Blog: Is the Arab Spring Over?

Is the Arab Spring dead? Certainly not according to Dr Anas Al Tikriti, the British-Arab founder of Cordoba Foundation, who was one of the panelists on 20 March 2014 at the Skeel Lecture Theatre (Queen Mary University of London). Dr Anas came to prominence in the UK when he participated in mobilisation for the historic “Don’t Attack Iraq” march in London ( March 03).

In a forceful presentation he argued that the Arab Spring was a process not an isolated event. As such it is bound to have ups and downs; but its line of movement is now irreversible. The people can’t be subdued by force. They no longer fear their rulers and know that change is possible. The struggle for democracy deserves Western democratic support and Solidarity. He mocked the myth that people in the Arab countries deserve and need only authoritarian rule. Poverty has nothing to do with the new awareness.

To read more, please click here

Opinion – Sri Lanka: The Opportunistic Hypocrisy of Reconciliation

A recent post in the Colombo Telegraph by the ‘PM of the TGTE’ expressed solidarity with the Muslim community whilst “extending our fullest support to the Muslim people, we also extend our solidarity to the Muslim community, as a community whose mother tongue is also Tamil, asking them to join the Tamils in their struggle to build a secure future for all in the Tamil state”.  The article was written on the back of rising incidents of attack against the Muslim community by extreme Buddhist groups.

I not only found this article laughable but highly delusional in the assumptions that the Muslim community would entertain any notion of an alliance with the TGTE, whose singular premise has been to extend the LTTE mantra and campaign on a separate Tamil state.  Making this statement, the TGTE was not necessarily ‘concerned’ about the Muslim community per se, but it was aimed at showing the ‘intolerance’ of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism.  At quite a crucial time for Sri Lanka, during the anniversaries of the Black July pogroms 30 years ago, the article aims to draw parallels with then and now and to show that nothing has changed.  Yet interestingly it seems to have taken the TGTE 4 years since the end of the conflict (and the occasions of these incidents) to publicly reach out to the Muslim community

To read more, please click here

Opinion – Egypt Crisis:Unpacking the Role of the Media and Gulf Petro-Dollars

If there is one thing that consistently defines this era that we are living in, it is the role of the media in how it not only shapes our politics, ideology and world view but also how it seeks to manipulate issues and narratives for its own goals. We all remember the concerted media campaign that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The political establishment and a large proportion of the general public were convinced that Iraq had a viable nuclear and chemical arsenal. The orchestrated media campaign by traditionally respectable media outlets like the BBC and the Sky Middle Eastern coverage tended to stoke-up fear in the hearts of the population. Some politicians genuinely believed that unless there was a pre-emptive attackon Saddam Hussain, our civilisation and our way of ’’life’’ were in mortal danger. We all know too well the consequences of the invasion. Likewise the Leveson Inquiry in the UK has called to question media ethics.

With the crises and incidents unfolding in Egypt, truth is once again the main victim — in the absence of real democratic institutions and an inherently-corrupt and unprofessional media. The loss of life over the past week — whilst utterly shocking — veers into insignificance compared to the web of lies that have been spun around to justify these killings by the government officials and those who back the military operation. What is even worse is the reception these lies seem to be getting in the West as figures are misquoted and justifications reiterated.

The flow of information from the official sources should not be taken at face value. Western leniency with the coup leaders in Egypt encouraged the army and security services to massacre hundreds of demonstrators in the streets of Cairo. These crimes were preceded by an unbelievable array of propaganda willingly reiterated by American and British officials in their briefings in the past few weeks. Take for example the American official who reaffirmed the outrageous Egyptian claim that 30 million people took to the streets of Cairo on the eve of June 30th to call for a military intervention and end Morsi’s rule.

The influence of the mass media on ordinary people in the Middle East is widely acknowledged. In the Egyptian case, money from the UAE and Saudi Arabia has fuelled a frenzied media attack on the nascent democratic institutions in Egypt to the extent that ordinary citizens were willing to sacrifice theirvote and political freedoms in order to end their miserable economic and social situation, so they were led to believe. Paradoxically the Saudi and the Arab Gulf states concentrated in their media campaign on the issue of the Western conspiracy with the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilise Egypt and sell its assets to foreign investors. They played on the ordinary people’s sentiments and religious sensitivities. They even claimed that the new democratic government in Egypt is in cahoots with the West and the Israelis.

Unfortunately most of the information about opposition movements in the Arab and Muslim world available to Western circles was amassed from security services and academic institutions linked to it. It was only in the last 30 years when large number of political activists and academics took refuge in the West that we saw certain changes in attitude towards a relative understanding of political Islam. At the same time the exposure to Western political theory and practice had a huge influence on the politics of the proponents of contemporary political Islam. The same strategy is followed by monarchic regimes and sheikhdoms in the Arab Gulf region. Although these regimes are considered pro-West, they support and give sustenance to religious clergy faithful to the regimes to demonise all what the Western democracies stand for. In the case of Egypt, we have witnessed how traditionally apoliticaland rejectionist trends like the Salafists have been used to defend and justify the military coup. Similarly, the head of Al-Azhar University, the most prestigious religious institution in the Muslim world, has not been spared. Here again, Western political, cultural and ethical ideals are the target. A barrier is erected between their people and international concepts such as democracy and free will.

The Egyptian military and the Gulf regimes used religious and cultural cleavages with the West to end the infant democratic experience. Unfortunately, they succeeded with an undeniable tacit approval by democratic governments in the West. This is evident of Western ancient religious sensitivities being undoubtedly intertwined with their contemporary politics.

Dr Fareed Sabri is head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme for The Cordoba Foundation

Opinion – EGYPT NARRATIVES: A Brief Critique of the Reasons Advanced to Justify the Egyptian Military Coup of July 2013

I expect people reading this to be quite busy and so I will forego the usual essay style and use a point format. As a preamble, there are two arguments I will not make. I will not argue that the President’s first year in office was mistake-free. There were many and the President alluded to some during his most recent speech before the coup. The second argument I will not make is that the coup has no popular support. Without a doubt, there is significant resentment among a considerable portion of the Egyptian population towards the President. Nevertheless, neither of those considerations – mistakes and alienating part of the electorate – constitutes reasonable grounds (if ever such an adjective could be used) for a military coup.

Coup apologists are using a number of accusations to justify the coup.
a.    Egyptians lack the “basic mental ingredients” for democracy
b.    President Morsy was not inclusive during his year in government and was unable to unite the country. But for the military coup, the country would have descended into chaos and civil war.
c.    The President, and the Muslim Brotherhood, were intent on building an “illiberal” democracy, one where there was voting, but were human rights including freedom of speech and express as well as women rights are limited.
d.    The economy was imploding due to the poor management of the country and the Army had to intervene.
e.    This was not a coup. This was a popular uprising and the army merely supported the people a la February 11, 2011.

I will not distinguish (a) above with a response. The remainder of those arguments, even if there is some truth to them, is entirely without merit as a justification for a military coup that derails the democratic transition of the country.

To read more, please download the paper from here

Jubilant Crowds May Yet Come to Regret End of Brotherhood Government

Only 29 months ago, Egyptians were united in celebrating the removal of Mubarak’s 30-year rule and the triumph of what seemed a glorious revolution that had inspired many around the world. This week, the Egyptian people, back on the streets in their many millions, were deeply divided almost down the middle over the question of legitimacy.

Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president in the history of Egypt, stated in his last official speech that he would defend ‘legitimacy’ with his life. To his supporters and most neutral observers, he clearly meant defending the civil democratic elections, reflecting the will of the people in the face of an overriding military intervention. Without this the entire process would be defunct. To his opponents, it was a thinly-veiled threat and ultimatum threatening civil conflict, for which he lost all claim to his privileges to office.

To read more, please click here

Sri Lanka: The Uncertain Future for IDPs

In a previous piece for Fair Observer, I wrote about the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were victims of the Sri Lankan conflict at the hands of the LTTE, and who still remain without much hope of any viable solution today.

These victims, who have languished in camps for the last 23 years, have barely elicited a response except at election time when they become pawns of politicians. Recently, the politicisation and the ethnicisation of this agenda have pitted a Muslim politician against a Tamil religious leader in terms of who gets priority for resettlement — and effectively the bigger share of the resettlement pie. This development does not bode well for relations between the two communities

To read more, please click here

Fall of Baghdad – 10 Years On

Ten years ago, before the world’s mesmerised gaze, an iconic statue of Iraq’s former dictator was pulled down amid a throng of jubilant Iraqis. None of those present or bearing witness could have envisaged the extent, scope and depth of the pain that would ensue over the next decade.

Among those who danced in jubilation and took part in slapping the head of the statue with his slippers was a local taxi driver, Abu Ahmed Al-Mishadani. An Arab Sunni and 38-years-old at the time, he too saw this as the end of the darkest of eras and the start of a new dawn. Married to a Shi’i woman and with five children, his aspirations and hopes for the new era of freedom and dignity were unlimited. He had seen the inside of a Ba’thist prison cell and the fiery end of an electric rod too many times to allow himself a moment’s grief over the collapsing tyrant.

Yet since then he has been arrested three times, imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, tortured, had seven of his fingernails extracted, his skull fractured, both his legs and his left arm broken and his ‘honour’ violated more times than he can remember. This last description usually implies rape and sexual abuse, of which he is too ashamed to speak. Each time he was picked up by a different group: militia this, army that. Each time he pleaded with his captors to tell him the reason for his arrest. Each time he got no answer. The only answer that makes any sense to him is the one he gives to whoever cares to ask: I am a Sunni; that’s why. His wife Zahra’ nods in agreement.

Of course the experience of one individual cannot be used to paint a picture for an entire nation’s life across a whole decade. However, this story is repeated time and again with slight variations in the details, the injuries, the assailants and lasting wounds. There are Shi’as who tell similar horror stories, and Kurds and Turkmens and Christians and Sabians. Indeed, there are far too many stories to consider the experience of Abu Ahmed an isolated case of individual corruption and mishandling.

Ten years on, Iraq lingers at the bottom of the global transparency index, beaten only by five other more corrupt countries. Indeed, according to the very same American politicians who hailed the ‘New Iraq’, corruption is at an unimaginable and on an endemic scale. The Mercer Index points to Baghdad as the worst city in the entire world to live in, bar none.

More than 20 million Iraqis, or 76% of the entire population, do not have regular and constant electricity and/or clean running water. There is virtually no education and health system to speak of, the country’s infrastructure resembles something out of ancient times, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, and more than five million driven into exile either within or outside Iraq. Furthermore, sectarianism has firmly taken grip of a country that, despite its former tyrannical regimes, never managed to dictate the social or political fabric of Iraqi society as attested by Abu Ahmed and hundreds of thousands of other Iraqi families where the make-up is a mixture of all of Iraq’s intrinsic and organic strands.

In the past few weeks, as we commemorated the 10th anniversary of the largest anti-war demonstration in British history – which I chaired – the 10th anniversary of the war and now the 10th anniversary of the occupation of Iraq, the question asked by most media commentators and presenters is: is Iraq better or worse now than under Saddam Hussein?

The question is unfair and any answer tells us nothing new. After all, who proposed that the Iraqis had only two choices: either the dark and tyrannical days of the Ba’thist regime, or the present misery, pain and inhumanity? Why can’t Iraqis condemn both and yearn for something else, far better, far fairer and far more humane? Why should Iraqis answer such an unreasonable question in order to exonerate either a pro- or anti-war position, when it’s clearly a subjective standpoint either way?

A decade on from one of the most controversial and divisive decisions in modern times, few can claim to have fared well. Not the occupying forces which, despite gaining an military victory, lost on so many other fronts. If reports and briefings by security advisors are anything to go by, heightened terrorism alerts in the UK and the US have much to do with Iraq and its ramifications.

The country has never been so close to an all-out civil war, nor has it been ever closer to breaking up into three separate entities, than it has now. With neighbouring Syria in a state of meltdown and Iran aiming to widen its net influence in the region, the impact of the Iraq failure may be felt far and wide – and not only by Iraqis destined to suffer another generation of abject misery.

Tony Blair, under whose premiership Britain went to war and subsequently occupied Iraq, may cite the disposal of Saddam Hussein and the guise of democracy in Iraq all he wants to prove that he made the right decision. The enduring legacy of that decision, however, will be that millions of Iraqis from across the country’s sectarian, religious and ethnic divides, have come to believe that they are now suffering far greater than they did under Saddam. And boy did they suffer. But for those who did – Abu Ahmed Al-Mishadani, his wife Zahra and thousands more like them, who celebrated the departure of the former dictator 10 years ago – are forced today to grieve over the loss of their collective humanity, dignity and dream.

The Cordoba Foundation along with The Sharq Forum, is organising an international conference on the 10th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad on Monday 8th April at the Commonwealth Club in central London.

Follow the conference on twitter (and join in the conversation) #Iraq10yrs

Understanding the Turkish Model of Governance

Turkey began 2008 in the shadow of a very heated debate over whether female students could cover their hair with a headscarf — a practice banned in Turkey since 1989. In February 2008, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a “conservative” party led by devout Muslims, with the support of two other parties, passed an amendment that inserted two clauses into the constitution. One of them stated that all citizens, regardless of their religion, race, or ethnicity, would “benefit from public services equally.” The other amendment provided a guarantee: “No citizen can be barred from the right to higher education.”

To the secularist establishment, however, these declarations constituted an unacceptable heresy. The Constitutional Court stepped in nullifying the amendment and also levying a hefty fine on the AKP for violating the country’s self-styled secularism.

In the middle of this peculiar political controversy — during which “freedom” and “secularism” had become opposing and polarising slogans — an interesting voice emerged from female students wearing headscarves, whose right to education was being discussed. On a website titled “We Are Not Free Yet,” three hundred students put their signatures in support of a statement which mentioned an “authoritarian mentality” and tied this struggle to that of suppressed groups like the Kurds and Alevis.This genuinely liberal and Islamic message immediately became popular.

How all this came about is a story worth examining in the lessons that can be learnt for similar situations in the current Middle East.

History Revisited
The story above serves to highlight that Turkey is still the best example of a functioning democracy in the Middle East. Its Islamic movements and parties have almost never followed a radical agenda, and have even come to appreciate the blessings of modern liberal democracy. Therefore, the Turkish model has been cited as a source of inspiration for countries emerging out of the events of the Arab Spring.

There are two good reasons to doubt that the Arab world only needs its own Atatürks, however. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had introduced radical secularist reforms in 1924 and 1938. Firstly, most of the regimes overthrown or challenged by the Arab Spring are the very secular dictatorships which used Atatürk as a model. Secondly, the Turkish story is much more complex than the ‘creation-ex-nihilo-by-Atatürk’ narrative

To read the executive summary, please click here

To read the longer version of this article in Arches Quarterly, please click here 


Sri Lanka: A Tale of Two Countries

Over the past year, one can be forgiven if one thought that in fact that there were two countries called Sri Lanka or at least two visions for a country called Sri Lanka.  Both have seemingly emerged out of the shadows of the end of the bloody 26 year old conflict when Sri Lanka faced a cross roads in terms of moving forward cleansed of the past and with a chance to develop a common vision shared by all towards collective nation building and prosperity.

One version of that vision for the country has emerged of a nation struggling to rebuild, reconstruct and reconcile.  It is one where economic and infrastructure development whilst not being matched by good governance or the creation of a secure environment of equity and social justice, still provides some hope for what might come.

The second version of the vision for the country is one of extreme nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred; being pushed forward by a small minority speaking on behalf of the majority Sinhala Buddhist who are intent on propagating the spirit of separatism, oblivious to the disastrous consequences from the past and for the future. With the lens of the latter vision,  Sri Lanka is seen through a singular lens of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ attitude which perpetuates deeply delusive and divisive assumptions of single exclusive identities by these sectarian activists, who want people to ignore all affiliation and loyalties in support of one specific ‘religious’ identity. Such exclusive identities stress difference rather than belonging and ‘opposition to’ rather than ‘support for’ a Sri Lanka that follows the first vision. The result is that these conflicts manifest themselves into rumour, hearsay and generalization which are the first steps towards the stereotyping of people (their faith, their culture and identity) and the denial of a diverse, lived reality, the opposite of respect, understanding and acceptance.

It thus describes a vision where hope begins to fade for the country to move forward.

to read more, please click here