Saturday, March 26, 2011

Civilization vs. Barbarism: Resisting the Abuse of Power

Arabs are fighting for civilization, against the barbaric behavior of politicians abusing power for personal glory, and that is the fundamental battle of mankind.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Saleh’s Ultimate Weapon: Apres Moi, C’est al Qua’ida!

With exquisite timing, “Yemen’s army repelled an attack…by al Queda in the Arabian Peninsula,” according to Saleh’s regime, as Saleh ran out of all options for maintaining his dictatorship except waving the bloody flag of “terror” in Washington’s face. Why not? It has worked for him so far, and, indeed, might, with a grain of salt, even just possibly be true, but could al Qua'ida be so shortsighted as to pick this moment to make its move, giving Saleh precisely what he wants?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Arab Politics Increasingly Unstable, Confrontational

As momentum shifts back and forth between the democracy protesters and the traditional dictators, instability and confrontation are rising throughout the Arab world.

Sunni Leader Splits Arab Democracy Movement With Sectarian Sword

A leading Sunni cleric has dismissed Bahraini protesters as sectarian, thus dividing the ranks of Arab democracy advocates into two camps.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Return to Sectarian Conflict?

The Saudi military intervention in Bahrain risks re-igniting the sectarian warfare provoked in Iraq by the U.S. invasion.

The Saudi decision to play Metternich will have ominous consequences. First is the possibility that Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh have decided to push for war against Iran. That is a bit of a leap from the evidence. Let's hope it is not the case, but even if it is not, the momentum is now moving in that direction. The temperature of the Persian Gulf has just risen, and in Bahrain a first small explosion has occurred; today more effort will be required to prevent a Persian Gulf meltdown than would have been required last week.

Aside from the danger of war with Iran, Riyadh has now split the Arab world. Note, for example, how events clearly show coordination between the crackdown in Bahrain and the crackdown in Yemen. Perhaps the old guard will win, as Metternich did after 1848, and succeed in repressing all Arabs again, but that will not turn the clock back. The Arab world has changed; millions have voted with their feet and faced down police goon squads. That is empowering.

The Meaning of Empowerment
On my daily afternoon walks, I overhear Saudis of all ages and walks of life analyzing the events that led to the overthrow of the Tunisian regime. Everywhere I go, people are hypothesizing on whether the same could happen to “them,” referring to the possibility of a Saudi Arabia not headed by the Al Sauds. Although most concur that it is highly unlikely, they are nonetheless more convinced than ever of the power of the people to bring about change.--Khuloud on Jadaliyya

If repressed, the next time the people will have learned that peaceful demonstrations do not work. For an analogy, 1848 will turn into 1917. That is of course just an analogy; it should not be read as implying that communism is in the Mideast's future but simply that political radicalization is becoming more likely by the minute. Iran, al Qua'ida, and militant Arab nationalism will all be invigorated. A new Saudi-Egyptian proxy war in Yemen should come as no surprise, and Saudi-Iranian competition in Iraq will intensify.

The Logic of Saudi-Egyptian proxy war in Yemen
Egypt is now standing tall; no Egyptian ruler will aspire to crouching behind Saudi Arabia. Expect competition for leadership of the Arab world regardless of whether the Egyptian army succeeds in establishing a new military dictatorship or democracy is established. Egypt, however haltingly, is moving toward modernization, Saudi Arabia is looking backwards. Their interests will clash. Meanwhile, the Yemeni regime has been radicalized by the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, and many of those supporting the protesters in Yemen must surely have very bad memories of the Saudi military attack on the Houthis. Civil war now appears far more likely than it did a month ago, and it is hard to see how Riyadh will watch Saleh go down to military defeat without trying to help him. At that point, Cairo will face a fateful double decision: stand aside and give regional preeminence to Riyadh or take action; support democracy advocates who copied those in Egypt or turn its back. No matter who is in charge in Cairo, governments like legitimacy, and legitimacy for an Egyptian regime will not be found in a policy of bowing down before the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

The other change is truly tragic. The Arab democracy revolt was unifying and secularizing: more liberty for everyone. Saudi Arabia's military intervention, in contrast, not only splits the Arabs but risks sparking sectarian conflict. Bahraini democracy protesters are going to have a very hard time remaining united in the face of what looks very much like repression of the Shi'a. Admittedly, it also looks like repression of civil liberties, which it surely is. The key to the story may well lie in the struggle between these two conflicting dynamics: patriotic and democratic resistance to Saudi troops enforcing repression vs. the natural tendency to interpret events as Sunni vs. Shi'a. Moqtada al Sadr's initial sectarian reaction (justice for Shi'a rather than justice for Bahrainis) exemplifies this tendency, and al Qua'ida will surely be examining the situation in a search for opportunities.
Provoking Sectarianism

Bahrain TV has been giving a voice to extremists among government loyalists, with one caller reportedly offering demonstrators a “return to the days of Saddam, how he [Saddam] dealt with his Shia population.” --Jadaliyya

Nuclear war with Iran might be down the road, but a more likely result of the Saudi intervention in Bahrain is a repeat of the horrifying sectarian conflict provoked in Iraq by the U.S. invasion.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mideast Counterrevolution Takes the Initiative

Saudi intervention in Bahrain is sparking a broad counterrevolutionary wave of violence across the Mideast, radicalizing both sides in a dismal process that only a couple weeks ago appeared easily avoidable.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Riyadh Foments Counterrevolution

Saudi Arabia has now sent the clearest of signals: it will fight to defend the old Arab social order over which it presides. Abdullah is Metternich, or should I say Brezhnev?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Citizens or Officials: Who Is Helping Yemen?

A country is composed of officials and citizens. Who is helping the nation? In Yemen, today, it seems to be the citizens.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Yemen: The Problem Is the Regime, Not Yemeni Society

Although the rapid progression of events in Yemen give the impression that the country’s political system is collapsing, a slightly more rigorous evaluation suggests a significant degree of system resilience. Anti-social regime behavior should not be misinterpreted as indicative of system collapse; the other side of the coin is the behavior of society.

When society submits, either through hopelessness or naïve trust, the elite (not just the politicians but also the financial and corporate elite) are free to fill their own pockets. Understanding the nature of a country requires consideration of both the regime and the society. For example, an ominously powerful regime, e.g., that of the Soviet Union under Chernenko or Iran under the Shah, may be a house of cards. Yemen, perhaps surprisingly, shows admirable signs of socio-political resilience, all the tension and violence notwithstanding.

Evaluation of behavior harmful to the political system can provide an initial analysis of the situation in Yemen. Two criteria are used here, as illustrated in the ‘Behavior Harmful to the Yemeni Political System’ chart: whether the behavior is individual or social and the status of the actor. The higher the status of the actor engaged in harmful behavior and the greater degree to which the harmful behavior represents a social norm, the more diseased the political system.

Yemen's political problems are caused by the regime.
Although the stream of events might give the impression that Yemen’s political system is about to collapse, harmful behavior in Yemen over the past two months is not centered in Quadrant D, which would suggest extreme system pathology. Rather, harmful behavior is generally the result of the president’s desires, e.g., goon squads sent by his security forces to attack peaceful protesters, attacks on protesters by soldiers (presumably, again, on presidential orders), or attacks by regime supporters in response to regime encouragement. The political system includes not just the regime but also society. Despite the general availability of weapons, violence is the near monopoly of the regime, suggesting that regime change rather than fundamental lack of political system functionality is the solution. Despite all the chaos and tension in Yemen, this, for those aspiring to achieve a more just society, is very good news.

This initial test of Yemen's political system may be thought of as analogous to a quick check of your blood pressure. It is a snapshot of one view of the whole complex system. Additional tests will follow, looking at such aspects as protester behavior and changes over time, as subsequent posts continue the diagnosis of the health of Arab political systems in revolt.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Finding a Positive-Sum Solution: The Bahraini Case

Bahrain is a unique case of the Arab Revolt of 2011, but it is also an example of the common tactic of partisan pleading that the danger of disaster justifies submitting to oppression that happens to reserve privilege for the few at the expense of the many. Never did a greedy politician put forth a more suspect claim than that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tunisia: Two Steps on the Long Road to Democracy

  Democracy requires a vigilant, responsible, knowledgeable society asserting control over all its social organs—including political and commercial organs. Tunisia has taken several significant steps recently, including replacement of the prime minister, but the road is long.

Tunisian civil liberties activist Radhia Nazraoui stated in an interview published on March 7 on that:

toutes les institutions sont encore là : d’abord le parlement, la chambre des sénateurs, la police politique de Ben Ali, qui a terrorisé les Tunisiens pendant des décennies, le Conseil supérieur de la magistrature, mais en plus la constitution de la dictature, une constitution que Ben Ali avait amendée régulièrement, pour qu’elle soit sur mesure, pour qu’il puisse éterniser sa présidence. Donc, ce n’est pas du tout vrai qu’il y a maintenant la démocratie….

Les gouverneurs ! Il n’y a eu que des gouverneurs corrompus. Presque la
totalité des gouverneurs désignés par le gouvernement en place –et ils sont
connus- sont des gens « qui ont des dossiers », comme on dit chez nous. Donc,
il n’y a pas grand-chose de changé, jusque là.  

En plus, concernant la corruption et la « famille régnante », à part quelques-uns, les autres circulent librement. Les ministres responsables de la répression et de la corruption, ils sont chez eux. Même si l’on dit qu’ils sont en résidence surveillée –on n’en est pas sûr-, ils ne sont pas en prison.  

In a U.S. context, the principle that the Imperial Presidency is above the law has not been rejected by the Obama Administration. The principle that war can be legally started by lying to the population about the reasons for the war has not been rejected. The principle that the Federal Government can torture not just foreigners but even untried U.S. citizens (e.g., Manning) has not been rejected. The principle that war crimes can be committed by soldiers without either the soldiers or the Commander-in-Chief being held responsible has not been rejected. The principle that citizens accused of no crime can be spied upon by the government has not been rejected. Whether or not such actions occur at any particular moment is far less significant than whether or not such actions are, by precedent, “permissible.”

Tunisia took two major steps toward democracy (a political structure) and liberty (the goal) by abolishing, if the announcements are to be believed, both the Ministry of Security (secret police) and the Ministry of Information (censorship), as Juan Cole pointed out. But Rasaoui illustrates how many levels and organs must be reformed to transition from dictatorship to democracy; it requires, in a US context, not just Washington but Wisconsin, not just Main Street but Wall Street. Liberty is a high bar because liberty requires liberty everywhere: not just at the center but also in the periphery, not just relative to government but also relative to corporations, not just permission to be free but the will to exercise freedom responsibly, not just the freedom to speak but the ability to say something intelligent.

Her husband, Hamma Hammani of the Tunisian Workers Party, continued in the same interview:

il faut faire attention : ces espaces de liberté ne sont pas acquis de manière définitive. C’est-à-dire : ils ne sont pas institutionnalisés.  

Le code la presse est toujours là ; la loi sur les partis est toujours là; la loi sur les associations, le code électoral ; tout l’arsenal juridique fasciste de Ben Ali est toujours là.

Hammani continued by warning of the importance of who organizes the upcoming election for a “new” regime:

Les gens ont commencé à se rendre compte qu’on ne peut pas faire la transition d’une dictature à une démocratie en conservant le cadre de l’ancien système et par l’intermédiaire des personnes qui gouvernaient l’ancien système, par le biais des mêmes appareils, des mêmes institutions, de la même constitution. Cela ne peut pas se faire.  

Effectivement, le gouvernement veut, dans six mois, organiser des élections présidentielles. Parce qu’ils veulent, pratiquement, nous imposer un nouveau
petit Ben Ali. Certainement avec moins de prérogatives, mais un nouveau Ben
Ali. Mais, d’ici six mois, qui va préparer ces élections ? C’est pour cette raison-là qu’ils ont nommé dix-neuf gouverneurs RCD (« Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique », parti du président Ben Ali) sur vingt-quatre. C’est pour cette raison que la police politique est encore là. C’est pour cette raison que l’administration corrompue, à commencer par ses responsables, est toujours là. Les lois, tout est là. C’est pour cette raison que la majorité de l’opposition lutte contre ces élections.  
For a US analogy, what could one expect of a presidential election for “change” when the whole electoral structure continued to be managed by the same two parties, with each still comprised of officials following revolving-door career paths alternating between Washington and Wall Street or alternating between Washington and arms-manufacturing corporations?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Liberty: Defend It or Lose It

Liberty is a fragile achievement requiring constant care. Some think it should be treated as a gated community, in which “I” should hide, excluding “you.” Others view liberty as a common good best shared. Both groups, however, surely agree that to take liberty for granted is to weaken it. Consider, in this context, the significance of some events currently taking place in the Mideast and the U.S.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Liberated Mideast Societies Searching for Civil Society

Can the Arab world develop the civil society structure necessary to mediate between the people and regimes so as to nourish democracy?

Civil society is under attack throughout the Mideast, with regimes from Israel to Iraq well aware that a robust civil society, i.e., an organized array of private institutions independent from the government, constitutes a core bulwark for the defense of democracy against the abuse of power by the regime. The rapid formation of political parties in post-Mubarak Egypt is one step toward the construction of a healthy civil society. Another is the convening for the first time since 2004 of Le Front des forces socialistes (FFS) in Algeria. Additional, albeit possibly more ephemeral, examples are given by the many new Facebook pages designed to organize dissent. A stellar example that recalls the days of Lech Walesa is the recent formation of an independent Egyptian labor organization.

Pavel Demes of the German Marshall Fund provides an intriguing discussion of civil society in Eastern Europe to discover lessons for Arab reformers trying to protect nascent democratic tendencies:
First, we learned from the European experience that democratic breakthroughs can occur surprisingly fast, but that the development of a true culture of civic participation takes time.  Two decades after the collapse of communist regimes, some nations are still struggling to overcome the legacy of the past. Second, although foreign financial and material assistance, coupled with sensible expertise, was very important in developing and strengthening civil societies in these countries, the courage and creativity of local reformers and democracy activists were crucial. Third, even in countries that are geographically close or culturally similar, national specificities and public sentiments mattered greatly in the development and impact of civic groups. Last but not least, solidarity and cooperation among democracy activists and democratic governments was critical in sustaining the course toward more prosperous and stable societies that respected human rights and freedoms.
Civil society independence is a key barometer of the health of democracy. Both a civil society under attack by the government, e.g., union-busting by Republican politicians in Wisconsin doing the bidding of billionaires who want cheap labor, and the existence of an atomized society in which people are too complacent to bother joining civil society organizations both constitute threats to liberty. The emergence of a healthy civil society will be one of the crucial factors influencing the course of the Arab Revolt of 2011.

Needed: U.S. Foreign Policy Standards

Washington would provide a far better service to the American people if it devised a foreign policy that followed standards based on principle than by arrogantly taking on the duty—far beyond its wisdom—of “awarding” the world’s societies the “right” to possess nuclear arms or have democracy. Washington can neither control the world nor make the correct decisions. A better course would be to set standards of behavior, observe those standards itself, and induce others to pass thresholds based on principle rather than obedience.

Mathew Levitt of the Washington Institute, an organization wedded to the Israeli right wing perspective,* exemplified in a recent article both the need for principled standards in U.S. foreign policy and the pervasive bias in Washington preventing Washington decision-makers from creating such standards.

Fatal Flaw.    Levitt’s pointed call for the U.S. to make a distinction between those who pass an “appropriate threshold” for “partnering” with the U.S. and “participation in the democratic system would have established a logical long-term standard that Washington decision-makers could have aspired to and a route to a much improved American foreign policy if it were not for the profound bias that infects his argument. Levitt is quite right that U.S. decision-makers should observe and require that their foreign “partners” observe some standards. Furthermore, his implication that U.S. decision-makers generally fail to observe much in the way of standards and that this undermines U.S. national security (for as I read his piece, he does imply this as well, though in unfortunately muted tones) is also quite correct. Sadly, however, Levitt fails to rise above the typical bias of Washington actors and thus cannot draw from his principles much of any sound guidance to practice.

Assessing Current Partners.    If one were to require attainment of the fine threshold of democratic behavior as a minimal requirement for being accepted as a partner of the U.S., then a country with a vicious and active security service employed in brutally repressing those citizens who chose to exercise their democratic rights would clearly not make the grade. That would have caused Mubarak’s Egypt to have flunked long ago, not to mention Saudi Arabia in the 1990s (though they could claim to have cleaned up their act a bit more recently). Physical attacks on demonstrators by police or soldiers would also clearly earn a failing score; so much for Bahrain: should we remove the U.S. Navy? Soldiers and police looking the other way while a favored ethnic group terrorizes neighbors of another ethnic group, e.g., by burning their olive groves, would just as surely cancel one’s membership in the elite group of U.S. partners; even more clearly would the crime against humanity of collective punishment of an entire population: no need even to mention the charges of ethnic cleansing or apartheid or the passing of racist legislation in order to flunk Israel.

Assessing American Adversaries.     Moving from American partners to the rest, surely we must have a policy for those who, having formerly flunked out of democracy school, reconsider, hit the books, and ace the final. Without even addressing the fundamental issue of whether or not it is legitimate for a population subjected to forceful repression to defend itself (and, therefore, the question of which side truly deserves the epithet of “extremist,” in 2006 Hamas got an “A” for deciding to compete in a democratic election. Unfortunately for those who like to pick the winners, Hamas won. For playing by our rules, they were promptly overthrown and pushed out of the West Bank; fighting back, they retained control in Gaza. Like a bad student who reforms, hits the books, and embarrasses the teacher’s pet only to be kicked out of school for his impertinence, Hamas has not subsequently shown any particular fondness for democratic rules. An opportunity was lost because U.S. foreign policy was not being conducted on the basis of principle.

A Principled Foreign Policy.    Levitt’s idea of standards of behavior in foreign policy would be a brilliant innovation with the potential not only to reestablish America’s tarnished global reputation (assuming, of course, that we followed our own advice) but to offer a powerful inducement to other countries to clean up their own acts. Unfortunately, his argument is so imbued with the traditional cherry-picking habit of U.S. decision-makers accustomed to deciding which states shall have the “right” to nuclear arms or democracy that he misses the implication of his own advice: principles are not prizes for the winners; they apply to all, to enemies and friends. Even us.
* In its most extreme version, the Zionist project calls for huge Israeli expansion.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Governance and Liberty

Do not be misled by the biased reporting of the Mainstream Media on the fight for democracy. No, I am not, for once, talking about the Mideast...but about the right of public workers in the U.S. to bargain collectively. Make no mistake about it: this is not an argument over money; this is about power. Either the ruling elite (which, in the U.S., can fortunately be changed--at least in theory--at the ballot box), which includes both politicians and millionaire supporters, has the power or the people have the power. Millionaires who would like a subservient working population are using the thin excuse of a budget crisis to gain control over their employees. Public unions are the first target in what will surely be a broader right-wing effort to turn the clock back a century and cripple the ability of those who receive a paycheck to fight back against not just government employers, but, more to the point, corporate employers. If teachers, firefighters, and police are labeled successfully by the right wing as enemies, which of you thinks you will end up being considered a friend?

How many people in this poorly educated, history-challenged land recall that before unions, we had child labor and ten-hour work days? Do we all need to sacrifice in this time of adversity? OK, let's start by seeing some sacrifice by the billionaires, including those who pay no taxes at all, including even those whose names begin with the letter "K." Let's start with a federal investigation into unpaid taxes by any corporation whose earnings are now at an all-time high (it will be a long list - there is no recession in America, only a recession for people who work for a living).

The attack on union bargaining rights, if you think about it, fits right in with the neglect of Main Street while the government gives your tax dollars to those poor guys on Wall Street. In the U.S., we have been fairly lucky: the rich may have made the country for their personal benefit but enough usually trickled down for the rest. In the new world symbolized by Wall Street bailouts, BP poisoning of the Gulf, the packaging of your mortgages for gambling by high-rollers, and massive long-term unemployment while the stock market booms, you would not be wise to bet on very much trickling down from now on. It is, in a word, time to start thinking about wealth redistribution.

Now, those of you who don't agree with this argument have a problem: you really cannot get accurate information about this issue from normal U.S. media sources. Frankly, unless you have access to GRIT TV, which the major broadcasting corporations don't want you to watch, you are going to have a hard time finding out what is really happening. Maybe you should start by demanding that your local cable company provide you with access to it! Good luck. Protecting democracy takes effort.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Arab Revolt Futures

Now that the rules governing Mideast politics have changed and assumptions are suddenly challenged, if not discarded altogether, wise policy-makers will be considering what factors will emerge as the key drivers of future Arab behavior. This post begins a new series analyzing how the Arab Revolt of 2011 is likely to develop and laying out the method to facilitate adjustments should events overtake this analysis.