Pepe Escobar on the Demos of MENA

This is an excellent commentaryof the evolving events in the Middle East.  The most important take home is that theEastern European revolt against autocracy has taken hold in what we now callMENA and the most important domino has fallen. Others will fall, and Iranwill continue to tremble.

In truth, all the autocrats arecertainly putting contingency plans in place to facilitate their graceful exit.  The Arabs have truly discovered the power of massconfrontation and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

In Libya, Qaddafi is at war with hisown people.  This will harden attitudeseverywhere and certainly will not prevent the population from been continuouslyrestive.  It is pretty hard to operate acountry as a prison camp when the population is now armed and angry.  Qaddafi simply has not figured it all out yetand is setting himself up as an example to the rest.

As also related, all those truthswe have been peddled about MENA have been overturned by the peoplethemselves.  When it is all over, we willlive in peace with Islam and the fanatics will have no meaningful support.  That was a dreamer’s outcome a mere month orso ago.

The great lesson is thatdemocracy again chokes back radicalism if given half a chance and a littletime.  In time it will choke back even China.

Pepe Escobar, Mummies and Models in the New Middle East

Posted by PepeEscobar at 5:43pm, March 13, 2011.

They can’t help themselves.  Really, they can’t.  Likechildren, the most monstrous of secret police outfits evidently come to believethemselves immortal.  They lose all ability to imagine that they mightever go down and so keep records to the very moment of their collapse. Those records, so copious, damning, and unbearably detailed (which doesn’t makethem accurate), provide something like a composite snapshot of the rottinginnards of oppressive and brutal regimes -- of their torture practices andtheir informers, of every citizen who knowingly or unknowingly crossed someline and many who didn’t, and of the corrupt doings of the leaders who gave thesecret police free rein.

And so it was bound to happen, as it did in East Germany and elsewhere in the formerSoviet bloc after 1989, that the innards of the hated Egyptian state securityagency Amn al Dawla (“Mubarak’s Gestapo,” as it’s now being called) would finallysee the light of day.  The Tahrir Square demonstrators demanded that it bedisbanded.  Now, its torture chambers have been photographed and you cantake a tour of the suite of former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly (at presentunder arrest) in its Cairoheadquarters on YouTube.

 Some activists have hadthe 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 thatnotorious headquarters and other of the agency’s offices, liberating secretfiles by the bushel-load, thousands upon thousands of them, even thoughsecurity officials tried to destroy them.  After decades of suchrecord-keeping, there were undoubtedly simply too many to destroy.  (Atthe moment, 67 state security figures suspected of being involved in thedestruction of those files are being detained forinvestigation.)

Really, it's a glorious moment and a strange one as well.  Afterall, in 2006 when Wikileaks first began leaking documents, it seemed a novel,even one-of-a-kind organization.  That turned out to be amisapprehension.  It was merely a pioneer in a new age ofanti-state-secrecy sunshine activism.  We are now, it seems, plunged intoa WikiLeaks world.  While the Egyptian army pleads forthe return of the documents, even as it threatens prosecution, and demands thatthey 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 ofEgypt were a giant WikiLeaks machine.

Right now, for such a world of energizing if anarchic openness, onlyone person is paying the price: a 23-year-old being kept in thestrictest, most punitive version of isolation, sometimes evenbeingdenied clothes, under abusive conditions in a cell not inMubarak’s Egypt, but on a Marine base in Quantico, Virginia.  This is, ofcourse, BradleyManning, the Army private accused of turning hundreds of thousands ofsecret U.S.documents over to WikiLeaks.  His mistreatment is now commonknowledge.  About it, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley had this to say late last week at MIT: “I spent 26 yearsin the Air Force. What is happening to Manning is ridiculous,counterproductive, and stupid, and I don't know why the DoD [Department ofDefense] is doing it.”  In response to a question undoubtedly provoked byCrowley's comments, Manning’s commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, acknowledged the situation at his Friday pressconference and even though he dismissed it,he is now certainly accountable for it. (For his blunt honesty, Crowleywas promptly forced to resign.)

In the meantime, the Egyptian demonstrators have picked up whereManning left off and, in terms of shining a light into some very dark corners,are leading the way.  As that peripatetic and irrepressible rovingcorrespondent for Asia Times (and TomDispatchregular) Pepe Escobar points out, this may not, in the end, be the only wayin which Egyptians break new ground in a very old world.  Tom

Is Egyptthe 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 Endof History, and Islamophobia. They ruled in Western domains into the seconddecade 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 newway.  For one thing, Egypt,that previously moribund land of “stability” and bosom buddy of whoever was inpower 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 thestreets 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 todiscern. In a country where “politics” has for decades meant the army, it’snotable that the key actor supposedly coordinating the “transition todemocracy” remains an appointee of Pharaoh Hosni Mubarak, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi from the Supreme ArmyCouncil.  At least, popular pressure has forced Tantawi’s military juntato appoint a new transitional Prime Minister, the Tahrir-Square-friendly formertransport minister Essam Sharaf.

Keep in mind that the hated emergency laws from the Mubarak era, partof what provoked the Egyptian uprising to begin with, are still in place andthat the country’s intellectuals, its political parties, labor unions, and themedia all fear a silent counterrevolution. At the same time, they almost uniformlyinsist that the Tahrir Squarerevolution will neither be hijacked nor rebranded by opportunists. As theideological divide between liberalism, secularism, and Islamism disintegratedwhen the country’s psychological Wall of Fear came down, lawyers, doctors,textile workers -- a range of the country’s civil society -- remain clear onone thing: they will never settle for a theocracy or a military dictatorship.They want full democracy.

No wonder what that implies makes Western diplomaticcircles tremble. An Egyptian army even remotely accountable to an electedcivilian government will not, for instance, collaborate in the Israeli siege ofGaza’s Palestinians, or in CIA renditions of terror suspects to the country’sprisons, or blindly in that monstrous farce, the Israeli-Palestinian “peaceprocess.”

Meanwhile, there are more pedestrian matters to deal with: How, forexample, will the army-directed transition towards September elections make theeconomic numbers add up? In 2009, Egypt’s import bill was $56 billion, while the country’sexports only added up to $29 billion. Tourism, foreign aid, and borrowinghelped fill the gap. The uprising sent tourism into a tailspin and who knows what kindsof aid and loans anyone will fork over in the months to come.

Meanwhile, the country will have to import no less than 10 million tonsof 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 tawdrylegacy, which includes 40 million Egyptians, almost half the population, livingon 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 (thenewly 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 fromthose rebellious Northern African winds settles, it’s hardly a given that theywill grasp just how all the cultural stereotypes used to explain the MiddleEast for decades also managed to vanish.

My favorite line of the Great Arab Revolt of 2011 is still Tunisianscholar Sarhan Dhouib’s: “These revolts are an answer to [GeorgeW.] Bush’s intent to democratize the Arab world with violence.”  If “shockand awe” is now also an artifact of an ancient world, what’s next? 

Models for Rent or Sale

On February 3rd, the TurkishEconomic and Social Studies Foundation published a poll conducted inseven Arab countries and Iran.No less than 66% of respondents considered Turkey, not Iran,the ideal model for the Middle East. A mediascrum from Le Monde to the Financial Times now evidentlyconcurs. After all, Turkeyis a functional democracy in a Muslim-majority country where the separation ofmosque and state prevails.

That stellar Islamic scholar at Oxford,Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, alsorecently labeled the “Turkish way” as “a source ofinspiration.”  In late February, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutogluagreed, 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 wecan be a source of inspiration.” 

The Egyptian Marxist economist Samir Amin -- widely respected acrossthe developing world -- suspects that, whatever the hopes of the Turks andothers, including so many Egyptians, Washington has quite different ideas aboutEgypt’sdestiny.   It wants, he believes, not a Turkish model but a Pakistani one for thatcountry: 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 highlypoliticized.”

The process of true democratization that began back in the distant1950s in Turkeyproved to be a long road. Nonetheless, despite periodic military coups and thecontinuing 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 theRefah Party, a much more conservative Islamic group with an ideology similar tothat of today’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

As the AKP mellowed out, however, the pro-business, pro-European Unionwing of the country’s Islamists mixed with various center-right politiciansand, in 2002, the AKP finally took power in Ankara. Only then could they begin to slowlyundermine the stranglehold of the traditional Istanbul-based secular Turkishelite and the military that had held power since the 1920s.

Yet the AKP did not dream of dismantling the secular system firstinstalled by Turkey’sfounding father Mustapha Kemal Ataturk in 1924. The Turkish civil codehe instituted was inspired by Switzerlandwith citizenship based on secular law. While the country is predominantlyMuslim, of course, its people simply would not welcome a system, as inKhomeinist Iran,that is guided by religion.

The AKP should be viewed as the equivalent of the Christian Democrats in Europeafter the 1950s -- dynamic, business-oriented conservatives with religiousroots. In Egypt,the moderate wing of the Muslim Brotherhood has many similarities to the AKPand looks to it for inspiration. In the new Egypt, it will finally be alegitimate political party and most experts believe that it could garner 25% to30% of the vote in the first election of the new era. 

All Roads Lead to Tahrir

Turkish critics -- usually from the Western-oriented technical andmanagerial caste -- regularly accuse the democracy-meets-Islam Turkish model ofbeing little more than a successful marketing ploy, or worse, a Middle Easternversion of Russia.After all, the army still wields disproportionate behind-the-scenes power asguarantor of the state’s secular framework. And the country’s Kurdish minorityis not really integrated into the system (although in September 2010 Turkishvoters approved constitutional changes that give greater rights toChristians and Kurds).

With its glorious Ottoman past, notes Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Prize forLiterature, Turkey was never colonized by a world power, and thus “‘venerationof 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 MiddleEast and North Africa.

There are stark differences between Turkey’sroad to a military-free democracy in 2002 and the littered path ahead for Egypt’syoung demonstrators and nascent political parties. In Turkey the keyactors were pro-business Islamists, conservatives, neo-liberals, and right-wingnationalists. In Egyptthey are pro-labor Islamists, leftists, liberals, and left-wing nationalists.

The Tahrir Squarerevolution was essentially unleashed by two youthgroups: the April 6 Youth Movement (which was geared towards solidaritywith workers on strike), and We Are All Khaled Said (which mobilized againstpolice brutality). Later, they would be joined by Muslim Brotherhood activistsand -- crucially -- organized labor, the masses of workers (and the unemployed)who had suffered from years of the International Monetary Fund’s “structuraladjustment” poison. (As late as April 2010, an IMF delegation visited Cairo and praised Mubarak’s“progress.”)

The revolution in Tahrir Square made the necessary connections in a deeplycomprehensible way.  It managed to go to the heart of the matter, linkingmiserable wages, mass unemployment, and increasing poverty to the ways in whichMubarak’s cronies (and also the military establishment) enrichedthemselves.  Sooner or later, in any showdown to come, the way themilitary controls so much of the economy will be an unavoidabletopic -- the way, for instance, army-owned companies continue to make a killingin the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel, and oil industries, orthe way the military has come to own significant tracts of land in the NileDelta and on the Red Sea, “gifts” for guaranteeing regime stability.

It’s not surprising that key sectors in the West are pushing fora “safe” Turkish model for Egypt. Yet, given the country’simmiseration, it’s unlikely that young protesters and their working classsupporters will be appeased even by the possibility of a Turkish-style,neoliberal, Islamo-democratic system. What this leftist/liberal/Islamistcoalition is fighting for is a labor-friendly, independent, truly sovereigndemocracy. It doesn’t take a PhD. from the LondonSchool of Economics, like the one bought by Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, to see howcataclysmic 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 reproducethe Turkish system in Egyptor not, Turkeyitself is immensely popular there, as it increasingly is in the wider Arabworld. That offers Ankara’s politicians the perfect scenario for consolidatingthe country’s regional leadership role, distinctly on the rise since, in 2003,its leaders established their independence by rebuffing George W. Bush’s desireto use Turkish territory in his invasion of Iraq.
That popularity was only heightened after eight of the nine victimsshot by Israeli commandos in the Gazafreedom flotilla fiasco turned out to be Turks.  When Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan vociferously condemned Israelfor its “bloody massacre,” he instantly became the “King of Gaza.” When Mubarak finally responded to the Tahrir Squaredemonstrations by announcing that he would not run again for president in 2011,President Obama didn’t say much, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blairurged Egyptnot to “rush towards elections.” As for Erdogan, he virtually ordered Mubarak to step down, live on al-Jazeera forthe 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 Mubarakdefenders Israel and Saudi Arabia, Erdogan -- with a canny assessment ofregional politics -- preferred to back Egyptians attempting to chart their owndestiny. And it paid off. 

The point is not that Americais now “losing” Turkey,nor that, as some critics have charged, Erdogan is dreaming of becoming aneo-Ottoman Caliph (whatever that might mean).  What must be understoodhere is a new Turkish concept: strategic depth. For that we need to turn to abook, Stratejik Derinlik: Turkiye’nin Uluslararasi Konumu (StrategicDepth: Turkey’s International Position), published in Istanbul in 2001 by AhmetDavutoglu, then a professor of international relations at the University ofMarmara, now Turkey’s Foreign Minister.

In that book, Davutoglu looked into a future that seems ever closer tonow and placed Turkey at the center of three concentric circles: 1) theBalkans, the Black Sea basin, and the Caucasus; 2) the Middle East and theEastern Mediterranean; 3) the Persian Gulf, Africa, and Central Asia. When itcame to future areas of influence, even in 2001 he believed that Turkey couldpotentially claim no less than eight: the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus,the Caspian, Turkic Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and theMediterranean. Today, he is a key player, and in many of those same areas ofpotential influence, people are indeed looking to Turkey.  It’s a remarkablemoment for Davutoglu, who remains convinced that Ankarawill 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 theGreat Arab Revolt of 2011 and you understand why Erdogan has launched a bid notjust 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 enoughfrom the way, in the past few years, they have tried to insert themselves asmediators 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 fundamentalistleaders were watching an Egyptian regime deeply hostile to them go down,protests by the Iranian GreenMovement suddenly began to rock Tehran again -- during a visit by noneother than Turkish President Abdullah Gul. The protests were handled with whatamounted to a velvet glove (by Tehran’s standards) because the militarydictatorship of the mullahtariat found itself in a potentially losingcompetition with its Turkish ally to become the number one inspirational sourcefor Arab mass movements. 

Java: Democracy with Your Coffee?

If Egyptians want lessons in the establishment of democracy, Turkeyis hardly the only place to turn to for inspiration.  They could, forexample, look to Latin America. For the firsttime in over 500 years, South America is fullydemocratic. As in Egypt,so in many Latin American countries in the Cold War era, dictatorships were theorder of the day and militaries ruled.  In Brazil, for instance, the “slow,gradual, and secure” political opening that left a military dictatorship behindtook practically a decade.

That implies a lot of patience. The same applies to anothermodel: Indonesia. There, in 1998, Suharto, an aging U.S.-backeddictator 32 years in power, finally resigned only a few days after returningfrom a visit to, of all places, Cairo.Indonesia then looked a lotlike Egyptin February 2011: a Western-friendly, predominantly Muslim nation, impoverishedand fed up with a mega-corrupt military dictator who crushed leftistintellectuals as well as political Islam.

Thirteen years later, Indonesiais the world’s third largest democracy and the freest in Southeast Asia, with a secular government, a booming economy, and themilitary out of politics.

I still have vivid memories of riding a bike one day in May 1998 acrossthe Indonesian capital, Jakarta,while it was literally on fire, rage exploding in endless columns of smoke. Washingtondid not intervene then, nor did China, nor the 10-member Association ofSoutheast Asian Nations. Indonesians did it for themselves. The transitionfollowed 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 handpickedvice president, the affable B.J. Habibie (so unlike Mubarak’s handpickedsuccessor the sinister Omar “Sheikh al-Torture” Suleiman). It took a year to organizenew elections, amend electoral laws, and get rid of appointed seats inParliament. It took six years for the first direct presidential election. And yes, corruption is still a huge problem, and wealth and the rightconnections go a long way (as is true, some would say, in the U.S.). Buttoday, the rule of law prevails.

An “Islamic state” never had a chance. Today, only 25% ofIndonesians vote for Islamic parties, while the well-organizedProsperous Justice Party, an ideological descendant of the Muslim Brotherhood,but now officially open to non-Muslims, holds only four out of 37 seats inthe cabinet of President Yudhoyono, and expects to win nomore than 10% of the vote in the 2014 elections.

While Indonesia remains close to the U.S. and is heavily courted byWashington as a counterweight to China, Brazil under the presidency ofimmensely popular Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva charted afar 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 leastas significant as the fall of the BerlinWall.

In Eastern Europe, 1989 could be seen,in part, as a chain of rebellions by people yearning to get access to theglobal market. The Great Arab Revolt, on the other hand, has been an uprisingin significant part against the dictatorship of that same market. Protestors from Tunisia to Bahrain arestriking out in favor of social inclusion and new, better social and economiccontracts. No wonder this staggering, ongoing upheaval is regarded across Latin America with tremendous empathy and with thefeeling 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 noton the Turkish model, nor even the Brazilian or Indonesian ones, but onto a setof new paths. Perhaps the future from Cairo to Tunis, Benghazi to Manama,Algiers to (Allah willing) a post-House of Saud Saudi Arabia will involveinventing a new political culture and the new economic contracts that would gowith it, ones that will be indigenous and, hopefully, democratic in new andsurprising ways. 

Which brings us back to Turkey.It’s perfectly feasible that Islam will be one of the building blocks ofsomething entirely new, something no one today has a clue about, something thatwill resemble what was, in Europe, theseparation between politics and religion. In the spirit of May 1968, perhaps wecan even picture an Arab Banksy plastering a stencil across all Arab capitals:Imagination in Power! 

Pepe Escobar is the rovingcorrespondent for AsiaTimes. His latest book is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may bereached
Copyright 2011 Pepe Escobar

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