This week's window on the Middle East - September 17, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Turning the tide on Egypt’s sinking book reading culture

Arab Awakening
17 September 2012
  • Turning the tide on Egypt’s sinking book reading culture
  • Strong Sudanese women
  • Bahrain’s nostalgic bourgeoisie
  • Qatar and protest: a difficult combination
  • Champions on the margins of societyg
  • Tunisian Constitutional Assembly violates its own transparency
  • Another ugly movie shot in ‘moderate’ Tunisia
  • Libyans apologise for Benghazi attack and demand security and rule of law in Libya
  • Turning the tide on Egypt’s sinking book reading culture

    By Amro Ali

    On a conference visit to Rome a few months ago, I was taken aback by what I saw upon my arrival at the main train station, Roma Termini – out on the street was a homeless man, in torn, dishevelled clothes, reading a book. The sight in some ways entranced me. Here was a man who had lost everything in life, but had not lost his dignity to live and re-live through the written word.

    I found myself bleakly registering the contrast with Egyptian university graduates who will rarely pick up a book following their formal education. Forget leisure reading, they would no more think of taking out a book in a cafe as taking out a gun. Ask a young Egyptian why don’t you read, and the response is, “I only read if I have to.”  In other words, if it is work-related or an obligatory part of some curriculum.

    It is in this context of a defanged reading culture that police raided the book sellers on the historical Nabi Daniel Street in Alexandria – the city that spawned one of the wonders of the world, the ancient library of Alexandria. The street – where I could pick up a copy of a 1960s Time magazine or some other yellowing Egyptian periodical – strewing books all over the pavement and sending shockwaves throughout the literary world followed by accusations of Muslim Brotherhood-style censorship.

    Contrary to what media outlets reported and activists tweeted, this was nothing to do with Brotherhood censorship. It was about cracking down on street vendors who cause street congestion. After all, Islamic books occupied a portion of the desecrated books, countless (non-book related) street vendors were affected by the raids, and fixed book shops were not touched.  The evidence is clear.

    Nonetheless, this episode is a pointer to a troubling aspect of a widespread mindset – the contempt for books so eloquently anatomised by Khaled Fahmy in his sobering piece, The Tragedy of Books in Egypt.

    In fairness, Egyptian society is also battling the cultural wasteland that was left under Hosni Mubarak. Under thirty unimaginative years, the impulse to read declined to such an extent that book stores resorted to selling stationary. The goal of life was merely to survive, not to thrive.

    Yet I have reason to be optimistic.

    Following my return trip from Rome back to Alexandria, I set off to ask bookstores how sales differed now compared to prior to the revolution. Many reported sales have gone up on political and history books. Interestingly, outside of the Egyptian publication industry, personal development books are greatly increasing. Robert Greene’s “The 33 Strategies of War” has been translated into Arabic, reflecting a growing market demand on the topic of empowerment since the revolution.

    One avid reader pointed out to that reading has been diversified and someone holding a book in a café may have given way to the PCs, e-book readers, smartphones, and electronic gadgets that are replacing traditional books.

    The reincarnated ancient library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is also shaping attitudes today. The library is trying to compensate for the dysfunctional education system that has produced a generation of rote learners rather than critical thinkers by holding countless seminars, debates, workshops and symposiums on how to move Egypt forward.

    The library has become an agent of socialisation. Like mosques and churches, it is being adopted into the social structures where rules and norms are slowly being reinterpreted and reconstituted in young people’s understanding of their place in the new Egypt. The by-product is an increased self-awareness of the value of reading and the cultural arts.

    Yet Egypt is much bigger than Alexandria and the recent book raids the issue of law enforcement practices that are reflective of a police generation lacking any trace of sophistication or subtlety, and, like every other hangover from the previous regime, in desperate need of reform.

    Nor should the recent incident be a reason to let down one’s guard against any creeping Brotherhood censorship attempts. If anything, it should make one more vigilant.

    That homeless person in Rome brought Mark Twain’s words to mind: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

    Strong Sudanese women

    By Maha El Sanosi

    Among the countless hardships the Sudanese people suffer at the hands of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), the Sudanese Public Order Act, most notably Article 152 of the penal code is one of the most harsh:

    Article 152 of the Public Order Law: Obscene and Indecent Acts: 

    (1) Whoever does in a public place an indecent act or an act contrary to public morals or wears an obscene outfit or contrary to public morals or causing an annoyance to public feelings shall be punished with flogging which may not exceed forty lashes or with fine or with both.

    (2) The act shall be contrary to public morals if it is regarded as such according to the standard of the person’s religion or the custom of the country where the act takes place.

    Articles 151, 152, 154 and 156 of the Sudanese criminal code enforce restrictions on women and the way they dress and behave in public. If they commit an act that is ‘deemed by an officer of the law to be in violation of these articles’, they may face a lashing sentence and in other cases be forced to pay a fine. The young lady in this video is being lashed for allegedly violating Article 152 for an undisclosed crime. As one officer lashes her and she wails in pain, the other officers watch and take perverse pleasure in her anguish.

    This year in March, the month celebrating International Women’s Day every year, ripples of shock spread across Sudan and the international community after the Public Order Police shot dead Awadiya Ajabna, a woman who hails from the Nuba Mountains, right in front of her house. The police fired at her after accusing her brother of consuming alcohol. This happened in the presence of her own family. The officer who shot her is now roaming free and is even rumoured to have received a rise in salary.

    But this is not the first time innocent, unarmed women have been killed in this way. Nadia Saboun used to sell tea in downtown Khartoum to passers-by. As the Public Order police patrolled past the central market two years ago, they spotted her and she fled. Selling tea on the street is considered illegal. In her flight, she was shot by the police and bled to death.

    Intisar Sharif is a 15-year-old girl who has been accused of committing adultery under Article 146 of the criminal law and sentenced to death by stoning. There are two interesting sequences to Intisar’s story; the first one being that she confessed to her ‘crime’ after her brother coerced her to do so. He beat her and told her the only way she could redeem herself was by admitting her guilt and facing the consequences. The second is the fact that the judge made this ruling without prompting any further investigation into Sharif’s partner in crime.  Sharif has since been exonerated and released.

    During the June protests, the women of Sudan led many of the demonstrations and a call for a nation-wide “Kandaka Friday” was made on July 13. A “kandaka” (Candace) in the Kushitic language is a title for strong women. The term was used by the Kushites to refer to their queens. Indeed the women of Sudan are brave queens; shouldering the burdens of being women in an environment dominated by the likes of the Public Order police and weathering the storms of rape, detention, emotional and physical abuse and of course social stigma.

    Bahrain’s nostalgic bourgeoisie

    By Hasan Tariq Al Hasan

    Hidden amongst the twisting, claustrophobic streets and alleyways of the Muharraq old souk – a once vibrant centre of Bahrain’s commercial and social life – is a relatively new social and cultural phenomenon in the making. Shyly located around the corner from a traditional gahwa (café) is a restaurant that has become well-known for its bite-size Bahraini kabab à la mattai sandwiches and its mini portions of the local favourite breakfast dish balaleet, customarily accompanied by a cup of warm black tea with milk. Built in a renovated workshop, the restaurant’s design, while cleverly attempting to replicate the traditional Bahraini motif, nonetheless has a distinctly modern feel to it.

    The restaurant managed to achieve a certain notoriety in recent months by word of mouth and tweeted recommendations from the cognoscenti - particularly secular, socially liberal, well-meaning bobo types. In France the bobo – short for bohemian bourgeois – typically obeys Renaud’s famous song Les Bobos, enjoying Japanese food, following Korean cinema, purchasing cashmere from Kenzo and invariably voting for the Greens. In Bahrain, it is not a very different animal. The bobo relentlessly infiltrates the heart of Muharraq’s winding paths not to discover the authenticity of its ageing cafés, family-owned sweet shops and textile merchants, but rather to indulge in an over-priced reinterpretation of these social spaces next door.

    This bourgeois reconquista of the traditional social spaces has been under way ever since the Ministry of Culture initiated a project aimed at renovating many of the traditional, emblematic houses and monuments of the old city of Muharraq over the past decade, partly in an effort to make them accessible to tourists. The project is nothing so much as the soul-searching mission of a nostalgic, elitist class that not so long ago forsook the downtrodden neighborhoods of Muharraq from which it emerged in return for modern comfort in newer, more developed yet seemingly soul-less urban areas.

    However, this re-appropriation has not gone unchallenged by local residents and traditionalist groups. One noteworthy incident was the protest by furious local residents of a small, traditional neighbourhood in Muharraq in April 2012 against the events hosted at the Minister of Culture Shaikha Mai Al-Khalifa’s cultural centre in the vicinity. Residents complained that the music coming out of the centre obstructed prayers in the local mosque. They were outraged, it seems, by the centre’s blatant disregard for the neighborhood’s more conservative social mores. The clash escalated, erupting into a national political scandal the following day when in parliament the Minister clashed with Islamist MPs who took to defending the disgruntled local residents.

    Truth be told, these attempts to re-appropriate and reinterpret traditional heritage and spaces have renewed interest in these often forgotten cultural artifacts that would otherwise have remained somewhat unnoticed. They create a sense of identity and belonging for an uprooted segment of the urban bourgeoisie that lacks attachment to a tribe,  a geography, a sect or even a nation on the brink of division. One day, these newly recreated and re-appropriated social spaces may even help bring together individuals in a cross-sectarian fashion, as I delightedly witnessed myself in the aforementioned restaurant, under the guise of a new social and cultural identity.

    But the drums of war only beat louder as the ageing city of Muharraq struggles to preserve whatever is left of its authentic neighborhoods and spaces. As the liberal bourgeoisie extends its reach progressively throughout the city, local residents and traditionalist groups become increasingly excluded if only through the hefty prices that these reinvented cafés and restaurants charge their clients. This exclusionary cultural gentrification of Muharraq, so to speak, while holding promising social and identity prospects for a handful, may risk alienating many locals who cannot share in this urge to reshape and recreate in their own image Bahrain’s traditional heritage.

    Qatar and protest: a difficult combination

    By Michael Stephens

    Shocking recent developments in Libya, Egypt and Yemen that occurred following the publishing of an incendiary film on the life of the prophet Mohammed have been a cause for deep introspection in the Arab world. The offence caused has been deeply felt, and anger has spread across the region, the outlet for which has had fatal consequences for US diplomatic personnel in Bengazi.

    This includes the Gulf, and there is little doubt that the local populations of the cluster of Kingdoms and Emirates have also felt this sense of anger and indeed frustration. Yet there is also widespread condemnation of the actions of the Libyans who overstepped their right to protest and turned to violence as their solution.

    There is a marked difference however in the way khaleejis and especially in this case, Qataris expressed their anger and displeasure at the film. Very little anger outside the electronic sphere has been noticeable. Qataris for the most part have taken to chat forums, Blackberry messenger and twitter to express their outrage at the insult to their prophet.

    Many Qataris are deeply connected to Islam, and see it as a cornerstone of their lives. Qatar has more mosques per person than any country in the world, and open devotion to the faith is certainly nothing to be ashamed of; indeed it is encouraged.

    Similarly there is great hostility to the idea that there should be any criticism of the prophet. I remember clearly one conversation with a Qatari some months ago in which he argued that there was nothing wrong with those who insult the prophet being killed. This is not an unusual sentiment, though it varies as to the vehemence with which this opinion is expressed.

    There has been a protest in Qatar, it was said to have numbered some 2000 persons, mostly of Indian, Pakistani, and Arab expatriate origins, though it is clear a small number of Qataris took part. The protest was sanctioned by Qatar’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Yussuf al Qaradawi and presumably with the blessing of the Emir.

    On the other hand, there appears not to have been much anti-American sentiment expressed, and no overt calls for violence. Indeed Qaradawi has been careful to call on followers to distinguish between Americans, and those who made the film. Qatar being a country that relies heavily on western expatriate labour cannot afford fear and division to spread through its small but tightly knit population.

    In Qatar and the Gulf as a whole questions to do with political mobilisation on any issue are a cause for serious reflection and consideration. To express their displeasure in public ways, for Qataris, is not so much an insult to the ruling hierarchy as it is an action bringing shame on the family and the tribe. Qataris have a lot to lose by expressing their anger openly. The shame incurred by publicly protesting can hinder job prospects, marriage prospects and cause friction within families. Therefore for the most part Qataris shun the idea of protest: it is simply not part of their social DNA.

    Anger of course exists. Qatar remains a devout Muslim country. Although many young men may err in their following of the faith, and engage in sometimes questionable social behaviours, they do not accept insults to their faith or their prophet. But anger is expressed here passionately but quietly, and without the desire to overhaul the social fabric of the nation, or to show disrespect in public to the ruling authorities, whose relationships to western nations are longstanding and well developed.

    The Arab world is not uniform in its behaviours and thus while we see shocking scenes in Libya we see text messaging and BBM’ing in Qatar. But the root cause is the same, and the anger is no more or less felt here than it is in any other part of the Muslim world.

    Champions on the margins of society

    By Soha Farouk

    With a total of fifteen medals at the London Paralympics of 2012, forty Egyptian physically- challenged athletes have aroused unusual interest among their compatriots. Unlike their 191 abled-bodied Olympian counterparts who only secured two medals, their breathtaking and inspiring photos were widely shared on the online social networks. At Cairo airport, they arrived back to a heroes' welcome as a crowd of Egyptians and political parties were gathered to greet them with posters, acclaim and loud cheers. But away from the glare of the Paralympics spotlight, the everyday reality of people with disabilities in Egypt is not that rosy.

    "We need Jobs; we need houses; we need equality". Those were their main demands during their protests, marches and sit-ins, before and after the revolution. Egypt has always been a hostile environment for the disabled, full of barriers and dangers. The cracked roads, broken and impassable sidewalks, missing footpaths and ramps as well as inaccessible buildings and public transportation increase their isolation. Either, they have to stay at home or struggle in a daily obstacle race. Moreover, their exclusion is clear in their access to education, employment and healthcare. The majority of children with disabilities don't go to school given the limited number of schools for special needs.

    Furthermore, the official quota system requiring 5% employment of people with disabilities in the public and private sector (companies with fifty or more employees) is rarely enforced. They are offered modest careers at best, working for charities with less salary and benefits than their workmates. In addition, public healthcare and rehabilitation centers offer very low quality services while the private centers are unaffordable. The situation is even worse for disabled women who are at the bottom rung of the ladder of deprivation and discrimination.

    Although Egypt ratified the UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, it did not incorporate this into the Egyptian legal framework. Hence, no comprehensive laws exist to protect their fundamental rights and facilitate their access to the basic services. A council for the people with disabilities was created in the wake of the revolution to look after their interests. Yet, it remains a bureaucratic, primitive structure, with a very limited budget, providing few rehabilitation and skills development services, but no promotion of disability rights. The advocacy groups formed exclusively for the disabled have instead   intensified their segregation.

    People with disabilities are loosely estimated at about 11% of the population, equal in number to Egypt’s Coptic population, and increasing with the many injured during the revolution. A new sense of awareness of their needs, a change of the social attitude and the government's commitment could together create a just and inclusive, rule-of-law based society for them, where they can live normally and independently like everyone else, treated equally to all other people.

    Tunisian Constitutional Assembly violates its own transparency

    By Kacem Jlidi

    Tunisia scored 3.8 on the 2011 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption around the world, through aggregated surveys and country reports.  The scoring is on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means that a Country is perceived as highly corrupt and 10 guarantees probity. Tunisia, with a score of 3.8 is ranked 73, along with Brazil.  (Of the 183 Countries surveyed New Zealand, Denmark and Finland topped the list, while North Korea and Somalia are at the bottom.)

    This was no surprise for Tunisians.  When Tunisians took to the streets, they called for an end to the authorities’ abuse of the system. For an end to bribery in public procurement, to promoting their own interest and misuse of public funds, through rendering all public data accessible to all Tunisians at all times – in one word, transparency.

    The Constitutional Assembly plays a key role in determining the democratic transition of the new Tunisia, ensuring that Tunisians are aware at all times what bills their representatives are debating and voting for.  This remains a distant goal. 

    Two weeks ago, a coalition of activist groups, namely, the transparency initiative OpenGov.tn, the collective activist group and blog Nawaat, and the pro-democracy group Al-Bawsala,  announced that they had filed a lawsuit against the Constitutional Assembly for violating its own transparency standards, articles 54 and 62, necessitating the publication of vote counts and committee reports:

    ‘Deputies must learn that their vote does affect all the people they are representing, it is not just about them and their names only’ – expressed 27 years old, Amira Yahyaoui, chair of Al-Bawsala on a TV talk show.

    ‘If they don’t follow their own laws (articles 54 & 62), how are we supposed to have confidence in their creation of our national laws?’ said Malek Khadraoui, a representative of Nawaat to Tunisia Live.

    The activists’ decision to take legal action against the Assembly came after months of concentrated efforts to push them to be more open in their proceedings. However, the noncompliance by the Assembly which they attributed to an idiotic lack of technical support actually constitutes an implicit refusal to live up to its own standards, stressed Amira.

    This transparency initiative is gaining support from a range of media outlets, politicians and members of the Assembly from various political affiliations. Ultimately it is the demands of the electorate and the compliance with the constitution that is important.

    The current Troika government has put in place a corruption monitoring website for public administrations and a state TV channel broadcasting live the Assembly’s general sessions, but this is not enough.

    The 3.8 CPI score was no shock. However for the Tunisian people to believe that their country is making great advances in their steps against corruption, the Government needs to improve on their transparency. This is our only guarantee that they have made a break with a past of corruption paving the way to truthfulness and prosperity.

    Another ugly movie shot in ‘moderate’ Tunisia

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    While watching scenes of barbaric mobs storming the US embassies in several Arab towns, I never imagined that Tunisia would one day play host to a spectacularly ugly movie featuring my own people attacking an embassy, setting fire to a school and vandalizing its equipment.

    The violent protest that took place after the Friday prayer near the US embassy resulted in four deaths with several seriously injured. Dense columns of thick black smoke ascended from the parking lot of the building as furious groups armed with Molotov cocktails and stones stormed it in the once calm neighbourhood of Les Berges du Lac. Throwing petrol bombs at the police is apparently an effective way of expressing one’s fury over an amateur offensive movie that mocks the prophet Mohammed. 

     Talk about the ‘Innocence of Muslims’! How can they make the mistake of believing that the US government monopolises the movie industry as do governments in the Arab world, and has thus produced the absurd movie that triggered these events? This online movie has never been shown in a single cinema - but it has been widely circulated in the streets of the Middle East. An individual act of intolerance and Islamaphobia has led many people to accuse a whole country of conspiring to degrade the prophet. Indeed, these hardline people who call themselves Muslims have insulted the Holy prophet and Islam more than the movie ever did.

    Under the name of ‘victory to the holy prophet’, a school adjacent to the embassy was set on fire. After vandalizing its property, trees, embassy staff cars, and school buses were set alight with the loss of three lives, all under the pretext of defending Islam and the prophet. “Obama, Obama we are all Osama “they chanted, referring to the founder of Al Qaeda killed in 2011 by US forces. This was the point when I finally realised that these people make no distinction between individual acts, the government, and the people; they are all the same and if one citizen of a given country attacks my religion, then I accuse the whole nation-state of responsibility for this shameful act. That is the rationale of those ‘soldiers of God’.

    Tunisia ‘s ruling ‘moderate’ party condemned the attack on the US Embassy but they have failed to preserve the moderate nature of Tunisia since they came to power. The Salafis and other hardline Muslims seem to be uncontrollable and immune to a firm stance on the part of the government. They have turned a blind eye to the Imams of mosques who have added religious fuel to the fire, promoting violence in their Friday preaching.   

    On the other hand, the voices of the moderate go unnoticed and under reported by mainstream media. Some campaigns have been launched on social media voicing the perspective of those moderates who, while feeling offended by the movie, have nevertheless opted for peaceful means in response to the video. They share catchy but short stories, quotes and parts of the message of the messenger, such as, “I was not sent to invoke curses, but rather than I was only sent as a mercy”.

    While writing this article I thought of dedicating a special thought to Muhammad, my friend who lost his life trying to reach Italy, Muhammad, who lived under the poverty line, Muhammad Bouazizi who ended his own life in this Muslim country.

    Libyans apologise for Benghazi attack and demand security and rule of law in Libya

    By Rhiannon Smith

    On Tuesday, September 11, a furious armed mob attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi and set it on fire, reportedly in response to a crude American film which ridicules the Prophet Mohamed. Other sources suggest the attack was already planned and that the protests were just a cover up. US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other members of staff were killed during the assault. This tragic event has sent shockwaves of anger and sadness around the world as Americans and Libyans alike ask how such a catastrophic breach of security was allowed to happen in the symbolic heart of ‘free Libya’.

    The interim Libyan president Mohamed Magarief apologised for the killings, offering condolences to the US and pledging to bring the perpetrators to justice. Across the Atlantic, President Obama called the attacks ‘outrageous and shocking’, and within hours security at the US embassy in Libya, as well as others across the region, had been increased. However both parties stressed that the incident would not damage the relationship between the two countries.

    As the news broke in Libya, the overwhelming reaction was one of grief and frustration as social media pages were flooded with apologies, condolences and a call to action. Libyans want to show the world that they condemn these attacks and the tragic loss of life that followed. Many were insulted by the anti-Islam film but were desperate to make it clear that this was not justification for what happened. People took to the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi on Wednesday night holding banners with messages such as ‘Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans’ and ‘Sorry people of America. This is not the behaviour of Islam or our prophet’.

    Libyans do not want Americans to tar them with the same brush as the thugs who committed this crime. Ordinary Libyans want to see the perpetrators brought to justice as much as everyone else. Perhaps if Libya were a more stable, less Islamic country, then the rest of the world would realise unaided that the majority of Libyans would not support such a senseless violent attack. As it is, Libyans are having to fight to ensure this message reaches the outside world.  Some are concerned that the fallout from this tragic event will put Libya back at square one, and they are right to worry. Fears of Al Qaida infiltration, foreign targets and a perceived lack of stability could easily curb trade and investment in Libya and cause the international press to brand the country as another Iraq or Afghanistan.

    For many Libyans the events of Tuesday night are a devastating illustration of the lack of security and rule of law in Libya, and frustration towards the government on this score is currently running high. Assailants were able to attack, destroy and loot the US consulate, as well as kill four people, without Libyan security forces being able to stop them. This comes in the wake of several recent attacks on Sufi shrines in Tripoli and other parts of Libya where the government seemed powerless to put a stop to the destruction, despite the incidents taking place in crowded areas in broad daylight. The Supreme Security Council (SSC) is the body responsible for internal security in Libya and is supposed to be controlled by the Interior Ministry. However recent events suggest that the SSC is acting in its own interests, not those of the government, and that the Interior Ministry has little influence over this body of former revolutionaries.

    As I have mentioned before in these columns, Libya is still unstable and with so many weapons around it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are opportunists of all creeds hoping to take advantage of the fragile situation. However, while the government can’t yet be expected to stop every act of spontaneous violence, it must make more effort to regain the monopoly of force in Libya and remove power from the increasingly wayward SSC. If the attack in Benghazi was planned, then no doubt it was because the perpetrators assumed they could get away with it. This tragedy needs to mark a turning point for Libya. The newly elected Prime Minister Dr Mustafa Abushagur must ensure that these attacks are thoroughly investigated and those responsible brought to justice. He must be prepared to take the tough decisions to ensure rule of law returns to Libya, and he must do so with transparency, conviction and speed.

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