The Documentary film *Bhutto*, and Why Benazir Failed.

Recently we were able to preview the forthcoming PBS documentary, Bhutto, about the life and career of Benazir Bhutto. It was well done, but much that is described in the film cannot be understood without more information on her enemies. The film refers several times to “enemies” without identifying them. That she had them is clear enough, as there were several attempts on her life, the last one of course being successful.

Benazir and indeed all of the Bhutto family had one powerful enemy: the Pakistani army. You can’t appreciate what was at stake in the Bhutto story without knowing how powerful the army is and how pervasive its influence is in Pakistani society.

The army controls huge sectors of the Pakistani economy. It owns an estimated twelve million acres, 12% of the total state-owned land and its lands are parceled out to retired officers. Also, it owns two powerful investment companies, the Fouji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust, which together control a third of the entire heavy manufacturing in the country. They own hotels, shopping malls, insurance companies, banks, farms, factories for corn flakes, bread, cement, textiles, sugar. Altogether the Pakistan military-industrial complex was worth about 20 billion dollars in 2007. Someone has said that while other countries have armies, in Pakistan the army has a country.

The army is however not a popular institution. And of course it need not be: It exists as the institution that should be protecting the interests of the country; the problem is that it is also the country’s landlord.

In contrast, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and later his daughter Benazir Bhutto were hugely popular. Their base of influence lay in their broad popularity among the Pakistani people. This is why the army had a problem with the Bhuttos: they were too popular. Whatever failings the Bhuttos had, and I presume they had a good many like most of us, their popularity was a threat to military wealth and power.

This was why, when Benazir ran for Parliament, essentially to be Prime Minister, the army put together a new party to run against her which called itself the Islamic Democratic Alliance. And this was why when Benazir was elected in 1989 the army did what it could to keep her from serving. In fact only after Washington intervened did the army relent, and even then only after forcing Benazir to agree to allow the army to run foreign policy and the nuclear program, and not to reduce the military’s budget, or even to question the military’s budget for the nuclear program, its backing of the Kashmir insurgency, or the Afghan Mujahedin. In June, 1989, it was the Americans who told her about the army’s project to enrich uranium.

In that year she had grand ideas of resolving the problems with India. She and the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi proposed to develop a new era of peace and cooperation but their plans were upset by an insurgency in Indian Kashmir, possibly instigated by the Pakistani military. And then Gandhi was assassinated on May 21, 2991.

Benazir’s term as Prime Minister ended in August 6, 1990 – hardly a year after she was elected.

She was elected Prime Minister again in 1994 but by 1996 she was again deposed. The reasons for her deposal both times were the same: her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as well as Benazir herself, was accused of corruption. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan was backed by the army and had the power to dismiss her and did so twice on the basis of those claims. Both Benazir and Zardari served time in prison for corruption. It is impossible to evaluate the merits of the accusations of corruption – significantly, the PBS film presents Zardari as unfairly judged [but then the film entailed getting approvals from his administration]. What can be said with some confidence is the army had from early on opposed Benazir and were inclined to want to smear Benazir.

Rash an accusation as this is, it is not without basis. We have noted already that the army had in 1989 resisted her serving as Prime Minister and even then seriously truncated her powers. This they did again in 1994 when she was elected for a second time. And after she was deposed a second time they tried to push through amendments to the constitution that would have banned her for life from becoming Prime Minister again.

Even when she returned to Pakistan in 2007 the former general, then President Pervez Musharraf, who by then had lost all legitimacy required that she make a deal in order to run for office. Even then the promises he made in two face-to-face negotiations with her and the Americans he failed to carry out. Under American pressure he finally dropped all charges of corruption against Bhutto, which made it possible for her to return to Pakistan and run for office. When she returned on October 18, 2007, welcomed by tens of thousands, the Pakistani army provided only desultory protection even though they had been forewarned of a plot against her; indeed it is hard not to wonder if somehow someone in an official capacity was involved in what took place as her motorcade traveled from the airport to her home: suddenly the street lights went out and then two huge bombs exploded, killing 179 people and injuring more than 600. It was the “the single largest terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history.”

After her arrival Musharraf behaved as if her popularity were a threat to his powers. On November 3, 2007, he declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, sacked Supreme Court judges, arrested thousands of activists, took all private TV news channels off the air, forced all serving judges to take a new oath of office that would validate whatever he did. And a few weeks later, in December, he placed Bhutto under house arrest. When thousands protested on the streets he jailed up to 10,000, finally lifting the state of emergency on December 15, allowing Bhutto to campaign for office.

By this time she had become convinced that the ISI was planning to rig the election against her, and she had prepared a dossier of evidence to present to Senator Arlen Specter and Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy. Also, on the morning of December 27, in a meeting with the Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai she told him about the ISI plan. And she had prepared a note indicating that if she was killed it would have been the work of Musharraf. She was indeed killed that afternoon. Even if Musharraf himself was behind the assassination, he made no pretenses of grieving over her loss. He and the army never did like her, he said, and anyway it was actually her own fault that she died.

The army’s control of public affairs continues. No elected government in Pakistan has ever completed its tenure, for in every instance the army stepped in to take over a government that it claimed was in disarray. The army’s complaint against Benazir was corruption. No one will ever know how fair the charge was or whether this charge was trumped up in order to suit the army’s agendas – a way of delegitimizing a politician whose popularity was so great as to be a threat to its control of the country.[Source: A. Rashid, Descent Into Chaos.]

Some articles on the recent demostrations in the Arab world

For what it’s worth this is a list of some interesting recent reports on the many public demonstrations in the Arab world demanding more rights and more accountability in government. These publications may not be especially the best, but they have been helpful to me. I would welcome suggestions of other helpful articles about what is going on. RLC

‘Volcano of Rage’ by Max Rodenbeck. New York Review March 24, 2011.

Frontline: Revolution in Cairo.

Uprisings: From Tunis to Cairo, by William Pfaff. NewYorkReview Feb 24, 2011.

Anonymous and Tunisia: A New Cyber Warfare? by Amar Toor [AOL], January 29, 2011.

The Internet: For Better or for Worse, Steve Coll, New York Review of Books April 7, 2011.

A New Arab Generation Finds Its Voice. New York Times Magazine Mar 20, 2011.

Iran’s State of Fear, by Haleh Esfandiari New York Review of Books. Mar 3, 2011.

How China Fears the Middle East Revolutions by Perry Link. NYRBooks Mar 24, 2011.


Is the Arab Spring losing its spring? by Ian Bremmer

MORE ADDENDA [5/14/11]

‘Arab Spring’ Has Yet to Alter Region’s Strategic
Balance (op-ed, Los Angeles Times, May 9)

The Arab Spring
(Economist, April 27, 2011)

Syria: Economic Hardship Feeds Social
Unrest (op-ed, Los Angeles Times, March 31)

The Shifting Zeitgeist of the Arab Spring by Mark Levine.

Syrian troops refuse to fire


CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY: Tunisia’s and Egypt’s Revolutions and Transitions to Democracy: What is the impact on the Arab World? What Lessons can we learn?


Another look at the movement in Bahrain — as it looked five years ago

Merely for what it reveals of the past as well as the present I here reproduce an article I posted on this site in 2005. The relevance of this unremarked protest more than five years ago to what is going on now in Bahrain is too obvious to belabor. For what it’s worth:

> 29 March 2005

The hypocrisy of Washington’s self-proclaimed crusade for democracy in the Middle East found damning expression this week in the nearly total silence of the US government and the American media over a demonstration that brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Bahrain last Friday demanding democratic reforms.
> The contrast between the reaction to this popular upsurge against a dictatorial monarch in the Persian Gulf and the attention lavished on the so-called “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon could not have been starker.
> The New York Times was among the few to print anything at all, limiting its coverage to a 13-line Reuters dispatch placed at the bottom of page 6 in its international briefs column. The Washington Post, the other paper of record of the US ruling elite, published nothing at all, and the major broadcast media remained completely silent.
Apparently, the US corporate media’s only interest in Bahrain is the preparations for a Grand Prix motor race to be held there on April 3. The aspirations and the oppression of the country’s population are a matter of indifference.
> Friday’s peaceful march saw an estimated 80,000 people—roughly 12 percent of the Gulf state’s total population—demanding constitutional reforms. They called for greater power for the elected lower house of parliament, which currently is subordinated to a handpicked upper chamber, the consultative council — an arrangement that leaves all real legislative power in the hands of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. They also demanded a constitution ratified by elected representatives, rather than the current charter, which was imposed by royal decree in 2002.
> This action signaled the refusal of the Al-Khalifa dynasty to relinquish the absolute power it has exercised since declaring its independence from Britain in 1971. As a consequence, the opposition parties boycotted an election held that year.
> The monarchy denied organizers of the march—principally the main Shia opposition movement, the Islamic National Accord Association (INAA)—a legal permit for the protest, citing “tension and regional threats.” Also participating in the march were the left-wing National Democratic Action Association, the National Democratic Rally—a pan-Arabist group—and the Islamic Action Association, another Shia opposition movement. Political parties remain banned in Bahrain.
> On Saturday, the daily newspaper Al-Ayyam quoted a senior minister in the Bahrain regime declaring that the INAA “will face legal measures after it organized an unlawful demonstration yesterday.”
> Opposition leaders are threatened with arrest. The regime has increasingly cracked down on dissent. In the past month alone, it jailed three young men for running an online discussion forum——that posted comments critical of the regime. It accused them of “defamation…inciting hatred against the regime and spreading rumors and lies that could cause disorder.”
> Also arrested March 9 were three members of a recently formed Committee of the Unemployed for distributing leaflets urging participation in a picket on behalf of the jobless. It is estimated that as much as 25 percent of the country’s population are unemployed. An opposition group reported that the three were subjected to physical abuse and harsh interrogations.
> Last September, Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja, vice-president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested for violating royal decrees restricting freedom of speech and association. The rights group was also proscribed.
> Al-Khawaja earned the monarchy’s wrath by speaking at a public forum on poverty and social inequality in Bahrain, blaming the policies of Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa—the king’s uncle. The regime is a family affair, with al-Khalifas occupying 10 of the 21 ministries, including all those most important to the exercise of state power.
> While the Shia community represents an estimated 70 percent of the country’s population, there are only five Shia ministers in the government, all of them occupying relatively unimportant posts. In the last elections, the ruling family shamelessly gerrymandered electoral districts to dilute the Shia vote.
> Given the Bush administration’s incessant proclamations of its dedication to the struggle for democracy and against tyranny, one might anticipate the administration embracing the demonstration in Bahrain as an indication of a democratic wave sweeping the Middle East.
> After all, here were tens of thousands openly defying a regime that suppresses freedom of speech and assembly, discriminates against the majority of the population and routinely locks up those who criticize it.
> But George Bush did not take to the airwaves proclaiming his desire for the liberation of the people of the Bahrain—as he has done in relation to Iran
and Lebanon—nor did he suggest sanctions against the tyrannical monarchy, as he has implemented against the Syrian regime.
> Rather, there was an embarrassed silence, both in Washington and the media. The events in Bahrain cannot be reported because they expose US policy as a lie.

> Washington is not condemning this tyrant, because he is a pliant and valued instrument of US imperialist policy in the region. The small gulf emirate he rules serves as the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet. Some 4,500 US military personnel are deployed there, occupying a 79-acre base. The Navy and Marine components of the US Central Command are also based there, and the royal family allowed the use of its territory for carrying out military attacks on Iraq.
> Economically, the autocratic regime has likewise subordinated itself to Washington, signing a free trade pact last year that effectively abrogated an existing customs union joining it with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. US firms dominate the oil sector.
> With a population and landmass that are both approximately equivalent to
those of Indianapolis, Indiana, Bahrain has been designated as a “major non-NATO
> Last November, when King Hamad flew to the US, the White House celebrated him as “the first Arab leader to meet President George W. Bush since his re-election as US president.”
> During the visit, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell lauded the King for sharing the US commitment to “help the Iraqis have their election.” That the election staged in his own country was so blatantly rigged that political
organizations representing the majority of the population boycotted them went
> King Hamad’s regime in Bahrain, the Saudi royal family, Egypt’s Mubarak,
General Musharraf of Pakistan and ex-Stalinist dictators like Karimov of
Uzbekistan—these are the regimes that Washington props up and depends upon in the Middle East and Central Asia. They are the real face of the supposedly democratic goals of US imperialism in the region.
> The reaction to the Bahrain protests serves to expose the obvious. In its pretense of a worldwide crusade for democracy and against tyranny, US imperialism designates who is a democrat and who is a tyrant based entirely upon its own strategic interests. Thus, protests in Lebanon that are seen as a means of strengthening both US and Israeli dominance in the region are celebrated by the US government and given massive coverage in the media, while a demonstration in Bahrain that threatens to undermine a US-backed regime is censored from the news.
> —

The demonstrations we ignored until the big ones happened

So much has been happening in the Middle East that I have tried to collect a list of the several demonstrations that led up to the recent major demonstrations that have had such an effect. Most of them — all of them — sought popular sovereignty and in any case indicated a growing sense of frustration across the Middle East. Virtually none the demonstrations that led up to these recent massive movements were animated by Islamic agendas. Some of them were pointedly aimed against the Islamist regimes currently in power, notably in Iran. In a few instances, the leaders of these demonstrations specifically denied that their agendas are Islamic. For instance, when President Admadenijad in Iran claimed the Egyptian demonstrations were Islamist a leader of the Muslim Brethren denied it.

So here is my working list, in chronological order of demonstrations in the Middle East that were mostly ignored. Much of this information comes from Asef Bayat, 2010, *Life as Politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East,* Palo Alto, CA, Stanford University. Further information is available at various sites on the internet. Also, for a recent statement on Iran see Haleh Esfandiari. 2011. “Iran: the State of Fear”, NYReview Ap 7, 2011.

1987-93. First Palestinian Intifada, triggered by a fatal accident caused by an Israeli truck driver. Eventually thousands of Palestinians participated.

1995. Iran. In January a hundred thousand spectators at a soccer match in Tehran, in response to a bad call, tear up the stadium, begin chanting “Death of this barbaric regime”, and “Death to the Pasdaran” [paramilitary troops]. [Bayat 2010: 126.]

1998. Iran. In June “hordes of young boys and girls [disgorged into] the streets in every major city to cheer, dance, and sound their car horns” because of a victory of the Iranian soccer team in Paris — and in defiance of government regulations. In Karadj they taunt the Basij who are supposed to maintain order chanting “Basij must dance!” [Bayat 2010: 126]

2001 Iran. The loss of Iran’s soccer team in Bahrain provides another excuse for hundreds of thousands of young people to display deeply felt anger against their government. “In fifty-four different areas of Tehran, young people marched, shouted political slogans, threw rocks and handmade explosives at police, vandalized police cars, broke traffic lights, and lit candles in a sign of mourning for defeat.” Contrary to government regulations young people shot off fireworks to celebrate Nowroz, “turned urban neighborhoods into explosive battle zones, scorning the official ban on the ritual and the collective joy that went with it. … symbolizing “outrage against officialdom …” [Marc 21, 2001; Bayat 2010: 126]

2004. Iran. In Tehran and Tabriz there are open fights against the Basiji paramilitaries who were trying to contain “improper behavior.” [Bayat 2010: 126].
2005. Feb 14. Lebanon. Cedar Revolution developed after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. More than a million people gather in downtown Beirut and demand the end of Syrian troop occupation, blaming the Syrians for the assassination.

2005 March. Bahrain. Thousands march in the streets demanding a more open society and democracy. [See this blog, 3/23/11.]

2005-2006. Egypt. Nascent democracy movement appears. Kifaya [Enough is enough] movement brings together thousands of middle class professionals, students, teachers, judges, journalists who call for political prisoners to be released and the end to emergency law, torture – even call for the end of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. It is secular, nonsectarian, appeal for democracy. [Bayat 2010: 6, 38, 168]

2006, 2007. Egypt. There are several mass workers’ strikes, especially among textile workers of Mahalla al-Kubra, “the most effective organized activism in the nation’s history since World War II, with almost no Islamist influence.” [Bayat 2010:9]

2007. In Iran, owing to the protests, during this year thousands of activists are arrested and given court summons or/and dismissed from their jobs; dozens of dailies and weeklies are shut down; hundreds of NGOs are closed down. In Egypt police treat with violence peaceful protestors calling for political reform; hundreds of Muslim Brethren are arrested; thousands are in detention without trial. [Bayat 2010: 10]

2008, April 6-7. Egypt. “April 7 Youth movement.” By linking up through Facebook 70,000 people come out in support of a textile workers strike, and to protest Israeli attacks against Gaza. Largely made up of young people, educated, well-to-do. It was implicitly a reaction against political repression, economic stagnation, nepotism in government. Bayat [2010: 23, 135] provides a description of police brutality on July 23, 2008. The protests appear in the outskirts of Cairo. [Bayat 2010: 168]

2008. Nov 5. Barak Obama is elected President of the United States.

2009. June 4. Obama speaks to the Muslim world from Cairo.

2009. June 12. After the Iranian election for President the government declares within hours that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is re-elected. Within a day there is a growing sense of outrage among the Iranian public claiming that the election was stolen. Demonstrations in favor of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the major challenger, appeared the next day indicating their identity by using the color green as participation and support for him. Police and basij [paramilitaries] suppressed the movement brutally. On June 20 Neda Agha-Soltan was shot to death. Her death was captured on film and passed all over the world and became a defining icon of the whole affair. It stood for the popular movement against the regime, for the brutality of the regime, for the collective outrage among many Iranians, for the abuses suffered by young men and women in Iran, for aspirations of “freedom” – that is, for a system by which their government could be made more accountable. Even her name became iconic: “nedaa” means “voice” or “divine message” and so came to stand for “the voice of Iran”. The government not only spared no violent means but also used torture against those who were captured and incarcerated. [Afsaneh Moqadam. 2010. Death to the Dictator. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.]

2010. Dec 17. Mohamed Bouazizi in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire in outrage at the way he had been treated by local officials, especially a police woman who slapped him in the face and insulting his father when he tried to pay a 10-dinar fine. Riots erupted the next day in Sidi Bouzid and the violent response of the police was shared on Facebook. On Dec 22 Lahseen Naji, a protestor, in response to “hunger and joblessness” climbed onto an electricity pylon and electrocuted himself. Another person, Ramzi Al-Abboudi, who was in financial difficulty, also killed himself. On Dec 24 a demonstrator was shot to death by police in Bouziane, another on December 30. Protests reached the capital, Tujnis on December 27 in the form of a rally of 1,000 people calling for jobs. Soon the Tunisian Federation of Labour Unions demonstrated; 300 lawyers held a rally near the palace. There were demonstrations on December 29, 30, 31; there were reports that lawyers were “savagely beaten”. And there were more demonstrations on January 3, 2011. On the 6th 95% of the country’s lawyers went on strike, and the next day teachers joined the strike. On the 11th rioters were ransacking buildings, burning tires, burning cars and buses police used riot gear; the military began to deploy. The Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir organized protests for January 14 and called for re-establishment of the caliphate. The next day they went to the prison to free political prisoners. On January 14 a journalist was hit by a tear gas canister and died. And on that day President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flew out to Saudi Arabia. On January 17 a new cabinet was announced in order to quiet the rebellion. The next day, nevertheless, there were street protests against the new cabinet, insisting that no one connected with President Ben Ali should hold office. By the 23rd the police were joining the protests. Changes in the personnel in the Center committee did not satisfy the demonstrators and on 28 hundreds were demonstrating against the Prime Minister Mohammaed Ghannouchi, seeing themselves as representatives of ten million people. By February 19 demonstrators were demanding a new interim government that was completely free of any connection to the old regime.

2011. January 25. Egypt. Feb 15 Wael Ghonim placed on Facebook a web page “We are all Khaled Said”. In the next 21 hours there were hundreds of comments on the site. Walter Armbrust, when he looked at it on the 16th, saw 5,500 comments on the site. The Egyptian revolution had begun.

A fluid situation in Egypt allows for simmering tensions to catch fire

A report by Al Jazeera – “Copts, Muslims clash in Cairo: At least 11 people killed in sectarian clashes after Coptic protest against the torching of a church” — reveals how conflicted Egyptian society is after the successful uprising against Hosni Mubarak. On the one hand we have heard that Muslims protected Copts and Copts protected Muslims at different times during the uproarious demonstrations. On the other hand, in the last few days, local clashes among people indicate that the old practices of discrimination have continued. [Click on the title above to see Al Jazeera on the latest affair.]

The burning of the Shahedain church reveals that some Muslims in the city of Sol still have disdain for the Copts of their community. The source of the problem was a love affair: A Copt man wants to marry a Muslim girl. If it had been a Muslim man wanting to marry a Christian girl, that would have been less unusual and less offensive to most Muslims, because the common practice is for the woman to “become” whatever the husband is. These are social categories, not indexes of authentic worship. And viable social categories are enforced and reinforced, reiterated many times in many contexts by the way people relate to each other – by what they don’t do as well as what they do. This love affair is offensive to some folks, as it cuts across conventions firmly established by generations of social practice.

Such are these times. They are momentous because so many fundamental conventions of practice are now at stake as new opportunities are taking form and former options being foreclosed or made less feasible or unproductive. This Muslim-Copt clash is but one of what Al Jazeera calls “a string of violent protests over a variety of topics as simmering unrest continues nearly a month after [the] mass protests.” We all hope the Egyptians can constitute a viable social order in the absence of a dictator. That would indeed be something new, hugely creative in a country that has never enjoyed a ruling institution that existed by popular suffrage.

But in this story there are some encouraging details worth watching because they hint of something else that is new in the picture: the official organizations involved have seemed to take the side of the more vulnerable and to seek redress. Al Jazeera tells us that “The military intervened to prevent further clashes” and “Egypt’s ruling military council vowed to have the church rebuilt and prosecute those behind the arson attack.” If the military council follows through it will be significant.

Our own country knows how difficult it is to change social conventions. The rights of Afro-Americans were not seriously protected until the state insisted on it – which pitted the federal government against some state leaders. And even then there were marches on Selma, imprisonment, continued physical abuse, interpersonal clashes that ramified into a series of interpersonal and institutional crises.

We can only hope that the process will take place with minimal pain to the Egyptian people. What we do know, however, is that the fundamental animus of the movement ofr change is not “Islamist”. This is not an “Islamist” movement. All that the radical Islamists had hoped for and risked their lives for never had this kind of penetrating impact on the fundamental structures of Egyptian society.

Armbrust on the Middle Eastern cry against neoliberalism

This article, by a former anthropology major at Washington University in St Louis, Ph D from the University of Michigan, now a fellow at Oxford’s Middle East Center, captures well the revolutionary implications of the new public demonstrations in the Middle East. We are seeing revolutionary movements in the true sense of a cry for a new social order. Walter Armbrust sees clearly some of the social conditions these demonstrations cry out against. Will they yield the paradigm change that they want? This as it appeared in Al Jazeera. RLC[Click on the title for a direct link to the source.]

A revolution against neoliberalism?
If rebellion results in a retrenchment of neoliberalism, millions will feel cheated.
Walter Armbrust 24 Feb 2011 20:27 GMT

On February 16th I read a comment was posted on the wall of the Kullina Khalid Saed (“We are all Khaled Said”) Facebook page administered by the now very famous Wael Ghonim. By that time it had been there for about 21 hours. The comment referred to a news item reporting that European governments were under pressure to freeze bank accounts of recently deposed members of the Mubarak regime. The comment said: “Excellent news … we do not want to take revenge on anyone … it is the right of all of us to hold to account any person who has wronged this nation. By law we want the nation’s money that has been stolen … because this is the money of Egyptians, 40% of whom live below the poverty line.”

By the time I unpacked this thread of conversation, 5,999 people had clicked the “like” button, and about 5,500 had left comments. I have not attempted the herculean task of reading all five thousand odd comments (and no doubt more are being added as I write), but a fairly lengthy survey left no doubt that most of the comments were made by people who clicked the “like” icon on the Facebook page. There were also a few by regime supporters, and others by people who dislike the personality cult that has emerged around Mr. Ghoneim.

This Facebook thread is symptomatic of the moment. Now that the Mubarak regime has fallen, an urge to account for its crimes and to identify its accomplices has come to the fore. The chants, songs, and poetry performed in Midan al-Tahrir always contained an element of anger against haramiyya (thieves) who benefited from regime corruption. Now lists of regime supporters are circulating in the press and blogosphere. Mubarak and his closest relatives (sons Gamal and ‘Ala’) are always at the head of these lists. Articles on their personal wealth give figures as low as $3 billion to as high as $70 billion (the higher number was repeated on many protesters’ signs). Ahmad Ezz, the General Secretary of the deposed National Democratic Party and the largest steel magnate in the Middle East, is supposed to be worth $18 billion; Zohayr Garana, former Minister of Tourism, $13 billion; Ahmad al-Maghrabi, former Minister of Housing, $11 billion; former Minister of Interior Habib Adli, much hated for his supervision of an incredibly abusive police state, also managed to amass $8 billion — not bad for a lifetime civil servant.

Such figures may prove to be inaccurate. They may be too low, or maybe too high, and we may never know precisely because much of the money is outside of Egypt, and foreign governments will only investigate the financial dealings of Mubarak regime members if the Egyptian government makes a formal request for them to do so. Whatever the true numbers, the corruption of the Mubarak regime is not in doubt. The lowest figure quoted for Mubarak’s personal wealth, of “only” $3 billion, is damning enough for a man who entered the air force in 1950 at the age of twenty two, embarking on a sixty-year career in “public service.”

A systemic problem

The hunt for regime cronies’ billions may be a natural inclination of the post-Mubarak era, but it could also lead astray efforts to reconstitute the political system. The generals who now rule Egypt are obviously happy to let the politicians take the heat. Their names were not included in the lists of the most egregiously corrupt individuals of the Mubarak era, though in fact the upper echelons of the military have long been beneficiaries of a system similar to (and sometimes overlapping with) the one that that enriched civilian figures much more prominent in the public eye such as Ahmad Ezz and Habib al-Adly.
Despite macroeconomic gains, tens of millions of Egyptians still live in poverty [EPA]

To describe blatant exploitation of the political system for personal gain as corruption misses the forest for the trees. Such exploitation is surely an outrage against Egyptian citizens, but calling it corruption suggests that the problem is aberrations from a system that would otherwise function smoothly. If this were the case then the crimes of the Mubarak regime could be attributed simply to bad character: change the people and the problems go away. But the real problem with the regime was not necessarily that high-ranking members of the government were thieves in an ordinary sense. They did not necessarily steal directly from the treasury. Rather they were enriched through a conflation of politics and business under the guise of privatization. This was less a violation of the system than business as usual. Mubarak’s Egypt, in a nutshell, was a quintessential neoliberal state.

What is neoliberalism? In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, the eminent social geographer David Harvey outlined “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” Neoliberal states guarantee, by force if necessary, the “proper functioning” of markets; where markets do not exist (for example, in the use of land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution), then the state should create them.

Guaranteeing the sanctity of markets is supposed to be the limit of legitimate state functions, and state interventions should always be subordinate to markets. All human behavior, and not just the production of goods and services, can be reduced to market transactions.

And the application of utopian neoliberalism in the real world leads to deformed societies as surely as the application of utopian communism did.

Rhetoric vs. reality

Two observations about Egypt’s history as a neoliberal state are in order. First, Mubarak’s Egypt was considered to be at the forefront of instituting neoliberal policies in the Middle East (not un-coincidentally, so was Ben Ali’s Tunisia). Secondly, the reality of Egypt’s political economy during the Mubarak era was very different than the rhetoric, as was the case in every other neoliberal state from Chile to Indonesia. Political scientist Timothy Mitchell published a revealing essay about Egypt’s brand of neoliberalism in his book Rule of Experts (the chapter titled “Dreamland” — named after a housing development built by Ahmad Bahgat, one of the Mubarak cronies now discredited by the fall of the regime). The gist of Mitchell’s portrait of Egyptian neoliberalism was that while Egypt was lauded by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund as a beacon of free-market success, the standard tools for measuring economies gave a grossly inadequate picture of the Egyptian economy. In reality the unfettering of markets and agenda of privatization were applied unevenly at best.

The only people for whom Egyptian neoliberalism worked “by the book” were the most vulnerable members of society, and their experience with neoliberalism was not a pretty picture. Organised labor was fiercely suppressed. The public education and the health care systems were gutted by a combination of neglect and privatization. Much of the population suffered stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation. Official unemployment was estimated at approximately 9.4% last year (and much higher for the youth who spearheaded the January 25th Revolution), and about 20% of the population is said to live below a poverty line defined as $2 per day per person.

For the wealthy, the rules were very different. Egypt did not so much shrink its public sector, as neoliberal doctrine would have it, as it reallocated public resources for the benefit of a small and already affluent elite. Privatization provided windfalls for politically well-connected individuals who could purchase state-owned assets for much less than their market value, or monopolise rents from such diverse sources as tourism and foreign aid. Huge proportions of the profits made by companies that supplied basic construction materials like steel and cement came from government contracts, a proportion of which in turn were related to aid from foreign governments.

Most importantly, the very limited function for the state recommended by neoliberal doctrine in the abstract was turned on its head in reality. In Mubarak’s Egypt business and government were so tightly intertwined that it was often difficult for an outside observer to tease them apart. Since political connections were the surest route to astronomical profits, businessmen had powerful incentives to buy political office in the phony elections run by the ruling National Democratic Party. Whatever competition there was for seats in the Peoples’ Assembly and Consultative Council took place mainly within the NDP. Non-NDP representation in parliament by opposition parties was strictly a matter of the political calculations made for a given elections: let in a few independent candidates known to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005 (and set off tremors of fear in Washington); dictate total NDP domination in 2010 (and clear the path for an expected new round of distributing public assets to “private” investors).

Parallels with America

The political economy of the Mubarak regime was shaped by many currents in Egypt’s own history, but its broad outlines were by no means unique. Similar stories can be told throughout the rest of the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Everywhere neoliberalism has been tried, the results are similar: living up to the utopian ideal is impossible; formal measures of economic activity mask huge disparities in the fortunes of the rich and poor; elites become “masters of the universe,” using force to defend their prerogatives, and manipulating the economy to their advantage, but never living in anything resembling the heavily marketised worlds that are imposed on the poor.
Unemployment was a major grievance for millions of Egyptian protesters [EPA]

The story should sound familiar to Americans as well. For example, the vast fortunes of Bush era cabinet members Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, through their involvement with companies like Halliburton and Gilead Sciences, are the product of a political system that allows them — more or less legally — to have one foot planted in “business” and another in “government” to the point that the distinction between them becomes blurred. Politicians move from the office to the boardroom to the lobbying organization and back again.

As neoliberal dogma disallows any legitimate role for government other than guarding the sanctity of free markets, recent American history has been marked by the steady privatization of services and resources formerly supplied or controlled by the government. But it is inevitably those with closest access to the government who are best positioned to profit from government campaigns to sell off the functions it formerly performed. It is not just Republicans who are implicated in this systemic corruption. Clinton-era Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin’s involvement with Citigroup does not bear close scrutiny. Lawrence Summers gave crucial support for the deregulation of financial derivatives contracts while Secretary of Treasury under Clinton, and profited handsomely from companies involved in the same practices while working for Obama (and of course deregulated derivatives were a key element in the financial crisis that led to a massive Federal bailout of the entire banking industry).

So in Egyptian terms, when General Secretary of the NDP Ahmad Ezz cornered the market on steel and was given contracts to build public-private construction projects, or when former Minister of Parliament Talaat Mustafa purchased vast tracts of land for the upscale Madinaty housing development without having to engage in a competitive bidding process (but with the benefit of state-provided road and utility infrastructure), they may have been practicing corruption logically and morally. But what they were doing was also as American as apple pie, at least within the scope of the past two decades.

However, in the current climate the most important thing is not the depredations of deposed Mubarak regime cronies. It is rather the role of the military in the political system. It is the army that now rules the country, albeit as a transitional power, or so most Egyptians hope. No representatives of the upper echelons of the Egyptian military appear on the various lists of old-regime allies who need to be called to account. For example, the headline of the February 17th edition of Ahrar, the press organ of the Liberal party, was emblazoned with the headline “Financial Reserves of the Corrupt Total 700 Billion Pounds [about $118 billion] in 18 Countries.”

A vast economic powerhouse

But the article did not say a single word about the place of the military in this epic theft. The military were nonetheless part of the crony capitalism of the Mubarak era. After relatively short careers in the military high-ranking officers are rewarded with such perks as highly remunerative positions on the management boards of housing projects and shopping malls. Some of these are essentially public-sector companies transferred to the military sector when IMF-mandated structural adjustment programs required reductions in the civilian public sector.

But the generals also receive plums from the private sector. Military spending itself was also lucrative because it included both a state budget and contracts with American companies that provided hardware and technical expertise. The United States provided much of the financing for this spending under rules that required a great deal of the money to be recycled to American corporations, but all such deals required middlemen. Who better to act as an intermediary for American foreign aid contracts than men from the very same military designated as the recipient of the services paid for by this aid? In this respect the Egyptian military-industrial complex was again stealing a page from the American playbook; indeed, to the extent that the Egyptian military benefited from American foreign aid, Egypt was part of the American military-industrial complex, which is famous for its revolving-door system of recycling retired military men as lobbyists and employees of defense contractors.

Consequently it is almost unthinkable that the generals of the Supreme Military Council will willingly allow more than cosmetic changes in the political economy of Egypt. But they could be compelled to do so unwillingly. The army is a blunt force, not well suited for controlling crowds of demonstrators. The latest statement of the Supreme Military Council reiterated both the legitimacy of the pro-democracy movements demands, and the requirement that demonstrations cease so that the country can get back to work. If demonstrations continue to the point that the Supreme Military Council feels it can no longer tolerate them, then the soldiers who will be ordered to put them down (indeed, in some accounts were already ordered to put them down early in the revolution and refused to do so) with deadly force, are not the generals who were part of the Mubarak-era corruption, but conscripts.

Pro-democracy demonstrators and their sympathisers often repeated the slogans “the army and the people are one hand,” and “the army is from us.” They had the conscripts in mind, and many were unaware of how stark differences were between the interests of the soldiers and the generals. Between the conscripts and the generals is a middle-level professional officer corps whose loyalties have been the subject of much speculation. The generals, for their part, want to maintain their privileges, but not to rule directly. Protracted direct rule leaves the officers of the Supreme Military Council vulnerable to challenges from other officers who were left on the outside. Also, direct rule would make it impossible to hide that the elite officers are not in fact part of the “single hand” composed of the people and the (conscript) army. They are instead logically in the same camp as Ahmad Ezz, Safwat al-Sharif, Gamal Mubarak, and Habib al-Adly — precisely the names on those lists making the rounds of regime members and cronies who should face judgment.

Ultimately the intense speculation about how much money the Mubarak regime stole, and how much the people can expect to pump back into the nation, is a red herring. If the figure turns out to be $50 billion or $500 billion, it will not matter, if Egypt remains a neoliberal state dedicated (nominally) to free-market fundamentalism for the poor, while creating new privatised assets that can be recycled to political insiders for the rich. If one seeks clues to how deeply the January 25th Revolution will restructure Egypt, it would be better to look at such issues as what sort of advice the interim government of generals solicits in fulfilling its mandate to re-make Egyptian government. The period of military government probably will be as short as advertised, followed, one hopes, by an interim civilian government for some specified period (at least two years) during which political parties are allowed to organise on the ground in preparation for free elections. But interim governments have a way of becoming permanent.

Technocrats or ideologues?

One sometimes hears calls to set up a government of “technocrats” that would assume the practical matters of governance. “Technocrat” sounds neutral — a technical expert who would make decisions on “scientific” principle. The term was often applied to Yusuf Butros Ghali, for example, the former Minister of the Treasury, who was one of the Gamal Mubarak boys brought into the cabinet in 2006 ostensibly to smooth the way for the President’s son to assume power. Ghali is now accused of having appropriated LE 450 million for the use of Ahmad Ezz.

I once sat next to Ghali at a dinner during one of his trips abroad, and had the opportunity to ask him when the Egyptian government would be ready to have free elections. His response was to trot out the now discredited regime line that elections were impossible because actual democracy would result in the Muslim Brotherhood taking power. Conceivably Ghali will beat the charge of specifically funneling the state’s money to Ahmad Ezz. But as a key architect of Egypt’s privatization programs he cannot possibly have been unaware that he was facilitating a system that enabled the Ezz steel empire while simultaneously destroying Egypt’s educational and health care systems.
The Egyptian army controls a range of businesses, ranging from factories to hotels [EPA]

The last time I encountered the word “technocrat” was in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine — a searing indictment of neoliberalism which argues that the free-market fundamentalism promoted by economist Milton Friedman (and immensely influential in the United States) is predicated on restructuring economies in the wake of catastrophic disruptions because normally functioning societies and political systems would never vote for it. Disruptions can be natural or man-made, such as … revolutions.

The chapters in The Shock Doctrine on Poland, Russia, and South Africa make interesting reading in the context of Egypt’s revolution. In each case when governments (communist or apartheid) collapsed, “technocrats” were brought in to help run countries that were suddenly without functional governments, and create the institutional infrastructure for their successors. The technocrats always seemed to have dispensed a form of what Klein calls “shock therapy” — the imposition of sweeping privatization programs before dazed populations could consider their options and potentially vote for less ideologically pure options that are in their own interests.

The last great wave of revolutions occurred in 1989. The governments that were collapsing then were communist, and the replacement in that “shock moment” of one extreme economic system with its opposite seemed predictable and to many even natural.

One of the things that make the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions potentially important on a global scale is that they took place in states that were already neoliberalised. The complete failure of neoliberalsm to deliver “human well-being” to a large majority of Egyptians was one of the prime causes of the revolution, at least in the sense of helping to prime millions of people who were not connected to social media to enter the streets on the side of the pro-democracy activists.

But the January 25th Revolution is still a “shock moment.” We hear calls to bring in the technocrats in order to revive a dazed economy; and we are told every day that the situation is fluid, and that there is a power vacuum in the wake of not just the disgraced NDP, but also the largely discredited legal opposition parties, which played no role whatsoever in the January 25th Revolution. In this context the generals are probably happy with all the talk about reclaiming the money stolen by the regime, because the flip side of that coin is a related current of worry about the state of the economy. The notion that the economy is in ruins — tourists staying away, investor confidence shattered, employment in the construction sector at a standstill, many industries and businesses operating at far less than full capacity — could well be the single most dangerous rationale for imposing cosmetic reforms that leave the incestuous relation between governance and business intact.

Or worse, if the pro-democracy movement lets itself be stampeded by the “economic ruin” narrative, structures could be put in place by “technocrats” under the aegis of the military transitional government that would tie the eventual civilian government into actually quickening the pace of privatization. Ideologues, including those of the neoliberal stripe, are prone to a witchcraft mode of thinking: if the spell does not work, it is not the fault of the magic, but rather the fault of the shaman who performed the spell. In other words, the logic could be that it was not neoliberalism that ruined Mubarak’s Egypt, but the faulty application of neoliberalism.

Trial balloons for this witchcraft narrative are already being floated outside of Egypt. The New York Times ran an article on February 17th casting the military as a regressive force opposed to privatization and seeking a return to Nasserist statism. The article pits the ostensibly “good side” of the Mubarak regime (privatization programs) against bad old Arab socialism, completely ignoring the fact that while the system of military privilege may preserve some public-sector resources transferred from the civilian economy under pressure of IMF structural adjustment programs, the empire of the generals is hardly limited to a ring-fenced quasi-underground public sector.

Officers were also rewarded with private-sector perks; civilian political/business empires mixed public and private roles to the point that what was government and what was private were indistinguishable; both the military and civilians raked in rents from foreign aid. The generals may well prefer a new round of neoliberal witchcraft. More privatization will simply free up assets and rents that only the politically connected (including the generals) can acquire. Fixing a failed neoliberal state by more stringent applications of neoliberalism could be the surest way for them to preserve their privileges.

A neoliberal fix would, however, be a tragedy for the pro-democracy movement. The demands of the protesters were clear and largely political: remove the regime; end the emergency law; stop state torture; hold free and fair elections. But implicit in these demands from the beginning (and decisive by the end) was an expectation of greater social and economic justice. Social media may have helped organise the kernel of a movement that eventually overthrew Mubarak, but a large element of what got enough people into the streets to finally overwhelm the state security forces was economic grievances that are intrinsic to neoliberalism. These grievances cannot be reduced to grinding poverty, for revolutions are never carried out by the poorest of the poor. It was rather the erosion of a sense that some human spheres should be outside the logic of markets. Mubarak’s Egypt degraded schools and hospitals, and guaranteed grossly inadequate wages, particularly in the ever-expanding private sector. This was what turned hundreds of dedicated activists into millions of determined protestors.

If the January 25th revolution results in no more than a retrenchment of neoliberalism, or even its intensification, those millions will have been cheated. The rest of the world could be cheated as well. Egypt and Tunisia are the first nations to carry out successful revolutions against neoliberal regimes. Americans could learn from Egypt. Indeed, there are signs that they already are doing so. Wisconsin teachers protesting against their governor’s attempts to remove the right to collective bargaining have carried signs equating Mubarak with their governor. Egyptians might well say to America ‘uqbalak (may you be the next).

Dr. Walter Armbrust is Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University. He is the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

This article first appeared on Jadaliyya.

Jazeera saw it coming

Wadah Khanfar’s article, which first appeared in the Washington Post, even if self=congratulatory tells us a lot about the Middle East that we didn’t know – and some things about ourselves that we didn’t want to know. RLC [Click on the title for a direct link to the Al Jazeera version.]

We saw the Arab revolutions coming

Al Jazeera’s director general asks why, when Al Jazeera saw the uprisings coming, the West did not.
Wadah Khanfar 01 Mar 2011 08:44 GMT

From North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, Arabs were celebrating the reclamation of their dignity [GALLO/GETTY]
On February 11, the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt, Al Jazeera faced a welcome dilemma: Scenes of elation were playing out not just in Cairo but throughout the region, and even with our vast network of journalists, we found it difficult to be everywhere at once. From North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, Arabs were celebrating the reclamation of their self-confidence, dignity and hope.
The popular revolutions now sweeping the region are long overdue. Yet in some ways, they could not have come before now. These are uprisings whose sons and daughters are well educated and idealistic enough to envision a better future, yet realistic enough to work for it without falling into despair. These revolutions are led by the Internet generation, for whom equality of voice and influence is the norm. Their leaders’ influence is the product of their own effort, determination and skill, unconstrained by rigid ideologies and extremism.
It is now clear to all that the modern, post-colonial Arab state has failed miserably, even in what it believed it was best at: Maintaining security and stability. Over the decades, Arab interior ministers and police chiefs devoted enormous resources and expertise to monitoring and spying on their own people. Yet now, the security machineries in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have disintegrated in short order, while the rest of the authoritarian and repressive regimes in the region can see the writing on the wall.

These revolutions have exposed not just the failure of traditional politicians but also the moral, political and economic bankruptcy of the old Arab elites. Those elites not only attempted to control their own people, but also sought to shape and taint the views of news media in the region and across the world.
Indeed, it should surprise no one that so many Western analysts, researchers, journalists and government experts failed to recognise the obvious signs of Arab youth movements that would soon erupt into revolutions capable of bringing down some of the most pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. That failure has exposed a profound lack of understanding in the West of Arab reality.
US and European allies, supporters and business partners of the Arab regimes persistently preferred to deal with leaders who were entirely unrepresentative of the new generation. They were detached from the emerging reality and had no way to engage with the social forces that now matter. It is the growing periphery of the Arab world – the masses at its margins, not its feeble and decaying centre – that is shaping the future of the region.
These unfolding transformations have been less of a surprise for us at Al Jazeera. Since our launch nearly 15 years ago, we have chosen to keep close to the Arab street, gauging its pulse and reflecting its aspirations. It was clear to us that a revolution was in the making, and it was happening far from the gaze of a tame and superficial establishment media that allied itself with the powerful centre – on the assumption that the centre is always safer and more important. Many media outlets in the region failed to recognise what was happening among the Arab grass roots. Keen to conduct interviews with high-level officials and ever willing to cover repetitious news conferences, they remained oblivious to what was happening on the ground.
At Al Jazeera we have spared no effort to search for the real actors, wherever they happen to be: Whether in the cities, in the countryside, in camps, in prisons or in the blogosphere. We have been guided by a firm belief that the future of the Arab world will be shaped by people from outside the aging elites and debilitated political structures featured so disproportionately by most other news outlets.
The real actors did not appear on most television screens or magazine covers, whether in the Arab world or in Western media. Cameras were not attracted to them; columnists rarely mentioned them. Yet that did not deter them.
Al Jazeera swam against that dominant current. We gave all the players the avenues they needed to communicate, providing diverse viewpoints on the issues. During the recent uprisings we were inundated with videos, pictures and writings from the new generation. We opened our screens to them; it is their voices that viewers found so compelling in our coverage.
We refused to compromise on our editorial policy, which gives priority to the grievances and aspirations of ordinary people. Neither threats of punishment nor promises of rewards from information ministers, intelligence agencies or royal courts persuaded us to ignore or betray the oppressed and persecuted who demand nothing but freedom, dignity and democracy.
As I tweeted during the Egyptian uprising and as our reporters were being detained in Cairo: “When opinions crowd and confusion prevails, set your sight on the route taken by the masses, for that is where the future lies.”
Wadah Khanfar is director general of the Al Jazeera network. This article first appeared in The Washington Post.

Worry about a stamp commemorating Muslim holidays

An email is being circulated expressing concern about a new stamp being published by the American government commemorating two Muslim holidays. The Arabic script on the stamp says “Mubarak Eid” which translates “Eid Greetings” [See:]. An email is going around telling people not to buy this stamp because so many Americans have been killed by Muslims. [And no one knows what the Arabic means!]
Whoever is promoting this view seems unaware that there are over seven million Muslims living in this country, many of them citizens, many of them refugees from countries whose wars and internal disturbances have made life difficult and in some places untenable. Moreover, their concern ignores the fact that the Islamists that they refer to – Al Qaeda and others allied with them — have killed far more Muslims than people of any other faith. Of the 1.4 billion Muslims in the world Al Qaeda cannot represent more than .007% of the total. Also their concerns about Islamic symbols play exactly into the hands of Osama Bin Laden who claims that the American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting “Islam.”
This is a time when all over the Muslim world – notably at this moment in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Iran – folks are asking through their public demonstrations for more open societies, in many cases at the risk of life and limb. The animating force of these movements is a desire for differences of opinion and faith to be tolerated in their societies as they seek popular suffrage of a sort they admire in this country. Not one of these demonstrations is animated by a desire to establish Islam or Muslim institutions in their governments.
This is a time, that is, to encourage our Muslim neighbors and friends, in the hope that as these affairs take place they will indeed succeed in producing societies with more openness of inquiry and more diversity of thought, even in faith and politics.
The behavior of those who would circulate such a notice prompts me to speak to them also, to encourage them to seek better ways to deal with what has become a fact of nature: that we are all living in a world whose diverse interests and perspectives and agendas are crowding in upon of us, forcing us to deal with the diversity of the human condition, requiring us to put into practice the fundamental premises of the American experiment: that is, to allow perspectives and opinions different from our own to be voiced, to accept those who have suffered, who need to be welcomed, no matter where they come from, what religion they practice. We want to demonstrate to each other and the rest of the world what an open society can be like.

[2/25/11 Addendum: Information on the artist who created the map, Muhammad Zikriya, can be found at:]

The animating agenda of movements in the Middle East versus the rhetoric of cooperative interest

We are excited about the popular movements in the Middle East. In Tunisia and Egypt autocratic rulers have fled; in Yemen and Bahrain demonstrations continue. Iran is again in the throwes of popular demonstrations. And now in Lybia there are serious demonstrations The leader of the PLO have revised their plans to allow for more popular representation.

These seem to be animated by a quest for popular suffrage: the demonstrators want to have their interests represented in government, and they want government to be held accountable to them. Rousseau has finally arrived in the Middle East.

But the rhetoric of these movements has varied according to the conditions of their projects. The Iranian “green” movement has been savvy in appropriating the rhetorical devices of their own government in order to legitimize their opposition to the Iranian regime. Green has been the color of the Islamic revolutionary movement; the language of public outcry have been the idioms of the 1977-78 revolutionary movement against the Shah, “allah-o akbar”, “yah hussain”, terms that cannot be associated with the rhetoric of the West. The Egyptians and Tunisians on the other hand never seemed to worry about such scruples, and anyway, at least in Egypt, some of the most active elements were Copts: those folks spoke of popular representation: they wanted “a national unity government”; it is “a revolution of the people,” they said.

It is fair to assume that the rhetoric is always a kind of masque, a device by which to characterize the feelings of a collectivity without antagonizing those who might derail the movement. We read that the Lybian loyalists are “defending the leader and the revolution” — meaning Qaddafi’s regime.

We hope the popular movements are indeed what they appear to be: demands for popular suffrage. More to the real issue: We hope they recognize what popular suffrage actually means: open access, free and open elections, protection of minorities, certain rights protected for everyone. These are issues it is hard to put into practice: nowhere better illustrates how hard it is than the United States.

Aftershocks in Palestine and Tunisia: Change? Or the more it changes the more it stays the same?

Some of us tend to wonder if what we hear in the news is the full story, on any topic. We have been elated to hear that Tunisia and Egypt have had successful public uprisings, and that in Iran and Bahrain and Algeria and Yemen there are attenpts to push their respective governments to allow more openness. Even so, we wonder: Do we have the full picture? Is it as good as it sounds? The news from Palestine suggests that shake ups are still taking place in the Middle East; the news from Tunisia suggests that less has taken place than it seems.

The new fear of the people in the PLO

Al Jazeera: “Palestinian cabinet resigns: President Mahmoud Abbas re-assigns Salam Fayyad, who also resigned, to form new government.”

The resignations came amid calls for reform in the Arab world, triggered by the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, after a popular revolt.

The shake-up was long demanded by Fayyad and some in Abbas’ Fatah faction.

“The cabinet resigned today and the formation of a new cabinet will take place as soon as possible,” Ali Jarbawi, minister of planning, told Reuters news agency.

An analyst told Al Jazeera: “For the past 50 years, people have been living in fear of their leaders but now the leaders are living in fear of the people, this is incredibly telling of the situation across the region.”

Signs that all is not well in Tunisia.

Al Jazeera: “Tunisia refugees flood Italian island: Arrival of more than 4,000 people sparks humanitarian crisis and Italian calls for EU aid.

The immigrants are fleeing poverty and continued unrest in the North African country following an uprising last month that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president.

“We are afraid. The revolution in January has changed nothing, absolutely nothing. We want to find a job in Europe. We are asking the Italian people for help,” one man told news channel SkyTG24.