and recite the Kaddish  (the mourners' prayer) out loud, as men are traditionally compelled to, have made them the subject of intense debate. Their monthly prayer services in a method of prayer largely normalized within the rest of Reform Judaism (and fully accepted in other spaces), have been termed provocations and, absurdly been the basis of their arrests. In April one Jerusalem judge ruled that they weren't violating the law or causing unrest  by praying at the wall 'according to their custom,' nor were they in violation of 'local custom,' (a phrase left unclarified) and their behaviour therefore didn't, and shouldn't, constitute grounds for arrest, despite the Haredi protests.

    In response to the ruling, Haredim mobilized further, and at the Women of the Wall's Rosh Hodesh service on May 10, thousands started demonstrating. They threw chairs, spat on the women and called them whores and lesbians.  This past week on July 8, in addition to 7,000 yeshiva girls who had been urged by their rabbis the day before to fill the women's section of the Kotel plaza in prayer, another 1,000 men roared, clapped and sang to drown out the prayers of the 350 women and men who were conducting their Rosh Hodesh service behind a set of barricades. Police had barred the Women of the Wall from the women's section at the plaza where they usually conduct their service, and were reserved a spot before the Haredi girls arrived. Though Women of the Wall had the legal right to pray there, and were even assigned a place adjacent to the Kotel, the group was effectively shut out, forced to conduct their service from the entrance to the plaza where police officers usually park their cars, away from the Wall. It was in fact the first time in Women of the Wall's 24 years that they had been blocked from entering the women's prayer area.

    Stuart Charmé commented as follows, that before 1948,

    "Not only did women seem to be an important component in the activities at the Wall, but also their voices were accepted as part of the more frequent public, communal prayers taking place there. A little more than a century later, participation of this kind would be forbidden." (12)

    He wrote about the spectacle not only of the monthly Rosh Hodesh services that Women of the Wall use as their centerpiece, but the weekly Friday prayers, welcoming the Sabbath. The Women's voices which once rose above the men's, on a weekly basis, are now being silenced, we could even say in exile.

    Haredi men spit at women and call them Nazis for praying out loud, with prayer shawls and kippot, in the manners to which they are accustomed. We Jews have a duty, and an urgent one at that, to think through what religious freedom means. Woe is us if a bunch of Haredi men get to decide it for us in their despicable monthly coup d'états.

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