Category Archives: Comment

Ceasefire, What Ceasefire?

The UN backed six-point ‘Annan Plan’ for Syria is ‘on track’, according to Ahmed Fawzi, a spokesman for Kofi Annan, despite the continuation of violence throughout a number of cities in Syria. Whilst it has been acknowledged that the signs of progress, and indeed cooperation from the Assad regime, have been rather small, there still seems to be an expectation that the Annan plan is the best possible option with which to go forward. At least for the time being.

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Tried and Tested

The ‘Friends of Syria’ Conference, based in Istanbul last week, finally yielded some movements towards a unified opposition to the Assad regime in nominally forming the Syrian National Council (SNC) – similar to that formed in Libya at the beginning of the Benghazi uprising last year. The move is a late one – in a conflict that has lasted over twelve months already there has been little success in providing a unified front in the conflict, and sectarian fissures have been prolific in creating a confused and haphazard attempt to overthrow the regime.

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Playing the Fiddle

In 64CE it is said that the Roman Emperor Nero played the fiddle whilst his capital, Rome, was burning to the ground in what would later be known as the Great fire of Rome. Whilst this legend is now regarded by most historians as false, it is telling of the nature of Nero – his brutality and sense of extravagance – that this rumour came into being in the first place. It is also telling that many believe that he started the fire himself to clear space to build his vast palatial complex. The result being, two millennia after his time as Emperor he is remembered with disdain and ridicule as the man who put his own whims, his own extravagant ventures, and his own desires before his Empire, before the people of his Empire.

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Tiny Little Fractures

The proposals that emerged today for a semi-autonomous Eastern Libya, based on an historical region known as Cyrenaica, have been greeted with more concern than shock. Cyrenaica, based around the Eastern city of Benghazi and the original stronghold of the National Transitional Council of Libya, has always been distinct from the Western, Tripoli-centred, region of North Libya; one that had become increasingly disadvantaged – socially, politically and economically – during the Gaddafi era, as he favoured the region around Tripoli, which were closer to him in both geographical and geopolitical terms (his power base was derived from the North-Western corner of Libya, surrounding Tripoli and Sirte). And whilst over the past four decades money has been increasingly spent in the areas surrounding Tripoli and Sirte, a large amount of this money has been derived from the sale of oil from fields in the Cyrenaica region.

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In the Line Of Fire

On the 22nd of February this year, British newspaper journalism lost one of its most fearless and resolute reporters to the Syrian conflict. Marie Colvin, who had long spoken of the dangers of front line war reporting, was killed alongside a French journalist, Remi Ochlik, and was among several others who were severely wounded and remained trapped in the besieged district of Babr Amr, Homs. In the days, and now weeks, that have followed, there has been a lot of debate over the ethics of foreign journalists being present during such volatile circumstances, and unintentionally becoming the focus of the news rather than simply acting as a conduit through which events are reported. This debate was further fuelled as video messages were sent by the injured and surviving journalists, asking for a ceasefire to allow their removal from Babr amr district, and then as several members of the Syrian Free Army lost their lives in aiding the removal of the journalists to neighbouring Lebanon. Continue reading

Back to Square One?

Elation and Disappointment

The removal of Hosni Mubarak from the head of the Egyptian government was a momentary release of the pressure that had been building all around the country in every major town and city. Parties and celebrations that stretched through the night into the heady days that followed seemed to carry the message that the felling of the tyrant, particularly considering the manner in which he was felled, had made everything better. The mass mobilisation of the people, never seen on this scale in modern day Egypt, had proved victorious. The people were undefeatable and indefatigable; they were assured in their own invincibility by this great feat of collectivism and then, even as the dust and excitement started to settle, there was a sense that now, everything was going to be alright.

The tumultuous summer that followed Egypt’s Arab Spring suggested otherwise, and as the temporary custodians of the Egyptian Government – in the form of Mubarak’s once staunchly loyal Generals – began to settle into their roles the frustrated and betrayed protestors began to filter back into the Square that had rose to infamy as the battleground for Egyptian freedom.

The Generals, perhaps lacking Mubarak’s sense for the visual in violent oppression of the general, and increasingly vocal, population, did not use men mounted on camels to ride through the Square, bludgeoning everyone in reach. Instead, they opted for the more time tested and subtle methods of harassment by military and police men on foot, employing brutal beatings without any of the visuals that draw many a grateful television camera. And this lack of display is quite possibly very intentional; the Generals are well aware of the damage a captive international audience could do to their current hegemony, if only to help support and spur on the protestors domestically.

Turning a Blind Eye

For the past six months, as it turns out, the world has had its eyes turned elsewhere. The fall of Mubarak acted as closure for many people watching from afar; after all, in the movies the story ends with the decimation of the villain. There have also been plots elsewhere that have torn the audience away; the war in Libya against Gaddafi and what remained of his followers was not only more bloody, it drew many of the West in as governments clamoured to rid the world of this sinister evil dictator and rallied behind the liberating forces. The dominoes had also begun toppling across the region and throughout the globe, and in between insurrections, protests and riots the economic system kept crumbling beneath everyone. Everywhere.

It seems, in fact, that for many people the first resounding nod to the mere fact that something may be wrong with the governance of Egypt is when the elections returned a vote in favour of what have been broadly noted as ‘Islamist’ parties. This, after a decade of Al Qaeda and living on an amber alert, seemed to snap Egypt back into the international consciousness and instigated a whole series of debates over the ability of an Arab population to maintain a democracy, and whether there was something generally wrong with a people who intentionally mark ballot papers in favour of ‘extremists’.

Right Question, Wrong Answer

There seems to be, in many parts of the press and amongst a great deal of the general population – in the UK at least – a tendency to miss the rather less than subtle difference between the more extreme Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood which has been part of Egyptian society for nearly a century – even if it was banned for great swathes of that time. In any case, a vote for either should not be confused with a vote for extremism of any form.

Islamic groups, which have also become political parties with the advent of democracy, are a key feature of these elections for a number of reasons. Firstly, due to their operation through and within the mosque, they have been impossible to destroy entirely even as blanket bans were issued by the governments. With a captive audience (90% of Egyptians are Muslims) and a ready-made meeting place in the mosque, groups centred on Islamic principles have been the only dominant form of civil society in a state which has forbidden political expression against the government. These groups have also been instrumental in raising and distributing Zakat (alms), effectively providing social benefits for the poor and in need; as have they long held strong anti-corruption sentiments – both of which add to their popularity.

That the current political system in Egypt is problematic is unquestionable, but those problems are not with the beneficiaries of the popular vote but with the Generals who seem quite unwilling to relinquish power. Yes, a government containing any Islamic party could possibly opt to ban alcohol and bikinis, but that they will be taking away a cheap and alcohol soaked tourist destination for sun-starved Brits should not be the main concern in judging a government. Instead we should be watching closely, and providing support for a people making their first, important steps out of Tahrir Square and into a better, freer and more just Egypt. A vote for the Muslim Brotherhood is not a vote for tyranny, oppression and violence, but if this is what a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood leads to, then, just as before, the people of Egypt know how to take their country back.

The Exchange Rate

Gilad Shalit, the most high profile prisoner in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, will be released at some point over the next week. In exchange, 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, currently residing in Israeli prison cells, are to be released in stages with female prisoners – all 450 in Israeli custody – being given priority on the time scale. The huge number of prisoners given to the Palestinians, not all of which will be given leave to remain in Israel of the Palestinian Occupied Territories, signifies the growing importance to the Israeli government, and more particularly to Netanyahu, that the hostage situation involving Shalit should be resolved. Whilst it may seem absurd to some that so much is being put at stake to secure the life of one Israeli Soldier, the implications of his release, and the manner in which both sides conduct themselves through the remainder of the deal’s delivery, have hugely wide-scale implications.

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Having a Riot

For months now the world has watched the Arab Spring unfold in a series of protests, riots and physical conflicts as the pent-up anger, allowed to brew over decades of denial and oppression. Before long, the fury of the Arab World spread to Europe and, in Greece and Spain, protesters inspired by the liberation forces throughout the Middle East and North Africa took to protesting against the austerity measures made by their own government. Lack of jobs and economic deprivation, but most of all lack of hope and a clear idea of the future, lead the disillusioned youth to rise up against everything that was wrong in their eyes, the economic disparity, the failure of rentier and capitalist policies, the arrogance of self-serving governments. They saw what was wrong, and they did the only thing that was left to them – they took to the streets. Continue reading

The Power of Boycott

Legislation passed by the Israeli Knesset last week made it illegal for anyone living in the Israeli territories to actively boycott goods made in the settlements. As part of the law, settlement-based producers are able to sue those who are, or have, boycotted their products without having to actually provide tangible evidence of damages to their business which, given the complexities of domestic trade within Israel, would be almost impossible t0 prove or at least allocate blame to a specific quadrant of society. All that has to be proved, in any cases brought forward, is that there was an intent to do economic damage by organised boycott. This begs the question then, how effective are boycotts in establishing political change?

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Playing a losing Game

The position of Israel has gained in strength immensely since its formation in 1948. It has increased its Jewish population with ethnically slanted immigration policies, consolidated its borders through regional wars waged disastrously by various Arab leaders, and it has gained the absolute backing of Western allies, despite its continued actions against the Palestinians. Slowly, but surely, it has also eroded opposition from within the region through the promulgation of international treaties, agreements, and trade pacts with the very dictators which had previously been sat at the other end of the battlefield.With these Arab leaders of old falling like dominoes, though, where does this leave the multitude of agreements between the Israeli government and their neighbouring counterparts? Continue reading