All Things Considered (Again)

January 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).


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Tariq Ali on the Arab Revolutions

November 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over at Not George Sabra, Malik Little criticises Tariq Ali’s orientalist take on the Arab revolutions.

“What is a revolution?” asks Marxist Tariq Ali in a recent article. He answers, “a transfer of power from one social class (or even a layer) to another that leads to fundamental change.”

Ali never gets around to defining what exactly constitutes “fundamental change,” but he knows for sure that whatever “fundamental change” is, there has been none of it in the Arab world since 2011.

Does the end of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia and the destruction of its secret police count as “fundamental change? For Ali, no. After decades of a life of comfort and privilege in West, it seems Ali has forgotten what it is like to live under the thumb of a police state and murderous military rule. He has forgotten what a “fundamental change it is to be ruled by elected institutions and politicians rather than tyrants and generalissimos.

Since Ben Ali was ousted, there have been two general strikes called by the main union federation.

For Ali, this is no big deal. How do we know? He never mentions Tunisia or its people even once in his half-assed self-serving overview of the Arab Spring’s non-revolutionaryness, a double oversight since Tunisia is why the Arab Spring happened in the first place.

Instead, Ali goes on to ‘analyze’ events in Egypt where the counter-revolution has triumphed. He uses this triumph to deny that a revolution ever happened. Woe to V.I. Lenin who continued to write about the Russian revolution of 1905 even after it was smashed by the Tsar and Karl Marx who continually referred to the lessons he learned in the abortive German revolution of 1848-1849 for failing to match the insightful wisdom of Tariq Ali, a man who knows a revolution is only a revolution when it succeeds!

The next stop on Ali’s “nothing to see here” tour is Libya:

“In Libya, the old state was destroyed by NATO after a six-month bombing spree and armed tribal gangs of one sort or another still roam the country, demanding their share of the loot. Hardly a revolution according to any criteria.”

No mention of course of the General National Congress election of 2012 that went off without a hitch to the immense jubilation of the long-suffering Libyan people. Mentioning inconvenient facts like this might make Westerners sympathetic to the their difficult struggle to build institutions out of the ashes of 42 years of one-man rule by a deranged tyrant. No discussion of what class rules Libya today is necessary. Better to talk up “armed tribal gangs” in true Orientalist fashion. Who better than a brown man to play on the fears peddled by the white man to convince Westerners that there’s no revolution in Libya for them to solidarize with? Ali knows that if there’s anything Westerners love to hate, it’s Muslims.

In tribes.

With guns.

Throwing up gang signs.

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Sisi’s Neo-Fascism

October 25, 2013 § 6 Comments

SisiAs the Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous wrote, “What we see now is not the end of history.” The processes playing out in the Arab world today will take decades to reach their conclusions, so extreme pessimism is as unwise as wild optimism. Nevertheless, at this stage it seems that the most comprehensively defeated of the Arab revolutions is not Syria nor Libya but Egypt, where genuine popular frustration with Muslim Brotherhood incompetence was so cleverly exploited by the military and its business class and Saudi backers (very many supposed ‘secular’, ‘liberal’ and ‘leftist’ Egyptians fell headlong into the trap). The coup solidified a junta in power which has destroyed democracy and the chances of democracy for the foreseeable future, slaughtered and imprisoned supporters of the country’s first elected president, appointed Mubarak-era army officials to governorships of the provinces, revalorised the security services, intensified the siege of Gaza, unleashed a savagely xenophobic campaign scapegoating Palestinians and Syrian refugees, and promoted a cult of personality around the figure of General Sisi. The panegyric below comes from the pen of someone called Lubna Abdel Aziz, and was published in the state-owned Al-Ahram Weekly. It could have come from a German newspaper of the late 1930s.

He stands straight and tall, impeccably attired and starched from head to toe. His freshly washed countenance and youthful zeal shield a Herculean strength and nerves of steel. He wears the feathers of a dove but has the piercing eyes of a hawk. During our thousand days of darkness, dozens of potential leaders pranced and boasted, to no avail. The leader of the people should combine a love of country, a deep faith in God and the desire to serve the nation’s will.

Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendez-vous with destiny. He was a hero like no other! He aroused attention without exhausting it. Nothing that touched the common run of mortals made any impression on him. All in all, he is but a common man, with an almost aristocratic aura of a nobleman. Composed and cool, Al-Sisi is everyman’s man, with a sort of serene majesty on his brow. He is the chosen leader of the people because he is willing to be their servant.

Let the deaf, dumb and blind media and governments of the West say what they will, Al-Sisi submitted to the will of 33 million Egyptians in the street and 50 million in their homes, crying for salvation. The people led — Al-Sisi followed.

What the West cannot comprehend is the warm affinity between people and army in Egypt, which has endured for centuries. Gamal Abdel-Nasser is a recent example, even when he ruled with the firm grip of a military dictator.

Whatever else is going on in the rest of this vast universe, this much is certain — Al-Sisi has captured the imagination of all Egyptians, if not all the world.

He popped out of nowhere — almost — and his secret ingredient was hope. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “a leader deals with hope”, and the brand of hope that Al-Sisi deals, breathed new life into our withering, perishing dreams.

Are heroes born, made or chosen? Perhaps, all of the above. William Shakespeare believed, “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Our hero may be the latter, for he sought nothing, yet emerged unexpectedly, admired and beloved, and in full army regalia, smoothly assumed the role he was born for.

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Gilbert Achcar on the Syrian Revolution

October 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

In this interview published at Socialist Resistance, the clear-sighted leftist Gilbert Achcar explains the importance of standing in solidarity with Syria’s popular revolution and the need to resist the propaganda of Western, Russian, and Gulf counter-revolutionary forces. Achcar is interviewed by Terry Conway.

TC: Could you assess the present state of the Arab uprising in general before we focus more specifically on Syria?

GA: What is happening now is a confirmation of what could be said from the start; the fact that what began in December 2010 in Tunisia, was not a ‘Spring’ as the media called it, a brief period of political change during which one despot or another is overthrown, opening the way for a nice parliamentary democracy, and that’s it. The uprisings were portrayed as a ‘Facebook revolution’, another one of these ‘colour revolutions’.  I, for one, insisted from the beginning that this was a misrepresentation of reality. What started unfolding in 2011 was a long-term revolutionary process, which would develop over many, many years if not decades, especially if we take into account its geographic extension.

From that perspective, what we have had so far is just the opening phase of the process. In some countries they have managed to go beyond the initial stage of overthrowing existing governments; this was the case in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – the three countries where the regimes were overthrown by the uprising. And you can see that these countries are still in a state of turmoil, instability, which is usual in revolutionary periods.

Those eager to believe that the Arab uprising has ended or was stillborn focused on the initial victory of Islamic forces in elections in Tunisia and Egypt. Against such doomsayers, I stressed the fact that this was actually unavoidable since elections held shortly after the overthrow of the despotic regime could only reflect the balance of organised forces that existed in these countries. I argued that the Islamic fundamentalists’ period in power would not last long, if we consider the real roots of the revolutionary process.

This long-term revolutionary process is rooted in the social reality of the region, characterised by many decades of stalled development – a higher rate of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, than in any other region in the world over several decades.  These were the real basic causes of the explosion, and as long as these causes are not addressed, the process will continue. Any new government which has no solutions to these root problems will fail. It was predictable that the Muslim Brotherhood would fail: in my book The People Want, which was of course written before Morsi’s overthrow in Egypt, I argued that the Muslim Brotherhood would fail inevitably. I wrote the same about Ennahda in Tunisia, which is now faced with a very strong protest movement that puts the future of the government in question.

So there is an ongoing process throughout the region, which, like any revolutionary process in history, has ups and downs, periods of advances and periods of setbacks – and sometimes ambiguous periods. The most ambiguous event in the whole process until now has been the recent experience in Egypt where we saw this huge mass mobilisation against Morsi on 30 June, which was a very advanced experience in democracy by a mass movement asking for the recall of an elected president who had betrayed the promises he made to the people. But at the same time, and here lies the ambiguity of course, you had the military coup and widespread illusions that the army could play a progressive role, including amongst dominant sections of the broad left as well as amongst liberals.

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Ten Months of the Muslim Brotherhood

April 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

Sarah Eltantawi sums up a disappointing ten months in Egypt. This was published at Fair Observer.

As I write this, a Coptic cathedral in Cairo’s Qalioubiyya has been attacked by masked gunmen during a funeral for victims of an earlier sectarian clash. If you had told me one year ago that I would be writing such a sentence about Egypt, I would probably not have believed you. It is not that there hasn’t been a long and worsening problem with sectarian attacks in Egypt – we only need to remember the horrific attack on the church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, 2010-2011, which foreshadowed the revolution to put this serious problem in perspective. But masked gunmen firing automatic rifles during a funeral? These were the problems, for example, of post-invasion Iraq, or a Pakistan which has been bedeviled for years now by a steadily failing state.

The Egyptian Government’s Performance

The unelected public prosecutor’s recent issuance of an arrest warrant for the country’s most famous satirist, Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt’s “Jon Stewart” (of the popular American television show “The Daily Show”) for allegedly insulting Mohammed Morsi and insulting Islam is another recent ominous event, not least because there appeared to be little attempt to distinguish the two offenses. What has happened to bring Egypt to this point, just under ten months after the Muslim Brotherhood took power?

Before commencing a short review of the Muslim Brotherhood’s performance thus far, a word on the analytic frame employed to analyze the government’s performance. In what follows, I will list a number of important issues facing Egypt, and give a short synopsis of the progress that has been made or the lack thereof. There are observers of Egypt who would not find such an exercise useful in the first place. Their contention is that it is unrealistic to expect a transitional government to have accomplished much, especially under worsening economic conditions and in the context of a polarized country with a recalcitrant and unfocused opposition.

This is how I felt for the first six months. And while it remains utterly unrealistic to expect the government to have solved the massive problems facing Egypt, it is certainly fair enough to note what the government has been focusing on, what the government has been neglecting, and certain patterns of their actions.

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Upheaval in Souls, Bodies, Imaginations

February 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

Christopher Lydon of the wonderful Radio Open Source interview joins the great Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury for a stimulating discussion on art, politics and literature.


CAIRO — Elias Khoury is the sort of novelist we rely on to tell us what is going on. Himself of Lebanese and Christian antecedents, he wrote Gate of the Sun (1998), a stylized and much-admired fictional account of the Palestinian naqbah or “catastrophe” from 1948 to the infamous Sabra and Shatillah massacres in Lebanon in 1982. Writing, he remarks, is his means of discovering his ignorance and overcoming it.

Archaeology of Revolutionary Knowledge

February 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

My review of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire which first appeared in Guernica.

As tsar Alexander III sat down for an evening’s entertainment at the St. Petersburg opera house in late 1887, he little knew that the performance would soon be upstaged by one much more dramatic. Shortly after the curtains rose, a slender, goateed man with azure eyes, dressed in robe and turban, got up from a box nearby and proclaimed loudly: “I intend to say the evening prayer—Allah-u-Akbar!” The audience sat bemused and soldiers waited impatiently as the man proceeded, unperturbed, with his evening prayers. His sole companion, the Russian-born intellectual Abdurreshid Ibrahim, squirmed in fear of his life.

Jamal ud-Din al-Afghani was determined to recruit Russian support in his campaign against the British. Having failed to secure an audience with the tsar, he had decided to use his daring as a calling card. The tsar’s curiosity was finally piqued and Afghani had his hearing.

This could be a scene out of Tolstoy or Lermontov; but so extraordinary a figure was Afghani (1838-97) that inserting him into fiction would have compromised verisimilitude. So, renowned essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra has opted for the genres of historical essay and intellectual biography to profile the lives of Afghani and other equally remarkable figures in From the Ruins of Empire: The intellectuals who remade Asia.

The book is a refreshing break from lachrymose histories of the East’s victimhood and laments about its past glories. It concerns a group of intellectuals who responded to the threat of western dominance with vigour and imagination. Together they engendered the intellectual currents that have shaped the last century of the region’s history. « Read the rest of this entry »

Iran Shoots Itself in the Foot

January 17, 2013 § 6 Comments

iransyriahizbThis was written for the excellent Lobelog.

In August 2012 Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran. His presence at the conference was something of a diplomatic victory for the Iranian leadership, whose relations with Egypt, the pivotal Arab state, had been at the lowest of ebbs since the 1979 revolution.

Egypt’s President Sadat laid on a state funeral for the exiled Iranian shah. A Tehran street was later named after Khalid Islambouli, one of Sadat’s assassins. Like every Arab country except Syria, Egypt backed Iraq against Iran in the First Gulf War. Later, Hosni Mubarak opposed Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, worked with the US and Saudi Arabia against Iran’s nuclear program, and was one of the Arab dictators (alongside the Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to warn darkly of a rising “Shi’ite cresent”. Not surprisingly, Iran was so overjoyed by the 2011 revolution in Egypt that it portrayed it as a replay of its own Islamic Revolution.

Iran also rhetorically supported the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, the uprising in Yemen, and, most fervently, the uprising in Shia-majority Bahrain.

In Syria, however, Iran supported the Assad tyranny against a popular revolution even as Assad escalated repression from gunfire and torture to aerial bombardment and missile strikes. Iran provided Assad with a propaganda smokescreen, injections of money to keep regime militias afloat, arms and ammunition, military training, and tactical advice, particularly on neutralising cyber opponents. Many Syrians believe Iranian officers are also fighting on the ground.

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Why Israel Didn’t Win

November 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Adam Shatz has a superb piece in the LRB, the best analysis of the changing regional dynamic I’ve read so far. Two passages in particular stand out:

That Netanyahu stopped short of a ground war, and gave in to key demands at the Cairo talks, is an indication not only of Egypt’s growing stature, but of Israel’s weakened position. Its relations  with Turkey, once its closest ally in the region and the pillar of its ‘doctrine of the periphery’ (a strategy based on alliances with non-Arab states) have deteriorated with the rise of Erdogan and the AKP. The Jordanian monarchy, the second Arab government to sign a peace treaty with Israel, is facing increasingly radical protests. And though Israel may welcome the fall of Assad, an ally of Hizbullah and Iran, it is worried that a post-Assad government, dominated by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brothers, may be no less hostile to the occupying power in the Golan: the occasional rocket fire from inside Syria in recent days has been a reminder for Israel of how quiet that border was under the Assad family. Israeli leaders lamented for years that theirs was the only democracy in the region. What this season of revolts has revealed is that Israel had a very deep investment in Arab authoritarianism. The unravelling of the old Arab order, when Israel could count on the quiet complicity of Arab big men who satisfied their subjects with flamboyant denunciations of Israeli misdeeds but did little to block them, has been painful for Israel, leaving it feeling lonelier than ever.It is this acute sense of vulnerability, even more than Netanyahu’s desire to bolster his martial credentials before the January elections, that led Israel into war.

[...]

The Palestinians understand that they are no longer facing Israel on their own: Israel, not Hamas, is the region’s pariah. The Arab world is changing, but Israel is not. Instead, it has retreated further behindJabotinsky’s ‘iron wall’, deepening its hold on the Occupied Territories, thumbing its nose at a region that is at last acquiring a taste of its own power, exploding in spasms of high-tech violence that fail to conceal its lack of a political strategy to end the conflict. Iron Dome may shield Israel from Qassam rockets, but it won’t shield it from the future.

If you could kick out Mubarak, I’m sure that you can do a lot more!

August 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ha-Joon Chang: In Conversation

The renowned Cambridge Economist, author of the classic work Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective was interviewed in May by Serene Richards, a freelance journalist and Universty of London LLM candidate in International Economic Law Justice and Development.

Nestled amongst the leafy streets of Cambridge is the University’s Economics faculty. This, unassuming, 1960s building, plays host to one of the world’s leading development economists: Ha-Joon Chang. An international best selling author, Chang is no stranger to controversy, he is known for his critical analysis of economic orthodoxy and draws upon economic history in much of his work. His most recent book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism gallantly contributes to the ongoing critique surrounding our global economic system. In 2005 the South Korean born economist was awarded the Wassily Leontief prize for Advancing the Frontier of Economic Thought for his book “Kicking Away the Ladder”. I enter his office, quaint and amassed with books. His manner, affable and upbeat, we begin.

You co-wrote a paper entitled “Industrial Policy and the Role of the State in Egypt” which outlined an alternative development policy, comparing Egypt to the East Asian experience, can you tell us a little about your vision at the time?

“We wrote it in 1995/4, it was a time when they [the IMF] were accelerating liberalization and privatization. We felt that in a relatively closed economy like what Egypt was before, liberalizing and opening can bring some benefits because you have more competition and foreign exchanges and so on. But we were worried that this brought, at best, short-term benefits. You really need a long-term strategy to take your country to another level. Back in the early 60s Korea and Egypt had similar levels of income, two of the poorest countries in the world. Today Egypt still is a poor country, with a per capita income of $2000 compared to South Korea’s $20,000. So, what happened during those 50 years that made such a huge a difference is an important question. Of course, there were problems with the earlier economic strategy under Nasser. In my view, it was too closed – but, liberalising everything without any strategy and privatising, without any clear view of what should be done was not a very promising strategy. Unfortunately we have been proven right in that sense because they’ve done a lot of things since the 90s, but where did it end up?”

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