Meditations on the Bloodbath in Egypt

August 20, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Intermingled with images of bodies covered in funeral shrouds and kept on blocks of melting ice in Cairo’s mosques and of grieving families surrounding their dead on television screens and front pages of newspapers are other images of Egyptians thanking the military for one of the bloodiest massacres in recent history. This grotesque juxtaposition of images marks the violent denouement of the promising democratic sprouts of the Arab Spring.

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The triumph of the counter-revolution also illustrates how the very narrative is tinged with elements that preclude a peaceful, democratic, and equitable resolution to the crisis. By pitching the conflict as between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that ousted the first democratically elected president with the support of millions of Egyptians, the narrative erases crucial nuances. Opponents of the coup not only include the Muslim Brotherhood but also the secular sections who opposed the overthrow of a democratically elected government. In a poll reported by the Middle East Monitor, a week after the coup only 26 percent supported the coup while 63 percent were against it. If President Mohamed Morsi’s majoritarian rule alienated liberals, support for the military came from very large sections of the Hosni Mubarak regime that had been ousted by the Cairo chapter of the Arab Spring in February 2011.

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This is what counter-revolution looks like

The blood-drenched counter-revolution triumphed—no one can now pretend that a democratic restoration is on the agenda, not even US Secretary of State John Kerry who said less than two weeks before the Egyptian military massacred its own citizens in Cairo that they were “restoring democracy” by ousting Morsi—as Adam Shatz noted, because the military and remnants of the old regime not only had better resources at their command but also a singular goal that the democratic mass movement lacked. What is more, most of Egypt’s allies—except notably for Turkey and Qatar—were clearly more comfortable with the military that promised “stability” than with the Muslim Brotherhood that had won the country’s first elections.

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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. After his Muslim Brotherhood engineered a walkout of the opposition from the Constituent Assembly, it rammed through a constitution in a referendum that was boycotted by most Egyptians. It received only 63 percent of the vote from the 30 percent of the eligible electorate—meaning the support of only 20 percent of the population.

 

Since the judiciary—a holdover from the Mubarak era—had invalidated the election of the lower house of parliament, President Morsi declared by fiat that the ceremonial upper house, the Shura Council—only 7 percent of which had been elected—was the parliament and had them pass a law that lowered the retirement age of judges from 75 years to 60 years. This would have put 25 percent of the judges out to pasture and enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to control all three branches of government as President Morsi has also nominated many members of the Shura Council.

 

Yet, the Western commentators who denounced this naked grab for power conveniently forget that in the United States, George W. Bush, not only stole an election but then went on to invade Iraq and destabilize the whole region without any popular mandate. Be that as it may, it is now clear that Morsi’s biggest failure was not to neutralize the country’s coercive apparatus—unlike Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who set about to decapitate the Shah’s army as soon as he attained power.

 

Large demonstrations in Cairo against Morsi and in support of his ouster also were misleading. Cairo and Alexandria were never Muslim Brotherhood strongholds, and in fact in the first round of the presidential elections neither of the top two candidates—Morsi and Shafik—won the most votes in these cities. 

 

Though human rights activists had hoped that as Morsi had 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 are killing Morsi supporters now. The military has also been unrepentant about its role under the old regime: as late as June 2012, the military strong man, General Abdul Fattah 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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Ironically, the liberals and the secularists also looked to the military to rein in the Morsi government’s excesses and indeed to overthrow the elected government. Without the confidence that a violent attack on the protesters in the Rabaa Al-Adaqwaiya Squate and other locations in Cairo would enjoy a wide degree of popular support, the military would not have rejected out of hand the compromise that the EU envoy, Bernandino Leon, and the US deputy secretary of state, Willian Burns had crafted and which had been accepted the Brotherhood. Under that plan, the Brotherhood would sharply reduce the number of protesters and limit the protest camps to two and the military would release the speaker of the parliament as a gesture of good will.

 

But General al-Sisi calculated that there would be little to pay if he were to eliminate the Brotherhood as a legitimate political force and restore authoritarian rule. Indeed, the liberals installed in the interim government initially even blamed the massacre on the protesters killing each other! Nor did the liberals protest 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.

 

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Reaction overseas to the coup has been muted as well. Despite the casualty numbers topping a thousand killed and many thousands injured, the Obama administration could not bring itself to call the ouster of President Morsi by the military a ‘coup’ since it would then trigger an end to the $1.3 billion in aid the Egyptian military receives from Washington. As Juan Cole has argued the United States cannot substantially cut its aid to Egypt because much of it is corporate welfare for its domestic companies—US aid is effectively a credit card that Egypt must spend to buy US military and civilian supplies—and part of what passes for ‘US aid to Egypt’ is paradoxically for joint Israeli-Egyptian patrols and thus goes in part to Israel!

 

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Saudi Arabia, in fact, has offered to compensate the military for any cuts in aid from the United States and the Israelis who have had a long relationship with al-Sisi when he was chief of military intelligence has also been lobbying for him in Washington. In fact, Patrick Smith underlines that it may not be a coincidence that Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu agreed to “peace talks” with the Palestinians only a few days after the Egyptian coup. “The dreaded question here,” Smith asks, “is whether U.S. support for Israel effectively precludes political advance in the Arab world.” Indeed, so confident is the military now that it has arrested the supreme leader of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie—something that even Mubarak had not done. Compounding its arrogance, it is also bringing charges of treason against Mohamed el-Baradei for resigning his post as vice president for international affairs in the interim government in protest against the massacres! Emboldened by the coup, the judges appointed by Mubarak have cleared him of all charges.

 

So confident has the military become that the New York Times reports that the “police scarcely bothered to offer a credible explanation for the deaths of three dozen Morsi supporters in custody over the [last] weekend. After repeatedly shifting stories, they ultimately said the detainees had suffocated from tear gas during a failed escape attempt. But photographs taken at the morgue on Monday showed that at least two had been badly burned from the shoulders up and that others bore evidence of torture.”

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Identity politics and the declining salience of class analysis

The triumph of the counter-revolution has been met with resignation because it is seen as a choice for stability and a choice between two bad options since the debate has framed it as a conflict between political Islam and a secular military, one that would foster dangerous religious fundamentalism across the region and the other which would guarantee Israel’s annexation of Palestine and the kleptocratic oligarchies of Arabia.

 

By targeting political Islam as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood as one axis of the conflict, secular opponents of the Ancien Régime and the Coptic Christian minority are cast in the role of defenders of the military overthrow of the elected government. And it followed as the night the day that the August bloodbath was followed by Muslim Brotherhood members torching Coptic Christian churches, businesses, and homes across the country as well as government offices. Yet, no one seems to have highlighted the military’s spectacular dereliction of duty in not safeguarding the churches and the Christian minorities. Indeed, it is likely that in an act of cynical callousness, the military deliberately left them defenseless to expose the Brotherhood.

 

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On a broader scale, what is striking is that conflicts in the Islamic world are always portrayed as sectarian rivalries (between Sunnis and Shias) or ethnic conflicts (Kurds, Alawites) or between secularists and political Islam. But this is not limited to the Islamic world as identity politics has erased class politics virtually everywhere. In India, conflict is typically portrayed in casteist and religious terms, in Africa in tribal terms.

 

The rise of neo-liberalism and the parallel demise of socialism has meant that class has virtually been erased as a salient category of analysis. Class is central to capitalism. As Arif Dirlik underlined some two decades, even if categories like gender and ethnicity are social constructs, in most cases they correspond to readily identifiable referents. Not so with class which has to be derived from an analysis of the operation of capitalism itself. But class alone is never sufficient given the complex, multi-layered mosaic of social life. Gender, ethnicity, religion, language, sexual orientation are all axes of domination and subordination that are not reducible to class. What we need is a recuperation of secular categories to frame our narratives.

 

The military has defeated the democratic popular movement that characterized Tahrir Square but it cannot solve the economic morass that engulfs Egypt. The deteriorating political situation has undermined its tourist industry and unemployment now runs at 50 percent. Since Egypt requires at least $20 billion next year to keep the economy going, further austerity measures will be implemented as per the dictates of international financial agencies. Worsening economic conditions will only draw more recruits—martyrs—to the Brotherhood which will deepen the crisis.

 

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It is only by acknowledging the gross inequalities in wealth and power, and seeking to reverse them that the beginnings of a new more equitable and democratic world order can be laid. And this requires secular categories of analysis not a rehearsal of tired old categories of religious fundamentalism

 
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No-fly zones, Libya and the Arab Revolt

March 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | 2 Comments
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The United Nations Security Council–with the abstention of Russia, China, Germany, India, and Brazil–has done what military analysts have said would be folly: it has voted to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ on Libya and ‘take all necessary action’ short of ‘a foreign occupation force of any form’ to force Colonel Muammar Gaddafi out of power. ‘All necessary action’ could involve a ‘no-drive zone’ to cripple the Libyan regime’s armored vehicles from attacking Benghazi, Misrata, Tobruk, and other remaining rebel strongholds as well as sending in military advisers.

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Advocates of the resolution have evoked humanitarian reasons–chiefly the regime’s brutal counter-assault using its air force and paramilitary forces to roll back the rebels–for intervention. This is buttressed by the belief that Libya is not even a third-rate power and its defenses can easily be destroyed. And the rebels are clothed in the accoutrements of democracy though the only thing that unifies the rebels is their opposition to the Gaddafi regime and it is not clear what a post-Gaddafi Libya will look like or even whether it will remain unified.

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If humanitarian reasons are the chief justification, then it is clear that there is a double standard that is applied. Much has been made of the Arab League’s call for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, but there has been no report of the fact that it was opposed by both Syria and Algeria. The states in support of the resolution–Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Oman, and Yemen–are hardly paragons of democracy. The governments of Yemen and Bahrain have brutally crushed demonstrations in their own countries; and Saudi Arabia and four other Gulf Cooperation Council states have sent more than 2000 troops to Bahrain to help the regime stay in power! Saudi Arabia has moreover prohibited protests in its eastern province, declaring such protests “illegal and un-Islamic”–and Saudi Arabia has more than 8,000 political prisoners!

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More importantly, there has been virtually no report in mainstream media in the West, that the African Union has condemned attempts to impose a no-fly zone on Libya. The AU’s 15-member peace and security council resolved, to “reaffirm[s] its firm commitment to the respect of the unity and territorial integrity of Libya, as well as its rejection of any form of foreign intervention in Libya.” It formed an ad hoc committee composed of South Africa, Mauritania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to engage in dialogue with all parties in Libya for a speedy resolution of the crisis.

There is no certainty that the military operation will be a smooth and easy one. Less than a month ago, US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, had told cadets at West Point that any secretary of defense who advises a president to intervene militarily in Asia or Africa ought to have his head examined. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that even the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’ let alone all the other ‘necessary actions’ voted on by the Security Council will be “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up”–and of course, the major burden will be on the United States which is already engaged in two wars. British Prime Minister David Cameron may have led the charge for a ‘no-fly zone’ but Britain does not even have an aircraft carrier! General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces in Kosovo, has argued that intervention in Libya does not meet critical tests: it is not in US national interest, the purpose of intervention is not clear, political prospects were Gaddafi to be ousted is unclear.

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A ‘no-fly zone’ moreover, might have had a chance of success ten days ago when the Gaddafi regime launched its counter-assault. Now with the rebels in full retreat, and the regime ascendant–with the regime poised to assault the rebel capital of Benghazi–it is not clear whether a no-fly zone alone will suffice. A ‘no-drive zone’ is an even more ‘complex operation’ and increases the odds of British, American, and French casualties–Germany has refused to contribute troops to a NATO operation against Libya and Turkey is unlikely to participate as well. Colonel Gaddafi has promised to take the battle into the Mediterranean and that increases the prospects of Western civilian casualties and an escalation of the war. It will be a war Gaddafi may well lose, but it is not likely that NATO can extricate itself easily–and remember there is no international sanction for a foreign occupation force ‘of any form’ in the Security Council resolution!

If intervention is to promote democracy, George Monbiot notes that the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Libya 158th of 167 countries on its Democracy Index while Saudi Arabia is ranked 160th–and in Libya “women are not officially treated as lepers were in medieval Europe.”

Here, the double standard is all too obvious. Saudi Arabia in the only remaining “swing producer”–the only oil-producing nation with enough excess capacity to raise production if supplies fall short of demand. But US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks suspect that Saudi claims of reserves are exaggerated by almost 40 percent.

The Arab Revolt is not really about democracy–elections have not delivered results in the past, and when election results have angered the United States as in the Hamas triumph in Palestine, the US has condemned the results and applauded Israel’s punitive punishment of Gaza. The protests are about a wholesale change–not merely a change of rulers–because where there is a legal opposition, the opposition is often equally discredited.

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Key to the revolt has been an explosion of information–not only through al-Jazeera, but also through the Internet, travel, and TV–and the enormous growth of people aged below 25 to levels unmatched almost anywhere else. The youth exposed to a wider range of information and experiences have greater aspirations–and now that two of the tyrants have been ousted, the sense of empowerment is raised as Brian Whittaker notes.

It is this sense of empowerment that will take a beating if Western forces occupy Libya for a long while. It will signal pro-Western governments in the Persian Gulf–Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich sheikdoms that they can count on mealy-mouthed appeals for restraint from Washington, London, and Paris as they crush their domestic oppositions. Ironically, this may play well in Iran’s favor. The Islamic Republic is very careful not to portray the conflicts in a sectarian light: if it can portray it as an attack on Muslims, and when Saudi Arabia, the Custodian of Holy Places, sends its troops to slaughter other Muslims, Iran raised the issue not with the Arab League but with the Organization of Islamic Conference. The Iranian Foreign Minister asked the Conference: “How can one accept that a government has proceeded to invite foreign military forces for the crackdown of its own citizens?” Tehran will gain even more credibility with the Arab forces when American, British, and French forces intervene in Libya.

Wikileaks, Iran, and the Middle East

December 10, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Human Rights, International Relations, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Wikileaks–the largest unauthorized dump of diplomatic cables in history–has cast light into the shady world of diplomacy and in the Middle East revealed the deep animosity the rulers of Saudi Arabia have for the Iranian government. This is of course not news as the al-Ahram weekly noted but it did confirm to the Arab street how complicit their rulers are with the United States. It is not surprising that Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states that had supported Saddam Hussein;s war against Iraq urged the US to strike against the Islamic Republic: “cut off the head of the snake,” the Saudi king Abdullah reportedly urged the Americans. And, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain said that the United States should take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities “by whatever necessary.”

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If the Obama Administration cite these and other remarks to justify a broad-based Arab opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, as Sharif Abdul Kouddous notes, none of these are democratic regimes and are propped up by American military, diplomatic, and financial support. The opposition to Iran expressed by these regimes was not reflected in the Arab Street. A Brookings Institute poll indicates a vast majority of the Arab population believe that the United States and israel are a greater threat to regional peace and political stability than Iran and they clearly recognize the double standards applied to Israel and Iran. Israel has over 200 nuclear warheads and faces no sanctions while Iran has not a single warhead, has said that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program, is facing increasingly stringent sanctions. The Wikileaks expose autocratic Arab rulers to be what they are: stooges dependent on the United States for their survival.

Moreover, as the media was focused on the information divulged by Wikileaks and the arrest of Julian Assange, the Obama Administration gave up trying to persuade the Israeli government to freeze settlement activity for 90 days so that the ‘peace talks’ with the Palestinian Authority could be resumed. They had concluded that even with a bribe of $3 billion dollars, the Israeli government was unwilling to cease constructing settlements in the Occupied Territories for a mere three months. As Andrew Bacevich notes, though the Israeli military power is unparalleled in the region, the continued offer of advanced US weaponry–as the offer of 20 F-35 aircraft for a nonrenewable 90-day freeze on settlement activity–continues to give credence to Israeli politicians’ claim that the security of the Jewish state is in jeopardy.

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Bizarrely, as Palestinians dispatched firefighters to fight the Mount Carmel fire–the largest fire in Israel’s history–in early December 2010, Israeli soldiers were deployed near the Palestinian villages of Bil’in, Nil’in and Nabi Saleh, where Israelis, Palestinians, and international activists organize weekly non-violent protests against Israel’s 480-mile separation wall and its policy of settlements in the Occupied Territories. And the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren while acknowledging the contributions of the Palestinian fire-fighters chose to castigate the Palestinian leadership for not returning to the talks without mentioning the reasons for their refusal–the continued and unlawful expropriation of their land!

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Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in such an untenable situation with the Obama Administration urging him to continue to talk to the Israelis while the latter continue to gobble up Palestine and work to render any potential Palestinian state unviable, that he has threatened to extinguish “Palestinian self-rule” in the West Bank. This would imply that the Israelis will have to resume responsibility for the 2.2 million Palestinians as the military occupying power, a responsibility they had relinquished after the Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. If this would cause chaos in the short-run as the Palestinian Authority employs some 150,000 people, it will put an end to a farcical situation and will undercut any legitimacy to these meaningless “peace process.” It would end too, all prospects of a two-state solution which of course was no solution at all.

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