Information and conflict - case study Israel 2014

I'm about to talk about Israel and Palestine ... Let's hope it doesn't end up like this...

Well, actually, it's not really Palestine and Israel I want to talk about but the use of information and communications in war. 

There has been something different about the coverage of Israel's latest offensive against Gaza. Israel is usually understood to be a master at controlling the narrative. But, something has changed. You could argue that in previous conflicts Israel has killed civilians, including children and aid workers. You could also argue that there have been demonstrations against Israel's use of force before, or that Israelis and Jews around the world have stood against the actions of the government in other cases. 2014, however, will be remembered as the year that Israel lost the narrative wars. Some have said to me that a bit of bad coverage in some outlets and the recalling of the ambassador of Brazil account for little. But I bet Israeli policy makers see it differently. For them, losing public support for their actions in Western Europe and North America has a direct, real-world impact.  

Israel's predicament has been picked up the mainstream press:

Channel 4 News reporter Paul Mason, makes some very good observations from a reporter's perspective - and bear in mind that for reporters, social media being used to report and consume news, is a sort of professional competitor:

- Twitter provides an unfiltered, alternative news source - one that young Americans trust more than traditional networks

- Journalists are reporting via tweets from inside Gaza - these comments, pictures etc are not filtered by editors 

- The collective assessment of information that happens via social media makes it difficult for governments to provide their own gloss on events and makes it easier to quickly spot wrong information

- It is harder for ordinary members of the public to avoid the human tragedy of a violent event when friends and family are flooding your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc timelines  

New York Magazine outlines how this has affected the way audiences see the conflict:

"I think the way the last two weeks have unfolded in the Western media has made it more difficult for Americans not personally invested in the conflict to simply assume that the Israelis are necessarily right. There is a reason that apolitical celebrities like Dwight Howard and Rihanna were tweeting out messages of support for Palestine. They, like the rest of us, are seeing the Palestinians a little bit less as demagogues and terrorists and a little bit more as they see themselves, as ordinary people living in often impossible circumstances."

I think it is highly probable that this conflict will be studied by information operations, strategic communications and political communications practitioners in the future. Israel is losing the media war largely because the environment (technology, Western popular exposure to the Middle East, the media industry etc) has changed. Similar factors to those that are upending the news industry are making it difficult for those who developed tactics for influencing it to carry on as before. Whereas in the past, it might have been enough to influence a few gatekeepers (eg. correspondents, editors, proprietors), today there are few obvious individuals to influence.

However, in a recent report about the Syrian conflict and social media, Marc Lynch made the point that gatekeepers hadn't been removed altogether, only that they had been replaced by informal networks that collect and curate information. He also raised the point that news consumers tend to gravitate to those sources of information that they already agree with - which calls into question thoughts that what we are seeing is a movement towards the democratisation of information and therefore a more just and equitable outcome. 

In the specific example of Israel; I'm guessing that the reaction we are seeing is a result of a number of factors, including those already mentioned in the articles I've linked to above. But one that hasn't been mentioned is how the new environment affects Israel's existing strategy. I'd have to admit I'd be guessing at what Israel's outreach strategy would be, but having seen the output I would say that it broadly aimed at creating the overall impression amongst mainstream Western audiences (ie. not the religious right) that Israel and its society is familiar, comfortable and friendly (i.e. culturally and politically similar), but to avoid or downplay too much focus on the conflict with Palestinians.  

If this strategy is undermined every time there is a similar conflict, Israel will have to reassess its actions in the future. However, for Palestinians to turn this coverage into concrete actions that improve the lives of the population of Gaza, the Hamas and PLO leadership will need to take political steps on the back of the coverage. 

Changing relationships - Government and the people(s)

UK diplomat Tom Burn, an old friend of Londonstani's from the days they both studied Arabic at university, has started blogging on Her Majesty's Service. This, in Londonstani's view, is to be encouraged because 1) Tom is very clever and needs to be listened to, 3) It's not common to hear what clued-up people working in government are thinking about the evolving nature of how governments and people interact, and 3) Tom has good taste in Hip Hop music. (So please, drop him a line and ask him what OutKast and The Pharcyde can teach us about power relationships).

Tom's latest post makes some very interesting points about governance:

"What I think is interesting about the Arab Spring and the broader impact of change driven online across the world, is the potential it has not only for changing the relationship between citizens and government, but also for changing government itself. A government that simply changes how it delivers its messages might be missing the point. Might online society also change government itself?"

And then the killer line at the end;

"We cannot just go on governing in the same way, but communicating digitally. We also have to think about how to govern digitally."

In Londonstani's experience, sensible grown up types sometimes get a little incredulous at the idea that interwebs can change the world, and so dismiss the whole discussion outright. In Londonstani's view, the point here is that the online world, social media and the rest, is just a new tool for disseminating and sharing information. This by itself is not a new phenomenon, but a continuation of a process that started with people drawing on cave walls before progressing to print, radio and television. However, it does change the relationship people have with information; where does it come from, who controls it, how much are you willing to share, how much do you get to know etc. This in turn affects the relationship between people, and between people and power.

Mubarak's end didn't come when Facebook and Twitter arrived in Egypt, but when al Jazeera showed Egyptians that US warships were moving through the Suez Canal on the way to attack Iraq.

Pakistani media, society and the pussycat vigil-aunties

Londonstani did not intend this blog to be dominated by crap in the Pakistani media. But, hey, sometimes the crap in the Pakistani media is just too amusing to ignore (eg. Mansoor Ijaz, Pakistan's own Austin Powers). And then, sometimes, something that seems frivolous and silly allows you a sneaky peak into the dynamics beneath the surface.

About a week ago, a Karachi television show host decided to spice up her regular format by descending on a public park to camera-ambush couples (who didn't seem to be doing much other than chatting or walking arm-in-arm) and demanding to see their marriage certificates.

So far so (sadly) predictable. However, what happened next says more about the direction of Pakistani society than any much of the social science research you are likely to come across.

Best to let Declan Walsh of the New York Times explain:

"This hourlong spectacle, broadcast live on Samaa TV on Jan. 17, set off a furious reaction in parts of Pakistan. Outrage sprang from the Internet and percolated into the national newspapers, where writers slammed Ms. [Maya] Khan's tactics as a "witch hunt...

"Now, the protests are headed to court. On Friday, four local nongovernment organizations will file a civil suit against Samaa TV in Pakistan's Supreme Court, hoping to galvanize the country's top judges into action."

In a country where estimates say that only about 10 percent of the population has access to the internet, it's interesting to see a protest that started on social media platforms amongst a wealthy minority (who are seen as detached and culturally unattuned to the "masses") trickled down to mainstream media and from there it made its way to the legal process. (Seasoned Pakistan watchers might not see this as surprising at all, but Londonstani suspects it would be news to many).

Declan balances this with the observation that the uproar against Maya Khan's intrusion is limited to the English press and has hardly been mentioned in the Urdu newspapers, which are far more widely read.  As for Maya Khan, she says that her critics are "an elite class that don't even watch my show".

But there's more to this than a cultural tussle (as central as that is to many of the currents that belie Pakistani society and politics). It's also about media and society in a country where most people are under 30.

Back to Declan:

"The controversy has rekindled a debate about the direction of Pakistan's TV industry. Since liberalization in 2000, the sector has exploded from one channel - the state-controlled one - to more than 80 today, 37 of which carry national or local current affairs.

"The media revolution has transformed social and political boundaries: in 2007, feisty coverage played a central role in pushing Pervez Musharraf toward the exit; in recent weeks it helped guard against a possible military coup.

"But television is also a lucrative business controlled by powerful, largely unaccountable tycoons. Last year Pakistan's television stations had advertising revenues of more than $200 million, according to Aurora, an industry journal - 28 percent more than the previous year.

"Amid stiff competition for viewers, channels have relied on populist measures - rowdy political talks shows and, in recent times, vigilante-style "investigative" shows modeled on programs in neighboring India."

Obviously, Pakistani media and the political and financial context it operates in is subject to the same pressures that you'd expect to find in many countries. Money needs to be made, the right (or wrong) people need to be placated and costs need to be kept down. The result is that what is presented as daring and edgy, is in fact very safe territory - in financial and political terms (ie. it's cheap and doesn't annoy the wrong people).

One of the people Declan spoke to called Maya Khan and her cohort of "crusading" reporters, "pussycat vigilantes" because they "avoided challenging rich or powerful Pakistanis, whose Western-style lifestyles go unexamined."

"They only go after the people they know will not bite back," said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a culture writer.

For those looking to see how not to do television on the cheap, here's Maya on her one-woman mission to fix Pakistan.

Ministry of You-Can't-Make-This-Up

After boring and horrifying Pakistanis in equal measure, the "memogate scandal", took a turn for the absurd and downright embarrassing a couple of days ago. 

It turns out Mansoor Ijaz, the guy at the centre of the scandal, who might be coming to Pakistan to testify, played the part of a  comentator in a 2004 music video that featured naked female wrestlers.

(Sorry mum) But the video is here. Yes, you just couldn't make this stuff up.

And the best Pakistani comment on the whole sad debacle (remember, the memo was totally pointless):

"A businessman from Lahore, who wishes to stay anonymous, thinks Mansoor Ijaz’s wife is the coolest woman on the planet. “OMG! There is a woman out there who wants her husband to partake in such activities and was there by his side all the way through. She is definitely a keeper.”

(Actually, there's a whole bunch of hilarious comments in Tazeen's article for the Express. Read it here)

Not the front page

.. more like page 4 or 5. Maybe even the back page.

Front-page news in Pakistan is often boring. Seriously, there comes a point when you just want to be told if a coup has actually happened. Everything else will be wrapping tomorrow's nans.

Like many other places in the world, news coverage in Pakistan often has more to do with the political leanings of the people who own the outlets than it has to do with actual, legitimate interest or news worthiness.

However..

Whereas in those other parts of the world, the really interesting stuff gets ignored or repressed, in Pakistan it just appears buried in local news or the comment section. So, it was with great interest that Londonstani read Umar Cheema's article about the tussle between the old and new faces in Imran Khan's PTI party.

"Imran Khan-led PTI has accepted political heavyweights in bulk, majority of them constituting the lot of people who found space shrinking for them elsewhere. Although their decision of joining has given a boost to the PTI, the political baggage they carry along is something hard to defend within and outside the party."

Read the article in English-language daily, The News, here:

The reason this is interesting rests on Imran Khan's promises of a new politics. Many observers have previously said that Imran is setting himself up for a fall if he presents himself as some sort of magic bullet cure for all of Pakistan's problems. As Pakistan scholar and former foreign correspondent Anatol Levin pointed out recently;

"The truth is that Pakistani politics revolves in large part around politicians' extraction of resources from the state by means of corruption, and their distribution to those politicians' followers through patronage. Radically changing this would mean gutting the existing Pakistani political system like a fish. Nor is it at all certain how popular the process would really be with most Pakistanis."

Imran has become something of a saviour-in-waiting for many Pakistanis, particularly the young, which is understandable but also a little scary. Pakistan's problems are going to need concerted action by many, many people over a number of years. There are no quick-fix solutions of the sort favoured by taxi drivers all over the globe. The answer for Pakistan lies in developing a new political culture.

However, it seems as though Imran's political party is in many ways business as usual.

Cheema describes Imran Khan's reaction to a resolution pushed by long-time party members wary of the new big wigs coming on board; "As the reading was done, nobody stood up to oppose but Imran Khan. 'The resolution stands rejected,' he said, explaining that he did not want to cause any embarrassment to the new comers."

No consensus, debate or compromise, just the clunking fist.

If you're new to the Imran Khan phenomenon, a good place to start is this post on the Cafe Pyala blog:

Pakistan is indeed, as he hammers home again and again, saddled with a parasitic elite that has insisted on usurping, keeping and abusing power to the detriment of the many hovering around the poverty line; but his reductionist identification of them as people who have strayed from the one faith and become 'westernized' is sadly flawed. The powerful elite of which he speaks include the shallu-wearing landlords and industrialists that are now part of his movement for justice. They can also wear beards, uniforms and burqas as well as jeans and ape Saudi Arabia as well as Western pop culture, but apparently that isn't quite as bad."

Read the whole thing here.

Buried in the corner of another English daily, The Express Tribune, was a story illustrating that there are politicians who do "get it".

One is Marvi Memon, an activist and member of Pakistan's People's Assembly, who has launched a new political party in the southern Sindh province.

“Sindh has unfortunately been blessed with a lot of political parties,” she [Marvi] said. “But the mindset – the ‘bothaar’ (feudal) – exists in a sector in-charge or in an SHO [local officials] or feudal. These are old politics.” The ‘new politics’ is good governance, rule of law and institution building."

Another politician, Mehtab Rashidi, sounded a pretty circumspect tone about what the head of the party would need to accomplish.

“Let’s say a few hundred thousand show up – and I’m being optimistic (at estimating that),” she says. “But what next? That’s a big question mark.” She points out what many people demand of anyone eyeing an election: “He has to work on the roadmap. What type of change? How can you change the mindset overnight or in weeks? What happens if early elections are called – is he prepared for that? He has to do a lot.”

This all reminds Londonstani of Stephen Cohen's comments last week in the Express Tribune (weekend magazine, this time) that it's not clear how, but Pakistan is bound to change. 

What is state-funded broadcasting overseas for?

Being a voice of reason when irrationality is the only game in town is not easy. On Tuesday, the Taliban killed Pakistani journalist Mukarram Khan Aatif, a correspondent in the Tribal Areas for Voice of America radio. 

The killing of reporters working for foreign, often Western, state-funded broadcasters tragically makes the point that they are often key frontline actors in conflict zones. Despite the fact that the influence they wield is enough to get them killed, it's not always understood by the people who fund their activities in the first place. 

Alex Belida, long-time US news professional, suggests over at the Mountainrunner blog that there are two lines of argument when it comes to justifying US public-funded broadcasting overseas.

Whereas Alex and other professionals believe that what they do should be about good journalism, he suggests that law makers in Congress (who approve funding for these organisations) feel their mission should be propaganda, in that it should feature "content which aggressively criticizes our perceived opponents around the globe while downplaying our own national faults."

While Alex has a bunch of proposals for re-organising and funding the multitude of radio and television station stations that make up the US international broadcasting world, he rightly stresses a core concern:

"I believe any discussion of the future structure of U.S. International Broadcasting must first address a more fundamental question: what is its purpose?"

Londonstani sympathises with Alex's position on this. As a journalist who has been lucky enough to work abroad for one of the world's best broadcasters, the BBC, Londonstani has seen seen first hand what sort of return a country gets on its investment in good public-service broadcasting overseas.

In many, many countries where Londonstani has worked, the BBC will be the one (or one of a very few) trusted sources of objective information. This generates the kind of positive vibe around the UK that you just can't buy.

(One example that comes to mind occurred when Londonstani rolled into the one-donkey central Chadian town that is Mongo. Suspicious and curious townspeople crowded round. When Londonstani explained that he was a journalist with the BBC, moods immediately lightened, "Ah yes, the BBC!... You must know Mohammed Abdullahi" (who Londonstani had never heard of but suspects is the local language correspondent). Cans of Pepsi were passed around and the Ak47s put away.)

There is also a utility beyond image building. In many countries in conflict or political crisis, local media will often be a party to the problem. And local people will be aware of that. Non-partisan media that doesn't need the patronage of a local powerbroker to survive can afford to challenge violent narratives. For example, making the point that a country's or community's problems are not going to be solved by the sort of zero-sum arguments that become more attractive in times of conflict. 

Again, this plays a role in improving conditions and positioning the country seen as responsible as a potential parter, arbitrator etc. 

Propaganda broadcasting on the other hand is likely to be counterproductive. Audiences, even those in the most remotest of places, quickly catch on when they are being lied to or patronised. They usually then either switch off or take what they want from the broadcaster and ignore the underlying message. (Like say al Hurra). 

If like the US or the UK, you seek to draw international legitimacy on the basis of a set of values. Public-funded broadcasting is very cost-effective way of showing you mean what you say.

As a British taxpayer rather than an American one, Londonstani is no position to offer comment on how the US organises its affairs, but would agree with Alex's point on this:

"I would argue that to enhance a mission of accurate, objective and comprehensive journalism, it is time to remove USIB altogether from government control and funding."

Pakistan and India take it to TV

If you want to get people to listen to your message, you need to make it interesting. Many campaigns struggle to bridge the gap between imploring and entertaining.

This is particularly a problem in Pakistan, where, with the exception of music and political skulduggery, Pakistani media is pretty dull. Which is why most Pakistanis watch Indian films or US entertainment (no link since hard numbers are near impossible to come by).

Pakistan's largest media organisation, Jang Group, has been running a campaign for a couple of years called Amn Ka Asha, which aims to promote peace and better relations with India.

Much of the campaign has been about the usual; visits, articles etc etc. But recently, Geo (Jang's flagship television station) has announced two new Pakistan-India themed shows. They aren't branded after the campaign, but it very much works on the Amn Ka Asha ethos. Both will show on Geo and a major Indian channel.

The Independent reports that Foodistan will be a Pakistan vs India cook off.

"Neatly bringing together two national pastimes of eating and regional rivalry, the reality cooking show Foodistan will pitch a team of professional Pakistani chefs against a team from India."

The other, Sur Ki Bazi, sounds like an X-Factor type format pitting Pakistani and Indian hopefuls against each other in a singing duel.

Here's the poster:

Music, food and regional rivalry. It's a sure bet! Foodistan has already been recorded, but the music show just started auditioning. And, Londonstani is hearing that they have been swamped.

This is a genius campaign idea. On one hand it shows that there's much scope for useful engagement in Pakistan through media. On the other, it shows that it pays to work with what people actually want.

If you are into communications, media and foreign policy (like Londonstani), this is worth keeping an eye on.

Pakistan's invisible news

In most places with a relatively free press, editors decide what goes on their pages (or websites) based on what they think will interest their audiences most.

So, in the UK, for example, when Prime Minister David Cameron opted out of a European plan that would have involved tighter regulation for the UK's financial services industry, media reaction was fairly predictable.

The Guardian (leftie liberal, generally pro European Union) - Casting Britain Adrift in Europe

The Telegraph (traditionalist, anti European Union) - ... In Splendid Isolation

The Mail (sensationally right of centre, anti most things foreign) - The Day the PM Put Britain First

(The notable exception here is the Express, once the world's largest circulation newspaper, which cant seem to go two days without a xenophobic story about immigrants or a conspiracy rant on the death of Princess Diana?!)

In Pakistan, things are a little more complex. Editors, of course, do want people to read their newspapers, but at the same time they have to navigate much more complex environments. Newspapers and television channels will be part of a larger conglomerate, which might print news and comment but may also buy advertising as well as produce it. At the same time, the owners of these businesses will have their own relationships with political players including the military, feudal landowners and the rest. In addition to this, no one really knows how many people read or watch anything. At the same time, as in many other countries (but without the legal restrictions in more structured media environments) cost plays a large part in how issues are covered. Ie. People arguing in a studio is cheaper to organise than an investigation.

Londonstani wouldn't pretend to understand what the exact decision making process is for Pakistan's media editors, but the end result is a propensity to cover stories that lend themselves to a simple X vs Y formula, focus intently on political manoeuverings (cheap to cover) and fit within a simple emotive narrative.

As a result, what's on the front page of a newspaper is of questionable news worth to your average Pakistani. For example, after a considerable respite from bomb attacks over the past several months, yesterday saw an explosion in a market in the Khyber Agency kill about 30 people. Pakistan's English-language newspapers are carrying this pretty major story on the back page, while the two Urdu-language newspapers Londonstani looks at daily (including the biggest circulation daily) have a small headline.

It could be argued that downturn in recent months or not, bombings are depressingly familiar in Pakistan and do not generate headlines anymore. More likely, the story has been pushed off the front page by political wrangling between Pakistan's highest court and the sitting government over the validity of the legal get-out-of-jail card that let politicians avoid old corruption charges and paved the way for a civilian government replace former military ruler Parvez Musharraf. An editor may say that this legal battle directly affects the survival of the government and is therefore of vital national interest. But, frankly, the government has been on the verge of falling for the whole time Londonstani has been in Pakistan (since October 2009). So, its not really all that new.

More likely, those who own the newspapers and TV channels will have their own positions to promote regarding whatever political spat is playing out at the time. But, the importance of an easy narrative shouldn't be understated. And by "easy narrative", Londonstani doesn't just mean something that a journalist finds easy to portray to his/her audience, which is just part of it, but also something that fits an already existing perception.

So, NATO forces killing Pakistani troops on the Afghanistan border elicits huge amounts of attention and generates much coverage because it slots neatly into the "The US is really our enemy. The US is trying to destroy us. The US takes our lives for granted" perceptions that already exist. However, those same Pakistani soldiers kidnapped, tortured and killed by militants generates nothing like the same sort of fury. The reason being, Londonstani would sugget, that editors aren't sure what wider context the story would sit in. "Who are these militants? Are they Indian funded agents trying to besmirch the good name of Kashmiri or anti US freedom fighters? Aren't the militants just retaliating for what our military has been doing to them at the behest of the Americans? Why would militants who claim to be true Muslims want to kill the soldiers of the army of Islam?"

This isn't to say Pakistani media is rubbish. It remains rambunctious and robust. Opinion pages are routinely filled with nuanced and detailed discussions about tries with India, accountability and governance, which in many other more stable countries would be deemed to "boring" for a mainstream outlet. For example, see today's article by former ambassador Maleeha Lodhi on building confidence with India.

The result is that if you only have the newspapers or news channels to go on, you get a skewed idea of what is really affecting people's lives. Right now, in Pakistan, it's not terrorism, political infighting or military-civil relations that will push the country towards meltdown. It's more likely to be a simple, unsexy, energy crisis. But people outside the country will have to look pretty hard at the Pakistani media to find references to a problem that's bringing rioters out onto the streets, causing unemployment as factories shut, leaving even the wealthy without heat as night-time temperatures dip to near zero, and shutting major arteries between cities. Dawn as a good, but short, article on the situation. 

Anyway, Londonstani (as a media consultant) has a potential solution in the form of a ready-made, instantly deployable, sexy narrative.

To be deployed in any media environment when you face a boring issue of essential public concern:

(thanks to Chris Allbritton)

"Egypt smells of paint!"

Really, really good article in the Daily Beast looking at Suzanne Mubarak, who it paints as the force behind the old dictator's throne.

Londonstani is particularly gratified to see discussion of something he and his friends used to talk about when he worked in Cairo. "The Mubarak's", the joke went, "think the world smells of fresh paint."

"Especially in her later years, Suzanne observed Cairo’s garbage-strewn streets through a gilded peephole. For her, walls were scrubbed, flowers planted, grass grown, Egyptians bribed to smile. If you were part of the royal convoy, Cairo was clean and Egyptians were happy."

Londonstani can attest that when Gamal Mubarak visited his office, the entire building got a makeover. When the president and his wife made the drive to parliament, flowers were planted on the sides of the road. Only to be dug up again after they passed.

So it seems it always is after a dictator falls, everyone suddenly has that 'Emperors New Clothes' moment. "How did they get away with it for so long?", "Why did the international community support them?" etc etc.

One thing that Londonstani suspects is being covered in the Egyptian Arabic press and blogs (the guys at www.arabist.net might be able to comment on that), but not so far in Western media, is how the Mubarak regime convinced ordinary Egyptians to support them.

There was nothing mediocre about the way the regime exploited Egyptians' own sense of pride and linked it to the figure of Mubarak through the clever use of media, the state education system and the manipulation of Egypt's recent history.

Egyptians older and far savvier than Londonstani have pointed out that the Mubarak branding machine was far more successful than that of his republican predecessors. Pre-2003, Mubarak faced a lot less direct criticism than Sadat or even Nasser, the Pan-Arab hero.

Mediocre they might have been, but they were doing something right (relatively speaking).

Anyway, read the whole article and ponder where you would lay the blame for the world's toleration of Egypt's three-decade long catastrophe.

* Major big up to Mandy Fahmy credited at the bottom of the article, who Londonstani has no doubt is responsible for securing the awesome sources.

Beards, bikinis and the politics of the new Arab world

When it comes to revolutions, it's the bullets, tear gas and chanting crowds that gets everyone excited, but it's what comes afterwards that ultimately decides the future.

Although, like many other Middle East new junkies, I get up in the morning and think, "put on the news! What's going on in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen?!", the future of the Middle East - whether it will become a stable, prosperous region or an unstable basketcase that makes the rest of the world nervous - is being decided by what is happening right now in Tunisia and Egypt.

The conversations taking place in most Western (and non-Arab Muslim) media fixates on a couple of labels; military rule, Islamists and democracy. In reality, the struggle playing out in Arab countries that have managed to overthrow an unpopular leader is about much more fundamental issues; namely, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

Samer Al-Atrush, a freelance journalist based in Cairo writing for AFP and the Telegraph, had a great story out yesterday illustrating the political, societal and cultural tussle taking place away from the cameras that will nonetheless decide whether we are looking at a stable and prosperous Arab world or a region at odds with itself and the rest of the world.

"On a barren hill in Sharm el-Sheikh, not far from the famous beach resorts with their bikini-clad patrons, Islamist activist Ahmed Saber ponders the fate of revealing swimwear if his party comes to power."

Now, Londonstani and Samer were partners in journalistic crime a few years ago, so Londonstani has some idea of just how much pleasure Samer will have taken in mentioning Islamists and bikinis in the same sentence. The only thing that is likely to give Samer more satisfaction is that he has Salafis in there too. A Canadian-Palestinian with fluent Arabic and deep local knowledge, Samer has gotten to the root of the post-revolution debate.

Following foreign rule and then often military dictatorships of one form or another, the Muslim world in general, but the Arab world in particular, has had little opportunity to come to a durable consensus as to what confers legitimacy on rulers, what is expected of them and what the process of interaction between those in power and those they govern should be. In the absence of a debate, force has prevailed, buttressed by a substantial degree of bribery ("government jobs for all graduates! woohoo"), and blackmail ("it's your duty as an Arab and Muslim to support your great leader as he stands opposed to the devious activities of Zionists and imperialists").

This approach, in essence, characterises practically all political groups in the Arab world regardless of whether they call themselves "secular", "liberal", "democratic", "Islamist" or anything else. With civil society and media curtailed or subverted and education systems used to inculcate blind acceptance of the ruling clique's hold on power, there has been little space - until recently - to independently grapple with the basic issues of governance, rights and responsibilities, problems and solutions.

Until, that is, the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali were removed and the puritanical ideal of the Salafis clashed with the practical need to tolerate bikini-clad tourists in order to keep the economy functioning.

"With the Brotherhood, at least we can have a discussion," he said...But the Salafis are different. They are used to sitting in mosques saying: "God commanded this, and the Prophet commanded that. And now suddenly they are involved in politics. It won't work."

Of course, the idea of bikini and beards at loggerheads has picked up media attention, but the principle of balancing requirements and satisfying divergent interests is what's important here. Those who end up ruling the (hopefully) post-dictatorship countries of the Arab world will have to address the issue of keeping people employed, providing law and order, improving social justice and building an economy in the real world - one where there is no perfect solution mandated by scripture (religious or secular), just a least-worst option.

* If you are into your political philosophy, you might see a hint of the fundamental questions that seminal thinkers like John Rawls grapple with when trying to address some of the same issues.

** And if you are of the "Arabs/Muslims don't need to learn anything from an American" school of thought, you might want to look at Zakariya Qazwini's Awaj bin Anfaq, Al Farabi's al Madina al Fadila and Nizam al Tusi's Sayasatnama

Kicking Off

After a six-month break from blogging, it’s time for Londonstani to once again put pixel to webpage.

But first, as a courtesy to those stumbling across Londonstani for the first time, this is probably a good time to explain.

Londonstani is the alter ego of Amil Khan, who – about four years ago, was working as a documentary journalist at the BBC and Channel 4 on projects that involved crime, gang warfare, extremism and armed conflict in far off places. Andrew Exum - aka Abu Muqawama – who was sharing a flat with Londonstani in East London’s Walthamstow area, featured some of Londonstani’s whispered ramblings on his counter insurgency blog.

It wasn’t long after that Abu Muqawama’s “violent Pashtun flatmate” started writing regularly for the blog, drawing on his privileged access to people and places as a journalist to analyse issues related to extremism, UK foreign policy and identity in Britain.

Blogging at Abu Muqawama gave Londonstani the leeway to delve unfettered into the topics Amil was being asked to cover as a professional journalist. Amil and Londonstani settled into a productive partnership. Amil would pimp his languages/professional background/ability to use a camera to get access to refugee camps/war zones or sink estates and Londonstani would bask in the freedom of the interwebs and write whatever he wanted.

The arrangement produced articles that Amil had to grudgingly admit he was glad to have collaborated on. Including:

An interview with an al Qaeda fighter returning from Iraq.

A series of three reports from Sudan’s Darfur conflict that looked at how traditional societies are affected by political upheaval and violence.

And, while Amil covered racism in a typical UK housing estate, Londonstani looked at the draw of the extremist narrative in less nice parts of modern Britain.

Amil arrived in Pakistan in 2009 to run a UK-funded counter extremism project that worked with religious leaders. Londonstani, of course, came along too. Pakistan was as newsworthy then as it is now (perhaps more so). Several foreign correspondents do a great job covering headline news events in Pakistan. So, as before, Londonstani stuck to exploring the issues behind the headlines in an effort to present a little context and background to those hoping to understand why people feel and/or act as they do.

Since then Amil has caught up to Londonstani with some writing of his own at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel. As the Arab Spring rolled around, Amil couldn’t resist revisiting his first infatuation - the politics of the Middle East – and wrote a couple of articles looking at why Arabs had decided they had had enough.

With the situation in the Middle East evolving around us and Pakistan looking like its set for social and political changes as its young (65 percent of the population) look to have their voices heard, Londonstani will be going through a little transformative process of his own.

After nearly four years residence at Abu Muqawama, it’s about time Londonstani ventured out in the big wide world on his own. The Londonstani blog will look at the issues of violence and politics, much as before (ie. in the third person tense of plausible deniability). But as the world changes, Londonstani’s coverage will adapt to address it. The blog will still cover extremism and how to address it but will expand its horizons to encompass issues of political development (the developing ideas behind the politics of the Muslim world) and how to engage with emerging trends in a productive way. In addition, the Londonstani blog will come at these issues from a UK angle, because – well – Londonstan is part (by consent and not coercion) of a larger entity known as the United Kingdom.

There will doubtless be technical teething problems as the blog takes its first steps. Feel free to comment (if they work), get in contact (if that works) or get a hold of Londonstani via twitter @Londonstani.

Londonstani aims to be a resource for all those interested in the politics of the Middle East, South Asia and community relations in the UK. If nothing else, you’re likely to find out something you might not ever have known about a fascinating and underreported part of the world… like the ‘Stow.