Archive for the ‘MENA’ Category

Ten Years of Global Voices, and Ten Years of Operation “Viral Freedom”

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We are approaching the tenth anniversary of one of my favorite projects: Global Voices Online, which I am a proud contributor to.  To commemorate this, I have been assigned the task of reflecting on one of the platform’s first blog posts, entitled Operation “Viral Freedom”. Here is my reflection, ten years after this text was published.

After I joined Global Voices, in 2009, I met dozens of writers, journalists and activists from all over the world, including countries that we had grown to associate with images of violence and extremism through mainstream media, and whose voices rarely had an echo. I started following their work, engaging in discussions with them, and making new friends. We all shared a desire for change, a passion for communication and self-expression, and a common ground of values and principles.

Back then, no one could predict what 2011 had in store for all of us; the explosion of hope, citizenship and self-expression that were ahead, and the brutal repression that regimes would unfold against their populations.

However, reading many of the contributions prior to 2011 from a distance makes it clear that something was on the making, that the region was boiling, and that the divide between citizens’ desire for change and their rulers was increasingly insurmountable.

Blog posts like “Viral Operation Freedom”, from 2004, highlight the increasing relevance of the interactions between citizens in the Middle East and North Africa, which turned out to be key in the organization and communication of the 2011 uprisings, and in pushing for civil-society building.

On the other hand, the post hints at the inherent contradictions, dangers and threats posed by private-owned technology and communication platforms, regardless of how well-intentioned they may seem.

Time and experience have made it clear that the attempts to control citizens increasingly involve controlling their digital communications. It has also proven the importance of developing and using free, independent and autonomous online tools and spaces.

Read Operation “Viral Freedom”, and join us in celebrating Global Voices’ tenth anniversary.


Yarmouk and the fallacy of neutrality

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This is a response to Ali Abunimah´s article “Palestinians trapped in Syria war, denied aid, stalked by starvation”. In his article, the author focuses on the suffering of Palestinians trapped in the Yarmouk refugee camp, besieged by the Syrian army since the summer without access to food and other supplies. To read it, click here. 

 

The fallacy of neutrality

As in many other Syrian neighborhoods, large segments of the Damascus Palestinian “unofficial” refugee camp Yarmouk joined the peaceful mobilizations and the widespread civil society efforts that emerged in March 2011 and were violently repressed by the regime.

As early as in June 2011, a local coordination committee was established in Yarmouk to coordinate protests, sit-ins, banners, slogans, civil work. Mohammad (who asked me not to share his last name) and Abu al-Abd Guevara (nickname), two Syrian Palestinians who had to flee the country and now live in Madrid, were in Yarmouk at the time. According to Guevara, “confusing the fact that Yarmouk was an open welcoming space with a position of neutrality is very misleading.” He continues:

People escaping the regime, and members of the civil opposition came from all over the city to take refuge in Yarmouk. We worked hand in hand in the camp, organized demonstrations, a coordination committee was formed… The regime started by targeting any form of peaceful activism, demonstrations, graffiti, chants, civil society building… that was what was happening all over the country, before the uprising became an armed rebellion. So Yarmouk was as “neutral” as the rest of Syria. 

It is true that many of us did not want the FSA to enter the camp because we thought that it would come at a high price, and we wanted to protect the people”, Ahmad explains. “However, things escalated after the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command killed 13 young Palestinians. The shabbiha from the General Command are as responsible for the suffering in Yarmouk as the regime itself.”

Ali Abunimah´s article, from the title itself – “Palestinians trapped in Syria war”- points at neutrality as a starting point, as if only Palestinians, and not civilians as a whole, were trapped in this tragic conflict. Neutrality is insisted on again through a quote:

According to Abou Nasser, while some youth in the camp organized in support of the Syrian opposition, “Yarmouk remained neutral the first year of the Syrian revolution,” amid “public awareness and consensus that the camp should be left out” of the conflict.

In addition to that, the “FSA enters the camp, regime bombs it” sub-headline of the article dangerously reminds us of the approaches that point at Hamas for Israeli attacks on Gaza. As if the Free Syrian Army (legitimate armed resistance, unlike illegitimate groups such as ISIS) was responsible for the ruthlessness of the regime against civilians. As if Assad needed excuses to shell and starve civilians.

The neutrality of Yarmouk is a fallacy, a recurrent and quite damaging one. To quote Talal Alyan, who wrote an outstanding article at Mondoweiss:

The Pro-Palestinian movement was delayed in picking up on the tragic unraveling of Yarmouk. It took the work of a great deal of dedicated activists to force it into the forefront of the solidarity movement’s agenda. What couldn’t be predicted, however, was that, in the place of silence, an ugly neutrality would hover over the new-founded concern

 

Syrian Palestinians are part of the reality they live in

Connected to the fallacy of neutrality is the focus on Palestinians as if they could be detached from the reality they have been part of, for several generations in many cases. Despite their strong sense of identity as Palestinians, Syrian Palestinians are culturally and socially Syrian, and they have equally suffered the corruption and the institutionalized injustice of the Assad-ruled system. There are Palestinians rotting in Assad´s jails and there are Palestinian shabbiha. The view of Palestinians as neutral victims “in Syria´s vicious war” is extremely dangerous and irresponsible, in addition to inaccurate.

Abunimah´s article starts by highlighting that “Palestinians have been disproportionately affected. More than half of the 540.000 Palestine refugees in the country have been forced from their homes by fighting”. However, more than half of the initial Syrian population (23 million) are now refugees or internally displaced as well, so there is no disproportion, but widespread suffering among the population.

Today, there are people all over the country, including Syrian Palestinians, who are being killed by starvation in neighborhoods like Yarmouk and Moaddamia. Starving the population as a strategy is despicable and intolerable, and it should be addressed as a whole, to avoid falling on sectarian views of our region, as composed of different breeds, religions, ethnicities that deserve different treatment. In the same way, the struggles for human rights in the region should be addressed as a whole. After all, the liberation of Palestine will not be achieved unless the people of the region are empowered and liberated from oppression.

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As a Syrian, I am extremely grateful for the solidarity shown by the people of Yarmouk, which welcomed peaceful protesters and activists prosecuted by the regime, turning the camp into a symbol. Yarmouk was a model for the Syria many of us dream of, one that maintains its diversity while respecting every person´s fundamental rights. 


Veritas Egypt and the use of international journalists as bait

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On October 14,  I was invited to a conference called “Egypt´s first popular congress”, which was later renamed as the Cairo Media Forum. Behind the organization, there was a consulting company called Bureau Veritas, linked to the Egyptian Marine and operating in the country since 1971.

The fact that the invitation mentioned the need “to show international media the truth about Egypt” raised some immediate flags. Anyone claiming to show “the truth”, a mantra repeated by repressive regimes and their information arms, raises immediate flags. Reading the rest of the conference contents and the following emails it became quite clear that this was a pro-military, government-backed event to try to gain legitimacy for the current government of Egypt. Referring to the 2013 events as a second wave of the Egyptian revolution, highlighting “its peaceful means”, and mentioning the government´s needs to fight terror, made it all the more obvious. To make it even more appealing, the site opened to a huge banner of the 2011 uprising and the 2013 protests, together with beautiful photos of the Nile and the hotel where attendants would be staying.

However, I still thought it could be worth attending. Listening to the reasoning behind the military coup and trying to understand the arguments that have become quite popular among large segments of the Egyptian society seemed worth knowing more about. My views on the coup, which I have repeatedly described as the kidnapping of the revolution, just as many of my Egyptians friends and colleagues have as well, are no secret, so I found it amusing that they would invite me. My colleague from Eldiario.es and renown Spanish war correspondent Olga Rodríguez, who has also been very critical of the coup, was also invited.

The conference was postponed several times, as the organizers seemed to be struggling with the dates and logistics. When I finally received an email with a plane ticket, only three days before the beginning of the conference, it was already too late for me to attend. In addition to that, the ticket was for a different date than I had requested, so I informed the organization that I would not be attending.

The following morning – today -, Olga called me to tell me that I was highlighted as a speaker on the event´s website, next to the Egyptian Military´s General Staff Colonel and Spokesman Ahmed Mohammad Ali, Egyptian intellectuals known for supporting the coup such as writer Alaa al-Aswani, international political figures such as Bernard Kouchner, and a list of international journalists and political analysts. Evidently, I had never accepted to be a speaker at this event, and I have serious doubts that most of the people whose names have been posted on the website and used as a means to promote the conference, have either. Attending, listening, and reporting is one thing, very different from participating as a speaker, which I consider endorsing. And I am very cautious about the events that I endorse.

I was never offered to be a speaker to begin with, and neither had Olga, who had also had her profile highlighted on the conference ´s website days before.  I never gave my consent for the organization to include my name, bio and photo – which I don´t know where they got from – either.

I am not sure what the conference organizers aim to achieve with this flimsy “marketing strategies”. If the purpose is to give the Egyptian government some much craved international legitimacy, is making international journalists and analysts aware of their clumsy manipulations the best way to do it? Making them angry by using them as bait in such an obvious way does not seem like a very good idea, even for blatant propaganda purposes.

If this event is a reflection of the current Egyptian government´s values and modus operandi, I have had my fair share of its manipulation efforts, without even having to set foot at the conference. I admit that now I am even more amused and intrigued about the content of the event and how it will be sold to international attendants, so if you are there, please share.

Also, do not miss Jack Shenker´s note on the conference and his experience with the Egyptian embassy in London.


Syria and citizen solidarity: International Conference on Non-Violence, Tunis

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Egyptian demonstrators hold a banner reading "From Tahrir to Sol, democracy for all"

My contribution to the International Conference on Non-Violence.

Tunisia, 1-3 November 2012:

Reactions to the Arab Spring and the way strategic powers have tried to profit from changes in the region do not leave much room for trust in governmental support. When we mobilize as citizens, whether it is in Egypt, Syria, Spain or the US, we are questioning the roots of power systems and structures, so it is not very realistic to expect we can go to those same systems and structures for support and solidarity.

Citizen solidarity

We should expect to count on citizen support and solidarity. We have shared this solidarity in a very exciting way, since mobilizations that started in Tunisia spread to other MENA countries and then, with different connotations, to Europe, the US, and the rest of the world. All these movements shared the same hunger for change, for new forms of representation, for a re-definition of the concept “citizenship”.

The differences between demonstrating in a democratic country such as Spain and in openly repressive countries such as Syria or Iran are obvious, and we can all see the repercusions in real-life time. We do share, however, a need for change, a will for change led by young people who do not feel represented by old systems and structures. This can be seen through the new narrative citizens are creating using new media within a context of growing distrust of traditional media.

Threats

Even though the common ground is clear and citizen solidarity has helped ignite change throughout the region and the rest of the world, over the last months we have witnessed attempts  (media, political) to divide us, to highlight what separates us instead of our bonds and shared values. Some of these attempts to divide us have succeeded.

Syrian activists have seen with great sadness and disappointment how our legitimate reivindications of freedom and justice have been undermined by geostrategic analysis that disregard the repression we have been facing for decades. We have been shocked to discover a so-called “anti-imperialist” discourse that distinguishes between people who have the right to rise against oppression and those who don´t.

Syria has gone from being an information black hole to becoming number one Youtube-video producer in the region. By recording and sharing with the world the events that they are witnessing, Syrians are risking their lives to send an SOS message that no one seems to be listening to, including the ones who have stood against oppression in other cases of human rights abuses. They say the Syrian revolution has gotten contaminated by international interests. Is this our fault? Do Syrians have to deal not only with being bombed, tortured, arrested, displaced,  humiliated? Do we also have to be held responsible for attempts by others to profit from our suffering?

Since March 2011 Syrians have been teaching the world a lesson of non-violence. Even though this movement was faced with crackdown by the government and there is now an armed rebellion that emerged months after the beginning of the revolution, non-violence movements and initiatives continue to exist in Syria, facing unprecedented brutality. There are countless examples, the “Stop the killing” movement is just one of them:

Syrian activist Rima Dali holding a "Stop the killing" banner in Damascus

The non-violence movement will continue to lose ground as mainstream media and political agendas focus on geostrategic and military aspects and undermine many Syrian voices on the ground. Syrian voices, MENA citizens´voices, citizen voices all over the world are now easier to reach than they ever were, and yet many continue to look for intermediaries and geostrategic analysis that disregard the Syrian context and dynamics.

Conclusions

1. Let´s listen to citizen voices. To different, diverse citizen voices. Especially to young citizens who are leading movements and changes that the older generations did not see possible. Here are just a few examples of sites and platforms I follow, but there are countless others:

Image from the group of art designers "Syrian people know their way"

2. Let´s silence governments who silence citizens. Governments who kill, torture and silence journalists are not reliable. Let´s not go to them for quotes and insights on how to solve the problems that they created.

3. Language is sensitive. Language contributes to configuring and (de)legitimizing our movements

  • Dictator                                   vs.                          president
  • Thugs / Mafia                        vs.                          police / authorities
  • Assad´s army                        vs.                          security forces
  • Neo-liberal                             vs.                          anti-imperialist
  • Human rights abuses          vs.                          sectarianism and hatred
  • Revolution                              vs.                          civil war

4. Let´s build our own networks

The Internet allows for bonds and interaction that were very difficult until very recently. Let´s use all the tools at our disposal to work together and join efforts. Coordination and citizen bonds have been crucial for revolutions to spread the way they did during 2011.

5. Let´s focus on the universal values our movements stand up for: freedom of expression, social justice, women´s rights, struggle against corruption, non-violence. Let´s not fall into geostrategic traps, let´s run away from the view of the world “in two blocks” (“imperalist” vs. “anti-imperialist”) which does not adjust to our complex and diverse realities. Human rights do not belong to any particular people, group or country, and those who abuse human rights do not either.


Joining re:publica 2012

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The Re:publica 2012 event is already sold out :)

I´m very excited to be joining this mixture of activists and researchers in Berlin, at one of the largest conferences on technology and society. Over 3.000 participants will meet at this “quality conference with a festival feel”. The list of contents and speakers is impressive.

My talk will focus on Citizen Empowerment against Brutality in Syria. We will see how different forms of citizen expression and creativity are questioning the official narrative in one of the most repressive contexts in the world. I will also participate in a panel called “From Dissent to Disillusionment?: Syria, Egypt, Tunisia – A Critical Assessment of the Media Landscape After the Arab Spring”. The title of this panel is quite controversial and we will start by questioning it, since it seems that it is mainly mainstream media and political representatives that are disillusioned by uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, while activists continue struggling to see the change they´ve been fighting for since the end of 2010. And much longer, since the revolutions did not happen over night, and they probably will not lead to stable democratic societies over night either.

I´ll share more soon. I´ll leave you with a quote shared by re:publica and accredited to Chinese philosopher Kurt Tucholsky:

Those who are open to all sides cannot remain steadfast.


Free Alaa. And Free Egypt.

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#FreeAlaa #Egypt #NoMilTrialsI met Alaa Abd El Fattah a few weeks ago at the Arab Bloggers Meeting in Tunisia. I interviewed him for the Spanish news-site I contribute to, Periodismo Humano, and he shared his insights on the role bloggers performed during the movilizations in Egypt and the challenges ahead.  A few weeks later, Alaa is in prison for allegedly “inciting violence”. Facing military trial, he has refused to answer questions in order not to grant it legitimacy. The Egyptian military has tried tried more than 12,000 civilians since January, when Egyptians toppled Mubarak.

 

When I asked Alaa about the role of bloggers during and after the revolution, he mentioned how bloggers and online activists have been key catalizers of the demands of other members of Egyptian society. They have echoed the demands of trade unions, teachers and other professionals, whose voices are not normally covered by mass media, and have been at the forefront of defending human rights in the country. Alaa and all others demanding freedom, justice and an end to emergency law are being persecuted today just as they were during Mubarak´s dictatorship.

The Egyptian military has received approximately $1.9 billion of US taxpayer money since 1979, according to EFF International Director of Freedom of Speech Jillian C. YorkAll of us hoping for a free Egypt (and a free Bahrain, and a free Syria, and a free Yemen…) demand and end of military trials and an end of all international support for this institution. International efforts, after months of praising the legitimacy of citizen demands on the region, should focus on supporting free speech and granting the rights of all citizens. Free Alaa!

Free Alaa (Flickr), #freealaa (Twitter), Free Alaa (Access campaign)