This week's window on the Middle East - June 19, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Libyans say no to militias.

Arab Awakening
19 June 2013
  • Libyans say no to militias
  • One day in Gezi Park
  • Western Sahara: the inconvenient uprising nobody wants to talk (or hear) about
  • Fitna at the gates
  • Should I stay or should I go? Hobson's choice for Iraqi refugees in Syria
  • Libyans say no to militias

    By Rhiannon Smith

    On Saturday June 8, 31 people lost their lives and at least 80 were injured when protestors in Benghazi surrounded the headquarters of the government-sanctioned Libya Shield brigade. They were protesting against the continued existence of the militia and demanding that Libya Shield submit to the authority of Libya's official armed forces. Exactly how the protest escalated is not clear, but most reports claim that the militia started firing on protestors as they attempted to overrun their headquarters.

    The Benghazi deaths prompted the increasingly unpopular Major-General Youssef al-Mangoush to resign as Libya's chief of staff as he was directly responsible for putting the Libya Shield brigades on the government payroll and overseeing their activities.

    The scale and senselessness of this tragedy has shaken the country and a three day national mourning period was declared by the General National Congress (GNC) following the deaths. The protests were motivated by what has become a two-year-long struggle to force Libya's powerful militias to hand over the reins of military power to the state security forces, and the tragic demise of these protestors has underlined the corrosive effect that such 'official' armed groups are having on Libya's stability.

    In the wake of the 2011 Revolution, Libya's transitional government was left with few means by which to impose its authority and maintain security given that its national army and police forces were still very much seen as the enemy. As a result Libya's victorious 'revolutionaries' were co-opted into filling Libya's security vacuum and a system of 'legal' militias evolved whereby armed groups nominally under the control of the government were given the authority to maintain law and order.

    In the early days after the Revolution this system was widely accepted as a necessary stopgap while new recruits for the armed forces were trained and inducted, and most Libyans who had supported the revolution implicitly trusted these men as they were 'revolutionaries' and the heroes of the hour. However as time wore on, it became ever more apparent that with no revolution to fight, these largely autonomous groups of armed men were eschewing the needs and demands of the state in order to consolidate their own power, pursue their own agendas, and protect their interests.

    Ali Zeidan's government has attempted to bring these militias directly under the control of the state by recruiting former 'revolutionaries' into the fledging police forces and national army. However this process has been slow and in some cases has done little to assuage the influence of powerful individuals as many new recruits are still loyal to their militia commanders. That said in recent weeks newly graduated Libyan forces have been far more visible on the streets, especially in Benghazi, and this has put more pressure on the militias to justify their continued existence when there are legitimate forces which could start to take over their role.

    Libya is currently in a delicate stage of its transition. The state is weak, crippled by a deadlocked decision making process, political immaturity and a lack of institutional capacity, and there are many elements within Libya seeking to exploit this to their own advantage. While the constitution drafting process is finally moving slowly but surely forwards, there are many issues of injustice and inequality which have been swept underneath the rug in Libya's struggle for stability and progress.

    Ultimately the Revolution was fought to achieve justice within Libyan society, and it was this noble cause which initially earned revolutionaries the trust and admiration of most Libyans. However, these same revolutionaries are now guilty of perpetuating that same culture of impunity and discrimination which they fought against, either directly through extra-legal interrogation, detention and punishment of suspects, or indirectly by undermining the ability of legitimate security forces to carry out their jobs.

    There is now a clear and undeniable message from the Libyan people that they do not want these militias anymore. They want national security forces who are directly under the government's control and who can maintain rule and order according to the law, not according to their own interests or beliefs. Although most acknowledge that the Libyan forces are still very weak, the Benghazi tragedy has given added impetus to a desire for legitimacy over brute strength, especially when that strength is wielded against the Libyan people instead of in defence of them as was seen in Benghazi last week.

    One day in Gezi Park

    By Oguz Alyanak

    On Thursday, June 13, 2013, I took a day trip to Gezi Park, Istanbul. The protestors had expanded south and diversified in terms of the values they represented, the conditions they demanded and the forms of expressing them. As the protests grew bigger, without a leader, many expected them to die out. With trees no longer playing a central role, what was there to unify people from different walks of life?

    Why would a Kemalist, a “soldier of Ataturk” as some liked to refer to themselves and inscribed on their bandanas, want to share the same space with a PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) sympathizer; both despising (and blaming each other) for the many atrocities committed in a recently suspended thirty year war? How could one explain portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Abdullah Ocalan facing each other, one from the stairs of Gezi and the other from the façade of the Ataturk Kultur Merkezi (Ataturk Cultural Center)—their stern gazes watching over the thousands gathering in Taksim and at Gezi Park?

    These various analytical approaches to Gezi fail to see the space, time and actors as “in process”; that is, not as being but as becoming. What I found was that people’s demands had taken an abstract turn. Within their self-constructed dreamscapes, time and space were constructed in terms not truly accessible to an outsider, an unpredictable process open to surprising turns and twists and like a dream, absurd from the eye of the beholder.

    What brought people together at Gezi regardless of their inner enmities was this very act of dreaming, of thinking of a better future and of discussing its possibilities, without boundaries. Certainly, there were demands; yet these demands would not suffice to underlie the motives bringing people together. The whole was greater than its constituent parts.

    Hence the park remained an anomaly for those outside of it. Its songs were anarchistic, tents corrupt and prayers heretic. Its people were promiscuous and heathen. Having already been assigned a new species—that of capulcu—they were now also promoted to a new status—that of the terrorist. From outside the park, its people were possessed; theirs was an entanglement in madness, or a delirium waiting to be cured. Both the space and their minds were in urgent need of being sanitized.

    My initial encounter was little different from these accounts widely available in the mainstream media. The park I found was soaked in water and gas, with people sneezing every other minute as the winds spread the gas particles on the trees. It was dirty, ugly and smelly. It was cold, dark and depressing. Was this what we were chanting about in Bursa, “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance”?  - the scene that I anticipated as I left my bed at dawn in order to take the ferry from my hometown to Istanbul?

    But as simits were brought into the park from the outside, tea was served and people started showing up, things began to change. The rain stopped, bringing more people with sleepy eyes from inside their tents. Each greeted one another with warm smiles. Smiles that made little sense to me. Why smile?

    Why not immerse yourself in your own sorrow? The world is dark and so is Gezi. I was still the outsider; wandering around with ambivalent thoughts, without a task or purpose. Then a friend joined me. We went to one of the infirmaries. Having seen many people carrying groceries, we asked whether there was anything we also could bring. We were told that they had enough supplies, yet lacked personnel. Having no training in stitching people up, we decided to clean up some of the garbage around the infirmary. Others were also helping - some sweeping the floors, others tidying up their tents, strengthening them to endure who knew what? After my friend left for school, I took a walk around the park in solidarity, and already something had changed in me.


    Early morning cleaning after a long night

    First it was the space that had altered. I was offered food, gas masks, raincoats and smiles. "Everything is free within this park's boundaries" was one of Gezi’s many mottos. I do not know how time passed by. Outside, I kept time with my wristwatch. But as the protests progressed, I found that time was also ordained through hourly TV-news, Facebook feeds and tweets. Mornings it seemed were those times when ministers and the mayor were calm and assuring. They spoke of the protestors as young friends, and guaranteed that the police forces would not intervene with the situation at Gezi. “You’re safe and free. Those who say otherwise are provocateurs,” tweeted the Mayor of Istanbul. Afternoons were marked by the Prime Minister taking the stage, rescinding the assuring remarks, and threatening the protestors. “Finish it off in the next 24 hours” were the Prime Minister’s orders. Evenings burst with the raids taking place and public intellectuals speculating on the possible scenarios awaiting the public the next day. 

    In the park, cleaning, singing, eating, discussing were all done together throughout the course of the day. Only fighting broke this pattern, during the night raids. Without access to the Internet, and without the need to leave the park, one could hear next to nothing about the “outside world”. Gezi was a world in itself; a self-sufficient commune where the street children and homeless were full and happy. And this place was simply peaceful.

    I found other friends around 6 PM. They told me of the bad news from the outside world; that the police were expected to intervene. Police forces had already surrounded the park. My friends advised me to leave; without a helmet, without goggles, only with a gas mask, I had little chance. They were ready for the battle; I was not. They were brave and willing; I was willing, but definitely not brave enough.

    I left the park around 7.30 pm. I went to Kabatas, grabbed myself a ticket for the 9.30 pm ferry. I had an hour and a half, but I could not help but think about the park, that somewhat dreamy atmosphere, and the friends I had left there. I decided to walk back down the stairs of Dolmabahce. Not having gone far, however, I saw that the police had already blocked the road near Gumussuyu. If I were to go back in, there would be no way out I was told. Thus I left Taksim for good, and went back to Kabatas with a broken heart. But what I saw during the day, and what I experienced, gives me hope about humanity.

    On June 13, I dreamt of a better future. So did thousands surrounding me, providing shelter from the rain, masks and medicine for the gas, music for my ears, colours for my eyes and love for my soul. As my words here come to an end, the festival at Gezi no longer exists. The wish tree set up by the dreamers has been set on fire by the police, who took over the park the night of the June 15, following the Prime Minister’s “final warning”. As of June 16, thousands are on the streets, being beaten up by the police and getting arrested. Having visited Gezi, no words suffice for my sorrow. These will be the days that we will some day remember, with deep regret, as the moment when not only our freedom of expression or right to peaceful assembly has been brutally curtailed, but our very freedom to dream. 

    Western Sahara: the inconvenient uprising nobody wants to talk (or hear) about

    By Hicham Yezza

    In Oct 2010 - before Tunisia, before Tahrir Square, before Occupy Wall Street and Gezi Park - was the Gdeim Izik protest camp in Western Sahara, the first, now forgotten, spark of the Arab Spring. For 28 days, thousands of Sahrawi men, women and children set up camp in the desert, a few miles outside the capital, Layyoune, in protest against Morocco’s three-decades-long occupation, only to see their camp obliterated by Moroccan police and many of its organisers detained, allegedly tortured and sentenced to life in prison after speedy military court trials.

    And yet, in the three years since, despite hundreds of arrests, incarcerations, injuries, deaths, and countless systemic abuses, the international community’s apparent indifference towards the Sahrawi question has remained largely unperturbed. While media headlines this month have been heavily dominated by the deepening tragedy in Syria and the street clashes in Turkey, there has been a virtual silence regarding the demonstrations - possibly the biggest in Western Saharan history - that have shaken the country these past few weeks.

    Having been recognised by the UN as under Moroccan occupation since 1975, the Sahrawi people have been, for forty years, waiting for an independence that seems to be forever receding beyond the horizon of possibilities. The international community carries an immense share of the responsibility for this. Even by its notoriously weak-kneed standards, the UN has proved shockingly impotent: having convinced the Polisario Front to lay down arms in 1991 with a promise of holding a self-determination referendum within a year, the UN has since been helplessly overseeing a 20-year long game of delaying tactics and obstructions by Morocco and its western allies.

    Even worse, during that period Morocco has been busy consolidating “facts on the ground,” transposing as many of its own citizens - at great cost in financial enticements and subsidies - onto the occupied territories as it could get away with, in the hope of tipping the demographic balance the ‘right’ way before the referendum takes place.

    Moreover, despite Western Sahara being on the United Nations’ list of “non-self-governing territories” for decades, the UN’s mission in the country, MINURSO, has so far been the only one of its kind in history not to include a human rights monitoring and reporting component, due to staunch Moroccan opposition. Even more absurdly, Morocco has enjoyed the right to vet and amend the UN mission’s reports before their publication. In April this year, the US floated a proposal for the annual UN Resolution renewing MINURSO’s mandate to include an explicit Human Rights remit. The Moroccan response was swift and loud, marshalling the full extent of its diplomatic and political arsenal, including the cancellation of the ‘African Lion’ military training exercises it holds annually with the US. In the end, the strategy worked and the US relented, dropping its proposal.

    Although the resulting resolution, UNSC 2099 – passed by the UN Security Council on April 25 this year, retained significant references to human rights, less than 24 hours later protesters were brutally suppressed by Moroccan police, which was accused of using "excessive force" by the Amnesty International representative. A week later, on May 4, thousands of Sahrawis took to the streets - waving flags and chanting pro-independence slogans - to demonstrate against the occupation as well as the UN’s meek surrender over UNSC 2099.

    By most accounts, the protests were peaceful and simply reiterated the call for the right to self-determination, yet they were brutally repressed again. A few days later, on May 9, as another mass protest was being organised on social media, the Moroccan police launched a wave of arrests, detentions and torture, aimed at nipping the growing movement in the bud. Meanwhile, several journalists who had been reporting on the ground were summarily deported. To the frustration of many, the events produced barely a blip on the international media’s radar. Last week, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization started its two week session to discuss the Western Sahara situation (among others) with many observers considering the event a largely irrelevant bit of theatre.

    Ultimately, as with so much in international politics, the struggle for Sahrawi independence continues to suffer from being on the ‘wrong’ side of the crude calculus of regional and global realpolitik. Indeed, nothing symbolises the cruelty of this predicament more than the irony of Sahrawis having to endure seeing the “Friends of Western Sahara” group at the UN containing one of the chief architects and enablers of their misfortune, France, which has remained a steadfast Moroccan ally on this question for much of the past three decades.

    As many have noted, the geopolitical deck is too stacked against Western Sahara’s independence: the country’s considerable natural resources - notably its phosphate mines and fisheries, but also the potential for oil discoveries - ensure that Morocco will simply not relinquish its prized asset unless it comes under extraordinary pressure.

    Moreover, Morocco’s role as one of the west’s most reliable allies has allowed it to position itself as a dependable centre of “stability” in a region of enormous upheavals and uncertainties. This is a framing that has been disseminated with especially renewed vigour in the aftermath of western interventions in Libya and Mali, often featuring absurd warnings that an independent Western Sahara represents a failed Islamist state in-waiting.

    Meanwhile, in a further irony, while many have praised the remarkable determination of Sahrawi activists to maintain the peaceful character of their struggle, others have signalled it as a key factor behind their failure to secure a just resolution. As Jenn Abelson recently put it in the Boston Globe, “Western Sahara is emerging as a case study on the limits of the international community’s power to help a people win self-determination when they choose not to be violent, but to follow the rules.”

    Indeed, numerous activists, notably Aminatou Haidar, have warned that a new generation is fast running out of patience with this debilitating status-quo. Continuing prevarication and complacency on the part of the international community, they warn, could well see a catastrophic, possibly irrevocable, return to the pre-1991 era.

    As the African Union celebrates 50 years since its inception this year, it seems rather perverse that the continent is still afflicted with the most literal manifestation of colonialism. Until this stain is excised, Africa’s Last Colony will remain a damning testament to yet another abject failure of the international community to stand up for principles over interests.

    For his part, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has come out strongly against the sectarian rhetoric, warning against fitna and calling for restraint in the country. Sadly, little restraint was shown by alleged Hezbollah members near the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last week who attacked and killed one Shiite protestor. Although Nasrallah has condemned the murder of the protestor, it remains to be seen if the perpetrator will be handed over.

    Other spillover incidents, though thus far contained, have been frequent, with the latest incident resulting in the killing of four Shiite citizens in the East of Lebanon on Sunday.

    As the sectarian hue of the Syrian conflict intensifies, fuelled by regional and historical antagonisms, it is important for the Lebanese to remember that despite it all, Hezbollah remains a key constituent of the weak and de-facto decentralised state - the legitimate representative of the overwhelming majority of Lebanese Shiites and the ally of the largest Christian Party in the country. Jumping on the sectarian bandwagon, can prove catastrophic for this small nation - as it is proving for Syria. 

    Fitna at the gates

    By Rhiannon Smith

    As the war in Syria rages on, sectarian actors and their vitriolic rhetoric have emerged to engulf not only Syria but also Lebanon and the region.

    The Doha-based Sunni cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi, who has supported all Arab uprisings bar the Bahraini uprising, has called for jihad in Syria against “the heretics” thereby echoing some extremist rebels. Qaradawi, whose sermon and statements, were greeted by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Asheikh, and reaffirmed by Sunni clerics in Egypt last week framed the conflict in Syria as a massacre against the Sunnis committed by Iran, and Hezbollah, which he renamed the party of Satan.

    The calls for Jihad come months after Lebanese Sunni Salafist sheikhs called for a jihad in Syria in defence of the Sunnis. Meanwhile, a Sunni cleric in Kuwait hailed the massacre of 60 villagers last week in Hatla, a town near the eastern city of Deir al Zour.

    On a different front, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), some of whose members are heavily involved in the Syrian conflict, has condemned Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and threatened to take measures against its interests and loyalists in the GCC states.  In a bid to stymie what could be vengeful policies against Lebanese expats in the GCC or even the Shiite minority in the Gulf, Hezbollah was quick to announce that it has neither members nor interests in the Gulf.

    While some may attribute the rise in anti-Shiite rhetoric to the forceful intervention of Hezbollah in defence of what it sees as its “backbone”, the Assad regime, valid concerns regarding the extremist nature of some rebel groups fighting in Syria have been voiced repeatedly and cited as the reason that the US was reluctant to arm fighters.

    Indeed, in a bid to match the regime’s atrocities, if not exceed them, the rebels have committed a series of sectarian transgressions including the kidnapping of two Christian Orthodox bishops and nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims, the desecration of holy sites including the church of St. Elias in Qusair and a Huseiniya in Deir al-Zour, as well as the execution in Aleppo of a 14 year old boy for blasphemy.

    Meanwhile in Lebanon, many have censured Hezbollah for its involvement in Syria, despite the involvement of Sunni Salafist and “moderate” groups on the side of the rebels. Verbal attacks against Hezbollah and its hubris in recent years, however, are also connected to justified grievances relating to the party and Syria’s possible involvement in the assassination of former anti-Syrian politicians and security officials, the May 2008 events and the ousting of former PM Saad al-Hariri from government in January 2011.

    For his part, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has come out strongly against the sectarian rhetoric, warning against fitna and calling for restraint in the country. Sadly, little restraint was shown by alleged Hezbollah members near the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last week who attacked and killed one Shiite protestor. Although Nasrallah has condemned the murder of the protestor, it remains to be seen if the perpetrator will be handed over.

    Other spillover incidents, though thus far contained, have been frequent, with the latest incident resulting in the killing of four Shiite citizens in the East of Lebanon on Sunday.

    As the sectarian hue of the Syrian conflict intensifies, fuelled by regional and historical antagonisms, it is important for the Lebanese to remember that despite it all, Hezbollah remains a key constituent of the weak and de-facto decentralised state - the legitimate representative of the overwhelming majority of Lebanese Shiites and the ally of the largest Christian Party in the country. Jumping on the sectarian bandwagon, can prove catastrophic for this small nation - as it is proving for Syria. 

    Should I stay or should I go? Hobson's choice for Iraqi refugees in Syria

    By Rita from Syria

    Omar: In the summer of 2012, Abo Omar's family – originally from Basra – fled Sitt Zeinab, a neighbourhood south of Damascus named after the Shi'i shrine of Zeinab, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad, leaving everything behind. Intensified armed clashes had extended to their alley forcing hundreds of Iraqis and Syrian families to abandon their homes – they walked the whole six kilometers distance to the neighbouring suburb of Jaramana. Newly displaced people were welcomed into local schools doubling as makeshift shelters with Iraqi families housed in a shelter solely for Iraqis. A month later, with no hope of their return to Sitt Zeinab, Abo Omar's family rented a small house and settled in Jaramana.

    After losing all that they owned, Omar, the oldest son found work with an Iraqi transport firm, easing the financial burden on the family. For now, Iraqi transport companies are the only place where Iraqis can find employment. Syrian law dictates that Iraqi refugees are prohibited from working and most Iraqi companies operating out of Damascus have faced closure.

    In December 2012, the company's office was raided by Syrian security forces. Omar was arrested along with four other Iraqis. For three long months Omar was subjected to torture and accused of terrorism. He had been forced to put his fingerprints to papers – the contents to which he could not read nor understand. All the while, his family were unaware of his whereabouts and well-being. Eventually he was transferred to a court which duly acquitted him of all charges and set him free. Despite the ongoing threat from sectarian militias, two of his brothers decided to go back to Iraq rather than risk facing what had befallen Omar. The rest of the family has stayed on in Jaramana in the  hope of being granted resettlement in a third country – a hope whose glimmers are fading with every passing day.

    Tareq: Tareq lost his entire family to the sectarian violence which overwhelmed Iraq in 2006 and 2007. An old war-wound to his leg earned while serving in the Iraqi army during the 1991 Gulf war has severely hampered Tareq's mobility. On arrival in Syria, Tareq found refuge in Sitt Zeinab depending on welfare from the UN and various NGOs. However, with the armed conflict extending into his neigbourhood, his life once more came under threat. An armed opposition group kidnapped him for three days accusing him of being Shi'i. He was released after his kidnappers carefully observed the manner in which he prayed, assuring them that he was in fact a co-religionist. Less than a week later, he was arrested by state security forces and detained for two months. This time he was accused of being involved in terrorism and subjected to torture. He was set free after the court dismissed all charges against him. Tareq moved to Jaramana where he lives on whatever kindness people can afford him.

    Far from being isolated cases, the stories of Omar and Tareq reflect the reality of the threats faced by the many thousands of Iraqis remaining in Syria today. As the armed conflict has intensified, the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria has fallen steadily. Seeing Iraqi families huddled around their meagre possessions as they wait for their bus to leave has become a very familiar sight. Many have gone back to Iraq despite the very real risk of sectarian violence.  A fortunate few have been granted resettlement in a third country. Yet, there are many more who are still here – finding themselves caught between a rock and a very hard place.

    "We can't go back to our country because of the threat of sectarian militias. They have even put my name at all borders to stop and detain me as soon as I enter Iraq. They want to kill me because I refused to put their leader's photo in my shop window", Bader Said.

    "I have no one left in Iraq so why should I go back! My only hope is to get resettlement [to a third country] with my five children", Ala'a said.

    Most of the Iraqis who have taken the risk of remaining in Syria have done so because their lives or those of a member of their family are at great risk due to the sectarian conflict in Iraq. 72% of these families are of mixed marriages – Sunni-Shi'i. As such none of the militias will protect them back there. Another reason is the issue of resettlement – many families live on the hope of getting a visa or meeting a delegation charged with interviewing resettlement applicants. In both cases, it seems that they will have to wait for a long time as 82 % of them have already been granted resettlement in a western country more than two years ago.

    "Syria is the country that embraced us in our plight. It is the mother who raised us while Iraq is the mother who gave us birth. However, Syria has changed a lot and we prefer to stay at home or at most venture onto our street and not beyond. We often hear some Syrians saying: 'why are you still here? Why don't you go back to your country? We have enough problems and we don't need more.' We feel like strangers now", Abo Amir said.

    Armed conflict has created conditions for communities to withdraw into themselves as a  protection strategy. Each group looks to defend itself against any outsider – entrenching its isolation. This further creates an aversion and suspicion of strangers, and Iraqis were the first to feel the harsh glare of xenophobia. Those familiar with Syria before the conflict would recognize that such sentiments are contrary to the cultural DNA of Syria. Fears of difference have become much more entrenched as a result of the bloody conflict and the absence of a just authority.  

    "I feel myself floating in the air with no land to stand on. We live on the hope of being resettled", Om Ali said.

    In this vortex, an Iraqi finds herself suspended in limbo without a government or legal framework to protect her. She does not have a safe country to return to nor the support of international agencies or NGOs, who are increasingly preoccupied with today's humanitarian crisis – Syria. As the British Punk band The Clash once so memorably sang: 'If I go there will be trouble and If I stay it will be double'. Not much of a choice if you ask me. 


    9 years autistic Iraqi child expresses his experience with violence in a free drawing activity - Damascus 2013

    A thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this piece.


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