After it's destruction in the 2007 conflict, how did residents and architects go about rebuilding one of Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camps?
the late spring of 2007 a conflict between the armed Islamist group Fatah al
Islam and the Lebanese army destroyed one of the largest Palestinian refugee camps
in Lebanon. The refugee settlement was home to around 30,000 people, many of
whom had fled their homeland after the forced creation of the state of Israel in
1948. The war in 2007 confronted the refugees with an existential threat of
similar proportions, physically erasing sixty years of exile history.
informal settlements is a challenging task under most circumstances. It requires
rebuilding a space that itself was never meant to last. What makes matters particularly difficult for
Palestinians is that the temporary nature of the camp has often been used as a strategic
weapon and key symbol in Palestinians national struggle; a struggle which
demands the temporariness of the camps as bargaining tools for future
Palestine-Israel negotiation. Yet the enduring conditions of exile have made it
ever clearer that the meaning of the camps had changed, from a testimony to the
unrealised promise of returning home, to a painful reminder of the
impossibility of justice in Palestine.
ideas of return, roots and origins that divides Palestinians and Israelis, inflected
the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared, Lebanon with a unique set of challenges. If
the camps are already a manifestation of colonial violence and oppression on
what basis should their spatial memory be preserved? Whose histories and traumas
do they in fact embody and how can they be honoured without turning residents into
eternal prisoners of their pasts?
What was at
stake in reconstructing Nahr el Bared then, unlike other settlement
reconstruction projects, involved much more then the recuperation of lost
property and assets. It confronted architects and planners with the delicate
task of reclaiming the historical achievements of sixty years in exile without
diminishing the right to return.
founding in 1949, Nahr el Bared has long outgrown its original size and
location. The land, at around 200,000m² was originally rented by UNRWA , and
was soon too small to house the second and third generation of residents. People
began to expand, first vertically by building up; then horizontally by buying
up land in the immediate vicinity of the settlement. Most of these investments
however were, as is the case with so many ‘informal’ developments of the poor,
never documented on official maps.
of camp residents acquired their land via power of attorney. Power of attorney
is a common legal format used to obtain effective use rights without being
formally registered as owner of a piece of land. 
This made it almost impossible, after its destruction, for the refugees to
reclaim title deeds for their private homes and businesses and retrieve the
historically grown spatial structure of the camp. The risk of losing the camp for good led a young team of architects to propose
mapping at a level of detail that made sure Nahr el Bared could be rebuilt just
as it was before. The centrepiece of this ambitious project was a property
database that recorded every home, business or public building that had ever
been constructed in and around Nahr el Bared. It took 2 years just to collect
raw data on property and business assets and a similar amount of time to verify
all losses reported by the refugees. 
The work of
this grassroots initiative is unprecedented. No Palestinian settlement in
Lebanon, erstwhile fairly opaque in official documentation, has ever been recorded
at that level of detail before. In doing so the architects not only brought an
unknown chapter of Palestinian history into previously unseen attention but they
also set new standards for the way in which camp histories would be recorded
and accounted for. The most significant aspect of the initiative however, was the
relationship formed between the planners and the camp population. Putting the
refugees at the heart of the research process was essential to asserting
residents as key authors and owners of the spatial memory of the camp.
collaborative approach of the grassroots initiative marks a radical break with the
totalising logic of the humanitarian system that tends to reduce refugee
populations to their primary survival needs. 
Humanitarianism as structure of communication
are designed to render chaos into manageable situations. This leads refugee
relief agencies to almost by default, reduce complex social situations to the
most basic human needs. Yet this flexible regime of on-demand welfare provision
has long outgrown its initial function as emergency response mechanism. As
Michel Agier rightly suggests, a view echoed by Marianne
Potvin in this series, with the increasing ubiquity of conflict
and disaster, humanitarianism has transformed into a globalised apparatus of sovereign
governance (Agier, 2010).
inaugurates its own time and space in which rights and entitlements are
rendered effective. The primary party to its targeted interventions is the ‘wordless victim, the one excluded from the
logos, armed only with the moan of naked suffering’ to express its needs (Ranciere, 1999,
p. 126) (Ranciere, 1999, p. 126). As a structure of
communication then, humanitarianism leaves no room for disagreement or
contention. Rather it deprives subjects of the right to self representation and
effectively forecloses any possibility to recognize aid recipients outside the
totalizing template of the ‘beneficiary’
(Agier, 2010, p.
It’s against this backdrop of humanitarianisms minimalist social and political
imagination that the property database of Nahr el Bared can be considered as a
remarkable historical achievement. It provided a tool to successfully break the
depoliticising impact of representation built into the refugee regime.
Data as political technology
The lack of
archival records in Nahr el Bared has clearly demonstrated the critical
significance of information for political claim-making among disenfranchised
groups. The refugees, after the conflict,
had once again lost everything they ever owned, faced with the challenge of having
to rebuild their lives out of nothing residents had to rely first and foremost on
their memory and knowledge in order to reclaim their place on the political map.
The central role of the refugees in retrieving the history of Nahr el Bared,
thus, not only gave people an active voice in decisions over their future but made
them an integral part in retrieving a critical chapter of Palestinian exile history.
knowledge gathering project soon became a site of severe power struggles that resulted
in fierce battles between the architects and the political factions who had
previously been in charge of administering the camp. At the heart of their
dispute was the question: who would be in charge of verifying the data collected
on the camp?  The
rivalries between political representatives and planners severely undermined
the emancipatory promise of the project and eventually led to the demise of using
the database as a starting point toward self governance in the camp.
This is of
course a highly tragic outcome against which the idea of data as technology of
resistance appears utterly flawed. And yet the failure to live up to its
promise is not a function of the database’s operative logic but rather relates
to the wider framework of power within which its liberating potential was able
to unfold. Hence, the property database of Nahr el Bared may have failed to put
residents in control of the future of the camp, it nonetheless managed to
disrupt the monopoly of representation held by refugee relief agencies. What’s
more, the fact that the refugees’ spatial memory provided the primary source of
information for the rebuilding process enabled the Palestinians in exile to
reclaim visibility and presence without reducing the complexity of their situation
to the simplifying template of the beneficiary.
for people’s property and possession became a powerful means to represent the
camp population as agents of change and masters of their own fortunes. The
gradual extension of the camp from is historical core into the surrounding
villages in this sense reflects much more than the track record of the Nahr el
Bared’s spatial syntax. It testifies to the gradual emancipation the refugees
from a community of destiny and suffering into a self sufficient group of
sovereign actors, capable of speaking and deciding for themselves. It’s in this
sense that data and information can be understood as a powerful tool of self
expression through which new manoeuvres in political claim-making may be
held knowledge is one of the most precious resources available to populations
who have little more than their memory to affirm their existence as political entities.
Being able to control the ways in one becomes visible and addressable as a political
actor constitutes a unique source of power. It makes room for forms of
sovereignty that enable those, who have so far been deprived of the supreme
authority to set their agenda, to escape humanitarianisms totalizing frame. Such forms of expressive sovereignty can open up new fields of political intervention
to successfully confront or bypass the minimalist logic built into the refugee regime.
What the critical significance of data in the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared
clearly showed is that effective information management can become a critical platform
for a new kind of deliberative political practice in which the ability to
control modalities of reference become a key means to reclaim political self
determination and popular sovereignty.
is based on research conducted by the author for the ESRC funded program
Conflict in Cities and the Contested State (RES-060-25-0015) at the
Universities of Exeter, Cambridge and Queens in the UK.
Agier, M. (2010). Humanity as an Identity and Its
Political Effects. Humanity, Fall, 29-45.
(1999). Disagreement. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 UNRWA is the main UN body in charge providing for the
well being of Palestinian refugees.
 This was initially done to avoid the high taxation on property
owned by foreigners in Lebanon. Since 2001
Palestinians are no longer able to buy land altogether. This change was
introduced by the Lebanese government to prevent the permanent settlement of
Palestinians in Lebanon.
 He camp population was quick in turning the tremendous loss to
their advantage and often exaggerated the size and value of homes and
businesses they previously owned. This required to check and verify all
information provided by the refugees about their property and assets, which was
extremely time consuming and at times involved undue manipulation by those in
charge of validating data and homeowners alike.
 The work of UNRWA, the primary UN agency in charge of Palestinian
refugees in the Middle East, in fact marks an unusual exception here. The
agency exclusively caters to the needs of Palestinians and was in fact
specifically founded to respond to the high volume of displacement created by
the events of 1948. Yet UNRWAS services nonetheless do not extend beyond basic social,
educational and health services which has left the refugees largely to rely on
their own creativity and survival skills to secure their long term future and
survival over the past 60 years.
 Since there were no official documents available to certify people’s
losses, the data collectors had to rely primarily on claims made by the refugees
themselves. Many camp residents grossly exaggerated the size and value of lost
property and assets which made it necessary to check their accounts against
testimonies from neighbours and authoritative figures. Validating people’s
property under these conditions became a unique source of power, which the
political factions were not willing to share. The fact that the critical task of
verifying data had been entrusted with a young team of planners with no history
in the camp was perceived as a direct attack on old established monopolies of
power. Some faction members perceived the newcomers as unwanted competition and
started to fight for control over critical planning tasks.
Angry students are teaming up with exploited university workers to resist the commercialisation of universities, says the Green Party leader. Together, they are a powerful force.
Yesterday, I couldn’t be at the
protest at the University of London, due to a prior commitment at
the other end of England. Green peer Jenny
Jones, who has a long track record of monitoring the Met Police
was there, however, and was able to report that – this time – a
peaceful campus protest wasn’t molested.
ULU was at the centre of a dozen or
more linked protests around the country, for it was here last week
that an attempted occupation was ended in police
violence and mass arrests. That followed plans to shut down the
University of London Union – long a centre of political debate and
activism in the capital.
I was able to be at Sheffield
University, where there was another #copsoffcampus protest, with
strong local as well as national cause. For after a short occupation
last week, I was told that the university has taken out possession
orders on all of its buildings, so that an occupation can be
This is part of a very disturbing trend
that is clearly seeking to end traditional student (and staff)
methods of non-violent protest. It has also seen University of Sussex
students threatened with being banned from their studies for taking
part in peaceful protests.
of academics has condemned “the remarkable surge in police
presence and surveillance across university campuses over recent
months” and called for “an immediate end to injunctions against
protest on university campuses and occupations of university
buildings”. They’re demanding “that management cease its
authorisation of the violent repression of dissent on campus” –
you can back their petition through that link.
The Green Party backs that call.
Universities have long been centres of free speech and independent
thought. They have been – and must remain – places where free
speech, free action, political action are possible.
The trend to turn them into degree
factories where the students are encouraged to regard themselves as
“customers”, where academics are kept on low pay and zero-hours
contracts without the security of tenure that is essential to
academic freedom, is not only deeply undemocratic, but also deeply
damaging. Independent free thought has to remain at the centre of
scholarship – that’s vital for democracy, but also vital for the
quality of our university education.
That trend is just one reason that’s
led to the rise of student protests. Of course another is the level
of tuition fees. With many of today’s students facing leaving
university with £55,000 of debt that’s going to weigh them down
for 30 years (which reports today suggest 40%
might never pay off), going into a job market that is going to
ask them to slave at unpaid internships, or face ending up in
low-skilled, low-paid jobs for life, the palpable anger and
frustration on our campuses is no surprise.
The fact that many of these student
actions have tied together the concerns of students with those of the
workers who serve them (I was horrified to learn that in Sheffield
there are at least 300 staff paid less than a living wage in the
University and Student Union – the petition on this issue is here)
is both encouraging but also at least in part an explanation for the
Underpaid, outsourced, low-wage
workers, often from ethnic minorities and always majority female,
have a lot in common with the young of today. When both groups
realise that, the resistance to the commercialisation of our
universities and the extraordinarily inequitable, unsustainable
structure of our society is going to be a great deal stronger.
The British prime minister's trip to China was presented as a mission to expand trade links with an important partner. But whose interests was he really representing, asks Kerry Brown.
The comment of a former colleague, one of the gloriously caustic personalities who sometimes reach the outer fringes of the diplomatic firmament, caught me by surprise. Perusing my biography on the cover of a book, she snorted loudly and asked disbelievingly: why did you say you worked for the UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office? If even the people who were with you when you were doing something doubt it, I thought, what hope of convincing those who weren’t?!
True, it was all a long time ago. I gained my freedom in 2005, when I left the FCO. But the memory of the experience, and especially of dealing with a high-level visit to a "difficult" country like China, came back to me when observing the visit of Britain's prime minister David Cameron to China on 1-3 December 2013. I could imagine the many thousands of hours of planning and calculation that went into the trip; the careful plotting out of commercial, political and educational outcomes; and the officials on both sides, in London and Beijing, producing endless reams of briefing for the VIPs during their various meetings. I truly did not envy them.
Then, watching from afar as Cameron's fleeting encounter with Chinese leaders was followed by the spectacle of him crossing the People’s Republic with a vast trade delegation in tow, I realised that I could never be a diplomat again. The reason is simple. I could not get rid of the question: who precisely was David Cameron speaking for in China, and whose interests was he promoting?
There is an obvious, straightforward answer: he is a democratically elected leader, and armed with that mandate he has the right to speak for the UK abroad. But inspecting it more closely, this answer seemed a fudge. After all, how many people, when they voted in Britain's election in 2010, chose to support a parliamentary candidate under the influence of his or her attitude towards China? Other "macro" issues might have intruded: Britain’s economy, its relations with Europe, or its military support for the United States. But hardly China, which remains psychologically very remote to most people. Only 2,500 took a GCSE qualification in the Chinese language in 2012, a fall from 3,400 in 2009. The world’s second biggest economy it may be, but China remains a specialist interest for Britain.
So who was Cameron speaking for when he went to Beijing, surrounded by his diplomatic and trading army? Three rhetorical questions may clear the way to an answer.
First, did the visit materially improve the level of understanding of China in the UK, or spell out the key strategic political and commercial choices the UK needs to make regarding China in the coming decade?
Second, did Cameron dare admit the reality that Britain is ever less important for China - this despite the warm rhetoric he got in his highly staged meetings with President Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang, and all his (abstract) language about British support for an European Union free-trade deal with China?
Third, did the prime minister dare explain to the journalists accompanying him that he didn’t use a clearer, more consistent and assertive language about human rights in Beijing because, as leader of a mid-ranking power such as Britain, he no longer can?
All this, if openly stated and acknowledged, would be incendiary stuff. But brute reality has to be faced. The UK has no choice but increasingly to live on its wits. Its relations with China are going to become more important and more demanding. British leaders won’t be elected because of their stance on China any time soon, but their real political mettle will be tested over hard issues such as the above. And in this respect, Cameron's visit was revealing, and not in a good way.
Under the skin
On one level, the democratically elected leader of a "gold-plated democracy" like Britain and his counterparts in Beijing's ruthless, Communist Party-monopoly power-elite got along just fine. On the other, the Chinese media publicly doubted Cameron's sincerity; Bloomberg journalists were, appallingly, asked not to attend a press conference he gave with Chinese leaders; and France's prime minister received almost precisely the same warm rhetoric about being China’s best friend in Europe a day after Cameron met with Li Keqiang. (It seems Britain's special relationship on this matter was short-lived!) All in all, it is not a happy picture.
When questions were asked about the strategy of the visit, they were dismissed with reference to the golden figure of billion: the supposed value of trade deals being signed while Cameron was there. The odd implication - whatever the British government intended - was that these big contracts (where they existed) cancel out all the other issues that the UK and China might need to talk to each other about. But if that was the core purpose of the visit, is it the sort of calculation that British people want and are happy about? Were they ever asked, and will their answers be listened to?
When I was a diplomat, more old-fashioned colleagues would - puffing themselves out - talk grandly of representing the UK’s interests and standing up abroad for "our" values. Today, Edward Snowden's revelations and the world of transnational social media has put these nation-centric values under pressure as never before. In this context, Cameron’s journey to China looks like something from that earlier era. It resembles the meeting of leaders of well-protected, self-defined tribal elites, each surrounded by a tightly interlinked band of allies, each promoting narrow, factional interests. And it suggests that the UK - for all its fulsome lectures on the rule of law and its transparent culture and system - is as riddled by vested interest and wedded to meaningless political rhetoric and lazy moral obfuscation as its interlocutors in Beijing.
So who was David Cameron speaking for in China, and whose interests was he promoting? In the end, I learned from the visit that the prime minister was really speaking for and promoting - himself!
A hearing today could clear the way for Isa Muasu's
forcible removal from Britain on 17 December.
Isa MuasuAsylum seeker Isa Muazu
survived his 104 day hunger strike but remains locked up in Harmondsworth
Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow Airport. He continues to resist his
forcible return to Nigeria. Home Secretary Theresa May and the Home Office have
shown they will to stop at nothing to ensure his removal.
and costly actions to remove him so far have included chartering a private jet,
organising three months of sponsored health care in Nigeria, instructing a
Crown solicitor the night before the attempted deportation and deploying
doctors' reports that did not involve an actual examination of the patient.
The UK government hired a private jet to deport Isa
Muasu to Nigeria in the early hours of Friday 29 November, at a reported cost
of around £100,000. The next day he was back in Britain, the plane having been
refused entry to Nigerian airspace.
On the night of Tuesday
10 December, Muasu was issued with fresh removal directions — for 17
December, on a charter flight with other Nigerian nationals who are currently
fighting immigration cases in detention centres across the country.
I volunteer at The Unity Centre in Glasgow. We offer
practical support and solidarity to asylum seekers. We are often contacted by
individuals who have been detained. Since early September I've been in
telephone contact with Isa several times a week. Isa's
needs and demands have been consistent throughout his protest; he wants his
freedom, he wants to be taken off the detained fast track system (whereby
asylum seekers are detained if their claims are deemed straightforward and
capable of being decided quickly). He wants no
longer to be treated like a criminal. Now, Isa also wants to be given the
chance to recover from his dangerous hunger strike without security guards
hovering over him when he is finally taken to hospital.
As the jet, privately chartered to deport Isa, was
almost back in the UK on Saturday 30 November, a guard showed him his picture in a newspaper article
and told him he was "a very lucky man". Isa sipped water upon return, water that he
describes as tasting bitter like medicine. The escorts rushed to write down
that he had started accepting fluids again. Isa doesn't feel lucky. He made himself grievously
ill to gain support for his cause.
In UK detention centres 3000 men and women
are locked up without the right to appeal and without having committed any
crime. They are locked into their rooms every night, some detention centres
locking individuals in their rooms three times a day. Isa says he never wants
to hear the sound this makes again, a sound he describes as like chains.
Seeking asylum is treated with suspicion and
disdain by the UK government. A punitive asylum policy and an ingrained culture
of disbelief make it almost impossible to be recognised as in need of
protection. Under international law, it is not illegal to travel to another
country by any means necessary to seek asylum from danger or persecution. Yet the UK government treats
asylum seekers as though they have committed a crime. The burden of proof is upon them to
provide evidence for every aspect of persecution stated.
Every stage of the claims process is a barrier to entry, not a system for fairly establishing who is
in need of help. Initial interrogative interviews may last almost a full
day with up to 400 questions, followed by sometimes bizarre reasons for refusal, and in many cases a right of appeal only after removal (known as Out of Country Appeal Rights). The system is weighted against the vulnerable people it is supposed to serve.
The detained fast track system, on which all Nigerian
men are placed (along with many other nationalities and often women) appears designed to fail. Lawyers may have less than two hours with
their clients and are increasingly reluctant to take on detained fast track
cases due to legal aid cuts. Those legal aid lawyers who have permission to
represent individuals in detention are scarce and tend to take only the most
straightforward and winnable cases rather than cases with a 50 per cent
likelihood of success, as the law requires.
Hunger striking is one response to injustice.
Currently, three individuals being supported by The Unity Centre in
Harmondsworth remain on hunger strike without public support. One man is
protesting the policy of third country removal under the Dublin II convention; he faces removal to Belgium on 12 December, then certain,
immediate deportation to Iran. The others share the same demands as Isa
— to be taken off the detained fast track system and given a fair chance
to claim asylum. These men are suffering. The first has sewn his lips together
and not eaten for 52 days. Another can barely speak yet screams out in the
night in pain and frustration.
Isa says he fears that if he is returned to
Nigeria, the militant Islamic organisation Boko Haram will kill him, as they
have killed other members of his family and friends. When someone fears for their life in their country of origin, a decision to send them there to await the result of their case is barbaric. A hearing scheduled for today will review the
decision to certify Isa’s case for Out of Country Appeal Rights. Such
certification makes it easy to remove people, and radically restricts
their ability to make an appeal at all.
Penguin books were a fine example of a 'cultural democracy' that has now withered against the reactionary dominance of the mainstream. We need to rediscover the passion for dissent and questioning, and technology may ultimately be the key.
Flickr/HellolmNik. Some rights reserved.
Once there were giants. They had
names like Allen Lane.
You know whom I mean, the founder of Penguin Books which for at least half a
century led the field in paperback publishing. Penguin Books was in the
vanguard of the widening of awareness. It was a cultural equivalent of the
welfare state, an educative process developed throughout society by paperback
and evening classes and societies, with some back-up through print and
broadcast journalism. Literature and science and thought were working their way
into the everyday life of ordinary people. Not everyone benefited. Not everyone
wanted it. And there remained obstacles, especially of class, to fulfil the
dream of cultural democracy. But there was some achievement. If the process had a central focus it was
Penguin Books, publishing almost everything of quality, and very little that
wasn’t quality. Well presented, and at a reasonable price, Penguins were ubiquitous
in literate environments of which there seemed to be so many.
Looking back, well, we didn’t know
how lucky we were. For a long time, quite a long time, there was a developing
possibility of the dream coming true. Raymond Williams called it The LongRevolution. You remember it. You still have it somewhere, that blue
Pelican along with all the others. They filled your mind and fed your hopes. It
was thanks to Allen Lane;
not only him but especially him.
Lane died in 1970. His dream did
not die with him, but it cannot be said be said to have survived for very long.
From Dallas to Theda Vinci Code the
forces of cultural reaction have underwritten the socio-economic regression
that some called modernity. You can find Aldous Huxley titles in paperback, but
you have to search. They don’t leap out at you as they used to. There are fifty
shades of trash trying to grab you, but the books that make you wonder are
hidden away. That was not how it was meant to be. Had things gone the other
way, had there been real progress (and not the ersatz world of false choices)
then the spirit of Allen Lane
would have survived. All we have is the memory.
The vocabulary of memorial needs to
meet the occasion of celebrating someone whose ventures were far more for the
common good than for any personal profit. How about pioneer or trailblazer? It
is not possible to imagine anyone of progressive instincts disparaging Lane’s
achievements. The only trouble Penguin caused was to vested interests in
commercial publishing, and of course to that strange, ethereal presence: the
Establishment. Lane challenged the accepted way of doing things. And that is
never liked by the powerful. They fear that their inadequacies may be exposed.
They fear that the truth may be told. Extending the reach of culture is
generous and visionary.
Libraries preferred hardbacks for
their sturdiness in withstanding the strains of wide circulation. But for the
ordinary book-buyer it was the paperbacks that filled the sitting-room shelves,
a row of glowing magenta, a row of classics in sombre black, and another of
academic azure. The wiser heads in publishing did not find Penguin a challenge
but an exemplar. Reasonably-priced, well-produced paperbacks became the
mainstream of bookselling. Penguin dominated, but Papermac brought out Thomas
Hardy et al, and Faber, especially for poetry, was ever dignified but now
within wider reach. In 1970, as Lane was dying, Granada
brought out its Paladin range, Fontana
produced its Modern Masters.
For a long time it seemed that
Penguin Books and its successors were part of an emerging alternative to
institutional society. A colloquium of new voices was articulating potent,
sometimes mysterious, and always interesting energies. An air of experiment, in
which Penguin played its part, was speaking to the general feeling within
society. It was powerful enough to submerge the feelings of reaction although
these have returned with a vengeance, of course.
Historians one day may be in a
position to define the critical moment when the experiment failed to make the
decisive break in the continuum. Social experiment did not become the natural
governing principle of society. How close it came to happening is one of those
uncharted questions. Historians one day may be able to discern the reasons why
the revolution was deferred. (I say deferred, not defeated.)
At first glance it may seem
inexplicable that an expansion of higher education has not led to an expansion
of new ideas from young idealists. It clearly hasn’t happened. The mainstream
bookshops now pack ephemera on the shelves, giving equal status to entertainment
books. The habit of serious reading has not grown in proportion to the number
of people registering for courses. There may be more qualifications, but there
are not nearly so many ideals.
The idealists always formed a
minority, although a generation ago there was far greater idealism then than
there is now. But education, especially at a university, used to mean a
broadening of interests, an expansion of horizons. A material culture has
narrowed the purpose of education to an essentially vocational role. Education
has become the acquisition of skills rather than the development of intellect
Aldous Huxley, writing in 1959,
predicted this when he spoke of a future generation trained to accomplish tasks
without being educated to ask questions. As for Aldous Huxley – ‘Oh, yeah, I
read Brave New World at school. It
was quite interesting. Did he write anything else?’
For thinking people reading comes
as a matter of course. Questioning comes as a matter of course. It is the
lifeblood of an imaginative response to the world. To think is to question. To
write is to question. These processes are integral to a valid cultural system.
In a conforming society dissent is inevitable if a creative mind is alert to
the responsibilities of creativity. It is not a position sought. It is how
things must be unless we apprentice ourselves to convention.
The point about Penguin, the WEA,
the Left Book Club, and other elements within the network was that ideas and
values were given a central place in the alternative social programme that
engaged, in varying degrees, millions of interested citizens. Not everyone signed
up to everything. But many found something useful. The twentieth century saw a
remarkable growth in unofficial education and with it came patterns of career
development according to skill and initiative rather than formal qualification.
The career of Neville
Cardus is a spectacular example. There were many others, not necessarily in
the public eye, who gained advancement to positions that now require graduate
status. There were early leavers, going out to work initially as clerks and
apprentices, who read and studied and found ways to more fulfilling work and/or
community life. Learning was not an obstacle to be overcome and then discarded.
It was a pleasure. Ordinary lives became extraordinary.
This is what is meant by cultural
democracy. It is an association of the like-minded working its way through the informal
network of feeling that is outside the official structures of society. Work may
be no more than a duty, whereas the life of the choral society or the drama
group may be the heart of a community. The key point is that there was active
involvement rather than passive acceptance. That is the liberating element. It
has not gone from social experience, but it has changed direction. It has gone
underground. It is less visible. The mainstream is inherently conservative. The
oppositional nature of literature distances it from the mainstream.
But technology has extended the
capacity for communication. That can mean more chat, more time-wasting trivia.
It also means a wider capacity for things of substance. The possibility exists
now for a conversation in society that will itself determine the nature of
society. Everyday experience needs to be part of that conversation. Older
institutions are losing some of their relevance and their authority as a
network of root feeling works its way into the social fabric. Everyone has a right
to a voice. There are other realities waiting to be articulated. Historians of
the future may be able to discern the reasons why the revolution happened.
Government and right wing tabloids insist that Britain is too soft on
migrants and life must get harder for them. For many, life is hard
Making art, Sunday afternoon, Refugee Action York 2013
For the first time in years Sophie, her husband and three of their
children will spend Christmas together, free from the oppression, violence and fear
of violence that they lived with for so long.
They fled to Britain from a central African country – the husband first,
and then, years later when their visas allowed, Sophie and three of her
children. They live in York.
government and the Daily Mail claim Britain is a 'soft touch' for
asylum-seekers. The Home Secretary Theresa May is seeking to create a "really
hostile environment for illegal migration". The Immigration
Bill that resumes its progress through Parliament in January will create a very
hostile environment indeed, and not just for people who are here illegally. The
Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Joint Council for the Welfare
of Immigrants, along with the Residential Landlords Association, fear this bill
will result in migrants in general being refused housing and health care.
For the past eleven years in York I've helped to run a drop-in centre
for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. We're called Refugee Action York. I've
come to know families who have settled in the UK for diverse reasons.
In a world away from the tabloid headlines, life is hard for Sophie and
"In my country I was something, I was someone," Sophie tells
me. "Here I am nothing. No
An experienced social worker in her own country, the only work she has
managed to get here was as a temporary cleaner – cleaning students' rooms over
the summer. There is a chronic shortage of experienced social workers in the UK
but Sophie's qualifications are not recognised here and she has no money to
We urgently need language teachers in the UK. Sophie's husband, formerly a head teacher, is fluent in European and
African languages. He had heard of the Refugees into Teaching programme. Could
it help him convert his teaching qualification into one recognised in the UK?
He rang Leeds Met to ask if there was a course he could attend locally and was
told the programme had been terminated.
He had a job as a care worker here for a while. Just a temporary job.
The family faces Christmas with no work.
"He fills in forms all day", Sophie tells me. "He applies
for all jobs. Many jobs. That is what we need just a job…
and…" She trails off.
Sophie thinks constantly of her eldest son. Left behind in their volatile
country, she fears he will be called to fight. She struggles to find the words
to describe how young men are used as cannon fodder. "They die young –
many of them," she says. If he were aged 18 or under, then he could have
got a visa to come to join the rest of his family.
She may never see him again. A heavy, silent pain fills the room.
At Refugee Action York, one overworked staff member and volunteers are working
to make sure that lots of local families, including Sophie's younger children
get presents this year and perhaps a small Christmas tree.
If you met Annie at our Sunday drop-in, where people learn English,
enjoy football and drama, share food, you might think she was a volunteer, helping
out for her Duke of Edinburgh Award like my daughter and her friends. Annie
arrived in the UK five years ago with her mother and two brothers. They came
from the Indian subcontinent to join her father, who was working here legally.
Annie speaks impeccable English. She wants to be a GP – her grades are
amazing. She has a real chance.
Instead, it seems likely that Annie, her recently widowed mum and two
brothers will be returned to a country where women and girls are not allowed
out of the house without a male escort.
I researched her chances of becoming a doctor if she were returned to
her country of origin. Girls from her village don’t go to school over the age
of 13. It is unlikely to be in her best interests to return to a country she
does not like to talk of, one where she’ll get no education. Our law says that the best interests of the child can be set aside in
the interests of immigration control.
Britain needs doctors. Annie needs Britain if she is to complete her
education. No matter.
It has been a difficult few weeks for
Lebanon. Perpetually unstable, the suicide bomb attack on the Iranian embassy
on 19 November, the placement of the second city, Tripoli, under army
protection, and the assassination of one of Hezbollah’s top commanders last
week; all these events have demonstrated that the winter months can be as fraught as summer
While the attacks against Hezbollah may
represent trigger points, and the ongoing ‘mini-civil war’ engulfing Tripoli may
be seen as a physical manifestation of otherwise relatively latent tensions,
these events serve more to deepen existing fault lines rather than carve new
ones. On the face of things little has changed; the county remains a patchwork
of operatives and agendas, peace and conflict. But the deepening of fault lines
further increases the number of pressure points, and the asymmetrical nature of
threats both internally and externally create further unpredictability.
Internally, private groups; some
radical and backed by more established external operatives, and some more
localised and spontaneous (such as those setting up checkpoints within central
Hamra), are increasing in number and confidence – owing no doubt in part to the
eight-month absence of government. Speaker Nabih Berri last
week compounded suspicions that a new government is a long way off by warning
that the deepening political deadlock will remain until presidential elections take
priority at the beginning of next year.
It is open knowledge that Al-Qaeda as well as other Takfiri
Salafist groups, are operating in various ‘black holes’ across the country,
namely Tripoli, Sidon and the north-eastern border regions with Syria. If
Al-Qaeda are spreading their transnational tentacles ever more widely into
Europe and Russia, as is widely reported, they are enjoying the very
accommodating environment in Lebanon (and Syria) to help them on their way. In
particular the Palestinian refugee camps are fertile spaces for infiltration.
These are spaces where Lebanese sovereignty and law are not directly enforced but
operate through multiple Palestinian political factions. Tensions run at a
perpetual high here, largely unreported by mainstream media, heightened by the
networks of criss-crossing agendas of various localised factions. This week has
witnessed a slight increase of tensions in the Ain el-Hilweh Palestinian camp
(always prone to instability), just outside the southern city of Sidon, as
clashes between members of Jund al-Sham and Fatah groups led to the death of a
man and wounding of several others. The subsequent funeral was then marred by a
bomb attack, widely blamed on ‘people with foreign objectives’.
The situation in Tripoli is also concerning. The Lebanese
Armed Forces (LAF), long accused of ‘ignoring Triploi’ by the city’s residents,
have now placed the city under their control in an attempt to appease serious sectarian
violence which has been ongoing in the past fortnight, leaving 11 dead.
All of this serves to illustrate the fractured ground which
exists across the country. Fragmentation caused by localised forces are easily
coopted by fundamentalists. The LAF’s intervention in Tripoli attempts to
reassert the presence of the Lebanese state, but has encountered various
protests and is not guaranteed to last. Moreover, the increasingly fluid
borders in the north of the country, as arms, soldiers and refugees drift
between Syria and Lebanon, and fighting or shelling are becoming increasingly
indiscriminate between the two sides, suggests the increasing geographical
rupture of the country. Arab Tawhid Party leader Wiam Wahhab has even suggested
that Syrian warplanes might well raid areas of Tripoli if the Alawite area of
Jabal Moshen comes under attack – an unfeasible claim, probably, but
demonstrative that the north is becoming ever more closely physically integrated into the Syrian conflict. This would signal
the end of Tripoli merely being a proxy of Syria.
Inevitably Hezbollah still remains the
key actor in the country. The Iranian embassy which was bombed is located in a
Shi’a district of Beirut – Iran is Hezbollah’s staunchest ally – and its attack
is widely viewed as a clear message against Hezbollah; the assassination of
Hassan Hawlo al-Lakkis, claimed to be a senior military figure is an even more
clear-cut attack. But Hezbollah’s reaction has been strategic - with their
hands tied in Syria, they can ill afford to ratchet up sectarian tensions in
Lebanon. Attempting to quash sectarian inflammation, Nasrallah, leader of
Hezbollah, made the strange decision to blame the suicide attack on the Iranian
embassy on Saudi Arabia, despite an Al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni group, Adballah
Azzam Brigades, claiming responsibility. The accusation against Israel for the
assassination of Lakkis was less surprising, although the various dubious (and
probably false) claims of responsibility from previously unknown Sunni groups expose
the number of internal enemies to Hezbollah wanting to take some of the ‘glory’
Does this display a slight
change in Hezbollah’s dynamic within the Lebanese state? More significant than
the actual attacks (which are perhaps inevitable), their fallout has allowed
the slight reshaping of Hezbollah’s identity. Unwilling to retaliate against these
provocations, their role may be seen as taking on that of a stoical victim,
upholding order whilst being attacked from all directions by petulant and
impatient enemy forces. They can claim some form of high ground in this
exchange, albeit one which is logistically necessary – their self-serving desire
to preserve some unity in Lebanon improves their credence as a natural
‘sovereign’ protector. Meanwhile the number of localised Sunni groups claiming
attacks against them display the ever widening network of small-scale, private
militias willing to make a name for themselves, and highlight that the Sunni
population in Lebanon is still essentially leaderless and fragmented.
Where does this leave Lebanon? The
environment continues to be highly fractured, with geographical enclaves hosting
increasingly entrenched conflicts which are spewing out more private groups threatening to create greater national disunity. While Hezbollah continues to
provide a ready target both for those unhappy with its activity in Syria and
those taking advantage of its distraction, the number and agenda of actors
hostile to it are increasingly unpredictable and increasingly likely to be co-opted. This is bad news both for Lebanon, and opponents of extremism.
The Temple of Hercules/Wiktor Szymanowicz. All rights reserved.
As you stand on the hilltop at Um Qais on the topmost
tip of Jordan, Israel-Palestine to your left and the sound of shelling from
southern Syria carrying across the Golan Heights, the tranquillity of this
popular tourist site makes Jordan feel like an oasis of stability in a chaotic
In the west it is easy to disregard Jordan in
discussions about the Arab Awakening. Its protests in 2011 were quickly
diffused with the promise of reforms from the government, and its westernised
monarchy (with a king who even had a cameo in Star Trek in his youth) appears
unthreatening. Jordan's status as a
centre of tourism, a base for Arabic language learning in the Middle East, and
a US ally has increased since turbulence rendered so many of its neighbours
inhospitable, and Amman is an easy and pleasant place to live as a foreign
But Jordan must not be overlooked in relation to the
Arab Awakening, precisely because it is not immune from the tensions that
inspired other revolutions in the region. Economic dissatisfaction is perhaps
the most obvious overlap. The cost of trying to make your way in Jordan as a
citizen is a topic so frequently bemoaned by Jordanians that it becomes like a
mantra. Every taxi driver in Amman comments on high living expenses. The vast sparkling
malls and boutique-lined shops in west Amman are in stark contrast to the east,
testament to the divide between rich and poor.
And it is getting worse. The influx of Syrian refugees
to the country has increased economic strain to the extent that some
Jordanians are resentful of Syrians leaving the camps to live in cities. Fuel
prices are set to rise in the new year, and many government schools now split
the school day in half so that twice as many students can attend – half in the
morning and half in the afternoon. While there is no dictate governing which
students should come in when, usually Jordanians attend at the normal time, and
Syrians in the afternoon. Charities such as Generations for Peace have been
employed in combatting the violence that sometimes breaks out between the two
High level corruption, dissatisfaction about the
degree of freedom allowed, and disagreements about what it means to be a
citizen are just a few more issues mirroring the causes of Arab Spring
revolutions across the region. The law of lèse-majesté forbids overt criticism
of the king, but Abdullah’s traditional support base of East Bankers (and particularly
Bedouin tribes) have begun to feel betrayed by market reforms that benefit the city-based
economic elite, who are mainly Palestinian Jordanians. Some Bedouin in Wadi
Dana now blame the government for the abandonment of the mountainside village
of Dana (elsewhere put down to population moves on account of new industry),
with a few speaking of being ‘forced’ out of their homes. The age old social
strain between East and West Bankers often gets inflamed, and Syrian refugees
of Palestinian origin are currently not allowed into the country proper, but
must stay in the Cyber City facility near Ramtha.
Revolution has not come to Jordan, but this is a
result of particular time- and place-dependent circumstances rather than a lack
of connectivity with the rest of the region. While in Syria and Egypt the knee-jerk reaction of those in power was suppression of protests with varying
degrees of violence, the Jordanian government has, to its credit, not gone down
this path. Instead it tends to promise reform – after the protests in 2011 and
currently in 2013’s launching of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy - though
there is a general scepticism about how far these promises actually go. What is
perhaps more important currently in staving off revolution is the effect of the
war in Syria to the north, and Egypt’s chaos in the south. Stability is, for
now, infinitely preferable.
Revolution is not the be all and end all of the Arab
Awakening, just as the initial protests in Tahrir Square were neither the
pinnacle nor the end of Egypt’s political journey. The waves currently rocking
the region come in many shapes, good and bad, dramatic and contained – and,
crucially, all affecting each other. They will continue to impact on Jordan for
much time to come.
couple of days ago I took part, mostly by listening, to a conversation that was
mainly between two of my neighbours. One
of them is of the left wing political persuasion and the other is several
generations down, on the right. The topic of discussion was the Prawer Plan and both
are opposed to it. For those readers of this screed who are not aware, the
Prawer plan is the final version of several plans that have been produced over
the years which have sought to reorganize and legalize Bedouin land holdings in
the Negev as well as making it possible to supply twenty-first century services to that sector of the Israeli
two neighbors both oppose the plan but for different reasons. My left-wing
neighbor has listened to the various human rights organizations who have
claimed that the plan violates the human rights of the Bedouin. These include
the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay who said:
citizens of Israel, the Arab Bedouins are entitled to the same rights to
property, housing and public services as any other group in Israel. The
Government must recognize and respect the specific rights of its Bedouin
communities, including recognition of Bedouin land ownership claims.”
right-wing neighbor, who has worked with local Negev Bedouin for the past six
years on an informal basis, argued that the plan should be scrapped and all
Bedouin land claims should be adjudicated and settled in the courts. He made
this argument knowing that most of the Bedouin land claims are not legal
according to Israeli, British mandatory or Ottoman law, so they would be
my right-wing neighbor feels that the Bedouins are being offered too much under
the Prawer Plan does not particularly surprise me. What does surprise me is
that neither my left-wing neighbor nor anything that I have heard from the
human rights groups, including the honorable Ms. Pillay, address themselves to
the problems that Israeli Bedouins face today.
It seems to me that this latter
phenomenon arises out of what I prefer to call the Weaponization of Human
Rights or WHR. (I cannot claim credit for this term as I heard it first from an
interlocutor on another internet forum.) WHR may have begun with the
Arab-Israeli conflict as it played out in the old UN Commission on Human Rights
and its successor the UN Human Rights Council. Long ago it was explained to me
that investigations of human rights violations in conflict situations are not
restricted to one side or the other but are focused on human rights violations
wherever they may take place. However, over the years, in the case of the
Arab-Israeli conflict, human rights inquiries have been informally and formally
restricted to Israeli actions. As a consequence the violations of Arab human
rights by Arab governments and proto-governmental organizations have been
mostly ignored. This may be one of the reasons why the outbreak of the Arab
Spring caught so many observers by surprise.
any rate, when human rights become weaponized, like weaponizing technology, it
usually does no good to any human being in the vicinity. This seems to be the
situation when it comes to the Negev Bedouin. I happen to think that the Prawer
Plan is a reasonable approach to bringing the Bedouin into the mainstream of twenty-first century Israeli society especially when it comes to providing government
services. I believe that I am in agreement on this with the majority of the
Bedouin population in the Negev and in particular with a majority that desires
to exploit the advantages offered by modern Israeli society.
me provide an example of why I think so. This past Thursday the first rains of
the winter fell. If enough rain falls during the rest of the winter, in the
spring the wild grasses that are typical of our area will cover the ground.
Despite being a desert, in the spring the land turns from yellow-brown to
green and looks very much like photos of Ireland that I have seen. The grasses
grow very thick and can reach a height of twenty to thirty centimeters. However, a few
kilometers to the south far less rain falls and the grasses grow very sparsely
and short; perhaps two or three centimeters in height with a centimeter or two
of space between each blade.
The government allows the Bedouin to graze their
flocks on state land in our area. However in order to do this a permit must be
issued on condition that the owner of the flock opens a file with the Income
Tax and Value Added Tax authorities. Most Bedouin either open the required
files or already have existing files and easily acquire grazing permits. Other
Bedouin prefer to remain invisible to the tax authorities and choose to graze
their flocks on the inferior grazing lands to the south where no permit is
needed. This is not a consequence of Bedouin culture, tradition or education.
It is simply an economic calculation. However, Bedouin who prefer not to pay
taxes and do without government services are far more likely to oppose the
Prawer plan on the basis of the same sort of economic calculation, than
Bedouins who pay taxes and get government services.
example does not apply to all Bedouin nor am I going to argue that the Prawer
plan is not without its problems. But I will argue that most of the human
rights organizations who have taken a negative position on the plan have done
so, not because they wish to advance Bedouin human rights but rather because
they have become enmeshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are using
human rights issues as weapons in that conflict.
us all pray for rainy weather in the Negev this winter.
controversial protest law was put into action, government officials as well as
local media apologists justified the consequent repressive police measures as
an innocent attempt to impose “law and order”. While the
government is immersed in its ‘war against terrorism’ (sometimes rightly so and
sometimes not), it’s also doing its best at alienating revolutionaries who took to the streets in protest as soon as the law was
prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was arrested on charges of incitement and
breaking the new protest law. According to eyewitness accounts, more than forty
‘special operations’ personnel raided Alaa’s house. His wife says she was beaten as well as Alaa himself and their laptops and mobile phones were
Al Masry Al Youm quoted a security source saying the
Abdel Maged left the country by illegal means. Therefore, the governments’ understanding of ‘law and order’
is questionable; while major suspects are fleeing the country, peaceful
protesters are arrested.
The Egyptian government’s version of ‘law and order’ permits the police
to decide whether or not to proceed with their duties and respect the law. Once
again, how ironic!
In Minya –
an Upper Egyptian city – sectarian violence has resurfaced leaving five dead,
dozens injured and at least two houses, belonging to Coptic Christians,
burnt down. While
the police were busy enforcing the new law, they failed – yet again – to
protect the Copts and impose ‘law and order’ despite several desperate calls,
as the Watani newspaper reported. To make
things worse, instead of transparent investigations into what actually took
place, the authorities are allegedly holding customary reconciliation
often end up forcing the Coptic Christian minority to relinquish their rights (at
times they are even deported from their home villages) and aggressors are offered impunity,
rather than justice.
“sharia and legitimacy” and last but not least: “the State of law - law and order”;
Egypt’s consecutive regimes, regardless of their religious or nationalistic
ideologies, are notorious for abusively flashing these slogans in order to
silence objections and repress critics.
time the narrative is reaching new levels of absurdity with a simultaneous
increase in deficient government performance, especially with regards
to security and the economy. The authorities appear to be more concerned with
how to curb their opponents than they are with the future of the country and
the wellbeing of its citizens.
The Criminal Court in Kuwait acquits 70
activists, including 11 former Members of Parliament, from charges of storming
parliament; the decision is one of the most anticipated in Kuwait’s turbulent
The seeds for Kuwait’s current political
stalemate were planted years ago. Continuous gridlock and a series of
corruption scandals have resulted in seven parliamentary elections and thirteen cabinet reshuffles in the past seven years. A large corruption scandal linking
the former Prime Minister to large unexplained bank deposits into thirteen MP's
accounts, i.e. 26% of the elected parliament, caused public outrage in 2011
resulting with the PM’s removal. The elections that followed resulted in the
creation of the Majority Bloc, a group of 34 opposition MPs, representing about
68% of the elected parliament, united under a loose banner of anti-corruption.
However, the parliament was dissolved by the judiciary four months later;
sparking a renewal of public protests culminating in the Amir’s intervention with
a decree revising the election law so as to drastically decrease the
probability of a parliamentary opposition coalition being forged.
The protests of the past two years have coincided
with protests in other Arab countries, leading many to believe Kuwait was
having its own Arab Spring moment. That’s no longer the case, as streets are
now calmer and people seem to have moved away from immediate demands of
political reform. Though many scares do still remain, public outrage over the
past two years resulted in an avalanche of court cases against activists. Most prominent were charges of offending the Emir, participating in rallies/unlicensed
crowding and crowding for the purpose of committing a crime.
Offending the Emir
On 2 December 2013, the constitutional court in
Kuwait upheld the law penalizing criticism of the Emir. The government has been
using article 25 of the National Security Law to send dozens of former MPs,
activists and tweeters to court, charging them with offending the Emir. Several
defendants’ lawyers challenged the article on the grounds that it conflicts with
article 36 of the constitution guaranteeing free speech. The court, however,
upheld the law saying it provides necessary protection for the head of state,
adding that the Emir should be treated with extreme respect. The constitutional
court is the highest court in the country and its decisions are final.
Human rights lawyers were hoping their
challenge would overrule the law. The Kuwaiti government has charged dozens of
activists with offending the Emir. According to the National Committee to
Monitor Violations (NCV), a grassroots group set up by activists, the first two
weeks of December alone are set to witness court hearings for more than 30 activists
facing the charge. If found guilty, those charged with offending the Emir could
face up to five years in jail.
The court’s ruling is a
direct violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kuwait ratified in 1996. The article explicitly
states that public figures of the highest authority are legitimately subject to
criticism. International watchdog Human
Rights Watch called on the Kuwaiti government to scrap “offending the Emir”
as a criminal charge earlier this year.
Storming of parliament
The Court has acquitted 70 individuals,
including 11 former MPs, facing charges for storming parliament on 15 November
2011. The court based its acquittal on conflicting testimonies by parliament
security over whether the protestors stormed the premises or were allowed in.
The sterile opposition is looking to the
court’s decision to reinvigorate its base. Now that the defendants were found not
guilty, the opposition is going to celebrate its “triumph”. The government
would very likely welcome the acquittal as well, as it seeks to avoid any further
political escalation or give the opposition room to regain its public support.
The struggle of the past two years has since
died out. The opposition itself was born out of abnormal circumstance uniting Islamists,
liberals, youth and tribesman under a banner of anti-corruption; it struggled
to materialize into anything substantial or long lasting. The period during
which the opposition formed the Majority Bloc in parliament is now documented
as a period where they tried to pass Sharia Law and sentence blasphemers to
The Kuwaiti government is blessed with a mellow
populace. In an annual survey of voters' priorities conducted by the legislator, ‘combating
corruption’ has dropped three ranks since last year; ‘housing’ is now everyone’s
top priority. Talk about political reform no longer dominates in the same
manner it did last year. It could be argued that regional developments and the
difficulty in establishing political reform in Arab Spring countries have caused
Kuwaitis to steer away from political reform.
Some believe it will be another five years
before Kuwait can approach the idea of political reform again. But until then,
activists should not be discouraged. Calling for an elected government in a
region governed in the purest tribal form is not going to bear fruit overnight.
Kuwait’s struggle in the 1950’s for political reform resulted in the most
advanced legislator in the region, their struggle in 2005 brought substantial
reforms to the election law, including redistricting to reduce the number of electoral districts from 25 to just five, and without a doubt their
existing struggle will produce fruit in the near future.
The struggle of the past two years revealed
many things to the public. First, it revealed a very public power struggle
among members of the royal family. It is argued that the scandal surrounding
the former PM and his connection to financial deposits in MPs accounts
which triggered the mass protests were actually exposed by a competing
member of the royal family. Second, the struggle revealed the shortcomings and
loopholes in Kuwaiti law that have led to political clamp down and trials, such
as the ones we are witnessing now. In order to push ahead with political
reform, these laws must be understood, revised and changed using any method
possible. Third, the struggle has shattered stereotypes of society and stripped away the facade of “democracy” that the ruling elite have hid behind for decades. It
revealed that those once believed to be liberals were elitist, and that moderates were extremists, and
has shown the true colours of a regressive government that has significant international
Kuwait is far from achieving a wholesome
democratic system, but it needs to start somewhere. Several issues can precede the
elected government which everyone hopes to achieve, including the establishment
of political parties as well as the financial independence of the judiciary, to
name but a few. Those activists who were acquitted should get a good night’s sleep
because tomorrow is the beginning of a new struggle.
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by
how many times I fell down and got back up again.” - Nelson
Dr.Mostafa Hegazy, the new advisor to the Egyptian interim President,
appeared on television to hail the Egyptian people on the dawn of a new era;
the era of the rule of law. The interview was given within the context of the
need to abide by a new law regulating protests. Ironically around the same
time, a group of young women were sentenced to eleven years in prison, a
verdict that was later reduced
to one year suspended sentences, after public and international outcry.
With perfect English, eloquence, a western education and a seemingly
liberal outlook, Hegazy seems to embody what the urban middle and upper middle classes
strive to become, namely more western and disconnected from the “uncivilized”
masses. Dr. Hegazy, however, is not unique; he is part of a new kind of elite,
an elite that I like to call the New Janissaries. The Janissary corps were an
elite military unit within the Ottoman army; its members were Christian slaves
taken from different provinces of the empire, as children, converted to Islam,
and indoctrinated into the service of the Ottoman empire. They became intensely
loyal to the Ottoman court, forgetting their homelands and loyalties.
a modern equivalent to men like the Janissaries, namely local elites who were
indoctrinated into a certain part of western political discourse that act
as agents to the centre, on the periphery. This indoctrination occurs in two new formulae, first in what can be aptly called “market fundamentalism”; they
believe that the free market is a vehicle that can solve all social and
economic problems, and that the only issue that the economy is facing is
insufficient liberalization - (a powerful illusion as Karl Polyani pointed out in
the “Great Transformation”, an illusion that cannot be disproved, since the
reply will always be that ‘liberalization’ has not gone far enough).
This indoctrination is coupled with another injection of western
political discourse, namely Orientalist discourse about the nature of 'the Arab
World'. In other words, these elites believe that their fellow countrymen are inferior;
lack of education is often cited as a reason for this inferiority, or something
that is fundamentally wrong with our “nature”. This of course, entails a
conception of the Middle East as a place where time stands still, with little
or no progress. If this is so then this progress must be attributed to the will of one
man, a loving father figure who sacrifices and guides his children at great
personal expense. There is an astonishing lack of societal analysis of the
causes of societal change, let alone a historical view of societal development in the
Middle East with the possible causes of decline or prosperity. And when
the past is conveyed, particularly by Islamist movements, it is mystified and
idealized in a manner calculated only to offer relief from the current situation, invoking a mystical goal that can never be achieved.
As Fanon argues in “Black Skin, White masks”, the elites in the then
colonial world, traumatized by their encounter with the white
colonizer, perceive themselves as superior to their countrymen and thus
belonging to European culture. They consider themselves European and loathe their origins. When those elites travel to the centre, they are
traumatized by the realization that members of the “superior” culture they
consider themselves part of, view them as no different from the rest of their
native communities. The best they can hope for is the “compliment” of being
called “westernized”, a label that automatically creates a dichotomy between
the civilized west and the barbaric east.
From personal experience, spending
more than half a decade in the west, this process of alienation leaves the
traumatized native elite with two options. The first, is to wholeheartedly
embrace the label “westernized” native, which means that the person is
partially accepted into the western society in which he/she lives, however, remaining
a suspect of “de-westernization” and never fully accepted. The other is to
revert to his/her native ways, and either return to the homeland, or live in a
closed community with fellow “non-westernized” natives.
The new Janissary,
logically, embraces the second option, actively immersing him or herself into the Orientalist conception of the east and thus becoming active participants in the
oppression of their own people. Rather than embracing the rich European
experience of struggle for liberty that began, arguably, with the explosion of
1789, they embrace the colonial, conservative, and imperial aspect of the
European experience. Their hidden intellectual ideals approach those of the men, like John Stuart Mill, who argued for the need to rule barbarian nations,
since they themselves are not fit to do so. These new Janissaries return to their
homelands, falling under the cultural hegemony of the centre as they
participate in the oppression of their “non-westernized” fellow natives. The National Democratic Party (NDP), the ruling party before the
Egyptian uprising, was filled with elites that fit into this model. This
includes, but is not limited to, Youssef Botros Ghali, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Ahmed
Ezz and of course Gamal Mubarak. They shared the same characteristics described
above; the apparent belief in “market fundamentalism” coupled with the
inferiority of the Egyptian people.
The situation has not changed with the
advent of the Egyptian uprising; on the contrary the effect was the opposite.
The failure of the Egyptian revolutionary movement to create counter-hegemony
within the realm of civil society has led to its inability to break the hold of Orientalism. A large number of Egyptians firmly believe in their own
inferiority and their inability to move the country out of its current backward
The failures of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the brief failed experience
of free elections have also reinforced this trend. The performance of the
Brotherhood, their apparent power grab, social conservatism and sectarian
rhetoric, has reinforced the idea that - to quote the late Omar Suleiman “Egyptians
are not ready for democracy”. There is now a strong sense that Egyptians
should not be trusted with democracy, because when they were given the chance
they made an incorrect choice. The coup was not only directed against President
Morsi, in a wider sense, it was directed against this new consciousness that
was developing; a consciousness that held the nascent promise of breaking down this
inferior conception of one’s self.
The new Janissaries are back playing their traditional role, men that
speak perfect English, and have apparently liberal credentials, actively
participating in the development of the crony capitalist-military alliance at
the expense of the possible development of a national progressive bourgeoisie
that could act as the backbone of a genuinely democratic system. It is
important to note that this process is not a simple linear process; not all
members of the new Janissaries need to leave the county, they simply just need
to fall under the cultural hegemony of the centre.
The Egyptian revolt was not simply a revolt against the tyranny of the
crony capitalist-military alliance, it was also a revolt against the prevalent Orientalist conception; the inferiority the Egyptian feels about himself. In
this aspect the role of the revolutionary intellectual is of the utmost
importance. See the following quote from Edward Said:
has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals;
conversely there has been no major counterrevolutionary movement without
intellectuals. Intellectuals have been the fathers and mothers of movements,
and of course sons and daughters, even nephews and nieces.”
Hence, resistance against
the new Janissaries and the counter revolutionary intellectuals, needs to be
fought on the terrain of civil society, where the revolutionary intellectuals
deconstruct the current political order and open up the way for a direct
assault on the state.
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Illegal firearms, mostly smuggled
in from the USA, are fuelling violence in Mexico. In response, thousands of
guns have been transformed into gardening tools, musical instruments and public
Credit: World Policy Journal/Pedro
Reyes. All rights reserved.
The USA's lax gun laws and holes
in gun trafficking enforcement are fueling a massive illegal arms trade across
its southern border into Mexico. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
Firearms and Explosives (or “ATF”), two out of every three illegal firearms
found in Mexico originate in the USA. In other words, each year, over 253,000
guns purchased in the United States are smuggled south of the border.
Why should we be concerned? For
one, there is a direct
correlation between gun ownership in cities and gun violence: as one
increases so does the other. But that’s true regardless of location. A
paramount issue that is specific to the U.S.-Mexico border is the link between
illegal guns and the drug trade. Outside of one firearms store in Mexico City,
there are no other stores to purchase guns in Mexico. And yet, the drug wars
have claimed the lives of thousands.
Without firearms, the ability of
gangs to acquire and smuggle drugs would be greatly weakened. And given the
fact that the U.S. spends billion a year on the war on drugs, reducing the
proliferation of illegal guns flowing across the border is a security issue that
Capitol Hill cannot ignore. This issue has proven truly complicated,
especially in light of the 2006-2011 ATF "Fast and
In the absence of effective
methods to deal with U.S.-Mexico gun sales, Pedro Reyes, a young Mexican, has
achieved a milestone in combating the illegal trade of guns. He has broken
Mexico’s all-time record for the most guns that have been voluntarily
surrendered. But Reyes is not a member of law enforcement or government. He is
an artist. Born and raised in Mexico, he has witnessed the effects of gun violence
in his country, and has decided to engage directly with the population that is most
endangered by it.
“I’ve always felt that one of the
least productive activities is to complain. So, living in Mexico, I felt that
there was something that could be done about the problem of guns that are
illegally entering the country. I wanted to capture people’s imagination,”
Reyes told me.
In 2007, Reyes began his project Palas
por Pistolas (“Shovels for Guns”) in Culicán, Mexico. The project made
its debut by airing soap opera- style TV ads revealing the dangers posed by
handguns. The commercials invited citizens to voluntarily surrender (or donate)
their guns in exchange for coupons that could be used in local stores - no questions
With support from local
authorities and the Botanical Garden of Culiacán, Palas por Pistolas stayed true to its aim of curbing gun violence.
Reyes melted and re-molded 1,527 civilian guns into gardening tools. He then
organized public tree plantings using the shovels he created to show how an
object that can be used to destroy life could now be used to support it instead.
In direct contrast to the
parades, gun-shows, and gun-fairs that amount to a public celebration of arms,
Reyes’ project is a celebration of nonviolence. “There’s a kind of celebration
where there’s a community day, and people do the planting. People have the
opportunity to gather face-to-face in a public space and engage in something
that becomes sort of a ritual,” he said. Ceremonial tree plantings have since taken
place worldwide, including in San Francisco, Paris, Denver, and Vancouver.
study released in 2013 found that the amount of gun violence in
teen-marketed PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985 in the USA. Video
games like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” that are known for their
violence top the global sales charts. On social media, a surprising number of
gun-lords have started bragging
about their guns by posing for photos with AK 47’s and Colt .45s. For Reyes,
art has a lot to do with political change: “Film, television, and video games
are a big advertisement for guns. It’s very easy to be seduced by guns, and the
sense of power that’s tied to them,” he told me.
Pedro Reyes’ art is also a statement
against the “trigger happy” art industry. “[Palas
por Pistolas] is more of an attempt at a cultural shift because the way
that guns are portrayed in popular culture is very different from the impact
they have in the real world,” he said.
Most recently, Reyes’ work of
transforming guns into inspiring objects has taken on a new dimension. In
Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican government provided Reyes with 6,700 destroyed
weapons to be made into shovels for planting. With a growing following, Reyes
has since launched “Imagine” and “Disarm,” two new projects that transform
firearms into musical instruments. Incorporating intricately crafted woodwind
and percussive instruments, the project sounds as beautiful as it looks.
The fight against gun trafficking
and violence will be waged on two stages - the cultural stage and the political
stage. Interactive and direct, Palas por
Pistolas encapsulates the type of work that advocates are using to engage
people in candid conversations about an otherwise-controversial subject. From
encouraging people to dispose of their guns to exposing young adults to the
dangers they pose, Reyes believes that political artwork can bring about real
change. Alone, however, it is not enough.
On the political stage, a tough
road lies ahead for those who seek to curb gun trafficking. According to a 2012
study by the The Igarapé Institute and the University of San Diego’s
Trans-Border Institute, nearly half of all U.S. firearms dealers depend on
business with Mexico to keep operating. The ATF reports that illegal business
was about as large as the legal total of .7 billion in sales. If illegal gun
trafficking stops, so will the cash flow of retailers. Gun lobbyists will do
everything in their power to prevent this from happening.
The Stop Illegal Trafficking in
Firearms Act of 2013, a bipartisan bill introduced to Congress earlier this
year, presents a number of viable options to deal with this issue. The bill would
help both Mexico and the USA by supporting law enforcement officials to
investigate and prosecute gun trafficking and “straw purchasing” (a process
were a person buys a gun for someone else who is prohibited from buying one themselves).
Even President Obama has
recognized the importance of addressing the illegal arms trade. During a speech
earlier this year at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, he
said that U.S. gun policy reform can "save lives here in Mexico and back
home in the United States." If Pedro Reyes can gain more momentum in the
upper echelons of the political sphere, he may be able to help solve a truly
important international issue.
The British government's failure to keep its word on the issue demonstrates once again that it is determined to keep as much power in its own hands as possible. Parliamentary sovereignty remains a myth.
When as an MP I go into work to the
legislature today and pick up the House of Commons agenda I will hold a
timetable written exclusively by the very government that we are meant to hold
to account. Nothing more starkly reveals the central truth and problem of
British politics: that there is no proper separation of powers. The myth of ‘parliamentary
sovereignty’ is an ever more flimsy delusion that now barely covers the core
corruption of our politics - executive
Even the slightest challenge by
the parliamentary midgets produces a roar of outrage from the 800lb gorilla of
executive power. The 2010 Coalition Agreement included a clear commitment from
the government to implement the Wright Committee’s recommendations for reforms
to the House of Commons, stating:
“We will bring forward the
proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full — starting
with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House
Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the
third year of the Parliament.”
unambiguous statement, no action has been taken to implement this central
recommendation made by the Wright Committee, and the government has now made it
very clear that it has no intention of honouring its promise to establish a
House Business Committee at all.
It seems governments of all
complexions still fear an active, independent parliament, rather than having
the confidence to see it as a partner. The Select Committee that I chair bent
over backwards to help the government honour its promise, offering assorted
compromises and possibilities but to no avail. As things stand at present, parliament
is unable to even influence its own agenda, and remains a supplicant in its own
This was at the best moment for
reform in my political lifetime with an historically high number of new MP’S, an
executive divided by being in coalition and a clear proposition for change from
Wright. Yet even in these helpful circumstances parliamentarians have only won the election of Select
Committee Chairs and members and a Backbench Business Committee. All of these
excellent gains can be quickly repealed when normal working resumes once parliament
is taken over again by an incoming one party government. Desperate to inherit
this bloated over-centralised power the race between the front benches of both
main parties to be the least reforming incoming government in 2015 is already
too close to call.
On 5 December my Committee
published the government’s response to our report on Revisiting “Rebuilding
the House”: the impact of the Wright reforms. Our report reviewed progress
since 2009 on the recommendations of the Select Committee on Reform of the
House of Commons—known as the Wright Committee after its Chair, Dr Tony Wright.
Our report recommended:
- A key Wright recommendation—a House Business Committee
which would give backbenchers an influence on the rest of the House’s agenda—can
and should be introduced without delay. The Coalition Agreement said in 2010
that the Committee would be established by the third year of this parliament.
The Committee argued that a consultative House Business Committee should be
established, to give the House greater control over its time, whilst
recognising real world constraints.
- The House’s petitions procedure is failing to meet
public expectations. There is too much confusion between the roles of government
and parliament. The Committee argued that there is still a case for the
establishment of a petitions committee and recommends that officials work up a
detailed and costed proposition which could then be put to the House for its
Our report proposed a detailed
model for a House Business Committee. It would have enabled the government to
redeem its original Coalition pledge to introduce such a Committee, while
ensuring that the government’s programme was still considered in a timely way. The
government’s response rejected this proposal, saying that, although the
Committee’s suggestion had “some merits”, there were also weaknesses.
I am disappointed
that the government has not responded more positively to a serious attempt to
find a way forward that serves the needs of Ministers and backbenchers alike,
and I am unconvinced by the government’s attempts to justify its inactivity.
On e-petitions, the government
questioned our assertion that the system was failing to meet public
expectations, but agreed that “there is a case for some form of petitions
Committee, which could provide support for petitioners, help the House
determine what should be debated and help facilitate the provision of responses
by the government, where appropriate.” This reaction was more encouraging than
its response to many of our recommendations, and I am pleased that the government
agrees that there is a case for some form of Petitions Committee to support
petitioners and help provide effective responses.
Our Report also
renewed our call for the government to commit to submitting legislation for
pre-legislative scrutiny before presenting it to the House. Giving Select
Committees the opportunity to scrutinise legislation in draft form improves the
quality of Bills that are passed into law, not least by providing an early
warning on problems. The recent Transparency of Lobbying Bill shows what
can happen if the government attempts to dispense with this vital part of the
scrutiny process. The government has now had to pause the Bill in the
House of Lords to attempt to rectify problems that would never have made it
into the final text if a draft Bill had been subject to pre-legislative
scrutiny. However, the government appears to favour “flexibility” over
effective scrutiny, and rejected our view that pre-legislative scrutiny should
be mandatory unless there is an accepted and pressing need for immediate
legislation— something which is very rarely the case.
I strongly believe that the Wright
process has strengthened parliament in many ways—not least through the election
of Select Committee Chairs and members—but there is still a great deal to be
done. I am pleased that the government stated that it “will continue to support
efforts to improve the effectiveness of parliament”, but it needs to make firm
commitments to how this will be done over the 18 months remaining in this parliament.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee looks forward to the government’s
support as it pursues its work on making the legislature as effective as