This week's window on the Middle East - July 1, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Solidarity breaks out in Turkey

  • Solidarity breaks out in Turkey
  • Mayor of Ankara: the diary of a troll
  • Talateen seta
  • Five reasons to worry for Egypt’s first democratically elected president
  • Sectarianism and the Copts in revolutionary Egypt
  • Battle for Tripoli: hope or despair?
  • Al-Assir: the runaway sheikh
  • Solidarity breaks out in Turkey

    By Annalena di Giovanni


    On the streets in solidarity.

    "No water supply, no sewage and not even a post office: yet there is a radar system and two police stations, one when you enter the town, and one at the other end."  Welcome to Lice, in the Diyarbakir province of Eastern Turkey, where an eighteen-year-old Kurdish youngster, Medeni Yıldırım, was shot dead by the Turkish police last Friday. His crime? To stand unarmed in protest outside the construction site of a military facility he did not want in his town. He was with hundreds of others. Ten were injured. In these Kurdish areas where conflict has been going on for decades, there is nothing at all surprising about this harrowing story.

    What was completely unexpected was the reaction in Istanbul. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings the Taksim Solidarity movement simply took to the streets, alongside Kurds. Away from the headlines since being forced out of Gezi Park itself, now sealed off by the police, and Taksim, the movement has been gathering in forums - the neighbourhood assemblies and meetings held every night in city parks across much of the country to discuss both politics and municipal matters. On Saturday they gathered again in Taksim and in Ankara.

    From the beginning secular nationalists with their origins in military Kemalism have been an important component part of the protest movement. Once more they joined. But this time while they were waving their Turkish flags they were shouting for justice and repeating the name of a Kurdish boy – a Kurd killed by the very same army that the media ( and almost everybody else) would expect them to support.

    That is what two weeks of cohabitation in a common patch of square during the protests for Gezi Park has planted - the most unlikely of all seeds: that of a mobilization of nationalist groups on the side of their one-time arch-foes, the Kurdish people of the South East.

    It seems that after this month of protest no one is quite the same person that they once were - including their ideas, the roles they play, reference points, enemies and friends.

    Whatever promise of a peace process Erdogan comes up with in the months to follow, when he will try to salvage support in every way possible, it is not needed in the same way. He is no longer the only peace-maker on the Turkish side. A fundamental reconciliation has already happened. It's already taken to the streets of Turkey. It's among the people. And it's called solidarity. 

    Mayor of Ankara: the diary of a troll

    By Funda Ustek

    Gezi protests started as a small, localised environmental protest against the destruction of one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul. Though what made thousands join the protests has been the sheer police violence against the peaceful protesters in Gezi Park - just another sign of the government`s attitude of ‘anything goes, once you are elected democratically’.

    Police violence accompanied and signified the ever-increasing authoritarianism with respect to freedom of speech, media and basic human rights of AKP rule over the last ten years. This authoritarianism has become even more marked in the course of the Government`s inability to `send the protesters back home`. The government, however, continues to disregard the fact that many protesters challenge this authoritarianism, and constantly repeat the mantra that in their rule, not only the economy, but also all civil rights flourish. This is despite the fact that Turkey has the highest number of journalists and students in jail, and ranks 148 among 178 countries with respect to freedom of the media, according to Human Rights Watch.

    Perhaps one could argue that there is freedom of speech in Turkey as long as what you say is in line with what the government affirms: the media has freedom, as long as they publish what the government approves. Basic human rights such as the right to protest are also granted, as long as one attends the Prime Minister’s rallies. The list continues.

    Due to the media lockdown in the early days of the protests (and to a limited extent still), social media has provided a useful information resource for many. Twitter in particular, has been the main source of information. According to a report published by researchers from New York University, over the course of a week at least 2 million tweets mentioning the #direngeziparki (950,000), #occupygezi (170,000) and #geziparki (50,000) were sent by at least 15,000 users. No wonder Prime Minister Erdogan declared Twitter to be “a menace to society”, as the information they tried to suppress by preventing media outlets from reporting the protests were disseminated thanks to Twitter.

    Nevertheless, soon after PM Erdogan`s comment on Twitter, detentions started for users who shared comments critical of the government or the police; and one after another, threats followed that the Government was `watching` and that if you tweet, you should be ready to give an account of your tweets.

    But what happens, if the person who is tweeting is from the government itself? The government holds liable those who tweet and treats tweets as evidence of crime. The Mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, has sued so many people over their Twitter comments that now there is even a mock-website called `Has Melih Gokcek sued me?`. Although Mr. Gokcek is not the only person in the government who uses Twitter in this way, I would like to focus this argument on him specifically due to his recent Twitter campaign against the BBC Turkish service journalist Selin Girit, hence broadening his spectrum of threats and intimidations outside the country.

    In an article published at the Index on Censorship, Whitney Phillips gives this profile of trolls. She says: “they self-identify as trolls, tend to be intelligent, are playful and mischievous and wildly antagonistic. (…) In terms of behaviour, trolling ranges from the vaguely distasteful to the borderline illegal: trolls taunt unsuspecting targets with seemingly racist, seemingly sexist, and/or seemingly homophobic language; post shocking imagery, including pornography and gore, in order to derail conversation; and flood discussion threads with non sequiturs or grotesque distortions of other users’ positions” (Phillips, 2011: 68-69).

    Phillips also notes that trolls post deliberately and often excessively inflammatory, off-topic messages online, such as in an online forum, chat room, blog (or in this case Twitter) with the intention of provoking readers into an emotional response.

    With this definition we might ask whether Melih Gokcek`s excessive tweeting against the journalist Selin Girit counts as trolling.

    Selin Girit was reporting from one of the forums she attended during her time in Istanbul. Her tweet reads:

    “A suggestion from Yogurtcu Park Forum: Let`s not be the standing man, but the man that stops. Let`s stop the economy. Do not consume. Do not consume for six months. They will listen.”

    Under normal circumstances, and in a country where there is functioning freedom of media, no one would take much note of this tweet. Ms. Girit is a journalist, she is contributing to a forum. Under normal circumstances and in a country where freedom of speech actually exists, some would agree, some would disagree, yes. That is essentially the gist of freedom of speech, after all. But in Turkey, a member of the ruling party and Mayor of the Capital instead used this as an opportunity to launch a defamation campaign.

    Mr. Gokcek is renowned for his adoration of conspiracy theories. Last week, for instance, he published a photograph from his Twitter account of the ammunition the protesters were hiding in their tents at Gezi Park, oblivious to the fact that the photograph was actually fake and was published by a satire newspaper (Zaytung) to mock the government`s continuous manufacture of facts about the protests. Hence, it is not completely improbable that he will start a conspiracy theory about the journalist, Selin Girit. This is what he wrote on his Twitter account:

    “They want to destroy our economy with an agent on behalf of England, who is in Turkey. They are dreaming of Turkey becoming ‘sick man of Europe’ again. This is the concrete evidence.”

    Mr. Gokcek after targeting Ms. Girit in person with the above comment, went on to urge his followers and supporters to tweet excessively with the hash tag #INGILTEREADINAAJANLIKYAPMASELINGIRIT which roughly translates as “Don’t be an agent on behalf of England, Selin Girit”. He tweeted numerous times for “all patriots” to continue tweeting on this hash tag, so that the BBC is taught a lesson and that the message is heard around the globe.

    The Mayor constantly updated his followers that their hash tag was rising in the Turkish and global trends, and for a short time succeeded in becoming the top hashtag both in Turkey and globally. What was the message the Mayor wanted so much to get out there? That Ms. Girit is an agent? That it is not okay for journalists to report from the protesters’ forums in Turkey? That as a journalist working for a foreign newspaper, it is not okay to come to Turkey and delve into Turkish matters? What was the lesson he was trying to teach the BBC? Do not report from Turkey?

    Luckily, there are still sensible people in Turkey, and they happen to use Twitter, too. Gokcek`s campaign caused huge indignation and the fightback received widespread support, with hash tags like #selingiritgazetecidir (Selin Girit is a journalist), #provokatormelihgokcek (Melih Gokcek is a provocateur) also rising in the Twitter Trends. These counter-tweets to Melih Gokcek not surprisingly infuriated him. The Mayor threatened to sue each and every one who tweets using the hash tag that called him a provocateur, and Girit a journalist.

    So Mr. Gokcek’s behaviour manifests several aspects of the troll profile, in his campaign against the BBC journalist, Selin Girit. He uses sexist enemy images (For instance, in one of his Tweets, the Mayor writes: “Yet another Tweet by this lady. Proves as to who she is servicing”). His call on ‘all the patriots’, ‘all citizens’, ‘Turkey’, ‘Those who love their country’ in fact ‘everyone’ to support his campaign, has the intention of provoking his followers and supporters into an emotional response. He is following up his campaign against Selin Girit with another Twitter hashtag campaign, this time against the CNN (#stoplyingCNN) for which he sent more than 60 Tweets over the course of three hours, urging everyone to join `for the sake of Turkey`.

    The kind of freedom of speech that exists in Turkey allows Melih Gokcek to troll about anything and everyone he pleases, be it the BBC, CNN, or an individual journalist or a protester. This freedom also allows him to openly threaten everyone who tweets in an anti-campaign to him, or against him. Although I believe Mr. Gokcek has every right to state his opinions on Twitter and even accuse journalists and protesters of treachery, I believe trolling should be treated differently.

    The potential of trolling hate speech for incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence cannot be ignored. The government has already responded to the Gezi Protest with a divisive violent clampdown, beginning with the Prime Minister’s constant refrain to the effect that he is having difficulty in holding the other 50% of the country in their homes and preventing them from attacking the protesters. Trolling becomes especially dangerous when the government in power also starts to use it as a political tool for `correcting` those who do not share the government`s views. Mr. Gokcek on his biographical information on Twitter says: “We need to discuss fearlessly but without insulting each other. This is what democracy is about”. This statement should also include him and his party.

    Talateen seta

    By Refaat Mohamed

    As a year passes since president Mohamed Morsi won the presidential elections, frustration is quite obviously erupting in the streets of Cairo. The stress has been building up for more than two months, dating from the launch of a campaign that goes by the name of Tamarod (or rebel), initiated by a group of unaffiliated young people who declared that they would start collecting signatures and canvass for votes nationwide in order to impeach the president. They chose June 30, the anniversary of the date that President Morsi took office as a day of massive protest  to go out on the streets in a peaceful manner to force the president and  his Brotherhood from their posts paving the way for an early presidential election. 

    As the date approached, tension has been rising. Shop workers have been milling about outside their shops, trying to escape the summer heat exacerbated by the long and recurring power cuts, that last for days, especially in rural areas. At 3 am in the morning you can see people pushing their cars in a 2km queue that they have been standing in for hours just to get gas. Frequent profanities interjected by President Morsi’s name, or that of the Muslim Brotherhood, are part of the day-to-day backdrop to Egyptian lives. 

    The term 30-June or talateen seta as it is in Arabic, is a password that you can depend on every time to discharge an endless volley of complaints and political theories and speculations. Not everybody is against Morsi and the Brotherhood, and people do argue in their defence, if only on the rather obvious grounds that Morsi was actually democratically elected, and that this means they must have had their share of support.

    Since the beginning of the revolution, it has frequently been said that the majority of the Egyptian people have nothing to do with politics, and that they have no ideology or agenda, but wish to live quietly and raise their kids. So, the logic goes, they don’t care who the president is as long as he can bring about some betterment of their lives.

    So what do they think now?

    Karim Adel Eissa, hip hop artist: “I’m protesting because there have been no change in Egyptian society and life and politics and everything has simply got worse under the rule of the new government. Moreover, every influential position is slowly being taken over, booting out more worthy names and replacing them with candidates from  the Muslim Brotherhood who happen to be far less experienced, and who end up ruining the quality of the services that they are meant to provide. We don’t know if anyone has any real solutions to our problems. All we do know is that the current regime is rocketing Egypt into outer darkness and that we have to change direction NOW before Egypt has had it.”

    Ahmed Samy, an oil trader : “The protesters, however numerous, cannot settle the political dispute in Egypt, especially if they are asking Morsi to step down. If this were to happen we can kiss the future of Egypt goodbye, because no president will last more than a year, even if he was very good.”

    Amr Ammar, pharmacist, agrees: “ More protest will not do anybody any good, and will only result in young people dying, and more bloodshed being shed on both sides.”

    “The Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamic political movements, have exerted a lot of effort to make the political struggle sectarian,” offers Hazem Hossam, who is studying for his doctorate, “They want to make it look as if Islam is under threat, and that they are the only ones who will be able to save it. This they hope will make them invincible – an impregnable position that in itself defies the concept of democracy.” This is why, he adds, “ I believe protesting is the only thing we can do as we cannot find a democratic solution under current conditions.”  

    There are expectations that the 'remnants of Mubarak’s regime' will be joining in the protests this time and actually make up a big proportion of the protesters. On this subject, Hazem Hossam is unmoved, “ Blood will be shed, but for the sake of saving Egypt. Blood is already being shed thanks to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

    Amira Refaat, an Arabic Language professor, mostly agrees with Hazem Hossam and adds, “ Unfortunately the bad management of the country under the Muslim Brotherhood has led to the elevation of people with political agendas and nothing else to recommend them. It is indeed mainly the remnants of Mubarak’s regime who are now flocking to the side of the revolution, but I am certain that the revolution has learned its lesson from the first time around, and will not let anyone hijack it a second time.”

    Unfortunately most of the political parties and their leaders seem to have nothing to offer by way of a serious set of policies to address the major problems that Egypt is facing. So many people have decided that toppling the Muslim Brotherhood is the first step that they should take.

    Five reasons to worry for Egypt’s first democratically elected president

    By Ahmed Magdy Youssef

    Then there is the appointment of the governor of Egypt's Luxor province. President Morsi appointed Adel Mohamed Al-Khayat, despite the fact that the latter belongs to a hard-line Islamist group that massacred 58 tourists in Luxor in 1997! It is patently obvious that President Morsi is trying to forge a political alliance with more radical, militant groups in anticipation of the opposition-led demonstrations scheduled on June 30, so noone was mollified by Al-Khayat’s official resignation from his position over what he alleged was an "unjust media campaign targeting him"

    As usual, all eyes will be on the Egyptian military and its role during the potential mass protests across the country. If the large-scale anti-Morsi demonstrations provoke the Muslim Brotherhood into resorting to its "militias" in warding off the angry protesters, peaceful demonstrations could easily turn into a bloodbath. One military source told the Egyptian state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, that the Egyptian military will not tolerate a slide into state meltdown.

    Fifth, knowing the importance of prominent religious figures and leaders, President Morsi has demanded the unequivocal support of both Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, and Pope Tawoudros II, the Coptic patriarch, in the face of the planned 30 June protests. However, both eminent Muslim and Coptic leaders have reportedly declined the president's appeal to issue a joint statement discouraging followers from joining the 30 June call. A few days ago, El-Tayeb issued a statement in which he described the peaceful opposition against their rulers as "acceptable" according to Sharia, adding that violence and belligerent actions are "great sins", albeit not acts of "disbelief". Similarly, the Coptic Pope in a recent televised interview said that the church cannot and will not command its subjects to take any particular political stance. So President Morsi has no religiously-based justification for using violence against 30 June anti-government protesters.

    It is hard to tell what is going to happen. But feelings of anxiety and concern over the potential spread of violence are looming large. I think it is of the deepest necessity to follow in the footsteps of the Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent policy of resistance. Only by peaceful means, will the large-scale 30 June anti-Morsi protests prove fruitful, eventually putting to an end the Muslim Brotherhood's fantasy of seizing absolute power in Egypt.

    Sectarianism and the Copts in revolutionary Egypt

    By Ali Gokpinar

    Egypt is on the brink. Mohamed Morsi promised to be the president of all of the Egyptians in the post-Mubarak Egypt. Yet, sectarianism has increasingly shown its violent face with attacks on Copts and most recently with the horrible killings of four Shiites in Zawyat Abu Musalam, Giza. Many journalistic reports and some quasi-academic articles have blamed the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, who now have a majority in the Egyptian Parliament, for the rise of sectarianism. Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi should not be solely held responsible for sectarian violence (even if they haven't helped matters), as the Egyptian state (especially security forces) are not under the control of Morsi and Coptic mobilization has crystallized.

    The Egyptian state was operating through capillary vessels before Mubarak was toppled and it has become more dysfunctional since then. Despite the entente between Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Morsi and the SCAF, the state has been rapidly disappearing and rendered paralyzed as revolutionary groups have been reluctant to negotiate and posed irreconcilable demands.

    Little has been done, however, to improve the state of the minorities in Egypt and recent attacks on Shiites reveal that it is not the Muslim Brotherhood but the state itself that is deeply sectarian. The Egyptian state has long been in denial about this: the entente between Mubarak’s regime and the Coptic Orthodox Church only covering up much of the sectarian politics. Yet, the true colours of the Egyptian state have been evident for all to observe at least since 2005, as cracks between Mubarak and the late Pope Shenouda III surfaced. These sectarian incidents were either negotiated between the regime and the church or parties to the conflict were forced to use local reconciliation mechanisms to avoid the implementation of the rule of law.  The Egyptian state was reluctant to investigate such cases because security forces (who are supposed to investigate such cases) were involved. No one mentioned the rule of law.

    In 2012, the interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf established an Early Warning and Prevention Council, albeit without a budget and understaffed. Yet, the Council followed sectarian incidents closely and attempted to map fragile neighbourhoods in Cairo and Upper Egypt. Council members were able to receive early warning about potential sectarian incidents and alert the police. Yet, the police either did not consider such warnings worthy of their attention or were themselves involved in such incidents. Because of financial constraints, the Council was not able to function for more than two months. But they did draft a report on behalf of ex-Prime Minister Sharaf, informing him of the involvement of the security forces in kindling sectarianism. The state of Egypt took no step to deal with this state-sponsored sectarianism.

    On the other hand, while respect for the police has plummeted since it became the Mubarak regime’s primary tool of repression, in the transition period thugs and mobs have replaced the police and established their own rule, creating a black market for small arms. These were the people who attacked the Coptic Orthodox Church’s headquarters in Cairo. Reports suggest that the security forces were also involved or at least did not prevent the attack, although they were present in front of the Cathedral. Although Morsi criticized these thugs and declared he will go after these groups, he missed an excellent opportunity to start reforming the security services by not taking concrete actions at this point. If he did start to reform the security sector, this would not only ease relations between Morsi and the opposition, but also prevent the further alienation of the Copts. 

    Of course President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have contributed to spreading sectarianism in Egypt through their incompetence in governing the country, especially their economic incopompetence. The current Egyptian constitution maintains the neo-millet system that belonged to previous authoritarian regimes and the Morsi administration has failed to give enough voice to Copts themselves in the challenge of building a new Egypt.

    There have ben times when the Muslim Brothers was keen enough to be partners with famous Coptic figures. For instance, in March 2012 I was interviewing an influential Copt, who worked closely with the church and currently runs a development organization in Cairo, as part of my field research. That morning news came out about the invitation to the Shura Council members to discuss the new Constitution and the state of Egypt. Among those invited, there was an influential Coptic figure whose family has been highly regarded throughout modern Egypt and who served as a minister under Mubarak. My interviewee called this ex-Minister and convinced her that she should not be on this council because the Muslim Brotherhood had invited her simply to maintain their own political façade. A couple of hours later this influential Coptic politician resigned from the Council, not only revealing the distrust between the Copts and the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the reluctance of the Copts to engage and negotiate with rising political forces.  But how can Copts and Muslims coexist if they do not negotiate, but instead take to the streets?

    President Morsi further proved his incompetence with scandals like the Constitutional Declaration which gave the President legislative, executive, constitutional and judicial power. Morsi was forced to withdraw this decree, but one of the important consequences of this undemocratic move was the resignation of Samir Morcos, the Coptic consultant to Morsi. As a respected Coptic intellectual Mr. Morcos could have been a bridge between the Coptic community and the Islamists, facilitating the move from a political regime based on tolerance to one of genuine coexistence.

    Without examining the political dynamics within the Coptic community it is difficult to fully understand the prospects for inter-communal relations in Egypt. Coptic historian Paul Sedra predicted the rise of Coptic activism in an article in 1999. This has become a fullscale mobilization since 2005 as part of a Kefaya movement which is avowedly Egyptian first and foremost before it is religious. This movement laid the basis for a particular community-based mobilization which emerged after the Revolution with the formation of Coptic youth movements that now have branches in almost every city where Copts live. Such groups did not hesitate to challenge the Pope Shenouda on non-religious grounds, protesting against his entente with the state. The Maspero massacre also provided the occasion for the politicization of Coptic youth, who then actively demanded that the SCAF implement rule of the law.  The formation of the Maspero Youth Union is important because they have challenged both the church and the state and become a voice for young Copts who have a different understanding of the world from the previous two generations.

    The change in the church leadership of the Copts provides further significant insight into Egyptian politics. Pope Shenouda had an understanding with Mubarak, having developed a personal relationship as two power-brokers for over 35 years. Although Pope Shenouda was against Coptic participation in protests in the wake of the Revolution, the church mainly supported the military establishment – ironic when you consider that the SCAF ordered the mass killings of the Copts in Maspero. But the church was always fully convinced that the state apparatus was in the hands of the SCAF generals.

    The new pope, Pope Tawadros, has been politically much more outspoken and active than his predecessor. Pope Tawadros is smart enough to understand that feloul politics (those of the former regime) will no longer be tolerated in Egypt. He realizes that his base has awakened and that he needs to establish his rule over and against the heritage of the charismatic late Pope Shenouda. Both the church and its Pope will be much more active and demanding in Egyptian politics.

    Theorizing sectarianism in Iraq after the US occupation, Fanar Haddad argues that sectarianism could be banal, passive and assertive and it ebbs and flows rather than being constant.Using this vocabulary, it seems as if sectarianism in Egypt is transforming itself from banal sectarianism to assertive sectarianism. We might see the ebb approaching the coast soon, especially if the June 30 demonstrations turn violent.

    Battle for Tripoli: hope or despair?

    By Rhiannon Smith

    Just a couple of days ago, I was determined not to focus on Libya's security problems for my next column. For a start, the battle for monopoly over force in Libya is not a new subject and the difficulties facing the government as they strive to enforce the rule of law have been covered in some detail.

    Furthermore, although fights between fractious militias, embryonic national forces and an increasingly infuriated public have come to a head in recent weeks, there are many positive developments happening within the country which unfortunately do not receive the coverage they deserve. Indeed my original plan this week was to write about the impressive Hederza Mensia art exhibition which just took place in Tripoli, as well as a number of other notable cultural revivals which are happening across Libya.

    Unfortunately however, Libya's security problems came knocking on my door, clamouring to be heard. On June 25 a unit from Zintan, who were responsible for guarding oil fields in the south of Libya, attacked the headquarters of the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in Tripoli's Salahadin district, firing indiscriminately and killing and wounding a number of people, including some bystanders. Tripoli forces arrived to defend the PFG, driving the attackers away. However this was far from the end of the matter.

    The following day, the fight shifted to the Bu Saleem district and from early evening the sound of gunfire and heavy weaponry started ringing out across my neighbourhood and surrounding areas. Roads were blocked off and residents stayed inside as rumours flew about who was fighting whom and why. Reports say that at least two people were killed and dozens injured in this latest bout of fighting. A number of prisoners were also freed from the Bu Salim prison.

    Both the Prime Minister and the interim head of Libya's army condemned the violence, while the General National Congress agreed to implement decision number 27, restricting the movement of armed groups within Tripoli.

    However, exactly who will be charged with imposing such a restriction and bringing the perpetrators of these attacks to justice remains unclear, especially given that as I write this two days after the violence took place, the details of who was actively engaged in the fighting, and on whose authority, remain extremely sketchy. In Libya, rumours travel as fast as bullets and can be just as dangerous. By the end of the second day of violence, I had heard so many different theories in answer to these questions that just listing them here would take hours.

    However, there are three main points which need mentioning. The first is that all of the militias involved claim to be under the authority of either the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Interior, yet none of them appear to be taking orders from the government or army. Indeed, both attacks targeted state institutions and in both cases shooting was indiscriminate, killing and wounding bystanders and causing a great deal of damage to surrounding buildings. This highlights all too well the dangers of empowering autonomous militias to act in the name of the state, when in reality the state has no control over their actions.

    The second is the speed at which the conflict became defined in geographical terms. From the very outset the fighting was framed as Zintan attacking Tripoli, leading powerful militias from Tripoli to join the fray apparently to defend their city. Rumours were also flying about militias from Misrata being involved. In the later stages I heard many people refer to this as a battle between Zintan and Misrata, both cities renowned for their role fighting against Gaddafi forces the revolution. Wherever the truth lies, this tendency to line up along geo-tribal lines does not bode well for the formation of a coherent national security force, or even the building of a united national identity.

    Thirdly, the reaction of most Libyans I spoke to was one of anger and frustration, but also hope. Many were banging their heads against the wall, asking themselves how allegedly government-sanctioned militias could be allowed to attack the state and the people they were meant to be defending. How can the Libyan government protect the country from external threats when it can't even protect itself from those it has charged with defending Libya? How will these criminals be brought to justice? Indeed, the most common reaction I encountered came be summed up by: 'let them kill each other, then we will be rid of these militias and Libya can move on'.  

    Whilst more killing is definitely not the solution, this anti-militia feeling is where the grain of hope lies. These attacks have been both violent and destructive. But they are being interpreted by many as the death throes of militias who have suddenly realised that they are no longer wanted in Libya. There is a long way to go before Libya's elusive army is powerful enough to truly enforce the government's will, yet there is hope that these attacks mark the end of the reign of the militias, rather than the start of a more destructive period for Libya.  

    Al-Assir: the runaway sheikh

    By Sarah El-Richani

    The Al-Assir phenomena in Lebanon last week came to an inconclusive end. Yet, despite the escape of Sidon’s Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir and the defeat of his henchmen, many including the fugitive Sheikh’s sister believe “there are hundreds of Al-Assirs” to come.

    While this may well be true due to the reasonable Sunni grievances Al-Assir shamelessly exploited and aggravated, his attack on an army checkpoint and the ensuing clashes meant that few could publicly side with him. Indeed, apart from some Sunni extremists and Salafists namely in Tripoli who protested in support of Al-Assir, few could officially condone his clash with the Lebanese army and his frantic call for Sunnis to defect from what he labelled an “Iranian and sectarian army”.

    After containing this latest round of confrontation in Lebanon, investigations into the two day clashes, which left 18 soldiers and 21 of Al-Assir’s men dead as well as allegations of maltreatment of prisoners, have since been demanded and instigated.

    While some have claimed that Hezbollah and Amal Movement operatives were on the scene, which seems likely, others are keen to find out where the Sheikh and some aides, including a singer-turned-extremist, have fled to and if there was a deal struck to spare them.

    Amongst the scenarios mooted is one that said the strident Sheikh who had previously called for Jihad in Syria was present, a claim later denied by the so-called Free Syrian Army. Another rumour claims that the self-ordained Sunni saviour is taking refuge in a GCC-embassy in Beirut or in the nearby Palestinian camp, sparking fears of another Nahr al-Bared . What is certain, however, is that Sheikh Al-Assir’s miscalculation, a watershed moment of sorts, has brought about his long overdue political demise.

    Still the festering Sunni grievances mean that more Assir-like figures can indeed rise and potentially take more than a Sidon neighbourhood hostage. Such phenomena are linked to a series of painful setbacks including the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005 and of Brigadier-General Wissam al-Hassan, a former Hariri aide and senior security official, the ouster of Saad al-Hariri from government in 2011, together with the May 7, 2008 “events” when Hezbollah and its allies attacked the offices and media of Hariri’s Future movement and its allies.

    The increasingly sectarian war in neighbouring Syria and the intervention of Hezbollah and some Lebanese Sunnis on either side of the conflict, has only added fuel to the fire.

    Still, and despite the vacuum on the executive level, the increasing number of refugees and the doubtful possibility of a political settlement in Lebanon, a Hobbesian civil conflict similar to the traumatic 15-year Lebanese civil war remains unlikely.

    A series of sporadic but contained incidents in a variety of regions including Sidon, the Bekaa, Tripoli and potentially also in Beirut, however are expected to continue. Meanwhile, the Lebanese are well aware of the aphorism attributed to Trotsky, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”.

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