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This week's window on the Middle East - March 18, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, The second anniversary of the Syrian uprising

Arab Awakening
20 March 2013
  • The second anniversary of the Syrian uprising
  • Nuclear Jordan: splitting atoms in a land of wind and sunshine
  • Young Tunisian cigarette vendor dies of self-immolation
  • Mubarak is a state of mind
  • Are they democrats?
  • The second anniversary of the Syrian uprising

    By Rita from Syria

    In a town in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon, a priest was trying to explain to me the importance of love and sisterhood in solving the world problems: "Jesus is love. We can only build a better society if we work under the name of love". While reclining on his comfortable sofa, he caught sight through an opened window of four Syrian refugees approaching. With their distinguished red headgear, the four men looked every inch like typical Syrian farmers.

    I was left to say the least taken aback to see the priest jump out of his seat to berate them: "Aid distribution begins at three. How many times do I have to tell you this? We hand out aid at 3 o'clock – when will you get the message?" One of the men ventured that he wanted to register his family for aid, but the priest rebuked him tersely: "Registration is only on Sunday after the prayer and the sermon". The four men turned away wearily; humiliation has become a customary experience for many Syrian refugees. Surprisingly, the priest continued his speech about love and justice.

    This Protestant church provides aid to around 150 Syrian families. The church has made it its practice to only welcome Syrians after Sunday mass and sermon, despite knowing full well that none of these families are Christians. Take Milad for example. He is a young Syrian boy who lost his family in the heavy shelling on the city of Deir Azzour in the East of Syria, but managed to escape and arrived unaccompanied and alone in Lebanon. Milad is not his real name but the name given to him after being baptized in the Protestant church two months ago.

    Being in an urgent need of humanitarian aid, many Syrians have been forced to make concessions which they would not have done under normal circumstances. Some have adopted the Salafi doctrine –particularly those who joined the FSA – to get some kind of material benefit from faith-based organisations from the Gulf or from extremist groups. A smaller number, like Milad, converted to Christianity for the same reason. Such incidents of blatant proselytizing preying on the needs of vulnerable refugee populations reveal the truly exploitative face of such organisations. For Syrians like me, this is a worrying trend especially in light of the fact that organisations affiliated to religious groups have become increasingly influential players in the drawing up of a new Syria along sectarian lines. 

    Jamila is an Ismaili civil servant in the city of Hama known to be a city with a Sunni majority. She has been feeling dangerously exposed being different nowadays in Syria and has taken to wearing the hijab in line with orthodox Sunni tradition. She told me that wearing the hijab has made her life much easier:" I no longer felt I was part of a targeted minority and shunned by colleagues at work who are mostly Sunni. As soon as I put on the hijab, everyone changed the way they behaved towards me. They even brought me presents! By this one act I may have protected my husband - who is an officer in the official army - from Al-Qaida and other extremists, though he is not best pleased with what I've done".

    Jobar: this name has been occupying news headlines for a long time. Unfortunately, this wasn't because of the oldest Synagogue it embraces, but because it has seen some of the fiercest fighting between the regime and those lined up against it. A less known fact – as the media doesn't focus on ordinary civilians - is that a considerable Isma'ili population was forcibly displaced from the neighbourhood more than a year ago.

    The majority of these internally displaced people sought refuge in the city of Salamiyeh – the heartland for the Ismai'li community in Syria. This same pattern of displacement has been repeated in Damascus with Christians who had long been resident in the districts of Arbin and Harasta. Faced with the prospect of displacement most of them fled to the countryside of Homs which has a Christian majority. Similarly, the 'Alawi community, displaced from al-Qadam neighbourhood, have re-settled along the coast where the 'Alawi community has a strong presence. 

    These incidents show the dramatic systematic social transformation now under way in Syria. We are witnessing 'the un-mixing of populations' as a direct consequence of the conflict. Syria has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society with no one single sect able to exclude others from urban life in its cities.

    Today, Syrians are confronted with two choices: either to assimilate into the majority and to become part of it – demanding a change in apparent religious belonging and lifestyle: or to move and settle in areas where their sect is in the majority in order to preserve their own security. This essentialization of sub-Syrian identities in fact serves to do the opposite. Instead, it amplifies anomie and isolation creating social rupture. In the final analysis, this protects no-one and paves the way for a gathering spiral of sectarian clashes.

    All sides of the conflict are to be blamed in creating this descent into sectarianism, but the regime military campaign against the opposition fighters reveals an ugly reality. When the city of Raqqa, in the east by the Euphrates river, was lost to opposition fighters in February, this dealt the regime a costly blow – losing important water and energy resources. The regime response was to target Raqqa with long-range missiles without resorting to the use of land forces to win back the city. Instead, we find that the majority of regime forces are located in Damascus, Homs and along the coast.

    Seemingly, the regime's main goal is to maintain control of the international highway between the capital and the coast which runs through Homs. This is the only highway left, connecting cities like Tartous and Lattakia – with an 'Alawi majority – and the capital. Regime forces are engaged in deadly fighting in the neighbourhood of Baba Amro in Homs, where opposition fighters have mounted a recent comeback, rather than Raqqa with its strategic importance to the country.

    We can conclude from this that the regime priority is to keep control on its supportive cantons rather than keeping Syria whole. We are seeing the partitioning of Syria.

    On the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising, it is impossible to avert our eyes from the abyss into which Syria is falling. The unrelenting blood-lust fuelling the conflict has overwhelmed voices of reason calling for a battle against sectarianism. Having overcome the wall of fear to protest against al-Assad's regime, Syrians have now been seized by a fear of another name - sectarianism. Solidarities along confessional lines have seen communities retreat to villages and towns where their sect enjoys a numerical advantage. In some cases minorities have opted for assimilation in order to protect themselves from politics of difference. Reality is rarely what we desire, but recognising what lies ahead of us and calling it by its name may be a start.

     Thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this article

    Nuclear Jordan: splitting atoms in a land of wind and sunshine

    By Munir Atalla

    Jordanian officials are making the important decision today of who to award the contract of a planned nuclear reactor.  Options include a Russian firm, Atomstroyexport, or a joint venture between the French Areva and the Japanese powerhouse Mitsubishi.

    A few years back, when Jordan announced the venture, a petition was circulating to halt the plans.  Environmentalists have reservations about Jordan joining the world nuclear stage.

    Jordanian officials claim that their interest in this undertaking stems from a mix of necessity, opportunity, and prestige. As it stands, the country is struggling with severe water scarcity.  Basically barren of natural resources, Jordan produces 98% of its energy from imported oil and gas.  Another megaproject known as the Red-Dead Project plans to connect the Red Sea to the Dead Sea by pipeline in order to replenish its dwindling levels.  This could allow the government to access the hydroelectric energy the project would create.  Short of that, things are looking difficult for Jordan’s energy needs in the coming decades. If Jordan were to complete a functioning reactor, it would be the first Arab nation to have one.

    The critiques are wide-ranging and hard to ignore, not the least of which is cost.  The reactor has an estimated cost of up to $20 billion, well over half of Jordan’s GDP.  It would require copious amounts of water, diligent and meticulous maintenance, and a complete revamping of Jordanian power grids and infrastructure.  Reports have already been coming in from parts of the country that water drawn from aquifers close to uranium reserves are displaying disturbingly high (but still technically safe) amounts of radiation.  There is also the valid concern that the region is due for a massive earthquake in the near future.  Politically, Israel has been accused of attempting to underhandedly oppose the project while outwardly claiming indifference.

    Any Jordanian can tell you of the distinct radiance of the desert sun.  About 300 days of the year in Amman, the sky is a sheet of clear blue and sun drifts across it with a practiced intensity.  A consistent westerly wind combs the countryside all year round.  What I’m getting at is that Jordan is the perfect candidate for natural renewable energy.  Firmly in the “solar belt”, the area of the world with ideal conditions for solar power, Jordan should strive to become the poster child for renewable energy.  I long to see a tourism poster with solar panels on Mount Nebo and wind turbines straddling Petra. 

    I do not long to see what Jordan would look like in the wake of a nuclear meltdown or an unsolicited Israeli military action for which there is precedent (“Operation Opera”, Iraq, 1979).  At the very least, Jordan should strive to provide micro loans to rural villages that could stand to benefit greatly from solar power - recently, a documentary was produced about just that called “Solar Mama’s” (highly recommended).

    The sheer immensity of the Jordanian nuclear project makes me skeptical.  The lack of open discussion about it, however, is its most troubling aspect.  Why split atoms in a land of wind and sunshine?

    Young Tunisian cigarette vendor dies of self-immolation

    By Sana Ajmi

    A Tunisian who set himself on fire in the capital last week died from third degree burns on 90% of his body, according to a medical source at the regional Hospital of Injuries and Severe Burns in Ben Arous, a southern suburb of Tunis. Adel Khazri, the 27 year-old Tunisian who hailed from a very poor family in the north-western governorate of Jendouba was a street cigarette vendor. The young man arrived in the capital only a few months ago to look for work. 

    Eyewitnesses said that Khazri stood at the top of the stairs leading to the Municipal Theatre in the capital's main Habib Bourguiba Avenue, and cried loudly before setting himself ablaze, saying, "This is youth; this is what unemployment does." Police and bystanders rushed to extinguish the flames but too late.

    TAP news agency cited eyewitnesses as saying that the young man sold cigarettes at Moncef Bey Market in central Tunis and that, "he had recently been harassed by police who carry out campaigns against street vendors and cigarette sellers." Tunisian police recently launched a campaign against street vendors, whose numbers have risen. Subsequently Khazri was prevented by local authorities from selling cigarettes on the street.

    Last Thursday, hundreds joined the young man’s funeral procession in Jendouba and protested against the region’s poverty and economic marginalization. According to his mother, her son had been supporting her and his five siblings since his father’s death three years ago.

    The suicide is not the first incident of its type in post-revolution Tunisia. Several Tunisians have set themselves ablaze in the past two years in protests emulating that of Mohamed Bouazizi. Since Tunisia’s uprising, protests over economic hardship have increased in a number of Tunisian cities to pressure the new government to create job opportunities and to improve social conditions. In fact, according to figures released by the National Statistics Institute (INS), Tunisia's unemployment rate stood at 16.7% in the fourth quarter of 2012. These economic and social troubles have yet to be solved amid a deep political crisis that the country is still going through.

    The incident occurred during a time when the new proposed cabinet of Tunisian Prime Minister-Designate Ali Laarayedh has just received the approval of a majority of the National Constituent Assembly. Laaryedh was appointed after former Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali resigned from his position following the rejection of his own Islamist Ennahdha party to his initiative to form an apolitical technocrat government leading Tunisia to elections. This was the plan he proposed following the assassination of prominent secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid.

    During the constituent assembly session last Tuesday, Larayedh promised, "to restore security to Tunisia" and “combat the high cost of living”. He further added that "the government plans to create 90,000 new jobs, including 23,000 in the public sector, within what remains of 2013."

    Mubarak is a state of mind

    By Refaat Mohamed

    Less than 5 years ago, I recall my reaction, when someone I know from school, or work, went on a protest. My reaction was something in between despair and sarcasm. In my mind I thought ,what is the use? What would drive someone who can afford his meals to waste more of his time that has already been wasted, to protest for a lost cause?

    That is what I considered Egypt to be: a lost cause. I despised Mubarak throughout my life, but that was when I was younger. When I grew up I discovered that Mubarak is not a person or a regime, Mubarak is a state of mind: it’s a way of life, we all have been guilty of being a Mubarak.

    To me Mubarak, is being negative, being delusional, Mubarak was wasteful. You lose any hope of being better, you think that you can only be what they allow you to be. So you run out of breath running after the carrot that they hold out, and you search for ways to destroy every single bit of extra energy that you have in your body or in your soul. Because this extra aspiration will cause you nothing but trouble, my friend, or so I believed, as well as many others.

    Youths would just waste their lives away, willingly or unwillingly, it did not matter much, what mattered was that their lives were wasted. It was wasted on drugs, drowning in the sea while following a mirage, following false leaders and losing your lives at the hands of secret police for nothing.  And I considered those who invested that extra bit of energy and soul, in protesting and fighting for rights, to be wasting their lives too, just as well as the others.

    Prior to the revolution I had some experiences, and met some people that contributed to my intellectual growth a lot, and they opened my eyes to a lot of things that I have never would have thought of on my own. And I am very thankful to those people, although I had some moments of doubt, and questioned their mental health. When I saw this middle class young woman chanting poetry that isn’t even her own against Mubarak and his regime, publicly, during the most powerful times of his regime. Although it was not her poetry, I couldn’t but salute her for her courage, as I have seen other “ mubaraks “like my self leaving the venue fearing the consequences of her brave expression of self.

    I remember passing by the press syndicate a couple of months before the revolution, and saying to myself, “ Why are these fools protesting? Can’t they see that their tiny number could easily be crushed by the huge number of the police forces? Don’t they know that speaking of the Mubarak family and friends out loud only puts their lives in danger? Don’t they know it’s no use?” and I thought so to myself because I was a mubarak then.

    We got rid of a bunch of mubaraks by 2011, and some other mubaraks by 2012, and now we are ruled by a brotherhood of mubaraks. But that is not a big deal as long as each one of us gets rid of the Mubarak inside of him. And I bow my head in salute to those who got rid of their mubaraks, and kept themselves free all the way.

    Are they democrats?

    By Ali Gokpinar

    As the ruling Justice and Development Party(AKP) takes a major democratic step and negotiates peace with the representatives of the Kurdish people, a major problem has surfaced again in Turkey: media-government relations. The Milliyet daily newspaper published the transcripts of the meeting between some Kurdish MP’s and the leader of the PKK Abdullah Ocalan. This significant coverage, however, was somehow leaked and the PM Erdogan slammed the newspaper and columnists for publishing the transcript. Not surprisingly, some influential Milliyet columnists including Hasan Cemal, who support the government’s democratization programme for the most part, were censored by the owner of the Milliyet, Mr. Erdogan Demiroren. Given the fact that many journalists are also jailed for their alleged involvement in  attempts to overthrow the AKP government, PM Erdogan’s attack on journalists and Mr. Demiroren’s  self-censorship has a debilitating effect on Turkey’s record of freedom of speech and  causes  suspicion about its democratization efforts.

    Let’s start with the role of media in a democratic society. Media is generally seen as a power which, as it  informs the public and questions government and state policies, plays an important part in a country’s checks and balances. Yet, media can always be manipulated by political power or accused of manipulating society to serve some partial political, economic and social interests. In this sense, the Turkish case has many similarities with many others in the world. What is different is that the Turkish media has grown up as a child of the state. Although this relationship was transformed after the neoliberal reforms in Turkey in 1980s, the secular media championed the February 28 post-modern coup d’etat against the Islamist government in 1997. Now, secularists argue that the AKP is seeking revenge and replacing old media structures with its own. Although this might hold some truth, the logic of the media-government relationship is a little more complicated than that would suggest.  

    First, although economic interests are an important determinant of media-government relationships, Turkish media cannot only be understood under this heading because influential newspapers have not hesitated to criticize the AKP government. Some might argue that the AKP government has punished those who criticize the government, but legal processes have demonstrated that the business people and journalists involved did not have squeaky clean hands either. The AKP has not persecuted journalists, so much as rather selectively targeted certain people and groups. Then there is the fact that the Kemalist media have tried every opportunity to undermine the legitimacy of the government through secularist propaganda and many calls to the Turkish military to intervene. AKP was smart enough to recognize the importance of public media and easily controlled the public broadcaster TRT and the national news agency, AA. Then, it encouraged its own businessmen to buy certain newspapers and news channels that would address its own constituency.  AKP’s partnership with the liberal media continued, as long as its interests were at stake.

    Second, freedom of speech is both theoretically and practically weak in Turkey. The legal codes do not give people enough freedom to speak freely and the ambiguity in such laws has been easily utilized to punish journalists. This fact coincided with PM Erdogan’s authoritarian and manipulative character which requires that he is never challenged and prefers to finish his “projects” without criticism. For a project-oriented government that utilizes service-to-the-people arguments from time to time, newspapers and media outlets have become key arenas where such projects are negotiated or in other words fought over. Even the conservative media has criticized Erdogan and his government for his aggressive language against the media, but this has brought little outcome.  

    Third, the AKP’s democratization programme has been inconsistent and selective in a way that neglects the media. Despite important achievements in civil-military relations and amendment of the undemocratic 1982 constitution, laws associated with freedom of speech and media have not been strengthened because they would weaken nationalist state policies.  The killing of Hrant Dink prompted a strong reaction from civil society and international community, accompanied by demands to democratize laws and institutions. Regulating the media and freedom of speech were either strategically delayed as a result, or not even taken into consideration because of “high politics”. 

    Overall, the lack of democratic laws and institution and some structural problems will continue to cause a headache for Turkey and the AKP.  The leak in the peace negotiations and the aftermath is only a symptom of greater problems Turkey confronts. The lack of transparency and accountability might even hurt the peace process and a durable peace, let alone Turkey’s record in violating freedom of speech. Let’s hope both Turkish and Kurdish people come together in Newroz next week to address all these problems in a much more inclusive way.

    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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