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This week's window on the Middle East - May 28, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Egypt's presidential election and the conclusion that a leaderless revolution could topple a dictator but, when it comes to the ballot boxes, should not remain leaderless.

Arab Awakening
28 May 2012
  • Egypt presidential election: wrap-up of the revolution?
  • The international moral crisis faced by the Syrian revolution
  • Doha: a city of contrasts
  • Lebanon: pivotal point for regional geopolitics?
  • Jordan is simmering
  • Bahrain: split over proposed GCC union, and chronic failure of Sunni groups to mobilize
  • Egypt: Voting for security in Alexandria
  • Tunisia: climate change-related investments to address revolutionary demands
  • Palestine: a reconciliation agreement, again
  • Tunisia: losing the best years
  • Mr. Che Guevara, the brain of the Tunisian Revolution
  • Egypt: election fever
  • Egypt presidential election: wrap-up of the revolution?

    By Soha Farouk

    Eight o’clock, Cairo morning, polling stations opened their doors to the long queues of Egyptians  in orderly formation outside, waiting to cast their ballot papers in the first multi-candidate unfettered presidential elections in Egypt since the January 25 revolution. Choosing the new leader is a tough challenge for many Egyptians.

    Ideally, elections should be held soon after a regime topples, within six months, to fill the legitimacy gap that follows. In Egypt, the transitional period, once promised to be six months, was extended to almost seventeen, characterized by failed governance and public depression. Public appetite for democracy has plummeted. The initial post-revolution sense of drift is becoming eclipsed by growing every day insecurities and economic problems as well as violent clashes. So turn-out for the presidential elections were poor. Apart from the call of a few political parties and activists for a boycott of SCAF’s elections , which they allege are inevitably rigged under a military rule, public political apathy cannot be ignored.

    Based on the results of the elections, evidence suggests that the opinion polls are misleading and deceptive. Despite reports of declining support of Egyptians to the Islamists due to their weak parliamentarian performance, the Freedom and Justice party and the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, Dr. Muhamed Mursi , came out on top in the first round of the presidential elections. In addition, the unexpected surge of Ahmed Shafiq, last prime minister of the Mubarak regime, to second ranking is more surprising still – given all the reports of his lack of popularity among voters. Ironically, Moussa and AbulFoutouh, leading the Egyptian presidential race in the public surveys, will not be heading into the second round.

    The run-off between Morsi & Shafiq points to one undeniable conclusion: a leaderless revolution could topple a dictator but, when it comes to the ballot boxes, should not remain leaderless. As the vote-counting is under way, the total votes gained by the two candidates perceived as pro-revolution, Sabahi and AbulFoutouh, were more than the one attracted by Shafiq or Mursi. However, they will not be present in the run-off. The fragmentation of votes between them would not have happened if the revolutionary forces had overcome their differences and unified their powers behind one candidate.

    In any eventuality, Egyptians voting in the second round of the presidential elections are caught between a rock and a hard place. Whoever will be the winner; those elections will not be a landmark in the post-revolutionary transition to democracy. It is even doubtful that the presidential elections will restore stability to the country. The fluid Egyptian environment will spark struggle between the secularists and the Islamists, the haves and have-nots, the influential military and the recalcitrant youth, impatient for change, to define a new balance of power. It's not the end of the revolution; but it may just be the beginning.

    The international moral crisis faced by the Syrian revolution

    By Rita from Syria

    When it comes to their interest in power, politicians’ actions and those of ruling bodies do not differ: without exception they make the moves that increase or sustain their political and economic hegemony. To discuss the moral abuses of politics and politicians, this is an ideal place for me to start, since it is well known that a capitalist regime conducts itself in this way. At the same time this regime hides behind a moral mask to justify what it commits in terms of the catastrophes inflicted on humanity, whether directly, through an attack on Iraq or Afghanistan, or indirectly through the political and economic support of a dictatorship like the Syrian one.

    Unfortunately, the circumstances are similar when it comes to human rights violations, even though the states of the world have signed the international declaration of human rights and have established a number of organizations to ensure it is honoured. However, they all play the political game with people suffering as a consequence – a game that is playing itself out now in the battle over the human condition in Syria. These conditions have rapidly deteriorated recently, with a sharp increase in the massacres and arbitrary detentions inflicted by the Syrian Government on those who oppose it. The countries of world have shown as much empathy for this condition as seated young men watching a woman caught standing on a bus in a traffic jam.

    This has been a prevalent sight in Syria and other countries in recent years. Reactions will vary according to the family and educational background of those involved. Some who remain seated will completely ignore her existence, or talk away on their cellular phones to avoid interrogating themselves on this matter. The number of those martyred is nearly 12,000; an estimate of course, because it is impossible to reach certain affected areas. There are those at the back of the bus who may empathise but will not act, blaming everyone else for their failure; just as a country like the US does not hesitate to condemn, threaten, and impose sanctions that only affect the poor of Syria, without serious intervention to increase the pressure on the Syrian regime and isolate it internationally.

    As for Russia and China, it is a different story. In addition to the multiple vetos that prevented the UN Security Council from condemning the Syrian regime, Russia has continued providing arms to the regime. This is a stain on the Russian people’s history of struggle against dictatorships, just adding to our woes, like someone who starts pestering the stranded woman till she collapses.  

    The worst in my opinion is the position taken by the Gulf States that want the fall of the Syrian regime at any cost in order to replace it with one that is compatible with their religious orientation and policy. The aim to control the religious and political formation of the region is rather like a man not only offering his seat to the woman, but asking to carry her bag while paying her bus fare, only in order to mug and rape her later on.

    The issue of women left to stand on buses is a social phenomenon that is related to the customs and traditions of any society, and it is not for me to judge. The issue takes on a different dimension when the woman is in labour, just like our revolution that is standing in the middle of the world in pain, because it is promising a different, free, and new country.

    A question remains: if the peoples had a say in their countries, would the world have ignored the violations in my country? This question remains ideal and illogical in the world of politics and political interests. But I cannot help but pose it to nations that have gone through a similar experience at any point in their history, paying the kind of price that we are paying now and more for its freedom.   

    Doha: a city of contrasts

    By Michael Stephens

    Doha is not the sort of city one might have expected to become the hub of so much influence in the Arab world. It lacks the imposing size of Riyadh, the glamour of Dubai or the history of Cairo, and in many ways still exudes a sense of being the small, albeit wealthy town that seems content to allow the material benefits of globalisation to flood into it without much reaction.

    The city sits in a nation untouched by the turbulent forces of the Arab Awakenings, and daily life continues uninterrupted. Politics is not a topic of discussion for the vast majority of Doha’s citizens and residents, simply because it does not need to be. The country is rich, rich beyond one’s wildest imaginations, excesses of wealth are on show for all to see as Qatari citizens impress each other with fast cars, diamond cuff links and the latest must-have items.

    Money has lubricated the squeaky wheels of social change in the Emirate, allowing for a population that appreciates what it sees as the benevolence of the ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and in return remains for the most part quiet and undesirous of political change.

    This state of civic passivity and lack of local political action sits in stark contrast to the other Doha experience which is incomparable to anything I have seen in the Arab world. The international political life of this city is in overdrive, and every corner of the Arab world comes to be a part of it.

    Not two minutes drive from one of Doha’s monuments to consumerism - the City Centre mall - sits the Sheraton Hotel, a place where on any given day one may find delegations of Palestinians, Syrians, Libyans Iraqis, Saudis, Tunisians and even the Taliban. Indeed it is not unusual for those with a keen eye to see Arab leaders sitting over a coffee discussing the latest developments in their country with a delegation of western or Chinese diplomats. Doha is becoming a bridge between East and West.

    It is the dream envisioned by Sheikh Hamad, the creation of a politically stable, quiet area of the Arab world where his Arab brethren in not such fortunate political circumstances could come and discuss issues in safety and security, and most importantly meet those who could do something to help.

    So far everything is going to plan. Qatar has made a name for itself as a hub of intellectual life in the Arab world. Think tanks such as my own and the highly respected Brookings Institute contribute to the debates of the day, sitting alongside the Al Jazeera television network and its seemingly ubiquitous presence in Arab households across the world.

    The effects of these ideas emanating out of Doha have yet to be fully understood. Doha’s political actors operate in a goldfish bowl not unlike the beltway mentality that pervades Washington DC, where insularity can create a hive of intellectual thinking and creative ideas that run the risk of becoming dangerously detached from the nations they are affecting.

    But Doha is not Washington DC: it is an Arab city, in the Arab world, and cannot afford in the long run to ignore this fundamental reality. This is both the source of Doha’s strength and ultimately its weakness, because in the Arab world, no country is neutral, no national agenda free. History and religion weigh heavily upon the 300million inhabitants that comprise it, whether they wish it or not. Therefore whilst plotting this new course of activism and political engagement, Doha has begun to become embroiled in these historical and religious complexities in a way that it never was before.

    The Arab Awakening will not come to Doha. Qatari citizens remain by and large removed from the fires that rage around them. But the forces unleashed by this tiny emirate may yet return to haunt its dynamic and peaceful capital.

    Lebanon: pivotal point for regional geopolitics?

    By Waleed Hazbun

    I was awakened from a deep sleep at around midnight. My wife had just heard an explosion following an hour of sporadic gunfire. Accustomed to the annoying crackle of fireworks set off by neighbourhood kids, she quickly realized this was different. Being a professor of international relations at the nearby American University of Beirut, rather than a journalist, I follow events via the twitter feeds of friends whose professional duties now led them out into the streets to investigate.

    In the morning, I collected several accounts of these early morning happenings. There was the story of a gunman firing an automatic rifle and lobbing grenades at Lebanese Army forces from a seventh floor balcony located near the offices of a pro-Syrian political party. Others described a personal dispute involving a broken romance, and others offered more worrisome details. But it all quickly receded from attention as Beirut residents started following the Egyptian election returns, and their own concerns nearer to home at the recent outbreaks of more obviously political violence in the northern city of Tripoli and later in other neighbourhoods of Beirut.

    The shooting of a Sunni cleric supportive of the uprising in Syria at a Lebanese Army checkpoint and the kidnapping in Syria of Shia Lebanese pilgrims returning from Iraq, to name but two recent events, has led to spontaneous protests and threats of localized violence. These events highlight the interconnectnesses of political divisions inside Lebanon and Syria. The dynamics of conflict, however, remain distinct as Lebanon’s pluralist political system allows rival factions and movements to constantly reposition and assert themselves even as the major political divide remains along the pro- and anti- Syrian regime axis.

    The political divisions in Lebanon, and even the periodic outbreaks of violence, are nothing new. Nor is the sense that between the external support received by local forces and the numerous willing proxies serving the interests of external powers, Lebanon is, in journalist David Hirst’s phrase the ‘battleground of the Middle East.’ The emerging fear I sense these days is that we might be seen once again as a pivotal point in the Middle East, and attract the attention of those who hope to tip the regional balance of power in their favour. This could once again disrupt the often fragile equilibrium in Lebanon.

    In his book, Beware of Small States, Hirst presents the usual narrative about the events that sparked the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon in 1975. But then he recounts several other events that reflected domestic and regional tensions any one of which might have ignited a vicious cycle of multilayered conflict.

    Understanding these dynamics could help local and regional political actors avoid the reactions that lead us to such devastating consequences. But there are no guarantees. And to make matters worse, the context itself is unstable.  In the wake of the Arab Uprisings and the ongoing struggle in Syria, regional power shifts are being refracted into Lebanon and Syria. Meanwhile, the influence of the US is in decline in the aftermath of the Bush Administration’s disastrous attempt at regional transformation.

    Jordan is simmering

    By Tareq Baconi

    The Hashemite Kingdom has long prided itself on being a haven in the Levant. Surrounded by countries which have sporadically been engaged in domestic, regional and international wars, Jordan has often been viewed as somewhat apolitical. It has had rough episodes in its history, to be sure, but relative to its neighbours it has managed to provide its citizens with a degree of stability.

    This is something Jordanians value. While recognizing the limitations of this stability and the artificial premises that are propping it up, the kingdom and its citizens have nonetheless enjoyed its benefits. Jordanians have managed to carve a middle ground between the virulent political debates of Beirut dinner parties and the furtive political comments amidst extreme state control in the Gulf, Syria and Iraq. Here was a society which was acquiescent in having eschewed active political participation for relative stability.

    I say ‘was’ because that situation was never sustainable and it has indeed begun to unravel at the seams, facilitated by a number of internal and external factors. Economic hardship, a universal catalyst for uprisings, has not spared Jordan. This became explosive with flagrant corruption in the upper echelons of the political establishment. Regional uprisings have given hope for change while identity politics between ‘East and West Bankers’ added a dangerous element to the tension.

    These factors are intertwined, and they have been reinforced by a degree of resentment and a desire for change which has long been maintained just below the sparking threshold. Arguably, that threshold would not have been crossed had it not been for the most catalytic factor; the apparent willingness of the regime to placate the public with meaningless political reforms in return for goodwill.

    Jordanians have always admired their monarchs; even a year in from the start of these weekly protests, Jordanians have lagged behind their Arab counterparts in seeking regime change. They have consistently called for reform to be rolled out under the auspices of the current regime. A political system akin to that of the UK has often been invoked.

    This goodwill - calling for change to be led by Hashemite rule - has unfortunately not been sufficiently appreciated or leveraged. Perhaps the urgency of the situation had not been fully grasped, causing a continued aversion to the structural reform being demanded.

    The dismantling of four governments (including one which held much hope for political reform under Awn Khasawneh) has left Jordanians seething. They now view their goodwill as having been used to prolong the status quo rather than initiate political reform. Unfortunately, rather than leveraging popular goodwill to personally lead the reform, King Abdullah has squandered it and aroused people’s suspicions in his intentions.

    This has resulted in unprecedented incidents of public condemnation of the ruling family, a significant development in a country which has consistently favoured stability.

    Arguably, the confidence of the people could still be reclaimed with real change, but time is running out. Unless structural reform – rather than scapegoat corruption cases – is rolled out, Jordanians will see value in the fresh starts and clean slates being demanded by their Arab brethren. Stability might just be demanding too high a price.

    Bahrain: split over proposed GCC union, and chronic failure of Sunni groups to mobilize

    By Hasan AlHasan

    Bahrainis of all political affiliations waited in tense anticipation as rumours of a Saudi – Bahraini union circulated days before the Gulf leaders convened in Riyadh for the Gulf Cooperation Council summit on May 14th, 2012. The summit fell short of expectations however. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal explained in a press conference that GCC leaders preferred to wait and attempt to resolve issues impeding the accession of some GCC member states to a union, believed - according to the King of Bahrain’s media advisor Nabeel Alhamar - to be primarily Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

    In a quite familiar scene, Bahrainis split into two camps organized roughly on sectarian lines to express their stance vis-à-vis greater GCC political and military integration. Shiite Islamist Al-Wefaq alongside its secular Arab nationalist and leftist sidekicks staged a massive demonstration on May 18th entitled “Labayk ya watani” (i.e. ‘My country, I answer your call’) protesting what they deemed an erosion of Bahrain’s sovereignty and independence as a price for greater GCC, but mainly Saudi, integration. Ironically though, the demonstration was largely centred on the figure of Bahrain’s most prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Isa Qassim who has been the subject of a ferocious campaign waged against him by pro-government MPs and journalists, leaving Al-Wefaq’s more secular allies in an undoubtedly awkward position.

    In response, a coalition of Sunni political societies including The Gathering of National Unity (TGONU) - the group that staged huge anti-opposition demonstrations last year - called for a counter-rally at the Alfateh Grand Mosque the next day in order to express support of the proposed GCC union. Unsurprisingly, attendance was weak and the rally was relatively symbolic. Since the disintegration of TGONU and its transformation during the second half of the year 2011 from an umbrella organization of Sunni political groups to a faction among others as a result of internal power disputes, Sunni factions have proven incapable of effective collaboration or mass mobilization.

    Intra-Sunni rivalries came more clearly to the surface during a standoff last March between, on the one hand a number of residents of the city of Muharraq backed by Salafist and Muslim Brother MPs and, on the other, the royal family member / Minister of culture Shaikha Mai Al-Khalifa. In brief, Islamists attacked the Minister for the “un-Islamic” nature of her cultural programme, an issue of dispute since several years now. The standoff was carried on to Parliament where Shaikha Mai provoked outrage by calling protesters who had staged a sit-in the night before near the Shaikha’s cultural centre as “mercenary children”. When the Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa paid a visit to Parliament a few days later in order to soothe tensions, 15 Salafist, Muslim Brother and Independent MPs boycotted the meeting. Their move sparked much dismay and criticism by ex-police officer turned political activist Dr. Adel Flaifel and other more loyalist, pro-government Sunnis.

    With the Sunni street placing its hope in the government and in greater GCC integration to mitigate the opposition’s influence, the future of the Sunni political groups as a mobilizing force - whose cohesiveness has been repeatedly put into question - looks, for the time being at least, quite grim.

    Egypt: Voting for security in Alexandria

    By Amro Ali

    Anxiety stood in line as well to cast its vote in the second largest city of Alexandria. One week before our historic presidential elections, I am exiting the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and I see a man wrestled to the ground after an attempted extortion from a woman he carjacked weeks earlier: a sting operation by her relatives. In the Sidi Gaber suburb, early afternoon, I am in a taxi and ahead of me, I see a man clinging to the outside of his stolen car’s window as it speeds off. He is dragged some 30 metres before falling and severely cutting his face. While walking in Cleopatra Hamamat, I encounter another man with a bleeding face, this time slashed with a razor blade in front of his mother, following a dispute.

    These three incidents occur in the space of as many days.

    Witnessing such crimes prior to the 2011 Egyptian Revolution was so rare, it is no wonder that security was on voters’ minds.

    Alexandrians are somewhat divided over whether it is lax security or -  a widespread view - deliberate orchestration by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Felul (regime remnants) to make Egyptians desire Mubarak-esque authoritarian “stability”. Circumstantial evidence may support the latter, yet the problem goes deeper into the collective public psyche.

    One of the fruits of the revolution was that it dismantled the traditional fear of authority. Despite SCAF’s warnings, arrests, imprisonment, torture and even killings – Egyptians still braved it out to protest, strike, and conduct sit-ins.

    Yet the flip-side is that criminals have also lost their fear of authority.

    This is compounded by a demoralised police force that is still recuperating from the revolutionary backlash, public hatred, and the corrupt practices of their superiors.

    It is also a question of resource overstretch. One police officer tells me, “Before the revolution, one officer could attend to a case. Now a group of officers have to attend to protect each other.” When a prisoner convoy drives by us, he remarks: “There are six police cars to guard that one prison van: before you only needed one car to do that”.

    At times, the perpetrators do not seem to resemble their roughneck pre-revolutionary forebears. In the case of the Bibliotheca incident, it turned out he has never had any kind of  previous criminal record – opportunism is a new night rider.

    The second anniversary of Khalid Saeed’s death (the Alexandrian victim of police brutality on 6 June 2010 that helped spark the revolution) is approaching, with the backdrop of the revolution day, 25 January – which is also, no coincidence, police day – a reminder that presidential candidates’ talk of reforming the interior ministry and police force needs to be followed through once in office.

    A running joke goes like this: The annual police recruiting day attracted hundreds of people outside the main Cairo police station. The police chief came out and stated through the loudspeaker – “Those who can read and write, go stand on the right side, and those who cannot read and write, go and stand on the left side.” The chief waited while the people moved to the left and right. He then announces, “Everyone still in the middle, greetings and welcome to the Egyptian Police Force.”

    The upcoming president needs to get this right, otherwise, who knows, it could be him clinging to the window of the stolen presidential limousine.

    Tunisia: climate change-related investments to address revolutionary demands

    By Kacem Jlidi

    The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)’s shareholders agreed on Saturday May 19, during its Annual meeting and business forum taking place in London, to the creation of a €1 billion special fund to start investments in emerging Arab democracies, namely Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan, partly in response to the wave of political change.

    The expansion into the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean (SEMED) region follows calls for EBRD support from the international community and from countries in the region itself. Tunisia’s recent relationship with the EBRD is gradually getting stronger.

    ‘The EBRD has 20+ years of experience in supporting economic development in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Berlin wall the bank was founded with the mission to foster transition to economic development and economic growth through free market economies and support to the private sector. Like the fierce destruction Europe had suffered during the world wars, ‘Tunisia basically stands in a similar situation where people are again demanding a more stable economic future’, said an official from the Tunisian Ministry of Regional Development and Planning attending the Annual Meeting as a delegate.

    ‘The EBRD was created 20 years ago in similar circumstances (to the ones Tunisia faces). We are aware of the needs of countries in transition and we can offer our expertise and our knowhow to Tunisia’ stated Thomas Mirow, EBRD President, during his visit to Tunisia early this month.

    According to Allan Rouso, EBRD Managing Director for Stakeholder Relations EBRD, ‘the aim for the bank is to improve financing of the private sector, including small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), via direct investments in loans and equities, while providing support and expertise through policy dialogue, capacity building and other forms of technical assistance.’  

    The first SEMED projects are likely to be concluded around September of this year, most likely in the sector of energy efficiency, ‘an area seemingly on the Tunisian government’s top priorities’ said Josué Tanaka, EBRD managing director for energy efficiency and climate change who announced the launch of the bank’s third phase of its sustainable energy initiative (2012-2014).

    The bank is boosting its efforts to improve energy efficiency and deal with the threat of climate change with new investment in projects worth up to €25 billion over the next three years. Expansion to Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan presents it with opportunities to share its operational, financial and policy expertise, added Tanaka. But does going green and focusing on environment-oriented investments correspond to the Tunisian people’s most pressing demand: employment? When confronted with this question  Tanaka responded that agribusiness and energy efficiency investments generate more jobs than any other economy sectors.

    This is a claim that has previously been made by Mongi Smaili, a member of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) arguing that ‘a green economy would improve living standards for Tunisians’, as reported last month in Tunisia Live.  Of the 1.2 million Tunisians living in poverty, nearly 75% of them are in rural, agricultural areas, according to the UGTT department of research and documentation.  The countryside is precisely where Smaili sees potential for green jobs in Tunisia.  “We only see economic solutions in huge industrial projects,” he admonishes. To stimulate a domestic green economy, Tunisia should not think big, he urges, but rather focus on small, local projects that involve desalination, solar panels, wind turbines, and water conservation.

    Tunisia was hostile to foreign investments under the former regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Today effort urgently needs channelling into serious policy making, leading to encouraging investment laws.  The Bank expects to be able to eventually invest up to €2.5 billion a year in the new region, while not detracting from investments in its existing countries of operations, where funding totalled €9.1 billion in 2011.

    Palestine: a reconciliation agreement, again

    By Sameeha Elwan

    It has been over a year since our frustration with the ongoing factional fragmentation that wracked the Palestinian cause for years took the form of the mass demonstration of March15. Inspired by our fellows in other Arab countries, mainly Egypt, we, the youth in Gaza along with the West Bank, took to the streets calling for an end to that shameful division between Hamas and Fatah.

    Our demonstrations, however, were savagely suppressed by both the PA security forces in the West Bank and Hamas forces in Gaza.  Months later, a reconciliation agreement was reached. It aimed at forming an interim government that should prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections. The excitement over the declaration of an agreement was followed by another disappointment when nothing of the sort was put into effect. The Gaza Strip was still under the rule of Hamas, while the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority kept control of the West Bank.

    The news this week speaks of another agreement signed in Cairo to implement the Doha accord by setting a new timetable for the upcoming elections. The lack of reaction in the Palestinian arena might reflect how frequently we have been promised those unity agreements and how often we have been wooed with intentions that it turned out were not at all genuine. But it might also indicate a realization of the ineffectiveness and the irrelevance of the presence of both governments in our lives as Palestinians.

    The question now is not a question of whether a unified government could be authentically formed in the next six months.

    What we would like to know now is how did the Palestinian Authority get established as a representative body in the first place? Apparently, the PA has never been properly established, for more than two thirds of the population of Palestinians are disenfranchised refugees. How long will the political and national voices of those Palestinian refugees residing in the camps of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere be muted?  How would their involvement change the political vision that has proved to be such a misleading farce for the past twenty years, since the PA’s first establishment as part of the Oslo accords?

    And how would this relate to the political vision of a government that combines both a pragmatic political party, unsuccessfully engaged in the so-called peace process, and a party allegedly-formed as a “resistance party” that is nevertheless willing to temporarily give up armed resistance in times of “truce”?  What strategies and tactics would this new government adopt in its resistance to ongoing Israeli colonisation? For, the more Israel continues with its policies of apartheid which are now widely internationally acknowledged, the more we realize how powerless and ineffective our political leadership is. 

    Our desperation for change might drive us back to the illusions of “democratic elections”. Yet, it is time to confront ourselves with the obvious fact that the PA does not speak to what is in our minds: nor would the re-election of a new government bring about the change we want.  

    Tunisia: losing the best years

    By Ahmed Medien

    I spoke with Khaled Bouhrizi – Mr Kaz – last week about the past 6 years he spent in jail cut off from the world. Bouhrizi didn’t murder or steal. He had a business, unlawful perhaps. He sold hemp – commonly known as ‘zatla’ in Tunisia – to clients he did or he didn’t know. Bouhrizi was arrested in 2006 and convicted from 6 years of prison for hemp dealing until he was released earlier in January 2012.  As he explained, he thinks of this dealing as, “more honorable than vandalizing or stealing. I sold zatla because I needed money to improve my life conditions,” said Bouhrizi.

    Bouhrizi comes from a poor neighborhood in Tunis, Kabaria. His parents didn’t have enough means to help him make ends meet. So he preferred to do it his own way. I asked him if he would do it again if had the opportunity to change the past. He said yes. This is despite the six wasted years when he often thought of suicide: “Sometimes, thoughts of death seemed to walk beside me in prison. I would try to kill time talking to cellmates, but time was frozen. It was the same situation for every day of every single year.”

    The law ruling against deal of zatla – there are other laws for other different kinds of drugs and substances – was introduced in 1992 either by the chamber of deputies or president Ben Ali himself. Little information is available about the subject as it remains a taboo in both the society and its law courts. The law convicts first-time arrested users for 1 year and a 1 thousand dinars fine. The sentence and fine will go fivefold in case of a second arrest. Selling zatla, however, is punishable by 6 years for each client identified. Thus, one may end up with dozens of years in jail if caught with other clients willing to give him up. Bouhrizi was only sentenced for one deal and one client.

    “Judges don’t look at us as individuals, they see us as titles with felonies who deserve to rot in jail,” said Khaled with passion.

    Khaled hasn’t gone back to consuming or selling zatla since he left jail. He is clean now. Unfortunately, Khaled’s young brother, another rapper Mohamed Ali Bouhrizi, Madou MC, was arrested for consumption last march. He will be convicted for 1 year of jail away from his studies and profession and he has a 1 thousand-dinar fine. Thousands of people are convicted for zatla consumption or dealing each year as Bouhrizi witnessed in prison. Many of them are often nationals of western and sub-Saharan African countries, those close to Tunisia.

    It has been 6 months now since the new elected body in Tunisia has been in power. The law has not been changed. Police forces still put a great deal of money and effort into running after consumers and sellers of zatla. Hemp will grow in the arid parts of the Tunisian hinterland where hardly anything else will grow. But there is also a history of smuggling such goods through the Algerian borders with Tunisia. The corruption of customs officials at borders also has a history, though Khaled doubts whether the state itself or the Government has had anything to do with the traffic of hashish.

    Life is a continual risk for Tunisians who, often driven by hard conditions of life, choose to consume or sell zatla. The irony is that judges don’t even bother to look into the users’ psychiatric records. Many convicted for use of substances are sentenced for years of prison while all they might need is rehabilitation. Those convicted are sentenced for more years of jail if they fail to pay their fines. Fines increase as the ex-prisoners miss their payments, due to their incapacity to find jobs in a conservative Tunisian society that scarcely ever gives them a second chance.

    Until now, there is no political willingness or any pressure from civil society to change the law. Youngsters like Khaled and his brother Mohamed Amine will have to go through this harsh incarceration until the government decides to amend the law and save the lives of thousands of young Tunisians who just yearn for freedom and dignity.

    Mr. Che Guevara, the brain of the Tunisian Revolution

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    Mr. Tunisian Che Guevara was settled in front of his big flat screen television in his small but fancy apartment in the heart of Europe, when he suddenly stood stock still. Was he hallucinating after all he had been drinking (halal drinks) for several hours? But they looked real enough.

    “Bread, freedom and national dignity”, the desperate protestors chanted on that cold December evening, while the police forces rained down on them with tear gas, live bullets and anything that came to hand to disperse the angry mobs. The people of his home country had stunned him. Without thinking twice he decided to dedicate the next couple of days to Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Al Jazeera behind his Mac book Pro computer screen as if he were in the middle of action. Many kilometers from his native land, Mr. Tunisian Che Guevara wished he were home, braving it alongside the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who lived and still live without basic services, a violent police and a not less violent weather.

    Once Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Mr. Tunisian Che Guevara rushed to book a ticket on the first plane heading to Tunisia (though it was a bit expensive) for he would die to enable his people to live. More than 23,000 Tunisians who lost faith in their mother country meanwhile crossed over to the western hemisphere illegally looking for a surrogate mother country which would offer them a fairer future. High demands for visas to the European and Gulf countries spell out the disillusionment of young people after the newly elected government has done little to elevate people‘s lives. Since December 17, 2010, Mr. Tunisian Che Guevara and his clan have showered those people who have made it clear that their voices will not be silenced again, with promises of projects, forums, conferences, inspiring speeches and sometimes accusations, violence, detentions and intimidation.

    Mr. Tunisian Che Guevara, the hero of the Tunisian revolution has bombarded us daily with TV appearances and radio interviews to tout his miraculous achievements after he has orchestrated the revolution and successfully overthrew one-man rule.  

    Mr. Che Guevara is any opportunist who has taken advantage of the suffering and the good intentions of the Tunisian people to deceive them into believing that once they stage a sit-in or demonstrate in the streets to demand the same basic goals of the revolution “jobs, freedom and national dignity”, they are unintentionally bringing the wheels of production to an end. Mr. Tunisian Che Guevara demands financial compensation for political prisoners under Ben Ali and Bourguiba in a state of economic stagnation as if political activism were a for-profit enterprise.

    The Tunisian uprising is not only a revolt against the old regime; it is also a powerful act of defiance against any potential dictators to come.

    Egypt: election fever

    By Karim Adel

    Thursday, May 24

    Today, marks the second day of the first real elections in modern Egypt.  Lengthy queues have been forming in all the poll booth zones since 5am on the morning of May 23 to the point that some had to stay open accepting votes till two hours after closing time, supposed to be 8 pm on both polling days.

    Candidates such as Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi and Aboul Fotouh showed up to cast their votes and were warmly received by their supporters, unlike Mr Ahmed Shafik, former pro-Mubarak prime minister (assigned during the 18 day revolution and stepping down at the same time as the former President). Shafik was greeted with fury by the crowd of voters in the Tagamo Khames Zone who began by verbally harrassing him, calling him “an agent and a Folool” ( a term used to describe one of Mubarak's Corrupt Regime members)… As people started gathering however, the mob got more aggressive: Mr Shafik was attacked and chased with his bodyguards into his car by a hailstorm of shoes, slippers and water bottles. Another voting zone had to be shut down before the end of the first voting day, for breaching the rules: some forms that were already filled in with votes for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsy, were found.

    It’s still early to predict any election outcome but the results this time will be very close and there will be a second phase face-off between two final candidates … This uncertainty and tight competition over Egypt’s rule is in itself very new to the Egyptian people and is, as some say, one of the great gains of the January 25 Revolution…

     The outcome in unpredictable as many who voted for the Islamists in parliament have seen no action from them since and some are looking in the opposite direction and voting for one of Mubarak’s old regime candidates, while others are pledging alliance to the Islamists regardless. Meanwhile, there is little to unite those in the middle around one of the pro-Revolution candidates such as Hamdeen Sabahi, youth candidate Khaled Ali, or the former Muslim Brotherhood member, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh…. None of their supporters seem able to support any other candidate. All sides fear another escalation of violence like the Abasseyya clashes that took place among Hazem Abu Ismail’s supporters about a month ago, resulting in nineteen deaths.

    Friday, May 25

    Today, the first news of the results has been circling the media and the internet, and it shows that Mr Shafik and Mr.Morsy have the most votes and that they will both be making it to the second phase…

    This result is by far the worst scenario for the majority of the 15-20 million Egyptians that took part in a revolution to cleanse the political system of Mubarak’s old regime and to see a new real democracy and a civilian president…

    Shafik was indeed one of Mubarak’s men and there has been widespread publicity and even legal claims regarding past corruption and EgyptAir. He was a military man, just like all of Egypt’s former Presidents. So no change at all after the revolution… On the other hand Morsy is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party which now occupies most places in the parliament… If the Government and the Parliament that rates and judges its performance are both on exactly the same side, how can we expect justice or democracy to issue for that situation?

    Saturday: 

    Even though those results have not yet been officially published, people are beginning to the react to the news and the April 6 movement (which played a vital part in starting the Jan 25 Revolution) has already listed the percentages of the votes that they think were violated in each of the campaigns, calculated from the reports of a total of 60,000 volunteers and observers posted around Egypt’s polling stations: Morsy 30%, Moussa 12%, and Shafik 48%.

     

    To stay up to date with our columnists, bookmark our You Tell Us page and follow the columnists on twitter.

    Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

    Many on the Left want to return to a politics of class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

    Is this a chance to realign around a green democratic transformation?

    Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

    Hear from:

    Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

    Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

    Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

    Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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