Egypt: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

July 31, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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Heaping irony upon irony, three weeks after protesters cheered the military for ousting Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, the new strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on the people to take to the streets in a show of support for him to defeat “violence and potential terrorism.” And taking the large crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square as a mandate to crush supporters of the democratically elected president, the army launched a massacre of Morsi loyalists at their Cairo sit-in on Saturday 27 June 2013.

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Much has been written about President Morsi’s overreach for power despite having secured only 51.7% of the vote in a run-off against a factotum of the old regime, Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak. But perhaps his biggest failure was not to neutralize the country’s coercive apparatus, laughably called its security services.

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Though human rights activists had hoped that as Morsi has himself been targeted by the police during his long years in opposition, he would rein in the police, he openly praised the police for its role in the 2011 revolution—a revolution in which uniformed and plain clothes officers had killed over 800 people, just as they killed Morsi’s supporters last Saturday. The military has also been unrepentant about its role under the old regime: as late as June 2011, General al-Sisi justified the “virginity tests” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces inflicted, among other humiliations, on women demonstrators during the Cairo chapter of the Arab Spring.

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In yet another irony, the liberals installed in the interim government by the military blamed the massacre on the protesters killing each other! Nor have the liberals protested the interior minister, General Mohamed Ibrahim, a holdover from Morsi’s cabinet claiming that the anti-Morsi crowds in Tahrir Square gave him the mandate to resurrect the old regime’s hated secret police, the Amn al-Dawla or State Security force that had been disbanded in March 2011. As University of Oklahoma professor Samer S Shehata observes, Egypt’s tragedy is that “its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats.”

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When television cameras beam pictures of massive crowds in Tahrir Square opposing President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, it is well to remember that in the first round of last year’s presidential elections, the candidate who won a plurality of votes in Cairo and in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, was neither Morsi nor his opponent in the run off election, but a secular candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi. Long decades of providing social services to poor neighborhoods in Cairo and other cities, and in the rural areas where most Egyptians live has created a massive constituency of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. No democracy can take root in Egypt by excluding them as the military seeks to do with the connivance of the liberals and the West.

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When secular Egyptians—even radicals like Samir Amin—rejoice at the military’s ouster of a democratically elected president and plaster the general’s photo all across Cairo, they repeat Morsi’s fatal mistake of relying on the army and the police rather than on democratic institutions and protocols. By shutting down Islamists’ media outlets, reviving the secret police, and conspiring to ban the Muslim Brotherhood entirely, the military is fast overturning the gains of the Arab Spring. No future government is safe from military intervention.

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The coup d’etat against Egypt’s democratically elected government will have resonances far beyond the country’s borders. As the oldest and most influential Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has affiliates across the Islamic world and while these parties have largely renounced violence, now they could well conclude that violence is the only way to achieve power. After all, previously in 1992, as the Islamists were poised to win an election in Algeria, the army annulled the election. After they are denied office a second time, why should they place their hopes again in the electoral process? An ultraconservative Libyan cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sibra has already admitted that it has become impossible to persuade militias in Benghazi to lay down their weapons.

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The interim government imposed by the military is also not going to be able to solve Egypt’s economic problems that also fueled the opposition to the Morsi government. When the tourist industry was in the doldrums and over 40% of the population was living below the poverty level, Morsi ended the food and utility subsidies as demanded by the IMF as the price for a $4.8 billion loan. As prices soared, food became unaffordable and the World Food Program reported that the growth of a third of all children in the country was stunted in 2011. Neither the military nor the interim government it installed is likely to reinstate subsidies and the military which controls 40% of the country’s economy will zealously safeguard its privileges. No future government will dare tamper with the military’s perks.

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With poverty and disenchantment in the streets, and continuing oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, chances are that Egypt is in for a prolonged bout of conflict unless international forces intervene. By closing the life-giving tunnels to the Palestinians brutally imprisoned in Gaza, the military has played on Israel’s security fears and inoculated the coup against pressure from Washington. And the collapse of Egypt’s democratic essay has once again prompted the racist trope that Islam is incompatible with democracy. In an op-ed in the New York Times on the day after the coup, David Brooks wrote: “It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.”

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It is a real pity that the so-called emerging powers—China, India, Brazil, and South Africa don’t weigh in on the events in Egypt and leave the West to define an ‘international response’! Democracy, after all, is not the exclusive preserve of the West—and the few governments elected by popular vote in Europe and North America before the Second World War were underpinned by colonial or neo-colonial exploitation of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Democracy is no privileged preserve of any peoples–and the peoples of the world ought to pressure governments everywhere to adhere to democratic norms!

 

Detroitism in Binghamton: A Photo Essay

July 27, 2013 at 9:56 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, Outsourcing, Political Economy, world politics | 2 Comments
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Detroitism has emerged a while ago to encapsulate the emergence of urban ruins in North America and Europe–from Camden NJ to Naples and Bucharest–with the decline of manufacturing and the outsourcing of production to low- and middle-income economies in Asia and Latin America. Populations of these cities have declined sharply–from 1.8 million fifty years ago to 700,000 today in Detroit, shrinking tax revenues and depressing property values leading to a degradation of city services and civic amenities and spiking the crime rate. Abandoned houses are stripped of their valuables–metal and copper are sold to junk merchants to be sent to India and China to be melted down and recycled to fuel these ’emerging economies.’

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Smaller towns and cities in the United States have been declining even longer–for more than a century as the mechanization of agriculture and the exhaustion of natural resources set in even before manufacturing began to move to the non-unionized states of the ‘Sunbelt’ and later to even lower-wage locations overseas. And the emergence of ‘big box’ retailers like Wal-mart hollowed out their commercial cores as Edward Alden noted.

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And so it has been with Binghamton, located at the confluence of the Susquehanna and the Chenango rivers in southern New York State. A small farming community till the Chenango Canal was constructed in the mid-1830s, linking it the the Erie Canal at Utica. In addition, the arrival of the railways in the mid-19th century transformed the area into a minor industrial hub for the production of cigars, and later shoes, and high-tech electronics. Between 1860 and 1880, the population of Binghamton rose from 8,325 to a little over 35,000. Tanneries and shoe factories–most notably the Endicott Johnson shoe factory–made Binghamton and its neighboring Johnson City one of the major shoe manufacturing centers in the United States

BDSC00037y the mid-1950s however, competition from several other locations led to a steep decline of shoe production though its impact was cushioned by the rise of several high-tech firms: IBM which was founded in nearby Endicott, Edwin Link who invented the flight stimulator, Valvoline which was to become Whirlpool Corporation

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At the same time, the construction of the interstate highway system, led to a fall in ridership on the trains and the last passenger train rolled off the tracks of the Lackawanna Station in Binghamton in December 1964.

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 The continuing growth of IBM and other technology companies related to defense and the location of one of the four university centers of the State University of New York system led to further growth over the next two decades.

 

Yet, the gradual decline of IBM and the closure of the last shoe factory in the 1990s led to a precipitous decline in the fortunes of the city. The arrival of big box retailers like Wal-Mart finally hollowed out the city’s commercial core.

 

The population of Binghamton, which had peaked at 80.674 in 1950 slid to 47, 376 in the census of 2010–less than it was a 100 years ago in 1910.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Coup in Egypt: Tragedy repeating as tragedy

July 6, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Egypt’s Tahrir Square is once again dominating world news. For the second time in a little more than two years, the army has deposed a president. If the first had ruled as a dictator for 30 years, the second was popularly elected and had been in office for just 12 months. Both times there were massive protests and using these protests as a pretext, Western politicians and their allies in the Middle East have cautiously welcomed the ouster of a democratically elected leader–even calling it a ‘democratic coup’, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Egypt’s tragedy now, as Samer S. Shehata puts it is that “its politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals ands liberals who are not democrats.”

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Just as the masses there had brought about the ouster of the long-serving ruler Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, much larger popular assemblies gathered in the square on June 30, 2013 on the anniversary of President Mohamed Morsi taking office to demand his ouster. Nabuib Sawiris, a wealthy Coptic Christian businessman who founded the Al Masreyeen Al Ahrar party, tweeted that the BBC claimed that the demonstrations against Morsi were the largest in “the history of mankind” and though the BBC had made no such claim, the tweet went viral. 

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Be that as it may, that there was massive opposition to President Morsi was evident by the turnout of crowds demanding his ouster in Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere. Notably though these were cities that had voted for a different candidate,  Hamdeen Sabahi–a secular leftist–than for Morsi or his rival in the run-off, Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister. That Morsi secured only 51.7 percent of the vote in the run-off against a factotum of the old regime should have indicated the depth of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood that Morsi represented.

The fact that the main secular candidate was able to capture the largest share of the vote only in the major urban centers puts in perspective the anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square. It highlights a sharp urban-rural divide that will only widen if the Muslim Brotherhood is not allowed to compete in the elections promised by the military-installed government.

Morsi turned out to be an incredibly incompetent president. Despite his narrow margin of victory, he overreached the mandate given to him especially last November when he sought to place himself above the law–though he quickly reversed himself after the streets erupted in anger. He pushed through a constitution after all the non-Islamic parties had walked out. When jt was put to a snap referendum, the turnout was only 32 percent of the eligible voters as most opposition groups boycotted the referendum.

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Of course, what Morsi did was not very different from what George W. Bush did in the United States–after stealing an election with the help of Supreme Court judges nominated by Republican presidents, he set to rule as if he had a massive mandate to impose a far-right agenda!

Soon after Mubarak was ousted, Egypt’s Coptic Christians faced increased attacks and Morsi did nothing, after he came to power, to reassure them.Under the military interregnum between the fall of Mubarak and Morsi’s election, assaults against women rose sharply and the current minister of defense and head of the military who deposed Morsi, General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, Gilbert Achcar, writes

distinguished himself in June 2011 by justifying the “virginity tests” that the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] had inflicted, among other humiliations, on seventeen female demonstrators who had been arrested on Tahrir Square in March.

Morsi had to contend with remnants of the Mubarak regime which were deeply ensconced in the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the military, Just days before the presidential run-off that Morsi won, Egypt’s Constitutional Court appointed by Mubarak dissolved the first popularly elected lower house of parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. More than a week before the military gave Morsi an ultimatum, it had begun deploying troops in cities without informing him. And the police refused to protect offices of the Muslim Brotherhood from attacks.

 

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Meanwhile, the economy nosedived as Morsi implemented the IMF’s plans to end food and utility subsidies which led in turn to more street protests that ensured that the country’s tourism sector would not recover. When 40 percent of the population was below the poverty line of $2 a day, the IMF’s austerity measures imposed to secure a $4.8 billion loan, compounded the pressures and led to the explosive street protests.With the weakening of the currency, food prices have soared and the World Food Program reports that 31 percent of children experienced stunted growth in 2011. it is not that food is unavailable–just that it is not affordable and the withdrawal of subsidies under IMF directions will only make matters worse.

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None of the candidates seeking to replace Morsi have rejected the IMF’s ruinous austerity drive. Hence, Morsi’s ouster even if followed by an election is not likely to turn Egypt’s economy around. If anything, it could make matters much, much worse. In a remarkably unguarded editorial, the Wall Street Journal opined

Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.

Of course, after Pinochet assassinated Salvador Allende, Chile did not begin a transition to democracy for 18 years during which opponents of the regime were routinely tortured and executed en masse. As Amy Davidson writes,

Egyptians might not consider themselves as lucky if Cairo’s sports stadiums were turned into mass-execution sites, as Santiago’s were. (One wonders how many free passes for arbitrary arrests the Egyptian generals will earn from the Journal for each free-market reformer they hire.) 

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Despite Morsi being democratically elected, such is the West’s abhorrence of the Muslim Brotherhood, that neither Washington nor the European capitals have condemned his ouster and called it a military coup. Defending the coup, Tony Blair writes in the Guardian 

I am a strong supporter of democracy. But democratic government doesn’t on its own mean effective government. Today, efficacy is the challenge. 

David Brooks, goes further–and denies that democracy can even work in Egypt in breathtakingly racist terms:

  It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients. 

Yet, what the coup does most of all is to reverse the Arab Spring which had put the army back in its barracks. The military is once again king maker and future governments are unlikely to defy the military–the military that controls some 30 to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy and insulates itself from the economic problems of the masses. The military has not merely ousted Morsi, as Fawaz Gerges notes, “it has ousted democracy.”

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This need not have happened. As the protests grew, Morsi offered to form a government of national unity–when he was on the ropes, he could have been forced to accept a prime minister acceptable to the opposition.

There is no indication that the military–or any government that it installs–is going to reverse the austerity policies that hurts the most vulnerable Egyptians. The military has already withdrawn the offer of prime ministership that it had made to Mohammed el-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize laureate, as the Islamist Nour Party refused to work with him. Coptic priests continue to be killed and more than 80 women were assaulted in Tahrir Square on the night al-Sisi announced Morsi’s ouster. If they are willing to work with the Islamists, why should the Islamists trust the military after the ousted Morsi? And if they exclude them, they are ignoring the 50 percent who voted for Morsi and the country’s best organized political force.

Morsi’s ouster had region-wide significance. If the world looks idly by, why should Islamists elsewhere participate in democratic processes. As Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sidra, an ultraconservative cleric in Benghazi, Libya says it is now impossible to persuade the militias there to lay down their weapons and trust in democracy:

Do you think I can sell that to the people anymore? I have been saying all along, ‘If you want to build Shariah law, come to elections.’ Now they will just say, ‘Look at Egypt,’ and you don’t need to say anything else.

This was the time for the United States to call for the restoration of democracy but once again. Washington and its allies have sided with the anti-democratic forces. Perhaps to ingratiate themselves with the United States, a day after ousting Morsi, the military demolished the tunnels with Gaza, the tunnels that were vital lifelines to the besieged Palestinians.

The problem of a country where the democrats are not liberal and the liberals are not democrats as Shehata put it so well is not going to be solved any time soon. Democrats must accept that minorities have rights, stakes, and interests that must be protected, and liberals must recognize that armies cannot be king makers in democracies. 

Imperial Hubris: European Subservience to the United States

July 3, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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Rarely in modern history has a statesman’s words been so at odds with his actions as those of French President Francois Hollande in dealing with US spying on its allies. When Mr Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency (NSA) infrastructure analyst, revealed that the NSA had bugged the European Union’s offices and embassies of several EU member states, tapped into communications cables, and bugged the 2009 meeting of the G20 leaders in the UK, the French president thundered that this was “unacceptable behaviour” among friends and allies. Yet, on suspicion that Mr Snowden may have been on board the Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane, Paris took the unprecedented step of refusing the plane permission to fly over its territory on Tuesday.

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Actions speak louder than words and while European leaders have feigned outrage about the US eavesdropping on the communications of its citizens and bugging of their embassies, they did not want the man who revealed the extent of US espionage to seek asylum in their countries. If Mr Snowden were on the Bolivian president’s plane and if he were to ask for asylum during a refuelling stop, it would have placed the government of a European state in an impossible situation. Since EU-wide laws prohibit the extradition of persons to countries with capital punishment, it would be politically suicidal for any government to deliver him to Washington. Yet, while European leaders were vociferous in denouncing US espionage, none were willing to defy the US on the issue.

What do you think of national security leaker edward snowden pollHence, France, Portugal and Spain took the unprecedented step of revoking pre-arranged flight permissions for President Morales’ plane—an action in which they were subsequently joined by Italy.  When the plane, running low on fuel, finally landed in Vienna’s Schwechat airport, President Morales was prevented from leaving for 13 hours while the Austrians satisfied themselves that Mr. Snowden was not on the plane.

Let us be clear: Mr Snowden is not a spy. He did not steal US secrets at the behest of a foreign power. He did not publish the contents of the espionage. He merely revealed its massive reach, and its sheer illegality and violation of human rights on a planetary scale by tracking the communications of citizens the world over. He is a whistleblower. The UN defines a whistleblowers “as individuals releasing confidential or secret information although they are under an official or other obligation to maintain confidentiality of secrecy.”

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The special UN rapporteur for the freedom of expression in 2004, along with his counterparts in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organization of American states, the Guardian newspaper reports, enjoined all governments to protect whistleblowers from all “legal, administrative or employment-related sanctions if they act in ‘good faith’”. By revealing the magnitude of US espionage against their citizens and governments, Mr Snowden clearly acted in public interest.

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Indeed, before Mr Snowden’s revelations, the Director of US National Intelligence, Mr James Clapper had testified to the US Senate Intelligence Committee that in March that the NSA did not collect data indiscriminately on millions of Americans—a testimony he was compelled to retract this week on the scarcely credible ground that he had “simply did not think” of the relevant provision in the Patriot Act that permitted the collection of such data. Likewise, President Barack Obama had claimed several times that the NSA was not eavesdropping on phone calls domestically without warrants—a claim that is proven wrong by Mr Snowden’s revelations.

Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, observed that “Americans justify everything by terrorism. The EU and its diplomats are not terrorists.”

Let us also recall that these very same European governments—especially Spain and Portugal—allowed the use of their “airspace and airports for flights associated with CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition [torture] operations” as the Open Society’s Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition investigation uncovered in a report published earlier this year. An ongoing investigation in France is examining whether the government permitted similar CIA flights. Victims can be carried over their airspace to be tortured but whistleblowers who reveal breaches of their citizens’ privacy and of their own sovereignty cannot! And this from member states of the EU that won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for the “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”!

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Speaking out against US actions while surreptitiously aiding Washington is, of course, not a novel practice for its European allies. Ten years ago, the then French president Jacques Chirac loudly proclaimed that an assault against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was unacceptable to Paris but when the US assault started Chirac opened French airspace to US military flights—something he had not done as premier for Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. Though Germany also opposed the Iraq war, once it had begun, its foreign minister prayed for the ‘rapid collapse’ of the resistance. Even Russian president Vladimir Putin for a decisive victory for the US ‘for economic and political reasons,’ just as he offered asylum to Mr Snowden on conditions that he knew would be unacceptable.

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The current generation of European leaders have not known a time in their lives when the United States did not dominate their countries—in the economic, political, and perhaps even cultural arenas. For them to symbolically challenge the US is one thing, to challenge it substantively is another thing altogether. Hence, even when their sovereignty was violated with the bugging of their diplomatic missions and EU offices, and when the privacy of their citizens was infringed by the tapping of their phones and digital communications, all they could do was to do all they could to see that Mr Snowden does not seek asylum in their countries even if that meant endangering the lives of President Morales and his entourage. Would they have done that if President Morales was of European descent?

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