Lurking Dangers to the Arab Spring

August 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Ramzy Baroud, Gulf News

Arab revolutions are currently facing real dangers, which vacillate between lack of prioritisation, stagnation and foreign intervention.

In Egypt, there have been deliberate attempts to divide the objectives of the revolution into blurred ideological classifications. A chasm is already growing between ‘liberal’ and Islamic forces regarding the identity of the state. Endless debates have ensued regarding the best course of action pertaining to elections, the constitution and more.

The trial of former president Hosni Mubarak has been marketed as a major victory for the revolution. Undoubtedly this is a historic event with great psychological impact. Many in Egypt were suspicious that the military was trying to co-opt the revolution, and some believed that Mubarak was continuing to run the country from his Sharm Al Shaikh mansion. With the world having now seen Mubarak in prison garb, some of these rumours are being quelled.

Still, it must not be forgotten that Egypt’s problems are multi-faceted, running deep into the very fabric of its political and social structures. Its already threadbare economy was also further devastated by recent events.

Presenting Mubarak on a stretcher for ‘conspiring to kill protesters’, and then falling into the trap of disputes around political semantics will not resolve the country’s many problems.
The Yemeni people persist between clear objectives and unclear strategy. Yemen was already teetering on the brink of ‘failed state’ status before the February revolt. The opposition is clearly failing to unify the revolutionary efforts of the people. The aim has been to create a meaningful political platform capable of translating the just demands of millions into a clear roadmap.
This has no room for Ali Abdullah Saleh and his discredited government. A delay of nearly six months has allowed regional and international forces to impede the popular process aimed at democratic reforms. Frustrated by the ineptness of the opposition, and worried about the devious role played by outsiders, the ‘youth of the revolution’ moved to establish their own transitional political body.
This move seemed to create more confusion rather than actually address the challenge of political centrality. Saleh and his ruling party are feeling emboldened once again and are bargaining politically with a nearly-starved population. As for Libya, it has turned into a battlefield. Although the people’s original demands for democracy are as genuine as ever, linking the heart of the revolution to Nato’s central command has more than tainted the uprising.

It has also raised the spectre of western intervention in Libya. The billions of dollars spent to ‘liberate’ Libya will be recovered through political and economic leverages later on. This will prove very costly for any new Libyan government.

Three Principles

The Syrian revolution has been most inspiring. Despite the extremely violent behaviour of the army in its attempts to subdue the uprising, the people remain committed to three major principles: the rightful demands of their revolution, the non-violent nature of their efforts, and non-interventionism. That said, foreign intervention does not seek people’s permission; it seeks opportunities.
It is guided by a straightforward cost-benefit analysis. As for violence, even noble revolutions with noble demands have limits. How long will the Syrian people endure before resorting to arms, at least to defend themselves against the government’s thugs?

There are other Arab countries that are also experiencing their own upheavals. These are divided between betrayed revolutions (for example, Bahrain), revolutions in the making, and bashful reform movements (Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and others).

True, each revolutionary experience remains unique. The socio-economic specificities of a wealthy Gulf country are different from those of a poverty-stricken country like Morocco. Still, Arab countries have much in common. Aside from shared histories, religions, language and a collective sense of belonging, they also share experiences of oppression, alienation, injustice and inequality.
The third UN Arab Development Report, published in 2005, surmised that in a modern Arab state, “the executive apparatus resembles a black hole which converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes.”

Things didn’t fare much better for Arab states in 2009, when the fifth volume in the series claimed: “While the state is expected to guarantee human security, it has been, in several Arab countries, a source of threat undermining both international charters and national constitutional provisions.”

It is this shared fate that makes an Egyptian woman protest the violence carried out by the Syrian regime, and which drives a Tunisian man to celebrate the trial of Mubarak.

Coupled with a joint understanding of their history — which includes the struggle against colonialism and continued oppression in the neo-colonialist era — the Arab sense of solidarity is almost innate.

There is no question that in a post-revolutionary Arab world, a new collective sense of identity will emerge, this time without the manipulation of a single charismatic leader.

Revolution is a process, a progression of realisations borne out of experience. It seeks real and lasting change. It spans in its outreach from the realm of politics into the specificity of identity and self-perception. Because Arab revolutions are real, they also represent a real danger to foreign powers and their local alliances.

The self-seeking concoctions will use all their power to impede the process of change and reforms in the Arab world. This helps to explain the shedding of doubts on the authenticity of the youth movement in Egypt; the collective punishment of Yemenis; the brutalising of revolting masses in Syria.

Arab revolutionaries must be wary of all of these challenges. They must prepare for all grim possibilities. With unity being their greatest weapon, the revolutionaries need to remember that a victory in Egypt or Tunisia is an important step in the quest for freedom in Yemen, Syria — and everywhere else.

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Before You Judge, Stand in Her Shoes

July 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mike Mcgovern

New Haven–REVELATIONS about the hotel housekeeper who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault suggest that she embellished claims of abuse to receive asylum, fudged her tax returns, had ties to people with criminal backgrounds, had unexplained deposits in her bank account and changed the account of the encounter she gave investigators. Yet those who would rush to judge her should consider the context.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s accuser is from Guinea, also the home country of Amadou Diallo, the street peddler who was shot to death in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building by four New York City police officers in 1999. Guineans leave their country in large numbers, partly because of grinding poverty; 70 percent live on less than $1.25 a day , despite the fact that Guinea has almost half of the world’s bauxite (from which aluminum is made), as well as iron, gold, uranium, diamonds and offshore oil.

The same leaders whose theft and mismanagement have kept so many Guineans poor in the decades since independence from France, in 1958, have also been ferociously violent, massacring as many as 186 unarmed demonstrators calling for democratic reforms in 2007, and at least 157 demanding the same in 2009. After the latter massacre, members of the state security forces gang-raped dozens of women to punish them for protesting and to terrorize men and women into silence.

While the American government condemned the massacres, the bauxite kept shipping, supplying Americans with aluminum cookware and automobile parts. That’s no surprise; the biggest mining companies doing business in Guinea are based in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia.

People fleeing state-sponsored violence and extreme poverty will do anything to leave. I receive requests every few weeks to write expert-witness affidavits for West African asylum claimants. As a personal matter of conscience, I will not write in support of an applicant whose testimony I believe contains inconsistencies.

Yet asylum claimants are often asked to perform an impossible task.

They must prove they have been subject to the most crushing forms of oppression and violence — for this, bodies bearing the scars of past torture are a boon — while demonstrating their potential to become hard-working and well-adjusted citizens.

This is where the lies and embellishments creep into some asylum seekers’ narratives. Immigrants share tips and hunches about ways to outwit the system, even as immigration judges try to discover the claimants’ latest ruses. But I can say from experience that for every undeserving claimant who receives asylum, several deserving ones are turned down. So few Africans gain access to green cards through legal channels that the United States government grants about 25,000 spots annually to Africans selected at random through the diversity visa lottery.

Just as Mr. Diallo’s death resonated because it made the tribulations of many West African immigrants public, the case of Mr. Strauss-Kahn and his accuser has the aura of a parable. Many Africans feel the International Monetary Fund, which Mr. Strauss-Kahn led, and the World Bank have been more committed to the free flow of money and commodities like bauxite than to the free flow of people and the fulfillment of their aspirations.

Guinean press accounts, and recent conversations I’ve had with Guineans, suggest that they disapprove of the deceptions by Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s accuser. But given the poverty and systemic violence in their country, they understand the circumstances in which such deception could occur — and we should, too.

As the case against Mr. Strauss-Kahn seemingly disintegrates, he is enjoying a political renaissance at home, yet I keep asking myself: does a sexual encounter between a powerful and wealthy French politician and a West African hotel cleaning woman from a dollar-a-day background not in itself suggest a gross abuse of power?

Mike McGovern, an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale and the author of “Making War in Côte d’Ivoire,” is writing a book on Guinea.

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