Tag Archives: Violence

With Impunity

When  the uprisings started in Syria, just over a year ago, the regime denied that any such movement had started to swell up amongst the ranks of the Syrian people. It was easy to see why they would be in denial; between Bashar Al Assad’s slow moving reforms, an attempt to placate a population so often restless under his father’s rule, and the unrelenting comprehensive system of torture employed against any dissidents, those who were not so enamoured with their leader were at least fearful of voicing their opinions against him.

The outside world, too, for a time believed that the uprisings were nothing more than a faded mirror image of what was happening in the rest of the Arab world – a few isolated groupings trying to seize the regional momentum to push personal agendas. For state leaders in the United States, the UK and across Europe, their involvement in Libya meant that accepting that the uprising was factional, regional, and minor fitted better with their strategic military capabilities – with active engagement in two conflicts, in Afghanistan and Libya, they were not able to, nor were they prepared to, stretch themselves any further than they already had. The result was that the international community, its eyes turned towards its interests in Libya and elsewhere, largely ignored the increasingly bloody violence that was smouldering in Syria’s cities and the outskirts of Damascus.

When it did finally wake up to the fact that the conflict in Syria was not only more serious than they had first anticipated, but that it was also fragmenting along sectarian lines, there was a timid showing from the Arab League who made statements against Assad, and sent observers to the country, before trying to persuade the United Nations Security Council to step in and take action. But even then only in the form of selective sanctions.

By this time thousands of Syrians – military personnel, civilians, men, women, children and the aged – had lost their lives through gun battles which would erupt spontaneously in a suburb of Damascus, in the centre of Homs or Hama or Daraa, or through the torture and imprisonment dealt out by the Mukhabarat (Assad’s Secret Police) by anyone who voiced disagreement with the regime – notably this also includes children from the age of ten.

The regime weren’t even trying particularly hard to cover up the fact that the violence was happening, noting that the deaths had occurred, but asserting that it was limited to the suppression of extremist Islamist rebels. Throughout this time, and right up until Libya found closure with the death of Muammar Gaddafi, it didn’t really matter what Assad said – no journalists were in the country and, again, no one was really listening.

Then, towards the end of last year and after Gaddafi’s death – recorded as so much of that conflict was by crude camera phone video – the world finally woke up to the fact that Syria’s internal conflict was spiralling out of control. As already highlighted above, the response was still tepid, but as action started to slow in Libya US, UK and French rhetoric in particular started to acquire the sharp tones of impatience with the slow moving international efforts. The Arab League’s insistence that the UN acted in this matter, possibly out of concern for the impact on their own domestic situations just as much as the civilians suffering the brutal force of Assad’s military outfits, was not enough to get the gears in motion – however – as they ground to a halt with Russian and Chinese spanners thrown into works.

Now, as it stands, the international community are toothless – sanctions without Russia (Syria’s chief source of weaponry) and China (where Syria acquires the majority of its imported non-military goods) are a waste of time, and a military solution in a region that is currently chaotic in some corners, petrified of revolution in others, and has Israel and Iran staring at each other over nuclear potential, is simply not viable without creating a perfect storm for widespread and enduring sectarian conflict. What is more, there is not even a truly identifiable opposition with which to negotiate, to recognise, or even to support – with many different factions battling each other as much as they are battling the military mechanisms of Assad’s regime. For this to change, and it must change soon, a number of things have to happen.

First, the anti government forces in Syria need to form a single viable council or leadership group that acts as an umbrella group for all the disparate groupings that currently fight in amongst each other as much as they fight regime forces. This will not be easy, and it must find common ground and a common idea of what comes after the regime, not simply a path to its downfall, to avoid the country falling into chaos if the Assad regime does fall. This will provide a diplomatic core for the opposition which will offer an alternative instrument of government for the international community to back and rally around, but it will also ensure that grievances by and against opposition troops are addressed.

Second, once this entity has been forged, Russia and China must recognise that it is important to make new ties with the new representative body – in a similar way the international community did with Libya’s NTC – and resist blocking any movement in the United Nations. If they do not, it may be that frustrated members start acting outside of the organisation and end up risking a polarising of more than just Syria’s domestic situation. Worse, however, is if they do not act without the United Nations, and stand back to let the situation unfold by itself. The violence and torture against Assad’s opponents has increased dramatically since the failed UN resolution was vetoed, and the longer the international community stands by the more Assad will feel he can act with impunity.

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.

Egypt the Eternal

On the surface, the revolution that rolled through Egypt in little under three weeks earlier this year seemed to be the success story of the Arab Spring. With the abrupt rise of a political opposition out of nothing, the dramatic setting of Tahrir Square – aptly named as Tahrir translates as ‘Liberation’ in English, the deployment of thugs on camel-back, and the overthrow of a brutal and greedy dictator, those moments that many will vividly remember from January/February this year have an almost cinematic quality. Hollywood itself could not have scripted such perfect, well timed drama. And after just three weeks of visible and strong presence on the Egyptian streets, the expectation of a new and more prosperous future felt like a logical conclusion after Mubarak resigned. For all those carried away on the drama, the passion and the pace those weeks left behind, there were few people sounding the voice of realism.

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The Last Wall to Hide Behind

The terrors of war go far beyond the numbers of casualties and the quantity of territory changing hands. In a way it goes further than the lives destroyed, deeper than the fear it brings. War brings to the light all those things about us that we would otherwise keep hidden, it shows the worst side of humanity with all its depths of depravity.

There are many atrocities that have been committed in the war in Libya, a war that has raged for just over a month but which seems to have been conducted on a silent level for many, many years before. We have seen the bombing of protesters whilst waving their pre-Gaddafi flag in jubilation, the taste of freedom seeming so tantalisingly close for the first time in four decades. We have watched as snipers took shots at medical staff simply chose to do their jobs, as mercenaries flown in from all over Africa pursued this war which was not their own. There have been door to door raids targeting the population, summary executions for those in the military who refuse to comply.

Then the world stood in shock as Gaddafi’s men, the last remaining loyalists and paid thugs alike, began their media campaign which involved the ‘clearing up’ of Libyan cities to prevent the international news media from seeing any bodies or wounded revolutionaries. These macabre snatches, committed in broad daylight just as in the depths of night, meant that families could not know whether their loved ones were still alive, could not grieve for their dead.

Gaddafi’s forces have hid themselves behind their lies, turning Libyan against Libyan, and with rumours of foreign intervention, Al Qaeda subterfuge and youths on drugs they drove fear into the population of Tripoli to make them attack their countrymen. They have hid themselves behind vague, and false, conciliatory gestures, murmurs of ceasefires and dialogue and plea bargains; and now, in a final effort to sink to deplorable levels, they have opted to take the moral low-ground and drag as many innocent civilians down with them.

Just a day after the international community finally acted upon the meandering dialogue, a dialogue which circumnavigated concrete action repeatedly whilst Libyan civilians were being slaughtered in droves, it became clear that the Gaddafi regime was not willing to fall alone. Rumours of civilians kidnapped and taken to regime strongholds as human shields against the international bombardment, soon became substantiated with reports to Al-Alam news channel. It is this desperation, disregard for human life, and deplorable treatment of a people by its own ruler that is as astounding as it is sickening. It shows that, even in a state of war, the actions that humans will take can astound us in it’s ever deepening depravity.

The Horrors Before You

The Revolution happening in Libya right now is one that is being played out on the internet, live and in real time. Libyans are tweeting the flash points of battles hours before they finally make the breaking news of the major news channels, and the pace of events is so fast at the moment that to wait for the print press would leave you severely behind on the monumental developments of cities falling to the liberators (not rebels, nor insurgents, let’s get THAT clear), major diplomats running away from Gaddafi with their purse-strings drawing shut, and huge swathes of the population being harassed, arrested and murdered by mercenaries with no sense of decency. You know when attacks are striking the citizens of Az-Zawiya, what pockets of Tripoli are finally free, and when thousands of free and jubilant Benghazi worshippers hold Friday prayers as citizens of a city under an old, new flag.

But it also brings to your very eyes the true horrors that are now part of the struggle for the extraordinary ordinary people of Libya. Video links abound on Youtube and Twitter, revealing things that you would never see in your own, comfortable, real life, that are too horrific for the most violent of movies. Footage of bloody battles, of ‘street cleaners’ eradicating the proof of battle (in other words removing the bodies from the street in trucks and vans), of martyrs with their bodies torn apart by unimaginably violent acts. It’s horrible, it’s sick, it would never be allowed on a news channel, but it’s vitally, vitally important that you make yourself sit through at least one. Or part of one.

Why? Because that’s the only way you’re going to get it, if your miles away, sat at home, watching it all unfold from a safe distance and cheering from the sidelines at every victory. This is the only way you understand how incredible brave these people are, to step out onto the streets and see these horrors first hand, but still go on fighting. This is the only way you will understand that when the report reads 1 dead, 10 dead, 100 dead, 1000 dead, these are not numbers but people who had lives and families and dreams and aspirations. This is the only way you will realise why this is so important, and why everyone – every single decent human being in the world – has a duty to stand with the Libyan people in this hour, when they need it most. Not because of international relations, or arms sales, guilt, oil, whatever; but because it’s the only right, decent thing to do.