Tag: Tunisia

We are all Khaled Said, We are all Mohammed Bouazizi

Apparently separate and relatively peaceful revolutions have now toppled dictatorial regimes in two North African states. What provoked these events?  While there are a wide range of political and economic factors as well as organizations that had been building for years, the proximate causes that triggered the call for protests were quite similar.

A cartoon by Carlos Latuff depicting the late
Khaled Said’s revenge on President Hosni Mubarak

The trigger for both events can be traced to two individuals. The outrage that started the January 25th revolution in Egypt was the brutal death of a 28 year old Alexandrian businessman, Khaled Said on the 6th of June last year; and the self-immolation of the 26 year old Mohammed Bouazizi in December started the Sidi Bouzid revolution in Tunisia.

The narratives of both men revolve around difficulties at the hands of arrogant and corrupt police officers. In the case of Khaled Said, he refused to show his identification to police in a cafe as they did not have the right to make such a demand and he knew it was only a ruse to get a bribe. (Anyone who has lived in Cairo long enough has encountered this scenario). The police responded to Said’s defiance by hauling him out of the cafe, and as he pleaded for his life, the police beat him to death over the course of twenty minutes. The Egyptian government attempted to explain the death of Khaled Said by discrediting his reputation and claiming that he died of asphyxiation from trying to swallow a bag of marijuana. The circulation of graphic photos of Said’s dead body made it plainly evident that he had died in the most horrible manner. It should not be surprising then that the protests which erupted under the banner “We are all Khaled Said” occurred on January 25th which was declared National Police Day in Egypt in 2009.

In Tunisia, Bouazizi had his only means of supporting a family of eight, an illegal fruit cart, seized by the police, who also apparently insulted him. Unable to bribe the police or gain an audience from a local magistrate and upset at the fine he had to pay to recover his fruit cart, the young man set himself on fire in protest on December 17th and died on January 4th.

While these events would not have garnered the same level of attention as quickly without social media and satellite television and the protests would not have been as successful without shrewd street-level organizing as well as serious miscalculations about the political economy of violence by riot police, what interests me is why these two particular deaths, among hundreds of citizens in both countries who had been killed/tortured by regime thugs over the years or who killed themselves, created such waves of sympathy and outrage which could be mobilized by protest organizers.

I would argue that what these two exemplified were educated individuals reduced to bare life or to the essence of humanity. They were both young men who could not be deemed a security threat or even politically active; they could only be seen as victims by their countrymen. In fact they came to stand in for the frustrated economic hopes of a new generation living under abusive, Western backed, authoritarian regimes.  Said apparently had studied computer programming in the US. And although Bouazizi did not have a college degree (or even a high school degree), several newspapers initially reported that he was a college graduate. As in any insurrection, the rumors were more important than the truth in galvanizing popular support.

The originally South Asian/Southeast Asian idiom of political protest utilized by Bouazizi was apparently unprecedented in Tunisia, but the symbolic message was simple enough to be communicated almost instantly. In fact, the immolation in Tunisia led to several other immolations in the region, including in Egypt. Of course, in Egypt, once the Tunisian protests began to gather momentum, it was possible to revive the outrage around the death of Khaled Said to rally protesters for police reform. The Egyptian man who immolated himself, Ahmed Hashem el-Sayed, was an unemployed construction worker; his suffering garnered sympathy but I don’t think it made the same connection with young, educated, Egyptian elites as the previously dormant case of Khaled Said.

The reduction of (supposedly) elite individuals to the status of bare life, allowed them to become the common currency or symbol of the utter hopelessness of the political and economic situation felt by many young educated Arab men and women whose prospects for social mobility and even marriage have diminished with the global economic crisis. The transformation from elite individual to a victimized humanity also helped to bridge class divides and revive a sense of nationalism in otherwise highly unequal, class stratified societies.

What we are seeing in these social movements, to paraphrase the argument of Faisal Devji, is the desire of the masses to give agency to humanity, to move from being objects of the state to subjects.  

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Explosive Pakistan

Is “people power” contagious? It’s easy to find examples of journalists, policymakers and/or analysts, and some scholars arguing that opposition to authoritarian rule is spreading like a winter virus from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen. In this case, many optimists argue (though some merely hope) that the viral idea will result in more democratic governance for millions of people that have long lived under autocratic rule. Moreover, many think (or hope) that the contagion will spread to other similar states with large Arab or Muslim populations.

However, the skeptics and pessimists have keyboards too. IR realists have already provided plenty of reasons for skepticism. For example, even during the so-called “third wave” of democratization some years ago, many states merely transitioned from authoritarian to semi-authoritarian rule.

The worriers are concerned about the fact that Egypt has long been the second largest recipient of American foreign aid. Indeed, many believe that the American government is quite cautious and fairly openly favors the status quo. Egypt has received substantial aid in large part because of its continued support for the Jimmy Carter-brokered Camp David peace agreement; thus, many friends of Israel are more than a little concerned about the current situation.

In any case, I have been thinking about the prospects for internal upheaval spreading to Pakistan — ground zero in the current war and a nuclear-armed state with a history of conflict with its neighbors. Vice President Joe Biden, who like me sometimes worries about the relationship between Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and its internal stability, largely dismisses the prospects of contagion effects. However, he acknowledged to PBS interviewer Jim Lehrer on January 27 that “there’s a lot going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into — all the way to Pakistan, actually.” Lehrer explicitly asked Biden to compare the situation in Tunisia and Egypt to events in Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago.


Biden was not biting:

…the difference between Tunisia and Egypt is real, beyond the fact that Egypt’s the largest Arab country in the world.

So, I don’t see any direct relationship…But I don’t — I think it’s a stretch at this point. But I could be proven wrong. But I think it’s a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe.

However, in a weekend Press TV news report (from Iran) about the continued unpopularity of American drone attacks, a man identified by name as a human rights activist openly declares (in English): “There will be an uprising in Pakistan. After Tunis example, after Yemen…I think so, now it is our turn. Now is Pakistanis turn.” See about 1 minute into this report, which differs somewhat from the one linked above that is currently on Press TV’s website:

Obviously, any mass uprising in Pakistan would be important for a large number of reasons, but today’s Washington Post centers on one key concern — Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal:

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal now totals more than 100 deployed weapons, a doubling of its stockpile over the past several years in one of the world’s most unstable regions, according to estimates by nongovernment analysts.

As the article notes, U.S. policymakers frequently “voice confidence in its [Pakistan’s] strong internal safeguards, with warheads kept separate from delivery vehicles.”

Perhaps these policymakers are simply whistling past the graveyard as a number of Wikileaks documents highlight genuine US and British concern about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. As the BBC reported in December:

senior UK Foreign Office official Mariot Leslie told US diplomats in September 2009 that Britain had “deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”.

In another cable seven months earlier, then-US ambassador Anne Patterson told Washington: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in the government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”

Potentially, that smuggling task would be easier in a context of internal disorder. Imagine if the state security apparatus is distracted by mass upheaval.

The 22 September 2009 cable quoting Leslie was written in London by Ellen Tauscher, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. It is available at the Wikileaks collection on The Guardian website and is quite intriguing for another reason. It suggests that Pakistan is fearful of an entirely new form of American counterproliferation:

The UK has deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and Pakistan has accepted nuclear safety help, but under the IAEA flag (albeit British technicians). The Pakistanis worry that the U.S. “will drop in and take their nukes,” Leslie said.

Could the U.S. really “drop in and take” Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?

Granted, it seems foolhardy to speculate about second and third-order consequences of internal upheaval in Pakistan. The drone attacks in Pakistan have long been unpopular, but it is possible that Biden is correct and that neither Washington nor Islamabad have anything to fear from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Perhaps readers should take solace in the words of Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK Wajid Shamsul Hasan, who told the BBC in December that his government “had a very successful, foolproof control and command system looking after the nuclear arsenal.”

Maybe we should keep on whistling.

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Willow Witching Pt. 2: What Washington should do….

The neocon blogoshere is lit up with more willow witching that the events in Egypt are vindication of the Bush’s “freedom agenda.” And, they are blasting Obama for his timid response — apparently, Washington controls the destiny of this protest movement:

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Jackson Deihl claimed that it’s not too late to influence events. He called on the administration to support unidentified “democracy groups.” But more curious was his criticism of the administration. He cited Hillary Clinton’s 2009 comments about her personal friendship with Mubarak as setting the stage: “Thus began what may be remembered as one of the most shortsighted and wrongheaded policies the United States has ever pursued in the Middle East.” Right — let’s just ignore the fact that the U.S. has been cozying up to Mubarak for the past three decades — including a dramatic expansion of security and intelligence ties by the Bush administration after 9/11. Snippy political attack = 1; foreign policy analysis = 0.

Max Boot argued that this is the moment for Obama to “redefine” the Middle East and stand with the aspirations of the people:

we need a president fully engaged in the moment — a president who will speak for the aspirations of the people of the Middle East (more than one line, please), while also working to provide a soft landing for longtime dictators and to ensure that radicals don’t seize power.

Yeah, well there’s a novel idea. I bet no one in the administration thought of that…

Jeffrey Goldberg urged Obama to live up to American values and cut Mubarak loose and let the chips fall where they may with the Muslim Brotherhood — I guess that’s kind of living up to American values….

We still don’t know how this will unfold and I’m somewhat skeptical about what the Obama administration can do today or tomorrow to influence events — though Marc Lynch gives us some thoughtful comments on this.

But, I am struck that in all of this commentary, there is almost nothing about what’s next. Despite all of their generic claims to support democracy, the neocons cling to a very naive notion of what democracy is and how it emerges. In Iraq, they assumed democracy and market capitalism were self-executing — simply remove a tyrannical regime and let the natural, universal aspirations of the Iraqis guide the way. They didn’t plan for Phase IV of the Iraq invasion because they didn’t believe it was necessary. They were wrong, their actions triggered a civil war with disastrous consequences — more than 100,000 Iraqi deaths and countless more wounded, more than 2 million refugees, at a cost of more than 4,000 U.S. service members and well over $2 trillion.

It’s simply not enough to say one is “for” democracy and demand support for the protesters. The hard part of democracy building comes in the weeks, months, and years after a regime collapses. Let’s assume Mubarak flees sometime in the next few days. What then? How can the U.S and the international community help manage a transitional process to accommodate the demands of a disparate group of protesters? They are unified in their desire to remove Mubarak, but that consensus will evaporate the instant Mubarak gets on a plane. How will their competing claims be adjudicated — what kinds of mechanisms or institutions will best serve these challenges? What kind of institutional arrangements will be necessary to ensure domestic security that is sufficient and legitimate enough to maintain some sense of order but not coercive — what kind of leverage does the United States have over various factions within the military and security services to help this? Many of the protesters are in their 20s — nearly 3/4 of all of those unemployed are in this age bracket. What capacity exists to put them to work or to give them hope for new employment opportunities in the near future?

The administration clearly faces challenges in the coming days, but the real challenges likely will come in the weeks ahead. And there is nothing in Bush’s vacuous “freedom agenda” or the Bush administration’s experiences in the war in Iraq, or in the self-congratulatory rhetoric from the neocons that can help with the hard work of developing democratic state norms and institutions.

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Memories of willow witching


So, this is it — Tunisia is vindication of the Iraq War. Here’s Jennifer Rubin’s great insight:

Recall when President George W. Bush talked about democracy taking hold in Iraq and then the region? Now Bush’s vision seems very prescient.

…One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?

This is similar to a point Max Boot made recently at Amherst College in a debate with Andrew Bacevich. Boot argued that it was too early to tell if the Iraq war was a success or failure, because as he put it, the effects possibly might not be known for decades. (Bacevich countered by noting that, given Boot’s logic, with the economic developments and recent steps toward political liberalization in Vietnam, perhaps we will soon be on the verge of being able to call the Vietnam War a success.)

The arguments of Rubin and Boot remind me of the hot summer when I was a kid growing up in western North Dakota and our well went dry. Rather than spend money on “big city” hydrogeologists, my dad decided to use the ancient dowsing method of willow-witching to look for water. Each morning, he picked up his willow branches and walked around until he found the “right spot.” My brother and I then dutifully dug and drilled holes — that turned up dry — day after day. But alas, nearly seven weeks and some three dozen dry holes later, we finally hit water and tapped a new well. For the past forty years, my dad has told all who will listen about the wonders of willow witching and how he found water that summer.

Yep, keep searching and you’re bound to find something….

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Anonymous attacks Tunisian Government Websites

The Christian Science Monitor is reporting that the hackitivist collective [?] “Anonymous,” famous for DDOS attacks on Mastercard and Paypal after the Wikileaks Cablegate fiasco, is attacking the government of Tunisia’s website in support of the growing and increasingly violent protests there:

“But the unrest has since spread to a wide cross-section of Tunisian society, reflecting broader discontent with inequality and autocratic leaders perceived as corrupt figures who live high on the hog while blocking free expression by average Tunisians (see map showing protest locations). The pro-Wikileaks hacker group “Anonymous” has even joined the fray, launching cyber attacks on the Tunisian government.”

It is difficult to judge the impact of Anonymous so far, but it is at least an interesting show of solidarity. Although the proximate cause of the rioting is the self-immolation of a university graduate who was arrested for selling fruits and vegetables without a license, the Wikileaks documents are apparently fueling the protests (again from the Christian Science Monitor article):

“US State Department cables published by Wikileaks last month may have thrown fuel on the fire, by showing that US diplomats privately hold similar opinions of Tunisia’s leadership as many Tunisians.” 

The government crackdown includes attempts to censor social media websites which are being used to organize the protests as well as arrests of three members of the Tunisian branch of the Pirate Party:

 “A Le Monde interview with a member of the “Tunisian Pirate Party” referred to as “Sofiene” revealed a cat-and-mouse game between government censors and Internet freedom fighters and their foreign allies. Protesters are using Facebook mirror sites, proxy servers, and other means to outwit censors and get out their message, reported the French daily, an excerpt of which the Monitor translated for our non-francophone readers:

State censorship will increase, but counter-censorship is now strong. Tunisians are more and more informed, and demand information. Censorship only works if people self-censor and are afraid, or aren’t interested in the news.”

While the underlying cause of these protests remains economic (high unemployment, high food prices, and increasing integration with the sluggish European economy), the organizational form seems to be increasingly reliant on new social network technology (although at this point the protests could easily spread through other means if Internet based social networking sites were all blocked). Of course, this does not mean that the government will be toppled by the twitterati or that techno-democratization will occur in Tunisia. Having taught in a university in the Middle East when only one fax machine was allowed for the entire campus, I know that authoritarian states have a way of bringing threatening communications technologies under control and even using those technologies to facilitate surveillance and repression.

But what we are seeing is that outside actors are increasingly willing to try to help counterstrike when authoritarian states crackdown on Internet based networking technologies. In addition, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and the US government are not the only players in the game. Non-corporate/non-state networks like “Anonymous” may also become relevant actors willing to “backstop” social networking technologies (through mirror sites) and challenge the ability of repressive states to use the Internet in future dramas of global politics.

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