Opinion

The Great Debate

The other Egyptian crisis

Like most artists, I often wonder what art’s place is in a world that seems consumed by violence during these times of social upheaval.

It frequently seems like hell is breaking loose in the world while I work in the serenity of my art studio in New York. Like most people, I’d rather believe that what takes place outside of my comfort zone is only a fiction, that the terrible images and footage of people suffering are all fabricated. However, my daily conversations with my mother in Tehran are my constant reminder of how removed I am from reality. Indeed it is I who lives in a fiction, not them.

When the Rauschenberg Foundation invited me two years ago to develop an art project with a humanitarian focus, and donate profits to charity, I jumped at the challenge. I assumed I would make another conceptual project with some footing on socio-political reality.

I chose Egypt because it is a country I have grown to love, both from afar and in person. I have observed and experienced its journey into a revolution with great promise, and then a devastating aftermath of violence, bloodshed and tremendous human loss.

I arrived in Egypt in the fall of 2012 and set up a studio with my American friend and long-time collaborator Larry Barns and our Egyptian assistant Osama Dawod. We worked out of Townhouse Gallery, the only internationally prominent Egyptian art organization, in downtown Cairo.

What just happened in Egypt?

It was not supposed to turn out this way: Only a year after Egyptians freely elected Mohamed Mursi as their president for a four-year term, he was removed by a military decree. This sets in motion a “road map” for a new transitional period leading to another experiment akin to the period following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The ambivalence was hard to miss. The sheikh of Al-Azhar Mosque, Egypt’s storied and influential institution, was there to lend legitimacy to the military decree. But his words told the story. He was compelled by sharia, he said, to choose the lesser of two evils in supporting early elections. But the ambivalence of the thousands of liberals who joined together in the protests at Tahrir Square and other public squares was even greater.

Many had chanted only months ago against military rule. Some had even voted for Mursi because they felt that his opponent Ahmad Shafik was Mubarak’s man. This is not where they wanted to be — but here they were in the millions with some of Shafik’s supporters. Most are not jubilant; they are relieved but worried.

The key to understanding the ‘Arab Spring’

The United States has been unable to develop a clear national policy about the Arab Spring largely because Washington does not fully understand what’s happening in the Middle East.

The term, “Arab Spring” is itself misleading. The changes over the past 20 months have produced a fundamental transformation of the region – but not in the way most outside observers anticipated: They reflect the replacement of the dominant Arab national identity by a more Islamic identity.

This change has been evolving for more than 40 years and did not begin in January 2011 with the demonstrations across the Middle East.

from Paul Smalera:

Twitter’s censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter

Twitter’s announcement this week that it was going to enable country-specific censorship of posts is arousing fury around the Internet. Commentators, activists, protesters and netizens have said it’s “very bad news” and claim to be “#outraged”. Bianca Jagger, for one, asked how to go about boycotting Twitter, on Twitter, according to the New York Times. (Step one might be... well, never mind.) The critics have settled on #TwitterBlackout: all day on Saturday the 28th, they promised to not tweet, as a show of protest and solidarity with those who might be censored.

Here’s the thing: Like Twitter itself, it’s time for the Internet, and its chirping classes, to grow up. Twitter’s policy and its transparency pledge with the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects is the most thoughtful, honest and realistic policy to come out of a technology company in a long time. Even an unsympathetic reading of the new censorship policy bears that out.

To understand why, let’s unpack the policy a bit: First, Twitter has strongly implied it will not remove content under this policy. If that doesn’t sound like a crucial distinction from outright censorship, it is. Taking the new policy with existing ones, the only time Twitter says it will ever remove a tweet altogether is in response to a DMCA request. The DMCA may have its own flaws, but it is a form of censorship that lives separately from the process Twitter has outlined in this recent announcement. Where the DMCA process demands a deletion of copyright-infringing content, Twitter’s censorship policy promises no such takedown: it promises instead only to withhold censored content from the country where the content has been censored. Nothing else.

Yemen needs an insurgent democracy

After months of uncertainty around whether Ali Abdullah Saleh has been sincere about stepping down from his post as Yemen’s president, Sunday brought confirmation that he has left the country to seek medical treatment in the United States. Under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council with United Nations, United States and United Kingdom assistance, Saleh is barred from partaking in the Feb. 21 elections for an interim president. In exchange, he received immunity in an unamendable law — both nationally and internationally highly controversial — passed by Yemen’s parliament the day before his departure.

And yet Saleh made it immediately clear that he intended to return to Yemen before the elections to lead his General People’s Congress party, which holds a majority of seats in parliament. This is, of course, somewhat reminiscent of the last time Saleh left Yemen for medical treatment in June 2011. Following a bomb attack on the presidential palace which left several senior government officials dead and Saleh and others seriously injured, he sought treatment in Saudi Arabia amid hopes he would step down from office. He returned to Sana’a as president at the end of September. While Saleh will not be able to hold this office again, his intention of continuing to play a major role in the future of Yemen taints the otherwise good news of his departure.

But now what? We’ve seen leaders who had desperately tried to hold on forced from power in Arab countries before. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was run out of Tunisia. Hosni Mubarak, under withering domestic and international pressure, stepped down from Egypt’s presidency. And Muammar Gaddafi wouldn’t leave and was finally killed.

from Don Tapscott:

20 big ideas for 2012, continued

The views expressed are his own.

What will happen in 2012? In the spirit of the aphorism “The future is not something to be predicted, it’s something to be achieved,” let me suggest 20 transformations (which Reuters will publish in four groups of five; the first can be found here). We need to make progress on these issues now to prevent next year from being a complete disaster.

These ideas are based on the research I did with Anthony D. Williams to write our recent book which comes out in January 2012 as a new edition entitled Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet.

All 20 are based on the idea that the industrial age has finally run out of gas and we need to rebuild most of our institutions for a new age of networked intelligence and a new set of principles – collaboration, openness, sharing, interdependence and integrity. These big ideas will be the focus of much of my writing next year.

One year later: three lessons from the Arab Spring

By Stefan Wolff
The opinions expressed are his own.

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a jobless graduate in the provincial city of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, about 200km southwest of the capital Tunis, set himself on fire on December 18, 2010 after police had confiscated a cart from which he was selling fruit and vegetables, few would have predicted that this event would spark the phenomenon we now refer to as the Arab Spring. Protests quickly escalated in Tunisia and within four weeks Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had to flee to Saudi Arabia having failed to stop the protests either by repression of promises of reform.

On 17 January, one day after Ben Ali’s departure, another young man set himself afire near the Egyptian parliament. Within a week, coordinated mass protests began in Tahrir Square, and forced the resignation of long-serving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who handed power to the military on 11 February.

Since then, the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt have made at best incremental progress in some areas. In Tunisia, the first elections anywhere as a result of the Arab Spring went ahead in October and the newly elected parliament had its inaugural session on November 22nd. The election winners, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda (Renaissance) will have a coalition arrangement with a liberal and a centre-left party. While Tunisia avoided the appalling violence that characterised the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the new government and parliament still face an up-hill battle in the transition to a more democratic political system, including drafting a new constitution.

from David Rohde:

Complete Egypt’s revolution

For decades, the Egyptian military has operated an economy within an economy in Egypt. With the tacit support of the United States, the armed forces own and operate a sprawling network of for-profit businesses. The military runs factories that manufacture televisions, bottled water and other consumer goods. Its companies obtain public land at discounted prices. And it pays no taxes and discloses little to civilian officials.

Within weeks of Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February, experts predicted that the Egyptian military would refuse to relinquish its vast economic holdings or privileged position in society.

“Protecting its businesses from scrutiny and accountability is a red line the military will draw,” Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s military at the Naval Postgraduate School, told The New York Times. “And that means there can be no meaningful civilian oversight.”

from David Rohde:

Trust Tunisia

As the first elections of the post-Arab spring unfold over the next several weeks, you will be hearing the term “moderate Islamist” over and over again. Early results from elections in Tunisia suggest that the moderate Islamist Ennahda party is going to win the largest number of seats in a new assembly that will rewrite the constitution, choose a new interim government and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections. Members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who have also been described as moderate Islamists are expected to fare well in similar elections there in November. And Islamists play a growing role in Libya’s transitional council as well.

The Islamist parties insist that they have renounced violence, fully embrace democracy and will abide by the electoral process. Secular Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans, as well as some western pundits, warn that the Islamist parties are a Trojan Horse. Once Islamists take power, they will refuse to relinquish it and forcibly implement conservative Islam in all three countries.

What is striking is the silence emanating from Washington and other western capitals.

Libya’s revolution pushes democracy forward

By Michael Ignatieff
The views expressed are his own.

We like to think we made it happen. First in Kosovo, now in Libya, we believe our air power made it happen. Western politicians are taking the credit, but the truth is, we didn’t make it happen, any more than we made the Arab Spring happen and the air operation itself would never have been approved at the UN without the green light from the Arab League. The people of Libya, the peoples of the Middle East made it happen. We all need to understand how little of this is about us. Otherwise we risk succumbing to the illusion that we can shape the future in the Middle East.

The power we exercised in the sky gives us little control over what happens next. This is not just because we don’t have boots on the ground. Even when we did in the Balkans, we never controlled the way events rolled out after the air campaign was over. The people of the Balkans wrote their own history after the intervention and the people of the Middle East will do the same.

We called Libya a civil war and intervened to help one side win, as we did in Kosovo. But Libya was not a civil war. The dictator didn’t have deep enough support to turn it into one. It was a revolution, a people against a regime, rising up without any instigation from us, with nothing but rage, humiliation and hope to guide them. We gave them air cover and they made a revolution.

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