Last weekend a few friends and I decided to make the most of the hot June weather by heading to the beach for sand, sea and barbeque. We drove to a beach an hour east of Tripoli and when we arrived we found the summer weather had enticed half of Libya to the coast. After picking our way through picnicking families and excited children, we eventually found an empty bamboo beach hut which we took over for the day. On either side of us were groups of young men barbequing chicken, playing football and singing to improvised drums. I was drifting off in the afternoon sun when strains off ‘Allah, wa Muammar, wa Libya wa bus’ floated across from the group of teenagers next to us.
I sat up, wondering if I had misheard. I hadn’t. These young guys were chanting a pro-Gaddafi song. My Libyan friends, two of whom were imprisoned and tortured by Gaddafi’s forces, laughed and shrugged. The ‘tahalib’ (literally algae, but used to talk about ‘green’ Gaddafi supporters) are everywhere, they told me. They’re uneducated and don’t know any better. After joking I was also a ‘tahluba’ for wearing green, they then went back to their previous conversations. Apparently this wasn’t a big deal.
The truth is that despite the current image of Libya as a divided country plagued by internal rifts and vengeful militias, Libyans have largely managed to put the past behind them. They have proved remarkably resilient in the aftermath of a brutal, violent revolution which claimed the lives of 30,000[i], the limbs of 50,000[ii] more and ushered in a period of monumental change for the country. Given there are currently a huge number of weapons swashing around within Libya’s borders, the post revolution environment should probably look much more apocalyptic than it currently does.
As it is, in many parts of the country Libyans have settled back into normal life and the prevailing attitude seems to be ‘let bygones be bygones’. The revolution was fought so that Libyans could decide what to think, not be told what to think, and for many this belief extends to Gaddafi supporters. The reality is that every Libyan under forty spent their entire lives under the Colonel’s whimsical iron grip, and there seems to be a sympathy bordering on pity for those who still can’t get rid of the Gaddafi in their minds. As a result, there is a tolerance for the ‘tahalib’, so long as their words don’t translate into action.
However, this spirit of acceptance does not extend to those who wielded power under Gaddafi, and at an official level it doesn’t seem to exist at all. The NTC recently issued two laws which are ominously reminiscent of the Gaddafi era; Law 37 which criminalises the glorification of Gaddafi and his regime, and Law 38 which effectively gives amnesty to all those who fought on the side of the rebels, no matter what abuses they may have committed. Libya has also made headlines lately with a spate of attacks including, among others, an assault on Tripoli International Airport by an allegedly pro Gaddafi brigade, and the ongoing saga of the ICC lawyers appointed to defend Saif Gaddafi who are currently being held by the now notorious Zintan brigade.
While Libyans are quietly proving that they can forgive, forget and move forward together, the current political and military powers in Libya seem intent on proving the opposite to the rest of the world. Recent threats to security have indeed been serious and in some areas of Libya life is far from peaceful, yet what most Libyans are striving towards is stability, security and rule of law. They don’t want a redraft of Gaddafi’s draconian laws; they don’t want vigilantes in military uniforms dishing out their own brand of justice; they don’t want their martyrs to have died in vain.
At the moment the self-appointed powers in Libya seem so intent on proving how much they hate Gaddafi and his 42 year rule that they are either unaware or indifferent to the fact that their actions are beginning to mirror his. Did the people who are now claiming ownership over the February 17 revolution fight for the freedom of Libya, or for their own gain? Do they think they can preach national reconciliation while stirring up infighting and inciting division? It goes without saying that the road ahead for Libya isn’t going to be easy, but perhaps if the government and militias were to follow the example of much of the rest of the population, they would face far fewer challenges along the way.
[i] According to an estimate from the Libyan Minister of Health, Naji Barakat from September 2011.
[ii] According to an estimate from the Libyan Minister of Health, Naji Barakat from September 2011.
When I randomly ran into that kid Ahmad aged 12, I did not expect him to be the son of an officer responsible for torture in one of the security branches in Damascus. When I asked him about his studies he replied enthusiastically, telling me about the weekly demonstrations he attended with friends and the sit-ins at school protesting against the educational system or a teacher’s behaviour. I asked him how he felt about these activities. His answer was that these protests are what he liked the most about school. They were the reason why he went there.
That school and that kid are no exception to the rule. Since the
beginning of the revolution here in Syria, students have been demanding the
fall of the school head. After-school gatherings provide an opportunity to
organise demonstrations demanding various things, from the fall of the regime
to new clothes for the holidays from their parents. The challenge for the
school management is to control these gathering and to disperse the students.
Other children like 15 year old Nizar are not content with school demonstrations and have taken upon themselves the task of spraying revolutionary slogans on every door and wall they pass by in a Damascus suburb. Every night Nizar goes out with his friend Wael who plays watchman, while Nizar climbs up high to spray his message where a lot of people can see it.
The new generations of children and students have been inspired by the
revolutionary uprising that has spread throughout the Arab world. They have
transcended the barriers of fear that was planted by the Syrian regime in past generations
in order to establish and maintain their dictatorships. During the time of Hafez El Assad, schools
were turned into army barracks. Children were treated like soldiers and forced to
wear military uniform and pledge loyalty to the one great leader every morning.
The curriculum consisted of extensive military training throughout the school
year with the application of military discipline. In addition all civil society
institutions and youth movements were, if not shut down, absorbed into the
Ba’ath party youth movement.
Under Bashar, who took over from his father in 2000, and despite the cessation of the military system of schooling in 2003, the morning assembly loyalty chants are still a regular thing. The chants cannot be challenged or stopped: all that has changed since the Hafez era is the name of the ruler. The structure remains the same, only now there dependence has changed to parties found in the villages and regions of Syria.
Now more than 14 months after the revolution began in Syria and with
more than 1000 children martyred, the whole question of children demonstrating
and participating in the revolution has become a topic of heated debate. Many
Syrians draw the line at this, convinced that it poses a threat to their lives. Many other parents
are proud of their children and indeed are out on the streets demonstrating
In any case it does not seem that the massacres and repressive
measures the Syrian regime has enacted against it’s own people in places like Houla,
are deterring this popular mobilization and somehow inexorable revolutionary
rise. This feeling has even spread amongst people who would normally support
the regime, and also some within the regime itself.
By Rohan Talbot
The effect of Syria’s conflict on its 486,000 Palestinian refugees has been largely unreported since Assad’s crackdown in the Latakia camp last year, though several hundred are thought to have fled the country to Jordan last month. In Lebanon too, the Palestinian camps are starting to feel the shockwaves emanating from Syria.
According to UNRWA, the main provider of assistance to Palestinian refugees, there are some 455,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, with most distributed among the 12 refugee camps across the country. One camp in particular is afflicted by the tensions affecting the north. Beddawi camp, with a population of approximately 16,500 – not including the many thousands still displaced from nearby Nahr el Bared camp, which was largely destroyed in fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al Islam in 2007 – sits atop a hill a bullet’s fly from Jabal Mohsen, one of the communities at the centre of the June clashes in North Lebanon.
Protest at Beddawi Camp against shooting of Palestinians
For an outsider, the blasé reaction that many residents have to the fighting on their doorstep is startling. While watching a football match with a friend in the camp, a couple of days after the major clashes of June 1-3, I could hear gunfire ringing out from the neighbouring community. His low-key response was simply to duck down behind a concrete wall to watch the match, tutting slightly, and the game went on as normal.
As it turned out the salvoes I heard were the result of the Army firing back at shooters from the Jabal Mohsen area, aiming in the opposite direction to the camp. But when intense fighting erupts in Tripoli, the camp’s proximity puts the residents’ safety at considerable risk. After each round of clashes, the next day’s topic of discussion usually includes tell of where bullets have come down on the roofs and streets of the area. In the last round of clashes one 11 year old girl was shot in the back (according to rumour, by a sniper) and another resident was injured by shrapnel.
I have written before about the differing opinions of the camp residents regarding events in Syria (and by extension Lebanon). Yet despite containing both vehement (and often armed) supporters and opponents of Assad, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps have stayed largely free of the pro/anti Assad turmoil affecting some Lebanese communities.
Perhaps this is because they have enough problems of their own to contend with. Restricted employment and property ownership rights in Lebanon, combined with UNRWA’s continued budget deficit, mean that Palestinians here face considerable and chronic socioeconomic, educational and health challenges. Last Thursday’s attempted car bomb in Ain el Hilweh, and Friday’s clashes between Palestinians and the Lebanese Army in Nahr el Bared camp – which left at least one dead and several injured – also demonstrate the distinct internal and external security issues facing camp residents quite aside from Lebanon’s wider troubles.
The Beddawi and Nahr el Bared residents I speak to are largely vocal about the need to maintain stability and unity in the camps in the face of Tripoli’s current woes, but see the current fighting there as a predominantly ‘Lebanese problem’. That being said, posters from Assad supporters and opponents can be seen throughout the camps, and reports that several Fatah al-Islam members escaped Ain el Hilweh camp last month, allegedly to fight with the Free Syrian Army in Syria, suggest that Palestinians are not wholly disconnected from this context. Whether they desire it or not, if Lebanon continues to be drawn into Syria’s deepening crisis, the Palestinians may find it increasingly difficult to maintain their current distance.
During Ben Ali‘s ‘glorious ‘days we used to have more than 10 million experts in football, while during the high times of the Revolution, surprisingly, it turned out that we had more than 10 million political experts, and just a few days ago, after an art gallery expo took place in El Abdellia la Marsa, Tunis, more than 10 million individuals got involved brilliantly in the business of being an art critic.
The Tunisian people split into two camps: those who felt outraged by some of the so-called ‘provocative’ art works that were featured in the art exhibition and took to the streets to protest ‘peacefully’ the demonization of the sacred. The other camp has almost been invisible, though there were some attempts by the artists involved and their supporters to try and clarify certain misunderstandings, bat off false accusations and justify themselves.
The result so far of what seems to be a never-ending controversy over blasphemy in Tunisia sometimes seems to be leading the country pell-mell to a civil war. Since Monday night, more than 700 Tunisian have been admitted into hospitals just in the capital of Tunis following confrontations between angry Salafists and security forces. In Sousse, a coastal tourist spot, a youth of around 22 years was shot dead by a rubber bullet in violent clashes between the fanatics and the police forces.
Violence in the name of defending Islam is a new phenomenon in Tunisian society. It is true that Tunisia is a Sunni majority Arab country, but individuals with different religious affiliations have peacefully co-existed for as long as I can remember. Under Ben Ali, the Salafists, inspired by Wahhabi teachings, have always lived side by side with westernized Tunisians who adopt secular lifestyles.
Tunisia has shown considerable immunization from the religious intolerance and sectarian conflicts that have plagued some neighbouring Arab countries. Today, the rumour circulated like wildfire on Facebook that red underwear was exposed in the gallery as well as a caricature that mocked the prophet Mohammad (Peace be Upon Him). This ignited the whole gamut of hysteria and violence. Names of artists, their phone numbers and even their home addresses with the slogan “wanted dead or alive” were doled out by the adminstrators of web pages which sympathize with the Salafists ideologies. Some fanatics had already attacked the art gallery on June 10 as religiously offensive. The government‘s response challenged every attempt to restrict the freedom of the artist and the restoration of censorship once again. The minister of culture, however, issued an order to shut down the art gallery on June 12.
“Art‘s role is to provoke. Sometimes art provokes which is its role. But there is a huge difference between provocation and attacks on religious symbols”, declared Mehdi Mabrouk, the minister of culture in a press conference. The Troika of Tunisia on June 13 issued an official statement condemning the attack against sacred symbols and warning that acts of violence will not be tolerated again.
Personally, I have never been interested in plastic contemporary arts and such cultural events remain exclusively dedicated to the educated well-off elite. If you go down the Tunisian street and ask people to name just one Tunisian artist, you will be surprised, since the common Tunisian doesn’t seem to be fan of such art. My curiosity though drove me to take a look at some of the exhibition pieces that most provoked the Salafists and I found that what had given particular offence was a caricature featuring an angry Salafist. That they were made fun of in this way is almost another act of ‘blasphemy’: this it seems is their logic.
The interior ministry imposed a curfew on Tuesday when some police officers were attacked with Molotov cocktails and stones, the police responding with tear gas and rubber bullets. Sometimes it seems as if we are playing out the Tunisian version of Persepolis, in which, Iranian-style, one dictator is kicked out, only to be replaced by another.
Meanwhile the French channel TF1 has warned the French people off from travelling to sunny Tunisia, which has always provided the destination for hoards of tourists, especially in summer, lured by our charming Mediterranean beaches. Maybe we can look forward to them being amply replaced by people from Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia who will feel more at home in Tunistan.
No-one knew where Dubai was 15 years ago. I remember summers in the UK, attempting to explain to other kids exactly where it was that I lived. I would grasp at Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq, even geographically distant Egypt in an attempt to verbally construct a map of the Gulf. It’s quite the opposite now - a mention of Dubai is met with knowing nods of recognition. Instead, I’m often asked to clarify if Dubai is a city or a country in its own right, such is its larger than life reputation. Abu Dhabi aside, the other emirates are largely unknown and unreported.
But in the past week, it has been Fujairah making headlines in the international press. Known by UAE expats for snorkelling and scuba diving, a weekend trip is a welcome change of scenery; swapping high rises and sand for the Hajar mountain range and the odd donkey. Now, the emirate has been featured by the likes of Bloomberg Businessweek, (who called it “the crucial Emirate”) and Monocle as the next possible boomtown.
Why all the fuss? Up until now, it has remained something of a small, sleepy, backwater, subsidised by Abu Dhabi and underdeveloped in comparison. But unlike the UAE’s six other emirates which sit on the Persian/Arabian Gulf, Fujairah lies on the Gulf of Oman; beyond the infamous bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz. A 400km pipeline running from Abu Dhabi’s oil fields in Habshan to Fujairah’s ports is due to open ‘soon’ (there are no more specifics on the timeline of this delayed project). Carrying two thirds of the UAE’s oil, the pipeline by-passes the Strait of Hormuz and effectively dampens Iranian threats of cutting off supply.
This news is clearly pertinent to the sabre-rattling relationship between the UAE and Iran. But most intriguing is the partnership involved in building the project. Helping to construct the pipeline was a subsidiary company of the China National Petroleum Corporation.
Much has been reported on China’s involvement in Africa, but their dealings in the Arab world have been less scrutinised (a notable exception is this Foreign Policy article from 2010). Oil hungry, China juggles partnerships in the GCC energy sector while pledging to pump $50 billion over five years into Iranian projects. Collaboration in the UAE goes beyond energy needs. Aside from Dragonmart, the 150,000 square metre mall facilitating Chinese trade in the UAE, in May this year Abu Dhabi real estate firm Aabar signed a construction deal with a Chinese state firm, while Dubai’s Meydan Racecourse has invested to develop the equestrian scene in Tianjian.
But the Chinese aren’t the only country strengthening ties to the UAE. Returning to Dubai from Seoul, what is apparent is the swelling South Korean expatriate population. With partnerships in oil, gas, construction and engineering, South Korea secured the $20bn contract to develop nuclear energy in the UAE, which was widely expected to be given to a country with a more established nuclear energy sector, such as France. The impact of these developing links is subtle but evident. The influx of South Koreans means that two out of five students in my Arabic class were Korean, new Korean restaurants are opening, and cinemas are showing a Korean film.
The UAE has some of the largest Chinese and Korean populations in the Middle East. While GGC-Iran relations are more visible in foreign affairs, analysts should not overlook growing relationships with Asian countries.
By Ali Gokpinar
This week, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s statements on abortion and the reaction of civil society have compelled me to write on the right to have an abortion.
Despite all the unspoken sensitivities regarding abortion, this topic was not on the agenda of Turkish public until Prime Minister Erdogan stated that “Abortion is murder”, and “Every abortion is an Uludere” and therefore should be banned. So, why did Mr. Erdogan suddenly get so vocal on this issue? One possible explanation is that Mr. Erdogan wanted people to forget what has become a hot spot for his government after WSJ’s Uludere report
In December 2011, the Turkish military killed 34 Kurds in a border town called Uludere, while they were smuggling oil from Northern Iraq, thinking that they were insurgents belonging to the outlawed PKK organization. Though the government was asked to carefully investigate the issue, not much was revealed and the military officers responsible were protected from further reprimand. Therefore, while the government formed a new entente with the military by protecting both the military as an institution and its officers, civil society, including AKP supporters, severely criticized the government. Many thought Prime Minister Erdogan’s statement about abortion was made at just the time to deflect attention from the public debate.
If this was true, however, the AKP tactic backfired as protesters marched to demand their rights and said they would never forget the Uludere massacre. The words of the Prime Minister do however reflect the AKP’s ideas on women. The imagined role of women in Turkish society is pretty well confined to procreation - as the chief duty of motherhood. Therefore, it may be ironic but hardly surprising, when Fatma Sahin, the female minister of women and family affairs, says that abortions should be to subject to restriction, since nobody has the right to “murder” the foetus and abortion threatens the structure of the Turkish family. Is it a coincidence that a woman minister’s ideas overlap with many Turkish men’s ideas? We really need some of Foucauld’s understanding of state power to be able to answer this question. But instead I shall have to make do with various people’s reactions to this issue – which now follow.
It seems the AKP government did not expect such a powerful women’s movement and was shocked when not only women but also men harshly criticized the government. Protests were organized all over Turkey with the motto “Benim Bedenim, Benim Kararim (My Body, My Decision)”. Protesting women and men have said that the state has no authority over their bodies and they have asked the government to facilitate access to contraceptives rather than banning abortion. On June 17, there will be simultaneous protests in Istanbul, Ankara, Eskisehir, and many other cities to prevent a ban on the right to abortion and to protest at the starting-point for government pronouncements on the issue which is the ‘right to life’.
However, a recent study has found that public support for the right to abortion has markedly declined since 1990. While this support increases as education levels rise, it declines the more that religious issues and right wing ideologies play a significant role in an individual’s life. This finding suggests that Turkish society has gradually become more conservative, despite the increasing educational opportunities and level of education.
As for me, I believe that this raises a basic democratic question: does the majority have the right to impose a ban on the right to abortion?
So, the past week has witnessed the detention of four International Criminal Court (ICC) envoys in Zintan; an RPG attack on a British diplomatic convoy in Benghazi; the seizure of Tripoli International airport by a Zintani militia and the (at least anticipated) postponement of national elections to 7 July.
In the midst of this seemingly interminable chaos I remind myself of the end goals of this fraught transition - to secure a democratically based government, and in so doing, lay the foundations for a stable and secure Libyan society for our future generations.
I am deeply disturbed, however, to find myself confronted with a widespread and flagrant disregard for the basic human rights of Libya’s illegal migrant workers. Throughout Libya, and exemplified recently in Gharyan; in a former Gaddafi compound, thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants are being held incommunicado in hot tin shacks 24 hours a day, without basic working sanitary facilities . Their families, scattered around Tripoli and elsewhere, do not know what has happened to them and without income, are left destitute in the urban sprawls of the coast.
Gaddafi’s Libya, he insisted, was an African one – a deliberately ambiguous rhetoric that resulted in a wide-scale migration of Africans across the Sahara and into Libya. It has been estimated that these illegal migrants, including those from neighbouring Egypt and other countries of the Maghreb, have increased the population statistics by more 2 million people over the past four decades. These migrants, without any official paperwork to reside and seek employment in Libya, traditionally fill the thousands of low-skilled, low-paying jobs that many Libyans would say are beneath them.
However (in)accurate this figure may be, it has helped fuel a negative and racist attitude to illegal migrants in the country. These negative perceptions and attitudes are further exacerbated by the structural incapacity of the interim government to handle and process migrants in any effective way. In lieu of a plan, it is left to the militias to detain and indefinitely detain human beings in often terrible conditions.
Meanwhile, as one of the last Gaddafi strongholds, the town of Tawergha is literally being wiped off the face of the map and its black population have been forcibly removed, the NTC remains silent about the ‘cleansing’ of the town; and the leadership fails to explicitly speak out against militia vigilantism and to protect yet another vulnerable group.
In similarity to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, these groups (citizens and non-citizens alike) have long contributed to the complex social and cultural fabric of the country. Whilst the Amazigh activists are increasingly vocal in Libya, the fight for better treatment and, where legally entitled, equal civil rights by groups such as the Toubou in Kufra and Sabha is also ongoing. Like the Amazigh, the people of Tawergha, Sabha and the migrant labourers, are all part of a vulnerable civilian population in need of urgent state protection.
By Tom Dale
Egypt's stomach churning politics have
taken another double barrel twist and dive.
In the last twenty four hours, just two days before polls open for the final round of Presidential elections, three important things have happened. I'm mostly going to discuss the third of these, but the first two provide some context.
Firstly, the Justice Minister granted the
to arrest civilians, and try them in military courts. This was one of the most important features of the hated Emergency Law, which persisted throughout Mubarak's tenure, and
expired just two weeks ago, on May 31.
Secondly, a Supreme Court ruling allowed Mubarak's former prime-minister, Ahmed Shafiq, to stay in the race for the Presidency. This was probably a reasonable legal decision: although a law was recently passed by parliament which would have banned him as someone who had served under Mubarak in the past decade, this violated the principle that laws should not effectively target individuals under the guise of a more general application. According↑ to a senior Muslim Brotherhood source, “Deep down, nobody is expecting Morsi to win; it has become very clear that the SCAF is supporting Shafiq.”
Thirdly, the Supreme Court dissolved parliament. They ruled that the elections law which
allowed parties to stand candidates for the one third of parliamentary seats
which are filled by individual, first past the post elections, is unconstitutional↑ .
It appears (although they didn't
specify) that the Supreme Court relied on Article 7 of the constitution, which
says that citizens “are equal in rights and general
duties.” The idea, apparently, is
that if parties run for the individual seats, non-party individuals won't get a
look in, and are therefore discriminated against. It's worth quoting an Al Jazeera piece↑
“This point of view was actually upheld by the court twice under the Mubarak regime, in 1987 and 1990. Both times, the court dissolved parliament. But the principle of equality between independents and political parties is still hazy and not defined in the existing post-revolution constitution, leaving room for maneuver.”
However, the Egyptian legal system is not↑ based on common law, but rather on the French civil law
model. With the caveat that I'm not a
lawyer, this should mean that precedents, such as those of 1987 and 1990, are
less important than direct deductions from the letter of the law. And given that there is no legal reference to
the category of the 'independent' in the constitution at all, the judgement
seems pretty suspect.
But, of course, none of this is what really matters. This is about force, pure and simple. One of my recent blogs was about the 'deep state' – the old networks of Mubarak-era and military appointees who still hold office. Judges appointed by Mubarak allowed Shafiq to run, have acquitted dozens of police officers charged with killing protestors, and acquitted Mubarak's sons and the Interior Ministry deputies of wrong-doing a fortnight ago. Now, they have dissolved parliament.
If the legal judgement
is unsound, it mostly means that this step is more crude, bold and confident
than it would otherwise seem. Egypt's
incoming president will enter office without a parliament to oppose him, with
a military empowered to arrest and court-martial civilians at will, and a constitution
based on that of the Mubarak era.
The judgement is a clear blow against the Muslim Brotherhood, for two reasons. Firstly, because their popularity at the polls has declined since the original parliamentary elections took place between November and January. In those elections, they took 37.5 per cent of the vote, in the first round of the Presidential elections, just 24.8 per cent. It is likely, therefore, that a re-run, even under the same rules as previously, would hurt their standing in the polls.
Secondly, the change in the rules will themselves hurt the Brotherhood. Nearly half↑ of the Brotherhood's seats were won through the first-past-the-post (FPTP) 'individual' seat elections. FPTP elections everywhere in the world exaggerate the strength of the post powerful, best organised, and best funded bodies. Yet, under the new dispensation, the Brotherhood will find it difficult to bring its organisational power fully to bear.
The informal networks of the old National
Democratic Party (NDP) still
exist↑ however, and because they are not an
official party, the law does nothing to impede their ability to stand
candidates. What is more, making
elections an individual, not a party, matter, discriminates in favour of the
wealthy – those with the money to fund campaigns from their own pockets, or
those of their friends. What is more, since
the revolution, the size of constituencies has been increased: this, in turn,
increases the amount of resources required to campaign for a seat. All of these things discriminate in favour of
the felool – the remnants of the old regime.
Combined with the potential election of Shafiq, and the return of military trials, it doesn't look good. For the Brotherhood, for the revolutionaries, for just about everyone in Egypt, one way or another, the struggle continues.