New Age Islam Edit Bureau
11 May 2016
Gaza: An Open-Air Prison
By Osam A Al Sharif
Why Has Tehran Chosen The Houthis As Allies?
By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Do Beirut Elections Mark Birth Of New Arab Citizens?
By Rami G Khouri
Tunisia Needs More Than ‘Fifteen Minutes Of Fame’
By Chris Doyle
Donald Trump And The Seduction Of Ignorance
By Diana Moukalled
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
Gaza: An Open-Air Prison
By Osam A Al Sharif
11 May 2016
It has been almost two years since Israel waged another war on Gaza; one that remains the centre of controversy until today even within Israeli security and military circles.
The 50-day aggression in the sweltering summer of 2014 against one of the most heavily populated enclaves on the globe resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 Palestinians, the majority women and children, and the maiming of thousands. Entire neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble as Israel unleashed its unmatched firepower from land, air and sea. Operation Protective Edge, as it was called by Israel, continued unabated for seven weeks mainly to serve the political goals of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish Cabinet allies.
But while the world has forgotten about Gaza the fact remains that Israel’s war continues through other means. A strict economic blockade is sapping life out of the besieged Strip and if it continues experts believe it will turn it into an uninhabitable territory in a matter of few years. Since July 2014 Gaza’s only electricity plant has been partly operational with daily power outage disrupting sewage treatment stations and drinking water supplies and resulting in an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.
Some 30 percent of Gazans have been denied regular water supply and raw sewage is being dumped into the sea rendering the Strip’s coastline as the most polluted in the world. The noiseless suffering of the people of Gaza has not stopped since the end of the Israeli military operation. Last week three toddlers from one family at Al Shati refugee camp succumbed as their house caught fire caused by candles lit in their room. It was a stark reminder of the daily misery of Gazans who try to cope with horrific living conditions. Meanwhile world attention has shifted elsewhere and the anguish of Gaza is being ignored.
Gaza’s economy has all but collapsed. The blockade means that little if any agriculture produce is allowed to pass through. Unemployment rate is believed to have crossed the 50 percent mark, and last year a World Bank report concluded that Israeli blockades, war and poor governance have left 43 percent of people out of work. And according to Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, no raw materials have entered Gaza since June 2007, forcing 90 percent of enterprises to cease operation. This has meant that 80 percent of Gaza households now live below the poverty line and 80 percent of all Gazan families would literally starve without food aid from international agencies.
And since 2014 little has been done by the international community to end the Israeli siege, deliver reconstruction aid and revive the economy. Israel has resisted all attempts to end its blockade and it is unfortunate that it has used the growing rift between Hamas, which has been in control of the Strip since 2007, and the Palestinian Authority (PA), to continue its economic strangulation of Gaza.
Needless to say Hamas’ leadership bears its fair share of blame in prolonging the suffering of Gazans. Fearing that it will lose its grip over the affairs of the Strip, Hamas has found excuses not to implement a reconciliation agreement with the PA. That agreement would have led to the forming of a national unity government that would have taken control of border crossings. Moreover, it would have paved the way for the holding of overdue presidential and legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, putting an end to years of political deadlock.
Isolated from the rest of the world Hamas continues its saber-rattling in relation to Israel, giving Netanyahu the justification he needs to tighten the siege at no cost to him. But the situation in Gaza cannot go on for long with the threat of a humanitarian catastrophe looming close. Gaza is the biggest concentration camp in the world today and with economic and environmental disasters threatening its existence the current situation has become untenable.
But for things to change various Palestinian factions will have to address the deep rift that has scuttled efforts to reach unity. Hamas cannot pin the blame entirely on President Mahmoud Abbas and others. It must realize that it cannot hold on to power in Gaza without a hefty price. By the same token the PA should not politicize the suffering of the people of Gaza and use it as a card to pressure Hamas. The two must find unity, end the fracture and direct the blame toward the true culprit, which is Israel.
Why Has Tehran Chosen The Houthis As Allies?
By Abdulrahman al-Rashed
10 May 2016
Iran’s goals have nothing to do with Shiism, Islam, or opposition to Israel and the West. These are temporary slogans that serve a bigger aim of regional domination. Iran did not choose the Houthis in Yemen as their allies because they hail from the Zaidi sect, or because they claim to be descendants of the prophet. It did so for geopolitical reasons, particularly because they reside in Saada province bordering Saudi Arabia.
In Yemen, there are Zaidi tribes that are larger and far more significant than the Houthis. There are more prominent families that also claim to be descendants of the prophet, such as the Hamid ad-Din family, which ruled the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen and whose governance lasted until the 1960s. However, Iran found in the Houthis a means to threaten Saudi Arabia.
Tehran has been actively cultivating and organizing the Houthis since the late 1990s, and convinced their leader Hussein al-Houthi that the imamate lies with his family and that their governance of Yemen must be religiously imposed on the people by divine right. By adopting these beliefs, this small marginal group upset traditional Yemeni society, angered Zaidi scholars who accused the group of infidelity, and clashed with Sunni Shaafa’is in Saada.
Iran continued to welcome Houthi youths and enrol them in religious classes to teach them an ideology based on absolute obedience to Iran’s supreme leader. It also generously funded the Houthis for a decade and a half. First they clashed with the regime of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, then they attacked Saudi Arabia in 2009 under the same Iranian slogans. At the time, Riyadh spoke of their suspicious ties with Tehran, but many refused to believe it.
Iran found in the Houthis a means to threaten Saudi Arabia
There are many similarities between two models invented by Iran: Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Tehran got involved with the Shiite sect in Lebanon and marginalized almost all its traditional and regional leaders, replacing them with anonymous figures such as Hassan Nasrallah, who announced his full obedience to Iran.
Tehran rewarded him with the tools required to control Lebanon. It funded and trained his militia, funded a social category in support of him, and eliminated all those who disagree with Hezbollah’s orientations. Houthi, like Nasrallah, became a leader by supporting Tehran. Like Nasrallah, he exploits his claim to be a descendent of the prophet to justify an imamate and launch religious wars.
It may seem like my statements contradict what I wrote at the start of this article that politics must not be read from a sectarian or ethnic perspective. However, Iran uses each party according to what they have in common. (he doesn’t say what the commonalities are in the following examples, which is important because he says they prove that he isn’t contradicting himself).
It has used the Sunni Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as well as some Sunni powers in north Lebanon. It is common to see Sunnis, Arab Christians, nationalists and communists as guests at occasions that serve Iranian propaganda, such as Jerusalem Day in Tehran or events in southern Beirut while Nasrallah delivers speeches. Some of them have recently admitted that they were late in realizing Iran’s intentions.
Within this realistic analysis of Iran’s policy, we can note how it is involved in the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Tehran supports the Christian Armenians against the Shiite Azeris. Domestically, it suppresses the Ahwazi Arabs who are mostly Shiite.
However, in Iraq it is exploiting the sectarian card by supporting Shiite political parties because it hopes they will help it achieve one of its most important political projects: dominate decision-making in Baghdad and indirectly seize Iraq, which is rich in resources and regionally and internationally significant.
Iran is behind marginalizing Iraq’s army as it has encouraged and supported the establishment of militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Tehran does not trust Iraq’s army because it consists of various sects and ethnicities. Iran also supports the current chaos that aims to weaken the rule of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. It is doing so with the help of Iraqi figures such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It had been difficult to convince a large segment of Arabs of Iran’s crimes until the genocide began in Syria. Tehran’s involvement in the war ruined its plans and its image among most Arabs and Muslims. It has embarrassed its Sunni allies such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Arab leftists and others. Iran’s support for the Houthis has also put it in confrontation with most Yemenis.
Do Beirut Elections Mark Birth Of New Arab Citizens?
By Rami G Khouri
10 May 2016
If change is ever to come to stagnant Arab political systems that have long lumbered beneath the control of sectarian and other entrenched forces, historians may look back on the Beirut municipal elections held Sunday as a turning point.
When the voting took place, one main question caught people’s attention: Would the upstart Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City) list of candidates comprising young activists and professionals gain any meaningful support from voters, in the face of their challenge to the establishment-heavy “Beirutis” candidates of Sunnis, Shia and Christians led by Saad Hariri?
There was little doubt that the Hariri camp would win, which they did, given their overwhelming advantage in critical areas.
These included funds, control of national media outlets, the support of all the main sectarian groups in the country, and Lebanese voters’ tradition of blindly supporting their sectarian leaders, rather than electing candidates who reflected their own policy concerns or wishes.
The preliminary results indicate that the Hariri-linked “Beirutis” won just over half the votes cast, thus taking all 24 municipal council seats.
The unexpected shock was the strong support of voters for the Beirut Madinati list of 24 evenly divided Christian-Muslim and male-female candidates, including one with a physical disability.
They received around 42-43 percent of the vote, won one of the three electoral districts outright, and secured some 32,000 votes compared with the Beirutis’ 47,000.
Another new list of progressive candidates, Citizens in a State, led by former minister Cherbel Nahas, also secured several thousand votes.
Though the Hariri-led candidates will run city hall for the coming six years, these election results are meaningful in Lebanon, and perhaps beyond it, because they reflect historic changes taking place in three linked arenas: citizen-state ties; the conduct of electoral politics; and the mobilisation of social discontent and its channelling into organised political action for change.
The final result was delayed because more than 600 reported voting irregularities forced a recount of all ballot boxes at the central electoral headquarters in Beirut’s seafront Biel district.
This was one of the important signs of challenge and change that resulted from the new tactics used by Beirut Madinati and others who challenged the status quo.
Hundreds of volunteers monitored all stages of the voting process and reported infractions, posting them on social media outlets in real time.
The elections excited many Beirutis in part because all other forms of political action in the country seemed blocked: The presidency has been vacant for two years; the parliament has extended its own term and rarely meets; and the council of ministers meets irregularly and only deals with issues where a consensus is available, which means big sticker items get delayed.
The unexpectedly strong showing by the technocratic and social activist challengers is a powerful message that politics may be changing in ways that were never experienced in Arab countries before
The combination of deteriorating basic services – uncollected rubbish, worsening electricity cuts, increasingly saline water, brittle public transport – recently reached such a serious state that activists and young professionals decided to try a different approach to improving government performance than last summer’s ultimately ineffective street demonstrations.
A significant new element quickly visible in Beirut’s election discussion was Beirut Madinati’s 10-point policy programme that focused on practical family needs, such as transport, water, rubbish, natural heritage, housing, public and green spaces, community services, and other such daily life needs.
“We wanted to politicise the city council where things happen that directly impact on citizens’ lives, because this could be a way to achieve the change in their daily life that they want,” one young Beirut Madinati activist said in an interview during the voting Sunday.
A Grassroots Change?
The fact that the challengers secured more than 40 percent of the vote indicated to most analysts in Lebanon that a growing number of Lebanese were seeking ways to express their anger with the stagnant governing system, while improving living conditions for citizens.
This meant that many Sunni, Shia, Christian and Druze supporters were prepared at the municipal level to ignore their sectarian leaders and bring in new city managers who could get things done.
This continues an important new phenomenon that first reared its head during the rubbish protests last July and August, when irate individual citizens walking among piles of rubbish in every neighbourhood took to the street to vent their anger over how the national government mistreated them. The municipal vote seems to have extended this trend.
The fact that the establishment candidates retained control of the Beirut city council indicates how deeply entrenched is the old behaviours and loyalties.
The unexpectedly strong showing by the technocratic and social activist challengers is a powerful message that politics may be changing in ways that were never experienced in Arab countries before – community-based, issue-driven, citizen-focused demands delivered by gender-equitable slates of younger candidates.
This important breakthrough for a new kind of Arab political action – in the face of traditional hegemonies – now faces the harder test of building on the achievements and lessons of the past nine months of public political action.
This could see the birth of a new political party or the establishment of a shadow municipal council, and, for certain, stringent monitoring of the municipal council’s performance by activists and citizens who have tasted success for the first time, hoping that victory and incumbency would follow in the years ahead.
Tunisia Needs More Than ‘Fifteen Minutes of Fame’
By Chris Doyle
11 May 2016
International attention in the Middle East seems related to three factors: how great the disaster is, does it matter and can it be resolved? No war on Gaza, so it plummets to the bottom of the Presidential in-tray. Syria is cataclysmic but international politicians engage in mass shoulder shrugging with no will or vision to resolve it. Increasingly in the crisis ridden territories of the region, local politicians say to me, “What do we have to do to be noticed, make the war worse, kill people?”
This prioritization of conflict management over conflict prevention is breathtakingly clear with respect to Tunisia. The North African state has for the most part been ignored since independence in 1956. Since 2010 it has been the recipient of short-lived bouts of international admiration and sympathy. The post-Jasmine Spring euphoria lasted but a few weeks, drowned out by the bigger noises of its larger neighbours.
Three major terrorist attacks in 2015 at the Bardo museum, a hotel in Sousse and on a Presidential convoy all triggered the customary proclamations of solidarity. President Obama was “fully committed” to the success of Tunisia, but it seems on a part-time basis.
Tunisians largely believe their country falls off the radar bouncing back for another fifteen minutes of fame and pledges of support. Tunisia needs consistent support, investment, technological help and tourism to keep its economy moving forward.
Above all, for Tunisia, it is ‘more jobs’ stupid. In a visit this month, every interlocutor, every activist and official recited this mantra to me. Protests this year underline the point. Instability is growing. The unemployment rate runs at around 35 percent. ISIS feeds off this despair.
Tunisia needs consistent support, investment, technological help and tourism to keep its economy moving forward
Optimism is limited. The state of emergency, introduced in November after a bus bombing killed 12 members of the Presidential guard in a bus bombing, has been extended until 22 June. Those used to the Egyptian or Syrian states of emergency may not recognise this version – there are no military courts and snap trials but it does show how fearful the authorities are.
So here is a plucky, moderate, pragmatic Tunisia, the driver and spark of the Arab uprisings, the one remaining beacon of the last five years struggling to hold it together.
What is the West doing then, not least Europe? Tunisia is a mere 85 miles from Sicily. There have been favourable loans and the technical support but this has yet to make much impression. France has pledged $1.1 billion over the next five years targeting job creation in Tunisia’s poorest areas, precisely where ISIS has so successfully recruited. Have others done enough? The US gives over $3 billion annually to first world economic power like Israel but just a mere $66 million to Tunisia.
Tunisia needs progress in Libya too, and the formation of an effective Libyan national government that has the mandate and capability to tackle ISIS. The 500 km of border with Libya poses a security threat beyond Tunisia’s means.
Weapons and fighters can still enter Tunisia despite the additional support from Britain that has sent 20 troops on a two-month training mission to help border security. Only on 7 March, Tunisian forces repelled a major ISIS assault on the border town of Ben Guardane.
But it is in the tourism sector that Tunisians seem to complain about most, desperate to see the return of tour operators not least in tourist dependent places like Djerba.
Some Russian tourists have opted for Tunisian rather than Egyptian resorts but European tourists are needed back. At Sousse where the June 2016 attack occurred, many hotels remain closed. Britain, that used to send almost 400,000 tourists, advises against all but essential travel to Tunisia whilst the US advice is to exercise caution in all areas.
A Tunisian hotelier complains, “Why does Britain advise against travel here but thinks it is fine in Brussels?” A fair point. Would Britain dare advise against travel to the US after 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, killing 475 people? It is tough on Tunisians because the security risk is largely not their fault.
The average time to recover from a terrorist attack is around 13 months according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. So if there are no further atrocities, Tunisia might recover lost ground later this year. Wondering across the closed Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, it strikes me that those images of Seifeddine Rezgui killing people asleep on their sun loungers may take longer to erase from the collective memory than the attacks in Brussels or Paris.
Armed guards, checkpoints, scanners all help but at some point, European authorities have a tough decision to make. If they keep the restrictive travel advice in place, tour operators cannot return for insurance reasons.
The economic decline and joblessness that ISIS feeds off will increase. Lift it too early and they may be blamed for placing their citizens at risk. A prosperous successful Tunisia will ultimately be the most resounding defeat of ISIS and its ilk.
Donald Trump and The Seduction Of Ignorance
By Diana Moukalled
11 May 2016
US President Barack Obama has ridiculed the possibility of Donald Trump, the repugnant reality-show figure, becoming president, adding that assuming the presidency is not the same as managing a reality show.
However, a Trump victory is now closer than ever to reality. He has succeeded in his game of attracting media coverage, even if it is negative. This has not stopped his hateful, racist rhetoric that conveys naivety and ignorance.
Trump has made himself available to the media, which has prioritized all news related to him. In all interviews and programs, he appears as a racist demagogue skilled at manipulating people’s feelings and spreading patriotic myths. Media coverage has helped Trump win the support of Republican voters.
Electing a man who wants to build a wall on the southern US border, who advocates the use of torture, and who despises women and Mexican and Chinese immigrants would not be possible without so much media attention. The angry and scared media, which wanted to convince voters that he would be the worst president in U.S. history, has become an indirect marketing tool for Trump.
Trump is an example of ignorance becoming a patriotic tool, whereby good citizens are incapable of distinguishing between truth and nonsense
He is an example of ignorance becoming a patriotic tool, whereby good citizens are incapable of distinguishing between truth and nonsense. He is an example of rising populism generally, as each country has its own Trump. Our fear of the spread of this phenomenon is legitimate.
Deceiving people is an active industry. What worries those who market ignorance is the presence of a well-informed, educated audience. Those who try to think seriously and independently are met with suppression and contempt.
The ignorance from which we suffer in the Middle East is the product of years of polarization by political regimes and extremists. This has enabled the spread of lies regarding many events, past and present.
Technology and social media have allowed the spread of misinformation in a manner that was not possible before. However, to believe such false information requires a badly-educated nation that is not used to verification.
In the past, if someone was not informed and talked nonsense, no one would listen to him. Today, such people are celebrated by the press, which publishes their news without pointing out their faults.
For an ignorant man claiming to be patriotic, lying always seems more attractive than telling the truth. US society is not poorly educated, so hopefully Americans will not elect Trump. However, when will we correct our own mistakes?