Tag Archives: Arab World

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization

17 Nov

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization: Egypt and Turkey

 

            There is a temptation to suggest that political life in Turkey and Egypt are both being victimized by a similar deepening of polarization between Islamic and secular orientations, and to some extent this is true, but it is also misleading. Turkey continues to be victimized by such a polarization, especially during the eleven years that the Justice & Development Party (AKP) has governed the country, and arguably more so in the last period. In Egypt, so describing the polarization is far less descriptive of the far more lethal form of unfolding that its political cleavage has taken. It has become an overt struggle for the control of the political destiny of the country being waged between the Egyptian armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two organized political forces capable of projecting their influence throughout the entire country, including rural areas.  This bitter struggle in Egypt engages religious orientations on both sides, and even the military leadership and upper echelons of the armed forces are observant Muslims, and in some cases extremely devout adherents of Salafi belief and practice.  

 

            In effect, at this point, there is not a distinctly secular side that can be associated with post-coup Egyptian leadership under the caretaker aegis of the armed forces, although clearly most of the liberal secular urban elite and many of the left activists sided with the military moves, at least initially. Recent reports suggest more and more defections, although the price for making such a change of heart public can be high. For General el-Sisi the essence of the conflict seems to be between what is irresponsibly alleged to be a ‘terrorist’ opposition on the one side, which has been broadened somewhat to extend beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to whomever dares question the tactics or intentions of the new leadership, and political forces supposedly committed to a democratic future for the country on the other. If the core of the opposition can be effectively portrayed as terrorists in this post-9/11 world, then the criminalization of their activities and organization, and the neglect of their rights will seem prudent to many, and even a necessary ingredient of national security.

 

            The Egyptian state controlled media, along with the mainstream media in the West, has allowed the Egyptian post-coup leadership to so far get away, literally, with murder! This sort of distorted presentation of the conflict has been also indirectly endorsed by governments, and has somewhat surprisingly achieved strong backing throughout the Arab world with a few notable exception. Among the grossest distortions are the unchallenged depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood as purveyors of violence, given that the organization has renounced violence after 1978, and generally maintained such a posture despite decades of suppression and provocation by Mubarak government, and more recently by the forces arrayed against it. It should also be appreciated that Morsi’s clear counsel to his followers from the time of the coup was to insist on the legitimacy of the elected government and to resist the claims of the post-coup leadership, but to do so nonviolently.

 

            It is important to understand that neither the Egyptian or Turkish experiences of polarization are symmetrical processes. In each instance, the side that is fairly beaten by democratic procedures, especially elections, refuses to accept the implications of political defeat. Rather than form a responsible opposition, with an alternative political program, such an embittered opposition has recourse to extra-constitutional means to regain power, and strives to establish a justification for such extremist advocacy and initiatives by demonizing its adversary, especially the person of the leader.

In contrast, the side that enjoys democratic legitimacy relies on its right to govern, and sometimes on its performance, to justify the retention of governing authority. There is no doubt that Morsi was in a radically different position that Erdogan after his narrow electoral victory in 2012—having an economy on a downward slippery slope, a public with high post-Mubarak expectations of a change for the better, and a complete lack of governing experience.

 

            This phenomenon of polarization is becoming more widespread, an expression of growing alienation within societies as a response to disappointments with traditional political parties and their leaders at the national level. As dissatisfaction and frustrations with prevailing forms of governance grows in many countries, the opposition becomes ever more embittered, and tends to blame the elected leader with venomous rhetoric. Often such excessive attacks provoke a response from the government that further discredits the leader in the eyes of the opposition, widening the gap between those governing and those in the opposition. If the angered opposition senses that it is unable to win at the ballot box, it will be tempted to mobilize a populist politics in the street, and sometimes manages to enlist those parts of government bureaucracy (often the judiciary and security forces) that are aligned openly or secretly with efforts to create crises of legitimacy and governance.

 

            From such a combustible mix, explosive possibilities are possible on both sides, ranging from coups to various authoritarian abandonment of democratic procedures. Each side produces a self-serving narrative of national survival that shifts the blame entirely to its political enemy. There is no effort at dialogue, which is essential for the political health of a democratic society beset by serious challenges and policy disagreements. This does not mean that the two sides are equally persuasive, but it does suggest there are few informed and judicious voices that can be heard above the noise of the fray.

 

            Outsiders also complicate the scene, whether they favor the government or the opposition. The originality of each national situation needs to be taken into account. There are many variables, including history, culture, geography, stage of development, economic performance, levels of unemployment and poverty, quality of governance, role of violence, respect for human rights and the rule of law, degrees of corruption. And yet at the same time, there are patterns and transnational similarities that make certain regional generalizations illuminating.

 

            The comparison of Turkey and Egypt is suggestive of this broader regional, and indeed global, pattern of polarization that is undermining political discourse in more and more countries. The Turkish political scene is still very much shaped by the lingering socially constructed and politically maintained legacy of Kemal Ataturk, and his radical modernization project that sought a total eclipse of Turkey’s Ottoman past. This endeavor, although highly influential, never completely succeeded in creating a post-Islamic normative order in the country, although it did manage to produce a highly secularized and Europeanized upper middle class in the main cities in western Turkey that fiercely, with its own unacknowledged religious intensity, clings rather sadly to the outmoded Kemalist legacy as the only usable past.

 

            In Ataturk’s defense as a historical figure, it should be remembered that the challenges facing Turkey after World War I were primarily to create a strong unified state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire while withstanding European imperial ambitions that were rampant elsewhere in the region. The Turkish defeat of colonial ambitions was spectacular, but it led to a dysfunctional form of hyper-nationalism that had three prominent features: the attempted erasure of minority identities, a discriminatory insistence on the privatization of religious values and beliefs that particularly victimized Turkish women, and a deferential mimicry of Europe, especially France, in its construction of a secular polity.

 

            Each of these undertakings over time generated strong forms resistance that could never be fully overcome: minority identities were not extinguished, especially for the large and diverse Kurdish minority, Islamic political orientations did not disappear and kept seeking limited acceptance in public space, and the European model never won the allegiance of the Turkish masses. What did occur in Turkey until the end of the twentieth century was political domination by secular elites relying on the mantle of Kemalist legitimacy, with power bases in the main cities, and total control of the bureaucratic structures of Turkish governance, including a crucial alliance between the civilian secular leadership and the armed forces, which included the increasing private sector interests and market activity of the military. As a left challenge of a Marxist character emerged after World War II, secular control was sustained by a series of military coups to make sure that capitalist ideology was not frontally challenged. The Cold War pushed Turkey to adopt an anti-Communist foreign policy of a distinctly Western direction. In the NATO context Turkey was made responsible for the vital Southern flank of NATO, and seemed to follow without dissent the geopolitical line taken in Washington.

 

            What happened next after the Cold War ended was a growing populist rejection of the societal structures of Kemalist Turkey without mounting any direct and explicit challenge to the legacy. It was merely circumvented and adapted to a new set of conditions and social priorities. The ascent of the AKP in the 2002 elections, a result that was reinforced by larger victories in 2007 and 2011, achieved a sea change in the tone and substance of state/society relations in Turkey. It came about in stages, and may yet be reversed when new elections are held in 2015. There was Kemalist resistance from the outset, fears that Turkey was supposedly on its way to becoming ‘a second Iran.’ When that fear failed to materialize or to erode pro-AKP support there occurred a variety of coup plots that never came to fruition, largely because the neoliberal economy was flourishing, the AKP was cautious and pragmatic in its early years of leadership, the secularist ‘deep state’ remaining a brake on governance by the elected leaders, and the West, especially the United States was eager at the time to show the Islamic world that it could have a positive relationship with a government that did not hide the devout Muslim convictions of its principal leaders.

 

            The dynamics of polarization are such that when electoral prospects of the opposition are perceived to diminish, the opposition, especially if it had earlier controlled the state for a long period, grows angry and impatient with the workings of constitutional democracy even if it had earlier based its own legitimacy to govern upon the outcome of elections. Now in an altered political climate such a displaced opposition explores other ways to regain control of the state, itself now opting for populist forms of protest and democratic accountability that it had earlier ruthlessly suppressed.

 

            In the Turkish case, the opposition tactics along these lines were surprisingly unsuccessful in the first decade of the 21st century, although the avoidance of a coup may have been based on a number of unstable contingencies.  Such frustration over a ten year period, even as accompanied by impressive economic growth statistics and diplomatic prominence, did not lead the old Kemalist forces to acquiesce in the new political order, but only made the opposition enraged. Instead, these intensified frustrations, bringing anti-AKP resentment to a fever pitch, directed especially at its charismatic, populist, impulsive, and provocative Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man who evokes the strongest passions of love and hate. Erdogan serves as a cynosure of why democracy is at risk from above and below in Turkey. The government has ample grounds to feel threatened by the tactics, extremism, invective, and hostility of the opposition, which does not even bother to hide its contempt for democratic procedures in its quest for a return to the control of governance. In turn, the leadership, especially the sort of highly unpredictable emotional politics practiced by Erdogan, strays itself from democratic procedures partly as an understandable defensive reflex, has grounds to view the opposition as illegitimate, including its most vituperative media critics, which can easily slide into the embrace of a kind of defensive authoritarianism.

 

            The Egyptian descent into the vortex of hyper-polarization has certain resemblances to the Turkish experience, but also significant differences other than the relationship of contending forces to the poles of religion and secularism. In effect, secularism isn’t really a pole in Egypt, but at most one of the constituencies mobilized in the pre-coup period by anti-Morsi forces, many of whom might not have even realized that by opposing being governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, they were opting for the restoration of a brutal regime of the sort that had governed Egypt for three decades under Mubarak, which had seemed to have alienated virtually the whole of the country during the excitement of the January 25th movement in 2011. At that time, the armed forces were seen as standing aside while the people cast off a cruel and corrupt dictatorship that had reduced the Egyptian masses to a condition of subjugation and collective misery. In retrospect, this was an optical illusion created because the armed forces seemed willing to let Mubarak go to avoid having the next leader being his possibly reformist son, but was not at all ready to transform the governing process of the country despite the overwhelming mandate to do just that. It now seems clear that the Egyptian military would struggle against any political developments that threatened control of their budget, regulation of their business activities, and restriction of their discretion to manage the security policies of the Egyptian state (in collaboration with internal police and intelligence forces).

 

            Against this background, including the structural problems generated by Mubarak’s neoliberal approach to development, the Muslim Brotherhood would have been wise to abide by their initial public pledge to not field a candidate for the presidency and to limit their electoral ambitions in parliament and the constitution-forming process. Possibly, sensing their popularity as a transitory opportunity in a fluid situation, and maybe deceptively encouraged by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the MB leadership thought it was entitled to compete for leadership to the full extent of its popularity. Its years of community organizing and welfare services paid off in parliamentary results far in excess of what had been predicted. There seemed to be a mandate to lead the country, but there also seemed to a series of insurmountable challenges that were unlikely to be met whoever gained controlled of the government.

 

            When it became clear that the MB was stronger than expected, and that it would not limit its goals as earlier announced, much of the liberal anti-Mubarak opposition registered a reaction of panic. Reflections on the prospect of living under a MB government induced many Egyptians to swing back to the Mubarak side, leading Ahmed Shafik, a fulool mainstay, to win almost 50% of the vote in the presidential runoff election in June 2012. It was a defeat, but considering the near zero support for the old established order in the heady days of Tahrir Square, this result suggested a dramatic reversal of political mood at least in the main urban centers of Egypt. That near victory of Shafik should have been interpreted as a signal that counter-revolutionary tremors would soon begin to shake the foundations of political stability in Egypt.  Polarization took multiple forms in the ensuing months, with Morsi faltering as a leader partly for failures of his own making, and the opposition stridently insisting that things were out of control, allegedly worse than in the most unpopular Mubarak times. There was also evidence that to mobilize the populace well orchestrated efforts were made to create fuel shortages and price hikes in food prices, impacting negatively on the image of Morsi as someone who could lead post-Mubarak Egypt into better times. The outcome, perhaps exaggerated in the media, was a huge mobilization of anti-Morsi forces that produced the largest public demonstrations in Egyptian history, and set the stage for the July 3rd takeover, with its blank check given to the armed forces to do whatever it wanted to do, including if necessary the elimination of the MB (at least 30% of the populace) from the political scene. What followed was a series of massacres and abuses of state power on a scale that would have shocked the conscience of humanity if it had been reported to the world in an honest and responsible fashion. Instead, what appear to be a series of thinly disguised Crimes Against Humanity of a severe character were swept under the rug of world public opinion, and the new regime received financial and diplomatic support and many diverse wishes for success.

 

            This then is the final point. When a polarized opposition resorts to unlawful means to regain or seize power, the nature of the regional and global response can be critical to its success or failure. There were strong geopolitical incentives for welcoming the Egyptian coup, and thus not complain too much about its bloody aftermath. There are less clear reasons to favor the defeat of the AKP government in Turkey, especially given its role in NATO and the world economy, as well as the absence of a responsible and credible opposition, and yet there are regional and global actors that would greet the fall of the AKP with a smile of satisfaction.

 

            I am arguing that theses instances of polarization amount to a deadly virus that attacks the body politic in countries with weak constitutional traditions, especially if such societies are beset by economic disappointment and significant regional and global hostility due to ideological and political tensions. So far, Turkey has an immune system strong enough to neutralize the virus, while Egypt having virtually no protection against such a virus has succumbed. If there is hope for a brighter Egyptian future, then it will become evident in the months ahead as the Egyptian body politic seeks belatedly to destroy the virus that is threatening the quality of life in the society. For Turkey the future remains clouded in comparable uncertainty, and it may be, that the polarized alienation combined with the mistakes associated with too long a tenure in office will yet lead to the democratic downfall of Erdogan and the AKP.

 

A SHORT POSTSCRIPT TO “WILL WE EVER LEARN? CONTRA INTERVENTION”

8 Mar

A SHORT POSTSCRIPT TO “WILL WE EVER LEARN? CONTRA INTERVENTION”

Since my blog was posted several responses and developments lead me to think further about the essential issues, but not to change course.

It has been suggested that, perhaps, a no fly zone would enable the rebel forces to deal more effectively with the foreign militias being relied upon by the Qaddafi regime to do much of its dirty work. It is difficult to know how a particular version of the no fly zone would impact on the battlefield. We are

speculating on the basis of radical uncertainty, and in such circumstances, it is almost always better to refrain from coercive action than to engage in it. Furthermore, there is a wide spectra of no fly zone scenarios depending on the governments who are taking such an initiative, its degree of dependence on correlated air strikes, and the options available to the rebels and Qaddafi to either take advantage of its effect or to circumvent them. For instance, it is politically more palatable to have a no fly zone established and administered under the auspices of the Arab League or as has been proposed, a joint Egypt/Turkey undertaking than to have it done by NATO or a United States-led ‘coalition of the willing.’ The UN as sponsor is out of the question given Russian opposition, and Chinese reluctance. At the same time, given the logistical and technological demands, it is more likely that the effectiveness of a no fly zone would be greater under NATO/U.S control. A failed no fly zone would embolden Libya, and likely improve his prospects to prevail in the internal struggle.

Furthermore, the tactics and character of the rebel movement seems dramatically different than the uprisings elsewhere in the region, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. In Libya, the movement lacks the inspiring quality of nonviolence, human solidarity, and social/political demands for justice. It was violent from the outset, tribalist in spirit, recipient of weaponry from external actors, preoccupied with control over the oil-producing areas, indistinct in political outlook (a rebel segment flying the pre-Qaddafi flag of the Libyan monarchy), and uncertainly linked to private sector international oil interests. This looks more like a struggle for control of the state or possibly an effort to establish a secessionist second state if a stalemate emerges. Under this mix of circumstances one must be suspicious about the focus on Libya and the call for full consideration of military options. It would seem to be the case that if feasibility hurdles could be overcome, the political climate in the United States and Britain would support a large-scale intervention, possibly with Arab regional acquiescence. See illuminating analysis by Michel Chossudovsky, “Insurrection and Military Intervention: The US-NATO Attempted Coup d’Etat in Libya?” www.globalresearch.ca March 8, 2011.

With these considerations in mind, I think the case for nonintervention remains overwhelmingly persuasive from moral, legal, and political perspectives. Perhaps, the most compelling rationale for reaching such a conclusion was well stated by Roger Cohen: “But the deepest reason is the moral bankruptcy of the West with respect to the Arab world. Arabs have no need of U.S. or European soldiers as they seek the freedom that America and the European Union were content to deny them.” (NY Times, March 7, 2011) It is not often that I have the opportunity to quote approvingly from the New York Times when the subject-matter involves the Middle East, and so I want to make the most of it.

Perhaps, there is another way to exhibit the shabbiness of the argument being made on behalf of a protective no fly zone. Why no comparable proposal on behalf of the civilian population of Gaza trapped behind a merciless blockade for more than three years?

Aside from issues of nonintervention, always important, there is here the paramount relevance of support for dynamics of self-determination. This does not assure the triumph of justice in conflict situations. Qaddafi may win or the rebels may prevail, and prove as distastefully oppressive as the Qaddafi regime. On balance, what means most in the 21st century is to allow the peoples of the world make their own history. Western military paternalism and economic exploitation have been deservedly discredited.

As suggested, there is no way to seal the borders of territorial states. Neither pure noninterventionism nor insulated self-determination are ever possible given the porousness of borders and the interventionary incentives of a range of outsiders. There are various low profile ‘interventions’ taking place. Weapons are being supplied, perhaps, special forces are covertly present as advisors or even fighters. In this respect, the most that can be done is to oppose gross forms of overt governmental intervention, as well as limit assistance to governments, including the Tripoli regime, that violate the fundamental human rights of their own people. In this respect, sanctions are appropriate if authorized by the UN so long as not coupled with intervention, and take responsible account of competing moral, legal, and political claims.

Keep in mind that Libya has over 3.5% of the world’s oil reserves, which is twice the amount present in the United States. Without being an economic determinist, oil certainly helps explain the preferential treatment being given to insurrection in Libya!

Will We Ever Learn? Kicking the Intervention Habit

7 Mar

Will We Ever Learn? Kicking the Intervention Habit


What is immediately striking about the bipartisan call in Washington for a no-fly zone and air strikes designed to help rebel forces in Libya is the absence of any concern with the relevance of international law or the authority of the United Nations. None in authority take the trouble to construct some kind of legal rationalization. The ‘realists’ in command, and echoed by the mainstream media, do not feel any need to provide even a legal fig leaf before embarking on aggressive warfare.


It should be obvious that a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace is an act of war, as would be, of course, contemplated air strikes on fortifications of the Qadaffi forces. The core legal obligation of the UN Charter requires member states to refrain from any use of force unless it can be justified as self-defense after a cross-border armed attack or mandated by a decision of the UN Security Council. Neither of these conditions authorizing a legal use of force is remotely present, and yet the discussion proceeds in the media and Washington circles as if the only questions worth discussing pertain to feasibility, costs, risks, and a possible backlash in the Arab world. The imperial mentality is not inclined to discuss the question of legality, much less show behavioral respect for the constraints embedded in international law.

Cannot it not be argued that in situations of humanitarian emergency ‘a state of exception’ exists allowing an intervention to be carried out by a coalition of the willing provided it doesn’t make the situation worse? Was not this the essential moral/political rationale for NATO’s Kosovo War in 1999, and didn’t that probably spare the majority Albanian population in Kosovo from a bloody episode of ethnic cleansing at the hands of the embattled Serb occupiers? Hard cases make bad precedents, as is well known. But even bad precedents need to find a justification in the circumstances of a new claimed situation of claimed exception, or else there would a strong reinforcement for the public impression that the powerful act as they will without even pausing to make a principled argument for a proposed departure from the normal legal regime of restraint.


With respect to Libya, we need to take account of the fact that the Qaddafi government, however distasteful on humanitarian grounds, remains the lawful diplomatic representative of a sovereign state, and any international use of force even by the UN, much less a state or group of states, would constitute an unlawful intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, prohibited by Article 2(7) of the UN Charter unless expressly authorized by the Security Council as essential for the sake of international peace and security. Beyond this, there is no assurance that an intervention, if undertaken, would lessen the suffering of the Libyan people or bring to power a regime more respectful of human rights and dedicated to democratic participation.

The record of military intervention during the last several decades is one of almost unbroken failure if either the human costs or political outcomes are taken into proper account. Such interventionary experience in the Islamic world during the last fifty years makes it impossible to sustain the burden of persuasion that would be needed to justify an anti-regime intervention in Libya in some ethically and legally persuasive way.


 

 

 

 

 

There are also serious credibility concerns. As has been widely noted in recent weeks, the United States has had no second thoughts about supporting oppressive regimes throughout the region for decades, and is widely resented for this role by the various anti-regime movements. Qadaffi’s crimes against humanity were never a secret, and certainly widely known by European and American intelligence services. Even high profile liberal intellectuals in Britain and the United States welcomed invitations to Tripoli during the last several years, apparently without a blink of conscience, accepting consulting fees and shamelessly writing positive assessments that praised the softening authoritarianism in Libya. Perhaps, that is what Joseph Nye, one of the most prominent of these recent good will visitors to Tripoli, would call a private use of ‘smart power,’ commending Qadaffi for renouncing his anti-West posture, for making deals for oil and weapons, and most of all for abandoning what some now say was at most a phantom nuclear weapons program.

Some Beltway pundits are insisting on talk shows that the interventionists after faltering in the region want to get on the right side of history before it is too late. But what is the right side of history in Libya seems quite different than it is in Bahrain or Jordan, and for that matter throughout the region. History seems to flow according to the same river currents as does oil! Elsewhere, the effort is to restore stability with minimal concessions to the reformist demands, hoping to get away with a political touch up that is designed to convert the insurrectionists of yesterday into the bureaucrats of tomorrow.

Mahmoud Mamdani has taught us to distinguish ‘good Muslims’ from ‘bad Muslims,’ now we are being instructed to distinguish ‘good autocrats’ from ‘bad autocrats.’ By this definition, only the pro-regime elements in Libya and Iran qualify as bad autocrats, and their structures of must at least be shaken if they cannot be broken. What distinguishes these regimes? It does not seem to be that their degree of oppressiveness is more pervasive and severe than is the case for the others. Other considerations give more insight: access and pricing of oil, arms sales, security of Israel, relationship to the neoliberal world economy.

What I find most disturbing is that despite the failures of counterinsurgency thinking and practice, American foreign policy gurus continue to contemplate intervention in post-colonial societies without scruples or the slightest show of sensitivity to historical experience, not even the recognition that national resistance in the post-colonial world has consistently neutralized the advantages of superior hard power deployed by the intervening power. The most that has been heard is a whispered expression of concern by the relatively circumspect Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, that it may not be prudent at this time for the United States to intervene in yet another Islamic country. The absence of any learning from Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq is startling, underscored by the glorification of General David Petraeus who rose to military stardom soon after he was credited with refurbishing the army’s approach to counterinsurgency, which is the Pentagon jargon for pro-regime intervention. Major current illustrations are Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other places in the Middle East. Technically speaking, the proposed intervention in Libya is not an instance of counterinsurgency, but is rather a pro-insurgency intervention, as has also been the case with the covert destabilization efforts that continue in Iran.

It is easier to understand the professional resistance to learning from past failure on the part of military commanders as it is their life work, but the civilian politicians deserve not a whit of sympathy. Among the most ardent advocates of intervention in Libya are the last Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, the supposedly independent Joe Lieberman, and the Obama Democrat John Kerry. It seems that many of the Republicans focused on the deficit although cutting public expenditures punishes the poor at a time of widespread unemployment and home foreclosures would not mind ponying up countless billions to finance acts of war in Libya. There exists a worrying readiness to throw money and weapons at an overseas conflict, seemingly as to show that imperial geopolitics is not yet dead despite the growing evidence of American decline.

In the end, I suppose we have to hope that those more cautious imperial voices that base their opposition to intervention on feasibility concerns carry the day!

What I am mainly decrying here in the Libyan debate are three kinds of policy failure:

(1) the exclusion of international law and the United Nations from relevance to national debates about international uses of force;

(2) the absence of respect for the dynamics of self-determination in societies of the South;

(3) the refusal to heed the ethics and politics appropriate for a post-colonial world order that is being de-Westernized and is becoming increasingly multi-polar.


III.7.2011

What is Winning? The Next Phase for the Revolutionary Uprisings

24 Feb


Early in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings it seemed that winning was understood by the massed demonstrators to mean getting rid of the hated leader, of Ben Ali in the Tunisian case, and Mubarak in the Egyptian. But as the process deepened it make clear that more was being demanded and expected, and that this had to do with restoring the material and spiritual dignity of life in all its aspects.

Without any assurance as to what ‘winning’ means in the setting of the extraordinary revolutionary uprisings that are continuing to rock the established order throughout the Arab world, it is likely to mean different things in the various countries currently in turmoil. But at the very least winning has so far meant challenging by determined and incredibly brave nonviolence the oppressive established order. This victory over long reigns of fear-induced pacification is itself a great transformative moment in 21st century history no matter what happens in the months ahead.

As Chandra Muzaffar, the widely respected Malaysian scholar who  religion and justice, compelling argues, the replacement of the old order by electoral democracy, while impressive as an accomplishment given the dictatorial rule of the past in these countries, will not be nearly enough to vindicate the sacrifices of the protestors. It is significantly better than those worst case scenarios that insist that the future will bring dismal varieties of ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak,’ which would change the faces and names of the rulers but leave the oppressive and exploitative regimes essentially in tact. This would definitely be a pyrrhic victory, given the hopes and demands that motivated the courageous political challenges embodied in withstanding without weapons the clubs, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and overall brutality, as well as the uncertainty as to what the soldiers in the streets would do when the order to open fire at the demonstrators came from the beleaguered old guard.

What is needed beyond constitutional democracy is the substantive realization of good and equitable governance: this includes, above all, people-oriented economic policies, an end to corruption, and the protection of human rights, including especially economic and social rights.  Such an indispensable agenda recognizes that the primary motivation of many of the demonstrators was related to their totally alienating entrapment in a jobless future combined with the daily struggle to obtain the bare necessities of a tolerable life.

There is present here both questions of domestic political will and governmental capability to redirect the productive resources and distributive policies of the society. How much political space is available to alter the impositions of neoliberal globalization that was responsible for reinforcing, if not inducing, the grossly inequitable and corrupting impact of the world economy on the structuring of domestic privilege and deprivation? Not far in the background is an extended global recession that may be deepened in coming months due to alarming increases in commodity prices, especially food. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization the world Food Price Index reached a record high in December 2010, a level exceeded by another 3% rise in January of this year. Lester Brown, a leading expert on world food and environment, wrote a few days ago that “[t]he world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.” [International Herald Tribune, Feb 23, 2011]

With political turmoil threatening world energy supplies, oil prices are also surging, allegedly further endangering the uneven and fragile economic recovery in the United States and Europe. Global warming adds a further troubling feature to this deteriorating situation, with droughts, floods, fires, and storms making it difficult to maintain crop yields, much increase food production to meet increasing demands of the world’s growing population.

These impinging realities will greatly complicate the already formidable difficulties facing new leaders throughout the Arab world seeking with a sense of urgency to create job opportunities and affordable supplies of food for their citizenries. This challenge is intensified by the widely shared high expectations of improved living circumstances. If the autocratic prior regime was held responsible for mass impoverishment of the many and the scandalously excessive enrichment of the few, is it not reasonable to suppose that the more democratic successor governments should establish without much delay greatly improved living conditions? And further, how could it be claimed that the heroic uprising was worthwhile if the quality of life of ordinary citizens, previously struggling to avert the torments of impoverishment, does not start improving dramatically almost immediately? An understandably impatient public may not give their new leaders the time that need, given these conditions, to make adjustments that will begin to satisfy these long denied hopes and needs. Perhaps, the public will be patient if there are clear signs that the leaders are trying their hardest and even if actual progress is slow, there is some evidence that the material conditions of the populace are, at least, on an ascending slope.

Even if the public is patient beyond reason, and understands better than can be prudently expected, the difficulties of achieving economic justice during a period of transition to a new framework of governance, there may be still little or no capacity to fulfill public expectations due to the impact of these worsening global conditions.  It is quite possible that if the worst food/energy scenarios unfold, famines and food riots could occur, casting dark shadows of despair across memories of these historic victories that made the initial phases of each national uprising such a glowing testament to the human spirit, which seemed miraculously undaunted by decades of oppression and abuse.

It needs also to be kept in mind that often the slogans of the demonstrators highlighted a thirst for freedom and rights. Even though there is little experience of democratic practice throughout the region, there will likely be a serious attempt by new governing institutions to distinguish their practices from those of their hated forebears, and allow for the exercise of all forms of oppositional activity, including freedom of expression, assembly, and party formation. Unlike the problems associated with creating jobs and providing for material needs, the establishment of the atmosphere of a free society is within the physical capacities of a new leadership if the political will exists to assume the unfamiliar risks associated with democratic practices. We must wait and see how each new leadership handles these normative challenges of transition. It remains to be seen as to whether the difficulties of transition are intensified by counterrevolutionary efforts to maintain or restore the old deforming structures and privileges. These efforts are likely to be aided and abetted by a range of covert collaborative undertakings joining external actors with those internal forces threatened by impending political change.

And if this overview was not discouraging enough, there is one further consideration. As soon as the unifying force of getting rid of the old leadership is eroded, if not altogether lost, fissures within the oppositions are certain to emerge. There will be fundamental differences as between radical and liberal approaches to transition, and especially whether to respect the property rights and social hierarchies associated with the old regime, or to seek directly to correct the injustices and irregularities of the past. Some critics of the Mandela approach to reconciliation and transition in South Africa believe that his acceptance of the social and economic dimensions of the repudiated apartheid structure have resulted in a widely felt sense of revolutionary disappointment, if not betrayal, in South Africa.

There will also be tactical and strategic differences about how to deal with the world economy, especially with respect to creating stability and attractive conditions for foreign investment. It is here that tensions emerge as between safeguarding labor rights and making investors feel that their operations will remain profitable in the new political environment.

This recitation of difficulties is not meant to detract attention from or to in any way diminish the glorious achievements of the revolutionary uprisings, but to point to the unfinished business that must be addressed if revolutionary aspirations are going to be able to avoid disillusionment. So often revolutionary gains are blunted or even lost shortly after the old oppressors have been dragged from the stage of history. If ever there exists the need for vigilance it at these times when the old order is dying and the new order is struggling to be born. As Gramsci warned long ago this period of inbetweeness is vulnerable to a wide range of predatory tendencies. It is a time when unscrupulous elements can repress anew even while waving a revolutionary banner and shouting slogans about defending the revolution against its enemies. And a difficulty here is that the enemies may well be real as well as darkly imagined. How many revolutions in the past have been lost due to the machinations of their supposed guardians?

Let us fervently hope that the mysteries of the digital age will somehow summon the creative energy to manage the transition to sustainable and substantive democracy as brilliantly as it earlier staged the revolutionary uprisings.

 

Egypt’s Transformative Moment: Revolution, Counterrevolution, or Reform

4 Feb

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 there have been two further transformative events that have reshaped in enduring ways the global setting. When the Soviet empire collapsed two years later, the way was opened for the triumphalist pursuit of the American Imperial Project, seizing the opportunity for geopolitical expansion provided by its self-anointed global leadership as ‘the sole surviving superpower.’ This first rupture in the character of world order produced a decade of ascendant neoliberal globalization in which state power was temporarily and partially eclipsed by a passing the torch of lead global policymaker to the oligarchs of Davos who met annually under the banner of the World Economic Forum. In that sense, the U.S. Government was the well-subsidized sheriff of predatory globalization while the policy agenda was being set by lead bankers and global corporate executives. Although not often identified as such, the 1990s was the first evidence of the rise of non-state actors, and the decline of state-centric geopolitics.

The second rupture came with the 9/11 attacks, however those events are construed. The impact of the attacks transferred the locus of policymaking authority back to the United States, as state actor, under the rubrics of ‘the war on terror,’ ‘global security,’ and ‘the long war.’ This counter-terrorist response to 9/11 produced claims to engage in preemptive warfare (‘The Bush Doctrine’). This militarist foreign policy was put into practice by initiating a ‘shock and awe’ war against Iraq in March 2003 despite the refusal of the UN Security Council to back American war plans. This second rupture has turned the entire world into a potential battlefield, with a variety of overt and covert military and paramilitary operations launched by the United States without appropriate authorization from either the UN or by deference to international law. Aside from this disruption of the liberal international order, the continuing pattern of responses to 9/11 involve disregard for the sovereign rights of states in the global South as well as complicity of many states in Europe and the Middle East in violation of basic human rights through engaging in torture in response to ‘extreme rendition’ of terrorist suspects and providing ‘black sites’ where persons deemed hostile to the United States are detained and routinely abused. The response to 9/11 also was seized upon by the neoconservative ideologues that rose to power in the Bush presidency to enact their pre-attack grand strategy accentuating ‘regime change’ in the Middle East, starting with Iraq, which was portrayed as ‘low-lying fruit’ that would have multiple benefits once picked:

military bases, lower energy prices, oil supplies, regional hegemony, promoting Israeli regional goals.

The third rupture involving the continuing worldwide deep economic recession that started in 2008, and has produced widespread rise in unemployment, declining living standards, and rising costs for basic necessities, especially food and fuel. These developments have exhibited the inequities, gross abuses, and deficiencies of neoliberal globalization, but have not led to the imposition of regulations designed to lessen such widely uneven gains from economic growth, to avoid market abuses, or even to guard against periodic market collapses. This deepening crisis of world capitalism is not being currently addressed, and alternative visions, even the revival of a Keynesian approach, have little political backing. This crisis has also exposed the vulnerabilities of the European Union to the uneven stresses exerted by varying national capabilities to deal with the challenges posed. All of these economic concerns are complicated and intensified by the advent of global warming, and its dramatically uneven impacts.

A fourth rupture in global governance is associated with the unresolved turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. The mass popular uprisings that started in Tunisia have provided the spark that set off fires elsewhere in the region, especially Egypt. These extraordinary challenges to the established order have vividly inscribed on the global political consciousness the courage and determination of ordinary people living in these Arab countries, especially youth, who have been enduring for their entire lives intolerable conditions of material deprivation, despair, alienation, elite corruption, and merciless oppression. The outcomes of these movements for change in the Arab world is not yet knowable, and will not be for months, if not years to come. It is crucial for supporters on the scene and around the world not to become complacent as it is certain that those with entrenched interests in the old oppressive and exploitative order are seeking to restore former conditions to the extent possible, or at least salvage what they can. In this regard, it would be a naïve mistake to think that transformative and emancipatory results can come from the elimination of a single hated figure such as Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt, even if including their immediate entourage. Sustainable significant change requires a new political structure, as well as a new process that ensures free and fair elections and adequate opportunities for popular participation. Real democracy must be substantive as well as procedural, bringing human security to the people, including basic needs, decent work, and a police that protects rather than harasses. Otherwise, the changes wrought merely defer the revolutionary moment to a later day, and an ordeal of mass suffering will resume until that time comes.

To simplify, what remains unresolved is the fundamental nature of the outcome of these confrontations between the aroused populace of the region and state power with its autocratic and neoliberal orientations. Will this outcome be transformative bringing into being authentic democracy based on human rights and an economic order that puts the needs of people ahead of the ambitions of capital? If it is then it will be appropriate to speak of the Egyptian Revolution, the Tunisian Revolution, and maybe others in the region and elsewhere to come, as it was appropriate to describe the Iranian outcome in 1979 as the Iranian Revolution. From this perspective a revolutionary result may not necessarily be a benevolent outcome beyond ridding the society of the old order. In Iran a newly oppressive regime resting on a different ideological foundation emerged, itself being challenged after the 2009 elections by a popular movement calling itself the Green Revolution. So far this use of the word ‘revolution’ expressed hopes rather than referred to realities.

What has actually taken place in Iran, and what seemed to flow from the onslaught unleashed by the Chinese state in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was ‘counterrevolution,’ that is the restoration of the old order and the systematic repression of those identified as participants in the challenge. Actually, the words deployed can be misleading. What most followers of the Green Revolution seemed to seek in Iran was reform not revolution, that is, changes in personnel and policies, protection of human rights, but no challenge to the structure or the constitution of the Islamic Republic.

It is unclear whether the movement in Egypt is at present sufficiently unified or reflective to have a coherent vision of its goals beyond getting rid of Mubarak. The response of the state, besides trying to crush the uprising and even banish media coverage, offers at most promises of reform: fairer and freer elections, respect for human rights. It is rather obscure about what is meant and even more so, what will happen, in the course of an ‘orderly transition’ under the auspices of temporary leaders closely tied to the old regime, and likely enjoying enthusiastic backing in Washington. Will a cosmetic agenda of reform hide the actuality of a politics of counterrevolution? Or will revolutionary expectations come to the fore from an aroused populace to overwhelm the pacifying efforts of ‘the reformers’? Or might there be a genuine mandate of reform, supported by elites and bureaucrats, enacting sufficiently ambitious changes in the direction of democracy and social justice to satisfy the publics? Of course, there is no assurance, or likelihood, that the outcomes will be the same, or even similar, in the various countries undergoing these dynamics of change, and some will see ‘revolution’ where ‘reform’ has taken place, and few will acknowledge the extent to which ‘counterrevolution’ can lead to the breaking of even modest promises of reform.

At stake, as never since the collapse of the colonial order in the Middle East and North Africa, is the unfolding and shaping of self-determination in the entire Arab world, and possibly beyond.

How these dynamics will affect the broader regional agenda is not apparent at this stage, but there is every reason to suppose that the Israel/Palestine conflict will never be quite the same. It is also uncertain how such important regional actors as Turkey or Iran will deploy or not their influence. And, of course, the behavior of the elephant not formally in the room is likely to be a crucial element in the mix for some time to come, for better or worse.

II.4..2011

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