Thursday, 17 February 2011

Lara's Theme

Those in the West who have been following events in Egypt were outraged to learn about the vicious beating and sexual assault of CBS news correspondent Lara Logan in the heart of Tahrir Square in the midst of the jubilation surrounding the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. No doubt, many in the Middle East were outraged as well. The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights published a survey three years ago that showed that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt had been exposed to some form of sexual harassment, including groping, verbal abuse, stalking and indecent exposure. Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s recent film “678” takes direct aim at the fact that sexual harassment and sexual assault are commonplace everyday occurrences in Egypt. That would be reason enough to point out this incident.

Many were also appalled to find out that as they attacked and assaulted her, the mob screamed “Jew!” “Jew!” at her. Anti-Semitism has been taught not only among the brethren of the Al Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), but also, despite official peace, by the institutions and state run media of Hosni Mubarak. As the majority of Egyptians  were born and/or grew up in his Egypt, their expression of Jew hatred as either an excuse for or a rationale for brutality and rape is a sad, but unsurprising commentary on the mindset of too many in revolutionary Egypt. That would be reason enough to point out this incident too.

Some commentators, like conservative Debbie Schlussel, have made the rather obscene observation of “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”, surmising that gung ho reporters like Logan should know better, or that she should have expected no less from those she chose to report on. This seems to me to be a shallow attempt to chastise the mainstream media on the back of a horrible experience. There are more obvious and way more appropriate avenues to  point out the media’s shortcomings.

What truly stands out about this incident beyond the disgusting crime committed is the knowledge we all have now that even in the midst of Tahrir Square, where the pro democracy forces held sway; even at the moment of greatest joy in Egypt in 30 years; even with the army managing access to the area;  and even with the no doubt earnest and serious best efforts of the April 6th movement which had guided the revolution, dozens of Egyptian men  - not one criminal, or even a small group, but dozens – were able to perpetrate such a heinous offense, and were not stopped for a half hour. When they were stopped, by a group of women and a few soldiers they managed to find, no one was arrested. I

’ll ask the question I haven’t seen asked anywhere else:

If the forces of democracy are so weak and disorganized, with so many taking advantage of the freedoms they dearly bought with blood, and helpless or at worst careless in the one place at the one time where they were truly strong, how on earth do they expect to influence a massive nation of 82 million? How do they expect to be taken seriously elsewhere? Perhaps most importantly, how will they impart a commitment to democracy, human rights, women's rights, religious freedom, tolerance and civility before the Al Ikhwan imparts their own “wisdom”, and an iron veil descends on Egypt?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Domino Dancing

Back in the bad old days, when the West was facing down an expanding Soviet empire (which turned out to be slowly rotting from the inside), American politicians of all persuasions warned of the domino theory of communist influence. They perceived the march of totalitarian rule in Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America as a threat to world peace and democratic principles. The key to the theory was that if communism went unchecked, countries would fall to its influence like dominoes lined up and tipped, one following the next. China led to North Korea, which led to Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam. Insurgencies in the Congo led to more in Angola, Namibia, and Mozambique.

The solution, they felt, was to counter its influence with economic, military, and cultural aid, even if that meant dealing with dictators. We know now that the final defeat of communism was due to the economic effect of trying to outspend capitalist military spending, and to mismanagement and corruption in command economies more than anything else. The domino theory, and the response to it, did not, in the long run, make the strategic difference in the defeat of communism.

One legacy of the Western, and specifically the American, response to Soviet influence was its determination to engage Arab countries which had fallen out with their Soviet patrons. The prime example of this trend was Egypt. After Egyptian President Anwar Sadat kicked out the Soviets in 1972, an unnamed Israeli diplomat told Time Magazine "Russian dominoes are falling all over the Middle East, and Egypt is the biggest one yet."

Even after Egypt attacked Israel in 1973, the Americans continued to develop their relationship. They solidified it with the Camp David Accords, and began economic and military cooperation with Egypt which saw yearly “Bright Star” exercises and powerful American equipment strengthen the Egyptian military. Egyptian forces participated in the First Gulf War, and have been a powerful ally to the west since 9/11.

The thing about dominoes, though, is that they can be knocked both ways. President Obama’s June 2009 peregrination to Cairo to address the grievances of the Arab and Muslim world indicated a new paradigm for engagement. The problem was that despite the fresh approach, the challenges of regional instability, radical Islam, and the disenfranchised and underemployed generation of youth in Egypt and elsewhere represented the same ticking time bomb that existed before Obama took office. Two years on, the US administration is finding out that it is simpler to talk about change than to implement it in foreign policy. American interests are understandably best served by stability, even if it has come through the means of dictatorship. America’s democratic ideals, on the other hand, demand support for the people in Tahrir Square. The mixed message coming out of Washington is not making any friends among the protesters or among those watching events across the region.

Falling dominoes in the Arab world are now being anticipated by most observers. It is no surprise that Jordan’s King Abdullah has just fired his entire government, trying to get ahead of growing protests in his country.

What has not been perceived, I think, is the peril this tide of protest presents to Europe’s democracies. The disenfranchised youth of North Africa have cousins in the banlieues of France and throughout the EU. In  late 2005, riots and unrest among predominantly Arab youth led to almost 3000 arrests, almost 9000 burned vehicles, a number of deaths, over 100 wounded police and firemen, gutted buildings, and over 200 million Euros of property damage. What incited it? The deaths of two teens who electrocuted themselves while hiding from police.

If such a tide of outrage can come from a small, albeit tragic event, imagine the galvanizing power of the images from Tunisia and Egypt on both those with legitimate grievances in Europe, as well as those whose agenda includes the destabilization of Western democracies. The Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its various offshoots and affiliates may not have started this gathering storm, but they are well placed to take advantage of it. In Egypt, that could mean stepping into a power vacuum. In other places, it could lead to more direct action as it has in the past. In Europe, it could mean violence, unrest, and chaos on a scale beyond 2005.

Christopher Hitchens, in a stunningly insightful piece in Slate (The Shame Factor, Jan 31, 2011), revealed what might be the single most important reason why these protests are happening now. He described the shame of a young son of an Arab dictator at the fact that the tiny, weak state of Albania has had free elections, and his country, among others in the Arab world, has not. Egyptians, Hitchens writes, will take their humiliation by their leader no longer.

Themes of shame and humiliation have huge currency in the Arab and Muslim world, and have been the subject of scholarly debate and popular literature for decades. The facts of the last decades under mostly authoritarian rule have borne out some of the sources of that humiliation. 

From a military point of view, though their totalitarian leaders demanded and initiated campaign after campaign, Arab armies have rarely tasted victory. Even the 1973 war, which ended with Israeli tanks poised unchallenged on the road to Cairo and with the entire Egyptian Third Army surrounded, is celebrated as a victory because the reality of another defeat  after initial surprise and success was too humiliating to contemplate. The crushing defeat of Hamas in the  2008/2009 Cast Lead operation is celebrated because the leadership survived, even though hundreds of Hamas fighters were killed, and their rain of rockets on Israeli towns brought a response that wreaked havoc on Gaza's population. Even the most ineptly fought Israeli war in history, the 2006 Second Lebanon War, ended with a dramatically weakened Hezbollah and a leader still afraid to come out in the sunlight. 

The First Gulf War wrecked the strongest army in the Arab world. After the Second Gulf War, even those Arabs who opposed Saddam Hussein were appalled by the defeat and dismantlement of the Iraqi army, the fracturing of Iraq's body politic, and the horrific images from Abu Ghraib.

From  an economic and cultural point of view, the harsh reality was no better. The UN led Arab Human Development Reports of 2003-2005 demonstrated an acute lack of opportunity, of intellectual freedom, of cultural sensitivity, of human security, of gender equality, and of scientific output. According to the report, Spain, for example, published more Spanish translations (about 100,000) of foreign titles in one year (2002) than the total number of books translated into Arabic in the past 900 years. With ongoing repression from their leaders, watching a world of technological, commercial, and cultural progress pass them by, young Arabs are justifiably angry and humiliated. The only surprise here is that it took this long for the explosion to happen. What will galvanized Arab populations do to restore their honor? How far will they go?

The Genie is out of the Lamp. Who will put it back in?