Week of July 29

Demonstrators carry banners and flags during a protest demanding the removal of the ruling elite in Algiers, Algeria July 5, 2019, the day marking the country’s independence day. Credit: Reuters/Ramzi Boudina

Algerian protesters have been shockingly successful in their fight for democracy, The New York Times reported on Monday. Algeria is five months into a widespread popular uprising against the military government, following the ousting of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. The Algerian situation is notable for its lack of violence; the police have even allowed protesters to “continue marching the streets, chanting ‘No to a military state!’ and ‘The people want it, tomorrow!’” Abdelaziz Rahabi, who heads one of the many civilian protest groups, explained that “nobody has been killed [during the protests]. There’s nothing similar in the Arab world.” Civilian protesters have also been successful in delaying two rounds of elections planned by the military government, based on suspicions that the army would rig the voting. The civilian movement is also notable for its broad support across the classes and regions of a very broad country; many pro-democracy movements lack unity. General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, the country’s current de facto leader has denounced civilians as traitors, but pro-democracy leaders including human rights lawyer Mostepha Bouchachi point to that fact that the military has not acted, explaining, “[the government is] afraid of their own people.”

Although the choice to wear a hijab is widespread in the Middle East, some still believe that veiled women can’t or shouldn’t do certain jobs or enjoy certain activities. Recently, a Facebook-based women’s rights group in Egypt called Surviving Hijab Community hosted the first-ever Hijab Summit in Cairo. At the event, speakers like Manal Rostom, the first hijabi to be featured in a Nike ad campaign, and Engy el Shazly, Egypt’s only hijabi ballerina, addressed the pressures they feel as hijabi women. “When I started, many people told me that one could not dance ballet with a hijab. [They] do not accept the idea that ballet is an art and that I can wear modest clothes during performance,” said el Shazly during her speech. The organizers stressed that the event was not religious, but rather a social summit that “aims to empower women,” showcase role models, and open a dialogue between hijabi and non-hijabi women. Organizers hope to hold the event annually. 

The Trump administration announced on Thursday that it was on track to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan by half in the next year, per ongoing peace negotiations with the Taliban in Kabul. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the press corps that he’d been directed to execute the troop reduction before the 2020 elections (although he later backtracked). The troop drawdown is being offered in exchange for a ceasefire and a renunciation of Al Qaeda by the Taliban, and while it is the most progress we’ve seen in an Afghan peace deal in recent years, many are criticizing the Trump administration for sacrificing strategic goals for campaign promises. Observers are worried that the impression of a lack of commitment to the plan will leave the Taliban unsure it can count on American promises, leading it to renege on its side of the deal. Further, the U.S. needs at least a residual presence in the country to maintain its counter-terrorism ventures, lest the country descend again into the chaos that prompted the U.S. to intervene in the first place. Regardless, an end to the “endless war” is gaining popularity on both sides of the aisle

Last Thursday, the Syrian regime agreed to a cease-fire in Idlib if a Turkish-Russian buffer zone were to be implemented, yet only 5 days after the truce was brokered in Kazakhstan, fighting resumed between the two sides. The conflict in Idlib broke out in early April when the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies launched an offensive on the city, one of the last territories held by Turkish-backed rebels. The offensive has killed at least 400 and displaced more than 440 000, subjecting the Syrian regime to further international criticism. Assad’s regime has targeted Idlib primarily for its former status as a commercial hub for regional trade, and despite lingering U.S. and EU sanctions, the regime is convinced that gaining control over Idlib will improve Syria’s crippling economy. In last week’s talks, the regime announced that it would stop attacks on the condition that armed rebel groups comply with the Sochi agreement, which states rebel groups must retreat about 12 miles buffer zone and withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines. The army ended the ceasefire after accusing the rebel groups of breaking the agreement and targeting civilians. With Syrian war planes continuing to strike schools, hospitals, markets and bakeries, the crisis in Idlib is expected to escalate.

On Friday, Saudi Arabia published monumental new laws ending the country’s long-standing guardianship policy. Under the new laws, Saudi women age 21 and above are now able to apply for a passport and travel freely, without the consent of a male guardian (usually her husband, father, or even son).  The kingdom’s laws have long considered adult women to be legal minors, requiring them to submit to men to determine their lives. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is believed to be the force behind this change, having previously loosened public gender segregation laws and pushed for women to be able to drive. Saudi women will also be able to “register a marriage, divorce or a child’s birth, obtain official family documents, and be legal guardians of their children.” This significant progress is being celebrated by many in the kingdom, but there is still a long way to go. Saudi women are still unable to leave prison, exit a domestic abuse shelter or marry without male consent, and cannot “cannot pass on citizenship to their children and cannot provide consent for their children to marry.”  The enduring guardianship laws have made it nearly impossible for many women to accept scholarships, travel, and escape domestic abuse. Islamic scholars have long argued about guardianship laws and what the Quran says on the matter. Conservatives cite a passage “that states men are the protectors and maintainers of women,” while others point to Quranic values of equality and respect between the sexes. Meanwhile, several “prominent activists who have campaigned for greater gender equality remain in jail or on trial.”

Followers of the al-Sarkhi movement dance to live religious rap at the mosque in the Al Sha-ab neighborhood of Baghdad. Credit: MEE/Sebastian Castelier

Lastly, Middle East Eye published a story last week on the growing popularity of a religious movement in Iraq that uses rap to appeal to young audiences. Followers of a Shia cleric named Mahmoud al-Sarkhi chant verses of traditional latmiyat, which mourn Muslim icons, while dancing and beating their chests to the rhythm. The article notes that the unconventional ritual is a challenge to Iraq’s religious establishment, and aims to revive spirituality and religiosity among the youth by speaking their “modern language.” Sarkhi claims the movement has up to 10,000 followers, though local orthodox clerics dispute this number and disapprove of the methods. Rap is often associated with amoral behavior and many traditionalists argue that it is inconsistent with Islamic values. Nonetheless, with many Iraqis abandoning religion in the aftermath of years of war and deprivation, the al-Sarkhi movement sees its version of religious rap as part of an effort to bring young people back to religion, which it does also by encouraging them to read the Quran. Sarkhi has a somewhat inglorious past, however; in 2014, Reuters reported that he and his armed followers previously clashed with U.S. forces, as well as “Iraqi security forces and supporters of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq.”

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