The Middle East Channel

Don't write off the Arab League in Syria ... yet

The Arab League has had observers to monitor the violent situation in Syria for less than a fortnight, but they are already a source of derision. The Syrian opposition claims that the roughly 100 monitors, deployed to oversee the army's withdrawal from urban areas, have been manipulated and fed disinformation by the government. There have been accusations that the military has used the observers' presence as a cover for increased violence. Perhaps most notoriously, the League selected a Sudanese general associated with the war in Darfur to lead the mission. The observers, dressed in brightly-colored waistcoats and armed only with digital cameras, often look lost and ineffectual.

In any plausible scenario, the monitors were never going to have a decisive impact on Syria. Although the Syrian government promised that it would halt military operations against civilians in December, few analysts took this promise seriously. A handful of observers were not going to change political calculations in Damascus, especially as they have neither their own guards nor secure communications equipment -- leaving them excessively reliant on Syrian assistance to monitor and report anything at all.

With no recent experience of mounting peace operations, the Arab League lacks the basic command structures and doctrines required to give even a small mission like this credibility. But it would be a mistake to imagine that other organizations with greater field experience -- such as the United Nations or European Union -- would have done a vastly better job given the huge constraints on the mission.

Indeed, U.N. and EU planners would probably have refused to get involved in such a venture. Most international organizations avoid putting unarmed observers into escalating conflicts altogether, not least because they are always likely to be rendered inoperative by safety concerns. The historical precedents for the Arab League's efforts are bad, as I pointed out in a report on multilateral missions and conflict prevention for the United States Institute of Peace published in December. It's worth comparing the Syrian operation with a similar -- and unsuccessful -- mission deployed to Kosovo in 1998.

The Kosovo Verification Mission was deployed under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in late 1998 after the Yugoslav government promised to halt military operations against the Kosovo Albanians. It had far greater resources than the Arab League can muster, with over 1,400 observers and a NATO extraction force next door in Macedonia. It enjoyed considerably greater freedom of movement than the League's team has had so far. Yet it failed to deter continued violence, and had to be withdrawn in 1999 when NATO decided to resolve the conflict with air power.

So it's no surprise that the Arab League's initial deployment has failed to bring peace to Syria. And while League officials have promised to deploy additional monitors and asked the U.N. for "technical help", it's unlikely that extra personnel or even better mission-management and leadership are going to make the operation really effective. But this doesn't mean that it has no purpose.

While the observers may be failing in their stated goal -- to help ensure that the Syrian army halts attacks on civilians -- they have already played a significant role in underlining the brutality and untrustworthiness of the Syrian regime. There was previously copious evidence of the regime's violence from refugees, human rights activists, undercover journalists, and U.N. reports. But the observer mission's presence has magnified outside awareness of these abuses, especially because the media have tracked the observers' every move. Although the mission's leadership has mishandled relations with the press, individual observers have been frank with journalists about abuses they have witnessed and the limitations they are under -- effectively circumnavigating the constraints on their formal reporting lines.

The fact that atrocities appear to be ongoing while the observers are in place also raises the diplomatic stakes. Arab politicians and commentators have already demanded that the mission should withdraw in protest at Syria's behavior, and the monitors' public difficulties will surely increase tensions between Damascus and the rest of the League. It is a sad truth of international politics that governments and international organizations are often far more concerned about attacks on their own credibility than human rights abuses. The Arab League, having won a new degree of credibility by taking a tough stance on Libya nearly a year ago, now finds its reputation tied to its observers' performance in Syria.

Some League officials appear to be aiming to downplay the observers' difficulties and highlight cases of cooperation with the government. Almost all peacekeeping missions fall prey to "happy reporting" of this type at one time or another, but it is a mistake. If the League is to maintain any leverage over Syria, it should address claims that the monitors are being manipulated head on and threaten to penalize Damascus for its contempt. Unfortunately, the League has few policy options left open -- especially as Iraq and Lebanon are opposed to any moves that could destabilize their neighbor Syria further.

But the Syrian authorities should not assume that they can mistreat the League's observers with impunity. This is another lesson from Kosovo: in early 1999, monitors from Kosovo Verification Mission reported on the murder of over forty ethnic Albanians in the village of Racak. The mission's chief spoke out over the atrocity, and the discovery played an important part in pushing NATO to a military solution.

So even though the Verification Mission failed to halt the violence it witnessed in Kosovo, it acted as a trigger for more decisive international action. The Arab League's observers in Syria could potentially play a similar triggering role. They may stumble across acts of unquestionable government brutality they cannot ignore or play down -- a "Racak moment" that seizes global attention -- or admit they cannot fulfill their mandate and withdraw. In either case, there would be renewed pressure for stronger actions against Syria whether through the U.N. or (if Russia and China use their Security Council vetoes) even NATO. The Syrian authorities may believe they have the Arab League's personnel under control, but they may discover that this small, ill-fated mission is the prelude to a far more serious intervention.

Richard Gowan is an associate director at New York University's Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The Middle East Channel

Tunisia's student Salafis

Giggling over a communal pot of couscous, the girls swap stories and take turns pushing each other across the room on wheely chairs. Douha Rihi, 20, a German language major, wants to study abroad in Berlin. Sana Brahim, 23, is pursuing a master's degree in Microbiology. They don't look like the kind of young women you'd expect to find at the center of a major ideological controversy, but here they are -- all ten of them -- perched on the second level of the university administration building, fighting for their right to wear the full Muslim face veil, called niqab, inside classrooms and during exams.

Along with a group of scraggly-bearded young Salafi men, these girls have been occupying the University of Manouba College of Arts and Humanities administration building since November 28 of last year. Their protest has resulted in the continued closure of one of Tunisia's largest campuses since December 6 and has kept an estimated 13,000 students from attending their classes.

The so-called "Salafi sit-in" has ignited impassioned debate concerning the extent to which religious expression should be tolerated in Tunisia's public sphere, particularly in traditionally secularist strongholds such as universities. What began with the demands of two students, Iman Melki, 20, and Faten Ben Mahmoud, 21, to wear the face veil during exams in late November has mushroomed into a seemingly intractable standoff between secularist university administrators and a tiny but determined group of about 50 to 60 Salafi-sympathizing youth on campus.

"At the beginning we had two demands," explains Mohamed Souli, a 21-year-old student standing sentry in front of the administration building. "We wanted a prayer room inside the university and the right of all girls to wear niqab inside classrooms and during exams. These are still our demands."

The faculty board at the University of Manouba, however, has steadfastly refused to allow niqab in classrooms or during examinations, citing a variety of security and pedagogical concerns. These concerns include the danger that students may hide weapons or cheating devices under their niqabs and the difficulty of teaching pupils whose facial expressions are concealed.

Some professors noted that the revolutionary atmosphere has inspired a wave of more vocal student demands on Tunisian campuses. "After the revolution there were so many student demands," said Faiza Derbel, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Manouba. "Students wanted their papers re-graded and said that their exams were too difficult. I was able to handle their problems on an individual basis. But this seems to be an unmanageable situation."

In the wake of last January's revolution, Tunisians have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Ben Ali's clampdown police state has been replaced by a startlingly vibrant atmosphere of laissez-faire engagement. Students are speaking up, a raft of new non-government organizations (NGOs) and media outlets has been founded, and people are feeling comfortable experimenting with formerly suppressed modes of religious expression. Whereas Ben Ali's Ministry of Religious affairs scripted preachers' Friday sermons and distributed them to mosques across the country, local mosques are now free to preach what they wish, and Tunisians can wear headscarves, niqabs, and long beards without fear of imprisonment or government reprisal.

Unable to reach a compromise with the protesters, Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, called upon the Ministry of Higher Education in early December to resolve the Salafi issue. Mr. Kazdaghli and the faculty board presented the ministry with requests to relocate the sit-inners away from the administration building and evacuate any protesters who are not registered students at the University of Manouba.

The Ministry of Higher Education, for its part, has hesitated to involve itself in the controversy, possibly afraid that sending police to forcibly remove protesters will exacerbate an already volatile situation and serve as an unwelcome reminder of the former regime's heavy handed treatment of protesters. In a statement broadcast on Tunisian radio yesterday, the newly appointed Minister of Higher Education, Moncef Ben Salem, reiterated that the sit-in is "an internal affair" and that police will not enter the university.

Fed up with the sit-in, which has now lasted over one month, a group of about 200 anti-niqab demonstrators gathered in front of the Ministry of Higher Education on Wednesday. The group, comprised mainly of professors and students from the University of Manouba, called for immediate government intervention to disperse the Salafi protesters and restore security on the Manouba campus.

Many professors at the University of Manouba are incensed at the Ministry's lack of involvement and have joined in the anti-niqab protest. "We needed a categorical answer -- either these Salafi sit-inners go or we stay. That's why we came here today," said Amel Grami, a lecturer in Gender and Islamic Studies.

Ms. Grami and a number of other female professors reported being verbally harassed by the Salafi students in early December, and Mr. Kazdaghli was pushed and physically prevented from entering his office in the administration building on December 6. In a report issued on December 9, Human Rights Watch called on the Tunisian government to "ensure swift intervention of security forces whenever requested by the faculty to prevent third parties from seriously disrupting academic life."

The niqab dispute at Manouba has acquired a politically polarized and ideological tone. Ms. Grami, like many of the professors at yesterday's demonstration, places much of the blame for the Salafis' rise squarely on the shoulders of Ennahdha, the center-right Islamist party that won a plurality of the vote in October's elections. "At the end of the day, this is Rachid Ghannouchi's decision," said Ms. Grami, pushing her black bangs away from her sunglasses. "Ennahdha has created an environment where these people feel comfortable imposing their will on us."

Said Ferjani, an official spokesperson for Ennahdha Party, said that Manouba must find a solution to the niqab dispute "without infringing in any shape or form on a woman's fundamental right to choose her own clothing." The niqab debate and controversy over women wearing skimpy bikinis on Tunisian beaches, Mr. Ferjani said, "are two sides of the same issue. We live within the dynamics of a fledgling democracy, and we must respect democratic principles."

For some students, the standoff at Manouba represents little more than a frustratingly alarmist tug of war over largely irrelevant issues of "Tunisian identity." "We, the students, are the losers" said Houda, a head-scarved 21-year-old who attended yesterday's anti-niqab demonstration purely out of curiosity. "We want to return to our studies without thinking of any ideology. These girls who wear niqab are just as Tunisian as all the people here."

The faculty board at Manouba, however, seems unlikely to budge. Other universities around the country, in Sfax, Sousse, Ariana, and Kariouane, have dealt with similar instances of girls wearing niqab to class. Some have found creative compromises to end the standoff. According to members of the Manouba faculty board, the dean of April 9th University in Tunis solved his university's niqab crisis by offering the three girls wearing niqab the option of taking their exams in a classroom with blind students and a female invigilator. They accepted his offer, and things appear to be running smoothly.

Many professors at Manouba, however, feel their university has a special role to play as a key holdout -- a fortress of secular enlightenment, so to speak, in a nation that is backsliding into the recesses of Saudi-style Salafism. "We are ashamed of what happened at April 9th," said Nabil Cherni, a lecturer in English at the University of Manouba. "Our position is uncompromising."

Meanwhile, back at the administration building, the bearded boys have taken a break from playing football to roll out large green floor mats for the sunset prayer. It seems they're taking delight in "protecting" the niqabbed young ladies upstairs and they make sure to register my name and contact information before I walk up to meet the girls. I ask Mohamed Souli what the boys would do if the security forces came to physically expel the sit-inners from their building. "We will resist and try to be tolerant," he says, "but if police use violence we will respond. Our only protector is Allah, and we're serving him."

Later, sharing dates with the niqabbed girls upstairs, I ask Ms. Melki what has motivated her to spend 37 days in a chilly upstairs administration room. "Every girl has the liberty to wear whatever she wants," she proclaims. "This is a university and we are free." Then she stands up, lowers her face veil, and carries a pot of food down to the boys.

Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford University.