Bulgaria’s ‘chilly welcome’ to Syrian refugees

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[First published on openDemocracy.]

Over two million people have fled the havoc in Syria and sought refuge in bordering countries; at least one million of them are children, estimated the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) back in August 2013. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq are the top five countries where most have resettled. Over the past several months, however, the exodus has shifted to Europe. For the majority of Syrians searching for a safe EU haven, the journey starts in Turkey where refugee smuggling blossoms. Today, Bulgaria counts over 10,000 refugees, an atypical surge this European border country was unprepared for.

Despite financial help from the EU, the Bulgarian government has consistently preferred to engage in exacerbating the situation. Intensifying influx of refugees in the country prompted the opening of more camps to host the newcomers. These hellholes are in incredibly squalid conditions, but this is where the Bulgarian government welcomes asylum seekers. In October 2013, Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev played the tough guy and sacked the head of Bulgaria’s Refugee Agency for “failing to handle the influx.” Yet, reception centres continue to be overcrowded, Syrians undergo an administrative hassle for weeks, and food, clothing and medicine are largely funded by donations from ordinary citizens.

The official excuse for not providing humane and dignified conditions for the refugees was “tight finances.” Bulgaria is indeed the EU’s poorest member, and media outlets have asked whether the country should shelter even more people in need. Yet, Bulgaria has recently received 6.4 million euros (8.8 million USD) from the EU’s Refugee Fund and 2 million euros (2.7 million USD) in aid from the Czech Republic and Slovakia; funds specifically dedicated to managing the Syrian refugees influx. Thus, the “tight finances” should not be a barrier any more.

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What the Health, MENA?

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Last year, I was closely following doctors’ strikes in Tunisia and Egypt. I wrote the major part of the piece below back in October-November 2012. For various reasons, the piece wasn’t published at that time. I am publishing it here now because the situation hasn’t changed since then: Tunisian doctors continue to stage strikes and Egyptian healthcare system hasn’t improved under now deposed president Morsi’s rule. And it’s about time something gets done to change the status quo.

In a considerable part of the MENA countries, a small part of national budgets are allocated to health [see infographic below]. Such chronic starvation naturally translates into poor status of the country’s healthcare infrastructure. Practitioners have regularly addressed funding deficiency and pandemic mismanagement in the last years, but no adequate response has been given. As is often the case in such stalemates, protests go on strikes to draw attention.

What the Health, MENA? Click to zoom in

What the Health, MENA? Click to zoom in

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Autumn 2013 Collection: MENA Digital News

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I have been struggling to find a good format for this. Writing a monthly review can be challenging (length, my own timely availability, etc.). But then, a three-month wrap-up is huge… Thus, I decided to organise the whole as follows: one part covering general developments in the region, another part covering the Mashrek (North Africa, Egypt, Lybia) and the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq), and a third part covering the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula (Qatar, KSA, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Bahrain). Enjoy the read, add comments if any (always welcome!) and see you again for the Spring Edition.

Internet Governance Events

The second annual Arab Internet Governance Forum was held in Algiers on 1-3 October 2013. The Forum was under the banner of “Partners for Development”, sponsored by Mr. Abdul Aziz Bouteflika, President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria. The Forum covered a wide range of topics, ranging from children’s protection online to 4G deployment in the region. The program unveils the absence of local representation from Algerian civil society, and particularly young people. Writing for SMEX, Wafa Ben Yassine also deplores “the lack of stakeholder participation”.

Later in October was held the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Reem el-Massry, researcher at Jordanian 7iber, addressed the biased discussions having taken place at the IGF regarding internet governance in MENA: “The weak presence of the Arab civil society allowed a one-sided official narrative to only graze the surface of repressive practices of governments in this region.”

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Egypt: Draft Law on Internet Terrorism

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Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY) has published a transcript of the draft law on combattling terrorism on the internet in Egypt. From what I’ve been told, anti-terror law has been on the table for many years  and the battle against it was that it will inscribe the emergency laws in the criminal code. It seems here that the internet is given a significant attention, at least at the first reading. Whatever the provisions, the draft law aims at legalizing pervasive surveillance and and will be a very convenient tool for jailing bloggers and all kinds of people estimated as junta-noncompliant.

Here are the most notable excerpts after a quick read-through. My comments are in blue.

The draft law contains four chapters: Chapter One is on the general provisions; Chapter Two is on punishment; Chapter Three is on procedural provisions; and Chapter Four deals with international judicial cooperation.

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Syria’s vanishing history

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[This was first published on Nature Middle East.]

The war in Syria is laying waste to ancient monuments and artefacts, while archaeologists and citizens scramble to protect what they can.

Syria’s rich cultural heritage, which stretches back to the beginnings of human history, is at risk as fighting ravages the country.

Gathering accurate information is a challenge, but despite the violence, archaeologists and citizens have been trying to document the destruction of historical sites in the wake of all international archaeological missions leaving Syria.

From Babylonians to Arabs and the Crusaders, numerous civilisations have left their mark on Syria. Six of the country’s sites appear on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list: Damascus, Aleppo, the Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Bosra and the Ancient Villages in Northern Syria. Hundreds of monuments are on UNESCO’s Tentative List, and the national heritage register also boasts a wealth of treasures.

Since the unrest began in March 2011, the destruction of cultural sites has often been reported. The cause of damage ranges from shelling and gunfire to army occupation and bombing. Rampant looting and illegal developments on unguarded archaeological sites is also rife.

Syria’s Directorate-General of the Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) is the authority in charge of the maintaining, safeguarding and preserving the country’s heritage, but the ongoing conflict makes DGAM’s remit increasingly difficult.

Before the violence started, about 180 national and international archaeological missions were represented in Syria, but they all left the country in 2011.

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Egypt’s Heritage in Danger

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Since the brutal clear-out of the two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, grim and worrisome details of looting and theft emerge. I have already thoroughly documented destruction of diverse Christian properties. Below are details about stolen/looted cultural heritage (museums, archaeological sites, antiquities of all sorts).

This is ongoing work, thanks for letting me know if I’ve missed anything, either by leaving a comment below or through tweeting at me.

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#EgyChurch: Sectarian Violence Wrap-up

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Ongoing work, regularly updated. List curated by @moftasa and @MaliciaRogue.

Yesterday was a tough day that saw bloodbath and destruction everywhere. We tried to document and curate things, but I’m realizing some parts 1/ need better focus; and 2/ the current description may be a bit confusing as it mixes updates, different languages and final estimations. Yes, there is life outside Cairo, and while all eyes were on the capital, bloodthirst useless insidious events were taking place elsewhere in the country.

So, below is a (thus far) verified list of Christian churches, schools and institutions having undergone attacks yesterday. I truly hope there won’t be more to add. Don’t forget to label reports with the hashtag #EgyChurch. A dedicated gallery is available here. If you hear of other religious minorities being attacked (Shi’a, Baha’a, etc.), let me know either through a comment below or through Twitter.

Amira Mikhail, Mai El-Sadani and Amir Beshay have independently done high-quality curation as well. Info is available on Amira’s blog.

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[UPDATED] Wrapping Up: Egyptian Security Disperse Muslim Brotherhood Sit-ins

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Content below curated by @moftasa & @MaliciaRogue. Translations in French and Arabic coming shortly. Content is regularly updated.

Egypt presidency declared a 30-day long state of emergency starting August 14, 4pm, and orders the Armed Forces to work closely with police to “do what is needed for the calm to return.” Curfew to be instaured after 7pm every evening except today (starting from 9pm); journalists announced to be exempt from curfew. State of emergency gives the state the following extraordinary powers (non-exhaustive):

– Censorship over any texting, media

– Assigning individuals with specific tasks

– Frisking, inspecting and searching any place or individual without court order

– Arrest under suspicion.

– Limiting individual’s transportation, gathering and residency

– Confiscating any prints, flyers and shutting down the publishing source

Mohamed El-Baradei has resigned in the end of the afternoon. The National Salvation Front (NSF) has allegedly issued a statement on the situation. His full resignation letter translated into English is below.

Announcement: For security reasons, the Biblioteca Alexandrina will be closed tomorrow, Aug 15. Reports about hooded armed men inside the building have been denied, but such individuals remain outside of the building and some of the outside glasses have been broken.

The hashtag #EgyChurch is used to curate information on Twitter about attacked churches nationwide.

Comprehensive Wrap-Up of the Events

Map of the pro-Morsi sit-ins from Al-Jazeera English:

Map of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo. Image from AJE. Click to see full size.

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#UAE94: Thought Trial in the United Arab Emirates

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I am finally done curating this awful thing… Five months, twelve hearings, nearly 100 defendants and countless ‘collateral’ victims detained over delirious charges. Albeit some of the defendants belonging to Al-Islah (UAE’s Ikhwan division), this is just a very badly disguised thought trial. The Storify, gathering nearly all that exists in English on the topic, covers the timespan between Jan 29, 2012 and May 20, 2013. It’ll be regularly updated:
View the story “#UAE94: Thought Trial in the UAE”

Bulgaria: Investigative Journalist Receives Death Threats

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(French, Bulgarian below / Français et bulgare ci-dessous / Френски и български по-долу)

The Bulgarian chapter of the European Association of Journalists calls for swift measures against death threats received by investigative journalist Hristo Hristov and his family. Hristov has been investigating the history, development and ramifications of intelligence services under the former totalitarian regime and their implications in the current governing bodies.
The press release is available in Bulgarian.

La section bulgare de l’Association des Journalistes Européens appelle à des actions immédiates de la part des pouvoirs compétents en réaction aux menaces de mort adressées au journalisme d’investigation Hristo Hristov et sa famille. Mr Hristov a consacré ses recherches des dernières années à l’histoire, le développement et les évolutions des services secrets de l’ère sovietique et leurs implications dans la gouvernance du pays depuis la chute du Mur de Berlin jusqu’à aujourd’hui.

Le communiqué de presse est disponible en bulgare.

АЕЖ-България настоява компетентните органи бързо да предприемат всички необходими мерки както за гарантиране на живота, здравето и сигурността на колегата и неговите близки, така и за разкриването и осъждането на извършителите на това престъпление.
Комуникето можете да прочетете на сайта на АЕЖ-България.

Refugee brides: the bounties of war

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[This op-ed was originally published on FutureChallenges.org.]

“There are many who don’t wish to sleep for fear of nightmares. Sadly, there are many who don’t wish to wake for the same fear.” (Richelle Goodrich)

It’s two years now since the Syrian people first took to the streets to protest against the dictatorial iron fist of Bashar Al-Assad. His blood-thirsty repression has left countless injured and dead while more than a million people have fled the country seeking a safer and better life for themselves and their families.

I want to talk here about Syrian refugees and more particularly about women refugees and their daily nightmare. Of course, I could lambast the criminality of  international political sluggishness or argue there is still hope for this beautiful country and its people. But others have done high-voltage political analysis before me and I don’t feel any need to dress up in words my gut instinct that the days of the foul Bashar dictatorship are numbered.

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Opening the Black Box of Governance: Alleviating Poverty With Data

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[First published on OECD’s website, prior to OECD’s Global Forum for Democracy.]

The constant rise of Internet and mobile phone use is an opportunity to enable more citizens to engage with governance. Technology can help improve citizen participation in decision-making and can re-energise participation in public life. Transparency and accountability is becoming a diverse and dynamic field for exploration worldwide. Opening the data produced by public administrations is part of an effective approach to poverty alleviation. Incredible amounts of data are produced every day, by a wide range of stakeholders: governments, media, mobile operators, citizens themselves. Despite the huge potential for using data about a society or government for the public good, it is rarely released and shared for public use. Additionally, reliable statistics can be hard to come by or are still the exclusive property of government or corporate officials.

Open Government Data by Justin Grimes on flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Open Government Data by Justin Grimes on flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Governments and citizens status: it’s complicated

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[This post was initially published on FutureChallenges.org.]

I have been mulling over how to frame my thoughts about the ‘relationship trouble’ between the people and the institutions that govern them. On FutureChallenges, Corina Murafa phrased a very interesting perspective; I, however, disagree with her main proposition: “governments, be they local, regional or national, are no better than their constituencies.”

I believe many out there have read Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”, either during the seemingly never-ending philosophy classes at high school or on some whimsical Sunday afternoon later on. In this foundation work, Rousseau firmly rejects a (not only at that time) pervasive idea that people can invest some group or individual with the authority to act on their behalf and rule over them. Instead, Rousseau considers that when you hand over your general rule to another person or entity, this constitutes a kind of slavery. More importantly, the mere fact of recognizing this authority is an abdication of moral agency. Such a surrender is even more striking when  you consider the hostility with which Rousseau approaches the election of representatives to sovereign assemblies: these vote and pass laws that bind citizens to terms and obligations the citizens themselves have not agreed upon.

Now, this is no scoop: many people have come to think that such an infantilizing political system needs to be challenged and reconstructed. Take the #Occupy movements, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, 15M, #IdleNoMore, the huge protests that have erupted even in a country as apathetic as Bulgaria… But I don’t want to get into an analysis of popular movements here: I’d much prefer to talk about a more ’2.0 version’ of a Rousseau-inspired fight against the abdication of moral agency. Let’s talk about Open Government initiatives.

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Blogging the 2013 Global Forum on Development at OECD

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OECD Development 2013
Save the date 🙂 I’ll be covering the OECD’s 2013 Global Forum on Development (April 4-5) along with fabulous Lova Rakotomalala and Julie Owono. We have been invited to do so on as Global Voices authors interested in spreading the word about challenges developing countries face:

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an international economic organisation of 34 countries that supports democracy and world trade. The Global Forum on Development is focussed on poverty reduction and social cohesion and attracts a wide range of participants from governments and civil society to help discuss solutions.

As for now, you can follow the Twitter hashtag #oecdgfd (OECD Global Forum on Development). I also recommend you to read these thought-provoking and insightful pieces and get involved in the conversation!

The Democratic Bahraini Regime Kills Irony Once More

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Today March 12 is the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship. Initiated by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF) back in 2011, the Day aims “to rally everyone in support of a single Internet without restrictions and accessible to all.” RSF released a special report highlighting the “Enemies of the Internet.” The report, which presents the 2012 list of countries, has identified five State Enemies of the Internet: these are all ‘spy’ states as they conduct systematic online surveillance which results in human rights violations. They are Syria, China, Iran, Bahrain and Vietnam.

The report also emphasize the importance of advanced technology which enables authoritarian regimes to
spy on their citizens. RSF has thus compiled a list of five “Corporate Enemies of the Internet,” that is 5 privately held companies which it names ‘digital era mercenaries’ because they sell software used by authoritarian governments to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information. With no surprises, these are Gamma Group, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys/Bull and Blue Coat.

I guess the Bahraini repressive regime is greedy for becoming even more famous: in celebration of its excellent rank in the top 5 of the ‘Enemies of the Internet,’ it has arrested 6 tweeps. The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights lists the names and a few details on each case. The Bahraini Ministry of Interior cheekily explained:

The General Director of Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security announced on Tuesday that a group of individuals were monitored for using social media for defamation of the King. Investigation identified six of them, in which they were referred to the public prosecution.

He said that freedom of expression in protected within the constitution and law, while urging for the best use of social media to avoid breaking the law.

I guess no comment is needed at this point…

[Brevia] Slovenia Backs Net Neutrality

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The government adopted an Economic Communications Bill in September 2012, more importantly enforcing net neutrality. The government has also engaged into transposing the EU ‘cookie’ directive after it consistently failed enacting it (along with four other EU countries) and was referred to the European Court of Justice.

On 19 December 2012, the Electronic Communications Bill was passed by the Slovenian Parliament, and the rules are now officially published in the Official Journal on 31 December [PDF]. This makes Slovenia the second EU country — after the Netherlands — to have officially enforced net neutrality in its national legislation.

When will the EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda wake up and resume working on enforcing this fundamental principle?

Note: for more on the Cookie Law Enforcement within the EU, check Cookiepedia out.

Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum Results

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[This analysis was first published on Jadaliyya.]

Based on numbers reported by Egyptian media outlets, below is a summary of the constitutional referendum vote results broken down by governorate.

What do these numbers tell us?

  • In two stages of voting, average turnout across governorates was 30%, with Egyptians abroad participation being the most notable outlier with a 41% turnout rate.
  • The only three governorates where the majority of voters elected to reject the draft constitution are Cairo, Gharbiyya, and Menofia.

What do these numbers not tell us?

  • Given that the vast majority of eligible voters (68% or 33,855,564) did not participate in the referendum, we can neither conclude that the majority of the eligible voting population supports the constitution, nor can we conclude that a majority rejects it.
  • Only 16,232,035 or 32% of eligible voters have reportedly cast a vote. It is, therefore, misleading to claim that the silence of the other 68% is reflective of support for one position or another.

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The Sinai Peninsula: Egypt’s “Wild West”?

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[This op-ed was first published at ISN — ETH Switzerland blog, a place where analyses on international relations and security converge.]

From the series "Sinai's most wanted militants", by Mosa'ab Elshamy. Image used with permission.

From the series “Sinai’s most wanted militants”, by Mosa’ab Elshamy. Image used with permission.

In April of this year, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt a “kind of Wild West” after rockets fired from there targeted the resort town of Eilat. According to Netanyahu, the peninsula is exploited by Islamist militants helped by Iran to smuggle weapons and stage attacks on Israel. In August, 16 Egyptian border guards were killed in an attack by Islamist militants who then crossed the border. This is one of a string of violent incidents since Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt in June.

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Egypt: The Right to Water

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This was originally posted on FutureChallenges.com. I am particularly proud of it as it is the first time ever I do an infographic and I dare submit it for publication 🙂

Water is indispensable to human life. As a basic need, it is highly vulnerable to exploitation and has been recognized as a human right in several international human rights treaties and declarations. Addressing the right to water in terms of sustaining life highlights how important proper policies are for securing health and welfare in human populations. One of the greatest challenges Egypt faces today is implementing appropriate measures to close the worrying gap between limited water resources and increasing water demand (see our infographic below).

The Right to Water, an Egyptian Perspective. Click to see full size. Credit: the author (CC-by 3.0)

The Right to Water, an Egyptian Perspective. Click to see full size. Credit: the author (CC-by 3.0)

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