Monthly Archives: November 2011

Now Is the Time to Watch Egypt

If there were a moment in time when I was going to pay particular attention to what’s going on in Egypt, and trying to predict how its future will develop, it would be now. It’s a Monster’s Ball and the only couple dancing is the military and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I and others have been warning about the coming Islamic tide and what happens in the next few weeks could be the deciding factor. The elections are today. The public and the protesters in Tahrir square seem to have strong democratic impulses coursing through their veins. They are calling for the military to leave power, civilian control of the military, and limitations on the MB. At the moment, the military seems to be the biggest problem. They have tried to assign themselves special powers and protections under a Constitution including refusing civilian control of the military. How far beyond high school civics does one need to go before they understand the importance of civilian control of the military? Violence against protesters must cease, and security must come under clear civilian rule.

Both the MB and the military are naturally conservative and hierarchical. If Egypt is not careful they will end up with some version of Saudi Arabia – religious conservatism and authoritarian politics. The Central Security Forces have overreacted when trying to clear some protesters and incurred the wrath of many. The protesters have reason to be fearful. The military has been particularly recalcitrant and difficult mostly because they believe they have the support of the Egyptian people, but that support is waning. The military’s attempt to grab sweeping powers and maintain independence above the law is inconsistent with the Arab Spring. Still, the Egyptian “silent majority” may make it possible for the military to prevail. The protesters may have the strongest democratic impulses but their numbers are exaggerated by media coverage.

The MB clearly holds the upper hand and is easily the most influential political party. Their new Freedom and Justice party is well organized and financed and ready to reap gains stimulated by the brotherhood’s outreach and efficient organization. The MB can certainly be hierarchical and conservative but Islam is woven into the fabric of Egyptian society and no future state can ignore it. The brotherhood wants quick elections so that they can consolidate their strengths and begin to work on the nature and structure of the new constitution.

But the future of Egypt will not be represented by the military or the Central Security Forces and certainly not by a dominant controlling Muslim party. If the birth pangs of a new Egypt in Tahrir square are going to bring forth anything viable, than the protesters and the liberal political parties must have sufficient influence when writing a new constitution. The liberal parties want the military to delegate decision-making and to establish a temporary civilian government whose job it will be to put itself out of business; that is, the temporary civilian government will be charged with maintaining order and beginning the process of transitioning to the permanent government.

The structure of today’s elections is one problem. Many liberal voices will be drowned out by the rules of the elections. Groups representing women and minority rights have been pushed to the background and election officials in Egypt have denied the United Nations and other groups access to the election that could help guarantee fairness. The party list technique will mean that smaller groups such as Coptic Christians and liberals will be overwhelmed by larger groups such as the MB. Even smaller Islamic parties, which are often more liberal, will be silenced. Moreover the election reserves a certain number of seats for “workers and farmers” which means that even if smaller more liberal groups managed to win elections they could be sidelined because their seats are guaranteed to other constituencies. This is an election manipulation that has been used in the past to manipulate results.

American historians often point out that the period after the American Revolution is most important because that is when the infrastructure and foundation of America was established. Revolutions are quick, violent, and ideologically eruptive but the legislative processes that follow determine the true nature of the political culture. The same will be true in Egypt. Keep your eye on what is happening now.

Photographers Creating Drama

 Click here on the word  Photographers and watch the video (wait a moment for it to begin). You can see how photographers can become part of the story and help construct images. The media manipulation is part of ethnopolitical conflicts and the extent to which they are intensified by improper coverage of the story. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intense and complex and deserving of proper treatment.

  I’ve seen this myself in Israel on more than one occasion where photographer’s, reporters, and medical personnel show up before the protesters to get “ready” for the event. What gets reported in the news or on television, if it makes it that far, is more dramatic than what actually occurred.

Manipulated photographs gain their credibility by being attached to real photographs or real events. Adages about how a picture is worth 1000 words or how photographs never lie resonate with the public’s belief that pictures are real and tell the truth. The pressure for the public to believe the photograph is powerful so people view images and work hard to find them truthful.

It’s also the case that manipulated photographs make for a gray area of reality. The photograph is of course “of” something and this contributes increasingly to the sense of reality a photograph carries with it. Technology and computerized images are now so sophisticated that the fake picture can be better than a real one. It is so easy to simply “improve” the photograph by sharpening the colors, increasing the contrast, or cropping without encountering any moral questions about the new reality the photographer is creating.

Compare it to writing. If you observe an event or listen to an interaction and then go write a story using those instances, it is not much different than what a photographer does when he or she approaches a subject and constructs a photographic image. Maybe we should begin to think about photography as fictional and begin the process of teaching people to treat it as a story or narrative that has been constructed. Writers exceed the boundaries of truth and are called creative and interesting, why not the same for news photographs. The photographs from the news perspective are supposed to be reporting some semblance of the truth. If the photograph is manipulated or staged in any way it violates the truth to some degree.

I think the manipulation in this video is some of the worst kind because the photographers are going out of their way to replicate a dramatic and violent reality in order to increase the sense of excitement around the photograph. No one is benefiting from this.


Regime Change in Syria

Here’s hoping the Arab spring lasts a little longer so there is time for flowers to bloom in Syria. Regime change in Syria would be a good thing, and it looks like a real possibility. Last week the Arab League decided to suspend Syria’s membership, and to sanction President Assad for his acts of violence. The sense that the Syrian regime is failing to meet the expectations of its people is growing. The list of killed gets longer and human rights group discovered the bodies of 19 people kidnapped. The Syrian government is beginning to panic albeit slightly because they have recently released detainees as a humanitarian effort, including the well-known political activist.

The question becomes what is the next step. Some suggest a Libyan style intervention but the conditions on the ground are sufficiently different to make it unlikely. Other ideas include asking Syria to withdraw its armed forces from various communities, release more political prisoners, and meet with activists to try to solve contentious issues. Still other ideas suggest the UN intervention and the recall of foreign ambassadors.

All of these are a sort of first step which will probably lead to very little change. For now, Syria is requesting meetings with the Arab League mostly in an effort to stall for time. What is particularly incendiary is the fact that most of the Syrian population is Sunni while Syria is closely associated with Shiite Iran. A post Assad government should represent the majority Sunnis but no one expects Iran to tolerate such a representation. Any real transition for the Syrian government will confront the threat of the Muslim brotherhood and the rise of Muslim political parties.

It is too early to start making plans for a new government in Syria. As of now, the rare Arab consensus that led to Syria’s suspension from the Arab League is probably the most hopeful possibility. The decision by the Arab League is a direct confrontation with Assad and can be used for significant pressure. Even though Arab officials have held firmly and claim that their censure is no idle threat, there remains a strong tradition in this area of the world that would discourage any military engagement and surely back off of any direct intervention. This means that the United States will have to take the lead in destabilizing Syria but this also will not be on the White House’s agenda.

Syria is no friend of the United States, except with regard to formal international relations, and has spent its share of time espousing harsh words for the US and the West. But its big brother Iran is an even greater threat. It’s time to see the two of them in tandem. Iran is a world leader in exporting terrorism, is associated with Al Qaeda, and now we have discovered they plotted terrorist attacks on US soil, not to mention their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Confronting Syria and forcing significant change can be a precursor to challenging Iran in a significant manner. Syria has little choice but to continue trying to quash protests but represent itself as a legitimate government. Assad’s competence is increasingly in question in Syria is increasingly isolated. This is a potentially combustible mixture.

Muslim Election Implications

A few posts ago I predicted, along with others, a coming Muslim empire in the Middle East. The early signs are pretty supportive of this prediction. I don’t want to be naïve and appear as if Islam will play no role in governing Middle East countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. Islam is a significant cultural category in this area of the world and responsible for the identity of many of the citizens. But even at the risk of sounding alarmist we need to keep our eye on the triumph of Islam in the political process of many states.

We are supposed to be seeing the beginning of democracies in places like Tunisia and Egypt, but such a transition is by no means assured given the results of elections. In Tunisia the Islamist party, Nahda, may present itself as a roadblock to Tunisia’s recently gained freedoms. We might expect Tunisia’s largest Islamic political party to do well in an election, but it still raises worries about the future and whether or not the modern and secular Tunisia will remain that way.

There are instances of Nahda’s founder insisting that the rights of women and others would be respected but then appealing to more religiously conservative members of the electorate. The party is a relative of the Muslim brotherhood with the documented message of radicalism that sometimes contradicts the moderate message.

We are beginning to see a trend in the discourse emerging from many media and academic critics that condemns any declarations of Islam as extremist. It’s becoming the case that if one expresses fear of revolutionary Islam, they’re accused of alarmism at the least and fear mongering at the worst. And even though I do not want to contribute to either, we are seeing the beginning of the Muslim empire I have referred to and the conditions for slipping into revolutionary Islam are delicate. It is the dominant ideology in Tunisia, Iran, Egypt, and Libya, and cannot help but find its way into the political system. There are three interesting links between Islamists and their success in the coming Muslim majority.

The first was a failure of Arab nationalism. When the military took over Egypt in the early 1950s there was the possibility that nationalism would govern as the dominant political ideology in the region. But after economic failures, war losses, and general threats to their identity the nationalist failed to convince a population that they had anything to offer. Waiting patiently in the wings was the Muslim Brotherhood.

Political skill and manipulation, almost in the tradition of American electoral campaigns, is a second reason for the rise of Islam. Increasingly, political leaders express messages of modernity and moderation but behave more extremely. One Muslim brotherhood leader stated that he was more interested in elections than the work of bin Laden because elections were easily winnable. The brotherhood has learned the public relations methods of the West and this has resulted in their claims as victims and oppressed by imperialism, racism, religious intolerance, and Zionism. Note the sympathetic stance toward Palestinians and international condemnation of Israel – a strong democracy trying to defend itself.

And third, American confusions and misplaced international policies have too often humiliated and misunderstood Islamist groups. Even given the oft cited number of times we have defended Muslims (Bosnia, Kuwait, attempts to rid Iraq of oppressive leaders) the US and Western powers have failed to make the case.

There is a tide. The once banned resistance party in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and The National Transitional Council in Libya have all declared support for Shariah law. Perhaps some of these religious campaign strategies are designed to appeal to an electorate and will moderate in the future. Tunisia is an excellent test case. It is far more impressive democratically and economically than many other states. It has a high rate of female literacy and a strong national identity. It was the first to overthrow an autocratic leader and demand democratic rights. Let’s hope that the election of an Islamist political party does not roll back the progress made by Tunisians.

Power outage

Major power outage in Connecticut and I have no access to a computer. Blog posts will continue next week. Don Ellis

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