"Libya Is Not Safe for You If You Want to Speak Your Mind"
Hassan al-Amin is a long-time activist for human rights in Libya. He left Libya in 1983 under duress from the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. In his London exile, al-Amin founded the dissident website Libya al-Mustaqbal (The Future Libya). He returned to his native city of Misrata in June 2011, in the midst of the rebellion against Qaddafi. Al-Amin was subsequently an independent member of Libya’s first elected parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), from Misrata and a member of the Human Rights and Civil Society Committee. He fled Libya again in March 2013. Later that year he was given Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges award for extraordinary activism. Anjali Kamat spoke to him on August 29, 2014 and transcribed the interview.
Why did you resign from the GNC and return to exile?
I left Libya because I reached the conclusion there was no way I could work with the GNC. I left because the GNC reached a point where it was so divided that someone who is independent like myself could not survive. Most of its members were either militiamen themselves or had strong ties with the militias. The GNC collapsed into several different entities.
I was also one of the very first to speak loudly and clearly against the militias, against these so-called revolutionaries and their abuses of human rights.
So I started getting threats, and I left because I no longer felt safe in my country. It became exactly as it was during Qaddafi’s time. For me, a country is a country where I can live with dignity and safety. Once those two things are gone there is no reason for me to be there. I reached the conclusion that I could do more for my country from outside, speaking my mind, telling the world what is happening, especially as far as human rights are concerned. I can also speak to the Libyan people from the outside without having to fear anything.
And look at what happened after I left. Look how many human rights activists and journalists have been killed: Salwa Bugaighis, Muftah Abu Zayd and ‘Abd al-Salam al-Mismari. Look at how many activists and journalists have fled the country. You will find them in Tunisia, Egypt and Malta. Libya is no longer safe for you if you want to speak your mind.
Who are the main players on the ground today?
There are so many different players, and so many different alliances being made -- but these are not based on ideology or firm principles. They are all tactical alliances that could fall apart at any time. Those who are together today might be fighting each other tomorrow. It’s a complete mess.
There are many different kinds of Islamists, ranging from the Libyan Society of Muslim Brothers to Ansar al-Shari‘a, a salafi grouping. And then you’ve got the militias, some of them coming from cities, like Misrata and Zintan, and others loyal to individual warlords, like Haytham al-Tajouri, ‘Abd al-Ra’uf Kara and ‘Abd al-Ghani Kikli, better known as Ghunaywa. [These men led local brigades against Qaddafi during the uprising and then became commanders under the Supreme Security Committees, set up by the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli in October 2011. – Eds.]
Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) is the latest alliance between Islamists and some of the militias from Misrata.
Then there’s Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, but to be honest, it’s not regarded as a national army. It is also a group on its own. [Haftar, a former officer under Qaddafi, came to prominence in May with a wave of attacks on Islamist militias in Benghazi and the parliament in Tripoli. – Eds.]
I know people are talking about dialogue all the time. But dialogue with whom and about what? In my opinion, most of the political and military players on the ground are not capable of establishing a state. Most of them lack political experience. They emerged from the war to unseat Qaddafi, and managed to gain money and authority very quickly, sometimes supported by local and tribal interests. I cannot see any dialogue between them that can produce a meaningful settlement.
And that’s why I still insist that the main thing for Libya to do is to get rid of the arms, to get rid of these militias. Given that they exist, some try to make them into real players who you should talk to. Even the Americans are advocating this in many ways. I say no. This is not going to work. These people have committed so many crimes. They cannot be part of the solution.
What do you make of the parliament elected on June 25 that is now convening in Tobruk and the rival administration declared in Tripoli by members of the GNC? Are there two governments in Libya?
There is no state in Libya. It’s chaos.
I still think that people should rally around this fragile new parliament in Tobruk because it’s obvious that the GNC has failed completely. It’s over and done with, and it is responsible for the chaos we are in.
Nouri Abu Sahmayn (a pro-Islamist politician and former president of the GNC ) is aligned with the mufti of Tripoli, Sadiq al-Gharyani, and the militias that have taken over Tripoli, like the Libyan Revolutionaries Operation Room (an alliance of Islamist militias) and those from Misrata. The Islamists lost the elections this summer and they don’t want to give up power. What’s happening in Tripoli is a coup against the building of the state. That is how I see it. And they are not going to give up easily.
On the other hand, I think the parliament in Tobruk should be very careful. They issued a press release classifying Ansar al-Shari‘a and the Fajr Libya coalition as terrorist groups.
I think this is a big mistake. There is no problem with so classifying Ansar al-Shari‘a because they have made it obvious that they are against the state and against the democratic process. But to include Fajr Libya, even though I don’t agree with what they’ve done, is only going to make the situation worse. Especially when the press release states that the “national army” will deal with them. What national army? Do they mean Haftar? That would be a mistake -- it could strengthen the appeal of ideas promoted by the opposition (the Islamists) that the parliament has been hijacked by Haftar and by the eastern part of the country and the federalists. [Haftar has some support among advocates of federalism in oil-rich, historically marginalized eastern Libya, including one of his key allies, Ibrahim al-Jadhran. The former head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, al-Jadhran accused the government of corruption in oil sales and implemented a blockade on export terminals in the east in 2013. – Eds.]
How popular is Khalifa Haftar and how much power does he have?
Haftar has never been popular in Libya. He has ambition, no doubt about that. But he never really had a lot of support in the army or among the revolutionary groups. He has entered into tactical alliances with Ibrahim al-Jadhran and the al-Qaqa and Sawa‘iq brigades (from the west of the country near Zintan).
What is unfolding in Tripoli is a reaction to what Haftar has done. Haftar’s alliances send a very clear message to the Islamists and the so-called revolutionaries in Misrata: A member of the junta that launched the coup with Qaddafi in 1969, Haftar is now allying with al-Qaqa and al-Sawa‘iq, which have pro-Qaddafi elements, and al-Jadhran, who has cost the country billions of dollars in lost oil revenue. When you add up everything you can understand what’s happening in Tripoli. It’s all linked.
There are over 200 brigades in Misrata that form a powerful fighting force. The impression is that many of them are Islamists.
Most of the Misrata militias are not ideological in any sense. They are based on neighborhood, tribe and kinship. There aren’t any militias in Misrata that you could call Islamist. Those leading the political scene in Misrata have fallen into the trap of believing they are fighting pro-Qaddafi elements and protecting the revolution. The Islamists, and the Muslim Brothers in particular, have been playing on the idea of a counter-revolution and Qaddafi people returning to power. This is why you have Misratans defending them in Tripoli. So this is the game that I’ve been talking about, fragile tactical alliances that aren’t necessarily going to last. People like Salah Badi (a Misratan militia leader) aren’t that powerful on their own, but he has a large militia and is influenced by people like the mufti. The stupidity of some of the militias in Misrata is that they believe they have God-given permission to sort out problems in Libya. When Misrata started receiving dead bodies from fighting in Tripoli, the people there had no option but to support the militias’ intervention, even if they disagreed with it. And people were afraid to speak out, because they would be labeled traitors.
Who do you hold responsible for the way things have turned out in Libya?
Many different groups have made many mistakes: the NTC, the GNC, intellectuals in Libya, the international community and the militias.
We warned the NTC about the militias from early on. We suggested that they really had to prepare for these guys coming back from the front. We talked about the importance of reconciliation from the beginning. We said Libya would not be able to move forward without this process, which should be the priority. Nobody listened.
During the elections for the GNC on July 7, 2012, things were a lot better than now. It was a promising time despite everything. What happened is that the militias, and those people whose aim was just to get power, gained ground because of our failures. We missed our chance at the GNC. We could have done it in the early days if we had been brave enough. The people were behind us. They were not as confused as they are now. The militias were not as strong. It was in our hands. We almost got there. But the GNC disintegrated and there were too many people whose only interest was holding on to power. We went about things in completely the wrong way.
The GNC passed the political isolation law (that banned former members of the Qaddafi regime from participating in political life). It’s one thing to hold senior people, symbols of the old regime, accountable for what they did. But to have an isolation law that denies Libya the services of many thousands of experts in lower middle management -- that’s ridiculous.
I think the Islamists, including the Brothers, were the main group that harmed the process. They were not inclusive, and acted like they wanted all or nothing. They are not powerful in terms of numbers but they are better organized. And they are very well funded. We said to them so many times, “Please, let us agree on the rules of the game. Let us establish the state, and after that let’s compete in fair elections.” But no, they wanted to have it their own way. Nobody was willing to compromise; nobody was willing to listen to the other.
We are a very wealthy nation. This cake is big enough to be divided among each one of us, with a surplus, so what they’re doing now is complete madness.
I must also admit that the civil movement in Libya is very weak. It’s not well organized and it’s fragmented. People are working on an individual basis. We’re having difficulties getting everybody together. So the Libyan civil movement, including writers, academics and the intelligentsia, have all failed this revolution.
As for the international community, instead of carrying on its work in Libya under the banner of the United Nations, after the liberation everybody went his own way. Instead of empowering institutions, supporting the GNC or helping with capacity building, the outside powers started talking directly to specific groups and militias. They actually empowered those forces instead of the state.
Who in the international community do you blame? How influential are outside players in Libya today?
I blame them all. I blame the NATO alliance, which did not continue its task in a proper way. Each country pursued its own agenda instead of working together to support the emerging institutions in Libya. I blame them for giving Qatar a free hand in Libya. That wasn’t very useful at all. And we came to understand that regional powers, countries like Algeria, Egypt and others in the Gulf, have their own agendas in Libya.
There is no doubt that last month’s airstrikes on Islamist positions in Libya came from outside the country. I cannot really pinpoint who is responsible, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Egypt had something to do with it, with the support of the United Arab Emirates and possibly some kind of green light from the greater powers.
But, again, to be quite honest -- and I have always maintained this -- any country in the world, when it gets a chance to have influence in another country, to gain access to something or another, will do it. That is how countries work. So I don’t blame anybody as much as ourselves, our mistakes, the things that we overlooked.
Is there a way out of the current crisis?
To be quite honest, for things to get better they will have to get worse. Politically, we are at a dead end. It seems like everybody is holding his ground. Nobody wants to be flexible. Nobody wants to give an inch. The proliferation of arms among the militias is only increasing political stubbornness.
I think the people in Libya are completely disillusioned. That is the real problem, because that’s where the solution lies. But you’ve got a population that’s divided and confused about who is right and who is wrong. And the media is also taking sides. There is no neutral media outlet in Libya: They are either with Haftar or with the Islamists.
We are counting on the parliament in Tobruk to get its act together. If this parliament disintegrates, I would say it’s over. If the parliament makes dozens of committees, I don’t think they’re going to be able to do meaningful work. Its main task is to deal with the militias and the arms. Can they come up with a clear plan that states exactly what the Libyans can do and what it is they need from the UN in order to sort this out? That’s what we’re hoping for.
It must be very painful, having to flee Libya again and watching the situation there deteriorate every day.
Painful is not the word -- believe me. I am distraught. I am absolutely in pieces.
Looking back at the day when I arrived in Misrata -- the people united, the spirit, the determination, the hopes, the aspirations. And eventually we actually got rid of Qaddafi. We did everything we wanted and then we destroyed it with our own hands.
Sometimes I say to myself that I’ve done what I can for my country. Now there is a new generation -- revolutionaries, whatever you call them. OK, if this is how they want their country, fine. Take it. I’ve done my bit. My conscience is clear. I never stopped fighting for freedom and human rights in Libya. But deep down I come back and I say, “No way. No way am I going to give up on this country, after all that we’ve done and the enormous price we’ve paid.” There is no way that we’re going to leave Libya to these thugs to destroy it.
Educational Aftershocks for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
More than 50 percent of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon are 17 or younger. Back home the great majority of them were in school. But youth who try to continue their education in Lebanon face social, economic and bureaucratic obstacles. The cost can be so steep that their parents may opt to keep them at home. There is a lengthy wait list to attend Lebanese public schools, which are soliciting outside donations to pay teachers and other staff for a second shift made up of refugee children. There is outright hostility in the Lebanese government to the idea of hosting refugees from Syria indefinitely.
Two long-term consequences of the educational system stand out.
First, schisms are forming along lines of national identity.
In Lebanon, refugees from Syria fall into two main national groups: Syrian nationals (possessing Syrian IDs and passports) and Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria (and who carry Palestinian IDs and travel documents). In Lebanon, there are currently 1,176,971 registered Syrian refugees and approximately 53,070 Palestinian refugees from Syria (abbreviated as “PRS” by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies). In pre-war Syria, students from both groups attended school and university together and had functionally equal access to education. In Lebanon, due to their status as Palestinian refugees, PRS have the right to attend schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which are located in or near existing Palestinian refugee camps and communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which registers and provides aid to all non-Palestinian refugees, does not run schools. UNICEF did, however, provide heating fuel to schools with Syrian students during the past winter.
Syrians must attempt to enroll in Lebanese public schools, pay tuition at private facilities or attend unofficial programs run by NGOs. The dropout rate for Syrian students in Lebanese public schools is approximately 70 percent. Illustrating one reason for this statistic, one Syrian mother noted that she desperately wanted her 9-year old, Mazin, to attend school but that he was “humiliated and beaten there.” Mazin reported that Lebanese students targeted him because he was behind, especially in science and math. These subjects are taught in Arabic in Syria but in English or French in Lebanon. The boy was given no help with the European languages.
Mazin’s struggle with Lebanon’s more advanced, bilingual curriculum stands in contrast to UNRWA’s success integrating 7,486 PRS into the Lebanese curriculum via separate summer classes and intensive English language instruction. In short, PRS have an educational advantage over Syrians due to their status as “double” refugees who qualify for services under UNRWA’s pre-existing aid infrastructure in Lebanon.
Hierarchies matter. Segregating Palestinian and Syrian students who previously attended schools together into Palestinian and Lebanese schools, respectively, may bring simmering resentment to a boil. Research has consistently noted that volatility in social status -- both individual and collective -- can produce interpersonal violence. Educational segregation in the United States (a drastically different context, to be sure) has been linked to divergent political opinions and conservative political mobilization.
There are already other disparities between the two groups. It is typically simpler, safer and less expensive for Syrian refugees to register and receive residency permits through Lebanese General Security. PRS receive cash aid from UNRWA; an inter-agency program used to provide a small number of Syrians living at high altitudes with cash aid. Due to funding limitations and political delays, however, this vulnerable group has not received cash aid since April. Some NGOs also operate their own small-scale cash transfer programs. Health care is frequently cheaper and more accessible, though still limited, for Palestinian refugees via UNRWA and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Many NGOs have sought to blunt the effects of this differentiation by emphasizing that they accept all nationalities into their programs. Moreover, the unmeasured benefits of informal information sharing and social support among PRS, Syrians and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon should not be underestimated. But the lesson that national differences constitute a hierarchy and that they determine access to services is still overwhelmingly strong.
Second, education may be judged “not worth” the costs and the dangers.
In both the Lebanese and Syrian systems, students enrolled in official schools must take the Brevet and the Baccalaureate -- major exams that follow the ninth and twelfth grades, respectively. Passing the Brevet allows students to advance to high school; without a passing grade, students may not continue. Similarly, passing the “Bac” allows students to apply to universities.
For the last two years, the Lebanese government has informed refugees from Syria that to register for these exams, they must do the following, in order:
- Obtain their grades from the last three years from their school in Syria;
- Bring these records to the Syrian Ministry of Education to receive a stamp;
- Acquire certification from the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
- Visit the Lebanese embassy in Syria to get another stamp;
- Following entry into Lebanon, visit the local branch of the Lebanese Ministry of Education for an “equivalency.” There, refugees are asked for their residence permit (which costs approximately $200) and a Syrian identity card (huwiyya) that has been stamped by the Syrian embassy in Lebanon. It is critical to note that refugees under 15 do not have an ID and are thus asked for their family’s ikhraj qayd (civil registry, also referred to as a family book) instead.
According to an administrator in the Lebanese system, the total cost for this process runs approximately $500 per student. Large families with little money -- the majority of refugees from Syria are already in debt -- may have to choose between rent, food and a child’s proper enrollment. Children who have had academic or disciplinary difficulties, those who might be sent to work instead of to school, marriageable girls, and those with disabilities are more likely to be selected out by this system.
Beyond the prohibitive price tag, there are other hurdles. Syrians fleeing violence may not have time to grab the kids’ report cards, much less get them stamped by the Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs and the Lebanese embassy on their way to the border. Some parents risk a return trip to obtain the necessary paperwork, though they may be denied re-entry to Lebanon (which is now standard Lebanese policy for PRS), become trapped by fighting in Syria or arouse the suspicion of Syrian authorities. In Lebanon, forcing families to show a family book may reveal siblings, parents or grandparents whose registrations have expired -- or who are conspicuously absent (and thus are suspected of being fighters in Syria). Moreover, Palestinian families in particular can never be sure if they have run afoul of the constantly changing visa and registry regulations. They may decide that the risk of deportation outweighs the benefit to the child of continuing in school.
Though students are sometimes permitted to take the exams at the last minute, without the paperwork, this system shapes behavior throughout the school year and provides disincentives to enrollment, particularly in the ninth and twelfth grades. It also links education to the entire family’s legal status -- a teenager trying to finish school may wind up being arrested or deported along with the whole household.
Educational exclusion stands to have a profound impact on refugees from Syria. Schooling during crisis situations plays a central role in children’s social and psychological wellbeing (though Mazin’s experience impels us to consider negative effects as well); exclusion both denies these benefits and exposes children to further risks. Literacy rates among Syrians are set to drop dramatically from the level of 83.6 percent reached in 2008, with untold economic consequences. Lack of education can reverberate for generations; the importance of parental education in outcomes such as family and children’s health has been demonstrated repeatedly.
Refugee parents in Lebanon now refer to their children with the terms “burned generation” or “lost generation.” They understand that school is essential not only for learning, but also for socialization and maintaining children’s sense that they have a future. They see children and teenagers who are experiencing new forms of discrimination, differentiation and exclusion in exile and will behave differently from their elders as a result. In the long run, parents worry that today’s youth will be ill prepared to cope with the physical and economic demands of reconstructing Syria. They also recognize that their children’s experience with education in exile may imbue them with new political and social biases, making the eventual reconstruction even more fraught.
Strangers in the Crowd
“The system of fear is back,” whispers an Egyptian political activist. “It is showing its teeth, saying ‘I’m baaack.’” The protest veteran speaks sotto voce even though he is sitting in his living room. And that, he points out, is the biggest change since the heady days of 2011, after the fall of Husni Mubarak, and even since the more somber times of 2012 and 2013.
Even at home, this activist feels weighed down by an atmosphere heavy with apprehension and outright pessimism. (All names of persons interviewed for this piece are withheld for their safety.) The fervent hopes of the immediate post-Mubarak era are dashed, and to many observers Egypt’s political scene is darker than under the deposed dictator. The political space that opened up over the last four years is shrinking again, and public opinion has largely turned not only against the Society of Muslim Brothers, the bête noire of the new order, but also against the forces that sought to make a revolution out of Mubarak’s overthrow.
Revolutionaries -- those who took seriously the 2011 uprising’s call for “bread, freedom and social justice” -- are vilified in the Egyptian media as foreign agents intent on ruining the nation. Leftist and liberal activists are used to the opprobrium. For much of 2011 and 2012, the ruling junta of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) labeled them as thugs and thieves. After the Muslim Brothers took power in mid-2012, the Islamist-led government portrayed revolutionary protesters as spies, unbelievers and prostitutes.
The difference now appears to be that revolutionaries stand by themselves facing the storm. The April 6 movement, with its links to organized labor, is now illegal. The Muslim Brothers, occasional allies in the past, are outlaws, too, rounded up or driven back underground. Most important of all, the masses are gone from the streets, and now they want the streets clear of disruptive marches and rallies. As one activist put it: “There is no point in public activism now. We will go to jail alone. And there, we will simply rot away alone.”
Alaa Abd El Fattah, Ahmad Douma, Ahmad Mahir, Sanaa Seif, Yara Sallam and Mahienour El Massry -- a who’s who of contemporary Egyptian activism -- are all in jail for violating the draconian protest law (in addition to trumped-up charges such as assaulting a police officer, spreading chaos, vandalizing public property and incitement to violence). These men and women are on hunger strike in a desperate attempt to make their voices heard. All the while, the order led by President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi allows corrupt Mubarak family associates such as Ahmad ‘Izz back onto the political and economic stage. The blatant injustices leave a bitter taste in many mouths.
The revolutionaries are also disappointed in themselves. As one activist puts it, “We failed. We failed to organize. We failed to formulate viable alternatives that spoke to people’s direct needs and desires. We failed to unite on a social and political program, and instead there was internal bickering. The revolutionary movement was split and fragmented.”
Internal squabbles have indeed posed an obstacle. Yet external pressures should not be underestimated. Whether the military (backed by Mubarak-era remnants, the fuloul) or the Muslim Brothers, the revolutionary activists’ opponents could bring the resources of a state to bear. The authorities strove to quash the activist impulse with measures ranging from military tribunals and the infamous “virginity tests” (justified by SCAF spokesman Sisi) to prosecution for “insulting the president” and open torture.
But, again, according to the activists, the difference is that the public now looks the other way. One can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the idea of change is now associated with Mursi, who many Egyptians saw as an authoritarian trying to impose a particular Islamist identity upon the entire nation. Egyptians are also tired of the rollercoaster ride of the last four years, one that has seen more downs than ups. The economy is in dire straits; the health system is on its knees; education is in desperate need of reform; transport and traffic are a constant source of stress; and now electricity cuts of unprecedented scale add to the aggravation. The rhetoric of stability and security taps into a deep desire for normalcy.
The price of normalcy may be the vibrancy of political life. As the public looks the other way, citizens are imprisoned, tortured and killed on a daily basis in the name of “fighting terrorism” and “national security.” Yet for most Egyptians the numbers of dead remain just that -- numbers. Perhaps the war-on-terror propaganda works. Perhaps people are simply traumatized and cannot take any more misery.
For a few activists, turning away from politics is not an option, despite the huge personal costs: “The revolution grabbed me, and I cannot stop. I cannot turn back. I am emotionally imprisoned by it. I am the last one of my circle outside of jail, and I know I will go, too. The question is not if but when.” Many others, like the public at large, turn inward, away from the public sphere. As one young activist puts it, “Politics is a very bad investment in Egypt. It carries severe repercussions with regard to money, time and effort. You cannot even get a 5 percent return on the emotional investment you put into politics. So now I am trying to move away from my addiction, and listen to music, talk about different stuff and develop a new discourse with those around me.”
The cross-ideological ties of the late Mubarak years are badly frayed. An April 6 leader says: “We used to be in dialogue with the Islamist youth. But now, because of the frustration and rage with the current regime, they no longer listen and talk to us. We cannot control them anymore.”
Meanwhile, there are ominous developments in the region that may make Sisi look like the least bad option, both in Egypt and abroad. The beheadings carried out by the so-called Islamic State, the bombings of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis -- such acts may not only burnish Sisi’s anti-terrorist credentials, but also make his regime’s transgressions look less severe. Not surprisingly, a number of activists insinuate that militant groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis were purposely created by the Egyptian state itself. After all, such groups facilitate the depiction of the region as embroiled in a zero-sum war between authoritarian rulers and Islamist radicals, the very dichotomy that served Mubarak and his ilk so well for so long even as it risked becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We might never know the reality behind these groups. The problem, however, persists. As one activist states it, “The terrorist state creates more terrorists, and there is nothing we can do about it.”
There is a renewed crackdown on civil society, which the media also accuses of working on behalf of “foreign elements.” Civil society organizations have grown since the 2011 uprising, and sought to hold the government to account through the publication of reports and commentaries in both English and Arabic, as well as lawsuits and popular mobilizations. Many Egyptian NGOs are registered as profitmaking law firms to avoid falling under the control of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which grants licenses only to charitable organizations focused on social welfare and development. Through this loophole, the government can close down organizations that it believes engage in political activity with funding from foreign donors. NGOs faced similar challenges under the SCAF and Mursi -- including the closure of unregistered NGOs in December 2011. Now all such entities face a deadline of November 10 to register with the ministry (and thereafter cease political activity) if they wish to avoid closure and prosecution. This measure comes after raids on NGO headquarters and personal threats to employees, many of whom now avoid the office.
As this campaign of repression proceeded, Human Rights Watch published a highly critical report on the August 2013 killings at Raba‘a and al-Nahda squares. The report accused the Egyptian state (and Sisi personally) of premeditating the murder of at least 817 protesters during the dispersal of occupations of the squares. In turn, the regime insisted that Human Rights Watch cooperated with a terrorist organization (the Muslim Brothers) and violated state sovereignty, as it conducted its investigations unregistered in Egypt. Police arrested a key witness cited in the report, Muhammad Tariq, a professor from Alexandria, and the authorities barred Human Right Watch staff from re-entering Egypt.
Some Egyptian human rights activists, though critical of the Mursi government, believe that “Raba‘a is the last card we have. We don’t have other options. It is the only way that we can expose the true face of the Egyptian state.” These activists are urging the European Human Rights Council to condemn Egypt for flagrant abuses. Such a determination would send a strong message not only to the Egyptian state but also to the dissident forces, who now feel more alone than ever.
Of course, attacks on civil society and human rights activists are not new in Egypt, but the public backing for this latest crackdown has a particularly demoralizing effect. For instance, it is easy to retort that the biggest recipient of foreign funding is the state itself -- whether the annual $1.3 billion in US military hardware or the increasingly large loans and investments from rich Gulf countries. But, in the current political climate, those who make such arguments are swimming against the tide. As one activist sums up, “We have to go into hibernation, to regroup and reflect on all that has gone wrong over the last three years. Then, hopefully, one day we can reemerge stronger.”
Is the hope misplaced? It often seems so, yet the cracks in the Egyptian order are so evident that they cannot forever be hidden under the carpet of national security. Social, economic and political conditions in Egypt are deteriorating, creating the potential for unrest. The question as always is whether the state can contain the disturbance, and what will happen if it fails.
The Massacre One Year Later
In Cairo this summer, there is scant appetite for anniversaries. The passage of one year since the critical events of the 2013 coup d’état scarcely attracts the public’s attention. There are few official ceremonies or rallies to mark the huge demonstrations on June 30 against Muhammad Mursi, the July 3 military takeover or the July 26 marches summoned by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to give himself popular cover in his self-styled fight against terrorism.
The near absence may seem conspicuous, but it should come as no surprise. It is understandable that a regime fixated on restoration would show little eagerness to celebrate its foundational moments. Sisi oversees an alliance of entrenched interests that is defined more by its efforts to recreate an allegedly stable past -- by wiping out the contentious political order brought into being after Husni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster -- than its attempts to articulate a novel vision for the future. From such a backward-looking standpoint, inaugural events carry hardly any meaning.
But the memory of the bloodiest day during the new regime’s establishment -- August 14, 2013 -- has been harder to neglect, even for the most enthusiastic cheerleaders of the state’s actions. On that day security forces killed more than 800 protesters, most of them unarmed, in and around Cairo’s Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya square. Coming toward the end of the “weeks of killing” -- the serial fallout of the July coup, including killings of protesters by security forces, sectarian attacks on churches and armed clashes between civilians -- Raba‘a was the most horrific episode.
Human Rights Watch has called the event “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” In a scathing report, released on Tuesday after a year-long investigation, the organization accused Egyptian authorities of having a premeditated plan to kill, with Interior Ministry officials anticipating thousands of deaths upon moving into the square. The report implicated top officials -- including Sisi, who was defense minister at the time, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim, Special Forces head and commander of the Raba‘a operation Midhat al-Minshawi, intelligence chief Muhammad Farid Tuhami and others -- in possible crimes against humanity. Since, to this day, not a single police or army officer has been prosecuted in an Egyptian court for killings of protesters since June 30, 2013, Human Rights Watch called upon UN member states to establish an international commission of inquiry with a mandate to look into all of the human rights violations pursuant to the June 30 events.
In Egypt, the report provoked a spate of kneejerk reactions that hinged on two flimsy defenses: unfounded doubts about Human Rights Watch’s integrity and dubious claims that the state had no choice in doing what it did. The State Information Service began on Tuesday with a statement calling the report biased and describing its authors as disconnected from Egyptian society’s “intellectual and political orientations over the last three years.” Others wrongly accused Human Rights Watch of downplaying the threat posed by weapons belonging to participants in the sit-in. The report did acknowledge that police had found a few firearms; it simply went on to insist that the death toll among the protesters was completely out of proportion to any danger that may have faced the security forces.
With a few notable exceptions, the coverage in the following days parroted the past year’s official line: The Society of Muslim Brothers is a terrorist group; the protesters were carrying guns; the sit-in were a menace to public order; all avenues for peaceful resolution were exhausted; and protesters were given sufficient warning before the security forces moved in to disperse the crowd. Newspapers carried headlines warning of Muslim Brother plots of mayhem on the anniversary, and many ran lengthy stories purporting to expose the ugly truth behind the sit-in.
Sisi loyalists on private television stations were reliably grotesque. One audacious presenter praised the assault on the square as an act of liberation that restored the “state’s prestige” (haybat al-dawla), a phrase the blogger Baheyya calls the “perfect mystification” because it commands citizens both to fear and to revere the state’s authority. For partisans of the status quo, haybat al-dawla has become something of an ideology in its own right. The anchorman went on to propose a state-sponsored celebration to mark the day of the massacre. Less outrageous commentators described Raba‘a as a wound to the Egyptian body politic, vaguely invoking the need for social reconciliation but without assigning clear political responsibility for what happened. Discussion of wrongdoing by the state is largely obscured by a hegemonic narrative in which Raba‘a crowns a state crusade to quell a terrorist campaign that began as early as 2011 when Muslim Brother operatives and allies allegedly stormed Egypt’s prisons. Nor is there much recognition that the sit-in did not have to end the way it did.
The assault on Raba‘a was indeed a climax, but of a different sort. The brutal clearing of the square was the endpoint of a strategy pursued by Egyptian political elites of all stripes, but most fatefully by leaders of the security and intelligence apparatus, in which politics was treated as an existential question governed by zero-sum calculations. That “peaceful alternatives” were never seriously pursued, as former vice president Mohamed ElBaradei stressed in his letter of resignation on the day of the killings, has almost vanished from memory. Finishing the job was made easier by a hysterical media campaign to demonize Muslim Brothers as fifth columnists, creating a toxic climate where the public could consent to mass killing. The post-June 30 public mood, which had been poisoned by a kind of anti-politics that fetishized “stability” and yearned for a reversal of the uncertainty and disorder of the previous three and a half years no matter the cost, could not have been more favorable to the elite’s machinations.
The vigorous attempts by state officials, along with media and public figures, to justify the killings are signs that Raba‘a is an enduring trauma whose memory will not be easily expunged. Raba‘a is in fact the pivotal event of Egyptian politics after the coup. Even though, as Mosaab al-Shamy (one of the foremost photographers of the massacre) observed, the state works hard to scrub the public sphere clean of commemorative icons, Raba‘a is far from invisible. As competing narratives are made to serve rival political agendas, the very persistence of contestation over the facts suggests that the massacre will not die along with its victims.
But a serious public reckoning with what happened last August 14 does not appear imminent. Visibility is one thing, and accountability another entirely. The decision to clear Raba‘a with military force was transmitted down a clear chain of command, but that clarity has barely any significance in the current political atmosphere. With so few convictions of policemen or soldiers for the killing of protesters since 2011 -- and despite the Mubarak show trial -- a sense of impunity pervades Egypt’s security institutions. The perpetrators of the Raba‘a killings acted with little fear of consequences; they even had assurances from their commanders that “they would not be subjected to prosecution later on.”
Care was taken to guarantee the license to kill. One Interior Ministry general recently admitted to Associated Press reporters that the police took steps to conceal evidence even before the dispersal. Having learned from mistakes in Mubarak-era cover-ups, which allowed the ex-president and his top security officials to be put on trial, this time officers mixed ammunition from multiple storehouses and hid ammunition release logs.
Until there is honest discussion of what happened and genuine accountability, the memory of the Raba‘a massacre will haunt Egypt -- as will the possibility of a reprise.
State Department Taking Passports Away from Yemeni-Americans
Over the past year, dozens of Yemeni-Americans visiting their ancestral homeland have had their US passports summarily revoked or confiscated by the embassy in Sanaa without any clear legal basis, effectively stranding them outside the United States. Last month, a coalition of US civil rights groups submitted a report on this practice to the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) pursuant to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. We asked Yaman Salahi and Nasrina Bargzie, staff attorneys at the National Security and Civil Rights Program at Asian Americans Advancing Justice: Asian Law Caucus who co-authored this report with eight other legal rights groups, to shed light on the issue.
How has the US government been taking passports away from Yemeni-Americans?
The experiences people report have the same essential ingredients. The typical tale involves a Yemeni-American man (all of our cases so far involve men) who has been living in the United States, as a US citizen, since childhood. As an adult, he travels to Yemen to visit his parents, wife or children, and needs to apply for a visa for his spouse or relative, or to document his children as US citizens born in Yemen. He requests an appointment, for which there is often a six-month wait. He travels hundreds of miles through politically unstable territory to reach the embassy in Sanaa. There, he typically waits several hours before being called. In the course of the appointment at the consular window, a law enforcement officer takes the petitioner away to an interrogation room for several hours. The officer aggressively lobs groundless accusations of fraud at him, sometimes accusing him of having another name, sometimes accusing him of lying about who his parents are. Keep in mind that this man has already proven, to the satisfaction of a US government official, that he is a US citizen, and no one has taken any action to challenge that. He’s got valid proof of US citizenship, like a Certificate of Citizenship, a Certificate of Naturalization or a Consular Report of Birth Abroad.
But that’s not enough. The officer doesn’t believe anything the man says and at this point is not vetting the application, but basically reinvestigating the man’s claim of citizenship -- an investigation with which the man has absolutely no obligation to cooperate. The officer then terrorizes the individual with threats that failure to confess could result in several years of prison time and denial of all of the family’s applications, which would be devastating to the family, subjecting them to indefinite separation. Sometimes there are also false promises that the officer just wants to help out, that everything will be fine and that all the paperwork will be processed as soon as a confession is signed. So, after hours in an interrogation room, with all of his identity papers and legal documents in the officer’s possession, without access to an attorney or other legal assistance, the individual feels like he has no choice but to sign the papers. Of course, once the papers are signed, many people are simply dismissed from the embassy. Their passports are not returned, and their applications are not approved. No notice, no explanation, no instructions for appealing or for returning to the United States.
The use of forced confessions is especially alarming; if the government had hard proof of fraud, it wouldn’t need confessions. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would sign one and risk losing everything without being coerced or misled. That may explain why the reported encounters have the hallmarks of coercion -- such as threats of harm and hours of detention in an interrogation room -- and why the people who signed papers were generally surprised by what happened to them next. They were stuck for months without passports and without any help from the embassy. Advocates have reported that at subsequent hearings challenging passport revocations, the government’s sole piece of evidence was these sworn confessions. There was no corroboration. This fact puts the entire practice on very shaky ground, and the risk of error is very high.
We often hear about the US in Yemen through the prism of drone strikes, such as the killings of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaqi and his teenage son 'Abd al-Rahman. How does this practice of revoking and confiscating passports fit into US Yemen policy?
The US government’s foreign policy priorities in Yemen have essentially redefined the entire country as a battleground and reduced its people to nothing more than security threats. This mentality explains the unfair and harsh treatment of Yemeni-Americans at the US Embassy in Sanaa. A June 2010 State Department report explains that “Embassy Sanaa…has become the key forward operating base for the broad spectrum of counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” a remarkable description of an embassy, a place which we normally envision as a diplomatic outpost or a service center for citizens abroad.
There is nothing new about efforts to prevent immigration fraud, but the mobilization of a national security framework to rationalize attendant abuses is troubling. The State Department report explains, “The world recently has awoken to the serious threat of terrorism in Yemen, putting Sanaa’s visa and passport services in the homeland security crosshairs.” The prospect of unauthorized migration from Yemen is framed as nothing less (and nothing more) than a “risk to US homeland security,” even though there is no reason to think that the general reasons for such migration differ from the reasons for migration elsewhere in the global south -- economic inequality and political instability. “Issuing a passport or visa to a terrorist is a real risk, and Embassy Sanaa works hard to make sure that their product is free of fraud,” according to a Department internal report. The consular staff is thus sensitized to think of routine applicants of Yemeni origin, including US citizens, as potential terrorists, and to see fraud everywhere. In such an atmosphere, and without proper safeguards, it’s no wonder this translates into unjust encounters that Yemeni-Americans view as insults to their dignity.
Can you tell us a bit about the Yemeni-American community and how it is viewed by the State Department?
In 2010, the State Department estimated that there were 55,000 US citizens living in Yemen. In the US, there are large Yemeni-American communities in Oakland, Fresno, Bakersfield, Dearborn, Brooklyn and Buffalo.
One thing worth noting is the State Department’s unflattering view of Yemeni-Americans who live in Yemen. It says, “Many of the US citizens have no connection to the United States except their US passport,” and “a large number of the Yemeni-Americans reflect local standards of illiteracy and lack of education.” This elitist and troubling language from the State Department relies on a loaded “cultural” definition of “American” rather than a legal one. Indeed, in other places, the State Department contrasts Yemeni-Americans in Yemen with “true expatriates, including Islamic converts who have come to Yemen for religious studies.” Even in the legal sphere, formalistic conceptions of US citizenship are being displaced by culturalist, racist or politically loaded conceptions. At the same time these Yemeni-American citizens were being stranded in Yemen by confiscation of their passports, the State Department issued a travel advisory warning US citizens to leave Yemen immediately, which these people obviously couldn’t do. It is hard to imagine US citizens who are not of Yemeni origin being treated this way at the embassy.
How does US law ordinarily govern the revocation of citizenship?
To be clear, none of the passport cases that we are aware of so far involve formal revocation of US citizenship, but we are concerned that the passport revocations could be a precursor of things to come. What’s disturbing is the way in which a passport revocation sidesteps all of he protections for citizenship that have been put in place by the Supreme Court. Under current US law, natural-born citizens can only lose their citizenship through voluntary renunciation. And the government can only take US citizenship away from naturalized citizens if it can prove “material and substantial” fraud through “clear, unequivocal and convincing” evidence in a federal court. By contrast, under present rules, a passport can be taken away before any hearing, and the subsequent hearing isn’t in a court with its attendant protections; rather, it’s convened informally before a State Department employee who plays the role of hearing officer and a State Department lawyer who presents the government’s case. Given the sharp disparity, CUNY law professor Ramzi Kassem has called this practice in Yemen “proxy denaturalization” because the government is achieving an effect that it otherwise could not if it followed the rigorous procedures designed to protect individual rights.
What can be done to challenge these arbitrary measures?
Tactics are evolving. In mid-2013, when reports began to trickle in, we published a “Know Your Rights” pamphlet advising people to exercise caution when going to the US embassy in Sanaa. Since then we have posted periodic updates on the website, MyEmbassyRights.org, but it remains an ongoing problem and one that the State Department has not adequately addressed. Our latest shadow report to CERD asks the UN to get involved, but such efforts need to be complemented by a community mobilization strategy as well as other interventions. The work is ongoing.
“We didn’t want another Benghazi.” Oh no, is that really why the Obama administration decided to bomb Iraq?
Do we have another bunch of fools in the White House who learn precisely the wrong lessons from their mistakes?
“Another Benghazi” -- let’s think about the many valences of that phrase. Thanks to FOX News, the name Benghazi conjures up a domestic political scandal, one so convoluted and silly that rational people feel compelled to tune in, every now and then, just to be reassured that it’s convoluted and silly. But Benghazi is first a city in Libya and it first had a distinctly not comical resonance in world politics.
“Another Benghazi” -- did the “senior administration official” who dropped this term in the New York Times mean the Benghazi that did not happen? The savage bloodbath that Col. Muammar Qaddafi threatened to order in the Libyan spring of 2011, but did not, in most Western minds, because NATO flew in to save the day? Such is the face value of the official’s reasoning as framed in much of the first part of the Times story. The Yazidis stranded in the mountains without adequate food and water could be starved into submission or massacred. The Kurds in Erbil and surrounding towns could face a grim fate of their own.
Yes, those things could occur -- look at the plight of Christians in the Iraqi north -- and one may hope that now they will not.
But, of course, the Benghazi-that-did-not-happen did happen in Libya, just not on Qaddafi’s schedule, not entirely in one city and not all at once. The increments have been getting larger of late, if the White House cares to pay attention. (This humble rag has also done a lousy job of covering Libya for the last couple of years. We are sorry and we will try harder.) But, in the corridors of power and in much of the media, the counterfactual Benghazi is much more important than the actual Benghazi, perhaps particularly because contemplating the real place in real time might hint that the consequences of NATO’s intervention are rather messier than the mythology insists.
Official Washington, in any case, bats nary an eyelash at this point. The consequences of doing something, they say, must be balanced against the consequences of doing nothing.
Never mind that the world -- and the role of US firepower in it -- is so complicated that sometimes those two sets of consequences are rather similar. The American can-do mentality regards such historically minded arguments as terribly depressing and perhaps European. Moral clarity, we say. Save the relativism for the seminar room.
Never mind that, as in Libya in 2011, the mission is already creeping two days in. The Obama administration now says that the United States will guard the Kurdish city of Erbil, seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the “good Kurds” and indeed the staunchest US allies in Iraq, though no puppets. The vaunted peshmerga, it seems, are in big trouble against battle-hardened foes. Never mind that those foes honed their skills in battles that came about largely because of the 2003 US invasion. Never mind that they’re also fighting the loathed regime of Bashar al-Asad, and that bombing them is backhanded intervention in the Syrian war, on the regime’s side.
Never mind, while we’re on the subject of civil wars, that Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, believes that the so-called Islamic State “remains integrated within the wider Sunni Arab insurgency directed against the Shiites. Therefore, any US military action will extend beyond simply downgrading a terrorist organization” and risk making the US “a full-fledged participant in a wider, sectarian civil war.” Never mind that the US became exactly that in the mid-2000s, after setting the stage for the communal mayhem with its disastrous direct misrule of Iraq in 2003-2004.
And never mind that the Obama administration has plenty of experience doing nothing -- or, more accurately, doing several things wrong -- in places where doing something right might really help. These ironies, in official Washington, are also seen as academic observations.
The Times story is quite clear that “another Benghazi” refers less to Qaddafi’s pre-crime than to the Islamist militant assault on the US consulate that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in September 2012. In Iraq, the Sunni fighters loyal to the so-called Islamic State are approaching Erbil and are either threatening to capture or have captured the Mosul dam, which some fear they will destroy so as to flood the Iraqi capital and put their Shi‘i Islamist enemies to flight. Not coincidentally, the US has key personnel in both locales. “We have an embassy in Baghdad, we have a consulate in Erbil, and we have to make sure that they are not threatened,” President Barack Obama himself told Thomas Friedman for another Times piece quoted in the big story today. To protect Americans from extremists armed with US-made heavy weaponry, the president pulled the trigger.
Wait a minute -- “another Benghazi” -- was the Obama administration worried that the so-called Islamic State would murder US diplomats or soldiers and open up the White House to charges of failing to shield Americans from harm? Is that why the president decided to bomb Iraq?
Well…. It’s never far from the minds of official Washington, Democratic and Republican, that the attack dogs of the other party are straining at the leash. Boy, wouldn’t the Lindsey Grahams of the world like to have “another Benghazi” about which to hold pointless hearings? Wouldn’t the Sean Hannitys of the world relish “another Benghazi” about which to host endless rehashings?
Yes, that may be another key to the code in the senior official’s remark. Presidential administrations, Democratic and Republican, when they ask themselves the question “to bomb or not to bomb,” seek the answer at least partly in polling numbers and the imagined talking points of the other side. The Democrats, if anything, are more susceptible to this contemptible thinking because the Republicans, since the Cold War, are so adept at painting their opponents as pacifist squishes. (Hell, the Democrats, like abuse victims who refuse therapy, campaign against each other in these terms.)
The New York Times enables the pathology with its paragraph-three description of Obama’s agony at being “forced” by circumstance “to abandon his long-standing reluctance to use military force.” Which reluctance is that, exactly? It’s as counterfactual as the Benghazi that didn’t happen.
Neither the facts of Obama’s record nor the fact of bombing Iraq again appeases the American right, of course. Sen. Graham and his Greek chorus are already condemning the latter as a “policy of half-measures” and calling for escalation, just as they did in the case of Libya, when Obama-bots and other interventionists also scoffed at the idea of a “slippery slope” on which hopes for a peaceful future would slide inexorably down.
Saddest of all is that, by bombing Iraq to forestall “another Benghazi,” the Obama administration may very well get one, in at least some of the senses above if not -- heaven forbid -- all of them. Or rather, Iraq may very well get “another Benghazi” and the Obama administration may very well find itself blinking away another “intelligence failure” before the bright lights on the boob tube.
Solidaridad con Gaza, La Segunda Parte
Latin American solidarity movements with Palestine are starting to win important political battles.
Ten days ago, in my first post on this subject, I described movements that, with some exasperation, were still urging governments to go beyond merely symbolic condemnations of the Israeli assault on Gaza. Ecuador had showed the way forward with the withdrawal of its ambassador to Israel, but more than two weeks into the Israeli offensive, it was far from certain that additional Latin American governments would follow suit. The July 24 decision of Brazil to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv was a turning point.
Since that date, Chile and Peru resolved to join Brazil in its gesture of protest against Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip and summoned their respective ambassadors home for consultations. On July 30, El Salvador became the fifth Latin American country to recall its envoy. The governments of Costa Rica and Uruguay say they are considering doing the same. Bolivia went further, renouncing a visa exemption agreement with Israel and declaring Israel a “terrorist state.” While the rest of the international community watches passively as Israel commits crimes against Gaza’s population, Latin America has closed ranks at the forefront of diplomatic protest.
Israel has expressed its resentment at these Latin American moves. After the Brazilian government called its ambassador home, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, dismissed Brazil, Latin America’s largest country and the fifth most populous country in the world, as a “diplomatic dwarf.” Off the record, a senior Israeli official told the Global Post, “They are all very far away and don’t really know what is going on, and Brazil, for its own reasons, is pressuring them. Our situation doesn’t really have any effect on them, and their action, it goes without saying, has no effect on our region.”
The truth is much worse news for Israel, which has been steadily losing the sympathy of Latin America for about a decade. From 1948 until the 1990s, Latin America was always considered “friendly” to Israel. During the first decades of Israel’s existence, Latin American leaders felt genuine affinity for the “national aspirations of the Jewish people.” Unlike their counterparts in the Afro-Asian bloc, these leaders seemed to disregard the displacement and trauma of the Palestinians. During the 1970s and into the 1980s, Israel did a brisk business with the military dictatorships of the region, and Latin America became Israel’s most important arms market, accounting for one third of its total exports of weaponry. As Carlos Escudé, an Argentine political scientist who can hardly be called pro-Palestinian, recently put it, with these military alliances, Israel chose “the wrong side of history.”
With the wave of democratization that swept across Latin America from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s and, most importantly, the region’s left turn in the 2000s, Israel lost its privileged access to the circles of Latin American government. On the opposite side, during their years of opposition to the military regimes, Latin American leftist and center-leftist leaders had forged bonds of trust with the Palestine Liberation Organization. These ties, in addition to the vitality of the solidarity movements with Palestine led by the Arab diaspora organizations, render most of today’s Latin American governments much more sensitive to Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
Contrary to what Israeli officials claim, Latin American countries are not powerless vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, the region does not have the same direct leverage over the players that the United States and the European Union have. That does not mean, however, that Latin Americans cannot make a difference. The Latin American wave of recognitions of the state of Palestine in 2010-2011 played a crucial role in the international campaign launched by the PLO at the UN to gain that status. Without these Latin American gestures, it would have been extremely difficult for Palestinian diplomats to garner international attention in 2011-2012, especially because the US and the EU were at the time entirely focused on the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Latin American votes were also decisive in the admission of the State of Palestine to UNESCO as a Member State. There is no doubt that, when the time comes, the region will again play a role in acceptance of Palestine as a member state of the International Criminal Court.
Most Latin American countries are reluctant to ratchet up the measures even further, for example, to cut economic ties with Israel. Adopting economic sanctions against sovereign states is not in the diplomatic DNA of the region, and showing a balanced position is part of its mediating tradition. Surely, economic interests are also at stake, even though Israel is not a significant trading partner. But outrage at Israel’s systematic violations of international law is felt increasingly keenly, across party lines, and Israel should be prepared for the eventuality that Latin American governments will act accordingly.
Covering the Coverage
Three weeks into Israel’s military campaign against Gaza, media and observers are turning the lens inward on the coverage itself. NBC was the focus of the conversation after the network recalled its correspondent in Gaza, Ayman Mohyeldin, shortly after he filed a powerful report on the killing of four boys playing on a Gaza beach. A barrage of criticism on social media spurred network executives to return Mohyeldin to his post, but MSNBC’s Rula Jabreal was not so lucky. Jabreal lost her contract with the network after she criticized its bias and that of American media on the whole. Even Jon Stewart -- comedic paragon of mainstream liberal thinking -- mocked the media’s “both sides are to blame” mantra, which equates Hamas’ homegrown rockets with Israel’s sophisticated war machinery. Yet the next day his bit, dubbed “Jon Learns What Happens When You Criticize Israel,” undermined the original segment. It poked fun at how both sides attack no matter what the media says on Israel or Palestine, thus reinforcing the “both sides do it” trope he criticized in the first place and suggesting a moral equivalency between the two sides.
Horrifying footage and reports captured by journalists on the ground in Gaza have been so damning that the usual filters applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the American media have become more apparent. But the sea change some American progressives see in media coverage of this most recent assault on Gaza is probably wishful thinking.
Graphic images of more than 1,000 dead and many more injured pose a challenge for Israeli public relations personnel. “Public opinion has a certain patience limit,” explained Avital Leibovich, a former Israeli military spokeswoman. “There is a certain point where legitimacy begins to be undermined by difficult images.” Before news of the assault on Shuja‘iyya hit the airwaves on July 21, a CNN/ORC poll found that almost 60 percent of Americans supported Israel’s assault, but a Gallup poll from July 22-23 showed public opinion more evenly split, with sympathy for Israel at similar levels to where it was after Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009, when a Pew survey found that 49 percent of Americans sympathized more strongly with Israel. How long the PR damage will last is another question. Sympathy for Israel (sympathy is the metric Gallup uses) has been steadily increasing over the past two decades, while sympathy for the Palestinians has remained more or less steady. Moreover, declines in sympathy for Israel are rarely accompanied by increased sympathy for the Palestinians.
And, of course, even the most graphic images of dead children are still subject to being put in “context.” Anne Barnard’s July 21 report for the New York Times from Gaza was so wrenching that the next day’s paper offered an editorial corrective dressed up as front-page news. An above-the-fold story, “Hamas Gambled on War as Woes Grew in Gaza,” explained how a desperate and marginalized Hamas instigated the war for political gain. The barrage of news stories detailing the “battles” and tit-for-tat offensives between rockets and missiles rewrite civilian deaths as the collateral damage of a war between two equally responsible, intractable and powerful parties.
The 24-hour news cycle’s dependence on talking heads and government spokespeople -- instead of dispatches from professional journalists -- to fill airtime also helps to promote the Israeli agenda. The idea that posing hard-hitting questions to pundits will somehow uncover the truth has not been borne out. Instead it provides opportunity for talented PR officers to sell their policies and shape the very parameters in which the conflict is discussed. Israel supporters need only make unsubstantiated claims to shift the discussion and place Palestinians on the defensive. Thus Israel’s claim that Hamas uses civilians as human shields is repeated despite the absence of evidence. On the more polemical programs, like Fox News’ “Hannity,” guests offering a Palestinian perspective are used as punching bags and allowed one-word “yes” or “no” answers. Never do we see an American reporter take an Israeli spokesperson to task for Israel’s crimes, as Jon Snow did on Britain’s Channel 4 News.
Social media provides some indication of where public opinion lies outside the world of corporate media. But in the auto-referential world of Twitter, it is easy for some voices to seem “louder” or more wide-reaching than they are. However many more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli hashtags there are on Twitter, it remains a narrow universe. Only 19 percent of online adults use Twitter, and half of those users are under 34. With over three quarters of all Twitter user accounts based outside of the United States, it is difficult to gauge American public opinion on the basis of Twitter hashtag numbers.
If the media and American public opinion have become more favorable toward Palestinians, that shift has had no perceptible impact on policy. In the immediate term, not even the on-camera assault of an American teenager by masked Israeli soldiers could prod the boy’s congresswoman, Rep. Kathy Castor, to intervene on his behalf. Moreover, John Kerry’s “hot mic” remark about Israel’s so-called pinpoint strikes suggests that it is not enough to know what is going on to affect change in an institution that is stalwartly pro-Israel. Asked about his off-the-air comment on Fox News, Kerry insisted upon Israel’s right to defend itself: “War is tough…. We support Israel’s right to do what it is doing.”
Eternal optimism is important for activists. Without it they would be paralyzed. Certainly, there have been some important gains over time. We have come a long way since the 1960s and 1970s when the words “Palestine” or “Palestinian” were rarely seen or heard in the media. Efforts to divest from Israel have been making gains, like the latest move by the Presbyterian Church to divest from companies that profit from Israeli occupation. These small victories should be celebrated -- cheerleading helps build morale.
But, on the ground, the Palestinian predicament has become decidedly worse over the past few decades. Settlement expansion in the West Bank continues unabated while Israeli politics turn increasingly right-wing. The Palestinian leadership is divided and an unaccountable Palestinian Authority acts as Israel’s police force in the West Bank. Whether the crippling blockade of Gaza -- now in its seventh year -- receives coverage or not, it continuously suffocates the coastal strip.
There may be a glimmer of hope in the fact that younger Americans tend to be more critical of Israel than older ones. Unfortunately, this shift has not automatically translated into a rise in support for Palestinians or their cause. It seems, indeed, that people become apathetic before they become sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Beneath the Gray Lady’s Flak Jacket
The New York Times is the most prestigious of the prestige press in the United States. The famed “gray lady” is the newspaper of record, a citadel of objectivity, it is said, where the first draft of history is crafted. It sets the agenda for other newspapers, for the broadcast news programs and even for cable TV news.
Reverence for the Times in journalism circles, however, does not keep the institution above the fray when it comes to contentious matters like Israel-Palestine, especially now as the casualties pile up in Gaza. Israel’s reinvasion and bombing campaign has piqued the public interest. Debates over Israeli policies are everywhere, and perhaps sharper (and richer) than at any moment in recent history, despite the near consensus in Congress to stand behind Israel.
With the stakes for Israel’s image in the US higher than usual, more eyes than usual have been watching the Times’ reporting. There is a great deal of what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky called “flak,” or highly critical responses from outsiders intent on injecting their own views into the coverage.
The gray lady has come under a “deluge” of flak from readers, professional advocates, activists and officials in recent weeks. Its public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that she saw “more than 1,000 e-mails from readers on this topic recently, with protests on both sides, and, in some cases, charges of bias coming from both sides.”
Many complained of factual errors. Sullivan admitted that some of the criticisms were valid. For instance, an editorial noted that “days of near silence” from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office passed after the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir in early July. Readers objected, pointing to a statement the prime minister’s office had issued on the day of the crime. It stated that Netanyahu ordered the minister for internal security to investigate the killing quickly. The newspaper dutifully issued a correction.
Sullivan admitted that the occasional headline had been altered because the original left readers with a false impression. The headline “Palestinian Death Toll Nears 100 as Hamas Promises More Attacks on Israel” implied that Hamas was to blame for the mounting deaths, all of which, at that point, were in Gaza. The editors changed it to “Israeli Leader Calls for ‘Full Force’ in Effort to Quell Hamas Rocket Attacks,” dropping mention of the death toll.
A headline that read “Missile at Beachside Gaza Cafe Finds Patrons Poised for World Cup” came across as a strange, mordantly insensitive stylization of an arbitrary strike that took the lives of eight Palestinians who were simply watching a sporting event. Sullivan agreed that this headline had “the effect of trivializing the attack.”
The most egregious headline alteration took place when an article originally titled “Four Young Boys Killed Playing on Gaza Beach” was amended to the detached and bizarrely vague “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife.” The reformulation was met with loud protest on social media platforms, but Sullivan did not address it. Some pointed to direct language in the lede in order to dismiss criticism of the headline.
This sort of flak comes from attentive people with strong views, people looking to correct and cajole, many of them prodded by media watchdog organizations that send “action alerts” to their constituencies. It is tedious work for everyone.
Flak is quite important for keeping news outlets honest, or as honest as possible, but it can also give journalists a false sense of their own objectivity. Too often media workers take comfort in receiving pressure from “both sides.” They wrongly conclude that they must be doing something right if “both sides” are upset. (I cannot fully blame them. All of us, perhaps, are susceptible to the logical slip that the truth about any hotly contested question must lie somewhere in between the competing claims.)
Story-by-story complaints do not tell the whole story. There are many explanations for problems in particular stories or headlines: the bias of the individual journalist, the pressure of meeting deadlines, overreliance on official sources, laziness and so on.
It is fair, however, to ask if there are media patterns of fear and favor that are institutional, even cultural. This question is hard to answer by glancing at the coverage on any given day. It requires looking at a longer arc.
One big-picture metric is the presence or visibility of particular subjects, frames or sources over time. The Research and Development Lab at the New York Times introduced Chronicle, a word count tool, that allows users to search the paper’s voluminous archive for terms. It produces a visualization and downloadable spreadsheet of the number of articles featuring given terms each year.
I entered two terms, “Israeli” and “Palestinian,” to find out which one the Times mentioned more often. As it turns out, each year there are more articles that refer to “Israeli.”
The gap between the numbers of mentions of the two terms shrinks and grows over time. We can see that “Palestinian” was largely absent for the first two decades after 1948. Its post-nakba reemergence corresponds to the rise of the Palestinian national movement after the naksa, the Arab states’ loss to Israel in the June 1967 war. Fatah, after all, was launched in 1959, but the Palestine Liberation Organization did not emerge until 1964.
One pattern is that “Palestinian” peaked during flareups of violent conflict, illustrating the aphorism “if it bleeds, it leads.” This pattern started in 1970 when the Times rediscovered the Palestinians. That was the year of the Black September fighting, in which Jordan moved to dislodge the PLO fighters from its territory.
The Times was less interested in covering the quiet times, the years of refugee camp construction, the Israeli land acquisition that made permanent the exclusion of Palestinian refugees and the military occupation of the Arab Galilee until 1966. The data suggests that the gray lady overlooked the Palestinian dispossession that was the cost of Israeli state consolidation. It was a formative period, one that heavily determined the region’s subsequent path of conflict. But a very close reading of the Times’ articles -- closer than I have done here -- would be necessary to draw this conclusion definitively.
In the late 1970s, Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon to fight the Palestinian resistance brought the next spike in “Palestinian” articles, followed by the 1982 reinvasion and the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
The next big news moment arrived with the intifada in the late 1980s. Surprisingly, “Palestinian” was mentioned less at that time than it was in 1982 or during the later uprisings, but there was more parity in the instances of “Israeli” and “Palestinian” than at any time previously.
After the 2000 revolt began, the two terms began to receive roughly equal attention for a few years. That trend was not sustained, however. Last year, “Israeli” was mentioned in twice as many (4,000) articles. The Israeli government has been trying to rebrand Israel as something other than (or at least more than) an occupying power and a garrison state embroiled in perpetual conflict.
Nevertheless, it seems that variances in mentions of “Israeli” mentions since the mid-1970s correlate to shifts in references to “Palestinian.” Rises and dips in one correspond to roughly the same in the other. Media studies tells us to expect such correlations if coverage of a particular subject is largely based on conflict frames. That said, the term “Israeli” always makes its way into more articles.
Of course, discrepancies in word frequency are at best partial proof of bias.
Comparing word counts cannot indicate qualitative differences in coverage. Word counts shed no light on framing or valence, in this case, how Israelis and Palestinians are presented and whether those presentations are coded as positive or negative. This analysis is also ill equipped for studying qualitative changes among the audience of media coverage. It is likely that the word “Palestinian” is met with much less fear and antagonism in the US today than in the 1970s.
These data are a better measure of subject priority. How important does the New York Times think the Israel-Palestine story is to its readers?
Researchers have long presumed that the media’s power is greatest in agenda setting -- naming subjects as priorities for public attention. In the words of Bernard Cohen, the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” The Times is the strongest agenda setter in the country. That “Israeli” is featured in more of its articles gives “one side” a greater visibility and presence.
The greater prominence of “Israeli” could be a function of institutional ties or the biographies of editors and journalists. Or it could be a manifestation of a deep affinity between the US and Israel.
Google’s ngram search shows the same terms’ appearances in all the books Google digitized -- a marker of larger knowledge production that the Times both informs and conforms to. It shows an even wider and more consistent discrepancy than what we find in the Times, though only since 1951.
In other words, the Times is less “biased” on this issue than English-language book publishing (which includes countries other than the US). This finding hints that larger cultural biases may be at play.
Nevertheless, new information and communication technologies like social media may be a remedy.
As distributed communication networks, social media can diminish somewhat the power of gatekeeping institutions like the Times. Incumbent institutions are still informational nodes that play important roles in the generation and circulation of data, but there is much more pluralism. This pluralism does not erase power differentials “on the ground,” but it does appear to loosen the hold of traditional institutions of power over knowledge production. We can see this development in the rise of new social media journalists reporting from the ground in Gaza. These people can now reach audiences of hundreds of thousands.
Thus, the disparity in the pages of the Times and in book publishing is reversed on Twitter. As the Times itself noted: The hashtag #GazaUnderAttack highlighted the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and was used in nearly 4 million tweets in the first few weeks of the bombing. An Israeli corollary, #IsraelUnderFire, appeared only 170,000 times. On Twitter, a more global platform, Palestinian voices and perspectives are increasingly amplified, something dramatically at odds with the discrepancies that appear deeply embedded in American news and publishing industries.
It is impossible to say whether social media has convinced or will convince the New York Times that Palestinians are equally fit to print. But the Times is a business, and one that cannot risk being out of touch.
Solidaridad con Gaza
The brutal Israeli assault on Gaza, the fourth in less than ten years (2006, 2008-2009, 2012 and now again), has triggered a burst of solidarity in Latin America. Dozens of protests have taken place, in Chile, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela, among other countries. While these demonstrations were organized on the initiative of Arab organizations -- in particular drawn from the Palestinian diaspora -- several other civil society groups participated, including labor unions, indigenous and black movements, grassroots organizations and representatives of left-wing parties.
At more than half a million, Latin Americans of Palestinian descent are the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world. The majority are descendants of a pre-nakba generation of migrants that joined the upper and upper-middle classes of the host societies, but smaller waves of migration, mainly to Brazil and Venezuela, occurred from the 1950s onward. These new arrivals moved along a different socio-economic trajectory.
In Chile, where the Palestinian diaspora is particularly well represented among political and business elites, the pro-Palestinian movement has found a vibrant echo among legislators, thanks to the Chile-Palestine Inter-Parliamentary Group, a coalition of MPs from both left- and right-wing parties. With 46 members in the House of Deputies, which has a total membership of 120, it is currently the largest of binational friendship groups. On July 14, these deputies held up signs bearing the slogan: “End the Slaughter in Gaza. No More Occupation in Palestine.”
Some Latin American governments have taken clear positions vis-à-vis the slaughter. Not surprisingly, on July 9, Venezuela was the first country to issue a statement that “strongly rejects the attacks in the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces” against “the heroic Palestinian people” and urges Israel “to stop immediately these attacks that go against international law and against elementary respect for life and human dignity.” Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro himself launched an “SOS Palestine” campaign to demand an end to Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza. Venezuela was rapidly followed by the other member states of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (a left-wing bloc launched in 2004), notably Ecuador and Bolivia. On July 17, Ecuador’s government announced it was recalling its ambassador to Tel Aviv in protest against the Israeli military incursion into Palestinian territory. With this decision, the Andean country is now in line with Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, which suspended diplomatic ties with Israel in January 2009 and February 2010.
Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina have also issued communiqués that unequivocally ascribe the prime responsibility for the escalating violence to Israel, though regretting and condemning the firing of rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel. While the governments of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner took an oddly long time to assume a stance -- nine and 12 days, respectively, after the beginning of the Israeli offensive -- Brazil is the only country explicitly to call on Israel to “put an end to the blockade of Gaza immediately.” On July 16, Antonio Patriota, Brazil’s ambassador to the United Nations, gave a strong speech on the living conditions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
All of these political gestures matter. But Latin American solidarity movements with Palestine ask for greater unity and, more to the point, “concrete actions.” Appearances to the contrary, the near consensus that characterized the flurry of recognitions of the Palestinian state by South American nations in 2010-2011 -- only Colombia didn’t join in -- seems more fragile today than three years ago. Paraguay, a country that recognized the state of Palestine, hasn’t yet said a word about the deadly Israeli ground incursion in Gaza. Peru’s communiqué evinced only a timid empathy for the Palestinians by suggesting a false symmetry between Israel and Hamas fighters. Colombia, a close Israeli ally, reiterated its support for Israel by “condemning in the strongest terms the acts of violence and terrorism against the Israeli territory that affect the lives and safety of the civilian population.” Yesterday, as a sign of protest against this position, several left-wing Colombian MPs took up the slogan of their Chilean colleagues (“End the Slaughter in Gaza. No More Occupation in Palestine”) during a congressional session.
Despite persistent rumors on the Internet, Chile has not suspended trade, nor frozen Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks, with Israel. While it is true that a feasibility study for the signing of an FTA with Israel was completed positively in 2010, no further steps were taken and the agreement is currently not under negotiation, anyway. Nevertheless, the Chile-Palestine Inter-Parliamentary Group and the senator Alejandro Navarro continue to demand suspension of commercial relations, as well as withdrawal of Chile’s ambassador to Tel Aviv and proactive steps at the UN Security Council, where Chile was elected a non-permanent member for 2014-2015. An Avaaz petition was launched by Brazilian-Palestinians calling upon “Latin American presidents and ministers of foreign affairs to withdraw their ambassadors to Israel.”
In response to such demands, Chile’s Foreign Ministry announced on Sunday that the country will make a donation of $150,000 and an unspecified amount of medicine to Palestinian victims in Gaza. If Latin American governments are serious about their support for the Palestinian people and don’t want to contribute to Israel’s endless impunity, they will have to take actions that are much more than symbolic condemnations.