The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Links 10 September - 13 October 2017

Another overdue link dump:

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In Translation: The Kurdish referendum and Arab Male Chauvinism

The In Translation series, in which we publish translations of commentaries from Arabic, is brought to you courtesy of our partners at the excellent Industry Arabic translation service. In this installment researcher Rasha Al Aqeedi takes to task the Iraqi newspaper Al-Nahar for its coverage of the recent referendum on independence in Kurdistan. 

Al-Nahar newspaper and Arab Male Chauvinism

Al Hurra newspaper, September 28, 2017

By Rasha Al Aqeedi

The result of Kurdistan’s referendum, in which the “yes” vote exceeded 90%, was no surprise to observers of the Kurdish issue. The Iraqi response was also expected. Feelings of suspicion, fear, and legitimate anger were mixed with Arab chauvinism and abhorrent anti-Kurdish racism – practices that are easily denied yet experienced by every Kurd carrying an Iraqi passport at least once in his life. But as with all forms of defamation, the reaction of the Baghdad-based al-Nahar newspaper summarizes not only the tragic relations of the Kurds with their partners at home, but also the depth of nationalism’s moral decline.

An image implying a young woman’s gang rape by a group of men headlined the page. The page designer intended the young woman to represent Kurdistan, and the men the neighboring countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, in a vulgar and macho display unbecoming of a newspaper bearing the logo of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate or of a society calling for moderation. The controversial Al-Nahar newspaper does not represent the Iraqi press, but its choice to use that image requires all of us to face a difficult truth: Iraqi society is still chauvinistic from top to bottom, and the “female” is still used to insult the “male.”

Rape has historically been a deliberate military strategy used to strike fear into the hearts of societies and to instill a feeling of defeat in the enemy by insulting his honor, making rape, or even the threat of rape, a form of broad-based psychological warfare last used in Iraq when thousands of Yazidi women were abused. They were humiliated and repeatedly raped by ISIS militants in the name of religion after their men were slaughtered. What would prompt al-Nahar to brandish the image of the rape of Kurdistan in the name of nationalism?

Systemic anti-Kurdish racism is the legacy of generations of Arab chauvinism, which sees other nationalities as outsiders who do not deserve first-class citizenship. In an outpouring of racial spite, derogatory discourse is immediately invoked anytime the “intruders” do not please the “masters.”  Even clerics do not hesitate to provoke rivalries overflowing with anti-Kurdish hate, as some call the Kurds “demons” and see it as their moral duty to fight them.

Interjecting women into the political debate to extort the “other” is nothing new.  Eastern society is both obsessed with, and afraid of, sex. The issue most often revolves around the honor of women: violating it where it is associated with the enemy and seeking to defend it where it is associated with oneself. As sectarianism in Iraq deepened following the fall of the former regime, Saddam loyalists and Arab sectarian groups began to call Iraqi Shias the “sons of mutaa.”  After a decade, the oldest Shia chauvinists fired back, calling Sunnis “sexual jihadists.” Both counteracted the other side’s disparagement by accusing its women of immoral and indecent behavior.

This is not the first time “free” pens in Iraq have expressed a political opinion about a region or sect by portraying the “other” as a sinful or raped woman. During the liberation of Fallujah, the hashtag #fallujah_washes_away_its_shame (الفلوجة_تغسل_عارها#)  and a caricature of a young woman returning home, with her head down as her father waits to discipline her for the “shame” she has inflicted on him, spread across Twitter.

Rejection of the referendum and Kurdish independence can be expressed in measured words, a targeted image, or constructive criticism, but invoking this superficial notion of honor, designed to threaten and intimidate, reflects only the weakness of the argument and the weakness of the individual. It is not possible to see inside the mind of the designer, but one can make some assumptions as to the angry neighbors that await an independent Kurdistan.

The implication that rape and sexual violence is somehow a legitimate form of punishment is an expression of a societal malady deeply rooted in history. All human societies have suffered from this disease, which has not been fully treated but has been contained in many cultures. The culture of the Middle East, however, is not among them.  Al-Nahar owes an apology to all Kurds, and to the countries whose names it has involuntarily attached to an offensive image. Print media is a source of reform: Iraq’s ills cannot be addressed if the media is a source of corrosion.

Life in Cairo
Graffiti in Cairo: "Imagine Tomorrow." Photo by Parastou Hassouri. 

Graffiti in Cairo: "Imagine Tomorrow." Photo by Parastou Hassouri. 

the other day i walked down the street wearing a dress but it might as well have been a sign saying hurl abuse at me but don't you dare think about stopping or before you know it there'll be a voice in your ear telling you exactly what you are to them or a hand between your legs telling you exactly what they're going to do to you so shut your mouth and open your eyes and keep fucking walking, walk past the kid at your feet who hasn't eaten in three days selling tissues under a billboard that he can't read selling mansions where kids selling tissues aren't allowed to exist, past the building that casually leaned against its neighbor and the train that tripped and fell or flew and the prison where all your friends hang out, past the battles you thought were romantic once upon a time but turned out to be just as dismal as the soon-to-be-banned pop song blaring from the radios you can't shut out as you maneuver between cars that haven't moved for the past five hours and puppetmasters that haven't moved for the past five decades, past all the posturing and mediocrity and melodrama and even faster past all the absurdity and horror and heartbreak, skirt around the mounting piles of trash/teenagers being taught lessons at police stations in lieu of functional education systems, and while you're at it, you might as well pick up a state-authored paper from a dusty stack and catch up on what's happening in an alternate universe near you but be sure to avert your eyes and what remains of your heart from the actual news you can't access on the four hundred and twenty four blocked websites about a person being tortured for asking a question or taking a photo or wearing the wrong t-shirt or having an opinion or an imagination or some really shit luck, watch your step though for that dripping air-conditioner and collapsing bridge and animal carcass and particularly that stranger who doesn't know if he's more outraged at the idea that you appear to have a vagina and an undercut or a penis and multiple earrings, but you don't have time to wait for him to figure it out, you need to pick up a useless document signed by a man making ersatz peanuts even before they floated the currency who won't give it to you for a reason he won't tell you at an institution that will ensure that you are traumatized enough to never attempt to ask for it again, but don't panic, just take a fume-filled breath and pirouette around the brain that exploded on the sidewalk because it was shot for getting too close to the truth or maybe it just combusted spontaneously when it realized that it's trapped in a body that's trapped in a place where you're not allowed to think speak move touch sleep leave hope try share eat — if you can't afford it or if you happen to be hungry when the sun's out during the holy month of ramadan — hide fight rest gather breathe feel fuck act yell be dream heal dance die with any semblance of fucking peace, a foreign word reserved for mystical people (spies and whores, naturally) in faraway lands, all of whom, you are informed about fifty times a day, are conspiring to pillage the generous resources pouring out of the orifices of your three-thousand-year-old civilization like blood from that mosquito you killed on your thigh or from that woman who wanted to place flowers on a monument on the anniversary of a day you wish with everything you have you could forget, but you can't unlive unfeel unsee any of it, not even the fifteen minutes you spent skimming the hundreds of comments vilifying some kids who waved a rainbow flag at a concert that somehow still make you seethe and sigh and sink even though you'd think at this point in your life it wouldn't hurt this badly given that you already fucking know, goddammit, that almost everyone around you is unwavering in their conviction that what is different is sick and must die, but even that doesn't hurt as badly as realizing that the handful of people who don't think that are too broken to save people who are actually sick from dying, and so be prepared to spend a relatively alarming portion of your youth at burials where you're pointedly told not to grieve out loud because crying is of no help to the dead. praying, however, is encouraged at all times.

Habiba Effat (@HabibaEffat) is a copyeditor and an occasional writer with independent Egyptian journalism platform Mada Masr.

The Editorscairo, effat
Events in Tunisia

The Tunisian government passed two pieces of legislation last week. One, the infamous economic reconciliation law (which has been championed by President Essebsi since he took office), is designed to protect businessmen and former regime figures from prosecution for corruption. For more on corruption in Tunisia and the tug-of-war between the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (whose now undermined mandate includes corruption) and the government, you can read my report in The Nation from Tunisia last Spring.

The Tunisian government also announced it will be the first Arab country to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslims. This is excellent news, but the timing fo the announcement seems deeply cynical, designed to draw attention away from the much more complicated issue of corruption, and to use the state's feminist credentials as a form of international propaganda (something Tunisia has a long history of doing.)

Links 26 August - 9 September 2017
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Links 19-25 August 2017
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In Translation: Sisi's war on the Egyptian constitution

Rather predictably – as predictable as his bid for the presidency was after he led the 2013 coup – Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has been in recent months airing trial balloons on amending the 2013 constitution (supposed to be, in theory at least, a consensual text that brings together a variety of political factions, even it excluded the Muslim Brotherhood and others) to allow himself to become, like his predecessors, a president for life. Cue the protests from his defenders that these are ill-advised initiatives by his over-eager fans; but of course even if Sisi may not be as daring as pushing for such changes now, he is certain to do so after he wins what was supposed to be his second and last term in the 2018 presidential elections. You can expect him to reluctantly answer the popular cry for him to serve his country, sacrificing himself (he had been looking forward to quiet retirement, etc.) as countless other dictators have done so before him, from Sisi's friend Vladimir Putin to his arch-enemy Recep Tayyep Erdogan.  

Arguably, Egyptian constitutional principles have been eroded to such an extent under Sisi that this is simply making official a de facto state of affairs. The symbolism of the formal change, however, is serious, as could be legal repercussions that further enshrine today's state of emergency into the constitution. It would further push the regime's opponents – not all cuddly revolutionary types, to be sure – into a zero-sum logic and amplify the rationale that all hope is lost. Putting term limits on the presidency was, after all, one of the few political gains made among the generally meager returns of the Egyptian uprising. It offers, even from today's bleak prospects, the possibility of an eventual change in leadership that might prevent the ossification of the regime (see Algeria today, Egypt under Mubarak, etc.) This is why even mild-mannered critics of the current Egyptian regime who supported the 2013 coup and Sisi's presidential bid are aghast at this turn of events. The piece below, penned by the founder of the Social Democratic Party, is a case in point.

Thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for making this feature possible. Please check them out if you need your documents translated into Arabic, they do a great job with a quick turnaround.

Amending the Constitution Is a Novel Egyptian Disaster

Mohammed Abou al-Ghar, al-Masri al-Youm, 21 August 2017

We have heard the voices of regime mouthpieces – who have personally benefited from the current regime in the form of high-level positions and other privileges – calling for the constitution to be amended. The reason? To extend the president’s term, possibly indefinitely. I would like to remind you that since 1952, none of Egypt’s previous presidents have voluntarily left office. Mohammed Naguib was deposed in a coup, Abdel Nasser died after 18 years in power, Sadat was assassinated after 11 years in office, Mubarak was overthrown by revolution after 29 years of rule, and Morsi was deposed by the people and the army after just a one year. So why would Sisi enter this vicious cycle? Is there some logic in his thinking?

Some say that under dictatorial rule, every president carries out unconstitutional and illegal measures, such that if he ever leaves office, he and his cronies would face trial and retribution. Therefore, in such systems, the president only leaves by force or in death.

The regime’s henchmen are the beneficiaries of this spectacle. They are the ones who adorn any president who undermines the constitution. Then they demand that he remain in office for life, not out of love for him, but out of love for themselves and their positions. Now, are there legal or popular challenges and problems to amending the constitution?

  1. Lawmakers must remember what happened in the days of Mubarak when parliament tried to make controversial amendments to the constitution. That was after all one of the reasons for the end of Mubarak’s rule. They must, no doubt, be cautious. Indeed, the skill, experience and intelligence of Fathi Sorour, the distinguished university professor and the brilliant lawyer, has no equal in the current parliamentary leadership.
  2. The world has completely changed in the 21st century. It is true that terrorism in the Middle East has given the Egyptian regime broad freedom to act with US, European, Gulf, and Israeli support, but these things do not last forever. Moreover, such support bears a high cost that is now being paid for by Egypt’s freedom to make its own decision. The time will come when the president will no longer be able to pay that price; the support will dry up, and with massive foreign and domestic debts, the situation will be an impossible one unless Egypt can maintain political cohesion and keep its people satisfied. The amendments will cause a new rift that will transform Tiran and Sanafir into a profound gulf, with the people on one side and the President on the other.
  3. Extending the president’s first term is legally impossible both in form and substance. The term is a legally binding contract between two parties – the people elected Sisi for 4 years, no more, no less. That cannot be changed with a law or a referendum or anything else, and any attempts at a referendum would be crazy.
  4. The constitution contains an article that clearly states that it is not permissible to change the articles pertaining to election of the president. The wisdom behind that article is well-established, because all of Egypt’s former presidents wanted to rule for life. Any change to this article would have the intention of keeping the president in office indefinitely. Egyptians want to see the day where a former president ends his term and leaves office: they want to experience rotation of power.
  5. Any planned constitutional amendments that have received approval to appear on a constitutional referendum must first present a referendum to abolish the constitution, as this article cannot be amended. Abolishing the Constitution would also mean abolishing the legitimacy of June 30, the very basis on which the current president was elected. Then we would write a new constitution to the current leadership’s liking before presenting it for referendum once again. Are you ready for two referendums in such a short time, followed by presidential elections, just to consolidate the president’s stay in office?
  6. Is the Egyptian regime capable of holding an honest referendum that gives everyone in the media the chance to speak their mind and then follow that up with presidential elections with the same level of transparency? Of course not. The media is almost completely nationalized and will not allow any competitor the opportunity to express his opinion or explain his point of view; it would just as soon assassinate him as let an opposition voice speak freely.
  7. The regime believes itself to be quite strong, and in fact it is quite strong with considerable foreign aid, but there are severe internal weaknesses, including terrorism and the serious erosion of the economy caused by misguided policies and an unwillingness to listen to any other point of view, and due to the imprisonment of thousands, the shredding of the constitution and the law, chaos, and corruption. In such circumstances, we must reach an understanding with the people and agree upon a future policy in order to overcome our terrible problems, and not by drafting dangerous constitutional amendments that paralyze the country and put us in the middle of yet another mess.
  8. Finally, I do not believe that this was [Speaker of Parliament Ali] Abdel Aal’s idea or that of his colleagues because when one of them brought it up not too long ago, he was told to shut up and be silent. Please be careful, Egypt has 21 million angry young men with no permanent or regular work.

Please think a little and wait until next time, there is no need to be so reckless. Leave well enough alone!

Rise up, Egyptian! Egypt always calls on you!

Links 11 July - 18 August 2017

Most of these are from last week, as we slowly gear up after holidays...

LinksThe Editors
On feminism in Tunisia

I visited Tunis last month and one thing I was interested in finding out more about was what kind of discussions Tunisian feminists are having in the aftermath of the Ben Ali regime -- and of the detailed and horrifying revelations of human rights abuses against women (particularly Islamist women) that took place in this most "feminist" of Arab countries, one that does have the most progressive legislation on women's rights in the region. I find the questions raised by state feminism and the divide between secular and Islamic feminists fascinating. I wrote about it for Al Fanar

Meanwhile, independent female activists who criticized the regime faced harassment and vilification. And, as has been revealed by recent testimony collected by the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission, women associated with the Islamist movement were subjected to shocking abuse, including rape, torture in detention and forced divorce.

“Was the Tunisian regime ‘feminist’ out of political necessity and to mask a democratic deficit…or out of modernist conviction? Does it even deserve to be called feminist?” writes Bessis. “What’s certain is that the regime was masterful in its ability to use women.”

It was also successful in dividing women. Under Ben Ali, says Mahmoud, Islamist and secularist women “might as well have existed in two different universes.” Secularist leftist women “were engaged in a political struggle with Islamists” and “did not do much to document or help Islamist women with what they were going through.”

“The dictatorship broke relations between women,” Abdellatif told me.

Links 17 June - 10 July 2017

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On the protest movement in Morocco's Rif

The protest movement (known as Hirak Shaabi or hirak for short) that has been going on in Morocco's northern mountainous Rif region for the last eight months was met with a police crackdown over the Eid holiday. In response for calls to protest in the town of Al Hoceima, police blocked roads between Al Hoceima and other towns and imposed what one observers called a "de-facto daytime curfew." Videos filmed by activists circulated online showing larger crowds marching on side streets, and being chased and beaten by riot police. You can see a number of such videos and photos embedded in this coverage by the local independent site Le Desk.

I've written a few things on this lately. For Al Fanar last week, I wrote about the reaction of Moroccan social scientists, who say the Rif region remains misunderstood and that the divisive coverage of the protests and the heavy-handed response of the authorities have missed an opportunity for a serious debate about unequal development among other topics. 

For the New York Times Sunday Review, I wrote about what has sparked the protests -- going back to the death of a local fish-seller last Fall, and then much further, to the Rif's long history of revolt and violence. The historian Paul Vermeren calls the Rif’s history “a succession of tragedies.”

One could also say that it all started at least a century ago. In the 1920s, Abdelkrim el-Khattabi led the tribes of the Rif in an insurrection against Spain, establishing an independent territory. After the Spanish and the French -- Morocco's two colonizers -- launched a brutal attack on the region, bombing, gassing and burning villages to the ground, Khattabi was defeated and ended his days in exile in Cairo.

In the late 1950s, after Morocco's independence, the region rose up again. Then Prince Hassan II, future king and father of Mohammed VI, led a bloody military crackdown. He held a lifelong grudge against the region, calling its inhabitants "savages" in a televised speech and withholding public investment in services and infrastructure for four decades.

Mohammed VI reversed that policy. He initiated huge infrastructure projects -- a container port in Tangier, a high-speed train -- in the north of the country. Many other projects and investments have been promised or are underway. But so far the benefits have largely failed to reach the locals, even as they have raised their expectations.

“a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic”

Eric Hobsbawn, writing about leadership in the LRB, in 1991:

A rapid glance at the history of the USA also suggests scepticism about the impact of individual leaders. That great country has, by general consent, probably elected to its Presidency – the post of chief executive and (as we have been reminded recently) commander-in-chief – a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic. It has indeed evolved a political system that makes it almost impossible to elect to the Presidency persons of visible ability and distinction, except by accident and, just possibly, at moments of national crisis. More than this, in the USA Presidents have quite frequently had to be replaced at short notice, whether because of assassination or malfeasance or for other reasons, by Vice-Presidents, who have usually been chosen for every reason other than their leadership potential. And yet the great US ship of state has sailed on as though it made very little difference that the man on the bridge was Andrew Johnson and not Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and not McKinley, Mrs Wilson and not Woodrow Wilson, Truman and not Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and not Kennedy, Ford and not Nixon, or even that there was nobody in the White House at all – as under Reagan.

Sisi's "non-regime"

Already over a year ago Hisham Hellyer has described Sisi's Egypt as a "non-regime". Ashraf Sherif uses the same term in this POMED interview [PDF], describing an increasingly dire situation:

You have written that al-Sisi’s regime is a “non-regime.” What do you mean?

Under Mubarak, the state was corrupt and vastly inefficient, but it was more predictable. It had a coherent decision-making process and some degree of order to its public policies.

By contrast, the system over which al-Sisi presides is too chaotic to qualify as a modern authoritarian regime. It is a complicated structure of competing patrimonial, self-centered, and oligarchic Mafia-type institutions that act more like the gated fiefdoms of the Mamluk age than modern state bodies. Their incompetence and inefficiency is matched only by the viciousness of their conspiracy-mongering discourse.

Sherif doesn't hold back on other political actors, from Islamists to leftists and liberals, either. And the conclusion is bleak. Worth reading.

Is the State Dept. losing patience with KSA/UAE over Qatar?

There was a statement yesterday by the spokesperson of the State Department, Heather Nauert, whose language and tone seemed to be shifting blame/responsibility for the continuing Qatar crisis on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. See the video below at 01:00.

Transcript here:

Since the embargo was first enforced on June the fifth, the Secretary has had more than twenty phone calls and meetings with Gulf and other regional and international actors. The interactions have included three phone calls and two in-person meetings with the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, three phone calls with the Foreign Minister of Qatar, and three calls with the Qatari Emir. Numerous other calls have taken place with the leaders of UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and others.

**Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf States have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

At this point we are left with one simple question: were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long, simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?**

The Secretary is determined to remain engaged as we monitor the situation. He has been delivering the same message to other diplomats overseas. We are encouraging all sides to deescalate tensions and engage in constructive dialogue.

We once again call on all parties to focus on the core, regional and international goal of fighting terrorism, to meet the commitments that were made in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and to constructively resolve this dispute.

Links 1-16 June 2017

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