Tag: Revolutions of 2011

Criminalizing Medical Aid

The crackdown in Bahrain hasn’t received as much attention as those elsewhere in the Arab world. In part, that’s because what’s happening in Syria and Libya are more spectacular. In part that’s because Bahrain doesn’t have many enemies among western regimes. Still, the regime smashed down an iron fist, one that hit the Shia community particularly hard. Although the government has officially lifted marital law, it continues to stifle political expression.


The latest news out of the country concerns the trial of medical professionals for treason. Their crime? They provided medical treatment to those injured by government forces. At least the court is allowing possible evidence of torture into the trial.

Thirty-four medical staff attended court out of 47 – 23 doctors and 24 nurses – who were charged with anti-state activities last month. It was not immediately clear why some were missing.

The doctors and nurses face allegations ranging from possessing weapons to harming the public by spreading false news and seeking to overthrow the ruling system in the strategic Gulf kingdom, which is home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet

But the trial was adjourned for a second time to 20 June after the chief judge at the special security tribunal accepted a request that the detainees should be medically examined to establish if they had been tortured. Lawyers for Bassim Dhaif, a consultant orthopedic surgeon, said he had been forced to stand for two weeks resulting in loss of sensation, swelling and discoloration of his feet and legs. Abdulla Al-Durazi, a trainee surgeon, had suffered a broken nose since the last court hearing and needed specialist medical care. Some had signed false confessions under threat and lawyers demanded they be re-investigated. When the accused attempted to describe the torture to the court the judge ordered them to be silent and had one doctor, Zahra Al-Sammak, a consultant anaesthetist, escorted from the court.

The detainees say their only “crime” was to treat injured protesters. Demonstrations led by Shia, who comprise 70 per cent of the population, started in February in protest at the discrimination they say they suffer at the hands of Bahrain’s Sunni rulers. But the protests were crushed by the state and a campaign of intimidation began against the doctors and nurses. Protesters wounded were afraid to seek treatment and ambulances were blocked from going out to retrieve the injured, they said.

On Sunday, the security court sentenced a 20-year-old woman to a year in prison for reciting poetry critical of Bahrain’s king.

Robert Fisk works up appropriate outrage:

These are the very same doctors and nurses I stood beside four months ago in the Sulaimaniya emergency room, some of them weeping as they tried to deal with gunshot wounds the like of which they had never seen before.

“How could they do this to these people?” one of them asked me. “We have never dealt with trauma wounds like these before.” Next to us lay a man with bullet wounds in the chest and thigh, coughing blood on to the floor.

The surgeons were frightened that they did not have the skills to save these victims of police violence. Now the police have accused the doctors and staff of killing the patients whom the police themselves shot.

How could these fine medical men and women have been trying to “topple” the monarchy?

The idea that these 48 defendants are guilty of such a vicious charge is not just preposterous. It is insane, a total perversion – no, the total opposite – of the truth. The police were firing at demonstrators from helicopters.

The idea that a woman and child died because they were rejected by doctors and refused medical treatment is a fantasy. The only problems medical staff encountered at the Sulaimaniya hospital – and again, I was a witness and, unlike the Bahraini security authorities, I do not tell lies – was from the cruel policemen who blocked patients from reaching the medical facility.

In truth, of course, the Khalifa family is not mad. Nor are the Sunni minority of Bahrain intrinsically bad or sectarian. The reality is clear for anyone to see in Bahrain. The Saudis are now running the country. They never received an invitation to send their own soldiers to support the Bahraini “security forces” from the Bahraini Crown Prince, who is a decent man.

The transformation of Bahrain into a Saudi protectorate has received too little attention. For the Saudis, Bahrain was a “line in the sand” for, as they see it, the Sunni-Shia struggle. Indeed, the US naval presence is only part of the reason Washington remains relatively quiet. With US-Saudi relations already strained over American support for the Arab Spring elsewhere in the Middle East, Washington understands that pushing too hard on Bahrain could destroy the partnership entirely.

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We Get Results! (Bahrain Edition)

Alex Cooley and I on Bahrain and US autocratic allies:

U.S. officials should make efforts to decouple the rationale of a given basing relationship from support for a particular regime. This means creating political space between Washington and the policies of authoritarian host countries whenever possible. With respect to Bahrain, U.S. officials should make clear that the U.S. military maintains its facilities for the defense of its territory and for regional stability — not for the purposes of propping up the ruling family. At the same time, Washington needs to signal that it believes that both countries’ interests are best served by greater political liberalization.

President Obama:

Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.

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Revolution, Revolution until Victory

‎”… Yet the crowds were not placated, and they spent the next hour in the courtyard repeating the classic songs of the uprising, “thowra thowra huta nasr” (revolution, revolution until victory).” –Al Jazeera (4/25/2011)

The revolution which overthrew Hosni Mubarak is in danger. While Western media outlets have given primacy in their coverage of events to speculative discussions about the historic, current, and future role of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the pivotal role of the Egyptian military, it is the organizations representing the rights of factory workers and allied leftist youth that actually did the heavy lifting from an organizational perspective before and during the revolution (see for example the April 6th Youth Movement). Thus, it is these same groups (whose demands include nationalizing textile factories, improving safety conditions, increasing wages for workers, and a maximum wage for the owners of capital) which will need to be addressed alongside more established political organizations if enduring stability is to be achieved.

But the demands of the workers are scarcely likely to be met given the severe economic challenges which lie ahead for Egypt and the broader global economic context in which this revolution is unfolding. The government has already turned to the IMF for $10-12 billion in financial assistance and $2.2 billion from the World Bank, citing a dramatic decline in revenue from the vital but perennially endangered tourism industry and a wave of worker strikes in recent months. Given the neo-liberal economic ideology and decisionist (Schmittian) political outlook toward developing countries that is prevalent among the Western governments that dominate the Executive Boards of the Bretton Woods institutions, as well as with military leaders and comprador economic elites in deveoping countries, the Egyptian state will undoubtedly face external pressure to repress worker demands. In fact, foreign pressure will most likely be used as a welcome opportunity by comprador elites to pursue preferred policies while placing the blame for repression on an external bogeyman.

As with many other developing countries, Egypt has a complex and politicized history of relations with the IMF (not to mention an even longer and more sordid history of sovereign debt to Western creditors prior to WWII). At times the historical narrative about Egypt-IMF relations has focused almost exclusively on the 1977 food riots that followed an attempt at structural adjustment during the Sadat regime. This narrative has usually been oversimplified by left leaning academics who have all too willingly bought into the military regime’s account of the structural adjustment program as a moral lesson in the political shortsightedness of the mandarins at the Fund and the inhumanity of a ruthless and disembedded neoliberal economic ideology. (In point of fact and as we now know, it was the military regime which proposed cutting food subsidies when the Fund had recommended slashing the unsustainable military budget). An overemphasis on that moment risks ignoring all of the efforts since then to implement neoliberal strategies of privatization, liberalization, and integration — half-hearted, illusory, and lackluster though they may have been.

If we look beyond the kabuki theater of the state’s relations with the Fund and neoliberalism more broadly, we can see that prospects for meeting the workers’ demands and reviving the textile industry, which constitutes about a quarter of both industrial employment and industrial production, are unlikely to emerge through neoliberal strategies. The current challenge to Egypt’s textile industry goes back to the phase out of the GATT/WTO textile quota regime in 2004 and the beginning of genuine global competition. Egypt’s textile industry which is characterized by low productivity simply could not compete against Chinese textile firms. Egypt was able to gain some breathing room by signing on to a tri-lateral preferential trade agreement (the QIZ) with Israel and the US, but the political climate in Gaza and the West Bank has hardly made this a robust alternative for Egypt.

If Egypt hopes to compete against China, it will need to study China’s reform of its own textile sector in the nineties which laid the ground work for its return to profitability in 2000.  The short version of the story is that China cut 2.7 million employees out of 7 million, closed 600 state-owned firms (1/5th of the total), suffered billions in losses while it restructured and updated equipment (Lardy 2002, 23). The real question is what enabled the state and society to endure this restructuring? The answer is far more complex than can be covered here, but at the very least it seems apparent that a set of economic strategies designed to winnow the state is the wrong path to take. To the contrary, the East Asian “model” generally points to the importance of strengthening state capacity in order to compete in the global marketplace. However, while such strategies are often anchored by nationalist ideology, they are rarely kind to the interests and radicalized demands of workers.

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Bahrain’s Base Politics

Alex Cooley and I have just published an article at Foreign Affairs Online on Bahrain and the politics of the US overseas basing network. An excerpt:

U.S. policymakers have long struggled to reconcile their support for friendly authoritarian regimes with their preference for political liberalization abroad. The ongoing upheavals in the Middle East, like so many developments before them, shine a bright light on this inconsistency. In Egypt, the Obama administration struggled to calibrate its message on the protests that toppled longtime ally Hosni Mubarak; in Libya, it leads a multinational coalition intent on using airpower to help bring down Muammar al-Qaddafi; and in Bahrain, the United States stands mostly silent as Saudi troops put down popular protests against the ruling al-Khalifa family.

Washington’s balancing act reflects more than the enduring tensions between pragmatism and idealism in U.S. foreign policy. It highlights the specific strains faced by defense planners as they attempt to maintain the integrity of the United States’ worldwide network of military bases, many of which are hosted in authoritarian, politically unstable, and corrupt countries. Now, with the “Arab Spring” unfolding, even U.S. basing agreements with some of its closest allies are vulnerable.

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Truth Will Win


For those keeping score on where the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East are headed and how to understand it all, it is worth noting that today marked the 30th anniversary of Solidarity’s first national warning strike. On March 27, 1981, more than 12 million Poles took to the streets in a peaceful protest action and in defiance of the Communist regime — a testimony of the power of non-violence. At the time, it was the largest protest action in the Soviet bloc history. The Poles did not have the internet, or Facebook, or Twitter — but they were still able to mobilize on an unprecedented scale. They had antiquated hand crank mimeograph machines (and red ink-stained hands) and an extensive informal network of laborers, students, and intellectuals that distributed posters throughout the country. This was the main poster plastered around the country on March 27, 1981 (the caption reads: “Truth Will Win”):

After the strike, the government never really did regain its footing — it moved back and forth over the next eight years from periods of excessive coercion (Martial Law) to accommodation looking for some recipe to reclaim popular support, revitalize a corrupt economic system, and restore its legitimacy. It couldn’t.

While coercion may keep the threatened regimes in the Middle East and North Africa in power in the short/medium term as happened in Poland (the Poles had to endure 19 months of Martial Law from Dec. 1981 to July 1983), I don’t see how these corrupt autocratic regimes will be able to reclaim public support, manage collapsing economies and restore legitimacy. OK, so 1989 probably is an oversimplified (and overused analogy) — I get it. But, I still think these regimes will eventually fall…

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Libya: West Running Out of Time?

If recent reports are correct, NATO is running out of time if it wants to use a no-fly zone to tilt the balance in favor of the rebels. The Russians and Chinese may eventually agree to a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, but efforts to secure their agreement will take time. And it is not at all clear that a no-fly zone will prove sufficient to overcome Gaddafi’s better-trained and equipped forces.

Thus, the debate over NATO (or NATO member-state intervention) needs to explicitly include the following issues:

  • Should NATO implement a no-fly zone in the absence of UNSC approval?
  • If it should, at what point does the cost of delay outweigh the value of UNSC approval?
  • If a no-fly zone cannot save the rebellion, what further measures should NATO be willing to undertake to oust Gaddafi?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I haven’t seen a slam-dunk argument for or against various forms of more pro-active NATO intervention. But I have seen a lot of arguments against intervention that should embarrass their sources. i.e., that do not frame the moral context in terms of a tyrant attempting to eradicate a popular uprising against his regime. There are many good reasons to still reject any form of foreign intervention given that context, but arguments that implicitly rely on deferring to the popular sovereignty of the Libyan people number not among them.

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Brief Questions Concerning Possible U.S. Responses to Libyan Civil War

Is NATO headed for all the attendant risks (via) of a Libya no-fly zone, but with implementation after it would prove most effective?

Also, at what point does a Civil War last long enough that it is okay for a third party to start directly arming its preferred side?

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Not-so Random Thought of the Day

Whether or not significant elements of the military defect continues to be the key factor in the Revolutions 2011.

(Photo: AP)

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Desperation in Libya

As reports circulate that the vast majority of Libya is in the hands of the opposition, Gaddafi blames al-Qaeda and drug-addled youth for the revolution:

Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, has said in a speech on Libyan state television that al-Qaeda is responsible for the uprising in Libya.

“It is obvious now that this issue is run by al-Qaeda,” he said, speaking by phone from un unspecified location.

He said that the protesters were young people who were being manipulated by al-Qaeda, and that many were doing so under the influence of drugs.

“No one above the age of 20 would actually take part in these events,” he said. “They are taking advantage of the young age of these people [to commit violent acts] because they are not legally liable!”

This kind of things would strike me as amusing, if it weren’t juxtaposed with another sign of desperation:

An army unit and militiamen loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi blasted a mosque with antiaircraft missiles and automatic weapons Thursday, targeting protesters who had holed up inside. The attack, which occurred just 30 miles from Tripoli, comes as Qaddafi finds himself increasingly squeezed by antiregime forces and isolated internationally for his brutal attempts to hold on to power.

Protesters inside the mosque “suffered heavy casualties,” though estimates for numbers killed were not available from witnesses, the Associated Press reports.

The attack was reportedly carried out by a legion of mercenaries and Qaddafi’s personal security forces. The New York Times describes the mercenary brigade fighting with an increasingly isolated Qaddafi, who may have even been deserted by parts of the Libyan armed forces at this point.

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Notes on Libya, etc.

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news, you undoubtedly know that Libya is in the midst of a revolution. The Libyan government understands that all too well; hence, the increasing force deployed against opponents of the regime. Tripoli can’t be pleased that some of its military and its diplomatic corp are defecting from the regime.

Anne Applebaum has written a column comparing the revolutions to 1848. That’s not a terrible comparison, insofar as we’re looking at a combination of transnational networking and demonstration effects triggering modular uprisings in different countries. But similar processes were at work in the Colour Revolutions, the post-WWI upheavals, the Protestant Reformations, and, albeit in a very different institutional environment, the cascading uprisings that marked the end of the Soviet Union. The kinds of reforms sought by the “median” regime opponent in the Middle East of 2011 would also look pretty familiar to those in Europe of 1848. But there are some important differences with 1848 and not a few of these other examples.


One of them, perhaps most relevant to the 1848 comparison, is how the regimes involved and the aims of their opponents fail to map onto any major source of international polarization (on this point, see John Owen’s excellent The Clash of Ideas in World Politics). We don’t have an international system increasingly polarized between authoritarian and democratic regimes. Most of the regimes involved are allies of democracies. These uprisings do not pit liberalism against fundamentalism, whatever some on the ideological fringe claim.

It is possible that 2011 could make the democracy-authoritarianism distinction more salient to international politics. For that to happen, existing democracies would have to be much more proactive in terms of throwing their weight behind the revolutionaries, and countries such as China would have to come to see their interests as requiring them to (1) shore up existing authoritarian regimes and (2) undermine new democracies. I don’t see this as likely, in large part because many of the current uprisings threaten pro-western governments and, if successul, are likely to produce regimes slightly less likely to support US and European “interests” in the Middle East (I use the quotations because I believe long-term US interests and values are best served by democratic Arab governments).

On the other hand, we do see a sense of solidarity among disparate pro-democracy protesters, pro-union protesters, and anti-austerity protesters across the globe. So far, the evidence for this strikes me as amounting to little more than anecdotes of a very ephemeral sense of collective effervescence among disparate movements operating under conditions of globalization. Thousands of miles wide, inches deep.

However, the statements and gestures of solidarity should remind US citizens what people in autocratic environments understand very well: that collective bargaining (and power in union) matters not simply for economic justice, but for the health of civil society and democracy. Union mobilization proved crucial to Mubarak’s fall. The military regime now running Egypt has sought to limit union actions. Whatever their faults–and they have many–unions are a crucial check against economic and political oligarchy. We ignore this at our peril.

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