Focal Points Blog

Inspiring Story of Tunisian Protests Ignored by Washington

Ben Ali, Sarkozy(Pictured: Tunisian President Ben Ali and French President Sarkozy.)

1. They Just Don’t Stop Protesting
Not even torture, which is rampant, or live bullets, which the Tunisian authorities are using with greater frequency, stop them.

It is more than two weeks since a distraught and unemployed young university graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, sat down in front of the town hall in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, poured gasoline on himself and lit a match. Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation and protest against Tunisia’s high unemployment, rampant corruption and decades of repression by the government of Zine Ben Ali triggered a protest movement, first in the country’s center and south, but now virtually everywhere, including the capital, Tunis.

Unwilling to admit how his own regime has contributed to the crisis, Ben Ali, predictably blames the protests on ‘radical elements,’ ‘chaos mongers’ ( an interesting and empty phrase) and ‘a minority of mercenaries’ rather than on the policies Tunisia has implemented during his 23 years in power.

Neither the intervention of the Tunisian security forces and army using live ammunition nor Zine Ben Ali’s sacking of 4 members of his cabinet combined with promises of a $5 billion state jobs program has stopped the wave of anger and protest, which at the time of this writing (January 2, 2011) continues and is more and more taking the form of a national uprising. While some property has been destroyed, the overwhelming amount of violence has come from the state and the security forces. Virtually all of the demonstrations have been peaceful to date. That said, the economic grievances which fueled the initial outbursts now have a more political aspect to them as more and more voices within Tunisia outside of the ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionelle Democratique (RCD), are calling for Ben Ali and his increasingly influential wife, Leila Trabelsi, to step down and relinquish power.

Ben Ali is giving no indication of stepping down. He has combined increased repression on the one hand with a media campaign and promises of economic and social reform on the other. Ben Ali is gambling that the protests, which seem to be led mostly by unemployed youth as well as some elements of Tunisian’s student and labor movement, are a spontaneous expression of frustration that will fizzle sooner rather than later. While this might be the case, it appears that broad sectors of Tunisian society are more supportive of the protestors than the government and that Ben Ali’s promised reforms are too little too late. Even if he is able to maintain his grip on power for the moment, his social base support has narrowed to the military, police and security apparatus, along with the support of a few key European governments, France key among them.

2. The United States Remains Silent
The United States State Department remains silent in face of the Tunisian protests. Since the protests began on December 17, 2010, there has been little media coverage in the mainstream US media, virtually nothing on mainstream television, nothing in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or for that matter even Democracy Now! This is in sharp contrast with the European, North African and Middle Eastern media where theTunisian protests have become big news. In two articles in the British Guardian, columnist Brian Whitaker calls the Tunisian protests the ‘most important and most inspiring story from the Middle East this year’. In another story a few days earlier, he wrote a scathing critique of the Tunisian government commenting at the end that Ben Ali’s days in power are probably numbered.

The Obama Administration’s failure to comment on the Tunisian events is another indication of its more general hypocrisy when it comes to supporting human rights in Middle East countries. It is not that the administration is unaware of the situation in the country. The WikiLeaks cables concerning Tunisia, from a former US ambassador to the State Department, contained very explicit and damning information, detailing the repressive environment in the country and the rampant corruption, most especially of the families of President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, at one point labeling the regime as a ‘kleptocracy’.

So why the measured silence by the Nobel Peace Prize winner?

A number of factors come into place, central among them, the Obama Administration is wary about opening up another front of social unrest with Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia on its hands. If Washington has no particular love for Ben Ali, still they worry about a replacement, wanting one that would, like Ben Ali and Bourguiba before him, support US strategic policy in the Middle East and Africa, who will cooperate with NATO and AFRICOM as Ben Ali has. It would not be the first time that the Obama Administration has thrown a U.S. commitment to human rights concerns to the winds to maintain strategic support for this or that tyrant.

There are also economic considerations. Tunisia has been played up as an IMF-World Bank poster child, an example of how following ‘the Washington Consensus’, — i.e., the IMF structural adjustment program — leads to success. Except it didn’t. Take for example Tunisia’s rush to privatization, one of the IMF’s sacred cows — you know, that line of reasoning made popular by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, that somehow the private sector sector can conduct business better than the state. According to the dogma, privatization is supposed to lead to increased competitiveness and greater efficiencies. Perhaps under certain (increasingly rare) circumstances the logic works.

But in Tunisia – as in many other places, privatization became a means of the two ruling families, the Ben Alis and Trabelsis, to buy up state property at bargain basement prices and make a financial killing. It did not lead to a growth of Tunisian entrepreneurship, but simply to a greater concentration of economic power in the hands of the two families, and the corruption involved was so bad that even the U.S. ambassador (in a WikiLeaks cable) was embarrassed.

Yet despite the current economic crisis, which these structural adjustment programs only exacerbated, the IMF continues to pressure Tunisia to ‘stay the course’…cut remaining subsidies on basic food stuffs and fuel, privatize its social security system and open up its financial sector even further. And once again, the IMF is oblivious to how those policies have only deepened the socio-economic crisis in the country and that an entirely different economic strategy is in order.

3. ‘Most Inspiring Story Coming Out Of The Middle East This Year’
There is another reason for Washington’s hesitancy, call it ‘revolutionary contagion’ …what starts in one place, as in the strategically not particularly important Tunisia, could spread to…Egypt, Saudi Arabia and who knows where else. Signs abound. Just to the west, Algerians are protesting inadequate housing that they have been promised for years. Although current turmoil in Egypt appears to center around the bombing of a Coptic Church, with accusations of the hand of al Qaeda in the attack, under the surface, for all its differences with Tunisia, Egypt too is facing serious socio-economic problems.

And throughout the Middle East, governments are nervous. The Iranian and Syrian press have commented on Tunisia’s unemployment and corruption problems, as if they too don’t have to deal with similar drawbacks. Saudi commentators (of all people) are lecturing Ben Ali on the need for democracy, etc. Throughout the region among the ruling elites there is the growing concern that the Tunisian protests could spread to their countries. And they have reason for concern, for despite many differences, unemployment, corruption and dictatorship are by no means limited to Tunisia.

So already, ‘the Tunisian example’ in two short weeks has spread beyond the country’s borders and governments are taking the events seriously. If Ben Ali will not relinquish power (yet), still, he reshuffled his cabinet firing four ministers and promised a $5 billion jobs program. He also was careful to visit Mohammed Bouazizi (the young man who set himself aflame) as well as meet with the families of those killed by the security forces. As the protests grew in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarek, speaking to the ruling political party in Egypt, seemingly ‘out of nowhere’, announced that Egypt too would launch a $3.5 billion jobs program to deal with Egyptian unemployment. Coincidence? In a gesture to help Ben Ali, Muhammar Khadaffi in nearby Libya announced that Libya would not limit entry to Tunisians seeking jobs. Khadaffi also announced a major government financed housing project not long ago.

Nesrine Malik, like Brian Whitaker, writing in the Guardian on New Year’s Eve, calls the Tunisian protests ‘one of the most inspiring episodes of indigenous revolt against a repressive regime.’ Referring to the Tunisian protests she comments: ‘Change is sometimes more likely to happen when people know what it looks like, when the first person dares to point to the emperor and say that he is naked.’

And if events continue in Tunisia, what does it mean for the other ‘geriatric regimes’ of the Middle East, many of which themselves are on the verge of transitions of power? For if the Tunisian people can stand up to power and oppression, why not the others?

Meanwhile the protests in Tunisia continue…La Lutta Continua.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

WikiLeaks XXVI: Sea Change in U.S. Policy Toward Latin America? No, Clerical Error

(Pictured: One-time kidnapper of a U.S. ambassador, Brazilian Paulo de Tarso venceslauVenceslau.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-sixth in the series.

When former student activist and US-denounced “terrorist” Paulo de Tarso Venceslau was issued a tourist visa in October 2009 by the State Department, the move was seen to be a sign that US-Latin American relations would enjoy a sea-change under the new administration of Barack Obama. After all, the president had himself called for a “new beginning” with Cuba just months earlier at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, and signals that Foggy Bottom would not be repeating the horrendous mistakes of the previous George W. Bush administration were warmly received by leaders and experts throughout the region.

But as a newly released cable from WikiLeaks demonstrates, Venceslau’s visa was issued in error, not as the result of a shift in policy. As the cable makes plain, the American consultant in Sao Paolo “issued Venceslau a B2 tourism visa after no hits of any kind appeared on all iterations of his name. Venceslau did not indicate on question 38 of his DS-156 application that he had ‘ever been arrested or convicted of any offense or crime, even though subject of pardon.’” This was quite an omission!

Venceslau had been previously barred from entering the United States because of his participation in the kidnapping of an American ambassador to Brazil over forty years ago. On September 4, 1969, a Brazilian guerilla organization known as Dissidencia Comunista Universitaria da Guanabara ambushed Charles Elbrick and took him hostage, hoping to the ambassador as a bargaining chip in negotiations to have over a dozen Brazilian political prisoners released by the military junta then in power.

The cable reports that according to the FBI files related to the case,

Venceslau helped plan the details of the kidnapping, was one of the passengers in the vehicle used to block the Ambassador’s car, subdued the Ambassador’s driver, and was one of the kidnappers who boarded the Ambassador’s vehicle and took him into hiding. While the Ambassador was held, Venceslau helped put together the list of 15 political prisoners the group demanded be released. On October 1, 1969 Venceslau was caught and imprisoned, without trial, for his involvement in the kidnapping, according to press reports. He was released in December 1974.

The consulate’s oversight became an issue when Venceslau went public with news of that his request for a visa had been granted.

Reports in the October 9 and 10 Estado de Sao Paulo and O Globo newspapers announced that Venceslau, after years of frustrated attempts, had finally been issued a visa for entry into the United States. Venceslau was quoted as saying, “I never have had a great love for the United States,” but that he had always had an interest in seeing the life and culture in the cities of New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. Venceslau said he had tried three time in the last four decades to get a visa at the Consulate in Sao Paulo but was denied for being considered “a terrorist.”

The papers also reported, accurately, that

Venceslau is due to receive his passport and visa this week and that Venceslau is not worried since “Obama just received the Nobel Peace prize. It would look bad if he cancelled my passport.” Another newspaper reported Venceslau as saying “my only fear is that there was been a mistake and that the Consulate will cancel my visa. I would like to listen to jazz in Chicago but I don’t believe in miracles.”

The fact that the United States had issued the visa but had not sent it nor the passport back to Venceslau left American officials in Sao Paolo wringing their hands over what to do. On the one hand, the cable notes that

If available information is correct, at a minimum he appears to be ineligible under Section 212(a)(2)(A)(i) for Conviction of Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude, as well as 6C1 for misrepresenting a material fact. Other ineligibilities may apply.

Beyond the question of ineligibilities, Mission sees broader implications resulting from a decision to either cancel the visa with no additional action, or to pursue a waiver. In our view, a minimum bar for granting Venceslau a waiver would be public repudiation of the crime and of kidnapping as a tactic. We have no evidence that Venceslau has made such a renunciation and would have to seek it from him. Assuming he were amenable to such a renunciation, issuance of a visa to Venceslau upon receipt of a waiver would set a precedent related to other kidnappers, at least two of whom (Gabeira and Martins) are likely to apply in the near future. While Gabeira has publicly renounced kidnapping as a form of expression and has criticized the FARC for engaging in kidnapping, Martins has pointedly refused to express remorse for his actions, explaining that they were in the context of a worthy political struggle. Mission also sees potential implications in issuing the visa for broader U.S. policy and messaging on terrorism, especially with regard to USG officials.

The two men in question, Gabeira and Martins, are themselves prominent political figures in Brazil at the moment, the latter serving as Minister of Social Communications under recently departed Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

On the other hand, the cable’s author points out that

with the new U.S. Administration, both Brazilian officials and the public are considering new possibilities for bilateral relations. President Obama’s statements at the April Summit of the Americas regarding his desire to build a new relationship with Latin America that looks forward, rather than backward, resonated strongly in Brazil. Although cancelation of his visa will be straightforward as a consular matter, it is likely to generate significant negative press that calls into question whether U.S. policy toward Latin America has changed, and to have repercussions in official circles where a number of senior officials and elite are linked to the case either directly (e.g., Gabeira and Martins) or indirectly (e.g., Human Rights Minister Paulo Vannuchi, who is linked with Venceslau as a political prisoner, and senior PT official Jose Direceu, who was released by the military government as a result of the kidnapping). When considered with the fact that 40 years has passed since the kidnapping and the political nature of the opposition to the military regime, these factors suggest pursuing a waiver of ineligibilities as a way to promote a forward-looking bilateral relationship.

It would seem that this latter view prevailed as American officials moved forward in the matter, but to little effect. Since the Honduran coup in 2009, relations between the two countries have been less than productive and increasingly unhappy. With the inauguration of Brazil’s first female head of state today, Dilma Rousseff, opportunities for a reset of Washington’s relationship with Brazil may be on offer. But at least one person, outgoing president Lula, isn’t so sure.

Taking stock of Obama’s approach to the region over the past two years, Lula told reporters in Brasilia this past week that he “would like the relationship of the United States with Latin America to be different to what it is today,” adding that the United States “should understand the importance of Latin America. The Americans don’t have an optimistic vision of Latin America. They have always related as an empire to poor countries. This vision needs to change.” Under Obama, Lula lamented, “The truth is that nothing has changed in the United States’ vision for Latin America. I view that with sadness.”

There Actually Was a 2010 Worth Remembering

wage theft(Pictured: Interfaith Worker Justice’s fight against wage theft for day laborers.)

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

It is a tragic fact: progressives are notoriously bad at celebrating their victories. Tragic, because when it comes to motivating people to take action, keeping evidence that collective organizing efforts can produce real changes—some small, some groundbreaking—is far more important than producing lists of new outrages and fresh causes for alarm.

Even in times of setbacks and difficulties, there are signs of progress worth remembering. And this year was no exception. The Obama administration would like us to enshrine 2010 as the year it passed a landmark law overhauling health care in the United States. However, there were enough compromises in the health care deal and enough issues left unresolved that, as one friend of mine nicely put it, it’s probably better to consider that as not so much a victory as a work in progress.

Yet the year offered some more outright progressive wins. Two came quickly to mind for me. The first was an obvious choice since it was in the news in late December: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.“ This affirmation of basic civil rights for gays and lesbians in the military was, of course, long overdue. But that in no way diminishes the victory.

The DADT repeal was one within a package of bills passed in quick succession during the lame duck session of Congress. Other fine components included a new START treaty controlling nuclear weapons and a 9/11 first responders bill, itself long overdue.

Also making the DADT win a little bit sweeter was this video. In it, a reporter for a conservative news network tries to pin Representative Barney Frank with a gotcha question based on the homophobic conservative talking point that, with DADT gone, “straight troops will now have to shower with gays.” (The horror!) Quick-witted and articulate as always, Frank succeeds in making an absolute fool of the guy. It is a pleasure to watch.

The second bit of progress that I thought of right away was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. Before being freed in November, the Nobel Peace Prize winner had spent the last seven years—and fifteen of the last twenty-one years—under house arrest, imposed by her country’s military junta. If there are any who deserve the label of democratic hero in the world today, Suu Kyi is among them. This year, for the first time in a decade, she was able to travel out of the country to reunite with her youngest son.

Such reunions were the subject of Amnesty International’s genuinely touching holiday e-card, which featured a video celebrating the return of several prominent human rights defenders to their families. It starts with Suu Kyi but includes others released in recent years after international advocacy campaigns, such as Sakit Zahidov, an opposition journalist, poet, and satirist in Azerbaijan. The stories and images pretty quickly punctured my cynicism.

Also good for keeping cynicism in check was the feedback I received when I asked friends and readers to send their picks for top progressive victories of 2010. The responses I got back were many and varied—and that ended up being quite heartwarming.

Highlights included the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, a precedent-setting measure passed in New York State that extends vital labor rights to more than 200,000 nannies and housekeepers.

In a similar vein, Danny Postel over at Interfaith Worker Justice mentioned victories in the fight against wage theft (the disturbingly common failure of business owners to pay money owed to day laborers and other low-wage workers) in New York State and in South Florida. Bolstered by these advances, the campaign to enact protections against wage theft at a national level continues.

Other scrappy and perseverant campaigners who had a good year were the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Prometheus Radio Project. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) enjoyed a remarkable 2010, successfully obtaining penny per pound pay raises and code of conduct agreements for farm workers from the three largest food service companies and the growers who had blocked checks buyers cut directly to the workers so that millions of dollars languished in escrow. These agreements stand to increase workers’ annual earnings from about $10,000 to as much as $17,000. The State Department also recognized Laura Germino, CIW’s antislavery campaign coordinator, as an ‘anti-Trafficking Hero’ for her work helping the US Department of Justice prosecute seven slavery operations in Florida over the last fifteen years, resulting in the liberation of over 1,000 farm workers.

As for the Prometheus Radio Project (based in my newly adopted home of West Philadelphia), the advocates for grassroots, democratically controlled, low-power radio won a national victory with the passage of the Local Community Radio Act. As the organization noted over the popping of champagne corks,

In response to overwhelming grassroots pressure, Congress has given the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a mandate to license thousands, of new community stations nationwide. This bill marks the first major legislative success for the growing movement for a more democratic media system in the United States….The bill repeals earlier legislation which had been backed by big broadcasters, including the National Association of Broadcasters.

Not all went wrong on the electoral front, either. California bucked national trends in a big way, with voters rejecting right-wing candidates and thwarting a business-backed ballot proposition to block regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that is far more aggressive than anything on offer at the national level. Time’s Ecocentric blog commented, “With a $1.7 trillion gross state product, California alone is the world’s eighth-largest economy, so even if it is acting alone while the rest of the country drags its feet on climate change, the state has a real chance to make a difference.”

And, speaking of large economies, the left-leaning Dilma Rousseff of the Brazilian Workers’ Party beat Jose Serra in elections this fall, a reflection of the region’s continued dissatisfaction with the legacy of neoliberal economic policy.

Reviewing this list put me in a pretty good mood. No doubt, there are things I would change about 2010 if I could. But these I’d keep.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

Resilience, Thy Name Is Al Qaeda

Yemen, al QaedaAfter suffering the wrath of the United States in the wake of 9/11, writes Syed Saleem Shahzad at Asia Times Online, “Two major developments then rejuvenated al-Qaeda. The first was the come-back of the Taliban in Afghanistan after 2006, the second the mass migration of battle-hardened commanders to Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area — they had previously been fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir.”

As a result:

A sudden surge in attacks on Afghanistan-bound [NATO] supplies, a hallmark of al-Qaeda and its allied groups . . . forced decision-makers for the first time to rethink the serious penetration of al-Qaeda in the region that had been the domain and ownership of the indigenous Pashtun Taliban.

This and other developments:

. . . have given al-Qaeda a commanding position in South Asia, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia, and reduced its dependency on local partners like the Taliban, the Iraqi resistance, Yemeni tribes and Somalia’s insurgent groups. Now al-Qaeda can effectively manipulate these groups for its cause.

And how does Al Qaeda plan to use its “commanding position”?

Targeting foreign hotspots in India and avenging the individuals and institutions involved in the Prophet Mohammed’s cartoon controversy has been decided as the main strategy opening up al-Qaeda’s new war theaters.

However unimaginative and small-minded (even for militant Islamists) those strategies, there are, writes Shahzad, “clear leads that al-Qaeda’s affiliated groups had established cells in India and Europe and that they were arranging a network that would ensure an uninterrupted supply of weapons, money and other logistical support. . . . The crux of this is no stand-alone operations like bomb blasts, but a comprehensive terror campaign.”

As always, Al Qaeda will succeed in “polariz[ing] societies and generat[ing] a massive amount of unease and insecurity in European capitals.” That said, its rejuvenation is scarcely cause to refresh America’s military commitment to the Middle East (as if our inroads into Yemen weren’t enough) nor to increase domestic surveillance, or for the Transportation Security Administration to implement yet more drastic screening measures.

It’s increasingly becoming common knowledge that, beyond dreams of shariah rule or a caliphate, what drives Islamic militants most is our military presence, as well as our support of repressive regimes, in Muslim countries. Acknowledging those truths is no longer an admission of defeat but a simple affirmation that discretion is the better part of valor.

Will the Tunisian President Go the Way of Ceausescu? (Part 3)

Ben Ali visiting Bouazizi(Pictured: President Ben Ali visiting immolation victim Mohammed Bouazizi .)

More or less the same promises were made after the people in Tunisia’s phosphate mining district, centered around the town of Redeyef, erupted in a six month ongoing social protest marathon against unemployment and deteriorating social conditions in 2008. That resulted in massive government repression and promises of economic development which did not materialize.

More and more it appears that the Tunisian government’s response this time is ‘too little too late’. The image of young, educated Tunisians preferring death by fire seems to have shattered what little credibility Zine Ben Ali’s government had left. A small country – both in terms of geography and population – cannot sustain this kind of anger from its population for very long. And a week of protests, even violent ones, might not sound like much to outsiders, but it could easily be the blow that brings down the regime.

Tunisia’s ‘economic miracle’ has long been somewhat inflated. Even in the best of times, the coastal cities and the north benefited more than the interior and the south. It is from the latter that, if one looks closely, one will see that wave after wave of protest against unemployment and poverty have emanated. Indeed, the current dyamic, of a social movement emerging from deep in the interior, is nothing new to modern Tunisian history.

Add to this an increasingly corrupt ruling circle in which economic and political power have concentrated more and more in the hands of two families – those of the president, the Ben Alis, and his wife, the Trabelsis — and another important layer of the crisis unfolds. Combine the economic and social disparities, the corruption and excesses of the ruling clans with what has become one of the more repressive regimes politically in the region and the ingredients for a full blown crisis fall into place that only needed a match, lit by a poor soul in Sidi Bouzid, sole supporter of his family, to ignite the desert fire.

Before these protests, Tunisians were wondering who, in the near future would replace Zine Ben Ali as he is ‘eased’from power – his wife, Leina Trabelsi, a son? Some one else from his wife’s side of the family. With this week’s turmoil, the discussion has shifted some: Tunisians are already talking about Zine Ben Ali as if he is already history and debating, theorizing what/who will come next.

Of course it is still quite possible that Ben Ali will unleash his military full force on the entire population and will crush this uprising in blood. There is also the possibility that there is a limit to the Tunisian army firing on their own people and the military itself could ‘snap’and turn on the president. Repression on a broad scale at this point will only hasten Ben Ali’s demise.

My own speculation is that the Ben Ali’s-Trabelsis will follow a path well warn by others – by Marcos, Mobutu, the Shah of Iran and join the Third World Kleptomanic Hall of Fame – and, that they will, after looting Tunisia one last time, make their exist from Tunis to…wherever. Things have gotten too hot for them, the social base supporting the regime has become so razor thin narrow, that even if the families survive the current social uprising, that their days are numbered and they know it. Even dictators need some base of support within the population and one has to be hard pressed to find Ben Ali’s.

And then there are ‘the concerns’ of the major powers – in this case, France, the US, Tunisia’s neighbors to the west and east, Algeria and Libya, and other regional players. More and more there are indications that the US and France are not adverse to abandonning Ben Ali to his fate and padded foreign bank accounts. His lack of credibility makes him no longer useful. But there are fears about ‘the transition’. And a transition to ‘what,’ to ‘whom’? Wouldn’t it be better to ease him out, to try to soften the national anger, so that the changes that seem inevitable are also modest in terms of more far reaching socio-economic directions? How would a new administration ‘cooperate’ with Washington in its ‘war on terrorism’, plans to expand Africom, etc.?

In retrospect, the match that Mohammed Bouazizi lit not only ignited his poor and now tortured body (he is still clinging to life in a hospital in Sousse) but it seems to have, in its own way, burnt the house that Zine Ben Ali built in Tunisia to the ground, leaving a few unanswered questions:

Will Ben Ali go from power gracefully or gracelessly? Will the Ben Alis wander aimlessly as did the Shah of Iran after the latter’s fall? Will Tunisia ever recoup what are described as the billions which it is widely alleged the Ben Alis and Trabelsis have plundered and privatized? Graceless ends are messy and can have long term consequences not only for Tunisia, but for ‘regional security.’

And what will follow for Tunisia, a country that 64 years ago gained its independence (from colonialism) but not its freedom?

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Will the Tunisian President Go the Way of Ceausescu? (Part 2)

Ali and Trebelsi(Pictured: President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trebelsi.)

Meanwhile, the protests which started nine days ago deep in Tunisia’s interior continue. The protests were triggered by a young unemployed university graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself aflame after his unlicensed vegetable and fruit stand was confiscated by authorities in the city of Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia. Bouazizi’s fate resembled that of many Tunisian youths, educated but with few job opportunities before them. The dramatic and tragic image of a young man aflame shattered the myth of the ‘Tunisian economic miracle’ and in its own way, what little legitimacy Zine Ben Ali’s rule seemed to enjoy both domestically and internationally.

For a moment it appeared the protests would die down, but instead they re-ignited throughout the Tunisian interior, including in Kairouan, Gafsa, Redeyef, Meknassy, Bouzayane and have been going on for more than a week now. In many places these became violent clashes between what seems to be Tunisia’s youth, much of which is both educated and unemployed and the authorities. Where will the cataclysm of violence the country is experience end? The casualties are mounting.

  • In Menzel Bouzayane, some 35 miles from Sidi Bouzid, more than 2.000 people participate, protesting unemployment and poor social conditions. According to Agence France Presse, violent confrontations between protestors and authorities resulted in the death of an 18 year old, Mohamed Ammari, shot in the stomach by the police. Another 10 protestors were wounded, and two policemen were sent to the hospital unconscious. Shortly thereafter, the police station was burnt down
  • According to a communiqué issued by the Tunisian Press Agency (TAP) the Tunisian Interior Ministry affirmed that the locomotive of a train and three national guard vehicles were also set on fire and that the national guard headquarters in the same town Menzel Bouzayene was overwhelmed by protestors forcing the defenders to respond with live ammunition.
  • Back in Sidi Bouzid, another unemployed university graduate, in an act of solidarity with Mohammed Bouazizi, electrocuted himself by reaching out to a 30,000 volt electric line on top of a lamp post. Below was a large crowd protesting unemployment in front of the offices of the Tunisian trade union federation UGTT.
  • In all these cases round ups and arrests have been made, reports of repression, beatings and torture – with photo evidence – mounting daily
  • Then starting on December 23 and 24, the protests began to spread beyond the interior with support demonstrations Tunisia’s major coastal cities of Sfax, Sousse and even the capital, Tunis.
  • As the protests and confrontation spread, the local police and national guard could no longer contain the situation and in several cases, the Tunisian army was brought in an attempt to keep both the news of the protests, and the protests themselves, from spreading nationwide.

News of the disturbances, which began on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, have also spilled into the European media, this despite the fact that, given Tunisia’s status as a ‘friendly police state’, as one commentator calls it, it often escapes the human rights scrutiny reserved for countries like Iran or China.

But now we’re beyond that and stories about the Tunisian events are popping up worldwide. After demonstrations in the capital, Tunis on December 27, media coverage increased.

French media outlets — Agence France Presse, Liberation, Le Monde, Figaro — all have run stories, as has CNN, Al Jazeera (including in English), with news outlets in Canada as well as the USA (Washington Post, LA Times) running short, but disturbing, articles. The list goes on. This is the kind of publicity the Ben Ali regime hoped to avoid at all costs (and mostly has avoided up until now).

The speed, the intensity, nay, the violence of the protests, the number of young Tunisians willing to commit suicide or face down the police shooting live ammunition rather than face a bleak future, caught the government of Zine Ben Ali in Tunis off guard. At first there was no response. Then the government claimed the protests were isolated incidents orchestrated by a cynical and unappreciative opposition. But a week into the protests, their tune has changed to a more sober one, trying to sympathize with the victims (at least the unemployed university graduates) and promising economic reform and jobs programs with a government representative sent to Sidi Bouzid to promise such changes in the future.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Will the Tunisian President Go the Way of Ceausescu? (Part 1)

Tunisian President Ben Ali(Pictured: President Ben Ali.)

End of an era: Beginning of…something new? “I’m leaving on a jet plane; don’t know when I’ll be back again…”

The words of John Denver forty years ago in the mouth of Zine Ben Ali today? Is it all coming to an ignonimous end for Tunisia’s president and his wife Leila Trabelsi?

‘The word on the Tunisian street’… or on the internet social networks – almost the same thing these days – is that it is almost over for Tunisia’s first couple, that they are emptying out what is left in Tunisia’s coffers, that an Airbus is fueled, ready and waiting to take off, as are the private jets of members of their two extended families… just in case the protests rocking the country cannot be crushed. As the protests spread, Ben Ali’s grip on power appears to be fading. Are we looking at the final hours, days of Ben Ali’s long 23 year ‘reign’ in which human rights violations have become so commonplace that they have hardly attracted attention until, this last week, it all reached another level? Perhaps.

Hard to tell at this point, but two Tunisian readers of this piece that also appeared on Nawaat.org offer interesting comments which I quote in full:

The first:

If these ongoing riots would trigger social unrest that spreads out to others regions, it can definitely imply the downfall of the Regime. But so far, there are not enough indications to be certain of anything yet.

Just waiting for two things to happen :

1. What if the SidiBouzid unrest gets bigger and wider, and reaches its “Point of No Return”?

2. Finally, what will be the Regime’s response ? Will it fight back at any price, to stay in power, or does the Regime realize it’s time [to] pack up and to take the money and run !!!

Although things can turn nasty if the Police Forces are given the order of cracking down on any protest. That would be real foolish, should the order be given because this will only add more aggravation to the general situation where Tunisia finds itself today, namely in the middle of nowhere. The country needs badly to get rid of this corrupt political system, and must plead for a peaceful “Takeover” in order not to lose grip over its stability. In other words, no one will ever gain anything from a bloody civil war, and the Regime must bear that in mind before it’s too late.

The second:

Dr. Marzouki a dit: “…Ce n’est même pas une dictature idéologique, c’est une dictature mafieuse…”. Une dictature idéologique serait plus résiliente, la dictature de Ben Ali est plu fragile et ne durera pas longtemps…..Les hommes honnêtes de la Tunisie même qui sont au sein du pouvoir doivent agir maintenant!”

(Translation: Dr. Marzouki said, “It isn’t even an ideological dictatorship but a kind of ‘mafia dictatorship’. An ideological dictatorship would be more resilient, that of Ben Ali is more fragile and will not last much longer. The honest citizens of Tunisia, even those in seats of power, [must] act (become engaged in the reform movement) now.”

(Note: there is a Dr. Marzouki, I am not sure if he is the same one, who has long been a leader and a spokesperson for improving the human rights situation in Tunisia.)

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

WikiLeaks XXV: Security Firms in Iraq Making a Killing (Figuratively in This Case)

Iraq private securityAccording to an embassy cable written earlier this year, and released last week by the Guardian as part of its WikiLeaks coverage, private security firms in Iraq’s southern Basra province have been making a figurative killing protecting foreign investors throughout the region.

This isn’t exactly news. Nor is the fact that some private security firms

also offer more comprehensive services, including business intelligence, geopolitical risk management, crisis management, and kidnap/ransom strategies. Typical services in Basrah include armed escort to oil fields, downtown Basrah, or remote construction sites. Most firms boast of employees with military or Special Forces background, and/or energy or engineering expertise. Prices for specific services are hard to gauge, dependent as they are on the number of people assisted, visit location, length of contract, and other services provided.

The cable notes that while “prices for specific services are hard to gauge…they do not come cheap.” To be sure, the prices are staggering:

To escort a single executive for a four-hour, roundtrip from COB Basrah to South Oil Company costs around USD 6,000. (Note: A typical trip would include four security agents, drivers, and three or four armored vehicles. End note.) A day trip to the Port of Umm Qasr and back for two engineers could cost around USD 12,000.

But more interesting than the exorbitant fees charged by the security firms is the cable’s discussion of the changing “composition of the work force of many security companies.” The embassy dispatch cites an anonymous source that notes the Iraqi government’s anxiety around getting ‘“rid of all the white faces carrying guns’ in their streets.” They’re not alone. “Many local security company reps openly acknowledge that a more ‘Iraqi face’ is safer as well, as it draws less attention.”

The cable goes on to note that

Most, if not all, of these security firms are already Iraqi-licensed companies. (Note: While legally they may be Iraqi firms, they are still managed by expats, usually British nationals. End note.) These firms were once largely staffed by expats from the U.K. or U.S. Most of them today have between 70 to 80 per cent local staff. XXXXXXXXXXX country manager XXXXXXXXXXXX said that currently most Iraqi employees are drivers or junior security guards. In the near future, he wants to see them move into full management. Many of the current expat managers and trainers would move into the background areas of training and management. The PRT also expects that new local security companies will be formed.

The cable makes no mention from which ranks these local personnel are drawn. It would be interesting to know what, if any, efforts have been made by private firms to recruit highly skilled fighters from the Saddam Hussein regime, or former militiamen left over from the civil war that tore Iraq apart in 2006-07. Given some companies’ past records hiring former South African death squad operators, Pinochet-era military men from Chile, and thugs from Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Yugoslavia, you might think that American officials would be curious to know whether former enemy combatants were now being paid to protect Western interests.

And they were. While the Basra office, where the cable originated from, concluded with an optimistic forecast of increasing Iraqification of private security personnel in the region, not everyone was sold. The cable received comment from the Baghdad embassy as well, which noted that

It is too early to be able to gauge whether the security environment in Iraq will allow effective employment of local nationals as members of Protective Security teams supporting private industry activities…

RSO believes that building a labor pool of well-vetted local employees in Iraq’s current environment is difficult. RSO efforts to vet local nationals for employment is labor intensive, often subjective and many times proves to be too difficult for many local national employees to complete successfully. Additionally, USG efforts to train local nationals in Protective Security tradecraft to ensure technical proficiency appears to be intensive in labor and time required, with mixed results.

But perhaps the most jaw-dropping snippet from the cable involves Dick Cheney’s Halliburton, which apparently made no effort to hide its displeasure at being fleeced by private security companies in the country’s southern reaches. In a moment of tragicomic irony, the cable reports that a

Halliburton Iraq country manager decried a “mafia” of these companies and their “outrageous” prices, and said that they also exaggerate the security threat. Apart from the high costs for routine trips, he claimed that Halliburton often receives what he says are “questionable” reports of vulnerability of employees to kidnapping and ransom.

Imagine that.

If you get the sense that Halliburton is experiencing outrage at being beaten at its own game, you aren’t too far off. Of the $31 billion in contracts awarded to the multinational since the American invasion in 2003, hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost in exactly the sort of scams Halliburton later cried foul about when they themselves became victims. According to Politifact,

Government officials have raised many questions about KBR’s fulfillment of its contracts, everything from billing for meals it didn’t serve to charging inflated prices for gas to excessive administrative costs. Government auditors have noted that KBR refused to turn over electronic data in its native format and stamped documents as proprietary and secret when the documents would normally be considered public records. Over the course of several years, the Defense Contract Audit Agency found that $553 million in payments should be disallowed to KBR, according to 2009 testimony by agency director April Stephenson before the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In retrospect, the Halliburton official may have been wise to keep his mouth shut and not attract any more attention to his company’s use of private contractors. Three months after the cable was written, the United States government brought suit against former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root for use of private security protection in Iraq. KBR charged the bill to the United States Army, a direct violation of its government contract which expressly stipulated that the American military would provide all the company’s security needs in Iraq. In all, some thirty former Halliburton subsidiaries were alleged to have intentionally billed the American taxpayer for services to which they could claim absolutely no entitlement.

George Clooney Wants the Genocidal to Get as Much Attention as He Does

Sudan Civil WarI was just thinking about how much an anti-nuclear initiative dear to my heart would benefit from a celebrity spokesperson and the money he or she can attract. On an issue of equal importance, one has just stepped forward — not as a spokesperson, but with the idea itself. Time reports:

George Clooney and John Prendergast slumped down at a wooden table in a dusty school compound in southern Sudan. . . . Clooney, the actor, and Prendergast, a human-rights activist with 25 years of experience in Africa, had heard enough on their seven-day visit to know that a new round of atrocities could follow the January referendum on independence. If it did, the likelihood was that no one would be held accountable. Why not, Clooney asked, “work out some sort of a deal to spin a satellite” above southern Sudan and let the world watch to see what happens?

Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner!

Three months later, Clooney’s idea is about to go live. Starting Dec. 30, the Satellite Sentinel Project — a joint experiment by the U.N. . . . Harvard University, [the Center for American Progress] and Clooney’s posse of Hollywood funders — will hire private satellites to monitor troop movements starting with the oil-rich region of Abyei. The images will be analyzed and made public at [the project's website] (which goes live on Dec. 29) within 24 hours of an event to remind the leaders of northern and southern Sudan that they are being watched. “We are the antigenocide paparazzi,” Clooney tells TIME. “We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”

Since December 29 happens to be today, you may now visit Satellite Sentinel.

It’s as if George Clooney said to celebrity benefactors like Angelina Jolie and Shakira: I’ll see your pot of good works and raise it. Clooney

. . . believes Sentinel might have applications in other global hot spots. “This is as if this were 1943 and we had a camera inside Auschwitz and we said, ‘O.K., if you guys don’t want to do anything about it, that’s one thing,’” Clooney says. “But you can’t say you did not know.”

Memo to US — You’ve Been Out-Adapted. Go Home!

TalibanImagine playing a game in which your opponent always has the last move. Or can undo your last move if he chooses. How much fun would that be, and how long would it take you to decide that it wasn’t worth playing?

For most any hominid with a cranial capacity over 750 cc, the answer would be, not very long. For the US government in Afghanistan, it’s coming up on a decade. And as Pete Seeger put it so well, ‘We were neck deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.’

Not only is that really lousy policy, it’s really bad science.

There’s an axiom in the systems world called the ‘the Law of Requisite Variety’ (AKA The First Law of Cybernetics). It states, ‘The unit within the system with the most behavioral responses available to it controls the system.’

What that means is that an individual or group with more available options – which includes the ability to recognize and act on those options – is most likely to prevail. Because it can more rapidly ‘co-evolve’ within a fluid environment, it can more effectively shape the landscape of the contest, and determine the rules of engagement.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban clearly have more behavioral responses than the American-led coalition. As Mao detailed in ‘insurgency 101’, when the enemy attacks, the Talib retreat. When the enemy stands still, they harass. When the enemy retreats, they pursue.

The Talib – and assorted other aligned and non-aligned groups who see the foreigners as invaders to be expelled – have many options. They can fight. They can flee. They can blend into the population. They can even get day jobs with some of the vast pool of ‘development’ money flowing from the invaders. They can deal opium, control smuggling, charge protection money, and gain loyalty by offering services like a responsive justice system.

The Talib also have home field advantage, and are unconstrained by ‘overprescribed’ rules and hierarchy. They are patient, and can afford to play almost indefinitely. They are highly resilient, relatively inured to hardship, and are largely self-organizing and, therefore, highly and quickly adaptive.

Now, they have effectively identified the key leverage point in the evolving conflict and moved to attack it. That leverage point is the capacity of the Afghan Army and National Police, because America can’t ‘stand down’ if the ANA / ANP can’t ‘stand up’.

And they can’t.

Despite years of prodding, training, funding and arming from the US and her allies, the ANA and ANP are net liabilities, not assets. And Taliban attacks on those institutions are eroding them further. (It’s hard to imagine how much worse the ANA / ANP can actually get. Bogus unit strength rosters and mass desertions are common, and some units have apparently sold or given their arms to insurgents.)

And the American reaction?

A ‘strategy’ that can best be described as wishful thinking from ‘the WABAC Machine, Sherwood’.

Seemingly right out of Westy Westmoreland’s playbook, the American ‘plan’ is to ‘degrade’ the Taliban in the same way America intended to win in Viet Nam by ‘atritting’ the Viet Cong / NVA. And to save villages by destroying them, in order to win ‘hearts and minds’

Oh, and apply a bit of good old WWI thinking to take and hold ground.

Aieee, Bro! Pass the Prozac!

Do all those shiny stars on starched collars cut off blood flow to the brain? (Is this why nearly everyone above the rank of company officer seems to be a flatliner?)

1. You can’t degrade / atrit the other team in a ‘protracted popular war’, especially when the enemy is ‘tribals’. (Read FM 3-24, the COIN manual co-authored by Gen David Petraeus, to better understand why that strategy is brain dead.) Not only do they have an infinitely deeper bench, for every one you ‘degrade’, a brother or cousin or friend (or all the above) will pick up their fallen comrade’s weapons and swear a blood oath of vengeance.

2. In a ‘population-centric’ conflict, destroying villages (and villagers’ already tenuous livelihoods) turns them into the enemy – not away from them. Can anyone recall a resident of a ‘strategic hamlet’ in Viet Nam who was filled with love and loyalty to the government and their US backers after being forcibly expelled from their traditional homes and separated from the graves of their ancestors?

3. Taking and holding ground is not only not a metric of success in a counterinsurgency campaign – it’s an admission of failure! It means you’re reacting to the enemy’s initiative, and he’s tied up your forces. If you’re going to play that game, you have to have the force levels to do it, and the US simply cannot provide those. (As noted in a previous post, that would be over 1.4 million troops, based on the classic density ratio of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 population. And, as detailed above, the ANA / ANP are so bad they would have to be subtracted from that total, not added it.)

The COIN manual offers another important observation that senior US leadership seems to have missed. ‘Without good intelligence, a counterinsurgent is like a blind boxer, wasting energy flailing at an unseen opponent and perhaps causing unintended harm.’

How prophetic.

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