This week's window on the Middle East - May 21, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: the outburst of violence in Tripoli, Lebanon and its socio-economic roots.

Arab Awakening
21 May 2012

  • Lebanon: the trouble with Tripoli
  • Libya: the revolution was the easy part
  • Egypt's Presidential election and the military deep state
  • Tunisia: the Islamic politics of trade unionism
  • Libya: identity and legitimisation still needs official paperwork
  • Return to Dubai
  • Why do Turkey’s Nusayris reject an intervention in Syria?
  • Lebanon: the trouble with Tripoli

    By Rohan Talbot

    Last week clashes erupted across Tripoli, North Lebanon, killing nine and wounding over 50 more. At the time of writing the fighting has abated, with the army presiding over a fragile peace, but some fear these hostilities are a sign of Lebanon’s infection by the violence in neighbouring Syria and consequent descent into conflict.

    When I went through Tripoli as the initial protest was just starting up, Sunni Islamists were beginning a sit-in on Tripoli’s al Nour square, blocking the main road through the city. They were demonstrating for the release of Shadi al-Mawlawi, an activist who had purportedly been lured by security services under false pretences and arrested for association with a terrorist group.  

    military mobilisation near Jabal Mohsen

    Military mobilisation near Jabal Mohsen

    Road-blocking protests are common here, and it is often possible to tell whether there are problems in Tripoli by the increased traffic diverted through the road outside my workplace northeast of the city. This protest, however, unravelled into a series of fire-fights centred on the pro-Assad Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen, and the opposing Sunni community of Bab al-Tabbaneh. These two districts, separated appropriately enough by ‘Syria Street’, have a Montague and Capulet-esque history of violence between them, and such clashes are treated by locals as a fact of life. Nevertheless, the increased intensity, duration and spread of the fighting this time are cause for concern.

    International media have tended to frame this as ‘spill-over’ from Syria. The civil conflict there certainly has an impact here, and the two communities justify their fighting with reference to events unfolding across the border. Nevertheless the story in Tripoli is more complex than simple metastasization of Syria’s violence. North Lebanon is home to a majority-Sunni population who suffered considerably under the Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended in 2005. Animosity and resentment therefore existed toward the Syrian-associated Alawites long before the uprising across the border. But a more important root to the current violence is the poverty blighting these communities. It is no secret that Tripoli is neglected in terms of investment, education, public services and employment compared to Beirut. Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are not just the centre of ideological animosity, but also among the most deprived communities in Lebanon, with approximately 20% of men there being unemployed.

    military mobilisation near Jabal Mohsen

    Military mobilisation near Jabal Mohsen

    Ideological difference, competitive victimhood, cramped geography and socioeconomic deprivation make for a dangerous mix, and many here see the fighters as pawns of higher political powers seeking to secure their influence in Lebanon ahead of next year’s elections. Of those I have spoken to, some regard al-Mawlawi’s arrest as intentional provocation by pro-Assad interests seeking to goad Lebanon towards supporting the regime, and its associates in Lebanon, by fomenting strife in the north. Others suggest that the protesting Salafists were awaiting an excuse for a show of strength, and al-Mawlawi’s arrest provided just such an opportunity. Whoever is seen as the main agitator, people fear that increasing brinksmanship is a sign that both groups perceive zero-hour as fast approaching, and that wider conflict is unavoidable.

    Lebanon’s population has almost incalculable variation – and polarisation – along religious, political and community lines. Tripoli is a microcosm of that, and the stark economic and social realities for many living here make these divisions all the more salient. The chances of Lebanon-wide conflict remain low, restrained by the still-fresh memories of the destruction of the civil war. Nevertheless Syria’s turmoil will continue to cause ripples, as disenfranchised and frustrated communities frame their distress in terms of political grievances. If Tripoli is to avoid spiralling into further chaos, efforts must be made to understand and deal with underlying issues, rather than dismissing the violence as an unavoidable side-effect of Syria’s internal strife.

    Libya: the revolution was the easy part

    By Rhiannon Smith

    As an Arabic language graduate and self-professed Middle East enthusiast, I eagerly snatched up the opportunity to work in the mysterious Libyan Jamahiriya when I was offered a job there in 2010. At the time I was planning only to stay for a short period, just long enough to get a feel for the country, yet Libya’s distinct personality got me hooked. Two years, one revolution and countless worried phone calls later, I am still living and working in Libya’s capital, Tripoli.

    I began writing about life in Libya when I realised that what I was experiencing post revolution, and what the outside world thought I was experiencing, were often at complete odds. International news reports on Libya tend to focus on the gunfights, torture claims and condemnations without putting them into the context of daily life or looking at the root cause of these incidents. Libya and its people suffered a great deal during the revolution, yet in little over six months life has returned to relative peace and normality. Serious efforts are being made to rebuild Libya as a free, democratic nation. Yet we rarely hear about them.

    The past few weeks in Tripoli have been dominated by registration for the June general elections. Registration was slow off the mark due to a lacklustre awareness campaign by the High National Election Commission, but by 14 May 63% of eligible voters had registered and the closing date has been extended to 21 May.

    Libyans who have registered are naturally very proud of the fact, and in recent days I have seen countless close ups of white and orange voting cards with young Libyans beaming in the background. These are often accompanied by similar pictures of elderly relatives, and comments evoking pride and satisfaction at what has so far been achieved. Of course registered voters do not automatically translate into votes cast, but nevertheless it is a very encouraging start.

    However, despite the last minute enthusiasm for voter registration across Libya, there is one demographic that seem reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. Many of the young men who fought in the revolution have returned to their civilian lives, yet there are many others who still play active roles in military brigades. These armed ‘thuwar’ (revolutionaries) seem to be disdainful of the whole electoral process, and those I have spoken are convinced they will be able to vote on the 19 June if they so wish, despite not being registered.

    In part, their disregard for the electoral system stems from past experiences, where any rule can be broken if you know the right person. In part they feel that society is in their debt. Recent weeks have seen an increase of armed protests in Tripoli, and I would argue this is for the same underlying reason; the ‘thuwar’ are realising that the revolution was the easy part.

    In the revolution, there was a common enemy, a common goal, and a bond of loyalty between fighters. If you died, you died as a martyr; if you were injured, it was in the fight for your country. These young Libyans went from having nothing to being heroes overnight. To give up their victors’ mantle and put down their guns would mean a return to insignificance. To register and participate in the elections means acknowledging that their voices are no more important than anyone else’s.

    Libyans will tell you that the real ‘thuwar’ have melted away, leaving only the greedy, uneducated thugs who are toting guns and demanding privileges in the name of the revolution. Whether this is true or not, these young Libyan men are certainly realising that the world of politics is infinitely more complex than that of the battlefield, and their ability to deal with the post conflict political arena could well determine the success and stability of Libya in years to come.

    Egypt's Presidential election and the military deep state

    By Tom Dale

    One Friday afternoon in the 1990s, an Egyptian general approached journalist Johnny West in Cairo's prestigious Gezira Sporting Club: 

    The general came to berate us for our coverage of Islamic group violence, which was just appearing on the radar then. Why do you make such a fuss about it? he asked. They tried to kill the prime minister last week, I replied. You think we're exaggerating? The prime minister, the general repeated, snorting with derision, Who's he? He's the man nobody notices when he gets out of the car. And Mubarak, he went on, even if they got Mubarak, you think that would make any difference?...  'Mubarak, no-Mubarak,' said the general, flipping his hands methodically as if weighing up the two worlds. 'If Mubarak disappeared, we'd just find another one.'  (Karama!, 2011)

    Will the Presidential elections, the first round of which commence on 23 May, bring the generals another Mubarak? 

    It's possible. Ahmed Shafiq is amongst the top four candidates, but probably not – polls are unreliable – the top two. He was a minister in the Mubarak regime, and, like Mubarak, a former air force general. Amr Moussa arguably looks like the front runner, having led almost every poll conducted in the past year. He left the belly of the former administration after a 2001 spat with Mubarak, but was nonetheless appointed by him to run the Arab League. He was never a general and has a bit of distance, but not much. Most revolutionary activists still consider him felool – a 'remnant' of the old regime. 

    There's a pretty strong consensus about what the generals want, and what Moussa and Shafiq will be inclined to give them.  First, they want de facto immunity from prosecution for violence (including torture) inflicted on civilians during their stewardship of the state, as well as under Mubarak.  Second, they want a secret military budget, and autonomy to manage the armed forces, and their vast network of businesses, without civilian oversight.  Third, most ambitiously and most vaguely, they want some sort of veto in high politics, i.e. the right to intercede when security concerns (which could be represented as co-extensive with their interests) are threatened.

    The constitution-writing process has been stalled, and will only resume once a new President is elected.  It is unclear what form the process will take.  If Moussa or Shafiq take the presidency, it is likely that there will be a struggle with the Islamist-dominated parliament over the composition of the constitutional assembly, and hence the constitution itself.

    But the deep grip which the generals have on the Egyptian state is not only a function of which man (and all the candidates are men) takes the Presidency.  When the general mentioned above spoke to Johnny West, his confidence wasn't just about the generals' ability to find a new leader.  There is a far deeper structure of power and patronage at stake, one which can't simply be voted away. 

    Egyptian academic Zeinab Abul Magd, who studies the military's penetration of economic and political life has documented something of this structure, whereby key positions in the ministries and industry are held by retired generals.  Should they wish to block any reform programme, they will be in a strong position to do so.  Although Mohamed Morsi and Aboul Fotouh have promised to end the military's special privileges, many analysts question their real willingness to do so.

    For dedicated revolutionaries, including the hunger-striking prisoners of the most recent clashes, and political observers, the question of whether a pro-military establishment President will administer the state and define the terms of Egypt's new political settlement – is the most important one.  It's what will define Egypt's politics in the years to come.  What is in the balance now, for Egypt's huge swathe of undecided voters, is whether they see it the same way.

    Tunisia: the Islamic politics of trade unionism

    By Anne Wolf and Raphael Lefevre

    Despite its name, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is more than a mere syndicate representing workers throughout the country. For most Tunisians indeed, the UGTT is a symbol of their country’s struggle for independence, human rights and dignity. The trade union also played the role of a counter-power when, at times, it resisted the repression of former autocrats by calling for general strikes.

    It is worth wondering, however, what role the UGTT is bound to assume in the new democratic landscape characterizing Tunisian politics and society. Most recently, some on the left have called the UGTT to serve as a main counterbalance to the Islamists who, since Ennahda’s landslide victory at last October’s elections, have come to dominate the country’s political scene. Such a dynamic came to a head when, on February 24, the leadership of Tunisia’s main trade union led a rally in the capital calling for the downfall of the Islamic-dominated government. In Tunisian politics, the equation seeming to pit the trade union against the Islamists comprises several unknowns. Much depends on its outcome. How will it be resolved?

    The politics of trade unionism

    While the UGTT often prides itself on having played a prominent role in the unfolding of the mass protests which eventually led to the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 2011, the picture is more blurred when it comes to what links the union‘s executive leadership actually entertained with the former Tunisian dictator. Ever since a decision made at an internal UGTT conference held at Sousse in 1989, the union’s leadership had opted in favour of a strategic alliance with Ben Ali – implicitly and at times vocally backing his rule in return for concessions made on workers’ rights.

    It is also documented beyond doubt that Abdessalem Jerad, the union’s Secretary General for most of the past decade, was on intimate terms with the Palace. In a cable from the US Embassy in Tunis, it is reported that Jerad used to “receive instructions from the highest levels of the Tunisian government” and that, in exchange for cancelling workers' strikes on a regular basis, the UGTT under his leadership received 200,000 Tunisian dinars per year – most of which reportedly went to “supporters who spontaneously cheer for Ben Ali at public events”. When the leadership sensed that the ouster of the Tunisian dictator was a matter of time once mass anti-regime protests started to shake the country in December 2010, it sided with the demonstrators. Ever since, the UGTT has taken an active part in the country’s political life – to the extent that some observers compare it to a political party.

    “The Tunisian revolution changed the nature of the UGTT”, explained Mongi Amami, a former director of the trade union’s research division. “Because of the weight brought to it by its 500,000 members, it became Tunisia’s most important socio-political actor on the eve of Ben Ali’s ouster”. To showcase its newfound political influence, the UGTT presented several candidates running as independents at last October’s elections to the Constituent Assembly and proposed its own draft constitution.

    Some, even within Tunisia’s trade union landscape, have criticized such development. “In a democratic system, it’s not the job of a trade union to meddle into politics, behave as a party and propose a draft constitution”, said Habib Guiza, the leader and founder of an alternative trade union – the CGTT. “Yes, the UGTT is more than a trade union solely defending worker’s rights”, agreed the UGTT’s Mongi Amami. “It has a broader vision of society to defend”. Over the past few months, however, it has become clear that such a project for society clashes with the kind of vision put forward by the Islamists in power. Is confrontation between the UGTT and Ennahda inevitable? 

    The UGTT: Trojan horse for the Islamists

    At the Ennahda headquarters in Tunis, the question is on everybody’s lips. “The UGTT is the only weapon the leftists still have at their disposal!”, asserts Faycel Nasser, a member of the Islamic party’s communications team. Encouraging a standoff between the country’s most important trade union and the Islamic-dominated government could be part of a strategy of left-wing politicians who are quietly planning to benefit from such a conflict. The battle, however, is not merely political, it also deeply ideological. “The leadership of most trade unions is, until now, still deeply representative of the left-wing Tunisian elite more keen on modernism and secularism than on Islamism”, explained the CGTT’s Habib Guiza, who went on to conclude that “Ennahda and the trade unions propose divergent ways of life”.

    Many allege that the UGTT itself has not been excluded from the large wave of religiosity and conservatism which reached Tunisian society in the early 2000s and has swept through its politics since last October. The growing importance in the economy of certain sectors in which the workforce is judged as rather ‘conservative’ (e.g. building and public works, new technologies) have fuelled the UGTT’s base with militants sometimes close to Ennahda. A recent decision to legalize the status of temporary agency workers – often seen as poorer, less educated and more traditional – could also benefit, in the long run, the Islamic party’s presence inside the country’s main trade union. There are already estimates according to which 70 UGTT delegates out of the 500 present at last December’s union conference are affiliated with Ennahda – a number the Islamic party said “underestimates” the Islamists' real weight.

    “We have two choices”, summed up Ennahda’s Faycel Nasser. “Either we change the system or we change within the system”, he said, hinting at the options faced by Ennahda of either encouraging the emergence of another, more Islamic-oriented trade union or of keeping its members as part of the UGTT framework with the ultimate hope of taking over the union’s leadership when time will come. For many Islamic militants, the equation has already been resolved a long time ago. “When I was a student, I was both a militant of Ennahda and a member of the UGTT”, remembered Muhammed Amor at the Islamic party’s headquarters. “When Habib Bourguiba cracked down on the UGTT in 1986, I was amongst the many Islamists who supported the UGTT’s resistance”. The UGTT therefore enjoys a particular historical legitimacy in the eyes of those Islamic militants. “The Islamists are an entire part of the UGTT’s history, we are not ready to give that up!”, asserted Faycel Nasser.

    An internal UGTT law has so far prevented any Islamists from taking executive responsibilities within the union’s leadership. At the UGTT, it is mandatory that a member undergoes at least 9 years of militancy to run for a leadership position within the union. Given the scale of repression suffered under the rule of Ben Ali, however, most Islamist members of the UGTT are unable to fulfil this criterion. But only for the time being…

    Libya: identity and legitimisation still needs official paperwork

    By Sara ElGaddari

    I was born in Benghazi in 1981 and spent my formative years between family homes in Benghazi and Marsa al Brega. We left in 1991 and did not return, until 2003, when I travelled solo to my home city via Tripoli. My shiny new green passport was subsequently confiscated whilst I was checked and registered on several security lists.  Since then, my trips to see relatives have been similarly fraught with bureaucratic red tape and have proven extremely stressful experiences.

    I mention these traumatic encounters because I, as well as many other Libyan citizens, are now faced with bureaucratic hurdles that prevent freedom of travel within and outside of the country. Indeed, according to Iman el Gamaty, residents in cities such as Benghazi are unable at present to even procure a family book, let alone a passport. The family book, as a collection of marriage, birth and death certificates of each family is an essential pre-requisite for any form of identity card, as well as employment, educational and other paperwork. Whilst I recognised in an earlier article that the interim government continued to face competing demands on its resources, I would like to take the opportunity here to urge the bureaucracy, on behalf of many families in and outside of the country, to make this a top priority.

    My father in England, like our family members in Libya, holds only Libyan citizenship and therefore cannot enter or leave the country without major difficulties (I will clarify here that he does hold valid documentation allowing him to reside in the UK). In London, the Libyan Embassy does not currently have either temporary travel documentation or passports to issue for Libyans trying to travel home. In the words of an Embassy staffer (who shall remain anonymous); “It’s chaos here at the moment”. At the same time, my Uncle Awad in Benghazi is struggling to get the necessary paperwork to attempt to travel outside of the country. Without this official paperwork, and unless you hold dual nationality, many are prevented from travelling, reuniting with family members and vitally, cannot assert their right to determine the course of their own lives and explore their new freedoms. While my father, like others since February 2011, can find their way into Libya, they will not be able to re-enter European states, including the United Kingdom, unless they hold valid return travel documentation.

    The new political leadership must listen, and respond to, the frustrations of its citizens, as a foundation stone of the democratic reform process.

    In the coming weeks and months, this column would like to explore issues of democratic expression, individual rights and the potential for the establishment and growth of a civil society infrastructure across the region. Simultaneously, I would like to challenge current widely-held notions that the revolutions that have occurred, and the uprisings that continue, are either unpredictable or unforeseen. I invite you, the reader, to participate using our Arab Awakening ‘You Tell Us’ section and to share your experiences on the issues that we will highlight every week.

    I’m honoured to have the opportunity to write for openDemocracy’s Arab Awakening section, and in so doing, I hope to draw attention to emerging ideas and opinions from people across the region. I firmly believe that North Africa will be, and indeed already is, at the forefront of political, civil and social change in a new era that questions what it means to be a free human being in the 21st century.

    Return to Dubai

    By Sacha Robehmed

    More than a month ago, I emerged through the swishing arrivals doors of Dubai airport at 5:30 in the morning, to end a journey begun in Seoul. Beckoned over by a female driver, we piled a year’s worth of luggage into the ‘pink taxi’ that then sped along empty roads, past the lush green golf course, across the once-arterial Creek’s water, past the pyramids of Wafi shopping mall, and through a tiled tunnel before cruising along the Sheikh Zayed Road. It is a journey I have made many times, but the post-dawn quiet made for a portentous homecoming.  

    As the cab left behind it the twin toblerones of Emirates Towers, we overtook a white bus filled with South Asian workers.  Slumped over in deep slumber, they were probably destined for a construction site—whilst I was returning to the luxury of my family home. Reacquaintance with Dubai is always something of a shock. It is in these moments that Dubai is a glassy microcosm of the world, reflecting vast income disparities, inequality and unfairness squarely back at you. The uncomfortable awareness of bestowed privilege derived from holding a certain passport is disconcerting and guilt-inducing. I always feel this more acutely in Dubai than in the UK, or South Korea.

    But this is also my home. I was born in Abu Dhabi, living there and in Dubai for 18 years before leaving for university in the UK. Even then, I would still return between terms. While I am not Emirati, or an expert on the UAE, with my long history in the country I hope to provide some insights. Like it or loathe it—and I have done both over the years, often at the same time—the UAE is where I’m from.  

    What never ceases to amaze me is Dubai’s resilience. Back in 2009, building projects had visibly ground to a halt. People were leaving. Debts were mounting. The situation was, in the buzzword of the global economic downturn, ‘austere’. Things had picked up a little by late 2010. But after being absent for over a year, the changes are noticeable. Our street, which previously had three empty villas, now only has one. There is a surprising volume of people walking around the nearby mall. A restaurant strip adjacent to the beach is bustling even on weeknights. The supermarket checkout always seems to have long queues. Traffic has returned to pre-recession levels, to be avoided at peak times. Friends working in law and consultancy in London or the US are being dispatched to UAE offices, and there is a sense of jobs and opportunity that is lacking elsewhere in the world. All these small changes add up, catching the attention of not only the local press, but also as a topic of conversation for local residents.

    Undoubtedly, not all is the same as five years ago, as hunger-striking prisoners show who have been incarcerated due to their cheques bouncing. People are still writing to a local paper renowned for its letters page, 7Days, complaining that the ‘house’ they are paying a mortgage for remains nothing but a plot of sand. However, the overall feeling of growth and resurgence is undeniable. Some point to the Arab Spring as a stimulus for this growth, reinforcing Dubai’s status as a regional ‘safe haven’. Tensions between the UAE and Iran may have dampened this somewhat. But daily life in Dubai feels as far away from the revolutions and ensuing uncertainty of the Arab Spring as South Korea did.  

    Why do Turkey’s Nusayris reject an intervention in Syria?

    By Ali Gokpinar

    It is the power of the people that brought an end to the authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. The struggle of the Syrian people is continuing: the regime has already committed crimes against humanity and yet remains in power. Turkey, as a neighbour and rising regional player, has championed an intervention in Syria and hosted a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul to reach that objective. However, Turkey’s criticism of Syria has provoked stern opposition from the Nusayris of Turkey, sharing the same ancestry with their counterparts in Syria, who mostly live in Antioch, home to thousands of Syrian refugees. The province itself has in fact been a significant source of conflict between Syria and Turkey over the last sixty years.

    So, why do Nusayris oppose to an intervention in Syria? Is this just straightforward solidarity? The Turkish Radikal daily’s headline on April 15 voiced some Turkish Nusayri claims. According to those interviewed, Turkey is being deceived by the western powers. The pro-government Turkish press exaggerates the conflict in Syria and foments a bloody Sunni-Nusayri conflict, and Antiochian people suffer from Turkey’s interventionist plans as Turkish exports and imports with Syria have drastically decreased since the political unrest erupted last year. In the end they want to know why Turkey wants democracy only in Syria but not in Saudi Arabia or Qatar? However, such accounts only serve to conceal the main causes of opposition which lie in their historic fears.

    Take the heated debates among group members in the ASI-DER, the mail-list of an Antiochian immigrant community. Most members agree that NATO and the US are pursuing imperial objectives and using Turkey as an instrument to reach those ends. While some group members reject this explanation and accuse Assad of slaughtering his own people, other group members argue that the western and Gulf media is exaggerating incidents. They denounce anti-Assad members for turning a blind eye on the plans of both western and Wahhabist powers attempting to topple Assad. The anti-imperialism discourse of the community incorporates a blend of leftist, secularist, and Kemalist ideology  that sternly opposes the Sunni-led AK Party government and therefore any intervention in Syria initiated by this government. To them, the big picture is derived from an imperialist and Sunni-led plot against the Nusayris of Syria and Assad.

    Sultan Abdulhamid of the Ottoman Empire struggled to create a common bond for his Muslim subjects across the Middle East, based on the Sunni branch of Islam. This sparked conflicts with Sunnis who lived in the Lebanese Mountains, and in Syria with the Nusayris. Sunnis have perceived Nusayris as inferior and non-believers ever since. Sultan Abdulhamid’s project reconciled Nusayris relations with the state, as many settled permanently and stopped rebelling, but failed to resolve the problems between the Sunnis and Nusayris as the latter rejected conversion to Sunnism. This problem continues to the present day and is the primary reason why the Nusayris fear a Sunni-dominated Syria.

    Historically, having been oppressed by the Sunni-dominated Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic, the Nusayris of Turkey think, if the Sunnis take power in Syria, their fellow-Nusayris will be subject to violence. The region will be dominated by Sunnis who may threaten their secular lifestyles. Not only might the Sunnis take revenge for what the Assad regime did, but also the attacks remind them, of a past that may be easily renewed. 


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