Sunday, January 30, 2011

Two myths about Egypt

Popular revolts against long-standing autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt have been breathtaking and exciting.  As I click through the television news and talk programs and talk to people about events there, I've come across what I think are two misconceptions or myths.

The first, drumbeat by Fox News and the right wing, is that the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ikwahn is a reactionary, anti-democratic movement, well-entrenched in Egyptian society.   Those pseudo-leftists like George Gallawoy who embrace or apologize for the Brotherood, are just that pseudo-leftists.

The Quillam, an anti-Islamist think tank in the UK, has a briefing paper on Egypt and Tunisia that makes some key points. (HT: The Spittoon)

Islamists do not have a monopoly on grassroots movements.
The ‘conventional wisdom’ that only the Muslim Brotherhood can organise grassroots opposition movements in the Middle East clearly needs re-thinking as does the idea that it is the ‘only real opposition’. While it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most ‘organised’ formal opposition group in Egypt (and some other Middle Eastern countries but not in others such as Tunisia), advances in technology mean it can now be outmanoeuvred by spontaneous grassroots movements.

Islamist support may have been over-estimated.

The high levels of support for the Egyptian protests among ordinary people may indicate a larger than suspected groundswell of support for genuinely democratic, non-sectarian politics in the Middle East. The lack of vocal support among the protestors for standard Islamist slogans perhaps indicates that much of this apparent support for the Brotherhood was not ideologically-based but rather based on a shared opposition to the status quo for whom the Brotherhood was the only available outlet. This shows that Brotherhood claims to be the ‘only real opposition’ to dictatorial regimes in the Middle East should be viewed with a considerable amount of scepticism in future. Given the opportunity, many people in the Arab countries clearly prefer civil, nonsectarian parties over Islamists.

Rise of secular discourse.
 The basic demands of the Egyptian demonstrators for jobs, food and accountable government are both tangible and strikingly non-ideological. The Egyptian protests are also remarkable for the wide cross-section of society represented through them – civic, non-Islamist activism is not just popular among the elite but also among the masses. This is also a rebuff to those on the Right who believe that Muslim-majority  societies do not want or understand liberal secular democracy and also to those on the Left who argue given a free choice that Muslims will chose Islamism over pluralism and political freedom. Aside from Egypt, the unfolding events in Tunisia are also a challenge to supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who argue that Islamism is the only alternative to either Mubarak dictatorships or al-Qaeda. There is now another clearly option for the Middle East: genuine pluralist democracy.

The process is still ongoing.
Although the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt have so far been largely secularist and pro-democratic, and often deliberately excluding of Islamists, this may yet change. Although groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have been caught off-guard by the protests, they are looking for ways to re-gain the initiative in both Egypt and in Tunisia. Previously Islamists have tried to take over and usurp revolutions in Muslim-majority countries, doing this successfully in Iran in 1979 and unsuccessfully in Egypt in 1953. Although secularists in Egypt and Tunisia are clearly alert to this danger, this does not mean that Islamists will not try, perhaps with some success, to hijack these mass movements. Similarly, if secular democratic regimes are ultimately established in these countries, some Islamists groups may deliberately try to push them towards collapse (as Hezbollah has recently done in Lebanon) in order to ultimately take control of these states.
The briefing is available to download as a PDF here.
The second misconception over-simplifies the US alliance with the Mubarak regime and goes beyond the entirely valid criticisms that the US has been too close to the autocracy and has not done enough to support democracy.  It ends up with a one-dimensional picture.

The London Telegraph has an eye-opening story today detailing that the "American government secretly backed leading figures behind the Egyptian uprising who have been planning “regime change” for the past three years."

In a secret diplomatic dispatch, sent on December 30 2008, Margaret Scobey, the US Ambassador to Cairo, recorded that opposition groups had allegedly drawn up secret plans for “regime change” to take place before elections, scheduled for September this year.

The memo, which Ambassador Scobey sent to the US Secretary of State in Washington DC, was marked “confidential” and headed: “April 6 activist on his US visit and regime change in Egypt.”

It said the activist claimed “several opposition forces” had “agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections”. The embassy’s source said the plan was “so sensitive it cannot be written down”.

Ambassador Scobey questioned whether such an “unrealistic” plot could work, or ever even existed. However, the documents showed that the activist had been approached by US diplomats and received extensive support for his pro-democracy campaign from officials in Washington. The embassy helped the campaigner attend a “summit” for youth activists in New York, which was organised by the US State Department.

Cairo embassy officials warned Washington that the activist’s identity must be kept secret because he could face “retribution” when he returned to Egypt. He had already allegedly been tortured for three days by Egyptian state security after he was arrested for taking part in a protest some years earlier.

The protests in Egypt are being driven by the April 6 youth movement, a group on Facebook that has attracted mainly young and educated members opposed to Mr Mubarak. The group has about 70,000 members and uses social networking sites to orchestrate protests and report on their activities.

The documents released by WikiLeaks reveal US Embassy officials were in regular contact with the activist throughout 2008 and 2009, considering him one of their most reliable sources for information about human rights abuses.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Blues on a Saturday: Muddy Waters "Got My Mojo Working"

Muddy Waters performing his classic "Got My Mojo Working" at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. There are some great shots of the crowd throughout. Muddy performs san guitar. At the end of the clip he grabs the emcee for a little dance.

The tune has become a blues cliche, degraded by thousands of bar bands. Here it is when it was still fresh.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Nothing but a Man: a classic movie reviewed

Cover of "Nothing But a Man"Cover of Nothing But a Man

[I wrote this review as part of the labor movies series at Talking Union]
A 1964 movie about an African-American man who wants to be treated as “Nothing but a Man” was not a commercial hit, but it has been included in the National Film Registry. It is movie which labor and racial justice activists, as well as film buffs, will enjoy. At first glance, it might not seem a labor movie like “The Inheritance” or “Salt of the Earth.”, but consider how the movie title resonates with the “I am a Man” slogan of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation workers strike.

Tom Weiner on describes Nothing But a Man as “the first dramatic story featuring a largely black cast created for an integrated audience (the work of black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux was intended for audiences who patronized black-only theaters). White filmmakers Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young traveled through the South in 1962 in search of ideas for a fiction feature set during the growing turbulence of the civil rights era.”

Duff Anderson, played by Ivan Dixon, is a young care-free railroad section crew worker, who meets Josie Dawson, played by Abby Lincoln, a beautiful young school teacher and daughter of a preacher. A romance develops, followed by marriage. Duff quits the railroad and gets a job at a saw mill. Duff and Josie have his former crew mates to dinner, where Duff complains that the African Americans at the mill are intimidated by their white bosses and fellow workers.

At work, Duff is confronted in the locker room by his boss. (At 4:52 in this clip.)

“ I hear you are trying to organize this place,” the white boss says.

“I don't know what you are talking about.”

“That's no way to talk, boy. We had one of them union men around here a couple of years ago. Stirred up lots of trouble. They are always at you colored boys.”

“I stll don't know what you are talking about”

“Are you a union man?”

“I used to be, on the railroad.”

“Well this ain't the railroad....”

The boss demands that Duff renounce his call to “stick together” in front of his fellow workers. Duff refuses and is fired.

“Boy, you are acting like a nigger with no sense”

Later Duff applies for a job at the other saw mill in town (8:53). At first the boss says he can use Duff, but then asks for Duff's name, check a list, and says he doesn't need anyone. The blacklist in action. Duff encounters difficulties finding employment, problems with his father, and in his relationship with Josie.

After viewing Nothing But a Man, I found a couple of interesting reviews that confirm my positive reaction to the movie.

Christopher Sevring writes,
But focusing on the real economic effects of racism on people rather than dramatizing flashpoints of the Civil Rights struggle or depicting White brutality is not a mistake; in fact, this is where the film's strength lies as a statement on race. But focusing on the real economic effects of racism on people rather than dramatizing flashpoints of the Civil Rights struggle or depicting White brutality is not a mistake; in fact, this is where the film's strength lies as a statement on race.
Hal Hinson of the Washington Post judged when the movie was re-released “it may be that the best film to come out so far in 1993 was actually made in 1964.” Moreover, he writes “perhaps no other film has captured so completely the everyday details of living in a country that, in essence, belongs to others. Or has shown how grinding and constant the commonplace slights and insults, the denials and closed doors, can be.”

Nothing But a Man can be rented from Netflix, ordered from Amazon , The DVD has very informative interview with actors Dixon, Lincoln, and Julius Linclon, and a conversation between, filmakers Roemer and Young, as well as a feature on Abby Lincoln. The entire movie also can also be found on YouTube.
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Urgent appeal: Jailed woman trade union leader in Bangladesh

It has now been more than five weeks since the illegal arrest of Moshrefa Mishu, President of the Garment Workers Unity Forum in Bangladesh (pictured).
There was no warrant for her arrest at the time that heavily-armed plainclothes officers took her off to jail, where she remains - in poor health and badly treated.
Her real crime was leading a protest campaign to demand the implementation of the legal minimum wage.
I'd like to ask you to take a moment to send off an urgent message of protest to the government of Bangladesh demanding her release.
If you're on Facebook, please also sign up to support the cause there.
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Blues on a Saturday: B.B. King "How Blue Can You Get"

B.B. King in 1977 performing one of his greatest songs "How Blue Can You Get." The classic version. of course, is on Live at the Regal, which is a contender for the greatest live album of all time.

How Blue Can You Get was written by the jazz critic Leonard Feather and was recorded by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers and Louis Jordan before King's classic version.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Blues on a Saturday

Russell has his Friday 80s pop video, Poumista has his Music Mondays, so I figured it was time to launch my own musical feature: Blues on a Saturday.

Otis Rush was one of the great of the Chicago blues scene, though he never achieved the fame he deserved.  I heard him live in Chicago in the 1980s.  This clip is from early in his career, circa 1956-57 I would guess.  Enjoy.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chip Berlet on the false equivalence of right and left

Chip Berlet with Political Research Association joins Thom Hartmann to talk about Right Wing Populism in America.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Iran and Peace Activists: Clarifying the Confusion

Here's a recent article by Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi which is well worth reading.

We’re pleased to have received several thoughtful responses to our recent blog post “Why Peace Activists Should Take an Active Interest in the Green Movement in Iran”. One reader asked what we meant by our claim that there is considerable confusion among peace activists about Iran. We’re glad he asked about this. Here are a few examples.

Back in 2006, the Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate, human rights lawyer and women’s rights advocate Shirin Ebadi gave a lecture in London. As someone who defends the victims of the Iranian regime’s repression — indeed as someone who has done jail time for her work on that front — the issue of the Islamic Republic’s human rights violations tends to feature rather centrally in her scheme of things. Which is not to say that it’s the only issue on her agenda, or that it in any way blunts her criticisms of the United States and its foreign policy. Quite the contrary. She has spoken out in no uncertain terms against the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, against the Guantánamo detainee camp, and the torture at Abu Ghraib — and has made it utterly clear that she opposes any US intervention in Iran. And yet, at her lecture in London, an antiwar activist told her that she should not denounce Iran’s human rights record — indeed not discuss it at all — explaining that doing so only plays into the hands of the warmongers and fuels the fires of imperialism. Ebadi upbraided that antiwar activist in the strongest terms. Leaning over the lectern and waving her finger at him, she made plain that any antiwar movement that advocates silence in the face of tyranny, for whatever reason, could count her out.
That antiwar activist may have been especially brazen and presumptuous in telling Ebadi what she should and shouldn’t say about her own government — few peace activists would dare do such a thing. Yet his thinking reflects a widespread sensibility in the peace movement. There’s a pervasive sense that we shouldn’t criticize the Iranian government lest we somehow fuel the fires of the warmongers in Washington. What Ebadi — and multitudes of other Iranian labor, student, peace, and human rights activists — contend is that we can and should do both — that we rub our tummies and pat our heads at the same time — and that there’s no contradiction or even tension between the two. As one slogan of Iran’s student movement puts it: “Our struggle is twofold: against internal oppression and external foreign threats.” We could do worse than to follow the spirit and logic of this formulation.

Another source and instance of the confusion comes from Hugo Chávez’s enthusiastic embracing of the reactionary and authoritarian Ahmadinejad. Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry denounced the Green movement from the get-go, issuing the following statement in June 2009:

The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela expresses its firm opposition to the vicious and unfounded campaign to discredit the institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, unleashed from outside, designed to roil the political climate of our brother country. From Venezuela, we denounce these acts of interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while demanding an immediate halt to the maneuvers to threaten and destabilize the Islamic Revolution.

It’s important to note that trade unionists and student activists in Iran have expressed deep dismay about Chávez’s support for Ahmadinejad (see the Open letter to the workers of Venezuela on Hugo Chávez’s support for Ahmadinejad and “Problematic Brothers: Iranian Reaction to Chávez and Ahmadinejad”).

We wish we could say that admiration for Ahmadinejad among progressives was limited to Hugo Chávez — lamentably, it is not. Bitta Mostofi, an Iranian-American immigration and civil rights attorney who has traveled to Iraq with Voices for Creative Nonviolence and been active against the Israeli occupation, wrote a depressing account of a love fest for Ahmadinejad organized by a group of US antiwar activists in October. In her account, poignantly titled “Admiring Ahmadinejad and Overlooking Activists: We’re Better Than This”, Mostofi wrote:

Unfortunately, after over one hour of speeches from other activists in the room, I found myself feeling disappointed and dismayed. One after another, the guests at the dinner delivered prepared statements, posing no questions or challenges to the Iranian delegation. … They lauded Ahmadinejad as a hero … and likened the meeting to Malcolm X’s encounters in Africa with revolutionaries fighting against colonialism. … Speech after speech failed to address any calls for solidarity with the brave young men and women in Iran who took to the streets and demanded their rights in the face of government suppression.

Like Mostofi, we believe the peace movement should be better than this.

We highly recommend reading and signing on to the Campaign for Peace and Democracy’s important and principled statement End the War Threats and Sanctions Program Against Iran, Support the Struggle for Democracy Inside Iran.

Further Reading:
Reese Erlich
“Iran and Leftist Confusion”

Saeed Rahnema
“The Tragedy of the Left’s Discourse on Iran”

Muhammad Sahimi
“America’s Misguided Left”

Hamid Dabashi
“Left is Wrong on Iran”