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February 17 . 2011 .
As was expected, without an appointed time, far from the big slogans and unaffected by the despair and the words of the desperate that we are “different” – with all the negativities of frustration and the loss of confidence for the individual and society this “difference” bears – Syrians took to the streets to declare, “We refuse to be humiliated and disgraced.”
This is what occurred this afternoon, in one of the most crowded neighborhoods of Damascus, al-Hariqa, near the al-Hamidiya market and in the narrow streets leading to it – nearly 1500 people gathered to protest the beating of a young man by members of the traffic police following an altercation.
The demonstrators called out, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated,” and demanded the immediate release of the young man with “Let him go! Let him go!” and “There is no god but God.” They chanted in the faces of the Security Police, who were trying to prevent the demonstrators from taking pictures, “Shame, shame! Why, why!” and chanted “Thief! Thief!” in the face of the Minister of the Interior, who was present to contain the situation.
The demonstration continued almost three hours, during which time storefronts were blocked, people left their balconies and roofs, and youths climbed on cars that were stopped on the sides of the road to take part in the chanting. The demonstrators demanded that the policemen who attacked the young man be held accountable, and this is what the Minister of Interior – who was certainly as shocked as everyone by the unexpected awakening of the Syrian street – agreed to; he tried to contain the anger by promising to hold the aggressors accountable and investigating the matter.
This happened without the advocates for “days of rage,” without opposition movements, loyalists or television screens. It happened as it usually does, with the awakening of a people who refuse to continue years of humiliation, and it proves that a sense of dignity and freedom can be suppressed, but it can never be taken away. We salute the Syrian people for their suffering and resistance to the silencing of their voices and the edge of the winds of change, blowing across the region
The government includes figures from both the ruling establishment and the opposition. Here are brief biographies of some of the key figures.
Prime minister: Mohammed ben Hassouna Ghannouchi
A long-time ally of ousted President Ben Ali, Mohammed Ghannouchi has been prime minister since 1999.
He has been in every government since Mr Ben Ali came to power in 1987, and is a member of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party that has, in various guises, controlled Tunisia since independence in 1956.
The prime minister announced that he was assuming power on 14 January, soon after Mr Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia in response to the growing unrest. However, only a day later, it was announced that in line with the constitution, the speaker of parliament, Foued Mebazaa, should be sworn in as president instead.
Mr Ghannouchi is a trained economist who has held a variety of economic and financial portfolios. He has a reputation as a competent technocrat who was seen as the driving force behind the economic reform programme started under President Ben Ali.
Born in 1941 in the coastal town of Sousse, Mr Ghannouchi holds a degree in economics from the Tunis University of Law, Political Sciences and Economics.
Interior minister: Ahmed Friaa
Ahmed Friaa became interior minister on 12 January 2011 after his predecessor, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, was sacked in response to the growing anti-government riots. He was reappointed to the post in the new national unity government.
First appointed to the Tunisian government in 1989, Mr Friaa was minister of communications from 1997, previously serving as housing minister, education minister and ambassador to Italy. Born in 1949, Mr Friaa holds a degree in numerical analysis and a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris.
Defence minister: Ridha Grira
Another hold-over from the previous government, Ridha Grira has been defence minister since January 2010. Before that, he was minister of state properties and property affairs for 11 years. He is a member of the central committee of the ruling RCD.
Like Prime Minister Ghannouchi, Mr Grira is a native of Sousse. He studied law, economics and management at the Sorbonne in Paris, before going on to France’s top graduate college for aspiring civil servants, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.
Foreign minister: Kamal Morjane
Kamel Morjane was first appointed foreign minister in January 2010, and keeps the post in the new government. A career diplomat, Mr Morjane was Tunisia’s permanent representative to the UN in 1996-99, going on to serve as defence minister from 2005-10.
Hours before President Ben Ali’s rule collapsed, Mr Morjane made a widely-reported statement saying that a national unity government involving Tunisia’s hitherto marginalised opposition parties might be possible.
Mr Morjane was born in 1948 – also in Sousse – and studied at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, the University of Wisconsin and the Hague Academy of International Law.
Minister of regional and local development: Najib Chebbi
One of the opposition figures appointed to the new government, Najib Chebbi is a founding member of the Progressive Democratic Party, and was its leader until 2006, when he stepped aside. The party is currently not represented in parliament.
Mr Chebbi has been one of the most outspoken critics of the government and is one of few opposition leaders not to have gone into exile. Relatively unknown outside a small circle of opposition activists as a result of government media controls, he has frequently been harassed by the security forces.
He announced his intention to stand in the 2009 presidential elections, but was thwarted by a recently introduced law barring non-party leaders from standing.
Minister of health: Mustafa Ben Jaafar
Mr Ben Jaafar is leader of the opposition Union of Freedom and Labour, which he helped to found in 1994 and which became a legally recognised political party in 2002.
Born in Tunis in 1940, he studied medicine in France and became active in student politics. On his return to Tunisia from France, he taught medicine at the University of Tunis and at the same time became involved in opposition and human rights activities.
Mr Ben Jaafar submitted his candidacy for the 2009 Tunisian presidential election, but his candidacy was rejected by the Tunisian Constitutional Council “for failing to meet legal and constitutional requirements”.
He is one of the most respected long-standing opposition figures and is regarded as a moderate.
Minister of higher education: Ahmed IbrahimAhmed Ibrahim is secretary general of the former communist Ettajdid (Renewal) party and was the main challenger in the October 2009 presidential polls, in which President Ben Ali gained a fifth term in office.
Before the polls Mr Ibrahim said supporters were prevented from holding rallies, handing out leaflets or displaying posters because his message was deemed to be hostile to the state and the ruling party.
His party holds three seats in parliament.
He has been a critic of the previous government’s human rights record and has called for political reform.
He was born in 1946.
The Ettajdid party is a member of the Alliance for Citizenship and Equality, a grouping of left-wing and independent parties which has been calling for reform. It also includes the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties.
Secretary of state for sport and youth: Slim AmamouPro-democracy blogger Slim Amamou announced his appointment in a tweet on 17 January.
A freedom of speech activist and member of the Tunisian Pirate Party, he had been arrested only a few days previously – just before former President Ben Ali fled the country – on charges of hacking government websites. He was one of the most prominent figures in the “online” revolt against the government.
Mr Amamou runs a team of software developers and has described himself on Twitter as “against censorship, against the intellectual property rights, for net neutrality”.
Protester shot dead on 2/17/11 in Benghazi libya at 5 pm by the police when he received a shot to the head
Israel has been unnerved by Egypt’s revolution. The reason is simple: it fears for the survival of the 1979 peace treaty – a treaty which by neutralizing Egypt, guaranteed Israel’s military dominance over the region for the next three decades.
By removing Egypt — the strongest and most populous of the Arab countries — from the Arab line-up, the treaty ruled out any possibility of an Arab coalition that might have contained Israel or restrained its freedom of action. As Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan remarked at the time: “If a wheel is removed, the car will not run again.”
Western commentators routinely describe the treaty as a ‘pillar of regional stability,’ a ‘keystone of Middle East diplomacy,’ a ‘centerpiece of America’s diplomacy’ in the Arab and Muslim world. This is certainly how Israel and its American friends have seen it.
But for most Arabs, it has been a disaster. Far from providing stability, it exposed them to Israeli power. Far from bringing peace, the treaty ensured an absence of peace, since a dominant Israel saw no need to compose or compromise with Syria or the Palestinians.
Instead, the treaty opened the way for Israeli invasions, occupations and massacres in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, for strikes against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear sites, for brazen threats against Iran, for the 44-year occupation of the West Bank and the cruel blockade of Gaza, and for the pursuit of a ‘Greater Israel’ agenda by fanatical Jewish settlers and religious nationalists.
In turn, Arab dictators, invoking the challenge they faced from an aggressive and expansionist Israel, were able to justify the need to maintain tight control over their populations by means of harsh security measures.
One way and another, the Israeli-Egyptian treaty has contributed hugely to the dangerous instability and raw nerves which have characterized the Middle East to this day, as well as to the sharpening of popular grievances, and the inevitable explosions which have followed.
Suffice it to say that, emboldened by the treaty, Israel smashed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and, the following year, invaded Lebanon in a bid to destroy the PLO, expel Syrian influence and bring Lebanon into Israel’s orbit. Israel’s 1982 invasion and siege of Beirut killed some 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians. In an act of great immorality, Israel then provided cover (and arc-lights) to its Maronite allies as they engaged in a two-day slaughter of helpless Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Israel remained in occupation of southern Lebanon for the next 18 years, until driven out in 2000 by Hezbollah guerrillas. So much for the peace treaty’s contribution to Middle East peace and stability!
The origins of the peace treaty can be traced to the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security adviser at the time of the October War. Committed to protecting Israel but also to pulling Egypt out of the Soviet orbit of influence (and not averse to dressing down the Israeli side when their stubbornness undermined the balancing of these two goals), Kissinger maneuvered Egypt’s Anwar al-Sadat out of his alliance with both Syria and the Soviet Union, and towards a cozy relationship with Israel and the United States.
With the 1975 Sinai disengagement agreement, Kissinger removed Egypt from the battlefield – a fateful decision which led directly to the Camp David accords of 1978, and the peace treaty of 1979. Sadat may have hoped for a comprehensive peace, involving the Palestinians and Syria. But he was out-foxed by Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a Zionist of the Jabotinsky school who was determined to destroy Palestinian nationalism and prevent the return of the West Bank to the Arabs. Begin was happy to return the Sinai to Egypt in order to keep the West Bank.
Weakened at home by pro-Israeli forces, President Jimmy Carter witnessed unhappily the scaling down of his peace effort from its original multilateral aims to a mere bilateral outcome – a separate Israeli-Egyptian peace. At the end of the day, Washington swallowed Israel’s argument that the treaty ruled out the threat of a regional war and was therefore in America’s interest. Egypt’s army was given $1.3 billion annual U.S. subsidy — not to make it more warlike but, on the contrary, to keep it at peace with Israel.
Defense of the peace treaty remains the prevailing wisdom in Washington. The Obama administration is reported to have told Egypt’s military chiefs that they must maintain the treaty. In turn, Egypt’s Supreme Military Council has said that Egypt will honor existing treaties. So there will evidently not be any revocation of the treaty. No one in Egypt or in the Arab world favors a return to military action, nor is ready for it. But the treaty may well be put on ice.
We do not yet know the color of the next Egyptian government. In any event, it will be hugely preoccupied with pressing domestic problems for the foreseeable future. But if, as is widely expected, this government will have a strong civilian component drawn from the various strands of the protest movement, adjustments of Egypt’s foreign policy must be expected.
It is highly unlikely that Egypt will continue Hosni Mubarak’s policy – deeply embarrassing to Egyptian opinion — of colluding with Israel in the blockade of Gaza. Nor is the new Egypt likely to persist in Mubarak’s hostility towards the Islamic Republic of Iran and the two resistance movements, Hamas and Hezbollah. Whether the treaty survives or not, Egypt’s alliance with Israel will not be the intimate relationship it was.
The Egyptian revolution is only the latest demonstration of the change in Israel’s strategic environment. Israel ‘lost’ Iran when the Shah was overthrown in 1979. This was followed by the emergence of a Tehran-Damascus- Hezbollah axis, which has sought to challenge Israel’s regional hegemony. Over the past couple of years, Israel has also ‘lost’ Turkey, a former ally of real weight. It is now in danger of ‘losing’ Egypt. The threat looms of regional isolation.
Moreover, Israel’s relentless seizure of Palestinian land on the West Bank and its refusal to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria on the basis of ‘land for peace’ have lost it many former supporters in Europe and the United States. It is well aware that it faces a threat of ‘de-legitimization.’
How will Israel react to the Egyptian revolution? Will it move troops to its border with Egypt, strengthen its defenses, desperately seek allies in the Egyptian military junta now temporarily in charge, and plead for still more American aid? Or will it – at long last – make a determined bid to resolve its territorial conflicts with Syria and Lebanon and allow the emergence of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem?
Israel urgently needs to rethink its security doctrine. This is the clear lesson of the dramatic events in Egypt. Dominating the region by force of arms — Israel’s doctrine since the creation of the state — is less and less of a viable option. It serves only to arouse ferocious and growing resistance, which must eventually erupt into violence. Israel needs a revolution in its security thinking, but of this there is as yet no sign.
Only peace, not arms, can guarantee Israel’s long-term security.
Patrick Seale is a British writer, who specializes in Middle East affairs. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East.