Arab Uprising

Some Thoughts on the Arab Uprising


When I ponder the events of the last month in the Arab world, I’m reminded of Herbert Stein’s remark: “Anything that can’t go on forever, won’t.” From Morocco to Bahrain,  kings and rulers are looking at a prairie fire of popular opposition.  And the only thing a guy can say is, what took so long?

For decades, all these countries have had authoritarian regimes kept in power by foreign sponsors. All have used secret police, torture, spies, and bribes to maintain their grip.  In all these countries, the rulers have to come to look ever more like their foreign sponsors and ever less like the people they rule.  Throughout this region, development has shredded the comforting verities of ancient cultural traditions without bringing a nourishing new cultural order.  Of course, development has brought material benefits—cars, modern medicine, plumbing, paved highways,  well-lit streets,  and toys of all sorts: and people have appreciated the material fruits of development but their own elites have sucked up most of the goods and left them mired in squalor. It isn’t just that the rich have been getting richer. The rich have also growing more culturally alien.  Obviously, this could not go on forever. Sooner or later, the connection between rulers and ruled was going to snap.

The question is: why now?

Technically speaking, these countries have different sorts of regimes. Morocco and Bahrain are monarchies, Tunisia and Egypt parliamentary democracies, Libya and Algeria “socialist” states ruled by revolutionary parties. But not really. Not really.

Really, all of these countries are old-fashioned dynastic monarchies. In each case, the outward form has distorted slight in each case to accommodate whatever Great Power is the sponsoring master. Khadafi came to the throne with the Soviets as his dominus, so he adopted a gun-toting, guerilla-like swagger that was in fashion for anti-imperialist third-world revolutionaries of his day. Mubarak came to power as a client of the United States, so he donned suits, adopted a corporate executive look, and called himself a “president,” staging elections from time to time and adopting other outer decorations of democracy.

But the fact is, all these regimes had a single personality at the top, just as in an absolute monarchy. In each case, the ruler had absolute power except to the extent that he had to propitiate his immediate cohorts and family–also typical of monarchies. The fundamentally dynastic and monarchic nature of each regime began to emerge, however, when the first generation of rulers got old and their sons began grooming themselves or being groomed to take over. In Egypt and in Yemen, the sons were already operating as their fathers’ chief executives, his viziers, to use the old parlance. In Libya, Khadafi had his eight sons jockeying for position as he moved them from post to post, pitting one against another, grooming them for the succession while keeping them off-balance, so that they wouldn’t challenge the father in his lifetime—also typical of dynastic monarchies going back through time.

The thing is, though, the world has changed. The single most crucial factor in these Arab uprisings has been demographic. Half the people in these countries is under 30 years of age. In some the statistics are even more extreme. In Yemen, I think I heard, the median age is 17! For these kids, the revolutions their parents made and the turmoil they went through struggling with neo-colonialism is ancient history. Cold War? Never heard of it. The events of 9/11? Heard of it. The proliferation of the Internet and of social media here as elsewhere has promoted horizontal connections and weakened vertical ones—young people interacting more with each other and less with their parents and grandparents and through them with their ancestors, ancestral traditions, and cultural past. In this context, when Mubarak addresses a crowd of passionate Egyptian demonstrators and tells them, “I am your father, you are my children,” he just seem preposterous. Khadafi strikes me as especially fossil-like, clueless, and out of touch. That doesn’t mean he’s harmless. He’s a grumpy, terrified, and terrifying old man, he’s killing a lot of people right now, and he might end up as the Arab Revolution’s first Ceausescu—torn to pieces by his own people.

But the fact that this revolution is such a spontaneous outburst of young passion means that it doesn’t represent a program. Whose revolution is this? Nobody’s—yet. It’s just happening. Only in the future will we know whose revolution it was. This is true, of course, of pretty much all authentic revolutions. A society bursts at the scenes because its political forms no longer match its social realities. Then come disruption and disorder and everything is up for grabs and then someone manages to grab, and a new shape emerged. The question isn’t who made this revolution happen, but who is going to exploit the fact that it is happening most successfully.

In Iran, the revolution of 1988-89 was a broad-based ramshackle outpouring at first. Khomeini was a huge figure, to be sure, but the Mujahideen Khalq had been working to overthrow the Shah forever, there was a vast middle class seething at the dynastic police power that both used them and shackled them, there were the bazaar merchants sidelined by industrial development, there were leftist and liberal as well as Islamist students, and there were so many others. Once the society was in disarray, however, the group most mobilized for action, took over. And that was Khomeini and his Khomeinists. The Iranian revolution became their revolution in those first two years of turmoil.

Ditto the Bolshevik revolution The Czarist regime collapsed, Russia was teeming with anti-Czar forces. The Bolsheviks had been one of the smallest of the opposition groups, but they emerged from the chaos because they were so fearsomely well-organized, they could hit hardest and move fastest, and their only scruples were those imposed by their dogmas.

In the Arab world, who is best mobilized to exploit the chaos to come? I said “to-come” because whatever this revolution is about, it’s still in the future. What we’ve seen so far is only the swell of the ocean that indicates a tsunami is on its way. Right now, in Egypt, Mubarak is gone, but the regime is still in place. Will the Muslim Brotherhood emerge now, from the shadows. Oddly enough, I somehow think not. It’s true that only the underground movements have been able to operate in Egypt, these many decades. When political organizing is outlawed, only outlaws will be politically organized. So maybe the Brotherhood is mustered and ready to take advantage. And yet…

To me, they feel somehow dated, clunky, and out of touch, almost as much so as the rulers who are now under siege. If it’s true that youthful energy connected by Facebook and Twitter and the is driving this uprising, then the spontaneous mood is quite unlike the one that permeated Iran in 1978. At that time, there was no Islamist state. It could seem like a workable vision to some. Base a country on the shari’a–why not? But the demonstrators of today have Iran itself, not to mention the recent Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to look to as models. In the absence of an actual Islamist regime to point to, Islamist revolutionaries can evoke an imagined ideal to give direction to revolutionary energy. But now, demonstrators in the streets of Cairo or Amman or Tripoli will be asking themselves, Is Iran what I want my country to be? Is Taliban-ruled Afghanistan what I’m trying to build. I’m betting that those options are not going to look attractive to a lot of the folks out on the streets of those Arab cities right now.

The outcome of a revolution is bound up with the technology that made it possible. In Iran, circa 1978, the revolutionary instrument of the moment was the hand-held cassette tape recorder. It was light, it could go anywhere, millions of them could be sneaked across the border—but the actual message could, and did, come from one source. The instrument of revolution made the revolution centralized and driven from the top, from a single source of absolute wisdom. The ethnology keying this revolutionary moment does not and cannot have a center. Facebook is not mass media, it’s mass interconnectivity. What the whole mass is “thinking” cannot be known until it reveals itself in action, because there is no platform outside the system from which to look at all those message flying around and see what they add up to.

Last Fall in Afghanistan

Last Fall in Afghanistan


If you follow the news of any place daily, you start to see some patterns. I have been following events in Afghanistan on a daily basis since mid-August, and in that time I’ve seen stories well up, break, and vanish—although some are still simmering, and some are threatening to blow much bigger in the months ahead. Here are some of the main stories I’ve seen in Afghanistan this fall (I’m leaving out night raids, suicide bombings, kidnappings, and other such violence: that’s constant.)           


Corruption Scandals   

It’s died away now, but for a while there—in September and October—the pressure on Karzai to “do something” about corruption forced him to launch a series of initiatives. Two problems soon cropped up, however. One, Karzai’s closest associates were hip-deep in the scandals. Second—and worse– some of the key figures suspected of criminal corruption in Afghanistan were on secret payrolls working for the U.S. military or for U.S. intelligence agencies. As this came to light, the need to end the corruption seemed to lose some of its urgency. Most recently, the U.S. has decided, as a matter of policy, not to pursue cases of corruption as aggressively as in the past—reportedly because it doesn’t seem to produce any progress.           


The Kabul Bank Fiasco

The Bush Administration saw privatization as the route to reconstruction in Afghanistan and they encouraged entrepreneurs to found every sort of institution, including banks. The biggest winner was Kabul Bank, an enormous thing with several billion in assets—bigger by far than the country’s supposed national bank. The country’s payroll, including the salaries of civil servants, policemen, and soldiers came to be funneled through this bank. The trouble was, the bank was being looted by its principle officers and its directors, most of whom were closely connected to the Karzai family and other powerful political figures. they included Karzai’s brother Mahmoud and relatives of the notorious Tajik warlord Fahim, who held the post of vice-president. These guys were using huge loans from the bank to buy real estate in Dubai which they could sell within weeks for enormous profits. They were also borrowing from the bank to set up security and service companies that specialized in gaining American contracts. When the real estate market in Dubai belatedly suffered the same crash as every other part of the world, the bank looked like it might default. For a few days, it closed its doors and refused to admit depositors. At that point, the government-owned Central Bank took over and the officers of Kabul Bank were fired. No one seems to know if it then got a sudden infusion of cash from the U.S. government. In any case, the bank seems to have righted itself and remains open for business.           


The Battle for Kandahar

Last year, the United States and NATO undertook to conquer the small town of Marjah, near Lashkargah, described as the headquarters for the Talibanist insurgency in that region. They won the battle, but Western forces are still pinned down there, because the insurgency just won’t quit. This fall, the U.S. and NATO decided to take control of Kandahar, the country’s second biggest city, the birthplace of the Taliban, and the spiritual center of Talibanism. The battle last several weeks, and the U.S. and its allies won. But acts of insurgent violence keep erupting there, so Kandahar, like Marjah, may have emerged as another wound that just won’t heal.        


The Parliamentary Elections

On September 18, Afghanistan was scheduled to have its second set of parliamentary elections since the new “democratic” government was set up. This would be a good time to note that the first set of these elections four years ago went fairly well. So did the first presidential election, which ended with the expected victory of Hamid Karzai, running as the candidate for the American Puppet Party. The second set of presidential elections were much more contentious but still ended with Karzai in power. The second set of Parliamentary elections has been a brawl. It took more than two months to announce the results, thousands of complaints of fraud have been lodged, and a special five-judge panel of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court has been set up to investigate these complaints, although few expect that any court will be able to settle all the brouhaha.        


Rumors of Peace (Talks)

First, there were rumors that a number of people associated with the Taliban had come to Kabul for secret meetings with Karzai and his associates. Then the leading figure in these supposed peace talks was arrested and imprisoned in Pakistan, by Pakistan. So ended that line of possible peace talks. Then Karzai set up the High Peace Council, some fifty former warlords, clerics, and special appointees, whose assignment it has been to work out the terms for some sort of negotiation with the Taliban. This has sparked much optimistic chatter in the west about a “political solution” to the war, although few really discuss what coming to terms with the Taliban would really entail for Afghans who don’t want to live under Taliban-style rule. Then came rumors of a new round of peace feelers from the Taliban, and the news that one of the top Taliban leaders, possibly a top aide to Mullah Omar himself was in Kabul to negotiate. Then this top aide fled the capital and vanished. It turned out the wasn’t a leading member of the Taliban but an imposter—just some Pakistani shopkeeper who saw an opportunity to make some dough. His disappearance left all the various parties spluttering. U.S. officials said they suspected he was an imposter all along. Karzai said he never talked to the guy, not even once. Britain, whose secret service had flown the guy secretly into Kabul, said nothing. Talk of peace talks seem to have subsided.            


Minerals of Afghanistan

In July or so, U.S. officials broke the news that Afghanistan has over a trillion dollars worth of mineral resources, which could end up making this country a central player in the unfolding economy of the future, if the minerals are properly developed. The precious resources include gold, oil, natural gas, copper, iron, and “rare earth,” minerals such as lithium that will be crucial to the solar and electronic technologies of the future. But here’s the curious thing. Although the existence of these minerals was announced (and is still being touted) as if they had just been discovered—by U.S. geologists—people have actually known about them for a long time—at least hundreds of years in the case of the copper and iron, and since Soviet days in the case of the oil and gas. A second curious thing: while the U.S. is pouring money and lives into fighting a mounting insurgency in Afghanistan, the Chinese have secured the contract to develop the copper of Afghanistan, which is the single most precious resource of all the finds, and may be on the verge of signing up the iron too.           


Iran Pushes In

It’s hard to know what Iran is up to, or thinks it’s up to, but over the last few months it has been aggressively asserting its connections to Afghanistan and its potential power over it. Some of this assertiveness comes in the form of cultural initiatives. Iran promoted a film festival in Kabul: most of the films were Iranian, and therefore in Farsi, a language most Afghans speak. Iran promoted a trade fair this fall, featuring mostly Iranian businesses. Iran also offered to help broker peace talks, a pronouncement that brought a chilly silence from the U.S. Next, the news broke that Iran had been giving cash to Karzai personally, as much as $30 million a year, none of it acknowledged or accounted for. Both Karzai and Iran have insisted there is no quid pro quo involved here, Karzai has do absolutely nothing in exchange for the cash. Nice work if you can get! I immediately wrote to the Iranian foreign ministry to let them know that if they would only give me $30 million a year, I would promise to do absolutely nothing. Heck, no skin off my back, I’m not doing much of anything right now. Iran has not gotten back to me. And now, most recently, Iran has halted all fuel tanker truck into Afghanistan on the Iranian side of their mutual border, giving no reason for it—seemingly just to demonstrate what a chokehold it has on the country, especially given the turmoil in Pakistan that hampers normal trade across that border. In the U.S., Iran’s initiatives have been played as if this all has something to do with the Taliban. Iran has been described routinely as “an ally of the Taliban, “ and sometimes as a power that supports the Taliban. I guess the logic is that both the Taliban and Iran are enemies of the United States so they must be friends. Actually, Iran is asserting its role as a replacement for the U.S. as the Kabul government’s “chief ally” against the Taliban. American protestations about Karzai seem to stem from a feeling that he’s cheating on the U.S., as if the two countries are married and are supposed to have a monogamous relationship.