Bringing the Middle East Back In: A New Era of Global Politics

March 6, 2011

Since 9/11, if not earlier, at least five generalizations have permeated practically all representations of the Middle East allowing for spurious claims to justify unjust, cruel and illegal acts against the people, politics, culture and history of the region. These generalizations have been exposed as myths by the nature of the popular protests that erupted in North Africa and Middle East in late 2010 and have made the first quarter of 2011 a period of significant changes. In this short price, I want to list the myths that are no longer valid and posit that wiping out these false representations may prove to be the most positive and lasting impact of the months of revolt that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

The first of these myths to be exposed as bogus, is the widespread belief in the inertia of the Arab masses. If the images of the Tunisian people’s challenges to the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali were not enough evidence of the political power of Arab societies then the scenes of millions of Egyptians, women and men, challenging Hosni Mubarak’s right to rule should dispel any misconceptions that Arabs are bound by a tradition of fatalism and despotism. Libyan, Bahraini, Moroccan and Yemeni protestors only serve to further wipe away the idea that the Middle East is unchanging and historically static.

Secondly, the idea that Islamists monopolise political opposition in the Middle East is impossible to sustain in the face of the secularism on display in Cairo, Tangiers and Benghazi. However, many reporters and Middle East “experts” seem to remain wedded to the notion that behind every event in the Arab world lurks the evil hand of radical Islamists. This notion should now be put to rest as Arab secular voices have not only drowned out the Islamists but shown the lack of relevance of Muslim politics in the shaping of the protesters demands. These secular voices have called for social justice, employment, food, and an end to the regimes corrupt activities, including privatization, austerity programs and the dismantling of the welfare states. It was jobs and dignity that drove people to the streets definitely not shar’ia or holy war.

Thirdly, the belief that “western” approval for the policies of Arab leaders automatically translates into popular appeal can no longer be taken for granted. While Arab dictators such as Ben Ali and Mubarak were popular in the White House, London, Paris and the IMF, events of the last two months have shown how despised they were in their own countries. The fate of Colonel Gaddafi now rests with his own people and not with allies in London, Rome or Washington. It should now be clear that supporting policies that promote the interests of western powers and international investors might bring Arab leaders international approval, but that such policies are highly unpopular at home and be the cause of mass uprisings such as those we have witnessed over the last month. International stability comes at a price and the Arab masses are demanding payment.

Fourth, there must no longer be serious doubts about claims of the “trickle down” associated with economic liberalisation in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon and Jordan. The countries that have experienced the largest, and angriest, mass protests have been exactly those countries that have followed the advice of the IMF most closely and received the highest acclaim from international financial institutions and the leading proponents of market fundamentalism in the developing world, namely the U.S. and the EU. Tunisian and Egyptian unemployment and poverty rates are startling when held up against the praise that these two countries have received for their economic management.  Clearly, its time to move beyond the idea that economic growth alone can address issues of poverty and underdevelopment.

Holding these myths, and others I haven’t had time to explore, up to scrutiny at this critical time, will not only show that the Arab people only seek to share the same democratic and human rights that we dearly protect, but also provide political space for “us” to rethink our own conceptualizations of the region and its people, and in doing so, dismantle the artificial barriers that so often it is believed have come to exist between Arabs and the “west”.  Tearing down this barrier will allow Arab voices into global discourses on human rights, democracy, social justice and gender rights enriching the lives of Arab people and also will enrich those discourses as well. It is this aspect of the recent events that have rocked the Middle East that will have greatest impact.

Noah Bassil

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Back to the Future: Tunisians and Egyptians and Pan Arabism

February 13, 2011

Much of the “western” media hype over the last month has been focused on the threat of radical Islamism in the Middle East. Almost ad naseum, media commentators have continually returned to the topic of the threat of Islamist parties when reporting on the protests in Tunisia and Algeria and have shown almost total disbelief when they have been confronted with evidence, whether images and reports from the scenes or expert commentary, proving the secular credentials of the uprisings.

What events in Tunisia and Egypt is clearly showing is that this threat holds a significant place in the western imaginary of the Middle East, as much as camels, flying carpets and harems. This despite the reality that it has not been Islamists who have dominated the scenes in Tunis and Cairo.One journalist who has picked up on the weakness of radical Islam in the Middle East is Paul McGeough (http://www.smh.com.au/world/alqaeda-lost-on-the-arab-street-20110204-1aguj.html).  And despite my general agreement  with Paul MacGeough’s overall argument that current Middle East protests show how much ground Islamists have lost amongst the youth in the Middle East, I think that his assertion that youth have chosen Ipods, Starbucks and McDonald’s over Islamic terrorism may technically be correct but still far short of the reality. Sure, young people in Tahrir Square prefer surfing the net to strapping themselves with explosives and bringing down a airliner, or a Big Mac to beheading  unbelievers, but this doesn’t tell us much at all. Rather, what we should be examining is the slogans of the protesters, and in the void that is often called journalism not much of this has been done in the reporting over Tunisia and more recently, Egypt.

So fascinated is the western media with the Islamist angle that they have all but missed the undercurrent of the pan-Arab nationalism which has been at the forefront of the protesters banners and chants. They have missed that what people in the Middle East are protesting for is not for their states to vanish, as wishful conservative and neo-liberal advocates would want, but that they want their states to protect them from the inequality and alienation that the market creates.  Tunisia and Egypt are certainly not Islamist revolutions, but they maybe somewhat red in colour, at least “red”  in the sense of the social democratic principles of the 1960s and of the era of Nasserism.

While the west focuses on the illusion of Islamism, something potentially more dangerous to the post Cold War Pax Americana is emerging from Tunis and Cairo.  This Pax American which has been based on free market fundamentalism and on the ideal that social welfare and distributing wealth should be the responsibility of markets and not of governments is under siege from a number of directions and the Arab uprisings add another volatile front in the struggle against US imperialism in the form of neo-liberalism.

These are very exciting times, not only because of the monumental changes that have resulted from the forced resignations of two of the world’s longest serving dictators, both very close allies of the supposedly pro-democracy “west”, but because the Arab revolutions are symbolic of the mounting global resistance to a system that promotes inequality, alienation, and marginalisation. Freedom is the only promise that neo-liberalism has delivered to most people around the world, that is a freedom to be unemployed, hungry and homeless. For the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square the revolution begins not with overthrowing Mubarak but with unravelling the “economic miracle” (IMF actually awarded Egypt with the title of the best reforming economy in the world) that has left 40% of Egyptians earning less than $2 a day. Time will tell how much reform of the neo-liberal economy Mubarak’s successors will allow but irrespective of what happens in the coming days, weeks and months in Egypt, the winds of change are blowing, and the struggle for social democracy has begun.

Noah Bassil


After Ben-Ali: Is Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir next?

January 31, 2011

International focus over the last few weeks, quite rightly, has been on the momentuous events that led to the downfall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia and more recently the massive upsurge in popular protests in Egypt, principally centred on Cairo.   However, while Egypt and Tunisia (to a lesser extent Yemen) have been in the news and discussed by international leaders and in international forums, other states in the region have also experienced major political crises.  One such state is Sudan which had been the focus of media attention as the southern part of the country went to the polls to decide on whether there would be unity between north and south or separation. The result surprised no-one with almost 99% of southern Sudanese voting for seccession.

In more recent days, though, the Sudan has been experiencing the same level of popular discontent with the ruling party that we have witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt. Read the rest of this entry »


The intentional humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

January 21, 2009

There has been a lot of discussion in the press, not to mention on this board, about the Israel’s motivations in Operation Cast Lead. Many will claim that Olmert, Barak and Livini’s main aim was to stop Hamas from firing rockets into Israel and threatening its population. “Security for Israel” and “Israel has a right to defend itself” are the most often repeated mantras from Israeli officials, their sympathisers and allies. Others on this blog, including myself, have made a case that this war was not about the rockets given that the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas had worked effectively and put an end to hostile fire across the border. Other secondary Israeli motivations include its upcoming elections in February, the outgoing US President Bush and the need for the IDF to restore its reputation after it failed to defeat Hezbollah in 2006.

This 22 day war produced a staggering number of dead civilians – over 1300 – and scores more wounded (estimates range between 4000-5000). Just like the thousand-plus Lebanese civilians who died in 2006, Gaza’s dead have also been reduced to a sad consequence of the war. Casualties are to be expected during such periods of hostility and if they are not intentional then it is somewhat excusable. Following this logic means Israel is, yet again, immune from condemnation and, worse still, from being held to account for its war crimes. Again I have elsewhere argued, following Mirko Bagaric, that the only thing that matters in war are the consequences. This includes the dead civilians even if they are accidently caught in the cross-fire.

Israel and its supporters would like the world to believe that the 1300 dead Gazans are the unavoidable costs of the war. This, however, is not the case. It seems, as Ben White writes in The Guardian, that Israel did deliberately target civilians as part of its war strategy. He writes:

There is . . . no shortage of evidence available that points to rather different Israeli aims [for the war other than Palestinian rockets, Israeli elections, and deterrence] . . . Politicians, diplomats and journalists are by and large shying away from the obvious, namely that Israel has been deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians and the very infrastructure of normal life, in order to – in the best colonial style – teach the natives a lesson.

White goes on list “three alternative purposes” behind the operation in Gaza which move beyond the generic explanations. His three findings are summarised below:

1. The first aim is to humiliate and weaken Hamas. On the one hand, this seems obvious, but contrary to how the goal is often understood, this is not primarily to protect the Israeli public – as pointed out previously, ceasefires and negotiations are far more likely to deliver security for Israeli citizens – but rather it is a political goal. Hamas had withstood isolation, a siege, mass arrests, and an attempted western-backed coup. Moreover, cracks were appearing in the international community’s resolve to parrot Israel’s line on Hamas. The group, with its resilience and ability to deliver on negotiated ceasefires, was threatening the chance to make a deal with the Ramallah “moderates” [i.e. Abbas and the PA].

Read the rest of this entry »


What is in store for Gaza’s population now?

January 20, 2009

Ahdaf Soueif’s article “The Palestinians say: ‘This is a war of extermination’ ” details some of the most horrific scenes the people of Gaza faced in the last three weeks. The stories Soueif records are not new – indeed, despite what Israeli officials have tried to tell the world, images from Gaza substantiate what can be found in the article. In Egypt at the general hospital at el-Arish she asks a Gazan man who he has accompanied there:

“I’m here with my nephew. He’s 19. Shrapnel in his head. He was sitting with his friends. He’s a student. Architecture. The helicopter dropped a bomb and seven of the group were killed and six were injured. They found a boy’s hand on a 3rd floor balcony.”

And Soueif goes on to write:

They [the Palestinians] describe bombs which break into 16 parts, each part splintering into 116 fragments, the white phosphorus which water cannot put out; which seems to die and then flares up again.

No one I spoke to has any doubt that the Israelis are committing war crimes. According to the medics here, to reports from doctors inside the Gaza Strip and to Palestinian eye-witnesses, more than 95% of the dead and injured are civilians. Many more will probably be found when the siege is lifted and the rubble is cleared. The doctors speak of a disproportionate number of head injuries – specifically of shrapnel lodged in the brain.

They also speak of the extensive burns of white phosphorus. These injuries are, as they put it, ‘incompatible with life’. They are also receiving large numbers of amputees. This is because the damage done to the bone by explosive bullets is so extensive that the only way the doctors in Gaza can save lives is by amputating.

Beyond this, and since writing her article, Soueif has uncovered the beginnings of another Israeli initiative which involves, under the auspices of humanitarian urgency, the permanent transfer of Palestinians from Gaza. Sonja Karkar, from the organization Woman for Palestine, outlines the following: Read the rest of this entry »


Racism: Arab-Black African Relations in North Africa

December 14, 2008

Dear Readers,

By now I am sure you are aware of my position on racism. In previous posts I have rallied against the Israeli state and certain segments of Israeli civil society for institutionalizing racism as a form of power over Palestinians and as a political mechanism to control national political discourse. I also have written and spoken about the scourge and legacy of colonial racism. My last post highlighted the twin forms of discrimination faced by Australian man Hussein Mumin who was both homeless and Black. I remember only too vividly how Andrew Fraser was able to gain momentary notoriety and fame (amongst a small but vocal segment of the population) for his obscene references to Black Africans- especially the Sudanese- as inferior humans, an argument he based on long discredited scientific evidence popular with Hitler and a central part of Nazi and Neo-Nazi propaganda. Before the Nazi’s, Fraser’s “science” was used by pro-slavery groups in the United States in the nineteenth century. Government silence on the issue was disquieting but even more troubling was the defence of Fraser’s right to free speech, by none other than the Minister for Education at the time, Dr Brendan Nelson. His colleague, former Federal Minister for Immigration in the last Howard government, Kevin Andrews, did not go quite as far as Fraser in his demonization of the Sudanese communities in Australia in 2007,  but skirted the edge of overt racism with his comments. The 2005 Cronulla riots, the recent bombings of Asian properties in WA and this weeks news on the anti-Semitic facebook scandal demonstrate the existence of racist attitudes in contemporary Australia. Racism remains a major issue for contemporary societies and the election of Barak Obama, while promising , should not deflect us from the reality of the continuing problems associated with racism throughout the world.

But in this post I want to focus not on Australia but on the recent racist trends in the North African context. Read the rest of this entry »


Blogging and Facebook politics on Arab Media & Society

October 2, 2008

Arab Media & Society, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, is a really exciting publication that is a kind of hybrid breed, combining the reader-friendly layout, graphics, and images of a magazine with in-depth academic analysis.  The current Fall 2008 issue has a lot of interest, from an analysis of the rhetoric and media techniques of Beshir Gemayal, featuring video and English translations of his speeches, to three articles on cyberpolitics in the Egyptian world: two analysing the Egyptian blogosphere, and one on Facebook politics.  There’s also an analysis of what the rise in private media outlets means for Indonesia, and a look at the reception of Deutsche Welle in the Arab world.

–L.L. Wynn