State of the Union

In Egypt, Protest Without Ceasing

After a surge of recent protests, Egypt’s military issued an ultimatum on Monday, giving Morsi two days to appease the demonstrators. If he does not comply, the military will impose its own ‘road map for the future.’

Some have called this Egypt’s “Second Revolution.” The question, however, is whether its first revolution was ever completed.

In January 2011, Over 50,000 protesters first filled Tahrir Square. News websites noted how “rare” and “unusually large” such demonstrations were. Even after toppling long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak, the protests continued to fester and build over the next 10 months and into November. After the provisional government offered its resignation to the supreme military council, things quieted somewhat in December and January.

However, sporadic protests continued in February, March, and April 2012. In June, demonstrators protested the Supreme Court’s dissolution of the Islamist-led parliament. In July, they protested when the court froze Morsi’s decree to reinstate the parliament.

When Morsi assumed legislative powers on August 12, the people responded with mixed support and protest. After the court acquitted 24 people associated with the 2011 “Battle of the Camels,” activists and political parties called for a nationwide protest on October 12. That same week, anti-Morsi protesters accused the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to take over the country.

When Morsi issued a presidential decree on November 22 immunizing his decrees from challenge, demonstrators again filled Tahrir Square. Violent clashes erupted between protesters and the police.

In December 2012, Egypt Independent reported that Egypt had plunged into a “political crisis,” with “deadly” demonstrations by Morsi supporters and opponents. On January 24, demonstrators and police clashed on the eve of the second anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow.

Last month, a purported 14 million anti-Morsi protesters gathered across the country. They were using their 2011 revolution slogan: “The people demand the ouster of the regime.”

After looking at the two-year timeline, it appears that Egypt’s protests have never fully stopped – not for more than a few months. The country is stuck in a cycle of protesting, violence, attempted appeasement, and more protesting. The current demonstrators are in Tahrir Square with the same reasons – and even the same words – given in January 2011.

Perhaps this exhibits one of the weaknesses of protesting. While Tahrir Square demonstrations have enabled angry Egyptians to gather and vent frustrations, they have not effectively changed the status quo. As noted by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, this is a “leaderless movement.” The Egypt opposition has yet to provide a viable alternative to authoritarian rule – and without a strategy, they cannot establish order. Egypt’s only order, in the midst of the chaos, has come from its military and political leaders. Unfortunately, the “order” these leaders impose is often unjust. But without a feasible substitute, they will maintain power.

The 1789 French Revolution is one example of effective protesting, as the French managed to topple their monarch and “make their voice heard.” However, the ensuing Reign of Terror was characterized by death and destruction. Few protests seem to generate order from their chaos. It is impossible to deny that chaos and injustice have riddled Egypt’s protests. Tahrir Square has had its fill of sexual assault, violence, and vandalism. A mass of angry protesters will never create order or equality – not on their own, at least. Not without a thoughtful, judicious plan.

Unfortunately, in Egypt’s case, there is no plan. And after two years of nearly constant civil unrest, one wonders whether they will ever find one.


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The Fertilizer Explosion in West, Texas

Raw footage of the blast is harrowing: a father and son filming the fire at the West, Texas fertilizer plant were close enough to be shaken and deafened by the explosion.

The Telegraph has a somewhat less disturbing clip of moment of detonation in the report below. The plant contains more than 12 times as much chemical fertilizer as was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

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Four New Jersey Vignettes

We had a death in the family and had to go up to central New Jersey for the funeral last weekend. It was extremely difficult finding a room as most of the hotels are still full of people who are homeless as a result of hurricane Sandy. When I did find a vacancy online, I quickly moved to lock it in with my credit card.  The reservation bounced back, with a message telling me that the room was no longer the $130 posted price but had instead increased to $160. I did the reservation form a second time only to have yet another message pop up telling me that the price had increased to $190, plus tax. I reserved the room at that price as I had no choice. I wondered to what extent the hotels were playing the same trick with FEMA, with the State of New Jersey emergency management, and with the hapless survivors who were paying their own way.

We talked to a number of people who had lived on or near the Jersey Shore. Many were either retired or were approaching the end of their working careers and had lost absolutely everything in the storm. The entire Shore area has been reconfigured and whole communities embracing a specific economy and way of life have been swept away. Many homeowners did not have flood insurance as it was prohibitive (upwards of $4000 per annum I was told). Like New Orleans, this was a disaster that will play out over many years as reconfiguration and reconstruction take place in the peculiar New Jersey human environment that combines widespread corruption with sometimes astonishing altruism. Our local best-in-New Jersey pizzeria (a significant accolade) had lost its power for a week but was up and running overtime when we arrived dishing out hundreds of free pies to people who had lost their homes. Read More…

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It’s Over; The Republican Party Hasn’t Recovered From Bush

As I write, Barack Obama has been declared the winner of the 2012 election. He will compile an impressive victory in the Electoral College. By my projections at least a 313-213 victory. And it could be larger than that when Florida and Ohio are finally counted. But Romney made a respectable showing in the popular vote, one that would have been surprising before the first debate made a Republican comeback victory seem temporarily possible.

We’ve already gone over the reasons Romney lost. The Republican coalition is shriveling, the Democrats are growing. Romney was an unliked nominee who failed to compete for the very voters that powered Republicans to re-take the House in 2010.  I think he is an admirable guy in some ways, but harnessing the passions of the GOP and riding them into the White House was a task beyond the abilities of the hyper-competent, hard-working moderate.

It’s a bad night for social conservatives, in fact it is almost a complete reversal of 2004. Same sex marriage won on the ballot in Maryland and Maine. Obama did not really propose anything new on the economy or foreign policy fronts, but he did make contraception, rape, and Roe v. Wade a large part of this campaign. He constantly portrayed Romney as a man with “the social policies of the 1950s.” Apparently this worked. If there is one thought that comforts me (and perhaps some readers), it is that the chances of courts striking down the “contraceptive mandate” that impinges on religious freedom seem very good. However, Obama’s second term will mean that a future American judiciary may be more open to that sort of thing.

Because changing demographics are such a huge part of Obama’s formula, it is going to cause Republicans to discuss how they can attract a more diverse pool of voters. Inevitably this will focus on Hispanics. I expect tonight’s results will be used as an argument for automatically nominating Florida Senator Marco Rubio for 2016.

But in reality the more pressing problem is that Republicans are still a party badly damaged by the George W. Bush years. The GOP has traditionally held huge advantages on foreign policy and the economy. That advantage is gone now. And Mitt Romney was the wrong candidate to give the party a refresh on those issues, particularly when the gettable voters were downscale whites. It isn’t that Republicans aren’t reaching enough voters; voters simply don’t believe the GOP is competent to govern.

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Israel, South Africa, and Romney’s Ignorance

We heard a great deal about Israel in last night’s debate. Obama repeated several times that Israel is “a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.” Romney tried to outdo him, promising that he’d prosecute Iran’s Prime Minister for threatening to “wipe Israel off the map”. As President, Romney claimed,

 I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world. The same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

The promise to indict Ahmadinejad is mere posturing: the President doesn’t have the authority to indict anyone for anything. The reference to South Africa, on the other hand, is more interesting because it exposes Romney’s ignorance of the morally ambiguous realities of foreign affairs.

In the first place, Romney seems unaware that “we” did not treat South Africa as a pariah until quite late in the game. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration regarded the apartheid regime as a key ally against the spread of Communism. That strategy became  untenable in the 1980s. Even so, President Reagan and prominent Republicans in Congress including Dick Cheney consistently resisted efforts to recognize the ANC, which they regarded (with some justice) as a terrorist organization. In Romney’s view of history, the forces of good are always clearly aligned against the “bad guys”. It just isn’t so.

Much the same is true of Israel. Although Israel publicly opposed apartheid, the 1975 Israel-South Africa Agreement established close military links in response to both countries’ international isolation. On some accounts, that included nuclear cooperation. According to Romney, Iran can’t be trusted with a nuclear weapon because of the fundamental injustice of its government. But Israel may have helped his paradigm of a pariah state acquire the same weapons.

And what about Israel itself? Romney implicitly condemns apartheid as an intolerable violation of human rights. According to a survey released today, however, 58 percent of Israel’s own citizens believe that it practices apartheid policies. What’s more, many Israelis are quite satisfied with that state of affairs. The ultra-Orthodox, in particular, express overwhelming approval for denying votes, jobs, and even public roads to Arabs both within Israel proper and in the territories.

My point here is not that Israel is identical to South Africa. Bad as things are there, especially in the territories, there’s room for improvement within the existing political and legal system. That was not the case under apartheid.

But, as his secretly-recorded remarks indicates, Romney is unable to imagine how that improvement might occur. That’s because he imposes a largely simplistic script onto the messy, wrenching events and circumstances that constitute international affairs. We just had a president who saw the world with what he was pleased to regard as similar clarity. We will be lucky to avoid another.

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Why Have Debates?

I find presidential debates painful to watch. The main reason is that isn’t they aren’t really debates, at least in the traditional sense of extended presentations of dueling arguments on a single, predetermined subject. When Abraham Lincoln confronted Stephen Douglas in 1858, the opening speaker spoke for an hour, was followed by a 90 minute response from his opponent, and then offered a 30 minute rebuttal (Lincoln and Douglas alternated speaking first). The encounter between Obama and Romney two weeks ago, by contrast, consisted of a series ten-minute segments in which the candidates answered questions posed by a moderator.

That format transforms ancient tradition of political rhetoric into a kind of dual interview. As such, it encourages the participants to pursue “zingers” and non-sequitur soundbites. There’s no question that Romney’s performance was more effective than Obama’s. Read in transcript, however, it develops no argument or vision.

There’s reason to expect that tomorrow’s encounter will be even more inane. One problem is the “townhall” format, in which voters ask impromptu questions. Leaving the choice of subjects to a moderator is bad enough: who cares what Jim Lehrer thinks is worth discussing? But soliciting questions from a relatively large audience almost guarantees incoherence.

A second problem is that participation in the townhall meeting will be limited to undecided voters. That means that they’ll be representative of only a tiny slice of the electorate: about 6% of likely voters, according to Reuters. Why should their questions have priority over other citizens?

It’s bad enough that citizens whose views reflect the vast majority of likely voters are excluded from the debate. What’s even worse is that undecideds are, speaking generally, the least informed and interested of likely voters. They haven’t made up their minds because they don’t know or care much about politics. As a result, they tend to be more concerned with character and manner than ideological commitments or specific policies.

The campaigns can’t be blamed for using debates to go after the few “sellable” voters who remain. Journalists and commentators, however, should not be shy about identifying the farcical character of the exercise. With the exception of the Nixon-Kennedy encounter in 1960, debates between the nominees became a regular feature of presidential politics only in 1976. Unless the candidates want to return to something resembling Lincoln and Douglas’s example, we’d be better off without them.

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The Slow Death of Democracy in Europe

This morning I began to write a long post on the political implication of European Central Bank’s new bond-buying policy. To my chagrin, I discovered that Walter Russell Mead has beaten me to the punch. The key points:

This central bank is the only European body that can act. And as the only real actor in a continent in crisis, as the emergency deepens, its powers grow. National governments bluster; the European parliament wrings its hands…This is how you can tell where, in a mixed government, the true power of sovereignty resides.

And then,

People used to say that Prussia was an army with a state. Right now, Europe is a bank without one. This cannot last; Europe will lose its central bank or build a state. For now, however, Via Meadia salutes the first central bank in the world to achieve sovereign power. Mario Draghi is the most powerful banker in the history of the world.

Although I agree with Mead’s read of the situation, I can only hope that his salute to Mario Draghi is ironic. The Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program may or may not be good economic policy: the consensus seems to be that it will buy member states, especially Italy and Spain, some time to restore growth. But it is a profound blow to the principle of self-government. At least for the foreseeable future, the elected governments of Europe will have to submit their fiscal policies for approval to a council of unaccountable bankers. That makes them little more than administrators for the benevolent King Euro.

What I find most baffling about this development is that seems to have aroused so little resistance among the national elites. I can’t think of another case in which formerly ruling classes accepted similar encroachments on their power without a fight. The struggles between the kings and barons went on for centuries; American states fought a bloody rebellion against the national government. But as far as I can tell, most Europeans see the reduction of democracy to a formality as an irresistible destiny. Some even appear to welcome relief from the responsibility of governing themselves.

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Dead End: The NYPD and Domestic Spying

In the wake of September 11, the NYPD Intelligence Division set up a secret operation to monitor Muslims in the New York area. Working under the sinister title of the “Demographics Unit” and in collaboration with the CIA, officers attended sermons at mosques, hung out in cafes frequented by immigrants from the Islamic world, and infiltrated Muslim student groups at universities around the Northeast. The idea was that constant surveillance of legal assemblies and activities might provide early warnings of terrorism.

What has the NYPD learned from these tactics? According to the AP’s Adam Goldman (no relation of mine), who received a Pulitizer Prize for revealing the program’s existence last year, the answer is nothing. It’s not just that the secret team didn’t generate any prosecutions. According to the assistant chief responsible for the Intelligence Division, the Demographics Unit hasn’t produced any leads since he assumed command in 2006. That’s six years of domestic spying, often simply on the basis of religion and national origin. And without any results.

The legality of the program is in currently in litigation. But the failure to produce useful intelligence removes its practical justification. Threats of political violence may justify expansions of government powers. When the applications of those powers shows that those threats are exaggerated or non-existent, however, they should by removed or restricted. In short, I can understand why the NYPD and city officials once thought the Demographic Unit was necessary. Now the time has come to shut it down.

Of course, that’s not usually the way things go when it comes to emergency powers. Temporary authority has a way of becoming permanent. Criticism may force the NYPD to conceal the Demographics Unit, perhaps by reconstituting it under a different name or in a different division (it’s already been renamed the “Zone Assessment Unit”). But I fear that the domestic counterpart of the national security state is here to stay.

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In Afghanistan, Costs and Casualties Mount

Masonjar / Shutterstock
Masonjar / Shutterstock

Five Fort Bliss soldiers serving in Afghanistan were shot Tuesday by an Afghan wearing an Afghan Army uniform. One soldier, Pfc. Jeremy Young of Archdale, N.C., was shot 12  times before the attacker fled on foot and remained “at-large” as of Thursday.

The incident happened in the eastern province of Wardak, known for being a “Taliban hotbed.” (Yes, after nearly 12 years and a million soldiers and a dozen hearings in which generals tell us we’ve broken their momentum, there are still Taliban “hotbeds” in Afghanistan.) This, by the way, was the province where 38 people died when the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter carrying mostly U.S. military personnel, plus 8 Afghans, in August 2011.

It’s certainly not the first instance of “green-on-blue” attacks–Afghan “allies” engaging in surprise “fragging” of their international partners. On Monday, three British soldiers were killed in a similar fashion.

According to reports on Thursday, there have been a total of 19 such attacks involving 26 deaths, 13 of them American, as of early July. That nearly equals the number of attacks in all of 2011 — 21, with 35 deaths.

If you haven’t heard about any of this, don’t worry — the story barely registered a blip on the mainstream news radar. Years ago, a report that five soldiers were shot by a supposed Afghan ally would have raised a much bigger ruckus. As for fatalities, I bet you didn’t know we lost 165 servicemen in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year, 77 of them from improvised explosive devices (IED) planted by insurgents. We can only guess how many were injured by these IEDs but did not die because the Pentagon is not very generous with its non-fatal-injury statistics.

Read More…

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Egyptian Army Minds Its Own “Business”

Nora Shalaby / Flickr
Nora Shalaby / Flickr

If we reported there was a massive new sports center glittering like a jewel in the desert east of Cairo, complete with a resort hotel, five-lane highway, a stadium, and other shiny facilities, you would think Donald Trump or Steve Wynn had moved to town.

Not quite. Think the Egyptian military.

These days, everyone is speculating over the military’s role in the post-Mubarak transition to democracy. A week after it declared new laws expanding its own powers over the writing of the constitution, the budgets, legislative authority, and declaring war, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was forced to acknowledge that the winner of the presidential runoff was not one of its own, but a candidate raised up by the civilian (and Islamist) Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi–Egypt’s first non-military ruler since the military took power in 1952.

The question of the moment is what the military might do now–especially since it effectively weakened the role of the presidency in a soft coup d’etat last week. But let’s explore for a bit what it is not likely to do: namely, go quietly into the shadows.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether the United States can use for leverage the $1.3 billion in military aid it has promised to the Egyptians. Apparently, it plans to. According to a recent Financial Times report, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week the 2012 aid money is being held in an American bank where Washington can still exert some control over it. But what most Americans don’t realize is that unlike the American military, the Egyptian military is not entirely dependent on anyone’s sloppy trough. In fact, it runs a “vast business empire” that is lucrative, powerful, and right now impossible to pin down.

According to a BBC News report by Magdi Abdelhadi, the new sports complex (which is connected to a “vast new suburb called ‘New Cairo,’ where the rich and powerful, including members of [SCAF] have luxurious villas”) was built in under two years–”a testimony to the army’s ability to get things done quickly and effectively.”

No one knows, according to this report, how the major desert complex came to be built, how much it cost, or who would reap the revenues from its use. This is in keeping with the secretive nature of the military’s “state within a state.”

“This is typical of the many projects built and run by the army’s vast business empire, which includes manufacturing of consumer goods, food, mineral water, construction, mining, land reclamation, even tourism,” says Abdelhadi.

As the debate over the role of the military in post-Mubarak Egypt intensified, General Mahmoud Nasr, the assistant defence minister, told a press conference in Cairo last year that the army would never hand over control of these projects to any other authority, adding that these were not state assets but were “revenues from the sweat of the ministry of defences and its own projects”.

At around the same period it was announced that the army had come to the rescue of the ministry of finance by lending the state a substantial amount of money to shore up its rapidly-depleting coffers.

This sums up how the Egyptian military operates like a state within the state.

Abdelhadi then goes on say that no one knows how much of the Egyptian economy the military’s businesses account for because all of them are “regarded as classified.” Estimates stretch from as low as 8 percent of Egypt’s gross national product to as high as 40 percent of the GNP.

Imagine for a moment the Pentagon grabbing public funding with one hand and operating as a kind of  Rockefeller family empire with the other, with no public disclosure to speak of, including how much in taxes its businesses may or may not pay to the federal government. What’s more, think of the Pentagon putting Washington into its debt for major emergency loans. The full potential for corruption here is difficult to fathom.

But it gets worse–most of the civilian institutions and public-sector corporations in Egypt are run by former generals.

The country’s three main land-developing authorities (agricultural, urban and tourism) are headed by former military officers who, in addition to their pensions, receive lucrative salaries and perks associated with their civilian jobs. …
Any attempt to open up, let alone privatise, the military’s business empire will face stiff resistance, not just from the generals but also from powerful allies within the state bureaucracy; people who, besides benefiting personally from the status quo, are often by their very nature hostile to change.

So it would seem that SCAF is not only fighting to maintain control of Egypt’s political course but to protect its business interests as well. Those interests, the BBC points out, rest on a socialist or “state capitalist” economic platform established after the revolution that put the military and President Gamal Nasser into power over 60 years ago.

Followers of Nasser put up a candidate in this last election, and he came in third. As Abdelhadi points out, the military is now running what was left of Nasser’s legacy as its own private enterprise. Now a new non-military president will soon be “in charge,” but no one is certain whether he is strong enough to challenge the military’s authority. The economy is in a dangerous decline, and the military’s interests are so concealed that it is unclear whether they will hurt or help get Egypt back onto its feet.

A few bullet points on Egypt’s economy:

The economy contracted by 4.3 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and stagnated in the following three quarters.

The Brotherhood’s economic plan relies on private Egyptian and foreign investors and the group has pledged to move fast to negotiate a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) once it forms a government….

An army-backed interim government kept the economy on the rails since Mubarak’s overthrow through a series of short-term measures that have brought the country dangerously close to fiscal collapse.

These include financing a burgeoning budget deficit by selling domestic treasury bills and bonds at steadily rising interest rates and shortening maturities.

The pile of local currency debt has built up to well over 600 billion Egyptian pounds ($99 billion) from about 500 billion pounds just before the uprising.

The borrowing has stretched the lending ability of local banks, causing the average yield on 1-year T-bills to surge to almost 16 percent, its highest in more than a decade, from 10.4 percent in January 2011.

The interim government borrowed an additional $6 billion in T-bills denominated in U.S. dollars that the new government, strapped for foreign currency, will have to repay or roll over when the first begin maturing in November.

The interim government has also drawn down foreign reserves by more than half, to about $15.5 billion, to support the currency, partly out of fear that an increase in the cost of imported goods would fuel inflation and political discontent.

The dangerously low level of reserves has left the country with less than three months of import coverage.

Just more evidence of how complicated the landscape there really is, and how little our own politics can influence it right now. Washington establishment scribe David Ignatius offered his own superficial take on the military question on Sunday:

The army needs to retreat now to the proper, reticent role of the military — protecting the state and the constitution, in extremis, but otherwise letting civilians run the show.

That would be just swell, except that after reading Abdelhadi’s report it seems that any real “retreat” may be impossible. For all we know, it could collapse the economy.

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