Global Voices – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 10 Aug 2020 05:54:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.15 In northern Syria, COVID-19 Threatens Escalation of an already Dramatic Humanitarian Crisis https://www.juancole.com/2020/07/threatens-escalation-humanitarian.html Fri, 31 Jul 2020 04:03:12 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=192300

Residents of Idlib enduring the impossible even without COVID-19

By Mousa Mohamed | – Translated by Mariam Abuadas | –

( GlobalVoices.org ) – The ongoing armed conflict in Syria has displaced over 1.6 million people who have fled mostly to the north of the country. The resulting catastrophic humanitarian crisis is now worsened by the impact of COVID-19 in the region.


Photo of the northern Syrian city of Idlib, shortly after a Russian missile strike destroyed a neighbourhood on March 14, 2019, resulting in the deaths of 10 civilians. The young man pictured told the photographer that he had just lost his family. Photo by Mousa Mohammed, used with permission.

In the Idlib region in northern Syria, residents already endure drastic conditions on a daily basis. Although Idlib has confirmed only one case of COVID-19 in July, many factors contribute to rising tensions, one of which is the continuing and deliberate violence inflicted on Idlib’s vital infrastructure by the Syrian-Russian military alliance which has completely destroyed its health sector.

According to Human Rights Watch, “northern Syria is not at all ready to face the ‘COVID-19′ pandemic.”

Hani al-Hariri, an activist from southern Syria now living in Idlib, told Global Voices that the situation could be catastrophic if COVID-19 reaches northern Syria, where displaced people barely have access to basic needs, including health care, water, and food, making social distancing and hygiene almost impossible to maintain.

Children pay the heaviest price of war

In Idlib, children often pay the heaviest price of war. The war has driven approximately 190,000 orphaned children to the streets to fend for themselves among the ruins of Idlib. In total, an estimated 290,000 children have been repeatedly displaced by violence in northern Syria alone.

Jamil al-Hassan, a Syrian activist and journalist from Idlib, has been conducting humanitarian work for years in rebel-held regions. He talked to Global Voices about some of his experiences. The names mentioned in his testimony have been changed to protect their identities:

    “Ahmad, Salah, and Abdullah are three children under the age of ten from Aleppo and Idlib, who lost their families in a war that began in 2011, almost 10 years ago. Left with no one to depend on except each other, their only refuge has been on one of Idlib’s sidewalks. I met them during one of my daily tours of the city, and shared a video on my Twitter account hoping to find a way to help them.”

Children sleeping in the streets has become a frequent sight. While all of Idlib’s residents face a critical situation, children living on the streets are particularly at risk when the coronavirus starts spreading as there is no way to protect them.

Extremely precarious living conditions for refugees

The humanitarian disaster in Idlib has been the result of a series of military campaigns led by countries supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad: Russia, Iran on one side, and Turkey on the other side, which shifted from initially backing the Free Syrian Army, an opposition force founded by Syrian military defectors, to becoming its own player in the conflict in August 2016.

Idlib is the last stronghold of rebels and jihadists trying to overthrow the Assad government that now controls almost 64 percent of Syria. It has been under the control of a number of rival opposition factions since 2015. The region is home to more than 4.5 million people, including nearly 1.6 million internally displaced refugees, mostly women and children, who have come from various provinces throughout Syria.

These repeated campaigns have caused unfathomable suffering to Syrians.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and nearly one million people forcibly displaced in Idlib, and surrounding areas, just between December 2019 and March 2020, due to indiscriminate aerial bombardment, ground shelling, arrests, torture, and pillaging, according to a report published on July 7, by the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry. The opening remarks of the report can be read in this tweet:

Between December 2019 and March 2020, displaced people took refuge in overcrowded camps along the Turkish border, north of Syria, for protection. In these inhospitable places, refugees have been exposed to sub-zero-degree temperatures in Celsius throughout winter, crowding together in tents and makeshift shelters in what UN Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lockock described as the “biggest human horror story of the 21st century.”

In a June 28 phone call with Global Voices, Hariri, who volunteers for an organization that brings together the people of Daraa, northern Syria, said that “tents do not protect from the heat of the summer or the cold of winter.”

He added that tents have caught fire as a result of high temperatures exceeding 40 degrees C, in addition to people cooking inside them. Winters have been no better, with tents catching fire as a result of shoes and clothes being burned inside them in desperate attempts to produce warmth in the sub-zero temperatures.

    “Living in these tragic conditions in the tents is disastrous, because they [are] uninhabitable, [and] they are considered a temporary emergency solution for those who lost their homes.”

Meanwhile, the nonprofit organization Save the Children revealed that more than 200,000 people, half of whom are children, have left the camps in northwest Syria to other locations or have returned to their destroyed homes. Prompted by the temporary cease-fire agreement that began on March 6, these families faced an impossible choice between confronting the virus or facing war.

These families face dire conditions due to the harsh economic situation embodied by a staggering rise in food prices. These include the inability to access essential services like electricity, water, or the internet. Nevertheless, they continue to survive day-to-day, while facing an uncertain future amid a proxy war taking place on Idlib territory at the expense of innocent civilians.

While the world dedicates tremendous resources to fighting the pandemic, the Assad regime, in cooperation with its allies, have dedicated their own resources to killing, displacing and starving the Syrian people. With nearly 4.5 million people in Idlib still suffering from the war, they now anticipate the fallout from another inevitable humanitarian catastrophe.

GlobalVoices.org

Written byMousa Mohamed – موسى محمد Translated byMariam Abuadas

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Information warfare: COVID-19’s other battleground in the Middle East https://www.juancole.com/2020/06/information-warfare-battleground.html Sun, 14 Jun 2020 04:03:18 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191493 By Saoussen Ben Cheikh | –

The internet breeds and amplifies state-sponsored fake news and propaganda

( Globalvoices.org) – COVID-19 has exacerbated existing political tensions in the Middle East and North Africa, a region already marred by decades of conflict. Now, unscrupulous politicians blame their political enemies or neighboring governments for the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, sounded the alarm on the threat that mis- and disinformation poses to humanity:

“At the WHO, we’re not just battling the virus, we’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response,” he said, reiterating that false information can cause confusion and fear.

The MENA region is no stranger to conspiracy theories and disinformation practices. A 2019 Oxford University study revealed that the region is home to half of the top 12 countries identified as having a “high cyber troop activity” — including Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.

Those in positions of power use “information warfare” to frame narratives and control public opinion, and social media has become the main battlefield to employ influencers, trolls, bots, and commenter armies.

In Iran, Yemen and Syria, the so-called “axis of resistance” — whose legitimacy is often tied to virulent opposition to the West — leaders have seized on COVID-19 to reaffirm political positionality and channel hostile anti-Western ideologies.

Hezbollah, for example, has framed the coronavirus as a plot twist by their “enemies” — the West in general and the United States in particular. Hezbollah, a Shi’a political party based in Lebanon, and affiliated with Iran, is known for being a state within a state. It is considered a terrorist organization by most countries.

In March, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah affirmed:

The corona is a highly threatening enemy. We have to confront this invasive enemy. We should not surrender or despair or feel helpless. The response must be confrontation, resistance, and fighting. We will win this battle. It is only a matter of time.

The Iranian-led ‘axis of resistance’

In the battle for hearts and minds, the Iranian regime’s ideological army — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — has led a counternarrative about the pandemic, portraying the virus as a conspiracy orchestrated by the regime’s traditional enemies — the United States and Israel.

The propaganda includes claims that the virus is an “American biological invasion” and a “Zionist biological terrorist attack,” leading some of the regime’s defenders to call for a retaliatory response.

Since its founding in 1979, the IRGC has been the “ruling clergy’s principal mechanism for enforcing its theocracy at home and exporting its Shi’ite Islamist ideology abroad, “according to Foreign Policy.

It collaborates with its allies in Arab capitals where it holds considerable influence — Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. They share similar anti-Western, US and Israeli ideologies. The leaders of these nations often glorify fighting and martyrdom.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah, for example, regularly preaches martyrdom messages to his base. In an interview, he explains: “Our fighter blows himself smiling and happy because he knows he is going to another world. Death for us is not the end but the beginning of real life.”

Houthi: Iranian proxy voice in Yemen

Yemen continues to grapple with the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, according to the UN, after plunging into a bloody proxy war in 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened to remove Houthi leaders from power taken following a coup.

Houthis forces, backed by Iran, control the most-populated northern region, as well as the media. Houthi leaders have used the pandemic — described by some analysts as a “gift for the Houthis,” to attack rivals and deflect attention from the ongoing crisis. Houthi leaders also promote the Iranian regime’s conspiracy theory that the virus is an American plot.

Houthi Minister of Health Dr. Taha Al-Mutawakkil said in a public sermon aired on TV: “We must ask the whole world, we must ask all of humanity: Who and what is behind the coronavirus?” He concludes with a Houthi slogan: “Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse be upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!”

As the virus sweeps through Yemen in recent weeks, activists report dozens of deaths. Houthis leadership has denied the scale of the outbreak and downplayed its severity. In a press conference, Mutawakkil said:

We should not do like the rest of the world who have terrorized the population. The recovery of the virus is very high, it is in Yemen of over 80 percent. The treatment of the coronavirus will come from Yemen.

Houthis often conform to an ideology rooted in victimization and showcase that all of Yemen’s problems are caused by external interventions that started in 2015 with the Saudi-led military campaign. As such, they often blame the Saudi-led intervention that absolves them responsibility for the current crisis.

Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, a member of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, tweeted on March 16, that the Saudi-led coalition is to blame for any spread of coronavirus in Yemen.

In the territories occupied by the aggressor countries [Saudi led coalition] no precautionary or emergency or quarantine measures have been taken or anything. There would not be an epidemic sweeping the world called corona. We hold the American aggressor and its allies responsible for every case in Yemen, as it controls the airspace, the land and ports.

Houthis leaders have also exploited the virus to push their base into action and boost military recruitment. On a Houthi affiliated TV channel, a speaker recommended the public to join the battlefield and die as martyrs instead of dying confined at home from the coronavirus.

The Saudi-UAE axis: Blame it on Qatar and Iran

The Gulf Council Countries (GCC) was formed in 1981 in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war, by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain. Their union, from its inception, was to defend themselves against an Iranian threat.

However, the GCC has been in crisis since 2017, when a bloc of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, came into conflict with Qatar over allegations of links with Iranian’s “terrorist groups.” A full blockade has been imposed since June 2017 against Qatar.

The coronavirus has been politicized against this backdrop. A widespread narrative in all GCC countries supports the story that the virus was imported from either Iran, the regional epicenter of the crisis, or Iraq, via Shi’a citizens returning from a pilgrimage in Iran.

The Saudi daily newspaper, Al Jazeera, accused Iran of “adding to its bloody terrorism health terrorism” for not having been transparent and allowing the virus to spread.

Saudi Arabia held Iran “directly responsible” for the spread of COVID-19 and Bahrain accused it of “biological aggression” by not stamping passports of Bahrainis who traveled to Iran.

In a region ruled by Sunni royal families over a large Shi’a minority, scrutinized for its perceived proximity with Iran, this scapegoating is likely to fuel sectarianism and tension.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have launched social media campaigns to blame Qatar for the coronavirus using hashtags such as #Qatariscorona, claiming that Qatar manufactured the virus in China to jeopardize Saudi Vision 2030 and Dubai Expo 2020.

The internet has provided fertile ground for breeding and amplifying state-sponsored fake news and propaganda campaigns. In an era of social distancing and increased reliance on social media, allowing these narratives to spread unchallenged and unpunished undermines an effective pandemic response — and more widely — peace and democracy.

Written bySaoussen Ben Cheikh

Featured Image: The Gate of Yemen in the capital Sana’a. Photo by Jialiang Gao, licensed under CC BY BY-SA 2.5

Via Globalvoices.org

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How Middle East Governments are using Covid-19 as a Pretext to Crush Human Rights https://www.juancole.com/2020/05/middle-governments-pretext.html Fri, 29 May 2020 04:02:14 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191177 By Saoussen Ben Cheikh | –

(Globalvoices.org) – In response to COVID-19, governments around the world have declared states of emergency, allowing them to take exceptional measures to contain the pandemic.

Liberal democracies from the United States, Canada to European countries, Malaysia and South Africa imposed emergency measures that restricted mobility under lockdowns. Likewise, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), authorities declared states of emergency and imposed exceptional measures such as curfews and home confinement.

In a region plagued by decades of instability and conflict, authorities have long used exceptional and temporary emergency orders to justify repression and curb human rights. Based on this precedent, a number of governments are now using the coronavirus crisis to further crackdown on human rights — particularly freedom of expression.

What is a state of emergency?

When faced with an imminent threat such as disease or natural disaster, states can legally declare a state of emergency that allows authorities to temporarily exercise exceptional powers. This may include the suspension of basic human rights and freedoms such as restriction of movement or banning public gatherings.

However, “governments must inform the population of its exact substantive, territorial and temporal scope and the related measures,” when activating these measures, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR):

Under international human rights law, there are limits to what a state of emergency grants governments. The OHCHR recommends that “all measures taken during emergency rules to be proportionate and limited to those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation. (…) The military should not conduct policing functions.”

Certain basic human rights cannot be suspended. These include “the right to life, the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, the prohibition of discrimination, and freedom of religion, as well as the right to a fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention and the right to judicial review of detention,” said Human Rights Watch on March 20, in response to Jordan’s declaration of a state of emergency.

MENA quick to declare emergency powers

In the MENA region, governments were quick to react and exercise full powers, even when there were only a few COVID-19 cases.

On March 5, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a 30-day state of emergency after coronavirus cases were reported in the city of Bethlehem. On March 13, Mauritania followed suit and declared a state of emergency after the first case in the country was reported.

On March 16, it was Sudan’s turn to declare a state of emergency, following the death of a COVID-19 patient. The next day, Jordan’s King Abdullah II issued a royal decree granting his prime minister sweeping powers, including the ability to “monitor the content of newspapers, ads, and any other method of communication prior to publication, and to censor and shut down any outlet without justification.”

In Morocco, on March 20, King Mohamed VI declared a state of emergency, allowing the government to “take all necessary measures to combat the COVID-19 epidemic.”

Governments were able to quickly adopt exceptional measures, imposing general lockdowns and curfews, banning gatherings, shutting down schools, businesses and courts by decrees without parliamentary or judicial oversight.

Temporary to permanent

While these measures may be justified to contain the spread of the virus, emergency powers carry an inherent risk of undermining the rule of law.

In MENA in particular, governments and authoritarian regimes have a record of abusing the state of emergency status to suspend democratic institutions and human rights over long periods.

For example, a number of governments in the region have previously exploited the “war on terror” to extend their powers, turning what was supposed to be a temporary state of emergency into a permanent one lasting for decades.

Algeria was under emergency rules for nearly 20 years following a brutal conflict with Islamist militants in the1990s. Peaceful protests were barred, political freedoms were repressed, the media was censored and arbitrary detentions were common. It was only lifted in the wake of the Arab spring in 2011.

Egypt was under a continuous state of emergency for three decades following the 1981 assassination of former President Anwar al-Saddat. Protesters demanded to lift the emergency status during the Arab Spring and finally succeeded in 2012. However, in January 2013, emergency law was reintroduced by the late President Mohamed Morsi — ousted in a military coup in 2013 — to curb renewed unrest.

Since then, Egypt has alternated between periods of non-emergency and emergency rule, regularly extended since 2017, when terrorist attacks on two churches occurred. These emergency measures resulted in systematic abuses of power used to restrict public gatherings, media freedom and detain people for any period of time and for virtually any reason.

Egypt remains at the bottom of most human rights indexes, ranking 166 in the World Press Freedom Index, for example.

Tunisia has been under a state of emergency since 2015, following a terrorist attack against a bus carrying presidential guards. It has since been continuously extended, prompting the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in 2017 to declare it a violation of international law.

The temptation to abuse power

Across the MENA region, the military has played a key role in enforcing emergency COVID-19 measures and crackdowns on freedom of expression have increased.

In March 2020, authorities in Jordan, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Yemen issued decrees banning print newspapers until further notice, despite a lack of correlation between newspapers and COVID-19.

Various governments also adopted broad cybercrime laws to criminalize disinformation and fake news. In April 2020, the Algerian government passed a law criminalizing “fake news” deemed harmful to “public order and state security.”

Countering disinformation has been used in the region as a rationale for criminalizing anyone who posts content that challenges the official state narrative. Morocco has detained and prosecuted at least a dozen people for “spreading rumors” or disseminating “fake news” about COVID-19 on social media.

Even as countries curb the spread of the virus, they are still enforcing states of emergency without giving an indication of a timeline to return to normal. Jordan and Tunisia continue to impose a nightly curfew, even though the coronavirus is “contained,” on the basis of concerns of a potential second wave.

In the Middle East, fighting terrorism used to be the umbrella under which states of emergency were justified and maintained. Now, COVID-19 serves as a new justification for sweeping powers.

Finding a balance between national security and fundamental rights is a grey area that leaves ample room for interpretation.

The temptation to abuse powers when citizens are most vulnerable and need protection is real. A strong system of checks and balances must protect fundamental rights during an emergency. Ultimately, “the test of every nation is how it treats its citizens in times of crisis,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Via Globalvoices.org

Creative Commons License 3.0 Written bySaoussen Ben Cheikh

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Bloomberg Markets and Finance: “Coronavirus: Middle East Impact”

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Iran fails to contain COVID-19 as internal political clashes prevent a timely and unified response https://www.juancole.com/2020/04/internal-political-response.html Sat, 25 Apr 2020 04:03:26 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190518 By Ezzatullah Mehrdad | –

( Globalvoices.org) – Since the outbreak of COVID-19 started in Iran in February 2020, internal political clashes have prevented the authorities from adequately responding to the pandemic. As a result, Iran has become one of the worst affected countries: as of April 24, more than 88,000 Iranians have been infected and more than 5,000 have died, in a population of over 80 million.*

A government caught in its own contradictions

On April 1, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared in a cabinet meeting that the country was on the right path in the battle against COVID-19. After thanking Iranian healthcare workers, he said that “cases were on a downward trajectory in most provinces” of Iran.

But the Iranian Health Minister Sayed Namaki sent a different message in a parliament hearing on April 7, stating that Iran was still managing the pandemic and had not yet contained the spread of COVID-19. He also warned that the statistics curve should not be a source of “pride and neglect.”

The health minister’s concerns were echoed in a parliament debate on the same day over whether or not to impose a nationwide lockdown, with some members advocating for a lockdown. Abdul Karim Hosseinzadeh, an MP from Tehran, argued that a lockdown was necessary to protect the lives of health workers and ordinary citizens.

As this netizen points out, the Iranian government is sending mixed messages:

“Hussain Rouhani: ‘The infection cases were on a downward trajectory in Iran.’ According to the Health Ministry, this statistics shows the number of infected people are on the rise. I think someone needs to explain the difference between the downward and upward trends.”

On April 11, however, President Rouhani asked all Iranians with low-risk jobs to return to their workplaces, adding that the country was past the peak of the epidemic.

The weight of religion in Iranian politics

Since religious leaders took power in the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran’s political life, including important decision-making at the highest levels, is in the hands of senior members of the clergy. The role of head of state is assigned to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, a position currently filled by Ali Khamenei.

The virus has been spreading fast inside Iran, affecting the country’s senior leadership. Members of Iran’s parliament, including the advisor to President Rouhani, officials of the health ministry, and religious scholars have tested positive, with some fatalities. Many officials were tested in spite of having no symptoms, while testing was only available to ordinary Iranians who showed symptoms.

“This test is free for patients who have symptoms,” said one doctor, on condition of anonymity. “I think it is unethical that officials are tested without having symptoms. With our limited testing kits, patients need more tests.”

As the virus spread, Khamenei ordered the Guardians of the Revolution, a branch of the army in charge of protecting Iran’s political system, to take charge of battling COVID-19. The same disagreements emerged: while Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, the commander-in-chief of the Joint Armed Forces, wanted to announce a lockdown, the government refused to do so.

“With so much pressure on Iran, the Iranian government does not want to impose additional pressure on society,” journalist Behzad Pour Saleh wrote in an article for BBC Persian. “Besides, cities in quarantine and travel restriction all require a well planned chain of command, something Iranian authorities lack.”

This netizen shares a video in which people wearing decontamination suits complain about the situation in hospitals:

“This is how bad the situation is in Bana Hospital!! The hospital lacks protective gear, gloves and even body bags. Shame and hate to clercs, where did the international aid go? French aid was directly sent to Lebanon! It means Lebanese are more important than Iranian Kurds. The regime wants to eliminate Kurds, a clear fact.

Iran’s announcement of its first case came rather late, on February 20 in the city of Qom, a holy site for the majority of Muslim Shia believers. Given that the period of incubation is at least two weeks, the people who died in February could have been infected as early as late January. As this journalist testifies:

Despite the writing on the wall, President Rouhani initially refused to acknowledge the pandemic. He said in a televised national address on February 25 that “it was a conspiracy of the enemy to lock down the country by spreading fear of COVID-19,” adding that “suspected cases should be admitted in hospitals, but all others should continue to go to work.”

Eventually, Qom city turned into the epicenter of the pandemic in the country. The government announced the closure of shrines on March 13, nearly one month after the spread of the virus, a decision hardliners described as “following blindly the anti-religious instructions of the World Health Organization.”

With no travel restrictions imposed, many Iranians also continued to travel and visitors from neighboring countries returned to their homes, carrying the virus. In many countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Canada, Lebanon and the Gulf countries, the virus was traced back to Iran.

The lack of coordination is obvious. As Kianush Jahanpur, spokesperson for the Health Ministry, observed in a tweet, on March 23 large crowds gathered to mourn the death of a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, against all public health protocols:

There are possibly new health measures in place for funeral and for imposing restriction over gatherings. This photo speaks for itself. All we can do is cry. No comment.

Foreign policy gets in the way of international aid

Clashes of opinion between the armed forces and the government also emerged in relation to the issue of foreign aid. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif requested aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the first time in six decades. The appeal faced a veto by the US under its “maximum pressure.”

The US offered aid directly to Iran, but Tehran refused to accept it. “You are accused of having created coronavirus,” wrote Khamenei in a tweet. “I don’t know if it is true. But when there’s such an allegation, can a wise person trust you? You could be giving medical drugs that spread the virus or cause it to remain.”

Government spokesman Ali Rabiei outlined the official policy with regard to foreign aid on Twitter:

With respect to all countries and international organizations that have offered offered Iran aid in battling COVID-19, our policy toward humanitarian aid by foreign countries and organizations is that and institution will be received as much as it wishes to help.

Iran’s ambassador to France, Ibrahim Qasemi, said that the Paris-based international aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had chartered a plane to send personnel to help Iran fight the pandemic and were setting up a temporary hospital in Isfahan.

At the last minute, however, MSF was denied entry. Basirat, a news site owned by the Iranian armed forces, published a story claiming that MSF was coming to examine symptoms of COVID-19 Iranian patients and design a new virus or drug that would only affect the DNA of Iranians.

Instead, hardline Islamists of Iran claimed that they were ready to help Europeans. A group of young members of the armed forces prepared care packages to help “poor Americans.” Health Ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour said, however, that the country was not in a position to help other countries.

“There is no need to help poor Americans. Give glove sand a facemasks to these dear people who are at risk of infection.”

While the various powers within Iran clash over policy, ordinary people have continued falling ill and dying of COVID-19.

Ezzatullah Mehrdad is a journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He produces long features and explanatory articles to cover the country.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

Via Globalvoices.org under a Creative Commons License.

*Statistics updated by Informed Comment.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

France 24 English: “Sanctions-hit Iran gambles on partial Covid-19 lockdown exit”

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How Saudis and other Authoritarian Middle East Governments are using Covid-19 to Crack down More on Civil Liberties https://www.juancole.com/2020/04/authoritarian-governments-liberties.html Tue, 14 Apr 2020 04:01:27 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190293

Many of these unfair actions violate international law

By Khalid Ibrahim, Gulf Center for Human Rights | –

( Globalvoices.org) – Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul is one of many human rights defenders who remain in jail in the Middle East, despite multiple calls to release them amid COVID-19 fears. Photo credit: Loujain Al-Hathloul via OTRS system / CC BY-SA.

COVID-19 cases in the MENA region have led governments to institute containment and other measures to slow the spread the highly contagious coronavirus.

These measures have especially targeted some of the most vulnerable groups such as human rights defenders in prison, migrant workers and independent media.

The Gulf Center for Human Rights has tracked how some of these measures have seriously impacted the overall human rights situation in the MENA region.

Many of these unfair actions violate international law. Migrant workers and detained prisoners, for example, who often live in substandard living conditions, are actually protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 25:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Below is GHCR’s brief human rights review of COVID-19’s impact on the MENA region:

1. Detained human rights defenders

Bahraini human rights defenders Nabeel Rajab (right) and Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja remain in prison, despite calls to release them and all political prisoners in the Middle East. Photo credit: Bahrain Centre for Human Rights / CC BY-SA.

The reality is that most human rights defenders are still in prison in the MENA region at a time when governments including those of Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt released some prisoners as part of preventive measures to contain the spread of the virus. With the spread of COVID-19, the lives of jailed human rights defenders are at imminent risk in countries such as Iran, Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and other countries that have crowded prisons lacking minimum health standards.

Among those currently imprisoned are Abdulhadi Alkhawaja and Nabeel Rajab, founding directors of the GCHR, serving a life sentence and five years in jail, respectively. In the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed Mansoor has been held in solitary confinement for three years, serving a 10-year jail sentence for his human rights activism, including peacefully expressing his views on social media. In Saudi Arabia, women’s rights activist Lujain Al-Hathloul also remains in prison.

2. Access to information and shutting down newspapers

Most governments in the MENA region are not releasing the actual numbers of cases of those infected with the virus and also making it very difficult for journalists to have access to reliable information about the spread, treatment, and the victims of COVID-19. Also, journalists who are providing factual information about the crisis to citizens are at risk.

For example, in Yemen, on March 23, 2020, Muammar Al-Aryani, the minister of communications in the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, issued a decree bearing the number (6) for the year 2020, which stated in its first article, “The issuance of government newspapers and private ‘paper’ newspapers will be suspended and only electronic copies will be issued.” This is for the period from March 25 to April 12, 2020, as stated in Article (2) of the decree therein, as part of the package of preventive and precautionary measures taken by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In Oman, on March 22, 2020, the Supreme Committee for Dealing with COVID-19 ordered all newspapers, magazines, and other publications to cease printing and circulating, according to the Times of Oman, which published the committee’s order. The order also prohibited the sale and circulation of newspapers, magazines and publications imported into the country.

In Morocco, that same day, the minister of culture, youth and sports, Hassan Abyaba, announced in a statement the suspension of the publication and distribution of print newspapers until further notice.

Also, in Jordan, on March 17, 2020, the Jordanian Council of Ministers suspended the publication of all newspapers for two weeks, according to an official statement by the Jordanian Communications Minister Amjad Adaileh. Newspapers continued to be suspended due to the quarantine and the government’s demand for citizens to stay in their homes.

3. Draft law threatens freedom of expression in Tunisia

Draft law No. 29/2020 on amending Articles 245 and 247 of the Penal Code provisions were submitted to the Tunisia parliament on March 29. The bill, which was withdrawn a day later following the outcry from civil society groups and citizens, sought to criminalise the ”disclosure of any false or questionable speech among users of communication networks and social media platforms, which may be insulting to individuals, groups or institutions.”

The bill was a blatant contradiction with Articles 31, 32, and 49 of the Tunisian Constitution, and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by the Republic of Tunisia. If adopted, it would have inevitably canceled several Articles of Decree Law 2011-115 of 2 November 2011 on freedom of the press, printing and publishing, as it contains comprehensive legal provisions for the offenses of publishing false news (Article 54) and calumny (Article 55 and 56).

4. Temporary imprisonment for spreading rumours in UAE

On April 1, 2020, the Gulf News, a daily English-language newspaper based in Dubai, published an article that says that “people who circulate rumours may be jailed for one year if they spread false information.” It is now possible that COVID-19 could be used as a pretext to imprison some of the bloggers and Internet activists who are targeted by the State Security Apparatus (SSA).

5. Location-tracking applications

Some Gulf states such as Bahrain are using location-tracking technologies which would enable the full detection of the movement of citizens. There are concerns that the use of these applications in countries widely known for gross and documented violations of human rights will allow them to place greater restrictions on personal freedoms.

6. Xenophobia against migrant workers in the Gulf

In Kuwait, in an interview on March 31, 2020, actress Hayat al-Fahad called for migrant workers to be thrown out of the country as it faces the COVID-19 crisis.

On March 10, 2020, after a picture was published of a Saudi Aramco migrant worker dressed as a giant bottle of sanitiser, the oil company came under fire for such inhumane ill-treatment of the worker, which could be classified as racist. The company later apologised.

Reports that GCHR received from various Gulf countries confirmed that migrant workers are not given equal access to medical care and they are facing some difficult time at the moment, as many of them already live and work in poor conditions.

Authorities across MENA could help stop the spread of COVID-19 by freeing all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience because they do not pose a risk to the public — but rather are at great risk themselves. While detained, authorities must uphold the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners to provide basic healthcare and sanitation for all. It is also important to allow visits from UN experts and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Written by Gulf Center for Human Rights

Via Globalvoices.org

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Related Video added by Informed Comment:

Middle East Eye from 3 weeks ago: “Family of jailed Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah arrested”

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Yemen’s looming environmental disaster as Saudi Arabia and US Pursue War on it https://www.juancole.com/2020/02/looming-environmental-disaster.html Mon, 17 Feb 2020 05:03:36 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=189166 By Helen Lackner | –

( GlobalVoices.org) – A side but important and urgent issue throughout 2019 has come from the increasingly alarmed statements from the UN and others about the Huthis denying access to the ironically named SAFER Floating Oil Storage and Offloading (FSO) vessel. The saga of this facility is a microcosm of the conflict between the Huthis and the internationally recognised government (IRG) on access to finance prioritising it over the welfare of citizens. It is yet another example of their shocking indifference for the life and welfare of people and their lack of concern about avoidable deaths and destruction.

What is the FSO SAFER? It is a vessel which has been moored off Ras Issa in the Red Sea since 1988 and was used as an export terminal for the oil produced in Mareb. Since 2015 there have been no exports as this terminal is under Huthi control while the oil fields are under the control of the government. It contains 1.14 million barrels of crude oil in 34 storage compartments. For the past four years, it has been rusting and increasingly deteriorating, so the risk of explosion or rupturing and sinking has worsened daily. Conditions at sea accelerate the deterioration process and thus the risks.

Although there are a range of possibilities of the impact of its disintegration, due to different currents, winds and other weather factors, such an event would compare with a similar amount of oil spilled in the Arabian Gulf in 1990 at the end of the first Gulf war that produced an oil slick four inches deep covering some 4,000 square miles. The quantity of oil stored is four times what was released in the notorious 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

A spill would bring about a major humanitarian and environmental disaster throughout the states bordering the Red Sea, well beyond Yemen itself

Such a spill would be a major threat to the marine environment, fisheries, desalination plants in the Red Sea, and coastal areas. It would cause major health risks to the population in the entire region and possibly close access to ports, let alone the impact on the livelihoods of all. In brief it would bring about a major humanitarian and environmental disaster throughout the states bordering the Red Sea, well beyond Yemen itself.

The Huthis have asked the UN for help in assessing the situation and selling the oil; emptying the vessel would end the risks involved and prevent disaster. Each time agreement was about to be reached, discussions collapsed simply because the Huthis and the Hadi government failed to agree on the use of the funds from the sale of this oil. They prefer to risk the lives of the population and cause a major environmental disaster to losing this potential income. The result is that there is no income, Yemenis remain without salaries, and disaster could strike at any time. The issue was raised again at the January 2020 UNSC meeting, but there is no indication of action being taken. This could bring Yemen back to world headlines anytime.

Small changes in the details of the water crisis.

While the SAFER remains a potentially explosive issue, other environmental issues continue as ‘normal.’ In particular, access to domestic water supplies is mentioned in occasional media coverage, recalling that water scarcity is one of Yemen’s main long-term issues. It is usually mentioned with respect to urban supplies being unavailable due to the increased cost of fuel for pumping and distribution.

Some of these causes also apply to the 70% of the population who are rural, and the additional relevant factor for all is the quality of domestic water. As is so often the case, women and children are the worst affected as they are the ones who collect the water: much of the country, including urban areas, has now returned to the situation prevailing for the more difficult rural areas pre-war, namely women and children spending hours daily walking to collect water on their heads, in wheelbarrows or with the help of donkeys.

Women are not only waiting for agricultural pumps to be switched on, but now in the towns and cities they also wait for tanker deliveries run by private operators or humanitarian agencies, and then collect the water in 20 litre containers.

Access to water has worsened for people throughout the country

The unreliable availability of diesel affects deliveries of water and creates additional uncertainty and concern given that water is life. The multiple and unhygienic transfer processes contribute to increasing pollution of the water and consequently the additional risks to the health of users. So access to water has worsened for people throughout the country and this partly explains the increase in cholera cases, as well as of dengue fever and other mosquito transmitted diseases.

On the positive side, there are a couple of points, which hardly compensate for the additional hardship suffered. First the introduction and massive expansion of solar power has also helped in pumping limited amounts of water for domestic purposes and to a lesser extent for irrigation. Similarly the reduced financial and material accessibility to much irrigation pumping, is contributing to conserving the aquifers, but this has only very limited long-term impact on the fundamental scarcity.

The climate crisis

As widely predicted, the climate crisis is particularly acute and noticeable in the poorest countries for the poorest people. Yemen is no exception. Here the issue of successive and nowadays frequent ‘unprecedented’ droughts and floods has accelerated since the war started. After the 2015 rapid succession of considerable destruction and damage by cyclones Chapala (Socotra and Hadramaut) and Megh (further west), the first in living memory, others have taken place almost annually, with Mekunu, Luban and Sagar in 2018, while in 2019 both expected cyclones narrowly missed Yemen, but their outlying areas caused destruction in Socotra and Hadramaut. The more erratic and violent downpours caused floods in January, May, June [affecting 12 governorates], and August.

Other less immediate impacts of the climate crisis are gradually affecting most parts of the country, as soil erosion and desertification are reducing agricultural land at a rate of about 3-5% per annum, in a country where most of the rural population are largely dependent on agriculture and only 3% of the country’s area is suitable for agricultural use. Among the other ongoing environmental issues is the increased salinity of soils and water in coastal areas due to sea water intrusion in the aquifers as well as the impact of rising sea levels in a country which has 3 of its major cities and other important towns on the coast.

Environment and the war economy

Another source of problems for the population and income for war profiteers, is the import and sale of dangerous and illegal agricultural inputs, mainly fertilizers and pest control products. Previously regulated by government, the absence of any sanitary controls at the ports has enabled unscrupulous traders to import chemicals which are banned elsewhere in the world. They buy them cheaply and sell them to farmers, thus indirectly causing major health problems for the population who consume the products, in particular fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as qat.

Fresh foods are rarely adequately washed due to the shortage of water; in any case washing would only help marginally as many of these substances have been proved to be carcinogenic. As a final point, these chemicals poison the soils and water and will affect agriculture in the future.

Conclusion: prospects for the year

Last year has, yet again, demonstrated on numerous occasions Yemeni political leaders’ and decision makers’ utter disregard and indifference to the suffering of the Yemeni population. A few of the thousands of examples have been mentioned in this series of articles. As usual, words fail anyone with any sense of human empathy to adequately condemn their behaviour. Nor is there any indication of change, regardless of how often this is repeated.

Last year has, yet again, demonstrated on numerous occasions Yemeni political leaders’ and decision makers’ utter disregard and indifference to the suffering of the Yemeni population

Politically, certain tendencies may strengthen in the course of 2020: on the Huthi side, the regime is likely to consolidate its hold on the population and may reach an agreement with Saudi Arabia over their shared border, which would leave the Saudis to deal with their new headache, the conflict in the south of the country between the Hadi government whom they support and the separatist Southern Transitional Council supported by the UAE, nominally Saudi Arabia’s ally in the coalition.

The new Huthi offensive which started in January on fronts which had remained static for the past four years suggests a determination to expand Huthi controlled territory and redirect the war away from the financial/economic war towards military action. But it also contributes to making things more difficult for the Saudis and the Hadi government, which are now under pressure not only from the STC in the South but also from the Huthis on these fronts. It may be worth noting that the military on these fronts are largely the Islahi-led troops of Vice President Ali Mohsen.

Internationally, while it is possible that Saudi Arabia may choose to involve the UN and its Special Envoy in formalising any ‘peace’ agreement reached with the Huthis, the situation may also simply remain informal with a continued drop or even end to Saudi air strikes on Yemen. Overall, the Special Envoy and his team have been effectively marginalised and play no role in the current military conflict, though the UN remains significant on the humanitarian front.

The UAE have officially withdrawn, though they retain forces in areas which they consider strategic, namely the Bab al Mandab and some positions in coastal Shabwa and Hadramaut, including the Balhaf gas terminal in Shabwa. Abu Dhabi would certainly join any formal agreement reached, but the real question is whether it is willing to allow the Hadi government to take full control of the south by withdrawing its support from the STC’s militias, essential to enable its senior ally, Saudi Arabia, to control the situation in that part of Yemen. This would require the UAE to end its ‘anything and everything against anything which might remotely look like a Muslim Brother’ strategy, and it considers the Islah as a Muslim Brotherhood organisation, ignoring its far more complex nature and composition.

Saudi success in the south will depend considerably on the willingness of the UAE to cease its support for the STC and take a wider view of the Yemeni crisis beyond the narrow anti-Muslim Brotherhood rationale which seems to be the prime motor of its foreign policy.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate and millions are suffering hunger, lack of medical services, polluted water or its absence, no sanitation and all the horrors of an apocalypse. ‘Normally’ by mid-February, the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan would have been published and observers and funders alike would be planning their trip to the pledging conference in Geneva. None of this has happened.

A meeting in Brussels on 13 February involved funders who discussed the problems of distribution and diversion of aid by the Huthis and others in Yemen. The fundamental issue revolves around who controls humanitarian aid, with powerful Yemenis focusing on their own interests and ignoring the desperation of the suffering millions, while international agencies also have to face their own institutional issues.

Via GlobalVoices.org

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Médecins Sans Frontières Australia & New Zealand: “Mother and Child Health in Yemen”

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Russian Troops Triumphantly take over US Bases in Syria, Show off Social Media Skills https://www.juancole.com/2019/11/russian-troops-triumphantly.html Mon, 18 Nov 2019 05:02:00 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=187436 By Milan Czerny | –

(GlobalVoices.org ) – For Russian soldiers, posting from the battleground was strictly forbidden. Then all of a sudden, it wasn’t

“Yesterday they were here, today it’s us.”

On October 15, the Russian conflict journalist Oleg Blokhin published several videos on social media of himself visiting the former US military base at Manbij, in northern Syria, following the departure of American soldiers. Photos taken by Russian soldiers in similar facilities then began to surface across Russian social media and Telegram channels. Russian TV channels and military-themed pages on VKontakte, a popular Russian social network, quickly relayed the soldiers’ posts in celebration, gloating at the GIs who left Syria in such a hurry.

These scenes stood in sharp contrast to the Russian military’s recent efforts to limit its soldiers’ online activities. Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin signed a new law prohibiting Russian soldiers from using smartphones and posting photos while on duty. Soldiers are now banned from possessing devices that take pictures and have access to the internet. At the time the law was adopted, the independent media outlet Meduza reported that “large numbers”of soldiers had been jailed and punished for infringing the new regulations. Some of them even faced retroactive charges: Yegor Kruglov spent 15 days behind bars for sending photos of himself to his girlfriend using social media months before the law entered force.

The bill’s authors stressed that it was adopted because “military servicemen are of special interest to the security services of several states, to terrorist and extremist organisations.” However, many believe that the real impetus for the law were revelations by investigative journalists and researchers, such as Bellingcat or the Conflict Intelligence Team, which rely on open-source data, particularly from social media networks. These investigators were able to prove the Russian military’s involvement in Syria thanks to its soldiers’ social media posts and GPS localisation before the Kremlin even officially acknowledged military intervention in the country. Similarly, VICE News’ Simon Ostrovky and researchers from Forensic Architecture were able to gather evidence of the Russian military’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow firmly denies. Ostrovsky and his colleagues were also aided by selfies and YouTube videos uploaded by active servicemen.

“Selfie, photo, internet: expect a hello from the enemy!” reads this poster. Source: VKontakte/DKulbin (the user’s page has since been closed to the public.)

Despite denials, these revelations clearly irritated Russia’s military leadership. In fact, photos of what appears to be a series of educational posters reminiscent of the Cold War have even appeared online. The posters, which allegedly hang in military facilities, aspire to teach servicemen how to behave online. One poster urges soldiers not to share information on social networking sites. A second poster warns soldiers against using devices which can provide geolocations, which could then be discovered by NATO troops.

Although the authenticity of these posters has not been verified, they appear to be in keeping with a broader push by the Russian military to restrain its soldiers’ social media activity.

This was recently exemplified by a declaration by a former analyst from the Russian Presidential Affairs Department’s Scientific Research Computing Center (GRCC), an agency which produces tools for high-precision online research for sale to state and private actors: “We said there aren’t any Russian soldiers in Syria or the Donbas, but they are there. And so we’re in a race against Bellingcat to geolocate all the posts where some idiot Russian soldier is taking selfies in a trench, posing with his rifle,” one anonymous former GRCC employee told Meduza.

This struggle was toned down when US troops left northern Syria. Empty American bases presented a unique opportunity for a huge symbolic victory. Indeed, the last “deliberate withdrawal” of US troops occurred in 2011 in Iraq; the last time that Russian soldiers set foot in an American base was probably in the aftermath of WWII. Soldiers filmed themselves going through GIs’ personal belongings and diaries, visiting dormitories, checking cans of Coke left behind and responding to messages left on whiteboards.

This reporting appeared to take place in various stages: first, Russian soldiers posted pictures of the bases, and VKontakte accounts reposted videos of Russian vehicles entering Manbij, welcomed by locals waving Syrian flags in the aftermath of the American withdrawal. Simultaneously, journalists following Russian mercenaries, such as Oleg Blokhin or the Abkhazian news agency Anna-News — which claims to “fight the western brainwashing machine” — staged their own visits to the US bases in a more elaborate manner, so as to channel the information in the desired way. Finally, larger Russian TV channels such RT filmed their own visitsto the abandoned facilities.

Social media allowed the Russian government to instantly and forcefully communicate its presence and “success” in Syria. The erosion of the American role in the Middle East was staged live, and despite new information security measures, the Russian military is willing to weaponise its soldiers’ social media posts when it is convenient to do so.

In the short term, it seems that the rapid dissemination of these posts advanced Russia’s interests. VKontakte videos found their way to a Western audience on Twitter, polarising discussions and fuelling heated criticism of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria and give Turkey and Russia a green light to extend their territorial reach. Moreover, these posts probably harmed the morale of Western troops, as the live broadcast of the base’s “takeover” was a cheap way for the Russian government to portray itself as the only superpower left in the region.

However, in the long term, the widespread use of such social media posts, whether by active servicemen or by mercenaries, might be detrimental to Russia’s interests, undermining the spirit of the legislation passed to ban the use of social media on the battlefield. It appears as though Russian soldiers have had a hard time restraining themselves from boasting in front of tanks or posing in full military gear despite the implementation of the law. It could now be difficult to close this Pandora’s Box in the coming months.

Finally, the strategy of mocking Western states by staging videos around sensitive information has recently backfired. In September 2018, the Kremlin-sponsored RT television channel held an interview with two men belonging to the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), the Russian military’s overseas intelligence agency, who had been accused of poisoning Sergey Skripal in Salisbury, Great Britain, earlier that year. In response to British allegations that they had carried out an assassination attempt ordered by Moscow, the two men claimed that they were sports nutritionists on holiday in the UK. The footage proved to be very valuable to Bellingcat’s attempts to establish the real identity of the two men; as a result, photos were discovered of the two men attending the wedding of the daughter of Major General Andrey Averyanov, a GRU commander.

This shows that, for any military, playing with sensitive information for easy PR points can be a dangerous game. Although American troops may have felt humiliated by Russian soldiers’ posts of their former base at Manbij, it is likely that, in the long run, open-source investigations team will have plenty more data to analyse.

Milan Czerny is a student of International Relations at King’s College London. I focus on Russia’s relations with the Middle-East, notably with Israel, and on regulations of the Runet.

Via GlobalVoices.org

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Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBS News: “Russian troops take command of U.S. airbase in northern Syria”

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The Map: Beirut’s Demonstrations as Live City-Making https://www.juancole.com/2019/11/beiruts-demonstrations-making.html Tue, 12 Nov 2019 05:02:18 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=187331 By Filip Noubel | –

(GlobalVoices.org) – The protests that have swept Lebanon since October 17, 2019 started as a reaction to the announcement by the government of new taxes. They have since evolved into a rejection of the political and economic model that has allowed local elites to maintain control over the country since the end of the civil war in 1990. United across religious communities, classes and gender, the protesters marked an important victory on October 29 when Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down.

The map designed by Antoine Atallah shows how different groups of protesters occupied the space to conduct different kinds of activities. Used with permission.

The demonstrations have since been widely reported in the Middle East and beyond in news stories, photos and video—and now, one extraordinary map. A very recent addition to the narrative of the movement is a cartographic representation of the protests by Antoine Atallah, a Lebanese architect, urban designer and environmental activist.


Demonstrations in Beirut on October 19, 2019. Photo by Shahen Araboghlian via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Asked about why he chose that particular form, Atallah explains:

“Maps are important additions to the visual “magma” we’re being exposed to because they allow us to summarize, reflect and put things in perspective. An outer, zoomed out, snapshot makes them more obvious”.

Asked about what motivated him to do such work, he says:

“It’s the fact that for the first time since the beginning of the civil war and the subsequent Solidere takeover, people were given a chance to claim their right to the city in an area that was taken away from them. It’s an extremely inspiring moment, where “city-making” can be observed live. I felt that mapping this process is extremely important since the current occupation is fleeting and precarious, can shift and change or disappear suddenly”.

Atallah is referring above to the company Solidere, which has close links to then President Hariri and started in 1994 to rebuild and gentrify that area with fancy restaurants and boutiques catering mainly to wealthy Lebanese and visitors from the Gulf.

While the map has been circulating on social media for just over 24 hours, it is already gaining traction because it illustrates the essential needs of many residents, Atallah says:

“Lebanese people have appropriated the voids of the city center to create the function they need: to discuss, to rest, to eat and have fun for free or for cheap, to dance. This is a lesson to everyone who underestimated people’s awareness, maturity and capacity to be space builders, to be creators of function and meaning, to be actors of a collective project” .

Regarding his hopes for the future, Atallah concludes:

“The challenge comes from the political system which has imposed itself for 30 years and maintains wide leverage and huge power. In fact, the main challenge comes from asking a parliament which is against us, to compose a government that will be against them. The equation is complex and challenging. But I also trust the collective intelligence that’s been displayed in all those weeks of revolution. It will surely prevail and nothing will ever be the same again”.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Written byFilip Noubel

Via GlobalVoices.org

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Can Turkish Politics be Depolarized? https://www.juancole.com/2019/07/turkish-politics-depolarized.html Tue, 09 Jul 2019 04:03:26 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=185169 By Sevgi Yagmur Bulut | –

The ruling party is no longer in charge of the largest municipality

In the end it was easy. Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition candidate in Istanbul’s municipal election, swept to victory on June 23 with 54% of the votes, after a rerun ordered by the country’s main electoral authority.

The margin of 806,000 votes by which he beat his opponent Binali Yildirim represents the biggest defeat dealt to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in nearly two decades.

The June 23 vote was the second time Imamoglu claimed the mayor’s seat this year.

The first election in March — which he won by around 13,000 votes — was cancelled by electoral authorities.

AKP and its ally the nationalist party MHP claimed minor irregularities in voter records and noted that some of the ballot papers had not been signed.

Following his rerun victory, Imamoglu said that “love won” and that the result would open a new page in Istanbul’s storied history:

“Nobody’s lifestyle and how they dress is a concern for us. We came to embrace everyone,” he said.

Love won

The mood was tense in Istanbul on Election Day 2.0.

Many people were resentful of the rerun, which coincided with the holiday period and helped bring the city to a baking standstill.

Horrendously long beeping traffic queues lined the roads leading in and out of Istanbul. Bus stations and the city’s two airports bulged with people leaving the city after casting their ballots.
No ‘us versus them’

Imamoglu, who represented the Republican People’s Party (CHP) ran a positive campaign, with his main slogan #HerŞeyÇokGüzelOlacak, translating as “everything will be wonderful”, or “everything will be fine”.

His party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu attributed the larger margin of victory second time round to “the sense of injustice which people feel (after first elections).”

But it was also clear that Imamoglu had captured the public imagination by championing the sort of inclusive politics that AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have eschewed in recent years.

The language of love that doesn’t dissociate or frighten won. (It is) fair, promising, embracing.

Erdogan campaigned furiously on Yildirim’s behalf, holding several public demonstrations.

Istanbul, with a population of 15 million, is of huge strategic importance. Erdogan’s own election as mayor of the city in 1994 launched him as a politician of national standing.

In its early years, AKP’s electoral successes lay in broadening electoral appeal beyond the party’s conservative base, notably to business and the growing middle class.

But as the economy has tanked, and political repression has deepened, more recent campaigns have been soaked in fear-mongering and raw populism.

Imamoglu’s alliance with the nationalist Good Party as well as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party meanwhile helped him widen his electorate beyond the typical supporters of the CHP.

Love has won … The Language of Love has won… What we miss as a nation has won … Welcome and glad you came.

Yes, Binali Yıldırım; made roads, bridges, tunnels. His actions cannot be ignored. However, the Istanbul people decided yesterday and said: We want a mayor who appeals to people, not to concrete.

Where now?

Whilst he is enjoying plenty of goodwill for the moment, Imamoglu faces a difficult task meeting the expectations of his diverse electorate.

During the election campaign he complained about wasteful municipal spending and exposed its cost to the budget.

According to his “table of waste’, based on a 2017 audit, the budget loses at least 753 million Turkish Lira (TL), or $133 million through some of this spending.

Moreover, according to Imamoglu, resources and properties amounting to 847 million TL were transferred to foundations with ties to Erdogan and his family.

Having gone public with this information, his office must now show its difference through transparency in administration and policymaking.
Other challenges Imamoglu faces include the city’s chronic traffic and public transportation problem and the growing friction between local Istanbul and Syrian refugee communities and refugees.

Finally, after such a successful campaign, he will have to deal with speculation that he plans to run against Erdogan in Turkey’s next presidential election.

For the moment he has responded to journalists’ questions about his future political ambitions with a single phase: “God knows.”
What next for AKP?

Having earlier gone viral by saying that CHP and Imamoglu “stole the votes” in the initial ballot, Yildirim struck a more conciliatory tone in the aftermath of his second defeat, congratulating his opponent on victory long before the count concluded.

Binali Yildirim’s congratulations to Imamoglu shows maturity. Congratulations.

Erdogan also congratulated Imamoglu via Twitter, but added that his party will continue to work toward its goals “without giving up on democracy, rule of law, peace, wealth and stability.”

The sight of the streets of Istanbul crowding with people singing and dancing after Imamoglu’s win will have been chastening for AKP.

Party spokesman Omer Celik waxed philosophical and pledged to “consider in detail” the defeat.

“How did this difference come about? What are the expectations of our citizens? These assessments have begun. This is the nation’s choice, which we more than accept.”

If a slightly more humble governing party was the only outcome of Imamoglu’s victory, it would still be an important change.

Creative Commons License

Written bySevgi Yagmur Bulut

Via Global Voices Online

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Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

AP Archives: “Istanbul mayor: prepared to work with Erdogan”

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