Focal Points Blog

Tahrir Square a Product, in Part, of the Perversion of Microcredit

A great idea in theory, in Egypt as elsewhere, Paul Amar explains at Jadaliyya, “the micro-enterprise system has become a massive set of police rackets and ‘loan shark’ operations.”

In the very recent past, Egypt has reemerged as a manufacturing country. . . . And many of the workers in Egypt’s revived textile industries and piece-work shops are women. If you stroll up the staircases into the large working-class apartment buildings in the margins of Cairo or the cement-block constructions of the villages, you’ll see workshops full of women, making purses and shoes, and putting together toys and computer circuitboards for sale in Europe, the Middle East and the Gulf. These shop workers. . . . were the ones who began the organizing and mobilizing process that led to this uprising.


Since the early 1990s, Egypt has cut back welfare and social services to working-class and lower-middle-class Egyptians. In the place of food subsidies and jobs they have offered . . . Micro-credit loans. . . . often specifically targeted toward women and youth. Since economically disadvantaged applicants have no collateral to guarantee these loans, payback is enforced by criminal law rather than civil law. . . . Police demanding bribes, harassing small micro-businesses, and beating those who refuse to submit had become standard practice in Egypt. Internet cafes, small workshops, call-centers, video-game cafes, microbuses, washing/ironing shops, small gyms constitute the landscape of micro-enterprises that are the jobs base and social world of Egypt’s lower middle classes. . . . Police sexualized brutalization of youth and women became central to the “regulation” of the massive small-business economy.

A by-product of these abuses:

. . . the micro-business economy is a tough place to operate, but it does shape women and youth into tough survivors who see themselves as an organized force opposed to the police-state.

WikiLeaks: U.S. Advises Bulgaria on Modernizing Its Military for NATO Deployments

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

Under normal circumstances, news this week that Bulgaria has announced plans to replace its aging fleet of Soviet-era fighter jets with planes that other countries actually might be scared of wouldn’t attract much attention.

But the news came right on the heels of a new cable released just days before by WikiLeaks, outlining efforts by American diplomats to get the Bulgarians to modernize their air force by purchasing planes from US corporations.

The cable was written in the wake of the Bulgarian Council of Minsters’

decision to revise [the country’s] “Plan 2015″ military modernization roadmap [which] represents an important opportunity for the United States to influence the development of Bulgarian military capabilities over the medium and long-term.

Particularly, the United States was interested in helping Bulgaria develop its military capabilities so that the new European Union member could send more troops to various battlefields of the war on terror.

Although Bulgaria possesses nearly 40,000 service members, it has no means to deploy and very limited means to sustain forces outside its borders. The overwhelming majority of its currently deployed 727 service members are drawn from the Bulgarian Land Force’s four maneuver battalions, virtually all of which have been transported and are sustained by the United States. These realities represent the most basic limitations to increased Bulgarian commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The highest priority should be placed on encouraging Bulgaria to invest in the equipment, vehicles and weapons that will enable them to deploy and fight interoperably with U.S. and NATO forces overseas.

A number of roadblocks to achieving this objective stood in the way, however, including wasteful investments in submarines and an antiquated surface-to-air missile defense system that were bleeding the already meager state budget dry.

Of particular concern to the Americans was the possibility that Bulgaria would look to European corporations to upgrade their military capabilities.

Bulgaria has been under intense pressure from France to sign a massive ship procurement deal worth over one billion dollars. While modernization of the Navy remains a goal, we will continue to advocate against Bulgaria spending an amount greater than its annual defense budget on this single procurement, particularly since this purchase exceeds Bulgaria’s operational requirements and will not address its own stated top priority of improving Bulgaria’s ability to deploy and sustain troops outside its borders.

Instead, American diplomats urged the purchase of Lockheed Martin C-27J transport aircraft.

Theater lift capability will improve with the purchase of five C-27Js (one per year for the next five years with first delivery scheduled for Nov 07) and participation in the NATO C-17 consortium, but Bulgaria’s current fighter force has reached the end of its useful life. Affordable, interoperable multi-role fighters are necessary for them to continue to police their airspace, but it is important to advocate for systems to which they can quickly transition. Bulgaria should be steered away from the purchase of additional Russian fighters, which are currently an obstacle to Bulgaria’s transformation to a more operationally and tactically flexible organization as expected by NATO.

The fact that State Department diplomats have acted as travelling salesmen for the American corporations has been well-documented by cables WikiLeaked thus far. But the cable from Sofia is the first instance of diplomats playing the part of used car dealers. Embassy staff planned

to advocate against new, very expensive systems such as the Eurofighter, Swedish Gripen, and Joint Strike Fighter in favor of very capable older versions of the F-16 or F-18 as a bridge and catalyst for operational and tactical transformation. The Bulgarians may be eyeing new combat aircraft, and U.S. manufacturers will, of course, be in this hunt. But cost factors would exhaust the defense budget, and Bulgaria would be hard pressed to perform essential training and maintenance functions on such a squeezed budget.

This last observation was confirmed this week, when the Bulgarians announced they would consider both new and used aircraft while shopping for upgrades to replace the current fleet. And while the final decision on what to buy has yet to be made in Sofia, the cable suggests that Washington has a distinct advantage in competing for Bulgarian bucks.

Key contacts within the Ministry of Defense see U.S. and NATO guidance in the revision process as vital to ensuring a productive and affordable outcome; without our input they are concerned that political interests will trump military requirements. These contacts have offered to help ensure a U.S. voice in the process and to share inside information on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

All this jockeying for favor may all be for naught, however. While Bulgaria announced plans to buy an undisclosed number of planes this week, any purchase will not take place until 2012…at the very earliest. Currently, the country continues to suffer under a distressed economy which has been downgraded even further from its already weak standing by both Moody’s and Standard & Poor since the start of 2011. Even as Prime Minister Boiko Borissov confidently predicts a rapid recovery by the start of next year, it is far from clear the country will have the financial wherewithal to get itself up to snuff for deployment by the United States government.

The Egyptian Protests Are a Many Constituencied Thing

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

All of us who have been watching the Egyptian protests over the last few weeks have been told many times that the demonstrations have been “spontaneous” and “leaderless,” sparked by the Tunisian rebellion and spread via the Internet.

Those intent on repeating this storyline can count me as skeptical. As I previously wrote, such depictions of social movements are not unusual, yet often they are more a reflection of ignorance than reality:

[W]hen demonstrations like these erupt, they’re inevitably labeled ‘spontaneous uprisings.’ However, that characterization is usually more a product of previous media neglect and ignorance than it is an accurate description of protest activity. If you’re not paying any attention to a country’s politics and only swoop in when things have reached a crisis point, events will invariably look out-of-the-blue. Yet that’s hardly the whole story.

Yes, there are extraordinary moments when public demonstrations take on a mass character and people who would otherwise not have dreamed of taking part in an uprising rush onto the streets. But these protests are typically built upon years of organizing and preparation on the part of social movements.

There are elements of the “spontaneity” narrative that I think have some truth to them. The Egyptian protests are decentralized, not controlled by any single figurehead or political party. And in terms of social movement theory, moments of dramatic upheaval present a legitimate challenge to some of the ways we might normally look at groups that are pushing for social change.

Without going too deep into the theoretical debate: approaches aligned with Resource Mobilization Theory, which focuses on organized networks and their ability to deploy community resources in prompting social change, are good at understanding the slow, year-in-and-year-out work of building up oppositional organizations. But they tend to be weaker in accounting for moments of mass upheaval, when huge protests take on a life of their own and the legitimacy of a previously dominant order seems to crumble overnight.

Among those who have challenged the Resource Mobilization school, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have emphasized the disruptive qualities of mass movements, suggesting that such movements can wield significant power even without particularly well-established organizational structures. Theories of strategic nonviolent conflict, working in the lineage of Gene Sharp, offer an independent set of conceptual tools—and a rich set at that—for understanding the art of unarmed uprising.

With regard to Egypt, the tension between these different schools of thought raises a lot of interesting questions—too many to sort out here. But there are some relevant points I think we should keep in mind as we look at the developing story.

First, the skills that it takes to create and sustain a period of mass protest are not the same as those needed to institutionalize the gains of mass demonstrations—to carry forward after the moment of upheaval has passed. Right now, those who are savvy at engaging the media and creating protest scenarios that convey a sense of excitement and forward momentum are very important. However, when it comes to determining how mass action will translate into lasting social change, more traditional organizers, who can develop local leaders and create stable networks of commitment and accountability, will be essential.

With reference to the U.S. civil rights movement, historian Charles Payne distinguishes between two different activist traditions. In the South there was, he argues, a “community-mobilizing tradition, focused on large-scale, relatively short term public events“—a “tradition best symbolized by the work of Martin Luther King.” At the same time, there was also a “community organizing tradition,” with a “greater emphasis on the long-term development of leadership in ordinary men and women“—epitomized by the likes of SNCC and Ella Baker. Both mass mobilization and long-term leadership development are organizing, and both can be extremely valuable. And, at times, they can overlap. But it’s useful to understand that they are distinct processes.

A second point: Even during a moment of dramatic upheaval, there are dangers in ignoring the organizational networks that make up more established social movements. If you view a mass movement as “spontaneous” and “leaderless“—leaving its constituent groups unexamined—it makes it much easier to employ the language of “chaos” and “riots” in describing popular mobilizations. These descriptions lend themselves to a fear of the mob that robs movement participants of their legitimate democratic agency. They’ve been useful for right-wing commentators who argue that we should be wary of the pro-democracy movement (and supportive of the United States’s historic backing of Mubarak), since “chaos” in Egypt will inevitably produce a radical Islamic regime hostile to U.S. interests.

In this type of conservative account (represented in a particularly nutty form here), Mohamed ElBaradei becomes a “self-appointed spokesman for the Egyptian ‘revolution’”—despite the fact that he has significant support from anti-government groups across the political spectrum.

As a counter to this nonsense, I have been pleased over the past week to see some thoughtful and detailed analysis of the protest movement appear, giving attention to some of the different constituencies that have contributed to the uprising.

Juan Cole, at his appropriated named Informed Comment blog, calls the protesters a “broad-based, multi-class movement, with working-class Egyptians clearly making up a significant proportion of the crowd in Tahrir Square.” In arguing why “Egypt in 2011 is not Iran in 1979,” Cole further breaks down why the “social forces making the revolution in Egypt,” including the Muslim Brotherhood, “have a significantly different profile and different dynamics than in Iran.”

Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation also does a good job discussing “Who’s Behind Egypt’s Revolt,” noting:

Contrary to some media reports, which have portrayed the upsurge in Egypt as a leaderless rebellion, a fairly well organized movement is emerging to take charge, comprising students, labor activists, lawyers, a network of intellectuals, Egypt’s Islamists, a handful of political parties and miscellaneous advocates for ‘change.’

He pays particular attention to youth constituencies:

First, by all accounts, is the April 6 Youth Movement. Leftists, socialists and pro-labor people know that the movement takes its name from April 6, 2008, when a series of strikes and labor actions by textile workers in Mahalla led to a growing general strike by workers and residents and then, on April 6, faced a brutal crackdown by security forces. A second, allied movement of young Egyptians developed in response to the killing by police of Khaled Said, a university graduate, in Alexandria. Both the April 6 group and another group, called We Are All Khaled Said, built networks through Facebook, and according to one account the April 6 group has more than 80,000 members on Facebook. The two groups, which work together, are nearly entirely secular, pro-labor and support the overthrow of Mubarak and the creation of a democratic republic.

Overlapping with the youth movement is labor. David Macaray makes the case that “Egypt’s current political unrest was inspired and energized by the actions of the country’s labor movement”:

According to a report presented at a symposium hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in February, 2010, there have been more than 3,000 labor protests by Egyptian workers since 2004. That’s an astounding number. The report declared that this figure ‘[dwarfs] Egyptian political protests in both scale and consequence.’ …Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor, referred to Egypt’s labor activism as ‘…the largest social movement in the Arab world since World War II.’

U.C. Santa Barbara Professor Paul Amar elaborates on this in an excellent assessment of Egyptian civil society:

Paralleling the return of organized national(ist) capital associated with the military and ranged against the police (a process that also occurred during the struggle with British colonialism in the 1930s-50s) there has been a return of very powerful and vastly organized labor movements, principally among youth. 2009 and 2010 were marked by mass national strikes, nation-wide sit-ins, and visible labor protests often in the same locations that spawned this 2011 uprising. And the rural areas have been rising up against the government’s efforts to evict small farmers from their lands, opposing the regime’s attempts to re-create the vast landowner fiefdoms that defined the countryside during the Ottoman and British Colonial periods.

In 2008 we saw the 100,000 strong April 6 Youth Movement emerge, leading a national general strike. And in 2008 and just in December 2010 we saw the first independent public sector unions emerge. Then just on 30 January 2011 clusters of unions from most major industrial towns gathered to form an Independent Trade Union Federation. These movements are organized by new leftist political parties that have no relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, nor are they connected to the past generation of Nasserism. They do not identify against Islam, of course, and do not make an issue of policing the secular-religious divide. Their interest in protecting national manufacturing and agricultural smallholdings, and in demanding public investment in national economic development dovetails with some of the interests of the new nationalist capital alliance.

At this point, I hope a vibrant, resourceful, and decentralized protest movement will remain in the streets of Cairo and other cities throughout Egypt until Mubarak and his cronies are out for good. But I also hope that Egypt’s labor movement, its youth organizations, and all those who will be organizing long after the international press departs gain plenty of enduring fans and international supporters to make their work ahead a little easier.

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.

The Egyptian Army: Make Money, Not War

It seems that former President Mubarak has absqualated.* But before that, Reuters reported:

Eyewitnesses on Thursday night said the Egyptian army had troops pulled out of many locations near the presidential palace in Cairo, where they had been stationed since the beginning of the ongoing popular uprising. Sources said army tanks had disappeared from Salah Salem Street, which is near the presidential palace and President Hosni Mubarak’s residence. . . . . The sources opined that the withdrawal of the troops could be a warning to the president that the army may not be able to protect him if protesters decided to march towards the palace.

Yet the army doesn’t seem to be seeking to mount a coup. What makes it tick? At Jadaliyya, Paul Amar, author and Associate Professor of Global & International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who we’ve been citing frequently on Egypt, explains.

The Egyptian military is one of the most interesting and misunderstood economic actors in the country. . . Since the military has been prevented by the Camp David treaty from making war, it has instead used its sovereignty over huge tracks of desert and coastal property to develop shopping malls, gated cities and beach resorts, catering to rich and modest Egyptians, local and international consumers and tourists. Their position vis-à-vis the uprising is thus complicated. They hated the rapacious capitalists around Gamal Mubarak, who sold off national lands, assets and resources to US and European corporations. But the military also wants tourists, shoppers and investors to consume in their multi-billion dollar resorts and venues.

He establishes that the military has been hostile to Mubarak. Why then hasn’t it aggressively protected the protesters in Tahir Square?

The military identifies very strongly with representing and protecting “the people,” but also wants the people to go home and stop scaring away the tourists. The military will continue to mobilize this in-between position in interesting ways in the coming years.

*To depart in a hurry; abscond.

The Irish Elections and the Ghost of Padraic Pearse

Padraic Pearse(Pictured: Padraic Pearse.)

“I say to the masters of my people, beware. Beware of the thing that is coming, Beware of the risen people who shall take what yea would not give.”
– Padraic Pearse, Irish poet and revolutionary, executed May 16, 1916 for his part in the Easter Rebellion.

It is almost a hundred years since Pearse and his comrades were executed in the aftermath of the failed rising of 1916, but the people who run the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU) might take a moment to read his poem—originally read over the grave of the great Fenian leader, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa—and take notice: an election is scheduled for Feb. 25, and Irish eyes are not smiling.

At stake is whether Ireland will lock itself into decades of high unemployment, burdensome taxes, and eviscerated social services in order to bail banks and real estate speculators out of trouble, or rise up and say “enough.”

The current economic crisis that turned the once formidable “Celtic Tiger” into a throw rug is the direct result of massive speculation by banks—both domestic and foreign—in Ireland’s real estate bubble. From 1994 to 2008, house prices in Dublin rose 500 percent, and speculators went on a massive construction spree that filled up the landscape with “ghost” projects: houses that were never finished or would never be lived in. Unemployment is 14 percent, and personal income has declined 20 percent. Projections are that more than 100,000 people will emigrate in the coming two years.

The banks and politicians were the major culprits in the speculation madness, with the former handing out cash they didn’t have, and the latter making sure that fees, taxes and regulations were waived. Ireland has the lowest corporate tax rate in Europe. Michael Lewis, writing for Vanity Fair, has calculated the following: the Anglo-Irish Bank lost 34 billion Euros, which, if measured by its percentage of the national economy, would be the equivalent of 3.4 trillion dollars in the U.S. Using the same formula, the losses for all Irish banks—106 billion Euros—would translate into 10 trillion dollars. Do keep in mind that Ireland is half the size of Alabama and one tenth the size of Texas.

The ruling coalition of Fianna Fail and the Green Party pushed through a $114 billion EU/IMF bailout, one that required Ireland to go back to the Iron Age, or maybe the Stone Age, when all is said and done. Taxes on the income of working people were raised to 41 percent, the minimum wage was slashed, tuition raised, and social services disemboweled. And Ireland was locked into paying back the EU at the usurious rate of 6 percent, even though the EU is borrowing the money it is lending to Ireland at 2.8 percent.

The bailout has tanked what was left of the Irish economy—the pre-bailout estimate of a 2.3 percent growth rate has been downgraded to 1 percent—and enraged the populace. One of Ireland’s current heroes is Gary Keogh, who took two rotten eggs—he prepared them by leaving them in his garage for six weeks—into a shareholders meeting of the Anglo-Irish Bank and egged the bank’s chairman.

The Feb. 25 vote will see six parties vying for votes in the 26-county elections. The current ruling party Fianna Fail, and Fine Gael, the Labor Party, the Green Party, Sinn Fein, and the brand new United Left Alliance (ULA).

A brief scorecard.

Fianna Fail (“Soldiers of Ireland”) has dominated the politics of the Irish Republic for 60 out of the last 88 years. Its economic philosophy is free market, and its social policies are conservative and closely aligned with the Catholic Church. Its traditional base is small farmers and businesses, but in recent years it has been able to draw on the enormous wealth of property speculators and financiers. If there is any one party responsible for the current meltdown, it is Fianna Fail, and it may drop from its current 71 seats in the 166-member Dial to as few as 30.

Fine Gael (“Family of the Irish”) is center-right, and the second largest party, but it hasn’t won a general election since 1982. Its economic politics are not much different than Fianna Fail’s, and the party voted—with minor reservations—for the EU-IMF bailout. Its base is large farmers, rural businesses, and Dublin professionals, and it tends to be socially liberal.

The Labor Party is center-left and an offspring of several earlier parties, including the Democratic Left, the Irish Workers Party, and the Official Sinn Fein Labor. Its base is trade unionists, civil servants and teachers, and it also voted for the bailout. Its leader, Eamon Gilmore, is demanding that bank bondholders absorb some of the pain from the bailout. If it does well, it will probably go into a coalition with Fine Gael, although there will be friction over Fine Gael’s program to privatize public services.

The Green Party has only six seats, and it is almost certain to feel the wrath voters will level at Fianna Fail, its coalition partner. It is a mostly urban party whose only real accomplishment was to ban stag hunting. It may cease to exist after Feb. 25.

Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”) is a left party, and the only one to vote against the bailout. While it currently holds only five seats in the Dial, it recently took a seat away from Fianna Fail in a Donegal by-election. Its unrelenting opposition to the bailout is earning it points with trade unionists and civil servants, and the party may be on the verge of a major breakthrough, possibly even outpolling Fianna Fail.

The United Left Party (ULP) is a newcomer, formed in November 2010 from the Socialist Party, the People Before Profits Alliance, the Workers & Unemployed Action Group, plus former Labor Party members and independents. It also opposed the bailout and says it will not go into a coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.

Sinn Fein contends that the bailout’s austerity program will destroy whatever is left of the Irish economy, an argument that recently got strong support from the British Office for National Statistics. The Office found that the United Kingdom’s economy had fallen by 0.5 percent because of a falloff in services and consumption. While the new Conservative-Liberal alliance tried to blame the bad news on the early December snowstorms, economists generally agreed that Britain’s draconian austerity budget was largely to blame.

“Now we are seeing the first signs of what the Conservative-led government’s decisions are having on the economy,” the British Labor Party economic spokesman told the New York Times. Even the Confederation of British Industry chimed in. The new government has “been careless of the damage they might do to business and to job creation,” said Confederation Director Richard Lambert. “It is not enough just to slam on the brakes.”

Fianna Fail says it wants to renegotiate the 6 percent interest rate, and the Labor Party wants bondholders to take some of the pain, but so far, only Sinn Fein is demanding that the agreement be dumped. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams says his party would reject the bailout, reverse the cuts, and submit a new budget that would ensure that those that can afford to pay will pay more. “We reject the EU/IMF deal, which is a digout for greedy bankers and speculators, not a bailout for the Irish citizens.”

Odds are the Fianna Fail will get shellacked, Fine Gael will win big, and go into a coalition with Labor. But the latter alliance will be an uncomfortable one, and there are rumors of a deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. The idea would be for Fine Gael to rule as a minority government with an agreement by Fianna Fail to support it. That would allow Fianna Fail to slip into government through a side door.

The key to all this will be how well Sinn Fein and the ULA do, and whether either party gets enough votes to torpedo a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael gentleman’s agreement. What Labor will do in this case, is unclear. There is no love lost between Labor and Sinn Fein, but Labor is deeply worried that if it highlights its centrist credentials, Sinn Fein and the ULA will draw off large numbers of angry trade unionists.

One thing is clear: The Irish are angry, and they aren’t being quiet about it. “All deputies receive calls to their Dial offices from members of the public,” says Sinn Fein Dial leader Caoimhghin O Caolain. “Often they are the old, the sick and the vulnerable. Yesterday my office received one such call from an elderly man whose blind pension was cut in the budget. He had one simple message: ‘Give us a voice.’ We must all listen to him and to countless others like him.”

Any attempt to renegotiate the terms of the bailout will meet stiff resistance. Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, a member of the European Central Bank executive board, says that the EU would not allow any “reneging” on the agreement. On the other hand, the Germans seem to be edging away from the EU’s hard-nosed posture of enforcing punitive interest rates.

Whatever party does a better job of tapping into Ireland’s anger will likely do well Feb. 25. But the outcome of this election is not just a concern for the Irish. Greece—another victim of EU/IMF austerity—will certainly be watching what happens and whether Ireland will be the first country since Argentina declared bankruptcy in 2002 to say “Enough.” Waiting in the wings are Spain and Portugal.

Ireland is just a little island, with not many people and a lot of rain. But on occasion it engages the attention of the world. It did so in 1798. It did so during the Great Famine of 1845-48, and again on Easter Sunday, 1916. It may do so again on Feb. 25, 2011 when Pearse’s risen people will have their say.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

WikiLeaks: Just in Case You Were Concerned, Suleiman “Not Squeamish” About Torture

Mubarak Suleiman(Pictured: Egyptian President Mubarak and Vice President Suleiman.)

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

It’s hardly news to even casual followers of recent events in Cairo that Omar Suleiman, the likely successor to Hosni Mubarak, isn’t exactly the fresh new face of Egyptian politics being demanded in Tahrir Square. Whether it be his unwillingness to lift the thirty-year state of emergency stifling Egyptian society or even push Mubarak off the political stage, when it comes to Suleiman’s politics, these positions are only the tip of the iceberg.

As Jane Mayer recounts in her expose of abuse committed in the name of fighting terror, The Dark Side, and quoted recently by Al Jazeera, Suleiman was the point person for American rendition efforts in its war on terror:

Each rendition was authorised at the very top levels of both governments [the US and Egypt] … The long-serving chief of the Egyptian central intelligence agency, Omar Suleiman, negotiated directly with top [CIA] officials. [Former US Ambassador to Egypt Edward] Walker described the Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, as ‘very bright, very realistic,’ adding that he was cognisant that there was a downside to ‘some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way.’

Technically, US law required the CIA to seek ‘assurances’ from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn’t face torture. But under Suleiman’s reign at the EGIS, such assurances were considered close to worthless. As Michael Scheuer, a former CIA officer [head of the al-Qaeda desk], who helped set up the practise of rendition, later testified, even if such ‘assurances’ were written in indelible ink, ‘they weren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.’

And that’s not all. Not one afraid to get his hands dirty—or bloody, as the case may be—Suleiman reportedly engaged in torture practices himself. As UC Santa Barbara’s Lisa Hajjar reminds us, Egyptian-born Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib “was repeatedly subjected to electric shocks, immersed in water up to his nostrils and beaten. His fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks. At one point, his interrogator slapped him so hard that his blindfold was dislodged, revealing the identity of his tormentor: Suleiman.”

It’s also important to remember that his is very likely behind the government’s thuggishly violent response to the recent demonstrations in Cairo and across the country.

Not that he cares, but the release of new embassy cables from WikiLeaks aren’t exactly doing wonders for Suleiman’s public profile.

Among other revelations sure to outrage anti-government protestors, one WikiLeaked document clearly demonstrates that Suleiman’s rise to power would be most welcome news in Jerusalem. The cable, dating from the summer of 2008 and written by diplomats in Tel Aviv, details Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s August visit to Egypt. While the Israeli delegation was “‘shocked’ by Mubarak’s aged appearance and slurred speech,” they were “full of praise for Soliman [sic] and noted that a ‘hot line'” between Barak and Suleiman had been established and was in “daily use.” The cable’s author notes in a parenthetical aside that the Israeli prediction that Suleiman would succeed Mubarak if the Egyptian dictator were to die or be otherwise capacitated reflected their comfort at the prospect.

Another cable sheds light, albeit briefly, into Suleiman’s political philosophy. In discussions with American officials late in 2007, the intelligence chief and his team expressed outrage that American foreign aid might be predicated on securing weapons-smuggling routes between Egypt and Hamas-controlled Gaza, labeling it a “hostile act.” Sensing no irony in his defense of Egypt against criticism that the Mubarak regime wasn’t doing enough to stem the flow of small arms into the occupied territories, Suleiman summed up his country’s delicate position between Israel and the Palestinians by noting that “Egypt wants Gaza to go ‘hungry’ but not ‘starve.’

From the looks of it, he’s been getting his way.

Military Spending Cuts: Depends on what the Meaning of ‘On the Table’ Is

Deficit pressure has put “everything on the table” for cuts, including the Pentagon. Everyone from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to President Barack Obama agrees on this. But what they mean by this is all over the map.

The budget Obama will present to Congress next week will likely begin what the Pentagon is billing as $78 billion in cuts to its budget over five years. In fact these are cuts to their plans for expansion, i.e., slowing a proposed increase is being defined as a cut.

While both Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan pay lip service to the “defense is on the table” mantra, both also exempt the defense budget from their budgetary restraining actions: a five-year discretionary freeze, in Obama’s case, and $100 billion in cuts, in Ryan’s.

The president’s debt reduction commission proposed real cuts, but these would leave the military budget only 5 percent below where President Reagan jacked it up to militarily defeat the Soviet Union — shortly before its collapse.

Defense Secretary Gates describes even those modest potential cuts as “catastrophic.”

Let’s define budget cuts as spending less next year than this year. Nothing else should qualify.

Savings aren’t just needed because of the nation’s massive debt. We also need to address our security deficit. The civilian and uniformed military leadership agrees on a key point: U.S. foreign policy needs to be less dominated by the military. Achieving that goal would entail decreasing the proportion of resources devoted to offense (the military) relative to defense (homeland security) and prevention (non-military foreign engagement). IPS will score this proposed budget’s mix of security expenditures, and report the results after Obama releases it.

Miriam Pemberton, an Institute for Policy Studies research fellow, leads the task force that produces the yearly Unified Security Budget for the United States with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress.

Washington’s Support for Another Military Leader in Egypt Will Only Firm up Protesters’ Resolve

Suleiman(Pictured: Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman and an old friend.)

Stability or freedom? This is the false choice presented by political analysts and government officials as Egyptians protest day after day in their quest for freedom. On the one hand Egypt is described as our valued, strategic pro-Western ally, aligned with our anti-terrorist and Israeli policies. On the other hand, the Mubarak government’s record of corruption, restriction of freedoms, imprisonment of political opponents, torture, and abject poverty for tens of millions of Egyptians is in blatant opposition to our American ideals. The conclusion of the wise men is that the U.S. is in a dilemma, walking a tightrope, and in a delicate balance for our diplomacy. So what is the choice for us?

First, there is no choice between supporting freedom and democracy and supporting a despotic regime for eighty million Egyptians. The entire Arab world has entered a period of readiness for revolution, and we must be ready to support their quest for freedom and democracy just as we treasure it ourselves. Second, the claim that our support of despotic regimes is the reason for some stability ignores the current and past instabilities in the region. Third, supporting despotic regimes promotes anti-Western terrorism. Fourth, if we had supported a democratic transformation in Egypt and the Arab world, we may have avoided past wars. And finally, our support and aid to the Egyptian military and other security services for stability is contrary to our values, promoting anti-democratic policies and adding to the corruption endemic to Arab countries.

Our relationship with the military elite is now especially problematic. Egypt’s top generals were trained in our military colleges, and we have maintained our relationships with them. While some may see this as a distinct advantage, the Egyptian people also see the billions of US dollars given to the Egyptian military as money used to maintain control over any political opposition. Current discussions about the transition of Mubarak to his newly-appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, only serve to magnify our support for the repressive regime. Suleiman, the former military general and director of an intelligence service known for torture of dissidents, is not trusted by the dissidents. Yet, indications are that the U.S. would be very happy with Suleiman’s leadership. Our focus on the military for a solution is pregnant with risks since they are the privileged class and have benefited from the regime’s corrupt practices.

In the past two weeks, US officials have issued many statements reflecting not only the changing situation in Egypt, but our own ambivalence with practical and moral imperatives. Secretary Clinton claimed that the regime is stable. President Obama expressed the need for an immediate transition plan, allowing for Egyptians to determine their future. But the most disturbing comment came (amid the reports of deaths and injuries among the demonstrators) from the administration’s special envoy Frank Wisner: Mubarak must remain in the transition period to ensure stability. While the administration slightly distanced themselves from Mr. Wisner’s comments, it appears that many in the West were aligned with his statement. To those demonstrators, and the rest of Egypt waiting for its first breath of freedom, the disappointment must be deep.

The Tahrir square revolution has already succeeded in many fronts. The demonstration in the tens and hundreds of thousands in Tahrir square has continued unabated for two weeks. The demonstrators held to a peaceful path despite the provocation by government thugs. On 2/6/2011, Christians held mass in Tahrir square chanting, “we are one nation” and Muslims protected their Christian brethren – bringing a tear to the eye of many Christian Arabs. For the first time, Mr. Mubarak declared he would not run for another term in the coming September. Moreover, his son Jamal Mubarak will not succeed him. The people of Egypt are no longer afraid to challenge the instruments of oppression – the security forces. Mr. Suleiman has already met, for the first time, with many of the opposition leaders and agreed to form a Committee on Constitutional Reforms. Finally, there are discussions of removing the emergency law ruling Egypt since 1981.

It appears that the U.S. administration’s desire is for Suleiman’s power to increase and for Mubarak’s to gradually diminish. The U.S. will support this transition to democracy as long as it does not threaten any of our interests in the Middle East. But there is so much at stake. As Americans, we must ask ourselves: isn’t the liberty that we cherish worth the risk?

Using Islamophobia as a Pretext for Withdrawing From Afghanistan

In a guest post at Thinking Strategically, Dr. Steven Metz, author and professor at the U.S. Army War College, writes about the impact of growing Islamophobia on U.S. foreign policy.

Today American strategy has hit the wall, crumbling in the face of growing public hostility toward Islam. . . . Policymakers have not come to grips with the dissonance between domestic hostility toward Islam . . . and a global strategy based on winning support and building partnerships in the Islamic world. . . . A new strategy must reflect the inherent antagonism.

What would that strategy look like?

There are only two solutions. One would be to try and re-cage the tiger by constraining domestic mistrust and hostility toward Islam at least enough to sustain the [old strategy of cooopoeration]. This would require Republican leaders. . . . to abandon a theme which energizes and excites their political base, and give up on the notion of reviving the emotions of September 11 as elections approach. This is unlikely. Equally importantly. . . . Countries like Pakistan would have to recognize that they cannot be shrilly anti-American while expecting massive U.S. assistance. Again, this is unlikely since anti-Americanism in Pakistan and across the Islamic world has become legitimate and institutionalized. . . .

The alternative is to accept the notion that irresolvable differences exist between the United States and the Islamic world. . . . Americans could stop ignoring blatant hypocrisy such as criticism of opposition to the Cordoba House at the same time that Islamic nations prevent the building of Christian churches, or vehement anti-Americanism combined with a demand for more American assistance.

In other words, face that too many of us don’t like each other. That would require the United States [emphasis added]

. . . to craft a new global strategy based on at least a major if not a total disengagement from the Islamic world, shifting to a close rather than forward defense against terrorism. [Most] nations in the Islamic world would be officially anti-American. . . . Some of these would allow an al Qaeda presence, whether openly or clandestinely. . . . The United States could launch long range spoiling attacks against known al Qaeda bases or sanctuaries. While these might not be as effective as having allied governments controlling extremists for the United States, they might suffice. [Other than that] the United States would “fight them here” because it could not “fight them there.”

This is, however, speculative. Still, a few things are clear. American domestic hostility toward Islam will grow. . . . It has become an integral part of the political battle between the left and right. But it is also clear that the American public cannot be anti-Islamic and expect Islamic nations to serve [as] allies in the fight against extremism.

In other words, unwillingness on the part of Christian-Judaeo Americans to distinguish between Islamist extremists and Muslims in general (vice-versa, as well) and the obstacle it presents toward cooperation between the West and the Middle East becomes an unlikely “gift” in the service of withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan.

Egypt Protests Signal an End to the Post-9/11 Era

A spectre is roaming the Middle East: the spectre of the multitude. The beauty and in a sense the world historical importance of this Jasmine Revolution (or whatever it will be called in the annals of humanity) is that it has no leadership. It might also prove its fatal weakness, but that does not contradict its beauty and importance. It was the people rising up. Of course youngsters and schooled people – doctors, engineers, etc. took the lead, but it was from the beginning in Tunisia the multitude at work.

A buzzing discussion is on about how important the new media were for this instant, unpredictable, spontaneous revolt. It is self evident that e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones have played an enormous self organizing role. But you could say that this self organisation quickly could do without some media: when Aljazeera was banned, internet and mobile communication down, the revolt unfolded untouched. So this has to be studied in a dialectical way: the media and the multitude. The re-appropriation of communication that we see happening (also in Iran) after it being monopolized or controlled by power (the state and multinational tycoons) for ages is in itself of world historical importance. This could truly, this truly will alter the Middle East, and indeed the entire world. It is not neocon militarism that brought democracy to the Middle East – that only enhanced radicalism, fundamentalism and terrorism, was in a sense a present to the extremists – but the new media.

In fact, one can say that Negri and Hardt had it wrong – in the best Marxist tradition – in their localisation of the ‘historical subject’, the driving force of history. Marx located it in the industrialized proletariat and the revolutions took place in fundamentally rural and feudal countries, Russia and China. Negri and Hardt in their Empire-sequel located the subject of history in the creative class of the Western postfordist, information economy, but in fact it is the Arab people in the street under conditions of old fashioned tyranny and poverty who are giving history a push. The creative classes in the West are safely caught in their rat race, but it is in the disenfranchised Middle East that the “the multitude” is at work. This is of world historical importance.

Hactivism and online activism has taught us that a good action is based a strong story, an open-ended script or scenario without author. So people can appropriate and improvise. Both in Tunisia and in Egypt, the story was loud and clear: the people rise against the tyrant. Strong story. One of the strongest ever told. That is why it is so contagious. Domino theory in action. After Tunisia and Egypt more can and should follow. Jemen, Marocco, Algeria, a shockwave in the entire Middle East are now to be hoped for. Even if Egypt looked dodgy for a moment. This revolt is beautiful and world historical: no hidden agenda, no leaders, no party, no religion.

Indeed, it is one of the most striking things: it is a secular revolt. It might, let’s hope, even mean the end of fundamentalism. The people in Tahrir Square street interviews were very explicit: we want an end to tyranny, repression and corruption, we want freedom and democracy, not theocracy (which is just another form of tyranny and repression, minus corruption at best). As they have proved the neocons wrong, and the other globalist guru Negri wrong, they are now also proving the Islamists wrong.

This Jasmin/Arab revolution could and should change the course of history: the end of tyrannies in the Middle East, the end of neocon militarist policy in the Middle East, the end of Israel’s monopoly on democracy (that could change a few equations), the end of fundamentalism as the main driving force of international politics. The weakening of Islam fundamentalism as political Islam could also weaken the fundamentalism of political evangelicals on American foreign policy and the weight of Jewish fundamentalism on Israel politics. In short, we are a facing a new phase in world history. The period “after 9/11” is over.

Of course, the world should help. The former prime minister of Belgium, now European MP, Guy Verhofstadt was right (for once) when he addressed the European Parliament: Europe should support the demands of this revolution explicitly and ask Mubarak to step down. Where is Obama? Where is this world-historical figure when you need him? Maybe he is doing what he can. Because it is his slogan that the people of the Middle East now practice: Yes, we can. He should not let them down.

This combination of a story without author, a revolution without leaders, via self organisation enhanced by networked new media – rhizomatic, non linear (to say it in a fancy way) and completely secular, open – Muslim, Christian (crescent and cross united on banners!), young and old, men and women, working class and intellectual, children and grandparents – this was, and is, and will remain forever, awesome to see. Whatever comes after. Come what may. When the activist writer Nawal Al Sadaawi, a girl in her 80s, said in a television interview: “I have been waiting for this all my life, this is the most beautiful moment of my life,… I have to be here on Tahrir square’ – she was damn right. We should all be with them. Tahrir Square is not a symbol of the longing for democracy and freedom, it is democracy and freedom! Self expression, fearless discussing, mutual help, self organisation, all very remarkable. Even journalist swho have seen a few things and therefore are a bit cynical, rub their eyes!

The demonstrations are spreading outside Liberation Square – as I write: Tuesday Febaruary 8th, 1 pm GMT – and sprawling across the Egyptian Capital; in Alexandria also huge crowds are flocking together. The so called return to normalcy has meant that not only banks are open but that communication is up again, so the people can now see and hear what is happening. Many Egyptians join in now. They start to believe that something is actually happening! Spread the word!

World-historical, I say: the power of the multitude! Shifting the course of history. Let us, on the outside, elsewhere, at least be awake and express our solidarity and enthusiasm where we can. Old Kant had a point when he said that the spontaneous enthusiasm of the multitude for a world-historical revolution (he was of course thinking of the French Revolution, we are thinking of the fall of the Berlin wall) that history makes sense, that there is… progress. For that is what this is: a truly progressive uprising of the multitude, not regressive reaction of a minority of extremists. The emancipating effect is visible, like children and women leading the crowds in chanting (I hear their voices as I write – courtesy Aljazeera). Really wish I could be there with you! All I can do is, write this text for you. With my utmost respect, for you, the people of the Tunisia and Egypt and you, the multitude of the Middle East.

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). He has published several books: on contemporary art, experience and modernity, on Walter Benjamin and more recently on architecture, the city and politics. Beside this he published poems, columns, statements, pamphlets and opinion pieces.

His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.

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