Tag Archives: Arab Spring

Egyptian Chaos: a European Problem

Europe’s role could be crucial to the stabilisation of Egypt. Adding political action to the provision of financial aid, the ‘Old Continent’ could help the country find the stability lost due to its serious economic drift.




[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hilst Europe attempts to define a role in the Mediterranean, Egypt again finds itself at the centre of international attention due to its political instability, resulting from the fall of Morsi. After the gains of the 2011 revolution were progressively mobilised by the Muslim Brotherhood, due to their victory in the presidential elections, the country’s internal situation progressively deteriorated. This resulted in a coup carried out by the military which seems to have found, for the moment, the support of the population. At this point its western neighbours are presented with a dilemma that is not easy to resolve. It is a matter of understanding which are the real demands of the Egyptian people and which is the correct approach to ‘communicate’ with an Egypt in continuous evolution.

The Egyptian uprising helps to challenge a paradigm rooted in the West, that of electoral infallibility, according to which electoral results are a fundamental-and therefore immutable-element of civic life. As seen in Gaza in 2006, however, in the political realities in which democracy begins to take root, elections often yield results which are opposite to those expected-or rather, hoped for. In a sense, what is happening today in the Middle East previously occurred in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. If on one hand this opens up legal dialogues, on the strength of which there is no reason to boycott a government which has legitimately come to power, on the other there are numerous voices which contest the electoral result due to hypothetical pressures or ‘financial patronage’ exerted by the Muslim Brotherhood. It seems clear, however, that room for reflection is very limited and that it is instead necessary to act as soon as possible in order to facilitate a process of transition with as little trauma as possible. It is in fact in the common interest that the region finds its own equilibrium.

In this sense Europe’s role could be crucial to the stabilisation of Egypt. Adding political action to the provision of financial aid, the ‘Old Continent’ could help the country find the stability lost due to its serious economic drift. An economy which, moreover, is characterised by structural elements which make internal change difficult. Among them, the importance of the tourist industry, which is now affected by political instability; a strong tradition of high public subsidies, which do not, however, generate positive outcomes in terms of employment; and an elevated degree of military control over the economy. These factors result in very limited opportunities for an imminent recovery. Europe, on the other hand, could have a more incisive role through the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), created in 2008 by the Barcelona Process and driven by the French, and which in recent years has been found to be a very effective card in relating to the Arab Spring. To find a greater influence in the region, however, the UfM requires renewed confidence and momentum in terms of its capacity for action.

Looking closely, in contrast, what one perceives is a sense of disorientation experienced by western governments, which appear unable to understand the path along which Egypt is directed. Of course, this understanding is far from easy to achieve, and the regional scenario certainly does not make the picture clearer. In fact, the situation in Syria is becoming progressively more explosive, and risks being the subject of a bitter clash between the West and Russia, which has seen Damascus as its only decisive partner in the Middle East since the late seventies.

Ultimately, signs of openness towards a more secular Egypt, which is crucially able to equip itself with a stable and credible democratic system, are coming from the West. To date, however, it is precisely this choice of mediation which seems to be the greatest challenge faced by Cairo. In such a scenario, marked by the fluidity and succession of events, the questions of Europeans are, perhaps, identical to those of Egyptians themselves.


Original Article: Il caos egiziano: un problema europeo

Translated by Lois Bond

The Syrian Conflict: Time to Start Thinking Outside the Box

As the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.




[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n end to the violence and conflict in Syria is not in sight, far from it. The UN estimates that around 100,000 have died in the conflict so far and the number is set to rise as both the Assad regime and the rebel movement refuse to end the bloodshed. Many suggestions have been put forward which aim to bring an end to what has been the bloodiest out of all the Arab Spring uprisings. Some believe that arming the rebels is the answer. The supporters of this claim are the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the French President Francois Hollande and the USA. Russia, on the other hand, has put forward a diplomatic solution which aims to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table. Britain, France and the USA favour a diplomatic solution as well, however they claim that Assad will never join the negotiations when he is winning on the ground, thus the need to arm the rebels to create a stale-mate.

However in this article I will argue that both of the above proposals are unlikely to reap any substantial results and therefore out of the box thinking is required.

An argument against arming the rebels

There seems to be a consensus among many, that if President Assad was removed from power, Syria would go back to normality and a start of a new and bright era could begin. However, such a view is obscured by a shallow thinking: Assad is bad, rebels are good. Over the last few months, such a view has suffered a great dent, due to the grotesque and vile actions by some of the rebels- atrocities against the Syrian minorities, such as Christians, inhumane treatment of enemy soldiers, harsh treatment of civilians in rebel held areas, among other despicable incidents. Some argue that these actions are only committed by an extremist minority who do not represent a more liberal faction fighting Assad.

Such a claim in itself provides two reasons for why arming the rebels would not work. Firstly the claim correctly points out the fact that the rebel movement is deeply fractured. There is a civil war, in the civil war. There have been many reports of rebel groups fighting each other and murdering fellow generals. Secondly, this leads to the natural conclusion that if Assad were to fall right now, the conflict in Syria would not end. It would simply shift from rebels fighting Assad and fighting each other, to rebels fighting each other to a greater extent. If weapons were provided to the opposition, these would eventually be used to kill fellow opposition groups, thus leading to more bloodshed. Even if the Arab Spring in Syria began with Syrians wanting more democracy and freedom, right now the conflict has become a sectarian and religious war, between Shias, Sunnis and hardened Islamists. Iraq should be the perfect example of how getting rid of a dictator for its own sake does not lead to positive results. Despite over 10 years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still plagued by sectarian violence, almost on a daily basis. Syria is even more diverse than Iraq, therefore there is a grave possibility that the violence would be enhanced.

Further reason to doubt the appeal of arming the rebels are claims that the people living in rebel held areas are deeply dissatisfied with the opposition movement, mainly due to the implementation of strict Sharia laws, which the majority of Syrians are not in favour of. Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that, if these rebels were to win, they would initiate mass atrocities against Assad supporters as part of their revenge. This has happened in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi.

Diplomacy as an end in itself is unlikely to work

Undoubtedly supporting Assad in this conflict would also be unthinkable, given the scale of destruction and deaths that have endured over his watch. For this reason some suggested that negotiations ought to take place where both sides agree to a ceasefire and a transitional government, eventually leading to proper democratic elections where the Syrian people will be able to decide how and who should govern the country. In principle this is a viable idea, certainly more so than the plan to arm the rebels. In practise, diplomacy is unlikely to work, since the rebels and their Western backers have set a pre-condition that Assad should step down. Understandably Assad and his support will never agree to such a condition, firstly because he is winning on the ground, and secondly because the rebels and the West have no political legitimacy to ask him for such a move.  Only the Syrian people have the legitimacy to remove their current leader, yet, as well documented, many Syrians continue to support Assad. To have a legitimate transitional government and legitimate future elections, Assad has to be a part of them, to allow the people the chance to once and for all decide whether they want Assad in or out. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the opposition will agree to this move, therefore breaking down any prospective positive outcomes from negotiations

Partition Syria

Unless either the West or Russia decide to end the conflict with a comprehensive victory for their respective sides (a move which is unlikely to occur), the stalemate between Assad and the rebels looks to continue. There is a dangerous possibility that Syria may turn into a new Afghanistan and Iraq, with violence and bloodshed continuing for decades. To prevent such an outcome, Syria may have to be partitioned into some parts that will be governed by Assad, and other parts governed by certain factions of the opposition. For now, Assad will never agree to such a plan when he is winning on the ground, when Russia continues to show undisputed support and when the West is so indecisive. Even if Assad were to win the civil war (which is unlikely as it is hard to see the Western powers allowing this to happen), the extremist rebels would continue to cause a nuisance as they would continue to receive financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Partitioning Syria would look similar to the Russia and Chechnya situation, where technically Chechnya is part of Russia, but has a status of a republic and some limited independence, with their own leader.

Heavy negotiations would need to take place among the Syrian players to arrive at a common outcome and nobody is suggesting that this would be a simple procedure. However, as the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.


Photo Credit: World Shia Forum

The F1 Event in Bahrain: A Lost Chance For The Opposition

How did the revolutionaries use this event to raise more awareness or invite foreign support? A large-scale protest that disrupted the logistics or running of the race would have obviously grabbed some headlines and will have certainly embarrassed the Bahraini security forces.




[dropcap]M[/dropcap]uch to the chagrin of organisations like Amnesty International the F1 event in Bahrain went ahead and was earmarked to make around £26million for Bernie Ecclestone, let alone the huge amount of money generated by Grand-Prix-tourism and advertising for the Bahraini government. Even as some news agencies reported that the Grand Prix would be less eventful than last year, claims were being made that the government had arrested suspected pro-democracy supporters and had ejected an ITV news crew. In fact, even last week when I was in Manama, the tense mood was still apparent as I was stopped by the police on three separate occasions and asked which newspaper I worked for. Flattered though I was, I had to work hard to convince them of the truth that I was just a tourist. It is standard Bahraini government behaviour but still an opportunity for the opposition to attract more media attention.

So would it have been better if the Grand Prix had been cancelled, or if the event had continued with some reports of disturbances? A cancellation would certainly have caught the attention of the F1 fans, which had been waiting a whole week to see the continuation of the competition; how many of those fans are active human rights activists is unclear but probably not high given the level of spectation. However, the fact that the F1 continued gave the pro-democracy supporters an interesting opportunity to broadcast their grievances to the world. The mere fact that the majority of newspapers last week referred to the event as the ‘controversial Grand Prix’ is inadvertent propaganda for the revolutionaries. Interestingly, after his earlier dismissive reaction to calls for the F1 to be cancelled, Mr Ecclestone actually criticised the government for giving the opposition “a platform” to protest. He also told news reporters he would be meeting the opposition leader after the qualifying stage, for what purpose he did not say.

So how did the revolutionaries use this event to raise more awareness or invite foreign support? A large-scale protest that disrupted the logistics or running of the race would have obviously grabbed some headlines and will have certainly embarrassed the Bahraini security forces. Before the F1 events began such a situation seemed highly unlikely given the large security force, long-running crackdowns and pre-emptive arrests, but it seems the protesters realised this too as demonstrations were stepped up the night before and the early-morning of the race. Tyre burnings in Manama also drew some attention, but the tactics were too mild or poorly timed to encourage the kind of attention that would bring their situation forward in the news.

Obviously the Bahraini government and the F1 organisers also had their own press strategies which were extremely harmful to the pro-democracy campaign. This included F1 legend Jackie Stewart weighing in on the side of the Bahraini government. His statement that the anti-government clashes are “no different to the Glasgow Rangers and the Glasgow Celtics [clashes]” is in my opinion a disgustingly naive (or purposefully destructive) assessment of the situation. The fact that this may have been taken as gospel by F1 fans threatens to undermine any pro-democracy efforts to get their word across to the very influential audience of the motorsport. It’s hardly surprising that Jackie supports the Bahraini regime though, seeing as he had a hand in the promotion of Bahrain as a location for F1 races.

The question of violence and destruction of property in Bahraini protests is also an interesting point to address. The branding of the pro-democracy protesters as ‘terrorists’ because the protesters burned tyres and clashed with police seem highly sensationalist to an opposition supporter. But strangely it seems to have worked in turning (at least the British) F1 spectators against the opposition efforts. A very heated and exhausting conversation with my warehouse colleagues showed that they were angry that the “selfish” and “irresponsible” opposition wanted to spoil a beloved international event; although they understood there was excessive and extreme police violence. It would seem that the Bahraini government’s attempt at alienating the opposition argument from F1 spectators has been, in this specific case, successful. Given the lack of international support though I would guess that has been the occurrence across the wider F1 spectator community as well.

The overall effectiveness of the opposition’s campaign to push their story into the global or western spheres seems to have been quite unsuccessful, at least in the long term. The news outlets are no longer running large stories on Bahraini affairs because the tournament has moved on and the Syrian situation has progressed very far in recent weeks. It seems that the only ways to really globalise this situation effectively are to either heavily disrupt a future F1 event to the point of cancellation or relocation (like 2011), or for the opposition movement to turn to much more violent means of resistance. The latter may gain intense media coverage, but is it worth the cost of human life?


Photo Credit: Shabbirhtz

Syria Is Not Iraq Revisited

Afghanistan (2001-ongoing) and Iraq (2003-2011) should remind us of the unpredictability of mission creep.


syria protest democracy 2011


With more than 60,000 estimated deaths, the issue of military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Syria is becoming more and more topical. Some days ago on the pages of The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, wrote a very thoughtful piece, Syria is Not Iraq, where he argued in favor of intervention.

Hamid is extremely critical of the way the United States is responding -or not responding- to the Syrian crisis:

In due time, the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to act may be remembered as one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. Hoping to atone for our sins in Iraq, we have overlearned the lessons of the last war.

Hamid’s article raises two questions. First, is it fair to define the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria “one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades”? Second, is the 2003 war in Iraq the only precedent we should look at to find enduring lessons that could have influenced the current US policy in Syria?

With regard to the first question, the United States did make mistakes along the way. For example, I agree with Hamid that discarding the option of military intervention “in such a flagrant manner” could have been a mistake. In fact, publicly taking the military option off the table may have decreased the pressure the international community could exert on the Syrian regime to restrain its response to the uprising.

The United States could have also taken different decisions. It took US President Obama five months to state that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had lost legitimacy. It took Obama an additional month and a death toll of around 20,000 people to finally say that “for the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” That was a long wait, above all considering the level of violence reached in the Syrian conflict and the fact that in Libya the US president called on Colonel Qaddafi to leave after only two weeks and a much lower death toll.

Mistakes and questionable decisions notwithstanding, there is not sufficient evidence to support the statement that US policy has been one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. To make such a statement one should have the certainty that a military intervention would resolve the conflict once and for all. I simply do not think that at this time we have the luxury to believe that a foreign military intervention would inevitably bring back peace and stability in Syria. Reasons to be worried about the opposite outcome are indeed justified.

President Obama made such concerns public in a recent interview on The New Republic:

In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo? Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can.

Unfortunately, nobody is in the position to know exactly what would have happened had the United States intervened militarily in Syria. One can only speculate on it. However, I think Hamid’s criticism is not completely fair mostly because it does not consider past US experiences in the Middle East, other than Iraq in 2003, that may have influenced the Obama administration’s decision to take a prudent stance toward getting involved militarily in Syria.

Afghanistan (2001-ongoing) and Iraq (2003-2011) should remind us of the unpredictability of mission creep. Two military operations that started with a relatively narrow objective then progressively turned into prolonged and costly nation-building efforts whose outcomes one can arguably define as successes.

Hamid would probably rebut that 2011 Libya was a clear example of the Obama administration’s ability to avoid mission creep and the risk of getting bogged down into yet another nation-building effort in the Middle East. Today, however, Libya is a state with a very weak central government. Several armed militia are effectively in power in some areas of the country. Last September in the Libyan city of Benghazi Christopher Stevens was the first US ambassador to be killed after more than 30 years. Arms provided to the anti-Qaddafi opposition reportedly ended up in the hands of extremists. The same extremists that have crossed Libyan porous borders to export violence into neighboring countries such as Algeria and Mali.

What if, then, the United States intervened militarily in Syria and after the end of the military operations, following the script of the Libya intervention, did not take on the burden of nation-building? Who would be ready for a Libya-redux in Syria with similar levels of instability and lawlessness? What the potentially explosive implications for highly-sensitive countries such as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey? All that considered, I believe that a limited US military intervention in Syria with no significant follow-up would be not only unwise but also extremely dangerous.

Finally, the Syrian crisis has clearly taken the form of a civil war that primarily pits a Sunni majority against an Alawite minority, with other minor groups picking side or standing idle. Lebanon in the early 80s was a dramatic example for the United States of the perils of getting involved in civil wars fought mostly along sectarian lines. At that time, in fact, US troops and personnel became targets of terrorist attacks that resulted in more than 300 American casualties on Lebanese soil.

Therefore, the US lack of enthusiasm to intervene militarily in Syria may go well-beyond the unfortunate experience of Iraq to include hard lessons from Afghanistan, Libya and Lebanon.

Hamid argues that the Obama administration is making a huge mistake by not getting involved militarily in Syria. I personally hold some doubts that the current Syrian mess could be resolved by military means. Instead, more resources and more energies should be invested in finding a difficult, but not yet impossible, political solution to crisis.


Photo Credit: Syriana2011

Time For Palestine To Join The Arab Spring

Palestinians must decide whether they want to continue living in dire conditions under a brutal Israeli regime or take the plunge, join the Arab Spring and strive for the opportunity to achieve justice and freedom for themselves.


Palestine flags


As uprisings continue to sweep the Arab region, from the North African country of Tunisia all the way to Syria and Bahrain, it is rather astonishing that the Palestinians have not jumped on the bandwagon and joined the Arab Spring movement. After all, it would have been a timely opportunity to join the momentum of those revolutions that continue to strike the region in hope of achieving freedom from brutality. It would have also put the Western nations in a difficult situation. Western Europe, together with the United States, has been very supportive (at least in rhetoric) of the Arab Spring, playing a crucial role in overthrowing Gaddafi and continuing to be an important player in the Syrian civil war. It is well known, however, that the West-especially the United States-shows undeniable support towards Israel. This was witnessed during the last Israeli attacks on Gaza when the United States blamed the Palestinians for the conflict. For this reason, a Palestinian uprising would put the United States in a peculiar position. Could America really continue to show full support to the Syrian rebels and Egyptian civilians, who are once again demonstrating on the streets against their current leader Morsi, yet deny the Palestinians the opportunity to protest against the many grievances: Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the ghetto-like Wall that separates Gaza from the rest of humanity, the illegal settlements, the unfair treatment of Palestinians living in Israel, the shootings of Palestinian children on the Gaza border, the lack of food and clean water due to the Israeli blockade and against the constant threat that Israel will strike again any minute. While western nations are notoriously known for their hypocritical stance when it comes to their foreign policy in the Middle East (which usually reflects their own national interests), the denial of the Palestinian right to rise up against Israel would set in stone what the majority already fear: the West’s lack of concern for human rights of others.

Though the Arab Spring started in 2011, the uprisings are still in full swing and therefore it is not late for Palestine to join the movement. It would be essential for the Palestinians to carry out a peaceful protest (i.e. no rockets from Hamas and no killings of Israelis), but nevertheless a protest that sends out a clear message that they will not back down until some progress is made. This would deny Israel their usual defence: that Palestine is an aggressive region and poses a threat to Israeli national security. This protest should not be about borders, or about a potential creation of the Palestinian state, but about a simple desire to be treated like human beings rather than caged animals. The majority of the international community already support the Palestinians. Not only has Palestine been granted the status of an observer non-member state at the UN, but the reports by the United Nations continue to condemn and criticise the inhumane actions of Israel. If Israel were to retaliate with violence and force against a peaceful uprising by the Palestinians, the Jewish state would risk more alienation from the international community and more disapproval from the general public around the world. A nation cannot continue to survive with a long queue of enemies.

In 2011, the Arab populations took the leap of faith. Many knew that their uprisings could lead to brutal response from their dictators. Some were aware that perhaps they would not survive to see the end of authoritarianism in the Middle East. Yet as the saying goes, when you have nothing, you got nothing to lose. The Palestinians have suffered to the point of near-total submission. However they must use the inspiration from their fellow Arabs who made the decision that enough is enough. Emiliano Zapata, a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution against the dictatorship in 1910 said that “it’s better to die upon your feet than to live upon your knees”. The Palestinians must now make the choice between whether they want to continue living in dire conditions under a brutal Israeli regime or take the plunge, join the Arab Spring and strive for the opportunity to achieve justice and freedom for themselves.


Photo Credit: Joi

Libya, Two Years After Gaddafi

A monopoly over the legitimate use of violence- the hallmark of a sovereign state- must be regained by the Libyan government. Security issues should be the priority, as they prevent every other sector of the society from progressing.


Libyan protestor Gaddafi


As the second anniversary of the Libyan revolution approaches, threats of protests from angry citizens have prompted the Libyan government to announce a plan to reinforce security and surveillance capabilities around Tripoli and other cities.

Though the odds of an armed uprising remain relatively small, renewed calls for change have found enough resonance amongst the population to incite a response from the government. Prime Minister Ali Zaidan’s announcement came as a response to calls for a ‘second revolution’ from citizens in Bani Walid, Benghazi and Tripoli. Additionally, various civil society groups aim to organize protests against the government’s slow progress on reforms. The rise of critical voices points to growing dissatisfaction amongst Libya’s citizens and the myriad of challenges the government faces.

Perhaps the biggest issue remains one of basic security. Armed militias continue to escape the control of the government and High profile incidents such as the September attack on the US consulate in Benghazi only highlight the government’s inability to cope and provide the basic provision of security within its borders.

Armed militiamen continue to roam freely the streets of many Libyan towns, often demanding special treatment because of their ‘services’ during the war.

Strategic cities such as Benghazi-Libya’s economic hub and the bastion of the revolution- provide a stark example of broken institutions and lawlessness. Benghazi has witnessed a rising tide of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations, often targeting government and security officials. The lack of basic security hampers the ability of local authorities to provide basic social provisions such as garbage collection. Though symbolically integrated within the national security apparatus, armed militias outman and outgun local police and continue to control key parts of the city. Arrests are seldom made out of fear of reprisal attacks and kidnappings.

The town has historically been wary of centralized control from Tripoli. The inability of the government to meet the expectations of its citizens has renewed calls for a return to a federalist arrangement. This would significantly weaken the government and could set a precedent for other regions to do the same.

Security problems are not exclusive to isolated hamlets or destroyed cities like Benghazi. Tripoli has had its fair share of violence. Assassination attempts on government and security officials are common occurrences. The General National Congress (GNC) has been stormed by protesters and militiamen on a number of occasions, and its president Mohamed Magarief survived an assassination attempt on 4 January 2013.

The violence during the revolution already had a serious impact on the stability of the region. Many experts point to the flow of weapons and fighters from the Libyan conflict towards Mali as a major cause in the security deterioration in the Sahel. Despite having closed all borders, the Libyan territory continues to be a transit hub and the home of Islamist militants active in the region. The attackers of a gas facility in neighboring Algeria are reported to have crossed from Libya and to have benefited from the inadequate security provisions on the border.

As Libyans prepare to mark two years of rule without Gaddafi, the government faces the immense task of rebuilding a nation after a civil war that destroyed vital infrastructure and addressing the aspirations of the Libyan people at the same time. Avoiding a popular backlash or renewed violence requires greater action on the security front and a rapid application of political reforms.

The monopoly over the legitimate use of violence- the hallmark of a sovereign state- must be regained by the government. Security problems should be the priority, as they prevent every other sector of the society from progressing.


Photo Credit: شبكة برق | B.R.Q

Revolution Is A Messy Business

So 2012 is over and we are looking ahead to 2013. A lot has happened during the last year as the Middle East plodded on through the late stages of the Arab Spring. Now there is talk of an Arab Fall (or an Islamist Spring) due to the rise of Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates as well as Salafists in Egypt, Tunisia, etc..

Among many there was a vague expectation of a liberal democratic turn in the Middle East when the first regimes fell. However – especially in Egypt – the Muslim Brotherhood was simply the most organized organization with the most clout. It was obvious that it would gain a strong role in post-Mubarak Egypt.

A swift and easy transformation was equally unlikely. The Arab Spring in its historical dimension can be compared to the end of the evil empire; the Soviet Union and its satellites. Gregory Gause, III makes a good point when he says that after the fall of Communism, Eastern Europeans had no other ideological paradigm than capitalist democracy to turn to. This is very different to the Arab Spring.

In the Middle East Islam is an alternative program, and the result is the aforementioned rise of Islamists. However, recent events in some Eastern European states might suggest a surprising resurgence of nationalism. Furthermore, the conflicts in the Balkans and in Moldova reveal that the fall of the Iron Curtain did not go over as easily and without violence as suggested by Gause. Hence, if we poke around a little it becomes clear that historic shifts often work out similarly.

We need to keep in mind when dealing with such shifts that the results will be diverse and depend a lot on the circumstances in the respective countries. Revolutions are often connected to violence, and continued conflict after the old regime has been removed is a by-product. We know from empirical studies that transformative regimes are more prone to internal conflict. This is obvious for Syria and Libya, but keep an eye on Egypt as the country faces huge obstacles in the immediate future and holds a lot of potential for conflict that might escape the recent events of street violence. What will happen when politics in Egypt become unhinged?

This does not mean that the Arab Spring will be in vain. Simply that transformative periods are almost never short-lived and countries face numerous possible outcomes.


Photo credit: Denis Bocquet

The African Union & The Mali Crisis

As the AU continues to rally and grow in power in the face of the battle over the Saharah, an independent military able to swiftly act against extreme Islamist factions may become an inevitability.



When northern Mali fell to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), few international observers took note. It was a relatively small event compared to the nearby coup d’etat in the capital, the Libyan civil war and the religious extremist attacks of northern Nigeria. However, when cracks began to form between the forces which had announced Azawad a free state and the MNLA was routed by extreme Islamist factions, heads began to turn.

The defeat of the MNLA, after they had already defeated the Malian army, has been the most significant success by extremist Islamist forces since the Taliban was defeated in 2001. Afghanistan’s Taliban is turning to political moderation, Iraq is calming, moderates rule in northern Africa and al-Shabaab in Somalia is breathing its last breaths. The victors? Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), affiliates of the North-African Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

With the defeat of al-Shabaab in Somalia almost becoming a forgone conclusion after a corridor was created between African Union (AU) forces in Mogadishu and the other AU-controlled areas, Mali could be the next great front against violent Islamism in Africa.

The victory in West Africa has been a long time coming, and required a series of international events to come about. Increasing militant attacks in northern Nigeria has developed a strong and growing political and military block in the form of Boko Haram. This cannot be waved off as just another conflict in another state. Nigeria is a middle-income and relatively huge state to be facing such attacks and such strong resistance from a rebel group. This isn’t Afghanistan or Yemen, it’s a state listed in a peer group involving Mexico, Egypt and Turkey and is predicted to have the largest GDP growth in the world over the next forty years. It is larger in population and economy than all 14 other Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) members put together. The ten-year long growth of Boko Haram cannot be underestimated.

After a decade rising, West African militants only needed one opening to begin serious military advances. This opening was the Arab Spring. As Libya collapsed into chaos many Islamists joined the ranks of eastern tribes and liberals in the campaign against Gaddafi. As the conflict dragged on they became better armed and hardened by the long conflict. When Gaddafi was killed however it was liberals who won the parliament and action began to disarm the various militia groups, only increasing in the wake of the recent Benghazi attacks. So the militants moved on, across the border into Algeria and then Mali.

The MNLA benefited greatly from this influx of militants. But the fighters were absorbed into the extremist Ansar Dine and MOJWA, not the Tuareg nationalists, the three together forming a major challenge to the Mali military. The Tuareg rebellion began to make serious strides in January and by March the frustrated military overthrew the government and suspended the constitution. Shortly after the MNLA seized control of the country’s North only to be almost immediately betrayed and routed by its Islamist allies. Now the country is divided between the new transitional government and the AQIM affiliates. Extremist Islam breeds in these situations. Extreme militant groups dedicated to a brutal interpretation of Sharia law capture areas already torn by strife, where young disenfranchised men are common and where the state is unable to maintain a monopoly on violence. However, over the past decade Africa has begun to organise itself to face this ever-growing threat. Unlike in Afghanistan where a complete lack of regional power structures necessitated the involvement of the Western alliance of NATO, the AU is increasingly stepping in to avoid regional disintegration when states lose control of their territory. In Somalia AU forces control the capital and continue to demolish al-Shabaab’s power centres. In Mali the ECOWAS is acting with the support of the AU to deploy 3,300 troops against the AQIM affiliates in the north. The plan is a six-month mission from December to June establishing bases in the south and then fighting towards the north and the border with Algeria, a power which is refusing to take part. The EU, a long time ally of the AU, is organising sending hundreds of military advisers to help the Mali military back to its feet.

The AU is following the post-Cold War NATO model of security through order. Failed states where there is no government capable of controlling the full territory and monopolising violence are too dangerous a threat to ignore and more than capable of distabilising whole regions. Just like NATO and the EU stepped in to the collapsing Yugoslav state, so to is the AU stepping in where Islamic militants manage to wrest control of territory. If the ECOWAS intervention in Mali succeeds, expect to see further peacekeeping forces sent in to Northern Nigeria and southern Libya should the situations there worsen.

Any resistance to AU involvement in military affairs is entirely reputational, to accept military assistance is to admit to being unable to survive alone. Mali and Somalia have both crossed the limits where such admittance is long past, whereas Libya, Nigeria and South Sudan have not. This is what the threat of extremist Islam represents, a threat so great that all regional actors are willing to step in to states which are not their own once the pride of those states is overwhelmed by a desperate need to survive.

Many believe, after the much focused upon War on Terror, that the war against extremist Islam is a predominantly US affair. To believe such is to accept the Islamist framing of the conflict, one far easier to recruit for when regarded as a battle against the evil American imperialists. In fact it is a global affair. Russia frequently clashes with Islamists in the Caucasus. Pakistan does so in the federal regions, China in Xinjiang, Egypt in the Sinai peninsula, Indonesia in Aceh, Turkey in Kurdish areas, India in Kashmir, the Philippines in Bangsaromo. Any region bordering the Islamic world faces extremists as a threat to security, power and human rights. The reason that the US War on Terror is so focused upon is largely due to the unilateral use of force in states far away and strange to them. Where the AU succeeds with the help of EU and UN allies is in a multilateral engagement using local forces. This is a technique only recently turned to in Afghanistan and possibly too late.

As Africa continues to develop and some of its nations rise towards global prominence we will hear much more of its battle with violent Islamism. One of the issues which will develop is the growing strength of AU military forces which are undergoing a transition to a permanent AU force rather than than loose coalitions formed by constituent state militaries. Just as the EU is being forced closer by economic crisis, so to is the AU being forced together by Islamic militancy. Both international powers may well together signify a shift away from the nation states of European empires and towards multilateral international governments with independent militaries and a dedication to stability at all costs. By their very nature these powers will be more liberal than the nation states they emerge from and so develop a human rights consensus completely at odds to extreme Islamic militancy.

As the AU continues to rally and grow in power in the face of the battle over the Saharah, an independent military able to swiftly act against factions such as AQIM may become an inevitability. The EU already operates across central Africa with its independent CSDP. Operations under the flags of the AU and EU seem only set to expand with the legitimacy that such allied enterprises provide. By their violent dedication to the crescent, extreme Islamists may well be manufacturing the international order which will snuff them out.


Photo credit: zeepkist

Good Luck President Obama, You Need It!

Most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term?


President Obama looking serious


“The best is still to come” was the soundbite which has resonated from Obama’s victory speech last night. Time will tell if this is the case, but the facts are that the US public has overwhelmingly supported the status quo in this time of economic trouble. The President remains in office, the Democrats keep the Senate and the  Republicans keep the House of Representatives. In that respect nothing has changed. But with no future election to worry about, will Obama’s foreign policy change from the Bush spillover which dominated his first term?

In 2001 George W. Bush faced one of the most dramatic changes in international affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Faced with two falling towers and thousands of dead Bush was faced by a US public desperate for answers, for justice and for vengeance. The result of this was the first term of the War on Terror, 2001 in Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq. Wars that were supposed to be short interventions to create a change in the Middle East became festering pools of suffering for almost a decade. Tens of thousands died across the Middle East, and by his second term Bush was desperately trying to hold together a mission that was going from bad to worse.

Obama inherited that mission. Bush’s surge in Iraq had already stabilised the country ready for a withdrawal Obama only had to keep on target. However, the ongoing mission to attempt to stabilise the Middle East, destroy the leadership of Al-Qaeda and mend relations damaged by the 2003 invasion of Iraq remained the same.

What Obama faced in taking office was a battle between his lofty ideals and promises and reality. His compromise was pragmatic, driving towards aims slowly and cautiously and making no significant and unbalancing changes to the foreign affairs of the second term of Bush.

What did change was so gradual the world’s population at large barely noticed it. There was a shift from the Middle East to the Pacific with troop deployments in Australia and a new agreement with Japan over Guam and further military cooperation. Although this shift has been slowed by the Arab Spring and the continued fighting in Syria, it is symbolic enough to prompt China’s own challenges for the South and East China Sea. There were significant defense cuts which have placed an emphasis on less of everything, but a greater emphasis on technological and training superiority. Obama has orchestrated a gradual lean to a more impartial role in the Middle East than under Bush, one aided by his faux-pas with Nicholas Sarkozy and the intervention in Libya against a secular dictator on the side of Islamists as well as liberals. More generally there has been a shift away from democratic transition by pressure or force and towards a focus on stability. Transition is now pushed towards supporting stable governments and pushing them towards liberal reform. Again, the Arab Spring was an unexpected reversal of this trend. And, of course, Osama Bin laden is dead.

However, most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded exponentially, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term? What of 2012-2016?

Well the answer is: Probably much of the same, but don’t expect the US foreign policy world to look the same in 2016 to 2008. The track of Obama’s presidency has been a gently-gently turn from Bush’s policies to Obama’s, and the US should look very much like Obama’s legacy by the end of the next four years. A turn from the Middle East to East Asia, from military intervention to diplomatic and economic pressure, from antagonism of Muslim states to partnerships based on the national interest of influence.These policies have already proved fruitful and will continue to do so. Japanese support for military bases was prevented from collapse just long enough to actually step up cooperation important to limit China’s expanding Pacific potential. Sanctions in Iran have its economy on the verge of collapse and popular support of Ahmadinejad beginning to turn against him. The intervention in Libya and support for the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions has given Obama political capital there not seen for decades. Despite the Benghazi attacks popular support is actually for the US as militant groups were forced out of Eastern towns across the country by anti-extremist protesters.

That said, just like the Arab Spring revolutions, the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Soviet Union, sudden and unexpected events can throw the best plans into disarray. How Obama deals with potentially disastrous events could change his foreign policy dramatically.

  • Afghanistan: Withdrawal in 2014, if too soon, could devastate the region and NATO’s influence.
  • Syria: The conflict must be restrained to the country to avoid regional collapse.
  • Iran: Although sanctions are working, should Iran turn to desperate measures or should Israel overplay its hand things could turn very dangerous.
  • Yemen: A potential second Afghanistan/Somalia. Though the risk is smaller should the state collapse, the threat of a new front could give extremists a valuable new refuge.
  • South/East China Seas: The competition between the South-Eastern/Eastern Asian powers over the seas is not a battle the US can involve itself in overtly or risk facing backlash. However it is one which needs to be carefully monitored and one where soft power could be at its most important.
  • West Africa: The continued rise of Bokko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and other extremist Islamist groups in this region could be a new front in the most need for intervention but with the least popular support for it. So far the US has only been able to give token support for these states, but as things go from bad to worse in Mali this cannot be expected to be the end of the conflicts.

Congratulations Barack Obama, but I don’t envy you in the four years to come. You will face a hostile House of Representatives and a demanding public. You will face the challenge of keeping North Africa on your side and yet still combat Islamic extremism, of limiting China without antagonising it, of realising your potential without ceasing to be pragmatic. Good luck President Obama, you need it.


Photo Credit: US Army

The Changing Dynamics of Palestinian Movements

Terrorists or not, it is clear that as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad make their rise the West will gradually lose its already-weak influence over decision-making processes in the Palestinian political landscape.


Palestine party politics protest[dhr]

Since the ’Arab Spring’ began in the December 2011, geo-political experts across the world have anticipated (and sometimes prophesised) the coming of changes to the Palestinian political landscape. However the popular uprisings that toppled governments in Egypt, Yemen as well as Libya and are trying to do so today in Syria, have eluded the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Yet it seems political commentators have self-caused the idea of the Arab Spring passing the Palestinian political environment to become axiomatic. By expecting to see such mass protests against the ruling regime in Occupied West Bank or Occupied Gaza Strip, what these commentators have missed is the more subtle and behind-the-scene change in Palestinian political dynamics – one that has been fuelled by the regional changes originating from the ‘Arab Spring’ events.
Palestinian political landscape is silently going through its own ‘Arab Spring’ moment with old gerontocratic leaders finding it difficult to assert the same power they have been wielding for such long time. At the same time new (Islamist) political forces are establishing themselves in politics, while other organisations are re-asserting themselves as new (and often more extreme) resistance forces.

Fall of Fatah

The ’old guard’ of Fatah led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and technocrat Prime Minister Salam Fayyad seems to have its back against the wall. Firstly the economic situation of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is on its last legs and according to the latest World Bank report will face a $ 400 million budget deficit that needs to be covered (as always) with the finances coming from international donors. The West Bank Palestinians are realizing that the current government cannot fill their expectations regarding improvement of quality of life or making progress in reaching peace with the Israelis that would lead to an independent Palestinian state. Of this bears witness the fact that numerous protests against both the rule of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad took place in various West Bank towns throughout the last summer. Possibly the first nail in Fatah’s coffin is the latest poor showing at the West Bank local elections where the party won just two-fifths of the seats it contested for. What is more it lost its control over such key West Bank towns as Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin to former Fatah members who had seceded from the party.

It is of course too early to write off Fatah completely. Mahmoud Abbas has launched for the second time a Palestinian initiative in the United Nations and this time the Palestinian leader might succeed in what he is seeking. Abbas aims to change the legal status of the Palestinian entity to a non-member observer state at the United Nations and currently it looks that he is going to accomplish that as 150 to 170 countries supposedly will vote in favour. But this victory could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Abbas. In reality not much will change for the Palestinian leadership – Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories will continue and can realistically be ended only through bi-lateral negotiations. And certainly nothing will change for the common Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza Stip. He or she will continue to face economic difficulty and Israeli occupation. Fatah leaders, by raising the hopes of Palestinian people and then returning from the General Assembly with nothing more than a legal piece of paper and no real benefits, might do disservice to themselves.

New political rise of Hamas

Misfortunes of Fatah have opened up opportunities for other Palestinian political actors. Hamas has been a central player in Palestinian politics, at least since the movement won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and possibly even before that. The political changes of the Arab Spring have furthermore fuelled Hamas’s ever-accelerating accent – a political rise that is seriously threatens Fatah’s role as the premier Palestinian political actor.
Hamas like many other organisations found its position at the beginning of Arab Spring weaken as its relationships with its traditional backers Iran and Syria chilled. With the Syrian Alawite regime gradually cranking up violence against its Sunni subjects Hamas leaders distanced themselves from the al-Assad regime and eventually outright condoned the brutal crackdown. This subsequently entailed Hamas’s external bureau leaders leaving their traditional headquarters in Damascus as well as drying up of Iranian financial assistance and arms deliveries. But Hamas soon found new patrons – Turkey, Egypt and Qatar.

Somewhat surprisingly it has been the small but rich Gulf state that has proved to be the most supportive and possibly valuable ally to Hamas. Hamas leaders at first must have expected Egypt to become premier supporter of the Palestinian Resistance Movement. But the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has been wary when dealing with Hamas and in numerous accounts has done less than Hamas leaders would expect from him vis-à-vis supporting the movement. Qatar seems to be more open regarding its support to Hamas, something that became clear just recently with Qatar pledging $400 million for different projects in the Gaza Strip that was followed by the Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani’s visit to the Palestinian enclave.

Hamas, a Palestinian organisation that throughout its history has aspired to replace Fatah as the prominent Palestinian movement, will benefit Qatar’s recent generosity and Emir’s subsequent visit in numerous ways. Firstly the injection of cash will improve the living conditions of Gazans and will provide many unemployed people with much needed work. Of course even with this financial boost Gaza is still a long way from a comfortable and modern place to live, but that might not be the point. For Hamas and especially Gazan leaders they will be able to show that Hamas (irrespective of this being through foreign investment) is improving the living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza, while the Fatah led-government is pursuing populist goals at the time when the West Bank population is languishing in economic hardship. Hamas looks to win some political points with the West Bank Palestinians and could very well succeed through this strategy.

The visit of Qatari Emir is important also from an international perspective. It is widely publicised that Emir Al Thani was the first head of state to visit Gaza Strip since Hamas took power in June 2007. The real importance of the visit is however that it challenges the long-held monopoly by Fatah and the PLO as being accepted by the international community as the sole representative of Palestinian people. While Hamas officials have been on political visits to different Arab (and occasionally non-Arab states) the visit of the Emir, at least de facto if not de jure, confirms Hamas’s positions as the official ruler of the Gaza Strip and thus representative of (some) Palestinians. Moreover Qatar opened a diplomatic mission in Gaza while not doing so in the West Bank – a development that could reinforce the idea that the Gulf emirate sees Hamas as the new dominant Palestinian political force.

Hamas itself has for long sought to be accepted as a more credible political actor, but has struggled to relinquish its image of a resistance movement. The new Qatari recognition and financial injection into Gaza might very well help Hamas to move away from violence against Israel and commit more extensively to ruling the Gaza Strip. Firstly Qatari visit and the opening of the diplomatic mission might open the door for other (first Arab and later non-Arab) states to establish official contacts with the Hamas government inside Gaza Strip. Secondly when the Qatari-funded skyrises, hospitals and schools start to be built in the Palestinian enclave, Hamas has every incentive in limiting violence from the Gaza Strip that could incur destructive Israeli retaliation. There is no point in building a new hospital one week if it is destroyed the next. Hence Hamas’s internal security services will step up their actions to curb violent attacks by other Gazan-based militants groups against Israel. By providing Gazans with better life conditions Hamas can palliate itself from focusing less on the continuation of the armed resistance. It is unlikely however that armed resistance will stop altogether – nature abhors a vacuum. While Hamas is moving away from violence and becoming more involved in non-violent political and ruling process, another Islamist movement is posed to take its place as the quintessential Palestinian resistance movement.

The Resurgent Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has long been living in the shadow of its rival Hamas. Although being one of the first movements participating in the First Intifada, the PIJ as an Islamist movement was forced to take the back seat after the creation of Hamas and has since then been seen as the supportive ‘little brother’ of the former. That is until recently.

The PIJ has become more critical of Hamas and has accused the later of selling out on the idea of resistance to Israeli occupation. True enough Hamas has scaled back its armed attacks against Israel following the 2007-2009 Gaza War that proved painstakingly destructive for Hamas and the Gazan population. Increasingly critical of Hamas, the PIJ has stated that it will continue the armed resistance against Israel even if Hamas decides to abandon such action. More importantly it seems that the PIJ actually possesses the necessary means to do so. Abu Ahmad, the spokesperson of the military wing of PIJ, said in an interview to Reuters in late 2011 that the organisation had at least 8000 fully equipped fighters under its command and that there was no shortage of new recruits wanting to join. Iranian connection to the PIJ was also mentioned during the interview and taking into account the fact that Hamas has fallen from the good graces of Iran it might be the PIJ that has come to replace Hamas as the main recipient of Iranian military assistance. In the light of this the alleged Israeli Air Force air strike against the Yarmouk arms factory in Sudanese capital Khartoum on 23 October might have destroyed 40 containers of weapons meant not for Hamas, but for its rival the PIJ.


Although the Palestinian civil society has not gone through a large-scale popular uprising as we have seen in other parts of the Middle East there is rock-solid evidence that Palestinian political dynamics are changing. And from a Westerners perspective the change (like many other political changes brought on by the Arab Spring) are worrying. Fatah, the long-time Western ‘go-to guy’ in Palestinian politics is fast losing its authority and might be on its way out as a political player. With the other two up-and-coming Palestinian political entities – Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – the West largely lacks any meaningful connection, much to do with the fact that they are considered terrorists. Terrorists or not, it is clear that as these two groups make their rise the West will gradually lose its already weak influence over decision-making processes in the Palestinian political landscape. Instead it will be the various Arab and non-Arab states in the Middle East that will see their influence increase. Will these states exert their influence over these Palestinian entities to pursue peace or to pursue war? Only time will tell.


Photo Credit: No Lands Too Foreign

Are Protests A Complete Waste Of Time?

As the NUS prepares for another round of protests on the 21st of November, one can only ask whether it is a waste of time or a vital action that may lead to positive results.


london education cuts protest


20th October 2012 saw one of the largest protests in recent years. Titled “A Future That Works”, around 150,000 students, activists, politicians and other members of the public filled the streets to voice their disapproval and anger at the public cuts, welfare budget cuts and against austerity measures put forward by the Coalition government. Additionally the protest aimed to change the way politics works in Britain. Their objective is to create a nation which pays workers a living wage, where bankers do not get high bonuses, where the government ensures the inequality between the rich and the poor is shrunk.  These objectives are not new and throughout the years citizens have demonstrated against their government’s policies in hope of change. But does change ever come?

Undoubtedly some protests can have devastating effects on the governments. The Arab Spring is a perfect example of small scale marches turning into full-blown revolutions which resulted in regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Protests have also had a positive impact in America where slavery and segregation were abolished thanks to the protests and marches organised by Martin Luther King. Finally, Gandhi had an innovative idea of protesting – peaceful non-violent civil disobedience which led to the independence of India from the British Empire.

However, recently a large number of people have claimed that protests do not achieve anything and looking back over the last few years it is understandable why that is the case. Almost a million marched against the war in Iraq in 2003, yet the march did not prevent the invasion. Thousands of students marched against the rise in tuition fees, yet once again the results were unsuccessful. One has to also ask what the Occupy Movement has achieved over the last year except media coverage.

Evidently some protests and marches achieve their aim and some do not. Perhaps one explanation for this could be the cause of the protests. While most marches have some validity, one can argue that marching against authoritarian regimes and against slavery and segregation is far more important than marching against a tuition fee rise or austerity measures. In addition, some of the causes which have been successful are quite objective. Anyone with any sense of morality would agree that racism, slavery and life under a dictatorship is wrong and thus it was inevitable that change would eventually come. Austerity measures, education cuts and even the invasion of Iraq are issues which are less clear cut and can be viewed as rather subjective.

Does that mean that less important matters should be left untouched by activists and protesters?  Absolutely not: the secondary aim of marches is to illustrate the dissatisfaction of citizens against a particular policy and additionally to spread the narrative among the public who may not be aware of the damage these policies may be causing. This is exactly what the protests against the invasion of Iraq, against the tuition fee rise, and the most recent austerity march has achieved: the illustration of anger at the government and widespread media coverage attracting others to the cause.

Let us also not forget that student demonstrations can be very effective. For example, thousands of students took over the university as part of the uprising of the Polytechnic University of Athens. As a result the military junta stormed the university gates using tanks. The outcome was the killing of many students by the dictatorship, however, a few days later a nation-wide uprising took place against the junta. This demonstration resulted in the creation of the famous legislation known as the Students Asylum or Academic Asylum. This law was introduced to protect freedom of thought and expression on campuses in 1982, when memories of Greece’s repressive military dictatorships of the late 1960s and early 1970s were still raw.

So where does this leave modern day protests and marches? As the NUS prepares for another demonstration on the 21st of November, one can only ask whether it is just another waste of time or a vital action that may lead to positive results. From the examples given in this article it is clear that many marches do create change, regardless of whether it takes weeks or years. In addition these marches can achieve much more than transformation of the society. They can ensure the government is well aware that their citizens are not prepared to stand back and let the establishment make unpopular choices. Demonstrations keep the government on their toes and ensure politicians are always accountable for their actions. For these reasons, protest and demonstrations are vital ingredients of our political system and have an intrinsically important role to play in society.


Photo credit: Selena Sheridan

#4: Shiraz Maher on Islamists, al Qaeda & the Arab Spring

In this episode of Debrief, Tom Hashemi is joined by Shiraz Maher, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).


Shiraz Maher and Tom Hashemi


You can subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes.

Shiraz & Tom discuss the effect that the uprisings across the Middle East have had on Islamism, and in particular on al Qaeda’s recruitment ability. The conflict in Syria is considered, and Shiraz affirms his belief that military intervention offers the best solution to the destruction that is currently pervasive in the Arab nation.


Shiraz Maher is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). He is currently writing an intellectual history of al-Qaeda, exploring the development of its political thought by drawing on hitherto unexamined material. Prior to joining ICSR, Shiraz was a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange where he worked on Foreign Policy and Security.

Follow Shiraz (@shirazmaher) and theriskyshift.com (@theriskyshift).


Photo credit: Katie Rothman / theriskyshift.com

#3: The Cultural Spring: Film & The Middle East

In this episode of Debrief, Jamiesha Majevadia is joined by Yasmin El Derby, Director of the London MENA Film Festival.



You can subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes.

Yasmin & Jamiesha discuss the Arab Spring, the impact the rise of Islamism may have on Middle Eastern film, and spend a few minutes covering the film festival itself. If you haven’t already checked out the festival’s programme, you can do so here.


Yasmin El Derby is founding director at the London MENA Film Festival (LMFF) with responsibly for programming and artistic development.  As well as working at LMFF Yasmin has produced a short film promoting positive dialogue between East & West. She has been heavily involved in the production of a television series and is currently producing a documentary film. Yasmin has also worked with ‘Media for Development’ projects in Eastern Africa.


Photo credit: The London MENA Film Festival

Is War Inevitable?

If we as humanity are to carve a path away from the illogical concept of war, we must start treating wars with similar attitude as towards slavery and human sacrifice: disgust and contempt.


Arlington National Cemetary. Is War Inevitable?


Wars and conflict have been a part of our human history almost since the beginning of time. We as a civilization have grown up learning in schools about the vast number of great wars from the Medieval Ages all the way to the modern days. War and conflict have been engrained so much into our way of life that we almost instinctively assume that disputes between nations which end up in a bloody conflict is almost normality. Perhaps this is why the majority of citizens do not do enough to protest against wars. Let’s take the United Kingdom for example. Undoubtedly thousands, if not millions, of Brits were angered by the British government’s involvement in recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Yet this anger does not truly transform into mass action against conflict. While much of society is displeased with Britain’s warmongering over the years, many simply assume that war is just a way of life.

If thought through in detail war is perhaps the most illogical creation of mankind. Some might argue war is natural, because we humans are animals, and animals often fight and kill each other. This is a valid point; however it does not take into account that humans are the only species on our planet that can use their tongues not just to make noises, but to communicate with language, leading to a beautiful possibility of diplomacy. Others may argue that despite diplomacy, some disputes cannot be solved without the use of violence to measure who is the strongest and thus who makes the rules. While history may back this point up, once again it does not take into account that there are some pockets of society who have never utilised war to resolve a dispute. Buddhists, Kibbutzim in Israel, and even Iceland have never been involved in international wars. A skeptic may argue that such small minorities do not represent the overall picture, but the vital point here is the fact that humans are capable of going through lifetimes without conflicts. Some people argue that guns are to blame for wars, thus as long as nations have some sort of military equipment, war is inevitable. Yet there are a number of nations without armed forces like Andorra, Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, Grenada and others who seem to survive well without militarisation. Perhaps the strongest arguments against the idea that war is natural and inevitable is the fact that at some point during our human history, slavery, the caste system, inferiority of women, dictatorship, human sacrifices were also considered natural and inevitable. Ultimately simply because something seems normal and inevitable now does not necessarily mean it is right to follow through with it.

To put the above theory into practice, one has to ask themselves whether the recent wars in the Middle East and possible future conflicts with Syria and Iran are also inevitable. The Western governments claim that diplomacy will not work with the “barbaric” and “ruthless” terrorists that operate in the Middle East. Yet the fact that the amount of terrorist attacks in the region have increased and that levels of insecurity are higher than ever should demonstrate that the invasions and occupations are also not the answer. Currently Iraq is a crippling disaster with car bombs explosions happening practically every day. The USA has given up on Afghanistan due to rising deaths (2000 deaths for the American troops and countless civilian deaths for the Afghan population). The supply of arms to the rebels in Syria has increased the death total dramatically and the invasion of Iran will lead to catastrophic consequences in the whole region. Perhaps the best option to take is to leave the Middle Eastern region alone. Undoubtedly there are a number of vital problems that need addressing in the region, but the Arab populations are more than capable to solve these themselves. After all, the most peaceful transition of the Arab Spring happened in a county where the West played a minor role (Tunisia).

Evidently conflict and violence will grip the Middle East for some years to come due to instability and recent drastic change. Nevertheless, Western nations frequently claim that they are the creators of peace and diplomacy. Perhaps instead of encouraging violence, the West should live up to its claims and encourage dialogue between different factions in the Middle East. After all, Europe went through the most horrific period of wars and if we have learned anything from that period, it is to not let it happen again somewhere else. Some theorists claim that democracies never go to war with each other. That may be true, but unfortunately over the years democracies have played a crucial role in adding fuel to wars elsewhere. If we as humanity are to carve a path away from the illogical concept of war, we must start treating wars with similar attitude as towards slavery and human sacrifice: disgust and contempt.


Photo credit: James Sheehan / theriskyshift.com

‘Innocence of Muslims’ Rioting Has Nothing To Do With Religion

The protests and rioting in the Middle East are not, as is argued, a result of the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’. Instead, they demonstrate the lack of legitimate authority in the region following the Arab Spring.


peacful islam innocence of muslims


Continuing protests and rioting in front of Western embassies in the Middle East are not a testament to the ability of Muslims to be exceptionally touchy to religious insult, but an underscoring of the formula Charles Tilly opens with in his The Politics of Collective Violence:

(x + y) occasionally to the power of z = collective violence
[where x = young men; y = lack of supervision and z = a stimulant]

To say that the deaths of American embassy workers in Libya is because of exceptional Muslim touchiness to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’, is to say that the riots in London two years ago were a series of cogent protests to a police state.

In the case of ongoing violence in the Middle East, while media sources dwell upon the ‘z’ element – here the perceived honour infraction dealt by a film that received most of its publicity from Salafist media sources and must now be the worst most watched film ever after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – as apparently the sole cause of unrest, this element of the formula is optional and of uncertain statistical significance. What is surely more interesting to the scenario is the crucial ‘y’ factor.

What do Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have in common? Exactly. Lebanon, Afghanistan and Sudan are more chronic sufferers of what ails these four Arab Spring nations. Supervision, authority and a perception that violent actions will have consequences for the young man in his subjective opinion (apologies if this appears sexist, but the under 30 and male thing is ubiquitous) are the cures to prevent rioting on a regular basis. To what extent these elements are present in the new executives of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia is becoming apparent. To what extent they have ever been present in the others is also telling.

We should also look at the ‘x’ factor. Why these young men have so much pent up frustration and time on their hands is a psychosocial-economic study for another day. Men in Cairo are becoming an issue as disenfranchisement rises and the dismal prospects for their economic future unravel. That sexual molestation is on the rise (and take it from an ex-Cairo-ex-pat, that it could rise from the situation before is a horrific prospect in itself) is also an indicator of young men thinking that they can get away with going with any urge that reveals itself to them. These young men are ripe for collective violence. The point is that this rioting would happen at the hands of male youths of any religion – or lack thereof – given the opportunity and some kind of stimulant.

This kind of violence – due to its stimulant factor, granted – like we saw at Bagram in February with the stimulant of the Quran desecrations always leads to Western commentators singling out the Islamic: why are Musilms so easily offended? Which is to be willfully blind to the universality of this tendency as a human trait that we can see everywhere. So keen is the West to ‘other’ the Muslim, that it is forgotten that the seminal work explaining this formula for violence was not developed looking at the violent characteristics of brown people of a different religion, but of Americans – of cowboys.

This violence, therefore, says everything about the status of authority where it occurs. Therein lies the means for peace, not in teaching Muslims a lesson about free speech, nor in teaching American film-makers about Islam, but in concentrating authority in a legitimate state apparatus. In this way, no TV Islamist could sow such unrest. Though it should be made clear that not even the instigators were authorities at the scene of the violence – in fact some Islamists present at some of the riots did try to prevent violence, but by then the ‘x’ + ‘y’ factor was cemented and nobody was in control.

The reaction to the recent unrest shows Western commentators for what they are: totally obsessed with Islam; but the unrest itself shows something very sad indeed about legitimate authority and statehood following the Arab Spring.


Photo credit: agoolapulapu