Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Tunisia’

Egypt: Where Next?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd June, 2014

Egypt elections 1Egypt elections 2Last night at the National Liberal Club, Liberal International British Group hosted a panel discussion on the political situation in Egypt, with former Nile TV presenter Shahira Amin, democracy activist Ahmed Naguib (via skype), the Treasurer of Liberal International, Robert Woodthorpe Browne (who has been involved in a lot of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s recent work in Egypt) and myself. As the discussion was (rightly) held under the Chatham House Rule, I cannot divulge what any of the others said, but I can share some of the things I talked about. As the two Egyptian participants gave such a comprehenesive and coheremnt picture of today’s political realities and challenges, I complemented their presentations by reminding people about the highs and lows of the mood on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January/February 2011, including the prominent role played by brave women and the way that Muslims and Christian Copts protected each other when they were at prayer. But those who dubbed the phenomenon that started in Tunisia the previous December “The Arab Spring” were always way out on their time-frame. I believed that then and believe it even more strongly now: it will be 30 or 40 years before it becomes clear how the whole New Arab Awakening works out, but what is sure is that Egypt is the test case of its success or failure. It has always had a pole position in the Arab mentality, not just because it is by far the most populous nation in the the Arab world but also because of Cairo’s (Sunni) religious and intellectual pre-eminence. Field Marshal Sisi’s victory in the recent presidential election was a foregone conclusion, though it was notable that in each electoral district there were tens of thousands of spoiled ballot papers. But for the majority of Egyptians (rather than the wealthier, educated elite) the prime concern at the moment is economic survival: bread not ballots. Western commentators like myself rightly focus on matters such as human rights abuses, including the systematic use of torture in detention centres. But the key thing that any Egyptian government, now and for the foreseable future, has to tackle is how to overcome the huge inequalities in Egypt and to provide enough, reasonably-paid work for the predominantly young population. Otherwise, there is likely to be a growing, disenchanted body of youth who could be tempted by something far more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood that was ousted from power. And that bodes ill.

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Ece Temelkuran’s View of “Turkey’s May 1968″

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th June, 2013

Ece TemelkuranTaksim Square 2The past fortnight in Turkey has been transformative for many Turks, especially the young, as a protest against plans to redevelop Gezi Park near Istanbul’s Taksim Square turned into a national uprising, with demonstrations in all but four of the nation’s cities. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears to have taken the protests as a personal affront and he has been caustic in his comments, describing the protesters as looters (“capulcu“) and worse, but those he has abused have embraced the term capulcu in the spirit of sarcasm and festival that has characterised so much of the outdoor activities, especially in Taksim Square — or at least until the police waded in with great brutality and a liberal use of teargas. The young demonstrators (75% of whom are estimated to be under 30) were tonight portrayed by the popular Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran, at a meeting in London’s House of Commons organised by the Centre for Turkey Studies, as frightened, bruised and humiliated, but the contempt with which they have been treated by Mr Erdogan and some of his supporters has only served to impel more people, of diverse backgrounds, into the streets. Ece Temelkuran said most of these people are not overtly political; in fact they are largely of a generation that was deliberately brought up de-politicised by the military governments of the past. Moreover, she asserted, those Western journalists who have tried to simplify what has been going on as a straight confrontation between secularists trying to keep alive the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Islamists backing Erdogan’s AKP have misread the situation. She also rejected the label “Turkish Spring” which some lazy commentators have tried to affix to the disturbances, as if it were all part of a pattern started off in Tunisia in December 2010. As the moderator of this evening’s event said in many ways it is more like May 1968, anarchic in its diversity and absence of leadership or indeed precise goals. For his part, Mr Erdogan this evening has called for a referendum on the fate of Gezi Park, but that is not the central issue, even if it sparked initial protests. And Ece Temelkuran was pessimistic about what may happen over the next 24 hours and beyond. “Before it gets better it’s going to get worse, 100 per cent,” she said.

Links: http://www.ecetemelkuran.com/en and http://www.ceftus,org

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Political Islam at the LibDem Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th March, 2013

MENA regionThanks 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.

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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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The Arab Awakening

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.

Link: www.tariqramadan.com

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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.

Link: www.sakharovprize.europa.eu

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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: www.gilgamesh-publishing.co.uk and www.dauntbooks.co.uk

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The Bell Tolls for Dictators

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd August, 2011

Like many bloggers and tweeters I stayed up late last night, transfixed by the scenes in Tripoli, where the National Liberation Army (as I prefer to call it) penetrated neighbourhoods of the city, including the iconic Green Square, which was immediately renamed Martyrs’ Square. At least two of Mouammar Gaddafi’s sons have been captured and it can only be a matter of time before Gaddafi himself is cornered. Will he do a Hitler and shoot himself, or arrange things so that he gets killed? Or will the cause of justice be served by him and some of his closest associates being taken to the International Criminal Court (ICC)? It’s staggering to think how fast events have moved since the impoverished Tunisian fruit-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself last December. The Tunisian President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s President Mubarak was forced to resign and is now on trial, Yemen’s President Saleh was seriously injured in clashes during the uprising to oust him and remains in hospital in Saudi Arabia — which has a reputation now as the retirement home for dictators, beginning with Uganda’s Idi Amin. And now Gaddafi’s day of judgement is nigh. To remind ourselves of the speed and significance of these events, just take a look at the photo here of the four dictators looking so pleased with themselves at an African Union Summit last year. And next? Syria, inshallah.

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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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