Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 14, 2017

Tickling Giants

Filed under: Egypt,Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

In March 2011, a heart surgeon named Bassem Youssef living in Cairo was inspired to produce Youtube videos in which he provided satirical commentary on the Mubarak dictatorship that rapidly grew viral, so much so that he landed a weekly TV show titled “The Show” that enjoyed the same kind of popularity. He had an audience of 30 million people, while Jon Stewart’s show, which Youssef openly credits as his inspiration, never reached more than 2 million.

His meteoric rise and his demise under General al-Sisi’s dictatorship are documented in a film titled “Tickling Giants” that opens today at the IFC in NY and a number of other cities a week later (check http://ticklinggiants.com/ for venues.) It is directed by Sara Taksler, a senior producer for “The Jon Stewart Show” who decided to make a documentary about Youssef after he made a guest appearance there in June 2012.

When you see excerpts from Youssef’s show, the influence of Jon Stewart is unmistakable. From the body language of the host, his grimaces, to the mocking of the high and mighty, you are reminded that comedy is universal.

As amusing as the film is, it has a deadly serious mission, which is to demonstrate how the hopes of Tahrir Square were dashed by both the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi and the military coup that toppled it.

Youssef reached 30 million viewers because his show articulated the yearnings of the Egyptian people for freedom of expression, an end to military or clerical authoritarianism and the sort of crony capitalism that pervades the entire region. Despite his obviously secular identity, Youssef was beloved by observant Muslims of the lower classes who felt victimized by the nation’s one-percent.

Like most Egyptians, Youssef and his staff were jubilant over Mubarak’s resignation but felt short-changed by the election of Morsi, whose attempts at consolidating an Islamic state in the style of Erdogan’s AKP were a clear violation of the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring. When Youssef began mocking Morsi, who is a tempting target, there was widespread support.

The election of Generaal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was greeted in the same gloves off spirit. It made no difference to Youssef who was the head of state. If the regime continued to operate in the same fashion as Mubarak but with cosmetic changes, he would go for the jugular. What he didn’t anticipate was the degree to which a fanatical reactionary base could be assembled to agitate against his show and the partnership it formed with the media establishment in Egypt that viewed him as a threat to the el-Sisi regime. The ruling class had decided to clamp down on civil liberties and Bassem Youssef was unacceptable for his alleged insults to the army and to the Egyptian nation.

While watching this extremely compelling documentary, I could not help but think of President Trump who is drawing from the same bag of tricks as al-Sisi but with a lot less license to kill. Two hundred and thirty years of bourgeois democracy creates institutions that are much more deeply rooted than what exists in Egypt.

In November 2016, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the first head of state in the Arab world to congratulate Trump on his electoral victory to the dismay of those Egyptians who used to be loyal fans of Bassem Youssef’s “The Show”. For Trump, al-Sisi was a “fantastic guy” whose coup against the Muslim Brotherhood was praiseworthy: “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.”

According to Juan Cole, the dictator al-Sisi got on the phone with Bashar al-Assad after his meeting with Trump to gloat over the green light he got from the White House to crush “the terrorists”. With Trump cementing ties to Netanyahu, al-Sisi and Assad, it continues to amaze me that anybody on the left can continue to maintain illusions about him being an alternative to Hillary Clinton.

With Assad firmly in control of much of Syria today, it is easy to give in to a sense of futility. In the press notes, Youssef is asked to comment about the feeling Egyptians might have about the Arab Spring being a failure. His response is one that should be considered by those succumbing to the same sort of feelings:

Nothing is stagnant. We live in a very dynamic world and things change all the time. Four years ago, we never thought that we, in Egypt, would get rid of a dictator and start this kind of a political and cultural revolution, but it suddenly happened. And who could have imagined me, a doctor, of all people, becoming this media star? Unimaginable. You never know what will happen. We are living now in a much faster era. In the Middle East, we have a huge younger generation that is more connected. Oppressive governments can’t control the internet like they could with television networks and newspapers. They can’t rule people with the same methods that were employed on their parents in 1950s and ‘60s – outdated, obsolete kind of propaganda that people will not buy into it for the rest of their lives.

I am optimistic. I don’t think the revolution is dead. It’s just sleeping for now. When will people wake up again? I don’t know. Maybe in my lifetime. Maybe my daughter will carry on “The Show, Part Two.” She is very feisty and she’s much funnier than me and she’s only three years old. So she has a lot of time to practice.


August 3, 2016

Morbid Symptoms

Filed under: Egypt,political Islam,Syria — louisproyect @ 3:25 pm

Gilbert Achcar’s aptly titled Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising arrives at the very moment when Bashar al-Assad’s military and his assorted foreign legions are on the brink of final victory over the rebels according to some analysts. As the killing machine advances on East Aleppo in order to impose a siege that will likely cost the lives of thousands of civilians through a combination of bombing and starvation, it is a supreme irony that al-Assad will be following essentially the same strategy that Adolf Hitler used against Leningrad in WWII but with Putin’s air force standing in for the Luftwaffe.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported that Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) is abducting, torturing and assassinating activists in unprecedented numbers in order to intimidate the entire population into accepting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s neoliberal regime. While the title of Achcar’s book is a reference to such reversals in Syria and Egypt, it also might remind one of the ideological morass of large sections of the left that cannot make the connection between al-Assad and al-Sisi. Al-Assad manages to enjoy the support of a wide spectrum of leftist intellectuals and journalists even if it is accompanied by the disclaimer that he is not very nice. Meanwhile al-Sisi is universally condemned. Morbid indeed.

But if you put aside geopolitical bias, you cannot help but recognize the similarities between the two despots since they both claim to be defending secularism and democracy against Islamists. With the Muslim Brotherhood serving as al-Sisi’s bogeyman and a wide variety of Islamist militias in Syria functioning as al-Assad’s scapegoat, one might expect both dictators to be equally blessed by the pro-Baathist left. What prevents al-Sisi from getting such support is that he never was an ally of the Kremlin either during the Cold War or afterwards.

It is the singular merit of Gilbert Achcar’s scholarship to transcend Cold War mythologies and to examine class relations in Middle East and North African society to arrive at an assessment of the current conjuncture. He rejects the Scylla of “secular” dictators on one hand and the Charybdis of Islamists on the other, urging the left to adopt a principled, class-based orientation that while difficult to maintain in a hostile political environment remains necessary.

Morbid Symptoms is divided into three parts. A chapter on Syria is titled The Clash of Barbarisms, which despite evoking Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, is distinctly Achcarian and solidly within the Marxist tradition. Unlike Huntington and Ali, who follow geopolitical compasses of either the right or the left, the unit of analysis for Achcar is class, not the nation-state. If there is anything that has disoriented the left ever since the spring of 2011, it the failure to think in class terms.

The chapter titled The “23 July” of Abdul al-Sisi examines Egyptian politics in the aftermath of General al-Sisi’s coup within the framework of the Egyptian left’s failure to develop an independent class orientation against two equally reactionary forces. The political lessons to be drawn from this debacle are not only necessary for moving forward in Egypt but for an entire region that is now polarized between Islamists on one side and self-appointed military saviors on the other.

The conclusion, subtitled “Arab Winter” and Hope, is a brief survey of developments in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen that despite its brevity is essential for understanding the region’s difficulties and possibilities.

Despite the “anti-intervention” posturing of the pro-Baathist left, the most significant imperialist intervention in Syria was to block the shipment of MANPAD’s to the Syrian rebels from non-USA sources. The net result of this imperialist intervention has been to foster a devastating asymmetric warfare. With regime jets and helicopters, augmented eventually by Russia air power, al-Assad has levelled entire urban centers such as East Aleppo and Homs. Homes have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands killed, and survivors forced to seek refuge in Europe even if it meant taking perilous voyages across the Mediterranean to destinations where nativism reigned supreme.

Despite the reputation that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have as fierce enemies of the Baathist regime, they cooperated with the USA to keep MANPAD’s out of the hands of the rebels. Achcar cites an October 17, 2012 Wall Street Journal article that details the efforts of a task force consisting of these supposedly “regime change” states working with the CIA to block MANPAD’s from reaching Aleppo even though the rebels “pleaded” for an effective defense against aerial bombardment. Some on the left might argue that such weapons can fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or ISIS and thus lead to the downing of civilian aircraft. Achcar answers these concerns by referring to an article by military affairs analyst Anthony Cordesman that reveals how they can be modified to be disabled if they fall into the wrong hands just as easily as a stolen laptop.

The principal motivation for keeping the rebels on the losing end was political. The Obama administration had little interest in seeing the plebian rank and file of the armed opposition taking power in Syria. Since the Rand Corporation is a think tank launched by the Douglas Aircraft Company to provide analysis to the Pentagon, you’d think that they would be an accurate barometer of elite opinion. As such, the findings of a workshop they convened in 2014 should be given due weight:

Key Findings

Workshop participants felt that prolonged conflict was the best descriptor for the situation in Syria as of December 2013, but momentum seemed to be leaning toward regime victory.

Negotiated settlement was deemed the least likely of the possible scenarios.

Regime collapse, while not considered a likely outcome, was perceived to be the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests [emphasis added].

Was the CIA’s decision to block the shipment of MANPAD’s consistent with the strategic planning at one of the Pentagon’s primary R&D resources? It would appear to be so.

If the Free Syrian Army had been able to secure the weapons it needed to neutralize the Syrian air force, it is likely that the war would have come to an end long ago. Syria would have been forced to tackle a new set of problems but at least the wholesale murder of civilians in working-class neighborhoods would have come to an end.

Instead the war dragged on and Islamic rivals to the FSA were able to usurp the leading military role largely because of their ready access to money and weapons from likeminded benefactors in the region. There was an inherent contradiction between the aspirations of the Syrian masses and the conditions brought on by militarization. Warfare is a costly business and the deep pockets of states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey could be helpful in material terms but only with strings attached, namely adherence to a political program that was inimical to the goals of the Arab Spring. Turkey was determined to be rid of al-Assad but only as part of a broader campaign to deny the Kurds the right of self-determination. After the birth of grass roots democracy, the Turkish government felt threatened by it in the same way that al-Assad feared the democratically-minded opposition based in civil society. Basically, Erdogan and al-Assad had common class interests despite their geopolitical rivalries. Indeed, recent news that Turkey was ready to realign its relationship to Syria indicates that class trumps religion as the support of the Sunni bourgeoisie for al-Assad should have indicated all along.

Gilbert Achcar’s prognosis is guarded at best. After five years of brutal warfare and the emergence of Islamist militias with no interest in the democratic aspirations of the masses who poured into the streets of Homs, Aleppo and smaller towns in the impoverished rural areas five years ago, the temporary solution is to stop the bloodshed and allow civil society to reemerge:

In order for any progressive potential to materialise in an organised political form among the Syrian people at large, the precondition at this stage is for the war to stop. In that regard and given the abysmal situation that has arisen in Syria after four years of war, the appalling level of killing and destruction, and the immense human tragedy represented by the refugees and displaced persons (about one half of Syria’s population), one can only wish for the success of the international efforts presently being deployed to reach a compromise between the Syrian regime and the mainstream opposition.

In the immediate aftermath of the al-Sisi coup in Egypt, there were bitter recriminations over the role of the left with some making analogies between the ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi and Alexander Kerensky. For example, John Rees wrote:

But when the threat of Kerensky being overthrown by a counter-revolutionary coup led by General Kornilov became real, the Bolsheviks defended Kerensky’s government from the threat from the right. Trotsky helped organise the defence of Kerensky from the prison cell in which the very same Kerensky had put him.

Considering John Rees’s regrettable tendency to demonize Syrian rebels as threats to secularism and democracy, one might accuse him of using a double standard. Perhaps if al-Sisi had a background as an “anti-imperialist” in the Gaddafi and al-Assad mold, there would have been greater readiness to back the coup. That being said, it is entirely conceivable that before very long, he will be seen as part of the anti-imperialist camp given the reports from as early as mid-2015 that Egypt and Russia would be strengthening their ties through the creation of a free trade zone and Egypt becoming part of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Kremlin’s competition to the EU.

In my view, the Kerensky analogy has limited value. The Russian Social Democracy always considered the Social Revolutionary Party as part of the democratic revolution against Czarism even though it vacillated toward the Cadets. Lenin thought that a vote for SR’s was tactically permissible but never for the Cadets. In 1909 he wrote an article titled “How the Socialist-Revolutionaries Sum Up the Revolution and How the Revolution has Summed Them Up” that defended the Bolsheviks against Menshevik charges that they were adapting to the SR’s:

Now that is where your mistake begins, we say to the Mensheviks. True, the Socialist-Revolutionary doctrine is pernicious, fallacious, reactionary, adventurist and petty-bourgeois. But these vices do not prevent this quasi-socialist doctrine from being the ideological vestments of a really revolutionary—and not compromising—bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie in Russia.

Based on this criterion, the Muslim Brotherhood could hardly be put in the same category as the SR’s. Their commitment to democracy was always on a tactical basis, namely whether it could advance their own goal of creating an Islamic state. That being said, the best approach to Egyptian politics is not through the prism of Russian history but class relations within the most populous Arab nation that has historically played a key role in setting a pattern for other nations. To understand what political options the left was forced to make three years ago requires an analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood itself. For this, citations from either Lenin or Trotsky have limited value except as a reminder that the SR’s emerged out of the Russian revolutionary experience. After all, Lenin’s brother was a Narodnik.

To understand what al-Sisi stood for, it is better to look at Egyptian history and particularly the Nasserist model that figured heavily in the events of July 2013. He exploited the reputation of the nationalist leader to conceal an economic program that differed radically from Colonel Nasser’s nationalism, crowned by the bold seizure of the Suez Canal.

For many Egyptians, Nasser is the Father of the Country in the same way that George Washington and Mustafa Kemal were for the USA and Turkey. When Mohammed Morsi became president of Egypt in the summer of 2012, the liberal and left opposition were seduced by Nasserist rhetoric that camouflaged counter-revolutionary goals. Since the Morsi administration was accommodating itself to the military immediately after taking power, it was not difficult to understand why the left was unable to think outside the box. It might be likened ironically enough to Erdogan’s recent bid to refashion himself as a neo-Kemalist.

For its part, the USA was prepared to live with if not prosper by the rule of either Morsi or al-Sisi. Despite its willingness to take part in the mobilizations against Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood never sought the transformation of Egyptian society. Its model was Erdogan’s Turkey, a model whose viability was already eroding rapidly on the eve of Morsi’s taking power. If in Turkey, the model could be married to an expanding manufacturing sector led by a pious Anatolian bourgeoisie, what applicability would it have to Egypt, a country that was suffering from a deep economic crisis that had spread across the entire Middle East and North Africa and that was a key factor in the Arab Spring?

If the Morsi administration wanted to assure Washington that it was trustworthy, what would be more effective than continuing Egypt’s friendly relations with Israel? Citing the Arab-language press, Achcar, is able to provide the depth that non-Arab reading commentators cannot—not that this ever inhibited them from freely offering their opinion:

On 17 October, the new Egyptian ambassador to Israel handed then-Israeli president Shimon Peres a letter from Morsi in which the Egyptian president addressed his counterpart as “my great and dear friend”, expressed his “strong desire to develop the affectionate relations that fortunately bind our two countries”, and wished Israel “prosperity”.

Such moves earned Hillary Clinton’s praise, who stated: “Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.” (Washington Post, November 21, 2012)

Confident that Washington had his back, Morsi issued a new constitutional decree one day later that gave him unprecedented power. If he saw himself as following in the footsteps of Erdogan, he neglected to polish the shrewd tactical skills of the Turkish authoritarian.

From that point on, the opposition would congeal around a program that while opposing authoritarianism was all too ready to cede power to al-Sisi. In a way, it was presenting the Egyptian people with the same kind of Scylla and Charybdis choice as offered to Syrians: authoritarianism either in a beard or in a necktie (or strictly speaking, a uniform).

In class terms, the Morsi government had the same disregard for working class rights as the AKP. Workers had their own class interests that would not be mollified by parliamentary democracy. They clashed with the government repeatedly in 2013, emboldened by the spirit of defiance that had arisen ever since the occupation of Tahrir Square. That year there were nearly as many working class protests as in the decade that concluded in 2010. This was something the Muslim Brotherhood would not tolerate. In April 2013, the army was used to suppress a strike of 70,000 railroad workers—evidence that the military and the Islamists shared class interests.

Unfortunately, the workers’ movement lacked the power to determine the outcome of the conflict between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. That task fell on the shoulders of the Tamarrod Movement (the Arabic word for rebellion) that cobbled together the pro-democracy sentiments of Tahrir Square with Nasserism. The young people who rallied in Tahrir Square mistook the military’s decision to remove Mubarak from office. This was not a sign that it was on the side of the people, only that it sought to defuse a highly volatile situation that could have gone much further if the working class’s big battalions became a factor. It is a symptom of the calcification of Syrian politics that such a maneuver was rejected by the Baathists in favor of a genocidal war that has ruined the country economically and socially. Assadism without Assad was never a viable option.

As opposed to John Rees, his former comrades from the SWP-led international movement aligned itself with Tamarrod. The Revolutionary Socialists party in Egypt saw this as an opportunity to push for a radical program within the context of a mass movement whose goals were a mixture of progressive and reactionary elements.

Showing his ability to distinguish between Islamist opportunism and genuine solidarity, Achcar refuses to grant any legitimacy to the Muslim Brotherhood based on its orientation to Syria:

Most importantly, the very backbone of the old regime, the army, played a pivotal role in the success of the gigantic anti-Morsi mobilisation on 30 June 2013. The closer the deadline of Tamarrod’s petition campaign approached, the more open the military’s support for the mobilisation became. One week prior to the long-planned climax, Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi proclaimed loudly and clearly that the military would protect the nationwide demonstrations and rallies — this a few days after the Muslim Brotherhood, on 15 June, had ominously flexed its muscles by staging a massive rally in Cairo in solidarity with the Syrian uprising, on an openly Sunni-sectarian and jihadist platform. Morsi addressed the rally in person, announcing the severance of diplomatic ties with Damascus and calling for a no-fly zone over Syria.

In summarizing the Scylla and Charybdis choices that faces the people of the Middle East and North Africa, Gilbert Achcar urges us—like Odysseus—to steer clear of movements even if we can seek tactical alliances as the need arises:

It can on occasion and for purely tactical reasons strike together with “unlikely bedfellows” — whether with Islamic forces against old-regime forces, or vice-versa — but it should always be marching separately, clearing its own fundamental path at equal distance from the two reactionary camps. Tactical short-term alliances can be concluded with the devil if need be; but the devil should never be portrayed as an angel on such occasions — such as by calling the Muslim Brotherhood “reformist” or the old regime forces “secular”, thus trying to prettify their deeply reactionary nature.

While it is beyond the scope of Gilbert Achcar’s book, and in many ways beyond the scope of any living human being, there is an overarching question that this reviewer has been grappling with since the early 1980s when he witnessed the early stages of the implosion of the Socialist Workers Party, a group that Leon Trotsky held in the highest esteem. As might be obvious from Achcar’s words cited above, the idea of “marching separately” and implicitly “striking together” are the hallmarks of the Trotskyist movement’s United Front strategy. Sharing the fate of the Communist and Maoist parties of the sixties and seventies, the Trotskyist movement is now significantly weaker.

There was a period when someone like Ernest Mandel could have spoken to large audiences in Syria or Lebanon and sowed the seeds of a revolutionary organization capable of carrying out the United Front alluded to above. In the absence of such a movement and even those with far more imperfect programs, a vacuum came into existence that the Islamists were all too eager to fill.

When the Arab Spring arose, the well-organized and well-funded groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were able to prevail over inexperienced youth whose understanding of class politics was underdeveloped. In other parts of the world, when mass movements lacked the experience and acumen to take a fight to its conclusion, there was always the possibility of recovery and preparation for a new round in the class struggle.

In Syria, Egypt and the other countries analyzed by Gilbert Achcar, the possibilities for renewed struggle on a higher level are much more constrained. The ferocity of the ruling classes, the absence of a powerful working class (except in Egypt), and the entrenchment of political Islam makes the left’s task more daunting. Perhaps the most important task in this period is to bring to bear the political clarity that can help a new generation of activists become grounded in Marxism. As such, a book like “Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising” will have the power of a well-aimed artillery shell.

October 26, 2013

Documenting the Egyptian and Iranian revolutions

Filed under: Egypt,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 9:04 pm

If John Reed had been equipped with a digital camera rather than a typewriter in Mexico in 1913 or Russia in 1917, I doubt that he could have produced a film that surpasses “The Square” that opened yesterday at the Film Forum in New York (it arrives in three different locations in California on November 1.)  Directed by Jehane Noujaim, a 39-year-old Egyptian-American whose best known previous credit was the al-Jazeera documentary “The Control Room”, was on location in Egypt from the inception of the Tahrir Square occupation to the overthrow of Morsi. Not only was she on location, she appeared to be in the middle of the most decisive events, at times involving triumph and other times defeat. And even more decisively, she extracts the maximum drama and visual impact out of each moment, making her arguably one of the finest documentary filmmakers on the scene today.

The film “stars” a group of Egyptians who were on the front lines of the revolution, including a young man named Ahmed Hassan who narrowly escaped with his life in a skirmish with the Egyptian military. When he was 8 years old, he was selling lemons on the street. His hope is only that Egyptians can live in a society where there are democratic rights, opportunity for all, and free from corruption. Throughout the film he voices both his elation at feeling that moment might be arriving and despair at realizing that it might be some time in arriving.

His old friend Magdy is a bearded Muslim Brotherhood member who defies the instructions of his leaders to take part in Tahrir Square protests. He has earned credibility with Ahmed for withstanding torture over the years in pursuit of what he perceived as a better Egypt under Islamic rule even though Ahmed has little interest in a Muslim state. His vision is one of an Egypt in which Muslim, Christian, and nonbeliever can stand together in pursuit of the common good.

The film includes a couple of notables, who despite their celebrity take risks equal to Ahmed and Magdy. One is Khalid Abdalla, the Egyptian-British actor who starred in “The Kite Runner”. He is seen in Skype conversations with his father who has been a long-standing opponent of the Mubarak dictatorship. We also meet Ramy Essam, the singer who is the unofficial voice of the revolution. After the overthrow of Mubarak, he is picked up by the cops and tortured in the Egyptian museum—a site that is the nation’s counterpart to the notorious soccer stadium in Chile where Victor Jara was murdered.

Among the courageous women profiled in the film is Aida El Kashef, the young filmmaker who is friends with Ramy Essam and who used her camera to expose the brutality and lies of the dictatorship.

The film consists of three acts:

–The overthrow of Mubarak

–The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood

–The growing disenchantment with the Brotherhood and the military coup that exploited those feelings.

Like a Shakespearean play, the characters are constantly in dialog weighing their decisions on the street corner or in living rooms. There is tension throughout since the stakes are so high. When the Muslim Brotherhood assumes power, Ahmed lashes into Magdy who has little in the way of a defense of a constitution that gives Morsi more power than Mubarak ever had. But when the army topples Morsi, Ahmed rushes to Tahrir Square to close ranks with the Muslim Brothers.

The film also includes a couple of military figures who are hoisted on their own petard as they reveal to Jehane Noujaim how little they believe in democracy even as their top officers are announcing on Egyptian television that they are with the protesters.

In the final paragraph of the synopsis found in the press notes, we encounter a statement that not only serves as a compass for the directions of a successful Egyptian revolution but one that should be carefully noted by the Western left so frequently demoralized by its own failure to achieve a swift and decisive victory:

Our goal for audiences is to experience the evolution of a revolution in the 21st century and understand what these activists are trying to say: civil rights and freedoms are never given away, they are fought for. Historically, this has always been the case, from the Civil Rights movement to the fight against Apartheid.  But how does this fight begin and sustain itself and ultimately become successful? This film shows that true change in a society does not begin with a majority, but the relentless and ongoing commitment of individuals to those principles of change.

While by no means as politically and artistically realized as “The Square”, “The Green Wave” that becomes available as a DVD and through ITunes on November 5th (check http://www.thegreenwave-film.com/ for information) is a good companion piece.

Unlike Jehane Noujaim, Ali Samadi Ahadi, the 41-year-old Iranian filmmaker who has lived in Germany since the age of 12, was not in Iran during the events depicted in “The Green Wave”. Like “The Square”, “The Green Wave” begins in jubilation and ends in despair. The 2009 election campaign of Mir-Hossein Mousavi united every Iranian tired of the brutality and the crony capitalism of the Islamic Republic, which behind its pious pretensions had much more in common with Mubarak than might be apparent at first glance. And even more to the point, it might make sense to think of the election campaign as a harbinger of the Arab Spring even as many on the left tend to regard the Green Movement in Iran as some kind of imperialist plot.

Despite his absence from the battlefield, Ahadi manages to produce a coherent documentary out of three separate strands:

–Footage of rallies and protests that were obviously taken by activists given their often-unfocused quality. What they lack in visual acuity is made up for by their impact as living history.

–Animated representation of the experience of young bloggers who worked on the Mousavi campaign and suffered repression for their “impious” behavior.

–Interviews with leading critics of the Ahmadinejad dictatorship such as Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi who went into exile in 2009. Despite the tendency of some leftists to depict any opponent of Ahmadinejad as an imperialist tool, Ebadi’s credentials are impeccable. She was a supporter of Mossadegh and even backed Khomeini initially. She is also an outspoken critic of Israel and supported a California BDS bill.

But unlike “The Square”, the emphasis is entirely on human rights rather than revolutionary strategy. Almost every moment of the film is devoted to exposure of state brutality, including summary executions, torture, and beatings on the street.

Despite the glum conclusion of the film, the promise of the Mousavi campaign might be finally realized in the election of Hassan Rouhani last month who has released political prisoners, defended equal rights for women, and called for greater political freedom. Whether or not this will whet the appetite for greater change in Iran is uncertain at this point, given the body blow the mass movement suffered in 2009.

When watching these films, I found myself pondering the question why revolutions are vanquished time and time again. In a pattern that is repeated over and over, the “people” unite against a hated dictator only to suffer a new period of suffering often under an ostensibly democratic and popular government. This is generally regarded as the “Arab Winter” today but the phenomenon can be just as easily perceived in Burma where the nation’s “Nelson Mandela” is now seen as a too-willing partner of the army and indifferent to pogroms against Muslims.

Perhaps it is time to retire the “new Nelson Mandela” meme while we are at it since South Africa is probably the best symbol of unrealized revolutionary hopes anywhere in the world.

It seems that in almost every instance of such uprisings, the “people” come to the fore in a kind of nationalist desire for redemption and rebirth but without a class dimension and often placing hopes in a military that is on “the side of the people”, the classic example being the Kerensky government in Russia.

For those educated in the Trotskyist tradition, it is easy as pie to come up with an answer. The revolution has to be “Bolshevik” in character with the working class in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, groups established upon such principles tend to be ignored by the masses since they rest on the assumption that the masses will gravitate to them on the virtue of their profound thoughts.

I wonder if the answer is to synthesize the popular hopes of the Arab Spring with a class orientation that is more implicit than explicit. Keep in mind that the Bolsheviks called for “Peace, Bread, and Land”—not a proletarian dictatorship. Also, keep in mind that the July 26th Movement in Cuba formulated its demands in terms of fulfilling democracy and social justice rather than Communism. When Cuba did become communist (for lack of a better word), it was only as a result of the dialectics of defending democracy and social justice.

At any rate, I recommend these two films for anybody interested in deepening their understanding of revolutions in the 21st century, particularly in nations with a strong Islamic presence. Karl Marx never had to grapple with such complexity and it is up to us to come up with answers that make sense and can move the struggle forward—remembering to leave your dogma at the front door with your shoes.

August 12, 2013

Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers? Groucho’s, I assume.

Professor Sheri Berman

It is not every day that you find an op-ed piece in the NY Times proffering what appears to be Marxist advice. In this instance I am not speaking of Paul Krugman’s endorsement of Michael Kalecki that amounted to dipping his big toe into the Marxist pool. After all, there is some question as to how to categorize Kalecki, some seeing him as a post-Keynesian rather than a Marxist. Krugman reflects this uncertainty when he writes: “Kalecki was, after all, a declared Marxist (although I don’t see much of Marx in his writings)”.

In this instance I am referring to Sheri Berman’s op-ed piece in the Sunday, August 11, 2013 NY Times titled “Marx’s Lesson for the Muslim Brothers”. Since Berman is an unabashed social democrat on the editorial board of Dissent, I am not sure she is the best medium for channeling Karl Marx. It is a bit like reading an op-ed piece by Richard Dawkins on what lessons Marxists can draw from Islam. Despite Sheri Berman’s erudition as a Barnard professor, which certainly must entail an ability to quote chapter and verse of Karl Marx, she seems mainly dedicated to convincing the world that he is a 19th century relic—a theme unsurprisingly that serves as the backbone of her op-ed piece.

Berman begins by analogizing the Egyptian mass movement for democracy with the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe:

In 1848, workers joined with liberals in a democratic revolt to overthrow the French monarchy. However, almost as soon as the old order collapsed, the opposition fell apart, as liberals grew increasingly alarmed by what they saw as “radical” working class demands. Conservatives were able to co-opt fearful liberals and reinstall new forms of dictatorship.

Those same patterns are playing out in Egypt today — with liberals and authoritarians playing themselves, and Islamists playing the role of socialists. Once again, an inexperienced and impatient mass movement has overreached after gaining power. Once again, liberals have been frightened by the changes their former partners want to enact and have come crawling back to the old regime for protection. And as in 1848, authoritarians have been happy to take back the reins of power.

To start with, Berman leaves out the relationship that existed between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi assumed office. Rather than advancing “radical” demands, even of an Islamist nature such as Sharia law, there was evidence of a united front against the real radicals—the Egyptian underclasses. A Juan Cole blog post dated December 12, 2012 highlights the partnership against democracy:

Faced with the prospect of substantial public resistance to his scheduling of a referendum on a Muslim Brotherhood-tinged constitution on December 15, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has turned to the military. (The green in the title is a reference to political Islam, not the environment).

Morsi has ordered that the Egyptian army guard government buildings (and presumably the offices of his own party, Freedom and Justice, which have been being attacked by protesters). They spent Sunday putting up a blast wall around the presidential palace in Heliopolis, Cairo, which protesters invaded last Tuesday.

He also gave the military what he said were temporary powers to arrest civilians.

Now, of course, there was an eventual falling out among thieves. Inspired obviously by the neoliberal privatizing tendencies of the AKP, Morsi sought to detach Egyptian state industries from what amounted to military ownership. This measure can hardly be deemed “radical” unless you interpret economic measures heartily endorsed by the IMF et al as having something to do with 1848. ALMonitor, a rightwing online newspaper, summed up the conflict:

Mammoth tasks lie ahead for Egypt’s new, democratically elected civilian authorities. They will need to change how the state-owned commercial sector and public enterprises work in order to unlock the national economy’s potential for sustained and equitable growth.

Despite her familiarity with Marx’s writings (am I assuming too much?), Berman has a tendency to overlook class criteria when making her argument. For example, she writes about the 1848 events: “When it became clear that workers and socialists might win, liberals balked, and many of them turned back to the conservatives, seeing the restoration of authoritarianism as the lesser of two evils.” When she refers to “liberals” balking, you have to ask what that means in class terms. Let me be more specific. Corey Booker would describe himself as a liberal; so would many Black working-class voters in New Jersey. But when push comes to shove, Booker will defend the interests of big capital. Ultimately, what counts in Marxism is a class analysis—something Professor Berman seems averse to.

One of the more troublesome paragraphs in a troublesome article is this:

The 1848 fiasco strengthened the radical elements of the socialist movement at the expense of the moderates and created a poisonous and enduring rift between liberals and workers. After liberals abandoned democracy, moderate socialists looked like suckers and radicals advocating a nondemocratic strategy grew stronger. In 1850, Marx and Engels reminded the London Communist League that they had predicted that a party representing the German liberal bourgeoisie “would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true.” They went on to warn, “To be able forcefully and threateningly to oppose this party, whose betrayal of the workers will begin with the very first hour of victory, the workers must be armed and organized.” This is not the lesson anybody wants Islamists to learn now.

Perhaps it is just a function of trying to pack several years of history in a single paragraph that yields an abundance of confusion or perhaps that was Berman’s intention to start off with. We see a kind of reductionism with “radicals” endorsing violence and liberals abandoning “democracy”. In reality, the situation after 1848 was a lot more complex. Those who fought against absolutism were united in their commitment to democracy—a tautology that is worth emphasizing. In the bourgeois reign of terror that followed the defeat of the movement, many democrats fled Germany in the same fashion that Pinochet’s coup produced a tidal wave of émigrés. They became known as “48’ers” and included Joseph Weydemeyer in their ranks. Weydemeyer, a Marxist, came to the United States and began publishing socialist periodicals.

General John C. Frémont recruited Weydemeyer to the Union army on the strength of his background as a Prussian military officer. Under Frémont’s command, Weydemeyer supervised the erection of ten forts around St. Louis and then went on to become a lieutenant colonel commanding a Missouri volunteer artillery regiment that fought Confederate guerillas in southern Missouri in 1862.

So what do we make of Joseph Weydemeyer? In the U.S. he pretty much followed the same course that Marx advised to the London gathering of German exiles in 1850: to arm the workers and be organized to fight for democracy. Democracy, of course, in Marxist terms means the rule of the majority—the same thing indicated by its Greek origins. Democracy means rule by the people—the demos. For Berman, it means one thing and one thing only: to participate in elections even if big capital has the right to guarantee the outcome through its stranglehold over the outcome on the basis of its disproportionate wealth.

Even on the basis of this criterion, the Marxists in Germany decided to put the armed struggle on the back burner once the situation after 1848 had stabilized. Through its class appeal to the overwhelming majority of society, the German social democracy went from strength to strength. No matter if it had been capable of taking control of the state and peacefully leading a transition to socialism, this would have not assuaged Berman’s obvious distaste for such a “radical” outcome. Her preference was for Eduard Bernstein’s implicit partnership with the German ruling class. In the name of socialism, it was as unprincipled in its way as the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with the Egyptian military.

In an interview with PBS, Berman described Bernstein’s breakthrough: “He saw classes that did not have the kind of conflicts that Marx and Engels predicted, and more importantly seemed to be able to work out many of their differences by using the political system.” In other words, get a PhD, work for a prestigious institution like Barnard, and write meretricious think pieces for the NY Times, the newspaper no real estate baron or hedge fund manager could live without.

As a bastardizer of Marxist theory, Bernstein obviously taught Berman how to use Marx’s writings against Marxism. In a January 5, 1898 article titled “The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social Revolution,” Bernstein makes the case for colonial rule over Morocco. Drawing from English socialist Cunningham Graham’s travel writings, Bernstein states there is absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. In such countries where feudalism is mixed with slavery, a firm hand is necessary to drag the brutes into the civilized world:

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence, fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception better off than they were before.

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an ‘adulator’ of the present? If so, let me refer Bax [Belfort Bax, the British socialist who denounced Bernstein as an apologist for colonialism] to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an ‘adulation’ of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then, especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on the doctrine of social obligation.

Berman concludes her article with this:

A century after 1848, social democrats, liberals and even moderate conservatives finally came together to create robust democracies across Western Europe — an outcome that could and should have happened earlier and with less violence. Middle Eastern liberals must learn from Europe’s turbulent history instead of blindly repeating it.

Well, not really. There was nothing “robust” about these democracies other than the fact that elections were held every few years and even then the same sort of abuses that took place in Germany in the 1880s against the social democracy would now take place against Communists. It is really beyond the scope of this article to detail the iron fist that was concealed in the velvet glove in these “robust democracies”, but I urge my readers to have a look at Paul Ginsborg’s “History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988” where they will see what really happened. Here is a brief excerpt on how imperialism intervened to block a Popular Front victory, one that included the very social democrats that Berman extols:


The first months of 1948 were entirely dedicated to the election campaign. Never again, in the whole history of the Republic, was a campaign to be fought so bitterly by both sides, or to be influenced so heavily by international events.

American intervention was breathtaking in its size, its ingenuity and its flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. The US administration designated $176m of ‘Interim Aid’ to Italy in the first three months of 1948. After that, the Marshall Plan entered into full operation. James Dunn, the American ambassador at Rome, made sure that this massive injection of aid did not go unobserved by the Italian general public. The arrival of every hundredth ship bearing food, medicines, etc., was turned into a special celebration. Every time the port of arrival was a different one — Civitavecchia, Bari, Genoa, Naples — and every time Dunn’s speech became more overtly political. Whenever a new bridge or school or hospital was constructed with American help, there was the indefatigable ambassador travelling the length of the peninsula to speak in the name of America, the Free World and, by implication, the Christian Democrats. Often the goods unloaded from the ports would be put on a special ‘friendship train’ (the idea was the American journalist Drew Pearson’s) and then distributed with due ceremonial at the stations along the line. And just in case the message was not clear enough, on 20 March 1948 George Marshall warned that all help to Italy would immediately cease in the event of a Communist victory.

From the States itself the large and predominantly conservative Italo-American community devised all manner of propaganda initiatives in favour of the Christian Democrats. Hollywood stars recorded messages of support, rallies were held, and more than a million letters were dispatched to Italy during the election campaign. The letters all stressed the Communist peril, often contained a few dollars, and were for the most part not even addressed to relatives. On 17 March Cardinal Spellman, in the presence of President Truman, declared: “And one month from tomorrow as Italy must make her choice of government, I cannot believe that the Italian people will chose Stalinism against God, Soviet Russia against America — America who has done so much and stands ready and willing to do so much more, Italy remains a free, friendly and unfettered nation.”

If all else failed there was always military intervention. The American government studied various plans of action in the event of the Popular Front’s victory. Truman hoped to convince part of the Socialists to destroy the unity of the left, but if this did not succeed there were proposals for encouraging an anti-Communist insurrection, with financial and military assistance to clandestine groups, and for the direct military occupation of Sicily and Sardinia. As it was, the Americans strengthened their Mediterranean fleet, and in the weeks preceding the election their warships anchored in the waters of the main Italian ports.

June 20, 2012

Ultras Ahlawy denounce Egyptian army

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

From the Ultras Ahlawy wiki:

Ultras Ahlawy (UA-07) is an Egyptian ultras group that supports the Cairo-based Egyptian Premier League football club Al-Ahly.[1] The group was founded in 2007 by former members of the first Ahly support group, Ahly Fans Club (AFC). Ultras Ahlawy raised its banner for the first time at a match against ENPPI on 13 April 2007. Ultras Ahlawy also supports the Al-Ahly basketball, volleyball, and handball teams.

June 10, 2012

Tahrir: Liberation Square

Filed under: Egypt,Film — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

“Tahrir: Liberation Square” is a breathtaking and politically engaged documentary that opens tomorrow at The Maysles Theater in Harlem for a one week run. Anybody with more than a passing interest in the movements challenging the status quo over the past two years, from Wall Street to Tahrir Square, will find it spellbinding but for my regular readers in the New York region, in other words the kind of people who marched against the banksters, it is a must.

The film is directed by Stefano Savona, who was an archaeologist by profession but who began making documentaries in 1999, including “Notes from a Kurdish Rebel” about the PKK in Turkey. The press notes allow Savona to explain what drew him to Tahrir Square:

Over the past twenty years, I have gone to Cairo almost every year and like everybody who knows and visits Egypt, I never expected the events of late January, early February 2011. On January 29, after hours in front of the al-Jazeera website, glued to the fragmentary and low-resolution online chronicle of the Egyptian Revolution, I decided to go there and see from close up who was on Tahrir Square, who were the thousands of people challenging the regime’s state of emergency laws. I wanted to understand what exactly they wanted, what their political orientation and their symbolic points of reference were, how they imagined their future. Tahrir Square offered a unique opportunity to film the full scope of Egyptian society, people from all backgrounds and social classes, together for the first time, united in the sole cause of bringing down dictatorship, barricaded on this huge square where police and the thugs of the regime could not enter.

Although Savona’s film is nominally cinéma vérité, it is not the typical fly-on-the-wall affair done by Frederick Wiseman imitators. Instead, it is a skillfully edited condensation of some of the most compelling scenes that most of us know only through second-hand reports or Youtube clips uploaded from a cell phone, etc. The director seems to be everywhere at once and has managed to pull together some of the most hair-raising footage one can imagine.

Very early in the film, we see about a hundred men and women circled around a man who has been lifted on another man’s shoulders and who is leading them in chants:

Mubarak, we hate you

You belong in a sarcophagus with the pharaohs

The people want the regime to fall

What’s the difference between us and them?

We are the people who work. We are the people who are hungry.

They dress like princes while we sleep 10 to a room.

Savona is there when the furious fight between protestors and Mubarak’s goons take place. We see a woman wearing traditional religious garbs, including a headdress, carrying paving stones to the front lines to be used against the thugs. When one of them is captured by the freedom fighters, we see him confessing how he got there. He was in prison the day before he was recruited to break up the protests, receiving 5000 pounds for his services.

Throughout the film we see small groups of Egyptians in the square having intense political discussions about the country’s future. What role will the Muslim Brotherhood play? How will the army function if it takes Mubarak’s place? Nearly everybody agrees that neither the army nor the Islamists can be trusted, but as it turns out that is the choice Egyptians are now given, between a Muslim Brotherhood candidate and Mubarak’s last prime minister, the choice of the military.

The film ends on a triumphant note but one can easily imagine a follow-up to the documentary in which Stefano Savona returns to interview some of the key subjects. Is this what they risked life and limb for? To put up with the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious repression? Or even worse, to endure Mubarakism without Mubarak?

While there are obvious reasons for concern about Egypt’s future, I for one remain optimistic based on the evidence of the people vividly captured in “Tahrir: Liberation Square”. Over and over again, they express their willingness to die for their freedom and for social justice.


When watching this stirring film, I could not help but think of another work by a politically committed film-maker of which a sizable excerpt can now be seen online, namely Peter Watkin’s “La Commune” that I reviewed back in 2006. At that time, I wrote:

Perhaps its greatest achievement is the way it makes this 135 year old struggle relevant to more recent ones, which was clearly the intention of its director Peter Watkins. As I sat watching it at the edge of my seat, practically breaking out in a cold sweat, I could not stop thinking about my visits to Nicaragua in the late 1980s when the country was like somebody hanging on to the edge of a cliff by their fingers. “La Commune” demonstrates that this is both the blessing and the curse of all revolutions. They are simultaneously great strides forward toward freedom and huge risks almost tantamount to Russian roulette.

I can only add that now it is Tahrir Square that I think of when I reflect back on Watkins’s dramatization of the first workers state in history.

February 22, 2012

Assessing the Russian and Egyptian crackdown on imperialist NGO’s

Filed under: Egypt,mechanical anti-imperialism,Russia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

Spy versus spy

Last month Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, was forced to admit in a BBC documentary that a fake rock was used to spy on Russians. The Independent reported:

A former UK government official has admitted Britain was behind a plot to spy on Russians with a device hidden in a fake rock, it emerged today.

Russia made the allegations in January 2006, but they were not publicly accepted by the UK before now.

Jonathan Powell, then prime minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, told a BBC documentary: “The spy rock was embarrassing.

The Russian security service, the FSB, linked the rock with claims that British security services were making covert payments to pro-democracy and human rights groups.

Then president Vladimir Putin later introduced a law restricting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from getting funding from foreign governments, causing many to close down.

Cracking down on NGO’s is old news in Russia. Back in 2005, a law was passed that effectively made it impossible for Amnesty International, Greenpeace or any other group with foreign funding to operate in Russia.

Putin has often played the nationalist card, most recently accusing Golos, an electoral watchdog, of being a tool of the West, as the NY Times reported in December:

Golos’s critics in the Russian government say its work is tainted by the money it receives from two American agencies, the National Endowment for Democracy and the United States Agency for International Development. A promotional video clip for a report scheduled to be broadcast on Friday on the NTV channel, owned by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, features images of suitcases stuffed with $100 bills juxtaposed with footage of Golos’s leaders as a portentous voice asks, “Who is behind these ‘independent observers?’ ” A pro-government blogger has posted what appears to be paperwork showing that Golos received $92,653 from the United States government for the month of February.

Global Research, a website run by Michel Chossudovsky who is arguably the planet’s leading exponent of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” line of reasoning, published an article by Eric Walberg on February 9th titled Vladimir Putin and Russia’s “White Revolution” that described the judo-practicing ex-President as a kind of “lesser evil” to the opposition in the street that has been likened to the white wine-drinking/brie-eating crowd on the north side of Tehran that had the unvarnished nerve to oppose Ahmadinejad:

Putin’s statist sovereign democracy – with transparent elections – might not be such a bad alternative to what passes for democracy in much of the West. His new Eurasian Union could help spread a more responsible political governance across the continent. It may not be what the NED has in mind, but it would be welcomed by all the “stan” citizens, not to mention China’s beleaguered Uighurs. This “EU” is striving not towards disintegration and weakness, but towards integration and mutual security, without any need for US/NATO bases and slick NED propaganda.

I date my distrust for this kind of apologetics to 2002 or so when Jared Israel began to post material to Marxmail that elevated Putin into some kind of “anti-imperialist” hero. I could tolerate his over-the-top worship of Milosevic, even though I was sometimes embarrassed to be on the same side of a debate with him against KLA supporters on the left, but something about the pro-Putin propaganda really turned me off. Israel’s articles should sound very familiar to those who have been exposed to this sort of thing on Counterpunch, Global Research, and MRZine:

…the US establishment, and the Empire of which it is a leading part – perhaps we should call it the New World Empire – is very much interested in protecting its current hegemonic position in the world from possible future challenges coming from Eurasia – namely, from the still-nuclear-armed former Soviet Union.

To “strengthen civil society” these fake-democracy funding agencies set up NGOs, newspapers and TV stations and political parties as a Fifth Column to destabilize local societies along vulnerable lines of conflict. Or they inflame regional conflicts in the guise of “peace” and “mediation” groups. Ultimately these Fifth Column groups stage, or attempt to stage coup d’états, always under the guise of democratic reform, thus putting US operatives in power.

This happened in Yugoslavia and Philippines. It was attempted in Belarus and Venezuela. The basis is being laid for such coup d’états all over the former Soviet Union.

Looking back on this period, I’d have to say my instincts were pretty healthy. Within a year or so, Israel had dropped the “anti-imperialist” pose and begun to write articles defending the Likud and calling 9/11 an inside job. There was always something conspiratorial about his mindset and it was a fairly easy transition from hating the KLA to hating Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular. If there is any consolation, he seems to be retired politically.

The Egyptian army has studied Putin’s methods apparently, but is acting even more boldly—throwing Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in jail for working for an NGO that gets overseas funding without the government’s permission. (The LaHoods are Lebanese Christians.)

In today’s N.Y. Times, Thomas Friedman waxes indignantly over this affront:

Sadly, the transitional government in Egypt today appears determined to shoot itself in both feet.

On Sunday, it will put on trial 43 people, including at least 16 U.S. citizens, for allegedly bringing unregistered funds into Egypt to promote democracy without a license. Egypt has every right to control international organizations operating within its borders. But the truth is that when these democracy groups filed their registration papers years ago under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, they were informed that the papers were in order and that approval was pending. The fact that now — after Mubarak has been deposed by a revolution — these groups are being threatened with jail terms for promoting democracy without a license is a very disturbing sign. It tells you how incomplete the “revolution” in Egypt has been and how vigorously the counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back.

This sordid business makes one weep and wonder how Egypt will ever turn the corner. Egypt is running out of foreign reserves, its currency is falling, inflation is rising and unemployment is rampant. Yet the priority of a few retrograde Mubarak holdovers is to put on trial staffers from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are allied with the two main U.S. political parties, as well as from Freedom House and some European groups. Their crime was trying to teach Egypt’s young democrats how to monitor elections and start parties to engage in the very democratic processes that the Egyptian Army set up after Mubarak’s fall. Thousands of Egyptians had participated in their seminars in recent years.

Now if you were a consistent “anti-imperialist”, you’d have to back the Egyptian military, right? That would seem to be the position of Global Research, which has never been afraid of sounding stupid. In an article by Tony Cartalucci titled The US Engineered “Arab Spring”: The NGO Raids in Egypt, we learn that the “Arab Spring” was nothing but a Western conspiracy—not that different it would seem from 9/11:

In January of 2011, we were told that “spontaneous,” “indigenous” uprising had begun sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, including Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, in what was hailed as the “Arab Spring.” It would be almost four months before the corporate-media would admit that the US had been behind the uprisings and that they were anything but “spontaneous,” or “indigenous.” In an April 2011 article published by the New York Times titled, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” it was stated:

A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington.

The article would also add, regarding the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED):

The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.

It is hardly a speculative theory then, that the uprisings were part of an immense geopolitical campaign conceived in the West and carried out through its proxies with the assistance of disingenuous organizations including NED, NDI, IRI, and Freedom House and the stable of NGOs they maintain throughout the world. Preparations for the “Arab Spring” began not as unrest had already begun, but years before the first “fist” was raised, and within seminar rooms in D.C. and New York, US-funded training facilities in Serbia, and camps held in neighboring countries, not within the Arab World itself.

Cartalucci informs his readers that other nations are under siege from the West in this fashion, including Thailand, Russia, Myanmar and Malaysia—a virtual rogue’s gallery. Now, to give credit where credit is due, this at least has the merit of consistency: in order to take a position on a conflict between a state and its opponents, all you have to do is determine whom the West supports and then take the opposite position. In the case of Myanmar, Cartalucci is not afraid to stake out a truly absurd position: “’Democracy icon’” Aung San Suu Kyi’s entire political apparatus is US and British funded.” You see, it does not really matter how many peasants and workers have been murdered fighting for a better society. As long as there is US and British funding, that’s all you need to know.

This, I should add, is not the most outrageous position staked out by Global Research. Applying the same logic, Michel Chossudovsky has rendered the verdict that Occupy Wall Street was the American “color revolution”, implying of course that the cops had every right to pepper-spray demonstrators.

If you really want to understand how such people think, there are two important things to keep in mind. Firstly, this is the Stalinism of our age. While the CPUSA and other such groups would never dream of arguing along these lines, something that would isolate them in the “progressive” circles they travel in, this is exactly how Stalinism made the case against Trotsky and the old Bolsheviks in the 1930s. You had the imperialists on one side and “actually existing socialism” on the other. Anybody who failed to “defend” the USSR, which really meant defending every one of Stalin’s twists and turns, was an enemy of the Soviet Union. While few people outside the Stalinist milieu ever accused Trotsky of being on the imperialist payroll, this was the line of attack in the Moscow Trials.

It is easy to understand why some people are enamored with the “follow the money” way of thinking. It saves you from the trouble of dealing with contradiction. Instead of seeing the complex reality of young Egyptians turning to the NED for funding or to Gene Sharp for training, they simply lump them with Georgians, Serbs or any other “color revolution”. Essentially, this is a form of formal logic that most people absorb growing up in bourgeois society. It takes the form of “if a = b, then c”. But what if a is both b and not b? Arrghh. Don’t bother me with complexities…

The other thing to understand is that the conspiratorial mindset is very deeply engrained in some sectors on the left. Do you remember the old Mad Magazine spy versus spy comic? I suppose most of you are too young to remember, but it depicted a world in which spying counted for everything. It was very much tuned in to the zeitgeist that included James Bond novels and Cold War media reports about Soviet spies under every bed.

In such a world, the needs of—for example—Hungarian workers did not count. 1956 was about nothing except Western spooks trying to subvert a “socialist” country. If the reality of working class exploitation under Stalinist bureaucracy got in the way, the best remedy was to sweep it under the rug.

Unfortunately, the only thing that got swept under the rug after more than a half-century of lies, violence and corruption was the socialist experiment itself. Surely we can do better in the 21st century.

December 29, 2011

The anti-imperialist Egyptian army?

Filed under: Egypt,mechanical anti-imperialism — louisproyect @ 9:41 pm

Michel Chossudovsky on the protest movement in Egypt:

The slogans in Egypt are “Down with Mubarak, Down with the Regime”. No anti-American posters have been reported… The overriding and destructive influence of the USA in Egypt and throughout the Middle East remains unheralded.

The foreign powers which operate behind the scenes are shielded from the protest movement.

No significant political change will occur unless the issue of foreign interference is meaningfully addressed by the protest movement.

The cooptation of the leaders of major opposition parties and civil society organizations in anticipation of the collapse of an authoritarian puppet government is part of Washington’s design, applied in different regions of the World.

The process of cooptation is implemented and financed by US based foundations including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and  Freedom House (FH). Both FH and the NED have links to the US Congress. the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and the US business establishment. Both the NED and FH are known to have ties to the CIA.

* * * *

New York Times December 29, 2011

Egypt’s Forces Raid Offices of Nonprofits, 3 Backed by U.S.


CAIRO — Egyptian security forces stormed 17 offices of nonprofit groups around the country on Thursday, including at least three democracy-promotion groups financed by the United States, as part of an investigation that the military rulers say will reveal foreign hands in the recent outbreak of protests.

In Cairo, heavily armed men wearing the black uniforms of the central security police tore through boxes, hauled away files and computers and prevented employees from leaving offices of two of the American groups, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are affiliated with American political parties and financed by the United States government. The security forces also raided the offices of the Washington-based Freedom House.

The raids were a stark escalation in what has appeared to be a campaign by the country’s military rulers to rally support by playing to nationalist and anti-American sentiment here.

“General prosecutor & central security stormed N.D.I. office in Cairo & Assiut,” an employee of the National Democratic Institute wrote in a text message from inside its offices. “We are confined here as they’re searching and clearing out office.”

A man, who identified himself as an official with the public prosecutor’s office but declined to give his name, stood outside the offices of the International Republican Institute in the Dokki neighborhood. He refused to answer questions about the raids but said, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to arrest them.”

The raids come of the heels of an investigation by the Egyptian government into foreign financing for nonprofit organizations operating in the country. The military has suggested that such funding has played a role in fomenting protests with goal of bringing down the Egyptian government.

The raids also coincided with the acquittal of five police officers in the deaths of protesters during the revolution that ousted the country’s autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak. An Egyptian court found that the police officers had either not been at the scene or, in the case of two of the men, had fired in self-defense, state media reported, a ruling likely to further inflame opponents of the country’s military rulers.

Human rights advocates have urged the Egyptian government to drop its investigation into foreign funding of civil society, which prosecutors have described as treason. A September report by state security prosecutors identified what it said were more than two dozen unregistered groups receiving foreign funding and operating in Egypt. By the country’s law on associations, the violation is punishable with imprisonment.

The Republican and Democratic institutes have worked openly since 2005 and had been assisting with election monitoring during the country’s parliamentary vote.

In separate statements on Thursday, the two groups said they were troubled by the sudden raids on their offices. “Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt’s historic transition sends a disturbing signal,” the N.D.I. president Kenneth Wollack was quoted as saying.

The statement from the International Republican Institute was even more direct. “It is ironic that even during the Mubarak era I.R.I. was not subjected to such aggressive action,” the group said.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo and J. David Goodman from New York.

September 1, 2011

Frederick Seidel poem on Egypt

Filed under: Egypt,literature — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

I am a big fan of Seidel (https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/10/22/frederick-seidel/), who wrote a terrific article about his life-long addiction to fast motorcycles, but am not sure what this poem means although I enjoyed reading it. It is behind a paywall from the latest London Review.

Egypt Angel
Frederick Seidel

I’m not on your side, whichever side you’re on.
My enthusiasm for Nasser is long gone.
Hail, Hosni Mubarak, and farewell!
There’s the old dictator dolt
On TV, a contraption of dyed hair and hair gel.
Angels in revolt
Fill Tahrir Square. The angel Gabriel blows his horn
To announce to the reborn, You’ve been born!
And Koranically commands, Recite!
Here are the things that are right!
Day after day of secular celebration turns into night.
Not too many people are killed.
People are thrilled.

I’m your fat King Farouk,
Quacking poetry till I puke.
I’m president and premier and sultan and emir –
Prime minister and Sadat –
And oh my God he’s been shot!
I do nothing but think about you, dear.
I think about you a lot.
I revere
The crypto-philo-Semite, Anwar Sadat,
And what he did, and in consequence the death he got.
The third president of Egypt agreed to put up with Israel.
He slithered through the Arabs like an eel.
It did not go down well.

The West oinked for oil and said please.
The Western nations hung out backstage like groupies.
They barked to be fed, like a seal.
They stole anything they could steal.
Anwar Sadat screwed the light bulb of love into the socket
Out loud in the dark in the middle of the night.
Floaters swim by in my eye in the light.
Darling, don’t doubt me, don’t knock it.
I fold a linen handkerchief to make three points
To fountain whitely towards you from my breast pocket.
Point 1. My cornea detaches.
Point 2. I have galloping myopia.
Point 3. My cataracts won’t let me look at you.

It’s lenticular astigmatism.
It’s macular degeneration.
A rainbow coalition of coition ejaculates
A colourblind wine jelly of jism
And every radical ism.
White Europeans conceived these wretched Arab states,
Now fictively becoming democrats.
The breeze blows the blue of the sea
Inland from Tripoli.
Meet me in Tahrir Square.
Righty-o, I’ll meet you there.
Your Nile-green eyes gaze up at me from the pillow.
Baby, you’re my crocodile Nile. You’re my Cairo.

Tahrir Square is twirling like a dervish, spinning like a top.
In Tahrir Square tear gas canisters pop.
My crocodile angel joins the demonstrators outside her shop.
The tornado funnels into focus from a censored blur.
The military clears a path for her.
Democracy is in the vicinity
Of Nefertiti.
We’ll meet in Tahrir Square.
Every angel has gathered there,
Including my own angel, wings of Isis flapping.
Bandages are unwrapping
The royal mummy, who’s been napping, but opens her charms.
My Egypt angel wraps me in her arms.

March 6, 2011

Storming Egypt State Security offices

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 3:05 pm
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