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Monday, March 21, 2011
Pepe Escobar on the Demos of MENA
This is an excellent commentary
of the evolving events in the Middle East.The most important take home is that the
Eastern European revolt against autocracy has taken hold in what we now call
MENA and the most important domino has fallen.Others will fall, and Iran
will continue to tremble.
In truth, all the autocrats are
certainly putting contingency plans in place to facilitate their graceful exit.The Arabs have truly discovered the power of mass
confrontation and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
In Libya, Qaddafi is at war with his
own people.This will harden attitudes
everywhere and certainly will not prevent the population from been continuously
restive.It is pretty hard to operate a
country as a prison camp when the population is now armed and angry.Qaddafi simply has not figured it all out yet
and is setting himself up as an example to the rest.
As also related, all those truths
we have been peddled about MENA have been overturned by the people
themselves.When it is all over, we will
live in peace with Islam and the fanatics will have no meaningful support.That was a dreamer’s outcome a mere month or
The great lesson is that
democracy again chokes back radicalism if given half a chance and a little
time.In time it will choke back even China.
Pepe Escobar, Mummies and Models in the New Middle
They can’t help themselves. Really, they can’t. Like
children, the most monstrous of secret police outfits evidently come to believe
themselves immortal. They lose all ability to imagine that they might
ever go down and so keep records to the very moment of their collapse.
Those records, so copious, damning, and unbearably detailed (which doesn’t make
them accurate), provide something like a composite snapshot of the rotting
innards of oppressive and brutal regimes -- of their torture practices and
their informers, of every citizen who knowingly or unknowingly crossed some
line and many who didn’t, and of the corrupt doings of the leaders who gave the
secret police free rein.
And so it was bound to happen, as it did in East Germany and elsewhere in the former
Soviet bloc after 1989, that the innards of the hated Egyptian state security
agency Amn al Dawla (“Mubarak’s Gestapo,” as it’s now being called) would finally
see the light of day. The Tahrir
Square demonstrators demanded that it be
disbanded. Now, its torture chambers have been photographed and you can
take a tour of the suite of former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly (at present
under arrest) in its Cairo
headquarters on YouTube.
Some activists have had
the startling experience of reading their own files;
others were able to revisit the cells where they had once been tortured.
All this happened because thousands of protestors recently stormed that
notorious headquarters and other of the agency’s offices, liberating secret
files by the bushel-load, thousands upon thousands of them, even though
security officials tried to destroy them. After decades of such
record-keeping, there were undoubtedly simply too many to destroy. (At
the moment, 67 state security figures suspected of being involved in the
destruction of those files are being detained for
Really, it's a glorious moment and a strange one as well. After
all, in 2006 when Wikileaks first began leaking documents, it seemed a novel,
even one-of-a-kind organization. That turned out to be a
misapprehension. It was merely a pioneer in a new age of
anti-state-secrecy sunshine activism. We are now, it seems, plunged into
a WikiLeaks world. While the Egyptian army pleads for
the return of the documents, even as it threatens prosecution, and demands that
they not be made public, they are already appearing (along with possible fakes)
on their own Facebook pages, being tweeted about and discussed,
written about, shown on television, and reproduced in newspapers as if all of
Egypt were a giant WikiLeaks machine.
Right now, for such a world of energizing if anarchic openness, only
one person is paying the price: a 23-year-old being kept in the
strictest, most punitive version of isolation, sometimes even
beingdenied clothes, under abusive conditions in a cell not in
Mubarak’s Egypt, but on a Marine base in Quantico, Virginia. This is, of
Manning, the Army private accused of turning hundreds of thousands of
documents over to WikiLeaks. His mistreatment is now common
knowledge. About it, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley had this to say late last week at MIT: “I spent 26 years
in the Air Force. What is happening to Manning is ridiculous,
counterproductive, and stupid, and I don't know why the DoD [Department of
Defense] is doing it.” In response to a question undoubtedly provoked by
Crowley's comments, Manning’s commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, acknowledged the situation at his Friday press
conference and even though he dismissed it,
he is now certainly accountable for it. (For his blunt honesty, Crowley
was promptly forced to resign.)
In the meantime, the Egyptian demonstrators have picked up where
Manning left off and, in terms of shining a light into some very dark corners,
are leading the way. As that peripatetic and irrepressible roving
correspondent for Asia Times (and TomDispatch
regular) Pepe Escobar points out, this may not, in the end, be the only way
in which Egyptians break new ground in a very old world. Tom
the Future IndoTurkeZil?
So Many Ways to Strut Your Democratic Stuff in a New World
Three mummies were recently found in an underground temple in Luxor, Egypt.
Translated hieroglyphs identified them as the Clash of Civilizations, the End
of History, and Islamophobia. They ruled in Western domains into the second
decade of the twenty-first century before dying and being embalmed.
That much is settled. Without them, the Middle
East is already a new world that must be understood in a new
way. For one thing, Egypt,
that previously moribund land of “stability” and bosom buddy of whoever was in
power in Washington, has been hurled into the Middle East’s New Great Game. The question is:
What will be its fate -- and that of the millions of Egyptians who took to the
streets in a staggering show of aggressive nonviolence in January and February?
It is, of course, impossible to say,
especially since shadow play is the norm and the realities of rule are hard to
discern. In a country where “politics” has for decades meant the army, it’s
notable that the key actor supposedly coordinating the “transition to
democracy” remains an appointee of Pharaoh Hosni Mubarak, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi from the Supreme Army
Council. At least, popular pressure has forced Tantawi’s military junta
to appoint a new transitional Prime Minister, the Tahrir-Square-friendly former
transport minister Essam Sharaf.
Keep in mind that the hated emergency laws from the Mubarak era, part
of what provoked the Egyptian uprising to begin with, are still in place and
that the country’s intellectuals, its political parties, labor unions, and the
media all fear a silent counterrevolution. At the same time, they almost uniformly
insist that the Tahrir Square
revolution will neither be hijacked nor rebranded by opportunists. As the
ideological divide between liberalism, secularism, and Islamism disintegrated
when the country’s psychological Wall of Fear came down, lawyers, doctors,
textile workers -- a range of the country’s civil society -- remain clear on
one thing: they will never settle for a theocracy or a military dictatorship.
They want full democracy.
No wonder what that implies makes Western diplomatic
circles tremble. An Egyptian army even remotely accountable to an elected
civilian government will not, for instance, collaborate in the Israeli siege of
Gaza’s Palestinians, or in CIA renditions of terror suspects to the country’s
prisons, or blindly in that monstrous farce, the Israeli-Palestinian “peace
Meanwhile, there are more pedestrian matters to deal with: How, for
example, will the army-directed transition towards September elections make the
economic numbers add up? In 2009, Egypt’s import bill was $56 billion, while the country’s
exports only added up to $29 billion. Tourism, foreign aid, and borrowing
helped fill the gap. The uprising sent tourism into a tailspin and who knows what kinds
of aid and loans anyone will fork over in the months to come.
Meanwhile, the country will have to import no less than 10 million tons
of wheat in 2011 at about $3.3 billion (if grain prices don’t continue to rise)
to keep people at least half-fed. This is but a small part of Mubarak’s tawdry
legacy, which includes 40 million Egyptians, almost half the population, living
on less than $2 a day, and it’s not going to disappear overnight, if at all.
Hit by a rolling, largely peaceful revolution all across MENA (the
newly popular acronym for the Middle East and Northern Africa), Washington and an aging Fortress Europe,
filled with fear, wallow in a mire of perplexity. Even after the dust from
those rebellious Northern African winds settles, it’s hardly a given that they
will grasp just how all the cultural stereotypes used to explain the Middle
East for decades also managed to vanish.
My favorite line of the Great Arab Revolt of 2011 is still Tunisian
scholar Sarhan Dhouib’s: “These revolts are an answer to [George
W.] Bush’s intent to democratize the Arab world with violence.” If “shock
and awe” is now also an artifact of an ancient world, what’s next?
Models for Rent or Sale
On February 3rd, the Turkish
Economic and Social Studies Foundation published a poll conducted in
seven Arab countries and Iran.
No less than 66% of respondents considered Turkey, not Iran,
the ideal model for the Middle East. A media
scrum from Le Monde to the Financial Times now evidently
concurs. After all, Turkey
is a functional democracy in a Muslim-majority country where the separation of
mosque and state prevails.
That stellar Islamic scholar at Oxford,
Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, also
recently labeled the “Turkish way” as “a source of
inspiration.” In late February, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
agreed, with a surfeit of modesty that barely covered the ambitions of the new Turkey,
insisting that his country does not want to be a model for the region, “but we
can be a source of inspiration.”
The Egyptian Marxist economist Samir Amin -- widely respected across
the developing world -- suspects that, whatever the hopes of the Turks and
others, including so many Egyptians, Washington has quite different ideas about
destiny. It wants, he believes, not a Turkish model but a Pakistani one for that
country: that is, the mix of an “Islamic power” with a military dictatorship.
It won’t fly, Amin is convinced, because “the Egyptian people are now highly
The process of true democratization that began back in the distant
1950s in Turkey
proved to be a long road. Nonetheless, despite periodic military coups and the
continuing political power of the Turkish army, elections were, and remain,
free. The Justice and Development Party, or AKP,
now at the Turkish helm, was founded in August 2001 by former members of the
Refah Party, a much more conservative Islamic group with an ideology similar to
that of today’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
As the AKP mellowed out, however, the pro-business, pro-European Union
wing of the country’s Islamists mixed with various center-right politicians
and, in 2002, the AKP finally took power in Ankara. Only then could they begin to slowly
undermine the stranglehold of the traditional Istanbul-based secular Turkish
elite and the military that had held power since the 1920s.
Yet the AKP did not dream of dismantling the secular system first
installed by Turkey’s
founding father Mustapha Kemal Ataturk in 1924. The Turkish civil code
he instituted was inspired by Switzerland
with citizenship based on secular law. While the country is predominantly
Muslim, of course, its people simply would not welcome a system, as in
that is guided by religion.
The AKP should be viewed as the equivalent of the Christian Democrats in Europe
after the 1950s -- dynamic, business-oriented conservatives with religious
roots. In Egypt,
the moderate wing of the Muslim Brotherhood has many similarities to the AKP
and looks to it for inspiration. In the new Egypt, it will finally be a
legitimate political party and most experts believe that it could garner 25% to
30% of the vote in the first election of the new era.
All Roads Lead to Tahrir
Turkish critics -- usually from the Western-oriented technical and
managerial caste -- regularly accuse the democracy-meets-Islam Turkish model of
being little more than a successful marketing ploy, or worse, a Middle Eastern
version of Russia.
After all, the army still wields disproportionate behind-the-scenes power as
guarantor of the state’s secular framework. And the country’s Kurdish minority
is not really integrated into the system (although in September 2010 Turkish
voters approved constitutional changes that give greater rights to
Christians and Kurds).
With its glorious Ottoman past, notes Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize for
Literature, Turkey was never colonized by a world power, and thus “‘veneration
of Europe’ or ‘imitation of the West’ never had the humiliating connotations”
described by Frantz Fanon or Edward Said for much of the rest of the Middle
East and North Africa.
There are stark differences between Turkey’s
road to a military-free democracy in 2002 and the littered path ahead for Egypt’s
young demonstrators and nascent political parties. In Turkey the key
actors were pro-business Islamists, conservatives, neo-liberals, and right-wing
nationalists. In Egypt
they are pro-labor Islamists, leftists, liberals, and left-wing nationalists.
The Tahrir Square
revolution was essentially unleashed by two youth
groups: the April 6 Youth Movement (which was geared towards solidarity
with workers on strike), and We Are All Khaled Said (which mobilized against
police brutality). Later, they would be joined by Muslim Brotherhood activists
and -- crucially -- organized labor, the masses of workers (and the unemployed)
who had suffered from years of the International Monetary Fund’s “structural
adjustment” poison. (As late as April 2010, an IMF delegation visited Cairo and praised Mubarak’s
The revolution in Tahrir
Square made the necessary connections in a deeply
comprehensible way. It managed to go to the heart of the matter, linking
miserable wages, mass unemployment, and increasing poverty to the ways in which
Mubarak’s cronies (and also the military establishment) enriched
themselves. Sooner or later, in any showdown to come, the way the
military controls so much of the economy will be an unavoidable
topic -- the way, for instance, army-owned companies continue to make a killing
in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel, and oil industries, or
the way the military has come to own significant tracts of land in the Nile
Delta and on the Red Sea, “gifts” for guaranteeing regime stability.
It’s not surprising that key sectors in the West are pushing for
a “safe” Turkish model for Egypt. Yet, given the country’s
immiseration, it’s unlikely that young protesters and their working class
supporters will be appeased even by the possibility of a Turkish-style,
neoliberal, Islamo-democratic system. What this leftist/liberal/Islamist
coalition is fighting for is a labor-friendly, independent, truly sovereign
democracy. It doesn’t take a PhD. from the LondonSchool of Economics, like the one bought by Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, to see how
cataclysmic this newly independent outlook could be for the current status quo.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Don’t misunderstand: Whether the Tahrir Square activists want to reproduce
the Turkish system in Egypt
or not, Turkey
itself is immensely popular there, as it increasingly is in the wider Arab
world. That offers Ankara’s politicians the perfect scenario for consolidating
the country’s regional leadership role, distinctly on the rise since, in 2003,
its leaders established their independence by rebuffing George W. Bush’s desire
to use Turkish territory in his invasion of Iraq.
That popularity was only heightened after eight of the nine victims
shot by Israeli commandos in the Gaza
freedom flotilla fiasco turned out to be Turks. When Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan vociferously condemned Israel
for its “bloody massacre,” he instantly became the “King of Gaza.” When Mubarak finally responded to the Tahrir Square
demonstrations by announcing that he would not run again for president in 2011,
President Obama didn’t say much, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
not to “rush towards elections.” As for Erdogan, he virtually ordered Mubarak to step down, live on al-Jazeera for
the whole Muslim world to see.
While Washington fiddled with embracing the wrong side of history,
however reluctantly and chaotically, in the company of those staunch Mubarak
defenders Israel and Saudi Arabia, Erdogan -- with a canny assessment of
regional politics -- preferred to back Egyptians attempting to chart their own
destiny. And it paid off.
The point is not that America
is now “losing” Turkey,
nor that, as some critics have charged, Erdogan is dreaming of becoming a
neo-Ottoman Caliph (whatever that might mean). What must be understood
here is a new Turkish concept: strategic depth. For that we need to turn to a
book, Stratejik Derinlik: Turkiye’nin Uluslararasi Konumu (Strategic
Depth: Turkey’s International Position), published in Istanbul in 2001 by Ahmet
Davutoglu, then a professor of international relations at the University of
Marmara, now Turkey’s Foreign Minister.
In that book, Davutoglu looked into a future that seems ever closer to
now and placed Turkey at the center of three concentric circles: 1) the
Balkans, the Black Sea basin, and the Caucasus; 2) the Middle East and the
Eastern Mediterranean; 3) the Persian Gulf, Africa, and Central Asia. When it
came to future areas of influence, even in 2001 he believed that Turkey could
potentially claim no less than eight: the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus,
the Caspian, Turkic Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and the
Mediterranean. Today, he is a key player, and in many of those same areas of
potential influence, people are indeed looking to Turkey. It’s a remarkable
moment for Davutoglu, who remains convinced that Ankara
will be a force to reckon with in the Middle East.
As he puts it, simply enough, “This is our home.”
Take the idea of Turkey’s “strategic depth” and combine it with the
Great Arab Revolt of 2011 and you understand why Erdogan has launched a bid not
just to make the Turkish model the Egyptian one or even the Middle Eastern one,
but to upstage Egypt as the future mediator between the region and the West.
That Erdogan and Davutoglu were heading in this direction has been clear enough
from the way, in the past few years, they have tried to insert themselves as
mediators between Syria and Israel and have launched a complex political,
diplomatic, and economic opening towards Iran.
And speaking of historical ironies, just as Iran’s fundamentalist
leaders were watching an Egyptian regime deeply hostile to them go down,
protests by the Iranian Green
Movement suddenly began to rock Tehran again -- during a visit by none
other than Turkish President Abdullah Gul. The protests were handled with what
amounted to a velvet glove (by Tehran’s standards) because the military
dictatorship of the mullahtariat found itself in a potentially losing
competition with its Turkish ally to become the number one inspirational source
for Arab mass movements.
Java: Democracy with Your Coffee?
If Egyptians want lessons in the establishment of democracy, Turkey
is hardly the only place to turn to for inspiration. They could, for
example, look to Latin America. For the first
time in over 500 years, South America is fully
democratic. As in Egypt,
so in many Latin American countries in the Cold War era, dictatorships were the
order of the day and militaries ruled. In Brazil, for instance, the “slow,
gradual, and secure” political opening that left a military dictatorship behind
took practically a decade.
That implies a lot of patience. The same applies to another
model: Indonesia. There, in 1998, Suharto, an aging U.S.-backed
dictator 32 years in power, finally resigned only a few days after returning
from a visit to, of all places, Cairo.
Indonesia then looked a lot
in February 2011: a Western-friendly, predominantly Muslim nation, impoverished
and fed up with a mega-corrupt military dictator who crushed leftist
intellectuals as well as political Islam.
Thirteen years later, Indonesia
is the world’s third largest democracy and the freest in Southeast
Asia, with a secular government, a booming economy, and the
military out of politics.
I still have vivid memories of riding a bike one day in May 1998 across
the Indonesian capital, Jakarta,
while it was literally on fire, rage exploding in endless columns of smoke. Washington
did not intervene then, nor did China, nor the 10-member Association of
Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesians did it for themselves. The transition
followed an existing, if previously largely ignored, constitution. (In Egypt,
the constitution now must be amended via a referendum.)
True, Indonesians had to live for a while with Suharto’s handpicked
vice president, the affable B.J. Habibie (so unlike Mubarak’s handpicked
successor the sinister Omar “Sheikh al-Torture” Suleiman). It took a year to organize
new elections, amend electoral laws, and get rid of appointed seats in
Parliament. It took six years for the first direct presidential election.
And yes, corruption is still a huge problem, and wealth and the right
connections go a long way (as is true, some would say, in the U.S.). But
today, the rule of law prevails.
An “Islamic state” never had a chance. Today, only 25% of
Indonesians vote for Islamic parties, while the well-organized
Prosperous Justice Party, an ideological descendant of the Muslim Brotherhood,
but now officially open to non-Muslims, holds only four out of 37 seats in
the cabinet of President Yudhoyono, and expects to win no
more than 10% of the vote in the 2014 elections.
While Indonesia remains close to the U.S. and is heavily courted by
Washington as a counterweight to China, Brazil under the presidency of
immensely popular Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva charted a
far more independent path for itself and, by example, much of Latin America.
This process took almost a decade and future historians may see it as at least
as significant as the fall of the Berlin
In Eastern Europe, 1989 could be seen,
in part, as a chain of rebellions by people yearning to get access to the
global market. The Great Arab Revolt, on the other hand, has been an uprising
in significant part against the dictatorship of that same market.
Protestors from Tunisia to Bahrain are
striking out in favor of social inclusion and new, better social and economic
contracts. No wonder this staggering, ongoing upheaval is regarded across Latin America with tremendous empathy and with the
feeling that "We did it, and now they’re doing it."
The future is, of course, unknown, but perhaps a decade or two from now,
we’ll be able to say that the Egyptians and other Arab peoples struck out not
on the Turkish model, nor even the Brazilian or Indonesian ones, but onto a set
of new paths. Perhaps the future from Cairo to Tunis, Benghazi to Manama,
Algiers to (Allah willing) a post-House of Saud Saudi Arabia will involve
inventing a new political culture and the new economic contracts that would go
with it, ones that will be indigenous and, hopefully, democratic in new and
Which brings us back to Turkey.
It’s perfectly feasible that Islam will be one of the building blocks of
something entirely new, something no one today has a clue about, something that
will resemble what was, in Europe, the
separation between politics and religion. In the spirit of May 1968, perhaps we
can even picture an Arab Banksy plastering a stencil across all Arab capitals:
Imagination in Power!