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March 11, 2011

Saudi day of rage: some quick reading

It's entirely possible nothing will happen in Saudi Arabia today. A few hundred protesters on the streets, the ringleaders arrested, and the country will continue as before.

Until this afternoon, though, nobody knows. Demonstrations have been called, and now is as auspicious a time for them as we're likely to see. But one downside of banning political expression is that you can never tell how large demonstrations will be. That, in fact, is why they matter more than under democracy -- they're about the closest you get to a vox pop.

Here are a few guesses as to how things will pan out today.

Hugh Miles on the LRB blog expects something fairly large:

Both Sunni and Shia Saudi opposition groups say they are under intense pressure to make a move before 11 March, but are trying to hold the line so as to garner as much media exposure as possible and secure a large turnout. 'We didn't want to go quickly, but the people took the initiative and issued a date,' one of the organisers told me. 'Now the momentum is there and there is an avalanche of calls for revolt. The speed with which things are happening is beyond our ability to keep up.'

One reason to expect a noticeable protest is because of how strongly the Saudi authorities have reacted to the prospect. After all, they presumably know more than anybody about public opinion. Then again, a strong reaction could just mark paranoia or deliberate overkill. According to Mohammad Taqi in the Daily Times (Pakistan):

The Saudi state machinery has subsequently gone into overdrive to prevent any prominent demonstrations. The regime has resorted to both appeasement through a $ 37 billion 'aid package' to the Saudi people and a series of stern warnings. The Saudi interior ministry said last week that the "laws and regulations in the kingdom totally prohibit all kinds of demonstrations

There's also much more global attention than there has been previously:

The brutal crackdown by the security forces on the Saudi Shia pilgrims in Madinah in February 2009 had largely gone unnoticed by the world. Subsequently, when a Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in his March 13, 2009 Friday sermon in Awwamiyya called for the Shia to consider secession from Saudi Arabia if their rights were not respected, the state suppression was swift but did not make the headlines. But now, with the full glare of media turned on to the Middle East, the last thing the regime wants is an uprising that it may have to put down brutally.

And, as this article points out, there's a certain irony to protests in a major oil-exporting country:

the more violent the unrest, and the closer it is to the oil wells, the higher that it sends prices. As prices rise, so do the contested autocrats' paychecks. Meanwhile, their bank accounts swell and they are enabled to pacify their citizens by loosening the strings on public spending. It is like brainwashing citizens into oblivion by keeping their stomachs full and their minds numb.

March 9, 2011

Amn Dawla leaks

After protesters stormed Egyptian State Security, the fallout is gradually building. Once-secret documents are slowly being made public, laying bare not just the activities of Amn Dawla, but their connections with the outside world.

With Germany, that started with claims that a German firm had been marketing its Trojan software to SS. There's also video from Saturday, in which a man shows the equipment with which he was tortured. This was made in Germany, although to be honest it looks more like repurposed generic technology than anything designed specifically for torture.

The New York Times gives a glimpse of the revelations within Egypt:

The file on Ms. Shazly, the most influential late-night television host in Egypt, accused her of harboring the socialist sympathies that had landed her father in jail and "made her adopt an incendiary approach in discussing issues related to the Ministry of the Interior." The report called her talk show "imbalanced" and said that she ha

But more is surely on its way. As this blog speculates:

We are also likely to find out lots of juicy details about which Western companies profited from Mubarak's authoritarian regime, especially those who collaborated in spying on and suppressing the Egyptian people. There may also yet be details about people who were given or loaned to the Egyptian government by the US in order to be tortured. M G3Such documents may give us the names of contacts in the US government (including the CIA) who are responsible for such heinous acts. If we are very lucky, Egypt may follow Italy's lead and prosecute US employees in absentia for these crimes.

Two groups, Amn Dawla Leaks and SS Leaks, are rapidly bringing out documents -- albeit with constant debates over authenticity.

Beyond the fakes, there's also the question of how demonstrators were able to get into the buildings. One argument is that the army and police were simply acting tactically -- they realised they wouldn't be able to get rid of the protesters without violence, and decided to accept the lesser evil. But there's also the conspiracy view:

these documents may have been left behind on purpose to give people something to sift through when they were finally allowed to break in. It's certain that the most sensitive documents were destroyed or transported to secure locations weeks ago. I would not use the word "hoax," however. We shouldn't diminish the significance of what happened. It means a lot that citizens took over SS offices, and it means a lot that they found and publicized documents that show the massive, systemic, petty interference of the "security" apparatus in everyday life. But we need to recognize that there is a very deep game being played here, and that the SS shadow state may be undermined and on the defensive, but still operational.

More suspicions of the 'deep game' here

The question of authenticity also affects the kind of social impact these documents will have, especially outside Egypt. I could imagine newspapers realising there are fakes circulating among the genuine documents, and thus being squeamish about publishing anything on an SS leak. So we could end up with documents circulating (unverified) in activist and academic circles, but rarely getting into the mainstream media.

Meanwhile there's a rumour going round that Robert Gates' has been sent to Cairo for damage-control following the leaks. There doesn't seem to be any source for this more authoritative than Debka, so I wouldn't count on it.