Sunday, January 30, 2011

Will Mubarak’s Regime Survive?

Old order changeth yielding place to the new. Are there changes in the horizon across the Arab world? Two weeks ago, Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine ben Ali fled the country following weeks of street protests.

For the last few days, demonstrators in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, have held signs that declared “Pharaoh no more,” an obvious reference to their distaste of President Hosni Mubarak who have been ruling the country with an iron hand for the past three decades since his predecessor was gunned down by a member of his own army during a military parade. Inspired by events in Tunisia, they have filled the streets in Cairo and Alexandria demanding that Mubarak should step down.

In Yemen, about 100 marchers descended on the Egyptian Embassy to show solidarity with the swelling protests. In Iran students demonstrated in front of the Egyptian interest section office in Tehran to show their support for the protesters in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries. In New York City and Washington D.C., hundreds gathered in a peaceful demonstration over the weekend in front of the United Nations Building and the Egyptian Embassy, respectively, showing their solidarity with the protesters in Egypt. They demanded that the Obama Administration stands with the people and not with the dictator.

In the post-Sadat days, American presidents – Democrats and Republicans alike – have been some of the staunchest allies of the unpopular Mubarak regime. This support, in spite of the fact that his was one of the most autocratic, undemocratic and corrupt regimes with some of the worst records of human rights abuses. Sham presidential elections were routinely held that guaranteed re-election of Mubarak with approximately 99% support. The opposition party members had little or no rights, both inside and outside the parliament. Even the Khatibs (that led Friday prayer services) that criticized the regime for any of its plethora of failures were not safe from Mubarak’s prisons. Many would be picked up by the police days before Jumu’a and returned later, if at all. Others would rot and/or die under mysterious circumstances within the prison cells. Mubarak’s internal security forces had mastered the art of torture -- from electric shocks to sodomy and rape. Nothing was off-limits to these two-legged monsters, responsible for upholding the Mubarak regime at any cost. It was Mubarak’s prisons that produced the Arab rebels like Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, now a close ally of Osama Bin Laden. One may argue that had it not been for these Egyptian torture cells, there probably would never have been a 9/11.
Hours after the countrywide protests had begun the Egyptian interior ministry issued a statement blaming the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's technically banned but largest opposition party, for fomenting the unrest. But the Brotherhood denied the accusation. Truly, these protests, if we can still call these as such, are spontaneous reactions to decades of Mubarak’s tyranny and utter failure to improve the people’s lot. These outbursts of public anger have very little to do with any particular opposition party. Millions of Egyptians are unemployed today. Many are forced to do multiple jobs to support their family members. Every ordinary Egyptian -- from a sweeper in the cities to the shopkeepers in the bazaars of the major cities, from cab drivers in cities like Cairo - many with Ph.D. degrees - to college and university professors, from a farmer in the Nile Delta to a firefighter in Alexandria -- is tired of poverty, unemployment, government corruption and authoritarian rule.
The Egyptian people want Mubarak out. They are tired of a dictatorship draped in the cloth of democracy. Afraid of losing control, the government imposed curfew, which however has been defied by the protesters. According to state-run TV, at least 100 people have died in the unrest, including 10 members of security forces. For most part the police have backed off from confrontations in most areas of the capital, thus allowing tens of thousands of demonstrators free rein through the Cairo city center. Sporadic lootings of shops have also taken place in certain parts of the major cities. However, the protests across Egypt have not turned ugly yet, and continue to be quite peaceful. [It should be noted that the despised regime may be behind such lawlessness to prevail, thus, justifying a military crackdown where Mubarak or his chosen successor stays in power without a real change taking root in political landscape of Egypt.]
Like most despotic rulers, President Hosni Mubarak refuses to see the obvious and step down. In a televised address last week, the embattled leader tried to deflect blame for the nation's rising anger by announcing that he would form a new government. On the fifth day of growing unrest by demonstrators he named a vice president for the first time in his 30-year reign, a sign that he would continue to resist the popular uprising's call for his resignation. He swore in Omar Suleiman, 76, chief of Egyptian intelligence, as his vice-president. It is obvious that the latter, a shadowy figure with close ties with the popular Egyptian military, has the blessings of the U.S. and Israel. These countries would approve an orderly transition that would maintain Egypt's international commitments.
But such announcements of government shakeup, including naming of a new prime minister, have not been able to sway the Egyptian public. In Cairo and Alexandria, tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets to demand that Mubarak leave power immediately. Angry crowds were chanting, "Down, down with Mubarak!" and "Mr. Mubarak, wake up -- today is your final day in power!"
Tanks were also in position at Tahrir Square in Cairo, raising questions about how the military would respond. The army's lower-ranking officers and soldiers come from the nation's heartland and feel a bond with the people, but higher up the chain of command the officers' loyalty is to the president. However, the military in general has grown disillusioned with the government policies and wisely, thus far, has avoided any confrontation with the protesters.
Egypt has been a key to American influence in the Middle East for more than 30 years. It has been a partner with the United States in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. It has fought alongside the U.S. administration against Iraq during the Gulf War I. It has been a trusted ally in George W. Bush’s so-called global war on terror. It continues to work with the Obama administration to curb Iranian influence in the Arab world.

Since the days of late president Anwar Sadat, billions of dollars of U.S. aid have been poured into Egypt. Ignored there is the fact that most of the aid ($1.3 billion annually) was meant for military use. The U.S. economic aid in 2009 was cut to $200 million. That is, the per capita share was a meager $2.60 in a country with a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of $5,400 in 2008. Nonetheless such paltry aids, which did very little to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians, were often exploited by the powerful in either side to show and demand Egyptian indebtedness to the U.S. government. Unmentioned there is also the fact that aid given to Egypt provides the United States with political, strategic, and sometimes economic benefits that far exceed the value of what Egypt has received. According to the IMF Trade Statistics Trends Yearbook, during the 1983–2007 period, Egypt’s total accumulated trade deficit with the United States was $45.1 billion. This sum is far greater than the total size of American economic aid to Egypt to date.

The Obama administration is worried about the continuing unrest in Egypt. It is facing a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" choice. They prefer a peaceful change of old guards without any ripple effect. The fall of Mubarak government could intensify pressures on some neighbors, potentially setting off a tsunami that topples other despotic governments and reshapes the political and security balance throughout the region. The rise of a less friendly government could set off alarms in Israel, and calls for the U.S. to step up its defense of its closest ally -- Israel.

In his Cairo speech in 2009, President Obama said the United States supported the aspirations for greater freedom of Arabs. Yet his administration has continued in many ways the old policies of past U.S. governments. It continues to support the region's authoritarian regimes. It is against popular movements in Lebanon and Gaza. Many Arab activists say they preferred the more sharp-edged message of President G.W. Bush, who pushed a "freedom agenda" than President Obama’s forked-tongue message of freedom.

So far, the official response from the Obama administration has been a measured one recommending that the Mubarak regime needs to change its course and listen to people’s grievances. It would do better by demanding that President Mubarak steps down, and lets the Egyptian people have the freedom to elect their legitimate leaders in a free election. Nothing short of it will allow the Obama administration to be taken seriously by the Arab population, especially its young generation that has been craving for change. Any effort by the Obama administration which undermines people’s aspirations for freedom would be counterproductive. On their part, the Egyptian people ought to be extra careful that their revolution is not hijacked by some opportunists within the armed forces, or by stage-managed actors whose loyalty is more for their foreign masters than to their own people.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hu’s Visit to the USA – It’s Economics, Stupid!

China's human rights record is bad with abuses ranging from censorship to illegal detention of dissidents to executions without due process. Its treatment of ethnic minorities, especially the Uyghur Muslims, is simply horrendous and has no parallel inside China. In July 2009, China’s oil-rich and ethnically sensitive far-western province of Xinjiang experienced violence between the indigenous Uyghurs and the settler Han Chinese in the provincial capital, Urumqi. This resulted in the death of more than 100 people and injury of some 800 individuals, mostly Uyghurs in both counts. The disturbances occurred after a year of rising tensions between the dominant Han Chinese authorities and the Uyghur ethnic minority - the historical ethnic majority in Xinjiang - that have been socially, politically and economically marginalized by Beijing's policies that introduce Chinesization of the region. China’s heavy handed policy of repression inside Tibet has also drawn much condemnation from outside.

But none of these matters of grave concern has put a dent in bilateral economic relationship that China enjoys with the western world, especially the USA. Much to the credit of the late President Nixon’s ground-breaking Ping Pong Diplomacy, the relationship has only become stronger with time. China remains one of the largest trading partners of the USA. There is hardly a major U.S. corporation that does not have a business outlet today in places like Shanghai and Beijing. While millions of jobs have been lost inside the American soil because of outsourcing of those job functions to China, the official U.S. records show that its exports to China are growing nearly twice as fast as its exports to the rest of the world.

According to the Obama administration, the U.S.A. is exporting more than $100 billion a year in goods and services to China, which supports more than half a million American jobs. According to the Chinese official record, some 3 million people travel between the USA and China every year. In other words, on every single day, approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people travel between the two countries. Nevertheless, the widening trade gap between the two countries and the loss of jobs inside the U.S. soil has not softened the attitude of many American politicians towards China.

Last week, President Hu Jintao of China visited the USA and held a joint press conference with President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House. In a packed news conference President Obama was asked how the United States could keep good relations with a country with such a horrible record on human rights, and whether he had any confidence that as a result of this visit that would change.
In his reply Mr. Obama said the two leaders had talked about the issue a number of times and that he had made it clear to President Hu that Americans have some core views “about the universality of certain rights -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly -- that we think are very important and that transcend cultures. I have been very candid with President Hu about these issues. Occasionally, they are a source of tension between our two governments.”

When President Hu was pressed to defend his country's treatment of its people he initially did not answer, saying he never heard the question translated. When prodded a second time, Mr. Hu defended his country's promotion of human rights. He said, “China is always committed to the protection and promotion of human rights. And in the course of human rights, China has also made enormous progress, recognized widely in the world. China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights. And at the same time, we do believe that we also need to take into account the different and national circumstances when it comes to the universal value of human rights. China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights.” He continued, “We will continue our efforts to improve the lives of the Chinese people, and we will continue our efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law in our country. At the same time, we are also willing to continue to have exchanges and dialogue with other countries in terms of human rights, and we are also willing to learn from each other in terms of the good practices. As President Obama rightly put it just now, though there are disagreements between China and the United States on the issue of human rights, China is willing to engage in dialogue and exchanges with the United States on the basis of mutual respect and the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. In this way, we’ll be able to further increase our mutual understanding, reduce our disagreements, and expand our common ground.”

And as expected, with such a diplomatic response from Mr. Hu, the matter of grievous human rights violations inside China was shelved. No questions were asked about Liu Xiaobo - the Nobel Peace Prize winner (2010), who is in the second year of an 11-year prison sentence for ‘subversion’. (Beijing has denounced the award as "a desecration" and maintained that the honor should have gone to someone focused on promoting international friendship and disarmament.)

Interestingly, Mr. Hu’s visit to the U.S.A. this year coincided with President Obama’s end of the second year in office. All those presidential promises made two years ago about closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison, which continues to hold hundreds of Muslim prisoners (mostly innocent victims who still remain uncharged of any crime after ten years) under gross inhuman conditions, are now conveniently forgotten. Mr. Obama’s promises about making our world less war-prone and more peaceful are also seemingly lost from his agenda. His administration has not only failed to stop Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s settlement policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories but has actually rewarded Israel more handsomely than ever before in spite of its repeated violations of international laws.

More disturbingly, the Obama administration has engaged in covert war against Iran. The fingerprint of the CIA-Mossad collaboration in the targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists Majid Shahriari and Ferrydoun Abbasi Davani on the morning rush-hours of November 29, 2010 is all too visible for everyone to see. Reportedly there has also been a computer virus attack (Stuxnet) to cripple Iran’s nuclear program. As noted by the Newsweek, rarely has a covert war been so obvious.

Will the next two years be any better? Probably not, when it comes to international affairs! America’s foreign policy is increasingly showing the obvious signs of being manipulated by the military industrial complex, forewarned half a century ago by the outgoing president Eisenhower. As alleged last week in a speech by the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh at the Doha campus of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar that key branches of the U.S. military are being led by Christian fundamentalist ‘crusaders’ who are determined to ‘turn mosques into cathedrals.’ This crusading attitude "pervades" a large portion of the Joint Special Operations Command, which is part of the military's Special Forces branch.

On the domestic front, employment or job security and healthcare will continue to dominate the public agenda. Here, the future may look brighter. Although the American economy is still weak, less people are now unemployed compared to the last two years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Mr. Obama’s favorable rating has also become better. In a Rasmussen poll taken last Saturday, overall, 50% of voters say they at least somewhat approve of the president Obama's performance; forty-eight percent (48%) disapprove. This is the first time in a month that the president’s overall rating has reached 50%. The Gallup daily poll also confirms the latest trend in approval rating for the president.

So, during the joint press conference with Mr. Hu, Mr. Obama could grin while mentioning that China has completed dozens of deals that would increase U.S. exports by more than $45 billion and also increase China’s investment in the United States by several billion dollars. Mr. Obama said, “From machinery to software, from aviation to agriculture, these deals will support some 235,000 American jobs. And that includes many manufacturing jobs. So this is great news for America’s workers.”

These trade deals speak voluminously about the world we live in, as hypocritically scripted by our world leaders. Long gone are the days of ideology and human rights! It is economics, stupid! And not human rights that matters!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Climate of Hate – Arizona Shooting

United States is a nation prone to political violence. Nine presidents have been the targets of assassination, along with one president-elect and three presidential candidates. In addition, some eight governors, seven U.S. Senators, 10 Representatives, 11 mayors and 17 state legislators have been violently attacked. No other Western country with a population over 50 million has as high a number.

As to the reasons behind such attacks, Columbia University History Professor Steven Mintz says, “Political assassinations have tended to occur during periods of civil strife and intense partisanship. The first presidential assassination attempt — against Andrew Jackson in 1835 — coincided with a sharp upsurge in anti-abolitionist and ethnic violence… Between 1865 and 1877, 34 political officials were attacked, 24 of them fatally. These included a U.S. senator, two Congressional representatives, three governors, 10 state legislators, eight judges and 10 other officeholders. The 20th century saw three peak periods of political violence: at the turn of the century, the 1920s and 1930s, and 1963 to 1981. Each coincided with periods of civil unrest and bitter partisanship.”
When John F. Kennedy went to Dallas on November 22, 1963, conservative protesters were everywhere. One activist handed out 5,000 handbills about Kennedy modeled after police ‘most wanted’ circulars. “This man is wanted for treason,” the handbills read, for “turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the communist controlled United Nations” and for having been “WRONG on innumerable issues affecting the security of the U.S.”

We see similar accusations against the sitting President these days. As noted by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman of the Princeton University in a recent article in the New York Times, something very ugly has been taking shape on the political scene since at least the time of 2008 presidential election campaign. As Senator John McCain’s chances faded, the crowds at his rallies were, by all accounts, increasingly gripped by insane rage. It was not just a mob phenomenon — it was visible in the right-wing media, and in the speeches of McCain and his running mate – Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

With an Afro-American President in the White House -- the first ever, who happens to have a Muslim-sounding name -- courtesy of his Kenyan roots, there is undeniably a climate of hate today. The diatribes are increasingly nastier and dangerous. The Department of Homeland Security reached the same conclusion: in April 2009 an internal report warned that right-wing extremism was on the rise, with a growing potential for violence. Last spring Politico.com reported on a surge in threats against members of Congress, which were already up by a whopping 300 percent. We are told that a number of the people making those threats had a history of mental illness. But there is no doubt that something about the current state of America has been causing far more ‘psychos’ than ever before to act out their ‘illness’ by engaging in political violence.

In a healthy liberal democracy there is no room for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary. But that is what has been happening in the USA, thanks to the Republican politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, and talk show hosts like Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly. As bluntly noted by a neocon -- David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, when asked by the ABC TV’s Ted Moran in March 22 of 2010 if the conservative talk show hosts had hijacked the Republican party, “Republicans originally thought that Fox (owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch) worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.”

It was not too long ago that Rush Limbaugh said, “I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus--li¬ving fossils--s¬o we we’ll never forget what these people stood for.” Ann Coulter, another bigot and provocateur, said, “My only regret with Tim McVeigh (responsible for the Oklahoma Federal building blast and terrorism) is that he did not go to the New York Times building.” Glen Beck said, “Hang on, let me just tell you what I’m thinking. I’m thinking about killing Michael Moore (an award-winning political commentator and documentary movie producer), and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could.”
It was only a few months ago that Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-endorsed candidate who failed to unseat Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) in last year’s midterm election, had said, “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking towards those Second Amendment remedies.” The statement makes reference to the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms as a defense against an intrusive or oppressive government. And then there is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) who in 2009 said, “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax, because we need to fight back.” She also said, “Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing. And the people - we the people - are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country.”
With the passage of health care reform last year, there has been increasingly violent language coming from opponents of the legislation, along with vandalism directed at Democratic members of Congress. Sarah Palin did her part to raise the rhetorical intensity, telling her Twitter followers in March of the last year, “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: ‘Don’t Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!’”

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who was shot last week during a public event in Tucson on January 8, was among 20 other members of Congress who were on a so-called hit list published by Sarah Palin. Jesse Kelly, Giffords’s Republican opponent in the 2010 mid-term elections, similarly employed guns in a campaign event. He staged an event in July asking supporters to ‘get on target’ and ‘remove Gabrielle Giffords from office’ -- all while shooting ‘a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.’

Consider also the fact that one out of every five Americans is likely to have psychiatric problems. A small fraction of this population (some 40,000) is extremely vulnerable to what it sees and hears and is capable of committing terrorism.

So this latest massacre in Tucson in which 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl, were murdered and Representative Giffords severely wounded should not come as a surprise, especially in the state of Arizona where gun laws stand out as among the most permissive in the country. Last year, Arizona became only the third state that does not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The state also enacted another measure that allowed workers to take their guns to work, even if their workplaces banned firearms, as long as they kept them in their locked vehicles. In 2009, a law went into effect allowing people with concealed-weapons permits to take their guns into restaurants and bars. In the last two weeks, two bills were introduced relating to the right to carry guns on college campuses, one allowing professors to carry concealed weapons and one allowing anybody who can legally carry a gun to do so.

Mainstream news organizations linked the attack to Sarah Palin and the offensive target map issued by her political action committee that included crosshairs over Rep. Giffords’s district (among others). The Huffington Post erupted, with former Senator Gary Hart emphatically stating that the killings were the result of angry political rhetoric. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC demanded a Palin-repudiation and Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Daily Kos, wrote on Twitter: “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” Others argued that the killing was encouraged by a political climate of hate.
These accusations — that political actors in a liberal democracy contributed to the murder of 6 people — are extremely serious. The Republicans obviously don’t like such charges laid on their dirty hands. In a statement read out on Wednesday, Palin called herself the victim of ‘blood libel’ (by journalists and pundits) — the original term for blaming Jews for the (so-called) crucifixion of Jesus and an anti-Semitic rallying call that led to countless deaths of Jews, primarily in Europe and Russia. Many rabbis called her remarks insensitive, ill-chosen and offensive to Holocaust survivors and other victims of anti-Semitism. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said Palin's own words — that violent political language can endanger people — are ‘affirming exactly what her critics charge.’
Whatever may be the excuses now put forth by the messengers of hatred, fact remains that the crazies and terrorists don’t kill in a vacuum, and the vilest of American political leaders and commentators deserve to be called to account for their demagoguery and the danger that comes with it. They cannot have separate rules for Muslim loonies while being too forgiving for breeding their own homegrown terrorists and assassins. Evidence seized from the assassin’s (Loughner’s) home, about five miles from the shooting, indicated that he had planned to kill Rep. Giffords, according to documents filed in Federal District Court in Phoenix. His was not a random act of violence.

According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, more than a million people have been killed with guns in the United States since 1968, when Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were killed. The New York Times reports that eight children and teenagers are killed a day in the USA due to gun violence. More than 150,000 Americans have been murdered since the beginning of the 21st century. This incessantly thriving procession of death that does not spare women or children ought to make us question seriously the plague of gun culture. Forgotten also is the fact that the states with more guns have more deaths resulting from gun violence. Unfortunately, Americans will take absolutely no steps, none whatsoever, to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

In the aftermath of this latest murderous orgy, the most we will hear about is gun control. Public support for stricter gun control, however, has dropped significantly over the last couple of decades, and there is little evidence to suggest that mass shootings change opinions. And if the comedian Jon Stewart is to be believed, the sale of automatic guns has actually increased after the assassination attempt on Giffords.

Some 37 years ago when Black Muslim leader Malcolm X (Malik Shabazz) was asked to comment about the assassination of President Kennedy, he wisely said, “chickens coming home to roost.” The sad fact is unless American public is serious about reining in its addiction to gun, war and violence, the horror prompted by the attack in Tucson last week will pass, the outrage will fade, and the murders will continue. It’ll be all over again with new targets, and new Columbine and new Tucson killing fields!

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See also the NY Times article here.