I don’t believe in simple annual reviews. They aren’t very useful or relevant to people’s lives or countries’ politics. A year is a relatively short period of time when it comes to detecting patterns or deducing trends in human lives and politics. I believe that a longer period of time can be more useful in trying to establish observations and determine where we seem to be going.
Today I look back seven years ago, to 2011, and remember the beginning of the Arab Spring. It started in Tunisia, the country where I was born and the country for which I gave up any kind of hope for political change since I came to Canada in 1991. But what happened there in 2011 had a huge impact on international affairs — it impacted the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Europe, the U.S. and even us, here in Canada.
The spark that started in a small poor town in the interior of Tunisia was ignited by huge economic and regional disparities, police brutality and corrupt government. Those are the prevalent ingredients in many countries of the region and they are, I believe, a fertile ground for social and political unrest.
In 2011, the entire region of the Middle East was swept by a wave of street protests, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and followed by Yemen, Bahrein, Libya and Syria. Unfortunately, only Tunisia was able to get out with some mitigated positive changes: a newly written constitution, a free press and free democratic elections, but challenges are still hanging over the country and the threat of economic turmoil and political collapse are real.
Similar protests on the streets of other countries calling for political change have miserably failed. Even worse, they were quashed in bloody repression and in the case of Syria and Yemen, swirled into tragic civil wars fuelled by sectarianism, geopolitical interests and international foes.
The initial legitimate calls and movements asking for dignity, better living conditions, and an end to police regimes and military dictatorships were generally first met with silence, then carelessness and later with the active participation of Western democracies and Russian intervention to crush these movements for change. Western countries and Russia may have different reasons to stop these changes, but they wanted the same results: the status quo. This element is crucial for Israel’s security in the region (an argument that always comes first in Western capitals) but also for Saudi Arabia’s sake (since it is providing lucrative arms deals to many Western countries). Silencing and destroying these calls to democracy was possible with Canada selling arms to Saudi Arabia and with Russian President Putin selling arms and lending colonels and commanders to defeat the Syrians rebels and save their friend, Bashar al-Assad, preserving his power in Damascus, and consequently, the Russian presence in the region.
The consequence of this military intervention was a flow of refugees crossing to Europe, the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS and the crushing of all hope for any genuine democratic change in the region.
Some countries, like Germany, accepted one million refugees but many others refused to do so; instead countries like Hungary and Italy established entire political platforms to prevent the acceptance of refugees.
In Canada, we aren’t immune to the impact of the wars in the Middle East, even if many Canadians are not aware of them. Alexandre Bissonnette, the young Quebecer who killed six Muslim men and seriously injured five others in the Quebec City mosque shooting, justified his gesture through fear of refugees coming to Canada.
In 2018, hate crimes soared across Canada, with Quebec recording the highest number. Xenophobic and Islamophobic groups like the Three Percenters have flourished in Canada, increasing their memberships and spreading false news targeting Muslims and refugees on social media. They have organized protests in Canadian cities to create a sense of urgency and incite the population to fear “others.”
In 2019, there will be a federal election in Canada. Already, populist MP and founder of the People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier (who showed very poor judgement when it came to choosing a romantic partner, once dating a woman with ties to criminals while he was foreign affairs minister, and leaving highly secret documents with her), is now claiming that he wants to save Canada from all the immigrants who are undermining “Western civilization’s values.”
Since he was elected in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been shy about fighting Islamophobia. Even when one of his MPs introduced a motion to study Islamophobia, its causes and impacts, the Conservative Party of Canada waged a “holy war” against that initiative. Quickly, the move turned into a purely partisan issue and the report that came out afterward was weak, with almost no recommendations.
At an international level, the Trudeau government kept a similar line to its predecessor, the conservative government of Stephen Harper. Trudeau kept the Harper government’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia, until recently, when he started looking for a way out — but not before the gruesome assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, most likely ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the debacle of the tweet from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, where she raised the fate of Saudi women activists and was immediately viciously attacked by Saudi government officials on Twitter and threatened with economic reprisals.
All these examples bring me to my initial point: our internal politics are not isolated from external politics, and vice versa.
I hope for this coming year, 2019, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is courageous both at home and abroad — supporting democracy by finally cancelling the arms deal with Saudi Arabia, promoting peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict (instead of equating the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to anti-Semitism), and supporting the development and construction of Yemen. In this way, he can leave a real legacy as prime minister. Canada is a small player when it comes to international affairs but with the erratic behaviour of the U.S. president and America’s international decline, there is a vacuum that Canada can fill with ethical political decisions.
Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog www.moniamazigh.com
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