Saturday, 26 February 2011

After the slaughter, justice?

Although the information trickling out of Libya is sketchy, Qaddafy’s reign is clearly approaching its end at great cost to the valiant citizens who have defied his assassins. It is inspiring and terrifying to see what people are capable of doing when they have had enough and really do choose ‘Liberty or Death’ as the facile slogans we sport on our license plates say. From all indications the final collapse is coming within days, and the celebrations will rival those of Cairo but tempered by the thousands of funerals that will be occurring simultaneously.

It is curious how the language of human rights has resurfaced throughout the events in the Middle East as a frame for the positions of western governments. Hillary C, Obama himself, the European heads of state all frequent invoke the universality of certain rights, such as peaceable assembly and freedom of speech, to outline their demands on challenged governments and tyrannical regimes. Sometimes the rhetoric they deploy is virtually indistinguishable from the positions taken by the major human rights organizations.

For example, a Human Rights Watch spokesman told Jim Lehrer on The News Hour a few nights ago that the U.S. government should issue statements to the effect that middle-level army officers and other Libyan officials will be held accountable individually for further crimes committed by the regime against its citizens even if they were receiving orders to carry out such atrocities. This is a direct reference to the Nuremberg principles that crimes against humanity are illegitimate and individuals have a responsibility not to obey orders to commit them.

That’s a tough one in the Libyan case where such refusals have been punished by death. But for outsiders it is sometimes the only tool left short of direct intervention, which carries much more serious risks. Even the talk of imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya is a much graver matter than it appears at first glance since such military action opens the door to escalation if it doesn’t work. We already learned a lesson in Iraq about how foolish recourse to direct conquest can be.

Instead, Friday’s Guardian said that British officials were communicating directly to contacts in the Libyan security forces and warning them not to take part in further atrocities. Whether that pressure is persuading them, or they wanted to break with Qaddafy anyway is not clear, but many former backers of the regime are jumping ship, from top diplomats down to army recruits.

Human rights-based prosecutions could easily follow the Libyan endgame, which has disgusted decent people everywhere. These trials, were they to occur, would have much more credibility, however, if the people now threatening them were more consistent defenders of human rights in their own affairs in places like Guantánamo and Bagram Air Force Base. How ironic it would be if a future detainee should defend himself in The Hague by saying, Yes, I tortured my citizens—on your orders.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


The news from Libya is horrifying: tales of machete-wielding shock troops dispatched as death squads to go door to door in Tripoli and slaughter as many residents as necessary to reimpose the peace of the cemetery on the Libyan capital. Bodies strewn in the streets, residents too terrified to haul them away. Khaddafy makes ancient troglodytes like Mubarak and Ben Ali look humane as the crazed tent dweller aspires to join the great criminals of modern history, the Saddams, the Korean Kims, the Salvadoran fascists backed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and the anonymous genocidaires of Rwanda, all those modern Caligulas and Tamerlanes willing to put entire villages to the sword to feed their psychotic narcissism.

Even these tactics out of a child’s nightmare won’t be enough to save Khaddafy’s miserable skin, but it’s not clear that the country will survive him either. A political revolution, by pulling the broad mass of the population together as occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, lays the groundwork for a functional civil society that can evolve into a state. Massacres, a split military, free-lance murderers on the loose, civil war, on the other hand, all set the stage for the opposite. Khaddafy’s refusal to budge may well lead to the outcome he warns of—Somali-style anarchy or Afghan warlordism.

A less hated figure who still had a friend in the region might have opted for flight, but not even the Saudis, who welcome tyrants like Idi Amin with ease, will touch this outcast. (Only comrades Daniel Ortega, Fidel and possibly Hugo Chávez sounded willing to put out the welcome mat.) All hail the people’s revolutionary socialist leaders of Latin America.

If Khaddafy has to be brought to justice physically to put an end to the carnage, the consequences will be more terrible and less predictable than in Egypt or even the Gulf. It is hard to imagine anyone in that unlucky country being in a forgiving mood for a long, long time.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

From Cairo to Madison

Someone was bound to compare the enraged throngs shutting down the Wisconsin state legislature to the millions of Egyptians busily overthrowing their dictatorship, and whether it was a favorable or an unfavorable parallel is beside the point. There is something inherently seditious about taking to the streets to demand political change; it always carries the faint whiff of insurrection, the hint that direct action by the masses is a stand-by option.

We’re getting a real poly sci lesson from our sofas these days as the fed-up peoples from the Gulf to the shores of Tripoli test and challenge the varieties of illegitimacy on display in the Arab world. While the Egyptian revolt was based in economics, it’s curious now to see how the oil-rich nations that can and did bribe the masses into a grumbling acquiescence for so long are also facing rebellion in the name of freedom and liberty, of all things.

Bush talked about that a lot en route to conquering Iraq and exposing its inhabitants to slaughter, and Obama added his own cool, professioral endorsement of the concepts. So are they happy now that people are in the streets risking their lives to make it reality? Not so much.

Washington is emitting ambiguous tones, to say the least, even though they coaxed the genie out of the bottle to wish first for democracy and then for democracy of a non-Islamic character, upon which the Egyptian, Tunisian, Bahraini, Libyan and Yemeni peoples said, Great. Now the Americans have only one wish left.

Unless I’m mistaken, they will use it, like the guy in the 1001 Nights fable, to blow everything. I’m guessing domestic politics will trump principle, and the money boys, the Israeli lobby and the weapons manufacturers will convince Obama to take up residence on the wrong side of history, assigning him the task of dressing up their venal self-interest as moderate, nuanced, adult good sense.

One strong indication that I am right came this week as the U.S vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the continued theft of Palestinian land by the Zionist settler enterprise. It’s marvelous to see Obama try to fit the round peg of his fairness-and-decency rhetoric into the square hole of our main ally’s race-based religious empire.

US ambassador Susan Rice said the veto should not be construed as an endorsement of the settlements even though we pay for them through our decades of taxpayer-funded subsidies of the Israeli project. Rice lives in an Alice-in-Wonderland world where a word means ‘exactly what I say it should mean’ and nothing else.

Unfortunately for Susan and her boss, the Bahrainis and Libyans aren’t in a philological mood just now. They may pay more attention to what the Americans do and not so much to what they say everyone else should think about it.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Egyptians v. Wall Street

The Yacoubian Building, an Egyptian novel first published in 2002 that later attracted a considerable readership in English, describes the life of several Cairenes and offers valuable insights into why 80 million people were ripe for revolt. The book is a relentless account of the largely unsuccessful struggle for survival by recently arrived peasants from the countryside and concludes with a visit by Muhammad Azzam, a prosperous and corrupt (of course) businessman to the palace of the unnamed Great One, obviously Mubarak himself, who is never seen but only heard demanding a hefty kickback from Azzam’s businesses.

We’re now hearing a lot about strikes breaking out all over Egypt in the wake of and contributing to the revolution of January 25, a reminder of the uprising’s important economic roots. It’s rather funny to realize that we’ve focused far more on the role of Facebook than that of social class and wages—which says a lot more about us than about Egyptians. For example, how many of us know that a labor protest by underpaid textile workers in the northern city of Mahalla El- Kubra in 2008 was the first to link their economic suffering with Mubarak’s repression and, despite its ostensible ‘failure’, sparked the formation of the April 6 Youth Movement so instrumental in bringing Mubarak down this month.

Our commentators here took note of Mubarak’s role in serving U.S. geopolitical interests and maintaining the separate peace with Israel, but few had anything to say about the toppled dictator’s cooperation with the neoliberal economic dream. Egypt under Mubarak became a paradise of cheap labor for international capital. The Egyptians even have a word—infitah—for the move to wrench away protections for local production in favor of integration with the world market. This type of upheaval often, if not always, requires an authoritarian state—Chile and China come to mind as examples—but the Egyptian case was distinct in that it also included an extreme version of crony inefficiency that stifled economic activity just as thoroughly as political opposition.

Early reports that the new military regime had outlawed strikes turned out to be premature, probably a wise move by the generals who may not have been able to control them in any case. It appears that every labor group from airport employees to longshoremen at the Suez Canal is bursting with wage demands that they can put forward now that they don’t fear the secret police and its many dungeons. The latest news (Thursday 11 a.m. EST) suggests that the strikes are multiplying and that the canal employees are not going back to work. These actions may be at least as persuasive as new rallies in Tahrir Square pushing the military toward real democratic reforms.

Naked Capitalism, Real Clear World and others have pointed out, however, that the military chiefs who quickly lined up against Mubarak and now are in control of the country also have benefited from his creation of a low-wage manufacturing sector, an explosion of Mexican-style maquiladoras on the Nile. Many of these young workers are the ones who poured into the streets by the hundreds of thousands to demand a better life, and the armed forces eventually sided with them.

But despite the unfair competition generated by Mubarak’s mafia-state aligned with international investors, the generals also took advantage of cheap, intimidated labor to extract big profits from their dairy, textiles, piece-work and other businesses. That won’t be easy to give up, but they could also decide that a less corrupt economy with broader distribution of income will be better for them in the long run.

Matt Stoller, who once advised Rep. Alan Grayson, concludes that the Egyptian uprising is really a revolt against the Goldman Sachs/Republicrat formula of global integration, unleashed private sector greed and a sharply reduced role for state. He notes that one of the principal triggers of the revolutionary surge was the beating death by bribe-seeking police in Cairo of Khalid Saeed, a young guy trying to run an Internet café business.

The dead fellow was a typical mini-entrepreneur forced into a micro-credit scheme consistent with the neo-liberal answer to anyone crushed by the ruinous impact of its favored strategy: become a capitalist yourself. But in a pervasively corrupt state where cops are all underpaid, free-lance Tony Sopranos authorized to milk defenseless little guys, the Friedmanite theories don’t really hold up.

It is not surprising, in retrospect, that the assault on Mubarak quickly attracted support from powerful business interests shut out of his family pyramid that siphoned off such huge portions of national income. One of Mubarak’s sons reportedly went after the other for killing the goose that laid the golden eggs by reinforcing the corrupt buddy system—but there is no reason to expect these privileged scions to see that far ahead to their own destruction, any more than the next Lehman Brothers will steer clear of the next equivalent of sub-prime mortgage bonds.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be Egyptian . . ."

Despite the shortcomings of the biped species, there are moments that reflect its potential for grandeur. The Egyptians have shown us one: how a people can rise up, roar for freedom with a single voice and win it.

And so ‘liberty’ comes to the Arab world without the need for American bombing raids, ground invasions by nervous grunts from Nebraska or lessons in democratic capitalism from 25-year-old Heritage Foundation interns. Nor did it require pipe bombs smuggled into cinemas by bearded fanatics, either. We don’t know if the end result will be all we hope for, but we can safely predict that it will be far superior to the debacle created in the name of democracy in Iraq. And there are signs that the Arab populace is not yet done, with new stirrings in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, even the Gulf.

Rhetoric of democracy and liberation is cheap, but Washington now has to pretend to welcome the reality as well, and only the naïve will expect consistency. If the new regimes are malleable to western interests, a measure of democracy will not be unwelcome; however, as soon as the peoples express themselves in inconvenient ways, tentacles will move to undermine their democratic wishes.

Nonetheless, a powerful force has been unleashed, and it won’t be so easy to cram that genie back into the bottle now that millions of youths have tasted their own power. The decades of cozy security among Arab elites expert at milking every last piastre from their malnourished masses have elapsed. Everyone knows that there is a limit to the theft, greed and betrayal that have marked the region’s dictatorships and that no armies and no secret police can stifle the suppressed rage of the suffering forever.

I hope the Egyptians’ enthusiastic faith in their armed forces is not misplaced, and it would be reassuring to see some of the following in the next days and weeks:

· Lifting of the state of emergency. There is no credible reason to continue the martial law regime nor to repress further peaceful demonstrations or strikes. The country’s economy was badly damaged, but unionization can and should be a part of the democratization process now that people need not fear the secret police.
· Support for an independent judiciary. Corruption Mubarak-style could not have flourished and poisoned the country so thoroughly without a corrupted court system. Will judges now be able to rule on the law without getting threatening phone calls from the mighty?
· A halt to what is now the well-documented, routine torture of both political and criminal detainees. This is axiomatic and can be ordered from above.
· Legalization of political parties and lifting of censorship.
· Negotiations with civilians on the formation of a body to rewrite the constitution. Given the impossibility of organizing in opposition to Mubarak, it may take time to find the the formula for including appropriate representatives that will satisfy competing demands and gain credibility among the population.
· Construction of valid voter registration rolls and safeguards for the electoral process. That is one area where western governments can provide useful advice and resources.

These would be the good signs. Bad signs would be the proliferation of excuses for why none of the above can occur or the steady and repetitive presence of a single army guy in charge of everything, eager to monopolize the levers of state to become the new pharaoh. Despite the dangers, I am cautiously optimistic that such an outcome will not be so easy to pull off.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the auditors are poring over the books and figuring out how much each of the ancien régime’s snakes have to cough up from their decades of thievery.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Watching (or not) the collapse of Egypt's police state

To fail to be fascinated by the popular uprising with revolutionary characteristics occurring in Egypt reflects a society uninterested in how power itself operates—let’s call it ‘politics’ as Aristotle might have understood it—an essential aspect of our lamentable biped species. Dr Johnson said, ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, and hearing what our bobblehead commentators have to say about the Egyptian events, one is tempted to conclude that they are addressing a polity never very inspired by it in the first place.

Curiosity about Egypt and its 80 million people at the heart of the Arab world seems limited to two topics: (1) will I have to pay more for gasoline when I drive over to the Wal-Mart; and (2) will oppressive Islamic radicals take over and foment terrorism that will threaten Israel? In all fairness to the casual TV watcher, the programmers apparently feel that these topics are the only ones we are capable of grasping.

The superficial attention paid by our news deliverers to the unfolding events caused many to assume that the trouble was over given that Tahrir Square was not occupied by Bastille-like crowds for a brief period. Then suddenly yesterday, it was again—so what happened?

All eyes were on how the dramatic testimony of Wael Ghonim, the Google employee and creator of the anti-Mubarak Facebook page, galvanized a renewed protest movement, which plays into our self-satisfied fantasy that Egyptians can’t even stage a revolt without American technology. But the interview with Ghonim on Egyptian TV—which I recommend watching in full here—telegraphed an entirely different message: it was a tearful, terrified, bitter complaint about the horrors of daily life under a police state.

How rare it would be if all or any of the white people in their fife and drum Tea Party costumes parading as defenders of liberty could pay attention to people actually suffering under a real dictatorship paid for with U.S. dollars over the last three decades. ‘Oppression’ for the SUV crowd is having to pay money for the services they expect to receive from the state—not police-state impunity, which they have never (yet) experienced.

But I digress. Yesterday’s developments suggested an ongoing and accelerating revolt, and the fact that new participants joined the massive crowds to denounce Mubarak hints at the deep revulsion Egyptians feel about being occupied by a system of constant thievery and brutality with every policeman operating as a free-lance Gestapo agent. It’s bad enough not to have enough food, but the chants and demands arising from the populace are very much about freedom and justice, too—what a concept.

But Egyptians are not only chanting for freedom but practicing it, and the reports of strikes in Suez for higher pay are a good example of what they plan to do with it as the debilitating terror of the secret police and their dungeons (described so eloquently by Ghonim) dissipates. That’s why the reports of collapse at the upper echelons of the regime make sense—people may simply not be cowed any more as Ghonim is alive and well and the new Vice President Omar Suleiman (himself a notorious torturer, despite our commentators’ shyness on this topic) has to promise on national television that there will be no reprisals against demonstrators. Note that Mubarak isn’t even making the key statements any more, another hint that he’s already achieved de facto irrelevance.

Obama’s response has been characteristic, to follow the line of least resistance and respond to conditions as they unfold rather than try to shape them. He was reportedly told by his National Security Council to cut Mubarak loose but instead bent to Israeli, Saudi and domestic lobbying and held back. If Mubarak tumbles, Obama will nod sagely and intone his satisfaction with that outcome, too.

Meanwhile, Suleiman is reduced to warning of a ‘coup’ if protests don’t end, as if a country run for 30 years by an air force general under emergency laws isn’t more or less that already. He may be expressing his own anxieties given that any uniformed officers who tried to seize power might not need or want his services.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Notes on Egypt

There isn’t much to add to all the commentary—some expert, some not so much—to be found on Egypt in the papers and the Web. In the spirit of adding something to the conversation, here are the things I found most surprising and/or significant during the week:

1. The democratic movement’s (I hate the term ‘protesters’) capacity to hold off and repel the murderous mid-week assault by Mubarak’s thugs in Freedom Square. The army high command probably permitted this attempt to put an end to the uprising by force (note reports that the people are thoroughly searched for weapons, but these guys got through with iron bars) without having to take the heat for firing on the crowds.

The plainclothes goons—many of whom were found to be police officers—tried their best, with military collusion, to beat the masses into submission and failed. It was one of the many heroic moments of the Egyptian revolution and changed the equation as it is now clear that only concessions or a massacre led by the army itself will defuse the movement.

2. The air of confusion emanating from Washington. Granted, Obama left himself few options by never pressuring Mubarak after his lofty Cairo speech in 2009, including no response to the refusal to end the 30-year-old emergency that underpins the regime’s dictatorial character. But the U.S. has been consistently inconsistent: Clinton saying Mubarak’s regime was ‘stable’, Biden denying he is a dictator and finally the special envoy Wisner saying Mubarak has to stay on through the transition.

The impression of a weak Obama buffeted by free-lance policymakers getting the jump on him is overwhelming. If Obama had ever done anything unexpectedly tough in his dealings with client states like Israel and Egypt, people might be afraid of his opinion. Instead, they thumb their noses at him, and his underlings carry on without adult supervision. According to one report, the National Security Council urged Obama to dump Mubarak entirely to prevent further radicalization of the revolt, but Israel and Saudi Arabia convinced him otherwise. If radicalization does occur, Obama will get the blame anyway, and he’ll deserve it.

3. The sustained attack on reporters trying to cover the events. No dictatorship used to massaging the message likes people snooping around, but the mob assaults on Anderson Cooper and others have been extreme examples of reactionary touchiness. While this is not surprising, it might focus the minds of some U.S. news organizations that otherwise would be more attentive to the concerns of the increasingly nervous Israelis.

4. The curious detachment of our fellow bipeds here at home. The most amazing and world-historic Middle Eastern events to occur in a generation attract barely a mention on the local news despite the impact on Israel, the Islamic world and a major U.S. ally. Maybe if Snookie were Egyptian . . .