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Middle East Press on Iran, Women’s Voices, Egypt's Salafists and Hezbollah: New Age Islam's Selection, 28 September 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Bureau

28 September 2020

• Tehran’s Tightening Repression Forebodes More Unrest

By Amir Toumaj

• Women’s Voices Must Be Part of the Middle East’s New Narrative

By Heba Yosry

• Uncertain Future for Egypt's Salafists Following Senate Election Defeat

By Amr Emam

• How Hezbollah Destroyed Everything That Made Lebanon Great

By Baria Alamuddin


Tehran’s Tightening Repression Forebodes More Unrest

By Amir Toumaj

28 September 2020

The Islamic Republic of Iran has recently stepped up its repressive tactics with a series of high-profile executions in response to mass anti-government protests over the last two years. As the root causes of protests remain unaddressed, more violence and terror should be expected.

Despite global protest, the state executed national wrestling champion Navid Afkari on September 12, after rights group raised concerns that he had been tortured and forced to confess without a fair trial.

Afkari’s execution follows a successful high-profile campaign against death sentences imposed on three young men convicted for their involvements in the November 2019 protests. Like Afkari and countless other political prisoners, authorities tortured them, denied them a fair trial, and tormented their families. A court upholding the men’s death sentences triggered global outcry including from US President Donald Trump, and an unprecedented online campaign on Iranian social media. In response, authorities commuted their death sentences, although they are still imprisoned indefinitely.

After that tactical retreat, Iran’s judiciary executed an alleged spy and then political prisoner Mostafa Salehi, arrested during the late December 2017 – early January 2018 protests, to fortify the state’s wall of fear.

Protests mobilized again on the web and the global stage after the judiciary announced it would uphold Afkari’s death sentence for allegedly stabbing a water municipality employee in a mass protest in August 2018. Afkari’s brothers too have been given lengthy prison sentences. International athletic associations and Trump called for Afkari’s release. It seemed as if the international and domestic pressure would work again. Or so people thought.

Authorities suddenly announced Afkari’s execution; he himself was apparently unaware until the last minute, and his lawyer and family say he was denied a last visit. Authorities have reportedly blocked roads in the vicinity of Sangar village in Fars Province to prevent more people coming to his grave.

The judiciary does not plan to stop with Afkari. At least 30 political prisoners are reportedly on death row Activists have warned that one Kurdish man and 4 Ahwazi-Arab political prisoners are at risk of imminent execution.

Rights groups have recently warned of an increase in the use of execution. Prominent political prisoner Narges Mohammadi on September 18 penned a letter from prison warning about the gravity of political prisoners’ plights, urging to act before it is “too late.”

Repression has also tightened. Mohammadi and another prominent prisoner Nasrin Sotoudeh say their treatment in prison has deteriorated. Dozens of members of the Baha’i faith were arrested over the summer. A number of Christian converts were exiled to cities far from their homes after their prison sentences, a new form of punishment for them according to International Christian Concern. At least 3,600 such as whistle-blowers have been arrested and at least one newspaper suspended for spreading “fake news” about the spread of COVID-19 in Iran.

More Protests Expected

The Islamic Republic is preparing to crush more protests. Since November of last year, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has introduced neighbourhood-based Basij paramilitary units across the country to, as a senior commander put it, deal with “thugs and disruptors of security” in cooperation with the security and judicial apparatus. The Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), the first line of defines against protesters, has also restructured and declared commitments to implement more advanced weapons and technology. This allocation of resources amid a budget shortfall and cuts to salaries of security forces including in the IRGC reflects fears of more unrest.

The mounting use of execution is rooted in the Islamic Republic’s desire to secure its rule amid shaky grounds and fears of more looming protests. The regime has used repressive tactics throughout its history, including when authorities hung over 5,000 political prisoners toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. One of the judges who liberally handed death sentences was Ebrahim Raisi, who today is the chief of Iran’s judiciary.

Since the end of 2017, Iran has witnessed two massive, nationwide protests, as well as other sporadic protests like the one Afkari was arrested in, that have engulfed the Islamic Republic’s traditional support base that encompass religious, working-class rural and urban areas. The state’s crackdown in 2019 was far bloodier than ever before. Whereas before security forces primarily used street melee and arrests to crush protests, this time they opened fire from the onset. The death toll has been in the hundreds - 1,500 according to Reuters - surpassing in a matter of days the death toll of months of 2009 post-election protests.

Iran is facing more mass protests because the Islamic Republic because is incapable or unwilling to address society’s political and economic grievances. Reformists, who were instrumental in propelling Hassan Rouhani to presidency in 2013 and 2017, have experienced a crisis of public confidence since the 2017-2018 protests, as they have been unable or unwilling to deliver on promises to meaningfully implement reform through the ballot for over two decades.

Iranian officials are particularly concerned about economic triggers for more nationwide protests. The 2017-2018 protests started in response to skyrocketing staple prices, most notably eggs, and the 2019 protests followed sudden cuts to fuel subsidies; both then spread to encompass broader political and economic grievances aimed at the Islamic Republic. While re-imposed US sanctions designed to pressure Iran into a new nuclear deal have significantly damaged the Iranian economy and contributed to a plummeting currency, protesters called out the Islamic Republic itself rather than US sanctions before and after the US exit of May 2018, most notably in the bloody November uprising. Iranian newspapers openly discuss how corruption and mismanagement have hit Iran’s economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded Iran’s economic misery, raising the risk of further economic-induced protests.

Indeed, while Iran has a long history of labor protests, strikes in August spread from strategic energy-sector facilities like petrochemicals and refineries in the south to the north. While a deputy minister recently blamed foreign media coverage of strikes, accusing them of a plan to “Syrianize Iran,” he did concede that calls for protests had tripled in the last year, and acknowledged that “some” Iranians were involved – a tacit recognition that protest calls were not just a foreign plot.

All signs suggest the Islamic Republic is expecting more protests. On this point, they are probably correct. Iranians will likely soon reach another boiling point, and Tehran will only commit more violence to cling to power at any cost.


Amir Toumaj is an independent researcher focused on Iran who has experience in the private sector and think tanks. He has published dozens of articles and reports, and his research has appeared in congressional testimonies and prominent global media outlets.


Women’s Voices Must Be Part of the Middle East’s New Narrative

By Heba Yosry

26 September 2020

Women and girls in the Middle East must be heard. Progress on increasing women’s access to decision-making spaces has been made, but there is still a long way to go.

The world recently incurred a great loss with the passing of American Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her arduous work for gender equality and women’s empowerment compelled even her ardent critics to pay respect and acknowledge her legacy. One of her most abiding quotes will be “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” It is as simple as that. The apparent dichotomy between the public and the private arenas must not dictate a woman’s place. Women belong wherever the conversations are taking place that will shape her, others, and the future.

But how can women belong, have certainty that contributing to every conversation is their rightful place, and participate in every decision when we silence them at a young age? In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and so many other nations, the World Bank data shows us the population parity between women and men: for how much longer will we silence our children and women?

Today we are witnessing the great change in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. Our leaders in Egypt Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain are catapulting our nations from the historical nostalgia of our heydays to new and sustainable advances that will allow Muslim countries to reclaim our place at the table of civilization through applying visionary strategies on Artificial Intelligence, dedicating the necessary resources for advancing education, technology, sustainable development and improving women’s rights.

Yet there is still a deep malaise in Middle Eastern societies. One could assume, like many westerners do, that perhaps Islam is the problem, perhaps it is a religion that oppresses and silences women. As a Muslim woman my answer is no, Islam is not the problem, our captivity within religious dogma is the problem. Historically, Islam championed women’s rights such as granting them right to inheritance, initiation of divorce, and custody rights at a time when women in Greek culture, for example, had absolutely no rights. Not to mention the many examples of strong and outspoken women within Muslim history. One could look at Khadija, the prophet’s first wife, who chose her husband a much younger man who worked for her. Or Ayesha, the most beloved wife who accompanied the prophet on battles and Muslim men and women would flock to benefit from her knowledge. She led men in war. Or Zaynab, the prophet’s daughter whose husband didn’t believe in the prophet and still she loved and lived with him in Mecca. Muslim history is rife with stories of strong, willful and opinionated women who refused to be silenced or their voices to be drowned out. Islam initiated the impetus for advancing women’s rights. It is now time to transform this impetus into a drive for achieving complete equality.

The pervasiveness of historically strong Muslim women or Islam’s previous role in advancing women’s rights shouldn’t deter us from acknowledging the dire inequalities that many Muslim women endure. This oppression does not emanate from the Quran, but from the static and historically contextual readings of the Quran. One of the most essential premises of monotheistic religions is the transcendence of God’s wisdom of any spacio-temporal conditions, i.e. its freedom from limitations. Nevertheless, dogmatic and literalist readings are being used to imprison women within a historically bygone era of submissiveness. It was in the 1920s that the Egyptian icon Huda Sha’rawi vehemently fought for girls and women’s inherent right to access education and to full participation in public life. She fought for our right to speak and demanded the world to listen. A woman’s totality is integral to the global story.

We need to acknowledge the strides taken by Arab governments to advance women’s rights and achieve gender parity. In 2019, the World Bank recognized Saudi Arabia as the top reformer globally due to the various policies and legislations that aim to increase female economic participation. In Egypt, the National Council for Women recently pushed for legislation to protect the anonymity of sexual abuse victims to provide a safe space for survivors to report and hold the perpetrators accountable. This week, the UAE's Gender Balance Council announced a new law that will ensure equal pay for men and women in the private sector, which will further improve the country’s position on the UN Gender Inequality Index. Last year, the UAE ranked first in the Arab world and 26th globally. Women’s issues are getting the centrality and attention they deserve on governmental agendas. Yet, to create systemic and sustainable progress, taboos and dogmas that are weaponized to silence women need to be abolished.

There is a new narrative being written. A narrative where friend and foe are changing. A narrative that aims to include diverse voices of those who can achieve progress, not dwell on the past. This narrative must include girls and to include our girls we must stop shackling them with shame and silence. We must allow them not only to speak but also to sing, for one could never know when the next Um Kulthoom might rise from the silent ranks and emerge unto her stage.


Heba Yosry teaches psychology and philosophy in Cairo. She holds a post-graduate degree in Arabic literature and philosophy from the American University in Cairo.


Uncertain Future for Egypt's Salafists Following Senate Election Defeat

By Amr Emam

Sep 27, 2020

The failure of Egypt's largest Salafi party to win any seats in the recent Senate elections raises questions about the prospects of the party as well as the future of political Islam in the country.

Al-Nour, founded following the 2011 uprising against autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, fielded 12 candidates who ran as independents in nine out of Egypt's 27 provinces.

Eight candidates lost in the first round of the elections, which took place Aug. 11-12.

Four other candidates secured a place in the election runoff, which was held Sept. 8-9.

However, they lost too, pointing to what some analysts describe as a "drastic" change in voters' moods.

"There is a noticeable change in the mood of the voters who are no longer ready to accept political parties with religious backgrounds," Cairo University political scientist Akram Badreddine told Al-Monitor. "Ordinary people view the Salafists as representing the same political brand as the Muslim Brotherhood."

Egypt's Salafists have come a long way since the 2011 uprising, demonstrating a high degree of pragmatism.

They stayed away from politics for decades before the uprising, preferring to focus on religion and inviting people for prayer.

They have a strict interpretation of Islam and many have a low view of non-Muslims and see women as being subservient.

The Salafists have a strong following in the Nile Delta. They have their stronghold in the northern coastal city of Alexandria, where they control most mosques.

Come the 2011 uprising, the Salafists found a chance to advance their agenda in the new Egypt that was evolving then, like other Islamists did, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement of the late President Mohammed Morsi.

They formed several political parties, including Al-Nour, the political arm of the Salafi Invitation, by far the most important umbrella organization of the nation's Salafists.

Having organized themselves into political parties, the Salafists had to tailor their strict worldview to realities on the ground.

They had to answer questions on issues taken for granted in developed countries, but still under debate in Egypt, such as the status of women and non-Muslims in society and whether visiting antiquities is a sin. The Salafists were debating whether visiting ancient sites was against the Islamic religion. Some Salafi figures called for covering the faces of ancient statues with wax. Others called for destroying them, considering them deities that date back to pre-Islamic times.

Salafi politicians tried to attune their answers to these questions to what the media in Cairo liked to hear.

Nonetheless, answers to the same questions by some Salafi sheikhs divulged a wide chasm between the new political class and moderates.

In 2012, a Salafi sheikh called for the destruction of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Another said Muslims should not congratulate Christians on Christian religious occasions.

Such views gratified a number of Egyptians, especially conservative ones. And many voters backed the Salafi parties in the elections that followed the 2011 uprising.

The Salafi parties Al-Nour, Construction and Development and Al-Asala won 128 seats in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls between November 2011 and January 2012 (112, 13 and 3 respectively) out of a total of 498 seats).

This made the Salafists the second-largest political force in parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party — now outlawed — which won 222 seats.

Al-Nour also won 45 seats in the Senate elections in January 2012, coming in second to the Freedom and Justice Party, which won 105 seats, out of a total of 270 seats.

"The Islamists saw their political heyday after the 2011 revolution because they were the most organized political force then," Muneer Adeeb, a specialist in political Islam, told Al-Monitor. "The lack of strong secular parties and prevailing security and political conditions made the rise of the Islamists inevitable."

The Salafists were allied with the Muslim Brotherhood all through the one year of Morsi's rule.

Adeeb said, however, "This honeymoon ended because the Brotherhood wanted to exclude everybody else in its pursuit for fully dominating the political stage."

This was why the Salafists welcomed the army-backed popular uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in 2013.

They even backed the post-Muslim Brotherhood authorities and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — who formally came to power in mid-2014 — apparently to evade the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood and to secure a continued presence on Egypt's political stage.

Sisi, who has a hard line against political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, also courted the Salafists in his bid to discredit Muslim Brotherhood propaganda about his hostility to the Islamic religion, analysts said.

Nonetheless, the Salafists' courtship of the post-Muslim Brotherhood authorities failed to help the Salafists maintain their popularity, let alone attract new fans.

In the 2015 House of Deputies elections, Al-Nour, the only functional Salafi party, won only 12 seats out of a total of 596.

"This result should have acted as an early warning for the Salafists," Badreddine said.

The failure of Al-Nour to win any seats in the recent Senate elections appears to be yet one more indicator of the collapse of the Salafists' popularity.

This does not augur well for the party, especially with the nation's political parties preparing for the House of Deputies elections in October.

It also gives insights into the looming demise of political Islam as a whole in Egypt, especially with the ongoing crackdown by the authorities on the Muslim Brotherhood, analysts said.

"My belief is that political Islam is on the way out, given the changes happening in this country," Badreddine said.

The Senate elections were the first for the body to be held in Egypt since 2012. The upper house of the Egyptian parliament was dissolved in November 2013 and then excluded from the 2014 constitution. However, it was reinstituted by a package of constitutional amendments in 2019.

Nonetheless, the Senate elections were untimely for the Salafists. They were held after months of suspension of services at the nation's mosques, the main sphere of activity for the Salafists, because of the coronavirus.

The Salafists were also negatively affected by hostile propaganda from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is angry about their cooperation with Sisi.

Voter turnout in the Senate elections and the runoff was also very low, 14% and 10.25% respectively, according to the independent elections commission.

"This voter turnout, along with the practices of the other parties participating in the elections, reduced our chances of success," said Salah Abdel Maaboud, a senior Al-Nour official who ran as an independent in the Senate elections in the Nile Delta province of Menoufia.

Abdel Maaboud and his colleagues said they have started preparing for the House of Deputies elections in October.

He told Al-Monitor that the party has prepared lists of its potential candidates amid hopes of making up for some of the losses in the Senate elections.

"We hope we can achieve positive results in the elections," Abdel Maaboud said. "This is possible if we communicate better with voters."


How Hezbollah Destroyed Everything That Made Lebanon Great

By Baria Alamuddin

September 27, 2020

Does anyone know how many Lebanese prime ministers have been appointed over the past year? With the resignation of Mustapha Adib at the weekend, Hezbollah has thwarted every attempt to form a competent, technocratic administration to steer Lebanon out of this catastrophe; demanding, like gangsters, that it must possess the Finance Ministry, Health, Transport, and everything else it can get its hands on.

We have warned and feared for years that Hassan Nasrallah, Nabih Berri, Michel Aoun and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would burn Lebanon to the ground to protect their interests — and here they are today, gleefully pouring petrol over the flames.

With the departures of Adib and his predecessor Hassan Diab, and yet another caretaker administration, Hezbollah fulfils its desire to remain in control while simply buying time. It insists early elections are unnecessary, but after willfully sabotaging one government after another, is there any alternative?

Hezbollah and Aoun have destroyed everything that made Lebanon great. The Arab world’s banking capital is bankrupt. Tourists don’t frequent destabilized states run by terrorists. Former regional partners refuse to have anything to do with us. Our celebrated culture is trampled underfoot by barbarian theocrats. Beirut no longer even has a viable port.

Recent US sanctions clarify why Hezbollah insists on controlling the Finance Ministry: Ali Hassan Khalil, Finance Minister from 2014 to 2020, helped Hezbollah to circumvent US sanctions by laundering money through public institutions, while exempting Hezbollah personnel from taxes. Control of the department responsible for financial oversight allows Hezbollah and Iran to manage their multimillion-dollar criminal operations with impunity. This is putting the fox in charge of the henhouse!

Transport and Public Works Minister Yousef Fenianos (2016-20) enabled his Hezbollah allies to siphon off millions of dollars of public funds and win contracts for Hezbollah-controlled companies. Control of the airport and borders allows Iran to keep Hezbollah supplied with weapons, while facilitating its income from narcotics and other cross-border crime. US court documents show how Hezbollah personnel facilitated cocaine shipments via the airport in conjunction with Hezbollah security Chief Wafiq Safa.

If French and American intelligence knew all this, shouldn’t it have been released into the public domain long before these thieves emptied the treasury, drained the bank accounts of every last teacher, widow and pensioner, and left Lebanon to collapse like the husk of an ancient, desiccated cedar tree?

Nasrallah’s insistence that certain ministries be exclusive fiefdoms of Shiite Hezbollah appointees is inherently corrupt. The invariable result is departments flooded with faction members, lacking the qualifications or motivation to do anything other than extort bribes from impoverished citizens, while their bosses pocket the departmental budget. These methods of doing business are what got Lebanon into this current mess.

Hezbollah invariably demands the Health Ministry, because it wields Lebanon’s fourth-largest departmental budget at $338 million, while also allowing the movement to secure free health care for its thousands of Syria veterans. With this ministry under Hezbollah control, Lebanon’s pharmaceutical market has been deluged with counterfeit Iranian medicines.

Aoun and Gebran Bassil justified the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) unpopular alliance with Hezbollah to their Christian supporters by claiming that control over the presidency and key ministries would empower Lebanese Christians. Instead they have broken the nation’s back, prompting a vast diaspora of Christians and other sects to take their families’ lives in their hands and flee Lebanon for brighter prospects overseas.

The FPM and Hezbollah have become inseparable partners in crime as they bleed the Lebanese economy white. Thanks to their colossal corruption and incompetence, the Lebanese state power company (under the FPM-controlled Energy Ministry) loses $2 billion a year — about 40 percent of Lebanon’s national debt. While most citizens pay extortionate bills despite going without electricity for much of the day, about 80 percent of people in Hezbollah-controlled areas get free electricity.

Hezbollah and Iran control Lebanese foreign policy via the FPM: Despite Lebanon’s commitment to a self-distancing policy, former foreign minister Bassil invariably takes Iran’s side in regional disputes. After Bassil boycotted Arab League condemnation of 2016 attacks on GCC missions in Tehran, the GCC cut $3 billion in annual funding for the Lebanese Army.

By opposing US efforts to reimpose UN sanctions, French President Emmanuel Macron and the Europeans are trying to encourage Iran and Hezbollah to take a more constructive approach to Lebanese Cabinet formation. Instead, this softly-softly approach simply reassures Tehran that it can continue menacing and dominating its neighbors.

Macron challenged Hezbollah: “Everyone knows you have an Iranian agenda ... But are you Lebanese — yes or no? Do you want to help the Lebanese — yes or no?” After Hezbollah’s sabotage of Adib’s Cabinet-forming efforts, the answers to these questions are obvious to everyone. If Macron is serious about penalizing those holding Lebanon to ransom, he must go ahead; it’s the least these criminals deserve.

Lebanon is drowning. Macron, the IMF, the GCC have all thrown lifebelts, yet those steering Lebanon are hell-bent on dragging it down into the depths of the ocean. Will it be any surprise when Macron and the IMF conclude that Lebanon is beyond saving?

If Lebanon fails to grasp these lifelines, more people will be starving and impoverished; schools, hospitals and essential services will close; society will collapse; and those who can will flee overseas. State disintegration will be ugly. We know what sectarian war looks like. Who desires to tread that path again?

I say this not to foment pessimism and cynicism, but as a call to action. Hezbollah has proved its refusal to compromise, so a critical mass of other factions and components of society must forge an alternative way forward, demonstrating to the world that Lebanon is deserving of the life-saving assistance we so desperately need. There is no magic exit from this crisis. It will be slow and painful, but we must commence the journey.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai has been heroically pressing all Lebanese parties to commit to his principle of “neutrality,” putting the interests of Lebanon first. Only once sovereignty is restored to its citizens, and we consecrate a leadership wholly dedicated to the national interest, can Lebanon recommence its long path back to greatness.


Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.



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