Monday, January 31, 2011

Jordan Wants New Government, not a Revolution

Islamists, State Open Dialogue in Jordan

Agence France Presse
31 January 2011

AMMAN — Jordan's powerful Islamists said on Monday they have started a dialogue with the state, saying that unlike the situation in Egypt, the opposition in the kingdom does not seek regime change.

"A group of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) met on Sunday with Prime Minister Samir Rifai and gave him our demands in writing," Zaki Bani Rsheid, member of the IAF's executive council, told AFP.

"These demands include the resignation of the government, the amendment of electoral law and the formation of a national salvation government headed by an elected prime minister."

IAF secretary general Hamzeh Mansur said the meeting was "the beginning of a dialogue" with the government.

"King Abdullah II has got and grasped the people's message. We now hope he will act quickly," he said.

An official said the 49-year-old monarch, who succeeded his late father king Hussein in February 1999, "will soon receive an IAF delegation to hear their grievances."

Mansur said: "There is no comparison between Egypt and Jordan. The people there demand a regime change, but here we ask for political reforms and an elected government," he added.

The opposition Muslim Brotherhood has called for constitutional amendments to curb the king's power in naming government heads, arguing that the premiership should go to the leader of the majority in parliament.

The constitution, adopted in 1952, gives the king the exclusive prerogative to appoint and dismiss prime ministers.

"We recognise and acknowledge the legitimacy of the Hashemites," Mansur said, referring to the Jordanian royal family.

Bani Rsheid agreed: "Today everybody agrees that they do not want regime change. They want reforms. But our demands today might change tomorrow if the authorities do not act quickly."

Demonstrations have been held in Jordan after weekly Friday prayers for the past three weeks to demand political and economic reforms.

Protesters have taken to the streets in Cairo and other Egyptian cities since Tuesday, calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power.

The protests in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, were inspired by the uprising that ousted Tunisia's longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14.

Robert Fisk's Latest on Egypt

How much longer can Mubarak cling on?

Robert Fisk reports from Cairo on the protests that refuse to die
The Independent
Monday, 31 January 2011

The old lady in the red scarf was standing inches from the front of am American-made M1 Abrams tank of the Egyptian Third Army, right on the edge of Tahrir Square. Its soldiers were paratroops, some in red berets, others in helmets, gun barrels pointed across the square, heavy machine guns mounted on the turrets. "If they fire on the Egyptian people, Mubarak is finished," she said. "And if they don't fire on the Egyptian people, Mubarak is finished." Of such wisdom are Egyptians now possessed.

Shortly before dusk, four F-16 Falcons – again, of course, manufactured by President Barack Obama's country – came screaming over the square, echoes bouncing off the shabby grey buildings and the giant Nasserist block, as the eyes of the tens of thousands of people in the square stared upwards. "They are on our side," the cry went up from the crowds. Somehow, I didn't think so. And those tanks, new to the square, 14 in all that arrived with no slogans painted on them, their soldiers sullen and apprehensive, had not come – as the protesters fondly believed – to protect them.

But then, when I talked to an officer on one of the tanks, he burst out with a smile. "We will never fire on our people – even if we are ordered to do so," he shouted over the roar of his engine. Again, I was not so sure. President Hosni Mubarak – or perhaps we should now say "president" in quotation marks – was at the military headquarters, having appointed his new junta of former military and intelligence officers. The rumour went round the square: the old wolf would try to fight on to the end. Others said it didn't matter. "Can he kill 80 million Egyptians?"

Anti-American sentiment was growing after Mr Obama's continued if tepid support for the Mubarak regime. "No, Obama, not Mubarak," posters read. And Mr Mubarak's face appeared with a Star of David superimposed over his face. Many of the crowd produced stun-gun cartridge cases fired last week with "Made in the USA" stamped on the bottom. And I noticed the lead tank's hull bore markings beginning "MFR" – at this point a soldier with a rifle and bayonet fixed was ordered to arrest me so I ran into the crowd and he retreated – but could "MFR" stand for the US Mobile Force Reserve, which keeps its tanks in Egypt? Was this tank column on loan from the Americans? You don't need to work out what the Egyptians make of all this.

Yet there were extraordinary scenes earlier in the day between protesters and tank crews of another unit (this time, the machines were older American M-60 Pattons of Vietnam vintage), which appeared to be about to protect a unit of water cannons sent to clear the streets. Hundreds of young men overwhelmed one tank, and when a lieutenant in sun glasses began firing into the air, he was pushed back against his armoured vehicle and had to climb on top to avoid the men. Yet the crowd quickly became good natured, posed for pictures on the tank and handed the soldiers fruit and water.

When a long line of troops assembled across the road, a very old, hunch-backed man sought and gained permission to approach them. I followed him as he embraced the lieutenant and kissed him on both cheeks and said: "You are our sons. We are your people." And then he walked down the row of troops and kissed each one and embraced each one and told each one that he was his son. You need a heart of stone not to be moved by such scenes and yesterday was replete with them.

At one point, a group of protesters brought a man they said was a thief – of which Cairo seems full at the moment – and he was trussed up and handed to the soldiers. "You are here to protect us," they chanted. When one of the soldiers hit the man in the face, his officer slapped him. Then the soldier sat down, shaking his head in despair. All day, an Egyptian Mi-25 helicopter – this time a relic of Soviet ordnance – circled the crowds, six rockets in the pods, but did nothing. Later a French-built Gazelle of the Egyptian air force flew low over the crowds, and the people waved at the place and the pilot could be seen waving back.

And all the time Egyptians walked up to foreigners – and a grey-haired Englishman doesn't look very Egyptian – and insisted that a people who had lost their fear could never be reinjected with fear.

"We will never be afraid again," a young woman shouted at me as the jets screamed over again. And a former cop now claiming to be a liaison man between the demonstrators and the army said that "the army will be with us because they know Mubarak must go". Again, I am not so sure.

And the looting and burning go on. The former policeman – who should know – told me that many of the looters are members of a group which belonged to the Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party, whose previous role had been to bully Egyptians to go to polling stations and vote for their beloved leader. So why, we all wonder now, are these men trying to loot and burn, crimes which are being blamed on all those who demand that Mr Mubarak leave the country? Those demands, incidentally, now include the expulsion of Omar Suleiman, his former top spy, who is Vice-President.

Across Egypt, and on almost every street in Cairo, there are now vigilantes – not Mubarak men, but ordinary civilians who are tired of the semi-official gangs who are robbing their own people at night-time. To get back to my hotel last night, I had to pass through eight checkpoints of men, young and old – one was stooped, with a walking stick in one hand and an old British .303 Lee Enfield rifle in the other – who are now attacking thieves and handing them to the army. But this is no Dad's Army.

In the early hours of yesterday morning, a group of armed men turned up at the Children's Cancer Hospital near the old Roman aqueduct. They wanted to take the medical equipment, but within minutes, local people ran down the road and threatened the men with knives. They retreated at once. Dr Khaled el-Noury, the chief operating officer at the hospital, told me that the armed visitors were disorganised and apparently frightened of being harmed.

They were right. The reception clerk at the children's hospital showed me the kitchen knife he kept on his desk for protection. Further proof of fighting power lay outside the gate where men appeared holding clubs and sticks and pokers. A boy – perhaps eight years old – appeared brandishing an 18-inch butcher's knife, slightly more than half his height. Other men holding knives of equal length came to shake hands with the foreign journalist.

They are no third force. And they believe in the army. Will the soldiers go into the square? And does it matter if Mr Mubarak goes anyway?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Look at Islamism in Tunisia

Tunisia: the advent of liberal Islamism - an Interview with Rashid Al-Ghannoushi

Mahan Abedin
30 January 2011

On Sunday 30 January Rashid Al-Ghannoushi, the 69 year old leader of the Tunisian Islamic movement, returned home after a long exile in London. The international media has interpreted Al-Ghannoushi's return as the most potent symbol yet of the dramatic changes that have taken place in Tunisia in recent weeks.

Al-Ghannoushi is widely regarded to represent the most liberal and progressive strand in Arab Islamist politics. Born in 1941 in Qabis province (southern Tunisia) he received higher education in Cairo, Damascus and the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1981 Al-Ghannoushi founded the Al-Ittijah al-Islami (Islamic Tendency) which was renamed Hizb al-Nahda (aka Hizb Ennahda) or the Renaissance Party in 1989.

Al-Ghannoushi has been at the forefront to resistance against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia from the early 1980s. His return to Tunisia looks set to bring about important changes not only in his native country but North Africa more broadly and perhaps even further afield. Coupled with wider developments in the region (notably the unrest in Egypt) it may mark the point at which Islamists are gradually allowed to fully participate in the politics and governance of North African states.

Mahan Abedin conducted this interview in London on Thursday 27 January 2011.

Were you surprised by the speed of the apparent revolution in Tunisia?

I expected a revolution to occur in Tunisia, but not of the speed that we witnessed.

You were expecting change for a long time?

There have been uprisings in parts of Tunisia in the past two to three years, especially in Gafsa and Ben Gardan in the south. Several months ago I wrote on Al-Jazeera net that this chain of dissent will eventually cohere and erupt in the capital city. I have argued for a long time that the Tunisian regime can't reform from within; it has to be changed from without.

On that note, it appears that the old guard is pulling out all the stops to cling to power. Are we witnessing a true revolutionary moment or a carefully managed and contrived change? 

It is a revolutionary moment. When you talk to people in Tunisia you feel that a real revolution has occurred. The people are ready to sacrifice their lives to safeguard the achievements of recent weeks. The people want to see an end to all the symbols of the RCD [Constitutional Democratic Rally] party and the former regime.

Given the complex dynamics at play - for example the role of the army and the security forces and the external dimension namely the desire by the Western powers to contrive reforms under the existing regime rather than risk the emergence of a new system - are you hopeful that meaningful change can come as quickly as you would wish? 

The Tunisian street can't be appeased with small and half-hearted gestures. The Tunisian street is active and is keeping the elites under intense pressure. Until now the Tunisian elites have failed to reflect the people's will, namely to construct a democratic regime without the RCD apparatus. Another problem is that the international order has intervened on behalf of continuity in Tunisia. They want to change the appearance of the regime and not its essence.

What is your personal situation; have you been granted an amnesty to return?

Yesterday [Wednesday 26 January] I went to the Tunisian Embassy in London to collect my passport. For 22 years I have been protesting outside the Tunisian Embassy, it was only yesterday that I was allowed inside. The people in charge of the embassy received us warmly but in the evening they phoned my son to say that my amnesty hasn't been approved. They said that if I go back to Tunisia I'll be doing so at my own risk.

You haven't visited Tunisia for 22 years?


The fact that they are implying that you may be arrested upon your return indicates that the old security clique is still powerful, don't you agree?

I don't think they will arrest me. They are very weak and need legitimacy from the people. It is the people who are on the offensive. Even if they do arrest me it won't advance their cause.

Why haven't you gone back already?

I have been obliged to go into exile by the dictatorial regimes. Now that the regime in Tunisia has collapsed or is on the verge of collapsing I am going back.

Are you making preparations to go back?

I am going back on Sunday [30 January]. My flight leaves at 8.30 in the morning.

Why haven't Islamists played a prominent role in the street protests? The people on the streets appeared to be of the trendy variety; left-wing beards and fancy veils dominated the scenes.

Islamists can be trendy too! The Tunisian Islamists are different to Islamists in other parts of the Arab world. They have been fiercely harassed and repressed for decades and as a consequence they are reluctant to show themselves or to adopt an Islamist appearance. For the past 22 years they have kept their Islamic identity in their hearts as opposed to wearing it on their sleeves in the form of headscarves and beards.

On a more serious note, you are adamant that Islamists played a leading role in the street protests that forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power? 

No one can pretend that this revolution has been led by Islamists or Communists or any other group for that matter. This is a popular revolution and all the trends in Tunisian political society are present on the scene. At the same time it is clear that the Islamists are the biggest political force in Tunisia. The former regime suppressed all groups and in this transitional period all the groups are concentrating on rebuilding themselves.

You are widely regarded as a reformist in the international Islamist current. In your interview with Al-Jazeera on 22 January you appeared to categorically reject the Islamic Caliphate in favour of democracy. Is this the culmination of your reformist Islamist thought?

This is the authentic and realistic position. The notion of Khilafah (Caliphate) is not a religious one as some groups claim. It reflects a period of time.

Is your embrace of democracy strategic or tactical?

It is strategic. Democracy is crucial to dealing with and reconciling different and even conflicting interests in society. Islam has a strong democratic spirit inasmuch as it respects religious, social and political differences. Islam has never favoured a monolithic state. Throughout their history Muslims have objected to the imposition of a single all-powerful interpretation of Islam. Any attempt to impose a single interpretation has always proven inherently unstable and temporary.

Of late Islamism has been more focussed on moral issues and identity politics, as opposed to taking concrete steps towards securing social justice. I refer to staple social justice demands, like affordable housing, cheap food and job security. Is Al-Nahda in a position to address these issues both at a theoretical and practical level?

The origin of most Nahdawis [supporters of Al-Nahda] is in the rural areas of Tunisia. We understand social justice very well.

You used to have a left-wing outlook and rhetoric in your earlier days, especially the 1970s and early 1980s. Is that still the case? 

In my youth I was a Nasserist. Islam is against injustice and the monopoly of wealth and resources. The notion of Brotherhood in Islam has profound socio-economic implications in so far as it points to the equitable distribution of economic resources. In the economic sphere Islam is closer to the left-wing outlook, without violating the right to private property. The Scandinavian socio-economic model is closest to the Islamic vision.

Is there any tension between the internal wing of Al-Nahda and the exiled leadership?

No. There are differences of views but you can't describe it as a clash between those inside and those outside the country.

What is your current position in this movement?

At the Al-Nahda conference of 2001 I was elected by a majority of 53% of the delegates. At the last conference in 2007 I was elected to the position of President of Al-Nahda by a majority of 63% of the delegates. Back in 2007 I declared that this would be the last time I stand for the leadership of the movement.

What is Al-Nahda's vision for the future of Tunisia?

Tunisia needs a coalition government. No single group can rule on its own. The former regime destroyed or severely undermined the organisational capacity of all political groups and we all need time to rebuild our strength.

That is the short-term scenario but in terms of the long-term what is your vision for the country? Do you envisage Western-style Liberal Democracy or a more indigenous form of democracy?

The best model I can think of is the one adopted by the [ruling] AKP [Justice and Development Party] in Turkey.

From a constitutional point of view, do you aspire to a Presidential system or a Parliamentary one?

Tunisia needs a Parliamentary system where power is more directly invested in the people. A Presidential system risks inviting authoritarianism as occurred under Bourghiba and Ben Ali. We need a system that distributes power across the country at all levels.

How do you position Al-Nahda in the wider global Islamist experience?

Al-Nahda represents the mainstream of the Islamic movement in so far as we struggle to overcome a range of religious, ideological, political and institutional obstacles to bring about democracy to the Muslim world. The movement is at the forefront of this trend not only in the Arab world but also in the broader Muslim world. An-Nahda has devoted a lot of effort to developing Islamic political theory. We stand for Islamic democratic thought, Islamic democracy if you will.

In that case you are an ideological ally of religious intellectuals like the former Iranian President Seyed Mohammad Khatami who expended a lot of effort to popularise the theme of Islamic democracy at the highest level of international politics.

Yes I belong to that trend but unlike Khatami I don't believe in Velayat-e-Faqih [Rule of the Jurisconsult].

Islamic Democracy sounds appealing in theory but the trouble is we don't know what it looks like in practice. Let's focus on one important aspect of political theory, namely the perennial quest for social justice. Traditionally Islamists have understood social justice in a narrow sense as a form of charity and not in a deep and contextual sense that takes into account all the prevailing dimensions and dynamics. Do you envisage Al-Nahda and other Islamists making a historic breakthrough in this field?

Al-Nahda hasn't had the opportunity to develop and explain its views. Since 1981 the movement has struggled to survive in the face of fierce repression. Nevertheless, if you review our literature from the past three decades you'll notice that the topic of social justice comes up again and again. We have worked closely with the trade unions in Tunisia even though these bodies were under strong secular left-wing influence, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. By working with the trade unions we realised how close our views on social justice were to theirs. It was amid this process of interaction that we came to the conclusion that Islam - at least in the public sphere - is synonymous with justice and the quest for justice. Consequently we encouraged our people to join the trade unions.

You mentioned the Turkish AKP example earlier. What has been the impact of the AKP experience on Islamists worldwide, but particularly in the Arab world? 

I believe my thoughts have influenced the AKP. My books and articles have been widely translated into Turkish. A few months ago when I visited Istanbul I was approached by many people on the streets, so much so that I joked why should I go back to Tunisia when I can start a political campaign here! The successful AKP experience has influenced Islamists everywhere. The other examples of Islamists in power, for example in Iran, Afghanistan and Sudan, are not associated with success.

On that note, what is your critique of the Muslim Brotherhood? 

The Muslim Brotherhood is a very big body and it is not easy to change or develop such big organisations, especially when they are assailed and oppressed by repressive regimes. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood has undertaken reform; they have accepted the multi-party system and they play a pivotal role in the trade unions. These days their leaders emerge from inside the trade union movement not from the Al-Azhar [Seminary]. This is very important.

However, the Muslim Brother's last party programme contained some points which I openly criticised. For example, I criticised their statement that Copts and women should be barred from running for the presidency. I also criticised their idea that a body of Ulama should oversee the parliament. But after the attack on the Coptic Church in Cairo the Secretary-General of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ibrahim Mounir, agreed to review the Brotherhood's policy towards the Copts. It appears that the Muslim Brotherhood now accepts the notion of citizenship as the basis of running all political affairs, including election to the highest office.

Are you worried by the rise of apolitical and regime-sponsored Salafism in Tunisia and further afield? 

There are many categories of Salafis, some of whom are in the service of the dictatorship regimes. They would like to be on friendly terms with all the regimes, even the overthrown regime of Ben Ali. These groups are exploited by sections of the Mukhaberat [intelligence services].

Are you worried by this trend? 

No. This trend has no popularity because they are aligned with the regimes. The Muslim and Arab peoples are in revolt against these regimes. The only category of Salafism which may have a social base is Jihadi Salafism. The Jihadi Salafis' relative popularity is based on their opposition to the ruling regimes. There isn't necessarily a popular base for their views on religion and politics.

Do you envisage the Tunisian example sweeping across the proverbial Arab street?

The Arab regimes face implosion from within and change from without. This isn't necessarily a consequence of the Tunisian Revolution but a natural outgrowth of decades of oppression and misrule. There is a similar set of socio-economic and political conditions in all the Arab countries and the dynamic of change appears unstoppable.

On that note, what are the key political lessons of the Tunisian Revolution for Islamists?

The main lesson is that Islamists have to work with others. They should totally abandon the view that they can rule on their own. Furthermore, Islamists should relinquish the ambition to monopolise Islam and appear as the only voice of Islam.

But does your view resonate in situations where Islamists have come into armed confrontation with the ruling regimes thus triggering a vicious cycle of polarisation, radicalisation and repression? I refer specifically to neighbouring Algeria. 

Even in Algeria Islamists are increasingly coming to the conclusion that violence isn't the answer. Violence entrenches the security state and dims the prospect for the type of reforms envisaged by Islamists.

Mahan Abedin is an academic and journalist specialising in Islamic affairs.

Beautiful Analysis of the Recent Protests

Yearning for Respect, Arabs Find a Voice

By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
January 29, 2011

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In Yemen, the chants invoked Tunisia, a continent away. A Lebanese newspaper declared that all of the Middle East was watching Egypt. A long-dead North African poet’s most famous poem has become the anthem of a moment the most enthusiastic call revolutionary.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, conflict has pitted the West against the Arab world, as war in Iraq and Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Bush administration’s policies forged grander narratives of “them against us.” Last week, as more protests erupted in Yemen, Jordan and Egypt and as the United States remained largely on the sidelines, the struggle in the Middle East became firmly about “us.”

For the first time in a generation, it is not religion, nor the adventures of a single leader, nor wars with Israel that have energized the region. Across Egypt and the Middle East, a somewhat nostalgic notion of a common Arab identity, intersecting with a visceral sense of what amounts to a decent life, is driving protests that have bound the region in a sense of a shared destiny.

“The experience of Tunisia will remain the guiding light for Egypt and may be so for people in Yemen, Sudan and the rest of the Arab world looking for change, with a readiness to accept risk, especially given that even the worst possibilities are better than the status quo,” Talal Salman, the editor of Al Safir, wrote on Friday.

A chant in Egypt put it more bluntly, playing on the longstanding chants of Islamists that “Islam is the solution.” “Tunisia,” they shouted, “is the solution.”

Unlike Eastern Europe, whose old order dissolved with breathtaking speed in 1989, Arab countries are distinct in their ideologies and governments, though they often share the same complaints of their citizens and some degree of support by the United States. But rarely has there been a moment when the Middle East felt so interconnected, governments so unpopular and Arabs so overwhelmingly agreed on the demand for change, even as some worry about the aftermath in a place where alternatives to dictatorship have been relentlessly crushed.

The Middle East is being drawn together by economic woes and a shared resentment that people have been denied dignity and respect. From Saudi Arabia to Egypt and beyond, many say, there is a broad sense of failure and frustration.

“After so many years of political stagnation, we were left with choices between the bad and the worse,” said Fadel Shallak, a Lebanese writer and a former government minister. “Now there’s something happening in the Arab world. A collective voice is being heard again.”

As a unifying force, an older Middle East had the Voice of the Arabs, the wildly popular radio station of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s charismatic but repressive leader from 1956 to 1970. Its mix was oratory, propaganda and music, most memorably of Umm Kulthum, the iconic Egyptian diva. Today it is Al Jazeera, the news network, and though his popularity pales before the singer’s, the Tunisian poet, Abul-Qasim al-Shabi, whose work has seemed to define the protests and their ambitions.

But even Al Jazeera has turned its gaze inward. Always provocative and critical of the United States and Israel, it has covered the Egyptian protests breathlessly, as it did Tunisia’s, sometimes even egging the protesters on. It is joined by Facebook and Twitter, which have stitched together disparate places bound by a common language.

Egypt shut down Internet services in the country on Friday, in a remarkable demonstration of how powerful those tools have become. Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, reverted to a more old-fashioned tactic reminiscent of the feuds Nasser had with his Arab colleagues: he complained to the leader of Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based. The channel, he said, was aiding those “seeking to ignite dissent.”

That is, no doubt, true. It describes, as well, Facebook and Twitter messages, some of which have turned into a 21st-century Middle Eastern version of agitprop.

On Facebook, a group in Jerusalem pledged support for Egypt and Tunisia. The Arab world, it said, “is moving from darkness to light ... from dictatorship to freedom.”

The changes may have deep repercussions for the United States. Mouin Rabbani, an analyst in Jordan, said economic frustrations mirrored resentment at governments perceived as agents of the United States and its allies. In fact, a more democratic Arab world, given recent polling, is likely to be much more hostile to American policy.

But the preoccupation now is internal.

“Had they been able to resolve the underlying economic issues, people would have overlooked the corruption, the mismanagement, the autocratic rule,” said Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg, a Saudi economist, speaking from Riyadh. “But when they failed to do the bread and butter issues, people started looking at their governments.”

That may have forged an idea of common cause, where protesters in the most remote locales take their cues from like-minded people in faraway places.

In Tunis on Friday, a group of Tunisian protesters gathered outside the Egyptian Embassy in solidarity. “Mubarak out!” they chanted. A Lebanese newspaper quoted Tunisian activists offering this advice to their Egyptian counterparts: Protest at night, wear plastic bags to avoid electric shocks, wash your face with Coca-Cola to fend off the effects of tear gas and try to spray black paint on the windshields of police vehicles.

“I wish I could join them, and I wish these protests could get rid of all these regimes,” said Mona Sibai, an Egyptian woman living in Beirut. “I feel proud.”

Laith Shbillat, a veteran dissident in Jordan, said: “People want their freedom, people want their bread. People want to stop these lousy dictators from looting their countries. I’d follow anybody. I’d follow Vladimir Lenin if he came and led me.”

Mr. Shbillat mentioned Shabi, the poet, who died as a young man in 1934. “If one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call,” his most famous poem went. “And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.”

“He’s leading us from his grave,” Mr. Shbillat said.

Nada Bakri and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

Continuing Protests in Egypt

Yesterday, embattled President Hosni Mubarak selected Omar Suleiman, his right-hand man and chief of intelligence, to become Egypt's new Vice President. This is the first time the VP position has been occupied during Mubarak's 30 year rule and signals that his son Gamal Muburak will not be inheriting his power after all, at least not in the near future. Nevertheless, the inspirational protests continue. Follow the live blog on Al Jazeera English detailing the momentous events in Egypt.

In Canada, not all Arabs are Equal

Belhassen Trabelsi, the corrupt billionaire brother-in-law of deposed Tunisian President Ben Ali, is being allowed to apply for asylum in Canada despite substantial evidence that he is a dangerous criminal. Indeed, The Globe and Mail highlights the case of a Tunisian refugee from the Ben Ali regime who was tortured after refusing to allow his boat to be used by the Trabelsi family for drugs smuggling, the newspaper reporting that even "Western diplomats have described Belhassen as a notorious figure running a mafia-like organization." However according to the Canadian Foreign Minister, "the government has to abide by the law" and allow Trabelsi to make his asylum application.

This questionable action must come as quite a shock to Benamar Benatta, the Algerian-born young man who also went to Canada to apply for asylum on 5 September 2001. Because as the Washington Post reports, on 12 September 2002 Benatta was unjustly (and perhaps illegally) turned over to United States authorities by Canadian border guards and held in detention for nearly five years despite having been cleared of suspicions of any terrorist activities by the FBI. He was simply a young man without any prior criminal record seeking political asylum from the Algerian government. At the time he must have had no idea that he should be fearful of more than just his own unjust government...

BBC News
30 January 2011

The Canadian government says a brother-in-law of the ousted Tunisian president has applied for refugee status.

Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon had earlier suggested Canada would comply with a request for the extradition of Belhassen Trabelsi.

The billionaire businessman fled to Canada last week after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted.

Mr Cannon says the government has to abide by the law so Mr Trabelsi has the right to take his asylum case to court.

Correspondents say that under Canadian law, dealing with such an application could take years.

The Tunisian tycoon had permanent residency status in Canada and reportedly flew into Montreal by private jet last week with his wife, four children and a nanny.

His status is reported to have been revoked since then and the government in Ottawa has also moved to seize his Canadian assets.

'Not welcome'

"We have indicated that these people are not welcome in Canada," Mr Cannon told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Saturday, "but obviously, that having been stated, Canada is nonetheless a country that has legislation, we do abide by the rule of law."

The foreign minister said authorities are in contact with Mr Trabelsi's lawyer in Montreal.

It is not known exactly where Mr Trabelsi and his family are at the moment.

They were believed to be staying at the Chateau Vaudreuil Suites Hotel in Montreal but are thought to have left on Thursday.

Belhassen is the oldest brother of Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser who became the first lady of Tunisia.

She fled with Mr Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia after a series of protests against poverty and corruption in Tunisia put an end to his 23 years of rule.

Mr Trabelsi has been accused by the transitional Tunisian government of property theft and illegal transfer of foreign currency, among other charges.

His presence in Canada has angered many Tunisian expatriates.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Western Hypocrites

Western Hypocrisy towards the Arab World Stands Exposed

Lead Editorial
The Independent
Saturday, 29 January 2011

Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt...the arc of popular discontent continues to grow.

But it is the tumultuous scenes from Egypt this week, culminating in the running battles in many cities yesterday after Friday prayers, that highlight the volatility of the situation – and the dilemma for the United States and the rest of the Western world.

That such a dilemma exists at all, of course, is largely of our own making. We have long observed a double standard in relations with most Arab countries. We turned a blind eye to internal repression and stagnation, so long as the appearance of internal stability was preserved and the oil routes remained secure. The consequence was a chain of undemocratic regimes from North Africa to the Gulf, which enjoyed Western, primarily US and British, patronage. When, as in Iran, popular anger led to the overthrow of the pro-Western regime, we called foul and were surprised to be shunned. Leaving aside our differently lamentable treatment of Iraq, this is the state of affairs that persists pretty much to this day.

As demands for change reverberate further and further from Tunisia, the hypocrisy separating the West's words and deeds can no longer be sustained. But finding a new response is not easy in this fast-moving situation. France, although the former colonial power, conspicuously kept its distance from the events in Tunisia, wisely refusing asylum to its former protégé. The reticence of the United States has spoken volumes, as disturbances in Egypt have spread.

The instincts of the Obama administration pull it in conflicting directions. On the one hand, it is all in favour of democratic reform, especially democracy sprouting from the grass roots up. On the other, Egypt is a crucial ally in the region – a partner in Middle East peace, guardian of the Suez Canal, a beacon for other Arab countries – and allies need to be orderly and predictable. Here the forces of democracy and stability seem to be at odds. How much simpler it would be for the West to take a (negative) stand if the protests had been mounted in the name of fundamentalist Islam rather than in pursuit of elementary political and economic change.

There is a multitude of contradictions here. The copious amounts of US aid to Egypt, as the reward for supporting Middle East peace, may have had the perverse effect of reducing the pressure for domestic reform. America's neoconservatives, once such vocal champions of democracy in the region, have fallen strangely silent over these latest protests. And how rich an irony it was to hear Tony Blair – the man who so heedlessly helped to topple Saddam Hussein – speak yesterday of the need above all for stability in Egypt.

For the Arab countries, these are complicated, even revolutionary, times. As it is, the West has little choice but to watch and wait, while cautioning those who would cling to power against the sort of excesses that would exacerbate their plight. It is not for us to dictate the direction in which the people of these countries eventually decide to go. But it is in our interests to do nothing that would discredit, or make less likely, a democratic choice. As the broad participation in these protests has shown, it is by no means inevitable that militant anti-Western Islam will emerge the victor, and we should not assume the worst.

On the Recent Protests and Syria

After Tunisia: Robin Yassin-Kassab on Syria

The Syrian author considers the impact of the last month's extraordinary events

Robin Yassin-Kassab
The Guardian
Thursday, 27 January 2011

Egypt's anti-regime protests are unprecedented in size, frequency and ferocity. In Shubra, Dokki, Mohandaseen and Bulaq, the people of Cairo have chanted ash-sha'ab yureed isqaat an-nizam, or "the people want the fall of the regime", and braved tear gas and baton-wielding thugs in the central Tahrir Square. Alexandria, Tanta, Suez, and the labour stronghold of Mahalla al-Kubra have also demonstrated. A government building has been burnt in Suez. Posters of Mubarak have been ripped down and burnt in several locations. Mish ayazeenu, the people shout: "we don't want him."

When Tuesday's Day of Anger started, police at first allowed protesters to move freely in the streets. This was unusual, and suggests fear on the authorities' part, as does the abrupt shift back to traditional methods as night fell. At the time of writing, at least 1,000 people have been arrested, several killed, and hundreds beaten. Uniformed police are backed up by plainclothes goons, many armed with iron bars. (One hopes that someone is collecting photographs of these people in order to identify and shame them.)

Certain developments illustrate why Hosni Mubarak's regime will be harder to dislodge than Ben Ali's in Tunisia. Trade unionists have been at the forefront of Tunisian change; in Egypt the state's co-opted Egyptian Trade Union Federation has ordered its branch heads to suppress protests. And the country's largest opposition party – the Muslim Brotherhood – has so far played a negligible role. When the regime, predictably, blamed the Brotherhood for organising the protests, the Brotherhood quickly proclaimed its innocence. Indeed, events seem to have taken the Brothers by surprise. It may be that the leadership has gambled on regime survival, either for pragmatic reasons or because what Brotherhood ideologues consider the "Islamisation" of society to be proceeding smoothly under the status quo. But the demonstrations have been bigger than anyone expected. Interestingly, al-Azhar clerics, often tools of the regime, have ruled that protests are not counter to Islamic precepts.

The initiators of what is now perhaps a growing intifada organised the protests in the name of Khaled Said, a blogger beaten to death by police who has now become Egypt's Mohammed Bouazizi (the street vendor whose self-immolation was the catalyst for Tunisia's uprising). These organisers, and the trapped and wounded, and those prepared to continue to meet state repression, are to be praised and congratulated for their bravery, and envied for their privileged position as agents of historical change. If nothing else has been achieved, Gamal Mubarak's hopes of inheriting the kingdom from his father must now have been dashed.

Revolutionary momentum is still carrying Tunisia, where journalists have taken over the media, and now it's rolling through Egypt. If the coming days show sustained and spreading protest, the crack that has appeared in Egypt's order will rapidly expand. The west is bracing itself. Another fait accompli, this time in the Arab world's most populous nation, on Palestine's border, would be a nakba for western control. So the American administration is immediately speaking of Mubarak's "opportunity . . . to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people". The phrase "managed change" is uttered. You can be sure America's managers are hard at work. What they have to lose in Egypt is as incalculable as what the Egyptian people have to gain.

With its young population, and a bureaucracy run by the same authoritarian party for four decades, Syria is by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society, conditions that brought revolution to Tunisia. Nevertheless, in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.

A state-controlled Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, blamed the Tunisian revolution on the Ben Ali regime's "political approach of relying on 'friends' to protect them". Tunisia's status as western client was only a minor motivator for the uprising there, but still al-Watan's analysis will be shared by many Syrians. Unlike the majority of Arab states, Syria's foreign policy is broadly in line with public opinion – and in Syria foreign policy, which has the potential to immediately translate into a domestic security issue, matters a great deal. The regime has kept the country in a delicate position of no war with, but also no surrender to, Israel (which occupies the Golan Heights), and has pursued close co-operation with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements as well as emerging regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. This is appreciated by "the street", and the president himself is no hate figure in the mould of Ben Ali or Mubarak. Where his father engineered a Stalinist personality cult, mild-mannered Bashar al-Assad enjoys a reasonable level of genuine popularity. Much is made of his low-security visits to theatres and ice cream parlours.

We are seeing in Tunisia a democratisation that didn't require religious mobilisation, foreign invasion, or colours coded in Washington. This revolution is the result of a mass popular movement focused on straightforward, practical demands that everybody can understand, whether they're religiously observant or lax, Christian or Muslim, Sunni or Shia. Lessons will be learned, in Syria and elsewhere. In future years, the regime would be well-advised to proceed with great flexibility.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a Syrian author. The Road from Damascus is published by Penguin. He co-edits and blogs at

The Desperation of Mubarak

Mubarak Dismisses Cabinet in Last Bid to Cling to Power

By Lewis Smith
The Independent
Saturday, 29 January 2011

Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak last night announced his intention to form a new government in response to protests across much of the country.

In a late-night television appearance he defended the crackdown on protesters by security forces but revealed he was asking his cabinet to resign.

Mr Mubarak promised to press ahead with social, economic and political reforms but after a day of protests and violence, in which at least 20 people died, his ability to extend his 30-year dictatorship appeared in the balance.

"We aspire for more democracy, more effort to combat unemployment and poverty and combat corruption," he said, but his words were immediately interpreted as a sign of desperation rather than strength, though the army appeared to remain loyal to him last night.

As he spoke, the army, which was called in after police were unable to quell the demonstrations, sent in troops and tanks to oust protesters who had earlier seized control of Cairo's central Tahrir Square, the focus for thousands of people who had been trying to march on the parliament. Tanks were also reported to have surrounded the British and American embassies.

Running battles between police and protesters had continued in many parts of Cairo during the evening and the ruling party's headquarters was burnt down as demonstrators, ignoring a curfew that had been declared, vented their fury at the regime.

The number of deaths and injuries suffered during yesterday's clashes around the country was unclear but medical sources said at least six people died in Alexandria, five in Cairo and one in Suez.

Mr Mubarak's televised statement came after the US warned that up to $1.5bn in aid could be withdrawn if peaceful protests were opposed by the security forces. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also demanded the Egyptian authorities restore internet and mobile phone links that had been cut off in an effort to disrupt the organisation of protests.

US President Barack Obama spoke to Mr Mu-barak last night and told him he must honour the pledge he made to reform. In his own televised address, the US leader urged both sides to act peacefully but warned his Egyptian counterpart that "suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away" and added: "all governments must maintain power by consent".

Friday, January 28, 2011

More Mass Protests in Jordan

Thousands protest in Jordan

Protesters gather across the country, demanding the prime minister step down.

Al Jazeera
28 January 2011

Thousands of people in Jordan have taken to the streets in protests, demanding the country's prime minister step down, and the government curb rising prices, inflation and unemployment.

In the third consecutive Friday of protests, about 3,500 opposition activists from Jordan's main Islamist opposition group, trade unions and leftist organisations gathered in the capital, waving colourful banners reading: "Send the corrupt guys to court".

The crowd denounced Samir Rifai's, the prime minister, and his unpopular policies.

Many shouted: "Rifai go away, prices are on fire and so are the Jordanians.''

Another 2,500 people also took to the streets in six other cities across the country after the noon prayers. Those protests also called for Rifai's ouster.

Members of the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jordan's largest opposition party, swelled the ranks of the demonstrators, massing outside the al-Husseini mosque in Amman and filling the downtown streets with their prayer lines.

King Abdullah has promised some reforms, particularly on a controversial election law. But many believe it is unlikely he will bow to demands for the election of the prime minister and Cabinet officials, traditionally appointed by the king.

Rifai also announced a $550 million package of new subsidies in the last two weeks for fuel and staple products like rice, sugar, livestock and liquefied gas used for heating and cooking. It also includes a raise for civil servants and security personnel.

Record deficit

However, Jordan's economy continues to struggle, weighed down by a record deficit of $2bn this year.

Inflation has also risen by 1.5 per cent to 6.1 per cent just last month, unemployment and poverty are rampant - estimated at 12 and 25 per cent respectively.

Ibrahim Alloush, a university professor, told the Associated Press that it was not a question of changing faces or replacing one prime minister with another.

"We're demanding changes on how the country is now run," he said.

He also accused the government of impoverishing the working class with regressive tax codes which forced the poor to pay a higher proportion of their income as tax.

He also accused parliament as serving as a "rubber stamp'' to the executive branch.

"This is what has led people to protest in the streets because they don't have venues for venting how they feel through legal means," Alloush said.

The Role of Al Jazeera in the Recent Unrest

This is an extremely problematic article on the role of Al Jazeera in the Arab Middle East, but definitely still worth the read. As is often the case, the assumption of objectivity is specifically placed within the politics and history of the West. So if the media gives voice to a people who have lived another history and embrace a different politics, that is not objective. But news always comes from people, generated through their voices and actions. We simply forget that when the news reports an outlook similar to our own this is also coming from a particular location and is not objectively neutral.

Ultimately, from this myopic perspective a media organization like Al Jazeera "has opaque loyalties" whereas The New York Times does not, despite the newspaper's private relationships with certain politicians, advertisers and board members. Why else do they require certain qualifiers whenever an organization like Hizbullah is mentioned? Why do we need to be reminded that Washington considers Hizbullah a terrorist organization every single time the party is mentioned in the press? Especially when we are reading about its political actions or social services that have nothing to do with the US?

Of course all of this is not to say that Al Jazeera is objective and without fault. It is merely to say that the Western media is also biased and political but often in ways that most of us have learned to stop seeing.

Seizing a Moment, Al Jazeera Taps Arab Anger

By Robert F. Worth and David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
January 27, 2011

The protests rocking the Arab world this week have one thread uniting them: Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel whose aggressive coverage has helped propel insurgent emotions from one capital to the next.

Al Jazeera has been widely hailed for helping enable the revolt in Tunisia with its galvanizing early reports, even as Western-aligned political factions in Lebanon and the West Bank attacked and burned the channel’s offices and vans this week, accusing it of incitement against them.

In many ways, it is Al Jazeera’s moment — not only because of the role it has played, but also because the channel has helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments (and against Israel) ever since its founding 15 years ago. That narrative has long been implicit in the channel’s heavy emphasis on Arab suffering and political crisis, its screaming-match talk shows, even its sensational news banners and swelling orchestral accompaniments.

“The notion that there is a common struggle across the Arab world is something Al Jazeera helped create,” said Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University who has written extensively on the Arab news media. “They did not cause these events, but it’s almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera.”

Yet Al Jazeera’s opaque loyalties and motives are as closely scrutinized as its reporting. It is accused of tailoring its coverage to support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza against their Lebanese and Palestinian rivals. Its reporter in Tunisia became a leading partisan in the uprising there. And critics speculate that the network bowed to the diplomatic interests of the Qatari emir, its patron, by initially playing down the protests in Egypt.

Not since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when American officials accused it of sympathy for Saddam Hussein and the insurgency that arose after his downfall, has Al Jazeera been such a lightning rod. This time, its antagonists as well as its supporters are spread all over the Arab world.

This week, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, accused Al Jazeera of distorting his positions, inciting violence and trying to destroy him politically. The station had broadcast a special report based on leaked documents that appeared to show Mr. Abbas and his allies offering Israel far-reaching concessions on Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. The reporting set off angry demonstrations against the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, and in response, Abbas loyalists attacked Al Jazeera’s office in Ramallah.

In Lebanon, Sunni supporters of the ousted prime minister, Saad Hariri, set fire to an Al Jazeera van and menaced a crew in the northern city of Tripoli, accusing the channel of sympathizing with their Shiite opponents.

There is little doubt that Al Jazeera takes sides in the Palestinian dispute, portraying Hamas more favorably than its rivals — and it is more open about Arab anger at Israel than some other outlets. Even the station’s fans concede that it has blind spots and political vulnerabilities.

On Tuesday afternoon, as the street protests in Egypt were heating up, Al Jazeera was uncharacteristically slow to report them, airing a culture documentary, a sports show and more of its “Palestine Papers” coverage of the leaked documents.

Many Egyptians felt betrayed, and Facebook and Twitter were full of rumors about a deal between Qatar — the Persian Gulf emirate whose emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, founded Al Jazeera in 1996 — and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who visited the emir in Doha last month. Within a day, Al Jazeera was reporting from the streets in Cairo in its usual manic style.

Al Jazeera’s freewheeling broadcasts have long made it the bête noire of Arab governments, and in some earlier instances they have succeeded in reining it in.

In 2007, the channel received orders to soften its blunt coverage of Saudi Arabia after Qatar and the Saudis mended a smoldering political feud. That remains a weak point for Al Jazeera — as for most of the pan-Arab press, which is largely owned by Saudi Arabia.

Yet for all its flaws, Al Jazeera still operates with less constraint than almost any other Arab outlet, and remains the most popular channel in the region. To many Arabs, Al Jazeera’s recent exposé on the Palestinian Authority documents — sometimes called “Pali-leaks” — is of a piece with its reporting on protests against autocratic Arab regimes.

The Palestinian Authority is widely seen as a pawn of Israel and the West, an institution with little popular support that is kept alive by force, much like those Arab dictators. If Al Jazeera is often accused of institutional sympathy for Islamists, that is at least in part because Islamism has become the most powerful popular force in the region (though not, curiously enough, in the recent protests).

And Al Jazeera has been widely admired for its aggressive coverage of the Tunisian uprising, which was largely ignored in most Western outlets. The channel succeeded despite serious obstacles: the Tunisian government had barred its reporters from the country, and a Tunisian born-anchor, Mohammed Krichen, arranged for an old friend, Lotfi Hajji, to work under cover as Al Jazeera’s eyes and ears on the ground.

Mr. Hajji, a freelance journalist who also calls himself a human rights activist, was followed and harassed by the secret police almost constantly. After the uprising started, local contacts began sending Mr. Hajji amateur videos of police violence over Facebook. Al Jazeera began showing the grainy cellphone videos on its broadcasts, as part of what the station sympathetically labeled “the Sidi Bouzid Uprising” after the town where a young man started it all by setting himself on fire on Dec. 17.

Each time Al Jazeera broadcast the videos, more would flood into Mr. Hajji’s Facebook account, in a cycle that blew the seeds of revolt across the country.

“During the era of Ben Ali a lot of journalists wouldn’t dare broadcast these images — like a video of a policeman beating a common citizen, because the police might come for them,” Mr. Hajji said. “But being a human rights activist pushed me to show what was really happening.”

Two years ago, an amateur journalist reporting for a Web site was jailed for showing film of an uprising in the Tunisian city of Gafsa; with no coverage in Facebook or Al Jazeera, it never spread to other towns.

As the protests accelerated this month, some Tunisian officials protested that Al Jazeera was hyping the unrest because of its anti-Western agenda: its managers wanted to see a “moderate” Arab regime fall, even if the protesters were not Islamists, like those in so many earlier revolts. But that seems unlikely. Al Jazeera’s producers knew they had a story line that their audience would love.

Since the fall of Tunisia’s autocratic president, Al Jazeera’s reporters and producers have spoken with pride of their role in the events. They also recognize that their reputation as a catalyst carries risks.

“I think we should be careful — I mean we shouldn’t think that our role is to release the Arab people from oppression,” said Mr. Krichen, the anchor.

“But I think we should also be careful not to avoid any popular movement. We should have our eyes open to capture any event that could be the start of the end of any dictator in the Arab world.


Read Bill Keller's equally problematic essay about the newspaper's "responsible" approach to its reporting of Wikileaks. And the Columbia Journalism Review's assessment of how the Western media in general (including The Times) provided a faulty analysis of the cables about Iran's supposed involvement in Iraq.

Peaceful Mass Protests in Yemen

Waves of Unrest Spread to Yemen, Shaking a Region

By Anthony Shadid, Nada Bakri and Kareeem Fahim
The New York Times
January 27, 2011

Thousands of protesters on Thursday took to the streets of Yemen, one of the Middle East’s most impoverished countries, and secular and Islamist Egyptian opposition leaders vowed to join large protests expected Friday as calls for change rang across the Arab world.

The Yemeni protests were another moment of tumult in a region whose aging order of American-backed governments appears to be staggering. In a span of just weeks, Tunisia’s government has fallen, Egypt’s appears shaken and countries like Jordan and Yemen are bracing against demands of movements with divergent goals but similar means.

Protests led by young people entered a third day in Egypt, where Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who has become an outspoken opponent of President Hosni Mubarak, returned in hopes of galvanizing the campaign. The Muslim Brotherhood, long Egypt’s largest organized opposition, ended days of official inaction and said it would join the Friday protests, declaring “a day of rage for the Egyptian nation.”

Dr. ElBaradei called on Mr. Mubarak to step down. “He has served the country for 30 years, and it is about time for him to retire,” he told Reuters. “Tomorrow is going to be, I think, a major demonstration all over Egypt and I will be there with them.”

Though a relative calm settled on Cairo, smoke rose over the city of Suez, as sometimes violent protests continued there.

In Yemen, organizers vowed to continue protests on Friday and for weeks to come until the 32-year-old American-backed government of Ali Abdullah Saleh either fell or consented to reforms.

At least visually, the scenes broadcast across the region from Yemen were reminiscent of the events in Egypt and the month of protests that brought down the government in Tunisia. But as they climaxed by midday, they appeared to be carefully organized and mostly peaceful, save for some arrests. Pink — be it in the form of headbands, sashes or banners — was the dominant color; organizers described it as the symbol of the day’s protests.

“To Jidda, oh Ali!” some shouted, in reference to the city in Saudi Arabia where Tunisia’s president fled this month. “The people’s demand is the fall of the government!”

“We are telling them either he delivers real political reforms or we’re going to deliver him out of power,” said Shawki al-Qadi, an opposition lawmaker and organizer of the Yemeni protests. “He’s closed all the doors of hope. The only glimmer is in the streets.”

Unlike in Egypt, the peaceful protests in Yemen were not led by young people, but by the traditional opposition, largely Islamists. And the opposition remained divided over whether to topple the Saleh government or simply push for reforms.

But the potential for strife in the country is difficult to overstate. Yemen is troubled by a rebellion in the north and a struggle for secession in the once independent, Marxist south. In recent years, an affiliate of Al Qaeda has turned parts of the country, a rugged, often lawless region on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, into a refuge beyond the state’s reach. Added to the mix is a remarkably high proportion of armed citizens, some of whom treat Kalashnikovs as a fashion accessory.

“I fear Yemen is going to be ripped apart,” said Mohammed Naji Allaw, coordinator of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedom, which was one of the protests’ organizers. “The situation in Yemen is a lot more dangerous than in any other Arab country. It would be foolish for the regime to ignore our demands.”

He said a phrase often heard these days was that Yemen faced “sawmala” — the Somalization of a country that witnessed a civil war in the mid-1990s.

A portion of Mr. Allaw’s worries sprang from the inability of the opposition to forge a unified message. Some are calling for secession for the south, he said, while others are looking to oust the president. Yet the mainstream, he said, simply wanted Mr. Saleh to agree not to run for another term after 2013 and to guarantee that his son would not succeed him.

“The opposition is afraid of what would happen if the regime falls,” said Khaled Alanesi, who also works with the human rights group in Sana, the capital. “Afraid of the militant groups, Al Qaeda, the tribes and all the arms here.”

The government responded to the protests by sending a large number of security forces into the streets, said Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist in Sana. “Very strict measures, anti-riot forces,” he called them. But the government suggested that it had not deployed large numbers of security forces, keeping them peaceful.

“The Government of the Republic of Yemen strongly respects the democratic right for a peaceful assembly,” Mohammed al-Basha, a Yemeni Embassy spokesman in Washington, said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce that no major clashes or arrests occurred, and police presence was minimal.”

A pro-government rally, in another district of Sana, organized by Mr. Saleh’s party, attracted far fewer demonstrators, Mr. Arrabyee said.

The protests sprang from political divisions that began building in the country last October, when a dialogue collapsed between the opposition and Mr. Saleh, a 64-year-old strongman who has ruled his fractured country for more than three decades and is a crucial ally of the United States in the fight against the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda. Though Mr. Saleh’s term is supposed to end in 2013, proposed amendments to the Constitution could allow him to remain in power for two additional terms of 10 years.

Opposition lawmakers, an eclectic bloc dominated by Islamists, organized protests that swelled into one of the largest demonstrations during Mr. Saleh’s tenure. But unlike the antagonists in Tunisia and Egypt, both sides seemed at least willing to engage in dialogue over demands that are far less radical.

“Political parties are pushing for reforms more than they are pushing to oust the president,” Mr. Alanesi said. “The slogans say to leave, but we actually want change.”

In a televised speech on Sunday night, Mr. Saleh, a wily politician with a firm grasp of the power of patronage, tried to defuse the opposition’s demands. He denied claims that his son would succeed him — as happened in Syria and, some fear, might occur in Egypt. He said he would raise army salaries, a move seemingly intended to ensure soldiers’ loyalty. Mr. Saleh has also cut income taxes in half and ordered price controls.

Yemen’s fragile stability has been of increasing concern to the United States, which has provided $250 million in military aid in the past five years. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a visit to Sana this month, urged Mr. Saleh to establish a new dialogue with the opposition, saying it would help to stabilize the country.

The protests were the latest in a wave of unrest touched off by monthlong demonstrations in Tunisia that led to the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the authoritarian leader who ruled for 23 years and fled two weeks ago. On Thursday, Tunisia unveiled major changes in its interim government in a bid to end the protests.

The antigovernment gatherings in Yemen also followed three days of clashes between protesters and security forces in Egypt.

Dr. ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has sought to refashion himself as pro-democracy campaigner in his homeland, is viewed by some supporters as capable of uniting the country’s fractious opposition and offering an alternative to Mr. Mubarak. Critics view him as an opportunist who has spent too little time in the country to take control of a movement that began without his leadership.

Safwat el-Sherif, secretary general of Egypt’s ruling party, called for restraint from security forces and protesters and raised the possibility of a dialogue with the young people who have powered some of the biggest protests in a generation.

“We are confident of our ability to listen,” he said.

“But democracy has its rules and process,” he added. “The minority does not force its will on the majority.”

Anthony Shadid and Nada Bakri reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo. Liam Stack contributed reporting from Cairo.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Voices of Discontent in Egypt

Egypt’s Young Seize Role of Key Opposition to Mubarak

By David D. Kirkpatrick and Michael Slackman
The New York Times
January 26, 2011

For decades, Egypt’s authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, played a clever game with his political opponents.

He tolerated a tiny and toothless opposition of liberal intellectuals whose vain electoral campaigns created the facade of a democratic process. And he demonized the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as a group of violent extremists who posed a threat that he used to justify his police state.

But this enduring and, many here say, all too comfortable relationship was upended this week by the emergence of an unpredictable third force, the leaderless tens of thousands of young Egyptians who turned out to demand an end to Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Now the older opponents are rushing to catch up.

“It was the young people who took the initiative and set the date and decided to go,” Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Wednesday with some surprise during a telephone interview from his office in Vienna, shortly before rushing home to Cairo to join the revolt.

Dr. ElBaradei, a Nobel prize winner, has been the public face of an effort to reinvigorate and unite Egypt’s fractious and ineffective opposition since he plunged into his home country’s politics nearly a year ago, and he said the youth movement had accomplished that on its own. “Young people are impatient,” he said. “Frankly, I didn’t think the people were ready.”

But their readiness — tens of thousands have braved tear gas, rubber bullets and security police officers notorious for torture — has threatened to upstage or displace the traditional opposition groups.

Many of the tiny, legally recognized political parties — more than 20 in total, with scarcely a parlor full of grass-roots supporters among them — are leaping to embrace the new movement for change but lack credibility with the young people in the street.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood may have grown too protective of its own institutions and position to capitalize on the new youth movement, say some analysts and former members. The Brotherhood remains the organization in Egypt with the largest base of support outside the government, but it can no longer claim to be the only entity that can turn masses of people out into the streets.

“The Brotherhood is no longer the most effective player in the political arena,” said Emad Shahin, an Egyptian scholar now at the University of Notre Dame. “If you look at the Tunisian uprising, it’s a youth uprising. It is the youth that knows how to use the media, Internet, Facebook, so there are other players now.”

Dr. ElBaradei, for his part, has struggled for nearly a year to unite the opposition under his umbrella group, the National Association for Change. But some have mocked him as a globe-trotting dilettante who spends much of his time abroad instead of on the barricades.

He has said in interviews that he never presented himself as a political savior, and that Egyptians would have to make their own revolution. Now, he said, the youth movement “will give them the self-confidence they needed, to know that the change will happen through you and not through one person — you are the driving force.”

And Dr. ElBaradei argued that by upsetting the old relationship between Mr. Mubarak and the Brotherhood, the youth movement posed a new challenge to United States policy makers as well.

“For years,” he said, “the West has bought Mr. Mubarak’s demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood lock, stock and barrel, the idea that the only alternative here are these demons called the Muslim Brotherhood who are the equivalent of Al Qaeda.”

He added: “I am pretty sure that any freely and fairly elected government in Egypt will be a moderate one, but America is really pushing Egypt and pushing the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.”

The roots of the uprising that filled Egypt’s streets this week arguably stretch back to before the Tunisian revolt, which many protesters cited as the catalyst. Almost three years ago, on April 6, 2008, the Egyptian government crushed a strike by a group of textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla, and in response a group of young activists who connected through Facebook and other social networking Web sites formed the April 6th Youth Movement in solidarity with the strikers.

Their early efforts to call a general strike were a bust. But over time their leaderless online network and others that sprang up around it — like the networks that helped propel the Tunisian revolution — were uniquely difficult for the Egyptian security police to pinpoint or wipe out. It was an online rallying cry for a show of opposition to tyranny, corruption and torture that brought so many to the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday, unexpectedly vaulting the online youth movement to the forefront as the most effective independent political force in Egypt.

“It would be criminal for any political party to claim credit for the mini-Intifada we had yesterday,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a blogger and activist.

Mr. Mubarak’s government, though, is so far sticking to a familiar script. Against all evidence, his interior minister immediately laid blame for Wednesday’s unrest at the foot of the government’s age-old foe, the Muslim Brotherhood.

This time, though, the Brotherhood disclaimed responsibility, saying it was only one part of Dr. ElBaradei’s umbrella group. “People took part in the protests in a spontaneous way, and there is no way to tell who belonged to what,” said Gamal Nassar, a media adviser for the Brotherhood, noting the near-total absence of any group’s signs or slogans, including the Brotherhood’s.

“Everyone is suffering from social problems, unemployment, inflation, corruption and oppression,” he said. “So what everyone is calling for is real change.”

The Brotherhood operates a large network of schools and charities that make up for the many failings of government social services. Some analysts charge that the institutional inertia may make the Brotherhood slow to rock the Egyptian ship of state.

“The Brotherhood has been very silent,” said Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “It is not a movement that can benefit from what has been happening and get people out in the street.”

Nor, Dr. ElBaradei argued, does the Muslim Brotherhood merit the fear its name evokes in the West. Its membership embraces large numbers of professors, lawyers and other professionals as well as followers who benefit from its charities. It has not committed or condoned acts of violence since the uprising against the British-backed Egyptian monarchy six decades ago, and it has endorsed his call for a pluralistic civil democracy.

“They are a religiously conservative group, no question about it, but they also represent about 20 percent of the Egyptian people,” he said. “And how can you exclude 20 percent of the Egyptian people?”

Dr. ElBaradei, with his international prestige, is a difficult critic for Mr. Mubarak’s government to jail, harass or besmirch, as it has many of his predecessors. And Dr. ElBaradei eases concerns about Islamists by putting a secular, liberal and familiar face on the opposition.

But he has been increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the West. He was stunned, he said, by the reaction of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Egyptian protests. In a statement after Tuesday’s clashes, she urged restraint but described the Egyptian government as “stable” and “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

“ ‘Stability’ is a very pernicious word,” he said. “Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law, rigged elections?” He added, “If they come later and say, as they did in Tunis, ‘We respect the will of the Tunisian people,’ it will be a little late in the day.”

Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On the Egyptian Protests

Violent Clashes Mark Protests Against Mubarak’s Rule

By Kareem Fahim and Mona el-Naggar
The New York Times
January 25, 2011

CAIRO — Tens of thousands of people demanding an end to the nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak filled the streets of several Egyptian cities on Tuesday, in an unusually large and sometimes violent burst of civil unrest that appeared to threaten the stability of one of the United States’ closest Arab allies.

The protests, at least partly inspired by the toppling of the authoritarian government in Tunisia, began small but grew all day, with protesters occupying one of Cairo’s central squares. Security forces, which normally prevent major public displays of dissent, initially struggled to suppress the demonstrations, allowing them to swell.

But early Wednesday morning, firing rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades, the police finally drove groups of demonstrators from the square, as the sit-in was transformed into a spreading battle involving thousands of people and little restraint. Plainclothes officers beat several demonstrators, and protesters flipped over a police car and set it on fire.

Protests also flared in Alexandria, Suez, Mansura and Beni Suef. There were reports of three deaths and many injuries around the country.

Photographers in Alexandria caught people tearing up a large portrait of Mr. Mubarak. An Internet video of demonstrations in Mahalla el-Kubra showed the same, while a crowd snapped cellphone photos and cheered. The acts — rare, and bold here — underscored the anger coursing through the protests and the challenge they might pose to the aging and ailing Egyptian leader.

Several observers said the protests represented the largest display of popular dissatisfaction in recent memory, perhaps since 1977, when people across Egypt violently protested the elimination of subsidies for food and other basic goods.

It was not clear whether the size and intensity of the demonstrations — which seemed to shock even the protesters — would or could be sustained.

The government quickly placed blame for the protests on Egypt’s largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is tolerated but officially banned. In a statement, the Interior Ministry said the protests were the work of “instigators” led by the Muslim Brotherhood, while the movement declared that it had little to do with them.

The reality that emerged from interviews with protesters — many of whom said they were independents — was more complicated and reflected one of the government’s deepest fears: that opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s rule spreads across ideological lines and includes average people angered by corruption and economic hardship as well as secular and Islamist opponents. That broad support could make it harder for the government to co-opt or crush those demanding change.

“The big, grand ideological narratives were not seen today,” said Amr Hamzawy, research director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “This was not about ‘Islam is the solution’ or anything else.”

Instead, the protests seemed to reflect a spreading unease with Mr. Mubarak on issues from extension of an emergency law that allows arrests without charge, to his presiding over a stagnant bureaucracy that citizens say is incapable of handling even basic responsibilities. Their size seemed to represent a breakthrough for opposition groups harassed by the government as they struggle to break Mr. Mubarak’s monopoly on political life.

Security officials said a soldier in Cairo, along with two protesters in Suez, were killed in circumstances that were not immediately clear. Scores of demonstrators and more than a dozen soldiers were injured in the Cairo clashes, which lasted hours and included bouts of rock-throwing by both protesters and the police.

There were mixed signals about how the authorities planned to handle the unrest. In contrast with other recent political demonstrations in Cairo, thousands of security officers seemed content at times to contain rather than engage the protesters — especially when it became clear that the demonstrators would not retreat from Tahrir Square. In a statement, the Interior Ministry said its policy had been “securing and not confronting these gatherings.”

But there were signs of other containment tactics. Several times Tuesday afternoon, cellphone networks appeared to be blocked or otherwise unavailable for people calling from Tahrir — or Liberation — Square. Many people had trouble getting access to Twitter, the social networking tool that helped spread news of the protests. Twitter confirmed that its site had been blocked in Egypt, Reuters reported.

By early Wednesday, the police appeared determined to clear protesters from the streets, leading to more clashes.

On a bridge, drivers stopped their cars and some joined the protesters, chanting, “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

In the days leading up to the protests, more than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the “Day of Revolution,” organized by opposition and pro-democracy groups to be held on Police Day, a national holiday. The organizers framed the protest as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. The Muslim Brotherhood said it would not officially participate, though some members were among the protesters in Cairo.

But many people said they did not belong to any particular group and were attending their first demonstration. They included Ramy Rafat, 25, who said he lived in El-Marg, an impoverished neighborhood in north Cairo. Mr. Rafat, who has a master’s degree in petroleum geology and is unemployed, said he learned about the protest on a Facebook page for Khaled Said, 28. Mr. Said’s family says police officers fatally beat him last year.

“There are a lot of things wrong with this country,” Mr. Rafat said. “The president has been here for 30 years. Why?”

Aya Sayed Khalil, 23, brought her sister, her mother and her father to the protest. “I told them the revolution was coming,” she said. Asked about their political affiliation, Ms. Khalil’s mother, Mona, said, “We’re just Egyptians.”

The marchers came from all social classes and included young men recording tense moments on cellphone cameras, and middle-age women carrying flags of the Wafd party, one of Egypt’s opposition groups. A doctor, Wesam Abdulaziz, 29, said she had traveled two hours to join the protest. She had been to one demonstration before, concerning the treatment of Mr. Said.

“I came to change the government,” she said. “I came to change the entire regime.”

What began as a small demonstration outside Cairo’s Supreme Court building around noon Tuesday quickly swelled. Hundreds marched through winding streets while security officers shadowed them in a moving cordon. Scuffles broke out as the officers tried to halt the march by linking arms and forming lines.

“Freedom, freedom, freedom,” the protesters chanted. “Where are the Egyptian people?”

By midafternoon, groups of people had converged in Tahrir Square, where they met security forces in full riot gear and a water cannon truck. Several people said the clashes began in earnest after protesters tried to take control of the water cannon.

In front of the Mugamma, a towering administrative building in the square, young men threw rocks at the police as older demonstrators tried to stop them. Several young men were carried away from the clashes, clutching bloodied tissues to their heads.

As night fell, the crowd grew larger. An older man with a bullhorn appealed to his more Internet-aware counterparts, asking them to spread the word to railway workers and dockworkers. Many people said they planned to sleep in the square.

After midnight, the security forces, using concussion grenades and tear gas, renewed attempts to disperse the protesters.

Since Jan. 14, when President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fled his country during a popular revolt, autocrats throughout the region have fretted about responses by their own restive populations who shared many of the grievances that toppled Mr. Ben Ali: rampant corruption, injustice, high unemployment and the simple lack of dignity.

It was unclear whether the day of demonstrations would lead to any broader social unrest. “I think it is the beginning of the process,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

“Some of the demonstrators are still in Tahrir and said they will not leave until their demands are met by the government,” he said, hours before they were forced out of the square. “Their demands will not be met by the government, but they will not give up.”

Liam Stack and Dawlat Magdy contributed reporting.

On the State Department Press Statement

As an American currently staying in Lebanon the below statement, released yesterday, is shameful to me. Whatever the reason for the shake up, the government was changed democratically and the protesters who wrecked violence yesterday were pro-Hariri and not pro-Hizbullah. If the opposite were true, yesterday's events would have been considered terrorism. Protesters burned cars, looted offices and beat up reporters. Also the US is meddling by saying that it will now consider ending aid to Lebanon and that the foreign imposed STL must continue its work. This sounds a lot like coercion and intimidation to me...

State Department Press Statement:

Philip J. Crowley
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Washington, DC
January 25, 2011

The United States continues to follow closely the situation in Lebanon. It is essential that any Lebanese government abide by the Lebanese constitution, prevent any use of violence – including efforts to exact retribution against former government officials – and lives up to all of its international obligations, including U.N. Security Council Resolutions and its commitment to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The make-up of Lebanon’s government is a Lebanese decision, but this decision should not be reached through coercion, intimidation, and threats of violence. Unfortunately, Hizballah, backed by Syria, engaged in all three in pursuit of its political goals.

The work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is of vital importance to stability, security and justice in Lebanon: Its work will continue. Any government that is truly representative of all of Lebanon would not abandon the effort to end the era of impunity for assassinations in the country. Especially at this challenging time, we call on all parties to maintain calm and exercise maximum restraint.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Update on the Situation in Beirut

Yesterday pro-Hariri supporters called for a "day of rage" today after it appeared that the opposition would succeed in democratically securing a new leader for the government. Incidentally there was also a "day of rage" already planned in Cairo against the government today which attracted thousands of protesters (see BBC pictures). However Beirut was possibly quieter than Cairo. I walked around downtown and through some of the mixed neighborhoods near the former green line (okay yes perhaps naively) and there were very few people on the streets who were not soldiers. Indeed there was a rather large army presence in these areas, demonstrating that US aid money is working. There were reports of protests in other areas of the country, indeed some press were attacked in Tripoli (link to AFP report), however most protests likely happened in private and not in the streets.

I do think that people's voices need to be heard and so public protests over a shift in power are natural. However I am disturbed by the tone of some of the pro-Hariri politicians and protesters. This was not a coup orchestrated by Hizbullah. According to Merrian Webster, the definition of a coup d'etat is "a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics; especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group." That is not what happened at all. This is democracy working. In 2009 the opposition coalition won the popular vote but did not win a parliamentary majority (Americans should relate to the injustice). Since then some parties have switched their allegiance from March 14 to March 8. If some Lebanese are not happy with this decision, they can punish these parties in the next election.

Last week ministers also walked out on the government in Ireland and the Irish Prime Minister responded by resigning his leadership from the party, not by calling for a "day of rage". Nobody is claiming that the Irish maneuver is a coup. Democracy means living with whoever wins the political battle of the day. Najib Mikati, the new Prime Minister of Lebanon, was in the same office in 2005 representing the same Sunni community. He even supported Hariri in 2009. We have to stop the double standards and realize that life is not black and white. Assistant US Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman needs to think more carefully about the people of Lebanon before saying ridiculous things to the press (read his comments in The Los Angeles Times). And Washington should give the (now former) opposition a chance to form a new government before passing any judgement and canceling any of that aid on display today.

The Palestine Papers and the Refugees

Palestinian Authority Selling Short the Refugees

The Palestinian Authority proposed that only a handful of the nearly six million Palestinian refugees be allowed to return.

By Laila Al-Arian
Al Jazeera
24 Jan 2011

At the Bourj el Barajneh refugee camp in southern Beirut, a centre for the elderly serves as an oasis from the overcrowded, filthy conditions outside its metal doors.

On a recent Thursday morning, a group of men and women in their 60s and 70s gathered around a table to colour and draw pictures, while others solved crossword puzzles. One woman sitting in the corner focused intently as she embroidered a traditional Palestinian dress. The Active Ageing House in the refugee camp is a place where they can pass time, socialise and share meals.

They are known as the "Children of the Nakba" - a generation of Palestinians that witnessed, and survived, the forced expulsion and violence in 1948 committed by Zionist paramilitaries on behalf of the nascent state of Israel.

They each have a story about how they or their parents managed to escape their homeland over 60 years ago - and their wounds are still raw.

Some six million Palestinian refugees are scattered around the world, including more than 400,000 in Lebanon. Here, they are deprived of basic rights, not permitted to buy or sell property, and are banned from more than 70 job categories. Mired in abject poverty, they are dependent on an increasingly incapable United Nations agency for aid.

A "symbolic number" of returnees

The Palestine Papers show that Palestinian Authority (PA) negotiators were prepared to make major concessions on the refugees’ right of return: on the numbers potentially allowed to return to their homes in what is now Israel; on whether refugees would be able to vote on any peace agreement; and on how many would be able to settle in a future Palestinian state.

In an email Ziyad Clot, a legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators on the refugee file, writes, "President [Mahmoud] Abbas offered an extremely low proposal for the number of returnees to Israel a few weeks only after the start of the process."

The papers also reveal that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed that 1,000 Palestinian refugees be allowed to return annually to Israel over a period of five years - totalling just 5,000, a tiny fraction of those displaced after Israel’s creation.

On January 15, 2010, Erekat told US diplomat David Hale that the Palestinians offered Israel the return of "a symbolic number" of refugees.

According to the documents, not only did Palestinian officials offer a low figure of returnees, the chief negotiator of the PLO, Saeb Erekat, said that refugees would not have voting rights on a possible peace deal with Israel.

Notes of a meeting on March 23, 2007, between Erekat and then-Belgian foreign minister Karel De Gucht, reveal that Erekat said, "I never said the Diaspora will vote. It's not going to happen. The referendum will be for Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Can't do it in Lebanon. Can't do it in Jordan."

While Erekat conceded the rights of Palestinian refugees to determine their own fate, during such meetings Israeli negotiators made clear their vision for the refugees.

In a negotiation meeting on January 27, 2008, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, told her Palestinian counterparts, "Your state will be the answer to all Palestinians including refugees. Putting an end to claims means fulfilling national rights for all."

Erekat seemed to buy into this idea. In a meeting with US diplomats, including Special Envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, on October 21, 2009, Erekat said, "Palestinians will need to know that five million refugees will not go back. The number will be agreed as one of the options. Also the number returning to their own state will depend on annual absorption capacity".

So even a future Palestinian state could not accommodate the millions of displaced who would want to settle there.

Al Jazeera spoke with three dozen refugees in the Burj al-Barajneh camp, from ages 16 to 88, and they all expressed the same sentiment: They want to return to their native homeland, and to have a say in any final settlement between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel.

Shafiqa Shalan, 60, who was born in Burj al-Barjnah, said she would not agree to being settled in Palestine. "What’s the difference?” she said. "We’re refugees in Lebanon and we would be refugees in the West Bank. So we might as well stay here. I would not consider it my home. My homeland is the village where my parents were expelled."

That sentiment was echoed among younger residents of the camp. Ruwaida Al-Daher, 47, who was also born in Bourj el Barajneh, said, "We ask for the right of return because he who has no country has no dignity. We live like dogs here. But I would still oppose going to the West Bank or Gaza. Why would I go back to any place but my hometown?"

Al-Daher said she would not want to become a Lebanese citizen if that were offered to her under any peace deal – and that Palestinian negotiators had no mandate to make concessions on her behalf.

"The right of return is a personal right. It's sacred," she said. "No one can cancel it or take it away."

"We're going to die here"

Hussam Assairy, a 22-year-old who works as a mechanic in the camp, said he would move to his grandparents’ hometown of Haifa if given the chance.

"I would rather live in the camp," he said, "than to become a Lebanese citizen and give up my Palestinian nationality". As for voting on any future deal, he said, "Every Palestinian should be able to vote. Palestine is not just for those living there. It's ours too".

"It’s ours more than there's," Sara Ghannoum, 20, interjected. "They’re able to live there, while we’re deprived of that."

For the refugees at Bourj el Barajneh, returning to their hometowns is the only conceivable option.

"I am willing to walk to Palestine, to my country," says 76-year-old Kamel Shraydeh. “I think about this day and night, because as the saying goes, ‘The one who walks in a strange land gets lost.’" All these decades later, Lebanon remains a foreign place he cannot call home.

Despite these dreams, many have resigned themselves to a life spent in the camps. Over breakfast at the elderly center, a group of women reflected on their decades in Bourj el Barajneh.

"We were born here and we grew old here," said Asiya al-Ali, 65. "And we’re going to die here," Sha’alan added with resignation.

Even so, throughout the camp, refugees cling to hope that someday their situation will change - and there are signs that they place that hope in their leadership, which has shown that it's willing to compromise the right of return.

Filling them with hope are posters on the crumbling walls bearing the image of a smiling PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the words: "Firm on Principles".

Link to The Palestine Papers on Al Jazeera.