The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Dispatches
“Seriously though, where are the African refugees’ organs?”

“Seriously though, where are the African refugees’ organs?” asked Nivine, a 36-year-old with chronic kidney disease – non-rhetorically. Ever since she has heard about the bustling human trafficking and organ trade in Sinai back in 2011, Nivine wondered where she could get her hands on a kidney, should she need one later. And later she did and was forced to resort to post a Facebook note with her blood type and cell number to find a donor. (Donor here means someone who will “donate” their kidney to her, if she donates 30-50,000 Egyptian pounds to their bank account.) 

Nivine’s question, though horribly misdirected and intentioned, is a pertinent one. After all, there are only 35 hospitals licensed and (in some cases barely) qualified to perform organ transplants nationwide and those 35 only transplant kidneys, livers and corneas (which happen to match the organs stolen from the refugees); and there is presumably a limited number of surgeons with the know-how to remove organs without damaging them and access to ambulances with refrigeration units to preserve them; how difficult could it possibly be to track down the doctors involved?

The police, however, seem to have done nothing to ascertain the level difficulty. According to the coordinator of the liver transplant surgical teams of Kasr Al-Aini and Dar Al-Fouad, two of the biggest hospitals in Egypt, Mohamed Negm, the  police never so much as paid them a visit. Except for the times they needed to arrest and track down injured protesters after clashes, of course.  Apart from that and allowing the self-righteous TV host, Reham Saeed, yell at an alleged organs’ broker in their presence, the police continue the same hands-off, indifference-dripping policy the newspapers who run the “donation” ads and the hospitals inside which they take place follow. 

Most of the organs used in transplants, in Cairo at least, seem to come from Egyptians. About 60% of those organs are supplied by generous strangers the same way McDonald’s gives away Happy Meals in exchange for banknotes and the rest are donated, in the conventional sense of the word, by relatives, according to Negm. Anything better than educated estimations is impossible to find given the general aversion to counting and archiving that seems to permeate some sectors of government. These donations cost anywhere between 20-50,000 pounds (if it is a kidney and the patient is not obviously wealthy and  believed to be capable of paying more) and 30-70,000 (if it is a liver lobe and the patient is not obviously wealthy and believed to be capable of paying more), but it can vary considerably depending on how desperate both the patient and the donor are, explains Omar Safwat, another Kasr al-Aini surgeon. “Sometimes (the donor) would wait until last minute, when he is in the surgical gown and (then threaten to) back out unless he gets more money,” he said, going on to note that people can be very greedy.

That being said, a dismissive Negm maintains that the new law regulating organ transplantations has kept the practice clean and claims to the contrary are more or less “tabloid talk,” despite the fact that according to him the majority of them are still bought and that having that knowledge and operating anyway should, theoretically, earn him up to 25 years in prison and debarment, according to article 5 of the very law he is praising. “The donor signs a consent form saying they are donating, not selling, in the presence of a witness! Who also signs [a statement corroborating that]!” Negm continues, shrugging confidently as if the idea of someone lying is unfathomable. “The surgeon is there to work, where you get the organ from is not his problem,” he concluded.

“It doesn’t matter what the law says,” said Salma, the wife of a liver patient, with a hand wave. Chewing gum like it crossed her, Salma went on to paraphrase Negm, saying that doctors don’t care where you get the liver from so long as they can pretend to not know and charge you 230,000 pounds for it. Sitting next to Salma in the corner-turned-waiting-room for liver patients in Kasr Al-Aini, was an old woman who didn’t know how much the operation her husband needs costs until Salma disclosed the price. The woman asked Salma to repeat the figure slowly, but slapped herself before she did. Meanwhile, her yellow husband sat next to her with childlike stillness only moving his arm to insert biscuits into his mouth and his head to follow the behinds of every female that walked in front of him with curious disinterest. Sometime before the woman slapped herself, another patient came very close to doing the same after his organ broker informed him that the 70,000 he was paying him was not enough – in hallway full of doctors and nurses.

As time crawled by, more and more patients got up, switched seats and tried to find out who had it worst. Salma’s husband lost mobility six months ago and the donor she got after posting an advertising in a national newspaper turned out to have too fat a liver. Rania’s father shut his eyes and faked sleep every time he was addressed. Mariam knew her family would ask for money to donate a lobe and was scandalized by my neckline. The old man with the distended belly looked like he was about to pitch his story when a woman with round cheeks squeezed red by a purple scarf demanded to know who I am and if I was there to make it look like Egyptians are selling their organs and that the government is incompetent and the hospital is mistreating them. Because, for my information, they haven’t been waiting here for long. In fact, they came four hours early on purpose. “There is a trend in the media trying to defame Egypt out there [in the West, presumably],” she told her friend and a passing doctor who tried to explain that I was not a spy, before turning back to me to inquire about the nationalities of my readers. 

“For the last time [it wasn't], who sent you?” She fired one question after the other ignoring the person who mumbled something about my not needing to make Egypt look bad, because it is bad, and denying her supporters the chance to echo her questions and me the chance to answer them. After a few forceful denials, the woman eventually settled down to being a glaring, rather than a shouting, cylinder of anger. 

Something that might facilitate matters for the Paranoid Cylindrical Lady and other patients, Safwat suggested over shisha earlier, would be resorting to the organs of beating heart cadavers (brain dead patients) without needing a written permission from said patient prior to their death, which the government will never agree to because they know that doctors would be declaring patients brain-dead left and right, he says.

There was a similar arrangement in the early nineties that involved death row inmates. They would be asked for permission to resuscitate them after their execution to remove their organs and it worked for a short while before al-Azhar pulled the plug on it, arguing that the inmates are in no condition to give consent. 

This, of course, is not the only bone al-Azhar had to pick with transplants. The most popular arguments they made, which still exist now even among doctors are: “Your organs are Allah’s gifts, they are not yours to give away,” “sanctity of the dead > saving lives” and “brain death is a lie doctors tell to kill patients they don’t like and save the ones they like and get rich.” However, these arguments are largely ignored after Al-Azhar officially approved it, much like the stray cats that run wild and feed on placentas in the maternity ward.

48 hours of bliss, fear and anger – in that order

Nour The Intern writes in with some personal thoughts... 

Following the military's earlier-than-expected ultimatum, protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere, and their supporters at home, let out a collective sigh of relief and smiled contentedly. The military had just promised to get rid of Morsi, they just have to stay put for two short days. No one has to die or sleep on the asphalt. All they have to do is wait.

The ultimatum, which people are treating as if it were employment termination letter, gave the channel Al-Kahera Wa Alnas, who already shared Mahmoud Saad's views on the importance of a neutral media - which he summarized last night in two words and a sound: "Huh? What neutrality?" - the courage to rid themselves of the last pretense of it. The channel now has a 4-split screen coverage of protests: three anti-Morsi protests by "the Egyptian people" and one by mere, probably foreign,"regime supporters," topped with a timer counting down the hours to Morsi's ouster.

While many, like the editors staff of al-Destour newspaper, for instance, have been praying for a military intervention for months now, not everyone greeted the news with open arms. 

Shortly after the ultimatum was delivered, pictures of the "blue bra girl" resurfaced on Facebook with the caption: "Remember this?" 

"The SCAF conducted virginity tests, they dragged, beat up and killed people, this (meaning the intervention) should not be cause for celebration," according to my brother. His objection to toppling an elected president aside, he believes, along with the presumed majority of people, that no one other than the SCAF can run the country, given the continued lack of alternative leadership. "(The SCAF) is a necessary evil," he concluded, after cursing out the people for being deserving better, the president and the SCAF for not being better.

Regardless of their repeated claims to the contrary, many worry that the SCAF will overstay its welcome.

Meanwhile, the salafis are believed to be scared and purposefully vague. On one hand, some of the Nour Salafi Party members have joined the Rabaa Adawiya protest to support what is, at the end of the day, a fellow islamist. Others have signed Tamarod. Also, the party itself refused to join the official MB pro-legitimacy protest two Fridays ago. The fact that they have not sided with anyone yet after the military's ultimatum is adding to the general confusion. 

Naturally, anger was palpable at the islamists' counter-protest at Rabaa al-Adawiya, where they all seemed ready, if not eager, to "sacrifice their money, women and lives for Allah," who apparently would be hurt if Morsi left office.

"I won't accept the military, not even for one second of my life," said the nearly-famous and fervent Gofran Salah, a Brother who helped dismantle the tents of protesters at the Etihadia sit-in and lost it when he found a box of cheese.

What Salah, and the Brothers altogether, plan to do to put an end to a military rule that hasn't begun yet, remains unclear.

PS: it seems the MOI has been offered a golden opportunity to redeem itself. Having stuck up for the anti-MB protesters and even joined a few marches, it seems everything they have done has been forgotten, if only temporary, and they're one step away from being pronounced the protectors of the revolution. 

You know what they say: "I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers".

Oh, and here's Nader Bakkar's uninspired statement: Don't kill each other. The people have legitimate needs, even if some of them resort to violence, which they should really cut out. We don't mind helping out, you just gotta ask Morsi (and say please). Something something Allah, something something Egypt. 

If Bakkar wants to regain the 25% of parliamentary seats they had last year in the next elections, he should turn against MB. Public opinion > alliance with a fickle partner that has done nothing but disappoint you. Just sayin'  

Updated:  

OK, last email. Hey, don't sigh at me. Sigh at the revolution.

The islamists who are standing by Morsi are the islamist coalition, as it turns out. Al-Nour and the Salafi Da'waa are distancing themselves from him a bit. These are their suggestions/shy-demands:

1) Despite supporting legitimacy, we think early elections are in the best interest of Egypt to prevent bloodshed and civil war. 

2) We want a neutral, technocratic government to solve problems and supervise the parliamentary elections. 

3) Form a committee to amend the constitution, but not come near articles relating to the (religious) identity of Egypt.

 

The mood in Cairo

We asked Nour The Intern to send us a ground-level view of the mood in Cairo ahead of #June30mageddon. This is her response. 

Well, the atmosphere in Cairo is relatively calm, as opposed to other governorates, like Sharqia, Alexandria, Assiut, Suez, where unrest arrived a few days early. Whether it’s the kind of calm that comes before the storm or one that could last beyond June 30, no one knows.

The weather has officially lost its spot as the number one topic for small talk to June 30. Asking someone about their views of, or plans for, June 30 is the new "Very humid today, worse than yesterday, right?" and saying "God save us on June 30," or things to that effect, has all but replaced goodbyes.

For days now, people  have been worriedly reminding each other to park in their garage on the 30th and take the day off from work for safety. Conversely, a few Morsi supporters have been advising people to do the opposite, hoping that if society as a whole goes about its day, then the protesters may mistake it for an ordinary day and forget to protest.

 Essential to survival

Essential to survival

Personally, I was unfazed by June 30, until my usually aloof brother announced that he was going buy emergency food supplies. Last time he did that was on the night of Jan 28, 2011, the Friday of Wrath, and he came back, two hours and a half later, with the exact same purchase he got two years ago: two boxes of strawberry Swiss Rolls and a roll of aluminum foil.

The first box of the Swiss Rolls is for everyone to eat "at a reasonable pace" due to the dire circumstances, and the foil is for him to use its cardboard tube, his preferred choice of weaponry in case the neighborhood forms popular committees and he finds himself forced to join them again. And to protect the second box of Swiss Rolls from us.

But while my family bickers about whether or not Swiss Rolls shares should be directly proportional to height and degree of likability is fair (it is not, I get very little), the rest of the population is busy preparing for it.

"I'll be staying up all night on the 29th to sleep through the 30th," planned a depressed Mohamed Youness, a former Brother and revolutionary, who thinks that the country will suffer, regardless of whoever wins the standoff.

Revolutionaries and anti-MB activists, on the other hand, are making more active plans.

"We are going to teach them a lesson, I promise you that, and unlike Morsi; we fulfill our promises," said a very serious self-described member of the Black Bloc, who refused to be named. He is, however, happy to report that he has saved two weeks' worth of empty soda bottles to make Molotov cocktails.

"You can't judge us. The MB fights dirty, are we supposed to lie down and take it?" he added, somewhat aggressively. His attitude is shared by a lot young men these days.

Although many have not given up on peaceful demonstration, the very popular belief that June 30 is going to be far from it is leading them, especially women, to exercise more caution.

Take stay-at-home mom, Nadia Magdy, for example. She intends to wear the veil to avoid hair pulling, a mask, three layers of clothing - namely tight Carina undershirts that are difficult to put on, let alone take off - a sturdy belt and running shoes to make it harder for anyone to strip her naked. She also prepared enough food for a week for her family, in case she ends up joining her friend, Mahmoud. He's been missing since Jan 25.

Meanwhile in the other camp, the atmosphere is as characteristically upbeat and paranoid as ever. The presidential palace's gates have been reinforced, same goes for the MB's HQs. And according to el-Watan, they will station Brothers around the palace and the HQs, while Hazem Abu Ismail calls for a new siege of the Media Production City.

So far, the MB's official reading of the June 30 protests is that it's an Anglo-zionist-Egyptian-Judiciary conspiracy and/or a crusade waged by Coptic extremists with the help of atheists to stop Morsi from building state institutions by cutting of the power supply and hoarding all the gas. The saboteurs, who are a huge small group of people, are controlled by the power-hungry, hateful opposition, despite it being pathetically weak and lacking a support base, to end Islam.

"I know for a fact that liberals are growing beards now," Hany, my islamist backup driver, spoke confidently. "Some of them will dress like islamists, and others as the police to attack the liberal-looking liberals and make it seems like the MB and the MOI are killing protesters," he theorized. "That's why (the islamists) have to be there!"

"Ah, to physically stop the bearded liberals, who are pretending to be islamists, from beating up their beardless friends to make you, the islamists who are only there to beat up the actually liberal fake-islamists, appear to be violent?" I asked, feigning shock.

"Yes, yes, that's exactly it," he seemed proud. "That and because they must shut up and give Morsi a chance to work--" [got cut off by a bearded man, who was texting and driving] "Ya Kharouf (sheep, the derogatory reference to Brothers). May Allah take you all!"

He then went on to explain how the word “sheep” is not bad in and of itself and how that was not a freudian slip of the tongue for the rest of the ride back home, where I found my near-immobile mother downstairs for the first time in months. Apparently, some Tamarod campaigner said that if you can’t protest for whatever reason, go downstairs and sit in front of your building in solidarity with them.

“You’re a few days early, ya madam,” the doorman informed her with a sarcastic smile.

“We’re a year late, Mahrous,” she said, before taking a seat next to him.  

A day at the gun market

Nour the intrepid intern writes in:

Lately, I have been taking a lot of taxis. Naturally, that means hearing unsolicited political opinions, life lessons, and impromptu stories about women who match my exact physical description and share my sense of style (and, sometimes, my name) getting mugged, raped or murdered, in the hope of scaring me into begging them to my full-time driver and shield of protection. 

Last week, one managed to convince me. Instead of suggesting I promptly take his phone number and call him whenever I need to venture out into the jungle that is Cairo, Reda, my new driver, casually offered me a shotgun for a reasonable LE600.

Being the picky shopper that I am, I refused to simply buy the first gun I hear of and asked for options. Obligingly, Reda decided to call a guy, who knows a guy, to get me a beginner's collection. "Something small for a small lady," he told him.

I had two options, Reda told me: *Fard Kartoush* (a birdshot gun) for LE700, plus an additional LE70 for 10 bullets, or a 9mm for LE2000 (the gun is actually worth LE15,000, but since it stolen from a police department during the revolution, Awad, Reda's friend and dealer, is not too keen on keeping it) or settle for the lowly sound-gun-turned-real-gun for LE1000. 

The latter is known for breaking itself after the third shot, because its transformation into a killing machine was conducted by a underemployed carpenter, looking to make a quick LE200 by changing the gun's barrel.

My second option was to go to Suk al-Salaah (the weapons market), which is part of Suk al-Imam al-Shafa'i in Sayeda Ayesha.

I was given simple directions: "Go to the stolen bedrooms market and ask them to point you to the weapons market."

Realizing that I don't know where the stolen bedrooms market (which, as the name suggests, is a market where stolen bedrooms are sold for prices so low, they are technically being stolen all over again — although some of the beds and dressers were just the natural result of divorce), so I asked Reda to tag along with me, partly out of self-preservation. 

Since it was a Tuesday, and the market is officially held on Fridays, not many people were there, quite unlike Fridays, when the market is so full of people no car, no matter how small, can get in. 

There was a group of idle shoppers chatting rather than discussing prices with dealers selling all kinds of things from old Nokia phones to curtains. There was an argument about an overpriced *matwa mafaragha*, a Swiss knife whose blade is serated and pointy, literally giving it an edge over  all other *matwas*. The young man, who didn't want to pay LE20 for it, was quickly pulled back by another buyer.

Reda said that the oddly peaceful end of the heated argument was very normal in the market, where quarrels are uncommon.

"Both the buyer and the seller come here knowing it's against the law, no point in hassling over prices and making a fuss," Reda explained. "Not that we are scared of the police, they know where we are and what we do, and they do nothing... the point is everyone here is armed (or in the process of getting armed), if someone is provoked enough to shoot; everyone will start shooting," he continued.

However, the buyers are not just shady young men; they are shop owners, worried fathers, car owners, etc. Just people who have lost all faith in law enforcement and don't want to be the defenseless victims of thugs, particularly now that weapons are readily available courtesy of Libyan and Sinai smugglers, and more importantly, the famous January 28 2011 police station raids.

Ironically enough, many of those much-feared thugs also shop in Suk al-Salaah too. So the future victim and criminal rub shoulders while calmly arming themselves against each other.

"Is your girl buying or not?" an exasperated Awad asked Reda, purposefully ignoring my presence and interrupting our conversation. "I am not his girl," I corrected him. Awad already knew that, but was presumably trying to get to buy something, anything.

Having had no real intentions of buying weapons, I simply pretended to be unimpressed by all of them. At one point, I half-jokingly complained about the lack of color variety.

I felt somewhat safe in doing so, because both my gender and looking the way I do (i.e. not looking poor), gave the few people I spoke to, the impression that I am easily fooled bag of money that would cough up double the desired amount. So long as I paid Reda his promised LE200 for his time and implied that I was going to be back later to buy; I was safe.

Meanwhile, the gun market for the upper class is booming too. The only difference is that the gun you would get for LE3000 in Suk al-Salaah is sold for continously-increasing prices, which can easily reach up to LE20,000, in an air-conditioned store in Heliopolis or in the vaulted corner of a fancy gas station, like the one in the beginning of the Ismailia road. Also, they have color variety.

Other than getting a chic shade of gold, the only advantage to buying these guns is that one would be forced to first get a license. However, Reda argues, that the ubiquity of weapons and indifference/incompetence of the police force makes getting a license, which is a hassle in and of itself that drives many to Suk al-Salaah, is hardly a necessity, yet alone an advantage.

While knowledge of the growing illegal, and legal, markets of weapons is as common as the weapons themselves, the market continues to fly under the radar of both the police and the media.

That being said, here is one of the few reports about illegal weapons. It's an interview with a smuggler and a weapons dealer, who is preparing for his Masters in International Law, and sometimes buys weapons by entering the name of the gun he wants into Google to look for someone who has it. Once found, he would add that person on Facebook to discuss the details of their transactions (those who send late replies or ask for too money are mercilessly poked to deactivation, I imagine). He likes to have a three-year-old kid fire the guns.

Tuareg-Islamist alliance collapses in northern Mali

DSC_1514 Kidal, Mali.

Above, houses from the Kidal region of northern Mali, where as you might tell good governance has not been part of the picture for a while. Paul Mutter sends in the latest on what's happening in the Sahel as international involvement increases.

Le Monde estimates that over 200,000 Malians have fled to neighboring countries in the wake of the ongoing "Tuareg rebellion," while at least 150,000 more have become international displaced persons. It is by now though, a misnomer to call this conflict a "Tuareg rebellion," as the MNLA, the Tuareg organization originally fighting to establish an autonomous homeland in northern Mali, has been driven from the cities it captured from the government. The government was driven from the north months before, and so the initiative is now in hands of the militias proclaiming Islamist goals.

Despite their superior armaments, MNLA fighters have now been driven from Gao which they had declared to be the capital of their autonomous state of "Azawad." Reporter Peter Tinti interviewed residents of Gao following the MNLA's departure from the city, offering insight into the Islamists' success:

The Islamists' "acceptance" seems to be less a matter of sincerity on the part of the "liberated" residents of Gao for "Les Mujadadin" than it is a hope that the past weeks of looting and arbitrary violence against civilians will subside. Neither the MNLA nor the Malian Army found themselves to be very popular as occupiers in the past few months because of their actions.

Indeed, success in Gao for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) - an organization involved in bombings, smuggling and kidnappings in Algeria - and Ansar al-Dine, founded by the Tuareg Islamist and former MNLA commander Iyad Ag Ghali, did not just come militarily. It also came through through the fact that the Islamists accurately read street protests over the murder of a local official and their escalation against the MNLA occupation and Tuareg separatism in general. France24 reports that MUJWA and Ansar al-Dine quickly took up places alongside the demonstrators A spokesman for Ansar al-Dine claims that the Islamists, who do count Tuaregs among their numbers, "only" moved against the MNLA in order to prevent them from further brutalizing the city's residents.

Tuaregs are now reportedly vacating northern Mali in fear of further reprisals from all parties, while MUJWA is apparently trying to win over Mali's Songhai minority. At the same, all of the Islamist militias have reportedly begun imposing their versions of Sharia law in the towns they hold: a family interviewed by Phil Paoletta reports public floggings and other harsh measures have been instituted in Timbuktu, while throughout the north, armed gangs are descending upon Sufi shrines to tear them down.

Unpopular as these actions are proving to be, an even greater dearth of popular support bedeviled the MNLA since the onset of the fighting that saw Mali's US-trained armed forces retreating before separatist Tuaregs kitted out with stolen Libyan weaponry. It was no coincidence that these columns bore the arms of the Jamahiriya - the late Colonel was a patron of Tuareg separatism in Mali in the 1980s and 1990s, when severe droughts and resentment towards Bamako's policies sparked revolts. Representatives of Tuareg tribes eventually reached a ceasefire with the government in 1998, though clashes continued to occur on and off since then and disappointment with the central government - in both the north and among the military - has festered through that time. The returning mercenaries from Libya provided the means for the conflict to be reignited.

But as the shock of its assault wore out over Mali's geographic space and ethnic divisions, the Tuareg's position deteriorated (they account for no more than a fifth of Mali's total population, and many have since moved to the cities). The MNLA has been hurting for manpower and finances. Additionally, the several-thousand strong MNLA did not represent all Tuaregs. Splits within the movement among participating Tuareg tribes, such as the Kel Adagh, had weakened the separatists before the falling out with Ansar al-Dine occurred in Timbuktu.

The conflict's regional implications are still being calculated. Mauritania and Algeria are deploying more border units, and Mali's West African neighbors have proposed direct military intervention. Parliamentarians and protestors in Bamako are demanding that the army - still chastened from its losses and self-defeating coup against President Touré in the spring - take more proactive measures to regain government control over the north.

Finally, there is the matter of assessing how possible next steps in this conflict - further Islamist offensives, outside military intervention from ECOWAS, refugee movements, a government offensive - might affect a Sahelian food insecurity crisis warned of by aid organizations for this year. Oxfam warned in June that "[l]ow rainfall and water levels, poor harvests and lack of pasture, high food prices and a drop in remittances from migrants are all causing serious problems .... National food reserves are dangerously low, while prices of some key cereals have dramatically increased: prices of corn in the Sahel are 60-85% higher than last five year average prices." Water access issues in the north are being exacerbated by conflict-related disruptions. And between 70,000 and 100,000 refugees have gone to [Mauritania], where "700,000 people (over one-quarter of the population) in Mauritania are [already] estimated to be vulnerable to food insecurity." The World Food Program and other NGOs remain optimistic that international donors and the region's governments can remediate most of these problems, including in Mali, where Oxfam plans to provide food aid to around 350,000 people.

Update: For more information on Ansar al-Dine's Iyag Ag Ghaly, AFP's Serge Daniel has a profile of the Tuareg Islamist leader up at Slateafrique.com.

Qatar: Where's the trust?

QATAR National Day

Jenifer Fenton sent in this dispatch from Doha, looking at the results of a recent survey and asking wider questions about the future of migration and expat communities in the Gulf.

Qataris have little trust in Western expatriates, was the headline many in Qatar took away from newly published research.

On a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 representing no trust and 10 complete trust, Qataris gave Western expatriates a 3.6, the lowest trust rating of any group excluding migrant laborers. Qataris trust other nationals (rating of 8); and Arab expatriates to a lesser degree (6.1), according to the report From Fareej To Metropolis.

“What Qataris have expressed is not different from what other people have expressed in other countries... We tend to trust and like people who are like us regardless of who we are,” said Darwish Al Emadi, Director of the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University which published the report. “British trust British people more than they trust non-British.”

However, white-collar respondents displayed high trust in Qataris (7.4). Migrant workers did as well.

Al Emadi’s research also found that "The more you interact with people, the more you trust them."

Segregated Ghetto

But in Qatar there is the limited interaction between the country’s population groups, which includes nationals, white-collar workers mainly from the Arab and Western worlds, and laborers from South and Southeast Asia. The three groups live in parallel worlds divided by invisible barriers.

“Although we all live in the same community we are living in ghettos, social ghettos,” Al Emadi said. “The interaction between Qataris and all types of expats, even the Arab expats, is really just related to the work place. We hardly ever interact at the house level.”

The lack of interactions between nationals and white-collar workers seems more acute in Doha than in Dubai or Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates because the segregation of housing is perhaps more pronounced. Neighborhoods in Qatar “largely define and structure social interaction,” according to the report.

The wealthier tier of expatriates lives in employer-provided or employer-supported housing likely to be villas and apartments. “Qataris tend to live in neighborhoods with detached high-fenced housing in predominately Qatari neighborhoods where extended family members tend to live.” This is their desire. About 97 percent of Qataris preferred having other Qataris as neighbors; less than one percent indicated a preference for low-paid migrant workers in their neighborhoods. Laborers live in migrant camps mainly located outside of the city center. Late last year Qatar banned labor accommodations in residential areas.

UAE Zayed University anthropologist Jane Bristol-Rhys agreed that Qatar’s neighborhoods are more segregated than many in the Emirates, but she objected to assumptions that these invisible boundaries are put there purposefully in either country.

“These places are melting pots. There are over 200 nationalities in the Emirates in addition to Emiratis. Are people going to tend to socialize in groups where they work? Yes. But Interaction is not necessarily limited to nationality groups,” according to Bristol-Rhys, who has spent almost a decade interviewing foreign workers and Emiratis about the issue.

Limited Social Arenas

There are limited, although growing, areas for social interaction outside of work. Majlis, a social meeting usually sex-segregated, is the main leisure activity of Qataris, according to the SESRI report. Unsurprisingly expatriates do not report majlis in the list of preferred social activities. Rather they are involved in schools, charities, clubs and sports.

The segregation between the sexes restricts inter-mingling. During a meal at a Qataris home, the men and women would normally dine separately. This is “something you are not used to and probably something that you don’t want to do,” said Al Emadi. “We don’t want to do it your way either. At the end of the day both parties don’t like to give in on what they think is the right way of interaction. So they end up having their own separate things.”

Qatari women are also restricted in their relationships with men. It would “not be comfortable, not be acceptable,” to “hang-out” with men outside of a work or a school environment, said Muna Mohammed, a young professional Qatari woman. Her two friends agreed. The three said, however, that they have more foreign friends and acquaintances than their parents or older generations do.

Social interaction between low-paid migrant workers and other groups are near non-existent. On meager salaries, they cannot afford leisure coffees, movies or even taxi rides into town. Even if they could muster-up the money, most work very long hours with few days off a month. Bachelors are also banned from Qatar’s malls on certain days because of “family-only days” policies.

However Bristol-Rhys said it is not clear that a great number of these migrant workers, who often come from small villages, even want to socialize with other groups.

Qataris and migrant workers, who are from different countries but whose circumstances are relatively similar, are fairly homogenous group; while the third social group of “professional” workers contains many subgroups from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

Often there is limited interaction between these subgroups, between Arab and Western expatriates, according to Al Emadi. "We...tend to interact with people who are like us. Who speak our language, who behave like us, have more of our values and so on."

Bristol-Rhys is not sure she agreed that we like people who are like us and said there are other contributing factors that may increase isolation. “Some people are not good cultural travelers. Even though they may have a job working here (UAE), it may not suit their personality to want to get to know another language or culture or even to interact.”

A Minority In Their Country

Because of rapid growth and development Qatar and the other Gulf countries have a large migrant population. Some 1.8 million people live in Qatar, but only a few hundred thousand are citizens. The country has the highest global ration of migrants to citizens, according to the World Bank. The UAE ranks third. All of the Gulf countries are in the [top 30] (http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPROSPECTS/Resources/334934-1199807908806/Top10.pdf).

Twenty-five percent of respondents answered yes to “Are there too many expats in the UAE?” in a recent (unscientific) poll on The National's website (screenshot).

Debates about “too many foreigners,” “price of modernizing” and “preservation of national culture” are of course nothing new. Khalid Al Ameri, an Emirati commentator, wrote:

You can only imagine how strange it must be for people who have a hard time integrating into their own society. It would be frustrating for anyone, in his or her home country, to see the presence of indigenous culture dwindle.

It is also true that Qatar and the UAE need foreign workers to develop their countries. There are simply not enough nationals to do it. “We don’t have the knowledge, we don’t have the numbers,” Qatar University's Al Emadi said. It would be difficult to operate a single sector in the country without migrant workers. “If we wanted to run the hospital by ourselves, just Qataris, we probably could not do it. We don’t have enough nurses. We don’t have enough doctors.”

Lowly-paid migrant workers are not exclusive to the developing Gulf countries. “It seems like every country in the world has a population they don’t want to talk about that does the dirty work,” Bristol-Rhys said. There were successive waves of migrant groups to the United States who did the “crap” jobs no one else wanted to do - the Irish, the Jews and of course not forgetting enslaved blacks. “This is not uniquely a Gulf problem it just seems so just because of the sheer magnitude of it - because these (migrant) populations seriously outnumber the citizens.”

There is the argument that migrants to the U.S. and Europe can eventually become citizens of the nations in which they work, and this is something unlikely to happen in the Gulf anytime soon - if ever.

Path to citizenship?

If Qatar were to open up a greater path to citizenship, which is severely restricted and almost 100 percent hereditary, Qatari nationals feel they would become a minority with minority rights in their own country, Al Emadi said. Now Qataris are clearly the minority, but they are the ones with the greatest rights.

But migration to Gulf countries is done for different reasons than to the U.S. or Europe. “Are we beginning with the premise that all expatriates want to have Qatari or Emirati passport?,” Bristol-Rhys asked. Most people move to these countries to improve their lives at home, to put their children through schools, to buy a home or to fatten their pension funds. “Everyone who comes here knows this is not a place for immigration. This is not a place you would migrate to become a citizen."

How the north-south relationship in Yemen is changing

This piece was contributed by Bilal Ahmed, a student and activist completing his senior year at Rutgers University who has spent time in Yemen. This piece was primarily written during his stay in Tahrir Square, Egypt. As always with guest contributors, their opinions are their own.

There are flags hanging in many buildings in the southern Yemeni city of Aden. These flags, in addition to the standard Yemeni red, white, and black, contain a light blue triangle with a red star within it. They are seen everywhere, from tea shops, to private homes, to the crowds of protestors that have been marching on Aden’s streets for the past year.

These are the flags of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, colloquially known as “South Yemen.” The PDRY was an avowedly Stalinist-Marxist single-party state, though its classification as such is a matter of debate. More significant than Marxism in the history of South Yemen was the state’s mobilization of dormant nationalism among South Yemenis.

“North Yemen” extends from the Saudi Arabian border to the de facto border between North and South signed by the Ottoman and British Empires in 1905. South Yemeni nationalism is rooted in the different histories that birthed the two former states, with North Yemen initially ruled by Imamates and finally an autocratic Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) “President” in Ali Abdullah Saleh.

South Yemen has an entirely different past that must be understood in the wake of its growing geopolitical focus.

The two histories diverge in the 19th century, when British East India Company forces seized control of Aden in 1832 and established it as a coaling station for British ships traveling to and from colonial India. British holdings in South Yemen expanded beyond the city over the following decades, spurred on by a desire to reduce pirate attacks and gain a stronger strategic base for reinforcing the Suez Canal.

The British, mainly extending their administrative control through local monarchs in an approach similar to that undertaken in the Persian Gulf, finally reorganized South Yemen in 1937 as an independent crown colony.

South Yemen’s encounter with foreign imperialists is markedly different from that of North Yemen, which was mainly in conflict with its own monarchs after its 1917 independence and Egyptian-Saudi Arabian proxy war.

Although violence in North Yemen had a significant effect on events within South Yemen, an insistence of South Yemeni “modernity” would prevail over the following decades. The attitude began as a minor characteristic that would accentuate significantly during later years. However, the bleeding of serious anti-royalist action into South Yemen points to both nations being united in their hatred of the old ‘Order’ in spite of this. Escalating tensions between royalists and anti-monarchists challenged the narrative of North Yemen as broadly “traditionalist”.

South Yemenis felt emotionally connected to a North issuing many allegedly “Southern” demands, which established links of solidarity among the two colonial states. This phenomenon of prejudices being challenged by revolutionary facts would continue to define the North/South dynamic.

South Yemenis, already mobilizing against British rule due to political strife and economic stagnation, were now seen as a major threat. Fearing another serious revolt against a colonial European power, the British Empire reorganized South Yemen into a series of protectorate states known as the Federation of South Arabia on 4 April 1962. The British scheduled South Yemen’s independence for 1968, hoping that a government of allied royalists would protect its remaining interests in the region.

The plan was marked by ambivalence towards the wishes of South Yemenis, valuing notions of “stability” in the face of the broad existential chaos of “instability.” Instability was defined by parties opposed to colonial interests and allies in the Arabian Peninsula just as terrorism is rhetorically exploited in present day. South Yemenis reacted to the plan with disdain, as many correctly recognized it as an attempt to continue exploitation of the colony through independence.

Their distress was quickly mobilized into organized insurrection, culminating in the 1963 formation of anti-British military factions such as the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Frontier for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen. The speed and effectiveness of this organization was highly affected by violence in North Yemen, once again reinforcing ties between the two states. British forces responded by declaring the Aden Emergency, a period of intense violence between South Yemeni paramilitary forces and the British colonial presence with allied support within South Yemen.

The success of these initiatives were pronounced in the early withdrawal of British forces and the People’s Republic of South Yemen’s independence on 30 November 1967. The national consciousness began to revolve around using violent mechanisms to forcibly remove the exploitation of the old Order. This removal was pronounced in an assertion of South Yemeni interests through opposition to the control of sultans, emirs, and other royalist entities.

Royalists and monarchs were seen as an exploitative influence that needed to be combatted, as they prevented wider political and economic participation by South Yemenis. Marxism became a mechanism for instigating this removal just as Islamism in later decades, though in reality the eventual state was Stalinist. Marxist (Stalinist) wings of the NLF gained control of the country and renamed it the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) on 1 December 1970.

Dormant anti-royalist sentiment became attached to PDRY nationalism, with a strong sense of distinction from the renamed Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) reemerging after the 1978 election of the North Yemeni strongman Saleh. As the PDRY exported a Marxist-inspired ideology of anti-monarchism to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, cosmopolitan pedagogies became attached to Southern nationalism.

While the PDRY’s status as “Marxist” is a matter of debate, there is certainly a direct line between its revolutionary anti-monarchical stances and the current popularity of federalized democracy in South Yemen. South Yemenis, particularly in Aden, express a strong desire for their interests to be represented in the greater Yemeni state through federalized democratic structures. The influence of leftist democratic ideas during the PDRY’s lifespan certainly contributed to this phenomenon.

Interestingly, these ideologies required South Yemenis to be defined in opposition to an external force. The PDRY began to echo colonial behaviors, as its progressive behaviors needed to be seen in opposition to counterrevolutionary patterns elsewhere. Although Saudi Arabia and the predominantly monarchist GCC often filled this role, the increasingly autocratic YAR began to increasingly dominate this dynamic. The ‘civilized’ South Yemen began to be seen in opposition to the ‘uncivilized’ North Yemen, and slurs such as ‘savages’ entered the South Yemeni lexicon.

As a result, the YAR and PDRY entered their 1990 unification with significant caution on the part of South Yemenis. Although dialogue between the two states was consistent despite periods of strain, many South Yemenis were wary of a YAR that seemed oppressive and autocratic. The mood in 1990 was one of nervousness as many felt as though their interests would not be represented in the greater Yemeni state. However, the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union prevented South Yemen from being a viable entity, leaving South Yemenis no choice. The Republic of Yemen was formed on 22 May 1990.

South Yemenis immediately noted an exploitative relationship between North and South emerging in the new state. Saleh implemented counterrevolutionary policies throughout the South, particularly in agriculture. Previously nationalized land was seized and distributed to exploitative landlords and sultans. Tribalism and fundamentalism exploded as a response to this retreat of the state from public life. These groups and ideologies filled a void created by the decline of a planned economy in the South. This is mainly because Saleh, after his 1978 ascendancy to power, had precariously balanced himself on a loosely cohesive tribal state with neither central power nor infrastructure. Saleh attempted to integrate South Yemen into this dynamic, which greatly alienated the new provinces.

Fearing permanent marginalization in the new Yemeni state, South Yemenis reorganized their political structures. The 1993 Yemeni national elections reflect this divide, with South Yemen predominantly voting for Yemen Socialist Party candidates.

Tensions culminated in the the 1994 Yemeni Civil War that was marked by brutal violence as Saleh preserved his authority over the Southern states.

The war is remembered with intense bitterness in South Yemen today, as it was seen as the last chance for the Southern states to protect their sovereignty and pride in exercising core interests. South Yemenis will today argue that in the fallout of the war, Saleh intensified his ‘oppression’ of the South as a form of collective punishment. There is certainly record of many South Yemeni leaders being driven from their positions in favor of North Yemenis, and the profits of dwindling oil reserves being centralized in Saleh’s inner-circle. Animosity became rampant against the construct of North Yemenis as tribal, anachronistic, and vicious.

The independence movement was forced underground, but the aspects of distress in unmet political and economic requirements still dominated the national consciousness. Demands for renewed independence quickly became the main politicization of this distress. Increased numbers of South Yemenis supporting the initiative as the structures of Saleh’s Yemen proved inaccessible into the 2000’s.

The current Southern liberation movement began in 2007, when small protests were spearheaded by disenfranchised military officers forced into retirement. The Society of Retired Military Officers demanded reinstatement and guaranteed pensions, quickly gaining the support of lawyers, journalists, academics, and other sections of South Yemeni society. Most South Yemeni activists, in a prelude to the 2011 Yemeni Uprising, distanced themselves from violent methods and continued to advocate for peaceful social change.

South Yemeni tribes found themselves in an especially intriguing position. While many tribes traditionally strayed away from government affairs in the interest of self-autonomy, others expected to gain government services and access to its infrastructure. Saleh’s strategy of balancing himself precariously among a cocktail of allied, ambivalent, and hostile tribes failed to sufficiently address these needs. Yemeni tribes began to embrace a new strategy in the late 1990’s of using human collateral in order to goad these needs from Sana’a. Kidnappings of foreign tourists became more common, with tribes surrendering their hostages after receiving access to government services.

South Yemeni tribes were given a unique opportunity to hold collateral after policing efforts in Saudi Arabia pushed Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia into the South. Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia merged with Al-Qaida in Yemen to form the now infamous group Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). International pressure on Sana’a and domestic concerns regarding the group caused a drive to alleviate AQAP’s influence as quickly as possible.

Tribes began to associate themselves with AQAP in order to place themselves in a better bargaining position with the central government. As AQAP began to launch higher profile attacks into 2010, most notably with “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab, the label became even more effective a bargaining chip. A desperate Sana’a would increasingly acquiesce to the demands of individual tribes in order to regain their allegiances. The strategy appeared to be working, especially since a stagnated Southern liberation movement was making little success against an ‘anti-modern’ North. However, it has backfired since then as AQAP gains have been used to make Saleh’s power structure appear indispensable to international interests during the 2011 Yemeni Uprising.

The 2011 Yemeni Uprising has been crucially impacted by events in South Yemen. Saleh recognized that linking the uprising to chaos was essential in securing international support for his political base. He therefore withdrew military and policing forces from the South in order to reassign them to crackdowns in North Yemeni cities such as Sana’a, Ta’iz, and Ib. The result was that Islamist militants, rhetorically linked to AQAP, seized control of large portions of the Southern provinces.

Remaining army units, who defied orders to withdraw due to their allegiances to the South during the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, were completely overwhelmed. Ultimately, militants posted a high-profile victory in the provincial capital of Zinjibar, which permanently altered perception of the uprising. Obama Administration officials especially, who previously had trouble settling on a policy towards the revolutionary movements, pointed at Zinjibar as proof of the AQAP victories that would allegedly result from a successful Yemeni Revolution. The recent attack on the city of Lawdar has reinforced these concerns, even if realities of the assault place an Islamist takeover in doubt. As a result, the United States reacted to this narrative with attacks in South Yemen that rose significantly during the Arab Spring. The most notable case of this is the 30 September 2011 assassination of AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki, in addition to dozens of other attacks.

Saleh has successfully exploited the South in order to preserve power for himself as honorary President and his close associates in the new government of Abd-al Rab Mansur al-Hadi. These parties have successfully argued itself to be an essential part of the War on Terrorism, securing crucial international support and severely isolating ongoing revolutionary activity in Yemen. Al-Hadi’s tensions with Saleh, such as his firing of close Saleh allies in the country, do not challenge this reality.

However, the 2011 Yemeni Uprising has been a crucial argument against calls for independence. The South Yemeni national consciousness relied on a flawed mental construct of North Yemeni savagery in order to advocate for total independence. However, the willingness of North Yemeni protestors to martyr themselves for a federalized democracy in Yemen has completely challenged this narrative.

Just as anti-royalist sentiment during the North Yemeni Civil War shifted the perception of the North away from anti-modernity, pro-democratic movements are once again active in the same fashion. It is difficult for a South Yemeni to call a North Yemeni “savage” when they are challenging the same autocratic tendencies as Southern liberation movements. New bonds of solidarity are forming in spite of the bitterness that arose in the fallout of the 1994 Yemeni Civil War. These bonds present an opportunity to ease secessionist attitudes through a truly revolutionary rearrangement of Yemeni power structures and popular access to them.

Despite this, South Yemenis have proven themselves more than willing to mobilize for their interests if necessary. The main challenge facing the government of al-Hadi is whether or not it can represent these interests while quelling growing violence in the South. This requires broad reform throughout Yemeni institutions without exception to Saleh’s associates. Whether or not al-Hadi is able to implement this reform is be a crucial speculation in the coming years.

DispatchesGuestyemen
Morocco Dispatch: No faith in the system

Moroccan Traffic

This was sent in by our intrepid correspondent Abu Ray, whose wrote many dispatches from Iraq a few years back, and now lives in Morocco.

The police officer finally looked up from behind the ancient, hulking Arabic-language typewriter with which he’d been hunting and pecking out the report for what seemed like an hour.

“You know, it would have been much easier for everyone if he’d just sorted things out on the side of the road and left us out of it,” he said with exasperation to my Moroccan friend.

It was a striking admission of the total lack of faith in a system by someone charged to uphold it.

We’d been hours in the police station, answering questions, typing out reports, photocopying documents – something that took extra long because it had to be done at the little teleboutique across the street.

What I should have done, when the moped crashed into my car in a gritty slum of Casablanca as I was executing a u-turn of questionable legality with several other cars into oncoming traffic, was paid the guy off.

The driver of the little Peugeot moto, the kind that can be found careening all over the urban spaces of Morocco, wasn’t hurt, but his sister was tossed off her precarious perch on the back of the bike onto the side of the road where she howled in pain as people gathered and stared.

I stood around awkwardly with a Moroccan friend as we waited for some measure of authority to appear – resisting the urge just to peel out of there and high tail it back to the comfortable neighborhood of Rabat.

Eventually the police showed up, and then an ambulance, which took the woman away while the moped driver and I were questioned.

It was a bizarrely archaic process, with one policeman painstakingly recreating the accident scene on graph paper with a ruler and protractor, noting the locations of the cars and the direction of traffic.

What was new this time around, however, was the traffic law which specified that in any case of injury, drivers lost their licenses and I was instructed to come back to the commissariat the next day for questioning – a feat made a bit harder by the absence of my driver’s license.

Like so many other countries, Morocco is a place that seems to function largely outside of its own legal code. Trying to do anything by the book opens one up to turgid, labyrinthian bureaucracy that takes forever – and most people with even the most rudimentary shred of connections, just bypass it all – or at the very least skip to the head of the long lines.

I spent months begging one of the mobile service providers to put me on an unlimited post-paid system that would let me make all the calls I needed on a monthly bill, rather than cutting me off halfway through the week and forcing me to then add credit. For months I waited for an incredibly slow approval process, crying in frustration to thoroughly unsympathetic customer service representatives over the phone (they don’t believe in face to face contact), before giving up in disgust. The next day I went to the office of the other service provider with a Moroccan friend, who knew the people who worked there, and I had what I couldn’t get on my own for months, in a half an hour.

No one, if they can help it, does it by the book.

So instead of just paying off the poor moto driver and maybe giving his sister a lift to the hospital, I had condemned the police to the laborious job of questioning me, typing up a report, checking with the hospital, and – embarrassingly – calling the embassy to tell them I’d been in an accident.

He asked for my father’s name, mother’s name, then my father’s father’s name and finally my mother’s father and we painstakingly spelled out the unfamiliar foreign names.

There was pause while my friend went out to find a place open during lunch time to make more copies and we stared at each other in the bare, empty office. “Do you do any sports,” he asked. “It’s okay, it’s not for the report, I’m just curious.”

In the end, the man’s sister was fine and released from the hospital the same day, but the police officer still had to type up his report.

“We work 12-14 hours a day, did you know that?” he complained. “It should be us out there demonstrating on Feb. 20.”

It was the one year anniversary of the incredible social explosion in Morocco in which tens of thousands had hit the streets for months calling for an end to business as usual.

And end to a king whose unelected advisors dictate state policy and control half the economy, an end to the pervasive corruption, an end to elections that bring a meaningless rotation of familiar faces, an end to social inequalities that beggar the imagination, an end to an economy that only seems to grow for some and leave millions without jobs.

It’s not that Morocco never had demonstrations before, they just never had everyone on the same page, in the same street at the same time.

Those demonstrations are done for now, as the movement has found out that you can’t keep marching through the streets and chanting slogans forever without coming up with a second act. They’ve also been a victim of a clever power structure that knew when it was time to concede some reforms.

There will be some big ones for the anniversary Sunday, probably, but for now it seems that this phase is over and they have been replaced with smaller, angrier clashes between fed up youths in provincial cities and riot police – a bit reminiscent of neighboring Algeria’s inchoate popular rage.

The year of protests did mean that the elections were the fairest in years and a opposition Islamist party came to power – allowed into power, many would say, as a spooked palace went for the one party that hadn’t been coopted to give the system back some shred of legitimacy.

The main pillar of their platform echoes that of the protesters, taking on corruption and the new justice minister once fought the hopeless task of defending terrorist suspects in the country’s hopelessly rigged courts.

The question remains though if they can really tackle the true sources of corruption which many place close to the untouchable monarch.

Perhaps the new traffic law, with its stiff penalties to deter reckless driving, was their idea, but so far, aside from costing me a day, it appears to have done little to curb traffic patterns that remain blissfully unaware of any kind of rules.

It seems especially doubtful when the people charged with enforcing it prefer the old ways themselves.

Dispatch from Qatar: Pigeons 36, Falcons 0

Photo by Shaji Thottathil

Joseph Hammond sent in this dispatch from Qatar.

This past weekend Qatari falconers and falconry fans gathered for the start of the 3rd Qatar International Falcon and Hunting Festival and event which will see some 1300 birds and their owners compete before it concludes on February 2nd. The festival will also include dog racing, target shooting demonstrations and a “Junior Falconer” competition all held under the patronage of Shiekh Joaan bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Prizes include new luxury landcrusiers for the winners.

Journalists which made the hour drive near the Saudi border, where the event was held, had to wait on the roadside for off-road transport to the desert location of the event. A Qatari organizer arrived in his land cruiser. The driver tossed a dead pigeon from the backseat before journalists climbed in. As the press was taxied to the event, the owner’s prized falcon road “shotgun” next to him.

Early Bird Special

Despite this hiccup, the organization ran smoothly. Following the Friday prayer a large buffet of traditional Arab cuisine was served to falcon owners, foreign fans, security guards and the TV crew for the event in a large tent.

But, chicken kebabs proved to be the only birds being eaten on the first day of the festival. The 36 falcons in the first round of the competition failed to catch a single pigeon. Each pigeon (chosen by lottery) was given a small head-start before a falcon was released in pursuit. But, not one of the 36 Falcons released during the event recorded a kill due to strong winds. The first day of the event was designed as a qualification round for rookie falcons.

Some two hundred spectators sitting upon golden King Louis-Farouk chairs, shaded by a canopy watched the action through expensive binoculars. For a while others watched on two large deathtron Jumbotron TV screens. At first the two hundred or so fans were engrossed in the action. Gradually the crowds lost interest as it became clear high winds were preventing the falcons from making kills. Soon the atmosphere was more festive than sporting.

Some in attendance commented that pigeons were a poor replacement for hubara, quail hunted by falconers around the globe. One of the organizers, Mohammed Saad Al-Romeh had returned early from a hunt in the deserts of Algeria to attend to the festival. Though happy with his expedition he conceded that hunting quail in Algeria was less than optimal "The best places to hunt are in Iraq and Iran" he explained.

Millennium Falcons

The festivals participants believe that falconry is an important expression of Qatari culture and a link to thousands of years of tradition. However, Qatari women seem to have a different take on the event. Some believe falconry has become an expensive hobby and an obsession. Entry level birds can be purchases for 10,000 dollars while an elite bird can cost as much as 150,000 dollars.

Reem, a young Qatari woman asked to comment on the day of the event shared her thoughts: “My brother is obsessed with his falcon.” She explains that he often stares at it for hours and takes it to the veterinarian over phantom concerns about its wings. Indeed falcons must be trained everyday to form a partnership between the falcon and falconer. Despite this bond, tracking numbers are attached to the leg of every falcon to help locate strays. As Reem explains falcons sometimes have flight plans of their own: “Sometimes my brother’s bird gets away and when this happens we have received calls from the UAE, ‘Dude we found your bird, come pick it up'. ”

Indeed the UAE has hosted a rival Falcon event of its own which also bills itself as the largest falconry event in the world. However, the Qatari organizers believe bird-for-bird the Qatar International Falcon and Hunting Festival is the king of the wings.

Qatar’s Impromptu Alcohol Ban

The Pearl

Jenifer Fenton reports from Qatar.

There is no flambé at Les Deux Magots, a high-end French restaurant on The Pearl, a mixed development man-made island in Qatar, which hopes to “redefine an entire nation” according to its sales pitch.

The sale of alcohol (and use even for cooking) has been banned on The Pearl (where I live) since mid-December, but a month later businesses have still not received formal notification of the reason for the prohibition or when and if it would end, according to interviews with more than a dozen people affected at various establishments. Rumors about the reason for the ban after so many years of tolerance for alcohol sale and consumption in five-star hotels and facilities have spread, ranging from the Qatari leadership’s desire to project a more religious image (Qatar’s attempt to stress its Wahhabi heritage while differentiating it from Saudi Arabia has been the topic of State Dept. cables past) to concerns about upcoming elections and a financial dispute between the government and resort developers.

Business is down about 80 percent at Les Deux Magots, according to the restaurant’s executive chef, Charbel Chaloubi. Chaloubi said the only consolation was the situation is the same for the restaurant’s main competitor Pampano, where only four people were dining one recent afternoon. Maze, Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant, where alcohol can account for 30 to 40 percent of patrons’ bills is also short of customers, according to assistant manager Deepthi Bandara.

The ban on alcohol sales on The Pearl highlights a tension the country is facing as it tries to build itself up as a regional destination, one that welcomes foreign investment, but maintains its cultural identity. Qatari nationals account for just a fraction of the total population.

Alcohol had previously been tolerated but severely restricted in the country. Major hotels, which were not hit with a ban, are allowed to sell alcohol to non-Muslims. Foreign nationals can also get a permit to purchase alcohol for private consumption.

Yet, according to Hassan Al Sayed, a prominent Qatari legal expert, there is not a single law in Qatar that allows for the sale of alcohol. However, there are several laws that criminalize it. Even “if there is any decision coming for example from the Emir or any department here (legalizing alcohol)… no in fact, this is not okay and this is against the law,” says Al Sayed, who was the dean of the College of Law at Qatar University and is now a professor of constitutional law.

Drinking and selling alcohol are not only against the law, but also against Qatar’s constitution, Al Sayed insists. He argues further that alcohol sales in the country, including at hotels and by Qatari companies such as Qatar Airways, have to stop or Qatar has to change its constitution, notably Article 1, which states “Islam is the State’s religion and the Islamic Sharia is the main source of its legislations.”

But if you change the constitution, then Qatar loses a part of its Islamic identity. (Not all laws have to adhere strictly to Islamic laws, Al Sayed said, but Muslims scholars and legal experts agree that alcohol is forbidden in Islam.)

Creating a “free zone” or arguing that The Pearl is an exception because it is reclaimed land cannot skirt the law or the country’s constitution, Al Sayed says. That could present a problem for Qatar when it hosts the World Cup 2022, when it is planned that drinking will be allowed in designated fan zones.

Hassan Al Ibrahim, a Qatari commentator, said he thinks that most Qataris support the ban but without knowing why the ban was put into effect. Rumors have suggested that Qataris were seen drinking on The Pearl, that a weekly party that went too far or that the ban stems from a change in management at the development company — but it is difficult to assess the larger policy picture. Al Ibrahim added that Qatar has always tried to be tolerant and project a more accepting image than the one currently being reflected by the decision to ban alcohol sales on The Pearl.

Even if the decision is soon reversed, the last thing investors needed was a surprise, which the ban was, they said. The future of the restaurant business on the island is in doubt. The “Pearl is a destination and Pearl has nothing apart from the alcohol for encouraging the people to dine (at) The Pearl restaurants,” said a business executive involved in discussions with United Development Company, the developer that is building The Pearl.

Plans for a two Michelin star restaurant, a club and a steakhouse have been put on hold until the issue of alcohol sales is clarified, according to an executive who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. The restaurants were given no other incentive besides selling alcohol to open on the island, which is less populated and frequented than other neighborhoods in Doha. “We got nothing, nothing at all, but we paid everything up-front… no discount was given to us. Nothing,” the executive said.

Restaurant executives do believe the ban will be lifted and the country will not declare itself “dry”, but with Qatar now focused on the matter, it will be interesting to see how — and with what explanation — the country resolves the affair.

The Pearl developer UDC did not respond to a query about the ban. But two days after this post was initially written, UDC’s managing director abruptly resigned — a move that could be related to both the alcohol ban and alleged financial disputes between UDC and the government.

Citizen M.

The following account, by activist and artist Aalam Wassef, details a meeting with prisoner of conscience Maikel Nabil, who was sentenced to two years in jail by a military tribunal on 14 December 2011 for "insulting the military." It is reproduced here with permission and was originally published on Facebook.

This is an account of my encounter on December 31st with Egyptian blogger and activist Maikel Nabil, arrested by the Supreme Council of Armed forces for opinions he posted on his blog. Maikel is now serving a two years sentence and is enduring inhuman conditions of detention. Since his arrest Maikel has refused to recognize the Military Prosecutor’s ability to judge him. Military trials for civilians have swept the Egyptian revolution with no less than 12,000 arrests since January 28th 2011.

El Marg Prison, 8.40 am. Waiting for Mark, Maikel Nabil's younger brother. Mark arrives carrying three heavy bags containing juices, milk, books, hundreds of sympathy messages, newspapers… An ornamented award certificate reads Istanbul, AHRLY, To Maikel Nabil for his firm commitment to freedom. I read again and stop at the word firm.

As we pass the prison’s porch, we’re immediately identified as Maikel people. Walky talkies start buzzing. Harrassment starts, routine bullying and unwritten administrative measures that Mark denounces vocally, one after the other, fearless.

Our bags and ourselves are searched and scanned, papers are confiscated. We board the traditional yellow wagon-bus that will take us to the visitor's hall. Right and left, all we can see are fields and animals. At the end of this unexpected green road, stands a white, blind, imposing wall, topped with barbed wire and, in the middle of all that whiteness, a small black door.

We watch officers banging at the door, going in, going out, at mothers, sisters and children waiting to be let in.

We wait as well. We give our IDs to Mrs Sabah. Mark knows everybody by their first names. I suddenly remember that he’s been coming here for 9 months and that, each time, he goes through the same bullying, and harassment. We wait ten more minutes and are let into the visitor's hall. Visits end at 12 and it's already 10.30. We wait, surrounded by informants who aren't really hiding from us. Mark asks the warden why Maikel hasn't come yet. Maikel's cell is 40 meters away and all other prisoners have come to their visitors. It's 11.

Maikel finally appears, carrying a plastic chair on which prisoners sit, maybe to be easily identified. I don't know. He comes to us. He can barely carry the light chair he finally puts down. I measure his exhaustion. It's the first time I ever meet him in person. Maikel is tall, pale, underweight, hunched, loosing his hair. His brother and I sit on the cold stone benches. Maikel brings his knees together and slips his hands in between to keep them warm. He's shaking cold. He says hello but is eager to start talking and working his way out of hell.

Mark says he has to leave in 30 minutes to sit for an exam. Time is tight. Maikel takes control of the conversation. I'm struck by the weakness of his body compared to the strength of his mind.

Mark fills him in with the latest news regarding the mobilization and march that was held for him on December 29th 2011. We see a shine in Maikel's tired eyes. Mark shows to his brother some photographs of the march, of the military violence footage youngsters projected on the walls of the Supreme Court of Justice, of this unforgettable charismatic woman wearing a niqab, carrying his picture all through out the march. We tell him about the UN Watch statement signed by 30 Human Rights organizations, about articles pouring in the international press, about Alaa Abdel Fattah who saluted him on ONTV, about students, mothers, fathers, friends, public figures and Egyptian activists who joined the march in solidarity. I give him a glimpse of Ahdaf Soueif marching in Tahrir, Lobna Darwish, Salma Said, Sultan Al Qassemi embracing his brother, Hossam el-Hamalawy and Omar Robert Hamilton filming and taking snapshots, of the thousands of friendly posts in social networks, of Mona el Tahawy tweeting and retweeting at all times of day and night, of this amazing woman who, out the blue, sent us her entire press contact list… I tell him about Tamim Al Barghouti's stance about him and the many unhappy reactions he received.

Maikel addresses me for the first time. I like Tamim's poetry. Sometimes, he snaps.

Mark and I try to convince Maikel to end his strike. We tell him how much mentalities, awareness and commitment have changed. He tells us how much he's in pain. Kidney pain. Maikel adresses me again, privately. I want to tell you something. For nine months, from prison, to hospital, to torture, to prison, I was let down by almost everybody. Opinions are opinions, human rights are human rights, military trials are military trials.

I ask him again to end his hunger strike. Maikel looks at the bags and asks. What did you bring, Mark? Mark responds. Maikel looks at us again. You have to take me away from here. Submit a request today to the General Prosecutor for my immediate transfer to Torah Prison. It's rotten here, people are rotten, cells are rotten, water is rotten, sewage water floods in my cell everyday, I can't bathe. He looks at me and points with his chin at an informant almost glued to me, and at another one sitting in our back. Maikel interrupts the conversation. How are you Abu Alaa! How are you Abu Hemed! Both informants turn around. Their faces break into a corrupt cringe of a smile.

Maikel resumes. I would like Alaa Abdel Fattah to come and visit me. Tell him he might be able to come on January 7th. And Mona Seif from No Military Trials. Tell them I would like to see them. I tell him about a post by Mona Seif saluting him and Mark for their struggle and resilience. The more we speak to Maikel about support, sympathy and commitment, the more I see him sitting straighter and straighter.

Maikel looks at the bag filled with books and pulls them out one by one, quietly. Sitting there, half dead on a plastic chair in El Marg Prison, he looks at each book, with patience and care. You can take that one back, I’ve read it already.

Aalam Wassef Cairo, January 6th 2011

Sarah Carr on the election trail

I am delighted to offer this guest post by the wonderful Sarah Carr, who blogs at Inanities.

I am a journalist, so my fate for the past two days was to drag myself between schools in Cairo looking at people, a bit like a paedophile.

We started out in Shubra, where long queues of people patiently stood in muddied streets waiting to attack the ballot box. It became clear early on who was dominating the whole affair. Outside virtually every polling station stood a small group of men with laptops providing information (voter number, which polling station they should go to) to confused voters. A useful service, but one whose legality is clouded by the fact that they information they provided was written on slips of paper bearing the insignia of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Even in Christian-majority Shubra liberal and leftist parties were strikingly absent, leaving last-minute rallying outside polling stations to the FJP and their confreres in Islam the Nour party. The same pattern was repeated in Sayeda Zeinaba, Ain Shams and Abdeen.

This was the FJP’s moment, and they knew it. Their members were positively buoyant. It reminded me of first-time winners at Wimbledon who go on about how all the sacrifice and hardship was worth it for this moment. Outside one polling station in Sayeda Zeinab, former stomping ground of the peanut-eating People’s Assembly speaker, Fathy Sorour, two smiling men, one of them holding a camera descended on me and another journalist.

We had just emerged from the polling station, and the man not holding a camera enquired as to whether we had noticed any irregularities inside. I embarked on a long description of how one FJP member had stood at the door of one room and controlled access to the room, guiding voters to the correct polling station room. I suggested that while this is a useful service, it is one better carried out by a government employee. For good measure I added that most of the violations I had seen over the two days were carried out by the FJP (but then what other parties were visible to commit violations). I stopped and asked the man who he was.

“A member of the FJP,” he said, grinning.

He listened to the accusations in good humour and then launched into a strange defence of the FJP’s motivations in these elections. I pointed out that ultimately they are in it to win it, and the man responded with a detailed description of how yesterday an FJP member had assisted a traffic cop in guiding snarled traffic outside the polling station. “It’s not all about politics!” he insisted.

My friend Sherif “Sharshar” Azer agrees. He described the election as “moulid el sandooq”, “the ballot box moulid”, a spirit reflected in the festive and self-congratulationary tone of radio coverage (not only can Egyptians queue for democracy in an orderly fashion, they can do so in rain-soaked streets!) and one report I heard that SCAF had wheeled out a military band to entertain voters while they waited. On state TV last night a correspondent, overcome with emotion, burst into tears as ballot boxes were being sealed prompting an unplanned return to an uncomfortable-looking studio anchor.

This isn’t sour grapes talking (I’m a boycotter) but the elections were, as usual, fucking boring to cover.

Sharshar, who works in an NGO, was initially enthusiastic about telling leaflet-distributing candidates that they were in breach of the law (campaigning must stop 48 hours before the vote) but soon flagged when we realised that everyone was at it, at every polling station. Also, it’s difficult to make your voice heard when a man with a huge microphone erected on a car is calling on voters to elect such an such a candidate in between snatches of an Om Kalsoum disco remix.

In fact the only events of note and excitement on both days was firstly, when Sharshar’s hub cap was half ripped off in a minor brush with a taxi and, secondly, when we saw three youths on the back of a mini pick up truck stacked with huge speakers playing rousing Shaaby pop music as one of the youths again encouraged people to vote for Fulan El-Fulany.

Shagga3 el democratateya” (“Support democratety”) a weary Sharshar mocked.

ASIDE: I also had an interesting insight into the Egyptian education system in one polling station on the second day of elections.

It being a slow day the bored judge overseeing voting allowed us to lurk about at the entrance to the school room where civil servants sat amongst half filled ballot boxes imbibing refreshments and twiddling thumbs. I read the posters on the walls and saw a handwritten one reading thusly, in English:

Circle the longest words in the following paragraph.

The butcher was cutting meat when he saw the lion. While he was sitting in the café. The photographer was drinking tea.

The subliminal association of lions with photographers might explain several facets of the treatment of the press during the Mubarak regime and beyond.

The voters I spoke to voted either FJP, Nour or Wafd. Some were not voting at all, like a man in Shubra who said that you have to know “candidates’ CVs” in order to be able to vote and all he knows about them is what they look like, “not like the old days when you knew everyone” he said, somewhat wistfully.

A journalist colleague said that she voted for the list, but not the individual candidate because she was confronted with 136 names and didn’t know any of them.

Another woman I know, Samia, said that she and her daughter deliberately ruined their vote for the same reason, and that they only voted to avoid the possibility of being fined LE 500. Samia seemed disgusted by the imposters who stared out at her from the voting paper, one of whom she described as a stocky-looking woman called “Om Mohamed”.

“Who are all these people?? I have no idea who they are,” she said despairingly, adding that a polling station employee had watched her daughter ruin her vote (by drawing a big X through it) and praised her.

What does religion have to do with voting in Egypt?

Dalia Malek send this dispatch from London on the experience of registering to, one day, be able to vote in Egypt's elections.

After months of protests at Egyptian embassies around the world, SCAF announced that Egyptians abroad would have the right to vote. However, at least in the United Kingdom this has been more challenging than it would seem.

A delegation went to the Egyptian consulate in London between 18 and 22 November to issue Egyptian IDs, while online registration for voting closed on 19 November. This overlap of dates appears intentional, but in fact, no one with an Egyptian ID issued after 27 September 2011 could register to vote.

Egyptian IDs and the “new” versions of the Egyptian birth certificates and passports have a serial number (raqam qawmi) that is identified with a citizen’s records, and this is not present on the “old” birth certificate or the “old” passport. Religion is also not written on the passport. Although both of my parents are Egyptian and I have had the old version of the Egyptian birth certificate since I was born, and the old passport since 2007 (valid until 2014), I have chosen not to request an Egyptian ID until now because of the privacy issues.

While it may not be immediately apparent for those who have habitually had their religion written on official government documents like the Egyptian ID for most of their lives, voting for Egyptians is inherently the laying down of the right to privacy. For those who practice or identify with religions other than the three recognized religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism —- or no religion, it is also the laying down of the right to freedom of religion.

An Egyptian passport and/or birth certificate is not considered enough proof of citizenship to vote: and an Egyptian ID is required. Dual-national Egyptians like me who are asking an ID for the first time will have to prioritize their rights before deciding whether to keep religion out of public government documents or to vote in the upcoming elections. While I have the option to make a nuisance of myself regarding my opposition of this practice at the consulate or the Mogamma because I have dual citizenship to fall back on, for those who do not have that option this is also an issue of citizenship rights. Religious minorities like Baha’is have been embroiled in lawsuits over the issue of religion on the Egyptian ID for years, while others have simply said they are Muslim to save themselves the trouble. While many Egyptians do not see the harm in having what is normally an aspect of their public lives written on government-issued documents, for these reasons it is still a form of repression.

When I went to the consulate in London to issue an ID, I said that I did not want a religion stated on my ID. I was shuffled between three or four members of staff who wanted to know my reasons for not wanting to declare a religion on the application form. One asked plainly, “Are you Baha’i?” I was also told that if I wanted to convert, I needed to provide documentary evidence from the mosque, church or synagogue in which I had converted. It seemed that the ideas of renunciation of religion and the concept of privacy, or simply declining to state a religion, were being conflated conceptually.

Since I had already paid a non-refundable fee of £55 for the application form, I submitted it with a vertical line through the field that asked for a religion. Interestingly, on the old birth certificate, it does not say what religion I am, but rather the religion of both of my parents. It is implied that the religion is inherited from the parents, and at some point, their religion has been attached to my own records. Just before visiting Egypt in October, I had someone issue a new version of the birth certificate for me and sure enough, on a separate line it says that I belong to the religion of my parents, in addition to stating their religion. Just to be sure, when I tried entering the raqam qawmi on the new birth certificate into the online voter registration form, it gave an error message that said that my information was not in the system.

I was told at the consulate in London that even if I were to strike through the “religion” field on the application form, or even write a different religion than that of my parents, when it reached Cairo for processing, my ID would still have the religion of my parents on it. Changing religions is a separate process that needs to be done before issuing an ID, and declining to state one at all is not an option. At the consulate I was told that if I wanted to do this, I would have to make a case before a court in Egypt. It was also suggested to me to put down the name of a contact in Egypt to chase after my application before it is processed to see what will happen with the religion category on the ID. Although I was given a lot of conflicting information from different staff members, I was also told that processing should take a month.

The voting process for those who successfully registered has also been confusing. Deadlines have been extended with little notice, and sometimes this has been announced by emails that only a few people have received. For example in the US, the Elections Committee in Egypt sent a circular to consulates announcing an extension of the deadline to have votes mailed to Washington, D.C. In Texas, for a deadline of 25 November, the consulate did not receive this circular until Friday 25 November at 17:30, and the consulate distributed the email at 19:25 that day.

Qatar, the GCC, and the Arab Uprisings

The Arab League’s deadline for Syria to stop the “bloody repression” has passed, paving the way for stronger action after the League’s surprisingly hardline stance towards the Assad regime. Jenifer Fenton looks at what is motivating the GCC states, most notably the one taking the lead in the new regional diplomacy, Qatar. 

Qatar, with its progressive foreign policy, is publicly driving the Gulf’s response to Syria and carving out a role for itself as a country that can quickly adapt to the sweeping changes resulting from the Arab spring, but the regional weight it carries and its motives are more nuanced. 

The six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council  - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates - and the majority of Arab League member states agreed that there was a limit to the violence unleashed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad it could tolerate.  The United Nations puts the death toll since the unrest began at well over 3,500 people. Last week, the Arab League decided to suspend Syria’s participation and to impose political and economic sanctions against the Syrian government.  

The decision approved by 18 members, Lebanon and Yemen objected and Iraq abstained, was “a difficult one,” the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani said  .

Bilateral trade between Syria, whose GDP is $60 billion, and the Arab countries amounts to roughly $8 billion, according to Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center.  But 40 percent of Syria’s non-oil trade is with Iraq so Iraq’s abstention is significant, he said. 

The Arab League decision was overdue. “It was the right one,” said Khalid Al-Dakhil, professor of political sociology at King Saud University. “They needed to not allow Syria to use the Arab cover to continue with its brutal crackdown on the Syrian people and the Syrian regime has to know that this must stop.”

The Arab body had to show they are decisive, that they do not just bark but bite also, according to Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University. But there is “no doubt in my mind… what is driving all this is the GCC, especially Qatar, especially the UAE. Saudi Arabia… are giving all the green lights Qatar needs at this moment. In essence, as I see it, Qatar is just speaking for Saudi Arabia which is usually a timid player. They don’t want to be in the front so Qatar is having all the backing from Riyadh.”

It is clear that visionary Qatar and the old order of Saudi Arabia do not always see eye-to-eye  (for years they had uneasy relations), but if Saudi Arabia actively challenged a Qatari foreign policy decision - which recently it does not appear to have done - it seems unlikely that Qatar would not heed Saudi Arabia’s wishes.

In late January, while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was still in power, Saudi Arabia defended the status quo and strongly condemned the protests. “No Arab and Muslim human being can bear that some infiltrators… have infiltrated Egypt, to destabilize its security and stability and they have been exploited to spew out their hatred in destruction, intimidation, burning, looting and inciting a malicious sedition,” Saudi King Abdullah said at the time, according to the Saudi Press Agency. Tunisia’s deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took refuge in the Kingdom as well. 

Compare Saudi’s actions to Qatar, which was the first Arab country to recognize the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya and it contributed planes to assist the Nato-led operation. 

While the GCC nations may not agree on aspects of foreign policy “at least there is minimum coordination,” Al-Dakhil said.  “I think there is a misperception about the Saudi position regarding Egypt or any of the Arab revolutions,” he added. “Basically Saudi Arabia is not different from the rest of the Arab states. They don’t like the idea of revolution, but at the same time they are pragmatic enough… They are willing to get along with what the Egyptian people want in Egypt. I mean if they want to make a revolution… that is their country, that is their right.” That sentiment Al-Dakhil believes is also the Saudi position with respect to Tunisia and Libya. 

Saudi Arabia is willing to accept the changes, but they are less willing to accept the unknown - so the Kingdom is taking a wait-and-see policy, while Qatar is getting out ahead. But by allowing Qatar to be the public face of the Gulf leadership, Saudi Arabia is also spared the negative repercussions and close scrutiny that publicity brings. 

However, Qatar’s grand vision is unclear. “Qatar is dancing on all floors to be able not miss the boat and make sure that they keep their link open to everybody whether they are Islamist, or liberal or conservative,” Sager said. It is also hard to reconcile Qatar’s physical size, it is smaller than Connecticut, and small national population, some 300,000 people, with such ambitious regional and international interests. A lot of people are questioning if Qatar is acting to a degree on behalf of an international agenda: with the United States with whom it is very close, or Iran with whom it shares economic interest, or Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries, Sager said.  It is certain though Qatar is “filling a gap also because other regional powers are not acting, they’re not moving for their own reasons.” Iran, Sager believes, wants to keep their link with Syria, but not necessarily al-Assad. Qatar also does not want to upset Iran because they know Iran has spheres of influence with other Arab countries, he added. So it is difficult to asses the Syria-Qatar-Iran dynamics with certainty.  

In Libya, Qatar even went ahead of the UAE. The Emirates, before contributing military power to Libya, wanted first to get Western assurances that the GGC’s deployment of troops in Bahrain would not be characterized by the West as a step in the wrong direction, according to retired UAE Maj. Gen. Khaled Abdullah Al-Buainnan whom I spoke to earlier this year. Qatar did not wait for that scaling back of Western condemnation. 

With respect to Bahrain, the GCC has been accused of a double standard - supporting the government against  an opposition that has legitimate grievances. Consistency is not a very common aspect of foreign policy, Rami Khouri, director of Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs said.  “The Saudis will act differently, the Qataris will act differently in Bahrain then they might in Libya…Foreign Policy is not an ethics based process, it is an interests based process,” he said.

Khouri agreed there is greater Gulf activism, which includes the dynamism of Qatar and the UAE, but thinks there are several different currents at work. “The Saudis are against these revolutions, they don’t like them. They don’t like populist revolutions,” Khouri said. What the Qataris are doing is hard to tell, perhaps the state is just giving into reality, he added. What is interesting is that popular opinion in the Arab world is now driving the response of the Arab governments, including the Gulf, and the Arab League realized that it was on the verge of being irrelevant, Khouri added. Some aspects of the Arab League’s work is starting to reflect a semblance of Arab opinion and the major world powers are not playing a major role, and in a weird way they are kind of following the lead of the Arab League, he added.  

However, public opinion in the Gulf is a bit of a mystery. But each leader in the region that falls acts an unnerving reminder to powers in the Gulf that their rule is not unquestionable. Right now it is about Syria, but “the winds of changes are banging on everyone’s door,” Abdullah said.  

Of Tunisia and Egypt

We were in Tunisia for nearly a week and it was impossible for me not to spend a lot of my time there making comparisons with Egypt. 

It would be hard to find two more different countries than small, Francophone, organized, serious Tunisia and boisterous and chaotic Egypt, a cultural and intellectual hub of Arabism with a population eight times larger. 

But the comparison between the two countries in the Arab world who, through peaceful demonstrations, overthrew their dictators, in nonetheless unavoidable. And, sadly, much to Egypt’s detriment. 

One thing that was so moving in Tunisia was the sense of what dramatic and unhoped-for reversals have taken place there -- what true flips in power. Dissidents who had been completely marginalized and persecuted are now in government. 

Of course there is powerful resistance. The judicial process has yet to hold the former regime accountable for its staggering corruption and its human rights abuses. The informers and policemen who once terrorized the country are still there. But they are cowed. They didn’t want the election to succeed -- but they were seemingly powerless to sabotage it. 

And people went to the polls -- after months of planning and of public awareness campaigns -- in joyful but very serious-minded way, convinced that the votes they cast mattered, and that they should matter; that they were exercising a duty and a right. They owned their election. Small infractions and irregularities were met with indignation. 

After having seen what an election that the state is truly supportive of and wants to succeed looks like,  I can’t help thinking that the Egyptian election is being orchestrated to fail. Egyptians head to the polls in a month with the police unreformed and in near-open rebellion; with fundamentalist emboldened and violence against Coptic voters a distinct possibility; with former NDP members running and openly challenging the state to prevent them; with the rules themselves intricate, confusing and announced at the last minute; with the government refusing to allow international election monitors; and with the general public resigned to violence and chaos. And this electoral process (taking place in rounds, for both the lower and upper house) will last six months

Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces continues its slide from just plain undemocratic to positively anti-democratic. While I was in Tunisia, I checked Egyptian news once, to read that two April 6 activists have been referred to military courts (the ones that Field Marshall Tantawi announced would be suspended a few weeks ago) for putting up election graffiti. Yousri Fouda, an OnTV presenter whose show has been a beacon of reasonableness and courage, has gone off the air, reportedly due to military censorship. An army spokesman, meanwhile, has helpfully explained that calling for an end to military trials is itself illegal. 

The disastrous way in which the Egyptian elections are being conducted is not just a matter of mismanagement (although there is plenty of that too) -- it is a matter of making democracy as dangerous and confusing as possible. It a purposeful politics of chaos. 

In Tunisia democratic and opposition forces from across the political spectrum managed to form a consensus about what the transition process should be -- and even now, after competitive and at times acrimonious campaigning, that consensus largely holds. 

Here in Egypt, everyone is competing -- from the Muslim Brotherhood to the liberal and progressive parties -- in the hopes of securing some influence over the transition period. But the new parliament will have little power as long as SCAF rules the country. I fear that they will simply be legitimizing election-laced autocracy.