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Don’t mention the S-word

October 3rd, 2011 · Politics

Sectarianism has become something of an elephant in the room. Anyone who mentions it is battered down.

Syria is the exception. Syria is different, we are told. No it’s not. The hatred was there long before this war started, and it’ll be there long after it’s finished.

Ignoring a problem is never a good way to deal with it, as Homs shows. Very interesting last paragraph…

Key Syrian City Takes On the Tone of a Civil War

This article was reported by a correspondent for The New York Times in Homs, Syria, and written by Anthony Shadid in Beirut, Lebanon.

The semblance of a civil war has erupted in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where armed protesters now call themselves revolutionaries, gun battles erupt as often as every few hours, security forces and opponents carry out assassinations, and rifles costing as much as $2,000 apiece flood the city from abroad, residents say.

Since the start of the uprising in March, Homs has stood as one of Syria’s most contested cities, its youth among the best organized and most tenacious. But across the political spectrum, residents speak of a decisive shift in past weeks, as a largely peaceful uprising gives way to a grinding struggle that has made Homs violent, fearful and determined.

Analysts caution that the strife in Homs is still specific to the city itself, and many in the opposition reject violence because they fear it will serve as a pretext for the government’s brutal crackdown.

But in the targeted killings, the rival security checkpoints and the hardening of sectarian sentiments, the city offers a dark vision that could foretell the future of Syria’s uprising as both the government and the opposition ready themselves for a protracted struggle over the endurance of a four-decade dictatorship. …

Perhaps the most dramatic facet of the struggle is a series of assassinations this past week that have left nearly a dozen professors, doctors and informers dead in a paroxysm of violence that echoes the sectarian vendettas still besetting Iraq. Unlike the uprising’s early days, when the government exercised a near monopoly on violence, fear is beginning to spread in the other direction, as insurgents kill government supporters and informers, residents say.

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The first high-profile defection

September 1st, 2011 · Politics

Remember his name: Adnan Mohammed Al-Bakkour. He was Hama’s attorney-general, until he apparently resigned on Monday.

A video, in which a man claiming to be Bakkour appears, has been released. In it, the man says he “resigned from [his] position within Al-Assad regime and his gangs”.

He listed five reasons that led to his decision:

– The killing of detainees in Hama’s central prison on Sunday 31 July, where 72 peaceful protestors who were buried in mass graves

– The mass graves dug in public parks by the security forces and regime thugs, where 420 people are buried – he was ordered to produce a report saying they died at the hands of ‘armed gangs’

– The arbitrary arrest of 10,000 peaceful protestors

– The torture of citizens by the security forces, which has resulted in the deaths of 320 people

– The army’s demolition of whole homes with people still inside them. The corpses were left in the rubble to decompose for several days

Al-Bakkour blames the Interior Minister Mohammed Shaara for personally overseeing the military campaign in Hama, along with a list of local army officials.

Before this video was released, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) came out with a preemptive statement, alleging that Bakkour had been kidnapped by an armed gang. When I heard that news, alarm bells started to ring – if the opposition had managed to kidnap a regime official, it suggested an escalation in the conflict.

But in a major slip-up, SANA says that Al-Bakkour was forced to make the video statement, thereby acknowledging that the man in the video is indeed Adnan Al-Bakkour.

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@AJStream – the voice of the Arab Spring

August 24th, 2011 · Media

And now for something completely different.

Since the Arab Spring began, much has been made of the role of the internet in the uprisings. It was a revolution that addressed our generation’s grievances, that brought our generation to the streets and used our generation’s favourite tools – Facebook and Twitter. Our parents struggled with the pace that things happened, and couldn’t really understand what was happening. This was our generation taking power.

A few months later, we’ve stormed the television headquarters too, to take power from the elders. The Stream (@AJStream) is the result. The daily programme on Al Jazeera English is hosted by two young presenters, Derrick Ashong and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, who are both active on Twitter.

The concept is to bring the online on to TV. I have to admit I was sceptical when I heard of the show’s planned launch. It’s been done before, I said – the false holy grail of convergence, bringing the internet and television together. Throw some tweets on screen, trail the show online, and you’ve got a trendy, young show. Indeed, that’s what the first edition of The Stream felt like. But it has grown into something much bigger.

The Stream speaks to our generation’s interest in politics, while TV news produced by our parents’ generation constantly bemoans our apathy. This is Al Jazeera for those of us who came of age during the Arab Spring.

The guests put faces to the Twitter names that I have become accustomed to seeing on my timeline every night. That instant familiarity creates a buzz on the Arab Twittersphere and reinforces The Stream’s net-broadcast link. And, of course, those tweeps are brought on-air via Skype.

The decision to host the show in the US was a savvy one. At some points during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, the majority of AJE’s online viewers came from the US (mainly because so few cable companies in the US broadcast AJE). It also shifts the balance of AJE’s output away from Doha and London (where most of AJE’s non-news programming is produced).

Of course, I’m hugely jealous that The Stream is not a London-based show, but consider this post part of my campaign to get Derrick and Ahmed to the UK.

You can watch The Stream at 1930 GMT on AJE, or from 1925 GMT on

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The end game

August 21st, 2011 · Politics

FW: Magazine, which has good contacts in the Syrian government, claims that Bashar Al-Assad is planning to call “free and fair” presidential elections in 2014.

If true, this would be a massive shift in the dynamic of the uprising. When Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, and when Hosni Mubarak of Egypt made similar announcements, it hastened their downfall. It was, essentially, a deferred resignation.

Bashar is due to speak to the nation today. Ahead of his previous speeches, FW: Magazine’s leaks have usually been fairly accurate.

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The lost opportunity

August 21st, 2011 · Politics

Just to remember how this could’ve all been so, so different, two quotes…

Rami Khouri: “Assad’s opponents refrained from calling for his removal for a long time, and asked for the reforms that they thought he also wanted to implement. He and his aides proved to be totally incompetent.”

Robin Yassin-Kassab: “Six months ago Bashaar al-Asad was perhaps popular enough to win a real election.”

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Syrian Ministry of Defence website hacked

August 8th, 2011 · Politics

This is what you would have been greeted with this morning, if you clicked on, the Syrian Ministry of Defence website:

The message to the Syrian people is that non-violent protest will win through. And they issue a warning to the Syrian army, saying that anyone issuing orders to kill women and children should be tried for treason.

It asks Syrians to rise up. It is a shame they are using the old Syrian flag (green, white and black, with three red stars), one which hasn’t featured prominently in protests inside Syria, but has been popular in Washington demos.

The Syrian Ministry of Defence quickly took down the image, and replaced it with a holding page. The website is currently down.

The Anonymous organisation, a group of hackers, warned Syria to expect trouble a couple of months ago after it switched off the internet.

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Message from a Syrian army officer

August 7th, 2011 · Politics

I held back on publishing this yesterday because I couldn’t verify. This was a comment passed to me yesterday morning by the nephew of Damascene army officer serving in Daraa.

He accurately predicted today’s Deir Al-Zour killings (42 have died there today). I’ll let you judge the veracity of the rest for yourself. Obviously he wants to remain anonymous.

First, he was asked about the killing of an army lieutenant in Daraa on Friday by a soldier who had defected. This story struck me as odd, because it was sourced only by an Al-Arabiya reporter, and didn’t reappear.

The officer laughed when he heard the rumour, and said, ‘would I be allowed home for weekend leave if that had happened?’

A few other comments from his nephew:

“He said [on Friday and Saturday] he travelled all around Damascus himself and with his kids. He said opposition demonstrations are getting smaller & it’s getting safer.”

“He feels now it’s just a group of people travelling around the city for different demonstrations because the [total number of demonstrators is] minimal.”

“He told me it’s getting better [overall] and Deir Al-Zour is what’s really left of armed gangs. Hama is almost done – they arrested the majority.”

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Lebanese president denies involvement in the defamation case

July 28th, 2011 · Culture

Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman has tweeted that he was not to blame for the arrest of musician Zeid Hamdan. Hamdan is accused of defaming the president.

“The Zeid Hamdan incident was a procedure by the concerned authorities. The Pres. had no involvement nor any prior knowledge of the arrest.”

“The Pres. was approached about the issue and when he inquired with the judicial authority he was informed that Mr Hamdan was being released.”

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Musician Zeid Hamdan arrested

July 27th, 2011 · Culture

UPDATE: Zeid Hamdan has now been released, but he is still facing charges of defamation. The original story follows…

Zeid Hamdan has been arrested in Lebanon, accused of defaming the president because of this song:

Zeid is one of his country’s most important musical figures, a father figure for the underground movement.

Just three weeks ago he told me that Lebanon had a long way to go, and that at a time when the region was in revolution, there are still many red lines in Lebanon. Here is a rough translation of a statement by his solicitor, saying something similar:

Zeid Hamdan has been arrested for defamation, because of his song ‘General Suleiman’ which criticised corruption, militia, foreign interference in Lebanon.

The video has been on YouTube for around 1 year. At the end of this song, Zeid uses the phrase, ‘go home General Suleiman’.

The maximum sentence for defamation is 2 years in jail under law numbers 384 and 386.

Zeid was questioned on 20 July and 21 July.

This arrest hurts freedom of art and opinion and expression in Lebanon and reveals how authorities discard personal freedom.

What makes it really regrettable is that it happened in Lebanon at a time when we see revolutions in different Arab countries, to remove the holy status of Arab presidents and give back honour to Arab citizens.

Following what we have said, we ask the public to take a stand to defend the republic’s freedom in Lebanon.

Solicitor Nizar Saghia

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Syrian blogger arrested

July 9th, 2011 · BREAKING NEWS

Anas Maarawi, a longtime Syrian blogger, has been arrested.

Apparently it happened last Friday, 1 July.


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