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This week's window on the Middle East - November 5, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Putting humpty together again: can the FSA ever be unified?

Arab Awakening
4 November 2012
  • Putting humpty together again: can the FSA ever be unified?
  • Sudan: who is responsible?
  • Bye-bye Egypt - we cannot take the traffic any more
  • Three moments in Turkey’s long path to democracy
  • For lack of a leader in Egypt
  • Putting humpty together again: can the FSA ever be unified?

    By Rita from Syria

    The call for a unified political opposition has been a basic demand of the Syrian people since the beginning of the revolution. The militarization of the revolution a year ago has led to a greater clamour of voices for the unification of the FSA in particular. However, the nineteen month old revolutionary movement has been unable to meet the demands of the Syrian street - either politically or militarily. 

    I will leave political unification aside given the opposition’s catastrophic failure in this regard, but will instead talk about the unification of the militarized wing of the revolution: the FSA, and particularly insurgents in Damascus and its suburbs.  In discussing the FSA we will do well to bear in mind that each battalion in every Syrian region has its own dynamics and characteristics.

    From a Syrian citizen's point of view, it stands to reason that uniting insurgent militias in a single military council would benefit our revolution. This at last might give the council an international legitimacy and make it a reference point in the negotiations. On the other hand, many FSA fighters support keeping their militias separate, independent and autonomous.

    Mohammad, an insurgent in Al-Forqan brigade in rural Damascus has this to say about the issue: "a strong point of the FSA is that militias take quick decisions and respond immediately to changing facts on the ground. Unification will slow down the decision making on the ground. It will also make it easier for the Assadi regime to infiltrate the whole army through one single penetrable battalion".

    Civilian control

    But the core question remains: do FSA militias have the constituents to form a united body? The disjointed FSA militias suffer from several internal disputes. Today, a new fissure between civilian combatants and defected soldiers is becoming ever more palpable. The FSA consists largely of armed civilians and a lesser number of soldiers who have defected from the official army.  Soldiers put forward military plans while civilian combatants – often local residents – organize the battalion’s logistics and its relations with the local population. In some respects, this has given civilians in the FSA special importance as they can more easily secure people's trust.

    In fact, military defectors play second fiddle to the civilian wing of the FSA; with only one of every fifteen combatants in the FSA being defectors from Assad’s army. Although, there is a military leader in each battalion, civilian leaders have the final word: they control the battalion and monopolise the loyalty of many insurgents.

    Military councils made up of the military leaders of the various FSA battalions are used as a cover to legitimise the militias internationally, but they are quite marginalized when it comes to making decisions. The paradox here is that transformation of the FSA to a national liberation army requires a unified military leadership council as well as a better organized way of training civilian combatants so that they become effective soldiers. Such a  development is bound to minimise the role of civilians in the FSA. So it seems clear that the proposed project of unification is not in the interests of civilian combatants who are currently calling the shots.

    Secularism and professionalism

    Most professional soldiers in the FSA clearly support a secular vision for Syria, while the majority of civilian combatants are Islamist believers. Parallel to this, there is a huge difference in funding with civilian leaders able to attract far more financial resources than their counterparts on the military councils. One possible reason is that the main funders of the FSA are Islamist clerics or politicians.

    A clear example of this source of division took place in the dispute between Mohammad Al-Khatib the civilian leader of Al-forqan brigade, and General Khaled Al-hbos the head of the military council in Damascus and its surrounding areas. The battalions of Al-forqan are amongst the most heavily-armed and powerful in Damascus and its environs. They were among the first to join the military council. However, when the two leaders fell out the whole brigade withdrew from the military council taking various supporters with them. Al-forqan along with other brigades in the region established an alternative mechanism: the revolutionary military council and in the process marginalized the original military council, headed by General Al-hbos.

    Hashem, a volunteer combatant in Al-forqan regiment told me: "the military council leader [Khaled Alhbos] might have been right in his demands, but our loyalty is to our civilian leadership. We have to be careful that military soldiers do not turn against us in order to control the country". These words show a level of skepticism and a dangerous lack of trust that might result in a permanently fractured FSA. Concerns about military rule in Syria have pushed many FSA combatants to reject the notion of a unified FSA lest it fall under military control.

    National Syrian Army

    This is what happened when 200 defected generals gathered in Anticay-Turkey to form the united council for the National Syrian Army, under the leadership of Brigadier Hussein Haj Ali. This project failed like many others not least because most of the brigades refused to join it. The participation of Manaf Tlass, a former close friend of Bashar Alassad, in this virtual council was also one of the reasons for its failure. This also pushed defected soldiers to reject it. Abu Kifah, a defected captain in the military council of Qneitra justified his rejection by saying: "It's impossible to trust those people who have robbed the country. They just defected a few days ago, and now they want to control our revolution to continue looting. The one who defected first is the one who has legitimacy regardless of his military rank".

    Among the difficulties faced by Syrians in safeguarding their revolution, internal disputes remain the most serious. It seems an almost Sisyphean task for the FSA to unify and turn itself into an army of national liberation because this demands opportunist leaders to abandon their authoritarian leanings for control over financial resources. Having armed militias vying for control in Syria is not much less dangerous than military rule, but rather more chaotic.

    Sudan: who is responsible?

    By Reem Abbas

    At about midnight on October 23, I was sitting on my bed with my cousin deciding which movie to watch. The windows were wide open to allow some fresh air when all of a sudden, the sky turned red. It caught our attention at the same time and we rushed to the window to close it, expecting this to be a typical angry Sudanese sandstorm.  

    A few minutes later, I received a text message saying "plane crashes into Al-Yarmuk arms factory". I was confused and our national television channel, Sudan TV, naturally, was airing a music show. I logged into twitter and began making phone calls to understand what had just happened.

    Not far from the factory, a fellow journalist and newlywed had no more idea than I. She heard the sound of planes followed by the loudest noise she had ever heard. Her building shook, and in panic the young couple struggled to gather their important documents and flee the house. In the street, they found women wrapped in bedsheets covering their nightgowns. My friend told me people were trying to run towards the Nile, thinking it the safest refuge from whatever it was that was happening. The cynical ones said this was our introduction to judgment day. 

    Shortly after the airstrike and explosion, government officials announced on TV and radio that this was an internal explosion due to maintenance. They denied the airstrike; it was a figment of imagination on the part of thousands of people living there who insisted that they had seen and heard planes.

    For years, the Sudanese government successfully rallied people around it in times of crisis, from the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant to the 2008 Darfur rebels invading Khartoum state and the recent conflict with South Sudan. However, this time, the public felt disconnected from the government's convoluted relations with other countries, and frustrated about the unnecessary loss of life and property damage. Although Israel has yet to confirm or deny this particular airstrike, since 2009, Israel has bombed Eastern Sudan for alleged arms smuggling to Gaza. 

    Emerging details remain confusing; we were told that the airstrikes were because the factory made weapons for Iran. The government, naturally, denied those allegations, and instead what happened was that they prohibited newspapers from writing about this issue. In fact, two years earlier, they temporarily suspended a newspaper for writing about a Khartoum-based factory that made weapons for Iran. So much for treating Sudanese people like adults.

    So it was a sad Eid this year in Khartoum. A few days before the airstrike, sewage water exploded in Khartoum North, flooding houses. Just days later, it was the turn of people in Southern Khartoum who had a few sleepless nights when houses collapsed due to the airstrikes and subsequent explosion. Fires burst out again twice after the explosion, spreading fear and anger towards a government that had failed to take responsibility for what had happened.

    Commenting on the ongoing fire at the factory, the spokesperson of the Sudanese army said that the firemen couldn't reach some trees the first time. Nobody really believes anything they are told.

    Bye-bye Egypt - we cannot take the traffic any more

    By Dina El Sharnouby

    Cairo’s traffic has become a nightmare to many of its inhabitants. Much of one’s energy living in Cairo is devoted to planning life around the traffic or getting caught up in it. In his speech in the Cairo Stadium, in celebration of the 39th anniversary of the October war, President Mohamed Morsi announced that 60 per cent of the traffic problem has been resolved as part of his first 100 day plan. It is not clear how this number was arrived at. As President Morsi says, the traffic police are back on the streets, but the traffic in Egypt is driving some to pack up and leave the country all together, and the upper middle classes are increasingly retreating away from all the pollution and the noise into their gated communities, knowing that they are going to have to spend three hours in a car to get to their fancy workplaces.

    Egypt is said to be a great country because of its warm, friendly, and usually helpful people. But the fact is that authoritarian systems, political instabilities, rising unemployment rates, and sexual harassment can only be tolerated in the good company of friends, family, and work colleagues. None of this kind of solidarity seems a priority for the upper-middle classes, who are more interested in securing their peace of mind away from the bumpy streets, traffic queues and the bad pollution of Cairo’s streets. And Egypt’s urban planning is doing its utmost to accommodate them.

    With the expansion of Cairo’s desert areas, new spaces are being devoted to gated communities, lower middle class informal settlements, and work compounds like Smart Village where many fortunate young Egyptians work surrounded by green spaces and trees, much space between the buildings, and nice streets with well labelled signs. Smart village is heavenly. Good food, shisha, and nice coffee and cocktails are served for high prices in its cafes. Working with people from similar backgrounds and age groups, there is every convenience to be found in such fancy places.

    But the result of all this is that there is minimal contact between the classes especially when they are relaxing.  Despite such oases of refined living, many young Egyptians with a good education and who are fairly ambitious are beginning to talk about wanting to migrate to a country where they can feel more ‘human’. The isolation of the various classes is a serious issue that should get some attention. 

    Three moments in Turkey’s long path to democracy

    By Ali Gokpinar

    At least 700 Kurdish prisoners have been on collective hunger strike for more than 50 days as of November 1. Only two or three small websites reported the strike after its thirtieth day. Major media outlets ignored the strike until last week when BBC published a report making the whole international community aware of what was going on. On October 29 meanwhile, secularists gathered in Ankara to celebrate Turkey’s founding 89 years ago and to visit the tomb of Ataturk in Ankara. The governor of Ankara forbade mass celebrations and established barricades so that people could not access Ataturk’s tomb. That resulted in the Turkish police using tear gas against civilians. That same night, for the first time in Turkey’s history, the top military commander stood alongside Ms. Gul and Ms. Erdogan, wives of the president and prime minister respectively, both of whom wore headscarves in the official reception at the Presidency mansion.

    One step forward, two steps back? No! It’s not that simple. In a recent article on civil-military relations in Turkey, Prof. Umit Cizre described the ruling AK Party as a status quoist, reformist party pursuing inconsistent demilitarization policies. Why? What is the relevance of the above three news items to this process?

    First, the AK Party government did not embark on its demilitarization programme until the Turkish military published an online memorandum to remind the government who was the ultimate guardian of the nation, followed by the Ergenokon and Sledgehammer coup attempts. In other words, circumstances dragged the government into such a demilitarization process that would satisfy the electorate’s demands. The government seems to want to maintain a reformist profile while actually negotiating the continuation of the status quo with a suspicious military establishment and containing any civil disobedience. Still, on the surface and symbolically, two ladies with headscarves standing with the top military commander seems amazing to us.

    Second, civil disobedience has translated itself into the current hunger strike of Kurdish inmates. The Kurdish prisoners launched the strike for two reasons; 1) to demand an end to the imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader and to move forward towards a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish question, and 2) to achieve the right to self-defence in Kurdish in Turkish courts. While Prime Minister Erdogan first denied the existence of the hunger strikes, the Minister of Justice has asserted his will to find a viable solution, contradicting his superior. Fortunately, the government has not attempted to suppress the protest on this occasion as the previous government did in 2000 in an operation called ‘Back to Life’ that resulted in killing 12 prisoners and injuring 29 at a prison in Istanbul. However, the AKP has to fulfil the role of guardian of conservative populist Turkish nationalism, it seems. So refusing to make any concessions can be popular.

    Three, the conflict between secularists and conservatives has polarized Turkish society. Since November 3, 2002, the secularists have become obsessed with Kemalist rituals and symbols. Since they gradually lost their culturally superior status and the AKP rid Turkey of various undemocratic secular principles, the Kemalists have developed a nostalgia for the first decade of the republic, when Ataturk was still in power injecting laicite into the whole nation as if it was a religion.

    However, why should the government be so heavy handed in its use of barricades and tear gas? Whatever you think of these particular stances, protest and freedom of expression are fundamentals in a democratic society. It seems that this is not the approach of Turkey’s right wing political parties. Let’s hope that these decisions will not return to haunt the AKP.

    For lack of a leader in Egypt

    By Refaat Mohamed

    Most of the revolutionaries and rebels are fans of the various underground sub-cultures.  They love the underground for several reasons. First of all it is raw, the talent and the voice, not constrained by rules, and academics dictating how they should be applied.  Second, all the rules of business-making and achieving mass appeal don’t apply in the underground. A member of the underground performs for the sake of performing.  Plus there is a thrill that you get while you are involved in the underground scene that you simply cannot explain.

    People ask, “So what is the point?  You are doing something that the common man or woman in the street doesn’t like one bit, and apparently you are not making any money, which could seriously help you promote both your artistry and your career, and give you some real future as an individual”. Agents come with their offers of a deal,  “Just sign it, and leave it to our executives, and our marketing team to adapt your talent so that everybody likes what you do.”  And the reply is “Ask Mohamed ElBaradei: I think he knows the answer I’m going to give you.”

    Mohamed ElBaradei in many ways represents the underground culture more clearly than any underground starving hip hop artist, or indie rocker who has refused to compromise. Mohamed ElBaradei refused to sign up for the deal. He refused to play the game, because as we all know the game is corrupt and evil. Not just in Egypt. Not just in MENA, but in the whole world. The levels of corruption may be even higher in Egypt. But he wanted to change the rules of the game. And so he refused to be a politician.

    It could be silly idealism, it could be fear, it could be noble, or he could have just wanted to be true to himself, but I cannot help but fantasize about what might have happened if Mohamed ElBaradei, with his supporters, and all that he represents, had stood up, fought, and managed to attain what they wanted, and deserved. He could have lost as a presidential candidate, but he would have won more respect in the political arena, and more of the love and support of the people.  This is not about ElBaradei as a person but as a symbol of the revolution, and a leader for the secular and liberal parties, because these parties certainly needed all the support they could get after the former Mubarak regime, SCAF, and lastly the Islamists, all had a go at destroying this sector in the media.

    Morsi didn’t have the odds on his side in the beginning, but he signed the deal, and he fought to win the presidential race, and now he is the president. He may not be the brightest, but he sure made a lot of effort, and I can’t help but want to ask ElBaradei - why he didn’t make the same effort?

    Will COVID break up the UK?

    Support for Scottish independence is at record levels. Support for a united Ireland is at record levels. Support for Welsh independence is at record levels.

    The British state's management of the COVID crisis has widely been seen as disastrous. Will the pandemic accelerate the break-up of the United Kingdom?

    Join us on Thursday 6 August at 5pm UK time/6pm CET for a live discussion.

    Hear from:

    Anthony Barnett Founder of openDemocracy, he has often written about the need for a progressive England to emerge from the shadow of Britain.

    Allison Morris Security correspondent and columnist with the Irish News, and an analyst of politics in Northern Ireland.

    Harriet Protheroe-Soltani Trade union organiser for Wales and the south-west, vice chair of the campaign group Momentum, and has written about rising support for Welsh independence on the Left.

    Chair: Adam Ramsay Editor at openDemocracy and frequent writer about Scottish independence, most recently in The Guardian.

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