Friday, February 25, 2011

Libya: Learning from a Rhyme

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." This children's rhyme rings particularly true as we watch Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi massacre his people en masse in the dusty streets of his North African country.

Over the last few days, the international community witnessed an outpour of words against the news of foreign mercenaries shooting and raping the Libyan populace, the wholesale bombing of civilian neighborhoods, and Gaddafi's outright threats to burn the whole country down. As the Libyan government's violence against its people escalates, it is clear that these words have not ended Gaddafi's massacres or pushed him out of power. The power of words against Gaddafi has faded. Recognizing this, the international community must now move from words to action.

Although the U.S. finally stated today that it will impose some form of sanctions on the current Libyan government (even though what these sanctions will actually mean is unclear), most of the international community is hesitating to take similar or stronger stances. Sadly, this is because of one major reason: Libya is the first major oil-producing country to be swept by the last two months' waves of Arab pro-democracy protests. Since Libya sends 85% of its oil to Europe, unrest threatens European countries' current access to this fossil fuel.

But as Libya represents only 2% of world production, Western nations with oil interests in the region are more afraid of the domino affect Libya could start in Arab oil-producing nations. Unrest in the Middle East has pushed oil prices to two-and-a-half year highs, and oil-consuming nations fear further unrest could send those prices even higher.

But is international paralysis towards Libya warranted? The winds of change are blowing in the Middle East, whether the region's dictators or their interest-driven supporters like it or not. Eighties-style dictatorship is simply not sustainable anymore, and the Arab people will push to set up democracy in this outdated political system's place.

The international community can either help speed up this process so that political and economic relations with the region improve sooner than later, or it can stall the process through inaction. If it chooses the latter, it will ensure that instability will fester longer than necessary in the region. And it will have Arab democracies run by populaces furious with the international community's backing of brutal dictatorships that deprived them of their most basic rights for decades. Try having good political and economic relations with these states then.

International leaders must recognize the above reality. That recognition, coupled with their own admissions of horror at the atrocities taking place in Libya, must lead them to act against Gaddafi.

Over the past few days, the UN's high commissioner for human rights declared that widespread and systematic attacks against civilians "may amount to crimes against humanity." German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Gaddafi's speech was "very, very appalling" and "amounted to him declaring war on his own people." And finally, the UN human rights head publicly stated that reports of thousands of people killed in the violence in Libya are highly likely.

What more do we need to know before acting against Colonel Gaddafi? His speeches over the last several days gave the green light for more massacres to occur, and rumors say that he is considering blowing up Libya's oil pipelines.

As the classic nursery rhyme tells us, words against this man are useless. The whole international community must take direct action against Gaddafi in the form of sanctions, the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to end the bombing of civilians, and the severing of all ties with his regime. These are the sticks and stones that can break the bones of one of the Middle East's most notorious dictatorships and establish the beginning of a democracy there, benefiting both Libyans and the world at large.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Vocabulary of Freedom

Sometimes, it's hard to look past the corruption and injustice facing people here in the Arab World. Especially since these two adjectives, "corruption" and "injustice," describe almost a century of this region's history.

But now, Arabs are writing a new history for themselves, with a whole new vocabulary. First in Tunisia, then in Egypt, then who knows where tomorrow, the words surrounding "defeat" and "oppression" are making way for "freedom," "equality," "prosperity" - and finally, "happiness."

The number of people pouring out into the streets of the Arab World, speaking the vocabulary of freedom, is rising. The new words they learned to say out loud in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt are echoing everywhere between Morocco and Bahrain. These words have more power than any found in the old vocabulary of defeat. That is why rulers' calls to end protests in the name of "security" and "stability" are falling on deaf ears. These words and phrases have long been the shackles used to keep a corrupt elite in power. They've been much too overused, and so, like any over-played song on the radio, have lost their effect.

Blogger Osama Romoh's amused surprise at Arab leaders' thoughtless parroting of this old vocabulary, even after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, brought a smile to many a reader's face. "It looks like 'some' Arab leaders learned nothing," he wrote humorously, describing how these leaders are acting in a way that is making the new wave of Arab protests across the region follow the footsteps of their Tunisian and Egyptian predecessors. "I'm starting to doubt their mental abilities," he ended, thinking that perhaps their inability to comprehend the changes sweeping the Arab World signals that they should all go in for I.Q. tests.

It looks like the vocabulary piecing together today's new Arab history is incomprehensible only to some leaders whose interests lie in the old order. Everyone else not only understands the new vocabulary, but uses it too. And not just on the streets in protests. This new vocabulary is getting into the very heart of Arab culture, making itself heard at the dinner table, at the office, and in the songs celebrating the newfound sense of Arab freedom.

In fact, Arabic music probably shows one of the clearest examples of this shift in vocabulary. Once infamous for it's shallow "habibi, habibi" pop, Arabic music is now addressing peoples' hopes, fears, and questions about the future - like real art should.

I leave you with a song composed, performed, and produced by a group of young Egyptians who were in Tahrir Square. It is called "The Sound of Freedom."

Enjoy the sweet ring of this new vocabulary.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Revolutions Continue

It's hard to be all the way out here in Dubai while pro-reform and pro-democracy demonstrations are taking place just about everywhere else in the Arab World. Like Wael Ghonim said, we're living an ideal life here. We've got the nicest houses, the nicest cars. All the world's greatest restaurants and hotels are just a short drive away. In a lot of ways, living here is like living in a dream.

But the protests and the demonstrations in the rest of this region are still going on. Reports of 84 dead in Libya and at least 5 dead in Yemen show that the autocratic authorities in the Middle East will not let their hold on power loosen easily.

And in the midst of all this, I was on vacation in Oman for the last two days, enjoying the view of pastel-colored mountains and ocean set against the sky. Is that fair?

Revolution is brewing, revolution is brewing. And I find myself here, sitting helpless at my computer.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

From Egypt to Bahrain

As Egypt tries to return to daily life, protests in the rest of the Middle East are bubbling up. The protests in Iran and Yemen over the last few days are getting lots of media attention. Let's hope that media spotlight keeps the protesters safer than they would be otherwise.

Bahrain, however, is given less air time. The protests that took place on February 13th and 14th, the second of which was called the Gulf state's "Day of Rage," have left at least 3 people in critical condition and 1 man dead. A video of the protests is spreading through Twitter. Watch it here:

To quote @JustAmira, "Look at how they shoot at close range. Please spread this video."

This is a protest that needs to get more media attention - at least to keep the security forces marginally more timid about attacking demonstrators.

Take a look at the pictures below, courtesy of Al Jazeea English.

Protests in Bahrain

Protests in Bahrain

Protests in Bahrain

Protests in Bahrain

Please share, and start talking about the protests in Bahrain. That is the first step towards a global discussion on the issue. And by starting this global discussion, we can keep the people of Bahrain safer than they would be otherwise.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mabrouk, not Mubarak

For the last thirty years, Egypt has been defined by the name of its leader, Mubarak. Now, three days after the ousting of this man and its streets still full of victorious protestors, it's defined by the Arabic word for congratulations, mabrouk.

Mabrouk, Egypt. After three decades of corruption and state terror, you came out on top. We're all praying that you stick to the path you're on, and become the first (or second, after Tunisia) real Arab democracy.

I think the best way to highlight this special moment is to share the experiences of an Egyptian friend who celebrated the fall of Mubarak with her fellow citizens at Tahrir Square.

Here is a note Yasmin Nouh wrote on her Facebook profile earlier today. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

If you want democracy, you will find it in Maydan Tahrir

First, May God reward the Egyptians with a smooth transition into democracy and a just leadership. Second, this post is a little overdue.

--- Parts from a day in Tahrir -- Wednesday, February 9, 2010

Although the entrance was lined with tanks and gun-clad soldiers, I felt like I was entering a sanctuary. A group of young men welcomed us with cheery chants, rhythmic drumbeats and warm smiles.

If you want democracy, you will find it in Maydan Tahrir – free, open and safe. I had entered a realm that did justice to one of the revolution's slogans: 2eed wahid. One hand. I found myself among artists, poets, doctors, engineers, farmers, the rich, the poor, families, children, Christians, Muslims, youth activists and those who were previously indifferent, the secular and the religious, all united against injustice.

As one poster in the square put it, "May God forgive you Mubarak. You made us Egyptians all love one another."

The people entering the square were divided into two areas – one where the men searched men and the other where the women searched women.

I was searched at three different checkpoints, one after the other upon entering the square. I was searched not by the army, but by the protesters. My broken Arabic made the first two women smile.

“I forgot my ID at my house,” I said.

The lady at the last checkpoint laughed at me, and said the same thing as the first two women.

“It’s fine. It’s fine. Not a problem. Just bring it next time, okay?” After a pat down, I was let through and entered a world completely different from the Cairo I had been living in. Clean, vibrant, and for the first time, I saw smiles emanating a fight for hope instead of a sorry acceptance of loss.


Inside Tahrir, you will find a makeshift medical clinic near the entrance. It wasn’t located in the center of the square, because the fights between the pro-democracy protesters and the pro-Mubarak thugs took place near the entrance.

You will find multiple memorials honoring the 300+ revolutionary martyrs who died during the clashes.

You will find a large poster of the youngest martyr – a boy of nine – hung up behind the main stage area, along with many other signs with revolutionary chants written on them.

Outside Maydan Tahrir, in the rest of the city, you will find enormous piles of trash on the streets and their corners. Inside, you will find young men and women picking up newspaper remnants, garbage and plastic bottles, separating wastes from recyclables. They will ask you whether you have any trash, substituting the word trash for Mubarak.

“Do you have any Mubarak you would like to throw away?”

No. I had nothing on me, not even a small scrap. I looked at the ground to find a piece of newspaper, anything to throw away the regime, but there was nothing.

You will find men and women in sleeping bags nestled at the foot of a few army tanks.

"So they don't move," they explained to passerbys. And the tanks did not move - neither them nor the people camped underneath.

And when the time for prayer came, thousands formed into straight rows. And around them, others locked arms to protect those who prayed from the overwhelming crowd of people. Chainsmokers locked arms with Muslim scholars, and businessmen with villagers. Christians, even though they weren’t praying with the Muslims, would repeat the Imam’s takbeerat*, because it was so noisy, to help the Muslims in the back rows follow the prayer.

Inside Tahrir, you will find children on their fathers’ shoulders, waving shiny Egyptian flags, leading chants among the protesters. I saw one boy, maybe no more than 10 years old, with a bright face, but an aged voice.

“Ya Mubarak Ya Khasees, dem al-Masri mish rakhees.” (Oh Mubarak, You betrayer, the blood of an Egyptian is not cheap).

You will find women in niqab yelling at the top of their lungs, “Mish hanimshee, huwa yimshee.” (We’re not going away. He is going away). They broke stereotypes imposed on them (by the West and East alike) in minutes. They were not quiet nor meek and the only thing that had been oppressing them was their government, not the veils wrapped across their faces.

You will find women walking in business suits, some were foreign journalists and others were Egyptian workingwomen.

You will find vendors selling bread and traditional Egyptian desserts.

“Want Kentucky?” Some of them would jokingly ask.

(Some people claimed on Egyptian state television that the protesters were being paid and receiving free meals from KFC to protest against Mubarak).

You will find young men carrying bags of cheese and meat sandwiches, asking people in the crowds if they had eaten lunch. They would do the same thing later on for dinner.

You will find people selling red, white and black headbands - the colors of the Egyptian flag.

You will find white-bearded men side-by-side with youth chanting underneath a large Egyptian flag “Al-sha3ab yureed isqat al-nitham.” (The people want the order to fall down).

You will find groups of men and women with anger in their eyes, sitting down in the middle of the square and staring out into the crowds. You will find others with their heads down, reading the Egyptian newspapers. And others jogging across the square screaming chants.

You will find an old fala7i (villager), selling his shoes for seventy billion pounds (the same amount that Hosni Mubarak allegedly holds in his assets).

You will find groups of young women, who, for the first time, looked safe, in the place that was once infamously known for incessant cat-calling and hoot-hollering from men who had nothing better to do.

But now those same men had something better to do. They finally had an outlet, a way to express their frustrations in a dignified manner, instead of through self-demeaning cat-calls.

You will find a city of tents, where people of all different classes, ages and colors camped out, and were being served tea and sandwiches. Some looked calm and content; I could hardly see what the past 30 years had done to them. Others looked apprehensive and worried, waiting to revive a strong memory of better days that were too far behind them (Egypt used to be known as the Paris of the Middle East).

At the main stage area, a group of well-known Egyptian academics and leaders from various opposition parties spoke, ending each speech with a revolutionary chant. And although they were prominent and well-respected, it was clear who the real leaders on stage were - twenty and thirty-something year olds directing the stage, announcing updates in between speeches and paying close attention to the crowds' movements.

Right before maghrib prayer, a man from an opposition party said something I can never forget: "They say we can't have a democracy. They say we don't know what democracy is." He paused and pointed at the crowd. "We say, look at Tahrir sqaure. Look at everyone in Tahrir square, and right here is where they'll find the real democracy."

His words were immediately followed by cheers and then the mantra for the day echoed throughout the crowd, "2eed wahid. 2eed wahid." One hand..

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Friday of Martyrs

Yesterday's eagerly-awaited speech by Mubarak was a complete let-down. After the military came out and issued "Communique #1," everyone thought that a military coup was about to take place. That wasn't what Egyptians wanted - they are protesting to create a secular democracy, not a military dictatorship. But it was a step forward. Mubarak was at least going to step down. And that was something to celebrate.

And celebrate they did. Egyptians filled the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, laughing and dancing and waving flags. The days of Mubarak - who was the only leader many of the under-30 demonstrators knew - were coming to an end.

Then Mubarak spoke. And the demonstrators knew that this was no end. It was the beginning. The beginning of another period of sacrifice and struggle against this man whose ego is so big it is covering the reality that sits in front of his eyes. The people of Egypt have had enough of 30 years of corruption, paternalism, and state terror. Raising their shoes as he spoke (the ultimate insult in Egyptian culture) they made it clear that they have had enough of Mubarak. He has to go. And the Egyptian people are willing to let their blood spill to make that happen.

Blood may well spill. Today, after Friday Prayer, Egyptians had planned what they called the "Friday of Martyrs." This march is supposed to be a memorial for the over 300 men and women who died in the last 18 days of revolution. But with Mubarak's denial to step down and his promise to punish those who caused "disorder" in Egypt, today's "Friday of Martyrs" may be named after all the protesters who will die as they move to surround (and perhaps storm) the palace, the parliament, and the state-owned television and radio building. With the army stationed there to protect those areas, it is unclear what will happen.

In fact, the army is the tipping point in this revolution. The big question on the streets and news stations is: where does the army's loyalty lie? Th army's "Communique #1" and it's promise that the protester's demands will be "fully met" made people believe that a coup had taken place yesterday. It seems that was not the case. Was the army just helping Mubarak play his last trick on the Egyptian people? Or is there some sort of power-jockeying going on behind the scenes, with the army's "Communique #1" an attempt at pressuring Mubarak to step down?

Today, we will find out. As one Arab commentator said, the people will test the army this afternoon. This highly-regarded institution can no long make vague statements that allow it to sit on the sidelines. The Egyptian people will make its true intentions come to light as they march on the symbols of Mubarak's regime. Either the army will unite with the people, making this "Friday of Martyrs" a celebration of the freedom people have died for, or the army will back Mubarak, making this day live up to its name with horrifying amounts of blood spilling and bodies falling to the ground.

It is up to the army now. We can only pray that this instutution so highly treasured by Egyptians lives up to their, and our, expectations.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The New Arab

Young, worldly, passionate, internet-savvy, and fearless. This is the new Arab face that the political developments of the last few weeks have unveiled to the world. First in Tunisia and now in Egypt, millions of young Arabs have taken to the streets. Their demands for governmental overhauls are fueled by liberal democratic values, their marches are organized through Facebook and Twitter, and their chants for change ring out in both Arabic and English. A far cry from the image of downtrodden people and reactionary terrorists, this is the globalized Arab generation that is stepping out onto the world stage.

The recently released Wael Ghonim is now perhaps the most famous representation of this new Arab face. Senior Google executive by day, he is pro-democracy activist by night. The 30-year-old’s Facebook page, “We are all Khaled Said,” detailed the brutal murder of a young man by Egyptian police and became one of the engines that drove Egypt to its “March of Millions.”
Ghonim gained international fame when he was kidnapped by Egyptian security on January 27th as he made his way to Tahrir Square. After his release from detention twelve days later, he gave an emotional interview in which he cried openly for the Egyptians who died in the protests but stressed that Egypt had to keep moving forward.

Having no affiliations with any political groups or ideologies, Ghonim represents the independent, average young Egyptian. This, combined with his bravery in confronting the government, has made him a favorite to lead the so-called “Youth of the Revolution.” A Facebook page asking him to lead the young demonstrators has, at this writing, already gathered over 124,000 supporters.

Down in the streets of Egypt’s major cities, the protesters inspired by the work of Ghonim and other activists are also reflecting the spirit of the new Arab. Aware of the need to cooperate with the international community, they decided to officially make their protests bilingual “for the sake of the international news agencies” that were covering the event, as one man on a megaphone announced to the thousands chanting after him. Immediately, the crowd switched from the Arabic chant “hurriya!” (“freedom!”) to English, saying “Mubarak has to go! Game over, game over!”

But the protesters didn’t stop there. Aside from international sensitivity, their incarnation as the new Arab displayed impressive courage and organization. While some lay down just inches away from the wheels of tanks so that the army could not enter Tahrir Square, others set up a “trash-collecting party” to keep the area clean. Elsewhere in the square, protesters set up everything from a hospital to a comic strip exhibition in the tents they had set up. According to various Tweets, they were even working together to come up with new ways to go to the bathroom without leaving the Square. Interviews with protester after protester showed that they were determined to stay highly organized to ensure that they could live up to their promise: “we’re staying here until the President leaves.”

While Ghonim and his compatriots have captured the world’s attention, young Arabs across the Middle East are beginning their own transformations into the new Arab. Away from the international lens, activists in Algeria, Syria and Saudi Arabia are stirring the local waters – quite literally, in the Saudi case. After a recent storm drowned the city of Jeddah for the third time in as many years, furious citizens raged against the government’s unwillingness to rebuild the city in countless YouTube videos and online articles. The average Saudi’s frustration spilled onto the street, with around fifty protesters leading a peaceful march through Jeddah. Terrified of what such marches could lead to, the Saudi government quickly dispersed the protesters – but only those operating outside cyberspace.

The face of the new Arab is quickly emerging in the Middle East. Autocratic Arab governments are terrified of it, while the international community is slow to recognize it. But this new Arab face, with its dedication to freedom, focus on democracy, and fluency in the technology that binds us all, will soon overcome its challengers and win the affections of its global peers. Then, it can step up to the international stage as a positive, progressive partner. With the Middle East so central to world politics, that can’t happen soon enough.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt - Breaking the Silence

The events happening in Tunisia and Egypt are helping Arabs in the Middle East and around the world speak out even louder against the autocratic regimes that have kept the region in stagnation for so long.

Arabs are shocked, nearly unable to believe that this inspirational surge towards freedom is coming from their own people. And they are proud, very proud, to be living this historic moment. Those of them who have long been speaking have raised their voices, and those who said nothing are now breaking their silence.

As the protests in Egypt and the developments across the Arab World unfold, my months-long online silence comes to an end. Sitting back and merely watching these events is no longer an option. It is time to act. Anyone dreaming of a better Middle East must act now, using whatever opportunity or talent they have to add fuel to a movement that is changing the face of the region forever. Painters, singers, protesters, news anchors - now is your time.

As for myself, I love stringing words together. So I will write.