Lessons From 1989: Europe Must Support Democracy In Arab World

Lessons From 1989: Europe Must Support Democracy In Arab World

Commentary: The Middle East is facing a transformation similar to the one begun in Eastern and Central Europe two decades ago. Europeans must support democratic movements, even in the face of the uncertainty -- and chaos -- it could bring.

Cairo, 2011 (Ramy Raoof)

Politicians do not particularly like it when the status quo is shaken. A fundamental distrust of social upheaval is simply part of their profession. They are better equipped to manage a defective reality, which at least they know, than to confront revolutionary developments that lack certainty or historical precedents.

During such moments, politicians often go silent. Their policies are no longer worked out behind closed doors, but suddenly put on public display. And what politician likes to look powerless in the face of a new reality?

This exact situation is currently playing out in the Arab world. The autocrats and despots who supposedly maintained stability in the troubled region for the past decades are now becoming the debate itself. Across Egypt, the idea is slowly spreading that the country can function without its current rulers. In the political centers of the Western world, we still cannot make sense out of what is happening right before our eyes. For we do not yet know how this story will end.

Egypt as opportunity or risk?

Of course, we also did not know what would happen in 1989, when the people of Central and Eastern Europe began to take fate into their own hands and liberate themselves from the captivity of the Cold War. Back then, the Western political elite did not rejoice over the fact that the people suddenly become directors of their own history, no longer content to be silent objects of international diplomacy.

Even future German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder still saw the fragile status quo of the GDR as leaden reality in June of 1989. "After 40 years of the Federal Republic, we should not lie to a new generation in Germany about the chances of reunification. There are none," he said then in an interview.

Fortunately, today's politicians are avoiding such apodictic statements in face of the Egyptian insurgency. Right now, it's impossible to say whether the uprisings in Cairo and Suez will democratize the Arab world or whether they inherently raise the risk of Islamization in the region. We don't know if Egypt will be the next East Germany or the next Yugoslavia.

Today, we look back at fall of East Germany with the comfortable knowledge that in the end, everything went well. That it could have played out very differently - as it did in Yugoslavia, where a bloody civil war killed 100,000 and stranded millions of refugees - is largely forgotten in retrospect. But at the time, in the summer of 1989, it was not at all clear that the Red Army would remain in their barracks.

Egon Krenz's undisguised threats of a bloody "Chinese solution" were on the table. And the idea of a united Germany was not seen with much optimism in London and Paris. We Germans were very lucky, and many things could have gone wrong. But if things had gone wrong that autumn, would that have discredited the freedom movement? Today, we are witnessing another turning point, but it is far from clear if Egypt is facing its own "fall of the Berlin wall" or if it is headed towards martial law, which was declared in December 1981 in the face of growing protests in Poland.

The young lead the way

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, we may be witnessing the end of a "sealed time" in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This is the term that historian Dan Diner used a few years ago to describe what he saw as a "standstill in the Islamic world." In his book, Diner outlined a region in which the omnipresence of the sacred and the lack of pluralism and democracy has led to a development blockade that has robbed individuals of every opportunity to take their lives into their own hands.

Millions of people are now running against this standstill, especially the younger generation, who are demanding a good life – and they want it now. They refuse to continue to watch helplessly as very rich, corrupt despots get older and they themselves are condemned to wait as their chances for success dwindle.

Therefore, these young Arabs - both men and women - are taking to the streets in the same way that Eastern Europeans did two decades ago because they could not wait for Honecker, Ceausescu or Jaruzelski to finally cave. As Europeans, especially given our recent history, we should understand this human impulse for freedom and autonomy.

We should reach out to protesters in Cairo, Tunis and Amman before others who do not have freedom and self-determination in mind get a chance to do so. Because of course, our sympathy for the protest movement mixes with fears of political Islamism.

Israel warns that an Islamist dictatorship in Egypt could be worse than Mubarak's autocratic rule. That's hard to deny. And it's easy to understand why a country that Iran would like to see wiped off the map would not welcome political change in the region unconditionally.

Ultimately, the question is not if, but how to change the Arab world. In this process lies a great opportunity. But this opportunity calls for an active Europe - not only an active EU - to support Arab democracy movements alongside security guarantees for the Jewish state.

Read the original article in German

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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