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Archive | January, 2011

Rocking the Casbah

Social mobilization and the role of the Internet in the Middle East

In the midst of massive street protests, Egypt’s National Democratic Party (NDP) decided to pull the plug on about 3,500 border gateway protocol (BGP) routes to Egypt, thereby cutting off the country from the Internet.  A significant step, because much of the mobilization for the disobedience movement occurred through social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

My colleague at the Takshashila Institution, Srijith, writes on the importance of importance of an open, unfiltered Internet to any democratic setup.

For reasons beyond merely Egypt’s ability to control information flow, this blog had previously articulated why Egypt will not go the way of Tunisia.  Even as Cairo simmers, The Filter Coffee stands by that argument.  But the Egyptian experience raises interesting questions on the role of the Internet as a tool to mobilize and sustain social movements in the Middle East, more so the Arabian Peninsula. It also raises questions about the scope for a Tunisia-style social upheaval in the Peninsula.

Consider this excerpt from Bogon Monitoring (via Vyūha)

Yesterday there were 2903 Egyptian networks, originated from 52  ISP’s. Transit was provided via 45 unique isp’s. Today at 2am UTC, the numbers look quite different, there were only 327 Egyptian networks left on the Internet. These were originated 26 by ISP’s.So 88% of the Egyptian networks is unreachable! [BGPmon]

Social upheavals are few and far between in the Peninsula.  Certainly, no precedence exists in the modern history of the states that form the GCC of any such upheaval.  There have been occasional bouts of unrest in Bahrain, but those are largely on sectarian grounds.

So hypothetically, if social, political and economic circumstances in any country in the Peninsula came to mirror those Egypt or Tunisia, could a popular uprising even be mobilized?  The NDP was able to render 50% of Egypt’s ISPs (some, presumably, privately-owned) inoperable in a relatively short span of time.  In the Gulf, of course, there are but a handful of ISPs in each country, and even that is a charitable numeration.

The UAE, for example, has 5 (1 major, 4 minor) ISPs.  These are either wholly-owned by the regimes or operate at their will.  As telecommunications companies, these operators also provide a variety of other services — cable TV, telephone and mobile communication.  If there is the slightest probability of a popular mobilization in the Gulf, it is almost certain than there will be a virtual information blackout.  Western governments will, of course, pressure these regimes to restore communication, but only to a point, for they too understand the implications of instability in that part of the world.

Therefore, if social media is to be  a vehicle for the democratization of the Middle East through social movements, what hope does it give those who romanticize of a “liberated” Middle East?  The answer should worry such proponents.

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l’affaire Tunisie

Why the Maghreb is not the Khaleej.

Some quick thoughts on events as yet unfolding in Tunisia.

Much has been written recently about the so-called revolution in Tunisia and its probable impact on the rest of the Arab world.  Robert Fisk, for instance, rattled off the names of every other Arab country he could think of when asked if he thought the revolution could be contagious to the rest of the region.  Admittedly, somewhat unfair to pick on Mr. Fisk when the vernacular press in Tunisia’s neighboring countries has spent almost every waking moment since the revolution asking, “are we next?”

Some factors make the events in Tunisia different from others (العربية) that have occurred in the greater region. Unlike almost any other upheaval in the region’s recent history, this was not an Islamic movement.  Further, it also invalidates the claim that Arab societies were incapable of bringing about change intrinsically and without the support of foreign powers.

However, it would be erroneous to extrapolate this “revolution” in Tunisia to the greater region, particularly the Peninsula.  The Maghreb, after all, is not the Khaleej.  Three primary factors inhibit the sort of Rousseauian rebellion in the Peninsula currently being romanticized in the West.

First, the Heads-of-state: with the exception of a few, rulers in the Peninsula derive political power to rule from dynastic allegiances (contrast this with how heads-of-state in Libya, Algeria and Tunisia came to power).  This is not to say that the leaders in the Peninsula cannot be disposed, but that it will most likely come from within the family (e.g., Oman 1970, Qatar 1995, etc.) than take the form of a people’s’ revolt.

Second, Police states: the contrast of real curbs on social and political freedom and high levels of human and economic development make a Tunisia-like uprising improbable. Harder, because of curbs on freedom and equally unlikely to inspire a economically satisfied population.  Third, United States: While the U.S. pushes for a democratization of the Peninsula, it also has a vested interest in preserving the region’s monarchies.  It provides billions of dollars worth of military equipment to them and trains their officers.  When needed, it has shown a willingness to come to their aid when their power is threatened (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia).  This is a far cry from the rapport the Maghreb has with the U.S.

Indeed, as Amr el-Shobaki makes some very valid points in January 18th’s al-Masri al-Youm, about why it would be difficult to even envision a similar uprising in Egypt, much less in distant Saudi Arabia.

In Egypt, protests have lately taken a single, monotonous form, often rallying people around sectarian causes. The Egyptian regime, unlike its Tunisian counterpart, allows these protests to give citizens an opportunity to vent. This strategy serves to diffuse people’s anger and prevent the transformation of issue-specific protests into larger social and political movements.

The protests that took place in Tunisia reflect a healthy society. The Tunisian education system may be the best in the Arab world (the country’s illiteracy rate is no more than 10 percent), and the Tunisian General Labor Union actually defends workers’ rights. It respects the principles of trade unionism despite the fact that some of its leaders support the ruling party. In contrast, the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) runs itself in haphazard fashion and has distanced itself from independent worker organizations like the Real Estate Tax Collectors’ Union and the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services.

Egypt is also plagued by religious fundamentalism that has made it impossible for Egyptians to protest under the banner of universal values, such as freedom, equality, combating unemployment and demanding a minimum wage. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia is not home to any Salafi movements. Nor does it have preachers who boast thousands of followers and who lead many youth astray. Tunisia does not have a Muslim Brotherhood that is intent on mobilizing thousands of people to defend its own agenda rather than the national interest, nor does it have religious leaders who spread ignorance and sectarianism. [al-Masry al-Youm]

So is democracy doomed in the Peninsula?  Not necessarily, but it almost certainly will not come about as a result of a popular uprising.  The democratization of the Peninsula is a long term project involving painfully slow political and legislative reform, whose wheels have only recently been set in motion.  In this regard, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman will lead the way and provide a model for the rest of the region to perhaps emulate.

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After Salmaan Taseer

Five questions for us to answer on liberalism in Pakistan.

The assassination of Salmaan Taseer has rightly triggered introspection and discourse in Pakistan on identity — social, religious and national.  Of these, articles written by the likes of Raza Rumi, Huma Yusuf, Ayesha Siddiqa, Yaseer Latif Hamdani and Shehryar Taseer deserve special mention and commendation.  There is, however, no dearth for the alternative narrative in Pakistan.  PML-N’s spokesperson claimed (اردو) that Mr. Taseer would have been assassinated by someone else had Mumtaz Qadri not done so. Irfan Siddiqui suggests (اردو) that while Mr. Taseer’s assassination cannot be condoned, it was expected, given the governor’s “liberal extremist” views.

A parallel discourse is also occurring in the West and in India.  Declan Walsh laments on the fate of the liberal Pakistani; Shekhar Gupta qualifies and clarifies; Seema Mustafa foretells of further doom and gloom. An overarching theme in many commentaries is that a liberal Pakistan is in India’s interests; that a “liberal” Pakistani civilian government would (not to say “could”) radically alter its worldview, foreign policy objectives and how it seeks to achieve them.  The trouble with this argument of course, is that a liberal Pakistani civilian government has never existed.   Even so, some commentaries point to Benazir Bhutto and her administrations of the late ’80s and ’90s as  approximate models.

However, liberal though Ms. Bhutto may have been, Pakistan’s worldview did not undergo material change during her leadership. Bilateral relations with India did not improve. If anything, Ms. Bhutto’s reign coincided with the height of the Jammu & Kashmir insurgency fomented by Pakistan, and proliferation of nuclear technology.  Indeed, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and the motivation to match India to the detriment of all else took shape  under the leadership of her charismatic father, the wine-drinking, UC Berkeley-educated Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (“We will eat grass…”).

It would therefore be a worthy exercise to ponder over these five questions on what a model for a liberal Pakistan would look like, and whether a liberal dispensation in Pakistan is a sufficient condition to alter the trajectory of its relationship with India.  For us in India, would the ascendancy of a liberal narrative in Pakistan’s internal discourse  lessen our own threat perception of our neighbor?

  • Could a liberal government in Islamabad effectively end the hold that the military-jihadi complex has on Pakistan’s formulation and implementation of foreign policy objectives?
  • Would it still maintain that India poses an existential threat to Pakistan?
  • What will its position be towards Kashmir? Specifically, towards the insurgency and state-sponsored sub-conventional warfare?
  • What will its position be on terrorism?  If another Mumbai were to occur, would this liberal regime disavow these groups? Actively confront them? Prosecute them? Extradite them, where permissible, to India? Cooperate with India’s own investigation?
  • Would it continue to maintain, by extension of #2, that Pakistan’s conduct in Afghanistan is just and only expected, given India’s commercial and political ties to Kabul?

Tough questions no doubt, but ones that need to be answered in India, as an internal battle for identity rages on in Pakistan.

UPDATE: My op-ed in The Pioneer has a more complete analysis of liberalism in Pakistan.


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