Colourful Challenges: Street Art from the Middle East

The author looks at Street Art in the Middle East (Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran and Palestine). He draws attention to how in some parts it became an apparent means for protest, while in others it is more widely used to endorse the current regime.

By Dallin Van Leuven, 13th October, 2013

The Arab Spring brought far more than a change of leadership to nations in the Middle East and North Africa.  Its political upheaval introduced a marked increase in the freedom of speech, as well as a challenge to the definition of public space.  At the intersection of these two currents lies street art.  Street art – rather than graffiti – is an appropriate term, with vibrant, poignant expressions of free speech capturing the attention of both residents and passers-by. Continue reading

The Bahrain Predicament

This piece was originally written right after a car bomb explosion on July 18 in Riffa south of the capital Manama. The result of resisting the majority’s demands, the author brings into question whether there is any prudence in endorsing their aspirations.

By Massaab Al-Aloosy, 2nd October 2013

Yesterday a car exploded near the Sheikh Khalifah mosque in Manama, Bahrain.  The incident was immediately condemned as a terrorist attack by the government which warned of attempts to tear the social fabric. Although there were no casualties, the explosion is a reminder of how intricate the situation is in Bahrain. For a long time now, the opposition has been calling for democratization of the political system to no avail.

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Egypt, the West and the Arab Spring

America’s refusal to condemn the military coup in Egypt has revealed the West’s true hopes for the ‘Arab Spring’

By Gulshan Roy, 11th September, 2013

 “If there is a God, he will have a lot to answer for. If not… well, he had a successful life,” Pope Urban VIII once said of a man who would irreversibly frame the study of diplomatic strategy. The Cardinal of Richelieu became France’s First Minister in 1624 at the time of the bloody war of Counter-reformation in Europe. In spite of France’s Catholic faith, Richelieu refrained from joining his religious allies in the war on Protestant Europe. But far retired from the moral obligations towards peace, his calculus rested instead within the strategic reasoning that a protracted and prolonged bloodbath would inflict damage upon both his allies and enemies, and ultimately serve France’s national objective of acquiring more power in Central Europe. Upon his advice, France simply stood back and watched the bloodshed, waiting for the most opportune moment to enter the fray. As the Obama administration silently watches the unfolding tragedy in Egypt, one can hardly eschew the conclusion that the robed religious tactician has found a host of studious followers in Washington.

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Libya, the Arab Winter?

In this essay, the author explores the fragile security situation and the rise of Islamist groups in post-revolution Libya. 

By Camille Maubert, 3rd October, 2012

Libya, through the persisting instability and violence ten months after the demise of Colonel Gadhafi, illustrates how fragile revolutionary gains can be. Indeed, the fall of the regime led to the disintegration of the status quo, the polarisation of the political scene and the assertion of new power relations. As the regime fell, so did the unity that the tyrant coercively insured over the great multiplicity of groups in the country, and this political break up resulted in the (re)-emergence of voices and groups with diverging agendas, interests and allegiances. The fight against the repressive regime united a multiplicity of actors from various tribal and socio-economic backgrounds into a strong, inclusive, but leaderless movement which disintegrated after the fall of the dictator. The uprising lost its unity at the moment when it lost its enemy. As a result, the constituents of this heterogeneous movement reorganised themselves in various groups with different – and sometimes competing – agendas. Among them are Islamists, which are the focus of this study because of their central role in the on-going violence. The security vacuum which stemmed from such a sudden change gave rise to instability, violence, and the empowerment of un-democratic actors – armed militias, terrorist groups, and so on – and increased insecurity in the wider Sahel region.

Accordingly, this paper aims to address the security consequences of the Libyan uprising by asking ‘How did the popular revolution impact on the regional security environment?’ In other words, it seeks to analyse the repercussion of the instability intrinsic to the post-revolutionary transitional period on Islamist activities in order to assess the shape and extent of the terror threat in the region. It argues that the security landscape is characterised by an increased Islamist presence which feeds on the instability, weak governance and widespread violence to expand its activities and audience.

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The Revolution is Being Televised

In this article, the author explores the role of the media in reporting the protests seen around the world in the past few months.

By Mikael Santelli-Bensouda, 31 Oct, 2011

We live in exceptional times. The seemingly endless reach of the media brings popular movements and struggles of all persuasions into the public domain. From protests against educations cuts and austerity measures to pro-democracy revolutions, in one way or another, they are all accessible. But in what capacity are they being presented to us? There are huge inconsistencies in the manner in which societies’ information distribution mechanisms reflect upon the mobilisation of the masses.

As Derrida sensibly wrote, “nothing exits outside a context”. As such, any specific event is ascribed meaning through its contextualisation. Much like blinkers, context frames a given reality within a discourse that permits understanding. These blinkers are (consciously or not) constructed through an amalgamation of cultural norms and values, national history and worldviews. It is thus pertinent to understand that, from sender to receiver, information will have been contextualised in accordance to the sender’s worldview that is formulated by the media. In essence, the exchange of information between official outlets – whether the media, police or politicians – and the general public is pre-framed to influence the receiver.

The Fires of London

The disturbances that took place in August in London seemed to appear out of nowhere and spiraled out of control to a level on par with the social unrest in the 1980’s. Those events were widely condemned by the national media, political leadership and the majority of the British public alike. Whilst not wishing to dispute the validity of specific incidents, the virtually unanimous description of the incidents as riots and looting established a deep seeded negative connotation. In fact, the lexicon used to report the events seemed to oscillate around terms including thugs, opportunism and youth culture. The consequence of this is the establishment of a generalised and disconnected group, in this instance young people of a certain political class and ethnicity, and their separation from the main public body. By doing so, there emerges the establishment of a them, the maladapted and disruptive elements of the society, which, by extension reinforces an us. It is through this process that we can explain why blame derived from almost every angle (unruly attitudes, the decadence of education, computer games, rap music and even according to one (un)credible commentator, Patois) except the very societal factors that may have contributed to such disconnectedness.

The overwhelming drive to establish this group as a deviant societal sub-category suffocates deeper analysis especially one that attempts to understand their rationale, even if it is found that, by and large, there was none. Such condemnation transcended all levels of society, from the Prime Minister to the local cabby, and was especially prevalent within the media. The latter subtly reinforced the dividing lines between the deviant hooligans and the bastions of authority the police, who were interestingly described as the force in a bid to restore their legitimacy in the epically over-hyped battle to reclaim the streets. So, we ignored what may have been a nation-wide cry of dissatisfaction with society, swept it under the rug, and occupied our time by demanding a return to social order and punishment for troublemakers. Perhaps most worryingly is the unintended consequence of this affair. Whilst creating an other may foster a sense of unity amongst us, it risks sewing the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein this disconnected group begins to believe what society thinks of them by accepting its deviant status and even embraces it.

Qualms with Capitalism

The recent protests aimed at the corrupt and immoral financial system that has severely affected virtually ninety nine per cent of us. It is epitomised by the ‘Occupy campaigns’ that have sprouted across the west from its original formation in New York to sympathetic permutations in London, the Republic of Korea and Jamaica to name but a few. These parallel movements showcase their frustration against the corrupt and unjust banking and financial systems that have been able to get away with the biggest economic injustice since colonialism. It is not a sentiment that is held by a mere minority. Anger and disbelief are global phenomena.

Intriguingly, a substantial amount of the reporting on these protests empathise little with the causes. There is little or no media support for the protests whatsoever; little or no glorification, no accounts of brave people who dare to speak on behalf of a disgruntled society. Instead, they are confronted with headlines like The Siege of St Paul’s, and their cause is belittled by generalization and the callous infusion of negatively connoted terminology including: anarchists, anti-capitalism, communism, disgruntled students and even Marxist revolutionaries.

The information that is espoused intends to devalue the efforts that are being showcased as they are portrayed as disturbing the order. By doing so, there emerges the establishment of a socially constructed and generalised group that is detached from society through a process of association and differentiation. Once a group has been identified as deviant it generally perturbs the general public and deters affiliation. Much like the consequences of the London riots, rather than engaging in debate about the true nature of discontentedness; which in this instance is the demand for greater accountability, transparency and judicial equality (after all these ideals are the foundation of our society), there is a manipulation of the movement to reduce its impact. Its very essence is intentionally distorted to evoke a separation between those who want to overthrow the capitalist system and every one else; who will remain pacified.

Another Day, Another Struggle

Moving beyond manipulation of social unrest within the west, we are confronted with seemingly endless stories of struggles in distant lands. It seems that there is an increasing sense of inevitability of events that originate in the global south and its redistribution. Education protests in Chile, religious solidarity in Nepal and democratic revolutions in Syria are, more often than one would like to think, contextualised through a veil of western superiority. As those people strive to attain a societal standard on par with what we have in the west, we hold the power to confer legitimacy upon such incidents (or not). Yet, needless to say, unless action in a foreign place threatens our interests, it remains out of our sphere of interest.

It is interesting to note that different geographical examples of social mobilisation, despite similar intentional goals, often receive a distinctly varied reception dependent on its location and its relation to the reporting press. For example; education protests in the UK were troublesome but in Chile they are conceived as a sign of progress in society. Similarly, protests against oppressive rule in Palestine are constructed within a negative frame and often ignored while those occurring in Iran are encouraged. Although it may be unfashionable to refer to orientalism in this day and age, it is hard to overlook the fact that the western media conveys a post-colonial hierarchy among states by granting selective support to its government’s clients.

Double Standards

The Arab Spring exemplified a media and political phenomenon across the world. Looking back to the initial outbreak of mass popular protest across North Africa it is interesting to notice that the media and politicians seemed to adopt no real stance. Perhaps for the first time in modern Arab history (excluding events in Palestine) the west abstained from publicly passing judgment, if only temporarily. A waiting game ensued.

In fact, a delicate balancing of interests was underway. Whilst initially not wishing to alienate authoritarian allies, whom for so long they had propped up and abused as geopolitical tools, the West could not jump on its archetypal bandwagon of backing democratic demands. However, it could not condemn such popular power in the event that the movement was successful. It is for that reason that, only once the dice of history had been firmly cast on the side of the people, did the west find its position. The discourse machine then went into overdrive; pro-democracy revolutionaries, heroes of the Arab world and lovers of freedom invaded the headlines and framed perceptions.

What was occurring was an attempt to overcome distance and difference by removing the sense of otherness by creating unity; people who share the values of democracy. So, unlike the discourse constructed on protests within the West, the context of the Arab Spring was intended to unify groups and extend legitimacy upon the events. Surely then it is no surprise to see how the events unfolded in Libya. Images of distress and asymmetric warfare resonated deep across peoples, as we had grown attached to these like-minded freedom lovers and, consequently, military intervention to assist the march of democracy against tyranny received widespread and unquestioning acceptance.

As history has proven, the West only conducts military operations when there is just cause, usually established through the construction of a narrative and on the odd occasion has been a matter of ‘self-interest’. The narrative constructed prior to the Libyan intervention emphasised shared values. It surely had nothing to do with oil, not this time. The connection of values/interests established through cross-societal bonding via image bombardment and discourse assimilation ultimately produced general acceptance for the ‘need to act’. Yet what about the uprisings in Syria?  A similar process to create empathy occurred but commitments were only made to economic sanctions. Perhaps, it was assumed that they are capable of fighting for themselves against a regime far more oppressive and evidently trigger happy than Ghaddafi’s. What about the protests in Bahrain? That is a story that should only be whispered. Limited reporting on attempts to overturn the constitutional monarchy stems directly from the fact that it threatens the Saudi Royal Family’s monopoly on authority and has taken painful steps to crush what is framed as a Shia rebellion. Due to the world’s insatiable appetite for oil, the Saudi’s prerogative ensures that the events either follow their own narrative construction or are lost in an informational void. Blinding self-interest is the driving force behind the way the West has viewed, acted upon and has constructed the narrative for the Arab Spring.

Revolutionary Inflections

These differing examples highlight how discourses surrounding certain events emerge from its initial contextualisation prior to dissemination. It helps to explain why certain acts are perceived in differing ways, even if they share the same principles. Such contextualisation derives from the desire to understand the reason for certain events by viewing it through a familiar lens (i.e., a British worldview). Through this process it reinforces cultural norms by creating dividing lines between what is acceptable in society and what is perceived as deviant even if there remains huge inconsistencies in its implementation. Essentially, if a certain movement challenges or questions the societal structure, and the position of a privileged elite, they are likely to be perceived negatively regardless of whether the country observes the universal values of democracy.

Revolutions all over the world are being televised. Over the past few months there have been constant updates on the progress being made by NATO and the NTC in Libya, how Basher Al-Asad continues to brutalise the people of Syria and the spread of the Occupy campaigns throughout the world like wildfire. However, their intended messages are often distorted or manipulated to serve a greater purpose, one that continues to sustain the hierarchical cross-societal structure that has dominated the world for centuries. The revolution is being televised with the intention of preserving the class structure within the UK, the West or the world.

Life After Gaddafi – The Future of Foreign Intervention

In this article, the author assesses the precedent of Libya in foreign intervention after the death of Muammar Gaddafi. In a world in which there are now increased calls for intervention and isolationism the case of Libya is being presented as both an example of a successful intrusion and a reason to reform the UN Security Council. Military capabilities and the tensions within NATO may act as a check to the boisterous rhetoric in the wake of Gaddafi’s death but the key lesson may be the message it has sent to those who are still clinging to power.

By Jack Hamilton, 23 Oct, 2011

Today the Libyan transnational government has declared national liberation before a triumphant crowd in Benghazi, the city where the fight against Gaddafi began.

There are scenes of jubilation in Libya and NATO offices around the world.  Muammar Gaddafi is dead and attentions are now turning to the future of the Maghreb state and the implications of NATO’s intervention in the broader Arab Spring.  In such a celebratory atmosphere what will be the future response to rebellious populations rising up against murderous rulers?

Libya and the Future of Intervention

Nicolas Sarkozy has already made a direct comparison between the conflict in Libya and the plight of the people of Syria in facing down the armies of Bashar al-Assad.  He mused that “The best thing I can do is dedicate our visit to Tripoli to those who hope that Syria can one day also be a free country”.  The Obama Administration has toed a similar line in their policy of ‘Leading from Behind’ by touting the example of Libya as a framework for future interventions.

Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes stated that the Libya experience would provide the basis for future interventions with emphasis placed on the need for regime change to be based upon “indigenous political movements” rather than the ambitions of the United States and the importance of “burden sharing” amongst other nations.  The problem is that this does not fit into the model for preventing atrocities which the United States advocated so heavily in the 1990s.  In London and Paris there is talk of prevention and the need to take the lead while the US, perhaps due to domestic constraints, is taking up a more isolationist tone.  The question must therefore be asked if the example of Libya may hinder rather than assist future responses.

Military Capability

The first issue that must be addressed is military capability.  Don’t be distracted by the rhetoric of ‘no boots on the ground’, Libya was a huge military intervention.  The British and the French with help from the Norwegians and Danes, carried out the bulk of the airstrikes and provided the machinery to carry out the naval blockade.  This does not mean that the US should be discounted.  It was American air and sea forces that opened the intervention with decisive attacks on Libyan air bases allowing the European forces to act with greater freedom.  Specific American military capabilities in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance were key to the success to say nothing of the supplies of munitions that were supplied to the European forces.  The lasting images of the war will be of the final rebel push on Tripoli but it is the heavy NATO influence which will resonate in international relations.

A Frayed Alliance

The second impact is the increased tensions between the NATO powers.  Germany’s foreign minister hinted at an early stage that the country would refuse to take sides and eventually abstained from the vote on Security Council Resolution 1973.  The French have long advocated a reform of NATO and the obvious north/south European divide in capabilities has intensified this call.  Whether the military alliance is now in a position to oversee another campaign is debatable.

‘You Break It, You Own It’

NATO leaders have frequently referenced the ‘lessons of Iraq’ when discussing Libya.  The opposition of the National Transitional Council to any foreign troops in a post-war Libya has been welcomed by Western powers hesitant to adopt an increased military role in a time of economic uncertainty.  In this sense there has been a strong adherence to Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn mantra: ‘You Break It, You Own It’.

The Future of Intervention

So what will the lasting impact of the Libyan intervention be?  Crucially, both Britain and France seem to perceive the situation to have been an anomaly.  A nation with a small population and a weak military on the doorstep of Europe with regional actors who were unlikely to support the dictator.  It was seen as an easy case.  Additionally, the Western powers insisted on gaining the support of both the Arab League and the Security Council before intervening.  It is difficult to see such a situation emerging elsewhere in the Arab Spring and Russia has already blocked tentative discussions regarding Syria.

The question of Syria has been largely ignored in Washington.  Syrian opposition is increasingly turning to armed response with army defections burgeoning and calls for international intervention increasing.  People are being gunned down in the streets as the ‘liberators’ of Libya struggle to find the words to escape the precedent they have set.  It is unimaginable that international forces would enter Syria for a variety of reasons.  For that reason Libya must be viewed as an anomaly, not a precedent.

Reforming the Security Council?

Another impact of the intervention has been the rallying of non-interventionist states.  China, Brazil, South Africa and India have not been slow to point out the hypocrisy of the Security Council in elevating its own role while using the mandate of protecting civilians.  Perhaps the lasting message of Libya in international relations will be the claim these nations have demanded for many years: a reform of the Security Council.

Bloody Sheet, Noose, Cage or Condo?

The final message of the conflict in Libya is to those clinging to power in other nations.  It is a message to the Assads and Salehs of the world.  Like Gaddafi or Hussein they can go out on a bloody sheet or at the end of a rope.  Mubarak and Milosevic wound up in cages.  Ben Ali stepped aside amid violent persuasion and now resides comfortably in a condo in Saudi Arabia.  The bloody sheet, the rope, the cage or the condo?