Iran: a 'bloody stain' on the nation

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. November 2014 - 8:27

The war on women continues to manifest itself in different forms and intensity globally; tarnishing all societies with a ‘bloody stain’. In Iran, hard-liner interpretations of Islamic principles dictate gender norms, violation of which can be fatal.

 In memory of Reyhaneh Jabbari

‘Bloody stain on Iran’s human rights record’ was Amnesty International’s reaction to the execution of 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari on 25 October, 2014. She is not the first and most likely will not be the last woman to be killed in the hands of state or non-state actors because of gendered discrimination.  Nor is Iran, although among the most notorious, the only country where women go victim to femicides. The war on women continues to manifest itself in different form and intensity globally; tarnishing all societies with a ‘bloody stain’.

Understanding the manifestations of assault on women worldwide requires an inquiry into the dynamics of the global and post-cold war era which has resulted in shifts, fragmentations and decline in hegemony. In the process, particularly as women demand their rights, dominant power relations and patriarchal structures are challenged, thus unleashing violence to restore order in public and private spheres. Hence, violence against women accelerates at the intersections of systems of inequality that are under strain.

Decades of feminist paradigm (scholarship), praxis (activism) and policy (decision-making) with respect to women’s human rights have also verified these linkages and enabled  us to go beyond the narrow and isolated treatment of violence against women in demarcating  it as embedded in unequal power relations manifesting at the intersections of different structures of inequality. 

In my forthcoming book, Violence Without Borders, I examine the articulation of these manifestations within women’s translational activism and locate their concreteness in the context of 10 countries, all of which I visited during my tenure (2003-2009) as UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences.

In memory of Reyhaneh, I dedicate this article which stems from the Iran chapter of the book, thus contextualizing her death.

Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

False expectations of a revolution

Early 1979 millions of Iranian women, from all walks of life, took to the streets wearing the chador as a symbol of solidarity with the revolution and opposition to the Shah, chanting azadi, azadi (freedom, freedom). However, just before the commemoration of International Women’s Day (8 March 1979), Khomeini started announcing measures, which were indicative of a rollback in women’s rights, including a decree dismissing all women judges and barring female students from attending law schools and the imposition of the veil (hejab), among others. The enthusiasm for the revolution was short-lived for many supporters as the gender contract in Iran sharply deviated from one of the most liberal in the Muslim majority countries to one of the most reactionary.

The new rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran quickly distanced themselves from universal human rights standards, which they branded as Western in nature. The following editorial from the Tehran Times (6 February 1996), in connection with the visit of the Special Representative on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, is representative of the sentiments of the revolution: “Criteria for human rights are respected by everyone; however any judgment on the situation of human rights in a country should be harmonious with the nation’s culture, religion and traditions…”

The revolutionary ideals were based on the assumption that imperialism considers women as the best tool for subjugation of the nation: “…women serve as the unconscious accomplices of the powers-to-be in the destruction of indigenous culture”, declared a weekly women’s journal in Tehran in 1984. Thus, women, perceived as bearers of culture, became central to the political discourse that was to shape the society under the new regime. In this respect, the revolutionary purification process discarded secular women as remnants of the old regime and women in sympathy with and supporters of the Republic were placed in key positions where they could promote Iran’s new gender agenda. This would also prove to the critics of the regime that the new system has in fact restored women’s dignity and delivered women from the corruption of capitalist imperialism.

Contradictory trends in the status of women

Women in Iran - compared to other developing and neighbouring countries - have relatively greater access to health and education and to some extent employment and political participation. This has resulted in some positive developments in education during the past two decades. The ratio of girls attending primary school is almost equal to that of boys. The literacy rate for women is improving, although, a gender gap still exists; about 31 per cent of women are illiterate, compared to 17 per cent of men. The most significant progress has occurred in higher education, where roughly 65 per cent of the students are women.

However, the progress in women’s education has not been matched with a parallel increase in employment, nor in women’s representation in politics and decision-making posts. Furthermore, women’s participation in public sector institutions take place within strictly defined boundaries, transgression of which could be “fatal”.

By universal standards women are confronted with economic, social and legal barriers to the full enjoyment of their human rights and are excluded from equal partnership in determining the parameters of social relationships in the public as well as private spheres of life. Conformity with the rules of hegemonic gender contract is ensured through the ideological and legal foundations of the Iranian State, as well as through the use of diverse forms of violence within the family, community and State institutions.

Violence at the intersections of public/private patriarchy

Violence used to keep women in their strictly defined place in Iran is perpetuated by two main factors: (a) patriarchal values and attitudes favouring the norm of male supremacy, and (b) state-promoted institutional structure based on hard-liner interpretations of Islamic principles. While the former is a universal and historically rooted phenomenon, the latter is particular to Iran’s gender politics and policies prevalent in the country since the 1979 revolution. Both factors converge in dis-empowering women and in undermining rights and freedoms of Iranians in general.

While the official ideological underpinning of the state gender discourse rests on the premise that women in the Islamic Republic have been attributed with due dignity, this very ideology also serves to rationalize the subordination of women, discriminating against them, subjecting them to violence and silencing defiance.

During my tenure as Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women I received many reports and complaints with respect to cases of domestic violence, incidents of self-immolation and increasing trends in trafficking of women and girls in Iran. However, the bulk of complaints I received related to incidents condoned by the State and its agents.  Between 2004 and 2009 I acted on a total of 51 urgent appeals and allegation letters concerning violations of women’s human rights in Iran, the vast majority of the complaints  related to discriminatory laws, practices and aggression of state agents. 2009 marked a peak in the number of Iran related complaints, with 12 urgent appeals and 6 allegation letters (communications report A/HRC/11/6/Add.1). Most of the complaints were about detention, arrest and interrogation related to the One Million Signatures Campaign, which was a call for ending discriminatory laws against women in Iran. 

During my visit to Iran in 2005 I interviewed a number of defenders of women’s human rights, including lawyers and journalists who relayed similar experiences of being arrested without charge by plain-clothes agents allegedly from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, detained incommunicado in secret detention centres for periods of one month or more, tortured or maltreated under detention and their house being searched periodically without a warrant. Although, the Constitution of Iran forbids the use of all forms of torture “for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information”, reports of torture and other inhuman treatment  in various detention facilities in Iran were rampant  ( mission report E/CN.4/2006/61/Add.3).

The death penalty, including by stoning, has been a continuing area of major concern. I received numerous reports of women on the death row, sentenced mainly for sexually or morally oriented offences such as adultery. At the time of my visit there were 397 women in Evin Prison, 200 of who were sentenced for “moral crimes”, some awaiting execution. I spoke to some of these women, some of whom were still children; their stories reflect the gender biases in the attitudes, laws and institutions of the country within which they have become labelled criminals.

Reyhaneh  is only one among many who live under the terror of the death raw in Iran. The 26 year old Rehaneh was arrested in 2007 for the murder of a former employee of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence who allegedly tried to rape her.  After being kept in solitary confinement for two months, she was placed in Evan prison. In 2009 she was sentenced to death by a criminal court in Tehran. On 25 October 2014 Reihaneh Jabbari was executed by hanging. According to Iranian law, after her guilt was proven and her claim of self-defense dismissed, only the victim's family had the right to stop the execution (qesas); the family insisted on proceeding with the execution.. Reyhaneh Jabbari was executed under questions around due process, in particular the allegation that her conviction was based on confessions made under duress. Many court cases against women are shadowed by claims of flawed investigation and trial. The contradictions surrounding the cases of many young women sentenced to death on moral grounds as well as those based on criminal / political charges warrant a serious re-examination and abolition of the death sentence in Iran.

Women’s resilience and agency

Although the Iranian regime has taken stringent measures to cleanse women as autonomous beings from public space, it has not succeeded in excluding women’s intellectual articulations and activism from public discourse. On the contrary, women have continued to actively contribute in many fields ranging from arts to sports, demonstrating their determination to challenge, resist and negotiate the boundaries of the imposed gender order.

A number of women’s organizations have engaged in reinterpreting the Koran from a women’s perspective. “Instead of beginning with creation as a narrative of origins from women’s rights and responsibilities”, many of these sources place “individual woman, in her contemporary social concreteness, at the centre of their arguments”.  Focusing on women’s lived realities not only paves the way for the alternative interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence; it also demystifies values that justify dichotomies such as Muslim/secular; Iranian/Western by revealing the universal elements of women’s subordination in diverse patriarchal arrangements. In this context, violence against women emerges as a common point of reference and struggle for women worldwide.

If the Iranian regime is sincere about restoring women’s dignity, then it must embark on a re-interpretation of its fundamental norms, including Islamic principles in line with the current needs and societal contributions of women as well as with universal human rights standards.

Read more articles in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014

The author's forthcoming book ‘Violence Without Borders’ ('Sınır Tanımayan Şiddet') links paradigm, policy and praxis with respect to the persistent problem of violence against women. It probes into the dynamics of the globalized and post-cold war era and argues that violence is unleashed and generalized as hegemony is destabilized in public and private spheres of life.




Sideboxes Related stories:  Shirin Ebadi: who defines Islam? The framework of democracy is human rights law Being Malala Desolation and despair in Libya: the murder of Salwa Bugaighis Trojan Women in the twenty first century: women in war from Euripides to Syria Reeva Steenkamp: justice? Fleeing FGM: Bodies on the frontline Rape, marriage, and rights Women's voices in northern Nigeria: hearing the broader narratives Gender violence, Narendra Modi and the Indian elections Sudanese women: you can beat us but you cannot break us Embracing shame: turning honour on its head The Handmaid's Tale of Coalition Britain Avoidable injustices: the way to prevent violence against women "We will not be beaten" What will it take to end violence against women in the UK? What will it take to end violence against women? Fear and fury: women and post-revolutionary violence Grief and rage in India: making violence against women history? Country or region:  Iran Topics:  Culture Equality
Categories: les flux rss

A choir of lost voices: the murder of Loretta Saunders and Canada's missing women

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. November 2014 - 8:03

The murder of Loretta Saunders, a young scholar who researched missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, reveals the structural violence that compounds violence against women, and the stinging injustice of Canada’s 825 lost Aboriginal women. 

On Saturday March 8, 2014 - International Women’s Day- the small Labrador community of Happy Valley-Goose Bay laid the body of murdered Inuk woman Loretta Saunders to rest. Saunders’ disappearance from her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia and the subsequent discovery of her body in a thin patch of wood on a highway median in the neighbouring province of New Brunswick left Canadians heartbroken. Loretta Saunders was the success story we didn’t know we had until we’d lost her. She was an honours student studying at St. Mary’s University, and - according to her thesis advisor - one of the brightest lights with whom he had ever worked. The topic of her thesis was missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. 

Friday, the day before Loretta Saunders’ funeral, the Canadian House of Commons’ Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women released its final report, causing a furor across Canada. More talked-about than the 16 recommendations it contains has been the absence of a recommendation to hold a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, an inquiry many have been demanding for years. New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament and Status of Women Critic Niki Ashton called the report ‘deficient in every way.’

Twenty-four hours before the report was released, Canadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay threw a collection of documents down onto the floor of the House of Commons in a child-like fit of anger.

The documents had been collected and were to be tabled as evidence of the ruling Conservative government’s efforts to combat crime, including violence against Aboriginal women and girls. These documents constitute the Conservative government’s unwavering response to the repeated calls it has faced for an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women: calls issued by the NDP, the Liberal Party, the provincial premiers, and UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, James Anaya.

With the final report by the Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women being tabled the next day, concern that the report would not recommend an inquiry was mounting based on the news that the report would include ‘dissenting opinions’ by NDP and Liberal MPs also serving on the committee. In the hours leading up to the report’s release, the opposition NDP continued to apply pressure to the government to launch an inquiry.

When Justice Minister MacKay attempted to table the documents he had compiled in response to these requests, he was found not to have them ready for submission in both official languages, a requirement by the House of Commons. Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux asked MacKay when he would be prepared to table the documents properly, whereupon MacKay gestured to Lamoureux inviting him to cross the floor to collect the documents himself, immediately throwing them on the floor. Chastised by Speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer, MacKay later apologized for his behaviour

Although some skepticism exists as to how effective an inquiry would ultimately be, there does seem to be consensus that the absence of a call for an inquiry is a distressing indication of government resistance to actively engage with the problem of violence against Aboriginal women. It seems telling that the government’s own Minister of Justice saw fit to throw their track record on the floor, but as an increasing number of Canadians are recognizing, this is an issue that must be taken up by all of Canada.

In 2007, Maryanne Pearce began compiling an exhaustively researched, cross-referenced database of missing and murdered women in Canada. Submitted in the autumn of 2013 as a part of her PhD thesis work for the University of Ottawa’s law school, the database is the first of its kind, and records over 800 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal Canadian women since the 1960s. This figure is significantly higher than the 500+ missing and murdered Aboriginal women cited by the Native Women’s Association of Canada  (NWAC) in their Sisters of Spirit database begun in 2005, something that comes as no surprise to many who have been advocating for action on this issue for a long time.

Data compiled by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and published in Amnesty International Canada’s report Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada shows that Aboriginal women in Canada between the ages of 25 and 44 are five times more likely to die as a result of violence than non-Aboriginal women of the same age. Compounding this disproportionately high level of violent homicides is the disproportionately low rate of success in solving those cases: according to the NWAC only 53% of the over 500 murders documented in the Sisters In Spirit database were solved, compared with a national homicide clearance rate of 84%.

Since autumn of 2013 alone, the NWAC reports that eight Aboriginal women have been killed. Loretta Saunders is one of those eight.

Loretta Saunders name has become famous because she was murdered, but it is important for many who knew her personally that she not be defined by this brutal act of others. The person or people who murdered Loretta Saunders should not be better known than the beauty of her life, a life that those who knew her continue to celebrate even as they mourn.

Widely described as warm and courageous, Saunders was also a strong student who would likely have made an important contribution in Canada’s fledgling struggle to protect and celebrate Aboriginal women. But Saunders herself was not invulnerable. Living with long-term partner Yalcin Surkultay at the time of her disappearance, Saunders was subletting her own apartment to earn extra money to fund her studies. Post-secondary education in Canada is an expensive prospect, with many students having tens of thousands of dollars of debt by the time they graduate. Statistics Canada lists the average 2013-2014 undergraduate full-time tuition fees in Nova Scota at $6,185.00

Loretta Saunders’ brother, Edmund, told The National Post that his sister had been having difficulty collecting rent from her two tenants, Victoria Henneberry, 28, and Blake Leggette, 25. On February 13 - the day police believe she was murdered - Edmund Saunders says his sister went to her apartment with the intention of collecting the rent or - if her tenants could not pay - evicting them. When she arrived to find the apartment empty, Saunders apparently called Henneberry and Leggette to inform them that they would have to vacate the apartment. Surveillance footage from her building shows Saunders leaving the property alone. Six days later, Henneberry and Leggette were found driving Saunders’ stolen car in the small town of Harrow, near Windsor, Ontario and the American border. On February 26, Loretta Saunders’ body was found.  Henneberry and Leggette have been charged with first degree murder, with police believing the crime was premeditated.

Why are so many Aboriginal women being killed? Circumstances surrounding Aboriginal women’s deaths include high levels of family violence, in addition to women being targeted in acts of racist hatred. The NWAC’s document Fact Sheet / Violence Against Aboriginal Women calls for greater research into forms of violence apart from that occurring in the home, or in the context of sex work. Maryanne Pearce’s finding that -  of over 800 missing and murdered Aboriginal women- 80% had no connection to the sex trade should establish that many of the narratives so frequently cited in explanation of this national catastrophe are in fact relevant to only a fraction of these crimes.

And where these narratives are relevant, they must be kept in perspective as a context rather than a justification. In response to frequent media attempts to connect the problem of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Winnipeg with the hazards of the sex trade, University of Manitoba gender studies professor Shawna Ferris asked "Shouldn't we be aiming for a city where regardless of the trials people are going through, they're not killed?"

‘Elimination’ is the word Loretta Saunders’ thesis advisor, Darryl Leroux, used in the moving piece he wrote after Saunders’ body was found, originally published on the Halifax Media Co-op website and since reproduced around the internet:

"It is a recipe for disaster for indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women. Who suffers most when access to land, to the ecological order at the basis of most indigenous societies, is limited, controlled, or outright eliminated? Is that not what’s at the basis of a settler society like our own, eliminating indigenous peoples' relationship to the land (and/or their actual bodies), so that can we plunder it for our gain?"

Leroux describes the racist policies that drive this disposession - not least of which being the enforced attendance of residential schools, where Aboriginal children were often beaten for speaking their native language - as leading to ‘social chaos’. Crucially, Leroux also calls the bluff of non-Aboriginals who conclude that this ‘social chaos’ is consequent of Aboriginal people not understanding ‘how to live well in society’.

One does not have to search very hard to find stories of Aboriginals seeking to improve the legacy of ‘social chaos’ and promoting positive change within their communities. Kevin Settee, a 23-year old University of Manitoba undergraduate student, is one example. Settee is a representative of Manitoba’s Break the Silence campaign, an anti-violence movement among Aboriginal men that addresses the high levels of family violence in Aboriginal communities, and has spoken out on the imperative to work towards ‘healthy communities where women are supported’ - adding that Aboriginal men ‘need to look at ourselves.’

Community based solutions are also promoted by the Indigenous Nationhood Movement. With their #ItEndsHere social media campaign, grassroots change is the focus. Indeed, a national inquiry would be viewed with skepticism by Sarah Hunt of the Kwagiulth Nation, who says that ‘there’s nothing binding with inquiries, they don’t necessarily lead to action.’ Bernadette Smith’s sister Claudette Osborne disappeared in July of 2008. Although she has described the Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women’s decision not to hold an inquiry as ‘a slap in the face’, she would ultimately prefer to see greater government investment in community programs.

While some feel skeptical about the results an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women would bring, many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians alike consider an inquiry to be a vital next step in the country’s struggle to address the vulnerability of Aboriginal women to violence, and to facilitate some sort of reconciliation for the catalogue of injustices contributing to this vulnerability. The day after police believe Loretta Saunders to have been murdered, the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association delivered 20,000 signatures to the Canadian House of Commons calling for an inquiry. Association president Cheryl Maloney was interviewed by Saunders in Autumn of 2013, and helped distribute missing person posters after Saunders disappearance was reported. Maloney also helped plan a vigil that took place on March 5 on Parliament Hill. Attended by hundreds of people, the vigil honoured Saunders’ memory, and pressed the government for the inquiry that so many have demanded. Loretta Saunders’ cousin Holly Jarrett spoke eloquently for those in attendance, asking: "In memory of Loretta's heart and her kindness and her courage, please stand behind me and demand answers from our government."

Activist Shawn Brant is one of many who have been demanding answers since before Loretta Saunders’ tragic death. Brant, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga near Belleville, Ontario declared that if the federal government did not open an inquiry by the end of February 2014, then a series of actions would be launched. The day after it was announced that there will be no inquiry, Brant and several others occupied a Canadian National (CN) rail crossing in Ontario, resulting in the suspension of traffic on that line. Brant was charged with mischief, with two other people facing charges as well.

While it is discouraging that acts of protest can be so swiftly handled by law enforcement while multiple acts of violence go unanswered, Brant is a controversial figure, even among those supporting his cause. The managing editor of Belleville-area paper The Intelligencer wrote an editorial on Friday condemning Brant’s actions towards Intelligencer reporter Jason Miller that afternoon, while Miller was covering a protest to which Brant was party. Following another Intelligencer reporter having written an article critical of some of Brant’s actions, editor Bill Glisky stated that Brant reacted to Miller’s presence at their protest with intimidation and the threat of violence. Social chaos indeed.

Yet despite the chaos, and despite the fact that eight more Aboriginal women have been killed since Autumn, Justice Minister Peter Mackay and the government for which he speaks insist that an inquiry is not necessary because the government is already doing something: "What we're doing in here regularly [is] passing laws that bring in tougher sanctions, that hold people accountable, that put more tools in the hands of police," Mackay stated when the report was released. Presumably, the documents he threw on the floor contained evidence of these laws, sanctions, and tools. But what of the evidence of women gone missing? What of the pain, festering distrust, and feelings of abandonment found all over the country? Is that not evidence that something more needs doing?

Friday March 7th - the day before Loretta Saunders’ funeral - CBC host Jian Ghomeshi announced the People’s Choice Winner of the popular Canada Reads contest - an annual week long broadcast where five panelists debated to establish ‘the one novel that could change Canada’. The People’s Choice Winner was The Orenda - the same novel that had been chosen the day before by the panel - written by Joseph Boyden, and skilfully defended through four days of debate by Aboriginal journalist and hip hop artist Wab Kinew. Kinew successfully argued that this 17th Century-era story of family, conflict and colonization as experienced by Canada’s First Nations could be a catalyst towards ‘reconciliation’ between a famously humanitarian nation, and the injuries on which it was founded - injuries so clearly felt to this day. That The Orenda was also selected by popular vote would seem to suggest that Canadians want this reconciliation, and that we acknowledge that meaningful reconciliation must involve opening ourselves to stories that may make us uncomfortable, when they speak the truth.

A month before that, and a week before Loretta Saunders disappeared, controversial online activists Anonymous released a map that tracks cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The map was made using publicly available police crime maps and can be kept up to date with the aid of the public, who can report new information to a site administrator.

As many of the most potent tools to fight this tragedy continue to come from the (unpaid) efforts of private citizens, it is no wonder that there are relatives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women who have little faith in what an inquiry could do. If we believe that we can be taught - changed, even - by a novel, then we must ask ourselves why we cannot be moved to action by 825 lost women.

This article was first published in March 2014. It is republished here in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014

Sideboxes Related stories:  Missing women: unequal lives in Canada Women human rights defenders: activism's front-line Visible players: the power and the risks for young feminists The creation of publics for Aboriginal rights in Canada
Categories: les flux rss

Can Facebook damage your mental health?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. November 2014 - 8:00

Studies are starting to reveal how social media are changing our lives—for better and for worse.

Credit: All rights reserved.

Over the past ten years, Facebook has added a new dimension to the social lives of over a billion people—and together with other social media like Twitter and Instagram, it has created an entirely new category of social ties. Given their popularity, social media have become the topic of a growing body of research in the social sciences. For Facebook’s tenth birthday, I’ve collected ten discoveries this research has yielded. If you’re on Facebook, then these studies apply to you!

1. Facebook might increase dissatisfaction with your life. The authors of one study text-messaged people five times per day for two weeks and asked people about their Facebook use and their well-being. The more people used Facebook at one time, the worse they felt the next time they were text-messaged. In addition, over the two weeks of the study, the more people used Facebook, the more their life satisfaction decreased.

2. But being more giving on Facebook can help. If you want to use Facebook without experiencing these deficits in subjective well-being, try being a more giving user when you are on the site. One study documented that active interactions, like leaving wall posts or “liking” friends’ content, predicted less loneliness and more social capital. Consuming content more passively, such as browsing through other people’s profiles, however, was associated with more loneliness and less social capital.

3. Your profile can betray social anxiety. Research has documented that certain objective measures of profiles are related to users’ self-reported personalities. For example, the amount of information people list on their profiles—like the number of favorite TV shows or music interests—is positively correlated with their social anxiety.

4. It can also make you look narcissistic. Another personality trait that is frequently associated with social media is narcissism. In a study where people rated the profiles of strangers, researchers found certain elements of a profile that contributed to impressions of narcissism. For example, the more attractive people were in their profile photos, the more others rated them as narcissistic. In addition, the more social interactions people had on Facebook (measured by the number of friends and wall posts), the more others rated them as narcissistic.

5. You are your profile. If someone saw your Facebook profile, would they form a similar impression of you as if they met you in person? Research suggests yes: if you are liked on the basis of your profile, you are also liked on the basis of face-to-face interactions. One criterion people use to make these judgments is social expressivity. The more socially expressive people were in person and online, the more people who viewed their web page or talked with them liked them.

6. Don’t like the “likes” too much. When you post a status update, how disappointed are you if no one likes it or comments on it? One study showed that the importance people placed on receiving comments about their status updates predicted lower levels of self-esteem, which then predicted lower feelings of belonging.

7. Too much negativity can hurt your social standing. Although people with low self-esteem are often hesitant to disclose information about themselves to others and thereby form social bonds, research suggests they see Facebook as a safe and desirable outlet for disclosure. Unfortunately though, people with low-self esteem tend to post updates that are more negative than people who have high self-esteem. This type of disclosure then backfires: instead of creating social connections, it causes other individuals to like them less.

8. Comparisons with friends hurt happiness. A Facebook friend may not always be a friend you have met in person. In addition to the privacy and safety concerns this raises, research suggests this may also affect how we see ourselves in comparison to others. Spending time on Facebook can be associated with thinking that other people are living happier and better lives you, and this is especially true for those who include people they have not met personally among their Facebook friends.

9. Facebook influences your behavior through your friends. If you logged on to Facebook in the U.S. on November 2, 2010, and were 18 or older at the time, you were part of an experiment on social influence. On this U.S. congressional election day, Facebook showed some users a news feed message that encouraged them to vote, along with pictures of their Facebook friends who voted. Other users saw the message but without pictures of their friends. People who saw the message along with pictures of their friends were significantly more likely to vote than people who saw the message without pictures of their friends.

10. People who quit Facebook struggle with addiction and privacy. Though Facebook is still increasing in number of users, some people have quit Facebook altogether. Who are the people who “commit virtual identity suicide,” as one paper called it? The international study of Facebook quitters revealed that they felt more addicted to the internet, meaning that it affected their daily routine, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns and feelings more than current Facebook users. They were also significantly more cautious about their privacy, with 48 percent citing privacy concerns as their primary reason for closing their accounts.

This article was first published on Greater Good, and is reproduced here with permission.


Sideboxes Related stories:  Six ways to bring more empathy to the internet What I learned from going cold turkey on technology Let’s get real about the transformation of society: can you email me directions? Topics:  Internet
Categories: les flux rss

Abortion: Ireland's reckoning with Amendment 8

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. November 2014 - 6:03

Calling for an end to a constitution that bans abortion - and kills women, a deep and broad based movement has sprung up in Ireland to change the constitution, and finally release women's bodies from church and state.

Every so often the tragedy of a woman or a baby throws spectral light on the constitution of Ireland. A teenage asylum seeker fled her home country after being raped, sought asylum in Ireland where she discovered that she was pregnant. Instantly, she is said to have asked for an abortion.

But abortion is not only illegal in Ireland, it is forbidden by the constitution: she could not flee again – she was without  papers, and could not, therefore, travel. Her only hope was to be deemed suicidal  by a review panel. The weeks churned by. Finally, it is believed that two psychiatrists said yes; one doctor said no. She refused food and drink, became seriously ill, and at 24 weeks was subjected to a caesarian.  

The baby lives – on the edge of human viability and stateless, born out of rape to a woman whose human rights had been denigrated and then denied. 

Defenders of the constitutional ban on abortion hastened to say: good outcome: ‘no one died.’

But the case has accelerated a wider, deeper movement to change the constitution.

At the beginning of September a conference called in Dublin to support a coalition to take women’s bodies out of the constitution attracted so many  - from feminists to doctors, human rights and trade union activists - that it had to move to a  larger venue in O’Connell Street.

The move to this emblematic avenue was not without poignance - it was re-named in honour of the catholic Emancipator Daniel O’Connell after independence in 1923: it was then, said one of the organisers, Pauline Conroy, ‘with smoke still rising from burnt out buildings, executed bodies still scarcely buried from the civil war’ that the liberators rushed in laws to punish unmarried mothers and ban films deemed ‘contrary to public morality,’ indecent or blasphemous.

‘The birth of the state was mired in its outcasting of women.’ said Conroy, a social policy researcher and writer.

Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland exposed the calvary of the young asylum seeker, now known as Ms Y, in the summer, just after Ireland had been excoriated by the UN Human Rights Committee for ‘severe mental suffering caused by the denial of abortion services to women seeking abortions due to rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities or serious risk to health.’

Committee chairperson Sir Nigel Rodley said that the state treated raped women as mere’ vessels’, it doomed a women to continue a crisis pregnancy ‘at risk of criminal penalties’, irrespective of risks to her health, he said. 

Prof. Rodley told a review of Ireland’s human rights record that a living woman’s life should have priority over the rights of the unborn, insisted ‘I can’t understand by what belief system the priority would be given to the latter rather than the former.’

The case of Ms Y has roused fervent scrutiny of Ireland’s constitution. ‘If ever there was a tipping point in the national historic drama of Irish abortion laws, this latest horror is it,’ says Rachel Doyle, of the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

It is part of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment.

The repeal movement was ignited by another tragedy: the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanavan, a professional woman at risk of miscarriage. Denied an abortion that she could have accessed in her home country, unable to travel because she was gravely ill, both the foetus and Ms Halappanavan died. 

Feminist veterans from four decades of campaigning for reproductive rights initiated a campaign for nothing less than repeal of the Eighth Amendment. “If Amendment Eight remains there is no possibility of pro-choice legislation,’ insists one of the founders, Ailbhe Smyth. ‘The Supreme Court can introduce liberal interpretations, but the constitution is always telling women: your life can be jeopardized by the equal rights of a foetus.’

The two latest cases are emblematic of a different Ireland: ‘Attitudes are changing as Ireland becomes more modern, more multi-cultural,’ says Rachel Doyle. These weren’t women from the fastnesses of rural Ireland.

A new presence is Doctors for Choice – almost unthinkable in the 1970s:  ‘Myself and a couple of others were sick of it, said Cork GP, Dr Mary Favier. ‘so we formed Doctors for Choice,’ It was Savita Hallapannavan’s death that roused hundreds of doctors, ‘we’ve been flooded with calls,’ says Favier. 

The Ms Y case exposes what the system does to women who are stateless or too ill, too poor, too traumatised to travel:  ‘If we had been thinking of a hypothetical case to illustrate the pregnancy crisis in this country we could not have scripted this,’ said Dr Favier, ‘we could not have imagined something so bad’. Increasingly doctors feel that their medical ethics are compromised by the constitution and by church power over health: hospitals in Ireland, though state-funded, are typically owned by the catholic church. 

Medical professionals have been warned: Archbishop Eamon  Martin said in May, ‘you are excommunicating yourself’ if you aid or abet a woman’s access to abortion – an injunction that extends from medical professionals to legislators. But the Irish Medical News reported in February 2012 findings of a survey among GPs and trainee doctors: 52 per cent believed that abortion should be available to any woman who chose it. That corresponds to opinions in the population. 

But prevailing public opinion does not steer the political system. Politicians’ readiness to franchise health and welfare to the church,  despite the exposure of ‘gross abuses of power and people by religious orders and clergy’ has characterised Ireland’s ‘deeply flawed democracy,’ writes Niall Hunter, editor of  Irish Health. ‘It is the state and taxpayer, not priests, bishops or nuns who are paying for it and should be allowed to run it without potential interference.’

Ms Y’s crisis takes us back to 1983: confronted by liberation movements and abortion law reform in the UK and the US, the church sought to reassert its authority and to pre-empt women’s future access to abortion by constitutionalising a ban. A referendum in 1983 passed Amendment Eight giving an unborn foetus and a woman equal rights. 

The 1980s marked the great defeat in Ireland of the spirit of Pope John 23’s Vatican Council II  - a brief but beautiful encounter with modernity that still inspires Ireland’s celebrated Dominican intellectual, Sister Margaret McCurtain. That was a time, she told me, which emboldened many women in religious orders to undertake emancipating work in the big wide world. The counter-reformation found its most commodious home in the republic. However, the church’s ‘focus on women's sexuality introduced a new discourse,’ says Sr McCurtain, ‘It brought women's sexuality into vision.’ The clergy's control  had been secured by the ‘concealment of pain’, the pain of women and children.

But in its moment of triumph, the church was scalded by revelations of institutional cruelty, ‘children who have been abused and women who have been horribly mutilated and starved of economic sustenance’.

One bleak afternoon in January 1984 Ann Lovett left her convent school in Granard and took herself to the grotto of a local churchyard. She was discovered lying in her own blood below a statue of the Virgin Mary. Her dead baby lay beside her and by the time an ambulance reached her she was dead. 

Although no one appeared to know what was going on in her life, everyone knew why she died. 

Later that year, a beach at Carhirciveen on the Kerry coast yielded the body of a baby boy. His neck had been broken and he had been stabbed 20 times.

A murder squad insisted that a young countrywoman, Joanne Hayes, who had been pregnant, had killed the baby on the beach. She and her family confessed, but later retracted: there had been a baby, they said, but it had been born on the farm, died a little later and was buried in a field. Dead babies were Ireland’s open secret. When the police decided that she had been pregnant with both babies – at the same time – and killed them, the unknown infants became part of a gothic scandal: in less than a year after the abortion referendum, the Kerry Babies Case was born.

The Kerry Babies case was chronicled by Ireland’s buccaneering feminist writer Nell McCafferty: it was, she wrote, a moment of national shame.  ‘His tombstone, raised by public subscription, says, ‘In Loving Memory of Me, the Kerry Baby’.

A six-month judicial tribunal of investigation into the case in Tralee provoked a gentle mass movement, initiated by Tralee’s feminists who encouraged  people from all over the world to send yellow roses to the woman. Flowers flooded the tribunal. ‘Raucous, ignorant urban-dwellers’, complained the judge. ‘Women in Ireland were humiliated by the Kerry babies case,’ recalled Sister Margaret McCurtain, ‘but by the end of that inquiry sensibility had changed’, she said. Having dragged women’s sexuality and sin into vision it could not now throw them back into fearful obscurity.

A decade later the impact of the constitutional prohibition was branded on Ireland’s consciousness in the X case: a 14-year-old girl was abused, raped and left pregnant by a neighbour. The girl was suicidal and her parents sought an abortion for her in 1992. They were refused. They decided to go to England for an abortion. But before leaving they sought advice from the Gardai (the police) about whether the DNA of the foetus could be brought to court if they were prosecuted. That alerted the Gardai, and the Attorney General Harry Whelehan secured an injunction under Amendment Eight.

The crisis prompted Albert Reynolds’ government to put abortion to referendums again – this time with three themes: an anti-choice proposal to remove suicide risk as grounds for abortion and two pro-choice amendments on the right to travel and the right to information. Every county of Ireland voted against the anti-abortionists’ bid to remove suicide.  Ireland voted for the right to travel and the right to access information.

More than a dozen women a day go to England for an abortion - around 4000 women a year. When the UK parliament passed the 1987 Abortion Act, ‘Irish women, north and south, took to the boats immediately,’” said Pauline Conroy. ‘There’s a huge amount of local fund-raising for women going to England - whip-rounds, raffles, people selling lingerie, whatever, in their houses. They’ll say someone has to go to England. “England, oh yes,” people say…It is very collective.’  It costs around £1500 for a woman to make the trip. Now young women are mapping which chemists are helpful. ‘There’s a lot of minor rebellions to fund a way around the law,’ said Conroy. 

Ireland is now much more like any other European country: though its birth rate remains relatively high, a third of babies are born to unmarried parents; around 150,000 women have had terminations since the early 1980s, says IFPA, though the figure from England is believed to be an underestimate.  

But the Y case has dramatised the fate of those who can’t go to England. Their tragedy is stirring Ireland to confront the complacency that the right to travel and to information seems to have induced. ‘It is the women who can’t go anywhere whose fate is in the hands of a very rigid state,’ said Rachel Doyle. The Repeal Amendment 8 campaign wants, finally, to release women’s bodies from church and state. 

This article was first published in September 2014. It is republished here in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014



Sideboxes Related stories:  The Liberty Train: "Because I Decide" Why the relentless assault on abortion in the United States? The right to abortion: briefing from Brazil Abortion in Ireland - a small step forward Kermit Gosnell vs. Joshua Drah: abortion, stigma and conservatism Abortion rights in Spain: back to the past US foreign policy and unsafe abortion in Africa Poland's politics of abortion HIV, women and abortion rights The Duma and Russian Orthodox Church vs feminism Free speech: another weapon in the war against abortion in the US Abortion access in the US military – time for the MARCH Act Open letter of support for doctors who provide abortion services Erdogan vs women: the abortion debate US Republicans and their “Female Troubles” "Doublethink": the latest threat to women's rights in Spain Preventing violence against women: a sluggish cascade? Iran: a 'bloody stain' on the nation Country or region:  Ireland Topics:  Culture Democracy and government Equality
Categories: les flux rss

We Are Many against Conspiracy: holding on to democracy

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. November 2014 - 0:11

Two films, one showing the power of the masses, the other showing the power of inaction.

I've just noticed OurKingdom's strapline: 'investigating the crisis of democracy in Britain'. Yes. It's a crisis - and we have to ask questions.

On Friday I went to a preview of We are Many, a film by Amir Amirani about 15 February 2003, when maybe 10 million people marched against war in Iraq. It was the world's first global citizen protest.

The story of the film is intriguing: joining a march on impulse, as a first-time anti-war demonstrator, Amirani was seized by the power of the event. Two years later he decided to make a film. Eight years on he has finished it, but along the way it has grown and changed. Through chance encounters he learned how 15 February resonated through Tunisia's and Egypt's uprisings. Then came the August 2013 votes against war in Syria at Westminster and the US Senate: another twist in the tale. So it turned from a film about an event into a film about a process; no longer about hope dashed but about a long-term hope.

Necessarily, Amirani simplified the story. What, as one of Friday's audience asked him, about earlier actions? 15 February was not a creation out of nothing. It too stood on the shoulders of what went before: the Aldermaston Marches, CND; the Suffragettes and Chartists; the Quakers in whose building the Stop the War Coalition first met. More broadly: where does the 2011 Libyan intervention fit in? And again, remember the children who came out of school to protest, whose politicisation helped sow the seeds of Occupy.

The film throws up more questions than it can answer. That's a sign of its power - for it is deeply powerful. Go and see it when it's released next year. Take your friends.

It is a story of horror, and of life-giving creativity. Shock and Awe and its aftermath were terrible. Interviews—notably with a senior member of Bush's team and a US veteran—unfold the long-running deception in which Blair participated. Music and humour are beautifully, subtly used to toss us from anguish to anger to heart-swelling joy at activists' unceasing energy. We see the global reach of the movement: footage of marchers from Australia across Malaysia and up through the Indian subcontinent, across Russia and Europe, down through Africa to—hilariously—Antarctica; up through the Americas. The infectious vim of an Italian activist sweeps us up; the courage of American women still confronting their war criminals commands respect (and laughter).

Tony Benn calls in the film on our anger and hope, basic tools for those who want to build a better world. Amirani sets out to kindle both and succeeds, superbly.

But however unambiguous the anger, it's an ambiguous hope. What now of the Arab Spring? And despite that Syrian vote, we're bombing Iraq for real and Syria by proxy. The story goes on.

Even at its most hopeful, the film says that marching is not enough. Many of the marchers interviewed could not imagine that Blair could persist in face of such a protest; others say they never thought they'd win, but had to act. Will Saunders and David Burgess, who painted NO WAR on the Sydney Opera House sails the day war started, did so because they could do no other.

We are Many shows Blair at the Labour Party spring conference in Glasgow, likening the marchers to an over-grown focus group which cannot dictate policy. That got a gallows-laugh. It's a constitutional point - which reveals Blair's constitutional stance. He implied that marchers and focus groups could not shift him, the executive: that he held power. No. Decision-making power lies, in theory, with our parliamentary representatives, not with the executive. If marchers and focus groups could shift their representatives, then they could rightly dictate policy.

In theory. The problem, as the marchers knew and the film portrays, is that power lies not with the Commons but behind the scenes. With the executive and the financial interests which support and use it. With the little circle round Bush, whose lead Blair made us follow. That's the crisis of democracy.

We know—the electorate know—that we are routinely lied to; that government's picture of its goals is a simulacrum of the truth; that the interests served are not those of the mass of people; that the protections and freedoms of law and public services are increasingly a hollow shell. This would be empty rhetoric if it were not scrupulously evidenced. But the evidence is all around. We only have to look, read, listen. We talk peace and market weapons around the world; we last sold military goods to Syria in June 2014. We talk of ending child poverty and knowingly ensure it worsen. The party of the rule of law denies effective law to those who once claimed Legal Aid. A 'veil of secrecy' drapes an unaccountable 'shadow state'.

So - how to respond?

I saw another film recently, showing the flip side. We Are Many says 'never give up'. Conspiracy shows what happens if we do.

It's the story of the 2-hour Wannsee Conference of 1942 that rubber-stamped the Final Solution. Mesmeric Heydrich leads it, humourless Eichmann by his side. One by one the 13 invitees show us the paths to complicity. Passionate Jew-despising ideologues; committed believers in the rule of law; idealistic lovers of tranquil beauty; brutal enjoyers of power over despised others; harassed bureaucrats staving off melt-down; militarists wedded to total obedience. And men in despair who know that nothing can stop this march to moral chaos; who, powerless, give up resisting.

Out of this web it has a single message, that of Arendt's Banality of Evil. Evil comes when we stop thinking. "...[T]he only specific characteristic one could detect in [Eichmann's] past as well as in his behavior during the trial... was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think." That's what the followers at Wannsee did: they opted to stop thinking. Some eagerly; some unconsciously; some in anguish, for to continue thinking would be unbearable.

This is the final, terrifying, refusal of responsibility. We are Many shouts loudly in reply: never give up! Keep democracy alive. The notion that we're together, energising one another is vital, for this is hard. Not one day's march but constant willingness to think, listen, read, watch, respond, speak, act. What is happening to the balance of rich and poor, of powerful and powerless, of free and unfree, within the UK and beyond? How is the rule of law being eroded, in so many ways? Perennial issues of proportional representation, the power of the Whips, the growing number of the ministerial career-opportunities that sap backbencher independence; complex questions about financial global interests. The questions are endless.

But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Never stop asking. Never accept without reflection. 'Eichmann has brought up the radical danger of "such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness."' Is this over-emotional? Exaggerated? By definition so, if sober rationality be defined by pragmatic acceptance of what is, padded against the lived experience of suffering. In those terms, to be alive is to exaggerate.

So never give up. Keep thinking. Hang on to anger and to hope.


The Economist requires you to pay a pound a week to use its website. We’ll never charge for our content, but that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. If you can chip in a pound a week, please do.

Categories: les flux rss

Songs of ignorance

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 21:45

Public discourse surrounding the Ebola outbreak is infected by older narratives that seek to stereotype Africa and Africans. The Band Aid initiatives are typical of this: Africa as a country, a place where there is no space for Christmas joy, and a place that needs the west.

Bob Geldof. Demotix/David Ferenczy. All rights reserved.The recent Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea has spurred a range of responses from all over the world. Some of these responses exemplify the ongoing stereotyping of Africa and Africans. Public discourse, unfortunately, still has the tendency of addressing Africa as a country, a war-ridden space full of sadness and its inhabitants as savage and helpless. But stereotypes are not limited to these images of misery.

Other stereotypes romanticize Africa and Africans, they convey an image of the exotic and unspoiled continent. Moreover, various perspectives convey an image of poor people as a noble poor. These images may be highlighted in the context of Ebola, but they are always present. They are part of many people’s understanding of Africa, part of ignorant perspectives on the continent and the people.  

Africa is a country

Of course we all know that Africa is not a country, yet the idea of Africa as a country is continuously reinforced in a variety of public platforms. For example, as a response to the Ebola crisis, a variety of countries implemented strict visa regulations for people coming from all over Africa. Whereas I understand that health controls are intensified when it concerns people (black and white) coming from the three Ebola-hit countries, it is shameful that travelling becomes harder and harder even for people coming from other African countries.

In Norway, people in a plane with a Kenyan with fever on board were not allowed to disembark due to fear of Ebola. Yet, Kenya is quite far from the three Ebola hit countries. The HvA, a tertiary educational institute in Amsterdam, has even prohibited its students from travelling to the continent for internships or study. In so many cases, references to Africa are frequently inappropriate.

Due to the Ebola outbreak, there is currently increased attention to the continent: attention that is highly needed, but that also exemplifies an omnipresent stereotyping. The various Band Aid initiatives are the best examples of this. The songs convey images that might prove useful to the cause of raising money, but also maintain stereotypical views on the continent. The Dutch Band Aid’s Ebola song, for example, tell us that “It’s not a white Christmas that Africa is missing this year, their gift is who survives”, whereas Bob Geldof's Band Aid laments: “No peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa. The only hope they'll have is being alive”. As many critics have argued, these texts exemplify an ignorance of Africa and reinforce a white saviour narrative. Meanwhile, local initiatives are ignored.

Moreover, although Ebola clearly intensifies these narratives, they are always present: Africa as a country, a place of poverty and sadness, a place where there is no space for happiness and thus no Christmas joy, and a place that needs the west.

A noble poor?

Life entails more than sadness, even in the poorest African countries. Africa is not simply an arena of sadness, war, hunger, corrupt governments and development organizations. Yet, stereotyping does not only occur in the domain of misery. Some stereotypes apply a good dose of romanticism, a discourse that situates Africans as a ‘noble poor’.

The noble poor can be seen as a discourse that often portrays poor people as victims of uncontrollable, regularly external, forces that hinder their development. Of course this is part of the story: many people in the world fight for survival on a daily basis and are victims of powerful systems of inequality. Yet, it is problematic to overemphasize this part of the story and romanticize poor people and their struggle, thereby ignoring internal issues that might be counterproductive in their daily struggle and that might even reinforce the unjust system.

Such romantic views are found in expressions that celebrate poor people’s strong will to use the few possibilities they have, despite the unfair obstacles they face. It celebrates people as survivors who are, despite their poverty, living a life close to nature, without the burdens of modernity.  The noble poor might be poor, but are morally superior.

Often, these ideas are associated with different forms of community romanticism: the idea that life in small communities is peaceful, where people solve internal issues quickly, where the little they have is shared among the many that need. Commonly, these views celebrate the ‘local’ and are geared towards conserving it, while addressing development challenges. An example is the focus on African people as natural (small-scale) farmers often based on figures regarding the percentage of people that are engaged in farming or an idea of farming as a traditional lifestyle. However, just because people are engaged in farming does not mean that they like to farm: in many cases, people have always been farming because there is simply no alternative.

Other examples celebrate local knowledge as superior to external knowledge. Of course, local knowledge is highly important, yet societies continuously change and always find their worldviews and knowledge challenged by a world outside the local community. This is a very normal process. Moreover, during the Ebola outbreak, for example, it was obvious that certain types of knowledge and practices, such as funeral rituals, were not suitable to combat the outbreak. A conversation emerged from this that has proven to be constructive.

Unsatisfactory ends

Despite a series of outcries, ranging from the celebrated essay by Binyavanga Wainaina, "How to write about Africa", to the website, popular discourse on Africa finds itself on two unsatisfactory ends. One is a view depicting Africa as a place inhabited by helpless people that long for salvation; the other one a view that romanticizes communities and people and establishes an idea of a noble poor. The ongoing confirmation of a paternal and ignorant perspective, be it the helpless savage or the noble poor, will not lead to satisfactory contributions of any kind in the long run.

Ebola reveals that we still have not moved away from stereotypes. It is time to put into practice the knowledge that Africa is a continent consisting of distinct countries. All of these are inhabited by normal people: people that can be honest and deceptive, knowledgeable and ignorant. The continent’s specific problems need to be addressed in a respectful, realistic way that does not draw upon simple stereotypes, but seeks to eliminate ignorant views on Africa.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Africa: celebrity and salvation Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Equality International politics
Categories: les flux rss

The battle for Mohamed Mahmoud: developing a counter narrative

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 21:05

Even though the regime has the upper hand in material repression, it is far from invincible. Its Achilles heel is its ideological weakness, and the creation of a revolutionary mythology may be a first step in the long journey of dismantling its ideological base. 

Mohamed Mahmoud St. mural dedicated to ultras martyrs, 2012. Flickr/ Gigi Ibrahim. Some rights reserved.Three years have passed since the Mohamed Mahmoud Battle. The street battle that took place between protestors and security forces in downtown Cairo, just off Tahrir Square, which left more than 50 protesters dead and dozens wounded.

This battle gained symbolic importance during the reign of the Egyptian military council and President Morsi, which led to renewed clashes with security forces on the annual anniversary. However, the significance of this battle, as well as other battles such as the Maspero massacre, the clashes at the cabinet of ministers and the Port Said massacre, have faded from public memory.

Not only are those who fell victim to the military’s actions no longer remembered, neither are the actions of the military or the police forces remembered. In essence, the mythology of the revolution has been erased and the counter narrative eliminated. A big part of why this has happened is the dominance of state controlled media narratives, and the failures of the revolutionary movement to create its own counter hegemonic narrative that can act as a point of cohesion for a shared identity, which seems more marginalized and divided than ever.

When the above-mentioned clashes erupted, the demands of the petty bourgeoisie intellectuals, the potential leaders of the revolutionary movement, were limited to holding those involved in the violence accountable. The events were actively de-politicized and treated as a criminal matter that required the intervention of the government, not as a political event par excellence, which could have then been used to build a counterhegemonic narrative.

The middle class opted to deescalate the situation and focus its demands on bringing those responsible to justice. This, of course, is a ludicrous demand since those responsible for the killings are at the highest level in the military. These were cases of political violence, not criminal violence, and thus the demands should have been the overthrow of the military regime, not the trial of a few junior police officers.

This pattern of behavior is still prevalent among the current greatly weakened revolutionary movement. The memory of the battles and the subsequent massacres are not being used to create a counter hegemonic narrative of a broader societal struggle with the military’s dominance over Egyptian political and social life.

Every movement needs heroes and villains in struggles in order to create internal cohesion among its members and raise the level of group consciousness, so that the members of the movement identify themselves as a separate social group with clearly defined interests that oppose the interests of the current ruling class.

Thus, the above-mentioned events are of critical importance as they could be used as launching pads for developing this consciousness and breaking down the ideological base of the current regime, which is massively suppressive under the guise of “fighting terrorism”.

In essence, these events need to be defined as political, with the aim of suppressing the revolution. It is also important to realize that the participants in these events were, to a large extent, the urban poor - the potential battering rams of the revolution. As such, their role needs to be highlighted and used as a base for creating the counter narrative for the revolutionary movement; a movement with revolutionary and egalitarian core goals.

In essence, what is needed is to create the base necessary for the middle class to extend its ideological hegemony to the lower urban class by adopting their cause and highlighting the classist nature of the current regime and, most importantly, using the above-mentioned events as powerful symbols for the suppression of the poor by the military caste and its crony capitalist allies. In other words, highlighting the nature of the struggle as a struggle against the rich and the oppressors; radicalizing the movement and making it more “Jacobin” in nature.

It is important to note that the above-mentioned process is not a straightforward process, although I argue that it should be a deliberate process led by the intellectual elites of the revolutionary movements. It is rather an iterative, long-term process where the outcome depends on the interaction between the elites and the audience; where these mythologies are deconstructed and re-built based on the receptiveness of the target audience.

Currently, the Egyptian revolutionary movement is trapped in attempting to fend off accusations of treason and supposedly being part of a cosmic conspiracy against the Egyptian state. A game it can, realistically, never win. A new type of narrative needs to be constructed. One that is not focused on rebuking accusations against military elites, but rather at creating a rallying cry against military oppression, and using this as a springboard to widen its ideological appeal.   

In essence, I am arguing that the Egyptian Revolutionary movement needs to create its own version of history. This could eventually lead to the creation of a new identity, that of a “revolutionary”. This would naturally involve the creation of myths and the romanticization of past events, which is a necessary process for creating such an identity.

The end goal of this activity would be the creation of a new “imagined community” that would encompass the members of the revolutionary movement, and take the initiative back from the regime. The massacres and clashes mentioned above should be placed squarely as the responsibility of the military, as an active participant in these events.

The nature of the current regime needs to be openly recognized as a military regime, which is a direct continuation of the Mubarak regime. Military dominance over the Egyptian political order, ever since the coup of 1952, has to be acknowledged.

Thus, the current ills of Egyptian society are the direct responsibility of the military, which has not only shown an astonishing failure to govern, but also treated the country as a large fiefdom with Egyptian citizens being treated more as serfs rather than citizens. There is an urgent need for symbols and myths; otherwise, the ability of the Egyptian revolutionary movement to regain ground will be severely restricted.

The Egyptian regime is currently following a path of severe repression, where any criticism - even from regime supporters - is quickly repressed through direct state intervention or in the realm of civil society through decentralized ideological repression. A talk show, for example, was pulled off air for critiquing some ministers, even though the host is a well-known military supporter.

This shows the regime’s acute self-awareness of its ideological weaknesses and vulnerability. The abysmal performance of the government, in terms of deteriorating living conditions and the worsening security situation, places the regime and by extension the military in a perilous position, due to their overt dominance in economic, social and political spheres.

Even though the regime has the upper hand in material repression, it is far from invincible. Its Achilles heel is its ideological weakness. As such, the creation of a revolutionary mythology is a first step in the long journey of dismantling the ideological base of the regime. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The rebel Political violence and state repression in Egypt State and revolution Coercion and social change: the case of the Egyptian revolution Country or region:  Egypt Topics:  Democracy and government
Categories: les flux rss

For history’s sake, the Arab peoples have revolted

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 19:45

Not only did the Arab peoples revolt, but the power of their revolts was so significant and threatening to the regional geopolitical order that the regional powers had to diffuse the collective consciousness at any cost.

The United States and its allies are pushing for stability in the Middle East. A nuclear deal with Iran is a cornerstone in that grand ambition. This rush for stability is a timely pre-requisite for the neo-liberal development projects imposed by the World Bank and the IMF. A weary Arab middle class, in despair, is predominantly asking for stability as well. The demand is genuine on the part of some and more conspiratorial in other cases.

Some are demanding it because the alternatives are bleak. Others are demanding it because it will secure the status quo, which they are part of. Demanding stability is not a simple matter.

However, it is fair to question how this fetish for stability is being used by counter-revolutionary movements to push the Arab revolts out of history. In other words, how are the post-Arab Spring regimes attempting to rewrite history in a manner that undermines the importance and justice of the Arab revolts? Looking at ISIS and the rise of counter-revolutionary extremism, the old guards and the elites are saying to Arab youth something like: all this happened because of your rebellion.

In the name  of stability, the United States and its regional Arab allies are systematically obscuring what happened a couple of months ago. On their side – sometimes without knowing it, a class of journalists, experts, and academics build on the rise of counter-revolutionary movements in the Arab World to undermine the legitimacy and genuineness of the Arab Spring.

History says otherwise

Civil wars and the rise of fascism are not peculiar to the Arab Spring. Such phenomena cannot be used to refute the claims of a revolutionary wave that preceded them.

In Europe, the frustration that followed the failure of Communist-led union strikes and working class mobilisation triggered the rise of fascism in the second decade of the twentieth century.

Mussolini emerged from the Italian Socialist Party that contributed to the organisation of Communist revolutions and insurrections that swept through Europe by 1917. The mobilisation at that time was different in intensity, ideology, motives, and prospects. But, in concept, the rise of Mussolini and fascism in general was not mutually exclusive with the uprising of the Italian workers.

The revolutionary set-backs of Europe and the power contests of the corporate industrialists of the time all served the lightning paced establishment of fascism. In a conceptually similar case, the emergence of the Islamic State and the fascist-like practices and dogmas that govern it are counter-revolutionary. The existence of such extremism does not cancel out the legitimacy of what preceded it; the mass uprisings that swept the region.

Neither do the civil wars that have destroyed Libya and Syria cancel out the fact that both countries witnessed significant uprisings. Even the most glorified revolution of contemporary history, that of the Soviets, led to an immediate and brutal civil war.

Arab exceptionalism, even when they revolt

One cannot deny the peculiar political environment that characterises the Middle East. The geostrategic and economic importance of the region adds to the woes of its revolutionaries. But even this specificity as such is not peculiar to the Arab Spring. The collective upheaval of a people is always an engagement and a conflict with the status quo with all its peculiar domestic, regional, and international interests. So why is the Middle East’s “peculiar” politics being used to single out the outcomes of the region’s revolutions and perceive them as ahistorical?

This question is worth pondering. Maybe revolutions are generally and historically romanticised. We tend to have this unconscious impression that revolutions are aesthetic and romantic. In fact, revolutions are ugly. They push the worst traits and taboos of a society or a culture to the public and contest it, sometimes primitively and violently. With such an ugly process, the malice of power is eclipsed and the power contest between elites becomes even more vicious.

Not only did the Arab peoples revolt, but the power of their revolts was so significant and threatening to the regional geopolitical order that the regional powers had to diffuse the collective consciousness of all this at any cost; including the invasion of Bahrain by the Saudis, the Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria, the elite-bargain in Yemen, and the military coup in Egypt. And this is how history should document the Arab Spring.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The Arab World: between liberal imperialism and liberal oppression Country or region:  Tunisia Egypt Libya Syria Bahrain Saudi Arabia Yemen Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Tabit and sexual violence in Darfur

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 19:30

Darfur has practically been closed off to journalists, politicians and independent civil society organizations, and sexual violence and rape have now become a reality in women's day-to-day lives.

In nine months, our neighborhood will be full of new born Arab infants... They came to drink Maresa and ended up using us all. They had guns; we could not say anything to stop them.

Bitterly but sarcastically, Mariam told a women’s rights activist about what had happened to her while they were chatting over tea in Nyala. That was two years ago.

Sexual violence and rape have now become a reality of women's lives and part of their everyday encounters in Darfur.

Over the past few years, and after the ICC arrest warrant for Omar Albashir and other government officials, Darfur has practically been closed off to journalists, politicians and independent civil society organizations.

Last year Sara, a 16 year-old girl from Zamzam IDP camp was hospitalized for ten days after being gang raped by two young men. One of them was an officer with the National Reserve Forces (Abu Taira). 

She proceeded with her case and reported it to the police. However, the officer was never charged. The other rapist was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years, yet after a very quick appeal, was found not guilty and released. 

Sara was grieving; she wanted and needed for her story to be heard and travelled long distances in order to meet with the activist who recorded her case, as the displacement camp remains inaccessible to journalists and activists from Khartoum. 

Under the current oppressive and highly monitored situation in Darfur, Radio Dabanga, a very popular community radio with a huge network of local reporters - working with an extremely low profile - remains the only outspoken media outlet that regularly documents and reports rape cases. This has given it the reputation of being “The Rape Radio” among Sudanese activists.

Radio Dabanga has been broadcasting in shortwave since 2008 to inform the people in Darfur of social, political as well as other events around them. It was initially broadcasting from Khartoum but, due to government interference, it is now broadcast from the Netherlands by Free Press Unlimited.

On 5 November 2014 Darfur was in the international headlines, including the BBC, as UNAMID had issued a statement after being denied access to Tabit village to investigate rape allegations. Radio Dabanga was the first to broadcast that military forces had invaded Tabit and raped 200 women. However, four days later the UNAMID mission reported that they had been allowed access and that no evidence of rape was found.

Hildebrand Bijleveld, the Director of Radio Dabanga and Free Press Unlimited chronicled these events in Tabit as follows: 

On 31 October 2014, we were informed that a young lady from Tabit, engaged to a soldier, got pregnant. Her family went to the military barracks to complain and told the soldier that they would have to deal with him if he came back for their daughter. In the afternoon, her brothers were arrested and the village was surrounded by military forces because a soldier went missing. It was 4-5 pm Sudan time on Friday and we could not verify the information, thus we did not publish the same day.


On November 2 we got information from another source that the military forces had raped a large number of women in Tabit. Alarm bells were ringing. We got hold of two rape survivors who reported their cases, but they were still in the village. So, for their own safety, another person from the village testified on their behalf.


Early morning on Monday one of the victims disappeared. We had four recorded testimonies but were only able to release one, because we had to make sure that the survivors were safe.


On November 4, a UNAMID convoy moved from Shigil Tobai, located to the South of Tabit, to investigate the incident. To our surprise and according to UNAMID’s statement, they were stopped by a military road blockade. (Even though they had come from the south and should have already passed Tabit before reaching the blockade).


People reported that they had already spoken to UNAMID. This is why I think UNAMID was purposefully seeking military verification over the investigation of rape. UNAMID also mentioned that no one had arrived from Tabit to the Zamzam IDP camp even though we had sent our reporters to Zamzam to meet with some of the women who had fled Tabit. Those women were not even approached by UNAMID.


On November 7, a popular committee was formed to document the rape cases. They had to work through the night, going from door to door. They were able to document 57 rape cases of which 8 were minors.


On November 8, the military forces came to Tabit and threatened people who talked. The following day, UNAMID sent a delegation accompanied by the police and military to investigate rape incidents. The people were scared.


UNAMID claimed they talked to 8-9 students; however there aren’t any secondary schools or universities in Tabit.


UNAMID’s public statement offended the people; even the UN Security Council dismissed it.

All they said is that there was no evidence.

 Mr. Bijleveld on Radio Dabanga’s reputation as “The Rape Radio”:

Radio Dabanga was started by Darfurians with the mission of reporting current affairs. We cover all issues of the peace process, rule of law, sports and social events. Our team works with some of the best Sudanese journalists. Its 100% independent and committed to the highest professional standards.


Journalists are on the front lines when violations happen. Our commitment is to report and inform the people... We are not a lobbying or advocacy organization. 

Regarding the high prevalence of sexual violence in Sudan and mainly in Darfur, Mr. Bijleveld commented: 

I have lived in Sudan for almost two decades, while rape is a miserable crime, society and authorities would never tolerate a rapist and he would be punished regardless of his affiliations. It was against the ethical and moral values of society. Now rape is being used as a tool to suppress and terrify the people and perpetrators are not being punished.

The recent incidents in Tabit outraged Sudanese social media users. After UNAMID’s statement, the discussion was shifted from anger at the prevalence of sexual violence in Darfur to Radio Dabanga and their stand versus UNAMID’s credibility. 

The latter has a reputation for covering up government violations and under-reporting incidents, as stated by Aisha Elbasiri, a former UNAMID spokesperson who resigned because her access to information was blocked. Having a discussion over whether or not Tabit 'happened' reflects a major misunderstanding of sexual violence. During the Tabit outrage, Radio Dabanga reported the rape of two women in central Darfur and the abduction and rape of another in West Darfur. The two incidents went unnoticed. No demands for investigation or for the support of the survivors were made. Questioning the occurrence, or even the blatant denial, of such heinous crimes based on the argument that the military base near Tabit is small, composed of only one hundred soldiers, is invalid. Such an argument reflects the fact that rape and sexual violence are perceived as consensual sexual acts, not the violent crimes they are in reality.

The truth is that sexual violence is a weapon of war that has been normalized as part of everyday life in Darfur. No support is being provided to the survivors and no perpetrators are being brought to justice. The government of Sudan will continue to use its propaganda machine to deny the existence of these heinous crimes as the list of survivors and victims of sexual violence gets longer and longer.

This is an edited version of a blog entry originally posted on 14 November 2014.

Sideboxes Related stories:  It’s always the woman’s fault Country or region:  Sudan South Sudan Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government
Categories: les flux rss

Let's win back Barcelona!

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 15:57

Guanyem Barcelona is a citizen platform that has embarked on a mission to solve the current Spanish political crises with their own hands. This increasingly popular political movement aims to remove power from elites and bring democracy to the people. 

Guanyem Presentation Barcelona 2014. Flickr/Pedro Mata. Some rights reserved.

When the indignados occupied the public squares of Spain on May 15, 2011, demanding ‘real democracy’, they changed the terms of public debate. They called for an end of elected officials excessive privileges, measures to tackle corruption in public life, the dismantling of the stale two-party system, and citizen participation in decision-making. Decision-making thus far chimed with the popular mood far beyond those who participated in the occupations, and indignados became the pillars of the so-called nueva política (‘new politics’). Post-May 15, the question became whether this protest movement was capable of being an electoral contender, and if it so, how?

2014 was the year that the indignados became politically known and popular. Spain is currently spoilt for choice when it comes to radical democratising movements and political parties, from Partido X, 15MParaRato, Procés Constituent, to Podemos, which is now leading national voting polls, less than a year after its launch. The surge in support for the Catalan independence movement is, in many ways, thanks to its promise to solve the problem of inefficient Spanish democratic institutions by creating a new state.

However, while international attention has focused on Podemos and the Catalan independence movement, they may miss the formation of a new radical municipal platform that could seize power in the May 2015 local elections. The national elections are still a year away and the Catalan process is deadlocked, which makes the possibility of a new radical municipal platform seizing  nstitutional power in the May elections plausible. It would be the first of these movements ever to do so.

Photo by Sergio Espin, provided by author.

A new radical municipalism

Guanyem Barcelona (Catalan for 'let's win back Barcelona') launched in June this year, a citizen platform whose aim is to ‘take back the city and its public institutions and put democracy back at the service of the people’.

The platform’s likely mayoral candidate is the popular anti-evictions activist, Ada Colau. She became politically prominent after she accused a representative of the Spanish banking association of being a ‘criminal’ during a parliamentary hearing. Her popularity and oratory flair are undoubtedly powerful weapons in the movement’s bid for mass media attention. Nevertheless, the platform also has deep roots in the city’s social and political activists networks. Guanyem Barcelona is a joint initiative of members of Colau’s Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, local neighbourhood associations and anti-corruption campaigners, as well as a number of Barcelona-based academics, journalists and artists. It has collected over 30,000 signatures in support and is currently discussing with local political parties, including the Barcelona circle of Podemos, with the aim of standing on a joint ticket at the upcoming elections to the city council.

Rebel Barcelona

Guanyem’s choice of the municipal sphere and Barcelona, in particular, as the stage on which to play out its experiment in ‘new politics’, is no accident. 15M itself, of course, was a distinctively urban phenomenon, born of the shared frustrations of the densely concentrated, cosmopolitan, and digitally savvy Barcelona population. Yet, Guanyem’s draft manifesto goes so far as to describe Barcelona as ‘the ideal place to push for a much-needed democratic rebellion’.

It points to the city’s rich network of local associations and tradition of political activism. It also points out Barcelona’s strategic potential to connect with and reinforce similar democratising ambitions/movements in Catalonia, Spain and the rest of Europe. This theory is proving true; a number of other ‘let’s win’ platforms have sprung up in other cities across Spain since the launch of Guanyem Barcelona. The platform is also backing the forbidden independence vote on 9 November in Catalonia. Ada Colau is unconcerned at municipal institution critics who claim that these institutions lack power to carry out Guanyem’s ambitions. Ada Colau emphasises that power and legal authority is not the problem, rather it is lack of creativity and political will.  Ada’s anti-eviction platforms have successfully stopped over a thousand evictions across Spain since 2010 through direct action and civil obedience, which lends her claims a certain credibility.

Imagining a different Barcelona

Barcelona is not only one of the many sites where the problems affecting Catalonia and the Spain are playing out, it is also home to the political battlegrounds on which Guanyem is uniquely poised to capitalise. Some of the problems affecting Spain at the moment are evictions, cuts to public education and health services, unemployment and widening inequality.

An emblematic example of Barcelona being home to the Catalonian political battleground is that of Can Vies. In May this year, the city council evicted and demolished the community centre, which had been run by the Barcelona transport authority in the neighbourhood of Sants for seventeen years. The demolition provoked violent protests and arrests, and, subsequently, the mobilisation of residents from across the city to reconstruct the building brick by brick. Guanyem has supported Can Vies in line with its commitment to neighbourhood organisations and activism.

Following the Can Vies incident, the 2014 summer saw a wave of popular demonstrations against the effects of mass tourism in the port neighbourhood of Barceloneta. Anger about rising rents and the proliferation of illegal tourist apartments sparked the protests. The population of Barcelona were alarmed that residents and businesses were being forced out of the area, destroying the fabric of local community life.

Recent years have also seen tourist ‘hot-spots’ like the Ramblas become no-go areas for Barcelonans, sometimes literally, as in the case of Park Güel, which local residents now have to book in advance to enter. Barcelona is a city of two million inhabitants, which last year hosted seven and a half million visitors. The city council’s target is to increase this figure to ten million, despite the deep popular concerns about current visitor numbers and the city infrastructure incapacity to cope with increasing tourism. Even before the protests this summer, Guanyem was vocal in its criticisms of the current model of tourism in Barcelona. At the core of its critique is the claim that only a small elite benefits from tourism, while ordinary people are forced to bear its costs (noise, overcrowding, rising rents and a precarious seasonal labour market).

Photo by Xavi Valls, provided by author.

Changing the rules of the game

Guanyem’s spokespeople have used strong rhetoric to push for increased transparency and accountability, lamenting at public institutions being held ‘hostage’ by an elite and only addressing their narrow interests. Ada Colau has said that, in order to break this monopoly, it is not enough for citizens to vote once every four years and not take more responsibility. She wants to “change the rules of the game” so that people can participate directly in the day-to-day running of the city, making decisions on everything from the use of public spaces to childcare services. Guanyem Barcelona is already putting this principle into practice in the development of its own policy agenda, by rolling out local Guanyem groups in neighbourhoods across the city.

Guanyem’s electoral prospects will likely turn on its success at bringing together like-minded progressive political parties to stand on a joint ticket. The platform believes it can mobilise the 50% of the population who do not usually vote in the municipal elections. If it can, the eyes of Catalonia and the rest of Spain will be on Barcelona to see how the ‘new politics’ fares in power. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Catalonia-Spain: Deadlock Barcelona i Catalunya: the real thing Catalan independence: the necessary choice Country or region:  Spain City:  Barcelona Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government
Categories: les flux rss

Bulgaria's new coalition: a rainbow without colours

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 15:43

Neoliberalism and nationalism will continue to be fused under the recent Bulgarian coalition. Domestic policy outcomes are unlikely to differ from previous coalition governments. 

The National Assembly of Bulgaria. Wikimedia/Todor Bozhinov. Some rights reserved.

Bulgaria’s newly-formed coalition, comprised of the pro-European rightists of GERB and the Reformist Bloc, ex-president Parvanov’s ‘leftist’ ABV and the ultranationalist Patriotic Front might look like an unlikely alliance of the ideologically incompatible, an apparent case of what the political scientist Thomas Carothers once referred to as ‘feckless pluralism’.

Certainly, this has been the angle of analysis adopted by many commentators inside the country who puzzle at the ability of political actors routinely labelled as ‘pro-European’, ‘right-wing’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘nationalist’ to work together. Yet, such analyses rest on the flawed assumption that these labels reflect clearly articulated and meaningfully differentiated policy platforms that facilitate the identification of citizens with specific ideas. In practice, this is a perfectly dull coalition consisting only of parties that are functionally both neoliberal and nationalist along with the now customary support of some shouting-at-the-TV-type xenophobes, though the role played by Ataka in the previous two governments will now be filled by the Patriotic Front.

The structure of 43rd National Assembly of Bulgaria (2014). Wikimedia/Bgpolitics. Some rights reserved.

If it is difficult to discern one political platform from another, then it follows that many, probably most, votes are cast on the basis of non-programmatic appeals. Charismatic and clientelist dynamics almost certainly explain why voter turnout remains quasi-respectable (over 50%) in a context of mass protest and disillusionment. Yet though ideas and policies may not decide the outcome of Bulgarian elections, they still matter because politicians must do something when given control of the state. The purpose of this article is to argue that the path of least resistance has usually been to combine neoliberalism and nationalism. It is unlikely that this government will buck the trend.

While neoliberal ideas have never become a popular narrative across the country – most Bulgarians remain preoccupied with getting by and are not identifiable in terms of economic policy orientations – the arguments of the right have gradually assumed the position of a shared ‘common sense’ among influential urban demographics. In part, this can be explained by the preferences of the oligarchic networks that dominate media ownership. However, the victory of neoliberalism owes just as much to the actions of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has for over two decades used leftist rhetoric to mask its collusion in the enrichment of these same oligarchs, both through very business-friendly policies (such as the famous 10% flat corporation tax) and old-style corruption. Predictably, this has led to left-wing ideas coming to be seen as intellectually non-viable by those politically engaged sections of the electorate to whom intellectual viability matters.

So what are the chances that ABV, the ex-BSP splinter party that has now found its way into the new coalition, will restore some credibility to ‘left-wing’ politics? Not great actually, since the old regime pedigree of key personnel such as ex-president Georgi Parvanov and ex-foreign minister Ivaylo Kalfin dictates that leftist rhetoric will most probably be combined with neoliberal policy. The party’s supremely vacuous mission statement, repeatedly lauding unspecified ‘new ideas’ and ‘experts’, will be more than adequate to encourage the country’s business elites – including potential backers - to rest easy.

Thus, the only significant section of the Bulgarian electorate liable to explain their political allegiances in terms of any clear economic policy preferences are those better-off urbanites who waver between the charms of GERB under the muscular leadership of Boiko Borissov and other right-wing parties now stroppily tolerating each other in the Reformist Bloc. Though the claims of these parties to stand for ‘Europe’ and ‘democracy’ are very debatable, their status as enthusiastic proponents of right-wing economic liberalism should not be in doubt. From the rapid privatisations of the Kostov administration (1997-2001) to GERB Finance Minister Simeon Djankov’s ‘Make-mine-a-double’ approach to Austerity (2009-13), Bulgaria’s right-wing leaders have done much over the years to please the editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal.

Yet the undisputed dominance of neoliberal logic in ‘respectable’ discussions of economic policy means that the ability of political parties to win votes on the basis of ‘being right-wing’ is probably on the wane even among this core demographic; ubiquity may be leading to invisibility. Last year, at the height of the protests against the BSP-led government, one Sofia lawyer wrote an opinion piece in the daily Sega centring on a rejection of the labels of ‘right’ and ‘left’. Outlining a kind of manifesto rooted in folksy maxims and personal experience, she stated that advocacy of ‘equality’ was a sign of ‘cowardice’, ‘hypocrisy’ or ‘stupidity’, then claimed that she would vote for any candidate promising ‘not to touch the flat tax, to liberalize the energy markets and to close down any unprofitable state enterprises – even if he calls himself ultra-left’. ‘Am I left or am I right?’ she repeatedly asked her readers before declaring that she did not care where she fell on the political spectrum. This may simply reveal political illiteracy. However, it might also be seen as a rational reaction to the emptiness of policy debate in a context where politicians of ‘right’ and ‘left’ tend to agree on the most important points and end up implementing similar policies.

The second plank of my argument is that each group in the new coalition is committed to maintaining the ethnic nationalist character of the political community. The most obvious group to mention here are the Patriotic Front, whose role in the GERB-led government in the light of their policy pledges to station missiles on the border with Turkey and to oblige ethnic Turks to sit compulsory Bulgarian language exams at the age of 6 has provoked complaints from GERB’s European People’s Party colleagues. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the basic ideals underpinning these reckless policies are not shared by coalition partners more adept at steering clear of European rebukes.

When GERB PM Borissov last first ran for the PM’s office first time round, he made a series of contentious nationalist statements that did his popularity very little harm in a country where few question that the purpose of the state is to improve the lot of ethnic Bulgarians. Similarly, though no party involved in the Reformist Bloc has served in government since 2001, it seems reasonable to assume the grouping will not risk any political capital in challenging this hegemony, not least because it was the Reformists that insisted upon the inclusion of the Patriotic Front in the coalition. Finally, the ‘leftist’ party ABV, whose name stands both for the first three letters of the Bulgarian Alphabet and ‘Alternative for the Bulgarian Revival’, is the political vehicle of Georgi Parvanov. Few voters will have forgotten that, back in 2007, then President Parvanov was active in whipping up a nationalist hate campaign against academic historians (or ‘defending the nation’s honour’ depending on your point of view) who dared to challenge Bulgarian historiographical narratives. 

This ethnic nationalist consensus will help to set the general direction of policy in a way that will inevitably be considered uncontroversial in a national context where every schoolchild is encouraged to carry a sense of grievance based on ‘five hundred years’ of Ottoman domination.  For example, the new GERB Deputy Prime Minister Rumyana Bachvarova has already endorsed the Patriotic Front campaign to defund the Turkish-language news bulletins carried daily at 4pm by the state broadcaster BNT since 2000 – an era when basic human rights were still being restored to the Turks following the end of the infamous name-changing campaign.

It is more significant however, to consider what will not change: the rules of the game. The ethnically exclusivist character of the state is still protected by Bulgaria’s 1991 constitution which contains a clause forbidding ‘parties formed on an ethnic or religious basis’, a clause which has never been, and was obviously never designed to be, used against a Bulgarian nationalist party. If the ethnic Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms wish to contest the kinds of Bulgarian nationalist attacks on their constituency described above, they will have to tread very lightly because each and every one of the ruling coalition retains a plausible interest in seeking to have the party declared illegal. Alternatively, ‘business as usual’ would see mainstream Bulgarian parties playing the ethnic card from time to time in confidence that the MRF will protect its position among the country’s elite by preaching restraint among its constituents without daring to trigger a constitutional challenge. In short, none of the present coalition are interested in challenging ethnic nationalist hegemony while the MRF is forbidden from doing so.

Overall, domestic policy outcomes are unlikely to be massively different from those overseen by the past three governments, all of which were considered unholy alliances at the time: the Tripartite BSP-NDSV-MRF coalition of 2005-9 and the Ataka-supported administrations of GERB 2009-13 and BSP-MRF 2013-14. In a political context where ideas are of limited electoral importance, neoliberalism and nationalism will continue to shape policy by default. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Bulgaria in limbo Bulgaria's terror attack: a democratic test Country or region:  Bulgaria Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Ideas
Categories: les flux rss

Germany and the disinformation politics of the Ukraine crisis

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 10:50

Looking at both the historical and current pro-Putin segment of German public discussion, one can identify the target groups and methods of Russian disinformation politics


In early March, in central Berlin, I came across a demonstration protesting against ‘Neo-Nazis on the Maidan.’ I tried to talk to the activists standing there, but they responded to all of my comments with just one question: ‘Are you a member of the fascist Svoboda party?’ Up to that point, I had not realised the scope of Putin’s propaganda in Germany, and the fact that the topic of Ukraine will soon become one of the major division lines inside German society. I have been following various public discussions and debates, from the Bundestag to the Day of German Historians, and from the Berlin Poetry Festival to the German teachers conference, and I have come to understand better, German attitudes to the situation in Ukraine, usually defined in German media as the ‘Ukraine Crisis.’ Looking at the pro-Putin segment of German public discussion, one can identify the target groups and methods of Russian disinformation politics as well as the cultural stereotypes it is based on. 

Key Putin-friendly beliefs

‘The responsibility for the Ukraine crisis lies with the West.’ This belief relies on the presumption that the West itself has violated the principle of the inviolability of borders. It is said that while the West has supported and recognised the independence of Kosovo, it has also challenged the international power balance by enlarging NATO up to the very borders of Russia. Using this historical analogy, ‘the self-determination’ expressed during the Crimean ‘referendum’ is often equated to the self-determination of Kosovo. But, at the same time, the choice of the majority of Ukrainians, voting in favour of European integration, is portrayed as being imposed from the outside (the notion of ‘American money for the Maidan’ is often raised in this respect). And the EU is blamed for promoting ‘unrealistic expectations’ of Kiev, and thus provoking Putin. This logic usually stresses the need to take into consideration the ‘legitimate interests of Russia’ in the post-Soviet space. This means therefore that the conflict in Ukraine should be solved ‘not against Putin, but together with Putin’ (a quotation from a speech on the ARD TV-show given by retired NATO general Harald Kujat).

‘In Ukraine we are dealing with a civil war between the East and the West of the country caused by the nationalism of the Kievan post-Maidan government.’ This image is based on an intensively promoted description of Ukraine as a deeply divided country where the pro-European and, at the same time, ultra-nationalistic ‘West’ stands against the pro-Russian or just Russian ‘East.’ Ukraine here is depicted as a failed state, the accidental outcome of the collapse of the Soviet Union and a country with no historical and cultural agency of its own. In other words, Ukraine is seen as just a battleground for the real superpowers. The notion of the 'civil war' also helps to downplay the question of the Russian intervention; and a comparison of Ukraine to Czechoslovakia promotes the idea of a peaceful divorce as a desirable solution. 

Ukraine is seen as just a battleground for the real superpowers.

‘The Russians and the Russian language deserve special protection in Ukraine, especially in the regions with a Russian majority population.' This phrase, which sounds like a reasonable European norm – in the context of the lack of knowledge about the language situation in Ukraine – often turns into the acceptance of Putin`s identification of speaking Russian with being Russian, and with it a loyalty to the Russian Federation. The German, as well as British or French media, quite often publish misleading maps of ‘ethnic zones’ in Ukraine that overlook the situational and social dimensions of Ukrainian bilingualism (mostly Russian-speaking cities, including Kyiv, and mostly Ukrainian-speaking villages, also in the very east of the country), and automatically ascribes the preferred language of everyday communication to political preferences and even ethnicity. For example, on 23 August 2014, in his interview for the Welt am Sonntag [national Sunday newspaper] German vice-chancellor Siegmar Gabriel claimed that Ukraine could maintain its territorial integrity only by proposing a federalisation to the regions ‘where the Russians are in a majority.’

‘Germany should avoid a new war, especially if there is a danger of nuclear weapons being used.’ Avoiding a war in this case involves making concessions to Putin, showing peaceful intentions and the will to talk. This logic is built on the European culture of political consensus, and overlooks the fact that every sign of indecision and weakness only encourages further aggression from the Kremlin. There are also fears of a totally unpredictable and chaotic ‘Russia without Putin.’ They influence the orientation and preference of German politics for keeping the option of ‘letting Putin save face,’ and a return to ‘business as usual.’ This orientation ignores the effects of the war propaganda campaign inside Russia and the nature of Putin`s political legitimacy, which has to move from one geopolitical victory to another to remain acceptable to the majority of the population.

‘The economic and historical aspects of German-Russian cooperation should not be sacrificed in favour of an obscure, distant and weak Ukraine.’ This view is based on the belief that Ukraine’s problems are somehow local (see the idea of the ‘civil war’ mentioned above), and thus bear no real threat to Germany. And yet the worsening of relations with Russia is seen as a real threat – economically, militarily and culturally. According to this reasoning, Ukraine appears as just a petty obstacle to the long-lasting search for the mutual understanding and cooperation between Germany and Russia. Such logic, for instance, was evident in West German politicians’ attitudes to Polish Solidarity during the 1980s.

‘The criticism of Russian politics in Ukraine is a new form of Russophobia.’ As a Ukrainian academic and commentator, I am constantly trying to prove the opposite: uncritical support or unwillingness to confirm the fact of Russia`s aggression against Ukraine is a kind of Russophobia, because it pushes Russia to the point of economic and political collapse, and denies the democratic potential of its development.

The views above are not simply products of the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts, but result from a genuine desire to prevent the worse-case scenario and further Germany national interests. The supporters of such an attitude do not constitute a homogeneous social or political group. Among them are people on the left, particularly voters of the Die Linke Party. But that does not mean that the entirety of the German left is pro-Putin, because the Green Party enthusiastically supports Ukraine. There are also some representatives of German business, especially those closely related to the Russian markets, and there are people of conservative views who are often sceptical towards further enlargenment of the EU. These people are represented politically by a new right-wing political party — Alternative for Germany. 

The German cultural backgrounds of pro-Putin attitudes

The German cultural backgrounds of pro-Putin attitudes are many and varied.

Anti-American sentiments, for example, especially among the leftist German circles that, as Anna Veronica Wendland put it, point to imperialism in the West, but completely fail to notice it in the Russian politics on the post-Soviet space.

German post-war culture believes that every conflict could be solved if all sides will drink enough coffee together

There is the German post-war culture of consensus and pacifism, which believes that negotiations are always better than a coercieve approach, that peace should be established by peaceful actions only, and every conflict could be solved if all sides will drink enough coffee together. Unfortunately, this approach does not explain what to do if one of the sides, especially when it is not recognised as an aggressor, does not keep its promises and constantly uses violence to establish facts and advantage on the ground. Such pacifism tends not to notice somehow the military involvement of Russia, and sees the deliberate presentation of the war in Donbas as a kind of ‘legitimate fight for self-determination’ as being in some way comparable to the Kurdish, Catalonian or Scottish independence movements.

There is the historical stereotype of Eastern Europe as a terrain of political chaos, ethnic nationalism and anti-semitism. Putin`s propaganda tends to depict the current events in Ukraine according to this recognisable image of ‘Eastern Europe,’ which also includes Poland or the Baltic states, but not Russia.

There is the historical guilt towards Russia felt by a lot of Germans in relation to the Nazi atrocities committted during the Second World War. In German mass consciousness, the war in the East – that actually took place mostly on the territories of present-day Belarus, Poland and Ukraine – is perceived as a ‘war in Russia.’ But German historical guilt towards Ukraine, twice occupied by German troops during the 20th century (first in 1918 and then in 1941-1944), is practically absent in the evaluation of the current events.

Finally, there is the weakness of cultural and historical links with Ukraine caused, among other factors, by the lack of institutionalized Ukrainian studies in Germany and the shortage of Ukrainian cultural initiatives in the West.

Looking at all of the above, the most important conclusion is that for a lot of Germans, Ukraine has no historical and cultural agency of its own and is treated as just an instrument for stronger powers competition or a function of the anti-American or anti-EU sentiments. 

For a lot of Germans, Ukraine has no historical and cultural agency of its own

‘Тhose who understand Putin’

Kremlin propaganda in Germany tends not to directly promote widespread acceptance and sympathy towards Putin’s politics, but to spread fear and disorientation. This propaganda is designed to prevent political and social consensus on Germany’s position towards Ukraine, and thus resistance to Russian intervention. Despite its variety, the principal aim of the pro-Putin discourse in Germany could be summarised in one word — non-interference. According to this logic, Ukraine should not expect NATO membership in the future, nor Western military assistance. The prospects of Ukraine’s EU membership can only be mentioned as a distant and vague possibility. At the same time, the sanctions against Russia should be abandoned (or at least not expanded) in order to overcome a ‘new cold war.’ But such an approach gives no clear vision of the future to Ukraine: how it could exist as a ‘bridge’ between conflicting integration projects (the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union).

‘Those who understand Putin’ (Putinversteher) constitute a heterogeneous group of influential ex-politicians (such as ex-chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder), as well as journalists, political experts, businessmen and people within the German military. They are particularly visible on German TV talk shows and social media, where they attack every pro-Ukrainian publication or comment.

Notwithstanding the Putinversteher, it seems that, despite their best efforts, there is a growing understanding in Germany that Putin`s politics do have a global dimension. After all, his politics question all existing international institutions and the entire system of international law. In this sense, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and the ensuing global information war poses a number of challenges to the EU (especially given its complicated decision-making process): how should democracies stand up to an authoritarian nuclear power? How can pacifism prevent war with a violent aggressor? And how can freedom of speech deal with disinformation?


Sideboxes Related stories:  EU accession and the Ukraine crisis Putin's new foreign policy rulebook Whatever happened to (Euro) Maidan Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

‘We changed the law to save children’s lives’

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 9:20

Sometimes campaigning works. How bereaved parents, lawyers, campaigners, one brave teenager (and 30,000 people who signed an online petition) achieved victory.

In April 2012, a few weeks after his 17th birthday, a sixth-former called Hughes Cousins-Chang and his friend were arrested on a London bus. They were handcuffed, cautioned and taken to Battersea police station, where they were strip-searched and detained for 12 hours. Hughes asked for his mother to be informed of his arrest. He was refused.

Carrlean Chang found out about her son’s arrest much later when police came to search the family home: “I was outraged that a 17-year-old was being treated as an adult,” she said. “I felt helpless. My son was a boy. When he finally came out at 4am he looked so deflated.” (No charges were ever brought against him).

Last year, Just for Kids Law worked closely with the bereaved families of two 17 year olds who took their own lives after being arrested on minor charges and held at the police station. Because of an anomaly in the law, 17 year olds did not have a right to adult support in police custody. Hughes Cousins-Chang had the courage to speak out about his ordeal and helped us to challenge government policy in the High Court.

Hughes Cousins-Chang

In April last year, Lord Justice Moses ruled that it is unlawful for 17 year olds in the police station to be treated as adults, denied the protection afforded to younger children of having a parent or other adult with them.

The Home Office, which had rejected our arguments throughout the case, decided not to appeal the decision. Shortly after the judgment, the Home Office began implementing the changes that were required to enable 17 year olds to have adult support at the police station.

Still, the Home Office resisted correcting another dangerous anomaly. Children who are 16 and younger are not supposed to be kept in the police station overnight but should be moved to secure local authority accommodation. But 17 year olds were specifically excluded from this protection. This had to change.

Avoidable harm

Kesia Leatherbarrow was arrested on a Friday evening in December 2013 for breaking a window and having a small amount of cannabis. Kesia had a history of mental health problems, including self-harm and depression, but despite exhibiting concerning behaviour at the police station, she was held in a cell for two days and three nights. Because she was 17, the police would have been unable to transfer her to local authority accommodation where specialist staff could have looked after her.

On the Monday morning Kesia was taken to the adult court. The court said that since she was a child she should return the next day when the youth court was in session. Kesia was released with no one to meet her. Hours later, she was found dead.

Kesia LeatherbarrowI will never forget meeting Matt and Martina, Kesia’s parents, for the first time. Their palpable pain permeated the room that they had confined themselves to, with pictures of their beautiful daughter all over the walls.

We introduced Matt and Martina to the parents of Eddie Thornber and Joe Lawton, who had taken their lives in 2011 and 2012. After meeting and sharing their stories, the families agreed that they would work as a team to support Matt and Martina, together with Just for Kids Law, in trying to bring about the changes that were needed to ensure that vulnerable 17 year olds could not be detained overnight in the police station.

Home Office intransigence

We were lucky to have an excellent legal team from Doughty Street chambers, acting pro bono, and we kicked off the legal challenge by informing the Home Office that we would formally commence legal proceedings against them if they did not bring about the changes to the law.

The Home Office resisted all of our arguments, refusing to accept costs protection that Just for Kids Law had requested on the basis that we are small charity and, although our barristers were working for free, we could not afford to pay the Home Office’s legal costs.

We had been advised by others that the Home Office would be likely to accept the point in principle but that the change would not come about until after the next General Election, in 2015.

At no point did Home Office lawyers acknowledge that this was their position. Instead, they persisted in denying the validity of our legal challenge. We asked to see the minutes of meetings that would confirm this. Home Office lawyers assured us that we’d get the minutes but then refused to disclose them.

Bear in mind that this is the same government that wants to stop NGOs taking legal challenges altogether.

Delay costs young lives

We did not want to wait. History showed that this path was deadly. In early 2010 the then Labour government agreed to amend the legislation to include 17 year olds in the protections afforded to children at the police station.

Eddie ThornberThen came the General Election in May 2010, and the new government calculated that the changes would cost too much in a time of austerity. What happened next?

In 2011 Eddie Thornber took his life after receiving a court summons for possessing cannabis worth 50p.

In 2012 Joe Lawton took his life after being held overnight at Cheadle Heath police station in Greater Manchester without his parents' knowledge.

We feared that further delay would cost lives. And we knew that the government had an easy opportunity to make a quick change before the year was out by amending the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill as it passed through the House of Lords. The Joe LawtonGovernment had already amended the Bill so that 17 year olds are given adult support when they receive a caution, leaving the police station the sole remaining place where 17 year olds did not get the same protections as other children.

We are members of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice which pools members’ expertise to argue for a child-focused youth justice system. The Standing Committee provides effective advocacy for children and they prepared an amendment that would prevent 17 year olds from being held overnight in the police station. The Earl of Listowel (Francis Hare), a hereditary peer who sits as a cross bencher, presented it to the House of Lords at the committee stage of the bill in July 2014.

Lord Faulks, the Home Office spokesperson in the Lords, said that the government sympathised with the sentiment of the amendment, but the law in this matter was complicated and it would therefore need to be “properly thought through before change is made”.

At the report stage in October 2014 Listowel tabled the amendment again. This time Lord Faulks said the amendment, although “laudable in its aims”, represented a “too-hurried approach” to the treatment of 17 year olds in the criminal justice system.

That’s when Kesia’s parents Matt and Martina came to us and asked if we could ramp up the campaign.

We prepared the case for Judicial Review, gathering statements from expert witnesses such as the National Appropriate Adult Network and youth justice specialists.  The Policing Minister, Mike Penning, agreed to meet Matt and Martina. He listened sympathetically. helped them to set up a petition demanding urgent change; in just five days nearly 30,000 people signed. Again we asked the  Standing Committee for Youth Justice if the Earl of Listowel would table an amendment at Third Reading, which wasn’t simple but they willingly agreed to try.

On Monday 10 November, Matt and Martina Baines had been due to deliver their petition to the Home Office. Instead, they sat in the public gallery of the House of Lords and heard the Earl of Listowel yet again press for the amendment.

He spoke about the children who had died.

“Since 2010, three 17 year-old children have taken their own lives after being treated as adults by the police,” he said. “They were Kesia Leatherbarrow, Eddie Thornber and Joe Lawton. It is worth taking a moment to think about what it means for a child to die in this way, the terrible waste and the pain that it causes those they leave behind. These children are much loved and deeply missed, and I should like to take a moment to read out some brief words of remembrance about each of them.”

Listowel related Nick Lawton's word about his son, Joe: “He was a beautiful boy, everyone agreed. Joe was a happy, successful 17 year-old studying for his A-levels. He is missed every moment of every day.”

He quoted Eddie Thornber’s mother, Ann: “Eddie was head boy of his school, looking forward to studying in America. We would do anything to make sure Eddie was still with us.”

And Kesia’s mother,  Martina Brincat Baines: “Kesia was my only daughter. She was beautiful. A funny, lively girl who, despite her mental health issues, was loving and great company, she was so hugely loved and is so hugely missed.”

This time, Lord Faulks, on behalf of the government, accepted the amendment: “17 year olds, as with 12 to 16-year-old children, must be transferred to suitable local authority accommodation” rather than being kept in the police station overnight, he said.

The Earl of Listowel thanked the minister, the Home Office, Just for Kids Law, the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and the National Appropriate Adult Network, as well as the public law team at Doughty Street Chambers for their free legal work.

He said: “Great tribute must go to Martina and Matt Baines, the mother and stepfather of Kesia Leatherbarrow. Despite their terrible and at times overwhelming grief, they threw themselves into campaigning for what they think of as Kesia’s law. I also pay tribute to Jane and Nick Lawton, parents of Joe, and to Ann and Adrian Thornber, parents of Eddie. . .  Without the commitment of these extraordinary parents in their time of enormous loss, I do not think that the changes would have been made today.”

Above: Matt and Martina Baines delivering their petition to the House of Lords on Monday 10 November, with members of Just for Kids Law team (L-R: Mary-Rachel McCabe, Matt and Martina Baines, Shauneen Lambe and Fiona Bawdon).
Just for Kids Law is a charity that provides holistic support and legal representation to vulnerable children and young people and drives systemic change through strategic litigation and policy reform. You can support their work by donating here. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  How we treat children in the UK: the dark side of our soul A police cell is no place for the young and vulnerable How the British justice system makes criminals of children Many thousands of children stripped naked in custody. Ignites memories of being raped Strip-searched in Derbyshire Let's respond to England's riots with decency, not by demonising our children Does the Westminster government want to improve youth custody, or not? Pregnant teenager imprisoned for failing to keep appointments with her supervisor Criminalised, vulnerable, and likely to re-offend: Will this government help young offenders in England and Wales?
Categories: les flux rss

The real cost of detaining migrants

Open Democracy News Analysis - 24. November 2014 - 8:18

Several years after being rushed out of Tinsley House immigration removal centre near London Gatwick airport, one man still lies hospitalised, unable to move, reliant on the staff to keep him alive. 

A few years ago I visited an extremely vulnerable man in Tinsley House. Weeks later I received a phone call saying that he had thrown himself against a wall and broken his own neck. When I read that sentence back again it still shocks me and brings back memories that I wish I did not have. The next time I saw this man, who I will call John, it was in East Surrey Hospital, a few miles from Gatwick Airport, where I found him lying paralysed in a hospital bed. Today he still lies paralysed, requiring 24 hour care, and he will of course never recover. While this is an extreme example of what can happen to people when they are locked up indefinitely, it shows what is possible in these circumstances, and shines a light on how the system of immigration detention in the UK is failing those who are most vulnerable to its effects.

Tinsley House is often considered to be one of the better immigration removal centres in the UK. Successive reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons are largely positive, there have been no deaths at the centre, unlike at many others, nor have there been any major disturbances. Many of those we work with who have experienced life in more than one centre tell us Tinsley is better than most, and certainly far better than its bigger sister at Gatwick, Brook House. My experience of visiting there on many occasions over the last seven years is that many of the staff who work there are caring and compassionate, and see their job very much as making the stays of those held there are bearable as possible. And yet incidents like the one that happened with John still occur. The underlying problem, therefore, lies not in the conditions, nor the quality of the staff, nor the regime, though all of these are important and affect how many people deal with their detention. The problem is with a system which says it is OK to lock people up for the convenience of the state, while they make what is often very slow progress in resolving each person’s case, often with seemingly scant regard for the risks that this may pose to each individual, nor any effective way of ensuring that each person is not damaged to the extent that suicide seems like the only way out.

Tinsley House. Photo: Corporate Watch

John was quite clearly struggling in detention when I saw him, and I was very concerned that he was seriously mentally unwell. He had been in Tinsley House for a few weeks, and in another immigration removal centre before that. I remember him telling me how desperate he was to return back to his home country where his wife and children had returned a few months earlier. He told me all he wanted was to go back home, but that there was a conspiracy by the Home Office to keep him locked up forever. He was paranoid, angry and desperate. I found out later that John had suffered from mental health problems since childhood. I had never seen anyone in such a condition before, and was so worried about his mental state that I informed the centre’s medical staff about my concerns, which is something I have only done on a handful of occasions before or since. While some action was taken by the staff at the centre, unfortunately they were unable to prevent the tragedy that unfolded a few days later. At a hearing many years later, the Judge found that negligence on behalf of both individuals at the centre and by the security firm who ran the centre were contributing factors; but he also found that John was so highly disturbed by that stage that nothing they could have done within the centre could have stopped him from doing what he did.

What does this say about our system of detention? Does it say that it is OK to lock up a man who did not even want to stay in the UK for months on end, simply for bureaucratic convenience, and even while his mental health deteriorated so severely and so clearly that when I got the call to say that he had broken his own neck it did not come as a great surprise to me?

My own experience of visiting and supporting hundreds of people in immigration detention over the years is that many, particularly the most vulnerable, of which John was undoubtedly one, are kept locked up for reasons that are very hard to fathom. The usual arguments of risk of absconding and risk of reoffending frequently make little sense when put under the spotlight; people who have committed documents offences or who have been caught working illegally being regarded as a potential risk to the public, men who have never failed to miss a ‘reporting date’ being considered a high risk of absconding. The people who make these decisions have often never met those whose immediate fate they hold in their hands, have little information to go on when making decisions about whether to detain or release, and when it comes to vulnerabilities and the ongoing harm being caused by detention there is often no information at all. The futility of detaining people for no discernible reason, for periods of time that often stretch into months and sometimes into years and on the basis of information that is incomplete at best, is clear to anyone who works with detainees. But not, it seems, to the Home Office, who continue to detain more and more people each year, and this year for the first time broke the 5,000 bed spaces mark, across IRCs, short-term holding facilities and prisons.

There has to be a better way. To treat vulnerable people with seemingly little regard for the damage that is being inflicted upon them is at best immoral, at worst inhuman. I have witnessed torture survivors being seriously re-traumatised by their detention, people so mentally ill that they had little idea of where they were and no idea of what was happening to them, and I have lost count of the number of people who tell me they could see no way out other than suicide.

While of course this is not the fate of the vast majority, that does not mean that we can just assume that they will probably be OK in the end. Assessing someone’s mental health is extremely difficult, and I am by no means a clinician, but you do not have to be a psychiatrist to know if a person sitting opposite you in the visits room is suffering beyond what is reasonable. Our immigration control system cannot be based on compassion alone, but it can be more understanding of those who are most vulnerable, and it can be much better at identifying those who are being unreasonably harmed by being locked up. Better decisions are possible.

'Whisper' by M. Photo: Detention Action

The Vulnerable People Working Group of the Detention Forum, a network of 30 NGOs seeking to reform immigration detention in the UK, are calling for the development of a vulnerability assessment tool. This is based on other systems that are currently in use by the Scottish Refugee Council among others, albeit in a non-detention setting. This not only gives a much more rounded approach to vulnerability, bringing in a range of factors not currently considered, but is also able to track how this changes over time. We are calling on the government to investigate this as a matter of urgency. The right tool will benefit everyone. The Home Office will waste far less money detaining those who are most vulnerable, who often end up being released, and who often end up successfully taking them to court for unlawful detention. The benefits for those whose lives risk being shattered by detention need no explanation. Ample evidence is given on the pages of this Unlocking Detention series on openDemocracy.

Today John once again lies in a bed in a care home. Another day passes him by, unable to move, reliant on the staff to keep him alive. This is the real cost of detention.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Extraordinary things: visiting the women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre Death at Yarl’s Wood: Women in mourning, women in fear The lonely death of Jimmy Mubenga Immigration detention: a most un-British phenomenon Not a minor offence: the unlawful detention of unaccompanied children Helping the Other: particular experiences, universal outlooks Interrupting the implacable: fighting the Detained Fast Track Animals or slaves? Memories of a migrant detention centre Is there an alternative to locking up migrants in the UK? Justice in the UK: back to the 1930s? The national shame that is healthcare in UK immigration detention Immigration detention: time for a time limit Immigration detention in the media: anarchy and ambivalence Detained at the UK border: mould, cat calls and barbed wire A crisis of harm in immigration detention Migrant vs non-migrant: two tier policing Migrant lives in the UK: the deprivation of liberty Country or region:  UK City:  London
Categories: les flux rss

On #ric2014 and strategy for Scotland's New Left

Open Democracy News Analysis - 23. November 2014 - 18:52

The vast Radical Independence Conference shows the potential power of Scotland's radicals - if they can play their cards right.

picture - @williamsonkev

Being “radical” implies two things. First, that you want the change not just some policies, but the whole system – from the root, to take the word to its, erm, root. The second implication is that you stand outside the mainstream.

The Radical Independence Conference yesterday only really qualified for the first of those meanings. Because when you can get almost one in a thousand voters in a room together for a day, it's hard to continue to argue that the ideas they espouse are not within the mainstream of Scottish politics.

It would be easy to reflect on how wonderful the conference was: the extraordinary moment when Tariq Ali said he had never seen anything of this sort on this scale; the fact that there were experienced, practiced speakers able to articulate questions of strategy in clear, passionate ways despite only being in their early twenties; the seriousness with which people approached their task of continuing to change Scotland (for, make no mistake, the Radical Independence Campaign has already changed Scotland).

But if you want that sort of reflection, I suggest having a look at the #ric2014 hashtag, and see how those there responded to what must have been the biggest political conference in Scotland in my lifetime. Because, in a sense what matters is a different question. What next?

As I see it, politics can be divided into three arenas: electoralism, work place organising and organising in the community. Much of the discussion behind the scenes was about the former of these. And, in a sense, the detail here didn't match the rhetoric.

Because whilst everyone was convivial (that was remarkable two years ago. Now, it's become the norm) and whilst there were many calls for unity, there was no agreement about what people should unite behind. For those in the SNP, it's them. The Scottish Socialist Party has called for an electoral pact for Westminster between the three main yes supporting parties. Greens sit between the two – having been open to discussions about collaboration, but not wanting to lose the ability to hold the SNP to account on issues like TTIP and fracking, where their positions are less than progressive.

In a sense, though, this question is moot. The SNP seemed open to such conversations shortly after the referendum – at a time when it looked like they could challenge perhaps 20-25 seats in Scotland, why wouldn't they be happy to give newly resurgent Socialist and Green parties a descent chance at a couple of the seats they weren't targeting? Now the polls put them in contention in almost every seat in Scotland, the maths is different – why would they give away seats they could win? At their conference, the SNP passed policy allowing non-party activists to stand under their banner – in effect, ruling out activists from other parties standing under some joint banner.

The SNP decision doesn't close the door to co-operation between other groups and parties though. And this is worth considering. As Tariq Ali pointed out, the political forces in the room on Saturday have the capacity, if they get organised, to replace a dying Scottish Labour as the opposition in Scotland. If you support independence, then this is a thrilling prospect. If Scotland finds itself in a position where most of its political debate takes place between two parties which both support independence, that will have much more impact on the likelihood of a future yes vote than the SNP securing an ever tighter grip on the country. For those who support radical politics, the prospect of serious parliamentary power is thrilling.

It is yet to be seen what that means – the spectrum seems to me to run from, at one end, people uniting behind the Greens as the only currently credible electoral grouping to, at the other, loose pacts between the various parties (this has already in effect happened once – SSP leader Colin Fox stood aside for the Scottish Greens in this year's European elections; and the people involved in the new Scottish Left Project (who largely organise RIC) in effect did so too). Along the middle ground between these poles sit a number of potentially creative options, and it will be a test of character for everyone involved if they can work out an option which offers voters a single platform in 2016 which can appeal to the breadth of Scotland's radical coalition of voters and get the maximum number of MSPs elected.

But power doesn't only lie in parliament. And it's worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what all of this means for Scotland's trade unions. This is something I've been wondering for a few weeks now – ever since a tweet from the SNP Trade Union Group revealed their membership had passed 12,000. It is, in other words, almost certainly larger – likely significantly larger – than the Scottish Labour Party.

I spoke to their activists outside the conference, and found they (the people I chatted with) didn't want to seek affiliations to the SNP. Rather, they said, they thought trade unions should support candidates in elections on a case by case basis. Inside the auditorium, the first speaker was Suki Sanga, a member of the STUC council. One of the biggest cheers of the day came when she said trade union funding for the Labour party must end. All of this comes in a context in which there are rumours of ongoing serious tensions between the leadership trade union movement and Labour in Scotland, and it's worth remembering the STUC's main intervention in the referendum campaign was to say that Better Together were “disappointing”.

But disassociation from Labour leaves a vacuum. And it seems clear that, in a Scotland with an increasingly dominant SNP, it would be disastrous if the natural party of government at Holyrood also got control of the trades unions in the way that Labour currently has had its fingers around their throats when they have been in government in the past. And so it seems that there is a clear and urgent task among RIC activists in taking Scotland's labour movement away from the two relatively centrist parties, and back to their radical roots.

There are bigger reasons than electoral politics why this matters, but the potential consequences on elections are significant. If trades unions in Scotland do pull the plug on the Labour party, then its major source of funding will be gone. If they back candidates on a case by case basis, then that's a potentially huge source of funding, activists, support and credibility for the sorts of people who were at the conference this weekend.

The final arena in which radical supporters of independence can act is in their communities. As in the UK, civil society in the country which invented the term (thanks Adam Ferguson) has largely been gutted. As across the UK, more and more of it was given state funding to run public services, and didn't notice it had eroded its political teeth as it suckled on this magnetic teet. As across the UK, there is a desperate need rebuild.

In the discussion of strategy at the start of the conference, Jonathon Shafi, its organiser, said that he doesn't expect a referendum in the next five years, and that activists should involve themselves in other struggles in order to both retain the momentum, and to start building the Scotland they want to see. After all, a hugely politicised country is a much more fertile terrain for change than the relatively arid land it was five years ago.

I think he's right, but I'd go a step further. People shouldn't just throw themselves into whatever issues emerge. They should establish or get involved in and help to shape organisations. Again, if you're interested in independence, this is going to be vital. Civil society was said to be key to securing the Scottish Parliament. The fact that it didn't feel able (despite remarkable agreement across the third sector) to come out for a yes vote while corporations were lining up behind no, was a big problem – named organisations which people trust carry weight.

And perhaps more importantly, it's vital for a whole load of other resions too. Huge austerity is coming Scotland's way. There's ever more drive to asset strip Britain, auctioning off public services and natural resources to keep the British economy momentarily afloat. The global crises we are all familiar with are accelerating by the day. All of these require radical solutions, and Scotland, which was key to inventing modern industrial capitalism, has as much duty as ever to show that another world is possible. Crucially, a social movement now exists in Scotland in a way it does in few other Western countries which has the power to genuinely confront these issues. Breaking up the British State will, one day, be a huge contribution to global justice, but in the mean time, Scotland's new radical left can have a vital role in making that state regret ever winning the referendum.

Categories: les flux rss

Twenty-five years since first election of a black US governor, L Douglas Wilder

Open Democracy News Analysis - 23. November 2014 - 18:24

Progress has been slow. Other than Wilder, only one other African American – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts – has been elected governor of any state. 

Douglas Wilder, mayor of Richmond, June, 2007. Holley St.Germain/Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 7 November 1989, Lawrence Douglas Wilder was elected the 66th governor of Virginia. He differed from the previous sixty-five Virginian governors and every other governor ever elected in any US state: he was black. Today, as we look back at fifty years of civil rights campaigning, Wilder’s candidacy is generally regarded as marking the advent of a new form of black politics to the United States, one which operated outside of majority-black areas and competed with white opponents for white votes.

Virginia was an unlikely setting to be the first state in the nation to elect a black governor. A generation earlier, public schools had been closed by a governor who vowed to cut off his arm before he would allow black children to be educated with whites. The state song was still a hymn which praised the goodness of ‘old massa’ to ‘old darkey’.  In the year of Wilder’s election, one quarter of Southerners told pollsters that they would not vote for a qualified African American for president.

Born in 1931, the grandson of slaves, Wilder was raised in Richmond’s predominantly black Church Hill neighbourhood, two miles from the state capitol. In the city which had once been the capital of the Confederacy and the largest slave-trading city in America, Wilder described his proximity to the legislature as ‘a short distance to walk but a mighty, mighty mountain to climb’.

Martinsville Seven: ”legal lynching”, 1947. Flickr/Dan.H. Some rights reserved.Throughout Wilder’s youth and into his adulthood, the city was almost entirely segregated. Schools, libraries, public toilets, bus station waiting rooms, train station ticket windows, drinking fountains, trams, buses, and lunch counters were all divided by colour. The city had two downtowns: one for whites and one for blacks. Any racial mixing was prohibited by law, convention, and at times violence. In 1951, when Wilder was twenty, Virginia infamously executed seven young black men accused of raping a white woman in an act described by historians as a ‘legal lynching’.

John Marshall hotel, where Wilder served all-white patrons as a young man. Flickr/Holley St.Germain. Some rights reserved.Barred from attending the state’s great public universities, Wilder instead attended the all-black Virginia Union University in Richmond, founded by the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War for newly emancipated slaves. Later, Wilder would attend Howard University Law School in Washington. Between undergraduate and postgraduate education, Wilder was drafted as an army private to fight in the Korean War. Serving with distinction, Wilder was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism.

After law school, Wilder returned to Richmond where he began his practice, representing clients who would eventually make him a very wealthy man. During the 1960s, Wilder was supportive of the civil rights movement but not identified with it. He later reflected, ‘Of course, everybody says they marched on Washington now. I was not there. I didn’t even participate in the pickets in Richmond, but I felt I made my contributions in other ways. I wanted to be the best lawyer I could be so that when I walked into the courtroom people would listen and I could get results’.

In 1969, Wilder was elected to the Virginia state Senate, becoming the first black state senator since Reconstruction. Soon after, Wilder attempted to change the state song, which he considered racially insensitive. The reaction was not positive. Wilder told an interviewer, ‘You would have thought I touched the atom bomb. All hell broke loose. I got letters from all over the world: Go home. Keep your mouth shut. Why don’t you carry your ass back to Africa…’.

Not one to be intimidated, after sixteen years in the state Senate, Wilder decided to run for lieutenant governor.  Concerned about his electability, some Democrats offered him the chairship of the state party if he stepped aside. He refused. After winning, becoming the first African American in the twentieth century elected to statewide office in the South, Wilder celebrated his victory in the Richmond hotel where had waited tables as a young adult. In the same room where white patrons had once called Wilder ‘boy’, they would now call him ‘Lieutenant Governor’.

Virginia State Capitol,2007 .Flickr/ Holley St.Germain. Some rights reserved.Four years later, Wilder had proven himself a capable candidate to do the unthinkable: he was going to run for governor. He was under no illusions of the difficulty of the task. He explained, ‘It is not only important for the black candidate to be as qualified as his white counterpart, but… in most cases you have to be twice as good as your white competitor if you hope to stand a chance’.

While Wilder did not – and could not -- ignore race, it was not the organising theme of his policy agenda. The key issue of the campaign was the right to an abortion, which had recently faced a Supreme Court challenge in Webster v Reproductive Health Services. Wilder’s opponent Marshall Coleman had previously declared his opposition to abortion under any circumstances, a position which Wilder mercilessly used against Coleman to paint him as an extremist.

While abortion provided the explicit rationale for Wilder’s slogan ‘the New Mainstream’, it was not difficult for voters to interpret the wider significance of the message.

The result was the closest in state history. Wilder edged out his opponent by fewer than 7,000 votes out of more than 1.7 million cast. His margin of victory was less than half a percent. It was built on a coalition which has proven useful for Democrats subsequently: high turnout from solidly supportive African Americans, as well as support from white women and young people.

While Wilder could not have won without the resolute support of African Americans, two-thirds of his total votes were cast by whites. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia explains, ‘a vote for Wilder became a badge of honour – objective proof that they were not racist’. The late Paul Duke, a long-time Richmond reporter, described a vote for Wilder as ‘a redemptive act’.

In the quarter of a century since Wilder was elected, there are signs of progress. This month saw the election of the first black Republican woman to Congress, Mia Love. Tim Scott’s election in South Carolina was the first time an African American was popularly elected to the Senate from the South. Yet, in aggregate, progress has been slow. Other than Wilder, only one other African American – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts – has been elected governor of any state.

Speaking to an audience in Petersburg, Virginia during his historic campaign, Wilder insisted, ‘You and I have the responsibility to make certain that what happens on November 7 isn’t something that can happen once in a lifetime but something that should be expected’. The responsibility continues today. Electoral progress for African Americans still remains all too exceptional.

Sideboxes Related stories:  For jobs and freedom, 50 years on: the struggle for racial equality in the age of Obama Country or region:  United States Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Equality International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Towards a psychology of war

Open Democracy News Analysis - 23. November 2014 - 17:24

Women may participate in war, but in our social imaginary, war is still man’s business. The few women who fight have not undone the dominant symbolic association of passive receptivity with femininity or of masculinity with domination.

Female PKK soldier near the Turkish border. Demotix/Eddie Gerald. All rights reserved.Psychology as an academic discipline in the modern research university tends toward ‘intrapsychic’ formulations, that is, study of the subject as if he or she were isolated in a laboratory.  Sigmund Freud himself was a Hobbesian, committed to the belief that society was a war of all against all.  His aim was to discover how this self-serving, feral beast could be tamed and incorporated into a more pacific body politic.

In the Hobbesian and Freudian scheme, a Leviathan was necessary: the sovereign state, which secured peace against human predispositions.  Human nature was, like nature itself, a dangerous and chaotic force, calling for domestication and ‘civilization’.  Freud interiorized this drama for individuals as a set of competing psychic phantoms: instinctual drive, ego, and superego.  The instinctual drive was ‘the wolf’, the animal appetites.  The ego was the I­-ness, the enclosed sense of self that appeared after Descartes, which bargained between the instinctual drives and the superego.  The superego was the conscience, that interiorized cop, the ‘forum internum’ that the church had invented for its members in the thirteenth century to make them self­-policing citizens of the ‘societas perfecta’.

“Men are not gentle, friendly creatures,” wrote Freud, “wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but…a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment...Homo homini lupus.”

Jessica Benjamin criticizes Freud’s model of psychic life as fundamentally asocial, between a subject and objects.  Her approach is between subjects and subjects.  Benjamin’s ‘intersubjective’ approach assumes that each person inevitably develops within social relations.  Benjamin is concerned with the problem of domination, and she identifies gender as the key terrain, especially during childhood development, for the exploration of domination.

The term ‘aggression’ is commonly used in intrapsychic psychology, as an internal drive.  ‘Domination’ assumes a relation.  Benjamin believes that gender is almost always associated with the ways in which domination emerges in our culture.  This is especially true about war.

Warfare is gendered. There is no doubt that women have committed violent acts.  Nor is there any doubt that women can participate and have participated in armed combat, but this is a vulgar argument against the gendered-ness of war.

Sex and power

Gender is a system that, among other things, divides power between men and women.  ‘Masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are symbolically attached to sexual dimorphism, but not identical with it.  Various cultures give rise to variable conceptions of masculinity and femininity, so it is possible to use the plural: masculinities and femininities.  Yet, while masculinities and femininities have multiplied over time and space, one transhistorical phenomenon has always been gendered ‘masculine’, and that is war.

Women may participate in war, but in our social imaginary, war is still man’s business. Women may fight, but fighting is still considered a ‘masculine’ virtue.  The few women who fight have not undone the dominant symbolic association of passive receptivity with femininity or of masculinity with domination.

We all know what is meant when someone says, “I'm going to make you my bitch.”  This language associates submission with women and ‘masculine’ sex with hostility, an association that serves as an artesian spring of misogyny.

“The point of departure,” writes Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, “is…that woman functions as man’s primary other, his opposite – playing nature to his reason, immanence to his transcendence, primordial oneness to his individuated separateness, and object to his subject…gender polarity underlies such familiar dualisms as autonomy and dependency, and thus establishes the coordinates for the position of master and slave.”

Recognition and submission

Human beings need ‘recognition’: in Benjamin this is akin to validation or love. We need other people to be recognized by them as well as to grant recognition.  Recognition is mutual.  Both of us need to do it at once.  For you to recognize me, I need to acknowledge you as a subject like myself, and vice versa, for mutuality to happen.  Research with mothers and infants shows that this mutuality begins very early.  The child is not merely an appetite aimed at a breast.  Child and mother recognize one another.  They take pleasure in one another’s presence.  In mutuality, psychic boundaries are permeable.

Mutuality is simultaneously vulnerability and self­-assertion in tension with one another.  When that tension is broken by the polarization of self­-assertion, mutuality gives itself over to a power struggle.  “[T]he inability to sustain paradox,” says Benjamin, “convert[s] the exchange of recognition into domination and submission.”  Referring to Hegel, Benjamin summarizes this paradox as “the simultaneous need for the independence and dependence of the self­-conscious.”  In Hegel, this is a struggle to the death that leads to a master-slave relation, because in Hegel, as in Freud and Hobbes, mutuality is foreclosed by a view of the person as pure self-assertion.  (In all three, this person is male.)

Part of the ‘tension’ in Benjamin’s thesis is the fact that the other person is held in my mind in a way that never completely accords with the other person’s own experience of existence. In a sense, the other person must continually be ‘destroyed’ in my mind then observed to have survived that destruction in order for me to reassure myself of her existence, an existence that makes recognition possible.  Her independence is necessary for her to recognize me, subject to subject.  Yet I know that she is independent by challenging her independence through my own self­-assertion.

When this dynamic involves a ready state of forgiving invitation, power is negotiable. When one has to prevail and one submit, the domination-­submission dynamic replaces mutuality.  The submissive desires revenge. The dominator loses recognition, because his objectification of the other out of a desire for omnipotence has erased the subjectivity necessary for mutual recognition.

If one asserts her will, however, ‘destroying’ the other in her mind, and the other survives without becoming combative, without pitting the two persons against one another, then rapprochement is possible. Serial experiences of rapprochement lead to ‘attunement’, and the earliest experiences of attunement, usually between mother and child, are bound to the development and experience of the erotic – a psychosomatic sense of deep attachment, not simply sexual feeling, and an experience of oneness – a permeability of boundaries.

Masculinity is indoctrinated – especially in its martial forms – as a highly policed psychic boundary, one which – like a military perimeter – is fortified against all vulnerability.

Masculinity constructed as domination eroticizes violence.  The tragic paradox is that women in a society where masculinity is constructed as domination are indoctrinated to find dominance in men sexually attractive, which makes Benjamin’s study of the domination-submission dynamic, as opposed to simply domination, so important.  Yet men, too, are imbricated into this polarized structure.  In war, where domination masculinity is given its freest reign, there is an extreme submission to authority, a fear and adoration of dominant figures. This might be anything from an admired infantry squad leader to the Fuhrer.

Origin myths

In Freud, the origins of domination are understood as an imaginary oedipal conflict. The son overthrows the father, but the son’s fear of the lawlessness of his own son compels him to replicate the repressions of the father. This was the basis, according to Freud (and of Hegel and Hobbes, without specific references to Oedipus), of civilization. Freud rightly introduced the idea that early precognitive experience influences the rest of our lives, but his specific account of that experience was European, bourgeois, and male.

“Analyzing the oedipal model in Freud’s original formulations and in the work of later psychoanalysts,” Benjamin explains, “we find the common thread: the idea of the father as protector, or even savior, from a mother who would pull us back into the ‘limitless narcissism’ of infancy.”  Freud was an enabler of domination-masculinity.  His intraspychic approach could not penetrate the cultural origin of masculinity wherein boys, who are indoctrinated into the idea that dependency is a threat to their selfhood as a male, will turn against all women as a deleterious influence. They will close the border.

“Why is the border closed between the genders?” asks Benjamin. “Feminist theory concludes that the derogation of the female side of the polarity leads to a hardening of the opposition between male and female individuality as they are now constructed.”  The search for recognition is transformed into a struggle for omnipotence, understood as a flight from dependency, not by the intrapsychic drama, but by the cultural constructions of masculinity.  Because boys generally form their first and deepest attachment to their mothers, this is a painful process of separation which can contribute to deep confusion, as well as resentment towards and irrational desire for revenge against women. You make me dependent! You threaten my boundaries with feminine vulnerability!

A society dedicated to war will promote a form of masculinity that celebrates violence.  But as Benjamin shows, the predisposition for the domination that violence accomplishes originates as “the derogation of the female side of the polarity leads to a hardening of the opposition between male and female.”

“Power,” says Nancy Hartsock, “irreducibly involves questions of eros.” The association between eros, hostility, and domination, learned during a man’s earliest formative years, is not incidental to domination in the other spheres of life.  It is vital for the reproduction of conquest­-masculinity; and the normalization of conquest­-masculinity is vital for a society organized by war.

“To the extent that either sexual relations or other relations are structured by a dynamic of domination/submission,” says Benjamin, “the others as well will operate along these dimensions, and in consequence, the community as a whole will be structured by domination.”

Benjamin unmasks the gendered “genesis of the psychic structure in which one person plays subject and the other must serve as object.” The invulnerable male is a fighting male. And in militaristic societies, the ultimate proof of masculinity is against enemies in war.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Challenging militarized masculinities Topics:  Conflict Culture Ideas
Categories: les flux rss

Minister Boschi, South Tyrol is autonomous and rightly so

Open Democracy News Analysis - 22. November 2014 - 20:44

The Italian minister publicly claimed she would personally get rid of the country’s self-governing regions – an ill-informed, controversy-stirring populist claim.

Elena Boschi (second from right). Flickr/Palazzo Chigi. Some rights reserved.

Maria Elena Boschi has recently caused a stir: the Italian minister for constitutional reforms publicly claimed that Italy should get rid of its autonomous regions (4) and provinces (2) with a special statute. South Tyrol is one of them. The others are Trentino, Aosta Valley, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sicily and Sardinia.

As we all know Italy is facing troubling times. Besides, such regions are seen by the rest of the country as enjoying unjustified privileges, was the subtext. Money gets syphoned off by corrupted functionaries, so they say. Over the years, successive governors of the Veneto – a region with ordinary status – complained vehemently about the supposed unfairness, i.e. the arbitrary splitting between normal and special regions. Public debate there has been reignited by the Northern League’s secession campaigning. A disparaging scenario, highlighting the complete lack of cohesiveness Italy is yet again facing.

Boschi’s was a telling episode born out of a certain environment and culture. Let’s take a look into this. Most weeks Italy gets devastated by storms and floods. The resulting deaths, injuries and damage make for an extremely distressing sight. The landslides are also the metaphor of a country that is crumbling economically, socially – there’s hardly any intergenerational empathy left – and, most importantly, politically.

A significant part of Italian citizens feel abandoned; they don’t believe in any institutions any more. Any whatsoever. Consider this. The inhabitants of Tor Sapienza – a chronically neglected neighbourhood in Rome – told some Five Star Movement activists to get out: politicians are not welcome. Despite the new movement having worked so hard to present itself in a different light: they are not politicians, they are neither left nor right, they say, they represent a new political order, closer to ordinary people, making old-school politicians accountable. Many people don’t believe that any longer (back in 2012 many seemed to, instead).

One thing is certain, in Italy there have been decades of wild, unregulated building. Nature and the outdoors have been literally trampled on in many places, from Liguria to Sardinia, from Milan and the Po Valley to many areas in the south. “In Genoa we should just call in the bulldozers and tear down entire neighbourhoods,” claims Fabio Luino, a geologist from the CNR Institute for hydrogeological protection. And so on.

Since the sixties, over 3,000 Italians have died as a result of floods, landslides and mismanaged ambitious hydrological projects such as those in Stava and Vajont in the northeast, a section of the country that is often showcased as being at the forefront of land management – even there atrocities have occurred. Over such a period of time, half a million individuals have been displaced. And this is in a country that’s supposed to be amongst the most developed in the world, a member of the G7, a co-founder of the EU, a key Eurozone market. It all sounds grotesquely incongruous. It also sounds a bit like post-1949 China: mad developments, no regulatory plans, try to concrete over as much as you can. Build, build, build. Make money. (Although Mao’s and Deng’s country was supposed to be entirely and purely communist and equal – it clearly wasn’t and Italy, in all fairness, never pretended to be).

Now Italy needs to develop a long-term programme to rebuild half of itself. No joking. Prime minister Matteo Renzi appears to be floundering. He started off by accusing the regions of never having implemented proper land development planning. This is business as usual. When things don’t work, the state blames the regions and vice versa.

A chronic malaise. Each to their own and each looking after their own. In a country that’s been long divided, cooperation is now needed among its various entities. Badly. Proper federalism should be the corner stone propping Italy up. Germany, with its similar past of territorial fragmentation, is today a federalist nation. A country of thousands of dialects, like Italy, it’s managed to reabsorb Eastern Germany and mop up the Elbe last year in no time. Surely that’s something to do with proper administrative and political organising. No condoning geared towards electoral gain, but more vision for what the common good means and more awareness as to how to debate decently and work shoulder to shoulder to find feasible, reasonable compromise. Surely that’s nothing to do with embezzlement of public money, misuse of public office and prima donna politicos.

Italy never managed to establish itself as a federal country the way Germany did. The northern neighbour has a lot to show for its Länder quasi independence. Italy’s autonomous regions are nothing but a botched federalist agenda, one that never fully developed. Central governments were historically cautious handing out power. Perhaps due to the fear of unwittingly promoting further corruption and supporting organised crime. For too long Rome thought it could single-handedly keep everything and everybody in check. Eventually it was organised crime who made it to Rome, as the much acclaimed Sicilian novelist and playwright Leonardo Sciascia recounted in The Day of the Owl (1961).

Senator Francesco Palermo has tried to minimize the impact of minister Boschi’s words. He said these were uttered at a Partito Democratico (PD) gathering and that the PD-led government has no official plans of attacking special statutes. Palermo also said that there’s been much ado about nothing. Well, when a minister speaks publicly and the media are invited to listen and report, then it just becomes like any other stage. Words can just as easily become inflammatory. It’s naive at best and misleading at worst to claim the opposite.

Whilst Palermo’s comments on the one hand have a calming effect with the view, maybe, of building a constructive, thoughtful debate about Italy’s federalism, on the other his attempt to hush polemics by saying that Boschi’s affirmations are not newsworthy sounds somehow suspicious. Let’s not forget, however, that Palermo holds a PhD in comparative constitutional law, is an expert in federalism and minorities’ rights and has been a university professor in the US, Germany, Switzerland as well as Italy. A force to be reckoned with, by any means: Palermo is quite possibly the most clued-up one on the topic in his country. So why minimise Boschi’s unwise and untimely affirmations then?

South Tyrol’s self-government – for after a longish premise we are here to focus on this particular case – is fully legitimate. Its legitimacy – aside from all political and juridical pacts, their detailing here would require room we don’t have – is essentially a moral one. One that goes beyond the 1915 Treaty of London, a secret pact between the Triple Entente and Italy. Its purpose was to get Italy to oppose its former German-speaking allies. South Tyrol was the reward for Italy’s change of sides. Sheer opportunism. Sidney Sonnino’s Italy was hungry for new land. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin referred to Italy’s imperialistic ambitions as a “colonialism of misers”.

History is full of things like that. To rectify its disastrous outcome – snatching a chunk of a proper German-speaking territory from its Austrian motherland, i.e. from the core of a defeated empire, not one of its remote provinces that spoke Ukrainian, Rumanian or Italian. An exception to the rule that has caused so much controversy. A due reminder.

A self-governing status is thus only fair. Boschi should have quickly acknowledged that her remarks didn’t include South Tyrol. Not so difficult to remember, after all. How many other parts of Italy are further away from the sea and speak a foreign language, the language of Germany and Austria? Certainly more conspicuous than the proverbial fly in the ointment. The fact she didn’t, goes to show how far this province of just over half-a-million people is from Rome’s thoughts. That is until it becomes too late to apologise (Boschi later on succinctly retracted what she’d boldly claimed as pressure had obviously mounted from within PD). “Get rid of them” is a sweeping populist remark – these special regions are all different from one another; some of their statutes are more justified than others. A bit of tinkering is required, but generalisations are unhelpful.

Landslides – which do occur in the very mountainous South Tyrol, but are never devastating because they are almost invariably professionally and timely contained – symbolise both the astonishing lack of ability to focus on what’s what and the widespread use of a vicious blaming culture that’s so typical of the Italian establishment. From there it ensues a moral high-ground from where you can conveniently escape the literal deluge all round. A high-ground that is in theory as much moral as it is in practice smug. Rome’s government can’t micromanage, can’t even contemplate beginning to do so. It can’t afford to. The appropriate administrative tools have not been sharpened regularly. As it stands, today, they are blunt; totally ineffective. And it just shows.

Regions have a role and can’t be wiped out. Regions made up Italy long before Rome did (the country had two other capitals before the Eternal city). Rome is there as a halfway relay in between north and south; a bridge of sorts. A romanticised and emotionally charged icon. But the country needs to be managed locally by raising tax locally to be used there and then. In Italy, tax payers’ money is moved around the country like crazy with people unable to see – with reason – why they should help others’ mismanaged regions. Italy as a whole is a vision shared only by a few; most think it’s a faulty system.

No wonder there’s still on-going, creeping stigma and racism within the country itself, among Italians themselves. A horrible and highly derogatory word like terrone is now heard everywhere, used nonchalantly among friends, on social media, in clubs and associations, in the press, on the radio and in films (it’s an offensive term against southern Italians). It’s fun using it, apparently. It’s like outdoing a taboo. It’s like being modern. Haha. Dictionaries say the term is occasionally used with a hint of humour… Well, it’s mostly not the case. And where’s the humour anyway in implying that somebody is lazy and retrograde because they are from the south? Crass. Attitudes like that contribute to weakening the base of Italy’s civil society, playing into the hands of intolerant, factional, clannish, bigoted politicians.

An insult that’s in reality an obvious and a sad sign of no cohesion (football grounds’ racist and sectarian chanting has liberated its widespread use, propagated by the ubiquitous, twenty-four-seven televised matches). Or worse, it perhaps represents the unwillingness to search yet again for cohesion, after so much time spent without finding any (see for instance the case of the doomed Cassa del mezzogiorno, the Aid for Southern Italy).

Italians have given up on it – cohesion? Who cares now. Resources are badly redistributed because the mechanism that should be in charge of promoting cohesion and sharing – the glue of a country – doesn’t function. Proper federalism is required. The alternative is a useless pointing the finger at others. Or cancerous envy.

Therefore, sweeping statements like blaming the floods on regions, or the regions are Italy’s evil and should be dismantled, is tantamount to cheap demonizing that doesn’t help the thoughtful and serious debate which Italians badly need. Now, more than ever.

The debate in question ought to be on how to rebuild the country: materially and politically. Which of the two aspects comes first is a question of the chicken and egg. They should go hand in hand, proceed shoulder to shoulder, like two oxen labouring hard in a field, going backwards and forwards. The economy is the plough, it follows suit.

A former chunk of Austria that has lent itself to a Mediterranean folk could be the lighthouse in a foggy bay. However, on the proviso that its legitimate autonomy is not questioned as being amoral, but observed very closely instead to see what’s in it that Italy could benefit from. Maybe it’s all in a number. Ninety. The ninety per cent of locally raised tax revenue that as a region you should keep for yourself. Rome will manage just fine with the remaining ten. It’ll have to.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Arrivederci, Veneto? Fighting for self-determination in South Tyrol Country or region:  Italy
Categories: les flux rss

Endgame: the United States and Iran

Open Democracy News Analysis - 22. November 2014 - 13:01

What stands in the way of Iran and the US cooperating openly to meet twin threats of Sunni extremism and state failure is any failure to resolve the nuclear deadlock. 

Iranian President Rouhani speaks at New America event in New York City. Nancy Siesal/Demotix. All rights reserved.As the deadline of November 24 for the completion of the talks between Iran and the P5+1 looms before us much more is at stake than just the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

The outcome of these negotiations is likely to determine, above all, the trajectory of US-Iran relations over the next several decades. This is why US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, both of whom have invested a great deal in the success of the current negotiations met recently in Oman in the company of Catherine Ashton to try and work out the outlines of a deal that could be ratified at the next round of formal negotiations in Vienna.

Little is known authoritatively about the substance of the Oman meeting although speculations in the press have given a negative spin to the outcome of these talks. However, recent reports that Iran has agreed to ship out much of its already enriched uranium to Russia to be turned into fuel rods that cannot be used for weapons purposes indicate that Tehran is willing to be flexible in meeting some of the western demands.

Both the United States and Iran recognize that the failure of this crucial round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program will provide the opponents of a US-Iran deal with ample ammunition to scuttle these talks and lock the two countries into a confrontational mode for decades to come. This is why the Obama administration and the Rouhani government have tried their best to improve the atmospherics surrounding the negotiations and have desisted from acrimonious exchanges in public.

Nonetheless, the forces arrayed against a positive outcome in both countries are very formidable. The Republican-controlled US Congress is spoiling for a fight on this issue with the President to demonstrate that Obama has gone soft both on Iran and on nuclear non-proliferation issues in general. The Republicans hope to capitalize on the media-fed negative image of Iran harbored by large segments of the American public whose understanding of the complexity of Iran-US relations is minimal if not non-existent.

The formidable Israel lobby in the United States is also arrayed against any compromise solution regarding the Iranian nuclear program. The lobby takes its cue from the Netanyahu government, whose rhetoric portrays Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel and insists that Tehran should be left with no nuclear enrichment capability at all lest it covertly use it to develop nuclear weapons. This stand flies in the face of the assurances given to non-nuclear states by the NPT regarding their right to nuclear enrichment for civilian purposes.

More important, such a position, which the United States wisely jettisoned a long time ago, will never be acceptable to Iran and is, therefore, certain to scuttle the negotiations. It is the breakdown of the negotiating process that is Israel’s real objective since it fears that its success will mark the beginning of an American-Iranian rapprochement that is likely to reduce Israel’s strategic value to the United States and reduce Tel Aviv’s clout in Washington on issues related to the moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”.

The “rejectionists” on the Iranian side are no less formidable. They include elements of the Revolutionary Guard as well as hardline clerical and non-clerical factions that do not trust that President Rouhani and, especially, his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who is the leading Iranian negotiator, are committed to or capable of protecting Iranian national interests especially in the nuclear arena. They believe that the Rouhani-Zarif team is likely to sacrifice Iran’s long-term goals at the altar of a short-term deal with the P5+1 that could add to their popularity at home.

Some of these forces are driven by a genuine commitment to the objective of protecting Iran’s capability to manufacture nuclear weapons some time in the future for security as well as prestige reasons. Others are propelled by more base motives of factional rivalry and the struggle for influence and power in the sphere of domestic politics.

Leaders of several rejectionist factions have the ear of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, although the latter has so far prevented them from scuttling the negotiations as a part of his wait and see policy. If, however, the end result of the negotiations, especially on the issues of enrichment capacity permitted to Iran and the timing and sequence according to which sanctions will be lifted, does not meet his expectations, he may use these forces to justify bringing the negotiating process to an end.

In sum the success of these negotiations is not a foregone conclusion but neither is their failure. The Iranian leadership is interested in the speedy lifting of the sanctions in order to give momentum to the Iranian economy especially since oil prices have shown a distinct downward trend in the past few months.

Equally important, the legitimacy of the regime has become tied to the lifting of sanctions in the eyes of the Iranian population. If the negotiations fail, the regime will have to pay a heavy price for it domestically with spontaneous eruptions of public unrest very possible.

The Obama administration mired as it is in unwinnable conflicts in Iraq and Syria is desperately seeking a foreign policy success that the achievement of a nuclear deal with Iran, especially if it can be sold as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capacity, may be able to provide. Moreover, the more discerning members of the administration recognize that the United States can neither neutralize the threat posed by ISIS nor stabilize the situation in Iraq and Syria without Iran’s help. This is the case because Iran is the most influential external player in Iraq and the principal backer of the Assad regime. It is also the regional power most capable of training and advising local forces to fight ISIS and has excess trained manpower capacity in the form of the Revolutionary Guards, and especially its elite Quds force that can be mobilized to directly confront ISIS.

Above all, the realization seems to be beginning to dawn on official circles in Washington that it is Sunni extremism nurtured above all by the Saudi regime and its antediluvian ideology that poses the greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East and not Shia Iran and its proxies in the region, some of which such as the Iraqi regime happen to be America’s friends as well. In other words, Iranian and American interests in the Middle East are more congruent with each other than the leadership on either side is willing to admit publicly.

What stands in the way of Iran and the US cooperating openly to meet the twin threats of Sunni extremism and state failure – and the two are inextricably linked with each other  – is the failure to resolve the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program. Seen in this light, it becomes imperative for both Washington and Tehran to resolve their differences on the nuclear issue in a reasonable manner that is acceptable to both sides and that can pave the way for Iranian-American cooperation to tackle the major security threats facing the region. One hopes that this can be achieved before the November 24 deadline.

Country or region:  United States Iran Topics:  Conflict International politics
Categories: les flux rss

The geostrategic consequences of the Arab Spring

Open Democracy News Analysis - 22. November 2014 - 12:02

The Arab awakening is creating a new socio-political and economic reality in the region, transforming the balance of power, not because states have become stronger, but rather because states have become weak and fragile.

Tahrir Square during February 2011. Mona/wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

A region in transformation 

After three years since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the emerging political order in the Middle East is marked by considerable changes within each state at national level in a vital region in the global geostrategic configuration.

The exceptionality of the Arab world has come to an end. The structures and balances of emerging powers in the late 1970s, mutating since the end of the Cold War, are being transformed. [1]  Since the Gulf War ended, security threats and tensions have increased among the states in the Middle East. Sometimes these tensions have resulted in a direct or indirect conflict threatening their socio-political and economic security. The threat of interstate aggression has manifested in new, more dangerous ways in the context of the Arab Spring, at a sub-state level, but with very important implications for regional stability and international security. In other words, the Middle East is undergoing the emergence of a new security order and regional reconfiguration. 

The Arab uprisings have unleashed internal dynamics of protest and political change in most of the states of the region, its impact transcending national systems, and affecting the political order in the Arab world. The region is at a crossroads, facing various security challenges both from neighbouring countries such as Israel, Turkey and Iran, and in their socioeconomic dynamics and national policies. Depending on the answers to these challenges, the result will range between everything from stability and regional cooperation, to disintegrative conflict in the Middle East.

Rebalancing of multipolar powers

The Arab Spring exploded amid a deep structural transformation in the Middle East, with its three non-Arab centres of power: Israel, Iran and Turkey. [2] At first, the Arab awakening looked to break the old false authoritarian paradigm, built by Arab leaders out of 'raison d’état', establishing a new system based on social justice. Soon, these first impressions clashed with the geopolitical realities of the Arab regional system as enshrined over time. [3] The main demands of the Arab revolts focused on domestic freedoms, good governance and social justice, foreign policy being kept on the back-burner. The revolts have led to a change of status for Arab populations as effective and active agencies in the political landscape, where formerly they were considered the missing equation in power relations, with a legitimacy usurped by Arab dictators and authoritarian regimes all set to maintain dependency relations. The shift of power to the people is manifest in the fact that they are now conscious of their ability to mobilize, rebel, and - finally - vote, and that they supposed that this would lead to change and bring improvement in the power and capacity of Arab societies. [4]

These transitions in the Arab countries have political, socioeconomic and geostrategic implications. They pose profound challenges. Within this new logic, the challenges that these states face can introduce several alternative versions of a new regional order, or the promotion of division by individual states may continue. In short, the common interest would be best served by developing an architecture of cooperative security to manage the latent threats and tensions in the region in this tumultuous transition, but to do so in a way very open to different evolutionary strategies. However, the behaviours of the current Arab states demonstrate their inability to offer such a unique common framework or paradigm in the situation in which the Middle East finds itself.[5]

The configuration of power has shifted in the Middle East over the past three years, through three main strategic trends:

-  The power of the people and internal discontent against authoritarian regimes (Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen);

-  The proliferation of civil wars caused by weak states (Libya and Syria);

  • -  Rivalry between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey spiralling downwards into a zero sum ​​game.

The sum of these three trends will shape the geostrategic vision for the region in the years ahead. 

Down with the Dictators futuremap/ Some rights reservedParadigm of the power of people

The political scene in the Arab awakening is dominated by the sociopolitical forces of the middle classes looking for a new socio-political system, one that is more just and free. Populations that undertook a peaceful struggle created a new model of change that involved the mobilization of populations through mass protests in the streets and the city neurological centres, headed by young people using the internet and social media as a new tool of political activism. They relied on the synergy of the masses to confront repression, and brought down the most entrenched authoritarian regimes in the region, Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia. 

Along with the spontaneous nature of the demonstrations, one of the most striking factors of the Arab Spring, is that there was no dominant political or organizational force. The old powers were trying to take back control of the situation without offering any new actors. The new distribution of power that emerged from this included the legalization of Islamist movements which were until then repressed and marginalized.[6]Most important, the Arab Spring marks the end of Arab exceptionalism and proves that the Arab people are also able to initiate change and democratic transformation. The feeling Al shaab yurid (the people want) has spread across the region.[7]

Revolution and violence in Egypt and Tunisia

The environment of hope and euphoria of the Arab uprisings has declined after the diversion of the Egyptian transition over three years. However, the orientation of the Tunisian transition has been quieter, facing the challenge of reaching a national consensus through the drafting of the constitution and the rule of the Al-Nahda Party. But the emergence of a new Salafist movement is a fundamental challenge to Tunisian civil society. After months of confrontation, fear and uncertainty, political assassinations and ideological polarization, the main actors of public life have managed to agree on a formula of coexistence, codified in a constitution that has been described as "the most liberal in the Arab world."

It is proven that the Arab states which possess competent institutions and a considerable middle class, have the potential for a safer political transition without violence, tracing a peaceful revolutionary paradigm. Violence was not an element in the revolutionary imagination of the people. The masses confronted authoritarianism and repression by demanding “bread, freedom, social justice and dignity”. In this context, the monarchies of Morocco and Jordan introduced political and economic reforms, anticipating this popular discontent.

But generally, the gradual decomposition of the old regimes and their inability to construct a new socio-political system for their societies, have opened the gate to the Islamization and radicalization of the population, becoming a real challenge for the state and Arab civil societies, which are proliferating the polarization between moderate and radical Islam. 

If we take Egypt as an example, "the greatest rivalry could be emerging between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists transnational networks driven by Saudi Wahhabis",[8] with the total rejection by jihadist Salafism of democracy and its principles. However, from the perspective of a Jihadist Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Al-Nahda Party in Tunisia, are a deviation from the straight path of Islam, its religious and socio-political thought.

In Egypt, the Salafist movement remains strong. After years in prison, the Salafi jihadist groups continue to maintain strong links with Al-Qaeda and have obtained funding from the rich oil states. A significant example of the proliferation of terrorism is in the Sinai region, where the absence of central authority, the general feeling of marginalization and discrimination, and the lack of integration plans and structuring among its population, has radicalized the population, leading to the securitization of territorial-based politics in the Sinai Peninsula. This affects relations between Egypt and Israel in a way that could destabilize the rest of the region.

Paradigm of civil war

The Libyan civil war is considered another paradigm, in which the Libyan people rose in an armed conflict against the Gaddafi regime that masked the fragility of a middle class without any civil society or state institutions.

Libya is in a post-war scenario which nurtures two main threats. First, the emergence of radical Islamist groups, which both create instability and attempt to decentralize power away from state institutions, scattering it between different Islamist groups and the state. The second threat is the proliferation of arms trafficking, including the trafficking of advanced anti-aircraft rockets.

After the fall of the Gaddafi regime, military bases passed into the hands of rebel fighters and Libyan mercenaries during a civil war that swiftly created a geopolitical tension zone. Weapons were supplied to the National Movement of Azawad, the Touareg Movement (in North of Mali) forming the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al Ansar-Dine. These groups were able to extend their control and to form a black hole in the Sahel that causes instability and tensions among different international actors such as Mauritania and Morocco, Mali and Mauritania, Libya and Niger. Their influence also extends to the West African region. Gaza and Sinai were the first recipients of all kinds of light and heavy weapons as a direct result.

The weak structure of the Libyan state after the civil war and the failure to rebuild their institutions, especially in the security sector, produced a vacuum which materializes also in continuous clashes and fighting in the capital. Therefore, the transformation to the new Libyan paradigm has created a weak state with fragile socio-political forces, which are opening the door to geopolitical chaos.

Sectarian violence and the Syrian civil war 

The Syrian uprising began as a peaceful protest movement demanding political reforms and social justice and ended in a sectarian civil war, mainly instigated by the Assad regime using excessive force to suppress the popular uprising, which has spread throughout the country. The massive use of force by the government has led to the radicalization and militarization of the opposition. The confessionalization of the Syrian civil war has led to a circular conflict, based on the sectarian polarization between Sunni and Shia, between multiple fractions, groups and Katibas (combat units).

The complexity of the Syrian conflict emanates from the logic of sectarian violence in the context of a proxy war of world powers (US and Russia) and regional powers (Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia), in fourth generation warfare (4GW) that repeats the Iraqi and Afghan scenario.

Syria has become a geopolitical scenario for regional and international powers like Lebanon and Iraq. However, the Syrian regime has shown its strength in trying to regain control of the country. Probably, this country is entering a lost decade, with the slow decline of the regime, accompanied by the militarization of the opposition, the disintegration of public order and security. With thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, the wholesale destruction of industrial infrastructure and its historical patrimony, Syria is the main victim of this confrontation. It will take years to rebuild political and economic order and security.

Charles Eugène Perron/ Some rights reserved

The great game of the Middle East

The geostrategic competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran has triggered power struggles throughout the Middle East (Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Syria) and converted the region into one geopolitical Great Game.[9]This rivalry is manifest in several aspects. This rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran stems from a sectarian identity conflict arising from a time prior to Islam.[10]In fact, the roots of the conflict date back to a rivalry between Arabs and Persians, which continues to this day. The sectarian issue sets a parameter to this rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran, with tensions between Sunnis and Shiites that give shape to this competition. The official Islamic belief of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, does not accept Shia Muslims as true believers. Religion is a neurological issue for both states that grant political and religious legitimacy in Riyadh and Tehran. This legitimacy is necessary for the concentration of power, for internal hegemony and is configured as an argument for their regional hegemonic aspirations. These two countries Saudi Arabia and Iran, both face strong internal challenges from a population increasingly divided and depressed. Given the importance for both states representing the religious factor, Islam is translated into terms of a competition for the leadership of the Umma, which lends legitimacy to a conflict characterised in zero-sum terms.

The other determining factor in this rivalry is geostrategy which is determined by sectarian agendas. The geopolitical dimension of the conflict crystallizes in the Iranian and Saudi regional security strategies. The first of these international actors is Iran, in favor of a centralized security approach in the Gulf, in contrast to Saudi Arabia who looks to external actors, particularly the United States, to guarantee its national and regional security. This crossover in terms of national interest, plunges the entire region into a power game. Moreover, Iranian financial support to Shiite groups in Arab countries, increases tensions with Saudi Arabia, which in reply, encourages Iranian ethnic minorities to destabilize the Iranian regime. [11]

Iraq after 2003 

The decomposition of the Iraqi regime as a regional power after the US invasion in 2003, was received by Riyadh and Tehran as an opportunity to extend its hegemony over the Gulf. Previously, Saddam Hussein had played a balance of regional powers game, but his defeat created a vacuum of power that has triggered these movements in the regional dynamics for successive decades. Saudi Arabia and Iran both try to fill this gap by operating beyond their own borders. In the post-Saddam period, Iran has provided financial and military support through Sepah-e Pasdaran (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard) groups and Shiite factions in Iraq. By contrast, the performance of Saudi Arabia in Iraq is more difficult to discern, often financing and supporting Iraqi Sunni groups. Iran is losing its influence and soft power in the Levant region as a consequence of the Arab Spring on account of its support for the Syrian regime, although in Lebanon it still has a strong position.[12]

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf

The growing role of non-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanese politics, pose a serious challenge to Saudi Arabia. While Iran provided support for Hezbollah, when it made its appearance in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia is reluctant to offer support to the group, with its Shiite beliefs and close ties to Iran. Tensions between Hezbollah and the Council of the Gulf Cooperation are increasing with the Syrian civil war, caused by the participation of Hezbollah in the conflict with the Syrian army, supporting Assad to repress and massacre the Sunni majority.

Saudi Arabia's position against the popular uprisings was shaped by their own geopolitical objectives: to isolate the kingdom from the winds of change, protect the survival of monarchical regimes and undermine Iran's power in the region. Saudi Arabia used its military power, political influence and financial generosity to contain the effects of the revolts in the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Bahrain, Yemen and Oman. Equally, Riyadh extended its financial assistance to strengthen Morocco and Jordan against popular reformist mobilization. [13]

The Arab uprisings have also altered the systematic roles of Qatar and Turkey in the region. Both states abandoned their old pragmatic positions and proclaimed a new regional role after the Arab Spring. Qatar used its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the political and financial cooperation with Islamist parties that took power in some countries to strengthen its geopolitical position. Perhaps, Qatari hyperactivism is the biggest winner in the Arab Spring. Its Al Jazeera TV channel has played a significant role in the Arab revolts. In addition, its diplomacy was a key to pushing the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League to take some measures on the Syrian crisis.

Turkey also has emerged in this period as a power that creates balance between Arab countries, standing between Sunnis and Shiites. Turkey appears to have reached its limits. Ankara's power was clearly growing in the region before the Arab spring due largely to the foreign policy of 'zero problems'.[14] This initiative was based on the expansion of Turkish influence in the region, playing a constructive role in regional conflicts.[15] But Turkey's role in this region has changed after the uprisings. Its posture vis-à-vis Syria in particular has mutated through three phases, first as an ally of the regime, then mediator and lastly in opposition to sectarian violence against Syrian citizens. 

The Gulf Cooperation Council was shaken by the uprising in Bahrain and agitated into action and assertiveness. Bahrain is still an open wound and the most vulnerable part of the organization, but the Gulf Cooperation Council has demonstrated its military muscle and political ambitions with its intervention in Bahrain. The Council has reaffirmed its vocation to protect the monarchical status quo against the pro-democracy or pro-republics movements, rejecting any attempt by Iran to project its power in the zone. The rising ambitions of the Gulf Cooperation Council are reflected in the offer of membership to Jordan and Morocco, in order to promote a Sunni geostrategic alliance, mediating the transition in Yemen, supporting military intervention in Libya, and seeking greater unity within the Council. 

Israel remains a source of geostrategic threat to Arab security in various different dimensions. It is the neighbour who possesses nuclear weapons, creating serious military imbalance between Israel and the Arab states. The apparent absence of Israeli will to resolve the Palestinian issue, by establishing an independent Palestinian state according to UN resolutions and implement the roadmap also creates instability. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is losing some prominence in the actual geopolitics of a region confronted by all the other issues arising from the Arab Spring, issues that create greater concern among Arab states who appear much more focused on internal tremors and the national policies required to deal with them, than on this conflict.


The Middle East before the Arab uprisings seemed like a heterogeneous security system. These parameters were inherited from the colonial powers and the Cold War. The Arab revolutions untied the internal dynamics of protest and political change in most of the states of the region, affecting the whole political order.

There are three fundamental geostrategic implications shaping the future of the balance of power in the Middle East. The first geostrategic consequence of the Arab Spring is the appearance of people as the main catalyst for these nations' internal dynamics. The popular uprisings in the Arab world were caused by a combination of economic, political and social deficits. While there are similar conditions in several Arab countries, the responses of the regimes were dissimilar, creating different models of conflict. The results of citizen protest differ from state to state, depending on its ability to maintain its monopoly on the use of force, which in some cases has led to a democratic transition from the bottom up (Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen). In other cases, the result is gradual reforms from the top down (Morocco, Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council). The third group of countries are countries with a government crackdown against the protesters or even a disintegration of the state (Libya, Syria).

The second geostrategic consequence is the proliferation of weak states. First, the monopoly of force has been questioned and weakened in several Arab countries, with increasing violence at sub-state level. The new governments or those who managed to stay in power cannot reconcile themselves with their highly mobilized societies, and have failed to reach a national consensus to calm the sociopolitical upheavals. They also cannot reform and rebuild their security apparatus and they cannot regain control over the peripheral zones within their sovereign territories, especially in the Sahel region, the Sinai Peninsula and South of Yemen.

The third consequence is the densification of geopolitical disputes crystallized in latent conflicts. The implications will have a great impact on the relations and power structure in the Middle East. It is crucial to recognise the rivalry and the power struggle among Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, which will shape the region in the coming years. The main features of this rivalry are:

  1. The manipulation of sectarianism to achieve realistic geopolitical objectives, by Saudi Arabia and Iran, which may trigger a regional recoil effect.
  2. The strong divisions within the Sunni world, a particular example arising between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
  3. Turkish power. The country has been regarded as an example of political and economic success in many countries. However, this does not translate into a Turkish domain or a neo-Ottoman order in the region. On the contrary, Turkey has lost some of its soft power in this scenario. However,  it did exert influence through its relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, and may have a particularly strong influence on post-Assad Syria.
  4. Iran has possibly reached the limits of an expanding influence, and its ability to contribute constructively to the security of the region can be curtailed. Its nuclear program has added relevance to Iran, raising concerns among its Arab neighbours in the Gulf. The Arab Spring led indirectly to the weakening of Iran in the region as a result of civil war in Syria.
  5. The old geopolitical epicentres of the region (Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad) are experiencing complicated transitions (Egypt), civil war (Syria) and ethnic and sectarian division (Iraq, Lebanon and Syria). This has allowed the conservative monarchies of the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to attempt to fill the geopolitical vacuum. 

On a systemic level, the Arab awakening is creating a new socio-political and economic reality in the region, transforming the balance of power, not because some states have become stronger, but rather because other states have become weaker and more fragile.


[1] ÜLGEN, S., et al., Emerging Order in the Middle East. Washington, D.C, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012.

[2] RÓZSA, E., Geo-Strategic Consequences of the Arab Spring. Barcelona, European Institute of the Mediterranean, 2013.

[3] SALLOUKH, B., “The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East”. Roma, The International Spectator. Italian Journal of International Affairs, 2013.

[4] ÜLGEN, S., op. cit, p 3.

[5] SALEM, P., The Middle East: Evolution of a Broken Regional Order. Washington, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, D.C, 2008.

[6] RÓZSA, E., op. cit, p. 6

[7] RÓZSA, E., op. cit, p 11.

[8] YOUNGS, R., El nuevo viejo paradigma de seguridad en Oriente Medio. Madrid, FRIDE, 2013.

[9] MABON, S., “The Middle Eastern Great Game”. Zürich, ISN-ETH, International Relations and Security Network, 2013, p 2.

[10] MABON, S. op, cit. p 4.

[11] BRADLEY, J., “Iran’s Ethnic Tinderbox”. Washington D. C, the Washington Quarterly. Vol. 30, 2007.

[12] RÓZSA, E., op. cit, p. 18.

[13] SALLOUKH, B., op. cit.

[14] DAVUTOĞLU, A., "Turkey’s zero-problems foreign policy." Washington, D.C Foreign Policy, 2010.

[15] BALOGH, I., “The Middle Eastern Balance of Power in 2012 And Its Implications for the Future” en ONDREJCSÁK, R., et al. Panorama of Global Security Environment. Bratislava. CENAA, 2012.



Sideboxes Related stories:  Arab Spring: political islam or democracy? Arab Gulf states: the Iran complex Syria and Libya, a slow meltdown Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government International politics
Categories: les flux rss