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This week's window on the Middle East - June 10, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Why use violence against peaceful protesters?

10 June 2013
  • Why use violence against peaceful protesters?
  • Hearing out Prime Minister Erdogan’s silent majority?
  • Constraints on the internet in Lebanon
  • Is Qatar guilty of sectarianism in Syria?
  • Me and the Copts Part One
  • It is worth a delay or two to put Tunisia on the right democratic path
  • Mohamed and Michael are both Egyptian
  • Why use violence against peaceful protesters?

    By Ali Gokpinar

    The Turkish government’s decision to use tear gas as a form of political violence to suppress peaceful protesters is puzzling given the AKP’s role in breaking the grip of Kemalist institutions and its reconciliation initiatives to resolve both the Kurdish question and the Alevi issue. Why did the AKP government use state repression? What is the AKP’s logic of violence?

    State repression has three main functions in Turkey: a way of dealing with challenges to political elites and state institutions; facilitating a certain political ideology; and drawing the boundaries of freedom and limits of action. Of course these functions are interrelated and to some extent similar to each other. Nevertheless, they provide a sophisticated repertoire of coercive measures. Although such coercive measures did not necessarily require use of violence, the AKP government used excessive violence on protests mainly led by labour unions, leftist and pro-Kurdish groups. Selective violence was justified on the basis that such protests were harmful to maintenance either of public order or in the public interest.

    Public order and interest are key terms to understand the Turkish state’s logic of repression and violence. What is public order? Although various laws and the Constitution refer to public order frequently, this concept is not defined and broadly describes what might be harmful to public order. Public interest is no different. Of course many people might think that ‘public’ refers to people but in Turkey it actually refers to the state. Therefore, the laws and Turkish Constitution protect and serve the interests of the state rather than being in the service of citizens. This reflects a broader phenomenon that is embedded in the philosophy of the Turkish state: citizens exist thanks to the state. In other words, emerging out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and politically shaped by the Armenian genocide, National Liberation War and early ethnopolitical Kurdish and Alevi revolts, the Turkish state has become the Leviathan.

    Despite important political and social transformation over the last ninety years, little has changed in the mindset of the political elite administering the country regarding the use of violence. While the prolonged Kurdish question facilitated the military's use of violence as a methodology to resolve the conflict, the police enforced daily law and order. Of course protests, demonstrations and riots were accommodated to a certain extent depending on the political climate and actors involved in such processes. Yet, the malaise of seeing citizens as a threat has struck back on various notorious occasions, for example on May 1, 1976 in Taksim Square during the Labour day celebrations and most recently again during Labour day celebrations at the same place. As a result of this malaise, the state has developed an automatic reflex to respond to protests with violence rather than accommodating diverse views or negotiating with demonstrators, especially when leftist groups organize protests. Istanbul University, in the heart of Old City, for instance, has always been the best place to go to witness such violence when leftist groups hold their protests in Beyazit Square.

    The AKP Government’s reforms have also extended the discretionary power of the Police Department. It is up to police chiefs to assess whether it is appropriate to use violence or not, and whether the violence deployed has been proportional or not. This means giving the police a blank cheque from a willing government and there are no accountability mechanisms. A few days ago, a Police Chief in Izmir, for instance, not only used violence against protesters but also asked his “ununiformed police officers” to help their uniformed fellows because “protests were getting out of control”. Nevertheless, the police force has improved its reputation under the AKP government thanks to TV advertisements and campaigns to increase the credibility of the institution. While establishing trust between the people and institutions in democracies is essential, it remains something of a Turkish paradox how the police can possibly be trusted when they suppress civilians.

    The AKP’s use of violence during the Gezi Park protests are not only motivated by institutional reflexes, laws and mindset. Prime Minister Erdogan’s Chief Advisor declared that they believed such protests might be a coup d’etat attempt because the Kemalist Republican People’s Party  might have succeeded in just such an attempt on February 28, 1997. Mr. Erdogan was a member of the Welfare Party that was overthrown thanks to the military’s efforts. The military sponsored various civil society organizations at that time and such organizations rallied against the government, creating the conditions for military intervention. In other words, Gezi Park demonstrations were perceived as an existential threat by Prime Minister Erdogan given the protesters’ demand for his resignation.

    This might well be a tactic, however, to avoid the larger problems and limit the discussions around secularism and Kemalism so that Erdogan’s supporters do not participate in popular protests. Whether Mr. Erdogan’s calculations are beneficial or not, they have cost the Turkish people and “public” morally and materially - two people were killed (a police officer and a young man), many were subject to tear gas and beatings, and millions of dollars of public damage has been the result.

    The loss of these two people’s lives is revealing about how our political culture is shaped by violence. Abdullah Comert, 20, was killed during the protests in Antakya while Mustafa Sari died after falling off a subway bridge in the Adana protests. The former was buried in his hometown without any government participation in the funeral and his family sent trees to Gezi Parki to be planted in his memory. Although Prime Minister Erdogan acknowledged the loss of two men, he praised the latter as a martyr, saying he gave his life in the service of the nation. Wasn’t Abdullah Comert’s right to protest perfectly legitimate and weren’t his demands also serving the nation?  It is true that we should honour our citizens but to call a police officer a martyr is to sanctify him/her and thus embed violence into daily life.

    Overall, it is obvious that there is a need for security sector reform in Turkey. Sending the military to its barracks (although still not subordinated) was key to AKP’s electoral success, but instead the police have become the chief tool of repression. Without reforming the police and a change in the political elite’s mindset, Turkey will continue to experience human rights violations and violence. Turkish people should closely follow the government’s actions regarding this crucial issue and negotiate for reforms and accountability.

    Hearing out Prime Minister Erdogan’s silent majority?

    By Oguz Alyanak

    Prior to his departure to Morocco on June 3, 2013, Prime Minister Erdogan asserted that he was having a hard time keeping at home at least 50 percent of the population, a reference to his ‘silent majority’, ready to be unleashed against the protestors on the streets. For the most part, the counter-narrative of the protests that might be told by members of this obscure category, must be read through the speeches of the Prime Minister himself. As I write, thousands have gathered at Ataturk Airport to show their support for the Prime Minister, whose plane is expected to land shortly. Their voices have not been heard. My aim is to take politicians out of the space of the political, leaving the floor to those to whom it truly belongs.

    Selma and Guy Fawkes

    On June 5, 2013, my walk through the streets of Bursa, Turkey was interrupted by an unusual altercation. What I encountered was a highschool girl writing on a placard a list of accomplishments achieved by the Turkish Prime Minister. On the placard she had written, among other things, that “he has nullified our debt to the IMF”; “he has banned smoking indoors” and “he improved Turkey’s economy.” When I approached her, I saw that she was standing next to a boy wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who, unlike her, had sided with the protesters. As I approached, a middle-aged lady had just been accusing the highschool girl of being disrespectful to Turkey’s heritage and Ataturk’s legacy: “May God’s curse be on you! [Allah belani versin]”, she shouted over her shoulder.

    I began to introduce myself to the highschool girl who we shall call Selma, just as the police approached. They told both protestors to get rid of their placards, allegedly agitating passersby. After a short exchange with the police officers, they both decided to end their short-lived performance. As they packed up, I asked them to have a cup of tea with me and tell me what they thought about the environmentalist protest in Gezi Park that had spread from Istanbul to all around Turkey, quickly developing into a powerful critique of the AKP government’s policies and the Prime Minister’s attitude. I was curious to hear how these young people saw things and what kind of future they wanted for themselves. Only Selma accepted my invitation. My account of our discussion follows.

    Selma’s story

    Selma was still fuming over her elderly critic: “She congratulated me for my efforts, thinking that I was protesting against Prime Minister Erdogan; however, when I told her that I supported him, she was furious. What right does she have to shout at me?”

    What led Selma to go to a very central and populated location (Heykel, which also hosts Bursa’s iconic Ataturk statue) and start writing down the deeds of Prime Minister Erdogan on her placards? It is a bold move, considering she attends a high school in Bursa, a city where hundreds of people have been flocking to the very streets in which she decided to disagree, calling on successive nights for the Prime Minister to step down. On June 5, she did the opposite. It turned out that the boy with the Guy Fawkes mask had provoked her into doing something! She had gone to the city hall and asked the authorities to tell her whether it was possible for her to protest too; she was told she could if she wanted to, and so she did. “If he can do it, why can’t I….I also have something to say!”

    Selma’s anger was built on her past experiences, until she felt that, “she could not take it any more.” She repeated various points that the Prime Minister himself also raised prior to leaving Turkey: that many other trees were being cut for other construction projects, and no one protested against these projects; that the protests were rather provoked to bring the Prime Minister down by those who could not come to terms with his success; that the protesters were suffering the consequences of their very own actions (which she described as throwing stones at the police, vandalizing public property, speaking in a disrespectful manner about the country’s Prime Minister). For Selma, that it was the police who suppressed the protests with tear gas and their excessive force did not matter. Police violence was a direct outcome of the protesters’ misdemeanor.

    It was the disrespect that irritated her. “We continue to suffer too,” she said: “I live in a dormitory, and in that dormitory, the only newspaper we receive is Sozcu [a pro-secular, anti AKP daily]. The newspaper speaks of the government and the Prime Minister in such a demeaning way that it disturbs me. Everyone around me in that dorm reads it and wants me to read it and believe in what it says too. We live as a minority in the dorm. In my classes, however, the situation is different.” Her classmates were mostly supporters of the AKP (“only two in our class of 25 supported the opposition party”), and many of her close friends shared her loyalty towards the Prime Minister even if they did not consider themselves as sympathizers of the AKP, and sided with her in her support for Erdogan. Her friends were “only a call away”: but her one-person protest had been organized so hastily, they were not with her on that day.

    She agreed that maybe Erdogan cursing the protesters as a bunch of  “capulcu” [looters] might have escalated the events out of hand. But this was a response to people speaking of him without respect,” Did you know that some protesters called for the third bridge[i] to be named Emine [referring to the Prime Minister’s wife], so that people could run [do] her over?” Selma asked.  

    Why didn’t people sign collective petitions instead to make the AKP change its policies? When I suggested this might not be as effective as public protests, she responded that its failure should not translate into throwing stones either.

    Prime Minister Erdogan, who had become the persona non grata for certain segments of the population in Turkey as well as abroad, was Selma’s role model. “He has done so many good things for his country, provided so many services to his people. He ended a 30 year war [referring to the recent agreement with Kurdish guerillas] and still, some people are not satisfied.” In her understanding, his good deeds were not to be wiped away by these protests. Furthermore, Selma did not think that the Prime Minister would step back, and apologize for his words: “He’s a man of his word. If he says that he will not apologize, then he will not. And he should not!” She hinted that she and her friends would soon start protesting too, if need be, to show their support for the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the crowds chanting “Allow us and we will run over Taksim” during Prime Minister Erdogan’s address to the crowds at Ataturk airport the night of his return to Turkey seems to support Selma’s undertaking.

    What next?

    With a system that fails to produce a viable alternative to the current government and its leader, calls for elections or for the Prime Minister to resign may be unrealistic. Selma was quick to ask: “They want Erdogan to step down; they want elections? But who will take over? Kilicdaroglu? [leader of the opposition].” But it is after all a mutual understanding of reciprocal vulnerability and the need for inclusiveness - and not an affiliation with a political party, leader or ideology -that truly lies at the heart of these protests. And it is such an understanding that brings us together at a subtler yet stronger level; that of the individual and of the human being.

    If we only think of politics in relation to politicians, who are unwilling to listen, let alone open to change, the confrontation risks further escalation. So don’t we have to find ways to listen to the Selma’s of this world too? It is our collective responsibility to save the people from the politicians’ tyranny by inventing ways of communicating with each other.

    [i] A new bridge is on the verge of construction in Istanbul, linking Asian and European shores over the Bosphorus. The bridge will take its name after the Ottoman Sultan, Yavuz Sultan Selim. The name itself led to protests in the province of Erzincan for the Sultan is accused of the massacre of thousands of Alevis in Anatolia.

    Constraints on the internet in Lebanon

    By Helen Mackreath

    Whilst the freedom of media in Lebanon has long been celebrated as an oasis within the Middle East, the digital environment may represent a challenge to that reputation. The internet is increasingly becoming a contested space in the country. Long offering a grey area of legal jurisdiction, as well as a platform where sectarianism exercises judgment through self-censorship, it may now face a more constrained future, restricted by the same politico-sectarian divisions which impose such a stranglehold on the country.

    Wranglings over a new media law have been ongoing since 2010, when the government’s attempts to impose a new “e-transaction law” were halted by activists. This situation was repeated in 2012 when the attempt to pass the Lebanese Internet Regulation Act (LIRA) was met with a similar challenge from activists. Today, a third draft law is under consideration by the Media Telecommunications parliamentary committee, which is widely regarded as a positive move to increase press freedoms. However, legal ambiguity, collapse of the government and an increasingly blurred picture on the ground are translating into a less than free environment.

    Currently, a blurred and overlapping legal framework governs the internet in Lebanon. This leads to confusion both in the law courts, and in the implementation of the law on the ground against potential suspects. Two laws relate to internet abuse. The first is the 1962 press and publications law, designed solely for a traditional print environment, and therefore ill-equipped to deal with the open environment of the internet. The second spectrum of laws are the slander and libel laws, particularly article 588 of the Lebanese penal code which punishes defamation of the President, army and any other public figure, which carry far graver repercussions. Prosecutions under these sets of laws garner far greater public attention, owing to fears that they represent a stifling of freedom of speech.

    Currently it is down to the judge’s discretion whether they judge cases under the Freedom of Expression law as journalists, which would come under the print media law of the 1960s, or under the penal code law.

    What does this mean on the ground?

    Whilst a new law regarding the internet is yet to be implemented, reports of low-profile arrests and intimidations targeting online activists continue to attract attention.

    Pierre Hashash was reported to be arrested and beaten in November last year because of comments made on facebook in which he criticized the army and its commander. There was speculation that this was a result of personal animosity with a particular member of the army, but the case still caught wide media attention for its repercussions for freedom of speech. In February this year, according to Maharat Foundation for Freedom of Expression, Abir Ghattas was interrogated by police about a blog entry she had posted in which she criticized a former CEO of Spinneys, a supermarket chain, for his handling of the attempted unionization of the company’s workers.

    On the other side of the coin, there is concurrently an increase in the internet promoting sectarianism, and an absence of adequate measures to police this appropriately.

    The serious harassment of a young female journalist blogger in South Lebanon, extending to arson attack, death threats, and forced expulsion from her home town, followed her criticisms of Hezbollah’s presence in the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr on facebook. Marwa Olleik was forced to flee her home village of Yahumr, in South Lebanon on 22 May after her comments, and her reaction to the initial criticism which was perceived to insult Sayyida Zeinab [the granddaughter of the Prophet who is highly revered in Shiite Islam], incurred the wrath of her community.

    In early December last year there were also reports from various media outlets that a video circulated on Facebook was directly responsible for triggering a renewal in sectarian gun battles in the city of Tripoli, north of Lebanon, which is traditionally more prone to sectarian conflict. The video reportedly showed corpses of Tripoli residents killed fighting in Syria being kicked around and otherwise dishonoured by pro-Syrian-regime militants. These cases suggest that the ambiguous legal framework of the online world in Lebanon is still subject to personal vendetta and politico-sectarian division. At the same time, sectarian tensions, already rising in a country now enveloped in Syria’s conflict, are beginning to find a new platform in the internet.

    What repercussions might this have?

    Jed Melki, Professor of Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, who is author of a recently released report about internet freedom in Lebanon, warns that, logically, more violent responses to internet provocation will occur. “There is no real authority on the ground to police them [internet abusers] – the Lebanese government is more of a mockery than anything else at the moment.” The line between freedom of speech online, and propagating insensitive opinions, whether deliberately provocative or not, is a fine one. But the stakes are far higher in Lebanon than other countries, owing to the tightrope walk along the delicate sectarian balance. In the past, self-censorship has been fiercely employed in recognition of this fact. “In Lebanon it has always been acceptable, for a long time, to avoid insulting people, and to steer clear of saying certain things”.

    However, Dr Melki worries that the increase in digital literacy and widening access to the internet of a broader spectrum of the population will further fuel disputes, as an increasing number of people will “gain access to information they don’t like”. Ownership of at least one PC per household increased from 24 percent in 2005 to 31.5 percent in 2010; of these households, 82 percent had fixed broadband internet subscriptions in 2008. These do not represent enormous numbers, but their expansion into increasingly rural areas foretells a divergence in internet usage from the norm.

    Is Qatar guilty of sectarianism in Syria?

    By Michael Stephens

    Much has been made of the increasing sectarian dynamic in the Syrian conflict. The entry of Hezbollah to defend Shia in Syria and the use of Shia fighters to aid the Army of Bashar al Assad in taking the town of Qusair has brought this particular angle under the spotlight. Increasingly we are beginning to think of this conflict as an all-out sectarian death match in which Islam’s two sects fight a zero sum game.

    Whilst the extent of sectarian motivations held by Syrians themselves is still reasonably up for question, there can be no doubt that external fighters lack the nuance of the vast majority of their coreligionists inside Syria. Hezbollah and Shia fight to defend Shia shrines and villages from being destroyed by Sunni extremists: Sunnis fight to prevent Sunni civilians and towns from being destroyed by an Allawi Iran-backed Army.

    Behind these Sunni fighters stand Saudi Arabia, Turkey and of course Qatar. Qatar especially has become increasingly associated as promoters of Sunni interests in the region directly at the expense of Shia, which has caused a rift between itself and its once strong ally, Hezbollah.

    In an interesting piece about Qatar’s break in relations with Hezbollah Emirati commentator Sultan al Qassemi notes ‘a media war is in full swing between Hezbollah and its allies in Iran and Syria against Qatar, which is returning the punches via Al Jazeera Arabic which reflects the spiralling of relations between both parties’. True, Qatar’s relationship with Hezbollah is irreparably damaged as a result of its actions in Syria, and Hezbollah’s response. Likewise there is undoubted tension between Qatar and Iran, which is only alleviated by both sides’ need to maintain cordial relations over the maritime enormous gas field they both share.

    But the break with Hezbollah is not just reflected by television stations. Qatar plays host to an icon of the Muslim world, Sheikh Yussuf Qaradawi the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, and an immensely influential force across the Sunni Muslim world.

    Qaradawi has struggled to maintain coherence since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. His more recent sermons have rambled into incoherent self-contradictory tirades against whomever he has deemed worthy of finding fault with that week. His knee-jerk rejection of protests in neighbouring Bahrain as simply being a sectarian attempt by Iranian backed Shia to harm Sunnis first got me wondering whether he was really seeing events in the Arab world outside of sectarian parameters. Those who follow Bahrain closely will know that it is a far more complex conundrum than a simple Sunni-Shia paradigm.

    Last week Qaradawi revealed his true colours when he called Hezbollah the party of Satan and urged "a jihad in Syria against Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, which are killing Sunnis and Christians and Kurds." One hardly expects that Kurds and Christians will run to the Sheikh’s call, and so it is Sunnis alone who will be spurred into action to defend Syria, something the garrulous Sheikh of course intended. Unsurprisingly Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al sheikh has backed Qaradawi to the hilt.

    In true fashion the rhetoric of these Sunni clerics is designed to paint Hezbollah as the sectarian actor, and their position as merely that of standing up against a “repulsive” movement. They are of course correct, Hezbollah’s motivations in Syria are clearly sectarian, but being correct about Hezbollah does not vindicate Qaradawi’s view as moral or just. Both Al Sheikh and Qaradawi see Syria as a war between Sunni and Shia, they stand firmly on the Sunni side and would rejoice in the defeat of Bashar, Hezbollah and Iran and the crippling of the Shia axis.

    Qatar’s relations with its own Shia population, estimated at being between 7-10% of the population, are fairly good. Issues to do with the distribution of Shia literature and vetting of clerics have arisen in the past, but as I have previously written Shia can worship, gather, and celebrate their religious festivals without interference. That is not to say some Qataris do not possess anti-Shia views, some certainly do, and many are deeply distrustful of Iran and its intentions for Shia across the region. However Qatar itself is not a country riven with sectarianism, and the leadership has never supported any action that would divide Qataris along sectarian lines.

    Given this fact it is important to understand that Qatar’s actions in Syria are not part of some elaborate strategy to destroy Shia or Allawis. Their goal is to remove Bashar and for better or worse this has been the only major driver behind their actions in Syria, dealing a bloody nose to Iran is merely an added bonus.

    Yes, it is absolutely the case that Qatar, through a mixture of over-exuberance, lack of foresight, and shoddy vetting, has aided in the arming and financing of groups who hold extremely sectarian views and have acted in sectarian ways. But it would be wrong to assume that Doha picks up the phone to Jabhat al Nusra and orders them to burn down a Shia mosque; they do not and have never supported the sectarian aims held by extremist Sunni fighters.

    But let’s be clear here, Qatar lost in Qusair. It is embarrassing and undermines two years and $3bn of financial support to the rebel movement.  We are at a crossroads now, the Shia world has played its trump card and the stakes have increased. Qatar’s decision makers will be anxiously wondering what they can do to respond and stop their side from losing, all the while their most famous guest has begun whipping up the Sunni world and inciting it to Jihad.

    The question is whether Qatar stands behind this man and his call for Sunni Jihad. Qaradawi is not the Emir of Qatar, and there is no explicit support for his views from the ruling elite. However the linkage between the elite and Qaradawi is not clear, leading Middle East commentator Marc Lynch has claimed that ‘Like Al Jazeera Qaradawi's stances now seem to more closely follow Qatari foreign policy’.

    It is time that Qatar began to take some responsibility for things Qaradawi has said, and is saying with regards to Syria. Qatar has repeatedly insisted in discussions with international diplomats that it abhors sectarianism, and is deeply troubled by the sectarian drift in Syria. But remaining silent as Qaradawi spews fire from his pulpit hardly instils much confidence.

    If Qaradawi continues to urge Jihad we can only assume that Qatar tacitly supports this as a tactic for turning the tide back in favour of the rebels.  Qatar’s leadership needs to understand that whilst there are internal and external complications associated with rebuking Qaradawi; continually allowing him to pontificate from Doha will mean they become tarred by his naked sectarianism

    Me and the Copts Part One

    By Refaat Mohamed

    What I am going to say here might not be right, might not apply to everyone, might offend some other people, but they are not facts they are just my opinions based on my personal experience.

    The Copts are the Christians of Egypt, who were in Egypt a long time before Islam came to Egypt. Muslims and Copts have lived alongside each others for a long long time. In general they have lived peacefully except for the occasional fights and quarrels every now and then.

    One might ask for the reason for these fights. I would say that the human being is a discriminating creature who looks for differences from others before he seeks the things in common.  Plus Egypt’s recent path has been exceptionally congested when it comes to religious and sectarian issues of late. But also, the fact is, the relationship between the Muslims, and the Copts of Egypt is anything but simple. So I have decided to share my life experience with you, and maybe you can help me work it out.

    But first, I want to get something out of the way. I love the Copts, I really do. I love my Christian friends, and when I meet a Christian Egyptian for the first time we usually hit it off, and I like the way they handle matters as a group. But then just like anything in the world there is the good and the bad, so there are good Christians, just like there are good Muslims and vice versa. The Copts are from this world, so this rule applies to them.

    Before I begin to draw any conclusions on this matter, I will tell you a couple of incidents, in an effort to show you the nature of the relationship between us.

    In Egyptian schools religious education is obligatory, so for organizational reasons my school would group all the Christian students in one class, and then fill the rest of the class with Muslims, as the number of Christians in each grade wouldn’t quite fill a 30-student class. They did that so that the Christian students would have their religious education period at the same time. In the first grade we had an Asian student. This was the first time most of us saw an Asian person in real life, so she became quite popular as soon as she stepped into the class. Her name was “ Amira Katrina “ and she was  a Buddhist if I remember correctly. I remember every time we had the religious education period she would go out with the Christian kids to have religious education in another room.

    I was on a trip with this group, and we decided we should explore places in Egypt which we don’t normally go to. So we ended up in a small town in the south of Egypt. Like thousands of other towns in Egypt this was a town with minimum- to-no facilities, whose citizens lie in the area between the working class and the barely living. High levels of illiteracy exist among people who are mostly working as farmers.  We were walking and we met a group of 4 kids - all younger than 10 years’ old, playing ball together. Because we looked strange they stopped playing, and gathered around us and wanted to have their pictures taken with us. My friend told them that she will take their pictures only if they told us their names, so one of them stepped up and said “My name is Ahmed, this is my brother Mahmoud, and this is Hany, and that last kid is Christian”. We all stood there shocked, and then one of us surfaced and started telling the kid that this was not appropriate and that we are all Egyptians and all of us are humans….etc, and then we left and the kids continued playing,

    Another time, I remember my aunt who grew up in an evangelical school, had friends of her daughter’s over at their house for lunch during their summer vacation. One of her friends was Christian, so her younger sister was very curious to go out to meet her sister’s friends, just to see what the Christian friend ‘looked like’.

    Maybe it’s not fair telling these stories at all, since I can only witness them from one side. But I am pretty sure that the other side may have similar stories to tell - although it might not be as clear and obvious as these stories from the Muslim camp because Copts are a minority in Egypt, and they have no choice but to deal with Muslims in their everyday lives, which is not really the case for the Muslims.

    For the common Egyptian Muslim and the common Egyptian Christian it is not a hate relationship, it is not even a love/ hate relationship. It is more just the realization of being different, and putting labels on each other, labelling the relationship a conflict, for example, so that we can call the conflict sectarian, and frighten those on the other side of the conflict. These labels we use to feel better about ourselves, and feel whatever happens, it is not our fault as human beings. But it’s the fault of the other side of ‘the conflict’- as  these people are followers of a different religion from me….. 

    To be continued

    It is worth a delay or two to put Tunisia on the right democratic path

    By Ahmed Median

    The final draft of Tunisia’s constitution was to have been submitted before the national constituent assembly, assembly president Mustapha Ben Jaafer stated a fortnight ago. Instead, the assembly’s vote was deferred. Different parties have decided to take more time to debate critical articles of the newly-drafted constitution. This was a sound decision.

    The articles at stake now in the constitutional debates are too significant to wrap up in a matter of weeks. In recent months the lack of consensus over the constitution has been noticeable, stirring political instability with Islamist-oriented and secular parties pulling in opposite directions. The timing of the upcoming elections is another volatile subject. In the meantime, the country’s economy is still struggling with 2.7% growth in the first quarter of 2013 compared to that of 2012, and more recently, international credit ranking agency, Moody, has downgraded Tunisia’s creditworthiness to Ba2.

    The three main constitutional principles at stake are: guarantees of freedom of belief, the absolute right to strike and another article added to preserve civil and human rights in the constitution. The Ennahda Islamist party initially backed off from these agreements, however, gradual consensus was reached last Friday. More articles remain highly contested by different blocs in the assembly including the independence of the judiciary, the expected constitutional court and articles pertaining to eligible criteria for the presidential candidacy.

    The article to guarantee Tunisians’ full rights to practice different religions or to forsake Islam will reverse the religious intolerance invoked by numerous very vocal Islamic preachers. This article will be Tunisia’s first active defence of the secular state. Tolerance and coexistence are what Tunisia most needs at the moment. Since the uprisings in 2011, Tunisians are divided along the lines of their ideological beliefs. Stability and religious tolerance will also help boost the tourism sector in Tunisia which has suffered from these squabbles. Investments will pour in faster, too.

    Going back to the constitution, the right to strike is obviously a tricky one. Successive governments, since the fall of ousted president Ben Ali, have argued that repeated strikes have cost the economy millions of dollars. Strikes create societal instability and push stock prices down on the Tunisian stock market. However, Tunisia is going through a transition right now. Anytime, the right to strike could always be balanced with a new Act to reduce this burden on the economy. But meanwhile, human resources practices in different companies are outrageous and workers’ rights are demeaned everywhere in the republic. So strikes at least give Tunisians some kind of leverage to reform their employment laws along with their civil and political rights too.

    Tunisian MP’s still cannot agree on many other articles in the constitution beginning with the preamble!  And the assembly is still torn between parliamentary or presidential systems for the new republic. Parliament members are still debating the cons and pros of each. But one more week or month or so will not make much difference in the years to come. Tunisians need time to reposition themselves on the right democratic path. 

    Mohamed and Michael are both Egyptian

    By Ahmed Kadry

    Sectarianism. Perhaps no other word in the new millennium has remained as ever present in the Arab world in the twenty-first century as this one. Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and a host of others, have all experienced (and continue to experience) the turmoil, bloodshed and deep rooted resentment that makes sectarianism very hard to move forward from.

    Standing in Tahrir Square two and half years ago feels a lot more like ten years ago. But whatever time has elapsed from those historic days who could forget the obvious overt lengths Egyptians went to in order to demonstrate that Egypt’s Muslims and Christians were “one hand.” Yet a lot has changed since then. The Muslim Brotherhood are not the only game in town when it comes to putting the unity of Egyptians on the defensive.  Different branches of Salafi movements have grown a support base which either directly or indirectly divides Egyptians into Muslims (us) and Christians (them) categories.

    What’s more, it isn’t just rhetoric. Prior to the 2011 Revolution, Egypt had experienced its own version of sectarian attacks and conflict, most notably less than a month before the start of the Revolution where a Church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Day. And now one thing is very clear: Egypt all of a sudden, at least on the surface, appears to have a growing problem of sectarianism. Depending on who you ask, it is either a very real threat to Egyptian civic society, or a “phase” that has emerged as a result of people “buying into” Brotherhood/Islamist governance and keen to show their loyalty to Islam, albeit by tragic and very misguided means. Whatever the answer, it does nothing at all to help the present crisis Egypt finds itself in.

    Unlike in London, put me in a lecture hall in Cairo or Alexandria, and apart from a small percentage of international students, I will largely be greeted with Egyptian faces. Here comes the crucial part. Unless one of the male students has an obvious indicator on his person that tells me what faith he adheres to (such as prayer beads in his hands or a tattoo of a Cross on his hand) it would be impossible to determine whether they are Muslim or Christian. If I wanted to find out I could perhaps ask them their name which sometimes may or may not be a clue, but if that fails, I have a fifty-fifty chance of guessing correctly. Likewise with the women, a hijab is the most obvious identifier of Muslim women: but without it, I am once again stuck.

    The point is that Egypt is not a visibly multicultural society. Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, have no distinct physical features, the men largely dress the same and only the hijab, which not all Muslim Egyptian women wear, can divide women into religious categories. What’s more, Egyptians eat the same food every day, speak the same Egyptian dialect and have the same dark sense of humour, and for those reasons it is tragic that Egypt too has its own brand of sectarianism.

    Mass media were in Tahrir Square and around the country like ants to sugar taking pictures of Muslim Imams and Coptic priests holding their respective holy texts while prayer beads intertwined on necklaces with the Cross. If I had a pound for every time I heard a news outlet start their broadcast with “Muslims and Christians are one hand continues to be chanted across the country,” I could retire today. But what has perhaps been lost from those revolutionary days to the present is that such proclamations of unity are completely unnecessary because they go without saying. Politicians may seek to divide, yet I hope common sense prevails among the people that really count: Egyptians. 

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