Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Words matter: the sunrise of democracy in Egypt, part 1

On Sunday, my friend Ilene Cohen sent me a wonderful interview of Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist living in New York on CNN. Eltahawy pointed to the greatness of democratic resistance in Egypt and how the police are looting. See here, here and Remi Khoury here. Cautioning against her praise of the uprising, the CNN commentators stand out, as Ilene suggests, for propaganda and stupidity. Imagine how the British empire covered the American Revolution: “bandits, “looters,” “chaos,” “need the King, need order”; “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are terrorists” (I realize this is the idiom of W – who as “the decider” resembled George the III and forgot George Washington, as well as the war complex/corporate media). Parallel to the American Revolution once upon a time, the ordinary people of Egypt - 2 million strong today in Tahrir Square - are inspiring the world.

Eltahawy also points out that the police, who had engaged in torture of ordinary citizens, are looting to create chaos and blame the democrats; yet the official CNN “line” is somehow democrats – the young people who are rather the neighborhood committees who are directing traffic, cleaning the streets, guarding against looters and have captured some who had police identification - are the “problem.” In Tunisia, the initiator of democratic uprisings throughout the Middle East, the head of the Presidential [the tyrant Ben Ali's] Guard was arrested by a democratic neighborhood organization for looting...

Interestingly, King Abdullah, the American-armed tyrant in Saudi Arabia (he recently purchased $60 billion in American weapons), uses the same language of” chaos” and” looting” as does Netanyahu in Israel – all to praise and defend the tyrant Mubarak. In Cairo, the police are gone, and the army, which has not engaged in torture historically, has said it will not fire on the people. As Jimmy Carter rightly notes, the Egyptian people have stood up and Mubarak, though there are arrangements to be made, the US government is angling, is no more. Mubarak is a stubborn man, with ties as an officer to the military - he just made a speech suggesting, though he will not run again, that he would oversee "transition." But he is over...

As Ilene rightly adds, the CNN “reporters” also forgot the American aggression in Iraq in 2003 where there was no freedom or democracy from below (and where democracy’s potential supporters often clash with the American occupiers). Drunk on his own power, Pentagon Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set American soldiers to guard only the oil ministry (what the Bush administration cared about) and not the first examples of written language and other treasures of ancient civilization in the museums. When the museums were looted, Rumsfeld said (and CNN echoed): “that’s freedom, Stuff happens.”

When is looting “stuff”? Only when it serves imperial aggressors like Rumsfeld. When is “looting” bad? When ordinary Egyptians stand up for democracy, and the “looters,” often the brutal and torturing security services without the uniforms, can be falsely depicted as “democrats.” And CNN is thought, by many Americans, not to be “Fox News” (people increasingly recognize the latter as authoritarian propaganda).

In Egypt, as Eltahawy says, a great and powerful popular movement has developed quickly and the tyrant called out the troops to no avail after 4 days. In the recent Tunisian uprising, it took 25 days for the tyrant Ben Ali to call out the troops, to get to this point. The sunrise of democracy, in this, the biggest, and most important country in the Middle East, the pivot of the US-Israel strategy to dominate ordinary Arabs and suppress and further transfer the Palestinians (out of the occupied territories), has just collapsed. This strategy, I should note, serves only the elites in both countries, if them; it harms, however, ordinary Americans (asked to fight and to bear the costs of militarism, suffering from economic collapse and a culture of fear) and ordinary Israelis (a "greater," that is fascist Israel has no future).

As Al-Jazeera reports, ordinary people talked with the army, rode on the tanks, painted death to Mubarak and other imprecations on some of them. The army will not do Mubarak’s murderous bidding.

Mubarak has appointed for the first time in his 29 years a Vice President, Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief. In the American corporate media, Suleiman is addressed as a “serious” and “respected” figure, someone trusted by Washington (at least the “intelligence” community ) to take over if – it is now when – Mubarak leaves. Below is a sharp depiction of Suleiman’s participation in extraordinary rendition and torture by Stephen Soldz, a psychiatrist who speaks out against American torture. The CIA extraordinarily rendered the Australian Mamdouh Habib to Egypt. Suleiman personally tortured him, administering electric shock, plunging him in water up to his nose (a form of water-boarding), breaking his fingers, hanging him from a meat hook. Habib then was sent to Guantanamo. Very "respectable" (Times's reporting often refers to "harsh interrogations" with regard to such American-Egyptian crimes).

But Obama is torn. The US strategy of reaction and conquest in the Middle East has been blown up by Bush's aggression, torture and now the democratic revolts, starting in Tunisia, against its clients. The Arab street knows that the US has provided $1.3 billion per year in arms to Mubarak for 29 years. Sharif Abdul Keddous, the Democracy Now executive producer who has gone back to Cairo, reports young people bringing up the shells of tear gas canisters to show him the markings. They are all made in America. Even John Kerry’s op-ed in the New York Times this morning mentions this (a first in the Times). So Obama has worked with and armed Mubarak – that’s what it means the day the campaigner Barack became the American President – but is also fearful of the revolt sweeping away all American elite influence in the area. He does not want to become plainly the murderer of the Egyptian people. So when Mubarak gave his speech Friday night about clinging to the dictatorship, Obama spoke right out to warn him and the army not to use American arms against the people. His ambassador Wisner told Mubarak to step down before the latest speech (where Mubarak announced he would not run again). That is both calculation on Obama's part – with democracy in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen (where there are also demonstrations) and Jordan where the Prime Minister has just been replaced, the tyrant shaking, American can no longer place all of its bets with the tyrants – and decency. But America is obviously not with the people. The democrats in the street hear Obama as an enemy.

Slavoj Zizek has a profound article below on the dangers of even Obama-style moderate negotiation to get the tyrant out of power, perhaps install El Baradei as the sudden representative of the diverse but weak opposition, and chill out the democracy (the title attacks American hypocrisy – it would be better to emphasize the utter counterproductiveness of American policy, which has now been shattered by democracy from below in the Middle East). As Zizek rightly underlines,however, there is nothing Islamic about the demonstrations (this is mere Imperial hysteria in the media rather than – something reporters might try to do occasionally – use their eyes…). As Sharif Abdul-Keddous reported from Cario yestersday on DemocracyNow, when some Muslims chanted “Allahu Akbar” – God is great – the demonstrators erupted with a louder chant: “Muslims, Christians [Copts], we all are Egyptians.” Christians came Friday, so a tweet ran from Egypt, to protect Muslims in prayer. Even Christians in Egypt, however, sometimes say “Allahu Akbar” Nothing about the current demonstrations (or even about the Muslim Brotherhood) involves significant Islamicization of politics.

I have often referred on this blog to the great onetime spirit of Islamic toleration of Jews and Christians - other "peoples of the Book" - in the 12th and 13th century califate in Cordoba and Granada which led to a First Renaissance on Europe (see Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World). In Egpyt, an internationalist or democratic solidarity from below has emerged among ordinary people. It contrasts with the would- be racist or genocidal caliphs of fantasy (Osama Bin Laden) or the American-armed tyrants. Listen toAsharif’s inspiring reporting here and here.

What Zizek points out is that the Obama administration will try to defeat or limit the protest. He emphasizes the role of secular and leftist protest in the Arab world, for instance in Afghanistan, in the internal creation of a popular pro-Soviet regime, which hired women to be 70% of the teachers. It was this that the CIA launched “Jihad” to overthrow, using Bin Laden. Does the way the US dealt with the Soviet Union, breeding Islamic fundamentalism and training Bin Laden, look wise today? (Consider Chalmers Johnson's book, Blowback).

Given the fall of the Soviet Union and the US planting of military bases on the holy sites of Mecca and Medina at the end of the first Gulf War, Bin Laden turned. The rise of the Taliban (Reagan’s onetime “freedom fighters” celebrated at the White House) and their enmity toward the US was linked not to democratic movements from below as in Egypt today but to American-armed and instigated war to crush the leftist and democratic elements in Afghani society. If America sets out to murder Egyptian democracy, Zizek says – and this includes intervening to cut it down, to prevent poor people from getting decent treatment or to murder such demonstrators, this will pave the way for the emergence of Islamic radicalism. By the way, demands for social justice and jobs and against elite corruption characterize this movement. There are slogans about the high price of tomatoes, a staple of the Egyptian diet, $2 per kilo, and (Mubarak providing to a crony) a kilometer of valuable land in downtown Cairo for 10 cents. Al Jazeera – because it provides a live feed of these things – or DemocracyNow might cover these demands. These are the voices of Egyptian democrats. The corporate press does not.

Zizek’s is a deeper kind of thinking about what will happen to the democracy over time. The Bush administration fostered mass nonviolent resistance in Serbia and the colored revolutions in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But the CIA wanted control – gave out all the same posters and t-shirts to the protestors, passed out Gene Sharp pamphlets it had translated into the local languages, co-opted a few leaders to act against deeper democracy.

But the American Middle East strategy, which was to conquer with American guns under Bush, has not included this possibility. America has no relation to, no influence in the deep democracy surging up, 2 million strong, in Tahrir Square. For the Middle East, the age of American-armed and sponsored tyrants is passing. The possibility of unfolding democracy, of letting the Egyptian people solve their own problems is key. That would be wise (and make Americans no new enemies). But the Obama administration is still counterproductively trying to use US influence with the military – the Egyptian military is wholly dependent, unless some democratic revolution occurs within it, on American arms – to try to corrupt developments there.

My friend and colleague, Haider Khan, has worked in Egypt as an egalitarian development economist. I include two letters of his, one of the current democratic struggle in Egypt in this post, one in the next, pointing to the hopeful role of ElBaradei who has gone into the streets and been tear-gassed, and might be a transitional figure for democracy. But the far greater significance of these events is that ordinary people stood up.

Nothing ever happens the same way. In Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi was forced to close his fruit stand and burned himself in protest. See here. In Egypt, some five people tragically followed his example, but to no result. But a modest demonstration on National Police Day January 25, following the beating to death of a young man, led, unexpectedly to this huge explosion. When democracy will emerge, when the people have finally had too much, when the great waiting is over, is not predictable. But the lesson of Tunisia and Egypt is that ordinary people will not be oppressed for ever. That is the point of the Brecht-Eisler song about the pebbles stirring on the bed of the Moldau and the death of the Austro-Hungarian empire I brought up in a previous post – see here – and that is true in America too. There is change in the air, fundamental change, in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, inspiring people all over the world, and, as part 2 of this post will show, it is likely to spread.

Here is Ilene’s note:

“January 30, 2011 Egyptian Mona Eltahawy speaks with Frederika Whitfield on CNN and calls on the media to reconsider their spin. She asserts, for example, that the looting we've seen has been orchestrated by the Mubarak regime—it's the work of his thugs and his police. CNN, for now, is having nothing of what she has to say and reminds everyone that we "don't really know" who's doing what, though they are of course happy to report the other story. Of course—we don't know everything. But the MSM have been reporting that community groups are organizing to protect businesses and buildings and citizens have been ringing the Cairo antiquities museum (untended warehouse is really more like it) to prevent further damage. Why call them "vigilantes"? Remember Baghdad in 2003, when under America's watchful eye the museum was completely looted and Donald Rumsfeld brushed it aside with words along the lines of, `Freedom is messy; stuff happens.’ Looks very much that Cairenes are out to stop such "stuff" from happening. An interesting YouTube listen. And how fascinating to see how different groups are responding. The MSM, for starters. And where will neocons and Republicans come down on Egypt, caught as they are between support for Israeli interests and their desire to spread democracy (of the right kind) in the Arab world. That is, is an indigenous revolt against an autocrat (and a new government that may include the much-maligned Muslim Brotherhood) as praiseworthy as regime change engineered and managed by US shock and awe? Remember what the Israelis and the US did following the Palestinian elections of 2006? Things would be in a very different (and much better) place now had the Palestinians been allowed to work out their own unity government at the time [Amen!] As for the Israeli government, Netanyahu is lying pretty low (and has ordered the big mouths in his government to keep their mouths shut) and saying little (do they really want to go on record praising Mubarak? [unfortunately, yes]). Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, called Mubarak to express his support. (Good grief, what was he thinking?) Jeffrey Goldberg waffled for a day or two (presumably out of concern for Israeli interests) and then decided that he'd do best to come down in support of the resistance. And what are Palestinians thinking—for sure about the Palestinian leadership but more importantly about the colonial overlords who've ruled their lives, invaded their homes, restricted their movement, and stolen their land, water, and resources for more than four decades? And, sadly, about the world that mostly hasn't found the courage to find inspiration or justice in the Palestinian resistance to oppression. But right now, first and foremost, we are witnessing an astonishing Egyptian moment. How can one not wish them the best? Ilene”

Egypt ---What’s Next?

Haider A. Khan
Professor of Economics, JKSIS, University of Denver
January 27,2011

The recent events in Egypt have unsettled the media pundits and Western academic advisers alike. After all, how can the recipient of the largest amount of US Foreign Aid in the Arab world and a close US ally be in such dire trouble politically from within?

As a CNN pundit put it recently,”…, among Arab nations Egypt enjoys a near-unparalleled relationship with Washington.”

But now Washington is worried.

Only last Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated confidently that the United States supported the "the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people". At the same time, she added that the US was confident that the "the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."

But the very next day, Secretary of State Clinton said, "We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." While Clinton urged the Egyptian government to keep the channels of peaceful protests open, the.White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated:: "Egypt is a strong ally."

However, the roots of trouble in Egypt run deep. The recent example of Tunisia may have given the protesters an immediate impetus, but the discontent has been simmering for a long time.

During my most recent visit to the country as an international adviser to a Cairo-based UN project on Arab Trade and Human Development, I noticed signs of unease among top academics and government officials in spite of the relatively high rate of growth and talks of export diversification during the last few years. Inequality and poverty have both been rising. Urban poverty was and remains particularly severe. Even by the official measure, it is over 20 percent. Official unemployment rate hovers around 10 per cent but the actual rate is much higher. My long conversations with students, workers and peasants convinced me that it was only brutal repression by the Egyptian state that was keeping a lid on widespread discontent throughout the Egyptian society.

It was also clear to me as a professional economist who has studied the development debacles in many parts of the world including the Arab world, that the causes of unease--- even if not consciously grasped in all their historical specificities by the highly trained experts or the plain people I talked with --- had long trajectories .

They certainly go back at least to the policy failures of the Egyptian President Mubarak who has now been in power since 1981. But perhaps the political vacuum of non-military alternatives arising from the politics in civil society started with the Nasserites, as independent Egyptian scholars such as Samir Amin have observed.. Under President Hosni Mubarak the repression intensified to include not only the secular democrats, socialists and communists but also the Islamicists.

For the moment, to paraphrase Nietzsche, out of the chaos, there is at least one faint sign of a dancing star. It is Mohammed El Baradei who headed the IAEA after a successful career as an Egyptian diplomat. After his highly competent handling of several crises including the one in Iraq, El Baradei and the IAEA were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2005.

However, El Baradei has yet to form a political party and even his supporters are unsure as to how familiar he is with the complexities of Egypt’s problems. As for his own plans, when he was asked recently whether he would run for president, El Baradei said: "Whether I run or not, that is totally irrelevant. And I made it very clear; I will not run under the present conditions, when the deck is stacked completely."

"The priority for me is to -- is to shift Egypt into a democracy, is to catch up with the 21st century, to get Egypt to be a modern and moderate society and respecting human rights, respecting the basic freedoms of the people."

All these are goals that deserve the support of the international community. Will Egypt be able to make a peaceful transition to a democratic society with equality and justice for all before things fall apart?

Sunday, January 30, 2011 by CommonDreams.org
The Torture Career of Egypt's New Vice President: Omar Suleiman and the Rendition to Torture Program
by Stephen Soldz

In response to the mass protests of recent days, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has appointed his first Vice President in his over 30 years rule, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. When Suleiman was first announced, Aljazeera commentators were describing him as a "distinguished" and "respected " man. It turns out, however, that he is distinguished for, among other things, his central role in Egyptian torture and in the US rendition to torture program. Further, he is "respected" by US officials for his cooperation with their torture plans, among other initiatives.

Katherine Hawkins, an expert on the US's rendition to torture program, in an email, has sent some critical texts where Suleiman pops up. Thus, Jane Mayer, in The Dark Side, pointed to Suleiman's role in the rendition program:

"Each rendition was authorized at the very top levels of both governments....The long-serving chief of the Egyptian central intelligence agency, Omar Suleiman negotiated directly with top Agency officials. [Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt] Walker described the Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, as 'very bright, very realistic,' adding that he was cognizant that there was a downside to 'some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way' (pp. 113)."

Stephen Grey, in Ghost Plane, his investigative work on the rendition program also points to Suleiman as central in the rendition program:

"To negotiate these assurances [that the Egyptians wouldn't "torture" the prisoner delivered for torture] the CIA dealt principally in Egypt through Omar Suleiman, the chief of the Egyptian general intelligence service (EGIS) since 1993. It was he who arranged the meetings with the Egyptian interior ministry.... Suleiman, who understood English well, was an urbane and sophisticated man. Others told me that for years Suleiman was America's chief interlocutor with the Egyptian regime -- the main channel to President Hosni Mubarak himself, even on matters far removed from intelligence and security."

Suleiman's role, was also highlighted in a Wikileaks cable:

“In the context of the close and sustained cooperation between the USG and GOE on counterterrorism, Post believes that the written GOE assurances regarding the return of three Egyptians detained at Guantanamo (reftel) represent the firm commitment of the GOE to adhere to the requested principles. These assurances were passed directly from Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) Chief Soliman through liaison channels -- the most effective communication path on this issue. General Soliman's word is the GOE's guarantee, and the GOE's track record of cooperation on CT issues lends further support to this assessment. End summary.”

However, Suleiman wasn't just the go-to bureaucrat for when the Americans wanted to arrange a little torture. This 'urbane and sophisticated man' apparently enjoyed a little rough stuff himself.
Shortly after 9/11, Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib was captured by Pakistani security forces and, under US pressure, torture by Pakistanis. He was then rendered (with an Australian diplomats watching) by CIA operatives to Egypt, a not uncommon practice. In Egypt, Habib merited Suleiman's personal attention. As related by Richard Neville, based on Habib's memoir:

“Habib was interrogated by the country's Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman.... Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion. Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks.”

That treatment wasn't enough for Suleiman, so:

“To loosen Habib's tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib - and he did, with a vicious karate kick.”

After Suleiman's men extracted Habib's confession, he was transferred back to US custody, where he eventually was imprisoned at Guantanamo. His "confession" was then used as evidence in his Guantanamo trial.

The Washington Post's intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein reported some additional details regarding Suleiman and his important role in the old Egypt the demonstrators are trying to leave behind:

"'Suleiman is seen by some analysts as a possible successor to the president,'" the Voice of American said Friday. 'He earned international respect for his role as a mediator in Middle East affairs and for curbing Islamic extremism.'"

An editorialist at Pakistan's "International News" predicted Thursday that "Suleiman will probably scupper his boss's plans [to install his son], even if the aspiring intelligence guru himself is as young as 75."

Suleiman graduated from Egypt's prestigious Military Academy but also received training in the Soviet Union. Under his guidance, Egyptian intelligence has worked hand-in-glove with the CIA's counterterrorism programs, most notably in the 2003 rendition from Italy of an al-Qaeda suspect known as Abu Omar.

In 2009, Foreign Policy magazine ranked Suleiman as the Middle East's most powerful intelligence chief, ahead of Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

In an observation that may turn out to be ironic, the magazine wrote, "More than from any other single factor, Suleiman's influence stems from his unswerving loyalty to Mubarak."

If Suleiman succeeds Mubarak and retains power, we will likely be treated to plaudits for his distinguished credentials from government officials and US pundits. We should remember that what they really mean is his ability to brutalize and torture. As Stephen Grey puts it:

“But in secret, men like Omar Suleiman, the country's most powerful spy and secret politician, did our work, the sort of work that Western countries have no appetite to do ourselves.”

If Suleiman receives praise in the US, it will be because our leaders know that he's the sort of leader who can be counted on to do what it takes to restore order and ensure that Egypt remains friendly to US interests.

There are some signs, however, that the Obama administration may not accept Suleiman's appointment. Today they criticized the rearrangement of the chairs in Egypt's government. If so, that will be a welcome sign that the Obama administration may have some limits beyond which it is hesitant to go in aligning with our most brutal "friends."

We sure hope that the Egyptian demonstrators reject the farce of Suleiman's appointment and push on to a complete change of regime. Otherwise the Egyptian torture chamber will undoubtedly return, as a new regime reestablishes "stability" and serves US interests.

Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. Soldz is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations; he served as a psychological consultant on several Guantanamo trials. Currently Soldz is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR] and a Consultant to Physicians for Human Rights.

The western liberal reaction to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia frequently shows hypocrisy and cynicism
by Slavoj Zizek

What cannot but strike the eye in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt is the conspicuous absence of Muslim fundamentalism. In the best secular democratic tradition, people simply revolted against an oppressive regime, its corruption and poverty, and demanded freedom and economic hope. The cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilised through religious fundamentalism or nationalism, has been proven wrong. The big question is what will happen next? Who will emerge as the political winner?

When a new provisional government was nominated in Tunis, it excluded Islamists and the more radical left. The reaction of smug liberals was: good, they are the basically same; two totalitarian extremes – but are things as simple as that? Is the true long-term antagonism not precisely between Islamists and the left? Even if they are momentarily united against the regime, once they approach victory, their unity splits, they engage in a deadly fight, often more cruel than against the shared enemy.

Did we not witness precisely such a fight after the last elections in Iran? What the hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters stood for was the popular dream that sustained the Khomeini revolution: freedom and justice. Even if this dream is utopian [this is a breathtakingly misleading phrase], it did lead to a breathtaking explosion of political and social creativity, organisational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. This genuine opening that unleashed unheard-of forces for social transformation, a moment in which everything seemed possible, was then gradually stifled through the takeover of political control by the Islamist establishment.

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban is regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror. However, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, The New York Times reported that they engineered "a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants". If, by "taking advantage" of the farmers' plight, the Taliban are creating, in the words of the New York Times "alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal," what prevented liberal democrats in Pakistan and the US similarly "taking advantage" of this plight and trying to help the landless farmers? Is it that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the natural ally of liberal democracy?

The inevitable conclusion to be drawn is that the rise of radical Islamism was always the other side of the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries. When Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that, 40 years ago, it was a country with a strong secular tradition, including a powerful communist party that took power there independently of the Soviet Union? Where did this secular tradition go?

And it is crucial to read the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt (and Yemen and … maybe, hopefully, even Saudi Arabia) against this background. If the situation is eventually stabilised so that the old regime survives but with some liberal cosmetic surgery, this will generate an insurmountable fundamentalist backlash. In order for the key liberal legacy to survive, liberals need the fraternal help of the radical left. Back to Egypt, the most shameful and dangerously opportunistic reaction was that of Tony Blair as reported on CNN: change is necessary, but it should be a stable change. Stable change in Egypt today can mean only a compromise with the Mubarak forces by way of slightly enlarging the ruling circle. This is why to talk about peaceful transition now is an obscenity: by squashing the opposition, Mubarak himself made this impossible. After Mubarak sent the army against the protesters, the choice became clear: either a cosmetic change in which something changes so that everything stays the same, or a true break.

Here, then, is the moment of truth: one cannot claim, as in the case of Algeria a decade ago, that allowing truly free elections equals delivering power to Muslim fundamentalists. Another liberal worry is that there is no organised political power to take over if Mubarak goes. Of course there is not; Mubarak took care of that by reducing all opposition to marginal ornaments, so that the result is like the title of the famous Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. The argument for Mubarak – it's either him or chaos – is an argument against him.

The hypocrisy of western liberals is breathtaking: they publicly supported democracy, and now, when the people revolt against the tyrants on behalf of secular freedom and justice, not on behalf of religion, they are all deeply concerned. Why concern, why not joy that freedom is given a chance? Today, more than ever, Mao Zedong's old motto is pertinent: "There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent."

Where, then, should Mubarak go? Here, the answer is also clear: to the Hague. If there is a leader who deserves to sit there, it is him.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
Slavoj Zizek is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

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