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This week's window on the Middle East - March 11, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Sidon’s Salafist Sheikh: the roar of the Sunni lion

Arab Awakening
12 March 2013
  • Sidon’s Salafist Sheikh: the roar of the Sunni lion
  • Israel: the bus route is the message
  • When a hero doesn’t come along: Egypt’s wait for its ‘Chavez’ lingers.
  • Holding Libya hostage
  • Tunisia: the backlash in women‘s rights amid the rocky political transition
  • Harlem Shake Tunisia-style
  • A toxic dependency: Algeria’s love-hate relationship with its oil
  • Sidon’s Salafist Sheikh: the roar of the Sunni lion

    By Sarah El-Richani

    Whilst the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli has been a flashpoint for occasional scuffles between the largely Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, weary eyes have now turned to Sidon, the home of the strident Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir.  

    The Imam of Bilal bin Rabah mosque has emerged on the scene with a vengeance, slowly transcending the walls of his small mosque in Sidon, both figuratively and literally. In addition to his fiery Friday sermons, Al-Assir has staged a month-long sit-in in Sidon, repeated protests in the southern city, Beirut, Tripoli and even a recreational trip with supporters to a ski resort, which some local residents with a slippery slope argument tried to block.

    What initially appeared as a clownish sheikh playing foosball, riding a bike and a horse amongst other shenanigans, soon came to be regarded as a serious threat to what is already precarious stability in the country. Al-Assir’s frequent media appearances, sermons and speeches calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah, which he calls “the party of resistance”, putting an end to its “hegemony” and the humiliation of the Sunnis, has helped ordain him as their “new guardian”.

    “The Al-Assir phenomenon”, as it has come to be called, can be linked to Hariri’s self-imposed exile and the series of incidents that have left most Sunnis in Lebanon feeling aggrieved. In addition to the infamous May 7, 2008 events, later labelled by Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah “a glorious day”, some Sunnis in Lebanon were outraged by the January 2011 ouster of then-PM Saad Hariri in violation of the Doha Accord and alleged Hezbollah involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

    Al-Assir, who is rumoured to be close to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has also accused Hezbollah and its backers, Syria and Iran, of assassinating Wissam al-Hassan, a leading Sunni security chief in September of last year. Furthermore, the Sunni lion, as his supporters call him, has repeatedly riled his audience against Hezbollah’s support of Syria’s Assad (Arabic for lion).  Hezbollah, meanwhile, has largely ignored Al-Assir’s taunts but its Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned its foes against going too far last month.

    In November of last year, clashes erupted in Sidon as Al-Assir’s supporters marched to remove Hezbollah posters from the city. The armed clash left two of Al-Assir’s bodyguards and a bystander dead and a Hezbollah local commander injured. More recently Al-Assir demanded the removal of allegedly Hezbollah-affiliated residents from an apartment near his mosque.

    Heightened security has so far managed to contain the Sheikh’s roving and provocative marches. While he is by no means the only provocative leader out in the minefield that is Lebanon, the fear remains that Al-Assir, Arabic for ‘hostage’, and his sectarian demagoguery, may take more than Sidon hostage.

    Israel: the bus route is the message

    By Omer Harari

    This past week saw the creation of a new, Palestinian-only bus line. It will take passengers (who must have a permit to work in Israel) from the Eyal checkpoint just north of the West Bank city of Qalqilya, to several cities inside Israel.

    On the one hand, the creation of this Palestinians-only bus line is a big step, more than deserving the outrage it has been the target of. The "separate but equal" doctrine has a way of conjuring up that stomach-churning feeling for American on-watchers like myself in particular.

    But there is another perspective, one that says these bus lines aren't really that big a deal. Not that living separate but equal isn't a big deal – of course it is.  But rather that separating and racializing buses is just one of the more recent policies of separation. That other story goes like this: racialized sovereignty leads to racialized needs, access, and opportunities, forming racialized places and then, finally, racialized ways of getting there. Ethnic divides become political. Israeli settlers requested the creation of separate lines because, they said, Palestinian travellers on the lines already in place, posed a security risk. In the first few hours the new line was in operation, one bus was reportedly set on fire.

    Between bus lines and colour lines

    W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903 that the most important question of the twentieth century would be that of the colour line. The early DuBois spoke of ‘skin color’ as signifying a veil between two people, one couldn't understand the other because of assumptions that were so powerful they changed the meanings of words. He was describing the United States under Jim Crow legislation, in which the colour line shaped daily communication.

    Some Palestinian activists have instead called for a “Qalqiliya Boycott” of these new lines, invoking the tactic used in Alabama at the beginning of what would become the Civil Rights movement in the United States. How would these activists relate pre-Civil Rights United States to contemporary Israel? Separate but equal?

    Opening space

    The later DuBois wrote that people of different races encased in glass boxes, were inaudible no matter how they screamed. Today, walking down Shuhada street, what was once Hebron's main market appears as nonviolent resistance against the street's new role as a space of separation. Riding a particular bus route becomes a symbol of protest for those whose rights to a bus route are racially determined. Marshall McLuhann wrote in 1969 that 'the medium is the message', that how we send messages, or the context of sending a message, speaking out at all, is just as important as what we say - it's one way of breaking a deafening silence.

    This past week, 35 young people from Gaza launched an online radio station in five languages from which to stake their own right to be heard. Hundreds and thousands of demonstrators in solidarity with hunger striking activists challenging detention without charge, and the activists who photograph and film life as it happens, whose work is being honored with Oscar nominations, might just be part of a new rising tide of activists who, by their creativity, and shunning violence as the tired tactic it is, stand a chance at breaking through the glass. I'm most optimistic that one day, there will be something that is separate but equal: each one's sovereignty.

    When a hero doesn’t come along: Egypt’s wait for its ‘Chavez’ lingers.

    By Ahmed Kadry

    The late Venezuelan president polarised opinion both domestically and abroad, and as I walked past the Venezuelan embassy in London several times this week observing Venezuelan and non-Venezuelans alike lay wreaths at the doorstep, paying their respects to a man who, think what you will of him, has made a lasting impact on his nation’s past and future, I mourned the lack of personality and fortitude among Egypt’s post-revolutionary politicians.  

    Chavez was a revolutionary without a revolution, while Egypt appears to be a revolution without a revolutionary. Where world leaders have the bad habit of over performing and over promising in the run up to elections, and inevitably disappoint once elected (one notable recent example: hint: “Yes We Can”), Chavez’s  rise to the presidency in 1999 saw him take the bold and audacious steps he promised he would take in his election campaign. He set out to change the course his country was headed in: to revolutionise.

    Chavez did not have the benefit of taking advantage of a widespread national revolt like Egypt experienced in January and February 2011. What Chavez did best, however, was to not act and speak like a politician. He offered hope and realism in the same sentence. He could be direct but genuine, harsh but sensitive, and most importantly, he knew his audience well. As I was watching an interview this week with Chavez, recorded after the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where he openly criticised the invasions and the continued insistence of western powers to meddle and exploit, I could not help be reminded of Egypt’s own beloved revolutionary hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

    I could list some superlatives to describe Nasser’s ability to get into the hearts and minds of Egyptians and why he remains so popular today in Egypt despite his obvious failures domestically and abroad, but this video, where he relays a conversation he had with the then head of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953, underlies what it takes to gain people’s trust and favour. That is not to say that charisma and a gift for public speaking is enough: actions are indeed far more important than rhetoric. But right now Egypt has neither from its politicians.

    Analysts and writers on Egypt, myself included, are often guilty of placing Egypt’s current political climate into the Islamist vs. liberal/secular binary. But for once, that binary does not apply when we consider the leading figures and politicians of both groups and why they are coming up short. The Liberals are still waiting on Dr Mohamed ElBaradei to do something. Anything. Perhaps even a sentence the average Egyptian can understand without having to have a degree in philosophy or literature. Coming out with statements like, “A Kafkaesque state,” I can just see the Egyptian fruit seller or taxi driver nodding in agreement while privately asking, “Is this the man who’s meant to understand my needs?” Then there’s his insistence on continually boycotting all elections. Did Nasser and Chavez sit on the side-lines and say, “I’m only going to play when you play by the rules?” No - they got involved, ruffled people’s feathers and changed the game.

    I shouldn’t just pick on ElBaradei. Hamdeen Sabbahi, a man who seemingly came out of nowhere eight weeks before the June 2012 presidential elections to achieve a respectable third place has, for the most part, not taken advantage of the popular comparisons people were drawing between him and Nasser. It’s not too late for Sabbahi (as I believe it is for ElBaradei unless he starts getting muddy in the dirty game of politics very soon) but Sabbahi managed to attain his popularity as an independent, and the National Salvation Front that he is now a member of has both relegated him to the background and started to blur his image with the reluctant ElBaradei and the so called felool (remnants of the ancien régime) that so many Egyptians continue to dislike and distrust.

    Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood. You would presume they do not have any leadership problems having won the 2011 Parliamentary elections, June 2012 presidential elections, and managed to pass through the constitution they wanted in December 2012 - but the warning signs are there. First things first – Mohamed Morsi was not their first choice to run for the presidency. That honour went to the enigmatic and true strong arm behind the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater. The ban subsequently placed on al-Shater running for the presidency left the Muslim Brotherhood no option but to field an alternative and that went to Mohamed Morsi, a man who, despite his presidential victory, is still mocked by Egyptians as the “spare tyre.” Internally, Morsi has done little to inspire his own party and friends. He is not a gifted speaker (when he decides to speak at all), and the continued insistence that it is al-Shater and not Morsi who makes the decisions continues to hinder any chance Morsi has of rallying the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone the country, around his leadership. Egypt’s modern political history has always seen its youth play an integral role, and if the trouncing of the Muslim Brotherhood in university student elections last week are anything to go by, the Muslim Brotherhood youth need some inspiration in order to attract (re-attract?) supporters. 

    Egypt does not need to look to revolutionaries abroad like Chavez in order to see the blueprint of what it takes to rally a nation. Nasser and Saad Zaghloul before him are just two examples in the past century of what Egypt can produce. But in this crucial post-revolutionary period where a vacuum is waiting to be filled, no one, on either side of the political paradigm, is emerging to the fore. As Egypt waits for a figure to embody the revolutionary spirit of 2011, it outwardly speaks of hope, but suffers in silence.

    Holding Libya hostage

    By Rhiannon Smith

    On Sunday March 3, Libyan security forces attempted forcibly to remove around 30 war amputees who had been occupying the General National Congress building for the previous month. The operation failed, but two days later a deal was struck with the men and they finally vacated the premises. Local residents, including myself, were relieved, as the protestors had been causing disruption in the area for weeks. However the eviction was a bittersweet victory for the government, if indeed it can be called a victory at all.

    The group of war amputees forced their way into the GNC building on February 3, refusing to leave until the government met their demands for medical treatment abroad and lifelong benefits to compensate for disabilities sustained during the revolution. At first, as heroes of the revolution, they had public support and negotiations between them and the GNC were amicable. However as time dragged on, relations soured. Public resentment against the armed squatters grew, as it emerged that they had turned down very generous offers of financial support for them and their families. The image of hard-done-by heroes fighting for their rights was quickly supplanted with that of armed thugs using the threat of violence to milk as much as they could from the Libyan state for their own personal gain.

    In the end, it was not state security forces, nor negotiations by Libya's elected powers that ensured the departure of these protestors from the GNC building. Rather it was the threat of action from local residents, who had had enough of their disruptive antics, which sealed their departure. The details of the financial package they eventually walked away with have not yet been made public.

    On the same day the parliament building was finally liberated, the GNC held a session in a different, secret location in the hope that MPs could finally discuss issues of national importance (namely the budget) without being disrupted or disturbed. Unfortunately the new location was leaked and protestors surrounded the building. This time the issue was the controversial Political Isolation Law aimed at barring anyone with any connection to the Gaddafi regime from holding office. Protestors refused to let anyone leave the building or food to be allowed in until Congress passed the Law. One MP was attacked and forced back as he tried to leave, and the vehicle carrying GNC President Mohamed Magarief was shot at several times as it departed, although luckily no one was injured.

    The culmination of these protests over the past few days has led to feelings of great resentment and frustration across Libya, feelings aimed both at the protestors and the government. Libyans fought the revolution to gain their freedom, and as such the right to protest has become of the utmost importance since Libya's liberation, both practically and symbolically. However, in a country which has no history or experience of public protest or democratic principles, the right to protest has been deliberately twisted or unintentionally misunderstood by many.

    Public protests should be a peaceful expression of opinion; they should not be violent or coercive. Protesting means you are sharing your point of view with the rest of the country, you are making a stand. A protest or demonstration may reflect popular opinion, or it may reflect the views of a minority. Either way, the aim is to raise awareness and initiate dialogue in order to try to affect change. In a democracy, everyone has the right to make their voices heard, but there are a multitude of different voices out there, so in order to force the state to take action, protestors need to persuade, convince and win over the public so that they demand action from their elected representatives.

    However in Libya, many young men (and it does seem to be exclusively men) seem to have understood their right to protest as the right to compel politicians to do their bidding by force and violence. Instead of popular, peaceful protest, these men are holding the state hostage in order to achieve their own personal demands. As is the case with the war amputees and supporters of the Political Isolation Law, protestors claim they are fighting to protect the revolution. However by blackmailing the state and disrupting crucial legislative work, they are actually doing more to harm to the aims of the revolution than probably even the most diehard Gaddafi supporter could manage at this moment in time.

    The GNC and government need to start taking some definitive action as far as security is concerned. They have let a situation evolve whereby every young man with a gun thinks he can take the state hostage and get away with it. Protestors who act outside of the law should be arrested and punished, and the GNC needs to make sure it has a security force which can actually protect its members and its property. If they do not do this soon, more and more people will realise they can get what they want by force and 'protests' such as this will only increase.

    Although the state is responsible for enforcing law and order, protestors also need to remember that with rights come responsibilities. 'Protesting' is not an excuse for committing crimes or using violence. You cannot claim to be fighting in the name of freedom and democracy when in reality your coercive actions are preventing Libya from progressing on the road towards a more democratic society, governed by rule of law.

    Tunisia: the backlash in women‘s rights amid the rocky political transition

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

     The announcement of the long awaited new government in Tunisia coincided with International Women‘s Day. Ironically, only 3 women were appointed in the new cabinet. The exclusion of women from key posts in the government is not a new phenomenon in the history of modern Tunisia. Under, the former president Ben Ali, women were denied access to high ranking decision position making as well. Under the dictatorship, women‘s status in Tunisia was embellished to the outside world. Tunisian women were among the more liberal and empowered women in the region in the Secular North African country this was the image projected in the mainstream media. However, the police state feared the potential of rebellious women in subverting the status quo and made oppressing women one of the premises of the survival of the regime. Beyond the Westernized image of modernization propagated by the one rule regime, women experienced discrimination and emasculation at the hands of the state institutions especially that that the social realities (high unemployment and poverty) further aggravated their plights.

    Frustration over deterioration freedoms and blatant injustices has driven more women to become politically active citizens. Prior to the revolution women activists were harassed and intimidated but never grew weary to fight for their cause. I remember Fatma Arabica , a young Tunisian blogger who was arrested back in 2009 simply because she spoke out for rights in her blog. I also remember ordinary women demonstrating in the streets holding the Tunisian flag high and chanting the people want the fall of the regime only two years ago. The gesture of The widow of Chokri Belaid, the recently assassinated leftist politicians, displaying the V for Victory sign with her fingers in the day of the funeral of her husband blew my  mind."Pleurer j'aurai le temps. C'est pas grave. Maintenant il faut lutter".( I will have the time to grieve it is no problem. Now it is time to continue the struggle) Said Basma Khalfaoui.

    The struggle continues

    Understanding the status of women today in Tunisia is rather a complex issue since the realities of women today stem mainly from the policies of the old regime and the culture at large that favor men over women.  This however does not negate the fact that women‘s rights are threatened in the midst of the political turmoil today.

     The ambiguity of the wording of article 148 of the draft constitution may jeopardize the already gained rights of women since it emphasizes that “Islam being the religion of the state”. A possible interpretation of the article may reintroduce polygamy in the Tunisian society since in Islamic Jurisprudence (sharia) polygamy is tolerated. Polygamy is prohibited under the Tunisian Personal Status code since 1957. Tunisia can also brag about the underlying of the value of equality between men and women in citizenship rights.

    The current reality of women in Tunisia is also shaped by fear of the extremist ideologies that thrived following the fall of the old order. The lack of security and the rising of violence add to the climate of fear that may hamper women from fulfilling themselves and cherish the freedoms they gained following the ousting of the old regime. Abuse of women is still tolerated especially in the climate of weakening rule of law and high rate of crimes. Only last October, Meriem was ruthlessly raped by two policemen and thus was humiliated when reported the incident to be brought to the court on charges of immorality and public indecency. The victim was at last cleaned from charges but only after she was stigmatized in the courts and in the streets only because she dared to bring her perpetrators to the court. In the absence of robust recognition of women’s rights, the combat for equal opportunities and against violations of women ‘s rights, the road seems to be painfully long to mark a turning point in the road towards meaningful equality between citizens in Tunisia.

    To ensure an inclusive and smooth transition, women should not be ignored. Indeed the political dimension is just one element of women empowerment yet it is a significant means for upgrading the status of women in the process of democratization. Can Tunisia make progress towards democracy while almost half of its population remains marginalized? The increase of opportunities for women to get into the realm of decision making is indispensable if we want to set the example of a young democratic country.

     The participation of women in writing a new chapter in the history of Tunisia back in 2010 and long before should translate in more gains for women’s rights. The earlier achievements of women must not be lost today in the new constitution. In post revolution Tunisia, women are entitled to reaching political posts. Women are eligible to participate in determining the future of this country.

    Harlem Shake Tunisia-style

    By Mohamed Salah-Omri

    A battle of colours and bodies is being waged in Tunisia; Harlem Shake is its latest manifestation. 

    An event, which went viral on social media and attracted traditional media as well, was thought, initially at least, to have brought some frivolity to Tunisia after weeks of sombre mood in the aftermath of the assassination of the leftist leader Chokri Belaid and the distress it has caused.

    It all started in a high school located in Menzah, a wealthy suburb of Tunis on February 23.  A group of students, including the son of a prominent Nahdha representative in the Constituent Assembly, set up and filmed a Harlem Shake dance in which they derided Salafis, Qataris, and Saudis. The ministry of Education responded by suspending the school director. Students reacted by pirating the ministry’s website and organizing a mega Harlem Shake in front of the ministry’s offices on Friday the first of March. The phenomenon spread to high schools and university campuses around the country.  The state did not react but Salafi’s made stopping the fad their cause. In an attempt to quell this youth reaction, violence erupted in Mannouba campus, at a high school in Le Kef, and on the streets of Mahdia, to mention a few locations.

    The verbal play, the costume and the dance itself, tells the story.  Harlem shakers claim to represent life by setting their dancing and colourful costumes against a culture they see as preaching death and darkness, a reference to black niqabs and gowns worn by salafis, and their trademark black banner. Salafis, in turn, accuse the youth of being immoral and slavish imitators of “trashy” western culture. This division along colour lines is not new in Tunisia.  The carnivalesque character of demonstrations has been more and more visible among seculars and progressives, which resulted most noticeably in celebration of the red and white Tunisian flag, carrying and offering roses, face painting, colourful hats and so on.  Recently, street dancing and public performance have been used to mark a celebration of the arts. 

    Colour and the body have been increasingly used as sites of resistance, protest and expression in public.  This has not been exclusive to the self-described progressives and modernists.  The expression of faith and religious allegiance has seen an explosion after decades of repression. In addition to hijab, niqab and long shirts and skull caps; black banners, public prayers and speeches have been seen on beaches, avenues and parks. 

    Two particularly memorable moments of this assertiveness are the exchange of the national flag by the black banner on the Mannouba campus and the erection of the banner on top of the clock in Tunis’ Bouguiba Avenue. The result has been a public space inhabited by two different ways of expressing the self, each with its own set of markers and movements. 

    Post-revolutionary Tunisia is not only about speeches, strikes and debates.  It has been about colours and bodies as well.  And no more has this been visible than in the female body, which ended up the most prominent site of a conflict opposing two sets of views on how to dress it, deal with it, talk about it, police it.  Examples are too numerous to mention, but the upcoming commemoration of Women’s Day on March 8 is already shaping up to be a major flashpoint of this conflict. 

    At the verbal level, ingenious word play, which has been thriving on social media, came up with a label and a slogan for this face off: Harlem Shake against Halal Shlake.  While the reference to Haram and Halal is easily spotted, the term Shlake needs explanation.  Shlake (or shlayak, s. shlaka) is the term used for a type of shoe, sandals or flip flops, but also has the connotation of good-for-nothing or useless, ignorant, rustic.  The word is also in the last official name of the Foreign Minister (Bou Shlaka), who has been derided for it. For the significance of shoes in this context, we will all remember the scenes when George W Bush had a shoe thrown at him at a press conference in Iraq, and the copycat shoe-throwing acts which followed around the world.  Harlem Shake is interpreted as a form of shoe thrown at Salafis, and is taken by them as an insult. It derides the rising tendency to label as ‘haram’ activities relating to a “celebration of life” and the female body in particular, such as dance, “revealing” dress, partying.

    We are witnessing the extreme politicization of a global entertainment phenomenon. In Tunisia, whose revolution was heavily driven by youth and social media, youth are out again to protest the religious turn of their revolution using this same media and extending it to the streets and public squares. The violent reaction, mainly by Salafis, is fuelling the trend and turning it into a national wave, with flashpoints popping up across the country.     

    Such a division over bodies stands in dialectical relationship to the division of the body politic in the country. It is a result of a polarized polity and the visible expression of it at the same time. Tunisian Harlem Shake inhabits the intersection between youth, the internet, desire, and politics.  Anything which takes place in this intersection is likely to be irrepressible.  Violence and blind denial can only fuel this mix further.  The Shake may fade away, as fads tend to do, but another one will soon come along.  We have learnt by now that the mill of politics in post-revolutionary Tunisia spares no one and nothing, turning the most benign events into fodder for political contestation and even violence.  

    A toxic dependency: Algeria’s love-hate relationship with its oil

    By Hicham Yezza

    As every Algerian school kid knows, Algeria regained its independence - wrenched out of revolutionary blood and toil after a colonial night lasting 132 years - on July 5, 1962. However, it could be argued that full independence was not truly achieved for another decade; to be precise, not until February 24, 1972, when then-president Houari Boumediene got up to address an assembly of trade unionists and proceeded to announce to the nation, and the world, that the country's oil and gas resources had been nationalised.

    The moment was pivotal, and the message a resoundingly unequivocal one: Algeria's resources belonged to Algerians, and the days when western firms would make a mint out of the country’s natural riches, leaving the locals to pick up the crumbs, were over. The era was still one of revolutionary euphoria; the talk then was of leveraging the country’s oil wealth to bring about an industrial revolution. Factories would be built, exports would boom, lasting prosperity for all was within reach.

    Of course, things did not pan out quite as promised. The reasons are too numerous to examine here, but the usual suspects all played their part: economic mismanagement, oil crashes, political myopia, and good old fashioned greed and corruption. Year after year, as the slogans grew more hollow, the reality on the ground became grimmer. The rising incomes of the 1970s and early 80s gave way, in the wake of the 1986 oil crash, to a collapse in consumer purchasing power and a country on its knees with debt. 

    By 1992, the IMF was at the door, a prescription for shock doctrine treatment in hand. Most Algerians couldn't fathom how things could have come to this. How could a country with one of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, perched at the gates of the European markets and blessed with a young, relatively small population find itself on the verge of bankruptcy, more reliant on the geological accident beneath its ground than ever?

    Today, despite oil-producing countries having enjoyed a relatively ‘good decade’, Algeria’s relationship with its oil wealth continues to be one of intense, unspoken unease. Not only is such wealth largely unearned, it has become a symbol, and reminder, of everything that is wrong with the country: the political failures, the warped economic priorities, and the rampant consumerist culture they have produced. Four decades after nationalisation, oil and gas export revenues continue to represent around 97% of Algeria's national income, a frightening and toxic dependency which, despite half a century of ‘beyond oil’ rhetoric from successive governments, remains a sword of Damocles hanging above the country’s economic future.

    Of course, the annual commemorations of that glorious February day continue, but - as the event recedes into the collective past – the celebrations have grown more formulaic and ‘by-the-numbers’ with every passing year. This year's 41st anniversary, celebrated two weeks ago, have been marked in particularly gloomy fashion, with official coverage barely summoning the energy to go through the usual motions and rituals, serving up the same archival footage of the historic announcement interspersed with half-hearted, meandering speechifying.

    And no wonder! For most Algerians, this is not a particularly auspicious time to be talking about oil. The In Amenas hostage crisis, which took place two months ago this week, was the first significant attack against the country's strategic energy infrastructure since independence – and has left in its wake a cloud of anxiety and apprehension over the security and resilience of the country's economic lifeline. Another, potentially bigger crisis has since erupted, almost coinciding with the anniversary. A gigantic scandal, dubbed ‘Affaire Sonatrach II’ (named after the country’s state oil company, already subject of a first scandal three years ago) has been gripping the nation these past three weeks. The details are dependably murky but the general theme is easy enough to adumbrate: an on-going Italian corruption enquiry has uncovered what seems to be evidence of a large nexus of bribes, baksheesh and favours involving the granting of Algerian state oil (and other) contracts to Canadian and Italian companies, and implicating a network of obscure, and less obscure, protagonists (including a US-based former Algerian energy minister, and the Canada-based flamboyant nephew of a former justice minister).

    As corruption scandals go, this might sound rather tepid, except that it’s to do with the state oil company, and Algerians, no matter how cynical they claim to be about the rottenness at the top, nevertheless do not enjoy having shenanigans they merely suspected of taking place being thrust into their faces, especially when these scandals involve what is, nominally, a public resource; everyone is a stakeholder. As one journalist put it “L’affaire Sonatrach” is about more than corruption: “it’s a crime against a whole country, its people, its history, its martyrs who gave their blood, their lives so that Algeria can regain its dignity, not for a band of predators to squander its riches and bring it to its knees”.

    Of course, grumblings about dilapidated oil revenues are not confined to episodic scandals. However, these do tend to act as focal points for the disparate grievances of the vast swathes of the population who feel disenfranchised and cut-off from the economic bonanza of the past decade. As the country’s foreign reserves zoom towards the 200 billion dollar mark, social unrest is fast reaching fever pitch, with hundreds of strikes, protests and sit-ins being recorded in the past six months alone.

    Still, the current scandal, whatever its outcomes, will not change the fundamental issue at the heart of Algeria’s unhealthy relationship with its oil and gas wealth. Reports have recently emerged floating the prospect of oil reserves drying up and arguing that new discoveries are failing to keep pace with production. For a country that has struggled for so long to secure a sustainable, lasting prosperity beyond its toxic dependency on oil, this might well turn out to be the best news of all.

    Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


    To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

    We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

    We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

    The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

    And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

    The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

    Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

    The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


    By adding my name to this campaign, I authorise openDemocracy and Foxglove to keep me updated about their important work.

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