Saturday, February 5, 2011

If You Build It, They Will Come

Where on earth did this week go to? I know that Thursday night I went to a friend's birthday party, and Wednesday night was busy for some other reason. And the world just seems overwhelming lately.

I haven't written about the protests in Egypt, because while I support them I'm not knowledgeable enough to say anything useful about them. (Yeah, like that's ever stopped me before...) I'd hope that the people who read this blog know where to look for information, but if not, try Democracy Now!'s coverage, or the liveblogging by the blogger at Moon of Alabama (CORRECTION: not Billmon, as I mistakenly wrote before -- sorry for the mistake), or articles by an old friend of mine, an Egyptian-American journalist who's been in the thick of things in Tahrir Square. (I've seen the weird phrase "pro-Mubarak supporters" in more than one US news article; aside from being redundant, it covers up the fact that the "supporters" are mostly thugs and plainclothes police in Mubarak's pay -- which doesn't exclude their being "supporters", but suggests a false equivalence between them and the anti-Mubarak protesters.) Ash, who's the source for the photo above, has apparently been heard on NPR and the BBC, along with other people who actually know what they're talking about, a big improvement on the usual malignly ignorant talking heads.

And that's not including such purely malign figures as President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, who'd be hard to keep out of the media in any case. It appears that the "reform" we're supposedly seeing now is a typical change-without-change: Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's new vice president, has a long history as torturer-for-hire.

The FAIR blog, as usual, has been critiquing the corporate media coverage, such as the noteworthy but unsurprising agreement between "conservative" pundits like Charles Krauthammer and "liberal" ones like Joe Klein that democracy isn't for Mooslims. (At least not until they've been invaded and occupied by the US, I suppose.)

Which reminds me that my right-wing Facebook friends have been surprisingly quiet about the Egyptian uprising. RWA2 posted a quotation from Admiral Dama of Battleship Galactica (I had to ask for the source): "There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people." I pointed out that in Egypt, it's the military that had been siding with the people, however uncharacteristically, and the police that sent in thugs and agents provocateurs to attack the demonstrators. Plus, of course, the US has traditionally preferred to blur the distinction between the police and the army in our client countries, arming and training both. No further exchange ensued, or I'd have asked why a self-styled libertarian likes a statist like General Dama: the army "fights the enemies of the state"? Doesn't the army supposedly defend the people against those who would attack and enslave them? Someone's got his propaganda all garbled.

RWA1 has also been relatively taciturn on the Egyptian protests. At first he stuck with links to relatively noncommittal stuff like this reassuring piece by Robert Kaplan (The protests "are not about the existential plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation; nor are they at least overtly anti-Western or even anti-American. The demonstrators have directed their ire against unemployment, tyranny, and the general lack of dignity and justice in their own societies.") and this fatuous piece from National Review Online which claimed that it's all about Demographics: Then he recommended an op-ed from the Philly Inquirer which called on the Obama administration to "get on the right side in Egypt", but that couldn't last; next he recommended this article by a stupid and vicious Tory from the Telegraph which blames TV and "Muslim extremists" in England for the protests in Tunisia and Egypt: "The Iranian Revolution of 1979 began with the overthrow of an unpopular autocrat and ended with the triumph of a murderous theocrat." That "unpopular autocrat" was also murderous, but that can conveniently be forgotten. RWA1's thrashing about on the issues is all too typical of right-thinking educated Americans, of course, which is why I'm talking about it here.

Myself, I approve of the demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere, because I think that people should have as much control as possible over their governments -- that governments should be accountable to their people. The whole point of US and Israeli support for Mubarak has been to have an Egyptian government that is not accountable to its people. It's tempting to say that the US should simply butt out of Egyptian politics, but I'm not sure that's possible: there will be plenty of other outside forces butting in, so the question is whether we can butt in intelligently (as hilarious as the idea is, given our track record). Another Facebook friend linked to this very sensible blog post from a couple of days ago.
If the people go home now, there will be a few days of relief and peace. Those who only want stability at any cost will be appeased. The U.S. government and the American media will report it as a victory for Egyptian democracy, because Mubarak has agreed to step down in the fall and the protesters have "agreed" (by virtue of going home). There will be a respite of a week or two, and the story will fade from the international news.

Then it will begin. Mubarak's security team will start combing the videos that have been uploaded over the past week, making notes of names and faces. They will obtain phone and internet records. They will start tapping phones and monitoring Facebook. (In the U.S. the word "Facebook" means "ha ha I spend too much time here omg I should be studying"; in Egypt it means that too, but is also a way to organize politically in a country where there is no right to assemble.)

And so on; the whole post is worth reading. Constructing a democratic Egypt will not be easy because of the repressive state apparatus that has been in place for more than thirty years, with US and other outside support. You don't dismantle all those institutions simply by getting rid of the guy at the top, if only because not even the most brutal tyrant or absolute monarch rules alone. It's a popular mainstream US trope to excuse our support of repressive regimes by saying that there are no local institutions of self-government there; to the extent that it's true, it's because such local institutions have been stamped out before they could become effective. Which is not accidental, despite the equally popular imperial lament of Joe Klein (via), "How on earth do we get saddled with such creepy clients as Karzai and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, over and over again?" We don't "get saddled with" them, we choose them, over and over again, because only corrupt tyrants will let themselves be bought by outsiders. And it isn't "we" (viz., Americans) who are saddled with them, it's them -- you know, the faceless huddled masses of Afghanistan and Egypt.

This is not to say, as the blogger I just quoted wrote in another post, that "the U.S. hates democracy for its own sake." The blogger attributes this idea to a "forty-year-old analysis" of unnamed "progressives"; I think it's a straw man, because 1) I can't remember ever having seen any progressive or left analyst say such a thing and 2) this is a common accusation made against left critics of the US imperium -- that we think the US is responsible for all the bad things that happen in the world, and so on. If we can get democracies that will go along with us, we will let them survive. "The United States government would support a stuffed rabbit or Paris Hilton if it meant making the Arab world safe for economic investment and keeping the Suez Canal open," the blogger says. Exactly what people like Noam Chomsky have been saying for decades. But unfortunately, cheap docile labor and other perks of a welcoming investment climate are hard to square with local governments that are accountable to their people. That, and not some metaphysical hatred of democracy, is the reason for the ongoing US discomfort with democracy, abroad and at home. It's because capitalism (whether nominally private or public -- it doesn't make much difference in practice) is incompatible with democracy.