Monthly Archives: October 2010

Monday links

Small victory in Egypt?

Supreme court bars police from university campuses

Conflict in Sudan is more than just North-South

Trouble is brewing within the South as well.

Netanyahu’s cute little handwritten list of donors

An estimated 98% of money came from abroad.

US buying security for the Saudis

$60bn for border patrols and rollin deep in the Rub Khalil

The shaming of America

Robert Fisk writes a searing dispatch. Gird your loins.

For those following the Ibrahim Eissa case…

Egyptian Chronicles covers his speech at the Journalism Syndicate.

The 99 Islamic superheroes.

Including Noora the Light, Batina the Hidden, and Jabbar the Powerful…

Karzai gets ‘bags of money’ from Iran.

Governmental transparency in Afghanistan, yo.

In defense of Wikileaks.

Skypechat quote from the other day: ‘what is the world coming to when people are regarding Assange as the man to get us info?’ ‘yeah, it’s like the douche leading the blind.’

Don’t write off the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptian regime has created its only true opponent.

Bravo to the Egyptian Minister of Information!


Ali Hassan Kuban videos.

From the excellent mepop blog.

And finally, the excellent Omar Souleyman…




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Today in Palestine

Settlers in Gush Etzion flood Palestinian village of Beit Ummar with raw sewage.

Thousands of litres were leaked onto the vineyards of Beit Ummar, destroying the grape harvest and probably contaminating the groundwater.

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Muslims wearing things

I personally don’t think Juan Williams should have been fired, but still, word.

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Wikileaks Iraq

And now you’ve listened to that, I would highly recommend taking a look at the Iraq war logs published on The Guardian today. These seem to be getting a lot more scrutiny than the Afghanistan leak a couple of months ago; back then, the story was less about the civilian deaths and more about the rights and wrongs of Julian Assange. Yet just scanning the headlines suggests a different focus this time. The ‘revelations’ about torture, in particular, are worth following.

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Roots + Joanna Newsom

Damn guys, forget about the Middle East for 3:33 minutes and listen to this.

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Saudi arms deal

This US arms deal with Saudi Arabia strikes me as a little strange. Leaving aside the fact that the US is bolstering one of the most repressive and generally obnoxiously religious regimes in the region (and then, with delicious irony, lecturing Hezbollah, Hamas, et al…not that their excesses are excusable, but still…), it seems like a somewhat desperate move. The logic is, of course, that strengthening Saudi will provide a regional counterweight to Iran. Yet this presupposes a somewhat curtailed view of the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia squares off against Iran across the Persian Gulf, Sunni stands up to Shia, and everything else just falls into place. But the two states don’t work like that; their power is dispersed across the region, either through funding like that of Saudi Arabia in Lebanon or through groups of varying degrees of affiliation, like Hezbollah and Hamas with Iran. Both work through soft power and influence, and $60bn worth of arms is a rather unsubtle way of changing the balance of power. Furthermore, as the Arabist points out, what do they need all those helicopters for anyway? Fast roping into Tehran? Probably more likely to be patrolling the Yemeni border…

(Saudi Arabia, of course, is no stranger to delicious ironies either, recently castigating the US for being soft on Israel whilst cheerfully accepting an arms deal that the Israelis, funnily enough, have raised no concerns with…)

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Cyberdissidence in the Middle East

No posts lately as this week has been a maelstrom of essay deadlines and (look away, mum) muesli for dinner. But last night I went to a talk on cyberdissidence in the Middle East and it raised a couple of extremely interesting points. Below, a summary of the event, and my thoughtz.

The talk began with an Iran expert who conducts anthropological research on Facebook, looking at Iranian youth and their use of social media. She spent a lot of time talking about something I knew very little about – the political space for women in Iran. Over the past decade, there has been a flowering of Iranian women’s activism. Taking as their starting point Iran’s conservative family laws, which reduced the marriage age and removed rights to custody and inheritance, they expanded their campaign to cover the whole of civil society reform. Magazines and websites brought together professionals from every field – even clerics – to write on rights reform. Although there has long been an extremely active student and teacher movement in Iran, the speaker argued that it was really the women’s movement that has been the driving force behind protest – and the space in which this movement has evolved has been the internet.

Iranian youth, she went on, are extremely Internet literate; apparently, Farsi is the 4th most popular language used for blogging worldwide. And it’s not just the capital cities where you see dissidence and cyberdissidence. The Iranian system of university student placing means that students go all over the country – Tehranis go the the provinces, and vice versa. Thus young people can share the urban space and exchange ideas on politics and on technology. I was reminded of a friend in Shiraz who bemoaned the lack of attention given to anywhere other than Tehran during the election protests last year. ‘We were out on the streets,’ he said, ‘but you didn’t hear about it. Only in Tehran.’ The government filtering system in Iran is, according to the speaker, highly effective, and has limited the use of the internet. A fascinating detail, about which I had no idea, is that the Iranian government are moving into the cybersphere themselves; they have been training youth on how to blog, encouraging them to begin pro-regime blogs, drawing not just on young men but on young women as well (many students at the only women’s seminary in Iran, in, you guessed it, Qom).

The first speaker was something of an internet evangelist. Arguing that the freedom of expression and organisation that it allows was crucial to the protests last year, she also pointed towards lesser-known but still impressive uses of the internet, such as the aforementioned women’s movement which was by no means confined to middle-class ladies with laptops; she described how women, brought together by the internet, would then go out into the provinces and organise women en masse. The second speaker was more sceptical. A professor studying the Egyptian opposition and its use of new media, she raised a couple of important questions.

The first was: how new is this? She recalled Egypt in the 90s when tape-cassettes of Sheikh Iman, an iconic dissenting singer, were passed hand-to-hand; a system, like the internet, that is very difficult for a regime to control or trace. There has been a continuity between analogue and digital dissident media. She told another story about a strike in Mahalla al-Kubra (sound familiar?) in 1948 – by the next day, the newspapers were reporting on solidarity strikes in other industrial hubs of Egypt. 1948! To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what telecommunications were like in Egypt in the 40s, but you can bet they didn’t have YouTube. Despite high-profile social media-driven campaigns like that following the brutal murder of Khaled Said in June, we should not forget what people could achieve before social media, lest we let the means overtake the ends. This isn’t even something confined to some bygone era – think of Mahalla in 2008.

So she raised doubts (which I share) about how much digital media actually changes things. Hillary Clinton is convinced; she recently announced the creation of a fund for digital democracy in the Middle East. It’s a conviction that many in the West share, and many in the Middle East share, although I’m not so sure all would welcome Western involvement. Mohamed ElBaradei, perched uncomfortably and owlishly on the cutting edge of technology and new media, likes to make reference to his huge following on Facebook, as do many journalists. Yet 300,000 followers on Facebook does not a radical reconfiguration of Egyptian politics make. This, of course, is by no means the fault of those who use social media. It’s just that by focussing on social media trends we forget about those trends that have been ongoing; and by making social media an end in itself forget what the real ends are. I recalled a journalist friend in Cairo who complained that, whenever he wrote a story on the Egyptian opposition, he was asked to get the Facebook angle; social media makes things relevant, current, and exciting, but at what cost?

There’s a huge disparity in coverage (I speak mainly of Western coverage) of the different strands of opposition in Egypt, and I suspect this may have something to do with it. The social media-literate movements, like April 6 and Kifaya, get a lot of attention; a campaign like that for Khaled Said is extremely high-profile and effective. The workers’ movement, which (with notable exceptions, such as Karim ElBehairy) makes less use of Facebook, Youtube, etc, gets far less attention. On the other hand, most of the attention given to the Muslim Brotherhood, who are extremely web-literate and maintain a very slick English-language blog as well as their Arabic site and the blogs of individual activists, is negative; the narrative there is of Islamists ‘co-opting’ or ‘infiltrating’ the internet, as though what they are doing is in any way different.

An interesting question, as well, is that raised by Malcolm Gladwell in his recent essay for The New Yorker on social media and its uses for activism. He makes the point about devalorisation; that, paradoxically, as social activism has become democratised by new media, it has also been devalued. When you can just join a Facebook group, the very ease of such an action perhaps makes it worth less and say less. This links to the Egyptian government’s relative tolerance of cyberdissidence; it views the internet, I think, as a fairly safe space for the middle classes to let off steam, and lets it preserve a semblance of freedom of expression, just like its relative relaxation on freedom of the press (compared to, say, Syria). Whether this is a strategic move on the part of Mubarak’s government, or just technological ineptitude, is unknown. Yet despite the hopes of Hillary Clinton et al, I don’t think social media is the end, or even the means, of effecting real change in the Middle East. The revolution may be tweeted, but it will be happening on the ground.

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