Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tunisia's Freedoms

"Freedom," as Matthew Arnold observed, "is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere." With protesters now demanding the ouster of the interim government, and today, the breaching security barriers to march on to government buildings, our Western intelligentsia is beginning to feel ambivalent (and that's putting it nicely!) about where--to extend the metaphor--these horses are going. Let's just look at some recent 'voice of record' NYT op-eds. Robert D. Kaplan (anti-democratic ideologue author of The Coming Anarchy) is already telling us that we ought to be careful what we wish for:
Another thing to keep in mind: in terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy. It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than can a weak, elected leader — just witness the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank government. And it was democracy that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in Gaza. In fact, do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations? We should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East.
And Roger Cohen, wants those people out of the streets where things are getting shaken up, and into the polls where only a few ballots might get roughed up (and note how shamelessly he slips a bit of racism in there):
So I’d bear with Ghannouchi so long as his government works for rapid presidential and then legislative elections. [...] That’s right: chaos cannot prepare a credible vote. This is a nation where the most significant legal opposition group, the Progressive Democratic Party, boasts 1,000 members. Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of its executive committee, said, “We are walking on eggs:” the interior minister has blood on his hands, the defense minister once did sweet deals for the former first lady, the P.D.P. underplayed its hand in joining the government with a single minister — for regional economic development. Should the party now push for more?Through an open window a shout came up accusing the P.D.P. of selling out. “That’s good — free speech!” said a party member. There are going to have to be painful trade-offs if Tunisia is to demonstrate — finally — that nothing in the Arab genome [WTF?!] means one dictator must follow another.
Today I spent some time reading Richard Seymor's takes (there are multiple posts) at Lenin's Tomb, and he's quite clear about why Western pundits prefer that the masses only admire freedom rather than ride it somewhere, why we should be wary of the narrative that our media are slowly spinning:
the class character of the revolt is coming more clearly to the fore. The New York Times reports that the character of the protests has been changing, as middle class layers have accepted the new situation and celebrated a 'new freedom', while those still protesting are "more working class". But this is also a blow to imperialism, in the sense that it will prove difficult to impose a regime that simply cleaves to the solutions of the IMF and EU.

This is precisely one of the reasons why the working class protesters want the RCD  [Rassemblement constitutionnel démocratique] out. Which is not to say that the IMF and EU will lose their leverage over Tunisia. Nor is it likely in the immediate term that Tunisia would withdraw from its treaty commitments to Africom, and thus from its role in the wider structure of US imperial control in the African continent. But if, as seems increasingly possible, the revolt spreads and takes down some other pro-American regimes in Egypt, Jordan or Algeria, then Obama has problems.

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