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Tag: Arab Spring

Uganda Walking

In Uganda:

Uganda’s opposition leader was temporarily blinded after police fired pepper spray into his eyes and dragged him from his car at gunpoint, his lawyer said. Kizza Besigye had been leading a fifth round of protests against rising food and fuel prices. With his right hand heavily bandaged after being hit by a rubber bullet at an earlier demonstration, he waved to cheering crowds with his left…

This is the fourth time in three weeks that Besigye, the leader of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and runner-up to Museveni in a disputed February election, has been detained by police over the “walk to work” protests, designed to express solidarity with those who can no longer afford public transport. Museveni, in power for 25 years, blames drought for high food costs and soaring oil prices for local fuel costs, and has warned Besigye that his protests will not be tolerated.


(via)

Protests have been going on since April 11. Before today, five people (including an infant) had been killed by police, and Museveni is apparently already entering the “turn off the internet” stage. 

Angela Kintu warns not to think “that this protest is about Kizza Besigye:

It is not. His party and mode of opposition entered my ‘Twakoowa’ list long ago. He is not going to win any elections tomorrow and perhaps you should have accidentally shot him in the knees for good measure so he can’t walk tomorrow. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water; this protest is about reality, frustration and desperate times. I am buying a litre of Ugandan made and grown cooking oil for sh6,500. I am paying sh3,600 for a litre of fuel. A tomato has gone up to sh300 at the very least. I don’t know about you, but that is breaking my budget. No one is paying me any more money for my work – in fact, I am chasing debtors left, right and centre. In one short week, Easter and school holidays will be upon me. Three short weeks after that, I must rustle up school fees and requirements.

See also Andrew Mwenda, and Rosebell Kagumire; the latter reports that “President Museveni has gone to the extent of swearing to eat his opponents like samosas.” Or just go straight to Global Voices. The World Bank gives some numbers on the inflation and rising food and fuel costs that are setting the stage.

To take a more historical approach, Mahmood Mamdani gave a speech last Thursday putting the protests in history, which was reprinted in the Monitor on Sunday (via):  

Both the opposition that has taken to walking and government that is determined to get them to stop walking are driven by the memory of a single event. The memory of Tahrir Square feeds opposition hopes and fuels government fears. For many in the opposition, Egypt has come to signify the promised land around the proverbial corner. For many in government, Egypt spells a fundamental challenge to power, one that must be resisted, whatever the cost.

My purpose today is neither to celebrate the opposition nor to demonise the government. I want to talk about the memory that seems to be driving many in the opposition and haunting many in government. That is the memory of Tahrir Square. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the great Egyptian revolution began in Tunis. Where will it end? A decade from now, will we think of it as a local, a continental or a global event? How should we understand its significance today?

In East Africa, there was a flurry of discussion after Tahrir Square, mainly in the press. Many asked whether the Egyptian revolution will spread South of the Sahara. And they responded, without a second thought: No! Why not? Because, media pundits said, sub-Saharan societies are so divided by ethnicity, so torn apart by tribalism, that none can achieve the degree of unity necessary to confront political power successfully.

This response makes little sense to me. For this answer resembles a caricature. Nowhere in the history of successful struggles will you find a people united in advance of the movement. For the simple reason that one of the achievements of a successful movement is unity. Unity is forged through struggle.

To make this point, and a few others, I want to look at the democratic revolution in Egypt in the context of a longer history, a history of democratic struggle on this continent. I want to begin with an event that occurred more than three decades ago in South Africa. I am thinking of the Soweto uprising of 1976, which followed the formation of independent trade unions in Durban in 1973. Together these two developments inaugurated a new era in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Soweto was a youthful uprising. In an era when adults had come to believe that meaningful change could only come through armed struggle, Soweto pioneered an alternative mode of struggle. This new mode of struggle substituted the notion of armed struggle with that of popular struggle. It stopped thinking of struggle as something waged by professional fighters, guerrillas, with the people cheering from the stands, but as a movement with ordinary people as its key participants. The potential of popular struggle lay in sheer numbers, guided by a new imagination and new methods of struggle.

The significance of Soweto was two-fold. First, as I have already said, it replaced belief in power of arms with the discovery of a greater power, that of a people organised in the face of oppression. Second, Soweto forged a new unity – a wider unity. Apartheid rule had split South African society into so many races (whites, Indians, Coloureds) and so many tribes (Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda and so on) by putting each under a separate set of laws, so that even when they organised to reform or remove the law in question, they did so separately. In this context came a new person, Steve Biko, a visionary leader at the helm of a new movement, Black Consciousness Movement. Biko’s message undermined apartheid statecraft. Black is not a colour, said Biko. Black is an experience. If you are oppressed, you are Black…

Read the whole thing. Mamdani literally wrote the book on political ethnicity in sub-saharan Africa.

A Different World

On Feb 3rd, Al Jazeera’s article “Kingdom of Silence” downplayed the likelihood of an uprising in Syria:

Analysts say a popular president, dreaded security forces and religious diversity make a Syrian revolution unlikely…Authoritarian rule, corruption and economic hardship are characteristics Syria share with both Egypt and Tunisia. However, analysts say that in addition to the repressive state apparatus, factors such as a relatively popular president and religious diversity make an uprising in the country unlikely.

“First of all, I’d argue that people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt,” Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, says. “The groups who have mobilised in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price – Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in Hama.” The so-called Hama massacre, in which the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in 1982 in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, is believed to have killed about 20,000 people. “I think that in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something [protests] would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”

But today:

And yesterday (this is from Juan Cole):

Tens of thousands of Syrians challenged the president on “Great Friday”. In numerous cities, from Homs in the north to Izzra in the south, crowds came out and chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime.”

The regime reciprocated by wanting the fall of the people. In numerous cities, security police opened fire with live ammunition on unarmed civilian crowds, i.e. on non-combatants. Dozens of protestes were shot down dead, and dozens more wounded. Some late reports put the death toll for Friday at 90. It is a startling statistic, and bodes very badly for the regime. Future crowds will demand action against the police who opened fire, and against their bosses in the Baath Party.

Al Jazeera’s “Syria’s Deadliest Day”:

And from an April 19th interview with Bassam Haddad:

Well, what we have in the past evening, last night, was a protest of about 10,000 or more people—we don’t have exact numbers—who, actually, for the first time in the recent weeks, have actually taken the Clock Square, which is now being dubbed “Tahrir Square” in Homs, and have just sat in the square and announced that they will not leave until their demands are met. And of course, this was not the case. At about 1:45 a.m. in Syria, the police dispersed the protesters using tear gas and live bullets…

what I have been saying in the past couple of days is basically that we are entering a very decisive week. And I think that the proclamations by the regime and by Bashar Assad might begin to fall on deaf ears, because we might have crossed into the point of no return in terms of what the regime can do politically. So, what I’m saying in terms of movement to one—to elimination of the one-party rule is perhaps the only exit, not out of the entire tense situation, but a way to placate some of the extremist views and to prevent the majority of Syrians to basically join in what might become new Tahrir Square-like gatherings in various Syrian cities. So, it is really a decisive week, and it seems that the regime, by not taking advantage of some of the opportunities it had in the first two speeches, it seems that it is making itself more and more irrelevant, irrespective of what concessions it makes.

Also, a longer audio-only interview here.

Libya, Waiting to See

And so we are bombing Libya. Again we are put in the position—or we put ourselves in the position—of having to “have an opinion” on some indefensible action the United States takes overseas… (RC)

I.

Though I have lots of opinions, I am trying very hard not to have a position on what is happening in Libya. When a big patriotic, national interest event like this happens, the pressure to have a position can be quite strong if you have a high enough opinion of yourself to try to write about it, and that pressure can can force you to take what you think about what is happening — which is likely to be an incoherent aggregation of all sorts of different ideas — and jam it all into the round hole of “what you would do if you were president” or some other reduction to “yes” or “no.” But if you must relate toward the events in Libya as if you were the one making the choice, you will quickly find yourself begging the question that “what is to be done” is the question, and  arguing within that frame such that “doing something” becomes the only possible way to relate to what is happening in Libya, either by its exercise or by its absence.

This is particularly a problem because there is no good option in Libya: with respect to UN intervention, both “nothing” and “something” are completely terrible. And you need to understand that I understand that, because otherwise — no matter how I say what I will eventually say about it — you may mistake me for someone who is in the business of not only predicting the future, but of demanding that a particular course of action, based on my particular insight into events, is the right one. You will mistake me for someone who is under the illusion that “if I were president” is a useful premise for commentary. It’s not, and I’m not doing that. I’m watching the news day-by-day, reading about the past and revising my opinion as I get more information. “When the facts change, I change my opinion,” as Keynes supposedly said; “What do you do, sir?”

One reason it’s dangerous to play the game of for or against is that it produces retroactive consent: by forcing you to take a position on a decision that was already made, you legitimize it by making it seem like there was a democratic process of discussion and debate. There was no democratic process here, nor could there have been, given the time constraints under which such a decision would have to be made. Democracy is slow and unwieldy, and the theory behind having an “executive power” is that it streamlines the decision-making process for decisions that have to be made quickly. We can argue about that theory, but I think we’re long past the point where we can be scandalized by it; every use of military force begins and is “declared” this way.

But this is why we shouldn’t pretend that our opinions right now matter in that way, why we shouldn‘t reduce our thinking to the simplicity of for or against. The two times when it’s useful and necessary to put our opinions in that simplified form are just before the decision (when as citizens, we might exercise some agency over actions done in our name), and far in the future, when we can look back with the benefit of hindsight and decide whether the outcome of that decision justifies revising our policy, assumptions, or whatever. At this point, however, neither is the case: we have little information about what the effects of the decision have been, and yet we also have no power to change the fait accompli that it has already become.

I would suggest, in fact, that it is precisely because there are no stakes in doing so that so many influential columnists and bloggers — who had no powerful opinions about Libya before the NFZ was declared, when their influence might have mattered are now strongly asserting one position or another, vigorously battling each other over a decision that has just become academic. And while this very public debate over Libya (after the decision) allows us to pretend we have a real, functioning public sphere, self-important debate tricks us into thinking that debate actually is important, that “taking a position” is somehow a valuable and necessary social function. I would say, instead, that the fact that the decision has already been taken is actually what relieves their opinions of any force, thereby freeing them to perform their ideology for each other, to position themselves for the next big confrontation with their ideological foes, and to place their cultural and intellectual capital on the market and try to make it grow.

That’s the first problem, a mystification of how decisions are made and of the role that critical opinion plays in that process. The second has to do with the content of the opinions themselves. When you take a position on a contentious issue — especially in an intellectual arena like the blogosphere, where your name is your capital, and you’re trying to make it grow — you invest your ego in the position you take, such that what you think gets structured by the debate more than the by facts. And having staked out that personal position, you begin to take the existence of contrary positions personally: you seek out facts that support your position while (even subconsciously) downplaying facts that don’t, indignantly locking into the rhetorical position of regarding those who see the world differently as not simply, you know, seeing the situation differently, but as being, themselves, different. This last is the worst, I think: instead of being acutely aware of one particular aspect of the problem — and less acutely aware of others (say, the one most motivating you) — you begin to see them as ideologically flawed, even evil or stupid. But pointing out the ideological failings of opponents is a particularly fruitless form of ad hominem, since doing so allows you to pretend that your ideology is the right one, without addressing the fact that all ideologies are machines for oversimplifying the world.

To be clear, I am not doing some kind of fair and balanced shtick here. I don’t think all ideologies are equal. I think mine is the right one, obviously. But I do think it’s possible to say that all ideologies are — albeit to differing extents — limiting oversimplifications, universal rules that are derived from one set of circumstances that we then adapt to fit all circumstances, with varying success. Gandhi was a pacifist, to use that often cited example, who also recognized that pacifism worked in the time and place it did because of the time and place it worked in. Had the British empire been willing and able to simply kill every Indian that stepped out of line, pacifism would have been a dead letter, and he understood that [a commenter quibbles usefully with this reading]. If Gandhi was in Benghazi, I don’t know what he would do, but I suspect he would have been flexible enough to judge the situation on its own terms, rather than impose the terms and principles from another context onto it and expect reality to conform. We should do the same. We should learn from the experience of the Iraq war, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is the Iraq war.

So that’s my not-so-little prelude to my ambivalence about the Libyan “intervention.” I’m not saying I haven’t fallen into these traps. Of course I have. I’m trying not to, but that’s the thing about structural incentives: you can push against the wind if you know it’s there, but that doesn’t stop it from pushing against you.

II.

For me, the fact that Gaddafi is a fucking cancer is actually really important. People like Richard Seymour are perfectly right to point out that the media and political types who are vilifying him are bad people doing it for bad reasons, just as they do every single time when one of our pet dictators goes rogue. But he’s wrong if he thinks there isn‘t truth to it, or that Gaddafi’s actual villainous-ness is of negligible importance. If you are opposed to imperialism in Africa — and I’m going to assume that you are — then it is important to understand that one of the most successful and murderous continent level “military interventionists” has been Gaddafi, and it has continued up to the present.

There’s a dangerous narcissism in imagining the West has a monopoly on things like imperialism, and that kind of solipsism is often particularly tempting and satisfying to even those in the West that think bad things about “the West”: it allows us to maintain the belief that the West is still the center of the universe, even if it’s now the Devil rather than God. But being opposed to the devil we know doesn’t change the fact that there actually are other devils. And a legacy of anti-colonial thinking has left a lot of leftists unable to understand that being the enemy of our enemy doesn’t make someone our friend. Just because the great powers of The West are imperialist in some sense doesn’t mean that those who oppose them in some sense — people like Gaddafi, Chavez, Mugabe, or Ahmadinejad — actually are anti-imperialist.

This point is worth emphasizing: it has been a long time since words like “sovereignty” and “anti-imperialism” have become reliable tools in the arsenal of third-world dictators defending their international right to oppress and exploit their people. After all, what does “sovereignty” mean other than the international community’s decision to grant one person the legitimate right to rule over a space of geography? Certainly it wasn’t the Libyan people who invested Gaddafi with their hopes and dreams. Gaddafi has no legitimacy by any standard I recognize; he took power in a coup and has kept it by killing and imprisoning everyone who might conceivably oppose him. And while it certainly isn’t clear that the Libyan rebels represent the legitimate democratic will either — though depending on how you define and measure those things, they sure have a hell of a stronger case — it is ridiculous to call an attack on Gaddafi’s military an attack on a “sovereign nation,” or on “Libya” itself, as so many have. Whether this is a conscious argument or just a lazy usage, this is how Gaddafi wants you to see the situation, because it causes you to forget that he’s just the guy with the most thugs, guns, and a (metaphorical) piece of paper signed by the UN saying “We hereby officially pretend that Gaddafi represents the popular will of the Libyan people.” This doesn’t make the intervention right, you understand, but it means you have to look for better arguments against it than “sovereignty.”

You’ve probably heard a good deal about what a vicious despot Gaddafi is, so I won’t repeat it. But you’ve probably heard less about what Gaddafi means in Africa. Gaddafi is not just any dictator; he’s got a combination of continent-wide ambition and deep pockets filled with oil, and he has used that oil money to train, arm, and finance all manner of rebels in some of the bloodiest conflicts across the continent, not for a handful of years, but for over four decades. This is not an invention of the people who are now bombing him. He might use words like “sovereignty” and “Marxism” and “anti-Americanism” when he needs to (and drop them the moment some other position — like a close alliance with the United States — is more useful), but his method has basically been consistent since the seventies: use his money to buy personal influence, with anyone he can, as a route to some kind of regional dominance. And the result has been devastating.

Take Charles Taylor, for example: Taylor may not have invented the child soldier as a technology of warfare, but no one used that method as effectively and as ruthlessly as him, and his scorched-earth campaigns in the West African diamond fields remain the gold standard with which any aspiring committer of atrocities will need to reckon. Taylor trained in Libya in the late 1980’s, Gaddafi’s oil money made his insurgency in Liberia possible, and Gaddafi was an important backer of the RUF guerrilla campaign in Sierra Leone. And even though Taylor was sort of uniquely awful, my point is simply that he’s not unique in this sense: he’s just one of the many examples of what Gaddafi does and has done with his oil money. Unlike the cliché of the African dictator, wallowing in mindless excess and consumption, Gaddafi not only believed in his “revolution” and tried to export it everywhere he could, but he sent money, training, and support to some of the most destructive people on the continent in pursuit of that goal. As a result, he continues to have very close ties and alliances  with all sorts of basically illegitimate African heads of state, people like Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, Omar al-Bashir, Blaise Compaoré, and Idriss Déby.

The point is not to say that Gaddafi is any worse than the US in this regard, because he’s actually very similar: the “cold war” was a very hot war in Africa, because we had no compunction about sending money and weapons to people that we thought we could use — Mujahedeen style — to destabilize the regimes we wanted to destabilize, for the purpose of the moment, and to hell with the consequences. Mozambique’s decades of civil war was one the results of our fear that communism might spread and imperil our allies in Apartheid South Africa. But Gaddafi is not only playing the same game, he is, quite frankly, really good at it, at least at the regional level. His people actually end up in positions of power, which is one of the reasons why the African Union is acting the way they are.

The fact that Yoweri Museveni, for example, is on the AU’s “High-Level Ad Hoc Committee On Libya” is one clear reason why the AU has been opposed to the UN’s actions in Libya. As opposition figures in Uganda are pointing out, Museveni wrote this piece in Foreign Policy to try to walk the fine line between distancing himself from Gaddafi while not being able to deny their very well-known friendship, and the piece’s otherwise bizarre contradictions and double-speak make a whole lot more sense if you read it with that in mind. Some version of that is going on with many of those people, they may not have the kind of close relationship with Gaddafi that Museveni has, but just about every head of state in the Sahel (and many outside of it) have some kind of past entanglement with Libyan money.

As Alex de Waal summarizes:

…[Gaddafi’s] Africa policy was pursued by through the instruments of monetary patronage and ideological solidarity, strictly on the basis of personal relations with counterparts. Gaddafi has been erratic and mischievous, misusing Libya’s financial clout to act as the biggest buyer in a regional political marketplace. Between eleven and seventeen African countries—to be precise, African heads of state—have benefited from his largesse. Many rebel groups, especially in neighbouring countries, have also been the recipients of extraordinary Libyan giving sprees. Not only Gaddafi but his lieutenants possess large reserves of money and enormous stores of weaponry.

Gaddafi’s long history of personalizing his interventions in a variety of African contexts is the reason, for example, that de Waal is particularly concerned that Gaddafi is now passing out AK-47’s to anyone in Libya that wants them, which almost certainly includes people who will use them in other parts of the region. As he puts it:

Much of Libya is now ungoverned. That is particularly true of southern Libya. There has been little attention to the towns of the south, such as Sebha and Kufra, with no international correspondents there. These places are matters of great concern to neighbouring governments such as Niger, Chad and Sudan, because these towns have served as the rear base for armed rebellions in their countries, and rebel leaders still reside there. Gaddafi’s opening of the Libyan arsenals to anyone ready to fight for the regime, and the collapse of authority in other places, means that such rebels have been able to acquire arms and vehicles with ease. The Sudanese defence minister visited N’djamena last week to discuss the threat.

Reporters on the coast have spoken about African mercenaries serving in the pro-Gaddafi forces, mentioning countries of origin such as Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. There are also rumours that Darfurians, including members of rebel factions based in Libya, are fighting in Libya. The deal is reportedly simple: take whatever arms you can handle, and fight for me, and then those weapons and vehicles are yours for whatever use you see fit. Mercenaries, freebooters and rebels from across the Sahel, and even beyond, are heading for Libya to take advantage of this open-entry, take all you can arms bonanza.

I spoke with one African military officer who welcomed the NATO action in Libya, saying “nothing could be worse than Gaddafi.” I suggested that he wait and see.

I’m just waiting to see like everyone else. But as I do, I think it’s true that the more you focus on what a cancer Gaddafi is, has been, and will be if he stays in power, the more you’re likely to see the upside of UN intervention into Libya. And the inverse of that — and here, now, I’m talking about all the people who don’t know anything about Libya and yet have strong and righteous opinions about what is happening there — the less you know about Libya, Gaddafi, and Gaddafi’s past and present in regional and continental politics, the less you will be able to see that upside. You won’t know what you‘re missing, of course; ignorance about Africa is more than sanctioned. It’s practically required. But it will still be there, unseen.

This is, of course, the usual thing where an area-studies-type-person argues that area-studies-type-knowledge is really important. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. You will always see things through the interpretive matrix of your own beliefs and priorities, and that‘s just as true for people for whom the African context is almost totally missing. If you are — like me — primarily concerned with African politics, that matrix which cause you to see things a bit differently than if you are approaching it through the lens of Palestine and the broader “Arab Spring” movement, or from a total opposition to all “humanitarian military interventions.” Juan Cole has argued that the Libyan intervention is not the same as the invasion of Iraq, and he’s right, but there, too, I think, you can see the particular formulation of the question and problem he‘s using: when and where can a dictator be taken out?

For me, the issue is this: I am hoping that the outcome of the intervention will be better than the almost certain and massive and immanent bloodbath we were looking at a few days ago, and that Libyans will be as lucky as we are, and be ruled by corrupt neoliberal apparatchiks, instead of by secret police. The “intervention” into Libya is nothing that anyone should paper over through euphemism, nor should we underestimate the human cost it’s already having; if you’re going to drop enough bombs on a country to have any significant impact on a military conflict, there are going to be significant civilian casualties. But not intervening does not mean there won’t be civilian casualties, it just means our hands won’t be dirty with the killing, and we’ll get to be ignorant that they’re even happening. Tanks and starvation kill people much more effectively than air strikes, and both African history and Gaddafi’s past are full of demonstrations that cheap warfare can be massively more scalable and therefore massively more deadly than firing cruise missiles at $2 million a pop. And an organized secret police infrastructure that relies on intimidation, torture, and disappearances is a lot scarier to me than the kind of relatively limited bombing campaign that this is going to be.

In this sense, while I do understand that a UN intervention could very well end up in a giant humanitarian catastrophe, for all sorts of reasons that you don’t need me to point out, I come back to the fact that a Gaddafi victory would be unthinkably awful, and that because the UN intervention has prevented it, at least for now, it is impossible for me to condemn or regret it. To the extent that I have a “position,” this is what it is.

III.

This is, of course, an ideologically shaped position, and like the rest of us — ideologically fallen, every one — I happen to think my own blindness is the right one. I think it would be fair to say, however, that the majority of the bloggers and columnists and commenters I’ve been reading do not share this assessment, though. And while I wouldn’t say that people’s experience of the last ten years of American war have clouded their judgment (or at least not any more than my own experiences have “clouded“ mine), I do think we need to be much more aware of what defining our politics by that experience prevents us from seeing. Only the people of Sierra Leone seem to remember the British humanitarian military intervention in 2000. And anyway, if we see only Iraq in ‘03 or Rwanda in ‘94, we do not see Libya in ‘11. Important things drop out of the picture. You may ultimately decide that the things the NFZ has accomplished don’t justify the means, but you’re not being intellectually honest if you don’t factor them in.

And of course, in many ways, it’s really all to the good that when we think about Libya, we think about Iraq. I think that’s a knee that’s jerking in exactly the way it should: Obama’s foreign policy is not quite the same as Bush’s, but both of their strategic policies are basically amoral and destructive, imho. And the fact that Democrats make war differently doesn‘t make them any less destructive. See under “War in Afghanistan, Obama’s expansion of.” It’s a good thing if the US is getting less trigger happy about military expeditions, if indeed it is.

I strongly suspect, in fact, that part of the White House’s subterranean thinking here has got to be the hope that Libya could provide us with a “good war,” and thereby a means of rehabilitating the doctrine of “humanitarian military intervention,” of sanitizing and legitimizing the “Responsibility to Protect.” This is only part of it, of course; the administration was also surely afraid of what Dennis Ross called “Srebrenica on steroids” and they were fearful that they were facing “the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred, and everyone would blame us for it.” And to the kind of mind that thinks in terms of “surgical strikes” and “humanitarian military interventions,” Libya presents a really attractive prospect: a diplomatically isolated and utterly villainous regime, easily accessible via fleets in the Mediterranean, and a whole bunch of shiny cruise missiles that we would love and opportunity to use. We should also never forget that military industrial complexes will find ways to rationalize war, especially when they think it’s going to be without significant political cost. And the administration has been nervous, for months, watching the crazy people-power thing happening in North Africa and the Middle East, over which they have had no control or insight. And since Al Jazeera has made sure everyone in the MENA is paying attention to what is happening in Libya, there has been a mounting pressure on the White House to “do something.” Finally, above all, the prospect of Libya “falling into chaos” is something they’re really scared of; totalitarian repression is something they could live with, and cut deals with. Chaos in the oil fields — and in a country so close to Europe — is something they’re really scared of. So they did “something.”

But their decision making process is not what interests me. I don’t share their values, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had any hope that Obama would be anything other than a moderate Republican president, wholly captured by finance capital, and with a distinct hawkish streak. Contra Leon Wieseltier, there is no “honor” to be had in blowing up military equipment that you sold to Gaddafi, even if it were possible not to kill human beings along with it, which it is not. They are doing this for their reasons, and they are not honorable reasons.

But the reasons they’ve had for entering this war are not the reasons I still have some optimism that the results of this intervention will turn out to be better than the results of not intervening would have been. In that sense, I agree almost completely with Gilbert Achcar’s measured quasi-endorsement of the no-fly-zone resolution, which he explains here:

…there are not enough safeguards in the wording of the resolution to bar its use for imperialist purposes. Although the purpose of any action is supposed to be the protection of civilians, and not “regime change,” the determination of whether an action meets this purpose or not is left up to the intervening powers and not to the uprising, or even the Security Council. The resolution is amazingly confused. But given the urgency of preventing the massacre that would have inevitably resulted from an assault on Benghazi by Gaddafi’s forces, and the absence of any alternative means of achieving the protection goal, no one can reasonably oppose it. One can understand the abstentions; some of the five states who abstained in the UNSC vote wanted to express their defiance and/or unhappiness with the lack of adequate oversight, but without taking the responsibility for an impending massacre.

The Western response, of course, smacks of oil. The West fears a long drawn out conflict. If there is a major massacre, they would have to impose an embargo on Libyan oil, thus keeping oil prices at a high level at a time when, given the current state of the global economy, this would have major adverse consequences. Some countries, including the United States, acted reluctantly. Only France emerged as very much in favor of strong action, which might well be connected to the fact that France — unlike Germany (which abstained in the UNSC vote), Britain, and, above all, Italy — does not have a major stake in Libyan oil, and certainly hopes to get a greater share post-Gaddafi.

We all know about the Western powers’ pretexts and double standards. For example, their alleged concern about harm to civilians bombarded from the air did not seem to apply in Gaza in 2008-09, when hundreds of noncombatants were being killed by Israeli warplanes in furtherance of an illegal occupation. Or the fact that the US allows its client regime in Bahrain, where it has a major naval base, to violently repress the local uprising, with the help of other regional vassals of Washington.

The fact remains, nevertheless, that if Gaddafi were permitted to continue his military offensive and take Benghazi, there would be a major massacre. Here is a case where a population is truly in danger, and where there is no plausible alternative that could protect it. The attack by Gaddafi’s forces was hours or at most days away. You can’t in the name of anti-imperialist principles oppose an action that will prevent the massacre of civilians. In the same way, even though we know well the nature and double standards of cops in the bourgeois state, you can’t in the name of anti-capitalist principles blame anybody for calling them when someone is on the point of being raped and there is no alternative way of stopping the rapists.

This said, without coming out against the no-fly zone, we must express defiance and advocate full vigilance in monitoring the actions of those states carrying it out, to make sure that they don’t go beyond protecting civilians as mandated by the UNSC resolution. In watching on TV the crowds in Benghazi cheering the passage of the resolution, I saw a big billboard in their middle that said in Arabic “No to foreign intervention.” People there make a distinction between “foreign intervention” by which they mean troops on the ground, and a protective no-fly zone. They oppose foreign troops. They are aware of the dangers and wisely don’t trust Western powers.

So, to sum up, I believe that from an anti-imperialist perspective one cannot and should not oppose the no-fly zone, given that there is no plausible alternative for protecting the endangered population. The Egyptians are reported to be providing weapons to the Libyan opposition — and that’s fine — but on its own it couldn’t have made a difference that would have saved Benghazi in time. But again, one must maintain a very critical attitude toward what the Western powers might do.

I’ve quoted Achcar at length because I think he’s right. And he thinks he puts his fingers on the reason why, here, we are seeing a fairly unique situation where it is in the interest of the “Great Powers” to see that as little blood is shed as possible. If Gaddafi makes the streets run with blood in retaking the country, as he has promised to do, and as he would need to do to retake the country, then the flow of oil would become unreliable. And while the entire point of the bombing campaign in Iraq was maximum damage — “Shock and Awe” — this particular campaign will never be anything like the clean war they’d like to pretend it is, but to act like it’s going to be Baghdad 2003 is ridiculous. They are primarily targeting the tanks and artillery that are currently killing civilians. I find it hard to mourn the tanks whose guns have gone silent.

In other words, the number of people who are being and will be killed by Gaddafi’s tanks, artillery, snipers, and torture chambers seem to me to be, simply, on another scale: tanks shelling cities and starving them to death actually kill people a lot more effectively than do cruise missiles. And while NATO has an incentive to keep the body count low, it’s Gaddafi for whom “Shock and Awe” serves a function. This point is worth emphasizing and re-emphasizing: if Gaddafi stays in power, he will have absolutely not one single reasons to be anything but at least as brutal as he was in the bad old days. The last ten years have been a period of relative “restraint” — atrocities were committed quietly, and there were a few openings here and there — because he thought he had something to gain from “restraint,” and he was right: the country has partially opened up to western capital, and the US found in him a valued ally in the war on terror, and cut deals with him. The fact that he was able to get weapons, diplomatic respect, and rehabilitate his international image made violent repression less useful to him. He would never have committed atrocities like he did in 1996 while he thought he had something to gain from “restraint.”

He no longer has that incentive, in any way. He has no allies. He has no defenders. He has no international reputation. The only thing he does have is the military force he acquired as a Soviet and then American client, a secret police infrastructure, and a lifetime’s practice in using them. The only way he will stay in power now is through massive and indiscriminate violence and repression: he has promised to “come inch by inch, home by home, alley by alley,” and he has promised the rebels, who he calls “cockroaches,” that “we will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.” I believe that he will “cleanse Libya house by house” if he can. I think he will do absolutely that if he stays in power and so that remains my biggest fear.

I could, of course, be wrong about this. Any one of us could be. But at this point, the best case scenario is that the UN intervention will turn out to have been chemo-therapy: poisonous and awful, but still better than the alternative. It’s because we know what cancer is that aggressive chemo-therapy — also one of the worst things there is — turns out to be the less horrible alternative. Almost any outcome is better than dead. By the same token, it’s because we also know what Gaddafi is that the same thing might be true here. The worst case scenario was the one where Gaddafi fulfilled his promise and took over the country house by house, a scenario that seemed a virtual certainty the day before the NFZ was imposed. And as likely as it is that the UN will fuck this up, in other words, Gaddafi was a dead certainty. And so it still seems right to me to celebrate that uncertainty.

Meet Mahmoud Jibril

The Libyan rebels officially formed an interim government, and named Mahmoud Jibril as their interim Prime Minister. That’s him shaking hands with Sarkozy, on the right:

The Interim Transitional National Council’s website — of course they have a website; they even have a twitter feeddescribes him this way:

Born in Libya n 1952, obtained a BSc in Economics and Political Science from Cairo University in 1975. Holds a masters’ degree in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1980. He also obtained a Doctorate in Strategic planning and decision-making from the same university in 1984 where he worked as a professor in the same subject field for several years. So far he has published 10 books in Strategic planning and decision making. He led the team who drafted and formed the Unified Arab Training manual. He was also responsible for organising and administering the first two Training conferences in the Arab world in the years 1987 and 1988. He later took over the management and administration of many of the leaders’ training programs for senior management in Arab countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Britain

Unsurprisingly, they don’t make a big deal out of his time as a fairly important technocrat in the reform wing of Gaddafi’s government. But I’m sure you were wondering what it was the US State department has to say about him. And so, to the wikileaks!

On March 7, 2008:

15.(C) In addition, xxxxxxxxxxxx who works with Libya’s economic and financial sectors told EconOff March 11 that Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Planning Commission, ally of Saif al-Islam and a leading advocate for economic reform, would play a key role on three of the five implementing committees – budget, economy and wealth distribution. Jibril, who as recently as early February was so frustrated by his inability to effect reform that he had submitted letters of resignation on three occasions, is reportedly now convinced that Qadhafi’s commitment to dramatic change is sincere enough that he has agreed to stay on – for now.

On November 26, 2008, from a description of a meeting with Jibril, “The head of Libya’s national economic planning apparatus and the effort to implement Muammar al-Qadhafi’s vision for government restructuring and privatization”:

Arguing that the U.S.-Libya relationship needs “a common frame of reference”, Jibril offered that the U.S. approaches relationships as economic and transactional, whereas Arab culture puts a premium on tribal ties in which gifts are given and expected, but not asked for or stipulated. He offered the example of Kissinger perceiving Anwar Sadat as being a “clown” because he did not ask the U.S. for anything when he expelled Soviet advisors from Egypt. Jibril stressed that as an Arab, Sadat did not feel he needed to ask for anything because the U.S. should have perceived that he had offered something and reciprocated of its own accord. Jibril argued that a new perspective, particularly from the Department, was needed that took into account more than oil. Informed by Libya’s rich culture and long history, a new generation of Libyans is emerging and there is real potential for civil society development.

Arguing that there had been “too much talk and not enough deeds” in the U.S-Libya relationship since ties were re-established in 2004, Jibril urged the U.S. to focus to a greater extent on cultivating people-to-people relationships by engaging more on health care, education, technology and training. Our globalized world is characterized by diversity (which he defined as mutual respect for the choices of others) and multiplicity of choices (economic decisions are not as politically-charged as they used to be because economic actors have more choices). A frame of reference that encompasses culture and economics is needed. Cautioning the U.S. against expecting “all or nothing” from Libya by way of political and economic choices, he stressed that developing countries are increasingly taking an ala carte (vice prix fixe) approach to political-economic choices.

February 25, 2009:

Libya’s nearly 500 local level councils — “Basic People’s Congresses” — concluded their deliberations February 23 over two radical proposals put forward by Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi: a plan to distribute Libya’s oil wealth directly to the people, and a massive government restructuring that would eliminate most ministries. The weight of opinion is reportedly against the wealth distribution plan, with fears of inflation cited as the primary reason for opposing it. The BPCs’ recommendations will be considered by the regional and national-level congresses in the coming days. Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, Muammar al-Qadhafi’s celebrated reform-minded son, has formed a committee of technocrats charged with formulating plans to implement any reforms that may be adopted by the national-level General People’s Congress

Despite al-Qadhafi’s public exhortations that “the people” own the oil wealth and should determine how to distribute it, high-ranking GOL officials have quietly begun to discuss how to implement the proposed reforms. Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi and the Chairman of the Economic Development Board and National Planning Council Mahmoud Jibril (who is a respected, US-educated technocrat) have established a steering committee to that end xxxxxxxxxxxx. The committee reportedly enjoys the support of Secretary of the General People’s Committee al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi (Prime Minister-equivalent).

…Muammar al-Qadhafi’s calls for wealth distribution and government restructuring are a populist message intended to distance himself from the widely-criticized corruption and inefficiency in the government and place him squarely on the side of the people. His radical reform agenda has met strong opposition from prominent technocrats as well as self-interested officials who stand to lose influence if government ministries are abolished. According to many of our contacts, the debates in the local councils are genuine (allowing al-Qadhafi to showcase his “people power” democracy to foreign journalists). The national-level General People’s Congress, on the other hand, is expected to be tightly scripted from above. Ordinary Libyans are apprehensive about their future. If al-Qadhafi’s reforms are adopted, they may be embarking on yet another era of economic uncertainty and social instability. If they had a choice in the matter, most would probably forgo the oil money in exchange for a functioning, relatively honest government that provided decent salaries, education and health care.

After a cabinet shakeup, March 11, 2009:

Reform-minded Mahmoud Jibril will retain his seat at the head of the Economic and Development Board but will lose his role on the National Planning Council that has been absorbed into the new Committee for Planning and Finance.

On May 11, 2009, describing a meeting with “Mahmoud Jibril, Chair of the National Economic Development Board (NEDB), an organization that Jibril likened to a “think tank” of multi-disciplinary experts.”:

The NEDB’s role in these projects is to “pave the way” for private sector development, and to create a strategic partnership between private companies and the government. There is a still a “gap of distrust” dividing the two. As to whether Libya has a Master Plan that includes all the 11,000 projects, Jibril admitted that in the past two years, Libya had started executing projects without such a plan. However, the NEDB has been working with experts from Ernst and Young, the Oxford Group, and lately with five consultants from UNDP to advise the prime minister on the best sequencing and pacing of the projects in order to decrease poverty and unemployment.

With a PhD in strategic planning from the University of Pittsburgh, Jibril is a serious interlocutor who “gets” the U.S. perspective. He is also not shy about sharing his views of U.S. foreign policy, for example, opining that the U.S. spoiled a golden opportunity to capitalize on its “soft power” (McDonald’s, etc.) after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 by putting “boots on the ground” in the Middle East. At the same time, his organization has a daunting task to tackle, in terms of rationalizing 11,000 development projects in the chaotic Libyan government bureaucracy and also, to train Libyans to work in new sectors outside of the hydrocarbons industry. Jibril has stated American companies and universities are welcome to join him in this endeavor and we should take him up on his offer.

January 27, 2010:

Jibril said that the “inherited political problems” represent a “big hurdle” for the United States — both diplomatically and commercially — and were in need of “creative solutions.” The Ambassador acknowledged the difficulties, highlighting that the apparent GOL freeze on visa issuance for official American travelers to Libya is currently setting engagement back. Jibril characterized the “visa issues” as something “of the past” and noted “security” is the “overriding concern” influencing GOL policy on visa issuances for Americans. He recommended that both sides work together to implement joint-projects aimed at “building trust,” that would help to erase the historically negative images that each side has of the other. He honed in on the negative perception in Libya of U.S. intentions in the region. “Changing the U.S. image among Arabs and in the region will take consistent work by you and your colleagues who have been in the region and understand it,” he said. He noted that the “Arabs of the sixties are no longer the Arabs of today,” explaining that the leaders and people of the region no longer reject a relationship with the United States simply due to the U.S.-Israel relationship. Libya is one of the countries that wants a relationship with the United States. However, the inclusion of Libya on the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) list of countries of “special interest” has reinforced negative perceptions about the U.S. in Libya.

Jibril seemed to be a very open interlocutor — willing to engage in back-and-forth conversation and brainstorming together comfortably. His confidence in his own ability to approach Saif al-Islam with a new idea, as well as to raise the Trade Mission with GOL ministers, indicates that he is well-connected within the regime. As the head of a think-tank that reports directly to the Prime Minister-equivalent (who called him during the meeting), without the burden of an official policymaking role, he may have a unique ability to influence decision-makers without challenging their authority. In response to Jibril’s proposals, the Public Affairs Section will reach out to U.S. colleges and universities to explore potential areas for cooperation with Libyan academic institutions.

By the way, if you want to read the State Department’s “all you need to know about Libya” cable, it’s “Through a Glass Darkly: The Government of Libya Reaches Out to the New Administration,” February 11, 2009

“I celebrate this uncertainty”

I’m writing something on the broader contours of the “responsibility to protect” debate as it’s happening with respect to Libya, but in the meantime, I want to offer this piece from Anjali Kamat and Ahmad Shokr (from Economic and Political Weekly) as an example of the sort of thing which the American pundit seems to have no ability or desire to produce. Kamat and Shokr not only start from the premise that this is about the Libyans, first and foremost — and have bothered to acquire actual information about what is happening — but they do so because they recognize that any statement or polemic about what is happening in Libya that excludes Libyan voices is, as such, not worth listening to.

From the conclusion:

The anti-imperialist arguments against imposing a no-fly zone are many and convincing. Neutralising Gaddafi’s air power may not give the rebels a much-desired strategic advantage over his ground forces, which are better trained and equipped. Moreover, the decision by foreign powers to impose a no-fly zone is likely to be motivated by their own regional interests rather than a genuine concern for the well-being of Libya’s people.

However, at this crucial time, debates about a no-fly zone should not replace conversations about solidarity. The struggle of the Libyan people for freedom deserves the strongest support. The imperative for solidarity with the Libyan rebels is being lost in anti-imperialist polemics, some of which has casually dismissed those Libyans who call for a no-fly zone as naïve or, even worse, as imperial stooges. This is disrespectful to the many Libyans who have paid a heavy price for challenging Gaddafi’s regime on the streets. A more sensible antiimperialist position would focus less on what a no-fly zone means for western powers and more on listening to Libyan voices on the ground and finding ways to meaningfully support their struggle.

By contrast, Josh Marshall. Also, anything written by Andrew Sullivan, at least since he happily described the Libyan movement as an “opportunistic rebellion, fed by tribal rivalries, that was violent from the get-go.”

One Libyan who has gotten some play in the American media is Hisham Matar, a wonderful novelist (I just finished his In the Country of Men and can’t recommend it enough), who wrote this in the LA Times:

I could sense myself, particularly over the last decade, growing hopeless. I began to wonder whether Kadafi had succeeded in killing the Libyan spirit. I could feel my heart hardening toward my own country. I sheltered a quiet and perverse dislike for my own people; perverse because hatred of one’s own amounts to hatred of the self. At times, in Libyan gatherings, this would momentarily lift and I would find myself completely in love with all things Libyan. Vacillating between these extremes has often left me empty and weary.

I am 40 years old. I haven’t known a Libya without Kadafi. These days, witnessing the fall of the dictatorship and, more important, the rise of the Libyan people, I am realizing that up to now my country has been overwhelmingly a source of fear, pain and embarrassment. Now it is a source of joy and pride.

This, from Spiegel Online (on what Gaddafi means to him):

He has stolen my father from me, he has imprisoned my relatives, he has killed many of my friends. He is my enemy. But more importantly than my personal grievances, he has held back the whole country and forced the Libyan people to live in a permanent state of madness. He represents a kind of nightmare for Libya from which I am just waking up.

Everybody was surprised by the events, even the people who spend their whole life studying Libya. But once the protests started, it was surprising how unsurprising it really was. I sense it in the voices of the Libyans I have known all my life. They sound different, their necks free from being tied. Gadhafi was the person under whom we have all suffered. We are all united by our suffering under him.

And this, in the New Yorker:

As for what the future holds, I think we have to refer to the nature of the movement. Its character has been so far exemplary, showing maturity and good sense as well as a commitment to the rule of law. A provisional government has been set up, calling itself the “National Transitional Temporary Council”. It is, according to a statement issued, committed to “the establishment of a civil, constitutional and democratic state.” Obviously, there are reasons to worry; it would be unnatural not to be concerned when such a radical change is taking place. But I celebrate this uncertainty. For nearly half a century, we, Libyans, knew everything: we knew what to think, what to say, what to read, and how to live; every detail in our life had been decided for us. Now we can decide what sort of society we want.

I appeal to the international community to follow France and recognize Libya’s transitional government. This would help isolate the dictatorship even more and, more importantly, provide a logistical framework for Libyans to manage the needs of their people. We also need, desperately, medical and food supplies. Qaddafi is trying to starve the rebel strongholds.

(Matar links from Hisham Matar’s facebook page, EPW article via Katherine Hawkins)

Yemen

Trying to keep up. Friday, in Yemen:

“A massive demonstration against Yemen’s government turned into a killing field Friday as snipers methodically fired down on protesters from rooftops and police made a wall of fire with tires and gasoline, blocking a key escape route.”

Video from Al Jazeera. The situation in Yemen has been steadily intensifying for some time, but this was a big escalation. 46 people were killed — in videos like this one, you can see bodies being carried away every ten seconds or so — while many hundreds, easily, were wounded. And that’s what our ally’s security forces were willing to do in the open. Yemen’s government then declared a state of emergency, which raised all sorts of concerns; as Amnesty International notes, for example:

Torture and other ill-treatment are widespread practices in Yemen and are committed, generally with impunity, against both detainees held in connection with politically motivated acts or protests and ordinary criminal suspects.

In response, Secretary Clinton produced the usual boilerplate:

We call on Yemeni security forces to exercise maximum restraint, refrain from violence, and permit citizens to freely and peacefully express their views.

“Maximum restraint” is an interesting development in the rhetoric, by the way, if you’re as morbidly fascinated as I am by the way words go into Clinton or Obama’s mouth to die. When live fire was used against protesters in Bahrain, for example, we got the same escalation in rhetoric from (state department spokesperson) Mark Toner:

The Bahraini government must exercise maximum restraint as it deals with this situation and must ensure that GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) forces do so as well.

In Yemen, the response has been defections from both the military and the government; ministers have resigned in protest (and ambassadors), and army commanders have thrown in with the youth movement and vowed to protect them (which may or may not be a good thing; update: really may not be a good thing). As Gabool al Mutawakil, a youth activist, said to Al Jazeera:

“We are now in the middle of two militaries – one that has joined the protesters and one that is under the authority of president Saleh. There is fear of civil war, but we are insisting on having a peaceful revolution.”

Anyway, whether or not Clinton explicitly traded a free pass on violent repression in Bahrain (and Yemen?) to the Arab League in exchange for their support of the UN’s Libya action, it’s pretty clear that when a valued counter-terrorism ally slaughters its people, we have a very different kind of discussion than we do when Gaddafi does it.

And Yemen is a valued ally; last September, it was reported that “the U.S. military’s Central Command has proposed pumping as much as $1.2 billion over five years into building up Yemen’s security forces,” a sign of just how important they think the fight against al-Quaeda in the Arabian peninsula is, and how willing they are to get in bed with Saleh and the Yemeni government in doing so. Part of our counter-insurgency strategy there is to do it ourself: Yemen is one of the places where American drones are killing civilians and also some terrorists, maybe. But a bigger part of it is to hand money and helicopters (or get the Saudis to do so) over to them and then get them to promise to use them only against the bad guys.

From Wikileaks, for example, we get details and particulars about the negotiations that went on in January 2010 (between General Petraeus and President Saleh) over just how much money and military equipment we were going to give the government of Yemen (ROYG), to fight al-Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula:

The General told Saleh that he had requested USD150 million in security assistance for 2010, a substantial increase over the 2009 amount of USD 67 million…Raising a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion during the hour and half-long meeting, Saleh requested that the U.S. provide the ROYG with 12 armed helicopters.  Possessing such helicopters would allow the ROYG to take the lead in future CT operations, “ease” the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes, according to Saleh.  The U.S.could convince Saudi Arabia and the UAE to supply six helicopters each if the American “bureaucracy” prevented quick approval, Saleh suggested.  The General responded that he had already considered the ROYG’s request for helicopters and was in discussions with Saudi Arabia on the matter.  “We won’t use the helicopters in Sa’ada, I promise.  Only against al-Qaeda,” Saleh told General Petraeus.

That promise not to use the helicopters in Sa’ada? He’s referring to the civil war that the government of Yemen is fighting in its northern region, against the “Houthi” insurgency which began in 2004 out of complaints that Shi’ites in the region were being politically sidelined turned into a full military uprising. It’s been a really, really bloody and destructive war — around 200,000 people have been displaced by it — and our friends the Saudi’s have been directly involved. We’ve even seen the “African mercenaries” meme show up, this time by the Yemen Observer‘s claim that

“al-Houthis have resorted to recruiting Somali refugees in the Ra’as al-Arah region of Lahj to fight with them.  After they are recruited, the refugees are taken to various places in Sa’adah to replace Houthi followers who have refused to continue fighting against the government troops.”

In fact, over and over again, on all sides, the complaint is against foreign intervention: the rebels complain about Saudi intervention (which the Saudis justify by complaining about Houthi border crossing), and the government of Yemen sees the hand of Iran in everything the Houthi’s do.

And of course, the United States is also intervening in this conflict, in a big way. We give a lot of military aid to a very poor country, and while the idea is that this money will only be used against al-Quaeda — and Saleh faithfully promises to only use it against the bad guys — we know thanks to Wikileak-ed documents that we are actually just funding Yemen’s counterinsurgency wars. As Ellen Knickmeyer reported in December, for example, “Yemen’s government repeatedly diverted U.S.- and British-supported counterterrorism fighters from their intended use against al Qaeda to fight a purely domestic opposition group”:

In a September 2009 session with White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Saleh, frustrated, presses the United States to give armored vehicles, airplanes, and ambulances specifically to his campaign against the Houthi rebels. “The Houthis are your enemies too,” Saleh tells Brennan. Brennan deflects that request. “The USG [U.S. government] is prohibited by law from providing military support to the [Yemeni government] to be used against the Houthis since the USG considers the group a domestic insurgency,” he is quoted telling Saleh.

At that time, however, Saleh and his military chiefs were already diverting the U.S.-supported counterterrorism unit — a commando group funded, trained, and equipped by the United States and Britain from 2002 on to take a lead role fighting al Qaeda in Yemen — as well as possibly U.S. armored vehicles and Humvees, against the Houthis, then-U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche notes in another cable…”The ROYG, desperate to defeat the Houthis at any cost, has largely ignored USG concerns regarding deployment of the CTU to Sa’ada,” Seche wrote in December 2009. “The CTU has been unable to go after genuine terrorist targets like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) while it has been tied down in Sa’ada.”

“The war against the Houthis is not a distraction from the CT fight. It is the CT fight,” a Yemeni colonel insisted to U.S. Embassy political officers in December 2009.

This state department cable, describing the situation, is worth quoting (from November 2009):

Yemeni analysts fear that military action by Saudi Arabia is creating a regional, sectarian war that will lead to direct Iranian involvement. It is also possible that the Houthis have sought to internationalize the conflict, either to attract international support or to ensure that any negotiated political solution would include international, not ROYG, mediators. President Saleh appears to have gained the most from recent developments, as he has finally obtained direct political, financial, and military support for the war from powerful neighbors — who also happen to be close U.S. allies.

As the sixth war against the Houthis continues to squeeze Yemen’s conventional military, the ROYG has looked to its U.S. and U.K.-funded and trained counterterrorism forces to provide some relief to battered army forces. The Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) – trained to detect small terrorist cells and investigate and prevent terror attacks on civilian targets – is a poor tactical choice for use against a long-term domestic insurgency. The ROYG, desperate to defeat the Houthis at any cost, has largely ignored USG concerns regarding deployment of the CTU to Sa’ada. The CTU has been unable to go after genuine terrorist targets like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) while it has been tied down in Sa’ada.

And this one from February of 2010, on Saleh‘s disinclination to settle with the Houthi‘s:

Citing Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend its military operations in Sa’ada and Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s public acceptance of the ROYG’s conditions for a ceasefire, Ambassador Benjamin asked Saleh if he saw an end to the fighting. Saleh dismissed these points, arguing that the Saudis gave a ceasefire ultimatum to the Houthis, and will resume fighting in two weeks if the ceasefire is unfulfilled. He called the Houthis “liars” and declared that they would violate the six conditions of the ceasefire. He indicated that the ROYG had no intention of agreeing to a ceasefire at this time.

As always, as Human Rights Watch points out

…military tactics such as airstrikes that cause high civilian casualties, and arbitrary arrests and abusive treatment of suspected militants undermine efforts to reduce local support for al Qaeda. The Yemeni government has engaged in all of these actions against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)…Yemen’s military and policing approaches have resulted in numerous violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, which have alienated large segments of Yemeni society.

Yemeni protester seen through the hole in Yemen's flag.

By the way, the conflict in the north of the country is not to be confused with secessionist movement in Yemen’s southern region. While the northern conflict is a military campaign against Shi’ites who are accused of being proxies for Iran (while they accuse Yemen of fighting a proxy war against Shi’ites on behalf of Saudi Arabia), the issue in the south is much more directly about oil and development and regional exploitation. The historically socialist southern part of Yemen complains that the oil wealth is being extracted without any local development being seen in return:

“Eighty percent of Yemen’s oil comes from the south but where does the money go? It goes to Sanaa,” the capital, said a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party in Aden who did not want to be named for fear of government reprisal. “The people of the south have not benefited from any of this wealth and now it is running out.”

While the Saleh government gets 70% of its revenue from oil, and opposes secession for exactly that reason:

“The south has all the resources and only one third of the population. We cannot allow them to secede,” said a member of the opposition party Islah in the capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the party. “Northerners will fight to keep Yemen together. They know it is a matter of survival.”

As Michael Horton for the CSM reported back in Dec 2009:

Upon arriving in the southern port town of Aden from Sanaa, one immediately notices the differences: there are few new buildings and the taxis and cars are often little more than rusted wrecks – a stark contrast with the luxury cars and plethora of new shops and hotels one finds in Sanaa. But despite the run-down appearances, everything from fish to building supplies costs far more here than in the more prosperous north. “Why is it that fish caught 10 kilometers [six miles] from here cost more than the fish trucked to Sanaa?” asks resident Mohammad Nahass, pointing to fish stacked on a piece of cardboard in Aden’s fish market.

Many throughout southern Yemen are asking the same question. They see little value in their 1990 unification with the north – a move that was precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result of the USSR’s collapse, the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) – the only Marxist state in the Arabian Peninsula – lost its primary source of economic support and was forced to join North Yemen in a newly united Republic of Yemen, under the leadership of President Saleh, who has remained in power for 15 years.

Also on Yemen, Nir Rosen and Juan Cole. The usual live-blogging from AJE, and also intermittent live-blogging from Yemen. Also, it’s Saleh’s birthday today.

Show Restraint

February 21 “The secretary-general reiterates his call for the non-use of force and respect for basic freedoms,” a UN spokesman said in a statement, adding that Mr Ban had been in contact with regional leaders to discuss the situation. “Stressing that utmost restraint must be exercised by all concerned, he wishes to reaffirm his conviction that this is the time for broad-based dialogue and for genuine social and political reform,” it said.

February 20 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone today to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. In discussing regional developments with her Saudi counterpart, the Secretary underscored the necessity of restraint by the security forces in Bahrain. She also noted that the United States has welcomed steps by Bahraini Crown Prince Selman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to initiate a meaningful dialogue with the full spectrum of Bahraini society.

February 20 “The European Union is extremely concerned about the events unfolding in Libya and the reported deaths of a very high number of demonstrators,” Ashton said in a statement. “The EU urges the authorities to exercise restraint and calm and to immediately refrain from further use of violence against peaceful demonstrators,”

February 19th The President reiterated his condemnation of the violence used against peaceful protesters, and strongly urged the government of Bahrain to show restraint, and to hold those responsible for the violence accountable.

February 19th President Barack Obama spoke with the king on Friday evening, condemning the violence and urging the government to show restraint. Obama said the stability of Bahrain, home to the U.S. Middle East fleet, depended upon respect for the rights of its people, according to the White House.

February 18th “The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests and to respect the rights of their people,” Obama said.

February 17th U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington supported “real, meaningful” change in Bahrain, which she called “a friend and ally,” and called on the government to show restraint.

February 17th “As a long-time ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is an important partner and the department is closely watching developments there,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said. “We also call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.”

February 17th British Foreign Secretary William Hague voiced deep concern and urged the Bahraini police to use restraint. “I am deeply concerned by events in Bahrain last night and by level of violence at Pearl Roundabout and urge all sides to avoid violence and for the police to exercise restraint,” he said in a statement released by the British embassy in Manama.

February 15th The United States is very concerned by recent violence surrounding protests in Bahrain,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement. “We also call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.”

February 10th Going forward, it will be essential that the universal rights of the Egyptian people be respected. There must be restraint by all parties. Violence must be forsaken.

February 8th Even as Washington voiced its criticism, Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised Egypt’s military for its restraint. The armed forces — long the backbone of Egypt’s government — have behaved in “an exemplary fashion” by standing largely on the sidelines during the uprising, he said.

February 4th All parties should show restraint and avoid further violence and begin an orderly transition to a broad-based government. The European Council underlined that this transition process must start now,” the EU’s 27 leaders said in a statement issued on Friday during a summit in Brussels.

February 3rd Biden called for “restraint by all sides,” according to a White House statement, and urged that inclusive negotiations begin in order for Egypt to move to a democratic government.

February 3rd I’m concerned about the growing violence. I have urged all sides to exercise restraint. Violent attacks against peaceful protesters are completely unacceptable,” Ban [Ki-moon] said. “We should not underestimate the danger of instability across the Middle East,” he said

February 2nd I am deeply concerned by the continuing violence in Egypt. I once again urge restraint to all the sides,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said after meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron in London.

February 1st Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a telephone conversation with Enan on Sunday in which he urged restraint from Egypt’s military, but at the same time praised the “professionalism” of Egypt’s armed forces, a Pentagon spokesman, Capt. John Kirby, said at that time.

February 1st “I urge both the army and the police to act with the utmost care and restraint,” she said, stressing protesters should also avoid committing acts of violence. Authorities should listen to “the demands of the Egyptian people for fundamental reforms to improve human rights and democracy,” said Pillay, who made similar appeals in the days before the fall of Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

January 30th Egypt’s military appears to be showing restraint with peaceful anti-government protesters so far and there is no talk at this time about halting U.S. aid to Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday.

January 29th CATHERINE ASHTON, EU FOREIGN AFFAIRS CHIEF “I reiterate my call on all parties to exercise restraint and calm and I urge the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all peaceful demonstrators from detention.”

January 29th Afterward, the White House said its focus remained on “calling for restraint, supporting universal rights and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform.”

January 28th HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE “As a partner of Egypt we are urging that there be a restraint on the part of the security forces, there not be a rush to impose very strict measures that would be violent and that there be a dialogue between the government and the people of Egypt.”

January 28th Before his departure, Alexander Vershbow, a U.S. assistant secretary of defense, urged restraint during talks with Enan on Wednesday and Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said, without elaborating.

January 28th Obama urged the government and protesters to show restraint, saying violence was not the answer. “It is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances,” he said, citing freedom of expression and access to social networking websites.

January 25th The United States supports the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people. All parties should exercise restraint and we call on the Egyptian authorities to handle these protests peacefully,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement.

January 25th U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged all sides in Egypt to exercise restraint following street protests and said she believed the Egyptian government was stable and looking for ways to respond to its people’s aspirations.

January 13th The French prime minister, François Fillon, who is in London on an official visit, criticised the Tunisian government’s handling of the crisis.”We insist that all parties show restraint and choose the path of dialogue … we cannot continue with this disproportionate use of violence,” he said.

January 10th New York, the United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was concerned about the escalation of violence and called for restraint.

Is Bahrain a Shiite Uprising?

The New York Times would like you to know that it is! And because of seven years of American occupation of Iraq, readers of the NYT now understand that, in some way or another, Sunni and Shiite are different. They might even be aware that Shiites have something to do with Iran or something. So when this morning’s Times article makes it clear that the “Clashes at Protest for Second Day in Bahrain” are the result of a Shiite rebellion against a Sunni government, we feel like we understand:

MANAMA, Bahrain — After weeks of turmoil rolling through the Arab world, protesters in the Persian Gulf kingdom clashed for a second day with the police on Tuesday and a second demonstrator was killed by gunfire, spurring the largest Shiite bloc to suspend participation in the country’s Parliament.

Youth protested near police officers in Manama, Bahrain on Monday. The events came as mourners gathered for the funeral of a Shiite protester shot to death during what was called a “Day of Rage” protest on Monday, modeled on similar outbursts of discontent that have toppled autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt since mid-January and spread on Monday to Iran.

With only about a million residents, half of them foreign workers, Bahrain has long been among the most politically volatile in the region. The principal tension is between the royal family under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and the ruling elites, who are mostly Sunnis, on one side, and the approximately 70 percent of the local population that is Shiite on the other.

Occupying mostly run-down villages with cinder block buildings and little else, many Shiites say they face systemic discrimination in employment, housing, education and government. The clashes Monday and Tuesday centered on small Shiite villages on the outskirts of Manama, the capital, places with narrow streets and alleyways.

But what do we understand when we use this conceptual frame? Or this, in the New York Times’ “Bahrain at a Glance” fact sheet:

There has long been tension between the Sunni Muslim king, Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, the royal family and ruling elites, and the approximately 70 percent of the local population that is Shiite. About half the residents of Bahrain are foreign workers. Since late 2009, Shiites in villages around the nation have been holding regular protests, burning tires in the road, demanding the release of dozens of political prisoners, including 25 being tried on charges plotting to overthrow the state, charges seen by the populace as part of a broad effort to silence the Shiite majority.

In other words, I’m interested in what applying the conceptual framework of “sectarian conflict” does to our ability to make sense of an image like this one, the photograph that the NYT provides:

Al Jazeera, by contrast, frames its main article by the fact that “Bahrain Police Fire at Protesters,” not only using that fact as its lede, but only noting that “Shias, who are thought to be in the majority, have often alleged discrimination at the hands of the kingdom’s Sunni rulers” somewhere in the middle of the article. Police violence against protesters is the focus; the entire first third of the article emphasizes how a peaceful funeral procession — for a protester killed by the police the day before — was attacked by riot police:

“This morning the protesters were walking from the hospital to the cemetery and they got attacked by the riot police,” Alkhawaja said. “Thousands of people are marching in the streets, demanding the removal of the regime – police fired tear gas and bird shot, using excessive force – that is why people got hurt.” At least 25 people were reported to have been treated for injuries in hospital. An Al Jazeera correspondent in Bahrain, who cannot be named for his own safety, said that police were taking a very heavy handed approach towards the protesters.

In Al Jazeera’s account, it is absolutely clear that the police were the aggressors, while the NYT writes sentences in which “protesters” is the subject, and “clashed with the police” the verb phras, not only implying the reverse but allowing the “sectarian violence” to render the kind of populism we’re seeing a sectarian one, rather than a democratic one. And these are the macro-narratives that determine how the story will be read and understood. “Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them,” as was said by Said, and it’s still true.

I don’t want to make it sound like Al Jazeera’s coverage is beyond reproach (and how would I know?), but I do note that they will tend to include things like this quote from Amira Al Hussaini — “a Bahraini blogger that monitors citizen media for Global Voices Online” — who not only comments on news coverage — allowing us to see the way news is the news — but identifying the “sectarian violence” narrative as the self-legitimizing story being told by the police themselves:

“I am trying to remain objective but I can’t – people are being shot at close range.” Hussaini said that people in Bahrain were very afraid. “We are afraid of going out in the streets and demanding our rights. Tunisia and Egypt have given people in Arab countries hope – even if you believe that something is impossible. I personally have no respect for the police – they lie, they manipulate the story,” she said. “This is being pitted as a sectarian issue – the Shia wanting to overthrow the regime. But it is not a Shia uprising.” She said that people from all backgrounds and religions are behind the protests

I’m about as far from an expert on Bahrain as it’s possible to be, but the fact that the Times uses a picture of protesters in Diraz running from the police and characterizes it in the way they do speaks volumes to me about the filters they’re using. There aren’t even any police in that picture, and that exclusion — that erasure — is powerful.

By contrast to that image, of a few scattered protesters, compare this video of that same crackdown in Diraz (via), a video which shows — in absolutely no uncertain terms — a group of peaceful protesters peacefully demonstrating and being attacked by a crowd of police that resembles an infantry charge more than a little. For about thirty seconds, you see a group of protesters standing and chanting. Then, the camera wheels around to view a crowd of police some hundred yards away, the crowd murmuring rises in volume, and you see the column of police charging across the field firing at the crowd. There are about twenty shots (tear gas?) and it’s scary to watch; the person holding the camera is running like hell, and you would too.

Or take a look at this video, in which an absolutely insane amount of tear gas is fired on protesters:


Some other things; I’m trying to write about media coverage because writing about the events in Bahrain themselves would require me to venture pretty far out of my comfort zone (though this article is a great historical background). But my overriding impression from the reading I’ve done (and especially the conversations I’m having with more knowledgeable people) is that while sectarian tension is certainly a part of what’s happening, it’s so interwoven with class issues (and so hard to characterize) that the primary failing of the framing used in that NY Times story is the false impression it gives us that we understood; the facts it gives us aren’t even wrong, as they say, because their framing context is absent. For example, though many of us are only discovering Bahrain now — as part of the larger Uprising in the Middle East! story — these particular protests are only an escalation of something that’s been going on for quite some time; I’m told, for example, that protest has been non-stop in Bahrain these days, and that the sight of riot police at the entrance to villages (young men burning tires) is sort of routine and has been for a while. What does that mean? And how would the “we” that includes me (an ignorant but well meaning searcher for meaning in ignorance) figure out what it might mean?

It does seem clear that this protest is working hard to frame itself in non-sectarian terms, though, so I’ll end with this — via and translated by Bint Battuta from an article in Arabic, much thanks — which articulates what (at least some of) the protesters are saying:

Bahrain may witness on Monday (February 14) a people’s movement in various villages of the country calling for political and social reforms and improvement of the standard of living. Bahrain may also witness on that day joy in other areas on the anniversary of theNational Action Charter. And in both scenes, all actions should be peaceful and civilised, showing the understanding and awareness of the young people of Bahrain of their precious nation and land. All demands should be conscious, reflecting the reality of the people of Bahrain who have long been known for their awareness and ability to draw attention to their concerns in all directions.

We experienced the uprising of the nineties which led with its blessings and the blood of its martyrs to the level of freedoms we enjoy today, even if they are restricted. Our people achieved many things, but these achievements did not last long, until the situation went back to the way it was before. The question is, what do we want on February 14?

  • We want a genuine political life in which the people alone are the source of powers and legislation.
  • We want a constitution drawn up by the people, and agreed upon, which is the arbitrator and judge in the relationship of the ruler to the ruled.
  • We want genuine and fair elections based on fair foundations and the distribution of constituencies in which the vote of every individual Bahraini is equal.
  • We want genuine representation, without the accusation of treason whenever we go out to demand our rights.
  • We want a Council of Representatives that reflects the composition of the Bahraini people, without the majority being a minority and the minority a majority.
  • We want a government that is elected, based on people’s competencies rather than “loyalties”.
  • We want to fight corruption and stop the plundering of resources, and achieve a fair distribution of wealth.
  • We want to stop nepotism, and to prevent recruitment according to affiliation, and to open all sectors, especially the military, to all people.
  • We want an end to indiscriminate political naturalisation, which has increased the burden on services and oppressed people.
  • We want true freedom, without a law against “terrorism” and “gatherings”.
  • We want true media freedom, and the door to be opened for everyone to express their opinions freely and without fear.
  • We want security in villages and towns, and the release of political prisoners and the reform of prisons, and the end of oppression, torture and intimidation.
  • We want genuine solutions to the problems of unemployment, housing, education, and health.
  • We want the police to “serve the people”, and we want the army to be of the people.
  • This is truly what we want; we do not want to overthrow the regime, as many imagine, and we do not want to gain control of the government, we do not want chairs and seats here or there. We want to be a people living with dignity and rights.

Knowing and Unknowing the Egyptian Public

“One of the greatest obstacles to any fruitful theory of genre has been the tendency to treat the genres as discrete. An ideological approach might suggest why they can’t be, however hard they might appear to try: at best, they represent different strategies for dealing with the same ideological tensions”

–Robin Cook, 1977 essay, “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,”

I’ve been thinking about Jay Rosen’s piece on “The ‘Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators’ Article,” in which he defines articles like this, this, this, and this, as a genre by reference these formal markers:

1.) Nameless fools are staking maximalist claims.
2.) No links we can use to check the context of those claims.
3.) The masses of deluded people make an appearance so they can be ridiculed.
4.) Bizarre ideas get refuted with a straight face.
5.) Spurious historicity.
6.) The really hard questions are skirted.

Rosen has the beginnings of an answer as to why the genre has an appeal:

…here’s a guess: almost everyone who cares about such a discussion is excited about the Internet. Almost everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away. When we nod along with Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators we’re assuring ourselves that our excitement is contained, that we’re being realistic, mature, grown-up about it.

I think this is right, as far as it goes. But I begin with a citation from Robin Cook’s fairly canonical argument about cinematic genre because he’s emphasizing the importance of placing generic formations in their broader discursive context, and I think this is precisely what we need to do with this brand of writing, now that we‘ve (Rosen) identified its formal characteristics. Its coherence is linked to the problem it seeks to solve and how, the work it takes as its project to do.

Cook’s argument, for example, is that a Film Noir like The Big Heat and a Western like Rancho Notorious are not only part of the same conversation — which he argues here, for example — but that the position they take in that conversation (how they resolve the problems they raise) is at least a partial function of the narratives encoded in the generic structures they employ. To oversimplify: while the Western and the Film Noir are talking about the same kinds of social tensions, anxieties, or contradictions, the position they take on those questions (the answers/resolutions they give) are distinctly organic to their particular generic forms. Context, then, is key: we understand the relationship between Western and Noir (and the function of those generic markers) by placing them as different dialogic parts of a single conversation.

The goal of doing so would be to liberate the concept of genre from its purely formal characteristics. By attacking “the foolishness of regarding [genres] as discrete and fully autonomous on the grounds of their defining iconography,” as Cook puts it, he wants us to see that the Western or the Noir are coherent ideological structures, not simply a set of clichéd forms. You know it’s a Western, in other words, not because of the simple presence of railroad, lawman, cowboy, Indian, etc, but because of the narratives that these motifs are being used to put forward, the particular kind of story the Western tells about history, progress, gender, and race.

My version of Rosen’s argument, then, would be this: it is a fantasy of a particular kind of credulousness, which is then so soberly refuted (by sober debunkers) that the overriding impression left for the audience is only of the performance of seriousness itself, and of the credulous enthusiasm which has been dismissed.

Take this bit of rhetoric — much derided — from Malcolm Gladwell:

…surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

The assertion of eternal verities (people will always) alongside controlled contempt (Please.) and the repeated invocation of what is and isn’t “interesting” all adds up to an argument from an authority derived from the seriousness of his rhetoric: we know he’s a serious guy because he sounds serious, and because the people he’s criticizing are saying things that go against eternal verities, and because they cause a serious person to need to control his contempt (and we know they are contemptible because he is serious). It’s a recursive tautology; what you get is a blank stage in which there are two actors, the twitter-utopian and the debunker, and the staging and background (and object of debate) left insubstantial, immaterial. The rhetorical foreground fills up the camera while the historiographic background is left out of focus.

Rosen suggests that this allows the “really hard questions” to be skirted, and that’s true, but I think it also accomplishes something else through the blankness of the absent backdrop: the Western generalist (Gladwell) gets to retain Serious Authority. The man who knows nothing about Egypt still gets to Seriously Know, precisely because it‘s only a dialogue between two Western speakers. And this, I think, is the real key. It isn’t just that really “hard” questions get skirted; it’s the fact that Egyptians are driving this narrative — and that if we want to understand it, we have to know something about Egypt in its particularity – that makes these people nervous.

After all, the question of social media will, in the end, always turn into a question of the particular social reality it’s mediating. Which is why I would add to Rosen’s list another generic trait: the invocation of “people will always” as an explanation, something that always strikes me as a sign of a weak and unadventurous mind. People don’t “always” do anything. People are unpredictable. But they don’t do strange and unexpected things because they‘re irrational; people get called “irrational” when their rationality is not as apparent to us as we’d like to think it is. People always do what they do for a reason, but when we don’t know what that reason is, calling it irrational is a way of papering over the fact that we don’t actually understand.

In this case, for example, the idea that “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other” is flatly inadequate. Egypt had a grievance for three decades, yet they only started finding a way to communicate and coordinate with each other (on a massive scale) in the last few years. The Egyptian uprising happened when it did for good reasons, and eternal verities about what people will always do give us less than no purchase on that problem. But to even have the conversation about social media starts taking people like Gladwell way out of their comfort zone.

In other words, to understand why the Egyptian revolt happened when it did, we’d have to learn something about Egyptian history, about the Kifaya movement, and about how Egyptians were actually using blogs and facebook. Which would mean that a generalist intellectual about everything (and nothing in particular) like Malcolm Gladwell would suddenly find himself having to listen to a specialist like Charles Hirschkind, or even — ye Gods! — Egyptians themselves. But it’s less about who as what; the source of Hirschkind’s knowledge about how blogs were used to lay the foundation of the Egyptian revolution is, ultimately, not his own Deeply Serious intellect, but the fact that he’s been studying the formations of publics in Egypt for decades now. It’s the fact that Egypt is particular and similar only to itself (and that he’s been paying attention to it) that allows him to weave together this narrative, for example:

What was striking about the Egyptian blogosphere as it developed in the last 7 or so years is the extent to which it engendered a political language free from the problematic of secularization vs. fundamentalism that had governed so much of political discourse in the Middle East and elsewhere. The blogosphere that burst into existence in Egypt around 2004 and 2005 in many ways provided a new context for a process that had begun a somewhat earlier, in the late 1990s: namely, the development of practices of coordination and support between secular leftist organizations and associations, and Islamist ones (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood)—a phenomenon almost completely absent in the prior decades. Toward the end of the decade of the 90s, Islamist and leftist lawyers began to agree to work together on cases regarding state torture, whereas in previous years, lawyers of one affiliation would almost never publicly defend plaintiffs from the other.

Gladwell can’t take part in this conversation, except by dismissing it. Which is why he must dismiss it: to deal with it on its own terms — a topography of knowledge defined by a meridian set in Cairo — would lead him away from his ability to speak about all people all the time. It would prevent Western Authority from having a monopoly on the truth of all people.

Let me push this even farther. Rosen writes that “everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away,” and this, again, seems right to me, but I think the fear runs deeper than simply a desire to not look foolish or of being wrong. Revolution is scary because it’s unpredictable. Hell, democracy is scarily unpredictable. And respect for democracy will require accepting that the Egyptians might do things we wouldn’t do if we were in their place, choices that may seem — to us — irrational, but only because the source of their rationality is unavailable to us. It will mean accepting the legitimacy of political rationalities we may not share, and which dismissing as “irrational” would only reveal us to be crypto-colonialists, willing to allow them to have democratic choice only between the options we’ve chosen for them.

Note, for example, how many Western commentators have demanded guarantees that a democratic election in Egypt will produce a government we like. And the assertion that if democracy leads to Islamist rule (of any type), then obviously Egypt isn’t ready for democracy. The colonialist assumption of privilege that underpins that kind of thought process is staggering, as is its explicitly anti-democratic preference: before we can accept Arabs making choices for themselves, we have to know what those choices will be. Only choices that have already been vetted in Washington are to be allowed. And thus: only we get to have democracy.

To return to the conversation about new media, one of the pitfalls of dubbing this a “facebook revolution” would be if we allowed the social topography in which facebook is used to disappear. The straw man that people like Gladwell invent are doing this, turning Egyptians into tools of their media tools. But this is also precisely what Hirschkind is not doing when he places blogs and facebook in their socio-political context: it is precisely because of pre-existing political problems — the fact that Islamists and secularists were not talking to each other — that blogs and other online organizing platforms, like facebook, could become so useful. Conversations that could not be had in person could be had online, which then led to face-to-face conversations, which then made collaborative action possible.

To build on what seemed to be the consensus of Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the importance of social media is particularly to be found in the sense and performance of Egyptian public identity that it enabled, both the identity and political rationality which were suddenly seen to widespread. Routine state terror has been omnipresent for decades, but what we heard over and over again was that a facebook page like “We Are All Khalid Saeed” could became a means of rendering that experience — which so many people silently had in common — something which could be publicly knowable as a common experience. This move — taking something privately experienced, and making it publicly knowable — is a powerful thing.

As Edward Said put it in Permission to Narrate (in a quote I was reminded of here):

Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them. . . . as Hayden White has noted in a seminal article, “narrative in general, from the folk tale to the novel, from annals to the fully realized ‘history,’ has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority.”

Before the recent past — goes this interpretation — state terror in Egypt was ubiquitous, but it was not so easily and widely known to be ubiquitous. So however common it might have been, each fact and incident of torture and state violence was mostly knowable as isolated, particular. Which makes sense: in a country whose media was tightly controlled by a dictatorial apparatus, there were few available socially acceptable narratives which could absorb, sustain, and circulate them. Moreover, even if everyone knew that state terror was ubiquitous, they didn’t necessarily know that everyone else knew it too: they might have known that they — and anyone — could suffer the fate of Khalid Saeed, but they didn’t know, for sure, that everyone else knew this as well. In other words, Egyptians might have been united by the fact of being vulnerable to be tortured to death by their government, but the internet allowed them to see and understand that they all understood themselves to be this, that all were united in disgust and rage. This is the fertile seed-bed for revolt: knowing that if you stand in front of a tank, you will not be alone in doing so.

And this is what I think the main function of the “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” article, and the ideological function that defines its genre: the disappearance of Egyptian social consciousness as the prime driver of events. Against the straw-man of techno-determinism, someone like Gladwell is enabled to argue that this has nothing to do with what Egyptians think of Egypt, nothing to do with a century of accumulated thought, emotion, identity, and narrated experience — most of which is unavailable to Gladwell, and which most Americans find strange and foreign. Instead, it is something safe and easy, something we, in the West, can safely opine and claim authority over: ourselves. The French revolution, the fall of communism, and Universal Western History. In an implicit — but constitutive — dialogue with those who would tell us that this is about Egypt, it comes along to tell us that it’s not.

Everywhere Tahrir

“The Winter Uprisings in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen have shaken western and Arab confidence in the sustainability of the current models of “competitive” authoritarianism. These were not bread riots; they were illustrations of political gangrene…in the end the Winter Uprisings are political, not merely economic. They cannot be reduced to economic “reforms,” pice checks and micro-finance. They are putting strains on the Arab political order in its full diversity. And the youth driving the Winter Uprisings appear not to be satisfied when thrown a bone — they deserve steak. In the span of two months they have seen two long-sitting autocrats make shaken and desperate public appeals in response to their actions and watched one of them make a run for the Gulf. Whether Tunisia or Egypt or some other Arab polity turns out a revolution or a serious political change, these uprisings will be serious political and historical importance going forward. These are exciting, perplexing times indeed.” (TMND)

I, like not a few Americans, am excited and perplexed. To help me understand these times — and you, if you like — I’ve spent the last couple hours collecting and collating the best short-term, English language accounts I could find on what’s happening right now across the Greater Middle East and North Africa, in synchrony with (if not in imitation of) what’s been happening in Egypt.

There have been quite a few persuasive calls (particularly from historians) to resist the urge to see this as one thing, a single “Winter Uprising” as Kal put it above. Manan, for instance, and Gretchen Head. And I agree. But no one would deny that people in Egypt were watching what happened in Tunisia and interpreting it in their own ways, and the rest of the world is sure as hell watching what happened in Egypt. And while this is not exactly Nasser 2.0, the idea of an Egyptian led Pan-Arabism is certainly on the minds of at least some (and in the nightmares of others). As Lamis Andoni writes:

The Egyptian revolution, itself influenced by the Tunisian uprising, has resurrected a new sense of pan-Arabism based on the struggle for social justice and freedom. The overwhelming support for the Egyptian revolutionaries across the Arab world reflects a sense of unity in the rejection of tyrannical, or at least authoritarian, leaders, corruption and the rule of a small financial and political elite.

Arab protests in solidarity with the Egyptian people also suggest that there is a strong yearning for the revival of Egypt as a pan-Arab unifier and leader. Photographs of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former Egyptian president, have been raised in Cairo and across Arab capitals by people who were not even alive when Nasser died in 1970. The scenes are reminiscent of those that swept Arab streets in the 1950s and 1960s.

Palestinians protest in support of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia:

Gaza celebrates news of Mubarak stepping down:

And in a village in Galilee, watchers of Al Jazeera broke out in “spontaneous praise of Allah’s and Google’s miraculous feats, in exchanges of congratulations and backslapping and in happy laughter”:

In two more minutes the sound of fireworks filled the village evening hush. I stepped out for a fuller appreciation of the event and heard the distant sound of fireworks from neighboring Palestinian villages and the beeping of horns in our streets. We rang the late guests and were told that they have been held up at the entrance to Arrabeh, our village, by the flood of cars on its main street. Minutes later another nephew of mine returned and described the seen in the main square of Arrabeh as being in full spontaneous celebratory mode. He likened the atmosphere to that of the day Iran beat the USA 1:0 in the World Cup football tournament. Toufiq called to congratulate and to cancel our picnic. Al-Jazeera ran a steady listing of Arab capitals where the jubilant crowds broke out in celebration of Egypt’s historic achievement. Another nephew sent an MSN message that said: “Crowds pored out in the streets of Arrabeh.” But Al-Jazeera didn’t show it. Ali, a retired teacher from Arrabeh who happened to land in Cairo’s Independence Square on January 25 and whose Journalist son was detained overnight by the Egyptian police, jokingly took credit for “stirring things up there.” Then he added: “I am off to Amman tomorrow.” I told Toufiq over coffee this morning: “This is the most pan-Arab solidarity I have seen since 1970 when we walked in the funeral procession for Jamal Abdul Nasser.”

“But this is different,” he said. “This sets a precedence.” Then in a low conspiratorial voice he confided: “Mark my word: The day will come when scores of millions of young people from the Middle East and Europe will march peacefully as one man on Israel and Palestine and force freedom and civility on us. We have to start preparing to meet them at the borders. It may require another Mjaddara picnic for the current bosses. Who knows?”

(Worth noting: the Palestinian Authority has worked to suppress Palestinian protests in solidarity with Egypt)

In Algeria, thousands of protesters faced off against many more thousands of police who had created a defensive ring around the capital.

Al Jazeera reports that

“2,000 protestors were able to overcome a security cordon enforced around the capital’s May First Square, joining other demonstrators calling for reform…Protesters are demanding greater democratic freedoms, a change of government, and more jobs.

Earlier, police also charged at demonstrators and arrested 10 people outside the Algiers offices of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), as they celebrated Mubarak’s downfall, Said Sadi, RCD leader, told AFP news agency. “It wasn’t even an organised demonstration. It was spontaneous. It was an explosion of joy,” he said.

More video. And a ton of media collated here. Washington Post reports that more than 400 people were arrested (I’ve heard much higher figures) and that 28,000 security forces were deployed to disperse crowds. Here we have a picture — interestingly — of female police arresting a female protester (while male security people in the background arrest males); they’re trying to avoid inflammatory images, I’m sure:

The Moor Next Door will be your source for commentary on what’s happening in Algeria; his modestly titled “Incomplete thoughts on the Algerian Situation” and “More Incomplete Thoughts on the Algerian Situation” are highly informative, and “incomplete” only in the sense that the present tense always is. Highly recommended. And just because, here’s an aggregation of a series of his tweets from the last few hours (along with his retweets of other people; so very postmodern):

Algerian authoritarianism more smoothly mixes Arab & Eastern Bloc techniques than Egypt, Tunis. We must understand the lessons of Egypt and Tunisia but we must also read our own. Failure to do so will lead to failure.

Likelihood of Tunisian/Egyptian success is low but it will erode the regime’s ability to continue as is. If it continues or escalates the regime won’t be overthrown but will be forced to make concessions. How much loss can Regime recover: 100, 500, 1000 Algerians? Then convince the eyes of the world we’re killing each other AGAIN?

So far, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to lift Algeria’s 19-year long state of emergency and cut the cost of some commodities.

Yemen

Yemen is another hot spot, where those of us who have been focused on Egypt will hear some familiar slogans and names:

“Government supporters armed with traditional knives and batons broke up a pro-democracy march on Saturday by 2,000 Yemenis…Some 300 anti-government student demonstrators assembled at Sanaa University on Saturday morning. As numbers swelled into the thousands, they began marching towards the Egyptian embassy. “The people want the fall of the government,” protesters chanted. “A Yemeni revolution after the Egyptian revolution.” But a group of government supporters armed with knives and sticks confronted the protesters at the central Tahrir Square. Scuffles broke out and the pro-government activists used traditional knives and batons to force the anti-government protesters to flee.

Yemen’s President (for the last three decades) Ali Abdullah Saleh has made some familiar concessions, vowing not to extend his presidency after his term expires (in 2013), not to pass government reins on to his son, and promising to make some important concessions of electoral procedure.

Via the Angry Arab, this first-hand account gives a lot more details about Friday’s  (more spontaneous) protest, the one seen above, set the stage for Saturday’s:

“Responding to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down, independent Yemeni activists in the capital city of San’a called for a candle light vigil to celebrate the events. By 8:30 in the evening hundreds of Yemeni students, academics, activists and citizens gathered in front of the new university. It was very spontaneous. One activist told another activist ‘why dont you have a celebratory candle vigil for Egypt?” some phone calls were made and people gathered quickly. The timing was right in terms of the qat chewing cycle. People had been home chewing and talking and watching al Jazeera for hours. Soon their numbers grew to the thousands. People chanted in support of Egypt. Chants included:  “The Egyptian people brought down Mubarak”  “Long live the Egyptian people” “Revolution until victory”  “One thousand greetings to al Jazeera” and other chants for Egypt which soon became chants focusing on the Yemeni regime such as: “yesterday Tunisia, today Egypt, tomorrow Yemen will open the prison”  “down with the regime”  “the people want the regime to collapse” “revolution oh Yemen from San’a to Aden” “the Yemeni people is fed up with Ali Abdallah Salih”  They decided to march to the Egyptian embassy. It took an hour and as they marched their numbers grew to the thousands. They marched past neighborhoods and were cheered by onlookers. They were eventually met by soldiers guarding the Yemeni embassy and they turned around and gathered in San’a’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

By about 10:30 pm several trucks full of heavily armed soldiers began to arrive but until then the demonstration had been peaceful. At least ten army trucks carrying dozens of men in civilian clothing who are likely members of the Yemeni security forces arrived as did many security force pick up trucks and jeeps. Hundreds and hundreds of men in civilian attire carrying sticks, knives as well as automatic weapons arrived carrying pictures of President Saleh. They attacked some demonstrators with knives and sticks and at this the majority of the anti-regime demonstrators dispersed. Hundreds of uniformed members of the Yemeni security forces were present facilitating the arrival of those chanting support for Saleh. The security forces also closed off the roads in the area of Tahrir square, allowing only pro regime demonstrators in who came running with signs, sticks, knives and automatic weapons.

The remaining few hundred anti regime demonstrators lasted for a while with a few dozen of them sitting on the street. There was some pushing back and forth as the columns of pro and anti regime demonstrators met, and some water bottles thrown back and forth. But dozens of police in riot gear separated the two sides. Anti regime demonstrators burned pictures of Saleh. They shouted at the pro regime demonstrators “army wearing civilian clothes!”  Pro regime demonstrators shouted “with our spirits with our blood we sacrifice for you oh Ali!”  Anti regime demonstrators responded by chanting “oh oh leave oh Ali” and “oh god oh god down with Ali Abdallah” Demonstrators on both sides danced and sang.   Then hundreds more pro regime demonstrators charged them and pushed them forcing them all to flee. This happened under the eyes of the chief of security for the area, hundreds of various security forces and the general secretary for San’a, Amin Jum’an. In the end thousands of pro regime demonstrators had occupied the square singing, banging on drums and dancing. At least ten anti regime demonstrators had been arrested.  Demonstrations were more violently suppressed in Aden and there were said to be over ten thousand demonstrators in the central town of Ta’iz.”

In Jordan, weekly Friday demonstrations (like this one from January 28th) have been going on for some time:

And have already borne some fruit; King Abdullah II sacked his cabinet on February 1st in response. Ziad Abu-Rish, however, describes some of the particularities of Jordan’s situation:

Jordan shares many of the structural features and governing practices that have inspired the mass mobilizations in both Egypt and Tunisia. These are primarily authoritarian systems of rule that offer little in the way of accountability and civil liberties as well as a neoliberal economic development strategy that has disempowered the average citizen vis-à-vis meeting her basic needs. However, whereas demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia have been focused on regime change, protests in Jordan over the past four weeks have called for changes in the government (which is appointed by the regime) as well as serious (as opposed to cosmetic) reforms that would fundamentally address the political and economic problems facing Jordanian society.

…there has been an effective rhetorical separation between the Monarchy (i.e., the regime) and the government (i.e., the royally-appointed Cabinet). In other words, political discourse in Jordan has represented contemporary politics (whether the government, the formal opposition, or any of the state institutions) in the Kingdom as separate from the role of the Monarchy. This is partly a function of the legitimacy of the Monarchy [which is different than that of the “republican” regimes of Egypt and Tunisia; the Hashemite dynasty claims descent through the Prophet Mohammad as well as the leading role in the “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Empire]. It is also a function of the fact that law and violence have enforced this separation. Equally important, the Monarchy has in many ways set itself up as the vanguard of reform in the Kingdom, claiming to both plot the course of reform and manage its dangers. Barring some type of radicalization of the public, this separation and the legal violence that underpins it has had a real effect on the nature of political demands being advanced…One of the difficulties in gauging public perception of the King is that various forms of political speech, especially those concerning the Monarchy, continue to be criminalized. Thus, it is literally impossible to speak freely of the King. Feelings about the King and the Monarchy are probably much more complex than a dichotomy between unwavering loyalty and calls for its abolition offer. However, it is impossible to grasp this complexity absent the necessary conditions to protect the rights of people to freely express their position on the issue.

[In addition] the dynamic of top-down regime-managed political reform has offered several controlled outlets for public frustration (e.g., organized demonstrations, new media forums, parliamentary elections) while maintaining the concentration of power in both the polity and the economy. This strategy has sometimes responded to public demands (e.g., the sacking of the Cabinet of Samir al-Rifa’i) while at others has pre-empted them (e.g., calling for national consensus on a new election law). Thus, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the “reform game” is still playing itself out in Jordan.

In Morocco (above), daily protests have been ongoing for some weeks and there is, apparently, a big one scheduled for February 20th. But as Gretchen Head noted, Morocco isn’t Egypt:

One of the fundamental things that has been consistently ignored as Morocco is included in Tunisia’s and Egypt’s ranks is the populace’s view of its own government’s legitimacy, considerably more complicated than the Tunisian or Egyptian examples, both of which were/are characterized by the complete lack thereof. The Alaouite dynasty, however, stretches back to 1631 and claims descent through the Prophet, specifically through his daughter Fatima al-Zahra and her husband, ‘Ali, the fourth Caliph. The current king’s grandfather Muhammad V was not only the hero of the independence struggle — a figure who had defied the French, was exiled to Madagascar as a result, and who staged a triumphant return — he was, additionally, the amir al-mu’minin, or commander of the faithful. Muhammad VI holds the same title, and the dual role of political and religious authority, which is the characteristic feature of the Moroccan monarchy, continues to carry resonance with the population at large. In short, Ben Ali and Mubarak were/are reviled by the people whom they govern/ed; significantly, in Morocco, even among those who want reform, Muhammad VI is not.

In Kuwait and Bahrain, rulers are distributing cake for the masses to soften protests:

The ruler of Kuwait has announced the distribution of $4bn and free food for 14 months to all citizens, although his country is not facing any protests. Each of the 1.12 million native citizens will get $3,572 in cash as well as free essential food items until March 31, 2012, Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah was reported to have said.

Bahrain’s king has decided to give $2,650 to each family on the Gulf island, the latest step the Sunni rulers have taken to appease the majority Shia public before protests planned for next week. Although most analysts do not see any immediate risk of revolt, the kingdom is considered the most vulnerable to unrest among Gulf Arab countries.

Bahrain reportedly has protests scheduled for next week, though it’s hard to find much about it.

But, as “Kholud” writes pseudononymously from Saudi Arabia:

…not all Arabs are rejoicing on the streets. In Saudi Arabia, most celebrated in the comfort of their homes, where they would not get in “trouble.” So we did the same and went to a friend’s house party instead. Um Kulthum’s “Lil Sabr Hdud” (Patience has its limits) was blaring from huge speakers. Women and men were dancing, hugging, smiling. Many were still crying tears of relief, of disbelief. Some were even tapping their forefinger at the bend of their elbows, like heroin junkies, to show that Arabs still have a pulse, that yes, despite it all, we are still alive. That despite it all, we crave more of the victories that the Egyptians and Tunisians have reminded us we are capable of. And yet, despite it all, I returned home alone with an overwhelming sense of defeat, hoping that some live footage of Arabs celebrating outside of Saudi Arabia would cheer me up, remind me how momentous this night is. And sure enough, it did, and I started shedding tears of joy again. Until my partner in crime called me, relaying what an aide to the Saudi King had just asked him in surprise: “Really? You still have hope that anything will change here?”

(Tweets from Saudi Arabia)

And in Syria, the response to Egypt and Tunisia has been similarly muted; as AJE reports, “in addition to the repressive state apparatus, factors such as a relatively popular president and religious diversity make an uprising in the country unlikely”:

…people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt,” Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, says. “The groups who have mobilised in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price – Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in Hama.” The so-called Hama massacre, in which the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in 1982 in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, is believed to have killed about 20,000 people. “I think that in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something [protests] would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”

…Fawas Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says Syria is one of the Middle Eastern countries least likely to be hit by popular protests, because of its power structure. He says the allegiance of the army in Syria is different than in both Tunisia, where the military quickly became one of the main backers of the president’s ouster, and in Egypt, where the army still has not taken sides. “The army in Syria is the power structure,” he says. “The armed forces would fight to an end. It would be a bloodbath, literally, because the army would fight to protect not only the institution of the army but the regime itself, because the army and the regime is one and the same.”

[Moreover] even if people dared to challenge the army and the dreaded mukhabarat intelligence service, analysts say the appetite for change of the country’s leadership is not that big. Many Syrians tend to support Bashar al-Assad, the president who came to power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled the country for 30 years. “An important factor is that he’s popular among young people,” Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of Syria Comment, says. “Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who’s 83, Bashar al-Assad is young. Young people are quite proud of him. They may not like the regime, they don’t like corruption and a lot of things, but they tend to blame this on the people around him, the ‘old guard’.”

But as Houry puts it:

“It will be interesting to watch how things are going to unfold over the coming few months,” he says. “The Syrians, like any other Arab household today, have their TVs turned on to Al Jazeera. They’re seeing what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt. Freedom is an infectious feeling and I think people will want more freedom.”

And finally, let’s dream for a minute:

(Global Voices on Gabon)

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