“Continuing the Orientalism of the Past in the Face of Reality of the Present”

March 22, 2011

It’s interesting to see how conservative commentators like Gerard Henderson (http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/bush-and-his-allies-deserve-respect-after-earlier-push-for-arab-democracies-20110321-1c3pw.html) turn the popular Arab struggle for dignity and social justice into vindication for the US invasion of Iraq. There’s little point picking apart Henderson’s argument here, as his logic is as faulty as that of Bush et al in 2003. But let me remind Henderson and others who continue to put forward such points of view, that the stated war aim prior to the invasion of Iraq by Bush, Blair and Howard was to destroy Iraq’s supposed arsenal of WMDs not regime-change. The promotion of democracy was a post-hoc (and ad-hoc) justification when it became crystal clear to everyone including the US and UK governments that Saddam’s WMD arsenal posed very little threat to either regional or world security.  For, Henderson to claim that “…it was the administration of George W. Bush which first raised, in  a serious manner, the issue of democracy in the Middle East” is a huge insult to the countless Middle East voices that have struggled for democratic rights for decades prior to the platitudes towards democracy mouthed by Republican hawks like Bush.

It is equally interesting to see how someone like Henderson can continue to maintain the narrow Orientalist lens that events over the last few months should have dispelled. Henderson continues to claim that the main fault lines that exist in the Middle East are between Sunni and Shia, moderate Muslim and extremist, Jew and Arab, etc,. Henderson nowhere mentions workers, women, youth, professionals, or socialists and liberals in his one-dimensional and by now woefully inadequate representation of the people of the Middle East. In doing so, Henderson not only misunderstands the Middle East (which any second year ME studies student would appreciate) but be fails to grasp the meaning of the popular struggle that has sent shock waves through the last bastion of Cold War authoritarianism.

Not only is Henderson unable to perceive the complexity and secularity of the Middle East he is unable to see the contradiction in his argument. While I think Pilger’s position vis-à-vis the condition of the Middle East can be one-dimensional, Henderson’s criticism of Pilger’s position is hugely problematic. On the one hand, Henderson says that Pilger’s assessment of the “western” interference Middle East politics is a leftist conspiracy but then quotes Condoleezza Rice’s own self-reflections of the US support for Middle East dictators which she acknowledges has been to the detriment of democratic movements.  Henderson’s article has other glaring errors. His assessment of democracy in Iraq is simplistic to say the least. The notion that somehow Israel is on the sidelines is a throw-away comment from this conservative commentator that serves no purpose other than to deflect attention from the central part that Israel plays in Middle East politics. But then, this was the point of the article after all. The ultimate game for Henderson and other conservatives is to make the facile point again and again that somehow Israel is not a part of the greater Middle East. News for you Gerard, Israel is as much a part of the Middle East as Iran and Turkey, and it’s only when the Israeli government and their supporters, and  more Arabs come to this realisation that genuine progress towards peace will be possible.

Noah Bassil


Bringing the Middle East Back In: A New Era of Global Politics

March 6, 2011

Since 9/11, if not earlier, at least five generalizations have permeated practically all representations of the Middle East allowing for spurious claims to justify unjust, cruel and illegal acts against the people, politics, culture and history of the region. These generalizations have been exposed as myths by the nature of the popular protests that erupted in North Africa and Middle East in late 2010 and have made the first quarter of 2011 a period of significant changes. In this short price, I want to list the myths that are no longer valid and posit that wiping out these false representations may prove to be the most positive and lasting impact of the months of revolt that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

The first of these myths to be exposed as bogus, is the widespread belief in the inertia of the Arab masses. If the images of the Tunisian people’s challenges to the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali were not enough evidence of the political power of Arab societies then the scenes of millions of Egyptians, women and men, challenging Hosni Mubarak’s right to rule should dispel any misconceptions that Arabs are bound by a tradition of fatalism and despotism. Libyan, Bahraini, Moroccan and Yemeni protestors only serve to further wipe away the idea that the Middle East is unchanging and historically static.

Secondly, the idea that Islamists monopolise political opposition in the Middle East is impossible to sustain in the face of the secularism on display in Cairo, Tangiers and Benghazi. However, many reporters and Middle East “experts” seem to remain wedded to the notion that behind every event in the Arab world lurks the evil hand of radical Islamists. This notion should now be put to rest as Arab secular voices have not only drowned out the Islamists but shown the lack of relevance of Muslim politics in the shaping of the protesters demands. These secular voices have called for social justice, employment, food, and an end to the regimes corrupt activities, including privatization, austerity programs and the dismantling of the welfare states. It was jobs and dignity that drove people to the streets definitely not shar’ia or holy war.

Thirdly, the belief that “western” approval for the policies of Arab leaders automatically translates into popular appeal can no longer be taken for granted. While Arab dictators such as Ben Ali and Mubarak were popular in the White House, London, Paris and the IMF, events of the last two months have shown how despised they were in their own countries. The fate of Colonel Gaddafi now rests with his own people and not with allies in London, Rome or Washington. It should now be clear that supporting policies that promote the interests of western powers and international investors might bring Arab leaders international approval, but that such policies are highly unpopular at home and be the cause of mass uprisings such as those we have witnessed over the last month. International stability comes at a price and the Arab masses are demanding payment.

Fourth, there must no longer be serious doubts about claims of the “trickle down” associated with economic liberalisation in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon and Jordan. The countries that have experienced the largest, and angriest, mass protests have been exactly those countries that have followed the advice of the IMF most closely and received the highest acclaim from international financial institutions and the leading proponents of market fundamentalism in the developing world, namely the U.S. and the EU. Tunisian and Egyptian unemployment and poverty rates are startling when held up against the praise that these two countries have received for their economic management.  Clearly, its time to move beyond the idea that economic growth alone can address issues of poverty and underdevelopment.

Holding these myths, and others I haven’t had time to explore, up to scrutiny at this critical time, will not only show that the Arab people only seek to share the same democratic and human rights that we dearly protect, but also provide political space for “us” to rethink our own conceptualizations of the region and its people, and in doing so, dismantle the artificial barriers that so often it is believed have come to exist between Arabs and the “west”.  Tearing down this barrier will allow Arab voices into global discourses on human rights, democracy, social justice and gender rights enriching the lives of Arab people and also will enrich those discourses as well. It is this aspect of the recent events that have rocked the Middle East that will have greatest impact.

Noah Bassil


Back to the Future: Tunisians and Egyptians and Pan Arabism

February 13, 2011

Much of the “western” media hype over the last month has been focused on the threat of radical Islamism in the Middle East. Almost ad naseum, media commentators have continually returned to the topic of the threat of Islamist parties when reporting on the protests in Tunisia and Algeria and have shown almost total disbelief when they have been confronted with evidence, whether images and reports from the scenes or expert commentary, proving the secular credentials of the uprisings.

What events in Tunisia and Egypt is clearly showing is that this threat holds a significant place in the western imaginary of the Middle East, as much as camels, flying carpets and harems. This despite the reality that it has not been Islamists who have dominated the scenes in Tunis and Cairo.One journalist who has picked up on the weakness of radical Islam in the Middle East is Paul McGeough (http://www.smh.com.au/world/alqaeda-lost-on-the-arab-street-20110204-1aguj.html).  And despite my general agreement  with Paul MacGeough’s overall argument that current Middle East protests show how much ground Islamists have lost amongst the youth in the Middle East, I think that his assertion that youth have chosen Ipods, Starbucks and McDonald’s over Islamic terrorism may technically be correct but still far short of the reality. Sure, young people in Tahrir Square prefer surfing the net to strapping themselves with explosives and bringing down a airliner, or a Big Mac to beheading  unbelievers, but this doesn’t tell us much at all. Rather, what we should be examining is the slogans of the protesters, and in the void that is often called journalism not much of this has been done in the reporting over Tunisia and more recently, Egypt.

So fascinated is the western media with the Islamist angle that they have all but missed the undercurrent of the pan-Arab nationalism which has been at the forefront of the protesters banners and chants. They have missed that what people in the Middle East are protesting for is not for their states to vanish, as wishful conservative and neo-liberal advocates would want, but that they want their states to protect them from the inequality and alienation that the market creates.  Tunisia and Egypt are certainly not Islamist revolutions, but they maybe somewhat red in colour, at least “red”  in the sense of the social democratic principles of the 1960s and of the era of Nasserism.

While the west focuses on the illusion of Islamism, something potentially more dangerous to the post Cold War Pax Americana is emerging from Tunis and Cairo.  This Pax American which has been based on free market fundamentalism and on the ideal that social welfare and distributing wealth should be the responsibility of markets and not of governments is under siege from a number of directions and the Arab uprisings add another volatile front in the struggle against US imperialism in the form of neo-liberalism.

These are very exciting times, not only because of the monumental changes that have resulted from the forced resignations of two of the world’s longest serving dictators, both very close allies of the supposedly pro-democracy “west”, but because the Arab revolutions are symbolic of the mounting global resistance to a system that promotes inequality, alienation, and marginalisation. Freedom is the only promise that neo-liberalism has delivered to most people around the world, that is a freedom to be unemployed, hungry and homeless. For the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square the revolution begins not with overthrowing Mubarak but with unravelling the “economic miracle” (IMF actually awarded Egypt with the title of the best reforming economy in the world) that has left 40% of Egyptians earning less than $2 a day. Time will tell how much reform of the neo-liberal economy Mubarak’s successors will allow but irrespective of what happens in the coming days, weeks and months in Egypt, the winds of change are blowing, and the struggle for social democracy has begun.

Noah Bassil


What colour is Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution?

February 2, 2011

No two revolutions are exactly the same. But all revolutions share some similarities and naturally there have been efforts to link Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution to other recent popular uprisings. A closer look at the colour of the Jasmine Revolution might provide for some surprising revelations.

The most common comparisons of the Jasmine Revolution that I’ve read in the press have been with the Iranian anti-Ahmadinejad protests in 2009 and Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. Such comparisons risk oversimplifying and mistaking the purpose and cause of the Jasmine Revolution which differs from the others in a number of significant ways. Above all, the differences are based on the levels of politicisation and the demands being made by the protestors. On this basis, it can be argued that Tunisia 2011 has more in common with the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought down the Shah than with the more recent popular protests in Iran or the Ukraine. Let me explain.

Read the rest of this entry »


After Ben-Ali: Is Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir next?

January 31, 2011

International focus over the last few weeks, quite rightly, has been on the momentuous events that led to the downfall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia and more recently the massive upsurge in popular protests in Egypt, principally centred on Cairo.   However, while Egypt and Tunisia (to a lesser extent Yemen) have been in the news and discussed by international leaders and in international forums, other states in the region have also experienced major political crises.  One such state is Sudan which had been the focus of media attention as the southern part of the country went to the polls to decide on whether there would be unity between north and south or separation. The result surprised no-one with almost 99% of southern Sudanese voting for seccession.

In more recent days, though, the Sudan has been experiencing the same level of popular discontent with the ruling party that we have witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt. Read the rest of this entry »


How New is the Southern Sudan?

January 28, 2011

It has been a while since I last posted but with the intensity of activity in Sudan and across the ME and North Africa I felt it time to reactivate this blog. Some amendments will need to be made to the profiles of the authors that contribute to this site and maybe the focus of the site may change somewhat to reflect some of the areas of interest in which I am now researching and writing, but this needs to be renegotiated with the remaining contributors. Anyway, watch this space for some changes but in the meantime here’s a brief piece on the emergence of the Southern Sudan.

How New is the Southern Sudan?

There is little doubt that in July of this year a new state will join the international system. This state will be greeted with much fanfare from western sponsors who have robustly supported a process of independence for the Southern Sudan. Before analysing some of the issues that might belie the euphoria surrounding the creation of this state, I’ll make a few preliminary comments that will demonstrate that I am no apologist for either the artificially constructed territories that Africa was saddled with at independence or the successive Khartoum governments that have largely been responsible for years of north-south conflict and national instability that followed the end of formal European colonialism in Africa.

Read the rest of this entry »


Israel’s Moral Decadence

June 1, 2010

Israel’s moral decadence
Yariv Oppenheimer | May 31, 2010
(published in Ma’ariv, Hebrew only)

Even if the fleet to Gaza is irritating and outrageous, a sovereign state cannot treat every act of protest as a terror event that has to end in bloodshed

Tonight Israel marked a new low point in the way it chose to contend with its domestic and external policy dissidents. A state that will not let its citizens protest, demonstrate and demand justice, a state that is busy composing loyalty tests for its citizens and passing laws to limit the freedom of expression, failed again in the real test and stopped a protest fleet of civilian ships at the cost of more than ten lives.

The fleet that left Turkey a few days ago managed to anger even me. Hundreds of pro-Hamas activists challenged Israel blatantly and outrageously. Not a word of censure of the Hamas government, not a word about Gilad Shalit and not a word about the desire for peace. Nonetheless, a sovereign state cannot treat every show of protest, however outrageous and irritating it is, as a terror event that has to end in bloodshed. Instead of using the fleet to generate an internal Israeli discussion about the effectiveness of the policy of the siege of Gaza and its moral and political implications for Israel, all of the government spokesmen chose to focus on the handful of activists on the ships and grace them with the title of existential threats to Israel’s security. From here to unnecessary bloodshed the path was short.

It is not the soldiers’ fault, nor the commanders’ nor the heads of the IDF’s. Israeli society as a whole is responsible for the grim results of the IDF takeover of the protest ships. The radicalization of Israeli society is yielding its fruit. The message to the soldiers and police is crystallizing. When Arabs are involved in an activity, the hand on the trigger is light. Determination boards the ship while sensitivity stays in the water.

But have no fear, the domestic Israeli propaganda machine began to work and in just a few hours every Israeli will be recounting how Hamas helicopters took over a Jewish ship and shot illegal immigrants in all directions. With the use of our repression mechanisms and the encouragement of the IDF spokesman we will again dissociate from reality and the world and manufacture our own unique script in which we are the victims and the whole world is against us as usual. Will the outcome of tonight’s confrontation end with an official commission of inquiry? No chance.

Israel justifies its brutal and violent image

The price for the unfortunate results of the fleet will be paid primarily by the families of those who were killed at sea last night. Next in line to pay the price will be the residents of Israel who want peace and the end of the conflict with all their hearts, and who wish to stop the cycle of bloodshed and live in a saner country. We, the silent majority, watch with despair as Israel with its own actions justifies the brutal and violent image it acquired in the last years and gives our biggest enemies in Hamas and Iran a reason to rejoice.

If the miserable naval clash had any winners, they are in Tehran, in the bunkers of Beirut and in the Hamas headquarters in Gaza. The Hamas government succeeded with the Israeli government’s active support to receive international recognition, to gain the support of the Arab world and to be seen as a hero standing up to Israel.

The enemies of peace and the extremists on both sides can again find reasons to attack each other and deepen the hatred and hostility between Jews and Arabs in Israel and outside of it. Again the moderates on both sides are silenced and the voice of reason is drowned out by the voices of incitement and hatred. Without a loud voice of protest by a patriotic Israeli public calling on its leaders to change course, we will all find ourselves in a morally and politically decadent country, slowly sinking into the depths.

Appreciation to Sol Salbe from ME News Service who provided the link (http://www.peacenow.org.il/site/en/peace.asp?pi=195&fld=694&docid=4675) to access this piece.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.