Fears of civil war in Syria as defectors battle Bashar forces

Syrian troops pulling out of Daraa back in May

 

Originally published in The Independent, 29 September 2011

Fears are mounting that Syria may be on the verge of civil war as reports emerged yesterday that hundreds of army deserters were battling Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the first major confrontation against the regime.

With an intensification of violence looking increasingly likely, Britain and its EU allies have been forced to drop calls for immediate UN sanctions against Syria after major powers failed to agree upon a suitable course of action.

The UK, along with France, Germany and Portugal, circulated a heavily-diluted draft Security Council resolution condemning the Baathist regime in Damascus.

But calls for immediate sanctions were scrapped in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition. Delegates hoped that the weaker document, which demanded an “immediate end to all violence”, would eventually be approved by the two veto-wielding members.

One Syrian lobbyist, who was in New York yesterday pushing for firmer action, criticised the proposed resolution as “basically useless”. “In reality, it is very weak,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Insan human rights organisation. “It doesn’t mention the International Criminal Court and it doesn’t mention an arms embargo.”

A series of European and US-sponsored sanctions against the Syrian regime are already in place, but no measures have yet been approved at the UN.

The developments in New York came as heavy fighting continued in the central Syrian town of Al-Rastan, an opposition stronghold which has become a bolthole for army deserters. Activists said that at least 1,000 former soldiers and armed citizens were now waging a battle against security forces, who were laying siege to the town backed up by tanks and helicopter gunships.

According to New York-based human rights organisation Avaaz, the Syrian regime was even deploying jets to bomb the town of 40,000 people, a claim that was repeated by at least two activist organisations monitoring the violence.

A third group said the jets had dropped poison gas, though it was impossible to verify either of the claims. Speaking to Avaaz, one witness said: “In Rastan they’re using military jets to shell their own people.”

Elsewhere in the town, there were reports of tanks shelling homes, helicopters strafing neighbourhoods with heavy machine guns, and electricity and water supplies being severed.

Nadim Houry, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Beirut, said he had heard reports of jets over Al-Rastan but had received no information about bombs being dropped. If the claim is true, it would mark a serious escalation of the violence. It will also heighten concerns that Syria is slipping into a Lebanese-style conflict that could seriously destabilise the region.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian exile and prominent opposition voice, said the fighting in Al-Rastan highlighted the need for firmer international action.

“This is why we need a no-fly zone,” he said, adding that such a measure would provide a much-needed safe haven for defecting troops.

Britain’s minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said: “If ever there was a stark reminder that the UN must take further action, this is it.”

Although Syria’s protest movement has been largely peaceful since unrest erupted in March, recently there have been numerous reports of mutinous troops cobbling themselves together into rebel groups. The area around Homs, the central Syrian city about 10 miles south of Al-Rastan, has seen the greatest number of desertions. Some of the bloodiest crackdowns on protesters have happened in the region. The battle in Al-Rastan is the first major confrontation between deserters and the regime, though the majority of troops still remain loyal to the army.

Even so, activists have told The Independent that some protesters, in the face of brutal state-sponsored violence, are now looking to arm themselves. “People are looking for contacts and finance,” said one, who asked not to be named. Yesterday’s continuing violence came as Human Rights Watch called for a UN investigation into the decapitation of an 18-year-old Syrian woman.

Zainab al-Hosni, from Homs, was tortured and beheaded before her body was returned to her family. A nuclear engineer was also shot dead in Homs yesterday, according to Syria’s state news agency. Officials blamed “armed terrorists”, but activists said the regime was targeting academics.

Egypt’s No.1 industry still struggling

Before the tourists: David Roberts's 19th Century view of the Sphinx - as it was and as it will never be again

 

Originally published at majalla.com, 21 September 2011

Tour guide Zaki Sultan knows as well as anyone how much Egyptians rely on the steady flow of tourists streaming into their country.

The 44-year-old, who scrapes a living from the tens of thousands of travelers who flock to see the Giza Pyramids each year, was hit hard by the tourism crash in the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising.

Back then, when foreigners shunned the country after being fed a nightly diet of violent clashes on the evening news, the situation got so bad that cash-strapped tour guides could not even feed their animals.

The grisly images of decomposing horses and camels lying just a short distance from the Pyramids became a terrible metaphor for a dying tourist industry.

According to Zaki, the situation now is not as bad as six months ago. Speaking to The Majalla just after taking some visitors on a tour around the Pyramids, he said things had improved. “There are around 25 percent of people compared to last year,” he said. “But compared to after the uprising it is getting better.”

However, official statistics released last week suggest that for the millions of Egyptians who, like Zaki, rely on tourism to make a living, the future is not looking rosy.

In the second quarter of the month there was a 35 percent drop in the numbers of foreigners visiting the country.

The shortfall amounted to well over one million fewer tourists coming to Egypt compared to 2010—a development which has been blamed on the instability following the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in March.

In total last year, Egypt received around 15 million visitors—a figure which shows why tourism is one of the country’s biggest industries, worth around £7.3billion and employing approximately 12 percent of the nation’s workforce.

All of which makes the latest figures so worrying, particularly given how Egypt’s tourist minister predicted in June that by September the flow of foreigners arriving in the country would be back up to pre-revolution levels.

Speaking to a Kuwaiti newspaper, Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour had said: “Data suggests that tourist activities are being restored to pre-revolution rates.”

Judging by the most recent statistics, he should probably sack his number crunchers.

And it’s all very well blaming the Egyptian uprising for the recent tourist turmoil. But how long will it continue for?

Right after the fall of Mubarak, there were numerous flare-ups which might have deterred even the most adventurous of travelers. After all, who wants to take happy snaps of the Sphinx when protesters are bleeding to death in the street nearby?

Yet there will be more problems. Parliamentary elections are due to be held in November, followed by a presidential poll next year. In between and afterwards there will inevitably be further bloodshed.

With the Luxor travel agent brochures gathering dust as a result, Egypt’s tourist industry will continue to flounder.

Battle of the Camels: Mubarak henchmen in court

Pro-Mubarak supporters wreaked havoc when they charged Tahrir Square on camels

 

Originally published at thedailybeast.com, 14 September 2011

Over the course of a few hours on Feb. 2 in Egypt this year, the uprising that eventually toppled the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak appeared to be on the verge of catastrophe. During one of the most notorious events of the revolution, groups of men wielding whips and sticks charged into the square on camels and horses in a bid to kick out the protester

Several civilians were killed during the incident, which eventually became known as “The Battle of the Camels.” But now there may be some justice for those who allegedly had a role in one of the movement’s darkest moments.

In the week leading up to that particular Wednesday morning, thousands of antigovernment protesters had managed to secure the symbolic heart of Cairo following the nationwide demonstrations that erupted on Jan. 25. But there was an uneasy atmosphere across the capital. Following the disappearance of the police from Egypt’s streets, groups of stick-wielding vigilante groups erected makeshift checkpoints outside their homes to ward off potential criminals. At times, Cairo felt like it was teetering on the cusp of chaos.

In Tahrir Square, a carnival atmosphere prevailed as families sat around picnicking and protesters banged drums to a chorus of anti-Mubarak chants. Then the scene was interrupted in terrifying fashion.

Seven months after the incident, 25 suspects are now standing trial, accused of ordering the attack. Among them are Fathi Sorour, the former speaker of the Egyptian Parliament; Safwat al-Sherif, the ex-leader of Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party (NDP); and two former MPs.

Much like the hearings taking place in Egypt’s other landmark trial—that of its former leader and his sons—the case has not been without controversy. The judge has already banned live broadcasts, while earlier in the proceedings police prevented some journalists from entering the courtroom.

There is also some raw emotion surrounding the case. One man who was in Tahrir Square at the time of the incident was Wael Khalil, a blogger and socialist activist who said that protesters that day had been “in danger of being overrun.”

“We didn’t know what we were up against,” he added. “We didn’t know how many there were and how much worse it would get.”

Eventually the attackers were routed, an experience that Khalil said made the protest movement feel “invincible.” Yet he admitted that for a while demonstrators were wondering if they would be the victims of a “bloody massacre.”

Aside from the bitter memories involved, the trial could well serve up a tantalizing inside account of a crumbling autocratic regime’s desperate last spin of the wheel.

On Tuesday the judge heard from Safwat Hegazy, a leading Islamic cleric who took part in the Tahrir Square protests.

According to him, some of the camel riders and other attackers who were apprehended by demonstrators on Feb. 2 confessed they were hired NDP thugs.

Egyptian newspaper reports have also claimed that the pre-trial investigation has unearthed evidence that Sherif, the ex-NDP leader, contacted other members of the party to recruit help in crushing the uprising.

According to a camel tour guide near the pyramids, who knows some of the men who charged into Tahrir Square that day, there is no doubt that the regime was complicit in the attacks.

“They were paid by rich businessmen and told to go to Tahrir Square,” 44-year-old Zaki Sultan told The Daily Beast.

“They were angry that their business had been affected by the uprising. They were scared about the country.”

He named a parliamentarian who he claimed was involved in organizing the attacks, although that MP is not one of those currently being tried.

Egyptians are experiencing a two-track revolution. Hosni Mubarak might be on trial, but a judge’s ruling that a number of key future hearings will take place behind closed doors has raised suspicions about the process.

And while the parliamentary elections scheduled for November point to a revolution in good health, recent threats by the military that it will reinstate martial law would suggest otherwise.

The court hearings surrounding the Battle of the Camels might lay to rest some ghosts, but there are plenty of demons lying in wait along the road ahead.

Why do we think Egypt’s generals will give up their power?

Protesters scale the walls of the Israeli embassy in Cairo

 

Originally published at majalla.com, 13 September 2011

Covering the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising (we should be reluctant to use the word ‘revolution’ until some heads begin to roll), every now and then I would ask a blindingly obvious question.

Imagine yourself as Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s ruling military council and de facto leader of the country.

If you were in his position – head of a military elite which for three decades or more has enjoyed unfettered power and privilege under the rule of Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors – would you give it all up for an election?

On the occasions I would put this question to one or more of Egypt’s leading activists and politicians, the answer was invariably yes.

Strange, I used to think, seeing as the answer as far as I could tell was a resoundingly clear-cut no. “You want my lucrative land holdings for a liberal democracy? Tell that to my Kalashnikov.”

Or so I can imagine the all-powerful Field Marshall saying.

But now it seems some of the activists who were initially so accommodating towards the ruling military council are also beginning to have their doubts.

Take Shady al-Ghazaly Harb. He is a leading member of the 25 January Youth Coalition, an influential Egyptian activist group comprised of key figures behind the uprising.

He said demonstrators had been “naive” to assume that the ruling military council would happily oversee the transition to a democratic Egypt. “It’s not going to happen”, he added.

Al-Ghazaly said that the recent attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo, when three people were killed after demonstrators knocked down a perimeter wall and broke into the building, revealed the military’s true intent.

“It was pre-planned by the military,” he claimed, saying that Egypt’s ruling generals allowed the attack to happen in order to justify further acquisitions of power.

His view was backed up by Ramy el-Swissy, one of the founding members of the April 6 Youth Movement, another key activist organisation. “The attack was just a hoax in order to make problems between the people and the army,” he said.

There is no evidence to support the claims of military acquiescence in the embassy attacks, and plenty of other politicians and analysts have supported the army’s right to ensure that the post-Mubarak phase doesn’t fall prey to chaos.

Yet the mistrust between activists and the generals is now greater than ever before. Al-Ghazaly said members of the 25 January Youth Coalition, who count among them so many leading lights of the pro-democracy movement, are now “confused” and do not know where to turn.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for November, they will have to figure out their direction quickly.