Posts Tagged ‘regimes’

On Sky News: World’s attention needs to focus on Syria

March 19, 2011 4 comments

Sky News called me this morning and asked if I would comment on what has been happening in Syria these last few days. Understandably, I jumped at the opportunity. As far as 24-hour rolling news networks go, Sky News is a big player, and for them to take an active interest in Syria when Libya and Japan have been dominating the headlines must surely be applauded and encouraged.

That got me interested in Sky News’ take on Syria so I started following their hourly news bulletins. To my pleasant surprise, I found their foreign affairs editor Tim Marshall’s take on Syria refreshingly frank and to the point. He understood the Sunni/Alawi issue and he correctly noted that Syria was the most repressive Arab dictatorship out there (that’s right, not Saudi!) Dr Omar Ashour of Exeter University was also there in the studio and he offered an incisive look at the nature of Middle Eastern dictatorships. I found it all very interesting so well done Sky News team.

At around 6:40pm it was my turn to appear live on Sky News as a “spokesman for the opposition.” I am nothing of the kind of course, but there is a saying in Syria: “Better to be known as a rich man than a poor man”. Here’s how the interview went:

I tried to convey two important messages in what little time I had. One was that Syria is the one to watch because regime change there will have widespread regional repercussions, more so than Yemen or Libya. The second message was related to the situation in Dar’a which is critical given the very real risk of massacres by the army and security forces that were descending upon the city in frightening numbers.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get hold of a good quality recording. The best I could manage was this mobile phone footage from my niece who watched the interview on her laptop. It’s not even the whole interview but you get the idea.

If any of you were wondering, that comfortable-looking chair I’m slouched on is a POÄNG armchair from Ikea, available for £90.90.

Categories: TV appearance

The uprising they said would never happen

March 17, 2011 6 comments

Syrians do not want “chaos”. The Syrian people all love their president. Syria was immune to change because of its anti-Israel stance. Syrians do not want “Western democracy”. Syria is immune to protest. Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt. Syria is a “sturdy house”.

Not true as it turns out. The democratic revolution has reached Syria, and a protest movement is beginning to gain traction there. The doubters have been proved wrong.

Not to get carried away, the demonstrations that have taken place in Syria have not been large-scale. We are talking about hundreds, not thousands. They did occur right across the country though, with protests taking place in Damascus, Aleppo, Deir az-Zour, Qamishli and Hassaka. The video above is for a demonstration that took place on Tuesday 15 March in the heart of Damascus. A second demonstration in the capital was organized by family and relatives of political prisoners the following day on Wednesday 16th March [pic below] opposite the Interior Ministry building. To put things into perspective, the last time an anti-regime protest took place in Syria was 31 years ago. These demonstrations, however modest, are an important ice-breaker and a harbinger of things to come.

Protest opposite Interior Ministry in Damascus, 16th March 2011

Those participating in the demonstrations have not been the usual suspects. True, there were the pro-democracy activists that we know and admire like Suheir Al-Attasi, but from the list of those arrested, the vast majority have no political affiliation and are unknown to human rights organizations. They appear to be middle class Damascenes in their twenties and thirties who reacted positively to the Syrian Revolution 2011 page on Facebook.

Fahd Faysal Al-Nijris is a typical protester. He is a university student and son of a former MP who posted this video on 14 march urging fellow students to participate in next day’s demonstrations. He says he wants freedom of expression, a decent quality of life, an end to emergency law, constitutional reform and an end to corruption. Not much different then from what the Egyptians and Tunisians had been calling for when they first hit the streets.

The demonstrations have not been confined to the capital. This YouTube video was posted on 16th March of a tribal chief criticizing the regime and calling on Syrians to participate in the “Day of Dignity” demonstrations planned for on Friday 18th March. The eastern city of Deir az-Zour has long been a hot-bed of opposition, and the army’s elite Fourth Division has been stationed there since 2006 to quell any unrest. Hassaka to the north witnessed demonstrations, so too did Qamishli, and in the southern province of Dar’a demonstrations took place amid heavy security presence. Described as “Syria’s parched farmlands”, reports have been emerging for some weeks from the southern Hawran region of a concerted anti-regime graffiti campaign, and of isolated police stations being abandoned in the build up to 15 March.

The battle at this stage appears to be one of public perception. The Syrian regime is very keen to show its people and the world that the protest movement has no popular support and that it is orchestrated by “enemies of Syria”. With diabolical efficiency, plain-clothed men of the mukhabarat have dispersed protests as soon as they begin, often using brute force and confiscating mobile phones so that footage does not come out. Not only are they overwhelming the protesters with sheer numbers and arresting them, they are also resorting to staging pro-Assad demonstrations to give the impression that the protests were in support of the regime. Semi-official news websites like this one have released dozens of reports suggesting that the protests were tiny and that they were inspired by Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood. The young people on the streets however are hitting back on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and of course, on independent Syrian satellite channels Barada TV and Orient TV.

The protest movement in Syria has still a lot way to go. Following yesterday’s protest, 54 have been arrested, seven of whom have since been released. They included 12 year old Ricardo Dawud, the son of political prisoner Raghida Al-Hassan, and Tayib Tizini, an acclaimed professor of philosophy. Reports of deaths has so far been unconfirmed. Bashar Al-Assad’s men appear to be avoiding unnecessary force, preferring to smother the uprising than to smash it. The challenge now for Syria’s youth is to maintain the momentum of their protest. It will not be easy.

Categories: Syrian uprising

Seif and Bashar: a chip off the old block

March 2, 2011 7 comments

A  few days ago, the above video surfaced on YouTube of  Seif al-Islam Al-Gaddafi atop an armoured vehicle in what appears to be a morale-boosting visit to the front line.

What is interesting is that Seif is carrying a German-made H&K G36 assault rifle, not the standard issue AK-47 used by the ordinary troops. His jacket is most probably designer and so too are his glasses. This is the story of the LSE graduate, who counted Peter Mandelson as one of his close friends, now finding himself having to crush a popular uprising on behalf of dictator dad.

You might think he’s grossly out of place. Very briefly, you might even be tempted to feel sorry for him. For Arab dictator dynasties however, this is just another day in the office.

This leads me onto Bashar. I was never sold by the portrayal of him as a gentle, caring, softly-spoken reformer and modernizer. I felt there was something phony about him because had he been the gentle, caring, softly-spoken reformer and modernizer, he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did.

It’s funny how Bashar has much more in common with Seif than he would otherwise like to admit. Both are sons of “revolutionary” dictators, both are stupendously rich, both studied in the UK, both have had military training,  both had been assigned portfolios that would endow them with popularity (anti-corruption drive for Bashar, charitable organization for Seif), and both were groomed from an early stage to assume power at a future date.

But more importantly, both have demonstrated that underneath the thin veneer of civility and Western education is a vicious and vindictive character, every bit as nasty as daddy’s.

It took the Libyan uprising for Seif’s true colours to show. Bashar on the other hand has been showing his true colours to the Syrian people for the last eleven years. His latest victim is Tal Al-Mallohi, the 19-year old blogger arrested and  recently convicted in a secret trial on trumped-up charges of spying for the CIA. I shudder to think what she has gone through in those cold and damp underground dungeons.

Then there was the Seidnaya Prison massacre of 2008 and the Qamishli massacre of Kurdish protesters of 2004. And let’s not forget the murder of Sheikh Ma’shuq Al-Khaznawi in 2005. That’s not to mention the many killings carried out in Lebanon which implicate Bashar Al-Assad personally.

I suppose the only obvious difference between the two is that Bashar made it to the top and Seif is unlikely to do so. Bloody good luck for the Libyans. Not so good for the Syrians.

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

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
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