Archive for January 2011
The day the revolution started. In the second film Waseem Wagdi, an Egyptian protesting outside the embassy in London, says it all, beautifully.
My past experience talking to Egyptians, in Egypt and around the world, is that 95% of them hate Husni Mubarak and the humiliation he’s brought upon their once great country. When I ask of their hopes for change, they answer with the bitter resignation common to all Arabs: “Nothing will change. His son will come after him. People are more interested in football, or their next meal.” Arabs from other countries also despair of escaping their state of stagnation. Some like to repeat the Arabic phrase al-‘arab jarab, or ‘the Arabs are scabies.’
But that was then. That was until the Tunisian revolution, which has now reached the centre of the Arab world. Egypt’s Friday of Rage was a beautiful revolutionary moment, when individuals, having witnessed the strength of their protesting compatriots over the previous days, suddenly realised they were not alone. After Friday prayers, a nation claimed sovereignty over its streets – young people, the unemployed, professionals, workers, students, families. The people who didn’t demonstrate provided food, drinks and tear gas remedies to those who did (which means that womens’ participation has been much greater than TV pictures show). On at least one occasion, Christians guarded a Muslim mass prayer under assault by police.
And in Suez, Luxor, Alexandria and Cairo they defeated the police. They torched police stations and police vehicles, as well as the headquarters of the ruling (and absurdly named) National Democratic Party. (The Israeli embassy, meanwhile, has helicoptered its entire staff out of Cairo. One slogan being chanted: ya mubarak ya ameel/ ba’at biladak l-isra’il, or ‘Mubarak you Foreign Agent, You Sold your Country to Israel.’ Tonight the only Israeli flag flying in the Arab world is in Amman.)
The Guardian published this piece on Syria tacked onto the end of this piece on Egypt. Unfortunately they cut my paragraphs on sectarianism, the most important part of my argument. I should add that, after today’s great revolutionary awakening in Egypt, I am no longer certain of anything. Everything has changed.
With its young population, and a bureaucracy run by the same authoritarian party for four decades, Syria is by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society, conditions which have now brought revolution to Tunisia. Nevertheless, in the short to medium term it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.
A state-controlled Syrian newspaper blamed the Tunisian revolution on the Bin Ali regime’s “political approach of relying on ‘friends’ to protect them.” Tunisia’s status as Western client was only a minor motivator for the uprising there, but still al-Watan’s analysis will be shared by many Syrians. Unlike the majority of Arab states, Syria’s foreign policy is broadly in line with public opinion – and in Syria foreign policy, which has the potential to immediately translate into a domestic security issue, matters a great deal. The regime has kept the country in a delicate position of no war with, but also no surrender to, Israel (which occupies the Golan Heights), and has pursued close cooperation with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements as well as emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. This is appreciated by ‘the street’, and the president himself is no hate figure in the mould of Ben Ali or Mubarak. Where his father engineered a Stalinist personality cult, mild-mannered Bashaar al-Asad enjoys a reasonable level of genuine popularity. Much is made of his low-security visits to theatres and ice cream parlours.
Today is crucial, and could go very badly. The Egyptian gangster regime and its backers have clearly decided to use maximum force to end the popular challenge. At 12.34 this morning, Egypt’s entire internet service was closed down – the largest shutdown in history. Mobile phone services have also been suspended, and al-Jazeera has been taken off the Egyptian air. An al-Jazeera journalist has been beaten up by regime thugs. There are reports that French and British journalists have also been beaten or detained. A CNN crew have had their cameras smashed. Obviously, news is harder to come by today.
Last night senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested (see Jonathan Wright’s reflection on the Brotherhood role). Now it seems Muhammad al-Baradei has been arrested after leading a protest in Giza. Protests have erupted in Cairo, in Sinai’s al-Arish, in Minya and Assiut in upper Egypt, in Ismailiya, in Alexandria. Roads leading to Suez, where regime forces have lost control, have been closed.
Al-Masry al-Yowm says of Egypt’s stock market crash today, “The crash, which brought year-to-date losses to almost 21 percent, hit at the core of some of the regime’s main accomplishments. The president has built his legacy continuing and expanding the open market policies launched by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in the 1970s.” Meanwhile ex-UN nuclear inspector Muhammad al-Baradei is returning to Egypt to (perhaps presumpteously) lead the protests. And the Muslim Brotherhood has finally expressed support for the demonstrations. “We are not pushing this movement, but we are moving with it. We don’t wish to lead it but we want to be part of it,” said Mohammed Mursi, a senior Brotherhood leader.
In this highly recommended interview, Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy contextualises Egypt’s intifada against earlier mass protests on behalf of Palestine and Iraq. “The regional is local here,” he says. Here Asa’ad Abu Khalil provides a list of slogans heard in recent days. And here are three short films which capture some of the unfolding drama. In the first, journalists demanding police release their colleague Yahya Qlash turn to chanting Fall, Fall, Mubarak, and al-intifada mustamura (The Intifada Continues), and Go, Go, We Don’t Want You, and finally hurriya (Freedom). In the second, a crowd facing off the police chants (if I hear correctly) – One, Two, The Egyptian People Are Alive. The third shows chilling scenes as the police cleared Maydan Tahreer on the first night.
Egypt’s anti-regime protests are unprecedented in size, frequency and ferocity. In Shubra, Dokki, Mohandaseen and Bulaq, Cairenes chanted ash-sha’ab yureed isqaat an-nizam, or The People Want the Fall of the Regime, and braved tear gas and baton-wielding thugs in the central Tahrir Square. Alexandria, Tanta, Suez, and the labour stronghold of Mahalla al-Kubra have also demonstrated. A government building has been burnt in Suez. Posters of Mubarak have been ripped down and burnt in several locations. Mish ayazeenu, the people shout: We Don’t Want Him.
When January 25th’s Day of Anger started, police at first allowed protesters to move freely in the streets. This was unusual, and suggests fear on the authorities’ part, as does the abrupt shift back to traditional methods as night fell. At the time of writing, at least a thousand people have been arrested, several killed, and hundreds beaten. (Here’s an audio recording of Guardian journalist Jack Shenker’s experience being trucked into the desert with other protesters.) Uniformed police are backed up by plainclothes goons, many armed with iron bars. (One hopes that someone is collecting photographs of these people in order to identify and shame them.)
I ended my last post like this:
“Perhaps in six months’ time non-Arab commentators will decide that the Tunisian revolution was a mere anomaly in an eternally stagnant Arab world. But they’ll be wrong. The revolution will exert a long-term pervasiveness throughout Arab culture, as the Iranian revolution did before it. It will change the air the Arabs breathe and the dreams the Arabs dream.”
Well, it seems I was wrong on the timescale. I should have said six minutes. Today several commentators are indeed arguing that the Tunisian revolution is anomalous. Robert Fisk is pessimistic, contending that the Tunisian people are no match for the combined forces of the Tunisian elite and Western imperialism. Perhaps events will prove him right. Steve Walt fears that those expecting immediate regime change from the Ocean to the Gulf will be rapidly disappointed.
His point is a good one. In the frontline states with Israel, foreign policy issues increase in importance because they have the potential to immediately translate into security issues. The Syrian regime, for instance, may be unpopular for its corruption, bureaucracy, and stifling of dissent, but its foreign policy is broadly in line with Syrian opinion – and in Syria this matters a great deal. The Western clients are more vulnerable to protest, not least because they’re more linked into the ‘globalised’ economy and are thus more vulnerable to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods. Yet even in Jordan legitimate fears of an Israeli intervention (perhaps an attempt to fulfill the Jordan-is-Palestine fantasy) could damp down effervescence. The public in many countries seems too split by sect, ethnicity or tribe to coordinate unified protest. And of course the regimes will now be battening down for fear of Tunisian contagion.
Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali is in Abha, Saudi Arabia. France wouldn’t have him. (Despots, note the speed with which a sponsor drops a client who has outlived his usefulness.) Arab activists are calling for protests outside Saudi embassies.
In Tunisia, the extent of the people’s sacrifice over the last month is becoming clearer. Reports describe Ben Ali’s police terrorising rural areas with punitive rapes and random murders.
And the terror continues. Since Ben Ali’s fall, Tunis and other cities have been plagued by violence. Some of it, such as attacks on Ben Ali family businesses, can be classed as revolutionary. Some more of it is the natural result of taking the lid off after so long; a mix of exuberance, criminality, and what Gazmend Kapplani calls an ‘orphan complex’:
Tyrants are merciless beasts, precisely because they leave behind distorted societies worn down by oppression and above all suffering from an orphan complex. Those who give themselves over to indiscriminate looting and destruction the minute the statues come down are like orphaned children robbing the corpse of a false and terrifying father.
But the most terrifying violence appears to be organised by Ben Ali’s militiamen. Tunisians report battles between army forces on the one hand and ‘police’ and other highly-trained, well-armed gangs on the other. Some of these gangs have been driving through residential areas shooting randomly at people and buildings.
Written on the night of January 14th 2011
The dictator, thief and Western client Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali, beloved until a few hours ago in Paris and Washington, has been driven from Tunisia. His reign was ended not by a military or palace coup but by an extraordinarily broad-based popular movement which has brought together trades unions and professional associations, students and schoolchildren, the unemployed and farmers, leftists, liberals and intelligent Islamists, men and women. One of the people’s most prominent slogans will resonate throughout the Arab world and beyond: la khowf ba’ad al-yowm, or No Fear From Now On.
It is to be hoped that Tunisia will now develop a participatory system based on respect for citizens’ rights, that it will reclaim and develop its economy, implement social justice, and move out of the Western-Israeli embrace. The revolution, however, is beset by dangers. Although the head of the snake has been sacrificed, the conglomerate of interests behind the Ben Ali regime is largely still in place, and will be working furiously to restrict and roll back popular participation. For this reason it is of crucial importance that Tunisians are tonight raising the slogan ‘al-intifada mustamura,’ or ‘the intifada continues.’
The protests in Tunisia are growing and spreading. What began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in Sidi Bouzid at first declared itself a rebellion against unemployment, then became a revolt against corruption. Today ‘freedom’ is one of the words most vigorously chanted. Almost all sectors of society have joined demonstrations and strikes against the Bin Ali regime, a World Bank favourite. Tunisia’s intifada is far more broadly-based than the Green Movement in Iran. In this case, however, Hillary Clinton says the United States is “not taking sides.” Meanwhile the regime has closed schools and universities indefinitely. Human rights groups say over 50 protesters have been murdered by American and perhaps Israeli munitions. The regime claims the figure is 21. Particularly in this lamentable period we must salute the bravery and sacrifice of the Tunisian revolutionaries, and thank them for bringing us hope.
The first film is to a soundtrack of revolutionary Tunisian pop music. The sign the man waves at 0.40 says ‘No Fear After Today’ or ‘No Fear From Now On.’ The second features the symbolic burning of a Bin Ali artwork. The third shows a hospital dealing with the dead and injured, and is not for the faint-hearted. I put it up to remind us of Neda Sultan, and because the BBC doesn’t (although it does have this report).
It’s Damascus: bustling alleyways and courtyards crammed with silence. Sabriya is secretly in love with Adil. Her brother Sami is secretly in love with Nermin. Both loves are chaste and built on idealism, and both are doomed. Adil and Sami join the 1925-27 revolt against the French occupation. Sami is killed by the enemy. Nermine is badgered into marrying a wealthy old man, then ends up eloping with her hairdresser. Sabriya’s fiance Adil is killed, probably by Sabriya’s bullying brother Raghib who doesn’t like the idea of her marrying a baker’s son. Sabriya is left alone to care for her dying mother, then her dying father. Finally she kills herself, leaving her journal for her niece to read, and a message: “Do not let your life be in vain.”
“Sabriya: Damascus Bitter Sweet” (in Arabic, “Dimashq Ya Basmat al-Huzn”, or “Damascus, O Smile of Sadness”) was published in Syria and then transformed into a controversial and wildly popular muselsel, or television series. (If the Egyptians are famous in the Arab world for films, the Syrians do muselselat, particularly period dramas). This elegantly-written, carefully-dramatised period novel is nostalgic but also very current in its concerns.
Ulfat Idilbi explicitly links the struggles for national rights and women’s rights. When Sabriya participates (wearing niqab) in a women’s demonstration against the French, she says: “For the first time I felt I was a human being with an identity and an objective, in defence of which I was ready to die.”
This review was written for the Guardian.
Here’s another suicide bomber novel. We’ve had Amis and Updike’s uninformed attempts, plus variations on the theme from Sebastian Faulks. This time, though not of Muslim background, our author is a British-Asian and he does have some important insights on the anguished inbetweenness suffered by so many second-generation immigrants, which in some rare cases may constitute part of the psychological background to political radicalisation.
As a study of migrants, the frustrated ambition of the first generation and the generalised alienation of the second (from the ‘home country’ as much as from ‘home’) – this could as well be titled ‘Ours Are Not The Streets’ – the novel is very successful.
People of a variety of backgrounds will recognise the complex allegiances of Imtiaz, the chief protagonist, who “felt fine rooting for Liverpool, in a quiet way, but not England” and who finds himself “defending Muslims against whites and whites against Muslims.” Everybody will appreciate Suhota’s deft treatment of the generation gap. Imtiaz’s repeated ‘why can’t you be normal?’ is a common adolescent interrogation, but one which becomes more acute in an immigrant household. Suhota is very good at dramatising children’s rankling shame at their migrant parents’ submission to humiliation. Imtiaz’s father’s silence as a passenger pisses in the back of his cab, or when a member of a hen party demands he grope her breasts, and Imtiaz’s squirming response to the silence, are excrutiatingly well written.
Imtiaz is really very British. He stands up to his parents and marries Becka, his pregnant white girlfriend, who happily converts to Islam and moves into the family home. They have a daughter, Noor. Imtiaz, not assimilated but reasonably comfortably integrated, seems to have it all.
Salmaan Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, has been shot dead by one of his own security detail for the supposed crime of defending Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman threatened with execution under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law was introduced by the British and given extra teeth by military dictator Zia ul-Haq, and is commonly used for the pursuit of grudges against the weak. The most disturbing aspect of Taseer’s murder is that both puritanical Deobandi and traditionalist ‘Sufi’ Barelvi religious leaderships have expressed support for it. Many Pakistanis are lionising Taseer’s murderer. For decades sections of Pakistan’s ruling elite have peddled religio-nationalist chauvinism as a stop-gap substitute for social justice. The result is today’s ugly combination of elite and mob rule. I reviewed a book by Taseer’s son here. Below, novelist Mohammed Hanif reports from Karachi:
Minutes after the murder of the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salmaan Taseer I saw a veteran Urdu columnist on a news channel. He was being what, in breaking news jargon, is called a “presenter’s friend”. “It is sad of course that this has happened but . . .”
The anti-regime protests spread across Tunisia involve trades unionists, the unemployed, lawyers, journalists and students. The people chant against “the killers of the people, the flayers of the people.” Their slogans include “Tunisia is the people, not the government,” “We’ll solve the police crisis, we’ll solve the Tunisian crisis,” and (I think – the sound isn’t clear) “Work, Freedom, National solidarity.” The first film shows a Tunisian town continuing to fearlessly demonstrate despite tear gas and truncheon attacks. (A maths teacher has been shot dead by police during the protests). The second (over the fold) shows a demonstration in the capital. Arabic speakers can follow this link to al-Jazeera’s round-up of the most recent developments.
The dictatorship of Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, a Western client, is in serious trouble. A full-scale intifada is raging. It began in Sidi Bouzid as a protest against unemployment, corruption and police brutality. Then it spread to Sousse, Sfax, Meknassi, and the capital, inflated by long-simmering resentment at Tunisia’s lack of civil liberties. Because Ben Ali is a client, and because Tunisia is a mass tourism destination, the Western mainstream is leaving this largely alone. But here’s Nesrine Malik in the Guardian, and al-Jazeera (see below) is doing well. In the context of a horrific upsurge of nihilistic sectarianism in the Arab world, it is to be hoped that the Tunisian revolution will grow and develop, and teach a lesson to the Arabs in real, not illusory, action towards change.