A Different Kind of Dominoes

AFP photo

I ended my last post like this:

Perhaps in six months’ time non-Arab commentators will decide that the Tunisian revolution was a mere anomaly in an eternally stagnant Arab world. But they’ll be wrong. The revolution will exert a long-term pervasiveness throughout Arab culture, as the Iranian revolution did before it. It will change the air the Arabs breathe and the dreams the Arabs dream.

Well, it seems I was wrong on the timescale. I should have said six minutes. Today several commentators are indeed arguing that the Tunisian revolution is anomalous. Robert Fisk is pessimistic, contending that the Tunisian people are no match for the combined forces of the Tunisian elite and Western imperialism. Perhaps events will prove him right.  Steve Walt fears that those expecting immediate regime change from the Ocean to the Gulf will be rapidly disappointed.

His point is a good one. In the frontline states with Israel, foreign policy issues increase in importance because they have the potential to immediately translate into security issues. The Syrian regime, for instance, may be unpopular for its corruption, bureaucracy, and stifling of dissent, but its foreign policy is broadly in line with Syrian opinion – and in Syria this matters a great deal. The Western clients are more vulnerable to protest, not least because they’re more linked into the ‘globalised’ economy and are thus more vulnerable to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods. Yet even in Jordan legitimate fears of an Israeli intervention (perhaps an attempt to fulfill the Jordan-is-Palestine fantasy) could damp down effervescence. The public in many countries seems too split by sect, ethnicity or tribe to coordinate unified protest. And of course the regimes will now be battening down for fear of Tunisian contagion.

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Changing the Air

Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali is in Abha, Saudi Arabia. France wouldn’t have him. (Despots, note the speed with which a sponsor drops a client who has outlived his usefulness.) Arab activists are calling for protests outside Saudi embassies.

In Tunisia, the extent of the people’s sacrifice over the last month is becoming clearer. Reports describe Ben Ali’s police terrorising rural areas with punitive rapes and random murders.

And the terror continues. Since Ben Ali’s fall, Tunis and other cities have been plagued by violence. Some of it, such as attacks on Ben Ali family businesses, can be classed as revolutionary. Some more of it is the natural result of taking the lid off after so long; a mix of exuberance, criminality, and what Gazmend Kapplani calls an ‘orphan complex’:

Tyrants are merciless beasts, precisely because they leave behind distorted societies worn down by oppression and above all suffering from an orphan complex. Those who give themselves over to indiscriminate looting and destruction the minute the statues come down are like orphaned children robbing the corpse of a false and terrifying father.

But the most terrifying violence appears to be organised by Ben Ali’s militiamen. Tunisians report battles between army forces on the one hand and ‘police’ and other highly-trained, well-armed gangs on the other. Some of these gangs have been driving through residential areas shooting randomly at people and buildings.

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This is What Victory Looks Like

photo by Hassene Dridi for AP

Written on the night of January 14th 2011

The dictator, thief and Western client Zein al-Abdine Ben Ali, beloved until a few hours ago in Paris and Washington, has been driven from Tunisia. His reign was ended not by a military or palace coup but by an extraordinarily broad-based popular movement which has brought together trades unions and professional associations, students and schoolchildren, the unemployed and farmers, leftists, liberals and intelligent Islamists, men and women. One of the people’s most prominent slogans will resonate throughout the Arab world and beyond: la khowf ba’ad al-yowm, or No Fear From Now On.

It is to be hoped that Tunisia will now develop a participatory system based on respect for citizens’ rights, that it will reclaim and develop its economy, implement social justice, and move out of the Western-Israeli embrace. The revolution, however, is beset by dangers. Although the head of the snake has been sacrificed, the conglomerate of interests behind the Ben Ali regime is largely still in place, and will be working furiously to restrict and roll back popular participation. For this reason it is of crucial importance that Tunisians are tonight raising the slogan ‘al-intifada mustamura,’ or ‘the intifada continues.’

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Horror and Hope

Egyptian police break a Copt's leg. Photo by Nasser Nouri

It currently seems there is a real danger of the Middle East losing its millenia-old diversity. Iraq’s post-invasion civil war separated the country’s Shia and Sunni communities, driving millions into exile. Pro-Western Arab regimes continue to spew vicious anti-Shia propaganda, which is heard by important sections of society. Now Wahhabi-nihilists have declared open season on Iraq’s ancient Christian community. Palestine was cleansed of its natives in 1947/48 and transformed into a Jewish ethno-state. Zionism and a new Muslim chauvinism have reduced the Christian proportion of the West Bank from 15% in 1950 to 2% today. And the New Year brought news of an appalling attack on Egyptian Copts, an increasingly oppressed and alienated community.

Informed observers will know that there is nothing essential or ‘ages-old’ about the emerging sectarian chaos. Sectarianism had receded almost to irrelevance amongst the generations of Arabs that believed they were on their way to true independence. Foreign partitions and occupations did a large part to crush that dream. Totalitarianism and economic and educational failures (often the policies of foreign-backed regimes) did the rest. In Egypt’s case, the Mubarak regime has dealt with its Islamist challenge in two ways: politically, it has rigged elections ever more blatantly and persecuted its visible opponents; socially, it has given way to the most retrograde desires of Islamism (forbidding the construction of churches, banning books) and done its best to whip up petty chauvinism over the most ridiculous of pretexes (for instance the mutual football hooliganism of Egyptian and Algerian fans).

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“Only the mood music has changed”: Tariq Ali on Obama’s presidency

OK… here’s the PULSE exclusive I’ve been working on. Hope you enjoy.

Is president Barack Obama the change America has been waiting for or is he another corporate Democrat representing elite interests?  According to Tariq Ali, very little has chanced between Obama and former president George W. Bush.  In his latest book “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad,” Ali argues that Obama is carrying on the reckless policies of the Bush regime.  If Obama continues down this path, the Democratic Party not only face the prospect of the House & Senate in 2010 but also the presidency in 2012.  This should be a cause for concern.

I caught up with Ali during his American book tour and here’s what he had to say about the Obama presidency.

Where did the idea for this book emanate from? Why did you want to write a book about “The Obama Syndrome” and what does that refer to?

The idea occurred because I speak a lot on the United States. People ask me questions after each talk and increasingly in the past two to three years, the talk has been about Obama.  I thought a short book which essentially provided a balance sheet from the left on the mid-term would be a useful exercise. Given that he’s being attacked nonstop for being a socialist, a leftist, being a Muslim and all this nonsense that comes from the Tea Party-Fox Television alliance, I thought it was better to have a hard-headed realistic account about who the guy really is.  So my book is a critique of him, but it’s also by implication a very sharp critique of people who claim that everything Obama is doing is so radical that they can’t take it anymore.

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Reese Erlich: “Stop using the word ‘terrorist'”

Defining what a terrorist is and isn’t is a major dilemma. What one may consider terrorism, another may consider resistance. So where does one draw the line? Reese Erlich tackles that topic in his latest book “Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence, and Empire.” Erlich is a veteran journalist who has covered U.S. foreign policy for decades. He has freelanced for National Public Radio, Radio Deutsche Welle, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio, and writes for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News.

Drawing on firsthand interviews and original research, Erlich argues that yesterday’s terrorist is often today’s national leader and that today’s freedom fighter may become tomorrow’s terrorist. By branding all of American’s opponents as “terrorists,” it makes it more difficult to look beyond the individual or the political group and understand what they are really all about. I caught up with Erlich recently and here’s what he had to say.

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“O, God! Have mercy on me! Distracted, I whirl” — Rumi’s Gift

Not frivolously, around the alleys and bazaars, I whirl.
Lover’s temperament, I have — to have one glimpse of my Beloved, I whirl.

After Maulana Rumi (actual poet unknown)

Singing: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Qawwaals

Translated by Huma Dar

Raqs al-Ruhani, al-Qahirah (Huma Dar 2005)
Naa Man Behooda Gird-e Koocha-o-Baazaar Mi Gardam (Huma Dar 2005)

نه من  بيهوده  گرد کوچه  و  بازار  می  گردم
مذاق عاشقی  دارم  پئ  ديدار  ميگردم

خدايا  رحم  کن  بر  من  پريشان وار  می  گردم
خطا کارم  گناھگارم  به  حال زار  می  گردم

شراب شوق  می نوشم  به  گرد يار  می  گردم
سخن مستانه  می گويم  ولے  هوشيار  می  گردم

گھےخندم  گھے گريم گھے افتم  گھے خيزم
مسيحا  در دلم  پيدا  و  من  بيمار  می گردم

بیا جانا  عنایت  کن  تو  مولانای رومی  را
غلام  شمس  تبریزم  قلندروار  می گردم

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Israel: A Failing Colonial Project

by M. Shahid Alam

Increasingly, despite its early military and political successes, Israel cannot for long endure as a colonial project. It must choose between wars – and destruction – or transition to a state for all its peoples.

In order to firmly secure its existence – as firmly as that is possible for any state – a settler state has to overcome three challenges. It has to solve the native problem; break away from its mother country; and gain the recognition of neighboring states and peoples. It can be shown that Israel has not met any of these conditions.

Consider Israel’s native problem. In 1948, in the months before and after its creation, Israel appeared to have solved its native problem in one fell swoop. It had expelled 80 percent of the Palestinians from the territories it had conquered. In addition, with the rapid influx of Arab Jews, Palestinians were soon reduced to less than ten percent of Israel’s population.

So, had Israel licked its native problem for good? Not really.

The Palestinians inside Israel pushed back with a high natural rate of growth in their numbers. As a result, despite the continuing influx of Jewish immigrants, the Palestinian share in Israel’s population has grown to above 20 percent. Increasingly, Jews in Israel see Israeli Arabs as a threat to their Jewish state. Some are advocating a fresh round of ethnic cleansing. Others are calling for a new partition to exclude areas with Arab majorities.

The Palestinians expelled from Israel in 1948 did not go away either. Most of them set up camp in areas around Israel – the West Bank, Gaza, southern Lebanon and Jordan. In 1967, when Israel conquered Gaza and the West Bank, it could expel a much smaller fraction of the Palestinians from these territories. In consequence, with more than a million additional Palestinians under its control, Israeli had recreated its native problem.

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Why Turkey is Looking East

Good analysis from Link TV’s Mosaic Intelligence Report. Also see this excellent analysis of Erdogan’s rise by Patrick Cockburn.

linktv 11 June 2010 — (Mosaic Intelligence Report: June 11, 2010) Turkey votes against UN sanctions on Iran. Erdogan is a hero in the Arab world. Did Turkey abandon its EU dreams? And why is it looking towards the East?

channelled French-Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s idiosyncratic reading of Hegel[1] to


[1] Kojève, from whom Fukuyama borrowed the notion of ‘end of history’, was a major influence on Bloom.

Zionists Against Zion?

By M. Shahid Alam

Zionists have worked hard and cleverly for their successes, but their cause has been greatly advanced at each stage by the logic of their colonial project aimed at the creation of a Jewish settler state at the very center of the Islamicate.

Most importantly, Zionism created a geopolitical realignment of great importance. It brought together two strands of the Western world, previously at odds – Christians and Jews – to join their forces against the Islamicate.

At every stage in its history, Israel has ratcheted its power by unleashing forces, even negative forces, that it has then turned to its advantage. Power, intelligence and luck have played into this.

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