Small change and a nosebleed

March 25th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Smaller bits stolen from B&T:

dsquared: “If you look at really durable dictatorships they’re nearly always mass membership political parties.”

Russian TV: “Assuming that everything on reality TV is fake seems to me less a product of Soviet cynicism and more robust common sense, butcalling your reality TV company “Potemkin Productions” is a nice touch

One sub-point of Paul Mason’s revolution-analysis tour de force: “are we creating a complete disconnect between the values and language of the state and those of the educated young? Egypt is a classic example – if you hear the NDP officials there is a time-warped aspect to their language compared to that of young doctors and lawyers on the Square. But there are also examples in the UK: much of the political discourse – on both sides of the House of Commons – is treated by many young people as a barely intelligible “noise” – and this goes wider than just the protesters.

As Sudanese police lure activists to a fake ‘protest’, and arrest them: “any calculation of the actual effect of social media on protest comes down to the question “how smart are the local cops?”

Zombies are workers, vampires are aristocrats, werewolves are yokels — what are the middle-class monsters? Answers: possessed people, doppelgangers.And:

Haunted houses might factor in there too – is there anything more fundamentally middle-class than the desire for home ownership even though it might eat you?

Censors to the left of them, censors to the right of them

March 23rd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

This is a relevant point in terms of Western criticisms of Chinese censorship. The ultra-nationalists are being censored as much as the liberals, and when did you last hear an NGO earnestly complaining about that?

If you went to websites such as KDnet, you get the liberal viewpoints; if you went to websites such as WYZXSX, Strong Nation or Iron Blood, you get the ultra-nationalistic viewpoints.

Neither of these groups are actually supportive of the government. Tha Nationalist forums are hostile to what they perceive as westernization but also think that the CPC are a bunch of softies for not invading Taiwan right now. And like liberal or reformist opinion, nationalist expression is also liable to censorship.

Egypt arming Libyan rebels

March 21st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink


Egypt’s military has begun shipping arms over the border to Libyan rebels with Washington’s knowledge, U.S. and Libyan rebel officials said.

The shipments—mostly small arms such as assault rifles and ammunition—appear to be the first confirmed case of an outside government arming the rebel fighters

Compare this to Robert Fisk’s piece from a fortnight ago,

the Americans have asked Saudi Arabia if it can supply weapons to the rebels in Benghazi. The Saudi Kingdom…has so far failed to respond to Washington’s highly classified request…
But the Saudis remain the only US Arab ally strategically placed and capable of furnishing weapons to the guerrillas of Libya.

I guess either the Saudi request got nowhere, or at least has only happened behind the scenes. Besides, whatever Fisk thinks, Egypt is obviously better placed to move weapons into the East of Libya

The WSJ also has some interesting comment on the various positions among Arab states:

Lebanon took a lead role drafting and circulating the draft of the resolution, which calls for “all necessary measures” to enforce a ban on flights over Libya. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have taken the lead in offering to participate in enforcing a no-fly zone, according to U.N. diplomats.

Libyan rebel officials in Benghazi, meanwhile, have praised Qatar from the first days of the uprising, calling the small Gulf state their staunchest ally. Qatar has consistently pressed behind the scenes for tough and urgent international action behind the scenes, these officials said.

Qatari flags fly prominently in rebel-held Benghazi.

Where I’m at

March 18th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Oh, hello LJ. You’re still my one true love, however much I abandon you for shinier, nastier and more superficial hangouts — it’s just that when I’m busy and stressed, I end up following the path of low resistance and quick feedback.

And it’s been a ridiculously busy few weeks. I’m feeling overwhelmed, overexcited, connected and useful, in a way I haven’t since 2003. I have a stack of projects and involvements, any one of which could justifiably expand to become a life-defining obsession. You could knock out the top three and I’d still have enough to usefully fill my days several times over.

So, telegraphically:
– At vodo, we’ve just released the first part of a brilliant drama, launching itself at ideas of identity and pain and truth through a near-future setting. I’m in a slight bind over this: the people I’d most like to recommend this to are those who’ll be (justifiably) annoyed that e.g. the primary female character is a prostitute doing it for self-actualisation. But trust me: it’s worth it nonetheless.
– We’re also introducing in-browser streaming fed by bittorrent. Again, this is simultaneously exciting and hard to recommend. It’s potentially *very* significant, but the existing system isn’t entirely reliable.
– My interest in events in Egypt/Tunisia/Libya/Bahrain/Yemen is probably obvious to anybody connected to me on twitter or facebook. I’ve now found a useful conduit for that interest, in the form of the Egyptian-German Network for Changing Egypt. Rhey’re fficient, smart, driven by a desire to improve things rather than pose as radicals. They remind me a huge amount of CASI, probably still the project I’m still most proud of having been involved in. After two meetings we already have real progress on several fronts, and I’m thrilled to imagine how it could develop

[there are several more layers to go. But I’m writing this in a break from a phone call, and should get back to it. More later, or perhaps you’ll have to infer it from 140-char blobs of inanity]

Egypt and the intellectuals

March 17th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve not found any English translation online — here’s part of the German version from the FAZ, via the Egyptian-German Network on Facebook:

Die Revolution geht weiter. Das Ringen zwischen den verschiedenen Strömungen ist jetzt auf seinem Höhepunkt. Die einen wollen den Fortbestand des Mubarak-Regimes, nur mit neuen Gesichtern. Die anderen wollen die Revolution, eine Revolution der blühenden Bäume, die sich mitten auf den Plätzen bewegen und ihren Duft überall verströmen.
Wo steht Amerika? Wo steht Europa? Das weiß keiner so genau. Wahrscheinlich unterstützen sie immer noch das Mubarak-Regime, allerdings mit einem großen Kulissenwechsel und mit kleinen, winzigen Schrittchen in Richtung Entwicklung. Heute mögen sie wohl gerade mit Spezialisten aus Hollywood verhandeln, die sich auf den Bau politischer Kulissen verstehen. Oder mit dem Regisseur des Spielfilms “Wag the Dog – Wenn der Schwanz mit dem Hund wedelt”.
Und hier setzt die Rolle des Intellektuellen ein. Er muss Licht werfen auf die Details und Entwicklungen der Konterrevolution. Der Kampf wird noch lange dauern. Aber diesmal wird er nicht überdeckt sein von einer Schicht aus Propaganda, mit der die Anführer versuchen, ihre Ziele hinterhältig durchzusetzen. Vielleicht wollen sie die Wildtaube töten, bevor sie aus dem Ei schlüpft. Vielleicht versuchen sie, die Wurzeln wieder festzusetzen, damit sie ihren Mund nicht noch einmal aufmachen. Aber was, so frage ich Sie, was machen sie mit dem Duft von Zitronen und Äpfeln und Freiheit?

Avoiding hate figures

March 17th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s common to talk about dictators’ personality cults, but maybe that’s just because they don’t work?

The second [reason China won’t follow Egypt] is the lack of personality cults, and of criticism of the top leadership. China’s done a very, very good job of keeping the foibles of the top leaders out of the public eye, for the most part; gossip about the central leadership and their families is extremely restricted. Without a clear dictator, there’s a lack of focus for rage.

This is tedium as insulation against protest. China’s got it, Europe’s got it, so does the world business elite if you want to count that as a regime.

Against the referendum

March 15th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

In Egypt, the protest movement is mainly calling for a no vote to Saturday’s referendum on constitutional amendments:

The upcoming referendum on the proposed amendments to the Egyptian constitution, scheduled March 19th, gives people a sense that the revolutionary process is reaching its end. The limited scope of the amendments, the majority dealing with electoral matters (such as presidential term limits, reduced length of the president’s term, judicial oversight of elections…), imply that the 11 men of the amendment drafting committee were not attempting to upend the existing order, but were attempting to establish a legal framework for the transition from Mubarak’s rule.

Yet, over the last few days, the legal community – including human rights lawyers, law professors and lawyers in general practice – has begun to coalesce around a consensus in favor of completely rewriting the constitution as the necessary next step in the political process. Many legal professionals believe that the amendments represent a dangerous step backward. As a result, many in the legal community have begun to organize a call for the referendum to be scrapped and/or for people to cast a “no” vote in protest to the entire process.

[not sure how representative this position is, but it’s one I’m running into a great deal online]

Spanish Bombs

March 14th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

At Arabist, Abu Ray has a powerful account of the view in Libya from the rebels’ side:

“It is just like the Spanish Civil War,” said Raoul, a Spanish TV journalist, “like Homage to Catalonia.” Benghazi in this scenario becomes civil war Barcelona, with an exuberant explosion of revolutionary thinking and fervor that is eventually crushed under the boot of the fascist armies after it turns out enthusiasm doesn’t beat out lots of equipment on the front.

"Why yes, I am God" — Great Firewall edition

March 12th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

The Joy of Censorship:

It must be an immensely satisfying job being a Chinese net censor, at least in an oversight role. 450 million people surging hither and yon across multiple platforms intent on a dizzying variety of satisfactions. Squeeze this. Promote that. Block the other. Occasionally, a call comes down for a real work of art: carving a Namibia shaped hole in the Chinese internet after a company associated with the president’s son gets itself in a little difficulty down there, for instance.

It’s a genuine problem that the devil has so many of the best technical jobs. Not just censorship, but data-mining, surveillance, military technology — many, many jobs which are technically fascinating and morally repulsive.

The weapons (really!) aren’t meant to be used

March 12th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

As I seem to be spending my Saturday compiling Blood and Treasure’s Greatest Hits:

The actual military weapons we sell to the the Middle East aren’t meant to be used, unlike the paramilitary ones. They’re there partly to provide manufacturers with opportunities for selling training and spares, partly as a kind of military Harrods – prestige goods for regimes that depend on such things – but mainly as a form of political insurance for the governments concerned, which are buying lobbying power. You buy the fancy goods so that you get a pass on using the pepper spray and water cannon…which of course we’ll also be very happy to provide you with at reasonable rates.

In fairness I should add something about Douglas Alexander’s weaselly contribution, but that’s the point where words fail me. I will say that the idea that “Labour made us do it” is generally the founding big lie of the current government, but in foreign policy – Middle eastern policy especially – Cameron and co were dropped right in it

Boxun, vector for Chinese jasmine copycats

March 12th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Blood and Treasure on who dreamt up the idea of importing the ‘jasmine revolution’ into China:

The messages are being circulated on Boxun once more, the overseas Chinese website which is something of a clearing house for anti-regime news, views and propaganda. This points to some individual or group from the exiled dissident community. The question then becomes why they haven’t identified themselves. There are all sorts of fractious, mutually competitive groups out there who would like to take the credit for starting something within China.

[yes, my procrastination time today is being spent paging through the Blood and Treasure archives. Can you tell?]

Now North Koreans aren’t starving, are they becoming more rebellious?

March 12th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

In the Asia Times, an argument that North Korea’s greater prosperity could become a source of rebellion. Interesting, but not entirely convincing, argument:

People seldom rebel when their lives are desperate: they are too busy looking for food and basic necessities. Most revolutions happen in times of relative prosperity and are initiated by people who have time and energy to discuss social issues and to organize resistance….

There is little doubt that the North Korean elite welcome signs of economic growth, but paradoxically, this growth makes their situation less, not more, stable. North Koreans are now less stressed and have some time to think and talk

The converse argument, of course, is that when you’re literally starving you have nothing to lose, so may as well join a violent rebellion. But there’s a decent economic literature talking about the hunger trap of being too malnourished and insecure to engage in economic activity; the same arguments can presumably be transposed to political activity.

[via blood and treasure, whence also this (more explicitly fantastical) article imagining how North Korea could become a world empire]

Leigh, Assange, BAE and Saudi Arabia

March 12th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

The Telegraph reports a (not yet public) wikileaks cable) discussing the massive corruption in BAE’s Al-Yamamah arms deal to Saudi Arabia.

BAE has earned more than £40 billion from the deal, by selling military planes to Saudi Arabia. There’s long been strong evidence of corruption — but the SFO abandoned an inquiry into the deal, quite possibly under political pressure.

Now, via Wikileaks, we have more details both of the evidence, and on how the SFO were pressured to drop the case. The SFO had evidence that:

  • BAE paid £73 million to a Saudi prince who had “influence” over the Al-Yamamah defence contract and that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe another “very senior Saudi official” received payments;
  • The contractor was being covertly investigated by the SFO for carrying out a “potential fraud” against a government department;
  • BAE allegedly circumvented anti-bribery laws by making “substantial payments” to overseas agents employed by the Saudi government;
  • Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, then British ambassador in Riyadh and now a BAE Systems’ director, “had a profound effect” on the decision by Robert Wardle, then SFO director, to end the investigation.

There’s also some media politics going on here. The Guardian was long the most active newspaper following the Al-Yamamah deal. Much of their investigation was conducted by David Leigh, who also led the Guardian’s Wikileaks coverage, and is now publicly squabbling with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.

So David Leigh has seen another newspaper get a scoop connecting two of his biggest investigations — surely the result of some kind of personal politics. It also makes me wonder whether the Guardian does have all the Wikileaks documents. Surely Al-Yamamah is one of the first things David Leigh would have looked for, once he got his hands on the cables?

Or perhaps I’m over-thinking this, and the Telegraph just happened to read the relevant cable before Leigh did.

Saudi day of rage: some quick reading

March 11th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

Amn Dawla leaks

March 9th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

Post-scarcity job creation

March 8th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Nice CT thread on (in effect) post-scarcity economics. Won by Hidari:

Much work has already been done to deal with the problem of the employment prospects of the over-educated. For example, what about “self-important newspaper columnist”, regurgitating semi-understood gobbets of semi-digested factoids gained via skimming through (and then quickly googling) whatever happens to be ‘trending’ on Twitter? This is a job that didn’t exist 50 years ago, and which no one asked to be created, for the good reason that the ‘product’ of this trade was something no one wants or needs. Nor does it require any skills or abilities to be a ‘columnist’ which hasn’t stopped it being almost exclusively the preserve of the white middle classes.

But the moral of the story is: don’t discount the capacity of capitalism to simply create whole new swathes of meaningless employment for the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, and then creating equally meaningless ‘qualifications’ which price these (pointless, but well paid) jobs out of the grasp of the proletarian hordes. Cf, advertising, management consultancy, most ‘research’, most work in ‘think tanks’ etc. etc. etc. In a de-industrialised country like the UK, most work is already simply the intellectual equivalent of digging a hole and then filling it in again.

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March 7th, 2011 § Enter your password to view comments. § permalink

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Storming the Bastille: Egyptians’ raid on State Security buildings

March 7th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Juan Cole has a rundown of Top Ten Achievements of Mideast Democracy Protests this Weekend. I’m in a state of perpetual astonishment at how fast things are changing. I keep on realising I’ve not read about a country for a couple of days, and it’s had another wave of protest or resignations.

My personal favourite of the weekend is Number 4:

4. Egyptian protesters stormed the HQs in Cairo and Alexandria of the State Security Police, the dreaded secret police who used arbitrary arrest and torture to keep strong man Hosni Mubarak in power for decades. They said they had been afraid that security officials would shred documents implicating them in crimes, and they carried off many documents. Some were former prisoners who had been tortured in the cells of the building they invaded.

This is the about the point where you know the system is going to fundamentally change, not just continue with different men at the top.

The best historical comparison (this side of 1789, at least), is perhaps the raiding of the stasi headquarters in 1990. It’s not just that they broke through a barrier of fear and collected evidence of torture. They also halted the wholesale destruction of files that was in progress. That’s going to form the basis for some kind of reconciliation with the past, and/or prosecution of those involved in crimes.

It’s also pretty important for the world beyond Egypt. Over the coming weeks, we’re going to see a flood of information coming from these seized documents. We’ve already had German technology being used for torture and for bugging Skype communications. It seems fairly likely we’ll get something about extraordinary renditions. Maybe information from Egypt will tell us here and the US some of the secrets we couldn’t get from our own politicians.

And that’s just one of ten.


March 1st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Here’s a nice comment from Condi Rice about Gaddafi:

“When he can laugh talking to international journalists, when he is slaughtering his own people, only underscores how unfit he is to lead,” she said, referring to his interview with international news organisations today.

I want to combine that with some footage of, say, Bush talking to the White House Correspondents’ Association. Fat chance, but I like to believe

@sandmonkey on intergenerational support for protest

March 1st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Here is the Egyptian blogger/tweeter @sandmonkey, tweeting about the relationship between parents and their activist children.

this story more than anything highlights the generational rift in egyptian society over the #Jan25 revolution.
It also is a prime example of how people could live in the same house & have totally different backgrounds. Sumthin all JAN25's can relate 2
This revolution not only facilitated the peaceful transition of power from government to people, but from our parents generation to ours.
This transition is based on both guilt & regret, because they never did anything similar & they allowed the mafia regime to continue.
And it was a Mafia Regime. It was always better to be with the Don than against the Don, for those against him were crushed or killed.
So, they allowed the thugs to rule, allowed corruption to spread, & learned to adapt to the system, cause that's all they had.
And not only did they enable the regime, they tried to stop us from doing anything to stop, believing that it can't be stopped.
And we defied them, despite the threats & the yelling & the guilt trips & emotional blackmail, & we proved them wrong. #jan25
This naturally came as a shock to them, cause they never thought it could be possible. They truly believed they were protecting us.
So now they feel sad & guilty, cause their lives were wasted accepting evil & they even tried to stop us from eradicating it. #jan25
So, our parents are now divided into 3 types: 1) The "we don't know what's going on, so we will depend on u to inform us" type #jan25
2) The "I will suddenly be proud & brag of ur revolutionary nature to all my friends, coz I need to jump on the bandwagon now" #jan25
3) The Angry " y'all dunno what u r talkin about, u r destroying this country, democracy will never work, human rights meen" type.

You can imagine that, can’t you, in the UK or anywhere else once protests finally get somewhere? [he’s also getting an encouraging about of backchat from young egyptian activists, saying their parents were with them all along [NadaPrudence @Sandmonkey my mom was there with me from day 1 ! she’s my tear gas buddy !!]

[insert boilerplate rant, viz: if only we had a medium where I could forward this without copy-pasting a dozen segments into an email. *sigh*]

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