Posts Tagged ‘zine el abidine ben ali’

Cook: Tales of Omar Suleiman

July 23rd, 2012 Comments off

Tales of Omar Suleiman – By Steven A. Cook | Foreign Policy:

The last time I saw Omar Pasha was on Jan. 24, 2011 — on the eve of the Egyptian revolution. I was with a group of foreign-policy experts, business leaders, and philanthropists and we met in an auditorium at the GIS headquarters. It was hard not to notice the freaky, yoga studio-like music that was playing over the sound system. When Suleiman arrived, he sat alone on a dais and spoke into a microphone, even though the delegation numbered only about 25 people seated in the second row of the auditorium, behind a gaggle of GIS courtiers. During the meeting, we learned that the United States had supplied Egypt with the technology to turn off the Internet — something the Egyptians would employ in earnest, though not terribly effectively, less than 24 hours later.

By Jan. 24, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had already fallen and a wave of self-immolations in Egypt had led to widespread speculation about whether the revolution was headed east. Naturally, therefore, someone in our delegation asked Suleiman whether the Tunisian revolt could happen in his country. But even at this late hour, he was as contemptuous of change as he had been six years ago, when he slammed his first down on the Washington conference table. “No,” he responded. “The police have a strategy and the president is strong.” Even at the time, the hubris was astonishing.

One of my big regrets, never meeting Omar Pasha. I do have some insight accrued over years of keeping notes on him and talking to people who dealt with him — mostly foreigner diplomats and spies and some Egyptian ones too. The takeaway is that he was actually fairly mediocre behind all the bluster and powersuits and Cuban cigars, and there is no better illustration of this than his handling of the Hamas issue in Gaza. Suleiman’s declared policy of ultimately crushing Hamas failed all the way, to the extent that people who dealt with him on this issue would joke about the “three-point plan” (engage, contain, crush) he would systematically trot out. Suleiman (unlike some of his predecessors when Egypt was at war with Israel) was ultimately the product of a system that only sought to maintain itself, showed little initiative or daring in foreign policy, and — being so concerned with status-quo and so-called “stability” — appeared to mostly keep busy by keeping everyone going around in circles (exhibit A: Egypt’s handling of Palestinian reconciliation talks).

I find it pretty outrageous he was given a state funeral and am surprised people did not try to disrupt it. One day, US archives of Suleiman’s handywork, especially on the rendition program, might be open and we’ll find out the full extent of complicity in his shenanigans. 

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Tunisia’s Ben Ali sentenced to life in absentia

June 14th, 2012 Comments off

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia from 1987 to 2011A Tunisian court sentenced ousted leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in absentia, to life in prison for presiding over the bloody protest crackdown that ignited the Arab Spring.

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Tunisia seeks to quell religious tension after unrest

June 13th, 2012 Comments off

Tunisian police face rioters in IntilakaTunisia's government blamed Salafists and old regime loyalists Wednesday for the worst unrest since Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's ouster but dismissed suggestions Al-Qaeda initiated the violence.

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Political Science and the Arab Uprisings

June 13th, 2012 Comments off

The uprisings that swept the Arab world following the fall of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 represented a stunning moment in the region’s political history. For political scientists specializing in the region, the events of the last year and a half represented not just an exhilarating moment of potential change, but also an important opportunity to develop new research questions, engage in new comparisons, and exploit new data and information. The Arab uprisings challenged long-held theories dominant in the field, particularly about the resilience of authoritarian regimes, while opening up entirely new areas of legitimate social scientific inquiry.

The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) was created in 2010 in part to build the capacity of Middle East experts to engage and inform policy-makers, the public sphere, and other political scientists about the region. On May 29-30, 2012, POMEPS convened a group of leading political scientists who specialize in the Middle East for its third annual conference at George Washington University to discuss the opportunities and challenges that the Arab uprisings pose to the subfield. Participants were asked: “What new and innovative research questions do you think have become particularly urgent, feasible, or relevant? How would those research questions fit into wider debates in the field of political science?”  I am thrilled to announce the publication of a new special POMEPS Briefing collecting nearly two dozen of the memos written for the conference (free PDF download here).

The authors are all academic political scientists and Middle East specialists who speak Arabic and have lived in and studied Arab countries for extended periods. They include scholars at all career levels, from senior faculty at top universities to advanced graduate students still writing their dissertations. The memos reflect on a wide range of debates and paradigms within political science, and taken together lay out an impressive set of marching orders for the subfield. Graduate students looking for dissertation topics and junior faculty looking for articles that might make a big splash take note. [[BREAK]]

One important theme is the importance of keeping current developments in perspective.  There is widespread agreement that, as Jillian Schwedler puts it, “it’s just too early to really make substantive headway of the sort that would allow us to either challenge or support existing theories of revolutions and regime change.” At the 2011 POMEPS annual conference, held at the height of the still-surging Arab Spring, political scientists long keenly attuned to the machinations of Arab authoritarian regimes had warned about exaggerated expectations for change.  They were right.  Popular theories hastily put forward at the height of the Egyptian revolution about inevitable, irreversible change looked foolish within months as the military regime clawed back power, Islamists surged at the polls, and activist groups struggled to adapt. The rise of sectarianism, driven in part by the ugly developments in Bahrain and Syria, divided momentarily united Arab publics, while the descent into violent stalemate in several countries deflated outsized expectations. But one easily forgotten change should not be underestimated, as Nathan Brown eloquently argues in his memo:  “politics — in the sense of public discussion and contestation about issues of common concern — now unmistakably exists.”  And that matters.

Eighteen months on, the field is now better positioned to ask the right questions and to capture both broad trends and significant variation across and within cases. The questions raised by the Arab uprisings are not parochial. They go to the heart of the most important and relevant debates in the social sciences, to say nothing about the concerns of foreign policy and the broader public. Appropriate caution about leaping to conclusions should not prevent scholars from grappling with these developments head-on. Area experts with deep knowledge of the Middle East cannot cede the field to those who lack such background. But they also cannot simply assume that their expertise will grant them a privileged voice in public or scholarly debate. More than ever before, this is a moment for political scientists specializing in the Middle East to prove that particular expertise makes a real difference. Good articles are beginning to appear in leading academic journals, and more are in the pipeline — but there is clearly far more to be done.

Surveying the emerging region today reveals an uneasy mix of change and continuity — which may be politically frustrating, but is producing the kind of variation that should allow political scientists to gain purchase on crucial questions. Mobilization has receded in many places, but remains real and vibrant in others. Some regimes have fallen but others have proven resilient. Some countries have been consumed by violence, while others have avoided such a trajectory. Islamists have leapt into the political arena, performing better in some countries than others. Few Arab countries seem to be following the “transitions to democracy” template familiar to generations of graduate students. Public opinion surveys have proliferated, but have done poorly in predicting electoral outcomes.  Such variation should be red meat for political scientists. 

What are the key questions emerged at the POMEPS conference, then? There is obviously a great deal of research to be done to explain the variation in regime survival. The fall of long-sitting leaders such as Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi each took a different path — and should Syria’s Bashar al-Assad be next, this would be yet another distinct course. Meanwhile, other regimes that might a priori have appeared to be in line for serious trouble survived. Even where leaders have fallen, the continuity with the old regime in some cases seems dramatic (Egypt, Yemen) compared with others (Libya, Tunisia). Explaining this variation in regime survival and which strategies and structures proved more effective in the face of popular challenge will likely be a major preoccupation of the field in the coming years.

One common answer has been particularly contentious among academics: monarchy. Is there a monarchical exception, or some reason to believe that monarchies are more resilient in the face of popular grievances? For some, the answer is obvious: none of the fallen regimes were monarchies, while non-monarchies have struggled or fallen at historic rates. As Michael Herb argues,“the regimes most seriously affected by the Arab Spring were not monarchies, with the exception of Bahrain.” But others are far more skeptical that monarchy makes the difference. After all, Gulf monarchies such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman all experienced significant mobilization, as did non-oil monarchies such as Jordan and Morocco, which gives lie to any sense of their greater innate legitimacy.  Other factors such as oil wealth, ethnic polarization or external support may be more important than monarchy as such. The significance of monarchy in regime stability should be a vibrant debate in academic journals in the coming years.

The real significance of the rentier state is emerging as another extremely interesting area of debate. If monarchy does not provide the answer to regime resilience, what about oil wealth and the ability to distribute patronage as an important buffer to regime collapse? For Glenn Robinson, the verdict is clear: “While oil-poor Arab countries have been riven by turmoil, the hydrocarbon rich countries (enjoying high oil and gas prices throughout 2011) have suffered relatively little turmoil by comparison, and have used their significant rents to placate most potential dissent.” David Waldner, by contrast, warns that “our understanding of the political economy of the Middle East has for too long rested, somewhat complacently, on a relatively vague notion of the rentier state.”  How this wealth is used in pursuit of particular political strategies may matter more than the mere fact of its availability.  Gwenn Okruhlik further notes, “the oft-utilized rentier framework vastly overstated economic determinism. In reality, money does not spend itself.” Oil rich Libya, for example, did not find itself particularly protected from popular challenge. Peter Moore points to variation in the fiscal capacity of states as a crucial variable, while others point to ethnic or family dominated regimes. And, asks Shana Marshall, what of the financial interests of the militaries themselves, about which far more is now publicly known than ever before?

Beyond oil-fueled patronage, several participants point to questions about the real political impact of social welfare provision in the region as key emerging questions. Melani Cammett directs attention to how little is known empirically about the implementation and effects of social welfare programs. Eleanor Gao asks the pertinent empirical question of “whether governments can purchase loyalty through increasing public sector employment and salaries, reducing taxes, and augmenting food subsidies.”  And what of Islamist movements and their vaunted social service sectors — do those reliably buy votes when the moment comes?  For David Patel, shifts in existing patronage networks in the face of crisis — including, he notes, global financial crisis and pressures toward austerity as well as the turbulence of popular mobilization — may well be more important than the macro questions of regime survival for explaining new patterns in Arab politics.

The wave of mass mobilization is obviously another primary area for new political science research. Scholars are already doing important work on the protest movements in various countries, unpacking the role of different actors (youth, internet activists, labor unions, political parties, and so forth) and different political contexts.  The conceptualization of a "political opportunity structure," so important in the contentious politics literature, appears ripe for rethinking.  There is a vibrant debate unfolding about the micro-level foundations and mechanisms driving the sudden explosion of mass mobilization that will be of obvious relevance to the broader political science literature. Some focus on the revelation of private information and updated expectations of success (an argument I developed here). Rex Brynen notes, for instance, that, “compliance with authoritarian rule was sustained, in part, by a regime’s ability to project spectacular omnipotence. Populations, for the most part, genuinely believed that resistance was futile. What the Tunisian revolution did, of course, was to shatter that perception. The consequent demonstration effect then led other Arab populations to reevaluate both the power of popular protest and the strength of regimes.”

Others, such as Wendy Pearlman, focus on the role of emotions in fueling protest, as opposed to rational calculations of the prospects of success.  An astonishing array of evidence can now be explored about the state of mind of protestors, as well as those who refrained from joining protests, should researchers find ways to usefully exploit it.  And still other scholars focus on the dynamic relationship between repression and protest. Eva Bellin argues, “Syria dramatically challenges [Mark] Lichbach’s analysis given the persistent mobilization of protest even in the face of the state’s use of consistent lethal force against the protesters.” What is the “right” level of repression, that which keeps subjects in line without triggering a cascade of outraged protest?

Several of the memos urge scholars to look beyond the immediate action for deeper causes. Adria Lawrence urges more historical comparisons, noting that this is not the first time such protest waves have caught the outside world unprepared: “in the mid twentieth century, colonial powers were shocked when their subjects took to the streets to demand independence.”  Charles Kurzman refers back to his earlier book about the Iranian revolution which similarly emphasized the element of surprise. 

There are also ways to further increase the observable variation.  Some, such as David Patel and Quinn Mecham, want more extra-regional comparisons, while Jillian Schwedler urges attention to “in-case variation.We know a lot about what has and is happening in urban centers, and little about the rural mobilizations.” Janine Clark calls on scholars to pay attention to “slow change: the gradual social, economic and political changes at the local level that underlie rapid political change and make it possible.” Like Schwedler, she suggests that researchers “look beyond the capitals and large urban cities of the region and pay attention to the region’s peripheries: the rural areas, small towns and small cities with relatively little national economic significance.”

The regional dimension of the protests and the elicited regime responses should force greater attention to the oft-neglected international relations literature. Curtis Ryan argues forcefully “the outcome of almost every case within the Arab uprisings has turned at least in part on the actions and decisions of external powers.” This is a problem for a comparative literature, which tends to focus on domestic variables and treat each country as a discrete case, which led many to miss the contagious power of the early Arab uprisings.  As Gwenn Okruhlik points out, “these were not coincidentally simultaneous parallel revolts but somehow a single collective phenomenon.” Sheila Carapico notes “the sharing of slogans in classical Arabic like al-sha’ab yuridh isqat al-nizam and Irhal invite us to think again about the terrain of an Arab ‘region’ which, for all its diversities and contradictions, has more coherence than either the Middle East or the Muslim world.” My memo points to the role of the media, both broadcast and online, in disseminating information, framing the uprisings, and fueling the protests.

There are also vexing but exciting questions of new evidence.  My memo, like this recent essay I published with the SSRC, emphasizes the exciting possibilities offered by social media for research.  Scholars studying an uprising a century ago would be thrilled to find a handful of diaries of participants and observers, but today we have access to millions.  Participants in the uprisings have often collected vast amounts of relevant materials, from pamphlets and statements to photos and videos.   There are vastly greater numbers and types of public opinion surveys being conducted, but of wildly varying quality and reliability.  In some cases, the fall of authoritarian regimes may open access to military or government archives which had always been closed off to outside view, though those hopes are less bright than they appeared in the early days of the Egyptian uprising.  These new sources of information should offer great opportunities to ambitious, creative young scholars.  

These are only some of the many research agendas that unfold in the memos to follow. They lay out a rich overview of the current thinking of a cross-section of leading scholars who are deeply engaged in thinking about how the Arab uprisings should change the scholarly field. This is an exciting time for scholars, a time for theoretical creativity and empirical. It is a time when our ideas can actually matter for shaping policy, for informing public debate, and for addressing the mainstream of the field of political science. It should not be missed. This special POMEPS Briefing represents our modest effort to help the field seize these opportunities. 

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Tunisia: Ben Ali’s 50 Cars to Be Auctioned Off

June 6th, 2012 Comments off

The first eight of some 50 cars owned by the family of deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali have been shown to the public prior to auction.

The auction included two Fiat 500s, a Berlingo, a Mercedes 200, a Cabriolet, a Patrol Nissan, a Golf4, and an Isuzu D-Max. Tunisians from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds seized the opportunity to scrutinize the cars of their former ruling family.
According to Mohamed Lassad Hmaied, a member of the Management Commission, the remaining 42 cars — including Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Cadillacs — will be exposed to the public at El Kram fair, held during the months of July and August.

It isn’t clear how many family members used these 50 cars.

My family has a Kia and a Saturn, but can’t auction them as we need then, Sorry, you’ll hae to try for the Lamborghinis.

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Backgrounders for the Mubarak Verdict Tomorrow

June 2nd, 2012 Comments off

The Mubarak verdict should come down in the morning. I’ll try to post on it some time over the weekend but family commitments may slow down my posting, but here are a couple of backgrounders to understand the results, whichever way it goes:

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is in a guesthouse in Jidda and Mu‘ammar Qadhafi is dead; only Mubarak, so far, has faced a court. As I noted earlier a small army of 20,000 police and security forces and 160 armored vehicles are reportedly being deployed around where the court is sitting.

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Tomgram: Andy Kroll, The Unlikely Oracle of Occupy Wall Street

March 3rd, 2012 Comments off

From Tomdispatch

How Empires Fall (Including the American One)
A TomDispatch Interview With Jonathan Schell
By Andy Kroll

When Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World, a meditation on the history and power of nonviolent action, was published in 2003, the timing could not have been worse. Americans were at war — and success was in the air. U.S. troops had invaded Iraq and taken Baghdad (“mission accomplished”) only months earlier, and had already spent more than a year fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Schell’s book earned a handful of glowing reviews, and then vanished from the public debate as the bombs scorched Iraq and the body count began to mount.

Now, The Unconquerable World’s animating message — that, in the age of nuclear weaponry, nonviolent action is the mightiest of forces, one capable of toppling even the greatest of empires — has undergone a renaissance of sorts. In December 2010, the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor triggered a wave of popular and, in many cases, nonviolent uprisings across the Middle East, felling such autocrats as Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in mere weeks. Occupations, marches, and protests of all sorts spread like brushfire across Europe, from England to Spain to Greece, and later Moscow, and even as far as Madison, Wisconsin. And then, of course, there were the artists, students, and activists who, last September, heard the call to “occupy Wall Street” and ignited a national movement with little more than tents, signs, and voices on a strip of stone and earth in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

You might say that Schell, a former New Yorker staff writer renowned for his work on nuclear weapons and disarmament (his 1981 book The Fate of the Earth was a best-seller and instant classic), prophesied Occupy and the Arab Spring — without even knowing it. He admits to being as surprised as anyone about the wave of nonviolent action that swept the world in 2011, but those who had read Unconquerable World would have found themselves uncannily well prepared for the birth of a planet of protest whenever it happened.

That book remains the ideal companion volume for the Occupiers and Egyptian revolutionaries, as well as their Spanish, Russian, Chilean, and other counterparts. Schell traces the birth of nonviolent action to Gandhi’s sit-in at Johannesburg’s Empire Theater in 1906, and continues through the twentieth century, all the while forcing you to rethink everything you thought you knew about what he calls “the war system” and its limits, as well as protests and rebellions of every sort, and the course of empire.

One afternoon in January, I met Schell, now the Nation’s peace and disarmament correspondent, in his office at the Nation Institute, where he’s a fellow, a few blocks from Union Square in Manhattan. It was a bright space, and for a writer, surprisingly clean and uncluttered. A Mac laptop sat opened on his desk, as if I’d walked in mid-sentence. Various editions of Schell’s books, including his Vietnam War reportage The Village of Ben Suc, were nestled into the bookshelves among titles popular and obscure. I settled into an empty chair next to Schell, who wore a jacket and khakis, and started my recorder. Soft-spoken and articulate, he described the world as elegantly in person as he does in his writing.


Andy Kroll: You’ve written a lot before on the nuclear problem, and one feels that throughout the book. But The Unconquerable World also stands on its own as something completely original. How did you come to write this book?

Jonathan Schell: It was a long time in the making. The initial germ was born toward the end of the 1980s when I began to notice that the great empires of the world were failing. I’d been a reporter in the Vietnam War, so I’d seen the United States unable to have its way in a small, third world country. A similar sort of thing happened in Afghanistan with the Soviet Union. And then of course, there was the big one, the revolutions in Eastern Europe against the Soviet Union.

I began to think about the fortunes of empire more broadly. Of course, the British Empire had already gone under the waves of history, as had all the other European empires. And when you stopped to think about it, you saw that all the empires, with the possible exception of the American one, were disintegrating or had disintegrated. It seemed there was something in this world that did not love an empire. I began to wonder what exactly that was. Specifically, why were nations and empires that wielded overwhelmingly superior force unable to defeat powers that were incomparably weaker in a military sense?

Whatever that something was, it had to do with the superiority of political power over military power. I saw that superiority in action on the ground as a reporter for the New Yorker in Vietnam starting way back in 1966, 1967. Actually, the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese understood this, and if you read their documents, they were incessantly saying “politics” was primary, that war was only the continuation of politics.

AK: As you say in the book, they sounded eerily like Carl von Clausewitz, the famed Prussian war philosopher of the eighteenth century.

Schell: Yes exactly, because they knew that the heart of their strength was their victory in the department of hearts and minds.  Eventually, the U.S. military learned that as well. I remember a Marine commandant, “Brute” Krulak, who said the United States could win every battle until kingdom come — and it was winning almost every battle — and still lose the war. And it did lose the war. That was what I saw in Vietnam: the United States winning and winning and winning until it lost. It won its way to defeat.

Then there was the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland. I had friends, Irena and Jan Gross, who had been kicked out of Poland in 1968 for being dissidents and for being Jewish (thanks to an anti-Semitic campaign of that moment).  Even if there were sparks of rebellion in Poland, it seemed the definition of noble futility: to be up against a government backed by the Polish secret police, and the whole repressive apparatus of the Soviet Union — the Red Army, the KGB, a nuclear arsenal. What did the rebels have to work with? They weren’t even using guns.  They were just writing fliers and demonstrating in the street and sometimes occupying a factory. It looked like the very definition of a lost cause.

Yet, as the years went by, I began see some of the names of people Irena and Jan had been contacting in the papers. They’d been sending packages of crackers and cheese and contraband literature to someone called Adam Michnik and someone called Jacek KuroÅ„ — who turned out to be kingpins in the precursor movement to Solidarity and then in Solidarity itself.

And when Solidarity bloomed, being entirely nonviolent, it shed new light on the question I’d been asking myself: What was this something that overmatched superior violence?

Solidarity exhibited another version of political power, an entirely nonviolent kind. From there, I was led to see that there were forms of nonviolent action that could unravel and topple the most violent forms of government ever conceived — namely, the totalitarian. This went entirely against the conventional wisdom of political science, which taught that force is the ultima ratio, the final arbiter; that if you had superior weaponry and superior military power you were the winner. Really that was the consensus from left to right with very few exceptions.

So I asked myself what exactly is nonviolent action? What is popular protest? How does it work?

The Einstein of Nonviolence

AK: You pinpoint the birth of this force at a single event on September 11, 1906.

Schell: Precisely, a peaceful protest led by Mohandas Gandhi at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 11, 1906. It’s rare that you can date a social invention to a particular day and meeting, but I think you can in this case.  Gandhi called himself an experimenter in truth. He’s really the Einstein of nonviolence.

Soon enough, I began to ask myself about other nonviolent movements and that, of course, very much involved the civil rights movement in the United States.

AK: You point to four key moments in history — the French, American, Glorious, and Bolshevik revolutions — and describe how the real revolution, the nonviolent one, took place in the hearts and minds of the people in those countries. And that the bloody fighting that, in some cases, ensued was not the true revolution, but an extension of it. It’s a revelatory part of the book. Did you already have this idea when you began Unconquerable World, or was it an Aha! moment along the way?

JS: It was really the latter. Gandhi’s movement landed the most powerful blow against the entire British Empire, and the Solidarity movement and the revolution in Czechoslovakia and other popular activities in those places were in my opinion the real undoing of the Soviet Union. That’s not the small change of history. Those were arguably the two greatest empires of their time. So, having seen that there was such power in nonviolence, I began to wonder: How did things work in other revolutions?

I was startled to discover that even in revolutions which, in the end, turned out to be supremely violent, the revolutionaries — some of whom, like the Bolsheviks, didn’t even believe at all in nonviolence — nonetheless proceeded largely without violence.  Somebody quipped that more people were killed in the filming of Sergey Eisenstein’s storming of the Winter Palace [in his Ten Days That Shook the World] than were killed in the actual storming. That was true because the Bolsheviks were really unopposed.

How could that be? Well, because they had won over the garrison of Saint Petersburg; they had, that is, won the “hearts and minds” of the military and the police.

AK: The Bastille was like that as well.

JS: The Bastille was absolutely like that. In that first stage of the French Revolution there was almost no violence at all. Some people were beheaded in the aftermath of the action, but the victory was not won through violence, but through the defection of the government’s minions. It didn’t mean the revolutionaries loved nonviolence.  On the contrary, what followed was the Terror, in the case of the French, and the Red Terror in the case of the Bolsheviks, who went on to shed far more blood as rulers than they had shed on their way to power.

Usually the cliché is that the stage of overthrow is the violent part, and the stage of consolidation or of setting up a new government is post-violent or nonviolent. I discovered it to be just the other way around.

AK: On this subject, as your book makes clear, some re-teaching is in order.  We’re so conditioned to think of overthrow as a physical act: knocking down the gates, storming the castle, killing the king, declaring the country yours.

JS: In a certain sense, overthrow is the wrong word. If you overthrow something, you pick it up and smash it down. In these cases, however, the government has lost legitimacy with the people and is spontaneously disintegrating from within.

AK: As you note, the Hungarian writer György Konrád used the image of an iceberg melting from the inside to describe the process.

JS: He and actually the whole Solidarity movement had already noticed how Franco’s cryptofascist regime in Spain sort of melted away from within and finally handed over power in a formal process to democratic forces. That was one of their models.

AK: Reading The Unconquerable World feels like swimming against the tide of conventional wisdom, of conventional history. Why do you think antiquated ideas about power and its uses still grip us so tightly?

JS: There is a conventional assumption that superior violence is always decisive. In other words, whatever you do, at the end of the day whoever has the biggest army is going to win. They’re going to cross the border, impose their ideology or religion, they’re going to kill the women and children, they’re going to get the oil. 

And honestly, you have to say that, through most of history, there was overwhelming evidence for the accuracy of that observation. I very much see the birth of nonviolence as something that, although not exactly missing from the pages of history previously, was fundamentally new in 1906. I think of it as a discovery, an invention.

The fundamental critique of it was that it doesn’t work. The belief, more an unspoken premise than a conviction, was that if you want to act effectively in defense of your deepest beliefs or worst cravings, you have to pick up the gun, and as Mao Zedong said, power will flow from the barrel of that gun.

It took protracted demonstrations of the kind that we’ve been talking about to put nonviolence on the map. Now, by the way, states have come to understand this power and its dangers much better. Certainly, those who govern Egypt understand it. And what about the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union? They saw it firsthand — the whole thing going down almost without a shot being fired.

Take, for instance, the government of Iran. They’re very worried foreign activists or certain books might show up in their country, because they’re afraid that a soft or velvet revolution will take place in Iran. And they’re right to worry. They’ve had two big waves of protest already, most recently the Green Revolution of 2009-2010.

It hasn’t succeeded there yet.  And to be clear, there’s nothing magical about nonviolence. It’s a human thing.  It’s not a magic wand that you wave over empires and totalitarian regimes and they simply melt away, though sometimes it’s seemed that way. There can, of course, be failure. Look at what the people in Syria face right now. And look at the staggering raw courage they’ve displayed in going out into the streets again and again in the face of so many slaughtered in their country. It’s anyone’s guess who’s going to emerge as the victor there.

AK: It can fail.

JS: It does fail. But the fact that it can succeed suggests something new historically. People, I think, are only beginning to understand this and notice it. Certainly, governments have noticed it. As soon as they see a few people getting out in the streets now, they start to get very nervous. For instance, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is obviously feeling this nervousness right now in the wake of the sub-zero activists in the streets of Moscow.

The Hidden Sphere of the Human Heart and Mind

AK: Unconquerable World was published in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the drum beat of invasion mania reached a deafening roar. How did that affect the book’s reception?

JS: At the moment it came out, in this country certainly, the believers in violence reigned supreme. Here I was saying all empires are going under the waves, and here under George W. Bush was the U.S. styling itself as the last world-straddling imperial superpower about to administer an unstoppable, shock-and-awe demonstration of its might. So it was a particularly unpropitious moment for a message about the power of nonviolence. There were some favorable reactions, but at that point the book didn’t really enter the broader discussion.

I honestly wondered myself whether this history of successful nonviolent movements hadn’t… [he hesitates] if not ended, at least come to a pause. Eight years later, I was as surprised as anyone by the Arab Spring. And while I’d certainly hoped for something like the Occupy movement in the United States, I hadn’t foreseen that either. I was happily surprised by these movements, which gave new life to the whole tradition of nonviolent action and revolution.

The reason I had wondered whether we weren’t at some sort of pause was that so much of the nonviolent action of the twentieth century had been tied to the anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements. Certainly that was true with Gandhi and the Soviet Union. Even the civil rights movement in the United States was, in a certain sense, a response to a crime that had really begun under imperial auspices — namely, the slave raids in Africa, which were distinctly an imperial enterprise. If I was right that a certain kind of territorial imperialism imposed by force had run its course, then maybe so had the movements generated in opposition to it. There were a few examples where that wasn’t the case.  Myanmar, for example.

There was, however, another aspect to the surprise of 2011. I think it may be the nature of such nonviolent movements that they come as a surprise, because at their very root seems to be a sudden change in the hidden sphere of the human heart and mind that then becomes contagious. It’s as though below the visible landscape of politics, whose permanence and strength we characteristically overestimate, there’s this other landscape we rather pallidly call the world of opinion.

And somewhere in this landscape of popular will, in these changes in hearts and minds — a phrase that has become a cliché but still expresses a deep truth — lie hidden powers that, when they erupt, can overmatch and bring down existing structures. That’s what John Adams said about the American Revolution: the revolution was in the hearts of the people, the minds of the people. It was amazing to find that very Vietnam-era phrase in Adams’ eighteenth century writings. What John Adams was saying you find over and over again in the history of revolutions, once you look for it.

Occupy and Freedom

I used to say that, before the Occupy movement here, we Americans were suffering from our own energy crisis, which was so much more important than not being able to drill for crude oil.  We didn’t know how to drop a bucket into our own hearts and come up with the necessary will to do the things that needed to be done. The real “drill, baby, drill” that we needed was to delve into our own consciousness and come up with the will.

AK: How do you see the history of nonviolent action since Unconquerable World was published? What were you thinking about the Tunisian uprising, the Egyptian uprising, the Occupy movement, the general global protest movement of the present moment that arose remarkably nonviolently?

JS: I was astonished. Even now, I don’t feel that I understand what the causes were. I’m not even sure it makes sense to speak of the causes.  If you point to a cause — oppression, food prices rising, cronyism, corruption, torture — these things go on for decades and nothing happens. Nobody does anything. Then in a twinkling everything changes. Twenty-three days in Egypt and Mubarak is gone.

How and why a people suddenly develops a will to change the conditions under which it’s living is, to me, one of the deep mysteries of all politics. That’s why I don’t blame myself or anyone else for not expecting or predicting the Arab Spring. How that happens may, in the end, be undiscoverable. And I think the reason for that is connected to freedom.  Such changes in opinion and will are somewhere near the root of what we mean when we talk about the exercise of freedom. Almost by definition, freedom refers to something not visibly or obviously caused by anything else. Otherwise it would be compelled, not free.

And yet there is nothing obscure — in the sense of clouded or dark — about freedom. Its exercise is perhaps the most public of all things, as well as the most powerful, as recent history shows. It’s a daylight mystery.

Andy Kroll is an associate editor at TomDispatch and a staff reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine. He writes about politics, business, and campaign finance. He can be reached at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Andy Kroll

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Egypt was not Tunisia after all

January 1st, 2012 Comments off

Remember how, in early January, Egyptian officials and many a pundit warned that “Egypt is not Tunisia,” suggesting an uprising against Mubarak was unlikely? I wrote about this in one of my first long pieces on the uprisings in the LRB, before Mubarak was toppled, and have thought about it a lot since. I take to task the centrality of the Egyptian uprising in a new piece in The National (part of a series of three looking at the Arab uprisings), and argue that Tunisia must be given its due. To me, the Tunisian revolution (because it is that, a revolution) was the most remarkable event of 2011, and I’m glad I got a chance to witness key parts of it.

It has often been written in the past year that the beating heart of the Arab uprisings is Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In this view, the events that took place the month before in Tunisia were a mere precursor to the real deal – the Egyptian revolution – as if the Tunisians were simply the warm-up act for the star of the show.

The fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after all, was the most unexpected and counterintuitive of events: Ben Ali’s Tunisia had been a well-run, orderly little place with its share of social problems and a pervasive police state, but no real political fissure on the horizon. Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, on the other hand, was a disaster waiting to happen, in which an elderly president, his ineffectual son and a divided regime were gearing for battle as a leadership succession loomed.

In other words – from this perspective – tiny Tunisia was an uprising that could have easily ended differently if, during a few hours of panic on January 14, the president had not caved into the advice of his security chief and decided to leave the country. In expansive Egypt, long a gravity well of the Arab world, the spark of Ben Ali’s downfall found ready kindle to unleash a much larger revolt that spread like wildfire.

I beg to differ with this analysis, which puts the horse before the cart. It is true that few saw the Tunisian uprising coming, despite waves of social unrest in the country’s poor hinterlands in 2008 and the unceasing and dull brutality of Ben Ali’s security forces. And it is true that the Tunisian revolt was less filled with tension and drama than the Egyptian one, which had the world’s cameras perched above Tahrir Square and a people given to dramatic performances to enchant them. But we should not confuse the spectacular nature of the “Arab Spring”, as brought to you by CNN and Al Jazeera, with its reality.

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Ten Years after 9/11, Do the Arabs value Democracy more than We do?

September 11th, 2011 Comments off

The September 11 attacks have been revealed as a last gasp of a fading, cult-like twentieth-century vision, not as the wave of the future. They were the equivalent of the frenetic dashing to and fro of a chicken already beheaded. Al-Qaeda’s core assumptions have been refuted by subsequent events and above all in 2011 by the Arab Spring.

Al-Qaeda was grossly over-estimated in the wake of the horrific September 11 attacks. It was a relatively small terrorist group that spent less than half a million dollars on the operation. It should have been dealt with as a police matter, not as the enemy in a trillion-dollar “war” conducted by the Pentagon. It did, however, have clever over-all strategy and political ideology. It adopted a form of pan-Islamism, a dream of making Islam a basis for a national idea, so that an Islamic superpower could be created, in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be provinces. This superpower would be a dictatorship, and would come into being through the actions of pan-Islamic guerrillas in each country who would violently overthrow the national government. The point of attacking the United States was only that it was seen to stand behind the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and so forth, making them impossible to overthrow.

All the major assumptions of Bin Laden and his associates have fallen by the wayside in the Arab world. First, it has been shown that dictators such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia can be overthrown by peaceful crowd action, emulating Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The cry in Tahrir Square last winter in downtown Cairo was “Silmiya, Silmiya!” — Peacefully, peacefully.

Second, it has been demonstrated that the leading edge in political change in the Arab world is relatively secular youth who support labor unions and dignity for working people– i.e. that the most effective revolutionaries are a kind of Arab New Left, not small cells of fundamentalist terrorists. Muslim fundamentalist political parties may benefit from the political opening achieved by the Arab New Left youth movements, but they have mostly tagged along behind the latter.

Third, it has been shown that the United States and Western Europe can be constrained to support the overthrow of even pro-Western dictators if the masses persistently come out and demand democratic change. That is, it is not necessary to attack the US militarily in order to achieve political transition in pro-American regimes such as that of Mubarak.

Just as the massive crowds of young demonstrators constrained regime members such as Rashid Ammar (chief of staff in Tunisia), Air Marshall Hussein Tantawi of Egypt, and technocrat Mustafa Abdel Jalil of Libya to defect to the reformers, so the same masses could convince President Barack Obama at length to demand the departure of Mubarak and of Qaddafi. Obviously, Western support can only be hoped for in the case of a likely transition to democratic regimes with moderate policies, such that domestic reform through moderation synchronizes with gaining foreign acquiescence in it.

Bin Laden had imbibed through Egyptian radical theorist Sayyid Qutb the Leninist notion that change requires vanguard fighters (tala’i`). But the masses showed that they do not need seedy vanguards to represent and potentially to hijack their movements. They are perfectly capable of asserting their own agency.

Fourth, it has been demonstrated that most publics in the Arab world see parliamentary democracy as the most suitable political system going forward. They are thus rejecting the Leninist critique of parliaments as mere tools of oppression by the rich and as ultimately undemocratic because only representative– a critique that had been taken into both leftist and Muslim fundamentalist Arab ideologies. The dream of direct democracy has over and over again revealed itself to be a mere illusion enabling a ferocious dictatorship. Qaddafi even maintained that he had stepped down from power and wasn’t ruling, an absurd assertion credited by his more gullible useful idiots in the West. No one has suffered more from the anti-democratic utopianism of the twentieth century, which most Arab countries implemented on becoming independent from their colonial masters (the British, French and Italians). But the age of dictators and Supreme Guides who incarnated at once the will of the people and the will of God is passing in the Middle East, leaving authoritarian movements like al-Qaeda in the dust of history.

Ironically, American politicians attempted to pull the wool over our eyes by saying that al-Qaeda hated us for our values. But it turns out that the Arabs are now the peoples sacrificing most for a rule of law, accountability, transparency, and parliamentary governance. One wonders, indeed, if they do not now value those things more than most Americans.

The decade kicked off by the September 11 attacks has been a nightmare for the United States, from which we strive and fail to awake. The attacks themselves were an exercise in mass terror, and among the more effective such operations in modern history. They were intended to have one of two consequences. One possibility was that they would draw the US into the Middle East, as the Soviets had been drawn into Afghanistan, which would allow al-Qaeda and its allies to mire its troops in a fruitless and enervating guerrilla war.

Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan visited Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1996:

” It seems Osama bin Laden had a long-term strategy. He told me personally that he can’t go and fight the Americans and their country. But if he manages to provoke them and bring them to the Middle East and to their Muslim worlds, where he can find them or fight them on his own turf, he will actually teach them a lesson.”

The other possibility was that the US would decide that imperial micro-management of the Middle East was not worth the cost, and would withdraw from the regionm thus allowing the overthrow of their clients among the Arab governments. The entire ideology was never more than a crackpot vision, entirely unrealistic and all the more violent for that.

The US public responded nobly to the attacks, but US elites replied with perfidy. Americans pulled together, so that feelings of racial alienation declined. They were careful not to blame Muslims in general, and remembered that American Muslims were among the victims. They were ready to sacrifice to make their country safe.

Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, however, saw the attacks as “an opportunity.” They were an opportunity to assert American dominance of the oil fields of the Middle East, and therefore, they reasoned, of the energy future of the entire world, ensuring the predominance of the American superpower throughout the twenty-first century. They thus followed a successful overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan with a disastrous military occupation of that country. They coddled the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. They threw international law into the trash compactor and invaded and occupied Iraq, kicking off a massive insurgency and then a civil war, and leaving the country a political basket case. They left hundreds of thousands dead and some 4 million displaced. In northern Pakistan and then in Yemen and elsewhere, a covert program of drone strikes was carried out lawlessly and with no oversight; because it is done by the CIA and is classified, our elected officials cannot even confirm that it exists, much less conduct a public debate as to its legality, constitutional validity, or wisdom.

The political leaders of the United States refused to look in a cleared-eyed way at the roots of Middle Eastern anger at Washington, and they missed the opportunity to deprive al-Qaeda of its recruiting tools. Had the US moved the region quickly to a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, it would have resolved 80% of the dissatisfaction with the US. Had it lifted the blockade on medicine and chlorine in Iraq, it would have forestalled charges of being implicated in the deaths of half a million children. But the Bush administration believed in beating people into submission, not in working toward political compromises that might repair the American reputation.

At home, our politicians, bureaucrats and even many judges actively pursued a profound betrayal of the US constitution and its bill of rights, virtually overturning the fourth amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure of private correspondence and effects. Nearly a million Americans were put on a travel watch list and their travel often interfered with, most of them for no reason other than that they had attended peaceful demonstrations. The US government advocated for torture, assassination, and extra-judicial kidnapping. Via Abu Ghraib it became the world’s largest purveyor of prison pornography. A vast and labyrinthine national security state was constructed that appears to be under no one’s control, and the intelligence estimates of which are too numerous and too closely guarded for them ever to be given practical effect by our legislators.

The al-Qaeda masterminds of September 11, now mostly deceased or incarcerated, imagined that they would destroy the US as an imperial power and would go on to take power in the Middle East. They were wrong on both fronts, being megalomaniacs and having no sense of reality. They were reduced to irrelevancy in the region, however, by leftist youth movements such as April 6 in Egypt.

In and of themselves, they had little impact on the United States, perhaps taking a point off economic growth in 2001-2002. Their danger for the US was that they were used as a pretext by a coterie of powerful American nationalists tied to right wing billionaires, who, like termites, were eager to gnaw away at the foundations of the rule of law, individual rights, and basic liberties on the domestic scene. In that regard, September 11 was not primarily an event in US foreign policy, but rather a launching pad for domestic forces of the worst sort, who could neutralize public opinion by constantly frightening them with alleged Muslim terrorists. The US took a turn to the far right ten years ago, toward a praetorian state of perpetual war, a society where workers were forestalled from unionizing, a society where the government routinely spied on phone records and emails, a society where warrantless surveillance became routine, a society where basic rights such as habeas corpus were placed in doubt, a society that hid from itself its own methods of empire– torture, disappearance, bombing raids on civilian cities with no shred of international legal justification.

Some critics trace the debt and budget crisis to the Bush wars, but in a $14.5 trillion a year economy, the $1 trillion spent on the wars over a decade was not decisive. The real cost of the wars of aggression was a decline in the standing of the US abroad, a gutting of the UN Charter and international legal norms, and a de facto repeal civil liberties at home. The American people, however, are resilient and strong. The American system of government is flexible. If we are supine and abject, our children will not be. Already, federal government intrusion into our lives is being questioned on the right and the left alike. With hard work and a bit of luck, perhaps over the course of a generation, we can get our Bill of Rights back. And if government officials drag their feet too much in returning our inalienable rights to us, the Egyptian and Tunisian youth have already shown the way forward.

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Ben Ali: Claims He Didn’t Plan to Stay in Jidda

June 21st, 2011 Comments off

Make of this whatever you will: Through his lawyers, ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali now says that he intended to fly his family to Jidda in January and then return immediately to Tunisia, but his Presidential plane, told to wait for him in Jidda, took off without him. So what was the whole flying to Europe/turning around and refueling in Sicily Sardinia/then flying to Jidda thing all about?

Of course he’s just been sentenced in absentia, along with his wife, to 35 years in prison, so maybe that Saudi guest house in Jidda won’t look so bad after all.

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