Costas Douzinas writes: Failure, defeat, persecution and the attendant paranoia are marks of the Left. The left has learned to be under attack, to fail, to lose and wallow in the defeat. An enduring masochism lurks in the best Leftist books: many are stories of failure and variable rationalisation. It is true that the Left has lost a lot: a united analysis and movement, the working class as political subject, the inexorable forward movement of history, planned economy as an alternative to capitalism.
It is also true that the falling masonry of the Berlin wall hit western socialists more than the old Stalinists. Using Freud’s terms, the necessary and liberating mourning for the love object of revolution has turned into permanent melancholy. In mourning, the libido finally withdraws from the lost object and is displaced on to another. In melancholy, it “withdraws into the ego”. This withdrawal serves to “establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object”.
Walter Benjamin has called this “Left melancholy”: the attitude of the militant who is attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal – and to the failure of that ideal – than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present. For his part, Benjamin calls upon the left to grasp the “time of the now”, while for the melancholic, history is an “empty time” of repetition. Part of the Left is narcissistically fixed to its lost object with no obvious desire to abandon it. Left melancholy leads inexorably to the fetishism of small differences: politically, it appears in the interminable conflicts, splits and vituperation among erstwhile comrades. Attacks on the closest, the threatening double, are more vicious than those on the enemy. Theoretically, according to Benjamin, Left melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. In our contemporary setting, we have a return to a particular type of grand theory, which combines an obsession with the explanation of life, the universe and everything with the anxiety of influence. The shadows and ghosts of the previous generation of greats weigh down on the latest missionaries of the encyclopaedia.
The most important reason why radical theory has been unable to fully comprehend recent resistances is perhaps the “anxiety of the grand narrative”. A previous generation of radical intellectuals – such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Edward Thompson and Louis Althusser – had close links with the movements of their time. Contemporary radical philosophers are found more often in lecture rooms than street corners.
The wider “academisation” of radical theory and its close proximity with “interdisciplinary” and cultural studies departments has changed its character. These academic fields have been developed as a result of university funding priorities. They happily welcome the appeal of radical philosophers contributing to their celebrity value. But this weakening of the link between practice and theory has an adverse effect on theory construction. The desire for a “radical theory of everything” caused by the “anxiety of influence” created by the previous generation of philosophical greats does not help overcome the limitations of disembodied abstraction.
It is no surprise that many European Leftists are happy to celebrate the late Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales or Rafael Correa and to carry out radical politics by proxy, while ready to dismiss what happens in our part of the world as irrelevant or misguided. It may feel better to lose gloriously than to win, even with a few compromises.
Repeated defeats do not help the millions whose lives have been devastated by neoliberal capitalism and post-democratic governance. What the Left needs is not a new model party or an all-encompassing brilliant theory. It needs to learn from the popular resistances that broke out without leaders, parties or common ideology and to build on the energy, imagination and novel institutions created. The Left needs a few successes after a long interval of failures.
Greece is perhaps the best chance for the European Left. The persistent and militant resistances sank two austerity governments and currently Syriza, the radical left coalition, is likely to be the first elected radical government in Europe. The historical chance has been created not by party or theory but by ordinary people who are well ahead of both and adopted this small protest party as the vehicle that would complement in parliament the fights in the streets. The political and intellectual responsibility of radical intellectuals everywhere is to stand in solidarity with the Greek Left. [Continue reading...]
Simon Jenkins writes: The experience was eerie. I was watching a documentary, The Square, on Netflix about the 2011 Tahrir Square occupation when the lead character, Ahmed, let out a cry of delight, “The revolution has been won.” At that very moment my radio blurted out a voice live from a different square, Kiev’s Maidan. “The revolution has been won,” it repeated.
Squares are famously potent political theatres. This year is a second showing for Ukraine’s revolution, and a third for Egypt’s. Western TV viewers have cheered them all on. We thrill to see young people hurling rocks at power. Fire, smoke, bloodstained flags, broken heads, water, gas and sinister paramilitaries are Les Misérables for slow learners. We can sit with a front seat in the auditorium of history. It beats polling booths any day.
Tahrir and Maidan squares thus join Istanbul’s Taksim, Tehran’s Azadi, Beijing’s Tiananmen, Prague’s Wenceslaus, Athens’s Syntagma, London’s Trafalgar and a dozen other urban spaces the world over as icons of modern revolutionary politics. Their furniture is the barricade, their tipple the Molotov cocktail, their tonic the tear gas canister. They gather people in their thousands to sacred forums and invite the world to witness the latest trial of strength with a supposedly oppressive regime. Sometimes they even win.
If I were a dictator I would build shopping malls over these places right away, as Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan tried to do last year in Taksim’s Gezi Park. At the very least, I would learn the message of Tiananmen: that a crowd once formed in a square is fiendishly hard to remove, and creates worse publicity worldwide than a dozen provincial massacres.
Vladimir Putin reportedly damned Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych for failing immediately to remove crowds from Maidan, at whatever cost in brutality. It is hard to imagine Putin allowing an occupation of Red Square. [Continue reading...]
Brian Merchant writes: It’s happening in Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, Bosnia, Syria, and beyond. Revolutions, unrest, and riots are sweeping the globe. The near-simultaneous eruption of violent protest can seem random and chaotic; inevitable symptoms of an unstable world. But there’s at least one common thread between the disparate nations, cultures, and people in conflict, one element that has demonstrably proven to make these uprisings more likely: high global food prices.
Just over a year ago, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned us that if food prices continued to climb, so too would the likelihood that there would be riots across the globe. Sure enough, we’re seeing them now. The paper’s author, Yaneer Bar-Yam, charted the rise in the FAO food price index — a measure the UN uses to map the cost of food over time — and found that whenever it rose above 210, riots broke out worldwide. It happened in 2008 after the economic collapse, and again in 2011, when a Tunisian street vendor who could no longer feed his family set himself on fire in protest.
Bar-Yam built a model with the data, which then predicted that something like the Arab Spring would ensue just weeks before it did. Four days before Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation helped ignite the revolution that would spread across the region, NECSI submitted a government report that highlighted the risk that rising food prices posed to global stability. Now, the model has once again proven prescient — 2013 saw the third-highest food prices on record, and that’s when the seeds for the conflicts across the world were sown. [Continue reading...]
David Wolman writes: During his first two weeks in Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison, Ahmed Maher was able to smuggle out a few letters that he had scribbled on toilet paper. Maher is the soft-spoken 33-year-old civil engineer who co-founded the April 6 Youth Movement and was a crucial behind-the-scenes operator during the 2011 protests that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak three years ago today. Maher has now been in prison for 72 days. His family is having difficulty getting information about his wellbeing, although he has occasionally dictated letters to visitors, including this one, published last week by the Washington Post, and this one, sent to me yesterday.
In one of his earlier messages, Maher wrote of conditions in the jail, joking that his food, at least, would stay well-preserved. “I don’t think there is a refrigerator anywhere colder than this cell.” For the most part, however, his letters have been scathing indictments of Egypt’s military and warned of catastrophic social unrest if the “police state” continues its campaign to dismantle the groups that came together for the 2011 Revolution.
That dismantling has gone largely unnoticed by the West. Outside of Egypt, news about the country suggests a binary struggle. On one side: the Muslim Brotherhood, angered over the ouster of President Mohammad Morsi and pushing back against oppression, real or perceived. On the other side: The military-led government of Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who appears poised to run for president. [Continue reading...]
Roger Cohen writes: In Davos, Secretary of State John Kerry talked for a long time about Iran. He talked for a long time about Syria. He talked for a very long time about Israel-Palestine. And he had nothing to say about Egypt.
This was a glaring omission. Egypt, home to about a quarter of all Arabs and the fulcrum of the Arab Spring, is in a disastrous state. Tahrir Square, emblem of youthful hope and anti-dictatorial change three years ago, is home now to Egyptians baying for a military hero with the trappings of a new Pharaoh to trample on the “terrorists” of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet, in a speech devoted to rebutting what he called “this disengagement myth” — the notion that a war-weary United States is retreating from the Middle East — Kerry was silent on a nation that is a United States ally, the recipient of about $1.3 billion a year in military aid (some suspended), and the symbol today of the trashing of American hopes for a more inclusive, tolerant and democratic order in the Middle East.
The silence was telling. The Obama administration has been all over the place on Egypt, sticking briefly with Hosni Mubarak, then siding with his ouster, then working hard to establish productive relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and its democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, then backing the military coup that removed Morsi six months ago (without calling it a coup) and finally arguing, in the words of Kerry last August, that the military headed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi was “restoring democracy.” [Continue reading...]
BBC News reports: At least 29 people have been killed in clashes in Egypt as the country marks the anniversary of the 2011 uprising which overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, the health ministry says.
Rival demonstrations of supporters and opponents of the military-backed government took place in Cairo.
But police broke up anti-government protests, and arrests were reported in Cairo and Alexandria.
Hundreds have died since July when the army deposed President Mohammed Morsi.
Extra security measures were in place for Saturday.
Egyptian Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim had urged Egyptians not to be afraid to go to events marking the anniversary of the uprising.
Thousands of supporters of the military and the government gathered in high-profile locations including Tahrir Square – the focal point of the 18-day 2011 popular revolt.
Mohammad Fadel writes: On February 11, 2011, after eighteen days of protests, Hosni Mubarak resigned as President of Egypt. Now, three years later, the Egyptian security state appears to have re-established political control of the country.
Why did the democratic transition fail? Answers range widely. Some blame the poorly designed transition process, which made trust among different political groups unachievable. Others point to a lack of leadership within Egypt’s political organizations, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Still others focus on a devastating economic crisis that post-Mubarak governments could never address given the political divisions within the country.
These explanations are plausible and not mutually exclusive. But they all miss something important. The January 25 Revolution was also a striking failure of political theory. More precisely, it was a failure of the theories embraced by the most idealistic revolutionaries. Their demands were too pure; they refused to accord any legitimacy to a flawed transition—and what transition is not flawed?—that could only yield a flawed democracy. They made strategic mistakes because they did not pay enough attention to Egypt’s institutional, economic, political, and social circumstances. These idealists generally were politically liberal. But the problem does not lie in liberalism itself. The problem lies in a faulty understanding of the implications of political liberalism in the Egyptian context—an insufficient appreciation of factors that limited what could reasonably be achieved in the short term. A more sophisticated liberalism would have accounted for these realities. [Continue reading...]
Rami G Khouri writes: In the past three years since the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak’s government, on my regular visits to Cairo I have watched with fascination, pride and hope the birth of Arab citizens and the sudden emergence of a public political sphere – an open, pluralistic space where people from different ideological and cultural perspectives could freely compete for political power and legitimate, democratic control of the government. I have witnessed very different things in Cairo this week, during and after the referendum on the new Egyptian constitution that was drawn up in recent months by the interim government that was installed by armed forces commander Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, and that also has led a tough campaign to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood.
The constitution was approved by an astounding, and totally expected, 98 percent of voters, for most of those who opposed it boycotted the process altogether, either from conviction or intimidation. The vast majority of international and local observers found almost nothing seriously wrong with the mechanics of the voting, so the 98 percent approval accurately reflects the sentiments of those who voted. Yet many observers criticized the wider political environment that did not permit a serious debate about the merits or the constitution or the unilateral political process that created it.
The frenzied mass support for Gen. Sisi and against the Muslim Brotherhood is genuine, and reflects a peculiar combination of Arab events and sentiments that are only found today in Egypt. This is why I suspect that what we witness these days in Egypt cannot be analyzed by using political criteria, but rather requires the tools of the anthropologist. There is no real political or ideology involved here. There is mainly biology driving events these days, primarily the anthropological need of tens of millions of Egyptians to get on with their lives and – as they see it – prevent the collapse of this society that has functioned without interruption for over 5,000 years. The citizen and public political sphere that were being born in the past three years have momentarily receded from modern history, for they have been overshadowed by the herd and its need for self-preservation, the biological cell’s need for water and protein, and Egyptian society’s need for order. [Continue reading...]
The Daily Beast reports: Congress is preparing to allow the Obama administration to give more than $1 billion dollars to the Egyptian government and military, despite the fact the generals perpetrated a coup last summer and are suppressing opposition ahead of a nation-wide constitutional referendum.
The House and Senate are set to unveil a year-long spending bill that will loosen restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt and negate the law that prevents the U.S. from funding a foreign military that has conducted a coup against a democratically elected government. The Obama administration has been lobbying Congress for permission to give the aid to the Egyptian government. Several senior senators had been working to make sure that aid was conditioned on the Egyptian government pursing a path toward democracy and respect for the rule of law.
But now, with the Egyptians speeding toward a Constitutional referendum that will cement the rule of the military-led regime and with the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the opposition ongoing, most of those conditions could be lifted by Congress or waived by the Obama administration.
For experts and congressional officials who have followed the Obama administration’s clumsy and often incoherent policy on Egypt, the potential easing of restrictions on aid represents only the latest unfortunate twist in a failed effort to preserve U.S. influence in the Arab world’s most populous country.
“When the omnibus bill is passed, there’s going to be legislation in it that in effect is going to give the administration a waiver from the coup provisions and allow them to restore aid to Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ever since the Egyptian military ousted and jailed ex-president Mohamed Morsi last July and began its campaign of arresting opposition leaders and protesters, the Obama administration and Congress have been withholding most of the $1.5 billion in annual aid the U.S. gives Egypt, most of which goes directly to the country’s army.
“I think there’s a sense of giving up on Egypt [inside of the Obama administration], on the Hill as well,” said Dunne. “There’s a sense that ‘Oh well they tried a democratic transition, it didn’t work, but we don’t want to cut ourselves off from Egypt as a security ally, so let’s just forget about the whole democracy and human rights thing except for giving it some lip service from time to time.’” [Continue reading...]
David A Bell writes: Two and a half years after it began, the revolution was widely considered a quagmire, even a disaster. Rebels had made disappointingly little headway against the forces of the hated tyrant. The capital and the country’s second major city remained under his control. Foreign powers had provided sympathy, but very little real aid. And despite promising to respect human rights, rebel forces were committing widespread abuses, including murder, torture and destruction of property. In short, the bright hopes of an earlier spring were fading fast.
This may sound like a description of Syria today, but it also describes quite well the situation of another country: the young United States in the winter of 1777–1778. George Washington had taken refuge in the miserable winter encampment of Valley Forge. Philadelphia (then the capital) and New York were both in British hands. France had not yet agreed to help the new republic militarily. And in areas under rebel control, loyalists were being persecuted—far more than most American school textbooks admit.
There is little reason to think that conditions in Syria will turn around the way they did in the United States between 1778 and 1781, when the American revolutionaries managed to eke out a military victory. But the comparison illuminates a different point. Historically, very few revolutions have been quick successes. They have been messy, bloody, long, drawn-out affairs. Victory has very rarely come without numerous setbacks, and, unfortunately, without abuses carried out by all sides. It has generally taken many years, even decades, for the real gains, if any, to become apparent. Yet today, international public opinion and international institutions usually fail to recognize this historical reality. There is an expectation that revolutions, where they occur, must lead within a very short period to the establishment of stable democracy and a full panoply of human rights, or they will be viewed as failures.
Consider, for instance, the disappointments that followed the Arab Spring and the resulting worldwide hand-wringing. Thomas Friedman, that great barometer of elite American conventional wisdom, wrote in May 2011 about the young Arabs who had begun to “rise up peacefully to gain the dignity, justice and self-rule that Bin Laden claimed could be obtained only by murderous violence.” Less than two years later, he was lamenting that “the term ‘Arab Spring’ has to be retired,” and comparing events in the region to the seventeenth century’s massively destructive Thirty Years’ War, in which areas of Central Europe lost up to a third of their populations. Many other commentators throughout the world now write off the Arab Spring as a disaster and failure, pure and simple. But arguably, not the least of the problems bedeviling the Arab revolutionaries of the last two and a half years has been the absurdly inflated expectations they have had to live up to. Put simply, they have been asked to achieve the sort of rapid and complete success that hardly any predecessors, including in the West, ever managed. [Continue reading...]
Marc Lynch writes: "Constructing democratic institutions and political infrastructure cannot be done overnight," intones Amr Moussa, head of the drafting committee for Egypt’s new constitution. Perhaps. But you know what can be done overnight? Releasing the vast array of political prisoners being held in horrific conditions as part of a concerted effort by Egypt’s resurgent security state to criminalize dissent and silence critical voices.
For all of the nationalist and anti-American posturing in its state-backed media, Egypt’s military-backed government keenly desires international approval for its new constitution. Nothing of the sort should be granted as long as non-violent political activists like Ahmed Maher and independent journalists like Mohamed Fahmy suffer in prison. Washington, the European Union, and every self-respecting electoral observation NGO should make the release of these political prisoners an absolute condition for bestowing any recognition or legitimacy upon next week’s constitutional referendum.
The trial of three leading activists, Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Douma, and Ahmed Maher, was postponed yesterday. So was the show trial of former President Mohamed Morsi. Neither hearing was likely to produce anything resembling justice from the transparently politicized courts anyway, any more than did the trials of Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mona Seif or Maheinour al-Massry and Hassan Mustafa — or legions of less famous activists. Canadian citizenship hasn’t helped the well-respected journalist (and Foreign Policy contributor) Mohamed Fahmy against absurd charges of terrorist conspiracy. And that’s not even counting the untold number of members of the criminalized Muslim Brotherhood being held on trumped up terrorism charges — with their assets frozen, their passports confiscated, their charities
Egypt’s security services were able to tap into well-cultivated mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad to justify its initial crackdown. But the intense animosity between the Brotherhood and many activists shouldn’t mask the reality that the campaign against the "terrorist" Muslim Brotherhood and the campaign against other political activists and independent voices are manifestations of the same political project. Both aim at crushing the culture of protest which overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak and restoring the "normality" of a carefully managed authoritarian regime. The arrests and public defamation campaigns aimed at restoring the fear and disengagement which has always been so vital to maintaining authoritarian regimes. The architects of the coup hoped to rebuild that barrier of fear which had been so famously shattered by the January 25 uprising.
Summarizing the assessment of Israeli military intelligence, Haaretz reports: Syria is continuing to fall apart, with forces that oppose the regime now in control of nearly half the country, in the north and the east. But the Assad regime continues to cling to the cities that are important to its survival and maintains a fairly wide corridor that includes the Alawite cities in the northwest of the country, as well as Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and the southern city of Daraa. Last March, Assad seemed to be on the verge of collapse, but was able to recover thanks to massive aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Since the victory organized for Assad in June by Hezbollah forces in the town of Qusair, on the Lebanese border, the fighting has become static, with no thrust of momentum or victory by either side. Presently, the opposition looks too weak and divided to topple the regime in the near future.
All the signs are that the upheaval in the Arab world will continue into 2014. The worsening economic situation – which the violence has only aggravated – will likely push more young people into the arms of the jihadist organizations, which will increasingly also clash with Israel on the margins of their main activity.
As for Iran, intelligence discerns a genuine struggle over the future image of the country between the spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and his conservative allies, and a more moderate group headed by the new president, Hassan Rohani. Expert analysis does not view Rohani’s election as a deception by Khamenei intended solely to mislead the West, but rather as an authentic leader who is creating an independent power center. The internal struggle between the blocs in Iran has yet to be resolved, but Rohani enjoys broad public support, despite the clout of the Revolutionary Guards and the senior army officers who are loyal to the spiritual leader.
Haaretz reported in September that on the eve of Netanyahu’s departure for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the head of MI, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, provided him with an assessment holding that a deep strategic change was being played out in Iran, expressed in Rohani’s election victory in June.
Kochavi appears to be sticking to this opinion. Earlier this month, he presided over a ceremony at which prizes for creative thinking were awarded to intelligence officers. According to a report on Israel Radio, a group of officers from the research division who “identified the change in Iran” received a special certificate of appreciation from Kochavi. Officially, senior Israeli figures such as Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are scoffing at the change in Tehran and saying that Rohani’s “charm offensive” is simply a mask assumed by the regime solely in order to get relief from the international sanctions. It turns out that MI, without for a moment detracting from the dangers of Iran’s nuclear project and its support for terrorism, thinks otherwise.
Andy Fitzgerald writes: At the memorial for Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama eulogized the fallen leader:
Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement – a movement that at its start held little prospect of success. Like [Martin Luther] King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed.
Listening in the crowd sat Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s second deputy prime minister. Apparently the words were lost on the government His Royal Highness was representing (though it’s questionable he even relayed the message), because within the next week, a Saudi judge sentenced democratic activist Omar al-Saeed to 4 years in prison and 300 lashes. His crime: calling for a constitutional monarchy (a government that would likely outlaw such cruel and unusual punishment).
Saeed is a member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (Acpra), an organization documenting human rights abuses and calling for democratic reform. He is its fourth member to be sentenced to prison this year. In March, co-founders Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani (who I have met in the past, and previously wrote about) and Abdullah al-Hamid were sentenced to prison terms of 10 and 5 years on charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and running an unlicensed political organization – despite repeated attempts to obtain a license.
Not surprisingly, there has been no strong public statement from the Obama administration regarding Saeed’s sentencing. [Continue reading...]