In divided Iraq, ‘electronic armies’ threaten activists, media

A picture taken on August 30, 2019 shows a billboard, installed by a militant faction belonging to Iraq's Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) on a main road in Baghdad bearing the slogan: "Death to America and Israel" next to a picture of a helicopter carrying a coffin draped with the US flag. (AFP)
Updated 06 September 2019

In divided Iraq, ‘electronic armies’ threaten activists, media

  • Parties, armed groups and even officials in Iraq benefit from legions of supporters dubbed “electronic armies,”

BAGHDAD: Iraqi journalists, activists and researchers are facing a wave of accusations and threats by shadowy online groups they suspect are linked to powerful pro-Iran factions.
Parties, armed groups and even officials in Iraq benefit from legions of supporters dubbed “electronic armies,” which take to social media to anonymously sing their praises or mock their detractors.
These online rivalries now appear to have been fanned by months of rising tensions pitting Iran against the US and Israel.
This summer, suspicious explosions hit five camps and arms depots run by Iraq’s Hashed Al-Shaabi, a network of mostly Shiite armed factions linked to Iran.
The Hashed was quick to blame Israel and the United States, but also said it suspected “agents” of the two countries contributed to the attacks.
That accusation was followed by an online campaign accusing a broad range of Iraqi nationals of “collaborating” with Israel and the US.
One graphic shared by an Arabic-language page named “Don’t Tread on Us” accused 14 Iraqis of de facto supporting a policy of “normalization with Israel.”
Shared on social media, it named figures such as journalist Joumana Mumtaz and blogger Ali Wajih.
In response, Wajih penned a rare open letter to Iraq’s prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, Hashed chief Faleh Fayyadh and his powerful deputy Abu Mehdi Al-Muhandis.
“For years, a group of us journalists and bloggers has faced incitements to murder by people and pages that may be close to the Hashed, or directly linked to it,” he wrote.
Allegations they were “agents” or seeking normalization with Israel, Wajih said, were “empty and silly.”
Iraqis have long been opposed to Israel because of its occupation of Palestinian land.
Baghdad has however developed close ties with Washington since the American-led invasion that toppled ex-dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Despite that, Washington’s bitter rival Tehran also holds considerable sway in Iraq’s political scene and within the Hashed.
In recent months, anti-Israel and anti-US rhetoric has been on the rise as Iraqis feel increasingly squeezed by the war of words between the two sides.
Some Iraqi factions have used the purported Israeli strikes to relaunch calls for US troops to leave Iraq.
Just last week, many of the same figures lashed out against US-funded Al-Hurra TV for a documentary alleging corruption among Iraq’s religious bodies, both Sunni and Shiite.
Perceptions Iraq was being “attacked” by Israel and America were “broadened to include critical and independent Iraqi voices, who have been maligned as agents in a broader plot,” said Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert at the National University of Singapore.
“In this way, entrenched domestic interests and rivalries have been folded into the ongoing tensions between the Iran-led axis of resistance and the United States, Israel and their allies in the region,” he said.
Omar Al-Shaher, a journalist named in the graphic, said there was “not a shred of proof” to back up the claims.
“These days, it’s more dangerous than ever to have your name associated with the Israeli camp,” he told AFP.
Historian Omar Mohammad, who documented atrocities in Mosul under the Daesh group, said he suspected the new accusations came “as a result of the recent (purported) Israeli airstrikes and US-Iranian tensions.”
Mohammad said the graphic’s sleek production meant he was “absolutely” taking its threats seriously.
“It is institutional and professional. Seems there is a team specialized in dehumanizing us,” Mohammad told AFP from outside Iraq.
Media rights groups are worried such incitement could lead to real violence.
“The sensitivity of the Palestinian question in the region means that accusing someone of working with Israel is tantamount to calling for their killing,” said the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory.
On Thursday, monitor and rights group Iraqi Media House called for better protection of journalists.
“The phenomenon of electronic armies has reached dangerous levels, issuing threats including incitement to violence and hatred,” it said.
“We are surprised by the authorities’ continued silence so far, including the judiciary, in a clear abandonment of its responsibilities when it comes to electronic crimes.”


Enduring miseries drive exodus of Tunisian youth

Updated 18 October 2019

Enduring miseries drive exodus of Tunisian youth

  • Despite vote for change in the country, there seems to be no end of frustration among young people

SFAX/TUNISIA: It only took 10 minutes for Fakher Hmidi to slip out of his house, past the cafes where unemployed men spend their days, and reach the creek through the mud flats where a small boat would ferry him to the migrant ship heading from Tunisia to Italy.

He left late at night, and the first his parents knew of it was the panicked, crying phone call from an Italian mobile number: “The boat is sinking. We’re in danger. Ask mum to forgive me.”

Hmidi, 18, was one of several people from his Thina district of the eastern city of Sfax among the dozens still unaccounted for in this month’s capsizing off the Italian island of Lampedusa, as ever more Tunisians join the migrant trail to Europe.

His loss, and the continued desire among many young men in Thina to make the same dangerous journey, vividly demonstrate the economic frustration that also drove voters to reject Tunisia’s political elite in recent elections.

In a parliamentary vote on Oct. 6, the day before Hmidi’s boat sank just short of the Italian coast, no party won even a quarter of seats and many independents were elected instead. On Sunday, the political outsider Kais Saied was elected president.

In the Hmidis’ modest home, whose purchase was subsidized by the government and on which the family is struggling to meet the repayment schedule, his parents sit torn with grief.

“Young people here are so frustrated. There are no jobs. They have nothing to do but sit in cafes and drink coffee or buy drugs,” said Fakher’s father, Mokhtar, 55.

Mokhtar lost his job as a driver two years ago and has not been able to find work since. Fakher’s mother, Zakia, sells brik, a fried Tunisian egg snack, to bring in a little extra money. His two elder sisters, Sondes, 29, and Nahed, 24, work in a clothes shop.

Much of the little they had went to Fakher, the family said, because they knew he was tempted by the idea of going to Europe. At night the family would sit on their roof and see the smuggler boats setting off. The seashore was “like a bus station,” they said.

 

Decline

At a cafe near the Hmidis’ home, a few dozen mostly young men sat at tables, drinking strong coffee and smoking cigarettes.

Mongi Krim, 27, said he would take the next boat to Europe if he could find enough money to pay for the trip even though, he said, he has lost friends at sea.

A survey by the Arab Barometer, a research network, said a third of all Tunisians, and more than half of young people, were considering emigrating, up by 50 percent since the 2011 revolution.

The aid agency Mercy Corps said last year that a new surge of migration from Tunisia began in 2017, a time when the economy was dipping.

Krim is unemployed but occasionally finds a day or week of work as a casual laborer. He points at the potholes on the road and says even town infrastructure has declined.

For this and the lack of jobs, he blames the government. He did not vote in either the parliamentary or the presidential election. “Why would I? It is all the same. There is no change,” he said.

Unemployment is higher among young people than anyone else in Tunisia. In the first round of the presidential election on Sept. 15, and in the parliamentary election, in which voter turnout was low, they also abstained by the highest margin.

When an apparently anti-establishment candidate, Kais Saied, went through to the second round of the presidential election on Sunday, young people backed him overwhelmingly.

But their support for a candidate touting a clear break from normal post-revolutionary politics only underscored their frustration at the direction Tunisia took under past leaders.

At the table next to Krim, Haddaj Fethi, 32, showed the inky finger that proved he had voted on Sunday. “I cannot imagine a young man who would not have voted for Saied,” he said.

On the bare patch of mud by the creek where Fakher Hmidi took the boat, some boys were playing. For them, the migration to Europe is — as it was for Hmidi — a constant background possibility in a country that offers them few other paths.

SPEEDREAD

The continued desire among many young men in Thina to make the dangerous journey, vividly demonstrate the economic frustration that also drove voters to reject Tunisia’s political elite in recent elections.

At the time of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, they had great hope, Mohkhtar Hmidi said. But economically, things got worse. Fakher found little hope in politics, he said.

Despite the apparent surge of young support for Saied as president, he has been careful to make no promises about what Tunisia’s future holds, only to pledge his personal probity and insist that he will rigidly uphold the law.

The economy is in any case not the president’s responsibility, but that of a government formed by parties in the Parliament, whose fractured nature will make coalition building particularly difficult this year.

Any government that does emerge will face the same dilemmas as its predecessors — tackling high unemployment, high inflation, a lower dinar and the competing demands of powerful unions and foreign lenders.

An improvement would come too late for the Hmidi family, still waiting nearly two weeks later for confirmation that their only son has drowned.

“Fakher told me he wanted to go to France. ‘This is my dream,’ he said to me. ‘There is no future here. You can’t find a job. How can I?’,” Mokhtar said, and his wife started to cry.