Friday, February 11, 2011

Memory Holes and Pyramid Schemes

As soon as Winston had dealt with each of the messages, he clipped his speakwritten corrections to the appropriate copy of ‘The Times’ and pushed them into the pneumatic tube. Then, with a movement which was as nearly as possible unconscious, he crumpled up the original message and any notes that he himself had made, and dropped them into the memory hole to be devoured by the flames.
- 1984 George Orwell

As the tubes used in Orwell's 1984 protagonist Winston Smith's Ingsoc employers' gleaming white offices at the Ministry of Truth to purge our collective memory become increasingly clogged, it seems to be happening to me more and more frequently of late. That blank look of incomprehension staring at me around the classroom or across the table at the pub after delivering what I'd thought just a moment earlier to be a thought provoking observation. Events such as those happening over the past fortnight in Egypt, home to Gizan Pyramids and a KFC for the deaf, provide enough fodder to stoke the furnace of forgetfulness. The conflicts that have been sown in and around, by and for, the likes of Tutenkahmen, Cleopatra and Nasser from the Pharaonic high point of ancient civilization to the Tahrir Square occupation keep Big Brother digging the memory hole ever deeper. How can it be a 1979 moment or even '89 or simply '09, when there's no Ayatollah Khomeini coming home, Solidarity of Lech Walesa or even a Mir Hosein Mousavi? In our reality an American president can become a torturer who gets to go to the Super Bowl but not Geneva for fear of arrest while Obama has to help Egyptian torturers become presidents to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood becoming the Revolutionary Guard.

Watching the bumbling US government response to Egypt along with the rope-a-dope technique #3 from the authoritarian leader handbook (the others being violent crackdown or exile to mountainside villa) being played by Hosni Mubarak while the media whips up fear of Islamic extremism can be depressingly predictable. Regardless of whether the spark of revolution was the social media connectivity of Facebook and Twitter, the reporting of Al Jazeera and Wikileaks or grinding poverty combined with the skyrocketing price of bread, the fact is thirty years of political repression has left a void bigger than what a former UN Atomic Energy chief or Google executive could fill and so would give Islamists a voice in any democratically elected government. It was a crafty move by Mubarak to unconstitutionally name Omar Suleiman vice-president, buying time with America as he was their main rendition connection in the region and a trusted friend of Israel. The Winston Smiths of today have cut and pasted his name to Soliman in the cables provided by Wikileaks where he calls Iranians 'devils', turns the Muslim Brotherhood into the bogeyman and promises to pressure Hamas. Omar Suleiman may be better known as Sheik al-Torture but you can't convince me Mubarak's consigliere's not Snidely Whiplash with his look and fetishes; I wonder who we could get to play Dudley Do-Right?

As Minister without Portfolio and Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate (EGID) since 1993, Omar Suleiman oversaw the security apparatus and torture program that produced the likes of Mohamed Atta and Ayman Al-Zawahiri. These graduates from his CIA designed torture chambers went on to pilot American Airlines flight 11 into the north Twin Tower on 9/11 and become Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, the real brains behind Al Qaeda respectively. Of the19 hijackers that day, there weren't any from Iraq, a problem for Dubya's plan to finish off Saddam Husein for his dad - 15 were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, and one each from Egypt and Lebanon. As point man for the CIA's rendition program, Suleiman received many of the suspects that America snatched around the world for torture. The most notorious case was an Al Queda suspect known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi who was bound and blindfolded at Bagram Airforce Base in Afghanistan and flown to Cairo. Suleiman convinced Libi to confirm a personal link between Saddam and Osama and that the former was providing the latter with chemical weapons by locking him in a little box for eighty hours. Though Libi later recanted, his torture induced assertions were used by Colin Powell in his testimony to the UN in building the case for war in Iraq. For nearly 20 years, Suleiman has played Saraman for Mordor, the USA.

"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."
-Inner Party member O'Brien in 1984

When America was given custodianship of the world's economic system from the British Empire after World War II they also inherited the disastrous legacy of colonial duties from all the previous world powers from Chile to Vietnam, Angola to Afghanistan. America chose to spread freedom and democracy while ignoring convenient client state dictators and installing others who played for their side. Saudi Arabia and their extreme Wahabi version of Islam became fine but Iran's theocratic regime certainly isn't. Arming and supporting the Mujahiddin in Afghanistan in their struggle against Ruskies only to fight them twenty years later as the Taliban. The fear factory slipped seamlessly from fear of the Russian commies to the Islamic fundies in Iran. After screwing up Persia the US had to give Saddam weapons to fight the Ayatollah in a war that cost a million and a half lives only to have to turn its sites on Baghdad not once but twice. CNN and the 24-hour cable news cycle was born as George the elder's, Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. led (fun triva fact: his dad, Sr., was the man sent to bring the Shah back to Iran in '53 from self-imposed exile in Italy and went on to train the Shah's security forces, SAVAK) Desert Storm kicked Saddam out of Kuwait. Americans were taught to believe in smart missiles that only killed the bad guys but weren't shown the mass executions of those America incited to rebel and then deserted to die. Faux News was legitamized in the eyes of hillbillies as the embedded journalist came courtesy Dubya's shock and awe in Gulf War II as reporters rode the army's tanks into Baghdad. With their impartiality already compromised, they had no problems beaming staged celebrations back home to be played on an endless loop. Perhaps Egypt's protests will bring about cable news' next revolution and help propel Al-Jazeera into more living rooms to provide an alternative to the background noise designed to dull or senses.

Keeping in mind the arbitrariness of choosing a point in time when the story of empires keeps building on foundations heavy with history, we should look at Iran and Egypt in the early 1950s especially since the Bill O'Reillys and Glenn Becks of the world want us to fear the rise of a Muslim Caliphate from Cairo to Tehran (and yes, onto Islamabad and Kabul) if we dare encourage democracy. Since they get to ignore the differences across the region - Sunni from Shiite, petro-wealthy from poverty-stricken, Arab from Persian - and present a false choice faced in Egypt as one between Jihadist and friendly dictators, so can we. To combat the Manichean view of perpetual Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, who said, "there's a real possibility in a few weeks...that Egypt will join Iran, and join Lebanon, and join Gaza, and join the things that are happening that are extraordinarily dangerous to us" we could study the past to learn from our mistakes. More than 50 years ago Egypt and Iran both had back to back major revolutions, the second Shah was installed in Iran while a military coup in Egypt eventually saw Gamal Abdel Nasser take control. By constantly rewriting history, Oceania's perpetual war alternated between Eurasia or Eastasia; the doublethink in our world had the US conspire with the USSR to push the British out of Egypt while McCarthy whipped up anti-commie rage to convince America to work with the Brits in Iran.

Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq nationalized Iran's oil industry and earned Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1951 while US President Truman stood by. It seems quaint today but when first presented with a British plan to overthrow Mosaddeq, Truman said, "We don’t overthrow governments; the United States has never done this before, and we’re not going to start now". By 1953 General Eisenhower was president and the US along with Britain had successfully completed Operation Ajax, overthrowing Mosaddeq and installing the Shah (fun tria fact #2: the CIA plan was hatched by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of Teddy Roosevelt), thus earning the lasting hatred of large sectors of the Iranian public, uniting communists, nationalists and Shia clericalists behind enmity of foreign meddling. The world got BP in exchange for Anglo-Iranian Oil and America got a client state to supply cheap oil for 26 years.

The Shah's supporters point to successes such as the 1963 program known as the White Revolution, which included land reform, the extension of voting rights to women, and the elimination of illiteracy. His detractors however remind us these very achievements served to alienate the clergy and avoid real democratic reforms. He flouted the constitution which placed limits on royal power and provided for a representative government, going so far as crowning himself "Shah en Shah", King of Kings in 1967. His increasing subservience to the US played poorly as he threw an extravagant celebration of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy and in 1976 he replaced the Islamic calendar with an "imperial" calendar, which began with the foundation of the Persian empire around 500 BC. These actions were clearly aimed at sidelining the Islamic religion, and excited the opposition of Muslim groups, which rallied around the then-exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.

The second Egyptian Revolution broke out in Egypt the year before resulting in Nasser's military coup on July 23rd 1952. This time the world got pan-Arab nationalism and three more Israeli wars in '56, '67 and '73 to add to the Arab loss of 1948. It wasn't until his successor Anwar Saddat that the lure of American dollars could convince them to at least play nice with Israel. In exchange for honoring the Camp David Accords signed by Sadat in 1978 and keeping the border to Gaza sealed for the most part, Hosni Mubarak and his cohorts have been made rich; Sadat paid with his life, Mubarak has paid with his soul. Corruption in Egypt has been taken to a whole new level; in America the corporations control government policy through lobbies, election funding and regulators, in Egypt the businessmen simply are the government and vice-versa. As the public grew poorer and prospects grew ever dimmer for the university graduates who managed to avoid being beaten by the secret police, five of Mubarak's cronies became billionaires. Former interior minister Habib Ibrahim El-Adly and party insider Ahmed Ezz amassed $1.2 and $3 billion respectively. A few other billionaire former Cabinet ministers trying to flee the country as protests broke out but were stopped. Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of the late President Gamel Abdel Nasser spied for Mossat and was killed in England; another billionaire former Parliamentarian, Talaat Moustafa paid a hit man $2 million to kill a Lebanese pop star who jilted him.

Much was deservedly made of the fact that over the billions in military support that made Egypt the second largest recipient of US military aid after Israel so they could buy the same American built F-16s, tear gas, and Abrams tanks buzzing, blinding and encircling the crowds in and around Tahrir Square. No wonder Egyptians are now referring to Obama as the Black Bush as he, his administration and other western leaders try to maintain the status quo that is looking more and more like a Madoff Ponzi scheme ready to collapse. Frank Wisner, the US envoy sent to speak with Mubarak after protests broke out,  works for a law firm which works for the dictator's own Egyptian government. Usurprising then that he would say, "President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical: it's his opportunity to write his own legacy." Vice-president Biden stated that because Mubarak had been a responsible ally he "would not refer to him as a dictator." Tony Blair, probably hoping this will somehow make it more likely we'll attack Iran, said Mubarak is "immensely courageous and a force for good". Silvio Berlusconi, perhaps to distract attention from the myriad of scandals that tend to follow septuagenarian prime ministers who sleep with underage hookers, said of the dictator "in the West, above all in the United States, [Mubarak] is considered the wisest of men". Yep, apparently wise enough to have siphoned off enough of his people's wealth to build his family a $70 billion fortune.

When the US lost Iran to the 1979 Revolution, American interests, or more precisely, Israeli and oil flow security, were buttressed by Anwar el-Sadat's decision to make peace with Israel. Mubarak has more than held up their end of the bargain in other areas as well from his positions during the wars against Iraq, his stand against nuclear Iran and it's involvement in Lebanon but the Israeli free pass has been key. In making peace with Israel the 26th of March 1979, Egypt essentially permitted Israel to tighten their grip over the West Bank and Gaza, and concentrate their military ambitions elsewhere such as Lebanon or Gaza, and perhaps sometime in the future, Iran. In the words of a 2009 American embassy cable, part of the Wikileaks document dump, "The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace."

Yet, instead of using this breathing space as an opportunity to make peace, Israel has seemingly done all it can to alienate everyone around them. It seems to me that the last couple of years have brought an increased arrogance to the aggressive actions taken by Israel, meaning the Palestinians could be the biggest beneficiaries of an Egyptian power shift that could threaten the border with Gaza. Settlement expansion along with that in East Jerusalem, a crazy wall and the creation of a ghetto in Gaza. Just as a peace deal with Syria brokered by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to be about to become reality, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the people of Gaza. Further frosting the Israeli-Turkish relationship came with the attack on the Freedom Flotilla trying to break the siege and deliver supplies to Gaza. a people slowly being starved and limited to an ever changing list of 81 items allowed entry into their sliver of a territory, more concentration camp. In international waters, the IDF killed nine activists, eight Turkish nationals and a Turkish-American. As the world argued over who started it and what label should be attached to the parties we forgot about the real victims in Gaza. Israel spin is better than any pneumatic tube system.

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable
- John F. Kennedy 

Yeah, it could be that the Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war that Kennedy wanted to avoid could quickly become a Pox Americana for her client states in the region. Israel along with  it's friendemies in Jordan, the UAE and of course Saudi Arabia are piling the pressure on Obama not the cut Mubarak loose. At least King Abdullah II’s recent dismissal of his cabinet in Jordan (the only other Arab country that has signed a peace treaty with Israel) shows he's aware of the change, Saudi's King Abdullah (yeah, same name) still thinks his oil means he calls the shots. Wikileaks is there to help reporters again in a timely way as just released cables reveal fears that the sea of oil in the Kingdom is about 40% smaller than previously thought, bringing Peak Oil ever closer. These nations real and legitimate fear is the 240 F-16 fighters in play along with the other advanced weaponry the Americans have sold Mubarak over the years in an attempt to create a balance with the Iranians. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, it's a belief that keeping the oil flowing at all cost can continue forever and not seeing that America is the biggest obstacle to peace and democracy in the Middle East.

By supporting the status quo, siding against the protesters, America will force the military to eventually back Mubarak/Suleiman to keep the money flowing into their coffers with or without bullets. This money ensures rigged elections come September and once the international cameras go home Suleiman's torture chambers await any pesky dissenting voices, their thoughtcrimes earning them the Mubarak treatment that turns them into unpersons. The cycle intensifies as anti-Americanism grows for supporting torturers in the Arab world while the western media (with ever-concentrating ownership) points out the only support for the opposition parties comes from Iran and Hamas. This allows the US government to defend Suleiman when he keeps emergency powers in place (motto: in place since 1981 so why not forever?) and ratchets up repression. Such a course of events ensures that if democracy ever comes to Egypt, thousands will have to die and the resulting government will be far less open than whatever would have come from the current demonstrations, had we supported them in the first place. The false choice of stability versus democracy that has been played far too long must be refuted.

The fate of over 80 million people hangs in the balance, the 15th most populous nation just in front of Turkey and Iran, the latter used as a dog whistle of fear to cover the only sustainable path to follow blazed by the former. Our old buddy Newt framed the issue in a perfectly partisan way by offering this advice to Obama, "study Reagan and Carter and do what Reagan did and avoid what Carter did", neocon code for the old game of continuing to lecture on democracy while supporting dictators. Jimmy Carter didn't lose Iran, it was the decades long support for brutal dictatorships that accomplished that trick. If fears of Islamic extremism cause us to falter in our support of the pro-democracy movement, "What is certain is that siding with a repressive regime against the Egyptian people, especially against young Egyptians, will turn these fears of extremism into a reality." Damn memory holes, we always seem to forget that blowback is a bitch.

Update #1: You may have noticed the celebrations in the streets of Egypt being beamed around the globe. Unfortunately, not much is being said of Omar Suleiman the man who announced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak last night, February 11th. All the commentary seems to agree the best outcome possible has occurred, but all that's happened is the US supported army is in charge. The only certainty they seem to be expressing is that all existing treaties will be honored by Egypt. They're celebrating across the Arab world, whispers of Algeria or Morocco being next, and everyone seems to be appeased, but the only reassurance has been directed at Israel.