Focal Points Blog

Radio Tahrir (Part II): The Indignado and Occupy Movement

This is a transcript of one of the two main interviews during Radio Tahrir (Part I is here), a marathon looking back on the Arab awakening, the Indignados and the Occupy movement, live recorded at the Kaaitheather, Brussels, 11th of March 2012, conceived and moderated by Lieven de Cauter. An edited version (by Werner Trio) of the debate was broadcast as “Radio Tahrir” on Radio Klara, a week later. The first skype interview is with Tariq Ali, who shares his view on the developments in the Middle East, the second with Michael Hardt who is being queried on the Occupy and Indignado movement and the political ramifications for Western democracies. Members of the panel in the Kaaitheater are Rudi Vranckx, Sami Zemni, Yassine Channouf, Eva Brems, Christophe Callewaert, Linus van Hellemont, Eric Coryn and Thomas Decreus. Or listen to the program in English and Dutch.

(Transcript by Odette Dijt)

Michael Hardt is co-author with Antonio Negri of the Empire trilogy (Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth). Their latest book, Declaration, which addresses the encampments and occupations of 2011, will be published in May 2012.

LDC: I have been, of course, in the Indignado manifestation, here in Brussels, I have been at Occupy Rotterdam – but I have less experience from concrete realities than some of the members from the panel – what struck me was that the people you talk to, in their stalls, in their tents, were so incredibly apolitical. In fact, it was hard to, sometimes, find out whether they were really against neo-liberalism. So, they were like … harmless. What is your feeling, because you were, of course, closer to the whole Occupy movement in America. Is it also that sort of confused, harmless idealism?

Michael Hardt: I might be talking about the same phenomenon as you, but I approach it from a different angle. I think it’s true that in all of these European and North American encampments and occupations, there’s been a large percentage of the activists who were not experienced militants. Now that has some disadvantages which I think you are pointing to, it also has some real important advantages. I think some of the success has been related to being new to politics of many of the activists. For instance, before the 15th of May, in Spain, in Madrid … you know, there was a large demonstration called for that day and in 60 different cities around Spain, and it was the non-experienced activists that really forced the slogan of “Democracia real, ya!” “Real democracy now!” A lot of the experienced activists in Spain whom I know very well, were very uncomfortable with that as a slogan, as good Leftists. In some ways to be experienced militants means to be cynical about democracy and to have a certain discomfort in proposing democracy as the objective. One of the really exciting things about 2011, that it has reopened the discussion about democracy. In many ways it was made possible by the Arab spring to put democracy on the agenda, in a kind of naive way – but I mean naive here in a really positive sense – this couldn’t have happened simply in the frameworks of the experienced militants and the politics as it was. So, in some sense I agree with you. I, too, have read about it, and had that sensation of a certain disquiet from the inexperience of many of the militants, many of the activists, in this. I think there are also some extremely positive effects of that. Of the influx of populations I mean. The result has been, in many ways better and credits to the success of the movements in 2011. We have to regard it as an extraordinarily powerful, pedagogical moment of people becoming a much wider population, becoming engaged in these kinds of political issues. So, I guess I am more inclined to see the positive aspects of that.

Eva Brems: Occupy Wall Street, in the first place, fights economic injustice and the undemocratic power of financial markets. Right? It’s Wall Street that’s occupied, not the White House. If you look at the testimonies on “We are the 99%” it’s all about economic injustice. Yet, sort of automatically, another agenda, an agenda for political change, for democratic change of institutions and mechanisms seems to be attached to that. And I understand that perfectly in the US context, because power alternates between two political parties, and neither of the parties really has an agenda for true economic justice, I would say. Plus the rules on party financing are so lax that they are actually votes in the pocket of the one percent, you might also say, but I would submit that in Europe things are somewhat different, actually. The parties are not in the pockets of the one percent? And actually, real and even radical claims for change of economic markets or financial markets of economic redistribution are on the agenda of political parties, even some of the change that is so needed in the US, is already realized in some European countries. So, what I am wondering is, whether these automatic attachments of this agenda of change of political mechanisms should be the case also in Europe? I actually think, that the whole movement, could be much more effective and efficient in Europe, by working through what’s already there, through strong unions, through … even political parties?

MH: Let’s start with the US, and then Europe. I think you’re right that there was a quick movement between the question of economic justice and political democracy. I would say, that, when one thinks about the cycle of struggles of 2011 as a whole, in contrast the to Alter-Globalisation movements from ten years earlier, one of the striking differences was the focus on the concept of justice. Global justice, ten years ago, and the focus on democracy, this last year. So, I would say also, like you, that in some ways that Occupy Wall Street translated the struggle against the tyrant, against tyranny, into the struggle against the tyranny of finance. I would say that the political character of Tunisia and Egypt, and also, of course, of Spain and Greece, all of which preceded the Occupy Wall Street, that the political character really was dominant. So, in all of that I am agreeing with you. What I am not as optimistic about – I love to accuse someone else of optimism, because I often get that – I am not as optimistic as you about the European parties of the Left. Certainly, you know we probably have to talk about different countries, but certainly in Spain, the 15th of May, and the occupations of Puerta del Sol in Madrid and in Barcelona, were not in support of the Socialist party. In fact, a lot of the struggle was against the betrayal of the Socialist party, against a movement that had brought them to power, several years earlier. So, I wouldn’t say that either the trade-unions, or the Socialist party or any other Left formation was in this. What I found most interesting, and complex, and challenging… in May, in Spain, was the slogan that “You don’t represent us!” In some ways, which was an echo of Argentina, ten years earlier. The slogan”¡Que se vayan todos!” That they all go – so, not just against any one politician, or any one political party, but against the entire political class, and really against the entire political system. I see this as a challenge to the republican constitutions, this refusal of representation, and a quite serious one. Now, I think that you are saying that the traditional forms of representation, both through trade-unions and through political parties, is still sufficient to lead and guide the populations and in a way they should give up their struggles, or conceive their struggles or allow their struggles to be taken over. Or, maybe just trust in their leaders, in the unions and the parties? Well, there are two ways of responding. One is that I, personally, don’t have much faith in that, but more importantly, maybe is that the content of the encampments have been decidedly against those traditional forms of representation. Not only because they’ve now been corrupted – undoubtedly, of course, they have – but because of the form of representation itself is not adequate to their desires. All I’m trying to do is express a slightly different evaluation than, I think you give to the traditional forms of representation. I think that’s where we differ.

Linus van Hellemont: Hello, Mr. Hardt. Apparently we don’t have time for another analytical question … so, I have a very practical question for you. As you know, Occupy Wall Street and Madrid, the Indignados of Madrid, are calling for a next global mobilization on the 12th of May. You are a leading political philosopher, and you have the capacity to call the scientific community for joining the protest. My question to you is: will you do this? Will you take your responsibility? Yes, or no? A very short question.

MH: Who cares about the scientific community? And who do you mean by that?

LVH: I know of a lot. I will just add, I know of a lot of political philosophers, but also a lot of readers of your books, who are working within the academic milieu, in, academia, who really follow you, and if you would call to join the protest, and ask them to do the same yourself, this will spark maybe the debate on what is a democratic university. On what is democratic academia: should we focus on quantity and produce texts as much as possible or should we go for quality? Et cetera, et cetera. This is part of the outrage, which is there in the Indignados movement, will you take part and will you call with us?

MH: I am not quite clear about the call, yet. I am certainly taking part. Like, there’s no doubt about what I want. I am skeptical about those who think that the revolution will start in the university. I don’t mean to say that the university is not an important site, but it seems to me the wrong location to look for some sort of leading role. And then the second thing I am hesitant about is I would be very much disinclined to think of myself as a leader of any-thing. You’re sort of casting me in some leadership role which I don’t think is appropriate. I think what is more appropriate, is to write about and to participate in the activities, rather than calling on others to do so.

LDC: Okay, on this moral dictum we end. We thank you very much. Give Mr. Hardt a warm applause. Thank you very much. Great. Thank you for your time. It was great talking to you. Bye bye. And hope to meet you soon. Bye. The 12th of May! [applause]

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). 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.

When Nuclear Weapons Programs Fail to Ripen

One can’t help but suspect that a key reason the public and even many policymakers believe that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons is the sheer length of time that the words “Iran” and “nuclear” have been uttered in the same sentence by the media. Way back in 1957 Iran signed an agreement to participate President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. But Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini temporarily halted Iran’s nuclear efforts, both peaceful and weapons.

In the late eighties and early nineties, AQ Khan, lord of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program as well as the nuclear black market, shared know-how and components with Iran. Then, in late 2002, it was learned that Iran had built a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak. It appears, though, that in 2003 all but vestigial research toward an Iranian nuclear-weapons program ended.

For better or worse, that’s 55 years, off and on, that Iran’s name has been linked with the word nuclear and 25 years since Iran initiated actual work on developing nuclear weapons. By contrast, the United States developed nuclear weapons from scratch in four years during what, compared to today, was the technological dark ages. In the interim, many other states have also succeeded in relatively short timeframes. Thus, it doesn’t strike most in the West as plausible that a developed state like Iran has yet to bring its program — if you’re among those who believe that, in fact, it exists — to fruition.

Jacques E. C. Hymans of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California addresses Iran’s inability (again, if you accept that it’s trying) to close the nuclear circle in an article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs titled “Botching the Bomb: Why Nuclear Weapons Programs Often Fail on Their Own — and Why Iran’s Might, Too” (behind a pay wall). He begins by providing an example of an official skeptical of how long it’s taking Iran to close the circle (again, assuming you’re among those who believe that’s what it seeks). [Emphasis added.]

“Today, almost any industrialized country can produce a nuclear weapon in four to five years,” a former chief of Israeli military intelligence recently wrote in The New York Times, echoing a widely held belief. Indeed, the more nuclear technology and know-how have diffused around the world, the more the timeline for building a bomb should have shrunk. But in fact, rather than speeding up over the past four decades, proliferation has gone into slow motion. … Seven countries launched dedicated nuclear weapons projects before 1970, and all seven succeeded in relatively short order. By contrast, of the ten countries that have launched dedicated nuclear weapons projects since 1970, only three have achieved a bomb.

In Iran’s case — and I’ll issue this disclaimer just once more: assuming you believe that they’re trying to develop nuclear weapons — a number of factors have contributed to the delay. Foremost among them is that because Iran signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it’s subject to monitoring and verification. Other reasons include imported nuclear components that the West has sabotaged and killing of scientists, the reduction of the nuclear black market to but a shadow of itself, and sanctions. But here, according to Hymans, is the essential reason in Iran as well as other states:

The great proliferation slowdown. … is mostly the result of the dysfunctional management tendencies of the states that have sought the bomb in recent decades. Weak institutions in those states have permitted political leaders to unintentionally undermine the performance of their nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians.

In fact, according to Hymans,

… most rulers of recent would-be nuclear states have tended to rely on a coercive, authoritarian management approach to advance their quest for the bomb, using appeals to scientists’ greed and fear as the primary motivators. That coercive approach is a major mistake, because it produces a sense of alienation in the workers by removing their sense of professionalism. As a result, nuclear programs lose their way. Moreover, underneath these bad management choices lie bad management cultures. In developing states with inadequate civil service protections, every decision tends to become politicized, and state bureaucrats quickly learn to keep their heads down. Not even the highly technical matters faced by nuclear scientific and technical workers are safe from meddling politicians. The result is precisely the reverse of what the politicians intend: not heightened efficiency but rather a mixture of bureaucratic sloth, corruption, and endless blame shifting.

He uses Iraq as an example. On the other hand, Hymans writes:

… military attacks by foreign powers have tended to unite politicians and scientists in a common cause to build the bomb. Therefore, taking radical steps to rein in Iran would be not only risky but also potentially counterproductive, and much less likely to succeed than the simplest policy of all: getting out of the way and allowing the Iranian nuclear program’s worst enemies — Iran’s political leaders — to hinder the country’s nuclear progress all by themselves. … The world is lucky that during the past few decades, the leaders of would-be nuclear weapons states have been so good at frustrating and alienating their scientists. The United States and its partners must take care not to adopt policies that resolve those leaders’ management problems for them.

Unfortunately policymakers vulnerable to the conventional wisdom that Iran is developing nuclear weapons may well be too susceptible to pressure from hawks to exhibit that degree of patience and restraint.

Mid-East Tweeters Probe the Tenderest of Saudi Sore Spots

Hamza Kashgari

Hamza Kashgari

“On the one hand, it’s deeply worrying that the government is seeking to create a surveillance culture that encompasses spying on all digital media.

“On the other, that same government would struggle to arrange a children’s party if provided with a clown, a bouncy castle, some children and an unlimited supply of jelly.”
– the satirist Daily Mash on new British online surveillance laws

On the one hand, a Wahhabi fatwa against Twitter. On the other, a princely stake from an Al Saud in the platform.

And on the other *other* hand, a growing campaign across the region to censor — and censure — dissent from social media users that is no laughing matter.

Social media is certainty shaking up the Kingdom. Hamza Kashgari was arrested for “blasphemous” tweets — whose supporters now assert that, so desperate were the Saudi authorities to make an example of him, they pressured Malaysian officials into arresting and extraditing him while he was traveling around Malaysia, and then lying abut this by claiming they had detained him at an airport.

In addition to the aforementioned fatwa, at least three Saudi journalists have been arrested and detained for their role in participating in or covering Shia demonstrations in the eastern part of the country. As Toby C. Jones noted, the Shia demonizing campaign of spring 2011 had as much to do with fear of losing influence in Bahrain — and perhaps more so — as it did with fear of having to make concessions to the country’s Shia citizens and rein in the Wahhabi establishment:

In Saudi Arabia, in dozens of places, hundreds of protesters routinely assembled, calling for relatively minor concessions, including greater religious tolerance and the release of Shiite political prisoners. But confronted by the sweeping changes underway across the region, ofï¬cials claimed that the protests at home and especially in Bahrain, if they were allowed to succeed, would lead to a catastrophe — a democratic state next door controlled by a Shiite majority, one they insisted would take marching orders from Tehran.

Given the heavy-handedness of the Saudi authorities, online anonymity is a safer way to organize than congregating in a town square. But the net is heavily monitored nonetheless, and stepping out into the sun rarely ends well. “March 11—the intended Day of Rage—came and went without mass protest,” Madawi Al-Rasheed wrote last month, and in the process of turnout and crackdown, at least one Saudi YouTuber was disappeared by the authorities.

The newest social media “subversive” stirring controversy in Saudi Araia is @Mujtahidd, who is exposing many unwelcome details about the lives of the rich and powerful in Saudi Arabia, such as the jetsetting Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd and Deputy Minister of Defense Khalid bin Sultan. Those he has tweeted about find themselves deluged with angry questions about their alleged extravagances, such as “did your new estate in Riyadh cost the state 12 billion riyals?” or accused of pocketing billions of riyals from arms deals and construction contracts. @Mujtahidd asserts that endemic graft is costing the country 500 billion riyals annually. @Mujtahidd’s moralizing anti-corruption drive has apparently struck a chord among 290,000 followers in digging up old scandals and warning of new ones involving the House of Saud.

Media monitoring, as practiced by governments in Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and Iran (to name a few), is not so much enforced by datacenters, wiretaps and informants but by searches of TV stations by police, days in a holding cell and the warrant officer’s truncheon. The technology, of course, plays an increasingly vital role, not least because it makes it so much easier to prepare a mound of “evidence” to the prosecution’s satisfaction. Sultan Al Qassemi notes, governments and their supporters are becoming more social media savvy too: despite clerical criticism of the internet, the Twitterverse exploded with criticism of Kashgari from self-described “devout” Muslims.

Criticism of Gulf states’ human rights records or military policies has proven to be dangerous for social media users in the UAE — where several bloggers have been detained on charges of “sedition” and “blasphemy” for daring to report on activists and criticizing members of the royal family — and Oman. The same goes for the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has arrested several reporters and bloggers who’ve criticized corruption in the government. Ironically, arrests such as these seem to be among the few tasks that Tel Aviv and Washington implicitly trust Ramallah with.

In Iraq, a new law that has been proposed lock internet users away for life they were proven to have “compromis[ed] the independence of the state or its unity, integrity, safety, or any of its high economic, political, social, military, or security interests” or “implement programs or ideas which are disruptive to public order.” Considering that around only 2.5% of the population has ready internet access, this law demonstrates just how unpleasant Iraqi bloggers — as both independent observers of daily life and fixers for foreign media in Iraq — have become to the government (defenders of the law will cry havoc over a Baathist apologist on WordPress to make their case). Reports from Iraqi citizens on decaying infrastructure, missed opportunities, officials’ power trips and sectarian violence are not exactly civil society efforts conducive to cementing what to many Iraqis appears an oligarchy of parliamentarians and police generals. And to the west in Syria – where Western “retail” surveillance technology has been popping up from the U.S. and Germany – censorship is and has long been the norm, especially now that the demonstrations of 2011 have led to open war among the regime and anti-government militias.

This is the other side of cyber-security, the more immediate one than all the industrial sabotage malware or avionics-compromising logic bombs. Censorship of dissent through cyberspace “has a broader meaning in non-democracies: For them, the worst-case scenario is not collapsing power plants, but collapsing political power.”

Radio Tahrir (Part I): Tariq Ali On the Arab Awakening

This is a transcript of one of the two main interviews during Radio Tahrir, a marathon looking back on the Arab awakening, the Indignados and the Occupy movement, live recorded at the Kaaitheather, Brussels, 11th of March 2012, conceived and moderated by Lieven de Cauter. An edited version (by Werner Trio) of the debate was broadcast as “Radio Tahrir” on Radio Klara, a week later. The first skype interview is with Tariq Ali, who shares his view on the developments in the Middle East, the second with Michael Hardt who is being queried on the Occupy and Indignado movement and the political ramifications for Western democracies. Members of the panel in the Kaaitheater are Rudi Vranckx, Sami Zemni, Yassine Channouf, Eva Brems, Christophe Callewaert, Linus van Hellemont, Eric Coryn and Thomas Decreus. Or listen to the program in English and Dutch.

(Transcript by Odette Dijt)

Lieven De Cauter: Good afternoon, Mr. Ali, do you read me? Yes. Welcome Tariq Ali!… [applause] Very early on – I think it was even when Mubarak was still in power – you write ,in an article you say: “If Tunisia was a tremor, the Egypt uprising has become an earthquake, that is spreading throughout the region”… Now, my first, of course still a bit introductory question is: Why 2011? Why this constellation? How is your, sort of vision on this constellation?

Tariq Ali: I think that what happened in the Arab world in 2011, had been cooking for many years before. And in 2011, the boiling point was reached, and so the lid flew of the cauldron. And the reason for that is very clear: that the imposition on the Arab world of a set of tyrants and dictators, in most cases backed by the United States and the European vassal states of the United States, essentially meant that they were not interested in democracy and human rights. They kept these dictators as long as the dictators supported the neo-liberal economic system, which, of course, all of them did, because they benefitted from it: their families made money, they became corrupt, they didn’t care about the poor. So, when the economic crisis of the Wall Street system began to slowly have its impact on the Arab world, all the grievances that had been building up – political, social, economic – exploded. And no one could have predicted the exact time, but the trigger was the Tunisians, and after the Tunisian dictator – who the French government tried to protect – fled to Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian masses said: this can’t be the case, that the Tunisians have been the first, we have to do something now! And they did it! And they got rid of Mubarak … and once that happened, then the example spread throughout the Arab world. And in my first analytical essay, I described what was happening in the Arab world as an Arab 1848. It was very similar, in many ways, to the European upheavals, which spread from one country to the other, in 1848. And that is what is still going on, it is not over, all we have now is a set of extreme double standards, that where the West doesn’t like a particular dictator, like Assad in Syria, or Gaddafi in Libya, they move to try and remove him, with sometimes, as we have seen in Libya, with disastrous results. But dictators, they lie, like the king of Saudi Arabia, or the king of Morocco, the rulers in Bahrain, they will not do anything and they tolerate massacre. So, it’s this double standard that pervades the Western media and Western politics today.

LDC: Just a little, tiny question on this first big theme … how do the rising food prices fit in this picture? Is that an important factor for you?

TA: It’s a very important factor, because, you know, if you live in the Arab world, you have such a huge gulf between the rich, the rulers, and the people at the bottom, who are quite large. And when it’s not simply the people at the bottom, but also the people above them, who begin to get affected, then you have an explosive situation … And the thing you have to understand is that most of these Arab elites, whatever the country, are venal, corrupt, blinded by their own wealth, and they don’t even look at the conditions of people who live in their countries – their own people! It’s not just the Arab world. The same is true in Pakistan, India, many other countries… but in the Arab world the rebellions that started have become a big, big motor, watched closely by everyone, actually inspiring the Occupation movements. Even though we have not yet had a satisfactory solution to any of these uprisings so far, in my opinion. Because the lack of serious social alternatives, socio-economical alternatives, meant that even though you have a new government in power, in terms of the economy, no changes happen. And this is very dangerous for the new governments in Tunisia and Egypt, if they carry on like before. And the model which some of the moderates like – the so-called moderate Islamists – is the Turkish model. But the Turkish model is effectively a neo-liberal model, which is why the Turkish regime, is NATO’s favourite form of Islamism. Because they do everything that they are told to do on the level of the economy.

LDC: My second question is very short, but very big: multitude or soft-power? Maybe I have to explain a bit, also for the audience, the concept multitude being of course, the crucial term of Negri and Hard which will sort of leitmotiv in our discussions, because this afternoon is about not only the Arab spring but also about the Occupy and Indignado movements – so multitude, I think, is an interesting term, this sort of networked, horizontal, rhizomatic if you want, inter-connected, creative producers linked by the new social media – etcetera. Sort of a new phenomenon. That’s the one vision on Tahrir Square, the other vision, on the whole movement, is soft power. Instead of the neo-con strategy of invading countries and bombing them back to the(ir) Stone Age. Just let these countries disintegrate, and you have the same effect, in a sense. Destroyed fields, ended states, whatever you would call it. As is happening in Libya, as is maybe happening in Syria, et cetera. Of course, it’s a very stark contrast, but I think you can do something with it. That I am sure.

TA: Look, the real question is this: What comes after? Mass uprisings are fine, mass mobilizations are fine, new forms of communication are fine, but one question which sometimes is avoided, is: the question of politics. Not just economics, but also politics. Or, if I can use this old phrase, political economy. What is going to happen to these countries, after these upheavals are over? Is it going to be a new government, a new and even elected government, but which does exactly the same thing? And here two questions arise: one is the argument sometimes put by some of the Negri-people: that effectively if you mobilize and create these networks, that in itself is a victory. They don’t come up with any political programme – nothing at all. And that, I think, is very dangerous. Because, it’s fine, we can all support these movements, but if these movements don’t come up with even a minimum political-economic programme to take people forward, and, if necessary, to implement, then ultimately people say: this is going to end nowhere and the mobilizations and the people become demobilized. I’ll give you a classic example of this, the Zapatistas, in Mexico. Wonderful people, I have many friends there, excellent what they did in their own province. But they decided they could not intervene in national party politics, they had no program, instead, they organized a march from their strongholds to Mexico-City. Impressive. But! After the march nothing happened. What did they think would happen? That just their marching, the strength of this example, would create a new social-economic structure? Doesn’t happen like that!

And thirdly, the point which, I think, Europeans understand today, even better than the people in the Arab world, or elsewhere, is that the neo-liberal capitalist system is actually hollowing out democracy itself! What is democracy today? I have been arguing that what we have in the current phase of “democracy” (so-called) is an extreme centre. Not an extreme Left, you have an extreme Right, but it’s not in par, the extreme Left is very weak; what is strong is an extreme centre. And this extreme centre encompasses both centre Left and centre Right – and it doesn’t matter which group is in power. It matters only to the people who make money, and businessmen, cronies, but, in terms of the people it doesn’t matter which group from the centre is in power, because they do exactly the same business. In which case: what is the point of democracy? This is a question many young Europeans are asking today. Especially, as they say Greece, and the conditions in which Greek people are being forced to live, and they say “Greece is run by a banker”, and they say “Italy is run by a banker” and both these guys were involved in processes, which – in some cases actually working for Goldmann Sachs – which directly led to the Wall Street Crash of 2008 and these are the people, chosen now, to run countries, by the German elite and the European Bank, I mean, it is grotesque! So, in that case, why can’t the Arabs, or other countries elsewhere just do the same: appoint bankers to run their countries. They would love to do that. Forget democracy, appoint a banker to run your country.

LDC: I agree [audible expression of general amusement], I couldn’t more agree. Very impressive analysis, thank you very much. Last question before we move to the panel … a bit obvious question, after the revolution: a fundamentalist restoration?

TA: No! I think we have two processes going on. One, that Islam is not fundamentalist. You know, as anyone will tell you: the fundamentalists constitute a minority within Islam. They’re more active, they can create more havoc, they have more nuisance value, if you like. But, in terms of the Islamists currents, the largest Islamist currents are what we would call the equivalent of Christian Democratic parties in Europe. The Brotherhood in Egypt, which is very strong, it’s a socially conservative, moderate party. It is no longer radical, it should be regarded as middle of the road. Not so different from the Turks. And they’re now doing something: they’re having a big influence on Hamas, which is moving in exactly a similar direction in occupied Palestine. And you have a similar government in power in Tunisia. And hereto we have to ask: what will these governments do? In my opinion these governments will love to do deals with the United States and the European Union and just carry on being in power, like governments in Europa in power, or like Obama is. Fine, no problems. And that could then open up space for something much, much more radical. But what is important to understand is that the reason these parties have become powerful is because of the vacuum that was created at the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Left – of communism, official communism, but not only official communism: social democracy collapsed, and the Left collapsed, that was a huge, huge victory. But it left a vacuum. And in this vacuum most of the groups, that were politically radical, disappeared. Or collapsed, like what happened to the Italian communist party in Italy. Or to many individual intellectuals all over Europe who, after the fall of the Berlin wall, fell themselves on their own swords, and decided to shift to the right, to accept the new capitalist order. And in this vacuum, like in parts of Europe, we see far-Right currents developing, we see an ugly mood of Islamophobia – especially in your city of Antwerp – which can be quite frightening. The equivalent of that in the Islamic world has been minorities like the fundamentalists becoming stronger, but also people turning to the moderate Islamist groups, who have, in most cases, been fighting the corrupt secular dictatorships. That has created this mood. But I think it will not last long if new organizations, new social movements arise. So it’s a big, big transition period in the Arab world which could last ten years or so.

LDC: Thank you very much. Now the panel, we have a world famous – at least locally – war journalist, Rudi Vrankx, we have a professor of Arabic Studies, Sami Zemni, and we have a young activist intellectual, Yassine Channouf, so they will now fire questions to you, or make remarks or even contradict you, or, whatever. Gentlemen, the floor is yours…

Rudi Vrankx: Can you see me? Yeah… Mr. Ali… hallo! I have a question for you. You made a comparison with 1848, as a European I understand it fully. Do you feel that what is happening now in the Arab world, is after the revolutionary phase, the contra-revolution is going ahead now, with what we see in a different way, in Bahrain by the Saudis, in Syria by the Assad regime, or even in Morocco by the king who makes it with a smooth hand? Is it now the contra-evolution going on?

TA: Well, yes. I mean, the whole point of using the analogy of 1848 was, that there were uprisings, but there were no big victories. The importance of 1848 in Europe, was that it created a new mood, and a new atmosphere and some of the victories and triumphs came many, many years later. So, I think what we are witnessing in the Arab world, is a two-pronged thing. One: as you rightly said, the traditional rulers are strengthening themselves, and where they are being defeated, they’re being defeated – as in Libya – by NATO, rather than the local insurrection, which completely changes the character of these countries, as we know full well. And whether they will do the same in Syria remains to be seen. And in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia the counter-revolution is fully entrenched and Egypt, and this is the second part of the thing, has US hegemony. Because this is the big Empire, like the Austro-Hungarians were in 1848. Is US hegemony being dented, anywhere in the Arab world, as a result of the uprisings? In my opinion the answer is: very little. So far. Very little indeed. And American diplomats and ambassadors and intelligence people are busy negotiating behind the scenes with all the Muslim parties to see what agreements they can reach as they are in Afghanistan, incidentally. So they will try and find a new deal. You cannot dent American hegemony simply by toppling a local dictator, you have to have an alternative programme.

Rudi Vrankx: I agree that change in the Arab world is going to take a long time. It’s a long process. And we have seen that Arab Islamism has actually eclipsed the progressive powers, the local powers in the Arab world who started these revolutions. But how do you see – in the near future, I mean – the symbiosis between these two powers? Will we go for a compromise,, as we have seen inTunisia, where a Leftist Arab nationalist party agrees with a moderate Islamist party or will we see a confrontation, as we see in Egypt?

TA: I think there is no pan-Arab group at the moment. So you can say, this will act in a similar way. It will vary from country to country. In Egypt you have groups of the Left, you have a strong tradition of trade unions, in the factories, which were corporatized, incorporated by the regime, but never completely destroyed. And the fact that the structures of these trade unions existed in Egypt’s factories, all the big industries, is a good sign, because now the old bureaucrats are being removed and young workers are now taking over these unions. And that is all positive. But when these young groups and the new groups in Egypt will be able to challenge the hegemony of the Islamists in Egypt, is a difficult question to answer. I think they will do it within ten years. Because, unless the social conditions improve, these people will become discredited. But, obviously we cannot compare Egypt to, say, Saudi Arabia.

What will be the form of the struggle? Against the most favourite regime of the United States and its Western allies in the Arab world, apart from Israel, it is Saudi Arabia. And the Saudi monarchy will be defended by the West till the very end. And so the struggle in that country will probably be sectarianized by the West. They will say it’s the Shias who are making this farce. Like they are saying in Bahrain already. And so it will take different forms which are unpredictable and cannot be foreseen. We do not know, because these conditions in which people will have to fight, are fairly unique. In Syria we can say with certainty, that if Assad, or when the Assad regime goes, the moderate Islamists will take over. By the way in my opinion the Ba’ath are the most stupid and brutal party in the Middle East. It’s their stupidity which is astonishing! You see a mass uprising against you, the obvious thing is to negotiate. If they had negotiated with the internal opposition when the uprising began, the opposition would have been prepared to make compromises and to agree to many things. They didn’t do it! And now they are paying the price. But if you now have an election in Syria, the moderate Islamists will win a big, big majority, and then a lot of the minorities in that country are very fearful. There are reports coming out of Syria, in some areas already Christian minorities are being targeted by the Islamists. We don’t know whether these are true. But certainly they are coming out. And that is the tragedy of the moment of the Arab world.

Sami Zemni: One movement, we have not discussed until now, is the Salafis. They are the biggest surprise, let’s say, since the revolutions broke out, in the sense that, we knew that they were present in several Arab countries, but they were always very far from the direct political stage. And now, actually, they are entering politics, winning a lot of votes, and they are also very much pushing and trying to gain, let’s say the public space. And they’re infesting it. They’re much more radical than those moderate political Islamists, the Muslim brotherhood type of organizations… And secondly, the question is a consequence of it, aren’t we in the Egyptian case, instead of the Turkish model, much closer to the Pakistani model? Because in Turkey the army is a guarantee for secularism, and is, you know, some sort of making a balance with the Islamist government. But in Pakistan we have a completely other … well, you know Pakistan much better than I do, of course…. But that model, perhaps, is getting much closer to the Egyptian case, or not?

TA: Don’t forget that: the key force in Egyptian politics today, despite the elections, is the army! This can come in whenever it wants, it works very closely with the United States, over the last twenty years, and with the Israelis. It has been a reactionary force on most levels, but it is not a religious army. The Egyptian army is more like the Turkish army, it is a secular army, at the moment. Whereas in Pakistan the army was made into a religious army when the United States decided to fight a Jihad against the Soviet Union, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was a decision by Washington to use Islam and to use religion to fight against the Russians. And that is when the Pakistan army, which never used to be an Islamist army, was actually made an Islamist army from the top. Then they attempted to change it. So, all these things vary.

But I think the Egyptian army is still different and if the Salafis were to decide to do something completely crazy, they would probably be resisted, not simply by civil society, also by the moderate Islamists, possibly, and certainly by the army. Whereas in Pakistan, even as we speak, the Pakistani military intelligence is trying to organize all the religious parties into a strike force, called “Defend Pakistan”, to contest the new elections which will happen next year. So these situations are quite varied. We shouldn’t take the fact that the Salafis have come out into the open – in a strange way, that is not such a bad thing, because it is better to see them … It is better to have their representatives in parliament, it is better to argue with them in public, than to ignore them completely, or make them go underground, or ban, or outlaw them, which then will make them decide to drop bombs here, there and everywhere. So it is better that they are out into the open, and they should be taken on. And as you know, sometimes they unite with moderate Islamists in measures that discriminate against women in particular. All this is one key feature. Throughout the Middle East and in countries like Pakistan and India, this is the one thing that unites all the religious groups, because they have no concrete social and economic program. So they go on a cultural offensive, against women, against this, against that. To show they’re doing something, which means nothing for the material conditions of the people. But you know, now, at least we have a situation where these things can be pointed out, and they can be fought and argued against.

LDC: Thank you very much, Tariq Ali. Let’s give him a hand…[applause].

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). 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.

The Political Economy of the Maghreb Spring and Its Aftermath

Over-building in Tunis.

Over-building in Tunis.

Cross-posted from Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Notes to a presentation at the Magreb Center, Washington, DC, April 24.

Thank you to the Magreb Center – for Nejib Ayachi for inviting me back. Pleasant surprise. I would note that not accidentally, this panel discussion takes place at the same time as the annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund here in Washington DC.

I would add here, that thanks to the help of the Tunisian Community of Colorado – small but active – I was able to spend nearly a month in Tunisia from late November to late December of last year.

My visit to Tunisia was both promising and unsettling. Promising, because the political atmosphere was more open that it has been in half a century.

Unsettling, because the course ahead, as with other great reforms, is not entirely clear and from the point of view of political economy, not much has changed, if anything, but minor tampering with the model that just collapsed.

Classic transition moment

Tunisia is going through a classic transition moment…a moment of opportunity, a moment of risks. Are the changes far-reaching? Systematic? Or are we witnessing yet another example of “all the change necessary to maintain the status quo” more or less similar to what happened in the Philippines in the late 1980s, in Indonesia a decade later: a broad based democratic movement that brings down a dictator but which is followed by little substantial economic or social change?

Has the Arab Spring run its course, stumbled in a sequence of frustrated political reform and civil war, or are we just seeing “Round One” of what will be a long period of turbulence, of struggle for economic and political reform?

A brief rundown of the history of the Tunisian economy is worth noting.

Since the mid 1800s – even before 1881 when Tunisia was occupied by French troops and made into a protectorate – Tunisia has been increasingly integrated into the world economy as a peripheral or semi-peripheral zone providing foodstuffs, basic minerals (phosphates) and tourism to a mostly European core. This relationship has been most accurately expressed in its relationship to its main European trading and political partners – France and Italy – who have long cast an eye on their Magrebian trading partner. A full 75% of Tunisia’s exports go to these two countries and this has been the case for a long time. Both contested to control Tunisia, first as a colony and later within the framework of modern globalized relations.

The challenge ahead

The challenge/goal of the anti-colonial movement before independence and the post-independence Bourguiba years was clear: how to move beyond – to transform this relationship and the Tunisian economy itself, how to move beyond the historic limitations set on the country’s socio-economic structures by colonialism.

One could say that partial yet limited progress was made. Habib Bourguiba, the founder and first president of the Republic of Tunisia, might not have been a great democrat but he gave his newly independent country a number of precious gifts – a modern educational system that took up at times 50% of the country’s budget; a civil code, that admittedly with some limitations was the most liberal vis a vis women’s rights in the MENA countries, and a country where the separation between religion and the state was clear cut. While Islamic texts are respected, the idea that shari’a law would guide the Tunisian legal system was rejected.

The political-economic program that the country implemented during the Bourguiba years is referred to by Stephan J. King in his valuable volume The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa as ‘the old authoritarianism’. Its aims, region wide, were rapid industrialization, social justice and greater equality; the government Bourguiba established was characterized by state intervention in the economy, redistributist economic policies, ‘primary’ (or key) coalitional support among the lower classes and the promise to use the power of the state to improve the living standards of the general population.1

This model did ‘deliver’ economically in some ways, but stalled by the early 1980s. The slowing of the Tunisian economy was laid at the feet of the state’s intervention in the economy, although the fact that the global economy itself had slowed down and Tunisia’s export possibilities to Europe had shrunk some was downplayed.

The years of recently ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali are associated with the rise of what King calls ‘the new authoritarian model’ which was characterized by one-party authoritarian states, economic liberalization, accepting of World Bank, IMF structural adjustment criteria, extending the prerogatives of the market and limiting the role of the state in economic activities. The old coalitions broke down to some extent and new ones made largely of coalitions between international finance capital and their local partners took shape.

Structural adjustment results hardly earthshaking

To some extent, the new model tried to address some of the limitations of the former one emphasizing a marriage between the state and private enterprise. But a careful analysis of the new model as done by Karen Pfeifer2 suggests that the results were never that dramatic. At best, they resulted in growth without development, a lopsided growth in which investment went into overbuilding urban areas, especially the Tunis region at the expense of the country’s interior, a sharp polarization between rich and poor, growing unemployment and stagnant wages for the country’s working class, and the erosion of the position of the country’s smaller agricultural producers.

For all that, Tunisia, along with isolated other examples, was held aloft as an IMF/World Bank poster child, an ‘example to be followed’, etc. All that came unglued with the social explosion known as the Arab Spring, which as is well known, started in Tunisia. Is it a case of the operation of neoconservative economics in Tunisia was a success but the patient – the Tunisian development program – died?

Other factors that came into play:

True the IMF/World Bank policies are not the only reason for the failure of the Tunisian economy to deliver. Other factors came into play:

The collapse of communism in 1989 re-directed what might have been infusions of investment capital away from Tunisia to central and eastern Europe.

A number of Eastern European countries with their technologically advanced industries and educated work forces became Western European trading partners at Tunisia’s expense, especially Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia

As in the past, Tunisia finds itself trapped in European economic dilemmas. As the European economy stalled and slowed, it affects Tunisian exports and tourism.

Although far away from the more sensitive Middle Eastern political zones, the Tunisian economy is sensitive to political developments throughout the region. War and instability a thousand miles to its east, to say nothing of the situation in neighboring Libya and Algeria, has dampened investment and tourism.

Even where aspects of the economy have been successfully modernized and made more profitable, as with the phosphate industry, it has resulted in social upheavals, unrest and environmental crises. In its modernization program, the Tunisian mining work force went from 20,000 to 6,000 in less than a decade. There was little recycling of the profits to fuel other sources of developments in the mining district. And in 2008, a strong precursor to the 2010 uprising took place in the mining district, centering at Redeyef; it was nothing short of a regional rebellion.

What do the changes mean?

What can we say for ‘sure’ about the changes of the last year? Few trends are clear:

The old order has been overthrown, a new transitional government has been installed through generally smooth and fair elections – the constituent assembly

The former dominant political party – the Neo-Destour renamed the Rassemblement Constitutional Democratique – has been dissolved.

There are certain shifts – I would argue not that significant – in the country’s relations with the United States and France, a tilt a bit towards the U.S., a bit away from France – but given the great number of French economic interests in Tunisia, it is questionable just how much or how little this shift indicates. Strategically, Tunisia’s position remains fundamentally unchanged.

Economic model ignored

On the other hand, less attention has been paid – a least by the international press and from what I can tell from the new Tunisian elite – to the economic model. It is as if the country has gotten ‘half a loaf’ of change: greater democracy, yes; but the other half, the promise of greater economic development, has not yet been achieved.

There has been far less open discussion of how to get out of the economic crisis – what might be the short term and long term directions, if any. But if the economic crisis is not seriously addressed the whole project of Tunisian democracy could be jeopardized.

Instead, much political energy in Tunisia has focused upon what might be called ‘cultural questions’, issues which are by their nature, much more divisive.

During my stay there:

Every day for a month strikes and protests over unemployment, wages and working conditions broke out throughout the country in virtually every sector – public and private,

The economy was spinning out of control and foreign companies were pulling out in droves,

The unemployment numbers were getting worse,

And while the Tunis region was generally calm and safe, outside of the capitol there was a pervasive breakdown in law and order.

And the Salafists – whose historic roots in Tunisia are exceedingly weak – were on the move, expanding their base, bullying and threatening many, with virtually no attempt to rein them in on the part of the new government. One could see their targets: gaining a foothold in the mosques, the educational system, the media

Let us recall for a moment, the root causes of the region-wide socioeconomic rebellion called the Arab Spring.

There were three elements that seemed to span the region from Morocco to Afghanistan:

Poverty – as expressed specifically in unemployment and low wage rates;

Political repression which has been pervasive throughout the region be it in more conservative or more left leaning countries;

And truly impressive – one might even say ‘world class’ levels of corruption.

Religion – whether women should wear veils or whether ‘moderate Islam’ would be a viable model for national development had little to do with the uprisings. But then, as often happens, those who make revolutions do not necessarily come to power, and the ‘revolutions’ themselves, evolve economically and politically often into something that is unforeseen by those who took to the streets in the first place.

The concern here is this: unless the economic and political causes of the Tunisian revolt are seriously studied and addressed, it is very likely that there will be another social eruption, this one angrier and more disruptive than the last. The ‘window of opportunity’, the good will offered to those in power is fast shrinking. As the social crisis continues to grow and expand, the choices of the new government begin to narrow: engage in significantly new economic policies or, as Ben Ali did 20 years ago – intensify the repression.

At the time, the October elections were finished, the three-party coalition led by Ennahdha had taken political control of the Constituent Assembly. The political discussion had turned away from the economic crisis and was shifting in a polarizing fashion to cultural and religious questions, where it seems to have largely remained.

My impressions

For all that, I was convinced of a number of things…five months later, my thinking has not changed much.

  1. That for all its problems that Tunisia has the greatest possibility of emerging from the Arab Spring successfully addressing its socio-economic crisis and to so more effectively than any of its neighbors in the broad MENA region. The relatively smooth political transition was exemplary – much of the rest of the region is now submerged in something approaching civil war
  2. That despite having been hit hard by both the global crisis and impact of 25 years of Ben Ali-Trabelsi rule, that Tunisia has a diversified economy, one of the most educated and technically skilled work forces in the region.
  3. That improving the overall situation of the country a two-track strategy needed to be developed – one to stabilize the country in the short run; another to develop ‘a new vision’, a new direction for the Tunisian economy for the long haul.
  4. That the model of the past 30 years or so needs – referred to by Stephen King as ‘the new authoritarian’ – not just ‘tinkering’ but significant structural changes. Ultimately, despite having garnered a lot of praise, including from the leadership of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, that this model has, in large measure, failed on two major scores – it has failed to produce development for broad sectors of the Tunisian population and it has certainly failed to deliver democracy. It was this twin failure, more than any other factors, that triggered the nationwide uprising which quickly grew to a region wide rebellion…for something different.
  5. While not placing all the blame for the collapse of the old system on the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF, still, these policies aggravated the economic situation, contributing to the social polarization of the country.
  6. That while a ‘new direction’ is needed to both help the country out of the socio-economic hole within which it finds itself and to strengthen economic position in the future, such a new vision appears to be singularly lacking up until now. The solutions being offered up today, are hardly different from those suggested in the past, which contributed to the collapse in the first place.
  7. That the market alone, the private sector, is incapable of addressing the Tunisian crisis which will require both an increased role of the state in the economy and some limitations, regulations on Tunisia’s openness to global markets – financial, export or whatever, to put it bluntly – some form of state-run capitalism resembling in some ways the model under Bourguiba, in some ways original.
  8. Perhaps the most important – for whatever changes the new Islamic-leaning Tunisian government tries to make in cultural matters, that it is quite amenable to the neo-liberal economic policies of the government it has just replaced and that the economic model will most probably not change much.

And as this seems rather reasonable and rational, I am not in the least surprised that there is no interest or effort on the part of the new government to move in this direction…at least not now and not yet…Such a direction might be considered if the economic crisis deepens so much more…but then as it continues to be heading for trouble, perhaps, new directions will be considered at some point. A pity it will take an even more sustained social crisis for a change of direction to take place.

The World Bank and the IMF could make an important contribution to re-igniting the Tunisian economy at this critical moment. But it needs to be on a significantly different basis than its past support.

In the past, unfortunately, the structural adjustment policies Tunisia implemented at the World Bank/IMF behest intensified country’s economic crisis, rather than improving the situation. I will cite only two examples of this – but am willing to into much further detail in the question and answer:

Privatization – it just doesn’t work; nor does opening capital markets willy-nilly

• The privatization policies were a disaster – they were used by the Ben Ali/Trabelsi families to confiscate state resources for their own private uses and to in part amass the fortunes for which they are now notorious.

• The opening of capital markets – which was supposed to attract foreign investments – never really went anywhere. This was in part because investment capital stampeded to Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, rather than North Africa. It was also because that investment which did enter the country – as was the case in many other places – concentrated in real estate and the financial sector itself in the Tunis region, neglecting the development of the interior and in many cases what might have been modernization of different aspects of the agro-industrial sector.

• World Bank loans did stimulate agricultural development – but in whose interests and at whose expense? It was the bigger concerns that benefited while smaller farmers were undermine, their sector thrown in crisis.

What stands out at present is how little things have changed since. One sees virtually no self-criticism on the part of the Bretton Woods institutions that their policies contributed to the collapse of the Tunisian order, nor frankly, any change in the conditionality of new loans. And if this is the case, the themes that lead to the structural crisis in the Tunisian economy will flare up again, sooner or later… and I fear sooner, rather than later, with the possibility that a precious opportunity – will be lost.

Nor I might add, has there been much indication on the part of the transitional government to move in another direction.

1Stephen J. King. The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. Indiana University Press: 2009, p.31

2Karen Pfeifer. “How Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Even Egypt Became ‘IMF Success Stories in the 1990s’.” MERIP Reports. No.210. 1999

Administration Buys Lies About Iran Using Latin America as Base for Terrorism

Iran-VenezuelaGlenn Greenwald has a post up at Salon bemoaning the absurdity of the Obama administration’s embrace of the notion that Iran has been planting seeds of terror throughout broader Latin America. He notes that

“For quite some time, right-wing dogma has warned that Iranian Terror is taking hold and expanding in Central and South America thanks to improving relations between Iran and several Latin American governments, as well as due to growing Hezbollah cells. In fact, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum all warned of these menaces at various points during the GOP debate, prompting a rating of “Mostly False” from PolitiFact after a detailed analysis of those claims. Like so much inane right-wing dogma, this has now been formally embraced by top-level Obama officials.”

Quoting from The Hill, Greenwald reminded his readers that “This menace, of course, was what was invoked by the laughably absurd claim that Iran’s Quds Forces had formed an alliance with Mexican drug cartels to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador on U.S. soil, and today, this fear-mongering tale got a big boost from a leading Obama official:

Tehran’s efforts to expand its circle of influence in South America is tantamount to exporting state-sponsored terrorism into the region, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

“We always have a concern about in particular the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and [their] efforts . . . to expand their influence not only throughout the Middle East but into [South America] as well,” Panetta told reporters Monday. That, in my book, that relates to expanding terrorism. And that’s one of the areas that I think all of us are concerned about,” he added.

The truth is, though, that Obama White House has long stuck to this script, going all the way back to the earliest days of its administration. Most famously, the State Department warned during the summer of 2009 that Iran was constructing a mega-embassy in Nicaragua. To be sure, as I wrote at the time,

The Iranians have made a concerted effort to establish a more robust presence in the region since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power in 2005, largely with the encouragement of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The Iranians have nearly doubled the number of missions in Latin America during that time, jumping into the gaping diplomatic void left from US withdrawal from the region during the George W. Bush administration, and signing numerous economic and military partnerships with its new allies.

Iran’s growing influence in the Americas has stoked fear on the part of American officials who worry that, well…it’s not clear exactly. Many point to Iran’s alleged connections to two terrorist bombings in Argentina, both of which took place over fifteen years ago. The fear, apparently, is that “in the event of a conflict with Iran… it would attempt to use its presence in the region to conduct such activities against us.”

While scenarios such as this are certainly frightening to ponder, the actual record of Iranian relations in Latin America suggests that too much credit is given to the regime in Tehran. In fact, the Ahmadinejad era has ushered in a series of diplomatic embarrassments in Latin America, and has tied Tehran to the sinking ship of Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution. Relations with Nicaragua have been especially troubled, as Tehran has begged off honoring numerous economic commitments, failed to produce the millions of dollars in investment Ahmadinejad assured his counterparts in Managua, and refuses to help the Central American country renegotiate its $160 million debt.

According to an article in today’s Washington Post, the Nicaraguans are desperate for anything from Iran. A senior economic advisor to Daniel Ortega is quoted complaining that “They haven’t invested anything. They haven’t built anything. We haven’t even been able to renegotiate the debt. They say the Koran doesn’t permit them to. We’ll have to study the Koran to see if we can find something that condones it.” If this is what passes for international relations between the two countries, American officials have nothing to fear.

The paranoia in Washington is one part Cold War residue in the logic driving US foreign policy in Latin America, two parts ignorance as to what’s actually going on in the region. The Bush administration’s antagonism and distracted attention toward relations with its southern neighbors left the United States isolated, distrusted, and largely ignorant of the political undercurrents sweeping through Latin American politics. Its decision to eschew productive engagement with the leftist governments that have taken power in recent years in favor of successive rounds of chest-thumping with Chavez created a distorted image of the region and rendered the United States prone to accepting faulty intelligence as the gospel truth.

As for the Iranian embassy Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worried over at the time? Well, it turned out not to exist.

In fact, the only sprawling embassy in Nicaragua belongs to none other than the United States. While the source of the false rumor remains unclear, the fact that it informed Secretary Clinton’s public statements on the matter is troubling. That a US diplomat in the Nicaraguan capital admitted that “There is no huge Iranian Embassy being built as far as we can tell,” (emphasis added) is more worrisome still. How hard would it be to find out?

Coming off an embarrassing and largely poor showing at the Summit of the Americas a week or so back, it strikes me that the United States should change course, and quickly. The White House would do well to concern itself with rebuilding US diplomacy in the region left ruined by Bush presidency (and which have never been properly attended to) rather than wring its hands over a phantom menace that haunts the imaginations of beltway Cold Warriors but which never materializes in the realm of the real.

Charles Taylor Found Guilty of War Crimes — Emira Woods Available for Comment

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been found guilty of 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity this morning by an international court at The Hague. Emira Woods, an Institute for Policy Studies expert originally from Liberia, is available for interviews on the case.

“The long-awaited verdict of the Special Court brings some measure of justice to a region ripped apart by brutality, greed, and proxy geopolitical actors” Woods said.

Taylor was accused of 11 charges, ranging from murder, rape, and sexual violence to the recruitment and use of child soldiers in a long and bloodied war in Liberia’s neighbor Sierra Leone. Taylor was charged by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a court established before the International Criminal Court was formed.

“Taylor’s case is associated with many firsts,” Woods said. “He is the first head of state to have escaped from a U.S. medium-security prison. He is the first head of state to publically refuse to sign an imbalanced rubber concession agreement with Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. He was the first sitting head of state to be brought on charges for international crimes against humanity. And now, he is the first head of state since World War II to have been convicted of war crimes by an international criminal court.”

Taylor was key leader in a machinery of repression that killed 50,000 Sierra Leoneans and amputated the limbs of tens of thousands more, mostly civilians.

Reporters/journalists seeking to contact Ms. Emira Woods for interview, please contact IPS Media Manager Lacy MacAuley at (202) 445-4692 or [email protected]

Does India Face East or West?

China 's President Hu Jinatao and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

China ‘s President Hu Jinatao and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

A steady improvement in India’s economy, together with politico-economic changes in its neighborhood, are prompting a re-examination of the national interest in New Delhi. Until recently, and especially after the end of the cold war, Indian and American interests had steered both countries toward “friendly relations.” For India, the desire to gain Washington’s approval and assistance towards the development of civil nuclear power was a powerful motivator. Washington, on the other hand, sought to use India as a counterweight to Chinese power in the Asian continent. The nuclear deal of 2006 seemed for New Delhi a dream come true — for a while at any rate. And for Washington, a strained Sino-Indian relationship at the time appeared to further its geopolitical strategy of pitting India against China.

Six years later, the geopolitical context of these goals has changed dramatically. It is the U.S.–Indian relationship that has come under severe strain recently, due to India’s acute energy need for Iranian oil and Washington’s determination to block all energy exports by Tehran. At the same time, relations between Beijing and New Delhi have been improving — if not yet thriving, while Indo-Russian relations remain positive on the whole. Alternatively, many analysts view the long-term relationship between China and the U.S. as increasingly problematic. What is less often emphasized is that Asians increasingly look upon the U.S. as a counterweight to China.

A question that Indian analysts (official and unofficial) ought to be asking is whether, by sticking with the U.S., New Delhi can afford to be on the wrong side of Asian history. Russia and China, despite traditional suspicions about each other’s intentions, have in recent years started to build many bridges which have strengthened their economic and political relations. In particular, they seem inclined to join forces in opposing American efforts to insert itself into the strategically important area of Central Asia. It is a region that has been receiving a great deal of attention in New Delhi also. Some of India’s interests there diverge with those of the U.S. Indeed, resistance to certain forms of American intervention in national and regional affairs has been growing over the years almost throughout the world. Even U.S.-Japanese relations have been less sanguine of late, while Pakistan is growing ever more restive with Washington’s “anti-terrorist” policies. Does India want to be the lone Asian power tied exclusively to the U.S.?

This brief analysis is intended to underscore is the complexity of the global power hierarchy that Indian (and other) policy-makers must (and should) grapple with. It is a kaleidoscopic structure that includes not only states of varying power assets but regional organizations with asymmetric influence, like ASEAN, SCO, NATO and others, along with unofficial but significant economic actors. The interests of all these players are in constant and dynamic interaction. It would be instructive in this respect to examine on a continuing basis the contemporaneous patterns of international trade between the U.S. and India as well as other relevant states, groupings and economic concerns. Equally enlightening in this regard would be a look at the intricacies of interactions between and among the protean players in Central Asia.

Mary C. Carras, professor emerita, Rutgers University, is an analyst of Indo-American relations. Her writings include a political biography of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a study of Indian political factions.

Will Suu Kyi’s Assimilation Into Burma’s Electoral Process Leave Its Ethnic Minorities Behind?

The jury is out on the election of Burma’s long-time leading dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) to Burma’s parliament. Roland Watson, who runs Dictator Watch, is one of the most trenchant Burma analysts and activists. In his most recent report, Burma’s Semi-Freedom Scorecard, he writes: “There are clearly winners, but also losers, from the new status quo,” by which he means victims of the organs of the “dictatorship’s oppression apparatus.” In other words, all those “who have been raped, assaulted, murdered, robbed, extorted, forced to labor, imprisoned, and tortured.”

What makes it worse, Watson writes, is that these victims will never

… receive justice. Daw Suu and the NLD made a political calculation that justice must be sacrificed, that there should not be an international investigation into the regime’s crimes against humanity, or a tribunal for them, much less the ability to bring a case to a local court.

Watson has no interest in dishonoring Daw Suu (as Aung San Suu Kyi is often known to Burma’s people).

I do not mean to begrudge Daw Suu her due. She has suffered tremendously [and] maintained her courage and commitment throughout years of hardship and sacrifice.

But-t-t …

Daw Suu had no right to decide unilaterally that the people of Burma should never have justice. While she may have received near unanimous support in 1990, and this year from the country’s Burman [ethnic group] majority, her support among the ethnic nationalities … is less.

In fact …

… she has ignored the ethnic nationality plight for years. (She traditionally focused almost exclusively on the nation’s political prisoners.) Through doing this she turned a blind eye to what is Burma’s core social issue: Racism against the ethnic nationalities by the country’s Burman generals.

Why does Watson think Daw suu threw the ethnic nationalities, from whose numbers, he explains, come the majority of victims of the junta, under the bus?

It is difficult to fathom her actions, but a number of explanations are possible, including: She didn’t know how bad the Tatmadaw was treating the ethnic groups; … she censored herself; she thinks the problems that the ethnic nationalities have are their own fault (as many Burmans believe) … or, she noticed that since the international community ignored the atrocities it was safe for her to do so as well. (Of note, the United States, her close advisor, for two decades only backed her and refused to acknowledge the regime’s war crimes.)

Unfortunately, the ethnic nationalities …

… now have been excluded from Parliament for the next three years, and will therefore be forced to lobby Daw Suu [and] press for their interests through her.

Watson cites a number of recent atrocities by the Tatmadaw under Thein Sein’s watch such as “Burma Army troops attacked the Kachin Independence Army’s 5th Battalion with chemical weapons” Then he writes about a case close to his heart, that of Nan Bway Poung, who, in 2002,

… was gang raped by some twenty Burma Army soldiers in Karen State. After returning home (many ethnic rape victims are murdered after they have been violated, but some are released), she announced: “I am not willing to live in this world anymore,” and committed suicide. Her final words remain an indictment of everything that is taking place in Burma, including Thein Sein’s “reform.” … Daw Suu does not have a right to deny Nan Bway Poung and her family justice.

The ethnic nationalities are also, he writes

… losers in the New Burma, because they allowed themselves to be out-maneuvered and out-negotiated [by] a decades-long series of divide and conquer entreaties, and were never able to create a unified military front, which with coordinated campaigns could have defeated the Tatmadaw.

Still …

… the ethnic nationalities, even without representation in Parliament, are in no way powerless. They still control armies. … they can create an effective political front, through the United Nationalities Federal Council. … an excellent forum for the different ethnic nationalities to … provide a balance to the NLD [Daw Suu's party], and to ensure that their demands are both heard and satisfied, until they are in a position to enter Parliament as well (if and when the regime ever permits it).

However, even though he’s Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Karen [ethnic nationality] National Union, which has a military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, David Tharckabaw thinks that Watson paints too dark a picture. He responded to Watson’s article in an email to his mailing list:

For once I find myself in profound disagreement with much of what Roland Watson writes. I have felt the path trodden of late by … the NLD to be fraught with perils. But what was the alternative? Changes in Burma were on their way, as result of western economic interests.

In reply to Watson’s comment that “Daw Suu, with one sweep of her hand, decided that the correct course of action was actually to join the regime, to merge with it, and then try to change it from within,” he writes:

She has not joined the regime. She has been elected to a rubber-stamp parliament, in the hope of gradually bringing about small changes that MAY catalyse much more profound changes [perhaps in a way that is wholly unpredictable, like the butterfly flapping its wings, which sets in motion a train of events that produces a cyclone].

In response to Watsons’s statement that the “Varied ethnic nationalities are also losers in the New Burma, because they allowed themselves to be out-maneuvered and out-negotiated,” he writes:

I don’t agree with the way some of the negotiations have been conducted. … But it is necessary to understand that the respective bargaining positions are very unequal — not just a question of the two sides involved, but also of those waiting in the wings.

Regarding the ethnic nationalities’ military might — or lack thereof — he writes:

The ethnic nationalities do not control “armies” [as Watson had written]. The largest are the Wa, followed by the KIA, with the KNLA next, estimated, I believe, to number about 5,000. Against them is an army of about 36,000 combat troops with ever more sophisticated equipment and inexhaustible supplies. If the ethnic forces are squeezed out of existence [by the Tatmadaw, presumably] they will be in no position to negotiate anything — whether appropriate development, security of land tenure, safety of civilians [not to mention] removal of several million [land] mines.

Tharckabaw, however, still agrees — nor surprisingly, considering his affiliation with the Karen National Liberation Army — that the forces of the ethnic nationalities “should strike hard against units that violate ceasefire agreements.” This way lies hope for Tharckabaw:

In Tunisia and Egypt, and to a lesser extent Libya, the army, or a substantial part of it was unwilling (perhaps for a variety of motives) to carry out mass-murder of the population. It has been my opinion, shared with others since my first trip to the border in 2001, that it is necessary to create a similar reluctance amongst the rank-and-file of the Tatmadaw.

Meanwhile, here’s some of what Watson would like to see from the Thein Sein administration.

• To stop attacking the ethnic groups and establish a nationwide ceasefire. …
• To irreversibly end the Myitsone Dam project [mostly of benefit to China, not an energy-starved Burma -- RW]. …
• To release all the political prisoners.
• To end the nuclear and missile programs including their cooperation with North Korea. …
• To hold a free and fair general election in 2015, if not sooner.

“This is what a real democratic transition would encompass,” writes Watson. But, he cautions, “there is already great evidence that it is not the regime’s intention.”

Syria Seeks to Turn Annan Peace Proposal Into Surrender Document

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

The April 12 truce between the Syrian military and the armed opposition groups under the Free Syrian Army umbrella is fragmenting as reports continue to come out of Syria showing that violence is continuing while the UN is preparing a ceasefire monitoring mission. Syrian blogger Maysaloon, on the catch–22s for the Syrian Army and the armed resistance:

The Syrian Foreign Ministry has announced that the regime will not withdraw its armed forces from Syrian cities until it has a written guarantee from the opposition to abide by a ceasefire. To add insult to injury the statement asks that the guarantee also provide for the handing in of weapons by the different groups and also to allow for the “state” to reassert its control over all parts of the country. Apparently the Ministry wished to “clarify” the Annan proposal; in effect what the regime is demanding is a surrender document from the opposition.

What is most absurd is that Syria does not have one opposition, but many oppositions. It also does not have one Free Syrian Army, but many different groups fighting loosely under that label. So getting them to agree and provide one document — even if we assume they were going to accept this demand — is nearly impossible. And that, of course, is the whole point of the regime’s demands.

Saudi and American hawks continue to call for the arming of Syrian opposition group. On the other side of the coin, “liberal interventionists,” now including French president Nicholas Sarkozy, are urging, with hints of support from Turkey, that Western countries should establish “humanitarian corridors” for the tens of thousands of refugees who have been making for Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Even Kofi Annan, according to Al Arabiya, knew going in that Syria was violating the letter of the agreement by not withdrawing its heavy weapons — i.e., the hardware of the Republican Guards and 4th Armored Division (both units are commanded by Maher al-Assad, Basher’s younger brother) — from the cities and reducing the number of army checkpoints in neighborhoods. Annan reportedly hopes that the ceasefire will enable him to build pressure on Assad through Russia, China and Iran to withdraw his troops.

The Stimson Center’s Mona Yacoubian thinks this is unlikely, and Jadaliyya’s Bassam Haddad also is not optimistic the ceasefire will hold:

Even if the uprisings are led by … millions of simply perfect [M]arxist feminist anti-imperialist Syrians that are even more radical than the anti-imperialists who also criticize the opposition1, the regime will not tolerate it. It will not tolerate even so much as serious discursive criticism if it emanates from Syria. It’s not a puzzle.

Haddad has here, and elsewhere, discussed the “zero-sum relationship between itself and society since the late 1960s and early 1970s” that he feels defines the regime’s worldview, much like commentaries from Nir Rosen and Patrick Seale. For a timeline of how the Baathists, Assads and Alawites clawed their way to the top in the former French protectorate after WWII, Slate Magazine outlines the main events, from the first CIA intervention in Damascene politics to the “Corrective Revolution” and the 1982 siege of Hama that firmly set the Assads and their so-far mostly loyal (and mostly Alawite) secret police chiefs, militia commanders and officer corps on top of Syrian society.

Looking ahead to a possible political solution that removes the Assads (and, by extension, the present national security leadership, which has the real power), that zero-sum relationship represents a near-insurmountable problem for the opposition. Not just because the opposition is still not a unified front — there is both nonviolent and violent resistance going on, and the “Friends of Syria” group’s preferred interlocutor, the Syrian National Council, is not recognized as the sole representative of the Syrian people — but because it has to convince the Alawites that there’s still a place for them in Syria. Asli U. Bali and Aziz F. Rana offered this suggestion, which mirrors, among other conflict resolution proposals, how the Romanian Army decided to halt its crackdowns and backed a “reformist” faction in the country’s communist party:

Ultimately, the best way to reduce violence is to pursue negotiations for a political transition that would include rather than explicitly threaten the Assad government. Given the mortal fears of communities on each side of the conflict, the first goal has to be making clear that all groups have a future in a new Syria. … Some will argue that we shouldn’t engage with the Syrian government or its backers. But further isolation tells the Assad government and its social constituencies that their only options are victory through mass violence or annihilation.

The Romanian analogy — one I invoke, not the authors — is a loose one at best because the death toll in Syria is much higher than it was in Romania in 1989, and the fighting has been going on for much longer. Moreover, while Romania had minority divisions which played out during the “brief” revolution there, Syria’s ethnic divisions are far more acute in light of the Alawites’ monopolizing power for so long, the 1976–1982 “counterinsurgency” campaign against the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood and the “Kurdish Question” that also affects Turkey and Iraq (the SNC, for its part, is increasing its overtures to Kurdish groups in the country). Novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab explains how the regime will continue trying to use sectarianism to justify itself (h/t Maysaloon):

… the French were successful in building [a colonial] army of minorities. The troupes speciales were recruited disproportionately from hitherto oppressed rural minority groups. This was the basis of the national army which first took over the country (with CIA help) in 1946, and which has ruled for most of the time since.

The ugly history has to be understood now most urgently because the regime has instrumentalised sect so savagely since the uprising began. It has done so through its propaganda and, more dangerously, by arming Alawi thugs and sending them to kill and rape in Sunni neighbourhoods. The ruling gang’s objective is to encourage Sunni hatred of Alawis so as to scare Alawis into loyalty to their ‘Alawi’ president. It doesn’t need to be said that the Alawi community as a whole is, or will be, the prime victim of this policy.

Additionally, in Romania the U.S. and NATO had no part play and the USSR refused to step in on behalf of the dictator: Syrian demonstrators and regime loyalists have been overburdened with Turkish, Iranian, Saudi, American, Russian and Lebanese proxy aspirations since before the (nonviolent) protests started in 2011. That such an analogy is not really applicable here illustrates just how far any peace plan has to go, UN mission or not.

1A not-so-subtle dig at those Western intellectuals judged by some Syrian activists to be apologists for Assad.

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