Archive for February, 2011

Shehadi: Saddam’s downfall paved way for democratic revolution

February 27, 2011 3 comments

Arab peoples are understandably proud of the democratic uprisings that are sweeping away their tormentors at a rate of one a month. They will tell you that this is the real, home-grown democratic change that they have been crying out for, unlike the “fake” democracy in Iraq which has been imposed by foreigners and buttressed by US marines.

The beginning of the end

Amidst this euphoria and revolutionary zeal however, Arabs risk losing a historical perspective on how these uprisings came to be.

Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at Chatham House, was in Barada TV’s studios last week and he said something very interesting. “It all started with the fall of Saddam” he said, “it just took eight years for the effects to be witnessed.” With my historian’s cap on, I couldn’t agree more.

Saddam’s Iraq was a prime example of a type of regime which came to dominate many Arab countries during the latter half of the 20th century.

This type of regime tends to be:

a) A revolutionary republic, usually erected on the ruins of a liberal monarchy and/or colonialism; b) Deeply authoritarian with a single ruling party and a frightening security apparatus; c) Personality cult, the dictator being the idealized “hero” whose images are displayed everywhere; d) Socialist, with most services provided by the state; e) Corrupt, state patronage being the major avenue; f) Anti-Western, at least in rhetoric; g) Militaristic, with huge armies and vast defence expenditure.

The key to survival for this type of regime was a combination of brute force, and wrapping itself with the national flag. Ordinary people living under such a regime appreciated its evils, but they saw no real alternative.  Looking around them, they saw other Arab peoples lived under identical regimes. “It is our fate, what can we do?” was the mood music.

Then in April 2003 one regime of this type came crashing down. The collapse of Saddam’s Iraq was so spectacular, so swift and so ungracious, that it made Arab peoples not only question all the old certainties, but to dare imagine that a similar fate may befall their own regimes.

9 April 2003 was the day that the Arab imagination was re-awoken.

It took eight years for that burst of imagination to translate itself into action, partly because the Iraqi experience was an unhappy one. Many became cynical of Western interventionism, but it was that interventionism which began got the snowball rolling, the results of which can be seen today on the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli.

As Nadim Shehadi told me as I walked him to the lifts, “All the Arab regimes fell with the downfall of Saddam, they just didn’t know it.”

Categories: Arabs & Democracy

Guardian says tensions mounting in Syrian capital as “nervous regime” breaks up protests

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment


Further to the developing story that I discussed in the previous post, Lauren Williams reported this in the Guardian today:

Tensions are mounting in the Syrian capital, Damascus, after the third peaceful demonstration in three weeks was violently dispersed on Wednesday. There are increasing reports of intimidation and blocking of communications by secret services in the wake of violent unrest in neighbouring Arab countries.

Fourteen people were arrested and several people beaten by uniformed and plainclothes police on Tuesday after about 200 staged a peaceful sit-in outside the Libyan embassy to show support for Libya’s protesters.

Witnesses said at least two women were among those beaten.

The demonstrators carried placards reading “Freedom for the people” and “Down with Gaddafi”, and chanted slogans such as “Traitors are those that beat their people.”

Witnesses said authorities warned the group to disperse but they reconvened shortly afterwards in the central neighbouring suburb of Sha’alan. When they tried to march back to the embassy they were met with a heavy police presence.

Several witnesses told the Guardian there were nearly twice as many secret and uniformed police as protesters. Some protesters were punched, kicked and beaten with sticks..

All present had their identities recorded. Fourteen people were detained but later released, Human Rights Watch in Beirut confirmed.

“They hit two girls, I saw them on the ground crying,” said a witness who was briefly detained.

“There were so many of them, we didn’t know where they all came from.”

Under emergency law, public congregations are banned in Syria. This kind of protest is very rare but last Friday 1,500 people took part in a seemingly spontaneous demonstration outside the central Hamidiyah souq. It was reportedly in protest at the police beating of a local shop owner, rather than being directed at the government. People chanted “The Syrian people will not be humiliated”, “Shame, shame” and “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you Bashar” in reference to the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s interior minister has promised an investigation.

On 2 February Human Rights Watch reported a group of 20 people in civilian clothing had beaten and dispersed 15 people who had been holding a candlelight vigil in Bab Touma, Old Damascus, for Egyptian demonstrators. Police detained then later released Ghassan al-Najjar, an elderly leader of a small group called Islamic Democratic Current, after he issued public calls for Syrians in Aleppo to demonstrate for more freedom in their country.

The increase in demonstrations has been matched with an apparent crackdown on communications and movement in the country, despite public pledges of media reform from Assad earlier this month and a much-publicised lifting of the ban on Facebook and other social networking services.

Internet users who previously used international proxy servers to bypass local firewall restrictions now claim they no longer use Facebook anyway, fearing it is being closely monitored.

Civil rights campaigners have told the Guardian that initimidation tactics have escalated to include visits from agents of the Mukhabarat – intelligence services – as well as close monitoring of internet and telephone conversations. Some activists have been warned not to leave the country.

There are unconfirmed reports of a crackdown on foreign journalists working in Syria. At least two reporters have been denied entry to the country.

“The situation is tense, they are clearly nervous,” said one analyst, who refused to be named.

“We didn’t think it was possible here but maybe it could happen after all.”

For full article click here  


Categories: Syrian uprising

Anti-Gaddafi vigil is latest demo to hit the Syrian capital

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Over the years Damascus has seen its fair share of pro-regime demonstrations and rallies of the kind that Kim Jong-il will find familiar. But not since 1980 has it witnessed unsanctioned demonstrations, let alone three in a space of one month! This is exactly what has happened.

It began on 30 January when a group of 100, led by youth leader and known oppositionist Suheir Al-Attasi, held a candlelight vigil in Bab Tuma in Damascus in support of the Tahrir Square protesters. The vigil was broken up by force by plain-clothed security men. When attempting to file a complaint at a nearby police station, Ms. Al-Attasi was physically and verbally abused by a senior security official.

Then on 17 February came the 4,000-strong spontaneous demonstration in the Harika district of Damascus. That was sparked by a policemen assaulting a local man. Read more about what happened here.

Then today on 22 February another vigil was held – this time outside the Libyan embassy in support of the popular uprising in that country. The protesters shouted anti-Gaddafi slogans and sang the Syrian national anthem, emphasising the peaceful nature of their protest. See video above.

What was encouraging was the turnout, which exceeded 200. An improvement on last time. Less encouraging was the response of the security men who broke up the vigil. Young women as well as men were verbally and physically attacked by leather-jacketed thugs. Protesters responded by shouting “those who attack their own people are traitors!” Several of the protesters were arrested.

Not an unsurprising response by the authorities who felt it safe to use force against the 200 or so attending the vigil. They were less keen to use force against the Harika demonstration which numbered 4,000 participants. Size then does matter.

Whether large or small, and despite being banned under the Emergency Law, protests in Damascus are becoming more common. A positive development in the “republic of fear.”

Categories: Syrian uprising

Saif Al-Gaddafi’s address reflects moral bankruptcy of Arab regimes

February 21, 2011 2 comments

Like millions across the Arab world, I watched Saif Al-Gaddafi’s TV address. I wasn’t surprised at what I heard.

At its heart, the message that he delivered contains the same arguments that have been deployed by various Arab regimes, the Syrian regime especially, to justify its existence. The message can be summarized into three main arguments:

1- We are the guarantors of the unity of the country. If we go the country will fall apart.

2- We are the guarantors against Islamic extremism. If we go the Islamists will take over.

3- We are the only ones qualified to run the country. If we go, public services will collapse and the economy will suffer.

The use of these arguments reflects an absolute moral bankruptcy at the heart of  the “monarchical republics.” In order to justify  their existence, they refer not to what they have actually achieved, because they have achieved very little, but by what may happen if they are removed. It’s a cheap way of playing to people’s worst fear.

This same argument is being deployed aggressively, and with slightly greater skill, by Bashar Al-Assad and his propagandists at home and abroad to stave off a popular revolt and/or international isolation.

The only problem is that in both Tunisia and Egypt where regimes where brought down, there hasn’t been the predicted lawlessness or national disintegration. People can see that there is life after these regimes.

The victory of the Libyan people against their oppressor of 42 years will be a final nail in the coffin to these “lowest common denominator” arguments. It won’t off course stop people using them, but they are becoming extremely tenuous and increasingly ineffective.

Categories: Libyan uprising

Syrian youths begin graffiti campaign against regime

February 19, 2011 3 comments

A YouTube video has been posted of a Syrian youth writing anti-regime graffiti on a school building in the city of Homs.

To the soundtrack of a popular patriotic song , the video showed still images of a masked young man using a spray canister to write “go away Bashar”, “down with the regime”, “Down with Bashar Al-Assad”, “we want freedom”, and echoing the slogan of the Egyptian uprising at Tahrir Square, “the people want the downfall of the regime.”

Although, the authenticity of the video cannot be verified, it does link in with what I have been hearing about activists’ desire to resort to a graffiti campaign to escalate the war against the regime following 17th February’s unexpected demonstration in Damascus.

The spontaneous demonstration in the heart of the capital’s business district came just two weeks after the failure of the 5 February “day of rage” called for by a popular Facebook page.

My reading of this development is that a graffiti campaign at this time may very well have the desired psychological effect of emboldening people to get used to openly challenging the authority of the regime after decades of extremely oppressive rule.

It’s a smart move by the activists. I expect more videos such as this one in the future, especially if towns and localities across Syria compete to create the most daring and eye-catching anti-regime graffiti.

Categories: Syrian uprising

Donkey insult sparked 17 Feb Damascus demo

February 18, 2011 2 comments

London-based Pan-Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi published this piece on Friday 18th Feb explaining the background to the remarkable demonstration that took place in the heart of Damascus’ Harika business district the previous day.

According to eyewitnesses interviewed by the paper’s reporter Yusif Sarhan, the story began on Thursday 17 February when a policeman, trying to stop a young man entering the busy Hamidiya market in his car,  shouted “move, you donkey!”

The young man was understandably offended. He got out of his car and returned the insult to the policeman, who in turn, set about beating him with a truncheon. Two more policemen joined in the beating until the man’s screams caused citizens to rally to his defence.

The police managed to withdraw, pulling the victim to the entrance of a nearby building where they carried on beating him.  By this stage however, the crowd has swelled to an estimated 4,000 and they furiously began demanding the man’s release.

In order to quell the tide of anger, the local police chief turned up at the scene and tried to disperse the crowd but to no avail. To stop the influx of people into the area, all entrances to the Harika district had been cut off by security forces.

In an attempt to change the nature of the demonstration, a number of undercover mukhabarat agents infiltrated the crowd and chanted “with our spirits and our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you O’ Bashar.” The crowd however did not respond. Instead, they shouted “thieves! thieves!” and “Syrians will never be humiliated.”

The situation escalated dangerously which prompted Minister of the Interior Major General Sa’id Samur and six brigadier generals and the prosecutor general to show up. The minister met with the victim and promised the crowd that the perpetrators will be punished. The victim then urged the crowd to disperse, which they duly did. The whole incident lasted about four hours.

The paper’s reporter later met with the residents and businessmen of the local area. According to the paper:

It was clear that a state of anger still hangs over the place. One young man said: “The situation is no longer bearable. Had they used violence and humiliation against us [to disperse the crowd] who knows what would have happened.”  Another added: “They want to continue treating us like oxen or sheep, but for how long?” A third man said: “This is not just the behavior of a traffic policeman. It is the conduct of an entire regime that views the citizen as a slave who does not have the right to raise his voice in defense of his dignity.”

Categories: Syrian uprising

Guardian’s Ian Black on Syria: Beware of eyecatching reforms

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

After reading the first tweets about the unblocking of social networking sites for Internet users in Syria, I knew that there must be a catch somewhere. Bashar Al-Assad hasn’t exactly shown us his generous side yet.

It didn’t take long for me to realise what was going on. At exactly the same time as news emerged of the debarring, I received dozens of emails from Barada TV viewers who were all saying that they could no longer search for “proxy” in their search engines or use “https” to enter websites such as Facebook. They also said that any url address with the word “proxy” would return an error page.

It became apparent that a mukhabarat trap was being sprung. What they wanted was for young Syrians to access social networking sites without the use of proxy severs, hence be easier to track and identify. Proxies being much harder to use, Internet users would simply be more guarded when accessing Facebook or YouTube. The result will be the worst form of censorship: self-censorship.

I then became infuriated with the way that some were trying to spin the story in favour of the regime which had blocked these websites in the first place. Let’s not forget that we are talking about only three websites out of a hundred or so which are still blocked. As a concession, its a very small one, long overdue and grossly insufficient.

So I emailed Ian Black, Middle East Editor at the Guardian, and told him of what I thought. The result was this little tidbit that appeared the next day in his weekly column on the Middle East:

Censorship by proxy
Egypt’s uprising is inspiring hope for change across the Arab world, but there are clearly dangers of exaggerated expectations – and of misinterpreting limited if eyecatching reforms. Take the case of Syria, where authorities this week reportedly eased restrictions on social networking websites such as Facebook and YouTube. Official confirmation is not possible because the government does not comment on its internet restrictions, but web users have reported (anonymously) that the sites were accessible for the first time in years without having to use proxy servers.Past regime behaviour certainly merits a healthy dose of scepticism and the catch behind this “concession” is that it may mean less freedom. Syrian users have now been blocked from entering the word “proxy” in any search engine and any page with the word “proxy” in the URL address will not open. Syrians, in short, have lost internet anonymity. “Under the guise of lifting restrictions on the internet, the authorities have in fact tightened their control,” warns Malik al-Abdeh of London-based Barada TV. “No sane internet user will enter the now unblocked Facebook and visit a page that contains criticisms of the regime, or, worse still, a page that organises demonstrations as the Egyptians and Tunisians have done. The irony is that Syrian internet users are actually better off under the old system. Unblocking Facebook while cracking down on proxies and https, and maintaining the same censorship apparatus run by the secret police, is totally meaningless.” Not much sign, then, of a revival of the short-lived Damascus spring of Bashar al-Assad’s early days.
Categories: Newspaper quote
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