Friday, February 04, 2011

Let the scent of Jasmine spread

Every revolution, Marx remarked, begins with flowers.
Live from the revolution

Egypt: Sandmonkey’s last post; Mubarak’s assault on the press; Mubarak’s mob rule; Military and Intelligence at Egypt's Democratic Dawn; Political allegiances have shifted under repressive regime; Into uncharted territory.
Tunisia: Women play an equal role; Mothers of the jasmine revolution; The defeat of fear.
Where else? Will Yemen be next? China’s microblogs censor the words ‘Egypt’ and ‘Tunisia’; Will the Hashemites fall?
Live updates: More from Kellie on Twitter; Ashraf Khalil’s Uncut blog.

Islamism

Alan A reports on the secular, liberal nature of the movement for freedom in Egypt so far, with a cautiously optimistic assessment of the chances of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining the upper hand from the chaos. He quotes Martin Bright, who takes the opportunity to show that Islamism’s fellow travellers in the West (including those linked to aristocratic Foreign Office Arabism, such as Frances Guy and the Conflicts Forum crew: “One of the most wonderful of many wonderful aspects of the anti-totalitarian uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is that they have nailed the myth that Islamism represents the “authentic” voice of the Arab street. This was always a pernicious nonsense and the diversity of those demonstrating across the Maghreb and Egypt has been one of the most noticeable features of the revolt.” Other optimistic views come from Ghaffar Hussain, Seph Brown, and Maajid Nawaz.

Paul Stott, on the other hand, has a rather more pessimistic view.

Algeria

Andrew reports on the movement for democracy in Algeria, sparked by the Tunisian uprising. Particularly inspiring is the Manifesto for Rights and Freedoms adopted by the opposition groups, which, among other things, declares for:  “Separation of the political and religious domains to guarantee individual freedom – the ground of political modernity.”

Palestine

Grounds for cautious optimism too from Gaza, where the popular movement is a major threat to Hamas rule.

Israel

Shlomo Avineri: What Netanyahu should say to the people of Egypt; Gershon Baskin: Encountering peace.

Anti-Zionism and Marxism

One of the most depressing aspects of both events in North Africa, especially Egypt, and the leftist commentary on it, is the power of the anti-Zionist narrative. Take as an example this well-written Marxist analysis at 19th Brumaire. Here’s one sentence: “Ahmed Ezz, the personification of the unity of personal corruption, neoliberalism and abasement to Zionsim has resigned.” What does “abasement to Zionism” mean? Why “abasement” and not, say, “accommodation with”, given the Egyptian ruling class and the Israeli state clearly have interests in common? Why talk about “Zionism” and not about, say, the Israeli state? There is something about the demonic Z-word that takes this phrase out of normal political discourse into another space. The demonic Z-word is a blunting of materialist analysis. (For more on insane anti-Zionism, see Snoopy. One of the things that is clear is that anti-Zionist antisemitism also pervades the pro-Mubarak camp, which makes the leftist anti-Zionist nonsense even more pernicious.)

On the other hand, I like the clear class analysis presented in this post. It is a common theme of Western liberal accounts of these events to focus exclusively on the “Western” highly educated Twittering middle classes. (This was a common thread in coverage of the Green movement in Iran too, which nicely facilitated the vulgar materialist accounts from the objectively pro-Ahmadinejad left who dismissed the Green movement for the same reason the Western liberal media loved it.) In fact, it is clear that (as with the Green revolution), working class people of all sorts, unionised and non-unionised, better educated and less well educated, men and women, religious and secular, are taking the main role on the streets of North Africa.

I wish the Trotskyite left would take Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution more seriously. Trotsky argued that in “countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries”, it fell to the proletariat to deliver the liberal democratic freedoms won in Western Europe and North America by the rising bourgeoisie. The cobweb left vaguely remember the bit about the proletariat, but forget about the value of the liberal democratic freedoms they fight for.

Nasserism

Yet another bad response from the left is the kneejerk Third Worldist support for authoritarian or “second campist” nationalism. This is manifested, for example, in Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity website, which worships Nasser and thinks the Egyptian army is the heroic saviour of the revolution.

Flowers after the winter

Another common narrative on the left which irritates me is the cynical way it uses phrases like “colour-coded revolutions”, often prefixed with phrases like “State Department commissioned”. In that narrative, the mass uprisings against despotism in Iran, Belarus, Ukraine and elsewhere are trivialised and denigrated. I have read a surprising number of bloggers who don’t like the phrase “jasmine revolution”, because it sounds too much like one of the colour-coded ones. But it recalls, for me, the carnation revolution of Portugal in 1974, which is in many ways a model for the uprisings going on now, seemingly impossible in a vicious totalitarian dictatorship which had absolutely no space for civil society, but bursting up from below to totally overwhelm the armed might of the state.

Realism and idealism

In my last post on the uprisings, I made some comments on the role of America, which I want to clarify a little. The dominant tradition of American statecraft in the last half century or so, exemplified by Henry Kissinger and equally by Zbigniew Brzezinski, has been to materially support authoritarian regimes (and even in some cases totalitarian regimes) as bulwarks against hostile regimes. Sometimes the hostile regimes were so vile as perhaps to justify a lesser evil impulse, but in more cases than not the results were disastrous.

The American state supported the brutal dictatorship of the Shah – so it is not surprising that anti-Americanism was one of the ingredients of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Western governments supported and armed the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan – and we have been reaping that whirlwind in the form of al-Qaeda and the Taliban ever since, from Pakistan to East Africa.  We supported Saddam’s fascist regime – and there is no need to mention the baleful consequences of that. We have enabled repressive military, quasi-military and soft Islamist regimes throughout the region. There was a brief moment in the wake of 9/11 when “neoconservative” figures like Joshua Muravchik, Paul Wolfowitz, Natan Sharansky and Condoleezza Rice articulated an alternative policy. But the exigencies of the war on terror itself kept America entangled with a new set of unsavoury lesser evils. And, increasingly, there was a turn against idealism, and the Obama administration, which benefited from that backlash in 2008, has tended towards the old ways rather than any ethical foreign policy.

The extent to which the Egyptian revolution, and all the other uprisings on the Arab street, have an anti-American dimension, however unpalatable, it is an anti-Americanism fuelled by the foreign policy tradition of Kissinger, a tradition from which Obama has utterly failed to make a clean break. (Similar things argued by James B, much more pithily, and Marko, more carefully. Oh, and it’s not just America: It’s France. It’s Peter Mandelson. It’s David “Mubarak is a friend of Britain” Cameron. It’s Tony “Mubarak is immensely courageous and a force for good” Blair.)

The position neoconservatives take on Egypt will reveal the extent to which their commitment to democracy in Iran, in Ukraine, in Belarus, in Syria and so on is real or mere rhetoric. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, some key neocons, such as Elliot Abrams, are supporting the revolution and sharply criticising the Israeli establishment for its support for Mubarak.

Also read

Marko Hoare: The West faces another Bosnia moment; Christopher Hitchens: The shame factor; Mohammed A. Bamyeh: The Tunisian Revolution: Initial Reflections; Poumista: Globalise the jasmine revolution; Abbas Milani: Iranian revolution echoes in Egypt; Rosie Bell: Changed, utterly changed; Peter Rison: An Arab renaissance; Sacha Ismail: What the British left is saying; Martin Thomas: How revolution can be confiscated by counter-revolution; Peter Ryley: Thoughts.







Keywords: Egypt, Tunisia, Iran.
Related posts: Between Burke and Paine in the twenty-first century; Revisiting between Burke and Paine in the twenty-first century; Decentism: Burke and Paine again; Decentism and defectors, lumpen and otherwise.

20 comments:

skidmarx said...

Why talk about “Zionism” and not about, say, the Israeli state? There is something about the demonic Z-word that takes this phrase out of normal political discourse into another space. The demonic Z-word is a blunting of materialist analysis.
Here's the dictionary definition:
"A movement among modern Jews having for its object the assured settlement of their race upon a national basis in Palestine; after 1948, concerned chiefly with the development of the State of Israel ".
It isn't demonic, it's the easiest way to describe the idea that much of Palestine should be the preserve of one religio/racial group. What is demonic or moronic are the attempts to pretend that zionists is a codeword for Jews everywhere.

Also I'd have thought that the PA, with its abasement to... the Israeli state and its corruption was a great deal more at risk from the Egyptian virus than Hamas, and Sacha Ismail on Judith Orr just comes off as jealous and without much to say.

kellie said...

Thanks for the link, but anyone wanting too keep up shouldn't follow me on Twitter, but rather follow some of the people I'm following.

Waterloo Sunset said...

(This was a common thread in coverage of the Green movement in Iran too, which nicely facilitated the vulgar materialist accounts from the objectively pro-Ahmadinejad left who dismissed the Green movement for the same reason the Western liberal media loved it.)

Out of interest, who on the left were pro Amadinejad, even objectively? I can't actually remember the position of most groups. But the CPGB definitely supported the green revolution. And I'm pretty sure the SWP did. At least Richard Seymour did and he's a pretty reliable weathervane of SWP opinion.

One problem linked to your point here is the question of overseas representatives. Quite often (and we've seen this with both Iraq and Iran) members of the opposition abroad are actually far more economically well-off (partly because they actually had the money to leave in the first place) than the opposition back home. And there is a tendency to represent those interests, rather than the wider view of the opposition. An obvious example would be Iran. In the UK, you do see a minority of Monarchists and a larger minority of those prepared to tolerate them. I see no evidence that's at all reflective of feeling in Iran.

The cobweb left vaguely remember the bit about the proletariat, but forget about the value of the liberal democratic freedoms they fight for.

The problem with that particular analysis is that it runs a high risk of falling into the "racism of low expectations". What, in essence, you are saying is that the west deserve socialism, but the Egyptians are too "backward", so liberal democracy is the best they can do.

bob said...

WS - both good points.

On the "objectively pro-A. left", certainly you are absolutely right that the SWP in general and Richard Seymour in particular took a line on the green revolution more or less identical to my own. But Seymour hosted on his site posts by Yoshie (Critical Montages/MRZine) that were basically supportive of the regime, and MRZine published a lot along those lines, as did Counterpunch to a lesser extent. Louis Proyect was eloquent in criticising Seymour and MRZine on this. I had a whole series of posts on this in 2009, including: on George Galloway defending the regime and John Wight wondering if the green movement was "counter-revolutionary" because it was "middle class"; Zizek criticising A.'s leftist supporters; on MRZine, CounterPunch and Soc. Unity; and again here; on Galloway again and his gang Lauren Booth and Yvonne Ridley; and on Galloway again; and on Yoshie and co again. I have amended this post to hyperlink to one of them.

bob said...

On the permanent revolution point, I agree there is a trap, but I hope I avoid it. I think we ALL deserve AT LEAST liberal democracy, and short of the global proletarian revolution (which I don't see around the corner) I think that something like liberal democracy is the minimum condition of possibility for any kind of emancipatory politics. I think we all also deserve more than that too, but I don't think that liberal democracy should be denied to Arabs because it's not as good as socialism.

I am also, by the way, inspired by the instances there are some reports of of deeper forms of democracy within the Egyptian revolution, participatory forms of democracy like those central to the council communist tradition and to forms of republicanism like Hannah Arendt's. We saw something similar in shuras in the revolutions against Saddam in the wake of the first Gulf War, and in the Iranian revolution of 1979 - that is, the Middle East has its own healthy traditions of democracy too, however submerged by the democratators and clerical tyrants,

bob said...

Skid, just found your comment in the spam queue and unspammed it. It seems to me the dictionary definition of Zionism is not what is meant when it is used in leftist political discourse. In the 19th Brumaire post I quoted, the "abasement" referred to is not the century and a bit old movement for a national home, but specifically the Israeli state and nothing more. Why use the ism when referring to the state? There's no reason, except that the Z-word has taken grip of the leftist imagination as some kind of demonic conspiratorial "entity" with transcendent powers.

--

Also I'd have thought that the PA, with its abasement to... the Israeli state and its corruption was a great deal more at risk from the Egyptian virus than Hamas

If the Egyptian virus were primarily anti-Zionist or anti-Israel, then yes the PA would be more at risk. But in fact this is only one (thankfully not the primary) element of the virus. The primary element is freedom and democracy, of a more profound sort than formal elections, and that is why it is a deadly threat to both Hamas and Fatah, but especially to Hamas, which is far more authoritarian, e.g. in its treatment of women, the youth, Christians, fans of un-Islamic music, secular democrats.

(I've been half-heartedly arguing with Richard Seymour on Twitter about this, but I'm not on-line enough or succinct enough to be doing well there. He was surprised that Hamas is clamping down on pro-Egyptian sentiment. To me, it tells you everything you need to know about Hamas.

See also.

Waterloo Sunset said...

The issue is, considering the large economic factors at play in the protests, whether (neo)liberal democracy can actually solve any of the problems at hand anyway. The experiences of the ex Soviet bloc suggest it can't. You've said before that you think that Luxemburg's stark choice of "socialism or barbarism" is becoming more and more real. That applies in Egypt as much as it does in the UK. I'd agree with you on the promising signs of direct democracy though.

On the issue of the anti-zionist narrative, I'd agree with you that it's highly problematic as an analysis. However, the anti-anti-zionist narrative is equally raising issues. Some proponents of it are basically arguing against democracy solely through the prism of the geopolitical interests of Israel.

That's not universal; Marko and Gene have both acquitted themselves on this issue. But if you look at this Harry's Place thread, you'll see what I mean. In particular, Josh Scholar and Karl Pfeifer are taking what can only be seen as an objectively anti democracy position, even if they don't have the bottle to state that outright.

And there's something pretty distasteful about two posters in the relative safety of the west telling an Egyptian poster supporting democracy (Abu Faris) that he should be "returning to sad reality".

bob said...

Am looking at the HP thread now. I see Michael Ezra acquits himself too:
Yes, I am with Gene and support the observations of Abu Faris.
The Just Journalism post comes across as a thinly veiled argument in favour of supporting Murbarak over democracy on the grounds that it is better for Israel.
As Gene has previously highlighted, not even the neoconservatives would support such a position. It was, of course, expressed slightly less crudely by Melanie Phillips on Question Time on Thursday when she implied that Murbarak might be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.
This kind of thinking,that was expressed by Jean Kirkpatrick in her 1979 essay, “Dictatorships & Double Standards,” is fundamentally wrong. Rather than supporting authoritarian leaders, we should support the democratisation of their regimes because the repression generates support for hostile totalitarian forces.


Back later

The Contentious Centrist said...

"That is why for most Israelis, the issue of how Arabs are governed is as irrelevant as the results of the 1852 US presidential elections were for American blacks. Since both parties excluded them, they were indifferent to who was in power. [-]
But Israelis don’t need CNN to tell us how our neighbors feel about us. We know already. And because we know, while we wish them the best of luck with their democracy movements, and would welcome the advent of a tolerant society in Egypt, we recognize that that tolerance will end when it comes to the Jews. And so whether they are democrats or autocrats, we fully expect they will continue to hate us."

http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=206685

skidmarx said...

"the Z-word has taken grip of the leftist imagination as some kind of demonic conspiratorial "entity" with transcendent powers."
It seems to me your definition of Zionism is not what is meant when it is used in leftist political discourse.

Anonymous said...

'One of the most depressing aspects of both events in North Africa, especially Egypt, and the leftist commentary on it, is the power of the anti-Zionist narrative.'

Surely this is one of the most inspiring aspects.

The Contentious Centrist said...

"It seems to me your definition of Zionism is not what is meant when it is used in leftist political discourse."
_______

"The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different."

Or, as Humpty-Dumpty said much more honestly:

"Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.' "

_____________

Now all that is left is for skidmarks to attach his own preferred meaning of "Zionism" to turn it from "some kind of demonic conspiratorial "entity" with transcendent powers" into a demonic entity with transcendent powers, and all disagreement will vanish.

As in the "Citizen Kane", when Kane's wife proved to be a bad singer who couldn't even sing in tune with the orchestra, Kane simply ordered the orchestra to play in tune with her off-key singing and she became a celebrated opera singer overnight.

Waterloo Sunset said...

Interesting new article up at the CST blog on this issue. An extract:

This ‘Ziocentrism’, which insists on placing Israel at the centre of any Middle Eastern story, also leads people to assume their positions on any given crisis according to how it may affect Israel.

Although I accept I'm possibly using that in a way they wouldn't entirely support, I think it's spot on. We're seeing that from both sides of the zionist/anti-zionist argument at the moment.

It's the old issue about people (very few of whom are ever from either Palestine or Israel) using that particular conflict as a kind of proxy for their own worldview, to the point where they have to shoehorn it in to absolutely every discussion of the middle east.

The Contentious Centrist said...

What did Marx mean, Bob, when he said that Every revolution begins with flowers?

bob said...

Ziocentrism http://thecst.org.uk/blog/?p=2306 Yes, spot on. However, I would caveat your point in two ways. 1) The Ziocentrism of Israel's defenders seems to me precisely defensive, a reaction to the Ziocentrism of its detractors, and therefore qualitatively different. 2) That Iz/Pal is "proxy for their own worldview" seems slightly inadequate - why is it that this conflict has taken on this role and not, say, the conflict in Sri Lanka?

Also meant to comment on this: "the anti-anti-zionist narrative is equally raising issues. Some proponents of it are basically arguing against democracy solely through the prism of the geopolitical interests of Israel". Maybe the difference between Zionism and anti-anti-Zionism is that Zionism would argue against democracy in Egypt if it thought democracy would be bad for Israel, whereas the anti-anti-Zionist position would support democracy in Egypt even if democracy in Egypt was bad for Israel? I'm not sure about that.

On flowers: comment to follow.

skidmarx said...

CC - I think "fascism" still has a meaning, even if it is misused quite a bit.

Bob - The Ziocentrism of Israel's defenders seems to me precisely defensive, a reaction to the Ziocentrism of its detractors, and therefore qualitatively different.That's convenient. Is it possible that the anti-Zionists have in fact treated Israel as an entirely secondary issue in relation to Egypt/Tunisia, whereas the Zionists (or those with an even number of anti prefixes, I don't really know what the difference is) have made "What's good for Israel" the central issue for them?

Bob said...

Noga: re revolution starting with flowers - answered(ish) here: http://brockley.blogspot.com/2011/02/revolution-of-flowers-to-thaw-in.html

Waterloo Sunset said...

@ Bob

1) The Ziocentrism of Israel's defenders seems to me precisely defensive, a reaction to the Ziocentrism of its detractors, and therefore qualitatively different.

Even on Harry's Place, hardly a bastion of hardcore anti-zionists? And how is it precisely defensive in the specific context of the Egyptian revolution? Besides, "but he hit me first" is an argument for five year olds, not a political analysis.

2) That Iz/Pal is "proxy for their own worldview" seems slightly inadequate - why is it that this conflict has taken on this role and not, say, the conflict in Sri Lanka?

That's a complicated question (with different answer for both 'sides' of the argument) but is almost impossible to examine without psychologising people's motives.

bob said...

Just saw another example of Ziocentrism: George Soros in the Post: "The main stumbling block [to democracy in Egypt] is Israel." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/02/AR2011020205041.html

The Contentious Centrist said...

George Soros is the Pablo Christiani of the 21st century. A sad evil fruit of antisemitism.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Christiani