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This week's window on the Middle East - June 4, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: despite the thousands of Egyptians who have died over the course of the revolution, there are many battles left to fight.


  • The people demand the downfall of the system
  • The demon or the demonized? Deconstructing “salafism” in Tunisia
  • Lebanon: the dark side of the twitter revolution
  • Dubai’s competing halves
  • The Copts’ dilemma: faluls or revolutionaries
  • Blurring the post-conflict political landscape: a pessimistic view of the Libyan elections
  • Engaging women in a democratic Libya: an optimistic view of the Libyan elections
  • The people demand the downfall of the system

    By Tom Dale

    The graffiti on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, which juts eastwards from Tahrir Square towards the interior ministry, has been an ever-changing visual record of the revolution since late last year.  The walls are covered in the pictures of the revolution's martyred dead, woven with scenes reminiscent of pharaonic art, Islamic traditions -  caricatures of figures of the old regime, Hosni Mubarak and SCAF leader Hussein Tantawi among them.

    About a week ago, the loose network of artists and revolutionaries for whom the wall is a canvass added another layer.  A friend who helped with the re-painting offered that it had felt a bit odd.  To paint over the pictures, I asked, which had meant so much?  “Yeah,” he said, “but we decided that it has to keep changing, to be alive.”  The authorities want to remove it, of course, and periodically they cover this or that mural, only to find it repainted – often in more radical form – within 24 hours.  Realising this, the artists know they can't preserve what there is indefinitely.  All they can do is to maintain the walls' relevance.

    View down Mansour Street

    This realisation is expressed in the most recent changes.  First, in letters twelve feet high, the words “forget what happened, keep behind the elections.”  Second, a twist to the portraits of the martyrs.  This time, they are pictured in frames held by black-robed women we assume to be their mothers.  We aren't just looking at the dead anymore: we're also looking at the families.  We're confronted not just with who has been lost, but who stays behind to live with that loss.

    You can see pictures of the most recent addition here.

    In the light of the verdict from the trial of Mubarak, a few cronies, and his two sons, and the disappointing admission of Ahmed Shafiq into the second round of the presidential elections, the mural acquires an extra poignancy. 

    As for the trial, Mubarak and his former interior minister Habib al Adly each got 25 years for allowing the murder of protestors during the eighteen revolutionary days of January and February last year.  The verdicts will be appealed of course, and many people believe the convictions to be unsafe due to the poor preparation of the prosecution.  Mubarak and his two sons were cleared of corruption and embezzlement, although the two sons are now remanded to face further charges of insider trading.  Six of al Adly's deputies were found not guilty of murder charges.  For the families of the martyrs, it's a slap in the face, and outside the court-room, several broke down in tears.

    Ahmed Shafiq may now take the Presidency.  In remarks to an association of wealthy Egyptian Americans, Shafiq laid out his programme.  According to the New York Times, he “suggested that he would use executions and brutal force to restore order within a month”.  Even if this is the sort of hyperbole of which politicians are fond, his record (including an “iron fist” on labour matters), and his other remarks (“the Egyptian people . . . are obedient . . . the state must be the strongest thing”) amply reveal his political character.

    Well over one thousand people have died so far to bring the revolution to this insufficient and conflicted place. From my apartment near Tahrir, as I write on Saturday, a few hours after the trial, I can hear the chanting swelling already in the square, “the people demand the downfall of the system” (not just, that is, the downfall of a single man).  I head out to take a look.  There's only a few hundred there at the moment, but as I looked over to the wall on Mohammed Mahmoud, I noticed that some of the painted frames are still blank, as if there are still faces yet to fill them. 

    I've spent a lot of time in the last week in one of the 'informal' areas of Cairo, crammed with jerry-built houses.  Many don't have sewage or running water.  People are worried about jobs, and not a few carry injuries from the fighting of the past eighteen months.  There are election posters on the walls, but the parliament hasn't done anything for these people yet.  I'll speak more about all this in future pieces.  But for now, it's clear that today, or another day, there are many battles left to fight.

    The demon or the demonized? Deconstructing “salafism” in Tunisia

    By Anne Wolf and Raphael Lefevre

    A burned police station, closed shops, vandalized bars and empty buildings. This is the picture we witnessed one day after a group of hundreds of ultraconservative Muslims or salafists clashed with the police in Jendouba, a town in northwestern Tunisia known for its economic and political marginalisation. The incident, leading to the arrest of about fifteen, is the latest of a series of violent events carried out by a branch of Tunisian salafists, who have drawn attention for physically and morally harassing journalists, artisans and scholars throughout the country.

    TunisThousands of salafists rally in Kairouan last month, leaving many Tunisians anxious about the increasing influence of ultraconservative Muslims in Tunisia. Photograph: Reuters

    While indeed alarming, such religiously-motivated incidents have led many people inside and outside of Tunisia to believe that salafism and violence are intrinsically interlinked. This perception – reinforced by the increasing number of ultraconservative Muslims throughout the country – is, however, both misleading and unconstructive. It overlooks not only the fact that salafism is a very heterogeneous and largely peaceful movement, but also disregards that not everybody claiming to belong to the ultraconservatives is actually a salafist.

    A minority within an otherwise peaceful movement, one branch only of Tunisia's ultra-religious conservatives, the salafist-jihadists, hold indeed that “violence is sometimes necessary and required”, as explained to us a member of the movement who wished to remain anonymous. This is because “only violence can lead to the creation of an Islamic state or Caliphate“ – the ultimate goal of all salafist movements. But such an approach is rejected by the wide majority of ultraconservative Muslims, also referred to as “scientific salafists”, who emphasize the importance of Islamic scholarship and reject the use of violence. “We are against any kind of physical and verbal violence and want to stop it” explained Seif Eddine al-Rais, a salafist based in Kairouan, Tunisia's holiest city. In contrast to the salafist-jihadists, he asserts that law and order can only be established by convincing people of the peaceful message of salafism, which aims to apply Islamic law and emulate the way of life followed by the Prophet Muhammad.

    A similar reasoning is employed by Hizb ut-Tahrir – another group of ultraconservative Muslims who distinguish themselves from the salafist movement, for example by giving men and women more freedom in clothing. Moncef Manai, one representative of the movement in Jendouba, denounced recent attacks in the town affirming that “we are not authorised to use violence”. Hizb ut-Tahrir, having been rejected as a political party due to its inherently anti-democratic message, aims at spreading its message through reasoning and persuasion, asserting that “at the end, the best argument will win”.

    Adding to this complex picture are those people who pretend to be affiliated with the religiously ultraconservatives but are actually no salafists. Only last week we witnessed by coincidence the ransacking of a building by a group of five young people. When being told that the incident was attributed to “salafists”, we were puzzled given that the ransackers did not wear the traditional clothes characteristic of the ultraconservative movement. The simple explanation: regular criminals are increasingly cloaking their misdeeds in the name of “salafism”, while more and more Tunisians  use the term “salafism” to denounce all sorts of people and deeds they disagree with.

    In the end, the picture is complex but the salafist message should not be caricatured and mistaken. Salafists may be ultraconservative, they may reject democracy and emphasize the significant role they wish Islam to play in public life, but only a minority advocates political violence to achieve such goals. While this fraction should indeed be watched and taken seriously, demonizing an entire movement is both a misleading and dangerous game: beyond deforming the reality of a largely peaceful movement, it will only play into the hands of its most radical offshoots.

    Lebanon: the dark side of the twitter revolution

    By Rohan Talbot

    The past fortnight has seen a series of potentially incendiary events that continue to cause Lebanon to hold its breath. Following from the clashes centring around last month’s arrest of al-Mawlawi in Tripoli (he has since been released on bail), there have been the following flashpoints: the shooting of Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed by the army in Akkar, the kidnap of 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims in Syria, the shooting of a Bsharri man by the army, the fighting between the army and armed men in Caracas, Beirut (either a personal spat or al Qaeda-linked militant, depending on who you ask), the kidnap and arrest of a two Lebanese men by Syrian troops in the border regions, and the horrifying events of the Houla massacre in Syria. Each incident has been met with tyre burning and road-blocking protests, along with the clashes in Beirut that killed two and injured several others.

    This weekend in Tripoli, some of the worst fighting took place that Lebanon has seen for several years. From my vantage point on a hill just north of the city, at the height of the violence – around 3am on Sunday morning – I could hear almost constant gunfire, and explosions every five minutes or so. During the night there were no updates from any of Lebanon’s major news outlets, and frustrated citizens turned to social media to share what they were experiencing, and vent at the lack of news. On twitter, some suggested the media blackout was by design – a political request not to cover the clashes. Others joked that reporters simply didn’t know where Tripoli was, and tweeted driving instructions to major news channels. There is a real feeling among people here that those in the capital – politicians and journalists alike – are woefully uninterested in Tripoli’s woes. The army has once again mobilised in Tripoli, and on Sunday morning the city returned to relative calm.

    Media – old and new, foreign and local – have continued to be pessimistic in interpreting the meaning of these events for Lebanon’s future. Each incident has brought new headlines, blog posts, status updates and tweets proclaiming that Lebanon is unavoidably slipping into Syria’s conflict. This was typified by the frankly histrionic twitter hashtag trending at the time of the Beirut clashes: ‘#LebanonOnFire’.

    Lebanon is not on fire, though a battle for the narrative is in full swing. With each new provocative event, accusations fly between the pro- and anti-Assad camps. Both highlight the others’ crimes (real or imagined), and accuse their opponents of attempting to provoke strife in Lebanon for their own nefarious purposes.  As an example, over the past week I have heard (by mouth and online) many theories about who kidnapped the 11 Lebanese pilgrims and why – including mafia gangs seeking ransom, the Free Syria Army seeking to influence Hezbollah’s stance towards Assad, and pro-regime groups seeking to draw Lebanon into the conflict. Similarly, rumours of their destiny have varied wildly, with hearsay that they were safely in Turkey, still in Syria, killed by their kidnappers, or had been injured by government shelling.

    Much has been made of the positive role of social media in the Arab Spring, and no doubt it has provided a valuable platform for mobilising protest against the corrupt and oppressive regimes of Messrs Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gaddafi et al. During Tripoli’s weekend violence, twitter provided an invaluable source of information for some residents, also a way for people to feel connected at a distressing time. But it is easy to discern a darker side to it in Lebanon. The fighting here is no doubt alarming, and the country’s long history of violence naturally means that such incidents loom large in the public consciousness. But on social media here pro-social voices for positive responses are being drowned out by those spreading hearsay, exaggeration and conspiracy.

    Rumour moves fast in Lebanon even without technology, but there is a danger that twitter, Facebook etc. may increase the infectious spread of tensions in the country. If it continues to be a vector for the narratives of those attempting to provoke disharmony in Lebanon, social media may become a force for discord and oppression rather than unity and peace.

    Dubai’s competing halves

    By Sacha Robehmed

    Short with distinctive yellow, mint and dark green stripes, it was my favourite skirt in my mid-teens. I can vividly picture it even today. In retrospect, the garment was as ghastly as it sounds, but at the time I adored it. Flitting somewhere around my thighs, I was never allowed to wear it anywhere but to friends’ houses, despite my best efforts. And most definitely not to a mall.  

    Dubai life revolves around the many malls, even more so in the summer heat. People go to the movies, buy groceries at French hypermarkets, run errands, eat in restaurants, and play in gaming zones. Some are even there to shop. So it is no surprise that the mall is the stage for Dubai’s latest public debate on the sartorial decisions of those strutting along its polished, marble promenades.

    @UAEDressCode is a Twitter campaign started by two Emirati women. Disgusted by the the inability of mall management to take issue with ‘inappropriate’ clothing, they decided to raise awareness themselves. They now have over a thousand followers. Everyone in the UAE seems compelled to share their thoughts, with Twitter, blogs, and Letters to the Editor pages becoming soapboxes for opinions on #UAEDressCode.

    Public discussion on dress codes is not something new. In September 2011, a similar mall clothing debate was initiated by ‘a group of Arab women’ on an expat forum.  Two years ago, a tourist stripped to her bikini in the middle of Dubai Mall, when confronted over her ‘revealing’ clothing.  And in 2008, signs were placed on beaches warning against indecent sunbathing. For several years now, malls have displayed signs confirming expected sartorial behaviour. The image of a short-sleeved t-shirt is accompanied by the request, “please wear respectful clothing”, defined in smaller print as covering knees and shoulders. This applies to both men and women, but is not enforced by powerless security personnel.  

    Hot weather is often cited as an excuse for wearing beach clothing in malls, even though air conditioning means indoor spaces often require a light sweater. Most agree that local customs should be respected but others see the code as an infringement on personal freedoms, with a few even drawing comparisons with the French laws banning the niqab. However the organisers of the campaign stress they are trying to raise awareness, not change laws. Many expats seem equally disgusted by clothing worn in malls—ranging from tight exercise gear to beachwear, revealed shoulders and cleavage, too-short skirts and shorts, and flashes of underwear. The unacknowledged association is that scantily clad women equal prostitution, moral turpitude, and the degradation of cultural norms.

    But tension over dress—and by extension revealed skin alluding to nudity and sex—is part of a much larger debate on public morality. From banning the TV show Game of Thrones to blocking an innuendo-filled, tongue-in-cheek (and now extinct) blog on dating in Dubai, the permissibility of sex and nudity is contested. Scantily clad mall-goers are the beginning of a perceived degradation of local culture and identity that ends near the ‘public indecency’ scandals—such as the British couple who had sex on a beach in 2008, and a couple accused of having sex in a taxi just a few weeks ago.

    This spectrum represents Dubai wrestling with its competing halves. Key to attracting tourists and business is Dubai’s cultivated perception as ‘westernised’ and ‘modern’, compared to other Middle Eastern cities. Yet this must sit alongside Emirati values and traditional cultural norms. Filling the space in between is public discourse such as the @UAEDressCode campaign.  Dubai is not about to ask women to leave malls for wearing nail polish, or introduce decency laws as in the neighbouring emirate of Sharjah. But through social debates on dress codes, it seeks to negotiate a new kind of modernity— one which cannot be reduced to either the burqa or the bikini.

    The Copts’ dilemma: faluls or revolutionaries?

    By Ali Gokpinar

    The recent presidential elections in Egypt caused a dilemma for the Copts, which constitute between 7% and 15% of the total Egyptian population according to various accounts.  While the Copts led many protests on the way to the 25 January Revolution, many Copts voted for falul (former regime) Prime Minister Ahmad Shafik, as the Church tacitly directed them, since they feared an Islamist president and the charismatic leader Pope Shenouda III passed away in March 2012. While many non-Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood blamed the Copts for the electoral success of Shafik, one should investigate the reasons for the Church’s support of Shafik.

    First, historically there has been an entente between the Mubarak regime and Church leadership, namely in the person of the late Pope Shenouda III.  Since the ‘Free Officers coup’, the Church has stood as the political representative of the Coptic community despite the Church’s conflict with laymen. The Church leadership, for example, has always negotiated church construction and renovation issues directly with the President.  Pope Shenouda III managed to have almost full control over his community by centralizing the Church and has brought together Coptic youth via a Sunday School Movement. Whenever a sectarian conflict surfaced the Church and the state apparatus wanted to negotiate to resolve the problem; the church aiming to protect the rights of Copts and maintain its control over them and the state to deny sectarian conflict and to treat the Copts as not full citizens, thereby justifying not implementing the rule of law. A tacit similar approach crystallized between the Church and the SCAF after the Revolution, despite the Coptic losses in Maspero.

    Second, the most prominent presidential hopefuls have been FJP’s Morsy, ex-MB member Aboul Fotouh, Nasserist Hamden Sabbahi and the faluls, ex-Foreign Affairs Minister Moussa and ex-Prime Minister Shafik. Given the Copts’ stance against the Islamist candidates, they had few options and had to choose the best of the worst. Obviously, we don’t know how many Copts voted for Shafik, Moussa, or Sabbahi but it was the Church’s stance to back Shafik. In addition, geographically, the election results do not show the Copts supported Shafik, as he won in the Delta where few Copts live, Morsy in Upper Egypt where most Copts live and Sabbahi in Cairo.  So, why did the Church back Shafik but not others? It has been argued that Moussa used a national unity discourse, similar to that of the Mubarak regime, but that Shafik promised ‘security and order’. While Moussa’s campaign reminded them of sectarianism, for the Church, backed by the SCAF, Shafik has the potential to prevent sectarian incidents and fend off the implementation of Shar’ia.

    The above two points indicate how the Church’s choices shaped the Coptic voters’ minds and hearts. Now, the run-off will be between Morsy and Shafik. Who will the Copts support? The FJP’s Morsy while winking at Copts by promising that his Christian brothers will have full citizenship rights, and will be appointed to senior positions, has also said that he will implement Shar’ia if he is elected. On the other hand, Shafik’s campaign is based on restoring security, most probably through the SCAF. Will the Copts be falul or revolutionaries?  Whoever the Copts choose, the new constitution must guarantee that Copts have full rights, state exclusion and discrimination should come to an end. Nevertheless, if the Church and the state apparatus continue to pursue their traditional diplomacy, the Copts may never become political actors as individual citizens, but remain the subjects of a neo-millet system.

    Blurring the post-conflict political landscape: a pessimistic view of the Libyan elections

    By Rhiannon Smith

    Since the end of the February 17 revolution, Libyans and foreigners alike have been putting a lot of stock by the adage “everything will become clear after the elections”. Whether it’s foreign businesses wanting to set up shop in Libya, or Libyans waiting to reap the rewards of their hard-won revolution, the June elections have become a metaphorical watershed for the country’s future progress and stability. Although it won’t be out of its transitional phase until parliamentary elections in 2013, the upcoming elections will mark Libya’s first nationwide, democratic elections in over four decades and most hope that for good or for worse they will provide a lens through which to better understand and predict Libya’s post-conflict political landscape

    However, with less than three weeks to go until the 200 members of the General National Congress are due to be voted in, it’s beginning to seem that these elections may not offer the focus and clarity much hoped for by those within Libya.

    According to the High National Election Commission (HNEC), voter registration reached 80% of those eligible to vote which is no mean feat. The question is, now that Libyans have their voting cards who will they vote for, if indeed they vote? Candidate lists were posted on the HNEC website on 22 May and a two-day window set for concerns to be registered. However, the final list of approved candidates hasn’t yet been announced, so campaigning hasn’t begun in earnest. Assuming the election date isn’t postponed as many predict it will be, this gives Libyan citizens less than three weeks to decide who to vote for, if not less, depending on when lists are finalised.

    In theory of course there is nothing to stop proactive voters from doing their homework about potential candidates. However the initial candidate lists posted well over a week ago on the HNEC website have not attracted much attention from the Libyan population. Most constituency lists have fewer than 1000 visits, and even the central Tripoli constituency had had little over 6000 visits at the time of writing. Given there are over 660,000 registered voters in Tripoli alone, that means the proportion of voters who have seriously begun considering who to vote for is worryingly low. What’s more, those who do make it as far as these lists are rewarded only with candidate names; there is no information on policy, vision or background. Indeed, having spoken directly to a number of prospective candidates, would-be member of congress are often unclear themselves about what it is they can offer the Libyan populace.

    For most Libyans, whether educated or not, the entire concept of elections and the electoral process is completely new. In the short months since the end of the war, many have barely had time to get their heads around how voting actually works, let alone think about who to vote for. Despite the date for these elections having been set months ago, very little has been done to make the public aware of how the voting system will work, and what a voter is expected to do. When asked whether they will vote, many Libyans I’ve spoken to say no, because they don’t know who to vote for, and those that definitely want to vote often have no idea how they will decide.

    Successful democratic elections are based on the premise that voters elect political candidates based on their suitability to complete the job at hand to that voter’s satisfaction. If voters are unable to make an informed decision, due to lack of information concerning the candidate, the process or the role those elected will play, then they will either not vote, or they will vote but not feel responsible or accountable for the vote they cast.

    Libyans want to see stability and a break with the past, but inadequate elections could result in just the opposite. The HNEC has made many strides forward, but if something doesn’t change by June 19, the post-election political environment may very likely be more blurry than ever.

    Engaging women in a democratic Libya: an optimistic view of the Libyan elections

    By Sara ElGaddari

    Returning from voting at their local schools, women in their thousands have just taken part in their first ever democratic elections. In the local council elections of Benghazi on May 19, women not only voted, but they stood as candidates too across its 11 electoral districts. Nejat Rashid Mansour Al-Khikhia even received the most votes for the Benghazi district of Al-Birka, enough votes to secure one of the seats in the country-wide National Transitional Council (NTC).

    On May 19, going home with ink-stained fingers, women held parties and celebrations with family and friends all over Benghazi. A real feeling of excitement and political engagement permeates the towns and cities in Libya. Foreign embassies and a growing number of women’s organisations (such as Alaa Murabit’s Voice of Libyan Women) have been busy on the streets, in the souks, and in office buildings conducting information and awareness sessions on how to engage in the electoral and voting processes. Women have been asked: “Are you going to vote?’ and “What will this mean for you?”

    Almost all Libyans are excitedly anticipating the June national elections that will replace the interim NTC with a National Assembly. Daughters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers turned out to vote in May, and will turn out again, because they hope the electoral process will give them a practical way of influencing their own futures. The process is already creating a new national symbolism that adds cohesion to strong local identities.

    The national elections on June 20 should follow a similar format to the city council elections. The local schools are large and accessible to many, and have proven to be the favoured location for the voting process.  People have registered and received their registration cards.

    The challenges are large, but not insurmountable. The first hurdle is one of time. Ramadan is all but six weeks away, and it’s vital that with even a small delay, as High National Elections Commission (HNEC) Chief Nouri Al-Abbar stressed, the voting is still held before the fasting period begins. This is what Libyans are expecting and what the NTC, with the support of external agencies such as the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will hopefully achieve.

    The second challenge is far greater, and it is traditional male attitudes that permeate a largely-conservative Muslim populace. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of first-hand accounts of women being stopped from exercising their right to vote – most often by their husbands.

    The most disturbing and unexpected part of this story is that these women are not house-bound: they are professional women such as teachers,who are being told by their husbands that they cannot participate in the voting process. The reasons for this range from the singular, such as the objection to non-familial males being around the electoral registration/voting location, to the much more complex, encompassing men’s fears about what female political participation means for them, their family, and ultimately how society will perceive them.

    Obstructing your wife, sister or daughter from voting is utterly unacceptable and an infringement of her newly-found liberties. The NTC, NGOs and society must face this challenge together. Men, indeed the population as a whole, need to be educated about what political participation and expression through the voting process means and what the implications will be.  

    We all share a responsibility to speak to our neighbours and actively engage and support women in exercising their rights, beginning right now with a greater engagement in the electoral process. As Tunisia and Egypt have recently shown, NGOs and a newly emergent civil society can only do so much  – in Libya women need the institutional backing of the National Transitional Council too.

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