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Finishing Through the Middle East

I’ve decided, unfortunately, not to continue with this blog. My reasons are contrainsts on my time, the sheer amount of information out there and that what is hopefully going to be my new employment is not relevant to this blog.

I’m yet to take a decision about the Christie Communiques, my other blog, but will do soon.

It’s been fun – the reasons for setting up were two fold: firstly as a project for my course, and secondly because my commenting and highlighting on Middle East issues was quite difference from much of that I wrote about on my blog. Focusing more on development at first, topics generally revolving around the media and democracy and dominated.

But have a look at the blogroll and links – it’s just a snippet of what’s out there. The internet allows, at least, those in the Middle East and beyond to debate, comment and highlight their own issues. There’s so much out there.

Signing off,



OR 318: March 18 Movement Video

OR318, or the March 18 Movement, who I’ve mentioned in a previous post, have a video out. It reminds me of one Amnesty did once. It sets out the issues, why they are named as such, and what can be done. Take a look:

The ‘retweeting’ of Iran: Bloggasm experiment

Simon Owens, who runs Bloggasm, did an experiment on how many times a ‘tweet’ from Iran is retweeted (RT). Read his full findings here – an extract:

Out of the 100 random tweets, each one was retweeted an average of 57.8 times. The tweet that received the highest volume of retweets had 311 retweets. The smallest had only 6 retweets. Most of the tweets I found had between 30 and 50 retweets.

Of course this was done during normal Eastern Time hours, so it may be that the volume fluctuates throughout the day. But it does show that a single tweet coming out of Iran can be seen by a massive volume of Twitter users fairly easily.

I’d be interested to see how many of those retweets come from inside Iran: this would give us some indication as to the extent of it’s use – within the country – as a tool. Then again, when someone in Canada can retweet about an embassy being open or closed on the back of what someone in Singapore said, who got it in turn from someone in the UK, who saw it from an Iranian, does it matter that much how the information is spread?

It’s easy to concentrate on one tool and it’s obvious that sections of the mainstream media do so. It’s not a replacement for real journalism, but real journalism has it’s limits, especially if journalists are put in jail or asked to leave the country. So Twitter has some role to play.

Iran: democracy, media, and protests

What’s happening in Iran right now?

It’s difficult to know where to start online, I’ve got literally thousands of RSS feed items to read and hundreds of tweet with the hash tag #IranElection. I’ll try and cover as many points as possible.

A few extracts from some of those I’ve read, be they UK bloggers, international columnists or Middle East activists. First, some opinions from Sheffield students –

Nick Smith, an MA Broadcast student from University of Sheffield:

“Iran seems to be caught in a Catch 22 situation supplemented by an odd paradox. The supreme leadership of Ayatollah’s suggests a nation which should follow a doctrine of autarky, yet they have their own elected Presidential governments (although this constitutional element is in serious dispute). They are a nation which strives to restrict Western influence and promote strict Islamic values, but at they same time they have embraced certain aspects of Western technological developments and this has allowed influence from the Western World to penetrate their population.”

As Nick mentions ‘elected’ is highly disputable label with regards to Iran’s leaders, seeing as power rests with Khamenei. What started off as a stolen election has merged into fury at the establishment, the greatest challenge to the revolutionary powers who earlier in the year were proudly celebrating thirty years in power. Nick is, I think, actually referring to two different ‘they’ group in his post: the government has restricted Western influence and although in terms of nuclear power, military technologies and the like they have embraced Western technology, it is the people – the young, 50% of the population who are under 30 – who have actively decided to, at the least, not dismiss the West.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran encouraged the population to have more children, to replace the martyrs dying on the border. There is some irony that those born on the back of a revolutionary war that encapsulated the regieme for it’s first decade in existence are now challenging the same ideals that drove thousands to their deaths.

Twitter in Iran

Lex Rigby, a staff member and ex-student at Sheffield University, has been furiously tweeting over the past few days with a passion and awareness I can only admire. There’s been plenty written about the use of Twitter during the protests – see Andrew Sullivan’s piece in the Sunday Times (not yet online). As I’ve said before, new media and technological tools will only, perhaps, truly have come of age where we stop talking about their use during specific events as a novelty. Here is Lex’s take:

“Last time I got hooked on Monitter was during the Mumbai attacks last November when my need for real time information got so intense that it became difficult to deattach my eyes from the computer screen. This time it’s the Iran elections (#iranelections) that have really got me. Sat here feeling so overwhelmed and helpless I really have found the evidence needed to prove the usefulness of Twitter.”

Of course, if it weren’t for those in Iran using the same tool, it would tell us little of what had been going on. It has been quite amazing – yesterday I went for a bike ride to find over 7,000 new tweets with that hash tag.

It’s still just a tool: but with the restrictions on foreign reporters, and the slowing down of the Iranian internet, Twitter has become invaluable for thousands. It’s remarkable to see instructions on how to safely wash off tear gas or which embassies are accepting the injured. Noam Cohen has an anaylsis of it’s role, and Jay Rosen has been urging people to debunk what he calls ‘the myth’ that Twitter is the main organising tool in Iran.

I can’t help but wonder whether there will be a turning image or video during the protests, that somehow defuses or inflames it. ‘Neda’ could be one such video. But in fact it’s a not a ‘turning point’, or a historical footnote – not now. It’s a young women dying before the eyes of the world for freedom. It happens everyday round the world, we just happen to see this one. From CNN:

Amid the hundreds of images and videos of Saturday’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Iran that flooded the Internet, it was the graphic video showing the death of a young woman that touched a nerve among those following the events in Tehran for more than a week.

Like most of the information coming out of Tehran, it is impossible to verify her name, Neda, or the circumstances of her apparent death, captured close-up on a bystander’s camera.

CNN ran a pixilated version of the video, which was posted on YouTube. It shows a woman in jeans and white sneakers collapsed on the street, as the person with the camera — most likely from a cell phone — runs toward her and focuses on her face.

There is an image of her here. The video is here – You Tube have apparently decided to allow more violent videos than usual from Iran, because of the public interest. Viewer discretion is advised.

Comparisons with 1979

It’s an easy pathway to an analysis of ongoing events, but a necessary one. Both Reza Aslan and the BBC’s John Simpson have articles comparing the current protests with the mood in 1979. John Simpson, who also reported there thirty years ago:

“But just because people seem brave and attractive and believe intensely in freedom, that is not enough to make sure they will get rid of the system they have come to hate.

It did not happen in Tiananmen Square, after all.

In other words, just because I watched a revolution happen here 30 years ago, it does not mean that very much the same sort of people marching through exactly the same streets will automatically win now.

Or if they do, it will take more than simply marching.”

Given that the protests were, at least to begin with, predominantly middle class and consisting of Westernised Iranians, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Western media has taken a visual liking to the green-clad protesters. But especially in the past few days, the crowd has changed to reflect a more diverse Tehran, as Roger Cohen notes:

“There were people of all ages. I saw an old man on crutches, middle-aged office workers and bands of teenagers. Unlike the student revolts of 2003 and 1999, this movement is broad.”

Reza Aslan:

Yet for me and millions of my fellow compatriots — both inside and outside Iran — it is the memory of 1979 that most keenly informs our perception of what’s taking place in our home country. The similarities between today’s protests and the events of 1979 suggest that this election represents a real turning point in Iranian history. All of this is not to say that another revolution is afoot in Iran. The Iranian regime, despite all its multiple and often competing poles of power, is far too entrenched to be so easily dislodged. Still, whatever happens, whoever ends up leading the country, however this crisis of legitimacy is resolved, one thing is certain: Iran will never again be the same. For better or worse, a new Iran is emerging. Whether it will be more isolationist and militaristic or more accommodating and democratic remains to be seen.

What can we do?

This isn’t some humanitarian crisis where the DEC springs into action. Nor do we, adversley, want to appeal to Western governments to ‘do more’ – as Benjamin Sarlin discusses with a opposition cleric, greater and harsher condemnation will only play into the Iranian government’s hands:

Kadivar said that the opposition movement was entirely self-sufficient and in need of no support from foreign leaders. “What Obama has done so far is about perfect,” Kadivar, garbed in his traditional cleric’s robes, said. “We don’t need any special support from you. The green movement for democracy and liberty in Iran is independent and we don’t need anything from the foreigners. We should get democracy ourselves.”

This is by no means a uniform view, but the West would be in a much worse position had this election and it’s protests taken place a year earlier with a Bush White House. If foreign intervention is to be avoided then, what can we do? Helia Phoneix, until recently a fellow web journalism MA student at the University of Sheffield, has some ideas:

Yes, I know that voicing my support for the protests and the marches through changing my facebook profile picture / my twitter status / the background to my blog may make no difference at all. But I rather think that you’re missing the point. The point is not to affect change from here – because essentially what we do here makes no difference at all. We can’t affect policy there, we can’t affect politicians (because they take orders directly from god), we can’t do shit. The point is to do the only thing we can – to show solidarity, to show support to those people living under a regime from which they want out. To show them that it’s not The World vs Iran, as the media there would have us believe, and not Iran vs The World, as some Western media would have us believe.

These things may not make any difference in the long run, but to my cousins and their friends, knowing they have support from people beyond the fringes of their own country gives them determination and belief in their cause. They’re all on facebook, on twitter, they have blogs and they’ve arranged themselves and their movements using these new communication channels. Without it all, they’d be sat in silence in their houses, feeling isolated, alone and totally gutted. Anything I can do digitally that counters that or encourages them, then I’ll do it. More power to them.

Watch, learn, converse, translate, re-post, re-tweet, engage, debate, support. Since the Iraq War the idea of democracy in the Middle East has too often been accompanied by accusations of imperialism and arrogance on the part of the West. But we didn’t create these marches, or monitor the election, or kill those protesters. Democracy shouldn’t be a dirty word, an exclusive concept, just because it’s one the West has adopted. We shouldn’t be afraid of supporting those marching, and those too afraid to march.

So just have a listen to this:

Obama’s Middle East Speech: reactions

It’s hard to know where to start given the online attention Obama’s Cairo speech has received. The LA Times ‘Babylon and Beyond’ has two blog posts detailing reactions from Ghana to America to Palestine. So I thought I’d satisfy first by highlighting just some of the comment and opinion:

Writing at the Guardian, Maajid Nawax of the Quilliam Foundation praises Obama for moving away from the ‘West vs. Islam’ dichotomy:

“How does the notion of the “west” addressing the “Muslim world” do anything to further integrate Muslims who are nothing but western, born and raised in the metropolises of Europe? What is this elusive “Muslim world” that only Islamists wish to resurrect? And assuming it exists beyond a purely religious community (the ummah), why is it absurdly juxtaposed against the “west”? The opposite of west is east, not Muslim. There are soon to be Muslim-majority cities in the heart of Europe. Russia has an official Mufti, and more Muslims than many so-called “Muslim countries” in the Middle East. China has more Muslims than many Arab countries. How would a globally televised speech given from the heart of Paris to the “Christian world” of the west be received?”

This was an issue I mentioned in my undergraduate dissertation. Why do we refer to nation states whom have a majority Muslim population as ‘Muslim countries’, as if the religious aspect of some of the population is the defining characteristic of the country? We wouldn’t refer to South Africa or Argentina as a ‘Christian countries’ – indeed, with the occasional exception of Israel, no other set of countries from Morocco to Pakistan are referred to so often with a prefix denoting the majority of the citizen’s religion. Hence, the term ‘Muslim-majority’ is favourable, though still not ideal.

Reza Aslan, whose new book ‘How to Win a Cosmic War‘ is back at my house waiting to be delved into, broadly praised Obama in the Guardian for openly stating some obvious truths:

Obama did something practically unheard of for an American president: he told the truth, and frankly. Obama acknowledged that colonialism had denied “rights and opportunities to many Muslims”, that Muslim countries have often been treated as little more than proxies of the west, that Muslims sometimes have cause to view the US and the larger western world as hostile to Islam, and that the United States has not always lived up to its ideals.

Writing at Middle East Youth however, Esra’a justifies why she didn’t listen to the speech: because no foreign leader can change these societies, only those in the region can:

I’m all for hope and optimism, but political naivité makes me ill. One thing is for certain: We’re on our own. The Obama team are not going to solve the crimes and injustices that we witness every day of our lives. Obama is a fine president so far, and should be thanked and encouraged for speaking widely against the abuses of the “war on terror” and referring to us in a tone that doesn’t reek of bigotry and racism. But in a few years his administration will be replaced. And then what?

Esra’s continues to state that

You should be extremely hopeful that change will definitely occur. But you should also be just as hopeful that you’re good enough to create it yourself: and it’s NOT going to start with a political revolution, or simply overthrowing a government with another. It first starts with changing the perceptions of those around you in favor of all human rights and the society that you wish to live in.

I can clearly see Esra’a’s point: as Obama admitted, one speech cannot change everything. Activists and writers such as those at Middle East Youth are in a much better position than me to analyse the internal debates and problems in societies in the region, but if the ‘wrong perceptions’ exist, it will be slow process to overcome. Indeed, it is also worth asking what perceptions we would then like to see those in the Middle East work towards: and surely ones that develop from within those societies, and as a result of those within the society, is going to be far more successful than an artificially imposed one from the West.

The problem here is I suspect that such perceptions: the right of minorities, the rights of women, tolerance for other faiths etc. – are those same ones practised (with varying degrees of success) in the West, and thus, when they are being developed, a backlash could take place against ‘outside values’. So how does the Middle East advance towards ‘freer’ societies if the values needed are tainted with ‘the West’: or would this be overstating not only the antipathy towards the West, but the West’s disputable ownership of these values?

The extent to which Obama spoke about democracy was also an issue much commented upon, with some feeling he skimmed over the issue. Mahmmod

Steering back to the speech, The Economist sums up what many have been saying about Obama’s words:

Yet the constant refrain, heard on Cairo’s streets as well as from media pundits, is that Arabs and Muslims would like to see Mr Obama’s words matched by deeds. “To win our hearts, you must win our minds first, and our minds are set on the protection of our interests,” declared one of the reams of editorials, columns and open letters from across the region before Mr Obama spoke.

Another frequent refrain, such as from Chris Philips, has been that Obama should not have chosen Cairo and Egypt, ruled over by a dictator as the location for his speech. Mahmood however, makes a valuable point:

Then I try to select an alternate of the 22 Arab countries where he could have used instead, but I fail to find a single one which could be worthy of such an occasion.

Iraq would be unthinkable and would frame the speech in entirely the wrong context; Saudi Arabia is probably a little too autocratic (though not for a pre-speech visit and bling of course). Indeed, the only two democracies in the Middle East (arguably) are Israel and Lebanon. Though the part about settlements might have been even more powerful coming from within Israel, the rest of the speech would have been mute. Lebanon, being in the midst of an election that could see a Pro-Syrian, anti-Western faction win, may not have welcomed one of the highest profile visits of an American President to the Middle East in their back yard. Whether the speech had been in Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait: he was always going to be faced with such criticism. And it is better, surely, to preach in a nation that needs democracy that one which has already achevied it.

For even more reaction, see MEMRI’s (Middle East Media Research Institute) report, citing over a dozen Middle East papers and columnists. Some notable ones:

Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia) “Now that the speech is over, and Obama has left [the region], an important question arises: What is the desired Arab and Islamic reaction to [it]? In the Arab arena, the Arab League should call a meeting on the leader or foreign minister level, to draw up a joint position giving increased support to the Arab peace initiative, based on Israel’s current obstinacy. In the Islamic arena, the Organization for the Islamic Conference should call a conference or issue a comprehensive communiqué confirming the Islamic countries’ and organizations’ support of the interfaith dialogue.”

The Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, in its editorial, called Obama’s speech “the culmination of the statements [promising] change that began during [Obama’s] election campaign, and gained momentum after his victory… [It can be said,] without exaggeration, that Obama’s speech will enter the annals of history as one of the most important documents illustrating the desire of the West, headed by the U.S., to [adopt] a new stance towards Islam and the Muslims, after centuries of aggression and hostility.”

Whether the reaction to Obama’s speech is cynical and dissmissive, thoughtful and hopeful or widely over optomistic, there is no doubt it’s intention and sincerity. The few reactions detailed above and the thousands, published or otherwise, that haven’t been mentioned, are as important as the 55 minutes he spent talking.

As for me: I thought it was refreshing in some senses and banal, at least in terms of policy, in others. The comments about colonialism were welcome, as were those on women’s rights and settlements. Then again, when he spoke about those citizens, innocents, killed on 9/11, I would imagine many would think about those citizens in Pakistan and Afghanistan, innocent, being killed in US airstrikes. Obviously one is deliberate and one isn’t, but it could be the reaction of some.

Any speech can be picked apart and much of it refuted. But providing it provokes some debate, some change and indeed, action, then it will have done some good.

Jennifer Bussell on Indian e-government: technology and development

Ethan Zuckerman has a post on ICT4D (Internet Communication Technology for development) on India, and Jennifer Bussell’s recent talk at the Berkman Centre on the issue. I know this isn’t about the Middle East, but thought it was worth highlighting:

“There’s a strong critique of ICT4D that argues that the importance of information is overstated and that ICT4D proponents either overvalue information technology because they’re personally attached to the tools, or more sinisterly, because they’re looking to create developing world markets for these tools. Many supporters of ICT4D – myself included – will concede that there are lots of badly thought out and poorly executed projects that do little more than drop expensive technology in areas where it’s a scarce resource and likely to stay a scarce resource for a long time to come.

Bussell argues that e-services tend to systematically reduce corruption, and that they therefore can be threatening to existing political elites. Elites have the power of transferring bureacrats, moving them from a job where it’s easy to seek bribes (the customs service) to one where it’s harder to do so. They exercise this power by demanding kickbacks from bureacrats, which they use as campaign finance. A politician whose political livelihood relies on control of bribes and rent-seeking officials is likely to be threatened by eGovernment efforts and might fight their introduction.”

It is easy to assume that the introduction of technology will not solve third-world problems, with a first-world solution. But this is unlikely to work right-away, given the differences in culture, levels of development and expertise. The introduction of mobile phones to rural India, for example, will not solve all it’s agriculture problems.

An advantage with, for example, new media in the Middle East is that it is much easier for the local population to take ownership of the technology and it’s content, using it in their own languages and their own devices.

However, we should not be put off introducing technology into the third world. When can a country be deduced as being ‘ready’ for a certain technology – at what stage can the mobile phone or Internet be introducted, and if we do decide that there is a stage when a country can be ready for certain technologies, does this not 1. means the West is ‘owning’ this technology, 2. assuming that all third-world countries will react in the same, amusingly, negative way (as the restriction of technology would be based on previous examples) and 3. is arguably a restriction to a globalised, free market. This last point is difficult, as some may argue that a free market also damages these countries.

But who is deciding what is a negative and positive development in these countries: those analysing it from the outside, those within the country – or perhaps journalists, if it is their role to make such a judgement?

Cairo Refugee Film Festival

The Cairo Refugee Film Festival, taking place from June 16th to June 20th, aims to help refugees integrate into the country:

Since the vast majority of refugees will never be resettled, integration in Egypt is of great concern and the need of the hour. This is possible only when when the misconceptions between the host communities and the refugee communities are cleared and an appreciation and understanding of the others’ circumstances is fostered.

Against this backdrop and with a view to bring the refugee and the egyptian communities together, the idea of a film festival took birth.

Considering that Egypt is home to a significant refugee population, hailing from all across Africa and the Middle East, a festival of such a kind is extremely relevant and provides a platform to bring together local Egyptians and refugees. The Cairo Refugee Film Festival, held in commemoration of the World Refugee Day, seeks to chronicle the lives, struggles, and achievements of refugee populations around the world from the 1930s to the present day. We aspire to break the Egyptian myth that the refugee movement is an Afro-centric problem and that refugees are always African.

We can, then, connect this to the idea that development journalism only ‘exisits’ in certain third-world countries, and specifically not the Middle East. In the same way that when we think of refugees we think of sprawling desert camps in South or Eastern Africa, rather than nationalities living in real houses and communities – such as the Palestinian refugees still living in Lebanon and Egypt, decades later.

The use of a form of media – in this case cinema – to try and bring together disparate communities, and enhance understanding of a minority, could be seen as a form of development journalism. Refugees are nothing new, and such a modern vision is now ingrained thanks to the creation and sense of belonging in nation states. But considering the world’s globalisation, and especially the amount of immigration into the Western world, the acceptance of minorities into a nation state is arguably a modern development goal (even if it is the creation of a modernisation concept – the nation state).