This week's window on the Middle East - July 16, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Do Palestinians expect too much from Egypt?

Arab Awakening
16 July 2012
  • Do Palestinians expect too much from Egypt?
  • On Abdellah Nhari’s reponse to Mokhtar Laghzioui’s views on sexual freedom
  • Lebanon, Lebanoff: a nation in danger of stagnation
  • Startup Weekend Beirut
  • Why Libyan elections bucked the Islamist trend
  • I saw Ramallah protest
  • Nonviolent protest might accelerate the Syrian revolution
  • Do Palestinians expect too much from Egypt?

    By Sameeha Elwan

    Crossing the Rafah border has been the odyssey of every Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip forever. Somehow, I cannot even remember a time when the Rafah border was totally open. Two years ago, I was asked by a journalist whether I remember a time when there were no restrictions over movement for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip or when we were able to travel freely. It didn’t take me much time to answer with a “No”. I still remember how we used to celebrate my uncles by making big banquets every time one of them would successfully make it to Gaza, spending at least a day or two (sometimes more) at the crossing.  While celebrating their victorious 3-day return journeys, we would chat about the different ways Egyptians, Israelis and Palestinians would each treat Palestinian travellers. However, it was in 2007 when Hamas seized power over the Gaza Strip that Egypt’s perverse complicity in imposing a siege on the Gaza Strip started, leaving a population of around 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in one of the largest prison camps  the world has seen.

    Our enthusiasm in the Gaza Strip with the toppling of the former Mubarak regime in Egypt in February 2011 was linked to hopes that it would bring to an end to this epic of crossing the Rafah border. However, I remember the disappointment that this promised an easing of the blockade not a permanent opening of the borders. For, this easing did not prevent my mother, granted a medical report that shows her serious health condition needed urgent treatment, from being turned away twice at the Rafah Border. So this was an easing that had been deemed illegal but with which a supposedly US-backed government was complicit. At that time, we did expect that the siege would somehow come to an end. The Rafah border and the humiliation of Palestinians travelling through it has proved us wrong.

    It is true that for the first time in four years, Palestinians from the Gaza Strip especially women and children were allowed to get out freely. However, the same restrictions over the movement of young male Palestinians aging between 18 and 40 were still ongoing. A limited number of around 300 to 400 Palestinians were allowed to cross daily, while hundreds of others were destined to either wait or be turned away.

    Today, there is again a talk of a permanent opening of the Rafah border. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been pinning their hopes on the new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, to put an end to the frequent closures which frequently take place under the heading of ‘security reasons’, i.e., the Hamas government. However, talk of the permanent opening of the Rafah border does not indicate that those previously mentioned restrictions shall be lifted. The Rafah border is still closed to trade and to the import of some basic construction materials which means that the 5-year-seige is still in effect. It also means that people will still be using the alternative tunnel trade which has now become the alternative means of getting to and from the Gaza Strip. 

    The ongoing unprovoked dehumanization of Palestinians crossing borders into Egypt shows no likelihood of change on the ground. So I have to ask myself, “Are we really expecting too much from the current Egyptian government?”

    On Abdellah Nhari’s reponse to Mokhtar Laghzioui’s views on sexual freedom

    By Jamal Elbiad

    There are many reasons why some Arab people, including Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians, took en masse to the street and didn’t return home till they had toppled those who ruled them with an iron hand for decades. One reason was that they were deprived of this basic right: freedom of expression.

    In brief, freedom of expression means one has the full right to express one’s views on all topics without exception. For instance, one is free to say one prefers a president over a king or vice versa. Also, one is free to be for or against individual rights, including those regarding sexual freedom.

    True supporters of freedom of expression respect other people’s views and attitudes regardless of whether they agree with them or not. They also have the full right to respond to those views, particularly when they don’t agree with them. Of course, their responses shouldn’t be based on insults and death threats. On the contrary, they should be based on ideas and facts.

    Many Arab people, however, have contradicted themselves when they decided to join the pro-change protests around their country or at least haven’t grasped yet what freedom of speech really means. They are theoretically for the right of everyone to express his mind, but practically against that right.

    I was in doubt of whether Moroccans were aware of the meaning of the slogans they chanted immediately after the Arab Spring knocked their doors, but the responses to Mokhtar Laghzioui’s view on sexual freedom made me quite sure of the fact that Moroccans still haven’t understood some of the slogans they cheered on during their pro-change demonstrations.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have responded with insults and death threats to those whose views are totally different from theirs. Mokhtar Laghzioui is only one example in point.

    When Mokhtar Laghzioui, editor-in-chief of the Arabic newspaper Al Ahdath Al Maghribia, was asked live on air if he would allow his mother, sister or daughter to have sex outside marriage, his response was to say that they were free to do whatever they wanted, including having sex out of wedlock.

    Mokhtar Laghzioui’s response on that new-founded pan-Arabist news channel Al Mayadeen was a step too far for a large section of Moroccans, many of whom are supporters of the pro-change February 20 movement. The controversial Imam, Abdellah Nhari, is an example in point.

    He soon posted a video on YouTube suggesting, among other things, that Mokhtar Laghzioui "must be killed" in reaction to his appearance on the news channel Al Mayadeen, where he defended individual rights for Moroccan people, especially their right to have sex outside of marriage.

    Many Facebook pages were created in support of Abdellah Nhari soon after the latter was called for investigation by Moroccan police on the grounds that his speech is "likely to lead to crime, incitement of violence through preaching."

    I was really shocked to learn that Abdellah Nhari called for the death of Mokhtar Laghzioui simply because he had the courage to be in favour of sexual freedom in Morocco. His reaction to Mokhtar Laghzioui’s stand on sexual freedom reminded me of how the ousted Arab dictators, including Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, used to silence their opponents and pro-democracy activists.

    I am quite sure that one of the reasons why Mokhtar Laghzioui was encouraged to share his views on a controversial topic in the North African monarchy was that he was under the understandable illusion that Moroccans, after the outbreak of the Arab Spring, are free to say and write whatever they want.

    Mokhtar Laghzioui, needless to say, is not the only Moroccan to wrongly believe that the Arab Spring had emboldened Moroccans to broach taboo subjects. Think, for instance, of Rachid Nini, Abdessamad El Hidour, and Mouad Belghouat.

    Lebanon, Lebanoff: a nation in danger of stagnation

    By Rohan Talbot

    Sometimes it feels as though Lebanon is programmed to grind to a halt.  Beirut is infamous for its rush hour gridlock, and Lebanese people discuss traffic the way Brits discuss the weather. But recent months have seen this problem exacerbated by a seemingly unending series of road-blocking protests, where assorted protesters burn tyres and restrict traffic to make their voices heard. Barely a day goes by without such demonstrations strangling Lebanon’s traffic, and they cover an astonishingly varied set of grievances, including events in Syria, perceived abuses by the army, workers’ contracts, arrests, prisoner releases, petrol prices and even the eviction of vegetable sellers from their old selling grounds. Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s on-going sit-in protest on the highway into Saida, against Hezbollah’s arms, has garnered the most attention by virtue of its duration (now entering its third week) and continued aggravation for those living/working in the south. Remarkably, Saida merchants who have lost business due to the sit-in carried out their own road-blocking counter-protest this week.

    But it’s not just traffic that isn’t flowing as it should. This month has seen the worsening of the country’s chronic electricity crisis, with blackouts exceeding 20 hours per day in some areas, due to severe power rationing from the state-owned Electricite du Liban, and faults at power plants. Only the privileged can afford to pay for generators to guarantee uninterrupted power supply, and so many have no choice but to accept darkness. As the summer heat starts to swelter here, power outages also mean it is hard for poorer families to keep food and their homes cool.

    Even the internet ceased to function this month when almost the entire nation was knocked offline for the better part of three days after an undersea cable ruptured. That this happened on the same day that a UN report declaring access to the internet to be a human right only served to make the timing of this outage more embarrassing for the powers that be (though admittedly the UN report focused more on the intentional blocking of the internet for political ends). Lebanon’s internet is notoriously slow at the best of times, and provision exists in a state of near-monopoly. In a service-based economy like Lebanon’s, such problems cause not only frustration for the inhabitants, but also notable harm to businesses. From my own work I can testify to the loss of productivity that organisations such as NGOs can face with long internet outages.

    Lebanon’s infrastructure has been damaged by repeated conflict, with the country even now still reeling from the destruction of civilian infrastructure (including power and water plants and transport infrastructure) by Israel in the 2006 war. A lack of investment, institutional inertia and crippling political gridlock mean that a solution to these problems is not immediately in sight.

    People here generally discuss these difficulties with remarkable good humour, albeit with a tinge of exasperation and frequent curses directed at a government incapable of solving them. But in truth such stagnation is starting to bite, not only in terms of day-to-day frustration, but also the economic woes to which it is both contributor and symptom. Solutions need to be found, not least because in conflict-stalked countries like Lebanon such frustrations can get all-too-easily tangled up with political grievances and stir resentment and unrest.

    Startup Weekend Beirut

    By Sacha Robehmed

    Lebanon is a country of contradictions. The tech space proves no different. Incredibly, Startup Weekend Beirut began on July 5 - the same day internet returned to Lebanon after two days of complete outage

    A format which encourages participants to team up and launch a startup in three days, the first Startup Weekend in the Arab world was hosted in November 2010 by YallaStartup. “It was a call to action”, said the initial instigator Habib Haddad. An entrepreneur turned venture capitalist, Haddad founded Boston-based Yamli in 2007, which recently licensed its Arabic search and transliteration technology to Yahoo. 

    In recent weeks, I’ve been amazed to discover a young but growing startup community across the Middle East. While Tel Aviv’s startup hub is the best known outside the region, Arab countries are beginning to cultivate their own entrepreneurs with big ideas. Meetups where entrepreneurs can meet and share ideas, along with accelerators such as Seeqnce in Lebanon and Oasis500 in Jordan, have become more common in the past few years.  

    The picture today of this buzzing new tech space is completely different from five years ago, when Haddad first confronted the myriad difficulties of trying to found a tech company in his native Lebanon. Wamda, which he heads, is working to facilitate the ecosystem by covering regional startup news, supporting entrepreneurs and making early stage investments with the backing of Abraaj Capital.

    But despite great ideas in the region, there are few Arab startups that anyone has head of in Silicon Valley, for instance. Perhaps they know of Woopra, the Lebanese analytics company that relocated to California. Or of TwitMail, whose Saudi founder Saleh Al-Zaid was recently interviewed by influential Silicon Valley tech blogger Robert Scoble. (Incidentally, Scoble blanked when trying to name examples of Middle Eastern startups.) The Arab tech scene is still in its infancy, with “plenty of ideas and early stage companies,” said Haddad. “But what you lack is the startups scaling up.” 

    For now at least, the region presents its own opportunities. “There’s so much white space; entrepreneurs should be focused on filling this gap,” Haddad said. Initially, this space was filled by clone companies, such as UAE-based group-buying website, GoNabit, which was acquired by LivingSocial last year. But inspired by the problems they encounter, young Arabs are creating innovative solutions. MindTalk is one example, founded by five women in the UAE. Unable to attend a conference in the US, cofounder Meerah Ketait created a solution that would allow Gulf women like herself to participate without being physically present, in a more interactive way than a typical conference call.

    Launched at Dubai Startup Weekend in October 2011, the idea won “Most Innovative”, with prize money from the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development. “MindTalk has received great support from both the public and private sectors” said Ketait. Along with the other teams participating in the competition,her young startup was incubated by the Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Establishment, providing physical space, mentorship, and business, legal and cash flow assistance. Given problems of high youth unemployment, it’s not surprising that some governments in the Middle East are eager to promote entrepreneurship.

    In Egypt, the change of government has been credited with instigating entrepreneurship. KarmSolar’s cofounder Ahmed Zahran said, “The revolution was the graveyard of the old way of doing business, which depended mainly on personal connections, corruption, and government inefficiency.” Research and development for KarmSolar began in 2010, with the company only officially formed in 2011 after Mubarak’s departure. Providing standalone solar energy that can be used for water pumping and desalination, KarmSolar seeks to move parts of Egypt off the grid and away from expensive oil dependency. With this innovative approach they recently won the HCT-Wharton Innovation Award, hosted in the UAE.

    When we met, Zahran was wearing a t-shirt proclaiming “حرية”, meaning “freedom”. His optimism for the future of Egyptian entrepreneurship was infectious. “Things will change dramatically in the region over the coming 10 years once this generation gets a hold of things,” Zahran said.

    But Haddad was more cautious about the impact on startups of regional political change. “If no real action takes place, it might backfire on the whole momentum and positive movement happening in terms of entrepreneurship,” he said. Like the revolutions of the Arab Spring, the region’s startup revolution carries a lot of hope and promise — just waiting to be fulfilled.

    Why Libyan elections bucked the Islamist trend

    By Rhiannon Smith

    On Saturday, July 7, Libyans proved to the world that their country is not the divided, conflict ridden, Islamist-friendly state that many predicted the National Congress elections would reveal it to be. On the morning of the elections queues formed around the block as voters old and young, male and female waited for their chance to vote. Voting stations were well organised, well staffed and in most cases well protected. Across the country there was an air of excitement, festivity and satisfaction as Libyans took part in their first free elections in over forty years. It was as if the whole nation was celebrating a wedding with the streets full of people singing, dancing and waving flags. In the east there were some setbacks when federalists, unhappy with the current structure of the National Congress, attacked voting stations and destroyed election materials, but in the end most Libyans were able to cast their votes.


    Libyans give victory sign with their fingers stained with ink after voting in the countries first free election in sixty years.

    An impressive 65% of eligible Libyans voted, and the preliminary, partial results trickling out from the HNEC show that Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) has scooped the majority of the party votes, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party and Belhaj’s Nation Party trailing behind. This means once all votes are counted and final results released, NFA are likely to have a majority of the 80 seats assigned to political entities. The great unknown remains the 120 individual candidates whose allegiances have yet to be revealed, and who will be the deciding factor in forming a successful coalition which can lead Libya through the crucial coming months.

    So why do NFA appear to have done so well, and why has Libya, a conservative country whose population is almost entirely Sunni Muslim, bucked the post-revolution Islamist trend which has seen Tunisia and Egypt elect the Muslim Brotherhood as their leaders of choice? For starters, it is important to remember that votes were not generally cast based on informed, ideological precepts, but rather based either on the merits of a handful of well known figureheads, or along tribal or family lines. Mahmoud Jibril earned himself respect, trust and admiration among many in Libya for his role in garnering international support for the rebels during the revolution, and he is seen as someone who has the experience and vision to lead Libya forward.  One of the main criticisms levelled at Jibril is that he played a role in the former regime, yet for many this is actually a positive. He is seen as someone who can unite the revolutionaries and Gaddafi loyalists under one flag, with another string to his bow being that he is from the Al-Warfalla tribe, one of Libya’s most populous tribes. NFA’s success has mainly been attributed to Jibril’s leadership.

    Despite Jibril’s popularity, many observers expected the two main Islamist parties to come out on top, especially given the recent successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya’s closest neighbours. However, Libya’s political history, culture and attitude is different to that of Egypt and Tunisia, as was their revolution, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Libya doesn’t seem to have followed suit.

    In Egypt and Tunisia Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood have a long history and solid support base, whereas in Libya they were never given so much as an inch of ground in which to put down roots. Gaddafi’s political legacy is one of intense suspicion for political parties and this may have been compounded rather than allayed by the Islamist successes on Libya’s borders. Libyans are fiercely patriotic and do not like the idea of foreign interference or influence. The Muslim Brotherhood and Belhaj’s Nation Party are seen as the puppets of Saudi and Qatar as this is where much of their funding and ideology comes from, and this seems to have damaged their reputation among the Libyan population. What’s more, despite being a deeply conservative, Muslim country, religion is still very much a private affair in Libya, and Gaddafi ensured it never became a political one. As a result, many Libyans resent the idea of politicians presuming to tell the population how to follow their own religion.

    Forty years living in a political void has meant Libyan candidates and voters alike were starting from square one in these elections in terms of experience, knowledge and expectations, and it is testimony to Libya’s determination to make their revolution count that the elections went as smoothly as they did. The next test is forming the constitutional commission and drafting a constitution which will determine the shape of Libya’s political future. I am optimistic that Libya will rise to this challenge.

    I saw Ramallah protest

    By Mohammed Suliman

    News from Ramallah, which has plunged me into cynicism repeatedly over the years, has transformed my mood into one of unqualified optimism for the first time. Over the past few days, Ramallah has restored my faith in the untiring free spirit of the people of Palestine. It has given me hope. Ramallah, by its own initiative, may have finally secured its place in Palestinian history as something that is, for the first time, not notoriously PA-dependant but rather astoundingly and heroically PA-opposed.

    “They’ve occupied your land; don’t let them occupy your minds,” one friend advised me after listening to me speak so despairingly about the current situation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. I knew this was a precious piece of advice since one of the reasons I have always thought the status quo looked so unprepossessing is the level of manipulation and ‘mind-control’ deemed necessary not just by the Israeli occupiers but by the various political agencies across the political landscape in Palestine, particularly the Palestinian Authority (PA) which, until very recently, has had quite a sure hold over the minds of Palestinian people, particularly the youth, continuously and falsely feeding them a crudely self-contradictory narrative of an independent Palestinian state soon to be realised in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank while at the same time firmly holding onto the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, all this of course being conditional, we were told, on keeping the faith with our wise and experienced leadership.

    As around 2000 Palestinian prisoners embarked on a mass hunger strike inside Israeli jails, a state of anticipation reigned amongst Palestinians, and it was said time and again that this would be the last straw that broke the camel’s back and that it is about time Palestinians joined the Arab awakening and took action— most likely in the form of, mass mobilization, large-scale demonstrations, and civil disobedience against not only the Israeli occupation but also the PA as the power enabling and facilitating this occupation through their despicable silence and shameless collaboration with the Israeli authorities.

    Behind the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strikes, some commented, was a lack of faith in the power of the masses on the ground as prisoners took things into their own hands and won the battle all by themselves – this tone was even present in several of the letters written by many of them, in which they appeared to be desperately pleading with their people to take action for them...

    As a Palestinian brought up with the heroic images, scenes, anecdotes, and music of the first and second Palestinian intifadas as the high points of the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation, I lost my pride. For a moment, I felt ashamed of being a Palestinian, completely powerless and apathetic in the face of this oppression. “Where are the Palestinians?,” gnashing my teeth, I asked myself time and again.

    Then on July 1, protests took place in Ramallah against a scheduled meeting between PA president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz. Although there has been a growing level of discontent amongst the Palestinians, none would have expected a protest of this kind to take place in Ramallah. That by itself is a huge achievement. One has to acknowledge, though, the folly of the PA president’s decision to meet with an Israeli official as notorious as Mofaz. This created a situation in which Palestinians from various political backgrounds and affiliations united — albeit before it was officially postponed — to stage protests against the meeting.

    The brutal crackdown by PA security and intelligence forces has confirmed the widening, deplorable disconnect between the PA president and the youth on the ground. Instead of listening to the youth’s demands, Abbas completely isolates himself in his presidential palace while the people chant against him and the PA’s collaboration with Israel. As a matter of fact, the parallels between the Arab western-backed dictatorships and the PA are striking and unmistakable. However, the PA has become a fully-fledged western-backed dictatorship now, before the state it is meant to rule over has even come into existence.

    As the first protest was quelled, another protest, this time against police brutality, was planned; but, completely ironically, it was met with even more police brutality. During a third protest, the youth marched to the PA compounds known as al-Muqata’a and sharply and unequivocally chanted against the PA’s collaborationist policy and against Saeb Erekat as the head of the Palestinian negotiating team and, most significantly, against the Oslo Accords. It does not matter for how long the protests persisted. The fact that the turnout was not particularly massive is not relevant also. What matters is that the people — a considerable number of them — have finally spoken up, nowhere but in Ramallah, and not only against the Israeli occupation, but most significantly against the Palestinian Authority and its collaborationist policy. The first barrier of fear has been shattered for good, and that is what truly matters. Standing up against the PA is no longer an improbable scenario. Things will never be the same for the PA establishment.

    Nonviolent protest might accelerate the Syrian revolution

    By Ali Gokpinar

    Questions over the Syrian crisis are more pressing as the regime refuses to respond to protesters’ legitimate demands and yet, the opposition is politically divided and too weak militarily to overthrow Assad.  Diplomacy, intimidation, and arming of the Syrian opposition could not so far gain the edge, and are not expected to succeed in the short term.  So, what to do? How could the Syrian opposition achieve its objective?

    Spreading videos of violence (fake or genuine) on YouTube and Facebook to draw the attention of the international community in order to prompt intervention as in the case of Libya has only elicited more violence from Assad.  Violence creates a vicious cycle and is seductive, as in the case of Iraq. The Assad regime understands this idea and has started to target people even at home, making the streets a safer option.   

    Despite the division between the external and internal Syrian opposition, activists are promoting the idea of nonviolent protests as a means of challenging the regime: since they know if Assad targets people in the streets of Damascus where women and children play a key role, the violence will backfire. This is important since the regime does not wish to see massive killings in the streets of Damascus and this tactic may help other Syrians overcome their fear of being there. So far, Assad’s most violent operations have taken place in Hama; but if Damascus streets join in the nationwide protests it is more likely that the Syrian opposition will succeed in toppling down Assad.

    Recently, Sheikh Jawdat Said announced that he would head to Damascus to promote the idea of nonviolent protests as he thinks the Ba’ath regime and some sectors of the opposition have believed only in arms. As he puts it: “These people believe in the power of arms, not in the power of truth”.  Further, his followers successfully used non-violent incentives for soldiers, who were sent to suppress the protests in the town of Dariyah, by handing out water and roses.  This is an important tactic as it delegitimizes the Assad regime in the hearts and minds of the Syrian soldiers and causes defections.

    Some might argue that nonviolent protests will never be successful but there is also no chance for violence if the international players do not intervene or provide significant means of material and moral support. Nevertheless, an emerging body of data and literature suggests nonviolent action can bring change even in dictatorships, the most recent examples being Egypt and Tunisia.  Skeptics would argue that the Egyptian and Tunisian people were not faced by as much violence, but go back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and there you will find good evidence enough to persuade you that nonviolent protest works. However, the key issue in the Iranian Revolution was ‘discipline’: protesters never ceased protesting and got support from various sectors of the public and bureaucracy by using different strategies and tactics such as not going to work, or striking.

    Last but not least, the wide range of armed Syrian opposition leads one to predict that if Assad is toppled by the use of violence, Syria may experience more violence than ever as these groups are established along ethnic and communal lines. Nonviolent protests could be more productive and prevent future violence if the opposition forces understand the power of not using violence and provide incentives to the public officers to follow them. The logic of nonviolent action should be strategic and sound tactics should be used to challenge the power of the Assad.  Defections are paving the road to revolution; tactics such as nonviolent nationwide stay-at-home protests may accelerate this process. 

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