Video Inverted Worlds: Whose Army is it Anyway?

“Whose army is it anyway?” looks at how different social groups and political actors lay claim to the national army as “theirs”, and how the army sees and portrays itself to the public. “The army and the people are one hand”, an image portrayed in Egypt for instance, is one example of how the army likes to portray its place in society.

Mohamed Mahmoud Street
Egypt army destroying the syrian rebel regime (sierragoddess | CC BY-ND 2.0)


In Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, on the other hand, the “belonging” of the army reflects social cleavages as different communities variously claim it for themselves or regard it as biased to rival communities. In the Gulf petro-monarchies, conversely, reliance on non-national military personnel presents yet another permutation of who or what the army represents to its own society and of its function within the state. The aim of this contribution is to reflect the politics behind these images and portrayals.


Yezid Sayigh is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his work focuses on the future political role of Arab armies, the resistance and reinvention of authoritarian regimes, and the Israel-Palestine conflict and peace process. Previously, Sayigh was professor of Middle East studies at King’s College London. From 1994–2003, he served as assistant director of studies at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge, and from 1998–2003, he headed the Middle East programme of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Sayigh was also an advisor and negotiator in the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks with Israel from 1991–1994. Since 1999, he has provided policy and technical consultancy on the permanent status peace talks and on Palestinian reform. Sayigh is the author of numerous publications including: Armed Struggle and the Search for a State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949–1993 (1997); The Third World Beyond the Cold War: Continuity and Change (ed., Oxford, 1999); and The Middle East and the Cold War (ed., Oxford, 1997).

Video Inverted Worlds: Debates on Social Media and Revolution

This presentation is two-fold: Part one is devoted to reflections on the debates about the relations between digital technology/social media and revolutionary movements, while part two is a sound performance called Discontent, made from recordings of protests, mainly in London, captured over more than 10 years. Horizontal networks of independently operating nodes, with their links to random access memory and nonlinear narratives, are seen as new models for political activism and revolutionary change, empowering the individual and avoiding the pitfalls of institutionalised power, while still enabling broad movements forsocial change to come into being.

The revolution will not be tweeted
(Gigi Ibrahim | CC BY 2.0)

Events like the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement point toward the possibilities of non-hierarchical networks, aided by technology, gathering spontaneously to mount a powerful challenge to the established order. However, after initial enthusiasm by a wide selection of the media, at least those of Europe and the US, many commentators have begun to question whether the role of new technologies has been misrepresented or overestimated. In addition, critics of Communicative Capitalism, such as Jodi Dean, assert that in the current abundance of communication individual messages are flattened to mere content, devoid of context and commodified.

What emerges from considering the tension between these opposing positions is a more complex narrative, one that is most likely non-linear and definitely open-ended. This lecture aims to open up the debate for a critical approach to the theme. Finally, the performance of Discontent is a re-interpretation of the audible matter of protests, following multiple routes and overlaps, including 2001 May Day riots, protests on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, the attack on the Royal Bank of Scotland building during the G20 protests in 2009, as well as the first days of the Occupy the London Stock Exchange. The piece aims to make audible the affective links established through sound between people who fight oppression collectively, the empowering and disruptive potential of noise as a cultural form, as well as the mixture of adrenaline rush and fear that is experienced once protest goes beyond peaceful.

Debates on Social Media and Revolution from Orient Institut Beirut on Vimeo.

Matthias Kispert is an electronic music composer and artist living in London. His broad range of interests includes audiovisual live performance, composition with found sound, improvisation, documentary as artistic medium, as well as the relations between artistic practice and wider cultural and social issues. As audio director of media artist collective D-Fuse, he is responsible for the sound aspect and also the conceptual development of much of the group’s work, including videos, installations and live cinema performances. He also regularly collaborates with other digital artists and designers including United Visual Artists, Quayola and Jason Bruges Studio. His work and collaborations are shown at exhibitions and festivals globally, including USC, LA MOCA, TriBeCa Film Festival and Eyebeam (USA), Itaú Cultural, FILE, Multiplicidade and Hipersonica (Brasil), Royal Festival Hall, onedotzero, ISEA, CineCity, Lovebytes, AV Festival and London Film Festival (UK), Hong Kong Arts Centre, I/O Gallery and Get It Louder (China), GaîtéLyrique and Nuit Blanche (France), EMAF (Germany), Moscow Architectural Biennial (Russia), MU, STRP, Sonic Acts, Today’s Art and Imageradio (Netherlands), NúmeroProjecta (Portugal), NABA Milan (Italy), MOD Festival (Mexico), Dis-Locate (Japan), REC Madrid and LEV (Spain), MIC ToiRerehiko (New Zealand) and others. Matthias Kispert is a lecturer in Sound Art at the University of the Arts London.

Video Inverted Worlds: Arab Hip Hop – Rhymes and Revolution

Like a scratched up 45-rpm/7” record, the purveyors of the Arab hip hop movement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have been repetitive about the nature of the messaging. From Tunisia to Jordan, to Lebanon and Libya, from Syria and back to Palestine, Arab hip-hoppers have been producing for their insular fanbase(s) with lyrics that presaged the rhetoric of the so-called Arab Spring. But they developed in the shadows. They spoke more about the theft of Palestine, or the plight of the disenfranchised, and the corruption of the ruling classes rather than the idea of mass rebellion sparked by the selfimmolation of Mohamed Al-Bou’ziz in December 2010. The backbone was their reliance on the beats.

Cairo trio Arabian Knightz perform in Doha.
(Omar Chatriwala | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

And to this end, the movement’s rhythmic signposts grew from the mimicry of the Western, Afro-influenced 4×4 rhythm structure to a very homegrown distillation of the Tarab melodies and beat structures of their musical forebearers – with SP-808 sampler effects taken from the wealth of Arab records made in Egypt and Lebanon for decades prior to cassettes and CD’s. But the revolutions didn’t change the movement. If anything, the revolutions helped the movement serve notice to the West and to the corporate entities that would exploit the talent coming from the Arab hip hop movement – “they need no validation from anyone but themselves and their growing fanbase.”

Indeed, the lyrical and musical litmus tests within the Arab hip-hop movement have evolved to be “about” the social messaging, and about the innovations of homegrown sampling than about money or fame. Who are the main actors in the pan-Arab hip hop movement? Is there a Pan-Arab hip hop movement? What real impact will Arab hip hop have on the shaabi audience or the mainstream? Can it or has it affected revolution in the region? Will the next battles of free expression be fought by members of the Arab hip hop movement? These are all questions that, in the very least, deserve debate. The questions were discussed at the Inverted Worlds Congress by the cultural filmmaker and writer Jackson Allers.

He has spent the last 6-years documenting the alternative and independent musical trends in the Arab world for outlets like The National, Rolling Stone ME, National Public Radio, Red Bull Music Academy Magazine and primarily on his blog Beats and Breath. His work on Arab hip hop in the region has been cited frequently as a reference point in numerous academic settings. His 29-min radio documentary – Rhyme and Revolution – about the Arab hip-hop movement and the revolutions has travelled to three continents and aired on over 200 radio stations worldwide, and his short documentary about the young Palestinian hip hop group I-Voice (Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp) and their search for a back-up generator for their camp studio has been cited by critics as a “non-polemic” look at the legacy of the Palestinian conflict. He is writing a book on the rise of Arab hip hop in the region and Diaspora, and is also helping to document the making of the Arab hip hop compilation “Khat Thaleth” – produced by the Stronghold Sound record label.

Arab Hip Hop – Rhymes and Revolution from Orient Institut Beirut on Vimeo.

REPORT: Workers’ organisations between fragmentation and protest: A workshop

Unions have continued to play an important role before and during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia since 2011. Lebanon has also witnessed a variety of strikes and sit-ins in 2012. On the one hand, electricity workers staged the longest ever strike in Lebanese history and employees managed to establish new unions, sometimes after a long struggle. On the other hand, the fragmentation of Lebanese unions is second to none because they are divided along party political lines. How independent and effective are unions under these political circumstances? At a workshop organized by postdoctoral fellow Aurora Sottimano at the OIB, Unionists and scholars discussed this question before the background of Egyptian and Lebanese experiences as well as the status of workers’ rights and the union laws at a workshop organized at the OIB.

From left: Ghassan Slaiby, Tarek Moustafa, Elisabeth Longuenesse, Castro Abdallah and Hussein El Masry

In her introduction, Aurora Sottimano pointed to the sharp contrast between the newly proactive role taken up by unions in Tunisia and Egypt and the corporatist stance of most Lebanese workers organisations. The failure of Lebanese unions in linking social and workplace concerns, she contended, accounts for their inability to get public support and affects their ability to pressure government into taking action for workers’ interests. Guest speaker Charbel Nahas, former Lebanese Minister of Labour, explained the political economy of the Lebanese job market – often reduced to a patron-client relationship – as a structural aspect of the Lebanese economy. He further illustrated the difficulties to reform such an “inefficient and inequitable yet powerful system”, which stymied his attempts to bring about social and economic reforms earlier in 2012.

Charbel Nahas (right) and Bassem Chit (background)

Keynote speaker Elisabeth Longuenesse, Director of Contemporary Studies at the French Institute for the Near East (IFPO), introduced three topics for discussion: the fragmentation of Lebanese workers organisations; legal barriers and actual work conditions; and current trends in the Lebanese labour market –  all of which negatively affect the ability of unions to mobilize workers. In answering  her questions, the speakers discussed the precarious balance of peace that followed the Lebanese civil war. In contrast to the vitality shown by workers unions during the war, the early 1990s saw a proliferation of yellow unions. Abdel-Amir Najde, President of the Federation of Public Car Drivers for Land Transport, and Adib Bou Habib, General Secretary of the Printing Press Employees Union, drew on their personal experience to explain this development. Whilst most union leaders blame the direct and indirect interference of Syrian authorities for the fragmentation of the workers movement, Abdallah Castro, President of the Federation of Lebanese Workers Unions (FENASOL), pointed to the questionable role of domestic actors as well as international organisation agencies, all of which contributed to “kill the labour movement”.

Public Service International Secretary for Arab Countries, Dr. Ghassan Slaiby, argued for the need for a new organizational framework to replace the General Confederation, which represents political and sectarian factions rather than workers’ interests. According to him, a new organizational framework is a precondition in order for re-launching the Lebanese labour movement and placing it once again on the track of independence and democracy.

The independence and unity of workers organisations also were the background issues of the ensuing discussion, which included leaders of the most active and politically independent organisations in Lebanon, such as Hanna Gharib, President of the Secondary School Teacher League (rabita); Kamal Mawlud (Document 1| Document 2), President of  the Union of North Lebanon Water Establishment Workers; and Georges Hajj, President of  the Federation of Bank Employees Unions. In their contributions, they showed how they articulate workers’ demands and the obstacles they routinely faced in the context of the “politicization” of the public sphere in Lebanon.

The two Egyptian speakers, Hussein El Masry, (Training Coordinator of the Centre for Trade Union Services), and Tarek Moustafa (General Secretary of the Real Estate Tax Authority Union), focused  on the strategies of the Egyptian labour movement in confronting  the two challenges of repression by the former regime and a pro-regime General Confederation. They maintained that unionist practice is inseparable from politics and involves more than narrowly conceived workers’ interests – as their demand for a maximum as well as a minimum wage implies. Moreover they urged their Lebanese counterparts to “think out of the box” (Moustafa) in order for unionist work to become more effective in authoritarian or democratically-deficient contexts.

From left: Samir Tawk, Aurora Sottimano, Ghassan Slaiby

Both positions – to skilfully play by the political rules and to resolutely act against them – were represented by some of the new actors in the Lebanese labour movement, which includes workers from a variety of work conditions. Mohammad Mansour (Public Sector Cooperative Workers) and Mohammad Boukhari (Hariri Hospital Workers) explained the situation of public sector workers. Lubnan Makhoul, president of the newly formed Electricity Workers League, described how daily workers are torn between the public Electricity Establishment and private subcontracting companies. Samir Tawk, from the newly established Spinneys Workers Union, highlighted the working conditions in the private commercial sector. All these speakers denounced heavy political pressure and breaches of labour law provisions, including the firing of leading activists. Lubnan Makhoul also deplored the lack of solidarity with the cause of daily workers on part of established unions amidst the general public apathy vis-à-vis the longest ever strike in Lebanon.

Ziyad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development, said in his concluding remarks that Lebanese unionists appear increasingly aware of the potential role of workers organisations as engines of political and civil action. However, it appears that Lebanese unionists lack a clear vision of their own capacity to bring about change. Faced by their own apparent limitations – discussed at length during the workshop – almost all expectations remain directed towards the state, which the unionists deem responsible for creating and enforcing a democratic regulatory framework for labour activities. Crucially, each case study pointed to the need to democratize union practices as a first step to gain credibility and increase workers mobilisation.