By Omer Harari
Palestinians Celebrate the victory Mohammed Assaf in Gaza City. Demotix/Nameer Galal
This weekend Mohammed Assaf, a young man from a refugee camp in Gaza brought cause for celebration throughout not only his native Khan Younis, or even the rest of Gaza, but throughout the West Bank and even Jerusalem, Nazareth, and here in Haifa. Assaf, the 22 year old honey-voiced young man from Gaza won the Arab Idol competition, outbeating the two other finalists, Ahmed Jamal of Egypt and Syrian Farah Youssef of Syria in an event that drew millions of viewers from across the Arab World. The Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas even declared Assaf, "The pride of the Palestinian and Arab nation."
I am reminded of another Arab singer, this one a young woman from Accre, named Lina Makhoul who only three months ago won a similar Israeli vocal competition, this one called the Voice. In the weeks leading up to the finalists, there was much speculation and doubt surrounding whether the hundreds of thousands of viewers in Israel would vote for a non-Jewish singer as the winner of a national competition, despite her obvious talent. When she did win with 62% of the vote over Ofir Ben Shitrit, it was met with great pride on the part of the Arab Israeli community, 1/5th of the population (1.5 million people.) Makhoul's victory carved out a space for reinvigorated discussion of the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the state and though a big element of the discussion's tone sounded a lot like the discourse in the United States when Barack Obama was elected ("Look at how far we've come"), there was also a little more room to talk about other instances of inequality, the types of stratification that made it a big deal that Makhoul is an Arab in the first place.
Her time spent volunteering for Magen David Adom (who provide emergency medical assistance) was often invoked to demonstrate her patriotism, in ways not always discussed in the context of, or implicitly demanded of other Jewish contestants. In her acceptance speech, Makhoul discussed the fact that she faced her share of racism from the general public during the season's filming, and said so in the last episode of the show, then adding, "But the majority rules, right?" to immense applause. Clearly there was a segment of the Israeli population, perhaps broader than they receive credit for, willing to accept an Arab woman as the 'voice' of the Jewish state, at least for one season.
Mohammed Assaf, following his victory on Saturday night, was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador by PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and granted a diplomatic passport - meaning he'd enjoy freedom of movement unheard of in the refugee camps. For Makhoul, however, the response was lukewarm, certainly more restrained, outside of Israel, perhaps because a lot of them didn't speak Hebrew and weren't privy to what was happening. Perhaps comparing Assaf's story with Makhoul's can tell us something about a growing cultural alienation as well. Cultural boycotts fall under the umbrella of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and are applied in the interest of putting pressure on Israel, and to bring awareness to its treatment of Palestinians, as PACBI writes, “Based on the premise that [Israeli academic and cultural] institutions are complicit in [this] system of oppression.”
It is true that culture cannot be divorced from the political circumstances in which it was created, but I don't think it's the right thing to do to artificially empower politics over cultural and academic production. At its most dangerous, the intended deafening silence by activists instead can facilitate an echo chamber of the hegemonic voices that they intend to disrupt, and this wouldn't be so important if the playing field was equal, and these voices didn't carry the hegemonic weight that they seem to internationally.
It's not to say the Israeli Universities are better by virtue of their nationality, but rather a few foundational political theories used here (at the University of Haifa, where I'm studying) implicitly help turn Israel's policies towards Palestinians invisible, by placing the blame on a clash of civilizations. If the intentions of the boycotts are to bring attention to Israel's treatment of Palestinians, it stands to reason that these theories would benefit from a more critical engagement, and here is one by the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.
They deserve to be debated, not have would-be engagers effectively silence themselves. Teaching, as one professor wrote in UC Santa Barbara, can be a revolutionary act in itself, it can illuminate the unquestioned answers that are all too often taken at face value. It is precisely because teaching, art, and culture can be political in their own way that their agency as actors of change should not be undermined by the boycotts that tend to conflate them with the status quo.
Mohammed Assaf said upon winning, “A revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle, it is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer... Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit. Today I represent Palestine and today I am fighting for a cause through my art.” Hamas, for their part, never quite warmed up the more secular cultural ambassador Mohammed Assef, but walking around Haifa (in Northern Israel) over the weekend, it was common to see people at bus stops and cafes huddling around a friend's smart phone watching his winning performance. As Mati Shemoelof and Ophir Toubul write, you never know which unexpected allies you might be attempting to shut out.
"Israeli society today cannot see its place between Beirut, Amman and Cairo. But anyone who listens to the many versions by some of Israel’s best singers (Sarit Hadad, Omer Adam, Maor Adri and many others) will discover that they regularly release covers of Arabic songs in Hebrew. There exists today a contemporary Israeli culture that is effectively in dialogue with a contemporary Arab culture, but no one speaks about it openly."
Instead of attempting to quash the dialogue, let's recognize cultural production for its transformative potential.
Sectarian tensions are on a knife edge in Lebanon. Fierce clashes between supporters of the firebrand Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir and the Lebanese Army have led to the deaths of seventeen soldiers, twenty supporters of Assir, and at least two civilians in the southern city of Sidon, at the time of writing. Over fifty civilians have also been reported wounded, and unable to leave the city.
Fighting broke out on Sunday afternoon after Assir supporters, who are fiercely anti-Hezbollah and staunch supporters of rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Assad, attacked an Army checkpoint, killing three soldiers. The Army responded by storming the Abra mosque, where Assir is imam and had been directing the gunfire of his supporters. Pitched battles were fought throughout the night and into Monday morning. They extended into the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, where Assir militants extended the fight to the Lebanese army.
The violence follows on from the deaths of two people in Sidon last Tuesday as a result of clashes between supporters of Assir and a pro-Hezzbollah group. Residents of Sidon claimed that Assir was threatening to break into apartments in the city which he claims are owned by armed members of Hezbollah.
The escalation in tensions
is a further sign that the country has become engulfed in the Syrian conflict. The Army says that the fighting in Sidon today is reminiscent of events
preceding Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, when the country was bloodily carved up
along sectarian divisions.
Elsewhere in Lebanon, tensions in the north city of Tripoli, which is in a perpetual state of unrest, have reached their most intense in the past few weeks. On May 19, 31 were killed and 200 injured after fighting between the Sunni-dominated neighbourhood of Bab el Tabbaneh and the Alawite-dominated neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen. The city is, to all intents and purposes, a war zone. The border areas to the east of the country, particularly the town of Arsal in the Bekka, have seen various skirmishes and rocket attacks from Syrian helicopters. Areas around the southern suburbs of the capital Beirut are becoming increasingly tense along Sunni-Shi’a lines.
The upsurge in sectarian tensions should come as no surprise. This is a country which many argue is still locked in the conflict which began in 1975, and which has always been closely entwined with Syrian politics. The unparalleled strains on resources owing to an influx of over a million Syrian refugees, representing twenty-five per cent of the population (according to unofficial forecasts), is creating an even more potent cocktail for conflict.
Sectarianism as politics rather than religion
But it is too easy to confine the conflict to a sectarian framework. At face-value this is, undeniably, what it is. But the sectarian label is obscuring other political concerns which are fracturing not only along Sunni-Shia lines, but also politics within those groups.
In Sidon, the ‘sectarian’ battle is engaging inter-Sunni fighting as new power centres emerge from the sidelines to fight for the leadership of the Sunni people. Assir’s battle is as much about claiming the mantle of Sunni Leader as it is anti-Hezbollah; his actions have been widely condemned by fellow Sunni’s.
Meanwhile, Tripoli appears to be existing in a complete breakdown of any coherent sectarian authority, with an increase in the size and number of armed groups in the city dominating the power of politicians, and creating chaos. According to Al Jazeera newspaper, residents of the city have started looking to these armed groups for protection, faced with a vacuum of political leadership within the Sunni community. One fighter from Bab al Tabbaneh was quoted by the paper as saying, “we don’t answer to anyone and we don’t belong to anyone. We protect our own streets and neighbourhoods”.
A coherent sectarian unity is, therefore, something of a myth.
Fragmentations within and between sects are continuing to be carved out from above. While sectarian divides run deep across the population, sectarian fighting is incited by febrile rhetoric of anger, righteousness and entitlement from leaders on all sides and within the same sects.
The clashes in Sidon have been waged exclusively by Sunni Sheik Assir and his supporters. In the beginning of June the influential Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, speaking in Doha, called on Sunni Muslims with military training to support the Syrian uprising against Assad, effectively endorsing a jihad. This call to arms was a direct response to Hassan Nasrallah’s confirmation and pledge of continued Hezbollah support to Assad.
Religious leaders are trying to balance garnering the self-interest of their followers, with manoeuvres for a greater political foothold, couched in religious terms. Such tactics are exploiting people’s search for an identity of any kind. That these calls to arms will be met with a response is not to be doubted. But the motivation for responding to such calls may vary. Some, undoubtedly, are determinedly fighting a jihad, whilst others want nothing more than to secure a stable living, and to win the competition over resources that are fought out in sectarian terms. Sectarianism should thus not be reduced to solely a religious divide.
The nation state vs sectarianism
The politicised nature of sectarianism makes internal fractures increasingly likely.
In a study conducted in May 2012 by the Population Studies Centre, it was found that the differences in Lebanese value-orientations do not necessarily obey religious fault-lines. Although Christians and Muslims differed significantly in their attitudes toward gender relations and religious fundamentalism, the Shi’is and Sunnis, despite their political rivalries, appear to hold quite similar positions on many issues.
This goes some way to indicating that sectarianism pertains as much to issues of rights, identity, a political voice, and access to social and economic resources as it does to a religious identity.
And sectarian divisions will become even less about religion as the Lebanese state continues to fail functioning as a working political body. The hollowed-out state is now a playground for religious militias, secular militias, and the international community (who are bearing much of the brunt for assisting refugees).
And as the state becomes less equipped to provide basic services to its population, namely security, amenities, social welfare and economic stability, the nature of sectarian identity itself will become even more closely tied to issues external to religion. This will strengthen rather than diminish sectarian groupings, but also increasingly intensify competition within sectarian groupings.
Developments in Sidon demonstrate fragmentation within sects, as Assir’s every attempt to stoke sectarian tensions in a violent way has been roundly condemned by the majority of the Sunni population. Thanks to Assir, inter-sect battle lines have now been forged alongside the increasingly entrenched and faulty sectarian divisions. Whichever way it turns, Lebanon is becoming a shattered landscape.
By Ali Gokpinar
The Gezi Parkı protests and government repression have posed many questions as to whether the AKP government and the Kurdish parties will be able to find a durable solution to the protracted low intensity conflict. Although the government and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have held their first meeting of the second phase, the discourse of both government officials and Kurdish leaders reveal that the negotiations are fragile thanks to various challenges.
The negotiation process comprises three phases;
- Ceasefire and PKK’s withdrawal from Turkish territories
- Democratization process - drafting the new constitution
- Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR).
Both Ocalan and the AKP government announced that the first phase was over as more than 600 guerillas withdrew from Turkish territories and these guerillas have been gathering in the Qandil Mountains, the base of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). However, this is problematic because there are 1400 more guerillas remaining on Turkish soil - either already withdrawing or preparing to withdraw.
Full withdrawal of the guerillas depends on the steps the AKP government is going to take in the coming two weeks. This reveals that the first and second phases are not clear cut and both parties do not trust each other. Indeed, the peace negotiations were designed as a step by step approach in order to build trust among the stakeholders. While Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay stated that the Kurds have cooperated perfectly so far, the Kurds criticized the government overtly. The AKP government has tried to have full control over the process through determining which BDP deputies will visit PKK’s imprisoned leader Ocalan in Imrali Island, giving a limited role to the BDP. Further, they could not meet BDP expectations regarding the release of Kurdish Union Committee (KCK) members.
What is most worrying for BDP is the AKP Government’s use of excessive violence against peaceful protests. This is important because Kurds fear that the government might use similar extreme measures if they protest against the government. Although the Kurds did not participate fully in the Gezi Parki protests and remained silent for the most part, they have important grievances against the government particularly when it comes to Turkey’s bleeding wound: justice. Court decisions regarding the KCK members’ release do not follow a consistent pattern and hundreds of Kurdish civilian politicians remain in jail. While some conspiracy theories argue that the Gulen movement is in control of the judiciary, there is no tangible evidence for such claims. It is true, however, that the Turkish judiciary is dysfunctional and decisions are routinely delayed.
If KCK detainees are released any time soon, this will increase the trust between the negotiating parties and accelerate the second phase. Nevertheless, a recent court decision to punish the families of Uludere massacre victims has again undermined the trust of Kurdish civilians in the AKP government and Turkish state. The civilian court handed the Uludere case to the military, leaving military officers unpunished. Another court verdict deemed it a crime to visit the scene of the accident and fined the families of victims up to 3000 Turkish Liras. The nexus between justice and peace negotiations is the most fragile terrain and is likely to create more problems in the near future if the government does not take major steps for reconciliation.
Although the new constitution is supposed to be completed in the second phase, it is unclear if it will be drafted because core problems regarding notions of state, nation and citizenship remain contested. The Republican People’s Party and Nationalist Movement Party have been irreconcilable and the BDP has important reservations regarding AKP’s proposals on the draft constitution. Perhaps the government will take action through reform packages which will amend laws regarding terrorism, freedom of speech and the election threshold. These measures might push the process on a step further but the rallies of Prime Minister Erdogan strongly suggest that he is already preparing for the coming elections in 2014. Political prospects for the peace negotiations and a new Turkey largely depend on the AKP government’s future plans regarding the new constitution, language and cultural rights.
Overall, Turkey is experiencing a hot summer, what with the ongoing Gezi Parki protests, peace negotiations and the Syrian civil war. But although there are significant challenges to peace, there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic. Indeed, the Gezi Parki protests provide a great opportunity to define what is political and so redesign the politics of Turkey.
Qatar is buzzing with political activity, Taliban, Syrians, and rumours over transition have taken over the Emirate in the last week. The town feels invigorated again after a 2013 in which Doha has struggled to maintain its central position in regional affairs.
Last year visiting delegations attended numerous conferences and high levels meetings making weekly trips to the Sheraton Hotel almost mandatory for those wishing to stay in the loop. The most important event, the COP 18 climate change conference literally brought areas of the city to standstill so great was the logistical challenge involved in running it. This year although the total number of conferences in Doha has actually gone up, their importance has been of less interest to people in the foreign policy profession.
So the recent flurry of activity is a well needed shot in the arm for Qatar, who once again seems to be placed at the top table of regional affairs. Although it could be argued that the political problems surrounding the opening the Taliban office have not necessarily been good for Qatar, and the Friends of Syria conference has been a predictable set of promises without much substance to back them.
Once again Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim led from the front dealing with the media and the legions of diplomats that descended on Doha’s Four Seasons Hotel. It will be hard to imagine a Qatar in which he will not be a central figure of its political activity, so great is his influence and so important his role in asserting Qatari interests on the global stage.
Given that Qatar has just experienced a seminal moment in its history following the abdication of the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani who has handed power to his Tamim bin Hamad, it is important to ask what will become of Doha in the coming years. Doha 2013 is already a quieter town than the Doha 2012: could we see a further change in times to come with a newer less experienced team leading from the front?
The question centres on Qatar’s strategic vision and whether it is premised on a view of its place in the world that is set in stone for the next twenty years, or whether it is dependent on the personalities of the ruling family to define the nation’s course in world affairs. Clearly a small elite at the top of policy allows for a highly flexible domestic and foreign policy, which can be changed “by whim”, but Qatar is committed to long term international projects, such as its financial commitments to Egypt, and its commitment to the Free Syrian Army in its struggle against Bashar. It should not be expected that Qatar will back out of these commitments at any time in the near future.
Nevertheless, with the transfer of power from the Emir to his son Tamim, it is likely that the drive of these two men who pushed Qatar to dizzying heights will be gone, ensuring that fewer such commitments will be made. Qataris now talk of an elite retreating to a more inward domestic focus on developing the capital city and committing to constitutional and legal reforms. This will be somewhat necessary in order to ensure that the preparations for World Cup 2022 are completed on schedule and the nation is ready for the influx of one million visitors, swelling its population by 50%.
Understanding the extent of this tiny country’s influence in the world was always a conundrum. If money alone determined power, then Kuwait and Brunei would have pushed their weight around. If personality determined power Libya under Muammar Gaddafi might well have done the same. In Qatar it is a unique combination of those two factors which brought the nation to sit with the world’s top players and play a leading role in changing regional affairs, although not always for the better.
It is difficult to see Qatar rising any higher in a region which is no longer universally accepting of its influence, especially without its diplomatic prize fighter Hamad bin Jassim to meet the challenges that lie ahead for it. This is no bad thing. It may well be better in the long run for the tiny Emirate to return to doing what it does best, wowing people with mega purchases of European brands, hosting cultural initiatives and social development programmes, and leaving the entrenched problems of the Levant to the region’s historical players to solve. It does Qatar no good to be sucked into the vortex of an unstable region, especially at a time when there is uncertainty surrounding the future of the country’s leadership.
Doha’s moment in the sun has brought it both supporters and detractors, and the journey into the light has been nothing if not interesting. But perhaps being a little less interesting from now on in would help ensure for the country a more stable and prosperous future.
By Nader Bakkar
The stand of the United States towards the Syrian revolution has changed from condemnation into direct action to bring Bashar down. Washington is still hesitant and studying the possible reactions of the Russian-Iranian axis, so this is just a change of tactics. Maybe this escalation is an attempt to diminish Bashar’s military progress in response to Russian missile support to Bashar or the rise of the Shiite Hezbollah beyond their usual zone of influence. Both scenarios are a threat to the balance of power in the region according to the vision of the United States.
Iran is exaggerating the sectarian aspect of the conflict by pushing Hezbollah into the battle. At the same time, Hezbollah has been holding huge provocative celebrations in Lebanon after the Al Qusayr battle. Iran has also mobilized some Iraqi Shiite groups, as well as encouraging the Houthis in Yemen to join the battle in Syria. According to western formulae, this will broaden the conflict in a way that makes it harder to control it or its consequences. The west aims to keep the conflict going as long as is possible without having a victorious side, till the post-Bashar scenario is sewn up. This must preserve western interests in the region, and Israel on top.
What is also critical for the United States is the escalating role of the radical Islamist groups that include militants from various nationalities. This is a totally different evolution of the Arab Spring from western aspirations that wanted it to be like the Egyptian and Tunisian models. The situation in Syria has ended up being closer to the period of Islamic Jihad during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the Islamists – who form the great majority of the rebels – win the battle militarily, bringing Bashar’s regime down or forcing it into a small isolated Alawite state, it will be harder for the west to control the new state to preserves its own interests.
Cairo, ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, realizes that it should play a more significant role. Over the past year, the Egyptian president seemed only to make hesitant statements about the Syrian conflict. However, Cairo has made a gesture to the effect that it prefers a political settlement to reaching a dead end with Bashar’s regime. There is a hidden message there, as Syria, in addition to Hamas, is one of the international pressure points that helped the Egyptian regime to stabilize their rule. Morsi’s Cairo Stadium speech on June 21 was an attempt made by the Egyptian regime to respond to the recent shift in the bellicosity of the United States, at the same time as keeping its understanding intact with Moscow and Tehran.
It was fine in the Cairo Stadium to stress Islamist and patriotic sentiments by condemning Hezbollah, as a way to release some of the popular rage. It is even fine for the Iranians themselves if the Egyptian regime hosts such events with prominent Islamist figures calling for support for the Syrian people. This releases some of the pent-up anger before June 30, when the opposition is planning widespread demonstrations calling for new elections, and reduces Salafi criticism of the government. Still, the reality is that the Egyptian regime can’t take a stand against Iran if it wants to stabilize its rule: Tehran is one of its biggest supporters.
By Ahmed Kadry
Tahrir Square, April 2011. Demotix/Nameer Galal
Disclaimer: I am fully aware as an Egyptian that what you read next may sound biassed, utopian, out of touch with reality, and so on. But I am going to go ahead and write it anyway; firstly because I believe it to be true, and second, because with all the negativity that currently oozes around Egypt’s households, universities and coffee shops on the discontent, hardship and frustration the country is facing, a bit of optimism can go a long way. So here we go.
There is no mistaking it. Spend enough time in Egypt and you will soon realize that Egypt to Egyptians is special – something that must be protected, fought over, and loved. “Egypt” is not just a physical territory or the colour of the flag to Egyptians, but can be better viewed through the lens of an abstract ideal, and that was all prevalent well before there was ever something called the Jan 25, 2011 Revolution, which has since sent the bond between Egyptians and Egypt into over-drive.
Often linked to the ideology and discourse of “natives” who exclude and object to the growing multi-ethnic diversity of a country, nationalism in the Egyptian context is markedly different.
Beth Baron, an academic who works on nationalism and women’s rights explains:
“The nation, according to its proponents, was ‘one family’ descended from the same roots with shared blood. Young men, the foot soldiers of the nation, were its ‘sons,’ and young girls became its ‘daughters.’ At the head of the nationalist movement generally loomed a dominating ‘father’ figure or group of ‘founding fathers.’ Nationalists hoped to replicate the sense of belonging and loyalty experienced within the family on a national scale.”
The “father” figure persona of the leader of the nation could clearly be seen in the rhetoric of Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and now Mohamed Morsi. Various idiomatic sentiments within the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, such as, “Whoever drinks from the Nile will always return to it,” and “Egypt is the Mother of the World,” are examples of this surfacing of national pride.
One could argue that Nasser employed his nationalist rhetoric aggressively in the Arab-Israeli wars, but he was doing so in Egypt’s infancy years after colonialism and used the legacy of colonial oppression as a political tool to cement his leadership. On the ground, however, and particularly after the crushing defeat of 1967, there was growing discord, and as historian Derek Hopwood puts it, “there was some feeling that Egypt had suffered enough for the Arabs, and that Egyptians should rely primarily on themselves for their salvation.”
It would be remiss to suggest racism or prejudice does not exist in Egypt – and there is never any justification for that. Yet I would argue this is linked to wider political fear-mongering and suspicion bred from the Arab-Israel conflicts, and before it, colonialism, rather than something inherently sinister or a racial like a national superiority complex. It is reactionary rather than pro-active. The good news is that this fear and consequent reaction is dying (literally) as older generations pass on, and their successive generations are children of globalisation who view foreigners with much less suspicion (unless of course you actually believe the president when he blames Egypt’s problems on foreign spies and not his own incompetence).
The question and debate over Egypt’s brand of nationalism is important today because it lies in flux. Perhaps the most celebrated aspect of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution was that it was the true coming together of a nation’s people – indeed the nation itself - morphing from an abstract ideal to a physical reality in Tahrir Square and around the country. Nationalism existed within Egyptian politics before Jan 25 2011, but somewhere along the line it was lost. After all, no one for thirty years dared to speak up to the “father.”
But the good news, that Egyptians would do well to remember, particular in hard and frustrating times, is that the course is being corrected. Academics and political analysts have been splitting hairs about what to call January 2011. Some say “revolution” while others prefer “uprising.” I prefer to call it a “national movement,” because it was Egyptian nationalism giving a rebirth to its political child, and that child is now two and a half years old and not happy with the way its father is treating its mother. Egyptians love their country, and that’s a good thing.