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Saturday, 23 April 2011

America and Egypt

Below is a report from Atef Said a human rights attorney. He practiced human rights law and directed research initiatives in human rights organizations in Egypt from 1995 to 2004. He is the author of two books about torture in Egypt (published in Arabic, in Egypt in 2000 and 2008). He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and is working on his dissertation about the Egyptian revolution. He has been in Egypt since February 6, participating in the organization of events related to the revolution and assisting human rights organizations.

Said's report highlight's the complexities of the uprisings in Egypt and the significance of the United States in upholding the current and previous repressive regimes in that country. It is one of the few objective 'street-level' reports from Egypt and is therefore highly enlightening. It was originally published on the blog of the Immanent Frame, a site of the Social Science Research Council in New York.

America in Egypt's Uprising

I have been in Egypt since February 6, 2011, where I have been witnessing events, talking to friends, activists and non-activists, and to the public in Cairo’s streets—and it is not an exaggeration to say that every corner in Egypt talks politics today. What gets covered in these discussions ranges from the role of the army in the transition to a democratically elected civilian government to what kind of new constitution Egypt needs after the revolution, and from counter-revolutions and the role of residual forces from Mubarak’s ruling party and security apparatus in Egypt today to the extent to which Egyptians have successfully freed themselves from a culture of fear.

I have been particularly interested in how the U.S. has been discussed in relation to the revolution. From my observations of events and numerous discussions with others, Egypt’s relationship with the U.S appears, in some ways, to be absent from most of the heated discussions going on today. But upon closer examination, this relationship has been present in the revolution, not only during and after the peak of events—from January 25 to February 11—but also, I would suggest, in the very anti-imperialist underpinnings of the revolution, a revolution that the mainstream American media has miscast as one generated purely internally.

The making of the Egyptian revolution

There is a joke among Egyptian bloggers, that “we Egyptians are the ones who have decided upon a time to make a revolution.” In most media circles, the Egyptian revolution is portrayed as the eighteen days that changed Egypt. The joke, like this portrayal, expresses, of course, a caricatural and ahistorical image of the revolution. Against this perspective, both Hossam El-Hamalway and Rabab ElMahdi argue that the Egyptian revolution has, in fact, been in the making for the past ten years. Many activists have suggested that we cannot explain this revolution unless we look closely at the different waves of protests that have occurred over the last decade. There have been three such waves. The first, which can be characterized as anti-Israeli and anti-imperialist, took place in 2000 and 2003, beginning with mass demonstrations in September 2000, in solidarity with Palestinians during the second intifada, and continuing in 2003, with mass protests against the Anglo-American war. These two major protests were the first in decades and, indeed, the first ever to be staged under Mubarak. (The previous instance was in 1977, with the “bread uprising,” protesting Sadat’s decision to raise the prices of basic food.) A famous slogan that began to circulate during the 2000 demonstration said: “Mubarak is like Sharon: both have many faces.” Young protestors in the streets questioned why the police were attacking them for demonstrating solidarity with Palestinians; they asked, “Are you with us or with the Israeli occupation?” In 2003, protestors were even bolder, chanting: “O’ Mubarak, you coward, you are an agent of America,” in criticism of his complicit role in the Anglo-American war of 2003. Of course, anti-imperialist sentiment in Egypt dates back to the era of Nasser’s era and did not suddenly emerge out of nowhere in 2000 and 2003. In these protests, protesters chanted, “Nasser said before, America is about colonialism.” Also, an activist friend told me that the slogan, “O’ Mubarak, you coward, you are an agent of America” appeared first aimed at Sadat, in opposition to his signing of the Peace Accord with Israel, and then was only modified for Mubarak.

These anti-imperialist and anti-Israeli-occupation sentiments provided a foundation, so to speak, for later rounds of pro-democratic protest. When these early mass protests were met by the repressive police apparatus, many activists from different political forces realized that the issue of empire could not be discussed and dealt with separately from the issue of democracy.

The second wave of protests took place unevenly between 2005 and the outbreak of revolution in 2011. During that time an Egyptian movement for change, Kefayya (Enough), a coalition of different political groups, ranging from Islamists to Marxists, took shape and began to call and protest for democratic reforms. In 2005, pro-democracy activists protested in solidarity with Egyptian judges who were organizing sit-ins calling for democracy and independence of the judiciary. Over the next five years, pro-democracy activists organized numerous sit-ins and protests throughout Egypt and suffered police attacks, harassment, arrest, and prosecution. Then, in 2010, Mohamed Elbaradie, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other activists formed the National Association for Change, which called for radical democratic reform and an end to the state of emergency that had been in effect since 1981.

But from 2006 to 2011, there was also another simultaneous wave of mobilization, which has generally been underrepresented in the Egyptian media, but which has had major significance for human rights and labor activists. This wave consisted of a series of labor strikes and sit-ins described by many unionists and leftists in Egypt as the longest and strongest wave of worker protest since the end of World War II. For example, in December 2006, around 27,000 workers at Egypt’s largest state-owned factory, Al-Mahala Al-Kobra Misr Spinning and Weaving, went on strike after learning that their annual bonus had been cut. Not only was the strike successful in reinstating the bonuses, but it also inspired approximately 104,000 other textile workers across the country to strike for the same demands. In 2008, despite repressive laws banning independent unions, property tax collectors formed an independent union, outside the state-backed and security apparatus-connected Egyptian Federation of Labor Unions, after staging an eleven-day sit-in at the Egyptian Cabinet in December 2007. In April 2008, Al-Mahala city witnessed a mass protest over bread prices. The protest was described by El-Hamalawy as a mini-revolt, because the protesters included not only workers but members of the general public as well, and it ended with protesters tearing down a billboard of Mubarak’s image. Unionists and experts on labor affairs in Egypt estimate that there have been an average of 500 yearly labor protests between 2007 and 2010. The demands of these protests have always centered on social justice and the critique of neo-liberal economic policies. For this reason, I refer to this third wave of protest as the “social justice” wave.

The activists with whom I have spoken in the last three weeks continue to debate which of these waves can be described as the true rehearsal for the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Regardless, they agree that all three waves were significant exercises in preparing and inspiring the youth, activists and non-activists alike, to begin their historic protest on January 25, 2011. In fact, the three waves are not separate. In January 2010, demonstrations took place against Mubarak’s plan to build an underground iron wall between Egypt and Gaza, which activists and political forces saw as further enforcing the siege on Gazans. These demonstrations included banners with slogans such as “Down with the Wall, Down with Mubarak.” The collective impact of the three waves of protest is that Mubarak had become a symbol, not only of dictatorship and attacks on workers and the poor, but also of complicity with imperial interests in the region. Despite some liberal tendencies in Egypt—and within Western media—to portray the protests of the last decade as having been motivated solely by pro-democracy and anti-corruption activism, a more accurate understanding of Egyptians’ protests during this period needs both to recognize the impact of each of these three waves and to understand their connection.

Anti-imperialism in the protest

Though the Egyptian revolution’s most visible mottos focused mainly on democracy, human dignity, and social justice, anti-imperial sentiment was also present in Tahrir Square and as an underlying pillar of the revolution. During the eighteen days of protest, Egyptian analysts emphasized the American administration’s efforts to walk a fine balance between protecting its ally (Mubarak) and claiming its commitment to and respect for the aspirations of the protesting Egyptians. Such efforts at balance were critiqued as another example of America’s imperial pragmatism. Many activists mocked the Egyptian media and the Arabic media in general for their overblown interest in analyzing the U.S. stance. Protesters saw the conflict as one between them and Mubarak, and as about the power of the people, not the stance of the U.S. Indeed, for many protestors, focusing on the U.S. position was only a distraction. Many protesters pointed out that the U.S. administration not only failed to recognize Mubarak’s rule as a dictatorial regime but had also supported the regime’s rigged election and repressive apparatus. American calls for restraint and reform once the revolution began were seen as disrespectful of protestors’ demands; some told me that reform meant nothing and would only give the dictator more room to maneuver and to attack them. “Unarmed protestors,” they said, “and a repressive regime are not equal sides; there is not an equal need for restraint! Pictures of American-made tear gas canisters used in attacks on protesters were circulated online, as were two sentences, particularly amongst Egyptian activists on Twitter and Facebook: “America, we do not hate you because of your freedom, but we hate you because you hate our freedom,” and, “America, you cannot be imperial and claim [to be] promoting democracy at the same time.”

On the ground, protesters’ signs also included anti-imperialist mottos. I saw many banners in which Mubarak was described as a traitor or an agent of America or of imperialism. Sometimes, banners included epithets such as “Gaza’s jailer,” in reference to Mubarak’s role in blocking aid to the Gaza Strip. When Mubarak, in his second speech, proposed to delegate part of his authority to Egyptian chief spy, Omar Suleiman, protesters waved banners denouncing Suleiman’s role in the Gaza siege and in pressuring Palestinians to participate in the so-called peace process. One of the slogans used by many protesters said, “Like Mubarak, we do not accept Suleiman; both are agents of the U.S.” Anti-torture activists in Egypt widely circulated reports about Suleiman’s role in U.S. extraordinary renditions in the context of the War on Terror. Sometimes protestors were very creative in linking economic issues with Mubarak’s role as a protector of U.S. interests in the region—a street vender selling tissues came to protest carrying a sign that read, “Leave, you agent! Under your rule, I survive by selling tissues.”

The irony is that during the revolution, the government-backed media used an accusatory discourse to describe the demonstrators, portraying them as infiltrators and agents of foreign countries, including the U.S. The government-owned television network aired stories—later identified as fabrications—that claimed that demonstrators were trained outside Egypt, and that each was paid $100 (the equivalent of 590 Egyptian pounds) by European and American agents to create chaos and damage the stability of the country. Protesters and independent media responded that the claim lacked any foundation and pointed out that the U.S. actually had no interest of getting rid of Mubarak, who served as one of the main watchdogs of U.S. imperialism in the region. (The government-owned media continued these stories in the last ten days of the protest, but expanded the campaign to suggest that protesters were connected with Hezbollah, Hamas and the Qatari government and Al-Jazeera!) It is important to note that such sensationalist anti-demonstrator stories were spread “deliberately” in the context of the Internet blackout in Egypt, which lasted five days, during which time cell-phone communications were also cut off.

And now . . .

The future of Egyptian-U.S. relations is not at the forefront of the public political agenda today. But many activists and writers have started to talk about changing Egyptian diplomacy and the role of Egypt in the region, moving towards greater autonomy. Activists, in particular, have emphasized Egypt’s need to end its role as a U.S. client state. The Coalition of the Youth for the Revolution declined an invitation to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton when she was in Egypt on March 15, 2011. The main reason for their decision was the U.S.’s support for Mubarak over the last thirty years, and its support of repressive regimes in the region generally. One of the leaders of the Coalition told me, “Only now is the U.S. acting as supportive of our revolution; before, it stood against our demands through its support for Mubarak.”

Some activists have told me that they have concerns about a potential deal between the leaders of the Egyptian army—most of them U.S.-trained—and the U.S. The core of the deal, they say, provides that the U.S. continue its aid to Egypt, and to the Egyptian army in particular, as long as army leaders ensure that the transition of power in Egypt is done in such a way that the Egypt-U.S. partnership is not affected. Not only activists, but also several Egyptian analysts, have suggested that Egypt should revisit the question of U.S. aid. Some representatives from the youth of the revolution, in their meeting with Senator John Kerry, criticized Kerry’s suggestion that Egypt needs U.S. aid in the transitional period to improve its economy. Representatives of the youth told Kerry, we do not want aid that deters Egypt’s independence. Of course, one cannot speculate about the future of the U.S.-Egypt relationship based on anti-imperialist sentiments on the streets alone, and perhaps we should wait to see how the transitional period unfolds. This period will last until the Supreme Council of the Army, which as a collective body holds the authorities of the President and the Parliament, ends with the election of a new Parliament and President.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Is Bradley Manning Obama's "enemy combatant"?

Barack Obama was elected on a wave of revulsion at the gross human rights and other violations and illegalities of the George W. Bush administrations. Obama pledged to change all that and restore America's global image and standing. He was going to respect the rule of law, promote peace and dignity to all peoples, and outlaw torture of terror suspects. He was, symbolically, showing his commitment to the latter by closing within one year the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. This has not happened; indeed, the administration has re-introduced military tribunals there. In addition, Obama successfully fought a legal attempt to extend constitutional protections to inmates at the Bagram Air Base torture prison.

The treatement meted out to Private Bradley Manning, who is yet to have his day in court and has been found guilty of no offence, is unconstitutional and may constitute torture. The UN is investigating the case, Amnesty is monitoring Manning's conditions, and even the "pro-American regime" of David Cameron has deigned to express its "concerns" at Manning's treatment in a military prison (Manning, it turns out, has a Welsh mother).

The letter reprinted below is signed by some of the most eminent constitutional lawyers in the USA, including a former teacher of Obama's at Harvard, where Obama learned his constitutional law. The letter is significant because it represents the voice of liberal former supporters of the Obama campaign and administration who point up Obama's own background as a constitutional lawyer and teacher.

The harsh conditions of Bradley Manning's detention show up one other fundamental truth: that when a nation commits itself to cruelty and torture abroad, it is only a matter of time before it brings those practices home - to be meted out to its own citizens when they step out of line and challenge the powers that be.

Obama's style is restrained, sober, and moderate in tone. Unlike Sarah Palin and others, he does not call people "al Qaeda" and so on. He uses language with considerable skill. He has called Manning's treatment "appropriate". It is not an understatement to suggest that Manning is Obama's 'enemy combatant' whose personality should be broken down for its demonstration effect to other would-be whistle-blowers.

This letter was published in the New York Review of Books.

Bradley Manning is the soldier charged with leaking US government documents to Wikileaks. He is currently detained under degrading and inhumane conditions that are illegal and immoral.

For nine months, Manning has been confined to his cell for twenty-three hours a day. During his one remaining hour, he can walk in circles in another room, with no other prisoners present. He is not allowed to doze off or relax during the day, but must answer the question “Are you OK?” verbally and in the affirmative every five minutes. At night, he is awakened to be asked again “Are you OK?” every time he turns his back to the cell door or covers his head with a blanket so that the guards cannot see his face. During the past week he was forced to sleep naked and stand naked for inspection in front of his cell, and for the indefinite future must remove his clothes and wear a “smock” under claims of risk to himself that he disputes.

The sum of the treatment that has been widely reported is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against punishment without trial. If continued, it may well amount to a violation of the criminal statute against torture, defined as, among other things, “the administration or application…of… procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.”

Private Manning has been designated as an appropriate subject for both Maximum Security and Prevention of Injury (POI) detention. But he asserts that his administrative reports consistently describe him as a well-behaved prisoner who does not fit the requirements for Maximum Security detention. The brig psychiatrist began recommending his removal from Prevention of Injury months ago. These claims have not been publicly contested. In an Orwellian twist, the spokesman for the brig commander refused to explain the forced nudity “because to discuss the details would be a violation of Manning’s privacy.”

The administration has provided no evidence that Manning’s treatment reflects a concern for his own safety or that of other inmates. Unless and until it does so, there is only one reasonable inference: this pattern of degrading treatment aims either to deter future whistleblowers, or to force Manning to implicate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in a conspiracy, or both.

If Manning is guilty of a crime, let him be tried, convicted, and punished according to law. But his treatment must be consistent with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There is no excuse for his degrading and inhumane pretrial punishment. As the State Department’s P.J. Crowley put it recently, they are “counterproductive and stupid.” And yet Crowley has now been forced to resign for speaking the plain truth.

The Wikileaks disclosures have touched every corner of the world. Now the whole world watches America and observes what it does, not what it says.

President Obama was once a professor of constitutional law, and entered the national stage as an eloquent moral leader. The question now, however, is whether his conduct as commander in chief meets fundamental standards of decency. He should not merely assert that Manning’s confinement is “appropriate and meet[s] our basic standards,” as he did recently. He should require the Pentagon publicly to document the grounds for its extraordinary actions—and immediately end those that cannot withstand the light of day.

Bruce Ackerman
Yale Law School
New Haven, Connecticut

Yochai Benkler
Harvard Law School
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Additional Signers: Jack Balkin, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Alexander M. Capron, Norman Dorsen, Michael W. Doyle, Randall Kennedy, Mitchell Lasser, Sanford Levinson, David Luban, Frank I. Michelman, Robert B. Reich, Kermit Roosevelt, Kim Scheppele, Alec Stone Sweet, Laurence H. Tribe, and more than 250 others.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Lessons of Empire: War is Permanent

"There is undoubtedly a profound disillusionment in America with foreign involvement in general. We have carried the burden [of global responsibility] for a generation. In fact, you go back to the beginning of World War II, it doesn't seem to end. Most programs have been sold to Americans with the argument that they would mean an end to exertion. Now we have to convince Americans that there will never be an end to exertion. That's a very difficult problem." (Henry Kissinger, in an interview with James Reston, New York Times, October 1974).

Kissinger, as ever, sums up the problem of aggressive American power: how to convince Americans, brought up to believe that their country is a force for good in the world, who have become disillusioned after a series of wars of aggression in Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Peaceable Americans, who do not want their country interfering abroad in the name of democracy, let alone for oil or other resources, are, according to Kissinger and his ilk, "a very difficult problem".

Around 100 years earlier, Queen Victoria, the empress of India, told Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: "If we are to maintain our position as a first-rate power, we must, with our Indian Empire and large colonies, be prepared for attacks and wars, somewhere or other CONTINUALLY."

Queen Victoria's use of language "be prepared for attacks and wars" is also instructive: she's referring to anti-colonial movements struggling for freedom against 'liberal imperialism'.

Any struggle that undercuts imperial self-interest is, therefore, defined as an attack, and is an invitation to the imperial power violently to respond.

The sun may have set on the British COLONIAL empire; it has yet to set on its foreign policy establishment's imperial mindset, let alone on that of the world's lone superpower as they choose to intervene in oil-rich Libya and support Saudi armed intervention in Bahrain, home to the US 5th fleet. Meanwhile, Britain has doubled aid to Yemen's moribund regime, and supports US efforts to 'stabilise' military-controlled Egypt.

The real corruption in world affairs lies in its imperial heartland; it's most concentrated right at the very pinnacle of those societies, among its power elites.