Syria: elections in defiance

Tomorrow is Syria`s election day.

Bashar al-Asad has launched his “Sawa” (together) campaign with a strong online presence both on Facebook and on Twitter ,

 

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(Pics from Sawa Facebook page)

and also on YouTube, where many famous Syrian actors such as Bab al hara`s hero “Mootaz” aka Wael al-Sharq and Syrian movie and musalsalat star Dureid Laham have encouraged people to go vote

-Intakhab, Vote, is the slogan of another (pro-Assad) campaign called Suriya Tantakhib-.

 

Activists have immediately reacted, using creativity and dark humor to highlight the absurdity of these elections happening while millions of civilians are displaced, bombed, and forced to starve.

Here you are some of the most interesting artwork and parodies created by Syrian artists and activists.

From SyriaUntold:

Syrian elections and parallel realities

Syrian dark humor and the elections

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Intakhab (Vote) artwork by Wissam al Jazairy remixed by SyriaUntold

From Wissam al Jazairy`s Facebook page:

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Elections, by Wissam al Jazairy

Lots of creative works and parodies on elections can be found on Dawlaty:

 

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Picture from Dawlaty Facebook page

 

Other popular anti-elections anti-Asad Facebook pages are Blood Elections (Intikhabat al-damm), Sawa Crimes, and For Humanity Only.

Hilarious video parodies of the Syrian actors encouraging people to vote can be found here and here and here.

 

 

 

 

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Charlie Hebdo, another “Danish cartoon crisis”

After Nessma TV provoking the rage of some Muslisms by showing a scene of Persepolis movie where God is represented, now it`s the turn of France to repeat the “Danish cartoon crisis” again.

French weekly satire magazine Charlie Hebdo`s Paris office has been hit by a molotov cocktail bomb. Two days ago, the French publication announced it was preparing a special issue called “Charia hebbo (a linguistic game between the name of the magazine and the Islamic law sharia which French people transliterate from Arabic as charia) “supervised” by Prophet Mohammed as “editor in chief”  . The current issue features in the front cover a caricature of Prophet Mohammed saying ” a hundred lashes if you don`t die laughing”. Inside the magazine, there is an “editorial by Mohammed”  titled “Halal aperitif”, an insert titled “Charia Madame”  and the last page shows the Prophet again. This time he wears a red nose as a clown and says “Yes, Islam is compatible with humor”.

The special issue is a reaction to the recent success of Tunisian Islamist party, Ennahdha, few days ago at the first elections held in free Tunisia. The electoral victory of Ennahdha has scared many, especially in France, the traditional “patron” of Tunisia`s political and social life and the most concerned (I would rather say obsessed) country in the world by the idea of laicite`.

It is such a paradox, with all the relevant issues that we could discuss in such a troubled period for the world, to come back again to the “star wars” battle between “freedom of expression” and “respect of religion“. Frankly, I believe the two things are not to be put in opposition. Freedom of expression does not manifest itself by offending others` beliefs. Frankly, it is so easy to provoke in such a stupid way, to attract viewers, readers, or simply to throw dust in the eyes of people while there are so many important issues to be explored. I dont want to defend the people who have thrown the molotov bomb onto Charlie Hebdo`s office. But I dont want to defend such a meaningless move by Charlie Hebdo, either. I hope the “media hype” on this issue will calm down soon and we wont have another “Danish cartoon crisis” which we really do not need, now more than ever.

I just want to raise a point. While France and the French media are so busy defending “freedom of expression” and “laicite” in the Tunisian case, I suspect that the real reason of this “much ado about nothing” is that France fears loosing control over a country which has always been under the republique`s cultural protectorate, even under Ben Ali. While the victory of Ennahdha scares France and pushes all its media establishment to raise the “Islamic” fear vis-a-vis this new Tunisia, somebody else is already doing business with “Islamists”.

The US has already announced “investments” and “commercial operations” to start in the new democratic Tunisia next week.“We will work with Tunisian government regardless of its composition”, they have underlined. And the Obama-sponsored US-North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO) is already at work to exploit business opportunities in the Maghreb area, starting with the new Tunisia.

The US prefers to shut up on “Islamic fears” and not to start a crusade to defend the laicite`. They prefer to do business, establish relations, partnerships, move the economy forward. With the new Islamic majority.

It has been a while that the new American project vis-a`-vis the Middle East has become evident: accepting the “moderate Islam” and building alliances with it. The fact that Europe -and, first of all, France- that is closer to the Arab world and has strong historical and cultural -together with of course commercial- ties with it, has not elaborated a plan is a bit weird. We continue defending abstract concepts as “laicite”, and we dont act. We go on defending principles, but we do nothing to affirm these principles in practise.

If we care about the “laicite”, if we care about freedom of expression, about helping to build civil societies and secular states in the Arab world, then it would be better to start doing serious stuff and elaborate a serious strategy, instead of writing useless editorials to raise media hype and dust in people`s eyes.

La revolution est morte, vive la revolution!

The results of the first elections held in post-Ben Ali`s Tunisia are  finally official. The ISIE announced few hours ago the final numbers which confirm the majority of seats (90) -over 217 composing the future Constituent Assembly- to be assigned to Ennahdha party. 

So, Ennahdha  has won, as expected. There is no surprise in this. We have been talking about these elections for months and the victory of Ennahdha was largely predicted by analysts.

Nevertheless, it seems there are at least two categories of people who are surprised (even shocked).

The first category is made up by some Western press, led by the French. It is such a big scandal for the civilized republique to see the “Jasmine revolution” hijacked by a bunch of “barbus”! How is it possible that the gentle, the soft, the “bloodless” “Facebook and Twitter revolution”, the revolution led by this globalized tech-savvy youth has been taken over by a bunch of Islamists who are now ready to turn the Jasmine country into an Islamic-inspired state where Westerners would possibly not be able to enjoy the beauty of the “carte postale” they have fabricated for the eyes of Club Med lovers only… How is it possible to have betrayed the “real spirit” of this “peaceful”, “secular”, “electronic” revolution?

We should rather ask ourselves: how is it possible that the same West -US, Europe, and particularly France- that has supported financially and militarily Tunisia`s neighbor Libya`s revolution -clearly marked by an “Islamic” flavor- are now feeling so “offended” by Ennahdha`s victory  in the first post-Ben Ali`s elections?

Is it possible for us to accept such a double standard? The financial and military interest behind Western support to Libya`s armed revolution is so clear that it`s even not worthy to spend more time discussing it. The disgusting part, however, is that we are still fearing for an Islamic caliphate to be established in Tunisia at the same time we are thinking to oil revenues to be generated in the future shariaa ruled free Libya.

Don`t you think that we have been discussing Ennahdha`s victory for too many months now and maybe, the mere fact that we have been so much discussing it has even contributed to their success? Sometimes demonizing “the enemy” does result in raising his popularity. A strategy based on acting against something instead of acting pro-something has never led to positive results.

The other category of surprised people are Tunisian elites, mostly leftists, progressive, secularized. The sentence I`ve been hearing the most in their circles and cafes and lounges is: “who are we, the Tunisians?We thought we were educated, open minded, progressive whereas we are backward, populist and against modernity”. Tunisian elites are under shock. As if they are up after a nightmare and they can`t believe it wasn`t actually a nightmare but it is the reality that they have to face.

Frankly, I can understand the shock but not the surprise. The only real surprise to me was to see this Mr Hemshi Hemdi, leader of the new formed movement Arida Chaabia, to gain so many seats by sitting comfortably in London where he has been residing for years and years. He is the probably the only one who really made an “Internet revolution”: he has built his political movement virtually, from scratch, gaining 19 seats . And not by chance, the majority of his supporters are in the place which has give “birth” to the 14 Janvi revolution, Sidi bouzid.

Why these fierce people, who have first revolted against Ben Ali`s regime and inspired so many others to do the same, why should they vote for a guy like Hemdi? Hemdi is the founder of the TV channel al Moustaqilla (the independent) which was the first TV channel to oppose the former regime, broadcasting from London since 1999. But apparently a deal between Hemdi and Ben Ali took place, and the channel  has lowered its opposition voice becoming a sort of populist and even Islamic-flavored pro-regime channel.

Why the fierce population of Sidi bouzid should have voted for this guy? and not only voted: few hours ago protests erupted in town and Ennahdha office there was set to fire, as a response to the ISIE`s decision to invalidate 19 seats gained by Hemchi`s Aridha Chaabia.

I believe the key of Hemchi`s success are in a couple of things that should let us to some more in-depth considerations.

First, “The People’s Petition party includes three broad popular ideas and key demands: the formation of a democratic constitution, the adoption of a system of free health care, and the dispensation of grants to the  unemployed”. Words like free, health care, grants, unemployed should have sound as honey for the Sidi bouzid`s people, especially the youth. They have felt neglected after 14 janvi. Despite being  praised and glorified by everybody, none of the interim governments in the post-Ben Ali has really adopted any concrete move towards them -even the simplest, but with the highest symbolic value: paying a visit to the place where the revolution has started-. It is a kind of revenge: you have ignored us, we will ignore you.

Second, breaking any possible bond with the former (and classical) party-structure, even the one of opposition parties like the PDP, seems to be a reason  behind this vote. It is a vote of protest, a vote which says “enough” with the past. Ironically enough, none of these people has thought that Hemchi himself is indeed the past, by having been former opposition and then, all of a sudden, very friendly to the Ben Ali`s regime. Moreover, many of former RCDs members have joined Arida Chaabia, representing a continuity more than a rupture with the past.

Third, Hemchi comes from Sidi bouzid. He is “one of them”, despite having been living for years abroad and despite the fact that he didnt even come back to his birth place for the elections campaign. Sidi bouzid rarely had its “sons” joining central power and its instances were never heard in a structure of power mostly made by a ruling elite coming from the Sahel part of Tunisia (like Ben Ali himself). Voting for him is a parochial choice at the best, a “tribal” choice at the worst.

Ignoring all these aspects and not working on them is like playing with fire in future Tunisia.

Just as an example, how to ignore what  this vote seems to show, i.e. Tunisian society is still very much shaped around a tribal family structure culture rather than a nuclear family one? How to ignore that the gap between central Tunisia on the one hand and coastal Tunisia (including the capital) on the other hand are world apart?

Whilst the elite used to think that almost everybody had a “urban culture” background in Tunisia, this vote could show instead that there is a wide gap still in place between the city and the countryside as opposite cultures.

The communication gap between the elites and the sha3b (people) has been existing for decades, but maybe overshadowed by dictatorship. The heavy burden of Ben Ali`s regime has prevented Tunisians to see that there was a lack of communication hence a lack of cooperation between the two sides.

The fact itself that the PDP and many other leftist coalitions`s campaigns were designed around issues like secularism, maintaining civil rights, etc proves that they missed the point. Talking about secularism to people who want to listen about jobs, houses and hope does not sound as the right choice. And then religion has worked out its role too.

Having witnessed Ennahdha supporters` spontaneous celebrations two days ago was very instructive. People, mostly women, were chanting with energy and passion: “as-sha3b yurid al-nahdha min jedid” (the people want a new re-birth). They were so clever to build on the most important slogan of the Arab Springs: “as-sha3b yurid” (il popolo vuole). Then the name of the party itself -Ennahdha- means “re-birth”, so it suits pretty much to this idea of a new future of hope.

Les jeux sont faits for now. Tunisians really need to work to reduce this gap between Tunisians and Tunisians that Ben Ali has alimented and at the same time kept hidden for decades.

Are the Arab Springs an Islamic Renaissance? Random thoughts after a busy election day..

Since the very morning of this first “after-election” day, the atmosphere in Avenue Bourghiba has been “worried”. Even without official numbers and with results not released yet, the majority of journalists, artists and intellectuals that overcrowd the beautiful outdoor cafes and “terrasse” all along the Avenue have been very worried by the rumors that circulated since yesterday night. Ennahdha, the Islamist party, has probably won the elections, reporting the majority of votes, hence the most representatives at the soon-to-be first Tunisian Constituent Assembly.

I have spent all the morning sitting with these people, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and discussing about the future of Tunisia. Different people, whom I met in different cafes along the Avenue, repeating the same sentence as a broken disc: “I `ve never thought Tunisian people could be like that”.. “It`s like looking at yourself in the mirror and discovering a side that was always hidden” ..”We didnt know our own people. It`s just like having to get up after a nightmare”..”Is this the feeling we were hiding behind  decades of dictatorship?”…”I really dont know who my fellow Tunisian citizens are”..

I remember to have felt exactly this way some years ago (and more than once) in my own country. “How can my own people be like that? Didnt` I know them? what`s wrong with them?”..Maybe, a better question after so many years of “Berlusconism” would be: “what`s wrong with me? and why I didnt understand what was going on?”.

I spared this question to myself and to my poor interlocutors and took a cab for another meeting in a different area of town. Speaking with the driver in Tunisian dialect only (which I force myself to understand, even if I`m too used to “bilad as-Sham”) I discovered that he didnt vote. I asked him why and he answered “kullu kif kif” (they are all the same)..plus “I dont know for whom I should have voted..it`s so confusing,there are  too many parties” and, again, they are “kullu kif kif”. Then he added:” the youth did the revolution..we watched..let them vote..let us watch the results of their vote”.

At the meeting, again sitting with journalists and intellectuals working for a famous local radio station, same situation as Avenue Bourghiba. Maybe, with a better sense of humor: some of them started to address to the female presenters -all gorgeously dressed and beautiful- that “in a very close future you will have to wear hijab (the veil) or maybe niqab (the integral veil)”. The males were exorcising the “Islamists` treat” by saying: “at least, I will marry four of you!”. Melted with the humor there was a certain feeling of defeat, indeed. A bad feeling of misunderstanding, as if your own child had done something completely wrong, completely against your beliefs.

Another taxi, driving me to another area of town. This time, the taxi driver, knowing when I was heading to - Nessma, the TV station which few days before the elections broadcasted the French movie “Persepolis”, consequently generating street protests (see my previous post on it)- shouted at me:” why are you going there? they are against our religion, they have offended  Islam!”. Then added :” I voted for Ennahda, I am a Muslim and my identity is Islamic. I want this to be acknowledged by our new democratic country”. The guy was struggling to make his life: feeding children, sending them to school. He just wanted a simple life, and his Islamic identity to be reflected by the new Constitution.

After the Tunisian-dialect-only cab ride I`ve  finally reached the studios of the “incriminated” TV station. Here, lots of young people, I would describe them not exactly as intellectuals but basically a globalized youth, was commenting the elections (partial) results, again with a mixed feeling of irony and defeat. All secularized Muslims, all fearing an “Islamic state” to erase their “secular culture” (I will here translate with “secular” something which in Arabic sounded more as “civic culture”, thaqafa madaniyya).

Then the first guests came. They were supposed to join a live debate on the elections. None of them was from Ennahda, they were all coming from defeated parties or from parties which gained something, but not in “pole position”. I asked the show producer why Ennahda was not there, and he replied that they had invited them, but hadnt heard back, probably as a “counter-reaction” to the “Persepolis” issue.

A lady from Takattoul, one of the parties which actually did not (apparently) go bad at the elections, started to challenge the other guests on the Ennahda identity issue. “What did the Tunisian people choose? did they choose a model of society or a political party?“. Then she added: “The old distinction between we (the secularists or leftists) being more “pro-West” and them (the Islamists) being more sharqiyyn (Oriental) has been proven wrong. All the “Westernized” Tunisians, those who live in Europe (particularly in France) have voted for Ennahda”. And then: “We have been defeated cause we do not know how to work with the people, we do not know how to reach out to them. Ennahda knew how to do this, and had social links with the more disadvantaged classes. They exploited this knowledge. But they are a party, just a political party which has learnt how to use this skill”. “They are not a movement, not a model for society, they are just a party like the others”.

The live show after this first one was more interesting, as it featured some high level intellectuals as the sociologist Hamadi Redissi. He was very outspoken vis-a`-vis Nessma TV itself and said: “The Persepolis affair could have lowered the Islamists` appeal or actually helped them to gain more. The latter is what actually happened. There was a popular counter-reaction to a channel which was trying to “show the people the possible bad consequences of choosing Islam as the fundamental of the state”. The people felt offended and this ended up to raise Ennahda popularity”.

But when some of the other guests started with the “self-pity” phase, Redissi was very rational in reminding everybody that: “the independents failed..the marxists failed..the nationalists failed…even the constitutional parties failed..but the reasons for which Ennahda is winning are not only related to religion.There is a refusal of the past in the popular vote, there is the frustration for the financial crisis, too..there is the identity issue, whereas Islam becomes an identity mark. Then there is the Nessma factor, which has a marginal role but, still, it`s a part of this chain”.

One of the guests echoes: “yes, and there is the huge gap between the countryside and the city..the gap between hundreds of intellectuals and millions of people. Religion ended up to be a culture among cultures”.

This sentence -“the gap between hundreds of intellectuals and millions of people” – resonates in my head as I reach my hotel, back to Avenue Bourghiba. There is a festive atmosphere and I cannot prevent myself from asking to the hotel staff -in Arabic only- if they are happy for the elections results (still temporary even now at 1am). Yes, sure they are. “The entire hotel staff voted for Ennahda” says the concierge and adds “my neighborhood -in the banlieu of Tunis- has all voted for Ennahda, so everybody is celebrating”. The situation is so surreal, if I only think of all these (hundreds of) people, sitting here outside, discussing politics, sipping their beers and blaming on their fellow Tunisians who did not understand how civilized the country was supposed to be. I`m trying to count how many hotels are here in town, and picturing myself a scene where all the staff in each hotel in town is celebrating while all the intellectuals that are sitting in all the cafes are actually complaining (and I`m wondering: what about the cafes staff, will they all be like the hotels staff?).

The concierge smiles at me as for calming down an hypothetical fear that I should have -as a Westerner- :” we wont oblige everybody to wear the veil! We just want a little bit of order and of dignity, we want respect for our traditions, family, religion..”.

I`m not scared at all and I trust his words completely. But I cannot prevent myself from thinking that his discourse towards order and security and tradition resembles so much to a discourse that I`ve been hearing for years in my country, and it was not coming from an Islamist party. They all resemble each other, it is a small world  and even people who seem not to have anything in common might have tons of stuff indeed.

But then I contradict myself again and think: if we have let somebody as the weirdest mix ever -a separatist party, a former Fascist party and a self-declared liberal party which is indeed protecting their “little club” interests- govern together, despite the conflict of interest, the legal issues, the unveiled corruption etc why should we be scared of a party that has been banned for years and has not done anything yet? Let them govern, then let the people decide again..That`s the bitter-sweet rule of “Democracy”.

Then I cannot prevent myself from thinking, as a leftist, as a secularist: there is something wrong not in them, but in us. We have moved away from the streets, retired in our comfortable lounges where we had talked philosophy, watched arty movies, discussed fine intellectual questions..and what`s left? somebody else has taken the streets. This should not lead to a complain, rather to a reaction. Dear fellow Tunisians, please do not complain. please be aware of what you have done, you have run the first democratic elections in your country. This is a hell of a lot.

We cannot pretend, us who were on the ground, not to have been aware of the fact that the Arab springs will be the Islamic Renaissance (Nadha, in Arabic..and it`s not by chance). We cannot pretend not to have known that a democratic Middle East is gonna be an Islamic Middle East, at least at a first stage.

And, in the very moment I`m writing this, I get a news alert from Al Jazeera saying that Ennahda is prepared to make an alliance with some of the other parties, even if secular.At the end of the day, politics is politics, no matter if  we are in Ennahda`s new Tunisia or in Berlusconi`s  old Italy.