Sunday, March 20, 2011

Co-opting the Arab revolts

Clinton tells Senate Al Jazeera is "real news"

Among the 2011 Arab revolts, Libya was always the worst case scenario.  The country's crazy dictator pledged to fight to the last to protect his regime.  By mid-March, it looked like the rebels didn't have the experience or the resources to win.  Qaddafi was taking back one rebel stronghold after another, and moving on the main one, the city of Benghazi.  It was painful for the rest of the world to watch that.  The usual US hawks, McCain and Lieberman, were joined by Kerry in calling for the euphemistically named "no-fly zone." That means western military intervention in an oil-rich Arab country, when nothing of the kind has happened in other, less strategically interesting, countries where rebels have been massacred.  As Robert Gates pointed out, a no-fly zone (during a time of conflict) usually implies aerial attacks. But as it turned out, America seemingly had the cover of the Arab League, a UN resolution, and lobbying by the UK, France, with Belgium, Spain and Canada promising to participate.  So now it has begun"  "Operation Odyssey Dawn."  The Libyans are not wholly fighting their own battles anymore.  Of course some Libyan rebels desperately called for outside help. And Benghazi has celebrated the no fly zone.   But where will it all go now?  The essence of the wave of revolutionary spirit across the Arab world has been that its origins were indigenous. With outside intervention the specter arises of all the old foreign support that kept corrupt regimes in power so long.  Now Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, has already condemned the intense western-initiated air strikes for causing more civilian casualties instead of preventing them.  Yes, that's right.  The Arab League has had second thoughts.  But intervention is hard to undo.

"So we are going to take 'all necessary measures' to protect the civilians of Libya, are we?" Robert Fisk wrote yesterday.  "Pity we didn't think of that 42 years ago."  Indeed.  Though you can always predict interventions by a colonial power will come, you never quite know when they're coming. It seems to be a matter of sheer impulse.  Maybe what's going on in Libya has just been too visible for the western powers to overlook it this time.  While with Egypt the US wouldn't get involved, with Libya it's gotten much too involved.  

 Speaking of interventions, last week the Saudis sent troops to help the Bahrain regime put down mounting demonstrations.  The United Arab Emirates sent police there too.  The US stays neutral to that.  An Obama spokesman says it's not a foreign invasion, not at all.

Hillary Clinton went to Egypt to meddle a little in their revolution.  A group of young revolutionaries, the January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition,  refused to meet with her to underline that she was still supporting Mubarak when their rebellion was well under way and that the US should formally apologize for its policies toward Egypt in past decades.  Hillary surprised us last week by praising Al Jazeera for at lest presenting "real news," unlike the US mainstream media.  Unfortunately she was pushing for more money for US propaganda abroad.  Meanwhile "the angry Arab," As'ad Abu Khalil of California State University, Stanislaus, seconded by Chicago progressive blogger Stephen Lendman, has been attacking Al Jazeera (Arabic and English, not always differentiated) for using unreliable reporters, going soft on revolts in the kingdoms (vs. the republics), even citing Hillary's praise as a sign that the Qatar station has become a tool of the West.  These claims do not gibe with my observation.  Al Jazeera Arabic still takes you to events in he Arab world like no other news agency.  Just remember, when you're in a combat zone, you don't often know what's going on.  But it's better to be there than in London or Washington analyzing events you can't see.   It is true Al Jazeera English is much more like the BBC, but it also has articles by decidedly non-establishment younger commentators like Mark LeVine of UC Irvine. It's not an easy task to critique 24/7 "real news" coverage from multiple sources about rapidly changing situations.  Al Jazeera is worth following.

Also on Al Jazeera English LeVine has published an interview with the Egyptian singer/songwrier Ramy Essam, author of the revolutionary anthem, "Irhal,"  expressing fears of an Egyptian counter-revolution.  The situation in Egypt is extremely complex now. The first blush of the revolution when Mubarak stepped down has faded and there are many dangers.  As was said at the beginning, the primary risk is in acting too fast, before new leadership can organize, which would allow the old powers of army, Muslim Brotherhood, and Mubarak's NDP to step forward and take over. For the new forces in Egypt the referendum on constitutional changes (passed today) may have gone too fast, and Mohamed AlBaradei was attacked by thugs while voting on it.   Essam was one of many beaten by thugs and according to his account arrested by army officers in Tahrir Square a month after the revolution.  He says Facebook has become a two-edged sword, used by the young activists but also now a tool of misinformation by counter revolutionaries. Still, there remains a new awareness in Egypt and a spirit of hope and activism.  Rami Essam has not given up and neither should we.

Rami Essam shows torture wounds

Pearl Roundabout in Manaama, Bahrain, site of repression now

UN camp for Bangladeshi refugees from Libya

ElBaradei leaves referendum vote after being attacked by thugs

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A new Arab image -- no matter what

Al Jazeera screen grab from

"Tunisia’s revolution now looks pretty much complete," Max Rodenbeck writes optimistically in the current New York Review of Books. Remnants of the old regime have been forced out of the government and "exiles have returned, censorship has been abandoned, and political prisoners have been amnestied. Elections are scheduled for August." In Egypt with its complex institutions we can see that progress is slow, and perhaps should be even slower to allow a new leadership to emerge in elections. Perhaps this is the "orderly transition" Washington called for. The Egyptian people have shown they're still willing to take to the streets whenever necessary. More and more remnants of the old regime are being pushed out there too.  And demonstrations continue in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, even Oman now.

If you look at the amazing wave of Arab revolts from the angle of Libya however, things don't look so positive. In fact they look horrible. Qaddafi's responses to the popular revolution against his dictatorship -- his pretense that it did not exist, his menacing threats, his house-by-house terrorizing of the population, his vicious military attacks by air and by land against rebel areas -- still represent the worst that could happen to a people in revolt, short of genocide. If Qaddafi loyalists remain numerous and fighting continues to be fierce (though limited by poor equipment on both sides), then can you call this"civil war," as some already want to? The revolutionaries utterly reject this. They say they can't be called "rebels" because they are in the majority. They say this is not civil war but a revolution, which a powerful and rich dictator is ruthlessly attempting to crush. They say the "loyalists" are not really an opposing faction. They are people who hate the regime too but are controlled by terror, or foreign mercenaries with no way out.

The situation in Libya is tragic, a humanitarian disaster. It's still positive for the opposition, in that it has removed any legitimacy Qaddafi ever may have had. But it's tricky for the US, which seems to be moving away from its interventionist policies. Defense Secretary Gates has built up the American military to new levels and attempted to modernize it. But he has just shocked some people by warning against any future discretionary wars: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” he told West Point cadets a few days ago. Gates specifically rules out future Iraqs or Afghanistans. The US can set up a "no-fly zone" in Libya, Gates acknowledges but he warns: “Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses." That means the US bombs another Arab country, not a good idea. Especially when it's a particularly oil-rich one.

Obama presents an image of dithering. He waits to see which way the wind blows. He only supports an Arab revolution once it's clearly winning or the dictator becomes a war criminal. But his restraint has a plus side. However much administration statements reveal a lingering assumption that the US is the world's savior and protector, the US has not stuck its nose in Arab business too obviously this time.

But this means that Libya is burning and many are dying and the rest of the world isn't doing much to reverse that. Egypt and Tunisia have had relatively peaceful revolts. Their regimes fell and they are transitioning into democracies. Libya is descending into chaos and its dictator rages on.

This provides fuel to the pessimists and the right wing in America and Israel who say the Arab revolutionary movements are a disaster that will destabilize the region and make Iran, which Israel hawks would like to bomb out of existence, the dominant power in the region. But this is still a time for optimism. NY Times op-ed piece by Karim Sadjadpour counters that. With its similar demographics and new vibrancy and freedom, he says, Egypt will balance Iran's power as never before. The Arab revolts will provide models of all the qualities that Iran, with its stagnation and oppression, conspicuously lacks. Iran won't be anybody's role model. It will be less of a threat, not more.

Again the seemingly timid Obama has taken the right stand by telling Israel they shouldn't be afraid of changes in the Middle East. Still asserting that protecting Israel was "sacrosanct," Obama recently reassured a Jewish group that he's "actually confident that ten years from now we’re going to be able to look back potentially and say this was the dawning of an entirely new and better era.” Potentially. Still the weasel word, but telling Jews this will be "an entirely new and better era" is a big step forward for Washington.

One aspect of all these events is that they've shown Washington in a new, less important role. Cameron and Sarkozy have made more forceful statements about Mubarak and Qaddafi. The wave of Arab revolutions has been neither created nor blocked from outside.

These developments have changed the status of the Arab in the world. The American right wing symbolized by the Fox News bigotry factory, as well as the Israeli hawks who wanted those "moderate" leaders to stay in power, fear and despise the Arabs more than ever now. But in the more reasonable world where views are modified as situations change, the Arab trend toward democracy demands a new level of respect. Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia, calls the new changes "The Arab Spring." In the face of all the coming changes, the superficial western image of the Arab peoples as backward no longer holds up, Khalidi writes. Even more important, the Arabs have gained back their own pride and self-respect. Their heads will be bloody but unbowed. Whatever happens in Libya, that cannot be taken away.

Tunisia's Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali out with the trash

Anti-intervention sign in Libya

          Early February demonstration in Yemen

Libyan celebrates fall of Tobruk

The Arab states:  most have had demonstrations