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Davos and the Wretched of the Whole Earth

Carl Bloice: While Davos wound down, most of the world’s attention was focused on events in Egypt, and to lesser extent on Tunisia and Yemen. However, it would be a big mistake to assume the moving and shaking that has commenced is somehow restricted to “the Arab world.”
Protests in Sudan

Protests in Sudan

Protests in Sudan

“Davos delegates do not seem to know how to react to events in Egypt,” Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times’ chief foreign affairs columnist, wrote last week. “The young people demonstrating on the streets of Cairo do not speak with the kind of voices that are represented at the forum.”

You can say that again.

The contrast between these two events on the world stage could hardly have been more striking and instructive. While the mucky mucks of the world, prominent characters from the fields of finance, industry, entertainment, journalism and labor, gathered to ponder the state of the planet the ground was trembling beneath their feet. What Frantz Fanon called the The Wretched of the Earth were pushing the lavish conclave in the Swiss Alps off the front pages. If Rachman was right, the luminaries in Davos were at a loss.

While Davos wound down, most of the world’s attention was focused on events in Egypt, and to lesser extent on Tunisia and Yemen. However, it would be a big mistake to assume the moving and shaking that has commenced is somehow restricted to “the Arab world.”

First of all, while Egypt is indeed part of the Middle East, it is also part of Africa, in fact the continent’s largest country. The tremors that started a couple of weeks ago in Tunis have extended south as well as east.

For some reason, the U.S. mass media has studiously avoided the situation in Sudan. Well, not quite. The big story has been the plebiscite by the Sudanese south to secede from the country (a prospect that is viewed with mixed feelings in Africa where the breakup of nations, particularly when championed from the outside, is viewed with trepidation). It’s the story of what’s happening in the North that has been ignored for three weeks now.

On Sunday, Reuters reported: “Heavily armed police patrol Khartoum’s main streets beat and arrested students in central Khartoum”

“Sudanese police have beaten and arrested students as protests broke out throughout Khartoum demanding the government resign, inspired by a popular uprising in neighboring Egypt,” said the news agency. “Hundreds of armed riot police broke on Sunday up groups of young Sudanese demonstrating in central Khartoum and surrounded the entrances of four universities in the capital, firing teargas and beating students at three of them. Police beat students with batons as they chanted anti-government slogans such as ‘we are ready to die for Sudan’ and ‘revolution, revolution until victory.’

“There were further protests in North Kordofan capital el-Obeid in Sudan’s west, where around 500 protesters engulfed the market before police used tear gas to disperse them, three witnesses said. ‘They were shouting against the government and demanding change,’ said witness Ahmed who declined to give his full name.”

Reuters said the students were “galvanized by social networks.”

Groups have emerged on social networking sites calling themselves Youth for Change and The Spark. “The people of Sudan will not remain silent anymore,” the Youth for Change Facebook page read. “It is about time we demand our rights and take what’s ours in a peaceful demonstration that will not involve any acts of sabotage.”

The demonstrations in the Sudan actually began January 13 with Sudanese police brutally trying to crush student protests against proposed cuts in subsidies in petroleum products and sugar. Widespread economic and political discontent has provoked sporadic street protests in north Sudan in recent weeks, with the security forces maintaining tight control in Khartoum.

Sudan is also part of the Arab world and Africa and conditions there are present in other parts of the latter, producing tensions and mass dissatisfaction in places like Zimbabwe and the Ivory Coast. “While most sub-Saharan African countries are freer than the Arab states, they also share some of the social tensions, political frustrations and high levels of unemployment that have proved so explosive in the north,” said the Financial Times on Sunday.

Last Saturday, police in Gabon fired tear gas to break up a demonstration in the capital Libreville by around 5,000 opposition supporters during which up to 20 people were reportedly wounded. It was the second such confrontation in a week. One report said five people have been killed and scores injured. “The usually sleepy central African oil exporter has been troubled since a 2009 election won by Ali Bongo Odimba, but which the main opposition group - inspired by power struggles in Tunisia and Ivory Coast - is insisting was rigged,” Reuters reported January 27. The 2009 election saw Ali Bongo Odimba replace his father, the late President Omar Bongo. Hundreds of supporters of opposition leader Andre Mba Obame, who declared himself president last week and formed a rival government, gathered outside the local United Nations offices to demand he be recognized as president. At a protest rally, Mba Obame pointed to Ivory Coast and Tunisia saying, “history was on the march.”

The problems that ignited the fire in Tunisia exist in other parts of Africa as well. As in other parts of the world, the prices of many basic commodities are rising and the effect is severe in some parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The economic crisis in the developed world has reverberated strongly in some places, and in most countries of the region, economic inequality has increased alongside ostentatious conspicuous consumption on the part of the native elites.

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Africa and the Arab world are not the only places where the U.S. and European governments have found themselves allied with local despots now confronted with simmering discontent or open street protests. “Riddled with sporadic unrest for much of its recent history, Albania finds itself contending with anti-corruption riots as well,” Rene Mullen wrote on Yahoo News Contributors’ network the other day. “However, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, much of the media has turned a blind eye to Albanians’ current fight for better government. Albania’s recent demonstrations hold similar demographic triggers as Egypt’s demonstrations: anti-corruption sprinkled with general unrest over economic disparities. However, few are suggesting Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution helped instigate Albania’s unrest.”

Probably not; it could have been the other way around. We live today in a world globalized media and a Facebook page is a Facebook page is a Facebook page, wherever you are.

Or, take Uzbekistan. There have been sporadic street demonstrations over food prices there since 2005. That year, Uzbek security forces crushed protests, reportedly killing up to 1,000 people, mainly unarmed civilians. Last December, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was in the Uzbek capitol Tashkent, signing a cooperation deal with the leaders of the natural gas–rich Central Asian country and asking them to “translate words into practice” to improve their human rights situation.” After Tunisia and Egypt, she should turn that plea into a robo call to be broadcast regularly – to no avail.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the drama continued to unfold. As the week began it appeared the stage was being set for a U.S.-sponsored military takeover.

It should be borne in mind that the conflict being played out in the streets of Cairo, Sharm El-Sheikh , Suez and Alexandria is not merely the Mubarak family versus the protestors. Hosni Mubarak is in power because the Egyptian ruling class wants him there. (Its constituents were busy fleeing the country over the weekend in their private jets). A Cairo chauffeur told the German Press Agency, “The only times people who live in better-off areas come into contact with those who are socially disadvantaged - many of whom live in illegally built shanty towns - are when they see their cleaners, their drivers, their concierges.”

Omar Suleiman

Omar Suleiman

Omar Suleiman

It is true that that the army [the 10th largest in the world] plays a somewhat independent role but it has been up to now to buttress the rich and the powerful. Since the end of the Egyptian monarchy, all four leaders have come from its ranks. It looks like, if Washington has its way, the next Egyptian ruler will emerge from the barracks as well. The tipoff may well have come when the capitol inside,r Columnist Fareed Zakaria, appearing on CNN Sunday advised the Obama Administration to ease Mubarak out and set up the new “vice-president” Omar Suleiman as the person to oversee what it usually refers to as “an orderly transition.” Suleiman is, in the words of the New York Times, “the establishment’s candidate,” “business oriented” and one who “shares Washington’s foreign policy agenda.”

According to Jane Meyer in The New Yorker, Suleiman is “a well-known quantity in Washington. Suave, sophisticated, and fluent in English” who “has served for years as the main conduit between the United States and Mubarak.” In her book “The Dark Side,” she describes how “since 1993 Suleiman has headed the feared Egyptian general intelligence service. In that capacity, he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions - the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.”

“The U.S. has long sought to block democracy in the Arab world, fearing that it would lead to the emergence of Islamist regimes,” writes Steven Kinzer in Newsweek. That’s not quite the story. Washington, Paris and London have, for six decades now, propped up repressive regimes and helped them brutally crush left, secular and Islamist movements and parties because it was afraid of popular revolutions that could sweep aside the local elites who control and sell their countries’ natural resources – like oil.

“With the once omnipotent security forces looking beatable, Egyptians of all backgrounds rose to join the fight: students, trade unionists, women, rights activists, Islamists and, crucially, the great workers’ army of Egypt’s employed and unemployed.,” read the lead editorial in the Guardian (UK) January 29. Here, truly, was people power in all its magnificent might. Here was democracy in the raw. Here was the legitimacy of an Egypt freed of its old fears and suddenly alive to its changing destiny. In five days of rage, they seized control of their country’s future. And so, inevitably, Mubarak must go.”

“The revolution threatens not only Hosni Mubarak’s regime but the strategy the US and Britain have constructed in the Middle East,” the paper said the next day.

“The hesitancy with which President Mubarak reacted last night was matched only by the perceptible shift in the emphasis of the statements by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Only two days ago she said the US assessment was that the Egyptian government was stable and was looking for ways to respond to the legitimate interests of the Egyptian people. The primary importance of keeping a key Arab ally and Middle East interlocutor stable was also emphasized yesterday by Tony Blair, the Quartet’s envoy. Faced with the conflicting needs to keep an Arab partner of Israel afloat and to respond to demands for democratic reform, the US would choose the first every time. After yesterday’s events, Ms. Clinton’s calls to lift internet controls and respond to the grievances of Egyptians became more strident. But it was too little, too late. Ms. Clinton’s initial support for the Mubarak regime had not been lost on Egyptians battling for their freedoms.”

Carl Bloice

And the Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the world.

Carl Bloice

Reprinted with permission from The Black Commentator