By Brian Napoletano – Palestine Chronicle
Imperial conquests have always had their ideological justifications. Even in earlier ages, exterminating a people, exploiting their resources, stealing their lands, and enslaving their children were generally non-starters when it came to firing up the local populace for another military campaign. Accordingly, the Romans “civilized” the barbarians, the Spanish conquistadores “brought the gospel” to the “New World,” and the English were “shining the light of civilization” on the Indian subcontinent. Although most history books tend to minimize the genocide and slavery that accompanied Europe’s string of conquests (including North America), few have any illusions about the true objectives of Rome, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, and other countries’ imperial adventures. Similarly, when future students of history read about the mission undertaken by the US government to “spread democracy” at the dawn of the twenty-first century, they too will most likely understand its true motives far better than most of the intellectuals and analysts who frequently appear in the news media today.
The recent democratic revolution in Egypt provides a number of insights into the gap between the US government’s ostensible and actual commitments to democracy in Northern Africa and Western Asia. According to most accounts in the popular media, Washington’s enthusiasm for the revolution was tempered by its desire for “stability” in the region. Specifically, US officials, according to this framing of the revolution, wanted to support the democratic revolution, but had to consider what sort of message such support would send to their other allies in the region. Underlying this explanation is the fact that the US is allied to a number of regimes that are not democratic, and may soon be facing popular uprising similar to the one that took place in Egypt.
An alternative interpretation of Washington’s response to the Egyptian revolution, however, suggests that US officials have no desire to see democracy establish itself in the North Africa or West Asia, their public pronouncements—repeated endlessly by the major news media—notwithstanding. While this interpretation is not likely to appear in the New York Times or the Washington Post, it is far more consistent with the available evidence and the historical record than is the one based on a stability-democracy trade-off. The essence of this alternative is that what US officials call democracy, and therefore would like to see established in Egypt and the rest of the region, bears only a superficial resemblance to democracy proper, or the form of democracy that was embodied in the Egyptian revolution.
Insofar as democracy is defined in its literal sense, it entails public participation in the important decisions that affect everyone’s lives, a government that is responsive to the will of the majority while simultaneously respecting the rights of the minority to try to gain majority support through unrestricted speech, dissent, and equal access to the press, a respect for individual dignity, and a commitment to creating the conditions that will allow each member of society to develop her potential to his own satisfaction. Insofar as this form of democracy can be considered a means instead of an end, it is a means by which each individual expresses her individual sovereignty, and it is a process through which society learns to govern itself. Its basic principles are, for the most part, consistent with those contained (in various forms) in the US Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and corresponding treaties on social, economic, civil, and political rights, and in most textbooks on government and society.
US and other policymakers, however, consider such a definition of democracy naïve at best, and in most cases consider it dangerously misguided. They adhere to an alternative definition of democracy as a means by which a prescribed set of policies is legitimized with a public mandate. In this form of democracy, most of the policies and programs that actually affect the public are moved out of the democratic realm and into the economic market, where authoritarian institutions dominate the decision-making process with little to no democratic accountability. Instead, the production of goods and services is determined by a layer of technocrats whose primary objective is to maximize the bottom line, while a layer of bureaucrats ensures that the transfer of public resources from state institutions to the private sector is not disrupted by a change in political leadership.
One of the defining features of this ersatz version of democracy is how little influence the public actually has on the most important decisions that affect everyone’s lives. From issues that affect the rights of minorities… to widespread social issues, such as the provision of health care and the allocation of public resources, the public is virtually excluded from the decision-making process. On the other hand, periodic elections are typically a key component of this formal democracy, and popular governments to which the US is opposed (e.g. Hamas and the Patido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) are frequently accused of subverting, fixing, or not even holding elections. As the recent presidential election in the United States illustrated, however, the outcomes of elections in the formal version of democracy have very little bearing on the economic and social policies and programs adopted by the state.
Politicians frequently conflate the “popular” and the “formal” definitions of democracy, and the popular media rarely, if ever, challenge this equivocation. As a result, commentators must then invent elaborate explanations to account for the disparity between Washington’s professed democratic values and the seemingly anti-democratic policies it implements. The Egyptian revolution, however, offers an example of a popular democratic movement that defies Washington’s moribund political model and the reforms it offers as palliatives.
By most accounts, the popular uprising in Egypt formed in response to the Mubarak regime’s failure to meet the criteria of popular democracy. The overwhelming majority of the country was unified behind a simple desideratum: Mubarak’s immediate resignation. The Obama administration initially sided with Mubarak. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who considers Mubarak a family friend, was among the first US officials to comment on the situation, and emphasized that Mubarak’s regime was an important US ally that had consistently helped the US maintain “stability” in the region.
In the 28 January speech that he coordinated with Mubarak, Obama condescendingly reminded the protesters that they had “a responsibility to express themselves peacefully,” regardless of the violence inflicted on them by the country’s US-trained and equipped security and military forces. Although Obama offered nothing more than vacuous statements about Egypt’s future, promised no specific reforms, and evinced no commitment to backing the protesters’ demands, Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung claimed at the end of January that the Obama administration had “firmly aligned itself … with the protest movement that has overtaken Egypt” by “calling for an ‘orderly transition’ to a more representative government.” the administration merely called on Mubarak to implement cosmetic reforms, while protesters were demanding his immediate resignation.
As late into the revolution as 7 February, the LA Times was reporting that the administration had “dampened” its “sense of urgency” regarding a transition from Mubarak’s regime, and instead “aligned itself with power-brokers such as new Vice President Omar Suleiman, who are urging a more stable, if much slower, move to real [i.e. formal] democracy.” The Times described this policy as consistent with the Obama administration’s “goal of maintaining stability in the Middle East,” even at the expense of democracy. Meanwhile, Obama’s “crisis envoy” to Egypt, Frank Wisner—a longtime advocate for and personal friend of Mubarak—openly called for Mubarak to retain power in Egypt, a statement to which the Obama administration responded by claiming that Wisner was only speaking in his “private capacity.”
Once the protesters finally forced Mubarak out of office the White House performed a volte-face. In his carefully worded response to Mubarak’s resignation, Obama congratulated the Egyptian people on toppling the regime, and announced that the US government stands “ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary, and asked for, to pursue a credible transition to a democracy.”
Obama did not, however, apologize to the Egyptian people for the military and political support, including some of the weapons and training used against the protesters themselves, that the US government had been giving to Mubarak for several years.
Self-identified “realists” and other key elements of the US foreign policy establishment have largely praised the Obama administration’s “balanced” response to the Egyptian revolution. Most of the media have portrayed the US government as having refrained from direct involvement in or obstruction of the revolution, and have praised Obama for maintaining a delicate balance between the need for “regional stability,” which consists largely of regimes willing to tolerate—and frequently facilitate—Israeli apartheid and US “counter-terrorism” operations, on the one hand, and the desire to promote the spread of democracy on the other. This prompted the Obama administration to adopt, according to the narrative, a non-interventionist approach to the protest, which was the best the US could do under the circumstances.
While this narrative has won praise for Obama among both hawks and doves, it neglects two important factors: that funding for the training and equipment used by the same police, security, and military forces that were arresting, “disappearing,” and torturing protesters was provided by US taxpayers, and that the US and other governments’ habit of backing dictators—which has been almost universally condemned by the public and by international human rights organizations—has been identified as the key source of much of the anger directed at the US for more than 50 years, yet the habit continues.
Despite the acknowledged absence of any democratic credibility, the Egyptian government was the largest single recipient of US military and other aid after that other paragon of democracy in the region, Israel. Moreover, most of this aid had little to do with encouraging democracy or protecting the Egyptian people from Mubarak’s human rights abuses—Obama had actually cut funds for democracy-promotion initiatives from $50 million to $20 million in 2008, and cut aid to Egyptian civil society from $32 million to $7 million. Even without these cuts, these investments in democracy promotion programs (which are themselves frequently co-opted by the CIA to serve as propaganda platforms) and civil society comprised an insignificant proportion of the roughly $1.5-2 billion that the Egyptian government received from the US annually, principally in the form of military aid.
Egypt’s security forces have a long tradition of collaboration with US intelligence and police agencies, and Egypt was the US government’s initial partner in the illegal “extraordinary rendition” program that started under the Clinton administration. Moreover, recent embassy cables released by WikiLeaks confirm that the FBI has been supplying training and intelligence, including visits to the FBI’s training center in Quantico, Virginia, to Egypt’s repressive SSIS. The tear gas canisters and concussion grenades that police used against the protesters provided further evidence of US support, as many of them still bore their US manufacturing identifications.
While Obama praised the Egyptian military on behalf of the soldiers who refused to open fire on civilians, he failed to mention the officers who had issued such orders. He also failed to mention reports carried by the Guardian that Human Rights Watch has documented 119 arrests of pro-democracy activists, that the organization believes that many more have been “disappeared,” and that HRW’s Daniel Williams has expressed concerns that Mubarak’s resignation could be eclipsed by the US-trained military’s recent foray into torture and political repression.
The torture sessions that accompanied the “interrogation” of protesters arrested by the military, which receives approximately $1.5 billion in US aid annually, led many to conclude that the primary objective was intimidation rather than the identification of foreign instigators, particularly as pro-government protesters who were arrested by the military were handed over to the police and then released. The numerous accounts of torture and abuse by the Egyptian military that have begun to emerge contrast sharply with Obama and the media’s portrayal of soldiers as impartial observers to the unrest and as buffers between Mubarak’s hired thugs and the protesters.
While a number of media reports acknowledged US aid to the Mubarak regime, most of them portrayed Washington as having been placed in a “difficult situation” by the uprising, and continued to describe US backing for dictators like Mubarak as a “necessary evil” in light of the need to maintain “stability” in the region. Very few, however, offered further details on what is embodied in a stability important enough to merit military and political aid to a regime that routinely violates basic human rights, beyond explaining that such stability involves a level of repression severe enough to keep the population intimidated, but not so severe that it triggers a revolution.
One of the more convincing explanations of why such stability is so important to US policymakers was offered by the political scientist Vijay Prashad in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!. According to Prashad, the stability that Mubarak imposed on Egypt was valuable to the US for three reasons (which he described as two pillars, one of which I have separated into two parts): Mubarak’s willingness to participate in the CIA’s illegal extraordinary rendition program and other “counter-terrorism” operations allowed the US to pursue its geopolitical objective of projecting hegemony over the region, his role as Washington’s apologist in a region that is both rich in natural resources and where US foreign policy has created widespread resentment among the public reduced the risk of political backlash to US economic and trade policies in the region, and his willingness to uphold the Egypt-Israel treaty of 1979 ensured that Israeli apartheid would not face a united challenge among the Arab nations. When journalists such as the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson refer to the “political vacuum” created by Mubarak’s resignation and the need to retain stability, they are primarily referring to Washington’s hopes that whoever replaces Mubarak will continue to maintain these three features of Israeli policy.
This “necessary evil” of backing brutal dictators because they uphold US interests and of blocking efforts to establish democracy has been a consistent feature of US foreign policy worldwide, and was already identified by the US National Security Council in 1958 as one of the primary reasons for the animosity towards the US that some in the Middle East evince. More than 50 years later, the popular uprising against Mubarak revealed a remarkable continuity in US policy. Unable to continue attributing this “pragmatic” doctrine to the “Soviet threat,” apologists now invoke the threat of “international terrorism” as the justification for Washington’s attachment to various dictators and repressive regimes. In the Middle East alone, the list of regimes that have received US backing, despite their hostility to human rights and basic democratic principles, includes Mohammad Rezâ Shâh Pahlavi in Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq (until he tried to assassinate the elder Bush), Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, Hussein bin Talal and Abdullah II bin al-Hussein in Jordan, Camille Nimr Chamoun in Lebanon, every Israeli regime from David Ben-Gurion to Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied Palestinian territories, and countless others.
Just as analysts in 1958 cautioned that Washington’s intimate relationships with brutal dictators was more likely to foster the growth of Stalinism than to deter it, contemporary analysts such as Michael Scheuer—a former CIA analyst and one of the architects of the extraordinary rendition program—have repeatedly warned that continued support for repressive regimes in the Middle East is more likely to trigger even more violent terrorist attacks than it is to deter them. This suggests that something other than the security of the US public is motivating Washington’s policies.
An erroneous conclusion frequently drawn regarding the reasons for US policies in North Africa and West Asia is that the Zionist lobby is responsible for the invidious policies endorsed by Washington. While Israel’s unmatched influence on US policy could explain some of the disregard for the rights of Palestinians, it fails to explain the consistency with which the US has backed dictatorships in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, and ignores the fact that Washington has demonstrated that it will readily cut off Israel’s political and military support should Israeli actions be deemed inimical to Washington’s overriding political and economic interests.
A more accurate characterization of Washington’s attitude is that maintaining Israel as an extension of US hegemony and the most powerful military force in the region is consistent with US geopolitical objectives. Washington’s insouciant disregard for the interests of the majority of the Arab population is consistent with its attitude toward other regions of strategic interest, such as South and Central America and Southeast Asia. US policymakers tolerate Israeli apartheid because the strategic advantages of retaining Israel as a subaltern state outweigh the deleterious effects that such backing has on US prestige. As examples such as Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam, Russia, and others have demonstrated, the US government can easily turn a population against itself even when Israel’s not involved.
Moreover, providing military aid to Israel has proven to be exceptionally lucrative for US weapons contractors. Whatever influence the Zionist lobby might wield, it pales in comparison to the money and influence wielded by corporations such as General Electric, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin. A number of other corporations, including Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard , and the Bobcat Company, also profit from the Israeli occupation by providing armored bulldozers to the Israeli Defense Forces, security systems, construction materials, and other resources to expand and entrench the illegal settlements.
In essence, the US government has repeatedly failed to push Israel into making peace with Palestinian people primarily because the Washington has no significant vested interest in doing so. While support for Israel’s apartheid government has done little to endear the US to much of the Arab population, Israel remains a loyal client state dependent on US military aid and political backing, and therefore a useful projection of US foreign policy in the region.
Discussions of US national security tend to be more frank than other political presentations, and offer more specific insights into what Washington means by “stability” in a given region. A consistent theme in US foreign policy and national security throughout the twentieth (and twenty-first) century has been has been cheap access to “raw materials” and “foreign markets.” Similarly, the US’ primary economic competitors, Europe and China, also require the same access for their firms to remain competitive. Hence, the economic competition between companies in these regions translates into a global geopolitical struggle for control over the world’s energy and agricultural resources. As a region abundant in the former and situated at a crossroads between Asia, Europe, and Africa, the Middle East has been a center of such struggle for decades. Accordingly, Washington is willing to tolerate Israeli apartheid and any other anti-democratic governments if doing so allows it to exert more control over the region’s energy resources than its principal competitors.
The media frequently confuse this issue by conflating the need to control the Middle East’s energy resources with the US’ economic dependence on inexpensive petroleum. However, the US does not need Middle Eastern oil for its own consumption—most (almost 60%) of the refined petroleum imported into the US from its 15 largest suppliers is actually provided by Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and other American countries, while only 22% comes from the Middle East (including Algeria). The need to control the flow of oil from the Middle East is more closely related to China and Europe’s dependence on the region’s oil supply, and the competitive economic relationship between the three regions, than to outright dependence on the supply by the US. While it is a bit of an oversimplification, the truth is stretched far less by suggesting that the US backs dictatorial regimes in the Middle East so that its companies can out-compete those of Europe and China than it is by suggesting that the US is actually concerned with promoting the spread of popular democracy in the region.
As the Obama administration’s response to the Egyptian revolution indicates, the US government does not support the growth or spread of popular democracy. While they do favor a system that maintains a veneer of democratic legitimacy through periodic elections, the absence of such legitimacy does not preclude a steady supply of US weapons and training. Essentially, democracy is acceptable insofar as it does not threaten the interests or power of the US’ dominant economic institutions. Consequently, Washington would much rather have seen Mubarak undertake superficial reforms to remain in power than an open revolution, and is already advising its other allies in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and elsewhere to undertake the former and stave off the latter.
The public is not always pacified by such reforms, however, and as living conditions continue to deteriorate for the poorest segments of society worldwide, challenges to US hegemony can be expected to occur more frequently. When such threats have arisen in the past, Washington has openly embraced dictatorships before conceding to the people of the Northern Africa, Western Asia, or any other region the right to determine their own destiny. In contrast to narratives that portray it as an impartial observer to Egypt’s revolution, the US government had been working for years to prevent the Egyptian government from becoming democratic. That the Egyptian people succeeded in spite of Washington’s efforts is a testimony to their strength and determination.
If democracy is to survive in Egypt, then it must also be allowed to thrive elsewhere. While the revolution has drawn attention to the gap between official rhetoric and US policies, it cannot be expected to significantly alter Washington’s attitude by itself. Instead, such change will require a concerted effort by the US public.
Accordingly, the ultimate outcome of the Egyptian revolution also depends on the willingness of the people of the US and its allies to follow their Egyptian counterparts’ example and demand popular democracy in their own countries. Only then can they hope to achieve more just and humane foreign policies that respect democracy, protect human rights and other basic standards, and subordinate economic considerations to the needs of the public.
Brian Napoletano is a member of the International Socialist Organization and the former Public Relations officer for Purdue University Students for Justice in Palestine.
Top U.S. intelligence officials, facing criticism in Congress, on Wednesday defended their agencies’ reporting on the recent upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt but pledged to do better in the future.
“Specific triggers for how and when instability would lead to the collapse of various regimes cannot always be known or predicted,” James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“What intelligence can do in such cases is reduce, but certainly not completely eliminate, uncertainty for decision-makers. But we are not clairvoyant.”
CIA Director Leon Panetta said his agency has set up a 35-member task force to examine how future unrest in sensitive regions could erupt and to assess potential outcomes.
Much more attention will be paid to how the Internet and social media can spark and affect protest movements, they said, although Panetta cautioned about the vast new piles of data that experts must pore over.
“The real challenge is … going through the diversity of languages, going through the different sites that are out there,” he said. “This involves a tremendous amount of analysis.”
U.S. spy agencies have been criticized in the past for not knitting together reports that could have given warning of major events, ranging from the collapse of the Soviet Union to al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
In the case of September 11 and, more recently, the failed bombing of a U.S. airliner in December 2009, investigations showed U.S. agencies collected clues that could have disrupted the attacks well in advance but failed to connect the dots.
Tunisia was not ‘Top 10′ Concern’
Senior officials have strongly denied there were any intelligence failures over the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt — despite criticism from some lawmakers that the agencies’ reports were sometimes less informative than news stories.
The two spy chiefs acknowledged U.S. agencies offered little if any advance warning when unrest erupted in Tunisia in January. But Clapper, who supervises 16 frontline spy agencies and serves as President Barack Obama’s chief intelligence adviser, pointed to the limits of spycraft.
“We’re not like Sherman Williams paint. We don’t cover the earth equally. So frankly Tunisia was probably not up there on our top 10 countries that we were watching closely,” Clapper said. “Obviously we are going to work on that.”
Two sources who routinely read analytical papers by U.S. intelligence agencies said it would be unfair to criticize them for not being able to predict how the initial events in Tunisia would set off a chain reaction that, within days, would lead to the collapse of its government and the exile of its president.
But the sources said they were disappointed at the material generated after the Tunisian government fell, which tried to consider implications for other countries, particularly Egypt.
A senior U.S. intelligence official refuted the criticism, telling Reuters that in the 10 days between the collapse of the Tunisian government and the eruption of protests in Egypt, U.S. agencies produced many reports “that examined the implications for the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.”
Some of the papers, the official said, went only to the president and a small group of senior officials. Others were more widely distributed to officials authorized to read highly classified intelligence materials.
By Bilal El Amine – Red Pepper
It is no doubt commendable that Red Pepper has tried to tackle the thorny issue of political Islam and in particular the Iranian experience, a subject that is greatly misunderstood in the west, even in left circles. But unfortunately the discussion created more spark than substance. This can be attributed to both Alastair Crooke’s rather abstract philosophical approach that often clashes with the reality of events on the ground and Azar Majedi’s shrill response, which reduces the legacy of the Islamic revolution in Iran to ‘30 years of bloodshed, oppression, misogyny, gender apartheid, stoning and mutilation’. One wonders how it is that women in Iran make up 65 per cent of university students under such conditions.
The Iranian revolution and the Islamic Republic that emerged from it are complex, and often contradictory, developments that defy neatly packaged concepts coming from both left and right in the west. It is interesting how the far right and many on the radical left in Europe and the US see eye-to-eye when it comes to Islamist activism. Both view it as deeply reactionary (‘Islamo-fascists’ is a common epithet between the two), with the pat explanation that the only reason that Islamists enjoy such a large following in the Muslim world is because of their ability to either brainwash their followers with religion or buy them off with their vast charitable networks.
The reality is that political Islam has a long and rich history that stretches back over a century, inspiring a wide range of movements across an extremely diverse landscape that stretches from Indonesia to Morocco. Painting this broad movement with a single brush confuses more than it clarifies.
Deep roots in Lebanon
Take the case of Hizbullah, for example. This Shia Muslim resistance movement in Lebanon is often carelessly lumped in with the Islamic revolution in Iran and is rarely seen as an independent entity with its own history and struggle. No doubt there are deep and foundational links between the Islamic Republic and Hizbullah, and Tehran generously funds and supports the Lebanese resistance, but that does not make them one and the same. Nor can it be said that Hizbullah is simply an offshoot or subordinate of Iran. Perhaps the most dynamic and effective social protest movement in the Middle East today, Hizbullah cannot be understood nor fully appreciated from a progressive point of view outside of its Lebanese context and history.
A brief look at Hizbullah’s emergence in the early 1980s and its consequent development into a mass party confirms that it is a home-grown movement with deep roots in Lebanese society. Hizbullah is the culmination of a long, against-all-odds struggle waged by Lebanon’s Shia against a matrix of foes who conspired to keep them locked in a cycle of occupation, impoverishment and political marginalisation.
Long before anyone had heard of Khomeini, Lebanon’s Shia began to take matters into their own hands to fight for dignity and justice, at first within the context of the Arab nationalist (and even communist) movements and later through activist Shi’ism. The move from the former to the latter was a conscious choice for many as the Arab nationalists and the left simply failed to address the sources of Shia discontent.
The streams that fed into the creation of Hizbullah were diverse and not in any way limited to Iranian influence. Some came out of the Palestinian struggle and Lebanon’s many left organisations, while others were university students influenced by the Iraqi Al Da’wa party, and a significant group split from the Amal Movement (another Lebanese Shia party established in the early 1970s).
Ideologically, Hizbullah was heavily influenced by Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a local cleric with a large following among Lebanon’s Shia, including a significant number of Hizbullah members. Mistakenly referred to as the ‘spiritual guide’ of Hizbullah (prompting an assassination attempt against him by the CIA in 1985), Fadlallah has a reputation for his liberal views on social issues and opposes the very idea of clerical rule.
The most critical factor in uniting these disparate forces was neither Khomeini’s influence nor Iran’s money, but Israel’s second occupation of southern Lebanon in the summer of 1982. It is simplistic to think that financial support alone can forge a capable and successful movement such as Hizbullah or even win its unswerving loyalty. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) stopped being effective and lost all semblance of unity precisely when it became known as the ‘richest revolutionary movement in the world’.
It is also interesting to look at the experience of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a party of Iraqi Shia exiles founded on Iranian soil during the Iran-Iraq war. Even in such circumstances, Tehran was unable to mould the competing factions into a coherent party and today SCIRI is accused of cozying up to the US occupation in Iraq. From its inception, the overwhelming priority for Hizbullah was fighting the Israeli occupation, and resistance work in its broadest sense became the backbone of the party’s social and political work. The armed resistance is complemented by a comprehensive set of development and humanitarian institutions that are involved in all manner of activities, ranging from technical assistance to rural farmers to the recently opened high-tech cardiac centre serving the poor southern suburbs of Beirut.
These are classic social welfare agencies with an Islamist twist, such as the infrastructure and reconstruction engineering unit Jihad Al Bina, or the low-interest micro-credit agency Qard Al Hassan (among the largest in the region), or the extensive welfare agency Imdad, run largely by volunteers to assist the poor, among many others. The work of these organisations has profoundly transformed the lives of Hizbullah’s supporters.
In the early heady days, as Hizbullah burst on the scene fired up by the Islamic revolution in Iran, the party’s founders (mainly clerics) could be accused of adopting uncompromising positions, such as calling for an Islamic revolution in Lebanon. But as early as 1985, before the party had even fully cohered, in one of its first public manifestos (known as the ‘Open Letter’), they were already qualifying their demands for an Islamic state, stating clearly that they didn’t intend to force their religion upon others.
With the end of the long civil war from 1975 to 1991, Hizbullah took further steps to accommodate itself with the Lebanese state and embarked on what is sometimes called a ‘Lebanonisation’ process by participating in the first post-war parliamentary election in 1992. Today, Hizbullah has ministers in the cabinet and has struck a durable alliance with Lebanon’s largest Christian party, something no one could have imagined even a few years ago. The party has also swept municipal elections where it has set an example of good governance – a concept barely known in Lebanon, where corruption reigns supreme.
The two distinct paths that the Iranian and Lebanese revolutionaries took only reflect the kinds of social forces that were involved and the terrain on which they operated. The differences in this case are stunning and naturally lead in very different directions.
The Shia of Lebanon entered the 20th century as a historically and structurally marginalised group that was dominated by feudal-like landowners and a compromised and conservative clergy. In Iran, Shi’ism had been a state religion for nearly 500 years and was almost synonymous with Iranian nationalism, which stretches back thousands of years. Iran’s clergy played a critical role in all of modern Iran’s major upheavals and, even in the darkest days of the last shah, they were respected, if not feared, by the authorities. Lebanon’s Shia may at best be a slight majority in their religiously diverse and divided country, while Iran’s Shia make up 90 per cent of the population, uniting many nationalities and ethnicities under its banner.
The opposite of fundamentalism
Context is critical when looking at Islamist movements, as appearances – and even the pronouncements of the activists themselves – can be deceiving. To judge and appraise Islamism based on its ideology alone misses these important details, particularly as Hizbullah has pioneered a pragmatic and extremely flexible current within political Islam that is increasingly being adopted by others, including Hamas and to a lesser extent the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Given their revolutionary Islamist roots and the incredibly challenging Lebanese political terrain, Hizbullah has mastered the art of tactical flexibility while remaining grounded in its core principles. Such a method is the very opposite of ‘fundamentalism’, the blanket label so often used to describe all groups that weave politics and Islam together.
It is tragic that progressives in the west continue to paint such a one-sided picture of Islamist political practice and fail to see the liberatory aspects of the movement. Due largely to Hizbullah’s leadership over the past three decades, the Shia of Lebanon live with some semblance of dignity, liberated from Israeli occupation and terror, secure on their land, with a far brighter future than anyone could have predicted.
For this, and of course for its two defeats of the supposedly invincible Israeli army (in 2000 and 2006), the party is rewarded with the enthusiastic support of millions of Arabs and Muslims across the globe. Such a movement deserves the support and solidarity of those in the west who stand for a just world.
If the European and US left cannot accept the idea that the struggle for a better world can take many shapes and forms, then they are the true fundamentalists.
By Ashley Smith – CounterPunch
A devastating earthquake, the worst in 200 years, struck Port-au-Prince on Tuesday, laying waste to the city and killing untold numbers of people. The quake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, and detonated more than 30 aftershocks, all more than 4.5 in magnitude, through the night and into Wednesday morning.
The earthquake toppled poorly constructed houses, hotels, hospitals and even the capital city’s main political buildings, including the presidential palace. The collapse of so many structures sent a giant cloud into the sky, which hovered over the city, raining dust down onto the wasteland below.
According to some estimates, more than 100,000 people may have died, in a metropolis of 2 million people. Those that survived are living in the streets, afraid to return inside any building that remains standing.
Around the world, Haitians struggled to contact their family and friends in the devastated country. But most could not reach their loved ones since phone lines were down throughout the country.
* * *
WHILE MOST people reacted to the crisis by trying to find a way to help or donate money, Christian Right fanatic Pat Robertson stooped to new depths of racism. He explained that Haitians were cursed because they made a pact with the devil to liberate themselves from their French slave masters in the Haitian revolution two centuries ago.
The corporate media at least reported that shifting tectonic plates along a fault line underneath Port-au-Prince caused the earthquake–and that Haiti’s poverty and the incapacity of the Préval government made the disaster so much worse. But they didn’t delve below the surface.
“The media coverage of the earthquake is marked by an almost complete divorce of the disaster from the social and political history of Haiti,” Canadian Haiti Solidarity Activist Yves Engler said in an interview. “They repeatedly state that the government was completely unprepared to deal with the crisis. This is true. But they left out why.”
Why were 60 percent of the buildings in Port-au-Prince shoddily constructed and unsafe in normal circumstances, according to the city’s mayor? Why are there no building regulations in a city that sits on a fault line? Why has Port-au-Prince swelled from a small town of 50,000 in the 1950s to a population of 2 million desperately poor people today? Why was the state completely overwhelmed by the disaster?
To understand these facts, we have to look at a second fault line–U.S. imperial policy toward Haiti. The U.S. government, the UN, and other powers have aided the Haitian elite in subjecting the country to neoliberal economic plans that have impoverished the masses, deforested the land, wrecked the infrastructure and incapacitated the government.
The fault line of U.S. imperialism interacted with the geological one to turn the natural disaster into a social catastrophe.
During the Cold War, the U.S. supported the dictatorships of Papa Doc Duvalier and then Baby Doc Duvalier–which ruled the country from 1957 to 1986–as an anti-communist counter-weight to Castro’s Cuba nearby.
Under guidance from Washington, Baby Doc Duvalier opened the Haitian economy up to U.S. capital in the 1970s and 1980s. Floods of U.S. agricultural imports destroyed peasant agriculture. As a result, hundred of thousands of people flocked to the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince to labor for pitifully low wages in sweatshops located in U.S. export processing zones.
In the 1980s, masses of Haitians rose up to drive the Duvaliers from power–later, they elected reformer Jean-Bertrand Aristide to be president on a platform of land reform, aid to peasants, reforestation, investment in infrastructure for the people, and increased wages and union rights for sweatshop workers.
The U.S. in turn backed a coup that drove Aristide from power in 1991. Eventually, the elected president was restored to power in 1994 when Bill Clinton sent U.S. troops to the island–but on the condition that he implement the U.S. neoliberal plan–which Haitians called the “plan of death.”
Aristide resisted parts of the U.S. program for Haiti, but implemented other provisions, undermining his hoped-for reforms. Eventually, though, the U.S. grew impatient with Aristide’s failure to obey completely, especially when he demanded $21 billion in reparations during his final year in office. The U.S. imposed an economic embargo that strangled the country, driving peasants and workers even deeper into poverty.
In 2004, Washington collaborated with Haiti’s ruling elite to back death squads that toppled the government, kidnapped and deported Aristide. The United Nations sent troops to occupy the country, and the puppet government of Gérard Latortue was installed to continue Washingotn’s neoliberal plans.
Latortue’s brief regime was utterly corrupt–he and his cronies pocketed large portions of the $4 billion poured into the country by the U.S. and other powers when they ended their embargo. The regime dismantled the mild reforms Aristide had managed to implement. Thus, the pattern of impoverishment and degradation of the country’s infrastructure accelerated.
In 2006 elections, the Haitian masses voted in longtime Aristide ally René Préval as president. But Préval has been a weak figure who collaborated with U.S. plans for the country and failed to address the growing social crisis.
In fact, the U.S., UN and other imperial powers effectively bypassed the Préval government and instead poured money into NGOs. “Haiti now has the highest per capita presence of NGOs in the world,” says Yves Engler. The Préval government has become a political fig leaf, behind which the real decisions are made by the imperial powers, and implemented through their chosen international NGOs.
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THE REAL state power isn’t the Préval government, but the U.S.-backed United Nations occupation. Under Brazilian leadership, UN forces have protected the rich and collaborated with–or turned a blind eye to–right-wing death squads who terrorize supporters of Aristide and his Lavalas Party.
The occupiers have done nothing to address the poverty, wrecked infrastructure and massive deforestation that have exacerbated the effects of a series of natural disasters–severe hurricanes in 2004 and 2008, and now the Port-au-Prince earthquake.
Instead, they merely police a social catastrophe, and in so doing, have committed the normal crimes characteristic of all police forces. As Dan Beeton wrote in NACLA Report on the Americas, “The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah), which began its mission in June 2004, has been marred by scandals of killings, rape, and other violence by its troops almost since it began.”
First the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have used the coup and social and natural crises to expand the U.S.’s neoliberal economic plans.
Under Obama, the U.S. has granted Haiti $1.2 billion in debt relief, but it hasn’t canceled all of Haiti’s debt–the country still pays huge sums to the Inter-American Development Bank. The debt relief is classic window-dressing for Obama’s real Haiti policy, which is the same old Haiti policy.
In close collaboration with the new UN Special Envoy to Haiti, former President Bill Clinton, Obama has pushedPapa Doc with US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller for an economic program familiar to much of the rest of the Caribbean–tourism, textile sweatshops, and weakening of state control of the economy through privatization and deregulation.
In particular, Clinton has orchestrated a plan for turning the north of Haiti into a tourist playground, as far away as possible from the teeming slums of Port-au-Prince. Clinton lured Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines into investing $55 million to build a pier along the coastline of Labadee, which it has leased until 2050.
From there, Haiti’s tourist industry hopes to lead expeditions to the mountaintop fortress Citadelle and the Palace of Sans Souci, both built by Henri Cristophe, one of the leaders of Haiti’s slave revolution. According to the Miami Herald:
The $40 million plan involved transforming the now quaint town of Milot, home to the Citadelle and Palace of Sans Souci ruin, into a vibrant tourist village, with arts and crafts markets, restaurants and stoned streets. Guests would be ferried past a congested Cap-Haïtien to a bay, then transported by bus past peasant plantations. Once in Milot, they would either hike or horseback to the Citadelle…named a world heritage site in 1982…
Eco-tourism, archaeological exploration and voyeuristic visits to Vodou rituals are all being touted by Haiti’s struggling boutique tourism industry, as Royal Caribbean plans to bring the world largest cruise ship here, sparking the need for excursions.
So while Pat Robertson denounces Haiti’s great slave revolution as a pact with the devil, Clinton is helping to reduce it to a tourist trap.
At the same time, Clinton’s plans for Haiti include an expansion of the sweatshop industry to take advantage of cheap labor available from the urban masses. The U.S. granted duty-free treatment for Haitian apparel exports to make it easy for sweatshops to return to Haiti.
Clinton celebrated the possibilities of sweatshop development during a whirlwind tour of a textile plant owned and operated by the infamous Cintas Corp. He announced that George Soros had offered $50 million for a new industrial park of sweatshops that could create 25,000 jobs in the garment industry. Clinton explained at a press conference that Haiti’s government could create “more jobs by lowering the cost of doing business, including the cost of rent.”
As TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson told Democracy Now! “That isn’t the kind of investment that Haiti needs. It needs capital investment. It needs investment so that it can be self-sufficient. It needs investment so that it can feed itself.”
One of the reasons why Clinton could be so unabashed in celebrating sweatshops is that the U.S.-backed coup repressed any and all resistance. It got rid of Aristide and his troublesome habit of raising the minimum wage. It banished him from the country, terrorized his remaining allies and barred his political party, Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular in the country, from running for office. The coup regime also attacked union organizers within the sweatshops themselves.
As a result, Clinton could state to business leaders: “Your political risk in Haiti is lower than it has ever been in my lifetime.”
Thus, as previous U.S. presidencies have done before, the Obama administration has worked to aid Haiti’s elite, sponsor international corporations taking advantage of cheap labor, weaken the ability of the Haitian state to regulate the society, and repress any political resistance to that agenda.
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THESE POLICIES led directly to the incapacitated Haitian state, dilapidated infrastructure, poorly constructed buildings and desperate poverty that combined with the hurricanes and now the earthquake to turn natural disasters into social catastrophes.
While everyone should support the current outpouring of aid to help Haiti, no one should do so with political blinders on. As Engler said:
Aid in Haiti has always been used to further imperial interests. This is obvious when you look at how the U.S. and Canada treated the Aristide government in contrast to the coup regime. The U.S. and Canada starved Aristide of almost all aid. But then after the coup, they opened a floodgate of money to back some of the most reactionary forces in Haitian society.
We should therefore agitate against any attempt by the U.S. and other powers to use this crisis to further impose their program on a prostrate country.
We should also be wary of the role of international NGOs. While many NGOs are trying to address the crisis, the U.S. and other governments are funneling aid to them in order to undermine Haitians’ democratic right to self-determination. The international NGOs are unaccountable to either the Haitian state or Haitian population. So the aid funneled through them further weakens what little hold Haitians have on their own society.
The Obama administration should also immediately lift the ban against Aristide’s return to Haiti, as well as the political ban on his party, Fanmi Lavalas, from participating in the electoral process. After all, a known drug criminal and coup leader, Guy Philippe, and his party Front for National Reconstruction (FRN) has been allowed to participate in the electoral process. Aristide and his party, by contrast, are still the most popular political force in the country and should have the right to participate in an open and fair vote.
The U.S. should also stop deportations of Haitians who have fled their crisis-torn country and grant Temporary Protected Status to Haitian refugees. That would allow any Haitians who have fled the political and social crisis since the coup, the hurricanes and now the earthquake to remain legally in the U.S.
On top of that, we must demand that the U.S. stop imposing its neoliberal plans. The U.S. has plundered Haitian society for decades. Instead of Haiti owing any debt to the U.S., other countries or international financial institutions, the reverse is the case. The U.S., France, Canada and the UN owe the people of Haiti reparations to redress the imperial plunder of the country.
With these funds and political space, Haitians would be finally able to begin shaping their own political and economic future–the dream of the great slave revolution 200 years ago.