Monday, February 28, 2011

In War We Can Be Out of Date Overnight

An issue of great importance is shaping up. Bing West has written an impressive book on how and why things have been going wrong in Afghanistan [The Wrong War, Random House). He believes we should get out of there soon because we are losing. His report appears at just the time when recent news reports tell us that the Taliban are weakening. Some are giving up; some are discouraged because of the losses; internal disputes have been taking place between the top echelons and the midlevel commanders in the field [,]

The problem with getting a book out like West's is that it takes time to write the book and time to publish it, so that it cannot be current: it necessarily lags behind developments in the field.

But in war developments in the field are fluid. Also, the situation in Afghanistan is, or ought to be, substantially different from any time in the past since only in the last few weeks has the full complement of the American fighting force been put into place. So the difference between what is going on now and what others have experienced in times past can be substantial.

Yes, wise observers like West have a great deal to contribute, but there needs to be a sensitivity to the fluidity of affairs in a world in which conflict is pervasive. And in Afghanistan a whole generation has known nothing but war, so you would expect them to have figured out ways of hedging bets, to be sure they have connections among the winners.

This is of course what frustrated West. The Swiss anthropologist Alessandro Monsutti has explained how the Hazaras tried to make sure they had relatives on both sides of a battle so they would have anchorage with whoever won the battle.

None of this means, though, that the participants don't have a preference. What we know is that the Afghanistan peoples, even among the Pushtun population that is generally more receptive to the Taliban [who are, except for the foreign fighters, generally Pushtun].

Note also how hard it is indeed to anticipate major public movements. Chrystia Freeland in Reuters has pointed out how hard it is to predict such movements [Predicting the next uprising, Feb 24]. I once made list of all the un-anticipated major shifts in paradigm that have taken place in recent decades [Introduction to Ethnicity, Authority, and Power in Central Asia]. And of course it did not include the dramatic events in the last few weeks in many parts of the Arab world, and even beyond.

But that produces a problem. When conditions are fluid, as they are in a war, there is going to be a sharp difference between reports -- or at least in the assessments of situations in war. And that can create great discrepancies in perception among the public. We need to watch out for assessments that are out of date -- and some times, as in the case of Leon Panetta's recent report to congress, they can be out of date in a few days.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

An American's "imperialistic arrogance" in the streets of Pakistan

The behavior of Rayomnd Davis in Lahore, the more we know about it, looks obviously like what someone has called "imperialistic arrogance." The American government should apologize and Davis should be tried in a Pakistani court for shooting two Pakistanis in the back in cold blood on the street in Lahore [see details in the Guardian as indicated below].

One sad element of the affair is that the Pakistanis still retain the old resentments for the way the peoples of South Asia were exploited by the British for generations, even up until 1947, to the last minute before "independence." The Americans, blithely indifferent to that history, have taken over the role of hegemon in South Asia and accordingly have received some of the sentimental baggage associated with the British. So the rash killing of Pakistanis by an American outrages the Pakistanis. They are right to demand that Davis be tried for murder.

Of course the Pakistanis, famous for the conspiracies they worry about, have no doubt that Davis was CIA. The Guardian newspaper, however, has no such inclination, and it reports that by all appearances Davis was CIA. This is not Pakistani paranoia; it appears to be true. Read the Guardian's report in the two articles below.

It's hard for us Americans to own up to the abuses our empire has been guilty of. The Germans and Japanese should have apologized, we assume; also the British for abuses in many parts of its empire; also, now, the governments of Egypt and Iran and elsewhere who have gunned down their own people. But we see ourselves as the good guys. Our programs aim to improve, deliver, heal. I believe some of the American sponsored programs have indeed been valuable and in any case good-intentioned, but some activities by our government reflect a general indifference to the feelings and attitudes of the folks in other countries.

We should apologize. For what it's worth, to the Pakistani people I apologize. I'm sorry and ashamed for the behavior of one of my countrymen; as far as I know, he behaved cruelly and brutally. His behavior does not represent my feelings toward the Pakistani people or the feelings of most Americans I know.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The state is a cruel monster

“The state is a cruel monster.” This is what the personal security advisor to the Shah of Iran said when the Shah, dying of cancer, was forced in early 1980s to leave the United States where he had been under treatment. For him, the American government had become a cruel monster. What lies under the surface in state institutions are systems of control that can be heartless, unforgiving, merciless.

We have been seeing it in various places in the Middle East. We see it now in Bahrain. Here is an island of escape for Saudis fleeing their own rigid Wahhabi-controlled society. An island where American sailors have long been welcome; whose King has been a loyal friend of American Presidents, a faithful ally; a “moderate” ruler, as they say, in a sea of repressive regimes. But when threatened by requests of his own people for more freedoms, more transparency, more control over the government that rules them, his government exposed its true character. Police and state-funded paramilitary organizations charged their own unarmed citizens without warning, killing and maiming without discrimination, children and women as well as men, doctors and ambulance drivers.

Ditto in Lybia. Ditto of course in Iran, where the Islamic revolutionary government has displayed its true character in the last two years as over and over again it crushed demonstrations by its own Iranian people.

Who wants the monstrous character of the government that rules them to be revealed? Who wants to be reminded that the government they live under is at base heartless, merciless? Is it not better to live blissfully without knowing what formal, cruel mechanisms await those who would challenge the system?

Some of us wonder what our own government is really like at heart, under the surface. We have begun to wonder, as it becomes ever more clear that our government gives perks to the rich, even in war time, even in the worst economic collapse since the Depression, and then demands that the poor sacrifice to balance the budget. Do we really want to know how our institutions of rulership would behave if they were challenged by open dissent in the streets? I don’t want to see its monstrous side, but I believe it is there.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's wrong with this picture?

In an interview on the PBS News Hour, 2/16/11, Sen Bernie Sanders of Vermont [independent] pointed out the following:

• The top 1 percent Americans today earn more income than do the bottom 50 percent. They earn about 22 percent of every dollar earned in America. And the gap is growing wider.
• The current budget includes massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.
• The tax rates for the rich have gone down for many years while poverty in America is increasing.
• The United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world ... and Congress is cutting programs for those people.
• Sixteen percent of Americans are unemployed or underemployed.
• The deficit primarily has been caused by two unfunded wars, “huge tax breaks to people who don't need it, an insurance-company-written Medicare Part D prescription drug program, and the bailout of Wall Street.”
• This year the United States is losing a hundred billion dollars in revenue because corporations, the wealthy, are stashing their money in tax havens in the Cayman Islands.
• This year, ExxonMobil, the most profitable corporation in the history of the world, is not paying a nickel in federal income taxes, despite having made $19 billion last year.
• In 2005, one-quarter of corporations -- large corporations in America making a trillion in revenue – paid no taxes.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Worry about a stamp commemorating Muslim holidays

An email is being circulated expressing concern about a new stamp being published by the American government commemorating two Muslim holidays. The Arabic script on the stamp says “Mubarak Eid” which translates “Eid Greetings” [See:]. An email is going around telling people not to buy this stamp because so many Americans have been killed by Muslims. [And no one knows what the Arabic means!]
Whoever is promoting this view seems unaware that there are over seven million Muslims living in this country, many of them citizens, many of them refugees from countries whose wars and internal disturbances have made life difficult and in some places untenable. Moreover, their concern ignores the fact that the Islamists that they refer to – Al Qaeda and others allied with them -- have killed far more Muslims than people of any other faith. Of the 1.4 billion Muslims in the world Al Qaeda cannot represent more than .007% of the total. Also their concerns about Islamic symbols play exactly into the hands of Osama Bin Laden who claims that the American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting “Islam.”
This is a time when all over the Muslim world – notably at this moment in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Iran – folks are asking through their public demonstrations for more open societies, in many cases at the risk of life and limb. The animating force of these movements is a desire for differences of opinion and faith to be tolerated in their societies as they seek popular suffrage of a sort they admire in this country. Not one of these demonstrations is animated by a desire to establish Islam or Muslim institutions in their governments.
This is a time, that is, to encourage our Muslim neighbors and friends, in the hope that as these affairs take place they will indeed succeed in producing societies with more openness of inquiry and more diversity of thought, even in faith and politics.
The behavior of those who would circulate such a notice prompts me to speak to them also, to encourage them to seek better ways to deal with what has become a fact of nature: that we are all living in a world whose diverse interests and perspectives and agendas are crowding in upon of us, forcing us to deal with the diversity of the human condition, requiring us to put into practice the fundamental premises of the American experiment: that is, to allow perspectives and opinions different from our own to be voiced, to accept those who have suffered, who need to be welcomed, no matter where they come from, what religion they practice. We want to demonstrate to each other and the rest of the world what an open society can be like.

[2/25/11 Addendum: Information on the artist who created the map, Muhammad Zikriya, can be found at:]

The animating agenda of movements in the Middle East versus the rhetoric of cooperative interest

We are excited about the popular movements in the Middle East. In Tunisia and Egypt autocratic rulers have fled; in Yemen and Bahrain demonstrations continue. Iran is again in the throwes of popular demonstrations. And now in Lybia there are serious demonstrations The leader of the PLO have revised their plans to allow for more popular representation.

These seem to be animated by a quest for popular suffrage: the demonstrators want to have their interests represented in government, and they want government to be held accountable to them. Rousseau has finally arrived in the Middle East.

But the rhetoric of these movements has varied according to the conditions of their projects. The Iranian "green" movement has been savvy in appropriating the rhetorical devices of their own government in order to legitimize their opposition to the Iranian regime. Green has been the color of the Islamic revolutionary movement; the language of public outcry have been the idioms of the 1977-78 revolutionary movement against the Shah, "allah-o akbar", "yah hussain", terms that cannot be associated with the rhetoric of the West. The Egyptians and Tunisians on the other hand never seemed to worry about such scruples, and anyway, at least in Egypt, some of the most active elements were Copts: those folks spoke of popular representation: they wanted "a national unity government"; it is "a revolution of the people," they said.

It is fair to assume that the rhetoric is always a kind of masque, a device by which to characterize the feelings of a collectivity without antagonizing those who might derail the movement. We read that the Lybian loyalists are "defending the leader and the revolution" -- meaning Qaddafi's regime.

We hope the popular movements are indeed what they appear to be: demands for popular suffrage. More to the real issue: We hope they recognize what popular suffrage actually means: open access, free and open elections, protection of minorities, certain rights protected for everyone. These are issues it is hard to put into practice: nowhere better illustrates how hard it is than the United States.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Aftershocks in Palestine and Tunisia: Change? Or the more it changes the more it stays the same?

Some of us tend to wonder if what we hear in the news is the full story, on any topic. We have been elated to hear that Tunisia and Egypt have had successful public uprisings, and that in Iran and Bahrain and Algeria and Yemen there are attenpts to push their respective governments to allow more openness. Even so, we wonder: Do we have the full picture? Is it as good as it sounds? The news from Palestine suggests that shake ups are still taking place in the Middle East; the news from Tunisia suggests that less has taken place than it seems.

The new fear of the people in the PLO

Al Jazeera: "Palestinian cabinet resigns: President Mahmoud Abbas re-assigns Salam Fayyad, who also resigned, to form new government."

The resignations came amid calls for reform in the Arab world, triggered by the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, after a popular revolt.

The shake-up was long demanded by Fayyad and some in Abbas' Fatah faction.

"The cabinet resigned today and the formation of a new cabinet will take place as soon as possible," Ali Jarbawi, minister of planning, told Reuters news agency.

An analyst told Al Jazeera: "For the past 50 years, people have been living in fear of their leaders but now the leaders are living in fear of the people, this is incredibly telling of the situation across the region."

Signs that all is not well in Tunisia.

Al Jazeera: "Tunisia refugees flood Italian island: Arrival of more than 4,000 people sparks humanitarian crisis and Italian calls for EU aid.

The immigrants are fleeing poverty and continued unrest in the North African country following an uprising last month that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president.

"We are afraid. The revolution in January has changed nothing, absolutely nothing. We want to find a job in Europe. We are asking the Italian people for help," one man told news channel SkyTG24.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sorting out the past and envisioning the present

I am reading a book on the mistakes made in Afghanistan in the last two decades -- a fecund source of outrage for those of us who want to find folks to blame for the mess our world is in. That was a time when obtuse, obdurate ignorance seems to have overcome those who were in command of the greatest economy and military force in history: they believed they could shape the world the way they wanted. In 2004 Ron Suskind of the New York Times interviewed a “high-level” official in the White House, who said to him, “guys like me were ‘in the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ “I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism,” Suskind wrote. “He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” {Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004, quoted in Fitzgerald and Gould, Afghanistan’s Untold Story, 2009. San Francisco: Citylights.}

In a way, he was right: They did create a reality but it was not a reality that they intended.

It’s easy now, in retrospect, to regard this remark as arrogant, foolhardy. What is worth noting here is what the remark tells us about the human condition. This official was living, and clearly epitomizing, the postmodern trend of his times. He epitomized it in the sense that he understood, as the postmodernists emphasized, that human beings live in meaningful “worlds” that are possible because of the rich imaginative capability of the human mind. This suggested that better worlds could be imagined and so created; and astride such a powerful engine of change as the American empire they were going to create a new world, one in which -- I think as they truly imagined -- that would be more free, more open, more just. In those times I met students who had come to believe that the worlds we live in are just “made up.” This official thought that it would possible to “make up” a better world for all.

What he seems to have forgotten, and certainly the postmodernist gave no help on this score, was that he and all of us have to live in a world that may not be as we imagine it. The world as it is, has properties of its own; it operates according to its own laws, whatever we think about it. It is wise to assume that we only know it imperfectly. Always, whatever we think about it, it exists outside our imaginations. As humans our way of apprehending it is through the intersubjective forms of language and gesture, but it has conditions, relations, qualities that we must seek to understand better if we are to live in it, for our knowledge is imperfect. Such were the "enlightenment principles" that Suskind took for granted.

The fact is, of course, is that the imaginative worlds we “make up” have to be deployed in a world whose properties may not conform to what we think about it. Marshall Sahlins has said in many places that in real life human beings are always putting their suppositions about the world “at risk”, for the imaginative frames they use so as to encompass their reality may fail to do so; their suppositions may insufficiently grasp the world as it is, with consequences that will necessarily be unforeseen. Sahlins’ point is that human beings are thus forced constantly to revise and reconfigure their images of the world around them, if they are to live in the real world, which is a way of saying that social thought and social life is always changing as human beings revise their imaginative images of the world so as to encompass it better in the next encounter.

But there can be even more serious implications to one’s mis-reading of one’s setting, especially if one is astride a great empire. The tragedy in this instance is that rather than leaving behind a set of worldly marvels for us to “sort out,” his administration left behind a world whose wreckage defies “sorting out”.

It is easy to be self-righteous when we look back at the folly of administrations in earlier times – indeed, some of us have fed our egos on the blunders of the GW Bush administration for several years now. The problem is, like the official we also have to confront a world in our own time whose properties we only imperfectly understand. What bewilders us now will continue to bewilder. Will the next generation do better? I doubt it.

What the rising demand for popular suffrage is doing to the world

The new imaginative hope for authentic popular suffrage has enthralled the Middle East where true freedom has scarcely ever been known. Here are some ways that it is being expressed [besides the new announcement in Kazakhstan noted here earlier:

Bahrain doles out money to families:
Latest appeasement comes as activists call for protests to demand political, social and economic reforms.

Algeria protesters break cordon: Pro-democracy demonstrators, inspired by the Egyptian revolution, ignore official ban and march in the capital Algiers.
Algeria to lift emergency powers: President says country's 19-year state of emergency will be lifted in near future in apparent bid to stave off unrest.

Q&A: Syrian activist Suhair Atassi: In an interview from her native Syria, Atassi shares her views on the need for political reform in her country.

The fear of popular suffrage extends even to Kazakhstan

Even Nazarbayev is enough concerned about the rising desire for popular suffrage that he is pretending to open up his country. Of course it isn't what it seems. See the whole of Abubakar's report by clicking on the title above.

Kazakhstan to hold snap election
Nursultan Nazarbayev calls for early presidential election after rejecting plan to hold a controversial referendum.
Last Modified: 04 Feb 2011 07:35 GMT

US State Department welcomed the president's decision, calling it "the right decision" [GALLO/GETTY]

Kazakhstan's president has called for a snap presidential election on April 3.

Friday's presidential decree will end Nursultan Nazarbayev's current term in office about 20 months before it was due to end.

Earlier, Nazarbayev rejected a plan to hold a referendum which was designed to allow him to rule unopposed for another decade.

Nazarbayev, 70, has ruled Kazakhstan for two decades and is almost certain to win the snap election he called.

Analysts say the opposition, which was caught off guard by the announcement, would simply not have enough time to prepare for the polls. more ...

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Russia: A mafia state?

A notable journalist for the Guardian, Luke Harding, was thrown out of Russia yesterday -- actually, he was not allowed to remain there after arriving there with a valid visa. Presumably this was because of some of the material in WikiLeaks he revealed in an article on December 1, 2010. It seems to be another verification of what we have come to think about Russia: this is a dictatorship masquerading as a democracy.

What seems to have irritated the Russians was Harding's quotation of an American diplomat's statement in a diplomatic note, which was of course supposed to be private: Russia is a "corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centered on the leadership of Vladimir Putin in which officials, oligarchs and organized crime are bound together to create a 'virtual mafia state.'" [quote from NYTimes 2/7/11] Some of us wonder what the world would be like if the super-powerful, super-rich of the world had a grip on state affairs. Russia, if not China, may be the world's finest example.

The Guardian, in its report on the expulsion of Harding, reveals something of what it is like to do journalism in Russia -- that is, to try to get accurate information about issues of importance and then to report it to the world. []

"Although western reporters are not subject to anything like the dangers of some of their Russian counterparts, several of whom have been murdered for delving too deeply into the corruption and mafia nexus at the heart of the Putin state, English-speaking Moscow correspondents are careful about what and how they report.

"Sensitive areas include references to the alleged personal wealth built up by Putin, any discussion about corruption that is linked to senior government individuals, or any reporting that implies the Kremlin had any prior knowledge of the plot to kill the former spy Alexander Litvinenko."

For those of us who believe that democracy, the rule of law, open discourse, freedom to seek to know the truth and report it to others, and so on, are necessary for authentic social practice this is a chilling revelation. This is what society is like when "officials, oligarchs and organized crime are bound together" in a system that deflects information so that the truth on crucial issues is never really fully known. I wonder: if we lived in such a society would we know it?

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Terrifying experience in the torture chambers in Egypt

Sayyed Qutb was tortured in the dreaded chambers of the Egyptian secret police. Ayman Zawahiri was tortured in those chambers. Both were radicalized by the experience. Both came to believe that their government had been so infected with the decadence of Western society that there was no other remedy than for it to be overthrown. Indeed, all who did not join in the project were themselves so infected that they could be destroyed with it. The torture chambers of the Egyptian secret police, the Mukhabarat, epitomized the evil that had crept into their society.

Now we get a report on what is still going on in the torture rooms of the Mukhabarat, by reporters of the New York Times.

NYTimes February 4, 2011
2 Detained Reporters Saw Secret Police’s Methods Firsthand

WE had been detained by Egyptian authorities, handed over to the country’s dreaded Mukhabarat, the secret police, and interrogated. They left us all night in a cold room, on hard orange plastic stools, under fluorescent lights.

But our discomfort paled in comparison to the dull whacks and the screams of pain by Egyptian people that broke the stillness of the night. In one instance, between the cries of suffering, an officer said in Arabic, “You are talking to journalists? You are talking badly about your country?”

A voice, also in Arabic, answered: “You are committing a sin. You are committing a sin.”
. . .

For one day, we were trapped in the brutal maze where Egyptians are lost for months or even years.
. . .
Many journalists shared this experience, and many were kept in worse conditions — some suffering from injuries as well.

. . . .
We saw more than 20 people, Westerners and Egyptians, blindfolded and handcuffed. The room had been empty when we arrived the evening before.

. . .
The Mukhabarat has had a working relationship with American intelligence, including the C.I.A.’s so-called rendition program of prison transfers. During our questioning, a man nearby was being beaten — the sickening sound somewhere between a thud and a thwack. Between his screams someone yelled in Arabic, “You’re a traitor working with foreigners.”
. . .

[Click on the title above for a link to the source article.]

Friday, February 04, 2011

Rape and whipping death of a 14 year old.

Below I reproduce the version of the report that appeared in USA Today. This version doesn't say that the man was also supposed to be whipped but escaped. Click on the title for a link to the article.

Feb 02, 2011
Bangladeshi teen dies from sharia lashing after reportedly being raped

By Michael Winter, USA TODAY

A 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl who was reportedly raped by a 40-year-old married cousin has died after being publicly lashed for allegedly having an affair with him, according to news reports out of the South Asian nation.

A Muslim cleric and three others have been arrested, and today the country's High Court ordered officials in Shariatpur to explain why they did not protect Hena Begum, who died Monday following the fatwa punishment, The Daily Star writes from the capital, Dhaka.

BBC News says police are seeking 14 others in connection with her death, including a teacher from a local madrassa.

The Daily Star says that the girl was raped Sunday by a 40-year-old relative and that a village arbitration on Monday ordered she be whipped 100 times. The paper writes she "fell unconscious after nearly 80 lashes" and died after being taken to a hospital.

In its report, the BBC writes that police said the girl "was accused of having an affair with a married man," a cousin, and makes no mention of the rape. The BBC also quotes a police official as saying the girl died six days after being taken to the hospital but does not say when she died or was lashed.

The BBC says family members beat the girl after the reported rape and adds that village elders also asked her father to pay a $700 fine; annual income averages $520.

Villagers rallied today in Shariatpur against the village court, which consists of elders and clerics, and demanded that they be prosecuted.

The village council decreed the lashing under Islamic s haria law, but the country's High Court outlawed such harsh punishments last year. It's the second death linked to a sharia punishment since then. A 40-year-old Bangladeshi woman died in late December, almost a month after she was publicly caned 40 times for an alleged affair with her stepson.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Reason for hope in Egypt and other Arab dictatorships? I'm not as sure as Al Jazeera

I am impressed that Larbi Sadiki of Al Jazeera is so confident that Mubarak has been defeated. I wish I shared his enthusiasm. We'll see.
Inception: Dreams of revolution
The idea of democratisation planted in Egyptian minds is beyond containment, yet Mubarak continues to resist.
Larbi Sadiki Last Modified: 02 Feb 2011 10:05 GMT

The realist terminology of the 'domino effect' does not capture the agency that Arabs are today assuming to unseat Arab hegemons, from Cairo to Sana'a.

This agency is unshackling itself from a threefold dynamic: the fear of the Arab police state; Orientalist constructions demoting Arab agency; and Euro-American democratisation theorists' obsession with structure, culture and top-down institution-building.

Similarly, this agency stumbles upon the structures of a world order driven by self-interest and impervious to the dreams of millions of Arabs to be free.

A precedent has been set in Tunisia, and Egypt is on the move. Whilst the challenges are awesome, the seeds for planting democratic dreams have begun by the display of people's power in Tunisia.

Planting a dream

"Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it's almost impossible to eradicate," said Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Christopher Nolan's Inception.

And thus spoke the Tunisian people, ousting their dictator and unleashing shockwaves whose political reverberations will be felt for a long time. Today Nolan's leitmotif of inception has a powerful resonance in the Arab world.

The Tunisian flag showing in the riots witnessed by many Arab cities manifest both inspiration and admiration. But more importantly, Tunisia is a dream come true. The dictator who was once fearsome and thought to be invincible fell and fled rapidly.

From Tunis to Cairo, "people's power" represents a watershed, an Inception in the making. It now serves as a fount of democratic streams with a fierce and determined thirst for self-governance by the oppressed across the Arab geography.
[Click on the title above for a link to the original article in full.]

The tactics of autocratic power: Now in Egypt

Al Jazeera has an article on the devices of autocratic regimes that seem to be what the Mubarak regime is doing.

Mubarak's third force terror tactic
President Mubarak unleashed his 'personal' thugs in a failed attempt to silence protesters seeking an end to his regime.

David Africa Last Modified: 03 Feb 2011 17:35 GMT

The apparently sudden and unexpected violence against Egyptian protesters that started on February 2 has an interesting historical ring to it. The date marks the unbanning of liberation movements in South Africa in 1990, and the start of political negotiations between the apartheid regime and the African National Congress. It also marks the start of the most violent period in South Africa’s turbulent political history.

The parallels with Egypt start with Mubarak’s speech to the nation on February 1, ostensibly making a significant concession to the protesters and a commitment to Egypt’s democratic future. The next day thugs, many now clearly identified as members of the security forces, rallied in central Cairo and launched attacks on hitherto peaceful demonstrators.

The tactics of deploying so-called third forces is a tried and tested method of autocratic regimes, usually utilised when the regime realises that it is on the strategic defencive politically. The focus of the regime then shifts from merely ruling as usual to extending its reign as long as possible, while at the same time sapping the material and political energy of its opponents.

[for more click on the title above]

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Egypt: State power where there is no place to hide

Affairs in Egypt are of interest not only because of the human rights issue — the Egyptian people rising up spontaneously to demand democracy and an end to autocratic rule – but also because it is a kind of paradigmatic illustration of the relation between geography and the devices of popular coercion. Lately, as soon as scholars try to define the relation of systems of power to geography, they are accused of geographic determinism. Such attacks veil important issues. It is true, as some argue, that societies live in imaginary worlds of their own fabrication; but it is also true that societies deploy their imaginative “worlds” in social and material affairs that have their own properties, no matter what is thought or said about them. This is why it is useful to examine how power is constituted in geo-ecological settings, because those settings have properties that set limits on what can be usefully imagined for the exercise of power, that is, usefully deployed to coerce populations in real situations. Egypt is a kind of paradigmatic example of how the geo-ecological world constrains the range of options for those who must live in it. The essential conditions of life for the Egyptians is the Nile River and the deserts that abut it.

Egypt is essentially a society dependent solely on the Nile River – solely, in the sense that outside of the range of the river human habitation is nearly impossible. There is the river where humans can cultivate the land and beyond it there is desert where no one can live. Escape from the sown is virtually impossible. Historically Egypt has been ruled by small military coalitions who have exercised control of the peasant populations who had nowhere to flee. Coalitions that could control traffic up and down the river and the populations of the sown areas along it have been ruled millions for millennia. There have been changes of government according to rules of succession or by coups d’etat but the many popular uprisings in its history have failed because the populations of the country have been easily accessible.

This is why the current popular movement in Egypt, with thousands demanding democracy and the rule of law, is exceptional and truly [possibly] revolutionary.

But there is a contradiction in modern autocratic systems. Autocratic regimes must have an entrepreneurial/ bureaucratic class to manage societal affairs in the modern world. Such an entrepreneurial / bureaucratic class has to be educated; it must acquire knowledge of the wider world so as to be competent to engage with the wider world. But the education of such a middle class, the creation of a sizable body of individuals whose horizons are wider than the affairs of every day life, introduces them to social currents elsewhere. It is hardly surprising that such a body of people would demand rights that a dictatorial regime refuses to give. And in Egypt that body of individuals is large, and perhaps as many of half of them are under 25. They have yet to experience the brutal hand of an autocratic state.

It seems to me that the modern history of Egypt is the story of occasional confrontations between the demands of the entrepreneurial / bureaucratic class for more rights and the demands for obedience and conformity by those in power. The more intense the clashes became the more shrill became the calls to rebellion – until they were silenced by excessive repressive measures. Waves of public discontent were punctuated by periods of intense repressive measures deployed against key public opponents. In this context extreme ideologies of rebellion have taken root: the ideas of Hassan al-Bannah who founded the Muslim Brethren in 1928 spawned numerous radical activities; the social critique and moral appeal of Sayed Qutb set in motion the Islamist movement of the last forty years. But only elsewhere, for the radicals had to regroup outside of Egypt, as conditions within the country allowed virtually no activities against the regime. There have been many public demonstrations – but brute power crushed them, for the only escape was flight from the regime of the Nile.

What frightens me about the situation in Egypt now is that the populations, excited as they have been by the public display of their shared resentment of the Mubarak regime, have not yet discovered how far an autocratic regime will go to stay in power. The Chinese students who demonstrated on Tiananmen Square on behalf of a more open society had no idea that the Chinese regime would respond so cruelly. The Iranians who rose up in frustration at the state-sponsored hijacking of the national election in 2008 had no idea how far the Ahmadenijad / Khamenei regime would go to stay in power. In both cases widely supported demonstrations were crushed brutally. Had these regimes learned from the experience of the Shah of Iran who fled rather than further brutalize his own people? The regime that followed him has been careful never to flinch. Has Mubarak learned something from the sudden flight of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia? What we have yet to see in Egypt – despite the demonstrations, despite even President Obama’s clear demand that a change must take place “now” – is any serious indication that Husni Mubarak is really going to give up power.

We may never see it happen, now that his administration has mounted an organized response to the demonstrations. Loyalists on horseback and camelback are being deployed with whips against the demonstrators. Mubarak and those before him never held their positions by popular suffrage; he is unlikely to give it up. Pharaohs need not care whether they are liked.

Ominous Signs in Egypt

Reuters has just reported that the Egyptian army has announced that everyone should go home, and The New York Times is reporting that a crowd of pro-Mubarak supporters have appeared on the streets. This cannot be a good sign. The broad display of anti-Mubarak feeling was relatively spontaneous, as spontaneous as any movement anywhere. Now we see an organized response by the administration. This does not bode well for the democratic movement in Egypt. We need to watch. We can only pray for an authentic public movement to proceed to the institutionalization of a democratic administration.
Below are a few lines from Reuters and the New York Times, with links to the source articles.

Egypt's army tells anti-Mubarak protesters "enough"
Wed Feb 2, 2011 11:19am GMT

By Shaimaa Fayed and Yasmine Saleh

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's armed forces on Wednesday told protesters clamouring for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-rule that their demands had been heard and they must clear the streets.

The army warning came as international pressure grew on Mubarak to quit and his closest ally, the United States, told him bluntly that a political transition must begin immediately.

But an opposition coalition called for the protests in Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square to continue.

Crowds gathered in the square for a ninth day of protests, rejecting Mubarak's promise on Tuesday that he would not stand in elections scheduled for September. They want him to go now.

A military spokesman, addressing the protesters on state television on Wednesday morning, said: "The army forces are calling on you. You began by going out to express your demands and you are the ones capable of restoring normal life."

It was a clear call for protesters to leave the streets. And although the army had previously said the people had "legitimate demands" and soldiers would not open fire on them, it set up a possible confrontation if they failed to do so. []

Army Tells Cairo Protesters to Restore Normalcy as Obama Urges Faster Shift of Power
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Published: February 2, 2011

CAIRO — Just hours after President Hosni Mubarak declared that he would step down in September and President Obama urged a faster transition, Egypt’s powerful military signaled a shift on Wednesday, calling on the protesters who have propelled tumultuous changes here to “restore normal life.”

President Obama after his remarks on the situation in Egypt on Tuesday. He said that a political transition “must begin now.”

The announcement by a military spokesman appeared to be a call for the demonstrators, who have turned out in hundreds of thousands, to leave the streets even as high-powered diplomacy between Cairo and Washington unfolded at a blistering peace and reverberations from the protest spread on Wednesday to Yemen, where the president promised to leave in 2013.

On Tuesday, after Mr. Mubarak offered to step down within months as modern Egypt’s longest-serving leader, President Obama strongly suggested that Mr. Mubarak’s concession was not enough, declaring that an “orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”

While the meaning of the last phrase was deliberately vague, it appeared to be a signal that Mr. Mubarak might not be able to delay the shift to a new leadership.

On the streets, meanwhile, the tactics and calculations seemed to be shifting too, possibly spurring the military’s concern as pro-Mubarak demonstrators — some of them in apparently confrontational mood — turned out in larger numbers to support the president. In a separate development, Internet access, denied for days by official restrictions, began to return.