2011 will go down as a key year in the history of the Arab world and the Middle East as a whole. The revolution on Cairo’s Tahrir Square defined the collective image of the ‘Arab spring’. The peaceful gathering of thousands was seen throughout the world, first with disbelief and later with boundless enthusiasm. What were its causes, and how is medico acting in this mass movement – and who with? An attempt at context.
medico has been working in the Middle East for decades, and for many years has supported partners in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and recently also Egypt and Syria. In our projects we aid victims of war, refugees and the excluded, and assist our partners in changing the social relationships responsible for war, exclusion and restriction of democratic rights.
Last year marked nothing less than the end of an era and the start of a new age. ‘The Arab world has entered the 21st century and is making its peace with its history,’ wrote Lebanese author Elias Khoury. 11 February 2011, the day of the overthrow of Egypt’s “Rais” President Hosni Mubarak, can also be interpreted as the Arab response to 11 September 2001. The dark decade of the ‘war on terror’ was swept aside and conquered by peaceful means. The old regime had been recognised by Europe and the USA because it was seen as a guarantee for order and against ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. However, there was never any place in this imposed framework for democracy and social justice. Until the start of the uprising in Tunisia, the Arab world was the only ‘continent’ where the absence of democracy extended to all areas of society. It was also the only linguistically and culturally coherent regional system where the absence of democracy (not a specifically Arab problem) was associated with forms of military occupation and external domination. The landscape of power consisted of degenerate nationalist dictators, gangster-like feudal rulers and the filling stations of the West, known as the ‘Gulf states’. Israel alone had an internal social liberalism, although this was undermined by a sophisticated system of social segregation and advanced land grabbing in the Palestinian Territories.
Modern Arab despots ruled not only through nepotism, oppression and torture – they also transformed the old welfare state into a neo-liberal system of open plundering of the population. ‘Some 60 per cent of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world,’ according to the 2009 UN Arab Human Development Report. By 2020 the Arab countries needed 51 million new jobs, mostly ‘to absorb young entrants to the labour force who will otherwise face an empty future’. The Arab revolution was accordingly also fuelled by the question of unemployment, with well-educated youths and their disappointed hopes playing a central role.
The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt made it clear to every Arab ruler that their time had come. The masses, which the rulers had previously treated with contempt and condescension, had become an assembly with many voices, occupying streets and squares. Streets and squares which had previously been reserved for rallies as tools of manipulative state propaganda became public spaces. They are a symbol of the re-emergence of the free citizen in recent Arab history. Subjects became citizens asserting their rights and making previously unthinkable demands for rulers to go, and only after this would the other issues be dealt with. People used the new media, posters and photos to broadcast their messages across borders to a global public. Something else different happened as well. The momentous uprising of thousands and tens of thousands that nobody had foreseen, with people only realising as they acted that they were in the process of changing everything, grew into a worldwide call for democratic self-empowerment. The popular assemblies and spontaneous movements in the predominantly Muslim populations refuted the widespread western cultural (and ultimately racist) notion of a permanent clash of civilisations. It is a cliché that Arab societies can only choose between secular authoritarianism and Islamic theocracy. This fundamental change in perspective affected the work of all medico partners in the region. Their commitment to a better life ultimately applies to all the people in the Middle East, where it has universal significance.
Egypt: The emphasis in Egypt in 2011 was on emergency aid for the victims of political violence against the democratic movement. After Mubarak’s fall, the important thing now is to transform the political freedom that has been won into tangible social progress. In the Ezbet Al Haggana slum, the medico partner Al Shehab Foundation for Comprehensive Development fights alongside the mobilised neighbourhoods for the right to a decent life, with waste disposal, electricity, public infrastructure and health services. These local struggles will decide whether the revolution can deliver on its promises in daily living.
Palestine: The task in the occupied Palestinian Territories is to link the daily struggle against the creeping erosion of the quality of life with a new democratic freedom movement. The expansionary Israeli system of enclaves is threatening to create a future Palestine of isolated areas. Palestinian medico partners like the human rights organisation Al Mezan in the Gaza Strip are fighting not just for better health services and against the systematic walling-off of the Palestinian population but also for a culture of democratic dissidence.
Israel: In Tel Aviv, medico partners are doggedly insisting that internal Israeli liberalism can neither be worn away nor continue to exist at the expense of the Palestinian population. The Israeli Physicians for Human Rights are not only defending political, social and economic human rights against the violent structure of the occupation, but also trying in their practical project work, in aid to migrants in Israel and in cooperation with Palestinian doctors in the West Bank and Gaza to find ways of getting around the almost perfect system of exclusion and enclosure. Lebanon: Lebanese democracy is comparatively open, but still shackled in a segregationist system of sectarian representation. medico partners in Lebanon are trying to improve life in the permanently temporary system of Palestinian camps. At issue are not only basic health services but also a greater role for young people and women in consultation and decision-making on the political needs of their communities and refugee camps. In Beirut medico is supporting a gay and lesbian friendly centre for sexual health whose reputation extends far beyond Lebanon and which has an advice hotline which is unique in the Arab region.
Syria: In Damascus, Homs and Dara there is currently no difference between more immediate and longer term goals. Freedom here means solely an end to tyranny, no more sniper attacks, fundamental citizens’ rights. Since the start of the Syrian uprising, medico has been in contact with the opposition grassroots committees which are organising weekly demonstrations throughout the country. We are also supporting the secret emergency clinics of the ‘Doctors of the Revolution’, the devoted doctors in the unarmed local opposition movement who are secretly treating injured demonstrators at hidden locations at the risk of their own lives. How will the ‘Arab spring’ develop? A future is not made overnight. We cannot think in the short term – it will take years before we can see how far the repercussions extend.
In 2011 we provided support totalling EUR 1,358,790.67 to our partner organisations in the Middle East.