Archive for ‘February, 2011’

What the media is for

datePosted on 13:03, February 28th, 2011 by Lew

There has been a lot of coverage about the coverage of the second Canterbury earthquake, and this is another post on that general topic. However rather than deal with the specifics — already superbly examined by Mediawatch (45 minute audio) and others — this is a comment on the purpose and functions of media in a society such as ours. It should be read in light of my previous post on the topic.

A commenter on Tim’s piece at Pundit makes the following objections about the media coverage of the most recent Canterbury earthquake:

I always thought the media collected news, let those involved explain the significance and do their best to give complete and balanced coverage.
It is not the media’s job to carry on carrying on “to show support.”
Media should be getting out the information to those affected and to the general public. Not manipulate us with their constructs of “courage” and “tenacity” but provide the important facts.

It is common, but this is just the sort of idealised notion of the media’s role which I referred to earlier in that comment thread when I said:

So the trend I’ve observed, here and in other discussions on the topic, is that a few of those who don’t really understand the media or its social role, or who have idealised notions of that role, or who are amateur ‘MSM’ critics with an ideological beef, just hate it all the more for doing more of what it does. On the other hand, those who work in or with the media, or have a broad understanding of its wider functions down here in the real world pretty much agree — with a few notable exceptions, like Steven Price — that there’s some sort of social purpose being served by all this additional coverage, even if it’s imperfect; and at least have some respect — if not awe — for the magnitude of the undertaking.
Haters gonna hate, I suppose.

The media’s job is not “just the facts, ma’am”. The media’s job is right there in the name: to mediate events for a society which, by and large, will never experience them firsthand but which nevertheless relies on a strong baseline of common experience. Most New Zealanders’ main exposure to the Canterbury earthquakes will be via the media. So their job is not simply to report the facts of a situation, but its essential truth, or — as usually happens — the various truths. It is incumbent upon the media to present more than a dessicated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake, for it is not a dessicated, dispassionate situation for those involved. As a matter of fairness to Cantabrians, if the events they cover speak to narratives of courage and tenacity, or loss or anguish or triumph or solidarity or whatever, then the media has a responsibility to convey those narratives more or less faithfully. And as a matter of national cohesion they need to convey a sense of the magnitude and intensity of it all to the rest of the nation. This is the rough-cut of history, after all, and history is neither dessicated nor dispassionate. So that’s a very open-ended task; incorporating also the functions Bruce mentions. These are non-exclusive.

There are other roles, also. Not least among the media’s other functions down here in the real world is to attract and hold audiences (without which they cannot survive), and to strengthen their newsmaking reputations (without which they cannot retain any credibility). In the case of disaster coverage, the former is almost totally subservient to the latter, since the cost of producing wall-to-wall coverage in trying conditions far outweighs the advertising return from doing so — especially since much of the resulting coverage has been shorn of commercials or aired in place of other, much more lucrative programming. But this is a rare example of a genuine crisis, an opportunity for the news media to put their worst-case-scenario plans into action These are (some of) the self-interested aspects of media conduct, and many of the media’s critics like to pretend (or wish) these imperatives don’t (or didn’t) exist; that the job of the media is simply to be altruistic without consideration of the cost, and without an eye to the benefits they might draw from their coverage. But all major media outlets in this country operate along essentially commercial lines (even those which are not commercially funded, such as Radio NZ, are benchmarked on ratings in ways similar to how commercial media are), so these imperatives apply almost as much to the ‘public service’ broadcasters as to those owned by foreign venture capital firms whose sole interest is shareholder returns.

I mention this because, right or wrong, it is a crucial link in the chain: without some sort of return accruing to media outlets (whether directly financial, or in terms of strengthening their brand, or the profile of their top people, or whatever) they won’t — can’t — dedicate resources to covering an event. As long as media outlets’ performance generally rests on attracting and retaining eyeballs and earholes, media outlets will engage in the sorts of behaviours which tend to maximise their attractiveness to those eyeballs and earholes. (I’d argue that even in the case of public service broadcasters like Radio NZ, this isn’t a bad state of affairs, since a medium not accountable to an audience basically enjoys impunity, and impunity is bad wherever it exists.)

Among the most crucial roles is the ‘fourth estate’ function of holding power to account. Without more than half of the country’s best journalists in Christchurch this past week, this most crucial democratic function would be severely atrophied. While the crisis response capacities of the media are stretched, those of wider civil society are far more so. It is crucial that the quality of the social response, and especially the elite response of the government, civil defence, police, emergency services and the military is adequately scrutinised. Wall-to-wall coverage makes it worthwhile for Mediaworks and Fairfax and TVNZ and APN and RNZ and TRN to give those journalists a reason to be there. Without that strong presence, those whose job it is to coordinate the response and recovery — during a state of national emergency, which gives them the legal authority to do very nearly anything they like, as long as it can be argued to serve the response — would be working with considerably less scrutiny than they are. Impunity, in other words. And that’s no good for anyone. There have been few, or perhaps even no ‘gotchas’ revealed so far. Absent strong media scrutiny this would give rise to suspicions that failures were being hidden. Because the scrutiny has been there — including the constant and often distasteful badgering for an updated death toll — it rather suggests a competent and transparently-run response. That’s something which is good for everyone.

L

The Biggest Losers (Middle Eastern edition).

datePosted on 21:07, February 27th, 2011 by Pablo

The wave of unrest that has shaken the political foundations of the Middle East is a watershed moment in the region’s history. Although it is still too early to determine if the much hoped-for changes raised by the collective challenge to autocratic rule actually result in tangible improvements in the material and social conditions of the majority of Middle Eastern citizens, it is possible to ascertain who the losers are. Some are obvious, but others are not.

Among the obvious losers the biggest is Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose regime will topple regardless of whether he hangs onto control in Tripoli for an extended period of time (which is unlikely, since he faces not only internal opposition bolstered by defections from the military and government and does not have control over the oil fields that once made him someone to be reckoned with, but also UN-led international sanctions and a host of asset freezes on the part of individual states. Worst yet, his Ukrainian blond nurse has upped stakes and left for home!). Desposed presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt are also obvious losers, as are their cronies and sycophants, although the regimes they led have weathered the worst of the crises and they have managed to exit office with their lives (something Gaddafi is unlikely to do). Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is also a loser, since he has been forced by public unrest to announce that he will step down from power in 2013, a timeline that may accelerate as a result of defections from within his government and among influential tribal leaders that used to support him.

The al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain is another loser, as it will have to agree to significant political concessions to the Shiia majority opposition in order to quell unrest. The same is true for Algeria, Jordan, Oman and Syria, which have moved to pre-emptively announce political reforms that may or may not be cosmetic but which indicate increased regime preoccupation with public accountability and governmental performance. In seemingly stable Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, royal families are also working quickly to stave off potential unrest via the institution of preventative reform packages which, however minor in nature, are nevertheless acknowledgement that their rule is not as impregnable as they used to think. In all of the oil oligarchies there is a realisation that they must cede some power in order to stay in power, which opens the door for more substantive change down the road.

Beyond these obvious losers are others that are not immediately apparent. These include energy and weapons firms that struck deals with Gaddafi, who may find the terms and conditions of said contracts voided or renegotiated on different terms by his successors (this includes BP, which is widely believed to be behind the release of the Libyan Pan Am 103 bomber in exchange for Libyan concession rights as well as Chinese investors). They include a number of Italian businesses as well as the government of embattled president Silvio Berlusconi, who enjoyed warm relations with Gaddafi that now may turn into liabilities once he is gone. They include the Iranian regime, which has seen its crushed opposition resurface to claim the same rights their Sunni Arab brethern are calling for, thereby giving the lie to the official claim that the Ahmadinnejad-fronted theocratic regime enjoys universal support. They include the US government, which reacted slowly, clumsily and viscerally to the wave of protests, engaged in a series of quick policy shifts and contradictory pronouncements, and which has been shown to have a limited ability to predict, respond or influence events on the ground in that strategically important region even as it pontificates about its newly discovered commitment to democracy and human rights in it (it should be noted that other great powers such as China and Russia did not engage in public diplomacy about the unrest, which may be more due to their own authoritarian records rather than a respect for national sovereignty and preference for private diplomacy but which in any event does not leave them looking like hypocrites on the matter). They include Hamas and Hizbollah, whose hopes for region-wide intifadas never materialised. They might include Israel, should the post-Mubarak Egyptian regime take a less cooperative stance towards the Jewish state in response to public pressure in a more open and competitive domestic political environment (should that materialise). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should provide food for thought about others who may have benefitted from their support for Middle Eastern autocracies who may now find that their fortunes have changed for the worse as a result of the regional crisis.

But the biggest loser by far in this historic moment is the one actor that only gets mentioned by fear-mongerers: al-Qaeda and the international jihadist movement. In spite of repeated calls for the Muslim masses to join them in their struggle, after years of sacrifice of blood and treasure, international jihadists have seen few echoes of their views in the Middle Eastern uprisings. Rather than call for the establishment of a regional caliphate or even Sharia governance in individual nations, or embrace jihad against infidels at home and abroad, the vast majority of the protests in every single country where they have occurred are about bread and butter issues (mainly jobs, food and public services) and demands for increased political voice, representation, government accountability and official transparency. As it turns out, these purportedly Western and anti-Islamic notions resonate more on the Arab Street than do appeals to martyrdom. Thus, the standard canard that democracy is inapplicable to the Middle East due to cultural preferences rings as hollow for al-Qaeda as it does for the autocrats who parade it as an excuse for their rule.

The picture is clear. Fevered warnings of fear-mongers aside (who now believe that Libya will fall into jihadist’s hands should civil war ensue), after years of fighting and preaching, the ideological appeal of Islamic fundamentalism has gained little traction with the Arab majority, who instead have voiced their preference for forms of governance that take their inspiration from the infidel West, not Usama bin Laden. Not only is al-Qaeda and its allies being militarilly degraded bit by bit all over the world, in a process that may be long but where the outcome is inevitable. More importantly (and which contributes to their inevitable military defeat as a global armed actor capable of challenging for power in all but the most miserably failed states), they have been utterly defeated in the battle of ideas in the very region from whence they originated.

That makes jihadists the biggest losers of all.

UPDATE: I spent a week on holiday out of IT reach thinking about this issue, and a day after I get back and post about it the NYT decides to follow suit.

Chávez backs Gaddafi?

datePosted on 19:02, February 25th, 2011 by Lew

Via The Egonomist, on twitter, the news that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has apparently expressed support, on twitter, for Muammar Gaddafi, whose mercenaries and loyalists are presently butchering Libya’s citizens.

The tweet, in Spanish, is as follows:

Vamos Canciller Nicolás: dales otra lección a esa ultraderecha pitiyanqui! Viva Libia y su Independencia! Kadafi enfrenta una guerra civil!!

My Spanish is no good (Pablo can no doubt translate), but it seems to largely match the following, from the Al Jazeera English live-blog:

4:27am: Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has backed Muammar Gaddafi on Twitter.
Chavez twitted:
“Gaddafi is facing a civil war. Long live Libya. Long live the independence of Libya.”

Without an understanding of the context this looks like a plain statement of fact: after all, Gaddafi is facing what looks very much like a civil war. But in light of Gaddafi’s recent speeches (and that of his son), which framed the uprising as a civil war started by malcontents, rather than as an expression of the Libyan peoples’ will; and urged loyalists to defend Libya from its internal enemies, the implication of Chávez’ message is pretty clear. He accepts Gaddafi’s framing wholesale; equates Gaddafi with his country and action against Gaddafi as action against Libya, just as the dictator himself did.

Gaddafi’s deep links to and close relationship with the Venezuelan leadership are well-documented. But one other factor suggests that the Venezuelan leadership buys the line that the unrest is not a response to Gaddafi’s oppression and the uprisings in nearby countries, but the work of foreign imperialists. Chávez’ reference to “Canciller Nicolás” presumably refers to Nicolás Maduro, mentioned shortly afterwards in the AJE thread:

5:01am: Venezuela’s top diplomat on Thursday echoed Fidel Castro’s accusation that Washington is fomenting unrest in Libya to justify an invasion to seize North African nation’s oil reserves.
Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister said:
They are creating conditions to justify an invasion of Libya.

All this is pretty speculative. It’s sourced from twitter, a medium not well known for its clarity, and being hours old it’s still yet to be properly analysed or verified. So it may all be a great misunderstanding. No doubt Chávez will explain himself in due course. But the information does emerge from Chávez’ verified, official twitter account; it does echo previous anti-imperialist positions taken by the Venezuelan leader, and it generally seems to ring true.

It seems — and I think — that Hugo Chávez, the modern, popular, democratic socialist leader who was supposed to be different to all the murderous authoritarians who preceded him, has just come out in solidarity with one of the most murderous authoritarians yet left, defending the slaughter of his people for having the temerity to demand control of their nation.

I will be happy to be proven wrong. But if that’s revealed to be true in coming days, it’ll be your move, Chávez apologists.

L

The television will be revolutionised

datePosted on 22:50, February 24th, 2011 by Lew

Tim Watkin has written a great think-piece on Pundit about the “birth of a new news” in New Zealand. He asks a lot of good questions about the imperatives and tensions inherent in this (and I hate the term) new paradigm:

Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented, the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It’s real, for better or worse. As Paul Holmes puts it, ‘the curtain is pulled back’. But is the loss of thinking time worth the gain? Are we better informed if we see behind the scenes?
Quantity can become the enemy of quality. Mistakes are made when resources are stretched so far, whether they come in the form of spelling mistakes, tactless phrases, offensive unedited pictures or whatever.
When you have to talk and keep talking and talk some more while the next guest is being moved into position or some pictures are being edited or a dropped phone line re-established, you’re bound to say something off-key and earn ire from your audience. But those skills are being learnt under fire as I write, perhaps making for better journalists down the track, trained in the heat of battle.
I’d be interested to see the comment thread toss these pros and cons around. What do you think of the coverage? Of this trend to such extensive news-telling? What’s stood out? Are you better served? What’s worked, what hasn’t?

While this sort of coverage has been well entrenched in more mature mass-media markets for some years, it is indeed new to New Zealand. The extent of coverage we saw of the Pike River tragedy (and the valuable scrutiny of government and corporate conduct which that entailed) would probably not have occurred without the spur provided by the September 4 earthquake, which forced our local newsmakers to deploy in ways they’d never deployed before, and to consider how they might respond to a greater event.

I’ve been deeply immersed in the earthquake coverage since it happened. Probably too deeply, and it is too early for me to address any of Tim’s questions in any depth. I urge you to go and discuss them at Pundit. But Tim’s next paragraph provides the kernel of my tentative answers: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata:

In TVNZ’s control room this morning decisions large and small were being made in an instant by people who were typing in text for on-screen banners, talking on the phone to journalists about to go to air, receiving updates from the newsroom, and listening to live interviews – all at the same time. Hey, as I’ve learnt in the past year, that’s what producers do. It’s important to understand the complexity of the environment, however, when you’re judging the coverage from the comfort of your armchair.

It is people. All those snap decisions are the reason it’s crucial that serious news organisations continue to employ the smartest and most dedicated people they can find, because when the chips are really down and there’s nobody to direct traffic, news needs to fall back on the instincts, judgement, professionalism and initiative of newsmakers, from the most junior interns to the best-known household names.

For all the howlers (“live bodies” is one I heard this morning; there are dozens more) the overall response by the New Zealand media has been extremely strong, and in addition to broadcasting the facts and context of this event, has served a greater purpose: to make New Zealand and the world care about Christchurch. That’s support that disasters in countries without a robust media infrastructure don’t normally draw: contrast the response with quakes, floods and so on in Pakistan, Brazil, Iran, China, and elsewhere. Individualised human experience — such as that of Ann Voss, interviewed live on TV3 after nine hours trapped in her office, having already farewelled her children — embedded in broader context become emblematic of the event; they provide distant, detached viewers a handle by which to grasp the enormity of the disaster. That’s valuable; not only for those glued to their screens, but for those whose lives and deaths have been laid rudely bare before the cameras. And how much more so for the uprisings in the Middle East, where wall-to-wall coverage, especially on Al Jazeera, has been instrumental in generating worldwide solidarity and sympathy with those who seek to overthrow their oppressors?

For this reason I have little agreement with those who complain of media exploitation — for two examples, see Steven Price and Jonathan Green — although their arguments are understandable. I think most Christchurchers (and West Coasters, Queenslanders, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans) would consider a small measure of fleeting, mostly inadvertent exploitation is a reasonable price to pay for their stories being told to the world in ways which make the world shed tears for them, get angry on their behalf, and reach into their pockets to help. The news production model is mutual exploitation, after all.

A bigger question is: when will it end? At what point will the newsmaking apparatus have outlasted its usefulness, and be doing better service by covering personality politics, celebrity scandal and sporting achievements? Another question I can’t really answer. But I think we can trust the judgement of those people whose decision it is to make.

L

The Penny Drops.

datePosted on 16:49, February 19th, 2011 by Pablo

No matter how much electoral trapping and facade “democratic” niceties it may want to put on it, authoritarian rule is ultimately based on force. It is a limited or non-competitive form of political domination that uses the threat or deployment of organized violence in order to maintain its status quo. In times of peace the threat of force recedes into the background and is only used discretely and sporadically against those who persist in challenging the regime’s legitimacy and authority. In times of challenge and duress, it comes to the fore and is used en masse.

Amid all the optimism about what the wave of protests mean for the Middle East, this fact seems to have been lost. Even the US government initially seemed to think that by it demanding that ME regimes show “restraint” and move to democratise, they inevitably would. This type of neo-imperial hubris demonstrates a lack of understanding of authoritarian dynamics as well as of its own limited influence in fostering foreign regime change short of war. The bottom line is that so long as an authoritarian regime can retain the loyalty of the repressive apparatuses and these are united and determined in quelling protest, then it will prevail against its opposition even if it engages in cosmetic reforms.

That has now become evident in the latest evolution of the ME protests. In Bahrain and Libya the autocrats have decided to take a hard-line on protests, resulting in deaths and injuries to dozens. Jordan has followed suit, albeit with less deadly force. Weaker than the other three, the Yemeni regime has had a more difficult time marshaling its forces against demonstrators, but is now doing so.  In Egypt and Tunisia after the deposal of the executive despots, the military has adopted a more inflexible position regarding protests. In Algeria, rival power factions use armed demonstrations as inter-elite negotiating tools even as they agree to jointly repress anything that appears to be an independent vehicle for expression of dissent. The authoritarian penny has dropped.

The tipping point has come in Baihran. Situated on a island off of Saudi Arabia but with close sea proximity to Iran, a former Iranian possession with a 70 percent lower class Shiia population now ruled by a Sunni Arab absolute monarchy, home port to the US 5th fleet that maintains a carrier task force in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea at all times (in no small part because these contain the sea lanes through which most ME oil passes through, to say nothing of the geo-strategic logics at play), an unchecked Shiia uprising there is seen as a grave threat to the entire Sunni world (Saudi Arabia itself has a 20 percent Shiia population). Fears of Iranian influence in resident Shiia protests have focused the attention of the Gulf states as well as their Arab neighbours, and the larger geopolitical consequences of internal protests coupled with a more assertive Iranian presence in the region (exemplified by the sending of a small Iranian naval task force through the Suez Canal on its way to a port visit in Syria, the symbolism of which is not lost on anyone), have convinced Arab leaders that they must first revert to the authoritarian bottom line before any serious discussion of reform can begin.

As for the Iranians, they have demonstrated quite clearly that they have no qualms about violently putting down protests that they consider to be seditious and orchestrated from abroad. The regime attitude was captured this week by Iranian Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani, who to a cheering gallery of pro-regime legislators called for the execution of opposition leaders linked to the latest protests. Methinks reform is a ways off in Iran.

No wonder then, that the US and other Western powers have modified their rhetoric in recent days and called for “restraint” without coupling that with calls for “democracy” in the Gulf. As I have attempted to explain in the series of previous posts, when the choice becomes one of “turbulence” versus stability, and turbulence is caused by internal protest overlapped on regional geopolitical maneuvering, then interest in democratic reform takes a back seat to reassertion of national authoritarian control that upholds the regional balance of power.

All of which means we can expect more blood to flow in the streets until the protests are suppressed, and that the Western response will be much public hand-wringing and lamentation coupled with a private sigh of relief.

The “transitions” diachronology.

datePosted on 18:05, February 17th, 2011 by Pablo

I decided to package my posts about events in the Middle East in chronological order as they appeared, add an introduction and summary by way of framing the discussion, and send it to the nice folk at Scoop to use as this month’s Word from Afar column. By and large, I think that it holds together pretty well in light of events. It is a pity that I could not add some of the interesting discussion in the threads that followed the posts (since the essay was already at the upper word limit for an op-ed), but I did keep them in mind as I did the edit and added the bracketing material. In any case, the test of whether my analysis is right or wrong will play out over the next few months, and I have no doubts that KP readers will hold me to account in either event.

Farewell Dame Judith Binney

datePosted on 13:16, February 16th, 2011 by Lew

Sad news today that Dame Judith Binney, who was probably New Zealand’s greatest living historian, has died.

Dame Judith is best known for her remarkable works on the history of colonialism in New Zealand — in particular for Redemption Songs: a life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki; and more recently Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921 . Shortly after the publication of Encircled Lands, in December 2009, Dame Judith was hit by a truck while crossing a road in Auckland. She suffered a head injury, and while it has not been confirmed, it seems reasonable to assume that this contributed to her early passing.

I can’t do her work and her career justice, so rather than try, I’ll refer you to Scott Hamilton’s excellent essay Why we need Judith Binney.

A huge and tragic loss.

L

The Other Learning Curve.

datePosted on 20:31, February 15th, 2011 by Pablo

Media coverage of events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East display a willful ignorance of the realities on the ground. It is one thing for the participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrations to see themselves at the vanguard of a revolutionary moment. They are, after all, immediately involved in the process, and have felt the intensity of the moment with visceral awareness. But because they are the participants, many do not have the objective distance required to see the bigger picture at play.

Foreign governments have utilised the moment to pursue their own agendas in the Middle East: witness the US calls for demonstrations in Iran to be allowed to proceed unimpeded and Iranian calls for more uprisings in the Sunni Arab world, both of which clearly have geopolitical motives beyond support for democracy (if even that). Media outlets may see themselves not so much as disinterested reporters of events as accelerators of the revolutionary sweep. By constantly calling events “revolutionary” and emphasising the new and apparently “uncontrollable” networking possibilities of social media, the media make themselves protagonists in their own stories, in a meta replication of the micro reporting of events on the ground. First-person accounts of the likes of Anderson Cooper are designed to give personal “feel” to ”real time” reporting even if it is consumed in immediate minutia rather than the bigger picture. This is a variant on embedded journalism–now it is the crowds rather than military units into which reporters are seconded. More broadly, traditional print and visual media run stories about the role of Facebook and Twitter while interjecting their own opinions about the impact of the new media. In effect, the media are more than participant observers–they attempt to be shapers not only of opinions but of the events themselves.

It is understandable that those involved in the demonstrations see themselves as revolutionaries and it is laudable, in some measure, that corporate media outlets want to contribute to the revolutionary momentum, such as it is. But there is another side to the story, one that involves interests and actors with objectives that are directly the opposite of the “revolutionaries.” That is the dark side of the crisis learning curve.

Across the Middle East and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders have received a wake up call about ignoring popular discontent. But what they have learned does not necessarily mean that they will give up their autocratic ways and open up their political systems in a democratic, much less revolutionary direction. To the contrary. What they have learned is that they must get out in front of incipient or embryonic protests by using a mixture of inducements and constraints (carrots and sticks, if you will), that allow them to reform-monger around the edges of their rule but which do not, as Gramsci noted long ago, “touch the essential” of the regime–to wit, its economic foundations, class base and power distribution.

Already, the response to demonstrations and protests in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and, in the wake of Ben Ali’s exile, Tunisia, has been a mix of selective repression and preemptive reform. The repressive aspect is designed to prevent large scale mass mobilisations that require mass-scale repression. Instead, via the selective targeting of would-be protest leaders, the monitoring and censoring of social media networks, restrictions and controls on movement, to include access to food, health care and other public goods, authoritarians hope to pre-emptively decapitate the opposition before it is well organised. Let us remember that at its height the Egyptian protests amounted to 300,000 people in a country of 80 million, so the selective targeting of incipient leaders, to include more than their mere arrest and detention, sends a chilling message to all but the most hard-core opponents of the regime. Since most disaffected people are more interested in immediate things such a more employment, lower or stable food prices, reducing crime and having regular access to everyday public services rather than revolutionary regime change, they will see selective repression for what it is: the use of force against those who would directly challenge “the essential” for goals that are not immediate but ethereal. For the majority uninterested or unwilling to challenge the essential, avoiding being a target becomes a major concern. Individual fear of persecution, in effect, becomes a debilitating constraint on collective action.

For the carrot and stick approach to work, the repressive apparatuses of the state must remain loyal to the regime. But something else must occur as well. There must also be inducements offered that mitigate public anger. That requires the offering of concessions regarding political participation, which can be granted via cooptation into existing political structures or the incorporation of new ones. More importantly, immediate material concerns need to be addressed in order soften the context in which discussions of political reform are engaged. The more material concerns are immediately satisfied, the more amenable to regime initiatives the population will be, which in turn will impact on the political opposition’s strategy and demands. It will also help isolate the hardline elements in the opposition from the majority, thereby making the former easier to repressively target while reinforcing the context in which “reasonable” opposition demands will be heard.

Confronted by such a mix of incentives and disincentives, it will be hard for the non-militant majority–who are rationally risk adverse, as are we all–to not abandon support for radical regime change in favour of a more reformist option.

This is what Middle Eastern autocrats are contemplating at the moment. It is not about democratic opening but about controlled manipulation of popular unrest to ensure continuation, even if in changed garb, of the status quo. To this can be added one other factor in their favour: the attitude of the international community.

For all the rhetoric about democracy, freedom and human rights, the international community as a whole (by that I mean nation-states, international organisations and private transnational actors) abhor two things–power vacuums and instability. If the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East brings with it the risk of radicalisation and the destabilisation of the regional balance of power, which in turn raises the potential for war, then the international community, albeit behind a veil of crocodile tears, will quietly work to ensure that the status quo is preserved in one form or another. Individually and collectively it will publicly speak about freedom and quietly work for accommodation. And if that fails and conflicts become violent (particularly if they are fueled by foreign sponsors or irregular transnational actors), it may preferentially side with the forces of repression rather than change. That may not be a nice or ethically superior choice, but for the powers that be in the Middle East and beyond, it is the only choice, made out of self-interested necessity.

Why a putsch is not a revolution.

datePosted on 16:21, February 12th, 2011 by Pablo

Some definitional clarification is in order when viewing events in Egypt. A coup is the overthrow of a regime by the military. A putsch is the involuntary removal of government leaders within an extant regime. Neither is a revolution, even if occurring within the context of mass protest. Thus what has occurred (so far) in Egypt is neither revolutionary or a coup. It is a putsch carried out within a context of social unrest and mass mobilisation. It is a forced internal reconfiguration of the military-dominated regime that has been in power one way or another for over thirty years, and it has been carried out precisely to maintain the regime in the face of popular protests that centred on Hosni Mubarak but which do not challenge the military’s primacy in Egyptian politics.

The removal of an individual in a military putsch is NOT a democratic revolution, even if the masses rejoice. It is an internal transfer of power that may or may not lead to regime liberalization, which itself does not imply a genuine move towards democracy. It will be interesting to see if internal reconfiguration of the Egyptian regime leads to significant reform over the long term. Foreign pressure will not play a decisive role in the military calculations on whether to reform, retrench or repress. That will be a function of inter-elite bargaining and the organisational strength and practical demands of the opposition. But one thing is sure: due to issues of corporate self-interest and professional autonomy, the Egyptian military has no interest in exercising long-term control over the governmental apparatus. Instead, its interest lies in overseeing the conditions leading to the September 2011 elections, with the primary objective being maintenance of social stability, resumed economic growth and geopolitical continuity no matter who wins the presidency and parliamentary majority.

That is the bottom line of the Egyptian “transition.”

Solidarity with Brian Edwards.

datePosted on 16:20, February 11th, 2011 by Pablo

Brian Edwards is being threatened by the Sunday Start Times because he blogged about some questionable journalistic practices in that rag. The SST took offense and unleashed its lawyers. Given that they do not refute anything Mr. Edwards blogged about, that smacks of corporate bullying.

I am not a big fan of Mr. Edwards’ politics but on this one the call is easy: I stand in solidarity with him for daring to responsibly exercise his right to free expression by challenging the accepted narrative of a corporate media outlet. Not only does the SST hire sleazy “journalists” while exploiting other honest hacks and firing more reasoned commentators. It also takes a page out of the “new management” handbook and tries to lawyer up and threaten to legally outspend those in a relatively (financially) disadvantaged position regardless of the merits of their case (I saw this approach first hand in my dealing with Auckland University regarding my employment dispute). For that reason alone they need to be repudiated. As for the merits of the story that Mr. Edwards blogged about, you can judge for yourself by following this link to the original source.

Suggestions as to how to engage in counter-hegemonic direct action against the SST are welcome.

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