Bulent Gökay, Keele University elaborates on how Turkey tries to keep wheels of economy turning despite worsening coronavirus crisis. It, contrary to its neighbours, would not go down the same way. Read on to find out why.
Turkey confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus on March 11, but since then the speed of its infection rate has surpassed that of many other countries with cases doubling every two days. On April 2, Turkey had more than 15,000 confirmed cases and 277 deaths from complications related to the coronavirus, according to data collated by John Hopkins University.
The Turkish government has called for people to stay at home and self-isolate. Mass disinfection has been carried out in all public spaces in cities. To encourage residents to stay at home, all parks, picnic areas and shorelines are closed to pedestrians.
Some airports are closed and all international flights to and from Turkey were banned on March 27. All schools, universities, cafes, restaurants, and mass praying in mosques and other praying spaces has been suspended, and all sporting activities postponed indefinitely.
Manufacturing remains open
Many small businesses in the service sector are closed, and many companies in banking, insurance and R&D have switched to working from home. But in many industrial sectors, such as metal, textile, mining and construction, millions of workers are still forced to go to work or face losing their jobs. In Istanbul, where more than a quarter of Turkey’s GDP is produced, the public transport system still carries over a million people daily.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, has openly opposed a total lockdown, arguing a stay-at-home order would halt all economic activity. On March 30, he said continuing production and exports was the country’s top priority and that Turkey must keep its “wheels turning”.
But in the short term, many of Turkey’s export markets for minerals, textiles and food, such as Germany, China, Italy, Spain, Iran and Iraq, are already closed due to the virus. This has led to enormous surpluses piling up in warehouses. Even where there are overseas customers, getting the goods delivered has proven difficult. The process of sanitising and disinfecting the trucks and testing the drivers before they travel takes many extra hours, sometime days, after waiting in long lines.
Still, Erdogan’s statements give the impression that he sees this pandemic not only as a serious crisis, but also as an opportunity for Turkish manufacturers. The hope is that, after the Chinese shutdown, European producers which depend on Chinese companies for a range of semi-finished products may consider Turkey as an alternative supplier in the longer term. That’s why the government is still allowing millions of workers to go to factories, mines and construction sites despite the huge health risk.
A bruised economy
The Turkish government announced a 100 billion lira (£12 billion) stimulus package on March 18. It included tax postponement and subsidies directed at domestic consumption, such as reducing VAT on certain items and suspension of national insurance payments in many sectors for six months. But this is an insignificant sum for an economy as big as Turkey’s.
Most of the support will go to medium and large companies that were forced to close, and only a very tiny amount to individual workers. In order to benefit from the scheme, a person must have worked at least 600 days in the past three years (450 days for those in Ankara). Those with most need get the lowest level of help or no help from the state.
The tourism sector, which accounts for about 12% of the economy, has already been decimated. Some 2.5 million workers will not be able to work as they had been expecting to in the peak tourist months between April and September.
Limited room for manoeuvre
Even before the virus hit Turkey the economy was already weak, still trying to recover from the impacts of a 2016 coup attempt and a 2018 currency crisis, both of which caused severe stress to Turkey’s economic and financial systems.
In March, Turkey’s Central Bank reduced its benchmark interest rate by 1%, and several of the country’s largest private banks announced measures to support the economy, such as suspending loan repayments. As a result, the Turkish lira initially held up reasonably well, compared with other emerging market economies, but it fell to an 18-month low on April 1 as the coronavirus death rates accelerated. Official interest rates have fallen below 10%, providing some protection to those holding Turkish lira versus some foreign currencies.
Turkey’s financial options to limit the impact of the crisis are limited. Credit rating agency Moody’s revised its prediction for the country GDP from 3% growth in 2020 to a 1.4% contraction. Still, it may get a reprieve from the low oil price. Turkey imports almost all its energy needs, and with the recent fall in the price of oil and gas, this means Turkey could save about US$12 billion (£9.6 billion) in energy imports.
It is hard to see very far ahead. During the next few months, it’s expected that Turkey, alongside South Africa and Argentina, could be sliding toward insolvency and debt default. After that, everything depends on how this crisis progresses and how long it will take to end.
Nasser Saidi describes in a Project Syndicate article The Arab World’s Perfect COVID-19 Storm. The author holds that this recent pandemic analysed here impacts will be significant. It is perhaps the first time that these are equally shared not only throughout the MENA region but the world at large. Any differences will, however, be in the manner with which this pandemic is specifically confronted locally. Read on for a better perspective view of the GCC region’s future.
March 24, 2020
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers in the Gulf Cooperation Council states are rolling out stimulus measures to support businesses and the economy. But the camel in the room remains oil, especially the immediate impact on demand of the Chinese and global economic slowdown.
BEIRUT – Middle Eastern and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economies are heading toward a recession in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, collapsing oil prices, and the unfolding global financial crisis.
The fast-spreading global pandemic – with Europe its new epicenter – is generating both supply and demand shocks. The supply shock results from output cuts, factory closures, disruptions to supply chains, trade, and transport, and higher prices for material supplies, along with a tightening of credit. And the aggregate-demand shock stems from lower consumer spending – owing to quarantines, “social distancing,” and the reduction in incomes caused by workplace disruptions and closures – and delayed investment spending.
The two largest Arab economies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are proactively fighting the spread of COVID-19, for example by closing schools and universities and postponing large events such as the Art Dubai fair and the Dubai World Cup horse race. Likewise, Bahrain has postponed its Formula One Grand Prix.
Saudi Arabia has even announced a temporary ban on non-compulsory umrah pilgrimages to Mecca, and has closed mosques. Because religious tourism is one of the Kingdom’s main sources of non-oil revenue, the umrah ban and likely severe restrictions on the obligatory (for all Muslims) hajj pilgrimage will have a large negative impact on economic growth.
True, policymakers across the GCC are rolling out stimulus measures to support businesses and the economy. Central banks have focused on assisting small and medium-size enterprises by deferring loan repayments, extending concessional loans, and reducing point-of-sale and e-commerce fees. And GCC authorities have unveiled stimulus packages to support companies in the hard-hit tourism, retail, and trade sectors. The UAE has a consolidated package valued at AED126 billion ($34.3 billion), while Saudi Arabia’s is worth $32 billion and Qatar’s totals $23.3 billion. Moreover, policymakers are supporting money markets: Bahrain, for example, recently slashed its overnight lending rate from 4% to 2.45%.
But the camel in the room remains oil, especially the immediate impact on demand of the Chinese and global economic slowdown. The International Energy Agency optimistically estimates that global oil demand will fall to 99.9 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2020, about 90,000 bpd lower than in 2019 (in the IEA’s pessimistic scenario, demand could plunge by 730,000 bpd). Indeed, successive production cuts had already led to OPEC’s global market share falling from 40% in 2014 to about 34% in January 2020, to the benefit of US shale producers.
The weakening outlook for oil demand has been exacerbated by the Saudi Arabia-Russia oil-price war, with the Saudis not only deciding to ramp up production, but also announcing discounts of up to $8 per barrel for Northwest Europe and other large consumers of Russian oil. Although the Kingdom’s strategic aim is to weaken shale-oil producers and regain market share, the price war will also hit weaker oil-dependent economies (such as Algeria, Angola, Bahrain, Iraq, Nigeria, and Oman), and put other major oil producers and companies under severe pressure. Indeed, in the two years after oil prices’ last sharp fall, in 2014, OPEC member states lost a collective $450 billion in revenues.
That episode prompted GCC governments to pursue fiscal consolidation by phasing out fuel subsidies, implementing a 5% value-added tax (in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain), and rationalizing public spending. Nonetheless, GCC countries continue to rely on oil for government revenues, and their average fiscal break-even price of $64 per barrel is more than double the current Brent oil price of about $30 per barrel. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have estimated break-even prices of $70 and $83.60, respectively, while Oman ($88), Bahrain ($92), and Iran ($195) are even more vulnerable in this regard. More diversified Russia, by contrast, can balance its budget with oil at $42 per barrel.
The near-halving of oil prices since the start of 2020, the sharp fall in global growth, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will put severe strains on both oil and non-oil revenue. As a result, GCC governments’ budget deficits are likely to soar to 10-12% of GDP in 2020, more than double earlier forecasts, while lower oil prices will also result in substantial current-account deficits.
Governments will respond by cutting (mostly capital) spending, magnifying the negative effect on the non-oil sector. Some countries (Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE) can tap fiscal and international reserves, while others (Oman, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia) will have to turn to international financial markets.
But will GCC governments be able to borrow their way out of this phase of lower oil prices? Global equity and debt markets currently are close to meltdown; with investors fleeing to safe government bonds, liquidity is drying up.
The GCC countries will suffer a negative wealth effect, owing to losses on their sovereign wealth funds’ portfolios and net foreign assets. And, given bulging deficits and the prospect of continued low oil prices, sovereign and corporate borrowers will find it harder and more expensive to access markets. The ongoing financial crisis will therefore exacerbate the effects of the oil-price shock and the pandemic.
The pandemic itself is still unfolding, and its eventual global impact will depend on its geographical spread, duration, and intensity. But it is already clear that in the coming weeks, there will be heightened uncertainty about global growth prospects, oil prices, and financial-market volatility. And as the pandemic continues its deadly march, the GCC economies – like many others – will be unable to avoid recession.
Covid-19 may have given North African governments a respite from protests, but this is unlikely to last long.
March 23, 2020
In the short term, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to provide the governments of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia with a respite from political contestation and mobilization. They have all struggled to varying degrees recently with popular dissent and challenges to their legitimacy. But in the long run, as each grapple with the economic and political aftershocks of the virus, the same questions of credibility and efficiency are likely to come back with renewed vigor.
The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has been limited in North Africa, despite the region’s proximity to Europe. As of March 20, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Morocco had 77 recorded cases, Algeria 90, and Tunisia 54. Recognizing the vulnerability of their strained healthcare systems, the governments in the three countries responded early and aggressively to the new situation. They sealed their borders, limited social movement, and urged citizens to practice social confinement. All have closed down public spaces, including educational institutions, places of worship, cafes, and public transport. They have also asked non-essential public-sector workers to stay home.
All three countries fear that a pandemic would overwhelm them, as they lack the infrastructure or resources, or both, to respond to an outbreak. In Algeria, there are only 1.9 hospital beds per 1,000 people, compared to a global average of 2.7. In Morocco the figure is 1.1. And in Tunisia, which is closest to the global average, the number is 2.3. In comparison, it is 2.9 in the United States and 13.4 in Japan. While North African countries boast younger populations potentially less affected by the disease, 6.7 percent of the population in Algeria is over 65. In Morocco it is 7.1 percent. And in Tunisia it is 8.8 percent.
With regard to mitigating the economic impacts of Covid-19, responses have varied. Looking at border closures alone, Morocco and Tunisia must grapple with the significant economic losses likely to result from a cratering tourism sector. In Morocco and Tunisia, tourism contributes 19 percent and 15.9 percent to GDP, respectively.
The Moroccan government has created a fund to address the crisis. The fund was initially 10 billion dirhams, or $1 billion, mostly to supplement the needs of the healthcare sector. Given its limited budget, the state encouraged donations from businesses and private citizens, which helped raise the sum to 27 billion dirhams, roughly $2.7 billion. Moroccans were heartened and incredulous at the speed and generosity of the donations. The state has indicated it would support exposed sectors and has begun putting in place mechanisms to compensate some of the most vulnerable and affected citizens.
Algeria has taken similar steps, providing paid leave for mothers, preventing price gouging, and speeding up the importation of foodstuffs to avoid shortages. Algeria is something of an outlier in that its energy-dominated economy has never depended on tourism or manufacturing.
In Tunisia, the government put in place a fund through public donations to combat the virus. The fund has so far brought in around 4 million dinars, or $1.36 million. On March 21, Tunisian Prime Minister Elias Fakhfakh announced a number of economic measures and an aid package to struggling businesses and industries. But the country’s economic challenges, with limited economic growth, high unemployment, high public-sector expenditures, and low GDP growth, make the strain of Covid-19 even greater to bear. Tunisia is bracing for an unprecedented hit.
Painful economic fallout will once again taint confidence in these governments. Each of the three countries has faced sustained political contestation in recent years. This has largely been in the form of protests calling for a new political system in Algeria and more accountability in Morocco and Tunisia. All have been driven by the socioeconomic grievances that have shaped the region since, and even before, 2011. However, in a time of great uncertainty, as today, fear has pushed people to accept existing political structures as a source of certainty and strength, creating a sense of solidarity that has given governments a respite. It has deflated the opposition and limited the public’s desire to push for change.
As the aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic become clearer, they are likely to bring to the fore the policy failures that made the North African nations so fragile and susceptible to the virus in the first place. Economic mismanagement and underinvestment in infrastructure and human development have resulted in systems characterized by inequality and social precariousness. The governments of the three countries might be able to reinvent themselves in the short term, but beyond that the consequences of their errors are potentially destabilizing.
High unemployment rates, oppressive regimes and a desire for better education are some of the reasons cited by Arabs who express a desire to leave their countries.
The Arab world has seen a lot of its youth move in search of better opportunities for employment, freedom of expression, in addition to escaping from social and cultural norms they find oppressive.
According to an August 2019 poll by the Arab Barometer company, titled “Youth in the Middle East and North Africa,” the daily living situation in the region is far from ideal.
Noting that youth between the ages of 15 to 29 comprise about 30 percent of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, the Arab Barometer finds a significant number of them dissatisfied with their economic prospects.
They are also not happy with the education system. Moreover, “less than half say the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed”. Then there’s the high unemployment rates and widespread corruption.
This is why, Arab Barometer suggests, youth in the MENA region are more likely to consider emigrating from their country than older residents. The preferred destinations are varied, including Europe, North America, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Another survey by Arab Barometer, titled “Migration in the Middle East and North Africa,” published in June 2019, notes that across the region, “roughly one-in-three citizens are considering emigrating from their homeland.”
The surveys were conducted with more than 27,000 respondents in the MENA region between September 2018 and May 2019 in face-to-face interviews.
According to the Arab Barometer’s findings, there had been a decrease in people considering emigrating from 2006 to 2016. Yet since 2016, the trend is no longer in decline but has shown an increase “across the region as a whole.”
The Arab Barometer finds that citizens are “more likely to want to leave” if they are young, well educated and male. The survey has found more than half of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 in five of the 11 countries surveyed want to leave.
While older potential migrants are more likely to cite economic factors as the primary decision, the survey suggests, younger ones “are more likely to name corruption, for example.”
As for the desired destination countries, they vary according to the homeland of potential migrants. Among those living in the Maghreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, Europe is the favoured destination.
Whereas migrants from Egypt, Yemen and Sudan point towards Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The survey has also found that those from Jordan or Lebanon prefer North America, notably the US or Canada.
The survey also notes that while most would only depart if they had the proper paperwork, young males with lower levels of education who may not see a positive future in their homeland have said they would be willing to migrate illegally, “including roughly four-in-ten in six of the 11 countries surveyed.”
In a blog post for Unesco’s Youth Employment in the Mediterranean (YEM) published in January 2020, Sabrina Ferraz Guarino observes that “Migration is a coping mechanism based on the assumption that moving to another country is the best and most efficient investment for their own and one’s family future” and that improving people’s lives in their home countries will likely result in less desire to migrate.
Guarino says the unemployment rates in the Mediterranean region affect youth the most: “Unemployed youth are the highest in Palestine (45%), Libya (42%), Jordan (36.6%) and Tunisia (34.8%), while Morocco (21.9%) and Lebanon (17.6%) fare relatively better.”
She adds: “Viewing this together with the share of the youth that is not in education, employment or training (NEET), reveals how the challenges of youth employment remain self-compounding. The youth NEET rates tally around 14% in Lebanon and 21% for Algeria, but progressively increase across Tunisia (25%), Jordan (28%), Morocco (28%), and Palestine (33%).”
In its MENA report published in October 2019, the World Bank says growth rates across the region are rising but are still below “what is needed to create more jobs for the region’s fast-growing working-age population.”
The World Bank recommends reforms “to demonopolise domestic markets and open up regional trade to create more export-led growth.” Source: TRT World
The Syrian province of Idlib, the remaining holdout of rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has experienced fierce fighting in recent months as the Syrian army, supported by Russia, has pushed to reclaim the territory.
Meanwhile, the expansionist impulses of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in north-west Syria brought Turkey into direct confrontation with Assad’s forces in Idlib and exacerbated tensions with Russia. A ceasefire was agreed in early March, but tensions in the region remain high.
Even before the military escalation in Idlib, the Turkish attack on Kurds in north-eastern Syria in October 2019 had added a layer of complexity to the conflict. Now the recent assaults on Syrians in Idlib have led to the exodus of an estimated 1 million civilians. UN officials said it was “the fastest growing displacement” they had ever seen in Syria.
Many people fled to Turkey, already home to around 3.5 million Syrian refugees. On February 29, Turkey opened its border with Greece, apparently to put pressure on Europe to support its operations in Idlib.
Sadly, this wave of migration is only the latest flashpoint in the worst humanitarian crisis since the horrors of the second world war. But even this crisis, with thousands now stuck in no-man’s land on the Greek-Turkish border, hasn’t triggered a way through the regional and domestic blockages that have prevented an end to the bloodshed in Syria. This is something we’ve written about in a new book on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Since 2011, the humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis have spilled over several Middle Eastern countries. But there has been no collective, regional response – largely because of political fragmentation and competition for power.
One striking illustration of these dynamics is the inertia of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The two organisations have repeatedly failed to provide effective responses to regional issues such as the turmoil in Yemen and Libya or the rise of extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian refugee crisis, and more recently the situation in north-west Syria, are no exceptions.
The Arab League has limited its intervention to support for efforts by the international community to mitigate the impact of the refugee crisis. As for the GCC, its actions were overshadowed by an internal rift and the involvement of Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the Syrian chaos. This means that the humanitarian burden has continued to be borne by countries that host Syrian refugees.
Some may have expected Arab solidarity in the face of a crisis that emerged in the context of wider Arab uprisings. Yet even in the Arab countries that have hosted the bulk of refugees from Syria, such as Jordan and Lebanon, the government and people distanced themselves from their Arab brothers as the crisis became protracted.
The national borders in the Middle East that were drawn up after the first world war still remain contested by pan-Arab, pan-Islamic and pan-Kurdish movements. Nevertheless, the Syrian refugee crisis showed how these borders and national identities are powerful drivers of everyday politics.
A crisis politicised
The stance of the governments in Jordan and Lebanon towards the Syrian conflict shaped the countries’ refugee policy. What started as a policy of open doors evolved from 2014 when restrictions were imposed on Syrians entering and staying in both countries. Jordan and Lebanon then began to cooperate with the international community to mitigate the refugee crisis in early 2016, and eventually began to actively encourage the return of refugees to Syria in 2018.
Lebanon’s ruling elites capitalised on the humanitarian crisis by portraying the Syrian refugees as a security threat. Pro-Assad political parties Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement used this narrative to undermine anti-Assad political forces in Lebanon, namely a party called the Future Movement. This, in turn, created a sense of urgency which encouraged the flow of foreign aid into the country in an attempt to bring stability. But this foreign aid fed corruption.
The media has also played an important role in shaping the perception of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon by circulating a twofold government-sponsored narrative about the crisis. On one hand, this narrative tried to reassure Lebanese people of a sense of normalcy and fostered patience and societal strength. On the other, the government framed the refugee crisis as an emergency to convince international donors to channel humanitarian aid to the country. But as we found in our research, it was the second narrative that dominated, causing confusion among Lebanese and Jordanians who have started to ask for their share of the foreign aid.
Stuck in the middle
Amid this fragmented regional landscape and the politicisation of the crisis at the regional and national levels, the fate of Syrian refugees remains unclear. Russia has offered to facilitate dialogue between host countries – mainly Lebanon – and the Assad regime regarding the return of Syrian populations. But the ongoing process of their return to their home country might now be hampered by diplomatic tensions between Syria and its neighbours, especially Lebanon and Turkey.
The safe return of Syrian refugees will also be restricted by the demographic changes initiated by the Turkish government in efforts to eliminate the Kurdish presence along its border. The fate of returnees is also jeopardised by the Assad regime’s policies against those who took part in the uprising, those who didn’t answer the conscription call during the war or those who own properties in former rebel-held areas.
The Syrian refugee crisis will remain a major card both in the hands of the countries involved militarily in the conflict, and those hosting refugees. As for the Syrian refugees themselves, their lives, rights and future are precarious. They remain the primary victims of the regional competition for power.
Posted on March 8, 2020, in The Arab Weekly, Six decades after independence, Middle East still looking for growth model by Rashmee Roshan Lall is an accurate survey of the region that faces, as we speak, prospects of harshest times. How is the Middle East still looking for a growth model? Investing in the human capital of children and young people as well as enhancing their prospects for productive employment and economic growth is little more complicated than relying on Crude Oil exports related revenues. These are the main if not the only source of earnings of the region now plummeting perhaps for good before even peaking. In effect, all petrodollar inspired and financed development that, put simply, was transposed from certain parts of the world, using not only imported materials but also management and all human resources can not result in anything different from that described in this article.
Though a large youthful population would normally be regarded an economic blessing, it’s become the bane of the MENA region.
It’s been 75 years since World War II ended and the idea of decolonising the Middle East and North Africa began to gain ground but, while formal colonisation ended about six decades ago, the region seems unable to find a clear path to growth.
Rather than an “Arab spring,” what may be needed is a temperate autumn, a season of mellow fruitfulness to tackle the region’s biggest problems. These include finding a way to use the demographic bulge to advantage, reducing inequality of opportunity and outcome and boosting local opportunity.
Here are some of the region’s key issues:
The MENA region’s population grew from around 100 million in 1950 to approximately 380 million in 2000, the Population Reference Bureau said. It is now about 420 million and half that population lives in four countries — Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Yemen.
The 2016 Arab Human Development Report, which focused on youth, said most of the region’s population is under the age of 25.
The youth bulge is the result of declining mortality rates in the past 40 years as well as an average annual population growth rate of 1.8%, compared with 1% globally. The absolute number of young people is predicted to increase from 46 million in 2010 to 58 million in 2025.
Though a large youthful population would normally be regarded an economic blessing, it’s become the bane of the MENA region. The demographic trend suggests the region needs to create more than 300 million jobs by 2050, the World Bank said.
Jihad Azour, International Monetary Fund (IMF) director for the Middle East and Central Asia, said MENA countries’ growth rate “is lower that what is required to tackle unemployment. Youth unemployment in the region exceeds 25%-30%.” The average unemployment rate across the region is 11%, compared to 7% in other emerging and developing economies.
Unsurprisingly, said Harvard economist Ishac Diwan, a senior fellow at the Middle East Initiative, young Arabs are unhappier than their elders as well as their peers in countries at similar stages of development.
Last year’s Arab Youth Survey stated that 45% of young Arab respondents said they regard joblessness as one of the region’s main challenges, well ahead of the Syrian war (28%) and the threat of terrorism (26%).
The region’s population is expected to nearly double by 2030 and the IMF estimated that 27 million young Arabs will enter the labour market the next five years.
Poverty and inequality
Most Arab people do not live in oil-rich countries. Data from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) stated that 116 million people across ten Arab countries (41% of the total population), are poor and another 25% were vulnerable to poverty. This translates to an estimated 250 million people who may be poor or vulnerable out of a population of 400 million.
The MENA region is also regarded as the most unequal in the world, with the top 10% of its people accounting for 64% of wealth, although the average masks enormous differences from one country to another.
The middle class in non-oil producing Arab countries has shrunk from 45% to 33% of the population, ESCWA economists said. In a report for the Carnegie Corporation last year, Palestinian-American author Rami G. Khouri described what he called “poverty’s new agony,” the fact that a poor family in the Middle East will remain poor for several generations.
Egypt is a case in point. In 2018, Cairo vowed to halve poverty by 2020 and eliminate it by 2030. However, Egypt’s national statistics agency released a report on household finances last year that said that 33% of Egypt’s 99 million people were classified as poor, up from 28% in 2015. The World Bank subsequently nearly doubled that figure, saying 60% of Egyptians were “either poor or vulnerable.”
Wealth gaps between countries are greater in the region than in others because it has some of the world’s richest economies as well as some of the poorest, such as Yemen.
Inequality is not the only problem in the region. Former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic said the uneven picture means that last year’s protests in Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Iraq cannot be explained by “a blanket story of inequality.”
Indeed, Algeria, a relatively egalitarian country, was roiled by protests, first against a long-serving president and then against the wider political system.
French economist Thomas Piketty, who wrote the bestselling book on income inequality, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” said Arab countries must come up with a way to share the region’s vast and unequally distributed wealth.
Lost decades of growth
In the decade from 2009, the region’s average economic growth was one-third slower than in the previous decade. The IMF said per capita incomes have been “near stagnant” and youth unemployment has “worsened significantly.”
The state is the largest employer in many Arab countries and over-regulation of the private sector left it underdeveloped and unable to overcome the significant barriers to trade and economic cooperation across regional borders. Meanwhile, inflexible labour laws stifled job creation and cronyism allowed inefficiency to stay unchallenged. In 2018, the average rank of Arab countries on the World Bank’s Doing Business survey was 115th out of 190 countries.
Along with structural factors, conflict has had a debilitating effect on economic growth. Three years ago, the World Bank noted that the Syrian war had killed approximately 500,000 people, displaced half the population — more than 10 million people — and reduced more than two-thirds of Syrians to poverty.
By 2017, conflict in Yemen and Libya had displaced more than 15% and 10% of their respective populations of 4 million and 6 million. Taken together, the Syrian, Yemen and Libyan civil wars have affected more than 60 million people, about one-fifth of the MENA population.
Infrastructural damage runs into the billions of dollars but it is the loss — or outright collapse, as in Yemen — of economic activity that has affected real GDP growth.
Countries in the region affected by conflict lost $614 billion cumulatively in GDP from 2010-15 — 6% of the regional GDP, ESCWA’s 2018 report on institutional development in post-conflict settings stated.
New thinking needed
This is the year when, for the first time, an Arab country holds the chairmanship of the Group of 20 of the world’s largest economies. It could be an opportunity to consider existing trends within the region, what needs to be changed and how.
In the words of Oxford development macroeconomist Adeel Malik, “the Arab developmental model… seems to have passed its expiration date.” In a 2014 paper for the Journal of International Affairs, Malik said “failure of the Arab state to deliver social justice is ultimately rooted in the failure of a development model based on heavy state intervention in the economy and increasingly unsustainable buyouts of local populations through generous welfare entitlements.”
It’s a good point, for the region’s richest countries just as much as its poorest. Oil-rich states are affected by dramatic changes in oil prices and the increasingly urgent suggestion that the world is at “peak oil.” An IMF report warned that, by 2034, declining oil demand could erode the $2 trillion in financial wealth amassed by Gulf Cooperation Council members. The IMF said “faster progress with economic diversification and private sector development will be critical to ensure sustainable growth.”
Creativity and courage will be needed if the Arab world is to meet the expectations of its youthful population and the challenges posed by its increasing inequality.
Carolyn Lamboley of BBC Monitoring thinks that One year on, Algeria’s protest movement is soul-searching. Yesterday, people filled, as usual, all main streets of Algiers and other cities in the country, It was the 53rd consecutive Friday, thus marking the anniversary of the pro-democracy mass protest movement that carries with demands for a radical regime change.
21 February 2020
Around a year ago, on 22 February 2019, Algerians thronged the streets to protest against then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term after nearly 20 years in power.
Mr Bouteflika stood down in April. But Algerians kept on protesting. By this time, the protests had a name – the Hirak (movement).
Ten months into the protests, an election ushered in Abdelmadjid Tebboune as president. But the demonstrations continued.
One year on, some political players and national figures have sounded alarm bells, warning of the movement’s “failure” and “radicalism”. They have called for dialogue with the authorities and the pursuit of “achievable” goals.
But others are more optimistic and insist that things will never be the same again in Algeria.
Has the movement failed?
In January this year, Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud wrote an article in which he said the Hirak had “failed”. His analysis appeared in French weekly Le Point, and made waves in Algeria.
He cited the “myopia” of the “urban elites of the opposition” and a “quixotic war” against perceived foreign intervention – in particular from France, the former colonial power. Daoud concluded that the movement had failed and had met an “impasse”, albeit “temporarily”.
He is not the only one to have said so. Others have warned that the Hirak has reached a standstill as the authorities plough on with their agenda.
Since the start of 2020, President Tebboune – who briefly served as Mr Bouteflika’s prime minister – has been consulting political figures about amendments to the constitution.
A referendum on the amendments is expected in the summer, followed by legislative elections by the end of the year.
This month, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad pitched his government’s plan of action – dubbed “a new deal for a new Algeria” to parliament, promising to “cleanse the disastrous heritage” of past governance.
But many are sceptical about the authorities’ promises. More than 100 protesters are reportedly still in detention, events organised by the opposition are still often banned, and the judiciary continues to show subservience to the executive branch.
As for the authorities’ purge against former officials and powerful businessmen, it has actually drawn criticism from many protesters and political players, who have called instead for a transitional justice system to be put in place.
“Nothing has changed” is the leitmotiv repeated by human rights lawyer and political activist Mostefa Bouchachi, a familiar face at the protests who gives frequent interviews to the press. That is why Algerians will carry on, he says, far from being discouraged.
To talk or not to talk with the authorities?
Whether or not to engage with the authorities has been a bone of contention, causing divisions in the movement.
Sofiane Djilali, the leader of the Jil Jadid (New Generation) party and erstwhile coordinator of the Mouwatana (Citizenship) movement has warned against the “radicalism” of some segments of the Hirak and argues that cooperating with the authorities is the only way to effect real change. But he has stopped short of saying the movement has failed.
Jil Jadid was set up in 2011. Mouwatana, which was launched in 2018 and has often come under pressure from the authorities, played a leading role at the start of the demonstrations, calling for fresh protests just two days after 22 February, crystallising the Hirak’s momentum.
Mr Djilali met the president in mid-January, drawing the wrath of those advocating a more radical stance.
In an interview with El Khabar, he warned against the Hirak espousing “goals which cannot be achieved” and voiced his opposition to a constituent assembly process like that in neighbouring Tunisia, which has been advocated by some protesters.
“In my opinion, the demands of the Hirak are clear and do not require much discussion. Everyone is demanding rule of law, balance of powers, respect for the people’s sovereignty and an independent judiciary. It is easy for the new constitution to guarantee… all this directly.”
Organizing outside the framework of the state – an approach advocated by some – would be a form of “civil disobedience”, he said, warning that “this approach cannot change the system”.
In contrast, some have called for a complete separation from the authorities. The Political Pact of the Forces of the Democratic Alternative (PAD) – launched last summer by seven established opposition political parties including the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Workers’ Party (PT) – is working on organizing a national conference which will exclude the authorities.
The PAD had opposed the holding of a presidential election and called for a constituent assembly.
Other prominent figures such as human rights lawyer Mostefa Bouchachi have called for more goodwill gestures – in particular the release of detainees – from the authorities as a prerequisite to any form of dialogue.
Despite diverging opinions about the road ahead, many Algerians share the same demands – as Mr Djilali said – and many feel that things have changed permanently.
Some observers are confident that a new dynamic and social pact have been established and will bear fruit. One word that crops up again and again in commentaries is “opportunity”, conveying the sense that the Hirak is a work in progress.
“Some people think the Hirak has failed because there was a presidential election… They see the Hirak as a political party that failed to make it to power. But, that’s not what the Hirak is… The Hirak is political, but it’s not a political party,” journalist Said Djaafer said in an episode of Radio M’s flagship Cafe Presse Politique programme.
“It’s a movement that comprises all political currents, all social classes, which wants to change the rules of the political game. They don’t want to take power.”
“Those who say it has failed are not looking at this new dynamic: students are organizing, there are people who have never taken an interest in politics who suddenly are interested, it is these things that are being sown… you cannot talk about a failure.”
“It’s a movement that will not stop, even if the demonstrations stop.”
One journalist threw the ball back at the authorities, saying they were the ones who had “failed”.
“The regime has failed. It is over, and the democratic revolution is only beginning,” Amin Khan said on the Radio M website. “The equation is simple. This is a historic opportunity for the country. The regime is faced with a popular movement characterised by rare wisdom. Algerians are not hungry for violence, revenge, expeditious justice or a witch hunt.”
“They want the peaceful and orderly departure of the regime through the law, via… democratic elections [and] the establishment of legitimate institutions… in other words, the complete opposite of a wild adventure or extravagant ambitions.”
Report reviews human rights in 19 MENA states during 2019
Wave of protests across Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon demonstrates reinvigorated faith in people power
500+ killed in Iraq and over 300 in Iran in brutal crackdowns on protests
Relentless clampdown on peaceful critics and human rights defenders
At least 136 prisoners of conscience detained in 12 countries for online speech
Governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) displayed a chilling determination to crush protests with ruthless force and trample over the rights of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to call for social justice and political reform during 2019, said Amnesty International today, publishing its annual report on the human rights situation in the region.
Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019 describes how instead of listening to protesters’ grievances, governments have once again resorted to relentless repression to silence peaceful critics both on the streets and online. In Iraq and Iran alone, the authorities’ use of lethal force led to hundreds of deaths in protests; in Lebanon police used unlawful and excessive force to disperse protests; and in Algeria the authorities used mass arrests and prosecutions to crack down on protesters. Across the region, governments have arrested and prosecuted activists for comments posted online, as activists turned to social media channels to express their dissent.2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived Heba Morayef
“In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Director for MENA.
“2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived.”
The protests across MENA mirrored demonstrators taking to the streets to demand their rights from Hong Kong to Chile. In Sudan, mass protests were met with brutal crackdowns by security forces and eventually ended with a negotiated political agreement with associations who had led the protests.
Crackdown on protests on the streets
Across the MENA region authorities employed a range of tactics to repress the wave of protests – arbitrarily arresting thousands of protesters across the region and in some cases resorting to excessive or even lethal force. In Iraq and Iran alone hundreds were killed as security forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators and thousands more were injured.In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments Heba Morayef
In Iraq where at least 500 died in demonstrations in 2019, protesters showed tremendous resilience, defying live ammunition, deadly sniper attacks and military tear gas grenades deployed at short range causing gruesome injuries.
In Iran, credible reports indicated that security forces killed over 300 people and injured thousands within just four days between 15 and 18 November to quell protests initially sparked by a rise in fuel prices. Thousands were also arrested and many subjected to enforced disappearance and torture.
In September, Palestinian women in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories took to the streets to protest against gender-based violence and Israel’s military occupation. Israeli forces also killed dozens of Palestinians during demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank.
“The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for MENA. “Meanwhile, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel’s policy of using excessive, including lethal, force against demonstrators there continued unabated.” The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent Philip Luther
In Algeria, where mass protests led to the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years in power, authorities sought to quash protests through mass arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of peaceful demonstrators.
While the mass protests in Lebanon since October, which led to the resignation of the government, began largely peacefully, on a number of occasions protests were met with unlawful and excessive force and security forces failed to intervene effectively to protect peaceful demonstrators from attacks by supporters of rival political groups.
In Egypt, a rare outbreak of protests in September which took the authorities by surprise was met with mass arbitrary arrests with more than 4,000 detained.
“Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully,” said Heba Morayef.
“Instead of launching deadly crackdowns and resorting to measures such as excessive use of force, torture, or arbitrary mass arrests and prosecutions, authorities should listen to and address demands for social and economic justice as well as political rights.”
Repression of dissent online
As well as lashing out against peaceful protesters on the streets, throughout 2019 governments across the region continued to crack down on people exercising their rights to freedom of expression online. Journalists, bloggers and activists who posted statements or videos deemed critical of the authorities on social media faced arrest, interrogation and prosecutions. Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully Heba Morayef
According to Amnesty International’s figures, individuals were detained as prisoners of conscience in 12 countries in the region and 136 people were arrested solely for their peaceful expression online. Authorities also abused their powers to stop people accessing or sharing information online. During protests in Iran, the authorities implemented a near-total internet shutdown to stop people sharing videos and photos of security forces unlawfully killing and injuring protesters. In Egypt, authorities disrupted online messaging applications in an attempt to thwart further protests. Egyptian and Palestinian authorities also resorted to censoring websites including news websites. In Iran social media apps including Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube remained blocked.
Some governments also use more sophisticated techniques of online surveillance to target human rights defenders. Amnesty’s research highlighted how two Moroccan human rights defenders were targeted using spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group. The same company’s spyware had previously been used to target activists in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as an Amnesty International staff member.
More broadly, Amnesty International recorded 367 human rights defenders subjected to detention (240 arbitrarily detained in Iran alone) and 118 prosecuted in 2019 – the true numbers are likely to be higher.
“The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders,” said Philip Luther.
Signs of hope
Despite ongoing and widespread impunity across MENA, some small but historic steps were taken towards accountability for longstanding human rights violations. The announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that war crimes had been committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and that an investigation should be opened as soon as the ICC’s territorial jurisdiction has been confirmed offered a crucial opportunity to end decades of impunity. The ICC indicated that the investigation could cover Israel’s killing of protesters in Gaza. The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders Philip Luther
Similarly, in Tunisia the Truth and Dignity Commission published its final report and 78 trials started before criminal courts offering a rare chance for security forces to be held accountable for past abuses.
The limited advances in women’s rights, won after years of campaigning by local women’s rights movements, were outweighed by the continuing repression of women’s rights defenders, particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a broader failure to eliminate widespread discrimination against women. Saudi Arabia introduced long-overdue reforms to its male guardianship system, but these were overshadowed by the fact that five women human rights defenders remained unjustly detained for their activism throughout 2019. Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights Heba Morayef
A number of Gulf states also announced reforms to improve protection for migrant workers including promises from Qatar to abolish its kafala (sponsorship system) and improve migrants’ access to justice. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates also signalled plans to reform the kafala system. However, migrant workers continue to face widespread exploitation and abuse across the region.
“Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights. Instead of ordering serious violations and crimes to stay in power, governments should ensure the political rights needed to allow people to express their socio-economic demands and to hold their governments to account,” said Heba Morayef.
The University of Pennsylvania’s 2019 Global Go To Think Tank Index (GGTTI) launched in 2006, marks its fourteenth year of continued efforts by reviewing all world countries’ in its Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP). Doing so was through focusing on “Researching the trends and challenges facing think tanks, policymakers, and policy-oriented civil society groups” per one of the leaders of the study.
This study showed that within the MENA region, the top three places in this year’s rankings were in this order, the Israeli think-tank: Institute for National Security (INSS), followed by the Lebanese Think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center. Third place in this ranking in the MENA region went to the Egyptian think-tank Al Ahram Center for Political Strategic Studies (ACPSS).
Here are some excerpts.
Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa continue to see an expansion in the number and type of think tanks established
Asia has experienced a dramatic growth in think tanks since the mid-2000’s
Many think tanks in these regions continue to be dependent on government funding along with gifts, grants, and contracts from international public and private donors
University, government affiliated, or funded think tanks remain the dominant model for think tanks in these regions
There is increasing diversity among think tanks in these regions with independent, political party affiliated, and corporate/business sector think tanks that are being created with greater frequency
In an effort to diversify their funding base, think tanks have targeted businesses and wealthy individuals to support their core operations and programs.
Reasons for the Growth of Think Tanks in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
Information and technological revolution
End of national governments’ monopoly on information
Increasing complexity and technical nature of policy problems
Increasing size of government
Crisis of confidence in governments and elected officials
Globalization and the growth of state and non-state actors
Need for timely and concise information and analysis that is “in the right form, in the right hands, at the right time”
2019 Top Think Tanks in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Table 13
Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) (Israel)
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center (Lebanon)
Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) (Egypt)
Al Jazeera Centre for Studies (AJCS) (Qatar)
Brookings Institution (Qatar)
Emirates Policy Center (United Arab Emirates)
Policy Center for the New South-FNA OCP Policy Center (Morocco)
International Institute for Iranian Studies, Rasanah
Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) (Israel)
Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) (Turkey)
Egyptian Center for Economic Studies (ECES) (Egypt)
Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches en Sciences Sociales (CERSS) (Morocco)
Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (Israel)
Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR)
King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre (Saudi Arabia
Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) (Turkey)
Association for Liberal Thinking (ALT) (Turkey)
Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace (Israel)
Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) (Egypt)
Dubai Public Policy Research Center (United Arab Emirates)
European Stability Initiative (ESI) (Turkey)
Royal Institute for Strategic Studies (IRES) (Morocco)
Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (Israel)
Libyan Organization of Policies and Strategies (Loops) (Libya)
Economic Research Forum (ERF) (Egypt)
Reut Institute (Israel)
Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) (Egypt)
Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) (Egypt)
Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES) (Tunisia)
Emirates Diplomatic Academy (United Arab Emirates)
Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (Bahrain)
Cercle d’Action et de Réflexion Autour de l’Entreprise (CARE) (Algeria)
Moroccan Institute for International Relations (Morocco)
There is a soft smile on Hany Abdel Kader’s face as he takes out the carefully folded cotton piece, kept at the back of his small shop.
As he unfolds the fabric, a decorated front appears, with carefully stitched appliqué in bright colors – typical of Cairo’s long-established khayamiya (needlework) tradition. But this piece is unlike any other in the neighborhood’s workshops, where the art has been practiced for centuries. It has none of khayamiya’s customary patterns, based on geometry or Arabic calligraphy, but army tanks and masses of people – scenes from the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
‘That’s when I did my first piece, when we were all unsure about what would happen in the future,’ Abdel Kader, 44, told Asia Times.
He points to images stitched along the borders of the quilt, each depicting a different scene during the revolution. One shows a figure trying to climb the enormous government building, the Mogammaa; another, the infamous camels brought in to fight protesters in the street. Most of the scenes are set in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of the revolution.
Details from the quilt show state violence and wounded protesters being carried away. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer ‘I felt the need to describe what I saw. And I had the fabric at home, so I just laid out a big piece on the floor and started creating the design,’ said Abdel Kader.
As the days passed he added elements to the outer border, based on what he saw himself, heard from friends, or watched on TV. He embroidered words like ‘Peacefully’ and ‘Step down’.
He also stitched the slogan heard across the Arab world in 2011: ‘The people want the fall of the regime’.He added protesters getting hurt by bullets – and others coming to their rescue.
Eight years ago, on 25 January 2011, Egypt witnessed the start of mass protests. They came on the heels of similar demonstrations in Tunisia, which set the Arab Spring in motion. After 18 days of protests in Cairo, which spread to cities across Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak – in power since 1981 – was forced to resign.Protests continued throughout 2011 demanding the armed forces that took power after Mubarak’s resignation hand over the reigns of power to civilian rule. Elections in 2012 brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, but the elected President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a military coup led by current ruler Abdel Fatah El Sisi, who has since been accused of rights abuses and criticized for giving the military unchecked power.
Abdel Kader recalls the period of the revolution eight years ago as a step into the unknown.
‘It was a very strange and unknown time for us. Suddenly, there were tanks underneath our windows. We had never seen that before,’ he said.An ancient craft Khayamiya, which takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘tent’, historically involved the production of tents and panels to be used in a range of settings, from political gatherings to funerals to celebrations. Its usage dates back at least one thousand years in Egypt.
The view over Cairo’s ancient Al-Darb Al-Ahmar quarter, where many of the city’s craftspeople are located. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Throughout the centuries, the craft has evolved. Ottoman rulers, kings Fuad and Farouk, presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat would all receive guests in rooms decorated with khayamiya.The opening (and, almost one century later, nationalization) of the Suez Canal had tents to host guests and officials.
Traditional celebratory tents are seen at a festival in the Egyptian city of Ismailia, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, for the occasion of the canal’s grand opening in 1869. Photo: Collection of Roger-Viollet Egyptian musicians, when traveling, would often bring stitched panels to put up as backdrops at their performances.The popularity of khayamiya remains until present – only now, fabrics are mostly printed by machine.
‘You find them all over Egypt, they are so common that people rarely think about them,’ said art historian Seif El Rashidi, who recently co-authored a book on the topic.The most revered work done by Cairo’s khayamiya guild was doubtless on the kiswa, the elaborate cover for the holy Kaaba, the black cube in Mecca, which was historically produced each year in Cairo’s alleys and ceremoniously brought all the way to the holiest city in Islam. Abdel Kader comes from a family of such prominent crafters: his grandfather Mahmoud earned the name Al-Mekkawi, ‘of Mecca’, from being one of the leading kiswa artisans.
Amm Hassan, the colleague of Abdel Kader, works on a piece of khayamiya. Photo: Claudia Willmitzer Seated in the inner corner of his shop, with his long-time colleague Amm (uncle) Hassan working on a cushion next to the entrance, Abdel Kader takes out images of his first two revolution pieces.Both are in museum collections now, at Durham University and Victoria and Albert Museum in London – destinations he never imagined when drawing that first design during the revolution.
It is not entirely uncommon that political art develops this way, historian Rashidi tells Asia Times: ‘It might be spontaneous at first. An artist starts working on something, and only later on it takes on a specific meaning.
Transforming folk art
Many of the most powerful artworks from 2011 were street art, such as Ammar Abo Bakr’s portraits of martyred protesters with angel-like wings, or Bahia Shehab’s stencilled blue bra for the protester who was dragged in the streets by members of the military until her clothes ripped – creations symbolizing the ongoing regime brutality. Or the dozens of artists who came daily to the sidewalks around Tahrir, to draw what was happening. Abdel Kader’s work is different, belonging as it does to the much less utilized craft tradition.
Usually, Abdel Kader’s work is not a commentary on society. Like all of Cairo’s khayamiya artists, he spends his days cutting, folding and stitching colorful pieces of cloth onto canvas to create vivid and detailed tapestries.
“Khayamiya is usually not a form of art that lends itself to this kind of work. That’s what makes Hany’s pieces so interesting,” said historian El Rashidi.
Eight years after the onset of the revolution, under another strong and repressive state apparatus, looking back at what happened is for many Egyptians associated with gloom, even a sense of despair.
But for Abdel Kader, the events that took place in Tahrir Square still form a source of inspiration.
In his home on the top floor of an apartment building in Muqattam, a dusty hill on the outskirts of Cairo, he has several sketches for new pieces.They portray the same crowds, the same skyline of Cairo and the same commemorative date, January 25th.
‘If I think about my craft there is something else that I would like to do,’ he said. That is to work on a big, traditional tent. But, he says, with the advent of machine printing, no asks for them these days. ♦
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