The mystery of Amina Arraf

Questions have been raised about the identity of the Syrian blogger since news broke of her abductio

At first, it seemed like a straightforward -- if disheartening -- case of yet another internet activist paying the price for speaking out against the regime under who's watch they have the misfortune to live. On Monday evening Amina Arraf, a young gay woman living and blogging in Damascus, was reportedly kidnapped by armed men -- assumed to be members of Syria's notorious secret services -- and taken to an unknown location.

"We do not know who has taken her, so we do not know who to ask for her back," wrote her cousin, Rania Ismail on the homepage of Amina's blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus.

Major news organisations and social media sites around the world quickly picked up on this harrowing tale of a young woman punished for her outspoken beliefs and commitment to her sexual identity -- the "Free Amina" Facebook page amassed over 15,000 followers in the days since her disappearance.

But the story has quickly unravelled.

Doubts about Amina's identity surfaced after it emerged that the photographs purportedly of her were in fact taken from the Facebook page of Jelena Lecic, a Croatian woman living in London who has no connection to any lesbian woman in Damascus. Journalists and investigators have been unable to find any traces of a Damascene woman whose personal life corresponds to that of Amina, and the US embassy in Damascus also has no record of her existence, which is highly suspicious considering her claims to have dual American citizenship .

So, who is Amina Arraf? It is perfectly possible that "Amina" is merely the pen name of a Syrian activist who has been careful in concealing their identity from the authorities -- although perhaps not careful enough. Equally, there is a possibility that the blogger is entirely a work of cynical online fiction (cases of which have been reported before, as in the instance of Plain Layne, a young bisexual female blogger who transpired to exist purely in the imagination of Odin Soli, a middle-aged man who had previously blogged as Acanit, a young Muslim lesbian with a Jewish girlfriend).

Amina's story raises myriad questions about the elusiveness of online identity and the problematic nature of trying to verify information purely through the internet. But however mysterious or suspicious this particular case may be, it should not make us forget the plight of thousands of other bloggers and activists in the Middle East and across the world who have been forcibly detained for expressing their views.

And if the writer of A Gay Girl in Damascus does exist, and is currently being held by the Syrian security services, we can only hope that the media flurry surrounding this story will in some way aid his or her circustances by raising awareness of the situation in the country.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.