Tag Archives: egypt

Puzzles of the Orient: a random note on the Republican Debate

Last night’s debate didn’t strike me as something worth liveblogging on twitter or even commenting about as I posted in the middle of it. That anything much is going to be said that’s new or original is hopefully something no one came into the debate expecting. In passing, still, one strange entanglement of talking points caught my attention and seems to speak to something rather horrifying about the politics of not only the Republican Party, but the United States and even the broader world.

In the midst of the debate, Senator Marco Rubio argued that the supportive relationship between the US and Israel in contrast to the combative and hostile relationship the US has with almost every other country in the region made sense, saying:

“For goodness sake, there is only one pro-American free enterprise democracy in the Middle East. It is the state of Israel. And we have a president that treats the prime minister of Israel with less respect than what he gives the Ayatollah in Iran. And so our allies in the region don’t trust us. […] all those radical terrorist groups that, by the way, are not just in Syria and in Iraq, ISIS is now in Libya. They are a significant presence in Libya, and in Afghanistan, and a growing presence in Pakistan.

Soon they will be in Turkey. They will try Jordan. They will try Saudi Arabia. They are coming to us. They recruit Americans using social media. And they don’t hate us simply because we support Israel. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own.”

While his criticism of Arab or Islamic communities highlighted the sexism he perceived, the point seems deeply interconnected to other ideas about how societies should work. Not only should women be able to drive cars, they should be able to vote. It’s hard to imagine that kind of plea for “modern” women’s rights without accompanying ideas about “modern” political rights and other expectations (in Rubio’s mind that goes hand in hand with free enterprise, notably).

Mere minutes later, Ohio Governor John Kasich in his own words gave the audience “a little trip around the world”. He transitioned from describing a military strategy towards Russia to one in the Middle East, which in turn led him to saying this about the political culture of the region: “Saudi Arabia, cut off the funding for the radical clerics, the ones that preach against us. But they’re fundamentally our friends. Jordan, we want the king to reign for 1,000 years. Egypt, they have been our ally and a moderating force in the Middle East throughout their history.”

The limitations on free speech in Saudi Arabia are, of course, far more extreme than the limiting of funding for radical clerics. The regular and increasing use of the death penalty by the government there is primarily used on clerics critical of the Kingdom, especially those critical because of sectarian disagreements. Overwhelmingly, it’s the Shia minority clerics targeted with that and other state controls designed to limit their communities’ voices and shutdown opposition. They are also famously one of the governments in the region which most systemic restricts women’s rights – to drive, to go out in public, and to control their bodies and appearance. Those, in Kasich’s words, are “our friends” because of how they restrict their people and simultaneously, in Rubio’s view, someone we are locked in an existential struggle with… because of how they restrict their people.

Virtually no one – from Politico to the Seattle Globalist – pretends that the current government in Egypt is democratic. Politico’s coverage touches on a particularly interesting point, that sitting president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a product of the military exchange programs run by and within the United States. In short, he was more than a little groomed for his current strongman role, with his wife beside him, notably in a hijab not in the more veiling niqab. When it comes to other women, however, his defense of the use of “virignity tests” to assess rape and harassment claims by women participating in the street democracy movements in Egypt speaks for itself. Much like Saudi Arabia, the same despotism that is woven into the fabric of how we decide that part of the world is categorically deserving of criticism, and yet oddly also, its saving grace.

Hopefully I don’t have to explain the irony in a debate where most of the Middle East is criticized as undemocratic where another person calls for the Hashimite dynasty in Jordan to rule for a thousand years. It’s worth noting that’s not just simply a millennium of rule, it’s another millennium.

It’s worth noting that even if Kasich and Rubio understood each other as disagreeing, they both continue to address the realities of political life in the Middle East with a common assumption. If you look at the autocratic and patriarchal aspects of life in that part of the world and judge it as exotic and foreign and Other to a US-backed alternative, at least one of the mistakes you’re making is overlooking the ways in which the US has encouraged these undemocratic and restrictive politics. If you look at the dictatorships and call them our friends, you’re insisting that popular rule in the region would inherently be incompatible with US interests and those are more important. Rubio looks at the region shaped by US and other foreign meddling and wonders how it got that way, while Kasich simply shrugs and notes we have to keep them in line. In either case, there’s a denial of the violence inherent in US policy, stretching back decades.

Whether you view this as a cultural war or a strategic conflict, the Republican debate last night offered only variations on viewing the average person in the Middle East as lesser, with no alternative to that.

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Arabs: surprisingly non-identical

The New York Times has really suffered from some decline in recent years – look no further than Ben Hubbard and Rick Gladstone’s recent reporting on the developing crisis in Egypt. It’s rich in generalizations from the region to Egypt and from Egypt to the region. The real core of their point seems to have been:

It is clear that the region’s old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers who fixed elections, ruled by fiat and quashed dissent, has been fundamentally damaged, if not overthrown, in the three years since the outbreak of the uprisings optimistically known as the Arab Spring. […] What is unclear, however, is the replacement model. Most of the uprisings have devolved into bitter struggles, as a mix of political powers battle over the rules of participation, the relationship between the military and the government, the role of religion in public life and what it means to be a citizen, not a subject.

The strangeness to the article’s argument is underneath it’s waffling examination of the futility or effectiveness of the Arab Spring and its subsequent results. The odd framing of it rests in this way of considering the whole Arab world, which reduces it down into a singular political experience, an “Arab politics” of sorts. While dynamic in that it admits that political upheaval has happened, it creates a sense of profound continuity in that it presents the dysfunction found in several Arab states as a comparatively stagnant trait. Arab people are consequently in this view tied together and tied to the past century’s politics.

But are those assumptions warranted? As yesterday’s coverage by Egypt-based media outlets showed, Christian minorities in Egypt have played a very dynamic role in first tentatively supporting the revolution and now tentatively supporting the counter-revolution (in response to seemingly unorganized so far anti-Christian violence). This stands in contrast with the situation in Syria and Tunisia, actually, where Christians have respectively long had a much closer relationship with the state power structures for many decades and are a significantly smaller part of the population.

(Tunisia is the darkest green value with nearly exclusively Sunni Muslim population. Egypt is a notably lighter green with approximately 10 percent of its population being Christian. Syria has even larger non-Muslim minorities and is also, unlike Egypt’s and Syria’s, very divided between Sunni and Shia Muslim populations.)

In fact, Tunisia’s internal issues can be fairly easily summarized as being two overlapping conflicts – one over how to fix the ailing economy and another over what degree of islamist political influence is ideal. While economic issues are common to the region (and rooted largely in common difficulties with unemployment, rising utilities costs, and housing), the particulars of the religious population of those three Arab-majority nations is reflected in what social fault lines exist (both among Muslims and between them and other religious groups).

Properly understanding those unique aspects to various predominantly Arab countries is central to evaluating their different conflicts as well as built on a way of talking about the Arab world (which by most estimates is significantly larger than the United States in population) that doesn’t reduce it to a singular set of conditions. That’s what the New York Times did yesterday, however, and its readers understanding of what’s happening in all of those countries potentially suffered for it.

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It’s bad

TW: police brutality, military government, 2013 Egyptian coup, islamist violence

It seems that we’ve reached the place in Egypt where there shouldn’t be continued debates about whether the interim military government rose to power during a coup or adequately respects the will of Egyptians. The world got it’s answer today as to where on the murky boundary between playing with fire and burning the house down the Egyptian military’s current governance falls: and it’s not a good answer.

(Protesters dislodging a police vehicle from a raised road, from here.)

Ahram online is documenting (among other issues) how the increasingly close relationship between Christians and the military is fueling the sectarian elements to this crisis, as populists target Christians assuming they supported the coup and Christians respond by backing the violent security forces. Contrary to claims by non-Egyptian Christians, the military is arguably aggravating the religious conflict dimensions to this crisis.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has posted more of those fascinating (and seemingly, in the international press, increasingly iconic) images of protesters overturning a police vehicle and then pushing it off of the higher road where it had been. As was unfortunately unacknowledged by too many at the beginnings of this, a large part of Morsi’s ouster is attributable to his loss of legitimacy with nearly every faction in Egypt. A common assumption, especially outside of Egypt seems to have been that the military would fill that vacuum of respected government. It’s clear that a significant number of Egyptians have rejected that idea, and seem to view the military as equally if not more so unacceptable as the ruling order.

Finally, the Guardian has an interested blueprint for what an idea international response might be. It’s biased towards the anglophone world, focusing on the US and UK especially, but it contains an extremely interesting point that

“it is worth exploring whether countries with their own history of internal strife, civil-military conflict, and reconciliation, and respected international leaders, have a constructive role to play. Leaders from government and civil society in South Africa, Turkey, Serbia, Greece or Spain, South Korea come to mind (as would Aung San Suu Kyi, were it not for Myanmar’s own mistreatment of its Muslim minorities).”

A truly international and consensus-driven group of countries coming together to address this issue would be an amazing and arguably most likely to succeed response to this crisis. I hope it comes to pass.

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Conspiracies and the road to civil war

TW: 2013 Egyptian Coup, Islamist violence, inter-faith conflict, civil war

You might not hear much about this in the news, but various outlets are reporting that the interim Egyptian government is considering once again illegalizing membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, during a period of Brotherhood-organized mass protests against the recent coup and after allegations that the Brotherhood had weapons stored in its headquarters.

(Egyptian protesters in March asking the military to dismantle the democratically-elected Brotherhood-affiliated government. This is has long been a question of two evils, from here.)

That information is admittedly newer than the claims that the Brotherhood is targeted Coptic Christians with extreme violence, but it seems like it’s something more than that those reports are older than prompted prominent US politicians, such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) to tweet:

There’s an actual cottage industry of sorts that’s popped up in the past few days, which has worked to reduce all the current violence in Egypt at this time of instability (as the military has permitted some protest over the coup) to the attacks on Coptic Christians.

It’s appalling obvious we’re seeing a campaign to legitimize US support for an indiscriminate crackdown on any activists the military finds troubling, which likely includes many Christian individuals. If successful, what little hope we could have in the coup (that it would allow an improved constitutional drafting process and consequently a more stable democratization) would seem to go up in smoke.

Curiously, this would serve at least some of the goals of both the Brotherhood and the military, in that it would justify their militant stances towards each other and anyone caught in the crossfire (hint: again that includes the majority of Coptic Christians and Egyptians in general). The various US-focused Christian media outlets involved in this are effectively rooting for civil war to break out in Egypt.

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A quick update on Egypt

TW: 2013 Egyptian Coup

There’s a lot happening in Egypt at the moment, and I don’t think I have the wherewithal to untangle the whole mess in just one post, especially at the moment. That said, there’s one particular part of it that seems particularly interesting: the role of Al-Jazeera in covering the current coup.

(A threatening message dropped at an Al Jazeera studio in Cairo which reads, “A lying camera kills a nation reads a flyer thrown outside Al Jazeera office in Cairo.” From here.)

To provide some background, while it seems absolutely necessary to discuss the recent ousting of the Morsi government as a coup, many Egyptians have articulated why they viewed the consequential harm to the democratic norms in the post-Mubarak era as worth it. This has frequently focused on how Morsi government was influencing the on-going drafting of a new Egyptian constitution, which would have had long term ramifications for their country. That calculation should be for Egyptians to make, not for US media commentators who take a dim view on Egyptians as a whole.

That concept of these events needing to be evaluated and judged by Egyptians unfortunately doesn’t seem lacking among those that view the coup as the correct course. The Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera news channel has come under allegations of attempting to coerce Egyptian journalists into painting a rosier picture of the Morsi government and a more negative depiction of the coup than they perceived to be truthful. One critic even complained-

Sadly, this seems to somewhat track previous questionable behavior by Al-Jazeera. In both coverage of the Malian and recent Egyptian government, Al Jazeera has appeared unwilling to challenge the government’s legitimacy because of some appearance of democratic support. In contradiction with David Brooks’ screed, they seem invested in the success of those somewhat democratic governments that they will avoid embodying one of the greatest democratic forces: a critical media. I hope there are better ways of reminding them of that, however, than with threats.

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David Brooks isn’t good at his job

TW: islamophobia, abilism, violence against protesters

Sadly, that’s the inevitable conclusion of his column yesterday, which concerns the coup in Egypt. Now, while I’ve contributed myself to the various analyses on how the now deposed President Morsi effectively alienated just about every major political bloc in Egypt, I’ve been careful to state that this was a coup and that it does present a worrisome precedent (that the Egyptian military can veto democratic elections when leaders become unpopular). President Obama seems to have attempted to skirt the issue even more than me, with his policy declarations (that if elections aren’t quickly held, there will be ramifications) treating this as something like a potential coup, dependent on whether the military inhibits or facilitates further democratic representation.

Of course, that’s a rather binary way of thinking – that this is either a democratic reboot that’s liberating Egyptians from an increasingly unrepresentative and abusive government or a coup that risks undermining the revolutionary changes still underway in Egypt. Why can’t this be both? David Brooks, often considered to be the thoughtful conservative contrarian in the United States, doesn’t challenge that presumption that the events in Egypt are either one or the other. He actually opens the piece by saying:

Those who emphasize [the democratic political] process have said that the government of President Mohamed Morsi was freely elected and that its democratic support has been confirmed over and over. The most important thing, they say, is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup. […] Those who emphasize substance, on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy.

His position as a writer for the New York Times, I would hope, involves either informing people of what they don’t know or challenging them on what they already hold to be true. But from its outset, this column does neither. It works with well-reported information on Egypt, so it doesn’t provide much in the way of news, and it works with that established dichotomy of what could be considered to be happening in Egypt, so it avoids much in terms of useful analysis. The only purpose of this piece seems to be to confirm conventional thought: beginning with a very simplistic understanding of the coup.

The piece continues, however, and lends Brooks’ support to all sorts of common views of Muslims. He argues that it should be anyone and everyone’s goal to “weaken political Islam, by nearly any means” without assessing why political Islam is so powerful. The politically and demographically diverse countries he lists as having proven the failures of “political Islam” include Iran – which is something of an iconic example of how corrupt, undemocratic, but secular governments in predominantly Muslim areas have made Islamist politics seem attractive.

Opposition to “political Islam” by people like Brooks has taken “nearly any means” including in this case apparent military conflict. An alternative that works with well established populist notions of justice (as assorted Islamist movements have) and often seems to the average person more committed to peaceful conduct and representative government is going to attract more supporters.

Brooks has just embodied why Western efforts to “democratize” predominantly Muslim countries has failed – because it refuses to consider what democracy, justice, or liberation necessarily include from the perspective of average people in those nations, and often uses drone strikes, occupations, and other acts of violence. With distressing frequency, it’s people like Brooks who win out in terms of what governance in the Middle East or Mali or any other part of the Islamic world should look, and not the people who live under those governments.

Not content to leave it there, Brooks searches for the cause of this mismatch between his beliefs and theirs, ultimately reducing Muslims the world over to fanatics who have no concept of objective facts outside of their own opinions. He seeks out legitimacy for this position by quoting one Muslim at a pro-Morsi rally (one Muslim to speak for a nation of ) and in more depth the analysis of Adam Garfinkle, of the The American Interest. That’s, of course, a paper that our good friend Niall Ferguson often comments at, so you should anticipate a high level of critical thought there.

In any case, those radical views are according to Brooks the only viable political voices within civilian government in Egypt and potentially the whole Muslim world. Never mind whether Egyptians elected Morsi or someone similarly distasteful to Brooks, he can declare them “outside the democratic orbit” and therefore proclaim that a coup against them is justified and also not a coup (since its illegal for the US to provide foreign aid to governments which came to power through coups). Brooks has apparently declared that all civilian politics from an ill-defined region or social group are predisposed to making “democratic deliberations impossible” since they’re inevitably Islamists who “lack the mental equipment to govern”. Yes, Brooks just said that some unclear portion of the world’s population (Islamists? Middle Easterners? Muslims?) are too stupid for democratic government.

Of course, the government Brooks is glad is gone because it “cracked down on civil society” and “arrested opposition activists” was a civilian administration and therefore falls under his criticisms, but the military interim government which has already killed peaceful protesters is only “bloated and dysfunctional” with nary a mention of those and other violent acts, since they committed them while being secular. After all, Brooks and his audience know that Islamism is “the main threat to global peace” and therefore this isn’t even about the democratic processes Egyptians should feel entitled to participation within or even their basic rights to protest – it’s actually all about Brooks having the freedom and right to live in a world without politics influenced by Islamic beliefs.

(Islamist protesters in Egypt carrying another protester who had been shot by the military in Cairo earlier today, from here.)

When it takes quite a few more words to evaluate how a columnist failed to inform their readers about the world, take another look at how to piece together information, or even quite obviously made their coverage all about them, we have a problem. David Brooks is officially no longer providing a public good, and consequently should come under review by the New York Times for whether his abilist and islamophobic coverage is something they should really pay for.

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So long Morsi?

Within hours of Marwan Bishara’s interesting analysis that the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was facing a crisis of legitimacy, a coup’s happened. Bishara intriguingly presented the risks the dubiously but more or less democratically elected Morsi was working against as at least dual – with both the threat of military leaders appearing as a third option to the dictatorial Mubarak regime and now inadequately democratic Morsi government but also Morsi’s own Islamist base of support disintegrating. The al-Nour Party, more extremist that the Muslim Brotherhood, was in fact central to the call for early elections (ostensibly to unseat Morsi). Morsi’s opposition to that was actually the military’s basis for placing Morsi under what’s for all intents and purposes arrest.

This seems to be an indication of the multifaceted problems that Morsi’s governance has had to combat and seems to have finally succumbed to. With a economy that’s dependent on imports of even basic commodities like food, Morsi seems to have wanted to appear moderate if not nearly secular to Western audiences, even while belonging to and being seen as legitimate because of his Islamist politics. He’s sought to use free market solutions to gain the funds to implement programs to promote domestic production, which hedges towards breaking Egypt’s bank to build a new one. Of course, there’s also the continued use of and support for the “deep state” or larger security apparatus that police the politics of average Egyptians, even as he presents himself as a revolutionary.

Nearly everyone seems to have accepted that Morsi’s government has been hypocritical on security issues, and Bishara and many others have been unpacking in detail the disintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood as a source for viable political leadership in Egypt. But what of the economics?

(This should be an obvious issue, given how many recent protests in Egypt have essentially involved squatting. It’s clear that many current protesters have been unemployed and don’t anticipate finding a job under the current government. Photo taken by Hassan Ammar, from here.)

There’s indications that the simmering economic populism that was central to many of the Arab Spring revolutions haven’t been adequately resolved or even subsumed into other political questions (such as the Islamist-secularist debate). Libya, right next door, was until recently a model for how intelligent economics could contain dissident politics (both Islamist and secular). Will whatever forces produce a new president or similar national leader create one that can avoid the totalitarianism of Qaddafi but absorb his ability to maintain legitimacy through economic stability and growth?

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Defections don’t always mean the same thing

TW: Syrian civil war, military targeting of civilians

In light of the news of how much of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s cabinet has resigned against the backdrop of a presidential power grab and mass protests, it might be tempting to compare it to another government in the eastern Mediterranean – that of Syria. Much like the government of Egypt, the increasingly impotent Syrian regime has seen quite a few defections as well, which have also been concentrated among executive functionaries.

But unfortunately the comparison more or less ends there.

Time Magazine cover with President Morsi labeled as 'The Most Important Man in the Middle East'
(The most important man in the middle east? He can’t even hold on to a cabinet! From here.)

Al Jazeera’s rather detailed reporting makes a few things immediately clear about the situation in Syria. The majority of defections are not from the presidential cabinet (as Morsi’s government’s have), but from high-ranking military officials, the security establishment, and occasionally the assorted diplomats from Assad’s regime. The defections are just as political as the resignations, but they seem informed by protocol more than policy. In nearly ever public defection, the official declared that they couldn’t abide working for a regime that violently targeted its only civilians preemptively and without qualification. The politically-active intelligentsia have more or less joined the anti-Assad revolution in light of its violations of political standards, rather than in opposition to its conception of government.

In stark contrast, the resignations from Morsi’s government have been primarily the actions of highly visible cabinet members. Likewise, while almost every non-Islamist has left their position, significant numbers of Islamists, particularly from the now defunct al-Nour party, also left. To a certain extent, the growing list of presidential powers has been the same sort of lightning rod for opposition to Morsi, as one al-Nour spokesman made clear in saying, “our programmes and views on managing the state are different”.

There’s something a contrast between former members of the government from Islamist parties who are opposed to Morsi’s police actions and the various other former members who are opposed to the police actions necessitated by almost any Salafist government. One need look no further than the twitter of Ayman al-Sayyad, a former cabinet member who was an independent, who passed along a Guardian article that alleged that the Salafist movements in Egypt, whether aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood or opposed as al-Nour is, pose a threat to democratization of the country. That’s a far cry from the various defections from the Syrian government who have almost categorically stated that the existing regime needs to fall.

In short, Egypt has multiple oppositions that are no less opposed to each other than to Morsi’s government. Syria has a regime so violent that such multiple oppositions have prioritized its replacement over their various and at times violent disagreements. The defections and resignations are just that, in radically different contexts.

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Not just what’s said but who’s saying it

TW: sexual assault, violence against protesters, political killings

There’s been a bit of a tussle developing in Egypt as Mohamed Morsi’s presidency especially has lost a lot of its luster and with it quite a bit of its legitimacy. If you seek out Egyptian sources, you’ll get a pretty vivid picture of what’s going on. Sharif Kouddous, although writing for the US-based Nation, pointed out that there’s a fundamental if slow-motion breakdown of law and order brewing, with even something as simple as violence between competing football teams’ fans ending with verdicts and political decisions that many deem unsatisfactory. Egypt is the on the brink, Kouddous essentially states with the piece’s title, because “legitimacy of the Egyptian state appears to be eroding even further” than it had under Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial rule.

The Egyptian media went reporting in Egypt and on Egypt really pounds out that feeling, with many sources quite openly suggesting that it looks like protesters are being executed, not accidentally killed. Besides those concerns, it’s quite clear that the organizers of Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, which tries to prevent sexual harassment throughout Cairo but particularly against protesters in Tahrir Square, see the Morsi-headed government as an opponent. Salma el-Tarzi, a spokesperson for the group, makes it quite clear in this interview that the physical intimidation and brutality against male protesters and journalists seems to be coordinated alongside the sexual harassment and assault of female protesters and journalists. Egyptian activist Mona Eltahawy, although currently living in New York, pointed out that even if we don’t believe the allegations that the government is perpetuating sexual assault as a weapon against female protesters, the government in general and Morsi in particular haven’t really explained that they have a plan to deal with the problem, let alone done anything.

So while the troubles of Egypt have been swept under the rug in much media coverage outside of the Arab world, what little peeks through sharply contrasts with Egyptians own words. Look no further than Colin Moynihan’s recent concerns over anarchist protests in Egypt – that’s the real problem over there, seems to be his argument. Nevermind that the Egyptians he quotes talk about how the anarchists are mimicking and seemingly mocking the government’s new security forces’ uniforms. He ends by quoting a few different Egyptians without context or explanation. One worries that the group might be infiltrated by government-backed counter-protesters, but Moynihan doesn’t address that what she’s really afraid of is government manipulation of this imagery, not the people currently using it. Another worries about how their appearance might hurt their fellow protesters, and again Moynihan doesn’t seem all the concerned about why she feels that this battle has such high stakes that protesters must be extremely careful in how they look.

(A Black Bloc protester in Egypt, from here.)

Apparently the real issue here are “scary” Egyptians in black clothing, because a White guy said so.

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Power rather than merits

TW: brief mention of sexual assault

It’s not great shock that power rather than merits determines what messages are widely disseminated, as several recent articles show. To live in a country with a less democratic government is to have your speech coerced if not outright monitored and controlled. Egypt’s President Morsi is pursuing a policy of rather intently shutting down parodies and satires that appear to reflect poorly on him, namely one extremely popular video satirist who has mocked his overuse of the word love in recent speeches and other mannerisms.

(He hasn’t seemed to consider not giving himself extensive political powers if he doesn’t want to be mocked as power hungry. Photo from here.)

Meanwhile, Chinese officials similarly shot themselves in the foot, as they initially allowed broad coverage of the sexual assault and subsequent death of a 23 year old Indian woman, as that fit into their narrative of India’s form of development as inferior to China’s. As protests erupted across India (TW: sexual assault as “defilement”, some less reasonable than others), however, internet users speaking anonymously asked questions including, “If such things happen in China, will we have a large scale protest?” Searching for articles or coverage on Chinese networks now turns up no results, as the state has now censored discussion of the incident or ensuing protests.

In contrast to those two other examples that have to swim upstream against their own governments, Howard Schultz’s interest in some sort of a deal on the “Fiscal Cliff” didn’t face state-based censorship within the US. But furthermore, it didn’t have to compete on an open market of ideas. As the CEO of Starbucks, he could simply demand that his employees propagate his message, no matter how nonsensical its content or unclear its meaning. So even in many comparatively open and uncensored media markets, what views are represented speak more to the power of those stating them than their own merits or popular appeal.

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The year gendered violence got on everyone’s radar

TW: sexual assault, rape culture, condoning of sexual assault

2012 was the year in which sexual assault, and particularly its gendered dimensions, became something everyone had to acknowledge. And I mean everyone.

There’s a lot of different issues that could be said to have defined the Republican Party during the US’s elections this year. From the racism to the classism, a constant refrain was that those with little deserved even less. Beyond those steps taken by the party, women, particularly if affected by sexual assault or other violence related to their gender, were subject to similarly stupid proposed policies. Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan wrote excellently in August about the fatigue of beginning to lose track of how many horrifying statements about rape and sexual violence had floated around the Republican Party, at times translating into actually disgusting political proposals. The dangers were quite clear: electoral victories by the GOP would legitimize legal decisions that reflected these admitted beliefs. Women voters (especially when young or of color) by and large got that message and sent their own response back.

Blowback against these sort of attitudes was hardly an exclusively American or even first world phenomenon, this year. As allegations surfaced that the new government in Egypt had maintained the prior regime’s use of sexual violence against female protesters to discourage public dissent, there was a clear public outcry. Protesters have since embarked on a campaign to actively shame participants in sexual violence (Egyptian Arabic only, sorry) and to establish procedures to help anyone attacked by the police or others in the public places. Reports of sexual assault in Tahrir have declined since then, but whether a long term solution has been reached remains to be seen.

Indian protester women holding up placard: "Not as a Mother / Not as a Sister / I want my rights as a Human-being"
(One of the countless protests continuing throughout India since mid-December. From here.)

Most recently, however, an especially violent sexual assault in India has mobilized much of the country there. Protests and vigils have held everyone responsible – from parents to the police. New Years celebrations have been dampened or canceled out of some mixture of automatic respect and demanded contemplation of the issue at hand.

Across the world, 2012 seems to have been the year that women made themselves heard when they said that they weren’t going to take it anymore.

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A series of terrible decisions

The fascistic Shiv Sena Party has responded to the request by the local government of Mumbai to disband their impromptu shrine to their recently deceased founder, Bal Thackeray, which was built on public land. Unfortunately, while they’re disbanding the current structure, they appear interested in constructing another, more permanent one simply in another part of the same park. That’s a pretty clear case of not getting the message.

(The current memorial, originally published here.)

Meanwhile, Keralan Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has made it quite clear how he sees the recent Indian decision to allow a greater degree of foreign direct investment in the retail sector, namely from WalMart – as a dramatic fissure between the Indian people and their livelihood on the one hand and the Indian government on the other. As he’s now essentially alleging that WalMart bribed other high level officials, if that’s true, he has a good point about where officials’ interests lie.

In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi’s effort to consolidate various presidential powers, including freedom from judicial review, appears to have not only backfired politically, but also economically. Reestablishing dictatorial politics appears to be hurting the image of the country, and driving trade away from the Suez Canal and tourism away from its various national sites. Perhaps economic deterioration can succeed where popular protest hasn’t yet been able to? Or can Morsi jump start an Egypt-centered economy and quiet these concerns?

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In Egypt, there’s indications that the liberal coalition forged during the Tahrir Square protests that brought down the military regime almost two years ago is being tested against a new force: the more than eighty year old Muslim Brotherhood. The question being asked now is if democratic activists have the same sort of upper hand against the increasingly authoritarian Morsi presidency that they did against Mubarak.

(Pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi protesters have clashed with each other and police in recent days throughout Egypt. Originally from here.)

In Ghana, a similar test is unfolding. Today’s election is a choice between competing (and somewhat regionally distinct) ideas about how to best invest the growing national wealth from the oil industry – whether in physical infrastructure improvements or mass funding of public education. With the region having recently suffered from numerous recent civil wars, political conflicts, and even a coup, this is a clear test if Ghana’s democracy is more substantive than that of its neighbors.

Finally, India is testing its markets with significant changes to its laws on foreign investment and economic control. Historically cautious of international economic “cooperation” which was a significant component to British colonial dominance in the country, the Indian government has spent the past few decades gradually easing protectionist policies. With this change, a bit of a test is underway to see if protectionism was the reason why many Indians’ standard of living didn’t increase dramatically after independence. As the past years have been fairly inconclusive, with the majority of the benefits of the more “free market” economy going to specific groups, it remains to be seen if more foreign investment solves the problem.

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There are no great men

The “great men” theory of history got a bit of a test today in Egypt, and it failed. You might have noticed that yesterday and earlier today, twitter was abuzz with comments about the coming speech by President Morsi, which many expected to put forth a response of sorts to the public outcry over his new executive powers. Even now that’s what most overseas journalists are reporting on (only available in French at the moment). But his speech really didn’t cover much, or at least feel very responsive to many protesters.

(Protests in Itihadiya among other parts of Egypt continued unabated following the speech. Originally from here.)

If you actually read what’s being said on the ground though, it’s another story. The only way to understand what’s happened is not to focus on him, but the larger social context. The political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood has increasingly played second fiddle to its social organization, breeding a more conservative political force than what it presented itself as being. In the perceived power vacuum following the fall of the Mubarak regime, the military and Brotherhood emerged as allies who carved out a government together, which wouldn’t so much reform Egypt as replace the previous dictatorship. As Morsi became president and the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood became the dominant international media narrative, his government couldn’t help noticing how unrepresentative their Salafi Islamism was. But still, this was their chance to chase down that ever illusive idea of an authentically and adequately Islamic state, so emergency powers were the order of the day, even if they only widened the gap between ruler and ruled.

Morsi made a choice about what to say today, and he said the wrong thing, but because of the series of social forces that shaped his country, his party, and him. He’s neither the leader Egypt needs nor the leader who can make it into a country that needs him. His days look about as numbered as Mubarak’s had been.

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On Egypt, sexual violence, and twitter

TW: political violence against protesters, sexual assault, rape culture

Posting anything other than a let-me-link-you today would feel cheap as some fantastic online coverage is perfectly capturing the complex struggle going right now in Egypt. The tweeting of even just simple details by Sharif Kouddous is creating a rather vivid image of the way protest, political violence, and media are all interacting over there at this very moment. As long as you’re keeping tabs on him, you might as well pay a bit of attention to Mona Eltahawy as well, who isn’t in Egypt at the moment, but has been doing some insightful signal boosting for sexually assaulted protesters and their families.

(Clashes between different protesting groups in Cairo during the evening, midday US time. Originally from here.)

Looking over her recent coverage has put a lot of things in perspective when it comes to the politicization of rape. It was certainly interesting to take breaks from writing this piece on rape culture over at Velociriot only to read about the use of sexual assault to threaten or “legitimately” exercise violence over female protesters. The weaponization of rape is profoundly horrifying, and only grows more worrisome when you realize how utterly pervasive the trivialization of sexual assault and permissiveness towards rapists actually is.

Hopefully tomorrow’s news is less grim.

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