US intervention in Syria: Not kind, but cruel

 
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By Amira Mohsen Galal

 Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. It didn’t work in Iraq, and it won’t work in Syria.

Friday 6 September 2013

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As was the case in Iraq a decade ago, punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Photo: US Air Force.

As the drums of war beat once more for yet another strike on a Middle Eastern capital, one cannot help but be reminded of similar events exactly a decade ago that heralded the US invasion of Iraq. However, this time we have learnt from experience to ask the right questions and not to repeat the same mistakes… Haven’t we?

Some would argue that the general public has “over-learned” the lessons from Iraq and yet, just like back then, it doesn’t really matter. According to a recent poll, Just 19% of Americans support intervention in Syria and yet President Barack Obama seems determined to go ahead with his mission. The president set the wheels in motion by asking the US Congress for a mandate to strike the Syrian capital, Damascus, in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons. The resolution was approved by Congress and is now with the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the US media has gone into overdrive, promoting all the reasons why it is in the American people’s interest to intervene in Syria. The most important of which, apparently, is not concern for the suffering of the Syrian people but because failure to actwould undermine the credibility of the United States of America and of the president of the United States”, in the words of one-time presidential hopeful John McCain.

Obama had stated that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that should not be crossed and would force a tough US response. Fair enough. But why did the slaughter of over 100,000 people, through the use of conventional weapons, not elicit a tough response? Is Mr Obama saying that providing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not use the dreaded chemical weapons, he is free to do as he pleases? This echoes former President George W Bush’s warnings about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the “smoking gun”, that triggered the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though previously Saddam Hussein was given even more leeway and allowed to use both conventional and chemical weapons on his people before any “red lines” were drawn, let alone crossed.

This indicates a certain inconsistency in American humanitarian policy and suggests that perhaps it is not the interests of the Syrian people that are at stake here but simply a desire to maintain the stalemate that has existed between the Syrian rebels and the regime since late 2011. Dramatic victories in Qussayr, Homs, as well as gains in the suburbs of Damascus, indicated a tipping of the balance in favour of the regime. It seems foolish, if not completely crazy, for the regime to halt that momentum by crossing the only line that the West had drawn.

Indeed, why would the regime launch a chemical attack, just days after UN inspectors arrived in Damascus and just 15km away from the hotel where they were staying, even if the experts were initially prevented from visiting the site? This is especially bewildering when you consider that those inspectors were in Damascus for the express purpose of investigating whether chemical weapons had been deployed? Surely, it would have been easier for the regime to allow the inspectors to do their work, send them on their way with no evidence and then resume their bloody assault without laying themselves open to the wrath of America?

Another point worth consideration is that no one is entirely sure exactly who is using chemical weapons in Syria. There have been allegations against both the regime and the rebels. The most notable accusation against the rebels was when Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, voiced her suspicions that rebel forces had made use of Sarin nerve gas. This is in addition to Turkey’s announcement that it had seized rebels on the Turkish-Syrian border carrying a 2kg cylinder of Sarin gas. Turkish newspapers also announced, back in May, that  another 2kg cylinder of Sarin had been confiscated from the homes of Syrian militants in Adana.

The regime has not denied possessing chemical weapons but has it used them? It is certainly not a possibility that we should rule out. However, intervention in Syria based on shaky evidence seems ill advised. The declassified report issued by the White House provides little explanation of how the Obama administration decided that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Another curious point is how the figure of 1,429 dead cited by the White House does not correspond with the 355 confirmed by Médecins Sans Frontières or the 502 that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimatesor indeed even America’s French Intelligence allies who were only able to confirm 281 casualties. It seems that numbers are being thrown around with little care for what actually happened or to who it happened to.

However, the most significant factor to take into consideration is that it was Syria and Russia who asked for the UN to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal and two other locations, which the Syrian government did not announce for fear of a repeat of the rebel attack on Khan al-Assal, allegedly to cover up evidence of chemical weapons use by the rebels. 

Most importantly, we must question what the outcome of any strike on Syria would be. One would think it would be enough to see the carnage that this kind of adventurism inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. A succession of “wars on terror” and operations to “bring democracy” to Afghanistan has seen the country literally razed to the ground. Libya still remains in total chaos, whilst Iraq undoubtedly represents the greatest human tragedy of our time. Estimates put the death toll at between 100,000 and one million, with some as high as 2.7 million – again a bitter war of numbers that totally disregards the suffering inflicted upon the country. One would be remiss not to mention the effects that “humanitarian intervention” had on the city of Fallujah where the “toxic legacy of the US assault” – where there is, ironically, evidence that the US used chemical weapons – was considered, by international studies, to be “worse than Hiroshima.”

Of course, the pro-intervention crowd will argue that it will be different this time. But how can anyone guarantee that? Any military expert would agree that it is difficult to assess exactly how hard to strike and it’s also difficult to withdraw. And after all of that, will Assad actually fall? Well, if America manages to keep to “limited” strikes, then it is unlikely that Assad will be toppled. Already he pre-emptively relocated his personnel and artillery to civilian areas - a move which assures that America will either totally miss its targets, or civilians will be hit.

Finally, America’s strike on Syria would probably only serve to boost the morale of the regime, which is already receiving support from some segments of the Syrian population and other Arab countries for its perceived role as a champion fighting against another “imperialistic crusade”. Obvious parallels with the intervention in Iraq 10 years ago are already being drawn and the world is getting tired of America’s forays into the Middle East. Moreover, escalating matters can only be advantageous for Russia as it can now justify its backing of the Assad regime as support for a “legitimate authority under attack”. 

Military intervention is not the answer. Punishing a dictator for killing his own people by killing yet more of them is not the answer. Syria needs dialogue and carefully considered diplomacy – not more guns.

 ___

Follow Amira Mohsen Galal on Twitter

 

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Democracy is (still) the solution

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt, neither Islamism nor jingoism is the solution. We need is a visionary founding document, and the stillborn 1954 constitution fits the bill.

Saturday 3 August 2013

It is a sign of just how awry the situation has become this past week that al-Gama’a al-Islamiya actually sounds like one of the more sensible players on the political stage. The group said the very preservation of the state depended on genuine reconciliation based on respect of the constitution and legitimacy.

Despite al-Gama’a’s continued belief in Shari’a as a “complete and perfect” system, this moderate, conciliatory message is a far cry from the 1990s when the organisation was engaged in a violent insurgency aimed at destroying the state. This included the assassination of leading secular intellectual Farag Foda and the 1997 Luxor massacre.

Meanwhile, the state which al-Gama’a failed to destroy seems strangely fixated on self-destruction, or at the very least implosion, while the Muslim Brotherhood, from which al-Gama’a split away because the former abandoned violence, is ratcheting up its inflammatory rhetoric and refuses any dialogue or compromise. Likewise, the army has been doing its own inciting and engaging in evermore violent crackdowns against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

Last week, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, dressed in the ultimate dictator chic of sunglasses and full military regalia, urged people to take to the streets on Friday to give the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), chillingly, a “mandate” to “face possible violence and terrorism.”

Though shocking, it is not so surprising that a military man should think that a political problem can be resolved by force of arms. But if history and common sense teach us anything it is that words cannot be fought with swords; you can only combat ideas with ideas.

Sure, if some extremists resort to violence, then they should be handled with reasonable force to protect other civilians and society. However, if the ideology that led them to take up arms is not engaged  with and challenged effectively, and the root causes tackled, then the idea will live on and mutate, even if some of its advocates are imprisoned or killed.

That is why it is so worrying and terrifying that many otherwise sensible and intelligent people responded to Al-Sisi’s call. It is also disappointing that some movements that stood up to Morsi’s bullying and tyranny have decided, at least for now, to throw in their lot with the freedom-loathing military.

Take Tamarod. After employing admirably peaceful and democratic means in its grassroots campaign against the ousted president, which saw the rebel movement collect 22 million signatures on a petition calling for Morsi’s departure, it urged people to show their support for al-Sisi. “We call on the people to take to the streets on Friday to support their armed forces… in confronting the violence and terrorism practised by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Tamarod leader Mahmoud Badr was quoted as saying.

There is certainly a lot wrong with the Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters, but accusing them of “terrorism” is disingenuous, to say the least. Yes, a minority has committed acts of violence, but for the most part, the protests have been peaceful. Besides, playing the terrorism card , which comes straight out of the neo-conservative and Mubarak handbook, only fuels demonisation and leads to escalation.

Regardless of what wrongs the Brotherhood as an organisation may or may not have committed, the truth of the matter is the killing of unarmed civilians, as occurred during the massacre on Saturday, will not only do nothing to combat terrorism, in many definitions of the term, it counts as an act of state-sanctioned terror.

Luckily, a growing number of voices are rising up against the din of jingoistic nationalism to say neither the military nor the Brotherhood, neither Morsi nor al-Sisi. There are early signs that some in the anti-Brotherhood camp are already regretting and questioning their support of the military they had opposed so hard, and to such cost, during the first transition.

Even Tamarod is taking small steps in that direction. On Sunday, the movement voiced alarm at Saturday’s massacre. “Our campaign supports the state’s plans in fighting terrorism; however, we have earlier stressed that this support doesn’t include the taking of extraordinary measures, or the contradiction of freedoms and human rights,” Badr said.

It won’t be long, I hope, before it dawns on Tamarod that a so-called “war on terror” cannot be waged, as George W Bush demonstrated so decisively, without undermining freedoms and human rights. This can be seen in how the Ministry of the Interior, probably with SCAF’s blessing, has reinstated state security departments ostensibly tasked with combating extremism and monitoring political activity.

This Orwellian apparatus was shut down thanks to the 2011 revolution and, unsurprisingly, Tamarod has rejected this “return of Mubarak’s state security.” And herein lies the rub: Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi, Morsi and now Sisi are all cut out of the same authoritarian cloth.

Morsi, the Brotherhood and the Islamists proved conclusively that Islamism is not the solution. Pretty soon, people will wake up to the realisation (yet again) that al-Sisi and the SCAF are definitely not the answer.

What we need is a third way in which religion is for the individual, the army is for defence against foreign aggression and the nation is for everyone: secularists and Islamists, young and old, women and men, rich and poor.

One effective, potent and highly symbolic way to achieve this is to revive the stillborn 1954 draft constitution, which lay forgotten and collecting dust for decades in the basement of the Arab League.

Showing remarkable foresight of the dangers ahead, it set out to craft Egypt as a parliamentary democracy, which would’ve prevented the presidency from accumulating the arbitrary powers it now enjoys. It is also full of progressive ideals, including “absolute freedom of belief”, freedom of expression, labour rights, women’s rights, social justice and solidarity, including with foreigners who do not enjoy the same rights in their home countries.

Had this constitution become the republic’s founding document, Egypt today would have been a very different, and much better place. Adopting it, albeit belatedly, can help Egypt become that better place by laying the foundations for true equality.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 30 July 2013.

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9/12: Turning over a new leaf in the Middle East

 
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By Khaled Diab

On the 10th anniversary of the day after 9/11, it is high time to trash the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory and the ‘war on terror’ and start a new chapter in the West’s relationship with the new Middle East.

Monday 12 September 2011

Most people recall vividly where they were on 11 September 2001, when four passenger jets were hijacked and used as highly effective targeted missiles, bringing down the World Trade Centre’s ‘twin towers’ in New York and damaging the Pentagon in Washington. In all, nearly 3,000 people were killed, making this the most devastating terrorist attack ever on American soil.

Sadly, the massive outpouring of global sympathy, support and solidarity – with people around the world saying “We are all Americans now” – was to prove short-lived, especially in Arab and Muslim countries, as the Bush administration and its neo-conservative allies hijacked this monumental tragedy to serve their own narrow interests.

After apparently taking a break for over a decade, following Francis Fukuyama’s confident assertion that history had ended with the collapse of communism in 1989, history re-awoke on 9/12, to an apparently monumental ‘clash of civilisations’ – despite the abundant evidence that most clashes are those of interests and that ‘civilisations’ more often clash within their civilisational group than outside it – which pitted the enlightened West against the benighted forces of Islam(ism).

Equipped with a brand new enemy to replace the ‘reds under the bed’, Washington declared its ‘war on terror’ to hunt down those baddie Jihadis and launched a raft of initiatives to civilise the Muslim world.

Providing strong evidence of where the administration’s actual priorities lay, hours after the attacks, then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was already going out of his way to link the atrocity to Iraq, despite the secular nature of Baghdad’s Ba’ath regime and the mutual hatred between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

Washington’s democratising and civilising mission focused mainly on invading and bombing to smithereens two countries: first Afghanistan (in October 2001) and then Iraq (in March 2003), not to mention the more recent involvement in Pakistan.

Despite at least a quarter of a million deaths and up to $4 trillion in costs to the US tax payer,  the decade-old war on terror has resulted in little but death, destruction and destitution, particularly in Iraq which was once one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the Middle East.

The true gains for freedom and democracy in the Middle East have been delivered – as critics of the War on Terror have long been arguing – by the peoples concerned themselves, as demonstrated by the ongoing Arab Spring or Arab Awakening.

In fact, the Arab revolutions undermine many of the assumptions underpinning the US approach over the past decade, even under the Obama administration which took over many of its predecessor’s policies, namely that liberty and liberal values could be imposed from outside by a paternalistic West, that freedom is synonymous with free markets, and that democracy and free markets automatically bring greater prosperity and rights to the masses. Another shattered myth is that the United State is a benign power operating for the greater good and not out of the narrow self-interest of its economic and political elite at the expense not only of hundreds of millions around the world but also of ordinary Americans who have been left with a near-bankrupt system, as the recent “default crisis” frighteningly illustrated.

For the Arab revolutionary wave to succeed requires not only that Arabs successfully redefine and reinvent their relationship with those that govern them but also that the relationship between Arab, not to mention other developing, countries with the West and the wealthy industrialised nations.

Although the Arab uprisings are against dictatorship and despotism, they are also against the dictates of Western hegemony and have an economic bottom line. They are part and parcel of a global backlash against growing inequalities triggered by neo-liberal economics and the increasing economic marginalisation of the young.

Tackling this not only requires deep domestic economic reform by Arab regimes but also the reinvention and reconfiguration of the global economic order – which is currently skewed towards the interests of he West, other OECD countries and, increasingly, the emerging might of China and a few other heavy hitters in the developing world – to make it fairer and more equitable.

If the second decade following the 9/11 attacks is to be a brighter one, then Washington and its Western allies need to abandon their paternalistic approach to the Middle East, see the region as more than the sum of its oil wells and allow its people to gain their fair share of the global economic pie.

But with a major energy crisis on the horizon and with Western economies on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention massive global and regional overpopulation, there are troubling signs that the wrong lessons will be drawn from the first post-9/11 decade. But here’s to hoping that enlightened self-interest will win out over destructive selfishness.

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Rejected by the right, Western Muslims are only left with the left

 
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By Osama Diab

No Muslim in their right mind would support far-right Christian groups in the West, though they may well symathise with their Muslim equivalents elsewhere.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

I can still remember the excitement on the faces of many of my Egyptian friends when they learnt that, in 21st-century America, some still believe in abstinence and, despite all the freedom at their disposal, they choose to keep themselves ‘pure’ for their future spouses.

Many young Egyptian dream of an opportunity to start a life in an affluent Western society, but they are always worried about the cultural differences. Muslims are often concerned with what to expect if they tie the knot with a Westerner who might belong to a different faith or even to no organised religion at all, especially when it comes to the thorny question of raising children. Most importantly, many are concerned  about the discrimination they may face or how they may be made to feel like unwanted members of society amidst all the unfortunate events that have unfolded over the past decade, culminating with the recent attacks in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, which were carried out by a far-right fundamentalist Christian who was angry at Europe for accommodating so many Muslims who, in his view, threaten the continent’s Christian identity.

With so many questions running through the average pious Muslim’s head, it is understandable that many find the idea appealing that some in the West share the same values, especially regarding sexuality, gender roles, abortion, marriage and premarital sex.

However, what many don’t realise is that those who seemingly share the same values would probably belong to the far-right on the political spectrum. They are at best not particularly amused by the fact that they live side by side with Muslims, Arabs and immigrants in general, and some even resort to more violent means of expressing their hatred towards non-white and non-Christian minorities, such as Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the Oslo attacks.

Ironically, Breiviks’s views are in a way identical to those of conservative Muslims, the very same group he and his ilk are fighting. “Ladies should be wives and homemakers, not cops or soldiers, and men should still hold doors open for ladies. Children should not be born out of wedlock. Glorification of homosexuality should be shunned,” wrote the Norwegian terrorist in his 1,500-page manifesto, which he sent by e-mail to a mailing list of about a thousand addresses shortly before he carried out his attacks.

In contrast, those who defend multiculturalism, uphold the rights of minorities including Muslims, and express support for the Palestinian cause, are more left-leaning in their political views.

For conservative Muslims, the dilemma, again, is that these minorities, marginalised or vulnerable groups that leftists defend include – alongside Muslims – homosexuals, women, adherents of non-Abrahamic faiths and atheists. Likewise, for leftists – especially gay rights activists, feminists and atheists - the dilemma is that many of the Muslims they stand up for do not approve of their lifestyle choices or beliefs.

So should a conservative Muslim relate more to the camp that shares her/his values but cannot tolerate their presence, or with the camp that holds a fundamentally different set of morals but sees Muslim as a necessary thread in the colourful fabric of a multicultural society?

The US president, Barack Obama, a radical liberal by US standards, is a sign of shifting allegiances for at least American Muslims. US Muslims, who traditionally voted Republican, overwhelmingly voted for Obama, probably as a reaction to the acts and deeds of the George W Bush administration during their eight-year rule which involved two wide-scale wars against Muslim countries and the growing tension between “them” and “us”, as the former American president liked to put it.

In Sweden, it is believed that 80-90% of Muslims vote left-wing despite the fact that many of them do not hold leftist views. In the UK, Muslims have for long been more likely to vote Labour than Conservative and, despite the war in Iraq which was launched by a Labour government, most Muslims still see the centre-left party as the most friendly to Muslims in Britain.

Voting left is only normal since most far-right wing groups, as well as some more centrist right parties, have long been openly hostile towards Muslims. In May, the far-right group Ataka attacked Bulgarian Muslims performing their Friday prayers in the country’s capital, Sofia. British extremist right-wing white-only parties, such as the British National Party and the National Front, have been hard-line critics of non-European immigrants in general and the Muslim minority in particular, and always adopt programmes that have at their centre the “repatriation” of non-white immigrants.

This implies that most people would agree to make concessions in return for co-existence, especially when they are a vulnerable minority. Since most Muslims approve of liberal politics, despite not necessarily holding liberal views, when they are a minority, they would only be able to avoid accusations of hypocrisy if they apply their implicit approval of liberal politics in their Muslim-majority home countries. They should support the treatment of all minorities in Muslim-majority countries the same way they like to be treated as religious minorities in Western democracies.

This is not only common sense, but the Qur’an also confirms this concept. “Woe to those… who, when they have to receive by measure from men, they demand exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due.”

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Sexual harassment: I was harassed and I’m stupefied!

 
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By Yosra Mostafa

Until the revolution in social attitudes comes, women should face their harassers with a loud voice and a shebsheb (a slipper).

Monday 20 June 2011

I went to Tahrir Square before, during the golden days of the revolution. It was too crowded, but I was not harassed. Yet on that particular Friday, when the country’s political streams were divided about going to Tahrir and the square was relatively spacious, I was harassed! 

Setting home, I said goodbye to my friends as we were going different ways and continued alone feeling no reason for worry at all. My friend said “God keep you safe” and I really wondered why she had said that. The world was a safe place to me. 

I had heard a lot of stories from friends and relatives about the rampant harassment on Cairo streets. Yet it has been a long time since I ever faced anything similar, and it was mostly nothing major, maybe because I haven’t really been using public transportations for a while. The two times when something remotely happened, I was either 19 or 20 and I kept away from a man who seemed to get closer towards me on the infamous CTA bus (which stands for Cairo Traffic Agency but commonly referred to those air conditioned buses which were notorious for these kinds of transgressions). Eventually, I’d move to another part of the bus while the man ,who is usually very cowardly, quickly gets off the bus, leaving the other passengers to wonder why the young woman changed seats.

But that was long ago and I was young and inexperienced. At least that’s what I thought. And here I am at 28 years of age and not so sure anymore. I used to reassure myself that if anything like that happens, I’m going to get the hell out of the harasser’s and gather an unmerciful crowd around him. I was no coward, I thought.

But on my way out of Tahrir that day, I walked in line to the exit. Usually, on other days, people respectfully left some distance and circled the women wherever they stood. And I was wary anyway. This time, however, when I felt a slight friction, I looked back and shunned the idea that anything untoward was happening. “I shouldn’t be paranoid,” I told myself. Then again, but the movement was too slight to notice. Then a fight erupted close to the line, and in the confusion of people thrust against each other, the man took more liberties to perform more filthy acts. I was sure then, but I didn’t know whether to worry about the crowds jostling in my direction or the man behind. In an instant,  he was thrust backwards and I was thrust forwards, and the people kept telling me, “come here, come here” and offering me space outside of this mess.

It was over in a flash, and I wished I could make my way back to this man and tear his head into pieces, but with that fight going on I could never get to him. I was left with the worst part: that same confusion of feelings that I would’ve probably felt when I was 19. That thought of “why did he do that?”. This feeling of guilt and wondering “was there something that brought this about on my side?”. And then the ultimate shock of having been so unable to react, despite having previously told myself that I would be so fast to act. And given the fact that I’m usually fast and furious, I can’t imagine how other women and younger girls would cope. This really was painful and humiliating.

I walked away, silently carrying this weight and, since police officers disappeared from the planet after the revolution, there was nothing to be done. And what would they do anyway. I had no proof whatsoever. Even the closest crowds would not have noticed the incident.

 Although a recent draft law proposed raising the penalty for sexual harassment to execution in some cases, as with many laws in Egypt, there would be tons of barriers to actually carrying out that law. And as more than one comment on this news story related to the law reveal, there is always the argument that a woman may only be claiming this to harm the man.

I would have ordinarily thought sexism was a far cry from this issue and that feminists were just exaggerating. But on one of her status updates, Egyptian activist and journalist Dr Nadia el-Awady, says that while furiously addressing a police officer, she was rebuffed with this macho declaration: “If you were are good woman, you wouldn’t talk to a man like that.” And the first impression one gets is that this man definitely thinks he’s her husband.

I have to admit that I felt safe when people encircled us, women, on Tahrir, to protect us on crowded days. But when this male guardianship on the street is about to turn a well-established country back to tribal laws, this phenomenon should definitely be considered and faced.

A friend of mine was wondering why this sort of degraded act did not occur on the “first days of Tahrir” and I told her it was because of the types of people who were there. It is not only sexual frustration that is behind this, as my friend and some guests in this al-Jazeera English show suggest. It may be a much deeper frustration with life in general. The people who were in Tahrir on the first days of the revolution were people who believed in a cause, and were positive about what they believed in. Many were probably not rich, or married, but they thought of something further than their groins.

As women confirm, many of the men who commit these horrors are not young or unmarried. The culprit in my case appeared to be well into his forties and men of that age are usually married in Egypt. Amazingly too, my sister was also once harassed by a young boy who was about eight.

And it may be worth mentioning that I cover up so well that I wear a face veil. So, no, it is not, as the MP on the same Aljazeera programme suggest, always related to what the woman wears.

 And because of all these accusations that harassed women may face, that it is all somehow their own fault, or maybe just out of shyness, I, like many women, did not mention the incident to people around me. Definitely, not to my husband, whose first reaction would have probably been, “See, you shouldn’t have gone to Tahrir.”

Until Egyptian society decides to go beyond its assumptions and prejudices, do more research, and carry out fair laws, women in Egypt will have to make do with a loud voice and a shebsheb. The loud voice theory – my own modest but mind you very important theory – maintains that these harassers are sick, cowardly people, and like dogs, they are drawn by their victim’s fear and driven away by confrontation. If you feel the slightest threat, you must protest early enough, loudly enough and strongly enough so that the aggressor flees and stops before going any further (my mistake in this case is that I didn’t do that).

 The shebsheb, which literally means a slipper, is the more informal – and oftentimes humourous – Egyptian way of settling all kinds of arguments in addition to humiliating the opponent. Remember Iraqi the journalist who hurled his shoes at George W Bush? Well, this something similar. So, besides their make up, mirror, and perfume, the recommendation is that, for now, every woman in Egypt must carry a little shebsheb in her bag, just in case there happens to be a trespasser on her private space and dignity. Isn’t that the perfect tool in a 2011 state of law!

This article is part of a special series on sexual harassment. Published here with the author’s consent. © Yosra Zoghby. All rights reserved

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Mobile revolution in the Middle East

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“You won’t fool the children of the revolution.” Especially not if they’re Twittering away on their mobile phones.

Friday 18 March 2011

What started as a mobile-mediated youth movement has evolved into revolution and probably even war. The revolutionary wave hitting the Middle East and North Africa comes as no huge surprise to some scholars who predicted that the power of new media and instant communications would catch out unwary dictators and undemocratic governments everywhere.

In an article entitled ‘The blog versus big brother: new and old information technology and political repression (1980-2006)’, which recently appeared in the International Journal of Human Rights, the authors suggest that new technology features prominently in the current wave of globalisation which appears to be manifesting in widespread discontent, particularly among tech-savvy youth.

The authors, Indra de Soysa, director of globalisation research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and his colleague Lucia Liste Muoz, suggest that reliable information and free communication are something of a lifeline for fledgling opposition movements.

The authors note: “Sceptics of globalisation suggest that the new technology will hamstring governments from acting in the interests of ordinary people and for furthering communitarian values, leading to demobilisation of reform movements and empowering powerful capitalistic elites.”

Yet others, the authors continue, suggest that new technologies empower people at the expense of states, paving the way “for diversity of opinions and constraining the repressive tendencies of states and bureaucracies”.

Their December 2010 article – appearing rather forebodingly just weeks before the Middle-East/North Africa winter of discontent kicked off – appears to build on a 2009 paper by the same authors under the title ‘The blog versus big brother: information and communication technologies and human rights (1980-2005)’.

“TV is especially bad for human rights,” declares de Soysa in a statement, “because the government can feed propaganda to the population.” Evidence of which can be plainly seen in Libya today, as the world media are being harassed, obstructed and, according to some reports, even abducted by pro-government henchmen. Meanwhile Colonel Muammar Gaddafi maintains his defiant – many would argue delusional (see the Chronikler’s Defiantly delusional) – stand using traditional media like TV to misinform citizens.

Last week, as the country seemed to the rest of the world to be in the grips of full-scale civil war, a Libyan army captain said on Libyan state TV that security in rebel areas is at about 95%. “There are some rats that could be lying in some alleys and inside some flats. We are capturing them one group after the other,” he said. See Gaddafi in action on Turkish TV (BBC).

Young, sceptical and not into TV

That younger generations are turning away from traditional media (or “old technology”) like television in its basic form is well documented (check out the Nielsen report ‘Young people don’t watch TV on TV’). But what we are seeing, anecdotally at least, is that they are also increasingly sceptical about the one-way, lecturing approach to traditional media like TV. This is particularly true of countries where the media is state dominated, censored, or in dictatorships like Libya, just plain mouthpieces for the corrupt state to keep its people down.

So, this is really where the new technologies, especially mobiles and social media platforms, really shake the cage of dictators and questionable democracies. The internet and mobile phones make it harder for despotic leadership to feed the whole population with the necessary propaganda to prop it up. And social media also gives people access to information which might otherwise be censored or blocked on the internet (think China).

Technology as freedom fighter

In Egypt, for example, where a Google employee mobilised so many people in such a short time, social media really showed its potential as a political tool – a force for participatory democracy in some pure form.

Indra de Soysa points to the many eyewitnesses who sent pictures from mobile phones to media organisations like al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. “The authorities can no longer get away with attacking their own people. In Burma, the authorities can still shoot a man in the street, and get away with it. But there are beginning to be fewer and fewer countries where that is still the case,” he notes.

In Africa, mobile phones are spreading rapidly which also means that Africans will be connected to the world in a completely different way than before. “The world is becoming flatter because people communicate horizontally,” he adds.

Saddam first

De Soysa puts the current wave of enthusiasm for democracy and freedom in the context of globalisation and the way communications have changed in just a decade. The youth today, he suggests, perceive themselves as citizens of the world – no longer believing that old men should dictate how they should live. De Soysa suggests Tunisia and Egypt were not freak events: the start of the latest wave of revolutionary unrest in the Middle East and North Africa began with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he believes.

“The human cost was high, and many died. But it was an important symbol that encouraged people in other repressive regimes to believe that it is possible to get rid of a dictator,” he notes.

“I would not say that George Bush should get the Peace Prize, but in retrospect this was a very important event in initiating the change that is now rolling across the Middle East.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to take Marc Bolan’s advice: “you won’t fool the children of the revolution”… not anymore that is! If Bush helped at all, it was showing younger generations how wrong the old boys with their old technology got it.

 

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Shock and awe on a shoestring

 
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By Khaled Diab

An Iraqi journalist expressed his contempt for President Bush in a manner familiar in the Arab world: by throwing his shoes.

December 2008

Muntadar al-Zeidi will go down in the annals of popular protest as the man who kissed the Bush presidency goodbye by hurling his shoes at the outgoing president. On Sunday, the Iraqi journalist who works for al-Baghdadia television, an Iraqi-owned station based in Cairo, stood up during a joint press conference with Iraqi premier Nuri al-Malaki, and threw his shoes at Bush on behalf of the “the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq”.

 While throwing your shoes at someone would be considered insulting in any culture, in the Arab world, the gesture has a special potency: footwear is commonly used to deliver both verbal and physical insult. In Egypt, for example, many popular and colourful insults include the mention of shoes: “You son of a shoe”, “You have shoes for brains”, “You’ll follow me like an old shoe”, etc.

 Although their offensiveness is largely lost in translation, delivered in Arabic they are a sure-fire way of getting people’s backs up. But why this obsession with shoes? Does it reflect a weird foot fetish? One shoe-lover I know found the whole episode a terrible waste of a pair of perfectly good shoes.

 Their offensive power probably has something to do with the lowly status of the shoe, which resides, downtrodden with its face in the dirt, all the way at the bottom of the clothing hierarchy. That’s why worshippers leave their shoes outside mosques.

 That is probably why hot-blooded working class Egyptian women sometimes take off their shoes or slippers to hit men who harass them on the street: to show that the man belongs in the gutter and is not worthy of contempt. Bizarrely and inexplicably, slapping someone on the back of the neck and calling them a “nape” (‘afa) is also a huge insult.

 “This is your farewell kiss, you dog!” al-Zeidi yelled, delivering a second insult, popular in Arabic. In English, there is a gender distinction, while “bitch”, for some reason, is an insult, dog is often a term of endearment, such as “son of a dog”. But English speakers should beware that the same does not hold in the Arab world. If you call someone “Ibn kalb”, you’re insulting both the person and his forebears.

 The reason could be a difference in cultural perceptions, while dogs in the Anglo-Saxon world are widely seen as “man’s best friend”, in the Muslim world, dogs are regarded as impure animals and usually not kept as pets, except for security purposes. Other popular insults involve mothers and fathers, genitalia and graphic sexual acts, as in many other languages, and, as the word ‘swearing’ in English implies, religion, such as “Curse the religion of your father”.

 While this ‘shoe incident’ is little consolation for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have suffered under the crush of the Bush administration’s boots, many Arabs are applauding al-Zeidi’s audacity. Let’s just hope that journos will not, as a consequence of this isolated act, be forced, under new Homeland Security regulations, to remove their shoes before entering White House briefings and other presidential media events.

 Al-Zeidi has been arrested for his act. Of course, had he caused Bush physical injury, he could’ve been charged for that. But his action was essentially one of freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to cause offence. If President Bush believes in any of his own rhetoric, he should join the chorus of voices calling for the journalist’s immediate release.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 15 December 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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Losing the plot

 
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By Khaled Diab

Wacky conspiracy theories cause damage by drawing attention away from the real plots being hatched by our governments.

4 July 2009

Conspiracy theories: some believe the 11 September attacks were an inside job. Image ©Copyright Katleen Maes

Conspiracy theories: some believe the 11 September attacks were an inside job. Image ©Copyright Katleen Maes

If I were paranoid, I might start believing that some sinister plot was afoot. It almost seems as though the sheer proliferation of far-fetched, madcap conspiracy theories doing the rounds has been designed by some evil genius to cause ‘conspiracy fatigue’ in the public mind and to discredit the whole idea that our governments actually do conspire. But as I’m not unduly paranoid, I realise that this is a reflection of the fact that there are legions of gullible and disillusioned folk out there who have lost their faith in the establishment.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the July 2005 London bombings, there is one conspiracy theory that has proven particularly resilient to reason and evidence. According to advocates of this theory, the 7/7 attacks were not the work of a group of disgruntled and marginalised British Muslims angry at what they saw as their government’s war against Islam – a variation on the stubbornly persistent ‘clash of civilisations‘ theory. Instead, they believe – based on evidence so flimsy you wouldn’t sit your coffee mug on it – that the whole affair was staged by the British government (possibly with Israeli help) to draw attention away from the catastrophe in Iraq and shore up support for the so-called “war on terror”.

And how did the government achieve this? Through controlled explosions. Sounds familiar? Yes, it’s a low-budget spin-off of the 11 September conspiracy theory. And like 9/11, it comes with its very own cult film entitled 7/7 Ripple Effect.

The film bases its conspiracy theory on a number of apparent contradictions and “an unbelievable set of circumstances” in the official narrative, such as the fact that an ex-police officer organised, in a nearby office, a mock exercise preparing for a possible terrorist attack on the underground. The film also claims that the alleged attackers were not on the trains that blew up. So, where were they? Apparently being assassinated in Canary Wharf by government agents who were out to frame them for the atrocity. Given the persistent popularity of 7/7 Ripple Effect, the BBC ran a special documentary this week which investigated the credibility of the DVD’s claims.

Examining the film’s claims one by one, the BBC documentary demolished them compellingly by drawing on convincing evidence. It also unmasked the man behind Ripple Effect, a certain John Hill from Sheffield who is living in Ireland. In addition to making conspiratorial mountains out of coincidental molehills, Hill’s other beliefs include that he is the Messiah and that the ‘Force’ told George Lucas to write Star Wars.

Of course, the flimsiness of the case and the untrustworthiness of the source won’t convince a certain faction of diehard conspiracy theorists. In fact, I’ve found out that it has been declaimed as a “hit piece” by a leading rightwing conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones. No doubt, I will be seen as a mindless pawn in the plot for writing this piece.

In the absence of an official public inquiry and given the government’s lack of credibility following the ‘sexed up’ march to war in Iraq, some people are gullible or disenchanted enough to believe that the government – or other groups they don’t like: corporations, Muslims, Jews, etc – is capable of hatching the most fantastical plots.

However, the sensation and ridicule elicited by crackpot conspiracy theorists discredits talk of the very real plots that take place and enables those involved to laugh them off. But just because there are fantastical conspiracy theories out there that does not mean there are no real conspiracies taking place. In fact, behind many far-fetched conspiracies, there is a germ of fact based on precedent. For example, there are rumours in the Middle East that the US is pulling the strings of the protests in Iran, even though no one has been able to show any convincing link or explain how a mass movement can be remote controlled from Washington. What sustains the rumours and gives them life is that the US and Britain have form, having covertly engineered a coup to oust Iran’s first democratic government more than half a century ago.

Similarly, the 7/7 and 9/11 theories feed off a deep well of distrust dug by other lies. It seems clear to me that the British and American publics were misled in the run-up to the Iraq war, with all the fanciful claims of fictional weapons of mass destruction and the non-existent and farcical link between Saddam Hussein and his sworn enemies al-Qaida. Now that’s a conspiracy, if ever there was one. Instead of giving any credence to 7/7 or 9/11 conspiracy theories, we should dedicate our efforts to campaigning for a proper public inquiry into the real deceptions that took place and demand that those responsible be brought to justice.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 3 July 2009. Read the related discussion.

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