Just 30 days ago, on January 14, I was making the 3.5-hour drive down from Charlottesville, VA to Greensboro, NC, for the Quaker conference held to mark the 50th anniversary of Pres. Eisenhower’s prescient 1961 warning about the dangers of a ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ arising in the U.S.
As I drove, I was listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the day’s events in Tunis. That was the day the growing but determinedly peaceful anti-government demonstrations there were (amazingly!) able to ‘persuade’ Pres. Zein el-Abideen Ben Ali to leave the country.
The conference was really good. I got to speak after lunch on Saturday, with my designated topic being the MIC in the Middle East. I reminded the audience that for the past 15-20 years, the MIC’s project in the Middle East has been far and away its biggest (and costliest) overseas project; and that the situation there has been used by the bosses of the MIC back here at home to continue to justify the obscene amounts of spending they get from U.S. taxpayers.
But I was also able to share with them the good news that (1) In the Middle East more than anywhere else, the actual utility of military force had been shown to be either nil or negative. What did the US achieve, of lasting geopolitical value, with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? What did Israel achieve of lasting geopolitical value with its obscene assaults against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008?… and also that (2) The events then unfolding in Tunis were demonstrating for all to see that the MIC’s vast, sprawling project in the Middle East was beginning to crumble– and the crumbling would doubtless continue.
I told them that the two key places to watch for further crumbling of the U.S. MIC’s Middle East project– “within either a shorter or longer time frame; but almost certainly within the coming months”– were Egypt and Jordan.
And then, the heroic pro-democracy activists and organizers in Egypt achieved what they achieved last Friday. Far faster than I had dared to hope.
Of course the democracy movement has a lot further to go– in those two countries, and elsewhere around the globe. (Including here at home in the United States, folks. Wake up!)
But today I am just feeling so joyous to be able to witness this.
Honestly, I never thought I would live to see this day. Throughout all of the 35-year-plus professional life that I have devoted to a study of foreign affairs, and principally Middle East affairs, the situation in the Middle East has been gloomy and getting gloomier. Autocracy was becoming ever deeper and deeper embedded in many countries, including in Egypt which is truly for that whole region “Um al-Dunya” (The mother of the world.) Periodic wars wracked the region, culminating in George W. Bush’s obscene invasion of Iraq.
… Which, remember, had come after a period of 13 years in which the U.S. and Britain forced the U.N to maintain a punishing sanctions regime against Iraq which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 500,000 of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. And no other government in the Arab world wanted to (or was able to) prevent those atrocities from happening.
Egypt’s Pres. Mubarak was at the heart of Washington’s imperial planning for the region. As were the two successive kings of Jordan and the monarchs of Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s Pres. Ben Ali was also a small-scale, but loyal, supporter of it.
Plus, throughout all these years, successive governments in Israel– Labour as well as Likud and Kadima– continued their longterm project of implanting their illegal settlers into the heart of Arab land in Palestine, including in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem.
Since 1993, Washington has taken not one single effective step to rein in Israel’s settlement-construction program. Indeed, in the way it implemented the Oslo Accords, by insisting on building (and even having the US taxpayer pay for) big new highway systems for the settlers, they gave the settlement-building project a massive new shot in the arm.
And Washington covered the vast, multi-pronged support it gave to Israel in every field during these years with this thin fig leaf of a myth that there was some kind of a meaningful “peace process” underway. (That myth was also cited as a justification for stamping down on Palestinian democracy when it dared to raise its head in January 2006: We can’t allow anything to damage the peace process,” they said, as they armed Mohamed Dahlan’s coup plotters and helped him in his ugly coup attempt against the Palestinians’ elected leadership, in 2007… )
Pres. Mubarak and his intelligence sidekick Omar Suleiman were big players in every single one of those imperial schemes.
Now they are out. And Washington’s policy in the Middle East is going to have to change. A lot. And rapidly.
Hallelujah! What a day of joy!
As I’ve noted here many times before, it turns out we’re no longer living in the 19th century! We’re not even living in the 20th century. The crucial change in world affairs, as the 21st century progresses, is that the global information environment has become so transparent and so inter-connected that any more major wars or invasions (such as what we saw the Bush administration launching against Iraq in 2003) are becoming increasingly unthinkable.
Already, during those fateful days in March 2003 when the invasion was launched, we were having real-time blogging from within Baghdad, in searingly beautiful English, telling us of the horrors of how it was to cower under that bombardment and live through the terrors of the civil collapse that followed.
(And what did the U.S. “achieve” for all those expensive bombs dropped, and all those expensive soldier deployed?? Nothing of any lasting value except the destruction of an entire society there in Iraq… An “achievement” that surely will continue to haunt us for many years into the future.)
Yes, I was part of the emerging global blogosphere back then: Reading, sharing, and interacting with the work of fabulous Iraqi writers like Riverbend, Faiza, or Salam/Pax. That already felt heady enough.
Then, this past Thursday and Friday, I was spending most of my time on Twitter (@justworldbooks). It was amazing. There, we were having a strange form of free-form “conversation” about what was happening, in real time with fellow tweeps who were on the ground in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, and with people around the world who were also glued to the situation.
In Twitter, in case you don’t know about this, there’s a simple content-aggregating tool called a hashtag. They always start with what Europeans call a hash-mark. So there has been #Tunisia, #egypt, #jan25, #tahrir, etc. If you put that hashtag into your tweet, the tweet then shows up in the relevant aggregator. And if you want to see what everyone else has been saying about that same subject, you just search for the hashtag.
On Thursday evening (U.S. Eastern time), everyone around the world was waiting and waiting for the speech that, several hours earlier, Mubarak had promised he would be making. As we were all waiting, someone came up with the idea of launching the hashtag #reasonsmubarakislate. And it took off like wildfire!
All the contributions to it were jokes, including some that were very childish. (“#reasonsmubarakislate The situation in his pants is very fluid”, etc.) Others were very clever– but always within the 140-character limit.
So for an hour or two there, as we were waiting, we were sharing these jokes– with people from all around the world, most of whom were unknown to each other.
And then, finally, Mubarak came onto the screen and gave his terrible speech. People immediately stopped feeling jokey and excited, and the hashtag died almost immediately. If you have a Twitter account– and you should! follow me there @justworldbooks! –go and read the RMIL hashtag. You’ll see the most recent entry there is from Feb. 10.
This amazing ability of the internet to help create a single, inter-connected international public is one part of this story.
The other is what happened in Egypt when the government “turned off” the internet and all cellphone coverage for a couple of days there: The large “modern” portion of the economy got stuck in its tracks! Routine banking or commercial transactions all, with the flick of a switch, became impossible. Tourists, travelers, and millions of Egyptian family members all lost the connections with each other and the outside world that they had come to rely on.
Of course, regime apologists immediately tried to lay the blame on the protesters: “These protests are costing our economy billions of dollars a day and causing chaos and uncertainty in our lives!” But everyone in Egypt knew who had turned off the internet and the cell-phones. It was not the protesters. (And the behavior of the protesters– non-violent, orderly, well organized, dignified– was not seen by any observers as having sowed any chaos.)
After two days, the government decided to turn the intertubes and cell-phone service back on again.
Autocrats everywhere, beware.
Everything is changing with dizzying speed. It turns out the long-feared Israel is now “just a small, slightly troublesome country off the northeast tip of Egypt”, not some massive and all-powerful global behemoth.
True, it still has something of an iron grip on the “thinking” (or more to the point, the campaign financing) of most members of the U.S. Congress. But in the American public sphere, there have been remarkably few voices echoing the strong advice from Netanyahu and Co. that “all of us in the west should support Mubarak and Suleiman because they are ‘our guys’.”
Of course, many people in the United States have a lot of questions about the role the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists might have in the next Egyptian government.
Of course, voices have been raised warning that the democratic euphoria that followed Mubarak’s departure on Feb. 11, 2011 might soon turn to dust if “the mullahs” come into power in Egypt as they did in the years that followed the Shah’s departure from power on Feb. 11, 1979.
This is natural. Most westerners don’t know anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or with other Islamist organizations. We have all been subjected in recent years to repeated barrages of anti-Muslim, anti-Islamist hate speech. Many of us (self included) do have some very deep and genuine concerns about the practices of the current Iranian government– as, of course, those of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
There has been, in the general discourse here in the U.S., remarkably little ability to discern the differences among these different forms of Islamist organizations. In my life and career, I have had the good fortune to meet and interview representatives of many different kinds of Islamist organizations; and I have tried to do what I can to explain the differences to my readers and the general public. One distinction I always try to make is between organizations that are deeply rooted in the societies in which they operate and are willing to participate in fully democratic, one-person-one-vote elections, and those (like Al-Qaeda) who share neither of those attributes.
And we are all very lucky today that there is, in the Middle East today, one democracy in which a moderately Islamist government has held sway for nearly a decade now– and has performed very well in that role, in both the technocratic sense of delivering good services on a sound basis, and the civil-liberties sense of respecting and strengthening the rule of law and the democratic basis of society.
This is the AK (‘Justice and Development’) Party in Turkey. So it is not the case today that the only possible “model” one could point to of a republic dominated by an avowedly Islamist party would be Iran under the mullahs, or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Hello! Go to Turkey, people! See how things are proceeding in the politics and society of that vital NATO member!
Also, neither I nor anyone else can tell you what the political favor of a freely elected parliament in Egypt will be. The MB have said they won’t run for the presidency, but they will likely run for parliament.
All I’m saying here is that even if they end up with a strong showing in the next government, this is not the end of the world. (And to understand more of my reasons for reaching that conclusion, go read the piece I had on ForPol’s Middle East Channel about them, back on January 31.)
Egypt’s economy and society have some way to go before its 83 million people can catch up with the living and economic standards of Turkey’s 75 million. In Turkey, businesses and industrial conglomerates from throughout the country have been building up huge operations throughout the whole of the former Soviet space, as well as in the Arab world and have pulled the country’s per-capita GDP up to about twice the level in Egypt. But if Egypt’s businesswomen and -men can be freed from the terrible yoke of corruption under which they’ve labored so long, they’ll be able to compete soon enough.
Many of my Egyptian friends are saying that if westerners really want to support Egypt’s democracy, the best thing we can do is go and take vacations there. Well, I guess I can support that (and yes, I am really eager to come back!)
But I think maybe the very best thing we can do is to stop using our taxpayer dollars to provide completely illegal subsidies to the U.S. Big Cotton cartel. Here are some resources I quickly gathered on this issue: 1, 2, 3. The last one notes that,
- According to the Environmental Working Group, American cotton growers are among the largest recipients of U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies. They receive a total of more than $3 billion a year in payments each year.
And the vast majority of that money goes to just 2,000 Big Cotton companies, not to family farmers…
The first source I link to (the FT, from summer 2009), has this:
- In Egypt, the area to be cultivated with cotton this season has shrunk by 10 per cent to 300,000 acres, its lowest ever, says Mefreh El Beltagui, a cotton exporter and an official of Alcotexa, the Alexandria-based association of cotton exporters.
“If the US were to remove its cotton subsidy, they would not be able to compete with us,” he says. “Here there are no subsidies for cotton exports. The state needs to intervene, because here we have mostly small farmers who cannot deal with price fluctuations. Also because we need to preserve our [international] customers for Egyptian cotton. Once you lose a customer it is hard to get them back.”
Of course, the other thing we need to do to help the Egyptian democrats is scale back our aid to the Egyptian military considerably, and divert it instead to an Egyptan-controlled fund to support the social reconstruction the country so badly needs after the deformation it has suffered as a result of 35 years of being integrated into the U.S. military-industrial complex.
A fund to support the rehabilitation of the thousands of Egyptians (and others) tortured in the U.S.-supported prisons in Egypt run by U.S. (and Israeli) ally Omar Suleiman would be a fine place to start that project.
Democracy and national self-determination in Tunisia and Egypt: What a beautiful idea!
I have such a lot of confidence in all my friends in both countries that they can do this: That they can rewrite their constitutions to the degree that they all agree on; that they can figure out the rules they want for free and fair elections; that they can fashion new and fairer rules for their economy; that they can define and pursue a role in the world that is both dignified and consonant with their values.
Some people here in the U.S. have been worried, regarding Egypt, about things like “What will become of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel? What will become of the ‘peace process’?” I think those are so far from being the first concerns of Egypt’s democrats today. (The very first one, of course, is to preserve their revolution from the machinations that anyone else– including the Mossad— might be planning to undertake against it.)
The army has said they will stick by the bilateral peace treaty. And there is no current ‘peace process’ in existence. So what’s the bother?
As Egypt does generate its new, much more transparent and accountable system of governance, we can all be certain, I think, that it will be one that is much less willing to see Cairo act as a cat’s-paw of Israel and of the AIPAC-dominated U.S. Congress, and much more determined to stand up for Palestinian and Arab rights.
Deal with it, Israel.
And if democracy and national self-determination are such a beautiful idea in Egypt, are they not equally beautiful in Palestine, as well?
The whole region– and the whole world– is changing. That region-spanning Apartheid system that Israel and its friends in the U.S. Congress have been running for so long– the one in which “Egypt” and “Jordan” and to some extent “Saudi Arabia” were all just treated like little subservient homelands within Apartheid South Africa– is starting to slit apart at the seams.
The era of human equality and an end to war has been brought 100 times closer by the stupendous events of the past month.
Thank you, thank you, the Tunisian and Egyptian people.