In 2010, I co-wrote an article in which we questioned whether we were on the verge of an Arab renaissance. We never imagined how time will prove us so right…. and so fast! In fact, at the time, we were mocked and derided by friends and foes alike. People literally thought we were on something. But somehow, we got a slight whiff of that extraordinary spirit that was spreading, imperceptibly and well below any radar, in that much fabled Arab street.
If someone were to have a heart attack in Gaza, the ambulances might not come. Due to the current fuel crisis in Gaza, one third of the ambulances have completely run out of fuel—the other two-thirds are relying solely on the fuel in their tanks.
Over the past year, Gazans have routinely smuggled fuel in from Egypt through underground tunnels that run between the two countries. These tunnels have long served as an economic lifeline for Gaza, importing black-market goods that would be otherwise banned due Israel’s blockade on Gaza—a blockade that bans the import of “anything that could be construed as a weapon.” On this list is everything ranging from pipes—making repairing factories and sewage treatment plants difficult, fertilizer—which makes farming and food production difficult, and of course, diesel and petrol.
“Americans don’t care about foreign policy.” It’s a truism that has shaped presidential campaign rhetoric for both the Democrats and Republicans this year. It is also why, we are told, international news often gets sidelined in favor of the latest socialite news involving, say, Kim Kardashian. And if international policy news isn’t great for the news industry, then it probably doesn’t produce votes either. The result is that we are saturated with 24 hour news coverage – and lots of political rhetoric – that reinforces the truism that Americans just don’t care.
Yesterday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to recognize Palestine as an independent state. The vote follows PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ wildly popular September bid for UN membership and state recognition. The vote undermines US stalling tactics to keep the issue from coming to a vote in the UN Security Council. In response, the US withdrew the $80 million it had committed to UNESCO for this fiscal year.
Like the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the one in Syria, the product of decades of fierce repression, was sparked by more immediate acts of defiance. As political analyst Emma Sky was told that “the problems in Syria began initially in Dera’a where some school children wrote on the wall the revolutionary chant heard on the streets of Tunis and Cairo: “as-shaab yurid isqaat al-nizaam” (the people want to change the regime). The local security official, detained the children, and had their finger-nails pulled out. This horrified people. The government did not respond in the right way. And protests began to increase across the country.”
Before this, the Bashar Asad presidency enjoyed relative popularity, especially among the youth of Syria. People had a tendency to associate corruption in the country with the repressive army apparatus, giving Asad the benefit of the doubt as a reformer. This, combined with the difficulty of uniting a population as diverse as Syria’s and the threat of violence against protesters meant that the government did not anticipate a substantial uprising. Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Syria, points out that “people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt…I think that in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if [protests] would happen, the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”
But the torture of children was a bit of a breaking point, one that brought people to the streets in greater numbers than people would have imagined, and opposition has only grown in the past four months. Protesters swelled to their highest number yet on July 30, the day before Ramadan, in the strategically important city of Hama. In 1982, about 20,000 people—many of them civilians, women and small children—were killed in Hama to crush an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is still the largest mass slaughter in modern Middle Eastern history. Political scientist Ora Szekely tells me that this “makes it a powerful symbolic choice for a crackdown, and also a potent symbol of resistance.”
Governments throughout the Middle East are responding to pro-democracy protests with brutal crackdowns. Even in Egypt, so recently the site of so much public euphoria and jubilation, the military transition government has been slow to initiate agreed upon reforms and continues to arrest and punish protesters. Meanwhile, U.S. military involvement in Yemen and Libya has increased the public’s disdain for the U.S. government, as has the revelation of the U.S.’s ramped up military investment in Bahrain in 2010. It is increasingly clear that the Western narrative of an “Arab Spring” is too simplistic to responsibly capture events on the ground. Here is a round-up of some of the latest developments:
Syria: Syria tops the headlines today, and not because the so-called “gay girl blogger” allegedly abducted in Syria turns out to be turns out to be the work of a 40 year-old, male U.S. citizen enrolled in a graduate program at Edinburgh University. In fact, the most pressing news is that the government of Syria today deployed military troops to subdue protesters in Jisr al-Shughur. Just as 120 defecting troops were killed last week for refusing to fire on protesters, at least two more died today.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports that a major refugee crisis is brewing, as at least 5,051 Syrians have fled across the border with Turkey to seek asylum. And human rights organizations claim that upwards of 1,300 people have been killed by Syrian security forces in the past three months. And the government is not allowing the International Committee for the Red Cross access, so it is impossible to guess the number of wounded. The US, France and Britain are calling for a UN resolution to enforce tougher economic sanctions, but Russia and China are reluctant to agree. No parties are pushing military action against the government at this time.
On 18 May 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to to publicly encourage a Palestinian/Israeli accord based on the 1967 borders. Not only that, but he did so in the context of a speech about freedom and self-determination throughout the Middle East before a largely unsympathetic audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the notoriously hawkish pro-Israel lobbying organization in the United States. His words were measured, even conservative, but it is worth revisiting them here:
…a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
It was a surprising speech, one that Obama may never have given if not for the death of Osama bin Laden and the resulting uptick in his approval ratings. Perhaps he learned in the first two years that political capital is a terrible thing to waste. Whatever the reason for his time, this was a speech with great symbolic import. A U.S. president mired in racialized conspiracy theories about his own origins and his own beliefs at home is not the most likely candidate to offer criticisms of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And he’s certainly not likely to do it before an audience at AIPAC, through a televised address. The speech means something, and it’s important to consider both what it does and does not do.
Once Mubarak’s regime fell, and the celebrations in Tahrir Square subsided as Egyptians began to use Twitter to organize city cleanings rather than overthrow their dictator, the inevitable question of the hour became, “who is going to be next? Will the governments of the Middle East fall like dominos, one after another?”
Tunisia and Egypt have shown us that what was once inconceivable is now inevitable. However, many people have not acknowledged that Tunisia and Egypt coincidentally have remarkably similar populations. Both populations are overwhelmingly young, connected to the Internet, and most importantly united to overthrow the dictator that has presided over their country their entire lifetime. Their shared economic conditions and technological savvy fueled and expedited their respective revolutions. Many of the other Arab states lack this serendipitous national unity, making their hopeful future democratic transitions more challenging.
“People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people” – V for Vendetta
It has only been two weeks since the Arab world, quite literally in some instances, caught on fire. Less than one month ago, former Tunisian despot Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with the uncontested iron fist of a twenty-three long dictatorship, perpetuating an administration of human rights violations, media censorship, and corrupt economic policy. As long as his people were silent, his reign remained absolute and unquestioned
Then Mohammad Bouazizi lit himself on fire, igniting a revolution that changed everything.
On Monday January 23rd, Al-Jazeera leaked over 1,600 confidential documents from behind the closed doors of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. These documents consist of everything from meeting records of international leaders, notes, and verbatim transcripts to renderings of land swap maps drawn up by the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit (NSU).
It is the biggest and most controversial “leak” in the history of the Middle East Conflict, revealing an astonishing gap between the private and publicized positions of Palestinian leaders. The Papers leaked everything from the shocking to the inane, including the secret annexation of East Jerusalem to Israel and Condaleezza Rice’s legitimate suggestion that Palestinian refugees be re-settled in Chile or Argentina.