Posts Tagged ‘Muslimbrüder’

Ägypten: Schlacht verloren

Dienstag, August 28th, 2012

“Egyptian Military Checkmated

Behind Morsi’s Momentous Decision


Ever since early April when he became an official candidate in the first post-revolution presidential election, Dr. Mohammad Morsi has been generally dismissed by most political observers as a weak and unimpressive politician. In fact, he was an accidental contender since he was the stand-in candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) first choice, senior leader Khairat Al-Shater. The MB fielded Morsi as its back-up candidate on the last day of filing because it predicted correctly that its original candidate would be disqualified by the pro-SCAF Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).

As Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took the reigns of power in February 2011, many observers believed that a tacit understanding existed between the powerful Egyptian military and the MB, the most organized political and social group in Egypt. For the next eighteen months, this complicated and largely behind the scenes contentious relationship between these two powerful entities had its ups and downs.

When SCAF sided with millions of Egyptians in ousting Hosni Mubarak in early Feb. 2011, it was not to advance the objectives of the revolution but rather to sacrifice the president in order to save his regime. Throughout 2011, there were three centers of powers in the country: SCAF with its apparent military power, the MB with its enormous capacity for organization and mass mobilization, and the other revolutionary and grassroots groups (dominated by the youth but politically unorganized and inexperienced) taking to the streets throughout the year while paying a terrible price with dozens martyred, hundreds wounded, and thousands detained in military show trials.

When SCAF cracked down on the revolutionary groups, especially during the fall of 2011, the MB refrained from challenging the military as it was in the midst of its campaign for the parliamentary elections. By January 2012, it was clear that the Islamist groups led by the MB had won almost seventy five percent of the seats in both parliamentary chambers. As the MB flexed its muscle and asked to be allowed to form the next government, SCAF refused and threatened the group with the dissolution of parliament. Shortly after, the MB reversed its public promise not to field a contender and actually filed for two presidential candidates.

Within days the military revealed its preferred candidate, Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, the last prime minister of the Mubarak regime. Consequently the tension of the two groups came to the fore as SCAF and the Egyptian deep state (where the remnants of the Mubarak regime still occupied strategic positions and were in control of the state bureaucracy) did everything in their power during the first round of the presidential elections in late May to split the opposition and support their candidate in order to get him to the second round.

Despite their apprehension over the MB’s past broken promises, the revolutionary groups largely coalesced behind Morsi, the other winner of the first round, in the runoff elections, which he barely won with just over 51 percent of the vote. When it became clear on the last day of the runoff elections on June 17 that its candidate might lose, SCAF carried out a sweeping power grab as it dissolved the MB-dominated parliament, reclaimed all legislative powers to itself, issued a constitutional declaration that largely diminished the office of president, and assigned itself the right to appoint the constitution-writing committee if the current one was invalidated as expected by the SCC. In short, by the time Morsi took the oath of office on June 30, SCAF -which essentially ruled the country for the past 16 months- was effectively in control of the most important levers of power relegating the elected president to the position of a figurehead with diminished authority.

By the end of the first week of his presidency, Morsi issued a presidential proclamation, which re-instituted the parliament while calling for new parliamentary elections shortly after the constitution is approved by the people in a national referendum. Within 48 hours, the SCC swiftly overruled him and reversed his decision while affirming SCAF’s constitutional declaration. Morsi reluctantly accepted its decision averting an impending confrontation, which confirmed in the minds of his detractors his weakness and political naiveté.

Morsi’s tactical retreat of this early challenge to SCAF’s power emboldened the remnants of the Mubarak regime as a public campaign of belittling and undermining the newly elected Islamist president began in earnest. Barely a month into his presidency, his opponents, which included not only SCAF and Shafiq supporters, but also anti-Islamic liberal and secular groups, called for mass protests to oust him that were scheduled for August 24 under the theme “toppling the rule of the Brotherhood.”

Meanwhile, Morsi had difficulties forming a government as he faced many obstacles since most political groups and prominent figures tried to impose unacceptable demands that restricted his presidential authority. By the end of July, he opted for a cabinet that was dominated by technocrats. Out of thirty-five cabinet positions, only ten ministers represented pro-revolution figures, five of which were from his own MB-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). However, these cabinet ministers occupied some of the strategic positions in government that he hoped would bring about long-term structural reforms including the ministries of Housing, Labor, Information, Education, and Youth. But perhaps the most significant appointment was that of Judge Ahmad Makki as the new justice minister. Makki was well known as one of the fiercest critics of Mubarak and is a long time champion of judicial independence. Upon assuming office he immediately took steps to institute new policies geared towards this goal.

But many other ministers were also carry-overs from previous cabinets including the relatively unknown minister of water resources, Dr. Hisham Qandil, 50, who was elevated to the position of prime minister. Although considered by many as a lightweight, the relatively young American-educated prime minister is well regarded for his efficiency and honesty. Morsi also retained SCAF’s head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi as defense minister and the ministers of foreign affairs and finance, as well as the heads of intelligence and other senior military and security leaders. Most observers concluded that Tantawi, SCAF, and the security agencies had won this round and would be in effective control of the most important strategic positions in government.

For the first month of his presidency, Morsi treated the military institutions and SCAF leaders not only with extraordinary respect but even with reverence as he sought to earn their trust. Many assumed that he had accepted SCAF’s constitutional proclamation that relegated him to a secondary role. Many foreign dignitaries visiting Egypt, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made a point in meeting not only with Morsi but also with Tantawi. While in the country even her brief statements were awkward as she counseled the president and SCAF’s head to work together as though the country had two functioning heads of state.

But what everyone failed to see was that during this period Morsi was studying the power relationships within SCAF and the other security agencies. He was able during this brief period to identify those military and security leaders whose loyalty were to Tantawi and his chief-of-staff Gen. Sami Anan. In short, he was waiting for the right moment to make his move with minimal confrontation. Luckily for him that opportunity came soon enough.

On August 5, in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, dozens of unidentified militants with unclear motives and without any provocation attacked a checkpoint in the Sinai at the Egypt-Gaza border as the unsuspecting soldiers were breaking their fast, killing sixteen guards and wounding seven. As a result, the nation was shocked and enraged. Many political analysts and commentators blamed the lack of security on the military that neglected its main duties in protecting and securing the borders while its leaders were fully engaged in politics and ruling the country despite electing a civilian president.

Morsi immediately seized the moment and visited the Sinai twice in a week declaring his resolve to restore security and punish the perpetrators. However, his critics also took advantage of the tragic attack calling him weak and ineffective. On August 7 Morsi cancelled his appearance to attend the funerals of the fallen soldiers as it came to his attention that he would physically be attacked by the remnants of the Mubarak regime. In fact, many public figures considered by the remnants to be Morsi’s supporters including Qandil, his prime minister, and former presidential candidate Dr. Abdelmoneim Aboul Fotouh, were attacked and insulted during the funeral procession, while SCAF’s leaders and other former Mubarak-regime figures were hailed.

The following day on Aug. 8, Morsi seized the opportunity and dismissed intelligence chief Murad Mowafi, who was Omar Suleiman’s replacement when Mubarak appointed the latter as his vice president in Jan. 2011, during the height of the popular protests. He also sacked two SCAF members (the heads of the military police and the Cairo security force) and replaced them with officials he trusted. Under intense public pressure Tantawi and SCAF could not object although such decisions were technically within their prerogatives as the June 17 constitutional proclamation barred the president from appointing or dismissing any military personnel or ranked officers.

On the morning of Aug. 12, Morsi quietly called the head of military intelligence Lt. Gen. Abdelfattah El-Sisi, 57, and the head of the third army Lt. Gen. Sedky Sobhi, 55, both current SCAF members who behind the scenes have been critical of Tantawi, 76, and Anan, 74, for neglecting the military and delving into politics. Morsi not only promoted them as generals but also offered them the positions of minister of defense and chief of staff, respectively. Upon accepting their new assignments, they were sworn in before the president, his prime minister, and other presidential advisors.

Morsi then called Tantawi and Anan for a meeting that afternoon. Calmly, he thanked them for their service and informed them that they have been dismissed and that their replacements have been sworn in. He also called the military general in charge of military budget Lt. Gen. Mohammad Nasr. After assuring him that he was not dismissed, Morsi ordered Gen. Nasr to report the details of the financial situation at the defense ministry as if to signal the start of a new era in front of Tantawi and Anan.

Morsi also soothed any ill-feeling by the generals as he sent an unmistakable signal to Egypt’s de facto military leaders during the transitional period that they would not be tried or humiliated as he informed them that he would be honoring them in public by presenting them the Collar of the Nile and the Republic, the highest medals in the country. He also appointed them as presidential advisors. Nevertheless, both were reportedly stunned. On his way out of the presidential palace, Tantawi was heard cursing in anger.

Immediately, Morsi’s spokesman, Yasir Ali announced in a nationally televised press conference that the president cancelled SCAF’s June 17 constitutional declaration that assigned many presidential and legislative powers to SCAF. He also announced a new constitutional declaration that transferred the same powers that SCAF allocated to itself in its previous declaration back to the president, including legislative powers in the absence of parliament and the appointment and dismissal of military officers.

During the press conference, Ali also announced the appointment of a new vice president, Judge Mahmoud Makki, the younger brother of the justice minister. The younger Makki also has an outstanding reputation as an exemplary, independent, and powerful jurist. His appointment was seen as a counterweight to any rumblings by the pro-SCAF Supreme Court’s senior justices who might challenge Morsi’s decisions.

Morsi’s spokesman then announced to the nation the dismissal of not only Tantawi and Anan but also the heads of the Navy, Air Force, and Air Defense, the most senior SCAF generals. Understanding the politics within SCAF, all three generals were also reassigned to senior civilian positions as heads of companies running the Suez Canal and military industry productions. State television then aired the images taken that morning of Morsi swearing-in the new defense minister and chief of staff.

Underestimated by his critics and dismissed by his opponents, Morsi has demonstrated coolness under pressure, toughness, and shrewdness uncharacteristic to Egyptian politicians. With the exceptions of Mubarak’s remnants his actions were overwhelmingly approved by Egyptians from diverse political, ideological, and pro-revolution groups.

The new generals Morsi choose to lead the Egyptian military, Sisi and Sobhi, embody a new brand of officers. In their mid-fifties, they represent a new generation distinguished from the Mubarak-era generation in their late seventies. The new defense minister is considered not only a critic of Mubarak and his regime but also of the former senior SCAF leaders. He is also distinguished as a religious person in one of the most secular institutions in the country. This characteristic no doubt has endeared him to the Islamist president. Gen. Sisi is also on record advocating the return of the military to its professional duties and staying away from any engagement in domestic politics. Unlike his predecessors, Gen. Sisi had also publicly criticized NATO’s recent involvement in Libya, and has called for the assertion of Egypt’s sovereignty and independence.

Furthermore, on Aug. 16 the New York Times revealed that the new chief-of-staff, Gen. Sobhi, wrote a paper for the Naval War College seven year ago that was highly critical of American foreign policy in the Middle East, especially with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Extraordinarily, he wrote that, “the permanent withdrawal of United States military forces from the Middle East and the Gulf should be a goal of U.S. strategy in the region.”

Taking advantage of the deterioration of security in the Sinai, Morsi and his new military cadres sent hundreds of tanks, helicopters, other military equipment, and thousands of soldiers to the peninsula in order to fight the militant groups in a direct violation of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which called for severe restrictions on the number of Egyptian soldiers and military equipment to be deployed in the Sinai. Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported on Aug. 16 that the Israeli government bitterly complained to the U.S. about the lack of consultation by the Egyptians and their disregard in seeking their approval as stipulated in the treaty.

On Aug. 21, Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv wrote that what mostly disturbed the Israeli government was not the deployment of forces and equipment which it would have temporarily approved, but the fact that Egyptian officials are openly challenging the restrictions in the treaty, accusing the Israelis themselves of violating it many times before when they attacked Gaza. Other Egyptian politicians and senior MB leaders have also publicly vowed to re-assert complete sovereignty over the Sinai regardless of the treaty stipulations.

On the day of the military shake-up in Cairo, the U.S. government initially declared that it was surprised by Morsi’s decisions. The following day State Department spokesperson Victoria Noland said that the U.S. was aware of the pending shuffle but was surprised by its timing. In response, Ali, Morsi’s spokesman denied that anyone, let alone the Americans, knew or was informed of the sweeping decisions. So it is unlikely that anyone knew beforehand since clearly when both Secretary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently visited Cairo, they met with Morsi and Tantawi in an attempt to mediate between the parties.

While the U.S. has publicly called for reinstating civilian rule and the restoration of presidential powers, the administration is very much concerned about the independent path asserted by Morsi. For many decades, Mubarak’s Egypt was a U.S. client state ready to support any dictate of U.S. foreign policy in the region. In addition, the U.S. gave the military an annual subsidy of $1.3 billion in order to maintain its leverage over this critical institution. Now, U.S. policymakers – to the detriment of Israel and its American supporters- have to be much more sensitive to Egyptian public opinion and its leaders’ insistence to assert their national sovereignty and independence.

But the first test of this new but complicated relationship has come soon enough. For years the U.S. government has meticulously tried to isolate Iran in the region. It recently called on Egypt not to restore its diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic but to join a tacit regional alliance against it. American allies in the Arab world led by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have surreptitiously conditioned their economic aid to Egypt on maintaining a hostile or cold attitude towards Iran. Despite all these pressures, President Morsi recently extended an extremely warm welcome to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when the two met last week during the Islamic Conference in Saudi Arabia. He subsequently announced a visit to China and Iran at the end of August despite the U.S. public displeasure over the visit.

Subsequently Morsi also announced that the only sensible way to address the crisis in Syria was not through the U.N. or NATO involvement, but through negotiations overseen by Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, a bold move that combined the most important players in the region while ignoring all outsiders. On Aug. 23, theNew York Times reported that the U.S. and Israel were extremely concerned about such overtures between Tehran and Cairo and that such concerns will be at the top of the agenda when Morsi visits Washington at the end of September.

Since he became president many pro-Mubarak remnants and hardcore Shafiq supporters started a campaign of attacks and insults against President Morsi and the MB in an attempt to depose him and destabilize his nascent government. This campaign was manifested through many private media outlets that they controlled, including daily newspapers, magazines, and satellite channels. In one particular instance Islam Afifi, the editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Dostoor initiated a vicious campaign of lies, fabrications, and slander that were directed not only against Morsi but also his family. In Egypt, any citizen can file a criminal complaint to the state prosecutor who must investigate and decide on whether or not to prosecute. In this case the state prosecutor – who acts independently of the president- decided to prosecute.

Moreover, the law in Egypt also empowers judges to jail defendants prior to their conviction if there is a prima facie case against them. Once the trial commenced on Aug. 23 the judge ordered the immediate arrest of Afifi pending his trial. Within hours, President Morsi used his legislative powers and issued a law that banned the imprisonment of journalists because of their opinion not only pre-conviction but also post-conviction. The penalty in the new libel law is no longer criminal but civil. But if convicted, the defendant would have to pay a hefty fine. Because of the new law the editor was freed immediately, thanks only to the person that he has been deceitfully slandering for weeks.

While it took decades to curtail the influence of the army in running the country in countries like Turkey and Spain, Morsi was able to overcome it in a matter of weeks. But one should be under no illusion that the influence of the military in Egypt has disappeared. The Egyptian military is still a major player not only in foreign affairs but also in Egypt’s economy, possibly controlling as much as twenty to thirty percent of its GDP. The disengagement of the military from politics could prove to be much easier and smoother than extricating its economic interests so it can focus on its main mission in protecting the country. But Egypt’s modern military is a sixty year-old professional institution. And it is to the great credit of this institution that such dramatic changes took place without much rift or rupture within it.

By quietly reining in SCAF’s rule, Morsi was able to overcome his greatest challenge to date. Meanwhile, the pro-Mubarak remnants and their anti-Muslim Brotherhood allies trying to undermine his rule have mobilized in order to depose him on Aug. 24, while most revolutionary and nationalist groups have declined to join and condemned their rhetoric of insults and divisiveness. Although the movement to depose him will fizzle out, there is no doubt that Egyptian society is still divided over the role of Islam in public life. But this question will soon be answered as the Egyptian people will go to the polls again within the next six months in order to elect their representatives after they approve in a national referendum the new constitution that is currently being written.

But perhaps the foremost challenge facing the Egyptian president is how to assert real national sovereignty and independence in the face of tremendous pressures coming from all directions, foreign and domestic, in order to pull Egypt back to the U.S.-Israel orbit regardless of the will of the Egyptian people. That is clearly a challenge that cannot be overcome through issuing a presidential proclamation or ordering a reshuffle.

Esam Al-Amin can be contacted at


(Quelle: Counterpunch.)

Syrien: Die Geister der Vergangenheit

Donnerstag, Juni 24th, 2010

“Robert Fisk: Ghosts from the past: Syria’s 30 years of fear

A grim report sheds light on the thousands of ‘disappearances’ during Hafez al-Assad’s 30-year rule

The ancient city of Tadmor (Palmyra), where up to a thousand Islamist prisoners were massacred in 1982

Not long before Hafez el-Assad died in 2000, Ahmed Hariri predicted what would happen when the official news announced the death of the president. Hariri, an old friend of mine in the Syrian ministry of information, came from the city of Tadmor, east of Damascus. The city, known as Palmyra to Romans and tourists alike, was home to one of the regime’s fearsome jails, which stood behind trees not far from the desert road to Baghdad. This was the site of a massacre of Islamist prisoners – perhaps a thousand in all – by Assad’s brother Rifaat after an assassination attempt on Hafez. The corpses were rumoured to have been tossed by night into a secret mass grave near a local hill, and have lain unmarked ever since.

Hariri – he died some years ago, which is why I can name him – drew heavily on a cigarette in the back of my car as we sped towards Tadmor. ‘When our beloved president dies,’ he said, ‘all the people of Tadmor will go to the hill. They know where the dead are – more than just those killed by Rifaat. And when they are sure that the president has gone, they will all throw roses on the gravesite in memory of those who lie beneath.’

But when Assad died of a heart attack, and a smooth Baathist succession installed his son Bashar as the president, not a soul walked from Tadmor to the mass graves. There were no mourners, no roses, no recognition of the violence that had stained this terrible prison under Assad’s 30-year rule.

The eventual relief of Syrians that the young English-trained optometrist Bashar – a gentler figure than his ferocious father – had taken over was so great that no-one wished to recall the past. Why dig up a mass grave unless you intend to pour more blood into it?

The subsequent rule of Bashar has not produced the democratic ‘spring’ in Syria which many Arab intellectuals had hoped for, a fact made all too clear in a report published in Washington this month by the Transitional Justice in the Arab World Project, supported by Freedom House. According to the report, Years of Fear, as many as 17,000 Syrians may have been ‘disappeared’ during Hafez el-Assad’s rule; the 117-page document contains heart-breaking accounts of disappearances and extra-judicial executions, and descriptions of the apparently vain 30-year wait of sons, wives and parents for the return of men who were almost certainly killed in the early 1980s.

But all such reports should carry a red flag. Freedom House, which last year labelled Israel as the only ‘free’ country in the Middle East (Lebanon got a ‘partly free’ coding), receives around 66 per cent of its funding from the US government, including the State Department and USAID. Its roots go back to 1941 – Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the first sponsors when Freedom House was pointing up the evils of Nazi Germany. In the past it has been accused of supporting only pro-Western opposition movements, but its Middle East targets have largely been Arab. Freedom House was also previously led by James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA.

Radwan Ziadeh, who compiled the report, is a long-time US resident exiled from Syria for many years. He runs the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies. This does not disqualify his report, but he warns readers in his preface that ‘for security reasons, we withheld the names of those interviewed and have changed some facts to disguise their identities. Similarly, we have scrambled [sic] the details of many human rights activists and former detainees whom we interviewed.’ This does not, to put it mildly, bestow total confidence on the report. The Syrian authorities will no doubt seize upon this to debunk its contents. So, reader, you have been warned.

Years of Fear covers the three-decade rule of Hafez el-Assad, Syria’s former air force commander whose long battle to maintain his Alawi rule and whose ferocious struggle against violent Islamist enemies clogged the fetid prisons of Syria with thousands of political prisoners. Using security forces who were often corrupt, he confronted an ever more violent sectarian guerrilla movement whose first major assault came on 16 June 1979 when an army captain, Ibrahim al-Yusuf, led the massacre of Alawi students at the Aleppo artillery school.

A subsequent assassination attempt on the president prompted Rifaat’s Defence Brigades’ assault at Tadmor in which up to a thousand Muslim Brotherhood prisoners were machine-gunned to death in their cells. By 1980, there was open war between the regime and its opponents. Law 49, of 7 July 1980, mandated capital punishment for those who did not renounce their Brotherhood membership in writing, and a Ghadaffi-style assassination campaign against overseas opponents was ordered.

The Hama uprising in February 1982, in which the old, rebel-held city was virtually destroyed by tank and shell-fire, caused up to 15,000 deaths, according to Ziadeh’s report – some put the figure at 20,000. What Ziadeh oddly fails to mention is the underground fighting in Hama in which girl suicide bombers hurled themselves against Syrian troops, and previous violence in the city in which Islamists slaughtered entire families of Baath party officials. There was nothing exclusive about Syria’s mass-murderers.

Ziadeh believes that in the early Eighties and later, up to 25,000 men went missing, swallowed into interrogation centres and prisons. ‘Most such cases occurred before 2000,’ the report says. ‘Many detainees have been released during the past few years.’ A credit to Bashar al-Assad, no doubt.

But in the years before, there was no such compassion. The report quotes a former detainee at Tadmor. ‘They called on groups of brothers every Monday and Thursday, and executed them by hanging in the courts of Palmyra Prison…’ It is a sign of the Middle East’s endemic cruelty that Saddam Hussein’s regime was infinitely worse than Assad’s.

Other Syrian detainees might be sentenced to a short term of imprisonment, then held for 10 years, their families repeatedly told that none of the security agencies had any knowledge of them. ‘Now,’ Ziadeh writes with teeth-sucking restraint, ‘the family is allowed to visit the detainee after several years of detention.’

Ziadeh is at his strongest when he lists the vast legislative shield which is supposed to protect Syrian citizens from arbitrary arrest, torture or execution. Section 3 of Article 28 of Syria’s constitution, for example, states that ‘no one may be tortured physically or mentally or be treated in a humiliating manner.’ A double irony – one which, again, Ziadeh fails to mention – is that the American government, which supports Freedom House, happily renditioned prisoners to Damascus in the sure knowledge that the Syrians would ignore their constitution and torture the suspects to their heart’s content. Another Syrian law says that the state must ‘take the necessary legislative, administrative, and judicial measures to prevent and terminate acts of enforced disappearance.’

Again, Ziadeh uses the published evidence of Abdullah al-Naji to prove that the ruthless ‘field courts’ adopted by the regime – an institution originally set up to deal with the Israeli ‘enemy’ rather than Syrian ‘enemies’ of the Baath party – were run by Ghazi Kenaan, the former head of Syrian army intelligence in Lebanon and later minister of interior. I knew Kenaan – a jovial, frightening man who once helped me escape Beirut’s kidnappers by asking me to join him on his morning run across west Beirut; he later committed suicide after allegedly plotting, as minister, against Bashar al-Assad.

But Kenaan’s command of the ‘field courts’ makes sense. More than 15 years ago, in a Boston hotel, another Syrian held at Tadmor told me that they knew when executions were about to take place. ‘We would stand at the cell windows and we all knew Kenaan’s favourite aftershave. When we smelt it, we knew there were going to be firing squads.’ Of these executions, the report comments that ‘no one knows where those who were executed or died under torture were buried.’

The report suggests that these disappearances indirectly affect up to a million Syrians – five per cent of the population. Amer, who was eight when his father was arrested, recalled: ‘I cannot speak with anyone about the issue of my father, because this induces fear and makes people suspicious… I have lived as a half orphan, although my father is not officially dead.’

Some men were declared dead – and then reappeared alive, like the 16-year-old arrested in Aleppo who spent 14 years in prison. Ziadeh’s report, which contains some obvious errors – one woman speaks of her arrested son who, later, mysteriously turns out to be her father – makes the point that ‘victims and their families … have an inalienable right of knowing the truth about the circumstances in which violations took place and about the fate of the victim in the case of death or disappearance.’

A human rights activist told Ziadeh that in some cases buildings were erected over secret cemeteries. In Aleppo, a large mosque has allegedly been built over a mass grave.

Must the sins of the father – whatever those ‘sins’ may be – always be visited upon the sons? Perhaps a president also sometimes asks himself why his father’s sins should be visited upon him. But it will surely be a long time before the people of Tadmor scatter roses on those graves.”


(Quelle: The Independent.)

Menschenrechte und Identitätspolitik

Mittwoch, Mai 26th, 2010

“Conflict and Custom in the New World Order : a conversation with Gita Sahgal

“There is a struggle to be had. It is time to challenge the hegemony of the formal human rights movement and its uncritical embrace of identity politics”. Gita Sahgal in conversation with Deniz Kandiyoti. Part two.

Deniz Kandiyoti:  In  Part I of our conversation ‘Soft law’ and hard choices you concluded that the “war on terror” had a deleterious effect on women’s rights issues. Can you provide some illustrations of what you meant by that?

Gita Sahgal: One of the examples that shocked me most was what happened in Iraq where, as you know, there has been a massive slaughter of women since the US-led military intervention. This has been underreported by the human rights movement and existing reports often focused on so-called “honour killings” i.e. women being killed by their families and kinsmen. This, of course, totally obscures the fact that the victims were often professional women, active in public life and that the perpetrators were militias and armed groups’

Now there are two  ways in which the human rights movement has dealt with the issue of ‘crimes in the name of honour’. On the one hand, UN experts such as Asma Jahangir, who was Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, started to present ‘honour killings’ in Pakistan as a form of extra-judicial execution. Even though the actual crime may be committed by the family, the state is often directly or indirectly responsible for colluding in the crime (for instance by imposing very low penalties, or by being  either complicit with or directly implicated in the killing – by having police or government officials present at the council ordering the killing- or by sheer failure to prosecute). This analysis stems from a very important legal judgement known as the Velasquez Rodriguez case in the Inter-American Court.

Even though this legal foundation had already been laid by the time systematic killings of women who are active in public life or who transgress in their private lives began on a large scale in Iraq and Afghanistan (and indeed in other centres of the ‘War on Terror’ such as Somalia), much commentary, even in human rights reports, reverted to seeing ‘culture’ as a driver for women’s deaths. So militia killings, a classic form of extra-judicial execution, are referred to as ‘honour killings in one UN report on Iraq.  Killings of officials and others are referred to as extra-judicial executions but in gender neutral terms, so that the fact that women are targeted as women is completely buried.

DK: In post-conflict contexts, and in others where the provision of justice as a public good is deficient, there appears to be a consensus among powerful donors that devolving bits of the legal system to the local level and having recourse to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms is the answer. Furthermore, these types of decentralization and devolution are presented as forms of democratization and bottom-up participation. What is the moving force behind this consensus? And what are the implications for women’s rights?

GS: There are a number of forces behind this consensus. One is the reluctant recognition that most societies already operate in a legally plural world and that the most ‘just’ law is not necessarily delivered by the  formal courts – either because the law is often normatively more conservative than actual customs and norms that people live by, or because the formal court system is simply overloaded, unwieldy, slow and expensive. So there have been numerous movements calling for the recognition of other legal systems – perhaps most powerfully in Latin America as a result of the indigenous rights movements gaining a voice and even political power as in Bolivia. Women’s rights advocates have also been involved in a number of processes from resolving domestic disputes through what is known as alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to peace processes where they have negotiated across conflict lines. Sunila Abeysekera has been involved in such processes through her organisation Inform which has mapped ‘disappearances’ during the conflict in Sri Lanka but also negotiated with sympathisers from different sides.

Now these movements have been taken up in broadly two ways –  in human rights discourses and by powerful international organisations and donor governments as part of their aid agenda, particularly in what are known as post-conflict countries. These appear to be different approaches, but they converge precisely over negotiating away women’s rights and the rights of minorities – since these get ignored and submerged within purportedly homogenous identity-based groupings. Therefore those who are already marginalised may be further marginalised in informal justice systems which are controlled by local elites. Informal systems then use law to perpetuate or even re-invent a particular notion of cultural or religious identity.  A woman who may simply want to access a particular right – alimony in theShah Bano case in India, or inheritance in the case of Sandra Lovelace in Canada,  finds that she is challenging  the identity of the entire community who mobilise against her. Ironically in both cases, the law being applied was based on a colonial interpretation of religion and custom.

There is a growing human rights literature which discusses the competing demands of recognition of religious or cultural identities, on the one hand, and ‘balancing’ these with upholding equality and non-discrimination norms, on the other. When identity claims are smuggled in as part of non-discrimination norms, the goal of equality can easily be derailed. The debates over headscarves and the wearing of niqab are an example of this – see for instance the debate between Joan Scott andKarima Bennoune. It was in an attempt to bring a different view to international attention that WLUML and Amnesty International did a joint submission on issues arising from the Lubna Hussein case, a woman persecuted for her attire in Sudan.

Those promoting identity claims see themselves as offering a more culturally responsive version of human rights, but this approach all too often depends on being oblivious to women’s equality and to disputes within groups. Women’s rights advocates often refer to universal principles and the need to either protect existing law or to argue for new law such as relying on a civil code, rather than on different systems of family law based on religion in which people are seen as members of a religious community – as Amrita Chhachhi writes – a sort of forced identity that limits their entitlements rather than defining  their rights as citizens. However, most human rights bodies have hardly dealt with family laws and tend to condemn parallel courts or informal courts principally because of their lack of due process and their harsh punishments ( such as whipping and stoning). While these are valid arguments they fall short of fully grasping the range of violations caused not just by the conduct of these courts but by their very structure. Parallel or customary courts tend to  lend substance in law to religious or tribal identities that are themselves often the product of a colonial inheritance.  They undermine women’s access to civil law even in those countries, such as Ethiopia, where a civil code exists. The Human Rights Committee made a recent comment in which it tried to square this circle by suggesting that lower courts should only handle ‘minor civil and criminal matters’. In Britain, the Lord Chief Justice made a similar point about sharia councils. This leaves virtually all matters pertaining to women’s lives, including quite serious crimes against them such as rape, in the hands of bodies that are systematically biased against them. That is why it is so astonishing that a number of powerful international institutions have put a lot of effort, and more importantly substantial finance, behind the promotion of parallel or alternative courts while overlooking the consequences, particularly for women.

DK: So are you saying, in concrete terms, that this type of devolution often deprives women of justice? Because a disproportionate number of so-called “minor” cases-family, marriage, divorce or inheritance disputes – would potentially be devolved to unaccountable and gender biased institutions?

GS: Yes, it deprives women of justice and also people who are from any minority tradition whose norms are not reflected in the law being applied. They have access neither to universal norms which could protect their rights, nor to the specific norms and customs to which they might adhere in their everyday lives. For instance, in some groups women may have easier access to divorce through their community norms than courts allow. Often the mapping of custom through a formalised process in the service of setting up a parallel justice system enforces more restrictive and patriarchal norms than was previously the case. So a legal system which is created ostensibly as part of a broader democratisation effort may end up inadvertently disenfranchising many citizens in terms of their legal rights.

This is particularly likely in post-conflict settings where foreign governments or charitable donors are pushing for such systems to be adopted. One such case was seen in South Sudan, where both World Vision, a Christian charity and the UN have supported the mapping of customary laws. The South has changed irrevocably during a twenty year period of conflict, social systems have been disrupted, and a large population of urbanised migrants have returned from exile. So the purpose of the system is to help create a national identity which can challenge the Muslim dominated, Shari’a based law of Khartoum, to ‘restore’ the old order and create a new version of South Sudanese identity through law. Pushing for women’s equality is seen as a threat to this project, since it is precisely the social compact that would be created under a patriarchal order which is supposed to be a guarantor against the recurrence of conflict. In contrast, women’s rights advocates, have emphasised that they are struggling for a transformed social order, not one that simply restores the status quo ante.

That is also why the current discussions on Afghanistan, whether from the left or right of the political spectrum, are so frightening. All talk of ‘moderate Taliban’ or ‘light foot print’  of foreign forces leads to the same end – that is a political consensus in which the rights of some are traded for ‘peace’ and ‘security’. This is a false equation which will bring neither peace nor security as conventionally understood, even in military terms; and will certainly not assist those seeking to implant some genuine democratic values.

DK: Would it be possible to talk about two contradictory tendencies at work here? On the one hand there is a drive to expand and consolidate women’s rights through the institutions of global governance, like for instance the United Nations setting up a “super agency” to monitor gender equality or setting up various machineries for gender mainstreaming. On the other hand, you have an even better resourced movement pushing in the direction of opting out of the formal legal system in favour of decentralized “traditional” actors with little judicial oversight and with built-in patriarchal biases.

GS: Yes, that is true and no-one seems to have noticed, except of course, the women who are directly affected and who are fighting heroically all over the world. Quite often their first hurdle – and they never get any further –  is to convince those supposedly on their side (international NGOs, the UN and government aid agencies) to abandon approaches based on religion and tribal custom. There is a fascination with working within ‘Sharia’ by the British government, for instance, which may lead to regressive approaches which undermine not only secular values, but also the work that feminists have done to promote progressive readings of religion.

One example that fortunately failed to take root is the Asian Development Bank’s attempt to create an alternative dispute resolution system in Pakistan. It was backed by a huge budget and proposed a system that would by-pass the courts to resolve a whole host of disputes which included criminal as well as civil matters, with absolutely no safeguards as to process or judicial oversight. Naturally the Pakistani Judiciary and the lawyers hated it.  At a meeting of the project on plural legal orders a Pakistani human rights advocate who evaluated the system said the best thing about it was its complete failure. It was, in effect, an attempt to formalise the jirga system, which was a highly contested institution against which the entire feminist and human rights community has fought. It wasn’t considered particularly ‘authentic’ by ordinary people either.

Some of these programmes have quite Orwellian titles like ‘Legal Empowerment of the Poor’, and they appear to be dedicated to getting the poor out of the formal court system, quite as much as getting them before informal tribunals. The reason that a Bank would be interested in funding the provision of justice in a developing country may have to do with preparing the formal courts to implement laws on financial regulation (or deregulation) and relieve them from the burden of attending to a whole host of irrelevant matters (such as family disputes and abuses of women’s rights). Poor people, in short, should not clog up the court system.  Nor should they, particularly if they are women, entertain the notion that they have immutable rights; only negotiable claims – which they may win or lose depending on their negotiating power, money, support of community elders, and so on. Mapping customary uses of land, for instance, may help people secure individual title to land, which can then become a source of collateral and credit. The drive to formalize is in no small measure related to deepening market integration and commodification.

DK: A lot of commentary opposes an allegedly secular human rights establishment (which includes feminist groups)  to fundamentalist movements and tendencies of various stripes. What I find most interesting about the way you are framing your argument is that you are, in fact, suggesting that numerous mainstream secular organizations are trying to inhabit the space of religion – but they are doing so on their own terms and for their own instrumental purposes. Are they entrenching a normative vision of religion as the antidote to the presumed ills of  “culture”?

GS: Exactly. Everything that is debased is cultural and everything that is pure is religious. The slogan is: “it’s not religion, it’s culture”. In fact, religious practice is always culturally mediated and therefore variable. There is a world of difference between what Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) was trying to do – comparing civil codes, customary laws and Muslim personal laws, and therefore highlighting the existing room for manoeuvre, and agencies seeking to find definitive (often fundamentalist) versions of ‘Sharia’ law  and selling them as more ‘authentic’ than local cultural practice. What they don’t see is that these top-down interventions are narrowing the scope for flexibility and negotiation over women’s rights.

DK: To what extent is there also a confusion here between culture, religion and politics?

GS: The effects of this confusion were evident here in the UK. There was a period in the mid-1980s when the local councils and the GLC were funding Hindu Rights groups as “cultural centres”. They inadvertently legitimized an extremist political tendency that destroyed the Babri Masjid mosque, attempted to build a Hindu temple on its site and  has repeatedly committed atrocities against Muslims and Christian across India .Some people were undoubtedly contributing money in good faith, but there is no doubt that the diaspora acted as a powerful force bolstering the Hindu extremism. Activists in the US and Britain researched these groups and campaigned against them.

Today, we see that a range of fundamentalist organisations of the Islamic Right are being promoted by the state and by sections of the left and liberals. People who are members or suspected members of armed groups and who fled to this country and used it as a refuge were able to re-export militancy to their regions of origin. The British state and human rights bodies have legitimized many such groups including the Jamaat e Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood and salafis of various persuasions.

DK: When you did your work on the Hindu Right, this did not appear to create a great stir. However when you replicate this sort of work with Islamic groups and the Muslim diaspora it becomes more much controversial and divisive because of the “war on terror” and the human rights abuses committed in its name.

GS: Yes, the results are completely different depending on which fundamentalisms you tackle.  If you confront the Christian Right or the Hindu Right you are attacked by members of those groups and may be exposed to threats. But you do not get attacked by the Left.

Whereas those working on Jewish fundamentalism may be accused of anti-semitism, and the critique will come from the both the left and right relating to political positions on  Israel.  Likewise any critical stance on Muslim fundamentalism becomes tainted with charges of Islamophobia and will bring down the wrath of the so-called progressives upon you. So it must be challenged. And of course a large part of the Right will love you for it! It is therefore very difficult to steer a consistent and ethical path and to argue that when challenging abusive counter-terrorism, we should equally be looking at the state’s promotion of religious fundamentalists and the destruction of secular spaces as part of the ‘soft ‘counter-terrorism policy.

DK: What is quite challenging is that many groups and organisations that may have little truck with the concept of individual human rights in doctrinal terms are nonetheless using the vocabulary and mobilizing tropes of human rights to press their rights to religious freedom. What are the implications?

GS: It is one of the strengths of the human rights framework that everybody does use it. But there are risks of serious threats to existing human rights standards. For instance, there is an ongoing attempt to make the defamation of religion into a human rights violation, initially through the use of soft law such as Declarations at the Human Rights Council. Although Amnesty International has offices in Geneva and New York, they did not work on this issue until feminists in the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition pointed out what was happening and a statement was drafted for the Coalition. Human rights organisations in the Coalition are particularly nervous about taking up this issue, as they are of dealing with religious fundamentalism as a serious threat to human rights. So they cannot see that the attempt to legislate the defamation of religion as an offence may open the door to significant  threats to human rights today.

But there is some room to challenge these developments. The Organisation of Islamic States pushed for a Special Representative on Culture because they wanted to ‘protect’ cultural rights from attack. But a lot of people mobilized and a very good set of candidates were put forward as international experts. Farida Shaheed from Pakistan, who was appointed, has a very complex notion of ‘rights in the field of culture’ and is also a feminist  activist. One must not underestimate what can be achieved within the parameters of human rights and I think the game is not entirely lost.

DK: Are you optimistic about future prospects?

GS: I’m not overly optimistic but I think there is a struggle to be had. It is time to challenge the hegemony of the formal human rights movement and its uncritical embrace of identity politics. The  fault lines between those struggling on the ground and around the globe to uphold universal values in conditions of war and deprivation and the parochial narcissism of sections of the Anglo/American left is becoming more evident.

But I take heart from the rejection of the politics of the far right by large sections of the electorate in this country. So many working class voters – whether white or of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin decisively rejected the politics of fascism, whether represented by the BNP  or the front organisations of Islamist parties.  In that sense, they are way ahead of the so called progressives and the leaders of the human rights movement.

But domestically, there are many struggles ahead. The faith agenda so heavily pushed by Blair will be retained by the new government. Public spending cuts are going to increase the power of religious lobbies as providers of essential services. At home and abroad, it is becoming clearer that the ‘War on Terror’ is not about a clash of civilisations, but about the political uses of religion as an instrument of terror on the one hand, or of discipline and control on the other. People in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and so many other places understand this well. It is now time for others in the West to also wake up to these facts.

The first part of this conversation in which Deniz Kandiyoti and Gita Sahgal explore the challenges posed by the international conjuncture following the “war on terror” for gender justice and women’s rights,  ‘Soft law and hard choices’, can be read here.

Gita Sahgal is a former Head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International. She left Amnesty International on April 9th 2010 due to ‘irreconcilable differences’. You can read her statement on leaving Amnesty International here . The views expressed in this interview are entirely her own.”

(Quelle: openDemocracy.)