After Osama

Juan Cole sets the stage:

Usama Bin Laden was a violent product of the Cold War and the Age of Dictators in the Greater Middle East. He passed from the scene at a time when the dictators are falling or trying to avoid falling in the wake of a startling set of largely peaceful mass movements demanding greater democracy and greater social equity. Bin Laden dismissed parliamentary democracy, for which so many Tunisians and Egyptians yearn, as a man-made and fallible system of government, and advocated a return to the medieval Muslim caliphate (a combination of pope and emperor) instead. Only a tiny fringe of Muslims wants such a theocratic dictatorship. The masses who rose up this spring mainly spoke of “nation,” the “people,” “liberty” and “democracy,” all keywords toward which Bin Laden was utterly dismissive. The notorious terrorist turned to techniques of fear-mongering and mass murder to attain his goals in the belief that these methods were the only means by which the Secret Police States of the greater Middle East could be overturned.

I’ve got to think the European militaries will be done with Afghanistan about as fast as is practicable. How much civic and NGO engagement remains afterward is an open question. The Schröder government in Germany may have said that the country’s security began in the Hindu Kush, but surely there are ways to secure Germany without soldiers in Afghanistan.

European support for new democratic governments in the Arab world will not be simple, given troubled colonial histories in some places and populist worries about Islam in others. Nevertheless, Europe has much to offer in both managing transitions and models of pluralist democracies that remain true to their varied national and religious backgrounds.

Ron Asmus, RIP

Ron Asmus, a key person in the 1990s enlargement of NATO and a tireless advocate of better European and transatlantic relations, died on Saturday, April 30. He was 53.

The Economist’s Eastern Approaches blog writes:

He was a discreet, wise and sympathetic presence in the region, in Washington DC, and in West European capitals for two decades, explaining to jittery ex-communist politicians that volume and frequency of public utterances does not correlate with effectiveness, to American officials and politicians that the goal of “Europe whole and free” still required patient and detailed work, and to West European leaders that a security grey zone in the east would be as bad for them as it would be for those consigned to it.

Just so.

He will be much missed, even among people who barely knew him, and his efforts missed among people who knew him not at all.

Finalité Revisited

Shortly after the big round of EU enlargement in 2004, I took a look at future prospects for enlargement. At the time, I called prospective members, “largely a collection of the poor, ill-governed and recently-at-war.” Most of them are much less recently at war, many of them are better governed, and almost all of them are less poor, yet for all but a few prospects for EU accession seem to me more distant than in 2004.

What has happened?
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Panning back to Egypt…

A couple of weeks ago, the big question had ceased to be “Will there be a revolution in Egypt?” and had become “Will it matter?” The revolutionaries had demonstrated that they could endure, could divide the Army from the government and the security state, and had eventually succeeded in chasing the president out of power. But would this mean lasting change? Wouldn’t it just imply the creation of a new ruling elite, or a permanently-temporary military junta? The grey lineup detailed here were in charge, issuing statements about going back to work. This piece from David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal sketches it out, and reveals far more than it means to.

It’s easy to sketch the scenario in which Egypt blows it. The army could maintain control behind a façade of democracy and protect elites who benefited from the growth produced by significant economic reforms that Mr. Mubarak blessed. Four things have to go right for Egypt to seize the moment.

First, the young protesters of Tahrir Square have to keep the pressure on the military. A lot depends on which way they go. If they’ve been soured by privatization that engorged the cronies, will they demand the security and subsidies of the state over the risks, competition and dynamism that comes with a vibrant private sector? In short, do they want government jobs? Or a shot at being hired—and maybe fired—by an entrepreneurial company?

Of course, the policies those elites benefited from are precisely the ones he goes on to advocate, and the ones that the IMF recommended and Mubarak implemented. Wessel alludes to this further down the piece but never quite manages to say that the Egyptians hated them so much they overthrew the state. Also, although he compares Egypt with Poland after communism, he doesn’t seem to be aware that a major factor in Poland’s revolutions (1981 and 1989) was that the state got huge international loans it couldn’t pay back.

Anyway, so that was one scenario – the military guarantees some constitutional change but keeps the political economy and the power-structure Mubarak left.

It doesn’t seem to be working. Mohammed Fadel has a good rundown of the Army’s (and the Muslim Brothers’, and the 2005-era middle class dissidents’) efforts to put pressure on strikers, their eventual failure, and some of the economic ideas circulating among the revolutionaries. Apparently, the military has eventually been induced to open talks with the real trade union movement as opposed to the yellow unions that were part of Mubarak’s system. You can read their negotiating position at guess who’s.

But perhaps the best news of all isn’t economic. Here’s some incredible reportage of an incredible and very significant event – the crowds take over the headquarters of Central Security in Alexandria, and start salvaging the secret files the spooks were trying to destroy.

I wouldn’t bet on the holy-of-holies in Cairo lasting much longer – Hossam el-Hamalawy has already been down to his local station with his Canon EOS 5D and his angry mob. Guess what, that’s full of files as well.

In 1989, something similar happened – when it looked like the post-Wall East German government might be stabilising, and that it felt confident enough to tell the public that it was going to retain the Stasi although under a new name, people invaded the organisation’s offices to secure the key assets of any secret police force, the files. It was the end, really; there could be no more hoping for some sort of patched-up afterlife for the basic structure of the DDR. This time there was much more violence, and the spook toys included a sinisterly large stash of Viagra – the Stasi did a fair amount of drug dealing as part of its efforts to raise hard currency, but nothing with those implications.

There probably weren’t many documents like this one in the files at the Normannenstraße either.

The upshot includes the resignation of Mubarak’s last prime minister. In an almost uncanny echo of East Germany, he went on TV not long before the crowds moved into the secret police stations, to defend the institution of Central Security. Just like Hans Modrow did, and with exactly the same effect. His exit was announced via the Egyptian Army’s facebook profile.

His replacement is profiled here – Essam Sharaf, significantly, is both a candidate endorsed by the revolutionaries and a participant in the revolution himself, as well as apparently enjoying a good reputation with the workers’ movement as far back as 2006.

épuration, crowdsourced

I’m not sure what either Ethan Zuckerman or Evgeny Morozov would make of this, but this is quite the revolutionary web crowdsourcing project. Piggipedia is an effort by Egyptian Flickr users to pool their photos from the revolution and identify the plain-clothes cops and private thugs responsible for the worst of the violence, with a view to prosecuting them or failing that, just ostracising the hell out of them. I presume this is also going to be a rare deployment outside China of the human flesh search engine. If sex infects new media like a virus, yadda yadda William Gibson feh, just wait ’til you see how revenge does.

The most useful article you’ll read on Egypt this week

Is here. How did we get to the position where the red flag and the desert eagle were suddenly back ahead of the star and crescent? How do the Muslim Brothers and other Islamists interact with the Left? Where did those people come from?

As a Revolutionary Socialist member who was active in the 1990s recalls: “We were a kind of leftist the Muslim Brothers hadn’t met before. They couldn’t quite figure us out at the beginning. Anyway, we were still too marginal for them to bother with. We were only a few individuals.” This began to change in 1999. On a few occasions in that year, as one socialist remembers, the Muslim Brotherhood students at Cairo University allowed the Revolutionary Socialist students to speak at rallies held on campus against the US airstrikes on Iraq. The socialist students took this unprecedented opportunity as a sign of the Muslim Brothers’ recognition that they were a force that had to be given a place on the political stage. It was a step in a long, slow process of building trust.

Of Gods and Men: non-premature evaluation

In my role as the AFOE occasional film critic, off to the Curzon Mayfair for Of Gods and Men/Des dieux et des hommes. After the DICKHEADS, we’re going to deal with some much more serious terrorism in this post.

Of Gods and Men is a classic peace movie, in the sense that there are classic war movies. In fact, it mirrors quite a lot of the structure and tropes you expect from a war movie – a neat trick. The film deals with the hostage-taking and eventual murder, by unidentified gunmen, of a group of French monks in the high Atlas mountains of Algeria in 1996, during the grim worst of the Algerian civil war. The monks, to begin with, are living at peace – in fact, as we learn from some of their conversations, their elected leader Brother Christian sees their mission (that word, already) as a project in deliberately waging peace, a continuation of the alternative-leftist dream of 1968. Every time the monks have a meeting, Christian takes his seat directly in front of an icon of 1980s internationalists, the world map redrawn to make the size of Africa and Latin America more obvious.

The monks tend their land, produce honey and wine, worship. Christian is writing a book. They practice social service – one of them, Luc, is a doctor, who holds a weekly surgery for the poor. They live in apparent harmony with the Algerian villagers across the valley in their structural-tile favela settlement.

Nobody wants to be involved with the war, but the war wants very much to be involved with them. A group of Croatian engineers working nearby are murdered by insurgents. Gradually, the violence infects everything else. They try to refuse it – Christian meets with the Algerian governor, who offers to post troops near the monastery, and he refuses as a matter of principle. As a result, the monks fall out among themselves, not so much about the troops but because he has acted without getting their approval first. The war draws progressively closer, and they debate endlessly whether to abandon the whole project and go back to France, to move temporarily to a place of safety, to go back on the governor’s offer, or to stick it out. One night, the insurgents appear and demand medical assistance. Christian persuades their leader to stay outside the monastery, and they accept drugs and dressings.

Things rapidly become more serious. It becomes obvious that one side, or another, wants them dead. The insurgent leader is killed in action with the army and Christian has to identify his body, thus becoming suspect to both the insurgents and the army. A succession of monks struggle with their fear and doubt, but Christian talks them around one by one. Eventually, gunmen kidnap all but two monks (who succeed in hiding) and march them off into the mountains. They ended up dead in reality; who killed them, and how, remains a mystery.

I liked the way this film showed people at work – the monks, the Algerians, like the village haji who they hire to bring his Polish tractor and plough their patch. We see him hit a sticky patch, carefully raise the hitch, reverse, and try again. The doomed Croats boom around the site with their Caterpillars and a sort of proud working-class confidence.

I also liked the role of time. The monks initially seem to be blessed with the gift of all the time in the world, but as the film progresses, the slow progress of time becomes a source of cranking suspense and maddening waiting.

That’s another war-movie trick, of course. Among other things, Brother Bruno makes a dangerous journey through the checkpoints and the debatable lands to bring in an urgent supply run, including cheese, medicines, and several hundred rounds of communion wafers. People write home illuminatingly. One of the monks demands of their leader “What are we doing here – trying to be heroes? Martyrs?”, and his leader talks him down reminding him of the importance of their mission and his obligations to his brothers (another telling word). The characters seek out their leader one by one to talk to him in confidence, and he pays out the big cheap words used on all such occasions. After they are captured, one after the other, the hostage-takers make them read out their name, age, and monastic affiliation. (Monks don’t have serial numbers.) In fact, it’s arguable that this is how the war seeps into the monastery – the monks get pressganged into a war movie.

As well as being a great war movie about peace, it’s a pretty good peace movie about war. The Algerian regional governor honestly doesn’t want the monks to get killed, but he also has political motives – it would be welcome if they were to simply leave, but he would prefer they stay, so he can install a detachment of troops in the village and establish the government’s authority there on the pretext of protecting them. He would like to make the monks part of his counter-insurgency plan. And if the insurgents were to butcher them, despite all he could do, that would make useful propaganda.

The insurgents would much rather have the monks in place – it’s always possible to slaughter them if a dose of revolutionary terror is required, and they are a source of medical assistance. Although the insurgent leader doesn’t give Brother Christian any assurances, he does let others believe that the monks are under his protection.

And the people, it turns out, are hoping that the presence of the monks will deter the insurgents from doing anything to them, for fear of committing an atrocity awful enough to wreck their reputation. They don’t want the insurgents and they want the government still less – they want, most of all, to survive and to avoid being governed. It is telling that the villagers and the monks are the only people in the movie who practice a sort of democracy – the Algerian military, of course, couldn’t care less, and the insurgents obey their leader. But this doesn’t mean they are passive. Part of the horror is that the relationship between the villagers and the monks subtly changes, from peace to something approaching a hostage situation. After all, the villagers are in a position to denounce them to the insurgents (or the army) and then carefully see nothing.

Obviously, this situation is intolerable to both the insurgents and the military. Neither the insurgent nor the counterinsurgent will put up with people who insist on escaping from their joint demand that they take sides. In a sense, the monks are wiped out by an unconscious conspiracy between two factions desperately competing to deliver their rival visions of government to people who want no part of either. Monks don’t have serial numbers, and all the killers of the Algerian war want to impose them.

Oddly enough, the Algerian governor, with his Ottoman title of Wali, is quite a sympathetic character. A curious feature of his role is that every time he appears on screen, he speaks the unvarnished truth as a sort of bureaucratic Greek chorus. Also, he always appears in a black suit, a uniform that marks him as a survival of civilian power. In his office, though, when he talks about the people and gestures out of the window, you can’t see any people.

the political thought of 1890 with the genetics of 1890, in 2010

There’s been a great deal of fuss about the Bundesbank director Thilo Sarrazin’s book, in which he argues that the “upper layers” of German society ought to be encouraged to breed for fear of Muslims, etc, etc. The SZ points out here that he confesses to just making up his numbers:


Es ging um die Frage, woher Sarrazins viel zitierte, im Brustton der Faktizität vorgetragene Behauptung eigentlich kommt, dass siebzig Prozent der türkischen und neunzig Prozent der arabischen Bevölkerung Berlins den Staat ablehnten und in großen Teilen weder integrationswillig noch integrationsfähig seien. Sarrazin gab zu, dass er keinerlei Statistiken dazu habe. Er gab zu, dass es solche Statistiken auch gar nicht gibt.

But I’m not sure if anyone has pointed out quite how strange Sarrazin’s thinking is.

Für ihn ist die Unterschicht sowieso schon lange abgeschrieben, der Genpool degeneriert. Denn bereits seit dem 19. Jahrhundert sei die deutsche Gesellschaft immer durchlässiger geworden, “auffallende Hochbegabungen” hätten damals in Preußen bereits die Möglichkeit bekommen, das Gymnasium zu besuchen. “Das bedeutet aber, dass die Entleerung der unteren Schichten von intellektuellem Potential bei uns weiter fortgeschritten ist als in Gesellschaften, deren Durchlässigkeit sich erst später entwickelte.”

He thinks, or at least claims to think, that because the German (and specifically Prussian) education system has given the lower classes the opportunity to go on to higher education since the 19th century, Germany has a problem – the masses have been emptied of “intellectual potential” too early.

What strikes me as telling here is that it’s not just that Sarrazin’s political thought is trapped in the Wilhelmine era – his understanding of genetics is, too. This post of Razib Khan’s on the great early-20th century debate between the biologists who rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s work, and the biometricians, who had been trying to link data gathered on the range of human traits with the Darwinian inheritance, explains why.

The biometricians were essentially trying to operationalise Darwinism with early statistical methods. This gave them a problem; a lot, but not all, of the variation in biological traits at least seemed to be nice and smooth, movement along a well-behaved curve. With no other model of inheritance available, they assumed that genetics was a simple process of blending – children were an average of their parents. This had wide-ranging consequences; it implied that regression to the mean would apply to people. We would all eventually be average. From there, it wasn’t hard to predict that we would all, eventually, be mediocre and that racial degeneration was inevitable.

This is one of the great intellectual accident black spots – a nauseous gap in the barrier by the roadside. Experimental work, like Mendel’s, showed that something else was happening. One of the problems was that statistics itself needed to advance to resolve the debate. There is a very good reason why Francis Galton was both an important early statistician and a eugenist, and why it would eventually be a statistician, R. A. Fisher, who demonstrated that a Mendelian process was observable in the biometric data.

But by that time, the original mistake had set off a great avalanche of analogies. Social Darwinism and everything that followed from it was out there. It’s a horrific thought that its consequences have a lot to do with statistical methods, and it’s telling that Fisher published in 1918. The important point about Mendelian genetics is that it’s discontinuous – it doesn’t blend down to the average. Variation is conserved; not only will the German working class continue to produce bright kids, the elite will occasionally toss out a Sarrazin.