Sunday, January 30, 2011

History

"WITNESS: An Egyptian man [using] his cellphone video camera."
(Photo: Scott Nelson for the New York Times, January 30th)

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted
The revolution will not be brought to you
by the Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star
Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia...
The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner,
because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.
Gil-Scott Heron, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised";
From The Album Small Talk At 125th And Lenox, 1970

The liberation forces make movies of their own
Playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned
Drowning out a broadcast that wasn't authorized;
Incidentally, the revolution will be televised
With one head for business and another for good looks;
Until they start arriving with their rubber aprons
and their butcher's hooks
Evlis Costello, "Invasion Hit Parade";
From The Album Wild Like A Rose, 1990

Scott Shane published an article in the New York Times' online 'Week In Review' section yesterday, led with the photo above. It carries a wealth of imagery. I strongly recommend looking at it.

The primary juxtaposition is this man -- wearing a long tunic and skullcap-and-scarf headdress typical in Middle Eastern cultures; an average, Egyptian Arabic man -- using a 21st Century cellphone.

How we see that man speaks to the ethnocentric assumptions of a large number of Westerners, about Those Third World Types: That in their non-Caucasian, non-Christian or Judaic beliefs; their non-Westerness, they should be incapable of understanding the concept of cellular technology and digital imagery -- let alone being sophisticated enough to use that technology. And, that they would have enough money to buy a smart phone or laptop to access the Internet.

We vaguely assume that life in other places is poorer, harder and more rigidly controlled than in America, but as a global Empire what our government's part in that might be is something few people consider and fewer discuss in any meaningful way. The history of how we've dealt with the Arab world, and with other world power centers (like the EU; OPEC; Iran; Russia, China; South America) is not something Americans consider -- until something like events in Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt occur.

We can't see what the man is recording on video or capturing in a still image (possibly Scott Nelson, the Western photographer who took this picture), but it's clear he's at the center of one part of a larger drama that involves a repressive government most Americans barely think about, in a part of the world most in the West perceive as hostile, even monolithic in its religious attitudes and culture -- when we think about them at all.

Hosni, Hosed: 'UnFriended' 60 Million Times!

Late last week, Egypt's 30-year President, Hosni Mubarak, ordered Egypt's connections to the Internet cut, and cellular phone service restricted. Shane's NYT article noted that "in the face of huge street protests... Mubarak betrayed his own fear — that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his opponents, expose his weakness to the world and topple his regime."

Put bluntly, the West uses social networking tools as part of the white noise in the backgrounds of our lives. People keep each other up to date on Twitter, or Facebook, but mostly about effervescent, trivial moment-by-moment events (Jane Smith Is Now At The Market!), like chatter at a massive party with an old Doors album ("People Come Out Of The Rain / When You're Strange...").

Social networking is touted as a way to "keep in touch", but it's also a continuation of the illusory 'connectedness' of a consumer culture -- an adjunct to online shopping and 600-channel cable on demand! It's about satisfying a desire to be titillated with sensations and having all our wishes fulfilled, right now. That every day will be filled with stimulation, possessing, and answered prayers.

However, in North Africa and the "undeveloped" world, people are living very different lives and have very different assumptions about tomorrow. Our 9.6% unemployment level, for an industrialized society, is bad -- but in places like Tunisia, it's nearly three-and-a-half times higher. The most grinding poverty, where people go hungry at least one day a week, is normal.

Meanwhile, repressive, oligarchical governments, where power passes from father to child (as in the case of Mubarak, who at 82 was preparing Egypt for rule by his son), and a thin percentage of the nation's elite live like gods, relative to the majority of ordinary Arabs. Often, those repressive governments continue in the face of even militant opposition because they are supported by the United States; the 'War On Terror' was a good time for rulers in the Arab world who would cooperate with "Lil' Boots" Bush.

Many in the fragile middle- and lower-middle class do have cell phones, and connections to the Internet, in these countries. In large cities, Internet Cafes are heavily used -- but there, social networking is more than 'keeping in touch'. Shane's NYT article noted that the same Internet tools we use to talk about nothing in particular helped to accelerate Tunisia’s revolution, "driving the country’s ruler of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, into ignominious exile and igniting a conflagration that has spread across the Arab world at breathtaking speed."

How breathtaking was shown in one example of a dissident Tunisian blogger, Slim Amamou, with "thousands of followers on Twitter", suddenly "catapulted in a matter of days from the interrogation chambers of Mr. Ben Ali’s regime" into Tunisia's new government as Minister for youth and sports. However, a few days later, Amamou was out of the government; from prisoner to Minister, to free-man, private citizen-blogger in the space of about seventy-two hours. Things move fast in a revolution, but Amamou's story unfolded at the speed of electrons.

Big Brother Wants To Join Your Facebook

But the use of Internet and cellphone tools has two edges (as I mentioned in a post below): Ahed al-Hindi, a Syrian activist and blogger, arrested at an Internet cafe in Damascus in 2006 and leaving for self-exile in the West after his release, says that Facebook “is a great database for the [Syrian] government now.” Hindi is now part of a U.S.-based group, CyberDissidents.org, and added that while social networking tools do "more good than harm", assisting activists to develop organizations, they're also communicating details about themselves and their activities directly to their countries' State Security apparatus.

According to the UK Guardian, an anonymous 26-page leaflet appeared in Cairo last week with practical advice for demonstrators -- instructing activists to pass it on by e-mail, or in hardcopy — but not to use Facebook and Twitter, as they were monitored by the Mubarak government.

At about that same time, Mubarak made the decision to cut his nation's connections to the World Wide Web. As Shane noted, "It was a desperate move from an autocrat who had not learned to harness the tools his opponents have embraced".

More Than Ever: A Tinder Box

This is only one Dog's opinion, but it's doubtful Mubarak will remain in power. The Egyptian military, which has gone out to secure the streets, has also shown it will not use force against demonstrators as the national police have: The army wants to preserve its image as a professional cadre protecting the country, and above politics.

It's possible that Mubarak's dismissal of his entire government, and appointment yesterday of a new Vice President, his promises of some kinda future changes, maybe will defuse the situation. But my intuition says that in a week or less, Egypt will have a government which will include nothing left of the national political party, a Mubarak family franchise, which has dominated Egypt with American and EU assistance since the assassination of Anwar Sadat over thirty years ago.

Tunisia is still in turmoil, where another repressive, U.S.-supported autocrat has been forced out in a popular uprising. Yemen, home turf of Osama bin Laden and home to many in Al-Qaeda is in similar chaos. Lebanon appears poised to be taken over by a government owned by Hezbollah (and so, then, will be owned by Iran); there are even protests in Jordan, whose western-educated king runs the most lenient of the Middle East's arabic/autocratic regimes.

The entire Middle East is a tinder-box of ancient, and more recent, conflicts and posturing and testosterone-fueled hatreds. In Tunisia and Egypt, the digital aspect of the changes being wrought there are 'Proof Of Concept' events -- lines which, to the rest of the Arabic world, have been shown it's possible they can be crossed and current regimes can be removed.

The region is a patchwork of tribal and clan relationships that have been woven for over a millenium (to add even more complexity, whether those clans adhere to the Sunni or Shiite interpretation of the Islamic religion plays a huge role). Iran is a separate case; they're Persians, and though Islamic do not consider themselves arabs. Neither do Pakistanis, or Afghanis. While the West has gone global, diffuse, and digital, much of the rest of the world is still tied to specific geography, where generations of their ancestors have lived and died .

The Middle East had been occupied by the Ottoman Turks for centuries. Some of the ruling clans of the Middle East -- of the Arabic Emirates; Jordan; Kuwait; and in particular the House of Saud -- forged alliances with British and French colonial occupiers during World War One, which allowed them to dominate the tribal relations of the region.

After World War Two, those same tribal rulers rode the wave of anti-colonialism into more permanent power, for themselves. And as oil became more important, they created an image of an Arabic world that had a hold on the West. Together with tight autocratic rule and repressive law or security forces, the rulers of the Middle East have been secure for fifty years -- and supported by the West, which needs its oil.

The Laptop And The Sword

The three things which have kept this from being a lasting marriage of convenience are (1) The establishment of the State of Israel; (2) The slow, corrosive effects of poverty and repression in many Arabic countries; and, (3) The rise of militant Islamists, funded primarily by wealthy Saudi Arabs as a hedge against the possibility that they might win their war to 'unite Islam' against the corrupt rulers of the Arabic world.

(Just as a note -- Saddam Hussein was a hero to many Iraqis, and others in the Middle East because, even as a repressive dictator, he challenged the existing power structure of the Arab world. It was his public reasoning behind the 1990 invasion of Kuwait -- except he bet that the West would not back the Saudi and Kuwaiti 'royal' leaders militarily.)

(Hussein bet wrong -- and it ended in 2003, with an American leader whose family had close ties to the House of Saud being convinced to invade Iraq and be "greeted as liberators", eliminating a Saudi enemy and projecting American power into the heart of the Middle East. That American leader bet wrong, too. )

[A fourth effect on events in the Middle East could be Peak Oil -- that the heights of world oil production has been reached and are now in slow decline -- but we won't know that conclusively for perhaps another decade.]

The reason events in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan are important is that they ask the musical question, Will the same events play out against the megawealthy, corrupt regimes of the Arabian peninsula, and Saudi Arabia in particular?

Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and other Islamist terrorists are intent on achieving a dream bin Laden has often referred to: The reestablishment of an Islamic Empire, that reflects the Arabic world of about 500AD - 850AD. It's a dream of sweeping away tribal leaders and clans, who've sold their souls to an infidel West in order to take and maintain power.

The corrupt Saudis and Emirates would be replaced by leaders who were inspired by faith; all in Islam would live under Sharia law, as part of the Umma, a single community with one purpose: To bring the entire world to know that there is one faith and one Prophet, and to convert all humanity (by force and fear as required) to that one, true faith. And, they say all this is the will of god... Someone's god, anyway.

At the same time, there are more secular Arabs, who want a Western quality of life, Western political freedoms, and participation in a wider world which allows and protects diversities -- of religion, of lifestyle, and artistic expression -- while maintaining their cultural identities as (for example) Egyptian or Tunisian Arabs.

The Arabic world is changing. Which vision (an outward-looking more secular, or an inward-turning more religious) ultimately has most influence will be as important to America and Europe as the Rise of China or the retrenchment of Russia. And all players in the global Great Game have shown their intentions to use the tools of the digital age to their advantage.