New Age Islam Edit Bureau
9 November 2015
The Future of Democracy in Egypt
By Ibrahim Awad
Progress Fans Flames Of Militant Unrest In Changing Bangladesh
By Jason Burke
Are Syrians the New Palestinians?
By Pam Bailey
It Is Over! Or Is It Not?
By Nuray Mert
The Future of Democracy in Egypt
By Ibrahim Awad
8 Nov 2015
“Democracy” was never a slogan of the January 2011 Revolution.
The priority, for the masses, was rather, improving living conditions and demanding a fair share of the country’s income and wealth.
The slogans of public demands were “freedom, dignity, social justice” and at other times “bread, dignity, social justice.”
In the second slogan, which was the more prevalent during the first few months of the revolution, both “democracy” and “freedom” were absent. Food specifically was added to social justice which — if achieved — would make living conditions more tolerable.
Another view believed that the demand of “dignity” can be defined as a demand that the people manage their own affairs and rule themselves, which is at the heart of democracy.
In fact, public protests in Egypt since 2004 evolved around resisting authoritarian arbitrary rule, the push for succession and monopolising wealth and power. Resisting authoritarian arbitrary rule itself is a victory for democracy.
Democracy became a demand not only to resist despotism on principle, but also because this form of rule completely failed decade after decade to lift people from poverty and illiteracy and to achieve desired progress and development.
Democracy in this article refers to a plural and competitive political system that respects freedom of expression, assembly and organising, and where there is an uncertainty about the outcome of competition. A system where legislation is practiced by elected representatives of the people who rise above rivalries and monitor the performance of the powers implementing the will of the people. Democracy also protects the rights of minorities, believes in justice and protects the privacy of individuals.
Since former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011, Egyptians lived through three key phases. The main feature of the first phase was the 19 March 2011 referendum; the second is the year when the Muslim Brotherhood were in power; the third began with the 3 July 2013 political roadmap.
Reviewing the opportunities for democracy during these three phases reveals the positions of influential players in society and state on the issue, and helps predict the future of democracy, or rather, the chance of Egyptians to practice it and accomplish their ultimate long-awaited interests.
The 19 March referendum and democracy
Public protest movements came from across spectrum, including liberals, Nasserists, leftists, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.
A new concept was born on the evening of 11 February 2011; namely that there is a public demand for political pluralism and a desire to establish a competitive democracy in Egypt after decades of undermining the notion. The demand for democracy existed for those who urged for revolution through their protests in the first decade of this century as well as those who took to the streets in January and February 2011.
Nonetheless, democracy was never given a chance to promote itself to the general public. Democracy advocates were not given an opportunity to define and explain what they are enthusiastic about, and show the people how democracy can address real problems in their lives.
Democracy advocates were also unprepared for 11 February because they had not developed a campaign for democracy in the political battle in which they found themselves embroiled.
Less than one month after the former president was overthrown, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) called on people to vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments.
It was clear to everyone that this act served Muslim Brotherhood interests. One can view this referendum as a preemptive move to prevent interpreting, detailing and presenting democracy ideas to the public, which could have won a significant amount of public support. More importantly, it would have revealed the disparities and differences among the various camps supporting the January revolution, and this would have altered the nature of issues of public debate, how they are presented and discussed, and the balance of power among political activists in this debate.
This could have resulted in an overhaul of the political scene. The atmosphere of freedom in the weeks following 11 February would have helped to achieve this. The referendum, and especially the referendum on constitutional amendments recommended by the SCAF-appointed committee, was a lightning bolt for democracy advocates who found themselves once again on the defensive.
The only ones who could have benefited from the 19 March referendum were those who had a more popular position since the Sadat and Mubarak eras, namely the Muslim Brotherhood along with the Salafists who made their first appearance at this moment. It was also an early call for a referendum on the rules that would lead to a supposedly new political system, which was recommended by the abovementioned committee.
This early move proves no lessons were learnt here from any experiences of democratic transformation anywhere in the world in recent decades. It means that those calling for the referendum felt what happened everywhere else does not apply to us, because we have our own cultural traits. This shows that what they meant was not actually a revolution in principles that would lead to a truly new democratic political system.
The argument of “specific traits” serves political Islam in all its hues because that platform is based on it and is opposed to democracy, which does not change with location or previous actors, but is applicable to all people equally because it achieves their interests irrespective of location, experience and culture. The implicit discourse about particularity led to particularity in the political transition process itself, which is unheard of in any previous peaceful democratic transition in the world.
Haste, particularities of transition and proposed rules to manage it could only lead to the defeat of advocates of plural competitive democracy, and victory for political Islam advocates.
This victory was doubled. First, because of this victory’s moral value coming in the early phase after the overthrow of the head of the regime. Political Islam advocates took advantage of their victory to continuously taunt democracy advocates and ignored the unfair rules for 19 March that were entirely in their favour.
Second, the results of the referendum laid down the rules by which that group benefited and won parliament and the presidency in the following 15 months.
Democracy under the Muslim Brotherhood
The year when Mohamed Morsi was president showed the desire of the Muslim Brotherhood to use democracy tools — which brought them to power — to erase a core feature of democracy: uncertainty about the outcome of the democratic process. This would also eliminate another main feature which is the contest to serve the people by competing over exercising power in the country and rotation of this practice.
This was very clear in the process of drafting the constitution during which the Muslim Brotherhood were determined that they and their Salafist allies have the final say in deciding its structure, ideological framework, and regulations.
This year also exposed a style of rule that has nothing to do with democracy. Actual power was not exercised by those who were chosen by the people, whether the president or parliament members who are accountable to the people.
Rather, it was exercised by the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, similar to the formula in the former Soviet Union and people’s democracies. The Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Office was similar to the politburo of the Communist Party, which is the actual ruler, despite the fact that power appears to be in the hands of the executive and legislative branches. Centralised democracy in communist parties was the same in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Obedience is quintessential whether on decisions by the politburo or Guidance Office, and there is zero tolerance for disobedience. Despite similarities between the two cases, the Muslim Brotherhood was in a weaker position than the Communist Party because the Soviet constitution clearly stated the leadership of the Communist Party, which is a privilege that was not copied in Egypt.
The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood did not consider this and they were focused on monpolising power, ignoring all democratic governance standards. The last straw by the Muslim Brotherhood was the constitution declaration on 22 November 2012, by which the Brotherhood wanted to gather all the strings of power and not leave an inkling of doubt — itself a key feature of the democratic process.
In conclusion, the revolution’s slogan “dignity,” which meant the practice of governance by the people, was manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to reach power and monopolise it. Thus, the Brotherhood achieved “dignity” for themselves but denied it to others. But this was not permanent dignity.
Muslim Brotherhood leaders ignored analyses of Egypt’s political culture that was formed over two centuries of building a modern state — albeit a flawed one, but one that wanted to be modern and was guided by this goal.
Like any ideological political current anywhere, the Muslim Brotherhood believed their political beliefs were the absolute truth which reality must bend to.
Neither did Brotherhood leaders analyse the division of power in society and state; the democratic political system does not clash with power but deals with it and works hard to adapt and harness it to serve society.
What the Muslim Brotherhood did not count on was that the constitutional declaration on 22 November made the liberals, Nasserists, Left and most of their offshoots gather together in the National Salvation Front (NSF), which was created to resist the declaration and fight the monopoly of power. It included civil currents that participated in the governance of the modern state in Egypt, formed its political culture and was influenced by it. Thus, the NSF shot to stardom quickly and it was not difficult for it to interact with Egyptians interested in politics.
The Muslim Brotherhood resisted this with more determination to monopolise power and ignore the foundations of a modern state, and held onto their political beliefs. While the Armed Forces said it would maintain a neutral and conciliatory position between the Muslim Brotherhood and the NSF, the Brotherhood continued its intransigence and did not realise that with this move the Armed Forces had in fact abandoned them, and that distancing itself could make it a rival to the group.
Another explanation could be that the Brotherhood had overestimated its power and thought it could confront the Armed Forces, meeting force with force.
The Muslim Brotherhood were mistaken in many analyses and evaluations and neglected too much, and thus their downfall was seismic. It is important to note here that in the year of Morsi’s presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood showed themselves to be at the opposite end of democracy, even if they went through the motions.
The NSF, on the other hand, was occupied with its political mission, and once again democracy advocates missed the chance to promote their beliefs intellectually and through organised activism.
Democracy post-3 July
Political activism since 3 July 2013 until today is very revealing about the prospects of democracy in Egypt’s future.
The NSF quickly fell apart after 3 July and after the dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in its components dispersed into the new Constituent Assembly.
Some of them vigorously defended the basic values of democracy while some, along with others, accepted enabling power to exercise itself in order to ensure the political process would entirely obliterate the Muslim Brotherhood from the scene.
I do not intend to discuss in detail the constitution that was produced by the Constituent Assembly in 2013, which also worked with unnecessary haste. What is important to say here is that texts from three constitutional eras, or Egyptian schools of thought, co-exist in this constitution.
First, texts belonging to the tradition of the 1923 Constitution and heritage of Egyptian liberalism, which is evident in the section on rights and freedoms; and the heritage of the July (Revolution) state evident in the articles that were added in the 1956 Constitution and remained in consecutive constitutions that embed state control over society; and the heritage of the 2012 Constitution, which for the first time mentioned Al-Azhar and its role in legislation, mentioned the canons of religious minorities, and in which — ironically — the Brotherhood gave the Armed Forces free reign over military affairs.
The co-existence of contradictory texts and actual division of power in society and state may explain why the constitution has not been enacted until now. In fact, the absence of a parliament 20 months after the constitution was ratified — which is a serious violation of its text — is undisputable evidence that the constitution is being disregarded.
The laws that continue to be issued by presidential decree on non-urgent matters reveals a deep-rooted belief of knowing the interests of the people better than anyone the people choose to represent them. It also shows irritation with the complexity of the legislative process. This is exactly what Egypt has suffered for decades under parliaments loyal to the executive power.
Other laws were issued by presidential decree that strangle some public freedoms. The protest law prevents people from exercising their right to peaceful assembly to express their demands, which is what they did — and were welcome to — first in January and February 2011 and then on 30 June 2013.
This law has resulted in dozens of youth thrown in jail whose only crime is raising protest banners.
The terrorism law, with its loose definitions of terrorist crimes, increased death penalties and life sentences, identifies only a single source of truth that can be aired to the public, absolves security forces from accountability, and destroys any guarantees for peaceful citizens. It also prevents any discussion or oversight of the performance of the executive power in fighting terrorism, or anything that is related to combating terrorism.
Any law that allows custody without time limitations is a transgression on justice; a law that allows a judge not to listen to witnesses for the defence destroys justice and stabs its chances in the heart.
Frequent deaths of inmates undermine justice and mock justice. Ignoring invasions of privacy and slandering intimidates anyone who has an opposing view who could contribute to correcting distortions and achieving the common good.
The abovementioned laws and practices reveal an inherent belief that there is only one way to fix the political system, which is the way decided by those in power and there is no room for diversity or discussion or doubt of its effectiveness. This view contradicts democracy.
Is there a future for democracy?
The ongoing terrorist attacks on the country threaten the security of the nation, terrorise citizens, harm the economy and greatly hurt the chances for democracy.
Terrorists are certain and proud enemies of pluralism, diversity and democracy. There is agreement to fight and stamp out terrorism, but combating terrorism should not be an excuse to destroy the very thing the terrorists are trying to eliminate.
Terrorism is fighting the nation and democracy, and the regime is stifling pluralism and diversity — the two basic requisites for democracy.
In this atmosphere, there is continuous contempt for political parties and their ability to interact with the people, which in reality is a covert assault on the notion of genuine pluralism.
Under such an assault on the right to disagree and demands for more successful, effective and just alternatives than the status quo, a genuine democratic system cannot be established.
One cannot blame democracy advocates alone. There is a huge gap between the means of action, material and non-material tools of power available to them, in comparison to those available to the enemies of democracy. This makes it impossible for any real battle between the two camps.
Was January and the following weeks of blossoming ideas the swan song for democracy in Egypt, rather than a song of promise of what can be achieved? And was January the final battle for plural competitive democracy in Egypt?
These are two questions worthy of contemplation and answers.
One response is that ideas never die despite hostility and restrictions on them. Evidence of this are the demands for freedom and democracy before and after January, despite continuous assaults on them for decades, and despite attempts to deceive the people and self that these ideas are a foreign conspiracy against Egypt. How can a conspiracy seek the creation of a political system that benefits Egyptians first and foremost?
Notions of democracy are principles in Egypt despite historic errors in their application. The main reason for these mistakes is a fundamental imbalance in the distribution of economic and political power in the country before and after July 1952.
Democracy was not doing well before 1952. Democrats must now focus on redistribution of income and wealth and discuss it as a priority issue, along with the issues of pluralism, legitimacy of diversity, and diligence of parliament in legislation and oversight.
This is a key requirement for the success of democracy advocacy in a country where one quarter of the population lives in abject poverty. Some people take advantage of this poverty by promising the people milk and honey if they waive their right to rule themselves.
Another answer borrows from theories of democratic transformation that were ignored in Egypt. In order for democracy to replace an authoritarian regime, this does not necessitate that democracy advocates must be more powerful than their rivals.
At times of complex political, economic and social crises, actors in the political process find that democracy is the only system under which they can survive, and work together to find solutions for problems. Every society, whether advanced or developing, faces crises that require effective mechanisms to address problems as part of the political process.
If this is the answer to whether democracy has a chance in Egypt, Egyptian democracy advocates must develop democratic ideas by using democratic tools to utilise all material and intellectual resources to effectively address the problems in a developing country like Egypt.
Competitive plural democracy has set pillars that are unanimous, but they also evolve and are not the same as those in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, or in Europe, or the US, or Asia, or Africa, or Latin America. Democracy has reached all corners of the developing world, and although it did not resolve all problems it at least put countries on the right track to finding solutions.
The creation of a true democracy will require the political system to accommodate all currents, including political Islam. Democracy has rules, and like any such rules, they aim for permanency. Therefore, political Islam must admit there are no absolutes in politics, in order for the political system to accommodate them.
In other words, political Islam must stop making politics synonymous with religious absolutes and claim they are inseparable, and that combined they are a symbol of moral superiority.
Democracy requires ending current extraordinary circumstances, including courts that mete out death penalties and life sentences to hundreds of defendants.
Meanwhile, democracy advocates must relentlessly continue their call, its principles and values.
Spreading the ideas, values and principles of democracy is the best way to clear a path for the infrastructure of democracy.
There is no certainty that the above will lead to democracy. But then again, is not uncertainty about the outcome of a political process a key precondition for democracy?
Ibrahim Awad is professor of public policy at The American University in Cairo.
Progress Fans Flames Of Militant Unrest In Changing Bangladesh
By Jason Burke
7 November 2015
Thirty miles from the centre of Bangladesh’s chaotic capital, Dhaka, the pace of life is quieter. At the Baroipara checkpoint, near the industrial area of Ashulia, stalls offer tea and snacks to local workers and visitors to a nearby public park.
At 7.30am on 4 November, five policemen were dropped off at the checkpoint for a day-long shift and sat down for tea on benches shaded by tall, slender sal trees. The attack was so sudden they could barely react. Their assailants rode up on motorbikes, dismounted and then struck out with machetes. Two of the policemen were badly injured. One bled to death on the dusty roadside.
Tea is no longer being served at Baroipara. “We have stayed shut out of fear,” said Shamsul Alam, the owner of one stall. “I’m scared. If a cop can be killed, who knows what can happen to common people like us?”
Alam is not alone. The Baroipara killing came after the murders of two foreigners – an Italian and a Japanese national in Bangladesh – which were both claimed by Islamic State, which is suspected of bombing the Russian holiday jet in Egypt last weekend. Then there has been the series of murders of secular intellectuals, bloggers and publishers. Five have now died over the last year. These murders have been claimed by a local affiliate of al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent.
Many in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country of 160 million-plus, are now frightened. “I am working in the university and all my friends are really panicked. No one knows what could happen or when,” said Shantanu Majumder, a political scientist and activist. “Bangladesh has changed completely. This is not our usual, easy life. The [extremists] may not be strong enough to start a civil war, but they are strong enough to continue their killing mission.”
There is no doubt that such anxiety is real and justified, and al-Qaida and Isis have thus succeeded in attaining the goal of all such militant groups: to terrorise their enemies, mobilise existing supporters and polarise communities to create the conditions that favour extremism.
The entry of the two groups into Bangladesh is relatively recent; the ground for their horrific campaigns of violence there has been prepared by historical, social, economic and political factors reaching back almost 50 years, if not longer.
The borders of modern Bangladesh were drawn in 1947, when the British divided their south Asian empire. Most Muslim-majority areas became part of Pakistan, which was itself split into east and west wings. In 1971, civil war broke out between local nationalists in East Pakistan who wanted independence and those who did not. The former, on the whole, spoke the local language of Bangla, favoured socialist-style economic policies and desired a liberal, secular framework for their new nation. Most of those who favoured a continued union with Pakistan were religiously and socially conservative.
The ensuing conflict was brutal, with hundreds of thousands killed and some of the worst atrocities committed by militias recruited by Pakistani forces, butresulted in an independent country with a secular constitution. The scars have never healed, hardening into permanent political, social and cultural divisions which have marked every aspect of Bangladesh’s recent history.
The current government is headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the most prominent independence leader, who was assassinated in 1975. She heads the Awami League. The rival Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) has long represented more conservative elements and is led by Khaleda Zia, the widow of the military dictator who took power in the aftermath of Mujibur’s death and was killed in 1981. The two women make little effort to hide their mutual hatred.
Then there is the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political party and social movement which resisted independence and was implicated in some of the worst abuses.
All the parties have battled bitterly over the years, through the ballot box, political manoeuvres, cynical short-term alliances and on the streets. But if history has left a troubled legacy, so too has economic change.
The view from the battered bridge over the Buriganga river in the centre of Dhaka is apocalyptic. In the foreground are the black, heavily polluted waters of the river itself. Beyond lies Kamrangir Char, a vast slum where clouds of acrid smoke from burning rubbish hide tenements packed with thin men, anxious women and grubby children with tubercular coughs.
But Kamrangir Char is also a thriving community and informal economic hub. Millions flock to similar slums in Dhaka and elsewhere every year, flowing in from rural areas hit by climate change-induced flooding, overcultivation and unemployment. For all its problems, the slums, and Bangladesh’s chaotic, congested cities more generally, act as launching pads into better lives than many could ever have lived in their remote villages.
Recent years have seen steady economic growth. Incomes and literacy levels have risen. Infant malnutrition and maternal mortality are down. One factor is the $25bn garment business, which makes cheap clothes for the west and employs at least four million people. The deaths of 1,000 workers when a garment factory collapsed in 2013 underlined problems of poor safety and conditions, but the days when Bangladesh was dismissed as a “basket case” are long gone.
As elsewhere in the Islamic world, however, development has not ended the threat of radicalism. Indeed, some believe it may even have fuelled it.
According to one western intelligence official based in the region, those least equipped to thrive in the new better-off Bangladesh are young men, often from rural backgrounds but raised in the big city, whose poor education and lack of skills, social or professional, is a huge disadvantage amid cut-throat competition for jobs, money, status and eligible marriage partners. “Many, many Islamic militant recruits in Bangladesh and more broadly across the Islamic world match that profile, and that is no coincidence,” the official said.
Others, however, deny the link. “In principle, everyone wins from growth. This is a broader phenomenon. No Islamic country has been untouched by the global crosscurrent of radicalism in recent years,” said Ahsan Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute, a Dhaka-based thinktank.
As elsewhere, Bangladesh’s new global commercial and cultural links are also a factor. The millions of Bangladeshi migrant workers in places such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia are exposed to austere styles of Islam very different from the traditional, folksy forms of worship of their homeland. Over decades, cash from the Gulf has funded religious seminaries and institutions in Bangladesh.
Clerics at one such school in Kamrangir Char told the Guardian two years ago thattheir primary aim was to stop “alien [western] culture” making inroads in Bangladesh. Several of those detained for the recent militant attacks were seminary students. Such institutions teach hardline unitarian dogmas which, even if they are theoretically non-violent, are certainly intolerant.
Then there is the impact of nearly 15 years of conflict, invasion and rhetoric across the Islamic world, relayed by social media. This, according to columnist Shuprova Tasneem, has contributed to “a growing distrust of western concepts of secularism, viewed as an ideology that not only disassociates religion from state affairs but attempts to reduce its influence in our private lives as well.”
There have long been signs of rising radicalism. Attacks on Christians and Hindus have intensified. Last month Bangladesh’s small Shia Muslim community – reviled as heretics in many Gulf countries – were targeted by a bomb claimed by Isis. Yet the final impetus to the new violence may have come from the very people who say they want to stop it.
Shortly after returning to power in 2009, the new Awami League government set up a special tribunal to try those allegedly responsible for atrocities in the 1971 war. The party said it was bringing closure through justice. Many, though not all, of those in the dock were senior Islamists, and human rights groups were critical of the trials. The sentences that were pronounced by the court led to huge protests and counter-protests by supporters and opponents of the process. “The trial of the war criminals is key. The problems all started then,” said Majumder, the political scientist.
In January 2014, Bangladesh held a widely criticised election boycotted by the BNP and other opposition parties. The Awami League won, but the poll triggered intense street violence. Hundreds were killed or injured in firebombings and riots as the opposition tried to oust the government. With many of its leaders detained or in hiding, the BNP has been almost eliminated as a political force. So, too, have the Islamists of Jamaat-e-Islami. The result is no credible opposition – and no democratic channel to express dissent.
“The crackdown has been so hard that it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of extremism,” said Michael Kugelman, a south Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC.
Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, denies that Isis exists in Bangladesh.She blames opposition parties both for the recent killings and for the broader problem of extremism. This, said Kugelman, indicated a “complacency” that was “counterproductive at the very least”.
Few believe either Isis or al-Qaida has a substantial presence in Bangladesh. But, despite attracting only a tiny fraction of Bangladeshis, it is clear that both have enough followers to continue, and possibly expand, the current campaign of violence.
Mukul Hossain, the policeman killed in Wednesday’s attack, was buried at his village home in Bogra, 150 miles north-west of Dhaka. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a colleague expressed, with some understatement, the sentiments of many: “Our country has been peaceful, but recently it has become a bit troubled,” he said.
Additional reporting by Saad Hammadi in Ashulia
Population 159.1 million, with an annual growth rate of 1.2%, rising to 3.6% in urban areas.
Capital city Dhaka (population: 16.9m).
Area 147,570 square kilometres.
Life expectancy 71.3 years for women, 69.8 years for men.
Unemployment 4.3%. But more than 25.6% live below the poverty line.
Youth literacy rate 78% for men, 82% for women aged 15–24.
Education 20% of the total population are students (around 29 million).
Gross domestic product $173.8bn.
Source: UN data/World Bank
Are Syrians the New Palestinians?
By Pam Bailey
By Pam Bailey, Founder and International Director
As Syrian refugees near their fifth year of displacement and peace in their homeland is nowhere close, a question was raised recently in a Washington, D.C. newspaper for Congressional staffers: "Will Syrians become the new Palestinians?"
For those new to the refugee arena: Palestinians are the oldest group of long-term, "warehoused" refugees. Nearly seven decades after Palestinian refugees fled or were forced to leave the portion of the Palestine Mandate that became Israel, those who survive and millions of their descendants officially remain refugees. Why? Both the local host countries and the international community simply did not have, and continue to lack, the moral compass and political will to implement steps that adequately meet refugees' immediate needs and lay the foundation for a longer-term solution.
Consider the case of Palestinians in Lebanon. Approximately 455,000 Palestinians there are registered with UNRWA, the UN agency created in 1949 to care for a refugee population that was supposed to be temporary. It's estimated that about 300,000 of them actually live in Lebanon; the remainder have managed to travel abroad to study or work.
Fifty to 60 percent of these Palestinians have no other choice but to live in densely crowded and poorly served camps, despite the fact most of them were born in Lebanon. They are not allowed to own property and must live with numerous restrictions and social norms that severely limit where they go to school, work and get health care.
The question of why Lebanon continues to refuse to normalize the status of the Palestinians more than 60 years after the arrival of the first generation has several answers. The official Lebanese response is that treating Palestinians like citizens would signal to Israel and the international community that their right to return to their original homeland is not important or necessary.
"In the end, what good has this done? We have become experts only in survival and that is all. We can buy Eid clothes for three children with $50 or cook a meal on a gas stove with a single flame," one Palestinian told Diana Allan, author of Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile.
More credibly, the Lebanese also point to the precarious nature of their "confessional" form of government, in which the highest offices are proportionately reserved for representatives from the various religious communities. To give Palestinians citizenship, they argue, would upset the delicate balance by swelling the ranks of Sunni Muslims. Although many dynamics were at work during the conflict, still others continue to harbor resentments related to their long and destructive civil war (1975-1990). They blame the strife, and the concomitant Israeli invasion, on the PLO and its resistance fighters (and thus the Palestinians as a people).
And finally, there is the objection to immigrants shared by people around the world: "There aren't enough jobs for the rest of us." A 2013 survey found that 50 percent of Lebanese describe their family's economic conditions as either bad or very bad.
"They don't want us in Lebanon and they're not going to make it better," says Fatema Dabdoub, a Palestinian student at the American University of Beirut and a writer forWe Are Not Numbers. "Not all are that bad. I have a lot of Lebanese friends who sympathize with us. But a very big chunk hate us for ruining Lebanon, or view us as uncivilized people. Now, Syrians are living the same reality. Lebanese people aren't fond of refugees."
With such an entrenched institutional bias against Palestinians, and now the Syrians, why and how do some Lebanese develop a different world view? Perhaps therein lies the solution for the future, both here and in Europe, where anti-immigrant views are growing. Interviews with a number of Lebanese with more tolerant and accepting world views show that coming face to face and interacting with "the other" is critical.
Moe Ali Nayel, an independent Lebanese journalist, recalls July 12, 2006, when the Israeli military struck Lebanon in retaliation for the capture of two soldiers by members of Hezbollah.
"I went to the south to help displaced people and got to know Palestinians my age," he remembers. "I 'discovered' the camps for the first time, if you can believe it. They have been there for more than 60 years, but they don't exist in any significant way in the Lebanese collective memory. We know they are there, of course, but regard them only as black holes of violence and crime. They are so close, yet so completely hidden in many respects. I was shocked by that."
Yara Harake also is a Lebanese journalist, a producer for Al-Mayadeen TV's show "Behind the Wall." She grew up with very politically involved and progressive parents in Borj Al-Barajneh, just outside the Palestinian camp of the same name. However, it wasn't until she was 15 that she actually went into the camp to help some friends who were volunteering with activities for children.
"I knew about their situation," says Harake, echoing Nayel. "But I never imagined it was that bad until I saw the camp."
Today, Lebanon is home to an estimated 1.5 million of Syrian refugees, and Dabdoub and others see the rejection of the Palestinians being repeated, even as their presence gradually becomes more entrenched.
Just as all Palestinians frequently are blamed for past perceived excesses by the Palestine Liberation Organization when it was headquartered there, reports that some desperate Syrians are signing on with extremist factions like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have transformed their image in the mind of many Lebanese "from victims into potential threats," says Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
That, along with the fear that Syrian gatherings will become as rooted as the Palestinian camps, is why Lebanon has declined to classify Syrians fleeing the war as "refugees," preferring to call them naziheen -- "displaced persons." Deprived of formal refugee camps, Syrians in Lebanon are forced to take shelter in abandoned buildings or makeshift encampments that provide little protection against the elements.
Yet, there is a long-term price to be paid for such exclusionary practices. Compounding the hardship of desperate Palestinians, or Syrians, worsens conditions for refugees and their hosts. Not only do such discriminatory practices fuel the anger and frustration that drive extremist recruitment, but they also deprive host countries of the entrepreneurial spirit for which immigrants are known. And then, of course, there is the corrosive affects such discrimination has on our identity as moral individuals.
"Condemning people who fled persecution to stagnate in confinement for much of the remainder of their lives is unnecessary, wasteful, hypocritical, counterproductive, unlawful and morally unacceptable," wrote Merrill Smith, author of "Warehousing Refugees: Denial of Rights, a Waste of Humanity." And that's the bottom line.
It Is Over! Or Is It Not?
By Nuray Mert
The election is over. Now we know which direction Turkey is heading in, along with the construction of a new regime.
Indeed, Turkey has long needed a regime change. We have long suffered from the authoritarian military constitution and institutions of the 1980 coup. Moreover, since the beginning of the multi-party period in the 1950s, the republican regime itself suffered from a lack of democratic legitimacy in the face of demands from Kurds and conservative Muslims.
Nevertheless, the hope of democrats was for a transition to a more democratic regime, and since the end of Cold War years there have been many efforts in this direction. However, the dirty war with the Kurdish guerilla movement in the mid-1990s and the secularist coup of 1997 poisoned these hopes. EU membership was subsequently seen as a savior, but to no avail. Finally, the Islamists who reinvented themselves as “conservative democrats” were thought to be a democratic opportunity when they first won an election victory in 2002.
Now, all that is over! The “conservative democrats” decided that they do not need democracy anymore, once they had defeated their secularist rivals - either in the military and other institutions that defined themselves as guardians of the secularist state, or in the secularist segments of society.
Now, we are on the verge of a regime change in the opposite direction. The problem with the republican regime was its authoritarian modernism and the resulting rigid secularist politics. Now, the problem is the authoritarian conservative/Islamist/nationalists politics, which aims to establish a new order with a strong state that legitimizes itself on an official religious and nationalist ideology.
The recent election was not an ordinary election in this respect, but a referendum on the “New Turkey,” as they call it. The aimed-for political system of the New Turkey is a “Turkish-style presidency,” while the aimed-for constitution is said to be “national and native.” (In fact, regardless of presidentialism, the New Turkey already has a natural/historic leader: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.) New Turkey is not only defined in domestic terms; on the contrary, its legitimacy stems from its mission to lead global orthodox Islam. The friends and enemies of this new regime are defined accordingly.
Under the circumstances, Turkey’s problem is not simply one of a democratic deficit anymore. The concept of democracy is being redefined in terms of “native values” and the so-called national interest. We had once hoped to improve the quality of the republican regime in the name of democratic values, but we are going to end up with a new regime that distances itself from the universal values of democracy altogether. Now, it is over! The Islamist governing party has decided that “democracy” itself is a Western product and that democrats are nothing but a fifth column.
But it is not only the mischievous politics of conservatives or Islamists that should be blamed. The secularists of Turkey have been no more democratic, and it took them a long time to adjust to the expanded religious rights and freedoms under AKP rule. As late as 2008, the republic chief public prosecutor was opening a closure case against the ruling AKP, accusing it of “reactionaryism.” What’s more, there are sociological/demographic limits to the political representation of secularists. Their numbers are limited to a combination of Alevis and the ever diminishing secular-Westernized urban population.
Finally, there are the Kurds. It could be a good idea to fight for democracy alongside the Kurds’ struggle for freedoms and rights. However, their political space has become overloaded with their own concerns, divisions, and challenges. The Kurds’ biggest challenge remains transforming from armed struggle to democratic politics. They have failed at this. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) mysteriously opted to go back to fighting despite the Kurdish party’s biggest democratic win in the June election. This played into the hands of the security-stability discourse and the AKP’s eventual victory on Nov. 1. I do not know if that decision was somehow related to a deal between the jailed PKK head Abdullah Öcalan and the AKP over the presidential system, but it does open the way for such a deal.
Politics as we know it is over. If we continue to think that not everything is over - and it does not have to be so - we should now find different ways to continue the democratic struggle.