Current Affairs

  • Field Notes on Saharawi Feminist Politics

    Text: Kenza Yousfi

    In the late 1970s, many Saharawis were forced to flee their native Western Sahara after Mauritania and Morocco took over the administration of the country following the evacuation of Spain. The refugees organised into self-run communities in Algeria’s south-western Tindouf province. Around 117,000 people still live in Tindouf’s five camps, and 40 years later, they still refuse to leave until the United Nations recognises their right to self-determination: to be able to choose integration or independence with/from Morocco, or autonomy within Morocco.

    Conflicts and struggles within and around feminist movements specifically reflect key tensions associated with particular organisational processes. What if a feminist movement is still birthed out from a national liberation movement amid the endless global declarations of the decline of the nation-state? As a feminist ethnographer, I was met with many stories that offer another way of looking at how the everyday struggle of the Saharawi feminist project is lived. This struggle is translated into strategic plans to not merely achieve independence, but to articulate – through the question of independence – a further political demand for freedom. My trip to the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria was welcomed by the political leadership of Polisario, the armed wing of the Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic. My presence was not as that of an ethnographer, but rather as a Moroccan. One of the questions that I faced upon my arrival to the camps was given that I’m Moroccan, what was I doing there?

    For the leadership, it was an excellent opportunity to prove to a Moroccan that unlike the official Moroccan discourse, Saharawis have led a struggle and succeeded after forty years to build state institutions on a borrowed land. Ordinary Saharawis reacted to my presence in the camps in different ways. Some had a hard time accepting that I was Moroccan; despite the fact that whenever my field assistant introduced me to anyone, she made sure that I was introduced as a Moroccan researcher from Egypt. Adding the ‘Egypt’ part – the country where I live and study – does not change the fact that for them I remain Moroccan. However, the way Saharawis engage with ideas and desires beyond institutional politics opened new ethnographic and intellectual possibilities for me not only as an ethnographer, but also as a feminist interested in the way feminism – as a movement for social justice – is being revamped in the region of North Africa/the Sahel.

    The legal drama over the legibility of sovereignty claims over the Western Sahara territory has made the Saharawi project one about mere national liberation. Visual and written contributions from Global North activists discussing the Sahara, the Saharawi refugees, and the Saharawi national liberation movement set their political visions in making these issues known to the outside world. In other words, these efforts want to mediatise an unknown anticolonial struggle in a declared postcolonial world, and to make sure that the Saharawi struggle is present in the media scene.

    My fieldwork lasted twenty-five days, with a last minute request to extend for another ten. Most researchers who visit the camps for their fieldwork are granted less than two weeks as not only part of a security approach that is imposed by the Algerian military and Polisario, but also of the coordinators’ perceptions on what is research. This is due in part to a tradition of conducting evidence-based or policy-based research in camps. To gain permission to access the camps, I was in touch with a female Saharawi activist from the National Union of Saharawi Women (NUSW) who informally managed to put me in touch with the specific organism responsible for foreigner visits to the camps. Although there were many people involved in this process, it remained very informal in the sense that there were no specific documents acknowledging my visit – at least that were presented to me. This could either be attributed to the fact that my safety was one of the concerns of the people who tried to help me manoeuvre around the Moroccan intelligence services, who knew every step I was taking in Algeria, or because it is specifically the kind of management of researchers undertaken by the Polisario. The stay ended up being coordinated by the NUSW as an organisation, and not only the member whom I contacted first as an independent individual (as opposed to a researcher). Reasons for this were given in the form that all researchers coming to the camps need to be endorsed by a specific institution or organisation. The NUSW as an institution ended up endorsing my research and coordinating all the visits to official sites and with people.

    During the twenty-five days I spent in Tindouf, I stayed at the house of Amina, a woman in her mid-twenties. Amina was chosen as a host by the Polisario department of protocol (where she also works) which coordinates visits of foreigners as requested by the NUSW. The NUSW believed that Amina and I would connect due to the fact that we were close in age. She lived with her daughter and husband. Her family lived next door, and they were known in the neighbourhood for receiving foreign guests.

    The activities of the NUSW do not seem to be revolutionary in the sense that they do not present issues of Saharawi women differently from other national women’s movements worldwide. The NUSW’s agenda changed specifically in the second half of the 1990s when the cease-fire was signed between Morocco and Polisario. Humanitarian agencies started development or solidarity focused programmes in the refugee camps. Spaniards are among the most interested groups in establishing solidarios – a term used in the refugee camps to mean Spanish solidarity groups with the Saharawis – networks that campaign for the Sahara’s independence. For the Saharawis to direct attention of solidarios, a certain political performance had developed through which Saharawi organisations – and specifically the NUSW – adopted a discourse highlighting the achievements of Saharawi women in economic, social, and political spheres. The discourse was not simply presented as the differences between Saharawi women and their Arab fellows in North Africa and the Middle East, but it also picked a language that is embedded in the developmental industry. Hence, there is little chance to locate the revolutionary politics of the Saharawi feminist movement in their official work.

    In a conversation I had with a member of the NUSW, who held a high position in the leadership of the union, she told me: “Sometimes we think that it is better that we still haven’t got our independence. We have more time to work on certain issues.” This statement came as a surprise to me, as I have yet to find a national liberation movement that challenges the limitations of their national project. I began to think about the possibilities Saharawi women are trying to put in place under the framework of a ‘put-on-hold’ Saharawi nation-state. In most Saharawi discourses, there is a national narrative in place for the Sahrawi nation-state. There is the legal, historical, and political perspective that every Saharawi I met feels the need to stress on. But once you pass this step, there is room for more critical reflection on what are the real questions, problems, and issues that will continue to be at play whether Saharawis have their own state or not.

    The NUSW’s feminists distinguish themselves from the Western canon of feminism in how certain issues pertaining to gender equality are expressed and the way gender is politicised. Despite the fact that the NUSW remains part of the Saharawi National Congress (it is the only way it can exist as an organised body in the Saharawi refugee camps), its ultimate mission is not restricted to the plight of independence. However, it does not mean that the predominant activities that reach the international public are not those that are independence-focused.

    Activities carried out by the NUSW are premised on the primary demand of the independence of Saharawis… but independence from what? In other words, how can the Saharawi feminist project – which is part of an independence movement – articulate its politics while performing differently in a presumed postcolonial world? And why is it considered that certain issues belonging to the social arena (e.g. voting in favour of a family code) should be resolved prior to independence? In many ways, the project of the nation-state is one that strives to liberate through control. A nation-state cannot exist without institutions, laws and machineries of control. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) has already fetched itself as a state through implementing state apparatus in all domains of life. Although the SADR does not possess its claimed territory and full international recognition, Saharawis in the refugee camps in Tindouf live under structures and laws of a controlling machine.

    Among other issues being discussed by the NUSW, writing the family code and institutionalising it is one of the major debates. As a necessary tool of the state to hegemonise differences, practices and organisations, laws are created to govern people. If for any reason a group of individuals does not fit any of the pre-established categories, more categories should be created for what is considered the minorities. However, what kind of law has the SADR inspired to put, and is it particularly problematic for the NUSW feminists? A member of the Association of Families of Saharawi Prisoners and the Disappeared said that there is an intense debate among the Saharawi leadership and activists on institutionalising the family code. According to him, some activists are counter-arguing the necessity of having a family code: “just because the model of the state asks you to have laws for everything, it does not mean it will work for us [Saharawis].” His argument is that Saharawi women may lose entitlements they already enjoy due to the nature of this kind of social inscription in the law. “If we are speaking about law, we already have a law. I would rather call it our own organisation of social, political, and economic issues. It is however, not written, simply because before [today] we did not feel the necessity to make it a sacred thing. As a community, we found solutions to social problems and justice has been the concern for us all. But justice is also political and this is why SADR feels it is time to translate it into a fixed law. This law will not speak into the way we handled our own matters,” he said.

    It is particularly the elusiveness of state penetration into the life of the Saharawi community that creates this uneasy problem. For a group of people who believe in the politics of a community, of doing justice from the rough-and-tumble of everyday life, as opposed to enclosing it to the moral space of law, it becomes harder when the language of the modern world asks you to organise yourself according to the model of nation-states. There is no space for community politics in the modern state politics whereby the legality of law should be acquired in community practices.

    Furthermore, one of the other points that emerges as a concern for Saharawi feminists is the kind of material inequalities rising in the refugee camps. When Polisario signed the ceasefire in 1991, the battlefield no longer provided Saharawis with salaries. Food aid was and still is minimal because the Saharawi national struggle never succeeded in reaching the international public. Polisario was well aware of the new shapes of sociality and politics that will occur after the ceasefire, and given that, it took about eight years for the United Nations to finalise the lists of voters on the self-determination referendum, and it was necessary for the camps to develop some new economic aspects. Money started flowing from shops that offered mechanical services, foodstuff, clothes, electronics, etc. With this came material disparities between refugees.

    For instance, my host Amina got married two years ago and hadn’t finished construction on her house. During my stay, I was invited to a wedding ceremony of a friend of Amina’s. Her friend was the daughter of a minister in the government of SADR. The minister’s house was located at the centre of Bojdor camp, the newest of the five refugee camps. He had electricity and running water, which all of other houses did not have and instead relied on tarpaulin water storage tanks. The house had two floors and the walls were covered in high quality tiles. When I returned to Amina’s house, the whole evening was spent talking about how wealthy the minister’s family is, and how other family friends of the minister and Mauritanian businessmen are getting wealthier everyday.

    The struggle of the Saharawi feminists to articulate their vision that goes beyond the question of the nation-state is what is still being constructed. There isn’t a particular language that this group of women has been able to utter. Contradictions are clear when one analyses the discourses, manifestos, and conference speeches that members of the NUSW adopt when they feel the need to play by the rules of the modern humanitarian machine – that is to play the role of the victim and the colonised. But outside of these performative politics, there is room for a critical assessment of the national liberation movement and their role as feminists. The previous quotes and examples were to suggest that there is a feminist vision in the single narrative of the Saharawi struggle. The question becomes: What do you do when you achieve independence? If independence from Morocco will bring social and political justice to the Saharawis, how can an undesired, apolitical family code bring justice to the same women who have fought for their yet-to-be-state alongside their fellow men? Although these questions are far from being resolved, a closer look at how this particular movement will add to the feminist and social struggles globally will not only complicate issues pertaining to state reform, but also critically doubt the foundations of politics and community organising far from state representational politics. This type of feminist politics demands more than an establishment of the nation-state, of an entity that aims to control more than to liberate, and to regulate differences by recreating them under different names, forms, and conditions. If the nation-state is about representation, which does not take into consideration the subjective understandings of politics, then what the Saharawi feminist movement is manoeuvring is this possibility to find alternative ways of organising. The Saharawi feminist movement, as I wish to engage with it, sheds light on these possibilities outside the master narrative of national liberation.

    Kenza Yousfi is a feminist ethnographer, writer, and researcher. Her engagement has been with topics around gendered political economies, issues of political violence, subjectivities in border zones and within movements of migration, escape, and liberation movements. Kenza’s prominent occupation is being in the field.

  • Panem et Circenses?

    Text and Photography: Karim Sayad

    Algeria in 2014

    Algeria today is at a turning point. Being the biggest Arab-African country, Algeria has undergone many transitionary periods in its history, and once again, the country is seeking to find its own identity in an ever more complex world. Despite the struggles and hardships of daily life, the Algerian youth did not experience the same revolutionary momentum that swept neighbouring countries over four years ago.

    Governed since its independence by an old political elite unable to satisfy its younger population, the Algeria of today exports solely oil and gas while importing everything else. The regime casts its people in total darkness, leaving them to fight for the few resources that are provided to them. The few voices daring to denounce the incompetence of the political power are either co-opted, ignored, severely defamed by people benefitting from the system, or silenced by the security forces. The political climate is a heavy one, and the permanent presence of the security apparatus strengthens the feeling of control of the regime over its population.

    Following the outbreak of the “Arab spring” in 2010-2011, and despite strong discontent amongst the population, numerous Algerians were sceptical about the outcome of the uprisings. Algeria is widely seen as the first country to have had its revolution in October 1988, and the price people paid for it was beyond measure. It accomplished no real change. Rather, it led to a catastrophic civil war: one that remains an open wound for an entire country, still traumatised by 10 years of terrible violence. The youth wants change, but they know better than anyone the risks that come with a violent opposition to the regime. The latest developments in Libya, Mali, Syria, and Egypt confirm their fears. The health of President Bouteflika, who was re-elected for a new term despite his old age and following another show election, as well as the absence of any credible political alternatives, raises numerous questions concerning the future of the country.

    22 January 2011 demonstration for Democratic change in Algiers

    Sport and politics

    From the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, perceived as a manifestation of strength for Putin’s Russia, to the Black Panthers’ power salute in Mexico in 1968, the sports arena has been an ongoing field of battle between political forces and protest movements – and Algeria is no different. In this context, football calls attention to interesting aspects of the relation between the Algerian youth and the overruling political power. The regime instrumentalises football to strengthen its international prestige and to divert the youth's attention away from its inability to satisfy their basic demands. This instrumentalisation, however, is in sharp contrast with songs sung by fans of local teams, who go to the stadium every weekend to insult the regime during the entire game. “You sold the country, we will destroy it!” “Fuck the State!” “You the cop, with a truncheon in hand, a whore can make better use of it!” are all examples of songs sung each weekend in stadiums all around Algeria.

    French researcher and sociologist Youcef Fatès describes this phenomenon remarkably in his book Sports and politics in Algeria. Fatès says that the politicisation of sport can be found easily in the different uses made by Algerian authorities as well as by civil society. The government manipulates and assigns to sports tasks such as education of the youth, and the strengthening of Algeria's international exposure and prestige. From the youths’ perspective, however, sport is transformed into an effective medium for expressing demands and entitlements as well as a way of communicating with the political power. Through football, the stadium becomes a new paradigm for political expression. 

    Thus, stadiums become one of the few remaining places where the masses can freely and legitimately gather. It is a place that the State itself fears attacking. As a space of verbal and physical opposition to hegemony, the stadium assembles within the same territory both the oppressor and the oppressed, while at the same time representing a place for entertainment, allowing the youth to interact and forget the struggle of their daily lives.

    Mouloudia of Algiers vs Jeunesse Sportive of Bejaia, Algiers, January 2014

    From the World Cup…

    April 2014 saw the tragicomic re-election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fourth term as President of Algeria. Old, unable to walk nor speak in public (his last public speech was given in spring 2012), his re-election was sarcastically commented on, through various social networks as well as in the press, by a number of citizens voicing their discontent against what was perceived as an insult to the dignity of the people.

    Algeria’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup, followed by their remarkable performance, was like a godsend to the regime, which seized the opportunity to divert the population’s attention from the bad image left by the presidential election and the numerous scandals of corruption.

    After Algeria’s qualification against Burkina Faso (19 November 2013), the President congratulated the national team: “Once again, the Algerian people inside and outside the country are celebrating a national triumph. Fans will rejoice in full ecstasy after this brilliant and well deserved victory of our national team against our brothers from Burkina Faso in a competition where both teams observed fair play for this qualification for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil”. The populist campaign of self-glorification ‘from the regime, to the regime’ could begin.

    The Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal paid a visit to the national team before their departure to Brazil. In a press release from the Algerian Football Federation, he urged the players to act as an example to the Algerian youth. "Know that all the people are behind you, and encourage you no matter what the circumstances. Be yourself, have fun, and be united."

    Poster of the national Operator Mobilis, Algiers, November 2014

    The “Inter-sectoral coordination of preparation of the travel of the Algerian fans,” formed by representatives from the Ministry of Sports, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Algerian Federation of Football, the National Direction of National Security, as well as the national airline Air Algérie offered all-inclusive packages from 3,000€ to attend Algeria’s first three games in Brazil – for those who could afford it. Since Algeria qualified for the second round of the tournament, the state-owned mobile phone operator, Mobilis, also joined in, offering the opportunity to Algeria fans in Brazil to attend the game against against Germany.

    The players’ brilliant progress at the 2014 World Cup further facilitated the regime's instrumentalisation of the national team: rather than the usual negative international headlines of terrorism, corruption, and immigration, millions of Algerians in Algeria and in the diaspora were given a rare occasion to be proud of their country. The regime now had the opportunity to present itself to the world positively, and this led to further interesting initiatives.

    Algerian fans celebrating the qualification to the second round, Lausanne, Switzerland, June 2014

    As the 2014 World Cup coincided with the month of Ramadan, which every year sees Muslims all over the world fasting throughout the month,, the historical qualification of Algeria to a second round in the World Cup began to raise serious religious issues. The final game in the round of 16 between Algeria and Germany was scheduled at the time of the last compulsory prayer (Al 3esha), and the supererogatory prayers of Tarawih, which posed the moral question of how to watch the game during prayer time. The Ministry of Religious Affairs decided, therefore, to issue a fatwa allowing the people to delay the prayers until after the game!

    Although defeated, the national team were greeted in Algiers like heroes. The euphoria around their return illustrated the real momentum of this manipulation. Hundreds of thousands of people welcomed the heroes, who toured in a double-decker bus on the streets of Algiers. The national team was received by Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the Presidential palace, the ceremony was broadcasted live on Algerian State TV, and a rumour quickly spread in the press and across social media networks that the Algerian players were going to donate their World Cup money to the people of Gaza, who were undergoing the terrible Israeli operation “Protective Edge.”

    The president of Algeria also publicly intervened to ask the president of the Algerian Football Federation to renew the contract of coach Vahid Hallilodzic, who was leaving the national team after the World Cup. The “souvenir” picture of the team with the president closed this godsend momentum for the regime with a caricatural metaphor (watch the video at 1:48) of this young country led by old men: all the players of the first rank of the picture were asked to crouch down to appear at the same height of the President, seated in his wheelchair in the middle.

    to the local championship

    For the dedicated fans of the Algerian local teams, often organised around ultras groups who animate the crowds in local stadiums every weekend, the World Cup and the regime’s sensationalising of football was not experienced in the same way.

    In fact, some fans of the local teams were considering that, as the majority of the players playing for Algeria were born and raised in Europe and have never even lived in Algeria, the team could not pretend to represent the country. “The players are lucky to play with Algeria, and they only were allowed to do it recently because football has changed! Now you can play with France with the under 21 years old selection and then decide to play with Algeria when you realise that you will never be asked to play on the French World Cup because competition within the team is too big. These players made this choice for their careers, not for the country! And instead of building new stadiums and thinking of a real strategy to develop local football and local players, the authorities go take players trained in France by France with huge cheques instead of doing the job here!”  says Bilal, an ultra from Algiers.

    Mouloudia Algiers vs JSK game, Algiers, October 2014

    Furthermore, the songs sung by local fans in local stadiums are not of the same nature as the famous “one two three viva l’Algérie” which was sung by the whole country in June 2014. Instead, the motto “Bab el Oued chouhada” (martyrs of Bab el Oued), in honour of the victims of the demonstrations which ended the single party system in Algeria on the 5th of October 1988, is sung each weekend throughout stadiums in Algiers. The lyrics of the song “Roma wa la ntouma” (Rome rather than you) also sang in Algerian stadiums, inspired the title of Algerian filmmaker Tariq Teguia’s first feature film, “Seaman, give me your boat to leave Africa, I prefer Rome than this country.” After the events in Tahrir Square, which led to Mubarak’s downfall in Egypt, Algerian football fans diverted the famous motto “The people want the fall of the regime” into “The people want hash for free!” The tragicomic re-election of President Bouteflika also inspired a meaning-infused banner in April of this year. The weekend after the election, a group of fans of a local Algiers football team, unfurled a banner which read: “Congratulations to the people who decided to change the President’s throne”. The banner sarcastically plays on the double meaning of the Arabic word koursii which means throne, while alluding to the wheel chair of the re-elected President.

    We hear songs that would not be tolerated by the regime during demonstrations,” says Amine T., fan of one of an Algiers team. “We adapt raï songs for example (Algerian popular music). We keep the melody, but we change the lyrics to make it sarcastic. Our songs are always dealing with the latest political and economic events that we criticise in our way. We speak about politicians, security, or terrorist attacks…We do not differentiate between the actual leaders and the extremists of the Islamic Salvation Front. We also criticise the high cost of living as well as privileged people living in “Club des Pins” (one of Algiers richest compounds), who send their children to study abroad while the Algerian youth lives in misery without any prospect of employment. To be a part of a crowd makes us forget our fears. We know that the police will not do anything in the stadium, although they would arrest us if we were singing the same things in the streets. The stadium is the only place where we can express our rage,” he continued. The stance of the regime for the sake of the national team during the World Cup is, in fact, inversely proportional to their abandonment of the local football scene. Regularly, violent incidents between fans from rival local teams lead to interruptions of games and sanctions against the clubs. Stadiums are old and often badly maintained. The 5th of July stadium (Algiers' biggest stadium) was closed since the start of the 2013-2014 season, following the death of two fans who fell after the stands collapsed.

    Anniversary of Mouloudia of Algiers organised by Mouloudia’s fans, Algiers, January 2014

    Furthermore, the recent tragic assassination of the young Cameroonian player from the Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie team, Albert Ebossé, is a reminder to the regime that the performance of the national team at the 2014 World Cup cannot hide the underlying socio-economical problems of the youth to international opinion. Albert Ebossé was killed in August 2014 by a stone most probably thrown by a “supporter” of his own team angered after a defeat at a home game in Tizi Ouzou. This tragedy, which illustrated the level of violence still underlying Algerian society and the inability of the regime to control the violence in the stadiums, eliminated any hope that Algeria would host the African Nations Cup in the near future.

    Football fans: “tools of the regime” or new political actors?

    Bologhine Stadium in the distance, Algiers, October 2014

    So does the stadium only represent a way of diverting the youth from concrete political action? Or does it represent a kind of new political involvement and a reappropriation of politics by the Algerian youth, with all its contradictions and dramas?

    Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was a fervent football fan, once stated that “Football is used to divert the youth from arguing. It is used to hold the workers. It is used not to do the revolution, like Franco with the corrida.”  This opinion seems to have been well understood by the Algerian regime as illustrated with the above-mentioned examples. The use of the “panem et circenses” policy, which mainly consists of hope in the ephemeral glory of some football games and how they may make the people forget about the regime’s lack of legitimacy to govern them, represents one of the many tools of the Algerian authoritarian rule.

    Pasolini also added: “sport is an important phenomenon of civilisation that it should not be ignored or neglected by the ruling class and intellectuals.” The mistrust of the Algerian people in its political elite, and the manner in which it prevents them from participating in the political arena, made ultras groups one of the last opportunities for some youth to adhere to an organised structure, which will allow them to express their frustration publicly and confront physically the regime. Ultras groups constitute therefore an outstanding barometer of people’s concerns and political aspirations.

    At the regional level, the implications of ultras from local Cairo teams in the various demonstrations during and after the Egyptian Revolution, the numerous Arab ultras groups singing for Palestine in the stands, and the allusions made to the actual regional events by ultras in stadiums seems to confirm this fact. These many examples show the need for the youth to find new ways to independently express their frustrations when authoritarian regimes continue to violate the right of the people to freely express themselves, in Algeria, and across the region.

    Born and raised in Switzerland to an Algerian father and to a Swiss mother, Karim Sayad holds a MA in International Relations from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies of Geneva. He has previously worked for UNDP in Algiers and for the Swiss based NGO Alkarama before deciding to become a documentary filmmaker. His first short documentary "Avancer l’arrière" was screened in 2012 at the «Journées cinématographiques d’Alger  in the Algerian short films competition. He is now working on his next documentary project on football fans in Algiers.

  • Water, Water Everywhere, nor any drop to drink*

    Published in Kalimat, Issue 08 (buy this issue)

    Text: Ali Suleiman | Infographic: Ibraheem Youssef

    It is very easy to take for granted the most basic necessity of life: water. This becomes a big problem, given that the world will face water shortages in the near future, and the Arab world will have its own set of challenges. Limited water supplies have pitted countries against each other for control; however the shortages have the potential to provide for innovative projects and policies that could remedy this issue. 


    Conflict over water is not just speculation; the Nile is a case in point. In 2010, tensions rose as Egypt and Sudan warned Ethiopia against building a series of dams on the Blue Nile, upstream of the Nile. More than 85 per cent of the Nile’s water flows through Ethiopia, enough to alarm Egypt and Sudan, who receive 90 per cent of the river’s water supply to feed industries and large populations. Wikileaks reveals that the then-Mubarak government considered military action with Sudan to sabotage Ethiopia’s project. This issue traces back to a 1929 British colonial-era accord and a 1959 agreement that grants Egypt and Sudan virtually full control of Nile waters. The Nile Basin Initiative, launched in 1999, seeks a new and fair water-sharing scheme. This is only a microcosm of the conflicts that stem from limited water supplies in the region. Water shortage integrated with climate change and a growing population—for the Arab world alone, estimated to reach 500 million by 2030—will also lead to food shortages, resulting in social unrest and instability. 


    It is ironic that Arab states face water scarcity, considering that most Arab countries have access to, or border, a water supply. Water shortages have provided a great opportunity for exploiting seawater desalination projects, something most states are currently implementing. While the world average desalination capacity is 0.07 bcm, the Arab state average is at 0.16 bcm, with Saudi Arabia alone processing more than 1 bcm of seawater in a year. Although desalination plants demand vast amounts of energy, current regional plans promoting renewable energies, especially solar, can provide clean alternatives in meeting water demand.


    As with energy, states’ first action in resolving water shortages is to find new sources, which is good, but not enough to find a sustainable solution. Water sustainability must also lower consumption. Thankfully, nearly every Arab government has some type of water efficiency promotion and awareness programme.  

    Water sustainability could take two forms: reduced consumption of renewable and non-renewable water resources, and water withdrawal from non-conventional sources (e.g., treated wastewater). Djibouti demonstrates this potential by its implementation of a successful programme in tackling water shortages through decentralisation of water management to local authorities. Furthermore the government collaborates with non-governmental organisations on education programmes. Djibouti will also begin sourcing water from a wind energy-powered desalination plant to supply the city of Balbala, where increased water demand has quenched the local aquifer. This project, at €46M, is predominantly funded by the European Commission.

    Click image to view larger

    *Title is from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

    Ali Suleiman is a graduate from the University of Waterloo’s Civil Engineering programme (surprised?) in Canada, and holds a Certificate of Advanced Project Management from the University of Toronto. Of Palestinian and Turkish origin, he is fluent in both Arabic and Turkish. He has worked in project management and construction in Canada, Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Ali was the Project Coordinator of the University of Waterloo Sustainability Project from 2007-2010, has provided workshops on sustainable business practices for the Youth Employment Services, and is an avid supporter of green design and development. He currently works with an engineering firm in Jordan. His interests include historical research, film studies, music, and theatre. 

    Ibraheem Youssef is obsessed with obsession. He takes that trait and allows it to manifest in his various creations. From Design to Type, Drawing to Calligraphy Ibraheem always seeks out new Creative challenges.

  • Multiple Leaderships and Political Vacuum: The Gap between Palestinian Leadership and Youth, and the Challenges of Non-Partisan Organising

    Opinion piece by Mira Nabulsi

    At the time when the Palestinian Central Elections Commission continues updating its voters’ records in the West Bank and Gaza, what do Palestinians, whether in the rest of historic Palestine, part of the diaspora, and the refugee camps think of yet another election, potentially happening without them taking part? What do the younger generations of Palestinians think of their political leadership, as broad and convoluted this term may be, and is there a gap between the political and economic elite and the active Palestinian youth?

    All these are valid questions that many of us engaged in Palestinian political work often think of, and just as often fail to answer. It is hard enough to ask these questions to Palestinian youth in historic Palestine, but posing these questions to Palestinians in the diaspora makes the responses more complex.

    Palestinian youth, inside Palestine and in the camps, have had more contact with the Palestinian political parties and therefore, their political consciousness was in one way or another influenced by partisan politics. The mobilisation that was inaugurated on 15 March 2011 indicates that many of these politicised youth in Palestine view the deadlock between Fateh and Hamas as the primary challenge and a major obstacle facing Palestinian politics and resistance against Israeli occupation. Those feelings might be less shared by their counterparts in the Western diaspora, whose politicisation resulted from personal experiences of discrimination, Islamophobia, family history of oppression inflicted upon them by Zionist forces, or those who align themselves with those forces. In that way, many of the politicised Palestinian youth in the West have not suffered the consequences of the Palestinian internal division in the way those in the Arab region, especially inside Palestine, did. Their concern remains primarily with settler colonialism in Palestine and challenging the ties between Israel and the political and economic elite in their respective countries. Hence, we should not forget that representation and the reform of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which once was the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, remains a concern for many, precisely in the lack of independent Palestinian bodies and platforms of political organising.

    On 27 January 2013, I attended an open house event organised by the International League of People’s Struggle in San Francisco, California. I spoke with three young Palestinian women and asked them what they thought of the Palestinian leadership and whether they feel there is a gap or disconnect with the leadership. Nadia, a 27-year old Palestinian from Berkeley, California, posed a different question, “Which Palestinian leadership? Which one of them?” I explained Palestinian leadership as a whole, to which she said “We don’t have one.”

    I repeated the same question to 32-year old Jackie Husary from San Francisco, California, who agreed and added “it’s inherently flawed to say we have a Palestinian leadership, because our leadership doesn’t have any power, we do not have any leverage against Israel.” She added, “it is problematic, but the question needs to be looked at in the context of settler-colonial situation in which it is operating, it needs to be looked at in the neo-colonial policies that are forcefully implemented and are not giving the Palestinians on the ground their will nor the Palestinians in the diaspora any sort of representation or political power.”

    Maisa Morrar, a 23-year old Palestinian from San Leandro, California said, “There is definitely a gap especially between the leadership in Palestine and youth in the diaspora. [A] lot of youth here, my age and younger, don’t really know much about what’s going on or who those people are” she explains. “Our biggest obstacle remains Israel mostly because if they sense an ounce of leadership in our youth, they know how to dismember them, dismantle them right away. [They] put us in jail, hit us where it hurts. Another obstacle for us is staying connected and staying in touch, not only with our roots but with other Palestinians to let them know we’re still here and we can still rise. We still exist.”

    It would be inaccurate to homogenise the views of all Palestinian youth including those politically involved. Regardless, Palestinian leadership, whether the de-facto leadership led by Fateh in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, or what is left of the PLO, do not spend much time or energy in engaging youth in constructive activism, political organising or training. When it is done, it is for the sake of indoctrination or adding numbers to enlarge existing bases within a framework that does not challenge the status quo or the inner structures of power within—primarily dominated by older men. That, however, does not mean there are no young cadres in those parties who mostly labour when it comes to popular rallies and community work on the ground. Thus, to identify one type of relationship between “youth” and the Palestinian political elite is rather hard and unrealistic. To further understand this we must ask which Palestinian youth are we talking about, and are all Palestinian youth unified in the way they view their political role or movement building nowadays?

    While recognising the different experiences and circumstances of Palestinian communities inside and overseas, and even the plethora of political views, my experience organising with Palestinian youth in the West Bank and in the US certainly indicates the large gap between Palestinian leadership (as broad this term is) and Palestinian youth, especially in the wake of the growing wave of non-partisan youth activism. Most of these youth do not believe the Palestinian leadership, primarily Fateh and Hamas, represent their national interests nor are they able to put together a political project that is both inclusive to all Palestinians and grounded to principles of justice, liberation and self-determination. The frustration that stems from the political elite’s obsession with power, party-loyalty, personal interests, and alliances with external political forces, lead many in the young generation to de-associate themselves from those parties and rather exercise their national role through quasi-organised youth formations or work within the Palestine-solidarity spaces that are often times characterised by Western liberal views. Such experiences are rewarding in that they motivate and train youth to speak up and address the world, and create wide networks of connections, which help young Palestinians play multiple roles, such as activist, journalist, photographer, filmmaker, and sometimes even representatives in international forums. Still, the lack of independent Palestinian spaces means that solid political and historical education, including the training for revolutionary resistance in its different capacities, have been missing from our activism for about two decades now. As a result, the sporadic Palestinian actions were wrapped around demands of recognition, humanitarian work and appealing to the international mainstream media, rather than a discourse of liberation, an independent and steadfast economy and society, and coordinated work with the camps and the farther diaspora.

    Despite that, in the last the last two to three years, youth have been able to voice dissent to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, Gaza and beyond. Since 15 March 2011 and on, youth activists—especially in the West Bank and Gaza—faced censorship, arrests and harassment by the security forces of both parties; yet they did not stop making clear demands for unity and social and economic justice. One of the biggest mobilisations was in light of the announced visit of Shaul Mofaz, former Israeli Defence Minister, to Al Muqata’ in Ramallah last summer. Youth mobilised online and offline, and a large protest took place in Ramallah where protestors were assaulted by the PA forces. The multiple challenges of local politics and the larger resistance against Israeli occupation and its allies make it truly difficult for those youth to build large bases of committed organisers. But the reaction of the PA and the multiple attempts to contain this popular anger indeed indicates this leadership worries of a larger internal intifada (uprising). This is good news for young activists to not lose faith in their power. At the same time, the leadership’s response has the potential to harm the larger movement if it continues with empty diplomatic manoeuvres like the United Nations statehood bid and the charade that accompanied it. These attempts by the Palestinian leadership are nothing more than distractions that pose a growing threat to our plea as a people.

    As our prisoners in Israeli jails go through extraordinary repression and injustice, they continue to give us lessons of what it means to be selfless, free and true to the cause. Palestinians all over the world are humbled by their struggle, thus it is our obligation as youth to get involved, to break the systematic de-politicisation of our people and help put together our national project, one that is inclusive to all Palestinians and that brings back the principles of our early anti-colonial movement.

    Mira Nabulsi is a Palestinian born and raised in Nablus and currently based in San Francisco. She is currently a graduate student at SF State University, a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement, and a Graduate Assistant at the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative.

  • Brain Drain and the “Arab Spring”

    Opinion piece by: Nadine Abu-Nasrah

    The “Arab Spring” has not only voiced out the greatest frustrations that have engulfed the Arab world—including unemployment, gender inequality and political instability—but also strengthened the determination of those seeking change: the Arab youth. To date, nearly 200 million Arab youth have come together as catalysts for change from Tahrir Square to the streets of Damascus, not only by number but also by aptitude.

    Over 50 million people in the region have turned to social media outlets, most notably Twitter and Facebook, to help rally the voices of activists who have gathered online to also gather in reality. Together, these young revolutionaries have successfully organised pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Occupied Palestine. During the height of the revolution, the number of Twitter and Facebook users in the Arab world dramatically increased to over 6.5 million and 43 million users respectively. The string of revolutions have ignited a firestorm of debate on the consequences that the “Arab Spring” has had on the brain drain of the most talented youth in the Arab region—has the power behind these uprisings contributed to or reversed the effects of the brain drain phenomenon?

    The noise created by the Arab revolutions have shown signs in reversing brain drain trends as governments, international organisations, and private sectors are becoming increasingly aware of the “window of opportunity for the [Middle East North Africa] region to leverage its ‘youth bulge’ and introduce the transparent and accountable policies and institutions that will support increased competitiveness and higher living standards,” according to the World Economic Forum’s 2011-2012 Arab World Competitiveness Report. The heightened awareness to invest in policies in the Arab world that will help the dreams of youth become a reality has triggered an influx of youth returning to their home countries to become entrepreneurs, innovators, and even leaders in education reform.

    Twenty-two year old Nora Elsheikh is an example of the brain drain reversal. Currently completing her Masters of Education (Ed. M in the Arts in Education) degree at Harvard University, Elsheikh hopes to return to her native Egypt and reform the public education system.

    “I had long dreamt of working on education reform in the region. At the time of my initial plans, it was almost a hopeless case, but in light of the [Arab] Spring it seems as though there is an option to develop or make changes in the system…I do hope to work with a group of like minded individuals to design a school that inspires a love for learning through experiential learning.” Elsheikh said.

    The reversed brain drain trends we are seeing are not only due to the organised opinions, entrepreneurial, and creative spirit that Arab youth, like Elsheikh, have, but also are reinforced by the presence of tools many countries in the Arab region are creating to help make the dreams of this generation a reality.

     Her Highness Princess Ameerah Al Tweel of Saudi Arabia said, while on a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative: “My generation is very powerful. We shouldn’t be looked at as a threat but as an opportunity. We are not problems to be solved, we are problem solvers.”

    In light of the “Arab Spring,” the governments of Arab countries have realised the opportunity to invest in their youth and have put in place world class universities and non-government organisations (NGO) to reverse brain drain trends by believing in and supporting local students and entrepreneurs. Since the early 2000s the Qatar Foundation has built branches of eight internationally renowned universities in Qatar including Texas A&M University, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Northwestern University, and Weill Cornell Medical College. By bringing world-class universities, along with their curriculum and professors, to the Arab world, the Qatar Foundation has not only provided the region’s youth the opportunity to a refined education on their own turf, but it has also contributed to reversing brain drain trends. Students from all over the region made up the 2012 graduating class in Qatar and are ready to pump their skills back into the regions economies.

    The “Arab Spring” unleashed a movement of eager young entrepreneurs. To support these enterprises, local NGOs have stepped in to provide loans and sustainable solutions to unemployment and poverty alleviation. Alashanek ya Balady (Association for Sustainable Development) in Egypt, INJAZ in Jordan, and the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation in Saudi Arabia are locally based organisations that focus on encouraging enterprises through micro financing loans to men and women, supporting innovative projects, and using sustainable strategies.

    This year there are approximately 12 million small and medium sized businesses that comprise the majority of the private sector across the Arab region. According to the World Bank 2011 data, the greatest factor affecting the start of businesses is the difficulty to find financing. However, steps have been taken to revise policies to make it easier for men and women to access loans and become entrepreneurs in their local areas. Jordan and Egypt have reduced the minimum capital requirements for those starting new businesses, as well as created “one-stop-shops” which drastically reduces the time it takes to start a business.

    Although the “Arab Spring” has opened the doors of opportunity in the region driven by the power of activists coming together and the innovative ideas of this passionate generation, sustainable change does not happen overnight. Though governments in the Arab region have taken steps towards economic and educational reform, the gaps in the political structure still need to be filled to drive the full intellect of the Arab youth.

    Nadine Abu-Nasrah is a graduate of The George Washington University School of Business and Harvard University. She is an Arab-American interested in women’s issues, philanthropy, and creating business opportunities in underdeveloped regions. @nadine_abu