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This week's window on the Middle East - March 25, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Israel and the vertical politics of interruptions

Arab Awakening
25 March 2013
  • Israel and the vertical politics of interruptions
  • Art attack: Syria's artists under fire
  • Supply and demand: the paradox of private security companies in Libya
  • Forget the Egyptian economy - I want to know where my wife is
  • Algeria: how the murder of two children shook a nation
  • Israel and the vertical politics of interruptions

    By Omer Harari

    Barack Obama has made his first visit to Israel and Palestine as President of the US. It just so happens that he is commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the war in Iraq by visiting a place that has been the site of a much longer one.

    Regarding the purpose of his visit, the President made it clear beforehand that he comes without any agenda. Maybe he's decided that's the better course of action, given the new coalition government which Ami Kaufman describes as “Achdakglalim (אחדקגל”לים),” (NARSYCWhiGs in English) - “Nationalist, Ashkenazi, Religious, Secular, Young, Capitalist, White, Guys" - who in turn have made it clear that there is little chance for negotiation politics  as usual. The settlements are not going anywhere, the idea of a settlement freeze, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's precondition for negotiations, is off the table. 

    The mayor of the Shomron Regional Council (the municipal body governing Israeli  settlements in the West Bank), Gershon Mesika, called the new coalition a "wet dream." This, after Tzipi Livni, the woman who was supposed to be the glimmer of hope for a two-state solution, signed on as head of Peace Negotiations, only to suggest at the Herzeliya Conference on March 12 that we shouldn't hold our breath. Change, quite clearly, will not be coming from top-down. 

    Again, President Obama stated plainly enough that he comes without a 'big plan' for Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, the US President insists, he has come to listen. And by choosing to get around in a helicopter and not on the roads, it seems he intended to avert his gaze.

    The President wasn't going to drive through a military check-point, and the President wasn't supposed to have seen the Separation Wall up close, concrete piled 28 feet high outside of Bethlehem. Or, for that matter, the guard's towers that line the wall, and thoroughly convey the feeling of living in a panopticon.

    But unexpected weather saw to that, and his visit to Bethlehem became less of a visit and more of a pilgrimage when he was forced to see the journey from the ground, rather than the sky. Perhaps it was a humbling experience for the President.

    Who knows, maybe in the midst of all this, President Obama got a glimpse of protesters demanding that he use his unique position to push politicians into rethinking their distinction between living apart and living in common, by setting up tents in Bab Al Shams once more.

    Or the activists wearing shirts and masks of Martin Luther King to remind the President that his own right to be a president, despite his particular skin colour, was the result of a struggle, too.

    No, the president wasn't supposed to see any of that; he had just come to listen to politicians discuss the phenomenon of conflict. But sometimes, these disruptions can make a difference.

    Stop believing in authority: start believing in each other 

    Next month will mark the ten-year anniversary of Anarchists Against the Wall. Anarchist activists in general, and this affinity group in particular, are the people to thank for having put up check-points in the middle of Tel Aviv to bring awareness to Palestinians' dwindling freedom of movement in the West Bank. A lot of folks from this group are those who took part in defending people against the expulsion of Palestinian families (to make room for settlers) in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheik Jarrah in 2009, eventually drawing thousands to join in, and bringing an awareness to the world of Israel’s policies of settlement expansion in the heart of East Jerusalem.

    Anarchists Against the Wall joined the village of Bil'in in their weekly demonstrations, successfully rerouting the path of the Separation Wall in 2009. They were the first to set up Palestinian 'settlements' in Jerusalem's E-1 area as far back as 2007, the precursors to this past January's Bab Al-Shams, Bab Al-Karame and Al Asra. Quite clearly, there is real change coming from the bottom-up, disrupting the notion of politics-as-usual, like unexpected weather.

    It was much of a surprise to the rest of us when President Obama ecouraged us young people to have what can only be described as chutzpah to take on the government's inaction in the now-famous speech he gave in Jerusalem. “Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.” Indeed.

    We should take a moment to consider what it means to say we'd prefer not to look at something that is the inescapable reality of someone else's life - what a position of privilege we are speaking from. To literally fly over them, and to avert our gaze. President Obama seems to have understood someting about plans and interruptions on his trip to Israel and Palestine, and had the courage to share it with us younger folks and university students. Now, I think it's our time to make a strong wind blow.

    Art attack: Syria's artists under fire

    By Sarah El-Richani

    As Syria’s war rages on claiming thousands of lives and displacing many more, Syria’s artists and celebrities have found themselves caught on either side of the conflict.

    While it is inevitable that artists, like other citizens, react and interact with the events around them, their position on both sides of the frontline have been targeted severely and deliberately.

    In addition to the case of cartoonist Ali Ferzat who was brutally assaulted and had his hands broken for critically drawing President Assad and senior regime officials, those publicly siding with the regime have also been subject to fierce attacks and in the case of actor Mohammad Rafeh, who featured in the acclaimed TV series Bab al-Hara , murdered.

    Last week, Raghda, a Syrian actress and staunch Assad supporter was violently attacked in Cairo as she recited a poem amid conflicting reports that Syrian rebels have kidnapped her nonagenarian father and forced him to disown her while donning a scarf and hat in the colours of the first Syrian flag, which the rebels have adopted. The parents of pianist Malek Jandali were also brutally attacked allegedly by regime forces in response to his support of the uprising.

    Meanwhile, the poet Adonis who has denounced the government’s heavy-handed response and called on Assad to cede power to what initially began as peaceful protests, was also the subject of sectarian-fuelled online death threats for his criticism of the rebels’ transgressions and his position against regional and international intervention. 

    On the other side of the spectrum, famous Syrian singer Asala has been outspoken in her support of the ‘revolutionaries’ to whom she dedicated her rendition of Umm Kalthoum’s Thowar Thowar (Revolutionaries, Revolutionaries) at a restaurant opening in Qatar earlier this year. Asala, an honorary citizen of Bahrain, however, does not lend her support to the Bahraini uprising as she claims not to have understood the uprising and its demands.

    The Gulf’s ‘concern’ for Syria and its people also appeared in the case of Lebanese star presenter George Kordahi who shot to fame as the host of the Arabic version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire on Dubai-based MBC. After expressing his support for Assad, plans for his new programme, an adaptation of the US format You Deserve it was ironically pulled out of “respect for the feelings of the Syrian people.”

    Meanwhile, the war has brought more international attention to the work of Syria’s visual artists. Those who have left Syria and settled in neighbouring Beirut or European capitals have managed to channel the nihilistic storm engulfing their nation into stunning art works.

    Tammam Azzam’s “Syrian Museum” , which digitally-merged classical art pieces with images of destruction from Syria, was distributed widely, and others artists’ works have been exhibited in galleries in regional and international cities. While Facebook and YouTube abound with spiteful pages attacking artists and leaders on both sides as well as graphic images of death and destruction, the virtual gallery Syria Art-Syrian artists posts engrossing artwork sans the sectarian rhetoric.  

    The devastation of conflict rolls on regardless with artists of course amongst the thousands of citizen victims, such as Yassin Bakoush, a famous comedian hit by a stray rocket last month.

    Bakoush’s co-star Duraid Lahham, who has been prevented by some Lebanese from filming in North Lebanon due to his pro-Assad stance, posed the following question in one of his previous works, “For what should we sacrifice? What is worse than the homeland without human being living in it?” That question has never been more pertinent.

    Supply and demand: the paradox of private security companies in Libya

    By Rhiannon Smith

    It is common knowledge that Libya's transition from dictatorship through revolution to fledgling democracy has not been an easy one. Libya held its first free general elections in July 2012, but since then the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has faced many challenges, the biggest of which has been the current instability which is plaguing parts of the country. The state is weak and has struggled to reign in autonomous militias who are unwilling to relinquish their power to Libya's national army and police force. This is a concern for many international organisations looking to invest in the new Libya, especially for oil companies working in remote locations in the desert.

    Libya needs foreign investment to develop, but foreign companies need reassurance that their employees will be safe before they will invest. As a result, Libya's new leadership have given permission to some private western security firms to provide companies with protection, thereby filling the security gap which the state is not yet strong enough cover.

    In theory this makes sense in areas which are particularly unstable such as the southern Fezzan region with its porous borders, far from the reach of the central government in Tripoli.

    However, it is harder to justify the presence of foreign security personnel in areas where the state is relatively strong, where there are few security concerns and where there are hardly any direct threats against foreigners. The employees of these private security companies are for all intents and purposes mercenaries, people who are not nationals or parties to a conflict but who are motivated to take part simply by the desire for private gain. This is where the role of these companies becomes extremely questionable in Libya.

    To begin with, Libya is no longer a conflict zone. Most of the western private security personnel I have met whilst in Libya are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: yet Libya is not at war. These are men (so far I haven't met any female security personnel) who have been trained to react in extremely hostile environments, where they, and the people they are protecting, are the target of enemy forces. But, despite instability and the existence of militias, Libya is nothing like Iraq or Afghanistan and it is unethical, not to mention dangerous, to treat it as if it were.

    Libya's capital is a case in point. I work for a Libyan organisation in Tripoli and am (luckily) unhindered by draconian security restrictions. I move around the city on my own and in the year and a half since I returned, I have experienced no threats or security incidents. This is not to say something couldn't happen of course, but in my experience living in Libya's capital post-revolution is the same as living in London or any other big city (actually I feel much safer in Tripoli at night than I would in certain areas of London). Common sense tells me not to act inappropriately, not to walk around alone late at night and to avoid certain areas. I find it difficult to see why my activities should be restricted based on the advice of ex-military men who have been trained to operate in conflict zones, not cities in peacetime, and who have a vested interest in making the city seem more unsafe than it really is.

    However, many foreigners in Tripoli are not so lucky. They are locked away in compounds with strict curfews and daily security briefs. They are driven around in heavily armoured vehicles and accompanied at all times by armed guards. Many foreigners would like to be free of these security personnel, but their organisations say otherwise. Instead they are required to ask security guards to accompany them to do the most mundane activities, such as buying food at the local shop or going for a jog.

    This brings me to the most damning issue regarding private security companies: it is in their interest to make Libya seem as unsafe as possible. It is a simple case of supply and demand. If Tripoli were deemed safe for foreigners, then security firms would be out of a job. It is therefore in their interests to exaggerate the security threats and insist that their presence and input is required at all times. Such actions have a two-fold effect, both of which are negative for Libya.

    The first is that by constantly bombarding foreigners with warnings and chaperoning them around the city, these people are denied the chance to appreciate how unthreatening daily life in Tripoli really is. As a result, the message they communicate back to their home countries is one of daily restrictions and security threats, further entrenching the idea that Libya is not safe and therefore ensuring the continued demand for private security companies.

    The second is that the effect of seeing overtly armed and aggressive foreign security personnel around the city is likely to make a largely benign population become more hostile and reactive towards westerners. Libyans living in Tripoli know that there is no real threat to foreigners there and although most appreciate that caution is necessary, it is understandably both insulting and provocative to Libyans be treated as potential threats simply because they are Libyan.

    While many foreigners working in Libya are genuinely interested in helping the country move forward towards a more stable future, it seems very unlikely that this is the case for these western mercenaries. Their job is to provide protection in violent, hostile environments so unless they want to be out of a job, they will keep reinforcing the image that even the safest places in Libya are instable, dangerous and not to be visited without the 'unbiased' advice of security personnel.

    Forget the Egyptian economy - I want to know where my wife is

    By Ahmed Kadry

    It’s nice that President Morsi and his merry band of Brothers are on top of governing the country. Whether it’s healing the flagging economy or securing the policing of the state amidst growing reports of vigilantism, they are doing an upstanding job of taking a practical approach to finding solutions as well as ensuring they maintain their visibility in front of the nation and keeping everyone’s spirits up. Wait a minute…..

    Full disclosure - I’m not a fan of the Morsi and the Brotherhood for what I see as a complete failure to govern and their obviously more important priorities of securing their power grab that they have craved for almost a century. That aside, I had no intention of writing about either the man or the party this week until I read this. In reaction to the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held this year between the 4-15 March in New York, the Muslim Brotherhood official website, IkhwanWeb, took the time out of its busy schedule in relating news and updates regarding Egypt’s lesser issues like the economy. Instead, they draw our attention to the ruthlessly devilish declaration that was drawn up in the Big Apple that is set to have apocalyptic consequences on Egyptian society and familial life.

    Before I get onto their reaction, let’s start with the Commission itself. On its website it states its purpose as, “the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and the advancement of women. Every year, representatives of Member States gather at United Nations Headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify challenges, set global standards and formulate concrete policies to promote gender equality and women's empowerment worldwide.” I can see why IkhwanWeb was in an uproar: “gender equality” and “advancement of women” certainly sound like the devil’s play thing. A closer look at the declaration shows that an array of topics were covered including the elimination of violence against women of all ages, equality before the law irrespective of gender, and “reaffirms that women and men have the right to enjoy, on an equal basis, all their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

    When I read “all their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” I immediately discerned that this facilitates the concept of choice. Now let’s have a look at the reaction from the Muslim Brotherhood on IkhwanWeb. Tackling each issue it has with the declaration, it starts with its own statement: “This declaration, if ratified, would lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies.” Ah, so this is their counter argument – they are afraid of neo-imperialism and the loss of Muslim identity to be swept aside and wholly replaced by some western surrogate.

    As the Muslim Brotherhood have found since 2011, years of rhetoric on how tough it will be on Israel and how it will unite Egyptian society under Islam is a lot harder than it looks to put into practise – or they have at least made a royal mess of it. They can blame ‘the West’ as much as they like, but no one is buying that any more. On the note of “cohesion of Islamic societies,” I thought about Mervat Moussa being slapped to the ground outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters last week for protesting. Yes, this nasty declaration is what “contradicts established principles of Islam” as opposed to your members beating a woman senseless.

    IkhwanWeb then goes onto list its qualms with the declaration and what it will mean for Egyptian gender relationships. I can’t list them all but let me share some of the most disturbing criticisms they have. They state that if implemented, the declaration will, “Give wives full rights to file legal complaints against husbands accusing them of rape or sexual harassment, obliging competent authorities to deal husbands punishments similar to those prescribed for raping or sexually harassing a stranger.” You may have to read that a couple of times just as I did to make sure you understood it correctly. According to that statement, the Muslim Brotherhood do not want a wife who is raped by her husband to have “full rights to file legal complaints” and they do not believe that a husband who has raped his wife should be punished as a rapist or sexual harasser might be punished under the law. I hadn’t realised that getting married meant I would have carte blanche to do whatever I wanted with my wife with no fear of repercussions. So much for the “renaissance project.”

    The next point is a lot more concise but just as powerful: This declaration would lead to, “Cancelling the need for a husband’s consent in matters like: travel, work, or use of contraception.” So in essence, the Muslim Brotherhood does not like to see a woman have the basic right to choose her holiday destination or where she goes to work every day, let alone her choice of whether she wants to have a child or not.

    IkhwanWeb’s stentorian conclusion is that, “these are destructive tools meant to undermine the family as an important institution,” - while I shall conclude with the irony that the state, in this case The Muslim Brotherhood, is focusing so intently on family life, which has nothing to do with the state and everything to do with the decisions of each citizen and family, while  those areas very much the responsibility of the state are tackled at best half-heartedly, with seemingly no plan or ideological framework. 

    If they had as much focus on the economy or policing the state as they did with obsessing over controlling everyone’s moral compass, perhaps Egypt today would not be staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

    Algeria: how the murder of two children shook a nation

    By Hicham Yezza

    Two weeks ago, on the afternoon of Saturday, March 9, Brahim and Haroun, two boys aged 9 and 10 respectively, were playing with friends just outside their block of flats in the city of Constantine, to the east of the capital, Algiers. Suddenly, they were gone. A couple of hours later, after some tentative searches, their parents alerted the police.  

    As the clock ticked, the prospect of a benign explanation quickly faded and the search grew more frenetic and desperate. It was soon becoming clear that the worst was to be expected. Three days into the search, on Tuesday 12, the children's discarded bodies were discovered, strangled and tied up, in a refuse sack dumped deep in the cellar of a communal building 500 hundred yards away from their homes. Two men, aged 21 and 38, were arrested a day later. According to media reports, they have already confessed to the kidnapping and murder of the children.  

    The public reaction was immediate and unprecedented. The mounting tension built up during the search finally gave way to a colossal wave of revulsion and shock that was felt across the country. With the initial outpouring of grief, came a blind tide of rage, most vividly expressed in widespread calls for the two culprits to be executed. Demands for a public stadium hanging, something that hasn't taken place in a century, have been strident, particularly across social media platforms.  

    A national day of mourning was held the following Sunday, March 17. However, despite the families of the victims distancing themselves from any demonstrations, hundreds of youths descended on the town centre brandishing placards (one read "The Death Penalty or War"). Tension quickly escalated, and many were injured as clashes erupted between protesters and the police, the latter deploying tear gas and arresting dozens. The days since have seen a precarious and tense stand-off; with police forces keeping a low profile to avoid another flare-up. 

    Although most of the anger has been directed against the culprits, a debate is already under way as to the deeper, structural reasons that have allowed such an epidemic to take root. According to official statistics, the number of child kidnappings rose from 4 in 2008 to 180 in 2012, with 31 recorded so far this year. Only a few weeks ago, an 8-year old girl was snatched from her home near the capital Algiers, her body discovered days later. A pervasive sentiment has been that this type of crime was utterly alien to Algerians' conception of the society they live in. As one newspaper put it, "the question we must ask is not about the manner or the consequences of this crime but why it has happened?" How did things - how did we - come to this? 

    As such, the case has left in its wake a national moment of unprecedented soul-searching. For many, a mounting sense of unease is growing over a number of problematic issues. Some are pointing the finger at the judicial system: sentences were too lenient for crimes against children, leading to ever-rising re-offending rates among child kidnappers. Others are blaming the authorities for failing to keep the nation's streets, schools and public spaces safe for children. However, many have pointed to social issues, including unemployment and poverty, as being fundamentally linked in helping produce an environment where such crimes are more likely.  

    In the ensuing panic following the kidnappings, calls have been raised for a "national campaign to protect children", one popular comment on social media boards reads "a message to all parents: watch over your children, do not take your eyes off them, we live in a crazy land". 

    In the meantime, against a crescendo of calls for it to act, the government has been slow and hesitant in its response. On Sunday, an emergency cabinet meeting was held to discuss the issue, emerging with a set of measures such as introducing police patrols at school gates, launching awareness programmes and initiating a judicial overhaul to address the perceived leniency of current sentencing regimes. For many, however, these measures were another instance of "too little, too late". The Algerian League for Human Rights has called on the government to start "acting instead of reacting", arguing the fight against child abuse is integral to the wider fight against issues such as poverty, inequality and corruption. 

    Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies have been heavily critical of some media outlets for contributing to public alarm and anger by publishing graphic pictures of the victims’ bodies as well as leaking photos of the culprits. More worryingly for the authorities, anger is mounting at the perceived general absence of the state and its failure to perform its basic law and order functions.

    Many are worried the troubles seen in the past few days could expand into something wider and harder to contain. In particular, it remains unclear what the authorities intend to do when the trial eventually takes place; although never abolished, the death penalty has been, for the past twenty years, in legal hibernation. A judge can nominally still issue a death sentence, but only the president can authorise its implementation or, alternatively, grant a pardon.  

    The tragic fate of Brahim and Haroun has brought the country together in mourning, but has also acted as a powerful conduit for the expression of wider, deeper ills and discontent at the state of the nation. Many of those clamouring for a public hanging have done so under explicitly Islamist slogans, a fact noted with alarm by many in the secular media. Other voices, including those of academics and social workers, have called for a measured, dispassionate response to the tragedy, a call unlikely to be heeded any time soon.

    Ultimately, only time will tell whether there will be a serious effort to learn the necessary lessons of this deeply tragic story, or whether the case will be forgotten as soon as the wave of public outrage fades away.

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    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.

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    Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

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