Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: Echoes of Time Before Tahrir Square

This is the fifth and last part in a series of posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here; the third here; the fourth here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


It would be disingenuous to relate events in North Africa and the Middle East (or MENA) today without reference to the media. Here too, there are many possible angles to examine. I will focus on the institutional support that the media provide in shaping consensus in support of foreign policy. In this regard, so-called mainstream Western media and networks (BBC, CNN, Fox, RFI and the like) have played a significant role in generating domestic support for the Libyan campaign. The media find themselves in the contradictory positions of both providing sustenance to foreign policy rationales and reporting on government actions. In this role the media either wittingly or unwittingly assumed the position of justifying contradictory Western foreign policy aims while trying to satisfy the needs of their audiences (especially domestic constituencies and home governments) for information from the front. Consistently, the media often generate sympathy for foreign actors or entities that either support Western interests or have affinities for Western values.

This role is not without a cost, especially when foreign policy actions, including wars, fail to attain their objectives. When the outcome of foreign policy proves disastrous, Western media also have an inexhaustible capacity to either ignore their prior support for the underlying causes or to reposition themselves as mere commentators on events over which they had no control or could not prevent. Increasingly, these tendencies have spread around the world as evidenced in the techniques and styles that have propelled the Qatari-based Al Jazeera into prominence as key contender in the emergent game of production, circulation, and consumption of foreign policy-concordant images for their affective and ideological effects.

So it is not surprising that the backdrop and background scenarios for most reporting on the 2011 revolts in MENA are dimensions of Orientalism, of which they are many. But the most constant is one of autocratic ‘barbarism’. In this regard, the discourses and media techniques for creating and supporting sympathetic figures are just as constant (or invariable) as Western states rationales for intervention. The media-hyped stories of Oriental despotism that preceded Operation Desert Storm, when the US expelled Iraq from Kuwait, have provided the template. During that event, for instance, media feted their viewers with stories of invading Iraqi hordes storming through hospital only to disconnect incubators and let helpless infants die a slow death. These and many stories of heroic bids by US soldiers to prevent such barbarism were later discredited but not the other horrific stories which convinced US citizens of the need to wage war on Saddam Hussein’s occupying army. In the Libyan case today, one of the earlier images of the aura of impunity created by Gaddafi was that of a Libyan female lawyer who was allegedly raped by Gaddafi’s forces. There was also a reported event of military takeover of a hospital.

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‘Like A Machete’: Is Viagra A Weapon Of War Rape In Libya?

My friend and colleague Mark Kersten has been drawing my attention over the last weeks to a spate of stories about Libya in which it is claimed Gaddafi has been distributing Viagra as an inducement to sexual violence against ‘enemy’ civilian populations. Colum Lynch reported in late April that Ambassador Susan Rice had cited the use of Viagra and evidence of sexual violence during a meeting of the UN Security Council (although this itself is at least third hand – Lynch seems to have picked up the details from Reuters who were passed the information by a UN diplomat who was in the room). The story seems to have originated, or first surfaced, at The Daily Mail, which claimed “numerous reports” of Viagra use.

The testimony of Suleiman Refadi, an Ajdabiya surgeon, in this Al Jazeera piece is the closest thing to a direct claim that Viagra has been distributed to troops. But, as Lynch points out, Human Rights Watch followed up his allegations and say that Refadi had “no direct evidence”, which I assume means either that he himself hadn’t seen the Viagra and condoms, or that some had been found, but not in any pattern that would associate them with a strategy of war rape. Human Rights Watch have a number of reports and commentaries addressing rape in Libya, but do not seem to have found the Viagra claims credible enough to include. Now the International Criminal Court is investigating. Luis Moreno-Ocampo intimates that he has solid evidence for the claims and declares: “It’s like a machete…It’s new. Viagra is a tool of massive rape.”

That kind of blanket statement makes me suspicious. Reports are so far conflating (or not sufficiently distinguishing) two different claims: 1) that government forces are engaged in rape in Libya; and 2) that Viagra (and sometimes condoms) are handed out as an incentive or aid for that. Claim 1 is entirely plausible and there is already good evidence for it in the case of Libya. Elisabeth Jean Wood has done some important early work on the question of variation in wartime sexual violence and her early conclusions are that there are some contexts in which rape doesn’t occur in war. But the number of such cases is very small. Rape in war is overwhelmingly the norm. This should lead us to a number of questions about type, degree, form, causes and the exact sense in which we mean ‘tool’, ‘weapon’ and ‘strategy’. But reports of rape by soldiers are not in themselves at all surprising.

What is new is the second claim. Continue reading

How Much Rape Is There In The Congo (DRC)? And How Does It Matter?

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been accused of a sex crime. After a week of free gossip about sordid secrets concealed by superinjunctions, and in the wake of the Assange controversy, the combination of a high profile financier-cum-left-winger with the whiff of sexualised domination has proved sufficient to displace attention from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had earned a spike in coverage from a new report on the extent of sexual violence there.

The numbers are appropriately horrifying. Although I can’t access the full American Journal of Public Health paper from my usual entry points (itself frustrating: why lock up your vital statistical research behind a paywall while the media is reporting on it far and wide?), the abstract suggests the following: based on a representative household survey of 3,345 female informants from a 2007 survey added to some population estimates, it is suggested that some 1.7-1.8 million women in Congo have been raped during their lifetimes, and that between 407,000-434,000 (to the nearest thousand) of those have been raped in the last 12 months. A total of 3.1-3.4 million women are estimated to have been victims/survivors of ‘intimate partner sexual violence’, which I assume means not raped by strangers or officially ‘enemy’ soldiers.

Jason Stearns provides some useful context to argue that these numbers are not surprising given previous surveys, if somewhat more solid in methodological terms. The UN has been calling the DRC ‘the rape capital of the world’ for some time now, and there are a significant number of organisations working on these issues in situ. Indeed, the sheer scale of attention to rape in the DRC is spoken of as a logistical problem among those working there. While conducting fieldwork in Goma last year, I spoke to a UNOCHA representative who put their figures (which were not comprehensive) for agencies working on sexual violence in Eastern DRC at 80 international NGOs and over 200 local NGOs, as well as multiple elements of the UN system itself. Properly coordinating work between such a mass of groups (with wildly varying levels of skill and funding) in situations of violence and funding uncertainty is as difficult as you might expect.

This gestures towards one of a number of complexities and problems in the analysis and politics of wartime sexual violence.

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It’s Not About You: US Media Bias and Egyptian Protests


Nice piece on Al Jazeera by Mohamed Shokeir that takes the US media to task for its coverage of Egyptian protests.

He asks some important questions about US conceptions of “Arab Anger”, the lack of solidarity with a people fighting an oppressive regime and the myopic US-centric narratives that have dominated the news.