Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “Egypt”

Banned books return to shelves in Egypt and Tunisia

Like many other people, I’ve been wondering which way the “velvet revolutions” in Egypt and Tunisia were going to turn. In some places, like Iran, the overthrow of the Shah brought a regime with greater repression. In Egypt the army is now (or one could say still) in control, but there are some straws in the wind that give hope:

Banned books return to shelves in Egypt and Tunisia | Books |

Anecdotal reports are also emerging of once suppressed titles appearing for impromptu sale on street corners and newspaper kiosks across Egypt. Salwa Gaspard of joint English/Arabic language publisher Saqi Books said accounts in the Arabic press told of books that had been hidden for years in private basements now once more seeing the light of day.

Cairo is also to hold a book fair in Tahrir Square – the focus for protests against former president Hosni Mubarak – at the end of March, according to Trevor Naylor of the American University of Cairo Press bookshop, which is based in the square. Naylor told the Bookseller that the event had been planned in the wake of the cancelled Cairo Book Fair, which was abandoned in January in the face of growing political unrest.

Let’s hope the wind keep blowing in that direction.

Some Zimbabwean exiles have been calling for Egyptian-style demonstrations there, but so far there is no evidence of such things.

Zimbabwe: Harare Descends Into Chaos As Ruling Party Militia Loot Shops

What’s the difference between Zimbabwe and Egypt?

In Egypt they’re protesting for democracy; in Zimbabwe they’re rioting against it. Zimbabwe: Harare Descends Into Chaos As Ruling Party Militia Loot Shops:

Harare came to a standstill on Monday when a ZANU PF mob engulfed the city in chaos, destroying property worth thousands of dollars, mainly belonging to foreign owned companies.

Our correspondent Simon Muchemwa told us that dozens of shops were looted when the ZANU PF militia went on a rampage, as police details stood by watching ordinary people and shop owners being abused and brutalised. Shops belonging to Zimbabweans were also caught up in the crossfire.

False neutrality

Yesterday the Western media were full of stories about Egypt. Australia might have vanished off the face of the planet (is it still there?) and we wouldn’t have known. “Breaking News” strips at the bottom of the screen told us that Queensland was about to be hit by the mother of all cyclones, but all they showed were repeats of the same footage of protests in the streets and squares of Cairo.

I had just read one of the most lucid and clear eye-witness accounts of what was happening in Egypt at Robert Fisk: Secular and devout. Rich and poor. They marched together with one goal – The Independent:

It was a victory parade – without the victory. They came in their hundreds of thousands, joyful, singing, praying, a great packed mass of Egypt, suburb by suburb, village by village, waiting patiently to pass through the ‘people’s security’ checkpoints, draped in the Egyptian flag of red, white and black, its governess eagle a bright gold in the sunlight. Were there a million? Perhaps. Across the country there certainly were. It was, we all agreed, the largest political demonstration in the history of Egypt, the latest heave to rid this country of its least-loved dictator. Its only flaw was that by dusk – and who knew what the night would bring – Hosni Mubarak was still calling himself ‘President’ of Egypt.

Then I watched a report on Sky News, with an entirely different description. It described “clashes” between “pro-Mubarak” and “anti-Mubarak” factions, and “violence” in these “clashes”. One report described protests against an oppressive dictator, while the other described a divided society, on the brink of civil war. And it became clear that the media’s attempts to be “fair” and “impartial” and to “give both sides of the story” actually distort the news.

I know I’ve succumbed to that temptation myself. When I was young the former Belgian Congo became independent, and erupted into civil war, which has continued sporadically ever since, for fifty years, and is still going on today. Reports in the local newspapers (no TV in those days) were less than informative. They reported “clashes” and “violence” and gave the impression that the people there just liked fighting. Only much later did I realise that this false neutrality was actually designed to obscure the real causes of the conflict.

Twenty years ago (was it as long ago as that?) we had the wars of the Yugoslav succession. There was a tendency for people remote from the conflict to make the same shallow judgements — “those people are always fighting”. That view even affects the English language — “Balkanisation” is a pejorative word, suggesting instability and fragmentation. It was used to describe the creation of “homelands” in South Africa under the apartheid policy, and in the 1990s we saw Balkanisation actually taking place in the Balkans.

At an Orthodox mission conference in Athens in 2000 Dr Tarek Mitri of the Patriarchate of Antioch spoke on Orthodoxy and other religions. He said that the many conspiratorial interpretations of the role of other religions blur the role of Orthodoxy. These interpretations were based on the conservatism of survival, and aggravated fears of seeing Orthodoxy marginalised. Globalisation meant that there was pressure for uniformity. National government structures are less able to make decisions. Orthodoxy and Eastern culture are regarded as archaisms in the West — there is talk of “ancestral hatred”, but it is not “ancestral hatred” that
is the cause of war, it is war that is the cause of “ancestral hatred”. If the past does not meet the needs of the present, another past can be constructed. The more people look alike, the more they wish to preserve their differences, and the smaller the differences, the more important they become. We are caught between the voices of homogenisation and those who advocate religion as a marker of nationalism and ethnic identity.

The media that tried to be “neutral” often used the “ancestral hatred” argument — that Balkan Wars were caused by “ancestral hatred”. But most of the Western media did not try to be neutral in that case, though they did try to obscure the fact that much of the violence was fanned by foreign intervention. “Ancestral hatred” was a convenient red herring to promote the cover-up.

And now we come to Egypt. This article discusses some of the ways in which “neutral” reporting can distort the truth, or, as Dr Mitry puts it, construct a new past, even the quite recent past of news reporting.

The nomenclature of a protest | “The people want to bring down the regime”:

To describe the attacks on protesters as clashes presumes some sort of ineffable, sectarian sort of sporadic violence, skirmishes on an already named front. What we saw today was a peaceful protest being borne down on by horses and camels, then later thousands of thugs armed with white weapons, rocks, Molotov cocktails and guns. Moreover the thugs had a plan, they came at the square like it was a castle or hilltop to be besieged and overtaken, amassing at all sides of the square and waging simultaneous assaults on people who had been, this whole time, checking their own to ensure there were no weapons in the camp. To describe these military tactics (and paramilitary weaponry) with the same words as the protesters’ attempts to resist the state’s violence shows either ignorance or callousness, or both.

Part of this, of course, arises not from a desire to be objective and to report factually, but because conflict sells newspapers. If every difference of opinion can be magnified into a “clash”, then the media swarm in, like flies to a rotting corpse, with the attitude of “Let’s you and him fight”. So a polite difference of opinion can be presented in the media as an angry confrontation. If it doesn’t actually take the form of such a cofrontation, then the media try to milk it for all it’s worth by describing it as a “looming” clash (does anyone outside the media use “loom” as a verb?) But as long as they present both sides in a “balanced” way, the media can wash their hands in innocence.

This is not to say that the media sparked off the present situation in Egypt, but rather that their “balanced” reporting of it can actually lead to a very unbalanced picture.


Stability is an important and valuable quality in a country, except when it isn’t. Stable countries promote peace, development and freedom, except when they don’t.

How do we know whether they do or don’t?

By believing what the US State Department tells us, that’s how.

Sam PF’s Journal – Good news!:

Good news from Egypt – the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak is stable, according to Hillary Clinton. Despite the courage of tens of thousands – possibly as many as 750,000 across the country according to some reports – of ordinary Egyptians in taking to the streets to protest against the brutality, corruption and grinding poverty brought by the Mubarak regime, thank God they are doomed to failure! No threat of unpredictable democracy coming to this strategically crucial country (Arabs being, after all, unfit for democracy). No danger of the US losing one of their most important client thugs in the region. Who apparently, also according to Clinton, is eagerly looking for ways of benefiting the people he has held down and preyed upon for the past nearly 30 years.

So clearly stability is important in Egypt.

Where is it not important? Where is instability desirable and needing to be promoted?

Why, in Belarus, of course.

Notes from a Common-place Book: The World Out There (3):

One doesn’t hear much about Belarus these days. What is reported is usually some variant along the theme that President Alexander Lukashenko is nasty autocrat, indeed dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator,’ who perversely and resolutely refuses to follow the script we have prepared for the post-Soviet republics. The current controversy centers around the recent election which saw a turnout reported in excess of 90%, with Lukashenko receiving 79% of the vote. Protesters tried to storm the Parliament. The police responded in force and hundreds were arrested. Eurocrats–excluded from monitoring the process-dismissed it as ‘flawed.’ The fact is that Lukashenko does not pretty-up well. And he does not care.

As one commentator puts it:

Belarus: Still No Country For Sold Men : Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture:

But Lukashenko, whose government was called the “last dictatorship in Europe” by the U.S. government, claimed that the election was free and fair and vowed to maintain order. By now he knows what he is against. He has said in the past, “In our country, there will be no pink or orange, or even banana revolution.” More recently he said some people in the West think that Belarus is ready for a color-coded revolution, but they are not getting any; “all these coloured revolutions are pure and simple banditry.”

So, now we know that there will be no banditry in Egypt (thank Mubarak), but it’s such a pity that there won’t be banditry in Belarus.

And the “orange shift” in Tunisia was doubtless a mistake.

Neil Clark: Why did we never know how rotten Tunisia was?:

Tunisia stands at number 143 out of 179 countries when it comes to freedom of the press. It’s a place, where, according to a 2008 Amnesty International report, human rights abuses by its security forces ‘continue unabated and are committed with impunity’.

Yet if you’ve been living in the west, and getting your news from the mainstream media, you’ll have been cheerfully oblivious to all the nasty, undemocratic things that were going on in the northernmost country in Africa, a country that many of us have visited for beach holidays in Hammamet and Jerba.

And back to Belarus:

Neil Clark: Letter from Minsk: Belarus- a country unspoilt by capitalism:

A woman sits bolt upright in the middle of the night. She jumps out of bed and rushes to the bathroom to look in the medicine cabinet. Then, she runs into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. Finally, she dashes to the window and looks out into the street. Relieved, she returns to the bedroom. Her husband asks, “What’s wrong with you?” “I had a terrible nightmare,” she says. “I dreamed we could still afford to buy medicine, that the refrigerator was absolutely full, and that the streets were safe and clean. I also dreamed that you had a job, that we could afford to pay our gas and electricity bills.”
“How is that a nightmare?” asks her husband. The woman shakes her head, “I thought the communists were back in power.”

That Bulgarian joke, as told by Maria Todorova in the Guardian and now doing the rounds across eastern Europe, doesn’t work here in Minsk. This is a capital city where the streets are safe and clean, where ordinary people can still afford to buy medicine and basic foodstuffs and where the unemployment rate is less than 1 per cent. It’s the side of Belarus you won’t read much about.

And let’s not confuse the issue still further by talking about Venezuela.

If you can’t decide which countries need “stability” and which need “regime change”, you’re probably worrying unnecessarily about things that don’t concern you. Just leave it all in the safe and competent hands of the US State Department. After all, they know

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