'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, January 31, 2011

Egypt Erupts (Part 5) 

UPDATE 3 (11;50AM Pacific time): Both 3arabawy and The Arabist are back up with new posts. Unfortunately, Egyptian Chronicles is still down. The websites of Al Jazeera, The Guardian and the BBC continue to provide extensive coverage as well, and there's also the We Are All Khalid Said Facebook page. At 3arabawy, don't forget to follow the tweets from Hossam el-Hamalawy and others posted there. Here's a YouTube video of the protest in last night in Tahrir Square provided by Hossam:

UPDATE 2 (10;32AM Pacific time): If you give this report any credence at all, it shows that the Obama administration realizes that Mubarak's position is hopeless, but that still believes that he can be used to shape the successor government by controlling the administration of reforms and the conduct of the election. At best, it's pure nonsense, at worst, more anonymously sourced propaganda designed to conceal our resistance to the movement on the streets.

Meanwhile, Egyptians have very different expectations:

Tahrir Square protesters say they plan to march Friday to the presidential palace in Heliopolis unless the army makes its stance clear.

Youth-led groups issued a statement calling for all Egyptians to march on the palace, the People's Assembly and the television building, in what they are calling the Friday of Departure.

They say the army must choose which side they are on: That of the people, or the regime.

We the people and the youth of Egypt demand that our brothers in the national armed forces clearly define their stance by either lining up with the real legitimacy provided by millions of Egyptians on strike on the streets, or standing in the camp of the regime that has killed our people, terrorized them and stole from them, read the statement.

The protesters say the army has until Thursday morning to make its position clear. A lack of response will be interpreted as support for Egypt's ruling regime.

So, can we take that as a rejection of the US/EU/Mubarak offer of talks?

UPDATE 1 (9:55AM Pacific time): If you had any doubt that US policy and the actions of Mubarak are coordinated:

7:13pm Opposition groups continue to call for a "million man march" and a general strike on Tuesday to commemorate one week since the protest movement began. Meanwhile, the military has reiterated that it will not attempt to hurt protesters.

As 250,000 gathered around Cairo's Tahrir Square on Monday, President Mubarak asked his new prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, to start talks with the opposition. It has yet to be seen whether the broad coalition of Egyptian opposition groups - students, web activists, leftists, liberals, and Islamists - will manage to come together.

Somehow, I suspect that the opposition groups can get their act enough to tell tell the US, the EU and Mubarak that the only thing that they are willing to discuss is his immediate departure from the country.

INITIAL POST: More on Omar Suleiman, the new Egyptian vice president, our Pinochet in waiting:

Shortly after 9/11, Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, was captured by Pakistani security forces and, under US pressure, tortured by Pakistanis. He was then rendered (with an Australian diplomats watching) by CIA operatives to Egypt, a not uncommon practice. In Egypt, Habib merited Suleiman’s personal attention. As related by Richard Neville, based on Habib’s memoir:

Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman…. Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks.

That treatment wasn’t enough for Suleiman, so:

To loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib – and he did, with a vicious karate kick.

After Suleiman’s men extracted Habib’s confession, he was transferred back to US custody, where he eventually was imprisoned at Guantanamo. His confession was then used as evidence in his Guantanamo trial.

Clearly, the elevation of Suleiman, with the acceptance of the US, is not a move in the direction of democratizing the country.

Meanwhile, the Israelis give direction to the US and the EU:

Israel called on the United States and a number of European countries over the weekend to curb their criticism of President Hosni Mubarak to preserve stability in the region.

Jerusalem seeks to convince its allies that it is in the West's interest to maintain the stability of the Egyptian regime. The diplomatic measures came after statements in Western capitals implying that the United States and European Union supported Mubarak's ouster.

Expect a continuation of bland pronouncements for democratic reforms short of an insistence upon elections, based upon the implicit assumption that Mubarak (or Suleiman, as his successor) remain in power. The protesters should continue to act peacefully, and negotiate their future with the the people who have abused them for so long. If this is the best that can be achieved through non-violent civil disobedience, the US and European response invite a rejection of it by the Egyptian populace, especially as the true objective is, as described by As'ad Abukhalil on Saturday, a perpetuation of the regime in new clothes. Of course, if the protesters had remained peaceful in the face of Mubarak's organized state violence last week, we'd now find ourselves subjected to hypocritical expressions of concern as Mubarak ruthlessly eliminated any sources of resistance in Egyptian society, with US cable news channels returning to their obsession with the private lives of celebrities.

Interestingly, there appears to be a fissure here, with the US and Europe seeing a benefit to the ascension of Suleiman, while Israel leaders, like Netanyahu, remain personally bound to Mubarak. Perhaps, the Israelis believe that the departure of Mubarak would render it impossible for anyone, including Suleiman, to preserve the remnants of the current, pro-Zionist regime. As'ad Abukhalil has a contrary perspective: he has a feeling, based upon an intensification of Saudi propaganda in support of Mubarak, as well as Obama's communications with the Israelis and the Saudis, that Obama's support for Mubarak has hardened. Last week, I discovered that Zionists believe that, in addition to the Palestianians, millions of Egyptians have to be imprisoned within a authoritarian system in order for Israel to survive, and we are about to discover if Obama is in agreement.

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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt Erupts: The Chilean Solution? 

UPDATE 5: As'ad Abukhalil, the Angry Arab, is one of the speakers at yesterday's rally in San Francisco. His remarks began just after 4:55 of this YouTube video, but you should, of course, listen to those of the others who spoke as well. According to Abukhalil, the US and Israel are trying to achieve the perpetuation of the regime without the Mubarak family, but the Egyptians are too smart to fall for it. As mentioned below in UPDATE 4, there may also be economic incentives for doing so in addition to the obvious ones related to the perpetuation of Zionism and the war on terror.

UPDATE 4: Mubarak orders more state intervention in the Egyptian economy through subsidies, price controls and job creation. Oddly enough, this may accelerate his departure. His refusal to fully implement neoliberal economic orthodoxy, obliquely referenced by the US State Department as a failure to provide economic opportunity for young Egyptians, is associated with the increased power of the Egyptian workers in recent years, as profiled by Stanford Professor Joel Beinin. The US may already perceive Mubarak's departure as the means to more fully integrate Egypt into the global economic order. From a US perspective, Mubarak perversely takes on the oppositional qualities of an Allende, while Suleiman possesses the latent qualities of a Pinochet. His forced removal from power can therefore be explained to balky elites in the US, the UK and Israel as Egypt's entry into the next stage of neoliberal economic development.

UPDATE 3 (3:15PM Pacific time): Tweets from Hossam el-Hamalawy, the blogger who posts at 3arabawy:

The Popular Committees hold the seeds for what direct democracy could look like in the future. We need to focus on them instead of BARADIE!
20 minutes ago via web

There is no love whatsoever the protesters hold towards the US govt and Obama. They r hypocrites.
21 minutes ago via web

There r chants against Mubarak always, accusing him of being a traitor, a client to the US and Israel.
21 minutes ago via web

Situation in Suez is catastrophic in terms of deaths and injuries. The police fought the people in the same way Israelis fight Palestinians
23 minutes ago via web

Suez workers in several factories r on strike, calling for the overthrowal of Mubarak.
24 minutes ago via web

If you want to follow Hossam's tweets, sign up for @3arabawy or visit his blog. As near as I can tell, his tweets are the only thing currently being updated there given the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt. His reference to Popular Committees as the seeds of a future direct democracy in Egypt, as opposed to a deal brokered among elite leaders, alludes to the committees created in the neighborhoods of Cairo to defend against arsons and looting that many suspect have been organized by the security apparatus still loyal to the regime.

The roots of such institutions as the source of the legitimate exercise of political power have their roots in the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution as well as among the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. More recently, they have been prominent in the Aymara communities of El Alto in Bolivia, although, according to Ben Dangl, they have recently been incorporated into the Movement for Socialism party of Evo Morales after years of direct action success against neoliberal policies, such as the proposed privatization of the Cochambamba water system that was abandoned in 2000.

Hat tip to the Angry Arab.

UPDATE 2 (8:35PM Pacific time): Issander El Amrani believes that power has already passed from Mubarak to Suleiman, and that the hard core of the regime is trying to preserve itself.

UPDATE 1: For on the ground reports, the We Are All Khalid Said Facebook page is still up, as it apparently originates from the UK. Issander El Amrani has been able to infrequently post articles at The Arabist, but I have yet to see anything new at 3arabaway or the Egyptian Chronicles since Thursday. Of course, that could change at any time. In addition to the live blogs at The Guardian and Al Jazeera, the BBC has a good one as well. And, don't forget the live news feed from Al Jazeera. As'ad Abukhalil is providing provocative commentary at The Angry Arab News Service as you would expect.

INITIAL POST (7;55AM Pacific time): Live reports from Cairo are not encouraging. Al Jazeera and The Guardian, among others, are reporting that the military is becoming more aggressive, with fighter jets and helicopters flying over Tahrir Square, where thousands of protesters are gathered, as they have done since the protests began. More troops and tanks are moving towards the square. Mubarak has already appointed a new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, who has served as his director of intelligence, has worked closely with the US in the war on terror, serving as the CIA's point man in Egypt for renditions.

As described by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker:

As laid out in greater detail by Stephen Grey, in his book Ghost Plane, beginning in the nineteen-nineties, Suleiman negotiated directly with top Agency officials. Every rendition was greenlighted at the highest levels of both the U.S. and Egyptian intelligence agencies. Edward S. Walker, Jr., a former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, described Suleiman as very bright, very realistic,” adding that he was cognizant that there was a downside to “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way.

Technically, U.S. law required the C.I.A. to seek assurances from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn’t face torture. But under Suleiman’s reign at the intelligence service, such assurances were considered close to worthless. As Michael Scheuer, a former C.I.A. officer who helped set up the practice of rendition, later testified before Congress, even if such assurances were written in indelible ink, they weren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.

Make no mistake. If it happens, Obama will support the crackdown, while verbally suggesting otherwise, as he did when he rhetorically supported the public option while orchestrating its abandonment behind the scenes, as he did when he insisted that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy should not be extended while manipulating the legislative calendar to ensure it. Indeed, it is possible, if not probable, that Obama and Suleiman are acting in concert. After all, the CIA has their man in place. As in Chile in 1973, as in Algeria in the early 1990s, the US will privately give Suleiman and the Egyptian military a free hand even as it issues public denunciations. There is no limit to the number of dead Egyptians that the Obama administration will accept to maintain Egypt as a pro-Zionist ally in the war on terror. After an initial period of pro forma condemnation, the US will thereafter characterize the new Egyptian government as one committed to reform. Secretary of State Clinton sang from a similar songbook after the coup on Honduras in 2009, condemning the coup in public while consolidating the participants' grip on power in private.

But will a crackdown succeed? I don't purport to be knowledgeable about Egyptian politics and social life, but it strikes me as a high risk strategy, even if the US and the Egyptian military increasingly see no alternative. I recall an afternoon back in 1992, when protesters grew increasingly confrontational at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in Los Angeles in response to the Rodney King verdict. The LAPD began attacking the protesters as local TV helicopters broadcast the scene live. Within minutes, rioting erupted across the city. Would an assault upon the protesters in Egypt ignite a similar response throughout Egypt, and possibly much of North Africa and the Middle East? Of course, there is no way to answer this question authoritatively.

There is also a possibility that the military will not be able to fully restore order. Again, make no mistake here, either. The US and Israel will covertly provide whatever assistance is necessary to reassert control. As in Chile in the 1970s, the nascent Egyptian labor movement, the movement that participated in laying the groundwork for challenging the Mubarak dictatorship, will be crushed. A ruthless implementation of neoliberal policies of privatization and structural adjustment, policies that have been hesitantly pursued by Mubarak to date, would facilitate this objective quite effectively, although it remains to be seen whether Mubarak (if he remains in a position of power), Suleiman, Egyptian elites and the military would embrace it. We can only hope that the Egyptian people, and their supporters around the world, have the resiliency to overcome what Mubarak, Suleiman and the Obama administration have planned for them.

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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt Erupts (Part 4) 

UPDATE 3: Here's an informative background article by Issander El Amrani of The Arabist about Omar Suleiman, Egypt's newly appointed Vice President. Predictably, Suleiman is supportive of the war on terror. For something more uplifting, consider this video of an interview of one of the Egyptian solidarity protesters in London today:

UPDATE 2 (3:40PM Pacific time): Upon perusing the live blogs, I find two interrelated themes. In Cairo, the police and the military have abandoned the streets, with the exception of those near the Tax Authority which has been burned and the nearby Interior Ministry where protesters continue to attempt to seize it and burn it down as well, in an apparent effort to leave the way clear for roaming bands of thuggish-looking men who cannot be identified as plainclothes police or civilians to have their way, so as to justify a crackdown.

Consistent with this, state run Egyptian TV is giving prominent coverage to stories of looting and attacks. In response, the young people of Cairo are forming public committees to seize thugs and looters and turning them over to the army. Al-Jazeera confirms with a report that Cairo neighborhoods are being policed by local residents wielding kitchen knives and hunting rifles, after the military called for civilians to protect their own property.

Meanwhile, protesters in the provinces are still on the offensive as illustrated here:

9.46pm: Reuters reports that police shot dead 17 people trying to attack two police stations in Beni Suef governorate, according to witnesses and medical sources. Twelve of those shot were attempting to attack a police station in Biba while five others were trying to attack another in Nasser city. Dozens of others were injured in the exchanges.

And, again here, in this startling report from Time:

And a prominent Bedouin smuggler in the Sinai peninsula told TIME that Bedouin are now in control of the two towns closest to the Gaza Strip, and that they planned to press on to attack the Suez Canal if Mubarak does not step down. He also said that police stations in the south Sinai would be attacked if Bedouin prisoners were not released.

UPDATE 1: For on the ground reports, the We Are All Khalid Said Facebook page is still up. Issander El Amrani has posted a couple of articles at The Arabist, but I have yet to see anything new at 3arabaway or the Egyptian Chronicles since Thursday. Of course, that could change at any time. In addition to the live blogs at The Guardian and Al Jazeera, the BBC has a good one as well. And, don't forget the live news feed from Al Jazeera. As'ad Abukhalil is providing provocative commentary at The Angry Arab News Service as you would expect.

INITIAL POST: From The Guardian's live blog:

3.22pm: Police in Cairo are firing live rounds at protesters, according to Jack Shenker.

Running battles have broken out around the interior ministry and protesters are using car doors and corrugated iron as makeshift shields.

Shenker has confirmed with four separate sources that live ammunition is being fired. One of his close contacts was also hit on the head – fortunately by a rubber bullet.

He says there's still confusion over the military's postion. Outside the ministry he saw a tank roll in to cheers from protesters. But it then appeared to move into a holding position, prompting some protesters to throw rocks at it. Other demonstrators tried to stop them.

Reuters reports that the army used tanks and fired shots in the air to force back hundreds of protesters who were attacking the entrance to a building belonging to the Central Bank in a suburb of Cairo.

A witness told the news agency that protesters, who were using wooden planks to try to break into the building, which prints paper money, fled after seeing the tanks approach and hearing the shots.

2.23pm: Thousands of people are continuing to protest after the start of the extended curfew at 4pm (2pm GMT), Reuters reports.

Defying an army warning that anyone violating the order would be in danger, the crowds thronged in central Cairo and in Alexandria.

It does not feel like there is a curfew, I can see thousands marching next to me, a witness from Alexandria told the news agency.

From Al Jazeera's live blog:

3:33pm No confrontations are reported to be taking place between soldiers and protesters in the capital. Army personnel are still being greeted in a friendly manner, with some even handing roses to the soldiers. Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin also reports that demonstrators are not seen waving any political flags.

3:17pm The Saudi stock market, the Arab world's largest, dropped 6.43 per cent on Saturday amid rising Egypt tensions. Traders fear that other Gulf markets, due to open on Sunday, could experience similar drops.

3:06pm At least 8 people killed by live fire at prison near Cairo, and Egyptian authorities call for all banks to close.

3:03pm Al Jazeera correspondent reports that 36 deaths are confirmed in Alexandria, a coastal city where several police stations have been torched. Protesters continue to gather along the Corniche there - but not as many as yesterday.

2:56pm Notable statements-- Amr Moussa, Arab League secretary-general, says he understands the Egyptian people's anger. Mohamed ElBaradei states that he's proud of the Egyptian protest movement. And the Muslim Brotherhood calls for the peaceful transfer of power in Egypt.

2:47pm Up to 50,000 people gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square, saying that resignation of the cabinet is not enough. Egyptian state TV says that the curfew will begin at 4pm local time.

2:10pm Egyptian military closes tourist access to the pyramids.

1:58pm A group of Bedouin has attacked state security headquarters in the town of Rafah near Egypt's border with Israel, killing three policemen, witnesses and a security source said.

Meanwhile, Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill, talk about how much they have in common with the Mubaraks in a video posted on June 7, 2010:

Looks like the Bidens never saw this report on torture from the embassy. And, then, finally, there is this from the Al-Jazeera live blog:

6:18pm Al Jazeera Arabic reports that planes carrying families of Israeli diplomats have flown back to Israel.

Never to return?

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt Erupts (Part 3) 

UPDATE 4: A timely wikileaks release about US knowledge of police brutality in Egypt:

¶2. (C) Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders. One human rights lawyer told us there is evidence of torture in Egypt dating back to the times of the Pharaohs. NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone. Egyptians are bombarded with consistent news reports of police brutality, ranging from high profile incidents such as accidental but lethal police shootings in Salamut and Aswan this past fall (refs B and C) that sparked riots, to reports of police officers shooting civilians following disputes over traffic tickets. In November 2008 alone, there were two incidents of off-duty police officers shooting and killing civilians over petty disputes. The cases against both officers are currently making their way through the judicial system.

¶3. (C) NGO and academic contacts from across the political spectrum report witnessing police brutality as part of their daily lives. One academic at XXXXXXXXXXXX told us XXXXXXXXXXXX the police proceeded to beat a female suspect into confessing about others involved in the theft and the whereabouts of the stolen valuables. A contact from an international NGO described witnessing police beat the doorman of an upscale Cairo apartment building into disclosing the apartment number of a suspect. Another contact at a human rights NGO told us that her friends do not report thefts from their apartments because they do not want to subject all the doormen in the vicinity to police beatings. She told us that the police’s use of force has pervaded Egyptian culture to the extent that one popular television soap opera recently featured a police detective hero who beats up suspects to collect evidence.

UPDATE 3: A comment posted at We Are All Khalid Said:

An activists just said that many poor people never dreamt they can be equal to a policeman. When they saw others standing up to police, they just joined in instantly.

UPDATE 2: By the way, don't forget to visit The Angry Arab News Service for commentary by As'ad Abukhalil.

UPDATE 1 (3:55PM Pacific time): President Obama makes a brief statement, saying that he has spoken with Mubarak and that Mubarak has pledged greater democracy for Egyptians, but needs to honor that commitment. Is there anyone gullible enough to believe this? No wonder he walked quickly away from the lecturn without making eye contact with the assembled reporters. Meanwhile, back on the planet Earth, Muburak, in his first public apperance since the protests began, gives no quarter. There are suspicions that the US is trying replace Mubarak with the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian military.

UPDATE: For on the ground reports, the We Are All Khalid Said Facebook page is still up. Go here for a striking video of the beginning of the protests today, with the police retreating against an onslaught of protesters. There has been nothing new posted at The Arabist, 3arabaway or Egyptian Chronicles for about 18 hours, but they could come back online at any time.

INITIAL POST: You probably know as much as I do. Aljazeeza has an excellent live blog which is providing news updates including video, as posted above. There is also a live Aljazeera video feed here. Similarly, The Guardian has an informative live blog as well:

6.59pm (UK time): Here's a summary of the day's events so far on a momentous day in Egypt's history:

President Hosni Mubarak has ordered a curfew in three cities (3.30pm), later extended to the entire country, which was supposed to start at 6pm today and last until 7am tomorrow morning but it has been roundly ignored as clashes have continued.

Mubarak has sent in the army to restore order in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez but protesters cheered the army in some areas, calling on them to side with them against the police (3.43 pm). In some areas the army has done so. Soldiers have shaken hands with protesters in Alexandria and in Cairo. Demonstrators have clambered onto tanks in Suez and Cairo. There have also been unconfirmed reports of clashes between the army and police.

There have been unconfirmed reports of many protesters killed today, including a woman in Tahrir square in Cairo, two people in Suez, one named as Hamada Labib, 30, a driver., one person in Alexandria and a 14-year-old in Port Said.

In the country's strongest intervention so far, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the US is deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protestors. (5.12pm)

Some police are reported to have joined the protesters, who welcomed them to their ranks. (5.05pm)

Police immediately attacked protesters after Friday prayers (11.12am) but protesters remained defiant and fought back, overwhelming police and government buildings right across the country. The ruling NDP's party headquarters in Cairo were set on fire (4.23pm).

According to Reuters, approximately 870 people have been wounded during protests in Cairo, with 450 sent to hospitals for medical attention.

From an an article posted by Time today, Israel Has Faith Muburak Will Prevail:

We believe that Egypt is going to overcome the current wave of demonstrations, but we have to look to the future, says the minister in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel enjoys diplomatic relations and security cooperation with both Egypt and Jordan, the only neighboring states that have signed treaties with the Jewish state. But while it may be more efficient to deal in with a strongman in Cairo — Mubarak has ruled for 30 years — and a king in Amman, democracies make better neighbors, because democracies do not initiate wars," he says.

Having said that, I'm not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process.

The minister, who spoke on condition of not being identified by name or portfolio, cites the Gaza Strip as a signal warning of the risk that comes with asking the people what they want. The seaside territory, home to some 1.5 million Palestinians, elected the militant Islamist group Hamas in a 2006 election that had been urged by George W. Bush, when the president was casting the invasion of Iraq as a mission to bring democracy to the Middle East.

All well and good in the long run, according to the official, but Arab societies demand a longer term democratization process, one accompanied by education reforms that would encourage the election of moderates. You can't make it with elections, especially in the current situation where radical elements, especially Islamist groups, may exploit the situation, he says. It might take a generation or so.

I was aware that the Palestinians had to be imprisoned within the occupied territories in order for Israel to survive as a Zionist state, but it turns out that millions of Egyptians require similarly severe measures of social control as well.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egypt Erupts: The Kids Are All Right 

UPDATE 6 (10:55PM Pacific time): From the Associated Press:

Violence escalated on Thursday at protests outside the capital. In the flashpoint city of Suez, along the strategic Suez Canal, protesters torched a fire station and looted weapons that they then turned on police. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that more than 90 police officers were injured in those clashes. There were no immediate figures on the number of injured protesters.

In the northern Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid, several hundred Bedouins and police exchanged gunfire, killing a 17-year-old. About 300 protesters surrounded a police station from rooftops of nearby buildings and fired two rocket-propelled grenades at it, damaging the walls.

Video of the shooting of the teenager, Mohamed Attef, was supplied to a local journalist and obtained by AP Television News. Attef crumpled to the ground after being shot on the street. He was alive as fellow protesters carried him away but later died.

UPDATE 5 (7;25PM Pacific time): Right on cue for Vice President Biden:

Thousands of Egyptians are planning to take part in peaceful marches and sit-ins in major cities. Mohammed ElBaradei, who has offered to become an interim leader, will be attending a major demonstration after Friday morning prayers in downtown Cairo.

But already I have started getting reports from citizen journalists that government-hired thugs will make sure that nothing about tomorrow is peaceful. They say that in several low-income parts of Cairo and Alexandria, government-hired thugs were seen to be splashing petroleum over parked cars. This to prepare for protests in which they'll light vehicles on fire when the time is right for them.

They've also heard rumours that the intelligence services will release a separate group of thugs under the name Akhwan al- Haq, or Brothers of Truth, a trumped-up extremist group, that will charge through the streets with swords and caustic acid to splash on the protesters - thus placing all the blame of a peaceful uprising gone violent on a certain kind of Islamic extremism.

UPDATE 4: Egyptian security forces detain 80 members of the Muslim Brotherhood before dawn. And, perhaps, others as well?

UPDATE 3: Vice President Biden supports the Mubarak regime on the PBS News Hour:

Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.

He also appeared to make one of the famous Biden gaffes, in comments that could be interpreted as questioning the legitimacy of protesters' demands. Monitor Cairo correspondent Kristen Chick, other reporters in the country, and activists have generally characterized the main calls of demonstrators as focused on freedom, democracy, an end to police torture, and a more committed government effort to address the poverty that aflicts millions of Egyptians.

Biden urged non-violence from both protesters and the government and said: We’re encouraging the protesters to – as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we’re encouraging the government to act responsibly and – and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out. He also said: I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable... accommodation and discussion to try to resolve peacefully and amicably the concerns and claims made by those who have taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt.

Of course, Biden's emphasis upon the need for the protesters to act peaceably fits perfectly with the efforts of the regime to manufacture the appearance of out of control street violence to justify the crackdown.

UPDATE 2 (4:33PM Pacific time): OK, here's something that I have found the time to post: Riot control police are being withdrawn from various locations in central Cairo, while plainclothes security are pouring gasoline on vehicles and setting them afire. They are also trying to burn storefronts as well. This is similar to what happened in Tunisia just before and after Ben Ali departed, and the military put a stop to it. The purpose is to create a pretext for a crackdown that justifies mass arrests and the indiscriminate use of live fire against the populace. There are already reports that such arrests are taking place in the early morning hours.

Meanwhile, here is some recent video from Suez, where there are reports that the police are shooting at protesters who are responding with Molotov cocktails:

UPDATE 1: For ongoing updates on the situation in Egypt, please visit the Egyptian Chronicles, The Arabist, 3arabawy and We Are All Khalid Said. It is, frankly, impossible for me to attempt to keep up with the breaking news, which indicates continued confrontational protest in many Egyptian cities. The Guardian's live blog is useful as well. It has been reported that a call has gone out for day of national resistance after prayers tomorrow.

INITIAL POST: Something quite extraordinary is happening when The New York Times and As'ad Abukhalil, the Angry Arab, find themselves in agreement, or, at least, close to it. First, the Times:

The roots of the uprising that filled Egypt’s streets this week arguably stretch back to before the Tunisian revolt, which many protesters cited as the catalyst. Almost three years ago, on April 6, 2008, the Egyptian government crushed a strike by a group of textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla, and in response a group of young activists who connected through Facebook and other social networking Web sites formed the April 6th Youth Movement in solidarity with the strikers.

Their early efforts to call a general strike were a bust. But over time their leaderless online network and others that sprang up around it — like the networks that helped propel the Tunisian revolution — were uniquely difficult for the Egyptian security police to pinpoint or wipe out. It was an online rallying cry for a show of opposition to tyranny, corruption and torture that brought so many to the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday, unexpectedly vaulting the online youth movement to the forefront as the most effective independent political force in Egypt.

And, now, the Angry Arab:

I have just received from Egypt a secret document titled How to Revolt Intelligently prepared by the youth activists in Egypt. It is a most sophisticated manual by activist that I have seen. I am not exaggerating. It has very specific instructions as how to deal with the oppression tactics and methods of the Mubarak regime. I would have shared it with you, but the activists are circulating it as a secret document with special instruction against wide distribution for fear of falling into the hands of police. It has specific instruction as to how to deal with tear gas canisters and the repression vehicles and baton of the police. It sets the demands and style of the movement with well-done illustration. It ends with an illustration of Jamal Mubarak nicknamed Jaban Mubarak (Coward Mubarak). It is most impressive and makes me more hopeful about change in Egypt. I have not seen anything like this before, not by any revolutionary or activist movement anywhere.

Both point toward the fact that it has been young people, acting outside of any recognized institutional structures, that have driven anti-establishment protest around the world. Of course, the role of young anarchists in the December 2008 protests in Greece is well known, so much so that AK Press has published an excellent book that places these protests within a broader context of anti-authoritarian resistance there, with the anger of the Greek protesters subsequently finding an echo in the United Kingdom and France. In France, during nationwide protests triggered by a proposed reduction in pension benefits in October 2010, young people rioted in downtown Lyon, a riot described by a Figaro reporter as about 2000 youths . . roaming the streets in an insurrectional climate of urban guerrilla combat.

Meanwhile, a couple of months later, in December 2010 in the UK, student protests over increased university fees brought out unanticipated participants:

They marched to parliament square, got stopped, surged through police lines and trampled onto the grass that had been so painstakingly regrown after the eviction of the peace camp. And then they danced.

The man in charge of the sound system was from an eco-farm, he told me, and had been trying to play politically right on reggae; however a crowd in which the oldest person was maybe seventeen took over the crucial jack plug, inserted it into a Blackberry, (iPhones are out for this demographic) and pumped out the dubstep.

Young men, mainly black, grabbed each other around the head and formed a surging dance to the digital beat lit, as the light failed, by the distinctly analog light of a bench they had set on fire.

Any idea that you are dealing with Lacan-reading hipsters from Spitalfields on this demo is mistaken.

While a good half of the march was undergraduates from the most militant college occupations - UCL, SOAS, Leeds, Sussex - the really stunning phenomenon, politically, was the presence of youth: bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington.

Having been very close to the front line of the fighting, on the protesters side, I would say that at its height - again - it broke the media stereotype of being organised by political groups: there was an anarchist black bloc contingent, there were the socialist left groups - but above all, again, I would say the main offensive actions taken to break through police lines were done by small groups of young men who dressed a lot more like the older brothers of the dubsteppers.

A similar pheonomenon occurred in Rome about a week later during protests after Berlusconi survived a no-confidence vote.

And, then, of course, Tunisia:

Despite a curfew being imposed in the Tunisian capital during the hours of darkness, young men defied threats not to leave their homes and took their anger onto the streets of the southern suburbs of Tunis.

Police who had used tear gas during the day to try to control mobs of angry people fired live rounds. According to reports from eye-witnesses three people in Tunis were killed.

Finally, I forgot to mention the young people who pushed beyond the timidity of the so-called Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009:

Meanwhile every Westerner seems to think that Mousavi is a great reformist or revolutionary, and some kind of saintly figure beloved by all. He's an opportunist crook. That being said, I support the students and protesters in Iran, even the ones chanting Mousavi's name. I believe they are putting their lives on the line to fight for greater freedom, accountability, and democracy within the Islamic Republic, and they have to couch that in the language of Islam and presidential politics in order to avoid even greater repression than that which they already face. A friend who is in Iran right now confirms: half the kids throwing rocks at the police didn't even vote. To me, that means that they are not fighting for a Mousavi presidency, but for more freedom, which they must hide under a green Mousavi banner in order to have legitimacy in the eyes of the state.

Do the young people in all these countries share a clearly defined ideological and social perspective? Of course not. But there are some important commonalities between them. Many of them, even the dubsteppers of London and Rome, are well educated, yet find themselves paying the price for the corruption of their political and economic leadership through a lack of job opportunities, a lack of social mobility and increased poverty. Global policies of austerity and local ones of crony capitalism are making their lives miserable. All of them resent the social controls placed upon them, whether it's a black Londoner in Brixton angry about police brutality or a Egyptian, Tunisian or Iranian subjected to the surveillance and repression carried out by the security forces of their countries. At best, they are cynical and calculated about the utility of working within established political institutions and parties, at worst, they are disdainful of it.

Hence, there is the question as to what sort of new social order can incorporate their needs, their concerns, their legitimate anger that is increasingly being expressed violently. It is a difficult question to answer, but we can tentatively say that it must necessarily be more inclusive, less dependent upon the corrupted forms of representation that have been so discredited, and, thus, independent of the military neoliberalism practiced by the US. In relation to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, nothing has been more comical than to hear US diplomats speak of the need for regimes to reform themselves so as to provide economic opportunities for their growing population of young people, while simultaneously continuing to insist upon neoliberal, IMF-style policies of structural adjustment. The US clearly wants to buy off the protesters, while preserving the authority of its most favored, most tested political figures, but its wallet is empty. Absent a reversal of policy, and an embrace of Keynesian policies of demand creation globally, the protesters will ultimately discover that their most determined, most implacable enemies are the elites of the US, and their transnational allies.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Egypt Erupts (Part 2) 

UPDATE 3: More on the situation in Suez, from Egyptian Chronicles. Apparently, clashes between the police and the protesters are intensifying, but the army has not been called into city. Instead, people may have mistaken the uniforms of the police for those of the military, as they are reportedly similar outside Cairo. It is well worth reading the Egyptian Chronicles post in its entirety.

UPDATE 2: An excerpt from an excellent interview of International Socialist Review editor Ahmed Shawki and Egyptian American activist Mostafa Omar by Lee Sustar:

WILL THE political demands of the protest merge with the economic demands of workers?

Mostafa: I'm not sure who put the call out for a national strike. But what happened on January 25 in the textile city of Mahalla is telling. A demonstration that started in the morning with 200 people had, by the end of the day, reached 45,000 people. I suspect a lot of workers who have been protesting want to continue demonstrating.

The other remarkable thing is that the Egyptian national trade union federation--led by people appointed by the government--has partially broken with the government in the two weeks following the Tunisian uprising. They want price controls, an increase in wages and a system of subsidized outlets for basic food. People can't find staples like tea and oil. For the union officials to demand this is unheard of, because these people supported neoliberalism. That is the impact of Tunisia.

Meanwhile, the conditions facing workers are growing worse. The official unemployment figure is 12 percent, but the real figure is 24 or 25 percent. Food prices are out of control. One kilo of tomatoes--a staple good--is $2; it used to be 35 cents not long ago. That's prohibitively expensive in a country where government workers make only about $26 a month. The question of hunger is real. And now the IMF is pressuring the government to remove the subsidies on gasoline prices.

That's a big reason why--and people in the West often miss this--there has been an increase in the workers' struggle over the last three years. Every day, there's a strike--and on the day of action, there were 12 major strikes. The government settled them right away by promising everything they wanted.

THE U.S. media focuses always on the supposed threat of "Islamic radicalism" in Egypt as in the rest of the Middle East. Is it a factor in this struggle?

Mostafa: Twice now, the Muslim Brotherhood has abstained from any call for a national strike or a national demonstration. First in 2006, and again this year, it didn't support the day of anger.

They are still the biggest political force in the country, but they refuse to enter into a confrontation with the government. It's really the workers' movement and the radical youth that are the driving force, not the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is still the main opposition party with the most clout, but it isn't behind this at all.

A lot of young people and workers coming into the movement in the last two weeks are open to democratic and socialist ideas. Even a lot of the young supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are open to a different analysis--one that doesn't just see the conflict as Islam vs. the West. On one protest, for example, an obviously religious man carried a sign that said it doesn't matter if you're Muslim or Christian, join the struggle.

That's a big change from January 1, when violent attacks on Christian churches made it seem like the country was on the verge of civil war between Muslims and Christians. Last year saw more attacks on Christian churches than any time in modern Egyptian history. But today, there are many Christians who have joined in common struggle with Muslims against the police and corrupt state, even though church leaders called on them to stay away from the protests.

All this means that there is an opening for the left--especially the socialists--to grow. There is new blood in the movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood isn't fighting. It's the left that is taking up this fight, along with new radicals.

By way of background, it is important to remember that the IS, through people like the late Chris Harman, and, probably, Ahmed Shawki as well, placed a strong emphasis upon establishing an enduring contact with the Egyptian working class. Mostafa Omar's emphasis upon public dissatisfaction with deteriorating economic conditions, and the delegitimization of governmental institutions that accompanies them, is evocative of Greek protests in late 2008 and early 2010, even if the Greek protests possessed an enduring anti-authoritarian character that, to date, has not yet clearly emerged in the current Egyptian ones.

Hat tip to t at Pink Scare

UPDATE 1 (3;27PM Pacific time): Unconfirmed reports that the Egyptian army has replaced the police on the streets of Suez, with all forms of communication shut down by the government. Meanwhile, the streets of Cairo remain unsettled.

INITIAL POST: For those of you who have Facebook accounts (and, please, now is not the time to argue the merit of it), you can go to the We Are All Khalid Said page for updates in addition to the other web sources that I provided yesterday. The most recent posts on the wall (11:42AM, Pacific time) there indicate that the protests remain intense, and that the government has yet to suppress them. For example, there are reports from Suez that the city remains under the control of protesters and that the government is using live ammunition against them. Meanwhile, other reports state that there is street fighting across central Cairo. Some express the hope that the protesters are outlasting the military and the police, who are increasingly fatigued. Of course, Lenin's Tomb, The Arabist and 3arabawy remain good sources of information as well.

And, here's the latest from The Guardian, which also provides a live blog for breaking news:

Running battles between police and anti-government protesters continued in Egypt for a second day, despite the declaration of an official ban by the government on protests and gatherings, and a massive deployment of police in the country's capital.

Riot police and plain clothes officers armed with staves and bars broke up a demonstration outside one of Cairo's biggest tourist hotels, the Ramses Hilton, on the banks of the river Nile.

Tonight groups of demonstrators and police are still playing a violent game of cat and mouse through the city centre's streets – with protesters quickly re-grouping after being broken up.

The sound of police sirens and detonating tear gas canisters could be heard across the city, in the biggest protests against the regime of 82-year-old president Hosni Mubarak in three decades.

Finally, I believe that the protests in Egypt are a good opportunity for us to recognize the false classifications that permeate media coverage of the events there. For example, there is the fact that Tunisia, where the first protests erupted, is considered North African, while Egypt is Middle Eastern, despite their close proximity to one another and their socioeconomic relationships with European countries across the Mediterranean. All three of these vague geographic classifications have stereotypes associated with them, and can lead to absurd results, as As'ad Abukhalil observed today:

Who are those people who cover the Middle East in the New York Times

Look at this sentence: Word of the broad protests in Egypt were slow to circulate here, given that Egyptian television was not reporting them. Tell the writer that every home in the Middle East is able to watch hundreds of channels, including news channels like Aljazeera which covers the entire world. How dumb is this?
Posted by As'ad at 10:30 AM

It is not hard to imagine how reporter John Leland wrote this statement given the internalization of a Eurocentric hierarchy that considers Europeans cultured, North Africans imperfectly so, after all, Tunisia, Morroco and Algeria had the purported benefit of a prolonged French imperial occupation, and Middle Easterners least so. Such a stereotype erases the social, economic and cultural cross-pollination that has occurred not only in recent decades, but over two thousand years of Mediterranean, African and Asian history. Hence, the very plausible possibility that the protests in Tunisia and Egpyt are also related to the ones in Greece is ignored, while we are still subjected to the use of that implicitly pejorative term, with its implications of otherness, emotion and irrationality, the Arab street in relation to this subject.

Apparently, the use of the term is so deeply ingrained that one incessantly encounters it everywhere, even in reports originating in the Arab and Muslim world. It appears to serve the primary purpose of foreclosing any meaningful engagement with what is actually happening in the places under discussion, as well as distancing Americans and Europeans from the aspirations of Arab and Muslim people with which they might otherwise more strongly identify. Of course, the Palestinians have been the most tragic victims in this regard. For those who accept the stereotypes associated with Arabs and Muslims, Israel remains a bastion of European civilization in an otherwise primitive world.

As already noted, there is a different way of relating to what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, one that attempts to take into account the social, cultural and economic richness of their lives, one that fully humanizes them, an approach to which I alluded in my review of Tariq Ali's recently released novel, Night of the Golden Butterfly:

One of the most compelling aspects of the novel is Ali's recognition that the adored Maoism of his youth was rooted in Han Chinese nationalism, and hence, could not ultimately provide a model for revolutionary change in the lesser developed world. Here, we hear an echo of his tragic recollection of China's realpolitik decision to align itself with Pakistan when Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) attempted to secede in 1971. Islamic rightists taunted leftists like Ali as they killed and raped the populace, shouting Chairman Mao is with us, not you! He brings this out through the Jindie, a Pakistani Chinese Muslim woman whose family emigrated to Pakistan in the late 19th Century after the Han suppression of a Muslim rebellion in Yunnan province.

Here, too, as he has done in the earlier novels of the Quintet, Ali touches a upon a theme much highlighted by anthropologists in recent decades, the mutability of ethnic identity. In The Art of Not Being Governed, James Scott describes how the hill peoples of Southeast Asia took on new identities, with changes of religion, social organization and language, seemingly at the drop of a hat in response to perils. While the course of Jindie's life is not this extreme, she is, by the end of the novel, a Pakistani Chinese Muslim who has raised a family in the US. What is she? Pakistani? Chinese? Muslim? American? Of course, the answer is that she is all of them, and more, she is, first and foremost, a woman.

Ali has publicly said that he was motivated to become a novelist by his interest in discovering what do you do in a period of defeat? His brilliance lies in his decision to excavate, contemplate and give fictional representation to this subject within the context of Islam and its relationship with Christianity and the West. But his recognition of the importance of the experiences of people like Jindie also suggests that a resurgent left will someday emerge, centered around an understanding that people have a multiplicity of identities beyond the simplistic ones imposed upon them.

Although we have yet to fully develop such an understanding, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt suggest that we may be closer to doing so that we realize, and, moreover, the more that we adopt this perspective, the more successful we will be.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Egypt Erupts (Part 1) 

UPDATE 4 (9:52PM Pacific time):

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood web site "breaking news": "Protest organisers announce general strike Wednesday and Thursday" #Jan25 #Mubarak
about 3 hours ago via web
Retweeted by 21 people

C. Anzalone

Via The Arabist

UPDATE 3: It's Raining (US Made) Tear Gas

UPDATE 2: One of the most amazing aspects of the protests is, according to Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist, the fact that they were not supported by any established opposition parties, groups or political figures.

UPDATE 1 (4:44PM Pacific time): 4 Recent Tweets within the last couple of hours, starting with the most recent, courtesy of The Arabist:

Riot police behind our building in Maspiro guarding #Egypt TV building. Officer tells men: if they attack, kill them

Now in Tahrir situation is out of control. Prevented 2 angry guys from throwing a huge metal on police cars from top of the bridge!

the relative restraint shown by police earlier in the day is well and truly over. vigorously putting down protests in central cairo.

Gas being fired on corniche under 6 October bridge, chaos in central cairo. can hear ambulances, chanting from behind egyptian museum

Visit The Arabist and, as already noted, 3arabawy for more current information.

INITIAL POST: Another US puppet, dangling at the end of a string:

Here's a summary of the events so far today.

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have clashed with police in Cairo in the largest demonstration in Egypt in a generation. Demonstrators want an end to the authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak's near 30 years of power.

Police have responded with batons, water cannons and tear gas in a bid to quell the crowd. The demonstration, said to be inspired by the uprising in Tunisia, began peacefully before clashes occurred.

As night falls in Egypt protests have also broken out in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. Roads are also being blocked by demonstrators in the Sinai Peninsula, and large rallies are being reported across the Nile Delta and the Suez Canal region.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said Mubarak's government is stable despite the demonstrations. Mubarak is an important US partner in the Middle East.

5.57pm: My colleague Jack Shenker in Cairo sends this:

Central Cairo was the scene of violent clashes tonight, as the biggest anti-government demonstrations in a generation swept across Egypt, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets.

Shouting down with the regime and Mubarak, your plane is waiting, protesters demanded the end of President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship and said they were fighting back against decades of poverty, oppression and police torture. The protests had been declared illegal by the authorities and were met with a fierce police response, as tear gas and water cannon were fired into the crowd and rocks were hurled into the air by both demonstrators and security forces.

We have never seen anything like this before – it is the first day of the Egyptian revolution, said Karim Rizk, one of those who joined multiple rallies in the capital. Apparently taken by surprise at the size of protests, police initially stood back and allowed demonstrators to occupy public squares and march through the streets, an unprecedented move in a country where political gatherings are strictly outlawed and demonstrations are normally quickly shut down by security forces. We have taken back our streets today from the regime and they won't recover from the blow, claimed Rizk.

Today's protests were called by a coalition of online activists, who had declared 25 January a day of revolt against the ruling elite and encouraged Egyptians to follow in the footsteps of Tunisia, where mass demonstrations forced President Ben Ali to flee earlier this month. As evening fell thousands of protesters from separate demonstrations converged on Tahrir Square, Cairo's central plaza, and begun an occupation that continued into the night. Demonstrators waved Egyptian and Tunisian flags, hauled down a billboard for the ruling NDP party and chanted depart Mubarak at the 82-year-old leader, who will face presidential elections later this year.

For updates, go to Lenin's Tomb, which has more information, and several links, as well as The Guardian and 3arabawy. Meanwhile, the US tries to stage manage the Tunisia revolution behind the scenes.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Brief Note About Keith Olbermann 

On Friday night, Keith Olbermann announced during his MSNBC program, Countdown, that it was his last show. There is much speculation that his departure is related to the approval of the merger of NBC and Comcast, as Olbermann was a highly visible public critic of media consolidation. If the Internet reports that I have seen are accurate, he has also frequently engaged in rather strident criticisms of prominent political figures, which, although often legitimate, tend to trouble employers who rely upon these same people to facilitate regulatory approvals.

Although I didn't watch his show very much, and found his Witchfinder General routine with Sarah Palin tiresome, I've always had a fond spot for Olbermann. Back when I used to watch a lot of professional sports on cable back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I enjoyed Olbermann's cool, ironic demeanor on ESPN. Curiously enough, he was low-key when other announcers were hyperbolic and he consciously punctured the machismo stereotypes associated with professional athletes. On a cable network centered around inflating the social significance of professional sporting events to the point of entertainment absurdity, Olbermann went against the grain, implicitly reminding us that, in the end, it's just a game, and, often, a ridiculous one.

So, I wasn't that surprised when ESPN and Olbermann parted company, although his departure was allegedly prompted more by his substance abuse problems and prima donna antics away from the camera. He was an incongruous presence among a stable of predominately male announcers who generally came across as people channeling their failed childhood desires to become professional athletes themselves into sports broadcasting. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Olbermann had resurfaced on MSNBC, infusing American politics with the same exaggerated hysteria that he had so deliberately rejected while working at ESPN.

His supporters called him an heir to the journalistic tradition of Edward R. Murrow, mistaking style for substance, and, even there, Murrow never launched the sort of strident condemnations for which Olbermann became both notorious and wealthy (it is rumored that he will receive the remaining 30 million dollars on his two year contract with MSNBC). In that, they have done Morrow and Olbermann a disservice. For Olbermann, it appears that he lost any sense of restraint as evidenced in his recent commentaries about Palin and, just before he was taken off the air, the upcoming retirement of Joseph Lieberman. Calling one of the most powerful political figures in the US a delusional liar, one known for using his personal influence to punish his perceived enemies, is not a good career move if you want to remain in the the rarified air of high visibility and lucrative compensation.

But, as someone engaging in a rare instance of media criticism from the left, I have a simpler problem with Olbermann, one that has not elicited much comment. His evaluation of Lieberman was misguided, and, as with Palin, obscured the reality of social conflict in the US. Yet again, Olbermann provided us with another characterization of Lieberman as a political rogue, a mercenary who has cynically manipulated the political system to achieve his grotesque goals. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I have explained on several occasions, such as, for example, here and here. Lieberman is no sociopathic rogue, but, rather, a person who has, with the assistance of others, reshaped the Democratic Party in his own image.

Hence, Lieberman can now safely retire, having achieved his life's ambition. US foreign policy remains rabidly pro-Zionist, and continues to pursue policies of regime change (in Iran, Honduras, and Venezuela), with recourse to military force if necessary (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, possibly, in the near future Iran). It recognizes no legal or national constraints upon its actions, reserving the right to seize, incarcerate and attack people in response to any real or manufactured threat. Domestically, the US has adopted economic policies designed to concentrate consumption in the top 20% of the population, while the remainder of the populace is subjected to more and more insecurity through the evisceration of social welfare spending and job benefits. All of these policies have been implemented by a Democratic President, and, until January 2011, through a Democratic Congress. Going forward, they will be perpetuated through bipartisanship masked by stage managed confrontation between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Instead of addressing this, Olbermann took the easier path: characterizing the problems faced by the US as a consequence of our inability to confront the deranged personalities that we have elevated into positions of authority and influence. Such an approach made for good ratings, and, by extension, good compensation for Olbermann, but failed to engage the pernicious truth about the American socioeconomic system. Perhaps, Olbermann recognized the limitations of working within the mainstream media, and tried to induce us to think in this way as best he could by implication, and if so, I respect the effort. His sort of urbane populism may have been the limit of what can be expressed through the commercial media. Maybe, this will be liberating for Olbermann, but only if he finds a way to take NBC/Comcast's money and discover a new voice for himself outside the commercial mainstream.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Banning Books in Italy 

Just before leaving office as President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva issued a decision refusing to extradite Italian fiction writer Cesare Battisti to Italy for four killings that he was found guilty of committing in absentia as a participant in the violent leftist group Armed Proletarians for Communism in the 1970s. Battisti fled Italy and France for Brazil while protesting his innocence, as he does to this day. For those of you interested in one left perspective about the legal procedures used to convict Battisti, consider this recent World Socialist Web Site article. While the author's tone is someone strident, even by WSWS standards, Marc Hall does make the essential point that Battisti was convicted in the 1980s under special measures used to combat domestic violence, measures that were rightly maligned at the time as a perversion of the judicial process to serve the purpose of political repression.

Not surprisingly, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi continues to make Battisti's extradition a priority when he isn't paying to have sex with the nubile young stars of the reality TV shows of his television network. According to Wu Ming, his supporters have now proceeded to seek to have the books of other authors who have supported Battisti in his efforts to avoid extradition banned:

The Assessor for Culture of the province of Venice, a guy called Speranzon – a former activist of the MSI [the old neo-fascist party, active from 1946 to 1994] and now a member of Berlusconi’s party – approved a proposal from a party colleague and will order Venetian libraries to:

1) Remove from shelves all the books written by any author who signed a 2004 petition asking for Cesare Battisti’s release from jail;

2) Abstain from organizing events featuring such writers (they must be declared undesirable persons, he says).

Any librarian who will not accept this diktat will be held responsible of his behavior. Is this a hint about fund freezing, withdrawal of patronage, mobbing, hostile media campaigning? The proposal was lauded by the COISP, a policemen union. The poor librarian will think twice, before opposing local authorities and the police. A clique of honest democratic citizens is already trying to extend the thing to the whole Veneto, and the initiative is likely to be emulated beyond regional borders.

Many of us are in the proscription list: we, Valerio Evangelisti, Massimo Carlotto, Tiziano Scarpa, Nanni Balestrini, Daniel Pennac, Giuseppe Genna, Giorgio Agamben, Girolamo De Michele, Vauro, Lello Voce, Pino Cacucci, Christian Raimo, Sandrone Dazieri, Loredana Lipperini, Marco Philopat, Gianfranco Manfredi, Laura Grimaldi, Antonio Moresco, Carla Benedetti, Stefano Tassinari and many others. They would almost have to leave the shelves empty.

And maybe, this is their dream.

Quadruppani is right: we can’t react with a shrug, say that it’s only taunting, suggest indifference as a mean to avoid publicity for certain people. Sometimes that is the right thing to do, but not always.

Of course, this is also taunting , but it’s mostly something else:

1) It’s a threat against an entire category of workers (librarians). They should accept an authoritarian and unconstitutional ultimatum, or else pay dearly.

2) It’s an act aimed at isolating and censoring writers and artists as moral accomplices to terrorism. An act by an administrator, a person of authority, who appeals to the gut feelings of the ordinary folks by waving a scarecrow that diverts their attention from other problems. An act that wants to intimidate and keep in line those who produce public discourse.

As our colleague Tiziano Scarpa put it: This puts in peril the citizenship of a writer, which lies in its language and its works.

We should all react against this rubbish, not just the writers that are directly involved or the librarians that are directly threatened.
- Citizens, readers, library goers should make themselves heard.
- Administrators, political organizations and associations in the Venice areashould make themselves heard.
- Whoever works in the media, or has a blog or you-name-it, should write about this.
- The National Association of Librarians should say something.
- Public administration unions should say something.
- Publishers should take action and file a lawsuit against an initiative that damages them economically and morally.
Protest mails to newspapers should be sent, fliers and open letters should be affixed to the bulletin boards of libraries and reading rooms.
- Articles should be shared and linked, like this one (we will post constant updates at the bottom [of the Italian original version, T.N.]) or any other text or video that informs about this guy, his liberticidal intentions and about possible initiatives by his imitators and cronies.

Updates in the comments to the original post indicate that the situation has worsened:

Wu Ming
January 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm
P.S. Librarians from the Veneto region are reporting unofficial pressure to remove certain books from their libraries’ shelves. Eg Roberto Saviano’s books.

Wu Ming
January 18, 2011 at 7:53 pm
They’re still trying, by other means, and the attempt is now at regional level, it involves the whole Veneto region instead of the Province of Venice. The vice-governor of Veneto Marino Zorzato (a member of PDL, Berlusconi’s party), who is also the Regional Assessor for Human Resources, Sports and Culture, stated to the local press:

As ours is a liberal party [!], it is difficult for us to conceive censorship. Instead, we could find a way to inform the library user, to make clear who is the author of any book and what position he took in the Battisti affair.

Wu Ming
January 19, 2011 at 11:33 am
The situation has gotten much worse. The Assessor for Education of the Veneto Region, Donazzan (of the Northern League) announced that she will write to all the principals, asking them to remove from school libraries the books written by the authors who signed the 2004 petition for Cesare Battisti.

And, finally, there is this, most recent update:

Wu Ming
January 19, 2011 at 11:28 pm
by Loredana Lipperini (original text here, translated by V)

Let’s call her Em.

I have erased and replaced her name also in previous comments by her and by other readers. Em works in a public library of the Province of Treviso, I will not tell in which town. I want to protect her identity, and also to thank her for her courage.

Em has told here, and then privately, a story regarding libraries, once again. The day after the Speranzon Case (on which you can find an important article by Massimo Carlotto on Carmilla, by the way), a breach is opening: many librarians are contacting me and Michela Murgia, in order to denounce explicit or underlying forms of censorship.

Some episodes are already well-known: for instance when, in October 2009, the mayor of Musile di Piave asked the library of his town get rid of politically-oriented newspapers, namely La repubblica and Il manifesto [leftist newspapers-RE].

Here you can read the official reply from AIB (TN the National Association of Librarians), which has also taken an official stance on the Speranzon case. Another episode of censorship dates to May 2009, when a library in Genoa was requested to block the public initiative Due regine due re [Two queens two kings].

Back to Em, now. We are in the immediate aftermath of the broadcasting of Vieni Via Con Me [TN a popular TV show on the national channel RAI 3, featuring Roberto Saviano]. One of the library supervisors, vaguely embarrassed, tells his librarians about the criticisms he received from the Mayor (a member of the Northern League). More or less in the same days, the local Councillor for Culture has also expressed his concern: he has noted that one of the librarians is cataloguing works by Marco Paolini [TN a popular left-wing actor in Italy] and, as Em refers, he has explicitly asked to be informed in advance of our new acquisitions, in order to give us his indisputable and binding advice. The supervisor suggests opting for a soft line: to remove the books from shelf, just until the dust settles.

Em then asks for a written order, which will never come. Christmas comes, a New Year begins. Now, Saviano’s books are formally registered in the library catalogue: yet they are materially missing from shelf. Nobody answers those who ask why.

Em says: I decided to write because I had to share my sadness with someone. I really thank her for this, and I invite more librarians to write, and tell us more stories. When the stories proliferate, and when they become a collective heritage, they also gain strength.

An update from Il Corriere Veneto: The Regional Councillor for Education, Donazzan, declares that she will write a letter (with the formal support of Governor Zaia) to all the Headmasters of the Region of Veneto (and through them, to all teachers), asking not to let the works of the blacklisted authors circulate among the youth. To those who denounce her act as a censorship, she replies that hers is not an imposition, but a political address.

Beyond posting this blog entry, as requested by Wu Ming, what to do? Besides what they have suggested, which, in many instances, are specific to Italy, perhaps we should contact the Italian Embassy in the US, or, alternatively, Italian consulates here, and express our solidary with those resisting the censorship currently transpiring in the province of Venice. Perhaps, the second, consular link is more useful for this purpose, as it readily provides e-mail addresses to facilitate communication with consular officials. Of course, any other suggestions would be welcome.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tunisia (Part 2) 

Esam Al-Amin summarizes the events that brought down the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia:

On December 17, Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed graduate in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire in an attempt to commit suicide. Earlier in the day, police officers took away his stand and confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling because he lacked a permit. When he tried to complain to government officials that he was unemployed and that this was his only means of survival, he was mocked, insulted and beaten by the police. He died 19 days later in the midst of the uprising.

Bouazizi's act of desperation set off the public's boiling frustration over living standards, corruption and lack of political freedom and human rights. For the next four weeks, his self-immolation sparked demonstrations in which protesters burned tires and chanted slogans demanding jobs and freedom. Protests soon spread all over the country including its capital, Tunis.

The first reaction by the regime was to clamp down and use brutal force including beatings, tear gas, and live ammunition. The more ruthless tactics the security forces employed, the more people got angry and took to the streets. On Dec. 28 the president gave his first speech claiming that the protests were organized by a minority of extremists and terrorists and that the law would be applied in all firmness to punish protesters.

However, by the start of the New Year tens of thousands of people, joined by labor unions, students, lawyers, professional syndicates, and other opposition groups, were demonstrating in over a dozen cities. By the end of the week, labor unions called for commercial strikes across the country, while 8,000 lawyers went on strike, bringing the entire judiciary system to an immediate halt.

Meanwhile, the regime started cracking down on bloggers, journalists, artists and political activists. It restricted all means of dissent, including social media. But following nearly 80 deaths by the security forces, the regime started to back down.

On Jan. 13, Ben Ali gave his third televised address, dismissing his interior minister and announcing unprecedented concessions while vowing not to seek re-election in 2014. He also pledged to introduce more freedoms into society, and to investigate the killings of protesters during the demonstrations. When this move only emboldened the protestors, he then addressed his people in desperation, promising fresh legislative elections within six months in an attempt to quell mass dissent.

When this ploy also did not work, he imposed a state of emergency, dismissing the entire cabinet and promising to deploy the army on a shoot to kill order. However, as the head of the army Gen. Rachid Ben Ammar refused to order his troops to kill the demonstrators in the streets, Ben Ali found no alternative but to flee the country and the rage of his people.

On Jan. 14 his entourage flew in four choppers to the Mediterranean island of Malta. When Malta refused to accept them, he boarded a plane heading to France. While in mid air he was told by the French that he would be denied entry. The plane then turned back to the gulf region until he was finally admitted and welcomed by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime has a long history of accepting despots including Idi Amin of Uganda and Parvez Musharraf of Pakistan.

Al-Amin also exhaustively documents the complicity of the US and European governments, so it is worth reading his article in its entirety. The French were so supportive of Ben Ali that the foreign minister of the Sarkozy government, Michele Alliot-Marie, offered the assistance of French security forces to put down the rebellion. Meanwhile, President Obama avoided any substantive comment on the situation until the outcome was decided. Or, as As'ad Abukhalil ascerbically said:

The funny announcement by Obama yesterday has clear conclusions: the US administration is thus officially in support of its dictators around the world until the time when they are overthrown. So Obama continued to support the Tunisian dictator until the time when he left the country.

Apparently, the US wasn't that concerned with the fact that the Ben Ali regime had killed between 150 to 200 people since the uprising began on December 17th. Perhaps, it was because the US considered the Ben Ali regime an important ally in the war on terror:

The Tunisian Government is an important ally for the U.S. in its resource-driven colonial wars with Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. A United Nations report on secret detention practices lists Tunisia as having secret detention facilities where prisoners are held without International Red Cross access. Intelligence services in Tunisia cooperated with the U.S. efforts in the War on Terror and have participated in interrogating prisoners at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan and in Tunisia.

And, then, there is the disappointment that the US may lose the ability to continue to persuade future Tunisian governments to impose policies of austerity as Ben Ali did:

. . . Tunisia -- more than almost any country in the region -- has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting structural adjustment programs in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of free trade. These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country's top ruling families. This has been privately acknowledged by the U.S. embassy in a recently-released wikileaks cable, which labeled the U.S.-backed regime as a kleptocracy. The U.S. has also been backing IMF efforts to get the Tunisian government to eliminate the remaining subsidies on fuel and basic food stuffs and fuel and further deregulate its financial sector.

Predictably, the meticulous lenin provides us with the factual and analytical details of this embrace of neoliberalism by Ben Ali:

Globally, the dictatorship aligned itself with neoliberal institutions, acceding to GATT, then joining the WTO. Throughout the 2000s, it forged a closer relationship with the EU, under an agreement removing all tariffs and restrictions on goods between the two. France and Italy have been its main export and import partners in this period. Given his zeal in prosecuting the war against terrorism throughout the 1990s, which mission he took to the UN and the EU, Ben Ali was an obvious candidate to be a regional ally in the Bush administration's programme for reconfiguring the Middle East in America's (further) interests in the context of the war on terror. Ben Ali thus joined Team America, alongside other lifelong democrats such as Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah.

The results of Ben Ali's authoritarian neoliberalism for capital were impressive in their way: GDP on a par with the European periphery, low public-sector deficit, controlled inflation and renewed credit-worthiness. The financial sector was reformed and initially experienced a mini-boom. Significant sections of the public sector were turned over for profitable investment. A total of 160 state owned enterprises have been privatised. The stock market capitalisation of the 50 largest companies listed on the Bourse de Tunis was worth $5.7bn by 2007. Ben Ali's famously, corruptly wealthy family also made a mint from the boom. He himself became a darling of the EU and the US, conferring global prestige on his regime. The cost of all this to the working class, though concealed in some of the official figures, was just as significant. High unemployment, growing inequality, the removal of subsidies for the poor, rising housing costs and weaker welfare protections are among the added burdens of the Tunisian working class in the neoliberal era.

This does not mean that the average working class person has experienced an absolute decline in income throughout this period. In fact, the development of the cities has meant more people moving from the poorer rural areas to cities and towns where absolute poverty is less common. What it means is that wage growth has been suppressed by the government, and made conditional upon productivity rises. In the private sector, liberalisation means that the discipline of the market has been used to extract higher productivity from the workforce. The total effect is that more of the wealth that has been generated has gone into the pockets of the very rich. In simple terms, it means that the rate of exploitation has been increased. For as long as the political opposition was effectively suppressed, and for as long as the trade union movement was effectively subjugated, the old order could continue. But that in turn depended on the regime's ability to boast that it was creating a wealthier economy that would eventually benefit everyone. That is, the viability of the regime rested on the viability of neoliberal institutions, both domestically and globally - and that is exactly what has taken a knock.

lenin's exposition is enlightening because of his recognition that the so-called war on terror and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies are interrelated aspects of the same social process. It is difficult for one to exist in the absence of the other, as the invasion and occupation of Iraq demonstrated. Without the invasion, there would have been no subsequent attempt to incorporate the Iraqi economy into the neoliberal order. Meanwhile, elite support for the invasion was dependent upon this opportunity to privatize a heavily socialized economy.

Hence, the Ben Ali regime comes across as one that recalls Pinochet's Chile, one that actively participated in the repression of people considered enemies of the US, while serving as an economic laboratory for policies that the US would like to see imposed globally. Much as Pinochet proselytized against the leftist peril that he reduced to communism, prefiguring the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, Ben Ali was an anti-terrorism missionary, preaching his gospel prior to the creation of the Project for a New American Century and 9/11.

Indeed, the parallels between Operation Condor, a sort of Phoenix Program brought to the southern cone of South America by Pinochet and his regional allies in the 1970s, and the current war on terror are striking:

Operation Condor (Spanish: Operación Cóndor, also known as Plan Cóndor, Portuguese: Operação Condor), was a campaign of political repression involving assassination and intelligence operations officially implemented in 1975 by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America. The program aimed to eradicate alleged socialist and communist influence and ideas and to control active or potential opposition movements against the participating governments. Due to its clandestine nature, the precise number of deaths directly attributable to Operation Condor is highly disputed. It is estimated that a minimum of 60,000 deaths can be attributed to Condor, possibly more. Condor's key members were the governments in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. The United States participated in a supervisory capacity, with Ecuador and Peru joining later in more peripheral roles.

So, like a mistress attending the funeral of her married lover, US officials present a public appearance of stoicism while privately shedding tears of sorrow for the passing of the Ben Ali regime. We can only hope that the rebellion succeeds in eradicating whatever the residual power of his supporters so that the archives of the military and interior ministry can be opened to scrutiny in order to discover what horrors US and Tunisia intelligence perpetrated. Given the military's astute decision to act against Ben Ali's supporters in the security forces, as described by Al-Amin, it remains doubtful that this will happen.

FOOTNOTE: lenin has also written several other excellent posts about the Tunisian situation, which can be found here and here and here. In the last one, he ponders the peril that the revolution may pose for other US allies in the region:

But if, as seems increasingly possible, the revolt spreads and takes down some other pro-American regimes in Egypt, Jordan or Algeria, then Obama has problems. One can well imagine him, despite his ongoing commitment to aggression in Afghanistan and Pakistan, going down as a Carter-style weakling if a few US embassies in the region start to look vulnerable. Which is why I would expect some sort of panicked intervention by the US and its local proxies to be going on even as you read.

If only someone in one these embassies would get in contact with wikileaks. Just imagine the valuable service that it could provide by releasing sensitive diplomatic cables related to US actions in Tunisia in close to real time.

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