From Gaza’s sinking boat to the Tahini Sea

 
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By Khaled Diab

Gazans Amer and Saleh felt “condemned to failure”, so they decided to escape to Europe. Sadly, their aborted endeavour ended in narrowly averted death.

In Gaza, the sea holds the allure of escape from this  maximum-security prison. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In Gaza, the sea holds the allure of escape from this maximum-security prison.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Amer and Saleh have been inseparable friends since childhood, so it was only natural that when Amer decided to escape the destitution and despair of Gaza for the promised continent of Europe Saleh would join him. The two young men narrowly avoided death on the Mediterranean, only to be spent a stint in Egyptian prison before being deported back to Gaza, where they pass the days broke, in debt and without hope.

How did you come up with the idea of smuggling yourselves out of Gaza and into Europe?

Amer: It was my idea – after I had looked a lot for legitimate ways to get out of the country.

What made you want to leave the country?

Amer: I finished university, business management. There’s no work and, you know, there’s the blockade and all the problems we’re in. Even unemployment benefits, when we go to apply for them, you only receive benefits for three months every five years. The benefits are from UNRWA and the government.

I thought a lot about starting a small business, like a mini-market. But, no, there are no successful business in this place. There’s no capital. And if you open up a mini-market and want to sell, who are you going to sell to? Workers. But the workers have no work. There’s no cement or supplies. All this makes a difference.

There’s a shortage of goods and prices are high. So, there was no room to do anything. I had a small amount of money. I was looking for a Schengen visa or something to get me out of here, and then apply for asylum in Sweden or Norway. But you need powerful connections to get a visa.

There are no embassies in Gaza and you need a permit to get out. This made it impossible. At the same time, my family would suggest that I get engaged or married. But how am I supposed to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage? My father works but his income is modest… My father works to feed us, and that’s all he can afford.

Saleh: My background is almost the same as Amer’s. Amer thought about opening a small business and opened a mini-market. I thought the same, and opened one up too. My shop is still open but life is horrid. There is no life; people are not living.

Having a business is useless. You end up in debt to suppliers and merchants, and your customers are in debt to you. People owe you money but you can’t collect it because they don’t have it. People in the camps have very low incomes and a lot of needs. They’re the living dead. The only thing that is sheltering their dignities are the walls around them. And many people don’t have that. Since the war, many are still stuck in tents.

There’s no cement to build and, even if there was, there’s no money for them to even think about reconstructing. Someone’s home was bombed because his son ran out on to the street or was wearing a black shirt – you know, for petty reasons. But his house vanished and now he’s on the street, without an income or family.

Once you came up with the idea of fleeing, how did you research it?

Saleh: We asked around a lot. We spoke to people who had gone or had tried.

Amer: We’d been monitoring this for some time on the internet and other sources.

How did you determine the credibility of a particular smuggler?

Amer: We investigated who succeeded and asked people who have tried. What motivated us to find the money and pay it in total confidence was that an earlier boat made it. This gave us extra impetus.

Were you not afraid to lose the cash you’d raised?

Amer: Like I said, the fact that a ship made it before, motivated us to the extent that we were willing to get into debt to go. I borrowed some money from my father and my maternal uncle. I only had $500 saved up. My mother had a ring which she sold.

How much did it cost you in total?

Amer: $3,500 each. You go from here to Alexandria and from Alexandria to Italy. In Rafah, I paid $2,000. The local smugglers here delivered us to the smugglers in Egypt. In Egypt, they requested the rest of the amount.

Why is it more expensive to get out of Gaza, then to go through Egypt and onwards to Italy?

Amer: I didn’t leave officially. I went through a tunnel. I escaped at the end of the tunnel era, in August of last year. I wanted to go from Gaza to Egypt officially, without paying the $2,000 and then find me a smuggler in Egypt. But the coordination fees for leaving officially were about $1,700 and they also asked for a bank transfer, so I put my trust in God and went for the more guaranteed option.

At the time, there were still a few tunnels that had not been destroyed. I crossed through a tunnel between Palestinian Rafah and Egyptian Rafah. Then, some people picked us up and took us by bus to Arish. We were a mess after the tunnel and so we looked like farmers. We also left at 5am, so there was no-one about. I saw nobody on the road to Arish. They would sometimes go off-road or into the desert to avoid police checkpoints. They knew all the alternative routes. We arrived in Arish and the smuggler rented a chalet for the 12 of us. We faced our first problem. We had an agreement that the $3,500 also included food and drink, everything. We were surprised when we were told that we’d have to pay for food and drink.

When we were in Gaza, the smuggler gave us the impression that Italy was only a few short miles away. The advantages they promised us decreased constantly. But I only had $200 in my pocket which were supposed to last me till I reached Italy, where I would find a solution.

We faced some complications. We spent three days in Alexandria and a day on a farm in Rashid. It was really messed up. It was our first time in Egypt.

We went down to the beach in Alexandria at about 3am. There were about 300 of us. It was two loads. There were people from Gaza, Syria, Somalia, Djibouti and Iraq. We were taken from one boat to another in the middle of the water, until we reached the larger craft that was supposed to take us to Italy. But it didn’t take us to Italy. We reached about half way through Egypt’s territorial waters when we were intercepted by an Egyptian vessel.

Saleh: We were only an hour and a half away from international waters.

Amer: We were transferred to prison, where we spent about 23 days.

Saleh: The boat we were in was stopped, but the other one managed to get away and sank. We learnt about it in prison.

Amer: There were two ships due to depart, a few days apart. Some of our friends got on the first ship. We were about to board the first boat, when they told us that it was full. We were upset about this. We were sent back and told to wait for the second ship.

It was a stroke of fate. I thanked God that I didn’t board it.

Saleh: When I found out, I prayed out of gratitude.

But we mourned the loss of some of our friends who were onboard. We had some friends from Egypt who were fleeing conscription. Reading the names of those who drowned was really hard. It was a shock to us in prison.

Although it sank before we departed, the smugglers didn’t inform us. They claimed that it had arrived in Italy and the young people were happy and enjoying themselves.

Do you recall the dates?

The first ship was on 7 September 2014 and we departed on about 11 September. We then spent 23 days in prison and were transferred to Arish.

How were you treated in prison?

You might know what Egyptian prisons are like. I’ve never been to prison in Gaza. See my misfortune: I go to jail in Egypt. They treated us like dirt. They didn’t hit us but insults can sometimes be worse than being struck. They used the vilest language against us and were very harsh.

We had to survive on cheese triangles and dry bread. After three days, the Palestinian embassy arrived and began to send us food. They began to punish us in other ways, like depriving us of the toilets.

To be honest, the Palestinian embassy did what it could but it had no power to do anything except arrange our meals and deportation back to Gaza. My family thought that the ship we were on was the one that had sunk. It was like a wake at home. They were weeping for us.

It’s weird that we were held for 23 days. Every day, they told us that we would be transferred to the public prosecutor and from there deported. The embassy did its best to expedite our deportation. But there were those without passports or identity documents. I had a temporary passport. That was one reason for the delay. Another was stubbornness from the officers because we were Palestinians. But there were some officers who were sympathetic. Some were upset for us and came to soothe us with some kind words. But the majority were unkind.

We dealt both with the army and the police. The army captured us first and their treatment was a lot more refined. They told us to be patient and expressed understanding that our circumstances were tough. Even the general came to speak with us, and arranged meals for us. The army made us feel we were humans. The police treated us like animals.

How did your families react when they saw you?

They organised a huge party and my father slaughtered a sheep. The debt and money lost were not important. They believed their son was dead and suddenly they find him alive.

Had they not tried to stop you?

Yes, they had tried to stop us from leaving. They told us it was dangerous. But we had insisted. Like I said before, the smugglers had led us to think that Italy was a short hop away and that everything was arranged and would run smoothly. They persuaded us that we would ride on a seaworthy ship where we would have space to sit and we’d receive decent food. They turned the sea into tehina for us [They promised us the moon].

And do you still have the debt you clocked up to pay for the trip?

I haven’t repaid a penny of it. The people we owe money to are understanding. They’re in the same boat as we are. Some were waiting to see if my journey went well, they would then send their own children.

I swear to you, if they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs.

How do you feel now that you’ve been home for several months?

We feel down.

Saleh: Our troubles have been doubled.

You fled shortly after the war. Did the war influence your decision?

Amer: Of course. Every couple of years, you face a war. Every year, you’re at risk of death. Death is inevitable. But for you to wait for death, then you live in terror. For you to sit and wait for death, that is incredibly hard.

Saleh: Every home in Gaza, has someone who died, was injured or imprisoned.

Amer: This is no life. You’re not married. You don’t have work. In short, why are you alive? This led us to the conclusion that we have to emigrate. But after we were deported from Egypt, our passports were cancelled and we’re not allowed to apply for another passport for five years, we don’t know what to do.

And were the authorities here sympathetic?

Saleh: Yes, they know well the predicament we’re in. They are here and live with us, and they can see how horrendous conditions are. They say, if you can get out, then good luck.

How do you look to the future?

We don’t look to the future at all.

Amer: When I was younger, at school, people used to ask, what do you want to be when you grow up, an engineer or a doctor? Believe me, I swear, I don’t recall what I wanted to become. Either I forgot or I never thought about it. Why? From when I was a child, I could see my older siblings who were graduates and unemployed.

Today, I’m looking for a craft to complement my education but my family forced me to finish my education and didn’t deprive me of the opportunity. Even if it would put them into debt, I had to get an education.

But I wanted to learn a craft so that I can find something to do in life. I see jobs around me require connections. Everything requires string pulling in this society, and businesses are failing. Nothing is working.

Saleh: We live every day as it comes.

Amer: We’re nearly 25 and we still get pocket money from our families. How much longer must my dad support me? My father is approaching 60. One day we all have to die. My brother has his own kids whom he can barely feed. Is he going to feed me too? We’re leaving it to God.

Saleh: We go to sleep, we wake up, we take walks on the beach – we fill the time. Dealing with others brings problems. I’m sitting around, and this guy’s sitting around, and that guy. We’ve all had it up to here. We all want to work, we want money, we want, we want, we want. If someone comes and cracks a joke with me, I find I get all serious with him.

Has this increased the level of violence between young people?

Amer: Of course. There are tonnes of fights. No-one feels for you, unless they’re like you. For example, we’ve been friends for 14 or 15 years and we’ve never had a fight or insulted each other. Why? Because we’re of the same clay. His problem is my problem. When I started a project, he started a project. When I failed, he failed. When I travelled, he travelled. When I was deported, so was he.

Saleh: We’re together for the sweet and the bitter.

Amer: But when you meet someone who’s better off than you and brings you to a restaurant like this, it can be embarrassing. Now, I limit my circle of friends to avoid embarrassment. It’s rare to find a posh person who doesn’t look down on you.

Getting started is what’s tough. I wish someone would just put me on the start of the path, so that I can find my way. But you are condemned to be a failure before you can even start. And this is our problem: we have no starting point. This is not just our problem, it’s the problem of the majority of young people.

 

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One year on: Gaza, life with hard labour

 
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By Khaled Diab

With rubble Gaza’s only growth industry, people are unable to pick up the pieces of their broken lives, face psychological ruin and dream of escape.

Gaza's rubble rousers. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Gaza’s rubble rousers. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 10 July 2015

You can call them rubble rousers. Unlike the iconic image of Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli tanks, these destitute men have found a new calling: navigating the many ruins of Gaza created by last summer’s war. With heavy hammers and pick axes, they smash away the concrete from around the steel rods, which are too valuable for the owners to allow these rummagers to take.

A train of horse- and donkey-drawn carriages makes its way to an industrial crusher that recycles Gaza’s rubble into gravel which can be used in repair and reconstruction work. Although a small cartload of concrete fetches only $2 and a collector can expect to net $5-6 for an 11-hour day after deducting food for his animal, there is no shortage of people “willing” to undertake this backbreaking labour.

A destroyed mosque in Beit Hanoun. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

A destroyed mosque in Beit Hanoun. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

With the World Bank reporting that Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world, reaching a whopping 60% among youth, not to mention all the people in work who are not being paid, rubble is one of the few growth sectors in Gaza’s besieged and battered economy, which is still largely sealed off from the outside world.

“What I make isn’t enough for anything,” admits Rushdie, a man who says he is 30 but looks about 45. “But this work gets me out of the house.”

Since the war, many young people have dropped out of school or college to help support their homeless and destitute families. “Before the war, I was studying mathematics at al-Quds Open University,” explains Mo’tasim, perched casually against his cart wearing a baseball cap, his cheery demeanor and smiley visage contrasting sharply with the ruins of Beit Hanoun which were pummeled heavily during the war.

“I’ve discontinued my studies for now because we need money,” he adds, explaining that his family had lost their home and were being housed in an UNRWA school until his brother got burnt in an accident. Now 15 of his family members are living together in a single room in a damaged building.

But you don’t need to be a mathematician like Mo’tasim to figure out that the situation in Gaza has become completely hopeless. When asked whether he had lost hope for the future, Mo’tasim laughed: “What hope? We had no hope to lose in the first place.”

Still, the young man has not abandoned his modest dreams of finishing his education and landing himself a dignified job. But like other youth in Gaza, the war has prompted him to do the maths and conclude that the only way is out. “If I got the chance, I’d leave Gaza and never return to Beit Hanoun,” Mo’tasim maintains.

Young Gazans dream of escape across the sea to Europe. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Young Gazans dream of escape across the sea to Europe. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

And Mo’tasim is no lone wolf, this urge to take flight affects young people of all walks of life. “I swear to you, if they open up the crossing and give us opportunities to emigrate, not a single young person would remain in Gaza, not even those with jobs,” claimed one unemployed graduate who had borrowed money to pay smugglers to get him to Italy but was caught in Egypt and deported back to Gaza.

“To sit home and wait for death, that is the definition of injustice,” he emphasised.

And this sense of hopelessness and powerlessness is common. While the post-traumatic stress epidemic among Gaza’s children following the 2014 offensive has received wide attention, less visible is the impact of the conflict on grown-ups. “When you have an adult in the situation we have in Gaza,” says Hasan Zeyada, a veteran psychologist at the pioneering Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP),  “this creates a feeling of impotence.”

“Gaza has endured multiple losses, what we call multi-traumatic losses,” elaborates Zeyada, who suffered just such a series of misfortunes when he lost his mother and five other close family members during an Israeli airstrike. “People in other places usually endure a single loss: the loss of a home, or a family member, or a job. Many Gazans have lost them all.”

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Talk of post- or pre-trauma is futile, as trauma is constant and ongoing, not to mention multiple, some experts point out. This long-term, continuous stress has resulted in a growing plethora of psychological difficulties. These include low self-esteem, self-blame, displacement of anger, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorders, mood swings and full blown depression.

The unending, prolonged psychological strain, along with reluctance to consult mental health specialists, also lead to somatoform disorders, which are phantom physical ailments caused by underlying psychological conditions, which cause the sufferer additional psychological distress.

Thanks to the work of the GCMHP and other programs, awareness is rising of mental health issues and the stigma is much less than before, says Zeyada.

But Zeyada warns that there is little he and his colleagues can do beyond providing the psychological equivalent of a band aid, as long as the underlying causes are not addressed. “Without an enhanced socio-economic and political reality, you can’t talk about mental health,” he notes. “Mental health in Gaza is connected to human rights.”

And if nothing happens? Not only will Gaza turn into a completely uninhabitable space, Zeyada argues, a lost generation of traumatised and terrified children will reach adulthood: “How are you going to convince this generation tomorrow that there can be something called peace?”

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 1 July 2015.

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Defusing the social media timebomb

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Countering the “weaponisation of the internet” with top-down initiatives is unlikely to succeed. What we need are true grassroots efforts.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Governments are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

Modern terrorists have embraced social media and “weaponised the internet” to achieve their goals, Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the UN, told journalists at the Brussels launch of the European arm to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) last week.

The timing, though tragic in light of the latest extremist attacks in Tunisia, France and the United States, has never been better to band together in the global struggle against extremism, he suggested.

Founded in the United States just nine months ago, CEP is rallying public support for programmes to counter the narrative of extremists, expose the sources of funding and inspiration for such discourse, and advocate for effective laws and policies that promote “freedom, security and tolerance”.

The US branch of CEP has the backing of some big names in diplomacy, law enforcement and community-based support aimed at identifying and changing the narrative of hatred that feeds radicalism, violence and terrorism.

What has gone so wrong that a youth from a comfortable suburban home in, say, Birmingham feels compelled to take up with murderers? This is the key question that an organisation like CEP seeks to tackle.

US Senator Joseph Lieberman, who lent his support to the European launch of CEP, said the world is awash in blood spilt in brutal acts of violence. And it is not state versus state, he said, but the acts of lone wolves, disenfranchised individuals and extremist organisations so often inspired by the internet.

The intensity of this crisis cannot be solved by governments alone, he continued, it needs counter-narratives from a range of voices – non-government actors, educators, local and religious leaders – to “break down the stereotypes that inculcate violence”, to stop and help people before they “go bad”.

CEP revealed two of its own weapons in this battle: what it calls its counter-narrative programme and digital disruption campaign. The former identifies vulnerable “at-risk populations” and employs influencers – people with an “out-sized” ability to reach and influence such as social workers, community leaders – to engage especially young people, listen to their concerns and address them with better narratives. The digital disruption, though sinister-sounding, is largely aimed at urging social media like Twitter to be more vigilant of the content on their platforms, and to urge the removal of extremist, threatening language.

This has been likened, the experts conceded, to “whack-a-mole” – the game where you hit a mole on the head when it emerges as more keep popping up around it – but it has already proved successful, CEP’s team confirmed.

The power of social media is in the network of connections; every time you take out nodes (sources), the spread of extremist diatribe is weakened and takes time to reconnect or find its critical mass again.

As it seeks to deepen and widen the programme, CEP is under no illusions that countering extremism and terrorist acts everywhere will be easy, especially as modern information flow tends to flout borders. There is no single answer and the challenge most definitely cannot be tackled by states alone.

The lone wolf threat, an extremist who remains off the radar, still “keeps everyone awake at night”, stressed Senator Lieberman. “People reach into your neighbourhood from the other side of the planet.”

So the idea is to work from the ground up and provide the mechanisms and messages to raise awareness and negate the extreme voices that have won the early ground in this battle of our time.

At some point, like an AK 47 or any other weapon supplied to a terrorist, social media that don’t help in the campaign being waged against the weaponised words can be deemed to be providing material support. “We have to degrade [the extremists’] ability to spread cyber-jihad,” the senator stressed.

Somehow, you wonder

Though well-intended, most probably well-funded – CEP prefers not to reveal information about its backers – and definitely able to recruit big political names to the cause, I can’t help but doubt that even a trans-Atlantic organisation like CEP can really build a grassroots counter-movement, an Occupy Wall Street or Tiananmen Square moment. Pressure on social media outlets to crack down on the content is still a top-down measure. Yet it’s the bubble-up action at local level that stands the best chance.

At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause.

But have we reached the lowest ebb? It certainly seems like it, as more and more copycat killers pop up to grandstand in full view of the world’s internet denizens by killing innocent people, and claiming some spurious connection to one or another vying cult of death and destruction.

Yes, the time, tragically, is right but do the masses realise this? Will they raise their voices in protest and in their own way – with their own words and stories – counter extremism when and where it pops up? And do we need a project or programme to run such a movement? That’s to be seen.

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Young and futureless in Iraq under ISIS

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Mosul’s youth are desperate, disillusioned and terrified because “ISIS will never let us have a future, we could die any second.” 

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Now we have reached the concluding part of this series about life under the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), though, in reality, the end is far from near for the people of Mosul. While writing these articles over the past few months, I held on to a dim hope – perhaps an unrealistic one – that things would change and a great transformation would take place, with the people of Mosul, backed up by the Iraqi army, regaining control of our beloved city.

No such thing is likely to happen soon, for reasons beyond my understanding but one thing is clear: what ISIS has built over the years cannot be combated and reversed in a matter of months. They have existed and operated within Iraq, in one form or another, for at least eight or nine years, first under the name of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Back then, they had already begun slowly to grow and expand, terrorising people to build an atmosphere of distrust and animosity, taking ransoms to finance their group and recruiting the marginalised and vulnerable into their activities, building a solid foundation for what would eventually become known to the world as ISIS. This was later strengthened when they took hold of Mosul in June 2014, where they tightened their grip by destroying and smuggling the city’ cultural heritage, tearing up its diverse and rich ethnic tapestry, introducing a new and distorted law and order – basically remapping and recreating a city that had existed for centuries.

To ensure the continuity of their power, ISIS targeted the vulnerable youth of Mosul – after all, this is the future generation of the city and the real threat to their dominance. When ISIS invaded Mosul, it was a week or so before the end-of-year exams for universities, colleges and secondary schools. All of these came to a halt, leaving the future of many of the city’s young in tatters. The enormous uncertainty of the situation made any decisions, especially those with life-shaping implications, extremely difficult.

I interviewed three young people, who all asked that their real identities not be revealed out of concern for their safety. I asked them what life has been like since ISIS took over Mosul last summer.

The youngest is 14 year-old “Muhammad” (not his real name). Prior to ISIS’s arrival, he had attended a prestigious school for top pupil. His outstanding performance that year had, impressively, exempted him from sitting the finals. Muhammad’s ambition was to become a doctor and travel the world. But these dreams were soon dashed when ISIS took over and the education system took one of its worse batterings in Iraq’s modern history. They began by dissolving all the university faculties, with the exception of the medical and maths departments because they regard anything else as un-Islamic and the “evil teachings of the Godless West”.  Muhammad, who has a real talent for learning new languages and a deep passion for exploring the outside world, suddenly lost everything he once loved and cherished. Like many of his generation, Muhammad has never known a peaceful or prosperous Iraq. He was born during economic sanctions and witnessed nothing but American-led wars, sectarian conflict and almost daily suicide bombings by terrorist groups. The only real hope for Muhammad was education – a path that could eventually take him out of Iraq.

For months after ISIS’s entry into Mosul, Muhammad stayed home, no going out, no school, no electricity for almost 18 hours a day, no water, no phone and, most recently, the internet was cut off. “What life have I got now? There is no escape… [ISIS] will never let us have a future, we could die any second, it is just a matter of time until there will be no city called Mosul and all its people will either be dead or displaced.” The young whizz went on to remind me that the “world will not end because of dead Iraqi people… but could be a solution to this long nightmare”.

It is heart-breaking to hear a teenager speak in such a defeated, crest-broken adult tone, but is it any surprise? These young people have not seen a single sign of hope for a country that has been embroiled in numerous conflicts and destructive wars since before they were born.

Despite the unwelcome changes made to the education system, Muhammad had no choice but to return to his school when ISIS issued a warning to all the city’s students that they would face serious consequences for absenteeism. Muhammad’s family considered leaving Mosul but they realised that, sooner or later, they would have to return when their money ran out. Moreover, people in Mosul are very family-orientated, so leaving your extended kin behind is not an option many are willing to entertain, even, or especially, under such dire circumstances. In addition, as I’ve noted before, many people who escaped regretted their decision as they experienced difficulties and discrimination for being from Mosul, with some labelled ISIS supporters or accused of being a burden. Moreover, those who left lost their homes which were overtaken by the jihadist group, which issued a law making it legal to confiscate abandoned houses.

Back at school, Muhammad discovered that he no longer had female teachers, and received no language, art or history classes. Instead, pupils receive instruction in ISIS’s doctrine and creed. It is a chilling thought that these children are being taught the draconian ideology of ISIS, sugar-coated under the guise of being “Islamic”. Eventually, some children are bound to believe and follow what they are being taught. Due to a shortage of teachers, some subjects, though approved by ISIS, are not being taught. For example, Muhammad does not have maths classes, as his previous teacher left for Baghdad out of fear for his safety and replacements are hard to come by.

The nightmare continues for Muhammad, who is not even sure whether this academic year will be recognised by Iraq’s education ministry. Students who stayed in the city may have to repeat the academic year or travel to other government-controlled cities to sit the exams, which carries many risks.

Muhammad’s brother, Zaid (also not his real name), is six years older than him, a third-year medical student at the University of Mosul, who was just starting his exams when ISIS descended on the city, demolishing any hopes of completing the academic year. Later on, the Iraqi government announced plans for university students to take their exams either in Baghdad, Kirkuk or in the Kurdish-controlled areas. Students who could afford the travel costs and were willing to take the risks involved opted for Kirkuk because it was the nearest city to Mosul and officially an Iraqi government-run city – which is less trouble that entering Kurdish areas where the government there has imposed strict regulations on Iraqi Arabs entering their territories.

Zaid travelled to sit his exams with his two cousins: one is a medical student, while the other is studying dentistry. Once they completed their exams, they arranged their return to Mosul with a trusted taxi driver. But before they reached their destination, they were stopped by ISIS fighters who wanted to know where the boys had been and the reason for their travels. One of the three fighters who spoke in a Mosulawi accent ordered the boys to get out of the taxi and strip off for a lashing. The taxi driver, scared of receiving a similar punishment, claimed he knew nothing about them and was merely driving the car. The three youths were speechless with fear and were shocked as to how a fellow Mouslawi could be so brutal and so zealous as to punish them for the crime of visiting an “infidel” state. Another fighter, who may have been from Libya judging by his accent, stopped the Mouslawi  from carrying out the lashing by joking that: “I may need a dentist or a doctor one day so I will let you go.”

This did not please his colleague who seemed eager to punish fellow Iraqis. The boys breathed a sigh of relief and eventually arrived home. When the result came out and they had all passed, Zaid did not let the harrowing experience deter him from going back to Kirkuk and enrolling at the local university that had reserved places for students in all the affected areas. Getting there was not easy but Zaid is a bright student who could not just give up, so he pretended to be a labourer and seized the chance. Thankfully, Zaid passed safely and is now into his second semester there. However, he had to leave his parents and only brother behind and since communications with Mosul were cut off on 30 December 2014, he has not spoken to them. His cousins, Nassar and Ali, stayed behind in Mosul and decided to attend the ISIS-run university of Mosul. They had figured that they would, at least, be with their co-students and taught by the same faculty. But they had not realised that ISIS would be monitoring the university closely. The female students were allowed to attend lectures but were obliged to cover themselves from head to toe and sit apart from the male students.

Nassar narrated one incident which occurred in front of him: one ISIS fighter yelled at a girl for not being “fully clothed”. She could not tolerate the pressure anymore and threw her veil at them, shouting, “Damn you all. What do you want from us?”

This did not go down well and the ISIS men commanded the teaching staff to contact her father and ask him to come. Everyone knew what that meant: the father would be punished for his daughter’s outburst. The situation was resolved when the faculty and staff persuaded the ISIS fighters to suffice themselves with an apology from the girl. Since that day, the young woman in question has not returned. Female students have generally opted to forego the harassment and humiliation by staying home.

Circumstances for female students are much worse than for their male colleagues. Girls who were studying subjects which were abolished by ISIS had two choices: to travel to other cities like the male students or to stay at home. It is much harder and less acceptable for a girl to travel alone without her family, especially in the current dangerous climate. Women who were studying engineering – a faculty that was deemed as “heretical” and dissolved – were given the option to transfer and study medicine instead. Many took this opportunity. A lecturer at the medical faculty informed me that: “These girls have no knowledge or grasp of the subject and are just avoiding being trapped at home by studying something that is alien to them.”

During a recent Friday sermon, ISIS ordered all the men of the city between 14 and 50 to be ready for the “big fight” or risk being executed. Nassar and his brother Ali were told by their parents to flee. The journey to Kirkuk, which normally takes three hours or less, consumed a massive 16 hours as the boys sought out alternative routes. They are now reunited with their cousin Zaid, but the nightmare is far from over. Arabs are facing discrimination in Kirkuk at the hands of Kurdish forces.

“There is a strange feeling in a city that once upon a time you thought you knew like part of your body,” admits Zaid, reflecting on life under ISIS in Mosul, as his voice began to crack. “It is hard to trust people and even harder to just walk down your own street.” He went on to tell me how, once, he was driving his mother to work when he was intercepted by ISIS members. “For a minute there, I thought how does this guy know my name. Then I recognised him, he was in my year at university, very studious and smart but I don’t know what happened. How they convinced him to turn against his own city, I just don’t know.”

Nassar took over from his cousin and offered his own analysis. “Life in Mosul is hell on earth,” he described. “You have to follow strict rules or face lethal consequences. That’s why so many youths chose to be the ones with power rather than the oppressed.”

He described the day the Iraqi national football team reached the semi-finals of the Asian cup and were facing Iran, a game which the whole country was excited about. Nassar was watching the match with his friends at a local café when ISIS members came and ordered them to leave and warned them against watching such things. Football, snooker, ping-pong, cards, backgammon, chess and volleyball are just some of the sports and leisure activities that have been banned, as have smoking and music. Nassar, frustrated, went up to the head of the hisbah (ISIS patrol) and asked him why ban sports, to which he received the reply: “We want to build an Islamic state that can combat the world and we need our youth to spend their time studying and thinking, not wasting their time.” Nassar informed me of another youth who was driving his car and listening to music when he was stopped, ordered to leave his car, had his CD player destroyed and his car confiscated. No one knew the young man’s precise fate.

Both Nassar and Zaid concluded the interview with a reminder of what the youth of Mosul are living. “Imagine no electricity for the whole day so you can’t watch TV, listen to music, play computer games… no proper education, no youth clubs, no activities, nothing – an empty life,” said Nassar. “There’s also no water and if you go to the river to get some ISIS will force you to pay a tax.”

I was left speechless, slightly ashamed of my life of luxury and saddened at how a whole generation has been stripped of the best years of their lives.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

Part IV: ISIS’s war on women

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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Fiction: Us old guys

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“We never regret. Us old guys never regret.” They both chuckled and gave a nod of goodbye.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The old guy was watching me. I could feel it.

It was hotter than usual out, and we were looking for somewhere shady to kill some time before the Diakofto train. I bought a warm beer and Dave, my Canadian friend, took a cold coffee. I think he asked for it that way. I didn’t.

We chatted about this and that. The fig tree in Patras. The girls in Nafplion. The one he went home with and the one that I argued with near the port.

The wooden bench was so upright. It felt like waiting outside the Principal’s office with the teacher sitting opposite. I tried stretching out but I was feeling too self-conscious.

The old guy kept looking at me and I could swear he tittered when I told Dave about the hairy arms on the girl in Nafplion. I imagined that his woollen tam-o’-shanter (I think that’s what you call it) concealed a shiny sun-spotted head. His cat-like eyes followed movement and noises like a trained assassin.

He was joined by another well-worn old guy. The friend flicked the bobble on his cap as he sat down. Silent, they watched the people traffic … in stereo now. The hat was like an antenna that wobbled up and down when someone needed examining from top to toe or sideways as new sources of interest walked by.

“Dirty old coots,” I said to Dave.

He laughed. “You’ll be the same when you get to that age,” he said.

“We’ll never get to their age … we’ll be working till we drop to pay for them and everyone else here,” I said with unexpected vitriol.

I finished my warm beer and went for a cold coffee. Dave opted for a hot coffee. He was always one step ahead.

“What part of Australia do you come from?” I heard from behind as I waited to be served. It was old guy number one. Unusually good English, I thought.

“Um, I guess Melbourne,” I told him.

“I lived in Footscray for 30 years,” he said. “Colourful back then, but it was all we could afford when we got there in the 60s,” he added.

“I wish I bought in South Melbourne,” he winked. “Then I’d be laughing the other side!”

“Yeah, probably. Even Footscray has come along since then,” I told him. “It used to be total Romper Stomper, but it’s changing. The western suburbs are getting snazzier as young families move out there; it’s too expensive in the city and south-side.” I added in clearly way too much detail.

“Haven’t been back since years,” he said. “It’s a good life here with the Aussie pension … Not the same for everyone in Greece, though. Many people are not doing so well. It’s that bloody perestroika that’s making Greeks pay for everything!”

I laughed. In the meantime, Dave had started chatting to his own Greek émigré who had spent 20 years in Toronto and returned on a similar pension deal as my Greek.

“You know Ireland, Portugal and Spain are also going through this imposed austerity programme like Greece and they’re all clearing their debts. Why should Europe feel sorry for Greece? They had it good on EU money for decades. And now it’s time to pay their dues and Greeks just complain,” I immediately regretted pointing out.

“My friend …” he said slowly and patiently “you don’t know nothing about it here. I’ve seen how hard work can make you rich, in Melbourne, you know. I bought my house, I put my kids through school and university. They all got good jobs now, not dirty hands work like me. We left a broken Greece and came back to something better,” he gestured to his friend, or maybe towards the old steam engine near the depot.

“I tell you, young people want to work, and now look … they have to do what we did and start again somewhere else,” he continued, “But it’s not like it was for us.”

They can go to Germany or other places in Europe to work, he suggested, but everywhere is harder for younger people these days. He said something about the economic or social system favouring older generations. I got distracted by a small child teetering on the edge of the platform.

“You saying the baby-boomers rigged the system?” I came back.

“Yeess,” he slapped his thigh, “… the grey ones who got fat after the war and want to keep all their money. They make the system good for them not for the young ones,” stressing ‘young’ each time he said it. “They grew up hungry and they still think like hungry people. Me first!”

The Patras train had pulled in and people started gathering their things. I gestured to Dave that it was time to wind up our new friendships.

I slung my pack on and headed to the carriages. “Do you regret coming back?” I asked over my shoulder as I passed my Greek.

But it was the Canadian’s Greek who answered, as though he’d been having the same conversation: “We never regret. Us old guys never regret.” They both chuckled and gave a nod of goodbye.

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The social media’s Islamic state of terror

 
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By Christian Nielsen

ISIS has skillfully manipulated social media as a powerful propaganda tool.  Should the online community self-censor to deprive it of free publicity?

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Tuesday 30 September 2014/Update Tuesday 18 November 2014

Quality media outlets – with their hierarchy of editors and codes of conduct – have the ability to hold or indeed withhold stories, in what they may consider the public good. Whether for ethical, legal or other reasons, though reasonably rare, there are historical precedents of newspapers and television stations, for example, choosing not to provide much-coveted coverage of terrorism events like a hijacked plane.

But the internet has proven a disruptive force – both in the positive and negative sense. Disruptive in that it gave a voice and opportunity to mostly young people in the Middle East to finally speak out against corrupt, incompetent or incorrigible rulers during the Arab Spring. But today it is also giving a loud voice – and gory platform – to a fanatical few who are intent on shocking and cajoling the right-minded world into a war which it sees no immediately viable way of avoiding. They say you should not shoot the messenger, but if social media is not part of the cause it should be part of the way out of this morass.

Is self-censorship an option?

This is a naive question, perhaps even an abhorrent one, for journalists to be asking, but it’s out there now, so let’s look at it more closely.

Of course, it is technically possible to censor social media from the top down, as amply shown by authoritarian states. This is an altogether different and unwelcome scenario. Here, I am speaking more of social media developing its own set of ethics or code of conduct beyond the people’s court of opinion after the offensive material has already been put out there.

Internet’s not insignificant influence

Already by 2008, just decades after it entered our lives, the internet had taken over traditional newspapers as a prime source of news, Pew Research reported, and for young people, it rivalled television as the main source of national and international news.

Back then a lot of the content still came from traditional sources, “usually those working in struggling newspaper companies and media outlets”, according to Global Issues in a debate broadly covering the changing media influence on society and democracy. But the online world is moving fast, with the growth of citizen journalism and blogs generating original content, and the ascent of video news and sharing sites.

Today, it is social media that seems to provide the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and its ilk with an ideal forum for broadcasting their vitriol through cruel acts of violence, including horrific executions in the heart of war-torn Syria and Iraq, as well as further afield, such as the beheading of a French mountaineer in Algeria by IS-linked fanatics. It is a frightening frenzy of copycat behaviour fanned by a medium that has no genuine filter befitting the gravity of the acts.

The ability to easily film and almost instantaneously upload footage of these crimes brings into question the role of today’s one-to-very-many media as a possible conduit for a whole new level of terrorism. The more intense the reaction, it seems, the greater the appeal of the medium and the greater the likelihood of repeat offenses by all manner of offshoots, affiliates and IS acolytes.

How much can we blame the media for this new wave of glorified “me-too” terrorism? Can and should video-streaming sites refuse to allow – or be more stringent in their rejection of – violent content of this nature? How much should the holders and managers of these platforms be held responsible for this shocking content in much the same way as Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is being scrutinised for providing a forum for state “secrets” to be disseminated?

Some tough questions, but ones that most definitely need posing. Where is the debate on the role of new media as a seed for the decline in responsible reporting. As a supporter of the liberal press and freedom of speech, this is a hard thing to even write about, let alone contemplate. But maybe the new media have a responsibility like the old media once displayed, refusing to show the graphic, the abhorrent; reducing terrorists’ ability to promulgate their propaganda with impunity, and stopping the marketing machine that is IS from recruiting disenfranchised youth from East and West to its distorted call for a Caliphate.

I once described terror (in my now rather quaint book Tourism and the Media) in terms of its communication goals; and overlaid the way it works on people – remember terror is by definition to instil fear not necessarily to wreak carnage – and their perceptions in terms of basic communication (‘Terrorism represented as basic communication’ p157).

In the book, I touched on the early writing of PA Karber who in his unpublished paper ‘Terrorism as social protest’, introduced the communication dimension in how we conceptualise terrorism, “as a symbolic act”. In other words, the message (terrorist act filmed) being sent by the communicator/sender and received by the audience (the terrorist’s true target) whose feedback (recipient’s reaction) is communicated back to the sender.

The reactions in the case of IS are expressed in different ways, including, it now seems, the greater resolve of governments, both in the region and beyond, to stop them, in the knowledge that public support for aggressive measures is broadly accepted. The general public also “reacts” in concrete ways which “express” the fear now successfully instilled by, for example, changing their travel plans. Authorities in the West also react in terms of altering their perception of a region or people of Muslim faith or “men of Middle-eastern appearance doing nefarious things”. This kind of profiling has dangerous and far-reaching consequences on tolerance in multi-ethnic cultures like Canada, the USA, Australia and many parts of Europe. Examples of racial profiling are already coming out in Australia where the Guardian has reported a storm brewing over sensationalist journalism, press freedom and media hysteria about terrorism.

It will be telling proof to see the impact on travel to Muslim-majority countries by Westerners from the nations who have been loudest and most actively opposed to IS. The terrorist act succeeds if just one person changes their plans to visit Algiers, Petra, Casablanca or largely peaceful nations in the wider region, if people start making decisions based on fear. And with potentially millions seeing these horrible acts, or even reading about them in follow-up coverage, the probability that many more people will give in to the fear grows.

Perhaps the solution is to take out the middle men, remove the ability of these vile characters to get their message out so easily and effectively. It’s a thought. But is it a step too far? Does it take us back decades, or centuries… back to treating the press as a war propaganda machine? It amounts to censorship, one way or the other.

It would also mean articles like this are doing nothing more than adding to the “noise” of material keeping these fanatics’ dreams alive. On the flipside, if no-one reported the events, the support for action against this threat would be so much harder to muster.

Former US President George W Bush’s head-long and ham-fisted “War on Terror” in mostly Iraq and Afghanistan has brought only more trouble to a troubled region. And the loose application of the truth about weapons of mass destruction used as justification to enter this “war” doesn’t help the case for going back into the fray. Which is why the graphic nature of the crimes today (for that is what we are really talking about… Vile crimes committed by a cast of Sunni zealots, killers and misfits, to borrow from a recent story in The Economist) has worked as a wake-up call to the United States and its band of unlikely allies to go back and fix what was broken during the decade-long folly that was the War on Terror.

Now we’re terrified

Now that we really do have terror and the perpetrators are using the most powerful weapon they have at their disposal – mass, cheap, easy communications – to make us afraid. I think for the sake of clarity, it is worth recounting what terrorism is. It has no doubt existed in one form or another for millennia, but in its modern form, we need to go back more than a century.

Anarchist terrorism captured headlines and media attention back in the late 19th and early 20th century. But for modern scholars, it reached the zeitgeist in the 1960s and 70s, and first peaked (in news terms at least) in the 1980s thanks to events such as the downing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and tensions in Israel, Northern Ireland, northern Spain, Central America and more.

Since the War on Terror commenced in the early 2000s it’s impossible to say what an act of terror really constitutes, and whether a death is a consequence of that when all parties would claim to be acting out of righteousness. But to continue on that train of thought would take us into a deep, dark recess of rhetoric and semantics on the distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter; one in which the Northern Irish have for years been digging their way out of. But with the statesman-like send-off that Ian Paisley recently received on the news of his death, it appears history is rewriting certain chapters for all of those engaged in the war/terrorism in and around Northern Ireland.

So back to our (mis)understanding of terrorism. The US government once defined it as “… premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents… intended to influence an audience.” While perhaps ignoring state terrorism in this equation it is a compact and functional definition.

And IS and its acolyte’s violent acts on civilians, journalists and aid workers would appear to fit this description, and its use of the media to “influence an audience” works here as well. RAND, a research think tank that keeps records of terrorism trends, has expressed that terrorism should be identified by the nature of the act and not by the identity of its perpetrators or the nature of their causes. But as I mention in my book, RAND’s description could be taken too literally by the world’s mass media which keep coming back to the horrors of the act, the visible carnage, and the loss of life which unfortunately seems to boost ratings. The focus here is more on the act than the nature or reasons behind the act.

Hostage-taking, beheadings, bombing, hijackings, assassinations… Audiences risk becoming addicted to the outrage, at the expense of better analysis and understanding of the causes; a trend which is likely only to aggravate the situation. What audiences must understand is that a terrorist act is intended to cause mayhem, confusion, outrage and terror, to rock the status quo.

The mass media, especially social media, needs to take a good look in the mirror and ask how much exposure they want to give these people. How much graphic detail is needed to maintain support for a just ‘War for Humanity’, if such a thing could ever exist, not another improvised ‘War on Terror’? Is the information really in the readers/viewers’ best interest, or the media channel’s?

Let’s stick to the tenets of good journalism, avoid sensationalising or fuelling the terrorists by over-publicising their horrible acts. Let’s try to sensibly limit the “feedback” they are craving.

UPDATE:

New figures published this week indicate that terrorism fatalities have increased almost fivefold since 9/11, and this is despite the US-led ‘war on terror’. The Global Terrorism Index reported some 18,000 deaths last year, a hike of nearly 60% over the previous year. According to the report, four groups were responsible for the majority of deaths; namely Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and al-Qaida in various parts of the world.

“The terrorism index raises questions about the effectiveness of a western counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 that has seen US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and the use of proxy forces around the world,” writes The Guardian. The report’s release coincides with the latest Isis video showing the beheading of the American Peter Kassig, an aid worker who was posted in Syria.

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The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

 
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By Khaled Diab

Inflammatory rhetoric and a solely punitive approach to Western jihadists is only likely to make matters worst, and could threaten multiculturalism.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

Monday 15 September 2014

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has unveiled a controversial raft of measures which he claims will help counter the threat posed by British jihadists fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. These include barring these citizens from re-entering the UK, seizing the passports of suspects before they depart and internally exiling radicals. Other European countries are also considering similar measures. Norway, for example, has announced that it is studying mechanisms for revoking the citizenship of Norwegians who take part in terror operations abroad or join foreign militaries, which would potentially also include Jews volunteering for the Israeli army.

“Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “It is a duty for all those who live in these islands so we will stand up for our values.”

A “duty”, it would seem, if you are a member of a minority, but not if you are a posh Tory. Then, you can ride roughshod over these values and the principles underlying the British legal system, and grant the government even more arbitrary powers to encroach on civil liberties. Fair trials and the presumption of innocence are surely sacred British values, or is Cameron proposing a return to the medieval Germanic practice of  “guilty until proven innocent”? His home secretary certainly is, having stripped at least 37 dual nationality Britons of their citizenship with the stroke of a pen, without any kind of due process.

Fortunately, the British establishment has balked at Cameron’s demagoguery, forcing him to backpedal somewhat from the strident statement of intent he gave on Friday 29 August.

Moreover, “it absolutely sticks in the craw”, to borrow one of the prime minister’s own expressions, and beggars belief that Cameron himself posed a far greater threat to British values and the safety of British citizens than a handful of jihadistst. After all, Cameron supported the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, against the will of millions of Britons. And this disastrous enterprise,  which triggered serious blowback, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalise some Muslims towards Britain, could not have gone ahead without his party’s support.

Should Cameron voluntarily hand over his passport for so recklessly having undermined British values and the security of his fellow citizens? Should he refuse the jet-setting Tony Blair re-entry into the UK and exile him to the Hague?

The rank hypocrisy of politicians and bigots aside, I understand and sympathise with European anxieties, especially following the murder of a third Western hostage held by ISIS, British aid worker David Haines. I witnessed, in the 1990s, the disruptive influence of returning Egyptian jihadists – then from Western-sanctioned Afghanistan. As an agnostic-atheist who believes in secularism and multiculturalism, I observe with alarm the rise, in Syria and Iraq, of violent Islamists who make al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Their murderous brutality, historical ignorance and cluelessness about religion is worthy of the highest contempt and mockery. But they are a catastrophe for the Middle East, not the West.

That said, Europeans fighting in Syria and Iraq do pose a potential threat to their home countries. However, the British legal system is already equipped with all the legislation necessary and the security services possess the power – too much power – to protect citizens against this threat and to punish perpetrators of atrocities, but this must only occur as a result of free and fair trials.

Moreover, a solely punitive approach is far from useful. In fact, radicalisation experts say it is counterproductive and dangerous. “Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists… risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. “It may sound tough, but it isn’t likely to be effective.”

Why? Because “their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group,” explain Maher and Neumann.

In the fog of war, it is not only unclear just how many foreign fighters there are in Syria but also who they are fighting alongside and to what end. An ICSR report from the end of last year emphasised that the group affiliations for foreign fighters were known in only a fifth of cases. Of the remaining four-fifths, it is impossible to know how many are of the headline-grabbing ISIS variety of grizzly mass murderers, and how many are young idealists drawn to fight against a murderous dictator with moderate rebel groups, like generations of Europeans before them.

Even among those who go to wage jihad, many experience a change of heart once their abstract dreams are replaced by the gruesome reality. “We’re forced to stay and fight, what choice do we have? It’s sad,” one disillusioned jihadist who was afraid to return home admitted to ICSR.

This is the situation many disenchanted Arab jihadists found themselves in when their home countries stripped them of their nationality following the war in Afghanistan, forcing them further down the road to extremism and providing the nascent Al Qaeda with a core of fighters it would otherwise have been deprived of.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have since drawn lessons from this. Rather than banishing jihadists, they have put in place de-radicalisation programmes. Effective de-radicalisation initiatives can reap a threefold benefit in Europe: regaining productive citizens, mitigating a terrorist threat and providing the best advertisement against the lure of jihad for would-be hotheads.

Moreover, radicalisation is not something that only afflicts minorities. Segments of the European majorities are also being radicalised by economic and social insecurity, demagoguery and false narratives, just like Muslims, as reflected by the extremely troubling rise of the far-right and neo-Nazism.

In addition, radicalisation is partly generational. After an implicit post-war social pact in which youth expected to lead better lives than their parents, we have reached an impasse where young people are both worse off than baby-boomers and have dwindling prospects, with rampant unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, unaffordable housing, few pension prospects, etc.

And rather than sympathy, the plight of youth has brought them contempt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not older Europeans who are the worst victims of ageism but those under the age of 25 –  a problem that’s particularly acute in the UK and Scandinavia. This has led to huge disillusionment among youngsters, some of whom turn to various forms of radicalism. Minority youth have the additional burden of racial and cultural discrimination.

This reflects how vital it is that the problem of foreign jihadists, troubling as it is, is not blown out of all proportions by vested interest groups and bigots. No more than 500 Brits, by Cameron’s own estimate, have taken up arms in Syria (and mostly for unknown reasons). Yet the prime minister claimed outlandishly that this disparate group, which would barely make up a battalion in a regular army, was the single greatest threat facing the UK, bizarrely overlooking Ukraine and other major crises affecting Europe.

This kind of rhetoric, which panders to the far right and Islamophobic elements in European society, is reckless and potentially perilous. Stigmatising and vilifying minorities or certain ethnic groups can lead to ugly repression and persecution, as Europe’s own history shows and many parts of the contemporary Middle East are currently illustrating. In fact, what history seems to tell us is that when there’s a “problem” with a minority, one should look to the majority first because that’s where the real problem usually lies.

Although some critics are well-meaning and well-intentioned, many of the loudest voices declaring the failure of multiculturalism and demanding that minorities assimilate are those who never bought into diversity in the first place and harken back to an idealised, mythological past in which society was purer and nobler.

But multiculturalism hasn’t failed. Despite its many enemies and its learn-as-you-go approach, it has been generally a roaring success. Only two or three generations ago, western European countries were largely homogenous. Today, they are a cultural kaleidoscope of diversity in which disparate groups manage to live together in peace and relative harmony.

As the once-diverse Middle East increasingly sheds its cultural variety and persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religion grows, Britain and western Europe should cherish and safeguard the beauty of their newfound multicultural reality.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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The Arab world’s rebels without a god

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt and other Arab countries, the atheism taboo has been broken. Atheists are rebelling against the status quo and demanding to be seen and heard.

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world's narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world’s narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Sometimes a film can change your life. This is exactly what happened to Alber Saber, but not in the way people usually mean. Little did the young activist suspect that the fevered imaginings and rantings of a religious bigot on the other side of the world would spark furious chaos right outside his front door. The “film” – or, more accurately, trailer – in question was Innocence of Muslims, the low-budget YouTube sensation that caused global controversy in 2012 for its crass and offensive depiction of Muhammad.

On 12 September 2012, a mob of angry neighbours gathered outside the apartment building where Saber lived with his family, angered by rumours that the boy next door had posted the controversial video on his Facebook page.

In fact, Saber had not posted the video. So why did the angry mob target him? Perhaps because Saber comes from a Coptic family – like the maker of Innocence of Muslims – and, unlike him, is an atheist.

Distressed and concerned, Saber’s mother phoned the police, expecting them to turn up and protect her son and the rest of the family. Instead, the police returned the next day to arrest the outspoken blogger and activist who was actively expressing his atheistic convictions on social media. Saber was insulted during his interrogation and a junior officer incited fellow prisoners against him, provoking one of them to cut him with a razor on his throat.

In December 2012, Saber was sentenced to three years for “insulting” and “disdaining” religion by “creating webpages, including Crazy Dictator and Egyptian Atheists”. “This made me feel that anyone who thinks differently to the religion or ideology of the state is a criminal,” he asserts. “But I will not give up my right to think.”

During his appeal, the young activist fled the country. “I really miss my life in Egypt because I am now living in Switzerland far away from my family, friends and country,” he told me from his exile, “even if my country does not respect my rights and has caused me a lot of trouble.”

Saber admits that despite the dangers he faced in Egypt, he did not want to flee. “If it were up to me I would stay and defend myself even if I were to be executed,” he said in an interview at the time.

The sensationalist corners of the media had a field day during Saber’s ordeal, depicting him as the atheistic equivalent of the Islamophobic, Quran-burning American pastor, Terry Jones. “A segment of the media inserted untruths about my case. They alleged that I burnt or tore up the Quran,” he recounts. “Many people still believe this, even though my case revolved around the articles and videos I made about my personal beliefs.”

And it is not just Saber. Ever since the revolution took off in 2011, Egyptian non-believers have felt emboldened and empowered, emerging from the shadows to carve out a space for themselves on social media.

This has had a ripple effect on the mainstream media.

For example, the widely watched 90 Minute talk show recently hosted a young atheist and social media activist, Ismail Mohamed, in an episode titled ‘Penetrating the secret world of atheists in Egypt’. While the programme brought the subject of atheism to a public platform, it was a missed opportunity to promote a mature public debate on non-belief. Despite the presenter’s assertions that she wished to give Mohamed a podium to express his views, she displayed blatant hostility towards the subject. Her guests included a psychiatrist who suggested that atheism was caused – as is similarly suggested about homosexuality in the Arab world – by psychological, financial and family problems and so atheists deserved patience and pity.

The inconvenient truth is that atheism is not a psychological disorder. “I did not become an atheist,” counters Milad Suleiman, a young atheist blogger from Imbaba, a poor Cairo suburb that was gripped by an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. “Atheism is a state of thought. It has no specific starting point.”

Paradoxically, many atheists arrive at their convictions as the product of an attempt to deepen their faith, understand their religion better or silence doubts plaguing their consciences. “When I started university in the 1980s, I realised that I was very knowledgeable about lots of things, except my own religion. So I decided that I was going to delve deep into it and be as expert as possible,” Ayman Abdel-Fattah, a socially minded businessman and affably outspoken atheist in his late 40s, told me in a noisy watering hole in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek. But  instead of reaffirming his faith, this exercise, Abdel-Fattah admits, “gave me the shock of my life” because he found that the founding fathers and mothers of Islam were very human, for the most part cynically political, motivated by self-interest and riven by infighting, jealousy and overriding ambition.

Others begin their journey as deeply conservative believers. “I was a very religious person when I was a teenager. I used to teach kids in church and remote villages about Christianity and Jesus,” recalls Mena Bassily, a young Egyptian computer scientist now living in New Zealand. Unsatisfied with the clergy’s textbook responses to his growing doubts, Bassily embarked on a journey of spiritual self-discovery that eventually led him to jettison his faith.

Before the revolution, Abdel-Fattah says, Egyptians preferred to adopt a deathly silence on the subject. “There was not a single attempt for any serious academic study or genuine analysis of the social repercussions of the trend, despite the fact that it was easily observable through the blogosphere and social media at large,” he points out.

So what prompted the media to wake up to this phenomenon? “[Everything] changed after it became apparent [that] the Islamists were going to take over,” Abdel-Fattah explains. “[The media] concluded there was one, and only one, reason for this ‘atheism tsunami.’ It was the Islamists’ rule.”

The expression “atheism tsunami,” evoking images of a Biblical god flooding the world with atheists rather than the more conventional water, fire or brimstone, was memorably used by Amr Adeeb, the loud-mouthed host of the popular talk show al-Qahira al-Youm (Cairo Today). The ‘experts’ on Adeeb’s show concluded that young people were turning to atheism as a reaction to the reactionary brand of Islam that had taken hold in Egypt.

“Following the coup, a lot of people reacted against religion as a rejection of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” observes Amira Mohsen, a British-Egyptian journalist and media analyst.  In addition, the military regime has manipulated the widespread fear that Egypt could become the next Saudi Arabia to demonise the Muslim Brotherhood and justify its persecution of the movement.

Blaming radical Islamists appeals both to atheists and religious moderates. For atheists, it supports the hope that society will, one day, throw off the shackles of conservative religion and choose secularism instead.

For religious moderates, placing blame elsewhere sustains their belief that it is not religion which is the problem but the way it is abused by extremists.

But while disgust at the surge of Islamic extremism may have prompted a number of Egyptians to abandon their faith, far greater influences appear to be intellectual conviction, more openness sparked by the 2011 revolution, and a gradual discarding of old, tired philosophies that tried to create homogeneity by ignoring the country’s diversity.

“Egyptian society has always been diverse and varied in terms of beliefs, opinions and cultures,” notes Alber Saber, the exiled blogger. “This has made many tolerant of those with differing outlooks.”

Beyond Egypt’s mainstream media, a profound public debate on belief has begun. This can be observed particularly in social media, which has seen a profusion of blogs, citizen journalism and films tackling this complex topic.  

In the progressive ranks of the Egyptian media, there have also been efforts to portray atheists sympathetically. For instance, the online al-Badil (Alternative), which describes itself as “the voice of the weak”, produced a video documentary in which a number of atheists were given the space and freedom to elaborate on their beliefs, lives, concerns and worries.

Atheists hope that the revolution of consciousness which has overtaken Egyptian society will expand to include them. “I don’t think I will witness any earth-shattering changes for atheists’ rights or recognition in my lifetime,” concludes Ayman Abdel-Fattah, “but I’m also certain that the momentum has reached an irreversible point.”

Tunisia: the atheist spring?

Tunisia, the unexpected epicentre of the revolutionary wave that washed across the Arab world is once again providing lessons to the rest of the region in what freedom truly means.

The only difference is that this time around, instead of being the first to rise against a despotic regime, Tunisians were the first to pass a new constitution. This is a document that, despite being drafted in compromise with the moderate Islamist al-Nahda party, guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience” and, most notably, contains no references to Sharia.

Calling the constitution entirely secular may, however, be a bit of a stretch. Islam is still defined as the religion of the state and it is clearly stated that the president must be a Muslim. Also potentially problematic is the state’s dual duty to “protect the sacred” and to “prohibit charges of apostasy”. This could one day potentially be used to curb freedom of belief, a right that includes that of questioning the sacred and being an “apostate”.

It is in fact no coincidence that, although Tunisia tolerates non-believers more than most other places in the Arab world, atheism is still a taboo. This limitation is especially noticeable in the media, segments of which deliberately spread lies about what atheists are and what they believe. One example is that of the male student OM, whose name was concealed for undisclosed reasons. In an interview with Tunisialive, he complained about a journalist who interviewed him about his beliefs and afterwards wrote that “atheists worship stones and the sun, and that they drink urine and blood”.

Until recently most Tunisian atheists kept their convictions behind closed doors, but since the post-revolutionary rise of Islamist parties, more and more are starting to become vocal. At the same time, there seems to be a growing acceptance of atheistic beliefs.

“There are a number of associations that have made the defence of atheists’ rights their main battles,” says OM. “I am hopeful that we will reach a stage when atheism is tolerated.”

Unholy in the Holy Land

The Dome of the Rock. The Holy Sepulchre. The Western Wall. As the cradle of the Abrahamic faiths, the Holy Land is better known for belief than non-belief, yet atheists walk amongst the faithful.

However, when it comes to Palestinian non-believers, life can be lonely and finding like-minded people difficult. “I don’t know many non-believers,” George, a Palestinian atheist from Jerusalem who works in IT, told me.

Whether this is a sign that Palestinian atheists are few and far between or that they keep a low profile is unclear. “The Palestinian media doesn’t deal with the issue,” George explains.

Atheism wasn’t always confined to the sidelines as it is today. In 1948, after the loss of Palestine doubts about the importance of religion were widespread. For the first decades of the Palestinian struggle against Israel, communists played a prominent role in Palestinian politics and society. Although Palestinian and Arab communists were ambiguous about their convictions regarding the existence of God, they were openly sceptical or hostile towards organised religion.

For instance, the writings of both Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani deal with shaken faith. “God does not come to the poor,” Darwish declares in one of his poems, while a character in one of Kanafani’s stories declaims: “May the curse of the God who does not exist anywhere pour down on you.”

Non-belief in the cradle of Islam

As a strict Wahhabi theocracy, Saudi Arabia does not tolerate the presence of other religions or other branches of Islam in the public space. Conversion and atheism are both considered “apostasy” and according to the Kingdom’s law are punishable by death.

Unsurprisingly, citizens and foreigners living in Saudi are very careful when expressing their views about religion. But there are a growing number of exceptions who are challenging these restrictions.

One example is Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari who, in early 2012, posted three tweets on an imaginary encounter with Muhammad during the festival of the prophet’s birthday (mawlid) in which he declared “I shall not bow to you” and “I have loved aspects of you, hated others”. After more than a year and a half in prison for his “blasphemous” outburst, Kashgari was finally released in October 2013.

This is part of a broader backlash against Saudi’s Wahhabi establishment which has included a civil disobedience campaign by women wishing to drive. Even the fearsome Mutaween, the once untouchable religious police, is coming in for increasingly harsh criticism and opposition, including lawsuits and protest actions, especially after its agents drove two young brothers who were playing music off a bridge to their deaths in a high-speed car chase.

Despite the risks involved, an anonymous and secretive atheistic underground movement, albeit a small one, has emerged in Saudi. In order to discuss and share ideas this group of dissident atheists mostly gathers in online forums and chats, but in rare occasions it also manages to meet face to face. “We non-believers have meetings and groups in a lot of Saudi cities,” one atheist told Your Middle East in 2013. “If you go into them, then you will be shocked by the numbers and elements of society.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in the March 2014 edition of The Outpost.

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The square root of the Egyptian revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Egyptian revolution is fatally wounded but it is far too soon to sound the death knells. The dreams it unleashed are impossiblee to contain.

25 January 2014

The word “revolution” perfectly encapsulates the events of the past three years. It is almost as if Egypt was strapped into history’s rollercoaster and taken on the most exciting, thrilling, terrifying, inspiring, demoralising, deadly ride in generations.

Meanwhile, the country has gone through a spin cycle so intense and severe that its political, social and economic fabric is in tatters and it is unclear whether this will be rewoven into silk or polyester. For the time being, we’re left with a blood-soaked rag, as the Egyptian regime undertakes one of its bloodiest political purges in recent history and faces an increasingly deadly Islamist insurgency.

The Egyptian people’s success in defeating three dictators (Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Mohamed Morsi) in as many years caused short-lived elation which was quickly eclipsed by the dictatorial tendencies of Egypt’s leadership.

On the third anniversary of  the Egyptian revolution, it seems increasingly likely that Egypt’s latest despot, albeit one with a “popular mandate”, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, will run for president, consolidating and deepening his grip on power, especially if the presidential vote precedes parliamentary elections.

While a significant proportion of the Egyptian population – weary after three years of instability and unrest – seem to welcome this eventuality, a growing number of people are beginning to see through the current regime’s hollow democratic rhetoric and are becoming fearful of its brutally autocratic methods. For their part, the pro-Morsi camp continues to scream democratic legitimacy while dreaming of divine dictatorship.

The polarisation between two autocratic visions has left those who aspire for and believe in the values of the revolution with a bad taste in their mouths and a sense of despair. “We view ourselves back at square one, because what is happening now could be more dangerous, more complicated than what was there before January 25, 2011,” Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the 6th April Youth Movement which helped spearhead the revolution, said back in August, shortly after the blood-soaked dispersal of the Raba’a el-Adawiya protest camp.

And “more dangerous” it has proven to be. Not only have unknown numbers of Morsi supporters been killed and thousands more imprisoned, with the Muslim Brotherhood branded a “terrorist organisation”, the regime is now turning its attention back to the secular activists it had temporarily neglected while it dealt with its former Brothers.

“Nothing symbolised the end of it all like the protest law and Maher and others getting arrested,” confessed one activist. “We are now in a situation that is even worse than what we had under Mubarak.”

It is a sad indictment of the direction matters have taken in Egypt and of the power of the counterrevolution’s counteroffensive that three of the most prominent youth leaders who were behind the anti-Mubarak uprising – Maher, Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Douma – all received politically motivated three-year sentences last month… for protesting, of all things.

So, does all this mean that the revolution is dead and done for?

Well, all things considered, our short-term prognosis must be that the revolution is fatally wounded but it is far too soon to sound the death knells. To borrow a military analogy that our de facto leaders would understand, the battle may be lost but the war is far from over.

If we can take the past as a compass for the future, revolutions are often betrayed or defeated – either by the old guard or the revolutionaries themselves – but the dreams and ideals they unleash are impossible to repress.

Take the French Revolution. In its immediate wake, France went through Robespierre’s “reign of terror”, which makes the current crackdown in Egypt look like junior league, a bloody civil war and wars with neighbouring states. It also resulted in Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’etat and, after that, the restoration of the monarchy, among other setbacks.

One can only imagine the despair and disillusionment felt by those French citizens who believed in the revolution’s original objectives. Yet the French revolution’s vision – summed up pithily in those three eternal words “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – survived to fight another day… and another… and another… inspiring  struggles for freedom across Europe and the world. And, in France, it was eventually and largely realised, albeit after five non-consecutive republics.

Likewise in Egypt, whether it gets a new military dictator or not, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no turning back, bleak as the outlook may seem now. Although the revolution’s goals are unlikely to be achieved any time soon, its rallying call of “bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity” will resonate for generations to come.

In addition, what can be called the spirit of Tahrir Square, though it is really the spirit of revolutionary Egypt as a whole, may be suppressed and even repressed for a time, but it cannot be eliminated. Although Egypt’s political class does not seem to have  read the memo that the times have changed, Egyptians have already overcome and overthrown the most oppressive dictatorship of all: the despot inside their minds, the tyranny of fear.

Even if Egyptians now allow themselves to be intimidated into acquiescence or worn down into submitting to the status quo, this will only be temporary. They are bound to rise again, much to the admiration and respect of outside observers like myself, to demand more than a few crumbs of bread, a foot of freedom or a drop of dignity.

There is a latent, implicit recognition of this reality amongst the political elite. Although both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are autocratic in nature, they both talk the language of democracy, freedom and equality. This is visible in al-Sisi’s constant reference to popular “mandates” and obeying the “will of the people”. It is also apparent in the Brotherhood’s constant references to “legitimacy” and their claims that Morsi’s overthrow was a betrayal of the revolution.

Moreover, even if there is no clear sign of light at the end of the tunnel politically, Egypt is in the early throes of a profound social and cultural revolution which is rising from the grassroots up. This can be seen in the clear antiauthoritarianism of many Egyptians, the growing independence of young people, the increasing social and political assertiveness of women, not to mention previously unnoticed minorities, such as non-believers.

In 2011, I argued that Egypt’s uprising would only succeed if it set off a true social (r)evolution – and, unexpectedly, this seems to be one of its few true successes to date. And with time, as society changes from the bottom, up, so will its political landscape.

“I still have confidence that one day we will see a new Egypt,” Ahmed Maher said. “My generation might not see these changes. We might be paving the way for the new generation to see these changes.”

And sadly, though I wish that the millions of Egyptians who have sacrificed, and will continue to sacrifice, in pursuit of the revolution’s ideals would be rewarded for their pains, they are likely to be the lost generation. The true gains from their efforts will only be reaped by the next generation… or even the one after that.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Daily News Egypt on 16 January 2014.

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Egyptian rebels with a cause… and effect

 
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By Khaled Diab

The dedication and success of the Tamarod rebellion against President Morsi is awe-inspiring, but the movement’s current trust in the army is worrying.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

A stone’s throw away from Egypt’s emblematic Tahrir Square stands the Groppi Rotund, a tearoom which was once the preserve of well-heeled Europeans and wealthy Egyptians at a time when Cairo – at least its European quarter – had pretensions of being the Paris of the Middle East.

Groppi’s, a dusty, crumbling ghost of its former self, has borne immobile witness to most of the major events and upheavals which have gripped Egypt over the past century or so. It is even rumoured that the Free Officers, who met to plot the overthrow of the monarchy at another café just off Tahrir Square, used the phone in Groppi’s to communicate.

If true, this was an appropriate venue to meet a group of young activists in the Tamarod movement, most of whom describe themselves as Nasserists, though the movement itself is non-partisan. Tamarod, which means ‘Rebellion’ in Arabic, was a petition campaign, which began life in late April 2013, calling for President Mohamed Morsi to step down and launch early presidential elections.

Though he looks like your typical Egyptian guy next door and is not rebellious in his appearance, Hassan Shahin, 23, a journalist who is still completing his degree in media at Cairo University, was the originator of the idea. “The source of the concept was that we wanted to reach ordinary citizens in order to instigate change in society,” the young revolutionary told me after he’d finished some urgent-seeming communications on his tablet. “There was a sense of depression amongst the people, and they didn’t believe that the Muslim Brotherhood would go without bloodshed.”

The reason they felt the need to “reach ordinary citizens” was because “the opposition had lost touch with the people”, Shahin observes. “They talked about political questions and ignored social demands. You need to respond to social demands to move the street.”

This was reflected in the care the Tamarod activists took to pitching the message of their campaign. “The petition was a way to reach ordinary citizens, so we worded it in a way that would appeal to them,” he explained.

It also manifested itself in the campaign’s grassroots nature and its successful efforts to shove the Egyptian secular opposition out of its comfort zone in Cairo and some major cities and make it a truly national movement. “Citizens had ownership of the project,” Shahin said. “We had representatives in every governorate and we gathered over 10,000 volunteers in the first two weeks alone.”

It is a sign of how far Egypt has come that a mass, nationwide mobilisation campaign should have such a, well, rebellious name in a country once famed for its apparent placidity and conformity, and where causing “fitna” (“sedition”) was frozned upon. Tamarod, whose name was inspired by a radical Syrian political magazine, Shahin informed me, was a movement both to rebel “against”, but most importantly to rebel “for”.

“The idea was to rebel against the Muslim Brotherhood’s project of religious fascism which was causing popular disillusionment and depression,” Shahin noted, though I found his casual use of such a loaded word as “fascism” troubling. “But our rebellion was also more for than against  – for law and order, for equality, for social and economic justice.”

Although the young revolutionaries behind Tamarod were confident that their campaign, which was dreamed up in a small Dokki flat, would make a large splash, they did not expect it to be quite so enormous. “We had confidence in the Egyptian street, but we were surprised by just how many people got involved,” admits Shahin.

Tamarod says it managed to collect some 23 million signatures (a figure which has not been independently verified), which is only a couple of million short of the total number of votes both Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq collected in the second round runoff.

I put to Shahin the criticism that Tamarod and other supporters of Morsi’s ouster were anti-democratic to get his views on the matter. “Morsi had an illusory democracy. He abused the constitution, represented just the Brotherhood, and used its militias to terrorise,” he asserted, employing yet another emotive word. “People came out in rebellion against this terrorisation and intimidation.”

The Muslim Brotherhood have warned of – many say “threatened” – the dire consequences of Morsi’s ouster, including the prospect of civil war. For his part, Shahin contends that the reverse is true. “If the army hadn’t intervened the situation would’ve escalated into a civil war,” he believes, one that would’ve pitted an embattled, desperately unpopular president and the Muslim Brotherhood against revolutionaries and much of the population.

How about those who contend that civil war is now more likely? “There are risks ahead but it is impossible that there’ll be a civil war. If the Egyptian people were bloody and violent, they would’ve gone to Raba’a [al-Adawiya] in their millions to finish of the Muslim Brotherhood,”

“What happened on 30 June was a popular revolution supported by a patriotic army,” said the young activist who just a year and a half earlier was out protesting against this very same “patriotic army”. Shahin even quite literally got trampled upon by the heavy boot of military rule when he attempted, on 28 December 2011, to aid a woman who was being brutally beaten and dragged away by soldiers, exposing her torso blue bra, in an iconic moment which symbolised everything that was wrong with the direct interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

This shift baffled and bothered me, so I decided to probe him on it, especially in light of how Tamarod had heeded General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s chilling call to take to the streets to provide him with a popular “mandate” to combat “violence and terrorism” (Luckily, some revolutionary movements, such as the 6th April Youth Movement, refused to participate). And how about the deaf ear the generals turned to the demands of revolutionaries to hand over power immediately to civilian rule during the first transition? What about the red lines SCAF drew around its empire and the back room influence it enjoyed over Morsi? How could Tamarod bring itself to trust the junta now?

“The first transition created deficiencies at the time. Even if there were errors committed by SCAF, it was the president’s job to establish the right foundations for Egyptian democracy,” insisted Shahin. “We need to differentiate between the institution of the army and a group of leaders who made mistakes… The army which produced Orabi and Nasser is patriotic.”

Shahin suggested that the problem was not with the military but with Field Marshal Mohamed el-Tantawi’s leadership of SCAF. But is Sisi’s leadership any less self-interested or any more democratic? Why is General Sisi engaged in such transparent efforts to bolster the army’s popularity by inciting against the Muslim Brotherhood, and why is he employing classic divide and rule tactics? I heard both whispered and loud speculation while in Egypt that Sisi was planning to ditch the khaki and run in elections as a civilian – and if he were to do that, many expect him to win a landslide victory.

Besides, is the army not repeating many of the same mistakes it made in the first transition? No, insists the Tamarod spokesperson. “The second transition is much better. This time, there is the idea of drafting a constitution first. The revolutionaries are now in government,” he cites as two examples.

Even if CC, as his opponents call him, is well-intentioned and honest about his lack of ambition to rule, it is surely not healthy for so many people, including hard-nosed revolutionaries, to be acting like starstruck teenagers at a rock concert.

In fact, many have likened the charismatic and savvy general to Egypt’s legendary second president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But despite his many achievements – and catastrophes – Nasser was no democrat by any stretch of the imagination. As Shahin and his companions at Groppi’s were also self-declared Nasserists, I wondered how they reconciled their admiration for Nasser with their long battle to bring democracy to Egypt, which began for Shahin in 2008 with the anti-Mubarak umbrella movement, Kefaya.

“Nasser made mistakes. He was human,” Shahin admits, though in terms those persecuted by the popular president, whether leftists, liberals or Islamists, would probably find more than a little understated. But to his credit Shahin did not attempt to go to the fantastical lengths Alaa al-Aswany once did in a short story in which he had Nasser giving Mubarak lessons in democracy from beyond the grave.

“But [Nasser] established true social justice and national independence,” Shahin added, echoing one side of what I call Egypt’s clash of freedoms, in which competing concepts of liberty are currently competing for ascendancy. “I came out on 25 January [2011] to complete the [23] July [1952] revolution.”

To my mind, this last comment is the ultimate proof of why revolutionaries, like the Brotherhood before them, should not express such unconditional affection for the army. After six decades of denying Egyptians their democratic rights and many of their fundamental rights, it is obvious that any love is largely one-sided and unrequited. I do not doubt that the army is “patriotic” – it would be a catastrophe if it weren’t – but its behaviour often belies some uncomfortable home truths: it loves Egypt and its own self-interest more than it does Egyptians.

“People will not be cheated by the army. It is a patriotic institution,” Shahin insists. “The political process is now inclusive and the army has no role in this phase beyond defending the Egyptian people.” Of course, many would beg to differ with this assertion, even if Sisi is officially only a deputy prime-minister.

But what if what Shahin regards as the unthinkable were to happen? “There is no military rule now and if it re-appears, I’ll be the first to oppose it,” he emphasises in no uncertain terms.

How about those who say no to both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule, like the Midan el-Talet (Third Square) movement? “There is no such thing. They are Muslim Brotherhood supporters like [former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim] Aboul Fotouh and those who represent US interests,” Shahin says.

His words echo the dismissive attitude I heard from many about the Third Square. Does this really reflect the nature of the movement or has the current pro-military public mood led people to turn on anyone who distrusts SCAF or expresses the view that the army should be kept out of striking range of politics? Additionally, the movement, though it does possess an Islamist element, involve all political persuasions.

I had tried to meet the Third Square to find out more about them while in Egypt but their spokesperson failed to get back to me.

Turning to the future, I probed Shahin on what he thought should happen to the Muslim Brotherhood. “We want the Brotherhood to be part of the political process, but they refuse,” he noted. “The trouble is that they believe that the will of the Brotherhood is the will of the Egyptian people.”

Thanks to Arab and international mediation, there have been some early signs that after talking themselves into a corner – or better said, a trench – the Brotherhood is looking for a dignified exit from this crisis, such as a face-saving manner for Morsi to step down.

But it is not just the Brotherhood that has been towing a hard line, the security services and many in the armed forces reportedly want to continue the tough approach they have so far taken, perhaps out of the belief that they can “teach” the Brothers a lesson. But if they do that, it is a sign that they have more than a few lessons to learn themselves.

I ended our encounter by asking Hassan Shahin where the future would take the Tamarod movement. “Tamarod is shifting from being an opposition movement to one that pressures and campaigns for change,” he told me. As an example, he mentioned their latest project called Write Your Own Constitution.

And what about Egypt’s youth who spearheaded this whole revolution with their courage, conviction and creativity; for how much longer will they be left out in the wilderness? Shahin believes that this transition is already bringing some positive developments. “The role of young people has become clear since the road map,” he noted, citing the inclusion of youth deputies.

I left Groppi’s trusting that Egypt’s youth would continue to inspire and challenge society. I also hoped that young Egyptians would lead us towards a brighter future and finally get their fair share of the country’s economic, political and social pies.

As for Tamarod, I greatly admire the rebellious spirit that  gave birth to this daring idea and the rebellious souls who  propelled it to such heights. However, I feel that the movement’s current infatuation with the army undermines its anti-establishment credentials and is a potentially dangerous liaison. But I sense that this is a temporary blip, the honeymoon will soon be over and the young rebels will once again be at loggerheads with the old generals.

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