Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Responsibility to protect Libyans from our own governments

As Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi turns to state terrorism to suppress democracy movements, some are calling on outside military intervention to protect the people of Libya. But the revolutionary movement across the region is shining a light on the roots of violence and developing alternative methods of achieving peace. 

     The thrill of revolutionary movements sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East has been matched by the horror of counter-revolution, as dictators violently cling to power. The people of Tunisia and Egypt braved tear gas, rocks and riot police to oust Ben Ali and Mubarak, and their courageous example has inspired people in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman, and Yemen to do the same. But the violent response is also escalating. Horrific images have emerged from Bahrain of protesters getting shot to death, while reports from Libya indicate Gaddafi is using snipers, 
helicopters and planes against demonstrators and entire cities, while jamming electric signals to create a media blackout.
     In desperation some are looking to the UN Security Council to intervene militarily. But Western states are cynically using a situation they created to push for further imperial control over the region, undermining the blossoming resistance movements that offer real hope for the region. In the US, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Iraq War and current “scholar” at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, has called on “the U.S. and U.N. to mobilize to stop the slaughter” while the Wall Street Journal has been more explicit in its strategy of “liberating Libya” with threats to “bombs their airfields”. Meanwhile the British publication Foreign Policy carries an article declaring:
“It is time for the United States, NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League to act forcefully to try to prevent the already bloody situation from degenerating into something much worse.”
But calling for external intervention ignores the external source of violence, and undermines the internal movements for peace. 
     Photos from the Egyptian Revolution provided a link between Mubarak and his Western backers, as protesters dodged tear-gas canisters with “made in USA” imprinted on them. Now Libyans are fighting against European weapons. According to Britain’s Campaign Against the Arms Trade:
“In the third quarter of 2010, equipment approved for export [from Britain to Libya] included wall and door breaching projectile launchers, crowd control ammunition, small arms ammunition, tear gas/irritant ammunition, training tear gas/irritant ammunition. Ammunition comprised £3.2m of the £4.7m million of military items licensed. Sniper rifles were among the other equipment licensed in 2010.”
 Meanwhile, another report notes:
"EU countries just two years ago granted over €160 million of export licences to Libya for small arms and electronic jamming equipment… Italy granted €107.7 million of licences for military aircraft, including assault craft, and associated equipment. France granted €17.5 million worth and Portugal €14.5 million. Portugal also granted €4.6 million of permits for drones. Other licences of note include: €4.4 million of Belgian permits for anti-personnel chemicals used to quell riots and €2.6 million of Italian licences for bomb fuses."
The US has its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and in recent years has taken an interest in selling weapons to Daddafi. As David Hamod, president and chief executive of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce justified in 2009, “Libya is going to seek defense articles from somebody. And I think it's in America's interest to be the provider ... It's an integral part of the growing relationship." This is part of a policy for the region that has continued under Obama. As the World Tribune reported in July 2010:
"The White House agreed to requests worth $500 million by Egypt, Oman and Tunisia for air defense upgrade, aircraft and naval ship support as well as helicopters...The biggest request was submitted by Tunisia. The North African state received administration approval to upgrade U.S.-origin helicopters in a deal estimated at $282 million."
Then in September 2010 the biggest arms deal in US history provided $60  billion of weapons to the Saudi dictatorship. Canada has also joined in the arms trade, with both Liberal and Conservative governments selling to repressive regimes across North Africa and the Middle East—for details visit this interactive guide by Canada's Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.

     Political support for repressive regimes has accompanied military support, from Canada's Conservative government inviting Mubarak to last summer’s G8 meeting, to the World Economic Forum dubbing Gaddafi’s son a “Young Global Leader”. These geopolitical alliances can’t be divorced from the oil contracts that accompany them. From Afghanistan to Colombia to Libya to Saudi Arabia, militarism and oil reserves overlap. Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa—which is being exploited by Western corporations from Britain’s BP to Canada’s Suncor. While oil companies and their state sponsors were fine with Gaddafi’s stable dictatorship, they are anxious about its current instability. “Half of Libya’s oil production shut down”, exclaimed the Financial Times. According to Amrita Sen of Barclays Capital, “destabilisation in the Arab world, home to the world’s largest oil and gas reserves and production, is of extreme significance.”

     Members of the UN Security Council not only cause indirect violence through weapons sales to repressive regimes, but have a clear track record of direct violence--against people living in both dictatorships and democracies. In 2001 the crimes of the Taliban (a former US ally) were used as justification for a NATO invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that after a decade has done nothing to improve the lives of the people of Afghanistan. In 2003 the crimes of Saddam Hussein (a former US ally) were used as justification for a US and British invasion and occupation that has killed hundreds of thousands and stoked sectarian divisions. In 2004 the US, France and Canada launched a coup against Haiti's democratically elected President Aristide, and since then a Brazil-led UN occupation has interfered with democracy and development, magnifying the effects of last year’s earthquake and setting the stage for a cholera epidemic. The UN Security Council stood by as Israel (which it arms) attacked Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008. 
     In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, British Prime Minister David Cameron laid to rest any notion that Western leaders care about peace and democracy, as he went on a tour of the Middle East accompanied by arms dealers, greeting the military junta that currently rules Egypt in the wake of Mubarak’s departure. As the Daily Mail reported:
Cameron meets with Tantawi, "Mubarak's poodle"
"Critics expressed amazement that Mr Cameron was promoting a mission to sell arms to Arab dictators shortly after Colonel Gaddafi may have used British weapons to kill hundreds of his fellow countrymen in Libya. They accused Mr Cameron of using a high-profile visit to Cairo’s Tahrir Square – Ground Zero in the Egyptian popular uprising – as a fig leaf for peddling military equipment."
A clear way to reduce violence in the Middle East is for Western governments to stop killing people indirectly through weapons sales, or directly through occupations. If there is a "responsibility to protect" it is by building movements in the West to end our own government's arms sales and occupations.
      By doing so we strengthen resistance movements across the Arab world, as the 2003 protests against the Iraq War strengthened the Egyptian resistance against Mubarak. The emerging revolutionary wave is now developing alternative methods of regime change, including soldiers refusing to fight. Whereas the imperial toppling of Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands, stoked sectarian divisions and set up massive permanent military bases, the democratic toppling of Hosni Mubarak was infinitely more peaceful, created unity between Christians and Muslims, and opened up cracks in the military as ordinary soldiers refused to attack protesters and joined the demonstrations. A similar process is happening in Libya, where tribes that Gaddafi once pitted against each other are overcoming their divisions and uniting against him, and war resisters are emerging—including two fighter pilots who flew to Malta rather than follow orders to bomb Benghazi. Egyptian and Libyan war resisters join the ranks of Israeli refuseniks who won’t participate in brutalizing Palestinians, US and British war resisters who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a proud history of war resisters from WWI to Vietnam.
     Ordinary workers have contributed to the military’s collapse. In Tunisia war resisters refused to fire on demonstrators, and a general strike turned even the military high command against Ben Ali. In Egypt Mubarak tried to outlast protesters in Tahrir Square, but when their political protest ignited workers economic protest—including strikes in military production facilities—the military high command turned against Mubarak. 
     A similar process across the region—with mass political protest triggering mass strikes and splitting the military—would topple more tyrants, expose their Western supporters, and undermine imperial control of the region. Hence the right-wing cry of intervention, which would not only allow Gaddafi to cast himself as a defender of the country but would disrupt these emerging mass movements. But if people in the West can protect people in the region from our own governments, and revolutionary movements can continue to deepen and involve soldiers and workers, then there's a chance to liberate Libya and the entire region by seizing on the Achilles heel of militarism, expressed so clearly by Bertold Brecht:

General, your tank
is a powerful vehicle
it smashes down forests
& crushes a hundred men.
but it has one defect:
it needs a driver.

General, your bomber is powerful
it flies faster than a storm
& carries more than an elephant.
but it has one defect:
it needs a mechanic.

General, man is very useful.
He can fly & he can kill.
but he has one defect:
He can think.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

10 myths busted by the Egyptian revolution

The Egyptian revolution has busted 10 key myths about society, the “war on terror”, and social transformation. We’re told that ordinary people can’t run society, that we need a police force to maintain order and that change comes from above. We’re told that Muslims and Christians can’t get along, that Muslim women are passive victims in need of liberation, and that the “war on terror” is necessary to spread democracy to the Middle East. When the revolution erupted it was presented as a spontaneous event, in which the people and the army were one and notions of class were a thing of the past, and as an event that unique to Egypt. The ongoing Egyptian revolution is busting all these myths.


For a decade the world has suffered through a “war on terror” based on a “clash of fundamentalisms” that presents Muslims as inherently violent and incapable of unity with Christians. But what beautiful photos have emerged from Tahrir Square to challenge this myth, photos of Christian protesters protecting Muslim protesters while they pray on Friday—an act of solidarity reciprocated on Sunday during Christian prayer.

    The “war on terror” has resurrected the White Man’s Burden, seeing Muslims as “half devil and half child”. The infantilizing half of this equation is especially applied to Muslim women, who are presented as passive victims incapable of their own emancipation, who must be liberated by force. The near decade-long occupation of Afghanistan was first launched and recently extended based on this racist and sexist notion. But it has been abundantly clear—from photos of women leading the demonstrations or youtube clips of women in hijabs shaming the riot police—that Muslim women are leading the fight for their own liberation, and for their country.

    Another justification for the “war on terror” is that West governments want to spread democracy to the region. Besides the massive arms deals to dictators in the region—from $282 million to Tunisia, to more than a billion annually to Egypt, to a recent $60 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia—this notion was called into question five years ago when Western leaders responded to democratic elections in Gaza by cutting humanitarian aid.
     In the past month, Western governments were caught openly supporting dictators—from the French foreign minister offering to help Ben Ali "appease the situaion through law enforcement techniques", to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair defending Mubarak as "immensely courageous and a force for good", to Obama’s refusal to cut military aid to the dictatorship. Even when the US was forced to concede that Mubarak had to go, the Canadian and Israeli governments continued to support him.

    We’re told that change comes from above—from Parliament in social democratic countries, or through military intervention in dictatorships—both based on the idea that ordinary people can’t fun society, and that specialists in suits or uniforms must change society for them. Eight to ten years of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan—costing a million lives and billions of dollars while undermining living standards—show the success of this strategy of dealing with tyrants. The people of Egypt have shown in 18 days how mass movements from below can deal far more peaceful and powerful change.

    During the uprising there was a direct correlation between police presence and violence: people were shot when police tried to crack down on the initial uprising, then there was peace and calm when the police forces melted away, then violence returned when plain-clothed police attacked Tahrir Square, then violence stopped after they were repelled.
    That doesn’t mean it was a completely nonviolent revolution. Protesters burnt down police vehicles and the NDP party headquarters, and defended themselves with rocks and molatov cocktails. But whereas police violence lashed out at demonstrators to squash the pro-democracy movement, protester force was strategically directed at the repressive regime, playing an important role in defending the revolution.

    The most inspiring lesson of Tahrir Square is that ordinary people can run society. Egyptians self-organized to provide medicine, security, food, childcare, sanitation, literacy, and communication—without bosses, the police, the courts, or parliament—offering a glimpse of what a better world could look like.
    The media portrayed the Egyptian revolution as a spontaneous event without organization. Spontaneity certainly played a role, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. As Mona El-Ghobashy  explained,
“There’s a pre-history to this revolt. Egyptian politics didn’t begin on January 25th… we have to link it to the fabric of Egyptian politics starting in 2000, for simplicity’s sake, but protests actually occurred in the 1990s, as well. One of the largest protests was a quarry workers’ strike in 1996 that really shook the country at the time.”
     After that there were mass protests in 2003, as part of the global movement against the Iraq War, including tens of thousands of people who occupied Tahrir Square; the following year the Kifayah (“enough”) movement against Mubarak was born; these political movements fed into economic battles, producing strike waves triggered by women textile workers in Mahalla in 2006 (for an account of the strike wave, watch this video), which connected economic demands with solidarity with Palestine and freedom of assembly. These years of organizing created the experience and networks that combined with the spark of the Tunisian revolution to detonate mass resistance across Egyptian society.

     In Tunisia, protests began with an unemployed student self-immolating and spread to involve all sectors from peasants to lawyers. While the organized working class was not the first to take action, it was the most decisive: it was the general strike that finally drove Ben Ali from the country. The same process unfolded in Egypt, where all classes took part in the Tahrir Square protests but workers played a key role in ousting Mubarak. According to Hossam El-Hamalawy,
“All classes in Egypt took part in the uprising. Mubarak managed to alienate all social classes in society. In Tahrir Square, you found sons and daughters of the Egyptian elite, together with the workers, middle-class citizens and the urban poor. But remember that it's only when the mass strikes started on Wednesday that the regime started crumbling and the army had to force Mubarak to resign because the system was about to collapse.”
The mass strike unites economic and political demands and propels revolutions forward, a dynamic identified 95 years ago by the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg:
“Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle, extending at the same time its external possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position and their desire to struggle. After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely. The workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval; it forms, so to speak, the permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the political fight ever renews its strength, and at the same time leads the indefatigable economic sappers of the proletariat at all times, now here and now there, to isolated sharp conflicts, out of which public conflicts on a large scale unexpectedly explode. In a word: the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle.”
    It is for this reason that the military high command, reflecting the ruling elites in Egypt, have so quickly called for strikes to end, which would stop the beating heart of the revolution. While rank and file soldiers have identified and joined with the demonstrators, the high command is intent on restricting the revolution, reflecting a class divide in Egypt that will become more apparent at time goes on. As El-Hamalawy explains,
“Thousands of public transport workers were staging protests in el-Gabal el-Ahmar. The temporary workers at Helwan Steel Mills are also protesting. The railway technicians continue to bring trains to a halt. Thousands of workers at the el-Hawamdiya sugar factory are protesting and oil workers announced a strike on Sunday over work conditions. Nearly every single sector in the Egyptian economy has witnessed either strikes or mass protests. Even sections of the police have joined in. At this point, the Tahrir Square occupation is to be suspended. We have to take Tahrir to the factories now. As the revolution proceeds, an inevitable class polarisation will take place. We have to be vigilant. We hold the keys to the liberation of the entire region, not just Egypt. Onwards we must go, with a permanent revolution that will empower the people of this country with direct democracy from below.”
    The Egyptian revolution is part of resistance movements sweeping the globe in response to the economic crisis. Each new outburst catches governments and media off guard, and is quickly explained away as an isolated incident, only to erupt somewhere new. Protests and strikes have spread across Europe (from Greece and Ireland to France and Britain), South Africa, India, and Thailand. Now we're seeing how economic crisis can trigger political crisis, with resistance against austerity combining with longstanding anger against repression and corruption. The Tunisian spark has ignited the Egyptian detonator, triggering revolt across Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, and Djibouti.
    How far and how deep this resistance spreads is an open question, and that’s what’s so exciting.