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This week's window on the Middle East - October 15, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Tahrir Square’s rent-a-thug culture

Arab Awakening
15 October 2012
  • Tahrir Square’s rent-a-thug culture
  • Standing up for unity: building bridges through comedy in the Gulf
  • Salafis in Syria: half the story
  • Normal life in Libya and the manipulation of facts
  • The religious smokescreen
  • Out with the old, in with the old, in Jordan
  • Tahrir Square’s rent-a-thug culture

    By Amro Ali

    Tunis

    It’s hard to imagine the above photos are two different events. Yet one took place at the turning point of the 18 day revolution, when pro-Mubarak thugs came out on 2 February 2011 on horseback and camels to scare the protesters away, and the latter was on Friday, nowhere near the level of the Battle of the Camel, but disturbing enough. What they do have in common, besides the striking visual parallel, is citizen versus citizen, which has not happened at any time in between those two events

    The backdrop to Friday’s case could not be any more tragic, the perpetrators of the notorious Battle of the Camel that resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injured (Exhibit A) were acquitted on Wednesday. So what do pro-Morsi supporters do? They gave us a re-enactment of the Battle of the Camel, the very event they came out to protest against.

    Friday roughly brought out two camps – pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters to denounce the court decision and liberals for their “Friday of Accountability” to denounce Morsi’s failed 100 day election promises and the constitution drafting process.

    The clashes erupted on Friday when civil forces in the pro-Hamdeen chanted anti-Morsi statements which led nearby Muslim Brotherhood or pro-Morsi supporters to ransack the stage as seen in this video.

    What followed in the ensuing hours were street battles long into the night that involved throwing stone, fireworks and Molotov cocktails. Confusion reigned as one tweet noted “how the hell do people know who is who?” (@Bassem_Sabry).

    I won’t say the liberal forces’ hands are clean, and this event will pass and we will move onto the next drama. But there is a pattern that the Brotherhood has tended to illustrate since last year.

    First, it is the attempted appropriation of Tahrir Square. Tahrir has taken on a sacred dimension. It’s where many martyrs fell; it’s where Mubarak was overthrown. With the mindset of, “He who controls Tahrir, controls Cairo”, they fear losing it will mean losing their legitimacy; all political factions in one way or another draw their legitimacy from the square. The insecurity shows up in various Brotherhood tactics such as drowning out other political voices in the square with their loud speakers as I witnessed on the first anniversary of the revolution.

    Secondly, the double-talk of the Brotherhood spokesmen to deny over the airwaves that there are any members in the square, while simultaneously announcing that members should leave the square. Also the tightly controlled and disciplined Brotherhood apparatus makes it difficult to believe that spontaneity is one of their weaknesses.

    The Brotherhood should not delude themselves. The fact they have to bus in members from other governorates is the first clue that their strength is not in the urban heartlands. Effective public mobilisation does not mean effective public opinion. Their political arm polls very poorly in Cairo and Alexandria, and it could even go lower.

    It would be an overstretch to think Morsi had anything to with Friday’s violence. However, questions need to be asked as to the whereabouts of the police force. We know during the uprising, the police were withdrawn by the regime. Yet what possible reason can there be this time?

    The thuggish behaviour on Friday leads one to to ask of the Brotherhood, what did they ever learn during the days of the Mubarak regime? Were they in fact repelled or inspired? Praying or paying off ? Opposing or taking notes?

    Standing up for unity: building bridges through comedy in the Gulf

    By Michael Stephens

    Just before his death the late (and great) Anthony Shadid toured Doha to write an exposé on Qatar’s capital and its cultural life. It was not an overly flattering picture. Whilst Doha looked very impressive he concluded there was no soul to the place. Life stood empty even as Doha’s power and influence increased day by day: usually stories about Syria, Libya or enormous wealth and mega-purchases tend to fill the column inches, and that is just about all Qatar is good for.

    He was partially right of course; Doha hasn’t quite reached the point at which it could be considered a bustling metropolis. But something is changing in Doha, and whilst it may be seen mostly through the expansion of glass and steel skyscrapers on the horizon it is also occurring in the day to day life of the city in more subtle ways.

    As the country rapidly expands, bringing in people from all over the world, new outlets and ideas have taken root, and whilst usually quiet in their observance concerning the changing face of their country some Qataris are now adding their ten cents to the national conversation. Some even make jokes about it.

    Qatar is a not the sort of place one might expect to see a stand-up comedy scene, yet Shadid was quick to pick up on it, and rightly so. In a country packed full of cultures forced together cheek by jowl, comedy is perhaps the best form of release to help deal with some of the growing pains that the country is going through. 

    Hamad al Ammari, a 24 year Qatari is one of a few budding comedians that have risen to prominence in the tiny emirate in the past few months. He can be found dressed in the traditional Qatari thobe and gutra performing to crowds of mostly expat audiences, addressing topics ranging from the terrible driving habits of the locals, to terrorism, or the bizarre and often amusing questions that are put to him by curious westerners wanting to know more about his culture.

    But all is not as it seems, Hamad is as comfortable in western culture as he is in Qatari. His English is heavily tinged with a thick Dublin accent so as to be indistinguishable from that of a local Irishman. A product of many years growing up in the Emerald Isle before returning to his homeland after university. Able to navigate seamlessly in and out of two worlds he is perhaps better able to talk to expats about Qatari culture in a way in which they understand and identify with, and which is simultaneously not offensive to the locals.

    ‘I feel blessed to be able to see Qatari culture as an outsider, and to have a foot on either side of the divide’ he says. Having initially been encouraged by a friend to try stand-up comedy, it has grown into something much more than just a fun hobby.  ‘I feel a sense of responsibility to fill the gap [between cultures], Qatar has opened its doors to the world, and forming a bridge between two different cultures is what I’m trying to do’.

    Qatar’s diversity of cultures means that for the observant there are sources of comedy almost wherever you look, miscommunications, puzzled looks, and downright bewilderment are all part of the Qatar experience,  ‘there’s material everywhere in this country, it’s great!’ he adds.

    Being able to tap into some of that confusion is often cathartic, and to have it voiced by of all people a Qatari is especially freeing, as Hamad understands well, ‘by addressing issues in a funny way, I can talk about things that everyone’s thinking but not saying.’

    In a way the role of a comedian in a place like Qatar is not just that of being a funny man, but also providing a public space for a collective social release. The socially elevated position of Qataris relative to the expatriate population is a constant source of anxiety amongst foreigners fearful of upsetting their hosts. For a Qatari to stand up in front of expats and parody his culture as well as that of others allows people to see Qataris in a less distant light.

    ‘It’s good for your heart to laugh’, he adds ‘I want to bring everyone together to understand that we’re both here [expats and Qataris], and that as a Qatari you’re responsible for creating an impression in their experience’.

    Hamad’s particular skill of switching accents to mirror the culture he is parodying greatly enhances this sense of collective togetherness. ‘If you talk to someone in an accent they’re familiar with it’s easier to get the message across, and using that can diffuse a situation and make it funny’ he says with a broad grin across his face.

    One minute he is poking fun at Qataris speaking in broken English accents and driving too fast, before switching into Filipino English to make fun of Filipino airport attendants, before focusing his lens onto English expats from the north of England constantly complaining about the weather, in a broad northern English accent. No one is safe.

    Whilst there are inevitable irritants to living in such a multicultural society, these are far outweighed by the positive aspects of the interactions that everyone has to experience in their daily lives. For Qatar to work, both as a nation and as an idea, the role of people like Hamad and other cultural commentators will only increase in the future. They serve to transmit information between cultures in a language which both sides understand.

    ‘I stand in the middle, and people inevitably ask me all sorts questions’, Hamad notes ‘but I want people to know that although we are different, we’re all the same’.

    If it takes us laughing to achieve that goal, then long may it continue.

    Salafis in Syria: half the story

    By Rita From Syria

    Aleppo, the industrial engine of Syria, is not only the scene of the most violent clashes between regime forces and the Free Syrian Army, but it is also the home of a unique musical style - al-qodoud al-halabieh-. This music based on traditional poetry and rhythms of the region – is a pillar of Syrian and Middle Eastern cultural heritage.

    Aleppo is one of the most conservative cities in Syria. However, its qodouds  express something rather different. For example, the wine of love, a famous qodoud, has a strong erotic message. A frustrated lover declares: In tajoudi fasilini – if you want to be generous, give yourself to me. Suggesting such a thing to locals might elicit disapproving tuts and glares. Nonetheless, this song is widely listened to and sung by many of them. So, for someone who has been introduced to the qodouds as the music of Aleppo, the city's conservative image will scarcely ring true.  

    In fact, I would never have noticed these contradictions in my society, but eighteen months ago the eruptions of popular protest against the regime started posing a lot of serious questions. A pressing concern currently on the minds of academics, journalists and any other person with an opinion to express is the emergence of the Salafi trend in Syria. Like most people, I had my own preconceptions about Salafi Muslims. I was jolted out of one of those prejudices when Abu Dia'a, the Salafi commander of an FSA battalion in the city of Jibata Al-Khashab, shook my hand when we met – a supposed big no -no for Salafis when greeting members of the opposite sex.

    With his shaved moustache and short beard, Abu Dia'a welcomed me into the battalion stronghold, and even invited me to share an Argeeleh with him! Meanwhile, at demonstrations held in the town centre, Abu Dia'a, held aloft on the shoulders of other protesters, would shout slogans demanding an Islamic caliphate.

    "I like to show myself as an extremist Salafi especially when I see people getting scared for no reason." Laughing, he adds: " I am no killer. We [Salafis] are not barbarians. We're always misunderstood. Our prayers, traditions and even our appearance is enough to make the whole world point at us as extremists and get scared”.

    A commander in another battalion of the FSA – who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity – told me that his battalion adheres to the Salafi way. The reason for this is not their belief in a Salafi interpretation of Islam, but based on more prosaic concerns: to get funding from Gulf countries and some Salafi clerics based in Tripoli. He added that some clerics insist that the batallions declare themselves as Salafi as a pre-condition for funding. As they are the only source of funding available at the moment, the battalions feel compelled to accept their clerical demands.

    I want to mention here that the al-Nosra front – which represents Al-Qaida in Syria – is not a part of the FSA. Only few Syrians contact and meet with them. Mohammad is a member of the FSA who met four Jihadi fighters from Al-Qaida in Damascus last month: "They had the typical appearance of Jihadi fighters and I wondered how they were able to hang around in Damascus City given the tight security conditions that operate there."

    When I asked him about their nationalities he answered: "All of them were Syrians and had fought in Iraq. They left Iraq to go to Afghanistan where they received special training before returning to Syria. Panic overwhelmed me when they showed me their dynamite belts under their clothes. They were ready to pull the fuse and blow themselves up to avoid detention!" Mohammad asked them about the possible danger of wasting civilian lives by using these deadly weapons. One of them answered: "We try not to harm civilians, but if something went wrong and they got hurt, they will have the honour of martyrdom". The four Jihadists went off to prayers wearing their deadly weapons.

    Al-Qaida has a more open presence in Aleppo. Their black flags can be seen everywhere in this city. Malik is a French Jihadi fighter of Algerian origin. He came to Syria for what he calls "a sacred duty ", and hopes to go back to his family and fiancé on fulfilling his duty. The porous border with Turkey has activated smuggling networks and has given foreign Jihadi fighters a gateway to entering Syria.

    A few years ago, a general in the secret police was very proud to state to some close friends of his that he had been training some Jihadi fighters and preparing them to fight in Iraq. Leaked security information from Syrian security branches – particularly the air forces security branch – exposed their relationship with Al-Qaida. They confirm that security forces have played a major role in the training and funding of Jihadi fighters and sending them to other countries.

    The Salafist presence in Syria is often  attributed to an agenda set by foreign parties, notably from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But this only tells one half of the story: a Machiavellian foreign policy pursued by Al-Assad regime also nurtured and embraced jihadi elements following the American invasion of Iraq. Faced with this uncomfortable truth, some within the ranks of the opposition in Syria continue to bury their heads in the sand and deny that Al-Qaida is present in Syria. Meanwhile, regime supporters miss no opportunity to accuse the revolutionaries of being extremists or Salafis – conveniently forgetting the role of the regime in bringing the Salafist trend to Syria in the first instance.

    While the world's media hones in on Salafis as emerging players in this ever-evolving Syrian revolution, it consistently ignores the reasons behind this. We should keep in mind that just as the popular qodoud al-halabieh does not necessarily reflect the conservatism of the people of Aleppo, statements and slogans on the internet about Syrian Salafis do not necessarily tell the whole story.

    Thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for translating this article

    Normal life in Libya and the manipulation of facts

    By Rhiannon Smith

    The past few weeks and months have not been kind to Libya. Journalists, diplomats and academics the world over have wrangled over the realities, politics and semantics of the current situation in this post- conflict country. Do the attacks against foreign organisations and embassies in the east represent the first steps on a slippery slope towards chaos and insurgency? Is Libya becoming the new Somalia, a place where lawless Islamist militias rule the roost and the authorities face intimidation and assassination if they do more than dither or wring their hands? Are the Libyan people really just ignorant Al Qaida supporters who are ungrateful for the support the international community gave them to be rid of their despotic dictator?

    Questions such as these are appearing more frequently in the press and frame an increasingly apocalyptic outlook for Libya’s future: yet such assertions seem at best unfounded and ill-conceived, at worst reckless and dangerous. Make no mistake, I am not refuting the facts about what has been happening in Libya in recent weeks. The American ambassador was killed in Benghazi; militias are flexing their muscles as the state tries to curb their powers; Libya is without a new prime minister or government and as I write heavily armed forces are drawing battle lines around Gaddafi’s stronghold of Bani Walid.  However the unfortunate thing about facts is that they can all too easily be manipulated, misconstrued or taken out of context. Sensational questions like the ones above are based on fact, yet the problem is they represent facts from only one side of the story in Libya.

    The reality is that normal life goes on, especially in Tripoli. But because it isn’t interesting or exciting it doesn’t reach the radar of those outside. For every negative incident that takes place there are plenty of positives which counter balance it or help put it into perspective. Thousands of protesters on the streets of Benghazi showing their grief and anger at the death of the ambassador and demanding an end to the militias is one pertinent example. However most of the positives experienced in Libya on a day to day basis are not so obvious or newsworthy, but have to be pieced together like tiny pieces in a puzzle. Children are back at school, trade is flourishing, migrant workers have returned and businesses are functioning as normal again. In the run up to Eid al Adha, sheep pens have sprung up around the city as Libyans prepare for both the religious festival and the anniversary of free Libya on October 23. Libya suffered nine months of a bloody, violent revolution and for a lot of people the fact that life has bounced back to normal just a year after it ended represents a huge achievement. For civilians who became accustomed to heavy bombing, shooting and fighting on a daily basis, occasional shoot outs or attacks just a year on are not particularly surprising or threatening as it still represents a drastic improvement from last year.

    However this is not to say that the Libyan public has become complacent or desensitised. I live and work a stone’s throw from the General National Congress building and as such I know better than most the amount of protests that take place there almost on a daily basis. The fact that Libyan citizens can now take their issues directly to the government without fear of retaliation is heartening: but the fact that so many seem to have grievances is less so. Whilst people naturally want guns and violence off the streets of Libya, no one expects the government to be able to enforce this overnight. However the main issue which is currently frustrating and galvanising Tripoli residents is the apparent ineptitude and inexperience of their elected leaders. While the outside world sees recent attacks as the main danger to Libya, many inside the country see the real threat as ineffective leadership with the events of recent weeks being merely the symptoms.

    There is a sense of frustration that elections went so well, yet those elected now seem incapable of making decisions, enforcing them and choosing an effective leader. Congress sessions are streamed live which is great for transparency, but less so for public confidence as in these debates the collective inexperience is all too apparent. This is not surprising given the political void which preceded this year, but is still an issue which must be dealt with one way or another. While the state is perceived as weak and ineffectual, security problems will only get worse as people take advantage of the situation. Yet if the GNC and government can win back the confidence of the Libyan public then everything will improve in leaps and bounds.

    So far Libyans have generally been patient and understanding of those they put in power but now the inaction of the authorities is tarnishing Libya’s reputation worldwide and as a result, frustration on the streets is becoming palpable. I do not think Libya is on some irreversible downward spiral towards anarchy but rather what we are witnessing is the manifestation of the country’s growing pains as it attempts to move from one man rule to democracy with no experience of how to do so. That said, the Libyan authorities must do something to reinstate public confidence soon, because the more disillusioned Libyans become with their government, the more likely the outside world will be to conclude that all is lost in Libya. 

    The religious smokescreen

    By Kacem Jlidi

    Theories about the Tunisian Government being a puppet in the hands of Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, seem to be justified by a buzzing online video leaked on October 10, 2012. The spiritual leader, supposedly retired from the political scene, is caught on video during a meeting at the Ennahda offices in Tunis.

    He appears to be advising Salafi representatives to act wisely in order to solidify their gains over the secularists and consolidate their long-term strategy to reign over Tunisia. Ghannouchi and other members of the Ennhada party state that the video dates back to February or March 2012 and it has been spun and taken out of context.

    Throughout the video Ghannouchi seemed to encourage the Salafi groups to do more community outreach through building media institutions and schools to better influence the people with their ideas. ‘Do not rush things’. He said. ‘I tell the Salafi youth that we all went through the same and we suffered. Now you need to have a TV, a radio, schools, and invite the Imams. Why are you rushing things?’ He adds. ‘We should present a reassuring discourse to people, and instruct them to protect our achievements. We should spread our schools and our associations throughout the country,’ the Ennahda leader says.

    The pro-Ennahda camp got defensive at the reaction to the video. They tried to justify themselves on the grounds that the meeting took place during the national debate on whether to use Sharia law as the source of legislation in the country’s new constitution. The aim of the meeting was to include the Salafi groups into the democratic process and convince them to drop their use of violence to further their cause.

    However, some left-wingers are calling this evidence of Ennahda’s obvious plan to turn Tunisia into an Islamic state similar to Iran. Ghannouchi says on video that Ennahda was now under the control of the Mosques and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. He argues that too radical a change could backfire on them, as it did for the Algerian Islamists in the 1990s.

    He further highlights the secularists’ threat to their plans because they control the main sectors of the state: 

    ‘Now the secular groups, though they did not gain a majority, still control the media, the administration and the economy. The administration is in their hands. Yes, we are heading the administration but all the bases are under their power. Even the governors are under their control … the army is in their hands. We cannot guarantee the police and the army,’ stated the party leader.

    The Ministry of National Defence issued a statement on the same day stating that the military will always be Republican and apolitical.

    It further explained that the army would remain neutral with regard to conflicts between the political parties and keep the same distance from any political polarization. In the same context, the Ministry called on all soldiers and officers in the army to respect the laws of the country and the hierarchy within the national army and commit themselves to serving the nation.

    Hatem Farhat, a lawyer from Mahdia, filed a lawsuit the following day against Rachid Ghannouchi. The lawyer claimed that the statements clearly indicate the party’s intentions to control all aspects of the state and provoke people to fight, thereby threatening the internal security of the State as per Acts 70 and 72 of the Tunisian Criminal Code. The complaint states also that this tape highlights Ghannouchi's real intention to change the state, according to Chapter 72.  The lawyer demanded that the Court of First Instance carry out an audit to verify the authenticity of the video as part of this investigation and to refer any found guilty to the court.

    In an interview with AFP last month, Ghannouchi called the Salafi groups a danger ‘to public freedom’ and vowed that the authorities would crack down on them after they caused deadly violence at the US embassy in Tunis.

    The double-faced discourse employed by Ennahda is making it harder to have confidence in their statements. On the one hand, they claim to be moderate and are in full support of the country’s democratic transition and preserving people freedoms. And on the other hand, they remain silent at the different attacks made by the Salafi groups and their on-going threat to public freedoms.

    They also seem to be focusing on manipulating behind the scenes to keep control by buying more time, thus postponing answering the people’s most urgent demands.  

    Out with the old, in with the old, in Jordan

    By Munir Atalla

    Last week, before an audience of young American liberals, King Abdullah II charmed viewers of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.  The King sat stoically and spoke succinctly.  He seemed like a seasoned monarch, weighed down by his own benevolence in a region of malice.  Any non-Jordanian viewing the show, would have been enchanted.  The King gave the impression that power takes its toll on a man.  As streaks of grey lined his hair viewers thought, “this man is carrying his nation through a hurricane”, much the way democrats view Obama today.  Yet, the King’s appearance was wrought with ulterior motives.  In front of the world, he declared himself a constitutional monarch, discounted the Brotherhood, and accused Islamists of “hijacking” the revolutions.           

    As the King met with leaders of the United Nations, the Islamic Action Front rallied a group of protesters for one of the largest Friday demonstrations since the beginning of the uprisings.  Outside a building in Amman’s financial district, retirees of the phosphate industry gathered to demand their rights as workers.  “We are with His Majesty the King!”  Said one of them, “if the King himself was to come down here right now and tell us that we have no rights, we would go home immediately.” 

    Protests around the nation are filled with people who are caught between currents and conflicts of interest.  They know they want reform, but they don’t know how they want it.  They know they want the King, but they don’t want a dictator.  They want to vote in elections, but they want to boycott the corrupt ones imposed by the regime. Such is the plight of citizens of this small nation. 

    When the Islamic Action Front announced that it would boycott the upcoming elections planned for the start of 2013, people wondered whether they were experiencing déjà vu.  Yes, the election laws are completely unfair, but the people have tired of the Front’s tactics.  Of three million eligible voters, about two million have registered to vote.  Each individual registration was a blow to the IAF, showing the Brotherhood that people are tired of poker politics - constant bluffing, rigged decks, and never raising the ante.

    News sources around the world are publishing alarmist articles about the King’s latest Prime Minister (the 62nd in 66 years since the country’s establishment) but those who listen fail to see the difference between the Hashemite Kingdom and other Arab tyrannies.  In Jordan, people have seen these sorts of decisions for years.  It has become second nature, like the turning of the seasons.  Out with the old, in with the old.  They glance at neighbouring Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and see that uprising means sacrificing a lot for many years before a system can thrive.  At this point it means Islamism and crackdowns and violence.  Their neighbours have gone through this and are still years away. Yes, protests have increased since the Arab Awakening, but the monarchy has its finger right on the pulse—it can see its citizens cards.  It knows that for now, most Jordanians aren’t ready to go all in, and they will call their bluff.

    Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


    To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

    We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

    We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

    The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

    And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

    The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

    Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

    The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


    By adding my name to this campaign, I authorise openDemocracy and Foxglove to keep me updated about their important work.

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