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Unfinished Business in Daraa

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On August 24, a group of former rebel fighters left the besieged parts of Daraa city in southern Syria. They departed for Al-Bab in rebel-controlled northern Syria. This was in line with what seems to be a preliminary agreement brokered by Russia and signed by both Damascus and the former rebels. The full extent of the agreement is not yet clear, however, though it is now certain that the regime is insisting on uprooting the resistance networks in the city, composed mainly of former rebel fighters.

The issue of former rebel fighters has long preoccupied the regime. From the start, Damascus was unhappy with an agreement brokered by Russia in 2018 with the rebels. In large part this was because it prevented the regime from dismantling former rebel networks, a situation it has sought to change. One way to achieve this aim was for the regime to gradually encroach on the former rebels’ turf.

The immediate causes of the Daraa crisis go back to June 23, when the Daraa Central Committee, composed of former rebels and the local civilian opposition, rejected a joint proposal by the regime and the Russians that armed elements hand over their light and medium-size weapons in return for the regime’s withdrawal of its militias, which were widely criticized for their abuses. When negotiations broke down, the regime besieged Daraa, leaving open only a single road into and out of the area. About three weeks into the siege, Damascus brought in reinforcements in preparation for a military operation.

Increasingly under pressure, the Daraa Central Committee agreed to a deal on July 24. At its core, the agreement permitted the regime to reenter besieged parts of Daraa city with its security forces and the army. It also stipulated a handover of some weapons by the rebels in exchange for the regime withdrawing its local militias and calling off any military escalation.

Yet the agreement fell through. Some accused the Syrian army’s Fourth Armored Division of trying to undermine the deal by bombarding the city. Others reported that the Daraa Central Committee had not been transparent about its agreement with the regime. When some of the rebels discovered that the committee had agreed to greater regime control than it had initially announced, they refused to abide by this. Some even considered it a “betrayal.”

With the breakdown of negotiations, small armed groups attacked and succeeded in taking over several regime checkpoints, capturing dozens of soldiers in the process. This marked a major escalation. The images and videos that circulated online could easily have been mistaken for those taken before 2018. In response to the former rebels’ actions, the regime expanded its bombardment campaign to include cities other than Daraa, most notably Yadouda, Jasim, and Tafas, and tightened its blockade. In a clear signal that it would not back down, Damascus called in yet more reinforcements and dispatched Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub to Daraa to oversee the regime forces’ military readiness.

Interestingly, reports abound that Russia encouraged the regime’s actions, particularly the siege. This was also apparent from the reactions of several Daraa Central Committee members to the situation on the ground. While they had previously accused Russia of inaction in the face of regime violations of the 2018 agreement, this time committee members accused it of outright complicity in the regime’s actions. Instead of serving as guarantor of the 2018 agreement, Russia was now helping the regime against the rebels.

Yet just as a conflagration seemed poised to erupt, Russia donned its mediator’s hat once again. At the end of July, the Russians succeeded in brokering an open-ended ceasefire, which was followed on August 15 by a “road map” that offered a detailed resolution. The road map fulfilled all of the regime’s conditions and gave very little to the opposition. It stipulated the reentry of the regime’s security, military, and civilian institutions, a handover of weapons by the rebels, and an evacuation of those who refused to live under the regime’s writ. This was everything the rebels and the civilian opposition had previously rejected, but were now obliged to accept due to the new balance of forces. From their perspective, the only tangible gain from the agreement was that it averted a major military escalation.

All this raises questions about how Russia views the regime’s increasingly assertive policy in the south. Moscow has generally appeared keen to play the role of mediator, yet seems to have hardened its position on the rebels. Indeed, Russian fluctuation during the Daraa crisis—studied noninterference followed by last-minute mediation—as well as the road map it set out clearly gave the regime the upper hand. Nevertheless, there is a limit to how far Russia will go along with Damascus. The Russians may not be opposed to the regime’s attempts to exercise greater security control in Daraa Governorate. However, they oppose a military escalation that could lead to the collapse of the post-2018 order that Moscow itself put in place, and will step in to avert such an outcome.

This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.

Political Unrest Unsettles Myanmar’s Borderlands

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On February 1, 2021, Myanmar woke to the news that its military forces, known as the Tatmadaw, had retaken power after a decade of democratic government. The political realignment led to mass demonstrations and nationwide uprisings, with doctors, teachers, and civil servants engaging in a civil disobedience movement. As protests began to spread from urban areas in the majority ethnic-Bamar lowlands to the borders, ethnic communities called for greater changes beyond the restoration of democracy, voicing long-held political grievances over the country’s political system and demanding representative political institutions and future federal arrangements.

One such ethnic-majority area, Kachin State, in the country’s northeast, is a useful case study for understanding how current national protest movements in reaction to the 2021 military takeover have connected with broader historical struggles waged for decades by ethnic communities in Myanmar’s borderlands. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), with an estimated 20,000 combatants, is one of the most powerful ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Myanmar. Established in 1961, the KIA has waged war against the Tatmadaw in resource-rich Kachin State for decades.

In the aftermath of the political turmoil, mass protest campaigns in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina were met with the same violent crackdowns by security forces as those in Yangon and other parts of the country. The KIA stepped in to warn the regime against the use of excessive force on protesters. Growing political tensions gave way to an escalation in conflict, with KIA offensives against key Tatmadaw command posts as well as military-run mining sites and transport infrastructure in Kachin State. Meanwhile, repression of protests in majority ethnic-Bamar regions led to growing calls by broad segments of civil society for EAOs to join opposition movements and engage the Tatmadaw militarily. As the KIA continued to launch offensives against the Tatmadaw, aiming to retake territory it had lost following the collapse of a long-standing ceasefire, its actions were celebrated by protesters.

Calls for joint armed forces between Bamar and other ethnic groups have grown, with the KIA becoming an active participant in discussions with ousted lawmakers and exiled democracy actors. Coordination bodies have been established to ensure the representation of Kachin interests in political discussions of future governance scenarios in a peaceful Myanmar. At the same time, crackdowns by security forces on protests and civilian opposition have become more violent. Large groups of young protesters, primarily in urban areas around Yangon and Mandalay, posit that armed insurrection is inevitable and seek combat training in EAO-controlled territories in the borderlands.

Like many EAOs, the KIA is now in a position of having support from many ethnic-Bamar populations, which for decades had cast EAOs as rebel groups at the source of Myanmar’s many conflicts. The shift in public perception, and the gradual alignment of EAO objectives for autonomy with protesters’ desires for an end to Tatmadaw control, have opened up new spaces for the discussion of historical ethnic grievances. This has also caused a shift in the broader political economy of Myanmar’s conflict landscape. EAOs actively engaged against the Tatmadaw now occupy powerful positions within national protest politics and state-building debates, while the political capital that some ceasefire-signatory groups had built over years of formal peace dialogue with the Tatmadaw is waning. This is particularly the case for smaller EAOs that today have limited fighting capacity.

Escalating conflict in the northeast has put pressure on the revenue-raising activities of armed groups, including the lucrative extraction, transportation, and cross-border trade of natural resources. Amid the foreign currency crunch brought about by the banking crisis and international sanctions, the Tatmadaw, through proxy militia groups, and the KIA are fighting for control over jade, amber, and rare earth mines in western Kachin State. This is cause for concern in neighboring China, whose government has thus far refrained from intervention. Undoubtedly, China’s priority will be to focus on conflict management in the area, whereby active fighting is reduced and the security situation stabilized, rather than becoming directly involved in the conflict or its resolution. Chinese actors are likely most concerned about the potential involvement of Western actors in the border areas, as well as safeguarding the substantial investments they have made in energy and infrastructure projects there.

With strong popular support in the nationwide protest movement, the KIA is positioned to influence the direction of national political discussions and emboldened to continue efforts to expand its territorial control in the northeast. This includes parts of neighboring Shan State, which are home to large ethnic Kachin populations, and which have long been contested by the Tatmadaw and local militia. In this new conflict landscape in northeastern Myanmar, as the KIA continues to assert itself against the Tatmadaw to achieve its long-held ambitions, it is certain that local communities will bear the burden of increased violence.

The crisis wrought by the abrupt change in government overlays the Covid-19 pandemic, with political turmoil amplifying the growing economic and humanitarian crisis. The United Nations predicts that, as a result, up to half of Myanmar’s population risks sliding into poverty and experiencing food and fuel shortages this year. Conflict-affected areas, including Kachin State, already face significant vulnerability, with many communities regularly displaced by fighting, large illicit economies operated by myriad armed actors, and weak public-service and support infrastructure across contested territories. As the KIA seeks to consolidate its influence in the northeast, it will have a stronger say in regional governance and in mitigating the effects of these crises on the ground.

These developments are being replicated in different ways across many EAO-controlled territories as the political turmoil reshapes Myanmar’s conflict landscape. Historical conflicts are being reignited and altered, ushering in a new chapter in Myanmar’s seven decades of civil conflict, but clear solutions remain as elusive as ever.

Peripheral Vision: Views from the Borderlands – Spring 2021

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Peripheral Vision: Views from the Borderlands sheds light on how political, security and socio-economic developments affect the people living in contested borderlands and, conversely, how border dynamics shape change and transition at the national level.

In this issue we cover:

– War and peace in the Sudan-Ethiopia borderlands;

– Border crossings, roads and regional politics in Iraq; and

– How anti-coup protests affect conflict dynamics in Myanmar’s North-Eastern borderlands.

Produced by the X-Border Local Research Network—a partnership between The Asia Foundation, the Carnegie Middle East Center, the Rift Valley Institute, and their local partners—it draws on recent research and analysis produced by the project to interpret current events from the perspective of border regions. PERIPHERAL VISION is published twice a year, as a timely update of dynamics on the ground,

How the Ever Given Gave Us a Lesson in Chokepoint Politics

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The freeing of the Ever Given on 29 March 2021 was the result of several days-worth of intensive dredging, non-stop work by a fleet of tugboats, and a favourable swell combined with unusually high tides caused by a full moon. For almost a week the 220,000-tonne ship had managed to completely block traffic in the Suez Canal where roughly 12 percent of global trade transits, creating a back-log of over 400 vessels. Billions of dollars’ worth of cargo, ranging from sheep to oil and thousands of seafarers were all stuck on both sides of this vital chokepoint that connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

The Suez Canal is one of the eight major chokepoints of world trade. Others include the Straits of Hormuz (between the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman), the Straits of Malacca (dividing the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra), as well as the Bab el-Mandab, which separates the Arabian and African continents between Djibouti and Yemen. These are sites that ‘choke’ the flow of resources, information and bodies whose circulation is critical to global commerce. As the Ever Given’s unplanned stopover showed, chokepoints are sites of considerable economic, political, and military significance. Narrow, often difficult to avoid, and heavily trafficked, chokepoints can represent potentially paralyzing vulnerabilities to vital systems and networks.

While the Suez Canal is one of the most visible global chokepoints, the Western Indian Ocean region, which includes the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula, includes many more; from ports to mountain passes, as well as narrow straits like the Bab el-Mandab. As RVI’s research has shown, Chokepoints are crucial spaces for cross-border and trans-regional mobility and, as a consequence, have become sites of political possibility and profit. Control over chokepointsis thus a crucial feature of politics and social life in this region.

Long neglected or only understood within frameworks of national and state-centric understandings of the region, chokepoints and corridors are increasingly emerging as key spaces of conflict and contestation in the Western Indian Ocean region. Crucially, they have also become locations where a range of actors from small states like Djibouti to subnational entities like Puntland seek to engage regional and international bodies. These are crucial sites of negotiation between a variety of actors and power brokers in the region. Simultaneously, there are locales where colonial histories of extraction and exploitation continue to manifest themselves, such as in battles over port access, but also crucially sites of refuge and community, for example for Yemeni migrants fleeing the war and sailing to places like Bosaso (Puntland) and Obock (Djibouti). These are places where the weak can sometimes become strong, such as when pirates captured ships transiting through the chokepoints of the Bab-el-Mandeb resulting in a global maritime response and untold losses for crew and cargo.

In addition to being a story of great power politics and new visions of regional and transregional connectivity, chokepoints demonstrate the need to better integrate maritime realms into policy analysis.  More than just empty spaces or simply zones of transit, maritime realms are shaped by political, economic, and social forces on land, while also themselves shaping developments on land—from the physical impact of winds and tides in shaping rainfall patterns, to contests over offshore resources.

Understanding this dynamic can help produce analyses that treat maritime space in a similar way to the dynamics associated with borders and cross-border relations. The integration of maritime realms into policy studies of regions such as the Horn of Africa thus emphasizes the overlapping of socio-political, economic and environmental realms.

As the case of the Ever Given made briefly visible, global trade circulation is a fragile project. Chokepoints reveal both the points of tension and constriction in this system and the mix of human and non-human actors that make global trade possible.

Sailors Without a Sea

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In the past decade, the war in Syria has reshaped not only the country’s own border peripheries, but also those of its neighbors. In few places has the impact been more painfully felt than in the northern Jordanian city of Ramtha, located only 10 kilometers away from the southern Syrian city of Daraa.

Before 2011, Daraa and Ramtha were tied together through trade relations. Daraa supplies goods to Ramtha, which in turn became a hub for the sale of Syrian products in northern Jordan. A decade on the two cities have different stories to tell. Daraa has seen the Syrian war suck all economic life out of the city, while the closed or only partially reopened border with Syria has helped to impoverish Ramtha, which relies heavily on cross-border trade.

Active in the cross-border trade were Jordanian drivers who worked the route between Ramtha and Daraa. These drivers, known as bahhara, or “sailors” in Arabic, embodied the vulnerability of border communities as well as the resilience of cross-border relations. Being a bahhar is a culture unto itself, a profession that involves techniques and attitudes passed on from father to son. These include courage, sharp-wittedness, and a native ability to navigate through border crossings and deal with the border authorities.

The cross-border business of the bahhara was built on the different market, labor, and production conditions in Syria and Jordan. Most goods were cheaper in Syria and in high demand in Jordan. This provided the drivers with an ideal opportunity to profit by buying products in Syria and reselling them in Jordan.

On a normal day, a trip to Daraa and back took a few hours. Soon after passing the Ramtha-Daraa crossing, Jordanian drivers found themselves shopping in Daraa’s numerous rest stations (istirahat), which offered many goods sought by Jordanians. While the bahhara rarely ventured deeper inside Syria, goods did travel from Syria’s interior to Daraa before being transported into Jordan.

As one Jordanian trader explained, “[Before 2011] I used to go to Aleppo to buy goods. After making my selection, I would tell the producer to ship them to Daraa’s rest stations.” In essence, Daraa was not just a market, but a “port” for export to Jordan thanks to the “sailors.” Why ship directly from Aleppo to Jordan when delegating the job to the bahhara meant faster door-to-door service, and most importantly provided a cheaper option?

According to official Jordanian data, just before 2011 there were some 800 cars licensed to work on the Syria route, most of them from Ramtha. They drove legally registered cars but their business was not entirely legal. On paper, their job was to transport passengers from different Jordanian cities to Syria, which they often did. But the real profit was in transporting Syrian goods on their way back. Some played it safe and transported small amounts—sweets, cigarettes, or cleaning agents—toward which the authorities turned a blind eye.

This petty trade became more lucrative when drivers brought in more than the tolerated amounts while paying low or no customs duties. This practice created a major informal economy before 2011. Although it cost the state in import revenues, it was tolerated because it generated economic activity in Ramtha. The bahhara took pride in earning income without relying on Jordan’s bloated public sector, while also bringing cheap goods to the market. Moreover, they made Ramtha a hub for redistributing Syrian goods throughout Jordan. Azraq, a small town near the Jordanian-Saudi border, was one such destination. The rest stations in the town offered Syrian cheese and sweets, among other goods, to those traveling to Saudi Arabia.

Decades of cross-border trade created strong commercial relations that sometimes turned into friendships and were even inherited by young bahhara. Despite the war and destruction of Daraa and closed or restricted Syrian-Jordanian borders, these relations remained resilient and allowed drivers to cope with new circumstances. For example, after traveling to Daraa became risky for the bahhara in 2011, Syrian traders would bring the requested goods into a restricted area within the customs’ premises. In that way, Jordanian drivers could pick up their goods without having to venture into Daraa.

However, resilience and creativity also had its limits. In 2013, it became very difficult, if not impossible, for Jordanians to cross into Syria, beginning a five-year interruption until the border was reopened in late 2018. In the meantime, southern Syria, especially Daraa Governorate, faced considerable physical, economic, and social destruction, as well as the displacement of capital and human resources. Syria was no longer the same place. Nonetheless, when the borders reopened—only the Nassib-Jaber crossing, as the Daraa-Ramtha crossing remained closed—trade resumed and old relations were even revived. One driver noted that “Daraa [city’s] rest stations had moved to Nassib [city]. Yet the first traders who welcomed us there in 2018 were from Daraa. We could even take goods with credit, as in the old days. Over time we made new contacts.”

If some of the old relationships survived, the business environment had radically changed. Goods still came from different parts of Syria, though the quantities were smaller and the delays longer. Entering Syria was not that difficult, coming back, however, became increasingly nightmarish. The Syrian customs were characterized by the absence of the state, as one bahhar put it. This meant that corruption and near lawlessness were rampant, as the crossing was one of the few economically active places in Syria allowing pro-regime militias to make money. As one bahhar described the new situation, “Before [2011] we gave custom officials a tip. Now those controlling the crossing want a share of our income.”

On the Jordanian side, matters were smooth at first, although the Jordanian authorities increasingly took tougher measures. Intentionally or not, this made the bahhara’s trade hardly profitable. Jordan was pressured by the United States not to facilitate trade relations with Syria. The kingdom also faced security challenges such as drug and weapons smuggling, while the customs service was working at a lower capacity. All this forced Jordan to alter its border policies, thereby creating more obstacles for the bahhara.

The consequence of these developments was that economic activity again dried up in Ramtha, eventually leading to unprecedented social unrest in August 2019, less than one year after the reopening of the Nassib crossing. The coronavirus crisis that hit the region in March 2020 compelled Jordan to close the border again, without popular objection. Ever since, the bahhara, and by extension the people of Ramtha, have waited impatiently for the day the border will reopen.

Today, Ramtha’s sailors find themselves without a sea. Yet their story shows how when given the slightest opportunity they are capable of reigniting old ties, creating new ones, and capitalizing on the market differences between Syria and Jordan.

This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.

Yemen and Coronavirus

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As the coronavirus spreads globally and the international community is preoccupied with the pandemic, some sides within Yemen’s ongoing war are taking advantage of the moment to reopen battlefronts. No matter how widely the virus spreads across Yemen, the fighting between the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government; the Iranian-backed Ansar Allah group, known as the Houthis; and the United Arab Emirates–backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) has continued and even escalated in some fronts in the last two months despite the recent announced ceasefires. Even more troubling, all parties are already using the pandemic as a chance to advance their own agendas.

Last month, after UN Secretary General António Guterres and others called for a global ceasefire during the coronavirus pandemic, a two-week ceasefire announced by the Saudi-led coalition was received with high optimism by the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and other international representatives. They viewed it as a step toward establishing a conducive environment for a lasting nationwide ceasefire. However, the Houthis did not consider it to be a ceasefire, and they said “they will continue to fight.” In the meantime, they published what they call a “comprehensive vision to end aggression,” in which they put forward several maximalist conditions.   

Two weeks before Saudi’s truce announcement, the Houthis and Yemen’s government welcomed the UN’s call for a global ceasefire. But soon after releasing their statement, the Houthis launched an offensive in several districts of the northeastern governorates of Marib and Al-Jawf, erupting massive military confrontations with government forces. They also fired two ballistic missiles at the Saudi cities of Riyadh and Jizan, marking the first Houthi assaults inside the kingdom since their twin strikes on Saudi oil installations in September 2019. Saudi air defenses intercepted these new strikes; in turn, the Saudis conducted multiple airstrikes on Yemen’s Houthi-held capital, Sanaa. In the western city of Hodeida, clashes broke out between Houthi and government forces. Meanwhile, in the south, tensions escalated between the Saudi-backed forces and the STC fighters in Abyan and Aden. This reflects that the reality on the ground has nothing to do with those political declarations. The warring parties released official statements to improve their own images and shift the blame for the conflict onto their adversaries, and at the same time their ongoing battles on several fronts have only intensified in recent weeks. There is no indication that the warring parties are truly committed to implementing the ceasefire so far, despite the UN envoy’s “virtual” consultations with all actors. Each party is convinced that the war is still incomplete. None of them are ready to pursue peace before achieving their wartime objectives, even when the coronavirus threat is at their door.

Meanwhile, five years of warfare have nearly destroyed Yemen’s public health system, compounding suffering among a desperately poor and hungry population. The World Health Organization has provided some support to medical centers in Aden, Sanaa, and Mukala to respond if a case is confirmed. Up to now, there has been just one reported case of the coronavirus; however, many health activists doubt this for two reasons. First, Yemeni medical facilities are not equipped to test suspected cases. Thousands of Yemeni travelers returned to Yemen in the past month from affected countries, including Egypt and China, without being tested at the country’s ports. Second, the warring parties are all eager to hide suspected coronavirus cases, because they hope that low numbers will show their capability to contain the pandemic in their respective areas. For example, two weeks ago, after news began to spread about the discovery of coronavirus cases in multiple countries, the minister of health in Yemen’s government-in-exile gave a televised speech reassuring his viewers that Yemen is free of the virus. However, he did not provide details on what steps his ministry is taking to curb the pandemic, and he gave no explanation about what (if any) testing procedures his ministry has followed to sustain his claim.

Even more troubling, some factions view the pandemic as an opportunity to recruit more fighters. For instance, some Houthi activists state in their media discourse that “it is better to die a martyr in heroic battles than dying at home from the coronavirus,” and suggest that “being in a battlefront is safer than being at risk in crowded towns.”

All parties are also using the pretext of pandemic prevention and response measures to make money or push their objectives. In some areas, they use the excuse of pandemic prevention to extort money from civilians hoping to be allowed to pass through local checkpoints. Another key source of revenue, aid provided by international nongovernmental organizations, has been instrumentalized in the struggle between the STC and the internationally recognized government in Aden. STC forces held essential coronavirus-related equipment, sent by the WHO, in the port to prevent government medical staff from accessing it. By compelling the international community to deal directly with the STC, the council hopes to gain recognition for its ongoing de facto rule of Aden, which it has been fighting to maintain since last August.

The current escalation during the coronavirus echoes the cholera catastrophe of the past three years, an experience that the warring parties have kept in mind. Even as that highly communicable disease affected more than 1 million people and caused thousands of deaths, the fighting continued, and armed actors exploited the crisis to make money from international aid flows. All sides will most likely use the same approach with the coronavirus, demonstrating their indifference toward victims and the gap between civilian concerns and militia interests.

As the war in Yemen enters its sixth year, hopes for peace seem elusive, and the virus will compound the already deep humanitarian crisis. The pandemic diplomacy that the UN envoy has attempted to utilize to bring the actors to the negotiating table is not being taken seriously. In previous years, hostilities continued despite the high number of casualties, caused either directly by the armed confrontation or indirectly through diseases and famine. There is little reason to expect that the warring parties will deviate from this approach. Neither external mediation nor the virus can stop this war if none of the Yemeni factions are willing to end it.

Conversations with RVI Researchers: Joseph Diing Majok and Nicki Kindersley

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The report takes the phenomena of the monetization of land, life and work in the borderland and looks at the consequences of this system for the young people who live in this region, arguing that the decision to leave South Sudan on long-distance migrant pathways can only be understood within the context of this militarized borderland economy. The young people who do decide to leave rely on mutual support and networks of information and care to survive. Due to distance and financial stress, these systems are now increasingly under strain.

A Senseless Silencing

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“Military Zone: No trespassing … No photos allowed!”

While such warnings are visible around military zones in Cairo and cities of the Nile Valley, all Egyptian border areas have also been declared military zones according to presidential decree No. 444—2014. For researchers working in Egypt, especially on border issues, this designation greatly hinders movement and makes research, particularly of a political or cultural nature, nearly impossible.

The restrictions also reflect a wider tendency of the Egyptian state to control all information. Egypt has an abundance of material, including legislation, that could assist decisionmakers to adopt policies benefiting the public. Yet the state has had a tendency to block access to such information by the public and researchers.

The state has also introduced measures that severely hinder the ability of researchers to function on the ground. This is especially true in Egypt’s border areas, which are regarded by the authorities as particularly sensitive. Such restrictions show an inability to understand the advantages of research in the first place. That is surprising, as Egypt has long-established reputable research institutions, such as the Information and Decision Support Center, affiliated with the Egyptian cabinet, the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, affiliated with the national Ahram Regional Institute for Journalism, and the National Population Council, an institution that specializes in conducting research on Egypt’s population and presenting recommendations to executive bodies.

The nationalizations that swept across Egypt after the revolution in 1952 have left research, along with other fields such as the arts and journalism, under the sole authority of the state. While government-associated researchers face bureaucratic obstacles that limit the scope of their research, independent researchers face even greater impediments, including lack of accreditation from the government.

The inability of independent researchers to secure accreditation, as well as the absence of a basic understanding of the value of research, perpetuates suspicion toward researchers and their projects. Indeed, researchers are often treated like journalists by the authorities. This has led the police or security forces to arrest and imprison researchers or journalists gathering information. That is what happened to journalist Basma Mostafa, who was covering protests in Luxor in October 2020, when she was detained for several days.

Another journalist, Isma‘il al-Iskandarani, was similarly arrested for his research on the political situation in a key border area, namely the Sinai. He was detained for five years and subjected to a military trial in which he was accused of spreading false news. This is an accusation that many citizens face without much evidence to prove it. At the end, Iskandarani was sentenced to ten years in prison.

In other cases, suspicion directed at researchers has led to death. Giulio Regeni, an Italian student, was conducting research on the attempts of Cairo street vendors to unionize, when he was forcibly disappeared in January 2016 and, it appears, died under torture.

The state’s pervasive security proscriptions are quite loosely defined and cover a wide array of issues. The same restrictions apply to photographic documentation, which is often more democratic and accessible thanks to smart phones. This has become dangerous as well, and can expose a photographer to police questioning and sometimes more serious consequences.

There is an urgent need for researchers to gain accreditation, so that research can gain its rightful place as a tool to develop and improve knowledge of the country. This is particularly pressing when Egypt’s border areas in particular are struggling with various forms of instability—from armed conflict against terrorist groups in the Sinai to disagreements with Sudan over the Halaib Triangle and Shalateen. By continuing to obstruct research, the government impedes researchers’ ability to address underlying societal issues, thereby preventing the production of knowledge that could be used to help alleviate crises and conflicts in Egypt’s borderlands.

The state should go further and protect researchers in risky settings, particularly where they operate between the hammer of terrorist groups who think they work for the Egyptian Intelligence service and the anvil of the state. Doing so would represent acknowledgement of the benefits of research, which, ironically, the authorities have done at different times in the past. That is why improving research conditions in Egypt is also an integral part of addressing many of the socioeconomic challenges the country faces today.

This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.

Displaced Tastes: In Conversation with Elizabeth Nyibol

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Displaced Tastes is a collaborative research project run by the Rift Valley Institute and the Catholic University of South Sudan as part of the X-Border LocalResearch Network. The project examines how experiences of conflict, regional displacement and mobility, and the shift to an increasingly market-oriented and import-dependent economy have changed what people in South Sudan grow and eat.

A Voice for Those in the Field

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For researchers studying the dynamics of borders and border regions, field observation is a necessity. However, since March, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that large swathes of the world are no longer as accessible as they were previously, because travel has been restricted.

This situation has significantly altered the way scholars have conducted research. The virus has put on hold many aspects of research plans, such as workshops, roundtables, and on-the-ground interviews. In order to compensate for this, researchers have built partnerships with journalists, other researchers, and organizations in the field, creating alternative ways of pursuing knowledge under difficult conditions. Such methods have also connected those partners with a global audience of readers. In short, research methods under Covid-19 have helped to give a voice to local actors.

Giving locals in the field a voice doesn’t necessarily mean empowering them politically. Nor does it imply that researchers are doing them a favor. Instead, it creates relationships based on acquiring quality knowledge and analysis of social events from a local perspective—in other words, a bottom-up approach. When I began working as a local researcher and publishing material for Carnegie at the beginning of 2014, the central theme of my work was centered around the question of how to grasp information coming from the field. I came to see the importance of understanding local events on their terms, rather than imposing concepts or assumptions from outside.

Working remotely isn’t something new. In Syria, for instance, the Assad regime has long taken steps to cut the country off from the outside world, out of a fear that certain information or facts might threaten its authority. The regime did so partly by impeding social research. However, such research has become increasingly necessary since Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, not only because of the urgency of understanding the mechanisms behind the violence, but also to better know how to prevent violence in the future.

Broadly speaking, building knowledge is based, ideally, on reason and rationality, whereas violence relies on emotion and impulse. Thus, the Assad regime’s hostility toward precision in the production of knowledge set the conditions for the severe violence that took place in Syria. Despite the restrictions imposed by such violence and by the regime itself, researchers nevertheless developed methods of working remotely to pursue their examination of events and keep Syria connected to the outside world. These methods largely involved working through local networks.

The Covid-19 pandemic compelled researchers to build on these previously developed methods, while also changing the logic of their research and closely interacting with actors in the field. For instance, during a recent project on the Syrian-Turkish border, I carried out a study in partnership with a journalist based in Turkey. We both conducted several interviews with local actors and residents, and later organized an online roundtable inviting those who were informed about the dynamics in the border zone. The result was not just an article about the Syrian-Turkish border, but also the achievement of a collective project on an issue that touched the lives of locals directly and provoked the interest of readers outside Syria.

As researchers have established partnerships with actors on the ground, they have also built ties with local civil society organizations. For example, I am currently writing a research paper on the Syrian-Iraqi border with a colleague that will be partly informed by our interactions with two civil society organizations based in the field. The organizations, which have generously provided us with contacts and have worked with us to analyze information and place it in its proper context, are Masarat, which focuses on minorities, collective memory, and interfaith dialogue in Iraq, and IMPACT, which focuses on topics related to civil society and policy-oriented research. In addition, context analysis is a core theme across IMPACT’s programs. Collaborations with such organizations help to guarantee the quality of information gathered through regular discussions of local events.

The restrictions imposed by Covid-19 have deprived researchers of the possibilities of ethnographic observation. However, the partnership model that has emerged has had the advantage of involving a variety of actors in a shared process of knowledge production. Such a research model is helping to connect local actors and issues to global research centers with their wide readership. In doing so, it provides readers across the world with a sharpened understanding of the events and dynamics shaping the region.

This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.