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 The rebirth of Arab activism

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مُساهمةموضوع: The rebirth of Arab activism    الإثنين 3 يناير 2011 - 22:42



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Labels: Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, Iraqi Media, Iraqi Solidarity News, The UK, The USA






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The rebirth of Arab activism






Mohamed Bou'aziz, the young Tunisian who set fire to himself on December 17, is emerging as a symbol of the wider plight of the millions of young Arabs who are struggling to improve their living conditions.

Like many across the Arab world, Bou'aziz, who is now being treated for severe burns, discovered that a university degree was insufficient to secure decent employment. He turned to selling fruit for a living, but when the security forces confiscated his vending cart he torched himself - igniting a series of protests across Tunisia.

The roots of this Tunisian 'uprising' are to be found in a lethal combination of poverty, unemployment and political repression: three characteristics of most Arab societies.

Corruption, nepotism and inefficiency

Official figures place unemployment in the Arab world at 15 per cent but many economists believe the real rate is far higher than government supplied statistics suggest.

A joint study by the Arab League and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) indicates that in most Arab countries young people constitute 50 per cent of the unemployed - the highest rate in the world.

According to the same report, rates of poverty remain high - "reaching up to 40 per cent on average, which means that nearly 140 million Arabs continue to live under the upper poverty line". Worse still, the study noted that the region has seen no decrease in rates of poverty in the past 20 years.

The report was submitted to the Arab summit that convened in Kuwait in 2009, but found no real response from Arab officials - who continued to pursue economic policies that had, in their main outlines, been imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In most Arab countries, rampant corruption, nepotism and inefficiency have further aggravated the impact of IMF-inspired privatisation processes, austerity measures and the reduction or scrapping of government subsidies on fuel and staple foodstuffs.

Bread and couscous

It was, in fact, Tunisians who first rejected the then newly introduced IMF guidelines by protesting against resulting food shortages in January 1984. But the government of Habib Bourguiba, the then Tunisian president, cracked down on the bread riots, as they were called, and imposed nightly curfews to curb the protests.

But the Tunisian protests did not stop other governments from following suit and endorsing the 'economic liberalisation programme' dictated by the IMF and World Bank. In October 1988, violent protests swept Algeria as liberalisation policies were introduced. The 'couscous protests', as they became known, were led by young people who emulated the ongoing Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation by donning the Palestinian keffeya, burning tires and throwing stones at security forces.

The subsequent security crackdown resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the imprisonment of more than 1,000 people - serving to silence critics and pave the way for more governments to adopt IMF proposed austerity measures.

Less than a year later, Jordan reached an agreement with the IMF that involved decreasing government subsidies. This triggered hikes in fuel prices and resulted in protests in the southern cities of Ma'an and Karak. The government, like those of other Arab countries, responded by sending in the security forces to round up activists and protest leaders.

But the outcry, having shaken the bedrock of Hashemite support in the south of the country, prompted the late King Hussein to restore elections, lift three-decades old martial law and allow the existence of political parties in order to appease the opposition and to contain the growing anger.

The king's response was a success - particularly as parliamentary elections were held and political prisoners released. His subsequent refusal to join US-led coalition forces in the battle to free Kuwait and in the bombing of Iraq, a stance that corresponded with popular sentiment, also helped to ease the tensions that had arisen from his economic policies. Thus consecutive governments continued to 'liberalise the economy' - resulting in higher inflation rates and price hikes.

A prelude to political liberalism?

The US administrations of both George Bush senior, a Republican, and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, asserted pressure on Arab governments to pursue the 'neo-liberal economic model' promoted by American economist Milton Friedman.

Neo-liberalism marked a sharp retreat from the Keynesian model of government intervention through welfare policies to ensure some degree of social equilibrium within capitalist societies. With the collapse of the former Communist bloc, the promoters of neo-liberal economics sought to associate a free economy with a more politically free society.

During the 1990s, neo-liberal economics became more entrenched in Arab societies - producing a new elite of wealthy young capitalist entrepreneurs and prompting envy and discontent among the established elite who too rushed to join the new game.

Even many former leftist intellectuals, in the Arab world and beyond, espoused the new school of thought as a prelude to a politically liberal society - thus dampening opposition to economic policies that were increasing poverty and unemployment.

But political freedoms did not go hand-in-hand with economic liberalisation. In fact, in most Arab countries the governments asserted more control, while taking measures to undercut dissent and opposition.

In 1996, protests again erupted in the south of Jordan in response to increases in bread prices. The government responded with a security crackdown - but this time no widening political freedoms followed.

Crying out against injustice

It was not until the global economic crisis that the Arab world started to witness the recovery of popular opposition - first materialising in Egypt in 2007 and 2008. These strikes and protests were the first indications of a return to organised protests against political repression and poverty inducing economic policies.

These movements, ultimately unsuccessfully, brought students and workers together to challenge the apathy and disdain of the ruling elite to the suffering of the poor and marginalised. The political movement for change, led by Mohamed ElBaradei, to establish a democratic and participatory political system, reflected the merger of the discontented sectors of Egyptian society.

But it was Bou'aziz's heart-wrenching attempt to kill himself that most accurately represented the loud cry of the millions of impoverished and aching citizens against the yoke of politically and economically repressive systems. His act was one of extreme despair. But he is not alone. Lahseen Naji, another young Tunisian, followed - electrocuting himself to death - and at least five others attempted to commit suicide but were stopped.

In Jordan and some other Arab countries, frustration borne out of political and economic disenfranchisement has manifested itself in a higher rate of societal violence, especially among the young. The absence of strong political parties and movements are strengthening tribal rivalries among younger generations, often leading to armed clashes.

But Jordanian society has also witnessed this frustration being turned into affirmative action in the form of workers' and teachers' demands for improved working conditions. Jordan's teachers have emerged as an important force within the country, resisting government attempts to marginalise them and pushing their demand for the formation of a syndicate to protect their interests.

As the Tunisian protests continued, demonstrations took place in Algeria against a housing programme that failed to accommodate the thousands of families made homeless by the country's devastating 2003 earthquake.

Bou'aziz's wounds and Naji's death should not go down in history as mere tragic incidents: if the Tunisian protests do indeed signal the return of social movements to the Arab world, their stifled hopes may just be turned into an outcry against injustice.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect
Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


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Clashes follow Egypt church bombing






Clashes have flared in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria, following a car bombing blamed outside a Coptic Christian church that killed at least 21 people.

Police and Christian men faced off late on Saturday afternoon, with reports of rubber-coated bullets and tear gas being fired at crowds of young men.

Enraged Christians emerging from the Qiddissine (The Saints) Church fought with police and stormed a nearby mosque, prompting fights and volleys of stone throwing with Muslims.Authorities blamed the incident on a suicide bomber but provided no evidence to back up their claim.

Reporting for Al Jazeera, Nadia Abou El-Meg, a journalist in Alexandria, said: "This scene [of clashes] has been [witnessed] several times today. The protesters started gathering and throwing stones ... the police responded with tear gas.

"Tension is running very high and people are very angry ... We saw a lot of people weeping and screaming and asking why are they being attacked."The church has issued a statement which was also very angry, demanding justice, and criticising the performance of the government.

"More and more people are gathering as the night is falling. Many people are not buying this idea of the suicide bomber."The Copts are the biggest Christian community in the Middle East and account for up to 10 per cent of Egypt's 80m population.

No bombing claim

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday's bombing, which came as nearly 1,000 faithful left the Qiddissine Church, located in Alexandria's Sidi Bechr district.According to the Egyptian interior ministry, the car that exploded was parked in front of the church.

Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from the Egyptian capital Cairo, said that the car bomb probably involved sophisticated remote-control timer technology."Churches in Egypt are heavily guarded, so undoubtedly questions will arise about how a car was parked so close to the church and who was able to detonate it from a distance," he said.

While it was not known who was responsible for the blast, a group calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq had threatened the country's Coptic Christian community.Adel Labib, Alexandria's governor, has linked the attack to al-Qaida, but our correspondent says the government has not made clear who they were blaming for the bombing.

Plea for protection

The attack in Egypt prompted Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican to call for Christians throughout the Middle East to be protected.

The bombing comes almost two months to the day after an October 31 attack by Muslim fighters on Our Lady of Salvation church in central Baghdad, which left 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security forces members dead.Al-Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate claimed responsibility for that attack and made new threats against Christians.

The group threatened to attack Egyptian Copts if their church did not free two Christians it said had been "imprisoned in their monasteries" for having converted to Islam.The two women were Camilia Chehata and Wafa Constantine, the wives of Coptic priests whose claimed conversion caused a stir in Egypt.

Protection around Copt places of worship was discreetly stepped up after the threats, as Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, said he was committed to protecting the Christians "faced with the forces of terrorism and extremism".Egypt's Coptic Christians often complain of discrimination and have been the target of religious violence.

Repeated clashes

In 2006 a man attacked worshippers in three churches in Alexandria, killing one person and wounding others.

Authorities said at the time he had "psychiatric problems" but this was rejected by the Coptic community.Clashes broke out between Copts and Muslims the following day at the funeral of the victim, with one person killed and several wounded.

In November clashes took place in a southwestern neighbourhood of Cairo between Coptic demonstrators and police after local authorities refused to allow a community centre to be transformed into a church.

Two Christians died and dozens were wounded.

Al-Jazeera



At least 21 people killed after car bomb explodes outside church in the city of Alexandria. ( 01-Jan-2011 )






Copts mourned as the bodies of several blast victims were brought to ambulances in front of the Qiddissine Church [Reuters]


Copts in the port city protested outside the Qiddissine (The Saints) Church following the early-morning attack [AFP]


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A new attack on Iraqi Christians






The latest bloody attack on Iraq's Christians was brutal in its simplicity. Militants left a bomb on the doorstep of the home of an elderly Christian couple and rang the doorbell.

When Fawzi Rahim, 76, and his 78-year-old wife Janet Mekha answered the doorbell Thursday night, the bomb exploded, killing them, Mekha's brother told The Associated Press on Friday. Three other people, apparently passers-by, were wounded.

"When I went there, I found both of them cut to pieces near the gate of their house," said the brother, Falah al-Tabbakh, 47, who had been at a funeral nearby in the eastern Baghdad district of Ghadir. He rushed to his sister's house after neighbors called him, and they told him what happened, he said.

The bombing was among a string of seemingly coordinated attacks Thursday evening that targeted at least seven Christian homes in various parts of Baghdad that wounded at least 13 other people, a week after al-Qaida-linked militants renewed their threats to attack Iraq's Christians.

The attacks are the latest since an Oct. 31 siege of a Baghdad church by al-Qaida killed 68 worshippers, terrifying the minority community, whose numbers have already fallen dramatically in the past seven years of violence in Iraq.The repeated attacks have infuriated many Christians who question why the government seems unable to protect them despite its repeated promises since the church siege to do so.

"The Christians in Iraq are always targeted because they do not have militias and they do not believe in the power of weapons," said Father Nadhir Dakko, a priest at St. George Chaldean Church, who performed the funeral service for the slain couple.

Speaking to reporters after the service, Dakko railed against what he called the government's inability to "establish peace and security" for all Iraqis, Muslim and Christian. All Iraqis are suffering, he said, but the situation is harder for Christians because they are a minority.

"Iraq is bleeding every day," he said.

The government, while calling on Christians not to flee Iraq, has beefed up security around churches and dispatched extra police patrols in Christian neighborhoods. They've placed concrete blast walls around the Our Lady of Salvation church where the siege occurred.

Still, authorities and Christian leaders have acknowledged that security forces cannot protect every single house, and asked Christians to be vigilant. Violence has gone down across the country the past two years, but the government still struggles to protect even its own police forces.

Iraq's violence has struck all its various religious groups, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But the ranks of Christians have been particularly depleted, in part because their numbers were not large to begin with — estimated at 1.4 million before the war. Now an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Christians are left, according to a recent U.S. State Department report.

The Ghadir district where the elderly couple were killed shows the signs of the flight. In the past its population was predominantly Christian, with some Sunni Muslims. Both communities have fled in large numbers since 2003, and many houses have since been bought by Shiites from the nearby Shiite stronghold of Sadr City.

Al-Tabbakh said his sister's children had left Iraq even before 2003, but that his sister and her husbands were holdouts, determined to stay in their homes."Today, we stand next to two martyrs whose crime was that they preferred to stay in their country," Dakko, the priest, told the congregation in the funeral service.

Christians have been targeted in the past. But the October church siege was the deadliest ever, and it was followed by several dire warnings from al-Qaida's branch in Iraq that it intends to directly target the community. That prompted several thousand Christians to flee Baghdad for the relative safety of the Kurdish-run north in the past two months.

Father Mukhlis, a priest at Our Lady of Salvation church, the target of the October siege, said as many as 12 violent incidents occurred against Christian homes across the capital Thursday night.Police officials confirmed seven attacks against Christian homes. They and hospital officials confirmed the deaths of Rahim and Mekha and 13 wounded in the various attacks. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

In the other attacks Thursday night, four bombings targeting Christians wounded six people. A stun grenade landed inside a Christian house in the Dora district in southern Baghdad, injuring three others, and a rocket hit a Christian home in downtown Baghdad, wounding one person.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but such attacks have generally been the work of Sunni militants linked to al-Qaida.Deputy interior minister, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Abu Ragif, blamed Thursday's attacks on "terrorists who expressed hatred of Iraq in general and of the Christians in particular," Ragif said. The assailants' aim was to "prevent our Christian brothers to celebrate the New Year," he added.

At the Our Lady of Salvation church, both Christians and Muslims gathered Friday morning in a show of solidarity and to see a play performed by Iraqi actors about a woman whose son is killed in the church siege.

One Muslim woman said she wanted to demonstrate to the Christian community that they are not alone."What has happened in this church was so painful to all of us. We wish that we died instead of them. Those who plan to steal Iraq won't succeed because we all share joy and sadness together," said Hiba Shihab.

Saad Abdul-Kadir contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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