22 August 2011

The Facebook Revolution Continues

The unraveling of Qaddafi's regime reminded me the humble origins of this unread blog. A good friend of mine had asked what was happening there as she could not figure it out from the regular coverage. And I applied what I would call a macro-analysis of the region to the early hostilities there to spell out some possibilities. Later on, I began writing about a variety of issues using the same approach.

One of the reasons I appear contrarian is the fact that most pieces of information we get from the corporate media or independent sources on the Internet, seems to be based on micro-analyses. In fact, the word analysis might be a misnomer in this instance: they consists of successive statements of the kind "Person A said this, analysts believe (x+y) was the motivation behind this, a spokesperson denied the existence of that equation."

When you have a collection of these mini-facts and their denials and counter facts, you reach a level of fluidity where almost anything can be argued, corroborated and then within a span of days can be completely reversed without anybody noticing.

And I don't mean Atrios' "Our Bastard/Not Our Bastard" game (though it is a lovely game: remember this or April Glaspie response before the invasion of Kuwait).

Before a lone fruit vendor brought down Zine El Abidine Bin Ali, I used to get chain emails about Tunisia being a model for the Muslim and Arab world. They would extol its virtues in bringing down unemployment, in narrowing the gender gap, in expanding the tourism sector and in achieving impressive growth despite a lack of natural resources like oil and gas.

Granted, nobody claimed that it was a model of freedom and democracy but everyone was in agreement that Tunisia was much better off that its neighbors, like Libya, Morocco and Algeria.

For years, we used to read stuff like this
WITH Algeria and Libya for neighbours, it is easy for Tunisia to look good. And so it does. The government is in firm control and the economy is growing. People are well educated, and nowadays pay attention to a family-planning campaign. Under the approving eyes of the IMF and the World Bank, the government pursues a structural-adjustment programme. In 1995, Tunisia became the first Arab country on the Mediterranean’s shore to sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union. The roads are good, the cities clean, the atmosphere relaxed. Tunis even boasts efficient public transport. In short, Tunisia is a model—except in one respect: its leaders are as keen as others in the region on suppressing political dissent.
Sure, the last sentence gave away that they stifled political dissent but it was along the lines of, hey, nobody's perfect.

Or consider Egypt. It was touted as a paragon of stability. The best friend of Israel in the region. An economic oasis with rising tourism revenues. This was written just a year ago:
BY ALMOST any statistical measure Egyptians are far better off than ever before, even though there are many more of them. The population has nearly doubled in size in just 30 years, from 44m in 1980 to 84m today. Farmers who until the 1970s spent half their working day on the back-breaking labour of lifting irrigation water now use diesel pumps, plough with tractors and thresh their wheat by machine. Life expectancy at birth has risen from 52 years in 1960 to 72 now. Back then Egyptians were lucky to own a transistor radio. Now two-thirds of homes have a satellite receiver, 87% own a fridge, 97% have piped water and 99% have electricity. Egyptians chatter on 57m mobile phones, and the number of passenger cars on the roads has more than doubled in the past decade.

Nor is it just personal consumption that has grown strongly. The economy as a whole is performing better than ever, largely because the government has at last abandoned its old habits of central planning, state-managed capital allocation, high taxes and price controls. After decades of only minor improvements in living standards, GDP growth shifted into a much higher gear under the reformist cabinet that came to office in 2004. It went up from just under 5% in the mid-1990s to 7% in 2006-08. Egypt’s share of world trade, which had been falling continuously for 40 years, started expanding as exports tripled in value. Foreign investment gushed in at record levels, notching up a cumulative total of $46 billion between 2004 and 2009, says the dynamic young investment minister, Mahmoud Mohieddin.
In that piece there was no mention of Mubarak not being an angel but when it was occasionally mentioned elsewhere, it was understood that it was not a big issue and also, too, nobody's perfect.

Once the uprising began, we learned that Ben Ali was a horrible dictator who ran his country with an iron fist. We were told that, far from being the envy of its neighbors, the Tunisian economy was in tatters and unemployment was high, income distribution was terribly skewed, corruption was rampant and Tunisians were terribly unhappy with their country. We were informed that their gender equality record, previously deemed marvelous, was actually rubbish. In fact, it turned out that everything about Ben Ali was much worse that we were told. And this horrible state of affairs (that everyone pretended to have fully known) was used as a causal framework to explain the success of the Facebook revolution.

Then came Mubarak. Until his fall, he was the guarantor of stability in the region. He maintained law and order, kept Muslim Brotherhood at bay and preserved the Cold Peace with Israel. EU loved him, the US loved him. But the moment he was toppled, we saw report after report what a terrible dictator he was and how his goons have been terrorizing people, how corrupt was his administration and how Egyptians hated him and his administration.

Perhaps the comparison will appear odd, and it is on many ways, but we now have the citizens of Israel who decided by the hundreds of thousands to get up one morning and instead of going about their daily business, to erect a tent in a major square and ask for major reforms.

Up until that point, everything I read in the corporate media was how great Israel was. Its economy was hailed as a miracle. Its system of government was an exceptional democracy unmatched in the region ("The Arab model for success is not Iran, or Turkey, but Israel").

Since the protests, this is what is being written about Israel.
Israel is a country where a tiny minority of families and individuals control a hugely disproportionate amount of wealth. 
That in itself is not unusual: income disparity and unfairness can be found in most countries, those who criticise the demonstrators' "naivety" point out. 
But Israel is a young country founded on strong ideals of social responsibility and cohesiveness. The demonstrators in Rothschild Boulevard want their country back.
Even Financial Times, the second pillar (after The Economist) of the neo-classical economic orthodoxy acknowledged the peculiar structure [link may necessitate registration] of Israeli economy:
Competition is further undermined by the oligopolistic structure of the Israeli economy, which is dominated by a handful of sprawling family-controlled conglomerates.
They also said:
What started out as a protest against housing costs has morphed into calls for a sweeping overhaul of Israel’s economy and society: the protesters want a new taxation system (lower indirect taxes, higher direct taxes), free education and childcare, an end to the privatisation of state-owned companies and more investment in social housing and public transport. There is talk of imposing price controls on basic goods and a broader desire to see an end to “neo-liberal” government policies.
What they politely termed oligopolistic is now called "swinish capitalism" by Ha'aretz. Its columnists darkly respond to those capitalists who threaten Israelis with a capital exodus that "people and not just money might flee Israel."

I have to emphasize that I am not comparing Tunisia or Egypt to Israel. I am simply trying to highlight how misleading media coverage is and how it makes it impossible to understand what takes place in a country.

I have been to Israel and I read fairly regularly Israeli sources on the Internet. I also read whatever appears in major publications about the region. Before 300,000 Israelis decided to protest (an impressive number for such a small country) the impression I retained from the news items I had been reading was that Israel had an impressive economy that could be legitimately termed a knowledge economy. From advanced techniques used in agriculture that allowed them to export food, to cutting edge IT and defense know how that motivated many high tech giants to move their R&D facilities there, it was an impressive achievement. I was also conveyed the impression that that the kibbutz spirit was alive and well and income distribution was very reasonable and Israelis enjoyed a high living standard.

I knew that Netanyahu was a disciple of Reagan, in that he believed in deregulation and reduced taxation for the rich but I was led to believe that as defense spending represented 20 percent of the budget, reducing taxation could not be easily achieved.

Now I am told that all of these impressions were incorrect; that a tiny business class was getting richer at the expense of all Israelis and they were paying almost no taxes, that government officials have been protecting these companies and enabled them to rob their citizens blind and far from being based on kibbutz ideals, Israeli economy was very much in line with took place in Ireland before the spectacular crash:
There are not many countries who know how to pamper the mighty rich with benefits and grants, who nullify the taxes and leave a surplus profit. There are not many countries that enable the same people to own both financial and real assets; that permit the construction of huge pyramids alongside miserable cities; who insanely privatize national resources and abandon them to cartels and monopolies; who grant great honor in exchange for small change; who tighten the alliance between businessmen and government officials who not only enhance but also support one another.
To me this is the biggest benefit of the Facebook revolution.

For too long we have had facile discourses for places, problems and positions. We were given snippets about countries or their politicians or the beliefs of their citizens. We were fleeting impressions with seven seconds sound bites about their moods and inclinations.

Whatever happened, these simplistic and misleading representations were never changed. It took the Internet and alternative sources of information to challenge these narratives.

And of course, hundreds of thousands of people to demand change. They are not just changing their own governments and histories but they are changing are negative or positive orientalist narratives as well.

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