Qatar`s “new” phase

A follow up to my last post, where I had briefly discussed the move of Sheikh Hamad, former Emir of Qatar, of stepping down in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim. 

QatarnewoldEmir

Few days ago, the big question was: is Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani (HBJ), former PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs (the brain, together with the former Emir, behind Qatar`s foreign policy and the country`s prominent role in supporting the uprisings in the Arab world, particularly in Libya and Syria) going to maintain his position in the next government?

Now we know the answer: HBJ has been replaced by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, another member of the royal family seen as very close to the new Emir, who has long served in the interior ministry. Sheikh Abdullah is not only taking over HBJ in his former position as PM, but also as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

So, the HBJ era is over. It is unclear whether the former PM would retain his position as vice chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), “a sovereign wealth fund with assets believed to be $100-200 billion, although Qatar watchers expect him to keep that job”, according to Reuters` analysis. This is a very strategic position not only for the sake of this tiny state which is one of the wealthiest in the world; but also on a private level, and in fact HBJ`s personal fortune is estimated to be in the billions. 

Going back to Qatar`s foreign policy and its involvement in the geopolitics of the region, analysts like French scholar Nabil Ennasri and Foreign Affairs` David Roberts, have estimated that, despite the fact that HBJ is gone, continuity in the country`s strategy should be expected. Maybe with a different style, marked by less unilateralism and more cooperation with other regional powers, notably Saudi Arabia, especially on the Syria file.

Other relevant changes after the government`s reshuffle include the appointment of Al Jazeera network`s director general Sheikh Ahmed Bin Jassim Al Thani as the new Minister of Economy and Trade. His career within the media network has been indeed quite short; he had took over Wadah Khanfar who resigned in September 2011, with the aim of  restructuring Al Jazeera`s assets in a corporate direction.

The new Emir has also appointed a woman, Dr Hessa al Jabar, former head of  ICT Qatar (the government body which oversees the ICT policy in the country, and which introduced many innovations in the country and founded Creative Commons Qatar) as new Minister of Communication and Information Technology. It has to be noticed, though, that the former Emir had abolished this ministry in 1996, one year after seizing power, with a decree which aimed at “freeing Qatar’s media from any dependence to a ministry constraining it through numerous legislations and laws from going forward to wider horizons, especially at a time witnessing a noticeable spread of satellite channels” (source: Qatar`s Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage).

It is not by chance that, at the time, a reference was made to the “noticeable spread of satellite channels”: 1996 is, in fact, the year when Al Jazeera, Sheikh Hamad`s media masterpiece, was launched with the aim of being the first independent news outlet in the Arab world.

Now the fact that the Minister of Communication has been restored leaves lots of room for speculation about Qatar`s future plans in terms of media policy and, more generally, about the way of managing the country. In the past couple of years after the Arab uprisings broke out, Al Jazeera`s “independence” from Qatar`s foreign policy has already been heavily questioned, and maybe more to come in the next future…

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What`s next for Qatar (and for the Arab region)?

As announced yesterday, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Emir of the state of Qatar, has handed power to one of his sons, the 33 years old Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.

Today, in a 7 minutes televised speech (English transcript available here) the Emir made the formal announcement, although speculations about the succession of power in the tiny but rich and powerful Gulf state have been ongoing for a while. Last year, Sheikh Hamad declared to the Financial Times that Tamim was in charge of ruling the country for 80%. Tamim has been officially the Heir Apparent since 2003; being the son of the Emir`s favorite wife, the influential and glamorous Sheikha Mozah, he was already believed to have the greatest chance among Hamad`s children to become the next Emir.

But maybe not everybody was expecting this to happen right now, when Hamad was still pretty much in control of a country whose profile — financially, politically, culturally speaking — he has widely contributed to raise in his 18 yrs of rule. As speculated in this thoughtful piece by French scholar Nabil Ennasri, author of a book about Qatar, one of the reason for stepping down in favor of his son — besides the Emir`s deteriorating health — could be to stop the criticism that the country has received in these past two years for the aggressive role played in the Arab Spring, particularly in the case of Libya and Syria. By handing power to his son, Sheikh Hamad would prove that he is not preaching democracy and reforms in the Region while being attached to absolute power in his own country. Stepping down would provide the other Arab countries with a “model” (this is the word that Al Jazeera Arabic`s analysts have extensively used today in their coverage of the event) for the succession of power, in a peaceful and bloodless way. Yet, what Al Jazeera didn`t — and cannot — notice is that power still stays strongly in the hands of the same family, while an impression is given of an open-minded ruler who gives up to his privileges in favors of new generations, as Sheikh Hamad said today in his speech.

Yet maybe the most important question to answer revolves around the fate of Hamad bin Jassem, the powerful –and extremely wealthy, as The Independent reports here –– Prime Minister who also occupies the strategic position of Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nothing has been said about the government that the new Emir will head. Everybody at the Palace knows that Sheikha Mozah, the mother of the new Emir, and her son, have manifested open hostility vis-a-vis Hamad bin Jassem and his politics. Hamad bin Jassem is deemed a strong man, and very much in charge of Qatar`s strategic choices in terms of foreign policy (and in its investments` deals, too) –which, lately, have been so much criticized –.

Rumors have been circulating, more than one time, that Hamad bin Jassem would likely orchestrate a coup against Sheikh Hamad sooner or later; looking at Qatar`s history this would not have been unlikely, since the succession of power in the country has always happened through coups (including when Sheikh Hamad took over his father, in 1995here there is a rare TV excerpt of his speech at the time–).

Sheikh Hamad has reiterated that Qatar`s policy wont change; and this is also what Al Jazeera`s analysts were stressing today during the speech`s coverage. However, the next days or weeks will tell us what would likely happen to Qatar`s foreign policy and to its masterminder, Hamad bin Jassem.

 

Al Jazeera discusses Islamism and the Arab revolutions

The Al Jazeera Center for Studies is hosting a two day conference (Sept 11-12) aimed at reflecting on the relation between Islamism and the Arab revolutions.

Leader of Tunisia`s Islamist party Al Nahda, Rachid Ghannouchi opened the conference yesterday, in a curious tandem with Syrian secular scholar Burhan Ghalioun, who has been heading the Syrian National Council (SNC) for almost one year before leaving office.

A focus on the relation between revolutions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria has been hosted in yesterday`s sessions. Today`s discussion is aimed at discussing Islamists` views on economy (neo-liberalism or protectionism), foreign relations, human rights and civil liberties.

 

A program for the conference can be found here.

Besides this initiative in Doha, Al Jazeera English` s The Stream has hosted a debate on the same topic featuring controversial scholar Tareq Ramadan, who is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University. He recently wrote a book called “Islam and the Arab Awakening”, exploring the relation between Islamist movements and political awakening in 2011`s Arab revolutions.

During the unfolding of the Arab revolutions — and particularly in the Libyan case and in Tunisian elections- Al Jazeera has been accused to be bluntly supporting Islamist movements against more the liberal and secular opposition.

Al Jazeera center for studies` focus on this very topic is definitively something to follow closely in order to get  a better understanding of the network`s view over one of the most relevant issues in the Arab region these days.

2011: Year of the Protester

Since this is the last post of 2011, I`d like to take few minutes to say goodbye to an year that has been truly amazing (sometimes in a scary way, too).

Most of the things I thought would be very unlike actually happened in 2011, the good and the bad things. When I first got an sms by a Tunisian friend last 14 January 2011 I could not believe what I saw on the mobile screen: we, the Tunisian people, are going to celebrate tonight for the dictator is gone.

credit: Time.com

I screamed and cried when I saw my computer screen streaming pure live joy from Tahrir square in Egypt, on February 11th cause another dictator was gone.

I walked the streets of my dear Damascus last February, curious to see what would happen in the Syrian days of rage and saw nothing. Yet, only few days later, and few meters away from my house, I saw a spontaneous explosion of anger, a protest for dignity called by real streets and not by Facebook. Then, again, as unexpected as that one, another unexpected thing happened, again near my house, again in Old Damascus. It was the 15th of March, and people said Syrian revolution was beginning.

I dont believe in slogans and in Internet calls for revolutions, but what I saw was the street revolting, real people being hurt, not avatars.

Since then, Syria has never been the same. People are still fighting for their freedom and dignity, in many ways, the most unexpected, the most creative, the bravest.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

And then Libyans won their fight against Gheddafi and started to rebuild their country. The brave people of Yemen have been hitting the streets since January and are still there. A tough crackdown on Bahrain and the silence of international community have not stopped the people from asking their rights to freedom and equality. Women have been driving change in Saudi Arabia, and Kuwaitis have occupied their Parliament to demand reforms and an end to corruption.

And then Jordan, Morocco, Algeria. And Palestine, of course, always in our hearts.

The most amazing thing is that Europe for the first time took the energy out of the Arabs and shouted. Spain has been leading with the indignados. In my home country the situation is different, and I wish I could tell you we the people ousted Berlusconi -and not the international finance-. But we occupied public spaces and gave them back to the citizens. And we still have our jewel up working, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome, where a new form of collaborative art and culture has born, and more to come.

There is something I will always remember of this almost gone 2011. When I was in DC, a month ago, at the #occupyDC camp, a blond haired guy told me, proud of himself: “I do not fear teargas: I am Egyptian”. So I answered in Arabic and I was surprised to hear that he didnt speak any. Then I discovered he was not even of Arab origin. He was just pretending to be an Egyptian, this guy, a W.a.s.p. American!

This solidarity, this empathy, this brotherhood I saw throughout the world, from the Arab Springs to the #occupy movement to the indignados, is the hope I want to take with me in 2012, despite all the bad things still happening and yet to happen.

 Kull 3amm w entu be kheir.


illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

Creative Revolutions! user-generated videos from the Arab revolutions

I`m currently preparing an evening dedicated to the creativity of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen. I`m trying to pull together a program of cartoons, songs,parodies, short film, showing how brave the Arabs have been not only in the streets, but even in art. There is an incredible amount of creativity coming out from the Arab revolutions and I`d like to pay tribute to this. The program will be built around a screening of user-generated videos and live performances of music, dance and theater put together by Arabs resident in Italy.

“Creative Revolutions!” will be hosted in the beautiful space of Valle Occupato which is the most significant #occupy movement in Italy.

If you have any suggestions of creative videos coming out from the Arab Springs please do not hesitate to contact me. The show will be repeated in Paris early next year and hopefully in other places. I`d love to pay tribute as much as I can to this brave creative youth.

Here below some of the examples I`m planning to show on the 27th Nov:

La chaise renversee, by Dani Abo Louh et Mohamad Omran (Syria/France)

Abou Naddara (Syria) 

Dans la tete d`Aziza.. by Astrubaal, Nawaat (Tunisia)

Asmaa Mahfouz, a video message (a truly creative girl who contributed with the power of her words to call upon the Egyptians to hit the streets on Jan25)

Syrian Rap from the strong heroes of Moscow (Syria)

Rulers street fighters from the incredibly creative team of Kharabeesh.com (Jordan)

 

La revolution est morte, vive la revolution!

The results of the first elections held in post-Ben Ali`s Tunisia are  finally official. The ISIE announced few hours ago the final numbers which confirm the majority of seats (90) -over 217 composing the future Constituent Assembly- to be assigned to Ennahdha party. 

So, Ennahdha  has won, as expected. There is no surprise in this. We have been talking about these elections for months and the victory of Ennahdha was largely predicted by analysts.

Nevertheless, it seems there are at least two categories of people who are surprised (even shocked).

The first category is made up by some Western press, led by the French. It is such a big scandal for the civilized republique to see the “Jasmine revolution” hijacked by a bunch of “barbus”! How is it possible that the gentle, the soft, the “bloodless” “Facebook and Twitter revolution”, the revolution led by this globalized tech-savvy youth has been taken over by a bunch of Islamists who are now ready to turn the Jasmine country into an Islamic-inspired state where Westerners would possibly not be able to enjoy the beauty of the “carte postale” they have fabricated for the eyes of Club Med lovers only… How is it possible to have betrayed the “real spirit” of this “peaceful”, “secular”, “electronic” revolution?

We should rather ask ourselves: how is it possible that the same West -US, Europe, and particularly France- that has supported financially and militarily Tunisia`s neighbor Libya`s revolution -clearly marked by an “Islamic” flavor- are now feeling so “offended” by Ennahdha`s victory  in the first post-Ben Ali`s elections?

Is it possible for us to accept such a double standard? The financial and military interest behind Western support to Libya`s armed revolution is so clear that it`s even not worthy to spend more time discussing it. The disgusting part, however, is that we are still fearing for an Islamic caliphate to be established in Tunisia at the same time we are thinking to oil revenues to be generated in the future shariaa ruled free Libya.

Don`t you think that we have been discussing Ennahdha`s victory for too many months now and maybe, the mere fact that we have been so much discussing it has even contributed to their success? Sometimes demonizing “the enemy” does result in raising his popularity. A strategy based on acting against something instead of acting pro-something has never led to positive results.

The other category of surprised people are Tunisian elites, mostly leftists, progressive, secularized. The sentence I`ve been hearing the most in their circles and cafes and lounges is: “who are we, the Tunisians?We thought we were educated, open minded, progressive whereas we are backward, populist and against modernity”. Tunisian elites are under shock. As if they are up after a nightmare and they can`t believe it wasn`t actually a nightmare but it is the reality that they have to face.

Frankly, I can understand the shock but not the surprise. The only real surprise to me was to see this Mr Hemshi Hemdi, leader of the new formed movement Arida Chaabia, to gain so many seats by sitting comfortably in London where he has been residing for years and years. He is the probably the only one who really made an “Internet revolution”: he has built his political movement virtually, from scratch, gaining 19 seats . And not by chance, the majority of his supporters are in the place which has give “birth” to the 14 Janvi revolution, Sidi bouzid.

Why these fierce people, who have first revolted against Ben Ali`s regime and inspired so many others to do the same, why should they vote for a guy like Hemdi? Hemdi is the founder of the TV channel al Moustaqilla (the independent) which was the first TV channel to oppose the former regime, broadcasting from London since 1999. But apparently a deal between Hemdi and Ben Ali took place, and the channel  has lowered its opposition voice becoming a sort of populist and even Islamic-flavored pro-regime channel.

Why the fierce population of Sidi bouzid should have voted for this guy? and not only voted: few hours ago protests erupted in town and Ennahdha office there was set to fire, as a response to the ISIE`s decision to invalidate 19 seats gained by Hemchi`s Aridha Chaabia.

I believe the key of Hemchi`s success are in a couple of things that should let us to some more in-depth considerations.

First, “The People’s Petition party includes three broad popular ideas and key demands: the formation of a democratic constitution, the adoption of a system of free health care, and the dispensation of grants to the  unemployed”. Words like free, health care, grants, unemployed should have sound as honey for the Sidi bouzid`s people, especially the youth. They have felt neglected after 14 janvi. Despite being  praised and glorified by everybody, none of the interim governments in the post-Ben Ali has really adopted any concrete move towards them -even the simplest, but with the highest symbolic value: paying a visit to the place where the revolution has started-. It is a kind of revenge: you have ignored us, we will ignore you.

Second, breaking any possible bond with the former (and classical) party-structure, even the one of opposition parties like the PDP, seems to be a reason  behind this vote. It is a vote of protest, a vote which says “enough” with the past. Ironically enough, none of these people has thought that Hemchi himself is indeed the past, by having been former opposition and then, all of a sudden, very friendly to the Ben Ali`s regime. Moreover, many of former RCDs members have joined Arida Chaabia, representing a continuity more than a rupture with the past.

Third, Hemchi comes from Sidi bouzid. He is “one of them”, despite having been living for years abroad and despite the fact that he didnt even come back to his birth place for the elections campaign. Sidi bouzid rarely had its “sons” joining central power and its instances were never heard in a structure of power mostly made by a ruling elite coming from the Sahel part of Tunisia (like Ben Ali himself). Voting for him is a parochial choice at the best, a “tribal” choice at the worst.

Ignoring all these aspects and not working on them is like playing with fire in future Tunisia.

Just as an example, how to ignore what  this vote seems to show, i.e. Tunisian society is still very much shaped around a tribal family structure culture rather than a nuclear family one? How to ignore that the gap between central Tunisia on the one hand and coastal Tunisia (including the capital) on the other hand are world apart?

Whilst the elite used to think that almost everybody had a “urban culture” background in Tunisia, this vote could show instead that there is a wide gap still in place between the city and the countryside as opposite cultures.

The communication gap between the elites and the sha3b (people) has been existing for decades, but maybe overshadowed by dictatorship. The heavy burden of Ben Ali`s regime has prevented Tunisians to see that there was a lack of communication hence a lack of cooperation between the two sides.

The fact itself that the PDP and many other leftist coalitions`s campaigns were designed around issues like secularism, maintaining civil rights, etc proves that they missed the point. Talking about secularism to people who want to listen about jobs, houses and hope does not sound as the right choice. And then religion has worked out its role too.

Having witnessed Ennahdha supporters` spontaneous celebrations two days ago was very instructive. People, mostly women, were chanting with energy and passion: “as-sha3b yurid al-nahdha min jedid” (the people want a new re-birth). They were so clever to build on the most important slogan of the Arab Springs: “as-sha3b yurid” (il popolo vuole). Then the name of the party itself -Ennahdha- means “re-birth”, so it suits pretty much to this idea of a new future of hope.

Les jeux sont faits for now. Tunisians really need to work to reduce this gap between Tunisians and Tunisians that Ben Ali has alimented and at the same time kept hidden for decades.

Wrapping up the Third Arab Bloggers meeting

I`ve just returned after a long week  of travels, the most exciting of them being the days spent in Tunis for the third Arab Bloggers meeting (#AB11).

I attended the second one in Beirut, 2009, and thought this was awesome. The atmosphere at the time was that of “something in the making”.

It was two years ago and that feeling has proved right. This crowd has been the protagonist, each of them in his/her own country, of  this phenomenal 2011. Each of these people, together with the Arab youth of each country, had proven to be able to contribute, online and offline, to the shaping of a new future of the Arab region.

Two years ago I felt there was a kind of “cultural panarabism”, a feeling of unity pervading the meeting. This time it was even stronger.

When the Palestinian bloggers and activists were denied the entry visa by the Tunisian Ministry of Interior (without giving any acceptable reason), all the other Arab participants have raised in solidarity. We have made petitions,formal statements, press-releases, got all the mainstream media to talk about this (the evidence: when, few days ago, I walked into my Monaco hotel to join the jury of the Anna Lindht award, all the people there -a totally different crowd from the Arab bloggers- pointed out: it`s a real shame that the new Tunisia prevented the Palestinians to join the #AB11 meeting!). We have had a Skype call with them to let them join the sessions and put all their pictures on empty chairs in a symbolic protest for their unjustified absence.

picture by Ibtihel Zaatouri under CC BY license

I`ve attended so many conferences where officials make statements about Palestine and Palestians, and inter-Arab solidarity. This is the first time I`ve felt people being together, despite not being physically together.

There is something this Arab youth shares, beyond rhetoric. The Arab Springs have strengthened this feeling which has been in the making during the past years thanks to physical meet-ups but of course thanks to the Internet and the social networks.

Now there are best practices shared, together with pictures, videos, links, information.

This Arab youth is truly Pan-Arab. One`s revolution is everybody else`s revolution. One`s freedom is gonna be everybody else`s freedom.

The tools are there. Again, the #AB11 is a great mix of tech training (whether it is about learning cyber security or how to live video stream from the streets) and learning from others` experiences and direct participation. Sami Ben Gharbeia, Malek Khadhraoui and Astrubaal `s reflections on Tunisian revolution and the role played by their portal Nawaat have enlightened and inspired so many people in the #AB11 crowd. Bloggers from Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, have also contributed to the debate by  bringing focusing on each of these countries and on their own direct experience in terms of citizens and activists. Pearls that you will never get on mainstream media.

But the novelty of this edition is how do we move to the next step, i.e. how do we empower people to do a better and citizen-media based cover for the upcoming elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and generally speaking how do we get people actively involved in the democratic process of rebuilding the institutions and the country itself. A very interesting panel, coordinated by Global Voices` Solana Saurus, has been held at the #AB11 on this very issue, with lots of insights coming from Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans,too.

For me one of the most interesting panel was the one which featured the Tunisian bloggers who are running for elections debating about their different visions of the constitutional assembly, the alliances among them or with other groups, their ideas towards mobilizing people, etc. Thanks to Jillian c.York we have great notes of the session.

The key question during the upcoming months is exactly this: how do we turn the regime change that was accomplished in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, into political and social change? and how do we turn the blogging and activism that was “in opposition” to dictatorships into a proactive force that reaches out to the ground and helps democracy to emerge?

#AB11 variety of panels and voices has given a great contribution to this debate. In two weeks Tunis will make the first move, by hosting the first democratic elections in the Region since long time. And the Tunisian bloggers and activists will play an important role in these elections which hopefully will later be a key role in the future of the country, too.

 

You can find a great coverage of the meeting on the Arab Bloggers official website, on Global Voices and on some blogs (like Jillian C. York`s).

Arab Bloggers site has also collected many interesting videos from Tunisia Live and hopefully will publish soon the sessions that have been filmed.

Ibtihel Zaatouri has a great Flickr stream of the meeting and there is also a Storify report about it.

Thanks to Sami and the Nawaat team, all the wonderful Global Voices people, Doreen and Hiba from Heinrich Boll for organizing this inspiring meeting.