Saturday, December 8, 2012

Obama2: Front Man

Obama addresses CEO's in Washington 5 Dec. 2012

Such a deal

 Obama's second term promises a new assertiveness and strength against his Republican opponents. Is that coming? Maybe he will manage to get that extra 2% back on the taxes (rarely paid) of the super-rich. He is standing firm -- finally-- on that. But his statements about the current "Fiscal Cliff" nonsense (his even acknowledging this bugaboo showing weakness) promise further capitulation to the right on "entitlements," the basic social safety net the Republicans are pledged to shred ASOP and Obama all along has shown a readiness to cede, at least in part. As Paul Krugman wrote recently, let's not make a deal.

Incarcerations and deportations

"Closing Guantanamo," one of the various promises not kept the first time, is now announced to mean shutting that facility and moving the same prisoners to different locations. That wasn't what we meant. So the original prisoners, hastily seized on dubious charges in many cases, will be kept on, as Bush intended, without trial and without even charges brought. This step goes hand in hand with Obama's anti-immigration policies pursued through most of his first term. Statistics show Obams has deported more people than President Bush, "Dream" gestures notwithstanding. It is a hallmark of the Obama Presidency, in contrast to the blunter (but Texas-raised and more Latino-friendly) Bush, to present a pleasing front, while carrying out brutal actions. Assertiveness and strength, perhaps, but behind a mask of blandness, and not of the kind progressives are looking for.

Bradley Manning at court appearance
 Repression of speech 

Obama has outdone his predecessors in repression of whistleblowers, a policy his administration even boasts of. The show case is that of Bradley Manning, who has recently testified that he thought he would die in custody. Obama is responsible for the two-year violation of Manning's basic human rights and of international law, a brutal period of incarceration that ought to gain his release or at least a reduced sentence; but we shall see. Manning is just one example of a general policy. Speaking up to power gets worse punishment under Obama than under Bush.

Julian Assange

The direct corollary is the official US government response to WikiLeaks, which it has sought to bankrupt by forcing credit card companies to cut off donations, while hounding its founder Julian Assange, who sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid trial in Sweden and likely extradition by the Swedes to the US, where he might suffer an even worse fate than Manning. To judge by the enthusiastic use of WikiLeaks' major revelations by some of the West's major newspapers, these two men performed a useful service to the world. Daniel Ellsberg thinks so. The US's stance toward Manning and Assange reflects the current administration's repressive policies, not so different after all from the "red baiting" of the Fifties, though thankfully we don't live in the atmosphere of fear and repression that prevailed back then. Things have improved; we're just looking at whether that has anything to do with Obama.

License to kill

Thus the Bush policy of the euphemistically named "extraordinary rendition," sending uncharged "terrorists" to other countries secretly to be tortured to death, has been replaced under Obama by something called "drones," unmanned devices sent off even more secretly to assassinate people anywhere at all, usually with some "collateral damage," of course -- which is when we learn about them. Why bother to torture when you can simply rub them out where they live? This was one of the big shockers of Obama1: learning that the President ticked off his own personal international hit list, subject to no oversight by anybody else. Push-button killing, ideal for yet another US leader unaware of the realities of war, this time one who never even did pro forma military duty as sometime member of a state national guard.

Global warming failure: fiddling while the planet burns

The failure of leadership for which Obama may be most remembered is on global warming. This is the US's crucial responsibility today, as the major first world polluter and the power that could have the most decisive effect in reversing or at least slowing climate change. A phrase or two about a "warming planet" by the President is a timid step onto a bandwagon with nothing to back it. At COP 18, the UN Climate Change Conference at Doha, Qatar, the arrogant US representative, Jonathan Pershing, blandly stonewalled, promising absolutely nothing and declaring the US's efforts on climate change to have been "enormous." Sure, the US has taken some actions, but it has not shown global leadership. As many have pointed out, the US should be particularly aware of its own vulnerability after the effects of Hurricane Sandy, but such is not the case. The US is joined by the other rich nations in decisively not providing essential leadership in climate action, thereby effectively "locking in" unsustainable changes that will displace millions in the not-too-distant future. The Obama administration -- who else is in charge? -- will bear significant responsibility for leaving island nations, coastal cities, and future generations doomed and insuring worldwide chaos when millions are displaced by drought and rising waters. This failure by the US under Obama's leadership isn't just numbing and depressing and more of the same, like others: in this case it's downright terrifying.

Survivors of flooded island of Leyte, Philippines

Pollution and oil:  money talks 

And therefore Obama promises US oil self-sufficiency, at the cost, of course, of the American environment, since harvesting US oil requires more dangerous and highly polluting methods than are possible in the oil-rich Middle East. This has nothing to do with saving the environment and everything to do with short-term profit and abdication of global responsibility. It's the kind of stance that made sense when a Republican administration adopted it -- par for the course, the favoring of large US corporations -- but when it comes from a Democratic President, it underlines the increasing lack of any difference between the two parties and between Obama and his predecessor. The blending together of both parties and their abdication of responsibility was recently underlined by longtime Republican policy maker Kevin Philips. All this makes one begin to agree with Brad Pitt's hit man character's blunt speech at the end of the new movie Killing Them Softly, in which he declares America is a business, not a country.

In those terms Obama is not the CEO; there are bigger, stronger CEO's. He is just a front man.

Pursuit of empire

Obama excels, like previous occupants of the Oval Office, as acting as a spearhead in the pursuit of US militarism. He wound down the US invasion of Iraq only to build up "his" war, piggy-backing Bush again, focusing on Afghanistan. But this again is just show, because the main thing is keeping up the US's military presence all over the globe, 800 bases in 63 countries. That has not changed and is not going to be reduced to help the starving and jobless. It is clear that continued world domination is a top priority for Obama, as it has been for his predecessors, no matter what the human cost.

We're basically on our own 

Barack Obama is a nice gentleman, a shooting star in politics if a bit inexperienced for the presidency, who is filled with good will, you can be sure. And you may be sure that not doing the things listed in this essay would be very hard for him. He faces Republican opposition (but with greater Democratic and administration strength, which he would do well to make use of) and the much greater force of the banks and the corporations, if he attempts to accomplish anything positive for democracy and a sane, safe world for future generations. Yet it is his job to do these things, so he implied, and so his supporters have a right to assume.

Don't count on his doing them on his own, though. It's perfectly clear that neither Obama nor the people around him has anything much to do with progressive politics. Americans who voted for Obama need to realize this and act accordingly. This is no time to assume all is in good hands and that the President is doing the best that he can. It is the people's duty to demand their rights. To keep taking stands. Keep saying no. Keep petitioning. Keep demonstrating and protesting. Progressive change doesn't come from the top.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Intervention in Syria?

Bashar Al Asad  speaking at the University of Damascus, January '12

Tragedy looming?

Russia warned on Saturday that a "tragedy" was looming in Aleppo but also said it was unrealistic to expect that the government of Bashar Al Asad would stand by when armed rebels were occupying major cities. So massive arms and numerous government troops are heading into Aleppo, the largest and richest city in Syria. The US and its allies are calling for and may already be providing direct aid to the rebels in Syria, and are also backing the cause of outside military intervention, all of which has encouraged the rebels, despite the odds. All kinds of elements, admirable and dubious, are involved in the anti-Asad revolt, as are in the regime.  By openly calling for the fall of that regime, the US has undermined Kofi Annan's peace effort, and that effort has been failing.  Al Asad has regained control in Damascus, but his regime may not be long for this world. There's a consensus of Syria watchers inside and outside the country that he had a chance to remain in power that he may have lost this year by failing to take conciliatory actions that might have saved his image and mollified the general public, and that only diehards are going to stick with him in the days and weeks to come. Open defectors now include high level military officers and even the Syrian ambassador to Baghdad.

Missed opportunities

Obama's and Ms. Clinton's warnings to Syria that they're "watching" the regime closely mean nothing. Obama is merely echoing the exact words of Ehud Barak. Israel wants to foment disorder in the surrounding region, particularly Iran and Syria, knowing it has full US political and military backing in its hostile stand. Seymour Hersh has long chronicled Israel's secret efforts to plan further attacks on Syria with US cooperation, as well as the possibilities for an Israel-Syria peace pact. Israel might quite likely be behind the bomb attack that wiped out some of the Syrian government's main figures in one blow; so might Al Qaeda. Otherwise, the affair is a local one, but dangerous to the whole region. Because Syria was allied with Iran it was a write-off in the eyes of Washington, and so it went its own way, despite Bashar's interest in talking. The US's longtime distaste for Syria has been a missed opportunity to acquire a useful ally in the region and temper Israel's exceptionalism. It also means the US is out of touch with Syria, except to be planning aggression against it in collusion with its Israeli confreres. 

Kofi Annan


Now there has been a direct push to intervene with NATO in Syria, as was done in Libya, supporting the rebel forces, fomenting more violence, and wrecking Kofi Annan's plan for peace.  (Information about atrocities may again be unreliable).  This is just as dubious a move in the one place as it was in the other.  The "humanitarian disaster" justification and the claim of fostering "democracy" won't wash.  There are too many "humanitarian disasters" the US ignores.  In both cases intervention is transparently a way of increasing the US' and its allies' hegemony in strategic oil-rich regions. 

 To be sure, as with Libya, Syria poses a tough choice. Al Asad's regime has been ruling with an iron hand, and as the resistance has grown, it has committed atrocities against its own citizens. But the intervention alternative is worse. Unthinking supporters of US foreign policy think the invasion of Iraq was a rough job but somebody had to do it. In their eyes things got bad for in Iraq for a while, but it was all for the best and they have a democratic government now. Such thinkers look on Al Asad's downfall as a positive development. But if you look closer at Iraq and see the US's greatest Middle East policy disaster, you will see further disorder with the fall of Damascus. Syria too is a place that will fall into chaos if separate areas and cities are taken over by Sunnis, Shi'ites, Salafis, Kurds, Christians and Al Qaeda. 

Washington certainly can make its own independent diplomatic mistakes but the continuing failure of US Middle East policies is often the result of the Israeli tail wagging the Washington dog -- while Israel moves ever further toward militarist paranoia. The opportunity to make a great peace with Iran, which might have led to positive US influence on Damascus, has consequently been lost. And so we have the situation today. 

Patrick Seal speaking on 'Democracy Now'

A peaceful alternative? 

Patrick Seale, a British writer about Syria whose wife incidentally is the daughter of a former Syrian ambassador to Washington, is almost a lone voice in the West in insisting the Bashar Al Asad regime must be saved, if possible. In a recent article, "What Is Really Happening in Syria?" (July 19, 2012), he argues that mistakes have been made on both sides, meaning by implication atrocities committed. But he insists that outside forces supporting the rebels are making the situation worse. He points out that the fall of the regime would be bad for minorities, and thinks that even Lebanon and Jordan might not survive. Earlier Seale feared civil war in Syria "would destroy the country, as happened in Iraq, and could destabilise the whole Levant." He wants the opposing elements to sit down to negotiate. 

Western leaders too rarely consider using their enormous power to bring about that kind of outcome. As Seale points out, Damascus' efforts to retain control of cities and regions within the country, which are seen as brutal from outside, aim to keep foreign powers from gaining a base to operate from and maintain stability. Seale urges the Western powers to unite with Russia and China to bring about a negotiated solution in the country. This may seem too optimistic. The US appears interested in using its clash with Russia over Syria as part of a reawakening of cold-war hostilities, or at least some Russian sources say so.  Nonenetheless Syria poses a danger of regional destabilization, as Seale says, and dampening down hostilities there could be crucial to the stability of a wide area. 

Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins takes it as a given that Al Assad will fall, but asserts that supporting the opposition to bring down his regime is "the wrong goal." Nasr proposes that making solid arrangements for a "transition plan" of "post-Assad power-sharing" among all the elements would encourage Syrians still in Al Assad's "corner" to make way peacefully for a new government. Turkey would have to come on board, as well as Russia and China, and Iran would have to stop its unwavering support of Al Assad's regime. This too seems very optimistic. 

Nasr parts from Seale in advocating foreign troops to "enforce the cease-fire" and protect Al Assad's minority supporters who have stuck with him for the security he has provided -- who, by the way, include Palestinians. It may be germane to mention that Nasr is an adviser to the Obama administratiobn. In that light he is unlikely to stick to advice that may displease Israel.  Seale holds in a more recent article that what happened to Iraq suited Israel just fine. He describes Israel as "an expansionist and aggressive state which believes that its security is best assured, not by making peace with its neighbours, but by subverting, destabilising and destroying them with the aid of American power." This unfortunately seems to be the case.

In an column for Al Jazeera English, Larbi Sadiki of Exeter University is outspoken in opposition to Al Assad but against intervention. In forestalling that, he thinks Russia has prevented "a repeat of Libya" and encouraged the more desirable "self-liberation of the Syrian people" that means further suffering, but also the greater amount of time necessary to plan a new regime and avoid chaos and disorder after the government falls.   Larbi is right in stressing that the Arab Spring must remain indigenous and has no real meaning otherwise. But it is a process and not an event, and a long slow one that succeeds more in some places than in others.  

After an explosion in Damascus

Sunday, June 24, 2012

George Lakoff: language, logic, and politics


 George Lakoff is an MIT-educated Berkeley professor of cognitive linguistics with a leftist-progressive bent. On the one hand, it is unfortunate that Lakoff's cogent arguments may be seen as one more example of the left beating up on itself, which it does so much and the right does not (beat up on itself, that is: it's great at beating up on the left). But what Lakoff has to say is so practical that it's essential for leftists or progressives in America to listen to him and act accordingly.

Language trumps "logic"

What Lakoff says is that the way the left thinks and frames its arguments is self-destructive. The prime example he has used lately is the left's adoption of the term "Obamacare" for the "Affordable Care Act," which turns the focus on Obama and his failed policies and is the kiss of death. "Obamacare" is the creation of the right. Lakoff sees political thinking rightly in terms of how the mind works. Judgments (and votes) are framed not logically but morally, and people have in their brains two moral universes, which can function concurrently. Thus the American public can be in favor of most of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, while simultaneously condemning it as an invasion of personal freedoms. The right understands propaganda and advertising; the left relies on "logical argument" principles that were fine in the time of Descartes when logic was beginning to win out over religion but now are outmoded. The right has invented phrases like "Death Panels" to literally bestow the kiss of death on the Affordable Care Act. The left and the Obama administration never created any set of simple counter slogans. They "promoted" the Act uselessly in terms of 24 points, which nobody could remember, so the promotion of the Act rather than its individual measures has faltered. The left keeps on wasting time refuting the arguments or attacks of the right on all kinds of progressive policies, which simply promotes these attacks by mentioning them and using the language of the opposition, like "Obamacare." 


The private depends on the public

Given that all people think morally rather than logically, the pivotal moral point that would give progressive positions the lead if it were remembered and repeated is "the private depends on the public," Lakoff points out. This is easy enough to understand. The corporations can't function without roads and railways, which are maintained at public expense. People are aware that the general public has paid to bail out the banks and left out of work masses foundering, but they fail to see how false and hypocritical the right's critique of government is. But they forget to point out that education, research, and legal protections -- and for that matter, affordable health care, insofar as Americans have it -- are also essential to private profit and the sound economy that will create a strong market.

The fundamental contrast in moral principles between left and right is in the meaning of "democracy." To the right, "democracy" means protecting self-interest. To the left, it means cooperation for the good of the many. The way the right tricks the public is in making it think its interests are those of the "1%." The Occupy movement points out that the one percent's interests are directly opposed to the "99%." Of course these are not the exact percentages, but at least in this respect the left has framed something that can be readily understood and can convince the public to see a progressive point of view as valid. Thus logically Lakoff has described "OWS," the Occupy movement (he might "frame" the movement better there) in a December 2011 "memo" to "OWS" as "primarily a moral movement." And with this 99% vs. 1% slogan it has framed itself as essential and right, unless you are a member of the tiny oligarchy of the super-rich, or are deluded into thinking that your interests are the same as its interests. Indeed the Occupy movement has reframed the debate for the presidential campaign in terms of unfairness, so Obama is daring to speak of the way the public is exploited by the few. 


Lakoff's focus on thinking and language as related to politics is valuable. He is not always on target in political analysis. For example, in this "memo," he says "I think it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific policy demands. If it did, the movement would become about those demands. If the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed." Again, by the way, he ought to have said "the Occupy movement," not "the occupation movement," and though this may seem a small point, the whole point is that language matters and is a matter of a vast accumulation of small points. While Lakoff is right that the Occupy movement isn't and shouldn't be about a set of specific policy demands, it is not true that the movement will fail because of the "failure" of specific demands to be met. Occupy should be seen as a nationwide and global movement to re-empower the people ("the 99%"), as opposed to the oligarchy of the rich, the corporations, or government, above and beyond any specific projects or demands. But it can and does make specific demands, and they do not "fail" but simply will take a long time to succeed. The solidarity of the Occupy movement should give its supporters faith that it will prevail, above and beyond any individual demands. But it must focus on individual local or national or global demands. 

On the other hand Lakoff makes sense when he stresses "OWS's" use of "the Public" (or just "the public") as the body that should have priority in the political world, and this supports the principle that "the private depends on the public" and that while the "private" is not inherently evil, and includes small businesses as well as large corporations, its interests should not trump those of "the public," the people, the 99%. 

Mastering language

I might add my own point in this discussion, which is that one reason why the left and the public aren't winning the battle for hearts and minds is that people don't know how to think and that cognitively the ability to handle language adeptly and fluently is degenerating. Americans often seem not to know very well how to speak and write. This in itself, apart from the right's skillful twisting of terms, severely impairs the public's ability to understand, analyze or express anything written or said. It makes a difference whether people know how to frame a question, form a sentence, use pronouns, and handle sophisticated terminology (which may only mean high school or freshman college level). It may sound old fashioned, but Americans, partly through a decline in education, do not master the use of language in public discourse. When radio or TV discourse is full of garbled sentences and confused terms, it's obvious those wielding their clumsy sentences for public consumption don't know how to think, because, as Lakoff emphasizes, language frames thought. A badly framed sentence is a sign of a confused thought.

Egypt and Arabic

Egypt since the January 25 revolution is a place where language is used clearly, despite the country's poor literacy rate (66%, 97th in the world). Everywhere there are clear, emphatic slogans, shouted by men held on the shoulders of demonstrators, on placards, written on walls. This might be the material of demagoguery, but there is an artisanal quality about it that is democratic and free. The Arabs have a rich oral tradition. Their culture includes expressing oneself emphatically, and believe me, they do, men and women. One has only to watch Al Jazeera Arabic for a few hours to experience the eloquence of the man and woman on the street, and ladies in hijab can be just as outspoken as anybody else. "THE PEOPLE DEMAND THE FALL OF THE REGIME" is pretty clear, isn't it? So is "We are all Khalid Said," another rallying cry against the Mubarak government's repression. It may help that while Egyptians have a tradition of wit and vivid colloquial language, they also belong to an international community that requires all Arabs to learn a standard literary language to be able to communicate in public debate in government, in the press, and among nations. It works well, since on Al Jazeera it makes possible live panel discussions between people from countries as wide apart as Morocco, Egypt, Qatar, and Lebanon with instant understanding and no need of a translator. Needless to say there is plenty of room for deceit in the Middle East, but Arabs do have a tradition of mastering a clear common language.


Perhaps what Lakoff is asking for is more propagandists on the left. He is asking progressives to use marketing methods effectively, as the right does, to have a promotional program -- which, for instance, they didn't for Affordable Health Care. But he is also asking the left to acquire tools for deflecting propaganda, which can be countered not only by counter-slogans, by re-framing issues, but also by deft use of language, to stimulate different moral centers of the brain, the ones focused on the value of public good rather than that of private self-interest.

George Lakoff is right to advise the Occupy movement to emphasize the "positive and moral." He provides guidelines it's good to be aware of and calls for an awareness of language that is essential for the left to martial its forces in the 99%. Of course there are a lot more problems than language, and the Egyptian people's clear framing of their desires hasn't been enough to liberate them from the control of a military oligarchy called SCAF, The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But this awareness of language and how it frames thought and emotion may help progressives to combat the right, whose clarity and sureness about what they think and whose canniness about marketing strategy for their candidates and projects have put them ahead repeatedly up to now, especially in the wake of two ideologically soft and over-compromising democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, who drifted toward the center and made it possible for the whole USA to move dramatically toward the right. 


For more details see Lakoff and Elizabeth Wehling:  "Why Conservatives Sell Their Wildly Destructive Ideology Better Than Democrats" on AlterNet.  Lakoff and Wehling have authored a recent handbook on combatting conservative rhetoric called The Little Blue Book.

 Website    Blog    Facebook   Twitter   Flickr

Monday, June 18, 2012

Egypt's SCAF takes more power, speaks with forked tongue

SCAF generals Mohammed al-Assar and Mamdouh
Shahin explain new decree

What kind of game are they playing? 

In Egypt the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, has repeated its promise to turn over power to a civilian government within the month.  But at the same time, in the wake of the apparent victory of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi (considered a revolutionary candidate in opposition to Mubarak regime candidate Ahmed Shafik), SCAF has taken on yet more powers to itself with a "constitutional annex decree" (اعلان دستوري تكميلي /a3lan disturi takmili).*   The analysis is that the SCAF has done all  this, before, during and after the elections, dissolving and shuttering the new parliament (with the connivance of the Supreme Constitutional Court) and issuing decrees, because they foresaw that Shafik, the Mubarak candidate in the two-man runoff, was not going to win.

What it looks like, is a long struggle, though it would be hard to conceive that the Egyptian people, awakened to the possibility of something like democratic government, would simply knuckle under, after all the events of the past sixteen months.

Here is a summary of the main points of the "constitutional annex decreee:"

-The generals will keep the power to write laws and set the budget until a legislature is elected
-The president cannot declare war unless he receives SCAF's approval
-SCAF can appoint a new constitutional assembly if the current one faces "obstacles." The assembly will draft a constitution, which will then be subject to a public referendum
-Legislative elections will be held within one month after the new constitution is adopted

In a long press conference, SCAF generals claimed the "constitutional annex decree" is only a way of easing the transition to a new constitution and a new government. That is their story.  In fact the interference of the military into civilian life is enshirined, the military is protected from public scrutiny, and the military gives the military total power over military affairs, with Tantawi the supreme commander, and no ultimate civilian control over the military forces as in the past.     The people call this a "military coup."  People are saying that Morsi will be a president without powers, and that he will likely only be transitional -- despite the enormous campaign efforts -- and will not serve anything like a full four-year term.  "All roads lead to military rule," wrote Sherine Tadros in an article for Al Jazeera English.  According to the SCAF decrees, says Tadros, " the next President could have more powers than Mubarak did, or be a total lame duck - it's up to the SCAF. Which powers they reserve for themselves is also in their hands."  How could this not be true as things now stand is hard to conceive.    This annex renders any elected turnover of power virtually meaningless.  The SCAF is retaining power to administer by decree.

 Al-Shuruq headline

 Another new council dominated by military 

The latest (eight p.m. Monday, June 18, 2012), from Sharif Abdel Kouddous on Twitter:  "SCAF forms National Defense Council of 17 members - 10 military, 6 political + President. Decisions by majority rule."  The mood was already down, nobody holding up a proud ink-stained finger symbolizing having voted, people turning up to vote only to exclude the candidate they didn't want to win.  Devotees of the old regime or law and order voting for Ahmed Shafik, those either Islamist or desperate to keep the old regime out voting for Mohamed Morsi.  Still, the turnout was greater than expected, 49% of the electorate, Abdel Kouddous said, but the result seemingly meaningless.  The fact remains that the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to be happy about any of the recent results except for their candidate's victory, and yet they remain the strongest, best organized opposition to the old regime.

It's not certain whether or not a win by Ahmed Shafik would have been entirely the military's victory.  Some analysts feel that Mubarak himself was planning a turnover to his son that would have led to a more civilian-led government, a step Shafik might have continued.  If this is true, then the SCAF may not have looked with much favor on a win by either of the two presidential candidates.

In any case, none of this favors the interests of the Egyptian people very much.  The revolution in the streets has to continue.  The people plan a massive public demonstration Tuesday, which the April 6 youth movement calls for on Facebook on "all the squares of Egypt."

*Al Jazeera translation.  Others have translated this more euphoniously as "supplementary constitutional declaration."  But "decree" seems more appropriate, "annex" more vivid.

Further reading:  Abdel Kouddous summed up the mess, the misgovernment, and the lack of reform since the January 25 revolution in a debut article for  Al-Akhbar English published June 14, before the parliament was dissolved.

Happy anyway:  Mosi supporters celebrate (June 18, 2012)
Big demonstrations Tuesday, June 19, 2012 led to 9 killed and over 300 wounded in or near Tahrir Square.  Photos from Al Jazeera English by Lazar Simeonov:

Near Tahrir Square June 19

Tents burned, the square cleared June 19

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Egyptian revolution's rude awakening

Mural shows Tantawi and Mubarak as the same man

 Mid-February 2011: junta quietly takes over 

In English it's called the SCAF, but SCAM might be more descriptive.  The Supreme Council of the Allied Forces effectively took control of the Egyptian government in February 2011 after Mubarak stepped down as a result of the popular uprising known at home as "the revolution of 25 January." It was a moment in the Arab Spring that was -- despite the baltagiyya (right wing thugs)  "Battle of the Camel" in Cairo and many deaths of demonstrators -- a relatively fresh and peaceful event that heartened everyone who values freedom.  But then came the moment of the SCAF declaring itself in charge.  And today, in mid-June 2012,  the people have all realized what that meant.  The SCAF's mask is off, and it has become clearly the enemy of the revolution. 

Wishful thinking led many Egyptians to believe SCAF control of the government was purely a temporary stopgap to maintain stability until a civilian government could be established -- under a new constitution. But while the voice of the people was heard in the streets as never before in 2011, and politics became open and various, lots of things didn't change at all under the SCAF, whose generals anyway had been around under Mubarak.  Its head was Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had served as Mubarak's Minister of Defense. Under the SCAF military junta, beatings and arrests continued.  Some demonstrations were brutally repressed and occasionally baltagiyya reappeared to attack and beat demonstrators.  Military detentions continued.  

After Mubarak's fall, the SCAF had immediately dissolved the existing constitution. The many political factions did not come together to write a new constitution, though that should have been the first order of the day.  Instead, SCAF has been left to make new rules randomly by edict.  The newer, more liberal political factions needed time to organize before either writing a constitution or fielding candidates in an election.  They didn't get much time.   Instead, parliamentary elections were held from 28 November 2011 to 11 January 2012.  Speedy action was favored by the Muslim Brotherhood, because they were the best organized.  (Elections were delayed, but only slightly). The elections were chaotic, but there was a big turnout.  Predictably, the Brothers won a majority of the seats, with the party of the religious extremist Salafis winning a surprising number of seats as well.  Then presidential elections were held, still without a constitution,   Though the Carter Center didn't condemn this election, the circumstances were suspicious, not fully open.  Despite a multiplicity of candidates in a political scene celebrating new freedoms, or so people assumed, the runoff was to be between a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist opposition, and Ahmed Shafik, a man from Mubarak's regime.  This, immediately followed by trials letting off many of Mubarak's officers responsible for the brutality in the demonstrations, led to many demonstrations and widespread anger.  The people wanted stronger punishments for the repressions.  They wanted a better choice for president.  They wanted a new law prohibiting former members of the regime to hold office for the next ten years to be enforced, so Ahmed Shafik would not be one of the two runoff candidates.

But that was not at all what the Supreme Court has just done.  They belatedly decided some aspects of the parliamentary elections were improper, and they have  taken the extreme measure of declaring the the entire new parliament dissolved. And they decided Ahmed Shafik's candidacy for president was legitimate.  Maybe it was obvious all along.  But now the scales are off all eyes:  the dictatorship is deeply embedded in the Egyptian body politic.  SCAF is the agent of the old regime, and it is holding onto power with an iron hand.  The justices of the Supreme Court were chosen by Mubarak.  These actions have been described as a "judicial coup." Nathan J. Brown, an American scholar of Palestinian and Egyptian law at George Washington University, commented that "what was beginning to look like a coup in slow motion is no longer moving in slow motion. "

The role played by the Egyptian Supreme Court might disturb an American observer, because the US Supreme Court, with a conservative near-majority now, has been eroding our democracy.  The Citizens United decision has in effect, wholeheartedly turned over control of American politics to the super-rich, a process that was a long time coming.  And we may remember the Couirt's decision that made George W. Bush president instead of Al Gore, turning over control of the American government to the right for eight years, essentially by fiat.  Not so different, really.  When a court is not balanced or on the side of the majority, it can wield a dangerous power.  

The Egyptian Supreme Court's ruling dissolving the parliament has hit the Muslim Brothers hardest. Had the leading MB candidate Mohamed Morsi been elected president with a parliament, he would have been strong.   At the same time the court ruled that the Political Exclusion Law was invalid, thus allowing former members of the Mubarak regime to run for office and re-legitimizing Morsi's opponent in the runoff, Ahmed Shafik.  Now there is a widespread movement to boycott the runoff.  

Shouting anti-SCAF slogans in Tahrir Square in January 2012

 Mid-June 2012:  solid disillusionment sets in

The crowds are still in the streets, filling Tahrir Square in Cairo, the center ring of Egyptian street politics, but the situation is totally demoralizing.  Egypt's revolution is back to square one. The battle, it seems, has hardly begun. Mubarak is gone, pampered in prison, but what else is changed?  It seems, not so much:  except for those masses in the streets and public squares.  They show something is still alive.   

The revolutionaries' planning has lacked follow-up.  Many on the street only dreamed of Mubarak's downfall. The people who bring about a revolution in the streets are not quite the same as those who will and can lead a new government.  The dictator's resignation was such a dream come true, the man on the street may not have imagined beyond that step.   After thirty years of dictatorship it's understandable the rank and file would lack a keen eye for the details of democratic government, or quickly perceive their absence.

The regime's remnants however have timed things well.  The light show trials were a useful distraction from the issue of the rigged election.  The dissolving of the parliament means that, if the runoff election goes ahead, the people will be choosing another dictator, because there will be no checks on his power. 

 Though keener analysts knew that  the roots of the old regime went deep and still remained, now is a time of rude awakening for many in Egypt who didn't know that or tried not to see it.  News articles are reporting on this.  For example, David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, whose June 14, 2012  article begins by saying "the small circle of liberals, leftists and Islamists who orchestrated Egypt’s revolution say they realize they failed to uproot the networks of power that Hosni Mubarak nurtured for nearly three decades."  Kirkpatrick quotes Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Youth group as saying they are developing a five-year plan to build a movement capable of taking the reins of change.  Meanwhile it's obvious the Muslim Brothers haven't been interested in cooperating since Mubarak's ouster, only in securing power over the country.  All see the SCAF as duping them, stringing them along.   And SCAF seems to have worked with the Supreme Court to dismantle or neuter much of what the revolution has done. 

It all seems very ironic.  The whole country went out to vote for a parliament that was then dissolved.  Later they voted for a president who would not be the one many want and whoever he is, assuming the runoff is held, will as things now stand have no power -- though if he's Ahmed Shafik, he will be able to work directly with SCAF:  both represent the old regime.  

But those leaders of the revolution still exist, and the streets are still alive with demonstrators.  Things are a lot better than before, even if they're a lot worse than people wanted to think. But the question remains that was there from February 2011:  how do you get rid of SCAF?  Did anyone really think they'd go away on their own?  The first Egyptian revolution, in 1952, was a military coup, with a government of army officers headed first by Muhammad Naguib, then by Gamal Abdel Nasser.  It later  crushed the Muslim Brothers, feeling they were a threat to the country.  The SCAF might want to do that again, but it seems less possible now. Whatever happens, this face-off of two warring powers and the deep entrenchment of dictatorship stand in the way of a constitutional democracy.


See Sharif Abdel Kouddous, The Nation, "Egypt's Heightening Electoral Crisis."

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Al Qaeda's best recruiter

Yahya Abu Al-Libi

Government's double message

A few days ago a US drone reportedly killed (among others) Abu Yahya al-Libi, described as Al Qaeda's number two man, thus further weakening an already diminished organization. It had already been suggested as far back as April 2010 by a "national security experts blog," National Journal, that since (among other events) Iraqi security forces had then recently killed "the top two leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq," Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, Al Qaeda had perhaps reached the "tipping point." It seemed that Osama bin Laden, taken out in a targeted assassination thirteen months ago by the US with the hands-on supervision of President Obama, hadn't been doing very much lately: watching a lot of television. Last year Oxford University Press published a book, The Rise and Fall of Al QaedaIn it, "Fawaz A. Gerges argues that Al-Qaeda has degenerated into a fractured, marginal body kept alive largely by the self-serving anti-terrorist bureaucracy it helped to spawn." To what extent does the USA's industry of anti-terrorist overkill, beginning with several (hard to say how many) seemingly endless wars post-9/11, simply stimulate and perpetuate a danger that justifies its continued existence? That's a possibility we might take seriously.

 It seems western propaganda and US mainstream media are determined to have it both ways: Al Qaeda is diminished, enfeebled: we have achieved great victories over it. But it is dangerous, stealthy, tireless, ever-growing: we must be ceaselessly on our guard against it. And perhaps both are true.  But the same question comes up as during Bush's wars and all the post-9/11 reactions: is any of this helping? Are we safer now?

While it's useful motivation to take pride in victories along the way in the form of body counts including the enemy's leadership, it's also true that an invisible enemy is the ideal justification for perpetual war. Al Qaeda works well in this role.  It is a shadow organization, in hiding, working sub rosa, and we're at the mercy of sporadic reports as to what it's doing and who's in charge. This is a danger you can define any way you like. How do you monitor its current status? And in consulting reports, whom do you trust? The trouble is that analysts on the right want motivation for perpetual war; on the left a pacifist slant leads threats to be downplayed. Thus, "While al Qaeda's capacity for large-scale attacks has been drastically reduced and the organization seriously weakened, the United States can expect to continue its battle with the terrorist group for many years to come," according to a new Rand Corporation studyThat, for the right is a comfortable position. We're doing a great job, but we won't put ourselves out of business. The war is perpetual, or at least vaguely long-lasting.

The elimination of Yahya Abu al-Libi was touted as a great victory. "'There is no-one who even comes close in terms of replacing the expertise al-Qaeda has just lost,' one US official said," according to  CNN. "The official added that al-Qaeda's leadership 'will be hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into [Al-Libi's] shoes.'" But what if he is replaced by two men, or three -- or half a dozen? Suppose Al-Libi left behind more than one pair of shoes?

Still Al Qaeda's best recruiter

The error of logic here is the same as I described at the outset after 9/11, when the Bush administration putatively set out to eliminate Bin Laden. If terrorism or anti-American feeling is like a virus, and the earth is like a human body, if you eliminate the poison from one part, it will only spring up in another. And drone attacks are only a little better than attacking all of Afghanistan allegedly to "get" Bin Laden, because he was rumored to be hiding there. Note: "at least six missiles" were fired at the compound where Al-Libi reputedly resided, and the "official" report says "15 militants" were killed. We now know from the recent NY Times article on Obama's "secret kill list" that any male in the area when a terrorist is killed is defined as a "militant," so read "fifteen young men." The question also is: does taking out a group's leader demoralize its members -- or harden their determination? And what about the local population, whose native sons have died in this attack? Do they feel any safer now? Or does this attack heighten their sympathies for Al Qaeda?

Donilan (national security), Obama, Brennan (counterterrorism)

It has seemed all along that Al Qaeda is a very cellular organization, with separate units working independently. Now, blocking specific terrorist attacks on the US or other western countries, which happens all the time and sometimes is reported and sometimes not, is certainly a necessary and useful activity -- the most necessary and useful activity in this whole so often misguided "war on terror." But it's very unlikely that taking out leaders of terrorist groups, particularly when they are as multi-national as Al Qaeda, has any lasting effect in weakening the organization. Jenna Jordan argued this in an op-ed piece in the NY Times in October 2011, apropos of the killing of the American-Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awaki (a morally and constitutionally dubious action that Obama nonetheless found "easy"). "The doctrine upon which the group is based is not dependent upon leaders, like Bin Laden or Mr. Awlaki, for its reproduction," Jordan wrote. "While Mr. Awlaki’s death was a major tactical victory, research suggests that over time, Al Qaeda will survive this and other recent attacks. Focusing on leaders alone is not enough to undermine it."

Jordan suggested withdrawing ground forces from Afghanistan as an action that would "undermine one of the causes for which the organization has been fighting." Yes: by maintaining those ground forces we created the motivation for Al Qaeda (as some of us have been saying all along). And so now maybe with luck we can remove that motivation by withdrawing them. Maybe. But it's not that easy, really. Lasting damage has been done. 

In other words, the US has been the main recruiter for Al Qaeda and remains so. The way things look, it will be a very long time before this changes. And peaceful hearts-and-minds methods, such as Jordan suggests, aren't likely to work to erase this effect. She says the US's providing "critical social services in communities where Al Qaeda and other militants operate could eliminate opportunities for them to gain further local support." That kind of activity works locally, however, but the US is not local. Probably even social services will be seen as foreign intervention. This is the flaw in such thinking -- though it's certainly right to point out the fallacy of believing that killing leaders will lastingly weaken Al Qaeda.

The greatest recruiting program of all for terrorism is not any one activity but simply the US government's general policy, and ongoing status, of global dominance. But minding its own business has never seemed to be "on the table" as an American option -- anywhere. Recent news, and reports on Obama's own strongly pursued policies, the "Kill List" among others, suggest that "the self-serving anti-terrorist bureaucracy [Al Qaeda] helped to spawn" is, if anything, stronger than ever.


Glenn Greenwald presented this argument a week later with the title "Al Qaeda's best friend"   on

Monday, June 4, 2012

Egypt in transition: election, trial, protest -- a lesson for us

Photo in Tahrir Square June 2, 2012by Sharif Abdel Kouddous (Twitter @sharifkouddous)

Fervor, confusion, hope

"Egypt in Transition" -- L'Égypte en mouvement -- was the title of a famous book about the 1952 revolution published shortly afterward by Jean and Simone Lacouture, and the phrase is just as descriptive today, sixty years later. Since January 2011 Cairo has seemed like maybe the most exciting and hopeful place in the world right now, despite the chaos and the serious doubts about the future. And though there was a lull for a while, revolutionary fervor has recently returned to the country.  Egypt is in transition, though where it is going nobody can really know. 

First, there was the cacophony and multiplicity of presidential campaigning, with the emergence of a multitude of highly diverse and changing candidates -- some coming and going, being disqualified and then getting back in, and nobody talking of anything else. It was crazy but it was exciting. But some radicals refused to vote at all, saying, not without logic, that a presidential election without a new order and a new consititution was a sham and would have no force. The elections were held May 23rd and 24th 2012 amid great excitement, despite the absence of a new constitution to provide for a clear succession and a decisive break with the Mubarak regime. 

The field seemed wide open though there was disorder in the seemingly arbitrary qualification and disqualification of candidates. There were nine major and three minor candidates, plus four powerful figures who were ultimately disqualified. 

Given the old "binary" choice, mass protest

Then came the disappointment of many when the votes were counted and the two leading candidates, who are to have a runoff in mid-June, emerged. They were Mohamed Morsi, chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party (a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood), and Ahmed Shafik, a retired general and member of Mubarak's government who was briefly appointed Prime Minister by Mubarak just before he was forced to step down. The "binary choice" of two men returned the people to the old option -- either a remnant of the Mubarak regime (or its counter-revolutionary agent) -- or a representative of its longtime conservative religious opposition. Shafik is clearly a relic of the dictatorship, and the Moslem Brotherhood Morsi comes from has been losing its credibility for its collaboration with the regime during the revolution and in its immediate aftermath. All this excitement and energy to come up with the same old faces -- the regime itself and its long-time, conservative religious opposition? Many public demonstrations of outrage and disappointment have followed. 

The fact is that though Morsi got 24.3 percent of the vote and Shafik 23.3 percent, 40 percent went to revolutionary candidates. Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist socialist, occasional member of parliament and often-jailed dissident, got over 20 percent of the vote. How is the will of the 40 percent going to be represented -- and what position will a freely elected president have if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is reluctant to turn over the reins to a civilian government in Egypt? Perhaps a ruling Muslim Brotherhood may in effect establish a coalition government, but what the Supreme Council will do and how its claws will be removed from the whole fabric of the country remains very uncertain. 

Results of a trial, again mass protest

Meanwhile, as if these questions were not enough to keep people preoccupied, a few days later the deposed leader Hosni Mubarak was brought in for sentencing by the Supreme Court. Though he was sentenced to life imprisonment, this was not by any means accepted by the masses on the street as what was truly called for. They hold the deposed president responsible for at least the deaths of 850 people deliberately killed during the period of revolt against his regime last year. A life sentence isn't enough for such a crime against the people. Moreover Mubarak's six security commanders were acquitted of the charges, and it's widely believed that Mubarak may get a lighter sentence on appeal. Besides, corruption charges were dismissed. The legal officials involved were all appointed by Mubarak, who got royal treatment in prison. Why were the charges so pared down? Why weren't more people tried and convicted? The New York Times quotes Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights: “The trial is far from over,” Baghat declared. “We will be in this for years.” 

After the verdict was announced chants of "Batel! Batel!" (Illegitimate!) were heard in the streets. Tahrir Square has been filling with big crowds again and again. Banners called for the ouster of the Mubarak-appointed prosecutor general who oversaw the sentencing. "The people demand the cleansing of the judiciary," was the chant in the street as people marched from the Supreme Court building to the square June 2nd. This trial was one more clear and present sign that the old regime was still in force, running the country. And since Shafik so clearly represents the old regime whose lingering influence explained the unsatisfactory trial, sentiment turned against him and crowds of demonstrators demolished his campaign headquarters and set fire to it. 

Everything is clearly a mess, and these events seem half-baked and inconclusive. But the old regime, however strongly its remnants survive, has been challenged to its core. The people remain out on the streets voicing their opinions from minute to minute. Various political factions are in constant activity. In that essential respect things are very different. 

Democracy Now's Cairo correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous (whose tweets have been a moment-to-minute record of these events) is wise to insist on calling what's been happening in Egypt so far an "uprising" rather than a "revolution."  Clearly the events that began January 25, 2011 have yet to lead to a lasting change of the old order. Still, as long as the voices of virtually nonstop street political activism remain strong and the political organizing remains intense and open, there seems much reason for hope. This vibrant population has something to be excited about, not least the right to protest immediately against actions they deem unfair. It is this keen minute-to-minute sense of right and wrong and the will to immediately and unhesitatingly make known their feelings about it that gives an outside observer a feeling of heady excitement about the state of affairs in Egypt right now, despite the unsatisfying recent outcomes. 

Of course this is all part of a movement known as "The Arab Spring." It can be an inspiration for us, emboldening us to fight at the grassroots level (particularly through the Occupy movement) against developments in politics and economics that have concentrated power and wealth over here in "the one percent" -- an accelerated economic trend that Noam Chomsky has recently called "a dagger pointed at the heart of the country." If not fought, it could lead to "a period of irreversible decline." Certainly events in Egypt today show the Arab Spring like the Occupy movement is going to be "a long, hard struggle" (again Chomsky's words). But the state of fluidity and popular involvement in Egypt provides hope for the struggle against our own dictatorship of the rich. 

Sign says "No to Shafik" (June 1)
"The revolution commands, it does not request" (June 1)
Salafis, revolutionary youth, ultras, all in march
chanting against military rule (May 4)

 (All photos on this page by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, from Twitter  @sharifkouddous.)