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This week's window on the Middle East - September 3, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: The FSA: how to lose support and alienate people in no time

Arab Awakening
2 September 2012
  • The FSA: how to lose support and alienate people in no time
  • Egypt and Iran: it’s complicated
  • Sudan: the revolution isn’t dead; it’s on hibernation
  • Almahjoob marghoub: Jordanians fight back for an open internet
  • The power of a blank page
  • Crackdown on free media in Tunisia
  • The FSA: how to lose support and alienate people in no time

    By Rita from Syria

    By December 2011, peaceful protests had stopped being confined to Fridays and had become part of our daily life. Regime suppression continued apace, but we felt we had a modicum of safety. In response to regime attacks on peaceful protests, members of the FSA took on the responsibility of protecting the protest movement. Armed with a deep conviction in our revolution rather than any heavy weapons, the embryonic FSA used to keep watch in the alleys and alert us to the coming of regime forces and the shabiha. 

    Protecting the nascent revolution was the original reason given for the establishment of the Free Officers Movement (FOM) by lieutenant colonel Hussein Harmoush. Along with other members of the FOM, Colonel Harmoush was detained by the regime on the June 9, 2011 in suspicious circumstances - the colonel had been based in Turkey following his defection. From the remnants of the Free Officers Movement was born the FSA. Day by day the FSA grew stronger and its numbers swelled with increasing defections from the Syrian army. Many opposition communities embraced and sponsored the fighters, who represented at that time the local defenders of these communities.

    However, with rumours of considerable sums of money transferred to the private bank accounts of some FSA colonels via foreign parties, there is a mounting suspicion amongst activists and the Syrian public that the goals and policy of the FSA have changed. The FSA battalions switched from defensive to offensive manoeuvres - targeting military bases and specific officials. Violence escalated, and the communities which had been sheltering the FSA fell under siege. Lack of basic foodstuff and fuel supplies, daily bombardments and massacres have become part and parcel of the permanent landscape of suffering.

    Most of the residents in these areas fled their homes and became refugees, while many others were killed. This has created a feeling of resentment and anger against FSA policy. Lack of communication between FSA foot-soldiers, activists and the Syrian public means that all have difficulty understanding what the FSA's military strategy is. This mistake has been repeated over and again in cities all over Syria. Failure to learn on the part of the FSA has compelled many inside Syria to take a negative position towards it. This is why a month ago people in the Al-Midan neighbourhood of Damascus asked the FSA fighters to leave it, as their houses became possible targets for regime forces. This happened despite the fact that most people in Al-Midan totally supported arming the revolution.

    Abu Khaled, before the revolution, was a successful businessman from the suburb of Douma. He was a supporter and a sponsor of the FSA. He lost his factory and many other properties in the massive shelling on the city and has now moved with his family to a small apartment in Damascus. He had no comment to make on this subject except to invoke a phrase which is only used at times of great anxiety: " la hawl wa la quwwa illa billah" which means "there is no transformation or power, except by [the will of] God”". The lack of any clear strategy by the FSA in Douma has left many like Abu Khaled disillusioned.

    "I just want to continue my life" Raghda told me. Raghda had lost her job at a small publishing house after her neighbourhood had been shelled and invaded several times. "I don't see an end to this armed conflict. I agree with the rightful demands of the opposition, but if this means bringing a halt to my life then I will stand against them".

    A dangerous problem has emerged.  The sound of gun-fire and mortars is the loudest voice on the ground. The voices of the diverse protest movements, which made up the opposition on the ground in Syria, have been drowned out by the FSA.  Activists and advocates for non-violence, who remain in Syria today, feel marginalised and useless. The sense of impotence is accentuated given that a considerable number of activists who had provided impetus to the protest movement in the spring of last year have now left Syria, or are languishing in the prisons of al-Assad. This has given the pro-regime media channels a golden opportunity to blacken the names of all opposition activists.

    In addition to the fatal miscalculations of the FSA, many armed gangs have come out of the woodwork, robbing and kidnapping under the guise of the FSA. For many ordinary Syrians, this has cemented its bad reputation. A new front has opened up for the FSA challenging them to win back its lost credibility.

    FSA leaders should take heed that a guerilla army can only attain success if it is mindful of its relationship to the people, because that is the only guarantor of their continuity. They should also be completely transparent regarding their military plans and financial concerns, so that they can defend themselves against rising accusations of corruption. If the FSA really want to be seen as defending Syria, it should make people feel safe thanks to its presence. Empty slogans can't feed a hungry kid or put a roof over the heads of a displaced family.

    Thousands of thanks for Tahir Zaman for translating this article.

    Egypt and Iran: it’s complicated

    By Amro Ali

    When Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down on 11 February 2011, the clerics in Tehran beamed with a smug of satisfaction that the divine hand had chosen Iran’s Revolution Day for the Pharaoh’s downfall. It could not have been a more surreal start for the besieged Islamic republic seeking to break out of its isolation and gridlock vis-à-vis a regional reconfiguration.

    Fast-forward to the recent reported saga at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran, in which Egyptian president Morsi (given the red carpet treatment and all) diverged from the Iranian script when he stated, “Our solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is an ethical duty as it is a political and strategic necessity.”

    The Syrian delegation walked out in fury and Iranian state TV attempted to limit the damage to their Syrian ally by mistranslating Morsi’s words to the effect of “solidarity with the Syrian nation against the plot that has been implemented against this country.” Business as usual in Iran.

    This was Iran’s opportunity to upstage the world by proving it has friends, and Morsi ruined the show.

    The incident exposes deeper Iranian, if not regional, frustrations as to where Egypt's foreign policy orientation is heading.

    With Iran rapidly losing its only foothold in the Arab World via Syria, deteriorating relations with Turkey, hostile Gulf States that house US armed forces, and Israel of course, Iran is keener than ever to find regional allies. It pinned its hopes on Egypt from the early days of the Tahrir Square protests and sit-ins.

    In the aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow, Iran, in a not so tactful way of starting a new chapter, sent two warships through the Suez Canal to test the waters with the post-Mubarak Egypt. They were let through conditionally in a sign of goodwill.

    Iran set out to explore all possible avenues of rapprochement with Egypt.

    Clash of soft powers

    Iranian officials and diplomats I have encountered, more than any other foreign dignitaries, are ready to factor their ancient (yes, that is pre-Islamic) history into their arguments to underscore their positions – including the meeting of “two great civilisations.”

    Yet we do not need to go back to the Sassanid Persian Empire or Pharaonic Egypt to find evidence of good and sometimes not so good associations.

    Modern Egypt-Iran relations have been as intimate as Egypt’s King Farouk’s sister, Princess Fawzia Fuad, marrying the crown-prince, later Shah, Pahlavi of Iran (in other words, an Egyptian was the Queen of Iran for almost ten years before she divorced in 1949), and that last Shah is buried in Cairo.

    Diplomatic relations were severed following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel which coincided also with the Iranian revolution.

    The Mubarak regime crafted an anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite agenda as it threw in its lot with the US, Israel and the Gulf monarchies. What was telling, however, about Mubarak’s policies was that the Egyptian street, unlike their Gulf counterparts, stubbornly refused to come around to the regime’s view of an Iranian/Shiite threat. Egyptians often felt Israel was much more of a threat than far away Iran.

    Moreover, Egypt does not suffer historically-induced Sunni-Shiite tensions. On the contrary, the Shiite Fatimid dynasty that ruled Egypt for 200 years arguably left behind it a constructive legacy that continues to influence the social structure of Egypt today. Al-Azhar, now the seat of Sunni learning, is evidence of that.

    Of all Sunni Islamist movements, the Muslim Brotherhood, as Dina Samir points out is much more pragmatic and is imbibed with less of the anti-Shiite ideology as indicated in the organisation’s official website: “Under the influence of the tolerant Brotherhood, Egyptians are more comfortable with Shiite Islam than other Sunnis in other Arab countries.”

    It’s about strategic power 

    Yet for all the talk of common bonds, Egypt, like Iran, also thinks in geostrategic terms. For years, Egypt has been frustrated at being sidelined in the regional order. If Iran was surprised at Morsi’s bold statements at the summit, then so were the US and Israel who pressured Morsi not to attend the summit but to little avail.

    If signalling is the currency of international relations, then Morsi’s first state visit to China, rather than to the US, is indicative of his early attempts to chart an independent course.

    The other factor is Egypt appears to be making up (or attempting to) ground with Iran and Turkey in exerting its regional leadership – this is why multilateral bodies are a crucial opportunity for Egypt to amplify its voice.

    Morsi is committed to the Arab uprisings that set the chain reaction going that eventually brought him to the seat of power; and those dynamics are being replicated (although more violently) in neighbouring Syria. Iran is finding it difficult to insert itself into such emerging narratives.  

    Iranian policies are certainly not helping. In the past, if Iran could not win over Arab governments, it could at least garner sympathy from the Arab street. For example, Iran’s support for the Sunni Hamas gave the republic a cover of legitimacy as a state concerned with the interests of the Palestinians, unlike the hopelessly despotic Arab regimes.

    Projecting their 1979 worldview onto the Arab revolutions, some 214 Iranian parliamentarians signed a statement supporting the uprising against Mubarak’s tyranny at the height of Egypt's tumultuous 18 days. Yet when it came to Syria, there was all of a sudden an international conspiracy against the Syrian state and Syria’s protesters were being funded by enemies from abroad. 

    To Arab societies, Syria is not considered a peripheral Arab state and an assault on the Levantine country is seen as a strike against a vital organ of the Arab world.

    One can even arguably make the case that Iran is outdoing Saudi Arabia in worsening the Sunni-Shia divide. To the commoner on the Arab streets, there is no rationale to support the dying bloody Syrian regime unless that support is based on sectarian grounds, i.e. Iranian support for their Shia-Alawite brethren.

    One Arab diplomat who called me following his attendance at the summit noted that Iranian faces in the audience were flustered when Morsi opened his speech with prayers for the Prophet’s family and the four rightly guided caliphs by name (Abu bakr, Omar, and Othman are all an anathema to Shiites, with Ali as the exception).

    Rather than wanting to offend, Morsi was also addressing his domestic constituencies and signaling to Turkey and Saudi Arabia that Egypt is not going to be a minor player in, what appears to be, an evolving Sunni troika alliance. Which also sadly explains why Bahrain was absent from Morsi’s speech, so as not to offend his Saudi partners.

    Morsi’s triumphant return back home was to shouts of “Morsi didn’t mince his words” and “Raise your head up high, you are Egyptian.” It’s clear that this new populism has been sorely missed from the Egyptian scene over quite a period.

    Overlapping interests that include the Palestinians, trade, Suez Canal access, petroleum, and  an Egyptian faltering economy will lead to an improvement in Egypt-Iran relations despite this episode and the Syrian question. It’s just that Egypt, like a prisoner released after decades of incarceration, is trying to find its place again in the world.

    Sudan: the revolution isn’t dead; it’s on hibernation

    By Maha El Sanosi

    Despite the fact that protests triggered by anger over austerity measures in Sudan have quieted down since their outbreak in mid-June, the Sudanese street remains furious with the ruling regime and continues to demand democratic change.

    When mass anti-austerity protests first broke out in Khartoum over two months ago, they instigated hope; hope for change, freedom and justice… hope for democracy. It was as though, twenty-four years later, the Sudanese people awoke from an apathetic coma. It was refreshing. Everyone joined forces; the youth, women, political party members, underground youth movements, students and various members of the Sudanese community. For a moment in time, it looked like the third Sudanese revolution was going to be a success.

    Unfortunately, as the weeks passed by, the “revolutionary-themed Fridays” came to an end. Perhaps, eight weeks into the revolts, protesting became more of a burden. Or perhaps, protesting during the month of Ramadan was an inconvenience for many people. And who knows, perhaps the heavy clampdown launched by the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) terrorized protesters and prompted them to steer clear of mosques and streets and sit protests out. The NISS’ dirty tactics have proven very effective.

    Though the protests, having grown steadily and spread their domino effect, have recently become sluggish, the circumstances that catalyzed them remain in place. Harsh austerity measures are still being implemented and economic conditions continue to be dire. Blue Nile and South Kordofan remain zones of NCP-incited war. This puts things into perspective; people will eventually get fed up. Not just fed up in the known sense, but fed up enough to start an uninterrupted revolution. Regime change is inevitable; but the question lies in how this is going to be achieved.

    Many opposition party leaders are busy negotiating deals with the government and clamping down on their own members, however. There is great apprehension that once the NCP is overthrown, armed movements will try to take power in Khartoum. This creates a problem; one that has been incessantly overlooked by those organizing protests. The aims of the protests and the armed movements are different. Protesting for human rights and equal treatment is different from fighting for representation; in some cases hugely different.

    The security situation in the country complicates matters even further. Though both peaceful protesters and armed rebels may have the same real-time objective of overthrowing the ruling National Congress Party, their post-revolution objectives are in significant disagreement.

    Nonetheless, the protests in Sudan are well-founded. They just lack the support of two significant entities: the majority of the people and the major political parties. What history has taught us is that political parties will only display their support for an uprising once the overthrow of the regime has become incontrovertible. That’s no different in Sudan; opposition parties are waiting for the youth and student movements to mobilize enough masses to cause a significant threat to the NCP. Once this is accomplished, they will be ready to swoop in and hijack the revolution. The political scene in the country seems to have been infested with a version of the NCP’s idiosyncratic opportunism, where involvement depends solely on a guaranteed beneficial outcome.

    On January 30, 2011, the Sudanese people were so inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions they decided to organize the first mass demonstration led by normal Sudanese citizens in over two decades. One may look at the January 30 protests as one huge failure, but those who can see through the police brutality, mass arrests, torture and abuse are aware of its significance in breaking a massive fear barrier and motivating the Sudanese people to speak out against injustice.

    Two things are as important now as they are unavoidable; delivering convincing choices of a democratic alternative for the people of Sudan first; and a new plan for mass mobilization second. Perhaps a little slow off the rail, these revolts will assuredly continue.

    Almahjoob marghoub: Jordanians fight back for an open internet

    By Munir Atalla

    Web censorship is high on the list of issues people have come to take very seriously.  Whether it is the “Stop Online Piracy Act” in the United States or the latest attempts by the Jordanian government people are vigilant and quick to mobilize. 

    The Jordanian government has been trying to find a legitimate way to censor the web for years to no avail.  But a recent anti-pornography push has reopened the window for the government to spread its tentacles further.  An anti-porn movement has left the government in an embarrassing corner, and some officials are taking the opportunity to push for an amendment that would subject online content to the same laws as print media.

    First in line to raise their voices in outrage at the possible amendment were the bloggers, most of whom believe that this is just the start of a slippery slope and soon the government would have monopoly over web content.  This group of webizens advocates self-regulation and parental control that is only a phone-call away. 

    Next, many famous bloggers organized a “web blackout” protest.  Only a few days ago, several prominent sites displayed an ominous black screen meant to be a preview of what is to come should the amendment pass.  The hash tag #BlackOutJO was circulated and even Queen Noor threw her weight behind the disgruntled. “Hypocrisy, lies, intolerance, hate, violence – all unhealthy evils. Where does it start and end?” she posted from her account along with the hashtag #FreeNetJO, a grassroots movement that has started to promote web freedom.

    All over the web Jordanians are mobilizing to avoid being pushed down the abyss of censorship.  So will Jordan be forced to join the likes of China and Saudi Arabia in having a regulated web?  Unlikely. 

    First of all, the move would be a blemish on King Abdullah’s reputation - not at home, but abroad, where people are more easily wooed by his moderate persona and celebrity status.  King Abdullah has been doing his utmost to emerge from the regional uprisings without seeming like yet another decaying dictator, and this move would run completely wreck that image.

    Second, online activity is already heavily monitored and people begin with the assumption that big brother is always watching.  The streets are alive with rumours of hidden warehouses where armies of drone-like workers sit behind screens examining anything that their algorithms have flagged.  The government made this known when it arrested a female student a while back for an msn message criticizing the King.  So really, there is no need for them to censor when they would rather monitor and know which people are browsing what content. 

    Third are the economic factors.  Foreign investors would think twice before investing in Jordan’s budding IT sector.  Seeing as King Abdullah has touted the Kingdom as the silicon valley of the Middle East (75% of Arabic online content originates in Jordan) it is improbable that he would endorse any moves that stifled the already troubled economy.

    Lastly, as in all cases of prohibition, the government knows that there are ways to get around web censorship.  “Almahjoob marghoub,” goes the Arabic saying, that which is concealed is desired.

    This begs the question, why is the government engaging in this seemingly irrational behaviour?  For the answer to that, look to the Facebook page of a movement aiming to block porn sites in Jordan.  The site displays figures of a man and woman with their hands united above the shape of a child, implying conservative family values.

    In Jordan, the government has to constantly balance on the tightrope of all the country’s minorities and majorities.  The government needs to be seen by the people as populated by God fearing, conservative people lest it give the Islamic Action Front, their main rivals, an opportunity to jump in and play the faith card.  They must avoid at all costs the perception that they are a western-puppet regime like Mubarak was in Egypt or Al Khalifa is in Bahrain etc., etc.   Simultaneously, the regime must appear to western allies as secular, forward thinking, and moderate.  They have no intention of passing the censorship amendment; but they must uphold the charade, because on Facebook, the campaign to censor pornography has three times as many ‘likes’ as the counter movement.

    Doing this comes at a cost.  On the short end of the bargain are the alienated bloggers and internet users of all ages, but to them, it is nothing new.  Nassim Tarawneh, a political commentator of influence posted on his blog recently, “It is perhaps disastrous for any citizen to find themselves pretty convinced that very little progress will come about in Jordan. This recent move by the state to introduce typically ambiguous amendments to an arcane law that would establish dictatorial powers over the last true arena of free speech is, simply put, the straw that broke this camel’s back.”  The young have moved from disenchanted to disgusted, and the next step is angry.  So no, the Jordanian government probably won’t censor online content, but just the fact that it is still trying is disappointing.  It is similar to the feeling of expecting sugar in your coffee, but after a sip there is only bitterness and the lingering question, “where is reform?”

    The power of a blank page

    By Kacem Jlidi

    It was named the Dignity Revolution, an intensive Tunisian campaign of civil resistance sparked almost two years ago, calling for employment, freedom, dignity and ending corruption.  

    338 deaths and 2147 wounded are the results of the uprising, according to the National Fact-Finding Commission report, published earlier in May this year. But the report does not count those jailed, tortured and or killed during the 23 long years of the Ben Ali regime.

    Huge sacrifices were made in the hope that this would lead to a thorough democratization of the country. Free and democratic elections took place: a vast majority of the people who voted for the ruling coaling were hoping that the corrupt old machinery would be repaired. They  expected measures to be swiftly taken, since the leading party is one that fears and praises God.

    Yet violence, price rises, money smuggling, accusations, distractions from real demands in the relentless foregrounding of religious issues like ‘polygamy’, is what afflicts today’s Tunisia.  

    The unemployment rate reached 18.1% in the first quarter of 2012 according to the results of the Labour Force survey compared with 13% in 2010. Over the past 7 months, the Household Consumption Price Index (CPI) has dramatically increased to 5.5% compared to 1.1% between October 2010 and October 2011, according to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics.

    These are a couple of measurable indicators among many others showing the deterioration of the economy in the country that sparked the oft-referred-to ‘Arab Spring’.

    There is a palpable dissatisfaction towards both the Government and the National Constitutional Assembly: protests, marches, sit-ins, campaigns etc. However, the one that grabbed my attention is a creative campaign carried out by a youth-led group, ‘Sawty’ (my Voice), an organization that seeks to promote democracy and encourage young people to take up their citizenship, continuing the demand for the Tunisians’ most pressing revolutionary goal beside employment: a new Constitution.

    The campaign was simple and effective: distributing booklets near downtown Tunis. The cover stated, ‘The Tunisian Constitution’. However, all the inside pages were actually blank. On the back cover it is written: ‘The draft of Tunisia’s new constitution should have been completed by July 15th, 2012 but we are still waiting. The constitution is late, so we must ask for it.’

    Speaking to Tunisia Live, 25 year old Ali Bouzwida, who is the ‘Sawty’ Project Coordinator, said ‘the idea came about when the Constitution proved not to be ready on the date Mustafa Ben Jaafer, Head of the National Constituent Assembly, announced that it would be’.

    ‘We tried to think of something that would sensitise people to this issue, something innovative. Instead of marches, protests, we wanted something clear that would trigger fruitful debate;’ Added Ali.

    A campaign-related video, uploaded to YouTube, features people rushing to pick up copies of their long-awaited Constitution. Reactions vary between confusion and shock, to flipping through blank pages, but they all smile at the end when they get the message.

    Now almost 6 weeks separate us from what is suppose to mark the end of the Coalition’s (Troika) rule led by the moderate Islamic party Ennahda. Meanwhile, new political parties from different spectrums are appearing, others are joining hands in preparation for the next elections. The question remains: How long do Tunisians need to suffer the human rights violations, insecurity and corruption? And when will we actually have our Constitution?

    Crackdown on free media in Tunisia

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    One of the achievements of the troika government in implementing transitional justice is its replacement of the leading media figures of the former autocratic regime with those same people, as long as they are willing to shift their loyalty to this current government.

    Under the umbrella of ‘cleansing the media’, the Ennahda-led government has launched its own war against one of the gains of the Tunisian uprising, the freedom of press.  The debate and the battle of ideas in the current media outlets seem to constitute a threat. “The government is not attempting to control the media but it will not let the media become platforms of opposition to the working of the government”, declared the minister of foreign affairs, Rafik Abdessalem.

    The Government seems to be nostalgic for the former media landscape in Tunisia when we had state-run news organizations promoting only one voice, one opinion, one truth and a lot of dull programmes that urged Tunisian viewers to remain passive and channel their thoughts anywhere but to the fundamental issues of change and social justice.

    Their target has been the owner of a private TV channel, Ettounsiya, that broadcast during Ramadan a satirical puppet show in which the government was criticised instead of congratulated. The Tunisian authorities claim that they respect freedom of speech and that the arrest of Sami Fehri has to do with a corruption case that dates back to the era of the toppled president  Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  The hypocrisy of the government is evident, for they turn a blind eye to all the corrupt ‘businessmen’ who were engaged with the former regime who made fortunes at the expense of the Tunisian people, and bring to justice only those others who have not undertaken the necessary ‘baptism’ of swearing loyalty to the government.

    Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday condemned the government for its crackdown on state media and the appointment to top state media posts of ‘inappropriate’ figures without consulting media staff in the relevant news organizations. They emphasize the urgent need to found an independent body to regulate and reform the media sector.

    The intimidation of the media started in March 2012 when pro-Ennahda protesters staged a sit-in in front of the headquarters of Wataniya TV and accused the national TV of plotting with the opposition to overthrow the Government and effectively ‘being unbiased’ in order to harm the reputation of the Government.

    The lack of transparency of government policy on this raises the suspicion that the coalition government is determined to subject the country to an information blackout, while the most recently appointed figures are accused of changing the editorial line to suit Government preferences.

    Lotfi Zitoun, an advisor to the PM, posted on his Facebook page on Thursday a blacklist of journalists and media outlets that he alleges are leading a campaign against him as a member of the government. The utility of publishing such a list is unclear since of late attacks against journalists have become commonplace in Tunisia. Could this be an explicit call to the military wing of the Ennahda party to do their job and zip the mouths of the free press?

    The president of the Tunisian republic, Moncef Marzouki, attacked his Ennahda allies last week, pointing out that their policies reminded him of the recently bygone era. The Tunisian president’s powers are limited. A courageous move nevertheless.

    Free and open media should be part of the roadmap of the troika government in this period of transition. The democratization of Tunisia is highly dependent on a press that is supposed to serve the governed not the governors. The latter should remember that the attempt to stifle the media can lead to the emergence of robust new media, like those that accelerated the end of some of the most autocratic Arab dictators.

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