Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Arab Spring’

Turkey and the Arab Awakening

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th January, 2013

Kerim BalciMiriam Francois-CerrahEver since the revolutionary train swept across North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) pundits have been asking whether Turkey could offer a model for post-Revolution Arab states to follow, so maybe it was not so surprising that the Turkish Review (for which I occasionally write) should highlight the issue at its UK launch at the House of Lords earlier today. Three very diverse speakers were on the panel (chaired by the LibDem peer and former President of Liberal International, John Alderdice): the journalist Kerim Balci, the young Oxford academic and political writer Miriam Francois-Cerrah and Gulnur Aybet, who teaches at the University of Kent, as well as in Turkey and the United States. Each put a Gulnur Aybettotally different slant on the subject, Kerim Balci claiming (with some justification) that the so-called Arab Spring actually started earlier than in Tunisia in December 2010, in Kyrgyzstan, and that it is mirrored in various parts of Central Asia, China and India. What we are dealing with has a universal dimension, he argued. Miriam Francois-Cerrah declared that the majority of Arabs do see Turkey as a role-model, largely because it is a secular state that has nonetheless accommodated a variety of parties, including the AKP, with its Islamic origins. Gulnur Aybet emphasized that Turkey is seen by the West as a strategic partner in dealing with the MENA region, which maybe leads to a certain degreee  of wishful thinking as to how much of a model it can be. More a source of inspiration, stated Miriam Francois-Cerrah, echoing a line I have often taken. But in the meantime Turkey has itself all sorts of internal contradictions to overcome; Gulnur Aybet deplored the growing polarisation she has noticed. Certainly Turkey has an enviable economic growth rate and has many things going for it, but it is by no means a perfect state that others might necessarily try to emulate.

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Syria Unity Forum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th February, 2012

This evening I was one of the speakers at a solidarity event for the people of Syria organised at the London Muslim Centre at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. Since the beginning of the uprising last spring, maybe as many as 8,000 people have been slaughtered in Syria by the despotic regime in Damascus, which seems determined to carry on the killings, disappearances, torture and harrassment in a desperate attempt to hang on to power. In 1982, an estimated 38,000 people were killed in a devastating onslaught on the city of Hama, the centre of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. But little news of this filtered out to the outside world at the time, despite the valiant efforts of journalists such as Robert Fisk. Today, the murderous Assad government cannot act unseen. Even if most foreign journalists are banned — and those who are allowed in officially are strictly controlled — new media and social networks mean we get up-to-the-minute reports on what is going on from people on the spot, even in Homs, the city currently effectively under siege. Indeed, there was a direct link to a Free Syria activist in Homs at this evening’s event. Other speakers physically present at the meeting included Walid Saffour of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, Wael Aleji, a (Christian) member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and the human rights lawyer Toby Cadman. I spoke of the urgent need to get medical and other humanitarian supplies into beleagured communities, as well as for increased international pressure to get the Syrian authorities to stop their assault on the people, and finally supporting moves by other Arab states to oust the regime. When Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, there were widespread hopes in the West that he would introduce reforms. Some economic reforms did indeed take place and he opened Syria up to tourism. However, when the waves of the New Arab Awakening (aka Arab Spring) started to sweep across North Africa and the rest of the Arab world, prompting street demonstrations beginning in the southern town of Deraa, he adopted an iron-fist approach, with the aide of his brother Maher, the head of the security forces. Both will one day, I hope, be arraigned before the International Criminal Court (ICC). But in the meantime, everything needs to be done to express support for those brave people in Syria who are resisting oppression. British MPs should sign the Early Day Motion demanding the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador from London and more should be done to publicise the fact that the British government, through William Hague, has acknowledged the oppposition Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. After nearly three hours of presentations, videos and pra7yers, the East London Mosque evening ended with a collection from people present for emergency relief for Syria, which raised several thousand pounds.

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Danny Alexander Gets Down to Business, Eventually

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st February, 2012

Liberal Democrats in Business made good use of their Coalition clout by getting Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary at the Treasury, to speak at a meeting at the National Liberal Club this evening. It was hardly their fault (or his) that he arrived two hours after the programmed start of the event, by which time half the hundred or so participants were well and truly sozzled from the pre-talk wine and canapé reception. Important votes had been taking place on the Welfare Reform Bill in the House of Commons, at which of course he had to be present. But he finally arrived looking far fresher and with-it than most of his audience. His remarks — pithy but absolutely to the point — were made under Chatham House rules, which — as most readers of political blogs will know — means that one cannot attribute any comments to a particular person or a particular place. However, as I have already mentioned the person and the place, I shall have to invoke Alice in Wonderland Chatham House Rules and not report what Danny actually said instead. Sorry about that. However, suffice it to say that I am relieved that someone who has genuine and proven pro-European views is in such a pivotal position in the Cabinet. The Coalition Government has been giving out mixed messages on Europe recently, to put it mildly, but I take some comfort from the fact that the voices of moderation and cooperation have been winning through over the past few days. Danny represents the seat (albeit with boundary changes) held formerly by my longstanding friend and fellow Europhile Russell Johnston, and I am sure that Russell, beyond the grave, would be proud of what Danny has achieved. I personally am sad that I had to turn down an invitation to go to their beloved Inverness next month, to speak at the Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference on the Arab Spring, as I had a prior booking to present a paper on the media aspects of the same at an international conference in Berlin. But I will be with them in spirit and will metaphorically toast Danny and his colleagues with a dram of whisky as they defend the best interests of Scotland in the United Kingdom in the European Union.


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Christians, Syria and the Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th December, 2011

I’m often asked: why hasn’t Syria gone the way of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen, to which my short answer has been: because of the country’s religious diversity. There are many things one can legitimately criticise the al-Assad regime for over the past 40 years, not least the brutal crackdown on dissent since this April. But one thing the government in Damascus has done has been to protect the interests of minorities such as Christians and Druze, as well as the Alawites who form a significant part of the government and army apparatus. The greatest danger that the country faces as it teeters on the brink of civil war — which one could objectively argue has started already — is that srife could occur along sectarian lines. As Revd Nadim Nassar, a Syrian Anglican priest now based in London, confirmed at a meeting of the Liberal International British Group (LIBG) at the National Liberal Club last evening, this means that some Christians are petrified that any overthrow of the current regime could lead to an Islamic government which would not give them the rights they enjoy today. Over 70 per cent of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim, though only a small proportion of those would identify with the Muslim Brotherhood (for decades the Assad’s main bugbear) let alone more extreme salafis or Islamic fundamentalists. Revd Nassar said that when he was a schoolboy, people really weren’t aware or particularly bothered who was Muslim or who was Christian in his class; as in his case, often one couldn’t even tell from somebody’s name. And at some Christian shrines in Syria you can also find Muslims praying. But Revd Nassar despairs that in the West — including Britain — most people make the simplistic equation Middle East = Muslim (and extremist, to boot), without recognising the significance of the Christian communities in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, notably. That is why he and colleagues set up the Awareness Foundation, to help Church congregations amongst others learn and understand about the realities in both the Middle East and Europe and make sense of their faith in today’s world. The organisation has eschewed the more theoretical or academic approach of bodies such as the Alliance of Civilizations (spearheaded by Turkey and Spain), calling instead for practical programmes which change minds and attitudes among ordinary people. This was all certainly a new take for many members of LIBG and of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, which co-hosted the NLC meeting. In a nutshell, the issues are far more complicated that simply democracy versus dictatorship.


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Mohamed Bouazizi’s Legacy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th December, 2011

A year ago today the young Tunisian itinerant fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself outside the municipal offices in the southern town of Sidi Bou Zid. He had reached the end of his tether after months of harassment and humiliation at the hands of the police and the authorities; little could he know that his act would trigger the undiginfied departure into exile of longstanding President Ben Ali and the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring (which I prefer to refer to as the New Arab Awakening). A year on, the leaders of Egypt, Libya and Yemen have gone and Syria’s President Assad is under threat. But the democratisaton process has been neither as swift nor as smooth as that which happened in central and eastern Europe 22 years ago. People are still losing their lives, not only in the worsening civil war in Syria, but also in ongoing incidents in Egypt, notably. It is still far from clear whether Egypt’s Revolution will lead to what many of the liberal-minded demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo hoped for. Moreover, minor disturbances or marches continue in other parts of the Arab world, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is not only dictatorial presidents who are potentially at risk now but also some hereditary monarchs. But even though Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-sacrifice was an act of despair, as Tunisia today leads commemorations of the first anniversary of his self-immolation, there is hope that at least in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa we are seeing the dawn of greater respect for the aspirations of ordinary people and for human rights.

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Sakharov Prize 2011

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th December, 2011

Next week, at a formal session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought will be awarded to five representatives of the Arab Spring movement: posthumously to the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation partly triggered the whole new Arab Awakening; Asmaa Mafouz (Egypt), Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi (Libya), Razan Zeitouneh and Ali Farzat (both Syria). The Prize is named after the Soviet physicist and political dissdent Andrei Sakharov and has been awarded annually by the European Parliament since 1988 to individuals or organizations who have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy. Last year’s laureate was Guillermo Farinas from Cuba, whose government refused to allow him to travel to France to collect it. Here in London, the European Parliament representation hosted an event at Europe House on Thursday, to mark the prize, though the subject was not the Arab Spring but rather the broad issue of human rights, and in particular attempts in Britain to get rid of the Human Rights Act and thereby disassociate ourselves from some of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, which is a product of the Council or Europe, not the European Union, of course). The Conservative MP Robert Buckland and Conservative MEP Charles Tannock, from slightly different perspectives, argued how they thought Britain would be better off with its own legislative provisions, but Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, fiercely defended the Council of Europe and the ECHR, and from the rumblings in the audience, including from some pro-Euro Tories, the majority were on her side. Incidentally, had we known what David Cameron was going to do at the EU Summit in Brussels subsequently, I suspect the rumbings would have been more like howls of outrage.


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Gilgamesh Launches at Daunt Books

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th October, 2011

The Arab world has become not so much flavour of the month as flavour of the year, thanks to the tumultuous events that started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia last December and the blossoming of the so-called Arab Spring. So maybe it’s not surprisig that there is now a boom in publishing about the Arab world and of literature translated from Arabic. One welcome newcomer to the field is the London-based publishing house Gilgamesh, set up by Max Scott (former Managing Director of Stacey International) and several colleagues, Gilgamesh had its first launch last night at Daunt Books, that treasure-trove of travel writing in Marylebone High Street. The book being celebrated was Lament for Jerusalem by the veteran Palestinian author, historian and archaeologist Yasmine Zahran, who was educated at London University as well as Colombia, New York, before working for UNESCO in Paris. These days she divides her time between Paris and Ramallah, also travelling to research archaeological sites. She was on fine form at the Daunt launch last night, where an eclectic mix of guests from the worlds of academics, publishing, media and diplomacy wer treated to wine and canapés with a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour. I’ll be reviewing Lament for Jerusalem, which draws its inspiration from the 614AD sacking of that great city, shortly.

Links: and

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Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera and the Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th October, 2011

The Arab Awakening has been an emotional experience for many people in North Africa and the Middle East; I confess I too wept on 11 February when the announcement finally came in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down and a great roar went up from the crowd, who were just finishing their prayers. All this seen live on Al Jazeera, of course, the Qatar-based channel that streamed the Egyptian Revolution. This evening, at City University in London, the recently retired (or evicted?) Director General of Al Jazeera, the Palestinian-born Wadah Khanfar, admitted while giving his largely unscripted James Cameron Memorial Lecture that he too had wept twice during the events of the recent months. Once was when his car ran into a celebrating crowd on the Corniche in Doha on 11 February and people who recognised him entered his car and kissed him to thank him for the contribution to the Arab Spring (if one must call it that) of freedom and democracy by his channel. The second time was when an Al Jazeera reporter who had been arrested and tortured in Libya by Gaddafi’s thug apparatus came back to Doha after his release and presented Wadah Khanfar with an apple, which had been given to him by one of his jailors, who had brought it from his garden and who apologised for his treatment, thanked him for what Al Jazeera was doing and said that he and the other officers had only done what they had done because the regime was holding their wives and children hostage.

After the lecture, I asked Wadah if the fact that he had been replaced as Director General by a member of Qatar’s ruling family might signal a change in editorial policy. He said no, and I would like to believe him. But there is no doubt that several rulers in the Gulf were very angry about Al Jazeera’s initial reporting of the crackdown against demonstrators in Bahrain. And I fear that if the Arab Awakening does eventually sweep through the GCC states, Al Jazeera might be emasculated and then die.


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The Arab Spring: How Long Will It Last?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th July, 2011

Last night I spoke to the South Somerset Peace Group in Ilminster about the so-called Arab Spring, highlighting in particular what has been happening in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen — each of which is quite unique, even if certain common threads can be ascertained. One of those is the importance of youth unemployment and economic exclusion, as well as the feeling amongst many ordinary Arabs that for too long they have simply been ruled rather than having any meaningful say in their own destiny. Of course, Tunisia and Egypt (historically) have some experience with democratic politics, whereas in large parts of the Arab world government is top-down, with varying degres of benevolence or malevolence. Western-style democracy is by no means necessarily the most appropriate or relevant model for some states at present.  The key country to watch is Egypt, though it is far from clear whether the transition to a democratic government after elections in November will go smoothly and there is generally a feeling of a revolution only half-completed. Most worrying, I feel, is Syria. The government of Bashar al-Assad has made some minor concessions, but repression has not ceased. Whether a meaningful dialogue with opposition groups — both inside and outside the country — can be organised, leading to true reform, remains to be seen. But there is always the danger that the regime could provoke a regional crisis, drawing in Israel, which would  be downright disastrous. What is certain is that events will kep evolving way beyond the end of 2011: this new Arab Awakening is not a matter of a short season but of an epoch.

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World Press Freedom Day and the Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd May, 2011

The Thomson Reuters headquarters in Canary Wharf hosted this year’s World Press Freedom Day event this evening (co-sponsored by UNESCO UK) to mark the dangers and threats to media worldwide, but this time with a difference, as the focus was on events around the Arab Spring, notably in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. It was particularly good to hear from Shahira Amin, the former Nile TV presenter who resigned from her job at the Egyptian channel in order to join the protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January. Alanoud Al Sharekh, a Kuwaiti resarcher at the IISS, spoke movingly about the sitution in Bahrain and the former BBC Middle East commentator Magdi Abdelhadi gave some insightful observations about the problems of reporting from Syria (where foreign journalists are currently barred). A common thread was how social networking, new media and citizen journalism have revolutionised the situation across the Middle East and North Africa, but no less important was the recognition that there is a new generation of young people in the region who won’t take the bullshit from their tyrranical leaders any more and who are prepared to stand up and be counted, even if as yet they are unclear about what future they want to see. We live in stirring times, exciting times for a journalist and broadcaster such as myself with a special interest in the region. But also an increasingly dangerous time for journalists, scores of whom have been killed while trying to do their job over the past 12 months, not just in war situations such as Libya but also in criminal environments and areas of social breakdown such as Pakistan, Mexico and the Philippines. Jeremy Browne, the LibDem Foreign Office Minister with special responsibility for human rights, sent an excellent video message to the event underlining the current British government’s commitment to media freedom as a key element in foreign policy — something many of us would like to see more evidence of on the ground!


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