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This week's window on the Middle East - June 25, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: events in the Arab world are becoming more and more interlinked, and more and more - sectarian tensions cloud thinking.

Arab Awakening
27 June 2012
  • Fires and politics in Doha, a worrying combination
  • Egypt’s morning after: against Dictatorship 2.0
  • Egypt's democracy, still an elusive dream
  • The scramble for democracy: who is in Tahrir Square?
  • Bahrain: throwing the steering wheel out of the window
  • Observing the Arab uprisings
  • ‘Our revolution is not a rumour’
  • Getting real in Tunisia
  • Jordan: smoke, mirrors and election laws
  • The trend of ‘wiping’ ElJokh (sucking up)… one of the oldest inventions of the Syrian regime
  • Fires and politics in Doha, a worrying combination

    By Michael Stephens

    The recent tragic fire that struck Doha’s Villagio mall was a soul-searching time for Doha’s citizens and residents: that 13 of the 19 deaths were young children was especially shocking. A mixture of grief, anger and disbelief was felt by Qataris and expats alike, indeed rarely has a sense of unity in a normally divided society been so palpable, and indeed touching.

    The general consensus is that gross negligence was to blame for not only the fire’s cause, but also the myriad of factors that prevented Qatar’s civil defence teams from being able to do their job adequately. Problems ranging from lack of available floor plans, locked emergency exits, defective sprinkler systems, and inadequately trained mall staff all led to a nightmare situation in which deaths occurred which were clearly preventable.

    But something more sinister has arisen since the time of the fire that even outweighs the criminal neglect and poor standards which led to it, and a number of other fires that occurred in the city in following days. Quickly rumours began to spread that shadowy agendas lay behind the fires, driven by Syrian/Hezbollah and Iranian desire for revenge against Qatar for its role in trying to topple the Assad regime.

    The rumours first surfaced in an article by Stratfor, an intelligence organisation cultivating contacts around the middle east to give its clients the latest ‘raw’ intelligence on current events. Central to this mischievous piece was a statement made by Bahraini MP Salman bin Hamad al-Shaikh in which he declared Syrian and Iranian intelligence operatives responsible for the fire.

    Having researched these rumours, I can categorically say they were false. There was no Iranian or Syrian involvement, and no Lebanese Shia citizens are in custody for arson.

    Suddenly a tragedy which had affected Doha’s residents deeply began to take on the marks of political agendas outside Qatar’s borders. This became clear to me in a recent trip I made to Bahrain when I was asked on numerous occasions, often by senior Bahraini figures, about the suspected foul play involving the Villagio fire. Many Bahrainis found it difficult to believe that there was no foreign hand at work, no Syrian or Iranian agenda to destabilise and punish Qatar for its foreign policy.

    This was a worrying revelation because it has become clear the extent to which events in the Arab world are becoming more and more interlinked, and how sectarian tensions cloud thinking to the extent that rational explanations for domestic events can become side-lined in favour of belligerent rhetoric that fits all too conveniently with an individual’s world view.

    That Qatar has met with increased Syrian, Iranian and Russian ire for its hard stance against Assad is not in doubt. One need only see the plethora of rumour-mongering articles published by Press TV and Syrian official news sources, suggesting everything from Qatar’s involvement in funding terror against Shi’ites in Iraq to the somewhat amusing claim that a coup had taken place in Qatar and that the Emir had been ousted.

    But fierce overreactions and falsifications in the media are not the same as deliberately starting fires to burn little children to death. Indeed those who do not see the distinction must begin to look at themselves and question whether the tense Sunni-Shia and Gulf-Iran divides are not causing them to believe rumours and conspiracies that perpetuate and exacerbate already tense dynamics.

    That the Syrian issue has blown back onto the Gulf was inevitable, such is the depth of regional and international interference in Assad’s beleaguered country - agendas from all parts of the Arab world being played out within its wartorn borders. But it appears that the Gulf and the Levant are in danger of fuelling each other’s sectarian and political problems. The biggest victim of course is the truth, which is that 19 deaths are not seen by foreign nations for what they are, a tragic loss of innocent lives, but instead viewed as a justification for suspicion and fear of others. A truly saddening outcome if ever there was one.

    Egypt’s morning after: against Dictatorship 2.0

    By Amro Ali

    Subtlety is not a strong feature of the Egyptian landscape, whether you look at its overt religious piety, emphasis on a person’s title, the fragrance generously sprayed that heralds a person’s arrival from 15 metres away, the imposing pyramids, or Judge Farouk Sultan’s protracted defence of the ‘divinely-sanctioned’ electoral commission before he could get around to just announcing the presidential winner. Yet the least subtle of any Egyptian agency has to be the league of ‘extraordinary’ gentlemen – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In seizing all branches of government, ripping up the constitution and pre-emptively defanging the Morsi presidency, SCAF have not only sought to turn the self-styled ‘Revolution 2.0’ into a ‘Dictatorship 2.0’, but have done so with a degree of recklessness, desperation and lack of imagination that leaves their hand even more exposed than before.

    Decoding the socio-political hieroglyphics reads like this: New politics (revolutionaries and liberals) reluctantly united with religious politics (Muslim Brotherhood) to fight the union between old politics (Felul, former regime remnants led by Ahmed Shafik) and military politics (SCAF). Old politics (and the revival of corrupt patronage networks) has been dealt a death-blow. Now a considerable number of revolutionaries find themselves stuck in a marriage of convenience with the Muslim Brotherhood, to take on the military council and their supplementary constitutional declaration, the timing of the next parliamentary elections in particular and a painfully-slow transition in general.

    The Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral strength should not be overstated. Last month’s presidential elections illustrated that given the choice between a secularist candidate like Hamdeen Sabahi’s and felul/Islamists, Cairenes and, particularly, Alexandrians, will go overwhelmingly for the former. The Brotherhood cannot afford to alienate urban centres as it comes to the realisation that progressive politics has the upper hand in Egypt’s largest cities.

    Say that a deal was struck between SCAF and the Brotherhood, history has shown time and again that it never lasts, often at the expense of Egypt’s welfare. This also explains why revolutionaries and liberals who boycotted the run-off elections seek to capitalise on an inevitable SCAF-Brotherhood clash and to nurture a third political-civil current.

    Whatever one makes of the Morsi victory, the new president has inherited a martial reality that will compel him to deal with the military’s brazen consolidation of power over the security apparatus, civilian administration, and 18 of Egypt’s 27 governorates that are currently headed by retired generals. Not to mention the SCAF loyalists recruited to or retained in key ministries and industries. He will have to deal with this while seeking to revive a brutalised economy – addressing 12.4 per cent unemployment (youth unemployment: 25 per cent), 40 per cent under the poverty line; reforming the dysfunctional education system, labour laws, public finance, attracting investors again and reversing the frighteningly high crime wave – while not trespassing onto the military’s off-bound economic empire, which reportedly encompasses up to 40 per cent of the country’s economy. The structural tensions that ignited the 2011 Egyptian revolution are still present. For example, labour strikes have been ongoing and continue to hit at the nerve centre of SCAF’s economic enterprises.

    Despite Egypt’s stock market rising 6.7 per cent following the peaceful Morsi triumph, Fitch Ratings notes overall that “recent [SCAF] developments will probably increase the risk of further social unrest and crush any hope of a change in economic policy. But in the extreme, this could lead to a second revolution, and thus a longer period of political uncertainty.”

    SCAF and the former regime proxies have long engaged in a battle of hearts and minds to pin the blame of the country’s economic miseries on the revolution and their supporters in order to preserve the old order or some significant semblance of it. This is why the economy is facing an impending crash due precisely to SCAF’s prolonging of the transition in a series of short-sighted exploits that amounted to no more than power grabs. Tourism in decline, for example, was less to do with revolutionaries and Islamists, and much more to do with the state arresting civil society activists and airing xenophobic commercials.

    This has raised suspicions that Morsi is being set up to fail and incur nationwide anger for the deteriorating economy. Yet his powers are so shamelessly limited one wonders how SCAF will manage to con the common Egyptian on the street, let alone the Brotherhood’s organisational apparatus that can be deployed fairly effectively to foment popular pressure. Morsi can help to soften any future public backlash by spreading the division of labour and creating the inclusive cabinet he has promised that will appeal to liberals, revolutionaries, Copts and women.

    The public is no doubt exhausted with the socio-economic uncertainties, yet the ingredients that keep sparking mass protests are still there. There is a generational war of legitimacy that SCAF may or may not comprehend. Despite their differences, the revolutionaries and the Islamists have reaped more street cred from the 25 January Egyptian revolution than anyone else. Those 18 cataclysmic days have left Egypt with a Whitman’s Sampler of myths, symbols, constructs, martyrs, grievances, and narratives, as well as subsequent key flashpoints (Maspero massacre, Mohamed Mahmoud battle, Cabinet killings, Port Said tragedy and more) that have ever since inspired the growing audience of fearless youth (and much of the public). This has been sustained through social media, satellite TV, and on the streets. All this is challenging the hierarchical and communiqué-announcing archaic generals with their worn out myths of the 1952 ‘revolution’ and the 1973 October war. Whatever mystique the military had is gradually eroded as bodies were crushed under tanks at Maspero and female activists were stomped upon by jackboots.

    Moreover, in Egypt’s post-revolutionary and anti-authoritarian climate, raw power can only take you so far. SCAF is not going to be grooming a fourth military dynasty; but the military is not retreating to their barracks in the foreseeable future.

    The extended revolution may have to take many a further bloody twist and turn before the military elites eventually come round to seeing that it’s in their (and the country’s) long-term interests for a viable democratic Egypt to materialise with the necessary checks and balances that a healthy state requires to function. For now, the revolutionaries, liberals and even Islamists will need to organise more effectively into a cohesive bloc and exert a concerted effort if they hope to do more than just smell the aroma of a deSCAFinated Egypt.

    Egypt's democracy, still an elusive dream

    By Soha Farouk

    Finally, for the first time in history, Egypt has a new civilian President, Mohamed Morsi, through barely democratic presidential elections, one of the main goals of the January revolution. After three military presidents, and a post-revolutionary transition spoiled by military rule, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist movement for over eighty years, is on top of the executive body. Despite all the pessimist predictions, Egypt did not plunge into a post-Ceausescu Romanian scenario or a 1992 Algeria-type violent confrontation between the Islamists and the military.

    Morsi's tight victory with 51.7% has sparked a striking mix of elation and dismay among all Egyptians. Happiness is expressed by many who feel highly empowered in electing an ordinary man for the presidency, neither a charismatic leader nor an idol. For them, every vote in that tight race made a difference and had a significant meaning, even the boycotters. Many of the revolutionary forces, who were forced to back Morsi despite their ideological differences, feel immensely relieved, which is not the same as happy, to see the back of Shafiq, the former PM supported by the remnants of Mubarak regime. This is a second defeat of the counter-revolution.

    Per contra, the Islamists’ rise has prompted much doom and gloom among liberal forces, Copts and women over the future of their civil liberties. There have been good reasons for this cynicism, given the flawed and conservative Muslim Brotherhood discourse regarding religious minorities and women’s issues and their heavy manipulation of religious slogans for political ends. A message of inclusiveness and diversity is not enough to reassure those categories, without concrete steps and on the ground practices endorsing an equal citizenship for all.

    On another note, a lesson to be learned from the presidential rally is that the ‘Unite to rule’ tactic used by the Morsi campaign has proved its supremacy over the ‘Divide and conquer’, scaremongering strategies of Shafiq campaign. A few days before the voting process, we witnessed the spread of rumours and fears by Shafiq supporters, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of killing protestors during the camel battle, of their intentions to spread violence across the country if their candidate lost the race and to confiscate individual freedoms if they came to power. However, Morsi kept to his message of unity, adopting "our power is in our unity" as the slogan of his campaign, and a thread running throughout his comprehensive networking with the key political groups. Therefore, a unity front was formed, two days before the announcement of the elections results, gathering several revolutionary forces of different backgrounds to confront military rule and ensure a democratic future for Egypt.

    Nevertheless, with a dissolved parliament and SCAF’s extended powers given them in the recently amended constitutional declaration, Egypt's new president faces an unenviable uphill task. His toughest battle will be on the constitutional and institutional level, to fully grasp his hijacked executive powers, abolish the military's role in politics and rectify the constitution-drafting process to make it far more participatory and effective. A second challenge resides in the need to build trust and social unity and power sharing amongst a deeply divided Egyptian society, fuelled by skepticism and uncertainty. Besides this, the alarming and worsening economic crisis, with Egypt ranked as the 31st most failed state in the world, urgently needs to be addressed. The 2012/2013 draft budget, to be approved by SCAF before leaving power, includes fuel subsidy cuts and broken promises of healthcare spending, both of which can only increase the potential for social unrest and threaten the looming failure of any incoming government.

    In addition, a strong democracy requires a powerful and sturdy political opposition, with a clear vision, which can hold the president accountable for his decisions and duties. Hence, it is up to all the revolutionary forces, who have claimed that they have been sidelined since the fall of the Mubarak regime, to reorganize their ranks, limit the domination of money politics and the power of the Islamists, and offer to Egyptian society a third independent, persuasive and credible alternative.

    Either way, next Saturday, June 30, the date set by the SCAF for their formal handing over of power and return to the barricades is an elusive dream. The willingness of the Muslim Brotherhood to sustain their revolutionary and anti-military discourse is equally uncertain. What we know for sure is that the revolution's struggle for democracy and social justice is still a long and bumpy road ahead.          

    The scramble for democracy: who is in Tahrir Square?

    By Karim Adel

    In the midst of all the confusion with the mass media torn between warning us off from electing a previous Mubarak ally like Shafiq, or the Muslim Brotherhood taking over and becoming a new dictatorship under Dr. Morsi… in all the contradictory din, it was truly a great thing to have a million man march and sit-in in Tahrir Square. This was in the period between the first and second phases of these elections, shortly after it was announced that Morsi and Shafiq were the neck and neck winners of the first round….

    Everyone in Tahrir that day was calling for the elimination of Shafiq from the second phase of the elections, through the activation of a rule which is in the present constitution - what’s called the Political Isolation Law - which says that a person who has taken part in ruining and corrupting the political scene in Egypt is to be later banned from re entering the political arena… That law was first used by Jamal Abdel Nasser to prevent all Egyptians who took key positions in the government of his predecessor, King Farouk’s Government, from re-entering the political scene.

    This demand was later ruled out of order by Egypt’s Supreme Court, the law deactivated so that Shafiq will carry on standing with no trouble at all, news that disappointed all the revolutionaries as well, of course, as the Islamists supporting Morsi.

    The positive energy in Tahrir Square however boosts our hopes, even if there is no victory in sight. We didn’t have much hope when the 18 day revolution started, so who knows? But the majority there are pleased by neither candidate and many decided to boycott the elections altogether. Meanwhile, resistance must continue: creating a working and effective opposition force that will work for change in the next government and seek to enforce the revolution’s demands is still top of the agenda regardless of the results and what changes they will bring. From this perspective Hamdeen Sabahi (the first phase candidate who gathered the biggest percentage of the votes from the revolutionary youth of Egypt) is already talking over many plans and alliances between pro-revolution politicians and activists to create such a force in the form of a political party. And now that the newly elected parliament has been dissolved, having been declared illegal through another high court order on the grounds of some alleged election violations, it is hard not to agree with the many who insist that the whole set-up is still under the power of the SCAF…

    There is anti-SCAF and anti-Muslim Brotherhood graffiti all over Mohammed Mahmoud Street and Tahrir Square. It bears witness to the fact that resistance is now in our blood and it will remain there. It promises that no one will get around our demands in the longer term, even if they hold the presidency…This generation is wide awake.

    So if you ask me why, like many people who took part in the revolt, I’m not in Tahrir Square any more, I can only say that there is something very suspicious about the whole current impasse. The Islamists to date have done everything except act according to the values of Islam. When the military was killing us in the Mohammed Mahmoud demonstrations, they didn’t back us up: they said we were a bunch of druggies and paid thugs and foreign agents…that was once we had elected them to represent us in parliament, after they made a power-sharing deal with the SCAF. They looked to parliament as a mechanism that they could use to turn the people and the media against the revolution. Now, of course, it has become apparent to them that there might be some under-the-table moves to eliminate their presidential candidate Morsi on the part of the SCAF-controlled court system, so now they are in Tahrir Square demonstrating and urging the very same revolutionaries whom they called thugs to unite with them and put all differences (in this case betrayals) to one side….

    That’s why none of us is in Tahrir Square any more… although when they stop taking to their podiums and talking about what THEY want, we will join them again as this battle clearly requires unity for now…we WILL settle these scores with them in the future, once we get past this point. But for me - I still don’t feel they deserve to form the government till they have one coherent position that the people of Egypt can rely on with respect both to the revolution and towards the SCAF.

    If you ask my friend, Ahmed Refaat, then this is what he thinks:

    “The revolutionary movements, and in particular the youth, were simply shoved to one side from the beginning of the revolution. They were closely scrutinized, and accused of everything under the sun – from being spies or foreign agents, to being ill-mannered, stupid louts, and having drug-induced orgies in Tahrir Square itself – this is what they have had to put up with just to get us to this point.

    When you ask yourself why the SCAF and the MB have used this strategy against the leading youth cadres that everybody was so proud of in the beginning - you can only come to one conclusion: that it was to the benefit of both of them that these youth were removed from the equation, so that they could commence their own negotiations uninterrupted, given that they both have only ‘realistic dreams’ and demands; the same concept of the ‘pace’ at which change should occur; and that they both speak the same language, a language which was not that of the revolutionaries.

    That’s why we are in the pickle we are in now: and that’s why this is not the revolution our friends were shot and killed for. No it is just the first chapter of what we must see as a political war between generations.”

    Morsi is declared the new president of Egypt

    I have been watching TV all day, punctuated by people’s phone calls from everywhere… and most of them are happy: that’s what counts. The Muslim Brothers

    have been scrambling to make up lost ground. And they nearly did lose it all when  they alienated the revolutionaries, and we all stopped going to Tahrir Square with them, to show them what we thought about their attempt to impose their own rules on the Egyptian constitution in the brief time they had in a parliament dominated by them.

    Last week, they were literally begging us on TV and from Tahrir Square to join them to prevent Shafiq and Mubarak’s regime from winning. They said that we would all lose in that eventuality, all the while knowing full well that throughout last year it was they who had worked hand in glove with that regime trying to cheapen the reputation of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, when it suited their own purposes.

    Anyway. Now I think there really is a chance to unite the Egyptian people for the first time since the revolution was paused by Mubarak stepping down. We are learning

    from our mistakes, and we know now that we can’t go on alone in small sects. We have to work together as one community. Just thinking this brings tears to my eyes.

    There is talk that they want to want to put Mohamed ElBaradei in charge of the government and that they want to give everyone a chance to work with them. Great. We need to see if that promise holds for the next four years. Then, we can decide if we want Morsi to carry on, or someone else…. through elections.  Already they have announced a 100 day plan effective on the 1st of next month to solve the bread shortage; sanitation problems; and traffic chaos. They know that most of the peiople who voted for them are not Islamists and just didn’t want Shafiq to win. So I think they will work their asses off for the next 100 days, and we will see what they achieve and judge them accordingly.

    Meanwhile a Christian Egyptian friend of mine called me from Tahrir Square. He was crying, and I honestly thought that maybe he got attacked there. But he was crying in happiness. The Muslim Brotherhood people celebrating there saw his cross on his hand, and they kept on hugging him and telling him, “We will always be one. We will always be one.” This is the first time he has ever spoken to any of them, after all the scary things he has heard about them over the years. And so all he can do is cry. 

    I have a good feeling. So, like I said, I’ll keep on watching like everyone else and waiting for a mistake. But if they are making an effort to make it work, I guess we will all do our part to help. We will see. But I trust my feelings sometimes. Though I think Morsi lacks charisma as a leader when he speaks - but oh well... Four years. Let’s just use them to build now!

    Bahrain: throwing the steering wheel out of the window

    By Hasan Tariq Al Hasan

    In a fiery speech given at the Shiite opposition bloc Al-Wefaq’s rally entitled ‘Homeland for Everyone’ on June 11, the group’s secretary general Shaikh Ali Salman exclaimed with reference to Army Chief Marshal Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmed, “You have to know that we have been raised to prepare for death. You have to know that with only two words of a Fatwa (religious command), this nation would give tens of thousands to martyrdom.” The sudden escalation in Shaikh Salman’s rhetoric came as a surprise; it seemed at first unprovoked and inexplicable. In response, His Majesty the King appeared two days later in military attire at army headquarters and vowed not to tolerate insults against the army, warning that, “without doubt it is our duty not to allow this to be repeated.” He said, “The executive agencies must take the necessary legal measures to deter these violations.” However, the government to date appears to have taken very little action, if any at all, against either Shaikh Salman or his group.

    On June 12, CNN Arabic reported that Bahrain’s main political parties - including Al-Wefaq - had unconditionally agreed to enter a British-sponsored dialogue with the government. The report came one day after British Chief Envoy to the Middle East Sir Alistair Burt’s visit to Bahrain during which he met with several figures including the Minister of the Royal Court Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed – Army Chief Marshal Khalifa bin Ahmed’s brother – well-known for his ultraconservative stance. Sir Burt’s visit also coincided with the announcement of the Bahrain Foundation for Reconciliation and Civil Discourse, an initiative that aims – as its name suggests- at facilitating social reconciliation and that is seen as having the Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad’s support.

    With this in mind and given this context of pre-dialogue talks, does Shaikh Ali Salman’s sudden attack of rhetorical hyperbole seem strange? I think not. Consider Bertrand Russell’s famous metaphor known as the ‘game of chicken’ wherein two fast cars head towards one another at great speed.  The first player to swerve in order to avoid a head-on collision loses and is consequently called “chicken!”, allowing the other player to win. Clearly, if neither player swerves, the cars end up colliding, leading to catastrophic results for all.

    Over the past year or so, the government and the opposition have both been locked in a game of chicken. As long as both parties adopt a hawkish stance, they are sure to lose: the government witnesses a deterioration in its sovereign credit risk rating, the economy and its reputation worldwide, whereas the Al-Wefaq opposition bloc loses increasingly more ground to radical revolutionary groups and remains excluded from the political system. With both parties refusing to back down though, Shaikh Ali Salman resorted to an arm-twisting intimidation tactic through his aforementioned speech called “throwing the steering wheel out of the window”. This helps him appear more radical before the imminent dialogue and may potentially allow him to obtain greater concessions. He could rightly, up until now at least, count on his crucial role in this supposedly British-American sponsored dialogue for immunity against any potential government action directed at him.

    By using inflammatory rhetoric however, both the opposition and the government run the risk of radicalizing their respective constituencies and decreasing the likelihood of agreement, a prospect most likely to be analogous to shooting oneself in the foot.

    The government seems to have finally gotten around to replying personally to Shaikh Ali Salman who was injured in an unauthorized rally last Friday, indicating that he may have overplayed his hand. The King’s most recent speech also cast a shadow of doubt on the prospect of a British-American sponsored dialogue.

    Observing the Arab uprisings

    By Mohammed Suliman

    Not that I am angry with myself for not being able to express myself as perfectly honestly as I should on so sensitive a subject as the ‘Arab Spring’, but I always thought, as a Palestinian, I would not think twice before I make it clear to anyone and everyone that I am a person who unwaveringly supports all the revolutions in the Arab world from Bahrain through to Syria and all across the region to Tunisia.

    It made feel good just to align myself with the people’s demands for freedom and social justice; it was such an opportunity to speak out against the despicable corruption with which our ruthless elitist establishments are rife! It answered a deep desire to join my voice to the acts of these brave people. I feel at home in the scene of massive protests mingled with beautiful chants streaming out of the mouths of the masses. In fact - and many from within the revolutions have already made the link - the Arab revolutions were in large part inspired by the Palestinians’ struggle (particularly the two intifadas) against the Israeli occupation which, until the eruption of the revolution in Tunisia, was the sole large-scale, organised or spontaneous, sustained form of resistance in the whole region in which, not only Palestinians, but Arabs in general, took pride.

    The rest of region, it was said, had fallen into a deep, undisturbed slumber, and only a man burning himself to death could vehemently shake it out of an ages-old subservience.

    Things are not that simple, though; and I was mistaken. In my first talk about the Syrian revolution with a friend who comes from South Lebanon and who is, as one might have expected, a huge supporter of Assad’s ‘resistance regime’, I enraged him it seems by my blunt yet futile attempts to point out the hypocrisy in what he said about the uprising in Syria. As he merely parroted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s statements – I don’t have to repeat it all here. He put an end to this by pretending to ignore what I was saying, shaking his head and mimicking the pro-Assad chants “Allah, Souriyya, Bashar w bas!”

    This was a man who was incredibly warm and friendly when he first discovered that I am a Palestinian from Gaza. And was even more friendly than before, after that altercation. He soon realized that he had behaved imprudently (to say the least) and apologized to me, saying he did not really mean what he said, especially when it came to uttering those chants. For my part, I had just wanted to highlight the need to be honest and objective when we talk about these revolutions. My statements were not categorically anti-regime, and I desisted from making any awful comments about Nasrallah’s hypocrisy. In fact, I was careful to list Hezbollah’s merits before I dared to mildly criticize Nasrallah’s stance with regards to Syria. I even talked somewhat favourably of the Syrian regime saying things I myself have never been convinced of in order to make my final point that now Bashar al-Assad and his regime are nothing short of a bunch of criminals and they have all got to go.

    Most importantly, I (naively probably) insisted that sectarianism should be completely left out of this calculation. I assured him that I supported the uprising in Bahrain as genuinely as I supported the one in Syria, and I explained to him that supporting al-Assad’s regime and calling the Syrian uprising an American plot is an irresponsible position, since similar accusations are already made to discredit the uprising in Bahrain and justify the crackdown on the Bahraini protesters.

    But recently something happened to me which made this guy’s extremely unyielding stance more understandable. It was during a protest outside the Egyptian embassy that  I had a most revealing and disconcerting conversation about the Arab uprisings. It started when I asked a 47-year old man if I could have a picture with the new flag of the Syrian revolution fixed on the back of his car. When he found out I was a Palestinian from Gaza, he was keen on assuring me that this whole uprising is definitely going to be in the best interests of all Palestinians, and that “Palestinians might have fallen prey to the regime’s propaganda in the past, but that in fact they had no interest in supporting the Assad regime.”

    We talked about the Arab uprisings, and it did not take me long to note the profoundly sectarian tone in which he was unbending in framing the revolution in Syria. This was hugely upsetting, and I had to, as politely as I could, listen to what he, as a native Syrian, had to say about the uprising in Syria, pretending to be utterly unaware of the sectarian dimension that has been on the rise for quite a while, and considerably longer than the moment when it became visible worldwide in the Houla massacre. In short, I came to the conclusion that this man is short-sighted and poses a threat to the real revolutionaries in Syria. He presented a very distorted image of what the revolution is about, its real intentions, its dynamics and proceedings. Despite being Syrian, he by no means represents the people on the ground. Although, when I asked whether the people in Syria thought the same way he did – he said yes they did. This of course could be taken for a trick question, since the Syrian opposition is deeply wracked with divisions and there are many disagreements within the Syrian political landscape even amidst the Syrian protesters, with regards to the demands which reflect different understandings of the conflict. Nevertheless, he maintained that everyone agreed with him.

    He went on to speak of the “hypocrisy of the Bahraini protesters” who would protest outside the Bahraini embassy in London for hours on end, and when their protests finished and the Syrian protests started outside the Syrian embassy which is right next door to the Bahraini one, they would refuse to join the Syrian protests. My question to him was whether he would join the Bahrainis in their protests? And if not how does that make him (or us) different from the hypocritical Bahraini protesters? He did not have a reasonable answer. Instead he carried on ranting about the protests in Bahrain, and completely discredited the uprising there, saying it was not even worthy of  the name.

    What I concluded was that he was actually one of these double-faced types of people to be found amongst leaders like Hassan Nasrallah and the Saudi government, who, refusing to extricate themselves from their sectarian backgrounds and dominated by their political strategic alliances, discredit whatever revolution they claim to speak for.

    I decided from this that though sectarianism exists, and is on the rise, and while regional alliances continue unabatedly to shape the uprisings, I will continue to commit myself to a simplistic understanding of all the uprisings, seeing them in their own right as the people’s revolutions, wholly owned by them, for freedom and social justice, and against the age-old tyrannical rule of their dictators, and now murderers.

    ‘Our revolution is not a rumour’

    By Kacem Jlidi

    My Facebook timeline is packed with political/religious news and statuses; the same for my twitter feed. But it doesn’t stop there; politics are the main diet of almost every discussion I get involved in – and discontent, anger and pessimism are the general feelings that dominate these discussions.

    “There are so many rumours around. Everything is a rumour and I no longer know who to believe or what to think. There is no tangible change and it’s hard to trust anyone in the media or the political scene” said Shaima, a 24 year old student from Tunis.

    My conversations usually boil down to the conclusion that the current chaos within the country and the mad ideological fights we’re witnessing are only temporary, and that this is a necessary phase in the democratic transition, since everyone is just learning how to think publically for themselves without being censored or told what to do for the first time since independence (around 50 years ago). But this may not be the full picture.

    According to a manifesto published this week outlining the dysfunction within the bigger political scene written and signed up till the moment of writing by 141 Tunisians -  the Troika, the ruling coalition of the Ennahda Movement (Islamist party), Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties) are consumed with only one thing: how to stay in power for as long as possible as a legitimate democratically elected power.

    ‘The coalition has shown no eagerness - and that's an understatement - to deal with urgent and sensitive issues concerning the trial of criminals in areas related to justice, police and finances. Rather, it acts selectively when it comes to treating issues related to transitional justice: those who confirm their loyalty and offer their services enjoy an immunity which Ennahda does not seek to hide’, stated the writers of the Manifesto.

    ‘As for the Congress for the Republic and Ettakattol, they are supposed to correct the balance of power by exerting pressure on the majority (Ennahda) to make the break with the old regime. But all they do is actually maintain the domination of Ennahda. Their Ministers in the Government are in no way different from those of Ennahda in terms of incompetence, lack of courage and sometimes abuse of power; their excuse – that they are busy drafting the constitution – just isn’t convincing.’

    The manifesto also outlined its take on the opposition parties. Also vying for power and working on how to maintain it, once achieved.

    ‘It is a curious mix of liberals and left wing bourgeois who reduce the level of their battle solely to the protection of individual freedoms and human rights. Admittedly, this is a noble fight, but it is not enough to prevent it from being disconnected from the great cause of liberty in its broad sense, namely the struggle that guarantees the economic and social rights’ of the mass of the people.

    The manifesto is intended as a reminder to the rest of us that ‘Tunisians refuse to be taken hostages by the two political groups who are determined to betray the revolution’.  The drafters’ demands are simple:

    To put the criminals on trial and those involved with corruption;

    To provide employment opportunities that can also be reconciled with the demand that;

    Tunisia is not rendered subordinate either to the US, or to France, or to Qatar. That, the Tunisian people are free people;

    ‘We, Tunisians are weak, poorly organised, but full of optimism, idealism and poetry. We are determined in all cases not to be isolated by the counter-revolutionary forces, and not to let our people become, consciously or unconsciously, victims of these double-faced tormentors.

    We will shout louder to make ourselves heard beyond the Salafists and the modernists’ troublemaking and beyond the appeals begging for the return of political dinosaurs.

    Lest we forget why our martyrs gave their lives: for freedom, national dignity and the confiscated right of our people for work!’

    Getting real in Tunisia

    By Ahmed Medien

    Recent economic indicators from Tunisia are discouraging. The economy hasn’t picked up, even in the second year since regime change in the North African country. A recent report from the National Institute of Statistics reads that the unemployment rate rose to 18.1% in the last quarter of this year, with an average of 27% in the southern less developed regions. 24.1% of the population is reliant on social benefits from the state. The energy sector, being one the principal sources of income from the state, is not generating as much money as in past years because of the ongoing strikes. Tourism is still in abeyance, the security vacuum having reduced it to a minuscule number of tourists touring around Tunis’s old Medina and the historical sites.

    Doing business, in Tunisia, is not so hard as young people might think. State corruption was certainly a disincentive for young university graduates starting their own businesses. But statistically the country is in good shape. Tunisia is currently ranked 46 on a 183-long list by the website doingbusiness.org. It’s not that far behind other western countries such as France, Scandinavia or the United States. It is even within range of other western countries such as Spain and Portugal, and can improve. 

    If you spend at least one week in Tunisia, in any region, you’ll notice that there are a great number of Tunisians who appear jobless. Cafés are scarcely empty. You might hear in the news unemployed Tunisian protesters “demanding” jobs every other day. The government is incompetent by Tunisians’ standards because it is failing to create jobs. Every debate in this small North African country, no matter how insignificant it is, seems to end up being about unemployment. If you keep listening to the people long enough, they will almost convince that it’s seriously the government’s problem to give them jobs.

    It might be difficult to admit this, but it does feel as if the country has just woken from a long state of hibernation. People, all of a sudden, have started demanding, recklessly, everything from their government. Some people think they’re entitled to more money just because Ben Ali is gone, when  ironically, the country has only got poorer ever since, and therefore it just can’t happen. The budget deficit has increased* to 4547 million dinars (3,050 million US dollars). This amount is worth hundreds of thousands of public service jobs that the state can’t create for the moment.

    So, young Tunisians will have either to create jobs themselves or find them on their own in the private sector. If you take a walk in Tunis’ suburbia, you will find thousands of well-off young Tunisians enjoying challenging careers and higher salaries than the average regular government job. They are marketers, journalists, graphic designers, you name it. They had a regular education like most of their unemployed compatriots, but were more serious about finding a job and building a career.

    Yet, amid protests and despair, Asma Mansour and Sarah Toumi, two young Tunisian university graduates, actually worked on a plan to help solve the unemployment crisis in Tunisia and alleviate the poverty in the marginalized regions. What they are introducing us to is social entrepreneurship. It is not very well-known in Tunisia, yet elsewhere, it has been revolutionary.

    Asma and Sarah co-founded – with the help of another Tunisian residing in the US – a pioneer center for social entrepreneurship, the Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Asma had to go abroad, to Japan, to realize the impact of social entrepreneurship. Sarah is a French citizen, originally from a tiny village in the coastal city of Sfax. Her attachment to her father’s hometown has motivated her come back and to found a small association to help local communities improve their financial conditions. Both have been exploring this associational territory for some years now, and know exactly what they’re doing.

    “Our sole objective is to educate and support social entrepreneurs,” said Asma Mansour over lunch.

    Asma is actually a friend of mine. She speaks with passion and can easily stands out of the crowd. She says that she had refused many opportunities to work abroad. She loves what she’s doing right now and she wants to stay in Tunisia. Asma intends to pursue a teaching career later, and help other young Tunisians launch their businesses and careers.

    The three founding objectives of the center are to educate Tunisian job seekers about social entrepreneurship, incubation and connecting entrepreneurs with sponsors.

    Asma, accompanied with her team, has been touring Tunisia for some months to introduce this new concept to other Tunisians living outside metropolitan Tunis. The center has many affiliated members across the nation and organizes frequent round tables and debate circles and workshops with the locals to push local people to think about their problems and think of financially rewarding solutions.

    Asma says that “Tunisians, in urban areas, seem much more concerned with problems relating to the environment, health, education and unemployment, whereas, in rural areas, Tunisians were more concerned with economic exclusion – especially women – and bad governance.”

    However, Asma and her coworkers do not intend to give hard-earned private funding to these entrepreneurs. “We can’t trust them like that (the apprentice entrepreneurs), we can’t just give them money.” The center’s real objective is to teach people how to write up a social business model that will help them orientate their business to fix a social problem but also to make profits at the same time.

    Jordan: smoke, mirrors and election laws

    By Tareq Baconi

    On June 18, after interminable and at times explosive discussions, Jordan’s Lower House finally agreed on a new electoral law. The response was a mix of boycotts, celebrations, and overwhelming confusion.

    The law raised the number of seats in Parliament to 140 from 120. Within those, it allocated 123 seats to be contested on a Governorate level and 17 seats on a national ballot. A quota of 15 seats was allocated for women, up from 12. The decision supposedly drew on recommendations set out by the Independent Elections Commission and the National Dialogue Committee.

    Disgruntled objections immediately followed the passage of the law. Many scoffed at the view that the law took into account national sentiment expressed through many rounds of dialogue with the election committees. They felt their views were swept aside because the new election law in fact failed to address the one core issue it set out to reform – the controversial ‘one-person one-vote’ system.

    In Jordan, unlike in many other Parliamentary democracies, electoral districts are represented by multiple seats in Parliament, yet voters are only allowed one vote on the district level. This, reformists argued, limited representation and promoted regime loyalists.

    The way it accomplishes this is by diluting the vote. Instead of competing for a district, votes compete for one of several seats in a district. A candidate from an organised political party who gains majority votes would gain a seat in Parliament but would not be able to represent the district. Rather, he would represent the district alongside several other candidates who are unlikely to have the same political affiliations.

    Taking into account tribal affiliations and extended family loyalties, candidates from organised political parties are easily overwhelmed, and they consequently struggle to have sufficient representation in Parliament. This electoral set-up shrewdly leverages Jordan’s electorate configuration to undermine organised political parties.

    Reformists and political parties understand this gerrymandering only too well, and they have focused their reform campaign on attempting to gain multiple votes per person on the Governorate level. This, they hoped, would offset the imbalance in favour of tribal affiliations over political parties.

    The new electoral law does no such thing. It maintains the one-person one-vote system on the Governorate level. To claim reform, the new law allows voters to also elect members from a ‘Closed Proportional National’ ballot. This ballot will be open to qualified candidates who will compete for one of the 17 seats allocated to them in Parliament. Considering the eligibility requirements and fixed seat allocation, this national list is likely to attract typical bigwigs rather than providing representative candidates from those competing for additional seats.

    In any case, 17 out of 140 available seats are unlikely to offset the structural imbalance of ‘one-person one-vote’. Unsurprisingly therefore, most political party representatives stressed that the new law was simply another version of the old system, and have called for a mass boycott.

    Voters are aware of the complex and disenfranchising actions the government is adopting to maintain its illusion of democracy while discouraging voters from engaging. In one past round, voters had to reconcile ‘virtual districts within districts’ into their voting approach. ‘Confusing? That’s the point!’, a dear friend and expert on Jordan in their own right, said to me, ‘the Government has upgraded “Divide and Conquer” to “Confuse and Conquer”’.

    The litmus test to determine the success of the new election law is voter buy in, and at the moment, that is overwhelmingly negative. Considering the time it took for this law to pass, the King’s promise for new elections to be completed before the end of the year is dangerously close to being forfeited.

    The trend of ‘wiping’ ElJokh (sucking up)… one of the oldest inventions of the Syrian regime

    By Rita from Syria

    ElJokh is a type of fabric that is common in Syria and many other countries, and is considered to be a luxury fabric, which is why it is used in making suits and is seen in mainstream fashion and worn by officials and wealthy people despite the fact that dust sticks easily to it! No problem with the Jokh as a fabric, or with the suits made with it, no problem between fashion and me in general; the problem began when I was introduced – early on in my life – to the art of wiping ElJokh!!

    An elJokh wiper is the person who tries to gain personal influence from sweet-talking and ‘sucking up’ to the powerful and rich. To be more specific, the more common name for this kind of person is a social leech living on the crumbs of officials and ruling officers. These are mostly people whose social circumstances have not allowed them to reach the high positions that they dreamt of. They have found their own way of gaining social and financial power through dirty underground communications channels between normal citizens and officials in a country ruled by patronage and interests rather than law.  

    ElJokh wipers act as middle men and are involved in most official exchanges, legal proceedings, and even in trials. In fact you will find their footprint even in the smallest detail of a Syrian’s life – unless a citizen manages to bypass them to reach the decision maker directly. Through them   bribes are paid even for the smallest endeavour like an official or an employee’s missing signature, for example, on the handling of some inheritance. These issues arise because officials seek their own interest and not the member of the public’s, and in many cases the treatment you get depends on the official’s mood.

    These people have also benefited from the revolution that started in early 2011 and flooded the prisons with political detainees. The security policy that is pursued withholds information about the detainees, so that some disappear for months and even years on end without a word to their families about their whereabouts, and state of health or even if they are dead or alive. The role of the ElJokh wiper is to trade information about the loved one or sometimes medicine in exchange for a large payoff.

    On top of the gross exploitation of the families’ feelings, most of these actions are a sham and only exist to raise a profit. The thing about parents like the mother of one of the political detainees held at the airforce intelligence headquarters in Damascus, is that they will say: “My son has been detained for 129 days and I have spent the first month of his detention without knowing a thing about him. I did not know if he was detained. I thought he was killed until I read his name on the internet with the group he was detained with. Because his detention is administrative and does not conform to any particular rules I would pay with all I own to ensure his safety, make sure he stays alive, and reduce his torture. The life of a political detainee is worthless at the hands of these intelligence branches and they do not care if people die under torture”.   

    This class of person forms the infrastructure of the rampantly corrupt system in the Syrian state, where corrupt people on all levels continue to pillage the country and its citizens without being held accountable. The lack of social cohesion in Syrian society and absence of an independent civil society for centuries has created a stasis and total inability to change on the part of the Syrian citizen.

    This revolution, on the other hand, has brought back attempts at reconciliation, human dignity, and the refusal of oppression. I think that there is a return of a sense of belonging and the reappearance of a concept of citizenship in the Syrian street. Its developmennt beyond its nationalist sectarian beginnings is the first and most important step in dismantling the corrupt hierarchy, the regime and in fighting the phenomenon of wiping ElJokh to enable a fresh start in building a country for all Syrians.  

    It would be difficult to establish a ruling regime clear of corruption after the revolution, especially with this confused state of mind, with the political polarization and lack of stability in Syria, after the Ba’ath regime. What is more important is to establish an accountable regime with strict monitoring backed by the people’s will.  We need to move onto a new level - a level where the politicians run around to ensure that the people are satisfied, and ‘wiping the used fabric’ to make cloth anew for normal citizens.

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    Who's getting rich from COVID-19?

    Boris Johnson's government stands accused of 'COVID cronyism', after handing out staggering sums of money to controversial private firms to fight COVID-19. Often the terms of these deals are kept secret, with no value-for-money checks or penalties for repeated failures which cost lives. And many major contracts have gone directly to key Tory donors and allies – without competition.

    As COVID rates across the country surge, how can we hold our leaders accountable? Meet the lawyers, journalists and politicians leading the charge in our free live discussion on Thursday 1 October at 5pm UK time.

    Hear from:

    Dawn Butler Labour MP for Brent Central and member of the House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology

    Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy, and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

    Jolyon Maugham Barrister and founder of the Good Law Project.

    Peter Smith Procurement expert and author of 'Bad Buying: How Organisations Waste Billions through Failures, Frauds and F*ck-ups'

    Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

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