A Second Spring? The Fragile Hope for Democratic Transition in Sudan and Algeria

The recent toppling of authoritarians in Algeria and Sudan have the potential to breathe new life into the hope of democracy for North Africa, years after the “Arab Spring.” Yet even as the Sudanese and Algerian people have appeared to have learned important lessons from the events of 2011, fundamental obstacles still stand in the way of democratic transition that echo the failures of the Arab Spring.  

By 2019, the eighth anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution, the hopes of the Arab Spring appeared all by extinguished. Within the span of a few years, popular movements that carried the potential to bring about dignity, accountability, and democracy for the people of the Middle East and North Africa were overwhelmed by renewed government repression and the new conflicts of the “Arab Winter.” Then on 2 April, Algeria’s Algeria’s 20-year president, Bouteflika, stepped down after mass protests over his planned 5th consecutive term in office. Nine days later, Sudan’s 30-year dictator, al-Bashir, was removed by the Sudanese military following months of citizen mobilization. Within weeks, journalists and pundits were already describing these twin revolutions as a “second Arab Spring.”

It’s not a coincidence that two nations, which largely avoided demonstrations in 2011, are now witnessing the toppling of some of the region’s most powerful strongmen. On the surface, the Sudanese and Algerian uprisings appear almost as a delayed second act to the 2011 uprisings, and even have followed a pattern similar to the cases of Tunisia and Egypt: the formation of peaceful and sustained popular mobilization, whose aims were made reality once popular pressure caused military and government structures to eventually turn on the regime. On closer inspection, however, the protesters who brought down Bouteflika and al-Bashir have learned important lessons from the Arab Spring—namely, that democratic transition does not stop with the removal of a single figure and the need for commitment to continue to put pressure on the state even through the transition period.

In Algeria, protesters have already set their sights beyond the immediate fall of Bouteflika, with peaceful protesters calling for the removal of the prime minister and interim president, figures which remain representative of the power structures of the Bouteflika regime. By turning out every Friday to insist on transparency and the inclusion of civil society in the transition period, including free and fair elections under reformed rules, Algerians have signaled that challenging  le pouvoir—or “the power”—goes beyond the removal of Bouteflika and instead requires a radical restructuring of state institutions and the electoral process.

Sudan faces perhaps more difficult hurdles—with the difference being the military’s forcible removal of al-Bashir and its significant control over the post-Bashir transition. In a situation that resembles the post-Mubarak military transition of Egypt in 2011, the Sudanese military and security forces have recently inflicted violence against protesters that have mobilized against the military junta, in the process jeopardizing the breakdown of military-protester negotiations. Despite this, protesters have maintained peaceful methods, and, like in Algeria, have continued to protest and call for a civilian-led transition, with a message that democratic aims would not be settled by the merely the election of another authoritarian figure with military support.

Neither outcome is guaranteed to end in democracy. If anything, the events of the Arab Spring show just how ingrained military and government power structures are in the region—and just how delicate democratic transition can be even after a given leader has fallen. In Egypt, a military coup in 2013 has resulted in a government just as repressive and violent as the Mubarak era; in Bahrain, a violent Saudi-led intervention resulted in the crackdown of political dissidents; and in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, conflicts whose origins are derived from 2011 continue to be waged with varying levels of intensity. The shadows of the Arab Spring’s failures loom large over Algeria and Sudan, both of which experienced their own horrific civil wars not too long ago, and whose current power brokers will be loathe to give up control to civilian administration. In this environment, the use of violence to maintain power is all too possible a reality under the transitional, military-led regimes.

So too do Algeria and Sudan face a different international community than existed in 2011, with the foreign policy emphasis on security over democracy and human rights—which already largely guided Western policy in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Egypt during the Arab Spring—even more pronounced than it was eight years ago. Without external pressure to respect a civilian transition, military leaders in Sudan and Algeria might feel emboldened to violently crack down on protesters, knowing well how little pushback they will receive from the likes of President Trump or Italian strongman, Salvini.  

That is not to say that the Algerian and Sudanese revolutions are doomed to fail; in fact, the protesters who brought down Bouteflika and al-Bashir have already made great strides beyond what was accomplished by many countries during the Arab Spring, and have remained peaceful despite instances of military violence. These steps don’t guarantee a peaceful transition, but they send an important message that democratic, civilian government is the end goal of the revolution, and that citizens will not easily settle for the mere replacement of another autocratic figure.

No matter their outcome, the April revolutions reveal that the desire for rights, dignity, and freedom is still very much alive across the Middle East and North Africa—and always has been. Sudan and Algeria show that even under the most long-standing and repressive regimes, change is in fact possible, through the actions of the Sudanese and Algerian people themselves who dare to struggle for a better future. While the events of April may not yet point to a “Second Spring,” they do suggest that the Arab Winter, regardless of how long it lasts, will one day thaw.

Photo Credit: M.Saleh, CC BY-SA .40

Slow Violence and Disaster Capitalism: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

In September 2017, the category five Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a small Caribbean island just east of the Dominican Republic and a territoryor, as many recognize, a colony of the United States. The colonial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has left the island in an incredibly vulnerable position, which has been compounded by forced privatization and general government corruption.

When Hurricane Maria left the island in a complete state of shock, it opened the doors for further attacks on Puerto Rican sovereignty. It also served as a wake-up call for the island’s residents, many of whom were no longer able to turn a blind eye to either the impending and catastrophic privatization efforts or the total and devastating effects of climate change. The case of Puerto Rico—both its relationship to the U.S, as well as in the aftermath of Maria—serves as an important example of the ways that slow violence can render a population vulnerable to more overt forms of violence after a natural disaster.

Puerto Rico has already been subjected to imposed debt, as well as tax breaks for the hyper-rich, and after Hurricane Maria it is clear that the U.S. is capitalizing on the shock of the devastation.

In his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), Rob Nixon posits that slow violence is “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Not only does climate change disproportionately impact “the poor”—most often brown and black poor communities, and very frequently in places far away from white Western societies—in a visceral way now, it also impacts their ability to thrive in the future. Therefore, slow violence should be understood as exacerbating existing hardships and limiting opportunities that have not yet occurred. For people who have had no say in policies that accelerated natural disasters, exposing the role of slow violence also exposes the ways that their vulnerability is made in the not so distant politics of U.S. capitalism.

In the case of Puerto Rico, this can be seen in the compounding effects of debt and austerity measures pre-Maria, and the complete lack of urgency devoted post-Maria—the combined effects of which caused more deaths than the hurricane itself and caused many Puerto Ricans to flee the island entirely. Puerto Rico has already been subjected to imposed debt, as well as tax breaks for the hyper-rich, and after Hurricane Maria it is clear that the U.S. is capitalizing on the shock of the devastation.

Naomi Klein calls this the “shock doctrine,” describing the phenomenon of disasters, natural or man-made, being exploited for profit. In the aftermath of disasters, the public is often immobilized in a state of “shock” and the private sector exploits this moment of paralysis to monopolize discussions around rebuilding. This quickly turns into a pretext for implementing harsh neoliberal policies in favor of steep profits—or “disaster capitalism.” In the case of Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria provided exactly the shock disaster capitalists needed to finally push through the privatization and austerity measures they had been working on for years.

That, as Klein argues, is the deadly combination: “not just a storm, but a storm supercharged by climate change slamming headlong into a society deliberately weakened by a decade of unrelenting austerity layered on top of centuries of colonial extraction, with a relief effort overseen by a government that makes no effort to disguise its white supremacy.”

Thus, it is important to recognize what is happening in Puerto Rico today for what it is: disaster capitalism at its finest.

Centuries of colonialism and environmental degradation, coupled with the island’s forced economic dependence by the U.S., created perfect conditions for a slow violence that kept Puerto Ricans disadvantaged enough to remain vulnerable to any sort of natural disaster

The emphasis on disaster capitalism and its agents is crucial because it allows us to identify perpetrators of the violence to which Puerto Rico has been subjected—namely, the U.S. government and its private sector. Centuries of colonialism and environmental degradation, coupled with the island’s forced economic dependence by the U.S., created perfect conditions for a slow violence that kept Puerto Ricans disadvantaged enough to remain vulnerable to any sort of natural disaster that might come its way—a reality that has become more threatening as time goes on. Therefore, seen as a climax of Nixon’s slow violence, Hurricane Maria was a convenient opportunity for the U.S. government to force through a program of privatization measures at a time when Puerto Rico was more vulnerable than usual, opening the door for fossil fuel companies, and many others, to take advantage of the newly minted tax haven.

Nixon argues that because of the intersection of different forms of power and oppression within structural and slow violence—especially for those who fall into his category of “the poor”—communities “can seldom afford to be single-issue activists” (Nixon 2011). This is exactly the spirit of Puerto Ricans organizing in the wake of hurricane Maria. The groups that were resisting privatization and austerity before the hurricane are now using the this as an opportunity to tackle the root causes that allowed Maria to go from a devastating weather problem to a disastrous systemic problem—from the poor-quality electric system, to the colonial nature of governance, to the potentially illegal debt imposed by the U.S.

Puerto Ricans have begun to organize and ask hard questions about what they want Puerto Rico to look like in the future, relying on community ties and organizations to help sustain relief efforts as well as build a plan for the future. The various organizations that existed before the hurricane have come together to create JunteGente (People Together), and have begun drafting a people’s platform in order to represent their cause.

Before Hurricane Maria, it seemed as though the shock doctrine was nearly impossible to resist effectively, but it seems as though Puerto Rico may be able to break this cycle.

How can we ensure that slow violence captures public attention in the same way that other types of violence do? Perhaps we should start by looking to Puerto Rico. The island’s inhabitants have treated Hurricane Maria as an opportunity to fundamentally transform society into a Puerto Rico that works for Puerto Ricans. As promising as this may seem, it does not answer the question of how to turn people’s attention to slow violence before an event such as Hurricane Maria happens.

One starting place would be to pay attention to grassroots organizing such as what is happening on the ground in Puerto Rico, and use this work to exploit the shock on these activists’ own terms. Rather than allow disaster capitalists to win, activists are desperately fighting to manipulate this unique moment of shock and transformation in order to create something we have never seen before. Theirs is a unique situation, currently suspended outside of the parameters of slow violence because the detrimental effects have been so glaringly exposed. However, as they continue fighting for sovereignty over their land and to tackle the root causes of the current crisis, this endeavor must be amplified and supported much more widely.

A lack of attention to the issue, or worse, the U.S. winning this tug of war for control of the island, would allow Puerto Rico to slide back into the haze of slow violence until the next disaster strikes.

Photo Credit: Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos, U.S Department of Defense

Competing with the ICC for Justice: The Central African Republic

At the ICC, survivors have no choice but to compete for recognition and reconciliation—and ultimately, for justice. Acquittal complicates this inequity: well after the trauma is revisited in testimony, telling the truth becomes a performance for the sake of the Court, not for justice. This article, which examines the role of the ICC in the Central African Republic (CAR), is the first in a series of posts that will explore the impact of acquittal in international criminal justice on ongoing conflict.

A survivor’s participation at trial is heavily limited by legal procedure. While courts aim to produce a public narrative of fact, to do so they must establish their own legitimacy as objective arbiters of truth. Enshrined in the very foundation of a justice process that is considered “fair” and “objective” is the notion that the courtroom is a space designed for telling what is factually true, a space that is not beholden to those doing the telling. Thus, courts find value in only specific types of testimony, given in specific ways.

In the ICC, the rules of procedure dictate the types of testimony—and indeed the kind of victim—it considers too subjective and unreliable to give admissible evidence. The court, therefore, also dictates the kind of testimony, and the victims, that are worthy of public recognition and acknowledgement. As one young Central African woman put it to Marlies Glasius, “We want the Court think about justice but also to support us to redo our life.”

As the ICC struggles to relate to survivors, it is imperative to examine what happens when international crimes against humanity are proven, but go unpunished as commanders are acquitted.

THE PROSECUTOR V. JEAN-PIERRE BEMBA GOMBO

At independence in 1960, political power in CAR was arranged along fault lines of neglect, in a complex network of personal favors and predation left by French colonization. For decades, multiple coup d’états and mutinies formalized violence as a mechanism of political control. The violence that began as unchecked personal animus between President Patassé and former Army Chief of Staff General Bozizé in 2002, escalated over the course of a year to a coup characterized by widespread cruelty and brutal violence targeted against civilians.

Following Bozizé’s bloody and brutal coup, the ICC charged Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo—Patassé’s Congolese rebel commander, who led the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC) while they used sexual violence to terrorize communities—with crimes against humanity for murder and rape and three counts of war crimes for murder, rape, and pillaging. On 20 June 2016, Bemba was convicted, becoming the first person to be convicted of rape on the basis of command responsibility at the ICC. However, two years later, Bemba was acquitted on appeal. Though the Appeals Chamber did not contest that Bemba’s troops perpetrated grave crimes against humanity as well as war crimes, it challenged his responsibility for these crimes as the MLC’s commander.

COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY

According to Article 28 of the Rome Statute, an individual commander is criminally responsible for crimes committed by forces under their direct or effective authority, command, and control, when that commander knew or should have known forces were committing or about to commit criminal acts, and when the commander failed to take “all necessary and reasonable measures” within their power to prevent, repress, investigate, and prosecute those crimes.  

The ICC’s charges against Bemba established that the such criminal acts as sexual violence or forced conscription were the legal responsibility of Bemba himself, rather than that of MLC perpetrators. Sexual violence, pillaging, murder (or the numerous other crimes that the Prosecutor failed to include) were determined not to be individual instances of a poorly managed military “taking advantage of a coercive environment,” but rather the direct and explicit acceptance of crimes against humanity as a means of waging war. Thus, the Trial Chamber treated command responsibility as a mode of liability.

In the context of how to ICC understands the nexus of command responsibility, this is important because it establishes a clear line between a commander’s failure to act and what E. Van Sliedregt describes as “a form of participation” in violence (Clark 2016, 672, see FN 38). Because a commander engages in violence through the actions of the troops they lead, their liability for violence rests not only in their own actions, but on those of their troops. When a commander fails to explicitly discourage a crime against humanity, the commander is personally participating in the crime.

Despite acknowledging that MLC soldiers perpetrated crimes against humanity and war crimes, particularly rape and other forms of sexual violence, the Appeals Chamber’s majority opinion concluded that the conviction exceeded the charges; Bemba could not be responsible for every crime perpetrated by every, and in this case any, MLC combatant, he was not located within CAR at the time of those crimes.

Thus, Bemba’s acquittal served to establish a legal framework centered away from the victim and indeed the violence of the acts of crimes against humanity.

The process of telling, and the outcome of acquittal, effectively flattens public memory of sexual violence. To be the Court’s victim is to inhabit a constructed, liminal identity caught up in the willingness to perform a personal memory of trauma to the satisfaction of the Trial Chamber and its telling of factual truth. While the Trial Chamber memorialized a flattened memory of violence in CAR, the Appeals Chamber atomized the distinct features of responsibility and victimization.

In acquittal, the Appeals Chamber vacates not just the sentence, but substantively, the meaning and legibility of legal justice for survivors. Victims, though welcomed for their participation upholding the legal procedure of justice, are then literally stripped of their recognition as victims and its sole benefit: reparations. In so doing, the Appeals Chamber—and the ICC at large—truncates any actualization of legal justice.

COMPETING WITH THE ICC

It is critical to understand the impact of a survivor’s participation in trial not just for the Court, but for survivors and the larger project of transitional justice. In performing as a “victim” for the Court, survivors become the objects of justice, instruments a court uses to demonstrate that there is someone who needs to be punished. In its process of “unmaking” these victims, the Bemba Appeals Chamber disconnected victims from the crimes that they survived, but also from reclaiming a sense of ownership over what they survived by testifying.

Through this process, the ICC creates divergent streams of justice for victims at trial, preferring the justice that is legible to the institution over a form of justice that is legible to the survivor. Participating in justice at the ICC means that a survivor must allow themselves to be made and unmade a victim at the will of the Court. They must accept a practice of performing justice in which they are given and necessarily then denied the status of victim. Thus, survivors who testify are made into instruments of justice, left waiting for recognition to be able to “redo” their lives and live beyond victimization. Without recognition and reparations, the practice of transitional justice remains located theoretically and practically outside CAR, at the ICC.

Because such institutions of transitional justice reproduce an identity for victims and perpetrators that is caught up in diametrically opposed and competing meanings, the ICC—and the memories the Court constructed as it adjudicated who is responsible—loses sight of survivors needs.

It matters where justice is done, by who and for whom. When survivors and their needs do not drive this process, the process itself loses its legitimacy. Worse still, it excludes survivors from reconciling what they have survived in meaningful ways.

When the practice of legal justice ultimately fails to articulate liability for those criminally responsible, violence and injustice live on in the public memory. Targeting ordinary people with personal and intimate violence becomes the normal business of politics. To date, sexual violence remains rampant in the CAR: ex-Séléka and anti-Balaka rebels who terrorize CAR today use the same methods as the MLC to exert control over communities. And yet, the ICC’s CAR II investigations of Alfred “Rambo” Yekatom and Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona—though they cover a broad scope of violence over the significant period of CAR’s most recent civil war—don’t include any charges of gender-based violence, sexual violence, or rape. Victims of Bemba’s violence, Bozizé’s violence, and Djotodia’s violence are left without legal recourse for what they have survived and continue to be subjected.

Survivors are left to wonder if the ICC has given up on justice for sexual violence and rape and we are all left to question whether justice at the ICC is really justice at all.

Image Credit: UNICEF | Pierre Holtz

Violence and Dissent in Modi’s India

2014 was a turning point for India. The year marked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election victory. The BJP government not only won, but also dominated the election by winning with a majority–the first of this kind of majority in twenty years. Though the election was won on the promises of development, the creation of different employment opportunities, and agricultural reforms, the BJP-led government has failed at keeping these promises.

Instead of the creation of a better society, the country has witnessed a rise in intolerance towards minorities, increased violence, and suppression of any form of dissent against the party in power. Furthermore, the conflict within Kashmir has further deteriorated under Modi’s rule, with an increase in civilian as well as military officials’ deaths.

In Modi’s India, questioning the state has led to online trolling, arrests, and even killings of those who dare to publicly voice their dissent against the government. The Bhima Koregoan commemoration emphasizes the silencing of dissent and violence in Modi’s India and demonstrates why the Modi government is a threat to the diversity and democracy in India.

In order to shed light on the recent atrocities being committed by the government, the SOAS India Society organized an panel titled, ‘Violence and Dissent in Modi’s India,’ to discuss the violence surrounding the Bhima Koregoan case. On New Year’s Eve, 2017, thousands of lower-caste Hindus–who are known as Dalits–gathered at the Bhima Koregoan war memorial to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Anglo-Maratha war.

The commemoration is significant; it was organized to pay respects to the fighters of the Mahar regiment who fought against the upper-caste regiment and won the battle. Though the commemoration was a peaceful celebration, it soon turned violent when the attendees were attacked by upper-caste Maratha groups. Following the violence, instead of the arrests of those who incited the violence, local police arrested various activists and attendees.

Though the violence was only perpetrated against harmless attendees, it was followed by nation-wide harassment and the arrests of scholars and activists who publicly spoke against the crushing of dissent and curbing of freedom of speech in Modi’s India.

The panel at Violence and Dissent in Modi’s India consisted of three panellists who explored on the violence surrounding the Bhima Koregoan case. The first speaker, Dr Mayur Suresh, is a lecturer in Law at SOAS, University of London. Due to his law background, Dr Suresh focused on the law under which those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case were charged by the police: the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Put into effect following the second emergency period in India (1967), UAPA was enacted as a response to two separatist campaigns.

A recent amendment was made to the law in 2002, which expanded UAPA to include POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act). Hence, with the introduction of this act, the events of Bhima Koregaon or lower-caste assertion were being linked to terrorism. This is evident as the first information report (FIR) filed by the upper-caste Maratha group,s who attacked the attendees of the Bhima Koregoan commemoration event, emphasized the violence as a response to the speeches being made at the event.

The law is highly problematic as it enables the state to arrest the accused for a time period of six months of longer without providing the accused with the relevant information about the charges for which they are being convicted.

Furthermore, arrestees cannot attain the granting of bail. Not only does this law act as a threat to freedom of speech, it also enables the state to practice draconian laws and arrest any individual they view as a threat without substantial evidence. Dr Suresh highlighted how the law is a key tool used by the state to curb dissent.

The second speaker, advocate Susan Abraham, is a lawyer and human rights activist. She emphasizes how the violence that was unleashed on the attendees on 1 January led to a greater movement of people from the Dalit community, who came together for a state-wide strike in protest of the violence perpetrated by Hindutva groups. No action was taken, nor was any judgement passed in January.

Following the violence that occurred during the Bhima Koregoan commemoration, months later on 6June, the government of Maharashtra issued the arrests of prominent scholars and activists related to the Bhima Koregaon commemoration violence, including Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Surendra Gadling, and Shoma Sen. They were arrested, with terrorism related charges, under UAPA five months after the event. In addition to the brutality unleashed by the state by imposing this law, the five individuals were arrested on the premise that they were plotting collectively to assassinate Prime Minister Modi. During the arrests, not only were they assaulted by the police, but their laptops and documents were seized.

Despite wide-scale protests domestically and on an international level, the government refused to allow bail for the activists involved and declared war on “urban naxals.” This term is used to label those who dissent against the government in power and the enemies within India who “act as a threat to the integrity and unity of the country.” Following a second round of arrests and raids by the police, on 28 August 2018, Dr. Abraham’s own house was raided by the authorities and her husband Vernon Gonsalves was arrested.  

The third speaker, Professor Romila Thapar, is a renowned historian and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. In a recorded video, Professor Thapar emphasized the role of government in changing the content of school textbooks in order to glorify the role of Hindus in Indian history. In history textbooks across Maharashtra and Rajasthan, the role of Mughals and Muslim rulers is being erased and replaced with the accomplishments of Hindu Maratha and Rajput rulers.

She stressed the silencing of dissent with a clear focus on university campuses, noting how dissent is met with violence. She highlighted how fear is being spread specifically within universities by Hindutva forces, who perpetrate violence with impunity.

Professor Thapar’s contribution is important as it highlights how the education sector is being widely targeted by the Modi government to suit their interests and to magnify the role of Hindus. This deliberate rewriting of history according to the interests of the ruling party is a threat to the learning process of students who are forced to learn a distorted version of history.

The election of Narendra Modi has not only led to an increase in hate crimes against minorities and lower-caste Hindus, but also in the legitimization of violence without any repercussions. Dr Suresh, Advocate Abraham, and Professor Thapar provide different reasoning for why the Modi government is a threat to the unity of the country. Laws such as UAPA, arrests of activists for voicing their dissent, and the changing of school textbooks are systematically employed by the Modi government to crush dissent.  The violence at the Bhima Koregaon commemoration is a clear example of the rise of the Hindutva groups and the rise of politics of repression in all forms, ranging from the public sphere to even a private declaration of dissent against the state. Minority groups, students, scholars, and activists are under a clear threat.

The attacks on university campuses and changing of school textbooks are a clear reflection of this. Any form of dissent is met with abuse, arrests and even deaths of those who publicly oppose the government in power. The curbing of dissent has taken various forms and the application of laws, such as UAPA, which entails a form of institutionalized discrimination and violence.

Hence, the targeting of minorities and suppression of dissent isn’t just a threat to the well-being of the citizens of India, but also a threat to our constitution, which allows all citizens of India with the right to question authority, dissent, and requires tolerance of the diverse groups living in our nation.

The four pillars of democracy–the Executive, Judiciary, Legislature, and Media–are constantly being used by the government to silence any form of dissent. Not only has the Prime Minister failed to fulfill the promises on the basis of which he was elected in 2014, but his government has become the root cause of the growing intolerance and rise in communal violence across India.

Unfortunately, in Modi’s India, being critical of the Prime Minister is conflated with being an enemy of India. Therefore, in light of the escalating tensions with Pakistan, the conflict in Kashmir and the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, it is important now more than ever to come together as a secular and democratic nation to fight against intolerance, hate, and prejudices, collectively. The upcoming elections are the only chance for the citizens of India to come together and use the power of the ballot to vote this hateful, intolerant, and fascist government out of power and save our democracy.

Further Reading:  

1. Shantha, Sukanya. (2018), ‘The People’s Fighters: Meet the Five Arrested in the Bhima Koregoan Case’. The Wire. Available from: https://thewire.in/caste/meet-the-five-arrested-in-the-bhima-koregaon-case

2. Torgalkaer, Varsha. (2018), ‘One Killed in Clashes at Bhima Koregoan Battle Anniversary Event in Pune; Situation Tense in Maharashtra’. The Wire. Available from: https://thewire.in/caste/one-killed-clashes-bhima-koregaon-battle-anniversary-event-pune

3. The Wire Staff. (2018), ‘In Nationwide Swoop, Five Rights Activists Arrested, Several More Raided’. The Wire. Available from: https://thewire.in/rights/police-take-sudha-bharadwaj-into-custody-raid-homes-of-lawyers-activists-across-cities

Image Credit: Frederick Noronha

Under the Wire Review: The Perils of Reporting on Conflict

In 2018, the targeted killing and imprisonment of journalists reached its global peak in 10 years. From repression by autocratic regimes to assassinations linked to organized crime, journalists have faced untold risks as they attempt to report the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Syrian Civil War, in which a reported 126 journalists, both local and international, have been killed attempting to report on the conflict.

Under the Wire brings home the real, human cost to journalists taking these risks, while also forcing the audience to once again to draw our eyes to the humanitarian catastrophe that is the Syrian Civil War. The film succeeds by showing the realities of reporting on conflict zones without romanticizing them, all while emphasizing the necessity of the work journalists do to tell the stories of the people most affected by conflict.

Under the Wire is first and foremost a personal story. It memorializes the legendary war journalist Marie Colvin, whose life was recently featured in the separate 2018 biographical drama A Private War. Centering on her working relationship and friendship with British photographer Paul Conroy, the film covers approximately two weeks that Colvin was reporting from Homs in 2012, during the assault by government forces on the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr. It was an assignment that would cost Marie Colvin and French journalist Rémi Ochlik their lives in a targeted shelling attack, in what recently was decided in U.S. courts to be an “extrajudicial killing” directed by the Syrian government  — the first time that Assad regime has been held directly accountable in courts for a war crime.

While Colvin’s bravery, commitment to the truth, and impact on the lives of journalists such as Paul Conroy shines through the film, the documentary succeeds most when it focuses on the Syrian people themselves. It does so by showing the children who die for lack of medical equipment, the images of bereaved families within the “Widow’s Basement” huddle against the shelling of the Syrian army, and the kindness and selflessness of Syrians such as translator Wa’el and Dr. Mohammed Mohammed, who put their lives on the line to save the lives of Western journalists whom they barely knew. By forcing the audience to once again realize the humanity of the victims of the conflict, the film reframes the Syrian War once more as a fundamentally humanitarian catastrophe, in which the people who are most affected by the war are not faceless victims and refugees but are individuals who possess their own humanity and dignity.

There is great humanity in this film. It does credit to Conroy and the Under the Wire film team’s declared goal: to show the world the story of the Syrian people. By the end of Under the Wire, the audience is left with little doubt as to the courage of journalists such as Marie Colvin, or the necessity of risking danger—and ultimately their lives—to show the world what has occurred. But after eight years of ongoing conflict, and eight years of courageous reporting by Western and local journalists alike, the world has no choice but to acknowledge what is happening on in Syria. Yet the war continues.

For the audience of Under the Wire, this is the truth with which we must grapple. The work that Marie Colvin, and others like her, did and continue to do rests on the commitment of the rest of the world—governments and the public alike—to take action to end the continuation of the atrocities that have been shown to us by journalists such as Marie Colvin and Paul Conroy. There are great perils to reporting on conflict, but the greater peril is when we see the images and stories presented to us—and decide to look away.

Image Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC BY 2.0

Feigned Inclusion: On Egypt’s 2019 Arab and African Youth Platform

On November 4, 2017, Gamal Sorour died in an Egyptian prison after falling into a diabetic coma. He and eight other Nubian detainees had declared a hunger strike to protest their holding conditions only five days prior. The nine men had been arrested in September of that year for staging a peaceful singing protest in Aswan. To this day, the fate of these Nubian activists remains unknown as they face a slew of charges, including organizing a political protest and disrupting public peace, in an ongoing trial.

It should come as no surprise that these peaceful protestors were arrested in September 2017 for demanding their their constitutionally guaranteed right of return to their ancestral lands, from which they were displaced at four separate junctures throughout the 20th century in order to facilitate either the construction or expansion of the Aswan Low and High Dams. Neither should their treatment, nor their 18-months-long detention shock anyone familiar with the current political climate in Egypt. As has been widely documented by international human rights organizations, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has waged a notoriously brutal security crackdown since the summer of 2013, when the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces seized power from sitting President Mohamed Morsi.  

However, despite this overarching climate of political and social repression, the Nubian activists’ case stands out as another episode in a long history of marginalization and exclusion of Nubian communities from mainstream political, social, economic, and cultural life in modern Egypt—a process that has been dubbed by Nubian activists as “de-Nubianization.” A distinct ethnic community indigenous to the region between Upper Egypt and Khartoum in neighboring Sudan, Egyptian Nubians have long borne the brunt of a state that excludes them from processes of policymaking and political representation.

With the rise of Egyptian nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, mainstream nationalist narratives designated Nubian languages and culture as unrefined and incompatible with the modern era. This facilitated the marginalization of Nubians from key political and economic processes, as well as their negative and racist portrayal in national cultural products, as observed by scholar Viola Shafik: “Egyptian cinema has with few exceptions shown Nubians as ever-smiling, simple servants who speak only broken Arabic” (85).

These trends were all but exacerbated by the fact that Nubian languages are not, and never have been, taught in Egyptian schools—yet another demobilizing strategy aimed at distancing Nubians from any effective participation in political, cultural, and economic life in Egypt.

This is not, however, the impression one would get from watching the latest promotional video for the 2019 Arab and African Youth Platform, which launched Saturday, 16 March 2019, and vaguely promised to “incubate youth discussions and ideas through a series of events discussing various topics.” This conference falls under the umbrella of Egypt’s annual World Youth Forum (WYF), the first of which was held in 2017, “under the auspices of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.”

The video begins with a catchy drum beat, played with the hands of a black man whose face we do not see. Following a series of scenic shots of Pharaonic temples in Aswan, we cut to shots of two women, each of whom hands colorful balls of string to several Nubian children who joyfully run across idyllic Nubian landscapes. The rest of the video follows the journey of these balls of string as they move from hand to hand, eventually received by a number of Nubian women weavers, whom we see preparing ceremonial boat sails, woven with the logo for the conference. “Aswan is getting ready,” the English voiceover announces.

The organizers behind WYF have faced heavy backlash in the past for their manipulation of millenial-aimed buzzwords—“engage!” “act!” “change!”—in the service of a state sponsored project that clearly aims to present a less-than-accurate portrayal of the state of youth engagement in Egypt. A brief glance at WYF’s marketing materials makes it immediately apparent that this is an event geared primarily towards representing Egypt to the West as a progressive country that truly invests in its youth and seeks their inclusion in policymaking processes. In 2017, the promotional hashtag for the conference’s inaugural edition, #WeNeedToTalk, prompted a powerful social media counter-campaign that sought to shed light on the array of social and political issues curtailing Egyptian youth’s capacity to participate effectively in the public sphere, from vast wealth inequality to severely limited media freedoms, staggering levels of political prisoners, and widespread sexual harassment—to name but a few.

However, in addition to promulgating this hyper sugar-coated portrayal of Egyptian youth and society, WYF’s marketers also traffic in a narrative that manipulates cultural symbols in the service of their promotional aims. On first glance, the 80-second video promoting the Arab African Youth Platform appears to be a dazzling celebration of Nubian culture. There are striking, colorful shots of famed Nubian spices, beautiful panoramas of the Nile River and Nubian islands, and a marked focus on the music, craftsmaking, and bodies of Aswan’s inhabitants – women, men, and children alike. Although this is a welcome shift in the hegemonic visual narrative typically associated with representation of Nubians in Egyptian cultural products, it also betrays a troubling hypocrisy at the heart of the Egyptian state’s relationship with its Nubian community—a community whose political representation, access to social services, and basic human rights have been consistently denied at the hands of state authorities from the early 20th century to the present day.

To exploit the symbolic significance of Nubian culture in order to market a conference, organized by the very same state that has worked for decades to disempower Nubian communities, is characteristic of the current political regime in Egypt, defined as it is by striking contradictions.

On the one hand, President Sisi declared 2016 “the year of the youth” and called for the launch of WYF; on the other hand, he has imprisoned more youth than any of his predecessors (a monumental feat in and of itself). Moreover, although the Egyptian Parliament legalized the creation of the Supreme Authority for the Development of Upper Egypt in June of last year, it deliberately excluded Nubian MPs from discussions regarding the details of this legislation and continues to ignore activists’ calls for the implementation of Article 236 into the 2014 Constitution, which guarantees Nubians the right to return to their ancestral lands. In fact, as in Sorour’s case—and others’ cases—these calls are met with imprisonment, as well as state sponsored allegations of separatism and terrorism, tinged with racist anti-black sentiments.

Much like how WYF’s promotional materials portrayed a fabricated image of an Egypt that is welcoming of youth involvement; this new Arab and African Youth Platform has added an altogether new layer of promotional dishonesty. By manipulating Nubian cultural symbols to promote a state sponsored youth conference supposedly aimed at encouraging African-Arab youth engagement (whatever that means), conference organizers have attempted to represent a feigned appreciation for Nubian cultural symbols, one that finds no resonance either with state policies or with the actual lived reality of contemporary Egyptian Nubians.

Photo Credit: Divya Thakur