Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Daily Beast has a report on the plans of Libyan members of Al Qaeda to leave Pakistan and join the opposition in Libya. For what it's worth, the issue is certainly worth following. [For the whole article click on the title.]

Al Qaeda's Libya Pilgrimage by Ron Moreau & Sami Yousafzai

As debate rages in Washington over whether to arm anti-Gaddafi rebels, an exclusive report by The Daily Beast indicates al Qaeda forces are gearing up to join the rebels and seize power in Libya.

As the battle for the future of Libya continues, the excitement is almost palpable among Libyan-born al Qaeda fighters and other Arabs hunkered down in Pakistan's remote and lawless tribal area. According to Afghan Taliban sources close to Osama bin Laden's terrorist group, some of the 200 or so Libyans operating near the Afghan border may be on their way home to steer the anti-Gaddafi revolution in a more Islamist direction.

"We have heard a number of fighters have already departed from the tribal area," says an Afghan commander who is linked to the powerful Haqqani network, a North Waziristan-based organization that shelters many al Qaeda fighters. Others may be on their way. "Libyans and Arabs seem to be getting ready for departure and are eager to go home and fight," says the Afghan source. "I've heard that some fighters are saying goodbye and giving thanks with kind words to their (Pakistani) tribal friends who have been sheltering them." 

Since the anti-Gaddafi revolution began last month, al Qaeda—especially Libyan-born affiliates—have viewed the fighting as an opportunity to spread their radical Islamist ideology. Indeed, as one Afghan Taliban operative who helps facilitate the movement of al Qaeda militants between the tribal area and Pakistani cities told The Daily Beast earlier this month: "This rebellion is the fresh breeze they've been waiting years for. They realize that if they don't use this opportunity, it could be the end of their chances to turn Libya toward a real Islamic state, as Afghanistan once was."

If Yahya is successful in reaching rebel-held territory inside Libya, at least he'll be able to operate with relative freedom, without worrying about Gaddafi's secret police.

Now, as the White House and NATO continue to debate the possible ramifications of arming the Libyan opposition, the Haqqani network-linked Afghan commander says Libyan al Qaeda affiliates seem to be more "enthusiastic" about the war against Gaddafi every day. And from what the Afghan Taliban commander has seen, there appears to be more than "flickers" of al Qaeda's presence in Libya, the description given by NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis. According to the Afghan commander, al Qaeda fighters can't believe their good luck that U.S. and NATO aircraft—the same forces that have dropped bombs on their heads in Afghanistan and Pakistan—are now raining down ordnance against Gaddafi.

So far, Muammar Gaddafi's clumsy efforts to blame al Qaeda for the popular uprising against his dictatorship would be a joke, if only he weren't using that claim as an excuse for mowing down so many Libyans. In fact, it's been many years since Libya has seen significant numbers of radical Islamists—or any other organized opposition, for that matter. Nearly all have been killed, locked up or chased into exile years ago by the regime's secret police and security forces. Although the country's most feared insurgent entity, the al Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (known in Arabic as Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyah al-Muqatilah bi-Libya), has been seeking to topple Gaddafi since the early 1990s, and up until now, it's been unlikely that more than a handful who pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden remain inside the country.

Today, along the tribal border region, al Qaeda's thirst for more immediate news has led even top leaders like Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan who serves as the movement's senior Islamist ideologue and bin Laden's head of operations for Afghanistan, to become almost foolhardy. The Afghan commander says that Yahya and some of his countrymen have even risked visiting villagers' houses that have satellite television dishes on the roof to watch the latest Western and Middle Eastern news feeds from Libya. Their movements in public areas could easily expose these high value targets to human and UAV surveillance, and a deadly drone strike. 

Over the past few decades, several Libyans have held top roles in al Qaeda. Some traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviets and stayed, eventually teaming up with bin Laden after his return from Sudan in 1996. Taliban sources estimate there were some 200 Libyans with bin Laden in Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Since then some of bin Laden's senior-most operational aides have been Libyans. One was Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was captured by Pakistan forces in 2005 and is now a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay; another was Abu Lais al-Libi, his replacement as al Qaeda's third in command, who died in a U.S. Predator attack in 2008. Apart from his hardline sermons and jihadist exhortations that are widely distributed on DVD and posted on jihadist websites, Yahya may be best known for his daring escape along with three other al Qaeda prisoners from the high-security lockup at the American airbase at Bagram in July 2005. Yahya, who is believed to be in his late 40s, is smarter, more charismatic, a more articulate speaker and a more learned Islamic scholar than either Faraj or Lais, according to Afghan Taliban sources.

Some articles on the recent demostrations in the Arab world

For what it's worth this is a list of some interesting recent reports on the many public demonstrations in the Arab world demanding more rights and more accountability in government. These publications may not be especially the best, but they have been helpful to me. I would welcome suggestions of other helpful articles about what is going on. RLC

‘Volcano of Rage’ by Max Rodenbeck. New York Review March 24, 2011.

Frontline: Revolution in Cairo.

Uprisings: From Tunis to Cairo, by William Pfaff. NewYorkReview Feb 24, 2011.

Anonymous and Tunisia: A New Cyber Warfare? by Amar Toor [AOL], January 29, 2011.

The Internet: For Better or for Worse, Steve Coll, New York Review of Books April 7, 2011.

A New Arab Generation Finds Its Voice. New York Times Magazine Mar 20, 2011.

Iran’s State of Fear, by Haleh Esfandiari New York Review of Books. Mar 3, 2011.

How China Fears the Middle East Revolutions by Perry Link. NYRBooks Mar 24, 2011.


Is the Arab Spring losing its spring? by Ian Bremmer

MORE ADDENDA [5/14/11]

'Arab Spring' Has Yet to Alter Region's Strategic
Balance (op-ed, Los Angeles Times, May 9)

The Arab Spring
(Economist, April 27, 2011)

Syria: Economic Hardship Feeds Social
Unrest (op-ed, Los Angeles Times, March 31)

The Shifting Zeitgeist of the Arab Spring by Mark Levine.

Syrian troops refuse to fire


CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY: Tunisia's and Egypt's Revolutions and Transitions to Democracy: What is the impact on the Arab World? What Lessons can we learn?


The Biggest Game -- is Today!

Below is an article about an event whose political importance could be overlooked in my own country where we have little understanding of cricket. But despite our ignorance much could be in theory at stake, at least symbolically. RLC

New York Times, March 29, 2011
Finding Common Ground

On Wednesday, two billion people around the world will not go to work. Or if they do, they will be distracted.

That’s because India and Pakistan will be playing in the knock-out semi final of the 2011 Cricket World Cup, a match touted as the “biggest game in cricket.” This is not hyperbole. Wednesday’s game is the South Asian equivalent of the epic 1980 Olympic ice-hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union.

As an Indian married to a Pakistani, for me this game is laden with personal significance. As a child in Mumbai, I fell in love with cricket watching the debonair Pakistani captain Imran Khan lift the World Cup in 1992. During my college years in the United States, I fell in love with my Pakistani husband watching him pitch a perfect Yorker (a lethal delivery in cricket parlance) in 1999.

Cricket is the pulse and passion of the subcontinent. ...
[click on the title above for a link to the whole article]

Monday, March 28, 2011

Veena Malik speaks up against her accusers

I provide for you here a link to an encounter between a famous Pakistani actress, Veena Malik, and a Pakistani imam. Draw your own conclusions. RLC

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Good news on affairs in Herat

These days there is a lot of talk about trying to get out of Afghanistan because it is a useless cause. The news from Herat, however, is good. Thanks to my Afghan friend FM, who directed me to the site. Have a look at the following Utube site:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Competing images of home among emigrant Afghans

For some reason I have been approached over the years by several people from Afghanistan with proposals for what to do about its unending war. They seem to believe I have contacts with all the right people in the CIA or even the White House -- or maybe am even secretly connected with the CIA. In any case, they end their proposals saying that all they need is money. "Send me to Afghanistan and I will organize a solution for the country." A few days ago a long-time friend bent my ear for an hour [this wasn't the first time] on what he would do to change the equation there: He would go into Pashtun country [he is Pashtun] and tell the people that they shouldn't support the Taliban, that the Taliban are actually being used by Pakistan. And they will abandon the Taliban – he is confident they will as soon as he convinces them. This he truly believes and has worked hard at developing an organization that will bring together all kinds of Afghans to work out a reconciliation. All that is necessary is for his plan to be financed. He needs money

I have heard this kind of vision from several others -- the difference in this case being that this person is a friend whose sincerity I trust; some of the others I have not known well and do not trust.

But what is similar in all these cases is that they have been out of the country for years. My good Pashtun friend has been out at least 20 years -- and yet he tells me confidently that he knows what is going on in Afghanistan, and that he will resolve the crisis if he could only have the funding to carry out his plan. He assures me that he knows his country, he knows his people, and he knows they will believe him if he could just get back and explain to them what is actually going on.

The mismatch between his vision and the reality of the country seems to me so obvious that I grieve for him, for no hope exists for his plan ever to be put into motion.

All these friends whom I have talked with lately have an image of the country that is time-warped. They seem unable to grasp how the country -- how their own people -- have changed. Like elsewhere in the world, Afghanistan has been changing rapidly. It is not the country it was only five years ago. To mention only one of many factors that have changed the scene, there are now more than 10 million cell phones in the country [an underestimate I am told] and each one is a vehicle of social outreach that expands contacts and access to information and opportunity virtually instantaneously, a circumstance that exceeds anything many of us could imagine even a decade ago.

The one theme shared by all my Afghan expatriate friends who have such grand ideas for how to solve the country's problems is their sense that other ethnic groups than their own have been taking advantage while theirs has been suffering. One of my contacts has complained that he calls back to his relatives and friends who are still in country and he asks them why they don't do more to advance their ethnic people without getting even the slightest interest in the issue. They are all too busy making a living, one complained.

Yes, because the issues before them have changed. The old animosities, while still extant, are currently being upstaged by other issues. Opportunities and problems of a different sort are far more urgent.

I suppose that such a disconnect as I see among my friends in the Afghanistan diaspora has taken place among emigrant populations for generations all over the world. Each population leaves with an image of the home that remains unchanged while many new issues engage their relatives back home, creating circumstances that the emigrants would not appreciate without become ensconced back in the home country for a while. The only difference is that the pace of change produces more acute differences of perspective according to when they emigrated. Each emigrant wave carries with it a distinctive image of the country left behind while the social world back home continues to shift at an ever escalating pace.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another look at the movement in Bahrain -- as it looked five years ago

Merely for what it reveals of the past as well as the present I here reproduce an article I posted on this site in 2005. The relevance of this unremarked protest more than five years ago to what is going on now in Bahrain is too obvious to belabor. For what it's worth:

> 29 March 2005

The hypocrisy of Washington’s self-proclaimed crusade for democracy in the Middle East found damning expression this week in the nearly total silence of the US government and the American media over a demonstration that brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Bahrain last Friday demanding democratic reforms.
> The contrast between the reaction to this popular upsurge against a dictatorial monarch in the Persian Gulf and the attention lavished on the so-called “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon could not have been starker.
> The New York Times was among the few to print anything at all, limiting its coverage to a 13-line Reuters dispatch placed at the bottom of page 6 in its international briefs column. The Washington Post, the other paper of record of the US ruling elite, published nothing at all, and the major broadcast media remained completely silent.
Apparently, the US corporate media’s only interest in Bahrain is the preparations for a Grand Prix motor race to be held there on April 3. The aspirations and the oppression of the country’s population are a matter of indifference.
> Friday’s peaceful march saw an estimated 80,000 people—roughly 12 percent of the Gulf state’s total population—demanding constitutional reforms. They called for greater power for the elected lower house of parliament, which currently is subordinated to a handpicked upper chamber, the consultative council — an arrangement that leaves all real legislative power in the hands of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. They also demanded a constitution ratified by elected representatives, rather than the current charter, which was imposed by royal decree in 2002.
> This action signaled the refusal of the Al-Khalifa dynasty to relinquish the absolute power it has exercised since declaring its independence from Britain in 1971. As a consequence, the opposition parties boycotted an election held that year.
> The monarchy denied organizers of the march—principally the main Shia opposition movement, the Islamic National Accord Association (INAA)—a legal permit for the protest, citing “tension and regional threats.” Also participating in the march were the left-wing National Democratic Action Association, the National Democratic Rally—a pan-Arabist group—and the Islamic Action Association, another Shia opposition movement. Political parties remain banned in Bahrain.
> On Saturday, the daily newspaper Al-Ayyam quoted a senior minister in the Bahrain regime declaring that the INAA “will face legal measures after it organized an unlawful demonstration yesterday.”
> Opposition leaders are threatened with arrest. The regime has increasingly cracked down on dissent. In the past month alone, it jailed three young men for running an online discussion forum——that posted comments critical of the regime. It accused them of “defamation...inciting hatred against the regime and spreading rumors and lies that could cause disorder.”
> Also arrested March 9 were three members of a recently formed Committee of the Unemployed for distributing leaflets urging participation in a picket on behalf of the jobless. It is estimated that as much as 25 percent of the country’s population are unemployed. An opposition group reported that the three were subjected to physical abuse and harsh interrogations.
> Last September, Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, vice-president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested for violating royal decrees restricting freedom of speech and association. The rights group was also proscribed.
> Al-Khawaja earned the monarchy’s wrath by speaking at a public forum on poverty and social inequality in Bahrain, blaming the policies of Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa—the king’s uncle. The regime is a family affair, with al-Khalifas occupying 10 of the 21 ministries, including all those most important to the exercise of state power.
> While the Shia community represents an estimated 70 percent of the country’s population, there are only five Shia ministers in the government, all of them occupying relatively unimportant posts. In the last elections, the ruling family shamelessly gerrymandered electoral districts to dilute the Shia vote.
> Given the Bush administration’s incessant proclamations of its dedication to the struggle for democracy and against tyranny, one might anticipate the administration embracing the demonstration in Bahrain as an indication of a democratic wave sweeping the Middle East.
> After all, here were tens of thousands openly defying a regime that suppresses freedom of speech and assembly, discriminates against the majority of the population and routinely locks up those who criticize it.
> But George Bush did not take to the airwaves proclaiming his desire for the liberation of the people of the Bahrain—as he has done in relation to Iran
and Lebanon—nor did he suggest sanctions against the tyrannical monarchy, as he has implemented against the Syrian regime.
> Rather, there was an embarrassed silence, both in Washington and the media. The events in Bahrain cannot be reported because they expose US policy as a lie.

> Washington is not condemning this tyrant, because he is a pliant and valued instrument of US imperialist policy in the region. The small gulf emirate he rules serves as the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet. Some 4,500 US military personnel are deployed there, occupying a 79-acre base. The Navy and Marine components of the US Central Command are also based there, and the royal family allowed the use of its territory for carrying out military attacks on Iraq.
> Economically, the autocratic regime has likewise subordinated itself to Washington, signing a free trade pact last year that effectively abrogated an existing customs union joining it with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. US firms dominate the oil sector.
> With a population and landmass that are both approximately equivalent to
those of Indianapolis, Indiana, Bahrain has been designated as a “major non-NATO
> Last November, when King Hamad flew to the US, the White House celebrated him as “the first Arab leader to meet President George W. Bush since his re-election as US president.”
> During the visit, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell lauded the King for sharing the US commitment to “help the Iraqis have their election.” That the election staged in his own country was so blatantly rigged that political
organizations representing the majority of the population boycotted them went
> King Hamad’s regime in Bahrain, the Saudi royal family, Egypt’s Mubarak,
General Musharraf of Pakistan and ex-Stalinist dictators like Karimov of
Uzbekistan—these are the regimes that Washington props up and depends upon in the Middle East and Central Asia. They are the real face of the supposedly democratic goals of US imperialism in the region.
> The reaction to the Bahrain protests serves to expose the obvious. In its pretense of a worldwide crusade for democracy and against tyranny, US imperialism designates who is a democrat and who is a tyrant based entirely upon its own strategic interests. Thus, protests in Lebanon that are seen as a means of strengthening both US and Israeli dominance in the region are celebrated by the US government and given massive coverage in the media, while a demonstration in Bahrain that threatens to undermine a US-backed regime is censored from the news.
> --

The demonstrations we ignored until the big ones happened

So much has been happening in the Middle East that I have tried to collect a list of the several demonstrations that led up to the recent major demonstrations that have had such an effect. Most of them -- all of them -- sought popular sovereignty and in any case indicated a growing sense of frustration across the Middle East. Virtually none the demonstrations that led up to these recent massive movements were animated by Islamic agendas. Some of them were pointedly aimed against the Islamist regimes currently in power, notably in Iran. In a few instances, the leaders of these demonstrations specifically denied that their agendas are Islamic. For instance, when President Admadenijad in Iran claimed the Egyptian demonstrations were Islamist a leader of the Muslim Brethren denied it.

So here is my working list, in chronological order of demonstrations in the Middle East that were mostly ignored. Much of this information comes from Asef Bayat, 2010, *Life as Politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East,* Palo Alto, CA, Stanford University. Further information is available at various sites on the internet. Also, for a recent statement on Iran see Haleh Esfandiari. 2011. "Iran: the State of Fear", NYReview Ap 7, 2011.

1987-93. First Palestinian Intifada, triggered by a fatal accident caused by an Israeli truck driver. Eventually thousands of Palestinians participated.

1995. Iran. In January a hundred thousand spectators at a soccer match in Tehran, in response to a bad call, tear up the stadium, begin chanting “Death of this barbaric regime”, and “Death to the Pasdaran” [paramilitary troops]. [Bayat 2010: 126.]

1998. Iran. In June “hordes of young boys and girls [disgorged into] the streets in every major city to cheer, dance, and sound their car horns” because of a victory of the Iranian soccer team in Paris -- and in defiance of government regulations. In Karadj they taunt the Basij who are supposed to maintain order chanting “Basij must dance!” [Bayat 2010: 126]

2001 Iran. The loss of Iran’s soccer team in Bahrain provides another excuse for hundreds of thousands of young people to display deeply felt anger against their government. “In fifty-four different areas of Tehran, young people marched, shouted political slogans, threw rocks and handmade explosives at police, vandalized police cars, broke traffic lights, and lit candles in a sign of mourning for defeat.” Contrary to government regulations young people shot off fireworks to celebrate Nowroz, “turned urban neighborhoods into explosive battle zones, scorning the official ban on the ritual and the collective joy that went with it. … symbolizing “outrage against officialdom …” [Marc 21, 2001; Bayat 2010: 126]

2004. Iran. In Tehran and Tabriz there are open fights against the Basiji paramilitaries who were trying to contain “improper behavior.” [Bayat 2010: 126].
2005. Feb 14. Lebanon. Cedar Revolution developed after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. More than a million people gather in downtown Beirut and demand the end of Syrian troop occupation, blaming the Syrians for the assassination.

2005 March. Bahrain. Thousands march in the streets demanding a more open society and democracy. [See this blog, 3/23/11.]

2005-2006. Egypt. Nascent democracy movement appears. Kifaya [Enough is enough] movement brings together thousands of middle class professionals, students, teachers, judges, journalists who call for political prisoners to be released and the end to emergency law, torture – even call for the end of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. It is secular, nonsectarian, appeal for democracy. [Bayat 2010: 6, 38, 168]

2006, 2007. Egypt. There are several mass workers’ strikes, especially among textile workers of Mahalla al-Kubra, “the most effective organized activism in the nation’s history since World War II, with almost no Islamist influence.” [Bayat 2010:9]

2007. In Iran, owing to the protests, during this year thousands of activists are arrested and given court summons or/and dismissed from their jobs; dozens of dailies and weeklies are shut down; hundreds of NGOs are closed down. In Egypt police treat with violence peaceful protestors calling for political reform; hundreds of Muslim Brethren are arrested; thousands are in detention without trial. [Bayat 2010: 10]

2008, April 6-7. Egypt. “April 7 Youth movement.” By linking up through Facebook 70,000 people come out in support of a textile workers strike, and to protest Israeli attacks against Gaza. Largely made up of young people, educated, well-to-do. It was implicitly a reaction against political repression, economic stagnation, nepotism in government. Bayat [2010: 23, 135] provides a description of police brutality on July 23, 2008. The protests appear in the outskirts of Cairo. [Bayat 2010: 168]

2008. Nov 5. Barak Obama is elected President of the United States.

2009. June 4. Obama speaks to the Muslim world from Cairo.

2009. June 12. After the Iranian election for President the government declares within hours that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is re-elected. Within a day there is a growing sense of outrage among the Iranian public claiming that the election was stolen. Demonstrations in favor of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the major challenger, appeared the next day indicating their identity by using the color green as participation and support for him. Police and basij [paramilitaries] suppressed the movement brutally. On June 20 Neda Agha-Soltan was shot to death. Her death was captured on film and passed all over the world and became a defining icon of the whole affair. It stood for the popular movement against the regime, for the brutality of the regime, for the collective outrage among many Iranians, for the abuses suffered by young men and women in Iran, for aspirations of “freedom” – that is, for a system by which their government could be made more accountable. Even her name became iconic: “nedaa” means “voice” or “divine message” and so came to stand for “the voice of Iran”. The government not only spared no violent means but also used torture against those who were captured and incarcerated. [Afsaneh Moqadam. 2010. Death to the Dictator. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.]

2010. Dec 17. Mohamed Bouazizi in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire in outrage at the way he had been treated by local officials, especially a police woman who slapped him in the face and insulting his father when he tried to pay a 10-dinar fine. Riots erupted the next day in Sidi Bouzid and the violent response of the police was shared on Facebook. On Dec 22 Lahseen Naji, a protestor, in response to “hunger and joblessness” climbed onto an electricity pylon and electrocuted himself. Another person, Ramzi Al-Abboudi, who was in financial difficulty, also killed himself. On Dec 24 a demonstrator was shot to death by police in Bouziane, another on December 30. Protests reached the capital, Tujnis on December 27 in the form of a rally of 1,000 people calling for jobs. Soon the Tunisian Federation of Labour Unions demonstrated; 300 lawyers held a rally near the palace. There were demonstrations on December 29, 30, 31; there were reports that lawyers were “savagely beaten”. And there were more demonstrations on January 3, 2011. On the 6th 95% of the country’s lawyers went on strike, and the next day teachers joined the strike. On the 11th rioters were ransacking buildings, burning tires, burning cars and buses police used riot gear; the military began to deploy. The Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir organized protests for January 14 and called for re-establishment of the caliphate. The next day they went to the prison to free political prisoners. On January 14 a journalist was hit by a tear gas canister and died. And on that day President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flew out to Saudi Arabia. On January 17 a new cabinet was announced in order to quiet the rebellion. The next day, nevertheless, there were street protests against the new cabinet, insisting that no one connected with President Ben Ali should hold office. By the 23rd the police were joining the protests. Changes in the personnel in the Center committee did not satisfy the demonstrators and on 28 hundreds were demonstrating against the Prime Minister Mohammaed Ghannouchi, seeing themselves as representatives of ten million people. By February 19 demonstrators were demanding a new interim government that was completely free of any connection to the old regime.

2011. January 25. Egypt. Feb 15 Wael Ghonim placed on Facebook a web page “We are all Khaled Said”. In the next 21 hours there were hundreds of comments on the site. Walter Armbrust, when he looked at it on the 16th, saw 5,500 comments on the site. The Egyptian revolution had begun.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What could the concentration of wealth mean over the long term?

I'm trying to internalize what a society might look like in which the upper one percent controls as much wealth as the bottom 50% -- an unprecedented circumstance that has taken form in the last few years in the United States. I ask this because a transition like this, on such a scale, has to have long term implications. As affairs progress we will come to see how much has changed while we supposed that everything had stayed the same.

So, what can be done with such huge advantages in the control of wealth? Consider today's news.

At this moment we see that Qaddafi has been able to recruit hundreds [thousands?] of "fighters" on behalf of his "Libya" simply with what is said to be a great hoard of cash inside the country, even though whatever he claims outside of the country has been impounded. [NYTimes Mar 10, 2011] That is, you can buy people to help you fight your battles if you have enough cash around.

For another, Qaddafi can terrorize and torture his own people -- and even BBC reporters -- in order to control information. One of his fighters was wounded, we learn, and he has been cared for by the opposition. He asked where the Americans were: he had no idea that he was not fighting Americans, as Qaddafi has claimed, but his own people. So, as another example of what can be done by those who have the wealth in hand: you can establish mechanisms for controlling information, some of them brutal.

For another, if you handle enough cash you can hand over bundles of cash and pay off all the involved figures in the transaction, in order to support your election bid, or establish an escape villa in the Gulf. This at least is what Dexter Filkins tells us is happening in Afghanistan. [New Yorker Feb 14-21 "Letter from Kabul: The Afghan Bank Heist."]

Could it happen in America? We tell ourselves it could never happen here. But our system was originally founded on the separation of powers. Now that money is so concentrated in the hands of so few, how effectively will the separations of powers work? Could the same interests be on both sides of a transaction? Could they control all three of the main institutions of government?

Questions worth asking.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A fluid situation in Egypt allows for simmering tensions to catch fire

A report by Al Jazeera – “Copts, Muslims clash in Cairo: At least 11 people killed in sectarian clashes after Coptic protest against the torching of a church” -- reveals how conflicted Egyptian society is after the successful uprising against Hosni Mubarak. On the one hand we have heard that Muslims protected Copts and Copts protected Muslims at different times during the uproarious demonstrations. On the other hand, in the last few days, local clashes among people indicate that the old practices of discrimination have continued. [Click on the title above to see Al Jazeera on the latest affair.]

The burning of the Shahedain church reveals that some Muslims in the city of Sol still have disdain for the Copts of their community. The source of the problem was a love affair: A Copt man wants to marry a Muslim girl. If it had been a Muslim man wanting to marry a Christian girl, that would have been less unusual and less offensive to most Muslims, because the common practice is for the woman to “become” whatever the husband is. These are social categories, not indexes of authentic worship. And viable social categories are enforced and reinforced, reiterated many times in many contexts by the way people relate to each other – by what they don’t do as well as what they do. This love affair is offensive to some folks, as it cuts across conventions firmly established by generations of social practice.

Such are these times. They are momentous because so many fundamental conventions of practice are now at stake as new opportunities are taking form and former options being foreclosed or made less feasible or unproductive. This Muslim-Copt clash is but one of what Al Jazeera calls “a string of violent protests over a variety of topics as simmering unrest continues nearly a month after [the] mass protests.” We all hope the Egyptians can constitute a viable social order in the absence of a dictator. That would indeed be something new, hugely creative in a country that has never enjoyed a ruling institution that existed by popular suffrage.

But in this story there are some encouraging details worth watching because they hint of something else that is new in the picture: the official organizations involved have seemed to take the side of the more vulnerable and to seek redress. Al Jazeera tells us that "The military intervened to prevent further clashes” and “Egypt's ruling military council vowed to have the church rebuilt and prosecute those behind the arson attack.” If the military council follows through it will be significant.

Our own country knows how difficult it is to change social conventions. The rights of Afro-Americans were not seriously protected until the state insisted on it – which pitted the federal government against some state leaders. And even then there were marches on Selma, imprisonment, continued physical abuse, interpersonal clashes that ramified into a series of interpersonal and institutional crises.

We can only hope that the process will take place with minimal pain to the Egyptian people. What we do know, however, is that the fundamental animus of the movement ofr change is not “Islamist”. This is not an “Islamist” movement. All that the radical Islamists had hoped for and risked their lives for never had this kind of penetrating impact on the fundamental structures of Egyptian society.

Monday, March 07, 2011

What the terminus of the American renditions program looks like

The American program in the rendition of international prisoners is and has always been a secret program. Reportedly the CIA has been sending prisoners off to other countries "for questioning." That is, what cannot be done to prisoners on American soil by American officials can be left to the devices of the police in other countries who have no similar legal restrictions. Egypt has for some time been one of those places to which prisoners were "renditioned." What took place there was a black hole.

The Egyptian protesters are now finding and exposing what at lest two of those locations for interrogating prisoners look like, in Cairo and Alexandria. An ABC report on what the Egyptians are finding in the chambers of the secret police are sobering -- and should embarrass the United States.

Barbara Miller of ABC reports what these Egyptian young people are finding.

"the documents they found contain evidence of phone-tapping, election-rigging and torture."
One person said of the Egyptian State security,
it "has never served to protect this state's security. It's real function was to protect the regime. The state security was never there to protect us. All they did was set their thugs on us and spy on us."
Another said,
"We want it dissolved and turned into an information gathering authority, nothing more. We don't need them to torture people and label them terrorists".
This is what they found in these torture chambers:
"We found torture tools. Basically in one of the rooms we found a number of electric shocks. It is not the usual electric shock that we used to see with some of these officers, ..." "This time it was a bit long, it was black. The electric rods at the end of it were a bit like the teeth of some animal or something. It was really outstanding and if you turn it on there is a blue type of a spark that starts working and former detainees showed us how it actually, how it was used on them.
"Another torture tool was basically a cube-like frame made of rods and sticks attached to it and there is an electricity charger attached to this structure with some electricity plugs.
"There are a number of ways that detainees used to be tortured using this device. The thing was so scary, some people started crying after seeing all this."

"We found also plans for rigging the elections, the parliamentary elections in 2010," he said.
"Exact plans telling how many votes will go to each candidate in every district in the country and how the state security and some state security agents working in the media are going to support certain candidates."

Miller says that some of the protesters were attacked by men with knives. Who could they be? Who was paying them? Or were these merely criminals? The situation is still fluid.

"It is the first time since the fall of Mr Mubarak last month that there have been reports of a violent crackdown on protesters."

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Armbrust on the Middle Eastern cry against neoliberalism

This article, by a former anthropology major at Washington University in St Louis, Ph D from the University of Michigan, now a fellow at Oxford's Middle East Center, captures well the revolutionary implications of the new public demonstrations in the Middle East. We are seeing revolutionary movements in the true sense of a cry for a new social order. Walter Armbrust sees clearly some of the social conditions these demonstrations cry out against. Will they yield the paradigm change that they want? This as it appeared in Al Jazeera. RLC[Click on the title for a direct link to the source.]
A revolution against neoliberalism?
If rebellion results in a retrenchment of neoliberalism, millions will feel cheated.
Walter Armbrust 24 Feb 2011 20:27 GMT

On February 16th I read a comment was posted on the wall of the Kullina Khalid Saed ("We are all Khaled Said") Facebook page administered by the now very famous Wael Ghonim. By that time it had been there for about 21 hours. The comment referred to a news item reporting that European governments were under pressure to freeze bank accounts of recently deposed members of the Mubarak regime. The comment said: "Excellent news … we do not want to take revenge on anyone … it is the right of all of us to hold to account any person who has wronged this nation. By law we want the nation’s money that has been stolen … because this is the money of Egyptians, 40% of whom live below the poverty line."

By the time I unpacked this thread of conversation, 5,999 people had clicked the "like" button, and about 5,500 had left comments. I have not attempted the herculean task of reading all five thousand odd comments (and no doubt more are being added as I write), but a fairly lengthy survey left no doubt that most of the comments were made by people who clicked the "like" icon on the Facebook page. There were also a few by regime supporters, and others by people who dislike the personality cult that has emerged around Mr. Ghoneim.

This Facebook thread is symptomatic of the moment. Now that the Mubarak regime has fallen, an urge to account for its crimes and to identify its accomplices has come to the fore. The chants, songs, and poetry performed in Midan al-Tahrir always contained an element of anger against haramiyya (thieves) who benefited from regime corruption. Now lists of regime supporters are circulating in the press and blogosphere. Mubarak and his closest relatives (sons Gamal and 'Ala’) are always at the head of these lists. Articles on their personal wealth give figures as low as $3 billion to as high as $70 billion (the higher number was repeated on many protesters’ signs). Ahmad Ezz, the General Secretary of the deposed National Democratic Party and the largest steel magnate in the Middle East, is supposed to be worth $18 billion; Zohayr Garana, former Minister of Tourism, $13 billion; Ahmad al-Maghrabi, former Minister of Housing, $11 billion; former Minister of Interior Habib Adli, much hated for his supervision of an incredibly abusive police state, also managed to amass $8 billion — not bad for a lifetime civil servant.

Such figures may prove to be inaccurate. They may be too low, or maybe too high, and we may never know precisely because much of the money is outside of Egypt, and foreign governments will only investigate the financial dealings of Mubarak regime members if the Egyptian government makes a formal request for them to do so. Whatever the true numbers, the corruption of the Mubarak regime is not in doubt. The lowest figure quoted for Mubarak’s personal wealth, of "only" $3 billion, is damning enough for a man who entered the air force in 1950 at the age of twenty two, embarking on a sixty-year career in "public service."

A systemic problem

The hunt for regime cronies’ billions may be a natural inclination of the post-Mubarak era, but it could also lead astray efforts to reconstitute the political system. The generals who now rule Egypt are obviously happy to let the politicians take the heat. Their names were not included in the lists of the most egregiously corrupt individuals of the Mubarak era, though in fact the upper echelons of the military have long been beneficiaries of a system similar to (and sometimes overlapping with) the one that that enriched civilian figures much more prominent in the public eye such as Ahmad Ezz and Habib al-Adly.
Despite macroeconomic gains, tens of millions of Egyptians still live in poverty [EPA]

To describe blatant exploitation of the political system for personal gain as corruption misses the forest for the trees. Such exploitation is surely an outrage against Egyptian citizens, but calling it corruption suggests that the problem is aberrations from a system that would otherwise function smoothly. If this were the case then the crimes of the Mubarak regime could be attributed simply to bad character: change the people and the problems go away. But the real problem with the regime was not necessarily that high-ranking members of the government were thieves in an ordinary sense. They did not necessarily steal directly from the treasury. Rather they were enriched through a conflation of politics and business under the guise of privatization. This was less a violation of the system than business as usual. Mubarak’s Egypt, in a nutshell, was a quintessential neoliberal state.

What is neoliberalism? In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, the eminent social geographer David Harvey outlined "a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade." Neoliberal states guarantee, by force if necessary, the "proper functioning" of markets; where markets do not exist (for example, in the use of land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution), then the state should create them.

Guaranteeing the sanctity of markets is supposed to be the limit of legitimate state functions, and state interventions should always be subordinate to markets. All human behavior, and not just the production of goods and services, can be reduced to market transactions.

And the application of utopian neoliberalism in the real world leads to deformed societies as surely as the application of utopian communism did.

Rhetoric vs. reality

Two observations about Egypt’s history as a neoliberal state are in order. First, Mubarak’s Egypt was considered to be at the forefront of instituting neoliberal policies in the Middle East (not un-coincidentally, so was Ben Ali’s Tunisia). Secondly, the reality of Egypt’s political economy during the Mubarak era was very different than the rhetoric, as was the case in every other neoliberal state from Chile to Indonesia. Political scientist Timothy Mitchell published a revealing essay about Egypt’s brand of neoliberalism in his book Rule of Experts (the chapter titled "Dreamland" — named after a housing development built by Ahmad Bahgat, one of the Mubarak cronies now discredited by the fall of the regime). The gist of Mitchell’s portrait of Egyptian neoliberalism was that while Egypt was lauded by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund as a beacon of free-market success, the standard tools for measuring economies gave a grossly inadequate picture of the Egyptian economy. In reality the unfettering of markets and agenda of privatization were applied unevenly at best.

The only people for whom Egyptian neoliberalism worked "by the book" were the most vulnerable members of society, and their experience with neoliberalism was not a pretty picture. Organised labor was fiercely suppressed. The public education and the health care systems were gutted by a combination of neglect and privatization. Much of the population suffered stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation. Official unemployment was estimated at approximately 9.4% last year (and much higher for the youth who spearheaded the January 25th Revolution), and about 20% of the population is said to live below a poverty line defined as $2 per day per person.

For the wealthy, the rules were very different. Egypt did not so much shrink its public sector, as neoliberal doctrine would have it, as it reallocated public resources for the benefit of a small and already affluent elite. Privatization provided windfalls for politically well-connected individuals who could purchase state-owned assets for much less than their market value, or monopolise rents from such diverse sources as tourism and foreign aid. Huge proportions of the profits made by companies that supplied basic construction materials like steel and cement came from government contracts, a proportion of which in turn were related to aid from foreign governments.

Most importantly, the very limited function for the state recommended by neoliberal doctrine in the abstract was turned on its head in reality. In Mubarak’s Egypt business and government were so tightly intertwined that it was often difficult for an outside observer to tease them apart. Since political connections were the surest route to astronomical profits, businessmen had powerful incentives to buy political office in the phony elections run by the ruling National Democratic Party. Whatever competition there was for seats in the Peoples’ Assembly and Consultative Council took place mainly within the NDP. Non-NDP representation in parliament by opposition parties was strictly a matter of the political calculations made for a given elections: let in a few independent candidates known to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005 (and set off tremors of fear in Washington); dictate total NDP domination in 2010 (and clear the path for an expected new round of distributing public assets to "private" investors).

Parallels with America

The political economy of the Mubarak regime was shaped by many currents in Egypt’s own history, but its broad outlines were by no means unique. Similar stories can be told throughout the rest of the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Everywhere neoliberalism has been tried, the results are similar: living up to the utopian ideal is impossible; formal measures of economic activity mask huge disparities in the fortunes of the rich and poor; elites become "masters of the universe," using force to defend their prerogatives, and manipulating the economy to their advantage, but never living in anything resembling the heavily marketised worlds that are imposed on the poor.
Unemployment was a major grievance for millions of Egyptian protesters [EPA]

The story should sound familiar to Americans as well. For example, the vast fortunes of Bush era cabinet members Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, through their involvement with companies like Halliburton and Gilead Sciences, are the product of a political system that allows them — more or less legally — to have one foot planted in "business" and another in "government" to the point that the distinction between them becomes blurred. Politicians move from the office to the boardroom to the lobbying organization and back again.

As neoliberal dogma disallows any legitimate role for government other than guarding the sanctity of free markets, recent American history has been marked by the steady privatization of services and resources formerly supplied or controlled by the government. But it is inevitably those with closest access to the government who are best positioned to profit from government campaigns to sell off the functions it formerly performed. It is not just Republicans who are implicated in this systemic corruption. Clinton-era Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin’s involvement with Citigroup does not bear close scrutiny. Lawrence Summers gave crucial support for the deregulation of financial derivatives contracts while Secretary of Treasury under Clinton, and profited handsomely from companies involved in the same practices while working for Obama (and of course deregulated derivatives were a key element in the financial crisis that led to a massive Federal bailout of the entire banking industry).

So in Egyptian terms, when General Secretary of the NDP Ahmad Ezz cornered the market on steel and was given contracts to build public-private construction projects, or when former Minister of Parliament Talaat Mustafa purchased vast tracts of land for the upscale Madinaty housing development without having to engage in a competitive bidding process (but with the benefit of state-provided road and utility infrastructure), they may have been practicing corruption logically and morally. But what they were doing was also as American as apple pie, at least within the scope of the past two decades.

However, in the current climate the most important thing is not the depredations of deposed Mubarak regime cronies. It is rather the role of the military in the political system. It is the army that now rules the country, albeit as a transitional power, or so most Egyptians hope. No representatives of the upper echelons of the Egyptian military appear on the various lists of old-regime allies who need to be called to account. For example, the headline of the February 17th edition of Ahrar, the press organ of the Liberal party, was emblazoned with the headline "Financial Reserves of the Corrupt Total 700 Billion Pounds [about $118 billion] in 18 Countries."

A vast economic powerhouse

But the article did not say a single word about the place of the military in this epic theft. The military were nonetheless part of the crony capitalism of the Mubarak era. After relatively short careers in the military high-ranking officers are rewarded with such perks as highly remunerative positions on the management boards of housing projects and shopping malls. Some of these are essentially public-sector companies transferred to the military sector when IMF-mandated structural adjustment programs required reductions in the civilian public sector.

But the generals also receive plums from the private sector. Military spending itself was also lucrative because it included both a state budget and contracts with American companies that provided hardware and technical expertise. The United States provided much of the financing for this spending under rules that required a great deal of the money to be recycled to American corporations, but all such deals required middlemen. Who better to act as an intermediary for American foreign aid contracts than men from the very same military designated as the recipient of the services paid for by this aid? In this respect the Egyptian military-industrial complex was again stealing a page from the American playbook; indeed, to the extent that the Egyptian military benefited from American foreign aid, Egypt was part of the American military-industrial complex, which is famous for its revolving-door system of recycling retired military men as lobbyists and employees of defense contractors.

Consequently it is almost unthinkable that the generals of the Supreme Military Council will willingly allow more than cosmetic changes in the political economy of Egypt. But they could be compelled to do so unwillingly. The army is a blunt force, not well suited for controlling crowds of demonstrators. The latest statement of the Supreme Military Council reiterated both the legitimacy of the pro-democracy movements demands, and the requirement that demonstrations cease so that the country can get back to work. If demonstrations continue to the point that the Supreme Military Council feels it can no longer tolerate them, then the soldiers who will be ordered to put them down (indeed, in some accounts were already ordered to put them down early in the revolution and refused to do so) with deadly force, are not the generals who were part of the Mubarak-era corruption, but conscripts.

Pro-democracy demonstrators and their sympathisers often repeated the slogans "the army and the people are one hand," and "the army is from us." They had the conscripts in mind, and many were unaware of how stark differences were between the interests of the soldiers and the generals. Between the conscripts and the generals is a middle-level professional officer corps whose loyalties have been the subject of much speculation. The generals, for their part, want to maintain their privileges, but not to rule directly. Protracted direct rule leaves the officers of the Supreme Military Council vulnerable to challenges from other officers who were left on the outside. Also, direct rule would make it impossible to hide that the elite officers are not in fact part of the "single hand" composed of the people and the (conscript) army. They are instead logically in the same camp as Ahmad Ezz, Safwat al-Sharif, Gamal Mubarak, and Habib al-Adly — precisely the names on those lists making the rounds of regime members and cronies who should face judgment.

Ultimately the intense speculation about how much money the Mubarak regime stole, and how much the people can expect to pump back into the nation, is a red herring. If the figure turns out to be $50 billion or $500 billion, it will not matter, if Egypt remains a neoliberal state dedicated (nominally) to free-market fundamentalism for the poor, while creating new privatised assets that can be recycled to political insiders for the rich. If one seeks clues to how deeply the January 25th Revolution will restructure Egypt, it would be better to look at such issues as what sort of advice the interim government of generals solicits in fulfilling its mandate to re-make Egyptian government. The period of military government probably will be as short as advertised, followed, one hopes, by an interim civilian government for some specified period (at least two years) during which political parties are allowed to organise on the ground in preparation for free elections. But interim governments have a way of becoming permanent.

Technocrats or ideologues?

One sometimes hears calls to set up a government of "technocrats" that would assume the practical matters of governance. "Technocrat" sounds neutral — a technical expert who would make decisions on "scientific" principle. The term was often applied to Yusuf Butros Ghali, for example, the former Minister of the Treasury, who was one of the Gamal Mubarak boys brought into the cabinet in 2006 ostensibly to smooth the way for the President’s son to assume power. Ghali is now accused of having appropriated LE 450 million for the use of Ahmad Ezz.

I once sat next to Ghali at a dinner during one of his trips abroad, and had the opportunity to ask him when the Egyptian government would be ready to have free elections. His response was to trot out the now discredited regime line that elections were impossible because actual democracy would result in the Muslim Brotherhood taking power. Conceivably Ghali will beat the charge of specifically funneling the state’s money to Ahmad Ezz. But as a key architect of Egypt’s privatization programs he cannot possibly have been unaware that he was facilitating a system that enabled the Ezz steel empire while simultaneously destroying Egypt’s educational and health care systems.
The Egyptian army controls a range of businesses, ranging from factories to hotels [EPA]

The last time I encountered the word "technocrat" was in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine — a searing indictment of neoliberalism which argues that the free-market fundamentalism promoted by economist Milton Friedman (and immensely influential in the United States) is predicated on restructuring economies in the wake of catastrophic disruptions because normally functioning societies and political systems would never vote for it. Disruptions can be natural or man-made, such as … revolutions.

The chapters in The Shock Doctrine on Poland, Russia, and South Africa make interesting reading in the context of Egypt’s revolution. In each case when governments (communist or apartheid) collapsed, "technocrats" were brought in to help run countries that were suddenly without functional governments, and create the institutional infrastructure for their successors. The technocrats always seemed to have dispensed a form of what Klein calls "shock therapy" — the imposition of sweeping privatization programs before dazed populations could consider their options and potentially vote for less ideologically pure options that are in their own interests.

The last great wave of revolutions occurred in 1989. The governments that were collapsing then were communist, and the replacement in that "shock moment" of one extreme economic system with its opposite seemed predictable and to many even natural.

One of the things that make the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions potentially important on a global scale is that they took place in states that were already neoliberalised. The complete failure of neoliberalsm to deliver "human well-being" to a large majority of Egyptians was one of the prime causes of the revolution, at least in the sense of helping to prime millions of people who were not connected to social media to enter the streets on the side of the pro-democracy activists.

But the January 25th Revolution is still a "shock moment." We hear calls to bring in the technocrats in order to revive a dazed economy; and we are told every day that the situation is fluid, and that there is a power vacuum in the wake of not just the disgraced NDP, but also the largely discredited legal opposition parties, which played no role whatsoever in the January 25th Revolution. In this context the generals are probably happy with all the talk about reclaiming the money stolen by the regime, because the flip side of that coin is a related current of worry about the state of the economy. The notion that the economy is in ruins — tourists staying away, investor confidence shattered, employment in the construction sector at a standstill, many industries and businesses operating at far less than full capacity — could well be the single most dangerous rationale for imposing cosmetic reforms that leave the incestuous relation between governance and business intact.

Or worse, if the pro-democracy movement lets itself be stampeded by the "economic ruin" narrative, structures could be put in place by "technocrats" under the aegis of the military transitional government that would tie the eventual civilian government into actually quickening the pace of privatization. Ideologues, including those of the neoliberal stripe, are prone to a witchcraft mode of thinking: if the spell does not work, it is not the fault of the magic, but rather the fault of the shaman who performed the spell. In other words, the logic could be that it was not neoliberalism that ruined Mubarak’s Egypt, but the faulty application of neoliberalism.

Trial balloons for this witchcraft narrative are already being floated outside of Egypt. The New York Times ran an article on February 17th casting the military as a regressive force opposed to privatization and seeking a return to Nasserist statism. The article pits the ostensibly "good side" of the Mubarak regime (privatization programs) against bad old Arab socialism, completely ignoring the fact that while the system of military privilege may preserve some public-sector resources transferred from the civilian economy under pressure of IMF structural adjustment programs, the empire of the generals is hardly limited to a ring-fenced quasi-underground public sector.

Officers were also rewarded with private-sector perks; civilian political/business empires mixed public and private roles to the point that what was government and what was private were indistinguishable; both the military and civilians raked in rents from foreign aid. The generals may well prefer a new round of neoliberal witchcraft. More privatization will simply free up assets and rents that only the politically connected (including the generals) can acquire. Fixing a failed neoliberal state by more stringent applications of neoliberalism could be the surest way for them to preserve their privileges.

A neoliberal fix would, however, be a tragedy for the pro-democracy movement. The demands of the protesters were clear and largely political: remove the regime; end the emergency law; stop state torture; hold free and fair elections. But implicit in these demands from the beginning (and decisive by the end) was an expectation of greater social and economic justice. Social media may have helped organise the kernel of a movement that eventually overthrew Mubarak, but a large element of what got enough people into the streets to finally overwhelm the state security forces was economic grievances that are intrinsic to neoliberalism. These grievances cannot be reduced to grinding poverty, for revolutions are never carried out by the poorest of the poor. It was rather the erosion of a sense that some human spheres should be outside the logic of markets. Mubarak’s Egypt degraded schools and hospitals, and guaranteed grossly inadequate wages, particularly in the ever-expanding private sector. This was what turned hundreds of dedicated activists into millions of determined protestors.

If the January 25th revolution results in no more than a retrenchment of neoliberalism, or even its intensification, those millions will have been cheated. The rest of the world could be cheated as well. Egypt and Tunisia are the first nations to carry out successful revolutions against neoliberal regimes. Americans could learn from Egypt. Indeed, there are signs that they already are doing so. Wisconsin teachers protesting against their governor’s attempts to remove the right to collective bargaining have carried signs equating Mubarak with their governor. Egyptians might well say to America 'uqbalak (may you be the next).

Dr. Walter Armbrust is Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University. He is the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
This article first appeared on Jadaliyya.

Jazeera saw it coming

Wadah Khanfar’s article, which first appeared in the Washington Post, even if self=congratulatory tells us a lot about the Middle East that we didn’t know – and some things about ourselves that we didn’t want to know. RLC [Click on the title for a direct link to the Al Jazeera version.]

We saw the Arab revolutions coming

Al Jazeera's director general asks why, when Al Jazeera saw the uprisings coming, the West did not.
Wadah Khanfar 01 Mar 2011 08:44 GMT

From North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, Arabs were celebrating the reclamation of their dignity [GALLO/GETTY]
On February 11, the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt, Al Jazeera faced a welcome dilemma: Scenes of elation were playing out not just in Cairo but throughout the region, and even with our vast network of journalists, we found it difficult to be everywhere at once. From North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, Arabs were celebrating the reclamation of their self-confidence, dignity and hope.
The popular revolutions now sweeping the region are long overdue. Yet in some ways, they could not have come before now. These are uprisings whose sons and daughters are well educated and idealistic enough to envision a better future, yet realistic enough to work for it without falling into despair. These revolutions are led by the Internet generation, for whom equality of voice and influence is the norm. Their leaders' influence is the product of their own effort, determination and skill, unconstrained by rigid ideologies and extremism.
It is now clear to all that the modern, post-colonial Arab state has failed miserably, even in what it believed it was best at: Maintaining security and stability. Over the decades, Arab interior ministers and police chiefs devoted enormous resources and expertise to monitoring and spying on their own people. Yet now, the security machineries in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have disintegrated in short order, while the rest of the authoritarian and repressive regimes in the region can see the writing on the wall.

These revolutions have exposed not just the failure of traditional politicians but also the moral, political and economic bankruptcy of the old Arab elites. Those elites not only attempted to control their own people, but also sought to shape and taint the views of news media in the region and across the world.
Indeed, it should surprise no one that so many Western analysts, researchers, journalists and government experts failed to recognise the obvious signs of Arab youth movements that would soon erupt into revolutions capable of bringing down some of the most pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. That failure has exposed a profound lack of understanding in the West of Arab reality.
US and European allies, supporters and business partners of the Arab regimes persistently preferred to deal with leaders who were entirely unrepresentative of the new generation. They were detached from the emerging reality and had no way to engage with the social forces that now matter. It is the growing periphery of the Arab world - the masses at its margins, not its feeble and decaying centre - that is shaping the future of the region.
These unfolding transformations have been less of a surprise for us at Al Jazeera. Since our launch nearly 15 years ago, we have chosen to keep close to the Arab street, gauging its pulse and reflecting its aspirations. It was clear to us that a revolution was in the making, and it was happening far from the gaze of a tame and superficial establishment media that allied itself with the powerful centre - on the assumption that the centre is always safer and more important. Many media outlets in the region failed to recognise what was happening among the Arab grass roots. Keen to conduct interviews with high-level officials and ever willing to cover repetitious news conferences, they remained oblivious to what was happening on the ground.
At Al Jazeera we have spared no effort to search for the real actors, wherever they happen to be: Whether in the cities, in the countryside, in camps, in prisons or in the blogosphere. We have been guided by a firm belief that the future of the Arab world will be shaped by people from outside the aging elites and debilitated political structures featured so disproportionately by most other news outlets.
The real actors did not appear on most television screens or magazine covers, whether in the Arab world or in Western media. Cameras were not attracted to them; columnists rarely mentioned them. Yet that did not deter them.
Al Jazeera swam against that dominant current. We gave all the players the avenues they needed to communicate, providing diverse viewpoints on the issues. During the recent uprisings we were inundated with videos, pictures and writings from the new generation. We opened our screens to them; it is their voices that viewers found so compelling in our coverage.
We refused to compromise on our editorial policy, which gives priority to the grievances and aspirations of ordinary people. Neither threats of punishment nor promises of rewards from information ministers, intelligence agencies or royal courts persuaded us to ignore or betray the oppressed and persecuted who demand nothing but freedom, dignity and democracy.
As I tweeted during the Egyptian uprising and as our reporters were being detained in Cairo: "When opinions crowd and confusion prevails, set your sight on the route taken by the masses, for that is where the future lies."
Wadah Khanfar is director general of the Al Jazeera network. This article first appeared in The Washington Post.