Is Wisconsin the new Egypt? I don’t think so, at least not yet. Americans are not that hungry or pissed off, well maybe some Tea Party members are, but it takes a lot to get reasonably well paid academic teachers mad enough to want to start throwing bricks. On the other hand, there are plenty of young anarchists and communists willing to throw the first brick. They just need a Seattle-like consensus that now is the time.
There has been talk of a general strike. Now that would be something.
Gaddafi is hanging on in Libya but it seems pretty evident that the opposition have the initiative and people in Libya are simply fed up. I read Gaddafi’s Green book when I was in my twenties. I thought at the time it was a reasonable option, and because he was fighting the good fight against the west and supporting the IRA, Palestinians and such groups, he seemed to be on the side of the people. Too bad it turns out he hasn’t been on the side of his people. Someone like Castro was able to stay in power for so long because people in Cuba benefited from the Communist revolution, although I think he should have retired sooner, if the Cuban people really wanted him to stay, I have nothing against it. Gaddafi evidently has not benefited the people of his country. It seems he was spending his nation’s wealth glad handing Latin American leftist regimes making one wonder exactly what he did stand for. It seems that the green revolution was a failure; his people did not like it.
It is interesting that leftist Latin American Leaders are neutral such as Castro, silent such as the new president of Brazil, or supportive of Gaddafi, such as Ortega in Nicaragua, according to Al Jazeera. Even the USA seems to be waffling when it comes to Libya.
Meanwhile the Libyan people seem to be forming a new government. The UN assistant ambassador has asked for the creation of a no fly zone over Libya and to seize the assets of Gaddafi. It looks like all of eastern Libya is in the hands of the opposition and the western towns are engaged in battles based on today’s news on the BBC, Al Jazeera and the Japanese national news service.
Finally there is an article by an Egyptian who wishes a revolution against neoliberalism here in the USA.
Wisconsin Unions Call For General StrikeGrace Wyler|Feb. 22, 2011, 1:15 PM|6,612|89AAA
The South Central Federation of Labor, an umbrella organization representing more than 45,000 workers in Wisconsin, voted last night to endorse a general strike if the state legislature passes Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.
About 100 delegates of the 97-union federation voted unanimously in favor of the strike, and called for the group to start educating its members and affiliates on the “organization and function of a general strike.” There were no details available about how the strike would work or how many workers would take part.
About 68,000 people came out Saturday to protest the bill, which would strip public employee unions of most collective bargaining rights. Protests are now entering a second week but were smaller today as most teachers returned to work.
Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats have not returned to the state from their hideout in Illinois, leaving Republicans to try to lure them back by moving forward on other legislation. Republicans have enough members to be able to vote on measures that don’t spend money, but 20 senators must be present for a vote on spending bills.
So far, there is no prospect of a resolution to the stalemate over Walker’s bill. The Governor, who said Monday that he will not negotiate over the bill, plans to address voters during a “fireside chat” tonight, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The emergency budget repair bill, which includes $165 million in bond refinancing, must be passed by Friday to make sure the state can pay its bills in the 2011 fiscal year. Walker said Tuesday that 1,500 people could lose their jobs by July if the legislation is not passed.
From Christian Science Monitor
Wisconsin Assembly set to vote on budget bill that weakens unions With Wisconsin’s senators still in hiding, the rest of the state’s lawmakers continue to wrangle over a budget bill that would mean big changes for most public employees. Who’ll blink first?
By Mark Guarino, Staff writer / February 24, 2011
Even with the absence of their Democratic counterparts, Wisconsin Senate Republicans pressed forward with the budget repair bill proposed by Gov. Scott Walker and intended to plug a $3.6 billion budget gap over the next two years. But critics say it’s nothing more than union-busting.
The floor debate started Tuesday and continued through Thursday, making it possible the state Assembly may vote late Thursday.
While some 70,000 advocates on both sides swarmed the Capitol in Madison over the past week, debate over the bill reached a historic milestone. At noon Thursday, discussions passed the 48-hour mark, making it the longest continuous legislative debate in the state in living memory.
There is no end in sight.
The 14 Senate Democrats remain in Illinois, where they say they will stay to prevent a quorum, which the 19 Senate Republicans need to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.
Assembly Democrats, meanwhile, are fighting the bill on the floor by debating each amendment, which they hope will prolong the public debate going on outside the state Capitol building and online.
JR Ross, editor of Wisconsin Politics, an online media outlet that covers state news in Madison, describes events so far as “high-stakes poker” for political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
“At this point no one has an end game,” Mr. Ross says. “Everybody has painted themselves into a corner. If the governor blinks, he’s weakened politically going forward. If the Democrats hiding come back and see the bill pass, they’ll have let down thousands of people and become irrelevant for the rest of the session.”
With Democrats saying they have no intention of returning until Governor Walker shows signs of compromise, Republicans are fast-tracking measures that critics say are designed to lure Democrats back into the state.
Senate Republicans approved a bill Thursday requiring voters to show photo identification to vote. Because the bill calls for $2 million in state dollars to educate voters and poll workers, it cannot pass without a quorum. State Democrats have long opposed the issue, but because they know the bill will pass even with their presence, they are not likely to return for the debate.
Even with the governor tight-lipped about compromise, there are signs that Senate Republicans may be more willing.
Earlier this week, Sen. Dale Schultz introduced a “sunset” measure into the budget repair bill that would extend the limits on collective bargaining for just two years.
Besides forcing non-law-enforcement workers to pay more for their pension and health benefits, Walker’s bill removes collective bargaining power on everything but wages, and it forces workers to vote every 12 months to certify their union’s existence.
Oil falls from near $120 on Saudi, Gaddafi rumor
By Gene Ramos and Matthew Robinson
NEW YORK | Thu Feb 24, 2011 6:55pm EST
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Oil sank from 2-1/2-year highs near $120 a barrel on Thursday in strong, late-day profit-taking following an unsubstantiated rumor Muammar Gaddafi had been shot and Saudi Arabia’s assurances it can counter Libyan supply disruptions.
A U.S. official said Washington had no reason to believe the Libyan leader was dead after the rumor swept through oil markets and sent prices tumbling more than $2 a barrel just before settlement.
Prices surged in early activity on news the Libyan revolt had caused large disruptions in the OPEC nation’s oil supplies — potentially up to three-quarters of output — though the scale of the loss could not be confirmed.
Markets had earlier eased on news top OPEC exporter Saudi Arabia was in talks with European refiners affected by the disruption to fill any supply gaps.
“After three days of moving to the upside, the market was prone to profit-taking and then we heard the rumor that Gaddafi was dead,” said Peter Beutel, president of Cameron Hanover in New Canaan, Connecticut.
“It was almost like the fever was breaking anyway, and this was the bucket of water that brought the temperature down quickly.”
Traders said an increase in margin requirements for U.S. crude oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange and the Intercontinental Exchange in London also added pressure to prices late in the day.
Brent crude hit $119.79 a barrel — the highest since August 2008 — in early activity then dropped to $110.51 late, marking the widest trading range for the benchmark since September 2008. Brent settled up 11 cents at $111.36 a barrel, dropping more than $1 in post-settlement activity.
U.S. crude settled down 82 cents at $97.28 a barrel, after touching $103.41, the highest since September 2008.
Brent’s performance pushed its premium to U.S. oil, which has been weighed down by large stocks at the Cushing, Oklahoma delivery point for the New York Mercantile Exchange’s U.S. oil contract, out more than a dollar to over $14 a barrel.
As concerns mounted about the impact of higher oil prices on economic growth, the International Energy Agency again called on OPEC to draw on excess oil production capacity if required to counter Libyan supply losses.
The IEA estimates the unrest has cut off 500,000 to 750,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Libyan output. Italian oil company ENI, the biggest foreign operator, estimated 1.2 million bpd of the country’s 1.6 million bpd had been shut down as international firms pull out workers.
Options trade volumes for the New York Mercantile Exchange’s U.S. oil contract hit a record on Wednesday as the unrest sent prices higher, with traders saying bets were being laid for a spike to $120 a barrel by April.
While traders focused on Libya, some support also came after U.S. Energy Information Administration data showed a lower-than-expected build in domestic crude inventories and hefty drawdowns in gasoline and distillate stocks last week.
From Washington Post
Some now question U.S. deal that brought Gaddafi back into diplomatic fold
By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 9:01 PM
In 2003, the Western view of Libya’s autocratic president was much the same as it is now: a dangerously unstable tyrant who slaughters his own people. But late that year, Moammar Gaddafi sent a secret message to a British diplomat saying he was ready to change.
“He wanted to come in from the cold,” said a former senior aide to President George W. Bush who worked in the White House when the request came in. Within months, the Bush administration was actively furthering a U.S. and British diplomatic courtship of the Libyan leader that had begun under President Bill Clinton.
With substantial U.S. backing, Gaddafi publicly abandoned his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in 2004 and later renounced his support for terrorist groups, a dramatic turnabout that was rewarded with full U.S. diplomatic recognition. Yet while the reforms succeeded in ending Gaddafi’s status as an international pariah, Libyan promises of political reform never materialized. Now, after this week’s violent crackdown on protesters in Tripoli, human rights groups and some Libyan opposition leaders are asking whether the United States was duped in 2003 into propping up one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
In hindsight, the deal struck with Gaddafi did little to help ordinary Libyans, said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington research institute.
“We rehabilitated a cruel dictator in the interest of securing American policy gains,” Miller said. Though the policy change had its merits, “It was a devil’s bargain because we essentially said, ‘If you support our policies on war and peace, we’ll give you a pass on human rights,’ ” Miller said.
Others argue that Libyans would likely be no better off today if the deal had not been struck, and indeed, by almost every measure, the perils facing the region would be far worse.
“His nuclear program would still be intact and even further developed, and he would have his missiles and chemical weapons to use as he wishes,” said Elliott Abrams, a former foreign policy adviser to both Bush and President Ronald Reagan. Rejecting Gaddafi’s overture would have left the West without any levers for influencing Libyan behavior, he added. “It would be saying to him, ‘You go on making nuclear weapons and supporting terrorists, and we’ll just make speeches’ ” about human rights, Abrams said.
The deal exemplified Gaddafi’s ability to command international attention, in part because of Libya’s oil resources, but also because Gaddafi pursued advanced weapons, supported terrorist groups and put himself forward as the leader of an entire continent.
Gaddafi’s surprise diplomatic overture to the West in 2003 came at a time when his country was struggling economically under U.N. economic sanctions and locked in a state of perpetual conflict with the world’s only superpower. The United States had bombed Libya in the 1980s in retaliation for Libyan-backed terrorist attacks, and Washington was pushing for hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution payments for Libya’s role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. At the time, Gaddafi had also just witnessed a devastating display of U.S military might in Iraq, as U.S.-led forces crushed Saddam Hussein’s army in less than three weeks.
The initial contact with British diplomats in 2004 led to a U.S.-brokered deal that would eventually lead to political rehabilitation for Gaddafi and his government in return for dismantling programs to build nuclear and chemical weapons and advanced missiles.
“We had a huge bonanza: cooperation on counter-terrorism and on the problem of weapons proliferation,” said David L. Mack, a former U.S. ambassador to the Middle East and a deputy secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. “The Libyans gave us the keys to the whole A.Q. Khan network,” said Mack, referring to the international nuclear smuggling ring led by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Abrams, who in 2003 was the top Middle East adviser to the Bush administration’s National Security Council, acknowledged that White House demands for Libyan political reform were “muted,” despite the intense pressure applied by the administration on other Middle Eastern governments to allow greater political freedom.
“We had just cut a deal with this guy. It would have been wrong to immediately start firing at him verbally,” Abrams said. He added that administration officials did begin engaging with other members of Gaddafi’s family and senior staff - including his Western-educated son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi - to win support for the gradual introduction of reforms.
The lack of progress in those efforts was underscored by this week’s violence, which Middle East experts said demonstrated how little Gaddafi’s domestic policies had changed in the six years since Libya normalized relations with the United States in 2006. Then, as now, Gaddafi wielded absolute power and sought to crush potential rivals from tribal, political or religious groups opposed to his one-man rule.
From Al Jazeera
A revolution against neoliberalism?
If rebellion results in a retrenchment of neoliberalism, millions will feel cheated.
‘Abu Atris’ Last Modified: 24 Feb 2011 17:04 GMT
Ahmed Ezz, one of several NDP officials arrested since Egypt’s revolution began [EPA]
On February 16th I read a comment was posted on the wall of the Kullina Khalid Saed (”We are all Khaled Said”) Facebook page administered by the now very famous Wael Ghonim. By that time it had been there for about 21 hours. The comment referred to a news item reporting that European governments were under pressure to freeze bank accounts of recently deposed members of the Mubarak regime. The comment said: “Excellent news … we do not want to take revenge on anyone … it is the right of all of us to hold to account any person who has wronged this nation. By law we want the nation’s money that has been stolen … because this is the money of Egyptians, 40% of whom live below the poverty line.”
By the time I unpacked this thread of conversation, 5,999 people had clicked the “like” button, and about 5,500 had left comments. I have not attempted the herculean task of reading all five thousand odd comments (and no doubt more are being added as I write), but a fairly lengthy survey left no doubt that most of the comments were made by people who clicked the “like” icon on the Facebook page. There were also a few by regime supporters, and others by people who dislike the personality cult that has emerged around Mr. Ghoneim.
This Facebook thread is symptomatic of the moment. Now that the Mubarak regime has fallen, an urge to account for its crimes and to identify its accomplices has come to the fore. The chants, songs, and poetry performed in Midan al-Tahrir always contained an element of anger against haramiyya (thieves) who benefited from regime corruption. Now lists of regime supporters are circulating in the press and blogosphere. Mubarak and his closest relatives (sons Gamal and ‘Ala’) are always at the head of these lists. Articles on their personal wealth give figures as low as $3 billion to as high as $70 billion (the higher number was repeated on many protesters’ signs). Ahmad Ezz, the General Secretary of the deposed National Democratic Party and the largest steel magnate in the Middle East, is supposed to be worth $18 billion; Zohayr Garana, former Minister of Tourism, $13 billion; Ahmad al-Maghrabi, former Minister of Housing, $11 billion; former Minister of Interior Habib Adli, much hated for his supervision of an incredibly abusive police state, also managed to amass $8 billion — not bad for a lifetime civil servant.
Such figures may prove to be inaccurate. They may be too low, or maybe too high, and we may never know precisely because much of the money is outside of Egypt, and foreign governments will only investigate the financial dealings of Mubarak regime members if the Egyptian government makes a formal request for them to do so. Whatever the true numbers, the corruption of the Mubarak regime is not in doubt. The lowest figure quoted for Mubarak’s personal wealth, of “only” $3 billion, is damning enough for a man who entered the air force in 1950 at the age of twenty two, embarking on a sixty-year career in “public service.”
A systemic problem
The hunt for regime cronies’ billions may be a natural inclination of the post-Mubarak era, but it could also lead astray efforts to reconstitute the political system. The generals who now rule Egypt are obviously happy to let the politicians take the heat. Their names were not included in the lists of the most egregiously corrupt individuals of the Mubarak era, though in fact the upper echelons of the military have long been beneficiaries of a system similar to (and sometimes overlapping with) the one that that enriched civilian figures much more prominent in the public eye such as Ahmad Ezz and Habib al-Adly.
Despite macroeconomic gains, tens of millions of Egyptians still live in poverty [EPA]
To describe blatant exploitation of the political system for personal gain as corruption misses the forest for the trees. Such exploitation is surely an outrage against Egyptian citizens, but calling it corruption suggests that the problem is aberrations from a system that would otherwise function smoothly. If this were the case then the crimes of the Mubarak regime could be attributed simply to bad character: change the people and the problems go away. But the real problem with the regime was not necessarily that high-ranking members of the government were thieves in an ordinary sense. They did not necessarily steal directly from the treasury. Rather they were enriched through a conflation of politics and business under the guise of privatization. This was less a violation of the system than business as usual. Mubarak’s Egypt, in a nutshell, was a quintessential neoliberal state.
What is neoliberalism? In his Brief History of Neoliberalism, the eminent social geographer David Harvey outlined “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” Neoliberal states guarantee, by force if necessary, the “proper functioning” of markets; where markets do not exist (for example, in the use of land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution), then the state should create them.
Guaranteeing the sanctity of markets is supposed to be the limit of legitimate state functions, and state interventions should always be subordinate to markets. All human behavior, and not just the production of goods and services, can be reduced to market transactions.
And the application of utopian neoliberalism in the real world leads to deformed societies as surely as the application of utopian communism did.
Rhetoric vs. reality
Two observations about Egypt’s history as a neoliberal state are in order. First, Mubarak’s Egypt was considered to be at the forefront of instituting neoliberal policies in the Middle East (not un-coincidentally, so was Ben Ali’s Tunisia). Secondly, the reality of Egypt’s political economy during the Mubarak era was very different than the rhetoric, as was the case in every other neoliberal state from Chile to Indonesia. Political scientist Timothy Mitchell published a revealing essay about Egypt’s brand of neoliberalism in his book Rule of Experts (the chapter titled “Dreamland” — named after a housing development built by Ahmad Bahgat, one of the Mubarak cronies now discredited by the fall of the regime). The gist of Mitchell’s portrait of Egyptian neoliberalism was that while Egypt was lauded by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund as a beacon of free-market success, the standard tools for measuring economies gave a grossly inadequate picture of the Egyptian economy. In reality the unfettering of markets and agenda of privatization were applied unevenly at best.
The only people for whom Egyptian neoliberalism worked “by the book” were the most vulnerable members of society, and their experience with neoliberalism was not a pretty picture. Organised labor was fiercely suppressed. The public education and the health care systems were gutted by a combination of neglect and privatization. Much of the population suffered stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation. Official unemployment was estimated at approximately 9.4% last year (and much higher for the youth who spearheaded the January 25th Revolution), and about 20% of the population is said to live below a poverty line defined as $2 per day per person.
For the wealthy, the rules were very different. Egypt did not so much shrink its public sector, as neoliberal doctrine would have it, as it reallocated public resources for the benefit of a small and already affluent elite. Privatization provided windfalls for politically well-connected individuals who could purchase state-owned assets for much less than their market value, or monopolise rents from such diverse sources as tourism and foreign aid. Huge proportions of the profits made by companies that supplied basic construction materials like steel and cement came from government contracts, a proportion of which in turn were related to aid from foreign governments.
Most importantly, the very limited function for the state recommended by neoliberal doctrine in the abstract was turned on its head in reality. In Mubarak’s Egypt business and government were so tightly intertwined that it was often difficult for an outside observer to tease them apart. Since political connections were the surest route to astronomical profits, businessmen had powerful incentives to buy political office in the phony elections run by the ruling National Democratic Party. Whatever competition there was for seats in the Peoples’ Assembly and Consultative Council took place mainly within the NDP. Non-NDP representation in parliament by opposition parties was strictly a matter of the political calculations made for a given elections: let in a few independent candidates known to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005 (and set off tremors of fear in Washington); dictate total NDP domination in 2010 (and clear the path for an expected new round of distributing public assets to “private” investors).
Parallels with America
The political economy of the Mubarak regime was shaped by many currents in Egypt’s own history, but its broad outlines were by no means unique. Similar stories can be told throughout the rest of the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Everywhere neoliberalism has been tried, the results are similar: living up to the utopian ideal is impossible; formal measures of economic activity mask huge disparities in the fortunes of the rich and poor; elites become “masters of the universe,” using force to defend their prerogatives, and manipulating the economy to their advantage, but never living in anything resembling the heavily marketised worlds that are imposed on the poor.
Unemployment was a major grievance for millions of Egyptian protesters [EPA]
The story should sound familiar to Americans as well. For example, the vast fortunes of Bush era cabinet members Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, through their involvement with companies like Halliburton and Gilead Sciences, are the product of a political system that allows them — more or less legally — to have one foot planted in “business” and another in “government” to the point that the distinction between them becomes blurred. Politicians move from the office to the boardroom to the lobbying organization and back again.
As neoliberal dogma disallows any legitimate role for government other than guarding the sanctity of free markets, recent American history has been marked by the steady privatization of services and resources formerly supplied or controlled by the government. But it is inevitably those with closest access to the government who are best positioned to profit from government campaigns to sell off the functions it formerly performed. It is not just Republicans who are implicated in this systemic corruption. Clinton-era Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin’s involvement with Citigroup does not bear close scrutiny. Lawrence Summers gave crucial support for the deregulation of financial derivatives contracts while Secretary of Treasury under Clinton, and profited handsomely from companies involved in the same practices while working for Obama (and of course deregulated derivatives were a key element in the financial crisis that led to a massive Federal bailout of the entire banking industry).
So in Egyptian terms, when General Secretary of the NDP Ahmad Ezz cornered the market on steel and was given contracts to build public-private construction projects, or when former Minister of Parliament Talaat Mustafa purchased vast tracts of land for the upscale Madinaty housing development without having to engage in a competitive bidding process (but with the benefit of state-provided road and utility infrastructure), they may have been practicing corruption logically and morally. But what they were doing was also as American as apple pie, at least within the scope of the past two decades.
However, in the current climate the most important thing is not the depredations of deposed Mubarak regime cronies. It is rather the role of the military in the political system. It is the army that now rules the country, albeit as a transitional power, or so most Egyptians hope. No representatives of the upper echelons of the Egyptian military appear on the various lists of old-regime allies who need to be called to account. For example, the headline of the February 17th edition of Ahrar, the press organ of the Liberal party, was emblazoned with the headline “Financial Reserves of the Corrupt Total 700 Billion Pounds [about $118 billion] in 18 Countries.”
A vast economic powerhouse
But the article did not say a single word about the place of the military in this epic theft. The military were nonetheless part of the crony capitalism of the Mubarak era. After relatively short careers in the military high-ranking officers are rewarded with such perks as highly remunerative positions on the management boards of housing projects and shopping malls. Some of these are essentially public-sector companies transferred to the military sector when IMF-mandated structural adjustment programs required reductions in the civilian public sector.
But the generals also receive plums from the private sector. Military spending itself was also lucrative because it included both a state budget and contracts with American companies that provided hardware and technical expertise. The United States provided much of the financing for this spending under rules that required a great deal of the money to be recycled to American corporations, but all such deals required middlemen. Who better to act as an intermediary for American foreign aid contracts than men from the very same military designated as the recipient of the services paid for by this aid? In this respect the Egyptian military-industrial complex was again stealing a page from the American playbook; indeed, to the extent that the Egyptian military benefited from American foreign aid, Egypt was part of the American military-industrial complex, which is famous for its revolving-door system of recycling retired military men as lobbyists and employees of defense contractors.
Consequently it is almost unthinkable that the generals of the Supreme Military Council will willingly allow more than cosmetic changes in the political economy of Egypt. But they could be compelled to do so unwillingly. The army is a blunt force, not well suited for controlling crowds of demonstrators. The latest statement of the Supreme Military Council reiterated both the legitimacy of the pro-democracy movements demands, and the requirement that demonstrations cease so that the country can get back to work. If demonstrations continue to the point that the Supreme Military Council feels it can no longer tolerate them, then the soldiers who will be ordered to put them down (indeed, in some accounts were already ordered to put them down early in the revolution and refused to do so) with deadly force, are not the generals who were part of the Mubarak-era corruption, but conscripts.
Pro-democracy demonstrators and their sympathisers often repeated the slogans “the army and the people are one hand,” and “the army is from us.” They had the conscripts in mind, and many were unaware of how stark differences were between the interests of the soldiers and the generals. Between the conscripts and the generals is a middle-level professional officer corps whose loyalties have been the subject of much speculation. The generals, for their part, want to maintain their privileges, but not to rule directly. Protracted direct rule leaves the officers of the Supreme Military Council vulnerable to challenges from other officers who were left on the outside. Also, direct rule would make it impossible to hide that the elite officers are not in fact part of the “single hand” composed of the people and the (conscript) army. They are instead logically in the same camp as Ahmad Ezz, Safwat al-Sharif, Gamal Mubarak, and Habib al-Adly — precisely the names on those lists making the rounds of regime members and cronies who should face judgment.
Ultimately the intense speculation about how much money the Mubarak regime stole, and how much the people can expect to pump back into the nation, is a red herring. If the figure turns out to be $50 billion or $500 billion, it will not matter, if Egypt remains a neoliberal state dedicated (nominally) to free-market fundamentalism for the poor, while creating new privatised assets that can be recycled to political insiders for the rich. If one seeks clues to how deeply the January 25th Revolution will restructure Egypt, it would be better to look at such issues as what sort of advice the interim government of generals solicits in fulfilling its mandate to re-make Egyptian government. The period of military government probably will be as short as advertised, followed, one hopes, by an interim civilian government for some specified period (at least two years) during which political parties are allowed to organise on the ground in preparation for free elections. But interim governments have a way of becoming permanent.
Technocrats or ideologues?
One sometimes hears calls to set up a government of “technocrats” that would assume the practical matters of governance. “Technocrat” sounds neutral — a technical expert who would make decisions on “scientific” principle. The term was often applied to Yusuf Butros Ghali, for example, the former Minister of the Treasury, who was one of the Gamal Mubarak boys brought into the cabinet in 2006 ostensibly to smooth the way for the President’s son to assume power. Ghali is now accused of having appropriated LE 450 million for the use of Ahmad Ezz.
I once sat next to Ghali at a dinner during one of his trips abroad, and had the opportunity to ask him when the Egyptian government would be ready to have free elections. His response was to trot out the now discredited regime line that elections were impossible because actual democracy would result in the Muslim Brotherhood taking power. Conceivably Ghali will beat the charge of specifically funneling the state’s money to Ahmad Ezz. But as a key architect of Egypt’s privatization programs he cannot possibly have been unaware that he was facilitating a system that enabled the Ezz steel empire while simultaneously destroying Egypt’s educational and health care systems.
The Egyptian army controls a range of businesses, ranging from factories to hotels [EPA]
The last time I encountered the word “technocrat” was in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine — a searing indictment of neoliberalism which argues that the free-market fundamentalism promoted by economist Milton Friedman (and immensely influential in the United States) is predicated on restructuring economies in the wake of catastrophic disruptions because normally functioning societies and political systems would never vote for it. Disruptions can be natural or man-made, such as … revolutions.
The chapters in The Shock Doctrine on Poland, Russia, and South Africa make interesting reading in the context of Egypt’s revolution. In each case when governments (communist or apartheid) collapsed, “technocrats” were brought in to help run countries that were suddenly without functional governments, and create the institutional infrastructure for their successors. The technocrats always seemed to have dispensed a form of what Klein calls “shock therapy” — the imposition of sweeping privatization programs before dazed populations could consider their options and potentially vote for less ideologically pure options that are in their own interests.
The last great wave of revolutions occurred in 1989. The governments that were collapsing then were communist, and the replacement in that “shock moment” of one extreme economic system with its opposite seemed predictable and to many even natural.
One of the things that make the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions potentially important on a global scale is that they took place in states that were already neoliberalised. The complete failure of neoliberalsm to deliver “human well-being” to a large majority of Egyptians was one of the prime causes of the revolution, at least in the sense of helping to prime millions of people who were not connected to social media to enter the streets on the side of the pro-democracy activists.
But the January 25th Revolution is still a “shock moment.” We hear calls to bring in the technocrats in order to revive a dazed economy; and we are told every day that the situation is fluid, and that there is a power vacuum in the wake of not just the disgraced NDP, but also the largely discredited legal opposition parties, which played no role whatsoever in the January 25th Revolution. In this context the generals are probably happy with all the talk about reclaiming the money stolen by the regime, because the flip side of that coin is a related current of worry about the state of the economy. The notion that the economy is in ruins — tourists staying away, investor confidence shattered, employment in the construction sector at a standstill, many industries and businesses operating at far less than full capacity — could well be the single most dangerous rationale for imposing cosmetic reforms that leave the incestuous relation between governance and business intact.
Or worse, if the pro-democracy movement lets itself be stampeded by the “economic ruin” narrative, structures could be put in place by “technocrats” under the aegis of the military transitional government that would tie the eventual civilian government into actually quickening the pace of privatization. Ideologues, including those of the neoliberal stripe, are prone to a witchcraft mode of thinking: if the spell does not work, it is not the fault of the magic, but rather the fault of the shaman who performed the spell. In other words, the logic could be that it was not neoliberalism that ruined Mubarak’s Egypt, but the faulty application of neoliberalism.
Trial balloons for this witchcraft narrative are already being floated outside of Egypt. The New York Times ran an article on February 17th casting the military as a regressive force opposed to privatization and seeking a return to Nasserist statism. The article pits the ostensibly “good side” of the Mubarak regime (privatization programs) against bad old Arab socialism, completely ignoring the fact that while the system of military privilege may preserve some public-sector resources transferred from the civilian economy under pressure of IMF structural adjustment programs, the empire of the generals is hardly limited to a ring-fenced quasi-underground public sector.
Officers were also rewarded with private-sector perks; civilian political/business empires mixed public and private roles to the point that what was government and what was private were indistinguishable; both the military and civilians raked in rents from foreign aid. The generals may well prefer a new round of neoliberal witchcraft. More privatization will simply free up assets and rents that only the politically connected (including the generals) can acquire. Fixing a failed neoliberal state by more stringent applications of neoliberalism could be the surest way for them to preserve their privileges.
A neoliberal fix would, however, be a tragedy for the pro-democracy movement. The demands of the protesters were clear and largely political: remove the regime; end the emergency law; stop state torture; hold free and fair elections. But implicit in these demands from the beginning (and decisive by the end) was an expectation of greater social and economic justice. Social media may have helped organise the kernel of a movement that eventually overthrew Mubarak, but a large element of what got enough people into the streets to finally overwhelm the state security forces was economic grievances that are intrinsic to neoliberalism. These grievances cannot be reduced to grinding poverty, for revolutions are never carried out by the poorest of the poor. It was rather the erosion of a sense that some human spheres should be outside the logic of markets. Mubarak’s Egypt degraded schools and hospitals, and guaranteed grossly inadequate wages, particularly in the ever-expanding private sector. This was what turned hundreds of dedicated activists into millions of determined protestors.
If the January 25th revolution results in no more than a retrenchment of neoliberalism, or even its intensification, those millions will have been cheated. The rest of the world could be cheated as well. Egypt and Tunisia are the first nations to carry out successful revolutions against neoliberal regimes. Americans could learn from Egypt. Indeed, there are signs that they already are doing so. Wisconsin teachers protesting against their governor’s attempts to remove the right to collective bargaining have carried signs equating Mubarak with their governor. Egyptians might well say to America ‘uqbalak (may you be the next).