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Syria: The Hidden War on Women

Syrian refugee women and girls are suffering harassment, sexual exploitation and domestic abuse in exile in Lebanon and Jordan, and that abuse is increasing.

By Sharron Ward

Some have been living in refugee camps like Zaatari in Jordan for over 4 years. But the biggest concentration of refugees lives outside the formal camps. Over 80% per cent of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon live in urban areas. And it is these refugees who are the most vulnerable.

Last November, the Jordanian Ministry of Health, having spent millions on health care, stopped funding free medical aid to Syrian refugees. Now Syrians must fund it themselves or look to humanitarian aid agencies for help. But it is illegal for Syrian refugees to work in Lebanon and Jordan.

There are no formal camps in Lebanon, and many lone Syrian refugee women I met in the Bekaa valley have to live in rented apartments or small informal tent settlements. There are thousands of Syrian refugee women whose husbands were either killed fighting in Syria or are simply missing – their fate unknown.

These women are increasingly falling prey to sexual harassment, exploitation and the expectation of trading sex in return for aid. Unscrupulous landlords and local charity organisations abuse their power and exploit the vulnerable position of these women who can’t pay their rent or have to rely on aid agencies for help.

‘Samar’ is one such woman I met. If the struggle of trying to survive as a single women with five young children – all who were sick with asthma and themselves traumatised by living under siege and years of bombardments from Assad’s army – wasn’t enough, Samar also has to contend with local charities, run by men who expect her to trade sex for aid in order to get help.

Mona, a widowed woman I met in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon recalls a similar experience.

“The rent was very expensive around $400USD a month. I could not afford the rent, so I asked the landlord for a reduction. He refused, saying ‘I told you – you shine the light on me and I will shine the light on you. But you refused.’

“I didn’t know what he meant,” says Mona. Later she realised he was expecting sex in return for rent.

Samar is not only traumatised by unspeakable horrors during the Syrian war – she saw massacres in which hundreds of people were killed – she also survived a 7-month long siege.

“We would go into bombed out houses, wash the dirt off the rice and eat it,” she explained.

But she too suffers from what she calls “the cruel treatment of women by Syrian society.” She explains that from the age of 8 or 9-years-old, Syrian girls from conservative families starting to reach puberty are kept at home in order to “protect” them from the advances of men.

This restricts their ability to get an education, and as Samar says, there is no way to provide an income now when she needs it the most. Her husband is missing inside Syria, and she struggles to be the breadwinner.

“I’m really suffering in Lebanon, I can’t provide for my children, to provide for all their needs because I didn’t finish my education.”

Syrian refugees are running out of money, and so incidents of early marriage, which has always been traditional in Syria amongst conservative families, are rising rapidly. Marrying off Syrian girls under the age of 18 years old is a way some families see of easing the economic burden.

‘Farah’, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee living outside the camps in Jordan was under great pressure from her family to marry early. She was officially engaged three times and informally several times – the first at the age of 12 years old. Each time she refused, she was beaten by her family. First by her father, and then by her brother, who “became his deputy.” The beatings she endured were severe.

Syrian men in exile too are feeling the strain. Unable to work in Jordan and Lebanon, and unable to cope with the humiliating change in their economic circumstances, men are lashing out at their wives more than ever.

‘Amal’ in Jordan told me of the severe psychological stress she endured from her husband.

“He hit me all over my body. He said it was because of our situation in Jordan, that he couldn’t provide for us, he couldn’t work.”

Bravely, Amal speaks out as domestic violence and abuse is stigmatised in Syrian culture. As a result, the true scale of domestic abuse and sexual exploitation remains hidden.

Much needed relief is provided by the United Nations Population Fund which is supporting local government and non-government organisations to empower and counsel both Syrian women and men. But the UN says its humanitarian agencies, heaving under the strain of catering for refugees in the Middle East, is on the brink of bankruptcy.

Dr Shible Sabhani, the UNFPA Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Jordan says that despite gender based violence reaching epidemic proportions in the Middle East, donor fatigue has meant that the “sustainability of our ability to help these vulnerable Syrian women is greatly at risk.”

For thousands of Syrian women in exile in the Middle East, the hidden war on women continues.

Edited by Andy Kemp
Filmed, directed and produced by Sharron Ward

Syria: The Hidden War is a Katalyst Productions film for Channel 4 News

@KatalystProds

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Syria and the drumbeat of world war – To read

Bill Van Auken

With Russia having completed its first week of airstrikes in Syria, firing some 26 cruise missiles from warships deployed over 900 miles away in the Caspian Sea, an escalating drumbeat of warnings and threats of a far more dangerous conflict and even world war has come to dominate discussions within ruling circles in both the US and Europe.

French President François Hollande, who has ordered French warplanes to bomb Syria, warned European lawmakers Wednesday that the events in that country could spiral into a “total war” from which Europe itself would not be “sheltered.”

Seizing on alleged incidents involving Russian warplanes straying into Turkish airspace, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared, “An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO,” implicitly invoking Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which commits members of the US-led military alliance to an armed response against an attack on Turkey or any other member state.

The Turkish government, which has been one of the primary sources of support for Islamist militias such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front that have ravaged Syria, routinely violates the airspace of its own neighbors, carrying out bombing raids against Kurdish camps in Iraq and shooting down Syrian planes over Syrian territory.

Top NATO officials have also weighed in with bellicose denunciations of Moscow. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg charged that the alleged Russian incursion into Turkish airspace “does not look like an accident.” He continued, warning, “Incidents, accidents, may create dangerous situations. And therefore it is also important to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Speaking in Washington on Tuesday, Navy Adm. Mark Ferguson, who commands NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, accused Russia of building an “arc of steel” from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean Sea. This deliberate paraphrasing of Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech turns the real relationship of forces inside out, obscuring the relentless encirclement of Russia by Washington and the NATO alliance in the wake of the Soviet Union’s liquidation 25 years ago.

Describing Russia as the “most dangerous threat” facing NATO, Admiral Ferguson called for an increasingly aggressive NATO posture toward Moscow, recommending the honing of the alliance’s “war fighting skills” and the deployment of military forces “on call for real world operations.”

Former high-level US officials, whose views undoubtedly reflect the thinking within powerful sections of the American ruling establishment and its vast military and intelligence complex, have also weighed in with calls for confrontation with Russia.

In a column published by the Financial Times, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration and a longtime US imperialist strategist, wrote that Russian attacks on CIA-backed Islamist militias “should prompt US retaliation.” Like others in Washington, he avoided mentioning that the most prominent of these militias is Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front.

Brzezinski advised that “Russian naval and air presences in Syria are vulnerable, isolated geographically from their homeland” and “could be ‘disarmed’ if they persist in provoking the US.” Presumably, he inserted the quotation marks around “disarmed” to signal that he was employing a euphemism for “militarily obliterated.”

Similarly, Ivo Daalder, who was Obama’s ambassador to NATO until mid-2013, told Politico: “If we want to take out their military forces there, we can probably do it at relatively little or no cost to ourselves. The question is what will be Putin’s response. I think if you sit in the Situation Room you have to play this one out.”

Meanwhile, Frederic Hof, Obama’s former special envoy on a Syrian transition, compared Putin’s actions to those of Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, which brought the world to the precipice of nuclear war. “Like his predecessor over 50 years ago, he [Putin] senses weakness on the part of a US president. Like his predecessor, he risks discovering that trifling with the United States is not a healthy pursuit. But such a risk entails dangers for all concerned.”

Drawing out the ominous implications of these discussions, Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, compared the Syrian conflict with the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. He wrote: “A similar proxy war is under way in Syria today—with both the Russian and US air forces bombing targets in the country, and foreign fighters pouring in.”

He continued: “The countries that were backing opposite sides in Spain in the 1930s were fighting each other directly by the 1940s. The risk of the Syrian conflict leading to a direct clash between the Iranians and the Saudis, or even the Russians and the Americans, cannot be discounted.”

This danger exists because Russia’s intervention—launched in defense of the interests of the Russian state and the ruling class of oligarchs who represent Russia’s energy conglomerates—has cut across US plans to effect regime-change in Syria and redraw the map of the Middle East that date back decades.

The proposal to bring about regime-change in Syria by backing proxy forces on the ground was advanced two decades ago in a document entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” drafted for then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a study group that included Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser. All three were later to gain high-level positions in the Bush administration, participating in the conspiracy to launch the US war of aggression against Iraq.

A recently released classified document obtained by WikiLeaks establishes that active US planning for regime-change predated the outbreak of the Syrian civil war by at least five years. The secret report from the head of the US Embassy in Damascus outlined “vulnerabilities” of the Syrian government that Washington could exploit. At the top of the list were fomenting “Sunni fears of Iranian influence” to cause sectarian conflict and taking advantage of “the presence of transiting Islamist extremists.”

Given that the document was written in 2006, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian carnage caused by the US invasion and Washington’s divide-and-rule tactics, these proposals were made with full awareness that they would provoke a bloodbath. Nearly a decade later, the bitter fruits of this policy include the deaths of some 300,000 Syrians, with another 4 million driven from the country and 7 million more internally displaced.

While cynically exploiting the suffering of the Syrian people to justify an escalation of US militarism, Washington is not about to let Russia derail its drive to impose its hegemony over the oil-rich Middle East and the entire planet.

The path to war with Russia is by no means accidental. From the outset, the US intervention to topple the regime in Damascus was aimed at weakening the principal allies of the Syrian government—Iran and Russia—in preparation for a direct assault on both countries.

More and more directly each day, the eruption of American militarism, rooted in the historic crisis of American and world capitalism, confronts humanity with the specter of a nuclear Third World War.

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Israel strikes near the Syrian capital: Syrian TV

(Reuters) – Syrian state television said on Sunday that Israeli jets had bombed areas near Damascus international airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon.

An Israeli army spokesman said he would not comment on the “foreign reports”.

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the three-year conflict, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for their long-time foe Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.

“The Israeli enemy committed aggression against Syria by targeting two safe areas in Damascus province, in all of Dimas and near the Damascus International Airport,” state television said, adding that there were no casualties.

Residents in Damascus said they heard loud explosions and opposition activists posted photos online of jet streams in the evening sky and fiery explosions. Syria’s army general command said on state television that there were “material losses in some facilities.” It said the strike benefited al Qaeda.

Syria’s state news agency SANA said the strikes were a “flagrant attack on Syria”, while the official news agency in Lebanon said Israeli jets breached its airspace on Sunday.

A resident in the Damascus suburb of Qudsaya, close to Dimas, said the agricultural airport in Dimas was hit.

Dimas is in a mountainous area to the northwest of the capital which is under government control and close to several military installations.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict through a network of sources on both sides, said that 10 explosions were heard near Dimas. It said that one missile hit a warehouse for imports and exports at the Damascus international airport.

Syrian state media reported in May 2013 that Israeli aircraft struck in three places including the Dimas airport. At the time, Western and Israeli officials said it was a strike on Iranian missiles bound for Hezbollah.

Syria’s war started with a pro-democracy movement which grew into an armed uprising and has inflamed regional confrontations. Some 200,000 people have died, the United Nations says.

A U.S.-led coalition is also bombing Syria from the skies but targeting the Islamic State militant group, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest foes.

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Libyan government massacres demonstrators as uprising spreads

The Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi is attempting to violently suppress an uprising centred in the country’s eastern cities and towns. US-based organisation Human Rights Watch has said it has confirmed 173 deaths in the protests, which began last Thursday, but according to some reports more than 500 may have been killed by regime forces.
One of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif El Islam Gaddafi, spoke live on state television at around 1 a.m. this morning—he declared “we are not Tunisia and Egypt”, warned of civil war, and menacingly threatened to “fight to the last minute, until the last bullet”.

Libya is bordered to its west by Tunisia, and to its east by Egypt. Muammar Gaddafi—who in recent years has assiduously courted the approval of Washington and the European powers, also working closely with major oil corporations—is now clearly determined to avoid the same fate as former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, using violence and state provocations to maintain his tenuous grip on power.

A doctor in a Benghazi hospital also told the television news network: “It’s a massacre here. The military is shooting at all the protesters with live bullets, I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. The military forces are everywhere, even from the hospital I work, we are not safe. There was an 8-year-old boy who died the other day from a gunshot to the head—what did he do to deserve this?”
The Wall Street Journal reported: “Residents said pro-Gadhafi loyalists driving around in cars fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at anyone in the streets.”
Demonstrators have also alleged that many of these forces are foreign mercenaries, from Chad, Tunisia, and other African countries. Fatih, a 26-year-old unemployed Benghazi resident, told Al Jazeera that many of the foreign security forces spoke only French, not Arabic, “making them impossible to reason with”. She added: “They don’t ask questions—they just shoot live ammunition. Innocent people are getting caught up in all this. They are being killed for simply staying at home. House-to-house searches are taking place as the security forces look for weapons.”
Fighting has been reported in the other cities and towns in the east. In Bayda, a city of around 200,000 people near the Egyptian border, residents said that local police joined anti-government forces and attacked the army’s second brigade, forcing soldiers to retreat to the city’s outskirts. In Ajdabiya, a town 160 kilometres south of Benghazi, Al Jazeera reported that protestors have declared a “Free City” after razing the headquarters of Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Committee and fourteen other government buildings.
Unrest has spread from the east to the capital, Tripoli, and other urban centres in the west. Late last night, up to 2,000 protestors defied the government clampdown and gathered in Tripoli, reportedly burning a portrait of Gaddafi and chanting anti-government slogans.
The government’s crisis is triggering the emergence of divisions within the ruling elite. Yesterday two of Gaddafi’s diplomats declared their opposition to the regime. Libya’s ambassador to China, Hussein Sadiq al Musrati, announced his resignation while appearing on Al Jazeera’s Arabic network. He appealed for the army to intervene. Libya’s Arab League representative in Cairo, Abdel-Monem al-Houni, said he had “resigned from all his duties and joined the popular revolution”.
Inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, working people and students in Libya are driven by the same social and economic problems wracking North Africa and the Middle East. Unemployment in Libya is believed to be as high as 30 percent, and poverty is deep and widespread, despite the country’s enormous oil wealth. The precise role played by the social grievances of the working class and urban poor in these protests is difficult to determine, however.
In his televised address this morning, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi attempted to bolster the government’s position by stoking fears of civil war and separatist splits. “There is a plot against Libya,” he declared. “People want to create a government in Benghazi and others want to have an Islamic emirate in Bayda. All these [people] have their own plots… The country will be divided like North and South Korea, we will see each other through a fence. You will wait in line for months for a visa.”
Gaddafi’s remarks underscored the regime’s increasingly tenuous grip on power. The dictator’s son admitted that the army had killed citizens—he blamed soldiers for not being used to dealing with “riots”—and acknowledged that demonstrators had armed themselves. He attempted to attribute the unrest to Libyan exiles in Europe and America, who “want us to kill each other then come and rule us, like in Iraq”. However, he also offered concessions including new media laws, a revised constitution, and even a “new national anthem and new flag”. In an attempt to defuse opposition in the working class, Gaddafi pledged to raise wages.

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تشومسكي: الثورة في مصر رائعة وتداعياتها الإقليمية تبدو كبيرة

انتقد الكاتب والاستاذ الجامعي نعوم تشومسكي في مقابلة مع موقع «ديموكراسي ناو» (الديموقراطية الآن) الموقف الرسمي الأميركي من الثورة «الرائعة» في مصر، معتبراً أن الرؤساء الأميركيين المتعاقبين يتعاطون بحسب «كتاب سلوك» محدّد مع ترنّح الدكتاتوريات، تقيّد فيه الرئيس الأميركي باراك أوباما خلال الأحداث المصرية. واعتبر تشومسكي أنه لا يمكن التنبؤ بالمرحلة المقبلة، مؤكّداً على خصوصية ما يمر به الشرق الأوسط.
وفي حوار مع آيمي غودمان، وتعليقاً على الأحداث المصرية، قال تشومسكي: «إن ما يحدث شيء رائع. ومهما كانت النتيجة، فهذه أحداث لن تنتسى وسيكون لها حتماً تداعيات طويلة الأمد».
وأضاف «إن شجاعة وتصميم والتزام المعتصمين أمر يثير الإعجاب والتقدير. فهم تغلبوا على الشرطة واجتاحوا ساحة التحرير وهم صامدون فيها في مواجهة عصابات مبارك المنظّمة، والتي خلقتها الحكومة في محاولة لصدّ المعتصمين، أو بهدف خلق واقع معين سيضطر الجيش على أثره إلى التحرك لإعادة النظام وفرض حكم عسكري أو شيء من هذا القبيل. ومن الصعب توقع ما سيحدث. غير أن الأحداث تبدو فعلاً مذهلة. وبطبيعة الحال، هي منتشرة في كل أنحاء الشرق الأوسط. في اليمن، الأردن، وغيرها. فالتداعيات تبدو كبيرة».
أما عن الولايات المتّحدة، فرأى تشومسكي أنها «حتى الآن تتبع كتاب السلوك المعتاد. أي كما في الحالات الكثيرة التي خسر فيها دكتاتوريون مقرّبون من الولايات المتحّدة الحكم في بلادهم، أو أوشكوا على ذلك، يتم اعتماد السياسة الروتينية. فمن ماركوس إلى دوفالييه وتشاوشيسكو، والذي دعمه الأميركيون والبريطانيون كثيراً، وسوهارتو، يتم الوقوف إلى جانبه ودعمه لأطول مدة ممكنة، وعندما تخرج الأمور عن السيطرة، أي عندما ينقلب الجيش عادةً عليه، تغيرّ موقفها 180 درجة، وتزعم أنها كانت إلى جانب الشعب منذ البداية، تمحي الماضي، لتقوم بعدها بالخطوات الممكنة لإعادة النظام القديم بوجوه جديدة. وقد تنجح هذه السياسة أو تفشل بحسب الظروف».
وقال تشومسكي إن «هذا تماماً ما يحصل اليوم في الحالة المصرية. فهم ينتظرون ليرون ما إذا كان مبارك قادرا على الصمود، وهو مصمم على ذلك على ما يبدو، وخلال هذه الفترة، يتبنّى الأميركيون الخطاب القائل «يجب أن ندعم القانون والنظام، والتغيير الدستوري» وما إلى ذلك. وفي حال فشل في البقاء في منصبه، أو انقلب جيشه عليه مثلاً، فعندها سيتم اعتماد الخطة المعتادة. في الواقع، إن الزعيم الوحيد الذي كان صريحاً والذي يصبح ـ إن لم يقل أصبح ـ الشخصية المفضلة في الشرق الأوسط هو رئيس الوزراء التركي رجب طيب أردوغان، والذي كان بمنتهى الشجاعة والواقعية».
وتعليقاً على خطاب الرئيس باراك أوباما بعد تحدّثه مع مبارك، رأى تشومسكي أنه «توخّى الحذر في عدم التصريح بشيء». فمبارك موافق أنه يجب القيام بتغيير. لكن أي تغيير؟ حكومة جديدة؟ تعديلات دستورية طفيفة؟… إنها أمور مفرغ منها. فخطاب أوباما إذاً مماثل لخطابات الرؤساء الأميركيين في هذه الحالات. أي هو يتبع كتاب السلوك: عندما يترنح دكتاتور من الحلفاء، يجب دعمه قدر الإمكان، وعندما تخرج الأمور عن سيطرته، يتبدّل الموقف».
وعن العلاقة الأميركية ـ المصرية، رأى تشومسكي أن «الولايات المتّحدة تلعب دورا داعما كبيرا جداً هناك. فمصر تأتي في المرتبة الثانية بعد إسرائيل من حيث المساعدات الأميركية الاقتصادية والعسكرية المقدّمة. كما أن أوباما نفسه هو من أكبر الداعمين لمبارك. ويجدر التذكير أنه وفي حين كان متجها لإلقاء خطابة الشهير في القاهرة، والذي كان من المفترض أن يكون خطاب المصالحة مع العرب، سأله أحد الصحافيين، حول ما إذا كان سيشير إلى ما يسمى حكم مبارك المتسلط. وأجاب أوباما بأنه لن يفعل ذلك، قائلاً إنه لا يحبّذ «تصنيف» الأصدقاء، وأن مبارك رجل طيب وقد قام بأمور جيدة وحافظ على الاستقرار، وأنه سيستمر في دعمه لأنه «صديق»، وما إلى ذلك. إن مبارك من أكثر دكتاتوريي المنطقة إجراماً، ومن المستغرب كيف يمكن لأحد أن يأخذ كلام أوباما حول حقوق الإنسان على محمل الجد. غير أن الدعم الدبلوماسي كان قويا جدا أيضاً. والطائرات العسكرية التي حلّقت فوق ساحة التحرير هي أميركية الصنع طبعاً. والولايات المتّحدة هي الداعم الأقوى والأهم لهذا النظام. فليس الوضع مشابهاً لتونس. ففي الحالة التونسية، تحمّلت فرنسا اللوم الأكبر كونها الداعم الرئيسي لنظام بن علي. أما في مصر، فهذا الداعم الرئيسي هو الولايات المتّحدة، بالإضافة لإسرائيل طبعاً والسعودية. وقد غضب القادة الإسرائيليون، أو على الأقل عبّروا عن غضبهم لعدم اتخاذ أوباما موقف أكثر حزما لدعم صديقهم مبارك».
وحول التداعيات في الشرق الأوسط، وصف تشومسكي الثورة الحالية بأنها من «أكثر الثورات الإقليمية أهمية بحسب ما أذكر».
وتابع: «قد يتم تشبيهها من وقت إلى آخر بأوروبا الشرقية، غير أنني لا أرى أنها مقارنة دقيقة. ففي هذه الحالة ليس هناك من غورباتشيف في صفوف الولايات المتحدة أو غيرها من القوى الكبرى الداعمة للدكتاتوريات. وهذا فرق كبير. والمفارقة الأخرى هي أنه في حالة أوروبا الشرقية تبعت الولايات المتحدة وحلفاؤها مبدأ تطبيق الديموقراطية إلى حد ما، بما يتطابق ومصالحها الاقتصادية والاستراتيجية، وهو أمر حسن بشكل عام. وهذا ما يمثل فرقاً رئيسياً بين الحالتين. وقد يكون التشبيه المتطابق الوحيد، الحالة الرومانية، مع تشاوشيسكو، وهو أشرس دكتاتوريي المنطقة، والذي كان مدعوماً بقوة من قبل الولايات المتّحدة حتى النهاية. وعندما حدث الانقلاب عليه وقتل، تبع الرئيس جورج بوش الأب السياسة المعتادة: التصريح بأنه كان إلى جانب الشعب ومعارضاً للدكتاتورية، محاولاً استكمال العلاقات الوثيقة.
أما عن الوضع الجديد الذي قد تشهده المنطقة، قال تشومسكي إن «لا أحد يعلم إلى أين قد تؤول الأمور. فالمشاكل التي يطالب المتظاهرون بإصلاحها هي عميقة وتتطلب تغييرات جذرية. ولن يكون من السهل إيجاد الحلول لها. فهناك فقر مدقع، قمع، وليس نقص في الديموقراطية فقط».
ورأى أن «مصر وغيرها من دول المنطقة تمر في مرحلة نيوليبرالية أظهرت نموا على الورق، وما يرافقها من تداعيات: تركّز شديد للثروات، وإفقار كبير وتهميش لغالبية المواطنين»، مؤكّداً أن «هذه ألامور لا تتغير بسهولة».

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