Sunday, February 27, 2011

Muammar al-Qaddafi in extremis

(Also published on Baltmore Chronicle.)

Qaddafi on state TV:  "Sing, dance, and get ready"

Ten days later the world isn't focused on Cairo any more.  On February 26 military police brutally attacked protesters in Tahrir Square and  in front of the Parliament, a sign the old order and means of repression are not gone. Not that all hope is lost:  slowly, steps are being taken to move toward a new democratic government.  And as for the wave of revolutionary fervor, that continues throughout the Arab world.  On Friday Iraqis staged their own "Day of Rage" and the biggest oil refinery was shut down.  Additional tribal leaders joined the opposition in Yemen and it's looking more and more as if Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen will have to step down, not wait till 2013, his Mubarak-like initial offer.   Revolt is strong in Bahrain too.  A Shiite leader returned from exile to Manama and thousands marched to call for the PM's removal. Demonstrations were weaker in Algeria and Tunisia,  but they happened.  

All the attention of course is on Libya.  This is the worst-case scenario for the Arab revolts.   A mad dog leader (Reagan's words), isolated, eccentric, and deranged,  has made the country an empty shell. The small population is scattered into disconnected tribes. Qaddafi and his No. 1 son Saif al-Islam are pledged to fight to the end.  Only Libya's oil riches may protect the country from future chaos.  If oil income is distributed among the population, that may foster domestic tranquility (which happens in the Gulf princedoms and makes them more secure against revolt).  But Libya's revolution can't have been as planned and coordinated as those of Tunisia and Egypt.  It's more a spontaneous impulse, inspired by news of the Arab world.  One can only hope that the revolutionary spirit and the Arab connectedness symbolized by Al Jazeera will somehow also inspire the country to rebuild itself and avoid the truly worst-case scenario of descending into another Afghanistan.

There is no semblance of decency in Qaddafi. He ordered his own air force to strafe demonstrators.  Some defected in protest and piloted their planes to Malta.  The new Arabic words to learn this time (akin to بلطجية /baltagiyya for the locally hired thugs in Cairo) are مرتزقة اجانب/murtaziqa ajānib, foreign mercenaries.  Here is a leader who is accusing the demonstrators of being not only foreign-inspired, but run by al-Qa'ida, while he is hiring outsiders to kill his own people, and openly threatening to attack them in their houses, burn the land, turn the country into a living hell, distribute arms to all his remaining supporters.

Citizen rebels hold Benghazi, which represents a bastion of freedom, a city-wide Tahrir Square, and other towns have followed.  But Quaddafi forces still control other strongholds, including the capital, Tripoli -- which was done over in a day to present a tidy, peaceful front for foreign journalists.  The dictators' favorite western media contact lady, Christiane Amanpour of ABC, got to interview Saif al-Islam.  But he has already raged on state television, and this man does not wear well.

Libyans used broken TVs as barricades.  Al Jazeera broadcast an extraordinary film last week.   It showed the video stream of Quaddafi's khaki-swathed rant, also on TV, being projected huge on a wall and as the mad dog waved his Green Book and threatened to make his people's lives hell, protesters threw large objects at the flickering image and shouted.

The revolution in Libya has the dubious but for the revolutionaries very real advantage that the government hasn't (like Egypt's republic) a thread of legitimacy.  The fabric of Egypt's regime would have shredded more completely if its cadre of ministers, military officers, and ambassadors had publicly resigned and declared their allegiance to the revolt as has happened in Libya.  But while Egypt has the danger that its old regime is too solidly entrenched, Libya has the danger of having no structure to hold it together at all.

Now, Obama still presents a pale image of American "democracy," because Sarkozy and Cameron spoke up directly while he dithered again.  Two good reasons this time, though:  oil and Americans working in Libya.   If Obama had called for Quaddafi's removal early and oil prices had gone up, as they are anyway, that would hurt Obama's reelection chances.  He did not want to drive the crazy leader to take Americans hostage and bad weather was delaying their escape to Malta.  

American and indeed all policy of the western powers is based on expediency rather than morality, and their official reprisals may be feeble or harmful, anything but helpful, just diplomatic gestures to make them look good later.  As Ertegun of Turkey has just said, sanctions against Libya threaten to harm the people more than help their cause.  The United States isn't written "US" for nothing.  It's all about us, not them. 

Libya, though just next door, is not providing a picture of the beautiful, mainly peaceful revolution that we witnessed in Egypt.  It's an ugly process with no end in sight and not easy to watch.  But it is an even stronger picture of the courage, determination, and democratic drive of the Arab  people.  And this too is being called by Libyans a "revolution of youth."

Rebels celebrate fall of Benghazi

Demonstrators with old Libyan flag in Benghazi
Former soldier celebrates the Libyan revolt
Demonstrators take Pearl Roundabout, Manama, Bahrain

Demonstration against Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Noam Chomsky: what about here?

Noam Chomsky
Unless there’s a democratic uprising here, there’s not going to be much of a chance for people elsewhere who are struggling courageously.  What they are doing is inspiring and we must recognize that, but we cannot overlook the fact that what the US and Europe do -- that’s Europe too -- is very significant.  As long as people are quiet and passive -- you know, the CEO of Goldman Sachs can just get a twelve and a half million dollar bonus as he did a couple of days ago and have his base salary quadrupled as a few days ago, already astronomical, while you're attacking pensions for teachers and police.  As long as the population's quiet, yeah, we can continue just as in the Middle East, just as in Latin America, just as everywhere.  Those are critical facts, and we have to face them. . .    Noam Chomsky, lecture clip, Democracy Now!, February 17, 2011

These words are worth pondering.  The US government and those of the other chief western powers control things; control the world.  Egypt, Tunisia, and the other Arab states whose people are staging popular uprisings can make little changes that are very significant locally, but the overall strategic structure remains more than anything in the hands of the one surviving great global power, the United States, and its major allies.  And whether or not the sweeping changes called for in Egypt go through in a form appealing to a majority of the people who participated in their January 25 revolution, there is a new spirit in Cairo and Tunis, and developing in Tripoli, Sanaa, and Manama also.  There is not a new spirit in the US. 

As Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out, a vast majority of US citizens opposed continuation of the tax cuts for the very rich and yet the Congress sent it right on through. America is as much a kleptocracy as Ben Ali's in Tunisia was, only the profits go to a few more people.  Things have changed in Latin America.  They are changing in the Arab world.   Will they change in the US?   That may be a more difficult question.   A vast majority opposed continuing tax cuts for the rich, but they didn't take to the streets about it.

 One obstacle is that here in the US there seems to be a situation that has prevailed in Venezuela.  There is a strong right wing opposition and it owns the media, so public opinion can be molded at election time (assuming there is a choice).  The next presidential election will be more expensive than ever -- hence more bought and paid for by the richest men in the country.  When did we get our regime?  Wasn't it around the same time as Egypt, when Ronald Reagan became President?  Perhaps our Mubarak has simply changed his face every so often. 

But I don't think Chomsky is proposing a direct comparison; even each of the Arab nations where uprisings are occurring is different from the others and America is far different from any of them.  The point is that uprisings work, and sometimes they are all that works, and our government is not representing us.  It is representing the wealthy and the corporations, and the American Empire that the late Chalmers Johnson described so well -- but that doesn't seem as close to falling as he believed. 

What would an uprising in the US look like?  Not like Egypt's, certainly.  The US is not a brutal dictatorship.  Chomsky may be seen by the right as a dangerous radical, a socialist, a communist; but then, they see Obama that way.  Chomsky is not calling for the fall of a regime.  He is simply one of many who think popular demonstrations are the only way that certain important changes can be made to come about.  And if you look at the will of the people as represented in polls and the actions of the government as represented in what happens in Washington, important changes are needed.  And Americans are pretty passive and quiet.  Look at Al Jazeera's world:  Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Libya.   It's only natural to think about what's been happening in the Middle East and wonder.  Wouldn't that spirit, that courage, that determination, that organization, be a breath of fresh air here?

Bahrain protesters [Reuters]

Libyan crackdown [Al Jazeera Arabic]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt after the fall: the right's rigid analysis

25 January slogan:  "The People, the Army:  One Hand!"

 Mubarak has stepped down and the Egyptian people have triumphed, celebrating as only they can.  But have they really triumphed?  Is the regime gone?  Obviously there will be many remnants. What will become of Mubarak and Omar Suleiman?  What will become of the police, the Mukhabarat's apparatus of detention and torture?  What can save the economy of a nation that has such demographic problems?  These are certainly very real worries.  But foreign, particularly American, observers are partly irrelevant now, though they could be helpful.   Obama, whose foreign policy team was at cross purposes and who vacillated himself, has come out with very positive statements about the revolution, its youthful spirit, its new hope -- a move, at last, that's both wise and shrewd on his part.

But this has brought the ire of such right-wing US foreign policy ideologues as John Bolton, a would-be republican presidential candidate, who has raged at Obama's naiveté.  Here is one of the reasons the American right is so clear and forceful in its statements.  Its spokesmen repeat the same ideas over and over without reference to changing events.

 Conservatives stick by their two familiar bugaboos, the Egyptian army and the Muslim brothers, whose predicted effects are somewhat contradictory, because the army, they say, will make everything remain the same (which they may like); but the Muslim brothers, they also say, will change everything horribly for the worse.  To begin with, conservatives don't like revolutions:  full stop.

The armed forces are a great power in Egypt. They are in charge now. Besides, since 1952 each leader has come from their ranks. But the military has stood on the side of the uprising and this has been clear all along. A slogan of the protesters all along was "The People, the Army:  One Hand!"   The army must have supported the removal of Mubarak for that to have taken place. Bolton and other conservative commentators and "experts" (whose Middle East experience Jeremy Scahill joked often seems to be "has eaten falafel") keep insisting that the Muslim brothers are a mass of jihadists. Everyone knows the Ikhwan are the "most organized" opposition group. But their threat seems exaggerated. They have become more moderate and open to secular government. They have been warmly cooperative in the intifada, never impeding its Muslim-Christian unity. They may simply not be much of a political force in Egypt now, if they ever were. As has been pointed out, they have accomplished little in the last eighty years.
The youth revolution of 25 January brings out whether one is an optimist or a pessimist.  I side with the optimists.  They include most Egyptians right now.  They see a new, young, secular democracy, with free elections, economic development for the good of all, and representation of all elements of society.  The pessimists say there will always be a "pharaoh," and the army will just bring in a new one, maybe even someone not so new.  They go on to say Egypt will go the way of Iran rather than Turkey.

Optimists like me point out that the Egyptian people have an incredible new commitment to their political future, an extraordinary new sense of civic and national pride that make everyone want to get involved -- and ready to take to the streets again if  their basic demands are not met.  The touching voluntary cleanup of Tahrir Square is a visible metaphor for their will to cooperate at the most basic level.  The spirit of Tahrir Square won't easily be abandoned.  

This may be a time for Americans to acknowledge that it's not all about us or all about Israel.  Even moderates have dared to speculate recently that propping up a dictator like Mubarak for thirty years may not really have done either the US or Israel any good.  A lot of those billions went down the drain.  They may have gone directly into the Mubarak family bank accounts.  They certainly didn't go into the pockets of Egyptian working people.

The fourth communiqué of the High Council of the Armed Forces is encouraging as far as it goes, pledging a changeover to a civilian government and continuation of all existing treaties.  The people and their various political organizers are agreed on the general steps that must soon take place. Both houses of parliament must be dissolved; there must be a new provisional constitution allowing for true democratic elections; a presidential council and a transitional government; a referendum on a new constitution.    There may be differences on details.  Some may be unhappy that the military is in charge.  Everything hinges on what elements of the army dominate.  For the moment there are no clear leaders.  For me this is hopeful too, a clear sign that this is really as Al Jazeera Arabic  has called it,  ثورة شعب/thawrat sha'b, "a revolution of the people."  But in a situation like this, we have to be able to live with uncertainty.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egyptian revolution day 18: Mubarak resigns!

ElBaradei speaks in Tahrir Square
Yesterday was the seventeenth day of the Egyptian revolution, which seems to be called in Egypt "The Youth Revolution of 25 January."  (Al Jazeera Arabic's theme title is simply "A People's Revolution.")  Things kept heating up further, every day becoming more exciting -- and more uncertain. The regime was deeply entrenched but the protesters were  as profoundly inspired.  The number of people in the streets kept growing, with more recruits turning up every day from more levels of society and more walks of life in more cities and at more locations.   In Cairo the pressure points had become not only Tahrir Square, all along the grand stage of the uprising, but also the Parliament, the building that houses state TV, and a presidential palace.  This is in addition to strikers at factories and workplaces throughout the country as involvement of labor grows.  The courage, dedication and spirit of the Egyptian people are incredible and increasingly inspire not just the Arab world but people everywhere.

Mixed messages continued from the top of this stubborn and powerful regime, so long in control, so long heavily supported to the tune of billions annually by the United States.  Early on Thursday the High Council of the Armed Forces, meeting with its commander Hosni Mubarak conspicuously absent, issued a "first communiqué," indicating that it might be threatening to take charge independently, but mentioning no practical steps.  Yesterday the High Council said the demands of protesters would be met in full, without saying how or when.  Today it promised the thirty-year state of emergency laws would be lifted when appropriate and asked the protesters to go home.  But what would it do?  So far, apparently nothing. It was sitting on the fence, but making itself more visible at the top.  The Army can be decisive.  It must choose which way to go, with the regime or with the people.

Late in the evening, long awaited, came a speech from Mubarak broadcast on state television.  It was at once a huge disappointment and a great new motivator to the protesters in the street.    Rumors had said "al-rayyis" would step down.  Instead he only showed the same stubborn, clueless determination to remain in office.  He repeated the regime's accusation that the protesters are inspired by foreigners.  He justified himself, promising those who had killed and injured protesters (the infamous "baltagiyya") would be punished, as if he wasn't himself ultimately behind their violence.  He repeatedly used the word "youth."  But he addressed the "youth" primarily only to ask them to "go home."   He pretended that this was not about him but about the nation.  He implied that he was worthy of our pity:  this mega-billionaire of a police state that routinely rounds up and tortures thousands of its citizens (and does the same job by proxy for the US), 40% of whose citizens live on $2 a day, and 30% of whom are illiterate, wants us to shed tears for him, for all he is going though.  American papers call him "beleaguered."

The result was a roar of disapproval and waving of shoes -- the Arab equivalent of giving the finger -- in Tahrir Square.  This was an enraging frustration but also a great rallying point for the continued public demonstrations of today, which leaders of the uprising dubbed "The Friday of Farewell."  This promises to be a very long goodbye.  

Finally, late on Friday, Mubarak resigned.  Tahrir Square became an endless roar of celebration.  At last!

Now what?

Mohamed ElBaradei lays out his version of "The Next Step for Egypt's Opposition" in an op-ed piece in today's NY Times.   The Parliament must be dissolved and the Constitution abolished, and a provisional constitution set up with a three-man presidential council, including a representative from the military, and a "transitional government of national unity." Then there should be "free and fair" presidential and parliamentary elections within one year.

It is a wise and hopeful proposal.  But nothing is clear yet.  This simply remains a moment to savor.  Tom Friedman of the NY Times writes of a well-dressed Egyptian, who worked in Saudi Arabia, come so the boys could "see, hear, feel and touch Tahrir Square."  "I want it seared in their memory," he declared.  ElBaradei began by saying how in his youth they could speak of their political views only in whispers.  Now they are shouted in all the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, Al Mansoura, day and night.  It will be seared in all our memories.  And for now, that is enough.  This isn't a time to be afraid.  It's a time to be hopeful.  It's a time when the Middle East is being redefined.  And so is the United States.

Steps must be taken quickly, and the time is crucial.  But again, this is a time to enjoy the moment.  The Egyptian people deserve about three days to celebrate.  For them, this is like winning fifty World Cups.

To watch Al Jazeera online:  
Al Jazeera English.
Al Jazeera Arabic.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The struggle continues: Wael Ghonim becomes a hero

Wael Ghonim and somebody's mother in Tahrir Square

Despite disappointingly limp or counterproductive responses from the Obama Administration and continuous propaganda efforts by the Mubarak regime to dismiss the Egyptian youth revolution of 25 January, it has only grown stronger.  Sharif Abdel Kouddous reported on Twitter that on Feb. 8 the crowd in Tahrir Square was the biggest he had seen yet.

For US readers, a New Yorker magazine blog links to Wael Ghonim's dramatic appearance on Egypt's most popular interview show on the private channel Dream TV, an emotional eye-opener which the NY Times' Feb. 9 lead story indicates has brought thousands of new participants into the uprising.  These now, the Times story says, begin to include "brigades of university employees and telephone  company employees," "a column of legal scholars in formal black robes," and more members  of the Egyptian elite in Tahrir Square, including pop and sports stars and intellectuals.  The Times' front page photo shows a group of obviously hip and well-off young Egyptians deeply involved in collating interviews they've done with Tahrir protesters to post in various social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.  

The Internet hasn't been crucial to the Egyptian uprising during its more than two weeks, but then again it has.  Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive in the Gulf, was active in establishing the "We Are All Khalid Said" Facebook site.  Said was a young Egyptian beaten to death by police in Alexandria on June 6, 2010, an event that was a tipping point for the Egyptian revolt as the self-immolation of unemployed university grad Mohamed Bouazizi was for the Tunisian one.  Surely their organizing of "We  Are All Khalid Said" and several other social networks helped get people into the Egyptian streets.  Then once public protest got going, each one told one, and millions came out and are still coming out.  The movement has a momentum of its own.   Ghonim has become a hero of the uprising -- especially its wired, young branch -- by saying tearfully and eloquently that he is not the real hero, that he only used his "fingers on a keyboard," while protesters put their bodies on the line.

In the TV interview Ghonim tells how he came from the Gulf telling his boss he needed time  off for "personal" reasons, but in fact in order to be in Cairo for the protests.  When he got there, he was "kidnapped" by police and held, continually blindfolded, for  twelve days -- the first, key days of the intifada.  He didn't know if the uprising had really gotten off the ground.  When he was released and learned that many had died, he was devastated, but he insisted it was not the fault of the organizers; it was the fault of " those who are in charge of the country and don’t want to leave their positions."

This TV moment is important because it helps counter the continuing Mubarak regime campaign to discredit the uprising, say its leaders are tools of foreign interests, or claim its demands have been met and people can go home.

The demands of the Egyptian people have not been met.  They insist that Hosni Mubarak leave and his whole government with him, including Omar Suleiman;  that the two main bodies of the government be dissolved; and there be a new constitution allowing multiparty representation.  Needless to say when Suleiman met with opposition representatives on Sunday he agreed to none of that.

Washington has gotten its wires crossed, sending as special Egypt envoy longtime Mubarak friend Frank Wisner.  Wisner insisted the dictator had to stay in office to insure a "smooth transition" --  just what the administration was not saying any more. All that is notable only for its irrelevance and unhelpfulness.  As commentators have been saying, America is once again  "on the wrong side of history."  The US backing of Omar Suleiman as a "transition" figure is utterly wrong.  The terror/torture chief, the extraordinary rendition point man, Mubarak's no. 1 crony, is no transition at all but a continuation.  But the uprising is undaunted and is planning to move to other fronts beyond the main visible one of Tahrir Square, now setting up a significant demonstration in front of the headquarters of the Egyptian Parliament, an action which one protester interviewed by the NY Times said needed to be united with the Tahrir demonstrations:  "Then we will expand further until Mr. Mubarak gets the point."  There is a new program for protesters to come out mainly on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so they can rest in between and be visibly strong when they appear.  Feb. 9's favorable lead story in the NY Times suggests the regime's repression of foreign journalists inspires them to see the revolt more positively.

From a video of Wael Ghonim being arrested
Wired Egyptian youth (NY Times Feb. 9, 2011)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Egypt: beyond Tahrir Square

"Freedom has a price and we're ready to pay it"
Egypt is a nation of performers, giving the Arab world some of its greatest singers, composers, playwrights, movie stars, directors, and telenovelas.  Tahrir Square has become Egyptians' greatest stage of all, a place to show courage, pride, cooperation, and defiance with vigor and humor. No better symbol of that than the "awesome kid" on YouTube Sharif Abdel Kouddous tweeted about, a smiling schoolboy with a red kufiyya wrapped around his head leading a humorous and mocking chant  about a "Hosni" so nutty he put a chair in the freezer.  The scene in the square is open to everyone anti-Mubarak, regardless of age, gender, class, politics, religion, or class, and all are helping, feeding, cooperating with each other in simple gestures symbolizing a new Egypt.  This is a sublimely joyful first moment of revolution when everything seems possible.  It is good to hold onto it and savor it, even if the intifada has had its violence and ugliness visible to everyone and its ultimate outcome is uncertain.  Millions in the other main cities second its most basic message:  THE PEOPLE OF EGYPT WANT THE REGIME TO FALL.  GAME OVER.  LEAVE. Egyptians all over the world and activists everywhere second the motion.

Mubarak and Obama have received this message, however grudgingly. But behind the stage of celebration things are different.  Outside the Tahrir Square love-fest the Egyptian army is picking up and the secret police is locking up and beating thousands of Egyptians.  They are detaining, questioning, sometimes beating foreign journalists; Al Jazeera is far from the only target.   Representatives of the Mukhabarat go to apartment buildings frightening people who may have hosted foreigners.   The non-stop message is:  all this is being brought about from outside.  And be afraid.   This has also been the case in Tunisia.

Is this a "social media revolution," by the way?  Malcolm Gladwell is prominent -- in an New Yorker blog -- in debunking this label.  Obviously young Egyptian activists did make much use of Facebook earlier to organize, and their use of it may have a lot to do with the involvement of educated youth, but during much of the intifada so far no one has been able to access the Internet, or send text messages.  It was down to the old "téléphone arabe," mouth to ear.  Rumors spread fast in Egypt long before there were mobiles or social networks. And what does that matter, anyway?  The message is not the medium.

Not everyone likes what's happening.  The intifada, like any revolution, is messy for everyone.  It has closed the banks, shut down businesses.  Even basic necessities are hard to get hold of.  Everything is at a standstill.  While I live in a progressive area where sympathy for liberation struggles is assumed as a given, some people I know, faced with the tumult of Egypt today, have primarily expressed alarm and worry, pointing out that people in Egypt will suffer as a result of the "disturbances."  The NY Times Sunday "Week in Review" section led off with the ugly catch phrase, "Blood on the Nile."  The conservative US media as usual in such instances have pushed the word "chaos." All those who fed off the Mubarak regime hate the idea of its fall.  The fat cat cronies of other Arab dictators are shaking in their shoes.  And likewise westerners who prefer the status quo or don't understand how desperate three decades of oppression make you:  they just think events in Egypt are dangerous and scary, food for new jihads.  That is, if they even know where Egypt is.  Not a single local paper had a headline about Egypt today. 

Slavoj Zizek has answered the squeamish in a Guardian essay, "Why fear the Arab revolutionary spirit?"  He and the Oxford Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan appeared on Al Jazeera English debunking the notion that Islamists are an automatic threat to the West and that the Muslim Brotherhood will co-opt Egypt's uprising and turn Egypt into a duplicate of today's Iran.   Zizek cited Chairman Mao's famous line, "There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent."  The point is that disorder is a necessary precursor to a new order.  Many Egyptians live on an income of $2 a day.  Have they got much to lose?  No, it is the shopkeepers and the wealthy who object to revolution, as they objected to the Free Officers one of 1952.  But naturally many in Egypt who sympathize with the intifada are nonetheless growing weary as it goes on and on.  To the كفاية/kifāya ("Enough!") of the protesters they have their own "Kifaya!" But would you rather have order and quiet -- and joblessness, stagnation, police oppression and terror -- or a new and democratic government with all elements of society fairly represented?  Some people are simply not political, and some people are crypto-conservatives, who pretend to be in favor of democracy and change but in fact prefer the security of strongmen -- as the American government has done throughout much of US history. It's a tough tradeoff, but the demonstrators know the meaning of the sign some held up: للحرية ثمن ونحن مستعدون لدفعه /lil-ḥuriyya thaman wa naḥnu musta'idūn lidaf'ihi. FREEDOM HAS A PRICE, AND WE'RE READY TO PAY IT.

Young demonstrator held aloft 

Egyptian honeymooners

Friday, February 4, 2011

Cairo on the ground

Sharif Abdel Kouddous

Different journalists, different stories.  American mainstream reporters, perched at high up windows overlooking Tahrir Square, experienced in combat perhaps, saw the Wednesday violence as a burgeoning war, and knowledgeably evaluated the weaponry used ("that's an AK-47, I'm sure") and the possibilities of escalation.  Their information was good, their analysis at home often astute (I'm thinking of Rachel Maddow, not Bill O'Reilly). but their remarks have often seemed speculative and ready to shift when they see which way the wind blows.  Contrast this with the coverage of Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic, their headquarters off in the Gulf, local offices forcibly shut down, but constantly interviewing beleaguered English-speaking reporters, their names not mentioned at times to protect them from being attacked, or in the case of Al Jazeera Arabic, all kinds of informants, from a demonstrator about to leave the vast popular Cairo neighborhood of Shubra to the head of a lawyer's union.  Al Jazeera in both versions is at one remove, but has a broad sweep, and enjoys unprecedented influence and connectedness in and with the Arab world.

Meanwhile a view both rosier and more intimate has been provided by Democracy Now! producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a young Egyptian who went to college in the US and lives in Brooklyn now.   Sharif arrived back in Cairo, where he grew up, just as the demonstrations began, and instantly blossomed from a somewhat stolid occasional anchorman on Amy Goodman's news hour into an impressively poised reporter. Obviously sympathetic to the revolutionary spirit in the air, Abdel Kouddous, who has written for The Nation and issued tweets every waking hour since he got there, has described the scene in Tahrir Square as "celebratory."  He has noted that when there was a chant of the Muslim battle cry, "Allahu akbar" (God is great),  the crowd countered and drowned it out with "Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian."  He has constantly remarked at the way people are helping each other with food and snacks, old, young, rich, poor, and all political persuasions are present fighting for a common goal, the fall of the regime, the removal of Husni Mubarak -- a possibility that fills the millions with an amazing surge of energy and hope.  Everybody is pulling together, he has emphasized, and there is a spirit of togetherness that means this is a new Egypt, one he never saw in his life up to now -- Mubarak came into power when he was three; one that has replaced the old one forever.

Of course Abdel Kouddous has not pretended that the ugliness of the long brutal clashes of intifada and baltagiyya, the Molotov cocktails, marauders on camel and horseback, live ammunition, rocks and knives that have killed a hundred or more and injured perhaps thousands, didn't happen.  In fact Friday morning Democracy Now! aired his most remarkable report thus far, in which he surveyed the rubble after several days of clashes between the pro- and anti-Mubarak camps.  What this film shows is that he enjoys, so far anyway, unparalleled access to events on the ground.  It showed him leaving an apartment, going down the old Cairo elevator, driving over the Qasr el Aini bridge by car and then being frisked by a young guard to the Tahrif area who said "Sorry, sorry!" for having to search him; after that visiting a makeshift hospital, talking to people, and viewing the dangerous semi-combat zone just outside the barricades surrounding the square.  Fighting was still going on.  A man yelled about the stupidity of the opposition.  Abdel Kouddous interviewed mostly people who spoke English, but when they spoke Arabic, he translated with a natural immediacy, a casualness almost, that only a local could have who has one foot in Egypt and the other in America.  No coverage I've seen has been this close to events on the ground, this intimate, and this intimately knowing.  He has said, and it's clear, that it's more dangerous outside and around Tahrir than inside it, at least when the protesters are present in safe numbers. In fact when he and the UCDavis Comparative Literature professor Noha Radwan reported from a building away from the square, she was accosted and beaten by thugs on her way somewhere else.

This clear-headed, intimate report points out the big weakness of Al Jazeera.  High profile as they are, and resented by the repressive regimes all over the Arab world, they have been targeted, and though they report non-stop, and Sharif's piece lasted only a few minutes, they are never as close as he was able to be. That moment may have passed, though we hope not. That film was shot earlier.  Sharif's report for Democracy Now! for today was by telephone, since he could not reach the television building from which Democracy Now! had broadcast before.  Nonetheless this morning was a glorious moment for independent media.

Mubarak: clumsy endgame

Ahmad Shafiq
On Thursday two of Mubarak's recently reshuffled cronies spoke.  Ahmad Shafiq, the Aviation Minister newly recast as Vice President, apologized for the violence, promised those responsible would be held accountable, and announced a series of sweeping actions that effectively made Mubarak's government irrelevant. The new prime minister Omar Suleiman, Egypt's "spymaster in chief"  and an ally of Israel and the US, now appointed Prime Minister, gave an "interview" on state TV in which he made pointless and contradictory remarks proving his own irrelevance, despite Washington's desire to ease him into the chief of state's spot to engineer a "smooth transition," i.e. one that protects US and Israeli interests.  Suleiman, looking like the aging Salvador Dalí as he sat in his gilded chair, meandered incomprehensibly.  He condemned youth and the Muslim Brotherhood for destroying order.  Then he claimed  all their "legitimate demands" would be met through "dialogue."  Who's in charge?  Compared to Mubarak, Suleiman's a youngster, only 74, but he may be losing it. In one way or another all the regime is.

Omar Suleiman
And their games weren't working, thanks to the foreign press, which the regime is trying more and more to terrorize and silence, but still has shown what is going on hour by hour.  Like Noam Chomsky, Rachel Maddow pointed out in a forceful commentary that Mubarak's orchestration of fake violence by bringing in the baltagiyya, really subcontractors of the  شرطة /shurṭa, the police forces, is a familiar trick from the dictatorial "playbook." When mass revolt threatens, the dictator stages scenes of violence and chaos -- then says he must crack down to restore order and protect the people (from his own goons).

Sure enough, this is just what Mubarak has said and done.  After the baltagiyya  turned the peaceful protests into street warfare, in an interview on ABC on Friday Mubarak played the world-weary protector of his dear people. You could almost see the crocodile tears as he said that though after "62 years in public service" he has "had enough," he simply must stay on because if he resigns today "there will be chaos"  So we're supposed to feel sorry for him because he's got to hang on -- to prevent the country from the disorder he himself creates. Maddow pointed out this was the spin put on things when mass protests occurred in Iran.  Mainstream America may believe what Christiane Amanpour is flattered to be told, if her interview is all they see.  But those following events more closely can't be fooled, because the baltagiyya came in too late, and whenever they're pushed out, things are too calm and cooperative. Things are far from safe and calm, however.

What was Thursday like on the street?  It's confusing to follow the long days of the Egyptian intifada from far away, especially with Cairo ten hours ahead of San Francisco.  Fights continued between the anti-government protesters and the baltagiyya thugs, with many continuing to be injured, but were they more violent?  It appears the army calmed things down at one point and set up barriers to separate the opposing sides and quiet things down at the end of the day.  But there were many reports of the baltagiyya's  acts of violence outside Tahrir Square, with many international journalists, including Anderson Cooper, being beaten and some kidnapped, beaten, and threatened with beheading.   Shahira Amin resigned from her position as deputy head of Nile TV, the state-owned station, telling Al Jazeera English that she could not lie to the people about what was going on.   It seems clear that the intifada is going to win eventually, but what will the new Egypt be like?  The only program of the protesters is إرحل/irhal, leave.  And while last Friday was the Day of Rage, this one's simple theme is  يوم الرحيل/yom ar-raīl, the Day of Departure.  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cairo turns dark

As Robert Fisk has said the Egyptian people who are putting their lives on the line to call for the end of the Mubarak regime have shown immense courage, matched by the complete cowardice of the American government that for thirty years has propped it up, with Hilary Clinton calling for “restraint” and Obama saying essentially nothing.  The regime is  far from standing by. Despite talk of “dialogue,” it is doing all it can to quash the resistance, shown by its organizing brutal attacks on Tahrir Square and its detaining and attacking many foreign journalists.  Clashes are even worse outside the square.  The protesters are exhausted and covered with bandages, those who are still standing, while some are dead and hundreds are wounded, some seriously.  Fisk thinks the army is with the anti-Mubarak forces – he has seen them refusing to attack protesters, weeping, and embracing them -- and he believes they will have a decisive effect, as indeed the army alway can in cases of popular revolts. 

There are two important Arabic vocabulary words from the past two days in Cairo:  بلطجية (baltagiyya) and إحتكاك (iḥtikāk).  First baltagiyya, thugs.  That’s the word used for the pro-Mubarak groups in heavy leather jackets and sweaters, armed with knives, live ammunition, sticks, stones, and yesterday entering Tahrir Square on horseback and camel attacking, beating and in some cases killing the protesters. They’re reported to be plainclothes police or paid supporters of the regime bussed in from all over.  And they have been armed in some cases with machine guns, which reportedly the army have taken away from them.

What was a remarkably peaceful movement of millions in the streets has turned lethal, apparently upon a directive from the regime after Mubarak’s speech announcing that he would not run again next September but making no other real concessions.  The specter of Tiananmen Square has arisen.  This could be a bloodbath.  And Mubarak’s recently appointed crony prime minister Ahmad Shafiq, speaking to local journalists, gave us the other important Arabic vocabulary word:  iḥikāk, “friction"  --  the dismissive noun he used to describe the murderous, lethal clashes brought on by the baltagiyya.  State television claims the demonstrators are all foreign agents, and shows images that imply nobody is really left in Tahrir Square, when in fact there are thousands still there ready to fight to the end.

Speaking to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now Noam Chomsky has called this uprising “spectacular,” and said it is one of the greatest popular resistance movements in history.  And in sheer numbers it must be, with millions involved in protest throughout this country of eighty million for ten days now, non-stop, day and night.  The world watches and continually tweets about events in Egypt.  Ironically, though Mubarak beats and arrests journalists, closes the Al Jazeera offices and fills state television with  false reports, this mass Egyptian intifada is perhaps the most reported, instantly seen and commented upon mass resistance movement in history.  All you have to do is access a computer and open tabs for Twitter, Google, Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic, and you're there.