Archive: May, 2012
Bireh, Lebanon - In my column today I write about the spillover from the fighting in Syria that threatens to spark sectarian warfare in neighboring countries.
Last week I went to a memorial service for Sheikh Ahmed Abdul-Wahid, a popular Sunni cleric who was mysteriously gunned down at a Lebanese army checkpoint, presumably because he was an outspoken supporter of the rebels who are trying to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al Assad.
Syria has a long history of murdering Lebanese leaders who have opposed domination by Damascus. That history was evident in the huge banners that hung from homes and the mosque in Bireh. Some showed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni who was blown up by a powerful car bomb; a U.N. investigation implemented figures from Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite movement inside Lebanon that is allied with Assad and Iran.
Zahle, Lebanon. The international community has condemned the massacre of dozens of women and children in Houla, Syria by pro- government forces.
But as I learned on my visit to Lebanon - to which many Syrian activists and refugees have fled – there’s a growing danger that atrocities like Houla will spark reprisal killings. Those minorities, including Syrian Christian (ten per cent of the population) who are seen as supportive of President Bashar Assad’s regime, are at particular risk.
I traveled over a winding mountain road to this Lebanese Christian town in the Bekaa Valley, not far from the Syrian border, where the Catholic charity Caritas, is helping Syrian Catholics who have fled the fighting in the Homs region. Figures are hard to come by, and many rural Christians are fleeing to relatives in Damascus, but Caritas has had 14 new cases in the last two weeks.
Beirut, Lebanon - The Syrian government’s massacre of 49 children and 34 women in the town of Houla was only the latest crime against humanity perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al Assad – and exposed to the world by horrific footage posted to YouTube.
Omar Shaker, a young Syrian student, is running for his life because he helped document the government’s destruction of an entire quarter of the Syrian city of Homs called Baba Amr, in February. Baba Amr, with its 28,000 people, is where American journalist, Marie Colvin died in the shelling.
The entire quarter is now a crumpled ghost town, where hundreds or perhaps thousands perished, and the rest scattered. Shaker says that Syrian security forces are still tracking down many residents who fled to neighboring villages, and arresting or murdering them; we cannot know the full extent of the killing, because western journalists are barred by Syria, and can no longer get there, even if they were willing to risk ending up like Colvin. So we are dependent on activists such as Shaker to get the word out.
When I interviewed young veterans of the January revolt in voter lines, and cafes, they all saw the vote as an extension of the revolution. They all rejected the so-called faloul candidates with links to the past regime,meaning former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and ex-foreign minister Amr Moussa. Several said they'd go back to the streets if Shafiq wins. "We still have Tahrir," one young sales representative for the Cadbury food group tod me. "If there will be injustice, we will go again."
I found most of these young people divided in their vote between the moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and the nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi, who harks back to Egypt's hero of the 1950s and 1950s Gamal Abdel Nasser and pours on the anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric. Students told me they liked Hamdeen, as they call him, because he calls for social justice and is neither faloul or Islamist. But some are opting for Aboul Fotouh, because they think, as a "moderate" Islamist, he can outflank the Muslim Brotherhood - and also because he presents himself as a unifier who will listen to all sides.
But any new president is going to have to address the rising unempolyment rate among Egyptian youth (Sabahi wants to return to the days of expanding the state job sector but Egypt can't afford that). Unemployment among young people is over 20 per cent and climbing, including many university graduates. Any new Egyptian leader who can't provide young people with more jobs, will face the prospect of a new revolt in Tahrir Square.
As Egyptians prepare to vote Wednesday and Thursday, one community that is especially nervous is the Coptic Christians.
The Coptic Church dates back 19 centuries and is based on the teachings of St. Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century A.D. Copts comprise around ten per cent of the Egyptian population, but the rise of Islamist parties since the revolution has created great insecurity.
“At the beginning, there were a lot of hopes (in the revolution)” I was told by Samia Sidhom, managing editor of Watani, a newspaper started by her father and now edited by her brother. Copts flocked to Tahrir Square, and in one famous scene, surrounded Muslim protesters to protect them while they prayed.
Trying to figure out who will win the Egyptian election is a losing proposition, since the polls are contradictory and up to forty percent of the voters are still undecided.
But a few hours spent interviewing people in the working class district of Imbaba – which provided a lot of votes for the Muslim Brotherhood in last fall’s parliamentary elections – revealed that the Brothers have lost a lot of ground. “We chose them before because we wanted to give them a chance,” I was told by teacher Saad Mohammed, “but they just talk and don’t do anything. We hoped for security and jobs.”
I heard variants of this refrain over and over. Last fall the Brotherhood candidates for parliament were viewed as “good people” because of their charitable work and their religious piety. But now there is buyer’s remorse. An elderly tea server in one café told me, “Forget about the propaganda the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) used the first time. Now there is chaos and we need someone strong. “
I just attended the last campaign rally for Mohammed Morsi, the presidential candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood’s front party, Freedom and Justice, before the first round of presidential elections on May 23-24.
Thousands were packed an outdoor Cairo field, with an open air stage, located near iconic Tahrir Square, and the whole affair provided a glimpse of what Egypt might look like under a President Morsi. Lines of buses on nearby streets attested to the organizing skills of the Brotherhood, which obviously bused in huge numbers of followers from outside Cairo.
Women, nearly all wearing the hijab and long skirts, sat mostly on one side of the aisle, men on the other and an astonishing number of the women wore the full face veil or niqab, which was rarely seen on Cairo streets only a few years ago. I wondered whether the niqab would soon become commonplace in Cairo if Morsi were the winner.
This is no doubt the first election in Egyptian history where no one knows what will be the outcome.
As banners go up around Cairo, and candidates travel the country to remote rural villages, pollsters say around 40 per cent of voters are still undecided. And most observers here agree that the polls cannot be relied on, especially because it is so hard to collect reliable data outside of the cities.
The Islamists are trying to exude self confidence: at an outdoor evening rally in Cairo for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brother who presents himself as the "big tent" candidate, actors, Marxists, sports stars, ultraconservative Islamic salafis, and families crowded a fairgrounds near the Cairo opera. The same day, the Muslim Brothers tried to show their organizational muscle by staging a 470 mile human chain across the country.