Thanks to a three-year cooperation programme with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the British Embassy in Tunis the Liberal Democrats hosted a group of visiting politicians from Tunisia and Lebanon at the Brighton Spring Conference. On the Saturday afternoon there was a closed session with the visitors and most of the Party’s International Relations Committee and parliamentary International Affairs Team, identifying how best that programme might proceed. But in the evening there was an open fringe meeting that addressed the subject of Liberalism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and how various political forces that might consider themselves Liberal can or should relate to ruling parties that base their core inspiration from Islam. I was the opening speaker, drawing on my professional experience working or travelling in all of the MENA countries as well as teaching at SOAS. I made the point that Islam is the most political of all religions in that it is not just a faith but a code of practice for both private and public life. A number of parties that have come to power since the Arab Awakening — such as Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — are indeed Islamic in inspiration but it is important to make a distinction between them and extremist, exclusive Islamists who have turned a perverted interpretation of the Koran into an oppressive and even murderous ideology (such as the Taliban when they were in power in Afghanistan). There is a worrying influence of salafi or ultra-conservative Islamic thought in much of the MENA region but people need to recognise at the same time that the main reason groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood gained such support was because they looked after people’s needs in societies in which the government was singularly failing to do so — in a sense engaging in community politics. I also made the point that the Arab Awakening, now barely two years old, is still in its infancy and it is likely to be a decade or more before its outcomes are clear.
Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th March, 2013
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st November, 2012
After several false starts, a truce has been agreed between Israel and Gaza, with both Egypt and the United States playing a significant role in the process. This will be a relief both for those Israelis who have suffered rocket fire from Hamas and from other groups in Gaza and the far greater number of Gazans who have been the deliberate or collateral targets of Israeli firepower. But does the truce offer more than a breathing space? Essentially, the core situation has not changed: Gaza is still subject to a cruel blockade, which means that many products, including building materials, are kept out by Israel and even humanitarian aid convoys from Turkey and other friendly states cannot get through by sea. Israel has made no firm offer to lift that blockade, though at least the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo is more sympathetic to the Gazan’s plight than Hosni Mubarak was. What has received little attention, though, is the amount of protest that has broken out in the Occupied West Bank, causing some Arab commentators to wonder whether a Third Intifada is on the cards. What seems to me to be certain is that until the Israeli government changes its policies and starts the evacuation of the West Bank, rather than continuing to build settlements both there and in East Jerusalem in defiance of International Law, there will be no stability in the region. To my mind, the Arab-Israeli conflict is merely on hold, and probably not for very long.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th July, 2012
It’s a brave man (or woman) who risks publishing a book about an ongoing situation, as it can all too easily be overtaken by events. But Tariq Ramadan’s The Arab Awakening (Allen Lane, £20) gives more than temporary relevance to his text by relating the events of the past 18 months to a reappraisal of Islam and Islamic values in the 21st century. He is one who believes that Islam and democracy are compatible and although he does not see Turkey as a perfect role model he does feel it teaches valuable lesssons. As a radical academic he not surprisingly sometimes harks back to the narrative of the MENA region being a victim of the machinations of the West (and Israel) to what many readers may find an irritating degree. Though criticism of American and to a lesser extent European attitudes and their relation to resources such as oil has some validity, the evolving relatinship between the US, EU and the MENA region is far more complex than that. Arab countries must find their own way forward — and Libya’s electoral outcome shows that need not necessarily be a victory for Islamic parties. Professor Ramadan rightly rails against the simplistic Western media and politicians’ distinction between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Muslims. But much of his book is a sombre reflection on how the MENA region can move forward towards greater participatory democracy and human rights. His main text, with case studies from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, is supplemented by appendices made up of articles he has written for a variety of outlets, including his own website. It was interesting to see him predicting the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as early as June 2011.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th May, 2012
Separation can be painful for lovers, but also a great aphrodisiac: witness the love letters of poets and statesmen. But it’s not only the mighty or famous who may be preserved for posterity in their heightened emotions and frustrated desire, viz the correspondence between a certain Reggie — holed up in a military hospital in Port Said at the time of the Great Depression — and his “divine girl”, a Miss Banks in Bexley, Kent. The contrast between the bustling and at the time distinctly louche entrance to the Suez Canal and the most banal of south-east London suburbs could hardly be greater. As we see from Reggie’s missives, which form the centrepiece of an intriguing little exhibition by London-based Greek artist Rania Bellou (“Between I and Me”) at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House in Smith Square (until 15 June), romantic love can transcend both distance and gross venality. Port Said — a regular port of call on my cruise lecturing circuits, incidentally - was, in 1930, when Reggie was at his most effusive, notorious for its “dirty postcard” merchants, who besieged every ship headed for the Red Sea. But Reggie chose very proper views of the city in the cards he selected (some sites still recognisable, others a record of historic buildings long gone) to send to his beloved “Winkie” Banks. The postage stamps on these, and on the envelopes of letters included in the collection acquired by Rania Bellou from a London junk dealer, show a more svelte and handsome King Fuad than the ageing monarch really was at the time. One might ask how a collection of someone’s love letters and postcards (only one-sided, to boot) can form an art exhibit. Well, there are also drawings by Rania Bellou, on superimposed layers of tissue paper, which give us a glimpse of Reggie and his world (which he was shortly to leave, without being united with his beloved). And the exhibition also draws, more poetically, on the legacy of Marcel Proust, who famously remarked that the remembrance of things past is not necessarily the rememberance of things as they were. Memory is a subjective and fickle thing, and there is an unreal quality to the story of Reggie and Miss Banks, as well as a nostalgia which is only emphasized by the exoticism and lost quality of inter-War Port Said, when Egypt was officially independent but Britain and its French allies were still firmly in control of the Canal Zone.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th January, 2012
What better way to celebrate in London the first anniversary of the 25 January Egyptian Revolutionary movement than to join a stimulating crowd of fellow hacks, human rights activists, Arabists and UK-based Atab intellectuals at the launch of a new book about the extraordinary events in Cairo last year by Abdel Latif El-Manawy, who had the job of overseeing news content at the state broadcaster, the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), in the ancien régime’s final days? From his privileged insider position he was able –and willing — to tell Hosni Mubarak it was time to go, but that still makes him a controversial figure among many Egyptian revolutionaries who wonder quite how he was able to slide gracefully from the old situation into the new one in which the army has essentially been in charge. Mr El-Manawy last night described what happened at Tahrir Square as a ‘critical explosion’. I picked up my copy of ‘Tahrir: The Last 18 Days of Mubarak’ at the party thrown by Gilgamesh publishers at Daunt Books in Marylebone, so have not yet had the chance to read it. But I shall be fascinated to digest not only Abdel Latif’s El-Manawy’s take on the events between the first mass occupation of Tahrir Square and Mubarak’s stepping down, but also to see how he reconciles what he did at the head of an organisation essentially treading a tightrope between media objectivity and propaganda. In the meantime, I shall reserve judgement. Besides, everyone at the launch was too exhilirated by the events of the past year to carp, despite concerns about how successful Egypt’s revolution will prove to be in te end, and even deeper fears about the prognosis for Syria. But in the cold light of morning, we shall see. I shall review the book in due course.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th January, 2012
Sitting in Beirut watching Al Jazeera as Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ousted President, was being wheeled into the Cairo courtroom today for the prosector’s final statement raised mixed emotions inside me. Like many of my Egyptian friends, I am still in a half-daze of disbelief that the Revolution actually managed to get rid of the wretched man. But as a European — and therefore a citizen of a continent which has eschewed the death penalty (at least so far as the EU 27 are concerned) – I am also perplexed by the prosecutor’s demand for the death sentence. I have no doubt of Mubarak’s guilt, not only in overseeing the killings and harassment of protestors duing the Tahrir Square demonstrations, but also of presiding over threee decades of a corrupt regime in which torture and human rights abuses were commonplace and he and his family syphoned off not millions but many billions of dollars. To add insult to injury, he was even trying to engineer a succession for his favourite son, Gamal, who has at times during recent weeks been alongside him in the dock. Unlike in the case of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, an even more monstruous dictator who was despatched without dignity after his death sentence, Mubarak is unlikely to face the hangman’s noose. He is seriously ill — though how seriously is a matter of controversy– and he is quite likely to expire before all legal proceedings (including probable appeals) are exhausted. I believe the highest level of command in the Egyptian army would also be extremely reluctant to see their former Commander in Chief swing. But in the meantime, many of us who metophorically popped champagne corks when Mubarak finally resigned may well find ourselvew obliged to sign petitions against his execution, in favour of life imprisonment, on humanitarian grounds.
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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Arab Spring, Assad, Ben Ali, Cairo, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Mohamed Bouazizi, New Arab Awakening, Saudi Arabia, self immolation, Sidi Bou Zid, Syria, Tahrir Square, Tunisia, Yemen | Leave a Comment »
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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi, Ali Farzat i, Andre Sakharov, Arab Awakening, Arab Spring, Asmaa Mahfouz, Brussels, Charles Tannock, Cuba, David Cameron, Egypt, European Parliament, Guillermo Farinas, Liberty, Libya, Mohamed Bouazizi, Razan Zaitouneh, Robert Buckland, Sakharov Prize, Shami Chakrabarti, Strasbourg, Syria, Tunisia | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th October, 2011
Sectarian conflict has been a depressing sideshow to many of the uprisings in the Arab Awakening this year, the latest being the bloody crackdown on Copts demonstrating in Cairo last night. But whether it is Egypt, Syria, Iraq or indeed Great Britain, a mature policy of multiculturalism is the only answer. This doesn’t mean one size fits all; each country or situation has its own specificities. However, in the 21st Century and inh an increasingly globalised world, we all have to recognise that we live in mixed societies and that this is a healthy, enriching thing if handled properly. In London, of course, this is stating the obvious, as one third of the population of the great metropolis weren’t even born in the UK, let alone in London. But even when there is a clear ethnic or religious majority in a society, there needs to be an inclusive approach that embraces everyone, in an atmosphere of respect and tolerance. This is something Israel could do well to learn. Turkey, interestingly, is making small steps in the right direction, after nearly a century of imposed monoculturalism, though much still remains to be achieved. The European Union is of course by definition multicultural and officially celebrates its diversity. But in Europe as elsewhere, these fine words have to be put into practical action.
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.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: al-Jazeera, Arab Awakening, Arab Spring, Cairo, City University, Doha, Egypt, Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, James Cameron, Libya, Qatar, Tahrir Square, Wadah Khanfar | Leave a Comment »