Swans Commentary » swans.com December 19, 2011  



Perspectives: A Review of 2011


A Writer's 2011


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - December 19, 2011)   How can a writer, a simple writer, have anything to say about world events? He's not an informed journalist, much less an historian. He's not even an insomniac blogger scavenging scraps online to back up his own bias. He's more likely to spend that midnight oil (cliché) pouring over his own scribbling, crossing out paralytic adverbs and when finished, asking himself the suicidal question: What have these paltry words got to do with anything? He would be ashamed to offer them to a householder under water in Bangkok or a demonstrator with a bullet in his leg in Yemen.

The writer is all by himself in his niche. If he followed his bent he would consider 2011 by listing the fiction and poetry he read during the year, adding of course his snide remarks. But some of that reading matter would have come from the 16th century. Even a tally of the movies and plays he viewed couldn't be corralled into the last twelve months. Buster Keaton never saw the third millennium.

Yet the writer is there. His niche is in the same world that's prolific of all those events that startle or scare his fellows day in and day out. The ego niche is ever less isolated, more exposed in 2011 than in 2010, and 2012 just might destroy its walls altogether. But no writer can ever shut up. He's present and he's writing, even if his interior monologue circles in irrelevancy. When he can't manage to keep current events out of his head, he chews on them and spits them back. His views and opinions, minus their ridiculous solemnity, resemble nothing more than a political caricature on the editorial page of a newspaper. They are crude, one-sided, and have no truck with political correctness. The writer is a court jester, allowed to go over the edge. His role models are daredevils like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal.

Only a good shove or at least a jolt of pleasure can make the writer look the year in the eye. January started with the pleasant surprise of the Arab Spring. The changes begun in North Africa and the Middle East will not stop on December 31. All the same, 2011 will always belong to these events that in their ramifications are an excellent lens through which to replay the year.

Tunisia had a foretaste in December 2010. The police harassed a jobless graduate selling vegetables. Exasperated, he set fire to himself and died. The Arab Spring began under the sign of unemployment and oppression. Ben Ali had ruled the country since 1987. WikiLeaks released a 2008 cable from the US embassy in Tunis that called his family "quasi mafia." "With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire." 2010 had been the crucial year for WikiLeaks but, despite attempts to deny its importance and then to declare it criminal and the end of civilized life, its revelations continued to smolder throughout 2011.

In France, the former colonial power, mainstream media played down the crisis in Tunisia. The government defended Ben Ali and the way he crushed protest. Only when the satrap could no longer be kept in power did Paris show any openness to the revolt. The West could ignore Tunisia. It was small, of little strategic value, and with limited natural resources. After months of political turmoil, elections were held in October for a Constituent Assembly. A moderate Islamist Party won the plurality of seats. Islam making its presence felt would be the keynote of the Arab Spring. Nothing could be more natural. It was like Catholicism claiming space in Poland or Ireland. The region was overwhelmingly Muslim. Only the tyrants put in place by the West had kept the religious parties down.

The cry of the demonstrators in the Arab world was ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam: the people want to bring down the regime. The Tunisian fervor spread quickly to Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen. It would eventually touch every country of the region. By year's end three governments had been overthrown. Ben Ali had gone to ground in Saudi Arabia, Mubarak was on trial in Egypt, and Gaddafi had been murdered in Libya. The Sudanese and Iraqi leaders promised not to seek reelection. The president of Yemen agreed to step down. Governments granted a modicum of reform in Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Morocco.

Israel too saw extensive social unrest. Demonstrations were called "cost of living" or "housing" protests. It was ironic to see thousands of Israelis in the streets pleading each for his own home. Not a word was spoken of the dispossession of Palestinians that went on apace while the demonstrators shouted their slogans. Ethnic cleansing continued in Jerusalem with massive new construction of Jewish homes while in occupied Palestine settlement-building raced ahead and settlers continued to hound Arab villagers.

No one expected President Obama to take such issues in hand when he felt obliged finally to make a Middle East speech on May 14. We were a thousand broken promises away from 2008 in Cairo and his oratorical assurance of fraternity with the Muslim world. Still militarily committed in Iraq, he was waging all-out war in Afghanistan and Northwestern Pakistan. There were covert operations going on in Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and who knows where else. Meddling in the Far East intensified as China was put on notice. A timid request that Israel respect the 1967 borders in negotiations met with disdain from Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Zionist lobby. The president should mind his own business and keep the money transfers coming. Obama had been hemming and hawing about the Arab uprisings for months. He at last made clear that each Arab country's quest for freedom was a case to be judged on its own merit. The criteria would be whether or not the country was allied to America. Some autocrats would be tolerated, some not.

Far more important than this May current of hot air was the president's sober announcement at the end of October. Since Iraq has refused to let twenty thousand US troops remain in the country enjoying exemption from Iraqi law, they would be stationed in the Persian Gulf. A new "security architecture" would be shaped by a Gulf Cooperative Council that included Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. These were six of the countries whose people had demanded democracy of their governments but had not received State Department support.

In an overall view of the Arab Spring, US damage control proceeded in several stages. Policy, first of all, was a clumsy giant that tried to put a lid on rebellion. When that failed, policy told the various dictators to smarten up. The rebels, however, grown in force, insisted that these heads of state walk the plank. Policy then could only agree and declare the corrupt leaders whom it had kept in power to be the villains of the piece. Having become embarrassing, they had to go; but their regimes could stay. That decision also failed to satisfy the rebels who wanted the whole lot flushed out, down to their local sadistic policeman. Policy changed its tack. "So you're democrats," it said. "Why didn't you say so? We'll build democracy together. Just sit down in our bus and heed the instructions on the back of the seat in front of you."

Libya provides an excellent example of how many voices policy can use to cajole us. Muammar Gaddafi was for a long time a joke that the West could enjoy. The money he scattered to fire up street-corner skirmishes only amounted to a handful of change by the standards of major powers, for example, US bribes to Egypt. The West turned the other cheek with a big smile and kept dealing with its nutty uncle. When a fighting opposition to him appeared, the West told it to go home. When instead it grew, the West said some reforms were in order. Gaddafi, however, refused to play that game. Major interests were at stake for him. He had blustered about Israel but never made a serious threat in its direction nor done anything for the Palestinians. All the same, a change in Libya could mean danger for the Zionist warrior enclave that the U.S. financed in the heart of the Middle East. Washington would have to supervise Gaddafi's demise with a view to controlling Libya's future.

Two imperial dwarfs popped up, both needing publicity. Sarkozy in France had slid to the bottom of the polls and he had an election coming. In the U.K., Cameron's austerity policy had hit the wall of the reality principle and he remembered how Thatcher's Argentine invasion had got her off the hook at home. So the pipsqueak Napoleon and the Churchillian ex-stockbroker opened hostilities against the Libyan regime. It was easy getting a go-ahead from the United Nations in vague enough terms to resemble a blank check. The American president, as usual playing it both ways, said he would push from behind. When victory was declared he nevertheless led the parade.

A bonus came with NATO taking over the operation. The purpose of this Cold War relic was being questioned. No one liked to admit it was now simply an instrument of American power aching to extend its role beyond Europe. It was hard to find a scarecrow to replace the Red Army, but Gaddafi would have to do until Iran could be further groomed for the job. NATO's part in the Libyan civil war would be a humanitarian crusade with all the trimmings of a war crime. Airstrikes killed 1,108 civilians and wounded 4,500 by July 13, and NATO bombs were still falling at the end of August. Moreover, the future looked promising for further African interventions. In October, President Obama authorized the deployment to Uganda of 100 combat-equipped US forces to help regional military capture or kill Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony and his henchmen. The US forces would go to Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Put your money on Joseph Kony for the next reception of American humanitarian attention. He may be stamping around in the jungle, drugged out and starving, a few hundred half-crazed followers with him, some of them children, but what's to stop him turning up to threaten our security in Indianapolis or Peoria?

The rebels of the Arab Spring managed by mass demonstrations to shake the power structures that harbor corruption and crass privilege. But they had hardly the time to digest their success before a much more difficult task faced them. Those structures had to be dismantled and replaced by others that answer the original demand for bread, work, and fairness. In this immense undertaking the conditions of every country bent on change will differ, but none will find the going easy.

As November ended, Egypt exemplified the hard work ahead. Mubarak and some political figures that surrounded him were gone. Eighteen days of demonstrations in Tahrir Square in January ended his thirty-year tenure. Forty died and two thousand were injured. The protests took on force when police operations killed demonstrators. Ten months later, after a greater shakeup of Egyptian life than the country had known in a generation, the death of a protester, run down by an army truck, opened a new confrontation with established power. Then it was with Mubarak and now it's with the army that was his support.

It's characteristic of our times that individual deaths spark major political conflict. Ordinary people still see a great difference between being dead or alive. Governments in charge see death as a political mishap that they pass over with crocodile tears or outright lies about repressing criminality. On the day when the post-uprising in Egypt gave way to a new phase and battle -- the army now clearly the adversary -- world media told of apologies to Islamabad. Mrs. Clinton offered "deepest condolences" and Leon Panetta interrupted his weeping with a promise "to thoroughly investigate." US drones had killed a raft more of innocent people in Northwestern Pakistan.

The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces holds power in Egypt. Beneath its gerontological swagger and comic opera tinsel, it is essentially an American mercenary army. It is also the principal obstacle to democratic reforms and an effective roadblock for the movement begun in Tahrir Square. Washington gives Egypt two billion dollars yearly, of which two-thirds goes to the army. When we consider that 20% to 40% of Egyptian industry is also in the hands of the army we can gauge what a vested interest it represents and how difficult it will be to unseat.

When the State Department was asked to put pressure on the generals to stop impeding the people's cause, a disingenuous reply came from Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs: "The administration believes that putting conditions on our assistance to Egypt is the wrong approach, and Secretary Clinton has made this point strongly." But when the army killed more demonstrators at the end of November the State Department had politely to reprimand the generals. Long-term US policy is clear from a diplomatic cable of March 2009 supplied by WikiLeaks. Foreign military finance (FMF) plus miscellaneous treats have arrived yearly in Cairo from Washington since 1979. The cable said, "President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil [military to military] relationship and consider the $1.3bn in annual FMF as 'untouchable compensation' for making and maintaining peace with Israel."

Concerned Egyptians wondered if they really wanted their first parliamentary elections to take place November 28 and 29. (Two further rounds were to be held in other parts of Egypt, the last in January.) The army had the people in a bind. Since it still ran the country and insisted it would continue to do so whatever way the vote went, why should the people go to the polls? Tahrir Square proposed a boycott. However, it didn't hold. Egyptians couldn't resist going to vote for the first time ever in a relatively free election. So they turned out in numbers, careful to avoid violence. The army then claimed that its successful organization of the elections had been a great step forward for democracy. But, of course, it wasn't. There can be no democracy in Egypt or anywhere else with the military running the country. Will it give up power? On November 27, the military council's top officer, Field Marshal Tantawi, declared that "the position of the armed forces will remain as it is -- it will not change in any new constitution." Another general added, "Egypt is not Tahrir Square."

It had been understood that the new parliament would name a cabinet and a hundred members to shape a new constitution and open the way for a presidential election twelve months later. But the military caretakers have lately hinted that they will look after the writing of the constitution. They have said clearly that new parliament or not, they will preserve ultimate authority for at least another year, and everyone knows about the elasticity of that "at least" for an army that has never retreated, in politics if not on the battlefield, in sixty years. Furthermore, the army will insist on choosing the cabinet ministers, and not necessarily from among the victors in the elections. Of the hundred authors of the constitution the military will name eighty.

The military's aim is to evade civilian -- which is to say any -- control. They don't want input on the constitution from either the "liberals" reborn in Tahrir Square or the Muslim Brotherhood returned from exclusion with a democratic program. The pressure of the army has been relentless. Twelve thousand civilians have been processed through military courts in the nine months since Mubarak's fall. The violence that killed twenty-seven at a Copt Christian rally in October was clearly provoked by the army. Any such disorder gives credibility to its claim to safeguard Egypt from sectarian conflict. The army's strategy at present is to stir up disorder and rely on the "silent majority" to entreat the same army to "restore order."

If the people of Egypt faced their second hurdle as the year ended, Syria's escape from its brutal regime has hardly begun. Like the rest of the Arab lands in revolt, its present situation has been conditioned by European colonization. The region was handed to France after WWI and French policy was to amalgamate very different ethnic groups into one country. But the new construction could not be held together except by unrelenting force. In the 1920s the French only managed to put down revolution by sending in a huge number of heavy-handed Moroccan and Senegalese troops armed with modern weapons.

The Assad family has continued this line and ruled Syria with brute power. The Sunni-Shiite rivalry resulted in Hafiz al Assad (father) slaughtering at least ten thousand Sunni Syrian civilians at Hama in 1982. So it's hardly surprising that Bashar al Assad (son) is killing protesters among his own people today. The PR image of this young man as a timid London student of ophthalmology with an Anglicized wife carrying a British passport no longer washes. The Assad clan are Alawites, a Shia sect that connects them to Iran. They make up only 10% to 12% of the Syrian population. Being a minority and yet a ruling class with a record of cruelty dictates their ruthlessness now. Any ceding of power at this stage would likely result in their elimination and not only from government.

However the Syrian uprising goes, the Washington-Tel Aviv axis will try to steer it to their advantage. They will be careful not to allow a new regime that will be less congenial to them than Bashar al Assad's. After all, for a decade his reply to the Israeli occupation of part of his country has only been occasional grumbling of the theatrical sort. The U.S. fondly remembers his father's support of George H. W. Bush in the Iraq-Kuwait war and the first American invasion.

After Libya a similar NATO attack is out of the question. China and Russia would block it and the European yes-men would this time have to say no to Washington. Behind the headlines and the triumphal photos of Gaddafi's mutilated body, the NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war could still end in a worse-than-before situation for the West. Neither European voters nor their politicians -- in off-the-record confidences -- see it as an unvarnished success. Most important, Syria cannot be isolated from the region like Libya. Drastic action there from outsiders would shake the entire Middle East.

As with Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi, US policy went through similar contortions with Bashar al Assad: First the exhortation was to be kinder, humanitarian like us. Then came sterner tut-tutting and, as the bodies piled higher than in a surgical drone strike, a final, self-righteous call from the White House for the ophthalmologist to, for God's sake, go.

Returning to the personal, doubtless heavy with liberal guilt, original sin, political incorrectness, and the rest, the writer in 2011 could no longer enjoy the fatally mined but for travelers bewitching status quo in Damascus. Ah, the snows of yesteryear. With an Alawite minority in power, other minorities could not be begrudged free rein. The writer once had a long chat with the CEO of an Aramaic Christian Church who insisted he spoke the very dialect of Jesus Christ without state censorship. Nearby in the European quarter more commercial-minded Christians offered a half-dozen beds for the night that had actually been slept in by Saul of Tarsus, aka, Saint Paul.

The most priceless relic of the neighborhood was a restaurant establishment called -- I invent not -- The Casablanca. Here, the exchange rate aiding, the writer was whisked to the Champs Elysées of the 1920s. A team of tuxedoed waiters swarmed about him. The food was as good an imitation as everything else. The piano murmured As Time Goes By. An oasis of Lebanese Francophile wine stood unchallenged in an ostentatiously dry metropolis.

But restaurant owners are not revolutionaries. The old saw about not making an omelet without breaking eggs didn't come from their kitchens. In neighboring Casablanca itself (Morocco), the owner of a small restaurant was quoted on November 26 in The New York Times. Ahmad Mzrouk railed against protest leaders: "Stop screaming, it's bad for the economy."

Along with the end of The Casablanca and the lives of many Syrian protesters, 2011 marked the final days of the centuries-old derisory stereotype of the "feckless Arab." The uprisings of the Arab Spring, confused as such things have to be, show a courage and enterprise that make Occupy-Wall-Street doings in America look like Boy Scout outings.


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Published December 19, 2011