Arab Spring

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By Patrick Lim

We’ve all seen the pictures of the mass exodus of Syrian refugees fleeing across the Middle East and washing up on the shores in Europe; we’ve all read about their stories, their losses and their struggle to hold onto a modicum of hope; and we’ve watched and listened to videos of refugees stuck in camps, who wonder day after day what tomorrow will bring and if they will ever return to their home country. Yet, these are not the only media through which the world can only begin to try and to understand the plight of Syrian refugees, or even refugees for that matter. Art and culture can be a way of understanding the different nuances to the conflict and to the sentiments of the people. In particular, it may be a way for them not only to survive the situation but also to voice their true opinions that have been stifled by authoritarian regimes for decades and to challenge the current conflict situation.

"Down with Bashar"
“Down with Bashar”

Specifically in the context of Syrian art, the audience is able to gather an insight into what the population thinks of the regime. According to the book Syria Speaks, at the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria, the people thought that their revolution would be different to other countries’ and embarked on portraying their feelings in songs, posters, performances and videos, which shied away from using words such as “conflict” and “civil war.” The artists believed that art is a tool of resistance, which is vital for social justice, something that they had lived without since before Bashar’s reign. Some recent graffiti depicts Assad’s face with the captions “Step here” or “Down with the dictator.” Syrians have also resorted to expressing their opinions of Assad, his regime and the revolution in the form of tiny puppets in the video series Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, produced by an anonymous group of Syrian artists known as Masasit Mati. Available on YouTube, the episodes show Assad or “Beesu” to be at the mercy of his shabih or military commander, as he blubbers like a child with multiple swipes being taken at his lisp and the incompetency of his cabinet. Although the series employs dark humor to voice the anger of the people at Assad’s nonchalance about killing people in the episode Who Wants to Kill a Million?, Masasit Mati is able to portray the importance of women and how this revolution is not just about Muslims against Assad but for all sects, religions and genders.

Syria Speaks also talks about the role of children or young people as recurring motifs in revolutionary art, such as those that we see now. Their prominence may demonstrate the extent to which they have been affected by the conflict. However, it may also be a way that this art form remembers and relates to the past. Youth played a role in other uprisings, notably in the first Intifada. A recent Syrian poster shows a double image of a young man throwing a stone with the caption reading: “The Palestinian spirit is in every revolutionary;” thus, linking the displacements of the Syrians and Palestinians. The former group has even been known to have publicly stated that they are now experiencing what their relatives went through several decades ago and, in an act of solidarity, understanding their relatives’ plight. But not all the art relates to past similar experiences. Syrian art also depicts the people’s perpetual frustration under both Assad regimes, going as far back the 1982 Hama uprising with several other pieces showing how the people have grown up in a militarized society. Furthermore, whenever they believe that they have escaped, they find that they are actually still stuck living under a dictator.

Yet, revolutionary art is not only a way for us to understand current attitudes and as a means for the people to remember the past but also to express their future. Groups such as Lens Young Homsi, Lens Young Dimashqi and Lens Young Idlib, are a group of young men and teenagers who have captured life in Syria through photographs taken on mobile phones or cameras. Their pictures show the destruction of cemeteries, homes, and lives and graffiti in Homs that says: “We were forced to leave, but we leave our hearts here…We will return.”

"Homs, we'll be back." Source: Freedom House
“Homs, we’ll be back.” Source: Freedom House is a unique database that has collected hundreds of videos, paintings, comics and graffiti created by Syrians during the revolution, and which aims to “preserve the Syrian memory, a duty because of its total consideration of historical accounts of all Syrian people.” In addition, last week, the 2nd Annual Art in Exile Festival at the Goethe-Instiut in Washington DC featured artists, photographers and filmmakers from the Middle East who will narrate the story of generations of refugees in the region. Called “Art in Exile: Voices from the Middle East,” this three-day long event included movies such as We Cannot Go There Now, which focuses on Palestinians who have fled Syria to seek refuge in Lebanon and Our Terrible Country, which tells the story of an academic’s journey through Syria, even into Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State’s operations.

While we read and watch stories of the Syrian refugees in the media, we must remember that these only present a limited picture. We have to look at various forms of art and their rhetoric – from photographs, graffiti, songs and videos – to truly understand how these frustrations are not only because of the revolution but have been building up over decades due to the authoritarian Assad regimes. We are able to further gain an insight into what these refugees are thinking by seeing how they relate the past of their relatives from Palestine to their current experience and how they express their hopes for the future.

By Veronica Baker

Protestors wave the Moroccan flag during the 20 February protests in 2011. Source: Hasna Lahmini

The Arab uprisings of 2011 yielded diverse results: Libya, Syria, and Yemen are in states of violent disarray; the Gulf monarchies crushed dissent and carried on as usual; Egypt saw its revolution crumble with the ascent of Al-Sisi; and Tunisia has risen as a cautious, yet promising, example of democratization done right.

The results of the protests in Morocco and Jordan, on the other hand, are less clear. Their governments reacted quickly, acknowledging the legitimacy of their citizens’ complaints of economic trouble and rights violations. In the past four years, Morocco and Jordan have passed reforms: some real, some symbolic.

Abdullah II of Jordan pledged to promote the role of citizens in political life and the decision-making process. Initiatives included the creation of new elections laws, a constitutional court, and a national integrity commission. However, little change has actually materialized. The monarchy has so far succeeded in preserving power by using instability on the country’s borders to justify maintaining the status quo.

Mohamed VI quickly gave Moroccans the opportunity to elect a new parliament and promised modifications to the constitution, effectively pre-empting the revolution. Constitutional reforms gave parliament the ability to pass laws on most issues, took steps towards protecting the independence of the judiciary, and increased the role of a number of independent commissions. However, these reforms are hollow: while they appear to shift power away from the king, there are plenty of ways still available for him to circumvent the parliament and judiciary to pursue any policy he wants.

On Friday, July 1, Moroccans  voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left yes, "Yes to the Constitution". Source: Christopher Rose
On July 1, 2011, Moroccans voted on a constitutional referendum to approve changes put forth by the King in a speech a week earlier. The banner on the right reminds people to register. The banner on the left reads, “Yes to the Constitution”. Source: Christopher Rose

Models of reform?

Some academics and journalists have expressed support for Morocco and Jordan’s respective strategies of “reform.” Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi made news in 2014 when he declared Morocco and Jordan “successful Arab Spring models.” Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, The Tower, Brookings, and others have echoed the idea that the Moroccan and/or Jordanian responses to the 2011 uprisings could serve as examples for the rest of the Middle East to follow.

Such positions are rooted in idealistic notions of what Morocco’s and Jordan’s kings have done, and not in the reality these countries now face. The reforms in Morocco and Jordan have been overwhelmingly symbolic and have not truly bestowed upon the people the rights they fought for in 2011.

Morocco and Jordan are the unfinished stories of the Arab Spring. The economic and human rights situations in both countries remain troubled. The instability surrounding Jordan will only serve as a successful excuse for police state-type activity for so long; such an approach is simply unsustainable. Morocco, while in a less precarious state, still has plenty of problems left to face, especially concerning everyday violence, the contested state of the Western Sahara, and terrorist organizations within and directly outside its borders.

Legitimizing the so-called reforms made in Jordan and Morocco will only result in further instability in the future. The shifting of political powers, edits to the constitution, and changes to the penal code mean nothing if new laws are not enforced and human rights do not become a priority. To maintain peace in Jordan and Morocco, more legitimate reforms must be made.

Neither government has transferred significant power away from the royal establishment and into the hands of democratic institutions. Economic and social conditions in Morocco and Jordan will not improve without an independent and accountable judiciary; a truly free press and internet; a strong network of NGOs that protects the rights of women, minorities, and other at-risk groups; a massive overhaul of both countries’ inhumane prison and detention center conditions; and the legitimate implementation of laws that enshrine the rights of individuals to express themselves without fear of abduction or arbitrary arrest.

Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon
Graffiti in the streets of Casablanca photographed in 2010. Source: Jeremy Salmon

Opportunities for change

At their core, reform movements in the Middle East are calls for human rights. In the West, democracy is often seen as the vehicle for attaining those, but it is not the only option.

Supporters of Moroccan and Jordanian-style reforms have a valid point. If the pathway to rights is more likely forged through a stable political system, then perhaps a revolution is not necessary.

However, both countries have a long way to go. Both are signatories to such conventions as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Despite this, the Jordanian and Moroccan governments are both frequently caught in the headlines for violating human rights, such as by restricting freedom of association, deporting refugees, trying civilians in military courts, and failing to respect freedom of expression.

Citizens in Morocco and Jordan do not have the political leverage to effectively demand their rights be taken seriously. The kings have little reason to shift the status quo themselves. Thus, influence must come from the outside. Morocco and Jordan are two of the greatest allies of the United States in the region. This provides a unique opening for dialogue and positive pressure for human rights.

Just as the United States needs Jordan and Morocco, they also need the U.S. Through the fiscal year 2015, total U.S. aid to Jordan and Morocco has amounted to approximately $15.83 billion and $2.7 billion respectively. The U.S. should exercise influence on the governments to which it supplies aid to support the well-being of that country’s people.

It is in the interest of the United States to support the will of the Jordanian and Moroccan people pressing for peaceful change. In the face of extremism (ISIS in the Levant, as well as AQAM and other militant groups in West Africa), it is necessary that the citizens of Morocco and Jordan continue to feel connected to and empowered by their state. Marginalization of citizens, particularly youth, will only serve to further destabilize the region.

As the U.S. successfully supported Tunisia in its transition, it must now turn to Morocco and Jordan and stand as a supporter of human rights. In doing so, we have the ability to shift the dying legacy of the Arab Spring.

In its current trajectory, the legacy of the “Arab Spring” will be of Tunisia’s singular success story all but overshadowed by the death and destruction in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. It is essential that we, as a prominent economic and political actor in the region, do what we can to turn that around. By holding the Jordanian and Moroccan governments accountable and pressuring them to enact real, not symbolic, reforms, the United States has a chance to serve as a positive and enabling force in the Middle East.


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